This is the article I wrote for STV Sport before the match between Rangers and Valencia

After the dust settled on Rangers 4-1 win over Motherwell on Saturday, thoughts would have turned to this week’s opponents and early La Liga pace setters Valencia. A few hours after the full time whistle at Ibrox, Valencia were in action with the small task of taking on Catalan giants Barcelona in the Nou Camp and any fans who tuned in to cast their eye over their midweek opponents would have witnessed what truly was a “game of two halves”.

In a first half that consisted of Los Che taking the game to Pep Guardiola’s star studded side, dominating the play and deserving their half-time lead, Unai Emery’s team could have easily been held more than the slim one goal advantage. The second half was a much different story.

Pep Guardiola’s team talk worked a treat, with Barcelona pinning Valencia back in their own half for much of the half. A superb team goal finished by Iniesta gave them their equaliser, mimicking the movements of Kyle Lafferty and Steven Naismith earlier that day. Xavi’s pass sliced through four defenders and Iniesta applied the finish, making it 1-1 and later Carles Puyol left his defensive post unguarded to crash a powerful header into the net and give Barca a crucial home win.

The heroics of Cesar Sanchez in the Valencia net kept this game close, denying Villa and Messi countless times, but the defeat dropped Valencia down to third in the league after a bright start to the league campaign. There was, however, enough in the first half to show any Rangers fans watching that this is a team to be respected.

For many observers, this was supposed to be the season where Valencia fell away, the pressure to sell key players finally telling and seeing Valencia living in reduced circumstances, with results to match. David Villa and David Silva were the most notable departures from the Mestalla but Valencia also said goodbye to Nikola Zigic, Carlos Marchena, Alexis and Ruben Baraja. All six were regular starters last season, forcing Emery to utilise his squad to cover the gaps.

Predicting Valencia’s line-ups this season have been a job impossible for even Mystic Meg. In the league alone an astonishing 22 players have been used. Having two players in each position is a situation most clubs dream of, and for Emery to go on and use each player is a method seldom used in football these days.

In La Liga the manager has set his team up for the majority of games in a 4-4-1-1 formation, deviating slightly to 4-2-3-1 against Barcelona. It seems very likely he will use one of these formations for the trip to Ibrox.

Cesar Sanchez has been the only ever present so far. After spells at Real Madrid and Real Zaragoza, and the ill fated time at Tottenham Hotspur, the goalkeeper moved back to Spain at the tender age of 38 to make the number one jersey his own. Still playing at a very high level his performances have boosted the performances of the back four.

With Portuguese international Miguel out injured, Bruno will start at right back. He’s a tough tackling no frills full back, more defensive minded than Miguel although he sometimes gets caught out of position.

In the centre should be the pairing of David Navarro and Ricardo Costa. Navarro is more famous for the seven month ban he received after the much documented fight against Inter Milan, but he remains a no-nonsense, solid defender who is very strong and good in the air. His partner Ricardo Costa is one of Emery’s six new signings.

He spent half of last season on loan at Lille in France where he played at centre back and left back and has the ability to play anywhere along the back four. This positional knowledge helps out the defence no end, able to fill gaps left by the full backs he then has the pace to track attackers down the wing.

The choice of left-back on Wednesday could help determine not only how Valencia attack, but also could show a weakness that Rangers could exploit. Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba have been fighting for the position so far this season. On Saturday against Barcelona both were picked to link up down the left hand side and though the original team sheet showed Mathieu at left back with Alba slightly further forward, throughout the game both swapped positions taking it in turns to defend and attack.

Emery’s decision to leave out Juan Mata made this selection possible but with Mata’s return on Wednesday almost guaranteed this leaves the kind of selection headache managers dream about.

Whether playing as a defender or a midfielder Mathieu is not scared to go forward and join the attack. Against Malaga and Bursaspor he was used in a defensive role but very often when the team on the attack it is no surprise to find him in line with Valencia’s forwards.

With only 11 minutes of the game gone against Barcelona, Mathieu (red) had already decided to break forward. Nearly on the shoulder of the last defender, with Alba (yellow) pushing up trying to release Mathieu down the wing, there is acres of space behind the full back which forwards and midfielders could easily use against them. In these situations the alertness of Ricardo Costa is hugely important.

Against Bursaspor, Mathieu did a fantastic job of controlling playmaker Volkan Sen though. Whenever the ball was played into his feet Mathieu was touch tight and he frustrated the Turkish international giving him very little time on the ball. When Valencia pushed forward looking for more goals though, Sen started to exploit the space Mathieu vacated.

