A couple of weeks ago, I was announced as one of the new team members of the tactics blog Spielverlagerung. In light of that announcement, I will no longer be posting match analyses on this blog. Instead, this blog will be used for personal accounts and thoughts of mine in terms of the world of football.
This second rendition of Around The World takes us to three continents, with each match selected profiling marquee clubs and managers in their respective countries. Given that some leagues had a holiday break as a part of their schedule, matches to pick from were of slimmer pickings. The first match is actually one that took place over a month ago, but considering there won’t be another match in that league for three weeks, it still feels topical to discuss.
It’s (Uk)raining goals! Hallelujah!
To conclude the 2016 portion of the Ukrainian Premier League, national powerhouses squared off as Dynamo Kyiv hosted Shakhtar Donestk in what will be a consequential result in the league table for the year. In a 4-3 thriller, the away side managed to come away victorious and leave the nation’s capital with a thirteen point lead at the top of the table. Without further adieu… (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imSKSiCzPTM&index=21&list=WL) (All spellings are originated from the teamsheets, which are translated from the Russian alphabet).
Shaky Starts, Settling in.
It took all of 13 seconds for the home side to take the lead, and another minute and a half for them to lose it. Straight for the kickoff, an insufficient clearance following a long pass made it’s way to Dynamo, and a well timed pass and outside diagonal run from Rybalka and Moraes respectively, Dynamo took the lead. Next possession, Bernard equalized for Shakhtar from the ensuing free kick following a foul near the byline, with a goalkeeping error to thank for the quick response.
Afterwards, each team began to settle into their own strategies for the match. Due to the snowy conditions and cold weather (-5 Celsius), each team had to adapt slightly when it came to the technical executions of their actions. For example, many passes after 5-10 minutes were chipped slightly off the ground so that the snow did not catch onto the ball and slow down the speed of circulation. During the early minutes, many passes from both teams were intercepted because they slowed down short of their target, leading to the opposition pouncing on said passes. After this adjustment period where the players all had to determine the proper power needed to accurately weight each pass, Shakhtar began to enter their own element and establish themselves early.
Similarities and Differences; Wide Attacks
Due to the rules and regulations regarding foreigners in the Ukrainian League, both teams have a somewhat similar team structure in terms of how they organize their recruitment. Shakhtar have continued the policy of “Ukrainian in the back, Brazilian up front” that former manager Mircea Lucescu pioneered. Due to teams being required to play a maximum of seven foreigners per match, Lucescu set the club’s strategy to purchase skillful international talent in attacking positions and have the domestic talent in defensive positions. This policy led to great success for Shakhtar, winning the league five times in a row between 2009 and 2014. Now, Paulo Fonseca, Lucescu’s replacement, looks to be in a prime position to replicate that success using the same template and formation as his predecessor.
Dynamo Kyiv have altered the scales the past two years by winning the league. They have more of a Ukrainian nucleus, but even they have moved to sign foreign talent to fill attacking slots, especially in the form of Derlis Gonzalez and forward Junior Moraes, the leading scorer in the league.
Both teams also have their defensive strategies in common. During this match, the main priority for both teams was to prevent the ball from moving to the options inside, forcing them wide and around any pressure they may apply. Dynamo throughout the day were the superior side when it came to their shifting and defensive team coordination, as Shakhtar’s main successes were in the wide areas in the first half (more on that later).
However, that is where their main similarities end. In a match where the balance ebbed and flowed over time, it’s hard to say there was a truly better team in the first half. Shakhtar, who possessed better technicians and creators than the home side, appeared more likely to create chances from open play.
Due to Dynamo Kyiv’s defensive structure, generally a 4-1-4-1 which often converted into a 4-4-2 depending on the forward movement of Sydorchuk, Shakhtar were matched man for man in the midfield in their base formation of a 4-2-3-1. In response to this, Donestk underwent a shift in their formation during build-up in order to afford themselves the luxury of numerical superiority in the central zones. What took place was that either Fred or Stepanenko (more often the latter) would drop in between the center backs to act as the playmaker from deep. The other member of the double pivot would then act as the base of a diamond where Bernard and Marlos pinched in to form the sides. Simultaneously, both Srna and Ismaili would push forward into free spaces on the wings or to occupy the far side full backs to create space for either Marlos or Bernard.
This created spatial advantages for the fullbacks, who were a key component of Skakhtar’s circulation. Since Dynamo were quite compact, Bernard and Marlos took a little bit of time to influence the game from the central areas. The use of the fullbacks not only provided an option to go forward and potentially cross, but also opened up the halfspaces for the attacking midfielders to run into as they tried to combine with the full backs. Viktor Kovalenko was excellent in this regard, as his movements not only managed to open spaces for his teammates to get on the ball, but also penetrated nicely in behind to push his entire team forward with their progressions. Possession for Shakhtar, when they had it, was easier for them to maintain their style because of the shorter distances between players in possession, meaning the snow had less of an impact.
Despite Shakthar’s decent spells of possession, Dynamo were actually the side that managed to be more in control of the ball during the first half. Following a fantastic free kick from Rybalka in the 28th minute, Shakthar became rushed with their attacks and tried to capitalize on transitions when they lacked the numbers required going forward to make them effective.
Due to the stretched out nature of Shakhtar’s team then, Dynamo was afforded more time in possession to knock the ball around. Like Shakhtar, they also used the wide areas, but differed in how they did so. Gonzalez and Yarmolenko were their sources of creativity with their dribbling at players to eventually provide service acting as their main source of attack from open play. Yarmolenko was also a threat with his runs in behind, and on multiple occasions he was targeted with flighted balls over the top.
Second Half Developments and Junior Red Card
Into the second half, Shakhtar finally found the right balance between their aggressive transitions and their use of wide areas in attack. The opening six minutes of the half exemplified this balance which led to a goal scored by Fred, following an excellent switch of play from left to right. Not even ten minutes later did Donestk take the lead following a surging counter attack where they had a 6v4 which turned into a 3v1 based off the pass selection. The minutes prior was at an outrageously high tempo and intensity, and they capitalized wonderfully off of Dynamo recklessly committing players forward at a bad moment of the match.
This sudden change in the rhythm of the game shocked the home side, and their approach began to me more direct. In one of those ensuing attacks, Junior Moraes got caught in an off the ball incident and was subsequently sent off, handicapping Dynamo’s efforts to get an equalizer severely.
The response from Rebrov was to introduce Demis Harmash for Buialskyi and alter his team shape to a 4-2-1-2. Harmash would move into the front line in defense to form a 4-2-3 shape while maintaining the medium block from earlier. This essentially kept the same shape as earlier in the match, but progressions for Shakthar were significantly easier due to Moraes’ absence, as Fred and Stepanenko benefitted from this gain in space and time.
The propensity of both teams to counter attack also increased in the later stages of the match. Taison’s substitution into the match for Kovalenko symbolized this shift in attacking mindset for Fonseca’s team, as he was confident that they could maintain the lead with an extra man, and hoped to prey on Dynamo when they threw together too many players forward.
