Barcelona oscillate between verticality and ball-retention in a post-Xavi world

The Club World Cup has come to represent a watermark for Barcelona teams in different phases of their sporting shelf-lives.

In 2006, Ronaldinho was anonymous, as he had been since the team’s Champions’ League-and-Liga winning heights a few months previously, when Barcelona crashed to S.C. Internacional in Japan. That game seemed merely a portend of the decline that was to set in.

The Joan Laporta era is associated with such a spirit of renaissance and success; who now remembers that Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard enjoyed, at most, three good-to-excellent seasons and two mediocre-to-woeful ones? That surely must have weighed on Pep Guardiola’s mind as he watched his team cap an outstanding era by winning the 2011 edition of the Intercontinental gong against Santos.

Unlike 2006, Barça’s 2011 win represented a zenith for that footballing project and yet just a few months later the crunch games in La Liga and the Champions’ League saw Barça tamed, frustrated or even outclassed. Guardiola had seen the writing on the wall, but if his end-of-season resignation seems less surprising on reflection, many will be kicking themselves for not having recongised the on-pitch manifestations of the coach’s diagnosis whereby he tried to assuage his team’s deterioration.

The second half of the 2011-12 season saw Barcelona adopt some pretty leftfield or lobsided formations that many people put down to eccentric tinkering, or perhaps a desire on Guardiola’s part to shake things up and reinvigorate his team. But a closer look reveals a series of attempts by the coaching staff to address specific problems in the team’s play, problems they believed would cost them their hegemony, as would eventually prove to be the case. After all, few would deny that these past two years we’ve been witnessing the unravelling of the original Guardiola project.

The successive reigns of Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino have only reinforced this perception and might best be interpreted as an exercise in managing imperial decline as the club hierarchy grapples with the riddle of which direction to take in a post-Xavi world. Assuming they wish to perpetuate the tried-and-trusted Barça model of play, the answer ought to be simple: promote from within the ranks, or go out and sign, a younger version of Xavi. Alas, such heirs are thin on the ground. And although this writer believes that Barcelona missed a trick by not snapping up João Moutinho before Jorge Mendes landed him in Monaco (the 2010-2013 Porto side played within a Barça-esque structure), there simply isn’t available the specific profile of a possession-consuming, all-pitch covering interior midfielder suited to inciding upon the play in a triangle-based team that Barça is predicated upon.

When Barça move the ball quickly and efficiently, with Xavi at the heart of it, its players adopt better positions in the attack which ultimately aids them to defend better: passing angles are clearer and less likely to be interrupted; the entire team meshes closer together when exchanging passes and is therefore better placed to obstruct an opponent’s path to progressing when possession is handed over.

Throughout early 2012, Barcelona were haemorraging rival attacks as their pressing slackened off and opponents found time and space behind Xavi and Iniesta, and not even necessarily during counter-attacks. Never suited to desperately seeking recomposure whilst running back towards their own goal,  one device that Guardiola used to stem the bleeding was something that he had experimented during that World Club Cup final: soak up the ball by flooding the midfield and perpetuate possession. To many, this shape and its underlying attitude (fig.1) appeared to be Barcelona engaging in self-parody. A version thereof (fig.2) was used in away league games and in the Champions League, and to neutrals perhaps it whiffed of excessive caution, not that Guardiola would deny a streak of pragmatism as being necessary for competitivity.

Figure i)
Figure i) Barça’s lopsided and midfield-centric shape vs Santos, World Club Final, December 2011

Above (Fig 1): Guardiola finds a way to maximise possession; a dry-run for what was to come …

And below (Fig 2): with only Alexis Sánchez to push back the opposing defence, the overriding maxim versus big rivals was safety through possession and numbers in midfield.

Figure ii): Barça's line-up versus Chelsea, Champions League semi-final home leg, April 2012.

Figure ii) Barça’s line-up versus Chelsea, Champions League semi-final home leg, April 2012.

The other solution that Guardiola provided was Jekyll to the previous one’s Hyde: instead of ball-hogging, more like a spot of pinball. Forget inverted wingers and overlapping full-backs, now the maxim was for two quick, vertical forwards (from Pedro, Alexis, Cuenca and Tello) to taunt the laws of physics by pushing the opposing backline deeper (with their pace) as well as stretching it to breaking point. The desired effect: to thwart the centre-backs from stepping out to harry Messi and the Barça playmakers (lest they risk thinning an already stretched line and allow runners to dart throught the gaps). More central space opens up for Messi and Fàbregas to exchange passes and glide past opposing defensive midfielders on a vertical route towards goal.

Below (Fig 3): the crab formation with three defenders, a midfield pentagona and two aggressive forwards stationed out wide. Space for Messi and Fàbregas as Barça lurched from a possession game to pinball towards the end of 2011-12

Barça's crab-like formation for when Guardiola wanted to maximise verticality

Figure iii) Barça’s crab-like formation for when Guardiola wanted to maximise verticality

The net effect: with both Messi and Fàbregas inhabiting  and interchanging in a limbo between false-nine and No.10, Barcelona’s jinetes (named for the type of light, quick-raiding cavalry that characterised medieval Iberian warfare) who were stationed out wide were now the furthest players forward. A return diagonal pass from the wings meant that Messi received the ball whilst already facing goal – no need to turn and therefore a precious fraction of a second to weigh-up his options made him all the more lethal.

Tito Vilanova’s reign as head coach saw the same double-edged strategy: up until Christmas 2012, Barcelona racked up points utilising the maximum verticality approach: it was a considerably less precise game than that which they had practised from 2008-2011 during the height of Xavi’s effectiveness. Although Tito deployed the ‘double 10 + jinetes’ attack, he preferred to field a back four than to reprise the back three of Guardiola’s  ‘crab formation’  (fig 4).

Aggression trumping possession, this time with a back four.

Figure iv) urgency trumping possession, this time with a back four.

Above (Fig 4): under Tito as well as Tata, Barcelona spent the first halves of the past two seasons with the more direct style and the team assuming risks while spread out over greater distances, confident they’d rarely be outgunned.

Higher velocity passing over greater distances meant slightly diminished accuracy, but that was less frequently punished in the bread-and-butter encounters versus most league opponents. Sure, Barça might concede a handful of counters but they could always outscore the opponent through sheer volume of firepower. Vilanova, however, was hardly naïve; he knew the business end of the season was approaching and that this rushed-attack and its tendency  to concede more turnovers would surely be punished by more formidable foes.

And so the return to the ball-hogging, possession maximising shape as the crunch encounters of early 2013 ensued. One of the jinetes was sacrificed so that Iniesta and Fabregàs could coincide along the left; one less attacker, one extra midfielder and thus with Messi dropping back and Iniesta drifting, Barcelona congested the centre with ball-players (fig.5). If this was a premeditated attempt to premanently take the sting out of the game, surely Barcelona would lack incision against deeper defences? Again, Messidependency came into play. When the collective quality of the offense waned, Messi’s individual brilliance would redeem all.

By removing one direct forward and populating the midfield, and reducing distances between sectors, Barça hoped to minimise opponents' interceptions

Figure v) by removing one direct forward and populating the midfield, and reducing distances between sectors, Barça hoped to minimise opponents’ interceptions

   Above (Fig 5): both Vilanova and Martino have adapted this more possession approach at the business end of their respective seasons

But this didn’t make Barça any less vulnerable to quality teams. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich took almost sadistic delight in mixing clever ball-circulation and intimidatory athleticism to discomfort the blaugrana as the Vilanova season drew to a forlorn close. Barça pushed up as a team, tried to keep all sectors weaved together, but were simply conceding too much space behind them. Half-confused, they’d signal the retreat back towards their own goal which is an alien language to a team couched in early ball-recovery, but this only served to open up gaps between the lines. The opponents’ ball-circulation disected them and found space behind Xavi and Iniesta who offered scant protection for the full-backs.

Tata Martino has found much the same state of affairs during his first season at the helm. Starved (obtusely, some might say) of meaningful, paradigm-shifting signings, inheriting the much the same human material only a year older, and having to walk on eggshells around the delicate issue of the decline of symbolic players, Martino has not been in a position to offer us a view of what his Barcelona would truly be like. How he would love to have at his disposal a younger Xavi or a new imitation. Instead he has accepted the hand he was dealt and just come up with the only plausible solutions he can make work.

Interestingly, this has meant a continuation of the Jekyll-and-Hyde approach. Yes, there have been some innovations, such as the occassional fielding of a more physical interior (Alex Song or Sergi Roberto) to aid Busquets in the destructive arts – a sign that Martino recongises that Busquets can no longer be expected to cover for both Xavi and Iniesta’s permeability -or the instruction to both full-backs to stay narrow and behind the line of the ball – the forwards instead providing the width – but again, whenever the gameplan is to be varied either the jinetes are there or the extra ball-hogger is inserted.

