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.


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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Del Bosque is getting it wrong

The title of this post is perhaps an example of what can be alluded to in Spanish as palabras mayores; ‘strong words’, ‘big statement’. And it is with regret that anyone throws criticism at the man of integrity that is Vicente Del Bosque. But bear with me…

I don’t know which is worse: a) that a manager, seeing the symptoms of illness, misdiagnoses and subsequently elects a course of action or inaction, b) that the manager seeing the symptoms of illness, diagnoses correctly and yet implausibly insists on continuing his preferred method of questionable treatment or c) that he fails to see the symptoms in the first place and thinks that things are in fine fettle.

Which of the above charges can be laid at the door of Vicente Del Bosque and assistant Toni Grande?

Of course c must be dismissed since that is the stuff of rank incompetence. Anyone could see that Spain have been experiencing difficulty and not only versus England at Wembley. And not only in recent friendly defeats but throughout the ultimately triumphant World Cup in South Africa too.

Charge b is flimsy argument against Vicente Del Bosque and more gravely is a perverse appraisal of the nature of a man who has enjoyed success at the highest level. Stubbornness borne of ideological convictions is the last thing that defines the man’s approach to managing a football team as the charge here would have it.

Del Bosque has been all too easily accused of charting a timid middle course in matters football over the past decade. There exists the notion that he is a fence-sitter, petrified of causing offence particularly when the mist of politics envelopes the air. Could it be, as some suggest, that Del Bosque’s avoidance of flat out implanting the Barcelona midfield trio in the national team is a sop to earn some respite from accusations that emanate across Spain’s bitter footballing divide?

In the above case perhaps it’s best to lend the Salamantine coach the benefit of the doubt; after all, the inclusion of Xabi Alonso as an aide to Sergio Busquets is more likely the fruit of a cornerstone of Del Bosque’s philosophy. To be sure, he has certain ideas and preferences among his repertoire such as his liking for playing twin holding-midfielders in front of a back throughout his club coaching career (apart from one brief, exhilarating 6-month spell in early 2000 as Real Madrid galloped from the shadows to glory,  for which see Rob Smyth’s succinct views on the matter). And isn’t any self-respecting coach entitled to some degree of coherent vision without these necessarily being interpreted as caprice? To say otherwise would be to deny the coach his identity and personality and be left with a spoofer and an improviser.

Over three years into his tenure now, Del Bosque surely would have seen how during roughly the past two-and-a-half years Spain has been lacking incision. He will have acknowledged to himself that this flatness has become more manifest in consecutive appearances from the World Cup onwards. It is how he interprets (diagnoses) Spain’s poor play and chooses to address or not address (treat) the problem that can serve as grounds for criticism. And therein lays the crux of the matter: Del Bosque can’t quite finger the problem. There is talk of Spain’s strikers being off-form, but Del Bosque brought on the forlorn Fernando Torres when he had Llorente on the bench. To my mind, the problems of the somnolent play of La Roja stem from an ill-conceived compromise as to the composition of the midfield such that, even were Villa and Torres in the form of their careers and the formation up top altered, this once-in-a-generation Spain collective will continue to play below its potential. Football with the handbrake on. Indeed.

Watching Spain leaves me with the impression that Del Bosque is trying to blend the best of the current Barcelona model with other impressive performers from other clubs as well as with some tactical ideas of his own, as any one of us would. Indeed, it is entirely commendable that he attempt to pick and mix. But could it be that he has made the wrong kind of blend? Arrived at the wrong kind of compromise?

The recent tinkering with a false nine is handicapped in two respects: firstly, the absence of a false 9 of Messi’s nature (let alone quality) has deprived the attack of penetration. If there is a candidate even remotely similar to Messi, that would be Iker Muniain. But is there an argument to be made for building the attack of the reigning World and European champions around a 19-year old prodigy for all his preciously electrifying play? Muniain’s time will come later. Del Bosque’s preferred candidate is David Silva who, for all his qualities, is more of a facilitator for others than an autonomous threat in his own respect as is the case with the Messi or Muniain. Now perhaps Silva’s movement in the role would bear greater fruit if he were flanked by more direct attacking players and not solely David Villa.  For Andrés Iniesta’s game is similar to that of Silva and with two associative playmakers in a supposedly three-man front line, we are left with redundancy and a tendency to recycle the ball rather than rupture with acute goalward movment.

