Sunday, December 16, 2012

Spurs v Swansea: anti-continental manifesto

Starting line-ups

If ever there was a match that epitomised the continental way of playing, the Spurs v Swansea match has to be up there among one of the clearest pieces of evidence. There was no "throwing it in the mixer", hoofing it upfield or route-one football. There were rather two teams coached by two foreigners that keep trying to instill the values of keeping the ball on the ground and their passing short and sweet (even though both teams haven't been exactly Stoke-ish over the past few years). For the average English fan and/or viewer - used to more action-packed matches -, it must have been quite a hard penance.

Swansea were at their best for the first 15 minutes. With Spurs trying to pressure high up and to keep their opposition from getting into their passing rhythm, Michael Laudrup's team were very good at avoiding ressure and looked extremely comfortable on the ball, including all of their back four, with De Guzmán doing excellent work dropping off in order to overload Spurs' midfield duo of Sandro and Dembélé. 15 minutes into the match, the possession stats read 60% for Swansea, even though the match was at White Hart Lane.

Spurs eventually found their stride and managed to disturb Swansea's passing patterns. Simultaneously, André Villas-Boas' men started finding the way to compensate for Gareth Bale's absence, with Adebayor roaming out wide and Clint Dempsey, originally deployed on the left, more and more central.

Nevertheless, Spurs' chances were bound to come from the right flank, with Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon the main providers. Dembélé, who excels at gliding past his opponents, was a bit off pace today, even though his game was very interesting throughout.

With little creativity from midfield, AVB needed "drivers" - players who can push the team forward with sprints and take-ons, especially with Bale sidelined. Even though Lennon would seem to be the man for the job, his last touch and decision-making process keep letting him down, often squandering excellent opportunities.

Despite the excellent start to their match, Swansea found themselves pinned back, the odd counterattacking menace notwithstanding. As stated when the Welsh team played against City, Routledge, De Guzmán and Michu are very good players, especially on the break - and there were clearly glimpses of that today. However, the fact that they were playing and defending so deep increased their difficulty at taking the game to the Londoners.

This chalkboard offers clear evidence of Swansea's lack of penetration.

Swansea found it very hard to get past the Spurs defence.

In fact, Swansea were defending so deep that the number of tackles, interceptions and blocks made inside and near the penalty box would be more indicative of an Italian team playing their usual brand of counter-attack, something the Welsh were forced to by Spurs' growing pressure.

This was indeed a much-needed victory for Spurs' aim to get into Champions League positions, especially after their dramatic defeat at the hands of Everton last weekend. Despite the good result, AVB still has much to do, since their team remain (a bit less, to be honest) prone to lapses of concentration while getting the ball out from the back and too nervous while trying to close up shop after they get ahead. Andros Townsend's display was positive and may provide relief on the wings for the manager (and Lennon, as well), who will also welcome Parker's return to the fold, particularly for the ever so demanding two upcoming weeks.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barcelona 0-0 Benfica - Eagles out of Champions League

After failing to score against Barcelona and following Celtic's narrow win against Spartak Moscow, Benfica are out of the Champions League. The Eagles' were penalised by their profligacy and will have to keep fighting for an European trophy in the Europa League.

On the wrong side of the odds and faced with an uphill battle, Benfica had to at least get the same result as Celtic against Spartak Moscow. Their task was made a bit easier by Tito Vilanova, who rested several key players (including Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Dani Alves and Piqué) and instead gave his second string valuable minutes in the Champions League without the inherent pressure of a result.

The feeling that that would play right into Benfica's hands was confirmed as soon as the match started. Unlike what they did in their own turf (oddly enough), the Portuguese team came with a intense pressing approach out of the gate, pinning Barcelona back. With Pinto in goal instead of Vítor Valdés and with a makeshift back four, Barcelona found it hard to play out from the back, particularly under the pressure of Rodrigo, Lima, Ola John and Nolito. Even the young tyro André Almeida was pushing high up, tracking Alex Song when he (or another midfielder) dropped back to try and provide an out-ball.

Benfica pressured Barcelona intensely for the entire first half.

Benfica were solid and defensively aggressive, managing to win numerous balls back, due to their intensity. The Catalans B team are clearly not as good or used to playing together and often misplaced passes. On top of that, Benfica were quite cleverly exploiting the space behind the centre-backs, who, according to the team's principles, remained deployed in a high defensive line - but often with little pressure from their midfield.

