Friday, March 30, 2012

The (rather unlikely) goal of the season?

Weekend highlights

As we enter crunch time on most leagues in Europe, the upcoming football weekend will be packed with exciting matches and unpredictable outcomes. Let's take a quick look at some of the most promising match-ups.

In Portugal, Braga leads the championship, one point ahead of FC Porto and two from Benfica. Benfica and Braga will meet on Saturday at Estádio da Luz, while FC Porto entertain Olhanense at home in a must-win match, a couple of hours earlier. Will Benfica be able to get ahead of Braga, who haven't defeated Benfica away in a few decades? Next week: Braga vs FC Porto and Sporting vs Benfica.

In Italy, there will be a classic match that's decisive for both teams playing it - Juventus vs Napoli. The bianconeri are four points off Milan and can't afford to waste any more points, if they're to win the league. Napoli, in turn, sit fourth (level with Udinese), three points behind Lazio, in a fight for the last Champions League place. This means that neither team will be able to do their usual thing of sitting and waiting.

In Spain, the most interesting match pits Barcelona against Bilbao, not least because only 48 will have elapsed since the Basques' amazing win (2-3) in Schalke's own turf. Since neither team can afford to drop points and both base their game on pressing the opponent, what will it mean? Will Bilbao change half the team and maintain their pressing? Will Barça?

Finally, in England, there's some expectation as to what Roberto Di Matteo will do in the match against Aston Villa. Will he change half the team that won in Lisbon last Tuesday or will he stick to his guns and leave his winning eleven untouched? On Sunday, Newcastle will face Liverpool, hoping Chelsea have dropped points the day before, so that they can keep dreaming about Champions League football for next year. As for Liverpool, having ensured the return to European competition via their League Cup win, they are clearly waiting for the season to finish.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Vintage Champions League

Starting line-ups

Benfica and Chelsea met yesterday at the Luz to see which team would go through to the next stage of this season's Champions League. What we saw was a typical display of this competition, with the underdogs playing better football and the powerhouse withstanding one attack after another (and almost conceding a goal), only to score in the last minutes of the match in a quick breakaway.

Benfica manager Jorge Jesus chose his expected eleven, with Gaitán and Bruno César on the wings, and Aimar behind Cardozo. On the contrary, Chelsea interim coach Roberto Di Matteo changed half his team and left Bosingwa, Cahill, Essien, Lampard, Sturridge and Drogba on the bench (with even Paulo Ferreira getting a highly unlikely nod), clearly stating his mission for this leg - and showing that every player in the Chelsea roster will have his moment.

Chelsea's game plan was clear: sit back, soak pressure, lots of time on the ball (even if it didn't necessarily mean progressing up the field with it) and a breakaway, where possible. With Benfica wary of exerting their usual full-on pressure on the opponent's defensive line, Chelsea defenders and midfielders had numerous moments where they could slow the tempo of the game, annoying the Eagles' fans. Di Matteo had clearly done his homework and played the more industrious and defensively aware Kalou on the left wing, in order to try to check Benfica's preferential attacking route - the right wing. Additionally, Torres was told to drift toward that space in order to take advantage of Maxi Pereira's bold positioning - and dragging his direct marker with him.

Torres connects to the long ball behind Maxi Pereira, dragging Luisão with him.
Kalou runs into the space his team-mate opened up.

Here, Luisão tries to get back to his position and Javi García compensates his team-mate.

This simple movement gives Meireles space to shoot (because he is already late, Maxi tries to take Javi García's place)

As usual, Benfica attacked down the right, with Gaitán, Witsel and Aimar all taking turns to push up, trying to drag both Meireles and Mikel out of position - which they did at times, even though not as frequently as expected. The problem was the infamous weakest link: the left wing. Even though Emerson has taken a lot of flack throughout the season, it hasn't always been his fault, and last night was just another example. Ramires, playing to the right, but narrower than Kalou, helped creating numerical superiority in midfield and often tried to take on Emerson, since Bruno César (and then Gaitán, after his permanent move to the left) rarely tracked back, leaving acres of space for the Blue Kenyan to exploit (see the yellow area in the top diagram). As it turned out, that would be Benfica's fatal mistake.

Ramires (nr. 7), a nominal right-winger, played narrow
Even though this seems a counter-attack, it is just normal play - and already Ramires has lots of space to run into

With both teams in similar formations, it would all come down to speed and creativity. Chelsea, as stated elsewhere, are much more calm and collected, and better organised, which meant they would be less vulnerable to breaking runs and counter-attacks. Paulo Ferreira was essential for the Londoners' newfound stability on the right, since he is much more reliable defensively and has a deeper understanding of a fullback's duties. The Eagles would have to step up for the second half.

