Real Sociedad vs Valencia – One small step, one giant leap.

Real Sociedad took a massive step towards securing Champions League football with an excellent victory over Valencia at Anoeta last night. Whilst the final scoreline of 4-2 may be slightly harsh on the visitors, they ultimately paid the price for their lack of a cutting edge in the final third of the pitch. Despite holding an advantage in possession, Valencia were unable to manufacture sufficient clear chances. La Real, meanwhile, displayed the sort of lethal finishing from transitions that has become the hallmark of their season.

Line Up

With Griezmann absent, Chory Castro was given a  place in the starting line up, a clear indication fo a more attack minded side from Montannier as opposed to the slightly more conservative Zurutuza.

Real Sociedad vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Real Sociedad vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Valverde opted for Cissokho in place of Guardado at left back following recent performances with Fehgouli recalled to the right side of midfield. Otherwise, Valencia were as expected.

The Game

With so much at stake, this game began brightly and continued in a similar vein, really opening up as it reached the end. Valencia prompted by Ever Banega were keen to test Bravo early on and enjoyed some decent possession but Sociedad gradually grew into the game and always looked dangerous on transitions but struggled to gain any meaningful possession with Valencia pressing aggressively. Twice in the opening 15 minutes Vela burst down the right and provided warnings to Valencia. A similar transition brought a yellow card to Cissokho when he tripped Prieto.

As the game was evening out, Valencia took the lead with Cissokho charging down the left and delivering a cross which Soldado scored after stealing a yard start on Inigo Martinez. The left back would become embroiled in a number of incidents leaving him fortunate to remain on the pitch and it reduced his effectiveness as he adopted a more low key approach.

Banega was drifting out of the game as Sociedad’s full backs pushed high and the home side exerted more influence on the game. Valencia had struggled to deal with a few crosses and Sociedad equalised when Vela and Prieto took a  short corner and delivered a ball to Martinez who was unmarked at the back post to volley home.

The second half saw both teams more stretched and the lack of width in Valencia’s play became more evident but Banega was once more instrumental in all positive play from Los Che.

The game hinged upon the ability of Sociedad to counter swiftly with slick, sharp passing. The second goal was superb with Castro breaking from his own half and linking with Aguirrexte before scoring. Two further goals followed both from Aguirretxe including the final goal being a wonderfully delicate chip over the stranded Alves. Such poise and guile was shown by the frontman when the game was still hanging in the balance.

In between Aguirrexte’s goals, Jonas offered Valencia some fleeting hope.

Full Backs

With both side using inverted wingers particularly Jonas from Valencia, the onus was always going to be on the full backs from both sides to provide width in this game.

Carlos Martinez completed three crosses from seven attempted as shown in the graphic below which included two key passes:-

Martinez Crosses

Martinez Crosses                          http://www.squawka.com

Martinez was the more adventurous ad productive full back over the 90 minutes. De La Bella on the Sociedad left also ventured forward and completed one cross from five attempted but with both Prieto and Vela leaving towards that side of the pitch, there was less onus on him to push high.

Yet with Jonas cutting inside at every opportunity and Fehgouli more inclined to stay wide but having a relatively quite game, Valencia’s full backs were unable to have any effect o the game. Cissokho threatened early on and managed to deliver one successful cross from four attempted but a caution soon left him more conservative, unwilling to venture forward for fear of being caught out on the counter. Pereira meanwhile offered nothing going forward and only attempted one cross all night.

Chory Castro

The former Mallorca front man was brought into the side with Griezmann out. That Montannier selected Castro ahead of Zurutuza was perhaps indicative that he wanted to be more aggressive in attack.

Castro had six attempts and goal and scored once with four efforts being blocked. Despite playing out wide in a counter attacking side, he made 18 passes form 30 attempted and people will judge him on his attacking contribution but Montannier will assess his full performance which includes the defensive effort he provided:-

Chory Castro Tackles

Chory Castro Tackles                        http://www.squawka.com

Castro made four successful tackles during the game as he supported De La Bella by tracking both Pereira and Fehgoiuli on the right. Yet he was still able to push forward and cause problems.

