TACTICAL ANALYSIS: Sevilla 0-0 Villarreal: Villarreal’s off-the-ball discipline denies Sevilla

Sevilla and Villarreal played out a game of percentages that ended in a goalless draw at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.

The home team struggled to break past Villarreal’s last defensive line, partly because of the lack of intensity from their midfielders — the languid duo of Steven N’Zonzi and Samir Nasri. Nasri and N’Zonzi had, by a distance, the most touches as well as the most passes received. However, that didn’t translate into any great advantage for the Andalusian outfit.

Sevilla lined up in a purported 4-4-2 with Wissam Ben Yedder and Stevan Jovetić as the two forwards. Their 4-4-2 morphed into 3-1-4-2 in possession, facilitating ball circulation through the flanks.

Ben Yedder and Jovetić initially played on the Villarreal centre-backs’ shoulders, but the latter gradually dropped deeper to create more access between the lines, as Nasri played more in deep midfield to collect possession from the back. Nasri’s retreating movements hampered Sevilla’s attacking dynamics in that Jovetić aside, none of his team-mates played through the centre between the lines, leaving the attacking midfield zone easy to defend for Villarreal.

Gabriel Mercado, Adil Rami, and Clément Lenglet were the three centre-backs in Sevilla’s on-the-ball 3-1-4-2, with N’Zonzi playing as the deep-lying number 6. Franco Vázquez drifted inside from his right-sided role to allow Mariano’s overlapping wing-back movements, while Vitolo on the other side played on his own, combining his one-vs-one and crossing abilities with good work-rate to keep the lid on Mario Gaspar, Villarreal’s flying right-back.

Villarreal’s template 4-4-2 had Manu Trigueros playing as the second striker. Trigueros, who has impressed alongside captain Bruno Soriano in a double-six this season, played up front along with January signing Adrián López.

Rodri partnered Bruno at the heart of Villarreal’s midfield, while Samu Castillejo and Jonathan dos Santos completed the four-man midfield line. With Mateo Musacchio out injured, Victor Ruiz had Daniele Bonera as his defensive partner. Both Dos Santos and Castillejo supported the full-backs—Gaspar and José Ángel—on their respective sides and helped to create overloads along the touchline to trigger transitions.

sevvil

Sevilla: 1. Rico, 24. Mercado, 23. Rami, 5. Lenglet, 3. Mariano, 22. Vázquez, 15. N’Zonzi, 10. Nasri, 20. Vitolo, 16. Jovetić, 12. Ben Yedder.

Villarreal: 1. Asenjo, 3. Ángel, 6. Ruiz, 23. Bonera, 2. Gaspar, 8. Dos Santos, 21. Bruno, 16. Rodri, 19. Castillejo, 14. Trigueros, 15. Adrián.

Sevilla’s dynamics

With Vitolo out wide on the left, Sevilla played mostly through that flank. That allowed Mariano to be an outlet on the far side. Sevilla’s lopsided defensive shape also contributed to their attacking designs. When in defensive transitions, Mariano dropped into the defence making it a line of four.

Vázquez made lateral movements that directed Sevilla’s attacks down Vitolo’s side. Such a dynamic had two benefits for Sampaoli’s team. One, they had Mariano playing in the passive zone to allow switches of play by drawing Villarreal’s defenders to one side. Two, Sevilla’s attacking concentration on their left-hand side blunted the threat of Gaspar in Villarreal’s attacks.

Sevilla’s lack of access

Nasri holds the key to Sevilla’s attack, but he dropped deep far too often to make his team a force going forward. The Frenchman made it easier for Villarreal’s lines to maintain their shape, and he rarely made a penetrating pass through the middle owing to a lack of numbers there and Villarreal’s numerical superiority in that zone. Most of his passes were to Vitolo out wide and percentage balls to N’Zonzi: not quite the creative stuff.

nasri-passes

Inside the first minute, Sevilla made a good chance when Ben Yedder peeled away from Bonera for a cut-back from the left edge of the 18-yard box. That particular move was orchestrated by Nasri playing around the hole and showed how Sevilla could stretch Villarreal’s back-line. It didn’t come as a surprise such moves didn’t happen more frequently since Nasri dropped back.

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That Jovetić started dropping deeper showed a change in Sevilla’s plans, but any central balls between the lines were received by players in poor body shape. Those backs-to-goal and on-the-half-turn ball receptions by Sevilla’s forwards owed much to the pressure from Villarreal’s square block of the two centre-backs and the pivots who made sure the ball was passed back or sideways whenever it was played between the lines, rendering once promising situations into cul-de-sacs.

Furthermore, the void created by Nasri dropping deep forced Sevilla’s forwards to seek the wide players upon receipt of passes. That didn’t, in any way, help stretch the compact Villarreal back-line.

Villarreal’s lines

Escribá’s side haven’t lost to La Liga’s big four this season which can be attributed to their defensive shape and recycling of the ball in possession. Defensive shape has allowed them to prevent opponents from building promising attacks down the centre, while recycling has helped them to keep the ball from opponents. The latter allows them to build their own attacks and in turn prevent opponents from creating constant pressure.

Once again, a similar containing tactic was on display at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Without Nicola Sansone, Cédric Bakambu, and Roberto Soriano, the Yellow Submarine lacked their usual attacking verve, but playing Trigueros up front proved to be an inspired choice from Escribá.

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With Dos Santos and Castillejo sitting back, Villarreal’s ball-oriented shifts were consistent. Moreover, Trigueros often helped negate Sevilla’s overloads on a particular flank by joining in to support the wide midfielder-full-back combination. On the occasions when Nasri joined Mariano and Vázquez to create triangles for ball circulation, Trigueros prevented them from developing overloading situations against Ángel and Dos Santos.

To be fair to Nasri, it was Villarreal’s disciplined lines that forced him to drop deeper to collect the ball since he was immediately pressed when he received the ball in the centre, between the lines.

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Moreover, Sevilla’s tactic of drawing defenders and then switching play was rendered ineffective by Villarreal’s consistent indents. On the few occasions when the home side had the advantage after switching play, poor touches and even poorer end products nullified that advantage.

Vitolo’s movements

One aspect of Sevilla’s play was to get the ball to their captain Vitolo, who could then carry the ball deep into the Villarreal half. But, the issue with Vitolo was his tendency to drift inside on his favoured right foot from his wide position on the left. With no overlapping runs, Sevilla’s left-sided attacks were predictable, and only when Vázquez and Nasri both drifted into the central zones did Vitolo find space out wide. There too, his weaker left side meant Vitolo didn’t pose much threat.

After the hour mark, Pablo Sarabia, a natural left-footer, replaced Mariano, and Vitolo shifted to the right wing. Sevilla switched to a more attacking shape with Sarabia and Vitolo wide on both flanks, as Vázquez moved more central.

Villarreal never posed a sustained attacking threat, hence Sampaoli had the liberty to attack with six players in the game’s final half hour.

Conclusion

Villarreal are one of the few good-to-watch defensive teams around. Their economical use of the ball led to them having the game’s two most dangerous openings, both of which Adrián contrived to miss. With Villarreal’s selfless desire to not let Sevilla pass through their central ranks, this was a game where Escribá once again outmanoeuvred one of his higher profile counterparts in Sampaoli.

The Yellow Submarine were set up to contain, judging by Trigueros’ role as a forward. Their counterattacking threat was minimal but dangerous. Furthermore, they succeeded in stopping Sevilla from scoring which tells a lot about the manager’s impact who took charge nine days before the 2016/17 season kicked off. That Escribá has so far managed to pick up points against Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and Sevilla (twice) can be attributed to his tactical nous. Only Bayern Munich have conceded fewer goals than Escriba’s Villarreal this season in Europe’s top five leagues.

Nasri’s involvement in early build-up play in the first half stunted Sevilla’s attacking threat. Despite being more advanced in the second half, his 49th minute penalty miss meant he tried to overcompensate without much luck thereafter.

Sevilla had two-thirds of possession but nothing came of it. According to Michael Caley’s widely-endorsed expected goals model, Villarreal created the most dangerous openings (as per xG value) as shown by the two big yellow squares below.

Villarreal’s solid defensive shape meant Sevilla never sustained their attacking threat. Some brilliant goalkeeping from Sergio Asenjo denied the home side on more than one occasion, but Villarreal will be the happier team coming away from the Sánchez Pizjuán.

-This article first appeared on Outside Of The Boot

-Featured image courtesy of La Liga

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Indian Super League 2016 Preview

The third Indian Super League season is almost upon us with the first ball set to be kicked this Saturday at Guwahati’s Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium. Amid lots of player movements, new managerial appointments, homegrounds changing hands and a fracas concerning politics in Indian football, the stage is set for another highly entertaining 79 days of the best Indian football has to offer.

Eight teams–Atletico de Kolkata, Chennaiyin FC, Delhi Dynamos, FC Goa, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City, NorthEast United and FC Pune City–are set to launch their respective assaults on the title in what could be the last ISL in its current format. Only three teams failed to progress past the league phase of the ISL in the last two seasons, and hopes are high that Mumbai City, NorthEast United and Pune City will break into title contention come the end of the league phase this year.

Age profiles

The summer transfer window saw Indian clubs bring in a few old heads and set a record of sorts. Eidur Gudjohnsen, 38, and Diego Forlan, 37, were two of the oldest players to join ISL clubs, while 36-year-old Lucio and 35-year-old Didier Zokora were also signed as marquee players by FC Goa and NorthEast United respectively. Gudjohnsen has since been ruled out for the season injured, which could be a common sight for fans of the league that houses some of the oldest active players in world football.

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Shown in the graphic above are the average ages of all the eight teams in ISL 2016. Kerala Blasters, who narrowly lost the final in 2014, have the oldest squad on average. Their opponents on the opening day of the season, NorthEast United, are the youngest of the lot with an average age of 25.54. It will be interesting to see how the old heads fare against the younger ones on Saturday.

Delhi Dynamos and Mumbai City are two other teams which have relatively young squads whereas Pune City, Atletico de Kolkata, FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC have squads brimming with experience, although it remains to be seen whether they have the legs to go with the heads.

