Friday, 10 February 2012

A preview of Manchester United/Liverpool matched with a tactical look back

With, historically, the two most successful English clubs facing each other at the weekend, tactics is not the highest thing currently on the agenda. After the controversial incident in the earlier league game at Anfield and the subsequent frenzy that is hopefully on its last legs now, team strategies haven't been talked about too much ahead of the game. However with both Manchester United and Liverpool concentrating on big targets for the end of the season and the added rivalry of the clubs, this match is very important for both sides.

What formations both teams will start with is yet unclear. With Luis Suarez back from his suspension and only Lucas missing for Kenny Dalglish's side, they may start with a 4-4-2 with both Suarez and Carroll up front though a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 is very possible, with Dalglish using a variety of formations in his current tenure, especially with the loss of big players at various points this season (Gerrard, Suarez and currently Lucas). Man United have a slightly longer injury list with Vidic, Jones, Nani and Fletcher all currently out. Whether Ferguson will use five midfielders or go with a two man front line, he also has options.

Their extremely impressive comeback against Chelsea will have given them extra confidence to score goals however they struggled without the ball on a number of occasions with Chelsea's play between the lines and the movement of their front line to manipulate United's back four.

So are United open defensively? Well they have conceded 24 goals in 24 league games so far this season, though many top teams are conceding more goals than usual so far in 2011/12, notably in a number of 'big' games.

However one recent example of a team hurting them defensively comes from the club that will face them on Saturday.


Almost three years ago, Liverpool were at a big stage in their progression under Rafa Benitez. With one of the best, if not the best starting eleven in the Premier League at that time, albeit a squad that lacked depth compared to Ferguson's great selection of players, Liverpool were excelling with an organised and tactically sound 4-2-3-1 system with probably the best balanced midfield in Europe, with Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso in the holding positions and Steven Gerrard playing just off Fernando Torres. Early form had seen them top the league but results in late winter had seen United overtake them in the league and despite thrashing Real Madrid 5-0 over two legs in the Champions League, a loss away to United would probably have seen the end of any title race.

Liverpool were without Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa, injured in the warm up, so the away side were without two first choice players. Man United's attack consisted of Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney down the centre with Cristiano Ronaldo on the right.

United controlled possession in the early stages, with Liverpool pushed back in their own half. However Liverpool started to get into the game with the whole team working hard to get organised defensively:

"We knew they are really good at playing between the lines with penetrating passes so we needed to stop those passes and put their midfielders under pressure every time they received the ball.... when you stop the penetrating passes (in the middle), more or less you can control them" Rafa Benitez

With Lucas and Mascherano deep, making space compact between the lines and making sure that United's midfield, with the assistance of Torres and Gerrard, were being pressed so as not to make Liverpool vulnerable to be penetrated down the centre, United found it hard to create. The home side's wide men were also finding space tight with Liverpool's full backs and wide players moving back, as well as one holding midfielder always coming across to block any movement inside.

Liverpool were also clever in possession, creating width, having players coming short to receive between the lines and moving the ball quickly on the counter attack:

"We knew their defence had weaknesses. They are strong in defence but that's because they have plenty of possession elsewhere. They have a lot of quality in attack but that is the main thing that they have. When they don't have the ball and you move the ball quickly and play behind their defenders you know you can beat them." Rafa Benitez

Eleven minutes in, Liverpool created an opening that was sign of things to come. Liverpool had a period of possession in deep positions, with United's pressing lacking aggression and Mascherano and Lucas finding it easy to get on the ball. After switching the play a couple of times, Liverpool moved the ball to Fabio Aurelio on the left hand side who had pushed up from his left back position. With United lacking intensity in their pressing, Aurelio had got in behind Ronaldo and was facing right back John O'Shea. Albert Riera had moved inside from the left to attract the tracking of Rio Ferdinand, while Torres and Kuyt were being controlled by Vidic and Evra. Gerrard however had been left alone, behind Michael Carrick who had come across to stop the passing 'lane' inside instead of tracking Gerrard but ended up doing neither:

Aurelio on the ball, Riera moving Ferdinand out, Torres and Kuyt against Vidic and Evra, with Gerrard free to make a run into space

With Riera moving from inside to out to take Ferdinand away and Torres and Kuyt remaining stationary against Vidic and Evra, Gerrard was left space to move powerfully into. Aurelio was allowed to make penetrating pass through and Gerrard took the ball as Vidic came across.

