Friday, May 2, 2014

A couple of thoughts from Real Madrid's incredible win over Bayern

Real Madrid's incredible 4-0 Champions League win over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena  came as quite the shock. Here are two thoughts from Tuesday's game.

1. Real's pace matched up well against Bayern's high line
Bayern enjoy possessing the ball in their opponents half and pushing their fullbacks into advanced areas. When they concede possession they press high up the pitch to win it back and hold a high line. These tactics have the potential to leave a side vulnerable to counterattacks and Real Madrid are the strongest counterattacking side in the world. Real Madrid played a 4-4-1-1, defending with a narrow midfield bank of four and leaving Benzema and Ronaldo higher up the pitch to spring counters. Ronaldo provided an initial outlet pass when Real won the ball back and Angel Di Maria and Gareth Bale broke forward with deep runs from midfield. No other side in the world boasts three players with the combination of pace and technique possessed by Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria. When they're given space to run into on the break they're virtually unplayable.

From the outset Bayern's high line looked vulnerable. In the 9th minute Neuer was forced out of his box to head a Di Maria ball over the top that nearly put Benzema through on goal. The German keeper scuffed his headed clearance and was fortunate when Bale wasn't able to take advantage, the Welshman putting his volleyed effort at an open net over the bar. The writing was on the wall however. Six minutes later Xabi Alonso won the ball at the edge of his own penalty area and provided an outlet for Ronaldo. He flicked cleverly for Di Maria breaking down the left sideline who played a diagonal ball over the top of Bayern's high line for Benzema. Dante's last ditch tackle prevented Benzema from getting a shot off but it earned Real the corner that Ramos would score the opener from.

With Bayern needing three goals and forced to chase the game, Real were able to maintain their deep, tight defensive positioning and invite pressure before exploiting space in behind the Bayern midfield on the counter. This was a masterclass of organized team defending and lethal counterattacking football highlighted by Real's third goal, one of the best team goals you'll see this season. In Real's penalty box Carvajal, Modric and Pepe all close down on Ribery and force him into a bad pass that falls for Bale at the edge of the penalty area. Bale plays a square pass to Di Maria who finds Benzema breaking into the right channel. This run from Benzema is an intelligent one as he forces Dante into a wide position and leaves a huge gap in the middle of midfield between Dante and his center back partner Jerome Boatening. Bale sprints forward beyond Toni Kroos into this gap and through on goal. He lays a pass to his left for Ronaldo to tuck home for a record setting 15 UCL goals.

 2. Pep Guardiola should not be sacked at Bayern
Following Bayern's treble winning 2012-2013 season, the expectations placed on Guardiola in his first season were always going to be nearly impossible to satisfy. How do you improve a side that won everything?

Things went swimmingly in the league- Bayern remarkably clinched the title with 7 games remaining without having lost up to that point. From there they hit a deep in form, drawing with Hoffenheim before losing consecutive games to Augsburg and Borussia Dortmund. Guardiola deserves criticism for the complacency that set in that quelled momentum and almost certainly contributed to their heavy defeat Tuesday. However, Bayern may yet still win a domestic double as they face Dortmund in the league cup final May 17. I can't help but feel there's something seriously wrong with football culture if a manger gets sacked after winning a double and making a Champions League semifinal in his first season in charge. It was an embarrassing defeat for Bayern but it seems insane to base a managers body of work over the course of a season on one two-legged tie.

Yes he was up against a manager also in his first season but Ancelotti is more flexible in his tactical approach and therefore doesn't require the same length of time to allow his players to adapt to his style. Guardiola by contrast is more rigid in how he requires his sides to play. His approach and the personnel he has used differ from Jupp Heynckes last season and it will therefore take players time to gel into his system. Given time the understanding between manager and players will improve as will performances on the pitch. The big question that may determine Guardiola's future is whether Bayern supporters and the board want to continue to see their club play Guardiola's patient, horizontal possession style. Honorary club president Franz Beckenbauer has on more than one occasion voiced his displeasure at what he views as Guardiola's boring style.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Some observations from Arsenal 3-1 West Ham

Arsenal moved back into fourth place with a 3-1 win over West Ham at the Emirates. The visitors struck first through Matthew Jarvis on 40 minutes but their lead was short lived as Lukas Podolski leveled the scores 4 minutes later. Olivier Giroud put the Gunners ahead 10 minutes into the second half before Podolski completed a brace to secure the points.

This was a contest between sides with two very different footballing philosophies- the possession-based approach of Arsenal vs. the more direct and physical style of West Ham.

Arsene Wenger set out with his normal 4-2-3-1 formation. Olivier Giroud was given the nod up front and Kim Kallstrom got his first Arsenal start. 

