Australia: 4231 with wide first line of circulation

I read more about Australia’s buildup to the World Cup than I watched them in previous tournaments. And that speaks loads about the work Postecoglou did. Clips of the 3421, possession based football and counterpressing of the Socceroos started showing up a lot on Twitter.

And then the pressure, and criticism from the media got to him, and he ended up resigning after qualification to the tournament was secured. You can read more about the whole story here, or read Tim Palmer’s excellent analysis of the Socceroos.

I was very disappointed. The tournament is very difficult and hard work for a manager. But it is the type of work that gives you and experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. I am sure Postecoglou would have proudly told stories of banter and funny incidents in the camp to his grandchildren. After working for it, he deserved to be there at the main event and have those experiences. But it wasn’t to be. And in came van Marwijck and the 4231.

He also earned to be in the tournament on his own right, since he guided Saudi Arabia to the World Cup in direct qualification. However he left that position after negotiations for a new contract broke down.

The Lineup

Australia starting 11.png

In possession: Fullback – winger dynamics
(and how it could be improved)

Their last training game was against my home country, Hungary. This preview draws mainly on Australia’s possession in that match.

The following picture show very well the basic idea behind the positioning of the fullbacks and the wingers. The fullbacks push higher than Jedinak and Mooy, almost to the line of the wingers. Leckie and Kruse move inside the the half space, and start off from the shoulder of the fullback. On the ball side Kruse moves away from his defender. The positions of the midfielders is a bit peculiar here, but more on that later.

Australia shape example

They attempt to open the half spaces between the lines in possession. The following positioning rules apply:

  • Both fullbacks push higher than the double pivot.
  • Wingers start from the half space, just in front of the back four of the opponent.
    On the ball side the winger can move back towards the ball. If the fullback leaves him he asks for the ball free between the lines. If the fullback follows him he makes a quick reverse run and attacks the space behind.
  • The two centrebacks take positions wider that the double pivot.
  • The three central midfielders are very close to teach other. Rogic starts from the central space, rarely moving in between the lines, or coming in front of the midfield.

Rogic starts from behind the midfieldThis positioning creates a very open shape in circulation. The distances between the central defenders and the fullbacks can get large, which leads to excellent counterattacking opportunities for the opponent. Especially on the far side of the pitch.

The fullbacks keep the width throughout the whole circulation, but they rarely receive the ball from the central defenders. If they do, they immediately pass it back with one touch. This way the risk of loosing it when their first line if open is low, plus they can move the opponent’s shape to the side, with more space appearing on the other side. This is one of the positives of this open structure.

If the central defenders can change the sides quickly, on the ball far side there is immediately a 3 v 2 situation, with the fullback and winger in advanced starting positions.

Winger moves back by space opened by fullback - 20th minuteOn the right side the fullback-winger dynamics work really well. The Hungarian left fullback moves out so much and so close that the winger stays in a large space totally behind the midfield. Normally these dynamics are pretty easy to defend, especially considering that on the ball side Hungary are in a 5 v 4 overload. Wide dismarking patterns were also very successful against the Czech Republic.

Notice the positioning of Rogic. When the central defender dribbles in and the winger moves back, Rogic is in front of the two central midfielders, or between them, but not pushing in behind the opponent’s midfield. Even though the two holding midfielders are on the ball side, and could easily allow Rogic to push higher with better positioning.

Positioning of the attacking midfielders

Australia poor structure in possession 16th minAgainst Hungary their left side was more active in possession. Sainsbury attempted to dribble into the game frequently. The difficulty started in front of him. The field occupation of the attacking midfielders and the striker was poor. They all stood on the same line, together with the two fullbacks there were five players on the same line. This structure is disadvantageous, it not only doesn’t stretch the opposition, but also it is a poor starting position to counterpress from.

If a defender steps out, there is nobody in a more advanced position to attack the space behind him.

Also the distances between he players are not as good as they could be. If Sainsbury would dribble in wider, he would open more passing angles. If Risdon would start from a deeper position he would offer more security, and also an extra pass option in case Leckie receives between the lines.

Due to the space being limited between the lines of Hungary, and due to Leckie trying to move away from the fullback stepping out, he could only receive and get in front of the midfield line. By then Risdon was already in a so advanced position that he had to stop and step back. This prevented him from receiving the pass in front of him, on the run and beating the fullback with a dynamic advantage. As he could have if he started his run later.

Also the positioning of the double pivot can be a problem for Australia. Normally the two players stand wider from each other, and on different vertical lines compared to the central defenders. In certain situations the two holding midfielders stand too close to each other on the ball side.

Leckie runs behind the fullback.png

Due to the starting positions, the run of Leckie is read by the central defender. Meanwhile there is nobody in the centre between the lines. Mooy and Rogic are in the same position. Rogic could push higher, and threaten to make a run from between the lines.

The Rogic role

Against Hungary Rogic constantly stands between the two central midfielders If the ball is between the two central defenders or holding midfielders during circulation. This works surprisingly well, as the Hungarian midfielders stand very close to each other, not really covering the half space at all.

As a result a large space appear in the Hungarian midfield, between the central midfielder and the winger. This has two positive effects:

  • On the ball side there is space to make a pass breaking the lines.
  • At side changes with a quick sideways pass the opposite half space is open to make the pass forward.

Side changes, pass up to the halfspace open.pngEither Rogic can sprint into that space, or the winger can move back. However in the situation above both try to move into that space. A better movement pattern would be for one of them to run behind, and the other to move back. Especially since there is no pressure in the ball, and Hungary still leave enough space behind to be exploited.

The positioning of Rogic changed for the second half. Rogic started his runs more and more from behind the Hungarian central midfielders.

Rogic free Czech.pngThe positioning of Rogic in the middle was crucial against the Czech Republic as well. The Czech team defended a bit differently then Hungary. In the 4231 shape the striker took one of the central defenders. The three remaining midfielders took Mooy and Luongo man to man, but also the winger in the ballside halfspace. This way Rogic was free on the ballfar side. If the central defender stepped up prematurely to Rogic, the far side winger could make the run behind.

Conclusion

Australia have a simple system. However there are plenty of things they could improve when it comes to the application of the system. They can probably do enough to carve open a passive defence that lets them circulate the ball through the back four. But once the opponent starts utilising pressing triggers, and limits the time the central defenders can spend on the ball, it can get tricky. Especially with the width they leave between the back four.

They are in a difficult group. The smart money is on France to finish top. In my estimation the second place will be decided between Peru and Denmark. However Australia promise to be fun team to watch in the tournament.

 

 

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France: Shine on you crazy diamond

France are undoubtedly one of the strongest team in the competition. With a deep squad overloaded with talent and individual quality, they are one of the teams to watch this summer.

The team has a lot to make up for after the lost European Championships on home soil two years ago. The talent pool got a lot stronger, in fact I would struggle to pinpoint either position as their clear weakness.

However… the question is how those individuals will gel on the pitch.

The only question remains how their midfield will look. Pogba and Kante seems to have cemented their positions, and Griezmann is set to start as number 10. Who will join them in the midfield diamond remains a doubt.

France team shape

All in all the shape of the French team in ball circulation resembles more a 2332, or a 4132 depending on how we look at it. The fullbacks are pushing up quite high. Griezmann starts from the top of the diamond. He makes runs behind the defence, asks for the pass through the midfield line, or participates in reverse moves in the halfspace.

Basic structure France

France play in a stable structure during their ball circulation phase. When Umtiti has the ball Pogba moves out to the left side, Lucas pushes up between the lines. With Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele playing all very close to each other, this creates a 4 v 4 against the back four of Italy. On the ball far side the width is provided by Pavard.

Simple rules

The movement of France in ball circualtion can be written down with very simple rules:

  • The fullback has to push behind the midfield line if the ball is with any of the players in the first line of the buildup on his side.
  • The fullbacks occupy the whole width of the pitch.
  • One midfielder always in the central lane. Either between the central defenders or in front of the opponent’s midfield line.
  • Two midfielders higher than him, always moving in front of the midfield in the halfspace, or behind the Italian midfield, but always pulling to the outside of the opponent’s 8s.
  • Reverse movement between Griezmann and the inside 10s Dembele and Mbappe.

Let’s see some examples of these rules in action.

Griezmann

Griezmann plays as a number ten. Dembele and Mbappe make runs in the channels. Their roles are more vertical, while Griezmann also moves back off the shoulder of the defenders, and receives the ball between the lines if the passing lane opens up between the Italian midfielders. These moments occur mostly when Kante opens the passing lane with his positioning.

Kante opens the passing lane to Griezmann.png

Even if his first touch takes him in front of the midfield, Griezmann can hit accurate diagonals to the advancing fullback. The width the fullbacks provide gives France an option to always keep the ball, make the opponent shift sideways, therefore open up more space in the middle.

Mbappe is looking to run into the channel immediately. There are very few scenarios I would be more afraid of as a central defender than this one. The defender has to give depth to Mbappe to counter the speed advantage of the French youngster. Mbappe starts his run very early, even a slight lapse of concentration for the central defender can prove to be fatal. Not to mention that the defender also has top shift towards the ball while doing all of this. Not an easy task.