The Serb just managed to get in the way of the ball and United scraped it away but it was an early warning of what was to come. It was particularly interesting that Gerrard's second touch on the ball was to change direction from left to right, testing out Vidic's mobility and agility which had clearly been a plan beforehand.

It was United who took the lead after they cleverly used their split centre backs to attract the attention of Kuyt and Riera, allowing Evra to drift into space, and with not enough ball pressure, the French left back played a vertical pass down the inside left channel where Park ran behind and was fouled by Reina. Ronaldo converted the penalty but Liverpool weren't behind for long. Skrtel under pressure played a long ball forward behind Vidic who allowed the ball to bounce and Torres took advantage by stealing the ball and providing a good finish to Van Der Sar's right hand post.

Liverpool were dominating between the lines in attack with Anderson and Carrick failing to apply good pressure on the ball, Torres was allowed to turn and nutmeg Vidic a couple of minutes later.

Just before half time, Reina knocked it forward. Lucas and Mascherano were deep and, as they did on many occasions in the game, ended up being tracked by Anderson and Carrick, leaving space between the lines for Gerrard who was playing very high up. On this occasion, Gerrard had found space and was unchallenged in the air. He knocked it down for Torres who was allowed to turn and run at the United defence.

Mascherano/Carrick, Lucas/Anderson. Gerrard, free between the lines with Kuyt and Torres, high up between defenders.

Liverpool again moved the ball very quickly to get behind United. Kuyt ran across inside moving Vidic with him and creating space for Torres to pass behind Evra for the overlapping run from Gerrard.

The captain won the penalty and with composure stood up and converted it.

In the second half, United were having the same problems, with Liverpool very well organised with good intensity in pressing though struggling to keep hold of the ball. They still created a couple of good situations by moving the ball forward quickly and Gerrard and Torres manipulating space behind Vidic and Ferdinand with quick movement.

Rooney got a good chance from a purposeful cross from Ronaldo while Tevez also had a chance behind the defence. However, minutes after a triple substitution from United, Lucas switched the play from left to right towards Kuyt who brought Evra out of position and knocked it behind for Gerrard, who took hold of the ball after Vidic miscontrolled it. The centre back pulled Gerrard and was then sent off. Aurelio converted a great free kick and with United playing with virtually four forwards now after their substitutions, Liverpool dominated the midfield area when they won the ball and late on Dossena lobbed Van Der Sar after a long goal kick from Reina.


Tomorrow's game is unlikely to throw up a similar scenario to the 4-1 scoreline back then. Liverpool don't have a player like Torres who makes the movements he made in that game nor do they have the intensity in midfield, with Adam and Henderson without the defensive qualities of Lucas and Mascherano. However United's midfield and defence is still relatively similar to back then and similar problems have been shown this season. Their pace in attack is still a big asset and United have done excellently to be in the position they are currently in in the league despite injuries. However they can still be open in their defence and midfield and that is something Liverpool will look to exploit. Whether they do so is another matter and with both games played between the sides this season ending fairly close it will be an interesting battle.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

AC Milan 0-0 Napoli: Neither side incisive enough to get the win

A game in which both teams came into knowing a win was important to help them meet their end of season targets but which neither got.

Milan lined up in a lopsided 4-3-1-2 fromation, though at many points Emmauelson and Nocerino went very high, in line with Seedorf. Napoli started with their 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 system with Blerim Dzemaili starting alongside Gargano in midfield and their front three of Lavezzi, Cavani and Hamsik.

First Half

Both teams had different general approaches with Milan playing with slow, precise transitions and dominating possession higher up, while Napoli tried to get every player behind the ball and then counter attack at pace when the ball was won back.

There were a few main points from the half:
  • Milan struggled to penetrate against the ten outfield players for Napoli. The build up was too laboured and they often committed too many players forward (I know that sounds odd) which meant space became too tight in certain areas and they weren't enticing Napoli out well enough to create spaces in key areas.
  • Napoli weren't quite incisive enough on the break. A couple of times, poor choices were made in attack even though there were a number of players making runs from deep.
  • Napoli's wing backs didn't get the chance to run at Milan's full backs that much. In theory if you can get your wing back to run directly at the full back, it allows the front three to make space in central areas by moving the centre backs around. Generally though, Milan got players behind the ball well in defence and when Zuniga and Maggio made their runs into the final third the appropiate wide player of the midfield three for Milan went across to pressure them (Emmanuelson against Zuniga, Nocerino against Maggio).
What could have happened if the WB got 1v1 with FB. Front three can penetrate around the CBs and create space for each other. 
There were very few chances in the first half. Napoli had a couple, one a shot from 20 yards out that caused a bit of trouble for Abbiati after Milan's midfielders didn't put enough pressure on the ball. Another came from a cross to the far post, something which Milan struggled with all game from both sides. Abate and Mexes went for the same ball leaving Lavezzi free behind but he failed to convert.