Sam Allardyce set out in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation. With Kevin Nolan sidelined with an injury, Allardyce opted for Mohamed Diame, Mark Noble and Antonio Nocerino in the middle of midfield. He played two proper wingers in Jarvis and Stewart Downing.


West Ham defended with a midfield bank of 5 in an effort to crowd the middle of the pitch. Arsenal like to play through the middle with quick, short passing combinations. Defending with three center midfielders and leaving only Carroll further up the pitch was Allardyce's effort to deny Arsenal's attacking midfielders space around the penalty area where they like to operate.

The 4-5-1 shape meant that Carroll was isolated up front when West Ham won the ball back and the visitors therefore didn't have an outlet pass through the middle to spring attacks. Instead, they looked to find Jarvis and Downing sprinting in behind the Arsenal fullbacks. The two are old school wingers that stay wide and cross frequently. Their inclusion signaled Allardyce's strategy to frustrate Arsenal by defending in numbers then attacking through the channels and looking to take advantage of Carroll's aerial ability with crosses into the box. The strategy was fairly effective in the opening half. Arsenal didn't look especially threatening and West Ham put a few dangerous balls into the box from wide areas.

West Ham were also dangerous when Diame and Nocerino made delayed runs into the box past Arteta and Kallstrom in midfield. Three times in the opening quarter hour Diame sprinted in behind Arteta towards the left edge of the penalty area and played dangerous balls across the face of goal. Nocerino was able to sprint past Kallstrom into the right side of the box for West Ham's opener.

Allardyce voiced his frustration at his side's inability to see out the half with their lead in tack in his post game comments. Despite defending well in the opening half, West Ham too often put themselves under avoidable presser by giving the ball away cheaply in their own half. With the score still level at 0-0, Mark Noble gifted a pass to Cazorla who put Giroud through on goal. Giroud's tame effort was saved by Adrian but the visitors would ultimately be made to pay for silly errors when Downing's ill advised clearance into the center of the pitch allowed Cazorla to play Podolski through for the equalizer.

The second half was a more one-sided affair with Arsenal establishing control. Their go-ahead goal was interesting in that it was the type you'd expect West Ham to score. After West Ham dealt with the initial ball in from an Arsenal corner, Vermaelen looped a hopeful ball towards the back post that Giroud controlled wonderfully and finished between Adrian's legs.

Arsenal pressed higher up the pitch more often in the second half, forcing West Ham into hurried clearances towards Carroll. Had Arsenal not just played an exhausting 120 minutes of FA Cup football Saturday, they'd have likely done more heavy pressing high up the pitch early on in the contest accompanied with a high defensive line. West Ham don't have the composed, slick-passing midfielders to pass their way out of heavy pressure and a high line takes Carroll away from the penalty box where he's at his most dangerous attacking crosses and providing knock downs. The English striker lacks the pace to threaten a high defensive line with runs in behind.

Aaron Ramsey's 18 minute cameo served to remind Arsenal fans just how much they've missed the Welshman in his extended absence with injury. Prior to his introduction Arsenal at times seemed to move the ball too slowly to really trouble the West Ham midfield. Ramsey's directness and energy lifted the tempo and Arsenal played much more vertically once he came on. His cushioned header for Podolski's second was as delicate a headed assist as you're likely to see.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A few thoughts on Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Liverpool's midfield diamond overwhelmed Fernandinho and Toure early
Brendan Rodgers set out in a diamond 4-4-2 with Steven Gerrard sitting in front of the back four flanked by Jordan Henderson and Coutinho with Raheem Sterling at the top of the diamond behind Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. Manuel Pellegrini opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure playing the holding roles behind attacking midfielders David Silva, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas.

City's three attacking midfielders and striker Edin Dzeko stayed high up the pitch defensively. Nasri and Navas marked Liverpool's fullbacks Glen Johnson and John Falanagan respectively. Dzeko and Silva would pressure Liverpool's center backs and Gerrard who would drop in between his center backs in possession. This meant that further up the pitch Toure and Fernandinho were outmanned 3 v. 2 in central areas (see graphic below). They were left to defend Coutinho, Henderson, Sterling and at times Suarez dropping off into midfield. Liverpool therefore always had a man free to receive a pass and were able to comfortably pass through the two City holding midfielders. Liverpool dominated the opening half hour and City were fortunate to be down just the two goals.


 City have been susceptible to the counter all season. Toure and Fernandinho are more powerful midfield shuttlers than truly defensive midfielders and at times have left City's back four exposed when the opposition breaks quickly. Today Liverpool produced dangerous counter after dangerous counter in the opening 30 minutes. The outstanding Sterling broke quickly from midfield to join Sturridge and Suarez on the break and Henderson arrived with late energetic runs at the edge of the box. Toure's early injury was no doubt a blow for City but the subsequent introduction of Javi Garcia, a truly defensive minded midfielder, actually provided the City back four with a bit more protection when Liverpool broke forward.