In the weeks building up to the clash with Manchester City, Tata has been inclining ever more towards the cautious encarnation of this Barça. But if fate dictates another humilitation for the team, as suffered at the hands at Bayern, this measure will have been proven to be just another band-aid on a gunshot wound.

Three different coaches, same diagonoses and similar treatments, and all identified a deteri oration in the human material, which later became manifest in changes to undertaking and formation. The sun setting on Xavi’s imperium has meant that Barça no longer have that perfect balance from 2011 between serenity and aggression in attack which allowed them to spend 90 minutes camped on the edge of the opponent’s box. And so, thrown off course, they resort to two wildly different approaches: maximum verticality or maximum ball-retention. Neither can replace the heights of 2011, nor do their first-aid-like solutions appear a credible medium-term fix to a chronic problem.

But until the day a new Xavi is unearthed, both stop-gap measures are connected by one silken thread to which they can nearly always cling.

Give the ball to Messi.

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Pellegrini’s Málaga continues to surprise

  • Málaga’s midfield diamond one of the tactical surprises of 2012-13
  • Rebirth of Joaquin in a forward role
  • A deeper role and increased responsibility for Lucas Piazon
  • Pellegrini disproves the notion that a narrow midfield is necessarily vulnerable to width.

Joaquin

We’re used to seeing Manuel Pellegrini send out sides with an intricate, pass-and-move flavour to them. His largely successful stints in South American club football at LDU, San Lorenzo and River Plate point to an attempt to wed European off-the-ball solidity to traditional local virtues. Similarly, his Villarreal career oversaw an infusion of Argentine-Uruguayan gambeta into a dynamic, hardworking unit.

That disposition has followed the Chilean coach to Málaga where, after steadying a troubled ship, his first full season in charge saw a familiar template emerge: mobile strikers making runs all across the front line; these in turn joining up with attack-inclined full-backs who simultaneously would bomb on; playmakers moving in from flanks to flood the middle. Salomón Rondón, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla respectively were key exponents of the aforementioned roles, and although all three have left La Rosaleda since, Pellegrini has had little trouble perpetuating his model of play.

The surprise element has been that he could keep his trademark 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) while seamlessly introducing the variant of a midfield diamond, as he saw it, so that he might bring closer together his two outstanding individuals whose dribbling and link-up play have confounded the well-structured defensive schemes of rivals.

Isco on account of his youthful verve has been a revelation over the past year, but equally important and nostalgically appealing has been the rebirth of Joaquín in his latest incarnation as a second-striker. Freed from most defensive duties, the Andalusian conjuror looks like an uninhibited street player, the same kid whose first steps were seldom unaccompanied by a ball in a childhood spent dribbling around the arranged barstools in his father’s tavern.

Pellegrini's classic formation: Joaquin as second-striker, Isco moving centrally from the right, and Eliseu providing balance on the left.

Pellegrini’s classic formation: Joaquin as second-striker, Isco moving centrally from the right, and Eliseu providing balance on the left.

It should be said that the loss of the dynamic Eliseu to injury (out since late January) had a huge impact on Málaga’s ability to sustain the 4-2-2-2. With Jérémy Toulalan being partnered in the double pivot by either the dilligent Ignacio Camacho or the hyperactive Manuel Iturra, Málaga’s creativity sprang forth from Isco’s wandering role from his nominal right-sided station. As both he and Joaquín would concentrate possession in the inside-right channel (combining with an overlapping Gámez and one of the pivots),  Pellegrini’s side appeared vulnerable to a quick change in play with opponents seeking an escape route via Málaga’s left. Here is where the shuttling Eliseu – a wing-back by origin – did so much to compensate, playing roughly the same wide-midfield role as did Ramires on occassion for Dunga’s Brazil, only along the other side.

The midfield diamond affords Isco greater freedom. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the position of Portillo and Piazon disrupts opponents who play wide balls out to the flanks.

The midfield diamond affords Isco greater freedom. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the position of Portillo and Piazon disrupts opponents who play wide balls out to the flanks.

The diamond variant sees Jérémy Toulalan at the base and Isco at the tip, but the real surprise comes in the wider positions. Along the right, Francisco Portillo is an admirably all-rounded midfielder upon whom his teammates can rely for a good passing option, defensive cover and goalward surges. Portillo’s box-to-box game suits the diamond to a tee. The left side, however, sees Lucas Piazon operating in what is a remarkably deep and tactically contained role for a youngster who was projected as a coming Pastore and idealised as a potential Kaká. The Brazilian’s appearances at Chelsea seemed to suggest he would thrive if not as an advanced midfielder then at least as an auxiliary forward. Piazon’s new surroundings in the diamond have required of him steady adaptation to new responsibilities, the overall effect being that ahead of Toulalan there patrol some five players of varied yet considerable attacking qualities.

MYTH OF VULNERABILITY TO WIDTH

As Spanish analyst and Málaga native Abel Rojas has noted, the diamond has actually served Pellegrini well throughout the season in terms of thwarting teams who would attack down the flanks. The idea is for the interiors (usually Portillo and Piazon) to anticipate and cut out the opponent’s distribution from the centre to the flanks rather than have wide midfielders simply double up and forever play a catch-up scenario along terrain of the enemy’s choosing.

WHY THE CHANGE TO A FLATTER 4-4-2 ?

If Málaga’s impressive (not to mention defensively flawless) progress from the Champions’ League group stage was testimony to the viability to these tactical foundations, when it came to the business end of the tournament, Pellegrini appeared to make a volte face.

Facing FC Porto in the last 16, the blanquiazules took to the field with a fundamentally altered arrangement. Gone was the diamond, so too the classic Pellegrini 4-4-2. The return from injury of Julio Baptista coincided with a switch to a more discernible 4-4-1-1 in which Joaquín and Isco were assigned more fixed wide roles.

From the outset, it appeared that Baptista’s relative lack of mobility would consign Malaga’s customary fleet-footed attack to torpor, although perhaps the plan from Pellegrini had been to use Roque Santa Cruz as an relief outlet from Porto’s suffocating pressing game by instructing sweeper Martín Demichelis and full-backs Antunes and Gámez to hit the big Paraguayan directly and early, thus hoping for the vertical Baptista to scavenge off the resultant flick-ons and hold-up play.

Málaga were already flat and rigid. So when Fernando dropped into defence, Porto's full-backs pushed up, driving Joaquín and Isco ragged and deep into Málaga's half.

Málaga were already flat and rigid. So when Fernando dropped into defence, Porto’s full-backs pushed up, driving Joaquín and Isco ragged and deep into Málaga’s half.

More pertinent still is the question of why the Joaquín – Isco central partnership was broken up: conceivably Pellegrini felt that with Joaquín stationed near the chalk, Porto’s explosive Brazilian left-back Alex Sandro would be discouraged from steaming on up the flank in tandem with right-sided compatriot Danilo. But power on both did; neither wing-back was fazed as Vítor Pereira’s side resorted to their well-rehearsed Lavolpe mechanism (much used by Guardiola and Busquets at Barcelona) whereby midfield pivot Fernando slotted between the centre-backs and allowed all outfield players ahead of him to push up. Shorn of the attacking thrust usually provided by Jesús Gámez (deputising at right-back was Sergio Sánchez, more of a centre-back), Málaga soon lost the battle in wide areas. Neither Isco – a trequartista by inclination – much less Joaquín, a throwback to the classical outside-forward from the Paco Gento years, were ever likely to resist such an unfavourable scenario, condemned as they were to accompanying the Brazilian bullet-trains over 60-yard forays.

It could be that Pellegrini didn’t want prolonged periods of possession in central areas, which is what you get when Joaquín peels off from the defensive line and Isco either drifts in from the flank or wiggles his way behind the opposing midfield screen. After all, such cavorting might lead to a turnover and leave Málaga open to a thunderous Porto counter. Overall the effect was that neither magician could abandon his respective post to emerge between the Porto midfield and flourish in such a rigid arrangement.

Thankfully, Pellegrini made the necessary adjustments for the successful second leg at home in La Rosaleda. The replacement of Roque Santa Cruz with Javier Saviola did at least render the attack more mobile; Saviola’s willingness to make wide runs and drop closer to midfield yielded more fluid attacking combinations and meant that Joaquín and Isco, though still largely operating on the flanks, did have an option for triangulating and moving inside. The return of Gámez to right-back was also an invaluable plus in this respect.

With Pellegrini having repeated the line-up against Borussia Dortmund in the Quarter-Final first leg, and seeing Jürgen Klopp’s formidable outfit just about frustrated, the Chilean may have concluded that this slightly less rigid 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 is better suited for taking on sides who ally possession-hogging with explosive transitions (as per Málaga’s most recent European opponents).