Rather than having each team alter their attacking set ups to prevent these counter attacks from happening in the first place, tactical fouling was commonplace in the second half due to each side being poorly positioned to deal with the threat each team posed. This trend led to a total of 8 yellow cards being given on the night. Shakhtar scored in minute 88 by way of an own goal origined from substituted Dentinho to all but seal the match through this direct play. Dynamo clawed one back in stoppage time from a corner kick, but it wasn’t of any true consequence on the course of play.
Cruz Azul’s hope to get out of the Rojo
Yes, the red in this instance would be the relegation zone. Former Rayo Vallecano manager Paco Jemez has been brought in by Cruz Azul to change the club’s fortunes. He got off to a winning start against Necaxa after being sacked from his disappointing spell at Grenada. Rather than discuss the whole match, we will discuss the only the attacking portion of Cruz Azul’s play, specifically the implementation of Jemez’s style of play.
Positive Early Signs
The debut performance was quite good from Cruz Azul, leaving a lot to be desired for the Clausura season in the coming months. In usual Jemez fashion, his team displayed high intensity in attack and tread the line between risk and safety in possession quite nicely.
A standout component of the team was the behavior of the full backs, as they were quite advanced during consolidation and posed problems for the opposing full backs with their overlapping runs. In addition, they were adventurous with their passing selection, at times rash with their decision making, but Paco Jemez does not mind such a cavalier approach. Mendoza and Aldrete frequently played long crosses and diagonals across the pitch, hoping to reach their target but not always succeeding. The fullbacks are also encouraged to join up in the attack when it comes to finishing too. Luckily for Aldrete, his shot following a short corner kick found the far post to give Azul the three points.
Perhaps this will not be the case for higher level competition in the league, but Azul were very successful in managing to break through Necaxa’s pressure and subsequently play out to begin their attack. Largely due to the spectacular performance of Penalba, a Busquets type pivot for Jemez’s side, Azul were a different class when it came to quick ball circulation against Necaxa. Necaxa could have coordinated their press between their whole team much better, but the home side were rapid in their decision making, technical execution, and movements in the first and second phases. There were multiple fantastic sequences of one and two touch football to show this pressing resistance that give a sign of what is to come in the months ahead.
Lastly, Paco Jemez’s team also were quite creative in their set pieces. This area of play often gets overlooked by tactical analysts such as myself, but considering about 30% of goals are estimated to come from set-pieces, they are definitely worth a serious discussion when it comes to somebody as attacking minded as Jemez. Necaxa were left spellbound at points by the setup of Cruz Azul’s set pieces, and this type of mystery can lead to switching off for a split second and be the difference to scoring a goal. Their short corner which led to a goal is indicative of this pattern and just one of many ways Paco Jemez is admired by some coaches and analysts.
However, it is the early days for Paco Jemez and his club. Considering he has at least half a season to make his mark (provided he gets good results), there are undoubtedly some areas of his teams play which he would like to change. While only Jemez and his staff have the vision written out as to how exactly he wants his team to play, I offer a couple potential resolutions to have Jemez’s team playing better football which will captivate the fans.
Less Running With The Ball from the midfielders
Azul’s attack was stalled on numerous occasions due to excessive touches and running with the ball from both Baca and Gimenez. Now, I understand that it is difficult to teach old dogs new tricks, especially since running with the ball is a characteristic of the Latin American game. However, to improve build up and circulation after recovering possession, the focus should not be on dribbling the ball away from pressure. Azul were caught on a couple of occasions trying to dribble out of pressure, which is a less than optimal solution given the qualities of their players and the model set up by Jemez. If the first ball cannot go forward, then it should be kept using a supporting option. Establishing this point throughout the team will lead to more cohesive counter attacks and build-ups.
Clearly establish the positioning (or creative license) of the wingers during each phase of the attack
One of the biggest annoyances I had during my viewing of this match was the confusion between the wingers and their surrounding players. Too often, the wingers would be positioned on top of the center midfielders in the attacking half, and sometimes Menas would drop rather deep (near the full back) to try and get the ball, with the assumption that they could have more space to run upon receiving the ball. In addition, too often they could not receive the ball because they would be in the same line as either the nearest midfield player or the fullback. It should be defined to them what the expectations of the role are, so they that stomp less on other people’s tasks and make their own mark on the match. This is an issue that Jemez will hopefully resolve quickly and will come as the players get more familiar with his methods, tactics, and the other players on the pitch.
On Top, Down Under
Australia is the final destination of this trip, where Sydney FC are the standout club at the moment. After sixteen matches, they haven’t lost a single match and have drawn four times, conceding only seven goals along the way and scoring 36 goals. They have done so using an effective high pressing game and a compact team defensive model, while making the most of their attacking talent in their front four. Graham Arnold has done a stellar job this season with this team, so they have more than merited this brief focus on Around The World.
Sydney FC on paper line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bobo acting as the lone striker. However, when on the pitch, Sydney are actually aligned in two situational 4-2-2-2 shapes depending on the phase of play. In attack, Holosko drifts inside next to Bobo to form a striker partnership, while Brosque situates himself next to Ninkovic. This effective forms a box midfield, famously played by Brazil in 1994 among other eras, and also by sides such as Bayer Leverkusen in present day. On the other side of the ball, the striker partnership of the 4-2-2-2 is formed by Brosque and Bobo, as Ninkovic and Holosko move into wider positions of their defensive structures. This can also take the appearance of a 4-4-2 shape.
Sydney are equipped with the best attacking talent in the A-League by a significant distance. The front four players are the standout attacking performers in the team, as each of them have scored at least 7 goals. Former Dynamo Kyiv midfielder Milos Ninikovic in my view is the best of the lot, as his ability to play penetrating passes in tight spaces and move in between opposition lines is unparalleled in the squad. Bobo offers a physical presence up front for crosses and hold up play, combining with his teammates nicely. Bobo also gives the opposition goalkeepers a problem through his relentless pressing when they are on the ball.
Filip Holosko, formerly of Besiktas, is a unique player up front, as he combines a tall frame that can be aerially targeted with great spatial intelligence, selecting and timing his runs (either at the front/back post or in behind) well. He’s also a crafty player who has decent composure in the penalty area.
The most defining characteristic of Sydney’s play is their high pressing on the defensive side of things. As mentioned before, the shape used during this phase is a 4-2-2-2 which can appear as a 4-4-2 depending on the behavior of the opposition fullbacks. Given that the technical quality of the players in the A-League is much worse than it is in other top flight leagues around the world, even a half-decent defensive structure can pose opposing center backs problems, as they will become nervous on the ball if the options that they can pass to are cut off. The man-orientations used are effective in this regard due to this deficiency in ability.
Sydney’s main priority then when it comes to their pressing is forcing their opponents to play sideways or backwards, rather than force them into areas of superiority. The main method that the forwards of Sydney use to limit the options available is the cover shadow. Using their body positioning and angle of approach to block passing lanes, center backs are coerced to go sideways or backwards, at which Sydney move their lines up. This process continues until the ball reaches the goalkeeper, the player with the least amount of technical ability in the team (at least in Australia). Then, a forward, most often being Bobo, hunts the goalkeeper down to force a long pass, from which one of the center midfielders will try to win in the air.