And that's exactly what they did. As it so often happens in the latter stages of this competition, the favourites were constantly subject to attacks during the second half's first 15 minutes, a period in which Benfica could (and should) have scored. Cech made great saves, Luiz bravely saved Cardozo's effort off the line and it seemed Chelsea's fortress was about to collapse. It was plain to see that the increase in speed from Witsel (showing that he is just the man Benfica needed for this sort of matches), Aimar and Gaitán (much better on the left) was making Meireles and - particularly - Mikel uncomfortable, especially because Torres was back to his old self, unable to hold on to a single ball. With Mata off his game (it's clear that he shouldn't start his moves from the middle), Ramires was the only out-ball the Blues had.

Jesus was desperate to win the match and replaced Aimar and Bruno César with Rodrigo and Matic, meaning that Witsel would go right, Matic would take his place beside Javi García and Rodrigo would play just off Cardozo - and that's when it all started to crumble. As it has often been the case, Benfica's attempt to win the match unbalanced the whole team. Witsel's influence on the right was diminished and the Portuguese team started losing control. While Chelsea's goal was a recap of their strengths (experience, resilience, a more compact midfield and breakaways), it was also something that we have see too often in Benfica: their will to win at any cost often means that the team lose their balance.

This would lead to Chelsea's goal. Notice how high up Emerson is, with no offensive coverage.

After Ramires' impressive run, it's up to Torres to proceed. Matic shows once again he still has a lot to learn.
The green arrow indicates where he should be providing coverage.

There is one last issue being mentioned. Managers keep telling us that there is always some strategy behind their decisions, but it's sometimes hard to understand what it is. What's the logic in shuffling Witsel to the right, only to bring him back to the middle ten minutes later? Mind you, Jesus is far from being the only manager to do that, and we can only hope that some day we will get a straight answer to this question from a manager.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Benfica-Chelsea tactical preview

Benfica and Chelsea meet up tomorrow for the first leg of the quarter-finals of the Champions League, in what could turn out to be a very interesting, unpredictable tie. Below we present a few reasons that might explain why one of the teams will go through.

3 reasons why Chelsea will defeat Benfica

1) Resilience. If the match against Napoli taught us anything, it was that this team are not as bad as most people seem to think and that there is still something left in their tanks. Chelsea core players are victors from other battles who can muster their fading strengths when necessary – and the matches against Valencia and Napoli should be a sound warning to Benfica.

2) A tendency to attack down the middle. Despite Roberto Di Matteo’s recent (slight) change of mind, Sturridge is usually stationed on the right and drifts inward (or on the left, where he is clearly less effective). Mata, usually starting on the left, is also prone to search central areas, and Drogba is a competitive monster who thrives on long balls – Chelsea’s preferential route of late. Given that Benfica tend to leave their centre almost exclusively to Javi García, this could be a good option for the Londoners.

3) A more compact midfield. If Chelsea attack down the centre, it’s also true that they defend better in that area, as well. While distant from his former self, Essien is increasingly closer to his physical levels of yesteryear. Lampard, in turn, sits further back than he used to, but he is still capable of providing long, diagonal balls over the top, to which Benfica are sometimes vulnerable.

3 reasons why Benfica will defeat Chelsea

1) Attacking movement. Benfica is all about going for the jugular, even when it might not prove the best for them. In that, Gaitán, Bruno César, Nolito and Maxi Pereira excel at overloading the wings and penetrate in one-two moves. Even though some at Chelsea still remember how to defend properly, Benfica’s fluidity might just be too much.

2) Chelsea’s man-marking. The blues’ preferential option for dealing with defensive set pieces is man-marking, which could play right into the Eagles’ hands. Jesus’ obsession with offensive set pieces may prove decisive to break the deadlock.

3) Quick transitions into offence. One of Benfica’s main attributes is their vertical speed, i.e. the pace at which they can turn a defensive situation into a clear scoring chance for themselves. Conversely, this is one of the Londoners' weakest spots, because Mata and Sturridge often turn off during their defensive duties, and only Ramires tracks back. With Maxi, Witsel and Gaitán, to name but a few, Benfica ‘s pace might just do the trick.

The best way not to mark Hulk

Last Sunday's match between Paços de Ferreira and FC Porto for the Portuguese championship gave us a perfect example of how not to defend - particularly a strong, fast player like Hulk.

Paços de Ferreira defend poorly and FC Porto end up scoring.
Notice the huge amount of space behind both Paços players (yellow area)
It is common knowledge that, if you have two players defending an opponent, one should go for the ball and the other one should provide coverage, in case the first defender gets beaten and/or to warn the opponent that the space behind the first defender is taken. However, it is one thing to say it or write it - and a very different thing to do it in an actual match, requiring hours of training and coordination.

In this particular play, Hulk goes up against two Paços players. The first one (red circle) is doing the right thing by protecting the middle (and simultaneously Hulk's strongest foot). However, the second defender should be providing coverage for the first one, with the arrow indicating where he should be, ideally. Because he wasn't, Hulk was able to speed up, get past both opponents and cross for another defender's interception into his own net.

