The Season Ahead

There is always questions ahead of kick off each season. It’s not about who qualifies for European football. It’s not about which sides get relegated. There is only one issue in Spain. The perennial question that crops up every August revolves around which of the big two will win La Liga? Madrid have behaved like Madrid during pre-season and signed more stellar names whereas Barcelona have underwent something of a mini revolution with a host of new signings under the tutelage of new manager, Luis Enrique. So who will win La Liga?

Wait? It’s not a two horse race? It’s a three horse race again this season? :-

 

The Top Three - Season 13-14

The Top Three – Season 13-14

 

Sure, Atleti may have won the title last season but that was a complete fluke, wasn’t it? They can’t compete again, even Simeone has admitted this:-

“I don’t like to lie to people and one thing is clear: We can’t compete with Madrid or Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic and third is our objective”

Of course last season, Simeone repeatedly told anyone who would listen that Atleti couldn’t win La Liga but they did. They couldn’t do so again, could they?

 

Atleti – The Cycle Continues.

“Last year was no fluke, it was a consequence of what has been going on at the club”

Diego Simeone

Can lighting strike twice? Atleti once more start as distant third favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers for the title. Their title.

There have been goodbyes and very good buys at the Calderon during the summer. Courtois, Filipe Luis and Costa moved to Stamford Bridge with the latter pairing gaining substantial income for Atleti that has been wisely reinvested in the team. Did people really think Atleti were ready to rest on their achievements thus far, accept their place?

In Simeone, Atleti possess one of the most highly rated coaches in Europe. And as La Liga champions and a team that were moments away from winning the Champions League, convincing players to stay whilst attracting new players was always going to be much easier than many suggested. Whisper it but Atleti are arguably stronger now than they were last season. Further departures were confirmed in Adrian, David Villa and Guilavogui yet the reinforcements are very impressive.

Oblak, Siquiera, Mandzukic, Griezmann (offering a new dimension to Atleti’s attack), Correa, Jimenez, utility defender Ansaldi from Zenit could be very important and Saul after a year at Rayo and Atleti have greater all round strength than before. And Koke has signed a new contract too. So can they do the unthinkable and defend their title?

Simeone has urged caution and acknowledged that this is a new team with all of the changes that have occurred:-

“We are finishing the group. We have changed, especially in attack. I see it as a new beginning. The solid structure supporting the attack is maintained but we are looking for the style that best suits us. We must have patience.”

The issue is not the quality of the side individually but the ability for Atleti to continue the collective play and intensity of their game that Simeone demands after almost 3 years in control. Is the hunger still there within the players? Can they still give everything for the side week in, week out? Can el Cholo get the new players to integrate quickly and adapt to the high workrate and tempo that he demands? If he can then Atleti can once more mount a serious challenge for the league.

“The structure of the team is not going to change. Stability comes with maintaining the same ideas: intensity and aggressiveness will continue to be the basis,”

Simeone

And the players believe this too. Simeone’s on-field general, Gabi confirms as much:-

 “We have a clear idea of how we want to play,”

And that is the key.

For Simeone, this isn’t the end of the cycle:-

“First it was the Europa League, then the European Super Cup, Copa del Rey, third in the League and the following year the League title and the Champions League final. The team and the club have done great work to retain many players and try and continue a great cycle.”

Simone believed last season and many doubted him. Despite his words, he believes again this season. Who doubts Atleti now?

 

Barcelona

Martino failed didn’t he? After all, a trophyless season at a club like Barcelona is a failure no matter what the contextual narrative is. And the Argentinean has admitted that himself:-

“I’m completely dissatisfied with the year that has passed and I’m always thinking that I’m the man responsible”

Former player Luis Enrique returns to the Camp Nou to take control of a squad with new players but still needing further overhaul work. Short spells at Roma and Celta Vigo have identified the style of Enrique. Similarities with Guardiola exist but also key differences. Expect Barcelona to continue with the attractive style of play but contain a rougher edge to them. “Lucho” won’t expect his side to be bossed or bullied physically on the pitch. It won’t be more of the same but a gradual evolution of style. You don’t abandon your footballing principles die to one poor season. You adapt and you evolve making subtle tactical tweaks. An overhaul is not required. The death of tiki taka has been greatly exaggerated.

With numerous new arrivals but also departures, each area of the team needs work to fit together. Pre season friendlies have seen players from the B team step up and there will be spaces available for those who perform to complement the squad. The real focus has been on the final third with the arrival of Luis Suarez even allowing for his 4 month ban. How does the Uruguayan fit in with Messi and Neymar?

With Xavi likely to play a diminished role, the opportunity will exist for Messi to drop deeper than before and play as a genuine no10 with Suarez as a no9 ahead of him and Neymar on the left. It’s a trio brimming with potential but it also leads to questions. Do Barcelona continue with a 4-3-3 meaning the right side needs a younger version of Dani Alves to operate the full length of the pitch or does the side switch to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1. With Mascherano now back in defensive midfield and Busquets possibly playing a little higher up the pitch, options exist. Barcelona has consistently failed to plan or address what happens in a team without Xavi. That problem can no longer be avoided and will be dealt with one way or another this season. It’s exacerbated with the looming transfer ban. Pending an appeal to CAS, Barcelona may be unable to sign any more players once this window closes until January 2016. Further activity is therefore likely for a squad that isn’t strong enough to survive until January 2016 without further reinforcements. The problem for Barcelona is their recent appalling record in transfer dealings. The likes of Alex Song, not a player Barcelona needed but a player Barcelona could afford, is still to be offloaded. Can Barcelona really make enough acquisitions of the requisite quality?

Surprisingly, Deulofeu has been allowed to leave on loan although the spell with Sevilla could see him ready to return next season and claim a place but the prospect of a permanent departure increases now. With limited options in attack, the likes of Munir now have far greater opportunities to establish themselves as members of the first team squad.

It won’t be permitted but it does feel like a transitional season is beginning for Barcelona albeit one that certainly contains more possibilities for the team than most clubs can even dream about. Xavi has spoken about the harmony in the squad and the need to capture at least one trophy this season.

“We’ve signed very good players both on a football and personal level. The human relationships are the best there have been in recent years”

That could be crucial. Enrique building a close knit squad could see challenges sustained despite the relative lack of depth to the squad. A testing season lies ahead for Lucho.

