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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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.

Lineups


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.

Conclusion

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.

Belgium 3-0 Ireland

Following a widely discussed poor tactical performance which saw Belgium lose 0-2 to Italy, Ireland would be looking to capitalise on a mentally wounded side. The Irishmen impressed in a 1-1 draw with Sweden, where they could have won the game after a number of impressive individual performances. Going into this one, Belgium manager Marc Wilmots simply had to improve the tactics of his team if he wants The Red Devils to become genuine contenders for the Euro 2016 title.

Following their 0-2 loss to Italy, Belgium made three alterations to their starting eleven. Despite a rumoured fallout with coach Marc Wilmots, Thibaut Courtois retained his place as goalkeeper. Thomas Meunier came in for Laurent Ciman, while Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertoghen remained in their places. Moussa Dembele took the place of Nainggolan as the right of the two deepest midfielders, Axel Witsel partnered him. Fereira-Carrasco came in the team to the right wing, De Bruyne played as 10, Hazard to the left. Lukaku was the team’s 9.

Ireland were forced into a single change, due to the injury of Walters. Randolph played in goals, protected by a defence of Coleman, O’Shea, Clark and Joel Ward. In front of them was a double-pivot of Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy. Flanking those two were Jeff Hendricks and Robbie Brady. Hoolahan and Long were Ireland’s two most advanced players, as 10 and 9 respectively.

Improved Possessional Structure

Contrasting to their disastrous loss to Italy in the opening game, particularly in terms of tactics, Belgium were strong in possession and their progression through stages of build-up were far cleaner than we seen previously. 

The full-backs weren’t used so frequently, with Dembele and Witsel offering sound options throughout being a more useful alternative. Not just against Italy, but all throughout their qualifying campaign, the No.6’s Nainggolan and Witsel played quite high up while the centre-backs were in possession. This left the full-backs as the main option for the centre-backs, which is a well known error when building-up.

“Passing plot from @11tegen11 showing the extent to which Belgium used their full-backs.”

Building through the full-backs means just the near halfspace can be accessed while the full-back is in possession. This makes pressing far easier for the opposition as they only have to worry about one side of the pitch the time being, whereas when the ball is in the centre, either halfspace or wing(through a long pass)can be accessed, meaning the opposition defensive shape will be more stretched as coverage is needed over wider area. 

Against Italy, Belgium had serious issues with clean progression as Italy’s defensive system worked perfectly in regards to Ciman and Vertonghen being the most frequently used players in build-up.

https://twitter.com/1415football/status/742476195405660162

With Dembele, one of the strongest players in the English Premier League in build-up, coming into the team in place of Nainggolan, this opened up more possibilities for Belgium to utilise their strength in the centre during build-up. Although Nainggolan is competent in possession, he is more of a box-to-box midfielder and doesn’t offer the same qualities Dembele can offer in build-up. This meant Witsel wasn’t needed to dictate so much from 6 or 8 positions as he now had a partner capable of doing so.

 
In this match, Witsel frequently dropped between Alderweireld and Vermaelen, who now had stability to split wide. 


As this happened, Meunier and Vertonghen advanced forward, onto the same line as Moussa Dembele. With Ireland defending so deep and Long being the only presser on the frontline, Courtois often had three simple passing options. When the play began, Alderweireld, Witsel and Vermaelen would horizontally circulate to manipulate the positioning of Ireland’s compact midfield. When a lane to Dembele opened up, a quick vertical or diagonal would be played to the Spurs man, who would then look to carry the ball forward. We saw good dynamics from the Belgians at this point, as De Bruyne moved into the right halfspace to open space up for Dembele to drive into, while Hazard drifted infield to his favoured left halfspace. Witsel also pushed up closer to Dembele, to be there in case the attack needed to restart and possession recycled.

Change of Shape and Ireland’s Transition

Like Belgium, Ireland made a tactical alteration from their opening match. 

Against Sweden, the Irishmen defended in a 4-1-3-2.

