‘La Liga’

Pitchside Europe: European Team of the Season

“Zlatan Ibrahimović enjoyed his most prolific season to date with Milan, Bayern Munich’s Mario Gómez plundered goals with remarkable consistency, and Falcao shot Atletico Madrid to Europa League glory, but Huntelaar outscored them all. The Dutchman’s sparkling partnership with Raúl fired Schalke to Champions League qualification and with 29 goals, he trailed only Messi, Ronaldo and Robin van Persie in the running for the European Golden Shoe.”

Pitchside Europe signed off for the 2011-2012 campaign by selecting a team of the season from players plying their trade outside the English Premier League. You can see the team (and then vent your spleen about my preposterous selections) here.

Pitchside Europe: Why do Messi and Ronaldo score so many goals?

“Last season they both scored 53 goals for their respective clubs. Since Ronaldo joined Madrid in 2009, he has scored 126 goals in 127 games. Over the same period, Messi has scored 150 goals in 151 games. The diminishing goals-per-game ratio at the World Cup — an established barometer for long-term football trends — proves that the sport is becoming more defensive, and yet Messi and Ronaldo are scoring at a faster rate by the season. So what’s the secret?”

My latest Pitchside Eurosport blog for Eurosport, on why Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are able to score goals at such a strikingly anachronistic rate, can be read here.

Pitchside Europe: Málaga project still awaiting take-off

“Boasting the third-largest budget in La Liga this season (€150 million), the Andalucian club were tipped to become credible rivals to Barcelona and Real Madrid but despite briefly topping the table at the beginning of October, they have failed to put any pressure on the top two. A six-game winless run either side of Christmas saw Manuel Pellegrini’s side slip to 10th in La Liga and although they went into Monday’s trip to neighbours Granada only four points outside the Champions League places, they were only six points above the relegation zone as well.”

This week’s Pitchside Europe blog, on Málaga’s stuttering challenge for Champions League qualification, can be read here.

Tactics: How Barcelona have changed football

Tiny cracks may be starting to appear in the previously impregnable armour of Barcelona, with Real Madrid rampant and Pep Guardiola’s side rudely obliged to play catch-up, but this team’s place in history is already secure. The trophies and the unique, hypnotic passing style have made sure of that, but less remarked upon is the tactical legacy that they have bequeathed to the game.

As the first budding usupers begin to congregate at the gates of the Barca citadel, Football Further looks at five tactical maxims that Guardiola and his team have torn to shreds.

1. ‘Don’t mess around with it at the back’

As any Sunday league football captain will be only too happy to tell you, trying to play your way out of trouble in defence is the game’s cardinal sin. “Not there! Not there!” is the cry whenever a full-back checks inside and seeks to pick out a defensive colleague, or – heaven forbid – a centre-back attempts to carry the ball out from inside his own penalty area.

Professional football, particularly in England, can take a surprisingly similar view of players who try to build up play from the back, but Barcelona’s commitment to guarding possession extends to all areas of the pitch. Yes, passes inside your own area carry a risk heavier than passes made anywhere else on the pitch, but if you trust yourself to pass the ball five yards to a team-mate, why would that trust suddenly evaporate merely because you happen to be close to your own goal?

If anything, Barca’s players almost seem to enjoy playing each other into trouble at times, because they know their team-mates have been taught how to protect the ball properly. It is thanks to this confidence that they are able to rattle passes at each other at such an astonishing tempo, regardless of where they are on the pitch.

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Pitchside Europe: Does Higuaín cramp Ronaldo’s style?

“The statistics over the last two seasons add weight to the theory that Ronaldo is more inclined to adopt the role of a creator – and suppress his own goalscoring instincts – when Higuaín is in the team. Since the start of the 2009-10 campaign, Ronaldo has started 39 league games alongside Higuaín, scoring 40 goals at a rate of 1.03 per game. Over the same period, Ronaldo’s goals-per-game ratio when he starts alongside Benzema is slightly higher, at 1.125. The assist figures tell a similar story. With Benzema next to him at kick-off, Ronaldo produces an average of 0.25 assists per match. Alongside Higuaín, that figure climbs to 0.41.”

This week’s Pitchside Europe column for Eurosport can be read here.

Pitchside Europe: Valencia – running to stand still

“Improving on last year’s league placing, however, appears impossible. Valencia lost all four games against Barça and Real last season – going down 6-3 at home to the latter in April – and the big two look even stronger than they were a year ago. Valencia also face fresh competition from newly rich Málaga, while Villarreal, Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will have designs on third place as well. Llorente and Emery may have brought a sliver of optimism to a debt-laden club, and Emery may dream of “creating a great team”, but Valencia’s biggest challenge this season will be simply staying where they are.”

My latest column for Eurosport, on the multiple challenges that Valencia are having to juggle as they seek to break up the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly in La Liga, can be read here.

What does Mourinho have on the drawing board?

In January this year, Football Further examined the first few months of Manuel Pellegrini’s stint as Real Madrid coach and discovered that he fielded 16 different midfield and attack configurations in his first 16 league matches. Pellegrini’s time at Real ended in disappointment – despite phenomenal success in the goalscoring department – and a look at how his successor, José Mourinho, has approached team selection in the early weeks of his tenure reveals a very different style.