This may mean we do not get to see Málaga at their most pleasingly fluid from here on out. But should the blanquiazules emerge unscathed from the Westfalenstadion against the much-favoured BvB, few along the Costa del Sol will care.

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Corinthians: brilliance in solidity

  • Corinthians truly are the sum of their parts but they will need to buy themselves time inside Chelsea’s half to do justice to the nature of their football
  • Incision, precision and an ability to maintain shape both when attacking and defending are the identity of this side
  • Players are rotated, the formation is tweaked and yet coach Tite (pictured below) knows his game plan will be adhered to

Tite

Sitting pitchside in the October balm of the Joaquim Grava training-compound on the outskirts of São Paulo, Corinthians coach Tite knows what elements his team needs if it is to triumph against Chelsea two months later in Yokohama.

In fact, Tite has been clear about this since, well, who knows: perhaps since his team’s July conquest of the Copa Libertadores which settled the identity of South America’s representative to be sent to the Club World Cup. Conceivably, it could even have been as far back as May when Corinthians’ participation was yet uncertain and Didier Drogba and Company conjured up an east-bound ticket from Munich. This is because, beyond the vagaries of micro-tinkering in the face of impending opponents, Corinthians know what they play at, and play it well.

No less a figure than Diego Simeone, judging from his words, would appear to find common cause with Tite:

“Playing pretty is not the same as playing well. Playing well is knowing what you’re playing at.”

Simeone here questions the legitimacy of much of the ideological grandstanding that posits results-based football in opposition to aesthetically-pleasing football. Corinthians have predictably been subject to snide remarks from journalists, fans and even rival professionals who denounce a supposedly unadventurous spirit as the elixir of their successes. Even Muricy Ramalho, unwisely, chose to caricature the Timão’s playing style:

“They never set out to win the game, they seek to live off their rivals’ errors, always. That’s Corinthians’ gameplan: lined-up behind ball, they cede ground for their rival to play and when you slip up, when you make a mistake, you’re hit with the counter-attack (…)”.

Ramalho would have been better served holding his tongue on two counts: firstly, Corinthians don’t lie in wait for the error, they force the opposition into making an error. In that sense, they couldn’t be better exemplars of proactivity. Admittedly, this proactivity is not coupled with the panache and kamikaze verve that Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile were only too happy to exude, but Corinthians, while not expansive, think and move as one. Nowt of the ‘artisans propping up the artists’ formula for Tite, then.

The second problem which Muricy either unwillingly or unwittingly failed to see, lay closer to home. His Santos side oscillated between two extremes of broken-team alchemy, with neither fully attuned to the vicissitudes of modern collective-minded football. Some days he would plump for the securities of seven workers indulging a free-spirited trio. On others when he felt sufficiently fortified, he would indulge his taste of the aesthetic by augmenting the advanced sectors of his team; more forward company for Neymar and more breaches in the hull for defenders to contend with. It seems fitting then that Ramalho sent out his Santos charges with creative licence bolstered by a back five to face Barcelona in last year’s edition of this competition. Neither fish nor fowl, subsequently they were mauled.

And so what are these two elements so dear to Tite? Depth and time. Corinthians look to gain depth when the situation calls for an incisive raid on the opponent’s area, and they seek to draw out time so as to accumulate possession inside the opponent’s half when they feel that they need to improve the quality of their second-last ball.

All this is done with a view to remaining compact. What are the benefits of staying compact: are they offensive or defensive? For Tite, both and neither; the one is inseparable from the other.

How Tite sets out to achieve either depth or time is as much a function of the personnel available as well as the desired variation he looks to configure ahead of the Paulinho & Ralf double-pivot. Corinthians’ formation, it could be said, varies between 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-4-0 as a consequence of whoever is leading the line. But the switches in formation belie the incorruptible and utterly coherent model of play that suffuses whatever incarnation of Corinthians enters the field.

That model of play calls for pressure in a compact medium block punctuated by bouts, typically early doors in matches, of high pressing. This by Brazilian standards is remarkable. While 4-2-3-1 has made significant inroads in the Brazilian championship,  such numbers ring hollow; the formation does not represent some great import of European best practice into the Brazilian game. The lifeblood of compactness and cohesion which makes the formation viable, generally speaking, in Europe is notably absent among its Brazilian club practitioners. Not so the case with Corinthians.

So, let us examine the criteria that Tite uses to win depth and time in order to maintain a healthy balance between the four phases of play.

When we say that Tite values depth, we are not concerned with notions of squad size but movement on the pitch, and the movement he desires is profound and vertical play that will penetrate the opposing back-line and rapidly be concluded.

Another preoccupation of Tite’s is the tyranny of time, something which Corinthians must hope to assuage. Put simply, Chelsea will have more of the ball, thereby making it imperative that the South American champions extract the maximum enjoyment possible from those precious periods when the ball is Brazilian in ownership. Time begets time. And so once time as been earned, Corinthians will look to prolong their presence in Chelsea’s half. To be sure, Tite will like his men to take up good positions and exploit certain pockets of space, but space is comparatively a lesser commodity than time to the paulistano team. It is as if, during spells of possession, a metaphysical clock envelopes the minds of players, and for Corinthians players, the clock ticks to an accelerated rhythm. Got to make that final pass, the clock is ticking down, the gates are closing. For Chelsea players, the inverse is true.

In Peruvian targetman Paulo Guerrero, Corinthians have a focal point whose lay-offs and flick-ons permit the more direct of the wide players (typically Jorge Henrique who usually patrols the right, although Emerson or Romarinho can offer a similar threat from the left) to either cut in towards goal or to connect with balls that Guerrero diverts diagonally into the channels behind the full-backs. In such a scenario, swift execution is the order of the day.

Guerrero's role as a pivot enables Corinthians to advance en masse in addition to winning flick-ons.

Guerrero’s role as a pivot enables Corinthians to advance en masse in addition to threading balls through the channels.

 

Alternatively, when Corinthians wish to prolong their possession spell, Guerrero’s hold-up play allows the whole team to step up into the opponent’s half: the greater the proximity to one another, the less prone Corinthians are to misplacing passes and the further and quicker they can progress unimpeded. When thwarted, the Corinthians players are sufficiently close to one another as to crowd the area of the pitch where the turnover has occurred. Corinthians do lose the ball, but they lose it very well.

An even more effective time-hogging recourse open to Tite comes when he cannot/does not field Guerrero (as was more representative of the successful Libertadores campaign prior to the Peruvian’s arrival): in this case, it is the twin No. 10s, Danilo and Douglas (in lieu of the departed Alex Meschini) whose technical mastery allows Corinthians to soak up the ball and draw teammates in near. This was the formula from the Libertadores final versus Boca Juniors. Emerson, a combative and pacey striker who hitherto had spent most of the season attacking from the left wing (with playmakers Alex and Danilo alternating between the trequartista and false 9 positions), was tasked with returning to his central striking roots, albeit without a fixed reference to feed off. Danilo and Alex both loitered in the band of three behind him (alongside Jorge Henrique) and provided the pause as Emerson applied direct, aggressive running through whatever gaps he could find along the Boca back line (with a tendency to flit from the central to inside- and outside-left channels, thereby leaving the inside- and outside right thoroughfare free for Jorge Henrique).

Playmakers Douglas and Danilo alternate the No.10 and No. 9 posts: Corinthians prolong possession and couple this with incision from the flanks

Playmakers Douglas and Danilo alternate the No.10 and No. 9 posts: Corinthians prolong possession and couple this with incision from the flanks

Tite manages two shapes when it comes to Corinthians’ static defensive phase. Following its transition to defence, the Timão adopts two banks of four, with one member of the initial band of three forming a first line of pressure and with the No 9 (nominal or real) free to provide an outlet: very much a 4-4-1-1, and something akin to what Rafa Benítez expects of teams under his command.

Corinthians defending in two banks of four in static defensive phase

Corinthians defending in two banks of four in static defensive phase

Whenever Guerrero is absent, a most interesting variant on this procedure occurs. Amidst the positional diligence of Jorge Henrique on the right flank and all the positional interchanges that Corinthians exploit closer to the inside-left channel, Tite tries to prevent his left-back Fábio Santos becoming exposed to forays down the left by having Emerson and the wider of the playmakers (usually Danilo) divvy up the hard slog between them. Emerson, even if coming from a central position, will typically harry his opposing full-back as far as midfield before Danilo takes over and composes the left sector of the midfield bank of four inside Corinthians’ half.