A simple ball over the top caught Mathieu (red) out of position in one instance. Costa (yellow) had to come across quickly to close down Sen (blue) and stop the attack. In this situation Bursaspor didn’t do a good job in supporting the attack, as a darting run from any of the midfielders could have exploited the space left by Costa and easily have led to a great chance. Rangers’ midfielders will need to be alert when Costa covers Mathieu’s position, Steven Davis is wonderful at breaking from the midfield and as his thunderous shot against Motherwell proved he is also good enough to take advantage of any space given.

Unai Emery might decide to play Jordi Alba on Wednesday to keep things tight. Not picking Mathieu does however mean Valencia are without a player who has great aerial presence and is a very technically sound defender. The team would also miss his ability on the ball, his pacy breaks from the back and his aptitude for turning defence into attack very quickly.

Alba too has these abilities, although not to the extent of Mathieu. The young full back was extremely impressive while marking Lionel Messi on Saturday, showing he has the speed and the strength to keep up with one of the world’s best. His size could be his downfall though. Up against Lafferty, Broadfoot or Whittaker, Rangers would win the aerial battle giving them an effective out-ball. Mathieu at 6 foot 3 wouldn’t be as easily beaten.

Defensively, the full back area is one that Rangers could punish if worked properly, Valencia’s midfield worked very hard to close down Barcelona and win the ball back, with four midfielders (yellow) closely chasing the ball, and the defenders’ attention also trained on the ball.

This led to Bruno (pink), being caught in a central area, unaware of David Villa (red) pushing down the flank followed closely by Maxwell (blue). The majestic skills of Iniesta (green) beat the midfield and he was able to find Villa in acres of space supplying him with a chance to shoot on goal.

With Steven Naismith in good form recently, it is important he is wise to Bruno’s positioning and tries to use this to his and Rangers advantage. It is obvious Rangers don’t have the quality in midfield that Barcelona do, but the space is there to be exploited.

One of Valencia’s great strengths this season has been the pressure the midfield puts on the ball, turning this into countless fast break situations. Emery will likely play with a four in midfield, favouring a creative player to support the front man rather than playing forwards Aduriz and Soldado up front together. The latter, now fully fit after missing the start of the season will lead the line, the five players picked to play behind him will be the result of hours and hours of discussion and deliberation.

Nine players have occupied these positions so far this season, each bringing their own attributes to Valencia’s style and success on the counter attack. One of the first names on the team sheet will likely be Juan Mata, who was rested against Barca with the trip to Ibrox in mind.

Mata was let go by Real Madrid and signed for Valencia on a free in 2008 and for two years he has quietly been making a name for himself. Now out of the shadows of Villa and Silva this could be Mata’s breakout year. Undoubtedly talented on the ball, he has the ability to play off the front man in a creative role but seems to be more effective starting from the left and breaking into the box.

His excellent finishing abilities have led to 26 goals for the club so far and at only 22 it will not be long before the big club vultures are back at the Mestalla waving their chequebooks. Right now he is a Valencia player and one to be very wary of.

Whoever Emery picks to support Soldado and Mata, be it Pablo Hernandez, Manuel Fernandes, Ever Banega or Tino Costa, Rangers must not give the ball needlessly away in midfield or up front as many of Valencia’s goals this season have come from breathtaking fast breaks.

 

When Valencia go forward, regardless of their formation, there are always players in support. Against Malaga when it was 4-4-1-1 four players broke forward providing options left and right of the man in possession. Then, against Barcelona, while playing 4-2-3-1 a very similar break saw four players bombing forward giving the man on the ball choices and leading to the opening goal, Right midfielder Pablo (red) cut in from the right to get on the end of Mathieu’s cutback, Soldado’s run (blue) to the back post caught the attention of Puyol and Maxwell gave Pablo the space needed to apply the finish.

Another great example of Valencia’s strength in attack was the fourth goal against Bursaspor. With 14 minutes to go and already three goals to the good, Valencia won the ball back next to their own bye-line (red). Three passes and 10 seconds later, Soldado (yellow) found himself one on one with the goalkeeper and had an easy job to make it 4-0. It was a fine example of the counter-attacking style the Spanish team have shown so often this season.

Undoubtedly Wednesday night will be a very tough test for Walter Smith’s team, and if Rangers are to have a genuine hope of advancing from the Group Stage some kind of result will be needed. At home, the Rangers fans will want a victory and this pressure to go forward could fall straight into Valencia’s style and strengths. Rangers can’t afford to sit back and defend but caution must be taken when attacking in numbers.

