Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Mario Balotelli

This is my first blog post on here in quite a while, over a year I think. At some point I might start to post here again more regularly if anyone's interested and if I can find anything interesting to post on.

I'm writing this simply because I wanted to express my opinion on Balotelli. No real tactical analysis, nothing particularly insightful, just opinion. I've disabled the comments section because I cannot be bothered in the slightest to deal with the probable "he's crap" "he's lazy" "he's crap and lazy" comments posted by people with nothing better to do with their day.

I'll say straight off: I really like Mario Balotelli. I think he's a wonderful talent, with a great skill-set. A lot of his performances in the past, especially for Italy, have been quietly brilliant. For a while, he was pretty much their key player, the player who made up for several flaws in their system, adding multiple dimensions to their game through his movement, touch, strength and creativity. He helped them control midfield whilst adding to their attack.

I also know that he comes with problems. Sometimes his discipline is an issue, sometimes he doesn't adapt within games, sometimes he makes bizarre in-game choices.

You have to deal with the latter unfortunately. Every player has weaknesses and Balotelli's indiscipline at times is one of them.

When I say indiscipline though, I do not mean laziness. That accusation is one I find extremely frustrating and I think it's one that is made by people who do not understand his game. Balotelli is not a player who thrives on making runs behind. He's not a player who is constantly on the move, playing on the shoulder, looking for balls over the top. His game is built around dropping off the opposition back line, playing between the lines, receiving short, linking with others, laying it off, drawing defenders towards himself, holding them off, supporting control in the midfield, creating in attack, having shots from range. 

What many people unfortunately interpret that as is disinterest. Laziness. Ego. They think remaining in a static position on occasions means he doesn't care (though they'll pay no attention when anyone else does that). They'll even say that he's indulging himself when he comes short.

That is reading things into a situation, not out of it. What anybody who has watched him extensively should be able to realise is that his game is often build around linking. Sure he can create off his own strength - he can create situations out of nothing, he can turn two defenders with one movement, he can score from twenty five yards out. But fundamentally, he thrives on being a good link player. Isolating him is not a particularly good idea. 

For the opening months of this season isolated is precisely what he was. He wasn't supported from midfield, he had to do things on his own, he had to play a role that he wasn't really suited to (if you want a comparison with past Liverpool strikers, imagine Torres or Owen being asked to play an essential part of the build up, playmaking, instead of making runs behind). The whole team was playing poorly, creating nothing, not controlling games and not supporting each other.

As was clearly going to be the case, Balotelli was the scapegoat.

That's not to say he shouldn't have played better. I've seen him play games as the lone nine before and play very well. I've seen him create chances out of nothing, make bad situations into good ones despite being left completely on his own. But the fact is that he was not being played properly. Even shoving him wide would have been a better option - at least that would have allowed him the freedom to move into spaces off the back line, with a striker in front of him. Being isolated up front and having to play as he was not best suited to was a disaster.

What I had hoped would happen, and, in fact, still hope happens, is that he would get a good few more chances, playing in a role that suits him, with a forward supporting in front of him. I was excited when he Liverpool signed him and if I'm honest I'm still a happy he's at my club.

However the treatment he got after last night's performance against Chelsea really annoyed me. To put it simply, nobody's mistakes get zoomed in on as much as his do, even in cases where he hasn't made a mistake. 

He gives the ball away in the build up for the free kick. "Lazy pass" some have said. 


Let's have a look at the situation he was in when he goes to make the pass.

One defender behind him that he's holding off, one player marking Coutinho inside, one player blocking the pass to Moreno and one player trying to block the pass to Lucas. If he plays it to Coutinho, Coutinho is likely to be dispossessed in such a tight space. If he plays it to Moreno, the chances are it will be intercepted. Playing it to Lucas is probably the best option and even that is a risky one.

Okay he gives it away. Why is that lazy though? He's under pressure in a tight space, passing options all but shut off, he gives the ball away. Is it really that unlikely that anyone else in the team would give it away in such a situation? Was it really careless and lazy for him to make that pass? Did Lucas not bring Hazard down for the free kick after that?

This is precisely the sort of thing I'm talking about. As soon as a mistake gets made, people focus on it. They may even use it to justify such claims as him being generally careless on the ball (by the way, he had the fifth highest passing accuracy in the whole Liverpool team last night. He did not continually lose possession).

