Week 8 Observations

Some thoughts from week 8 of La Liga.

Whatever Happened to La Real?

The side that played with such verve and guile last season finds itself languishing in 15th position. The opening day victory over Getafe must seem like a long time ago. The home and away wins over Lyon in the Champions League that offered such cautious optimism for the European Campaign ahead must seem like a false dawn now with defeats from Shakhtar and Leverkusen leaving La Real at the bottom of their group.

Just four goals have been scored in the seven league games since defeating Getafe yet, excluding the four goals conceded against Barcelona in a heavy defeat, La Real have conceded only 5 goals in the other 6 league fixtures. The Basques are falling on the wrong side of fine margins.

La Real average 13 shots at goal per game but are conceding almost 14 per game. It’s only a small change from last season where they averaged 1.7 shots per game more and conceded 0.5 shots per game less. The side are playing well at times but they are too open. A slight deviation from last season’s formation has seen the side open up but the attacking talent on offer is not performing as well as they did last season. Vela struggles for goals and Griezmann only opened his league account against Sevilla last week.

Further back the loss of Illarramendi has affected the balance in midfield and new coach Arrasate has not yet addressed that issue. Do Sociedad become more adventurous or retain the more cautious style that has taken them this far?

It’s only October and Sociedad languished in 13th position at the International break last season with 3 home wins and 4 away defeats. Montannier then oversaw a fantastic run of form to propel them to the Champions League. La Real won’t struggle in the bottom half of the table and they will improve. Just don’t expect another run of form like last season.

A Triumph of the Individual over the Collective

And that neatly summarises the season thus far for Real Madrid. We all knew Ancelotti had significant work on his hands when he took the reins in the summer but the extent of the job is only now becoming completely apparent.

Ignore the late comeback against Levante. It’s simply placing some wallpaper over a large crack. Real Madrid will always have more talented players than a club like Levante. The teams are operating in a different league financially and that gulf in resources is transferred onto the pitch. That three points were gained is arguably the only positive from the game. What occurred on Saturday night was one side playing to their maximum as a team unit whilst the opposition struggled to perform and have any clear identity of what they were actually trying to achieve. Madrid was reliant upon individual moments to drag the team across the finish line.

How does Ancelotti deal with this?

The Italian has always been able to squeeze talented players into the starting eleven throughout his career. The problem at Madrid is two fold; the change in system and the skill sets of the players at his disposal. Can Madrid really change from a counter attacking side to one that builds and retains possession? How does he get players to complement each other? How can he squeeze Ronaldo and Bale into the team without both simply wanting to run with the ball into space? Maybe he already has the solution to both problems even if Xabi Alonso is still on the injury list.

This could be Ancelotti’s biggest challenge.

The Race for 4th

Did anyone see Villarreal beginning the season this well? Returning to the top flight after a one season absence, Marcelinho has the side playing a fluent brand of football that is almost synonymous with the yellow submarine. With a few slight differences.

This side are now a counter attacking team. A team that is content to allow the opponent to come forward before striking. The submarine average 46% possession per game as the opponent probes away before the submarine attacks with pace and mobility in wide forward areas with willing runners from the second line of attack. The middle of the park is ably marshalled by Bruno and Cani.

A trip to Bilbao and a home game against Valencia will test the character of the side later this month. Come through both unscathed and maybe people will seriously consider Villarreal as challengers for a European position.

Their opponents later this month, Athletic and Valencia, played out an average 1-1 draw at the new San Mames. The endeavour on display outweighed the quality significantly.  Meanwhile, Sevilla actually won a game and reclaimed some ground on most teams above. As Emery chops and changes his side, an element of consistency of selection has to emerge over the coming weeks. With a further two winnable games coming up against Valladolid and Osasuna, sides likely to be facing relegation battles later in the season, Emery and his side must take full advantage. The narrow and somewhat fortuitous home win over Almeria courtesy of a 92nd minute goal from Rakitic secured the first 3points of the month. The Croatian must be played further forward. His creativity is wasted in a deep lying role. A further minimum of 6 points needs to be gathered this month to drag Sevilla back into the race for 4th position.

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Atleti vs Rayo – Atleti Strong but Rayo Weak.

Atleti continue their very impressive start to the season with a resounding home win over a poor Rayo Vallecano. The game in some respects went entirely according to plan. Rayo tried to impose themselves on their hosts and played a very open and attack minded game and went consequently ripped to shreds by an Atleti side who are one of the most lethal counter attacking sides at the moment.

Line Ups

Simeone made a couple of changes from the team that had drawn 1-1 with Barcelona in midweek.
Raul Garcia and Tiago came into the side with Mario and Koke dropping to the bench.
Atleti vs Rayo Starting Line Ups

Atleti vs Rayo Starting Line Ups

Paco Jemez named a starting eleven which had changed considerably since last season with players such as Leo and Piti having left the club. Saul on loan from Atleti, started the game in midfield for Rayo with former Atleti player Perea in attack.

