Thursday, April 11, 2013

Champions League - the chalkboards

Another week, another set of wonderful displays and exciting, close-fought contests in the Champions League. Let's take a look at some of the most significant chalkboards.

  • 1. Borussia Dortmund vs Málaga

While Málaga creating less chances in the first leg, they managed to create them in more dangerous areas.

The pressure exerted by Málaga's forwards kept Gündogan from being as decisive as he had been in the first leg.

Borussia Dortmund's final push meant they managed to get the same number of chances as the first leg.

Oddly enough, Málaga actually made less interceptions than in the first leg,
undoubtedly due to their forwards' impressive work rate.
Notice how the Spaniards made a lot less interceptions in the centre-back area.

  • 2. Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain

Barcelona's passing in their attacking third before and after Messi coming on.

Barcelona's chances before and after Messi coming on. Not a huge difference in numbers.

Barcelona's interceptions before and after Messi coming on.
Oddly enough, this was the area where Barcelona improved most dramatically.

Ibrahimovic put in a circumspect yet decisive all-round display against his former employers.

A comparison between the overall contribution provided by Verratti (first leg) and Beckham (second leg).
The Italian midfielder was instrumental for Paris Saint-Germain's solid display.

Chances created throughout both legs. Paris Saint-Germain actually managed to look more dangerous in Camp Nou,
with several chances created down the middle.

  • 3. Bayern Munich vs Juventus
In an unexpectedly one-sided contest, Bayern were far superior to Juventus,
which translated in their almost identical number of shots home and away (albeit more dangerous in the first leg).

Bayern were even more proactive and successful as far as their defensive approach was concerned.
Once again, notice far up many of their interceptions took place, preventing Juventus from threatening their back line.

  • 4. Galatasaray vs Real Madrid
Facing an uphill battle, Galatasaray chose to take the game to Real Madrid, despite their early goal.
In the second leg, Galatasaray defended higher up the field, as it's easily noticeable in the first chalkboard.

Real Madrid's three-goal cushion, in turn, allowed them to work less hard defensively further upfield.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Analytics galore: The Newcastle edition

Every once in a while I find myself immersed in the debate about whether the X's and O's (to borrow an expression from across the pond) really matter - or whether football isn't just a case of 22 people chasing and shooting a piece of pigskin around.

Still, while I will certainly never reach Jonathan Wilson's heights, I still believe there is some logic behind all the madness, some sort of pattern, if you will. My latest endeavour involved Newcastle and their diverging performances away from home and in their own turf. Therefore, I immediately got hold of one of the best data-mining apps as far as football is concerned and started drilling the data.

In this particular case, I have only analysed the matches of the Europa League knock-out stages and the differences in specific items between the away and home legs (please bear in mind that even though Newcastle played Metalist Kharkiv home first, the order was altered for consistency).

Instead of rambling on incessantly, I will do my best to keep text to a minimum and let the chalkboards do the talking. See if you can spot the patterns.

  • 1. Attempts on goal

  • 2. Passes in the attacking third

  • 3. Chances created

  • 4. Interceptions

  • 5. Player influence

There seems to be a clear pattern involving Newcastle - some sort of Dr Jekykll/Mr Hyde dichotomy. Usually a timid side away from home, Alan Pardew's men tend to improve somewhat dramatically when playing in England.

While it's indisputable that Benfica will start the second leg with a clear upper hand, it seems Newcastle are often a whole different team in their own ground, buoyed by their relentlessly supportive crowd, and as such should not be presumed dead just yet.

Monday, April 8, 2013

FC Porto-Braga: Comfortable margin fails to paper over the cracks

Starting elevens

Last night's match was quite important for both teams. On one hand, FC Porto were desperately in need of a win to put the difference to Benfica back on four points. On the other hand, Braga were just three points adrift from the much sought-after Champions League (playoff) berth and were looking to throw a spanner in the works.

Furthermore, both sides were facing varying degrees of injury trouble. FC Porto were without Varela (injured) and Izmailov (suspended), with the Minho Warriors only able to play a patchy side, without long-time absentees Éder, Paulo Vinicus, Sasso or Douglão.

  • Braga go 4x3x3 against wingless FC Porto

Braga coach sprung a surprise on everyone by playing a defensive-minded 4x3x3 with Mauro in midfield alongside Hugo Viana and Custódio as this system's typical holding midfielder. After the team's lacklustre defensive performance down the left flank against Sporting, Alan's work rate and consistency were summoned upon on that side to prevent Danilo's forays and help Elderson to deal with James. João Pedro was stationed on the right (taking up the place of the disappointing Hélder Barbosa) and Mossoró was deployed in the centre as the furthest forward.