 

Real Madrid – A Balancing Act

When the opportunity arises to sign a player of the calibre of Toni Kroos for around £20million, it’s not really a difficult decision to make. And when you’re the President of Real Madrid, you don’t really consider if the club need another elite level player. If one becomes available, you sign him. And in a World Cup year, who else can you sign other than the star player from that World Cup and golden boot winner, James Rodriguez of Columbia. It’s a policy that Florentino Perez adheres too. It’s not his problem how all of these star players integrate into the team. That’s a problem for the Coach to contend with.

A problem that has caused successive coaches of Real Madrid notable problems as Perez has tended to make at least one marquee signing each summer during his tenure as President. Fortunately, in Carlo Ancelotti, Perez now has a Coach in charge of Real Madrid who has repeatedly proven his ability to squeeze a multitude of star names into a starting line up without compromising the team balance as a consequence. Whether Carlo Ancelotti actually wanted Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez is immaterial. He’s got them now and fitting them into the side is his problem. This could be Ancelotti’s most difficult assignment yet.

Where should Rodriguez play? Can Kroos and Modric play against the very top teams with no defensive support? It’s all about balance for Ancelotti this season. With the departures of Khedira and Di Maria seeming likely and in the case of the diminutive Argentinean completely baffling, the base of midfield remains the issue that Ancelotti must focus on. A pairing of Kroos and Modric is very attractive but defensively unstable as witnessed in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla.

Could Kroos replace Alonso in the Madrid side? At 32 and with limited mobility, his time on the main stage could be drawing to a conclusion. Last season in La Liga, Alonso averaged 65 passes per game, the most of any Madrid player with Ramos on 61 and Modric on 58. When it comes to interceptions (1.5) and tackles (2.4), Alonso makes more per game of both than any other Madrid midfielder. Unsurprisingly, he also commits more fouls too. A product of his lack of mobility or due to him being swamped with too many team mates pushing on? His defensive contribution is key for Madrid. Alonso played 26 league games for Madrid last season with los blancos taking an average of 2.38 points per game. Without him they took 2.08 points per game.
Could Kroos fulfil this defensive role? Last season Kroos made an average of 75 passes per game but on the defensive side only averaged 0.5 interceptions per game and 1.8 tackles per game. Does that matter? Given Bayern’s complete dominance of the ball, these statistics will be heavily skewed. Simply put, it’s hard to defend when you always have the ball. And it’s hard to analyse the defensive output for Kroos as a consequence. There is still an important role for Alonso but the real beneficiary should be Illarramedi. The Basque must step forward this season and demonstrate why he gained so many plaudits at La Real.

If Di Maria does depart, more is likely to be asked of Bale to operate partly as a shuttling role between midfield and attack. As adaptable as Bale is and given his early career saw him positioned at full back, he will be able to cope. But can he deliver as well as Di Maria? I’m not certain he can make the difference to the same extent as Di Maria does.

Madrid begin the season as clear favourites for the title. Individually, the squad is packed with quality and is arguably the best squad in world football. How that translates onto the pitch collectively will be the dilemma for Ancelotti this season. Get it right and you could see Madrid dominate all the tournaments they enter. Get it wrong and…well, you know how Perez tends to operate.

It’s difficult to look beyond Madrid even with the balancing problems that exist. The depth of talent within the squad is unrivalled and even though seeing Atleti successfully defend their title would be unparalleled in the modern era of European football, I just cannot see it happening. Atleti will have the greatest success in cup competitions once more as normal service is resumed on the domestic front. Barcelona to finish runners up to Madrid. Even if the collective fails, individually they can still win games.

 

The Battle for Fourth

Away from the title race, the battle for fourth place, assuming that the big three (funny saying that now) secure the top three positions, and final Champions League position could see a genuine contest between five teams. Four of the contenders could be involved in European football this season. Will that have an effect? The graphic below shows the final positions from last season:-

 

The Race for 4th Place - Season 13-14

The Race for 4th Place – Season 13-14

 

Sevilla

Unai Emery likes to make changes. He changes this, he changes that. It’s what he does best along with managing to take one point from games in which his team should take three. He excelled at such a conservative approach at Valencia yet showed brief glimpses of shaking that image off a little at Sevilla as the Andalusians claimed the Europa League. Yet by narrowly missing out on 4th place with a typically cautious performance in a game they needed to win against Athletic Bilbao, Emery showed that streak remains within him.

It’s been another busy close season at the Sanchez Pizjuan for Monchi as he showed signs last season of getting back to his wheeling dealing best. Rakitic and Moreno depart for hefty fees but yet again it’s the players coming in that show real potential for the side. Iago Aspas arrives after a nightmare time at Liverpool to aid the attack but its the capture on loan of Gerard Deulofeu that could be really inspiring if the Barcelona youngster’s words are anything to go by:-

“My departure surprised me a bit, they made me come back from Everton and then later they told me I wouldn’t get minutes. But I don’t want to talk much about Barca, I want to talk about the year I am going to have here. I know that I am lacking some things from a defensive aspect and I will work to improve that. One of my aims is to show Luis Enrique he was wrong and above all show it to myself.”

And then the is arguably the signing of the summer. The sort of transfer that make you double check the fee involved because there had to be a typo in there surely? Ever Banega left Valencia to be reunited with his former manager for a paltry €2.5m. If Banega focuses on the football as he did during Valverde’s brief tenure at the Mestalla, Sevilla have a midfielder capable of dragging the team forward and one that will lessen the blow of losing last season’s talisman, Rakitic.

Emery showed last season that sometimes changes can be good as he juggled the squad on two fronts. If they can beat Athletic, Sevilla will finish 4th.

 

Athletic

There is something very reassuring about a side managed by Ernesto Valverde. You immediately know the type of football that you will see. His sides always display the same style and personality and Athletic are no different. The chaos of the Bielsa era was pushed aside as Valverde guided the Basques to 4th place last season and Champions League qualification. Subject to their game against Napoli, the possiblity of Champions League involvement or at the very least, Europa League football to contend with, it’s a season that will stretch the Athletic squad fully.

