Friday, January 10, 2014

Braga 3-0 Guimarães: Quick notes from the Quarry

The weekend's first fixture pitted the Minho rivals - Sporting de Braga and Vitória de Guimarães - for a rather entertaining match, as is usually the case. After Braga's resounding win, let us take a closer look at some of the action.

  • 1. Braga on the up, future issues to ponder

The days before the match revolved mainly around Ruben Micael's absence from the side and how coach Jesualdo Ferreira would deal with it. Those who watched the match were able to witness one of the Guerreiros' best matches of the season so far as a response. With a now seemingly more established 4x3x3, the team seem more evenly balanced and therefore less inclined to shoot themselves in the foot. Custódio offered the defensive solidity, Luiz Carlos provided coverage while defending and a constant out-ball, while Alan was afforded the liberty to sprinkle his fairy dust virtually all over the place, largely due to Guimarães' approach (more on that later). Jesualdo's men dominated the middle of the park right from the start, with their three-man midfield duly helped by wingers Rafa and Pardo. The team were collectively aggressive and more in tune with Jesualdo's familiar principles, perhaps a tad more possession-based than usual. Their ability to control the centre and to shift the ball quickly to the flanks for dangerous crosses and penetrations from Rafa and Pardo is not to be underestimated.
However, there might be some cause for concern in the future, in this reporter's humble opinion. Custódio does not seem to be the perfect fit for this particular formation. While there remain no doubts that he's more than capable of doing the gritty work, he does not have some of the other traits for the role. The Portuguese international has been used to play in a two-man central midfield (usually with Hugo Viana as his sidekick) and struggles physically with the sole holding midfielder role, particularly due to his lack of speed. Also, the fact that he is not the most technically gifted player means he regularly takes a couple of touches too many on the ball, making him ill-suited for the pivotal role of this particular position. On the other hand, Alan's game last night constitutes clear proof that the side are missing a more cerebral player in midfield. Still, there won't be that many times when Alan is allowed to dictate the tempo and Ruben Micael has shown time and again that he is not the best bet for a typical 4x3x3.

  • 2. Guimarães offer too little - once again

The parallelism had never struck me before - until today. While doing some research for a piece on English football, I read something about David Moyes' struggles at Manchester United and his inability to successfully transition into a more storied team. The piece mentioned - to paraphrase - that good managers acknowledged their team's limits and tried to work within them as best they could. Great managers refuse such limits and make their players believe they're capable of doing greater things. Every time I watch Rui Vitória's Guimarães Uin stark contrast to Marco Silva's Estoril) I'm left with that same impression: His side are obviously capable of grinding out results (as stated by their standing in the league table), but they offer precious little when there's the need to build something.

Last night was no different. A team that included André Santos, Barrientos and Marco Matias was unable to create anything noteworthy, instead receding to an expectant, reactive approach. Rui Vitória's instructions for André Santos to man-mark Luiz Carlos and deployment of André André off Tomané and Barrientos on the left was baffling, to say the least. André André, while hard-working, is clearly unsuited for such a role due to his technical limitation. Barrientos, in turn, is no work horse - which makes one wonder why his coach would place him on the left wing of a 4x2x3x1, thus demanding him to run up and down the wing. The two half-time substitutions did not offer anything new and Guimarães' attempts at building up anything from scratch led to gaping holes all over the place.

  • 3. Rafa is the real deal. Is Rusescu?

Sometimes I find myself wondering what is going on inside the minds of the three Portuguese grandes' directors and coaches. Maybe holding a Portuguese passport is indeed harmful to your career prospects, as the saying goes among Portuguese players. If Rafa were Uruguayan or Colombian, for instance, would he have already been picked up by FC Porto or Benfica, for instance? Despite his young age, he is clearly a top-notch player. Last night's match proved once again that he is no one-trick pony, single-handedly piercing Guimarães' defence or providing pin-point crosses in Rusecu's direction. More importantly, he seems to have an impressive understanding of the game for a player of his age and generally takes the best decisions - one of the most important features in today's football. If no grande comes to grab him soon enough, he will surely be heading abroad sooner rather than later.

As for Rusescu, his credentials were indeed promising, but such considerations should always be taken with a pinch of salt when they're based on youth tournaments, as is the case in point. It's admittedly premature to read too much into a single match, even if it yielded two goals. Even though that was an important aspect, he impressed mostly through his link-up play and, like Rafa, through the understanding of when to progress, to keep it simple, to play a team-mate it or have a go himself. It's unlikely that he will enjoy the same freedoms Guimarães allowed him at the Quarry, but the fact that he was able to make the most of it bodes well for his near future.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Spatial awareness is a myth - Tottenham Hotspur

Playing football it the highest echelons revolves around much more than simply nutmegs and tackles. Despite what the vox populi may have us thinking, results are more than the mere consequence of wanting the win more than one's opponent or "getting stuck into them".

Even though the motivational aspects of the game are all too important, the proper organisation of a team may help players even more - particularly when they are exhausted, hearts beating at 180 bpm and little oxygen actually getting to their brains, impairing the decision-making process. That is why well-oriented exercises in training sessions are vital to get the team to perform consistently week in, week out, rather than succumb to the players or supporters' moods.

As mentioned in the previous post, zonal marking seems to be all but disappearing in England. With the influx of foreign managers and players towards the Premier League, the English game became more Continental and not as insular - in short, less about individual duels as Sir Bobby Robson liked to emphasize during his stint in Portugal. However, with the advent of 4x2x3x1, teams tend to be a little less packed down the middle and to defend in two banks of four, often opening up huge gaps in between their lines.