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EXCELSIOR v NEC NIJMEGEN

August 20th

After being suitably impressed by Excelsior in their 3-2 victory over city rivals Feyenoord, and curious to find out if this was a one off result or could the small Rotterdam club rise to the expectation and take on the mid-table club from Nijmegen.

Excelsior set up in the same 4-5-1 formation that proved so successful against Feyenoord, their hard work and organisation caused Mario Beem’s side endless problems, not once did Excelsior struggle to contain their neighbours passing game, both goals conceded came through corner kicks.

For the first 20 minutes this Excelsior side looked nothing like the side that chased Feyenoord round the pitch for 90 minutes, NEC had the bulk of possession but without causing Cees Paauwe too many problems in net, Leroy George NEC’s new signing from Utrecht was very busy, always looking for the ball playing on the right of NEC’s 4-3-3, unfortunately for George; Excelsior’s Left Back Miquel Nelom just like he did against Feyenoord was on top of his game, for all George’s tricks and industry he very rarely found his way past the promising 19 year old.

NEC had 68% possession in the first half, the above diagram show’s Excelsior’s failings, NEC’s midfield had so much time on the ball, at no point in the first half did the Excelsior midfield put enough pressure to stop NEC freely passing the ball around the oppositions half, Schone, Zimling and Sibum never looked under pressure this gave George and Goossens space in behind to punish the defence.

Excelsior’s unwillingness to close the ball cost them the first goal, Goossens (red) advanced down the left with the ball was able to take 2 or 3 touches before putting in the cross, Belgian striker Bjorn Vleminckx unmarked in the box had no problem heading past Paauwe, a poor goal defensively to lose and a deserved lead for the away team.

The half time whistle could not come sooner for Alex Pastoor, He most have read his players the riot act during the interval, the “Sir Alex Hair Dryer treatment so to speak, The Excelsior side came on and started with a different attitude not giving NEC time to get into their stride again.

Fernandez the lone front-man was beginning to cause problems, running down each flank, he began to stretch the NEC defence, 8 minutes into the second half and one of his runs paid off, winning a corner for his team, the corner was cleared but only as far as the promising Jordi Clasie the 19 year old met the ball first time with a sweet strike towards goal, Babos looked to have the shot covered before Zimling stuck a foot out the ball wickedly deflecting into the net, disappointing for NEC after their dominance in the first half, however Excelsior had come out of the blocks flying.

Their work-rate and effort had been dramatically improved and, second goal was inevitable. You can see above two midfielders (yellow) closing down Lasse Schone (red), not giving NEC the time and space this half, Schone had to turn his back from goal looking for a pass, Clasie (blue) nicked the ball off the Dane, Clasie set off towards goal a 4 v 3 break for Excelsior, Clasie slipped the ball to Wattamaleo his shot was saved by Babos out for a corner, the corner was swung in and defender Daan Bovenberg got the run on Sibum his marker, left alone for a free header, Babos had no chance, the defenders 2nd goal in 2 games and a deserved lead for Excelsior, plaudits must go to Pastoor for his TeamTalk.

A very scrappy 15 minutes followed, no chances or good football of note, a fierce midfield battle ensued, Koolwijk and Clasie impressive again for Excelsior, Clasie is small in stature but with a low centre of gravity and a tenacious approach on loan from Feyenoord learning his trade at the Stadion Woudestein, it’s hard to predict at 19 how well he will do, but it’s so far so good for the midfielder, NEC’s midfield is not without it’s charms Niki Zimling had a very good game, seems to fit the “box to box” description, hard in the tackle, not afraid to put himself about, and has the ability to pick a pass or make well times runs into the box, it was his midfield partner Lasse Schone that got NEC back into the match, all Excelsior’s hard work seemed to take it’s toll and the pressure on the ball dropped.

Lasse Schone (red) was not closed down by the midfield giving him time to turn with the ball, Vleminckx (blue) made a fantastic run away from the ball leaving the gap for Sibum (yellow) to make a lovely run in behind the defence, with time and space Schone plays a delicate ball over the top and Sibum’s low strike levels the game at 2-2. The run from Vleminckx shows the space between the centre back and full back, an easy gap to exploit, this leaves space down the middle for any willing runners, and Sibum did well to fill the space and deserved his goal.

Excelsior reacted quickly making two substitiutions, that decision would change the game, Jordi Clasie came off to a rapturous applause from the home support, Wouter Gudde came on to solidify the defence then Vincken was replaced by Roland Bergkamp, for all Fernandez hard work down the flanks his crosses were going to waste with no one there to get on the end of them. Bergkamp was tasked with that job, and it instantly paid off. Ryan Koolwijk hit a tame shot towards Babos the Hungarian could only spill it into the path of Bergkamp and he wasn’t going to miss from 6 yards, a shock lead for Excelsior.

