Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dragons' woes linger on

After Zenit St Petersburg's 1-1 draw against Atlético Madrid earlier in the day, FC Porto had a glimmer of hope of getting through to the knock-out stage of the Champions League. Instead, they found themselves trailing after 12 minutes and could not muster anything better than a draw.
Paulo Fonseca will likely have thrown some numbers around, whether it's shots, possession percentage or some other statistical measurement. And while there is indeed some truth to to the dominance those figures reveal, they also conceal systemic flaws that have been undermining FC Porto's displays, something that Paulo Fonseca himself appears completely oblivious whenever he's asked about it.

The line-up's major surprise was the conspicuous absence of Otamendi, with Mangala and Maicon both getting the nod ahead of the Argentinean, who seems to spark some lively debates about his proneness to err and his importance as the first man responsible for starting out attacks. The coach seemed to have reached the limit of his patience and benched the usually starting centre-back, probably to get him motivated and show simultaneously that nobody is above anyone else on status alone.

  • Do FC Porto have a build-up phase thought out?

Even though discussing the importance of Otamendi in the team's attacking phase might be entering the realm of tactical minutiae, it bears mentioning, particularly since João Moutinho's departure. With Fernando unable to do that job properly, Defour a bit more intermittent than usual, Herrera not being the solution and Lucho González asked to play much higher than usual, the Dragons often put themselves in dangerous situations when playing out from the back, since there is vrtiually no player movement to circulate the ball.

Therefore, Otamendi proves more crucial than ever with his ability to find team-mates with good vertical passes. However, that is not to say that his season has been perfect - far from it. The fact that Paulo Fonseca insists on a formation that clearly does not work, starting off with the team's inability to find simple passing options to shuffle the ball around and constantly insisting on direct play, leaves centre-backs exposed.

Most supporters have been blaming the Argentinean centre-back for his mistakes, but last night it was Danilo who gifted the Austrians with an unthinkable pass right into the centre of midfield - and while it would be easy to blame the Brazilian full-back, it would be far more interesting and useful to try to understand why he made that option in the first place. It was also easy to spot last night's starting centre-backs facing the same difficulties Otamendi usually faces, with the team broken in two and most of their team-mates way high up the field ahead of the ball, which makes it virtually impossible to play the possession-based football FC Porto have been used to for the past few years.

  • Poor results are the direct result of poor displays

Anyone who has listened to Paulo Fonseca's press conferences may have been surprised by his insistence that FC Porto have been playing well, apart from the few goals scored. Still, the team's poor results (against Zenit twice, Nacional and Austria Vienna, to name but the latest) have not been a coincidence, rather a direct consequence of the side's poorly coordinated efforts.

Last night, as has often been the case, the pressing was disjointed, without any clear references, whether spatial or situational. The defence was once again quite dodgy, but mainly because there seems to be no idea as to what to do and how to react once the ball is given away, and - more importantly - in what areas and circumstances it is acceptable to give the ball away. As it were, despite their hard work and commitment, FC Porto's all-out, almost brainless approach made Austria Vienna look good in attacking transitions, much like it was the case with Nacional just a few days earlier.

On the other hand, the lack of ideas while going forward is nothing short of appalling, with the team's credo now seeming to be "just give it to Alex Sandro and throw it in the mixer". Fonseca himself admitted the wings were the right option and that the centre is usually just too jam-packed, which resulted in FC Porto's predictable forays, with frequent (often pointless) crosses into the box.

  • Players aware of what is wrong

One of the most striking things about the players interviewed last night was the fact that they all brushed some common subjects - to wit, the need to be more patient, to vary their approach and, most importantly, to shuffle the ball from side to side in order to drag opponents out of position. However, given that basically all players insist on the same patterns and repeating, predictable moves, it is fair to assume they're following orders from their coach, which makes it all the more baffling.

Lucho González, for instance, was the player that ran the most during the first half, in a deliberate effort to try to link up play and the team, clearly broken in two distinct sides. The team captain was seen several times yelling at team-mates, something completely out of character and that speaks volumes about the Dragons' lack of emotional control and their inability to cope with pressure.

After the recent run of results and displays, it remains to be seen whether Pinto da Costa, traditionally loyal to his coaches (sometimes beyond the limits of reason), will stand behind the man he chose for the job, since the team are apparently entering a downward spiral of poor football and lack of solutions for the problems that have been coming up. The matter is not helped by Paulo Fonseca's insistence that things are going well and that all that is needed is just a bit more luck. FC Porto could have won the match last night, but it wouldn't help supporters get the feeling that things are going in the right direction

Friday, November 15, 2013

Portugal 1-0 Sweden: Tactical notes

Halfway through the play-off, Portugal seem to have the upper hand to get to next year's World Cup in Brazil, which is a far cry from claiming that the place in the finals is as good as booked. Let's delve a bit more into the tactical side of the match.

