Week 23 Observations

Some thoughts on three key games played this weekend in La Liga:-

Levante 1 Malaga 2

Despite both being considered as prime candidates to secure European berths, Europa League and Champions League respectively, both sides recent form was more akin to that of relegation candidates.

Levante began this weekend in ninth place with Malaga in fourth but both sides have lost momentum recently. Levante have lost five of their last seven games whilst Malaga have just one league win in 2013. Indeed, Malaga’s form becomes even more sketchy when you consider they have collected just six wins in their last 21 leagues games. Their Champions League form vastly overshadowing performances on the domestic front.

Yet, as with recent seasons, the fight for European spots is increasingly turbulent with positions changing frequently.

With the financial problems at Malaga and the loss of another key performer in Monreal, the sight of Baptista making his first start in 16 months offered encouragement. In attack, Malaga have no concerns over options. It’s defensively where there are frailties. Sergio Sanchez was forced to start in central defence with Lugano not fit and Weligton not in the squad. Antunes was used at left back. Yet this makeshift defence coped and helped Malaga to a valuable win.

The standout performer was, yet again, Francisco Alcoron a.k.a Isco with his two goals being enough for the visitors to take the three points home.

Isco Shots vs Levante

Isco Shots vs Levante                                        http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows Isco’s shots at goal. All are taken centrally and all are around the edge of the penalty area. Despite making passes across the entire width of the pitch, Isco’s awareness to pick out a team mate in better positions prevents him taking speculative shots from around the box.

Athletic 0 Espanyol 4

A recent improvement in performances coupled with two positive results led some to believe that reports of Athletics decline under Bielsa had been greatly exaggerated.

The 3-0 home win over Atletico were the Basques produced their best display of the season was followed by a strong comeback away to Valladolid to recover from two goals down and claim a draw. Unfortunately, the Basques resorted to type this season with a capitulation at home to los pericos.

Athletic dominated possession as per usual with a staggering 70% but were repeatedly cut open by Espanyol on the break during a dreadful second half performance. A failure by Athletic to create clear openings and poor finishing left them goalless.

The visitors recorded just five shots on target but scored with four of them. Verdu’s penalty save by Iraizoz being the one shot on target which they did not score with although the midfielder slotted home the rebound.

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic                             http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows the shots on target. All were central and extremely close to the goal. When Espanyol counter attacked, it was too easy for them to create an opening against a stretched Athletic defence.

Javier Aguirre’s record at Espanyol since taking over from Pochettino is  very impressive five wins, four draws and one defeat from his ten games in charge, lifting Espanyol from bottom position and leapfrogging their hosts into 13th place.

Rayo Vallecano 2 Atletico 1

There is something wonderfully refreshing about Rayo Vallecano. Their small, ramshackle ground with three stands and neighbouring tower blocks overlooking the pitch. The fact their fans are some of the most fervent in the division but probably because they deliver a brand of high energy football with a mixture of journeyman players and youngsters full of potential on the smallest budget in the league.

Rayo now have six wins in their last eight games and only a 94th minute strike from Falcao stopped them from securing their sixth clean sheet of the league season. It’s a fantastic achievement and one which has taken them to the brink of a European place but fans will recall last season when a dreadful run of form saw them far too close to relegation on the final day. That should not be replicated.

The graphic below shows Baptistao’s passes against Atleti. With repeated rumours that he will join Atleti in the summer, what better way to showcase his talents? His movement around the pitch created problems for Atleti and enable Rayo to overload Atleti in midfield.

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti                          http://www.squawka.com

Despite trailing 2-0  following goals from Lass and Baptistao, Atleti did not change their outlook during the first half. Their conservative position remained the same and only began to alter after half time. Is Simeone adopting too conservative an approach in away games? Does el Cholo fail to react to falling behind?

