The Submarine Rising

It’s not often you start a game in one month, complete it the following month and make history in the process but Villarreal did exactly that on Saturday evening at El Sadar. The game kicked off at 11pm on Saturday 31st August and as the full time whilst sounded with 1am approaching on Sunday 1st September, the Yellow Submarine were about to depart with three points following a very comfortable win marked by some tremendous attacking play. And they would sit top of La Liga alone for the first time in their history.

This was a poor performance from Osasuna epitomised by a lot of endeavour but not  great deal of structure or organisation. The home side parted company with manager Mendilibar this morning.

Line Ups

The former Villarreal player Oriol came into the Osasuna side with Damia only fit enough for the bench. Further forward, Riera started as the central striker.

Marcelinho made one change for Villarreal with Giovanni dos Santos dropping to the bench to be replaced by Perbet. As was customary prior to their relegation, Villarreal lined up in a 4-4-2 variation with Perbet dropping a little deeper off the front two. Aquino operated as a true winger whereas Cani frequently moved into the centre from the left.

Contrasting Styles

At first glance, this would seem like an obvious contract in styles between both sides. The more direct, physically robust style of Osasuna against the short, sharp passing of Villarreal and yet Osasuna enjoyed 59% possession making a substantially larger number of passes in the process but as the graphic below shows, the passes were always around the middle third of the pitch and never penetrative. Osasuna would push so far up the pitch then run out of ideas against an extremely well organised Villarreal side:-

Osasuna vs Villarreal Passes

Osasuna vs Villarreal Passes

Villarreal defended using two bans of four who sat fairly deep and were compact with no real space between the lines. Osasuna found this difficult to break down and when moves were disrupted, both Perbet and Pereira were left up the pitch in order to instigate counter attacking moves primarily down the channels where both of Osasuna’s full backs had been caught high up the pitch. The attacks were often simple yet brilliantly executed.

 

Attacking Options

Osasuna didn’t offer enough variety in attack. They would pass around the middle third of the pitch and either concede possession or knock a long hopeful ball forward towards Riera in attack but there was never sufficient support around the frontman or breaking forward from midfield to feed off scraps. There were very few successful passes into the opposition penalty area either. Osasuna were simply not hurting Villarreal.

Final Third Passes

Final Third Passes

Villarreal continually attacked their opponents down the flanks, aided by some less than secure defending with the diagram above showing the repeated attacks down their right side through Aquino.

Osasuna Defence

The diagram below shows the average positions from both teams during the game with Osasuna shown in blue and Villarreal in red. The stand out point is that Osasuna appear to have nobody operating at right back with Oier pushing into midfield. Osasuna are squashed where as Villarreal have much better balance:-

Average Positions

Average Positions

Osasuna conceded just 14 goals at home in 19 league games last season. Their survival was built upon this foundation with their attack being notoriously weak. Yet after two home games this season, they have conceded five goals.

Villarreal could cope very easily with Osasuna’s disjointed press and exploit the huge gaps between midfield and defence.

Cani often strayed into a central position from wide leftt and this probably created the problem for  Oier who followed his man but with no cover at full back, Pereira could pull wide and run down this flank, drawing Loties over into an area that the defender looked distinctly uneasy with. La Liga missed Cani last season and the creative midfielder used his skill and experience to good effect.

 

Villarreal Goals

The three goals were all the result of quick counter attacks, involved sharp passing and were completed with close range finishes. The opener came was Pereira broke down the left and beat Loties far too easily with Perbet converting. The second goal followed a beautifully lofted ball over the defence by Bruno with Aquino cutting in from the right to score after Pereira had again escaped from Loties:-

Villarreal Goals

Villarreal Goals

The third and final goal arrived midway through the second half. Aquino went on a surging run forward following Osasuna losing possession with dos Santos cutting back for Uche to side foot home.

All counter attacks, all completed quickly and all finished with aplomb in complete contrast to the laboured approach of Osasuna.

Defensively Sound

And just as Villarreal were swift with their counter attacks, their young defence was solid too, preventing an Osasuna side devoid of craft and guile from breaking them down or out muscling them with a more physical approach.

The Submarine would fall back into two compact blocks of four during the defensive phase which Osasuna found increasingly hard to break through. Slow passing and lack of passing options contributing towards this. The success of the Villarreal system can be viewed by the number and location of tackles that the away side attempted:-

Osasuna vs Villarreal Tackles

Osasuna vs Villarreal Tackles

Osasuna as they normally do, pressed their opponents high and won a number of tackles in the opposition half of the field but they were also forced to make a high number of interventions in their own penalty area as they were repeatedly exposed on transitions. Yet Villarreal only attempted one tackle on an Osasuna player in their penalty area. The compact block did it’s job very well with Osasuna unable to progress centrally, they moved wide where they were tackled and lose possession. This was an ideal position to launch counter attacks with balls down the channels pulling the Osasuna central defensive pairing of Loties and Arribas wide and into uncomfortable territory.

Passing in the Night?

The Yellow Submarine have returned to La Liga and immediately impressed with three wins from three placing them temporarily as La Liga leaders for the first time in their history. They may not have the star names of some recent Villarreal sides but there remains a style and panache about them when they burst forward in attack. With no debt now, Villarreal can be quietly confident of establishing themselves in La Liga against this season and moving forward from there.

