Thursday, May 24, 2012

An impossible job

It is not often that we get a chance to witness the ups and downs of a football manager, much less one with a national team. This documentary constitutes possibly all we will ever need to confirm that coaching football is not only a merry go round, but that it only relates to football in a residual fashion. Anyone interested in becoming a manager would be well advised to watch this.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Another win for reactive football

Starting elevens

The final of this season's Portuguese Cup was filled with expectation, since both Sporting and Académica earned their way into this match on the back of stressful campaigns. Therefore, the chance of an addition to the trophy cabinet was enough reason to see whether either team was willing to throw in one last effort.

This article begins with what constitutes one of football's major challenges - the decision making process. Sure enough, we're often told that this sport is all about willpower, attitude and heart, but also tactics and positioning. Decision making is a critical factor between all of those aspects, of which Académica's goal was a perfect example.

The play starts with Polga coming out to meet Adrien, who slides to make a tackle, ends up injuring the Sporting centre-back and delivers the ball to a team-mate. Presented with just a couple of seconds, the Lions were not able to make the necessary adjustments (usually, one of the central midfielders fills in as centre-back) and conceded the only goal of the match.

Polga, on the floor, is not replaced with anyone, as seen on the yellow circle.

Without anyone filling in for Polga, Insúa is forced to come inside,
leaving Marinho free to score.

If Académica were already thinking about sitting back and soaking up pressure, a 4th minute goal would not change their game plan. In fact, Sporting proved once again that they are much better equipped to be the underdogs than to inflict damages on smaller teams. The Students' strategy was plain for everyone to see: arranged in their more traditional 4x3x3, Académica would wait for Elias or Schaars and lure them forward, looking to exploit the spaces that opened up afterwards. By blocking almost every passing option through the middle, Sporting were forced wide, forced to resort to crosses towards Wolfswinkel, hardly his specialty.

Académica welcomed Elias' forward surges, looking to get Sporting off guard.
Notice the blue space behind the Sporting midfielder.

A few seconds later, Elias falls into the trap and Académica get the space they were looking for.

Unlike the newfound 4x2x3x1, the 4x3x3 means that your opponent's wingers are covered by the midfielders (in this case, Adrien and Diogo Simão), rather than the wingers, freeing the latter for quick breakaways. With Diogo Melo man-marking Matías Fernández out of the park, it should be Elias or Schaars' task to make the difference through the middle by taking advantage of the hole left by Melo. Instead, the Sporting players remained stuck to their original positions and too static.

Despite his limited range of movements, Capel was actually the one player trying to stir things up a bit, drawing fouls from his opponents, particularly in the final third. Even though the Lions have been great at taking advantage of set pieces since Ricardo Sá Pinto arrived to the club, this time not even the giant Onyewu was able to make the difference.

The second half was rather different - at least at first. Indeed, the first minute was the perfect example for what would follow for 20 minutes. With Izmailov replacing Elias (clearly the case of a player that suffers for being versatile, always seeming to play out of position), Sporting became a team broken in two lines of five players. While they could have scored a few seconds into the second half, they could have also conceded a goal in the play that followed, were it not for Edinho's terrible miss.

After 60 minutes, Académica started tiring out and unwilling to keep possession. Even presented with such an opportunity, Sporting were not able to break down their adversary's defence; in fact, Sá Pinto's men showed little creativity - apart from a few flashes of flare from Carrillo - and a worrying inability to bypass opponents willing to do what Sporting did themselves against stronger teams this season.

On a  side note, Adrien proved once again that he belongs in Sporting's first team and Diogo Simão also showed that he could be a very useful midfielder. If both Sporting and Benfica are interested in developing both these players, they could prove interesting additions to the national team's future plans.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Champions League - Bayern breakdown

Bayern expected line-up and typical movement

Even though it wasn't exactly the people's choice, next Saturday's Champions League final promises to be a very entertaining match, especially because the two teams couldn't be more different. Because Chelsea has been thoroughly analysed here, here, here and here, today's article will focus primarily on the German team.

While Chelsea have turned into a cohesive defensive unit with a safety-first approach under interim manager Roberto Di Matteo, Bayern Munich's stance is attacking and, as a consequence, their line-up has a clear imbalance in favour of the offense. In fact, it's hard to envision another team that would seem more appropriate (on paper, at least) to Chelsea's newfound defensive solidity.

