Benfica 1-2 Napoli

A key encounter in Group B of the 2016/17 edition of the UEFA Champions League, Napoli’s meeting with Portuguese outfit Benfica would ultimately decide the outcome of their Champions League group, confirming who would progress to the last 16 or drop into the Europa League. Both sitting on eight points, Rui Vitoria’s Benfica would be conscious of the fact any of Sarri’s Napoli or Turkish side Beskitas could all progress depending on how the night’s results unfolded.


Eduardo was the goalkeeper at the base of Benfica’s 4-4-2. Semedo was the right-back, with Luisao and Lindelof the central defenders. Almeida left-back. Salvio, Pizzi, Fesja and Cervi were the midfielders. Gonçalo Guedes and were the two strikers.

Pepe Reina was Napoli’s goalkeeper. Albanian Hysaj was the Italian side’s right full-back, while Raul Albiol and Kalidou Koulibaly played in the middle of the backline, Ghoulam left. Young midfielder Diawara played as the 6, with Allan and Hamsik based slightly higher on either side of him. Callejon, Gabbidiani and Insigne made up the Naples side’s front three.

Exploitation of Midfield Pressing

Pressing in a mid block from a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1, Napoli’s interiors Allan and Hamsik had intense pressing roles as Benfica brought the ball into midfield spaces, whilst the young 6 Diawara behind them them, also had a relatively intense shifting role in order to prevent clean and consistent Benfica progression through the centre or halfspaces.


With Manolo Gabbidiani solely pressing Benfica’s centre-backs, not overly intensely but enough to force quicker decisions from Luisao and Lindelof, Allan and Hamsik had important roles to ensure that despite the midfield being the main area Napoli wanted to press in, there was compactness between the first and second lines of pressure and Benfica couldn’t easily receive between the lines. Particularly when the ball was in their halfspace and Benfica were beginning to progress into midfield, though also as soon as Gabbidiani was bypassed, Allan and Hamsik would press to prevent easy progression through the centre, and ideally force Benfica backwards. As one midfielder pressed, Diawara would shift over into the halfspace to cover the vacated space.


Generally, this was effective when the two non-pressing midfielders (situationally) shifted efficiently and covered the space to close vertical passing lanes through the centre or halfspaces. 

Expectedly there were some problems with a system based on such intense shifting constantly throughout the match in what is usually the most hectic area of the pitch. Due to either physical limitations, lapse in concentration or effective manipulation from Benfica, there was the recurring theme of an open diagonal lane to a Benfica man in between the lines.
 

When Benfica baited Napoli’s midfielders to press by circulating in front of the midfield line, they would often force both Allan and Hamsik to press by playing horizontal passes between either halfspace. This meant Diawara was tasked with shifting from halfspace to halfspace quicker than the ball to cover the gap momentarily, obviously an impossible task. This meant the space behind each presser was opened and Benfica’s opposite CM was able to play a diagonal pass to a teammate who was positioned in the halfspace between lines.

High Line Condenses Game

Defending very close to the halfway line on the majority of occasions, Benfica used a very high defensive line, which also pushed the two following lines up in a bid to firstly, limit the space Napoli had in their possession progression and secondly, increase the possibility of Napoli running into offside positions when using their frequent vertical movement in behind.

Allowing Benfica to maintain defensive access on the ball in Napoli build-up and early progression, as well as generally retaining compactness, Benfica pressed Napoli in a 4-4-2 relatively high up the pitch. Although this wasn’t a main objective of Benfica’s high line, it did have it’s reasons. The Portuguese side would look to disrupt Napoli’s rhythm in their well drilled yet fluid build-up in an attempt to deter consistent and clean progression. Napoli however, faced this with and generally escaped Benfica’s pressing very well, utilising small overloads and their combination ability to beat and at time even manipulate and exploit the press.



Perhaps the main reason for Benfica’s high line was an attempt at a slightly different method of defending Napoli’s runs in behind the defence. 