For Osasuna, things have started very badly both on and off the pitch. It’s difficult to see any quality reinforcements arriving and they really needs injuries to clear up quickly to get their best eleven players on the pitch but even then, the quality in the ranks of Osasuna has dropped in recent times. Avoiding relegation looks as if it will be a considerable achievement even this early in the season. Mendilibar will take the flak for the poor start but a closer examination would reveal a lack of support for the manager with nobody showing any vision in scouting new players or promoting from the cantera. The club has problems on and off the pitch.

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Valladolid vs Athletic – Valverde Starts with a Win.

Valladolid and Athletic Club met on Saturday evening in the opening fixture round of La Liga. Two clubs with new managers who were both hoping to build on disappointing season’s last time out. Valladolid is under the tutelage of Juan Ignacio Martinez this term whilst Ernesto Valverde takes the helm at Athletic Club following the sometimes brilliant but quite often anarchic reign of Marcelo Bielsa.

Line Ups

Marino made his debut in goal for Valladolid otherwise the team was as strong as Martinez could field in the normal 4-2-3-1 format. As per last season, Valladolid would look to Patrick Ebert for creativity and Javi Guerra to score aided by Oscar breaking forward.

Vallodolid vs Athletic - Starting Line Ups

Vallodolid vs Athletic – Starting Line Ups

Valverde handed debuts to Balenziaga at left back, following his loan spell at Valladolid, Benat in midfield and Kike Sola as striker in the absence of Aritz Aduriz. With the loss of Javi Martinez and Fernando Amorebieta over the past two seasons, the veteran defensive midfielder Gurpegi stepped into central defence alongside Borja Ekiza.

Player Influence

The graphic below shows the player influence during the game and clearly highlights how the game developed primarily in the centre of the pitch with the forward players from both sides only fulfilling periphery roles for their respective team:-

Player Influence

Player Influence

Valladolid appeared more willing to sit a little deeper early on as Athletic made most of the running without really creating any chances. Athletic pressed very high when Valladolid passed the ball back to goalkeeper Marino with Kike Sola very aggressive in this regard but the home side always managed to play their way out of trouble with Athletic thereafter quickly dropping back into a 4-4-1-1 during the defensive phase.

The battle between Rukavina and Balenziaga on one side of the pitch is also clearly visible with both Ebert and Muniain moving further infield despite being nominally positioned on that flank. The Serbian had the upper hand over Balenziaga positionally.

 

Attacking Intent

Both sides were very comfortable moving the ball and building attacks but too frequently attacks broke down or stalled as the teams entered the final third of the pitch. The graphic below shows all of the passes into the final third of the field attempted by both teams. There are very few passes into the opposition penalty areas:-

Final Third Passes

Final Third Passes

 

With both teams fielding strikers who complement their system but are hardly prolific, it was necessary to get support into the penalty area yet neither side really managed this to good effect. For Athletic, Ander Herrara sat too deep in midfield and with Susaeta holding the touchline and Muniain not venturing forward enough, the result was Kike Sola being isolated and left to feed off scraps.  Yet behind the striker, there was ample movement for Athletic laterally between Muniain, Herrara and Susaeta but not enough vertical movement to stretch the opposition defence.

It was a similar picture for the home side with Javi Guerra upfield although support was closer to him on occasion with Oscar breaking forward from midfield and Partick Ebert moving in from the right, a tactic that offered much potential but which the German and Valladolid failed to take advantage of.

Valldolid tried to hit balls over the high line that the Athletic defence was holding early on but the lack of support that moved upfield quickly prevented this from really being exploited despite the evident lack of pace of Gurpegi and Ekiza. It’s an area that Valverde will need to consider. The central defensive area looks shaky.

A total of just five shots on target overall from both sides is evidence of the lack of attacking threat posed despite productive approach play.

Valladolid Right

With Ebert cutting infield and supported by the overlapping Rukavina from full back, Valladolid utilised the right side for much of their attacking play, particularly in the first half. They were aided by the continual inward drifting of Iker Muniain from Athletic. With Muniain cutting in, the Athletic full back Balenziaga was left with no cover during quick transitions enabling Valladolid to create 2 on 1 situations. These were never really exploited. Rukavina only attempted 3 crosses in the first half with only 1 being successful.

The graphic below shows all of the passes attempted by Patrick Ebert during the game:-

.

Ebert Passes vs Athletic

Ebert Passes vs Athletic

An astute signing last season and a key performer for Valladolid, Ebert was sound in possession and scored the equalising goal for Valladolid after a decent move down the right but he never quite managed to become fully involved in the game. His passing was never as pro active as it could be with too many lateral or even backwards passes in the game partly owing to a lack of movement and options ahead of him.

In an effort to become more involved and help shape the game, Ebert moved into a more central position in the second half but was unable to find any solutions to the problems that Athletic were presenting.

Benat

Almost seven years after he made his previous solitary appearance for Athletic lasting just six minutes, Benat took to the field once more in the colours of Athletic Club and provided ample evidence of just how pivotal a figure he could become for Athletic this season.

Operating as the central player in a vertical line of three in the Athletic midfield, Benat really began to exert influence over proceedings at the start of the second half when Athletic took control of the game and dictated the tempo. This forced Valladolid further back with the adventurous runs of Rukavina curbed during this spell of the game. The graphic below shows all of his attempted passes:-

Benat Passes vs Valladolid

Benat Passes vs Valladolid

Benat was also pivotal in the opening goal with his short flicked pass releasing Susaeta for the winger to score with a low shot following a wonderfully crafted move by Athletic.