This redundancy was only compounded at Wembley by Del Bosque’s cut-and-paste imitation of the ‘double-false-nine’ deployed frequently by Barcelona so far this 2011-12 season. But whereas Pep Guardiola’s pairing of Fàbregas with Messi has sometimes proved providential (as in the thumping of Villarreal in September), the Catalan coach placed both talents in a sensibly favourable context. Quite apart from the fact that Barcelona had mostly switched to a 3-3-1-3 (or 3-1-3-3) formation, more important was the fact that Guardiola flanked the duo with genuine outside-forwards in Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, and, of course, there are the rampaging forays from deeper positions of overlapping figures such as Daniel Alves and/or Adriano. In other words, Barcelona has provided oxygen for the tiki-taka passing infield by using rapid players on the outside to stretch the playing area and the opponents.

Spain, by contrast, is built upon a back four with only Jordi Alba to provide any degree of stretching of the play for a midfield and attack which already is wont to converge centrally. So in this respect Del Bosque is faced with an insurmountable task; how to replicate Barcelona when for all your commonality of approach and style, the system and even some of the personnel are different?

If there is a single player who stands to lose most from the current arrangement, it is also Spain’s most emblematic player. Xavi is so neutered by the existing midfield set-up as to be almost a parody of the unkindest appraisals of his play. There are those who have long dismissed his game as bureaucratic and excessively cautious, primed towards recycling attacks rather than progressing them in the mould of, say, a younger Fàbregas. And looking at his performances with La Roja for much of the Del Bosque era, this staunch Xavista almost finds himself agreeing with them. With the proviso of course that this is hardly Xavi’s fault. Receiving the ball in a more advanced area of the pitch than per custom almost encrusted between and with his back turned to the opponents’ deepest midfielders, the Barcelona metronome finds his scope for surveying the action almost halved. As a result he appears to become a figure of almost excessive caution. Naturally, many will argue that Xavi usually acts out of caution given his zealous ball-retentive play, but his positioning in the Spain midfield, facing Alonso, Busquets and his own defence exacerbates this to an absurd degree. It’s almost as if the only balls he does play (all successfully of course) are backward and sideways. That old chestnut again.

Xavi’s discomfort unleashes a domino effect that ripples throughout the side. Busquets is faced with a dilemma: either he can choose to play it short to Alonso, who in turn can then opt to activate either flank or send the ball towards a more advanced midfield or even forward line, or he (Busquets) can exchange passes with club teammate Xavi. Only that the Barcelona arrangement is not in operation here; when closely guarded by opposing midfielders and some distance away, Xavi is difficult to reach via the passing range of Busquets whose true passing game is impressive when in close proximity to other similarly gifted teammates. As a result Busquets ends up ceding the ball to Alonso, who then contemplates the abovementioned array of options. But why should Alonso elect to activate a restricted Xavi when to do so the ball is unlikely to progress through the centre and instead come back to the Basque’s feet? It’s pure and simple redundancy.

There is yet the matter of how Xavi deals with his unenviable surroundings ahead of the midfield. Either subconsciously or in a deliberate attempt to buy himself room for turning and facing the direction of play, Xavi ends up retreating into midfield and closer towards Busquets and Alonso. This now leads Busquets, an intelligent player, with too much choice to compute. His instinct would have him exchange passes with his Barcelona teammate, now back on familiar turf and in proximity, yet he also must be aware that Alonso is more likely to provide the progressive and, in certain situations, the more suitable pass.

