Following an indifferent first season at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino’s team have clicked into gear. A number of astute transfer decisions have created a deep squad with a number of potential options for Pochettino to utilise. Harry Kane has emerged as a genuine superstar, and Eric Dier has become a full-time defensive midfielder. But one of the key factors in their rise is Pochettino’s tactical system; this ruthless machine of a Spurs team is entirely different from the soft-centred teams of years past.
Who is N’Golo Kanté and what has led to his meteoric rise in the English Premier League this season? Joining Leicester City from recently promoted Caen in France, Kanté joins the list of relatively unknown imports who have made immediate impact at their respective clubs.
In a riveting clash between title contenders Arsenal and Leicester City, Kanté emerged as one of the top performers. He was everywhere; plugging up holes, initiating attacks, making key interceptions and even dribbling in pressure situations. But this doesn’t fully capture the subtleties of Kanté’s game, which allow him to produce what he does.
Alongside Daniel Sturridge, Coutinho’s signing in the January window of 2012/13 invigorated a previously stagnant Liverpool attack. He continued to blossom and played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s assault on the top of the table in 2013/14.
But despite signing as a tricky playmaker, Coutinho has now morphed into a shot monster. He is well in front of any Premier League player in long-range shots, and also ranks 1st in Europe’s top five leagues for 2015/16.
Basic Coutinho stats and their progression during his Liverpool career
Most of Coutinho’s basic stats exhibit a steady trend. That in itself is important to recognise, but more so is understanding why he’s grown in that way.
For the first time in half a decade, Inter Milan are involved in a genuine fight to win Serie A. With Juventus’ struggles in the early parts of this season, it has opened the door to a four-team battle for the title. Napoli have been arguably the most consistent team in Serie A, Juventus has clawed their way back to contention and Inter already have victories over title contenders Roma, and Milan. Roberto Mancini overhauled their squad during the Summer transfer window, and remodeled an attack that was previously based around striker Mauro Icardi. The Argentine had tied Luca Toni for first in goal scoring in Serie A at 22 goals. Adam Ljajic and Stevan Jovetic were captured on loan deals, with big money spent on Ivan Perisic and Geoffrey Kondogbia. Mateo Kovacic was the only main departure.
On the aggregate, Inter Milan’s attack has been acceptable, especially considering the upheaval at hand. Inter rank 8th in Serie A in total shots, 6th in the % of shots coming from the central part of the penalty area and 4th in expected goals for. There’s a bunch more numbers you could pile through and it would turn out in a similar fashion, ranking Inter’s attack as a respectable team but nothing special.
The manner in which they’ve attained this is fascinating. In an era where team attacking movements have never been more intricate, Inter are an outlier with their attacking approach oriented on athletic ability. They’ve switched between multiple formations: a 4-3-2-1, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and recently Roberto Mancini has preferred a double pivot within the 4-2-3-1 formation. The depths of which Inter’s formations have changed has reflected the constant search for a workable formula. So far it hasn’t mattered. They sit top of Serie A. But you get the feeling that the club at times is living on borrowed time with their over reliance on defense, especially in close game situations.
The most striking thing about Inter’s attack is the frantic tempo; constantly looking for passes into their attacking players. Most of the central midfielders that Inter have are broadly classified as athletic ball recyclers with the likes of Felipe Melo, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gary Medel. As a result, teams have often gone to man marking Inter’s central midfield which has forced either the double pivot or the three man midfield to do one of two things: either make a rudimentary pass to a teammate around them or transition the ball quickly to one of the attacking players.
The central midfielders are all fairly uncomfortable against the press, meaning the full-backs most remain slightly deeper to create an easier passing option should they come under any serious pressure. This makes it more difficult to release the full backs into advanced areas.
Inter can still occasionally get their fullbacks into advanced areas, particularly Alex Telles. But this occurs when they play 1v2 with a wide player, or they collect the ball in a non structured situation and advance it high up the pitch.
As a result, Inter have a tough time creating attacks from the back. When teams don’t pressure Inter’s backline, it can look sometimes that they’re bereft of ideas on how to build play from deep. This often leads to ponderous passing and the occasional ambitious long ball from their centerbacks. It gets even more worrisome when the opposition are pressing Inter. Udinese, and at times Fiorentina, pressured against Inter and it caused them to play on the back foot. During the initial stages of the Napoli match, even when Napoli were up 1-0 they hurried the Inter backline. Nagatomo was particularly targeted, and this forced Inter to retreat back to Samir Handanovic using him as a release valve to restart their attack.
Inter’s poor build-up structure and Napoli’s poor press force Murillo into a difficult situation. He has three main options: pass it back to his GK, make a near-suicidal pass to a teammate in the midfield, or hoof it as far as possible.
Very little of the Inter attack goes through the central midfield, and when it does, it’s often forcing the attacking players to receive the ball much deeper than they would like to. It makes sense to get your best players on the ball as much as possible, but the attacking players are much less dangerous when being asked to collect the ball in the midfield with their backs to goal.
When Inter deviate from playing redundant midfield players and instead use Brozovic, they trade defense structure for a bit of offensive spontaneity. Brozovic is a talented dribbler who can get himself out of tight situations with his light feet and in one smooth motion can either pick out a pass to an attacking player, or create the pass that creates an opportunity for a teammate to advance play.