Milner's introduction changed the game for City
The introduction of James Milner for Navas in the 50th minute may not have had the feel of an inspiring attacking change to many but Milner's qualities too often go unnoticed and he changed the complexion of the game today. His clever movement from sideline to sideline and positioning was crucial in creating overloads for the Liverpool defense. Whereas Navas predictably stayed wide on the right and looked to get to the endline and cross, Milner varied his movements across the width of the pitch and put Liverpool defenders into uncomfortable decisions. He played a terrific 1-2 with Fernandinho before assisting to Silva for City's opener. He then drifted across to the left side of the pitch to create an overload with Silva and Nasri for the City equalizer.

Kompany's blunder the decider
Vincent Kompany provided one of the deciding moments in City's 2011-2012 league winning campaign when he scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford late in the season. His error for Coutinho's game winner today may well end up costing his side the title this season. At 2-2 City looked like the only side capable of producing a winner. Aguero and Silva had just combined for a narrow miss and Liverpool were on the back foot when Kompany's shanked clearance fell for Coutinho in the box. The Brazilian did brilliantly to curl his effort into the corner but it was a dreadful mistake from the City captain.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tactical Analysis: Fulham 1-0 Norwich

Fulham scrapped their way to a 1-0 win over Norwich at Craven Cottage pulling to within 2 points of their rivals on the day in the race for survival. This was a contest fought hard in midfield with desperately little quality in the attacking third from both sides. It was therefore no surprise it was decided by a set piece.

Both managers started with interesting formations. Neil Adams opted for a diamond 4-4-2 in his first game in charge of Norwich after Chris Hughton's sacking. Bradley Johnson played in front of the back of the back four with Johnny Howson and Leroy Fer narrow to his left and right respectively. Robert Snodgrass played at the top of the diamond behind a front two of Nathan Redmond and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel.

Felix Magath set out with a 3-5-1-1 with Brede Hangeland, Fernando Amorebieta and Johnny Heitinga operating as a back three. Sasha Reither and Kieran Richardson played as wing backs. Mahamadou Diarra played at the base of midfield just in front of the three center backs with Steve Sidwell to his right and Lewis Holtby to his left. Patjim Kasami played off of Hugo Rodallega up front.

Norwich dominated the early proceedings. The midfield diamond meant they had four players in the middle of midfield versus Fulham's three and therefore had a free man to provide a passing option and were able to control possession.

One of the more interesting tactical features of the opening stages occurred down Norwich's attacking left flank. The diamond 4-4-2 vs. 3-5-1-1 match up meant both sides were playing with only one wide player on each side of the pitch. For Fulham it was the wing backs Riether and Richardson, for Norwich it was the fullbacks Steven Whittaker and Martin Olsson. With Norwich playing narrow, Reither didn't have a direct wide midfielder to mark. As a result he would tuck inside to help even up the numbers in the middle of midfield. However, this left Olsson with the space to bomb down the left wing unmarked for Norwich (see graphic below). Olsson provided several decent deliveries into the box in the first half. In the 28th minute he found himself again able to advance unmarked down the left wing and provided a low driven cross for van Wolfswinkel that forced David Stockdale into a world class save.

Fulham 3-5-2. Reither tucks inside to provide extra protection in midfield. Olsson takes advantage of space on the left wing.
Recognizing his side were on the back foot and that Olsson would continue to pose a real threat, Magath changed the home side's shape to 4-5-1. Reither dropped back to left fullback position, Amorebieta slid over to right back. Richardson played as a left midfielder while Kasami moved from his withdrawn forward position to right midfield. The change meant that Reither would have cover from Olsson late runs down the wing as Kasami was tasked with tracking the Norwich fullback when he advanced forward. Reither could tuck inside to offer defensive support in narrow areas knowing Olsson wouldn't be on his own out wide.

Fulham 4-5-1. Fulham go to 4 at back and Kasami moves to right. Provides help on Olsson but leaves Rodallega isolated
While the change may have partially mitigated the threat of Olsson it also meant Fulham had no one close to Rodallega when they won the ball back and the Colombian striker was isolated up front. They couldn't find an outlet ball to spring attacks when they regained possession and were left hitting hopeful long balls into Rodallega. Richardson's bursts with the ball down the left channel were Fulham's only means of transitioning from midfield into the attacking third. As it turned out one of these runs from Richardson would be enough for the three points. On 39 minutes he bit Whittaker for pace down the wing and forced the Fulham left back into a late challenge resulting in a free kick. Rodallega tucked in Sidwell's flicked on header at the front post.