The main ideas of this system was to initially force Sweden into building through their full-backs by Long and Hoolahan/Walters angling their body to force these passes. As the ball travelled to the full-backs, Ireland would laterally shift into positions surrounding the ball. When the full-back received, either the full-back or ball-near midfielder would engage in a press, angling their body shape to force a pass infield, usually to Ekdal or Kallstrom in the halfspace. As this pass was made, Ireland players close to the ball would create a pressing trap to force Sweden play a negative pass, or win the ball back in a good area.

In this match though, Ireland retained the same pressing trap idea, but in a different formation. A 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 was deployed out of possession. 


Again, Shane Long attempted to force the opposition to build through the full-backs, but with Witsel dropping to form a back three so often, this was a difficult and wasteful amount of running for him. Belgium were often able to escape the press easily. Even if Belgium were forced to the full-backs and the pressing trap was sprung, with players such as a Hazard and Dembele in the halfspaces, quick combinations in a small space were often used to escape the press and continue to progress.

With Wes Hoolahan not pressing the same he did against Sweden, instead leaving this to Long, he was often quite a distance away from the striker. A fatigued long was often unable to get back in position quickly, and while Ireland dropped into a very deep block, he became very isolated in turnovers. Defending so deep, Ireland’s main escape route was to play a long ball to their only outlet, Long. The Southampton striker usually had no support whatsoever though, and was often flicking a header or knock-down to nobody. This simply allowed Belgium to restart the attack and begin another wave of pressure on the Irish goal.

Conclusion

A significantly improved structure during build-up saw Belgium run out as convincing winners against an Irish side who lacked any real quality in or out of possession. The inclusion of Moussa Dembele provided Belgium with the large lift they needed following a morale-damaging loss midweek. Although the Tottenham midfielder limped off injured around the hour mark, his qualities were deeply missed in the opening match, but his dynamic use of possession was very effective in this match. Although finishing top of the group seems unlikely, relying on an Irish win over Italy, Belgium’s last group game, against Sweden, is very significant as it will decide on qualification or not.

Spain 3-0 Turkey

After underwhelming performance against Czech Republic and Croatia, Spain and Turkey face off against each other in a match of two sides who both possess terrific technical quality within their ranks. Vicente del Bosque and Faith Terim are two experienced managers who have seen it all, in the meeting in Nice, the pair will look to get the best of each other.

The Spaniards used their trademark 4-3-3 formation. De Gea in goals. Juanfran, Pique, Ramos and Alba made up the back-four. A midfield trio was of Busquets, Fabregas and Iniesta. The three forwards were David Silva, Álvaro Morata and Nolito.

A positive Turkey line-up saw a single change from their first match of the tournament, Burak Yilmaz taking the place of Tosun as striker. Babacan was the goalkeeper. In front of him was a defence of Gonul, Mehmet Topal, Balta and Erkin. The three central midfielders were the promising Ozan Tufan and Oguzhan Ozyakup, who were either side of the more experienced Selcuk Inan. On either wing was Calhanoglu and Arda Turan. While as a previously mentioned, Yilmaz played as 9.

Spain’s Full-Back’s High Positioning has an Impact 

As is usually the case when a team is very dominant in possession, as well as having strong territory, full-backs move into more advanced positions on the wing. This was certainly the case with Spain against Turkey and perhaps more so than expected, the advanced positioning of Juanfran and Jordi Alba during Spain possession played quite a large part.

First of all, we will look at the positive impact Juanfran and Alba’s positioning had on Spain’s performance. With Spain having two wide players who operate best coming off the wing, in David Silva and Nolito, this gave either full-back the whole wing to themselves, as well as allowing Silva and Nolito to occupy another zone situationally due to ‘their area’ being occupied. Silva and Nolito point usually chose at this point to move into the halfspace if the ball was on their wing. With Turkey deploying a flat midfield five with no staggering, this often meant the player in the halfspace had space in between the lines. Spain used horizontal line-splitters against Czech Republic very often, finding Iniesta to great effect a number of times.

https://twitter.com/boxtoboxcb/status/742835452265271296

Against Turkey, this was again used, in order to exploit the space left by their lack of out and out defensive midfielder who sat between defence and midfield, to limit space between lines. 