Even when playing more centrally as a striker, Emerson is not adverse to assisting Danilo defend the left flank

Even when playing more centrally as a striker, Emerson is not adverse to assisting Danilo defend the left flank

The other defensive arrangement which Corinthians take up is 4-1-4-1, and this takes shape whenever they seek to despoil their opponent’s build-up play at a medium or even medium-high band of the pitch (basically pressing is initiated around halfway line and the beginning of the final third). In such a movement, Paulinho’s box-to-box qualities come to the fore as he shuttles higher up the field to help the line of three initiate pressing.

Paulinho steps up to initiate pressing as Corinthians defend in an aggressive medium/ medium-high block of 4-1-4-1

Paulinho steps up to initiate pressing as Corinthians defend in an aggressive medium/ medium-high block of 4-1-4-1

Against Chelsea, which route of attack will Tite likely prioritise? The coach speaks of the torment that is the delicate art of trying to preserve equilibrium, a favourite expression of his. Without the verticality best facilitated by Guerrero’s coalface shift or Emerson’s sometime central role, he risks inviting Chelsea to step up and pressure Corinthian’s build-up at the back when tranquility in possession will already be at a premium. But without their pair of No. 10s, Corinthians would have to content themselves with even further-diminished spells of possession and less scope for pressing Chelsea as a unit further upfield.

This Corinthians side is a worthy flagship for South American football, even if it is not exactly representative of Brazilian domestic game. But for the most cohesive and convincing side to win the Libertadores in years, the distilled expression of a footballing idea as opposed to overreliance on individual brilliance, that incongruence may serve them well in the task ahead.

André Rocha was the man sitting at the table opposite Tite that day at Corinthians’ training ground, and it is largely thanks to André that we are privy to the thoughts of one of the sharpest and most visionary minds engaged in Brazilian football today. He can be followed at http://espn.estadao.com.br/blogs/olhotatico#1

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Positional Play in the Premier League: thoughts ahead of the new season 2012-13

  • In the absence of a free role, how will Steven Gerrard fit into Brendan Rodgers’ strict template of positional play?
  • Will Andre Villas Boas assign to Gareth Bale an advanced wide role or  is the Welshman better suited as an offensive left-back in the 4-3-3?
  • Will Tottenham adopt AVB’s rotational midfield?

Positiespel. Joc de posició. Juego de posición. “Positional play”. That’s the cup from which Brendan Rogers imbibes his philosophy. A potion that instills in those who consume it an all-encompassing vision of how their players’ football should take form on the pitch, and the Ulsterman in this sense is in communion with a lineage stretching from Johann Cruijff to Josep Guardiola via Louis Van Gaal.

The vari-lingual rendition of the term attests to its lifespan: Louis Van Gaal resuscitated this quintessentially Dutch patrimony and rearmed it for an age in which another monolithic dogma was in the ascendancy. Though equally global in its pretensions to protagonise the play, Sacchism differed in the focus of its application (proritising space rather than the ball as its imperium). Sacchism (and its inheritors/modfiers, from Capello to Hiddink) had slain its “evil other”, the gioco all’italiana, on the battleground of Europe’s prime league, and on a continental stage it would set about picking off the doughty Mitteleuropeen stragglers who, though fighting a rearguard action to keep 5-3-2 relevant, proved little more than a nuisance. The nascent Champions League exhibited sides who now wished to use defence as a pro-active form of attack by priming an aggressive offside trap. This rendered the assymetrical and bucolic teams of yore incongruously porous and too poorly articulated as to withstand the Cartesian onslaught.

Positional Play suffered a fright at the hands of an adulterated Sacchianism in Athens in May 1994, but if the 4-0 drubbing served to demoralise its adherents they nevertheless determined that the logos would endure. And in those low hours, ruminations must have abounded, surely.  How cruel the gods of Olympus must have seemed to Johann Cruijff and Carles Rexach: the team which had most improvised and least steadfastly adhered to its own constituition had been awarded the laurels.

But for ‘edify’ one might also substitute ‘ossify’. Capello’s Milan had moved away from its Sacchianism to draw lifeblood and succour from the reality of its environment. Dejan Savićević and Zvonimir Boban playing in the hole ahead of a midfield trivot? Licenced improvisation suffused with compensatory work detail? Sacchi would never have had that. Capello had violated the hollowed sphere of the global framework and gorged himself on the particulars, fidgeting with the micro-specifics.

Cruijff’s Barcelona, on the other hand, was resolutely not for incorporating individuality as to do so would be to stray from formula. Outstanding individuals it did possess, two of them to be precise. But the three-foreigner rule and the irrepresible Hristo Stoichkov’s talismanic indispensability meant that only one of Romário or Laudrup could start that evening. The lack of true fantasy, the kind that twinkletoes Savicevic brought to the party, would haunt Barca. “Inventing the play”, as Brian Glanville is so fond of saying, wasn’t in the script.

How encouraging then that Van Gaal’s name should appear on Fenway Sports Group’s list of candidates to replace Kenny Dalglish, even if the Dutchman eventually fell out of the reckoning. Roberto Martínez was considered before Liverpool ultimately alighted at Rodgers’s stop, but the entire process suggested a singular trajectory: the desire to implant   a footballing culture based around maximising ball possession whilst creating clear passing angles so as to progress up the pitch.

Over on Merseyside, how Rodgers feels about the human material he has to hand could signify more arrivals at and departures from Anfield. Does the existing Liverpool squad lend itself to positional play? Charlie Adam unwittingly drew a chorus of ironic chuckles when during the Euros he tweeted his exhortation that England bring on a big man and “stick it in the mixer”. The big man in question happens to be the current wearer of the No.9 shirt at Liverpool and Rodgers faces the dilemna of how best to accomodate a piece of field artillery too unidimensional as to not condition the play of his other teammates and yet too expensive to be confined to the locker marked “Plan B”.

Irrespective of how Rodgers eventually configures the attack, and pending the arrival of another versatile forward, the Reds’ current personnel can actually present a healthy imitation of a fairly classic front-three. Luis Suárez performed an outside-to-in role from the left flank at Ajax, and Borini similarly attacked from a right-sided berth at Roma. Also, both forwards have enjoyed spells as more elusive references in the centre of the attack with Uruguay and Swansea respectfully.

The question is not whether one or both plays wide or central, but rather whether Rodgers will duplicate roles on each flank, as per Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair at Swansea. Both wingers had the option of either taking on the full-back on the outside before executing a reverse pass across the face of goal (rarely did they resort to high crosses) or else darting diagonally into the space between said full-backs and the central defenders. Irrespective of which route they chose, both Dyer and Sinclair had the obligation to draw their opposing full-back out, as under the diktats of positional play a dribble is only permitted once an opponent has broken ranks from his defensive lines. During a static passage of play, neither winger of his own initiative could set off towards goal or the byline, as to do so would  disrupt the web of passing angles.

In this respect, as similar brief was presented to Lionel Messi under Frank Rijkaard between 2005 and 2008, for example; even though Messi would execute the diagonal out-to-in run invariably. Immediately in the 2008-09 season, and even before consigning him to the No. 9 berth,  Pep Guardiola relaxed that rule somewhat to legislate for the Argentine’s sheer genius. Messi was free to move in from the right flank and receive the ball as and when he saw opportune. Rodgers simply doesn’t have the kind of outstanding player that warrants making such concessions: the template will remain absolute.

So it follows that Liverpool’s wide-forwards should present a degree of versatility. At least one should be able to vary between the byline and the diagonal, as demonstrated by such illustrious exponents as  John Barnes, Marc Overmars and Ludovic Giuly. Alternatively, one winger should specialise in either art as per the imposing Porto side of Andre Villas Boas. Regardless, both will have to stretch their opponent by drawing the full-back out before removing him from the defensive equation.

With Stewart Downing, Rodgers faces a problem and it is two-fold. The first is that Downing was reared on the proviso of hugging the touch-line; so much for the optional diagonal. Secondly, the former Middlesborough and Aston Villa player is the embodiment of the wide-midfielder, the English incarnation of the tornante, so that even if his disposition is towards going round the full-back on the outside, the opportunity to do so has not been a constant in the landscape of his game which starts about 10 metres deeper than that of a traditional winger (outside-forward). More a ball transporter than an incisive attacker, Downing expects space ahead of him, and his maxim is to produce a cross whether from 30 yards or from three: in such a set of circumstances, dexterity and nimbleness to elude the attention of makers is not even necessary. Whether Rodgers can press re-set on the 28-year old and instill in him a penchant for playing higher up the pitch remains to be seen.

At White Hart Lane, André Villas Boas faces a not dissimilar problem with Gareth Bale (without disputing the Welshman’s incontestable superiority to the likes of Downing) in the sense that Bale is not naturally inclined towards playing in such an advanced sector. Unlike Downing, however, Bale is palpably his team’s outstanding individual talent, so much so that Villas Boas will feel compelled to perform some manner of alchemy so as to best accommodate the force of nature at his disposal. The Portuguese is a noted admirer of Pep Guardiola, and he will have noted that in any positional-play side who set up camp high up the pitch, Bale would play much as Dani Alves does in a full-back/wing-back role that would see him patrol similar territory to his habitual stomping ground at Spurs.