As shown above, Callejon receiving high diagonals in the final third is a pivotal aspect of Napoli breaking into these dangerous areas. Callejon’s diagonal runs off the right wing are excellent and have in the past caused opposition great problems. Benfica attempted to combat this by stepping up even higher, leaving more space. Although seemingly a strange method, it forced Napoli’s runners to time runs to perfection, otherwise risking offside, as such a large space is now considered offside. Callejon, though excellent at timing his runs (“Callejon can see the offside line better than the linesman”) naturally found it difficult to time his runs to perfection every single time. As well as this, Napoli’s deep distributors were forced to play higher, floated passes over Benfica’s defence, as passes with too much pace couldn’t be caught due to runs needing to be delayed. These slow passes in the air gave Benfica an imperative second or so to recover and immediately get into positions to defend the spaces surrounding the ball before it had even landed. Diawara attempted a number of chipped through balls, particularly to Gabbidiani’s vertical runs, but Luisao and Lindelof were comfortable at mopping them up in the air or as the ball reached the ground, situations the pair were both superior to the Italian striker in, due to their aerial ability and pace. This was perhaps a reason for Napoli’s lack of connectivity with their front man.

Credit to @11tegen11



In an attempt to get in behind the high line of Benfica using runners, Napoli used a specific pattern and methods of non-verbal communication (specific movements as a trigger) in order to gain access to these spaces. Napoli’s left sided attacker Lorenzo Insigne would often drift into his favoured area of the left halfspace, opening up the wing. Ghoulam now began to move forward into the vacated space. As he began to make his run, a high diagonal from deep would be shaped to play, Ghoulam would then accelerate in behind Benfica high on the left wing to receive the diagonal pass. Due to the distance of the pass being longer, and Ghoulam’s run not risking offside, more pace could be played on the pass, making it more difficult to defend against. 

Conclusion

Progressing through to the last 16 as winners of Group C, Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli will be satisfied with their performance throughout the group, even if not as comfortable as they would’ve liked. With Polish striker Arek Milik already back in rehab training despite suffering an ACL injury a couple of months ago, perhaps one of Napoli’s main issues, lack of a quality number 9, will be solved sooner than expected. Benfica’s rigid defence in their high block proved to be a difficult door for Napoli to unlock, though the introduction of Belgian forward Dries Mertens after 57 minutes added some much needed verticality and direct running through the centre and proved to be the required key to unlock Benfica. 

The Portuguese side showed some promising aspects tactically, and deservedly also progress to the second round.

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Sevilla 2-3 Real Madrid(AET)

Two teams who have endured very contrasting summer periods are Sevilla and Real Madrid. Sevilla have appointed a new manager, had a squad re-haul and begun the implementation of new boss Jorge Sampaoli’s unique yet Bielsa-like tactics. Real have had a quiet summer, especially by their terms. The only real talk around the club during summer was them regaining the rights to Álvaro Morata for £25m, however, not much else happened around the Bernabeu. Sevilla go into the game with a strong squad, new signings such as

Ben Yedder and Correa available for selection, while Real’s main men including Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are still recovering from the Euros. The European Super Cup may well provide a good indication for how strong these two sides will be going into the coming season, while any new tactical ideas will be on show.

Under new boss Sampaoli, Sevilla lined-up in a rather unorthodox 3-4-2-1 formation. Soria started in goals. Protecting him was a back three of Parejo, Carrico and Kolodziejczak. As 6 was Iborra, though N’Zonzi often made movements alongside him to form a situational double-pivot. On the right of midfield was Mariano, while Franco Vasquez played a similar role on the left. Based high in the right halfspace was Kiyotake. Vitolo played similarly to a normal left winger. Vietto was the 9.

Real Madrid deployed a more traditional 4-3-3. Kiko Casilla was the goalkeeper for the night. There was a back four of Carvajal, Ramos, Varane and Marcelo. As holding midfielder Casemiro, while to his right and left was Kovacic and Isco. Lucas Vasquez, Marco Asensio and returning boy Álvaro Morata made up the attack.


First Phase Movements Manipulate Press

With Sampaoli now at the helm, it was obvious that Sevilla’s game, including their first phase of possession would be both built upon but also drastically changed. With Unai Emery normally opting for a basic 4-1-4-1 or like in build-up, Sampaoli was sure to seriously change things. Throughout pre-season, the Argentine has experiment with a number of shapes in the first phase of possession, fundamentally a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield. 

13:49 vs. St Pauli: Excellent implementation of Juego de Posición, with all five zones perfectly occupied in a 3-1-5-1. At least three players being viable passing options in this situation.