Among the 207 players registered by the eight clubs for ISL 2016, 42 percent are foreign players, and judging by the previous two seasons, the non-Indian players are equally important as the Indian players to any team’s fortunes. While 11 of last season’s 15 knockout stage goals were scored by foreign players, four of the eight goals in 2014’s final stages were scored by Indians, including Mohammed Rafique’s stoppage time winner for Atletico de Kolkata in the final.

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The foreign players in most squads are experienced campaigners at the tail end of their careers, although there are some exceptions as well. Kerala Blasters, who have the oldest squad of the eight teams, surprisingly lead the way in the youth of their overseas players, boasting the youngest group of non-Indians in their squad. This mix of experienced Indians and relatively young foreign players could turn out to be a masterstroke for last season’s bottom club, or backfire spectacularly.

On average, Chennaiyin FC have the oldest foreign nationals in their squad, but the champions have handy players in Bernard Mendy, John Arne Riise and Manuel Blasi who bring top-level pedigree and winning mentality to the team.

With an average gap of three days between matches for all the eight teams, there are concerns over workload for the senior players as well as the younger ones. That is where the fittest survive, and while there isn’t a great divide between teams with the oldest and the youngest average squads, the marginal gains obtained with every passing match could prove crucial in the tournament’s latter stages.

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As the above graph shows, the maximum percentage of goals scored in the past two seasons of the ISL were after the 80th minute mark: the dying stages of a game where fatigue sets in and mistakes happen with greater frequency. Hence, a young squad could prove to be vital as the tournament progresses, although NorthEast United’s experiences with youthful squads in the past have hardly been inspiring.

Goals

Following a steep rise of 56 goals in 2015 from the season previous, expectations of a goal tally bettering last season’s 185 are high this time round. However, the biggest disappointment heading into the new campaign will be the absence of last season’s top scorer Stiven Mendoza. Chennaiyin’s 13-goal hero will be missed, but Atletico de Kolkata’s Iain Hume is still around which slightly offsets Mendoza’s loss.

Of the 185 goals from last season, the scorers of 110 goals are still around although Mendoza aside, the goals from Chris Dagnall, Elano, Simao, Diomansy Kamara, Kalu Uche, Tuncay Sanli, Gustavo dos Santos and Adrian Mutu will be missed. As all the clubs have added fresh blood to their respective attacks, the chances of new goalscoring heroes emerging in the coming season look pretty good.

13 goalscorers from 2015 have changed clubs but remain part of the league for 2016. Chennaiyin’s Dudu, Kerala Blasters’ Semboi Haokip and Pune City’s Jonatan Lucca contributed to 11 goals for FC Goa last season, while two of the highest scoring midfielders from 2015–Arata Izumi and Bruno Pelissari–have moved to pastures new in Pune City and Delhi Dynamos respectively.

gored2015

 

Shown in the table above are the 110 goals from ISL 2015 redistributed among the eight clubs for the new season. The top scorers last term, FC Goa, have lost the likes of Dudu and Haokip but they still retain the services of Reinaldo and Jofre, both of whom scored a combined 11 goals for the Goans in 2015. Last season’s beaten finalists have also added the India international Robin Singh to their ranks who scored four times for Delhi Dynamos in 2015.

Chennaiyin, despite losing Mendoza, Elano and Pelissari, have added Dudu to their side while Kerala Blasters have looked to offset Dagnall’s loss by roping in Haokip from FC Goa. There aren’t many goalscorers from 2015 in NorthEast United, but their retention of Nicolas Velez, scorer of five goals last season, could be a key development.

Likewise, Mumbai City have also done well to retain Sunil Chhetri, who top scored for the goal-shy Mumbaikars with seven goals last term, and tricky winger Sony Norde. Mumbai City scored the fewest goals in 2015, hence they have barely lost anything in terms of goals from last season while their neighbours, Pune City, have added the most goals from 2015 by virtue of new signings.

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NorthEast United will pin their hopes on a superlative goalscoring season from Velez as they look one of the bleakest teams in attack, if 2015’s goals are anything to go by. In a short tournament like the ISL, the key is to hit the ground running from the off and having proven goalscorers is helpful for any team with an ambition to land a top four place at the end of the league phase.

Manager profiles

Six of the eight clubs have had a managerial change from 2015 with only the finalists from last season–Chennaiyin and FC Goa–retaining their main men in the dugout. Only three managers, namely Marco Materazzi, Zico and Antonio Lopez Habas, have ISL experience and it will be interesting to see how the new faces fare in the upcoming season.

Marco Materazzi
Club: Chennaiyin FC
Nationality: Italian
Replaces: n/a
ISL experience: 2014 semi-finalist, 2015 winner

Zico
Club: FC Goa
Nationality: Brazilian
Replaces: n/a
ISL experience: 2014 semi-finalist, 2015 runner-up

Antonio Lopez Habas
Club: FC Pune City
Nationality: Spanish
Replaces: David Platt
ISL experience: 2014 winner, 2015 semi-finalist

Steve Coppell
Club: Kerala Blasters
Nationality: English
Replaces: Terry Phelan
ISL experience: n/a

Gianluca Zambrotta
Club: Delhi Dynamos
Nationality: Italian
Replaces: Roberto Carlos
ISL experience: n/a

Nelo Vingada
Club: NorthEast United
Nationality: Portuguese
Replaces: Sergio Farias
ISL experience: n/a

Jose Francisco Molina
Club: Atletico de Kolkata
Nationality: Spanish
Replaces: Antonio Lopez Habas
ISL experience: n/a

Alexandre Guimares
Club: Mumbai City
Nationality: Costa Rican
Replaces: Nicolas Anelka
ISL experience: n/a

habas

FC Pune City manager Antonio Lopez Habas. (image source: indiansuperleague.com)

 

A mix of familiar and obscure names in the managerial ranks makes ISL 2016 a salivating prospect for enthusiasts of the league. Zambrotta brings along his reputation as one of the finest defenders of his era although his is a blank canvas as far as management is concerned. Long ball specialist Steve Coppell is another familiar name; the former Manchester United player who took Reading into the Premier League during the mid-noughties will be expected to lead Kerala Blasters to the title.

Nelo Vingada and Alexandre Guimares have their work cut out with NorthEast United and Mumbai City respectively, although the highly unpredictable nature of the ISL might suit the two newcomers. Atletico de Kolkata’s Jose Molina was a Zamora Trophy winner during his playing days and his considerable experience of playing and coaching in Spain will be useful, should Habas’ spell in Kolkata be a reference point.

-Data collated from indiansuperleague.com, wikipedia.org and official club websites

-Featured image source: indiansuperleague.com

El Clasico Popularity On Rise In The US As International Ticket Sales Soar

El Clasico or the Classic is the biggest draw in Spanish football (soccer). La Liga’s headlining act comes round this Saturday, with little to choose between the two competing sides, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The fact that the first Clasico of the 2015/16 season is a sell-out is of little surprise, and the United States, too, has got in on the act which could see the game at the Santiago Bernabeu the most internationally attended Clasico yet.

According to recent statistics from international secondary ticketing platform, Ticketbis, Saturday’s game is the first time the US has been the largest purchaser for any European soccer match, outside of the host country. While tickets have been purchased in more than 35 countries, the US leads the way with ticket sales in the country going up 150 percent from the corresponding Clasico last season.

It is no secret European soccer’s popularity is on the rise in the US, with pre-season games in the country during the summer months involving fabled clubs from major European soccer nations proving to be huge attractions. And the revelation from the Clasico data is another reason to believe the beautiful game has turned an important corner stateside.

“At the moment we’re registering requests from fans all over the planet. Currently US, British and South Korean buyers have registered among the most numerous, in terms of international sales. The US site specifically saw a jump in sales of nearly 150% compared to El Clasico that was played around the same time last year,” said Ticketbis CEO Ander Michelena on the rising interest levels across the world in the Clasico.

And Michelena’s claims are proved by some more data from Ticketbis. Following are the transaction numbers from the different country-specific Ticketbis websites.

TRANSACTIONS pER sITE

 

Insights from the above data show that aside from host country Spain, the US has been the country leading the way in ticket sales, accounting for 9.3 percent of the total sales via Ticketbis. There are British and South Korean buyers aplenty, as well as buyers from Mexico and France. The Clasico has also attracted audience from far off places like Australia and Singapore, testament to its extended influence across the globe.

The numbers are adverts for the growth of soccer in the United States, and fans of either the clubs or the occasion haven’t been shy about splashing the money on tickets. The most expensive ticket sold in the US cost a whopping $1,491.80 (1,390.57 euros), which, if put into perspective, is almost half that of the most expensive ticket for the game bought from Denmark for a cool $2,894.09 (2,697.70 euros).

There is little doubt the Clasico is arguably the greatest derby in world soccer, featuring global superstars and the two best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The international audience for the game has expectedly been on the rise over the years, and Saturday’s game has already seen 75.6 percent international ticket sales, up from 74.7 percent when the two sides last met in March earlier this year.

TRANSACTIONS pER sITE (1)

The Bernabeu will be a melting pot of different cultures come Saturday, and a sizeable proportion of Americans will be cheering from the stands. The magnitude of the Clasico has grown by the year, with demands for tickets clearly proving how popular a fixture on the calendar it is. That the average ticket price is 659 euros tells a thing about how the Clasico has become the money making machine for both Real Madrid and Barcelona.

While the average ticket price for the Clasico in Madrid is 648.24 euros, a ticket for the Clasico in Barcelona costs 879.45 euros on average. Those are numbers which suggest why the Clasico is one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar, from a sporting perspective as well as a commercial perspective.

And the increasing number of American fans getting involved in the occasion symbolises the changing times in the US. Soccer is attracting more and more attention from the masses, which could only be a good thing. The rise in popularity, and the increasing number of US fans attending the Clasico is proof enough of the growing soccer culture in the country.