Variations in the starting positions of the attackers

Against the United States they payed in a 4321 formation, Mbappe and Griezmann close to each other under Giroud. Or the usual 4312, with Giroud and Mbappe wide in front of Griezmann. This was due to Giroud and Mbappe playing on either side of the American sidebacks.

The key in defending against France is maintaining pressure on the ball in midfield, and a compact backline where the players constantly support each other. Otherwise the likes of Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele time their runs excellently and find the free spaces if the defender stepping out from the backline is not properly supported.

Fullbacks and diagonals

With very little pressure on the ball in the deep halfspaces, and the fullbacks pushing up, the French team can always switch the play from one side to the other. Pogba and Tolisso are excellent at hitting these diagonal passes.

Griezmann starts from behind the 6The fullbacks serve as targets for diagonal balls. The trio of Griezmann, Dembele and Mbappe can immediately make the runs into the spaces between the defenders. The attacker on the ball side runs the channel, the other two attackers arrive in the middle. Tolisso moves under the ball on the right side, covering the space behind Pavard.

Midfielder moves under the ball

If the fullback can’t play forward immediately, the midfielder on the same side moves under the ball. At the pass back the attacker who attempted to run the channel moves towards the ball, At this moment a player can attack the space behind.

Pavard move back, Mbappe run behindDue to the positioning of Chiesa when Mandragora stepped up to press Tolisso, the wide passing lane to Pavard was open, as he moved back and pulled De Sciglio out Dembele could move in the reverse direction and run behind De Sciglio.

Kante and the 8s

Kante either pushes behind the Italian striker in the six space or plays between the central defenders. In the first case he might attract a midfielder with him, making the distance between the opponents bigger. This moment Griezmann can move back and receive between the lines. On the far side Dembele runs into the space on the outside of Griezmann’s defender. This prevents the defender from stepping out with Griezmann.

Tolisso pushes past the midfield.pngIn the midfield Pogba and Tolisso play outside of the Italian midfielders. They only have to decide whether to move in front of the Italian midfield, or to push behind the line. Tolisso pushes past the midfield when:

  1. Mbappe is not in the half space between the lines.
  2. The pass goes to the central defender on Tolisso’s side. This has the following positives:
  • The Italian 8 is less likely to press Varane.
  • Pavard, Mbappe and Tolisso create a 3 v 2 against the Italian winger and fullback.
  • Suddenly the Italian back four has 4 attackers to deal with. But there is Pavard as the extra man wide. If the defenders play far from each other to have better access to the wide space and the midfielders stay narrow to prevent passes to the feet of the strikers Pavard can receive wide. If the midfield is wide, the passes to the feet of the attackers are possible.

Attacking processes vs a back five: The curious role of Matuidi

 

Metuidi starts from wide when Umtiti dribbles in.png

Kante constantly moved back between the two central defenders in the buildup phase against the USA. This allowed the central defenders to open up wide and dribble into the game in an area where the USA team shape gave them poor access to the ball.

Mendy stayed deep, as the 8 moved out to him. This way they created a 2 v 1 with Umtiti on the number 8. Matuidi started from a wide position, pulling the wingback out with him. Meanwhile Giroud was on the shoulder of the sideback, this way a player running into the wide space immediately created an overload. However in this situation Mbappe is too far from this space to make a run.

Matuidi run from deep - 27th min.pngThe Americans couldn’t press Mendy due to his distance from the midfield. It also didn’t help that the wingback always stayed in the backline instead of pushing up to press Mendy. Not to mention that the whole team was too long.

The central defenders always stayed on one line. They could not support each other and take up runners from deep positions. Matuidi took advantage of this with excellently timed runs on the outside of the right sideback. Giroud was on the ball side of this defender, which prevented the defender from taking up the run of Matuidi.

Griezmann run through 36th minThe French attempted to double up on the midfielder attacking Umtiti. For example by Matuidi moving back, therefore also opening the space for Mendy to attack. Umtiti is excellent at beating his opponent even when he gets pressured. He can dribble diagonally, with Pogba waiting free on the other side. Then he can play the long pass to Griezmann making the run behind the defence. Griezmann gets free after making the reverse move with Matuidi.

Giroud and Mbappe often positioned themselves in the opponent’s defence, on the outside of the two sidebacks. This sometimes increased the distance between the American central defenders to the point that Griezmann could run free behind the defence.

Conclusion

France have one of the best talent pools and squad depth in the tournament. With their diamond midfield the formation seems to suit the players available at Deschamp’s disposal. They are one of the teams to watch this summer.

Portugal: Excellent patterns from top attacking talent

Normally there is a lot of hype and expectation surrounding the current European Champions at the World Cup. This is not so much the case now.

It is almost like still nobody believes Portugal won the Euros. Or  they can go far in the tournament again. Even though the attacking talent of the team got a lot better in the last two years. The question marks are over the backline. When a 36 years old central defender from Rangers has a realistic shot of a starting place in your team…you are in trouble. No disrespect to Rangers, or Bruno Alves.

Possible starting eleven PortugalTheir basic formation is a 4231 with narrow attacking midfielders. Ronaldo moves across the width of the opponent’s backline, and even steps back in the half space. This makes it rather a 4222-esque formation.

Circulation tendencies

The Moutinho and Carvalho are their most active players in the first phase of ball circulation. One of them moves to the deep half space, the other pushes a little bit higher in the central space. The two of them always move in reverse directions vertically. If one pushes up, closer to the opponent’s midfield, the other moves back.  For Algeria this caused a defensive problem they were unable to solve. If the central striker moved back with Moutinho, then Carvalho could pass straight to Bruno Alves if playing through the lines was not possible on the ball side. If the striker pushed up to the central defenders and a midfielder moved up to Moutinho,  suddenly more space appeared in the midfield for a striker to step back.

Against Tunesia Adrien Silva was the midfield pair of Carvalho. Adrien Silva played the role differently than Moutinho. They were constantly changing positions with Bernardo Silva.

In that game Joao Mario demonstrated excellent ability to escape pressure in the midfield by dribbling and pass to a free attacker between the lines. Him and Adrien Silva worked in opposite roles. If one moved in front of the opponent’s midfield the other played between the lines. Mario is an excellent dribbler, but without the ball he is a more stationary player who doesn’t attack the spaces, holes in between the defenders.

Buildup through Moutinho moving in front of the midfield - 9th min v Algeria.png

 

The positioning of the fullbacks is very conservative. Normally when a midfielder moves between the fullback and the central defender the fullback pushes up between the lines, becoming a winger. Not the case with Portugal.

Soares and Guerreiro start from in front of the opponent’s midifeld line, or on the same line. They make the run forward only when a forward pass breaks the line. This ways Portugal has five players in front of the opponent’s team shape, covering its whole width. This approach makes for a controlled possession game. Long sideways passes that can serve as pressing triggers for the opponent are never to be seen.

They are very patient in possession, waiting for the moment when the chance opens up for a risk-free pass through the lines.

Fullback dynamics

When Carvalho receives the ball in the deep left half space, Bernardo always attacks the channel, pulling the fullback with him. If the pass is not on, they play to Soares through Pepe. Due to the Soares starting from close to the central defenders, Pepe can pass in front of Soares, who receives the ball on the run past the midfield. If the opponent doesn’t shift quickly enough to the ball side while remaining compact, their fullback is in a difficult situation. He might step out too early, which gives the chance for Bernardo to turn behind him, and for Soares to find him with the ball.

Bernardo run through - 49th minute v Algeria.pngAt these side changes Bernardo might move just outside the opponent’s wide midifelder – Uruguay operate with similar movements. With Soares they are 2 v 2 against the fullback and the wide midfielder. Ronaldo and Guedes keep the channel open. This way after the pass to Soares Bernardo can become the third man by running through the channel. If the six of the opponent got attracted by the run of Bernardo, the centre opened up for Guedes.

Leaving out the centre in possession

Change of sides and pass up through the halfspace - 18th min v Algeria.pngPortugal have a very halfspace focused possession game. The central zone is almost entirely left free, only one of the holding midfielder stays there, standing int he six space. However nobody occupies the central space between the lines permanently.

Guedes starts from the back of the opponent’s six, making forward runs if the central defenders gets too far form each other. If the ball is in the deep half space, the farside central defender moves into the half space on the other side. This way the moment he receives the ball, he can pass the ball between the lines immediately.

A triangle waits for the pass through the midfield. Guedes moves back and receives the ball behind the midfield at a diagonal angle. Guerreiro immediately overlaps, and Ronaldo makes the run while giving maximum pass angle to Guedes. If the starting positions and the communication between the opponent’s fullback and winger are not working, these runs are impossibly to defend.

Run behind the space of the fullback and run int he central zone - 36th minute.pngIf the pass to Fernandes is not on, the ball can go to Guerreiro. If the fullback steps out to press him, the space appears in the backline to make the run into. The central defender of the opponent on the far side always has to make a decision. Either come more to the ball side, or the space in the middle opens up for Guedes to make the run into. Portugal scored their second goal from exactly this attacking process.

Short distances between the attackers

Bernardo marked by the fullback, Ronaldo makes the run behind him.pngThe narrow 4231 formation allows for a lot of different reverse movements, positional changes between the attackers.