One Way Traffic

Atleti only had 44% possession in this game, completing 269 passes from 362 attempted. Would that concern Simeone? No, not at all. The objective from Simeone is to achieve something when his side have possession. To have a goal in mind and not simply have the ball and recycle possession. It has led to an Atleti side that counter superbly well with swift, incisive passing that cuts the opponent open. It has also led to an Atleti that can toil against a low block.
Filipe Luis was very noticeable pushing high on the left aided by Perea moving infield. The full back was able to support attacks and repeatedly found space.
The most notable feature from a Rayo perspective was the squashed nature of their side in the midfield area with almost no influence whatsoever on the right flank with Perea very narrow and exerting no influence over the game. Rayo maintained their passing philosophy throughout as they enjoyed more possession and completed 399 passes from 489 attempted even if this approach indirectly led to the final Atleti goal when Rayo refused to clear their lines despite ample opportunity to do so:-
Atleti vs Rayo Player Influence

Atleti vs Rayo Player Influence

The Naivety of Paco Jemez?

Paco Jemez is known for sticking to his footballing beliefs and not altering his view. Perhaps his most famous quote recently referred to Celtic’s ultra defensive performance against Barcelona when they lost 2-1. Rayo attacked Barcelona and lost 5-0:-
“I could play like Celtic did, but I would drop my head in shame when I looked in the eyes of our fans.”
Jemez remains true to his beliefs. Is this an act of folly or the act of a principled man? Whatever way you consider it, his game plan needs to be executed properly if it has any hope of working correctly. The key aspect of a high offside line is pressure on your opponent in their own half but Rayo simply didn’t press well enough. What emerged was a gap between the front half of the team pressing ineffectively and the defence positioned close to the halfway line. Rayo looked slow and unable to compete. That is more concerning than the failure of the offside trap.
The graphic below from the 36 minute shows the Rayo defensive line completely disjointed yet managing to catch Atleti offside just inside their own half :-
Rayo Offside Line

Rayo Offside Line

Atleti were caught offside on 14 separate occasions in the game yet just as often they broke through Rayo’s shambolic offside trap.
The high line cannot explain the terrible defending that enabled Raul Garcia to have a free header after 17 minutes to open the scoring or Diego Costa to arrive at the back post a few minutes later and score the second from a cut back by Arda.
The prowess of Atleti on the counter is well known as is the problems that Atleti can encounter when teams use a low block against them. Yet Jemez opted to continue with his high risk strategy and push men forward even though Atleti would provide a stern test of Rayo’s defensive capabilities on transitions. A Rayo defence substantially different from last season. Cassado, Amat and Figueras have all departed. The defence is new.
Given the manner in which Rayo play, there will always be a need for an adaptation phase. Rayo encountered similar defensive frailties last season before tightening up. These issues should be resolved but you can’t help feel that the overall drop in quality will play a role too. Until that adaptation phase has proven successful, should a more conservative approach be utilised?

What Jemez cannot do, however, is legislate for the poor passing of his side coupled with a lack of aggression in their play. Rayo were meek in their defeat. That is unacceptable as Jemez admitted post match. At the very least, Rayo must compete.

Rayo Attack

If Rayo were extremely poor defensively, they were just as bad offensively. They didn’t manage to register a shot on target until the 84th minute of the game. Apart from two off targets efforts from inside the penalty area, the remaining five shots from Rayo were all from outside the penalty area which neatly sums up their game. Rayo build from the back with short passing but they quickly ran out of idea as they approached the Atleti penalty area:-
Atleti vs Rayo Shots

Atleti vs Rayo Shots

When attacks broke down, Atleti countered swiftly and efficiently with Rayo struggling to regain shape in the transitional phase having committed so many men forward. Arda Turan’s goal was the perfect example. Miranda intercepted a loose ball on the edge of the Atleti penalty area and 14 seconds later Arda scored. Swift and merciless. Atleti had 14 attempts at goal with just five on target but all five resulted in goals.
Normally the central area of the pitch would have players from both sides but with Atleti letting Rayo come onto them, there was an abundance of space to break into. This substantial gap can be seen in the number of take ons that Atleti successfully undertook in the central area of the pitch as shown in the graphic below:-
Atleti Take Ons

Atleti Take Ons

Arda Turan in particular enjoyed himself immensely with one goal and two assists before Simeone withdrew him to allow rest ahead of the second leg of the Super Cup in midweek. Diego Costa continues to grow as a key player for Atleti too. The discussion around how a post Falcao Atleti would cope seems nonsensical now as the front man continues to deliver goals and performances.
Can Atleti Challenge?
Atleti secure 3 league wins in a row for the first time since last November. The professional manner of the victory will please Simeone. It would have been easy to reduce the intensity of their play and coast to a comfortable win but Atleti continued pushing for the full 90 minutes with Villa in particular, desperate to score.
It’s still far too early to say with any conviction but this Atleti side look as if they can again push the big two close this season. For the sake of competition within La Liga, hopefully they will.