Benfica's first clear-cut scoring chance came on the 11th minute, with Rodrigo getting behind the defence and then selfishly choosing to shoot instead of playing the ball to Nolito, who was furious at his team-mate. The same Nolito provided a lovely cross for Lima to head wide ten minutes later. Barcelona started showing their teeth shortly afterwards when they successfully found their way out of Jorge Jesus' defensive maze: Matic would stick to the highest midfielder, André Gomes would track the one dropping back, but the third one (usually Sergi Roberto) was always free to collect the ball and break past Benfica's midfield, as proven by their opportunities on 23 and 24 minutes.

Barcelona were often able to break free
with a simple triangle-shaped move,
particularly during the second half.
Barcelona found acres of space behind Matic and André Gomes.

Benfica, however, kept their foot on the throttle and remained adamant at pushing forward - and almost got the reward for it, with Lima hitting the post on 31 minutes, after Adriano's well-timed tackle fortuitously found the Brazilian forward's foot. A few minutes later, Lima would become the provider of a beautifully placed long ball towards Ola John, who turned his opponent inside out, but allowed Pinto another good save. Whenever Jesus' men got the ball out wide, their opponents' knees buckled.

  • Second half

The second half was a whole different game. Benfica started to tire out and their pressing was not as effective. Therefore, Barcelona found it easier to get into their usual passing rhythm and find chinks in Benfica's armour. With Ola John and Nolito offering less and less protection to their full-backs, Tello ran riot against Máxi Pereira, who seemed to lose his temper once or twice, but managed to keep it together. Also, Lima and Rodrigo remained high up, which meant that the trio of Song, Sergi Robert and Thiago Alcântara had the necessary space and time to pick their passes. Fortunately for Benfica, this group of players' timing for the through-ball was not as accurate as it usually is, allowing Benfica to successfully deploy the offside trap.

Messi came in after 58 minutes (with Villa going right) and immediately drew several fouls just outside the box - and he was also more dangerous at providing key passes for Villa or Tello. Messi himself would get into an excellent position to score, but Artur's brave save avoided the worst for Benfica, with the Argentinean being stretchered off after that duel. By then, Benfica had already changed into a 4x3x3 shape, with Matic behind André Almeida and André Gomes, and Bruno César and Ola John on the wings supporting Cardozo.

Benfica wasted a very good chance not only to win at Nou Camp, but to progress into the next stage. They benefitted from a perfect storm, with Barcelona fielding a team comprised of youngsters and second-string players. The Eagles have only themselves to blame for not scoring on (at least) one of the several opportunities they had to lock the score. The Europa League awaits - and with it another shot at an European trophy.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

James' last-gasp goal gives Porto the win

Starting elevens
After Braga's last few seasons, this clash is already considered a clash of titans, and rightly so. Braga's insistence on fighting FC Porto and Benfica for the top spots means that the Estádio Axa is no longer a safe haven for any opponent. Benfica's win against Olhanense on Saturday was on the minds of both teams and neither one could afford to slip up, especially José Peseiro's team, who were also trailing their rivals by six points.

FC Porto coach Vítor Pereira made a few changes, bringing Alex Sandro and Fernando back into the team, instead of Abdoulaye and Defour. Other than that, his selection was as expected, particularly in light of both players' appearances midweek against Dynamo Zagreb. José Peseiro's only change from their heavy defeat at the hands of Cluj was the choice of Mossoró ahead of Ruben Amorim.

The first half was extremely entertaining and offered further evidence on the merits and qualities of both teams. Whether they were being purposefully more cautious than usual or their latest results were in the back of the players' heads, Braga went down a very different path. In fact, they were hardly similar to anything they have shown over the past few months under José Peseiro. Instead of pressuring, they stood off; instead of attacking in numbers, they tried a more direct style. Apparently, this Braga may well have been Domingos or Leonardo Jardim's.

FC Porto came on strong out of the gate and created several clear-cut chances in the opening minutes, Otamendi even hitting the woodwork on the third minute. The Dragons' blueprint did not deviate much from their standard procedures and involved James Rodríguez drifting inward, with Lucho (or Danilo) occupying the Colombian's space. With Mossoró (usually less adept at defending) deployed on the left and Ruben Micael too close to Éder, FC Porto dictated the tempo for the opening 20 minutes, giving the impression the goal would be a mere formality.

However, Braga managed to settle down, started showing what they are capable of, and made their first shot 20 minutes into the match - FC Porto would in fact not muster a single shot after Braga's first one until the half-time whistle. Micael dropped further back goalside of Fernando and hindered the away team's passing rhythm.

