Archive for ‘Tactics’

June 28, 2012

Why Spain look disjointed at times

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The Spanish side can’t perfectly be divided into Barcelona and Real Madrid players as we sometimes oversimplify, however it can be divided roughly into these two groups. Of course, having a squad consiting three quaters of the two best teams in the world is something of a miracle for any national coach, and something which very rarely occurs. However the side clearly does not destroy and annihilate sides as well as either of the club teams. However, this is less to do with the conventional wisdom that the side ‘lacks Messi’ and is more to do with the greatly disparaging styles of play the players are accustomed to.

When Spain retain the ball in their own half the defenders can be pressed into giving the ball back to the goalkeeper, a universal fact about football. For Barcelona this by default sees the centre backs spread wide either side of the box whilst the full backs push wider and further ahead, and the central defensive midfielder, often Busquets, drops deeper as well as Xavi to provide further link up. This means Victor Valdes becoming effectively another outfield player, and his good footwork will distribute the ball out to the defenders and continue the carousel, until the pressing opposition are disheartened or are exposed for having come too far out of position.

Yet at Madrid their ideology is the polar opposite. Mourinho instills a directness into their play that uses Di Maria and Ronaldo as outballs circling Benzema, whilst Ozil provides link up. The build up play is much more simplistic, with Ramos and Pepe encouraged to launch the ball forward and the side to capitalise on opposition mistakes with their pace and power. Casillas hence has a very different role, as any pressure on the centre backs sees the ball knocked back to the keeper who will take a touch to adjust himself, the centre backs push forward to squeeze the play and make space tighter, whilst Casillas thumps the ball in the direction of the attackers. This approach, though more primitive in it’s make up can be as effective as Barca’s total football, however the polarisation of these two styles is clear, and gives Del Bosque a difficult task. Throw in the other players that make up the side; David Silva and Jordi Alba used to more possession based styles and Torres more familiar with direct play and Del Bosque has a difficult job fitting these players into a cohesive style.

Del Bosque to his credit has chosen to emulate the Barca style of ball retention and tecnhique above power and opportunism. However recreating this is not entirely easy with players that have spent the past two years contesting headers, playing with aggression and putting balls into dangerous areas. The result is as strange hybrid that sees the aforementioned scenario become a convoluted one. For Spain, Xavi if pressed will lay the ball off to Alonso who for lack of options would switch the ball back to the centre backs and himself move forward in anticipation of the ball being delivered long. Ramos will play the ball back to Casillas then, instead moving wide to create space to keep the ball he will jog forward. Casillas is clearly the most unsuited to the tika taka style, and as a goalkeeper this is no real surprise, as he will often hesitate to play a pass, being much more comfortable bashing the ball forward and as far away from his goal as possible. Xavi and Busquets will sigh as their purist hopes of keeping the ball under all circumstances are dashed and the Madrid players will continue unknowingly. Similarly, Xabi Alonso, an epert exponent of the long, accurate pass and the switch to the flanks, will do this without consideration to how it will stretch Spain, and see the reciever of the pass vastly outnumbered by opposition players.

The consequence of this is a side that preforms with neither the ruthlessness of Real Madrid or the possession obssessed approach of Barcelona. Remarkably though, the Spanish players are so technically adept that possession at around 65% is still almost a norm. Thus, the opposition rarely sees sight of the ball let alone goal scoring chances, whilst the individual creativity of Iniesta, Silva, Xavi and Fabregas usually leads to an opening at the other end, meaning that, depsite lacking cohesion from time to time and appearing disjointed, they are so absurdly good that they are still coasting towards winning this tournament anyway.

Cruyff’s ideology is indoctrinated into Barca players from grass roots level

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June 25, 2012

The importance of closing down the deep-lying playmaker

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Italy’s gentle control of England yesterday came from two key factors. The first was the narrowness with which Young and Milner played, being sucked into Italy’s diamond which freed up space for the Italian full backs. The second is that deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo was never pressed or closed down anything like as much as he should have been.

Rooney’s reintroduction to the England squad would be beneficial for numerous reasons. However it was hindering for a few as well. Firstly, the 4-4-1-1 that Hodgson employed with Young behind Wellbeck saw Young working hard behind the ball to ensure players were closed down in possession deep in the middle of the pitch, whilst Welbeck naturally worked hard to press defenders and close players down higher up. However Rooney’s introduction in the place of Young, who shifted to the left, meant a change in the way England defended. As the star player of this side, Rooney appeared unwilling to exert too much effort when he didn’t have the ball. A huge departure from the sacrifical player who would work so hard on the left wing when Ronaldo was at Utd, as Rooney failed to offer much cover or press Pirlo at all, giving him time and space to dictate the game. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the introduction of Carroll as a substitute, whilst definitely providing an aerial threat, as he remarkably brough down goal kick after goal kick from Joe Hart, signalled the end of Wellbeck’s good pressing, essentially meaning that the front two of Carroll with Rooney in behind were putting hardly any pressure on the Italians, particularly Pirlo who had as much space as he needed, when Young, who is clearly unnatural defensively would have at least looked to press him better and make life more difficult.