For Rayo, Jemez knows the areas he needs to improve upon. Whether the players are of sufficient quality to undertake these improvements is another issue. He won’t change his ways which means the players will be in for a steep learning curve. Until they come to terms with what is required, expect some high scorelines in Rayo games. The team with the smallest budget in the league will continue to provide entertainment for their own fans and others.

Real Madrid vs Rayo Vallecano – Perfect or Perfunctory?

Following their midweek exertions in the Champions League, Madrid returned to domestic duty with a derby against Rayo Vallecano. Madrid entered this game confident of victory as you would expect when they play at home with comfortable home wins over Rayo in  each of their last five meetings with 19 goals being scored in their favour.

Arbeloa, Higuain and Modric were all suspended for this game but Mourinho was still able to surprise people with his line up. Morata began the game for his first league start with Benzema on the substitutes bench, where he would remain for the entire game.

Six wins in their last eight league games had catapulted Rayo into contention for a European slot. Paco Jemez had no injury or suspension issues for his squad ahead of this game, the most pressing concern being his own suspension following his expulsion in last weekend’s 2-1 home win over Atleti. There was one change for the game with Jordi Amat being replaced by Figeuras in central defence

The Game

Depending upon your viewpoint, this was either a perfunctory win for Madrid or a perfect win given the prevailing circumstances such as injuries and suspensions. This game was much easier for Madrid than perhaps anticipated and even the dismissal of Sergio Ramos did not distract los blancos from the task in hand.

A night of mixed emotion for Sergio Ramos. The defender was making his 250th La Liga appearance, scored a goal and collected the 16th red card of his career. There was something inevitable about the red card after Ramos was harshly cautioned for an innocuous foul on the halfway line in the 16th minute. Following his complaints, he attempted to block a cross from Rayo and with the ball striking his hand, he collected his second caution in just one minute.

The red card saw Madrid revert to a 4-4-1 for much of the game and drop deep, allowing Rayo to dominate possession but ultimately create few meaningful chances

Kaka delivered another good performance in only his third La Liga start of the season. Again, his willingness to help out defensively was a bonus for Madrid as he won the ball for the opening goal before releasing Ozil on a diagonal run to cut back for Morata to open the scoring.

The Madrid Midfield – Who Takes Control?

Even prior to the dismissal of Ramos and the reduction of Madrid to 10 men, there was legitimate concern over how the midfield would function. With Essien and Khedira as the central pair and Kaka ahead of them, who would assist Madrid with the construction of play and retain possession?

Or does that matter for the best counter attacking team in the world?

Madrid completed 163 passes from just 227 attempts translating to 40% possession against a Rayo team comfortable on the ball but lacking penetration when they entered the final third. Madrid were never exposed in this game as Rayo offered little to trouble their defence or Diego Lopez in goal therefore should the inability to retain possession be a concern for Madrid or should the result be all that matters here?

As ever, Madrid looked extremely dangerous during transitions but against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and then Man Utd in the Champions League, adopting a similar position will not be sufficient as Madrid need to at least score in both games. If Man Utd were to consider a defensive position such as that adopted during the second half at the Bernabeu, Madrid could find their dream of la decima ending abruptly.

It’s a difficult balancing act over the next few games prior to Man Utd. Alonso must be handled carefully to recuperate from his niggling injury whilst Modric need further game time to bed down at Madrid but with a double header against Barcelona on the horizon, what are the solutions?

Would Mourinho rest players for the league match given the circumstances to ensure that players are fresh for the two games that really matter?

Rayo – Dare to Believe?

Faced with playing 10 men for 73 minutes and with those 10 men falling back into a 4-4-1 formation with two deep banks of four, Rayo should have offered something better in attack. In some situations though, it’s not a lack of technical quality which can adversely affect a team. It’s a lack of belief. Too few Rayo players believed that they could get something from the game even though they trailed 2-0 at this point. It’s a significant departure from their performance at home last week against Atleti when they seized control of the game.

Baptistao was unable to become involved in the game sufficiently leaving “Chori” Dominguez with the bulk of attacking duties. The Argentinean is on a season loan from Valencia and performed well with two efforts had goal although he should have produced something better with his first attempt which went narrowly wide.

The graphic below highlights Rayo’s failings. Too little activity within the Madrid penalty area:-

Rayo Vallecano Heat Map

Rayo Vallecano Heat Map                          http://www.squawka.com

Paco Jemez acknowledged his side’s failings:-

“I’m not leaving here happy. We should have been able to cause their ten men more problems. We lacked something in the final third.”

Were Rayo so preoccupied with avoiding the concession of goals during transitions that they altered their own set up? Certainly in the first half, they seemed reluctant to produce their normal game.

Conclusions

For Mourinho, it’s another league game out of the way and the Copa del Rey semi final and Champions League are a step closer.

The red card for Ramos may present problems in the league  but a suspension should ensure he remains fresh for the game at Old Trafford, the key game at this point of the season.

A very disappointing performance from Rayo. The red card for Ramos presented an opportunity for Paco Jemez’s men that they never seized. Their away form remains very poor and will probably be the reason that they fail to secure a European berth at the end of the season. It’s now four wins and eight defeats in their twelve away games this season.

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.