His ability to enable Athletic to control the tempo of the game was crucial though. Playing faster, sharper passes when required or taking the ball under pressure and slowing the game down when needed. It’s a substantial change from the demands of Bielsa. The players are no longer constantly running either to win possession or when they are in possession. There is more consideration of the phase of the game. The tempo alters, the game remains under their control. The performance of Benat symbolises this.

Valladolid had no player able to perform at a similar level.

Promising Signs

Despite the defeat, Martinez should be reasonably content with the performance his side produced. Valladolid retained their commitment to building play constructively from the back even when placed upon pressure from Athletic. The game was also an important demonstration to the fans that Martinez can adapt after playing a fairly direct, counter attacking style during his tenure at Levante. With more technically minded players, a more expansive style of pay will be followed.

An excellent opening day win for Athletic and one which saw glimpses of the type of football that Valverde wants to deliver on a regular basis. The opening period of the second half, Athletic played some superb football prompted by Benat in the midfield area with Herrara pushing higher to support Kike Sola.

Questions remain however with Balenziaga given little support by the increasingly central Iker Muniain and much of the creative player lacking an end product but these are small points given the stage in the season.

Keep Pressing Forward

Southampton found themselves in 15th place and three points above the relegation zone when Maurcicio Pochettino was hired on the 18th January 2013. The Saints would eventually end the season in 14th position and five points clear of the final relegation position, securing their berth in the Premiership for a second successive season.

From his 16 games in charge, Pochettino won four, drew seven and lost five producing an average of 1.18 points per game, a slight increase on the 1 point per game collected by his predecessor, Nigel Adkins. Were such a points per game ratio to be maintained over an entire season, the Saints would have finished in 11th position last season with a slightly healthier total of 45 points.

In a results driven business, there will be those of an opportunistic nature who seek to denigrate the relatively low level of points returned during the Argentineans brief tenure thus far. Why change a manger in the middle of the season? Particularly to a manager with no experience of the English game joining a club fighting relegation in mid-season and with limited English.  That such problems were of Southampton’s making by sacking Adkins is also true but the brief glimpses of the football that Pochettino’s side have served should be more than enough to quell those who are quick to criticise the Argentinean for the poor handling of the situation by the Southampton Board.

“But in the second half Southampton put in the best performance anyone has here this season.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

That’s the problem when you unveil a long term plan. People are quick to accuse you of creating a plan to remove the present managerial incumbent. The plan justifies the action taken.  If the plan is quickly aborted thereafter, those same forces will be present to revel in its downfall. If the plan succeeds, well it’s maybe four or five years later and nobody can be bothered to recall what was said all those years ago. Either way, you’ll be criticised.

With a modestly impressive start offering optimism for the future, what should Southampton fans expect from the side under their new coach? And what has the Argentinean tactician changed during his brief spell in charge to date?

Influences

Pochettino is heavily influenced by the philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who has retained total faith in his system and who returned to vogue in the last two seasons with his swashbuckling Athletic Club side. A side that showcased the two extremes of such an approach. The young central defender Mauricio Pochettino arrived in the first team at Newell’s Old Boys when Bielsa was coach and subsequently earned a number of his international caps under his former club manager.

“He’s like a second father to me. I don’t know if he’s a crazy football coach, but he’s very methodical, and always faithful to his ideas.”

Whilst Bielsa is a fundamentalist, a man so defined by his beliefs that he would rather fail than change his methods, Pochettino must be careful to avoid becoming so ideologically driven. Indeed, if he is to succeed at the top-level of coaching, he cannot afford to be like his mentor. He must carefully assemble the components which has enable Bielsa to succeed whilst sidestepping the pitfalls which repeatedly traps his mentor.

The Espanyol Legend

Pochettino took charge at Espanyol in the middle of the 2008-09 season. In doing so, he became the club’s 13th coach in 11 years under President Daniel Sánchez Llibre, a revolving door policy operating in the Montjuic area of Barcelona. A club legend, the aggressive central defender played more games for the club than any other foreigner.

The tactician won just one of his first nine matches with Espanyol failing to keep a single clean sheet in the process. Bottom of the table and facing a return to la Segunda after 17 seasons in the top flight, Pochettino sought divine intervention, making a pilgrimage by foot to a nearby religious site. And he received it. Espanyol won eight of their final ten games and finished in the top half of the table.

Under his leadership, los pericos finished 11th, 8th and then 14th in the following seasons. The statistics below show how the side developed under him, as his determination to impose his style of play and system took hold:-

Espanyol Stats Under Pochettino                      http://www.whoscored.com

Espanyol increased their average possession under Pochettino and their pass success rate despite offloading their best players each season to ease their financial burdens. As the players understanding of the system increased, tackles and interceptions increased along with yellow cards. Part of the reason for the continuing success was the ability to work and influence the youth set up. Players being promoted from la cantera bought into the Argentinian’s values and ideals.

“There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you; Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football”

Pep Guardiola

And this is where some of his most impressive work at Espanyol occurred. Working closely with the youth coaches, redesigning the youth setup, laying down tactical guidelines to be followed throughout the club and insisting on making each team play in an age group above, to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. It was not just an ideal though, it was a financial necessity. Espanyol cannot afford significant transfer fees and need to raise income from selling players. Promotion of youth team players under Pochettino increased with many players making their first-team début. The Espanyol squad retained a high number of home-grown players only Athletic, Barcelona and Real Sociedad having a higher number. It also speaks volumes about the philosophy of the club:-

“We’re not interested in our youth teams winning games; we’re interested in them developing players for the first team.”

