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. 


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.


Celtic 5-2 Hapoel Be’er Sheva


For the first time in three years, Celtic look to be heading into the group stages of the Champions League after a well deserved 5-2 win over Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, who made the play-off round by pulling off an upset against Olympiacos.

Theoretical Point : Defensive Orientation

Before covering the match itself, it is important to explore a more theoretical point about football generally, and in particular, the way in which teams organise themselves without the ball. Arrigo Sacchi, who managed AC Milan to consecutive European Cups in 1989 and 1990, once explained that there are four key reference points every player and team have to consider when defending; the ball, your teammates, the opponents and the space. The distinction between defensive systems come from the order in which a team prioritizes these reference points. For example, a team that places most importance on teammates as a reference point, will first focus on maintaining a set defensive shape and keeping the correct distances and angles between one another, with the aim of ensuring the opposition has a tough time penetrating through their shape.

Perhaps the most simplistic approach is the use of the opponents as the first reference point through man marking. A historically popular approach, man marking simply means that the defending team’s players are generally designated an opponent, whom they are tasked with tracking across the pitch in any circumstance. This approach is still largely prevalent across lower-mid level club football, as well as at all levels of international football, where the simplicity of the system is ideal for implementation with teams that have minimal training time.

However, at the higher levels of club football, man orientation in the defensive phase is an increasingly rare sight, with the flaws in the approach being far too easy to exploit, particularly when going up against the best coaches, and most intelligent players around. Ultimately, the key issue with man marking comes down to the fact that if you send your player out to track an opponent, your players positioning is almost entirely in the control of an opponent, and as such intelligent, well organised teams are able to use this to open up and exploit key spaces on the pitch.

“If you mark man-to-man, you’re sending out eleven donkeys” – Ernst Happel

Putting your defensive shape in the hands of the opposition is not a particularly good idea, nor is your entire defensive shape being reactive, rather than pro-active. Additionally, this approach reduces the scope for players to react to the situation that faces them, and makes it too easy for the players to thoughtlessly stick to their man when the circumstances dictate that they ought to adapt and perhaps support a teammate, or protect an important space that is exposed.


While Hapoel lined up in their expected 5-2-3 formation, Brendan Rodgers opted to go with a variant of 4-3-3, having switched between this and his hybrid 3-5-2 formation during his time at the club. Big decisions came by way of Moussa Dembele and fit again Erik Sviatchenko only making the bench. The lineup had clearly been influenced by the performance at home to Motherwell a week earlier.

Celtic exploit the Hapoel midfield

As discussed above, defending sides are organised based on four key reference points. It would be overly simplistic, and easily exploitable, if a team was to organise based on only one of the reference points, and as such, most of the defensive approaches we see on the pitch look to use two or more of the reference points to organise themselves. In the case of Hapoel Be’er Sheva, they used “Man-oriented zonal marking”, where they line up within a defensive shape (roughly a 5-3-2 in this case), and within the framework of this shape, look to pick up individual Celtic players based on the situation.

The issue on the night, for Be’er Sheva, was that often the man orientations would take precedence over the zonal marking element of the system, and as a result, Celtic were able to open key spaces on the pitch through their movement.

Celtic had clearly noted the marking scheme of the Israeli side in pre-match preparation, and it was evident that they had targeted this as a weak point, with Brendan Rodgers’ side very deliberately and persistently opening space in front of the Hapoel back five through clever movement. In the early stages of the game this was done using Mikael Lustig as the player that would access the central space with passes from a deep right back position.

In the first stage of build up, Celtic exploited the 4v2 they had at the back, in order to free Lustig on numerous occasions, usually via some excellent passing from Eoghan O’Connell. The deeper central midfielders, Brown and McGregor would come deep, close to the back four, in order to drag their markers high up the pitch. Finally, Tom Rogic would drift wide towards the ball, again attracting his marker across the pitch and away from the centre. With the space ahead of the away side’s back line now entirely vacated, Celtic looked to attack this area, with Forrest and Sinclair darting inside, and Griffiths dropping deep. Finally, the movement of the receiving player would drag one of the centre backs out of position, allowing the others to attack the space in behind. This was the very route that Celtic attacked in the lead up to the opening goal, and had James Forrest put a little less on a through ball, could have easily led to a second.