The intoxicating fear of defeat

Starting line-ups
Chelsea and Tottenham met last Saturday trying to win the upper hand for the remaining matches in order to get the much-sought 4th place and respective Champions League place. However, the fear of losing was clearly far too great for both teams, which meant we were presented with a very cagey match, with the best scoring chances coming both from set pieces.

Chelsea started without Meireles, Luiz, Torres and Ivanovic, whereas Tottenham were without Lennon, which brought van der Vaart to the right wing when for his defensive duties. Harry Redknapp's team sat back and soaked up the pressure, and Sandro was instructed to push higher up to break up Chelsea's first area of build-up play.

As for Roberto Di Matteo, his main concern seemed to be the threat of Gareth Bale, telling Ramires to help Bosingwa out and always create 2v1 situations against the Welshman, which rather explains the little impact he had throughout the match. The midfield duo of Essien and Lampard was predictably slow, despite Essien's increasing combativeness. With Ramires stationed on the right, Sturridge was pushed to the left and Mata behind Drogba. The English winger is clearly least effective on the left, because he can't make his preferential move and drift inwards, and the Spaniard feels less comfortable starting from the middle, because it means he is always the subject of a centre-back or holding midfielder's attention, instead of surprising them.

Di Matteo's men had a clear offensive plan: take advantage of Lampard's presence and going for balls over the top, either for Sturridge (going into the space opened up by Drogba) or Drogba himself, always likely to thrive on scraps. Close to half-time, Tottenham pushed a bit further up and made the game more interesting, coming close to scoring.

In the second half, both Bale and Van der Vaart were brought to the centre, choking Chelsea's midfield. Besides, Redknapp's team were more comfortable with the result and, therefore, were more patient shuffling the ball from side to side. Chelsea, in turn, were always capable of wreaking havoc every time they threw long, diagonal balls behind Tottenham's backline.

On 75 minutes, Torres came on for Essien, suggesting Chelsea would go all out. Just like it had happened on the home match versus Arsenal, the blues lost the game plot, became disjointed and were closer than ever to losing the match.

All in all, it was a rather uninteresting match, even as far as tactics go, in clear contrast to what have been the match-ups between the top 5 English teams - high-scoring matches, with caution thrown to the wind. Neither team wanted to lose this game and ruin their chances of getting access to next year's Champions League.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Near miss for interim coaches worldwide

Starting line-ups
Roberto Di Matteo was just a few minutes away from becoming the poster boy for every club chairman/CEO aching to fire their coach for a string of bad results. Had Chelsea won last night and they would have made it 5 wins in 5 games under Di Matteo. As it is, the Londoners were brought down to earth and should be thinking in terms of Europa League.

Manchester City were very strong for the first ten minutes. With Cahill taking the injured John Terry's place, Chelsea are less intense and more vulnerable to short diagonal movements between Cahill and his full-back. This meant David Luiz was the left centre-back, a position he's much more used to and where he's most effective.

Chelsea's plan was obvious, apparently drawing inspiration on Sporting's display in the last Europa League tie against City: drop back with two banks of four and let Torres take full advantage of his newfound happiness, with Meireles as the link-up man. In fact, the Spaniard was very good working the channels, but the Portuguese is clearly not cut out for this position, since his decision-making is not always that good and he is not the most proficient player with his back to goal.

Chelsea strangely similar to Sporting
City were clearly the more dominant side, but it was clearly part of Chelsea's strategy. Apart from Samir Nasri's shot that hit the bar, the Citizens were only able to shot from distance, without being able to penetrate into the box. As has often been the case, Balotelli and Agüero showed that they are too prone to blowing hot and cold (nice moments of flare, but blatantly inconsistent) and that they are not very inclined to work and open up spaces for others. With opponents less and less inclined in going head-to-toe with City, Mancini's men are having a hard time finding free space.

Even though Meireles was not offering a decisive contribution offensively, he was being successful at (almost) man-marking Yaya Touré out of the game. With the Ivorian stationed next to De Jong, Meireles' task was clearly to break up City's build-up play. Silva was missing and Touré had too many defensive duties. Mancini's furious reaction on the touchline was a clear proof that City were getting nothing out of the game.

For the second half, Mancini brought on Gareth Barry for Balotelli, proving that less (attackers) is sometimes more. With the centre in good hands, Yaya Touré could finally break free and tread onto Chelsea's comfort zone - which meant Silva and Nasri were able to play farther up front, too. In turn, Meireles wasn't sure whether he was supposed to keep closing down Yaya Touré or stick to Barry.

