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.

chalkboard-1

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.

typical-442-vr-shape

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.

lack-of-central-access-when-nasri-drops-deep

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

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.

————————————————————————————————————

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

————————————————————————————————————

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

————————————————————————————————————

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

————————————————————————————————————

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

————————————————————————————————————

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?

————————————————————————————————————

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

————————————————————————————————————

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?

————————————————————————————————————

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

————————————————————————————————————

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

 

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

TACTICAL ANALYSIS: Liverpool 1-0 Besiktas: Width and halfspaces

Balotelli 85′ (pen)

Mario Balotelli’s late penalty forced the advantage Liverpool’s way in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 32 against a defensive Besiktas at Anfield. Liverpool excelled in the wide areas, with wingbacks Alberto Moreno and the particularly impressive Jordon Ibe, and restricted the Turkish Super Lig leaders to a measured approach which relied heavily on counter-attacks.

Basic setups

Brendan Rodgers set his Liverpool side in a familiar-looking 3-4-3 setup, but gambled with a featherweight midfield in the absence of captain Steven Gerrard. Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho lined up on either side of Daniel Sturridge; the three stacked up in a positionally fluid front three which resulted in Lallana often finding himself furthest forward in certain first half spells when Sturridge dropped off.

STARTING XIs (dark patch shows BJK's trapezoid)

STARTING XIs (dark patch shows BJK’s trapezoid)

Slaven Bilic never won at Anfield during his playing days at West Ham and Everton, and seemed to be in no mood to alter history when he set his team to hustle out a favorable result to take home. Besiktas lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot which really was a waste of a man, while Demba Ba was often isolated up front while his support cast (Gokhan Tore and Olcay Sahan, the wide men in a trapezoidal midfield) was kept busy by the Liverpool wide men.

Spare men

Both Liverpool and Besiktas had a stark similarity in their defensive thirds. The fact that both managers went with a lone striker meant that there was always a numerical advantage for the defending side on either end of the pitch. Liverpool had it relatively easy with only Demba Ba to mark, and Jose Sosa offering little in the way of a proper attacking threat. Sosa failed to impose himself and lacked the work-rate often demanded by teams playing on the counter. Consequently, he became the first player to be subbed off.

STURRIDGE AND BA ACTION AREAS: VERY LITTLE MEANINGFUL IMPACT IN AND AROUND THE BOX

STURRIDGE AND BA ACTION AREAS: VERY LITTLE MEANINGFUL IMPACT IN AND AROUND THE BOX

Similarly for Liverpool, Sturridge was the lone man up front and this meant that Besiktas too had a spare center-back to cover for the man on Sturridge. Liverpool missed Raheem Sterling’s direct runs, and the fact that Coutinho and Lallana’s lateral movements often required dodging the deep-lying Besiktas central midfielders made it easier for the Turks.

Besiktas’ double pivot of captain Veli Kavlak and Atiba Hutchinson sat right in front of their two center-backs, allowing Liverpool little space behind the lines centrally but this offered more pitch space for their wingbacks. As a direct result, both Ibe and Moreno shone, as Liverpool dominated the flanks. Lallana worked around the right halfspace, often becoming the link between Allen/Henderson and Ibe. Liverpool thrived in the wide areas, and this was to become their theme of the night.

Liverpool exploit the wings

Liverpool had a distinct advantage against Besiktas’ midfield trapezoid with their wingbacks. Gokhan Tore on the right and Olcay Sahan on the left were the wide midfielders/wingers for Besiktas and both played on their less-favored side. Bilic had his wingers inverted in a bid to put brakes on Liverpool’s wingbacks, but with little possession in their attacking half the move backfired spectacularly for the visitors. Ibe and Moreno found themselves bisecting Besiktas’ flanks; their full-backs didn’t push up to press and once Ibe and Moreno saw their markers’ backs they had a numerical advantage over the full-backs with Coutinho and Lallana in the halfspaces.

