Lessons to be Learned?

It’s not like sections of the media to overreact. Is it? Yet that’s precisely what happened recently following events in Brazil. The home side took the Confederations Cup on home soil with as comprehensive a competitive win over the Spanish as there has been for many years. It left del Bosque and La Furia Roja to admit that their period of domination was coming to an end. The Spanish have had a good run. Two European Championships and a World Cup yet the prize upon which you are now seemingly judged, the Confederations Cup, has escaped their clutches twice. Its now back to the drawing board for the Spanish. They must navigate the remainder of their qualifying campaign to claim a place in Brazil next summer but their powers are on the wane already.

Why bother though. The World Cup appears to be a foregone conclusion. Spain won’t win it and it seems a few semi decent performances from Brazil has secured their name upon the trophy. The Seleção have the better of their counterparts. It was a technical and tactical triumph overseen by Scolari.

Wasn’t it?

Brazil Press High And Go Direct

The final against Brazil was notable for two reasons. The style of game that Brazil used against their opponents and the manner in which certain aspects of the Spanish system, whether it be the system itself or components within that system, were problematic.

From the outset of this game, Brazil pressed and harassed Spain high up the pitch in an effort to disrupt their game and prevent them from settling down and finding any rhythm to dictate proceedings. This worked as Spain was slow to move the ball and find space, enabling Brazil to close them down and force misplaced passes.

The question that was apparent from midway through the first half was whether Brazil could sustain the same tempo and level of intensity in their play for the entire game. If the game had been played in the stifling heat and humidity of Fortaleza, this tactic would not have worked. In the cooler, fresher surroundings of Rio, this was an entirely viable tactic.

The pressing succeeded and once Brazil had taken the lead it enabled them to drop deeper on occasion to recover and counter attack Spain. It does highlight the changing face of the Brazilian team at international level. The days of open, flowing football are now long gone. A distant memory consigned to be shown as a montage containing the best World Cup goals ever scored, most probably on BBC3 or ITV2. Primarily a counter attacking team, Brazil struggled to break down opponents who sat deep themselves. Their tactical strategy appears to revolve around getting the ball to Neymar quickly and waiting for something to happen. The midfield lacks creativity and is purely functional, a consequence of the domestic games desire to produce functional defensive midfielders. It wielded a trophy though but Scolari will have taken notice of the stodgy performances that were produced in the process.

For Spain, is the loss important? Yes, if you want to win the Confederations Cup that continues to elude them. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for del Bosque to see what must happen on and off the pitch if Spain is to march to an unprecedented fourth successive international tournament win.

Issues to Confront

This tournament has provided a welcome jolt to remind del Bosque and his players of the challenges that lie ahead in trying to defend their crown in 2014. It’s not just about what happens on the pitch that will decide the World Cup next year but also how you prepare for the tournament itself and how you adapt to the diverse climatic conditions that exist in Brazil.

The tournament will be hosted by a vast country that experiences different conditions dependent upon where you play. The problem for the qualifying sides is the ability to control factors is only partial. Acclimatising to those conditions by arriving early and preparing is within your powers to an extent. Gaining a favourable draw to avoid extensive travelling around the country is not within your powers.

The Spanish must look at the system and the players who are chosen to enable that system to function. Have some vital parts become worn and need replacing?

Does The System Still Work?

Surprisingly, despite the loss to Brazil and the relatively poor performances against Nigeria and Italy, there has been no outbreak of Plan B syndrome in the media. No cries for the ball to be launched high into the air aimlessly. Perhaps after three tournament wins, people are a little more circumspect when considering Spain.

Spain was a little more direct in this tournament. The deployment of a traditional no9 for the games aided this process. Teams have adjusted once more against Spain and now use a mid level block against La Roja in recognition that the sit deep and hope tactic was futile. It provides space behind that Spain can attack but it hinders their build up play in the midfield area. Opponents can close them down quicker in a densely packed area. Spain needed to recycle possession faster and be more direct themselves. Look for the runs in behind the opposing defence but there was a lack of supporting runs from the midfield area during this tournament. The verticality and thrust that was needed never arrived.

There were reasons why it never worked. Fatigue was a constant issue for the side. Only against Uruguay in the opening 45minutes did Spain produce a level of football normally associated with them. Leaving that aside, Spain possesses players with the technical and tactical proficiency to ensure the system is a success.