Another area where Sydney impress is through their compactness. Teams have struggled significantly to play through their lines and rarely leave any sequence of play through the middle of pitch with the ball. This compactness is also levied horizontally, as they squeeze the playable space during throw ins or long spells in the wings. Due to this property, Sydney can easily exhibit control over the vital spaces of play where the opponent has the ball, and the shorter distances between players make it easier to apply pressure if one player is dribbled past or if another man decides to double up pressure. Considering there are very little needle players of high quality, if any, in Australia, this tactic has worked very effectively for Graham Arnold’s team.
Characteristics of their Attack
Besides being potent on the transition following ball recovery after their high pressure, Sydney have also been solid in their attacking set up as well, in which they gain superior numbers inside due to the movements of Holosko and Brosque. The high positioning and endless stamina of Rhyan Grant allows Sydney to not compromise any presence on the wings, while having another option inside. This is mirrored on the left side as well, but Grant is more prominent in their attack due to his maverick approach going forward, which is seen in the two images below. He is occasionally the highest guy on the pitch too, so in this regard he is very similar to Dani Alves during his time as Barcelona. Between the front four players, the movement is fluid and interchanging is quite common. It is not unusual to see Bobo wide left and Brosque wide right, despite their starting positions suggesting that that would not be the case.
This closeness is proximity between the attacking threats is beneficial for three reasons. First, it allows for easier combinations between these four players due to shorter distances of passes that are required to play. This makes breaking down low blocks near the penalty area easier since the ball can be moved faster than the opposition can react to via their shifting. Second, it gives the opposition defenders a harder time keeping track of them all and requires the opponent to have stellar communication to ensure that none of these players break free and are not overloaded. Especially in a zonal defending system, constant movement from players in a tight area places serious mental strain on defenders as they have to consistently track, communicate, and evaluate scenarios to decide the proper course of action for a given context.
Lastly, having four players in the center like that provides several targets for any distribution from wide areas into the penalty area for when crosses are the most appropriate form of penetration. Rather than just have one target, which is an often educated critique of one striker systems, this set up allows for four around the area, creating a set up where there is a plethora of options and threats which provides the defense problems as they have to quick establish how to deal with a situation that has four players with dynamical advantages as they approach the ball. In summary, Sydney FC are quite prolific in attack and their +29 goal difference on the season is reflective of this property.
For the next chapter, the only guarantee I can make at this time is that a youth match of some type will be covered. In addition, I will consider requests if people want to see a particular match analyzed. So, to play us out…
This post announces a new series that will be posted on this website. Rather than one-off analysis pieces on a more popular team, these “chapters” as they shall be referred to from now on, will feature multiple games from a wide variety of competitions, levels, and age groups. In addition, some personal anecdotes may be added from time to time (including today). For those asking, “Hey, isn’t this really similar to what TR does at Spielverlagerung”? Yeah, it’s quite similar. But as the old saying goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.
An Homage to the Company and Federations That Began My Coaching/Analysis Journey
For those unaware of my life’s story, to put it simply, I would have no idea that I wanted to be involved in the profession of football if it wasn’t for a crazy series of events. In summary, Nike arranged for my club at the time to be affiliated with Celtic, and shortly after, a trip was planned right before my 16th birthday. On that trip during a tour of Lennoxtown, it clicked into my head that I wanted to coach because I was mesmerized by the setup.
Sometime after, I made my first foray into coaching, fortunate enough to help out with the club I played for, a member of the Development Academy run by the US Soccer Federation. Around the same time I began this website and with that my analysis component too, with Brazil under Dunga being my first “real” analysis piece.
The way I have decided to open this series is through a match that ties all three of them together. A couple weeks back, the United States U-17 National Team defeated Brazil’s U-17 team 3-0 to clinch their victory in the Nike Friendlies, hosted in Lakewood Ranch, Florida in conjunction with the annual Development Academy Showcase. The Nike Friendlies are held every year to showcase young American talent in comparison to traditionally strong footballing nations; however, it is unknown to me whether or not each visiting team brought their best group of for this tournament.
Brazil’s Interesting System & Execution Flaws
Brazil aligned themselves in a 5-4-1, with each line of defense positioning themselves in a straight line from a horizontal standpoint. Their line of confrontation was roughly 5-10 yards above the center circle, while the rest of the team was set up in a medium block. This block was targeted by the US as they hoped to play in behind, and some early long balls did stretch out the distance between the midfield and defense, but most of Brazil’s wounds were self-inflicted.
In attack, the most central of the three center backs Vitor Eduardo would step up to play as a conventional number 6 in attack. Combined with the full backs pushing themselves further up the touchline and wide forwards moving a bit inside, Brazil’s 5-4-1 underwent a metamorphosis into a 4-3-3.
Brazil found it easy to go forward due to some serious compactness issues from the host nation, and when they did so their attack was restricted to wider areas thanks to the fullbacks in attack and the disconnected positioning of the hybrid 6 that was Vitor Eduardo. This led to Brazil playing a bit more direct that what is often found from the samba loving nation, as Rodrigo Nestor featured mainly as a target man who linked up with wide players Vinicius Jr and Paulo Henrique rather than face goal with his movements.
However, the personnel in the team I don’t think quite matched the vision of the manager. The technical abilities of the three center backs were shaky at best, meaning they couldn’t really progress forward in the manner that they hoped since they couldn’t play the passes with the required accuracy. There was an instance where Stockl couldn’t even have been bothered to open his body to receive the ball, leading to a poor first touch and they were fortunate to not concede following Sargent’s pressure and subsequent opportunity. Even if Brazil could comfortably set up shop in the American defensive half, they failed to capitalize due to their reliance on the wide areas.
After going 2-0, substitutions were made and Brazil shifted to a conventional 4-3-3. This did little to alter the pattern of the game, as Brazil’s chance creation methods were clumsy long shot attempts and speculative crosses. The up-and-down nature of the game favored the Americans greatly and Brazil didn’t adapt to that circumstance, instead playing into the hands of the host team.
The United States played a conventional 4-3-3 on both sides of the ball, as has been taught throughout the country in the federation’s efforts to develop a homogenous “American” style of play. The federation is hoping to reach a style that emulates the more attractive clubs and national teams in the world, essentially an attacking minded style that is heavily oriented through the midfield with technically sound players from the goalkeeper onwards. However, classic American characteristics could be seen throughout this national team (that’s not a complement), despite the US midfield having a solid tactical dynamic.
Even if the Baby Nats won the competition, that does not mean that they are exempt from critical analysis. The main trends in the attack didn’t quite serve up to the type of style of play that has been sought after from the federation, but instead was more of the same that has been seen stateside for years now, showing little sign of advancement.
Starting from the back first, while the US started their attacks through passing with their center backs, to call their build-up effective would be a bit of a stretch. The center backs were timid in their pass selection, as they elected not to take on some risk by passing through the center through their midfielders. Even if they were excellent positions, the wings were favored instead either through playing the ball up the line for the winger to chase, a long diagonal across the field towards the far-side full back or winger, or playing the closest full back to just get the ball of their feet.