Also consider the effects up-field where the more advanced Spanish players can set off on all manner of clever runs to try and open up passing angles. However, now that they cannot be fed by Xavi they have one less permutation of moves to compute and accordingly one less set of options for Alonso to consider for the longer pass. And logically this reduced window of movement among the Spanish forwards comes as a considerable relief to the opponent’s marking scheme. With fewer dangers to calculate and now facing a less strenuous mental burden, the opponent can now choose to focus on thwarting other passing options or getting tight on other players deep into the Spanish midfield. Capello’s England players gave us an effective demonstration of this at Wembley on Saturday.

In attempting to draw conclusion from all this, the danger would be for Del Bosque to identify poor individual form or even to signal subpar motivation as impediments to Spain performing well in place of something more structural.

Spain is currently achieving the laudable feat of fielding three of the world’s iconic midfielders and somehow conspiring to render each one uncomfortable and less effective in the presence of one another.

Surely they owe it to themselves and their footballing capabilities to do better?

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Menezes’ Options Represent Fusion of Brazilian and European Styles

When it comes to the Brazil team’s shape, Mano Menezes essentially has two preferences in mind, and both revolve around the advanced playmaking figure of Paulo Henrique ‘Ganso’.

With the exception of Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 1994 World Cup-winning side, most Brazil teams in recent decades have sought to enter a tournament built around at least one No.10 of some description, be he a playmaker or more of an attacker, yet unvaryingly a supreme individual talent.

Mano Menezes enters the Copa America hoping to mantain that tradition whilst juggling it with demands for a modernisation that would entail the kind of tactical framework within which his Brazilian charges play for their respective European clubs.

Those who have worked alongside him vouch for Luiz Antônio Vencker’s sobriety and unyielding self-discipline; qualities which he in turn demands from his players. “He basically acts as a father figure,” says Pericles da Costa, a physical preparation coach under Menezes at SER Caxias in 2004, “firm but with the best interests of each player at heart, trying to foresee any personal problems or conflicts which might be just around the corner. But things like impunctuality…drinking, he won’t stand for that, he himself always takes care never to be seen drinking in the company of players.”

But it is not so much personality or his German heritage that makes Mano Menezes widely considered the most “European” among Brazilian coaches, rather it is the meticulousness of his approach to organization, training and above all a tactical philosophy to which he adheres. As early as 2006 his Grêmio side was playing a 4-2-3-1, something practically unheard of in Brazil at the time and still something of a rarity today.
It is a tricky path for the coach to thread, attempting to marry European and Brazilian components following two decades of divergence between the type of football practised in the homeland and that to be found in the Champions League. Pressing from forwards, compacting of all the lines, and a high defensive line are not really practices which have translated across the Atlantic, certainly not to domestic Brazilian football. Thiago Silva, for instance, spoke of his initial shock at having to adapt to Milan’s relatively high defensive line upon his arrival in Italy. Conversely, Menezes would like to allow enough space for the kind of languid game that suits Brazilian playmakers or even free reign so that his individually-minded attackers might improvise.

Whilst Dunga designed a system that was not only defensively watertight but arguably boasted the best defence-to-offence transition in world football, the 2007-2010 Brazil side were less impressive in – indeed practically renounced- the static offensive phase, lacking as it did any semblance of a playmaker (Kaká by his nature being an auxiliary attacker). Menezes’ offering seeks to capitalise on the passing game of Ganso, who probably would have ill-fitted Dunga’s coiled-spring-like approach of contract-absorb-explode. Dunga’s team lived off transitions, dominating two phases of play (static defence and defence-to-offence ). The current Brazil side seeks to be more adept across all passages of play.

1) Mano’s ‘European’ 4-2-1-3 (4-2-3-1 in defensive phase)

Above, Figure 1: red arrrows indicate general player movement; purple shows Neymar’s and Robinho’s defensive positioning; blue line represents first line of pressure centred on Ganso.

Mano’s ideal set-up, since it allows him to combine European-style attacking width and the cadence of a South American football in central areas. A pro-active, risk-assuming variant on the 4-2-3-1 with wide forwards Robinho and Neymar flanking centre-forward Pato and yet fed by Ganso. Essentially, Brazil will be playing with a front four, the danger being of course that it could become stretched and fragmented, especially if Ganso receives a designated man-marker.