Soares was always available as a free passing option, if the fullback pushed up to Bernardo.  In that case Ronaldo immediately made the run behind the fullback, and Guedes ran forward into the space opened by Ronaldo. Soares had to receive far enough from the opponent’s wide midfielder to have time to play a ball into space for Ronaldo.

Ronaldo moves deeper between the lines - 17th min v Algeria.pngSilva makes the run from the pass of Carvalho 17th min.png The triangle of Ronaldo, Guerreiro and Carvalho keeps the ball, meanwhile the six of the opponent shifts to close the ballside halfspace. Now the central defender has to take over the run of Guedes, and Bernardo Silva can run into the space opened between the central defender and the fullback.

 

Bernardo Silva move back, Joao upAgainst two strikers William Carvalho moves between the two central defenders. Joao Mario and Adrien Silva push behind the two central midfielders of the opponent, pulling them apart. Bernardo Silva moves back in the space between these two central midfielders for the diagonal pass.

When Pepe receives the ball they don’t give any short pass options on the side of the ball. The fullback is already overlapping, Joao Mario moves under the FB between the lines to collect the second ball. As soon as the ball is played forward Bernardo Silva also anticipates the second ball.

Narrow defensive shape

The midfield four defender very narrow. Andre Silva and Joao Mario started from the six space, Bernardo Silva and Quaresma started higher than Carvalho and Adrien Silva in the centre. Especially Quaresma, who played closer to the Tunisian fullback on his side, preventing passes to him from the middle.

Central focused defence.pngTheir centre focus and narrow defensive shape can be demonstrated with this instance. Andre Silva marked the six, Joao Mario pressed the sideways pass between the two central defenders. He tried to press from the outside, to prevent a pass wide to the fullback. Meanwhile Ricardo Pereira moved higher to have better access to the fullback. Bernardo watched the first touch of the player receiving the ball. If he takes the ball inside, he has to cover the passing lane on the inside of Joao Mario. If he takes the ball outside, he might have to cover the diagonal passing lane from the fullback in case Joao Mario can’t prevent the pass to the fullback.

Defending the diagonal.pngAt diagonals the midfield shifts slowly. The central defenders remain 2 v 1 against the striker in the centre. The space behind Guerreiro pressing the winger is not defended well. Especially with Quaresma on that side, who is not known for his defensive discipline. Quaresma has a too high starting position, he prevents the ball on the ground to the fullback, instead of defending from the inside. That way he would cover the space behind the fullback better and he would have a better chance of stopping him from overlapping.

Conclusion

The Portuguese team improved in attacking talent compared to the one that won the Euros two years ago. Their safe approach in possession is the right one for tournament football.

A second place finish behind Spain is most likely in the group. Then a close encounter with a strong, organised Uruguay team. As Ronaldo said before the team travelled to Russia, in football anything can happen and they just have to give themselves a chance. The team is certainly strong enough to do that.

And on a personal note, I have sweetspot for Raphael Guerreiro. I would love to see as much of him on the pitch as possible, since he didn’t feature much for Dortmund this year. For that very selfish reason, I hope Portugal go very-very far in the tournament.

 

 

 

Uruguay: Ultra safe possession game with wide overloads

It is often hard to predict lineups of international teams. The gameplan is often not as detailed as with club sides. The coaches have less time to spend with their teams, and there can new faces introduced almost every game due to changes of form or injuries. With Oscar Tabarez in the role for twelve years now, this is clearly not the case with Uruguay.

Uruguay likely starting 11.pngTheir lineup is a mixture between 442/4222. Their obvious strength lies up front with Cavani and Suarez. The midfield and the wingers are creative, with the fullbacks ready to overlap. This results in a safe possession game, dominating possession, with most of the chances created from the wide areas.

Nandez and Arrascaeta find moments to rotate inside to the half spaces. This opens the space wide, and gives extra pass options for layoff passes from Cavani and Suarez.

The two matches I analysed for this preview were the recent game against Uzbekistan, and the friendly against Austria. The former was particularly interesting, as Suarez was not in the lineup.

Ball Circulation – Movement of the Wide Players

Option 1: Play starting in front of the opponent’s wide midfielder in the halfspace

Nandez overlap - 7th min v Uzbekistan.pngThe two central defenders don’t dribble into the game much, in circulation rather Vecino moves back to make the pass that breaks the line. Even against opponents playing with one striker.

Cavani and Suarez often play relatively wide, starting from between the opponent’s central defender and fullback.  The wide players double up on the winger of the opponent in a deep position.

This has multiple advantages:

  1. Moving out of the cover shadow of the central midfielder stepping out to press Vecino.
  2. Good starting position to run into the space behind the fullback if he tries to press the wide player.
  3. Close distance and easy layoff passes to the winger who rotates into he halfspace.
  4. Two forwards can occupy the whole back four.

When Vecino receives the ball Nandez is already in front of the opponent’s wide midfielder, horizontally very close to him. Pereira is higher and next to the line.

This starting position provides stability, safety while it is also a good starting position to make overlaps from.

  1. Nandez was close to the midfield in case they lost the ball, he was in a prime position to counterpress.
  2. With a central midfielder moving out to press Vecino, the left winger of them had the following choice to make:
    1) Cover the space next to the midfielder pressing. In this case the ball could go straight to Pereira. Suarez or Nandez could run behind the pressing fullback.
    2) Stay wider, in which case the pass to Suarez was on. 

The moment the pass forward is made Nandez sprints forward to attack the space behind the fullback moving out to press Perreira.

Option 2: Striker/winger reverse runs from narrow starting positions

Wide 1 v 1 - 51th minute v Uzbekistan.pngThis was another example of Uruguay’s ultra safe structure in circulation.

Vecino and Bentancur drop deep, even they are In front of the strikers of Uzbekistan.

The fullbacks are on both sides outside of the wingers of the opponent, the wingers pull inside a little bit. The moment the fullback receives the ball from the central defender the striker makes the run behind the fullback. If the pass forward is not on, Vecino rotates under the ball in the halfspace, and has two pass options: 

  1. Cavani steps back a little bit off the central defender, and the pass through the lines is on.
  2. Meanwhile Nandez runs on the inside of the fullback, diagonal ball behind the defence is on. 

Run on far side 51th minute - Uzbekistan .pngAnother frequent tactical weapon they use is the runs into the channel from either a striker or Nandez the moment Vecino is free on the ball in the deep halfspace. Cavani steps back, trying to give a pass option to Vecino stepping back a little bit. Meanwhile Nandez would make the run on the inside of the far side fullback.

Halfspace, winger dynamic when opponent presses - 56th minute v Uzbekistan.pngIf the opponent attempts to press passes back to the central defenders, the two central defenders and two holding midfielders might get under pressure. Usually the space opens up between the midfield and the defence of the opponent, due to them being uncomfortable in pushing out the defence against Cavani and Suarez. 

Due to the narrow starting positions of Nandez and Arrascaeta the opponent plays 1 v 1 across the last line. If the central midfielders want to push up and press 1 v 1 in midfield the space opens up totally in between the lines, making the defenders play in a large space against individually superior players. In this example Nandez steps back between the lines. Suarez gains space as the central defender attempts to leave him and cover behind the fullback. Meanwhile Pereira makes the run forward.

Vecino receives past the two strikers - 12th minute v AustriaHere the two 8s pull the Austrian 8s apart, Vecino receives behind the strikers. Cavani steps back a little to receive in the open passing lane, and more importantly to open the space for Arrasceta to run into.

We have to dedicate a few worlds to Vecino. The International midfielder has an excellent ability to beat the midfielders who are late in pressing him. Vecino can use his press resistance and dribbling to beat players who are not supported by the rest of their team in their pressing endeavours. He is also the main creative force in the team’s possession. He has the responsibility to make the pass breaking the lines in most situations.

Option 3: Individual dismarking of the winger

Individual dismarking - 2nd minute v Austria.pngWhen the ball is in front of the opponent’s midfield line they always have a player in their first line of the buildup in the wide or half space. This is normally the fullback, but due to rotations the winger or a central midfielder can fill this position temporarily,

If the fullback gets pressured next to the line the winger gives him a pass option. With individual dismarking the winger can step back into the space between the lines or run behind the defence depending on the situation.

4132 structure - 7th minute v Austria This individual dismarking of the winger works also when Vecino steps back for the ball. The far side winger – Urretaviscaya – pushes up, Cavani comes under the long ball between the lines.

The constant dummy runs of Urretaviscaya into the space behind pushes back the defence. This creates more space for Cavani to move between the lines.

Option 4: Counter-clockwise rotation to break the midfield line

Fullback dynamic.pngFullback dynamic 2The fullback asks for the ball in a shallow position. The winger moves back, while the midfielder starts from closer to his own goal. When the winger drops to receive from the fullback the 8 runs into the space opened wide. After the initial pass the fullback can move diagonally inside and receive back. The whole movement looks like a counter-clockwise rotation.

When the fullback receives inside, he has three pass options:

  1. Striker in the same side halfspace.
  2. Midfielder on the other side.
  3. Player on the shoulder of the far side fullback. The farside fullback is already looking to make the overlap if this option happens.