Upon departing Espanyol, Pochettino’s time in charge will be interpreted differently dependent entirely upon what you perceive as success. With a win percentage of 33%, during his 161 games in charge Espanyol won 53, drew 38 and lost 70 games. Leaving Espanyol in November by mutual consent and not having been sacked as widely reported previously, the club were bottom of the league and had won only twice in 14 games. Having been at the club almost four years, Pochettino became the fourth longest-serving manager in Espanyol’s history.

Pochettino’s Style

As you would expect from a devout follower of Bielsa, Pochettino likes his teams to be play sharp passing football combined with a steely edge. Play should be built from the back, moving forward slowly if necessary, before the tempo increases as the ball enters the opponents’ territory and passing becomes more one touch. The high technical demands that this places upon the players can lead to a repeated loss of possession. And it can be frustrating to witness at times.

“I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be attacking”

The defensive phase begins as soon as possession is lost and the team are responsible. The team attempt to press their opponents as high up the pitch as possible. To do so, a high defensive line is held and an aggressive offside trap is pursued. It’s a strategy that will produce high quality attacking football with the odd defensive disaster. If one part of the team fails to press coherently, the system begins to crack and the opponent has time to exploit the space behind the high defensive line.

There is also another price to pay; Disciplinary sanctions. Espanyol had one of the worst disciplinary records in La Liga. If you press high and hound your opponent, you will inevitably concede fouls. Whether this approach will be more suited to the Premiership than La Liga, where minor contact often results in fouls, remains to be seen. It’s an area that must be addressed if a relatively small squad is not be over stretched.

The key was all the work we put in over the past few weeks. The victory only comes if you believe you can get the victory and today we believed we could win and that is the way we should continue. It happened as we hoped, planned and wanted. Many times you can imagine and it is difficult to make it happen but today it went to plan.

Pochettino is a devout believer in the triumph of the system. The above quote taken after the impressive win over ManchesterCity provides clear evidence of that. The work put in on the training pitch, the planning that is needed to achieve your goal at the end of the week. It’s not luck. It’s hard work, discipline, organisation and belief.

Southampton Beginnings

With 16 games under his belt at St Mary’s, it’s important to tread cautiously when examining the impact that Pochettino has had to date. It must be remembered that predecessor Adkins was enjoying a fine run of form when he was sacked. With just two defeats in the previous twelve games, Pochettino was inheriting a squad that had adjusted to life in the Premiership and contained much better morale than earlier in the season. That may have aided the adjustment initially.

Pochettino sought to impose his style quickly at Southampton taking advantage of free weekends to work with his new players on the training pitch. Double sessions have been commonplace but then, the players should have expected this. Pablo Osvaldo played under Pochettino before moving to AS Roma in Serie A:-

“He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes, you feel like killing him but it works”

Much of the focus in training will shift to ensuring the team is a coherent unit; that the system works as outlined above.

“It may seem like we are running more but really we are just running in a more organised way”

More organised and more compact and closer to the opponent’s goal. What is happening on the pitch is that Southampton are playing higher up the pitch both with and without the ball. It may sound revolutionary, but it’s quite simple really.

Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it. We moved forward our lines and play more up field. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible”

Why run up the pitch, lose possession and then retreat back into your starting position? You’re expending energy moving up and down the pitch and when you recover possession, you are starting 60 or 70 yards away from the opponent’s goal again. Instead, when you lose possession in your opponents half of the pitch, try to regain possession immediately. You don’t expend energy retreating and when you recover possession, you are maybe only 30 yards from their goal.

Rewards and Risks

The rewards from playing high up the pitch are obvious. In order to press effectively, the lines must be tight together in a coherent fashion. It requires the defensive line to be very high. You squeeze your opponent and only technically superior teams will be able to evade a well organised press.

Or teams that play long ball.

Which may present some issues for Southampton given the necessity to play a high line; the abundance of space in behind them for quick forwards to exploit. It requires Boruc or whoever plays in goal for Southampton to operate as a “sweeper keeper” If Southampton don’t press properly it provides the opponent with time and space to pick out a pass that could go long for a willing runner to pursue. Away to Newcastle late on last season is one example of this.  Newcastle are a fairly direct side under Pardew and possess forwards who will work the channels such as Cisse. The Saints faced a side that would go long at every opportunity, working the channels and getting success as a consequence. Would Southampton really play as high and as openly against the likes of Theo Walcott?

Southampton must address this problem to prevent it becoming the ubiquitous tactic to defeat them.

Easy Adaptation?

Upon taking control at Espanyol, Pochettino won just once in his opening nine games for the club as los pericos fell to bottom spot with relegation to la segunda, a very real possibility. Bielsa also experienced similar problems adjusting at Athletic Club, failing to register a win in his opening five league games, the club’s worst start to a league campaign in some thirty years.

The way Southampton appear to have adapted to Pochettino’s methods, although it is still very early days, differs vastly from his initial games at Espanyol. There were, and still are, concerns over a bumpy transition as the side adapt to the Argentinean’s preferred style but thus far, things are probably going as well as could be expected.

Given the performances of the team during this transitional phase, it inevitably begs the question of whether the demands of Pochettino are more compatible with the style of play within the British Isles. Whilst the technical requirements may be beyond that which have been demanded from the Southampton players to date, an emphasis upon quick one touch passing, the physical demands are not that different. Individually, the components are prevalent in British football, the pressing and the offside line. The difference is the coherent fashion which Pochettino demands. Frequently, we see un-coordinated pressing from a team with strikers closing down opposition defenders but the midfield has dropped off. The aim of Pochettino at Southampton is for the team to work as one coherent unit.