Valencia Attack

One of the key problems from a Valencia perspective was their inability to turn their possession and territorial dominance into clear cut chances. Despite enjoying a slight advantage in terms of possession, Valencia never used the ball well in the final third with Sociedad defending very well and the onus was placed upon the shoulders of Ever Banega to create once more.

The Argentine though is reliant upon his team mates to offer themselves and share the burden. With Soldado often isolated and marked out of the game, Jonas was deeper than Banega at times and Fehgouli too wide. Parejo infrequently broke forward from midfield. It left Banega making passes and recycling possession but not hurting Sociedad.

The graphic below shows Valencia’s key passes:-

VCF Key Passes

VCF Key Passes                            http://www.squawka.com

Too few of Valencia’s passes were hurting Sociedad. The key passes were deep against a side that was content to sit a little deeper when required to do so. Yet this contrasts very sharply with the key passes from La Real who made fewer passes overall but had far more key passes as they cut open the Valencia defence on numerous occasions:-

Sociedad Key Passes

Sociedad Key Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

Of course, when you are breaking into space as La Real frequently did, then it’s easier to play key passes from a two vs two situation. Yet Valencia knew this was how Sociedad would play. It’s how they have played for much of the season and on those terms, it was Valencia who failed to address the problems that the home side would cause. Was there an alternative to the aging Albelda in front of the defence? Should Cissokho have been withdrawn when his yellow card more of less left him unable to offer enough either defensively or pushing forward?

Conclusions

Two teams who both sustained poor starts to the season and languished in the wrong  half of the table early on but will both finish in the top six now.

With five games remaining and a five point lead over both Malaga and Valencia and a superior head to head record, La Real are very much in pole position to claim the final Champions League position. The San Sebastian team have built their season around a superb run of form which has seen them lose just one game since November 2012 and even then, they really should have avoided defeat to 1o man Madrid at the Bernabeu.

Qualification for European football’s premier tournament will be just reward for a richly talented squad that has grown, developed and entertained as the season has progressed.

For Valencia, the ramifications of defeat may very well stretch out beyond this season. With the loss of much needed Champions League revenue, additional departures may be likely to help balance the books. The poor early season form that saw the side collect just 11 points from their opening nine games combined with instability on and off the pitch has meant they have always been playing catch up and always almost getting there but never quite making it.

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Barcelona vs Real Sociedad: Tactical Analysis

Montanier made the unusual choice of beginning the game with the club’s joint top scorers from last season both on the bench alongside him. Griezmann started in attack alongside Illarramendi with new signing Castro making his debut on the left wing.

Sociedad adopted a 4-4-2 formation at the outset of the game.

Real Sociedad Starting Line Up

Real Sociedad Approach

Whilst examining the Barcelona performance in closer detail, it must be remembered that this was a Sociedad side that were prepared to use two strikers and tried to attack. It’s doubtful if many opponents will arrive at the Camp Nou this season with such an outlook. The approach was tempered somewhat after the half time interval when Illarramendi dropped deeper to form a midfield five to stem the tide flowing towards the Sociedad goal. A 4-5-1 formation was utilised from this point onwards with Griezmann becoming isolated as the lone striker.

First Half

The game began in explosive fashion with four goals in the opening fifteen minutes. What was most interesting though was the intensity which Barcelona were displaying. The side appeared reinvigorated and pressed Sociedad as soon as possible, forcing the Basques onto the back foot. The passing was quick throughout as Barcelona seemed to rediscover the hunger and desire that had been lacking during parts of last season. Barcelona also sought to open up the play with crossfield diagonal passing occurring to both full backs and wingers, stretching their opponent and turning the Sociedad defence.