Borja Viguero arrives to strengthen the attack with Kike Sola recovering from injury but alongside Aduritz there is still a question mark over who will score the goals. None of the three are prolific. As usual there will be a reliance upon the midfield and the team in general to supplement the forwards and weigh in with a few goals.

Ander Herrara has departed but Benat should take his place in the side and hopefully rediscover Betis form. With a limited talent pool upon which to draw, Athletic are reliant upon their cantera for new talent. It’s tie for the likes of  of Laporte, Moran and Gomez to challenge for first team starting place on a regular basis Beyond that, will Iker Muniain consistently show his true capabilities rather than just fleeting moments?

 

Valencia

For the first time since season 2004/05, Valencia begin a season with no European football on the cards. What was perhaps viewed as a disappointment when last season ended, could become a blessing in disguise for the newly appointed inexperienced Portuguese manager Santo, who takes the helm backed by the finance of Peter Lim following his takeover of the club.

The loss of Bernat to Bayern Munich is considerable but the arrival of Mustafi, fresh from his involvement in Germany’s World Cup winning campaign, should offset that loss. Mathieu has also gone as a reshuffled backline will include the Argentinean Otamendi.

Last season, Jonas with a paltry 9 league goals was top scorer in league. It’s simply not good enough for a side with aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League. To remedy this, Rodrigo has joined from Benfica. Yet Valencia have sufficient creativity within their ranks to provide for the striker. Alcacer, Piatti and Parejo are all fine players meaning the loss of Banega should not be felt in the central midfield area.

Just how important free midweeks are will become apparent as the season wears on. With no distractions, Valencia will be able to mount a challenge in the league alone.  With a little luck, maybe the club will get through the entire season with the same manager?

 

Villarreal

Nobody expected Villarreal to perform as well as they did last season. And nobody will expect them to perform to quite the same level again but Marcelinho will need to continute the impressive form of the submarine. Again, another side who wil face the slog of Sunday, Thursday, Sunday football if a prolonged run in the Europa League takes hold and again, Villarreal has a squad that isn’t the strongest in terms of numbers.

Some good signings have arrived with Jonathan Dos Santos joining his brother at El Madrigal along with Rukavina and Cheryshev. Victor Ruiz comes in perhaps as a replacement for the departure of Mussachio. Whilst he has suffered in recent times since leaving Espanyol for Napoli, there is a good defender in Ruiz if Marcelinho can coax his best form again. The front end of the team has suffered with the loss of Perbet, Pereira and Aquino.

The Submarine will draw heavily upon the ability of Bruno, Trigueros, the aging limbs of Cani and the goals of Giovani Dos Santos if they are to replicate last season.

 

La Real

La Real could be the side to slip a little further down the pecking order this season. Whilst the loss of Bravo and Griezmann have been covered with Rulli and Finnbogason, you have to consider the drop in quality alongside the loss previously of Illarramendi. True, he has been replaced by Granero but the continued loss of such key performers to be replaced by quality but lesser quality as an effect. Arrasate can only do so much and with Xabi Prieto a little older and a little slower, much will depend upon the ability of Pardo. Can he confirm a place in the side and offer something different?

Much will also weigh heavily upon Vela this season. Finnbogason may have scored elsewhere but it’s a step up in quality for him this season. Vela will be the focal point for the attack now.

There’s always the nagging feeling with La Real that they are happy just to be there. That they lack the mentality to take the fight on that little bit further. A further slip down the league beckons for La Real.

 

 

And for the rest of La Liga, it’s the usual mix. Teams that will defy the odds and perform well whilst some other teams will go on prolonged runs of poor form and get dragged into the seemingly endless relegation mire that will go the final day of the season as is customary in Spain. And with the usual dozen or so permutations on who could be relegated due to the head to head ruling.

Unsurprisingly, the newly promoted minnows of Eibar and Cordoba are odds on favourites for a swift return to the Segunda. The third side to accompany them upwards into La Liga are also third favourites to return but things could look different up in Galicia this season. Deportivo have the ability to stay in the top flight.

 

Deportivo – Upsetting the Odds?

Last time around Depor didn’t have any problems creating and scoring goals but their leaky defence conceded 70, only fellow relegated side Real Mallorca conceded more than that. That problem was solved in the Segunda last season with the defence only conceding 36 goals but the trade off was an attack that hit just 48 goals in 42 games. Victor Fernandez favouring a more conservative style of play that gained the necessary points to get promotion. Don’t expect dramatic changes this season either. Grinding out points will be key to survival but more goals are still needed. To remedy this, the usual influx of players on loan have arrived at the Riazor. The revolving door policy doesn’t breed stability but such a term isn’t really understood at the financially stricken club.

One player who has joined permanently on a 12 month contract and who, with the greatest respect to Deportivo, should be playing at a higher level is Isaac Cuenca. If the former Barcelona winger can recapture his early career form before injury stalled his development, Depor will have a genuine creative force to supplement their attack. It won’t be a spectacular season but a finish outside the relegation zone is achievable and will be considered a success whilst confounding the bookies in the process.

 

The Boys from Vallecas – Rayo

If Atleti and their fans are wondering if lighting can strike twice, the fans of Rayo are pondering the unthinkable. Can it strike for the third time? Can Paco Jemez really lead Rayo Vallecano to safety for the third season in a row?

Sadly, I fear for Rayo this season. This may be just one step too far and the relative late season comfort they have enjoyed in the past two seasons may be missing this season.

“The team is under construction, but we’re slowly settling in.”

Paco Jémez

Construction is the apt word. For every season, Paco Jemez aided by Sportin Director Minambres set about rebuilding the foundations in Vallecas. This season, an astonishing 19 players departed leaving just eight first team players. So far, a further 12 players have joined. As normal, there seems to be an abundance of creativity with the likes of Jonathan Pereira, Aquino, Pozuelo and Kakuta but where will the goals come from? The loss of Larrivey could be significant as his replacement in Manucho doesn’t inspire confidence with just 14 goals in his 57 games for Vallodolid. And further back, the defence needs work. Rayo have conceded 146 goals in two seasons under Jemez in the top flight, a frightening amount.