Sevilla enjoyed relative success with this, dominating the majority of their friendlies. The dynamic roles of Mariano and Vasquez were particularly interesting, where their variable movements allowed for wide or halfspace runs, largely depending on the positioning of their respective wingers. 

For the match against Real Madrid however, these roles have been altered, likely due to the greater strength of opposition. Mariano played more as an actual right midfielder, rather than an interior, while Vasquez moved out to a role closer to the left flank, to allow for a more defensively solid central midfield partnership of Iborra and N’Zonzi. Another reason for the choice of a double-pivot of Iborra-N’Zonzi would be that Sevilla were unlikely to be as dominant in terms of territorial possession and would likely have possession in deeper areas meaning players with better qualities in these areas are more valuable than attacking midfielders. Despite this, the selection of Sampaoli was far from negative, and he was not afraid to implement similar ideas to that of which he did in pre-season.


We can see above a 3-2-4-1. This saw Iborra and N’Zonzi operate like a double-pivot, to cover the gaps in the halfspaces while Parejo and Kolo occupied the wings. By covering such a wide space, whilst maintaining connections through the midfield in both halfspaces, this forced Real to run for longer and quicker if Sevilla were to switch the side of the ball.

By occupying so many zones horizontally across the pitch, Real have a lot of running to do to maintain compactness if Sevilla switch the play.

Above we can see how if Kolo played a horizontal pass, which admittedly is usually useless, there are now two options which are both difficult for Real to react and adjust quickly to. If Kolo passes to Carrico, the central defender can quickly drive forward into the midfield of Real to create an overload. Another possible option is for Carrico to make another pass to his right after receiving from Kolo, to Parejo. Parejo then has the wing to himself for a couple of seconds, valuable seconds where he drive forward with the ball to help Sevilla’s possession advance.

With Iborra-N’Zonzi being based on the same horizontal line, this meant for some movement, as remember, Jorge Sampaoli is their manager and a flat double-pivot in build-up is useless under such a unique manager. The midfield pairing would alternate in making dropping movements beside Carrico, to form a back four. In order to maintain defensive access on the ball here, Isco often stepped up to press alongside Morata, in attempt to high press in a 4v4. This then formed a vertically uncompact 4-2-4 for Real. Positioned in between Real’s high pressers and now only central midfielders were the remaining pivot and Vasquez. Sevilla would often use their goalkeeper Soria, who would be the only spare men under the high press, to escape the press by playing risky passes through Real’s pressers, ideally into Iborra/N’Zonzi and Vasquez, who would have found space between the lines. From here the receiver would have a second or two to begin a decent attack by picking the ideal pass, whilst Casemiro and Kovacic didn’t have defensive access to the ball.

Wing Orientation and Common Pattern

With the individual quality of Ronaldo and Bale missing, due to the pair being unavailable following their successful Euro campaigns, Real would have to alter their plan from their wing orientated approach where individual brilliance from the pairing is often relied on to win Los Blancos…or would they?

They answer is no. Zinedine Zidance for whatever reason decided to retain a wing orientated approach, despite their clear strongest area being the centre. Relative rookies on this stage Lucas Vasquez and Marco Asensio were more often than not the players Madrid looked to get on the ball as soon as an attack begun, particularly a counter attack, where Real would quickly move the ball to Vasquez and Asensio, their fast guys. 

In a normal attack rather than a counter, where Madrid built through the stages, they often used a consistent pattern of play in an attempt to fully utilise the wings. 

Álvaro Morata would make a dropping movement while a central player, in a relatively deep position, was on the ball. As the made this, a flat vertical pass would be made to his feet through Sevilla’s lines, as this happened, Kovacic or Isco would move closer to Morata, who would then lay it off to whoever the onrushing midfielder was. Whoever received now would ideally play a first time pass out to one of Vasquez or Asensio, who would now ideally be on an open wing.


One of they key factors in this pattern depends on the compactness of Sevilla. If Sevilla have good horizontal compactness (which they often did) then it was very difficult to penetrate with the first pass.

This pattern was more effective on the right, as Vasquez stayed on the wing most of the time, meaning when he recovered the ball, Sevilla had a longer distance to adjust to, making it more difficult to react effectively. Asensio’s left halfspace movements made this pattern less effective on this side, as when he received the ball he was often in the same zone as Parejo, meaning Sevilla had at least one defender. Despite this, Asensio had a terrific game and looks a very bright prospect for the future. The kid was direct and not afraid to show off his qualities, while he was very positive with his passing and actions on the ball, which showed with his 25 yard goal.