Data courtesy of Emerging Insider

Infographics created in Canva

Featured image source: Sportskeeda

Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich Primed For Champions League Glory

Last spring, when Bayern Munich were knocked out of the Champions League by eventual winners Barcelona, Munich-based tabloid Abendzeitung ran a rather upbeat headline — “Out with a shout!” — the following morning. Bayern were outplayed by the genius of Lionel Messi in the first leg of the semi-finals, and if you choose to see it this way, Messi’s two goals that night were the difference in a aggregate 5–3 defeat.

Pep Guardiola is in his third season at Bayern Munich. There was the “biggest press conference in the history of the club” when he arrived in Bavaria two summers ago as the coach who had won two Champions Leagues in the space of four years with Barcelona. He arrived as a phenomenon back then, but his Champions League canvas is yet to be coloured in Bayern red. It isn’t that he has ceased to be a phenomenal coach any more.

The fact Bayern haven’t won the Champions League in the two seasons following Guardiola’s advent makes a strong case for their chances of winning the competition this season. Guardiola is a serial winner; his rate of winning trophies is the best of the modern generation, and he and Bayern look game to land the big prizes this season which include the Champions League.

Guardiola’s squad has shaped up nicely this season; after countless morphs and chops in the past two seasons, Bayern finally bear close resemblance to a well-oiled machine this term. And giving credit where credit is due, Guardiola has effected certain tweaks which are mix of stealth and openness, even risking the wrath of the club’s support. And things are slowly falling into place, but not quite.

“We wanted to control the game but we allowed a lot of counters. This was not correct and we have to improve on that, definitely,” was what Guardiola said after overseeing his side’s 5–1 romp over Arsenal earlier this month, the fifth time the Germans had put in five past an opponent this season. If Guardiola’s insistence on perfection borders on the ridiculous, it is only because Bayern are due their continental just deserts that their manager was brought in to provide in the first place.

Bayern’s transfer policy this summer was barely reactive; there was no knee-jerkism to last season’s disappointments in the continent, and there was a Guardiola narrative to it as well. The Spaniard has never been shy of ringing the big name changes, and has carried his trait to Bayern as well. Bastian Schweinsteiger pops up as the obvious name, but conspiracy theories that the Germany captain and his manager weren’t on good terms are wide off the mark.

“When he does not have injury problems, I am completely convinced he will do very well at Manchester United. He is a top, top player. Unfortunately, during the last three years he was never in good condition. He is going to play really good there. I really hope that is going to happen,” said Guardiola of Schweinsteiger upon his departure to Manchester United, words with undertones of mutual respect which have been turned and twisted by publications for the mere sake of it.

That Schweinsteiger was let go of was coming; Guardiola took similar measures during his time at Barcelona to freshen the squad from time to time. Before his first Champions League winning season, he oversaw the departures of experienced and influential figures like Ronaldinho and Deco, and to a certain extent, World Cup winner Gianluca Zambrotta. Later, he also phased out Yaya Toure, Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez.

It isn’t that Schweinsteiger was the only seasoned veteran in the squad who couldn’t keep up with his young and dynamic team-mates. Captain Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are all on the wrong side of 30, but Schweinsteiger is different kind, akin to a “Bavarian football god” according to German journalist Raphael Honigstein. Honigstein summed up Schweinsteiger’s transfer in one line: “He’d rather embark on a new adventure in England than be a deposed king in Bavaria.”

The next step? Completing the jigsaw puzzle. Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa were the biggest arrivals this summer, but Guardiola’s obsession with the nuances makes him what he is. Joshua Kimmich and Kingsley Coman aren’t fancy names yet, but their impact on the team this season has been pronounced. While Robben and Ribery have slogged it out in the treatment room, Coman and Costa have bedded in seamlessly.

Robben on form is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and that is what makes Coman and, to an extent, Costa’s signings strokes of genius. “Coman and Douglas Costa must eat a lot of soup if they are to reach the level of Arjen and Franck in this club,” was Guardiola’s take on the good starts to Costa and Coman’s Bayern careers. The fact both Costa and Coman aren’t established stars yet makes Guardiola’s job as a manager of people tad bit easier.

Guardiola has already put all his eggs in one basket this season. If logic defines playing with two wingers is effective, the Bayern manager has extended logic by playing all three of Robben, Costa and Coman together. Put Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller into the mix and opponents are faced with the prospect of putting up against five out-and-out attackers. Bayern have played only 124 minutes with the quintet on the pitch, scoring seven goals.

Inventive tactical morphs like the one witnessed against Bayer Leverkusen earlier in the season make Bayern one of the best-equipped teams to solve complex problems on the pitch and even off it. Last season, a loss in the Champions League to Porto prompted the departure of the club’s medical staff led by club doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt.

On that occasion, Bayern were without Ribery, Robben, Schweinsteiger, David Alaba, Medhi Benatia and Javi Martinez. And Guardiola had a rather downbeat response to the injury crisis that led to the defeat in Portugal and the doctors’ exit. “When a player is injured then it is not the fault of the doctor. Injured is injured. We could have lost against Porto even if we had had the injured players available.”

The fact such sentiments are no longer around is testament to the growth of Bayern under Guardiola this season. Against Leverkusen, a game which Bayern comfortably won 3–0, problem-solver Pep was in his elements as his centre-back-less set-up comfortably saw off the threat of Stefan Keissling, a seasoned professional, and the youthful exuberance of Hakan Calhanoglu and Karim Bellarabi, two gifted and dangerous attackers.

“I have a lot of respect for my players and when they decided to become footballers, they wanted to play with the ball. It’s not only about running. It’s all about having the ball, playing and dealing with the ball. Because we have had the ball, we have scored a lot of goals and haven’t conceded a lot.” Guardiola remains true to his possession-hungry ways, but has solved another problem which was so evident last season.

There were suggestions after the Barcelona loss last season that Bayern don’t have the players Guardiola seems to like having in his teams. His waxing lyrical of Messi after the semi-finals’ defeat was the spark which lighted the flames of those suggestions, but he and Bayern have come a long way since then. Lewandowski and Muller have combined to score 36 goals this season thus far, putting the calls to make sweeping personnel changes to bed.

“People might think that I came to Bayern and knew the players immediately but no. You need time for that. It’s a lot better this year. We have improved.”

The improvements are vivid; the team has the look of a Guardiola team after all, and the identity of the team has shifted from the physically imposing treble-winning team under Jupp Heynckes. The physicality is still around, but there are subtle variations and better solutions for more variants of problematic situations. There is also an improved sense of togetherness and team spirit, exemplified by the following video as Robben runs the length of the pitch to stop Arsenal from scoring.

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Robben has never been the greatest team player around; his tendencies of a soloist have marked him out for criticism over the years, but the above footage reveals more than it suggests to. At 31 and being his team’s star player, Robben — for the player he has been perceived as throughout his career —should never track back with his side 4–0 up. Although the fact Robben had been on the pitch for barely eight minutes at that stage makes a good case for counter argument.

Change is often interpreted as player overhaul in numbers, and more strikingly, an improvement in results. Bayern have little competition to deal with domestically; they are on course to win four successive league titles for the first time in their history. They are producing similar results like in the previous years, albeit by breaking a few more records. The barometer for defining an improvement at Bayern is the Champions League.

“This is the best team of my era here. People want to see successful football, to see attacking football with all 10 outfield players and we need some time for that. This is now our third year together, there have been a lot of matches and discussions, and we know each other much better now. I know my players better. We know what we want.” — Guardiola, after beating Arsenal 5–1.

That closing line — “We know what we want” — makes it clear where Bayern are streamlining their energy this season. Guardiola remains motivated by his hunger; he is in the final year of his current Bayern contract, and is not overly driven by a desire to secure a new one. Club CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, remains relaxed about the contract situation, so does Guardiola: “I am relaxed about it and so is the coach.”

Guardiola repeatedly brushes aside questions about his contract in press conferences. The focus is always on football, and the drive to always improve is what has set Bayern and Guardiola as serious contenders for the Champions League this season. “I am the coach, and if we do not win the treble at the end of the season it was a bad season,” said the self-flagellating Guardiola after Bayern’s 4–0 win over Stuttgart earlier this month.

With the subtle changes, Bayern have evolved into a better rounded team this season. While they possess undoubted quality in the likes of Manuel Neuer, Robben, Thiago, Muller and Lewandowski, there is also a flexible edge to the team. The likes of Lahm, Alaba, Martinez and Mario Gotze are world class players who can effortlessly fit into different roles on the pitch, and there is also the newly-added dynamism and youthfulness of Costa, Coman and Kimmich.

The Abendzeitung headline in the aftermath of the Barcelona defeat had connotations of belief after a somewhat meek submission; there seemed to be no inquest and little dissections. Guardiola’s men are primed for Champions League glory this season, it can be assumed. In isolation, without even taking into consideration the matters at their continental rivals, Bayern look finely poised to finally win the Champions League with Guardiola.

“I want to win the Champions League again — with Guardiola in charge.” — Rummenigge.

There is very little to suggest Bayern won’t win the Champions League this term, but the difference between victory and defeat in Europe’s elite club competition is also very little. Guardiola, for all his obsession of even the tiniest detail, is better placed than most to taste victory.

This post first appeared on Soccerlens

Featured image source: Web.de magazine

An Assortment

Crack Football has been striking the chord of inactivity since mid-July, but to keep it ticking over I have decided to  fill it with an assortment of insight-based articles I have written for various web-based media. Tactical pieces, statistical pieces and opinions. The same amount of effort goes into my articles published elsewhere like in Crack Football, and there is always a sincere attempt to learn and improve constantly and look for pieces of scrap wherever possible.

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a) Brendan Rodgers is a forgotten man in Liverpool now but I, like all other Liverpool optimists, started the season with a clean slate hoping for switches of fortune for one of English football’s great institutions. What started as a mission to cover all of Liverpool’s Premier League matches this season petered out when the Reds lost to West Ham at Anfield for the first time since the 1960s.

Following are the tactical analyses of Liverpool’s first two league games of the 2015/16 season. It was a time when things looked good under Rodgers; with two wins from two games, our tails were up. But things boiled over soon, and Rodgers is no longer around.