Ibe's action areas (left), Ibe's successful take-ons (right)

IBE’S ACTION AREAS (left), IBE’S SUCCESSFUL TAKE-ONS (right)

Jordon Ibe was impressive throughout; he dribbled with pace and took on his direct opponents with his youthful exuberance. He was involved in most of the Liverpool attacks, and earned the penalty which won the match. He made a bad night worse for the Besiktas left-back Ramon Motta who will now miss the second leg through suspension. Ibe was a live-wire on Liverpool’s right; he created 3 chances and had 11 take-ons (10 successful).

Substitutions and Liverpool’s Plan B

Besiktas made like-for-like replacements for the out-of-sorts duo Sosa and Sahan, and they had good reasons to have fresher legs against Liverpool’s energetic wide approach as the deadlock had yet to be broken. The game-changing substitutions were made by Rodgers, who clearly has now found his Plan B- altering Sturridge’s support. Coutinho and Lallana linked up well without ever looking threatening, and their replacements Balotelli and Sterling offered a different dimension to Liverpool’s attacks as the visitors looked to have frustrated the home crowd,

Balotelli was all action in his cameo, drawing fouls and making a nuisance with his physicality. This allowed Sturridge to play off the Italian which worked the Besiktas back four even more. Liverpool looked a more potent attacking force in the latter stages of the match, thanks to the pacey Sterling and Sturridge and Henderson pulling strings. Balotelli eventually scored the winner, but embarrassed his employers with the way he made a meal off the whole incident.

Conclusion

The game wasn’t a classic by any means but Liverpool and Jordon Ibe had their just rewards. Besiktas remained content with the 0-0 scoreline, and would’ve had the perfect away performance had Ba scored in a one-on-one with Mignolet. Instead Mignolet saved Ba’s shot, and they now return to Turkey with two suspensions to deal with. Rodgers’ proactive approach paid off well on the night; he had much to thank Ibe and Moreno for. There wasn’t any tactical masterclasses, but the way Besiktas went about their job on the night played directly into Liverpool’s hands. The visitors congested space down the middle, which opened up the wider areas. As of now, the tie remains finely poised for the return leg in a week’s time at the Ataturk Stadium.

– Stats and figures from Squawka

– Starting XIs created using Tactics Creator

– Featured image courtesy of This Is Anfield

LFC v RMFC preview: Liverpool’s midfield troubles and the Ronaldo threat

Real Madrid are the visitors at Anfield on Wednesday night in a key Champions League group stage fixture for Liverpool. Plenty of issues needs to be addressed, most important being the base of the Reds’ midfield. Cristiano Ronaldo has a duck to break at Anfield (surprisingly), and he comes to town for the first time since leaving Manchester United. Ronaldo and co provide the biggest test for Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, as teething problems continue to affect the Reds’ performances and results

Basic setup

Liverpool’s big dilemma will be their line-up. Real Madrid are a brilliant attacking side, with expensively assembled attacking tools. Brendan Rodgers has persisted with a lone forward in the absence of options, and has no surfeit of alternatives in midfield. Personnel-wise, Rodgers has to decide between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond, and will be hard pressed to go for the latter in Mario Balotelli’s lack of form. The 4-4-2 diamond offers little less defensive protection, and exposes Steven Gerrard to the mobile duo of James and Isco (if selected). Gerrard has had his problems dealing with David Silva’s movement between the lines earlier in the season against Manchester City, and it’s going to be a long night for Liverpool if he struggles.

The problem

Liverpool’s lucky escape on the weekend against QPR offered plenty of pointers. Steven Gerrard as an advanced midfielder worked against Liverpool as QPR could’ve been two goals to the good within the first half. Emre Can and Jordan Henderson’s defensive positioning left a lot to be desired as QPR’s Leroy Fer and Charlie Austin failed to make the Reds’ mistakes count. Real Madrid will most likely line up in a shape similar to the one they did in their weekend win over Levante. Ronaldo played a tad more centrally, while James and Isco started as inverted wide men from their respective halfspaces and cut inside.