At Porto, in an attempt to avoid congestion, Villas Boas preferred one of his wingers (Hulk) to seek the diagonal (out-to-in) whilst the other would (Silvestre Varela) would stretch the defence. Such asymmetry did not denote some nominal ‘inside-forward’ role (much less a free one) for the likes of Hulk. Again, the forward would have to draw out the opposing full-back before seeking the vulnerable space just wide of the centre-back. It could be argued that such division of duties might perhaps render the movement of the wingers more predictable in terms of marking them (as opposed to having a truly bi-functional attacker on each flank), but considered as a unit the attack presented a conundrum to the rival defensive unit: compensate for the skewered nature of our attack but risk distorting the mechanisms of your back line, and the domino effect that would ensue.

Villas Boas may well opt for such an approach at Spurs, with Aaron Lennon seeking the byline whilst a player, even a more central if pacey striker, such as Jermain Defoe springs the diagonal from the opposite flank Alternatively, the left-footed Giovanni dos Santos, if retained, could provide the diagonal threat from the right while the left-sided berth would be the preserve of a more ‘outside-to-outside’ forward (arguably yet to be signed).

At this juncture, just as Chelsea go about assembling a squad capable of executing the kind of model of play that Villas Boas had envisaged for the Stamford Bridge club – one year too late – it is worth holding up to scrutiny another sector of the current Tottenham squad to establish how smooth will be its adaptation to positional play.

The acquisition of Gylfi Sigurdsson could help to stagger the midfield and thereby provide more passing angles. It would be erroneous, however, to suggest that either AVB  at Chelsea or Rodgers at Liverpool would be seeking a  ’2 holders plus 1 trequartista’ set-up* as this would be a violation of positional play; Sigurdsson would still have to operate as an interior (slightly advanced, wide-of-centre and not divorced from the midfield). And as is the case with Xavi and Iniesta, where the former tends to drop off closer to the defence and the latter probes the pocket of space behind the opposing midfield, Villas Boas will expect his interiors to enter these respective zones but not to inhabit them (as per the ’2 + 1′ scenario).

In addition to its staggered midfield, another hallmark of AVB’s Porto side was the rotational nature of the three positions so that the No. 6, or trinco to use Portuguese terminology, was frequently entrusted with making progressive runs whereupon one of the  interiors (from Moutinho, Guarín or Belluschi) would drop in to occupy his vacated zone. Indeed, for certain games Villas Boas would dispense with his most naturally defensive midfielder, Fernando, altogether.

It was a policy that, famously, Villas Boas had to relinquish shortly after joining Chelsea given the prevalence of the transition in the Premier League; he simply couldn’t afford to leave his back line unprotected even momentarily, and he openly acknowledged as much. This invites one to think that at Tottenham he will rely on a fixed reference (‘centre-half’ in the original sense of the word) at the base of midfield, but Sandro, his most natural exponent in the role, has been in poor form during Brazil’s Olympic campaign. And then there is the industrious if anarchic Scott Parker, who is not really a positional holder but rather a compensator.  Parker is in his element when shoring up his teammates and so hoovering further upfield and choking the transition at an earlier phase might dovetail nicely with the intricacies of AVB’s rotational midfield.

It is Liverpool’s midfield where it is more difficult to envisage Dutch-style passing triangles taking form. Rodgers has already signalled his intention to use Lucas Leiva primarily in what the Dutch would designate as either the ’4′ or the ’6′,  the deepest midfield role. Fittingly for someone who worked alongside Sigurdsson, so too must Brendan Rodgers configure his most creative/attacking midfielder for a club which last exhibited its best football during the latter Benítez era when Steven Gerrard was clearly, and quite singularly, the designated link between the midfield and the attack. Benítez, whose idols were Paco Maturana and Arrigo Sacchi (standard-bearers of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 respectively), was less concerned with occupying a greater expanse of the pitch, and with a more compact midfield (flanked by tornantes) Gerrard’s advanced position was structurally irrelevant – so much so that he could be cut loose and allowed roam. Rodgers, of course, will not contemplate such a scenario.

It could be that what is now the autumn of Gerrard’s career, if his tempered and responsible Euro 2012 performances are anything to go by, is a blessing in disguise for the new Liverpool coach. The player himself has alluded to a recognition of the need to adapt his game; never mind the percussive surging of pre-2006, Gerrard no longer even sees himself as the incisive trequartista of the late Benítez era. In light of this acceptance of adaptation, Rodgers might more easily coax the Liverpudlian talisman into more of an ‘interior’ role in keeping with the  4-3-3 and the model of play. Whether Gerrard will lean more towards the base of his midfielder or present himself for passing options behind the backs of the rival midfielders is arguably the most tantalising  aspect of Rodgers’s Liverpool yet to materialise.

* = After experimenting with a pure 3-3-1-3 (or 3-diamond-3) with mixed results during his first season at the Camp Nou, Louis Van Gaal did send out his Barcelona side for the 1998-99 campaign with more of an orthodox back four in what was really a 4-2-1-3. The Dutchman nevertheless managed to avoid any tendency towards a broken team and to maintain the passing lines by keeping his wingers (Zenden and Figo) pushed high and having Frank De Boer constantly step out of defence during the build-up phase. Rivaldo, before later being reassigned to the left-wing, featured behind the three-man attack, led by Sony Anderson, and ahead of Phillip Cocu and Pep Guardiola (or Albert Celades), thereby assuring Van Gaal’s precious minimum of eight lines of passing meshed across the pitch (whereas a 4-2-3-1, according to Van Gaal, would have seen these lines reduced to 7). Curiously, Van Gaal would later relinquish the more dogmatic aspects of this philosophy when taking over AZ Alkmaar and later Bayern Munich, sides who fluctuated between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, presented fewer lines of passing and who accepted a less asphyxiating quotient of protagonism in exchange for more space ahead to exploit, a compromise that José Mourinho had already reconciled himself to (if in a less Damascene fashion) by the time both men left Barcelona in 2000.

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Napoli: allaying weaknesses or restraining strengths?

Napoli’s limitations were exposed on two fronts at the hands of a Chelsea team that itself is no great shakes. One aspect of this clearly has to do with the quality of personnel spread throughout the team. Another has to do with structure and the system.

Ostensibly, the advantage of playing with three centre-backs (as practised by Walter Mazzarri) is that you free up the wing-backs to join the midfield. This is also convenient if you have three excellent centre-backs and are reluctant to exclude any given one of them. Alternatively, there may be a more cautious line of reasoning behind your fielding of a central defensive trio, namely to provide extra protection for what you consider to be a porous backline.

On which of the above premises has Mazzarri’s Napoli been predicated?

It is reasonable to suspect that the manager himself would point to the relentless forays from his wing-backs (particularly when these are Maggio and Dossena) as a manifestation of the first, pro-active scenario. But, on the evidence of both games of the tie versus Chelsea alone, one shudders to think how any two from the Campagnaro-Cannavaro-Aromica triumvirate would fare as a central pairing such was their ineptness when tested at football’s highest level and, at that, even with the added protection of a third man.

Napoli’s case in particular points to a larger principle in general, and it concerns the phenomenon of the back three/back five in a zonally-marking regime (regardless of whether or not this creates situations of numerical superiority and thus the illusion of designated markers and a sweeper – that is purely circumstantial): to what extent can a team with three centre-backs truly govern its own shape?

Roy Hodgson may have been derided in light of his fraught tenure at Liverpool, and he expresses a clear predilection toward a back four, but his testimony on this matter is nonetheless instructive seeing as how he enjoyed managerial spells in Italy and came up against many an opponent who would field three centre-backs plus wing-backs.

Hodgson observed that most teams who set out with three central defenders end up defending with a back five. There are, he noted, more sophisticated arrangements whereby such a side might avoid both its wing-backs seeing themselves forced to double as full-backs simultaneously, and such an approach usually entails a defensive midfielder dropping into the back line whenever one of the wing-backs is defending an incursion down his respective flank. This mechanism, however, leads to all manner of knock-on effects in the midfield, and, unless well rehearsed and drilled, it can result in disjointedness and confusion.

In theory, and specifically concerning Napoli, one (or both, alternating) of Gargano and Inler could perform this chameleon-type role, but Mazzarri’s side appears built to defend space with the mechanism of a five-man unit. Again, it seems absurd to state that Napoli play with five defenders, given their incessant surging up both touchlines – and usually simultaneously But this is not to slight the partenopei; a back five may appear to suggest a marked negativity, and so some may accentuate the offensive disposition of the side by portraying the scheme as a back-three, but it is not a question of aesthetics and more one of space and reason.