This suggests the best midfield going forward would be utilising Brozovic in a double pivot alongside one of the many destroyers. Geoffrey Kondogbia, for example, thrived last season at Monaco alongside creative midfielders, but has struggled this year in a midfield full of mostly redundant pieces.
Upon transitioning into the opposition half, Inter’s attacking play is largely based on individualism. The likes of Ljajic, Perisic and Jovetic are adept at receiving the ball in somewhat unconventional areas and quickly putting pressure on the opposition with either a pass or dribble. At its best it’s an efficient way of bypassing their weaknesses in the midfield and producing good scoring chances, particularly when the attacking move involve striker Mauro Icardi. Their only goal versus Lazio symbolized that.
This is Inter at their best: a quick tempo involving a defensive action -> quick pass to the attacking three -> ball into Icardi. It’s everything that Roberto Mancini wants Inter to be with the roster he’s accumulated. However, strip out those moments and you find an attack that is often stagnated. It’s the consequences of relying on individualism to paper over the cracks. When the killer passes aren’t available, Inter will still try and force them in and meekly secede possession. Inter also have a penchant for long range shots when things don’t go their way with the club ranking in Serie A’s top 6 in shots from outside the area.
And here’s the big kicker, the attacking structure that Inter have built has come at the expense of their talisman goal scorer Mauro Icardi. Icardi has been dying for service this season. He’s been receiving the ball about as little as a striker of his caliber can and it’s easy to see why. Inter have built an attack that is the antithesis of a poaching striker. Numerous Inter build up plays in the final third involve overloading on either side and a gap in the central area. When that happens, often times there’s little support for Icardi in the areas that a #10 would generally occupy. This means Inter often rely on 30/35 yard passes to create a chance for Icardi.
In theory, a permanent switch to the 4-2-3-1 should help rectify these type of situations going forward. There’ll be times when Icardi will communicate to those around him that he is available for a ground pass, but yet no one will provide him the ball. Even though Jovetic wears the #10 on Inter, he doesn’t play as a nominal #10. He moves around all over the place and occupies different positions playing at times; sometimes like a wide player and at times like a second striker. That type of versatility is needed considering the one dimensional nature of the central midfield, but it can come at the expense of building a consistent rapport with Icardi. He’s also quite happy to let fly outside the box shots if he doesn’t sense anything happening around him.
The 4-0 victory against Frosninone in late November was arguably Inter’s best attacking performance. Three of the goals that came in the second half were created from some beautiful team passing and hinted at what Inter could be if they get their attack going. Ljajic’s role in particular was important because he did the brunt work of the creativity on that night, occupied the #10 areas that Icardi can get service from and generally stayed attached to him. He played a nice 1-2 with him which led to a tap in for Icardi.
Jovetic was also more consistent when playing closer to Ljajic, and although his touches were still spread out, there was more of an emphasis on being closer to Icardi for link up opportunities.
After 17 games, Inter’s attack can be best described as still a work in progress. To their credit they have been ruthless in capitalizing on defensive errors and turning them into goals. Their 4-0 victory over Udinese was a testament to that, as they scored three of their goals from defensive errors by the Udinese backline. Inter are blessed with a couple of hyperactive creative midfielders in Ljajic and Jovetic, while Icardi has still managed to score goals at an impressive rate despite being much more of a supporting player than the main focal point offensively. It’s probably fair to say that the offense still being this choppy is a bit of a concern despite having no European football to deal with, but it’s also fair to say the massive roster upheaval Inter had over the summer means this shouldn’t be a surprise.
The Frosinone performance showed a road map that Inter could head down and find attacking success, but this level of performance needs to be attained against teams with a sturdier defense. In an era where a lot of teams are zigging, Inter are zagging. If the club can find more cohesion going forward, we might be looking at the first Scudetto for Inter since the treble winning season six seasons ago.
Manchester City took on Stoke in a windy afternoon at the Britannia Stadium in what was a prime opportunity to move away from the pack in the race for the title. Stoke’s status as the Premier League’s archetypal tricky away game has perhaps been lessened with the move from Pulis-ball to a slicker passing style of play, but they remain a difficult matchup for every team in the league. Despite Tony Pulis operating in survival mode throughout his time at Stoke, Mark Hughes has truly consolidated Stoke’s position as one of the premium mid-table clubs in the Premier League.
Both teams operated with their standard 4-2-3-1 formations, with Stoke clearly outperforming City and grabbing a deserved 2-0 win. There were a number of issues that Pellegrini’s team suffered that combined to make this a pretty comfortable day for Stoke.
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Initial line-ups: Juventus vs. AC Milan
Massimo Allegri lined his team up in a 4-3-1-2 basic shape. A salida lavolpiana in Juventus’ deep build-up means the central defensive duo, Giorgio Chiellini & Andrea Barzagli, shifted wide and let the central midfielder, either Marchisio or Pogba, collect the ball from Buffon. Stephane Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra were played as the wing backs. In the midfield, Stefano Sturaro and Hernanes played, respectively, as the right 8 and 10. Paulo Dybala was paired with Mario Mandzukic up front.
Juventus, as often, attempted to overload the flanks. The focus on the ball-side area was strong and their horizontal shifting enabled them to have a numerical overload at all times. They often established an overloading that consisted of 6 players which managed to trouble AC Milan’s wide attacks.