With such a huge turnaround of players, an adaptation period would take time for any team. When you have a team with one of the smallest budgets in the league attempting to dominate possession and play one of the most expansive style of football in the league, that adaptation period is extended and mistakes will occur. For Rayo, this frequently ends in heavy defeats early in the season. Pressing opponents all over the pitch and playing a very high offside line is not something that comes naturally to all players. Positioning and coordination the team unit takes time.

The ability of players to adapt is essential. If not, Rayo will have serious problems hence the decision to allow new signing Boateng to depart just two months after arrival. The Ghanian unable to adjust to the demands of Jemez. Results may be unfavourable early on just like last season but don’t expect Paco Jemez to change. That won’t happen:-

“I’m not interested in just winning any old way… This is what we wanted. This is the way we are. This is what we are”

If it’s goals and excitement you want this season, Rayo Vallecano are the team for you. And with a little extra support, maybe, just maybe they can escape relegation.

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.

Espanyol vs Valencia – Another home game, another draw.

Espanyol served up another excellent high scoring draw at home following on the back of their recent 2-2 draw with Real Sociedad. On Saturday evening, the visitors were Valencia and an open and entertaining game burst into life in the final 10minutes with four goals.

Line Ups

Both sides lined up in broad 4-2-3-1 formations.

Espanyol vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Espanyol opted to use Wakaso instead of Simao on the left wing, other than that, the line up was as expected.

Valverde continues to have problems in the centre of defence and the makeshift pairing for this game was Ricardo Costa and Mathieu. Guardado continues at left back and Jonas and Canales were favoured on the wings with Fehgouli remaining on the bench.

Overall

Despite dominating possession with 57% compared to the home sides’ 43%, Valencia were never really in control of this game. Espanyol were sharper in the first half with Valencia too slow in possession when constructing attacks. There was a lack of dynamism and Soldado never really entered the action as moves broke down in the final third. Espanyol were always able to regroup and regain their positions quickly whereas Valencia were slower to do so.

A key feature of this Espanyol side is their pressing. They drop off to the halfway line to regain their shape but they can, and do, press high on occasion when they see certain triggers. Dani Parejo was robbed of possession twice when he received the ball facing his own goal. Espanyol knew Valencia would always try to build from the back and targeted when to press for maximum impact.

Espanyol Asymmetric Approach

Espanyol have leaned heavily upon the attacking trio of Verdu, Garcia and Stuani for creativity and goals to push the side further up the table. It has led to a lop sided approach and this was noticeable on Saturday evening and can be seen in the graphic below:-

Espanyol Heat Map

Espanyol Heat Map           http://www.squawka.com

With Stuani being much more attack minded, Aguirre opted to go with the inconsistent but gifted Wakaso on the left. With a higher work ethic and a more industrious nature, Wakaso was able to offer greater security on the left defensively and an edge when attacking. From three attempted tackles, Wakaso was successful with two. This was necessary as Verdu and Garcia moved further to the right to link with Stuani.

Further evidence of Espanyol favouring the right can be seen by Valencia’s tackling statistics. In their own half of the field, Valencia only made one tackle on their right side but 11 tackles on the left:-

Valencia Tackles

Valencia Tackles                    http://www.squawka.com

Espanyol were very reliant upon one side of the pitch for creativity during the game yet their second goal arrived from a breakaway down the left with Wakaso leading the way. The chance appeared to have gone before Verdu volleyed the ball in off the ground.

The Problem with Inverted Wingers – Jonas Goncalves

In recent weeks, Jonas has been shifted from his preferred central berth to a wider starting position and operates more like an inverted winger now. Providing width during counter attacks to stretch the opponent, but moving inward when Valencia are building attacks, enabling the full back to move beyond him and provide the width at that point in the move.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Jonas Passes

Jonas Passes                       http://www.squawka.com

Despite scoring a goal in the 86th minute, Jonas offered little in the final third with all of his crosses failing to find a team mate.  HIs tendency to drift inward also created a problem for Valencia on transitions which Espanyol were able to exploit with Wakaso scoring the opening goal.

When an inverted winger moves inward, there is immediately a problem if the move breaks down as the opposing full back or winger is able to progress without restriction.

In the 45th minute, Espanyol regained possession in their own half and Verdu released Garcia on the right. His surging run ended with a deep cross to the far post where Wakaso arrived at pace to head the opening goal. Ignoring the poor defending of Joao Pereira, Wakaso was not tracked. Jonas had been central when play broke down and stranded.

Valencia Positions – Banega and Ruiz

The positioning of several Valencia players has been a noticeable and intriguing feature of Ernesto Valverde’s time at the club. What may have arisen from emergency situations, appears to have potentially solved some positional concerns.

Ever Bangea has been utilised in an advanced central midfield position previously but he often seems uncomfortable there particularly if he is starved of possession. And Valencia can seem bereft of ideas when Banega is deployed so high. The solution has been to use Dani Parejo almost like a deep lying regista, knitting the play together, recycling possession.

With Parejo behind him and providing the ball, Banega can create more opportunities for his team mates as he did on Saturday evening.

The graphic below shows Banega’s passing:-

Banega Passes

Banega Passes      http://www.squawka.com

Although he started brightly, Banega was stifled during the first half and only began to have an impact on proceedings when he took up a more advanced position and with Tino Costa off the pitch, the three central midfielders for Valencia had clear duties. Albelda to sit, Parejo to circulate possession and Banega to create scoring chances.

Banega played further forward in the second half. More probing. Feeding balls through to the front players. Roberto Soldado became more involved as a result as the Argintenean played a number of slide passes through the Espanyol backline searching for runners coming from a wide to central position.

The equalising goal in the 52nd minute came from Baenga’s pass, Canales on an inward diagonal run collecting and dispatching the ball home. Soldado saw his 78th minute effort saved after receiving Banega’s through ball but Valencia’s top goalscorer was not to be denied and latched onto another pass from Banega in the 90th minute to give the away side a temporary lead. Again, the run from from a wide starting position into the channel between full back and centre back. An area Valencia sought to expose in the second half.

Whilst Banega represents a change at the front of the side, a change at the back has been equally good although on side evening, Victor Ruiz reverted to type. Ruiz returned to the first team following a month out trough injury when he was called into action following the removal of Ricardo Costa due to injury.