As Niall Quinn and many other observers watching the game all too gleefully pointed out though, it was all Mario's fault. He gives the ball away before the free kick. He loses Ivanovic from the free kick. No mention of the fact Liverpool are marking up zonally, not man-to-man, and so Balotelli is actually attacking the space in front of him within his zone, exactly what he does as Costa makes the run in front of him. But hey, you don't need facts to get in the way when you're trying to justify criticising a player you don't like.

I should point out that I think Balotelli should have played a bit more aggressively in extra time. Liverpool were without a goalscorer and needed a goal. He should have adapted a little better than he did. He probably should have made more runs into the box (though he made a few). He probably should have made more runs into positions just in front of the box, giving him more opportunities to shoot on sight. He should have tried to push inside from the left of the front three a little bit more when Rodgers switched to a 3-4-3 diamond midfield half way through extra time. These are more tactical criticisms than anything else.

However other than that, I believe Balotelli had an decent game. His link up play with Sterling and Coutinho was good, his strength was good and he had three or four superb bits of play. 

These sort of things by and large weren't focused on. When he held off a player well, no one really paid attention. When he showed for the ball and linked play really well, no one paid attention. When he beat two players brilliantly and got a cross into Sterling, no one cared. When he played two sublime back-heeled passes within a few minutes of each other, both to Coutinho, no one praised him. 

Yet when he tried a flick that didn't come off, people said he didn't care (despite Coutinho doing exactly the same thing in this match, without comment). When he came short to receive between the lines and Gerrard played a poor pass to play him in over the top, people were only on one side - "he should have made the run behind. Lazy." When he tries to chip the goalkeeper from the byline (a bad decision admittedly), people say "that just sums him up". It  doesn't.

I'm going to keep on defending Balotelli, not only because I think the criticism of him has been largely unfair but also because I know that he's damn good player at his best. He deserves a few more chances.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Analysing Bayern's first goal against City (and how it shows just how difficult Bayern are to play against)

When Barcelona were at their peak two or three years ago under Pep Guardiola, one of the things many enjoyed doing was to try and suggest just how Guardiola's side could be beaten. It became a topic that resulted in many debates and many articles and comments online. On the rare occasion they were beaten, coaches were often asked the secrets to their ideas and just how they managed to beat the team touted as the best side ever.

The same thing is starting to happen with Bayern Munich. And for good reason.

Analysing the first goal

Man City lose the ball in midfield, Ribery plays it right back to Neuer in goal so Bayern can recycle possession from the back.

A few small things to say about the picture above. The most noticeable change under Guardiola that Bayern have made (despite the fact he has made quite a few so far) is the changing of shape in midfield. Under Jupp Heynckes they played a 4-2-3-1 shape, meaning a '2-1' triangle in midfield. Under Guardiola the team shape has reverted to a 4-1-4-1, meaning a '1-2' in midfield. This means there is single pivot who has the freedom to drop off to receive the ball, play between the centre backs if need be and to make himself available without impacting the team elsewhere.

This brings an obvious improvement in build up play. When Bayern were playing a double pivot, with Kroos or Muller ahead between the lines, if one of the two holding midfielders dropped off to receive between the centre backs, then there could be a break in the system - this is what happened early on in the Champions League Final against Dortmund, where Klopp's side pressed high from the start, forcing Schweinsteiger to drop very deep and meaning Martinez was therefore outnumbered 2v1 in midfield when that happened. Such situations do not occur under this new midfield shape.

In the above picture, Dzeko and Aguero have pushed up to try and put pressure on the centre backs. Philipp Lahm as the single pivot has dropped between them unmarked, making it easy for Bayern to play out should Neuer choose that option.

The option Neuer actually chooses is Rafinha the right back. As was pointed out in the commentary on Sky, Rafinha was an outball for Bayern for much of the game. Nasri was often narrow, pinching in to help defend the middle, meaning the long switch of play was often available for the German side. Here again you can see the shape of Bayern's midfield - Lahm is deep between the centre backs, Kroos and Schweinsteiger are ahead of him in the middle of the pitch. 