Finding Space Against the Compact Block

With Real defending in a horizontally compact 4-1-4-1 for the majority of Sevilla’s second phase possession, it became clear that if Sevilla wanted to play through the centre they would have to create their own space there, as Madrid weren’t conceding much, or if that failed, attack down the wings. Sampaoli’s men did both.

Sevilla wide build-up shape, which we have already covered, was a nice tool for exploiting Madrid’s compactness. With Parejo and Kolo primarily based on the wing in possession, with Vasquez also having freedom to support the left wing, as well as having Mariano and Kiyotake on the right, this often created overloads on the wings in Sevilla’s favour. 

Kolo, Vasquez and Vitolo have overloaded Madrid’s right wing press. The strong structures around the ball in a tight space allow for Sevilla to escape easily.
While drawing Madrid into a press where they had poor defensive access on either wing, Sevilla would have player positioned on the opposite wing, ready for a switch of play. This was where Iborra and N’Zonzi played an important role, the ball-side 6 would position themselves in the near halfspace, ready to connect from the overloaded wing, to the opposite wing. Mariano and Vitolo were the two wide guys on either wing, who would remain there for the majority of the time, waiting to exploit Madrid’s horizontal compactness by receiving on an open wing.

Mariano remains on the opposite touchline to the ball, with an open wing, due to RMA’s compactness.

Another strategy Sevilla used to combat Real’s compact centre was the dynamic positioning of Hiroshi Kiyotake. Kiyotake, who played like a on the right of a double 10 shape, would often make inverted movements from the right wing and halfspace, into the centre, in between Real’s compact block. By doing so, this opened up the wing for Mariano to have more space out there, but more importantly, this made Sevilla less predictable as by having a needle player positioned within Real’s block, Sevilla were still able to play centrally despite facing a compact opposition. This is similar to how Barcelona play against deep, compact blocks. They use Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, two guys who are excellent tight spaces, to play quick combinations in amongst this area, which allows them to maintain a central orientation. 

Another positive of having Kiyotake find pockets of space in between Real’s lines, was that with Sevilla circulating horizontally to the wings, this often meant that when the ball was in the left halfspace, a diagonal passing lanes between Casemiro and Isco was open. With Casemiro shifting over ball-side to maintain vertical and horizontal compactness with Kovacic, but Isco having to keep up his slightly man-orientation with Iborra, there was often a lane between the pair of them, this was Kiyotake’s favourite pocket. 


Conclusion

Despite winning yet another European title, it wouldn’t be far off to claim that Real Madrid were once again undeserved winners, and were inferior at least in the tactical department. Los Blancos relied too heavily on vertical passes from deep, allowing them to bypass phase two of build-up, as well as the same old over reliance on a individual brilliance to win them the match. Jorge Sampaoli, despite defeat, will not be overly disappointed, especially with his team’s performance, considering they dominated for large periods of the game, momentum only fully shifting in Real’s favour when Kolodziejczak was sent off. The ideas in practice by Sampaoli are certainly exciting, and differently to other unique tactical ideas, have serious potential to be successful and win when it matters. 

Barcelona 1-0 Inter Milan: 28/04/2010

In what has been branded as one of the most exciting, interesting and intriguing manager duels of the past decade, Pep Guardiola vs. Jose Mourinho always promises to be an exhilarating battle. Whether it is Barca-Real, Bayern-Chelsea or in this case Barca-Inter, there should always be time for a look at the tactical side of their meetings. In this analysis I will be taking a look back to 2010, when Barcelona met Inter Milan in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final.

Barcelona went into this match 3-1 down on aggregate, with what looked to be a very tough uphill task, especially considering Inter manager Jose Mourinho’s ability to ‘park the bus’ and defend a lead. Some put Barca’s defeat at the San Siro down to the two-day bus journey they were forced upon due to a volcanic ash cloud which prevented them flying to Milan. Despite this seeming to be a valid excuse, Barça ultimately weren’t good enough on the night and Inter’s attacking prowess, not something Mou’s teams are usually renowned for, caused havoc for Barca defensively, to put themselves in a solid position to qualify.