The Cottagers stuck with the 4-5-1 formation in the second half, seemingly content to hold on to their lead. Ashkan Dejagah replaced Kasami on the right wing after Kasami switched off and allowed Olsson in behind. Norwich then made two like-for-like subs- Gary Hooper replaced the out of sorts van Wolfswinkel and Wes Hoolahan came on in midfield for Leroy Fer. Magath signaled his intent to tighten up and keep the 1-0 lead in the 69th minute when he replaced Holtby for the more defensive and tough tackling Scott Parker. The move proved to be a wise one as Parker battled in midfield and used his fresh legs to break forward and provide late runs to the edge of the area in attack.

Adams brought on the 19 year old winger Josh Murphy for the final 10 minutes, replacing Howson. They moved to a 4-4-1-1 with Murphy and Redmond playing on the wings and Snodgrass playing just off Hooper. The changes didn't provide Norwich with any more attacking impetus. Magath replaced the exhausted Diarra with William Kvist in the 85th and the home side was able to fairly comfortably see out the win.

In the end this game was predictably scrappy given both sides' struggles in the league and uncomfortable positions at the bottom of the table. Both sides were sloppy and lacking in quality in the final third. A set piece was a fitting way for this one to be decided.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Willian and Schurrle pressing exceptional as Chelsea breeze past Stoke

Chelsea cruised to a comfortable 3-0 win over Stoke City with goals from Mohamed Salah, Frank Lampard and Willian. The sleepy atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge reflected a contest in which Stoke offered no real threat despite Jose Mourinho's side being far from at their best.

As expected, Stoke defended with deep, compact banks of four. At times this season Chelsea have struggled when they've been forced to be proactive against sides looking to defend deep (although more so away from home than at the Bridge). Their defeats this season have come against Stoke, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Everton and Newcastle. In each of those defeats they had more possession than their opponent, averaging over 60% possession per game. They were scoreless in 4 of those 5 defeats. Contrast that with their two massive wins over Manchester City where they were able to play the more reactive style they're comfortable with sitting deep and breaking quickly on the counter. In those two contests they averaged just 40% possession.

Mourinho has placed much of the blame for Chelsea's struggles to score against deep defending sides on his strikers, suggesting that in those contests when space in the final third is tight you need a striker that can get into good positions in the box and poach goals. With Samuel Eto'o still sidelined with a hamstring injury Mourinho was forced to go with Fernando Torres up front in Chelsea's favored 4-2-3-1 formation. The Spaniard's performance did little to ease Mourinho's concerns about his striking options.

Despite his goal scoring troubles, I'm usually impressed with Torres's work rate, movement and link up play. While those attributes certainly are no substitute for goals from a center forward, they do bring something meaningful to the side. Today however, Torres was unusually lethargic. Perhaps some of this had to do with Mourinho's tactical instruction. Whereas Torres often drifts into the channels to offer a passing option forward, he stayed central today on the shoulders of the Stoke center backs. The reasoning may have been to leave that space between the Stoke defensive and midfield lines for the three attacking midfielders to move into. Whatever the case, he'll have been disappointed to have blown an opportunity to impress his manager after Mourinho opted to forgo playing a striker altogether in Chelsea's 3-1 Champions League defeat at PSG Wednesday.

The star performers for the Blues, as has so often been the case this season, were the attacking midfielders. Salah, Schurrle and Willian (and Hazard after his second half introduction) were brilliant and Chelsea's success stemmed from their defensive pressing. They worked tirelessly to win the ball back high up the pitch in Stoke's defensive half which led to dangerous Chelsea counters. The three combined for 8 tackles and 6 interceptions- 6 of the tackles and 4 of the interceptions occurred in Stoke's defensive half.

Willian's pressing in the middle of the pitch in particular was highly impressive. In the first 5 minutes of the contest he won two tackles high up the pitch to spring dangerous Chelsea counters. He completed 4 tackles and an interception on the afternoon. He's a player capable of putting in a tremendous amount of work on the defensive side of the ball and then sprinting in behind the opposition midfield on the counter as we saw for his expertly taken curling second half strike. Andre Schurrle provided 4 interceptions. The demands Mourinho puts on his attacking midfielders to put in a defensive shift is well known and he'll have few complaints about the performance of Willian, Schurrle and Salah today.


Chelsea's midfield pressing aside this wasn't an especially interesting game tactically. Stoke striker Peter Crouch doesn't offer much of a threat running in behind the defense so Chelsea held a fairly high defensive line, keeping him away from the penalty box where he is a real threat with his height. Their pressure in midfield didn't allow Stoke the time to find an out ball when they won possession deep in their own area. As a result Chelsea won possession back in midfield and then patiently retained possession, looking for gaps in Stoke's crowded defense.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Diamond 4-4-2 not viable option for USMNT in Brazil

The United States controlled the battle in midfield and created meaningful scoring chances in the first half largely because of the partnership between Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman in the middle of midfield. The deep lying positions Beckerman takes up and his strong defensive positioning allow Bradley a platform to push into advanced areas in the final third where he offers an intelligence in possession and vision no other USMNT player has. The formation was labeled a diamond 4-4-2 with Bradley operating at the top of the diamond as a #10 off the two forwards Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski. Playing a #10 off a front two is an incredibly attacking formation. Its positives are that it allows a side to get plenty of players forward, creating numerous passing options in the final third and getting players into the box to get on the end of crosses.

