Friday, November 27, 2015

Goal's Anatomy: Gegenpressing

Ever since Jürgen Klopp arrived at Borussia Dortmund the word "Gegenpressing" started to make its way around the media and specifically tactical websites (such as this one). Klopp's arrival at Liverpool, in particular, fanned the flames even further, but it's sometimes hard to define just what the term comprises.

Gegenpressing can be translated literally as counterpressing and it is basically a method that some coaches think to be a very efficient approach to hurt your opponents. Usually, a team either relied on numbers at the back when they gave the ball away and immediately retreated into their own half or they would press high when they didn't have the ball. The gegenpressing's innovation is that one's opponents are most likely to get hurt when they have just won the ball back and are therefore still looking for the right way to turn it into attack - which can sometimes lead to confusion and the unexpected opening of spaces.

A few weeks ago Barcelona and Villareal met at Camp Nou and showed just how useful and effective this weapon can be. This edition of Goal's Anatomy will focus on it in some more detail.

  • 1. Normal defensive organisation.

This is in no way a surprising picture. Barcelona have the ball (Andrés Iniesta does, to be more accurate) and Villareal defend in numbers with everyone behind the ball apart from Roberto Soldado, in a not that atypical 4x4x1x1. There is quite some distance between Villareal's right back Mário Gaspar and the centre-backs and also a lack of coverage in between the lines, but that will be covered elsewhere.

  • 2. Dynamic shifts

Numbers and layouts are, of course, nothing in football, because it's how dynamics work that make or break the lovely ideas one might have drawn on the board. In this case, Iniesta tries to connect with Luís Suárez via a long ball while Munir El Haddadi tries to make an inside run, as so often is the case. Notice the shaded circle where Sergi Roberto is almost by himself in one of the most important areas of the pitch.

  • 3. Villareal win the ball back

Iniesta's hopeful long ball doesn't yield much as Víctor Ruiz heads it clear and the Yellow Submarine win the ball back. Villareal midfielders do a poor job of patrolling their midfield, as indicated by the shaded circle. Now would be the time where Villareal should start deciding how to turn this ball recovery into an attack of their own. Also, notice that there aren't that many Barcelona players around where the ball is lost at the moment.

  • 4. Barcelona pounce while Villareal dillydally

While the Villareal players try to keep the ball down from Ruíz's header, Barcelona react extremely fast and immediately swarm around their opponents in the area of the ball, robbing Villlareal of the necessary time to decide on their next move. Roberto and Sergio Busquets get closer to Iniesta and, together with Dani Alves, force Villareal's mistakes.

Because Villareal were already thinking about transitioning into attack, most of their players abandoned their defensive (body) positioning and most of them even took a step or two forward. Compare, for instance, how almost every Villareal player had his feet facing their own goal in the previous picture and how, on this one, their midfielders are almost in line with the ball, rather than behind it.

Because most players were considering opening up the pitch (namely the right-back), spaces opened up all of a sudden where, in Barcelona's normal attacking phase, there weren't many.

  • Conclusion

Therein lies the beauty of the gegenpressing: By surrendering control of the ball for a few seconds, one can actually befuddle their opponents (sometimes) more easily than when having supreme control of the ball. By allowing the opposing team to win the ball back, one also allows them to lose their balance as they turn their inner chip into attacking mode, ergo making them less prepared to defend in case they give the ball away.

If used wisely, the gegenpressing can have devastating effects and provide a very useful way to tear more defensively solid teams apart in just a few seconds. You can see the whole play just below.

José Mourinho: Involution After Success?

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As so often was the case when he graced the football pitches in Spain and the rest of Europe, leave it to former Barcelona midfield maestro Xavi Hernández to hit the nail on the head about José Mourinho: "He was the assistant coach, someone who understood the philosophy of Barça and who shared many of the same characteristics of Van Gaal. He was very respected by the players. He trained us sometimes alone at Barça B and he was excellent. I'm surprised that he became known for another type of football, more defensive, because he wasn't like that with us."

And therein lies probably one of the most fascinating aspects of The Special One's trajectory thus far.

Much has been said and written about Chelsea's misfortunes this season. But the truth is that, in fact, this downward spiral was not that hard to envision - that is, if you pay some attention to more than just the immediate results. What was once a coach with a great eye for detail and tactical innovation (albeit a more subtle one) has become a shadow of his former self, relying exclusively on his dressing room management skills - à la Luiz Felipe Scolari.

  • 1. The Beginning

Mourinho was given his first chance at a marauding Benfica and he immediately transformed the team, at every single level. However, the fact that he didn't stay there for more than a couple of months didn't help us understand just what he was capable of.

He needed to get to União de Leiria, by then an average mid-table club in the Portuguese top tier, to really make his mark. By December 2001, his team were already flying as high as third, two spots ahead of his eventual employers FC Porto, who rushed to sign him before anyone else would. But what impressed a few (including this column, admittedly) the most was not necessarily the table standings, but rather how he had got there, with proactive football, unafraid of anyone and eschewing altogether the tenets of the typically reactive football played in Portugal in the early seasons of the century. He was a breath of fresh air. The players loved to play for him. Some of them shone like they had never done before (and some of them never would again).

Despite some revisionism laid out by a few football writers as of late, both União de Leiria and FC Porto played much more than just controlled, run-of-the-mill football under a very inspirational coach, like some would have you believe. Mourinho paid excruciating attention to detail (as the famous leaked report by then-opposition scout André Villas-Boas) in an attempt to always get the upper hand on his opponents.

He was indeed inspirational for other coaches, as he seemed to bring a fresh new approach to football and its coaching. Even though he didn't preach anything revolutionary, he seemed to be one of the few who represented the entire package - not only was he able to preach possession-based football and training sessions where the ball was ever present, he also had a penchant for press conferences and soundbites, a supreme confidence in his skills and the air of someone who was going places, all rolled into one.

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What impressed this column the most was however the fact that his approach seemed to be based on a philosophical approach. Interviewed and queried for books and PhD thesis, he was able to show the reasoning behind his decisions on the pitch and in the dressing room. Despite winning the Portuguese league, the Portuguese Cup and the then UEFA Cup in his first full season at FC Porto, Mourinho knew he couldn't just rest on his laurels and went in search of something to motivate his players and keep them in check - hence the intense work on the 4x4x2 diamond that was a relative rarity back then and that proved so successful in Europe, yielding the Champions League in 2004.

Mourinho always had the collective, the group in the back of his mind. In one of the best books written about his career and approach, the Portuguese coach explained how zonal marking was the only option to defend set pieces, since it held the whole team responsible for the play's outcome - once again the group before the individuals. He went on to talk about the principle of complexity (how the relations between the different individuals in a team changed the team dramatically and how any coach should pay attention to it).

On another book, he talked about the Guided Discovery, i.e. how the coach had the responsibility to lay clues for the players to find out the best answer to a specific problem was, Mourinho himself knowing all along what he wanted the answer to be. He bragged about how he wanted to dominate matches or at least control them, if domination was not an option. He talked about how he wanted his teams to press high and then rest with the ball. Players were delighted with his innovative sessions. In short, he sounded much more like the coach Xavi had got to know at Barça.

  • 2. Top of the World

Everyone knows how the story goes by now. After winning the Champions League, Chelsea's new owner wanted Mourinho to lead his team and wouldn't take no for an answer. The Portuguese was an instant success, from his very first press conference. He won his players over in a heartbeat and indeed, in the first matches of the off-season, it was already possible to see many of the movements that Mourinho had implemented at FC Porto.

