A tactical guide to the Champions League semi-finalists

When it comes to surviving in the latter stages of the Champions League, it seems versatility is the key to vitality. One of the most notable things about the four sides that have made it to this season’s semi-finals is that all four have, to a greater or lesser extent, deployed formations and tactical systems that they do not use in domestic competition in order to reach the last four.

Defending champions Barcelona romped to an unprecedented six-trophy haul last year using a fairly classic 4-3-3 system that featured three narrow central midfielders and two goalscoring wingers (Thierry Henry on the left, Lionel Messi on the right) either side of a central forward (Samuel Eto’o).

This season, however, their shape has morphed into an assymetrical 4-3-3 that more closely resembles a 4-2-4. Messi has abandoned the right flank in order to occupy a roaming central role, from which he wreaked such havoc in Barça’s 6-2 humiliation of Real Madrid towards the tail-end of last season and the 2-0 Champions League final victory over Manchester United last May.

“Last year we won six titles and he played wide but we need him involved and sometimes he sees more of the ball when he plays more in the centre,” said coach Pep Guardiola after the 4-0 demolition of Stuttgart in the second leg of their last-16 encounter.

Messi’s place on the right flank has been taken by Barcelona B graduate Pedro Rodríguez – himself a capable goalscorer – with Bojan Krkić playing as the central striker in Zlatan Ibrahimović’s absence in the 4-1 quarter-final second leg win against Arsenal last week (right).

Seydou Keita, a goalscoring carillero in La Liga, plays almost as an orthodox left-midfielder, with both he and Pedro instructed to put pressure on the opposition’s full-backs when they lose possession. The attacking instincts of right-back Dani Alves allow Pedro to abandon the right flank when Barça go forward, with Messi also drifting into his former role on the right from time to time.

Internazionale, who will meet the La Liga leaders for a place in the final, have exchanged their 4-3-1-2 standard Serie A shape for a 4-2-3-1 that accommodates playmaker Wesley Sneijder and three strikers in the form of Goran Pandev, Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito.

Inter began the home leg of their last-16 victory over Chelsea in their customary 4-3-1-2, with Sneijder playing in advance of central midfielders Esteban Cambiasso, Dejan Stanković and Thiago Motta. Having established a 2-1 lead, Jose Mourinho replaced Motta with striker Mario Balotelli. Wrongly interpreted in some quarters as a bold attacking move, it actually saw Balotelli take up a position wide on the right to stymie the influence of Chelsea’s auxiliary left-back Florent Malouda, with Pandev occupying an identical position on the left after coming on for Eto’o 10 minutes later.

Mourinho kept faith with the shape in the second leg (left), in which Pandev started instead of Stanković, and the system’s efficacy was borne out by the statistics: Inter enjoyed 52 percent of possession and restricted the Premier League champions-elect to just three shots on target en route to a surprisingly routine 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.

“The team has changed its mentality,” said Mourinho after the 2-0 aggregate quarter-final defeat of CSKA Moscow. “It approaches fixtures with a sense of security, solidity and defensive strength.”

Bayern Munich commonly adopt a seemingly suicidal 4-2-4 in domestic league games, with Mark van Bommel and converted wide midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger occupying central midfield positions and out-and-out wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben playing wide in support of two central forwards.

That the industrious Croatian international Ivica Olić often occupies one of those two forward roles goes some way towards explaining why Bayern manage to avoid getting completely over-run when they lose the ball – particularly as neither Ribéry nor Robben are renowned for their defensive capacities – but Football Further is still at something of a loss to explain how Louis van Gaal’s men boast one of the meanest defences in Europe with just 28 goals conceded in 30 league games at a rate of 0.93 per game.

In both legs of their quarter-final triumph against Manchester United, however, van Gaal sent his side out in a more conservative 4-2-3-1 (right), with Olić operating as a lone striker ahead of the versatile Thomas Müller. Playing on the opposite flank from their stronger foot, both Ribéry and Robben pose a considerable goal threat, while 20-year-old Müller has shown himself to be an incongrously cold-blooded finisher in his breakthrough season at the club.

The formation remains top-heavy, though, and it is likely Bayern would have found it more difficult to over-turn United’s 4-2 aggregate lead had right-back Rafael not been sent off shortly after half-time in the second leg at Old Trafford.

“At half-time I was confident that we could get back into the game, score in the second half and get the result,” said van Gaal, a coach who demands strict tactical discipline from his players. “The dismissal was the key to the game, and we played with patience and confidence after that. To come back from 3-0 down [in the second leg] is incredible.”