Against Mexico in the first half last night the Bradley-Beckerman midfield pairing created a nice balance. Mexico's defensive shape was far less compact than it needed to be and Bradley was easily able to move into dangerous pockets of space between the lines. Throughout the half he was given the space to comfortably receive possession in threatening areas in front of the Mexico defense and pick out penetrating passes forward. His delayed runs into the box were also a huge problem for Mexico. With the US playing two forwards, both Mexico center backs had a direct opponent to mark (ie Mexico didn't have a spare center back to sit in and offer cover). This meant that when Bradley burst in behind Mexico's midfielders, there was no spare center back to pick up his run. The US's second goal came from one of these runs. When the US conceded possession, Mexico wasn't able to transition forward quickly enough to
overwhelm the space in front of the US back 4 patrolled by Beckerman.

The negatives of a formation that employs a #10 behind two forwards is that it sacrafices a deep lying midfielder for the advanced #10. This can leave a team too thin in the middle of the pitch when they lose possession with only the single holding midfielder positioned to slow down counterattacks. This creates an open contest which against an effective counter attacking team will nearly always be costly. Mexico weren't able to transition from defense to offense quickly enough in the opening 45 minutes to exploit the space behind the US's advanced attackers but a strong counter attacking side like Germany or Portugal certainly would have. As impressive as the US looked in possession in the first half last night, the diamond 4-4-2 we saw is not a viable option for the team in Brazil. The US will have to play two holding midfielders in a double pivot. Playing a single holding midfielder in a diamond simply asks too much defensively of that player- most likely Beckerman- in slowing counter attacks. Germany is probably the strongest side in the world at transitioning rapidly from defense to offense. They showed in the 2010 World Cup against Argentina if given open space to break into on the counter they can be deadly. Since then their squad has gotten even more talented. Likewise, Cristian Ronaldo will destroy a defense if he's allowed to receive the ball in space and sprint at an opposition back four.

When the US has played a double pivot it has mostly consisted of Bradley and Jermaine Jones. This partnership has had its own problems. Too often the communication between the two players of who is staying deep and who is pushing forward hasn't been good enough. As a result at times they'll both get sucked high up the pitch, leaving no cover for the back four. For me, the solution is to employ a double pivot 4-2-3-1 but with Beckerman as one of the two holders alongside Jones with Bradley in a more advanced #10 role. Jones and Beckerman (two unfairly derided players) compliment each other well. Beckerman is positionally disciplined and reads the game intelligently. His weakness is a lack of pace and athleticism. Jones brings that pace, athleticism and bite in the tackle. His main weakness is his often suspect positioning which would become less of an issue with Beckerman providing cover alongside him. The big question of course is what do you do with Dempsey if Bradley is playing behind the main striker. Dempsey is capable of the spectacular and can turn a game on its head in an instant and therefore needs to be on the field. However, for me he's not a gifted enough distributor to play in the #10 role. Too often his passes force his intended target too far wide or force his target to slow their run up to receive an underhit ball. I'd prefer him starting in a wide position and tucking inside where he can run at the opposition fullback.

A three man midfield of Beckerman, Jones and Bradley gives the US a nice mix of positional discipline, energy and athleticism, and technique and vision. Playing with two up front and a #10 was certainly entertaining last night but not a realistic system to play in Brazil.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Olympiakos press excellently, Manchester United lack of midfield quality exposed

Manchester United slumped to an embarrassing 2-0 Champions League defeat at Olympiakos in the first leg of their round of 16 tie. The win puts the Greek champions in a solid position to advance to their first Champions League quarterfinal since 1999- the only other time they've achieved that feat.

What will be so concerning for David Moyes's side is that the scoreline was an accurate reflection of the contest- United were dominated by a side that recently sold its leading scorer Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham and whose second leading scorer Javier Saviola was out with an injury.

