La Liga 2019/20: Is Valencia’s midfield underperforming? – scout report
Valencia are one of the most perplexing teams in the global game.
Sure, they won their UEFA Champions League group. They’re also seventh in La Liga, just four points out of the top four.
Keep in mind that this is the same team that lost 4-1 to relegation fighters Mallorca and have a spotty record against the bottom half of La Liga, collecting seven wins, three draws and four losses.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll look into Valencia’s performances, gauging where their performances rate among the La Liga sides. With the information we uncover in the first category, we’ll (spoiler alert) look into the reasons this extremely talented side is wildly underperforming. Our attention will focus on the midfield, particularly through a scout report on the central players.
Evaluating Valencia’s season
Let’s jump into this analysis with a look at xG vs xGA chart for La Liga. In this plot, the elite clubs are converging on the bottom-right portion of the graphic, whereas the relegation fighters are diametrically opposed. While Valencia rank ninth in La Liga with an xG tally of 32.59, their 44.8 xGA is the second-worst in the Spanish top flight, training only Levante. The nearest team to Valencia in the chart is Mallorca, the newly-promoted side sitting in 18th place and on the brink of relegation back to the Segunda Liga.
While expected goals and goals against tell us something of the quality of a team’s performances, we can take our investigation further by comparing the deviation of points from expected points. In this chart, we again see the top six clubs in La Liga grouping together, this time in the top right-hand corner. For the season, Valencia has a respectable 42 points, keeping them within shouting distance of UEFA Champions League qualification. However, based on their performances, they have a 30.7 xP. Round that number up to 31 and this same side would place 14th in La Liga, just six points out of the drop. In terms of xP, they rate 17th out of the league’s 20 clubs.
Something is clearly awry in Valencia. A squad value of $468.82m makes them the fourth most valuable team in Spain. A lack of talent is clearly not the issue. Looking at the xG and xGA stat categories, this immensely talented side is producing average attacking numbers, pairing them with painfully bad defensive performances. Opponents are outshooting them 14.46 to 9.87 Even though Valencia’s xG per shot is one of the highest in the league at 13.9, this side is fortunate to be four points out of a UEFA Champions League spot.
Given the nature of the goals against and the mediocre production at the other end of the pitch, an analysis of the midfield seemed the first place to start.
Are the centre-midfielders hurting the team?
If you look at WhoScored.com or any player rating system, Dani Parejo is the undisputed leader of this team. In fact, you might conclude that he’s the only player currently pulling his weight.
That’s where the numbers lie.
In all competitions, Parejo has 10 goals and six assists, but the nature of those goals are equally significant. The captain is currently the team’s penalty taker and a phenomenal set piece taker. Goals and assists originating from those actions have greatly inflated his season statistics. In the run of play, he has one goal and two assists in 37 matches. He is currently playing as more of a deep-lying playmaker in Albert Celades’ 4-4-2 flat midfield, so the opportunities are not as plentiful from his common starting point. However, with his distribution skills and Valencia’s talent at wide midfield and forward, you’d think his deep-lying role would help initiate counterattacks.
With his precision, Valencia made a name for themselves in previous seasons as one of the top counterattacking sides in Spain, averaging 4.37 counterattacks per game last season, 1.36 ending in a shot (31%). This season, the side is averaging 3.64 per game, but only 0.82 culminating in a shot, leaving them with a 22% success rate.
Without much success on the counterattack, Valencia’s open possessions have required the outside-backs to move higher up the pitch in support of the wingers. Parejo moves higher up the pitch as well, leaving fellow-pivot Geoffrey Kondogbia to single-handedly cover the two centre-backs.
As you can see on their respective heat maps, Parejo drifts around the pitch, more or less enjoying a free role. While that helps him find opportunities to assist the attack, that leaves Kondogbia with the sole responsibility of covering the centre of the pitch.
While Kondogbia’s heat map shows a player who’s relatively stable in the middle of the pitch, he is extremely aggressive in the press. In part, that’s down to Valencia’s tactics, leaving him as the sole protector of the centre-backs. Without the help of his fellow midfielders, Kondogbia must either aggressively pressure or drop off. He will typically opt to pressure, leaving him with an all or nothing tackle attempt. If he loses, Valencia might as well offer to add the opposition’s goal to the scoreboard.
Kondogbia’s role is well-suited for a 4-4-2 flat midfield. He’s incredibly athletic and an excellent tackler. His side can rely on him to put in a tackle and make the recovery. While he’s not an elite passer, he has the range and ability to consistently relaunch the attack. At times, his decision making is suspect, as you’ll see very soon, but he fits the tactics.
With Ferran Torres and Carlos Soler providing width and playmaking through the dribble, they too seem to fit what Celades is trying to accomplish with his attacking tactics. If you’ve watched this Valencia side, you know Torres is a star in the making and Soler is a solid, though not a spectacular winger. Add in the energy of the outside-backs and you’ve got a standing relationship out wide that’s reasonably effective.
If those four players are all engaged higher up the pitch, it’s tactically astute to have two defensive-minded centre-midfielders to offer coverage. Connecting with their centre-backs, the resulting square keeps teams from attacking directly down the central channel. Though Kondogbia fits that mould, Parejo doesn’t.
