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.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Stoke v Liverpool analysis

Yet another sign of inconsistency from Liverpool. The comfortable 4-0 thrashing of Fulham seems a long time ago and Wednesday night's performance goes another way to show just how far they have to go if they want to be in the Champions League. Over the last two and a half seasons, Liverpool have put in their three worst half season performances in the Premier League - 25 points from the first 19 league games of Roy Hodgson's and Brendan Rodgers' tenures and a mere 18 points in the second half of last season under Kenny Dalglish.

Stoke pressing

Since the start of the season, there has been a very obvious way to attack Liverpool. The short passing build up at the back with the centre backs opening up and the full backs moving into the midfield line has been exposed even since the pre-season game against Roma. In that game, Jay Spearing was shown to be vulnerable in the role as the pivot in front of the centre backs. Roma’s high press caused numerous problems in that area and the space between the backline was then exploited quickly. 

Since then opposition teams have gone into games realising that winning the ball in midfield can be a key defensive and attacking weapon against Liverpool. If you press high: a) Liverpool don’t have the quality on the ball to consistently retain possession under high pressure. And b) there is a large amount of space between the back four if you do win it. 

Tony Pulis came out with two main plans off the ball. The first was the high collective pressing of Liverpool’s build up from the back. 

 Here, Jones and Walters have forced the ball back to Reina in the Liverpool goal. As he plays it short to Agger, Stoke continue their press.

Liverpool continue their short passing game from the back, allowing Stoke to confine the area and make the pitch small. Each player in the passing line is marked by a Stoke player, restricting Liverpool's build up.

Shelvey comes too deep to receive possession from Agger and is immediately faced with a difficult situation. Stoke are marking each player available to Shelvey, whose options are limited because he has been forced to face his own goal. Under pressure from two Stoke players, one from behind and one from in front, he loses the ball. That regain for Stoke led to two minutes of pressuring Liverpool in their own half which resulted in them taking the lead.

A lot was made during the game of this aggressive pressing from Stoke. Without doubt it had a big impact on Liverpool's capacity to build up in the first two phases of possession. However, high pressing is not enough to defend for the whole 90 mins when you only have 42% possession. You will always have to drop off and withstand pressure in your own half. And Stoke organised this well.

 Here you can see Stoke have withdrawn to a fairly low compact block in their own half, a complete contrast to the way they pressed Liverpool high up the pitch. Here Lucas has plenty of time and space in midfield. Not a single Stoke player is trying to close him down. Instead they are trying to retain a good solid shape behind the ball and mark the players within the passing line for Lucas. In short, they are prioritising the possible players to receive the ball rather than the man on the ball.

Lucas plays a square pass to Enrique on the left. This acts as a trigger for Stoke to pressure again. Suarez comes short but is marked by a defender, as is Shelvey behind him. Enrique begins to be put under light pressure while Walters moves across to mark Lucas.

As it's played back to Lucas, he is now under pressure from Walters. Meanwhile, Stoke again are marking the players in the passing line - Enrique, Shelvey and Suarez coming short are tracked.

This marking forces Lucas into a risky forward pass to Suarez who can't control the ball under pressure from behind and Stoke regain.

Another example is shown here

Lucas (circled) has the ball under no pressure in midfield. The four players ahead of him are all individually marked. Again Stoke are prioritising the players in the passing line rather than the player on the ball.

Lucas switches it short to Gerrard, also under no pressure from the Stoke midfield. He plays it across to the left to Enrique.

As Enrique receives it, he plays it short to Suarez who is being marked by the centre back. The ball is returned to Enrique yet the centre back stays with Suarez. Notice how deep the other centre back and left back are for Stoke, despite the space left behind Suarez's marker. As Enrique receives the ball, Gerrard begins to make a run beyond Suarez.


As Gerrard makes the run past Suarez towards the open space, Suarez's marker backs off him to deal with Gerrard's run and Enrique is forced to play it back to Lucas who is now being closed down.

Lucas recieves it under pressure and ends up playing a loose pass out of play for a Stoke throw in.

There were a few ways for Liverpool to deal with this system. One of them was by direct running at players. If a player granted space in the middle could make a run forward under no pressure, then he could break Stoke's organisation.

Agger picks up possession at the back. Again, instead of being closed down, Stoke are concentrating on marking the possible players he could pass to. Consequently, Agger has plenty of space to run into without being put under any pressure at all from a Stoke player.

As he goes over the halfway line, this strategy is even more clearly shown. In the first shot, Walters is the natural player to go and close Agger down. Yet instead, he retreats in the middle. Suso and Suarez (circled) are being tracked individually by their markers. Not a single player is going to close the man on the ball down. Instead Stoke are prioritising the front players who could receive the ball by marking them individually. Only as Agger gets a full twenty yards into the Stoke half, does he get put under any pressure.

This concentration on individual marking has consequences. In an interview in August, Luis Suarez made an interesting point about the exploitation of space. Asked to expand on a remark he had made about teams in England being tactically poor he said:

"If I am playing centre forward here and I drop off the front into this area, both centre backs might come with me in England. And then a team-mate can go into the space and be one on one with the goalkeeper."

The chief innovator of how teams mark in open play, Arrigo Sacchi, has said on many occasions that the main focus for a defender has to be the space rather than the man. Following the man has consequences.

Lucas has the ball in the midfield. Again he is under no pressure. Stoke are concentrating on closing down the area for the forward pass to go.

Suso makes a movement towards the left, opening up space for the pass to Suarez coming between the lines.

Here is a great example of precisely the sort of move Suarez talked about in the quote earlier. As the ball is played into him coming short, he is double marked by two Stoke defenders. This leaves open space behind him to be exploited.

As Suarez returns the pass to Lucas, Shelvey makes a run behind into the space that has been created. Lucas goes for the ball over the top which Shelvey can't quite get under control. This was arguably Liverpool's best move of the half and showed the sort of movements they had to make in order to penetrate Stoke.

Sloppy Liverpool

However this did not happen often enough and Liverpool were too sloppy, with and without the ball. The right thing for them to do was to starve Stoke of the ball, stretch them horizontally by switching the play and take advantage of the space between the lines. Instead, Liverpool gave possession away too easily, allowing Stoke to put the centre backs under pressure with long balls. There were other tactical problems as well. Shelvey sometimes came too deep to recieve the pass, which isolated Suarez. They didn't make the best of the space created on the outside by the wingers moving inside. Nor did they use the space behind the full backs on the counter attack. In short, although Stoke were very good, Liverpool didn't exploit their weaknesses.

Brendan Rodgers brought Sterling on at half time in order to try and stretch Stoke in the wide areas. It was the right substitute to bring on (albeit possibly the wrong player to bring off in Suso) and it almost paid off immediately when he stretched Stoke within two minutes of the restart crossed it to Suarez who could have scored. Apart from that, Liverpool didn't particularly use Sterling very well. On a number of occasions he pulled wide and deep for the switch of play so he could get 1v1 with the full back. However, this pass was often neglected and he then had to move inside in order to create space for Enrique moving forward on the outside.

Could Rodgers have done more other than that? In hindsight he might have started with three centre backs in order to provide cover against Walters and Jones. However, he couldn't have foreseen Agger's poor performance nor Liverpool's general lack of intelligence. Instead this match will have proved to Brendan Rodgers that Liverpool have to have reinforcements in order to perform more consistently. Without that, they'll stay a mid-table side.