With a 4-1 half time lead, the second half revolved around retaining possession for Barcelona, mindful of the upcoming Super Cup fixture against Real Madrid. The final goal was scored by Villa who made his first competitive appearance since his injury in December 2011.

Given that this was as straight forward an opening fixture for Barcelona as you are likely to witness, it is worth considering a few key points which could be indicative of how Vilanova wants his Barcelona side to play. Clearly, these are early days in the Vilanova regime and we must not make any rash judgements nonetheless there are learning points here.

Tello

Speculation has surrounded Tello during the close season and he still retains a B team squad listing although he has been advised he will feature for the first team. Whilst his starting role may have surprised many, it was entirely justified following an excellent performance which witnessed two assists in the first half.

Making the breakthrough at the same time as his colleague Cuenca inevitably leads to comparisons despite both being very different players. Tello was able to thrive against Sociedad as the Basques were very attack minded which allowed Tello to use his pace to good effect. Holding a wide position, there was ample space behind the Sociedad back line for Tello to drive into. Against a deeper lying defence, Tello may find his pace is not as useful with limited space on offer. He provided snapshots of close control and played a lovely cross for Pedro’s goal. His decision making and final ball are two areas needing further development if he is to be considered as something other than just an extremely fast player. Last night suggested he may have a role to play in the longer term.

Full Backs

Both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba pushed high up the pitch and supported their respective winger especially Alba who impressed on his home debut and overlapped Tello on a few occasion when the opportunity arose.

Over the past few seasons we have become accustomed to witnessing Alves bomb forward on the right whilst Abidal adopted a more conservative position on the left alternating between holding the left back position around the halfway line or forming a defensive trio by slotting in as the left sided centre back. With Alba playing, this option of conservatism is removed.

Whether such an approach would be encouraged against higher quality opposition remains to be seen.

Sociedad scored the equalising goal when Castro moved in behind Alves, hitting the ball high into the roof of the net. The space existed not because Alves was caught high up the pitch but due to poor positional play. Alves moved infield, far too close to Puyol which provided Castro with the space to control the pass from Illarramedi before scoring.

Will the left flank of Barcelona prove to be stronger than the right flank this season? Given the role which Dani Alves has fulfilled over the past few seasons, it seems inconceivable but last night Alba provided evidence of his attacking ability allied to the defensive side of his game which he learned under Unai Emery.

Furthermore, can Barcelona really play with both full backs being so attack minded?

Will the midfield need to compensate?

Midfield

There were two interesting features in the Barcelona midfield. Firstly, Fabregas was in the team as a midfielder and in place of Iniesta. This required Fabregas to drop deeper on occasion which he did although he still linked with Messi when permitted. There appeared to be greater fluidity between the three midfielders.

This was aided as, secondly, Busquets played in a fairly high position on occasion especially during the first half when he pushed up to lend support to the trio of Xavi, Fabregas and Messi. Although still ostensibly the defensive midfielder in the team, there was greater movement between Busquets and the other two midfielders.

This increased movement was necessary as the duos of Alves and Alba and Pedro and Tello were holding very wide, high starting positions. Without Busquets pushing on, Barcelona would have been left numerically outnumbered in the centre of the pitch.

The impact of pushing Busquets further forward meant that Barcelona only had Maschearno and Puyol defending.

Are Barcelona going to play more aggressively this season?

Conclusions

There are relatively high hopes for Sociedad this season. Coach Philippe Montanier has a talented, if mainly youthful, squad at his disposal and coaxing the maximum from those at his disposal could reap rewards. The disappointing result from last night must not be allowed to adversely affect team morale.

The first step in the Vilanova era for Barcelona and one which hinted at some subtle alterations whilst demonstrating that the side has lost not of the hunger and desire which drove them to such success over the past few years. This was no tactical success in this game. Simply, Barcelona had vastly superior players to their opponent.

The upcoming Super Cup games against Real Madrid will provide a significantly sterner test of Vilanova’s tactical acumen.