Building for a Real Future?

So often this season, games at Anoeta have produced superb technical and tactical games with one key ingredient. Goals, and lots of them. And in their final home game of the season, La Real once again served up a tremendous spectacle.

A game in which an unfamiliar looking Real Madrid appeared to have somehow secured all three points despite Real Sociedad carving out chance after chance only for Xabi Prieto to secure a point in injury time. Just how crucial that point will be is likely to be determined next weekend.

La Real Dominate

With Real Sociedad now only holding onto fourth place courtesy of the head to head record, there was no margin for error against Madrid. With Madrid and Mourinho announcing his departure when the season concludes and the Madrid team missing a number of key players, this was the chance for a hungry, motivated La Real side to seize the initiative.

La Real edged possession with 53% but time and time again this season, Madrid has shown that they are not a side that cares for possession when they possess the best counter attack in world football. A problem emerges though when you withdraw key components of that counter attack. When that attack lacks the same pace and verve as it normally contains, its’ effectiveness is substantially reduced. The opposition can recognise the weaker attack and commit more men forward.

Sociedad seized the initiative but were undone by defensive errors. Not huge errors but against a side with the quality of Madrid, even minor errors can be punished. Madrid had just one shot at goal in the first half and Higuain scored.

The graphic below demonstrates the ability for La Real to create, and miss, a sizeable number of chances against their visitors:-

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

From 27 attempts at goal, Sociedad hit the target on 12 occasions. Will Madrid and Mourinho be concerned about the number of chances that La Real managed to create and the manner in which the point was earned?

Madrid may. For Mourinho, his judgement value of this game was demonstrated in his starting line up.

Player Selection

With Jose Mourinho leaving Real Madrid after the season ends, and with nothing left to play for given they have already secured second place in the league, what was the key objective in San Sebastian?

Winning didn’t matter but you still want to win the game of course but considering the prevailing circumstances, what was the key consideration here. To secure three points or to consider Madrid’s development beyond the end of this season?

Carvalho, Essien and Kaka are all likely to depart the Bernabeu shortly. Higuain could follow. Pepe remains benched following his dispute with Mourinho. Could Mourinho not have played the likes of Nacho or Morata or even Casemiro? Players from the Cantera who will be around next season and are likely to be part of the first team squad?

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Madrid gained a point which, on the balance of play, they were probably fortunate to get but given they led 2-0, they should probably have gathered all three points. Does it matter though? It’s a point gained but is it an opportunity lost? A game that could have aided player development substantially.

Playing a weaker team may have resulted in Real Sociedad winning all three points and leaving them in pole position to finish in 4th place. Valencia would have complained but that’s not Real Madrid’s concern. Madrid must focus on themselves.

And they did so but with a distinctly short term focus.

Montanier Departing?

With Montanier departing the Basque Country to coach in Rennes, it leaves the question of who next for Real Sociedad and can the next incumbent build upon the foundations that have already been laid?

The Board’s resolve may well be tested during the close season with figures such as Inigo Martinez, Illarramendi and Griezmann attracting attention but another season together could reap rich dividends for La Real.

If the squad remains largely intact, the tactical issue for the side is to improve defensively without losing their attacking edge. The side have the 6th best defensive record in the league but a small improvement on their nine clean sheets could make a huge difference. The difference could be in those 12 games that La Real have drawn such as Sunday evening. One of those games converted to a victory would seem them level with Valencia but leading thanks to the head to head record.

Is 5th a Success?

And how should Real Sociedad be judged this season if they do finish in 5th and “only” gain a Europa League place? Is the season still a success or would it be deemed a failure by some given their five point lead over Valencia with the end of the season in sight? Had you offered La Real a 5th place finish at the start of the season, it would have been accepted with great appreciation. Only now, when 4th is so close, does 5th seem like a disappointment. Should the side be disappointed with a 5th place finish, it illustrates the progress made since their return from La Segunda just three seasons ago. Remaining grounded is now the key. La Real may well have over achieved this season.

Does the story revolving around La Real detract from the work undertaken by Valverde over at the Mestalla?