It needs players to move quickly in midfield, recycling possession. The full backs must push high and offer themselves when the middle of the pitch becomes too congested and the attacking players must be prepared to drive in diagonally between opposing centre backs and full backs to offer the opportunity for through balls. There must be options from the second line of attack. The system is built upon control but that is precisely what Spain lacked. La Roja often looked unsure defensively and opponents able to attack their defence too easily in the central areas. The Spanish possess these qualities but failed to show them.

If the system does work, then it may be the components that need adjusting.

Succession PlanningLife After Xavi

Central to whatever del Bosque chooses will be how Spain adapt to life without Xavi. Its an issue that is vexing Barcelona right now and one to which they appear to have no credible answer.

Xavi is nearing the end of his career and if he continues to play over 60 games per season then the twilight of his career will fade quicker than necessary. Xavi can continue but only if he plays fewer games for club and country. Such a position is only a short-term solution however and Spain must look beyond Xavi and begin the process of reconstructing the midfield. As the lynchpin of the side ages and slows, his passing becomes more horizontal and safer. It lacks penetration and so opponents are safer. The runs into the opposition penalty area decrease. And his ability to track back and share defensive duties pushes his tired limbs too far. Xavi plays within the middle of the pitch. Unable to hurt opponents and unable to stop opponents hurting his team. It leaves Busquets overexposed at one of the pitch and Iniesta lacks someone to share the creative burden for the side. With Alonso to offer greater control, Spain were exposed in the central areas.

Can Xavi stay in the light?

Can Xavi stay in the light?

The maestro needs time to rest and recuperate. If he receives it, he still has a pivotal role to play for club and country. If he doesn’t then it becomes a real dilemma.

Indeed, when you consider that Iniesta is 29 and has suffered numerous injuries, Xabi Alonso is also the wrong side of 30 then Spain really need to find and identify who will step into the void for all three players. It’s not simply a case of saying “look at all the quality players Spain can choose from”. It’s identifying and saying that these are the players who can step up regularly and claim a starting berth.

Spain has extremely talented midfield players within their U21 squad. The next 12 months must see the process of integrating a few of these players into the senior side.

The Future of Spain's Midfield?

The Future of Spain’s Midfield?

The likes of Isco, Thaigo and Illarramendi must be called up to the senior squad and enjoy playing time. It will be difficult but crucial to aid their development and Spain’s during this transitional period.

Loyalty: How Far Should It Go?

How Far? One thing that del Bosque has shown time and time again is his loyalty to the players who have delivered for him previously. It could be suggested that the loyalty is partly a result of Spain lacking credible alternatives in a few key positions. The loyalty to Alvaro Arbeloa and Fernando Torres at both the World Cup and European Championships may be questioned but were there really credible alternatives at the previous tournaments?

Too loyal?

Too loyal?

Who could have replaced Arbeloa at the World Cup? Iraola would have been in the squad were it not for an unfortunate injury whilst Juanfran is more attack minded but lack defensive nous. And does Arbeloa’s more conservative nature not provide greater balance for the team? That was the argument before but the full back offered neither defensive nor attacking qualities in the final. The player’s international career should not hinge upon one poor game but his lack of technical quality on the ball is becoming an issue for Spain on the right. Too much of their thrust comes from the left and the attacking qualities are lop-sided. Is it time to remove Arbeloa from the squad? Azpilicueta is ready and what of Carlos Martinez at Real Sociedad or even Carvejal or Montoya as deputies? The options exist for a more balanced right full back who can attack whilst also providing the defensive solidity required.

At centre back, is it time to remove Raul Albiol from the squad and replace him with Inigo Martinez? The youngster from Sociedad is the future whilst Albiol seldom gets playing time. Make the change now and provide Martinez with 12months to bed in before the World Cup.

Despite the depth of quality within the Spanish ranks, they arguably lack a genuine goalscorer for the No9 jersey. Negredo has had opportunities and now Soldado has been deployed yet neither truly convinces and del Bosque returns to Torres on occasion. Will Torres get playing time at Chelsea under Mourinho?

Morata - A possible solution?

Morata – A possible solution?

Is the time right to experiment with an alternative? Could Morata be granted an opportunity if he secures playing time in Madrid? This may seem ludicrous to suggest that a player with such limited playing exposure at Madrid be given a call up to the senior squad but Morata possesses the qualities that the national side lack in attack. He is very direct and moves immediately towards goal. This vertical nature is what Spain needs allied to his aerial ability. He is not some form of panacea to their attacking problems as such but must be considered a real alternative now.