The goals had something of a chance factor in them. Chelsea's goal came from a deflection off Yaya Touré's leg and City's penalty was a desperate shot that hit Essien's arm. Apart from that (Nasri's mentioned effort aside), there were no clear-cut chances for either side and City's victory, while deserved, almost didn't happen. In the end, Mancini's gung ho approach - with Tévez, Dzeko and Agüero - proved too much for Chelsea. Nevertheless, Di Matteo's team is now more calm and collected, better organized and even Cech looks now like his old self, much less prone to mistakes and distractions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

From heaven to hell and back

A couple of weeks ago, Benfica had just lost first place to FC Porto in the Portuguese championship, the outcome of their Chamipons League tie was uncertain and their manager Jorge Jesus basically had to go. As things stand today, the Eagles may well be Portuguese Champions, win the League Cup and have the opportunity to fight Chelsea for a place in the Champions League semi-finals. Things surely change fast, when it comes to football, don't they?

Yesterday's League Cup match between Benfica and FC Porto was an interesting event, far from what both managers tried to make us think - something that neither team really wanted to win. The match was all too similar to the latest league fixture and therefore the analysis will tackle more specific issues.


  • 1. There's logic in chaos. Remember Maxi Pereira's goal against Zenit? Now take a look at Benfica's positioning for last night's first goal and see if you can spot the differences. Once again, Witsel (pink), Bruno César (yellow) and Maxi Pereira (green) pressure and overload their opponent's left side.

  • 2. Benfica still defensively vulnerable through the middle. If the Eagles want to be successful against powerhouses such as Chelsea, it's mandatory that they can exert better control over their adversary. Yesterday, we often saw the mere presence of Javi and Witsel a bit further up in the centre, which makes it very easy to overrun them.
  • 3. Benfica excel in set pieces. Even though it's a bit hard to understand why exactly other teams don't seem to be aware of it, Benfica keep on being prolific from set pieces. Last night was just another example (there were three other shots that hit the woodwork), just like the previous match between these two teams or the Zenit match.

Luisão (yellow) at the far post, freeing up Javi García (blue)
Luisão (yellow) offers the screening to free up Javi García (blue). Déjà vu, anyone?
  • 4. Benfica showed once again they are capable of adapting within the match. After being beaten for Mangala's goal, Jorge Jesus changed the distribution of Benfica's typical zonal marking approach.

Benfica's typical zonal marking, with no coverage in front of their line. Mangala would score.

Benfica adapted their zonal marking shape for the second half.
FC Porto would not create another scoring chance from set pieces.
FC Porto

  • 1. The left wing is still an express way for opponents. Despite his transfer fee, Alex Sandro proved he is still too green for these heights and that he is no substitute for Álvaro Pereira (for now, at least). In turn, Álvaro Pereira proved once again that his defensive contribution can be sketchy (to say the least), at times. Even with João Moutinho helping down that wing, the Eagles kept ramming FC Porto's left side.
  • 2. FC Porto hurt their rival's open wound. Aware that Benfica were vulnerable defending set pieces, the Dragons didn't hesitate. Mangala's goal from Moutinho's free kick certainly  had  nothing to do with chance. The ball was sent to the exact same spot as James' free kick for Maicon's head.
FC Porto scored from an all too familiar free kick
  • 3. FC Porto were better at controlling the game. With Defour, Moutinho and Lucho, FC Porto were capable of dictating the tempo of the game and provide better defensive coverage for their back four. Unlike Benfica, where Javi García is often left stranded, FC Porto are better at defending the centre of the park.
FC Porto always tried to make sure they were up in numbers in defensive situations.
  • 4. Your opponent will charge down the right? Then motor down that side yourselves. Despite having Hulk against Capdevila (an odd option for this particular match), FC Porto tried to exploit Maxi Pereira's surges upfield and the lack of protection from Bruno César. Lucho, usually defending more to the right, would often drift to the left to overload that side.
Maxi Pereira, Javi García and Witsel are all drawn to their right side. Notice how little protection these players have.

After a simple one-two move, FC Porto's three players break free, once again


All in all, it was an interesting, even match. Even though this was a lesser competition, neither team wanted to lose and give away the upper hand for the league (which was what really was at stake, here). FC Porto were better in open play (tiring out in the second half), but Benfica was just irresistible from set pieces.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Manchester City-Sporting

The report on the match between Manchester City and Sporting is now available on

What would Barcelona be without Messi? Check out Bilbao

Starting lineups
Athletic Bilbao's triumph over Manchester United was nothing short of a fairy tale. With no Messi and a coach that arrived less than a year ago, a team traditionally used to long balls aiming at their target man was able to radically change their style of play thanks to the manager's attention to detail and ability to sell his ideas. The Spaniards' display against Man Utd on both legs made it plain to see that it is indeed possible to play positive football, even if you don't have Xavi, Messi and Iniesta.