Tactical Analysis: Stoke City 0-1 Liverpool | Stoke Attack Down The Right And Liverpool’s Lack Of Defensive Cover

Tactical Analysis: Liverpool 1-0 Bournemouth | Combination Play Down The Right

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b) Napoli have had a fine start to their 2015/16 Serie A campaign and with more than 3/4ths of the season still to play, they have already registered wins over Lazio, Juventus, AC Milan and Fiorentina. Things are on the up for Maurizio Sarri, so much so that he has already earned a nickname of wizard Sarri Potter.

However, they weren’t too rosy for Sarri at the start of the season. A loss against Sassuolo followed by two draws against Sampdoria and ex-club Empoli were part of a poor start to the post-Rafa Benitez era. But since then, Napoli have won four of their last five league games, a run kick-started by a 5-0 shellacking of Lazio at Stadio San Paolo, a game which I tactically analysed for Outside of the Boot.

Tactical Analysis: Napoli 5-0 Lazio | Counter Pressing And Left-Sided Combinations

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c) One of Barcelona’s La Masia starlets, Rafinha, had a great start to the 2015/16 campaign. The Brazilian, who earned his place in Luis Enrique’s side as the go-to man from the bench this season after the sale of Pedro to Chelsea, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a Champions League clash against AS Roma, just a week after representing Brazil for the first time in an international match and only a day after I penned the following piece for Barcablog.

Why Rafinha Is Barcelona’s Blessing In Disguise

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d) Following Italian champions Juventus is fun, partly because of their massive global fan base, and partly because of manager Massimiliano Allegri’s tactical inventiveness. But Juventus haven’t had a great start to the season, and the Champions League has been a saving grace for their domestic predicaments.

Last season’s finalists started this campaign like a train, knocking over both Manchester City and Sevilla before contriving to drop their first points against Borussia Monchengladbach last week. The Sevilla win was a breeze for La Vecchia Signora, a typical European performance which I analysed tactically.

Tactical Analysis: Juventus 2-0 Sevilla | Allegri’s Tactical Innovation Keeps Sevilla At An Arm’s Length

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e) Have football title races gotten boring? Boring is unquantifiable in isolation, hence I fail to reach a valid conclusion in my analysis for Outside of the Boot. A four-minute read.

Analysis: Have Football Title Races Gotten Boring?

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f) Athletic Bilbao centre-back Aymeric Laporte’s burgeoning reputation has turned him into a player Barcelona fancy. The Frenchman is only the second from his country after Bixente Lizarazu to represent Athletic, who strictly adhere to their policy of meeting their ends with players of Basque origins, or in Laporte’s case, born and raised in the Basque country.

Laporte has already outperformed several Barcelona defenders this season according to the stats men. With the Catalan giants yet to fill the void left by Carles Puyol a year ago, their interest in Laporte could turn into a move to the Camp Nou for the defender. Following is a piece for Barcablog, on why Laporte could be the heir to Puyol.

Aymeric Laporte Is The Long-Term Solution To Barcelona’s Defensive Struggle

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g) England qualified for the Euro 2016 finals at a canter by winning all their ten qualifying games, albeit against lower-ranked opponents whose combined current average Fifa ranking is 91. What does it mean for Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions to head into France next summer on the back of a perfect qualification campaign?

Five teams in the history of the European Championship have managed to do what England achieved in the qualifiers, and only one emerged as the champions at the end of the finals. What does it suggest for England? Does it lay a marker on how far England can go in the finals? Is a major international tournament triumph forthcoming?

England At Euro 2016: Does Perfect Qualification Predict Success?

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h) Following are two stats-based articles on the Premier League’s hardest-working players (data updated till match day nine) and the fastest players in England’s top flight. There are quite a few surprising names in there, and all the statistics have been taken from EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, the Official Player Rating Index of the Barclays Premier League.

Stats: Premier League’s 8 Hardest Working Players This Season

10 Fastest Players In The Premier League

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i) It’s been more than two years since the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but have Manchester United rid themselves of their “Fergie Time” stigma? Stats from the 2014/15 Premier League reveal some interesting insights on the injury time details and how they impact the big clubs. An article for Soccerlens.

Are Manchester United Still The Kings Of Injury Time?

 

Thanks for reading.

TACTICAL ANALYSIS: Defensive Chelsea

“I don’t say we are a defensive team. I say we are a strong team in defensive terms”- Jose Mourinho, Chelsea manager.

 

In popular football culture, Jose Mourinho the coach is pragmatic, his teams stereotyped defensively well-organised. Defensive nature is not choice in football, it is necessity. Mourinho’s Chelsea of last season conceded the lowest goals (32) in the division; only League Two club Shrewsbury Town allowed fewer goals (31) than the Blues in 2014/15 across all professional leagues in England.

 

Not a flash in the pan by any means, Mourinho’s Chelsea conceded even fewer goals (27) in the 2013/14 season. Manchester City let in 38 goals last season, which incidentally is more than Chelsea’s 37 conceded over two title-winning seasons during Mourinho’s first spell with the Blues. It is intriguing how he does it with such regularity.

 

Following is an attempt at analysing the patterns, formation morphs, off-the-ball movements, zone coverage and other features of Chelsea’s defensive game.

 

DEFENSIVE STRUCTURE

 

Chelsea suffered a heavy loss (conceded five goals) on New Year’s Day to Tottenham Hotspur. It was more a case of Spurs capitalizing on their chances and the individual brilliance of their front players than Chelsea suffering from defensive disorganisation. Harry Kane’s second goal (video below) involved a little turn that sent Nemanja Matic the other way and opened up shooting space on the edge of the box. That little piece of skill took John Terry out of the game too.

 

52ND MINUTE: KANE'S MANOEUVRE HOODWINKING MATIC JUST INSIDE THE BOX, EVEN CATCHING TERRY OFF GUARD (TOT 4-1 CHE)

52ND MINUTE: KANE’S MANOEUVRE HOODWINKING MATIC JUST INSIDE THE BOX, EVEN CATCHING TERRY OFF GUARD (TOT 4-1 CHE)

 

The scenario explains a pattern. Chelsea regroup into a four at the back in defensive transitions. Matic drops into the space between the centre-backs, when one of the full-backs gets up the pitch.

 

MATIC COVERING FOR IVANOVIC, WHO STARTS THE COUNTER PRESS AGAINST SPURS' COUNTER

MATIC COVERING FOR IVANOVIC, WHO STARTS THE COUNTER PRESS AGAINST SPURS’ COUNTER

 

Note Mourinho isn’t a fan of wing play from the back. Most managers push both full backs up during possession phases but it is a pendulum-shaped defence at Chelsea with a flat four. Matic’s covering of space between the two centre-backs means one of them goes wide into the zone vacated by the full-back on his side.

CHELSEA DON'T EMPLOY A HIGH DEFENSIVE LINE, FORMING AN M-SHAPED LINE.

CHELSEA DON’T EMPLOY A HIGH DEFENSIVE LINE; THEY FORM AN ‘M’

 

Generally, the two lines at the back form a 2-3 M; Chelsea play a medium-low block defensive line, with Terry and Gary Cahill being the defensive recyclers. One of the two central midfielders positions himself deeper in build-up phases since neither Terry nor Cahill is a ball-playing defender. The diagram shows the M-shaped line at the back which morphs into a flat four when Chelsea are on the defensive.

 

FABREGAS DROPPING DEEP TO BUILD PLAY. THE CENTRE BACKS ARE NOT OF THE BALL-PLAYING KIND, HENCE THE DEEP BUILD UP AND THE LOW BACK LINE

FABREGAS DROPPING DEEP TO BUILD PLAY. THE CENTRE BACKS ARE NOT OF THE BALL-PLAYING KIND, HENCE THE DEEP BUILD UP AND THE LOW BACK LINE

 

Often teams subject Chelsea to high presses in a bid to 1) affect their build-up play, and 2) win the ball closer to their goal. Mauricio Pochettino is known to apply high-block pressing systems at his clubs (Southampton notably) which is yet to take full effect present club Tottenham. In the 5-3 win however, the Argentine’s tactics were aimed for disrupting Chelsea’s defensive organisation with the high press which exposed their ‘hole’.

 

CHELSEA SUBJECTED TO 'HOLE' PRESSURE: ONE DISADVANTAGE OF A FLAT BACK FOUR MORPH

CHELSEA SUBJECTED TO ‘HOLE’ PRESSURE: ONE DISADVANTAGE OF A FLAT BACK FOUR MORPH

Chelsea in the above scenario are playing to the referee’s whistle, and not overly reliant on playing the offside trap. See the movement and positioning of Cesar Azpilicueta who spots the penetrative movement of Ryan Mason and is in a position to cover should he receive the ball behind the centre-backs. Terry directs Cahill to stand back and cover. Cesc Fabregas, too, is in a defending shift covering for the out-of-position Branislav Ivanovic.

 

Chelsea’s defensive structure allows for opposition pressure in the Zone 14 (hole), but there is sufficient cover should their line be breached. A stat to back: Chelsea caught opposition 75 times offside last season in the league which, almost two per game, was lower than nine other teams.

 

Spurs used multiple pressing triggers in the Chelsea half in the forms of Kane, Andros Townsend and Mason. They maintained a consistent third band of three advanced midfielders; Mason stepped up when Nacer Chadli became the furthest Spurs attacker forward. Nabil Bentaleb, Mason’s partner in the back of midfield, played the Matic role.

 

EXAMPLE OF SPURS' HIGH PRESS. TOWNSEND IS AGGRESSIVE ON AZPILICUETA, WHILE MASON AND KANE ARE READY TO OVERLOAD MATIC SHOULD HE RECEIVE THE BALL. FABREGAS' POSITIONING IMPORTANT FOR CHELSEA

EXAMPLE OF SPURS’ HIGH PRESS. TOWNSEND IS AGGRESSIVE ON AZPILICUETA, WHILE MASON AND KANE ARE READY TO OVERLOAD MATIC SHOULD HE RECEIVE THE BALL. FABREGAS’ POSITIONING IMPORTANT FOR CHELSEA

The screengrab above shows Chelsea’s defensive structure. Their active zone is under Tottenham’s advanced man-to-man press. Fabregas, a modern deep-lying playmaker, is Chelsea’s outlet from the back. Chelsea maintain a good balance at the back, which makes their organisation in defensive transitions quicker and more efficient. Another example from the same Spurs game to clearly illustrate the point.