  

In goals for Barcelona was Victor Valdes. Ahead of him a back-four of Dani Alves, Yaya Toure, Pique and Gabriel Milito. Playing as a 6 was Busquets, the two interiors were Xavi Hernandez and Keita(please ignore the error on the graphic and imagine Keita in Iniesta’s place). Barca’s front three was made up of Messi, Ibrahimovic and Pedro Rodriguez.

Playing in an extremely deep defensive block which resembled something similar to a 4-2-3-1 was Internazionale. Julie Cesar was the goalkeeper, he was protected by Maicon, Lucio, Samuel and Zanetti. As the right defensive midfielder was Esteban Cambiasso, slightly to the left of him was Thiago Motta. As a very defensive left midfielder was Cristian Chivu, who actually came into the team to replace Goran Pandev following an injury in the warm-up. As 10 was Sneijder and as right-winger Samuel Eto’o. Up front was Diego Milito.

  

Mourinho’s Defensive Masterclass

In a game which the winning side had 86% of possession, as well as completing a total of 555 passes compared to the opposition’s minuscule number of just 67, you would perhaps expect a more dominant win than just 1-0. This wasn’t the case however, as Barca struggled to penetrate, or even severely threaten, Inter’s deep defensive block.

It was clear from the off that Mourinho had set his side out to simply defend, defend and defend, perhaps with the odd counter-attack. 

In order to stifle the threats of what was probably Europe’s deadliest attack at the time, Inter defended in a very deep block. This would prevent Barcelona’s fast attackers from getting space in behind the Inter defence, as well as limiting the space players like Messi and Xavi would get in between the lines, if the vertical compactness was good.

To prevent one of Guardiola’s most used tactics, the wide overload, Inter used cover shadows in the wide areas. The graphic below shows the areas Inter players individually defended. 

  
‘Note: Green areas in between red are generally covered by the nearest player situationally’
We can see that an area that Inter have a real focus on defensively is the left halfspace, which is heavily covered, the area that Barca’s key playmaker, Messi operates in. Chivu is a hybrid between a LWB and a defensive midfielder as this allows him to block the early stages of Alves’ forward runs, as well as following Messi into the halfspace, where he is so dangerous. 

Following Motta’s questionable dismissal, Inter didn’t alter their game plan or defensive structure massively, just making a few slight tweaks here and there to make up for having the lesser number of men. Chivu moved into a more central role, primarily defending the left halfspace which further limited Messi’s influence. Milito moved out to the left, tasked with tracking Alves’ movement forward, while Sneidjer played similarly to a false 9 as Inter’s most advanced player, not seeing much of the ball though, he continued marking Busquets when Barça were in possession.

Suffocated and Stifled, Struggling to Break Down the Deep Block

As described under the previous subheading, Inter defended in a very deep and vertically compact block which stifled the creativeness of Barca’s central players, as well as preventing their fast attackers from finding space in behind the defence. This meant Barca struggled to create clear chances and often found themselves in deep possession with no vertical lanes open for an opportunity to break lines, to find Messi or any other player in a decent space.

With Barca left with no opportunity to penetrate Inter centrally, nor use the advantage of speed over Inter’s defence, or even find a way to get round Inter on the wings, this left Barça to switch to a non-familiar, far more direct style of play. This consisted of more long balls forward, to try and use to height of Ibrahimovic. This wasn’t too successful however, largely down to the aerial ability of Inter’s centre-backs Samuel and Lucio and the fact that when Ibra did manage to win the header and flick the ball on, there wasn’t enough space in behind for an onrushing attacker to make use of. These long balls were even more direct than the style Pep Guardiola’s Bayern team play in now, as well as being less purposeful, this spurred the idea that Pep’s Barca side lacked an effective ‘Plan B’. The makeshift ‘Plan B’ also consisted of more shots from a distance, again unsuccessful down to the lack of space available to get a good shot away.

Positional Play Fails to Achieve Superiority in the Right Areas

Again, this subheading comes down to the way in which Inter defended, but other factors also contribute to this. As always implemented by Pep Guardiola’s teams, Juego de Posicion was used against Inter in a bid to gain superiority over their opponents in as many areas of the field as possible. 

Barca’s positional play on the night looked to be executed exactly the way Pep wanted to, just not managing to create exactly the product Pep wanted at the end, a goal. It was clear that Pep wanted Barca to build down the right as often as possible, for obvious reason; the technical abilities of Yaya Toure, Dani Alves, Xavi and Messi. This was often the case, which would be pleasing for Pep, but Inter found a way to nullify this threat, with Chivu occupying a role on the left. 
  