United had an almost impossible task on their hands and turned to experience to try to beat the odds - Giggs, Park, Ferdinand and Rooney all got the nod. Faced with an uphill battle, the red devils tried to take it to Athletic Bilbao and exert pressure in advanced areas of the field.

United tried to stifle Bilbao, at first
Nevertheless, United are not used to this sort of strategy and Bilbao seemed more than confident about how to best bypass it. It was however an incredibly open match and both teams seemed to want to provide an goal-fest. Marcelo Bielsa's team could have just waited it out, but their DNA doesn't allow it, apparently.

Just like it had been the case during the first leg, Bilbao was almost man-marking Manchester United out of the game, confident in their coordination, speed and intensity - starting with the excellent (former midfielder) Javi Martínez marking Wayne Rooney everywhere he went. Giggs looked lost for most of the match (Sir Alex Ferguson has yet to realise that his team rarely win important matches with Giggs in central midfield) as he wasn't sure if he was supposed to drop back and help out or stay up and try to overload his opponent.

Bilbao were pretty much man-marking their opponents
Carrick was heroic in his holding role, but he was essentially alone. Park and Cleverley often exchanged positions, but both failed to help the Englishman in his efforts to stop their energetic rival. Bilbao's midfield provided enough of a challenge, but Javi Martínez's surges forward were just more than United could handle. The first goal of the game came on Patrice Evra's side - his defensive positioning is becoming more and more questionable. As in Dirk Kuyt's goal in the match against Liverpool, Evra seemed to forget to close the space between him and the centre-back and Llorente had no mercy. United's dream was all but over.

From then on, there was virtually nothing left but to watch Bielsa's perfectly-drilled side in their magnificent pressing - the coordination and solidarity are impressive - and triangle-shaped combinations, creating scoring chance after scoring chance. In the end, the result was more than flattering for United, considering the numerous clear-cut chances Bilbao had to get a historical win.

The man on the ball always had at least two passing options

After easily getting out from the back, Bilbao get ready to create yet another chance

Another example of how to bypass your opponent

Two perfect triangles
In a time where player power is king, it's almost impossible to believe that a coach can change a team so set in their ways in such radical fashion. Bilbao are living what seems to be an unforgettable season and their showdown against Barcelona for the Copa del Rey's final should be wonderful to watch. In conclusion, I would like to add how reassuring it is to see Iturraspe and Javi Martínez leading and instructing their team mates - perfectly aware of their ideal positioning and always ready to lend a hand, if necessary.

Sporting near tragedy after a perfect first half

Starting lineups

Both Manchester teams had one last opportunity to make it to the next round. City's task seemed less daunting, but Mancini wanted no compromise, choosing a rather different side for the second leg. Instead of the more defensive-minded De Jong and Barry, the Italian coach went with Pizarro and Touré in the middle and Johnson instead of Milner. It seemed Mancini had learnt enough about his opponent in the away match and tried to counter with his own strategy.

Pizarro's presence meant City could coordinate their attacks from behind, instead of relying on David Silva.  If there's one thing Pizarro excels at, it's shuffling the ball from one side to another and spraying diagonal balls to the flanks. In fact, that seemed City's route of choice - Pizarro (or Yaya Touré) would move the ball around and then try to connect with Johnson on the right wing. With Micah Richards also trying to push forward and Yaya Touré on the same side, there was enough space for Sporting to break away.

As for Sporting, the picture below is a perfect example of their strategy - in fact, it wasn't that much different from the first match. The Lions had a good start, with clearly defined pressure zones and a tendency to exploit the space behind Richards. However, that strategy wasn't necessarily the most useful here - since Pizarro was running the show in an area that Sporting wasn't prepared to reach.

Sporting in a classic 4x4x2, with Izmailov tucked in
One of the key aspects of every opponent that goes up against City is how to defuse David Silva's threat. Sporting manager Ricardo Sá Pinto chose once again to use Izmailov narrower than Capel, but this time the Russian midfielder was almost man-marking the Spanish wizard. By doing that, Kolarov was able to motor down the right wing, which meant Carriço was dragged on to that side, to make sure that the Portuguese team always had 2v1 situations.

Izmailov often came narrower than Carriço and Schaars, following Silva
Conversely, it meant that Sporting found it easy to overload Kolarov down that flank, since Silva was not eager to track back and there was no De Jong or Barry for the defensive work. On the other wing, Capel showed once again that he may never fulfil his potential, since his movement and decision-making are strangely similar to a winger from the '90s.

Sporting's two goals came from City's oddly bad defensive positioning. The first one was a wonderfully taken free kick by Matías Fernández, as a result of a desperate tackle from Balotelli on Insúa in the space behind Yaya Touré (once again). The second was even stranger, since it was a dead ball some 60 yards from goal. Polga made a long pass to the right wing and Savic's decision to go for the aerial duel wasn't as awkward as the team's decision to provide absolutely no cover for the second ball. Sporting were two goals up by half-time - and deservedly so.

