Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Summer Update

Sorry I haven't posted on here for ages, I'm afraid posts over the next twelve months are likely to be similarly intermittent as I focus upon my masters degree. I'm currently back in Cornwall for the summer, and due to the terrible internet connection I have here, I haven't been able to get together the screenshots I want/need to do any new posts. This will hopefully be rectified when I go back to uni in a few weeks, time permitting, so until then posts will either be scarce or very text heavy. Fortunately I think it's possibly a bit early to try and read too much into the tactics of teams as they settle into new systems and bed in/get accustomed to new players and managers.

Despite what I just said, I would like to offer a couple of things I've noticed so far this season.

Arsenal and Gervinho
When Arsenal brought in Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud I thought that might be the end of Gervinho's first team opportunities. Theo Walcott, despite receiving constant criticism from almost everybody (unfairly in my opinion as I'm a fan of his) seemed more likely to retain his place in the side. That has not been the case however as Gervinho has started both of Arsenal's Premier League games this season. This alone isn't really a particularly interesting obervation especially as the similarities between Walcott and Podolski, particularly their struggles against compact/deep lying defences, contrast with Gervinho's extremely high number of touches in the opposition box last season. When I looked into Gervinho's performances last season mroe closely however, I noticed something that may have contributed to my unfair decision to write him off so quickly, particularly when taking his performances for Lille into consideration. The point of all this is basically that last season he scored all his 4 goals before the african cup of nations and 5 of his 6 Premier League assists as well as his only assist in the Champions League. Now that he has had 12 months in London, a full pre-season with the team and doesn't have the distraction of the ACON (something that arguably also contributed to Demba Ba's lack of goals after the competition, albeit in conjunction with the arrival of his compatriot Cisse) I wouldn't be surprised to see him improve greatly this season.

Eden Hazard
On his arrival Hazard faced two questions in particular about his ability to succeed in the Premier League, the same questions asked of David Silva and Juan Mata in particular before him.
Firstly, people questioned whether he would be able to cope with the "physicality" of the English League and so far he seems to be doing just fine. This isn't exactly surprising as Mata and Silva also adapted very quickly and are roughly the same height/size, in addition Hazard came from the arguably more physical French League so he was always likely to overcome this supposed hurdle.
The other question on Mata and Silva, one which they both struggled to provide a positive answer for, is their ability to sustain their level of performance over an entire season. Both were used to a winter break and both seemed to suffer in the second half of the season. The same may not be true for Hazard though. Although Lille also had a break last season, from 21 December to January 15th, Hazard played 48 games last year and 52 the 2 previous years. This is a significant increase on the 36, 25 and 45 games of Silva in the 3 years previous to joining Manchester City and, although not quite as big a difference, Mata's 43, 51 and 47 appearances.
In addition to this Hazard made 8 appearances for Belgium in each of these 3 years and was afforded a long summer break due to the inability to qualify for the Euros. This means not only has he almost certainly played a significantly higher number of matches per year in the last 3 years, he also begins the season fresher from the extended break.

Last season Liverpool's season was, to an extent, unhinged by the injury of Lucas Leiva. The team relied on his fitness so heavily, both due to his key role in the team and the lack of adequate cover. Interestingly, this over reliance is one of the first things Brendan Rodgers sought to rectify by bringing in first Joe Allen and then Nuri Sahin on loan. Now, although Lucas is injured again, it has not sparked the panic it did previously and Joe Allen in fact showed how effectively he can cover in this role despite it not being his preferred position. The addition of Nuri Sahin therefore covers for Allen's absence higher up the pitch and allows Gerrard license to play a role less constricted positionally, one which he flourished in under Benitez. Although this projected midfield lineup does oversimplify the intricacies of Rodgers manipulations through redefining the positions as DM-CM-AM, DM-DM-AM, DM-CM-CM etc it is clear to see that his forethought has already paid off.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Be Brave and Prosper

Choosing a system is a tricky process. Some managers base it on opposition, some tinker with lineups until they arrive at a system that works, some choose one based upon the players available and some are ideologically married to a particular system. Despite all this there is very little variation in the formations played by sides with the majority playing 4 defenders and 2 wide players of some description leading to 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 being by far the most common formations. Modifications come mostly in the form of different interpretations of the same roles, a few popular examples are passers like Pirlo, destroyers like Mascherano and shuttlers like Ramires or on the wings speedsters like Walcott, more defensively aware wide midfielders like Milner or narrow creative players like David Silva.