José Peseiro, in turn, read his opponent well. Mossoró's deployment on the left was not an accident, nor was Éder's insistence on drifting to the left wing. James' forays in the middle mean that Danilo (or the centre-backs, whenever Danilo doesn't make it back on time) is often exposed. With Mossoró on the left wing, the team had a clear out-ball and looked to take advantage of FC Porto's known weak spot. The final 25 minutes of the first half would belong to Braga.

The second half was far less entertaining, with both teams misplacing numerous passes and apparently too wary of each other. Thanks to Peseiro's tweaks, FC Porto were now unable to find their precise passing to carve Braga's defence open. On the other hand, Braga looked dangerous on the break a few times, but the fear of a loss seemed to mean that the draw was something both teams could live with.

To prove just that, José Peseiro did not make any bold changes, opting to rotate his central-midfielders - Amorim for Viana and Djamal for Micael -, since he knew that, despite playing with width, FC Porto are deadly through the centre and he wanted to stop them in their tracks.

Ironically enough, that was the area from which the Portuguese champions would grab their late goal. Danilo drifted inward, James got the ball and was quite fortunate with his shot, which hit Douglão (who was at hist best today) and deceived Beto. The goal came only a few seconds before the 90th minute. The fate would be even more cruel to Braga, who would concede their second on the 93rd minute, after an unfortunate clearance from Salino and Jackson Martínez's well placed shot.

In conclusion, FC Porto may count themselves lucky, since a draw looked like it was all they were going to get out of the match. Analysing the flow of play from both teams and the opportunities they created, a draw would indeed be a more truthful result. Both Braga and FC Porto tried to win the match on their own, very specific terms and had the chances for it - on periods they clearly dominated. The hosts might have said goodbye to any title hopes, but José Peseiro might have realised that a gung-ho approach is not necessarily the only way to hurt other teams.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Topic of the day - Chelsea

How can the reigning European champions be such a lost cause?

Any analysis of last night's match I might have thought of doing is now tragically informed by the knowledge that Roberto Di Matteo was sacked by Chelsea. The question now remains: which manager is bold enough to go where so many have failed before him?

It is often hard to understand what goes on in the minds of today's CEO, presidents, directors, managers or voters. It seems that people dedicate less and less time to assess processes, rather focusing on results and results alone – ignoring that results may sometimes be random, whereas processes are not.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich fired José Mourinho in September 2007, a few months into that season. The precedent for sacking coaches in the middle of the season had been established and only Carlo Ancelotti managed to see out two full seasons (even if he was fired by the end of the second after winning an unprecedented double in his first year in charge). After that, Luiz Felipe Scolari, André Villas-Boas and now Roberto Di Matteo have all been axed before the end of the season.

The Italian manager was André Villas-Boas' assistant coach during the Portuguese's few months in charge and therefore was able to watch first-hand the developments of his former boss' sacking, which meant that he had to be aware of the pressure that had been mounting over the past weeks. Despite leading Chelsea to the Champions League for the first time, Di Matteo's position never looked secure and Abramovich actually seemed reluctant to hire him on a permanent basis as the club's manager.

Di Matteo succeeded where AVB had failed for numerous reasons, but it was particularly because he was not so adamant at casting the dressing room owners aside - possibly one of AVB's biggest mistakes - and, most importantly in my view, because he went for the diametrically opposed: a cautious, compact and disciplined team that broke quickly and exploited the space left by their opponents.

Despite their ultimate success, Abramovich was not satisfied, insisting on winning with panache - and took out his seemingly endless chequebook and signed players that were specifically designed to bring the attractive and spectacular, if not romantic, approach he has been craving for so long.

Now any coach will tell you that defending is the easiest - and most likely best -starting point while coaching a team. Yes, it can be challenging at times, but deploying your players in two compact banks of four when you have players - such as John Terry, John Obi Mikel, Didier Drogba or Petr Cech - who thrive on that particular brand of football was clearly the easiest and familiar way to go. That was why I was so curious to see what Roberto Di Matteo would bring when next season started.

To be honest, all the signs were there. Even though Chelsea managed to grab several wins and hold on near the top of the Premier League for a few weeks, it didn't look like a case of "if", but "when". While it was true the Pensioners were playing a more expansive kind of football, they were also displaying leaks all over the place and there were no significant adjustments made to the initial plan of playing all of Óscar, Mata and Hazard behind the ever unhappy Torres.