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According to this column, that Chelsea side was probably vintage Mourinho, the place and time where he sublimated all his skills and honed his qualities even further. He was clearly enjoying himself and everyone (opponents included, sometimes) was basking in his presence. That was the time where his side steamrollered the opposition, sometimes shutting up shop at 1-0, sometimes running rampant. Players like Damien Duff, Arjen Robben, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Paulo Ferreira and so many others enjoyed some of the best moments of their playing careers in what seemed to be an almost unstoppable Chelsea. All of the main tenets were there and it seemed Mourinho was the alchemist that had come across the definitive winning formula.

  • 3. Always Brightest Before The Night

Mourinho decided to go to Inter Milan as the luminary that would set the oft-floundering Massimo Moratti's club on their way back to glory. And that Mourinho did. But that was also where you could sense things starting to fall apart a little bit, a very hard proposition to sustenance when everyone knows Inter ended up winning the Italian League and the Champions League in the two seasons that the Portuguese coach spent in Italy.

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However, there seemed to be more than just the adaptation to a new country, culture and club (all the best coaches do it, just look at what Pep Guardiola has done at Bayern Munich since joining in 2013). The focus on keeping the ball was much less present. The single holding midfielder started giving way to a more solid doble pivote, man-marking started to be interspersed with zonal marking at set pieces, the team were more dependent on individual players. Some of the football was admittedly poor, while some was clearly scintillating. Inter might have deservedly won the Champions League, but, to some followers of his career, Mourinho seemed to be missing a step or two. The fact that he won the Champions League based on a more reactive brand of football might have been a strong reason for what has been happening since.

  • 4. The Tipping Point 

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It is hard to qualify José Mourinho's time at Real Madrid. Some will call it a success, while others would have a harder time doing it. Even Mourinho himself labelled the 2012/13 season the worst of his career, at the end of a very tough, politically-ridden 3-year cycle at Real Madrid. In this case, the most important aspect is not the loads of silverware he piled up or that should have grabbed for his club, but rather how things unravelled from a tactical point of view. While the 5-0 defeat against Barça five years ago almost to the day was clearly one of the toughest days in his professional life, things should not be based solely on that particular result, especially because he managed to do so much more while he was at the helm.

On the contrary, this is about how he got to those results - often times with a much more reactive brand of football, resorting to have his team play exclusively to the strengths of Cristiano Ronaldo, even when it had costly implications on the rest of the squad and their playing style. It seemed Mourinho was involving, going back on all the principles that had brought him such a high level of success.

Man-marking at set pieces became the norm everywhere. Transitions became the team's livelihood. Ceding initiative to opponents soon became the traditional way for Mourinho's side to have the upper hand. Sérgio Ramos or Pepe (neither of whom excel in the build-up phase of play) as the team's holding midfielder was not an unusual sight and denounced the team's focus. Controlling matches with frustrating underhand tactics was not uncommon either. A man so steeped in his principles of positive football and collective thinking seemed to have sold his soul in exchange for more and more trophies.

  • 5. The Return to England

It is hard to fathom matches that are more made in heaven than Mourinho and the United Kingdom. Each party delivers what the other one wants, craves, loves and hates - in equal parts. And because Mourinho came back with a vengeance amidst claims of being The Happy One, it was even harder to get the point across that this was a different Mourinho, more interested in managing things from his tower and less willing to impose his football on his adversaries.

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While the spirit in which he surrounds his team might have been enough to get past a befuddled Manchester City, a David Moyes-led United and the typical Arsène Wenger's Arsenal, all the signs were there: Chelsea were not playing top-class football, either offensively or defensively. Man-marking was now spread to open play, which left the team (and particularly John Terry) much more exposed to anyone who was able to envision the blind spots. The ball was now clearly something to give away (the elimination at the hands of 10-man Paris Saint-Germain at Stamford Bridge being the ultimate example) and ideas to attack opponents' goals seemed to be limited to "give the ball quickly to Hazard" and "Let's see if Fàbregas is capable of pulling a through-ball".

Clearly Chelsea will bounce back from this stupor and will probably progress from the group stage at the hands of FC Porto themselves. The 7 defeats were clearly a statistical blip. But blaming all of that on a thin squad or the typical 10-year cycles of successful managers seems to be a lazy exercise of reasoning, of a certain blindness to what had been taking shape beforehand. It remains to be seen just how far José Mourinho can take this squad and how he will be able to mend some of the fractures that already started to appear in the dressing room.

  • Conclusion

This piece is no way destined to draw attention on all of José Mourinho's falls, but rather how his path has been a slippery slope and how there has been some evidence that such a blip might not be too far off. The siege mentality that the Portuguese usually implements on the clubs he manages tend to work, but it's a scorched earth approach that often leaves many of its members burnt - particularly at a time where player power is at its height and it's increasingly difficult to confine footballers in a "one for all and all for one" mentality for too long.

It is this column's opinion, however, that unless Mourinho reverts his recent trajectory in terms of pure footballing approach, the titles that seemed to be coming his way so thick and fast will tend to spread out eventually, maybe sooner rather than later, as he fails to innovate and make his football as dominating as the approach Mourinho himself adopts at press conferences, where he is still "el puto amo". If he does not step up his game, players will soon catch up with it and start losing faith in his skills and it will be increasingly hard to see his players weep over his departure.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

5 conclusions from Bayern Munich 6-1 FC Porto

Bayern Munich and FC Porto met once again last Tuesday, six days after their previous contest - the six days that Pep Guardiola kept claiming would be enough to correct some mistakes and make the difference. And that they did, as shown in the final scoreline. Similarly to last time around, here are five things we should take from Tuesday's drubbing of FC Porto.

  • 1. Football is about much more than just footwork

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There is one aspect that should be highlighted before any other: While the return leg will be a sad reminder for all FC Porto supporters of the gulf that now exists between their team (and any other Portuguese side for that matter, something that will tend to worsen as UEFA cracks down on third-party ownership) and Europe's big dogs, this was a match that offered one of the best pieces of evidence of how football will probably be played in the future.

Both sides kept adjusting their positioning and tactical formations throughout most of the match and both sets of players were able to interpret the changes and different tasks and movement that different positions required. Apart from the goalkeepers, centre-backs and the centre forwards (and even so...), virtually every other player had to keep reinterpreting the diverse challenges the match insisted on posing as both managers fine-tuned their teams in search of the advantage point. In comparison to, for instance, last weekend's Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United, it becomes clearer and clearer why the Premier League is falling behind the European wagon.

  • 2. Tactical (in)flexibility

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There is probably a reason why Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola is hailed as one of the best coaches in the world and is always in such high demand. At the press conference in Porto a week earlier, the Spanish coach made no mention of the weekend Bundesliga fixture, repeatedly focusing instead on the six days until the return leg and how those six days would be important to correct a lot of the things he had perceived as wrong.

On the other hand, FC Porto coach Julen Lopetegui made the odd-sounding claim that his team held no surprises and that everyone knew how the Dragons played. Sure enough, the first half was the perfect mirror for both coaches' stances.

While Guardiola kept almost the same starting XI (Holger Badstuber taking Dante's place), the side had little to do with the eleven men that took to the pitch at the Dragão. The Spaniard even went as far as saying that Bayern were not ready for Jackson getting so tight to maestro Xabi Alonso on the first leg, but that they were ready for it when the second leg came around.