Savic goes for a late aerial duel with unbelievably poor coverage from his team.
Notice how far his team mates are
Mancini replaced Johnson with De Jong for the second half, going for something of a 4x2x3x1, with Pizarro and De Jong in the middle. The Italian seemed to finally realise that it was pointless to insist on the wings, where it was obvious Sporting always had the numerical advantage there. City's first goal was a logical follow-up to that reasoning, with Balotelli creating indecision on who should mark whom and opening up space. Sporting's classic 4x4x2 was easy to bypass through the centre and once City realised that, the floodgates opened up.

As if that wasn't enough, the removal of both Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Matías meant that Sporting had no out-ball and that City was able to pile on the pressure. The Lions were tiring out and Renato Neto's foolish penalty didn't help things. The Portuguese ended the match in unnecessarily desperate fashion, forced to last-ditch efforts to try to avoid what would be a tragic and overall unfair outcome.

Pereirinha and Izmailov's performance should be highlighted. The former was his usual self: sensible, solid and level-headed. The latter was a true hero and it's not every day you see a player of his calibre going to such lengths for the sake of the team.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

James Rodríguez' decisive contribution

The importance of the contribution from James Rodríguez in the latest meeting between Benfica and FC Porto can now be found on

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Breakaway 101

The last couple of weeks have been awash with examples of counter-attack plays. Below you can find two alternatives routes for goal.

Example #1: The "Me (and him, granted) against the world" option

FC Porto's Colombian winger James Rodríguez is still young (20 years-old), but during the past year has been proving how good he can be (and how much better he may turn out to be). In a potentially title-deciding match between Benfica and FC Porto, he came on as a substitute on 58 minutes when his team were trailing 2-1 and was decisive for FC Porto’s victory, scoring a goal and providing an accurate assist for the late winner.

1st moment: Fernando, FC Porto holding midfielder, wins the ball back with James’ help. As you can see in the picture below, they both have loads of space to run into.

2nd moment: In fact, they were able to win the ball back 60 yards from Benfica's goal and push forward at ease - they weren't up against any opponent until Luisão (in red) came out to meet them, near the box. Noticing the space behind Luisão, James played a simple one-two with Fernando (who had accompanied James in his run upfield). 

3rd moment: With that simple one-two, James outplayed Luisão, picked up the ball a few yards farther up and unleashed an unstoppable effort into the goal. The score was level again. 

Example #2: The team effort 

The last match between Arsenal and Tottenham started at lightning strike pace. Tottenham's third-minute goal was textbook breakaway play - in a collective effort that should be praised. 

1st moment: Tottenham right-back Kyle Walker (blue circle) makes an interception, passes the ball to Gareth Bale (first dotted yellow line) and immediately starts sprinting. When the ball gets to Bale, Adebayor moves to the left to meet Bale's pass (second dotted yellow line), dragging the defender out of position. Notice how Saha (green circle), the player who would eventually score the goal, is all alone. 

2nd moment: Walker (blue circle) continues his movement and drags the second centre-back with him, leaving acres of space for Saha (green circle) to run into.  

3rd moment: Walker (blue circle) finishes his run knowing his job is done: When the second Arsenal centre-back notices how much space there is left behind him, it's already too late and Adebayor has already passed the ball to Saha (green circle). A few seconds later, Tottenham were in front.

Both these cases are a perfect example of how to make the most of a quick transition from defence to attack, showing how important it is never to lose your team's balance, even - or especially - when the ball is yours.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

When in Rome

Starting lineups

In a standoffish match, Sporting managed to grab a 1-0 victory that could prove absolutely decisive in one week's time. Sporting manager Ricardo Sá Pinto was clearly humble enough to learn from FC Porto's mistakes in the last round against the same opponent and chose a very different approach from Vítor Pereira.

In fact, Sá Pinto went with a somewhat unusual (for Portuguese teams, that is) lopsided 4x4x2 (see image below), mirroring to perfection the expected City's lineup. Carriço and Schaars were in charge of patrolling the area in front of their back four and, even though Capel and Izmailov both completed a line of four, the Russian was much narrower, most likely predicting David Silva's tendency to drift inward. Schaars was instructed to sit a bit further up from Carriço, so that they would be better spread out on the field.

Manchester City were roughly their usual selves in away matches. With Clichy deputising for Micah Richards as right-back, Milner as a sort of right-winger and Silva on the left, City were compelled to go down the central route, crashing against the well-drilled Sporting defence.

Instead of playing the match as if both teams were equal, the Lions started carefully, wary of leaving their defensive line exposed (like FC Porto did on both games). Faced with an English team with Italian DNA, Sá Pinto was happy to play the underdog and give the control of the match to City, hoping that Sporting would outpace them in quick breakaways. With Izmailov helping out defensively in the middle of the park, almost every intercepted ball quickly found João Pereira's path, particularly because - it's a well-known fact - David Silva is not keen on tracking back as soon as possible.