Valverde has dealt with uncertainty over his own future, as has Montanier also, but with instability in the boardroom whilst a club that is financially stricken desperately chases the riches that the Champions League has to offer. Montanier has built a foundation in his time at La Real whilst Valverde has been fire fighting for the past six months. Who has the better achievement?

La Real travel to Deportivo needing to win to have any opportunity of finishing 4th. Yet Depor must also secure a result to maintain their survival chances. Valencia meanwhile will travel to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and face a Sevilla side with nothing to play for or a European place still at stake. That depends entirely upon how both Malaga and Rayo Vallecano are judged for next season in terms of satisfying European criteria.

So who will claim 4th place? In April I backed Los Che to edge 4th place here. For the first time this season, they have the advantage and should hold onto the advantage this weekend.

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Espanyol vs Real Sociedad – Some Thoughts

Espanyol and Real Sociedad fought out a highly entertaining 2-2 draw at the Cornella el Prat on Sunday evening. Aguirre has performed well to date, lifting Espanyol from bottom to mid-table safety even at this stage of the season but their recent form has tailed off slightly. They entered this game with just one win in their previous four games. This contrasted sharply with a Sociedad side that now harbours prospects of Champions League football next season at the Anoeta.

With Carlos Vela missing, Montannier opted to bring Zurutuza into the side in midfield.

The graphic below shows the team’s starting line up:-

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Whilst Espanyol chose a 4-2-3-1, La Real were more like a 4-1-4-1 although the wide pairing of Griezmann and Prieto pushed higher than the midfield duo or Zurutuza and Illarramendi.

Real started the game better, more aggressive than their opponents but they were caught out after just eight minutes when Sergio Garcia opened the scoring. The attack began on the right but quickly shifted to the left with Xabi Prieto flighting a ball for Simao to collect. It meant Sociedad were turning and backpeddling towards their own goal rather than have the opponent face them. Simao’s low cross was deftly slotted home by Garcia who had run beyond both De La Bella and Inigo Martinez to get to the ball first. The early goal allowed Espanyol to counter and forced Sociedad to take the initiative.

Espanyol Attacking

The graphic below shows all of the attempted crosses undertaken by Espanyol during the game. There was a clear bias, especially in the first half for attacks to come down the Real Sociedad right with as shown below:-

Espanyol Crosses

Espanyol Crosses                    http://www.squawka.com

Of the 16 crosses attempted, only two found an Espanyol player and both resulted in goals during the first half. A number of crosses were blocked but with less cover in the Sociedad midfield, it was easier for Espanyol to create the openings by spreading the play with crossfield passes. It meant Sociedad were more exposed and in less control than they like to be. And Espanyol were able to profit with the assistance of their striker, Sergio Garcia.

Sergio Garcia

He may not be everybody’s favourite striker and he may not be the most prolific goalscorer either but last night Sergio Garcia produced the sort of display that has always been capable of delivering even if he was often frustratingly inconsistent.

The graphic below shows the heat map for his performance:-

Sergio Garcia Heat Map

Sergio Garcia Heat Map                       http://www.squawka.com

Statistically, his performance was not that impressive. Just one shot at goal albeit with which he scored. Only one successful take on against eight attempted. Garcia lost out on his two aerial duels as well.  But he completed 26 out of his 37 attempted passes. He is not disconnected form the team. Always available to take a pass and link play. The key to his performance was his movement, intelligence and ability to link up with the remainder of his team particularly Verdu who roamed behind him. Their combination led to Espanyol’s second goal, Garcia playing a tidy one-two with his captain before Stuani converted the cross.

Real Sociedad Set Up

In their recent away game at Atleti, La Real were very conservative from the outset of the game, playing a highly cautious counter attacking style. Although that is their preference, they were more aggressive here perhaps sensing this as an ideal opportunity to claim all three points.

The most noticeable difference from recent away games was Illarramendi being pushed higher not and not being used as part of a double pivot alongside Bergara. The higher position uses Illarramendi’s qualities in a better fashion. His more direct passing can aid the team and led to the equalising goal.

Prieto made a diagonal run from left to centre and Illarramendi lofted a pass through to him. Casilla cleared the ball which fell to Zurutuza around 25 yards out and his first time lobbed finish found the net. The finish was one of the highest technique but in the process the pass and run which led to the goal were overlooked.