 

CHELSEA NEGATES THE HIGH PRESS BY PLAYING AROUND SPURS. IVANOVIC AND CAHILL IN THE PASSIVE ZONE ARE IMPORTANT FOR BALL MOVEMENT. ONCE CHELSEA PASS SPURS' 1-3 PRESS FROM THE FRONT, THEY HAVE SPACE APLENTY

CHELSEA NEGATES THE HIGH PRESS BY PLAYING AROUND SPURS. IVANOVIC AND CAHILL IN THE PASSIVE ZONE ARE IMPORTANT FOR BALL MOVEMENT. ONCE CHELSEA PASS SPURS’ 1-3 PRESS FROM THE FRONT, THEY HAVE SPACE APLENTY

In the above scenario, Chelsea have four men in the active zone (zone where the ball is) who are covered by Spurs players. Spurs’ coverage is man-to-man situational (marker doesn’t follow his man everywhere; they only do so when nearby pressing triggers force a mistake from a Chelsea player that results in a loose/wrong pass). Chelsea can overcome Spurs’ intense pressure by spreading play to the passive zone. Cahill is in space, so is Ivanovic and once the Blues play around Tottenham’s high block, they are away attacking the opposition who have half their team in the new passive zone. Oscar (Chelsea’s number 8) drops near the centre circle to help build up and make himself an available passing option.

 

One upside of having four at the back at all times is the numerical advantage. Teams normally don’t play four forward players in their basic setups. Of course, things could vary depending on the state of the game, but Chelsea themselves form a blanket in such situations maintaining their advantage. This takes us to another distinct aspect of their defensive play: covering and marking.

 

COVERING AND MARKING

DANNY ROSE GOAL (TOT 2-1 CHE). ERIKSEN'S MOVES INTO THE HOLE TO RELEASE CHADLI.

DANNY ROSE GOAL (TOT 2-1 CHE). ERIKSEN’S MOVES INTO THE HOLE TO RELEASE CHADLI.

 

Chelsea zonally cover space; their marking scheme is part man-to-man, part spatial. Their midfield two cover the central passing lanes. The Blues started well in their 5-3 loss to Spurs and even scored the opening goal. They were largely undone by the north Londoners’ high pressing block as mentioned earlier.

 

The Blues morph into a flat back four at all times during possession turnovers in their own half, which meant Spurs’ advanced midfielders, who formed their second pressing block (behind striker Kane, the press initiator), always found space behind Chelsea’s second line of defence.

KANE FIRST GOAL (TOT 1-1 CHE).

KANE FIRST GOAL (TOT 1-1 CHE).

 

They bypassed and isolated Chelsea in the central areas with the game in balance when Chelsea were understandably taking the initiative to attack. Chelsea’s propensity to play safe at the back (maintaining their four) meant Spurs could move forward into the whereabouts of the ‘hole’ without being subjected to much pressure.

 

This allowed Kane to score his first goal from outside the box. Spurs’ second goal, too, came from a similar exploitation of space in front of Chelsea’s flat four as Christian Eriksen found time and space to trouble the Blues.

 

The above videos give a fair idea of Chelsea’s defensive schemes and flat lines of defence. Mourinho’s Chelsea, like any other team, try to hold on to a lead, and Kane’s goal above shows the two banks slightly deeper (Chelsea were leading at that stage) than when they had to again take the game to Spurs at 1-1 when Rose struck.

CHELSEA'S FLAT DEFENSIVE LINE IS ADVANTAGEOUS FOR ADVANCED PLAYMAKERS LIKE ERIKSEN. DANNY ROSE'S SPATIAL LIBERTY OFFERS ANOTHER DIMENSION HOW TO CAUSE CHELSEA TROUBLE

CHELSEA’S FLAT DEFENSIVE LINE IS ADVANTAGEOUS FOR ADVANCED PLAYMAKERS LIKE ERIKSEN TO PICK HIS TEAM-MATES IN DANGEROUS AREAS. DANNY ROSE, THE GOALSCORER, IS ALREADY MOTORING.

 

Last season, Chelsea dropped their first points in the league in an away fixture at Manchester City. Things were going well for the Blues; they were a man up and led the defending champions by a goal until Frank Lampard restored parity for Manchester City in the 85th minute. The way Chelsea defended in numbers after Andre Schurrle’s 71st minute goal hints at another defensive pattern.

 

Manchester City had the sole presence of Sergio Aguero up front, but Chelsea had no plans to afford central space to the Argentine or the other auxiliary attackers supporting him. As ESPNFC‘s Michael Caley says: “That moment where defensive organization has broken down is the moment when an attack is most dangerous,” Chelsea’s approach lessens their chances of suffering from defensive meltdowns although they found themselves down 4-1 at one stage in that Spurs game.

 

The following scenario is from the City game after Chelsea had taken the lead. Notice how the Blues form two distinct banks of four. Chelsea are horizontally compact at this moment. They have managed to cut down most of the available passing lanes centrally while ignoring the wide areas.

CHELSEA'S TWO BANKS OF FOUR. HORIZONTAL COMPACTNESS. OVERLOADS IN THE CENTRAL ZONES.

CHELSEA’S TWO BANKS OF FOUR. HORIZONTAL COMPACTNESS. OVERLOADS IN THE CENTRAL ZONES.

 

Chelsea develop horizontal as well as vertical compactness as they defend deeper in their own half. In the last quarter-hour of that Manchester City game, Chelsea reorganise into a blanket to minimise City’s scoring chances. They cover the central zone, and pressure in wider areas is less intense.

SIX YARDS BETWEEN CHELSEA'S TWO DEFENSIVE BANKS. WIDE AREAS SUBJECTED TO LITTLE PRESSURE AS CITY FORWARDS TOO DEEP

SIX YARDS BETWEEN CHELSEA’S TWO DEFENSIVE BANKS. WIDE AREAS SUBJECTED TO LITTLE PRESSURE AS CITY FORWARDS TOO DEEP

 

Not necessarily parking-the-bus stuff, Chelsea’s smooth transition into a cohesive defensive unit involves pressing areas corresponding the strong attacking zones of the opposition. All ten outfielders create overloads in zones inside their own half, outnumbering City eight to four in the central zone. Note the four Chelsea players around Aguero, where the pressure is more intense than on Jesus Navas.

CHELSEA'S SITUATIONAL DEFENSIVE PATTERN. ALL TEN MEN INSIDE THEIR OWN HALF

CHELSEA’S SITUATIONAL DEFENSIVE PATTERN. ALL TEN MEN INSIDE THEIR OWN HALF

 

The central zones are subjected to intense pressure when the Blues are in a cohesive defensive shape. Most of the available central passing lanes are covered and blocked off. This leaves David Silva (screenshot below) with little to no option of moving the ball forward centrally.

CHELSEA MIDFIELD BLOCK CUTTING SILVA'S PASSING OPTIONS TO CENTRAL AREAS. BLOCK STAYS CLOSE TO OTHER CITY PLAYERS AS WELL

CHELSEA MIDFIELD BLOCK CUTTING SILVA’S PASSING OPTIONS TO CENTRAL AREAS. BLOCK STAYS CLOSE TO OTHER CITY PLAYERS AS WELL

 

Of course Chelsea change defensive patterns according to in-game situations; the above example is when they are defending a slender lead against strong opposition late into games.

 

PRESSING AND OVERLOADING

 

Chelsea aren’t a pressing machine; they press their opposition strategically in dangerous areas and almost always have a counter attacking trigger to support their pressing scheme. Rarely do they press inside their own half; their morphing into a back four in defensive possession turnovers means distributed pressing is not Chelsea’s game. However, they do press, and the opposition half is their preferred pressing zone.

 

CHELSEA'S MAN-TO-MAN OVERLOADING IN OPPOSITION HALF WHICH DISRUPTS SPURS' BUILD UP. NOTE HAZARD'S POSITIONING BEHIND RIGHT-BACK WALKER. HE ACTS AS A TRIGGER

CHELSEA’S MAN-TO-MAN OVERLOADING IN OPPOSITION HALF WHICH DISRUPTS SPURS’ BUILD UP. NOTE HAZARD’S POSITIONING BEHIND RIGHT-BACK WALKER. HE ACTS AS A TRIGGER

The above scenario explains another pattern: Chelsea disrupt Tottenham’s build-up with a high press. Chances are they recover possession following a successful press which explains Eden Hazard’s positioning on the wide left as a counter attacking trigger. Chelsea have become more of a possession-based side and goals from counter attacks were rare in 2014/15 after scoring the third highest number of goals from counter attacks the season before.

 

Chelsea’s block defence (reorganising into four at the back) leaves little chance for them to use pressing traps in their own half. One of their two midfielders in the back of midfield closes down the opposition central passer and starts pressing him to force passes away from goal into wide areas.

CFC happy to let SPurs into wider avenues

FABREGAS’ PRESSURE FORCES ROSE TO SEEK KANE IN THE WIDE LEFT CHANNEL

 

In the following scenario, Matic closes Kane down and as a consequence, the Spurs striker’s passing angles are narrowed down. This man-specific coverage from Matic comes at the expense of leaving the space in front of the back line vulnerable. Eriksen and Chadli have space in the hole but Chelsea, too, have half a chance of recovering possession from Kane.

KANE IS BEING CLOSED DOWN BY MATIC. THIS LEAVES ERIKSEN AND CHADLI WITHOUT COVER IN THE HOLE

KANE IS BEING CLOSED DOWN BY MATIC. THIS LEAVES ERIKSEN AND CHADLI UNATTENDED IN THE HOLE

 

Overloading schemes are similar to the aforementioned pressing schemes. Willian on the right is defensively better than Hazard on the left. The balance on both flanks is maintained by the attacking nature of the full-backs. Ivanovic on Willian’s side is more attack-minded than Azpilicueta on the left.