As Celtic made use of this path to goal time and again, Hapoel eventually adapted, changing they way they pressed the Celtic defence, but this adaptation only opened up a different route for Celtic to attack, and this route would end up leading to Celtic’s second

Hapoel’s left forward, Nwakaeme, changed his positioning in order to prevent Celtic attacking through Lustig, however the outcome of this was that space opened up for Kolo Toure to drive at the heart of the visitors midfield, and ultimately access the same spaces in front of the defence. Toure’s dribbles perfectly highlighted the weaknesses in a man oriented system, with McGregor and Brown able to open the door for Toure to attack the centre with simple sideways movement. The outcome was the isolation of John Ogu, who was easlily bypassed in 2v1 and 3v1 situations.

Celtic’s stifle the Hapoel attack

An important element of Celtic’s dominance, particularly in the first half, was the way in which they pressed and counterpressed. Celtic were hugely impressive in this regard (something Rodgers highlighted after the match), and were able to limit their opponents to only one shot in the first half, a speculative hit from distance.

Jurgen Klopp spoke about training the impulse to press, rather than explicitly telling a player where he needs to be in a given situation, and how this was the key to his own counterpressing approach. Clearly Brendan Rodgers has done something similar with his Celtic squad, and combined with having a fairly well organised structure behind the ball, this has enabled the team to time and again recover the ball quickly after it is lost, a central element of Rodgers’ philosophy.

2nd Half developments

After a dominant first 55 minutes, Celtic quickly conceded two goals against the run of play, with the first two dangerous attacks Hapoel managed in the match. A potential cause was an injury to the important Lustig, who looked unable to run in the lead up to the first goal, and was substituted with what appeared to be an injury minutes after the second.

In reaction to the goals, Brendan Rodgers introduced Nir Bitton to bring calm and defensive stability to the midfield, and then Moussa Dembele for the fading Tom Rogic, in an attempt to offer more goalscoring threat to the Hapoel defence. While Celtic still largely controlled the match, they were not able to create as much danger, due to a change made by Hapoel, with the front two being less aggressive in pressing to avoid being as easily bypassed, and the freeing of Ogu to cover space after the removal of Rogic. The result was Celtic gaining more territory, but not being able to create dangerous situations as frequently.

A much highlighted aspect of the Celtic performance was the reaction to conceding twice in quick succession. With Brendan Rodgers continually stressing the focus he has put on instilling an improved mentality into the players, particularly in adverse situations, Celtic were again able to keep their cool under pressure, and quickly reassert their dominance over the match, before once again stretching their lead to three goals ahead of the second leg. The suspicion is that had it not been for Rodgers, Celtic could have easily crumbled under pressure in this situation, and not come away with a result as positive as they were able to on this occasion.


Thanks to a smart attacking approach in the first half, and a strong mentality in the second, Celtic were able to get their best first leg result of any qualifier they’ve faced in recent years, and give themselves an excellent chance of reaching the Champions League group stage which is so important to the club financially, as well as to the fans. It is very nearly a perfect start for Celtic under Brendan Rodgers.

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. 


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. 

Celtic 2-1 Astana

With this tie in the balance, Astana made the long trip from the Kazakh capital to visit Celtic Park, where the home side would have an expectant crowd behind them. Win and you qualify was the simple outlook for both sides.

Celtic made two changes from the away leg, with Saidy Janko and James Forrest coming in for Moussa Dembele and Efe Ambrose. Brendan Rodgers swapped his 4-4-2/3-5-2 hybrid for a more conventional 4-3-3 shape. Astana star man Nemanja Maksimovic, linked with Lyon, missed the game through illness, while there was no starting place for recent signing Agim Ibraimi. Manager Stanimir Stoilov stuck with the 3-5-2 the team used in the first leg.