Semi-final debutants Lyon are perhaps the only team in the last four who have not really altered their shape in the Champions League this season. Claude Puel typically sets his side out in a 4-3-3 in Ligue 1 and he has used the same shape in continental competition.

Against Bordeaux (below), Puel opted for a system not dissimilar to that used by domestic rivals Lille in the Europa League prior to their elimination at the hands of Liverpool.

France international Jérémy Toulalan anchored the midfield, with Miralem Pjanić and Jean Makoun taking on the carillero roles either side. Makoun, though, was detailed with a clear brief to get forward and press Bordeaux’s central midfielders, and the Cameroon international twice found himself in goalscoring positions without being able to take advantage.

Contrary to Barça and Inter, Lyon’s most attacking full-back (Aly Cissokho) plays on the left, and it was from his driving run and shot that Lyon won the penalty that Lisandro López converted to secure an ultimately decisive 3-1 first-leg lead. Michel Bastos and César Delgado swapped flanks regularly over both legs – demonstrated by the fact the average position data depicts them in central roles – while Lisandro did the work of two men in tirelessly harrying Bordeaux’s defenders in the first leg.

Suspensions and injuries forced Puel into changes for the second leg, with Lisandro banned and Makoun injured, but the former Lille coach opted to alter the balance of his line-up further by dropping Pjanić to the bench and bringing in 21-year-old holding midfielder Maxime Gonalons alongside Makoun’s replacement, Kim Källström.

“I was expecting a physical contest in midfield so I lined up with three defensive midfielders,” Puel explained afterwards.

The presence of three midfield enforcers prevented Bordeaux from getting into their stride and, apart from Marouane Chamakh’s first-half opener, Lyon’s only moment of discomfort occurred in the dying minutes when Hugo Lloris was called upon to produce an astonishing save to deny Wendel.

4 Responses to “A tactical guide to the Champions League semi-finalists”

  • [...] A tactical guide to the Champions League semi-finalists Vanitas, Jacques Linard “When it comes to surviving in the latter stages of the Champions League, it seems versatility is the key to vitality. One of the most notable things about the four sides that have made it to this season’s semi-finals is that all four have, to a greater or lesser extent, deployed formations and tactical systems that they do not use in domestic competition in order to reach the last four.” (Football Further) [...]

  • Carlton:

    An interesting feature of Barcelona’s recent games (most notably the 2 legs vs Arsenal) has been the heavy bombardment down the right flank.

    Against Arsenal, Messi occupied a fairly right-centrish position, Pedro played mainly as a right-winger, and Bojan/Ibra played fairly centrally. Alves bombed down the right flank non-stop. Consequently the left flank was left largely to one man, Keita (with the occasional support of Maxwell). Maybe it wasn’t a surprise that Arsenal’s goals all came down that same side. It was in effect a lopsided 4-4-2.

    I think we could see a repeat against Inter. Guardiola will look at Inter’s defence and the lack of pace on the left side (Zanetti, Samuel) as something that can be exploited. I suspect Maxwell may play as the left-sided midfielder (if the Espanyol game is anything to go by) to stem the influence of Maicon, with Messi and Bojan centre-ish and Pedro coming in off the right. Xavi and Busquets in the middle.

    I’d be very surprised if Guardiola plays Toure as well in the middle (at the expense of Bojan), I thought it was too defensive and Inter’s lack of mobility in defence can be exploited with the dynamic trio of Messi/Bojan/Pedro.

  • Kaveh:

    Man U had a 4-3 agg advantage at half-time during the second leg, NOT a 4-2 advantage. And of course it would have been tougher, but definitely not out of the question. Remember that after Bayern’s domination in the first leg, they had the away goal advantage at the 2nd leg half down 4-3. 1 goal would have won them the tie, as long as they didn’t concede.

    1 goal is never out of the question, especially how they played the last 5-10 minutes of the first half. Man U really only dominated 1/4 halfs of the 2 leg tie. The first half of the 2nd leg. Besides that half, in which Man U scored 3 goals, Bayern really were the better team.

    • Thanks Kaveh, that’s a fair point. I didn’t say that United were 4-2 up at half-time, but I was being a little disingenuous by deliberately not mentioning Olic’s goal before half-time. United were poor defensively in both legs and both of Olic’s goals in the tie stemmed directly from defensive mistakes. United were nonetheless in control of the second leg until Rafael’s sending off. They had 52 percent of possession in the first half but an incredibly meagre 27 percent in the second after Rafael’s dismissal.

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