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Behind Enemy Lines: Deportivo Alavés

Abelardo is back to save Alavés from relegation. What will he change with respect to his predecessor Machín, and how will they match up against Real Madrid?

Deportivo Alaves v Girona FC - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

What happened with Machin?

With the football season moving at a breakneck pace during corona times, it feels like ages since the November game where Alavés defeated Real 2-1. Many things have happened since then, and one of them is that Pablo Machín is no longer Alavés coach.

Machín is a good manager, but he plays a very specific system (usually 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1) that usually requires more specific player profiles and signings. Alavés could not acquire those targets (especially in the wing-back positions) and that means that Machin worked with a squad that doesn’t seem like a great fit for his usual game plan.

The expected goal (xG) model ranks Alavés 14th in the league in terms xG difference. That performance level is normal for a team of Alavés’ resources, but what has them really struggling and close to relegation spots is their low efficacy “in the boxes”.

Cadiz CF v Deportivo Alaves - LaLiga Santander Photo by Jose Luis Contreras/DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In previous seasons, Alavés have been very effective in the boxes: goalie Fernando Pacheco stopped potential goals reliably, the center backs didn’t make big mistakes, while the striker duo of Joselu and Lucas Pérez bagged the goals. This season under Machín, however, Pacheco and the strikers are on bad streaks, while the center backs are making blunders more frequently. ·

Football is a cruel sport, with its low-scoring nature leading to “lucky” results more often than in other sports. In football teams, a good process doesn’t necessarily lead to good results, and I believe this has been the case with Machín. His team was going through an unlucky streak and in different circumstances, perhaps they just had to push through the storm and wait a bit for the bad streak to be over. In Alavés’ case, however, the punishment for an ongoing bad streak is relegation, so club leadership did not have the time to wait this one out. Something had to be done to shake up things quickly, and thus they resorted to “football’s version of the Aztecan human sacrifice”: firing the coach.

Who is Abelardo and why him?

Abelardo Fernández was a Barcelona defender during the nineties yet his teams couldn’t play more differently to Cruyff’s Barça: Abelardo is a 4-4-2 deep-block practitioner. Abelardo enjoyed a successful spell with Sporting de Gijón (2015-2017), but most important to our story was his previous spell at Alavés between 2017 and 2019. Alavés started the 2017/18 season in horrifying form, winning only 6 out of the first 39 points. Abelardo took over on Matchday 14 and transformed the team into a cohesive and intense defensive unit with fast counterattack mechanisms. Not only were Alavés saved from relegation, but throughout the entirety of 2018 they racked up points at the rate of a top-five La Liga side, just behind the big three.

Such a high level of performance proved hard to maintain and their results declined in 2019, with Abelardo leaving the club at the end of the 2018/19 season. Now, the ups and downs of football have led Alavés to call Abelardo once again and ask him to guide the team to safety.

Comparing Machin’s and Abelardo’s Tactics

Despite the manager switch, don’t expect so much of a change in how Alavés defend. Machín’s Alavés was already defending in a 4-4-2 medium block, and Abelardo will not alter that. The big change comes in how Alavés attack. Machín liked his team to take a 3-5-2 shape in possession, while Abelardo wants his men to retain the 4-4-2 shape in possession. In contrast to Machín, not transitioning between defensive and offensive shapes might allow Abelardo’s men to keep a more orderly and stable defensive block that commits fewer mistakes. The passmaps below show graphically how both managers differed in their approaches on the ball.

Source: Between The Posts

What Can We Learn from Abelardo’s First League Game?

Abelardo has only been in charge for a single league game against Sevilla, but we can already learn a lot from that encounter. After all, Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla is a 4-3-3 possession-based team with chance creation issues, very similar in style to Zidane’s Real.

According to Alavés fan analysts, this was one of the team’s best games in the last few months, and arguably one of their best performances of the season, even though they lost 1-2.

Thanks to Abelardo’s coaching and the boost usually provided by a new manager, Alavés looked like a more focused and intense defensive unit. Surprisingly, Alavés pressed more aggressively than expected, especially during Sevilla goal kicks or when they passed back to the keeper. Their defending of the box was solid, most Sevilla crossing attempts were crossed and cleared by Alavés’ defensive line. However, Alavés defenders still made a few mistakes. A slip from center back Laguardia allowed En-Nesyri to score the first goal.

After the goal Alavés dominated the game, creating more shots and chances than their opponents. Sevilla won thanks to a wonder goal from Suso, but Alavés controlled the game during the second half. A Sevilla handball towards the end of the game led to a penalty chance for Alavés, but Joselu saw his shot saved.

xG plot of Alavés - Sevilla, which reflects how Alavés controlled the game
Source: Between The Posts

Matchup vs Real Madrid

For this game, Alavés has recovered Lucas Pérez from injury and that gives a much-needed boost to Alavés’ attack. This game will be played exactly on Alavés’ 100th anniversary, so expect their players to have some extra motivation to perform! As far as lineup, expect the usual 4-4-2 setup from Alavés and Abelardo with:

  • Florian Lejeune and Victor Laguardia as the center back pair
  • Ruben Duarte and Ximo Navarro as conservative fullback roles
  • Tomas Pina and Rodrigo Battaglia as the double pivot (same as Machín)
  • Wings with Luis Rioja on the left and Edgar Méndez on the right. Méndez is aggressive about attacking the opposition box like a striker
  • The striker duo of Joselu (target man role) and Lucas Pérez (small, mobile striker)

Compared to the earlier game vs Real, expect a similar 4-4-2 defensive block approach, but more aggressive and more pressing. They will be particularly aggressive about pressing when Real do a goal kick or pass back to Courtois.

Real’s 4-3-3 being pressed by Alavés’ 4-4-2
Source: Share my Tactics

From Real’s side, there are many absences. Nacho and Zidane are out due to COVID, while Carvajal, Ramos, Valverde, Rodrygo will miss the game due to injuries. Meanwhile, Martin Ødegaard did not make the squad due to his rumored move to Arsenal. Real Madrid B players Chust and Antonio Blanco are also on the matchday squad.

After the Alcoyonazo, we presume that the takeaway from Zidane’s perspective—both for good and bad—is that he should keep using his most trusted XI without rotation. So expect a similar XI to the Athletic game but with Militão replacing the injured Ramos.

Key Duels

  • Lucas vs Lucas: Lucas Pérez is a very mobile striker, and our Lucas Vázquez has shown defensive issues in the right back role, as it happened vs Athletic in the Supercopa. Lucas Pérez will try to run into the channel between Varane and Lucas, so both Real defenders will have to watch out for that.
Real Madrid v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
  • Joselu vs Militão: Joselu is a good target man while Militão can be a bit rash and excessively aggressive. Smart target man play from Joselu could move Militão out of his position so that Lucas Perez and the Alaves’ wingers run into the spaces left behind by Militão.
  • Modrić and Hazard vs the Alavés block: This will be another edition of the “Real Madrid vs deep block“ tales that have horrified Real fans throughout the season. To break down defensive units like these, the team will need good dribbling that can lead to unpredictable attacks rather than predictable crosses. Assuming that Asensio and Hazard start, Hazard and Modrić will be the main hopes to break down this deep block through their close control and dribbling.

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