  • 1. 4x3x3: An innovative formation?

Both teams played their expected XI and formations, but there were certain nuances to the tactical clash. On the Portuguese side, both Ronaldo and Nani seemed to have clear instructions to drift toward the centre, which meant that Portugal did not display the usual combination of one striker and two wingers, but rather one striker accompanied by two forwards. With both men inside and Sweden trying to remain as narrow as possible, the wings were paved in gold for both full-backs and/or midfielders João Moutinho and Raúl Meireles.

However, the players that managed to get close to the goal line were hardly in good crossing or passing positions, which often forced them to a backward pass only for the man behind to hoof it into the box, a threat with which the Swedish defence managed to cope with no major scares for the better of the first half. That was indeed one of the reasons why Portugal benefitted from 14 corners (8 of them in the first half). On the other hand, it was clear that Portugal coach Paulo Bento was trying to get Cristiano Ronaldo into scoring positions by having the team attack predominantly down the right, with the Real Madrid star effectively acting as a second striker. That alternative, while hinging on Ronaldo's impressive physical attributes hardly paid off, since no one else on the team thrives on that brand of football.

  • 2. Defending in numbers does not equal good defending

In a rigid 4x4x1x1, with Elmander slightly off Ibrahimovic, Sweden's intention was to keep the Portuguese midfielders from getting the ball while facing their goal and then sit back a few yards ahead of the penalty box. With two compact, narrow banks of four, both Elmander and Ibrahimovic were allowed to remain ahead of the ball, which meant that Portugal often had numbers-up situations. Nevertheless, Sweden looked incapable of countering the simple triangle-shaped passing combinations so typical of a 4x3x3, with dreadful spatial awareness and their players frequently looking more interested in following the man than adjusting their positioning according to the ball.

  • 3. Virtue lies in the centre

Even though Portugal did struggle to get into promising positions to shoot and provide killer passes, every time Moutinho (most frequently) or Meireles invaded enemy lines, Sweden's defensive approach immediately looked dodgy. Given the rigidity with which the Swedish team tend to play, a more aggressive approach in midfield might just do the trick in four days' time, but for that to materialise, Meireles (in a lower and lower cadence over the past couple of seasons) and Moutinho (a yard off his usual pace) must bring a greater sense of urgency to their attacking forays, even if it means a more conservative positioning from both full-backs, so as not to unbalance the team.

Furthermore, given their positioning high up the pitch, neither Ronaldo nor Nani put any effort in tracking back throughout the first half (the second period was a non-event as far as the Swedish attacking threat is concerned), thus exposing João Pereira - usually as good going forward as he is poor at the back - and Fábio Coentrão on the flanks. In short, greater investment down the middle may prove beneficial both at the front and at the back.

  • 4. The perfect pair to stop Ibrahimovic

As so often happens with the talented, yet mercurial striker, Ibrahimovic went largely anonymous over the 90 minutes. Usually a player that thrives on open spaces - such as those Portugal were leaving behind, especially during the first half, in Bruno Alves and Pepe the PSG star seems to have met his match. On one hand, he is forced to get into high-powered, intense aerial duels with Ronaldo; on the other hand, should he manage to get free from Alves, Pepe is probably the best partner to cover up for his team-mate, largely due to his speed and ability to sweep up behind. If Erik Hamren insists on such predictable attacking manoeuvres next Tuesday, Paulo Bento may well thank him for not putting Alves and Pepe to the test on the floor, where they struggle the most.

Even though a 1-0 result offers a great advantage in such a cagey contest, Portugal can ill afford to sit back and let the clock run. However, a greater offensive balance from Sweden might be ideal for Postiga, Ronaldo and Nani, with Moutinho or Veloso spreading passes for the break. For that Portugal will have to convey a more assured sense of defending than they did last night, in the few times Sweden managed to attack.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Manchester United x Arsenal - Tactical notes

In a match that could have offered the visitors a very comfortable lead, Manchester United and Arsenal met at Old Trafford and offered a quite interesting display - for loads of reasons. Below we'll be looking into some specific issues.