However, this isn’t the first time English football has been ignorant of where attacks are orchestrated, or where the tempo and nature of a move is built. In the 2009 Champions’ League Final, Barcelona’s midfield carousel famously put the Man Utd side, including Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Berbatov, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs Park and Carrick, at different times, to shame. Utd lined up with Giggs as a number ten linking midfield with attack, however this position, similarly to Rooney’s yesterday was strictly an attacking minded strategy and was ignorant of the effects of the deep lying playmaker; Busquets three years ago, and Pirlo last night. Barcelona’s midfield triangle consisted of the now routinely established Busquets-Iniesta-Xavi, with Busquets deep behind the other two. Utd opted for Carrick-Anderson-Giggs, with Giggs further ahead of the other two. However, Giggs failed to track Busquets at all, and thus Busquets would recieve the ball from the defence and have plenty of time to feed the ball into the two more attacking and skilful midfielders ahead of him, or thread it to the full backs. Of course, it is hard to distinguish whether it is Giggs not doing his job or a lack of player instructions from the manager to put him under pressure, but the fact that Busquets was given so much time to build Barca’s play means it was a failing of Ferguson’s regardless.

Which all begs the question as to why this is ignored. Ferguson’s expertise might be in squad rotation, man management and the culture he pervades, but he is certainly not void of tactical knowledge. Perhaps it is simply that English football does recognise the position of deep lying playmaker, as notably the closest thing we have, Michael Carrick, was ommitted entirely from the squad. Perhaps our 4-4-2 culture is more accustomed to two box to box midfielders, or one destroyer and one creator, neither considering a creative player playing deep. Hence we do not see the need to try to prevent that kind of player from operating.

Pirlo’s control of the game could not have been symbolised any better than by his jog to the ball and dinked penalty into the back of the net, which calmed italy and scared England in equal measure. Nor did his celebration of the goal suggest that it was anything other than certainty, a steely assurance that his side would win. This said everything about the way in which Pirlo controlled the game; with time, space and ease. Yet as much as that is down to Pirlo being majestic, the lack of a player making it difficult for him in anyway whatsoever means that we just as much allowed him to do it.

June 24, 2012

Why Xavi rarely plays a cross field pass

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A number of times against France, Spain would win possession in the middle of the pitch, or in their own half and after a few interchanging passes between the Spainish midfieldiers the ball would often fall to the feet of Xavi with Arbeloa breaking down the right and in an abundance of space, barely being tracked by Clichy, who either hadn’t yet covered from a push on of his own, or had tucked inside too much when he was defending, which would happen frequently as Spain’s control of the ball is often in such tight and concentrated areas. However, Xavi would look up and see the option, yet sparingly use it. Often he’d play a short pass to Xabi Alonso, who would be much more likely to do it himself, but Xavi almost couldn’t bring himself to do it.

The reason for this is a nod to Barcelona’s fluid system, where Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola have conditioned this new age Barca into moving as a team collectively, rather than relying on individuals to further attacks. The small passes ensure that the team, step by step, move cohesively towards the opponents goal. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, it is the total football vision of attacking, every player interchangable and every player working as one unit, one unit with the shared understading of moving the ball with short passes until a player is presented with the easiest shot possible. The second is that it contributes massively defensively. By moving the ball such small distances, the ball is never far away from the mass of players, where the players are grouped. This means that if possession is conceded, or even if it is retained, the shape of the team is never stretched and so attacks are more fluid, and defensively they never lose possession in an area where there aren’t a large group of players that, by pressing hard, can get the ball back as quickly as possible.

There are a few exceptions to this. Firstly, if the ball is a final ball that puts a striker in, then it is a more risky ball that cuts through the defence perfectly to put an attacker through and will be taken even if it stretches the side, as it will result in a goal scoring chance. Secondly, Dani Alves is used in a kind of cross field pass for Barcelona. However, the crucial difference is that the Barca entourage quickly move over towards him to regain that shape, whilst Spain on the other hand are not as quick to do this or as understanding of this concept, and so a cross field ball isolates the wide player more and loses that fludity and cohesion.

Hence, when Xavi looks up and sees Arbeloa 20 yards away to his right, where Xabi Alonso would slice a ball perfectly out to the flank, there is a response in the Barcelona captain, conditioned by hours and hours of training for the past 21 years, which tells him the pass should be a short one, to keep the side’s shape and honour the idea of fluidity above all else.

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June 18, 2012

Holland under think and over attack v Portugal

Holland crashed out of the Euro’s with 0 points, and despite being unlucky against Denmark, their final game against Portugal demonstrated glaring tactical naivety that was comfortably punished by a basic counter attack from Ronaldo and Nani.