In a recent 3-0 defeat to Real Sociedad, a match with Champions League implications, the 48th minute saw Valencia aggressively counterpress after a turnover. With a 11.86 PPDA (passes per defensive action), this is not a side that counterpresses well, and it showed in this sequence. While Valencia get numbers around the ball, Sociedad is quietly moving numbers between the lines, preparing to launch an attack. Look at the massive shaded area behind Parejo that’s available to Martin Ødegaard.
Sociedad played forward, but Mikel Oyarzabal was forced backwards. Notice the defensive interaction of Mouctar Diakhaby and Daniel Wass. Diakhaby funnels Oyarzabal into the path of Wass, but, instead of assisting with the tackle, the Dane makes a temporary positional switch with his centre-back. That odd decision allowed Oyarzabal to dribble unopposed into the midfield.
As Diakhaby backed off, again leaving us perplexed, Real Sociedad is able to turn and play out of pressure. Even with play returning to the midfield, Parejo has failed to identify Ødegaard and Kondogbia is late to pressure, which is reasonable given the odd drop off from Diakhaby. If anything, Kondogbia should have pressured the dribble moments earlier. With the defence in shambles, Ødegaard is able to receive between the lines, initiating the move towards goal.
The midfield fails to recover and Sociedad’s combination springs Adnan Januzaj into the right-half space. Not only is he free to sprint forward, but the situation is also hurt by Sociedad’s ability to run directly at the Valencia backline. With Ødegaard receiving and laying the ball to his streaking teammate, it’s full-blown chaos at the back.
This shot from Januzaj is too beautiful to leave out. While you can argue Jaume should have done better given his positioning and the distance of the shot, it’s a perfectly hit ball. The bigger issue is the poor containment by Jaume Costa. No one in the Valencia side manages to complicate the angle to goal, not do they deal with the run of Alexander Isak, who could easily have been played through the central channel. The midfield’s inability to either recover the ball or commit a foul allowed Real Sociedad to run at the vulnerable backline. This was poor defending every step of the way, but the early errors in the midfield led to the progression of the play.
Fielding two defensive-minded players in the middle
So what’s the solution?
In the current season, the options are sparse. A change of tactics to a 4-2-3-1 could allow Celades to push Parejo higher up the pitch into a #10 role. That would allow someone like Francis Coquelin to move into the starting XI. With the defensive coverage behind him, Parejo could play in a similar vein to Papu Gómez of Atalanta, drifting freely between the lines, temporarily switching roles with his pivots if necessary.
Another option is removing Parejo from the lineup. If Coquelin started next to Kondogbia, Valencia would have a strong central core to fight off counterattacks and close the gap between the lines. While Parejo’s creativity and distributions are missed, especially in set piece scenarios, the defensive security added through Coquelin presents more advantages than disadvantages. He was excellent against Barcelona, showing a strong sense of chemistry with Kondogbia and the centre-backs.
Given the quality Valencia have in the wings and the scoring of Maxi Gómez, a central creative isn’t necessarily needed. With Gonçalo Guedes’ return to health, Valencia can also utilize his pace and ability in that left-midfield role. If a creative force is needed, Rodrigo Moreno, once the star of the team, can play the second striker role. While he hasn’t shown his best this season, he’s both a capable goal-scorer and passer. Showing faith in him, along with these other moves, offers a Valencia both the defensive stability and attacking threat it needs. At the very least, Coquelin’s return to the holding mid role could pay dividends.
As mentioned, he had a really strong match against Barcelona. He and Kondogbia showed really nice understanding of each other. In this sequence, Barcelona was targeting Lionel Messi between the lines. As we saw in the Real Sociedad sequence, that was a reasonable plan of attack. However, Coquelin managed the play well, identifying the checking run of Messi and keeping him from playing forward.
After a brief sequence of Barcelona passes, they again attempted to attack in the right-half space, but Kondogbia funnelled Arthur into the sliding tackle of Coquelin. Unable to target Messi in the right-half space, Barcelona switched play again, looking for another route to goal.
The first example came in an open attack. This one features transitional defending courtesy of a poor Kondogbia pass. He passed the ball directly to Griezmann, showing some of the poor decision making mentioned earlier in the analysis. Before the Frenchman could put a foot on the ball, the counterattack was on. Notice Coquelin readying for his recovery run.
Unlike the Sociedad sequence, the two holding midfielder closed the gap between the lines and delayed the counterattack. The resulting pass went straight to Wass, allowing Valencia to relaunch the attack. A poor passing angle, slow pace to the attack and sound defensive recovery led to the turnover. The xG battle was 1.50 to 1.49 in Barcelona’s favour, but that xGA still beat the season average of 1.64, Given that the opponent was the league leader in xG, that’s not a shabby number.
Despite their wild bouts of inconsistency, this Valencia side is still within reach of the final UEFA Champions League spot. When the season continues, Celades will have to show that he’s identified the underlying reasons for the poor performances and make the necessary corrections.
Though injuries have certainly played a role in Valencia’s inconsistencies, a formation that better suites the available personnel or a change in the starting XI is necessary. Parejo is a fan favourite, but, given the flat midfield four, his defensive weaknesses stand out. Starting with a change in the midfield, either catering to Parejo’s skillset or inserting Coquelin, seems necessary for Valencia to save their season.