Celtic control the early stages

Rodgers’ decision to stick with a back four after a successful change during the first leg came as no surprise, and the shape continued to work in Celtic’s advantage in this match. The first hour of the first leg was frustrating for Celtic, with Astana employing tight man marking and cover shadows in order to control the centre of the pitch and prevent Celtic from creating dangerous situations in advanced areas. However Rodgers switch to a 4-5-1 facilitated more progression through the wings, with Celtic exploiting a 2v1 overload on either side.

This approach continued to bear fruit at Celtic Park, with the Astana wing-backs tightly sticking to Celtic’s wingers, there was vast amounts of space for the Celtic full backs to carry the ball into, particularly if the ball was switched from the far side. An additional benefit of the back four for Celtic was that it helped resolve problems Celtic have in the defensive and defensive transition moments in the first leg. Having four instead of three allowed Celtic to cover the width of the pitch more effectively, and minimized the threat posed by Astana’s switches of play and wing focused counter attacking. This, combined with some impressive counterpressing from Celtic prevented Astana from having any sort of sustained attacking threat in the match.

Lack of chances

Despite cutting off Astana’s threat, and dominating territory, Celtic themselves struggled to create many clear cut opportunities themselves. As they found space to advance down the wings, Astana would become very horizontally compact, and cut out the treat by outnumbering Celtic, and then either winning the ball back, or forcing Celtic into playing backwards. A way in which Celtic would have been able to create a more consistent threat would have been to make greater use of switching play.

“Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other.” – Pep Guardiola

Despite having strong horizontal and vertical compactness, Astana were not spatially compact. This is to say that even though the overall block is compact, within the block, there were open spaces for Celtic to exploit and escape pressure.

A good example of this situation is the above scene from the 10th minute. Astana are fairly horizontally and vertically compact, as they look to pressure Celtic against the touchline, however, the flaw is that Celtic have an easy potential route (purple) to the far side of the pitch, where Astana would be exposed in a 3v1 against the left wing-back. Celtic, on this occasion and many others, failed to use the opportunity to switch and attack Astana’s weak spot. Instead, they try to force play down the side they are already on, and on this particular occasion, the ball was played forward on the left, and was lost within 10 seconds.

On the occasions that Celtic did switch the ball, they were able to create some of their most dangerous attacks of the match, including a good opportunity for Stuart Armstrong late in the first half. Despite this, Celtic simply did not exploit this avenue frequently enough

Rodgers makes changes

Around the hour mark, Rodgers made a significant decision, bringing on Kolo Toure for his debut, and moving to a 3-5-2 system, with Stuart Armstrong going off, and James Forrest moving to partner Leigh Griffiths.

In some ways, the substitution made a lot of sense. Celtic had begun to look vulnerable from set pieces, and were leading the tie with only 30 minutes to go. Rodgers had, earlier in the week, suggested that Toure would start on the bench with the option of bringing him on to solidify the defence, and while in some ways this was achieved, a consequence of the substitution, and the change of shape was that Celtic lost almost all of their effectiveness in possession.

Astana maintained control of the centre of the pitch, but the move to 3-5-2 removed Celtic’s superiority on the wings. The key issue was that if the wing-backs positioned themselves high on the wing, then there was no route out for the Celtic defence in possession, and if they dropped into deeper positions, they were able to help move past the first line of pressure, but there was no presence higher up, and so Celtic struggled to pose any threat to the Astana defence.


Celtic had a good first hour, and despite not maximising their attacking threat, probably deserved to lead in the tie. After Celtic began to look vulnerable at set-pieces, Rodgers’ made the call to change the team and shape, and while he did guide the team through a tough tie, that shouldn’t absolve the new Celtic manager of criticism for what was a bad mistake in an important moment though. Having said that, both the club’s hierarchy and support will not be hugely concerned with performance, particularly with the financial importance of qualifying, results will be the focus.

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.


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.