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Behind Enemy Lines: CA Osasuna

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After a strong 19/20 season, the team of Jagoba Arrasate is struggling in relegation spots. Why did this happen, and how does Osasuna match up against Real Madrid?

Getafe v Osasuna - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Expectations

After a couple of years in Segunda Division, Osasuna returned to La Liga with an outstanding 19/20 season performance. Many newly-promoted sides prefer to play conservatively, but Osasuna did the opposite and became one of the most aggressive and direct teams in the league. Their strong pressing system combined with the offensive talents of left-back Pervis Estupiñán and striker Ezequiel “Chimy“ Ávila allowed Osasuna’s attack to perform at the level of a top-half team. This was an impressive feat for a newly-promoted side and Osasuna deservedly finished 10th on the league table.

However, Osasuna’s second season in La Liga is turning out to be much more complicated. Estupiñán’s loan ended at the end of the 19/20 season and the wealthier Villarreal acquired him. Meanwhile, Chimy Ávila’s 2020 was tormented by long-term injuries, with ruptured cruciate ligaments in both his right and left knee. Both players were not only key for the offense, their physical intensity also made them key cogs in the pressing system.

Considering the financial struggles of COVID times, Osasuna did as well as they could to replace these two key players. They signed left-back Juan Cruz from Elche, one of the most impactful fullbacks in Segunda División last year. To compensate for Ávila’s absence they brought in THREE center forwards: Enric Gallego, Ante Budimir, and Jonathan Calleri (the latter two on loan). And to boost the offense further they also got Jony from Lazio on loan as a much-needed left-wing option.

Given all this good movement in the transfer market, Osasuna looked set for another solid midtable season but this hasn’t been the case. Defensive and offensive performance is nowhere near as good as it was last season, and now Osasuna find themselves deservedly in the relegation zone.

Following the 4-4-2 High Pressing Model

Pamplona is close to the Basque Country and one can definitely see influences of the intense and physical Basque playing style in Osasuna. This has become even more evident now that they have a Basque manager in Jagoba Arrasate. This region of Spain features very “British” weather, with plenty of rain and overcast days. And just like their counterparts in the British Isles, these conditions forced Basque teams to play with more long balls, crosses, and aerial duels in order to bypass the slow and muddy pitches.

Following the footsteps of Basque La Liga neighbors like Athletic or Eibar, Arrasate’s Osasuna implemented their own high-pressing 4-4-2 game plan. Starting from a flat 4-4-2 formation, Osasuna often shifts their pressing shape into a 4-4-2 diamond to track the opposition holding midfielder, with one of the central midfielders moving just behind the forwards and the wingers tucking inside. Arrasate describes these movements in the video below and comments that the new goal kick rules have led him to choose this more aggressive 4-4-2 diamond scheme for pressing. Even though the video is in Spanish, one can follow the movements on his tactics board.

In defense, David García and Aridane Hernández are one of the most aerially dominant center back pairs in La Liga, with both men winning close to 80% of their aerial duels. The fullbacks are perhaps the most disappointing area of the team right now: neither Nacho Vidal on the right nor new signing Juan Cruz are really providing more added value in the final third with their runs and crossing.

C.A. Osasuna v Athletic Club - La Liga Santander
Aridane Hernández going for a header against Raúl García.
Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

The double-pivot in midfield usually features Oier Sanjurjo and Jon Moncayola, who are the most active pressing players in the team and competent ball progressors. If Arrasate wants more muscle in his midfield he will use Darko Brašanac instead.

Osasuna’s usual wingers—Roberto Torres on the right and Ruben García on the left—are more attacking midfielder types than traditional wingers. They don’t have the speed and dribbling to really make dangerous runs towards the goal line, so instead, they operate in more central areas. They combine with their fullbacks to provide crosses from the half-spaces or attack the box when a teammate from the opposite wing crosses the ball. Both players score or assist a goal roughly once every three games, which is a pretty good rate for midfielders in a midtable team like Osasuna.

García is also important in Osasuna’s pressing game. A great example of this happened last week against Real Sociedad, when he stole the ball from Willian José and assisted a goal. If Arrasate wants a more traditional winger profile, he will use Jony instead of García on the left wing.