Above we can that Barca are in the perfect 4-3-3, with every single player in almost perfect positions relating to the ball, yet this doesn’t mean it is a successful positional play. Successful positional play means gaining superiority in the right areas. On the night Barca wish to gain superiority in the final third, where Messi, Ibra and Pedro can work their magic and score goals for Barca, ultimately putting them in the Champions League Final. Instead Barca found themselves without overloads in the final third but instead, in their own half where possession is purposeless and harmful to the opposition.

The image above shows that although Yaya Toure is in stable possession of the ball, he is unable to play a pass which would threaten Inter, due to the numbers Inter have defending deep.

Conclusion

On a night where there was always bound to be controversy, it certainly delivered the expected parcel: controversy. The less said about the Busquets-Motta incident the better but strangely, it shaped the game positively for Inter rather than Barça. The changes Mourinho was forced to make following the sending-off were even more defensive-minded than Inter already were, which didn’t seem possible. The changes allowed Inter to waste less energy attacking which meant more for defending, which was the key of Inter’s game plan, to defend. 

Although Gerard Pique did score a lovely goal for Barca, the decision of Pep Guardiola to substitute Ibrahimovic to then put Pique up front was strange and perhaps was an underrated factor in the shaping of the final stages game. 

Mourinho’s Inter (probably deservedly) went on to win the Champions League that year after beating Louis van Gaal’s Bayern Munich in final but it seems that what will be remembered will be Jose Mourinho’s defensive masterclass in the second leg, to defeat Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate.

PSG unable to display beautiful football against Madrid

Following an excellent start to the season both domestically and continentally PSG have won many admirers both for their results and their beautiful brand of football. Mixing a direct approach with some patience has proved successful in the past for teams and is now very popular thanks to Pep Guardiola introducing this style at Bayern Munich, Laurent Blanc is edging closer to a Guardiola-esque playing style at PSG but is far less of a risk taker than Guardiola, particularly in big games. This has been seen in both of PSG’s Champions League matches this season, they have scored early against both Malmo and Shakhtar and then consolidated their lead, sitting in a deeper block with less risks being taken. 

Going into the match, Real Madrid are without three key players in Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez and this will give PSG confidence perhaps to have a real go at Madrid, rather than be constantly wary of the counter from Real.

  

 PSG lined-up as expected. Kevin Trapp in goals. Centre-backs of Marquinhos and Thiago Silva. Serge Aurier and Maxwell would be PSG’s main source of width on either flanks, as well as slotting into standard full-back positions when defending. Thiago Motta, who has been impressive this season will be PSG’s pivot, maintaining a solid position in front of Marquinhos and Thiago Silva. Marco Verratti would be a hybrid between a number 6 and number 8, swapping between roles throughout the game situationally. Blaise Matuidi made penetrative runs into Madrid’s box when attacking and pressed Kroos when PSG were defending, in a very intense role. PSG’s front three was of Di Maria, Ibrahimovic and Cavani.

Keylor Navas in net for Real. A solid back four of Danilo, Ramos, Varane and Marxelo would sit narrow defensively while the full-backs would provide some width in attack, particularly Marcelo. Kroos and Casemiro alternated between the 6 and 8 positions, however Real got far more success when Kroos was dictating in 6 positons. Vazquez and Isco defended the halfspaces and pressed the wings defensively, although Isco had Jesé on the left so didn’t always have to pressure the flanks alone, however Jesé often got caught upfield. Isco played mostly in the left halfspace in attack while Vazquez stayed close to the touchline to give width. Cristiano Ronaldo played as a central striker rather than the left, where he has played since his conversion into a 9, this is probably to give him rest rather than having to track the attacking Serge Aurier. Jese played as a wide striker, making runs infield from the left wing.
   

 

Real’s Defensive Solidity 

When defending it looked like Real had been instructed to defend in a 4-5-1, with Kroos/Casemiro backing up Vazquez in pressing their flank while Isco would press with Jesé on the opposite, at times however, due to Jese’s attacking role he was unable to get back into a 4-5-1 meaning Madrid resorted to a narrow 4-4-2, looking to control the centres and halfspaces. Below is an image of Real’s 4-5-1 preparing to shift laterally.