There was little true penetration from the back, and this trait extended to some of the midfielders as well. Andrew Carleton, who will be discussed again shortly, was fantastic his movement all night long but was passed to sparingly in such positions, with his teammates preferring a more direct style where they played flighted balls in behind Brazil’s back five towards the forwards.
This wing-orientation in attack was greatly reflected in the full backs contribution in the middle and final third. Both Lindsey and Gloster partnered with their wingers well along the touchline, which often led to crossing attempts from one of the wide players into the box or a cutback attempt. None of these opportunities yielded anything of note though.
An encouraging behavior that led to a lot of success for the Americans was Gloster’s higher positioning as Carleton drifted inside to the 10 space. This not only created a diamond in the midfield for the US with an option in between Brazil’s defensive lines, but it also did not compromise their presence on the wing, giving them a numerical and positional superiority in the center zones. An example of this trait can be found in the graphic to the right .
The front three of Akinola, Sargent, and Carleton interchanged regularly throughout the evening, but they each spent the most amount of time on their respective sides as seen in the starting graphics above. Akinola and Sargent each possess a good deal of pace, which meant they were the primary targets of the long passes sent from their teammates. These passes were somewhat “textbook long ball” at times, as both the runs and the passes were completely vertical, which does little to imbalance opponents and just stretches out the game for both yourself and your opponent. If not aerial, some impressively weighted through balls were played from Acosta and Carleton.
When Akinola and Sargent did make more angular runs, they were often targeted towards the right half space, most likely due to a preference of shooting on their dominant foot across goal. All three of the goals the US scored on the evening (from the two of them plus substitute Timothy Weah, the son of Ballon d’Or winner George), came from such means. This shows the locomotive advantage up front that this ground of US players has at the U-17 age group, but I don’t think that this reliance on speed is a sustainable model of player development or will lead to any silverware for this team in the U17 World Cup next year.
Andrew Carleton was the most impressive player by some distance in my opinion. Carleton displayed very intelligent movement throughout the night and timed his runs excellently in the final third. He was unfortunate not to score from any of his chances on the evening, but the space he managed to create for himself in the crowded penalty area was admirable and showed an understanding for the game beyond his years. He found himself between Brazil’s lines over and over again and was the most dangerous creative source for the US, while also possessing some tricks to fool defenders. The diminutive attacking midfielder seems almost like an outlier in this squad considering his profile, but his talent is undeniable and is definitely a player to keep tabs on in the coming years as new MLS side Atlanta United snatched him up for their inaugural season.
Chris Durkin also impressed me in his role as the number 6 in terms of his defensive positioning and anticipation, which led to numerous interceptions on the night for him. Due to his performance, Brazil struggled to seriously generate any attacks through the middle. He is a technically sound player at that role and DC United have a solid product of their academy there, however his game could be greatly improved if he could play forward passes into his midfielders more so they can advance, rather than play long passes into the forwards and risk losing possession and the momentum of the attack.
For Brazil, Vinicius Junior was the most dangerous attacking threat, as his acceleration off the dribble and explosive movement posed problems for the US throughout the night before Brazil deflated after the US doubled their lead in minute 50.
From America to América (By Way of Japan)
Now we move to Japan, the hosts of the most recent playing of the Club World Cup, technically the highest honor there is at the club level. Club América is our next team of focus. The North American representative in the tournament hoped to cap off their centennial year with an unforgettable victory. Club América faced off against Real Madrid in the semifinals of the tournament, and even though they came up short losing 2-0, interesting defensive tactics were used by Ricardo La Volpe’s team. After they conceded on the stroke of halftime, América couldn’t muster anything in response.
América lined up in a 5-3-2 against Real Madrid, as has been custom under La Volpe’s tenure. The Mexican side posed an interesting tactical problem for the Spanish side, as they had to find a way to supply their star men with the crowded back line.
Early on, the metronomic Kroos and Modric struggled to find their foothold in the match and bring in their teammates. This was due to the forwards involvement in defense and their screening, which blocked access to these players. Plus with the intensity of the three, Real Madrid found it difficult to play through and around the midfielders, as any entry passes were quickly pressured and possession was generally recovered. In response, Modric would move into wider zones, near where Carvajal would occupy, just so he could get a sniff of the ball.
Within the midfield 3, either Ibarra or Sambueza would push higher and join the forwards in their formation to create a situational 5-2-3 whenever Varane or Ramos had possession in the halfspace. If a player was left open as a result of this maneuver, one of the members of the back 5 was encouraged to pick up and mark that man depending on who was closest in the zone. So, América had clear man-orientations within the back 5 given the zone, while the midfield were less governed by that principle.
These structures left space open on the wings for Real Madrid to attack, and they used them as much as they could. Marcelo and Carvajal had a great deal of space for them to advance in front of them when they got the ball. Their passes into Vasquez and Ronaldo led to the most successful opportunities of the half before América began to tire, highlighted by Ronaldo hitting the post following a header from a cross.
This led to La Volpe encouraging the wing backs to be more man oriented for the remainder of the first half, creating a structure resembling a lopsided 4-4-2. This did succeed in limiting the full backs involvement in the attack. However, due to the forwards no longer participating as much in defense due to the fatigue derived from América’s counter attacks, Kroos and Modric began to find more space for themselves inside, allowing for Madrid to push higher up the field. Madrid found the lead through Benzema due to Kroos and Modric’s increased influence along with an imbalance which formed in the last line of America because of the earlier mentioned man-orientations.
Madrid began to progress the ball faster and faster throughout the evening, adjusting nicely by beginning to push their fullbacks higher and letting their skill in wide areas be the deciding factor, as they cut though América’s wing backs in 2v1 scenarios easily. After the goal was conceded, the underdogs could hardly muster any challenge on the European giants, as they coasted for the rest of the match before Cristiano Ronaldo put the nail in the coffin in second half added time.
A Tangent: Rest Days in Youth Tournaments
Periodization is always an interesting topic to discuss among the footballing community, particularly how some leagues and set-ups are very unaccommodating to such a practice. I would like to offer some grievances of mine when it comes to how some high level youth tournaments are when it comes to giving athletes rest days. In the footage for the Nike Friendlies and across the Development Academy showcase, players were often pulling up with injuries. Now before a certain Dutch figure beats me to it, I would like to perhaps offer a resolution.
I understand the logic that younger players can undergo muscle recovery faster, which means that the space between games can be reduced. However, towards the end of these tournaments, the quality of play among the players reduces due to fatigue. John Hackworth, the US U17 coach, used the same starting XI for all three matches of the Nike Friendlies. While he could’ve rotated his team to rest players, he chose to stay with the same selection because of the good performances the unit put in, so there was no need to change it. Also, he is rewarding the good displays of his players as any manager would do by not changing the starting XI. But the match against Brazil was not their best performance overall, which is expected if they were the best opposition they played against. However, this drop-off I feel was heightened by fatigue.
In the Development Academy Showcase, U16 and U18 teams played 3 games in 4 days, with some of those players logging 270 minutes during that time. Again, if you rotate your squad, may not be a huge issue. However, the whole point of a showcase is to put forth your best talent to show off their abilities. If they are at risk of injuries due to the frequency of matches, there is no chance you can expect their best performances, even if a wonderful recovery team assists their players.