United's lack of midfield creativity was exposed yet again. Juan Mata is cup tied with Chelsea and therefore ineligible so Moyes opted for two natural wingers in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia in the wide midfield positions in his 4-2-3-1. Unlike a number of modern wide players that often tuck inside to receive passes between the lines, Young and Valencia keep wide positions and tend to receive the ball near the touch lines. This was an issue for United today because Olympiakos pressed excellently in midfield. Olympiakos also played a 4-2-3-1 so the battle was 3 v. 3 in midfield. Alejandro Dominguez and Giannis Maniatis pressed United's two holding midfielders Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley while Delvin Ndinga sat just in front of the back four and checked the runs of Wayne Rooney- who was playing the #10 off of Robin Van Persie- between the lines. With Young and Valencia maintaining wide positions, it made Ndinga's job tracking the movement of Rooney less difficult than it should have been because he only ever had Rooney to worry about in central areas. Had a player like Shinji Kagawa started on the left he'd have tucked in field towards Rooney to allow United to overload the midfield in Ndinga's central zone.

With Ndinga being allowed to closely track Rooney without having to worry about Young or Valencia tucking inside to receive possession either side of him, United had no forward passing options when they had the ball in deep positions. The pressing of Dominguez and Mantiatis on Cleverley and Carrick forced the two United holding midfielders into making hurried decisions- they could either go backwards or loft hopeful straight balls into the final third. Much has been made about the lack of quality in the middle of midfield for United and this performance will do little to silence those assertions- Carrick got on the ball plenty but wasn't able to dictate the pace of the game and Cleverley made too many poor passes and was dispossessed too frequently. Carrick completed 89 passes but only 12 of those were into the attacking third.


Cleverley managed just 8 successful passes in the final third.


While these numbers are unimpressive, they weren't helped by United's static shape. Rooney was frequently the only pass for them to aim a forward pass to in the middle of the pitch. With Rooney tightly checked ny Ndinga however, he was frequently forced to drop in deep alongside the two holding midfielders in order to get on the ball, leaving United with no one to link play into Van Persie.

Olympiakos won't get enough credit for how well they pressed in midfield but it shouldn't have been quite so easy for them. Moyes certainly needs to spend money on a deeper midfielder to pair with Carrick but he's also making questionable tactical decisions. The inclusion of Kagawa would have made United more dynamic in the final third. He's good at tucking in from the flanks and positioning himself in dagerous pockets of space and has the quality to unlock a defense with his final ball. United were simply too rigid with Young and Valencia in the squad and were made to pay.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Some thoughts on Manchester City 0-2 Barca

Manchester City's first ever trip to the knockout stages of the Champions League looks like it will be short lived after they were beaten 2-0 at home to Barcelona in their first leg meeting in the round of 16. Barcelona dominated possession in the opening half but neither side created clear cut goalscoring chances and they went into halftime level at 0-0. The games key moment came early in the second half when Martin Demichelis was forced into a last ditch tackle on Lionel Messi after Jesus Navas had given away possession cheaply. Replays suggest Messi may have been just outside of the box but a penalty was given and Demichelis received a deserved red card. Messi dispatched the ensuing penalty. City battled valiantly with ten men, creating a few half chances and nervy moments for the visitors but Barca sealed the win, and likely a spot in the quarterfinals, with a 90th minute goal from the excellent Dani Alves.

Prior to the match the big question was whether Manuel Pellegrini would continue to play the 4-4-2 shape that has seen his side score more goals in all competitions than any team in Europe. He had tried to play 4-4-2 in the group stage of the competition home to Bayern Munich and City were ripped apart. Bayern were able to use the man advantage in midfield their 4-3-3 shape gave them to stretch Yaya Toure and Fernandinho in the center of midfield and City couldn't get a sniff of the ball. Bayern are of course coached by ex Barca manager Pep Guardiola and employ a similar possession-focused 4-3-3 to the one Guardiola began at Barca. While current Barca manager Tato Martino focuses slightly less attention on possession, Barca still average the highest possession percentages in both La Liga and the Champions League and play the same 4-3-3 as Bayern.

Perhaps with that Bayern game in his memory, Pellegrini opted for a more conservative 4-2-3-1 with David Silva playing a #10 role and Fernandinho and Toure playing a double pivot in front of the back four. The shape meant City were competing 3 v. 3 in midfield. Silva matched up against Sergio Busquets, Toure against Cesc Fabregas and Fernandinho against Xavi. City's approach in the first half was similar to the way most teams play Barca. They defended deep with 9 players behind the ball and Negredo on his own up front. Silva dropped deep to defend just in front of Toure and Fernanindho. City did an excellent job keeping their back four and midfield lines compact and limiting the pockets of space where the likes of Iniesta, Fabregas and Xavi thrive. As a result City enjoyed plenty of the ball but couldn't find a way to get any sort of penetration into the City back line.

The down side to the shape was that Negredo was isolated when City won the ball back and they therefore struggled early to get out of their own half before conceding possession back to Barca. Barca pressed immediately when City won the ball back, forcing hopeful passes in towards Negredo that were usually intercepted. However, as the half wore on City enjoyed some spells of possession higher up the pitch. They were at their most dangerous attacking down the flanks and hitting crosses into Negredo who was always the favorite to win aerial challenges over Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique. City enjoyed a significant height advantage and nearly scored from a free kick on the left edge of the box after Victor Valdes made a mess of Silva's ball into the box.