Indeed, Xabi Alonso hardly ever got himself in between the centre-backs and for most of the first half his role resembled a simple game of shadows, making sure his movement dragged Jackson Martínez out of the way so that Jérôme Boateng and Badstuber had the necessary space and time to progress with the ball or pass it with some purpose. FC Porto went through the whole first half without being able to adjust to that simple manoeuvre.

Furthermore, the Spanish coach played his full-backs Rafinha and Juan Bernat in a narrower position, rather than hugging the touchline - with Phillipp Lahm and Mario Götze providing width. This allowed Bayern to have significantly more passing options and bamboozled FC Porto's men, who were unable to understand whether to mark their supposed direct opponent or the one that kept popping near them.

  • 3. The coach's hand

Julen Lopetegui will have been doing
a lot of this last Tuesday.
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In last week's match report from the Dragão, a reference had been made to just how important coaches are and how their work is sometimes plain for everyone to see. At the Allianz Arena, Lopetegui did himself no favours by stationing Mexican centre-back Diego Reyes on the right side of FC Porto's back four, which meant that a man with hardly any playing minutes during this season was deployed out of position, at one of the toughest stadiums in Europe, facing one Mario Götze.

Given the Portuguese side's need for technically skilled players at the back so that the team had time on the ball when they got it back and the fact that facing Bayern hardly ever calls for a less mobile player stationed out wide, it was hardly surprising to see the Mexican player being replaced with Ricardo half an hour into the match.

On another note, it is equally hard to ignore the fact that FC Porto came out like a deer in headlights, afraid to use the third way between pressing or parking the bus that had worked so well last week. While it's true Bayern were much more accomplished with their pressing when transitioning into defence and effectively stifling the Portuguese side, it is undeniable that the Dragons were a bit further back than at the Dragão, which yielded a huge distance to Bayern's goal whenever they had the chance to win the ball back.

Whether by design or the inability to put his players at ease before such an important match, Lopetegui's European reputation took a serious dent here, as anyone curious enough about the first leg's result to tune in for the return leg won't have been impressed with FC Porto's first half.

  • 4. The vulnerabilities of 4x3x3

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One of Pep Guardiola's main trumps is his rejection of one definitive tactical formation. While he has perhaps been most successful with the 4x3x3 during his Barcelona stint, he has proven more than adept at chopping and changing his tactical formations in order to keep opponents - and sometimes his own players - guessing.

Even though Bayern seemed positively outmanoeuvred at the Dragão, the Spanish coach clearly learnt his lessons and went with a very different approach this time around, drilling holes in what seemed a very static strategy from FC Porto.

In fact, Guardiola stretched FC Porto out wide with Götze and Lahm, but made sure there were plenty of passing options in the middle. As mentioned on the first leg's preview, Óliver Torres and Herrera can sometimes take too long to occupy the necessary positions in front of their defence and Guardiola surely noticed it. With Robert Lewandowski often dropping back with his back to goal, there was also Thiago Alcântara and Thomas Müller lurking around, which meant FC Porto's holding midfielder Casemiro was much less sure of whether to press or cover the space.

Last night's match was surely a definitive reminder of just how vulnerable the 4x3x3 formation can be if the opposition knows how to pick the pockets of space that invariably form around the holding midfielder and behind the interiores - or shuttlers. The time FC Porto took to take notice of those changes was crucial to Bayern's incessant pounding.

  • 5. What does it all mean?

The problem with analysing results rather than processes in football is the instant bipolarity this option presents. Last week Guardiola's head was to be served up on a silver platter and his Bayern project was going nowhere. Today he's being heralded as one of the big names in coaching history. Conversely, Lopetegui was last week being touted for the Real Madrid coaching position (the rumour mill at its best) and this week he's under an enormous amount of pressure as he is forced to defeat Benfica at the Estádio da Luz if he harbours any hope of winning the title and therefore keeping his job with his current employer.

For Guardiola this emphatic win was most definitely a sigh of relief. With last season's debacle against Real Madrid in mind, crashing out against Europe's minor opposition, for all their history, would have deepened the sense of perceived crisis in Bavaria and truncate the Spaniard's wiggle room. While they seem under control, success in domestic competitions would no doubt be insufficient for the club's (almost impossibly) high demands and might bring Guardiola's project into question.

Therefore last night's win - and the way it was accomplished - will serve as the perfect panacea for Bayern's ailments and provide Guardiola with the much-needed time to bring some of the key players back, rather than being forced to watch the rest of the Champions League on the telly. On another note, the demolition of FC Porto will serve as notice for anyone that might think - at their own peril - that Bayern were already with one foot out Europe's door.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

5 conclusions from FC Porto 3-1 Bayern Munich

Following yesterday's night match (memorable for FC Porto, inescapable for Bayern Munich), it's now time to dwell for a bit longer on what lessons can be learnt from the result and the display from both sides. Here are five bullet points.

  • 1. Xabi Alonso marked out of the match

Xabi Alonso's frustration
was on display throughout the match.
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A coach can sometimes drill his players to exhaustion and ask them to do a specific thing or set of things on the pitch and never actually see it come to fruition. Therefore, it's not often that a coach gets to see it materialise on the second minute of a very important match.

As it later became evident, Jackson Martínez had clear instructions to sit close to Bayern's maestro Xabi Alonso and thus frustrate the team's passing rhythm (the Spaniard came in behind the likes of Thiago Alcântara, Mario Götze, Juan Bernat, Sebastian Rode and even Jérôme Boateng as far as passes in the attacking third are concerned). FC Porto coach Julen Lopetegui couldn't have dreamed that that very strategy would yield the match's initial goal as Xabi Alonso was caught out in possession by the same man that would come to deny his extraordinary passing skills. If Bayern could never get into their passing groove, much credit should go the month-long absentee Jackson Martínez.

  • 2. Moments and areas for pressing: the key

FC Porto players gave it their all
in the attempt to close down Bayern's passing options.
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Contrary to Thomas Müller's words, FC Porto did not win last Wednesday by parking the bus. In truth, they did the exact opposite at first by playing a relatively high line and then pressing Bayern's centre-backs and/or Xabi Alonso, in order to disrupt the Bavarians' rhythm. Even though they have been used to being the ball hogs themselves throughout the season, Lopetegui's charges adapted well to the fact that they would see less of the ball and were willing to take a step back and press only when it was deemed necessary.

Rather than pressing their opponents all over the place, FC Porto accepted Bayern's superiority in terms of ball possession, but rather than sitting deep, forced the Germans to play under the Portuguese's own terms. And that is perhaps the biggest lesson of them all for players, coaches and supporters alike - perhaps more than whether to press or not to press, the most important thing is to know what to do when it's time to do it. That way, FC Porto were able (most of the time) to condition Bayern's play towards the areas they felt most comfortable in.

  • 3. Holding the ball up: crucial to breathe

Quaresma might have
provided his trademark finish,
but his work rate impressed the most.
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Despite the final scoreline and the Bayern obituaries that have been written following their capitulation at the Dragão, FC Porto struggled quite a bit after the first 20 minutes up until the half-time whistle. During that period Bayern successfully stifled the Dragons and forced them to retreat to their penalty box and misplace several passes when they won the ball back.

If things didn't pan out as badly as they could have, it was in large part due to the ability displayed by Jackson, Yacine Brahimi and Ricardo Quaresma to hold the ball up and either wait for the foul to come or solve the situation by themselves - thus giving the team some much-needed time to breathe. Without that skill set, FC Porto would probably have succumbed to Bayern's pressing, even if the Germans never looked quite their best at the Dragão.

