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Analysing Malaga’s promotion push

By: Stats Perform

After spending 16 years working in coaching and scouting roles at professional clubs in England and Spain, Miguel Rios joined OptaPro earlier this year to take up the role of Football Intelligence Manager.

 In this blog he reviews Malaga’s season so far, which includes insights into how their new Head Coach, Victor Sánchez del Amo, changed their approach during his first game in charge.

 Key takeaways

– During their opening 34 matches Malaga scored 34 goals, compared to an Expected Goals projection of close to 42.

– They look to play in wide areas, ranking second in Segunda for open play crosses and scoring 34% of their goals from headers.

– Javier Ontiveros is a key offensive threat, posting the highest xA output of all wide midfielders in the league.


Following their relegation from the Spanish top-flight at the end of last season, Malaga lost ten players on permanent transfers in addition to a number who departed on loan.

Despite starting 2018/19 strongly, topping Segunda after ten games, they suffered a dip in form at the turn of the year which has seen them slip away from the automatic promotion places. However they remain in play-off contention, sitting in the top six.

Rebuilding on a tight budget

The club’s recruitment since last summer has focused predominantly on free transfers and loans, with fifteen new players coming in. Looking at their current squad breakdown, three of the players with the highest share of minutes played this season are loanees: Gustavo Blanco (from Shakhtar Donetsk), Pau Torres and Alfred N’Diaye (both from Villarreal) with N’Diaye joining after playing in Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Championship-winning team last season.

There are six players in total who have appeared in over 80% of potential league minutes, with another cluster of six who have appeared in 60-40% of all minutes. Most of these players were with the club last season and are approaching the peak years of their career.

Only six of Malaga’s players are over 30, with only two having made over 50% of league appearances: Adrián Gonzalez and Luis Hernández.

A lack of goals – and reliance on set pieces

Málaga changed their Head Coach earlier this month with Victor Sánchez del Amo, a progressive forward-thinking coach, taking over from Juan Muñiz. He oversaw his first match last week, a 4-1 victory over Alcorcón. He is a proactive coach who looks to keep his teams organised in possession, as well as out of possession, and usually plays a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Before his appointment Málaga were underperforming in front of goal, particularly in open play. Their goals total of 34 ranked them 17th in the league and was below their xG projection (41.7). However they were strong at set pieces, recording 4.68 shots per 90, the highest in La Liga, scoring 0.38 goals.

In the graphic below, the green fill indicates when a side is overperforming versus their baseline xG difference, and the red indicates when they are underperforming.

Malaga started the season well, but the results were not indicative of the underlying performances of the team. There was a period in the middle of the season where their rolling xG difference was above that of their goal difference – pointing to the team’s results not being reflective of their performances.

Given their league position, they potentially should have scored more goals. They rank 10th in the league for shots per 90 (11.7), but their shot conversion rate of 9.3% is the sixth lowest in Segunda.

Approach in possession

In share of possession Malaga rank 19th in Segunda, averaging 47.1%. Their average starting point of possessions has been 34.6 metres from their own goal line, which is just inside the midfield third of the pitch. This is close to the league average of 34.4.

They are quite direct in their style of play, with 55.9% of passes being forward from the defensive third (12th in the league) with a pass completion rate of 75.8%. In the opposition half their completion rate rises to 76.2%, which is reflective in their total possession numbers as they try to get the ball into attacking areas rather than build-up play.

They also look to play into wide areas and are second in the league for crosses from open play (15.3 per 90). As a result it is understandable that they are second in the league for headed goal attempts, with 34% of their goals coming from headers. They also use the long throw as an attacking opportunity, where they try get players into the opposition penalty area.

The average speed of their sequences is in the top quarter of clubs, as is the average metres gained per sequence (12.8). This indicates that they look to play the ball forward quickly into good attacking areas, rather than try and move up the pitch with possession of the ball. Alfred N’Diaye is Málaga’s best player, with his accuracy in his passing into the final third up at 77.2%, which ranks him second of all players in Segunda.

Out of possession

Defensively they are strong, with the second best record in the league. They have only conceding 0.77 goals per 90, leaving them with a goal difference of +0.31.