Gerrard v QPR first half: Little to no contribution in an advanced role.

Gerrard v QPR first half: Little to no contribution in an advanced role.

Real Madrid are a forceful attacking unit whenever they have the ball, and this would require extra protection to the ageing legs of Gerrard. The lack of a proper, ball-playing holding midfielder is the issue here, and apart from Gerrard, there is hardly anyone who could pose danger in transitions. A diamond would mean two bodies on the defensive halfspaces which could free up the wide areas for the full-backs, while 4-2-3-1 would isolate Gerrard totally. In the defensive third, another problem is the 2v2 situation for the center-backs.

Ronaldo's positioning and the zone of uncertainty: Could create a lot of headaches.

Ronaldo’s positioning: Could create a lot of headaches.

Ronaldo’s starting position, even though he is a forward, is slightly off-center towards the left. Martin Skrtel and Javier Manquillo/Glen Johnson form the right half of Liverpool’s back four, and Ronaldo in the middle poses another problem here. Skrtel, the center-half, should stick tight to Ronaldo, but cannot afford to leave his line. While Manquillo/Johnson faces a similar problem of having to man Ronaldo’s zone. Ronaldo’s excellent movement makes it difficult to cut him off; this is an area where a proper holding midfielder would’ve come handy. Gerrard’s lack of positional awareness and another threat in Benzema (although Lovren will be the man on him) makes it even more difficult for Liverpool in defensive transitions.

Dejan Lovren has been ordinary at best, and this owes largely to his front-foot style of defending. He was pinned for an hour by Bobby Zamora against QPR, and his tendency to bypass his man without anticipation could be fatal. Alberto Moreno, the full-back on his side, is highly attack-minded, which leaves little choice for the Croatian Lovren to play his natural game. He would have to be extremely patient, and must be disciplined in his decision-making. Once the likes of Benzema or James runs clear, Liverpool have little pace to track back successfully.

Should Rodgers play deep?

Parking the bus would be a tough tactical choice for Rodgers, given his well-known ethos of aesthetic football. Liverpool could ill afford to play an expansive style of football, as Real Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking sides in world football at the moment. A slightly deeper line would mean little space for Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to ping the balls forward, but this also gives them more space to operate in Zone 14. Deeper Liverpool lines would also mean that their secondary threat, the full-backs, would also be starting from deep. Problems galore for Rodgers’ Reds, but a good bet would be to remain disciplined and soak up the pressure and hit back on the break, or from set-pieces. A hint of Rafa’s Reds, but Liverpool really needed their old gaffer tonight.

Just in

Team news have come in. Liverpool have gone for the 4-4-2 diamond, with Coutinho at the tip of it. Joe Allen and Henderson will flank Gerrard. Both Allen and Henderson have questionable defensive attributes, and will have to be extremely disciplined.

TACTICAL ANALYSIS: North East United 1-0 Kerala Blasters: Organized Highlanders

(Koke 45′)

The Indian Super League’s second matchday featured NorthEast United and Kerala Blasters in a hot and humid Guwahati. Both teams looked short of ideas in a cagey match, and a defensive mistake aided the only goal of the game. NorthEast United came away with their first ever win, and goal, to start off the revolutionary ISL.

Basic setup

The home team lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with special emphasis on the back of midfield. It was roughly a 4-2-2-2 setup, with the two number 6s, Felipe and Durga Boro, stationing themselves in a horizontal line just ahead of a very static and flat back four. Wingers David Ngaithe and Adinga were expected to stretch play into wide areas, but were mostly confined to the halfspaces and had very little action close to the bylines. The lines were vivid and easily readable, and the team relied mostly on brisk build-ups and early passes. Former Portsmouth forward James Keene led the line with Spaniard Koke operating off him, but it was mostly the halfspaces where the team found more space and time.

STARTING XIs.

STARTING XIs.