For comparative purposes, one can point to other visually appealing sides built on three centre-backs: Fabio Capello’s Roma from 1999 to 2001 played a 3-4-1-2 with two robust central midfielders and yet for all their swashbuckling, it was left to wing-backs Cafu and Vincent Candela to shut off space in a chain of five rather than asking one from Damiano Tomassi, Emerson or Marcos Assunção to compensate. Alberto Zaccheroni’s Udinese and Milan outfits played a back three on a strictly zonal basis and regardless of numerical variation in attack presented by different opponents. It would be difficult, for example, to argue that Zaccheroni’s 1998-99 Scudetto winners were reactive or cagey; Milan finished that league season averaging a goal conceded per game, three more than runners-up Lazio who played with a back four and yet boasted a greater overall goal difference.

Milan 1998-99: for all the pro-active approach, Zaccheroni’s men still had to defend as a five-man unit along the back line.

Zaccheroni’s 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 system may have been a world away from the miserly man-marking schemes that just a decade previously still had held sway in Italy, but the fact remains that the rossoneri defended space with a line of five. If Guglielminpietro came out to intercept a rival who were progressing along his left flank, the back three of Maldini-Costacurta-Sala would shift across to cover and at a certain stage, right-wing-back Thomas Helveg was under instruction to drop in as cover at right-back slightly ahead of Sala and level with Costacurta. Of course Zaccheroni could have avoided this scenario had he preferred one of his two holding midfielders (Demetrio Albertini and Massimo Ambrosini) to augment the back line whenever appropriate, but the obligation to close off the blind side of the defence clearly lay with the wing-backs, as it does in the case of Mazzarri’s Napoli.

If there was any questioning of his side needing five men to cover the width of the pitch defensively, Zaccheroni was entitled to point to Milan’s goals for/goals against columns as evidence of the champions’ expansive nature. Moreover, when up against weaker opponents and during prolonged spells of games in which they were dominating possession, the team seldom had to contract into a five-man defence, thus further dispelling any sensation of excessive caution.

It was a similar sensation which Napoli appeared to have dispersed during the opening 20 minutes at Stamford Bridge this year, where Chelsea’s reluctance (or inability) to exploit their two-on-one advantage in wide areas, coupled with Napoli’s frequent raiding through central channels, meant that Maggio and Zúñiga rarely had to basculate in unison with the central defensive trio, certainly not both at once.  But once Chelsea started to assert their advantage, with Ramires and Sturridge venturing forward and, crucially, full-backs Cole and Ivanovic doubling in support, Napoli’s wing-backs found themselves having to act as auxiliary full-backs in a five-man rear guard whenever the home side spread the play out towards the flanks. This was not inherent cautiousness on Napoli’s part; it was simply a logical sequence of movements.

Another coach who has built a career on systems featuring three centre-backs, albeit with an ever-present acknowledgement of flexibility*, is Ricardo La Volpe. The Argentine is forever seeking to break taboos and defy convention wherever he goes (note his tumultuous spell at Boca Juniors where he declared ideological war on the figure of the enganche) and his teams tend to display dynamism and elaborate movement. Yet even a coach as adventurous as La Volpe is willing to illicit accusations of negativity whenever he disowns the notion that he plays with a back three, as explained in this interview with Argentine television:

“I’ve always said that I play with a five. I have two guys on the flanks that bomb up and down, but when one pushes up, the other is ready to drop in at the back. In the end it becomes a four”.

Ricardo La Volpe: not a fan of euphemism

So it should be clear that fielding three centre-backs need not result in a dispute over semantics, as Hodgson would put it. There are teams who truly play with a back three, but typically these are teams who live to monopolise possession and can afford such a scant line defending the horizontal expanse of the pitch on account of their all-consuming and intimidatory offensive vocation. The Ajax side of the 1990s and the Barcelona of today come to mind in this respect, and it is significant that these instances of three-man defences are sometimes bolstered via the incorporation of a holding midfielder (Danny Blind/Frank Rijkaard in Ajax’s case; Sergio Busquets in the other), as opposed to incorporating wing-backs, into the back line, and whereupon the back three may replicate a back four.

And so the question remains to be asked of Napoli and, by extension, of Mazzarri as they look to the close season and beyond. Domestic as well as continental campaigns have evidenced a lack of flexibility, something which they will need an injection of if they want to be no longer pliant to teams who disarm their wing-backs.

The Campagnan club does have a wonderful young talent lying in wait in the form of Eduardo Vargas. What is less clear is whether Mazzari will be able to call upon the former Universidad de Chile player in conjunction with Ezequiel Lavezzi, who is the subject of much speculation surrounding a big-money move out of the San Paolo. Murkier still is the prospect of Mazzarri remaining in charge at Napoli beyond the summer, as club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis may seek to install a new coach and, concomitantly, a tactical revamp.

In the event of such a scenario, to what extent would Napoli require reworking: punctual tweaking and like-for-like (though improved in quality) replacements for certain positions, or a shift in the team’s model of play and the repositioning and activating of existing talents implicit to such a change?

One avenue to explore would be the preservation of Christian Maggio, albeit as a right full-back. Positionally, Maggio is anything but a disciplined full-back, classical or modern, but then neither is Dani Alves. When playing as a quartet, the Barcelona defence relies on the more assured and conservative positioning of Eric Abidal on the opposite side so as to assure a back three in the event of Alves falling out of synch with the unit. Similarly, Napoli could do with a more tempered presence in a left full-back position; then again, they could also do with at least two decent centre-backs.

Napoli could capitalise on individual strengths by forming triangular ‘societies’ at different intervals. Along the left flank, Inler activates full-back Maggio and wide-forward Vargas, whilst more centrally and further ahead there can be cooperation between Hamsik, Lavezzi (or Pandev) and Cavani.

Given his inclination to drift infield, such an adjustment would also free up José Zúñiga to become more integrally a midfielder, as occurred with Michel Bastos when he moved from Lille to Lyon, in the event of Napoli fielding a midfield four or even a trio. Not unrelated is the question of whether Marek Hamsik could play in a more compact midfield trio and not as a trequartista or, as per his current role, a supporting forward. On the basis of his being the closest semblance Napoli have to a playmaker, it is at least worth contemplating.

Brazilian coach Paulo Autori has said that, more than partnerships, a team should seek to foster triangles of mutual understanding that he designates “small societies”. Most convincing teams have at least one trio of differential players who when combined can overcome the defensive reasoning of an entire opposing team; some teams even have two. The proximity of these trios may coincide with easily-identifiable symmetry of the team’s shape: think of the Alves-Xavi-Messi triangle sitting neatly along Barcelona’s right-hand side, or the Alonso-Marcelo-Cristiano Ronaldo discourse to which Real Madrid so often resort along their left. Equally, the distribution of the triangles may supersede symmetry: view how Messi-Iniesta-Alexis Sánchez operate in a sphere almost to the left and at the fore of the attack, or how Benzema’s rightward drifting creates a similar pasture of creativity alongside the centralising tendency of Kaká and nominal right-winger Mesut Özil.

Applying the above logic to Napoli, and in order to attain what Arrigo Sacchi might term the “multiplier effect on players’ abilities”, one might see in a Maggio-Inler-Vargas axis along the right, in addition to a Cavani-Lavezzi-Hamsik grouping slightly to the left of centre and ahead. This would necessitate a 4-3-3 system, but it is worth observing that the system would arise from the harmonious connection of these player-societies, and not vice-versa.

Some combination of the alterations to personnel and/or system is likely, with the latter being even more probable were Mazzarri to depart, but what remains clear is that Napoli need more resources in their inventory, more weaponry beyond their customary armoury of speed, verve and counter-attack. A back four is not synonymous with attacking intention, anymore than a back three/five is of a defence-minded approach, but it so happens that Napoli for too long now have been hiding individual defects (notably, the ability of the centre-backs) within the structure of the latter, and the latter will only provide so much consolation.

Perhaps it is time for Napoli to desist from compensating for their faults, and to seek to multiply their strengths. And just maybe those “little societies” are what is needed to enhance the quality.

* Particularly when coaching clubs and also the national team of his adopted Mexico, the Argentine developed a reputation as the instigator of a novel device whereby his central defensive pairing became a back three by virtue of the holding midfielder dropping back during the build-up phase and liberating both full-backs to advance simultaneously in the manner of wing-backs. This mechanism was observed at close hand by Pep Guardiola during a playing spell at Dorados Sinaloa, where coach Juanma Lillo went about deploying this La Volpe-inspired manoeuvre. Guardiola himself later would employ this ‘salida lavolpiana’ as manager of Barcelona, with Sergio Busquets slotting in between Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué and thus liberating Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal to push into midfield.
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Busquets as an advanced midfielder?