Could this be the reason for the smooth adaptation? Are British players more suited to the style Pochettino demands? If so, why did Andre Villa-Boas struggle so badly at Chelsea? Villa-Boas utilises a different formation but there are broad similarities; the pressing, the high line, the direct style of play.

There are many factors to consider. Pochettino has a dressing room with a number of young players who he can shape and mould similar to Bielsa with both Chile and Athletic Club.

The Future

Pochettino has found himself in the unusual position of having cash to spend to improve the team during the close season. A novel experience for a man used to watching assets departing Espanyol to be increasingly replaced with youth team players or veterans on free transfers. He has stated that he would not raid his former club and has thus far remained true to his word. The speculation surrounding a possible move for Verdu was just that; speculation.  Forays into the Spanish market seemed likely but thus far the two purchases have arrived via Lyon (Dejan Lovren) and Celtic (Victor Wanyama).

Both fit the Pochettino prototype. Young, hungry and crucially, easy to mould and adapt to the system that is being utilised. Both also arrive with hefty price tags for a club of Southampton’s stature at £8.5m and £12.5m respectively. A considerable outlay.

Having avoided relegation, the focus will shift towards securing a higher finishing position as the club look to progress. Despite the good start to his career on the South coast, expect blips as the season progresses. With such demanding tactics both physically and mentally, with the rewards come the risks and a few heavy defeats are not out of the equation.

They survived the drop, and just as he expects his teams to do, Pochettino will keep pressing forward at Southampton.

Barcelona vs AC Milan – Answers, answers, answers

Barcelona create history by overturning a 2-0 deficit from the first leg and, in doing so, handed Milan one of their heaviest ever defeats in European competition.

The first leg at the San Siro had witnessed a superb Milan performance epitomised by defensive discipline and control complemented by a willingness to alter their defensive line during the course of the game to support the attack when possible. A review of the first game can be found here

It seemed certain that Milan would seek to replicate that performance as far as possible. The question revolved around Barcelona and their inability in recent games to move beyond sterile domination of the midfield area with a lack of movement and options in the final third.

Last night saw a return to the kind of game which Barcelona produced during the Guardiola era and which they have done so sporadically this season. It’s not a style of play they have ever abandoned but they have become lackadaisical with specific facets of it most notably the aggressive pressing and off the ball movement. By doing so they also demonstrated the fallacy of the overly discussed Plan B approach particularly when the implementation of Plan A is this good.

 

Barcelona Set Up

On paper what appeared to be the customary 4-3-3 was in fact considerably different in application:-

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Firstly, the defence composed Pique, Mascherano and Alba with the left back playing a much more conservative role but not quite the left sided centre back in a trio. Pique was the furthest to the right leaving Alves to start high on the right and operate that entire side alone.

Pedro stayed high on the left providing the width and enabling Alba to remain deep. With Cesc on the bench, Iniesta was able to perform his favoured central midfield role but he offered so much more. This was arguably one of his best defensive performances despite being so advanced.

The positioning of Messi and Villa was central to the game. This diagram from whoscored.com shows their positions being virtually the same. Villa was operating as a no9 with Messi occupying the space directly behind him as a no10. With Villa positioned between Mexes and Zapata, neither defender could step out to close Messi down for fear of leaving Villa in space.  Milan’s ability to crowd out Messi with defenders and midfielders form the first leg was subsequently reduced. El Guaje justified his selection with the pivotal third goal combined with a performance of chasing opponents and opening up space with darting runs for team mates.

 

Milan – Right then Wrong?

From the Milan perspective, the area to be addressed is the starting positions as detailed in the graphic below:-

AC Milan Starting Line Up

AC Milan Starting Line Up

Did Allegri set the side out to defend as deep as they did or were they simply pushed back by the ferocity of Barcelona in the opening period? Allegri and Milan had decided an effective strategy for defeating Barcelona in the first leg. Did Allegri really choose to abandon this with a conservative approach, inviting trouble from the beginning? Or were Barcelona more adventurous and more like the side of a few season ago?

I doubt he wanted to be so deep but for the first twenty minutes of the game, his side were encamped around their penalty area, pushed back by Barcelona attacks built upon fast passing, movement and an eagerness to retrieve possession.  Milan were left to hang onto the game especially after the concession of the opening goal after four minutes.

The graphic below details where Milan were making interceptions last night:-

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Compare the position of the interceptions last night with how Milan defended in the first game as shown here

Barcelona were getting further upfield before Milan were intercepting. They were also able to hit a number of long range efforts as there was space between the lines. Ambrosini, so instrumental in the first leg, was ineffective in a constructive sense completing just 14 from 25 passes attempted whilst defensively he made only one successful tackle from four attempted. The midfield general was robbed of the ball for Iniesta midway inside his own half which led to the second goal by Messi. This is not an attack on Ambrosini just one of the clearest examples of how a player who was pivotal in the first leg was now slept away with his side.

The defence was deeper aware of Villa positioning, Barcelona were moving quicker and circulating the ball faster leaving Milan to chase shadows.

For all of their problems, Milan settled after around 20 minutes and began to offer something better in attack as Barcelona eased off form their initial press. Overall, Milan also proved that Barcelona still have issues to address. Despite having just two shots on target from their ten attempts at goal, eight of these were from inside the penalty area. Milan had opportunities not least the effort from Niang which struck the post.

This Barcelona side still provide you with hope.

