Monday, October 29, 2012

So much to do, so little time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sporting have just lost the ball and are completely unbalanced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 27, 2012

City's victory does not paper over the cracks

Starting elevens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Highlights

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Attacking coverage - what is it exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Manchester United - Stoke City: Worlds apart

Starting elevens

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

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

Passes in the attacking third

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

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

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

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

Van Persie and Rooney's passing chalkboards

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

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

Tottenham - Chelsea: So close, yet so far

Starting elevens

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

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

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

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

The stark difference in Dempey's contribution

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

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

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

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

The different defensive contributions from Sandro and Huddlestone

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

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

Barcelona - a different concept

This post may be a bit late, but its pertinence remains valid, since we will be analysing consolidated (defensive) processes. Tito Vilanova was appointed as Pep Guardiola's successor in order to maintain a certain philosophy, one that has proved fruitful over the past few years. While it's true that most of the major guidelines subsist, it's also true that Vilanova has virtually given up on the three-man defence (except when his team are trailing) and that the defensive pressure is not as intense and effective. Let's take a quick look at the match versus Real Madrid from October 7.

  • Real Madrid goal #1
Real Madrid were being successful in shifting the ball from side to side, namely through Xabi Alonso's accurate long balls. The ball had just traveled from left to right, with Özil moving it back to the centre. With a far less intense defensive pressure, Barcelona's wingers seem unsure of what to do without the ball and often forget about defending. In this particular case, there are five Real Madrid players in the box against an equal number of defenders. Notice how Ronaldo (blue) is left one on one against Dani Alves with a huge space for his trickery (shaded area).

When the ball gets to Benzema, one of the centre-backs comes out to meet him, as he is supposed to, and Dani Alves (orange) hesitates between covering for this team-mate or worrying about Ronaldo. Again, the right winger is nowhere to be found and neither Xavi or Fàbregas (the midfielders in this particular match) help out near the box.

That simple hesitation is enough for Ronaldo to get past Dani Alves (orange) and bury the ball in the net with a powerful left-footed shot.

  • Real Madrid goal #2

For Real Madrid's second goal, there was another pressing issue. Barcelona have been less precise and giving the ball away more cheaply recently, especially in tougher matches. Here Barcelona have once again lost the ball and the team take longer than expected to get back into (defensive) shape. The middle is completely unprotected (shaded area) and Dani Alves is not between the goal and his man, as he should. Furthermore, there is no one goalside of Özil (inside the shaded area).

With none of the defenders coming out to meet Özil, Ronaldo sprints past Barcelona right-back. With no pressure from midfield (the two shuttlers are very far from the action), the German international can pick his pass and the offside trap is no obstacle for Ronaldo's speed and intelligent movement.

  • Conclusion
Despite their perfect start to the season up to that moment, Barcelona's displays have been far from perfect. Their possession has been sloppier at times, but most importantly, their defensive approach seems to be changing, voluntarily or not. The immediate pressure they used to exert after giving the ball away is nowhere near what it used to be, but their defensive approach and positioning have not changed accordingly, which partly explains the sudden hike in conceded goals.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

England - pragmatic or ordinary?

This piece was originally intended as a tactical report on tonight's (postponed) match between Poland and England. However, since this contest was as tactically irrelevant as they come, I chose to go down another path and analyse specific details about the English squad.

With both teams arranged in a 4x4x1x1 and virtually mirroring each other in every aspect, there was good cause to believe this would turn out to be a match right up Sir Bobby Robson's alley - "if everyone wins the battle against their direct opponent, we will win the game". Unfortunately, due to both teams' fear and ineptitude, neither didn't. The outcome? A fitting draw, with both goals coming from set pieces - Rooney scoring with his shoulder, Glik putting the ball in the net after an ill-timed approach from Joe Hart.