The Return to Brazil

There are flaws present both within the squad and within the system. To ignore these problems would be foolish but just as foolish would be to overestimate the damage they could cause and pretend they are insurmountable.

Vicente del Bosque cannot afford to be too loyal to some of the players who have brought them this far. All great teams enjoy a period of success before their cycle comes to an end. If Spain wishes to prolong their cycle of dominance, some hard choices face the coach. He must not shirk from these but equally he must not overreact. Addressing such matters will not guarantee success next summer but it will provide Spain with the optimum opportunity to succeed but so many other factors will come into play. The Confederations Cup highlighted just how important location will be in Brazil to avoid extremely hot and humid conditions. Arriving in time and acclimatising as well as can be expected will be important.

In 2009, Spain lost to USA 2-0 in South Africa. The European Champions were humbled and their credentials were questioned. Twelve months later they returned to South Africa and claimed the World Cup.

Would you really bet against lighting striking twice?

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Espanyol vs Barcelona – 100 not out?

Another Catalan derby and another Barcelona victory but this one was different.

Sure, Espanyol have lost to their city rivals before, and by much greater margins, but they have always done so on their own terms. Prepared to have a go at the opposition especially under Pochettino. This was all a little too tame.

Line Ups

Aguirre named his usual starting line up for Espanyol with one slight alteration. The normal 4-2-3-1 was abandoned for something more along with line of a 4-4-1-1 with Verdu playing behind lone striker Sergio Garcia.

Espanyol vs Barcelona Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Barcelona Starting Line Ups

There were a few changes in the Barcelona side with Thiago and Song starting in midfield whilst the forward line was Villa, Fabregas and Sanchez.

The game delivered very little except a comfortable Barcelona victory. Espanyol were too meek against their more illustrious opponents. There was an edge lacking from the home side’s play. The side with the worst disciplinary record in La Liga never showed that aggressive side and when Wakaso did, it was for complaining to the referee resulting in his second caution. From the 38 tackles that Espanyol attempted in the game, 23 of these occurred in the first half. As the game progressed, Espanyol fell off the pace. Barcelona coasted to victory without any requiring to hit a high level of form.

Espanyol Submit

Despite a very bright opening in which the home side pressed and harassed their rivals, Espanyol soon dropped off. In the 2nd minute, Espanyol pushed very high forcing Valdes to kick long from a goal kick. The hosts pushed high as a unit with their midfield four working very hard to close their opponents down and prevent them from having time and space on the ball to build. Despite the tactic showing positive signs, it was not maintained.

The high press never continued. Espanyol dropped off and suffered the consequences with the Blaugrana taking control both in terms of possession and territory. The graphic below shows player influence during the game:-

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Influence

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Influence

Dani Alves is alone on the right side and yet manages to subdue both Capdevila and Wakaso for the majority of the game. This was partly due to Espanyol deliberately conceding space on the flanks to stay narrow and compact centrally. The problem was, the defence and midfield were compact but Verdu and Garcia are left higher up and disconnected. Sergio Garcia is isolated and was left to chase lost causes on a frustrating night for the striker.

The home side moved too deep, too quickly and with nothing to hold on to.

Espanyol Stay Too Deep

This was the  main issue for Espanyol. Moving too deep so early on. Despite losing the opening goal to Alexis Sanchez in the 13th minute, Espanyol never altered this approach. The goal itself owes much to the individual skill and determination of Sanchez. In what has been a very poor season for the forward, his goal in the 13th minute was a timely reminder of what he can produce. Espanyol had an abundance of bodies around the forward yet he still evaded tackles and managed to curl his shot into the far corner.

The graphic below captures how Espanyol were playing by considering their interceptions:-

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Interceptions

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Interceptions

From 20 interceptions, 15 were made in their own half as the side dropped off Barcelona. Beyond that however, 10 interceptions were made in the congested central area some 25 yards from goal where Espanyol were packing bodies. The side remained defensive. Barcelona had space on the flanks from where Sanchez instigated and scored the opening goal.

