Deportivo Alavés are currently in fifth position in La Liga and have played an amazing season so far. The Spaniard Abelardo Fernández has been the head coach of Alavés since December 2017, with his contract due to run out in the summer. With a fifth-place finish, his team would qualify for the Europa League next season but there still are 10 games left. Since they were promoted in the 2015/16 season, Fernández’s team finished in ninth position two years ago and last season, they were in 14th place after the last matchday.
In 28 league games this season, Alavés have scored 31 goals and conceded 31. Usually, a team in the fifth position have a better goal difference than zero. Sevilla’s goal difference is 12 and Valencia’s is seven, but both are behind Alavés. These statistics show how effective they are this season, but with which system and tactics was Fernández able to make his team so successful?
The Alavés coach was a centre-back during his playing career. He played for Sporting Gijón and FC Barcelona, before ending his career in 2005 after three years at Alavés. Fernández also played 53 times for the Spanish national team.
His first station as coach was in 2007 at the under 19’s team of his childhood club Gijón. After one year he took over Gijón’s second team and coached them for two years. Between the summer of 2010 and the winter of 2012, he coached Candás CF and CD Tuilla.
Then he returned to Gijón to be the assistant coach of the first team for the rest of the season. In the summer of 2012, he took over Gijón’s second team once more. Two years later he became the head coach of the first team and Gijón were promoted into the first division of Spanish football under him. Since December 2017, he has been Alavés’ coach.
The system and squad
The Spaniard has lined up his team in a classic 4-4-2 in almost every game this season. The Spaniard Fernando Pacheco is their first goalkeeper who played for Real Madrid in his youth. Guillermo Maripán, Víctor Laguardia, Martín Aguirregabiria, Rubén Duarte and Ximo Navarro are the defenders with the most starts this season. Usually, Aguirregabiria and Duarte play as full-backs and two of the other three play as centre-backs. However, Navarro is also capable to perform as a full-back.
Burgui, Takashi Inui, Ibai Gomez and Jony are the wingers and are important to provide width. Tomas Pina, Manu Garcia, Mubarak Wakaso and Darko Brasanac play as central midfielders. Borja Baston, Jonathan Calleri, Ruben Sobrino and John Guidetti are the strikers. Gomez and Sobrino moved during the winter transfer window to Valencia and Athletic Bilbao respectively.
In some matches, they lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with slight differences compared to the 4-4-2. In most situations, the offensive midfielder moved forward next to the striker and so they had their familiar formation.
The image below shows their line up in their last game against Huesca, who are currently at the bottom of the table. Maripán played alongside Laguardia in the central defence and Navarro played as right back. Jony and Inui played on the wings, while Calleri partnered Baston upfront.
Defending as one unit
Alavés has got an average possession of 42.96% this season. That’s not a value you would expect from a team fighting for Europa League qualification. However, Fernández’s team don’t want to have long periods of possession. They have on average 7.26 passes before a defensive action from the opponent. On the other hand, their opposition plays an average of 11.2 passes before a defensive action by Alavés.
The Spaniards defend in a compact 4-4-2 and try to avoid passes through the middle. They want their opponent to play into the wide areas where Alavés have got better chances to win the ball. On the wing, they can easily press in at the opponent. Furthermore, all the central defenders are great in the air and so crosses into the box by opposing wingers aren’t a danger. The image below shows how the two banks of four are very narrow and occupy the centre. Alavés usually sits back and waits till the opposition comes into their half. As soon as they enter their half Fernández’s team press them.
When the opposing full-back gets on the ball, the winger pushes forward and puts pressure on him. Because of that, the three other midfielders shift over to the appropriate side to stay compact.
In rare cases, the team of the Spanish coach also put pressure on the opposition higher up the pitch. In these situations, they press very man-orientated and aggressive. Understandably the whole team pushes forward to cut off all passing options.
Alavés likes to play into the wide areas and find the strikers from there with crosses. According to Whoscored.com, just 26% of their attacks are through the middle. Because of the strength and height of the strikers, they mostly use long balls which the forwards lay off for the wingers or the full-backs who pushed up. The centre-backs often try to find the forwards between the lines of the opposition with long passes.
Fernández’s team rarely play out from the back, but they have a clear idea of how to get into the last third as already explained above. The goal kicks of Pacheco especially show the clear idea behind the long balls. Before the goalkeeper kicks the ball wide, the formation transforms into a 4-2-4 because the two wingers push up to increase the number of players on the last line. The two central midfielders stay in position to win the second ball. Pacheco tries to find one of the two strikers with his goal kick.
The last third
When the wingers get on the ball after the long ball to the forwards, they mostly try to get into a crossing position together with the full-back. However, they sometimes also try to play the ball behind the last line of the opponent and get a teammate in a one-on-one situation against the goalkeeper.
When they get into a crossing position there is always a similar positioning in the penalty area. One striker runs towards the first post while the other one is in front of the goal. The opposite winger is at the second post to receive a long cross. One of the central midfielders positions themselves at the edge of the box or at the penalty spot to provide an additional option.
Set-pieces as a factor of success
45% of Alavés’ goals and just 16% of the goals against them were from set-pieces. These are incredible stats, especially when you consider that they have way fewer corners than their opponents. Fernández’s team has an average of 3.23 corners per match while their opponents have an average of 6.13.
This is not just because of their strikers and centre-backs, who are good in aerial duels but most notably because of Jony. He takes every corner and freekick in fine style. Furthermore, he can throw in the ball into the oppositional penalty area. Thanks to such a great throw in, they scored the deciding goal in their 2-1 victory over Huesca.
But as the statistics show they are also good at defending set-pieces. When the opponent has got a corner, they always use a certain mixture of man-marking and zonal defending. Two players are covering the front post to clear short crosses. In addition, two men are positioned on the edge of the penalty area. The rest of the players mark their opponents.
With 10 games to go, Alavés are currently two points behind Getafe. So, it is still possible for them to qualify for the Champions League, which would be amazing for the Basques. However, if they can stay in fifth position, the direct qualification for the Europa League would also be a huge victory.
To put it in a nutshell, Fernández has developed a system which perfectly fits his squad. It will be interesting to watch if they can keep up their current form until the end of the season. In addition, his contract expires at the end of the season and the club will try to hold onto him. On the other hand, surely other clubs will keep an eye on him and want to sign him this summer.
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