At halftime, despite being outpossessed, City had enjoyed some half chances and had limited Barca to few chances of their own. Another similar half wouldn't have been the end of the world for either side.

Demichelis's red card was of course the key moment in the match and it stemmed from a moment of carelessness from Navas. City had just won possession at the edge of their own penalty box and looked like they'd be able to spring their own counter after Silva had broken forward cleverly and found Navas on the right wing. Navas could have played a simple ball to Toure in midfield but tried to take on Busquets and Jordi Alba down the wing. He was easily dispossessed, leaving City out of position defensively. Xavi collected possession and played a ball in behind Demichelis and Kompany for Messi. Demichelis's last ditch tackle caught Messi (outside of the box it must be said) and the referee had no choice but to send him off. Perhaps you could argue Demichelis was too slow to track the run of Messi, perhaps Kompany should have stepped forward to drop Messi offsides but the ultimate blame lies with Navas. With City down to ten men he was immediately replaced by Samir Nasri and Joleon Lescott came on for Kolarov.

City moved to a 4-4-1 with Nasri on the right wing and Silva on the left. They defended in two banks of four with Negredo the loan man left up front. They actually played quite well with ten men but there were continuous warning signs down the left side of their defense from Dani Alves. Silva and Nasri played quite narrow both offensively and defensively for logical reasons. Offensively, they needed to take narrow positions to provide a link between Toure-Fernandinho and Negredo up front. Defensively, they had to take up narrow positions so that Toure and Fernandinho wouldn't be overwhelmed in the middle of the pitch. That narrow positioning meant Dani Alves had the right touchline all to himself to break forward. He was put clean through on goal in the 68th but put his effort just wide. He wouldn't make the same mistake in the 90th, dispatching a pass from second half substitute Neymar between the legs of Joe Hart.

Dealing with Busquets will be key if Manchester City hope to dictate tempo

For most of his first season in charge at Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini has played a 4-4-2 formation, typically employing two of Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo and Segio Aguero up front. More often than not the system has worked to devastating effect. City have scored a remarkable 68 league goals including 6 against Spurs at the Etihad, 5 against Spurs away, 4 against Manchester United and 6 against Arsenal.

However, at times the shape has left City too stretched in the middle of midfield. The most obvious example of Pellegrini's side being made to pay for playing 4-4-2 was in their home Champions League clash in early October against Bayern Munich. Bayern are of course managed by Pep Guardiola- the man who more or less introduced the world to tiki taka possession based football. Guardiola played his standard 4-3-3 that evening meaning Bayern had a 3 v. 2 advantage in the midfield. In order to nullify that advantage, City needed a forward to drop in defensively and pick up Bayern's deepest lying midfielder Philip Lahm. It didn't happen. Aguero partnered Dzeko up front and both stayed high up the pitch when Bayern were in possession. Lahm was always left as the spare man to offer an easy passing option. With the spare midfielder Bayern were able to control possession and dictate the tempo of the game. The score ended 3-1 to Bayern after City made a late flourish in the final quarter of an hour but for 75 minutes it was as one sided a game as you're likely to see between two such expensively assembled sides. Bayern finished the game with 66% possession.

 When Barcelona visit the Etihad this evening, City will be up against a side whose footballing philosophy and personnel are largely attributable to Guardiola. Although current manager Tato Martino is less dogmatic about controlling possession than Guardiola, Barcelona still play a 4-3-3 system centered around ball retention. It's a system that is remarkably similar to the one City faced against Bayern. Therefore it will be vital that Pellegrini learned from that heavy defeat.

Sergio Busquets will play the an almost identical role to Lahm for Barcelona, sitting just in front of his two center backs when Barca are in possession and providing a passing option at all times. He's a remarkably intelligent player and skilled passer- if City allow him to get on the ball without applying any pressure, he'll allow Barca to control possession and dictate tempo.

Pellegrini has a few tactical options in dealing with Busquets. With Sergio Aguero set to miss out due to injury he could opt to partner Stefan Jovetic alongside Negredo in a 4-4-2. Jovetic is an energetic and hardworking player unafraid to put in a defensive shift. He has the work rate and athleticism to drop in and mark Busquets when Barca are in possession, then run past him to join in the attack.