City were slow and seemed to think that things would naturally fall into place, shifting the ball from side to side, waiting for Silva to do his usual thing. Van Wolfswinkel and Matías Fernández, in turn, worked very hard trying to keep City's centre-midfielders busy by reducing their passing options. After 25 minutes, Sporting became less cautious and fearful and tried to take the game back to City, namely by shooting from long range.

The first half came to its end and both teams seemed more afraid of conceding a goal than willing to score one. Xandão scored a wonderful back-heel quickly into the second half and it looked like the game had to open up. Even though Sporting were a bit too eager to take their cues from the crowd in the minutes that followed, they managed to maintain their emotional control and resisted the temptation to ride the wave, sticking to their game plan instead.

While Mancini replaced Dzeko (another uninspiring display from the Bosnian) with Balotelli, Sá Pinto tried to make sure that Sporting would not concede what might prove to a crucial away goal to City by bringing on Pereirinha and Renato Neto for Izmailov and Matías, respectively. The message was clear to everyone: the result was perfect and their one-goal advantage was to remain intact. Balotelli was in fact the only Citizen able to cause problems for Sporting (chiefly the short-tempered João Pereira) and City came very close to the equalizer in the final stages of the game, including a header from Balotelli that hit the crossbar.

In conclusion, Sporting manager acknowledged the differences between the two teams and managed to convince his players that they had to work very hard and be willing to see less of the ball, if they were to succeed. His Italian approach worked to perfection and Mancini is once again reminded of his own shortcomings when it comes to European competitions, even if Sporting can count themselves fortunate.

Individually, I would like to highlight Matías Fernández's work rate and presence, since he was the main link between defence and attack, providing the team's first out-ball, but I would also like to praise the ill-regarded Anderson Polga. While Xandão showed once again that he can be a valuable asset to the squad, the Brazilian world champion showed that he still is a very good player when the defensive line is not constantly caught off-guard.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A one-sided tale

Yesterday's match between Benfica and Zenit St. Petersburg was all too familiar. Just like it had happened against FC Porto during the group stage, the Russian team didn't seem to want the ball at all, meaning it was a one way-street all along. Even when they found themselves trailing and opened up, they couldn't muster more than one shot on goal. Therefore, the report for this match will try to shed some light on Benfica - the team that actually wanted to play football - and just a pinch about Zenit. Here are five things we have learnt.

  1. Unlike the match vs FC Porto, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus allowed Witsel to play  further up. While it left Javi García somewhat outnumbered in the midfield battle, it allowed the Eagles to exert pressure in more advanced areas while defending and to create overloads on the wings while attacking. It's no coincidence that Benfica spent the whole first half harassing Zenit's left wing.
  2. Maxi Pereira is an unsung hero. Never mind the decisive goal he scored last night. The Uruguayan is capable of going back and forth for the whole match, overlap his winger, shoot on goal and still be on the right place to make a defensive interception a few seconds later. He is definitely Benfica's little engine that could.
  3. Nélson Oliveira is clearly the man for the job. While taking notes about the game during the first half, I was scribbling something like "Why not Nélson Oliveira for Rodrigo?". Now, it's not my intention to act all prescient, but the Portuguese forward showed last U-20 World Championship that he can singlehandedly inflict damage on any defence. Even though he is not as technically gifted as Rodrigo, he is much more combative and intense, which was just what Benfica needed, especially when all eyes were on Cardozo.
  4. Jorge Jesus seems to have finally understood the need to shut up shop some times. After scoring the first goal, the team didn't seem eager to go for the second and third and fourth, all the while opening up spaces behind them. If anything, they went perhaps too far back, but controlling the game is an essential aspect, particularly in the Champions League. The fact that Matic came one for Gaitán was proof that the Portuguese manager is capable of learning from his mistakes.
  5. Despite the many Russian players in their squad, Zenit is clearly an Italian team. Luciano Spalletti managed to instil the classic Italian values on to his team, taking us all back to the nineties, where catenaccio was king. The only problem about that approach is that, after finding yourself trailing on aggregate, you're left with a team that was planned and selected for the draw. As many a manager find sooner than later, changing your team's chip during a match is one of the hardest tasks you'll ever get.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

World Class Coaching

The analysis of the latest match between Milan and Juventus can now be found at the fine World Class Coaching blog, at Please feel free to comment, suggest or disagree at will.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hold steady

In line with recent developments, I am proud to announce that the latest installment of this Website can be found in the excellent, in the following address: Any comments you might have will be most welcome.

Champions in the making?