Chelsea kept playing fast, attacking football, which was sometimes enough, but kept conceding too many goals, giving the ball away too cheaply. They were constantly overrun in the middle, not because Mikel and Ramires were poor, but because they were so often left exposed by their front four - and too often Ashley Cole, whose defensive positioning is becoming more and more questionable by the day.

Mind you, they didn't forget how to defend - they were simply out of their comfort zone. Terry is not a quick defender and is vulnerable to balls over the top. Ricardo Carvalho, the player who used to cover for him, is long gone and neither David Luiz nor Gary Cahill are good replacements for that particular sort of task.

When the two men felt the heat from above, Villas-Boas and Di Matteo went in different directions. AVB remained true - probably ill-advisedly - to his principles and stood his ground in a crucial match for the team's aspirations (at Napoli) by daring to leave out some of the squad's key figures and showing who was the boss (not him, evidently). Di Matteo, conversely, tried to steer into safety and resorted to a strategy that had worked miracles in the past, playing compact, benching Fernando Torres, deploying the right-back Azpilicueta further up front, and leaving Hazard up front on his own, trying to exploit the space behind the apparently unstoppable Lichtsteiner.

To be honest, even though I'm aware that Chelsea lost 3-0 and that Cech was back to his golden days, I have to admit that it was the most comfortable I have Chelsea this season. Yes, Juventus bossed them around, but that was pretty much what happened during the last few months of last season - and it still yielded results. On the other hand, whenever Chelsea managed to break free from Juventus' initial pressure, they were extremely dangerous, particularly through the sheer speed and skills of Óscar and Hazard.

Regardless of the identity of the new Chelsea manager, it will be extremely hard not to see a return to safer sceneries. The new gaffer will have no time, no wiggle room to implement his ideas and will probably go back to basics: Where and how to defend, break quickly, bench Torres and take advantage of Hazard's swiftness and dribbling skills, and Óscar's vision.

Despite the unfortunate end, Di Matteo's last match in charge could well prove a blueprint for the next man - provided he has the time to put it in place.

Sabotage Times - Benfica

There is a new piece from Combination Play on Sabotage Times -this time on which Benfica would be expecting Celtic. The article can be found here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

New piece for Sabotage Times

My new article for Sabotage Times revolves around Porto upcoming starlet James Rodríguez and can be found here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Will Ronaldo's Real Madrid win the Champions League?

Last night Real Madrid managed to salvage a point against the ever impressive Borussia Dortmund, whose goalkeeper might have done something more to keep Mezut Özil's effort out. The result was obviously not good, but the overall display should be far more worrying.

José Mourinho is famous for many, many things, but one thing he usually excels at is tactics. The last two matches against the reigning German champions exposed too many frailties in a team that tends to become broken between the six men at the back and the foursome up front. Even though today's headlines in Spanish newspapers will probably lash out at the defence (and rightly so), there was another thing that caught my attention.

Cristiano Ronaldo is most likely Portugal's best player ever - with all due respect to Eusébio. His transformation from tricky (yet profligate) winger at Sporting and Manchester United into powerful, lethal goalscorer gave him the recognition, accolades and goals he craved so much. His stats are most definitely beyond reproach - in his 448 club matches so far, he has scored 263 goals, a bit over 0,5 goals per match.

Ronaldo also had his sights set on becoming the leader on the field, both at national and club level. Thanks to his ability to solve games singlehandedly, his team-mates always look to him for an easy fix, a way out for tougher games, where the team's skills might not be enough. Most of the times, it works. However, when it doesn't, things get much tougher, especially for Real Madrid.

This is where the issue of Ronaldo starts to become a problem. Paulo Bento (Portugal's coach) and José Mourinho both design their teams and relevant moves around Ronaldo - the midfielders know they have to cover for him, Coentrão and Marcelo are aware they will have no cover from up front and the strikers know they're simply there to divert their opponents' attention for Ronaldo's efforts. However, their rivals' coaches are also very aware of that and often find the first chink in Portugal or Real Madrid's armour on their left wing.

Worse, Ronaldo is becoming more and more predictable. His dribbling skills are not what they used to be and his deployment on the left is specifically designed to allow the full-back to overlap him on the wing and allow Ronaldo into the centre to shoot at goal. By now, any knowledgeable coach is aware of CR7's insistence on drifting inward and his reluctance to make the simple pass, play in a team-mate or deliver a cross.