  • The new life of Wayne Rooney. As his speed dwindled down over the years, Wayne Rooney has been clever in making the most of his footballing and match reading abilities. Never one willing to stay up front waiting for service to come, his work rate has been beneficial for both his club and country. The former Everton forward has now become an almost full-time midfielder, and an all-around one at that. He was often seen deputising for Cleverley when the Manchester United youngster pushed forward and covering for Ashley Cole, as well. By dropping back a few yards (a bit like Paul Scholes did), Rooney's influence may grow exponentially and he may become one of the most dangerous attacking midfielders in the world.
  • Carrick and Gerrard in midfield. Are you sure? Steven Gerrard has been one of England's mainstays and trustworthy lieutenant for the last decade or so. While it is impossible to overstate his historic importance - despite the apparent physical impossibility for him and Lampard to play on the same side -, it's an indisputable fact that his speed, stamina and work rate have been on the wane over the last couple of years. To entrust him with the task of shielding his back four alongside Michael Carrick borders on wishful thinking. As for the Red Devil, he is indeed a masterful passer of the ball and excellent at dictating his team's tempo, but he needs both a ball-winning partner by his side and his team-mates to provide darting runs in front of him. Otherwise, his lack of pace and almost non-existent physicality will become far too exposed and constitute a liability for this team.
  • Hart, the foundation. Joe Hart is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. He has often stepped up to save his team's ambitions and his evolution has been undeniable. However (like Iker Casillas, for instance), he really has to master the art of dealing with crosses, at the risk of jeopardising his reputation and the faith his team-mates are willing to put in him. Every good team must have a faithful, solid, reliable goalie at the back. Hart only needs to improve that bit to become one of England's all-time greats.
  • The young guns. From everything I watch and read, I have been under the impression for several years now that England's future was bleak - there was an apparently ever smaller talent pool, foreigners (some with limited ability) were stifling the evolution of youngsters and kids these days were less and less interested in playing football (or doing any sort of physical activity, for that matter). Watching tonight's match, I couldn't help thinking that England's future was alive and well. In fact, Welbeck, Milner (he's still only 26, mind you), Walcott, Carroll, Lennon, Cleverley and Oxlade-Chamberlain all provide a strong bedrock upon which to build. Cleverley has the makings of an intelligent midfielder, Walcott and Lennon have the speed to offer the necessary width, and Oxlade-Chamberlain can provide the intensity and versatility so often lacking in English national teams.
  • Pragmatism or excessive fear? As an outsider looking in, I have always felt that English teams (both at club and international level) were too often isolated from the rest of the world. While it has numerous upsides - the atmosphere in an English stadium is still miles away from anything else, to name but one example -, it also has its disadvantages. Although the 4x4x2 (or 4x4x1x1) many teams resort to is not necessarily a thing of the past, the way most squads play it is absolutely outdated. In fact, it's not that hard to remember that the English teams that thrived the most in European competitions have seldom been arranged in such fashion. For instance, since Sir Alex Ferguson decided to step away from 4x3x3, Manchester United have dropping further and further away from Barcelona (admittedly one of Sir Alex's yardsticks) and even Manchester City, their numerous stars notwithstanding, found life in the Champions League hard and were eliminated by Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League. If England are serious about reclaiming their place in European football, they must analyse their performance, but they mustn't be wary of learning from others.
In conclusion, while England's performance in Warsaw was far from impressive, there are still a lot of positives to take from it. A draw is a good result and hopefully Roy Hodgson will realise he has enough weapons in his squad to strike fear in his opponents' hearts. There is one thing the manager of the English team (and their fans) must realise, though: England are neither the powerhouse that must win every single match against every single opponent - as many seemed to believe not so long ago -, nor are they some minor team that should quake in their boots every time they go out on the field.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sabotage Times

My first piece for Sabotage Times revolves around João Moutinho and is already out there. If you want, you may check it out here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Portugal fail to capitalise

Starting elevens
Portugal and Russia met in Moscow for a potential decider about which team gets top spot in the group (thus avoiding the dreaded play-off). Ruben Micael played in what is usually Raúl Meireles' position, while Russia named an expected side, with Dzagoev's absence the only surprise.

