Saturday, September 29, 2012

A victory for the mature team

Starting elevens

In the past Minho derbies have often been much more than simple football matches - often resembling pitched battles. Thanks in part to the non-incendiary nature of both managers (thanks, Tom), last night's match was no such thing and rather offered an entertaining spectacle, even if it wasn't exactly ridden with scoring opportunities.

Guimarães came out strong of the blocks, relying on their 4x3x3 to pressure Braga high up and prevent their usual patient build-up play. Beto, for instance, was almost always forced to play the ball long, which is not how Braga manager José Peseiro likes his teams to launch their attacks. (In contrast, Doulgas, Guimarães' goal keeper, always looked upfield when he gathered the ball, trying to exploit the defensive spaces vacated by Braga players.) Furthermore, Leonel Olímpio and André André's positioning was designed to keep Hugo Viana from dictating the tempo and spraying his traditional diagonal passes.

For the first 15 minutes, Guimarães were successful in their strategy, but Braga started settling down and gradually took over the midfield, softening their pressure on Viana and Custódio. With Olímpio and André higher up, there were pockets of space behind them that had to be covered almost exclusively by El Adoua. Mossoró was his usual self and was amazing with his lateral movement, drifting away from the Moroccan holding midfielder, too wary of leaving his area exposed.

Guimarães' good game was in part due to their proactive wingers, who showed auspicious signs with their clever movement. Ricardo is a trickier player who favours one-on-one situations, while João Ribeiro reads the game better and is not afraid to occupy other areas of the field, in order to create harder situations for his opponent. While it's true they were busy helping out by going up and down the wing, it's only fair to point out that they progressively let go of their defensive duties.

On one hand, Guimarães,encouraged by their fans, seemed to have an emotional grip on the match. On the other hand, Braga were apparently better equipped for the different stages of the match, even though they looked a bit disjointed at times, especially the ineffective Alan and Hélder Barbosa. The first cagey half had showed little between the two teams.

The second half was basically a one-way street. With a better idea of what to do offensively, Braga ended up scoring the first goal, in a quick transition into attack after a free kick in Guimarães' attacking half. The emotional upper hand Guimarães were benefiting quickly deflated after the goal, despite their immediate attempt to push forward. As so often is the case with Portuguese teams, Rui Vitória's men seemed unsure of where to go after finding themselves trailing - truth be told, the lack of depth of Guimarães' team was clearly on display here, with not many alternative attacking routes.

To make matters worse, Peseiro chose to rest Mossóro and replace him with Ruben Micael. The former FC Porto player was instrumental for Braga to seize control of the match and disturb a possible comeback from their opponents. Furthermore, Éder is out to prove he may well be the future striker the Selecção and Braga need by proving to be a reliable attacking focal point, able to hold up the ball and linking up play. Braga's second goal was just a final fait-divers and a bonus for Hugo Viana.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A tale of two forwards

Starting elevens

Despite the final result, tonight's match had plenty of reasons to keep us interested. In fact, seldom has a match provided such a clear contrast between two opposing styles of approaching football.

Newcastle manager Alan Pardew remained true to himself and rotated most of his team, even including his third-choice goalkeeper, but keeping his back four intact. The English eleven was significantly different from the one that played Everton last Monday. As for Marítimo, Pedro Martins played the same men with the exception of Luís Olim instead of Ruben Ferreira.

This was in fact a match that provided a perfect example of two very different football philosophies. On one hand, the Magpies played their usual 4x4x2, with Vuckic playing just off Shola Ameobi, and went for what could be described as typical British style: long balls toward the big man, who tried to flick it down to a smaller, quicker forward. The team from Madeira, on the other hand, favoured a typically Portuguese 4x3x3, more dynamic and with greater movement.

Nevertheless, the central forwards of the two teams (since Danilo Dias can hardly be described as a striker) constitute the most paradigmatic examples of each team, summarised their approach to perfection.

  • Newcastle

As mentioned earlier, Newcastle chose long, direct balls towards Ameobi as their favourite route. Without Demba Ba, Papis Cissé, but most importantly Yohann Cabayé and Hatem Ben Arfa, Pardew's men were not eager to keep the ball on the ground and did not hesitate to hoof the ball forward and wait for the outcome. With Vuckic far from his best form, Ameobi's flick-ons were not particularly useful, especially because both Obertan and Amalfitano were static and miles away from the right place to pick up second balls.

As for Gosling and Bigirimana, they often found themselves trying to pick up the slack and provide an outlet to follow up Ameobi's efforts, which in turn gave Marítimo all the more room to maneuver. With both wingers out of the game and both central-midfielderes trying to shorten the distance up front, Newcastle's back four was often left exposed, allowing Marítimo forwards to run riot for most of the first half.