Yesterday all of that was plain for everyone to see. Dortmund's right-back Lukas Piszczek had clear instructions from coach Jürgen Klopp to push high up the field and exploit the space behind Ronaldo - much like he did two weeks ago or like Denmark did in Euro 2012. With the not so dynamic midfield duo of Xabi Alonso and Modric, Real Madrid's right wing was constantly under attack. As for his attacks, Dortmund were clever enough to double up on him - Piszczek defending him up close and a team-mate (usually Gundogan) covering for his right-back on the inside.

Ronaldo also needs to work on his leadership skills, since he is the first to get frustrated with his team-mates and angry at the referee when things don't go according to plan. A leader must inspire those around him and drive them to excellence, instead of just taking the credits for the goals scored and sulking when things do not work out.

While no doubts remain about Ronaldo's individual skills, worth and importance, it is hard to conceive a scenery where his team won't be punished precisely for having one of the world's two best players. Even though it is enough for most matches in La Liga, it surely is not enough for the tougher ones in the Champions League and at international level. If he insists on pursuing the "me, me, me" road, he won't be remembered as he would most definitely like - one of the truly greats of all time.

Monday, October 29, 2012

So much to do, so little time

Franky Vercauteren is the next coach of Sporting, but maybe even he didn't realise the magnitude of the task that has been laid out before him. For several years now Sporting have been nothing short of a handful of players, usually left to their devices, surrounded by media frenzy and vulnerable coaches. Will the Belgian be any different?

Any tactical analysis of Sporting tends to be quite hard to carry out, because there's seldom the feeling that this a team that has been drilled by its coach(es). Indeed, to an outsider only able to observe matches, it is very difficult to find any pre-established orders or instructions and half the team seem to be thinking very different things from the other half. The thing that shocks the most while watching the Lions is the team's displays, even more than the results - since there seems to be no apparent order. Unlike Oceano Cruz's claims, the mistakes that have punished Sporting are not individual.

Regardless of individual talent, it is up to the coach to define some basic guidelines and then fine-tune the team within said guidelines. The latest versions of Sporting have not been able to show that the coach (whoever he is) has got through to the players, and keep on disappointing their faithful supporters. Based on this and many other matches, Franky Vercauteren faces an uphill battle. Let us take a closer look to some of the key issues in random order.

1. Ricky van Woflswinkel. It's sad to see so much potential going to waste. Vercauteren must be able to muster all of the Dutchman's lost confidence and turn him back into a goalscoring machine once again. Wolfswinkel's first touch seems to be deserting him and his speed is far from what it used to be. considering there are hardly any alternatives left, the striker needs to be on top form.

2. A solid eleven. I'm not one to defend that the same eleven players must play no matter what, but while it's relatively easy to name Porto, Benfica or Braga's first eleven, getting Sporting's right is a fool's errand. Vercauteren must decide on an established group of players around which to form the team's core.

3. A clear tactical mindset. Again, as with the previous issue, this is not to say the coach may not alter his formation, but over the past couple of seasons, it's amazing how many tactical arrangements Sporting players have gone through. Yes, it's possible (even desirable) to be tactically flexible, but that comes after establishing your own model

4. Stop putting yourself in silly positions. As mentioned elsewhere last week, offensive coverage is a key aspect of the modern game, something that Sporting do not seem to master at all. Let us take a closer look at some cases in point.

Sporting have just lost the ball and are completely unbalanced.

One mere second later, Académica already have a numbers-up situation.

In this case, Schaars is under heavy pressure
and no one gets narrower and more compact.
The shaded area represents a potential free path to goal.

This play happened near half-time.
Notice how many players Sporting have behind the ball.
Académica look much more organised and dangerous.

Rinaudo plays it back and still Sporting players remain wide and far apart.
Sensing the danger, Académica immediately pounce on Rojo.

Five seconds have passed and Sporting still have
only four players near the ball, the same number as Académica.

5. Playing out from the back. If a team are at all serious about winning matches consistently, they must play to their strengths, and not let the game dictate its own flow. Sporting may not rely on Boulahrouz or Rinaudo to dictate their play, lest they keep giving away the ball cheaply, like it happened today over and over. Vercauteren must not be afraid to spend time instructing his players on how to get the ball out from te back (as his playing and coaching instincts will surely tell him to). Sporting are in dire need of a sense of purpose to their game.

This shot is spot on, allowing us to understand
the perspective of the player with the ball,
and his difficulties to find an open team-mate.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

City's victory does not paper over the cracks

Starting elevens

Yesterday's match between Manchester City and Swansea had created many expectations after City's latest loss for the Champions League - and subsequent questioning of Roberto Mancini's tactical and man-management skills. Would the Italian manager persist with the three-man defence or would he heed his players' call? In the end, the Citizens took the three points, but Swansea will probably count themselves unlucky not to get a point.