All this tinkering meant that Braga were actually defending in a quite compact 4x5x1, willing to invite pressure onto them. However, Nuno André Coelho's presence kept Peseiro's from droppikng back too much, with the former FC Porto and Sporting centre-back a commanding presence throughout.

Without Varela, Izmailov and Atsu (only fit for the bench), James Rodríguez and Defour played (more or less nominally) on the wings, with the Colombian starlet tending to drift inside and the Belgian jack of all trades apparently instructed to stay out as wide as possible. Nevertheless, FC Porto were too slow shifting the ball from side to side, which played right into Braga's hands, allowing them to shuffle across accordingly.

Braga only needed 4 minutes to show their game plan, quickly breaking down the right - João Pedro would subsequently miss a golden opportunity after some shoddy defending from Otamendi. FC Porto would allow their opposing centre-backs time on the ball, only to pounce as soon as the ball got to Braga's midfielders. However, FC Porto's centre-halves were not their usual reliable selves and the timing of their tackles and interceptions was marginally off throughout.

During the first half, James would come inside and Lucho would provide (or at least attempt to) the width. Additionally, Vítor Pereira's men would try to circumvent Braga's well-positioned defence by playing a more direct style towards Jackson Martínez. 15 minutes into the match, FC Porto hadn't done much and Defour drifted inside as well, leaving the wing to Alex Sandro.

Braga's goal followed a couple of dangerous-looking counter-attacks, with João Pedro redeeming himself with a delightful first-touch pass to Alan, who buried a wonderful curling shot past Helton. Once again FC Porto were displaying worrying signs of lack of defensive concentration. In the meantime, things didn't look better in attack either, with Braga presenting a tough, compact and narrow unit - and FC Porto unable to offer the penetrating runs to threaten Quim's goal, much like Barcelona against Milan in the first leg.

James Rodríguez eventually found a way through and leveled the score from one of his favourite spots, capping Lucho González's decisive (although largely unnoticed) move off the ball, near the end of a nervy first half.

  • FC Porto slowly discover width while Braga fade away

The second half brought a couple of slight differences, with James definitely stationed on the left and Defour on the right - but most importantly Lucho González playing just off Jackson Martínez (similarly to what he did when Marc Janko was around) and effectively making FC Porto look like a 4x2x3x1.

After 63 minutes, Defour made way for Christian Atsu, who immediately made an impact down the left wing, stretching the play and forcing Braga defenders to cover a lot more ground, something that would prove decisive further down the road. With Braga looking more and more tired, Vítor Pereira chose Kelvin (another winger, implicitly acknowledging the lack of width) to replace Lucho González.

Not only were Peseiro's men creating nothing offensively, they were also showing signs of difficulties dealing with FC Porto's mounting pressure. With Atsu constantly forcing one-on-ones out wide and Kelvin doing the same thing on the other wing, Custódio and Mauro often found themselves overwhelmed. Kelvin, often labeled as an inconsistent player, would eventually find a way through with two goals in a matter of minutes and keep FC Porto afloat.

  • Conclusion

FC Porto did nothing to squash the notion that they are currently playing under par, finding it quite hard to bypass Braga's tenacious backline (the two shots that hit the crossbar notwithstanding). With both James and Jackson looking a bit off their pace, Moutinho and Lucho haven't been able to provide the creative spark. As for Braga, this was the end of a particularly hard week that saw them shipping six goals against FC Porto and Sporting. Despite his obvious change of hearts as far as his approach is concerned, last night's display will hardly have done José Peseiro's popularity with the fans any favours.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Benfica 3-1 Newcastle: Benfica get over shaky start

In a match that resembled a rerun of past Europa League matches at Estádio da Luz, Benfica found a way to overcome a less than stellar performance for the better part of the first half and got themselves a positive result for the game in Newcastle in a week's time.

Despite their domestic concerns, both Benfica and Newcastle coaches chose not to rotate their squads too much. Jorge Jesus played André Almeida, André Gomes and Rodrigo so Maxi Pereira, Enzo Pérez and Lima could rest. As for Newcastle, a team that has been constantly battered with injuries throughout the season, Krul, Santon and Perch got the nod for this match.