Bigirimana, in particular, often seemed unsure about what to do defensively during the first half. As he became apparently more and more frustrated by the Portuguese team's patient build-up play, he tried to pressure one of the centre-backs, only to realise moments later that Gosling was surrounded by opposing midfielders. The situation was made worse because there was no definitive response about who should be marking Marítimo's restless forward Danilo.

Bigirimana and Gosling often left the Newcastle defence exposed.

The second half was clearly better for the Magpies, who took control of the match, namely after Sammy Ameobi replaced Vuckic and Marítimo centre-backs started tiring out. In fact, while Newcastle found it hard to take the match up to their rival's penalty box in the first half, it was much easier for them, since both Roberge and João Guilherme started losing the right positioning more and more often. Newcastle went decidedly for route one and may count themselves unlucky for not scoring in the second half.

In conclusion, their defence was shaky and far too vulnerable to quick play behind their back, but they countered with a sort of football that Marítimo are just not used to. Ameobi proved that he can still be useful, either for less important matches (to take the strain off Papis Cissé and Demba Ba) or as a plan B.

  • Marítimo

This was typical Portuguese football. Lots of clever movement, wingers drifting inside to allow the midfielders and the full-back to exploit the flanks, numerous opportunities during the first stages of the match and an almost certain defeat as the outcome, after suffering immensely at the hands of powerful forwards.

Despite hailing from Brazil, Danilo Dias epitomises the Portuguese forward. Adept at dropping off to open up spaces for his team-mates and (let's be honest) to avoid the physical confrontation with aggressive, intense centre-backs, he is the player that makes the whole team tick. By dropping back, he often serves as an extra player in midfield to provide the out-ball, misleading the opposing centre-backs into thinking they have no one to mark, only to find out seconds later they are being swarmed by Heldon or Sami.

Marítimo had an excellent first half, patiently bringing the ball out from the back and waiting for the right time to find the chink in Newcastle's armour - they had in fact 3 clear-cut scoring chances in the first 12 minutes, all of them from the left flank, thanks in part to Obertan's alienation from his defensive duties.

As for the defence, the team from the island of Madeira were almost irreproachable for the first 30 minutes, ensuring their distance from the rest of team was always adequate and providing excellent coverage for the aerial duels with Ameobi. Both wingers helped out defensively to form a 4x1x4x1 in the defensive phase, which contributed to a very good first 30 minutes. However, this game provided enough proof that a) players from the Portuguese league are not used to such physical battles, since there are no forwards in the mould of Ameobi, and b) by whistling at every residual contact in favour of defenders, the Portuguese refereeing is not helping Portuguese teams, who find it very hard to keep the same intensity level as English teams throughout the match. The best example is Roberge and João Guilherme's growing inability, as the game wore on, to contain Newcastle's forwards.

In conclusion, Marítimo showed they can hang up there with the big(ger) guns, but they will definitely need to work on keeping up their stamina throughout the entire match and capitalising on the chances they create. Otherwise, this will be an all too familiar tale for Portuguese teams.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Is 4x3x3 about to come back?

Football, like most (all?) things in life, has its trends. Not that many years ago, playing anything other than a plain 4x3x3 would be sacrilegious (let's leave England alone, for now). In fact, when 4x2x3x1 started rearing its head, with Quique Flores its main champion, it was a bit criticised (including here) for numerous reasons. On the other hand, just like the two-man midfield, a three-man defence looked all but dead, some reminiscence from the Beckenbauer times. As this text is getting to you, it seems impossible to get away from either 4x2x3x1 (or 4x4x1x1, which is basically the same thing) or some version of a three-man defence (especially in Italy), nowadays - and there is hardly any team playing a true version of a 4x3x3.

A typical 4x2x3x1 formation

It is often said (with good reason) that games are not won on paper, since there is no one given tactical system that is inherently better than the next - it's all about team dynamics. While this is obviously true, I keep finding some holes in the 4x2x3x1. 

First and foremost, it is my contention that teams playing with this tactical formation tend to break up in two, namely the six "defenders" and the four "forwards". Even though this is probably the easiest way to implement roles and instructions on a team (maybe one of the full-backs is allowed to push up), it tends to create two distinct sets of players in the team, since the forwards tend not to be too inclined to track back and perform their defensive duties, and the defenders are usually reluctant to leave their positions, afraid no one will compensate for them in the defensive stage.

4x2x3x1 in the defensive stage

In a 4x2x3x1, the defensive stage usually resembles a 4x4x1x1, since it's supposedly up to the wingers to mark the opposing full-backs. Although last season offered enough evidence that this system could be extremely effective while playing reactive football (such as Chelsea's victory in the Champions League final, the Europa League final, the FA Cup final, Braga playing against the top teams, among many others), it remains to be seen how well this formation can fare for a team who want to take control of the match. Whenever a coach is serious about getting his team to play pro-active football with this system, a few too many holes immediately start to appear, particularly because the four "forwards" have the task of creating danger by themselves, which means they won't be as willing or physically capable of dropping back and form the second bank of four, as requested by this system.