After breaking down Manchester United's vulnerabilities, it is now time to take a look at Tottenham - specifically their match against Southampton a couple of weeks ago and the Saints' goal.


Tottenham had lost the ball a few seconds earlier whilst attacking down their left wing. Southampton followed the textbook and immediately sought to remove the ball from the crowded area. Fox then receives it in acres of space. It should be noted that this is not a lightning-quick breakaway, with Fox progressing swiftly, rather than sprinting.


Fox is allowed to venture forward up to less than 10 yards out of the penalty box, with hardly any pressure from a Spurs players. The vigour of man-marking duties could hardly be any clearer, with Kyle Walker focusing his sole attention on his direct opponent. Danny Rose's case is even more obvious, as he does little to shorten the space between him and the left-sided centre-back (Chiriches).

Vlad Chiriches compounds the team's less than stellar defensive approach by miscalculating Lallana's movement and, 1x1 against his opponent, tries to nick the ball on the forward's blind side rather than holding his ground and waiting for back-up. Football's basic rule clearly states that, in such a situation, the defender should cover the line between the ball and the goal, rather than ceding any ground.


Lallana's clever - but hardly unexpected - dummy leaves Chiriches for dead and the Southampton forward with an open avenue for goal. Danny Rose's stance clearly shows the left-back's unwillingness to plug the gap and provide coverage for his ill-positioned centre-back, stopping in his tracks (apparently more concerned with his direct opponent).


The final picture shows Chiriches completely out of position, Walker slowing down and Danny Rose standing still with little intention of doing what should be part of his duties - staying alert to compensate his defensive team-mates' positioning or even mistimed tackles.

  • Conclusion

These particular cases (Manchester United and Tottenham) are but a fraction of what goes on weekly in the Premier League. It seems the latest years brought some sort of regression to less systemic defensive approaches. While the average supporter may revel in the amount of goals and clear-cut chances their team may enjoy, it is nonetheless odd that such well-paid elite professionals as footballers are seemingly left to their own devices, rather than working in tandem with each other to restrict their opponents' chances of hurting them. Even though the Premier League is still the most watched football league in the world, it's certainly not the place where the sport is at its peak.

Manchester United's defensive frailties

Much has been said and spoken about Manchester United and their faltering form. The transition from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes was bound to include some bumps along the way, but the former Everton manager is bound to be found scratching his head while reviewing some recent results and displays. Moyes was considered to be a reactive, reliable, safety-first manager, but his credentials have left much to be desired so far. And while reading through most of the English football press might lead one to believe that it is all a matter of simply adding a few players to the squad, it is hardly the case.

Case in point, the first goal Swansea scored at Old Trafford last weekend for the FA Cup. Manchester United are picked apart smack down the centre by 4 simple touches from Swansea, starting from their centre-back. Since the match is pretty much in slow motion, it is difficult to accept such bad defensive positioning from the current English champions.


Swansea's centre-back Chico Flores has the ball and already United look out of position. Javier Hernández is contributing nothing defensively and Danny Welbeck is trotting backwards. Oddly enough, it's Tom Cleverley - one half of the midfield duo who comes out pressing the man on the ball. Darren Flatcher is not providing any sort of coverage for his defence either. A simple vertical pass down the middle bisects the entire United team and overcomes six players in one sitting.


Swansea perform one of the most run-of-the-mill movements in football, with the striker Wilfried Bony dropping back to support the build-up play and left-winger Routledge exploiting the space vacated by the Ivorian forward. Bony passes it back to Pozuelo who immediately tees up Routledge. Rio Ferdinand's lack of pace is only made worse by his odd decision to half-press Bony when he has little protection from up front (yellow circle) and there doesn't seem to be any support from his team-mates in defence.


Jonny Evans does not come unscathed from this defensive debacle, as he takes ages to adjust his positioning according to Ferdinand's decision and Routledge's movement. It is indeed Chris Smalling (deployed here as right-back) who tries to make up for his team-mate's rash decision. In acres of space, Routledge found it easy to lob Lindegaard and score the first.


Looking at the play from a different perspective, the situation looks even more baffling. United's back four are clearly left exposed (again, this is not in any a counter-attack or a quick-paced transition). Cleverley is almost in line with his forwards and Fletcher cannot track anything that is going on behind him (yellow circle). The almost ubiquitous 4x2x3x1 formation often seems to lead coaches and players to believe that forming two banks of four is enough, often forgetting that movement and coverage are key in order to avoid opponents from pouncing on such vulnerabilities.

The zonal occupation of spaces is apparently on the wane in England, as it becomes ever more frequent watch the full-backs in the Premier League worrying about their direct opponent, rather than concerned with providing coverage for their defensive team-mates. In this particular case, both Smalling and Büttner offer barely any contribution for United's width control - thus making the team wider and more open to this sort of penetrations.


Here, Ferdinand's delay is even clearer, as well, as Smalling and Büttner's removal from where the action is taking place. Watching Ferdinand pass by him, Evans does not adjust his feet accordingly and remains facing forward.


Evans has just finally realised something is not right and starts turning (rather slowly). He was easily outsprinted by the quick Routledge and only Smalling is in a position to bother the left-winger.

  • Conclusion

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing," some may say. While that is certainly true, the lack of defensive organisation in most Premier League sides should offer some food for thought. The return of the once thought to be outdated 4x4x2 (in some shape or form) has brought about more goals and scoring opportunities, but does not bode well for coaches (in a purely coaching sense) nor for clubs - European competition will certainly be less forgiving about this sort of mistakes.