As it turned out, Mancini surprised many a pundit (yours truly included) by leaving his stubbornness aside for once and went with the player favourite 4xx4x2. The first half was basically a stalemate and it often reminded the Premiership of the late 90's - two teams arranged in the same formation sitting in front of each other, waiting for their key players to decide the match. 

While City came out flat, with hardly any dynamics, movement and creativity, there were no "parked buses" on Swansea's half. In fact, the Welsh were more than willing to play an open contest, trying to exploit City's vulnerability at the back breaking quickly - which they did fairly well, with Michu putting the ball in the net after a correct call for offside and forcing Joe hart to make a great save a few minutes later. City weren't even making Michael Laudrup's men work for the result. 

City were rather toothless throughout the first half,
but improved a great deal in the second.

Swansea were more direct than City,
often trying to play in Michu behind the centre-backs.

Mancini replaced the ineffective Kolarov (even though his poor game was not exclusively his own fault) with Balotelli and the change brought immediate results. While the Italian maverick did not exactly set the match alight, the different tactical arrangement meant Tévez was an extra man in midfield, but it also meant that the front four (Tévez, Balotelli, Agüero and Nasri) were more fluid in their positioning. Outnumbered in midfield, Swansea were no longer able to make as many interceptions as they had done in the first half, allowing City to pile on the pressure.

Swansea were excellent in breaking up City's play in the first half.
The Welsh were not as good at it during the second half.

The difference in passes in City's attacking third.
While subtle, it shows a greater presence in the centre, mainly thanks to Tévez.

The match should have been beyond Swansea's reach by then, but City never managed to dictate the tempo of the game (despite all of Touré's attempts) and finished the match with unnecessary suffering and going back to the three-man defence, this time trying to hold on to the result. 

Swansea were worthy adversaries; it's always refreshing to see a mid-table team resisting the temptation of playing route one football and insisting on playing out from the back, even when trailing - it most likely means their manager's ideas are coming across nicely and are being accepted by the players. As for City, the much-needed win can't hide the team's persisting problems and shouldn't allow players and coaches to believe the worst is behind them. On most matches, the start players will suffice, but harder opponents will not be as kind.

  • Highlights

Carlos Tévez was absolutely critical for the victory - and his scoring the winning goal was only fitting. His movement, work rate and bravery were essential for his team to grab the win. This may well be turn out the Argentinean's best season in England.

Wayne Routledge showed an interesting skill set and often provided his team's out-ball. His wonderful trickery with the ball made him a safe bet for his team to break out from City's initial pressure zone, hugging the touchline and forcing City to spread out to deal with him.

Routledge was often the men Swansea looked for to escape City's pressure.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Attacking coverage - what is it exactly?

Football pundits (this columnist included, pardon the immodesty) can often be found saying and/or writing words and expressions that sometimes have vague definitions for most people. Today we will be tackling the myth of attacking coverage and what it represents. The foundations of the "attacking coverage" principle are two-fold:

  1. Provide support for the player with the ball; and 
  2. Maintain the defensive balance.

Basically this means that there must be one or more players beside and/or behind the player with the ball in order to help keep possession, but also to make sure that, if the ball is lost, there is someone ready to contain the initial threat and stop opponents from breaking quickly.

While both these cases can also be ascribed to poor individual decision making, this article will focus primarily on the attacking coverage and how important it is for the player with the ball to read the game and understand what the best option may be.

  • Goal #1 - Shakhtar v Chelsea
The play starts on the right. Hazard (yellow) has dropped back and gets a pass from Terry. Trying open up a space for his team-mate, Ramires (blue) moves forward. The ball will be played to Mikel (red). Notice how the four Shakhtar players form an almost perfect diagonal, restricting passing options.

Mikel gets the ball and, instead of passing it onto David Luiz (orange) or Ivanovic (green), he returns to the middle of the field. Ramires (blue) moves back, trying to provide support for his team-mate. 

Mikel, under heavy pressure, eventually dispatches the ball to Hazard, but both Mikel (red) and Ramires (blue) are higher up than the Belgian. Cole can be seen on the halfway line and Ivanovic (please see next picture) is further up. This means that there is only Terry and Luiz behind Chelsea's wunderkind. 

