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.

Photo credits:
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.

PortuGOAL's latest podcast

The latest installment of PortuGOAL's series of podcasts has been released and can be found here. In it Tom and I discuss what conclusions can be taken from the first half of the Portuguese league and we also have a quick-fire round of questions about José Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nuno Espírito Santo and Bernardo Silva.

Spoiler alert: the show was recorded before the recent turn of events that saw both FC Porto and Benfica throw away their respective three points.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Football's Laws of Attraction

Despite being bandied about all over, it is sometimes hard to grasp the notion of what exactly is the "decision-making" that everyone keeps talking about. One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example than Stefano Mauri's goal in the last Rome derby.

AS Roma vs Lazio (2-2) Full Highlights 11/01... by rubin7190

As one of the last few one-club men in his time, Daniele De Rossi is one of the most respected players in Italy and a symbol for his club. With his nation, De Rossi has won the World Cup and has a bronze medal from the 2004 Olympics and a silver medal from the 2012 Euros. Back in 2012, he was even close to a move to Manchester City following his stellar displays in midfield (and sometimes in a three-men defence).

Nevertheless, not even a player like De Rossi is free from the pull that a round piece of leather exerts over players ever since they (and we) were kids. One of the most curious sights in football is to watch a spontaneous match between young toddlers, where all one can see is a bunch of infants gathered around what must surely be a black hole, such is the gravitational pull.

In this case, De Rossi ended up doing exactly that, as it is possible to attest over the following pictures.

1. Roma give the ball away down their right wing and a 3x3 situation immediately arises.

2. Felipe Anderson progresses up the pitch while Roma try to contain the threat while waiting for back-up. Vasileios Torosidis can be seen sprinting back to try to improve his team's odds. De Rossi seems to be analysing the situation correctly as he glances over the space behind Davide Astori. Stefano Mauri, the eventual goalscorer, is still a few yards behind both Astori and De Rossi.

3. A simple, outside overlapping run leads De Rossi to make the inadvertent decision to approach the ball instead of providing coverage for his team-mate, effectively succumbing to football's laws of attraction and opening up a gaping hole in the heart of his very defence (shaded circle).

4. Even though De Rossi realises his mistake, it is already too late and Felipe Anderson is wise to pick his pass at the right moment as Mauri makes his run into the penalty box.

  • Conclusion

While watching the video, one is able to realise just how quickly this whole process takes place, which might help explaining just why improving the players' decision-making skills and ability to read and understand the game (and what is asked of them at any given moment) is one of today's top priorities for most coaches.