Jordi Roura was clear in his understanding of the game:-

“but I would not talk about things that Milan did wrong; I would talk about the attitude of Barcelona, about how they pressured and worked. They made it look like Milan did things wrong but it was more that we did things right”

What Barcelona did right were the basic elements that’s made them so successful. They press you high quickly up the park to win back position and offer off the ball movement for team mates combined with recycling the ball at high speed.

 

Barcelona Positioning – Busquets

The revised formation from Barcelona was central to creating space with the play of Sergio Busquets instrumental. This was possibly the most advanced positional performance from a defensive midfielder you will see.

The heat map below shows Busquets positioning during the game:-

Busquets Heat Map

Busquets Heat Map

Nominally the deepest midfielder, Busquets was aggressive in his play last night stepping forward to defend high up the pitch. In doing so, he prevented Milan from even constructing attacks as he swept up behind Xavi and Iniesta whilst also launching a number of attacks.

Busquets completed 103 passes from 112 attempted, the bulk of which were in the Milan half of the pitch. His ability to play first time vertical passes presented a constant problem even if they did not always hit their target. That Pedro and Villa were such willing runners offered an additional threat to Milan, stretching the defence behind the midfield and creating the opportunities for Busquets to pass. The off the ball movement was another ingredient that has been missing in recent months.

Busquets also completed his defensive responsibilities well. He completed three tackles from three attempted including two on the right hand side covering for Dani Alves and made two interceptions both in the Milan half of the pitch.

 

Barcelona Press High

The second element in Barcelona’s play was the intensity shown in pressing and tackling their opponents. The location of their interceptions is shown below:-

FCB Interceptions

FCB Interceptions

Niang commented afterwards:-

“Barça were impressive. It was as if they were playing with 22 players. In first half, we were running around like madmen”

The Blaugrana began to exert significant pressure on their opponents high up the pitch. Pedro, so often the player who sets the tempo, chased and harried and was joined by team mates. The weakness of the defence was under less scrutiny as Milan were unable to build any attacks without being pressed.

The interceptions were aided by tackling:-

FCB Tackles

FCB Tackles

Barcelona were tackling higher too.  Ten of their successful tackles were in the Milan half of the pitch. The Rossonieri were being suffocated in the opening stages of the game.

Sometimes it’s easy to forgot just how much of the less glamourous side of the game certain footballers perform. Such as Andres Iniesta. The little creative midfielder made five successful tackles, the joint highest along with Mascherano of anyone on the pitch. His tackle on Ambrosini led to the second goal and his controlled pas to Xavi helped set up the third for Villa. People will recall his deft flicks or little passes but his team mates will remember his graft and determination allied to his undoubted intelligence to draw the Milan defence forward before attacking them.

 

Lower Tempo & Milan Higher

When the tempo inevitably dropped with pressing less intensive and movement off the ball falling, Milan were able to begin passing and move higher upfield. The problems reappeared for Barcelona offering optimism for Milan. Only a superb block by Jordi Alba prevented Robinho for scoring the elusive away goal for Milan which would surely have sent the Rossonieri through.

The side became static again, understandable to a degree given their huge effort early in the game. It’s a part of their game that should improve as they reach their peak physical condition as April approaches.

Jordi Roura

The game was also important in the development of Jordi Roura. Thrown into a job that he neither wanted or is seemingly enjoying, he has often displayed the look of a frustrated man, unable to make the necessary changes from the sidelines. Last night saw a change. The withdrawal of Pedro for Adriano recognised the increased threat of Abate on the Barcelona left. The introduction of the Brazilian strengthened that area and enabled Alba to push forward in the knowledge that Adriano could defend behind him.

Likewise, the withdrawal of a tiring Villa to be replaced by Sanchez offered vitality to the attack but also covering pace for the defensive phase too, aiding Alves on the right.

Conclusions

Reports of the demise of Barcelona have been greatly exaggerated. Or have they?

There can be no doubt that many of the qualities which made Barcelona such a dominant force over the past five seasons were in evidence last night. Equally, some of the negative traits that have weakened the side particularly during the last month or so were also visible.

The challenge facing Roura and Vilanova upon his return is to maintain the level of intensity shown by the side last night whilst also ensuring the players return to peak physical condition. This also means rotation in league games. Xavi must be rested and Puyol needs to be nursed to full fitness.

This is just one hurdle overcome. To successfully reclaim the Champions League there are other opponents who can ask similar demanding questions of Barcelona including a Madrid side focused entirely upon their main objective.

Last night the standard was set once more. Maintaining it again is the hard part.

Athletic Bilbao vs Malaga

A fairly tight game ended in a 0-0 draw at the San Mames. Neither side offered much in an attacking sense.Coming off the back of a superb home victory in the Champions League, Pellegrini is likely to be the happier manager with a point which maintains their unbeaten start to the season. Malaga set out with a fairly conservative approach with Toulalan and Camacho deep in midfield shielding the defence.

Malaga Defence

For the sixth time in eight games this season, Malaga have prevented their opponents from scoring. Their defensive solidity requires considerable work on the training ground and it’s an asset of a Pellegrini team that is often overlooked. Teams under the leadership of Manuel Pellegrini are often noted for their short, sharp passing as they control the centre of the pitch.A frugal defence is not high on many people’s perceptions.

In the defensive phase of the game, the team is extremely well organised and hold a line along the edge of the penalty box as can be seen below.

