Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Braga definitely in the title race

Starting lineups
Even though the Portuguese League isn't exactly one of the most watched leagues in the world, I believe there are good teams and aspects that are interesting enough to make it worth our while. Monday's match pit Braga (last year's runner-up in Europa League and just 3 points behind Porto and Benfica) against Guimarães, a team that had beaten the leaders Benfica just last week (Benfica's first league defeat this season). If you add to that the fact that the rivalry between these two teams is rather intense, all the right ingredients for a great match were there.

Most people that like football must have heard at least a dozen times that tactics don't win matches, since they're nothing more than drawings on paper. However, even though it is not my intention to dispute that every system and its dynamics are valid, there are tactical arrangements that lend (at least theoretically) a more rational occupation of space to the teams. This match offered a classic clash between Braga's 4x3x3 and Guimarães' 4x2x3x1, which soon became apparent would evolve into a 4x4x1x1, in practical terms.

  • 1. The tactical battle:
Guimarães' defensive shape was based on two banks of four. Partly due to the opponent's scouting and partly out of need (Mossoró, the usual starter, was only fit for the bench), Braga's coach gave Ruben Amorim the nod, inverting his usual triangle. Therefore, the home team were finding it very easy to create triangles on the wings between the fullback, the midfielder and the winger - namely on the right side - and, with that simple movement, bypass the opponent's two defensive lines, as seen below.

A simple movement between three players created a scoring opportunity 
As if that tactical detail wasn't enough, Guimarães' coach surprised everyone by allowing Hugo Viana indefinite time on the ball, an odd option especially if you take into account how their elimination at the hands of Besiktas offered solid proof on how marking Hugo Viana hurts the play of the rest of the team.

  • 2. The battle of goalkeepers
Any discussion around tactical arrangements, options or dynamics within the match is absolutely pointless when a team find themselves losing on the third minute due to a mistake by one of their players. When that same player (particularly in a position as sensitive as goalkeeper) repeats the same mistake after just 15 minutes, the team tend to show a lack of confidence and play fearfully. On the other hand, Braga's 'keeper Quim showed how much of a difference a wiser player can make, given that he too had the same tendency to leave goal rather extemporaneously.

  • 3. The defensive transition
One of the things Leonardo Jardim's Braga is excelling at the moment is the defensive transition - i.e., the moment immediately after losing the ball. Indeed, Braga's reaction to losing the ball is becoming more and more evolved, not only by being successful at averting the opponent's counterattacks, but also by getting the ball back further up front. In the example below, pay attention to how many Braga players are near the ball, which had been lost a few yards and seconds earlier. This moment, frequently disregarded by coaches, is often one of the key differences between average and mature teams.

Rapid reaction to losing the ball

Even though the final result was harsh (4-0, with a Guimarães players sent off before half-time), these three factors help showing that, even without the sending off, Braga would always be closer to winning the match and, by doing it, claiming their place in the title race.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bayern threaten, but Basel delivers

Starting lineups
Basel and Bayern provided an entertaining match to watch, with loads of opportunities (especially during the first half) as promised, and it was only baffling that the scoreline remained at 0-0 until the 86th minute. The first minutes were in fact hectic, with scoring chances for both sides.

The tactical battle was a bit as expected. Without Schweinsteiger, Bayern remain somewhat predictable from midfield, too reliant on Ribéry and Robben's endeavours. Tymoschuk and Alaba started off happy to sit back and kill the opponent's counterattacks. With its narrow 4x4x2, Basel didn't mind soaking up pressure, because it played right into their hands and strengths. They would gladly cede possession to Bayern, hoping to catch them off guard with Streller as the focal point for feeding Sharqiri and Frei.

Basel seemed a bit overwhelmed at first and Bayern created chances early on, especially through short diagonals from Gomez and Ribéry. However, once the  centre-backs settled in, things went much smoother for them. In fact, the match reached a point where it resembled a pairing match, with wingers vs fullbacks, strikers vs centre-backs and central midfielders vs central midfielders. Neither team was willing to commit too many man forward and leave their backline exposed.

Like Chelsea the day before, Bayern left way too many space behind their right-back and therefore Streller was often eager to lean onto that side, opening up space for either Fabian Frei (excellent working the channels) or Alexander Frei. Actually, it was hard to understand why Basel didn't do that more often, since it clearly caused problems for the make-do central partnership of Boateng and Badstuber. On the other hand, as their home match versus Benfica showed, the easiest way to beat this sort of 4x4x2 is to create overloads on the wings, dragging one of the central midfielders and leaving the middle exposed. Oddly enough, Kroos was reluctant to do just that, which meant that it was harder to open up spaces.

With Basel tiring out during the 2nd half, Bayern were happy to take their foot off the gas, since a draw wasn't such a bad result, in their view. Unfortunately for them, Heiko Vögel was spot on with his substitutions, replacing the exhausted wingers with Stocker and Zoua. These two players were decisive for the final result (not just because one scored the goal and the other provided the assist) by bringing with them an extra spring in their steps, shaking things up and providing added incisiveness.

In the end, Bayern will regret not scoring and will need something extra that neither Tymoschuk nor Alaba are capable of providing. Basel, in turn, even though they have scored in every away match this season in the Champions League, will have to be willing to endure some early, intense pressure.

PS: Both Yann Sommer and Park Joo Hoo delivered excellent performances and it wouldn't be surprising to see them reaching different heights.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Napoli won 3-1 last night and all but decided who's going to be in Champions League's next stage. In fact, with the way things are at Chelsea, it's hard to envision them overturning a two-goal deficit (and not conceding).