 

In the whereabouts of the penalty area, chances of an opposition player shooting or finding a team-mate lessens as he is heavily overloaded. Note Willian tracking back and covering the space vacated by Matic as he closes Chadli down on the edge of the box.

CFC pressurize the man on the ball in front of the box; intense pressure, 2 on 1, less chance of shooting or passing to a teammate.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Mourinho’s reputation as the pragmatist often precedes him; he is prone to criticism for his tactics, but is well worth the money for his ways. He is a manager who guarantees success, and has turned his new Chelsea into another well-oiled machine, almost.

 

Enjoy this counter attacking brilliance from Hazard, and do accept my apologies for the extremely drawn-out piece.

Costa

 

– Footage courtesy of IMG Sport Video Archive

– Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com

– Featured image courtesy of Huffington Post

Analysis: Liverpool With And Without Raheem Sterling

This article first appeared on The Bib Theorists, which is the Fresh Press Media‘s dedicated Liverpool website and their flagship project. You can read the article here.

Liverpool youngster Raheem Sterling is closing in on a move to Manchester City, if reports are to be believed. Sterling, who has turned out to be a key member of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side over the last two seasons, is fundamental in the way the Reds approach their games. His departure could be a watershed moment for Rodgers’ Reds, given his influence in their attacking phase of play as well as their off-the-ball phases.

With former captain Steven Gerrard moving to LA Galaxy after playing his last for Liverpool in 2014/15, the Reds’ quality of personnel will drop significantly next season. Gerrard, who was Liverpool’s top scorer last season, also leads in their all-time European scoring charts. With Sterling too inching towards Manchester, the Anfield club will not expect to be among the top dogs in England given the impending departure of two of their star men.

This piece is a retro analysis of Liverpool last season; an attempt to break down their pattern of play with Sterling in the side and without Sterling. The Champions League double header against Real Madrid is a good pointer to how the Reds will be playing next season, as they’ll mostly be the unfancied side against the bigger clubs because of their relative lack of quality across the pitch.

Liverpool lost both the games, a 3-0 reverse at home and a 1-0 defeat at the Bernabeu. However, the interesting bit is the variation of approaches from the Reds in both the games. Sterling started in the Anfield game, while he was benched for the reverse fixture, although he came on late in a bid to alter the proceedings of the tie. A marked change in Liverpool’s approach with and without Sterling is evident; this is a analysis of how Sterling’s move could usher in a tactical reshuffle from Rodgers.

Liverpool without Sterling

Sterling wasn’t in the Reds’ starting XI for the game in Madrid, as Rodgers adopted a conservative approach to stifle the superior attacking threat of Real Madrid, who had Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez in their line-up. The basic setup was a 4-5-1 with a flat back four. While Lucas sat slightly deeper than the other four midfielders. Joe Allen was the initiator of the high press along with forward Fabio Borini. Liverpool left space in between the back four and the midfield, with Lucas occasionally covering the Zone 14.

diagram 2 setups

In the diagram above, we can see all ten Liverpool players inside their own half. The interesting thing is Liverpool aren’t forming a blanket. Toni Kroos has the ball near the centre circle, and the Reds shape into cutting the German’s passing lanes into the central areas. Lucas is slightly deeper as mentioned above, while Allen is slightly higher to activate the press (because of his strong tackling and energetic approach). Liverpool leave space between the back four and the midfield; two Real Madrid forwards (Ronaldo and Benzema here) are seen tucking into that space, but the Reds are more concerned about stopping the passes to that space which is important given the quality of individuals like Ronaldo in the hole.

diagram explaining diagram 2

The above diagram explains why Rodgers went for a zonal approach and only had Lucas in holding midfield. The zonal approach meant that Liverpool were more intent on cutting off supply to Ronaldo and Benzema through the centre. On the above scenario, the Reds were played around which sees the alternating positions of Allen and Lucas. Benzema in the red space is free which forces Kolo Toure to close him down, which he does at the expense of covering the attacker in front of him, James. Benzema’s pass sets James free who has a shot.

Sterling, obviously, has little part to play in Liverpool’s defensive phases. Importantly though, he is used as a counter-attacking trigger whenever the Reds defend deeper, which renders the defensive analysis irrelevant at first glance but Liverpool’s overall approach has more to do with the positions their players take up, both in attacking as well as defensive phases of play.

four mfs + stirkerReal Madrid enjoyed 60% possession in the Madrid leg, and with a Sterling-less Liverpool, their defence had little to bother about given the static nature of Liverpool’s attack. Fabio Borini had zero (0) touches in the opposition box and Liverpool’s supposed attacking tools of Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and an advanced Joe Allen had little to no touches in Real Madrid’s penalty area until Sterling came on in the 69th minute. Not that the status quo changed greatly after the youngster came on, but his arrival ensured that Real Madrid were stretched which provided more space in the central areas.

ssdsdsReal Madrid were comfortable in reorganising in defensive transitions; this owed much to the recovery speeds of their centre-backs Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos as well as the absence of Sterling’s pace. In the above diagram, Lallana is in space behind Real’s midfield line as Toni Kroos and Luka Modric aren’t best-known for their destroying influence. Liverpool, on this occasion, have completely bypassed Real’s second line of defence but Los Blancos are quick to morph into a flat four-man defensive wall. Liverpool advanced tediously, which involved moving the ball with short passes as the channel runs of Sterling were missed. Real Madrid had no cover in the space in front of their back four and Sterling’s presence could’ve offered different dynamism on this instance (instead of Lallana attempting a through ball for Borini which was easily intercepted by Varane).

Kroos + Modric 45-69 minsWith the help of some Squawka stats, the action areas and touches of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have been analysed in game two. The gradual movement of the Real midfielders into deeper positions is evident. Selecting a comparable frame of time (45-69 and 69-90 time periods have been chosen here), we can see the midfielders’ influence into Liverpool’s wide right, the area where Sterling slotted into upon his introduction.

In a way, Sterling’s presence on the pitch influences the pattern of how Liverpool’s opponents play. This further validates claims of his importance to Rodgers’ Liverpool.

Liverpool with Sterling

Sterling is a strong dribbler (had the fourth most successful dribbles among Premier League regulars in 2014/15) and is a direct runner into wide channels. His statistics (seven goals, seven assists in the Premier League last season) do not reflect his overall influence in the final third.

In the game at the Bernabeu, Liverpool’s attacking dynamics changed when Sterling was introduced in Markovic’s place. He tucked into the wide right channel, and found space aplenty behind Real Madrid’s attack-minded full-back Marcelo. Markovic is a runner, and was contained easily as Real continually sought Marcelo high on their left which meant the Serbian was mostly on back-tracking duties.

The following infographic shows Sterling’s instant impact on Liverpool’s pattern of play after coming on in the 69th minute at the Bernabeu.

RAHEEM

In the Anfield leg, although they ended up losing, Liverpool had Real right on the ropes until Ronaldo gave the Spanish side the lead in the 23rd minute. Sterling started the game, and played off front man Mario Balotelli (Sterling often was the farthest Liverpool attacker at times). He was a threat with his direct runs, exploiting Arbeloa’s high positioning. Another infographic from the 3-0 loss at Anfield shows how the young Englishman is pivotal to the Reds’ energetic, direct approach. 

raheem2

(NOTE: The infographics are self-explanatory; click on the images to view their better quality versions)

For someone who is only 20, Raheem Sterling’s importance to Liverpool’s style of play is immense. Ready-made replacements of his ilk will be hard to come by, but whether Rodgers accepts the eventuality and changes the way the Reds approach oppositions is a question without an answer for now. Without Sterling, Liverpool will be a weaker counter-attacking outfit, although his end-product won’t be greatly missed.

 

– Diagrams created via Tactics Creator

– Stats obtained from Squawka, Stats Zone, WhoScored.com

– Heatmaps via Squawka

– Infographics created by the author with the help of footage from FootballOrgin

 

 

 

Juventus v Barcelona: An In-Depth Tactical Preview

First seasons at the helm, first shots at the treble. That’s where the similarities between Max Allegri and Luis Enrique end as both managers head to the poor-yet-sexy, cliché-ridden German capital city of Berlin for the season’s swansong with their respective Juventus and Barcelona sides.

High on confidence and a proud heritage of relentless winnings, the giants of Italy and Spain square off in what promises to be a battle of much intrigue. Only one will stand tall and proud at the night’s end; how I wish the weekend night would never end. This piece is an attempt to tactically break down both Juventus and Barcelona, and analyze how and where the final could be won and lost.

BASIC SETUPS 

The Old Lady’s semi-final win over Real Madrid on aggregate over two legs owed much to the organizational nous of Allegri. Throughout the knockout stages, they’ve had to face brilliant attacking teams in Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid while also coming through against a disciplined Monaco. Juventus’ 4-4-2/4-1-3-2 was instrumental against Real Madrid’s front three, when they sat in a low block and pressed in a low-medium block, continually forcing the Spaniards into wide areas. The theme looks set to continue against another side (Barcelona) who deploy a front three. This is a basic tactic to always have a numerical advantage in the defensive third against superior opposition; Juve usually play three center-backs when up against two-man attacks, using their full-backs as attacking outlets compensating for the missing man in midfield.

(ED’S NOTE: Giorgio Chiellini has been ruled out of the final due to injury)

PROSPECTIVE STARTING XIs AND TACTICAL SETUPS

PROSPECTIVE STARTING XIs AND TACTICAL SETUPS

Luis Enrique’s Barcelona have shaped into a fearsome attacking unit as the season has worn on, with a settled starting eleven intent on breaking records left, right and center. Their attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar has combined for a record 120 goals so far this season. Barca will, in all probability, line up in their template 4-3-3 with the only dilemma for Enrique being the decision to choose between club legend Xavi, who plays his last for the club, and summer signing Ivan Rakitic who has been an inspired presence on the right side of midfield, alternating with Messi and Dani Alves in some breathtaking attacking phases.