What is the upside of players moving back and creating overloads/rotations in shallower positions? The big positive of the wingers constantly moving back so close to the first line of the buildup and then making forward runs from there is:

  • They can arrive full speed into overload situations higher up the pitch.
  • If the opponent uses zonal defence: If they start a forward run in front of the opponent’s midfield, they immediately create a crisis situation for them. Should a player from the midfield track their run? Should a defender signal to take them over?
  • They spend most of the time behind the ball line, this makes it an ultra safe approach.
  • They reduce the access of their marker to the ball. This is particularly important against man marking.
  • If the fullback doesn’t follow them, they can double up on the winger of the opponent, and keep the ball, circulate it as a defensive approach.
  • Running forward and receiving a diagonal pass: If the forward run before the diagonal is made at the right moment, then the receiver is likely to be without pressure (during the run) and receive the ball in a place where the fullback has no access to him yet – lofted diagonals work best.

Defensive issues

Cavani disjointed from rest of team shape, open halfspace.pngCavani is too far from the rest of the team shape in defence. This leaves the six space open. The deep midfielder and the far side central defender can double up on the Uruguayan 8 stepping out to press.

When the six has the ball the winger on the other side stands man oriented.  In fact they defend man to man on the side of the ball too.

Due to the man orientation of the wingers, quick changes of sides in front of the midfield, and then passing through the half space work wonders against them.

Austria wide dismarking.pngIn this moment the positioning of the midfield is off. Bentancour and Vecino are on the same line. Urretaviscaya is not in a good position either. Neither close enough to take out the fullback from the game, nor covering the passing lane to the winger. Perreira too far to put pressure on the vertical pass. If Vecino were closer to the defence, and diagonal to the winger, he would be able to help Perreira, cover the space behind him a little bit, and create a 3 v 2 situation behind the ball, and maintain better diagonal compactness. 

Central defender dribbles in - 8th minute.png As in the picture, the central midfielder and the central defender are 2 v 1 against the Uruguayan 8. Through this extra player quick changes of sides or passes through the lines are possible.

In this same situation above the Austrian winger moves back very close to the midfield. In these situations Urretaviscaya tucks inside, and Perreira moves out to press once the Austrian fullback receives the ball. Meanwhile a striker can attack the space behind Perreira, pulling the Uruguayan central defender into a wide position.

Uruguay don’t try to press long sideways passes in front of their midfield. They are rather passive in their defensive approach. They maintain compactness, but they don’t really try to execute organised movements to win he ball.

Conclusion

Uruguay have most things you need to go far in a tournament. Organised team, solid tactics, cohesion between coach and team, individual quality.

I would not be surprised if they would finish on top of group A. After that a game against Portugal might follow. Looking at both teams, I am not sure I would fancy the current European champions in that encounter.

Uruguay are certainly good enough to make a match against most teams in the tournament a close encounter. That gives the team a chance to go far and pull off another surprise finish. Just like eight years ago.

Russia: Hosts, question marks, low expectations

Russia is a weird team to profile. There was a lot of talk, and a whatever it takes attitude toward making the national team successful. They even talked of starting the national team as a club side in their own national competition. However the big plans did not come to fruition. They will start the tournament with an ageing and injury-ridden squad.  

Many players are absent with injuries, who might have expected to start this summer. In defence Vasin and Dzikhiya will be missing. This lead to the call up of 38 year old Sergei Ignashevich.

Kokorin – considered the country’s top attacking talent – will be watching the tournament from the stands. Meanwhile Dzyuba, a prolific striker and top attacking talent in Andre Villas-Boas’s Zenit saw his career slow down and spent the last months on loan at Arsenal Tula

Cheryshov played a back three (3421) with the national team for most of his tenure, due to the preference of most Russian club teams to play with a back three. However in recent pre-world cup friendlies they fielded a back four. They started in a 442 shape against Turkey, and a 433 against Austria.

How strong are they?

The midfielders lack mobility, the wingbacks will hardly beat anyone 1 v 1, the attack is rather static and ball movement far too wobbly and slow. Very few of their players seem special on the world stage.

So how about the sum of the players? The qualities of the individuals do not seem to click and complement each other apart from a few partnerships. Doesn’t sound very good, does it? 

The side will struggle to score goals, with a lack of organised movements and very few players who are special on the world stage. However their group draw is very easy, and progressing from the group is possible. Getting past the last 16 would be a huge surprise, as both likely opponents Portugal and Spain are far better quality. 

Tactical Trends in the Friendlies

One of their players who might be worth watching is 22-year old Aleksandr Golovin. He played as a winger throughout his youth career, but switched to a deep playmaker role under the current CSKA Moscow coach. He was back on the left wing against Turkey. In the middle Dzagoev and Smolov started as the striker partnership.  

Structure at cross 2nd ball - 24th minute TurkeyBased on this one friendly I don’t think Golovin’s best position is on the left wing. Even if he got an initial advantage over the fullback, he had to pull back the ball on his right foot. This caused problems for the strikers in the timing of their runs.

The moment he cut back the ball on his right the initial advantage for the strikers in the middle was gone. The defenders had  more time to settle, take their reference points. Now the defenders could push out and attack the ball instead of having to clear the ball while retreating. Not to mention that bringing a hard cross to the first post with the right foot is very difficult if not impossible from this close to the line. Such crosses are easier for the goalkeeper to collect.

Even if chance creation from the initial cross was difficult, their structure for collecting the second ball/clearance was decent. Instead of attacking the far post, Samedov moved in front of the box, Zobnin and Gazinskiy took different lines in the central zone. 

Samedov – mobility on the right wing

Samedov often asked for the ball inside, between the lines. As the ball was switched to him Smolnikov made the overlap with full speed. The fullback was eager to get forward.

Samedov moves deeper, one striker wide - 43. minute v Turkey.pngSometimes Samedov moved in  front of the Turkish midfielders. The roles about which Turkish player should go with him, or how to defend him in these moments were not clear. The central midfielder on this side stepped out, leaving too much space between the lines. Meanwhile the fullback also moved out, but in a position that was totally inaffectual. He left space wide, while not gaining any access to the ball. Smolov could be isolated 1 v 1 against the Turkish central defender.

Despite his good initial movement without the ball he failed to capitalise on it. He is neither the player to beat an opponent with dribbling and speed in these situations, and was too heavily reliant on his right foot to thread a final pass through to Dzagoev arriving from behind,making a run through to the goal in the blindside of the ball far central defender.

Overloads and collecting second balls after goalkicks

Long goalkick, 2nd ball - 52nd minute v TurkeySamedov’s inside positioning creates the extra man to collect second balls after goal kicks. With the Turkish midfielder caught between him and Gazinskiy, there is an extra man on the ball side for collecting the second balls. Meanwhile Dzagoev and Smolov play off each other, one making the aerial duel, the other attacking the space behind the defence.

Meanwhile Samedov and Gazinskiy press and collect the ball that bounces back. Smolnikov presses the winger very aggressively from behind. Smolnikov was eager to press forward and make use of every pressing trigger. Not only was he active in overlapping in attack, but he demonstrated a level of proactiveness and aggressivity in pressing the ball that is rare to see in international football.

Team Defending

Problem with distance between central defenders - 7th min v Turkey.pngIn their own third they play a narrow 4411 system. Their issues are with the distance between the two central defenders when the fullback moves out to press the opponent’s wide player – in this case the fullback coming up. Ignashevich moves out to the halfspace, Kutepov is too far from the striker.

The far side central midfielder – Zobnin – is not sliding back to close the space between the two central defenders. The ball side central midfielder is not covering the passing lane to the striker.

Not to mention that Golovin is not very active in pressing backwards and applying pressure on the wing in case the ball surpasses him.

Central midfielder has to step out in the halfspace - 48th min v Turkey.pngAs with most  international sides, the defending of the strikers can be an issue. They can leave the midfield unprotected. This combined with the width of their midfield line due to the man orientation of their wingers on the fullbacks can cause a real issue. The central midfielders have to cover too much space, as they have to step out to press in the halfspaces.

The two strikers often start defending too far from the midfield line. They can’t put pressure on the ball in the halfspace, they get isolated and they can’t cover the passing lane to the six space from the deep halfspace. Due to the distance between Zobnin and Gazinskiy, it is easy to double up in the midfield on the player who attempts to press in the halfspace. 

Their defending in the wide areas can be exploited too. Golovin’s lack of closing back once the ball got past him caused problems. One example of this came in the 54th minute, when Zobnin moved wide to track the player who made the run behind the fullback stepping out on the winger. Golovin didn’t close back to the central midfield position, this space was used by the fullback to overlap and make a free cross.  

Basic mistake in the workings of a back 4 - 59th min v Turkey.pngIn some moments the back four looks very shaky, especially when it comes to deciding when to take which reference point. For example here Malli can make a free run, Smolnikov is too far from the central defenders. The midfielders are too far from the last defender on the picture. Either Kutepov doesn’t have to step out, a midfielder has to track the run of Malli or the fullback has to be in that space. Any of these solutions can work.

This situation arose after a hopeful clearance from the goalkeeper. A pretty straightforward, easy to read situation for a well organised defence. But they looked anything but that.