Malaga Defensive Line – De Marcos breaks through

This is the exact same defensive set up that Pellegrini perfected at Villarreal with the likes of Javi Venta, Capdevila, Godin and Gonzalo all holding the offside line at the edge of the penalty area.

Athletic were caught offside on seven occasions during the game.

On the few occasions when Athletic managed to break through the offside line, opportunities arose such as the one pictured above for Oscar De Marcos.

These scenarios arose infrequently however as Athletic failed to offer the same level of dynamism and mobility that they did last season in attack. Too often the players were disconnected and isolated with combination plays few and far between.

The loss through injury of Aurtenexte has severely impacted upon the attacking threat from the left side of the Athletic team particularly as Muniain moves to a central position. On the right side, the marauding Iraola appears to be slightly deeper. As the gaps between the players becomes longer, passing becomes more difficult and the opposition are able to intercept the ball more easily as the graphic below illustrates:-

Malaga Interceptions vs Athletic                                              http://www.squawka.com

Again, this reinforces the strong defensive set up that Malaga have. They avoided diving into tackles around their own penalty area with Monreal particularly impressive, making six interceptions and two tackles during the game all of which occurred in the left back area.

Athletic Set Up

There appears to be some slight changes in the Athletic set up from last season as alluded to above. The biggest issue though is undoubtedly the lower intensity of the team. The success of Athletic last season was the sheer relentless nature of their high pressing and the quick tempo of their short passing game as they swarmed over their opponents. That seems to be lacking now. They still chase and press their opponents but it’s easier for opponents to break through the man marking system which Athletic employ. Opponents get slightly longer in possession before they are closed down allowing them to turn, to pick out a pass. For the system to remain effective,pressing high up the pitch must be quick. As soon as an opponent has time to evade that initial press, Athletic are vulnerable in defence.

Despite dominating possession, Athletic were unable to create many clear cut chances. One problem which they encountered was building the play from the back as they prefer to do. The veteran midfielder Gurpegi is used in the centre of defence, a replacement for Javi Martinez but he lacks the passing range of his predecessor. Similarly, despite his limited mobility, Amorebieta also offers a wide range of passing which neither San Jose or Ekiza can provide.

The midfield trio of Iturrapse, De Marcos and Muniain did not offer the right blend in this game. Muniain was positioned to far forward in the first half and De Marcos is a midfield runner. There was nobody in the centre of the pitch to build and cajole the play. The creativity of Herrara was sorely missed. As a consequence, Athletic began going longer and became more direct.

This led to Aduriz contributing virtually nothing in the game:-

Aduriz passes vs Malaga                                                           http://www.squawka.com

Aduriz moved deeper to become involved in the game but with limited service and players too far away, there was little chance of linking and developing play.

Aduriz was withdrawn at half time and replaced by Llorente.

Llorente -To play or not to play?

For the second game in a row, Llorente joined the action from the substitutes bench. Last week against Espanyol, his impact was immediate as he scored with his first touch. Here, he offered little as Athletic struggled to gain any fluency to their play and offered him little service.

With a more direct approach, Athletic should have been able to knock balls towards Llorente which he holds up and brings others into play but he suffered the same problem as Aduriz:-

Llorente vs Malaga                                                                        http://www.squawka.com

Malaga refused to let Athletic push them deeper, maintaining the high line. This should have meant it was easier for Athletic to pass but their lack of a creative outlet centrally stymied them.

Athletic are now stuck with a problem. If Llorente retains his wish to leave, Athletic will need to offload in January to try and recoup some sort of fee for him. In the interim, what does Bielsa do? Does he try and get the last couple of months from Llorente or does Aduriz, his successor, stay in the team as first choice striker?

Llorente is clearly the better player but will he behave in a professional fashion or will his mind wander to pastures new whilst he sees out his time in Bilbao?

Bielsa has decisions to make ahead of the Basque derby next weekend.

Press, Press and More Pressing

A great game of football with Athletic running out 3-2 winners, a scoreline that arguably flatters Man Utd given the overall balance of play. After the initial stutter under Bielsa early on in the season, Athletic have gradually adapted to his methods demonstrated by the current run of just 3 defeats in the last 21 games in all competitions.

The performance against Man Utd was arguably their best under Bielsa, drawing the various strands of his game together and executing them brilliantly.

Line Ups

Athletic lined up in their variation of the 4-1-2-3 formation against Manchester Utd. With Amorebieta suspended, there was no real decision to be made for Bielsa and he went with his strongest line up.

The Starting Line Ups

 

Ferguson had stated prior to the game how Man Utd needed to improve in the Europa League and how an experienced team would be fielded against Athletic.

Man Utd lined up in a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 formation.

Ferguson does not like to pair two similar players in midfield i.e. Carrick and Giggs or Anderson and Fletcher due to it making Man Utd lack mobility in the former or creativity in the latter.

The pairing of Giggs and Jones was designed to pair a passer with a runner. Man Utd had gone with a central midfield pairing of Carrick and Giggs against Newcastle and fell victim to a high press with neither Giggs or Carrick offering enough mobility in midfield.

First Half

Athletic started with their usual aggressive high pressing. Llorente aimed to press the centre backs whilst Evra and Rafael were closed down by Muniain and Susaeta when they moved forward.

Man Utd made a number of misplaced passes, some of which were due to sloppy play whilst others were forced from Athletic’s intensive pressing.

With Rooney behind Hernandez and Iturraspe the deepest of the Athletic midfielders, Rooney should have pressed him more during the game but failed to do so, in a similar fashion to how Rooney failed to press Busquets in the Champions League Final last season. This allowed Iturraspe to collect the ball and begin constructing moves, linking with Herrara in the centre of the pitch.