BARCELONA’S PATTERNS OF PLAY: ON AND OFF THE BALL

Barcelona’s pattern of play has a distinctive feature about it; they heavily rely on possession football and choose the strategically strong areas to trouble opposition with the high technical level of their players. The wide areas are used intelligently, and not as strong attacking zones. This is logical as Barcelona have rarely been reliant on proper center forwards in recent times (Zlatan Ibrahimovic an exception). Barca’s active areas in wide attacking phases involve interplay and triangles, which is their fundamental tactic.

BARCA PATTERN OF PLAY IN GENERAL. NEYMAR ON THE WIDE TOUCHLINE AN EXCELLENT OUTLET. MESSI FREE ROLE DEPENDS ON MOVEMENT OF ALVES AND RAKITIC TO WIDE AREAS ALLOWING HIM TO PLAY CLOSE TO THE CENTRAL ZONES. MASCHERANO USED AS A SWEEPER, SERGIO COVERS WHEN ONE OF THE FULLBACKS SURGE FORWARD (NEVER TWO AT A TIME).

BARCA PATTERN OF PLAY IN GENERAL. NEYMAR ON THE WIDE TOUCHLINE AN EXCELLENT OUTLET. MESSI’S FREE ROLE DEPENDS ON MOVEMENTS OF ALVES AND RAKITIC TO WIDE AREAS ALLOWING HIM TO PLAY CLOSE TO THE CENTRAL ZONES. MASCHERANO USED AS A SWEEPER, SERGIO COVERS WHEN ONE OF THE FULLBACKS SURGE FORWARD (NEVER TWO AT A TIME).

Barca’s morphs of formation during transitions in play often has one constant, striking aspect which is their formation of passing triangles which aims at circulating the ball through and beyond Zone 14 through the central areas. Even their wide interchanges end up with the ball carrier inside the penalty box or on the periphery of the penalty box. The idea is, always, to attack through the central areas.

Another utility of passing triangles for Barcelona is they can bypass pressing traps easily. The diagram shows different passing triangles on the left side where they are subjected to zonal pressing. With triangles, these traps can be easily bypassed as the zones are not active at that moment.

(Note: Central areas are strategically more important in attacking play than wide areas because the distance to goal is shorter from central areas than from wide areas.)

Utilization of passive areas is another important feature of Barcelona’s pattern of play. This is helped by their general possession-based game which helps the likes of Neymar to offer little in a defensive sense but cause trouble in lightning quick transitions. With Neymar positioning himself on the wide left touchline, any defence-to-attack transition has a readily available outlet in the pacey Brazilian. This also provides the rationale behind Enrique favoring Mascherano over Jeremy Mathieu (both aren’t center-backs by trade) as the second center-back as Mascherano is a better passer of the ball, which facilitates quicker and more dynamic transitions.

(Note: Passive areas are the zones where the real-time action is minimum, and the ball is a considerable distance away.)

The above diagram is a screenshot from Barca’s 3-1 Copa del Rey win over Athletic Bilbao. As Busquets receives the ball from Messi who dribbles past the medium block of Athletic markers, Mascherano positions himself into an area towards Busquets’ left where he receives the pass. Neymar, on the far touchline, is ready to make a run should the Argentine center-back thread a lofted ball. Mascherano didn’t seek Neymar on that particular occasion and went to Alba with the pass, but Neymar’s activity in a zone deemed inactive by Athletic could’ve seen them in trouble. This is how Barcelona catch relaxed opposition out.

Barcelona average a high possession percentage of 68% and therefore, they are almost always on the ball. Off the ball, the Blaugrana use two triggers, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Barca hold a very high line of defence, a particularly risky strategy but Gerard Pique’s gradual improvement has made it look easy on the eye. They don’t press relentlessly as they used to under Pep Guardiola, and employ a medium pressing block when not in possession (the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Neymar rarely press). The full-backs initiate the pressing traps, and the two players at the far end of the pitch, Neymar and Suarez, act as the triggers (not simultaneously but alternately). This is one reason for the volume of chances Barca create and the goals of Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN).

JUVENTUS’ PATTERNS OF PLAY: ON AND OFF THE BALL

Juventus have been the alpha dog of Italian football for quite a few years now but only this season have they found a semblance of footing in European football after years in the obscurity. They regularly came short under Antonio Conte, who was too rigid with his setups and rarely shuffled packs, and this season, too, they were almost pipped to second by Olympiacos of Greece in group play. However, they survived and a few disciplined performances later, topped by the famous defeat of holders Real Madrid, find themselves in elite company.

JUVENTUS PATTERN ON AND OFF THE BALL. VIDAL IMPORTANT IN ALL PHASES, STARTS THE ZONAL PRESSING WHEN BALL LOST, FINALLY SETTLING INTO A FLAT MIDFIELD. ONE FULLBACK MOVES TOWARDS WIDE OPPONENT PREVENTING OVERLOADS ON SIDE MIDFIELDER, RESULTS IN THE OTHER FB JOINING AS THE 3RD CB. HENCE THE PENDULATING BACK FOUR

JUVENTUS PATTERN ON AND OFF THE BALL. VIDAL IMPORTANT IN ALL PHASES, STARTS THE ZONAL PRESSING WHEN THE BALL IS LOST, FINALLY SETTLING INTO A FLAT MIDFIELD. ONE FULLBACK MOVES TOWARDS WIDE OPPONENT PREVENTING OVERLOADS ON SIDE MIDFIELDER, RESULTING IN THE OTHER FB JOINING AS THE 3RD CB. HENCE THE PENDULATING BACK FOUR

Juventus’ midfield dynamics are simpler; Andrea Pirlo’s age means that his energy and work-rate aren’t up to standards, and this requires Allegri to play Arturo Vidal in an advanced midfield role, like the tip of a diamond. Juve’s midfield isn’t the classic diamond because of the predominantly defensive nature of the side. Pirlo sits the deepest, as the half-back or a semi quarter-back and is fundamental in dictating Juve’s transition plays as well as the direction of their attacks when on top. Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio are the wide midfielders in Juve’s purported diamond.

Juventus primarily use their four man defence against stronger opposition. Their 4-1-3-2 gradually morphs into a pendulating back four at times depending on pitch activity and without the ball, the 1-3 midfield changes into a flat-4, congesting the space between the lines both horizontally and vertically which forces opponents to find wider avenues. Juventus are good in the air, and letting their opponents stretch the play into wide areas is always favorable while maintaining their shape and horizontal compactness.

JUVE AGAINST DORTMUND IN R16. INTENSE PRESSING IN CENTRAL AREAS FORCING DORTMUND WIDE WHO THEN CROSSED BALLS WHICH WERE EXPERTLY DEALT WITH BY THE AERIALLY ADEPT JUVE DEFENDERS

JUVE AGAINST DORTMUND IN R16. INTENSE PRESSING IN CENTRAL AREAS FORCING DORTMUND WIDE WHO THEN CROSSED BALLS WHICH WERE EXPERTLY DEALT WITH BY THE AERIALLY ADEPT JUVE DEFENDERS (Image obtained from Tom Payne’s Vimeo Channel https://vimeo.com/tompayneftbl/videos)

Genius tactical analyst Tom Payne assessed Juventus’ defensive structure and found a recurring theme in games against superior attacking sides. Against Dortmund in the Round of 16, Juve’s intense pressure in the central areas forced the Germans wider, resulting in fewer chances created for Dortmund and a 5-1 aggregate victory for Juve. Against Real Madrid, too, in the semifinals, Juventus overloaded the central areas with their flat midfield four and consequently pushed Madrid wide. This forced them into ineffective crosses after repeated failed attempts to break the Bianconeri ranks through the middle. Juve, being good in the air, only let in 21 of the 66 crosses (32% cross completion) swung in by the Spaniards over two legs, which speaks volumes about Allegri’s tactical expertise.

KEYS:

  • Barcelona’s pitch space congestion
    BARCA'S SPACE CONGESTION IS A PRESSING TACTIC, BUT COULD BACKFIRE SHOULD PIRLO FIND SPACE IN AREAS CLOSE TO BENAT

    BARCA’S SPACE CONGESTION IS A PRESSING TACTIC, BUT COULD BACKFIRE SHOULD PIRLO FIND SPACE IN AREAS CLOSE TO BENAT

    Barcelona, as mentioned earlier, maintain a high defensive line. This is surprising given their two center-backs, Pique and Mascherano, aren’t blessed with world-beating recovery pace although their superlative attributes of tackling and anticipation of play paper over the shortcomings. In the diagram (on the right) from the same Copa final against Athletic, Barca squeeze pitch space as their last defensive line is positioned very high. The man on the ball, Athletic’s Benat, could’ve put the Catalans into serious trouble with more conviction in his choice of pass. Mikel Rico starts on a unmarked run behind Dani Alves and had Benat found him rather than going for Inaki Williams, things could’ve looked different today.

    Juve’s Andrea Pirlo is one of the best deep-lying playmakers around, and if Juve can find him with the ball in similar phases of play, Barca should be troubled. Barca rarely lose the ball, and therefore their first defensive line rarely presses and should Pirlo find himself in similar areas, he will be expected to find his teammates in the channels with better conviction than Benat did.

  • Barcelona’s passive area control
    NEYMAR's POSITIONING GIVES PASSIVE AREA CONTROL BECAUSE OF THEIR PLAYERS' TECHNICAL PROWESS TO SWITCH PLAY FROM CONGESTED SPACES. BARCA PRESSED IN THE CIRCLED ZONE

    NEYMAR’s POSITIONING GIVES PASSIVE AREA CONTROL BECAUSE OF THEIR PLAYERS’ TECHNICAL PROWESS TO SWITCH PLAY FROM CONGESTED SPACES. BARCA PRESSED IN THE CIRCLED ZONE

    Barcelona’s attacking phases involve control of the active zones as well as the passive zones. This is an interesting facet of their play, one that has contributed to their domineering run under Enrique. Passive area control is considered redundant by most managers; this is primarily because the game being highly ball-oriented and the difficulties faced in perfecting it. Barcelona have been exceptionally adventurous in doing so.