This problem is not distinctly American. In the last playing of the Al Kass U17 tournament played in Qatar, teams typically had one day in between their games, or two if they were lucky given the draw in later rounds. In the SuperCupNI (formerly known as the Milk Cup), U17 teams play five games in five days, regardless of their standing after the three initial matches.
I understand that tournaments are an interesting travel experience for young players, and that they cannot last forever given that they are oftentimes taken out of school to attend them. However, if one wants to see these players perform at their best levels and have the best players stay healthy, then additional days off have to be included as part of the schedule. In summary, youth tournaments, especially friendly youth tournaments, should not aim to overload the match schedule. Rather, they should be accommodating to the travel and fitness demands that the tournament requires, and reduce the overall workload on those who will be playing a large majority of the minutes in the competition.
We enter the Christmas period now where a series of interesting months lie ahead all over the globe as domestic seasons begin in the beginning half of the year, and the second period of European leagues commences as well. Around The World will go over the competitions that are often overlooked by many, so more often than not it will be matches that few “mainstream” fans would have seen. Or they will be classic matches that have intrigued me enough to be worthy of publication. With that in mind, regular scheduled analysis of bigger clubs will continue to take place on this site. The next chapter shall come relatively soon, so now to play us out…
For the first time on this site, Germany is the destination of choice, where newly-promoted Red Bull Leipzig are surprising people across the world with their high-energy performances thus far. Currently second in the Bundesliga only due to goal difference, Leipzig matched Bayern Munich on points with a routine victory against midtable Mainz. This analysis will be exclusively focused on Leipzig in the interest of my personal development and understanding.
Red Bull Leipzig are currently ran by sporting director Ralf Rangnick, an iconic figure in the coaching world due to his ideas on pressing and the array of coaches that have been influenced by him, such as Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann. While Rangnick has a more visionary role at the club, day to day management is done by Ralph Hasenhuttl, who moved from Ingolstadt this past summer.
What has made the newcomers incredibly successful over the past couple of months is their defensive scheme and structure. Hasenhuttl’s team is aligned in a 4-2-2-2 off the ball, with the attacking midfielders positioned in the halfspaces. Leipzig throughout the season and against Mainz have demonstrated an incredible pressing intensity alongside wonderful synchronization in their movements, with their much of their team defensive work focused on disrupting the opposition buildup.
Leipzig spent a large portion of the match arranged in a medium block, where Poulsen and Werner were positioned just ahead of the top of the center circle. Forsberg and Sabitzer were dropped in slightly behind them, while Keita and Demme provided central security to prevent any passes from penetrating the center. While the home side applied a lot of pressure onto the opposition, very little of it was applied to the opposition center backs.
Instead, Leipzig gave Mainz’s center back pairing time on the ball, eliminating forward passing options with their individual and team positioning. This meant the only safe option they oftentimes could play was wide to their fullbacks. When this occurred, the attacking midfielder on that side would move forward apply immediate pressure onto the full back, creating a line of three while the rest of the team shifted to outnumber Mainz near the ball. Ahead of the ball, Leipzig covered the passing options through man-oriented marking.
This led to Mainz’s back line playing forced balls ahead which had little chance of finding a teammate. If it was an aerial ball, Leipzig typically won it with ease, while any passes on the ground that weren’t intercepted oftentimes had pressure quickly applied due to the compactness of Leipzig.
Leipzig’s compact shape allows them to exhibit a large amount of control over the space they occupy, as the distances they have to travel to apply pressure are smaller than if they were more spread out. On the touchlines for throw-ins, they commit many players over to the wing to tighten up the space horizontally and increase their odds of winning the ball out wide. The central defenders also step up and play a rather high line to accompany the tight structure of the midfield and forwards, making it so there is a limited amount of space vertically that their opponents can play in.
This paired with their energetic, athletic team of young players and they can travel in those spaces faster than their opponents. When the opponent switches the play, Leipzig can adjust quickly and shift fast so that any gaps in coverage cannot be easily exploited. This combination yields a very high-intensity side that is extremely difficult to break down by the opponent when they are arranged in their shape, explaining their defensive success at this point in the season.
Direct in Transition
Just like Hasenhuttl’s previous side Ingolstadt, RBL are potent on the counter attack and it is a key component of the team’s attacking strategy. This hardly comes as a surprise given the emphasis that Sporting Director Rangnick has placed on transitions in recent years:
“Football has become a completely different sport over the last ten years. The change has been brutal. The two basic elements – having the ball, not having the ball – are the same but the transitions between these two states are nothing like they used to be. The highest probability of scoring a goal is within ten seconds of taking possession. The highest probability of winning the ball back is within eight seconds of losing possession. Think about these two numbers and what they mean. Everything else just follows.” – Ralf Rangnick (2014)
All of Leipzig’s goals on the day came from quick incisive attacks just after regaining possession. Throughout the season they’ve done well on the counter, but the match against Mainz was a quintessential Red Bull performance in transition.
One reason that their counterattack is dangerous is a byproduct of their defensive compactness. In a compact defense, once you win the ball, you have more passing options within proximity of the ball. This allows for rapid combinations to progress forwards. If the right lanes open up, numerical superiorities can be created quickly in the final third. This is what happened with Leipzig’s first goal in the 3rd minute, as a series of up back and through combinations sliced through Mainz’s defense after Red Bull won the ball off of a throw-in.
The finisher of that goal, Timo Werner, alongside a couple other players in the team is another reason behind Leipzig’s transition prowess. Werner is equipped with a great deal of pace and mobility which is beneficial for running past and in behind defenders, making him a key asset to their counterattacks. His movements wide during the attacks draw defenders outward and create space centrally for attacking midfielders to run into for finishing off low crosses. When paired with Yussuf Poulsen, a more physical striker, the two create a nice balance to play direct football with. One offers the ability to win balls in the air and provide hold-up play, while the other provides a dangerous threat in behind the defense and with the ball.
Upon winning the ball, the first instruction in the team is to find one of the forwards. Given that these passes are often long, it isn’t exactly one that has a high percentage of success. In fact, Leipzig in general play a direct brand of football that isn’t prided on maintaining long periods of possession. In the first half, they had a passing completion rate of only 68%. However, when they broke forward, it often led to a shot, as they managed 15 on the day with a total xG of 2.67 according to 11tegen11.
At times however, Leipzig’s swashbuckling desire to attack after recovering possession led to an overly expansive brand of football. During periods of the match, Mainz marauded through RBL when their counter attacks failed, leaving only five players back to defend in these instances. Teams looking to beat Leipzig should hope to trap them into one of these scenarios and hit back against them with a counter attack of their own, making the game an open affair. It is when the game is tight and structured that Leipzig thrive; however, in the moments after their attacks end, that is where they are most vulnerable at this point.
Commentary & Conclusion
The youthful side in the Bundesliga have yet again come away with the three points at the end of the weekend, and haven’t lost a single match yet. With a run like this from an unexpected side, naturally people have concerns about whether this side can maintain this run of form throughout the duration of the season. The first area that will likely be pointed out as a source of an inevitable drop-off is their intensity, specifically, their incapability to maintain this sort of intensity up until May.