  

In order to control the centre and halfspaces, Madrid couldn’t press too intensely there as Verratti and Motta could use their ability under pressure to escape the press and then exploit the space left by Madrid’s presser. Due to this, Real decided to ramp up the pressure when PSG were close to the touchline, using the touchline as an extra defender by showing the PSG player out wide.  

As we can see, Maxwell has been forced bsckwards due to Vazquez being so tight to him near the touchline. Isco has blocked the lane to Verratti meaning Matuidi is forced backwards.

Situations like the one above were constant for PSG as Madrid were more than often very intelligent in their pressing. Although Madrid pressed in numbers out wide, this did lead to some problems for themselves at times. Due to the excellent technical ability of PSG players in tight spaces, the Parisians were sometimes able to escape Madrid’s press, this then giving them lots of space due to a Real midfielders being out of position.

Both Teams Lack Quality in Zone 14

Following the feats of Mesut Özil the previous night for Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich from Zone 14, maybe now we expected more creativity from this area than is realistic. Nonetheless, this cannot be used as an excuse for both sides lack of creativity. With players such as Angel Di Maria, Blaise Matuidi, Isco, Marco Verratti, Toni Kroos and even Zlatan Ibrahimovic all starting the game, we could be forgiven having expected to see Zone 14 used with more success. Success in Zone 14 certainly wasn’t the case though, in PSG’s position they found Blaise Matuidi’s penetrative runs and reliance on physical attributes not so helpful in their cry for creativity, Marco Verratti is obviously far stronger from deeper positions while Angel Di Maria had a poor games and often looked isolated on the right-wing. To deal with this, Zlatan Ibrahimovic  decided to take matters into his own hands, the big Swede often dropped into Zone 14, sometimes even deeper in order to offer his side some creativity high up the pitch. This wasn’t always successful though and really slowed down PSG’s attacks.

 

Zlatan has dropped deep to get on the ball, however he has no vertical passing option due to his presence from the centre of attacks being moved deeper. He is forced to pass to Maxwell which will then allow Real to shift laterally and recover into a narrow 4-5-1.
 
Real’s case was similar to PSG’s, their most creative player(Toni Kroos)was operating a deep-lying  playmaker and the natural Zone 14 player(Isco)had an off day. 

Due to Real’s lack of creativity, they began to rely on width provided by Marcelo or penetrating runs by Casemiro, Ronaldo and Jesé.

Conclusion

In truth this was not a very exciting football match. Laurent Blanc’s side looked very wary of Real’s counter-attack and this really had an impact on their fluidity in attack. Marco Verratti in particular looked reluctant to move into 8 positions, where would be able to penetrate Real’s lines and make use of Matuidi’s runs into the box, the Italian midfielder far more often took up positions alongside Thiago Motta forming a double 6. Although this limited the danger of Real’s counter attacks, it also took away a big part of PSG’s creativity in advanced positions. Madrid were quite poor and could even have been branded boring to watch. Their compact 4-5-1 and unwillingness to take risks in attack left them looking unlikely to score in open play. 0-0 was a fair result on the night…we can only hope the next tie is more exciting.

Late goal puts United in driving seat for the tie

The Champions League sounded at Old Trafford for the first time in a year. Following David Moyes disastrous reign as Manchester United manager,the club weren’t in Europe for the first since the 1989-90 season following a very disappointing 7th place finish. Moyes was sacked in April and replaced by Ryan Giggs who took the job as a caretaker manager. On May 19, a far more reputable manager in Louis van Gaal’s was appointed,he wouldn’t just look to get United back into European football but to bring the title to the Theatre of Dreams. In his first season at the club,he achieved a 4th place finish,this would allow United to qualify for the Champions League through a play-off,the opponents would be Club Brugge of Belgium.

Many initially expected Brugge to be pushovers for United,but following a scratch below the surface,it can be seen that Brugge certainly do have a number of players that could damage United’s Champions League hopes. 

 
United lined up with an unchanged XI from the game last Friday against Aston Villa. This season The Reds have switched to a 4-2-3-1 from last season’s 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 formations. In net remained Argentinian Sergi Romero,amid rumours of David de Gea’s departure to Real Madrid. A back four of Darmian,Smalling,Blind and Shaw was in front of him. Van Gaal again went with new signing Schweinsteiger on the bench in favour of a defensive double pivot of Schneiderlin and Carrick. In front of them was an attacking trio of Mata,Januzaj and Memphis Depay. Up front was Wayne Rooney.