Why is there such a standardisation? People argue that 3 defenders is too risky, that 5 defenders is too negative, that no wingers means a team lacks width. These are all valid observations to an extent but they aren’t universal. It’s natural that when managers stray from convention the new system takes the majority of the criticism and, generally, these criticisms are true. But that doesn’t mean they are true for all games, the systems often work and it’s only when their weaknesses are exposed that they are criticised, yet all systems have weaknesses. 4-4-2 can be outnumbered in the centre, 4-2-2-2 can be too narrow or create broken teams with no link from defence to attack, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 can lack bodies in the box. These criticisms are often levelled when these systems are unsuccessful but nobody uses it as a reason to completely disregard them, unlike departures from the standard template. 

The strange thing about all this is that there are a lot of cases when these less favoured systems are remarkably successful. This is partly due to good players carrying out their roles well under the instruction of a good manager, as with any system, but the key is that they present a different challenge. After facing relatively standardised formations week in week out when players and managers come up against a fresh challenge they often struggle to adapt and the brave managers who strayed from the common templates prosper. This can be seen in the successes of Napoli and Udinese’s back 3 systems, Wigan’s late season switch to 3-4-3 and subsequent wins over Newcastle, Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal, Chile’s success at the 2010 World Cup and Roma’s classic 4-6-0. It can also be seen in more isolated incidents like Milan’s 4-0 win over Arsenal in the Champions League using 4 central midfielders, Athletic Bilbao’s win over Manchester United with its intense pressing and, most recently, Italy’s use of a back 3 versus Spain and Croatia and then a 4 man central midfield in subsequent games at Euro 2012.

Italy’s run to the final of the European Championships has been peculiar, they weren’t highly thought of before the tournament, they have been criticised for having an easy run against passive teams like England and Ireland and, prior to the Semi Final, hadn’t been particularly lauded for any of their performances. On the other hand they escaped a group containing Croatia, one of the best teams in the competition not to progress, they have outplayed their opponents in their last 3 games, most impressively against Germany, and they matched Spain in the opening game as well as dominating the first half against Croatia. The most impressive thing about their performances though has been that, aside from the second half against Croatia and the final against Spain, no side has really managed to get to grips with their system. The initial 3-5-2 and then 4-3-1-2 have presented new and puzzling problems for the opposition that have largely confounded them despite attempts by England and Germany to combat this by altering their own play to put pressure on Pirlo. The 3-5-2 presented a different style of defending to the Spanish, one that capitalised on their lack of width and stifled them, the 4-3-1-2 features 4 central midfielders which has outnumbered opposition in the centre of the pitch making it very difficult to press Pirlo in his deep central role without allowing players such as Montolivo, De Rossi and Marchisio time on the ball, something reflected in the standout performances of Montolivo in particular. The pictures below show the two systems used, the one on the left is a pre-tournament prediction from Zonal Marking so the personal differed slightly once the tournament began due to circumstances, though the only major difference is that Abate played at RB in the 4-3-1-2 system whereas Maggio played RWB in the 3-5-2 depicted on the right.

Italy have gone against conventions and despite the result in the final Prandelli has been brave and prospered, something a few more managers should try rather than looking for new players to solve their perceived problems.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Il Piano

England have reached the Quarter Finals and now have an Italian hurdle between them and the final. Judging by Hodgson's reactive tendencies and experience in Italian football they are going to have a clear plan, (il piano in Italian). Once famed for their defensive qualities, this current Italian side is lacking in its stereotypical World Class defenders. In fact, unlike the sides of old, the team lacks any established world-class players except Pirlo, Buffon and, arguably, De Rossi. What they do have, however, are options. 

