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Chaos, monotony and late stability: A look at Málaga CF’s disastrous campaign from a tactical perspective – scout report

A decade ago, Málaga CF were riding high on a wave of optimism and excitement. Under the guidance of Manuel Pellegrini, the club achieved a fourth-place finish in La Liga and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in history. They went on to reach the quarter-finals of the competition, narrowly losing out to eventual finalists Borussia Dortmund. Málaga’s European campaign featured some impressive performances including a victory over A.C. Milan in the group stage. 

In the ten years since Málaga’s historic European run, the club has experienced several ups and downs. In the 2017/18 season, they were relegated to the second tier of Spanish football after finishing 20th in La Liga.

Since then, Málaga has been playing in the Segunda Division, with their best finish being third place in the 2018/19 season, narrowly missing out on a playoff spot for promotion. More recently, Málaga CF has struggled to make progress as they repeatedly find themselves sliding down the Segunda Division table. Last season, they only just avoided dropping into the third tier, finishing two points above the relegation zone.

The current campaign has been nothing short of disastrous for Málaga, they have struggled all season and find themselves in the relegation zone, eight points from safety. There has been the typical managerial merry-go-round which we have become accustomed to with teams fighting for survival. 

Until 20th September, Argentine Pablo Guede was in charge, but the club dismissed him due to a poor start to the season. Pepe Mel took over, but he was unable to turn their fortunes around and the club sacked him at the end of January. Since then, former Málaga player Sergio Pellicer has been leading the team. While he initially struggled to make an impact, there have been a few good results more recently, although it appears to be too little too late for a revival as the season comes to a close.

This tactical analysis will take the form of a scout report where we will analyse what has been going wrong for Málaga this season. We will take a look at what tactics the managers have been using and why they have failed to turn things around at the Andalusian club.

Data analysis and most used formations

The best place for us to start with this analysis is to take a look at how Málaga compare to their fellow Segunda Division teams. The thing that stands out like a sore thumb from the pizza chart above is that there are clearly issues at both ends of the pitch. We can see that Málaga rank incredibly low in terms of xG per 90 which suggests they are not creating many chances. However, a minor source of relief for this team could be that they are performing considerably higher in terms of goals per 90.

Additionally, we can see that this Málaga side doesn’t see copious amounts of possession during their games but certainly more than some Segunda Division teams. They rank reasonably high in terms of recoveries per 90 and PPDA which suggests there are some defensive efforts by way of pressing going on but it would appear they are ineffectual at best.

As expected with a team that has had three managers this season, there have been a multitude of formations used. Pablo Guede mostly favoured a 4-4-2 whilst Pepe Mel alternated between a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1. All three can fluidly turn into each formation so it’s highly likely that Mel was making tactical changes based on what he saw on the pitch. Sergio Pellicer initially stuck with a 4-1-4-1 formation but has recently switched to a 5-4-1 and 5-3-2 set up which has coincided with a slight upturn in results for this Málaga side.

Perhaps then, the best way to structure this analysis is for us to take a look at Málaga throughout the season so we can analyse whether there has been a common thread throughout each manager’s reign which has impacted the poor results this season.

Pablo Guede’s time in charge: A chaotic six games

Figure 1.1

One immediately noticeable aspect of Málaga under Pablo Guede is the amount of space they were prepared to give the opponent. From the start of the 2022/23 season until the 20th of September (when Guede was relieved of his duties), Málaga conceded 12 goals in six games, from an xGA of 8.33 and it’s relatively easy to see why. 

It was back in August when Las Palmas played against Málaga and Figure 1.1 illustrates how easily the Las Palmas team managed to play through Málaga’s defence. Although Las Palmas won the game 4-0, they could have scored more.

If we divert our attention back to Figure 1.1, we can see that Las Palmas has been able to travel up the pitch without being challenged by anyone in midfield. In this game, Guede used a 4-2-3-1 formation and as we can see, one of the defensive midfielders would drop back to form a block of five.

However, it is largely ineffectual as Jiménez has plenty of options available. He either can take on the defender, which means there is plenty of space down the wing for him to get a cross in. Alternatively, he could look to play a ball over the top to the Las Palmas player looking to beat the offside trap or he could play a short pass to the teammate closest to him in acres of space.