Rafinha has now progressed into City's half. There's a quite a few things to notice here but the main one is that Bayern transitioning down the flank means that City have a lot of players condensed over to one side. This isn't wrong of course -  you have to defend the positive space around the ball. However what it does mean is that there is space elsewhere on the pitch. There are eight City players in this shot and just three Bayern ones. If Bayern move the ball out, they can penetrate elsewhere.

This is where having quality players makes the difference in a game. Normally the natural reaction of a full back in this position would be either to keep running with the ball or look to play it to Muller, either to his feet or in the space behind. City, playing a high line, see this option and actually look to play Muller offside as he makes his run in the second after this.

What Rafinha actually does though is not to move the ball forward at all. Instead he switches the play with a long pass all the way over to Ribery on the left hand side. This sort of play can go without comment quite easily during a match and yet the vision and composure to play this ball cannot go without praise. One pass has opened up the pitch to the negative space on the other side.

This is the result of the ball played. In the previous shot, space was condensed and with Muller being played offside by the Manchester City defence, there was effectively only two players in the game for Bayern. However one switch of play has created a 2v2 situation on this side of the pitch. And here's where the major point can be made. City aren't just defending a 2v2 situation against Bayern's left back and left winger. They are defending a 2v2 situation against the best left back in the world and one of the best 'wingers' in the world. 

Notice the gap in the channels that has opened up through the switch of play. There is a big gap between Richards and Kompany in defence and between Navas and Toure in midfield for City. With Alaba on the overlap, this means Ribery has several options. He can choose to play a wall pass behind for his partner. He can run at Richards and create a 2v1 situation momentarily. He can cut inside and then play the pass for Alaba behind. Or he can cut inside and shoot on goal.

Ribery chooses the latter option. Navas allows him to go inside. Toure doesn't get across quick enough to close him down. Hart makes an error. Goal.

Why analyse this goal? After all if Hart had concentrated properly he would have kept it out.

The answer is because it highlights perfectly how many trade offs you have to make against Bayern Munich.

Go back to the start of it. Neuer has the ball at his feet. Aguero and Dzeko position themselves high up. Lahm drops in. Bayern now have a 3v2 situation here (4v2 if you include Neuer), making it very difficult for City to disrupt their build up. If one of City's midfielders goes with Lahm, then the other midfielder is left outnumbered by Kroos and Schweinsteiger in midfield, meaning Navas and Nasri have to pinch in. That leaves space for the full backs.

When Rafinha comes out with the ball under little pressure, City have to move over and compress the space in that area. Generally against teams, this makes it difficult to attack and the ball will either be lost or played backwards, allowing the defending team to adjust and recover shape. However, Bayern have such great quality in possession that even if there is a high level of pressure on the ball, they have the ability to get out of such a situation. 

Here's where the problem of playing Bayern is really emphasised. The ball is played across creating a 2v2 on the left. City have just forced Bayern to stop progressing forward on the ball through their defensive work on the other side. And yet they are now having to shift across and defend without numerical superiority against players of the quality of Alaba and Ribery. Even if Ribery was to choose the 'safe' option of playing it back into midfield. City again have to adjust again and chase the ball.

Bayern have an extensive list of threats. They can hurt you behind with their pace of Robben, they can hurt you between the lines, they can hurt you in the air with crosses, they can hurt you in 1v1s in the wide areas, they can hurt you with overlaps from Alaba, they can hurt you with long shots from outside the area, they can hurt you through complete domination of possession, they can hurt you through winning the ball quickly and countering. You are always going to be open to something against them. 

That makes it very difficult to plan your tactics or strategy against them. If you press high up perfectly, they can still keep the ball (this will be even further enhanced when Martinez comes back in to play centre back), play behind or tire you out. If you play a low block, then you probably won't be able to get out and you'll become vulnerable to long shots from Ribery and Robben in the dangerous zone just outside the area. If your wingers pinch in, there's space in the wide areas for their full backs and Ribery and Robben. If your wingers mark the full backs, there's space in the middle to play passes inside between the lines. The list of measures and trade offs can go on for a long time.

When you're facing such a team, it's not a question of formation. It's not a question of 'parking the bus' or on the other side 'giving it a go'. There has to be a detailed analysis of their whole system. And then even the most forensic plan will still probably not work.