Following the arrival of Valverde and the poor form of Fernando Gago in the defensive midfield position, Ruiz was moved into a deep midfield slot as a temporary measure. It’s an area where he has shown a considerable improvement in his form and crucially, where any mistakes he makes are not subject to harsh punishment. Statistically, Ruiz performance was fine. He was not hitting stray passing, mistiming tackles, failing to win headers or conceding fouls. But it’s the things that cannot be measured that have caused Ruiz problems. The poor decision making and lapses in concentration.

On Saturday evening, the thought process behind Valverde’s decision was brought sharply into focus. Arriving as first half substitute, Ruiz somehow escaped the concession of a penalty from a reckless challenge on Sergio Garcia in the penalty area. It was a challenge that did not have to be made yet Ruiz launched himself into it.

And in the final minute of the game, Ruiz failed to deal with a ball headed into the penalty area. The defender tried to shepherd the ball back to Guaita in goal rather than undertake the basics. Your side is winning 3-2 away from home and the game is deep in injury time. Clear your lines. Conceded a throw in or a corner kick if necessary. Ruiz did neither and he was unsuccessful holding Garcia off and Espanyol promptly equalised.

Conclusions.

Javier Aguirre has led Espanyol to five home wins and four draws during his brief tenure at the club.

As well as Espanyol are doing, Aguirre must now let his focus shift to next season. Can Garcia continue to deliver as he enters the last few seasons of his career? And will Verdu still be at the club next season? These are the dilemmas which should now occupy the Mexican’s mind.

Given the run of form Espanyol are on, a point is a decent result for Valverde and his men. Until that is, La Real secured 3 points away to Rayo. It leaves the gap between La Real and Los Che at 4 points.

Valencia now face two games which could define their season. Malaga travel to the Mestalla this weekend followed by Los Che making the trip north to San Sebastian where La Real lie in wait.

Secure maximum points and the coveted 4th position will still be within touching distance.

 

Valencia vs Real Madrid – Tactical Analysis

Real Madrid travelled to the Mestalla to face a revitalised Valencia side under the leadership of Ernesto Valverde. Since taking charge of Los Che, Valverde has won seven of his nine games in all competitions. A 2-0 defeat away to Los Blancos in the Copa del Rey in midweek did not dampen enthusiasm before kick off that Valencia could win this game such was the quality at times during their recent encounter. What they would not have expected was to see a first half performance from Madrid which was clinical, professional and utterly ruthless. A reminder of the devastating power which the club from the capital possess on the counter attack which resulted in Valencia suffering their heaviest ever loss to Madrid at home.

Line Ups

There were three changes to the side which had defeated Sevilla 2-0. Albelda was injured whilst Pereira and Parejo were suspended. Ruiz, Gago and Tino Costa came back into the side.

Valencia Starting Line Up

Valencia Starting Line Up

The surprise was the inclusion of Ricardo Costa being played out of position at right back. Barragan remained on the bench.

Mourinho named the strongest eleven available to him with Higuain favoured in place of Benzema in attack.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Modric and Callejon made way for the returning due of Ozil and Ronaldo after the disappointment of the goalless draw in Pamplona.

First Half

A game which began fast with Valencia seeking to impose their style of play on Madrid soon descended into a nightmare for the home side as Madrid picked them off on the counter attack.

The patience shown a few days earlier at the Bernabeu was replaced by a frenetic style from Los Che perhaps determined to show they could compete.It was an ill advised strategy. By increasing the tempo of their game and lacking composure, Madrid were content to sit deep and pounce forward, the opening goal being a prime example.

As is so often the case, Madrid are most dangerous when you attack. Ozil evaded Banega on the edge of the penalty area and 13 seconds later Higuain scored. The confusion in the Valencia defence evident with Gago appealing for offside with Guardado a few yards deeper than him.

Three of Madrid’s goals originated down the Valencia right where Costa was clearly uncomfortable. Ronaldo played a neat one two with Ozil and burst beyond Costa before eventually cutting back for Di Maria whilst the third goal was farcical from Valencia’s perspective. Both Costa and Rami diving in at the halfway line whilst Ruiz and Guardado were over five yards deeper on the other side of defence.

The high line and a lack of coherent pressure on the ball provided the script for a seamless display of attacking prowess from Madrid. Madrid also pressed Valencia very quickly. Valverde demands the play to be built from the back but Valencia do not yet have the players to do so properly. Too often Valencia were robbed in possession. With the game won, Madrid then eased off.

Positions

The graphic below shows the player positions during the game with Valencia in blue and Real Madrid in red.

Valencia vs Real Madrid - Player Positions

Valencia vs Real Madrid – Player Positions                         http://www.whoscored.com

Although at right back, Costa is the deepest Valencia player with Rami positioned very close to him. Guardado meanwhile is beyond the halfway line but isolated by the narrow position of Jonas who should have been on the left wing.

Gago is also positioned too far to the right with Costa and Banega stationed very high. The team is fairly compact as Valverde would want but it’s unbalanced. The high line is not supported by pressure on the Madrid midfield. Banega and Tino Costa are too high probably in an effort to support Soldado.

The defensive set up was uneasy throughout the match and Madrid exploited the uncertainty ruthlessly.

For Madrid the position of Ozil is crucial, practically level with Higuain and beyond Gago. From the outset Ozil was operating between the lines and this was a key factor in Madrid ’s fifth goal. He is already beyond Gago when he collects Albiol’s header forward.

Madrid Attack

Despite the scoreline, Valencia actually had more shots at goal than their opponents again demonstrating that as useful as statistics are, they need to be investigated a little more closely.

Madrid had 13 shots at goal of which seven on target, scoring five goals. Valencia had 20 shots at goal but many were speculative and long range. Just three were on target with Piatti also hitting the crossbar.

The graphic below shows all of Madrid ’s shots on target.

Real Madrid Shots on Target vs Valencia

Real Madrid Shots on Target vs Valencia         http://www.squawka.com

With the exception of Ronaldo’s first goal, all of Madrid ’s shots were within the penalty area and very central. They were incredibly efficient in front of goal.

With fewer shots at goal than their opponent, Madrid also had less possession as they continue to resort to a predominantly counter attacking style of play.