  • Arsenal struggle against a more physical United
Tomas Rosicky was bang on the money when he offered "resiliency" as one of the key factors for Arsenal's win at Dortmund last week, something that according to the Czech might have been missing over the past few seasons. In fact, while the tactical improvements in Wenger's side cannot be overestated (namely the failure to unbalance the whole team while attacking), the steelier heart of the team has to be taken into consideration - something that an older, more experienced eleven might help explain.

However, while United's physical approach lasted, Arsenal found it quite hard to get into their passing rhythm, a flaw that has been found many times over the past seasons, particularly against stronger sides. The two teams' different approaches was evident, with the physical, defensively disciplined Jones, Valencia and Jones all getting the nod from David Moyes, while Arsène Wenger kept his trust in the soft-shoed Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil.

Arsenal struggled to progress to more advanced areas while United were able (and interested) to keep their pressure up.
During the first half, the attacking threat offered by Wenger's charges was restricted.

  • Özil goes missing in action
As so often has been the case, the German wizard was anonymous for most of the match at Old Trafford. Even though no player has accrued more assists than Özil during the past five seasons, his contribution is frequently small when he's faced with opponents that insist on being physically aggressive and that leave little space to exploit. Arsenal's no. 11, so important to the team's displays thus far, was a shadow of himself and failed to give the team the world-class boost he so often brings in most matches.

  • United prove faithful to Moyes
For all that has been said and written about David Moyes' time at the helm of United, the players' dedication and commitment seem not to have wavered. The Scottish manager finally got a win against top-calibre opposition by reverting to several of his methods while at Everton. The intense physical pressure in order to stifle Arsenal's midfield gave way to his preferred expectant two banks of four, with Rooney and Van Persie (particularly the former) putting in impressively hard-working displays as far as defending was concerned.

On the other hand, the resort to long balls (more frequent than usual under Sir Alex Ferguson) also seemed to show that United will be looking increasingly like a gritty, result-oriented team, rather than the side that so often threw caution to the wind and attacked in successive waves.

It is hard not to detect some patterns as far as United's building-up stage is concerned.

There is a stark contrast between United's approach before and after Van Persie's goal.
Even though Arsenal surely improved as the match wore on, it was clear that United were will to soak up pressure.

  • Centre-back vs midfielder: Who's more effective in the middle of the pitch
Phil Jones' deployment alongside Michael Carrick was surely meant as a strategy to keep Cazorla and Özil from dominating the centre, by making sure the centre-back got stuck to the skilled midfielders and stopped them from facing United's goal. Moyes' strategy effectively worked for the better part of the first half, but things changed when Jones had to replace the injured Vidic in defence, with Tom Cleverley taking his place in midfield.

While Jones' defensive contribution might have looked far more intense to the naked eye, a quick look at Cleverley's dashboard shows how important the English midfielder was in such a crucial position.

  • The Rooney conundrum
One of the hardest things of being your nation's most promising footballer for ages is that his every move, shot, word and mood swing are analysed under a magnifying lens. Wayne Rooney is no exception and he alone has put food on the table of many a reporter. 

In spite of all of that, he managed to put in a monster of a display, working tirelessly and selflessly, effectively resembling the version of Rooney that every football fan seems to remember. He pressed, he defended, he kept his passing crisp and simple, he vacated the space for his team-mates to exploit - in short, he was United's spirit personified, leading the team from the front. After all the reports of his less than warm relationship with Moyes, it is encouraging to see him give so much of himself to the cause.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Benfica 4-3 Sporting: Tactical notes

In a typically high-octane match, Benfica needed to go to extra-time and some poor goalkeeping from Sporting no. 1 Rui Patrício to progress after being in front up until the 93rd minute. Rather than looking at the game as a whole, the focus will fall upon specific tactical issues.

  • 1. Jesus finally gives in

In a match that confirmed Jorge Jesus' latest change of hearts as far as tactics go, Benfica appeared in 4x3x3 (even though Jesus himself denied it in a press conference earlier this week). The 4x3x3 formation now seems to be Benfica's default option against strong(er) teams, after being often overrun through the middle over the past years. Although the coach was always reluctant to adhere to a more conservative approach, both the match against Olympiacos and the match against Sporting offered a Benfica more capable of controlling proceedings.

Jesus might have a point when he claims that this formation is not a 4x3x3 (at least, not the purest one). Gaitán, nominally deployed on the left wing, often drifts inside, while Markovic seems to have clear instructions to come to the centre whenever Cardozo gets the ball with his back to goal. That move is further compensated by Enzo Pérez' lateral movement to the right, so as to stretch the play. All of this is capped off by Cardozo's impressive ability to offer the right passing option at the right time, allowing the team to progress while he holds the ball upfield. Without it, this particular game plan would be that much harder to implement successfully.