Juventus shifting and overloading
Despite their good shifting, there was actually an issue within this phase of play. Juventus – or maybe Hernanes himself – often defended in a 4-3-2-1/4-3-1-2 basic shape, with Hernanes staying slightly higher then the three midfielders. This potentially gave Milan better penetration if their midfielders were more vertical. However, this advantage was rarely utilised.
This issue occasionally occurred in Juventus middle-block press, for example. Their structural block exposed the vertical space between the lines which, in turn, provided some opportunity for Milan to progress by pushing the 8 forward, receiving the ‘wall pass’ from the front line. Take notice of Hernanes’ and Juventus’ central defenders’ positioning:
An illustration of Juventus’ occasionally poorly structured press. Juventus shifting was ruined by the positioning of Milan forward trio as they engaged Juventus defenders. When Romagnoli found the space, he made a forward pass which was picked up by Niang. Hernanes’ positioning also played its own part in the lack of spatial compactness within this Juventus press.
AC Milan fielded a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation, with the two ‘wide’ forwards positioning themselves in central zones rather than keeping the width. The front line was filled by Carlos Bacca in the middle, flanked by Alessio Cerci on the right and M’Baye Niang on the left. Juraj Kucka, Ricardo Montolivo, and Giacomo Bonaventura occupied the midfield and in defense, there were Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonelli, Alex, and Alessio Romagnoli.
In their defensive phase, AC Milan displayed a high-block defense, trying to press Juventus’ deep build-up. In this phase, Milan were focusing on both of Juventus’ central defenders, using them as the orientation of their first wave press. If Juventus managed to bypass this initial press and progress up the pitch, Milan adapted and transformed into a 4-5-1. Here we can see that Juventus tried to exploit the space between the lines; Hernanes or Paulo Dybala occupied the area as they were expected to be the vertical access of Juventus’ progression. Alex was tasked to man-mark Dybala, so it was him to defend against the Juventus striker, meaning he had to step forward. This led to space behind him.
On some occasions, this Alex defensive movement gave Juventus some potential space to move into. One such example occurred in the first half, when Hernanes occupied the space in front of Alex and received a pass. As Milan midfielders failed to stop it and relied on their backward shifting for an intense press would never be a wise decision, Alex had to move out to deal with Hernanes. This created the opportunity for Dybala to get into the space vacated by Alex. Fortunately for Milan, Juventus didn’t capitalize on this opportunity.
On the other hand, the inverted wide forwards within Milan’s defensive formation often proved to be crucial centrally. They helped to create a 4v3 or 4v2 in the central area, stopped the attack as well as builing a more compact shape in case of any immediate counterpressing.
Half time changes
The change, Alex Sandro coming on to replace Patrice Evra, started to take effect in the early minutes of the second-half. Alex Sandro’s verticality was useful as Juventus needed to stretch Milan out wide. He often found moving forward quickly and occupied the potential area for counter-attack. This change which positively-impact on Juventus attack was actually also influenced by the formation change. Juventus now were lined-up in a three central defenders, means their both wing back were given more license to push further forward. The only goal scored by Dybala was a perfect example: a pass from Paul Pogba to the onrushing wing-back ended-up with an assist for Dybala’s goal.
In attack Juventus were more of a 3-5-2, but transformed into a 5-3-2 or even a swing 4-4-2 without the ball, as one of the wing backs was deeper to the other, depending on the position of the ball. With three dedicated central midfielders and two wide-men, Juve were able to focus to the central area which gave some good support for their counterpressing.
In the second-half, Juventus also played with a more direct style in possession.
Milan themselves didn’t seem to change their tactic drastically. Against the ball, in a settled defensive-phase, they utilised an asymmetric 4-3-3/4-3-1-2, but he elementary issue was still there: the spatial compactness. Paulo Dybala and occasionally Paul Pogba, moved into the space between the lines, acting as Juventus’ primary outlet for circulating possession into the final third.
In attacking phases, Milan found it difficult as Juventus pressed them high-up the pitch which forced them to use a lot of long passing play. The other issue here was Juventus managing to isolate the striker, the passing target, as they formed a good shape to deal with not just the long ball, but also the long ball if Bacca was able to make a positive first touch. From such scheme, Juventus created the opportunity for a counter-attack. And as aforementioned, the presence of Juventus’ wing backs had been an important factor for them throughout the second half, being a valuable outlet in counter attacks. The role of these wing backs was to ensure they were available for a pass from the central defenders immediately, and with space to move forward into, they were easily able to progress play.
As they had the lead, Juventus were more comfortable with their defensive play. The involvement of their attackers was another key factor, as has often been the case during the Allegri era. In this phase of play, Juventus were in more of a 5-3-2/5-4-1 shape, with Dybala dropping even deeper and leaving Mandzukic alone forward.
Milan needed to push the equalizer, and this had an effect on their defensive playy. With Juventus lined up in a defensive three, Milan would use a man-oriented press, with the three Milan forwards each marking a Juventus CB. This was largely unsuccessful, as Juventus’ central defenders on the pitch were all capable of playing out of an opposition press. When Juventus beat Milan’s initial press, there was always the chance for Juventus to create numerical superiority in the second-line and quickly progress play.
Once again the forward exhibited his capability of playing at a high level. Dybala dropped deep, picked up the ball, created play, and pressed the opponent with proper gesture and positioning. On some occasions, some of his decision making could have been improved, as he often chose to pass the ball into a less strategically advantageous zone. But, of course, he has shown us how important he is within Juventus’ tactic. More playing minutes, more experience, and Dybala arguably becomes the prime protagonista for Juventus.