NEC tried to fight back but the third goal seemed to kill their spirit then in injury time the game was put out of sight, with NEC pushing further forward, Gudde played the ball over the top, he found Fernandez unmarked and racing towards goal, jinking past the keeper he remained calm and placed the ball past two defenders and into the net.

4-2 the final score, in the end quite an entertaining game, two cliché’s fulfilled in the one match, if you have the lions share of possession you need to make it count, and it really is a game of two halves.

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How many times have we all watched a sports match be it Football, Basketball, Golf, and surveying the statistics you can usually put your finger on where the winning team has held the advantage, Basketball matches are usually determined on the highest field goal percentage, In Golf accuracy usually leads to success GIR and FIR (Greens and Fairways in regulation) are very important.

Between myself and some friends the phrase “There’s only one stat that counts, and that’s the one in the top left of the screen!” has become somewhat of a joke statement, somewhat of a put down when trying to defend the losing team. Jose Mourinho’s Inter only had 41% possession in their 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich in this year’s Champions League final, Louis van Gaal would have surely swapped the result for the majority of possession; For Inter the 2 goals scored was the only stat that mattered.

Football analysts are obsessed with stats, goals per game ratio, minutes without a goal, possession, shots on target, these all go someway to explain the story of a match, however sometimes no matter how many stats are consulted, they just don’t mirror what has occurred.

Team A and Team B played a match this weekend, one of the teams was on the end of a 4-0 defeat, with such a margin of victory, the stats must surely show the dominance of the winning team.

Both teams were very successful with their passing, Team A attempted 369 passes, only 58 of those did not reach their target, that’s an impressive 84% accuracy, compared to Team B with a similar 47 passes not reaching the intended player however they only attempted 277, that’s equates to 79% on target still a very accurate amount but 5% less than Team A.

Taking 3 players from each team you can see how well Team A passed the ball, their Centre Back did not put a pass out of place, all 42 passes were successful, further up the field their Central Midfielder tried 30 passes, only 2 of them were wayward, and the Striker playing up top, a position that can sometimes become isolated and hard to link up with the rest of the team well he made 11 successful passes, only 1 wasn’t. A very good passing display.

Team B’s individual passing does not look as impressive, the Centre Back only attempted 12 passes, the Central Midfielder only failed to find his man on 5 occasions, and upfront it was a poor day for the forward, nearly half of the passes he attempted failed to link up with anyone, only 10 out of 18 were on target.

With the game giving both teams time and space on the ball, two more areas need to be studied to find where the 4 goal difference was created, defensively the losing team must have been very weak, Team A won 39 tackles and lost 21, compared to Team B who only won 26 tackles but losing 25, Team A also did a very good job of closing the ball down making 14 interceptions, Team B only intercepted 8 balls.

The final stats to look over to determine the result of the game is the “shooting” no matter how good or bad you play or how good your tactics are, the result more often than not comes down to shooting accuracy.

Team A had 12 shots in the match, 5 on target, 4 off target and 3 shots were blocked, Team B on the other hand had 10 shots, 6 on target, 3 off target and had one blocked.

So what team scored the four goals, surely it was Team A with the higher amount of passes, better individual passing, more tackles won, and of course more shots on goal……eh no, if you hadn’t guessed already the game being analysed was the Premier League clash between Wigan and Blackpool in all the stats above Blackpool are Team B, four of those shots on target hit the back of the net.

One analysis you can make from the team passing image, Wigan (Team A) struggle to connect with passes in the final third, there is very little blue in and around the box, whereas Blackpool have slightly more blue than red in the final third, there is nothing wrong with passing the ball around the back or in the middle, however to win footbal matches you need to provided the final product, something Wigan just didn’t do on Saturday.

This is a fantastic example of how stats can sometimes be misleading, Blackpool won this game for a number of reason, they had a willingness and a desire to work hard and would not be beaten, some clubs would be scared on their first game at the top level for over 40 years, not Blackpool they ran every ball down, threw caution to the wind, and basically just had a go, now they were helped by some very poor Wigan defending and the fourth goal was an absolute howler from Chris Kirkland, in these footballing times, you do not need to tick all the boxes when it comes to dominating the play, stats cannot measure heart and a never say die attitude.

The stats never lie, but sometimes they are just wrong!

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