Di Maria made 34 passes from 47 passes attempted, more than anyone else in the Madrid team. His return to top form was marked by two attempts on goal and two goals coupled with an assist for Higuain.

Clash of Styles

Since the arrival of Mourinho, Madrid have developed a counter attack which is arguably more potent than any other side in world football. From the first season position whereby the Madrid team appeared to be two units held together by Xabi Alonso and reliant upon individuals, they moved forward to last season’s Championship winning side when the unit functioned well as a whole.

This season, they appeared to have regressed towards that first season model again. They seek to sit deep and break quickly, utilising their pace on the flanks. Play is seldom constructed thoughtfully partially explaining the problem that Modric has faced in adapting. They have become direct and rely upon moments of individual brilliance to overcome opponents. Last night provided further evidence of this but also provided a glimpse of how this simple style can take the opposition apart.

Madrid completed just 225 passes from 315 attempted giving 71% accuracy. They saw less of the ball but when they had possession, they used it much more effectively. Previously, Xabi Alonso would be at the heart of Madrid ’s play yet last night produced a fairly subdued performance.

Alonso 22 passes completed from 30 attempted in his 57minutes on the pitch as the graphic below illustrates.

Alonso Passes vs Valencia

Alonso Passes vs Valencia                                       http://www.squawka.com

Contrast this with Ever Banega who Valencia tried to get on the ball as often as possible to create. For comparison with Alonso, Banega completed 31 passes from 35 attempted (89% completion rate) in the first 60 minutes. In the 90 minutes as a whole he completed 51 passes from 61 attempted.

Ever Banega Passes vs Real Madrid

Ever Banega Passes vs Real Madrid                     http://www.squawka.com

Yet despite all the volume of passing and the fact that Banega made five key passes, there was no end product for Valencia . As at the Bernabeu they were capable of weaving pretty passes across the pitch with no punch.

Ozil Heat Map vs Valencia

Ozil Heat Map vs Valencia                                     http://www.squawka.com

Mesut Ozil floated around the pitch operating between the Valencia defensive and midfield line creating problems despite making minimal passes. Ozil made two assists with his team mates in an excellent performance.

Often ignored amongst elite sides is the workrate. Too often the less attractive side of the game is overlooked but Madrid were highly competitive last night. Valencia won 9 tackles form 10 attempted yet compare this against Madrid who won 20 tackles from 24 attempted. Madrid were ready to compete on the physical side of the game. Just as at Levante when they had to become competitive, Madrid were ready to stand up to the challenge.

Valencia Right

As good as Madrid were in the first half, it’s impossible to consider their performance without commenting on the poor defensive performance from Valencia especially on the right side of their defence.

The decision to play Costa at right back ahead of Barragan was, in hindsight, probably a mistake if only for the most natural balance that Barragan would have brought to the side defensively. With Guardado continuing at left back and prone to positional mistakes, the side badly misses Mathieu.

Madrid committed 13 fouls in the game with only two fouls occurring on their left side. Valencia were too reliant upon their left side with Guardado, Jonas and Tino Costa all leaning towards that area.

Real Madrid Fouls Committed vs Valencia

Real Madrid Fouls Committed vs Valencia            http://www.squawka.com

The graphic highlights one other issue. Madrid were extremely good at not conceding fouls in and around their penalty area. Only two of the above fouls could really lead to balls being whipped into the penalty area. The remaining fouls were committed too far away.

Second Half

Valverde made one change at half time with Barragan replacing Fernando Gago. With Barragan moving into right back, Ricardo Costa went into central defence and Victor Ruiz was pushed forward into a defensive midfield position.

The key concern for Valverde would have been to avoid a real hammering which was a realistic possibility at half time.

The move solidified Valencia and they created a number of decent openings with Piatti striking the cross bar from just outside the area. Madrid though, had stepped down a level by this point and the game game drifted towards it’s inevitable conclusion.

Conclusions

There is much for Valverde to ponder over prior to Madrid returning to the Mestalla for the second leg of their Copa del Rey tie this midweek. The tactician now has a decision. Does he believe that his side can go out and impose themselves upon Madrid to attempt to recover the tie or does he become more cautious, drop the defence deeper and play a conservative game as a consequence?

Was it really the high line which was the downfall of Valencia ? Osasuna played a similarly high line recently and secured a draw.

With Madrid increasingly using the counter attack again, a deeper defence could allow Valencia to control possession and the game but the problem then remains of how to support Soldado in attack.

For Madrid, at least Mourinho knows that his side are still capable of producing a high performance level even if he has seldom witnessed it this season. The pace and power of their attack was superb at times and will certainly deliver a welcome boost for the team particularly when they have often struggled away from home this season.

Osasuna vs Valencia

The reign of Ernesto Valverde at the Mestalla, for however long that may be, commenced with a hard fought 1-0 away victory in Pamplona against Osasuna. This was a poor quality game were determination, character and strength were valued more highly than any technical quality or skill.

Both Valverde and Mendilibar made numerous changes to their starting line ups from their previous games. Osasuna had four changes from the side that had defeated Rayo 1-0 at home providing their fifth consecutive clean sheet in all competitions during which time they had recorded two wins and two draws in the league to lift them outwith the relegation zone.

Valverde made six changes to the Valencia team that crashed 2-5 at home to La Real in a game which marked the end of Mauricio Pellgrino’s short stint in charge of Los Che. Amidst the changes due to injury and suspension, the most interesting alteration was the inclusion of Albelda who was recalled in place of Fernando Gago.

Low Quality

The quality on show during this match is aptly demonstrated by the very poor pass completion rates. Valencia completed just 265 passes from their total of 394 attempted (a success rate of 67%). The hosts fared much worse with a pass completion rate of just 59% as only 204 passes from 344 attempted found a team mate.

Too often passes went astray or were mis-controlled and the opposition gathered possession. With both teams pressing, short accurate passing was limited with long balls being more prevalent.

Osasuna are a side who are aggressive, play a high defensive line and press the opponent. You don’t expect them to have much in the way of possession or a high degree of accuracy as they look to play a quick, direct game. Following a summer of key departures, Osasuna need to fight for every point and rely heavily upon their home form. With players of a lesser ability in their team, they need to force opponents to play the game at their level and they achieved this during this match.