Italy have a good selection of players with no particularly weak or strong areas but what they do lack is width. In the first two games they overcame this by adopting a 3-5-2 formation similar to that often used by Juventus this season and featuring several of these Juventus players in the same roles as at club level. Alternatively, against Ireland the Italians adopted the 4-3-1-2 favoured by AC Milan. The only real difference between these formations is whether the side plays with a 3rd central defender or a trequartista between the midfield band of 3 and the front 2. The roles of the 2 wide players alter slightly between being wing backs and full backs but the midfield band of 3, which is the key to the side, remains unchanged. As a result, defensively England’s main focus should be upon disrupting Pirlo and limiting his influence upon the game. 

Pirlo is by far Italy’s best player on the ball and his role is the same in either formation as the deep-lying playmaker between 2 more mobile midfielders known as shuttlers or carrileros. The key to disrupting Pirlo is to pay him constant attention, he is not the most mobile player, however, due to his deep role he can be difficult to pressure. England can learn from Croatia in this area. In the Croatia game Bilic altered his side’s shape at half time in order to place Modric up against Pirlo. This allowed him to close Pirlo down quickly and restrict his influence as well as allowing Modric to move away and find space more easily when Croatia were in possession, something reflected in Modric’s 2 shots, 59 touches and 48 passes (the highest on the Croatian side). England, hopefully, can look to recreate this by asking Rooney to watch Pirlo, something Rooney attempted to do against Busquets in the 2011 Champions League Final.


Italy are far from free-scoring and England can try to put them under pressure, particularly in wide areas. The models for this approach are the Champions League second leg between Arsenal and AC Milan this season and the Second Leg between Chelsea and Napoli in the same competition. In both games the English side were able to use their numerical advantage out wide. Chelsea did this with Sturridge and Ramires out wide rather than proper wingers. Michael Cox at Zonal Marking highlights that, since Lavezzi played high up the pitch, “Napoli had little protection, with Walter Gargano forced to move across to that side. If he couldn’t, then the wing-back would move up the pitch and deal with the danger, and the relevant centre-back would move across into the full-back position.”

This involves drawing a centre back out wide or a central midfielder out there, creating space in the centre either way. Similarly, Arsenal placed an emphasis upon running at the Milan full-backs, an approach that was successful both in an attacking sense and in pinning back these players and making Milan even narrower than usual.


A - This is the most likely formation for either side and represents the dream scenario for England. I'd personally choose Carroll as the target for crosses as England look to exploit the space out wide. The Italian wing backs will be forced deep to cover Young and Walcott, leaving Cole and Johnson free, or will have to leave them to the outer centre backs, leaving Italy without a spare man at the back. Either of these represents a clear advantage for England as they offer an attacking threat while nullifying Italy's midfield by going man for man.

B - If italy move to their alternative formation this represents a real problem for England. Even if Rooney marks Pirlo, Parker and Gerrard are outnumbered by the other 3 Italian midfielders (most likely Motta, De Rossi and Marchisio). Walcott and Young are easier to cover as the wing backs are now full backs and Cole and Johnson, while free, are unable to move upfield due to the numerical disadvatange in the centre of the pitch.

C - This is a very unlikely option but it's the one I would choose to react with. The two carrileros in the Italian system mainly offer energy and vertical movement, therefore they are suitable to being tracked by Gerrard and Milner who also offer energy and are a threat in attack as well. Rooney still marks Pirlo but instead of playing as a second striker he is in a role more focussed on playmaking. His job is not to be a direct goal threat but to feed Young and Walcott who look to find space behind Italy by playing as wide forwards rather than wingers. There is virtually no chance Hodgson would play this way as it offers no guarantee of sucess, means a switch to an untested system, moves from his preferred two banks of four and involves not playing a true striker.