Kerala started in a 4-1-4-1. Coach Trevor Morgan had Indian international Mehtab Hossain in the deep-lying midfield role, a move made to open up more space for Hossain to operate and push the full-backs higher up the pitch. Captain Penn Orji was expected to play the polar opposite of Mehtab, between the lines and playing off forward Iain Hume into the channels. Indian forward CS Sabeeth started alongside Hume in attack, but it was Hume who did most of the playmaking and often interchanged with the willing runner Sabeeth. Kerala had no real width; only right-back Nirmal Chettri made occasional darts. The general game plan was fairly predictable, and narrow.

Deep lines

Keeping the playing conditions in mind, both teams had very deep lines, perhaps a result of the fear of not being overrun. Kerala had Mehtab as the deepest midfielder, and he slotted in between the center-halves right from kick-off. United, too, had two bodies at the back of their midfield. Both Felipe and Durga Boro played along a straight horizontal line. As a result, both teams had numerical advantages in the center which was the direct cause of the very few open play chances created.

NEUFC'S BACK OF MIDFIELD: FELIPE AND DURGA VERY CLOSE TO THE BACK FOUR.

NEUFC’S BACK OF MIDFIELD: FELIPE AND DURGA VERY CLOSE TO THE BACK FOUR.

VERY DEEP MIDFIELD: HENGBART DRIVES FORWARD, NO PRESSURE APPLIED.

VERY DEEP MIDFIELD: HENGBART DRIVES FORWARD, NO PRESSURE APPLIED.

For Kerala, it was a 3v2 in Zone 14 against Keene and Koke with the full-backs dealing with the United wide players. While Avinabo and James McAllister’s little creativity helped the United no 6s to easily deal with the early threat of Penn Orji. Iain Hume dropped deep on occasions but the home team’s numerical advantage and a lack of better options for the Canadian meant that he always ran into blind alleys.

HUME HOUNDED.

HUME HOUNDED.

NorthEast United often found themselves struggling in offensive transitions, the reason being their deep midfield and the big gap between the middle third and the final third. The screenshot below shows Durga Boro attempting a chipped diagonal ball to the wings, with no option to move the ball forward into the red zone.

THE BIG GAP

THE BIG GAP

Disciplined United defence

Apart from the last 10 minutes when Kerala laid siege on the NorthEast goal, it was a fairly disciplined defensive display from the home side. The Spanish center-backs Miguel and Capdevila kept things simple and tight, perhaps helped by Kerala’s absence of a proper no 9. Sabeeth and Hume floated between the lines and into the channels, and only after the introduction of Michael Chopra after an hour did the Blasters create some meaningful openings. Sabeeth ran the wide channels in the absence of wing-play, and Hume drifted into deeper areas to create. Penn Orji’s ineptitude as a no 10 was evident as the game almost passed him by.

KERALA'S LACK OF A PROPER NO 9: HUME DRIFTS WIDE BUT HAS NO TARGETS TO AIM FOR.

KERALA’S LACK OF A PROPER NO 9: HUME DRIFTS WIDE BUT HAS NO TARGETS TO AIM FOR.

United played the offside trap to perfection, catching Kerala off-guard eight times. The defence kept its shape throughout, and only after an injury to right-back Khongjee that they had to reshuffle their back line and offered Kerala a way into the game. Set-pieces had man-marking employed, but it was far too predictable from Kerala who stationed their attackers in the center towards the far post and almost all the deliveries failed to get past the first line of defense.

HUME OFFSIDE GOAL: NEUFC MAINTAINED THEIR LINE WELL.

HUME OFFSIDE GOAL: NEUFC MAINTAINED THEIR LINE WELL.

Lack of width

Indian football isn’t famous for producing international class wing-play. And it was no different this time. There was little to no passage of play through the wide areas. Given the pace and trickery of Ngaithe and Adinga and the strength and aerial ability of Keene, it was expected that NorthEast United would base most of their game around the wider areas. But both Ngaithe and Adinga played in the halfspaces (helps more in tracking back), and had little options wide on the overlaps. Both full-backs were part of a flat back four, and were not at all adventurous.