Quaresma and Jackson's goals will stay in the club supporters' mental highlight reel for a long time, but it was their work rate, willingness to track back and numerous good, yet less visible decisions that allowed FC Porto to thrive.

  • 4. Ball possession: blessing or curse?

Bayern had to wait
until the 28th minute to unleash their celebrations.
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Any time a team that bases their football around ball possession loses, the knives come out to criticise the approach and the judges use the latest defeat or poor display as ultimate evidence that holding on to the ball in and by itself is an ill-advised approach. This is not intended to be one such case.

The main theory sustained by those who prefer a thriftier approach when it comes to sharing the ball around claims that when one's team has the ball, the other team cannot score. The main hole in that theory is that no team in the world - not even Pep Guardiola's Barcelona or World Champions Spain in their prime - was ever able to keep their opponents from having the ball for several minutes, however few they were. The other pressing countenance is that a quick break or getting caught in possession only takes a few seconds to yield at least a scoring chance.

This is in no way a hark back to more cynical times where Serie A teams excelled, but more of a starting point for a discussion about how it's much more important to know what to do when a team effectively has the ball, rather than whether they have it for a short or long time. Ball possession in and by itself offers nothing as an end product, but may well be the best way to keep your opponents from hurting you. The only problem with that is that you need huge amounts of confidence to make it work - and definitely better centre-backs on the ball.

  • 5. Knowing one's strengths and weakness

Dante and Boateng were hardly ever given a moment's peace.
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The position of centre-back could actually be one of the best starting points for any analysis of yesterday's proceedings. On one hand, Lopetegui was humble enough to realise Robert Lewandowski presented a clear threat, particularly given Bayern's recent, more direct way of playing as a result of so many dribblers missing. Therefore, he made sure that the Pole was almost always doubled up on whenever the ball was contested in the air, but also that the areas around him were duly occupied with FC Porto players.

On the other hand, the Basque coach admitted that his centre-backs could not run the risk of being dispossessed near their own penalty box and that was why both Maicon and Bruno Martins Indi had no qualms hoofing it up towards Jackson Martínez (whenever possible), rather than exposing themselves to being caught in possession against the likes of Götze or Müller.

Guardiola, in turn, saw Boateng and Dante (and even Manuel Neuer) put in some gasp-inducing passes and moves, and not only ended up chasing the score but was never sure enough anything similar wouldn't happen again either. For a team that is so dedicated to ball possession, it seems baffling that, with so much money spent all over the pitch, Boateng and Dante are still the go-to centre-back pairing.

In purely defensive terms, both centre-backs showed once again that they are from comfortable when dealing with physically imposing strikers (or forwards, for that matter) and high balls, which was why Jackson managed to give FC Porto some wiggle room up the pitch and how the third goal came about.

FC Porto 3-1 Bayern Munich: Dragons Work Their Magic

Previews had been written. Podcasts had been recorded. Stats had been analysed. And yet nothing quite seemed to lead anyone to believe FC Porto were about to add another incredible chapter to their already success-laden book of European nights.

Not even the most optimistic FC Porto supporter would have hazard such an adventurous guess: A 3-1 win, resulting from such an incredibly valiant display. With the second leg coming up at the Allianz Arena in less than a week's time and without both Alex Sandro and Danilo, though, the story will be far from over and FC Porto players, supporters and coaches will have to brace themselves for a bumpy ride.

  • To Be or Not to Be: A Third Way?

But how did this all come to pass? That is probably the question going around the head of most journalists, if not every FC Porto supporter on their way home. There had been some discussion about what exactly Julen Lopetegui's approach would be and whether it would be better to hold back and afford Bayern Munich the initiative or, on the contrary, pounce on the Germans' perceived vulnerabilities.

It turns out FC Porto's Spanish coach had something else on his mind and went with an alternative option. Rather than pressing heavily - and indiscriminately - from the front, his charges had clear instructions to keep their lines compact (the Dragons did not start out with the proverbial bus parked), allow the ball to reach the centre-backs and pounce on them when they looked most exposed - a mishit pass, getting the ball with their backs to goal, etc.

The approach worked wonders and by the tenth minute FC Porto were already leading 2-0 via similar passages of play. On the first instance, Jackson Martínez caught Xabi Alonso out in possession and charged towards goal and got around Manuel Neuer, only for the German goalkeeper to bring the Colombian down. Ricardo Quaresma coolly scored the ensuing penalty and, five minutes later, repeated Jackson's actions by intercepting Dante's underhit pass and provided an even cooler finish to put FC Porto in the driver's seat.

  • Physical and mental yo-yoing

The German champions effectively looked shaken by the worst start they could have imagined, but they gradually grew into something that looked closer to their best. In fact, as the match wore on Bayern forced FC Porto backwards more and more and increasingly put the Portuguese under pressure. (By the end of the first half, Bayern had accumulated 70% of ball possession, a statistic that Lopetegui is used to seeing under his own team's column and that reflects how little of the ball FC Porto had seen.)

By the time Bayern scored through Thiago Alcântara's first goal in more than 450 days, things were starting to look shaky for FC Porto, as their players seemed to grow physically tired as a result of their incessant pressing, especially through the centre in an attempt to close down Bayern's passing options. Coverage started to arrive a bit later than usual as the first half drew to a close and the out-balls were not getting to their destination. This column wondered during half-time just what Lopetegui would fine-tune in the dressing room to avoid what seemed to be the impending German attacking barrage.

As it were, the exact opposite happened. Bayern took to the pitch and almost immediately looked ill positioned, particularly in central midfield, oddly awarding FC Porto acres of space into which to break, rather than attempting to stifle the Dragons. When Jackson Martínez delicately received Alex Sandro's long diagonal pass and once again got around Neuer for the third goal, Herrera had already forced the German 'keeper to make a wonderful save and the feeling at the stadium was that FC Porto's third goal was somehow more likely than Bayern's second.

  • The coach's hand

It is sometimes hard to perceive - or to explain - just what a coach does in the background to help increase his team's performances and results. Here it was rather easy to assess just how well Julen Lopetegui had drilled his team as his players kept pressing under the same circumstances and adapted almost miraculously to what the match asked of them - something very different from what they are used to on most matches.

There was Casemiro's excellent positioning throughout the game whenever Bayern got to the goal line and tried to cut a pass backward, the incessant coverage provided by the wingers to their full-backs and the awareness of where the out-ball had to get out through. A team that plays with such confidence and panache even when facing one of Europe's fiercest sides necessarily means his coach has to be awarded some credit.

  • Thiago, Götze and the diamond

Guardiola made some subtle changes to his team's tactical layout, chiefly the forwards' positioning. Most of the time, Bayern seemed to be playing in a diamond 4x4x2, with Mario Götze often behind Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller. While it was one of the reasons why the Bavarians managed to put FC Porto on the back foot throughout the latter half of the initial 45 minutes, it also backfired spectacularly throughout the first half of the second period, as Götze became more unaware of his defensive duties and Lahm and Thiago were not enough to protect Xabi Alonso.

When Sebastian Rode came on for Götze, Thiago was allowed to move higher up the pitch. And while Rode actually did very well for himself, Thiago stopped being the threat he had been posing for the first hour of the match as his new positioning now meant he was much closer to Casemiro and the Portista defence, forcing him to often receive the ball with his back to goal.