However, it's Ruben Amorim that may be the most important clog as far as match control is concerned, by playing out the simple pass and always being present to make necessary the interception as soon as the teams gives the ball away. Arranged like this, Benfica look more the part of an organised, dominant side, rather than repeatedly betting on the "vertigem vertical" - literally vertical vertigo, as André Villas-Boas would put it.

  • 2. André Martins is being played out of position

If you just kept your eyes on André Martins up until the moment he left the field, you would probably think that you were watching his game against FC Porto a few weeks ago - if it weren't for the red shirts, of course. Once again Sporting coach Leonardo Jardim insisted on deploying the young midfielder as a no.10 off Fredy Montero, rendering him virtually useless in a position where the player is not particular proficient.

The carbon copy of his display went as far as repeating the timings of the changes: After a whole half of wandering somewhere upfield, it was when he dropped back and Adrien Silva finally broke the siamese pairing with William Carvalho - in the second half - that Sporting looked more dangerous. It should be clear by now that Martins is not the perfect fit for the rarefied environment in front of his opponent's penalty box, against centre-backs and holding midfielders. His game improves exponentially as soon as he has team-mates to combine plays with and is facing towards the other team's goal, and not the other way around.

Given that Sporting are constantly being run over in the centre (much like their cross-town rivals were) against stronger teams such as FC Porto or Benfica, it might not be a bad idea to allow the 23-year-old back into the midfield fold - both for his sake and the team's. As it was, Sporting struggled to break through Benfica's defensive wall and to create any significant chances from open play for as long as Jardim insisted on his seemingly outdated system.

  • 3. The privilege of being wrong

Sporting have looked weak in the middle throughout the season. That much has been plain for everyone to see in several matches, and even more so at the team's first real test, at the Dragão a few weeks ago. That is indeed one of the reasons why the Lions always seem more at ease when they play away from home, where the opponents are a bit more open and willing to get a positive result other than a draw based on bus-parking and time-wasting.

Last night's match offered yet again clear evidence that the team struggle to create opportunities from open play, particularly when Adrien is asked to help William Carvalho patrol the midfield area and André Martins is left ostracized up front. All of this means that the centre-backs (not the most technically gifted players to start with) often have to resort to long balls to the hard-working Montero, bypassing their own midfield altoghether.

What's worse, this forces both midfield and defence to keep readjusting over and over again as soon as the team give the ball away - which usually doesn't take that long, since Montero hardly has any support near himself. Here Sporting once again found themselves trailing early on after some poor defending, found a way to level the score only to concede a second goal just moments later. The third goal would soon follow in both matches after a less than perfect transition into defence.

Below you will find some images that may help understand where Sporting's biggest problem seems to lie, starting with the first goal.

In a normal run of play, Sporting are already in a numbers-down situation.
The circle represents the area of constant problems for Sporting.

Markovic intelligently drags Rojo and Jefferson out of position.
As above, even the referee seems to have a better understanding of the best positioning.

Again, the circle stands for the most important area in football,
one that Sporting keep neglecting. Notice Rojo's feet, still pointing the wrong way.

A few precious seconds have elapsed and not only Rojo is stil adjusting his position,
but Maurício is also wandering elsewhere.

The second goal was a little less obvious, but a more thorough analysis shows how far Sporting's defence (let's leave the central midfield area for a while) lags behind FC Porto or Benfica's, for instance.

The initial deficient positioning stems from an aerial duel.
Enzo Pérez wins the second ball back and Sporting immediately look unbalanced.

Maurício comes out to pressure Pérez, Piris is on Gaitán,
while Jefferson and Rojo are both marking Markovic.

Instead of readjusting accordingly,
Jefferson and Rojo's reference is the man, rather than the zone.

Markovic once again drags the same two defenders as before
with his simple yet intelligent movement. There's no attempt to control the space.

By now, both Rojo and Jefferson are hugging the goal line
and Cardozo has all the time he needs to pick his spot.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Olympiacos 1-0 Benfica: Insurmountable Roberto frustrates Benfica

Starting elevens

Benfica's best display of the season thus far was not enough to overcome the Greek champions and the night ended in defeat, thanks to Benfica's own alumnus Roberto. The goalkeeper put on a one-man show and delivered the result singlehandedly, frustrating the Portuguese team's numerous attempts on goal. The night ended in defeat and an almost certain early exit from the Champions League.