So back 5 or back 4?

Although after playing two World Cup friendlies with a back four starting again with a back five would be surprising, but still certain moments might be useful in highlighting the individual qualities or certain tactical issues of the Russian team.

Attacking Processes in 3421

The game against France featured their preferred 3421 formation. Golovin played as one of the deep playmakers in front of the back five.

In the buildup phase France played with a narrow 433. The winger attacked the Russian sideback when he attempted to dribble into the game. In this moment Golovin only had to step out of the cover shadow to receive the ball free past the first line of the French defence. 

Russia attempted runs from midfield the moment the fullback stepped out to the wingback, a fairly common tactical occurrence if a back five and a back four meet. 

Attacking the space behind the fullback v France - 6th min.pngThe moment the French fullback stepped out to the wingback, an attacking midfielder – Erokhin in this case – made the run behind.  The larger the distance between the central defender and the fullback, the more effective these runs are. Or if the central defender is occupied, he might support behind the fullback too late and the Erokhin can get an advantage with his run. In this particular instance Miranchuk moved back in front of the defensive midfielder, so there was no manipulation of the backline, the central defender could simply let him go.

Lack of movement from players in advanced lines

Not to mention that the ball circulation was slow, so the French backline was already compact when Golovin received the ball. They were not stretched by having to shift from one side to the other all the time. 

In other cases the problem was more severe than the movement of certain players. Sometimes nobody attacked the space behind. With such static attacking players the team was easy to defend.

After a while Mbappe started defending from Golovin instead of pushing out to Neustadter. The ex-German-became-Russian central defender was pressed by the young Frenchman only at backwards passes or slow sideways passes.  However the French team often didn’t move up together, or in the right moments.

Zhirkov as a wingback

Ball wide to Zhirkov - v France 15th minute.png One of such instances was when Golovin passed back to the sideback. Dembele and Mbappe pressed on the ball side, but Erokhin could rotate into the free space left by Dembele. The 4 players in midfield created a 4 v 3 overload, which left the far side holding midfielder free. Erokhin could quickly change the play out wide to Zhirkov with the French team concentrated in the middle.

This particular instance showed how Zhirkov is unlikely to provide a serious attacking threat. Even though he had large free space in front of him, and from the Erokhin’s body position the pass could have been expected, still Zhirkov didn’t attack the space without the ball. He only started running forward after the ball was on its way. Despite the positional disadvantage of Pavard, he read the pass far sooner and could start his run earlier, taking away the initial advantage of Zhirkov.

Could be better pass angle to Zhirkov - France 16th minute.pngThis situation showed how the Russian team was too conservative in their ball circulation. Zhirkov didn’t attack the space in front of him aggressively enough while the French team shifted over. Meanwhile Kudryashov didn’t use the ball or his body to manipulate the pressing angle of Dembele, and create a better passing lane to Zhirkov. By simply dribbling into the game, or dropping his shoulder he could have created a much better passing angle to Zhirkov. 

Instead of passing in front of the French team shape, he could pass diagonally through behind Dembele, and release Zhirkov. But Zhirkov didn’t make the run forward either. 

 

Conclusion

Overall a team which was put together more in mind with who was available rather than a clear gameplan in mind. Most of the team is ageing, and the synergy between the players on the pitch is not without flaws.

However they are in an easy group. Progressing from the group is all that can be expected from this team.

Schalke – Dortmund: Changing Times, aka Dortmund Has No Rest Defence

 

Schalke - Dortmund starting 11s.pngSchalke started with a 532, while Dortmund in their regular 4231. This time Konoplyanka was picked to play alongside Burgstaller, probably due to his speed and dribbling against the slow Papasthatopoulos. Harit moved to central midfield, accompanied by Goretzka and Bentaleb behind them. For Dortmund Reus started behind Batshuayi, with Pulisic and Philipp on the two sides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dortmund’s Defensive Issues

Bentaleb in the middle was crucial as to opening passing lanes free to Burgstaller and Goretzka. 

The visitors often defended in a 4231 shape, without much regard to the position of the ball. However in most cases the length and the width of the team made it impossible to prevent passes played between their lines.

Bentaleb had a crucial role in the ball circulation of Schalke. He played in front the back three. Either changing the sides by staying behind the ball in one of the half spaces, or pulling Reus to himself, and thus opening the pass to Burgstaller . When Stambouli dribbled in with the ball, Goretzka – the ball side midfielder – pushed higher, onto the outside of Toprak.  Caligiuri moved back close to the ball next to the line.

With Philipp always covering the pass from Stambouli to Caligiuri, Schmelzer moved a little bit out of the back four. This was unnecessary, as in these moments Caligiuri was in a lot less dangerous position to the goal than Burgstaller, and Schmelzer was too far to press him even if he received the ball.

Stambouli pass up.pngMeanwhile Konoplyanka stayed on the far side, next to the line. This opened slightly more space for Harit between Papasthatopoulos and Piszczek.

The staggering between the Dortmund players was awful. Often defenders and midfielders were standing on the same vertical lines. As a result Papasthatopoulos was not in the correct starting position to press the pass from Stambouli to Burgstaller. 

By moving under the ball to change the sides Bentaleb often pulled Reus with him. After passing in front of Stambouli, the space was there for the French sideback to dribble in diagonally.

The lack of vertical compactness was a serious issue for Durtmund in the first half. Schmelzer would have to run too much to press Caligiuri. If Philipp pressed Caligiuri then Bentaleb could move under the ball in the half space and receive. In these moments Reus and Batshuayi were too far from the rest of the team to support Philipp in pressing.

In attack that 3133 shape sometimes became asymmetric, with Harit moving out to the left half space between the lines in case Dahoud and Sahin closed the space in front of the defence. From there they were 3 v 2 on Papa and Schmelzer.

If Dahoud and Sahin were close to each other and shielding passes to Burgstaller and Goretzka, then Harit could move freely in the left half space. Komoplyanka kept Piszczek back, and Schopf overlapped the moment Harit received the ball through the lines, creating a 3 v 2 situation against Sokratis and Piszczek.

Rest Defence and Transition Moments

Dortmundruns missing in counterattacks

All the runs Dortmund could have made…but didn’t

Even if the pass was intercepted, in the central areas Burgsteller, Harit and Goretzka always hunted for the ball, while the two wingbacks closed back to form a 2+3 structure, with the two central defenders very close to each other. Even though Schalke managed these transition moments excellently, Dortmund didn’t really make it hard for them. The visitors didn’t attempt to pull the central defenders apart with diagonal runs from Batshuayi or Reus. Pulisic and Philip didn’t make full speed vertical runs into the space between the central defender and the wingback to gain advantage of the transition moment. 

Early Schalke Counterattacks

Schopf counter.pngSchalke had two early counterattacks through Schopf on the left side. While Schopf was dribbling up, Konoplyanka pulled wide.  Harit made fast runs between the two central defenders, taking away Sahin. This created two choice for Schopf. Either pass to Konoplyanka for the cross. Or cut inside and shoot with his right.  Meanwhile Burgstaller pulled on the blind side of Toprak to open as much space in the middle as possible. Also Scmelzer had to decide to move inside to take away the space of Burgstaller or leave Caligiuri free to arrive at the second post with a late run.

Rest defence and leaving Toprak alone with Burgstaller

At the back Dortmund would control counterattacks unbelievably poorly. The space between Toprak and Papasthatopoulos was constantly too big. Schmelzer was often too far from Toprak, leaving the former to play 1 v 1 against Burgstaller at long balls. Even so, Toprak didn’t do himself any favours with his starting positions. He allowed Burgstaller to start from his inside and run behind him diagonally and race for balls played into the corner.

If Burgstaller dropped deep, Toprak didn’t follow him, and Sahin didn’t take him over. When Burgstaller moved back, Konoplyanka immediately ran diagonally between the two central defenders. These runs very very dangerous due to the large distance between Papasthatopoulos and Toprak. At the same time Goretzka ran into the space behind Schmelzer. The whole backline of Dortmund was far too wide to effectively deal with these runs, not to mention the lack of vertical compactness. When Burgstaller dropped in front of Sahin, none of the attacking midfielders were close enough to make a sandwich. After Burgstaller passed on the ball, he also attacked the space between the central defenders, but nobody tracked his run. Actually, a whole article could be dedicated to the problems of Dortmund in rest defence.

Pressing Schmelzer and Second Balls

When the ball went to Toprak, Caligiuri stepped up enough to allow a pass to Schmelzer and press it. Meanwhile Goretzka marked Dahoud on the ball side, and tracked his run from midfield. The back three was very narrow, with Bentaleb in front of them.

Burgstaller always closed the space in front of Toprak. If Scmelzer dropped too deep, Burgstaller pressed the pass to the fullback from the side. If Schmelzer was a bit far from Toprak vertically, Burgstaller always dropped back to the line of the ball to prevent passes to Shin in the six space.

Schopf was higher than the defenders, on the same line as Bentaleb. Meanwhile the far side winger was left completely free, but on the ball side they were very compact. The back three could support behind each other at long balls, with Schopf and Bentaleb a line higher to collect second balls and start counterattacks.