Despite Rode and Lahm's best intentions, it was clear FC Porto were being allowed too much space to break into. Even though Pep Guardiola would later come to say that in his opinion the match was never out of their control, the fact of the matter was that it remains rare to see any Guardiola side offering so many chances to their opponents with so little control down the middle.

  • Football: A Game Played with One's Head? 

Perhaps more than any tactical tweak, however, it may have been the mental approach that Guardiola mentioned at his press conference that did the trick for both teams. As far as Bayern were concerned, the Germans looked more and more baffled and dispirited as the match wore on, particularly after FC Porto's third goal, and never resembled the assured team they were during the first half of this season (and no, this match does not constitute enough reason to celebrate the end of tiki-taka).

As for the Dragons, the same team that was starting to look a bit lost as the half-time whistle blew suddenly found themselves awash with fresh confidence 20 minutes later as they realised beating Bayern (if not on the aggregate of the two legs, at least in front of their own crowd) was eminently doable. Danilo might have laid on the ground with cramps while Casemiro couldn't bring himself to get his hands off his knees after the final whistle was blown, but they had been zipping around just seconds earlier - a case of mind over matter if there ever was one.

  • Quaresma: A Wizard Coming into His Own?

Anyone familiar with this column(ist) will have come across some of the doubts surrounding Ricardo Quaresma's contributions to the team. As it were, today was definitely one of the best matches from the Portuguese winger, not (only) because of the goals he scored - and the two cool finishes would be enough to stand on their own - but also because of the stupendous amount of work (defensive and otherwise) that would have seemed impossible not so long ago.

Quaresma held the ball when he had to, dribbled when he should and kept showing himself available to team-mates in need of an out-ball. And that - in the middle of such a memorable night from most players - should be highlighted above anything else.

FC Porto may be in for a tough match at the Allianz Arena, but they have at least made Europe sit up and pay attention to the only undefeated team in the competition so far - even after playing the dreaded Bayern Munich.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

FC Porto x Bayern Munich: The Preview

With such a monumental match coming up as far as FC Porto are concerned, PortuGOAL had to step up and provide a thorough preview of what can only be described as a David-vs-Goliath sort of clash. This time there's room for an in-depth analysis and also a short podcast for anyone that feels more inclined to listening rather than reading. You can find both pieces here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

FC Porto 4-0 FC Basel: The pictures

Last Tuesday night FC Basel were comprehensively beaten by FC Porto, a match that was analysed soon after the end of the match. But sometimes words fail to paint a proper picture that helps explain where exactly the difference lay between the two legs. An attempt to put it into context follows below.

  • Jackson who?

There's always a risk while praising a player for one isolated performance but here Vincent Aboubakar was certainly a linchpin for FC Porto's attacks throughout the match. Whether acting as a wall off of which his team-mates could bounce their passes or getting himself into scoring (or at least finishing) positions, the Cameronian's ability - and willingness - to make himself available to open passing lanes meant that Jackson Martínez was not as sorely missed as one might think. Whether this was a one-off evening or just a taste of just what Aboubakar is capable of remains to be seen. If Jackson Martínez leaves, as expected, the former Lorient man will certainly have lots more opportunities.

  • A different attacking approach
At the press conference, Julen Lopetegui claimed that the team adjusted their strategy according to their opponents - something that is not exactly groundbreaking, but that has sometimes been hard to notice when FC Porto are concerned. Last Tuesday there was clearly a change of tack and the centre was a much more fertile ground for scoring chances. The wings were still the starting point for attacks, but more as a decoy - usually through the seemingly unshakable Brahimi - so that FC Basel's centre could become vacant.

Contrary to what has been the norm so far, decent chances came from the middle, rather than the wings. The Dragons kept wreaking havoc with an approach that worked wonders throughout the whole 90 minutes.

Just in case there remained any doubts, the chalkboard below compares the number (and origin) of crosses over the the two legs and certainly helps explain FC Porto's different approach against Paulo Sousa's FC Basel.

Another noticeable aspect was how less involved Cristian Tello was when compared to his counterpart down the left, Brahimi. Without space to run into, the Spaniard winger is sometimes frustrated all too easily (even though the run that drew the foul for the first goal was his). Even his team-mates seem to be aware of that and, consciously or not, tend to seek Brahimi for the out-ball. On the other hand, it is quite easy to see how many dribbles (stars) the Algerian attempted and how he invariably sought his team-mates with passes inside.

  • Evandro comes into his own

It hasn't been the easiest of seasons for former Estoril man Evandro. With Óliver Torres and Herrera in front of him in the pecking order, he's been usually limited to come on for the last 10-15 minutes of matches. Here, however, he was able to make the most of a few consecutive starts following Óliver Torres' injury in the first leg against Basel and his silky touch and intelligent positioning enabled him to find pockets of space to receive the ball in, as well as distributing it calmly and wisely. Playing mainly left of centre, he combined well with Martins Indi and Brahimi, and was able to keep FC Basel's midfielders guessing.

  • Compactness in midfield means greater solidity at the back

One of the knock-on effects of the proximity between FC Porto players while attacking was that they were able to immediately get close to the ball when it was lost and stop FC Basel from getting their counterattacking groove on. Therefore, the defence consequently looked more solid, even though it was comprised of (almost) the same players doing the very things they've been doing so far. The difference was in the much tighter shielding.

Casemiro was one of the key players for that effective shielding, patrolling the area in front of his defence when necessary, but - more crucially - playing closer to his midfield team-mates, which allowed him to exert counterpressing and winning the ball back on numerous occasions (green diamonds stand for ball recoveries and green crosses stand for tackles won).

FC Porto were on one hand much quicker to react to giving the ball away. But, on the other hand, they were also able to time their pressing much better than in times past, successfully pinning FC Basel at the back and robbing them of the necessary time to breathe and impose their own passing, high-pressing game.

When compared to the first leg, it's not exactly hard to see the different approach in defence as well, with the centre much less exposed and the number of ball recoveries (green diamonds) and tackles in the centre increasing dramatically. By winning the ball back in such advanced, central positions, FC Porto were able to create danger simply through better positioning - thus proving once again that the game's fluidity makes it hard to tell attack and defence apart.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

FC Porto 4-0 FC Basel: Dragons destroy Swiss team to bits in magical night

As Portugal's sole representative in the Champions League, FC Porto were trying to successfully negotiate their way into the competition's quarter-finals stage for the fifth time, thus cementing their place as the country's leading force in Europe (second-best Benfica only managing to achieve it twice since the inception of the Champions League).

Without captain Jackson Martínez, recently injured against Braga, and Óliver Torres only fit for the bench, there were some questions marks about the Dragons' ability to beat a side that both Real Madrid and Liverpool had found to be tricky. As it turns out, Julen Lopetegui's charges put in the performance of the season so far and will have certainly put some of their names on the radar of bigger European teams.

  • The unstoppable force from the Cameroon

Vincent Aboubakar was brought in at the beginning of the season both to provide cover for Jackson Martínez and give him the opportunity to slowly learn the ropes in order to take the Colombian striker's place when he eventually moved away to greener pastures. Even though his goals per minute ratio was certainly impressive, the Cameronian hadn't played that much this season and there were some question marks here about whether he would be able to find his stride in such lofty environments.

Aboubakar was indeed fundamental to the night's outcome, and he proved as much right from the start. With FC Basel seemingly willing to press from the front - their 4x2x3x1 fitted perfectly into FC Porto's 4x3x3 - FC Porto's centre-backs were forced to resort several times to long balls and the striker did not disappoint, effectively linking up play with his team-mates. The 47 passes he received throughout the match painted the perfect picture.