Atleti’s fifth away defeat of the campaign and their lead over neighbours Madrid has been cut to just four points. What must be concerning Simeone is that Atleti have not won on the road since an away win over Granada on the 18th November 2012. Since that win they have played five away games and only collected a solitary point away at Mallorca. Their second place in the table has been built upon their tremendous home form at the Calderon.

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Levante vs Real Madrid

At the end of the season, when the prizes are being handed out, there are inevitably a number of moments during the course of the season which, with hindsight, can be considered crucial. These are seldom games marked by technical proficiency or complete domination over an opponent and a large winning margin. Rather, these games are epitomised by displaying other qualities such as character and strength. Qualities traditionally associated with the British game and not those you would normally use in connection with a La Liga game.

Yet those are exactly the qualities which Real Madrid displayed in defeating Levante 2-1. In doing so, Los Blancos recorded Mourinho’s first win at the Ciutat de Valencia on Sunday evening.

How significant a win this was will be decided at the end of the season. What is certain is that had Madrid failed to win, it would most likely have been significant even at this stage of the season. To fall 10points behind Barcelona at this stage would have been a very significant hurdle which may not have been surmountable.

Postponement?

Should this game even have started? There had been torrential rain in Valencia for most of the day and it showed no signs of abating as kick off approached. With the pitch already waterlogged in places, particularly along the Main Stand side, this game should have been postponed. At a time when La Liga is trying to increase it’s appeal and enter into new markets around the globe, is this really the image which the authorities wish to send out?

Some will wrongly claim that the conditions are the same for both sides but such an assertion is based upon a belief that both sides adopt the same style. Clearly a waterlogged pitch will adversely affect a team with a short passing style more than a team with a direct style of play. Both teams must adapt but one side requires a greater shift in philosophy.

An incident early in the first half accurately captured the farce of the event. A Levante attack broke down and Di Maria gained possession on the left and sought to break forward quickly into space. Except that when he ran, the ball stuck in a puddle and as Di Maria adjusted to gather the ball again, he lost his balance and fell over. Levante then took possession again.

Even allowing for the lack of space within the fixture calendar for a rescheduled game, the match should have been postponed. That it went ahead confirmed that this was a night for a particular type of football. A direct approach which meant clearing your lines as quickly as possible by playing the ball forward. In theory, this approach should have suited Levante as it does not differ that substantially from their normal gameplan. Yet it was Madrid who not only adapted but a number of key payers appeared to relish the task in hand.

Madrid Adapt

It was a matter of which side could adapt best to the conditions. This was not a night for attempting to play intricate short passing or to run with the ball and this is clearly borne out by the statistics. Levante completed just 170 passes from 342 attempted (50% completion) whilst Madrid fared a little better with 212 completed passes from 386 attempted (55% completion)

It was a night for showing workrate, strength and above all determination. Qualities which were shown in abundance by two Madrid players; Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso.

The graphics below show the passing of Ramos and Alonso. From 87 passes between them only 11 were played backwards. The rest were primarily long balls being played towards the Levante backline. It was a simple approach but given the conditions it was an essential approach. Ensure that you make few mistakes and try to force your opponent to make mistakes. It was a night for playing the percentages.

Ramos Passes vs Levante                                      http://www.squawka.com

Xabi Alonso Passes vs Levante                             http://www.squawka.com

The number of long balls which both attempted was both defensive and attacking. Firstly, it cleared Madrid lines and secondly, it placed pressure on Levante.

There was also a degree of margin for error with long passes given that whilst some would normally overrun, on such a saturated pitch, many were stopping abruptly and remaining in play.

By placing the ball in the Levante half of the pitch more often, there was also a greater likelihood of Levante conceding fouls, something which they did in abundance.

Levante Defending

Levante have built their success in La Liga upon having a strong defensive unit. Primarily a counter attacking side, they have one of the lowest average possession figures in the division and are also a very direct and physical side. As discussed earlier, they should have, in theory, been able to adjust better to the conditions.