On a synthetic turf, Portugal faced some initial difficulties trying to knit together a string of passes. Russia's original plan was very clear: allow the centre-backs time on the ball and pounce whenever the ball got to the midfielders or the full-backs, biting them at the ankles. When the ball was sent back to the Portuguese centre-backs or goalkeeper, the Russian players would exert intense pressure. That was the backdrop against which the first and only goal of the match came about.

Micael has just been caught out in possession.
Pepe (red) realises it and sprints to close the gap.

Bruno Alves (green) misreads the whole situation and is late to react.
He does not follow Pepe's move and is nowhere near the ideal positioning.

Portugal actually reacted quite well to Russia's goal and managed to find their footing. Pressuring high up the field, Paulo Bento's charges managed to win numerous balls back, stifling Russia's initiative. Nevertheless, the Eastern team proved very dangerous whenever they bypassed the Portuguese initial pressure. Micael remained too high up for the most part of the time he was involved in the match and Moutinho was lost as to whether join forces with Micael or help out Miguel Veloso, who was often left stranded.

Miguel Veloso was often left to fend off Russian attacks by himself.

Russia seemed both happy with the result and confident that their quick transitions would end up punishing Portugal eventually - and therefore dropped back. Nevertheless, their defending was sloppy at best, and Portugal actually managed to create a string of chances through virtually the same play via their 4x3x3 - much like FC Porto versus Paris Saint-Germain - on the right flank (Fábio Coentrão's injury was not exactly a blessing in disguise).

Nani (blue) passes the ball to Postiga, who in turns gives it to Pereira.
The presence of Micael (orange) keeps the centre-back
from providing the necessary coverage.

Nani takes full advantage of Postiga's movement
and Micael's presence to run into space.

This was relatively easy for Portugal to achieve because both Fayzulin and Shirokov would remain too high up (somewhat similarly to Micael), which meant Bento's men had no trouble finding either Postiga or Ronaldo unchecked in the middle. Despite several opportunities, Portugal's decision-making in the final third was seldom as good as it should have been.

To make matters worse for the Portuguese, their effective pressure high up was not combined with effective defending at the back, either derived from individual distractions or from the excessive space allowed after the initial pressure area.

Resorting to a familiar strategy, Paulo Bento replaced Ruben Micael with Varela and Portugal were rearranaged in a 4x2x3x1. Moutinho sat closer to Veloso, and Nani shifted to the centre off Postiga. This B plan has yielded its results in the past - against Denmark, for instance -, but this time it was Portugal's final straw. Despite Bento's laudable intent, the midfield became unbalanced and the Selecção were never again able to exert the same pressure or create another scoring chance.

Even though this was not Portugal's finest hour, the result may seem a bit harsh, considering the displays from both teams. By half-time, Portugal had had lots more shots, a higher number of passes and a higher percentage of accurate passes - even if their second half was not quite as bright and it was hard to see how Portugal would end up scoring.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

PortuGOAL - a cause to believe in

Did you ever wish you lived in a world filled with people with passion about what they do, with a dedication that often surpasses the logical mind and showing perseverance for almost a decade? I know I would, because the world would definitely be a better place.

PortuGOAL, one of the sites this blog contributes to,  is proposing a wonderful idea to its readers: Tom Kundert (the site's owner, so to speak) and Ben Shave (his right arm and gifted journalist) will write a summary of the 2012/13 Portuguese league in a very appealing A4 book with 120 pages, including 50 photographs. The idea behind this project is not to make money for the authors, but rather to help to support the cause and hopefully revamp the site, so it's more user-friendly.

There are no kind enough words to talk about Tom. His dedication to the idea of informing the world about Portuguese football in English has been of great service to many - particularly second- and third-generation Americans of Portuguese descent. Also, Zonal Marking's own Michael Cox, one of the leading references in the footballing world, has admitted publicly he uses PortuGOAL to keep up with Portuguese football.

There are literally thousands of people that read PortuGOAL. I was one of them and I was fortunate enough to be included in this absolutely amazing team, sharing everything I know to help Tom and all the other hard-working fellows in trying to offer the best contents we can. Neither one of us makes a cent while writing for PortuGOAL. Neither Tom and Ben are writing the book to capitalise on anything - except maybe the fact that it would be great to have a PortuGOAL book in our hands. All of this comes from our heart and soul. We just want to do the best job we can and offer one heck of a site to you, the readers.