It does lead to questions. Espanyol are safe from relegation but kept a disciplined, conservative approach throughout. Should they have offered more? Should Aguirre have let the side open up? It may have led to a defeat but at least it would have been a defeat on their own terms as opposed to a defeat from a Barcelona side that bossed the game and were seldom placed upon any great pressure. At the very least, the side should have pushed higher up the pitch to offer support to Verdu and Garcia but they never did.

The Heir to Xavi?

The game provided Thiago Alcantara with a rare starting appearance with Xavi on the bench. As the lynchpin of the Barcelona side gets older and as injuries take their toll, Thiago should see more game time to both aid his development and offer Xavi suitable recuperation time.

It has not always been like that this season. Xavi has played too often, to both his detriment and that of Thiago to the extent whereby there are now transfers rumours linking the young midfielder with a move elsewhere. Patience, it seems, is not his greatest quality.

The graphic below shows Thaigo’s passes during the game:-

Thiago Passes

Thiago Passes

Let’s be clear from the outset, Thiago is not a natural replacement for Xavi. The young midfielder brings different qualities to the game. More prepared to attack opponents with surging runs forward, he offers a greater vertical threat and less overall game control than Xavi.

There is still a slackness to his play at time though. A general lackadaisical attitude when making some passes in non-dangerous areas of the pitch. When you enter the final third, passes will always go astray but in safe areas, this issue must be worked upon. This can be seen with the location of misplaced passes detailed above.

The Final Game

The dream, however far fetched it may have seemed given their early season predicament, of European football has ended for Espanyol. In truth, their recent form suggest that once los pericos were safe from relegation, the players switched off. Four defeats and just one draw in their last five games provides evidence of that. The exertions of avoiding relegation appearing to have taken their toll on the side.

For Barcelona, there is one game left at home to Malaga in what is likely to be Pellegrini’s final game in charge. Win and Barcelona reach 100 points in a season, breaking their own club record of 99 points and equaling the league record set by Real Madrid just last season.

But Pellegrini has spoiled a potential party at the Camp Nou before when his Villarreal side held Barcelona to a 3-3 draw and prevented them winning the title on home soil. And earlier this season, Malaga gained a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey.

Could the Chilean mastermind another performance at the Camp Nou for his last hurrah with Malaga?

Granada vs Barcelona – Suffering Pays Dividends

Barcelona began a run of five games in the next 16 days with an away fixture at Granada. With Sevilla, Milan and a double header against Madrid awaiting, this fixture was the easiest on paper and offered the opportunity to rest players and freshen up the side.

Statistically, the game was straightforward for Barcelona with 64% possession and 18 shots at goal compared to Granada’s seven shots but football is not played on paper and the game was tighter than the the statistics suggest. This was an awkward fixture with Granada taking the lead only to eventually succumb to two goals from Messi.

Recent Form

With an improvement in form over the past few weeks, Granada have climbed from the relegation zone thanks to three wins in their last four games which includes their surprise victory over Real Madrid. New coach Lucas Alcaraz has presided over two of these wins and kept faith with the same side that had defeated Deportivo 3-0 away last weekend.

Barcelona have won one, drawn one and lost one in their last three away league games. With testing games ahead, interim coach Jordi Roura took the opportunity to make five changes from the win over Getafe. Alves, Busquets, Mascherano, Cesc and Adriano were all brought into the side. Xavi was rested completely whilst Iniesta, Alba and Puyol all began on the bench.

Tactical Set Up

Granada set up as a 4-4-2 with Aranda and Ighalo both deployed as out and out strikers. From the outset, Alcaraz chose to completely concede possession and retain shape. The back four and the midfield four were very narrow and close together when defending, conceding the flanks to Barcelona but preventing any space from developing between the lines. Granada also seldom pressed their opponents until Barcelona were in their half

The graphic below shows the heat map for the Granada team:-

Granada Heat Map vs Barcelona

Granada Heat Map vs Barcelona                     http://www.squawka.com

The map illustrates how narrow Granada defended with virtually no involvement deep in the full backs areas. It also captures how narrowly Barcelona were attacking. Even with Sanchez and Pedro on, there was still a tendency to cut diagonally inward towards the centre. No Barcelona player stayed on the touchline and offed genuine width. This approach enable Granada to stay compact in the centre and half attacks.