Valencia are still searching for a personality this season but there were signs from the outset that Valverde wants them to adopt a patient style with attacks being constructed from the back. Against such a spiky opponent, it was perhaps wrong to try and instigate such a change in style. The side never looked comfortable when Alves went short to instigate moves.

Goalmouth incident was also at a premium in this game. From a total of 21 shots at goal from both sides, just six hit the target. Neither team had the ability to craft out chances with limited action in either goal mouth area as can be seen from the two heat map graphics below:-

Osasuna Team Heat Map

Osasuna Team Heat Map                                                http://www.squawka.com

Valencia Team Heat Map

Valencia Team Heat Map                                                  http://www.squawka.com

What must concern Valverde, even this early, is the need to link the midfield and attack to prevent Soldado being isolated. Banega cannot play too high, he needs to be on the ball in the midfield area. Either Jonas must start, when he is not suspended, or the wingers must become more inverted and reach Soldado quicker to offer support.

Osasuna Approach

Osasuna tried to move in behind Guardado at left back. As a converted winger, Guardado is more comfortable moving forward and sought to do so as often as possible with the result that Osasuna hit more long balls into the channel behind him for Lamah to try chase.

On the occasions that the pass was productive and Guardado was caught higher upfield, Albelda offered excellent defensive cover. Although he is firmly in the veteran stage of his career, the midfielder still has qualities which can be useful in games such as these. Albelda is not one to pull out from a tackle.

The high defensive line that Osasuna employs requires their keeper to be comfortable moving off the goal line as and when required to clear balls over the top. Twice Andres Fernandez was called into action, leaving his penalty area to clear the ball. The graphic below shows this and also how he often brought the ball out from his area before launching a long ball forward.

Fernandez Passes vs Valencia

Fernandez Passes vs Valencia                                  http://www.squawka.com

Fernandez played just one short pass to a team mate in the entire game. Although Fernandez may concede possession as often as Osasuna retain it with his long kick outs, Osasuna will compete for the second ball as they push up and squeeze their opponents. Territorial gain is greater than possession for Mendilibar.

Valencia Set Up

Valverde retained the 4-2-3-1 style formation which Valencia have used this season but it was noticeable how the team lined up when keeper Alves had possession. Both centre backs were splitting and Albelda was dropping deep, not quite between them but sufficiently positioned to act as as auxiliary centre back. The full backs pushed very high to form a line of four across midfield with Fehgouli and Piatti flanking Roberto Soldado in attack.

The approach gradually fizzled out as Osasuna repeatedly pressed high forcing more longer passing from Valencia and partly due to the positioning of Valencia being correct but not compact enough. The team needs to be positioned to allow shorter passing if they are to build from the back and must offer greater movement. If Rami or Ricardo Costa received the ball in this game, only Albelda was relatively close.

Does Valverde have the players at his disposal to implement the system that he wishes to use?

The only goal of the game was scored by Soldado and, in some respects, the goal was fitting of such a poor game. Piatti made a good run down the left but is cross was poor and was moving away from the waiting Soldado before it struck the inside of the post and rebounded out to Soldado who blasted home from a few yards out.

Soldado Shots vs Osasuna

Soldado Shots vs Osasuna                                                     http://www.squawka.com

Soldado struck the target with three of his four shots but as highlighted above, he is often isolated and left to cut a forlorn figure in the Valencia attack. Someone has to break from the midfield to support him.

Valverde achieved in his first game, that which had eluded Pellgrino all season; an elusive away league win. The manner in which it was achieved was not particularly stylish or even enjoyable but it’s three points on the road.

Mendilibar and Osasuna will likely feel harshly treated. There was little between the sides and a draw would have been fair. The issue from Osasuna is scoring goals. With the departure of four of their five top scorers from last season, the men from Pamplona need to begin scoring and quickly. The veteran striker Joseba Llorente is probably not the answer but Mendilibar has few alternatives. Just 12 goals scored from 15 league games tells the story. Defensively they are quite sound as they have conceded just 16 goals. As is so often the case, for Osasuna, the first goal in a game is completely crucial.

Malaga vs Valencia – Tactical Analysis

The two sides that finished 3rd and 4th in La Liga last season met at La Roselada on Saturday evening. A close, edgy game was anticipated. Malaga had no wins in their last four games and had failed to record a victory in a league game following a midweek Champions League fixture. Their opponents, Valencia, were undefeated in six games across all competitions although that masked their inability to win a league match away from home since last March.

A tense game should have been the outcome. Two teams buoyed by qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League and contesting the final Champions League qualification spot. It may seem strange to state such a view so early in the season but given that Barcelona and Real Madrid will take the first two spots and Atleti appear to be on the way to 3rd, it leaves a clutch of teams contesting 4th place and the final spot.

Instead what we witnessed was a one-sided contest. Malaga started brightly, took an early lead and only poor finishing stopped this contest been over much earlier than it should have been.

Line Ups

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini named the same starting eleven that had faced Osasuna last weekend, drawing in the process. Qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League enabled the Chilean to rotate his squad for the away game against Zenit enabling key players to get some much needed rest.

Valencia Starting Line Up

Pellegrino made a number of changes to the Valencia side following last week’s home win over Espanyol. Some were enforced whilst others were made for tactical or technical reasons.

Soldado was suspended and replaced by Valdez. Barragan continued to deputise for the injured Joao Perreira at right back. Ricardo Costa was recalled to central defence in place of Victor Ruiz whilst Guardado was pushed forward to left midfield and Cissokho came in at left back with Jonathan Veira dropping out. Veteran midfielder Albelda was replaced by Gago.

The final and most significant tactical change was the replacement of Jonas as the support striker by Banega.

Systems

Manuel Pellegrini favours his teams to be compact and dominate possession with short passing triangles always providing options to the player in possession. This Malaga side are not yet as fluent as his great Villarreal team but there are some key similarities.

Malaga set out as a 4-4-2 with both wide players comfortable cutting infield and the full backs overlapping to provide width. Indeed, Eliseu and Gamez both provided an assist in this game. The use of Joaquin as a central striker was very interesting. Although a right winger for much of his career, the ability of Joaquin to pull wide from a central starting position enables the “wingers” Isco and Portillo to drive diagonally inward to the space being vacated. It’s a system that Pellegrini used to great effect at Villarreal with Rossi and Nilmar providing mobility and width in the striking positions.