Hazard gives the ball away and now there is a 2v2 situation, with Ivanovic (green) too high up. With Luiz (orange) wide open, Terry (purple) correctly tries to delay the play.

Luiz (orange) runs diagonally towards the centre, while Terry (purple) continues in the centre, waiting for backup.

This is when Terry takes a dreadful defensive approach. With Luiz now closer to his man, Terry gets closer to the man with the ball, opening a huge boulevard for the pass behind him, instead of restricting the passing option.


Good game-reading skills are essential anywhere, but in such a stringent context as the Champions League, one mistake is often what it takes to get punished by the other team. Without proper attacking coverage (i.e. safe passing options), both Mikel and Hazard should have realised the danger and played it safe. On the other hand, their team-mates should have provided better support while attacking and adapted accordingly as soon as they started guessing the ball might be lost. 

  • Goal #2 - Spartak Moscow v Benfica
In this particular case, Benfica are, as usual, attacking down the right. Salvio (the right winger) passes the ball to Matic (the team's holding midfielder).

Matic (blue) is immediately pressured by Rafael Carioca (the eventual goalscorer). Benfica right-back Maxi Pereira (orange) is currently the team's most advanced player. The left-back Melgarejo (red) notices his team-mate in difficulties and still pushes forward, rather than offering a safe passing option. Notice how many players Benfica have in front of the ball.

In a poor decision, Matic tries to get the ball to Melgarejo, only to see it intercepted by Bilyaletdinov. The shaded area indicates how there is no one behind Matic (blue) besides the centre-backs, in their own half.

In this picture, it's easy to see that there are as many defenders as there are attackers. Jardel (purple), a bit like Terry, worries too much about the ball and forgets to occupy or restrict the passing option. The ball would get to the unmarked Jurado.

Jurado holds the ball up, waiting for a team-mate. Rafael Carioca, who had initially put Matic under pressure, speeds past his and Jurado's markers and puts the ball in the back of the net.


This was another prime example of the need to read the game according to the player's positioning and the team's. While it's true Matic's pass was less than stellar, one mustn't forget the numerous bad decisions from his team-mates, not offering enough safe passing options - including one of them even pushing up after seeing his holding midfielder in trouble. If Matic had been properly supported, there would have been a couple of passing options beside or behind him, in order to both keep possession and avoid a fast breakaway if the team lost the ball, as they did.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Manchester United - Stoke City: Worlds apart

Starting elevens

The match between Manchester United and Stoke City promised to be one of the most interesting tactical battles of the weekend, with two predictably different approaches. There were even some doubts as to whether Manchester United would be able to counter Stoke's aerial threat.

The most obvious way (and a cliché by now) of telling Stoke City apart from almost every other team is by analysing the passes in the attacking third. With Peter Crouch on his side, Tony Pulis doesn't have any second thoughts about whether to stick to route one football, even more so against stronger opponents. As for United, their intricate passing eventually worked out and ended up determining the result.

Passes in the attacking third

Stoke's approach was rather simple - but effective: get the ball out to Crouch (particularly on Ferdinand's side), who would then flick it onto Kightly or Walters - Crouch's knack at linking up play is often underrated. Most likely aware of both Ferdinand and Evans' difficulties in the air and Scholes and Carrick's lack of pace to win second balls back, the away team insisted on executing that play time and again. Pulis' men would remain compact in a 4x1x4x1 - not too withdrawn, unexpectedly - and sought to pounce on United when they tried to bring the ball into the centre, and break quickly.

Stoke city's tackles and interceptions, mainly down the left.

Besides, with Valencia and Welbeck lingering up front and Rooney higher than usual, Stoke's wingers came inside at will, confusing even further United centre-backs. In fact, just before Sir Alex Ferguson's charges equalised, Stoke City could have gone two goals up and hardly anyone would be surprised. While they enjoyed only 36% of possession, they were much more incisive for the better of the first half.

Manchester United started to pick up their stride when their attack became more fluid. With Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck on the side, the three of them may exchange positions almost at will, something that they failed to do for 30 minutes. Van Persie gave the example by drifting more and more to the left, leaving the middle for Rooney to come up from behind, which would end up yielding the first goal.

Van Persie and Rooney's passing chalkboards

These three players would end up scoring and providing the assists for every Manchester United goal (except Valencia's assist for Van Persie' goal). Of these, the Dutch forward was the most dangerous and harder to mark, since he kept wandering through various positions, forcing his team-mates to seek other areas. Welbeck proved once again he is better when coming inside and Rooney proved once again that he is an all-around player, with the talent to play anywhere he wants.