With Chiellini likely to be out Italy can either play Barzagli alongside De Rossi and Bonucci at centre back, or move to their alternative 4-3-1-2 formation. Unfortunately for England I think the latter is more likely as that was Prandelli's choice for the game against the Irish who play a similar 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 to England.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Lines Lines Lines

Roy Hodgson's tactics are pretty well documented, particularly his preference to defend with 2 banks of 4 and not leave any space between the lines. This is something England did well the other day and largely restricted France to longer range efforts as they couldn't work the ball closer to the goal, a result of England's good work at closing off the space between the lines. Interestingly though, the goal France scored came from in front of the England lines after they had been thrown into disarray by the confusing positioning of Parker and Gerrard as shown below.
The goal was a result of the central midfielders crossing over, the midfield line being too deep and Oxlade-Chamberlain offering little cover. The likelihood is England may not have conceded were all 3 of these errors not to have coincided.
Gerrard and Parker Crossover
With Gerrard RCM and Parker LCM you can see that they begin in line, then cross over, then return to being in a line. When centre backs cross over they are rightly criticised and in this system Gerrard and Parker's positioning should be subject to similar criticism as in the defensive phase their roles are quite similar to those of centre backs in some respects. If they stay on their correct sides then Nasri will be faced with the two of them when he looks to shoot instead of just Gerrard, with Parker having been caught out chasing shadows toward right back.

Deep Midfield
This one is, ironically, recognised by Glen Johnson, frequently citicised for his lack of defensive skills. In the first picture you can actually see him pointing and he is signalling for pressure to be put on the trio of French players on the edge of the box. The English midfield begins the series of pictures with a slant leaving it very deep on one side. Gerrard positions himself deep so as not to allow Ribery (standing in front of Johnson in the first picture) to be between the lines. This aspect is not entirely an error as it is likely Hodgson instructed them not to allow any players to position themselves between the lines so Ribery forces Gerrard into that position. The picture below shows the ball in a similar position but the England midfield, despite Parker tracking back, is not forced so deep.
No Cover from the Ox
The picture above also shows that when a player has been dragged into the left back zone leaving the team shorthanded in the centre Milner comes across to cover and Gerrard is comfortable to move across to LCM. This isn't an entirely fair comparison as the goal came following sustained pressure whereas the positioning in this picture was taken up before they had come under any particular pressure. The difference is stark though and its notable that in the original series the longest line at every point is that between Oxlade-Chamberlain and Parker. Again this may have been under instruction by Hodgson with him wishing to have Chamberlain higher up the pitch as a pacy outlet for counter-attacks, particularly as he was on a yellow card by this point so not as useful defensively.

It's difficult to apportion blame here as Parker moved across to try and close down and wouldn't have done so if Gerrard wasn't so deep. Gerrard was deep because he was trying not to leave Ribery between the lines and Chamberlain didn't come across but both may have been following instructions. As someone who generally plays a more attacking role as either a winger or in an attacking band of 3 for Arsenal, Chamberlain would be unfamiliar with the position he was asked to play even if he was expected to come across making it, arguably a selection error. To put it simply though if a team is playing deep and not allowing space between the lines then they can't have that many complaints if the opposition score from in front of them, as that is the area they were looking to force them to play in.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Kagawa and Manchester United

Having been rumoured to have agreed a move to Manchester United the prospect of Shinji Kagawa in the Premier League is looking extremely likely.

While many have been criticising United’s apparent lack of creativity in the middle of the pitch for years, Kagawa does not really represent a straightforward solution to this. What he will bring to the side however is far more important. Despite the calls for a No. 10 in the vein of Sneijder or similar United are far from short of creative riches, Carrick and Scholes offer passing ability from deep, Nani and Young both offer creative wing-play with ability to come inside and Rooney offers creativity higher up the pitch. Adding another creative player could prove to be counterproductive as they may reduce the space for these other players. What Kagawa is likely to bring to the side is a different type of movement. Unlike Rooney, who drops deep to collect the ball, or Hernandez and Welbeck, who tend to play in advance of Rooney on the last man, Kagawa offers forward runs from a deeper starting position as well as lateral movement. While he is competent out wide, his best position is that which he plays at Dortmund, close to Lewandowski whose movement allows Kagawa to find himself unmarked on his runs from deeper. This point was illustrated extremely well in Dortmund’s first and third goals in the Pokal final against Bayern Munich that Ferguson attended.