Where Pellegrini chopped and changed (unaided, it must be said, by injuries to key players), Mourinho quickly settled on a first-choice XI and has sought to deploy it at every available opportunity. Below are the midfield/attack combinations that Mourinho has used in the league this season, in the order in which they have appeared:

1. Xabi Alonso, Lassana Diarra; Ángel di María, Sergio Canales, Cristiano Ronaldo; Gonzalo Higuaín (0-0 v Mallorca, a)
2. Alonso, Sami Khedira; Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (1-0 v Osasuna, h)
3. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (2-1 v Real Sociedad, a)
4. Alonso, L. Diarra; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (3-0 v Espanyol, h)
5. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (0-0 v Levante, a)
6. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (6-1 v Deportivo, h)
7. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (4-1 v Malaga, a)
8. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (6-1 v Racing Santander, h)
9. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (3-1 v Hercules, a)
10. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (2-0 v Atlético, h)
11. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (1-0 v Sporting Gijon, a)
12. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (5-1 v Athletic Bilbao, h)
13. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Benzema (0-5 v Barcelona, a)

The consistency is striking. Prior to Real’s humiliation at Barcelona on Monday night, Mourinho had aligned the same six players in midfield and attack for eight successive games, and had Higuaín not sustained a back muscle injury prior to the trip to Camp Nou, it is certain that that statistic would have been extended to nine games.

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Tactics: Fluid Real dance to Mesut Özil’s rhythm

As the latest batch of world-class international players joined the assembly line at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu over the summer, speculation quickly turned to how José Mourinho would attempt to shape his talent-packed Real Madrid squad into a cohesive team. Two games into the La Liga campaign, his strategy is gradually beginning to emerge.

The diagram below, a screenshot from ESPN Soccernet, shows the average positions of Real’s players during the 1-0 victory at home to Osasuna on Saturday*:

The average positions of Real Madrid's players in their 1-0 win at home to Osasuna on September 11 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[Squad numbers: 1. Iker Casillas; 4. Sergio Ramos, 3. Pepe, 2. Ricardo Carvalho, 12. Marcelo; 24. Sami Khedira, 14. Xabi Alonso; 9. Karim Benzema, 23. Mesut Özil, 20. Gonzalo Higuaín, 7. Cristiano Ronaldo; Substitutes: 11. Esteban Granero, 21. Pedro León]

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Tactics: Van der Vaart gives Pellegrini food for thought

The first-choice starting XI may have become an outmoded concept in 21st-century football, where squad rotation is now the accepted norm, but Manuel Pellegrini’s tinkering at Real Madrid this season has been enthusiastic even by modern standards.

The Chilean has fielded no less than 16 different combinations in midfield and attack since the start of the La Liga campaign and is yet to name the same team for two league games in succession. Below are the midfield/attack combinations Pellegrini has deployed in the league in 2009-10, in the order in which they have appeared:

1. Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso; Kaká, Raúl; Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema (3-2 v Deportivo, h)
2. Alonso, Guti; Kaka, Esteban Granero; Gonzalo Higuaín, Benzema (3-0 v Espanyol, a)
3. L. Diarra, Fernando Gago; Kaká, Raúl; Ronaldo, Benzema (5-0 v Xerez, h)
4. Gago, Guti; Kaká, Granero; Ronaldo, Higuaín (2-0 v Villarreal, a)
5. L. Diarra, Alonso; Granero, Raúl; Ronaldo, Benzema (3-0 v Tenerife, h)
6. Mahamadou Diarra, Alonso; Kaká, Guti; Raúl, Benzema (1-2 v Sevilla, a)
7. L. Diarra, Alonso; Granero, Rafael van der Vaart; Raúl, Benzema (4-2 v Valladolid, h)
8. M. Diarra, Alonso; Granero, Kaká, Royston Drenthe; Raúl (0-0 v Gijon, a)
9. L. Diarra, Alonso; Kaká, Marcelo; Higuaín, Benzema (2-0 v Getafe, h; 3-2 v Atlético, a)
10. Alonso, Granero; Kaká, Drenthe; Higuaín, Benzema (1-0 v Racing, h)
11. L. Diarra, Alonso; Kaká, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (0-1 v Barcelona, a)
12. Alonso, van der Vaart; Granero, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (4-2 v Almería, h)
13. L. Diarra, Alonso; van der Vaart, Marcelo; Higuaín, Benzema (3-2 v Valencia, a)
14. L. Diarra, M. Diarra; van der Vaart, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (6-0 v Zaragoza, h)
15. L. Diarra, Alonso; van der Vaart, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (0-0 v Osasuna, a)
16. Gago, Alonso; van der Vaart, Kaká; Ronaldo, Higuaín (2-0 v Mallorca, h)

Pellegrini’s preferred formation, as he outlines in this video from the UEFA Training Ground website, is a 4-2-2-2. The team’s attack is founded upon a two-man defensive midfield pairing, with two multi-faceted attacking midfielders operating behind two forwards (Brazil lined up in similar fashion at the 2006 World Cup, but with less than spectacular results).

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Tactics: Plan B Ibrahimović vindicates Guardiola’s vision

It is always sweeter for Barcelona when they beat Real Madrid thanks to one of their own; a player schooled in the traditions of pass-and-move, 4-3-3 and the Johan Cruyff school of tactical responsibility at their fabled academy. A Xavi. An Andrés Iniesta. A Lionel Messi. On Sunday night, by contrast, it was a goal from record signing Zlatan Ibrahimović that allowed them to overcome their old rivals, but rather than a betrayal of Barca’s traditions, the Swede’s strike was a thumping vindication of manager Pep Guardiola’s clear-sighted and courageous recruitment strategy.

Real took to the field at Camp Nou with a line-up featuring some £185 million of new recruits and produced a commendably tenacious showing for a side supposedly beset by unsolvable tactical conundrums and plagued by implacable egos. They worked hard, pressing high up the pitch as Barcelona did throughout last season, and their threat on the counter-attack was borne out by a spate of first-half chances that could easily have seen them take a 1-0 lead into the interval.

This Barcelona, however, is a different beast. Last season their fêted passing carousel swept all before them but they received an almighty scare that they were lucky to survive when they eked past Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final after seeing their flowing football squeezed half to death by the Londoners’ muscular midfield.

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