For this pitch to be successful, we must have 400 people buying the book. I've just done my part and bought my copy for myself, because I would like everyone to know that this is indeed a cause I truly believe in. I can only hope many of you will do the same (and some have already done it) - because I really think this site deserves it and because I promise to post a photo of Tom with a huge smile on his face if we do get to 400 contributors.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

FC Porto punish Sporting for bad start

Starting elevens

FC Porto and Sporting met in absolutely opposite sides of the spectrum. The Dragons were on the back of a good display and subsequent win against Paris Saint-Germain, whereas the Lions had been trounced by Videoton, with the subsequent dismissal of Ricardo Sá Pinto. Therefore, it was only natural that Vítor Pereira chose not to make any changes on his eleven. Sporting caretaker coach Oceano Cruz kept the same basic structure, going with Schaars and Elias in the centre and Pranjic in front of Insúa on the left, supposedly to keep Danilo in check and exploit James Rodríguez's back, since the latter often tends to drift into the middle.

Oceano's plan seemed to rely on tying Porto down and avoid a goal during the game's initial stage, instructing Schaars to stick tight to Lucho almost all over the place. With Elias occupied by João Moutinho, Fernando was often free, since Izmailov was acting as some sort of no. 10 and letting FC Porto holding midfielder free, which meant the Portuguese champions kept enjoying numbers-up situations.

Despite all the flak he's been getting from the stands, Vítor Pereira has to be credited for getting FC Porto to play more fluid football in the early stages of the season, with an accompanying higher defensive line. By winning many balls back during Sporting's build-up or transition phase, FC Porto were able to exploit Schaars' absence, since Lucho would drag him around. This move would in turn open up space for James, who tried to hit the target from that very area (in front of the centre-backs, were Schaars should be) moments before Danilo provided the assist for Jackson Martínez's cheeky back heel.

Sporting seemed a bit stunned for a few minutes, while FC Porto remained compact, but dropped back up front. With Mangala coming on for the injured Maicon, the Dragons were bound to run into trouble, since the French centre-back does not react as quickly and is more prone to misplacing passes. Furthermore, Vítor Pereira's men started to decompress after the goal, apparently reliant on the fact that they would be able to create danger as soon as they hit the throttle.

On the half-hour mark, Sporting started loosening their chains, realising that FC Porto's high line was now vulnerable without Maicon. Izmailov got closer to his midfield and started providing a few key passes that a more clinical finish would have turned into assists. Maybe Pereira's intention was just that all along, because Sporting kept making a mistake they have been making for quite some time now, regardless on who the manager is: pushing forward with both full-backs when trailing, opening up huge holes and consequently numerical inferiority situations.

Sporting dictated the first 15 minutes of the second half. With Izmailov ever more present (his substitution's timing was unfortunate, because he was starting to be the linchpin that Sporting needed), FC Porto midfield was at times marooned, namely after Varela's poor decisions in the final third, breaking up the team in some critical situations. However, if Sporting want to fight for a position more suited to their history, Elias has to become more involved and offer passing options, instead of hiding himself from the match, and there has to be better organised attacking moves. As things stand, everyone just seems to expect Carrillo to come up with something.

Rojo's sending off was a natural consequence of Sporting venturing forward (and should have laid the match to rest even before the second penalty). Even though the Argentinean centre-back's approach in not exactly beyond reproach, Sporting's next coach has to make it priority number one to review the full-backs' positioning when attacking, since it often leaves the Lions totally and unnecessarily exposed.

All in all, it was a somewhat scrappy match. Sporting maintain their all too clear lack of attacking options and the next manager will have his work cut out for him. As for FC Porto, even though their victory was not unfair, there were times of poor control and decision making (namely in their transitions into attack) that could have proven disastrous. Nevertheless, Vítor Pereira will be ecstatic after two important victories and no goals conceded.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

FC Porto grab an emphatic win

In their first home match for the Champions League, FC Porto put in a dominant display against the group's other top dogs. Vítor Pereira went with Danilo, Fernando and Varela ahead of Miguel Lopes, Defour and Atsu, respectively. Paris Saint-Germain manager Carlo Ancelotti kept most of his team intact, with Ménez alongisde Ibrahimovic and Nenê behind the two forwards.