Up front, this season Arrasate likes to pair up a big target man with a smaller, more mobile striker. For the target man role, Arrasate alternates Jonathan Calleri and Ante Budimir in the starting lineup. Neither of them has the speed or intensity of Ávila and don’t shoot and score as frequently, but are quite useful at winning aerial duels. And Budimir presses often, so he makes for a good defensive asset too. The smaller striker is usually Adrián López, but since he’s been injured frequently in the last two months, Arrasate has been using Ruben García in this role.

Current Form and Numbers

Source: Transfermarkt https://www.transfermarkt.com/ca-osasuna/spielplan/verein/331/plus/0?saison_id=2020

This season, Osasuna have struggled more with maintaining the compactness of their 4-4-2 defensive block when pressing. Without Estupiñán and Ávila, the double pivot of Oier and Moncayola has been forced to do a lot more aggressive pressing work to compensate. All this pressing work makes them leave gaps behind their back more frequently, and opponents are taking advantage of these gaps to create more dangerous attacks and wreak havoc in the Osasuna defensive line. These problems are reflected in Osasuna’s defensive numbers: they are now bottom five in the league in terms of goals and expected goals conceded.

Arrasate’s midfielders are taking more risks, but those risks are not leading to more offensive production. Osasuna is not winning the ball as high up the pitch as last season, so they are struggling to cross from really good positions. This problem is made worse by the departure of Estupiñán, who was very productive and consistent with his crossing. Meanwhile, Budimir and Calleri are decent strikers but their lack of speed and intensity compared to Ávila means they don’t get to win duels in the box and shoot as frequently. So Osasuna are producing fewer and worse chances than last year. These offensive issues are reflected in Osasuna’s goals and expected goals created: they are now among the bottom five teams in La Liga in these metrics.

After looking at all these issues, it’s no surprise Osasuna haven’t won any of their last 10 games in the league and are placed 19th in the league table.

The issues with the pressing system have forced Arrasate to experiment with different shapes. Against, Atlético, for example, one could see instances in which they pressed with a 4-2-3-1 shape, with one of the two forwards staying deeper to mark the opposition holding midfielder. This allowed the central midfielders to stay back and not leave big gaps behind their back. In their last game against Real Sociedad, Arrasate had his team defend in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Jon Moncayola acting as a defensive midfielder that screens behind the two other central midfielders.

Matchup against Real Madrid

Zidane once again has most of his squad available except for Rodrygo and Dani Carvajal. Even though he’s playing against a relegation candidate, Zidane is unlikely to rotate much, as his current XI is playing consistently well and he doesn’t want to affect that dynamic.

Asensio and Vázquez are very likely to start again after a good performance against Celta, but the question for this Osasuna game is what roles will they start in. In the absence of Carvajal, Vázquez might start as right-back instead. However, this game also seems like a good opportunity for Álvaro Odriozola, who hasn’t seen much action this season due to injuries, so perhaps he plays the RB role and Vázquez starts as a right winger instead. Depending on where Vázquez plays and if Hazard starts, Asensio could play as the left or right winger.

FBL-ESP-LIGA-REAL MADRID-CELTA VIGO Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

A key aspect of this game will be how well Real attack the spaces behind Osasuna’s pressing line. This will require good movements in between lines from Modrić and Benzema, while Asensio and Vázquez take advantage of the extra space left by Osasuna to make dangerous runs with the ball and behind defenses. This is particularly beneficial for Asensio, who performs better in these fast transition situations instead of slower, more static possessions.

On the other side, Arrasate and Osasuna have a few injury problems with midfielders Lucas Torro and Darka Brašanac being unavailable, as well as forward Adrián López and of course the long-term injury of Chimy Ávila.

Elche CF v C.A. Osasuna - La Liga Santander Photo by Francisco Macia/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

The big question for Arrasate is whether he wants to use his traditional 4-4-2 game plan (with the pressing problems we discussed before) or the new 4-3-3 scheme used against Real Sociedad last week. Osasuna struggled to produce good shots against Real Sociedad with this lineup, but it was one of their stronger defensive performances. The 4-3-3 seems to work better for them at maintaining compactness and this could be very valuable against Real’s talented attackers.

If Arrasate feels like taking risks and being more offensive, he can choose the 4-4-2, with Ruben García likely starting as a forward alongside Budimir or Calleri. Osasuna are a team with a very wing oriented attack, so Real will probably need another solid defensive performance from Lucas and Asensio, who did very well in this aspect against Celta.