Both teams had difficulty creating valuable chances, and this created a drab match.
With this win, Juventus moved up to 6th place and 9 points behind the league leader, Inter Milan. This Wednesday, Juventus will host their important Champions League clash against Manchester City. They have already shown the defensive ability to trouble Man City, but without better final-third penetration it will be hard for Juventus to collect all three points from Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
PSG and Saint Etienne at the Parc De Princes was an intriguing matchup between the huge Ligue 1 favorites and a team that some believe could challenge for a Champions League spot. PSG are a juggernaut but Saint Etienne are also an interesting team. They have taken the mantle from Marseille as perhaps the most aggressive pressing team in France. Of course, their pressing isn’t as frenetic as the Marseille side under Marcelo Bielsa, but it’s quite intense in its own right. With the attacking talent at hand for PSG, utilising that style of play was audacious from Saint Etienne manager Christophe Galtier.
It was the same standard 4-3-3 for PSG but with minor alterations. Layvin Kurzawa and Gregory Van Der Wiel came in at full backs and provided a lot of speed at their position compared to the likes of Maxwell that usually starts for PSG. Adrien Rabiot played instead of Blaise Matuidi for squad rotation purposes. Saint Etienne this season have shifted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation after playing primarily in a 4-3-3 formation to make up for a natural #10 on last season’s team and basing their attack on their wingers.
Saint Etienne’s offensive woes
In many ways, Saint Etienne utilised a very similar gameplan against PSG to the one Marseille used a few weeks ago. ASSE tried to play primarily through the counter and press either when they lost the ball or just got tired of PSG passing between their centerbacks. In comparison to Marseille who mixed their use of pressing, Saint Etienne were more gung-ho about it. In rare instances, Saint Etienne would choose to play a conservative 4-4-2 defensively.
Saint Etienne were appalling going forward, creating very little offensively. 12 of their 14 shots were outside the penalty area and PSG suffocated any attempts of Saint Etienne creating any half decent chances. Just like with Michy Batshuayi, Robert Beric was isolated very often and used as an outlet for Saint Etienne when they wanted to establish possession.
The problem was that when Marseille did similar things with Batshuayi, they would follow it up with actions that were quicker tempo; whether it would be Batshuayi trying to run in behind the centerbacks of PSG or Marseille’s wingers trying 1v1 in an attempt to create quick offense. Saint Etienne did very little of this. Saint Etienne’s passing was non existent and the one time they had a quick combination passing sequence, it netted them their best chance which was an effort from Valentine Eysseric in the 14th minute outside the box that nearly curled in past Kevin Trapp.
PSG deserve credit for Saint Etienne’s attacking woes. PSG gave little to no room for Saint Etienne to work with, and without the individual talent to create something out of nothing, it left Saint Etienne grasping at straws. When PSG weren’t pressuring Saint Etienne after losing the ball, they were willing to drop back slightly and suffocate the space in their own third.
And when Saint Etienne tried to hit PSG on the counter, PSG tracked back and snuffed out any danger.
Angel Di Maria’s centrality
When Real Madrid won its 10th CL title two seasons ago, one of the biggest reasons for their success was that they converted Angel Di Maria into an inside midfielder who would make lambasting runs through the middle. It created a welcome dimension for that Madrid side and it paid dividends in the CL final where Di Maria played a huge role in the Gareth Bale game winner in extra time.
PSG haven’t completely gone the same way with Di Maria, and they may never do what Real Madrid did with Di Maria, but Sunday hinted at the type of damage he could do if allowed to roam in centrally more consistently. We saw signs of it when PSG destroyed Monaco two months ago on Di Maria’s debut for the club including an audacious long ball onto Lavezzi for the third goal in their 3-0 victory. Outside of that, Di Maria has played more or less as your average inverted winger who gets to cut inside with his stronger left foot.
Against Saint Etienne though, it was more the Real Madrid Di Maria that we saw. Though he did play quite a fair bit out wide, he also was allowed to drift inside and almost make it a four man midfield with Cavani as a left forward and Ibrahimovic as a #10/ST. Van Der Wiel’s bombing up and down the right side allowed Di Maria to come in centrally. The third goal in particular was Di Maria at his best, a wonderful throughball to Cavani that led to a tap in for Ibrahimovic.
Performances like this from Di Maria may lead to PSG playing a three man midfield featuring Marco Verratti/Blaise Matuidi/Di Maria, which would arguably be the most dynamic midfield in Europe. Matuidi could make up for Di Maria when he doesn’t fully track back, and it could take advantage of both Verratti and Di Maria’s outstanding ability to create throughball opportunities and PSG have Lucas on the bench so a 4-3-3 formation would still be possible. At the very least, it’s a lineup that could be used domestically without too many repercussions considering the talent at hand.
Bad Pressing: starring Saint Etienne
Pressing against a team as ball dominant as PSG has been attempted before in Ligue 1 recently. Lyon last season in their two 1-1 draws against PSG pressed with the front three of Nabil Fekir, Clinton N’Jie and Alexandre Lacazette. Marseille famously tried an intense man-marking version of pressing against PSG last season and in the second Le Classique last April, it got them a 2-1 lead after 45 minutes in perhaps the biggest game of Ligue 1 last season. With a team like Saint Etienne who don’t have well-renowned offensive talent, using it as a way to create opportunities was a logical idea and if executed properly could lead to maybe 1-2 big chances in open play.