I for one find that claim to be humorous. Not only do Leipzig not have to compete in European competition which would add additional games to this group, but they are likely equipped with an excellent sports science staff given their large financial backing. I can speak with knowledge of this being true at two other clubs in the Red Bull family, so the likelihood that a quality sports science team isn’t the case at the most marketable of the Red Bull clubs is absurd. Sports science staffs are debatably the most important staff members following the manager and his coaches, as they help prevent injuries tremendously and allow the team to maintain high fitness levels if the department is competent. With a play style like Leipzig’s, staying healthy and fresh is a tremendous reason for long term success.
In addition, the Bundesliga winter break will provide the players with a nice break halfway through the season, allowing them to recuperate and recover from the first half of the season. The only way that I can envision Leipzig getting defeated when they are properly organized is if teams either figure out ways to play through their tight defensive structure or if they defend their counter attacks well and nick a goal off of a set piece. Leipzig’s high energy will continue to torment Bundesliga teams (and Jeb Bush) in the near future unless somebody can figure out the secret to their financially backed fairy tale thus far.
Old Trafford hosted the latest chapter of the rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, after a four year hiatus from this managerial duel. Both have taken charge of their respective sides this summer and started the Premier League season with three wins in three. However, there was only one winner today, as the Citizens left with the three points.
Manchester City made notable changes to their side from their last match against West Ham. Former Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo made his first start for his new club after signing near the end of the transfer window, while Kelechi Iheanacho replaced Sergio Aguero, out due to suspension for violent conduct. Gael Clichy was demoted to the bench in favor of Kolarov. United made two changes of their own, electing to start Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard over Juan Mata and Anthony Martial.
City dominate the first half
The opening minutes of the game provided an indication as to how this duel between Pep and Jose would unfold. Rather than high press immediately from the onset as Mourinho had once employed at Real Madrid, a medium-low block was preferred. United have defended in this set up throughout the whole season (my thoughts on it against Southampton) so far with great success, but City found ways to create decisive space in center where they could exercise their control on the match.
City had an impressive attacking dynamic throughout the midfield, as their clever movement overwhelmed the man oriented behavior of Pogba and Fellaini. De Bruyne was a hassle to deal with throughout the match, as he consistently was one step ahead of whoever was marking him at the time. The Belgian drifted in between the lines for City and consistently lurked at the blind side of Paul Pogba. Since Pogba naturally had difficulty tracking him and did not want to concede space centrally by following him, De Bruyne found himself in dangerous space all afternoon and became the focal point for City’s attack. This movement trend led to him opportunistically pouncing on a flicked header from Iheanacho and putting the visitors ahead after 15 minutes. For more on the use of the blind side, I highly recommend this from JD of Spielverlagerung.com
Elsewhere on the movement front, David Silva was equally influential in City’s dominance of the match. Starting initially in a deeper role, he would drift higher to create a line of four in City’s midfield and flatten out United’s defensive structure, creating space in between the lines for the team to work with. During scenarios where City had the ball wide, Silva would intelligently manipulate Fellaini by positioning himself wider and closer to Nolito so that City could change the point of attack easily with a high speed of ball circulation. His calm and collected presence on the ball was the metronome that the Sky Blues needed to breakdown Mourinho’s athletic United team.
There were a couple other interesting components of City’s attack that provided additional defensive security against a United team that was designed for effective counter attacking. Whenever City would enter United’s final third, both full backs would pinch inside into the half spaces to offer additional central security for any incoming counters. This tactic was used at Bayern Munich during Pep’s stint in Germany, as he found that having sufficient numbers in central areas helped with the prevention of counter attacks. Due to this maneuver, United were forced to counter out in wide areas mainly through Jesse Lingard and Mkhitaryan, who both struggled tremendously.
Another example of a facet of City’s attack that assisted with defensive security was the vertical rotation of John Stones and Fernandinho. This simple movement between the center back and holding midfielder helped establish more of a defensive presence in the middle while City were in possession, while also making good use out of Stones’ skills as a ball playing center back. Stones was of great value when City constructed their attacks in United’s half, providing a key outlet for recycling the ball and changing the point of attack.
Manchester City’s counterpressing was also important in their dominance of the first half. Given that United planned for their attacks to take place in transition, any foothold on the game that City wanted to establish required that a strategy take place to nullify their counter attacks. Due to City’s solid possession structures, hunting for the ball to regain possession after losing it becams easier. To sum it up, because of City’s counterpressing, United couldn’t create their individualistic counter attacks due to City’s collective effort to recover possession.
United’s High Press + Claudio Bravo
As mentioned earlier, United for the most part played with the same defensive system that they have used throughout the young season. This was the set up in which they were positioned the majority of the time. This match however, there were moments where the Red Devils looked to press high when Claudio Bravo had the ball. The high press in the first half was disjointed, as only some players put in the steps necessary to effectively pressure the opponent. This led to City easily playing around United and marching up the field. In fact, both of City’s goals arose from this uncoordinated pressing from United. Due to the bad vertical compactness that comes from poor high pressing, the visitors had plenty of time on the ball once they beat the initial press, allow them to easily pick out opponents up the field and construct attacks.
Claudio Bravo, from a goalkeeping perspective, did not play well, as his errors led to a goal from Zlatan and a potential penalty kick for United. However, today he showed why a goalkeeper with solid feet and decision making is pivotal to an attacking minded system like Guardiola’s. With exception to his attempt to beat Ander Herrera on the dribble, Bravo was solid today with his decision making and demonstrated good composure on the ball. Given it was his first match in the team, issues were naturally expected. Add in that Bravo has a limited knowledge of English, and you can expect that some communication errors would occur. However, there is a reason that Chile and Barcelona have been successful with Bravo as their #1, and those reasons will likely appear as he gets more familiar with his new surroundings.
At halftime, United made smart adjustments to their pressing scheme, which led to more success in preventing City from easily being able to build up. Through their man orientations and a change in structure where City’s center backs were now covered, Bravo was forced to play difficult aerial passes, allowing United to develop more of a rhythm on the match.
Second Half changes and Later Developments
At the interval, Mourinho brought on Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera, replacing Jesse Lingard and Mkhitaryan, who were underwhelming in their first league starts of the season. Herrera partnered with Fellaini in the center of midfield, pushing Pogba up to the 10. Wayne Rooney was moved out wide to the right side in what was primarily a 4-2-3-1, took the shape of a 4-4-2 during the high press as mentioned earlier.
United began to push City back a little bit more and generate forward momentum, looking to break through City’s defense. With Pogba and Rashford further forward, United had more strength and speed in attack, using their physical advantages through 1v1 dribbling and more direct play in the attacking third. Fellaini was moved higher as well during the attack to provide an additional option in the box for long balls and crosses to utilize his heading prowess. United caused some danger in this spell, tipping the scales in their favor for this moment as they spent this time in City’s half.
Pep Guardiola reacted quickly to this pattern of the match. In order to gain defensive control in the center and better equip his team for a physical battle, he brought on Fernando to play as an anchor in the center and substituted Iheanacho. Shortly after, Sterling made way for debutant Leroy Sane. From here, the framework that Guardiola had his team operate with was a 4-3-3 structured for quick counter attacks as the game became more stretched out.