With limited possession, Granada made only 162 passes from an attempted 230 but they were focused with their passing, attacking the left back area of Barcelona in the first half again visible in the graphic. With Adriano surging forward, Granada sought to launch quick attacks in this area before hitting deep cross balls into the penalty area towards Alves. Nolito tested Valdes in the 7th minute with Alves offering the winger too much space before Ighalo opened the scoring in the 25th minute. A deep cross from the right and Alves was caught too tight to Pique enabling a free header to pick out Ighalo who opened the scoring.

A similar ploy almost brought Granada the equaliser in the 87th minute. Another cross from the right and Granada overloaded Alves at the back post but Lopez headed straight at Valdes.

Barcelona were caught offside six times during the match as Granada held a line on the edge of their penalty area for as long as they could during Barcelona attacks. A combination of poorly timed runs and delayed passes foiling Barcelona attacks. The Blaugrana made 666 successful passes from 739 attempted but despite their dominance of possession, in the first half there was a lack of penetration to add to that control. The tempo of the game was often too low with a real lack of pace to their passing.

With Xavi missing, Messi dropped deeper than normal in the first half and played more like a classic No10. To do so effectively, he needed greater vertical movement from team mates. Despite there being space on the flanks, the movement inevitably came through the centre which Granada could squeeze. Pedro was very quiet and Sanchez is out of sorts.

Thiago Alcantara

With Xavi rested completely for this game, fairly or unfairly, much of the spotlight surrounding the construction of play fell upon Thiago Alcantara. With suggestions by some that Thiago will eventually replace Xavi in the side, it is essential to clarify that Thiago may eventually take Xavi’s place in the side but he possesses a different skill set from Xavi.

Thiago is not a replacement for Xavi. Indeed, nobody will replace Xavi, a player who has come to represent an idea of how the game should be played. Thiago must be assessed upon how he develops as a player and the qualities which he can offer Barcelona. Last night he provided evidence of this.

Making 111 successful passes from 119 attempted, Thiago made more passes than anyone else on the pitch but it was his all round contribution in an unassuming, effective fashion which was so important. The young midfielder also made three successful tackles from three attempted as well as six interceptions across the whole pitch as shown on the graphic below:-

Thiago Interceptions

Thiago Interceptions vs Granada                        http://www.squawka.com

In the attacking phase, he attempted and completed three opposition player take ons during the game. This was a more rounded display from the youngster although there was a defensive error when he needlessly gave the ball to Aranda from a free kick but the striker’s shot was tame and Valdes saved. A lapse in concentration that went unpunished but needs to be eradicated from his game as he matures and his development phase progresses.

Messi – 301 Not Out

Messi has now scored an incredible 301 goals from Barcelona in 365 official games.

As noted above, the Argentinian adopted a deeper role during the game, playing more like a classic no10. The graphic below shows Messi’s passes during the game:-

Messi Passes vs Granada

Messi Passes vs Granada                            http://www.squawka.com

Numerous passes were made outside of the opposition penalty area and a few of the longer passes into the area failed, a consequence of the approach from Granada which meant that space inside their penalty area was at a premium.

In the second half, Messi moved a little higher which enable him to score from the rebound from Cesc’s shot.

His and Barcelona’s second was a direct free kick. Perhaps questions may be asked about Tono’s positioning but that should not detract from the pace at which the free kick was delivered.

The continued success of Messi is considerably different from the poor form shown by Alexi Sanchez. Removed after 60minutes, the Chilean had a few good opportunities which were spoiled by poor first touches or delayed decisions. With just four goals for the season, he is clearly lacking in confidence. Roura offered some words of support for the versatile frontman but until he begins scoring goals again, they will offer little comfort:-

“Alexis missing chances? We have to support him and make sure he keeps going. That’s our obligation. His attitude is very good.”

Conclusions

Alcaraz will be targeting the games his side need to win to avoid relegation. Anything gained against Barcelona would have been considered as a bonus.  With just 11 goals scored at home but 12 away from home, the coach knows the areas he needs to address.

Jordi Roura acknowledged the difficulty his side had faced:-

“We suffered, but it’s logical against Granada. We knew it would be difficult. Those are three important points, we’re very happy.”

This is precisely the sort of game that Barcelona would have failed to win last year and it’s precisely the sort of game that Real Madrid are failing to win this season.

With their lead stretched ahead of Atleti playing on Sunday evening ,Barcelona can move their attention to Milan and the midweek game in the Champions League. The first step in this hectic 16 day period has been navigated.