The comparison made at the start between this Bayern side and that Barcelona side was because really, most conversations about how you beat such a high quality team miss the point. There's never really a foolproof way to beat any team of such a high calibre. The thing a coach has to do is recognise the qualities within his own team, analyse the opposition and decide which trade offs will least affect the team in a negative way. Man City did a poor job of this and could have limited Bayern better than they did. But even then it would have been extremely difficult to get a result out of the game. Bayern will have harder games this season and will face teams who play better than City did on Wednesday. Despite that, it is still hard to look past Bayern being favourites to retain their league and Champions League titles.

What's sure is that it will be fun seeing how teams try to stop them

Monday, 12 August 2013

Why Philippe Coutinho should play as a number 10

This is a fairly brief piece as I haven't done one for a while. Unlike usual, it's pretty much an opinion piece.


When Coutinho and Sturridge moved to Liverpool in the January transfer window, it was clear to see the impact they had. Liverpool scored more goals, they looked a constant danger in attack, particularly on the transition, and had two players on form assisting Suarez in penetrating through the middle.

The quandary that Brendan Rodgers had was how to get them both in the team along with Suarez. Sometimes he went with a shape fairly close to 4-4-2, with Sturridge and Suarez up front and Coutinho on the left. Sometimes it was a 4-2-3-1 with Sturridge right, Coutinho behind Suarez and Henderson starting on the left. Sometimes Henderson would swap with Coutinho. Sometimes he would drop Sturridge altogether and go 4-3-3 with Coutinho again on the left.

The question of where to play Coutinho is an interesting one. You can play him wide and allow him to cut inside between the lines. However is this the best use of him and does it limit his role in terms of orchestrating?

When you play in the middle as a number 10 you get more touches of the ball, first of all because the play comes through you more. When Coutinho plays as a left winger, he can of course come inside but his movement is limited in early phases of possession because of the risk of losing the ball and becoming open on transition. This would especially be exposed by the more open dynamic of games in the Premier League. When you've had a certain amount of time in possession and got into a position where you have pushed the opposition back onto their own area and you have your full backs high and wide and your defence pushed up in order to press if you lose the ball, then your wide players have more liberty of movement. However until that point, Coutinho's ability to orchestrate is limited. 

When he plays as a number 10 though, he has the freedom to move into horizontal channels between the lines, or he can move wide or drop deep to receive the ball. When he plays in the middle his ability to orchestrate play is enhanced because he can pass anywhere on the field - forward, backwards, to either side. When he plays wide, that is limited. Pep Guardiola describes the sideline as the best defender because if you play there, you are limited in which direction you can go. He believes that the very best players on the ball have to play in the middle.

The second thing is when he plays as a left winger, he has a direct opponent. When he plays in the middle, he will tend not to. One of the reasons playing between the lines is talked about so much nowadays is that players that move there will not have a direct opponent and in order to mark them, teams have to break their lines, either by a midfielder dropping off and marking them or least blocking the passing lane or a centre back stepping out, which opens up space behind. You will often see a forward make runs between centre backs on the same side as the number 10 in order to make sure that the centre backs don't step out. When Coutinho plays there, there is more emphasis on the opponent to shut him out of the game by keeping shape and staying compact, rather than actual marking - the emphasis is on the collective rather than the individual. That means when the opponent loses compactness and space opens up inside their block, Coutinho is immediately freed up. Even if a team restricts this, he is always able to drop off and receive the ball in deeper positions or link up in the wide areas.

The case where Coutinho would have a direct opponent would be against a team that plays a '1-2' in midfield. However because of the extra freedom he has in the middle mentioned earlier, he can always move into positions where he either cannot be marked by a defensive midfielder or opens up space for players like Sturridge to drop off between the lines. 

It would be wrong to say he should never play wide because he has the qualities to play there (1v1 ability, good acceleration, intelligent movement) and can open a team up there, particularly when the opponent plays a '1-2' in the middle where there is less support for the full back from the midfield. However, his ability to orchestrate there is more limited than it is in the middle and because he mainly tends to turn onto his right foot, he becomes more predictable to mark out wide. That is why if Liverpool want to get the best out of him, he has to play as a number 10.