Milan created a couple of situations around 35 minutes in, when Napoli's midfielders dropped too deep, allowing Robinho and Ibrahimovic space between the lines which they exploited, though created no clear chances. It was notable however that Aronica, the left sided of the three centre backs for Napoli had a tendency to follow very tightly and on a couple of occasions got moved very wide which created one situation where Dzemaili, playing centre midfield, had to make a last ditch block in the space that was left there. This also caused a problem at the start of the second half where Ibrahimovic moved into that space and Napoli just about scraped it away.

Second half

The second half started much better than the first did. Milan started moving the ball forward quicker to Ibrahimovic which meant when Robinho and Seedorf, who found more space between the lines because of this, got forward, it was on occasion, 3v3 in attack. Their biggest chance came 4 minutes in when a long diagonal was played forward to Ibrahimovic. Campagnaro and Cannavaro went for the same ball but neither won it and Robinho was left in behind, 1v1 against the keeper though his finish was badly placed and went wide of the near post.

A second chance came a few minutes later, where Milan moved the ball forward and combined quickly in the final third. Ibrahimovic turned the midfielder and dribbled left, creating a 2v1 against the wing back with Nocerino overlapping. The ball got played to Nocerino who crossed in for Seedorf who got his header on target which De Sanctis saved on the line.

Ibrahimovic moves left to create a 2v1 situation
A minute later Napoli lost the ball in the defensive third and Milan got players forward in the area (Emmanuelson, Ibrahimovic and Robinho) which left space for Seedorf to drift in, where he hit a shot over the bar.

Ibrahimovic also forced a save not long after when another diagonal ball was hit up to him to control and turn to take a shot.

Not long after that though, the Swedish international got sent off for a silly slap on Aronica and Milan were down to ten men.

Neither side reacted immediately to this by changing system. Milan instead looked for diagonal passes behind on the left for Robinho to use his pace behind Maggio which allowed Milan to push up. Napoli kept the same formation, though started to see more of the ball and created a chance, again after a lack of pressure on the ball from Milan and again from a mistake at the far post where Cavani was allowed to get behind Abate though he headed over the bar.

After that though both teams made substitutions with Inler coming on for Dzemaili and Ambrosini coming on for Seedorf. Milan changed to a 4-4-1 shape with Robinho remaining high even when the team was defending so he could recieve diagonal clearances to the flanks to get behind the defenders while the rest of the team defended with two compact lines of four, trying to cut out any space between the lines.

Clearly Napoli didn't need three centre backs against Robinho with an extra man on the field so Pandev came on for Aronica and they changed to a rough 4-3-3 formation with the wing backs changing to full back positions though still moving up high and making it hard for Milan to push out and Hamsik moved into midfield allowing Lavezzi to go to the left and Pandev went to the right of the three.

The line ups after all the substitutions had been made

However with an organised defensive shape, Milan weren't threatened enough, with Napoli being laboured on the ball and lacking movement to bring players out of position to create space for central penetration. Milan sat back with a low block though still counter attacked well and created a chance when Emmauelson moved forward quickly on the ball and played a through pass for the diagonal run from Robinho who forced a save from De Sanctis.

Napoli looked more threatening on the left than they did on the right with Zuniga playing with a good intensity and trying to play 'wall passes' behind the defence, something Milan tried in the first half down the flanks. On the right Pandev was cutting onto his left foot, instead of getting to the byline and also released it too slowly, though Maggio made some good runs forward down that side

However they didn't open Milan up and the game ended, probably fairly, in a draw, though it was a surprise to see neither team score.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Sunderland 3-0 Norwich analysis

A good win win for Sunderland at home in a match they dominated right from the start. Norwich never really asserted any offensive control on the game and couldn't penetrate Sunderland well enough.