A typical 4x3x3 formation

Last Friday's match pitted Chelsea against Atlético Madrid and offered us a pretty good match-up between these two systems. Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo is trying to prove to his boss not only that he is the right man for the job, but also that Chelsea can achieve the same results playing the sort of flamboyant football Roman Abramovich has been expecting since he bought the club ten years ago. Against Chelsea's typical 4x2x3x1, Atlético manager Diego Simeone went with a clear 4x3x3 and attacked Chelsea's wings with constant overloads down the flanks with great collaboration between the wingers, full-backs and midfielders. Aware that Hazard and Mata wouldn't work that much defensively and that Mikel and Lampard are not exactly the most mobile players, the Atlético players soon found huge pockets of space to run into, exposing the frailties of a system in which the (six and sometimes less) "defenders" often find themselves stranded and with little to no protection in front of them.

4x3x3 in the defensive stage

Furthermore, the 4x3x3 offers an additional line of defence. Instead of two banks of four (and two attackers up front), this system allows the holding midfielder to fulfill what's been aptly called "the Makelele role", ie named after the man that sat in front of the defence doing the dirty work and stopped the ball from being played in between the lines. Atlético Madrid populated the centre of the field and tried to win the midfield battle. Aware that the Chelsea wingers would offer no real threat out wide and would tend to drift inside, Simeone's midfield triangle kept winning balls back (and launching quick counter-attacks) simply because they had a higher number of lines of defence, unlike what's usually the case in the 4x2x3x1.

Again, this is not to say that one system is better than another. In fact, this text intends to question and stimulate a debate as for the reasons that lead most current coaches to choose the same formation, especially when many of them actually played in different systems - be it 4x3x3 or any other tactical system. While this blog is aware that many ideas we thought dead are starting to re-surface once again, it would be good to find out exactly why that happens - is it just the fashionable trend or did most coaches simultaneously started to feel the 4x2x3x1 was the (only) way to go?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

FC Porto manage to get the win against tenacious Olhanense

Starting elevens

After last week's match against Académica, this was a good opportunity to see how well Olhanense would fare in their home turf against stronger opposition and, on the other hand, to analyse FC Porto in further detail. Even though this was not a match awash with scoring opportunities, it was highly entertaining and the Northerners were lucky to get away with the three points.

  • The first 15 minutes

The Portuguese champions got off to a good start and seemed willing to pick up where they had left off, in the back of their comprehensive win versus Vitória de Guimarães. In fact, Vítor Pereira's men were much better at pressuring high up the field, with everyone on the same page about when and where to exert pressure. Offensively, they were clearly taking advantage of what had been easily perceivable as Olhanense's weak link: Babanco. Therefore, FC Porto insisted on the right wing for the first 15 minutes, with Lucho, Danilo and Hulk eager to capitalise on their opponent's weakness.

Sérgio Conceição's men, in turn, seemed a bit confused and lost until they were finally able to execute a well-thought counter-attack and pounce on Alex Sandro's ill-timed foray (a usual trait in South American full-backs). This play just served to further expose Defour's inadequacy for the holding midfielder position, showing Fernando's critical role in the team.

  • 15-45 minutes

After the goal, the team from the Algarve looked more comfortable on the ball and FC Porto became both disjointed defensively and restless on the ball, turning too slow and predictable, apparently afraid to expose themselves to any more counter-attacks. Vítor Pereira decided he couldn't wait any longer and replaced the ineffective Atsu with James and the Colombian forward immediately shook things up by teeing up Moutinho for a good opportunity and placing a wonderful lob over Ricardo, misjudging once again his opportunity to punch the ball.

  • Second half

The Dragons came on strong for the second half and Jackson hit the woodwork and scored his second league goal following James' delightful assist. From then on, it was hard to see how the home team would manage to get around FC Porto's defensive organisation, despite obvious leaks that it will be urgent to address. The game went on without much to report (besides Vítor Pereira moving James into Lucho's position and possibly hinting at his preferences as far as James' position is concerned), until Hulk unleashed a powerful shot into the roof of the net to top it off. The match seemed all but over, but Targino's goal following another excellent assist, this time by Rui Duarte, opened it up and the away team ended up suffering needlessly to get away with the win.

In short, FC Porto were a dominant force after James coming on, but they would be well advised to improve their defensive consistency as quickly as possible. As for Olhanense, they showed once again sound defensive positioning, but they still seem to lack out-balls and the ability to take control of the match. Besides, Rui Duarte seemed once again out of his depth by playing too high up the field. A simple tweak from Sérgio Conceição may mean a more balanced and dangerous team.