NEUFC'S WIDE PLAY: WINGERS IN HALFSPACES AND DRIFTING IN, NO OPTION OUT WIDE.

NEUFC’S WIDE PLAY: WINGERS IN HALFSPACES AND DRIFTING IN, NO OPTION OUT WIDE.

Kerala had the ageing McAllister on the left and Avinabo Bag on the right, both defenders by trade. McAllister drifted inside at every opportunity while Avinabo barely touched the ball. Mehtab’s eye for the Hollywood pass meant that Avinabo had little impact in Kerala’s build-up. The two forwards, Hume and Sabeeth, ran the wide spaces often but it was nothing close to classic wing-play.

Kerala’s lack of ideas

As mentioned above, Kerala stacked their midfield with players having attacking intent as secondary attributes. This caused a lack of symmetry in their transition play. Of the four fundamental phases of play (in possession, out of possession, defensive transition, attacking transition), they were good only when they were out of possession. It was a recurring theme that they stacked like a parked bus whenever NorthEast United had the ball, and were also quick enough to regroup in defensive transitions.

KERALA QUICKLY REGROUPED, BUT COMMITTED TOO MANY BODIES BEHIND WHICH HAMPERED THEIR ATTACKING POTENTIAL.

KERALA QUICKLY REGROUPED, BUT COMMITTED TOO MANY BODIES BEHIND WHICH HAMPERED THEIR ATTACKING POTENTIAL.

KBFC COUNTERS: ALL PLAYERS BEHIND THE BALL.

KBFC COUNTERS: ALL PLAYERS BEHIND THE BALL.

But their problem arose whenever they were in an attacking transition. As they defended in numbers, whenever they recovered the ball the ball carrier often had no players ahead of him (for a pass or making runs). Consequently, the ball had to be recycled back and the chance of a counter was gone. The lack of speedy players did not help either.

Conclusion

NorthEast United were full value for their win, while Kerala had a lot to be bothered about as they were short on ideas. The baking conditions meant that both teams had a safety-first approach, but Kerala’s shield in Mehtab Hossain was found wanting as Koke found acres of space in the red zone for the goal. This was Mehtab’s zone to man, and he failed miserably although Nirmal Chettri was equally to blame for his botched clearance from a simple throw-in. United were defensively compact, although what effect would Michael Chopra have made had he started is anybody’s guess.

Messi or Mascherano: Who is more important to Argentina?

Argentina takes on Germany in Rio’s Estadio do Maracana in the final of the World Cup later tonight. A lot of the talks surround Argentina’s captain and star player Lionel Messi and the role played by him in Argentina’s progress to the title clash. But equally important in Argentina’s superlative World Cup has been midfield lynchpin Javier Mascherano. Here is a terse, short tactical analysis on which of the two is more important to Argentina against a Germany side that is not lacking in confidence, and goals too.

Messi has been Argentina’s chief goalscorer as well as creative threat in the World Cup so far. A feature of all Argentina matches has been the heavy man-marking of captain Messi. Group stage games involving Argentina had an almost recurring theme: teams sat deep, overloaded Messi’s zone in the hole and denied space to Messi. While the knockout rounds have seen Messi being a bit more closely attended (the reason being his outrageous ability to provide a spark even at his worst). The games against Switzerland and Netherlands saw two players employed to crowd Messi in option-pressing setups.

Argentina has so far failed to take advantage of having a numbers’ advantage in other parts of the pitch primarily due to a lack of a proper ball-playing, deep-lying playmaker. Javier Mascherano has carried the burden to some extent, while Fernando Gago’s lack of form sees him not even being included in the starting XI’s of the last two games.Mascherano has been an inspired presence, and like Messi, will be equally key to Argentina’s chances against a free-scoring Germany.