The last thing that footballing parlance needs right now is another epithet with the ubiquitous ‘false’ pretext. But the question remains: what to do when you have a holding midfielder who performs the role adequately if not naturally and who arguably has the attributes to excel in other positions?

Twice during the first half of the 2011 Champions League Final at Wembley, Sergio Busquets’ mistimed anticipation gifted Manchester United two chances. In the first instance, he abandoned his zone to challenge Giggs who was advancing through the centre. The Welshman then had space to dissect the Barça defensive line some 30 yards further ahead and send Chicharito through 1 v1 with Valdes. His second lapse was duly penalized and was perfectly illustrative of Busquets’ limitations position-wise. Rooney moved into the space that Busquets might otherwise have been occupying had he not committed himself to a tardy and erstwhile challenge of the England forward. In a moment that required making a call, of deciding whether to stay or go, and seeing through that decision with resolve, Busquets dithered, something that a more conventional mediocentro is loathe to do, and Rooney advanced before exchanging a one-two with Giggs and netting the equaliser.

It may seem glib, pedantic even, to sift through Busquets’ impressive playing credentials and highlight these shortcomings, and this writer is not one to dismiss the unique qualities which the man from Badia brings to the position; indeed, some clubs would kill to have creative midfielders – let alone holders- who were the technical equal of Busquets. The danger inherent to anchoring a more technically crude midfielder (in the worst of hypotheses, a Gattuso) to the position is that said player, when placed under pressure, can panic, fumble or jettison the ball a split-second after disarming an opponent; thus whatever relief he brought to his teammates is short-lived.

With Busquets, this is absolutely not the case. When he has surrendered the ball cheaply it tends to have resulted from the opposite scenario; over-confidence, blitheness bordering on cockiness. A cheeky pirouette, a gratuitous back-heel, he recalls the great Clodoaldo who brought baroque tension and tranquility to the midfield of the 1970 Brazilian World Cup-winners in equal measure. Thankfully, even such embellishments have been a less common feature of Busquets’ repertoire of late. Indeed, he has gone a long way towards ironing out his faults in what has been so far an impressive season individually.

In any other club, he would likely play either as an auxiliary to the deepest midfielder dividing the horizontal and vertical plains with his fellow pivot (as per his partnership with Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup), or as slightly more advanced midfielder occupying the band where Xavi or Iniesta typically play, an interior. But here’s an intriguing prospect: what if Busquets were to play even further forward? Specifically, could he play in the three-quarters zone, what was once the province of that increasingly obsolete figure, the enganche?

Only that Busquets wouldn’t be playing as a traditional attacking midfielder per se. He wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be expected to fashion defense-splitting assists or dribble past opponents, nor much less score goals in abundance. Rather he would enable other midfielders to do that by performing as a pivot at the head of the midfield. With his back to goal, Busquets’ gangly frame and strength make him ideal for shielding the ball from the niggling of defender, and his rapid-fire and precise short-passing game would allow him to set up on-rushing midfielders.

Before people dismiss this as an ill-advised imitation of Max Allegri’s Kevin Prince Boateng 2.0 at Milan, consider the following. Allegri’s proposal was substantially different in its intent. The rossonero coach wanted Boateng to press and harry the opponent’s build-up play in deep areas, and as a secondary consequence to provide an opportune llegada into the box. Busquets, on the contrary, would be chartering comparably new territory but not one without precedent.

Barcelona fans old enough to remember will recall an oddity encrusted in the centre of the original Dream Team. José María Bakero was an unlikely candidate for the three-quarters role in Cruyff’s 3-3-1-3 formation, but the Basque was indispensable to the way the team attacked in central areas.

Barcelona from 1991-93, before the arrival of Romario. Note how Bakero would play with his back to goal and lay off 'wall passes' for the advancing Amor and Eusebio.'


Whereas most managers would choose an incisive and imaginative passer at the head of the midfield, Cruyff didn’t require that of Bakero; he already had Michael Laudrup to provide ingenuity across the front line (either as a makeshift striker or an inverted winger). Rather, he sought to exploit Bakero’s strength at shielding the ball and his clean close-range distribution to lay off passes into the paths of midfielders (typically Eusebio and Amor) advancing from their interior positions. Guardiola as No.4 from the base of midfield acted much in the manner of a quarter-back; whenever he wanted to accelerate the play, he could choose either to go long and activate the wide attackers or he could seek Bakero ahead of him, who in turn would act like a perpetual wall pass for the other midfielders.

This was integral to the way Barcelona threaded through an opponent’s lines of resistance already stretched by the wide disposition of the front trio. Baquero would also run onto any second or third balls once Barcelona had penetrated the opponent’s backline.

Earlier this year, when the teamsheet for game versus Villarreal was released, speculation abounded as to how Mascherano, Busquets and Xavi would coincide in midfield. Although it resulted that Guardiola had opted for an unprecedented double-pivot featuring the former two, observers such as Marc Roca suggested that, finally, we might get to witness Busquets as an interior or even in three-quarters.

As it emerged, Pep Guardiola has no intention of advancing Busquets and he would prefer future No.4′s to emerge from the cantera in the mould of the man from Badia, rather than opting for a more classical mediocentro as is Oriol Romeu. But whereas Romeu would be perfectly suited to any midfield (save for teams that play with a regista at the base), it is hard to imagine Busquets prospering in the holding role in any context outside of Barça.

Assuring that he always stays in the vicinity of possession-hogs such as Xavi and Iniesta, Busquets can anticipate to recover the ball without worrying about guarding the defence behind him; this is because he quickly offloads those robbed balls to the possession kings and Barcelona can extinguish the transition, a phase which their opponents invariably prefer to exploit (whereas Barça feel more comfortable re-establishing a static offensive phase), such that the blaugrana need not worry about positional order along the back line.

In the long term, Busquets could either play stationed between the lines or as an interior just ahead of his customary role. In any case, the fact that Barcelona usually play with two interiores in their three-man midfield means that one of the two can play a slightly more advanced role than the other; Menotti said that “two players standing aligned is a sin”. For proof of this, observe how Iniesta seeks to take up positions normally associated with classical trequartistas (even if that is not his initial position) whereas Xavi prefers to circulate closer to the base of midfield. Alternatively, both interiores may take it in turns to occupy higher and lower scales.

Ultimately, however, and irrespective of the identity of the other interior, in such a scenario Busquets would end up forming the first line of pressure in midfield during defensive phase alongside said player. In terms of how that readjustment might affect Busquets’ positional sense, this ought not to be a concern; the player would still be pressuring opponents inside the other half, something entirely in compliance with Guardiola’s desire to recover the ball as far away from the blaugrana goal as possible.

In a season when the club has incorporated a notably vertical midfielder in Cesc Fàbregas, with the emergence of Tello and Cuenca as classical outside-forwards, and with Barcelona trying (at times unconvincingly) to add a more urgent approach to their play, Busquets as a sort of advanced pivot could facilitate this return to Cruyffista principles.

Indeed, in Can Barça nothing which is of value, even if it be retro, is discarded.

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Santos in Japan: What to expect of the ‘Peixe’

Borges (above) plays a vital ‘pivotal’ role for the Santos attack.
 
 

While far from being an encyclopaedic examination of this current Santos side who take on Barcelona for the World Club Championship prize, hopefully this will serve as a primer and give an idea of how the Peixe might approach the tie – if recent evidence is anything to go by.

Whatever about tactics, how will Santos approach the game?

Understandably somewhat, considering the identity of their opponent, it will be without the level of abandon that the Vila Belmiro outfit display in their pomp that Santos play in Yokohama. But, and this is crucial here, coach Muricy Ramalho has been at pains to stress over the past few months the ultimate futility of trying to sit back to absorb pressure and capitalise on a precious break as a means to overcoming Barcelona, an approach that proved successful for São Paulo vs Liverpool in 2005 and for Internacional vs Barcelona in 2006. “They’ll eventually work their way through you” is what the wily boss offers in his defence. And he has a point here. Whatever about the heroic feat of Inter in 2006, it must be said that that was against Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, which if not then in irreversible decline was at least beginning to show hints of a loss in competitivity. Guardiola’s Barcelona, even on a bad day, is a tougher proposition and an altogether more evolved realistion of the Michels-Cruyff-Van Gaal model.