As has often been the case, for all the ball possession FC Porto actually looked more dangerous on the counterpressing - i.e. when they won the ball immediately after giving it away. The first goal, on 14 minutes, was the perfect example as Casemiro made a well-timed tackle and then played a probing pass into Cristian Tello, who ended up being fouled. Brahimi's expertly taken free kick was the first of four delightful goals.

  • Solid improvements across the board

 FC Porto had been looking better over the past few weeks and the wins against Sporting and Braga certainly didn't hurt matters, but there remained a few doubts about the team's ability whenever the going got tougher. Given how the team had struggled to create many chance against Basel and that a 1-1 scoreline was a tricky scoreline, both teams's approach was something of a mystery. Basel's initial attempt at pressing high up quickly fizzled out, but FC Porto consolidated all the marginal gains from the past weeks.

There were two things in particular that made a significant difference. On one hand, both Evandro and Herrera were much more willing to penetrate enemy lines and drag their direct markers out of position, thus creating confusion about which Basel player should be marking whom. This had the knock-on effect of putting more FC Porto players near the ball when it was given away and consequently allowing the Dragons to exert greater control over the match, which has not always been the case so far.

On the other hand, both Tello and Brahimi - for all their attacking forays - were willing to track back, unlike what has often happened this season, stopping Basel to hit the wings, particularly on the break. All of this compounded Basel's misery and stopped them in their tracks as the Swiss side were never able to find their groove and, as time went on, started subsiding.

  • Dragons discover central virtue

A 1-0 scoreline was good, but it was not exactly an insurance policy, since a goal from Basel would level things. As it were, Brahimi made another one of his darting runs down the left (which had already brought him a few bruises during the first half) and slid the ball to Herrera, who had no trouble dispatching the ball into Vaclík's far corner. Whatever doubts remained were quickly and surely disappearing.

However, perhaps the most important point to take from this match is FC Porto's change of tack as far as the attacking approach is concerned. Unlike what happened against Braga and Sporting, for instance, today there were virtually no aimless crosses thrown into the box, despite Aboubakar's physical presence.

In fact, the chances created from open play throughout the match spoke for themselves and showed the patter to exhaustion: Initiate attacks down the wings to attract the opponents there and then find the pockets of space in the middle. This time around, there were even midfielders supporting those runs, with the rest of players close by just in case.

In the end, Casemiro and Aboubakar would score another two gems, the Brazilian midfielder with a piledriver from 30 yards out and the Cameronian striker with a fine solo run that made for possibly the goal of the evening. However, the most impressive tonight was certainly FC Porto's ability to leave their indelible mark on what will certainly be remembered as one of the club's magical nights in the Champions League. A fifth presence in the competition's quarter-finals was guaranteed and the display that led to it will certainly have supporters gagging for what's to come against Europe's stronger sides.

PortuGOAL and

Ahead of tonight's match between FC Porto and Basel, PortuGOAL's latest podcast analyses the Portuguese team's situation (and whether or not results are a true reflection of proceedings) on one hand and, on the other, takes a look at Portuguese players in Spain and Spanish players at FC Porto thanks to the participation of the reputable David Cartlidge, in what is probably one of the website's best podcasts so far. You can check it here.

Leading up to the match, there is still time to take a look at a piece on about the 10 most exciting prospects playing in the Portuguese league. Some may surprise you, some you may fundamentally disagree with. Either way is fine. You can check it here.

Friday, March 6, 2015

SCB 0–1 FC Porto: Dragons keep up the pace up front

After Sunday’s comprehensive defeat of Sporting, FC Porto had another tough obstacle to overcome – this time it was Braga, who had arrived at this match on the back of a very interestingly winning streak. If Julen Lopetegui’s had any hopes of breathing down Benfica’s neck, victory was mandatory.

However, the team led by the Dragons’ former glory Sérgio Conceição had other ideas and wasn’t willing to roll over, particularly because Sporting’s defeat last Sunday at the Dragão meant that Braga were in touching distance of a much sought-after Champions League berth.

  • Guerreiros stifle Dragons from first whistle

As the only team that had beaten Benfica twice this season, Braga certainly did not need any more letters of recommendation and, with their own agenda in mind, came out strong from the get-go. Ruben Micael and Zé Luís allowed both Maicon and Marcano time on the ball, but effectively closed the easy, obvious passing lanes to Casemiro, thus forcing several long balls out of FC Porto’s centre-backs. With the excellent Pedro Tiba and Danilo sticking close to their direct opponents, Lopetegui’s men had no choice but to play outside Braga’s block, forcing crosses upon crosses.

In fact, that was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the match, as Danilo and Tiba were virtually marking Herrera and Evandro out of the match (Evandro would later improve his performance), the same happening practically everywhere on the pitch, almost resembling a series of individual battles - with little movement from FC Porto to burst past the man-marking approach.

FC Porto were once again showing their vulnerabilities, since the team kept lacking collective answers to bypass teams who are adept at patrolling the area in front of their penalty box and that, unlike Sporting, don’t allow acres of space to exploit behind the back four. All of that meant that it was up to the most skilled players to make the difference, i.e. Jackson Martínez and Brahimi. Indeed, the Dragons only showed some of their potential either when Jackson dropped back to link up play (but with no one taking in his place in the penalty box for the eventual crossing that is the side’s most frequent solution) or Brahimi got past his man, particularly after moving to his more natural left wing 15 minutes into the match.

  • FC Porto gradually improve

Despite their cohesive defending and the dangerous-looking transitions, Braga actually struggled to create clear-cut chances, with the exception of the 5th minute set-piece that had Fabiano once again fumbling for the ball. As the match wore on, though, FC Porto became more proactive when they lost the ball and the energy of Braga’s front four slowly subsided.

Ironically, FC Porto always looked more dangerous when Braga committed men forward on their breakaways, with the ball often travelling down the wings - Lopetegui’s insistence on ignoring the centre means that their charges never invade the most dangerous areas of the pitch, thus needing numerous attacking situations to create a clear chance, usually after yet another cross.

The end of the first half brought a bit more danger as Tello started finding more space to run into and, on the other hand, Evandro started making himself more available to receive bisecting passes from the centre-backs (but was eventually replaced not long into the second half).

  • FC Porto repeat winning formula

Similarly to what had happened against Sporting, FC Porto looked willing to be more intense when they came back from the dressing room. With Braga gradually tiring out, the Dragons started finding more space to exploit, even though (half) chances kept coming far and between. Despite Evandro’s improvement, the midfielder was replaced with Ricardo Quaresma, meaning the Dragons were now playing a 4x2x3x1 of sorts, with Brahimi off Aboubakar (who had taken the injured Jackson Martínez’s place).

In what turned out to be a slow-burning second half (and match overall), it became clearer and clearer how FC Porto had an Óliver Torres-shaped hole in the middle, without anyone able to pick apart opposing defences with passes, movements or dummies and this forcing opponents out of their comfort zone. With Braga fading more and more out of the contest as the match wore on, the Dragons got tighter to Sérgio Conceição’s men and, in one of those situations, Aboubakar left Tello one on one against Matheus and the Spaniard replicated what he had done so well against Sporting.

 All in all, it was a very cagey match from two of the best teams in the Portuguese league that promised a bit more, but the fact that both teams needed the three points might help explain both sides’ fearfulness. On the other hand, it was hard not to feel disappointed by how both teams looked most comfortable when the other side lost the ball and thus paved away for quick breaks, rather than showing good skills as far as attacking organisation is concerned.