Even though the Eagles were far superior in every aspect of the game, Roberto's incredible display was the difference in the final result, ensuring Olympiacos' first clean sheet in nine matches in Europe's major competition and a fourth home victory on the trot against Portuguese teams. On the other hand, it meant that Benfica have now won just three of their last 20 away matches, although even the most demanding supporters will find it hard to point a flaw in the display from Jorge Jesus' men.

Jesus seems to have decided to go with a more evenly balanced formation for European evenings, this time playing a clear 4x3x3, with Matic as the sole holding midfielder and Ruben Amorim and Enzo Pérez ahead of the Serb. On the wings Gaitán took to the left and Markovic (nominally) to the right, with Cardozo up front. Comparing to last season, when Benfica traditionally defended in two banks of four, this was a much more organised side and the match - if not the result - in Athens seems to prove Jesus' confidence in the team's evolution.

  • Benfica profligate in first 15 minutes  

Even though Benfica did not start the match pressing high up, they did however showed tremendous composure and timing with their pressing. With Olympiacos arranged in a 4x4x1x1 (with former Benfica forward Saviola off Mitroglou), they reverted to the traditional two banks of four, but seemed incapable of doing anything to build out attacks from the back. Therefore, Benfica allowed the Greek team's centre-backs time on the ball and pressured the midfielders instead, waiting for the long balls aimed at Mitroglou and Yatabaré.

Olympiacos right winger was in fact one of the main reasons why Benfica spent most of the time attacking down their left, particularly throughout the first half. Yatabaré would often leave his place on the right to try to pressure Sílvio, but that action left an easily circumvented hole in the Greek four-strong midfield band. The society of Sílvio, Ruben Amorim and Gaitán contributed numerous passes and assists for what should have been Benfica's advantage, only for Roberto to frustrate all of those endeavours (much to Jesus' despair), effectively redeeming himself from the late, soft goal he conceded at the Luz a fortnight ago.

Deployed on the left, Sílvio looked fit and sharp
and headed the two most frequent passing combos of the match.

There were several reasons for Benfica's dominance. For one, Matic played in the role he excelled last season. As a sole holding midfielder, he was able to dictate the tempo of the match and act as the revolving door in Benfica's build-up play, making simple, piercing passes towards his team-mates. Compared to when he plays higher up (usually when Fejsa plays as the team's anchor), Matic finds himself too crowded in a sea of legs, with less time to make up his mind.

On the other hand, Ruben Amorim offered the definitive piece of evidence that he may just be the missing piece in the side's puzzle, offering an incredible work rate and invading enemy lines with his slick movement and wonderful passing. Together with Gaitán and Sílvio, they terrorised Olympiacos' right flank almost through the whole match.

Playing left from centre, not only did Amorim offer a passing option,
but he was also discerning with his passing.

Gaitán was a constant threat, either through his dribbling or his crossing.

  • Olympiacos score against the flow

Having already forced Roberto to two great saves on 5 and 8 minutes, Benfica looked a bit vulnerable down the right. With Markovic seemingly uncomfortable stationed on the right, the Serb often drifted inside to look for more time on the ball. Consequently, he was often nowhere to be found, which meant Máxi Pereira sometimes found himself too busy. While the goal stemmed from strange zonal (a term mistaken for static, on this particular instance) marking in a corner kick, it was only natural that the play that led to it was a direct consequence of Benfica's (few) struggles down that side. In fact, even though he managed to improve during the second half (by virtue of playing nearer the centre), Markovic was often somewhat anonymous, the odd zigzag notwithstanding.

Despite his improvement during the second half,
Markovic did not play his best football last night.

Despite the blow, Benfica stayed positive and went on playing their best football thus far, with neat combination play and well-drilled moves. Contrary to what had happened until Olympiacos' goal, Cardozo started leading the pressing higher up, trying to catch the opposing centre-backs in possession. Along with the Greeks' less than impressive defensive display - namely between the lines, where Amorim and Gaitán often appeared totally unmarked -, it allowed the away team to create chance after chance, albeit to no avail.

The difference in the teams' approach could not be clearer.
Olympiacos were never able to build anything from the back.

Benfica were clearly the dominant side here.

While listing all of Benfica's chances would be tiresome, suffice to say that the Lisbon-based side did more than enough to bag the much-needed three points. On the back of this display, Benfica supporters must feel a whole lot more confident about what the season has to bring, and maybe the Europa League (if the worst case scenario does come to pass) can offer a better setting for the team to reveal their full potential. As far as the league is concerned, a side firing on all cylinders like they did last night will definitely be a nuisance for dithering FC Porto.