Another difference between Dunga’s and Menezes’ sides lies in their respective shapes during the defensive phase; whereas previously Kaká and Robinho would generally initiate pressing just ahead of the midfield in what became a 4-3-2-1 (Elano dropping off to form a deeper trio), Menezes is determined to win back the ball higher up the pitch and not sentence his offensive players to living off counter-attacks during the subsequent transition. Therefore more players will be tasked with pushing up and squeezing the space. Regardless of formation, Robinho and Neymar will be tasked with forming the first wave of pressure, with Ramires assisting Ganso in disrupting the opponent in central areas.

2) ‘Brazilian’ assymetrical 4-2-2-2 (4-2-3-1 in defensive phase)

Above, Figure 2a): freedom of movement for Neymar across the front line; Ganso assisted by Jadson (or Lucas Moura) amidst switching of positions (indicated by pink arrows); maroon arrow shows defensive positioning of Elano (should he feature); blue line represents first line of pressure. Neymar must also integrate with it at some interval (to form 4-2-3-1).

If Brazilian footballing language abounds in terms such as ‘third man of the midfield’ it is indicative of Brazilians not conceiving of formation in terms of collective bands, but rather in terms as individual functions and the proximity of players to defense and attack. Given a scenario in which players are effectively staggered relative to one another’s position, Lucas Leiva is said to be the ‘first midfielder’, with Ramires slightly ahead of him as the ‘second man of the midfield’ and so forth.

This bears some resemblance to Brazil’s system in South Africa which itself was not dissimilar to classic Brazilian 4-2-2-2’s (see figure 2 b), in terms of shape at least. In terms of vocation and mechanisms, however, it was a different beast all together.

Above, Figure 2b) – Brazil at the 1982 World CupNote some of the similarities with the current side: Sócrates interchanging positions with the relatively narrow Zico, Júnior moving into a central corridor vacated by the previous two, and Éder cutting in from outside-left to aid the centre-forward.

But whereas Dunga used Elano (with Ramires or Daniel Alves as backup) as a shuttling ‘third midfielder’, Menezes has been keener to place another playmaker close to Ganso. Again we see the similarities with the 1982 squad which featured Socrates and Zico in close proximity to one another and tilting slighty towards the right. Of course we shouldn’t rule out Elano reprising his shuttling ‘third man’ role in those cases where Menezes opts for caution, defending a lead for example.

The main advantage of this set-up is that it relieves an already burdened Ganso of exclusive playmaking duties, which is essential when one considers that the holding pair behind him (two from Lucas, Ramires and Sandro) are hardly creative types. The likely candidate to partner Ganso will be Shaktar Donetsk’s Jadson or possibly São Paulo starlet Lucas Moura. In truth, Moura is more of a supporting forward who seeks to dribble and dart towards goal, not unlike Lionel Messi in that respect, and as such he could serve as a differential ingredient in linking with the Brazil forwards and a useful foil for the more nuanced, paused game of Ganso.

Brain-drain: the lack of imaginative players in deeper areas of midfield (such as Hernanes, above, when at São Paulo) has still not been addressed by Brazilian coaches.

This writer shares the reservations expressed by Jack Lang of ‘Snap Kaká and Pop!’ with regard bull-dogs being replaced with Labradors, so to speak, given the current seleção coach’s predilection for fielding hyperactive box-to-box midfielders. This comes in the wake of Mano’s earlier announcements protesting the importance of quality passing in deep areas. His seeming reluctance to more evenly spread the playmaking duties throughout all the lines as opposed to heaping all the responsibility on the three-quarters player could entail Ganso becoming muzzled and the entire team’s attack dissipating as occurred with Juan Román Riquelme during the second half of Argentina’s quarter-final exit to Germany in 2006.