It's not every day that we see a Portuguese team looking the favourite part, especially in the Champions League and against a team filled with stars, such as Paris Saint-Germain. Apparently unimpressed with the financial numbers that flew around the media over the past few days, Pereira's men set out to give the French team a run for their money and showed how much they have improved from last year (and last match against Rio Ave).

The Dragons presented a quite high defensive line, most likely to prevent Ibrahimovic from playing too close to FC Porto's box, relying that neither Ménez nor Nenê would present any real danger coming from behind. As for Paris Saint-Germain, the order was to sit back and wait for FC Porto's initial pressure to wear down and take it from there.

Facing their opponents' 4x3x1x2 (with Nenê behind Ibrahimovic and Ménez), the Portuguese champions emphasised all the more their usual attacking traits, exploiting and overloading the wings - namely (and almost exclusively) the left one. With James somewhere between the centre and the right and Varela on the left, FC Porto kept ramming down their left side with Alex Sandro, Moutinho and Varela. With the latter's natural width, Ancelotti's diamond-shaped midfield was too open to contain the threat.

The schematics were very simple and lasted throughout the whole match. Alex Sandro would start the move high up the field, immediately occupying Chantôme (who, truth be told, rarely played tucked in, as he should have). Varela was picked up by Van der Wiel and Verratti would then come up to meet Moutinho, afraid to let him in through the centre - effectively opening up the middle to James or Lucho. With the same play and a few triangle-shaped passes, the Portuguese team created a barrage of scoring chances.

Typical FC Porto movement down the left.
Verratti was dragged too easily out of position.

With Ibrahimovic and Ménez offering very little defensively and Nenê switching on and off, FC Porto were often allowed to play at will down the left or the middle, since help would often come (very) late from Matuidi or the centre-backs. Therefore, it would not pose too big a risk that the 20-odd attempts on Sirigu's goal frequently constituted clear-cut chances. As for Paris Saint-Germain's attacking plan, there often seemed to be none, apart from waiting for the Swedish maverick to get his bag of tricks out (which almost panned out after a lovely flick-on on the 11th minute).

The only stage at which the Parisians seemed to offer a real threat was the first 10 minutes of the second half, where the FC Porto midfielders lost their coordinates a bit and were too greedily pushing for the goal, almost getting punished for it. However, Lucho's coolness and Moutinho's stamina brought back the order and the Dragons quickly picked off where they had left off.

Despite all their profligacy, FC Porto deserved the win - so much so that they can might come to regret not scoring some more. James Rodríguez's goal may have come a bit late for FC Porto fans, but it meant that the three points would remain at the Dragão. After the latest wins in succession, Paris Saint-Germain were disappointing and can only blame themselves for such a poor match. In fact, they will probably find themselves lucky to only concede a goal. Also, it's hard to understand why Ancelotti, usually a gifted reader of the game, didn't offer any solution to oppose his adversary's natural advantage down the wings.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Tottenham goals under the microscope

Last Saturday André Villas-Boas' Tottenham defeated Manchester United in their own turf, something Hotspurs hadn't done in 23 years - which may well be just what the doctor ordered for AVB's team. Every single goal from the Lilywhites came from United worryingly tendency to be overrun against stronger sides, over the past couple of years (namely after Carlos Queiroz left).

With Carrick and Scholes in the centre, and Nani and Giggs on the wings, pockets of space were bound to appear on United's defensive midfield, but the appalling display from his midfield and defence must have Sir Alex Ferguson quite worried. For that matter, Tottenham's goals will be dissected, in order to shed some light over the Red Devils' frailties.