There is yet a more salient point here. Santos by their very nature are not a watertight side at the back. Muricy’s argument can be summed up as “Why should I try covering up my flaws when instead I should be maximising my strengths”, and there can be little doubt that it is the static offensive phase and the attacking transition where his men feel most comfortable, playing in their own skin, as it were. Obviously, Santos will have to live off the transition a bit more than they would like under other circumstances but even in static phases Muricy will instruct his players to strike a balance between precipitating when in possession to overindulgence; Santos will have to direct their attacks rapidly towards specific areas of the pitch where doubtless they will have trained some movements to the point of automation. Santos will live every second of their offensive phase as if it were prelude to a transition to defense. Improvisation is to be avoided and the plays must be swiftly finalised.

When it comes to the counter, however, arguably the most pivotal player in a white shirt will be exactly that, a pivot. Borges.

1) Borges as a pivot

No doubt that there more talented strikers, more complete even, operating in the Brazilian championship but few have honed one aspect of play quite as well as the 31-year old veteran, a past collaborator of Ramalho in the all-conquering São Paulo side from 2007-2009. That working relationship is significant because it was Muricy’s São Paulo who moulded counter-attacking and defensive miserliness into an art form, rarely straying from fielding three centre-backs and often packing the midfield behind the ball even during offensive phases. Offense-wise, that side lived off Hernanes’ passing and Borges’ laser-guided sense of when to come short, hold up the ball and lay it off for the onrushing midfielders. Now of course at Santos he finds himself within a much more creative ecosystem than at São Paulo. Also, the Bahian striker is a more than decent finisher but it is his link-up play that will prove so crucial an assett in a game where Santos must capitalise on whatever counter-attacks they can force upon Barcelona.

2) Space behind Alves for Neymar and Ganso to exploit.

The only incognito concerning Neymar’s initial positioning is whether he will spend more or less time buzzing around the left flank of the attack before sinewing his way inside on a diagonal. This is likely to be the position he occupies during the defensive phase, either tracking the Barcelona right-back to midfield before his midfielders can commandeer duties or else trying to disrupt Barcelona from circulating the ball out along the right-side in the event of the blaugrana playing a three-man defence.

There is also the distinct possiblity, as witnessed during most of the Kashima game, whereby Neymar might adopt total freedom of movement in attack and as a genuine second-striker, working whatever channels Borges is not occupying at a given moment.

3) Ganso behind the ball and/or drifting towards the left

It almost goes without saying that the space vacated by Dani Alves down Barcelona’s right flank offers ample space into which Neymar can drift and it is here that the youngster offers Santos a wealth of options. Should Ramalho wish to accelerate the attack, Neymar may head directly for goal with only Borges in support. However, Neymar also has the vision and the temperament to masticate the ball and wait for the arrival of Arouca, Elano or Danilo as they stream forward, should he wish to gain numerical superiority.

Perhaps this is where Ganso can prove so useful to Neymar as a third option in this particular facet of play. By feeding Ganso, Neymar himself can overload the Barcelona defence whilst the elegant playmaker can activate practically any other teammate who registers on his 360-degree radar. It is therefore vital that Ganso overrides his frequent temptation to wait in a space of his choosing, much like Juan Román Riquelme, where he then expects his teammates to seek him as a magnet. A little measure of dynamism from Ganso wouldn’t go amiss, and he may well drift towards that pocket of space that Neymar finds down the left.

There is a defensive justification for this movement too. Since Ganso and Neymar are the Santos players most capable of maintaining possession (each in his own particular way), it follows that a Santos attack that breaks down or stagnates inside Barcelona territory must not result in gifting possession to the Catalans, who will surely descend in packs upon the Santos player(s) in possession. Therefore, the likeliest escape route for Santos in the event of the traffic lights turning red and no visible opening appearing in an ever-encroaching Barcelona defence is for Santos to play their way out of trouble and shepherd the ball into less congested zones, even if such zones be harmless and Santos give the impression of not progressing with the ball.

Irrespective of the shape that Santos adopt, we are likely to see Ganso spend most of his time behind the line of the ball. In fairness, this is what Ganso tends to do anyway; even when nominally stationed between the lines he seeks to drop deep and initiate play since he needs to feel wedded to the build-up play in order to be happy. Against Barcelona we are likely to see him concretely in a Xavi-type role as a playmaking interior.

Formation?

Something which has almost ceased to concern Barcelona, who arguably have reached Sacchi’s ideal of transcending shape and symmetry and instead manifest themselves through movement.

But what of Santos? In the Brazilians’ case, it’s more a question of making best do in what is already an injury-hit collective (in light of his injury, Adriano, the defensive midfielder, has thrown Muricy’s plans of course somewhat) who no longer have the crucial pieces needed for making seemless shifts in shape without recourse to substitutions. So Santos’ shape may be more defined without necessarily being static.

A) 4-4-2 (4-3-1-2/4-1-3-2) with a compact four-man midfield

A stalwart at left-back, Leo’s age (36) has led Muricy to use him sparingly of late. Whilst still possessing the technical attributes for the position, doubts remain over his suitability for a role which in Brazilian football is the sole avenue of attacking and defensive width. Hence Santos’ use of centre-back Durval as a conservative occupant of the position. To an extent, it could be that Ramalho will use Durval’s conservatism as an incentive for Barcelona, and particularly Daniel Alves, to venture forward along this flank and thus leaving behind space for Neymar, Borges and Ganso to exploit.

Henrique will be the constant at the base of midfield and what he lacks in Adriano’s dynamism he makes up for in positional awareness. Arouca’s attacking dynamism from a left-of-centre compensates for the lack of pure width ahead of Durval. Elano the consumate all-rounder, performs a slightly different role to the right-of centre in this arrangement helping to prolong possession. It is Elano, however, who looks set to loose out should Muricy opt for that old reliable of his, 3-5-2.

B) 3-5-2 (3-1-4-2/5-3-2): symmetry in width, numbers in the middle.

With Arouca switching to the right of Henrique, and not forgetting Ganso’s likely positioning as a more integral part of the midfield, Santos can still count on three bodies in the centre so as to avoid being completely overrun by Barcelona. Muricy could well play Leo as a genuine wing-back ahead of Durval, who himself would become the left-sided centre-back. Danilo’s role is interesting. In truth, very little in his attacking disposition would change and independently of whether he had the comfort of a genuine back-three behind him or the makeshift four. In this regard, he his similar to Dani Alves, in constant locomotion up and down the right-hand sideline. But also like Alves, and more so like Maicon, another feature of Danilo’s play are the diagonal forays through the midfield and this trait is likely to be accentuated in the event of his being played as a wing-back.

The unthinkable: Santos without Ganso?

We should not be completely shocked were Ganso to be omitted from the Starting XI. Of course, it would be a big dissappointment in the sense of it being a dilution of Santos’ footballing ideology but Ramalho is anything if not pragmatic. The benefactor of Ganso’s absence would likely be bustling forward Alan Kardec who brings two gifts to the table in the forms of his height and athleticism. The latter is not among Ganso’s attributes, much less disposition, but such an ability to hassle and to harry may prove invaluable for Santos in trying to impede Barcelona from progessing down both flanks, assuming Alan Kardec would guard one wing whilst Borges and Neymar would alternate duties on the other. Indeed, the latter two could be seen putting in such a defensive shift versus Kashiwa whilst Ganso, almost disengaged from strenuous running, was given a less taxing brief in the centre whereby he looked to obstruct passing angles around the Japanese deep-lying midfielder.

That arrangement may suffice against most adversaries against whom Santos have come up, but is it too big a strain on the other nine outfield players when facing Barcelona? Alan Kardec can give Muricy peace of mind and a degree of defensive symmetry (4-1-4-1) in that respect. He also provides a differential in offensive terms, particularly when Santos have goal-kicks or set-pieces from deep within their own half. We saw in the semi-final how the towering Kardec, on as a subsitute for Elano after the 50th minute, was clearly instructed to act as a long-range conduit just behind a Borges and Neymar duo (Ganso retreating deeper into midfield towards the side of the diamond) whenever Santos sought to launch the ball from deep. The idea here being that Kardec would knock the ball on for either Borges to hold and delay (whilst Santos would advance as a block) or for Neymar to attack immediately.

That being said, if Alan Kardec is to feature it will more likely be as a substitute. Muricy is aware of the odds stacked against him winning this final. But even an arch-pragmatist like he is acutely conscious of the Santos tradition of which Ganso is such a fibre, and it could be that if Santos are to succumb it would be better to go down fighting and honoring as close as they can the expansive football writ large across the club’s history. Were such a posture to result in ultimate triumph, it would be all the more satisfactory for Brazilian football as a whole, especially when one considers the winners in 2005 and 2006. São Paulo largely played true to their cagey style, it is true, but Internacional were an expansive side replete with playmakers who felt obliged to take the complete opposite approach in deference to Barcelona.

It would be nice if Santos did not need to compromise to such extremes, but as long as the upset is delivered, in whatever fashion, few voices will object.

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