The problem was that it didn’t work for Saint Etienne on two levels. Firstly, their attempt to create a high tempo defensively didn’t frustrate PSG and it didn’t even create chances for themselves in attack. The warning signs were there early on for Saint Etienne. An 10th minute long ball into Ibrahimovic bypassed the Saint Etienne backline with ease and nearly put him on a breakaway. A younger Ibrahimovic would’ve gotten to this ball and had a key opportunity at goal.
Saint Etienne’s backline were consistently trying to play the offside trap and PSG’s attacking trio all had their attempts at getting behind their defense. Two or three more times before the first goal, PSG played direct longballs from their own half, that on another day, could’ve ended up as grade A chances.
The first goal for PSG was a combination of great passing and half-hearted pressing on Saint Etienne’s part.
When Motta receives the ball, Saint Etienne could try and double team him and gamble they could dislodge the ball. Or alternatively they could’ve sat back a little and give Motta some room but try and take out his passing options. Instead, it was a faux-pressing action between the two players closest to Motta that allowed him to pass it to Rabiot and it eventually ended up in a Verratti throughball onto Kurzawa. It also didn’t help that Monnet-Paquet didn’t smell out the danger and track Kurzawa’s run and then Francois Clerc gave a poor attempt at tackling Kurzawa just before he got 1v1 with Ruffier. Again, it was great bit of passing from PSG and it was the type of movement and tempo that they can do on a consistent basis against any defense in France. But it was helped by Saint Etienne’s indecision.
More of this happened in the second half when Saint Etienne continued to play a high line against PSG and repeatedly got burned. Di Maria was played in via a lovely back heel by Ibrahimovic and could’ve made it 2-0.
For a team that has been known for its solidarity defensively over the past few seasons, Sunday night was one of Saint Etienne’s worst defensive performances under Galtier.
Saint Etienne were awful against PSG on both facets. Defensively, they surrendered eight big chances against PSG and gave up an expected goal tally of 4.03, by far their worst number in a single game this season. Going forward they only had two shots in the penalty area and one big chance created. It was a case of having the right idea but a very low bar in terms of the execution at play. PSG picked apart Saint Etienne’s press and suffocated their attack when Saint Etienne tried to create. It was a poor display for a supposed CL contender in Saint Etienne and it showed just how limited they can be against top opposition, which they haven’t had too much of with their easy schedule so far this season.
For PSG it was another further statement as to how far above they are talent wise over the rest of Ligue 1 which was already very well known, and it showed us a window into how PSG could incorporate Angel Di Maria centrally. His movement was excellent and his performance overall was reminiscent of his heyday at Real Madrid and even his first few performances with Manchester United. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had arguably his best game in months and it was a throwback performance, with his willingness to run in behind defenders along with his tendency to drop deep and play as a faux #10. It’s probably too much to ask of him to play like this a lot, but PSG don’t need him to.
It was a very thorough demolition by PSG; the type of performance that shows why some people think of them as one of the top five teams in European football this season.
Arsenal overcame Bayern Munich in a match few expected them to win. In a calculated tactical display, Arsene Wenger’s team sat deep and used impressive counter-attacks to cause Guardiola’s team a number of problems.
There cannot be any doubts about the quality of Arsenal’s general co-ordination in the attacking organisation phase. But these are not skills that would be needed often against Bayern; this would be a completely new challenge. When Arsene Wenger’s team have been presented with these challenges previously, they have generally faltered. He has been accused of naivety, but his approach to the game against Bayern proved that Wenger is capable of altering his tactical approach should the situation demand.
Bayern’s main threat, much like Arsenal, comes in the attacking organisation phase. And as a result, Arsenal would spend much of the game without possession. Their approach to dealing with this changed throughout the game.
Jurgen Klopp’s arrival in England was met with much fanfare, with supporters eager to see whether his Liverpool team would play at a higher intensity than the one Brendan Rodgers finished with. Initial reports suggested Liverpool would operate with a 4-2-3-1, but the roles of James Milner & Emre Can created an interesting shape with & without the ball.
Roger Schmidt opted for a pair of poachers, Stefan Kießling & Javier Hernández, as his striker duo. In the middle line, as a response to fitness issues for Lars Bender, Schmidt started Kevin Kampl to accompany Christoph Kramer shielding the back line. For Dortmund, in the absence of Marco Reus, Thomas Tuchel opted to play Jonas Hofmann. Matthias Ginter started as the right back meaning Lukas Piszczek stayed on on the bench.
Immediately after/when Dortmund started to play out of back, Leverkusen shaped with their “normal” pressing set-play, which consisted of four pressing sequences. The first wave was generated by Kießling who pressed the ball carrying center defender (CD), sometimes depending on the ball position and game development, Hernández occasionally took the task of pressuring the ball carrying CD. When the first 9 put the pressure on the Dortmund’s CD, the other one had to make sure (1) he nullified the working space for Dortmund’s six who dropped deep in this 1st phase of build-up and (2) be ready for the second sequence when the other CD got involved in the build up.
If Dortmund’s CD insisted to play through the middle, to any central midfielder, Leverkusen’s six would come up and close him down. By taking notice on Kevin Kampl’s pressing orientation it was clear that his initial duty in this pressing-scheme was keeping close to Ilkay Gundogan.