The graphic below shows Illarramendi’s passing:-

Illarramendi Passes

Illarramendi Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

Although a different player from Xabi Alonso, the fact that both began their careers with La Real will lead to comparisons especially when there is something of the Alonso about the passing of Illarramendi on occasion. The misplaced passes above all tended to be longer, flighted passes searching out runners in behind the Espanyol defence. One led to the first goal and in the 55th minute a similar ball found Aggirexte but Casilla saved the resulting shot.

As it was, Illarramendi was withdrawn for the gifted Pardo in 62minutes. And the youngster lofted another ball over the Espanyol defence for the timed run of Griezmann. Despite miscontrolling the ball, it ricocheted off Lopez into the bottom corner to provide Sociedad with the equaliser. The goal came following a period of Sociedad pressure. The attacking talent of Verdu, Garcia and Stuani were curtailed as the game had wore on and Sociedad were able to exert more authority on proceedings as a consequence.

Conclusions

Javier Aguirre has guided Espanyol from the bottom of the table to mid-table security, a tremendous achievement given how he found the club when he took over. As ever though, how he builds from here for next season is key. Verdu is out of contract in the summer and is not the type of player that Espanyol can afford to lose especially as they will receive no fee.

It’s now just one defeat in 19 games for La Real, a very impressive run of form that sees them maintain interest in the Champions League place. They remain on course to record their best league finish since their great side of 2002/03 which narrowly missed out on the title. The number of recent draws though, could cost them. That is four draws in their last seven league games. Even if they do not secure Champions League football, under Montanier they have developed a clear style of play which is highly enjoyable to watch with a number of excellent young prospects. This time last season, if you had to choose a Basque side that would be challenging for Champions League football just now, how many people would have chosen La Real over Bielsa’s Athletic?

Atleti vs Real – Tactical Analysis – The Real Deal?

And they march on, into 4th place in the league.

La Real have now won nine, drawn seven and lost just once in their last 17 league games (and they should have managed to avoid that defeat against 10 man Real Madrid) as they climb the league into a position entirely fitting for the quality within the squad.

Atleti began and ended the game in 3rd place following Madrid’s win and for the first time this season, they are below their rivals in the league. The last 100% home record in a major European league falls with Atleti suffering their first defeat at home since their cross town opponents arrived and departed with three points late last season.

Line Ups

Simeone reinstated Gabi to central midfield following his suspension to be joined by Koke with Mario missing the game due to suspension.

Courtois continued in goal with Abel Resino’s 20 year old Atleti domestic record for duration without conceding at home within touching distance. Coutois last conceded a league goal at home in October 2012. The record would eventually fall in the 34th minute and be extended by a further 33 minutes before Prieto struck.

Simeone went with a 4-4-2, Diego Costa supporting Falcao in attack.

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Montanier moved Aggirexte to the bench including Zurutuza in an advanced midfield role. A move which could be construed as negative depending upon your perspective, Montanier would surely argue it provided the necessary base to begin the game against Atleti.

Vela and Griezmann would alternate positions during the game between left wing and striker.

Real started with eight players who had progressed to the first team via their cantera

Real Sociedad Shape

Atleti enjoyed better possession early in the game but too often it was in an area of the pitch which could not hurt Real. Aside from a few long range efforts which went wide, the only real threat in the opening stages arrived via the charging runs of Diego Costa, buoyed by his call up to the Brazil squad, moving into the left channel between Carlos Martinez and Mikel Gonzalez. One such run ended abruptly under the challenge of Gonzalez, earning the defender a yellow card.

Whilst Atleti would look to start the game strongly, they were able to enjoy possession by an opponent that was content to drop deep, concede possession and only press Atleti as they entered their half of the field. In the 10th minute, Vela, the most advanced Sociedad player, received the ball near the halfway line with no available team mates near him to pass to, eventually conceded a foul.

The graphic below shows the heat map for Real Sociedad throughout the entire game:-

Real Sociedad Shape

Real Sociedad Shape          http://www.squawka.com

This clearly illustrates just how deep Real sat and how little attacking threat they possessed.