Schopf’s slightly higher positioning left Pulisic open on the far side. In one instance Batshuayi tried to change the sides, but this instance showed excellently why this slightly higher positioning from the far side wingback was not an issue. Due to the compactness around the ball, any attempt to play diagonals was pressed by multiple players, and Schopf had time to move back and cover if needed. With the two lines close together, Schalke could collapse on any second balls won by Dortmund between the lines.

The Opening Goal

This was a perfect example of the effectiveness of Schalke’s defending… and at the same time of the open structure of Dortmund in ball possession. Players too far from each other, with no regard to balance whatsoever. After the ball was switched to the left side, Piszczek didn’t close back to the space next to Papasthatopoulos. The three midfielders were too far from each other. Sahin was still on the far side of the central space, Dahoud far too high on the pitch. Burgstaller pulled Toprak away from the ball. Papasthatopoulos stepped out too early, and Konoplyanka started his run off the back of Sahin. Apropo, Sahin. He attacked Caligiuri from the wrong angle, not closing the way to the goal. Not to mention that he didn’t attempt to make a tactical foul when he had the chance to make contact with Caligiuri and stop the counterattack.

The way Schalke’s attackers ran into the open spaces was a stark contrast to the lack of attacking runs made by Dortmund’s attackers in similar situations.

Other Pressing Triggers

Long distance passes from midfield back to the central defenders also served as pressing triggers. Schalke’s structure was so compact and they were pressing from such great angles that even if the first presser didn’t arrive to Papasthatopoulos in time, the Greek defender couldn’t pass through the press. Granted, he is not known for his excellent ability to build up the game…

Schalke press mid third.pngWhile the ball is going to Papasthatopoulos, Schopf moves up from Pulisic to press Pisczek for a vertical angle, meanwhile Kehrer is sliding out but steps back a bit to give depth in case Sokratis plays the ball long behind to Pulisic. The midfield trio are slides over. Bentaleb can take over the midfielder who might attempt to run behind.

The midfield trio are very close to each other so they can take runners behind. Also the free midfielder can take Pulisic if he moves inside. The smaller the distance is between Kehrer and Harit, the less space Pulisci has to receive the ball between the lines if he moves inside.

Defending overlaps

The close distance between the defenders and the midfielders prevented the Dortmund wingers from rotating inside and receiving the ball between the lines. If the winger dropped to ask for the ball  while the central defender dribbled forward, either Burgstaller or Harit took him over, while the wingback stayed in position to deal with the overlapping fullback. Anytime Schmelzer came up to cross on the overlap, Schalke had four defenders, plus Bentaleb in the box, with the Goretzka on the edge of the box ready to intercept cutbacks. 

The Next Fifteen Minutes After the Goal

After the goal Schalke continued defending the same way they did so far. They continued pressing the ball in an asymmetric 4132, with the wingback on the ball side moving up to the line of Goretzka and Harit to press the fullback. The rest defence of Dortmund continued to be a problem. Too wide backline, the holding midfielders standing on the same line vertically, and too far from the central defenders. 

In the 61th minute Harit beat Piszczek with his back to the goal. When he turned, Sokratis and Toprak were fifteen meters from him. The distance between Papasthatopoulos and Toprak was at least twenty meters. Konoplyanka immediately made a run wide, which pulled the two defenders even further apart. The route to the goal opened up for Harit.

Before Piszczek got beaten by Harit, he had to run up at least fifteen meters to meet with the young Schalke attacker. It is no wonder that he was late. Not to mention that due to a poor starting position he attacked Harit from an angle that let him turn towards the goal. Meanwhile neither Sahin nor Dahoud remained under the ball, to control the space in front of the central defenders.

Dortmund change to a 352

Dortmund 352.pngAfter 65 minutes Dortmund created chances from changing the sides from left to right, and playing in a 352 structure. Dahoud played higher and inside, Schurrle in the advanced left halfspace.

Sahin had space between the two Schalke strikers to change the sides and make Piszczek step into the game.

If Konoplyanka moved back with Piszczek, then Reus dropped on the outside of Harit to play a wall pass to Piszczek.

If the diagonal dribbling lane was open Pulisic could bring the ball inside, while Reus made a blind side run, and Dahoud a strong side run on either side of Kehrer. Dortmund created two chances from such diagonal dribbles of Pulisic.

Schalke Change to a 5221

Schalke change 5221.png With the introduction of McKennie and Pjaca Schalke changed to a 5221 which could become a 433 when the wingback ran out to press either Pulisic or Schmelzer.  If either Toprak or Schmelzer had the ball Pjaca and Harit were shielding the vertical pass in the half space. The first line of Schalke didn’t press the back three of Dortmund, they were just passively shielding forward passes, and letting passes to the side.

The two holding midfielders Bentaleb and McKennie always remained very close to each other, and also to the back three. If the wingback received the ball, one of the two midfielders always closed the diagonal pass in the halfspace, creating a 2 v 1 on either Reus or Schurrle together with the sideback Kehrer or Stambouli. If Reus or Schurrle dropped out to ask for the ball in the deep half space then the ball side holding midfielder remained with him, on the other side the midfielder closed back behind him.

If the sideback stepped out to a player, then due to the close distance from the defence and from each other one of the holding midfielders could step back into the space left open in the back five. 

Conclusion

This was again one of those games that showed how quickly fortunes change is football. Precise coaching with cohesive game plans can take a team with a not so strong squad a long way.

Watching Tedesco move constantly, applauding his players for attacking spaces behind the opponent even if the opponent ends up clearing the ball makes one feel real warmth towards him. Watching the body language of his players together with the tactical plan, one can understand their confidence. I am really curious to see if the coming years will be the time when Schalke build themselves up to Bundesliga powerhouses again.

Lazio 2017/18 Team Analysis

The Serie A has become one of the in-vogue leagues again. Thanks to the mouth watering football of Napoli, the strong international results of Juventus, and football of such sides as Sampdoria and Atalanta the league’s popularity among analysts and fans is on the rise again.

I recently spent an evening watching Europa League football, and the performance of Lazio caught my attention. With a blend of experience and youth, Italian internationals and previously forgotten midfielders Lazio are a special team. Thanks to the likes of Radu and Luis Felipe they are a joy to watch in the buildup. The runs of Immobile together with the positioning of Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto makes them very effective in attacking transitions.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of their key players, how they fit together. Let’s analyse aspects of their game and some recurring patterns.

Key Players

Although there is no time to analyse the tendencies of every Lazio player, certain players really warrant their own paragraphs. Those players who don’t get mentioned in this part of the article will be featured in the group and team tactical analysis in later parts of this post.

Strakosha in back 4.png

Their goalkeeper is the young Albanian Thomas Strakosha. He is excellent with his right foot, but rarely uses his left to build up the game. Lazio often start the buildup even against a full press by playing out to the right halfback on the edge of the box, with both De Vrij and Lucas pulling to the same side, before playing back to Strakosha who can now find Milinkovic-Savic in free space. In the circulation of Lazio if the sideback attempts to dribble in, but gets pressed by the striker, Strakosha is always in a position to receive the ball back, and quickly change to the other side.

Although many goalkeepers get comfortable if they are not pressed by the opponent in similar situations, Strakosha’s passes to switch the game to the other sideback are always strong and accurate, in front of the receiving sideback to promote stepping into the game.

By starting the game to one of the sidebacks they immediately move the opponent’s press, and with Strakosha always there they always have a free player to switch the sides.

After collecting long balls Strakosha can become an extra centre back. This way they have almost a back four to start building up the game.

The three central defenders are most often Luiz Felipe, De Vrij and Radu. In certain cases  Bastos, Wallace or Caceres can can come into the team.

Luiz Felipe is the most versatile across the back three.  He can play in the middle of the three or as the left sideback too. He can dribble in and attack the space with intensity. He can build up the game with both of his legs.

Luiz Felipe is probably one of the best defenders when it comes to dribbling into the game. With an excellent ability to cut the ball a little bit across his body and change the direction of his dribbling he can manipulate the positioning of the defenders. Certain players who think the pass is not possible anymore might slightly leave their man and follow the direction of the ball. This way more space is created around the player whom they used to mark, and this player gets out of the cover shadow without moving, just by the dribbling of Luiz Felipe.

Lukaku coming inside, Luis Felipe dribbles in.pngThis ability is very valuable. The same goes for his scanning. He always looks first into depth when dribbling in with the ball, where usually the wingback rotates inside into the space behind the midfielders of the opponent, creating a diamond shape. But if the ball is not possible to him, Felipe holds out until the very last moments to invite the opponent onto him and when he notices the free man he plays very well to the midfielder left by the opponent.

With these sudden cuts from one leg to the other he can manipulate the position of the player in front of him in the midfield line. Just the moment a player steps out of the midfield line to confront him, and he puts the ball on his other leg, dribbling diagonally a new passing lane opens up. At this moment the pressing player is not covering the route to the goal anymore, and the covering player has to change directions very quickly in order to still cover a passing lane.

De Vrij is the centre back playing in the middle of the back three. He has excellent ability to defend long balls and crosses. In possession he often dribbles diagonally inside, with which he moves the defence of the opponent and changes the sides from there to the wingback moving up on the side where the ball came from. Hitting these diagonals is crucial for moving zonal defences quickly and opening up space on the other side.