By occupying centrally both Leverkusen’s wide-men blocked the diagonal option to the wing plus the middle press assisted by the twin 6, it was never easy Dortmund to try to overload the area across their six to overcome such pressing. All of these wide-men and six pressing manner of leverkusen can be considered as the 3rd and 4th sequence.
Dortmund reacted well as they had their own plan of dealing with this: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was the outlet. He moved to the 8, in his role in this positional play, to provide the 3rd passing lane as well as receiving the pass from the ball carrying CD. His movement often gave his team the opportunity to transition quickly into offense. By using Aubameyang as the outlet, there were two main advantages gained by Dortmund. The first, Jonathan Tah had to follow him which meant the Leverkusen’s CD left his post in the back line. And second, it allowed Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jonas Hofmann to stay on the upper half-space or flank both to maintain the possibility of tight ball-circulation or stretch the opponent’s defense.
When Aubameyang was not able to drop-deep in his effort of creating the “3rd line scheme”, caused by his too-high-up-pitch position for example, it was Shinji Kagawa who presented himself on the left half-space at 8. The way he was able to receive the pass from Hummels was based on two major factors. First, the asymmetrical diamond-positioning of Hummels, Weigl, Schmelzer & Kagawa, which loosened Leverkusen 2nd line compactness. The second biggest support was the bad performance of Christoph Kramer. It was he and Kampl tasked with securing any through or direct pass to the central midfield, but in many occasions Kramer made individual mistakes which allowed Dortmund to keep the possession and progress more easily. In short, followed by a quick attacking transition, Dortmund often seemed to benefit from this positional play.
As mentioned in the paragraph above, the issue of Leverkusen’s press was the individual mistake which contributed to a lack of stability within the press. This was evident at 32:12 (one example of many). A good pressing shape had created a 4v2 situation in favor of Leverkusen. They managed to isolate Kagawa from others, as Leverkusen clearly got better ball access. Kagawa mis-controlled the pass from Mkhitaryan which should’ve allowed Kießling to regain possession, but this did not happen. The 9 missed the opportunity and allowed Kagawa to regain the loose ball.
When Leverkusen played this pressing-scheme properly, they managed to force Dortmund to play long ball which Leverkusen would be happier to deal with. In some occasions, Dortmund seemed to find the way through this pressing-scheme by playing to the wide. But here was issue for Tuchel to pay more attention on. It was Dortmund’s right hand-side looked to be more susceptible, possibly as the consequence of Dortmund left side focus which in turn made their left side overloading to be more stable.
Matthias Ginter was found in occasions to misplace his pass when he was used as the ball progression point in Dortmund’s 1st to 2nd phase of deep build-up. One such examples occurred in the 40th minute. Roman Burki played it long to the right touchline into the middle third. Ginter (the target) played a one touch header to Gundogan in a difficult position. Leverkusen’s twin CMs, wide man, and 9 could immediately overload Gundogan, regain possession, and quickly shifted the ball into the centre of the pitch. It gave good access for Leverkusen to generate the gegenpressing, retaking control of the ball, and attacking the opened space in the center.
Leverkusen overloaded Gundogan.
Overall, Ginter missed six (more than Schmelzer did) of his ‘1st phase build-up’ passes. All this six-pass we’re talking here was received directly from the back line and was almost immediately pressed. The pressing intensity and Dortmund bad overloading around the right hand side seemed to cause a difficult situation for Ginter.
Thomas Tuchel is the one to identify the root cause. He needs to reduce such potential weakening variable, as he also makes sure that Ginter is “pressing-resistant enough” to keep his place within his juego de posicion.
Leverkusen’s attacking issue
When they got the pressing to work successfully, Leverkusen would make a quick counter attack (if possible) as they seemed to want to exploit the opponent’s transition phase. Their key weapons in such counter attack were their indented winger (in 4-4-2 box shape) and intelligent inverting movement by the full back.
The indented winger made sure to avoid Leverkusen from being underloaded in the central area. The wingers were also used as the transition point (wall-pass) of the diagonal play. The winger would move from a central area to the flank to play short-quick combination with the attacking full back. When the full back (Wendell for example) needed to transitition centrally, this winger would be the one to occupy the half-space, enable the wall pass, and open the space for the full back to move diagonally to the 18 yard box. The situation from 27th minute was the perfect example of this.
Leverkusen, for sure, would prefer to build patiently from their own third instead of rushing into a questionable long ball. But Dortmund never allowed Leverkusen to play this well. Every time Dortmund got the chance to press the goalkeeper, they would be more than happy to do it. Aubameyang was the first layer in this scheme and Dortmund benefited from such play as it created issue within Leverkusen early build-up phases.
One to note, such pressing needs some adjustment within the formation to avoid numerical inferiority. By pressing the opponent’s goal keeper Tuchel knew they would lose one outfield player that was needed for overloading and second-ball battles as well. This was why Dortmund always tried to overload the area of where the ball fell onto by narrowing their back line shape, to allow any of their CD to move out to the intermediate-defense area to duel with Kießling (as the prime long ball target). This intermediate-play was supported by the backward movement of the central midfielders (CM) or the indenting wide-men.