Without Salvio, Gaitán remained on the left while Ola John played down the right, even though the two players had distinct roles. While the Dutch winger tried to get some chalk on his boots, Gaitán would often play narrower, opening the flank for Melgarejo's forays. Newcastle were clearly looking for that opening - and it took approximately 3 minutes to see Papis Cissé exploiting twice the space between Benfica centre-backs and full-backs - a clear indication of a plan, if there ever was one.

The players' distribution offers a stark contrast between the teams' intentions.
Notice how Garay clearly leans towards the touch line.

Newcastle started off more proactive than expected, not reverting too much to their usual mode while playing away. Indeed, they were often dangerous down the flanks, especially the left one, which they kept targeting relentlessly while they could, with either Cissé or Sissoko exploiting the space vacated by Melgarejo. Sissoko, in particular, was always allowed too much space behind Matic and André Gomes.

Gomes' display was a bit like Beckham's for Paris Saint-Germain against Barcelona: while he was not particularly at fault for anything, he didn't bring much to the table and the team were sometimes made to pay for it.

The chalkboard for André Gomes' unambitious display

As mentioned before, for the first 25 minutes Benfica didn't put Newcastle under great pressure, often transitioning idly into defence, which opened up spaces for the excellent Sissoko and Cissé to break into. It was therefore hardly surprising when the English team found their way into Artur's net, with Melgarejo mistiming his pressing, Garay arriving late at an attempted compensation and Sissoko (who else) crossing for Papis Cissé's simple tap-in.

The play that led to Newcastle's goal. Notice the 20-yard vertical pass,
splitting open Benfica's defence.

By that time, Benfica looked a bit lost, unable to put Tim Krul to work (with Newcastle hitting the woodwork). Without Enzo Pérez, Matic was unable to provide the creative spark and still cover for his team-mates when passes went astray. The Eagles managed to level things a bit out of thin air, with Cardozo firing a powerful left-footed shot that Krul was only able to parry, and Rodrigo reacting quicker than Yanga-Mbiwa. Suddenly, Benfica were back into the match.

The difference in Newcastle's passes in the attacking third before and after Benfica's goal.

After Benfica's goal, Newcastle immediately seemed deflated, no longer able to create chances. Rodrigo was instrumental by dropping back, confusing the English team's marking duties, forcing their midfield to spread too much. Newcastle's uncoordinated defending must be highlighted - putting as many players as possible behind the ball does not necessarily mean defending well. After the 25th minute, Tim Krul was the the main responsible for keeping Benfica from getting a better score line.

Rodrigo was much more involved as soon as Benfica leveled the score.

The start of the second half was remarkably similar to the first period. Papis Cissé found once again a way past between Luisão and André Almeida, but he was unlucky as he saw his chip over Artur Moraes hitting the woodwork once again. Despite the good finish to the first half, Jorge Jesus would soon after resort to his go-to selection, replacing André Gomes and Rodrigo with Enzo Pérez and Lima. The move didn't take long to pay divididends, when the indefatigable Lima pounced on a ill-advised backpass from Santon to his goalkeeper.

With Newcastle getting more and more tired by the minute, Benfica felt a goal could be just around the corner - but still the clear-cut chances were not presenting themselves. It took a very clumsy handball in the penalty box from Steven Taylor to allow Benfica to get a more comfortable result when they travel to Newcastle in a week's time.

In the end, Benfica deserved the win, but they must stop presenting their opponents with wobbly starts if they are to mount a serious challenge for this trophy. As for Newcastle, the first 20 minutes showed that this team are capable of doing something more than what they have been showing this season, but on the whole the team looks quite feeble defensively and without a proper attacking bite when they play away.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Champions League - the chalkboards

This week's matches for the Champions League quarter-finals offered wonderful, action-packed matches. Below you will find a few interesting chalkboards.

Mandzukic was critical to Bayern's constant pressing and his work rate cannot be overstated.

Borussia Dortmund have only themselves to blame for not emerging victors from this match.
In the second half, Jürgen Klopp's team were more incisive in their pressing and took control.

Bayern Munich's unrelenting pressing brought out the technical limitations of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini.
Notice how most of the interceptions and tackles are not made in central-defence areas.

David Beckham was the surprise Carlo Ancelotti decided to spring on Barcelona.
Even though the English midfielder was not to blame for anything, his contribution was rather limited.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a quiet match, by his standards, but still managed to grab an all too important goal.