In this sequence you can see Kagawa (circled in blue) begins moving laterally in a position deeper than Lewandowski (circled in red), drawing Jerome Boateng high up the pitch and causing him to take up a position in front of his centre back partner Holger Badstuber. While this is happening Lewandowski is forcing Badstuber deeper as he attempts to reach a pass from right back Lukas Piszczek. In the second part of the sequence we can see Kagawa has reacted to this by attempting to run past Lewandowski to receive the header, placing himself in a race with Boateng that he would be expected to win. Unfortunately Lewandowski’s header is not ideal and Kagawa isn’t able to attack this space directly, however, he is able to return the ball to Lewandowski in behind Badstuber instead to calmly slot the ball past Neuer.

This, depicting the opening goal, shows Kagawa far in advance of Lewandowski after a tackle on Lewandowski led to the ball arriving at the feet of Blaszczykowski who engages Neuer before squaring the ball behind Boateng to Kagawa (shown by the black arrows), who is again unmarked after a run from deep and slots the ball home easily.

The purpose of this series is to indicate 2 things. Firstly, unlike Rooney, who excels at it, Kagawa does not focus upon dropping deep to collect the ball and look to play a “killer” pass, something revealed by the fact he finished the season with more goals and assists and that his average of 37.7 passes per game is considerably less than Rooney’s 50.4 or the 51.9 of Sneijder who has long been linked with the same position at United. Secondly, Kagawa provides a different option from the other players at United. It is relatively easy to see Kagawa playing alongside Rooney, looking to move past him as he drops deep and then to receive the ball from him unmarked. It’s not entirely dissimilar to the roles of Vucinic and Mancini in Spaletti’s 4-6-0 at Roma around 2007 (albeit more central) , while Rooney would play the “False 9” role of Totti, something he has done well in the past . Additionally, with his preference to play behind the striker and burst past him Kagawa would offer an alternative option or cover for Rooney if required.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Exeter City FC and British Fan-Ownership

While the fan-owned behemoths of Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and others enjoy success on the national, European and global stages British football clubs are often criticised by their followers for their removal from the fans due to their external ownership. While this year has shown some extremes of this discontent, with the troubles at Blackburn Rovers involving the Venky’s ownership and the rising debts under the Glazers at Manchester United particularly obvious as well as criticism levelled at Manchester City for “buying the title”, Britain’s fan owned clubs experienced a mixed season. 

In their first season in the Premier League Swansea narrowly missed out on a top half finish and their well documented style of play gained many fans. Meanwhile, Exeter City were unfortunately relegated from League One, finishing 23rd out of 24 teams and 8 points from safety. Having grown up in West Cornwall with the “local” teams being Plymouth Argyle, Torquay United and Exeter City, though all were well over 50 miles away, I remember Exeter’s difficulties in the early 00’s.
In a cruel turn of fate, when Exeter were relegated to the Conference in 2003 following a takeover and asset stripping by a group fronted by Uri Geller, it was Swansea City who managed a final day victory to escape relegation and send Exeter to the Conference. The next season Exeter were taken over by the Exeter City Supporters Trust who organised multiple fund-raising activities and local investments which, in collaboration with legal proceedings and an FA Cup tie against Manchester United that was taken to a replay, managed to save the club. Only a few years later The Grecians (a nickname with uncertain origin but has been signified with a mascot in an ancient Greek soldier’s outfit) achieved back to back promotions to find themselves in League One and begin the three year stay in the division that ended this season.