There is still time for one final thought for each team. Stoke City's second goal showed once again that Manchester United have to address the need for a better, more competitive defensive player in their midfield and to work on covering their frailties down the middle - Stoke's second goal is oddly similar to how Tottenham destroyed United a few weeks ago. As for Stoke, while this approach may bear fruits against stronger opponents, a more elaborate plan will be needed if they are to climb up the table.

Tottenham - Chelsea: So close, yet so far

Starting elevens

There was a huge buzz surrounding this match, with André Villas-Boas's Tottenham going up against his former club. Would the Portuguese manager instigate his team to go all out from the referee's first whistle or would the Lilywhites be more cautious?

While Chelsea were without John Terry (suspended) and Frank Lampard (on the bench), Tottenham were also without two key players: Moussa Dembélé and Gareth Bale, meaning Tom Huddlestone would partner up with Sandro in midfield and Dempsey would deputise on the left. Unfortunately for Tottenham, those absences were far more critical than Chelsea's and it showed throughout the whole match.

With neither team interested in pressuring up front, Roberto Di Matteo's team were clearly more sure of themselves and more comfortable on the ball. Without Bale's defensive contribution and Dempsey not willing to track back that quickly, Chelsea kept venturing down the right wing, constantly creating overloads.

Tottenham showed huge difficulties in playing out from the back. With neither Gallas or Caulker particularly adept at spreading the play, a player like Dembélé is critical, since he can hold up the ball and glide through opponents before spraying passes. Furthermore, this is a team based around Bale's sheer speed for the out-ball, a trait that was canceled due to Dempsey's altogether different characteristics. The simple shifting of the American midfielder into the wing caused not only inefficiency down the left flank, but it also removed Desmpey's bite in the centre, where he excels at picking up the scraps from his striker, unlike Sigurdsson.

The stark difference in Dempey's contribution

The Icelandic, in turn, was playing too high up to help out defensively, but didn't create anything going forward - as is often the manager's intention when deploying such a player that high. AVB would realise that and Sigurdsson and Dempsey would eventually change positions midway through the first half. For a team with such ingrained routines down the left, Aaron Lennon had to step up, which he didn't until the 25th minute, immediately spreading the panic in Chelsea's defence. He would in fact create Tottenham's best opportunity for Sigurdsson ten minutes later. Chelsea were winning by half-time and rightly so.

The second half was entirely different. Tottenham were finally unafraid of pushing up and make Chelsea's midfield duo work, which yielded results almost immediately, through Gallas' goal on 46 minutes. A few minutes later, the home team would score the second when Defoe redirected Lennon's mishit shot. While Tottenham's first 15 minutes were in part due to their greater intensity and dynamics, Lennon's input cannot be overstated, since he was the only home player (with the exception of the ever impressive Jermaine Defoe) capable of beating opponents on 1v1 situations, dragging them out of place.

The difference between the first and second halves is clear,
with the whole team wider and more advanced.

The match now seemed to be Tottenham's to lose. Chelsea were somewhat lost and looked incapable of turning things around. Even though Mata and Hazard's role in the final comeback was absolutely critical, there were two factors that played their part against Tottenham: Gallas' waning capabilities and the midfield's lacklustre protection of their back four.

The different defensive contributions from Sandro and Huddlestone

Bale's absence was obviously important, but Dembélé's might have been worse. In addition to his ability to constantly offer an out-ball, his defensive performance is just as relevant. The chalkboard above shows how differently Sandro and Huddlestone helped out their team while defending, a difference that only became clearer as the match wore on. In fact, Huddlestone's exhaustion was a direct cause of Chelsea's second goal and his replacement came moments too late.

As for Gallas, the return of either Kaboul or Assou-Ekotto cannot come too soon for AVB. Despite his impressive, title-winning track record, the French centre-back's limitations are plain for all to see. Unfortunately for him, he's not the same solid, reliable match-winning defender he used to be and today's match further exposed him. Not only has his positioning become questionable - resulting in misdirected clearances -, his reading abilities also seem to be deserting him, of which Chelsea's third goal was enough proof.

This was a match that Tottenham could and should have won after getting on top, were it not for a few critical shortcomings in midfield and defence. Dembélé and Bale will be back soon, as will Parker, Kaboul and Assou-Ekotto, which will only make them stronger. Despite the loss, André Villas-Boas can take comfort in knowing his team are evolving and on their way to become a squad strong enough to look their opponents in the eye.