This is the arrangement that sits most easily with Brazilian players, resembling as it does the shape that abounds in domestic Brazilian football of pairing two number 10s together in the centre and ahead of two more defensive players. Menezes however will be aware that this kind of rigid sectorisation of duties is deficient for football at the highest level (as Brazil’s anaemic showing at WC 2006 proved) and will ensure some degree of assymetry and overlapping of roles to prevent the ‘broken team’ scenario from enveloping. He is also acutely aware that, however assymetrically players may position themselves when in possession, it is no longer possible to defend assymetrically in zonally-marking modern football, at least outside of Brazil and certainly at European club and international levels. And so it was that the right-winger Éder, for all that he hassled his opposing right-back, did not not need in 1982 to defend in tandem with Socrates and Zico – which today surely would constitute an anomaly as teams cannot simply renounce space. Thus Neymar will shuffle over to the left of Ganso and Jadson (or Lucas Moura) to form a first line of pressure during the defensive phase.

Evocations of the 1982 seleção might well be an exercise in nostalgia or an ideologically driven re-vindication of utopia, but one area where this Brazil squad considerably falls short is through the exclusion of Marcelo, apparently on the grounds of club-instigated disloyalty, who perhaps more than any full-back in recent years can offer the variety of play that Júnior provided from left-back almost three decades ago.

Left-back and left-out: Júnior (from the 1982 side and Flamengo) and Marcelo (of Real Madrid) were/are playmakers operating from left-back.

There have been some formidable attacking Brazilian laterais, notably Roberto Carlos, Cafu and recently Maicon and Daniel Alves, but their games essentially involve a degree of hyperactivity; the more they slowed down, the longer they kept their foot placed on the ball, the more they had to think – the less effective their contribution to the attack became. Marcelo is different in that, while he does offer overlapping width, he also enters diagonally through the middle. So too do Alves and Maicon, but whereas they seek to surge, the Real Madrid man always seems less hurried. It is in this sense that Marcelo’s game echoes the displays of Júnior during the 1982 World Cup. Constantly seeking to move inside and find central corridors that had been vacated by his midfielders, Júnior would pirouette, pause and pick out a pass. By 1986, Telê Santana saw fit to use him as a central midfielder on occasion. In excluding Marcelo, Brazil lose an element of unorthodoxy from left-back.

Third (Ganso-less) Option: 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1 in defensive phase)

Above: Figure 3 – Without Ganso’s creativity at hand, Robinho and Neymar must move inside and drop deeper to generate passing angles (indicated by red arrows).They can also exchange positions, as per in the friendly versus the Netherlands (represented by broken pink arrows) in what is a 4-3-3. Both these forwards adopt a defensive posture alongside Elano or Elias and Ramires (whose defensive movements are shown in maroon) with Lucas Leiva screening in what becomes a 4-1-4-1 in defensive phase.

Experiments with this Plan C have produced mixed results; the team does appear more compact, and it no longer runs the risk of seeing opponents stifle their main creative source, but then again the array of midfield trios thusfar selected have only served to highlight the team’s reliance on Ganso, and this becomes too evident when Robinho and Neymar find themselves dropping deep to make things happen with the centre-forward being left isolated. Arguably this is the result of Brazil no longer producing or simply overlooking the importance of deeper-lying playmakers in the mould of Gerson or Toninho Cerezo. There is Hernanes who played a deep-lying role at São Paulo but his omission seems as much due to his infantile red-card infraction against France in February as it is a result of his redeployment as an advanced midfielder by Edy Reja’s Lazio.

The likes of Lucas Leiva-Elano-Ramires constitute a well rounded midfield, solid but unspectacular, and notably lacking in passing vision. Essentially, what Mano has done is to take a midfield diamond devoid of its advanced playmaker and to leave it intact without consideration as to whether the remaining trio can generate a similar level of imaginative passing. The recent friendly versus Holland showed the players struggling to generate spaces through their movement and to make incisive passes.

Perhaps this set-up will be used when Brazil are defending a lead or if Menezes, up against a formidable side (such as the hosts), errs on the side of caution and seeks the counter-attack. But that would have the Brazilian public bemoaning a lack of departure from the Dunga Era.

It seems that for Mano Menezes and the Brazil side that will enter the Copa America, Paulo Henrique ‘Ganso’ lies at the heart of everything.

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