Starting lineups

Friday's matchup between Benfica and FC Porto was announced as a potential title decider. With the teams level on points, the final score wouldn't necessarily mean mathematical certainty about the eventual Portuguese champion, but it would definitely make a dent on the losing team's aspirations. Both coaches weren't exactly inspirational in their press conferences and therefore a cagey match was expected.

  • 1. The first 20 minutes
FC Porto surprised their opponent by not sitting back, soaking pressure and taking advantage of Benfica's high line, rather exerting pressure up front, with Janko with clear instructions to occupy Luisão's area, Lucho told to mark Javi García (or Garay, depending on who brought the ball forward) and Moutinho with an eye on Witsel, should he drop back to get the ball. Vítor Pereira was no doubt trying to choke Benfica's build-up play by placing his midfield between their usual two banks of five.

Benfica finding it hard to get the ball out from the back

Benfica were clearly not expecting this attitude from their opponent, making a lot of wayward passes in their build-up, where they usually are very good. However, the thing that really got the game going and opened it up was Hulk's goal, after just 7 minutes. FC Porto became even more confident and Benfica seemed a bit overwhelmed by it all. For the first 20 minutes, the Dragons were almost perfect in stopping the ball even getting to Aimar - and the fact that neither winger dropped back to get the ball out didn't help either. 

With Witsel instructed to get side by side with Javi García and Aimar not helping defensively, FC Porto's triangle-shaped midfield were able to bypass their two banks of four, with loads of space between them. 

Benfica's two banks of four, leaving too much space for Lucho and Moutinho to operate in

To make matters worse for Benfica, Djalma was excellent both in dragging Maxi Pereira out of the wing and into the middle (which meant Maxi didn't know whether he should follow him or hold his ground), and in helping out defensively, so the visitors' midfield wouldn't be overrun.

  • 2. 20 - 63 minutes
20 minutes into the match, the home team started balancing things out. Witsel pushed forward and left Javi García's side, meaning that he could finally be the link between defence and attack, but it also meant that he was able to pressure FC Porto in their own build-up, winning the ball back closer to FC Porto's goal. The Dragons, in turn, dropped back, possibly with an eye on Hulk's speed in behind the Eagles' defence.

Fernando spent most of the first half getting close to Nolito (who got the nod ahead of Bruno César), trying to stop him from turning to goal and therefore helping out Maicon not to lose his balance. However, after the initial period, Nolito managed to either turn or get the ball out of his area and into Aimar, who usually had more space to get into, since Fernando was busy elsewhere.

It was no surprise that Benfica levelled the score on 41 minutes - particularly because FC Porto have seemed too soft on set pieces throughout the whole season. It was more of a surprise to see Benfica getting one goal up in a set piece they have been doing all season long - apparently, the away team's scouting department has a few things to sort out. FC Porto's plan for the second half (drop back and look for the breakaway, as seen in the picture below) had to be reviewed.

FC Porto's defensive shape at the start of the second half: a clear, expectant 4x1x4x1

Vítor Pereira immediately turned to James Rodríguez, but, in a decision that had everything to potentially cost him his job, replaced Rolando with the Colombian, meaning that Maicon would step in as left centre-back and Djalma as the improvised right-back. As previewed elsewhere, Benfica couldn't control the match and the team started breaking in two sides of five, leaving the midfield area wide open. In fact, it was precisely because of that that James and Fernando were able to win the ball back 65 yards from Benfica's goal and run upfield at ease - they weren't up against any opponent until Luisão came out, near the box. It was the 63rd minute - the score was level again.

  • 3. 63 - 90 minutes
FC Porto's second goal was clearly a punch in the gut for the Lisbon team and the team started to collapse both physically and mentally. Spaces opened up and it was certainly no surprise that shortly afterwards Hulk found space to run into behind Emerson, which gave way to the latter's ejection. Jesus' option to go with Gaitán as left-back meant Hulk and Djalma were up against Gaitán and Nolito - not exactly the two best defenders in the world. As expected, the away team were suddenly awash with space to run into. 

With an extra man, FC Porto were intelligent in moving the ball from side to side, trying to tire Benfica out. By the time the match was drawing to its end, Vítor Pereira took another huge gamble by replacing João Moutinho with Kléber, telling the team loud and clear that he wanted to win the match. The away team would score the winning goal with James' free kick to Maicon's head seconds later.

  • Conclusion
FC Porto were perhaps a bit fortunate in getting the win, but their initial plan to pressure Benfica really turned the game on its head. Benfica showed their usual strengths, but were also predictably weak in the aspect that most aficionados know by now: as the game goes on, the team tend to break in two and leave their back four exposed (with no one around but Javi García to help out).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Decision making

Sports in general, and football in particular, seem to be all about decision making. With a player such as this one, there won't be a coach or trainer who's not left scratching his head, wondering what to do about this (mind you, the player that actually scores is shooting at the wrong basket).