United became much more direct with their attacks as they chased for a goal to even the scoreline. This led to an up and down, physical contest. From the inevitable counter attacks that result from this type of game, City had multiple counters where they had a 5v4 or 4v4 situation that they could not capitalize on.
The game went down to the final whistle as United kept knocking at City’s door waiting for an opening, trying to exploit their physical advantage through long, flighted passes. Even though the ball fell to a couple of very favorable chances for the home side, they were unable to put any of them away.
The first half was a display of footballing brilliance from Manchester City, whose dominance reveals some of the weaknesses that the Red Devils have to address as they progress through the season. Although the second half wasn’t as clean and comfortable as Guardiola would’ve liked, he will be pleased to have gotten the result. Pep was intelligent with his second half changes to even the scales back in his favor.
From Jose Mourinho’s perspective, he will be frustrated with his initial team selection. While Mkhitaryan was a bit unlucky to not have much action, he would agree that his performance was not his best stuff and will hope to put this one behind him. Rashford offered much more to United than Lingard did, who was woeful on the day, which begs the question if the match could’ve had a different outcome if Rashford had started from the beginning. Now though, Mourinho has to regroup his team and sort out the dynamics of his attack if he expects to beat City for the title or in the next derby.
The Premier League officially kicked off last weekend, bringing an end to the anticipation after all sorts of changes took place among the clubs in the competition. No club had a higher profile offseason than Manchester United, who replaced their manager Louis van Gaal with his former pupil, the notorious Jose Mourinho. They also brought in high profile signings, namely Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Paul Pogba, breaking the world transfer fee record in the process.
United hosted Southampton for the first match at Old Trafford in the 2016-2017 campaign. Southampton underwent many changes in their own right, with Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama, and Graziano Pelle each changing clubs along with their manager Ronald Koeman. Claude Puel has been brought in to steady the ship, signing young talents such as Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Nathan Redmond. Oriol Romeu started the match at the base of Puel’s 4-4-2 diamond, but was subbed off after 10 minutes due to injury for Jordy Clasie.
United generate attacks from wide areas
Each team in this contest focused their attacks on the wings. Manchester United’s emphasis on wing play was by design, as they were a key facet of United’s direct attacking approach.
Because of Southampton’s 4-4-2 diamond shape, United could easily create numerically superior situations out wide when their full backs advanced up the pitch. Through the movements of the midfielders, particularly Rooney and Paul Pogba more often than not, wide areas would then be overloaded. From these situations, United looked to penetrate into the penalty area either through crosses into Ibrahimovic, cutbacks, or quick combination play that was predicated on the individual talent of the attack rather than rehearsed pattern play. Ibrahimovic put away one of these crosses to make up one half of his brace, with the second coming from the spot after combination play in the left halfspace and flank led to Clasie clumsily fouling Luke Shaw.
A situation that United did look to create often was 1v1 scenarios with Antonio Valencia against Matt Targett. Valencia at times was left purposefully isolated on the wings, creating a qualitative advantage. The Ecuadorian often looked to beat Targett on the dribble in the final third before he crossed the ball. However, he was inconsistent with his delivery.
Manchester United also were quick to counter in transition when they won the ball. This urgency on the counter attack is a trademark of Mourinho’s teams and a key aspect of frustrating their opponents. On said counter attacks, United’s midfielders played flighted balls in behind Southampton’s back four to stretch them out. From these situations, no seriously threatening opportunities arose as the Saints recovered quickly and prevented the pace of Martial and Pogba from being overly decisive.
Now to the main narrative leading up to night, Pogba was impressive during the match for his second debut for United. For years it seems like, Manchester United has been missing a presence in their midfield that could also contribute goals in their attack. Midfield has been one of the weaker points for the Mancunians over the past couple of seasons, with their struggles to penetrate defenses under Louis van Gaal well documented. The first impression of Pogba at United is that he can be the solution to that problem. His attacking capability is well known, as he possesses fantastic close control which is a huge asset when it comes to playing in tight spaces and press evasion, in addition to a great passing range and long distance shot. The Frenchman’s physical attributes will be of great service to Mourinho as well, who has built his teams in years past using an incredibly strong and fit core of players.
The Red Devils were a bit suspect however upon losing possession. Southampton had some considerable success countering against the hosts when United were constructing attacks in the opposition half. Due to the advanced positioning of Shaw and Valencia, Redmond and Long intelligently bent their runs wide to create additional space for the front line to run at United’s defense. The visiting side found themselves in potentially rewarding areas, but the backline of Manchester did well to intervene.
Mourinho’s team in attack was somewhat free form and fluid in their structure. Among the front four players, they frequently interchanged with each other, demonstrating fluidity. Martial and Mata often occupied the halfspaces as they both drifted inside, while Ibrahimovic dropped deep to receive the ball from midfielders, acting in a role akin to the one he played in Blanc’s system at PSG. Overall, United’s direct attack was satisfactory on the night, but additional work is required for when Mourinho squares off against teams with similar talent levels, as relying on individual ability will only be able to propel a team so far.
United Defensive Organization & Southampton’s adjustments
Jose Mourinho is most well known as a manager for his team’s defensive organization and medium/low block that he frequently sets his teams up in. They are the cornerstone to his tactical philosophy and just one of many reasons why he is considered of the best managers in the world today. The elementary foundations of this style are clearly in effect with United, as Southampton could hardly generate anything in central zones.
United’s low pressing block was arranged in a 4-4-1-1 on the night, with Rooney dropping in periodically to create a line of five. Their compactness from a vertical perspective was impressive, but their horizontal compactness at times didn’t hold the same standard, as Mata and Martial both had instances where they could’ve tucked in additionally to provide support for their full backs and midfielders to their inside.
In his interactions with the press, Jose Mourinho had spoken of how he wishes to change his team’s defensive scheme to a zonal system from the man-oriented approach of van Gaal. He particularly emphasized the difficulty of adjusting from one method to the other. In this match, the progress was evident. Mourinho’s team exhibited great control of the center of the park, where Fellaini and Pogba did well to block the central passing lanes into the crafty Dusan Tadic, who searched for space to work with throughout the match. Southampton as a result built their attacks from wider areas. Nathan Redmond and Jordy Clasie overloaded the right wing to decent success, and Tadic found himself in the halfspaces frequently to provide support for the full backs.
Spaces opened up in the first half as United entered a cycle of counter attacking, causing a visible disconnect between the front four and the defensive unit. Southampton were most threatening in this spell of the match, but after United took the lead, the home side reverted back to their tactical plan. Following Zlatan’s second goal of the night, United set up shop and sat back, preventing the Saints from penetrating in doing so. Southampton made attacking substitutions in the form of Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez, but to no avail as they hardly managed to get a foothold in the match.
To neutral eyes, this game was uneventful and some would maybe even say boring if you took away the star studded storyline of the night. However, Mourinho would be thrilled with his team being very effective and organized. This is the sort of style of play that Premier League viewers should come to expect from Manchester United this year, so if anyone was expecting the attacking football from the Ferguson era, you will be disappointed. United will be thrilled with the debut performance from Paul Pogba, and the early performances of Ibrahimovic, both of whom have settled into the team easily and look to play a big part this year.