Despite needing a two goal victory, it is difficult to justify Van der Vaart starting along with Sneijeder, RVP, Robben and Huntelaar. Whilst at least convential wisdom would dictate that more attackers is conducive to more chances and goals, it was utterly ignorant of cohesion and structure that provides a platform for attacks to be built. And there is no cohesive way of fitting all those in when each offered so little defensively. Likewise, playing de Jong as the only defensive-minded midfield player isnt just attacking, it’s gung-ho and top heavy. Holland would have been better off playing 4-2-3-1, with another midfielder instead of VDV, being defensively sound and then gambling later in the second half, rather than throwing away defensive structure for Galactico-esque player selection.

Holland’s attacks consisted of de jong having the ball in the centre, Portugal regrouping well to get bodies behind the ball, de jong seeing a host of attacking players ahead of him with little beneficial movement, and finding no consistent, effective or creative way of moving the ball to attack. Yet even with good movement, de Jong is hardly the most inventive player. Thus it is with some irony then that with Sneijder, VDV, RVP and Robben Holland had four playmaking players on the pitch, yet because they were positioned so far forward and were operating selfishly (perhaps they do not know any better either) de Jong ended up being the playmaker by default. Furthermore, should he lose the ball in the middle of the pitch, he was the only backwards working player to support the Holland defence.

The tactics may have made sense in ill-thought-out theory, but in practicality, playing five forwards was only going to work if Holland were committed to being proactive, more ball retaining and hard working. And these four factors did not co-exist.

Above: Holland’s attacking players were so far ahead of the ball that linking midfield (de Jong on his own) with attack was nearly impossible, especially for a destroyer defensive midfielder.

June 12, 2012

Proactive v Reactive

England’s reactive, defensive display v France secured Hodgson’s men a point, however it wasn’t the only time possession-based, proactive football failed to be fruitful so far; the top three teams for pass accuracy, France 91.7%, Netherlands 89.7% and Spain 88.3% all failed to win their opening game. The technique of English footballers might be distinctly below average, but the examples of reactive, ultra defensive sides stifling better teams is plentiful.

This is good news for Hodgson’s England. Afterall with a disipline and sizeable luck this can happen:

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April 25, 2012

Guadiola Gets It Wrong Vs Chelsea

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I don’t necessarily think you have to posses a towering number 9 at all for Barca to add another dimension. I’m not sold on that personally.

Rather, I think that as long as you have variation on the pitch in the build up and in other areas, you don’t need that number 9. Theres nothing legitimate about pushing Pique up top, or Keita. If Barca play 4-3-3 like the devastating past few years last night, then the match would have been an entirely different one. Busquets holds, Pujol and Pique at centre back playing on the half way line, pushing Alves up wide to support Cuenca and cause an overload and give Drogba problems, who surely must be thinking that defending is the easiest thing in the world given how little he was exposed when he tucked in left-wing (which his ego categorically does not need).

Same on the other flank, Adriano could have pushed further up to create space on the wings, seeing as Chelsea are compact and denying space in the middle. Also, the 4-3-3 would be anchored by Busquets, not by Xavi as has been suggested in discussions, which would be suicidal when you’re dispossessed. This would leave you with decent numbers against a counter. A wide centre pairing of Pique and Pujol with Busquets centre and in front of them I think could cope with an on rushing Drogba and Ramires, and lets not forget Dani Alves is normally extremely competent at getting back himself, with Adriano being sensibly aggressive.

The Mascherano at centre back thing makes sense in La Liga where teams generally offer little from a number 9 and much of his defending is going to be on the ground, which he is extremely adept at. However, against a physical striker like Drogba who is there solely to disrupt you in the air and jostle on the ground, i literally have no idea why Mascherano was selected for the match up here in both legs, when Pep should have sacrificed playing out from the back in exchange for a player that could compete with Drogba better.

Barca wish to have one fluid movement of players, one fluid formation, this is Guardiola’s ideal and this is what he’s being striving for this season; little or no specialised players and one fluid formation of midfielders throughout the pitch. However, the reality is that this does not work against teams equipped and geared to counter attack you with power whilst parking the bus. You need specialised centre backs at the very least. Unless you’re going to have 100% possession then you need specialist centre backs when the team pose a physical threat.

The most confusing thing is that Barca attempted to attack after going 2-0 up, when keeping the ball for the victory is bread and butter stuff for champions. Barca themselves i recall kept the ball away from Man Utd as easily as imaginable in the ’09 final, with Carrick Scholes and Giggs pretty much waving a white flag to the midfield carousel. However, Barca this time did not do this. I have no idea why, I personally would have Pujol and Mascherano exchange passes a thousand times if it meant the score staying the same, or dragging Chelsea out of position so you could expose them. This is really basic stuff though and surely Guardiola is aware of it.

Interestingly, I wonder if the managers were switched for the tie last night who would progress and i overwhelmingly think it would be Di Matteo, who himself mastered this victory over Barca, which was helped by both Guardiola’s naivety as well as a sizable amount of luck in both legs. Which brings us lastly to whether you can completely eradicate luck from a match, which you can’t, you simply play the percentages so to speak, choose the smartest option that gives the BEST CHANCE of victory, and im not sure Barca did that in either leg.

Guardiola himself said “That is football, you have high periods and then you have low ones”, however you can’t help but feel this was an avoidable low.