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Behind Enemy Lines: Deportivo Alavés

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Alavés are unfortunately one of the big candidates for relegation this season. What got them there and how do they match up against Real Madrid?

Deportivo Alaves v Real Betis Sevilla - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Season Expectations

Alavés were promoted back to La Liga in 2016, and this is their fifth consecutive season in the first division. They have mostly inhabited the bottom half of the league table during the last four years, but achieved respectable mid-table finishes under Mauricio Pellegrino (9th place in the 2016-17 season) and Abelardo (11th place in 2018-19).

However, Alavés have slowly seen player talent leave the club and move on to bigger opportunities while not being able to replace them. This is what happened with defender Guillermo Maripán, midfielder Mubarak Wakaso, and winger Ibai Gómez in the last two years. A team with Alavés’ few resources can often just secure good players via loan deals, but that means that there is a lot of squad turnover every year. It’s hard to built a good and balanced team under those circumstances.

Things got worse with COVID and the economic crisis. Alavés minimized their transfer spending and only brought in new players through free transfers, loan deals, and youth squad promotions. This is a particularly big problem when you realize that their coach for this season is Pablo Machín. He is a good manager, but he plays a very specific system that usually requires particular player profiles and extra signings. Alavés could not acquire those targets (especially in the wing-back positions) and that means that Machin must work with a squad that doesn’t seem like a great fit for his usual game plan. All in all, Alavés will be lucky if they manage to avoid relegation this year.

Lineup and Game Plan

Pablo Machín became a well-known name in La Liga due to his 2017/18 Girona side, which obtained excellent results through a curious but super optimized 3-4-2-1 setup. Machín has been closely associated with back three formations ever since. He enjoyed less success in his managerial spells at Sevilla—who cut him off midseason after a bad streak—and Espanyol—whom he couldn’t save from relegation.

Machín likes to set up his sides to attack quickly, either with long balls to big strikers (like he did in Sevilla) or through wing-back runs (like he did in Girona). His Girona side pressed extremely aggressively, but Machín has never been able to reproduce that kind of pressing intensity and effectiveness in his later projects.

His Alavés side defends in a more passive mid block, where the forwards are not so active in pressing (except for Joselu) but the midfielders put in a huge pressing shift. So the opponent might be able to play out from the back at first, but once they try to move into Alavés’ half, the midfielders will hound opponents until they win the ball. As far as team shape, Machín has shown some willingness to adapt and forego his usual back three. The team often defends with a back four (4-4-2), especially in big games. But when they have the ball, Alavés often looks like a 3-5-2, with several players having key roles in this formation transition. Edgar Méndez might defend as a right winger in the 4-4-2, but when Alavés has the ball he behaves as a right wing-back. On the other side, Rubén Duarte might defend as a left back in the 4-4-2, but when Alavés has the ball he behaves like the left wing-back. These behaviors are shown in the passmap below.

Even when they play a nominal 4-4-2, Alavés look a lot like a 3-5-2 when they have the ball.
Source: Between The Posts https://betweentheposts.net/match-plots/

Alavés’ biggest strengths lie “in the boxes“. At the back, in their own box, they have a solid keeper in Fernando Pacheco and center backs—Rodrigo Ely, Rubén Duarte, Victor Laguardia, Florian Lejeune—who are not super dominant but are experienced and make few big mistakes. Both Pacheco and his defenders are not performing as well as they did 1-2 years ago, but they are still a very solid back line for a team that’s trying to escape relegation.

Real Madrid CF v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Up front, in the opposition box, they have a great strike partnership in Joselu and Lucas Pérez. Joselu stands at 1.92 meters, making him dominant in the air and a great target man. He also has a good defensive work rate and presses actively. Pérez, on the other hand, is the smaller, more mobile and creative of the two. Last season, the pair scored a combined 22 goals, which was 65% of Alavés’ total in the league. If the duo can replicate that this season, Alavés will likely avoid relegation.

The problem with Alavés has more to do with the midfield and wing-back areas. Midfielders Rodrigo Battaglia, Tomas Pina, and Pere Pons have good defensive work rates and tactical intelligence, but are not creative with the ball. A similar thing could be said of the wing-back: Edgar Méndez / Ximo Navarro on the right and Luis Rioja / Ruben Duarte on the left. This makes it a bit harder for Alavés to create chances from the wings and provide service to their good pair of strikers.

Current Form

Source: Transfermarkt https://www.transfermarkt.com/deportivo-alaves/spielplan/verein/1108

Alavés are 15th in the table and close to the relegation zones at the moment. This aligns with their underlying expected goal (xG) numbers, which are those of a low-mid table team. According to FBREF, their xG created per 90 minutes ranks at a very respectable 10th place. This is interesting because Alavés generate very few shots per game (8.5), but they have the highest xG / shot in the league (0.14). This means that Alavés do not create many chances, but those they do fashion are of good quality. On the defensive end, Alavés rank 14th in xG conceded per 90. Again, not great, but not relegation level.

Alavés haven’t lost any of their last four games and it looks like Machín is learning to adapt to his squad and get his message across to the players. Against Valladolid, Alavés got a bit lucky since the opponent had an early sending off in the 21st minute, leading to a penalty. That allowed them to easily control the game and get another goal in the second half.

Then came the game against Barcelona, where they were handily outshot and outplayed by a better team. However, thanks to a massive blunder from keeper Neto, Alavés got a free goal in the first half that they attempted to defend. A red card in the second period complicated things for Alavés, but they managed to keep the game at a draw thanks to some heroic defending, including some big saves from Pacheco. The games against Levante and Valencia saw Alavés score early in the game and try to sit back and defend the lead, but in both cases the opposition scored and split the points.

Even though Alavés have seen a slight improvement in results, these games have shown that executing the game plan is still a work in progress and that key players are still not reaching their best form. Alavés only produces about 4-5 open play chances per game, usually on the counter or through wing play. Pressing is timid and rarely leads to chances. The deep block far is from being impenetrable and compact. Meanwhile, Lucas Pérez and Joselu are not producing goals at the same rate as last season nor having as much impact in games.

Matchup against Real Madrid

This is another contest where Real have to deal with key absences: Ramos, Carvajal, Valverde, Benzema. Jović is still out due to COVID and Odriozola is also out due to injury. There are not many doubts about who will start in the XI, except for a couple of positions. At right back, we would expect Lucas Vázquez to feature rather than Militão. In midfield, there might be a chance that Modrić could be rested, with Ødegaard playing instead. And, in the right winger position, don’t be surprised if Rodrygo starts over a lackluster Asensio.

Alavés will likely start with the hybrid 4-4-2 / 3-5-2 block. Edgar Méndez will come back to the starting lineup and there is a good chance that Ximo Navarro and Rubén Duarte will continue their roles as the “fullbacks“ in the 4-4-2 system. When Alavés has the ball, Navarro will behave more as a center back while Duarte will behave more as a wing-back.

Source: sharemytactics.com

As far as duels, watch out for the threat of the Joselu and Lucas Pérez duo. Nacho and Varane tend to struggle against classic big target men like Joselu and, if he has a good day, Joselu can dominate both in the air. Ximo Navarro and Méndez on the right have been productive with goals and assists in previous games, but Mendy should be able to handle them.

On the other side of the pitch, watch out once again for Hazard, who will be in charge of running the show on the attacking side in the absence of Benzema. Even when they defend in a deep block, Alavés are not that compact and good runs from Mariano or Rodrygo (if he starts) could lead to goal-scoring opportunities.