Sometimes, it's hard to believe André Villas-Boas was an opposition scout (and Mourinho's, no less). Faced with a very specific opponent - arranged in a 3x4x3 -, the Portuguese coach went for his latest choice of 4x2x3x1, with Meireles and Ramires in the middle of the park, Mata just behind Drogba and Sturridge and Malouda on the wings. As it was, both Sturridge and Malouda turned their defensive chip off too often and Napoli did their usual thing and created overloads on the wings.

With Maggio and Zuñiga pushing forward and Hamsik and Lavezzi working the channels, it was hard to understand what Chelsea's defensive approach was. Because Sturridge and Malouda were reluctant in performing their defensive duties, both Meireles and Ramires were forced wide to try and stop the bleeding and mark either the wingback (Zuñiga or Maggio) or the winger (Lavezzi or Hamsik). With both defensive midfielders almost out of the picture, Cavani and Lavezzi were free to get the ball easily and run riot with it. Sure enough, the pair of them scored the three goals and were involved in several other attempts.

Villas-Boas should perhaps have stuck to his beloved 4x3x3, especially if we take into account that neither Ramires nor Meireles are exactly equipped to perform that role and that both players prosper in making runs into the box and creating mismatches. In this tactical system, they can't take advantage of their strengths and Mata becomes easy prey. By going 4x2x3x1, Villas-Boas wasn't able to outnumber the opposition in the middle of the field, which was odd, to say the least.

Chelsea still look like they are trying to find a remedy to all their problems, but keep failing in doing the simplest things, such as being a cohesive defensive unit or a simple 5-yard pass. While both players and manager don't understand that, it seems very hard to see them holding on to fourth place in their domestic league and ensure Champions League football for next year.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Udinese (almost) fail to show up

Starting lineups

Pundits (unlike myself) are often criticized for giving their opinions according to the result, and not according to what they think the game offers at that particular moment in time. The match that pit Juventus against Udinese was supposed to present two title contenders - but unfortunately only one of them showed up (for most of time, that is). In fact, the match seemed to go against what would be expected by most - myself included.

These two teams had met a little over a month ago, but this time Juve were without Pepe and Marchisio (replaced with Giaccherini and Quagliarella) and Udinese weren't able to call upon Asamoah and Pizni). Just like the match in December, Antonio Conte chose to mirror the system of Udinese, going with what can broadly be described as a 3x5x2, where as Francesco Guidolin had to reshuffle all of his midfield, which would prove decisive for the final outcome.

In the second minute, the bianconeri were already performing one of their trademark moves. If we compare the first clip with the first goal against Roma (second clip), we will be able to see several similarities. Even though the players finishing the moves are not starting out from the same position on the field, the principle is the same: a quick run on the weak side of the ball in order to take advantage of numerical inferiority or equality.

Udinese started out by assuming a clearly counter-attacking stance, keeping a low defensive line and choosing to be up in numbers. Pasquale's fielding on the left wing was surely intentional, since Guidolin will have wanted someone to mark Lichsteiner a bit closer. With Asamoah and Pinzi absent, Udinese found themselves with no out-ball and no one to act as a pivot, a role that Pinzi plays so well. This meant that, unlike the match in December, there was hardly anyone to take the ball up to Di Natale or Abdi, which in turn meant that Juve just kept on piling up the pressure. Armero, playing out of his natural position, tried to deputise as the exit man, but often seemed to forget that his job wasn't just motoring up the field.

As seen here, Udinese's midfield was constantly left exposed due to Armero's venturing forward. 

It is still strange to notice, particularly in a league as tactically aware as the Italian, how much time Andrea Pirlo is allowed on the ball. He was able to dictate the tempo and re-start the moves after Udinese throwing the ball forward, in a desperate attempt to relieve the pressure. Actually, Abdi did not exert any sort of pressure upon Pirlo (even though he seemed to have tried at first), and he even started going backwards, possibly trying to help his porous midfield. Therefore, it was no surprise that he didn't make it back on the second half - his replacement, Floro Flores, was a bit more incisive.

When Juventus scored towards the end of the first half, there was some curiosity as to what their plan B would be, given that they had been so hesitant. Oddly enough, just when everyone Juve had the game in the bag (and so it seemed to yours truly), they suddenly dozed off and let Udinese back in the game with wayward passes that mostly Isla intercepted, using those interceptions to counter-attack. Di Natale shot for the first time on 52 minutes and, only two minutes later, Floro Flores scored. Even though the goal came apparently out of Juve's own mistakes, Udinese seemed to be right where they wanted. Feeling the game was getting out of hand, Conte replaced Quagliarella (such an improvement on that particular position, when compared to the out-of-place Pepe).

Once again, Udinese's goal meant nothing and they ended up conceding precisely when it seemed that Juventus would play into their hands. After that, it was one-way traffic and the team from Udine showed that they never wanted anything more than a draw.

I would just like to point out two issues. The first one has to do with Matri. Almost unnoticeably, he managed to have 50 touches (Di Natale had 27, as a reference), from which he mustered 3 key passes, 5 shots (3 of which on target) and 2 goals. It doesn't get much better than that for a forward. The second issue relates to Giaccherini. Not only is he an avid scorer (he scores 1 goal every 5 games, on average), but he also has a tendency to find spaces to run into, opening spaces for himself and others to score. Definitely a player on the rise.