Clearly the fortunes of Swansea and Exeter have varied since their involvement in the 2002-03 relegation fight but, hopefully, with the backing of their fans, this will be just a minor setback for Exeter and they can look forward to brighter days. While Barcelona proudly displays its fan-ownership with its famous motto “Més que un club” (meaning “More than a club” in English), Exeter City, who provided the first ever opposition to the Brazilian National Team, shows British fans a club in its true form, according to the dictionary: an association of people who enjoy a common interest or activity. More than just a business. More than just a team.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Manchester Derby

Everybody is offering their predicted formations and results for this game right now. Personally, since Manchester City are at home, very settled and have to win, I think their formation is relatively easy to predict. I expect it to be their usual 4-2-2-2 with Barry and Toure holding, Silva and Nasri on each wing but coming inside and Tevez and Aguero furthest forward. Generally, when playing together, Aguero pushes up onto the last man whereas Tevez will stay deeper between the opposition lines of midfield and attack. This causes a lot of problems as the defence must either step up toward Tevez, but leave themselves vulnerable to Aguero’s pace, or drop deep. This means they must either have their central midfielders move deep as well to cover Tevez but sacrifice some attacking threat to do so, or leave Tevez with a lot of space which is dangerous.

How United will deal with this threat is likely to be the key aspect of this game, especially as a win isn’t entirely necessary so blunting the City attack ought to be an attractive proposition. Ferguson’s tactics are often difficult to understand and his tactical nous has been questioned in the past. This isn’t to say he has no tactics however, far from it. The trouble is rather than making the expected changes of shape he often subtly adjusts his normal 4-4-2 in order to deal with different threats. He does this either by using different personnel such as Park, Valencia and Nani as well as the varied midfield duos available, thus offering different interpretations of the same roles, or by asking players such as Rooney to alter the role they play. As a result of this they can line up with the same team in successive games but with vastly different formations, as shown below.

 Due to the fact United don’t have to win and are playing away, albeit within the same city, I would expect them to line up with something approaching the second variant shown above. Also, the majority of Manchester City’s defeats this season have been inflicted by the 3 man midfields of Bayern Munich, Sunderland, Swansea and Arsenal. The personnel is the interesting question. I wouldn’t really like to speculate who Ferguson will select, instead I’ll offer what I would do and explain why.

While my first choice would probably be to sacrifice Welbeck for an extra “true” midfielder and allow Rooney to move higher up the pitch I doubt Ferguson will do this so I will ignore it. The main area I think United ought to make a selection alteration is to utilise Phil Jones in the CM/DM role. This is because it solves their defensive dilemma regarding Tevez and Aguero. Jones will be comfortable sitting deep and tracking Tevez on his own, allowing his partner, most likely Scholes or Carrick, to move forward in possession and either sit deep alongside him when defending, in order to congest the midfield area that Nasri and Silva will also move into, or pressurise Toure and Barry higher up the pitch with Rooney. Of these options I would pick the former as neither Toure nor Barry offer much creativity and incisive passing from deep, hence the loan signing of Pizzaro as a regista (deep-lying playmaker). 

Additionally with Jones in midfield Ferguson may feel more willing to field the less defensively reliable option of Nani on the left as he did against Everton. This would pit him against the less attacking Zabaleta (unless Richards is fit) and Nani offers greater variety in attack. If United don’t field Jones in midfield then I would be very surprised to see Nani, instead I expect they will defend deeper in two banks of 4, requiring the greater discipline of Valencia and Young. Also Ferguson obviously doesn't trust Nani against attacking fullbacks as he chose to use him on the left last week against Everton rather than up against Baines on the right.
These changes would mean United lined up as below and had clearly defined battles against the City attacking players with either Evans or Ferdinand as the spare man depending upon which side Aguero moves to.

There is a lot of room for this in Ferguson’s selection, hence I have offered my own ideas rather than a genuine prediction of his lineup. The less unexpected surprises may be to drop Welbeck and use an extra midfielder, to use Valencia, Smalling or Jones at Right Back if he is unsure of Rafael defensively (though he has started quite a few games recently) or to use the energy and discipline of Park either wide or in midfield in place of Welbeck.