    Also given the technical prowess and ability on the ball in close quarters of the Barca players, they can effortlessly switch play from the congested areas of the pitch to unmanned, passive areas which often catches opposition off-guard. In the adjacent diagram, Neymar is seen in his customary wide position, holding his run and timing it as his teammates in the active areas press the opponent with the ball. Once the ball is recovered, his teammate on the ball can either trigger him or find an alternate option.

CONCLUSION

Two historic clubs, six European Cups between them. Will Xavi have one final bite of the big ears? Or will Gigi Buffon finally hold the Champions League aloft at the place of his greatest career moment? Come Saturday, European football will welcome another fabled giant on the hallowed trophy, the Holy Grail of club football.

– Diagrams created via Tactics Creator

– Video footage for analysis obtained from the YouTube channel SPORT TVHD FAN. Subscribe to this wonderful channel here

– Follow the brilliant Tom Payne on Twitter here

 

Is the specialist defensive midfielder a dying breed in England?

This article first appeared on Outside of the Boot, a website obsessed with the beautiful game (read it here).

When Southampton boss Ronald Koeman started with center-half Toby Alderweireld as a second pivot alongside Morgan Schnederlin in a center-heavy 4-2-3-1 against Tottenham, he must’ve felt the sheer absurdity of letting go former Chelsea man Jack Cork to Swansea City in January.

Cork is essentially a defensive central midfielder, far less of the archetypal English mold but more of the fleet-footed passer from the back. Koeman prefers two holding midfielders to one; this is basically an approach to mitigate Southampton’s limitations of personnel. Should they play with two center forwards, which they currently don’t have and which will mean making lesser use of an in-form Graziano Pelle up front, it would usually imply sacrificing a midfield body. Against Spurs in that 2-2 draw though, Koeman was forced to use Alderweireld in the suspended Victor Wanyama’s absence. He could’ve easily called upon Cork had he not been sold.

Cork at Swansea is the long-term like-for-like replacement for the ageing Leon Britton. Like Britton, Cork’s role in a midfield triumvirate at Swansea is recycling the ball quickly and intelligently. Their presence….(Read the rest of the article at OutsideoftheBoot.com or by clicking here).

TACTICAL ANALYSIS: Southampton 0-2 Liverpool: Wasteful Saints

(Coutinho 3′, Sterling 73′)

Liverpool gained ground on the Champions League places as they saw off high-flying Southampton on a wet night at St Mary’s. Neither team looked odds-on to score; Southampton had more possession but lacked the edge up-front with the off-color Graziano Pelle while Liverpool rode on the back of a confident defence and based their game mainly on counter-attacks.

Basic setups

Ronald Koeman’s Southampton lined up in a typical 4-2-3-1; two defensive midfielders Steven Davies and Victor Wanyama providing the ballast for the front four of Eljero Elia, Filip Djuricic, James Ward-Prowse and Pelle. The Saints’ front midfield oriented mainly to the left (Elia’s side) while new signing Djuricic played in the inside right channel with right-back Nathaniel Clyne overlapping along the right touchline.

STARTING XIs

STARTING XIs

Liverpool were a predictable 3-4-2-1, but had changes in personnel. They had a reshuffled back three with Emre Can filling in for Mamadou Sakho on the left of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren on his right. Lazar Markovic replaced Alberto Moreno as the left wingback, but his unfamiliarity with the role meant that Markovic made positional errors and lacked understanding with the center-back on his side, Can. Raheem Sterling was at the tip of the 3-4-2-1.

Southampton attack Liverpool’s wingbacks

Liverpool in their 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 system have concentrated their game more through the wide areas, and pacey wingbacks are an integral part of the system. In the attacking third, they basically pull the opposition full-backs towards their wingbacks and prevent their opponents from creating 2v1 situations in the center, thus allowing the likes of Coutinho to flourish. But Southampton’s pressing game and Clyne’s energy on the right meant that Markovic found little space to run into channels and combine with Coutinho.

ELIA PASSES RECEIVED: DEEP INTO THE LEFT CHANNEL

ELIA PASSES RECEIVED: DEEP INTO THE LEFT CHANNEL

ELIA (left) AND IBE (right) ACTION AREAS IN THE FIRST HALF: ELIA IN THE SPACE BEHIND IBE

ELIA (left) AND IBE (right) ACTION AREAS IN THE FIRST HALF: ELIA IN THE SPACE BEHIND IBE

Southampton’s front of midfield had a slightly asymmetrical look to it. Elia on the left slotted into the pocket behind Liverpool’s right wingback Jordon Ibe, and generally found himself in promising areas down the left flank. That Elia found space behind Ibe often caught Lovren in a dilemma: whether to commit himself or hold his position. Thankfully for the Reds, Skrtel had an expert eye on Pelle and Ward-Prowse’s lack of presence in the Zone 14 and propensity to pass wide meant that the Saints did not convert their advantage into a goal.

MARKOVIC PASSING: BACKWARDS AND SIDEWAYS

MARKOVIC PASSING: BACKWARDS AND SIDEWAYS

On the other side, Clyne and Djuricic often overloaded Markovic with their combination play. Markovic, as the false defender that he is, struggled with the pace of Southampton attacks and frequently found himself tracking back to Clyne’s runs. Can, too, struggled against the movement of Djuricic. After conceding the first goal, Southampton generally moved higher as Liverpool dropped yards and this made Markovic look particularly woeful. He lacked invention whenever he had the ball, often cutting back and moving the ball sideways or backwards- very untypical of a wingback.

Liverpool’s zonal press

Surprisingly though, Liverpool’s high-intensity pressing game was missing; understandable considering their European exertions in the week. Instead they employed a zonal pressing system that focused on creating overloads along the wings, and counter-attacking whenever they recovered the ball in Southampton’s half. Through the central areas, Liverpool hardly pressed which allowed plenty of time on the ball for Wanyama and Davies.

Lallana on the inside right and Coutinho on the inside left led Liverpool’s zonal press that involved the touchline as a false defender. The Reds had combinations of four on either flank whenever Southampton looked to build-up through the wings. Sterling, Lallana, Henderson and Ibe on the right and Sterling, Coutinho, Allen and Markovic on the left converged on the ball but Southampton generally had a spare man to recycle the ball which meant that Liverpool’s counter-pressing was ineffective. Once they led, Liverpool were content to sit back and hit on the break, but this needed better midfield passers than Allen and Henderson.

Substitutions

Both sides made changes after the half-time break, and Brendan Rodgers once again came out trumps with his Markovic substitution. Moreno is predominantly left-footed which makes him a better fit on the left. And the fact that Liverpool were effectively defending after their early goal required more safety on the sides, and Moreno is a left-back by trade. A masterful interpretation of Markovic’s difficulties in the first half against Clyne by Rodgers.

SOUTHAMPTON CROSSES: 15% ACCURACY

SOUTHAMPTON CROSSES: 15% ACCURACY

Southampton changed little after Morgan Schneiderlin came on at half-time. They retained their shape throughout, and only after Sadio Mane’s introduction that they changed their overall approach. Pelle had an off-day by his standards; Southampton found little joy in forward combinations involving the Italian (Skrtel was pivotal for Liverpool here) and swung hopeful crosses from the wings. Mane was brought on for more direct runs behind the center-backs which Pelle fails to do as a target man.

Southampton’s extra playmaker

Southampton lost the initiative early doors when they conceded the goal but they gradually came back into the game, thanks in part to Liverpool’s waiting game. The two center-backs, Jose Fonte and Maya Yoshida, pushed higher up the pitch as the game progressed. Liverpool’s negligible pressure on the ball in the Southampton half in central areas meant that the two center-backs were allowed to carry the ball fairly easily. Liverpool’s lack of a defensive midfielder was evident as the Saints easily bypassed their midfield line and found players in space between the lines.

YOSHIDA AND FONTE LAPSED ACTION AREAS: THE TWO CBs MOVED HIGHER AS THE GAME PROGRESSED

YOSHIDA AND FONTE LAPSED ACTION AREAS: THE TWO CBs MOVED HIGHER AS THE GAME PROGRESSED

Southampton encountered little resistance in their phase I; often Fonte carried the ball into Liverpool’s half. Henderson and Allen kept distance from their center-backs, a move primarily made so that Liverpool could be quicker in their attacking transitions. This meant that Southampton, and Ward-Prowse particularly, found enough space between the lines. It was disappointing that the Saints had too little to offer in their attacking phase III after promising situations in phases I and II.

FONTE AND YOSHIDA DEFENSIVE DASHBOARDS: HIGH LINE

FONTE AND YOSHIDA DEFENSIVE DASHBOARDS: HIGH LINE

Fonte and Yoshida recovered possession pretty high up the pitch, and Fonte often started Southampton’s moves. Yoshida, too, passed the ball whenever possible to Fonte (Yoshida to Fonte was the game’s highest pass combination), allowing the Portuguese to find the midfielders ahead of him. Too often in the first half, Markovic stuck tight to Clyne while Allen remained too central and lost Ward-Prowse, who was excellent with his movements. Ward-Prowse found himself behind Liverpool’s midfield in space and time but Fonte, for the defender that he is, continually chose the wrong pass or the wrong option. Southampton, again, failed to capitalize on an obvious advantage.

Conclusion

Liverpool were perhaps lucky to come away with all three points in a soggy St Mary’s, but Southampton had themselves to blame for failing to score for the third straight home game. Martin Skrtel’s contribution in pinning down Pelle was significant as was the decision to get rid of Markovic in the second half. The Saints offered plenty of promise but suffered from a general lack of goalscoring threat. They were excellent in the wide areas (particularly Elia and Clyne) but Liverpool’s clinical efficiency saw them through. Liverpool’s fifth successive clean sheet on the road was one of the many important statistics from the game.

– Stats and figures from Four Four Two and Squawka

– Starting XIs made using Tactics Creator