Sunderland started with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sessegnon playing near Fraizer Campbell up front. Norwich started with their diamond midfield with Hoolahan playing as an attacking midfielder behind Holt and Morison.

First half

The game started scrappily with both teams looking long to their forwards in the air and play was generally not very cohesive. However after a few minutes Sunderland started to assert their control.

One of the things to take into account when facing a narrow diamond formation in midfield is that you can create a 2v1 situation in the wide positions. The first chance of the game came through this, after Richardson and McClean combined on Sunderland's left and played in a cross for Campbell who managed to get an early heading opportunity which went wide. From here on, Norwich struggled in the wide areas with McClean's directness a threat early on and when Sunderland switched from one flank to another, it opened Norwich up down the centre.

Sunderland's two holding players, Colback and Gardner were controlling the midfield area and acting as reference points for Sunderland in attack. With Sessegnon coming to receive the ball to feet and also combining out wide the home side dominated the play and after 19 minutes had had 62% of the possession.

Norwich were severely lacking width in depth when on the attack and on a number of occasions were playing high balls from deep, fairly central positions to try and create openings for Holt and Morison in the penalty area. This created one chance with Morison heading it on for Holt's run behind, who tested the goalkeeper out with Richardson at left back playing him onside.

However Norwich in general were struggling in attack and their play was very 'broken down'. Sessegnon and Campbell were playing fairly close to their midfielders initially when pressing while Norwich's full backs were being pressed well by McClean and Larsson. Because of this, their full backs struggled to move forward and provide width with no wide men being played futher forward because of their diamond formation. When the ball then got played back to the centre backs, Sessegnon and Campbell pressed them well meaning there was very little central penetration. Sunderland were also doing a very good job of staying compact down the centre against Norwich's diamond and this meant that the away side were forced to knock it long for Morison in the air with Holt making diagonal runs behind for the flick on.

Campbell's great strike from outside the area gave Sunderland their first goal after they reacted first to the quick throw and took advantage of a lack of ball pressure from Norwich.

Sunderland's second goal came from a quick incisive counter attack with Sessegnon collecting the ball and turning to run at the defence. With him beating Johnson in midfield, Naughton came across to the centre to close down, leaving space for Campbell on the right. He put in a great ball, with Gardner dragging Ayala away and Sessegnon taking advantage of the space Martin should have been covering, with the right back bizarrely not reacting when the ball was crossed in.

Norwich were very laboured in possession even with Sunderland now sat slightly deeper. Colback and Gardner were keeping control of the space between the lines for Hoolahan who was starting and would continue in the second half to try and move to wider positions to be able to receive the ball because of Sunderland's compact organisation.

 by Guardian Chalkboards 
(Chalkboard showing where Hoolahan was having to go to recieve the ball to feet)

Second half

Sunderland were concentrating more on quick, incisive counter attacks now, sitting deeper and making sure Norwich couldn't penetrate down the middle. Norwich weren't enticing any players out of position and there was still very little width in depth to penetrate in attack.

Sunderland managed to get their third goal, with Norwich again lacking ball pressure and Sunderland finding space behind on the right hand side for Bardsley to exploit and Ayala scored an own goal at the near post.

Naughton, as shown from the second goal, was prone to coming too far inside to close down and Larsson and Campbell were using their pace well to exploit these spaces with diagonal runs, creating another chance with a ball across to the far post where a fourth goal should have been added.

Lambert took off Hoolahan and Johnson just over 15 minutes into the second half with Bennett and Pilkington replacing them and Norwich moved to a 4-4-2 system with Surman and Crofts in the middle. This gave Norwich better width in attack and Pilkington created a chance not long after coming on, making a run behind Bardsley and getting a good cross in for Morison in the air.

Sunderland at this stage were still working very hard and defending from the front. Norwich were struggling to play vertical passes to players between the lines and were also struggling to get past the 'first line of pressing'. They didn't take advantage of their added width, with long diagonal passes having to be played from deep to play them in, instead of a more precise and 'angled' build up. Often though it was knocked long for one of the forwards to get behind with a diagonal run or challenge in the air and with Sunderland winning many of the 'second balls' this approach didn't work either.

In the end Sunderland slowed the tempo down and comfortably saw the game out ending with a deserved clean sheet and three points. A good win for O'Neill's team who looked compact, organised and who attacked with good pace and movement for the entire game.