FC Porto may have won the match – and in hindsight may have in fact been the team more willing to chase the goal – but the end result seems to be less of a collective effort than a consequence of a much stronger squad individually. Victories will always offer some shade, but FC Porto’s process has yet to persuade.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

FC Porto 3-0 Sporting: Dragons nullify Sporting on Tello's night

FC Porto and Sporting entered this match with five points separating them and with both teams needing a win. On one hand, Benfica had effectively destroyed Estoril the day before and put a seven-point distance between themselves and the Dragons. On the other hand, Sporting were just one point ahead of Braga in the fight for the next season's last Champions League place. The promise of an entertaining match was made.

But the game played out somewhat differently from what might be expected. Having yet to lose against either FC Porto or Benfica this season, the Lions' coach Marco Silva chose not to replicate the successful strategy that had granted the Verde e Brancos an impressive 3-1 win at the Dragão for the Portuguese Cup last October.

  • Sporting's compact back four

Sporting's more expectant approach was somewhat counterbalanced by the high positioning of their back line, playing 10-15 yards in front of their own penalty box, an approach complemented by the fact that all four elements in the Lions' defence were deployed very narrow - apparently in an attempt to stifle FC Porto's centre.

Sporting's plan seemed to be completed by a more expectant approach and a seeming over-reliance on FC Porto's tendency to make mistakes in possession, particularly through their centre-backs. The first two half-opportunities came from Sporting - and exactly through the expected fashion. After that, Sporting seemed to evaporate offensively as FC Porto started piling on the pressure.

  • FC Porto's issues down the centre and ironic goal

Without Óliver Torres, the Dragons' coach Julen Lopetegui went with Evandro to take the Spanish wunderkid's place, meaning Herrera played closer to Casemiro than usual. The midfield match-up was almost man-to-man marking, with Herrera on William Carvalho, Evandro on Adrien and Casemiro on João Mário - and vice-versa, naturally.

The Dragons had some initial issues with the build-up play, as Brahimi looked like the team's only out-ball, with both Herrera and Evandro unwilling to get the ball from their centre-backs. On the defensive side of things, Herrera and Evandro were not looking too secure either, playing too far apart and thus forcing Casemiro to move out wide - which made it look like Sporting could create some danger down that route, particularly with Montero, João Mário and Nani all thriving in that space.

As Sporting progressively faded, FC Porto ended up scoring 31 minutes into the match with can only be described as the antithesis of their tactical blueprint: Maicon hit it long in the direction of Jackson Martínez, who, with a little flick, played Cristian Tello in for the Spanish's first goal of the evening. On English shores, this would be designated as typical route-one football.

  • Sporting go missing, FC Porto at full throttle

Marco Silva's team seemed ill-prepared for the possibility of conceding a goal and apparently without a plan B. Things surely didn't look rosy as the Dragons kept attacking in waves and looked more purposeful on the ball. That much was further stressed as FC Porto came out stronger out of the gates for the second half and Tello benefited from another lovely assist from Jackson Martínez, with Sporting left-back punished for his terrible positioning and reading of the game.

Silva reacted immediately with Slimani and Capel coming on for Montero and Carrillo (meaning Nani acted as no. 10 and João Mário alongside William Carvalho), but nothing came of it. In fact, it was FC Porto that kept coming at the vulnerable lions, with Jackson now finding pockets of space between the opposing centre-backs but also between the centre-halves and the full-backs. With Sporting a tad more proactive and more balanced up front, the Dragons' midfield found the space they had been craving for some probing passes behind the Lions' back four.

Tello would round up his evening with a hat-trick after Herrera followed in Jackson Martínez's footsteps and provided a direct through-ball that completed Jonathan's torment of a match. Iván Marcano would hit the woodwork with a powerful header in an attempt to increase the final scoreline, but it ended up unchanged up until the final whistle.

  • Conclusion

An anaemic display from Sporting that cannot certainly be blamed exclusively on Thursday's Europa League match against Wolfsburg. Despite the difference as far as players are individually concerned, the team did not seem prepared to what FC Porto had to offer, the huge space behind the Lions' defence proving deadly for the team led by Marco Silva - and given the team played the whole time with such a high defence, it had be to under the coach's instructions.

FC Porto, on the other hand, ended up achieving a very good result and a decent cushion in order to guarantee direct access to next season's Champions League - and still be within touching distance of Benfica. Still, there remain some issues that look hard to get rid of, namely the defence's shakiness when things are more tightly contested and the little protection provided by the midfield. Also, the fact that the team rely heavily on Brahimi to provide the out-ball should not be overlooked either, especially as the season enters its defining stages.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wolfsburg 4-1 Bayern Munich: Wake-up call for Guardiola?

In what proved to be one of the season's shockers, Wolfsburg trounced current (and most likely 2015's eventual) German champions Bayen Munich 4-1 in the Bundesliga's return to action after the winter break. Given that, more than the unbalanced result, Wolfsburg put in such an impressive display against one of Europe's toughest sides and that the Champions League will soon be upon us, there are some notes to take from this contest.

  • Bayern unashamed to go long

One of the most interesting aspects of last night's match was how much Pep Guardiola's centre-backs (in this case, Dante and Jerome Boateng) were willing to hit long diagonal balls up front from the same part of the pitch. This looked like a very deliberate strategy, with Robert Lewandowski coming short to drag opponents out and one of the midfielders (Bastian Schweinsteiger or David Alaba, in the first half) trying to exploit the space behind the Polish striker.

Given that Bayern lacked quick runs from behind from either Arjen Robben or Thomas Müller, for instance, Guardiola seems to have taken the competition-free weeks to work on a more varied approach, perhaps divining the succession of compact, deep-lying teams that side is about to face. In fact, it was impossible not to notice how hard Bayern found to penetrate through their opponents' centre.

  • A spanner in the works

Another interesting aspect of Wolfsburg's display was how they managed to rattle the usually metronomic Xabi Alonso, a key cog in the Bavarians' typically well oiled gear. Coach Dieter Hecking was smart in instruction one of Bas Dost or former Chelsea man Kevin De Bruyne to sit on Xabi Alonso to stop him from collecting and distributing passes easily. His chalkboard shows how the Spaniard struggled at finding his team-mates with positive passes, but the fact that he was caught in possession several times is even more revealing.

Bayern's defence in need of a tune-up

There is one feature of Guardiola's teams that gets often overlooked, which is the transition into defence. The former Barcelona great tends to instill great urgency for the moment the ball is given away, frequently leading to the ball being won back very few seconds after it was lost. Here Bayern were not as proactive and their players were indeed often far from each other to assemble the usual net that stifles the opposition. That, coupled with the midfielders' reluctance (or unwillingness) to return, meant that Bayern defenders were often late and/or isolated in 1v1 situations, resulting in a small number of interceptions and a appalling tackle ratio.

Dante and Boateng, in particular, had a torrid time last night and did not offer much in terms of stemming Wolsfburg's threat, which must be a worrying sign for Guardiola as the Champions League looms large on the horizon.

  • A clear blueprint

Dieter Hecking showed that he was well aware of Bayern's vulnerabilities (even if last night's result should be taken with a pinch of salt). Wolfsburg were happy to cede possession to the German champions and hold tight at the back, but they seemed to know exactly how and where to hurt Bayern.