  • Positive

Make no mistake about it: Bayern are a world class team; otherwise, they wouldn't have beaten Real Madrid, Manchester City and Napoli - among others - on their way to the final. As previously mentioned, their strength lies clearly up front, with the likes of Mario Gómez, Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

There are two key aspects to Bayern usual play. First off, Mario Gómez. It's only fair that any analysis kicks off with this unbelievably great poacher. The striker has had an amazing couple of seasons and, were it not for  Messi's outwardly feats, would be the competition's top scorer. The other aspect are the two wingers, Ribéry and Robben. Both of them are very good on 1v1 situations and can wreak havoc at any given time.

Despite their similar nominal position, their movement is very different. Whereas Robben hugs the touchline and tends to drift inward, Ribéry is more keen on dropping back and collecting the ball further back towards the goal line.

Bayern are excellent at focussing attention on one wing and exploring the blind side.
When Robben drifts inward, Gómez tends to meet him for the one-two, freeing up Ribéry.

  • Negative
Similarly to Chelsea, the Germans will line up without key players, such as Alaba, Gustavo and Badstuber - which is to say almost their whole left side. Bayern have been consistently and frighteningly weak down the left wing. For starters, Ribéry has a troublesome tendency to turn off his defensive chip and both Alaba and Gustavo are not the greatest positional masters of defense, opening up the gates repeatedly. 

Any team facing Bayern know that the left is usually the best way to go.

As it turns out, all of these absences might not be that unlucky for Jupp Heynckes, since Lahm will probably have to deputise on the left, with Rafinha taking the right, and Kroos will get back to his natural position beside Schweinsteiger. With Kroos getting pulled back, Müller will probably have to step in as the player in the hole. The thing about Müller is that he has a Jekyll-and-hide football persona, which is not exactly the sort of thing you want for a Champions League final.

Apart from that, Bayern's overall defensive positioning leaves much to be desired. Perhaps the presence of Van Buyten is able to bring some much-needed stability to the back four, since Heynckes' men repeat mistakes that every grassroots team is weary of making, such as no defensive coverage and one of the midfielders wandering off. For instance, the German Cup final laid bare their frailties against a simple player partnership such as Kagawa and Lewandowski, which is to say that Mata and Drogba will feel right at home.

It's odd that a simple route-one strategy is able to create so many goal-scoring opportunities.

  • Conclusion
All in all, it should be an evenly balanced match, given the Champions League tradition that both teams will be too wary of conceding a goal. Nevertheless, it's this blog's opinion that Chelsea's sober, defensive-minded approach will trump Bayern's attitude of throwing caution to the wind and attacking in numbers - even though it is important to bear in mind that both teams will be missing important players, which may mean that one (or both) of them will find themselves a bit off balance.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A rough year for tiki-taka

Starting elevens
Bilbao and Atlético Madrid met yesterday for an all-Spanish Europa League final. Even though Falcao stole the show and eliminated all doubt (if any) surrounding his worth by offering his team the cup on a silver platter, there is a broader issue to take into consideration: could this be the end of an era of passing football and the rebirth of catenaccio?

The match started off in a very lively fashion. It wasn't hard to envisage Bilbao playing and pressing high, but Atlético were by no means shyer and tried to stifle Bilbao in their build-up phase (something that Bilbao were clearly not expecting and for which they didn't seem to have a proper solution). With both wingers high up and just the back four and Iturraspe near the ball, the Basques were finding it very hard to bring the ball out from the back and, indeed, Atlético often managed to get the ball back in very dangerous positions with little defensive coverage from Marcelo Bielsa's men.

Up to Falcao's first goal, Atlético pressed high up, keeping Bilbao from playing out the back.

Atlético consistently forced Bilbao backwards and always had a player on Javi Martínez.

As seen here, Bilbao were a broken team, with acres between their lines,
repeatedly exposing themselves to risk.

After the first goal, the rojiblancos dropped back mainly for strategic reasons. First of all, it would be virtually impossible to keep up the initial pace and they were actually in front. Secondly, if there is one thing Bielsa's team is not so good at, it's pressing after giving the ball away, opening up numerous pockets of space for their opponent. With Diego, Turan and Adrián, Atlético were right where they wanted.

Atlético chose to sit back after the first goal, trying to break quickly after getting the ball back.
After the first goal, the match fell into a repetitive pattern, with Bilbao insisting on being (too) vertical and having little patience to open up their adversary, and Atlético retreating, attracting their opponent into the trap and then suddenly counter-attacking. Despite Falcao's goals, the man of the match award should go to Diego. The Brazilian, usually not very adept at defending, was brilliant in the way he was able to take up two defensive positions, effectively blocking Javi Martínez and Iturraspe, Bilbao's two engines.