It’s a dangerous game to defend so deeply whilst having such little impact on the break. Real possess players with the correct qualities to counter attack but last night was more of a team effort than a few individuals showcasing their ability. All players worked to earn the result.

As the first half progressed, Real became more comfortable and allowed their personality to show more, carefully avoiding Atleti pressing with short sharp passing enabling play to switch flanks and attacks to be built. There was still little attacking threat from the Basque’s but the side were moving higher up the pitch and enjoying more possession. They were of course, still wary of the quality of the Atleti counter attack.

Defensive Solidity

Part of the success of La Real has been the ability to retain their shape in the face of adversity this season. “To suffer” as Philippe Montanier states but to retain their resolve in such circumstances before triumphing.

The graphic below shows that Real won 21 tackles from an attempted 24 tackles during the course of the game but the location is important. Atleti were constantly forced wide during the game. Real defended compactly with Bergara and Illarramedi shielding their defence and avoiding space developing between the defensive and midfield line. With limited options centrally, Atleti were forced to attack via the flanks yet as they did so, they found Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezmann tracking Filipe Luis and Juanfran preventing los rojiblancos from having two on one situations:-

Real Sociedad Tackles

Real Sociedad Tackles          http://www.squawka.com

Their defensive solidity was aided by a well organised offside trap, the line being held around the edge of the penalty area when required preventing Atleti from getting in behind them.

The concern for Montanier though was that given how deep Sociedad were defending, when they did get the ball, they were a considerable distance from Courtois and too many players had dropped back to defend. The opportunity for counters was not really in position.

Atleti Attack

The main problem for Atleti last night was their lack of guile and craft to break down an organised and structured defence. Much of the success of Atleti has come from their ability to absorb pressure and counter attack swiftly. A highly efficient reactive side that allows opponents to take the initiative. Last night, Atleti were undone by an opponent using their own game plan.

Atleti had numerous attempts at goal as the graphic below shows, but they were wayward and failed to test Claudio Bravo in the Sociedad goal. Only one scrambled save  in the second half presented any test for the Chilean goalkeeper:-

Atleti Shots

Atleti Shots                      http://www.squawka.com

The graphic also highlights the tendency for Atleti to focus their attacks from their left,  an area that will be explored.

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti began the second half with greater intensity to their play, moving the ball quicker and placed the Real defence under some early pressure. With a lack of creativity in the ranks, Atleti often attempted take ons against their opponents but this provided little success either. From 18 takes ons attempted, just six were successful.

The graphic below shows this in addition to identifying the location of the take ons:-

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti Take Ons           http://www.squawka.com

Too much of the Atleti attack focussed on the left wing with Diego Costa drifting across there and supported by Rodriguez in the first half. The same balance is not found on the right where Arda Turan drifts inward and adopts a central position leaving Juanfran alone on the right to offer width.

Although Xabi Prieto scored the solitary goal arriving on the Atleti left, the move began on the Atleti right with Griezmann releasing the pass to Prieto.

Real Sociedad always had options on their left, the Atleti right, during the game.

Simeone made a number of substitutions later on to try and forge a way back int the game but the moves gave Atleti a muddled look with an even greater imbalance on the left prevalent. Play was no longer constructed but revolved around a series of balls into the box or trying to take an opponent on. There was nobody orchestrating play from midfield forward. Nobody probing the Real defence.

Conclusions

Simeone will now gain a better understanding of the mental resilience of his players. Having led Madrid all season, they now find themselves playing catch up as the season moves into the final stretch.

It also provides glimpse into the future for Atleti under Simeone. Teams will increasingly defend deep against them and force Atleti to take the initiative. In such games, Simeone must develop alternative strategies in all likelihood aided by a more creative central player. Such a move may disrupt the double pivot which he favours but it could become an invaluable weapon in his arsenal.

Real Sociedad began this season with six defeats in their first ten league games but the defeat of Atleti marked their third away win in a row.

Montanier has struck the balance, the dividing line between being overly conservative during games and adopting a counter attacking strategy, one in which the players are able to express themselves and display their personality. The final Champions League place is now there for the taking, if La Real can prove they are the real deal.