Diamond w De Vrij dribbling in.pngAlso with his diagonal dribbling he can attract the forward of the opponent against a two striker system. This way he creates more space for the sideback. If the midfielder of the opponent then presses the sideways pass to the sideback then the only thing the midfielder has to do is to move out of the cover shadow of the pressing player. On the side of the sideback Lazio often make a diamond, giving the sideback three options to play forward.

Radu is excellent at escaping the press by playing accurate, strong and fast balls on the ground vertically next to the touchline. This is an excellent skill, as the pressing angle of the opponent is usually from the inside diagonally. The attacker might cover Milinkovic-Savic in the diagonal inside passing lane, but then the vertical pass is open. No matter which pass the attacker closes there is an option to play the ball forward.

The experienced Lucas Leiva is playing in front of the midfield. One of the biggest contributions to the team is his ability to play forward accurate passes forward when they win the ball. He also has an important Rome to play without the ball, closing the spaces in front of the three central defenders, or moving between them if they get too far from each other.

In possession he moves in the middle, often opening passing lanes by moving deeper, closer to the back 3 thus opening the chance to change the sides with sideways passes. Or he moves to the ballside half space when the wingback receives the ball to play a forward pass.

 

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic takes up good positions between the lines, as a key in breaking up opposition defences. His ability to move out of the cover shadow in the right moment, dribble diagonally and combine in tight spaces makes him an excellent attacking 8.

In attacking transitions the moment the ball is won he immediately pulls into the space in front of the opponent’s defence. This way with only one pass to him the opponent’s midfield gets taken out of the game. From there his diagonal dribbling and shots from distance pose danger.

Diamond on left side, rotation v Juventus.pngOn the left side he often becomes the top of the diamond formed in front of the sideback dribbling in. He is excellent in these positions as he can change directions quickly with his first touch, therefore he can beat his man with his back to the goal. But also he finds spaces by moving out of the cover shadow of the pressing player, thus helping the ball out of the pressure area.

Luis Alberto is another ex-Liverpool player in the squad. He plays mostly behind Immobile. In attacking transitions he starts from as high as possible, but steps back to receive the ball, while Immobile gives depth to the team. This movement is effective in creating a free player for the penetrating pass even against three central defenders if the movement of Alberto and Immobile is such that a moment of hesitation prevents a defender from stepping out with Alberto.

His skillset compliments excellently with Immobile’s. The Italian striker is a master at creating space for himself 1 v 1, or running behind the defence in even the smallest gap. Alberto on the other hand has exceptional passing, with the rare ability to disguise his passes. He has excellent set piece delivery and good shot from distance.

During ball circulation when the defender dribbles in free, Luis Alberto pulls behind his opponent. Either becoming a third man after the pass to Immobile, or creating a 2 v 1 situation with the defender in possession. Sometimes he likes to move out of the opponent’s defensive shape, and play accurate balls to players attacking the space behind the opponent.

With 24 goals in 26 league games Ciro Immobile is in the form of his life. The ex-Dortmund striker is a master at running behind opponent defences the moment a ball behind is possible. The moment a defender moves a bit closer to either Alberto or Sergej between the lines, Immobile runs into the space behind that defender with full speed. Also if a defender stays 1 v 1 with him, he likes to pull away from the position of the ball before quickly cutting inside the defender. Or if he is in a diagonally opposed position to the ball he pulls even further while running behind. This way the defender has to move out of the centre with him, or leave him in more space, free to take a first touch thus control the long pass. With such diagonal runs he creates as much space to run into and run onto the ball as he can. Also by dropping and asking for the  ball from a defender in ball ball circulation, he pulls out a defender with him. After laying off the ball to one of the midfielders he runs into the space left open by his defender with full speed.

Sidebacks and Midfield Positioning in Ball Circulation

Look what happens if a midfielder presses the sideback of Lazio. The sequence seen above is a quick change of sides through the back three after attracting pressure on Radu. De Vrij plays to Radu, before quickly changeing the sides. When the ball goes to Radu, Khedira steps out onto him. After the side change the space between Pjanic and the recovering Khedira is crucial.  This is where Lucas can pass through to the now free Luis Alberto. The latter midfielder becomes free due to staying in his zone while Pjanic shifts with the ball. When De Vrij receives the ball Luis Felipe is almost in one line with him. This opens a direct passing lane to Parolo on the other side.

Struggles with Diagonal Compactness

For the opponents their diagonal compactness can be exploited. This was what Juventus did, when Asamoah pushed higher, almost to the line of the midfield, and played diagonal balls between the lines. With the reverse movement of two players in the same vertical zone they created a free player to receive between the lines. Matuidi asked for the ball to the feet before making a forward run, while Dybala stepped back for the ball from the defence line of Lazio.

The diagonal was open, since both the midfield line and the strikers defended very narrowly. The two strikers defended narrowly on Pjanic, only stepping out to the sideback once it was close enough that the nearside striker had access.

Despite the not so fast circulation between the three central defenders of Juventus the sometimes the two strikers didn’t move quickly sideways to close down the half space vertical pass in the ball side from the Juventus sideback. This meant the side midfielder of the Lazio midfield three had to close the vertical pass option in the half space. This way his starting position made it impossible for him to immediately press Asamoah and close the diagonal inside pass the moment the Juve wingback received the ball.

These reverse runs worked especially well when the Lazio backline wasn’t as horizontally compact as possible. Radu couldn’t step back and defend the space behind De Vrij, which in turn meant that De Vrij couldn’t come even closer to create a local numerical advantage on the ball side. Would that have been the case Lulic could have pushed more out from the backline, and could have taken more chance, almost as a floating player with a compact line of four defenders behind him, he could have closed the diagonal passing lane.

Against Atalanta

Against Atalanta Lazio defended such situations by the midfield playing very close to the defence, hence the diagonal passing lane was smaller. Also their horizontal compactness was a lot better. When Felipe Luiz stepped out of the backline Lulic could support behind him and also De Vrij could provide depth. Meanwhile as the defence shifted Lucas Leiva stayed close to Parolo so when the ball got to the sideline Lucas closed the ball near halfspace.

3 v 2 on the sides.pngIn the middle third after side changes a player in the first line of the buildup received the ball wide enough that the diagonal pass was open, he could play the diagonal pass in front of the Lazio sideback.  In this moment since the space between the midfield and the defence was very close the receiver of the ball was forced to receive in front of the midfield. Milinkovic-Savic in this moment pressed backwards, and the sideback attacked the receiver. Meanwhile the nearside striker defended the nearside 8 coming into the ballside deep halfspace. This prevented Atalanta escaping to the other side through the 8.

Press from strikers at pass back to central defender.png

The strikers of Lazio play mostly passively in the middle third against the ball, although situational pressure does occur. In this instance Caicedo presses the pass back to the central defender out of the back three. He presses diagonally, preventing the defender from playing on to the sideback on his left.

Out of the strikers Caiceido is the most active in the defensive phase. He presses the sideback when he starts dribbling in and has access to him. If the wingback of the opponent drops deeper the Lazio wingback comes out with him, but not in front of the Lazio midfield. Meanwhile he is constantly checking the body position of the sideback dribbling in. When the pressure arrives from the striker, and the sideback is about to play the pass forward the wingback steps inside to close the vertical pass and still allow the pass to the outside.

The positive of this type of defensive dynamic was evident the moment the ball was won. On the ball side the attacking midfielder who was just covering the passing lane forward suddenly became free to find space between the lines during the transition. Meanwhile the striker moved wide next to the line, behind the wingback, outside of the back three. This run was crucial as it made the available space in the middle larger. Since Savic stayed behind the midfielders of Atalanta as long as possible, and dropped only when De Vrij turned on the ball, the defenders of Atalanta didn’t have access to him and neither could any of the Atalanta midfielders adjust their position.

The Role of Lucas – Defending in Their Own Third

If the wingback steps out from the backline to press, the sideback has to watch the space behind him to collect balls played behind the wingback. When the sideback moves out wide Lucas steps back to the defensive line to prevent space appearing in the middle.

The moment the ball goes into the space behind the wingback he sprints back and presses the receiver from the front, putting him in a sandwich with the sideback. Meanwhile the whole backline drops behind the line of the ball.  When the ball stops the whole backline stops. There is pressing backwards from Milinkovic-Savic and Parolo. The whole backline is moving, changing their positioning according to the place of the ball.

The really interesting feature in their defending is how passive the players between their goal and the ball are. They are shifting and dropping according to the position of the ball, always in an angle ready to push the ball away from the goal, and in certain cases creating numerical advantages around the ball. But almost all the aggressive actions against the ball come from players who are closing back and pressing the ball from a line forward.

An example of numerical advantage against the ball occurs when it goes wide in their own third. IDefending when the ball is on the side in own third.pngThe defenders and the midfielders are working together. In their own defensive third, they were very compact. Both horizontally and vertically, which gave them a chance to be diagonally compact situationally. But they were not trying to win the ball in such overloads. Their whole defensive approach around their own defensive third was optional, looking to react to the moves of the opponent.