Their last two games have seen Levante gain 0-0 draws away from home when attacking intent was limited. To follow such an approach, the team must defend as a unit and especially at set pieces. Yet on Sunday evening, Levante seemed unable to defend set pieces effectively.

Madrid scored both their goals from free kicks. Leaving aside the defensive issues temporarily, Levante were placing themselves in considerable difficulty due to the number of fouls they were conceding. The graphic below demonstrates this. Levante gave away 27 fouls compared to Madrid ‘s 13.

Levante Fouls For and Against                           http://www.squawka.com

The opening goal arrived when David Navarro dropped deep at a free kick and played three Madrid players onside whilst his team mates held the defensive line at the edge of the penalty area. The ball broke to Ronaldo who displayed fantastic technical ability to control the ball on his thigh before volleying home. Beyond the skill, the goal showcased superb awareness. If the ball had dropped onto the ground, it would most likely have stuck in the water and the chance would have gone.

The winning goal in the 83rd minute was sub Morata’s first touch. Again Levante failed to deal with a free kick and Morata was free to nod home from close range with no marker.

Between these goals, Pepe and Ramos both hit the bar following corners as Levante struggled badly defensively.

 

Last season whilst Barcelona chased Madrid they travelled to Pamplona to face Osasuna on a treacherous pitch which was frozen over. Barcelona failed to adapt to the conditions and lost 3-2. Madrid successfully navigated a similarly awkward fixture on Sunday. This was not the sort of game which can win you a title but it was the sort of game which can certainly cost you the title.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

The Rain in Spain

Ronaldo and Navarro Challenge for the Ball                                          http://www.Realmadrid.com

Levante vs Barcelona: 3 Short Observations

Three short observations on the Levante vs Barcelona game tonight:-

The Pitch

Much has been made recently of Barcelona’s desire to play on wet pitches with very short grass to aid their short, quick passing game. Tonight, they faced an opponent who has a very soft pitch with long grass. As a result, short quick passing becomes more difficult to achieve and players lose their footing when they try to turn quickly.

The pitch at Estadi Ciutat de Valencia has been like this all season, so it was hardly a surprise for Guardiola yet they failed to react to this until the second half, still determined to play intricate short, sharp passes on a poor quality surface.

More opponents will leave their pitches dry and with longer grass against Barcelona. A quicker, more direct approach is needed in such circumstances.

Barcelona need to learn to adapt more to these challenges.

The Starting Line Up

Following on from the point above, in addition to the pitch being poor, Levante were always going to defend deep and in numbers. They only average 40% possession per game. They are a deep lying, counter attacking side with Kone leading the line.

Combined with the pitch, why did Guardiola not start with Cuenca to pull Levante wide? With Sanchez and Pedro both coming infield, Levante could outnumber Barcelona due to sheer weight of numbers.

Similar to the game vs Milan, Cuenca has an impact simply based on his starting position alone. He pulls defenders out very wide and creates space.

He helped create the equaliser and then won the penalty which Messi converted.

Cuenca is becoming an increasingly useful player for Barcelona. There is arguably nobody else in the Barcelona squad who offers the same qualities as he does in an attacking sense e.g. the width and the ability to take an opponent on the outside.

He is a traditional chalk on the boots winger.

Javier Mascherano

If the entire Barcelona squad was fully fit and Guardiola had to chose his strongest starting eleven, who would he chose as his central defensive partnership?

Surely Mascherano would be a starter?

He makes more tackles and interceptions per game than anyone else in the Barcelona squad. He is second only to Xavi in the number of successful long passes per game. He can be an attacking asset as well as a defensive asset. Crucially, he has eliminated his previous habit of picking up yellow cards all of the time. He has 9 yellows from 46 appearences this season.

Tonight, Mascherano beat Kone to a ball through the Barcelona defence when they trailed 1-0. He won the tackle cleanly and knocked the ball back to Valdes. He then collected the ball from Valdes, moved upfield and released Cuenca which led to the equalising goal.

From initially being used in defence as a stop gap measure, he has made the position his own.