Figure 1.2
Figure 1.3

Moreover, what is concerning, especially at this early stage in the season, is the general lack of urgency in Málaga’s defensive play. In Figure 1.2 we can see that Guede’s side has attempted to build up from the back and launch an attack. However, with no viable passing lanes available, they soon turn over possession.

There is then a really slow reaction from the Málaga players as Las Palmas looks to counterattack quickly. Jiménez has plenty of space to make a run into the penalty area, the body orientation of Rivas means it is unlikely he would be able to block the Las Palmas attacker. Also, there is space on the wing to attack and play a cross into the box. Just putting this example into the context of this specific game itself, it is rather worrying as at this point it was 0-0 and Málaga were still very much in with an opportunity of picking up some points.

Figure 1.4

We saw from the pizza chart that there was some form of pressing involved in Málaga’s style of play this season. Málaga completed 75 counter-pressing recoveries during the six league games Guede was in the dugout. We can see here, in Figure 1.4, taken from a victory against Mirandés, Guede asked his team to initiate a counter-press when they had lost possession. In this case, it worked to a tee as they quickly recovered possession and were able to counterattack and, as a result, went 1-0 up.

Pepe Mel’s tenure: counterattacking football

As we established, under Guede, Los Albicelestes were haemorrhaging goals at a rapid rate, Pepe Mel was brought in on the proviso he could plug the gaps, or at least paper over the cracks enough to give Málaga a fighting chance this season. In one sense, it could be said that Pepe Mel achieved this as the number of goals conceded per game was reduced. However, his time in charge at Estadio La Rosaleda was littered with 1-0 losses which of course have proven to be detrimental to what he was trying to achieve in fixing the defensive issues.

The 0-0 draw with Andorra which came a few weeks into Pepe Mel’s tenure is depicted in Figures 2.1 and 2.2. We can see that despite only being in charge for a few weeks at this point, defensively Málaga are much more structured and it’s a little less chaotic. In this particular game, Mel sent his team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation which became a fairly compact 4-4-2 in the defensive phase. This enabled Málaga to set up in two solid banks of four which made it much easier for them to cut off passing lanes and more difficult for the opposition to play through the lines.

In this specific example, we can also see that Pepe Mel has ensured there is a Málaga player on the opposite wing. Should a switch of play take place, he has the opportunity to intercept or at least ensure the opposition doesn’t have a clear run into the penalty area.

Pepe Mel had a different style of play compared to Pablo Guede. Mel preferred his team to sit back and soak up the pressure before looking to counterattack. This style of play allowed the team to maintain a solid defensive structure, as demonstrated earlier. By catching the opposition off-guard with quick attacks, Málaga can exploit errors and create goal-scoring opportunities that the opposition may not be expecting.

Under Pepe Mel’s leadership, Málaga scored an average of 0.78 goals per 90 in 19 league games, which amounts to a total of 15 goals. In comparison, under Guede, they only scored six goals in six games. However, it’s worth noting that Mel had a longer tenure, which slightly skews the data. Regardless, it’s clear that goals have not been abundant at La Rosaleda this season.

Here, in Figures 2.3 and 2.4, we can see Málaga executing a counterattack to perfection. Los Albicelestes have regained possession and have rapidly transitioned from defence to attack. They are getting forward in numbers and in Figure 2.4 there is a 2v1 situation in their favour. The Lugo defender is preoccupied with the off-the-ball movement of Pablo Hervías which leaves Rubén Castro open to receive a pass.

Figures 2.5 and 2.6 represent a continuation of the sequence. Castro receives the ball and lays it off into the path of Dani Lorenzo who promptly dribbles the ball into the penalty area and places a shot past the reach of the goalkeeper to make it 3-0 to the hosts.

Can Sergio Pellicer be the saviour?

Since taking over on the 25th of January, Sergio Pellicer has overseen a positive change in Málaga’s style of play. Results were a little tough going at first but more recently, the club have picked up three wins on the bounce, something which hasn’t happened previously this season.

Additionally, under Pellicer, Málaga have scored 15 goals in 15 games which is the best-attacking output of any manager this season, meanwhile, at the opposite end of the pitch, they have conceded twelve goals so far. This indicates there has been a change of fortunes to some extent. This section of the scout report will focus on Pellicer’s time in charge and what changes he has made to Málaga.