Defensive triangle v Atalanta.pngSometimes their defensive shape in their own half resembled a 5311, as one of the strikers moved back to mark the deeper midfielder of the opponent, and thus make it harder for them to change the sides. It was crucial to prevent side changes as on the ball side Lazio created a numerical advantage. For diagonal dribbles the wingback and the nearside midfielder formed something like a canal and led the player into the path of the sideback.

The difficulty for the back three was taking up runners from midfield. Sometimes neither Sergej, nor Parolo moves back next to Lucas, when the opponent’s defenders play a long ball to the striker. This means the spaces on either side of Lucas are open, and the opponent can collect second balls there.

Sometimes while shifting from one side to the other the wingback on the ball far side stay with their man for too long . As a result the backline is wider than it could be. In some situations Lucas Leiva didn’t check if  he could let his man run behind, if a defender could take him over. If sideback on the far side din’t push more inside to the side of the ball, the distances between the defenders could allow too much space for the opponents to run into.

Strakosha and Milinkovic Savic in the First Phase of Buildup

Buildup with opening the halfspace on the other side.pngIn buildup they rely heavily on the excellent skills of Strakosha to build up the game from the back with his feet. They start the game on the ground even against heavy pressure. They start by playing the ball out to the sideback, who moves down to the height of the penalty spot next to the side of the box to receive the ball. De Vrij and Lucas stand in the middle, one closer to the goal, the other further up. The moment the ball goes out to one sideback, the other sideback comes into the half space on the ballfar side.

They create an overload on one side, then quickly switch to the other side with the sideback moving out extremely quickly the moment the ball goes back to the goalkeeper. This opens the diagonal passing lane to Lulic coming inside to the half space.

There is another positive to this buildup pattern. As the midfielder of of Atalanta shifts, he leaves Parolo open. Since the wingback pushed high to take Marusic, Parolo can make the run forward, while Lulic is already coming inside and he can take the ball with his right leg and then possibly put the ball behind with a diagonal pass. Normally Immobile would make a run behind, but in this game Caicedo was playing. He is a striker with a different characteristic than Immobile.

Defensive Dynamics in the Game Against Inter

Inside wingers could create 1 v 1 situations against the sidebacks. At quick changes of sides through the backline if the fullback received the ball in a position where the 8 of Lazio didn’t have access to him, by making a diagonal run from the inside, coming out of the cover shadow of the wingback and receiving in the half space the winger could receive the ball and create a 1 v 1. In these situations Lucas didn’t close back into the backline to keep a central three, and the wingback also didn’t close behind the sideback who moved in. If the sideback got beaten 1 v 1 the situation ended in a clear crossing opportunity.

Halfspace defence v inside fullback.pngIf the opponent played with an inside fullback and the winger dropped back along the touchline the wingback dropped with him. The nearside 8 pressed the fullback. Lucas first followed his man who attempted a run behind the defence, but then let him go to De Vrij,  while Bastos kept his distance from De Vrij. On the far side Marusic was man oriented on Perisic instead of tucking in more and closing in to the border of the central space. On the far side Parolo was a bit far from Lucas, Icardi who moved two lines deeper from the central striker position could have made a run to the goal free.

In the middle Luis Alberto was blocking the diagonal passing lane to the central space. This type of defensive shape gave a much better chance for counter attacks. Since Alberto was standing free in space he could ask for an immediate vertical release pass when Lucas won the ball. Meanwhile Savic could drift inside diagonally, hopefully pull the inside fullback of Inter with him just a little bit to open the space for Lulic to make the run forward.

4 v 3, Lucas kilep, terulet a vissalepo Icardinak.pngDuring Inter’s ball circulation Icardi was moving back from the three central defenders. Meanwhile the winger on the far side – Perisic – was giving the team depth. His build, verticality and dribbling ability made him excellent for this role. Borja Valero was moving in front of Lucas, pulling him sideways and giving space for Icardi to move back. The moment the winger received the ball in the half space, Valero made a run diagonally, attacking the space next to the sideback on the ball side. This pulled back the wingback too, making more space for the winger in possession. Lazio defended these situations by Lucas letting Valero run behind, while Savic closed back. This created a 4 v 3 situation for Lazio. Because of the angle at which Lucas pushed Candreva to the side – diagonal, closing the angle to the space between De Vrij and Radu – the horizontal pass to Icardi moving back was open.

When Candreva received the ball De Vrij was in a position ready to step out to Icardi. This slightly made the space between him and Radu bigger. This could have been a good moment to attack this space with diagonal runners from midfield.

Vertical passes from the central defender to the winger stepping back into the halfspace were defended by collapsing on the ball in a 3 v 1 scenario. This was possible when the ball circulation of the opponent wasn’t quick enough and the Lazio midfield and defence had time to shift and wait for the pass in a set starting position.

Shots conceded analysis

Goal conceded v Bologna.pngAnalysing where they conceded shots on goal reveals their true strength and compactness at the back. Despite some of the defensive vulnerabilities mentioned above, they allow few, and low quality attempts for their opponents.

Bologna scored after a long shot came off of Strakosha. It is only natural that if the opponent plays with such a compact defence – with Lucas very close in front of them – then shooting from distance can be a viable attacking weapon.

One of the best ways that consistently created relatively good quality shots for the opponents was Lucas Leiva letting his man go, without a defender being able to take him over.

If their backline is horizontally not as compact as it could be and Lucas leaves his man to run freely into gaps, then runners from depth can be a potent tactical weapon. The backline has to be moved sideways or diagonally. Then the ball has to be played back to the middle, while this is happening players have to run behind the backline, preferably from the blind side of Lucas. The defender who could maybe take up the runner must be occupied. Maybe a player has to stand on his shoulder, or in his zone. Or better yet an attacker has to make a diagonal run into his zone, thus pulling him further away from the gap.

Sassuolo 3 v 2 in midfield by stepping back into midfield.pngLow quality chances can be created from playing the ball around the midfield, and playing the ball into the gaps, and attackers stepping back into those gaps when the space appears between two midfielders.

 

Sometimes in counterpressing Lazio could have better staggering. In counterpressing Lucas doesn’t always change his positioning according to the movement of the ball, and the pressing angle of the player who applies pressure on the ball. Sometimes the backline is not as close as it could be behind the wingback pressing up. This lack of vertical compactness means Lucas has more space to cover between the lines, and if a player receives there he has more time to turn on the ball.

On the ball far side Parolo was in an attacking position compared to the opponent in his zone while the counterpleas was going on. At that moment it is unclear which team will have the ball after this messy, chaotic situation, so whether to be cautious and stand in a more defensive position on the midfield or a more attacking one can depend on a whole host of factors. Such as the time in the game, the context of the game, but ultimately at the time this occurred it is safe to say a more defensively minded positioning would have sufficed.

Parolo’s positioning meant the moment the player in his zone made the run forward the defender from the far side had to come in to close the space next to the sideback. This run reduced the access of Basta, the wingback to the winger receiving the long diagonal. Basta couldn’t press the winger the moment he received the ball. Also since the sideback took over the player running into ball far half space Basta had to defend 1 v 1, there was no support behind him. This was especially a problem if the player attempted to beat him by taking the ball down to the line, since if Parolo moved out from midfield he couldn’t close behind Basta there, only way he could have done it would have been to help and support in case the winger attempts to cut inside.

Sometimes when the back three retreats to deal with a long ball, the two 8s in front of Lucas tend to stop before the team secures the possession. This opens the space in midfield and the space becomes too large for Lucas to control second balls on his own. At free kicks launched forward the wingback on the far side tends to stand very close to his man, which takes away the chance of a sudden change of sides, however further opens the space in the middle and reduces the access to second balls.

 

Chances to shoot may occur from rotations in midfield. Lucas is static in his positioning, by pulling away either Parolo or Sergej, and rotating into the area vacated by the attacking midfielder can create a free player just in front of the backline.

At that moment the back five takes the player dribbling forward. The chance is to run behind from the shoulder of the defender who is in front of the ball and might attempt to step up – essentially doubling up on him. Even if for a moment somebody can receive the ball in front of the defence line, the midfielders – Parolo and Sergej – are active in their pressing and will attempt to close him down immediately. This gives the attacking team very little time to create local overloads. In these moments the wingback on the ballside closes towards the centre, leaving the man wide free, but closing down the space around the player who would step up to confront the opponent dribbling forward. This takes away space even more from the attacking team, making the quick execution of on the ball actions an absolute must.

Conclusion

If we look at Lazio’s chances for the season, the following weeks can make an already decent season a great success. In Serie A their fixture list is not the hardest, although they still have games to come at home against Roma and Inter. Especially the latter game could be a season decider, as Lazio are fighting Inter for the fourth Champion’s League spot.

Lazio’s squad is probably the best in recent years. Luis Alberto is hitting his peak years, with talented players such as Luis Felipe and Milinkovic-Savic still about to hit their prime. The loss of De Vrij to Inter on a free transfer is a huge blow.

In the Europa League they will be facing analyst favourite Red Bull Salzburg. I feel that Red Bull have the perfect attacking approach to make the most of Lazio’s weaknesses. Although it will be a fixture that will test the younger, up and coming talents of Lazio. Let’s see how they will do against an aggressive approach out of possession that is currently not common in Serie A.