Málaga play in a medium to deep block, with the majority of their possessions won in the defensive third (24.6) compared to the middle (23.8) and attacking third (3.9). They are sixth in the league for the most number of recoveries per 90 and second in the number of duels faced, both on the ground and in the air. Gustavo Blanco, their centre forward, is involved in more duels than any other player in the league which again backs up that the ball is played forward directly into the centre forward to contest and bring other players into play. He averages 4.7 touches per 90 in the attacking penalty area.

They are bottom of the league in percentage of duels won (47.6%), second from bottom in aerial duels (47.4%) and sixth for recoveries (52.4 per 90), where by their style of play they are competitive but will sit back looking for opportunities to regain possession by pressing in groups and then looking to get forward.

In terms of discipline they are the team that have conceded the most fouls and are the third worst team at picking up yellow cards. In defensive wide areas they are very secure, ranking top in Segunda for blocking crosses and also allowing very few shots on goal (3.06 per 90) compared to the league average of 3.82.

Their Uruguayan left back Federico Ricca averages two interceptions per 90 and ranks fourth in the league for crosses blocked. Not being the most powerful he doesn’t often make body contact when tackling, instead preferring to use his agility and sharpness to intercept possession – taking the initiative defensively when the wide player receives the ball or takes a loose touch, where he then puts pressure on the ball.

Victor’s immediate impact

Alcorcón are a difficult team to play against at home and when we look at Victor’s first match in charge in isolation, it appears there was a big improvement from previous matches. Positionally both in and out of possession the balance was very good with players maintaining their shape, both with and without the ball, keeping good angles and distances constantly.

Málaga won 4-1 with goals from Adrián González, Renato Santos and two from Javier Ontiveros where they played with a 4-3-3 formation looking to build play from the back and playing through the thirds, either centrally or using the wide areas in a more controlled way. This was reflected by an increased possession share of 49.6%, compared to their season average of 47.1.

Players like Ontiveros (shirt number 17) and Adrián González (8) did well in this fixture, both playing slightly higher up the pitch in more advanced roles. They could both be very important to their promotion push.

Average position – Malaga starting line-up vs Alcorcón 19.04.2019

The threat posed by Ontiveros and Adrián

Javier Ontiveros is still only 21 years old and I have monitored his progress in the last few seasons. He is a player who has potential to get better, needing more consistency to his game which will come from getting regular matches and training well. He has an xA of 0.33 per 90, which is the highest of all wide players in the league.

Players with a minimum of 1000 minutes played included

As a wide player he is direct and has a very good change of speed from a starting position and also when already on the move. He strikes the ball well and is able to cross the ball into danger areas at speed and with good shape to cause defenders problems. He can also be a threat from set pieces, both direct and indirect.

When running at defenders he has a good change of speed, combined with being able to change direction when on the move. This makes him difficult to defend against and he can look to go on the outside but also come inside to look to link-up with the centre forward or even take a shot at goal himself. The area of the pitch that he shoots from could be better, with an average shot distance of nearly 23 metres.

Adrián González is another player who I have watched for a very long time. He possesses extensive top-flight La Liga experience, a good level of technical ability in his manipulation and dealing with the ball and is efficient when on the ball.

He has good passing ability, where he is able to retain possession by passing mostly short to medium distances in the middle and final third into feet, not always passing forward and looking to play safely to keep possession and to keep the ball moving. He has also developed his game in the last few seasons by scoring goals with a run from deep when the ball is delivered from wide areas.

Making better decisions in front of goal

Málaga took more shots that were on target against Alcorcón (7), compared to their season average of 4.1. Whilst analysing one match in isolation doesn’t provide enough evidence to suggest their approach has changed, it is clear that in this game they played higher up the pitch, with players having more freedom to get forward. Their shot locations were much better too.

Data from 2018/19 Segunda season

Málaga remain in the play-off positions, six points off automatic promotion and the change of Head Coach seems to have been timed well. With the team already changing some aspects of their play, it looks like they will remain in the mix to secure an immediate return back to the Spanish flight.