  • Tottenham goal #1

There were some repetitive patterns throughout the match as far as defensive positioning is concerned. In this particular case, you can see that both Carrick (green) and Scholes (blue) are away from the ball and not offering good defensive coverage. The yellow dotted lines represent the one-two played by Vertonghen (the eventual goalscorer).

Jermaine Defoe (yellow) read the game very well and immediately drifted toward the flank, dragging Rio Ferdinand out of position. With the one-two, Vertonghen has already overcome Nani's feeble opposition.

Defoe's movement opened up a huge hole in the centre of Manchester United's defence (shaded area). Carrick (green) and Scholes (blue) are already late and out of position.

Even after a few seconds, Carrick (green) and Scholes (blue) are still behind Tottenham's player, who had to control the ball and resist his markers' attempts. Ferdinand also hesitates and the critical area of the field (shaded area) from which Vertonghen will score is left unprotected.

  • Tottenham goal #2

Manchester United have lost the ball just a couple of seconds earlier. Scholes (blue) neither pressures the Dembélé (the player with the ball) nor provides coverage. The shaded area represents the huge gap in the middle into which Tottenham were often allowed to break. Gareth Bale (red) started out near his area and would eventually score the goal.

Dembélé easily avoids Scholes and no Manchester United player comes up to either keep the team compact or try to force Tottenham out wide. Gareth Bale has already gone past his "marker" and has a whole lot of field to run into (shaded area).

Once again Defoe (yellow) shows an intuitive understanding of the game and starts running contrary to the run of play, dragging Jonny Evans out of position. Bale (red) gets the ball in space and there is no one remotely close to him. Scholes (blue) is already 5 metres behind him. Tottenham have an all too easy 2v2 situation in a matter of seconds.

Even after all this time, Evra remains way out on the wing, where he is not of any help whatsoever. Defoe (yellow) continues his movement and Bale (red) attacks the space his team-mate has just vacated - a textbook counterattack play. Notice the distance between the Welsh winger and Ferdinand (orange). Bale would score the goal ahead of the English centre-back.

With Evans out of the picture, thanks to Defoe's hard work, Bale (red) has an open road toward the goal. Again, neither Carrick, Scholes, Evra or Rafael are the least bit near to help out. Bale's goal was definitely much easier than it should have been and teams in the Champions League will be looking to pounce on this evident weak link in United's defensive approach.

  • Tottenham goal #3

Once again United had just lost the ball a could of seconds earlier. Dembélé easily goes around Scholes (blue) and finds himself totally unmarked.

With Scholes already behind, Dembélé can pick his pass. The shaded area represents the huge gap that United have once again opened up between their lines and how a simple long ball could bypass all of United's midfield.

In all honesty, this play was just utter nonsense. Ferdinand (orange) is once again dragged out of position following Dembélé's long ball towards Defoe. Carrick (green) and Scholes (blue) are neither pressuring or providing coverage. To make matters worse, Rafael (red) seems to keep lacking a basic understanding of his duties and stays in line with Ferdinand and Evans, instead of taking a couple of steps back. Notice how Bale immediately picks up on it and asks for the ball in space with his arm. Clint Dempsey (yellow) remains absolutely unchecked in the critical area of the field.

Defoe played the ball into Bale's path for him to shoot at goal. Carrick (green) and Scholes (blue) allow their opponents to breeze past them. In the most important area of the pitch, Evans is alone (shaded area) against three Tottenham players. Logically enough, Dempsey found it extremely easy to pick up the rebound after Lindegaard's save and score Tottenham's third goal of the day.

  • Conclusion

If Manchester United are serious about taking the title back from City and/or improve on their shambolic performance in Europe, they will be well advised to drill their defensive positioning extensively. If not, they will certainly be made to suffer at the hands of any team capable of breaking quickly through the middle. As time goes by, it remains harder and harder to understand why exactly Sir Alex Ferguson insists on leaving his midfield area that bare.

As for Tottenham, even though he didn't score or even provide an assist, Jermaine Defoe was instrumental for the win, as Michael Cox so eloquently put it. His clever movement was critical to drag his team-mates' opponents out of position and should go to show that a forward's job revolves around much more than just putting the ball in the net.