Dortmund defending against the long ball. They defended well against it. They won many of the second ball battles, followed by secure ball circulation, and leading to some promising attacking scenes. (05:48)
With this, Dortmund managed to nullify any potential play that might be generated from Kießling’s aerial ability (something Lazio failed to prevent from in their Champions League play-off clash). With Kießling to be considered as the main threat (and prime Leverkusen long ball target) it was crucial to eliminate all his direct involvement in any aerial duel.
Based on the aerial duel map from squawka.com, Kießling won 4 of 11 aerial duels. When we take a closer look at all of these 11 scenes, we’ll figure out that Leverkusen would struggle at ball-recovery. Dortmund made 5 straight away recoveries at the first touch of the second ball claim. 2 recoveries were made 5 seconds or less after the duel was done. And 1 other recovery was made 7 seconds after the aerial duel. While Leverkusen recovered 3 of them.
One can say Dortmund’s central midfield spatial compactness had contributed hugely to the ball-recovery action. 6 of the 8 recoveries were recorded by the 3 CMs with 2 others (of 8) made by Roman Burki and Marcel Schmelzer. The positional structure in a narrow shape had been a very big contributor in this matter.
Dortmund defensive strength
Dortmund’s pressing was based on their 4-5-1/4-1-4-1. In general, the variant they used was an option-oriented one which occasionally looked like it was space-oriented, particularly when their own far-side half-space/flank was not occupied by the opponent’s players. In this very specific situation, Dortmund’s 4-5-1 tried to occupy 3 horizontal spaces (near flank/half-space, and center).
But the story was different since the opponent occupied the far half-space/flank, as shown on the graphic below.
As the left side was not occupied, Mkhitaryan looked to squeeze the right side space. Different defensive-manner would be taken along with the forward movement by Giulio Donati. Mkhitaryan would have moved closer to the half-space or even to the far-flank to deal with any attack from Donati. The identical defensive action had also been shown by Marcel Schmelzer; he man-marked Hernández on the farthest side.
As the 3 CMs tried to block any pass through the center, some space was allowed between the middle and back line. To reduce the potential exploitation to this space, Hummels was the one to deal with any threat occurred around the intermediate-defense.
Hummels (and the other Dortmund defenders) ability of defending the intermediate area was an integral part of Dortmund’s tight defense. This was extremely important as the intermediate(-defense) is a strategically crucial area of breaking the opponent’s defensive block. A pass to this intermediate area could potentially ruin the compactness as it always invites or lures the back line to move out and press. This has been the natural occurrence of the intermediate area reaction to any pass which is played onto its territory.
A pass to the intermediate middle (especially to the center or half-space) and its potential response (press from RCM or RAM) of the defending team’s midfielders, eases the potential penetration either by the LM or LCF. Any forward press by the RCM will open the space in the more centrally area. A press from the RAM might open the space on the flank.
Often during their 2nd line press, Dortmund 3 CMs pressed collectively to the same space in order to block any opposition progression. In turn, this created some space in the intermediate-defense. Here the capability of defending the intermediate-defense is crucial.
The level of direct threat towards the goal of such pass is raising as if the pass is played to the intermediate-defense, particularly in a deep area (zone 5 or penalty box). As you can see in the graphic below.
A scene from the Dortmund vs Monchengladbach match. Lars Stindl managed to find the way through the center and the ball went straightly to Rafael. The striker made a one touch pass to his left which was intercepted by Mats Hummels.
Such play has two polar opposite sides. On one side, with great anticipation, decision and composure of the CD, the defense will stay stable, as they could move out at the proper timing to stop any threat. On the other hand, the potential exploitation of such huge space remains there, particularly by a needle-players whose on-ball technique and quick decision are the true strengths of them.
Compact defense, offensive play, and half-space feature
Dortmund’s defense and its relation to attacking transition was also supported well by their flexible basic shape of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1/4-5-1. The 3 CMs, Kagawa, Gundogan, and Weigl quick transition and their staggering to each other was the key. Combined with the narrow shape, Dortmund gained a lot of advantages as they reach good level of horizontal and vertical compactness.
A high-up press forced Kyriakos to play it long. As discussed earlier, Dortmund were very capable of dealing with it. The pass was intercepted by Sokratis. In his positioning of keeping the shape remained vertically-compact, Weigl was able to recover it and play it forward to Gundogan. These 3 CMs staggered in a triangle shape often found to be effective in regards to their need of tight and save ball circulation. This is evident in the above graphic. A one touch passing play between Weigl, Gundogan, and Kagawa had provided nice diagonal passing combination and provided a good attacking space for Dortmund. Aubameyang noticed the opportunity and he shifted fast to the far half-space to receive Kagawa’s diagonal through ball. Despite this situation ending up without a goal, one thing is clear; the extreme narrow defense, good level of vertical compactness, staggering positioning among the CMs which generated diagonality had achieved its purpose.
Another brilliant scene was the sequence of play within the 55’s minute. Started by a Sokratis forward pass to the right hand-side, Dortmund began their attack. A compact press of Leverkusen halted the progression. Dortmund needed a square or backwards pass. A good movement by Weigl to the upper-right half-space provided a back-diagonal passing lane for Mkhitaryan. It then allowed the ball to be shifted from the ball-side half-space to the far half-space of where Kagawa and Hummels alternately occupied on. This suddenly opened a strategic progression as Hummels played it forward to Mkhitaryan, who also occupied the half-space in the final-third. From his position, Mkhitaryan gained a diagonal passing chance. He straightly played it diagonally to Aubameyang who in a very good view to the goal as the 9 had its face towards the goal.