Alternatively, City could play a 4-2-3-1. The obvious lineup with this formation would be David Silva in the #10 role with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure playing a double pivot. While Silva's link up play is excellent in the center attacking midfield role, I don't think that lineup solves the problem of dealing with Busquets when Barca are in possession. Silva is not the type of player that can use his strength and energy to press an opposition deep lying midfielder out of the game- vital if City are to prevent Barca from getting into an attacking rhythm. For me, the better option would be to employ Javi Garcia beside Fernandinho as a double pivot and play Toure high up the pitch in the #10 role. This would mean Toure would be directly matched up against Busquets in midfield. Physically the Ivorian is a nightmare matchup for Busquets- he's faster, more powerful and more athletic. His powerful dribbling high up the pitch could cause all sorts of problems for Barca. Defensively, a midfield trio of Toure, Fernandinho and Javi Garcia is quite a powerful and athletic one. If they stayed compact Barcelona would struggle to find the pockets of space in midfield to play their characteristic quick penetrative passes.

Unlike his predecessor Roberto Mancini, Pellegrini hasn't used Toure in the #10 role so it's unlikely we'll see him there today. However, from a tactical standpoint it might be the right move.

Regardless of how City lineup it'll be vital they don't allow Barca's three man central midfield to boss the game the way Bayern were able to do. The amount of space and time on the ball Busquets is afforded will likely dictate how much possession Barca has and whether they're able to control the tempo of the match. It'll be important for City to unsettle Barca and not allow them to play the type of game they want.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Some thoughts on Newcastle 0-3 Sunderland

Sunderland's third consecutive Tyne-Wear derby win

Gus Poyet was without Lee Cattermole through injury so brought in new signing Leon Bridcutt to anchor the midfield in Sunderland's standard 4-3-3. Jack Colback and Ki played the shuttling box-to-box roles in the middle of midfield.

Alan Pardew played a 4-2-3-1 in Newcastle's first match since the official departure of Yohan Cababye to PSG. Vurnon Anita and Cheick Tiote played at the base of midfield with Tiote sitting deeper in midfield when Newcastle were in possession. Hatem Ben Arfa started in the #10 role off of striker Shola Ameobi. Sammy Ameobi played on the left side of the attacking midfield three, Moussa Sissoko played on the right. Steven Taylor continued to fill in at center back alongside Mike Williamson for the injured Fabricio Coloccini.


The 4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1 matchup meant each side's three center midfielders had an obvious direct opponent. Colback lined up with Anita, Ki with Tiote and Bridcutt with Ben Arfa. Sunderland defended with a 4-1-4-1 shape- Bridcutt sat just in front of the back four and tracked the movement of Ben Arfa between the lines. Newcastle defended with two banks of four with Ben Arfa staying high up the pitch alongside Shola Ameobi when Sunderland were in possession. In effect Sunderland defended with 5 across the midfield, Newcastle with 4. The extra defender in midfield meant Sunderland were able to crowd the center of the pitch and limit the space for Ben Arfa in the gaps. However, it also meant Altidore was isolated up front when Poyet's side won the ball back. The American therefore had an important responsibility to provide the initial outlet pass forward and to hold the ball up long enough to bring his midfielders into play. Although Altidore's hold up play hasn't always been strong enough this season, he performed the task excellently today, challenging Newcastle's center backs and winning fouls. Had he not been as strong keeping the ball and allowed Newcastle to quickly win the ball back, Sunderland would have pinned deep in their own half for large portions of the half.

The Sunderland midfield trio was excellent. Bridcutt slowed slowed counters and fouled intelligently when it was necessary while Ki and Colback pressed Tiote and Anita and midfield, denying them time to pick their heads up and find penetrating passes forward. In attack, Ki and Colback were able to sprint in behind the two deep Newcastle midfielders on the break. Colback in particular had a terrific game on both sides of the ball. He showed a tireless work rate to close down the ball in midfield then break forward to join in attacks when Sunderland recovered the ball. He sprinted in behind Anita in midfield to set up Sunderland's second goal. For the third he tackled the ball from Tiote then burst forward in front of Borini to receive a pass and finish the move on his own. He pressed high up the field in the second half to win a tackle just outside Newcastle's penalty area to set up Altidore with a 1 v. 1 with Tim Krul but the striker couldn't finish. Colback finished the game with an impressive 4 tackles and 3 interceptions.

 Newcastle introduced Luuk De Jong for Sammy Ameobi at halftime and went to 4-4-2. They played a bit more direct and looked to get on the end of Ameobi knock downs. Defensively they pressed higher up the pitch and the contest became more stretched. Sunderland looked a consistent threat on the counter, taking advantage of space in behind the two Newcastle midfielders when they broke forward.

Newcastle desperately missed the creativity Cabaye brings to midfield. The've failed to score in their first two games without the Frenchman. Newcastle's other center midfield options Sissoko, Tiote, Anita and Marveaux all rely more on their physical attributes than technique and creativity. Ben Arfa is a creative and technical player who can play as a #10 but he's less consistent than Cabaye and, for all his flair, he often fails to provide substance.