Club Brugge were without key players such as Refaelov,Izquierdo and Meunier but still had dangerous players such as Diaby and Barcelona academy graduate Victor Vasquez available. In the end Michel Preudhomme settled for an interchanging 4-4-2. In goals was Bruzzese,at right-back Cools retained his place following an excellent run of form since filling in for Izquierdo,at centre-back was Duarte and Mechele,at left-back was De Bock. In defensive midfield was Simons,he was partner by Vormer,an old colleague of United manager Van Gaal. Brugge’s wingers were Dierickx and Bolingoli. The attacking midfielder was Victor Vasquez,as lone striker was Diaby. 

 

Brugge Surprise United with High Press

Particularly in the first half,Brugge pressed United very high,with United even being pushed as deep as their own box at times,this was when Romero’s worried looking and at times sloppy distribution was shown up. Below we can see both Diaby and Vazquez pressing United in their own box,with Dierckx and Bolingoli just out the picture making Blind and Darmian dangerous passes for Romero,this often forced Romero to play long balls. Brugge pressed mostly in a 4-2-4 formation,although this offensive strategy often left the central-midfielders exposed in 4v2.

 United Seriously Lack Width on Right Flank
A key part of Louis van Gaal’s teams game is usually to stretch the pitch and create lots of space centrally by playing very wide,whether it’s the full-back or winger providing width,9 times out of 10,van Gaal’s teams will have some sort of width,well against Brugge that was the one in 10. On the right flank United showed no width of any sort. Right-‘winger’ Mata was really just a wide playmaker who spent far more of the game in the right halfspace rather the right touchline whereas right-back Darmian focused far more on defending and preffered to sit deep and cross rather than cross from the touchline. This initially didn’t seem too much of a problem but as the game wore on,Carrick and Schneiderlin began to get caught on the ball in the centre of the pitch as Brugge players simply shaped their bodies and forced United to pass down the right,which was very one dimensional and easy to defend against.

Smalling and Blind Positive in Possession

As expected,Daley Blind operated as a ball-playing defender,often driving out from defence to step into midfield alongside Carrick and Schneiderlin. What was more surprising was the positivity seen from his partner Smalling,in the last year many have doubted Smalling’s ability on the ball but against Brugge he was excellent. Smalling and Blind often played simple combination passes to escape Brugge’s high press,then when the opportunity opened up for one of them to drive into space centrally,they certainly took it. The player who had driven would then look for a penetrative pass to break Brugge’s lines,Januzaj and Rooney were very often available while Juan Mata would sometimes even be available in a free space in the right halfspace. The situation below is in the 4th minute of the match,United now have a 4v3 overload in their favour thanks to Smalling driving into midfield,he now has a clear passing lane straight to Rooney’s feet. 

 
Shaw and Blind Targeted

Before th game,Michael Preudhomme had clearly decided he wasn’t going to park the bus and spend all night defending,he wanted his side to go on the attack but they would need a good plan to overcome United’s recently much improved defence. Very early in the game it was obvious that Brugge would target United’s left flank. Top scorer this season Dierickx,attacking right-back Cools and striker Abouladaye Diaby would all look to overload the wing. This was likely down to Shaw’s tendency to bomb forward,therefore leaving a big space out wide for Blind to defend alone as well as defending centrally,a very difficult task  for someone who doesn’t boast brilliant pace. This actually worked quite well for the Belgians,the wide overloads often led to crosses into United’s box,where Vazquez would often make late runs into.
Is Wayne Rooney a Number 9?

A major problem in United’s attacks was the lack of an advanced,central focal point. This was purely down to Wayne Rooney often dropping into 10 and sometimes even 8 positions during build-ups. Although finding pockets of space deep and dictating play from there is a huge strength of his,when he is playing as a lone striker,he must stay central to give a central outlet. 

Conclusion

Thanks to a late headed goal by substitute Marouane Fellaini,United are now clear favourites for the tie. If Brugge had managed to hold on for the final few seconds at 2-1,they would have earned themselves a very valuable Result and away goal. Now their task at home will be a very much uphill one and United look set to return to where many believe they belong,the Champions League.