For additional information, below is the graphic of passing comparison. The graphic is taken from the 5-serial analysis on half-space (in Indonesian) from September 2015, at fandom.id. If you want to read another recommended analysis on half-space you can go to Rene Maric’s.
With the graphic above as the benchmark, we gain :
Another perfect example? The second goal. It was Mats Hummels with his 26 meter visionary diagonal pass to Aubameyang in the central circle of the upper middle-third. Leverkusen regained possession but in no more than 5 seconds Hofmann’s gegenpressing regained it. Ginter recovered it and made a forward pass to Hofmann. With a quick turn-around, Hofmann briliantly took on Kyriakos on the right byline. A cut back from the right winger was made to Gundogan, who occupied the near-ball half-space. Gundogan made a simple pass, from half-space to the center, to Mkhitaryan. The Armenian couldn’t miss it anymore, as his diagonal pass rightly reached Kagawa who slotted the second goal. Diagonality, positional structure, and gegenpressing played their part to the max.
Half-space and triangle shape had been a lot discussed in various tactical pieces as the key of Dortmund’s switch play. Achieving the right-timing of the combination of near-ball half-space and near-ball flank occupation created the triangle allowing to switch. Dortmund applied this very well. The other nice and interesting set-play in Dortmund’s switch-play is their occasional far-flank overloading, as shown in this match.
There were several moments to see that Leverkusen were not prepared well for such a situation. But we take these two moments as the example. 1. the 9th minute. Before Mkhitaryan switched diagonally from ball-side half-space to the far half-space, Jonas Hofmann filled the far half-space. Then he moved to the center when the diagonal ball was released to reach Matthias Ginter who moved gradually from deeper to final third flank. Leverkusen’s left side defense had been broken by the right-timing movement by Hofmann and the late-arriving Ginter. 2. In the 22nd minute, Dortmund moved and overloaded even more intelligently, as both Ginter and Hofmann overloaded the far flank and created 2v1 situation.
The white arrows with straight line indicate the man-orientation on Leverkusen zonal marking. Special case applies to Wendell. The far-flank overloading had given him an additional task which split his focus, either to stay with Ginter or to follow Hofmann. The behaviour of Calhanoglu was a sign that his movement was not a planned one, which would also suggest Leverkusen were not well prepared for this situation.
Horizontal and vertical compactness, intermediate-defense play, and half-space occupation had given Dortmund a secure defense as well as a flexible & quick transition between their defensive and offensive play. This meant the stable gegenpressing was ready to be generated whenever Dortmund needed to.
If there is a striker to be considered as an underrated one, it is Aubameyang. Last season, a piece by Colin Trainor of statsbomb.com on Dortmund’s flop shows us despite Dortmund’s flop, it could be suggested that Aubameyang still performed decently as he maintained the level of his statistic performance.
Many people recognize Aubameyang as a speed-merchant. The one with light-speed run who is versatile enough to play both on as a wide forward and central striker. This season, under Tuchel’s guidance, Aubameyang seems to be becoming better than ever. In his role as a false 9, his involvement in preventing his team from being isolated (particularly in Dortmund’s 1st phase of build-up) was fascinating. His contribution to build-up is fantastic.
In the above graphic, Dortmund’s back line (particularly Hummels as the ball carrier) was isolated and might be forced to play it back to Burki, Dortmund’s goalkeeper. But his composure allowed him to be patient and calm to observe any potential open space. Aubameyang understood this and dropped off to the 8 zone to create a potential passing lane. The false 9 accommodated the play away from pressure and isolation whilst quickly followed by a promising offensive action against the lacks stability of the press as he lured the press and managed to play the ball to Kagawa.
The initial movement by Aubameyang had in turn ended up with this (promising) attacking scene.
Dortmund’s second goal was also a nice example of how crucial Aubameyang’s role was, both in preventing the deep build up from being isolated as well as the check-point of Dortmund’s ball progression.
Again, by dropping off to the 8 zone, Aubameyang provided a “new” passing lane for Hummels. This movement was not directly connected to the Dortmund’s 2nd goal, as Leverkusen briefly regained possession for 5 seconds before Dortmund managed to retake it and scored. But it was clear, without Aubameyang intelligent movement, Dortmund might not be able to easily progress the ball, which means Kagawa may never have scored the second goal.
Aubameyang mobility throughout the match had been a huge positive factor contributing to Dortmund’s progression. He dropped deep, got himself involved in a duel, made recoveries, moved from flank to flank, opened the space either by a pass from various strategical areas or his off the ball movement. Along with Shinji Kagawa, Aubameyang deserves the man of the match award.
Anything else to say but ‘brilliant’ for Tuchel’s team? Dortmund played their football to the maximum level. They stopped Leverkusen from playing out of the back, they squeezed the central area, and their chances creation in the penalty box is simply top level. For a brief look you can see an xG graphic created by Michael Caley.
Separated by next two matches, FC Bayern will play Dortmund at Allianz in the match day 8th of Bundesliga. A potentially to be the match of the season. A classic clash of the highest level of German clubs competition.
For deeper understanding of Dortmund’s Tuchel, you should check out spielverlagerung’s works. You can find a lot of worth reading Dortmund-related pieces there. And, for sure, Pep’s Confidential or any juego de posicion articles (with Adin Osmanbasic’s as a highly-recommended one). Cheers.