What to do against Germany?

Germany switched to a conventional, textbook 4-2-3-1 after the R16 match against Algeria exposed their need to be defensively more sound. Germany’s 4-2-3-1 has a nice balance about it, and perfectly fits in coach Joachim Loew’s proactive style. Toni Kroos leads the aggressive pressing from the front as the highest of the three midfielders, while Sami Khedira’s high energy has provided Thomas Mueller with little to do in the way of pressing and more with making those runs behind the defence. Mueller’s work-rate means that he also makes lateral runs to cover the space freed up by Miroslav Klose’s frequent movement into deep areas.

MASCHERANO V NETHERLANDS: COVERING THE CENTRAL ZONE BETWEEN THE TWO CENTER BACKS.

MASCHERANO V NETHERLANDS: COVERING THE CENTRAL ZONE BETWEEN THE TWO CENTER BACKS.

Argentina’s concern should be more about holding their lines against Germany’s right flank. Marcos Rojo is not the most attack-minded left-back, but plays in an area where Germany could create maximum overloads. Khedira has often been seen playing box-to-box unlike Schweinsteiger on the left side who is a more measured influence. Khedira’s positioning could mean Argentina could be in a 1 vs 3 on their left (if Angel di Maria starts), if the left center back Garay is occupied by Klose. That’s where Mascherano could be a key for Argentina, although he could also be run ragged.

MASCHERANO V BELGIUM: ACTION AREAS TOWARDS THE LEFT FLANK.

MASCHERANO V BELGIUM: ACTION AREAS TOWARDS THE LEFT FLANK.

Mascherano’s influence on the pitch has mostly been around the Argentine right and center. The only time he had more action around the left was against Belgium, where he had to cover against the threat of Eden Hazard after Argentina went ahead early. Hazard was kept quiet all game (although he switched flanks often).

Messi

MESSI AGAINST NETHERLANDS: HEAVY MARKING MEANT THAT HE HAD ZERO (0) TOUCHES IN THE NETHERLANDS BOX.

MESSI AGAINST NETHERLANDS: HEAVY MARKING MEANT THAT HE HAD ZERO (0) TOUCHES IN THE NETHERLANDS BOX.

Messi is unlikely to find a direct rival tonight. Germany normally do not play man marking, although we could see Schweinsteiger in a more cynical, defensive role than what we have seen till now. Messi has been the key man for Argentina, and the significance of his influence has increased even more after Angel di Maria’s early injury-induced departure against Belgium. He had Nigel de Jong acting as a man-marker against Netherlands, and Georginio Wijnaldum as the ball-recycler. His influence was negated, and Argentina failed to create clear goalscoring chances.

MASCHERANO'S PASSING AGAINST SWITZERLAND: 94% ACCURACY.

MASCHERANO’S PASSING AGAINST SWITZERLAND: 94% ACCURACY.

If Germany decide on putting a man against Messi, Argentina will sense an advantage. Javier Mascherano has profited from teams sitting back and not committing players forward as seen by his brilliant passing stats. He was always known for his anticipation and tackling efficiency, and has so far delivered on his reputation. A man on Messi will mean Germany will need one more player to recycle the ball and stay within distance of Messi’s marker. The obvious options for the two roles are Schweinsteiger and Khedira, which makes it easier for Mascherano. This limits Khedira to a dirtier role, and subsequently decreases his overall presence in the attacking third.

Conclusion

Germany are in an obvious dilemma whether to go for stopping Messi or use their area of strength against Argentina. Going for the first means that Javier Mascherano could use histtime and space on the ball to release the quick wide men, while going for the other means that Germany are left short of men whenever Messi receives the ball in quick transitions.

Mascherano and Messi are the most important cogs in the Argentina machine. None is more important than the other, but Messi’s elusivity means that he remains the greater threat to Germany. Both will have to perform at their absolute best if Argentina are to have any chance of lifting their third World Cup.

*Stats and maps courtesy of Squawka.