The second impact of Spain’s high full-backs was this time a more negative one. Although for Barcelona Sergio Busquets drops between two split centre-backs during build-up, to offer stability, for Spain, he doesn’t do so as frequently. This centre-backs still split, though less stability is offered as Busquets is obviously instructed to remain in midfield, where he is strongest. This meant that if Yilmaz blocked a pass from one CB to the other, and a pass into midfield was also blocked or the ball-near midfielder was marked, the only option was the ball-near full-back, or to do the forbidden under Del Bosque and knock it long. Turkey’s wide midfielders prevented the first though, pressing Pique and Ramos at an angle to block connections with the full-backs. 


In the opening stages, while Turkey pressed very high in an attempt to unease Spain, this was very effective. As the game went on though this wasn’t so effective, as Turkey fatigued and dropper deeper, it was tougher for them to engage in press higher and block lanes effectively. 

The third impact the positioning of Juanfran and Jordi Alba again only really played a part in the early moments of the game. With the pairing more often than not being based in the final third, there was always the threat of a counter-attack looming. Turkey looked to exploit this in the early stages, Calhanoglu and Turan frequently looked to dribble into the space left on the wing by Spain’s now out-of-position full-backs. Neither really had the pace to take full advantage of the situation though and were often delayed, allowing Spain to recover into their standard defensive shape.

Penetration Methods

After their initial high pressure, Turkey dropped into a relatively deep 4-5-1 for the rest of the match. This obviously wouldn’t be so easily for Spain to penetrate should Turkey get their spacing correct, which the Turks did for the majority of the first 30 minutes.

Turkey defended in 4-5-1, with the one, Yilmaz, being assigned to almost no defensive role, so we will simply focus on the 4-5. The formation was very flat, with no staggering out of possession.

 Inan, the most defensive of the three central-midfielders remained on the same line as the rest of midfield. This left some space between the 4 and the 5, but it wasn’t a case of creating space for Spain, it was a case of accessing it.

David Silva, arguably Spain’s most creative player, often dropped deep on the right wing, while Juanfran moved into Silva’s standard position high on the wing. As Silva received the ball, this was tempting for Arda Turan to press Silva near the touchline, but Silva was ready. He would quickly dribble infield diagonally, towards Ozyakup who couldn’t risk leaving his position. It was too late though, as Turan had opened up a large enough lane for Silva to play a needle pass into a receiver in between the lines.

Another way of inviting Turkey into a press, to open up the space between the lines even further, making it easier to access, was for Spain to play ‘negative passes’ back towards their own centre-backs, if their possession in the final third wasn’t dangerous. This lured Turkey out of their deep block as with Spain facing their own goal, it looked a good pressing opportunity. This quickly changed though, as Iniesta dropped deep to provide further stability, Spain would look to circulate the ball to him, then utilise his ball-carrying abilities. With Turkey’s momentum fully on moving forward, Iniesta was able to catch them on their back foot and dribble penetrate the press into a large space. He was then often able to drive straight at the centre of the Turkey defence.

Conclusion

A 3-0 victory was certainly deserved for a Spain side who looked back to their best in their road to retaining the Euro Championship. Del Bosque’s men effectively used their possession, which couldn’t be said of their 2014 World Cup campaign, where we saw the largely ineffective Tiki-Taka style of football. The penetration we saw from the Spaniards was excellent, even if Turkey’s weak defence did them a few favours along the way. 
Spain are now guaranteed a place in the last 16 of the tournament, now giving them the opportunity to rest a few fatigued players after a long season with their clubs, in preparation of their next fixture, which is sure to be of far more significant and surely difficulty.

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.