If Pellegrini and Malaga have a clear identity, Pellegrino and Valencia are still searching for their identity to a certain extent.

The key tactical move for Pellegrino was the replacement of Jonas with Banega. This was a clear attempt to gain more possession of the ball and retain it. It was a move that, whilst looking correct in theory, failed to pay off in practice. Valencia were not dominating possession, not controlling space and not counter attacking. It was a listless performance.

Despite the inability to demonstrate any clear personality during the game, Valencia recorded a high pass completion rate with 304 successful passes from 392 attempted. As ever with stats though, the context is important. Too often the passes were horizontal and in safe areas of the pitch. Malaga may have had a marginally lower pass completion rate of 75% with 315 successful passes from 422 attempted but often these were penetrative passes being attempted. Malaga were brave in their attacking play.

The contrasting fortunes of Banega and Isco, key attacking players for either side, are shown in the graphics below which detail the passes attempted by both players:-

Isco Passes vs Valencia                                          http://www.squawka.com

Banega Passes vs Malaga                                              http://www.squawka.com

The number of successful passes in this issue is not as important as the location of the passes and direction. Isco starts on the left side of midfield but the location of passes demonstrates his movement across the pitch with the vast majority of passes being in the opponents half of the field and moving forward.

This contrasts sharply with Banega. Designed as the central point in the attacking trident behind Valdez, Banega constantly dropped deep searching for the ball, in the process isolating Valdez. Too few of his passes were vertical identifying the inability of Valencia getting players forward in support of the attack, with Guardado and Feghouli very quiet, and the inability to search out Valdez accurately.

One of Valdez’s key attributes is his aerial ability yet Valencia only attempted eight crosses in the entire game and only three of these were successful.

A criticism of Valencia in the past has been that the team are two disconnected units, the defence and the attack with Banega being the key to link these elements. At La Rosaleda, there did not seem to be any attack to speak of. Valencia had only one of their five attempts at goal on target.

Banega was supposed to help Valencia retain possession and hurt Malaga yet whilst he achieved the former he badly failed with the latter. Which this may sound harsh on the midfielder, his performance was not aided by the general poor play of Valencia with sloppy passing and positional errors compounded this. Perhaps to much weight was placed on the shoulders of the player?

The Opening Goal

Malaga started the game very brightly and immediately pushed Valencia back into their own half.

The opening goal arrived in the 7th minute when Barragan failed to clear a deep cross into the penalty area. Eliseu collected the loose ball on the left wing and passed to Portillo who was standing in space at the edge of the penalty area with time to curl the ball into the net.

Portillo had drifted into this position from the right yet nobody had picked him up. Tino Costa had dropped between the centre backs at this stage. Why he had moved so deep was odd given that Malaga had few players in the penalty area.

The lethargy which was engulfing Valencia continued. Following kick off, Portillo won the ball back almost immediately. There was no response from Valencia to going a goal behind.

Wasteful Malaga

One of Malaga’s biggest problems last night was the inability score the second goal and provide a degree of breathing space. Although Saviola scored the crucial second goal in the 74th minute, he had chances much earlier which he failed to convert.

Saviola Shots vs Valencia                                              http://www.squawka.com

Malaga were finding too much space between the Valencia lines but were unable to take any of the opportunities that arrived. Malaga had 22 attempts at goal but only six hit the target.

Is Saviola the right man to lead the Malaga attack? He is mobile and can move laterally so is a good fit for the system but his goals return is poor. El Conejo has never been the most prolific of strikers but he is Malaga’s top goalscorer with four league goal from his ten appearances.

If this season is going to be successful for Malaga, they need to continue to share the goalscoring burden across the entire front line whilst also hoping that the likes of Eliseu can also continue to weigh in with a goal or two.

Two late goals followed and provided a scoreline which was more reflective of the game. Santa Cruz poked the ball home from close range following Jesus Gamez’ deflected shot. Again, Santa Cruz was in space and unmarked.

The fourth and final goal was a 20 yard strike from Isco into the bottom corner. Gathering possession some 25 yards out, Isco had time and space, a constant and concerning theme from the Valencia perspective, to move forward, compose himself and shoot.

Valencia Defensive Issues

A former Valencia defender, Pellegrino will need to examine the shape of his defence positionally. This was from an early stage with Barragan continually moving too close to his central defenders and allowing Malaga freedom on the left.

This manifested itself in the 18th minute when the entire defence shuffled over and nobody was near Eliseu when Malaga switched play. The full back managed to have a shot at goal. Shortly afterwards, Barragan was caught upfield and Isco was able to counter in the available space.

Whilst Malaga were pressing their opponent intelligently when the opportunity arose to win the ball back and dropping off when Valencia had more controlled possession, the visitors seemed to lose all shape at times. Their pressing was erratic and too many players became involved leaving space and gaps elsewhere. The short passing movements from Malaga were neatly aligned with longer passing when appropriate. It enabled them to open up space.

Only the wasteful finishing from Malaga, highlighted above, prevented the visitors from conceding further before the interval.

Valencia made 31 successful tackles form an attempted 37. Fernando Gago had 100% success rate with his 10 tackles. The Argentinean made a significant contribution to his side defensively and in various positions but too few of his team mates matched his efforts either in determination and workrate or quality.

Gago Tackles vs Malaga                                                   http://www.squawka.com

That he made so many tackles all over the pitch highlights his workrate but he should not have been required to make so many tackles in all over the pitch. What were his team mates doing?

Conclusions

An emphatic victory for Malaga and a crucial one at that. With Atleti, Barcelona and Real Madrid seemingly securing the top three positions, the race for fourth involves a number of teams. Malaga have given themselves a four point lead over one of their main rivals and returned to winning ways after a relatively lean spell in the process.

Having gone six games undefeated in all competitions, the nature of the loss to Malaga will arguably concern Pellgrino more than the actual defeat itself. Valencia were extremely poor and offered no resistance to their opponents. The poor away form must be addressed. The Mestalla is becoming a fortress once more for Los Che and with La Real up next, a team with an almost equally poor away record, Valencia have the ideal opportunity to bounce back.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com