When the ball got to Javi Martínez, Diego would get high up to meet him.

Five seconds later, Diego was marking Iturraspe.

In fact, Diego's display makes us wonder whether this is 1994 all over again. Back then, Barcelona was known as the Dream Team, led by Guardiola (on the field), on the back of their European Champions' Cup triumph in 1992. In 1994, they played Milan in the final and there were no doubts that the Italians would be crushed, except Fabio Capello's (yes, that Capello) men played a brilliant positional game and picked up the Spaniards' pockets by conceding them the majority of ball possession - setting the tone for almost a decade of sitting back, quick transitions and fast breakaways.

In this year, we have seen several teams that favour an intricate passing style being outfoxed by teams in a defensive 4x4x1x1; the examples of Barcelona, Bilbao, Manchester City, et al, immediately spring to mind. Are we witnessing the end of a cycle? Will this year's Euro confirm the tendency and see Spain going out in flames to a defensive-minded team with two banks of four?

Monday, May 7, 2012

The ultimate clash of styles

Starting elevens
Last Monday, Newcastle and Manchester City played for their highest hopes - City aiming for the title, of course, after defeating Manchester United a week ago, and Newcastle still holding on to the dream of Champions League football. Even though it was an interesting match, we will focus on specific aspects and how they translate a different vision of football.

Indeed, this was one of the best examples of how English and continental football fare against each other. Just like Roberto Mancini, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew chose to keep the team that won at Stamford Bridge a few days ago intact, which meant the Magpies were something of a hybrid 4x4x2, because Gutiérrez plays much narrower and helps out more defensively than Ben Arfa. Additionally, Ba played just off Cissé, drifting to the left.

Manchester City, in turn, also maintained their starting eleven and their approach, even though Yaya Touré was a bit more restrained than usual - that is, up until when he was moved forward. With Nasri, Tévez and Silva, they were extremely mobile and, due to their forwards' size, kept charging down the wing.

  • Attack
As explained, the two teams were very different in their approach. Newcastle resembled a typical 90's British team. With Ba and Cissé, they were unafraid to hit the ball long and stick to route one (especially the goalkeeper Tim Krull), usually with Ba trying to flick the ball towards Cissé. Whenever that didn't work, they turned to Ben Arfa in hope of a more individual option.

On the other hand, Mancini's men stuck to their favourite intricate passing. As mentioned, Touré was concerned with his defensive duties, but the Citizens kept motoring down their right wing. Unlike their opponent, they overloaded the wings, especially when Tévez drifted towards that side, along with nominal right-winger Nasri. With Cabaye further up, Tioté had to decide whether to slide over and leave the middle open or leave it to Santon and Gutiérrez. More often than not, he went with the second option.

  • Defence
This was a perfect example of how the strategy of two banks of four can be outwitted. Newcastle used this rediscovered approach and were made to pay for it. By affording to leave at least two men high up (Ba and Cissé, and sometimes Ben Arfa), Newcastle were constantly overrun and outpassed with simple triangle movements, even though they are a very well-drilled team defensively. Nevertheless, it was odd not to see a perfectionist such as Pardew make the necessary adjustments at half-time.

It was clear that Mancini studied his opponent and he deployed Touré on the right of the central partnership with Barry to help Kompany and Zabaleta on the aerial duels against Ba and Cissé. By doing that, his men were able to keep Newcastle at a distance, since their favourite out-ball was smothered. Here, Mancini proved once again that he prefers a cerebral approach (the continental way) over a emotional one (the British way). City's only mistake throughout this match was the freedom they conceded to Ben Arfa, who could have proved decisive, but their manager was wise enough to introduce Nigel de Jong so that Barry could keep an eye on Ben Arfa.

  • Transitions
Another important difference was how both teams reacted when they gave the ball away. With their 4x4x2-ish shape, Newcastle were often caught off-guard either because they couldn't get back into shape quickly enough or because Cabaye couldn't find find the legs to track back. On the contrary, Barry and Touré kept their ground and both centre-backs (especially Kompany) showed no hesitation in moving high up to break Newcastle's moves.