On one hand, Hecking's men were smart enough not to try to break Bayern down through the centre when they got the ball back, rather immediately attempting to stretch their opponents out wide and searching for the pockets of space either side of Xabi Alonso (and, most importantly, behind Schweinsteiger and Alaba). Only then, after receiving the ball out wide and progressing towards Bayern's centre-backs, did De Bruyne & co. try to penetrate down the middle, much to Dante and Boateng's chagrin.

De Bruyne, in particular, was tremendous by making himself available to constantly be the man on the run, whether it was in the centre or down the wings. his two goals perhaps showing just what an asset he could have been in José Mourinho's side. Catching Boateng and Dante high up the pitch, the Belgian made the most of his breaks and proved just how vulnerable tiki-taka-playing Bayern could be.

The Unsung Hero(es): The Holding Midfielder

Football is a game of light and shadow - a team attracting their opponents to one side of the pitch so they can then attack their blind side, the body swerve to get past your marker without even touching the ball, a side conceding the lion's share of possession so they can then pounce on their rivals' disorganised lines.

The human mind is much better equipped to notice and understand what happens, rather than what does not happen. Sir Alex Ferguson, for instance, chose to sell Jaap Stam because the statistics that he had at his disposal told him that the Dutch mainstay was not tackling as much. Only much later did it dawn on the Scot that Stam's positioning was improving in such a way that he didn't need to tackle as much.

In the world of the blinding lights provided by the stratospheric numbers of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, or the showstopping saves and long passes of Manuel Neuer, it is sometimes hard to discern what goes on behind the curtain. In other words, apart from club or personal preferences, what makes a full-back or a midfielder better or worse than their team-mates or competitors?

Case in point, Liverpool's fortunes changed for the better over the past few weeks, coinciding with holding midfielder Lucas Leiva's return to the fold. Was it a mere correlation or, on the contrary, cause and effect? The Brazilian, always so discreet and effective, can often fly by under most spectators' radar, but his two displays against Chelsea for the Capital One Cup are indeed on of the best records of just what the mission of a player in his position is.

In the video below, Lucas hardly ever seems to do anything of significance - but instead of searching for the light, try to imagine what would happen if he hadn't been around to stifle one threat here, to distribute the ball nicely there, or just taking up the space that would have allowed the opposing forward to thrive. By doing that, one might realise that some things will not remain unseen ever again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Is the Premier League Falling Victim to Its Virtues?

Photo credits:
Crystal Palace's Ian Wright in the 1990 FA Cup final.
20 years ago English football was surrounded in a cloud of mystery as far as most people in Europe were concerned. Without today's uninterrupted flow of live streamed matches, football had to be witnessed live on most occasions - and following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, English teams became even more alien to continental football lovers.

However, English football managed to retain its appeal. The tales of teams going at it no matter what the score was, packed up stadiums, matches played in broad daylight, fervent supporters that would never turn their backs on their team and brave supporting of managers through thick and thin kept paving the imaginary of the remaining Europeans, particularly the Southern for whom many of those concepts seemed to belong to a whole different universe, let alone sport.

The Premier League was finally introduced in 1992, coinciding almost to perfection with the return of English teams to European competition. The first (not always live) broadcasts of the FA Cup final, for instance, started to surface on continental TV sets and the enchantment would rapidly pick up steam. When England's top tier became a regular fixture in the schedules of most enthusiasts of the sport, it seemed too good to be true. No tale had been exaggerated. Everyone wanted to bear witness to those appealing matches.

Since then, the Premier League managed to grab the spotlight of European football and to bring the best players and managers to English shores, effectively ensuring English clubs remain some of the wealthiest in the world (suffice to say, for instance, that Roma's revenue is below West Ham's, as a term of comparison) However, that glitter has been fading away in recent years.

  • The culture

In fact, over the past few years the marketeers in charge of branding the Premier League have been - ever so subtly - changing the competition's catchphrase from "The best league in the world" to "The most exciting league in the world", capturing a very delicate yet crucial nuance.

Not long after leaving Chelsea, André Villas-Boas (not exactly the most revered presence in English football) made an interesting point by admitting he had not entirely apprehended the nation's reality when he tried to change Chelsea's style from a reactive approach into a more proactive one. Ball retention and patient build-up were not only concepts hard to grasp by supporters, but by players as well.

Photo credits:
Roberto Martínez has made the headlines
with Swansea, West Brom and Everton.
The fact is that English football appears to be deeply rooted in broken up matches with extremely high levels of intensity - which for some reason does not lend itself to significant change. It is probably not entirely coincidental that most of the tectonic tactical shifts that have taken place over the past two decades have not hailed from Blighty, despite clubs like Swansea or coaches like Brendan Rogers and Roberto Martínez, both of whom managed the Welsh club.

The gutting duels between José Mourinho's Chelsea and Rafa Benítez's Liverpool from a decade ago were certainly fiercely contested, but they revealed a betrayal of sorts to English football's main tenets. Football is meant to be playing passionately and with your heart on your sleeve, not on tactical boards and in 0-0 matches. After Manchester United's defeat against Barcelona in Rome in 2009 (following which Sir Alex Ferguson admitted himself that he didn't feel like keeping on playing wary football), English football may have taken a step back.

  • The insularity

Great Britain's isolation has simultaneously been one of the country's main trumps and flaws. In football, it has meant that, despite significant breakthroughs, the island's football still finds some common ground with the way it was played several decades ago (Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis, for instance, keep on making excellent lemonades with some of those methods). England, in particular, has remained something of an oasis (poor pun intended) to the unsuspecting bystander who craves for scoreline uncertainty and intense matches.

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How long will it take to repeat Chelsea's
2012 Champions League success?
However, that very feature may very well be damaging English teams' prospects in Europe. Leaving the Europa League aside for a moment - since English teams usually consider it nothing but a Thursday night nuisance -, Chelsea's triumph in 2012 was something of an anomaly (not unlike Inter Milan's the year before), in a season that didn't end with the same manager that had started it. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have taken over Europe by storm and it appears hard to fathom them letting go in the near future.

The same insularity that allows Arsène Wenger to remain on his job has the effect of allowing to repeat the same mistakes season after season as Arsenal are usually eliminated in the first round after the group stage. Defensive organisation and transition seems to be an afterthought in so many managers of English teams, as if the successive attacking waves would somehow make up for the conceded goals.

Liverpool didn't even manage to pip Basel to qualification from their group and Manchester City's struggles in Europe's main competition have been well documented, regardless of the man in charge. Manchester United still very much look like a work in progress and nowhere near European domination.

If England are to enjoy European success anytime soon, Chelsea seem to be the safer bet - and even the Blues have troubles of their own as an aging John Terry and his sidekick Gary Cahill can sometimes suffer at the hands and feet of swift, mobile forwards. Still, Chelsea look far more composed when they give the ball away, for instance, and immediately proceed to adjust in order to protect the fastest way to their goal.

  • Conclusion

But perhaps the most worrying signs are not the ones that can be perceived in the Champions League, but rather on English pitches week in, week out. In a time where coaches the world over are more and more concerned about how to populate the centre of the pitch correctly and create chances in that particular part of the pitch given its primordial importance, it is baffling to see Manchester City, Arsenal or Liverpool being ripped apart by any team that attacks them through the centre on quick attacking transitions - something that stronger European sides seldom forgive.

In short, the reason why the Premier League remains such an interesting, attractive proposition may well be the very reason why England must rely on José Mourinho and Chelsea if they want to brag about being top dogs again.