Athletic were content to play slow patient passing in their own half of the pitch before accelerating the speed of the play as they approached the Man Utd penalty area with Llorente used as a focal point, laying off the ball to De Marcos, Muniain and Susaeta as they moved forward at pace. They looked for quick 1-2’s and runners breaking in behind the defence which they repeatedly did on the right flank.

Jones often tried to break forward for Man Utd in the midfield but arguably the lack of discipline shown here contributed to Muniain having space to move infield from the left and attack the centre of the pitch. Giggs is no defensive midfielder and lacks mobility now. Jones should have stayed deep and offered protection to the defence.

Evra Attacked?

Athletic frequently overloaded the right wing in the first half. Was this a conscious decision to attack Evra? With Park naturally tucking in, it left Evra exposed to attacks from Iraola, Susaeta and De Marcos.

Indeed, on two occasions, Muniain also drifted to the right wing, swamping Man Utd in this area.

A number of long passed were hit between Evra and Evans in the first half with Susaeta or Iraola overlapping as the intended recipients potentially looking to expose positional flaws in Evra’s game.

Susaeta exposed the space between Evans and Evra for his lobbed chance in the latter part of the first half.

Athletic’s equalizer came from a ball to the right with Evra and Park tucking in, allowing Susaeta time to deliver the cross for Llorente to head in. Jones who was challenging Llorente on the edge of the penalty area failed to track his run.

Second Half

Man Utd attempted to press quicker and higher up early in the second half and Rooney appeared to be positioned further upfield but it was not a coherent press.

Giggs is too old in central midfield to press which led to an undisciplined, slightly half hearted press which Athletic were able to pass around. The general picture of the first half was replicated early in the second half.

Muniain forced a good save from De Gea in 49th minute but he was allowed far too much time to take his shot. Again, Jones was positioned in a line with the centre backs here but surely he should have been challenging Muniain and positioned in front of the centre backs?

The lack of pressure was apparent for De Marcos scoring. Herrara had time and space to lift the ball over the defence for De Marcos (in an offside position) to run onto and score.

The final Athletic goal was a compilation of defensive errors.

Firstly, Evans and Jones failed to communicate and challenged for the same ball, secondly, De Marcos managed to beat a fresh Anderson to the loose ball and get his shot at goal and finally, Rafael stood and watched as Muniain made up a gap of 15 yards to beat De Gea to the rebound.

Man Utd though had several chances in the second half mostly all on the counter attack.

For all their attacking intent, Bielsa teams are still prone to being exploited on the counter and were fortunate that the referee was quite lenient in the game with a few cynical fouls by Athletic to break up Man Utd counters.

It should come as no surprise that, although Athletic dominated possession, they also committed more fouls, 16 to Man Utd’s 11.

Substitutions

Man Utd made three second half substitutions, none of which had any impact upon the general direction of the game but each forced a reshuffle on the pitch.

Smalling was replaced by Carrick following his head knock early in the second half. Jones replaced Smalling in central defence and Carrick added a bit more composure to the Man Utd midfield. However, with two passers side by side, Carrick and Giggs, Man Utd were going to continue to struggle even against an Athletic side which was beginning to tire slightly.

In the 60th minute, Park was taken off and replaced by Anderson. Surprisingly, Rooney appeared to go wide left for a spell with Giggs behind Hernandez.

Was Rooney pushed wide left to assist Evra deal with Iraola etc attacking? Rooney was the deepest Man Utd player in the 65th minute as he cleared the ball from the corner flag.

In the 74th minute Giggs was replaced by Nani. Ashley Young moved to the left wing and Nani went onto the right wing with Rooney moved back into a central area.

Two subs for Athletic late on for straight replacements. Torquero for Llorente and Inigo Perez for Herrara. Torquero continued the aggressive pressing whilst Perez had no opportunity for any real impact.

Conclusions

A nearly flawless game from Athletic although they do still leave large gaps at the back for teams to exploit on the counter. They dominated possession and had more shots on and off target than Man Utd.

Questions remain though. Can such a small squad maintain such a high energy approach for the remainder of the season? With Osasuna at the weekend before facing Man Utd again, will their league form falter? How can they improve defensively without sacrificing any of their attacking intent?

From Man Utd’s perspective, they knew what Athletic would do and how they would approach the game yet they failed to respond.

The implementation of the 4-4-2ish system was wrong. Rooney did not press, Hernandez looked short on confidence when he had the ball and the team in general appeared laboured and slow.

The inclusion of Hernandez, who has fallen behind Wellbeck in recent times, was probably due to his pace with the aim being to exploit the high line which Athletic use. It was a tactic which failed as Hernandez was unable to exploit the space behind Athletic as Man Utd passed too slowly and were not direct enough.

The space against Athletic is behind the full backs. Iraola and Aurtenexte push high upfield and Martinez and Amorebieta or San Jose are not comfortable being pulled wide. Space can also be found in the midfield, with a noticeable gap between Iturraspe and the pairing of De Marcos and Herrera.

The constant reshuffling by Man Utd that took place between the 60th minute and 74th minute looked desperate as Man Utd searched for a solution.

Guardiola commented previously on the relentless pressing by Athletic. Perhaps Man Utd were caught out by the sheer intensity of their pressing and the high tempo which occurred for the duration of the game.

In my view, they should have known how Athletic would play in advance. The line up and tactics were in no way surprising.