Positive attacking play

Figure 3.1

With Sergio Pellicer at the helm, Málaga are so much more positive in possession. They look to transition quickly and play progressive passes through the lines or over the top of the opposition’s defensive line. The quick transitions mean that Málaga can catch the opposing team off guard, allowing for a faster and more efficient move towards the opponent’s goal. 

Passes over the top of the defensive line are proving to be useful to Pellicer’s side as they provide a direct and efficient way to move the ball forward. As we can see in Figure 3.1, they are looking to play a pass in behind the defence, this is a good tool in Málaga’s arsenal as they can use the pace of Lago Júnior or, alternatively, they can use the excellent off-the-ball movement of Fran Sol to provide them with an attacking outlet.

Figure 3.2

Additionally, as expected with a 5-4-1 system, Málaga’s attacking play is much more focused in the wide areas now. As we can see in Figure 3.2, Cristian Gutiérrez is in possession on the left wing and is looking for a runner so he can play the ball in behind the defensive line. A pass behind the defensive line can create one-on-one situations for attacking players against the opposition’s defenders. In this case, it means that Málaga would be in a great position to get a cross into the box.

Figure 3.3

The rapid transitions mentioned previously can be seen here in Figure 3.3. Málaga have turned over possession and are looking to break. One pass down the line to the attacker means that they will be in the final third. Moreover, by dragging the opponent out to the wide areas, there is plenty of space in central areas for other attacking players to exploit.

More efficient in the press

Figure 3.4

Málaga are much more efficient in their pressing under Sergio Pellicer compared with the rather frenetic attempts that occurred during Pablo Guede’s time in charge. Under Pellicer, the press is much more organised and structured. High pressing is not necessarily a key element of Pellicer’s tactics but it is something Málaga will do at various points throughout a game in order to force the opposition into errors. Figure 3.4 shows Málaga initiating a high press. We can clearly see the multitude of players in blue and white stripes, ready to cut off any passing lanes.

The data visual above provides us with the numbers behind Málaga’s pressing since the arrival of Sergio Pellicer. We can see they have completed 232 counter-pressing recoveries, with 123 of them being in the opposition’s defensive third. 29 of those recoveries have been dangerous, meaning they have led to a shot. Initiating a press is very often something Málaga like to do when they are looking to bring about a faster tempo of play. As the numbers show, it is not an integral aspect of their tactics but something they turn to when looking to change the pace of the game. 

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 shows us Málaga’s defensive set-up under Sergio Pellicer. They usually take up a 5-3-2 formation in the defensive phase of play. We can see the flat-back five in the image. We can also see that they are quite compact, similar to how they were set up under Pepe Mel. There is not too much space between the lines which means they are much more difficult to play through, especially compared with Guede’s tenure. This solid defensive structure has given Málaga much more confidence and also allowed them to engage in much more positive attacking play as discussed previously.

Cover on the counter

Figure 3.6

Finally, of course, the 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 that Pellicer favours means that there are three centre-backs. They don’t act as ‘wide centre-backs’. Instead, Pellicer adopts a more traditional approach and asks the three central defenders to focus primarily on defending. The central defender will often stay a little deeper in order to provide cover should the opposition have the opportunity to counterattack.

We can see in Figure 3.6, Málaga have turned over possession and Lugo are looking to counter. The three centre-backs are retreating as highlighted. The third defender means that he can go over towards the attacker and create a 2v1 situation in Málaga’s favour which instantly gives them a higher chance of regaining possession or, at the very least, preventing the counterattack from turning into anything significant.


It’s been a tough time for Málaga in the decade since appearing in that Champions League quarter-final. Last season was incredibly tough for the fans to endure and the current campaign has been much the same.

The start of the season with Pablo Guede at the helm was unbelievably chaotic with the defence shipping goals at an alarming rate and a lack of goals at the other end. His replacement in the form of Pepe Mel, did manage to paper over the cracks to an extent. He brought about some level of defensive stability but largely failed to make enough of an impact.

Sergio Pellicer has been a positive influence on the team. There appears to be much more freedom in their style of play. The players are more positive in attack whilst still sticking to some of the defensive principles instilled by the previous manager. 

Overall, it has been a poor season for Málaga and they are unquestionably suffering the consequences of an incredibly poor run during the first half of the season. With relegation almost a certainty after the recent loss to Ponferradina, it looks like the decade of decline is set to continue.