Southampton look solid this season and have no real reason to be concerned that they may underperform. They should comfortably end up mid-table, with a decent shot to break into the top half if all goes as planned.
The first Champions League quarterfinal leg between PSG and Manchester City was a frustrating evening for the French champions, as they were unable to capitalize on their dominance early on. Instead, Manchester City left Paris with two away goals that could be decisive in the next leg, despite their overall poor performance.
Paris Saint Germain were without Marco Verratti due to injury, meaning Adrien Rabiot took his place in the starting selection. Edinson Cavani also started, put on the left side of PSG’s front three that Lucas Moura has played throughout the year. The French champions were aligned in a 4-3-3, as they have been most of the year.
Manchester City had to cope injuries from their captain Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Raheem Sterling. Fernandinho and Fernando formed their midfield partnership in their midfield two, and the visitors were boosted by the recent return of Kevin De Bruyne. City were set up in a 4-2-3-1, Manuel Pellegrini’s preferred formation for his team throughout the season.
Paris Saint Germain Attack
After some threatening counterattacks early on, PSG then organized their attack to much greater success. PSG’s attack was centrally oriented, with Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria each positioned in the halfspaces more often than not and essentially all the width in the team was derived from the fullbacks.
Manchester City were defensively shaped in a 4-4-2, with De Bruyne pushing up alongside Aguero. With Thiago Motta dropping back to split the center backs and form a chain of three (la salida lavolpiana), PSG’s first phase and progression up in the midfield and attacking zones was met with little resistance.
The general structure of their buildup was more or less a 3-4-1-2, as both Maxwell and Serge Aurier pushed up to the same midfield line as Rabiot and Matuidi. Zlatan Ibrahimovic would drop in between the defensive and midfield lines of Manchester City to link the midfield and attack. Cavani and Di Maria then took up wide positions with the purpose of making diagonal runs in behind, or took up positions more centrally to act as auxiliary strikers.
The most prominent property of PSG’s attack however was the free form nature of it. Contrary to other top clubs in Europe in which their attack is highly structured positionally, PSG’s is much more free form. There definitely is a recognized structure of the attack; however, the movements of the front three plus Blaise Matuidi are unique among Europe’s elite. Di Maria and Matuidi in particular were the standout examples of this, demonstrating a high degree of fluidity with their teammates.
Angel Di Maria was given license to roam any where on the pitch, popping up in empty spaces all across the field. Generally he stayed in the right halfspace or on the wing itself, but he often pinched inside and dropped deep, going behind the midfield line on a couple of occasions. Blaise Matuidi’s energy and stamina allowed him to alternate his roles as a third midfielder and a fourth attacking option in the final third, rarely leaving the left halfspace in the process.
Matuidi would regularly support and interchange with Cavani, sometimes becoming the highest player of them all. City had a hard time tracking him at points, with his late supporting movements creating advantageous scenarios for PSG, which they were unable to convert.
The fluid nature of PSG’s attack helped with making connections and combinations for chance creation. Combinations have been a key part of their attack throughout the season, using them to break between defensive lines and create chances. The central positioning of the wide players aided this greatly, as it allowed for quicker ball circulation and progression. Many combinations however ended with an errant pass and giveaway to the opponent.
Manchester City struggled to cope with Paris’ early moves because of the diagonality of their passing, unable to shift as a team and limit PSG. As a result, they spent the first 35 minutes in their own half, failing to generate any serious attacking changes after Aguero turned David Luiz in the first minute leading to a yellow card.
Yet PSG also had many problems of their own in attack. Their finishing on the day was not clinical. The main goal threat Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed a penalty kick, 1v1 with Joe Hart, and hit the crossbar later on. He only scored due to bizarre deflection after he pressed Fernando off of a goal kick in one of the most comically bad goals I have ever seen. Various technical errors took place when it came to converting scoring chances or creating them in the first place.
Due to the free form positioning of the team, PSG occasionally lacked central access in between defensive and midfield lines on occasion, stagnating their attack and allowing City to control the middle. Essentially, PSG were very inconsistent in their buildup organization and their shape as a result.
PSG’s build-up structure also left them vulnerable when they lost the ball during phase one. Since Maxwell and Aurier were pushed up, Thiago Motta would be left with David Luiz and Thiago Silva if the ball was lost. Manchester City were structured to counterattack when the opportunity presented itself, as the front four were direct in their movement whenever City regained possession. Kevin De Bruyne opened up the scoring thanks to this, as he ran into the right halfspace where Maxwell would’ve normally defended had he not been 30 yards further forward.
In summary, PSG’s attack was eccentric compared to the attacks of Europe’s top clubs. It has some of the same properties when it comes to formation, but the mobility between players is quite different. Laurent Blanc grants a lot of creative freedom to his front players positionally when attacking, compromising clean structures and transitions as a result. While it can lead to moments of individual excellence, it also has its fair share of flaws.
Defensive Problems for Both Teams
Manchester City were fortunate that their defensive mistakes did not lead to goals. The most glaring issue of theirs was compactness, especially between the back four and the midfield four. Since City played a zonal marking scheme with strong man orientations, their compactness was compromised at points. The midfielders in particular were often times more worried about the man they were covering at the time than the collective shape of the team, leaving large spaces open for PSG to play with.
City’s attempts to play a high line early on were wildly unsuccessful, as Mangala and Otamendi were never quite on the same wavelength with each when commanding the back four. Consequently, problematic situations followed, seen in the early chances for Blaise Matuidi and Angel Di Maria. Mangala would often be pulled out by the movement of Ibrahimovic, opening up the space in behind him if the proper run was made. Otamendi preferred to remain in line with the rest of his defenders, which in turn created a staggered shape between the center backs that could easily be played around.
Both clubs were especially weak in their defensive transitions. City’s midfield was often lazy in getting back into position and were bypassed quickly, leaving the back four isolated. In addition, there was no organized counterpress from Manchester City. Sergio Aguero and De Bruyne did next to nothing to aid ball recovery efforts for Manchester City, really just taking up space and preventing passes from progressing. PSG’s defensive transitions were sloppy and not well organized. Players had no visible reference point to refer to when getting back to position and took up the spots they felt fit the situation.
Lastly, players on both teams were subject to individual errors that either directly led to goals or almost did. David Luiz was my pick for worst defender of the night, as his positioning and awareness throughout the night was woeful (especially with De Bruyne’s goal), continuing to prove to be the most overvalued defender in world football.
For such a important fixture, the level of the match was disappointing. While PSG were the better team for the most part, simple errors prevented them from stamping their authority on the tie. As a result, Manchester City leave Paris with the away goal advantage, giving Manuel Pellegrini plenty of potential gameplans to use for leg two next week.
Paris Saint Germain demonstrated some of their weaknesses as a team during this match, as facing somewhat equal competition around their level for the first time in a while highlighted these flaws. While PSG have the personnel to be a Top-5 side in Europe, tweaks to the team’s attack are needed if they are to hit that next level between the good teams in Europe and the continental elite.