With two physical imposing forwards as they have in Ba and Cissé, it's odd that the side they choose to attack down - the left - is filled with two players who cannot cross a ball with their left foot and who both have the tendency to drift inwards. When both teams started to lose their shape (Silva rarely tracks back during second halves), the Magpies could have hurt City, but neither Santon nor Gutiérrez were able to deliver the cross.

  • Conclusion
All in all, it was an interesting and evident clash of styles between two very distinct football philosophies. City were closer to their full potential, while Newcastle's frailties and lack of a plan B were there for everyone to see, even though there are some real gems in their team - Cabaye immediately springs to mind, along with Cissé, of course.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

...And the FA Cup goes to Chelsea

Starting elevens
After a long, doctor-ordered break, Combination Play is back - and with a report on Chelsea vs. Liverpool, no less. Last Saturday, the two teams played the first of two matches between them in four days' time. This time, Chelsea got the better of Liverpool, but barely.

Roberto Di Matteo's men started off brimming with confidence, surely a direct result of their last feats. With Di Matteo's favourite eleven for the most challenging games, Chelsea were cohesive, intense (both offensively and defensively) and willing to attack. On the other hand, the team coached by Kenny Dalglish were clearly waiting for what the contest might bring and chose to sit back.

With Gerrard and Mata instructed to play close to their midfield, the middle of the park was packed, as expected. However, Chelsea's goal ten minutes into the game shook things up and served as proof of the Blues' attacking intent. The play that led to the first goal was also useful to assess the importance of offensive and defensive coverage, as well as Luis Enrique's approach when facing Ramires.

The importance of offensive coverage cannot be overstated.
Spearing (blue) has just misplaced a pass.
Henderson is higher up the field and Gerrard is nowhere to be seen.
Realising the danger to his team, Gerrard (red) rushes back, while Henderson just trots
toward his area. Mata has all the time in the world to pick his pass.
As if it were not enough, Luís Enrique made the wrong choice of going for the tackle,
instead of trying to delay Ramires and wait for backup, which allowed Ramires through.

In fact, the Liverpool midfield was one of their bigger problems. With Gerrard close to Suárez and Henderson straying up field, Spearing was easy prey for Mata, who was thriving in the pockets behind his opponent's midfield and dragging Spearing all over the place. With Chelsea faithful to their now usual 4x4x1x1, the transitions into attack were directed at Drogba, who was finding it very easy to knock the ball down for the Spaniard wizard to play his team-mates into play.

Unlike previous matches, Lampard played higher than Mikel and was allowed to make runs into the box, further worsening the Reds' situation. Liverpool, in turn, were rather slow on the ball and clearly lacked a creative spark. In fact, Gerrard would often drop back to pick up the ball, leaving Suárez even more isolated up front. Given the opponent's lower threat, Ivanovic was happy to meet the Uruguayan high up, keeping Liverpool from getting enough quality time on the ball.

Notice how poorly Liverpool's back four was shielded throughout the match.

Dalglish had to change something for the second half and he decided to shift to a more traditional 4x4x2, with Henderson playing as right-midfielder, Gerrard beside Spearing and Bellamy just off Suárez. Somewhat predictably, the Liverpool midfield was constantly overrun, namely for Chelsea's second goal, scored by Drogba.

With a little flick, Lampard was able to find himself loads of space to run into and assist Drogba.
The match seemed to be pretty much wrapped up, but three minutes later, Dalglish replaced Spearing for Carroll. Henderson went back to his more natural central-midfield role, Bellamy went back to his right-winger spot and Suárez dropped to play off Carroll. As it turned out, Carroll proved a pivotal presence to get Liverpool back into the game. Not only did he take full advantage of a defensive mistake from Chelsea for the first goal, but he also provided an attacking outlet for his team, particularly because both Terry and Ivanovic had a hard time dealing with the Geordie's physique and approach.

After clawing their way back into the game, Liverpool kept on piling up the pressure over the Blues', whose coach was a bit late in reacting to his team's obvious increasing fatigue. It was then that Carroll was even more valuable, by not allowing Chelsea's back four any resting time, giving them a taste of their own poison - actually, Carroll was very unfortunate not to see a second goal stand near the end of the match.

All in all, the best team won. Liverpool were seldom aggressive, had huge problems getting the ball out from the back, were slow on the ball and weren't exactly ambitious in their approach. On the contrary, Chelsea were always keen on controlling the game and its tempo and, were it not for Carroll's somewhat fortuitous goal, would probably see out the match at ease.