Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco may have stockpiled all the money in Ligue 1, but the playing fields of the French top flight have been awash with diamonds this season.
Over the past few months, a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond – known as a milieu en losange in France – has become the must-have tactical system for the league’s leading teams, with Lille, Monaco and Lyon successively enjoying improved fortunes after adopting the tactic and Marseille potentially poised to follow suit.
Lille were the pioneers, with coach René Girard installing the system within weeks of his arrival from Montpellier during the summer. Having initially declared an intention to persist with the 4-3-3 formation favoured by his predecessor, Rudi Garcia, he jettisoned the tactic after only 45 minutes of the club’s first friendly match, a 3-2 win over Dijon in July.
The system he introduced was designed to get the best out of Marvin Martin, who operates in the number 10 role ahead of a three-man midfield. Once seen as France’s answer to Xavi, he endured a disappointing debut season after signing from Sochaux but has spoken positively of the “freedom” afforded him in the new system. It is a set-up with which the 26-year-old is familiar, having come to prominence at Sochaux by supplying the bullets for Brown Ideye and Modibo Maiga as the club from eastern France recorded a surprise fifth-place finish under Francis Gillot in 2011.
“Upon returning to Chelsea, Mourinho pledged that he would introduce a more proactive, passing style, but he is struggling to find an alternative to the counter-attacking approach that is his trademark. Chelsea have averaged a healthy 56.9 percent of possession in their 12 league games to date this season, but they seem happier when they have taken an early lead and can pick off their opponents on the break. Of their 12 victories in all competitions, 10 have come after they went ahead inside the first 33 minutes and on the five occasions when they have conceded the opening goal, they have come back to win only once, in last month’s 4-1 win at home to Cardiff City.”
I’ve written a piece for AFP on José Mourinho’s search for a winning formula at Chelsea, and you can read it here.
I put on my posh podcast voice to speak to Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast about Laurent Blanc’s winning formula at Paris Saint-Germain, Olivier Giroud and Arsenal, Frank Lampard and Chelsea, and David Moyes’s tactical conundrums at Manchester United. You can listen here.
David Moyes is only two competitive games into his tenure as Manchester United manager, and his tactical strategies are likely to evolve as the season progresses, but his side’s early performances have already benefited from the unique skillset of versatile forward Danny Welbeck.
In both the 2-0 victory over Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield and last Saturday’s 4-1 win at Swansea City, Welbeck operated in a role that was difficult to define; hugging the left touchline one minute, darting into the box the next. In this respect he dovetailed with Ryan Giggs, who was United’s most advanced central midfielder in both games.
Welbeck and Giggs were the only players in the United XI who could be said to have taken up unorthodox positions in the two matches. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley patrolled the centre of the pitch – Cleverley slightly ahead of his England colleague – and while Wilfried Zaha (in the Community Shield) and Antonio Valencia (against Swansea) stayed wide on the right flank, Robin van Persie led the line as a conventional number nine.
Welbeck and Giggs, however, were harder to pin down. Giggs played slightly in advance of Carrick and Cleverley, and was often the player charged with carrying the ball forward into opposition territory, but he occasionally drifted wide to take up a role on the left. Welbeck orbited in support of Van Persie, typically moving to the left when Giggs was not there, but in the game against Swansea he also made a series of bursts into the penalty area from central positions, as his two goals demonstrated. The 22-year-old blends the stamina and work ethic of a central midfielder with the pace and dainty footwork of a winger, and his mobility equips United with both an outlet on the left flank and a foil for Van Persie.
In recent weeks, Hatem Ben Arfa has started to look like the player he had always threatened to become.
With two goals and three assists in his last four appearances, the 25-year-old is the form attacking midfielder in the Premier League. There have been flurries of eye-catching form in the past, but he has rarely played such daring, decisive football on such a consistent basis and against such strong opposition.
The catalyst for his spring renaissance was the January arrival of Papiss Demba Cissé, who was signed to link up with his Senegal team-mate, Demba Ba. With two prolific strikers at his disposal, Newcastle United coach Alan Pardew was forced to abandon his long-held ambition to deploy Ben Arfa as a number 10 behind a lone striker. He has re-emerged on the right.
Ben Arfa started on the right flank for the first time in the league this season in Newcastle’s 5-2 defeat at Fulham on January 21 (a game in which he scored), but it was not until March 18, and a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City, that he was included in the same starting line-up as Cissé and Ba. The trio subsequently started in the slick 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park. After opening the scoring in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, Ben Arfa scored once and created the two other goals at West Brom and was then instrumental in both goals against Liverpool.
Over the course of those recent games, Newcastle’s shape has slowly morphed from a lopsided 4-4-2 into something resembling an orthodox 4-3-3, as Ben Arfa has become the focal point for his side’s attacking play on the right flank and Pardew has responded by adding more ballast to the centre of midfield.
The eight remaining teams in this season’s Champions League are drawn from seven different countries and range in experience from quarter-final debutants APOEL to nine-time champions Real Madrid. They are nonetheless united by a number of tactical factors. All eight sides deployed four-man defences in their last-16 ties, while the majority of the teams preferred single-striker formations. Benfica and Milan were the only two teams to play with no wide midfielders.
The diagrams below depict the eight teams’ tactical line-ups from the first legs of their last-16 ties, before there were any leads to be defended or deficits to be overturned.
NB: The diagrams (screenshots from the UEFA website) show average positions from the first 15 minutes of matches only, so as to provide a clear indication of how the teams approached each game in terms of formation.
In the first leg of their tie at Lyon, APOEL played in a compact 4-1-4-1 formation and placed so much emphasis on defending their penalty area that they did not muster a single shot at goal until Gustavo Manduca tested Hugo Lloris with a rising drive in the 88th minute. Ivan Jovanović’s side were more proactive in the return leg, however. Esteban Solari played up front in support of Aílton, while Manduca was named in the starting line-up and scored the goal that levelled the tie in the ninth minute.
[Squad numbers: 22. Dionisis Chiotis; 7. Savvas Poursaitidis, 3. Paulo Jorge, 4. Kaká, 98. William Boaventura; 26. Nuno Morais; 10. Constantinos Charalambides, 31. Hélder Sousa, 23. Hélio Pinto, 11. Ivan Tričkovski; 8. Aílton]
During the last World Cup, I wrote a piece positing a theory about an emerging tactical role that I called the ‘false 10′.
With the concept of the false nine still liable to provoke mirth among those irked by the supposed ‘over-intellectualisation’ of football analysis, I was concerned about inviting scorn upon myself for introducing another ungainly term to the tactical debate, but I was pleased that the piece provoked a healthy number of comments on this site and that the idea has been tentatively picked up, from time to time, by other writers and bloggers.
However, there appears to be a bit of confusion about what exactly the ‘false 10′ is. In my original piece, I said it was a playmaker who confounds the expectations of the opposition defence by breaking beyond the nominal tip of his side’s attack and posing a direct goal threat in his own right. The key point is that the ‘false 10′ spends more time playing alongside and in advance of the number nine than an attacking midfielder would ordinarily be expected to. “A second striker playing in the clothes of a playmaker” was one suggested definition from the comments beneath my piece.
In an article evaluating the tactical trends of 2011 written for The Guardian in December, Jonathan Wilson cast the ‘false 10′ as a playmaker who actually spends a significant amount of time foraging for the ball in his own half. “This year has also seen the advent of the term ‘false 10′, a coinage that feels a little clumsy,” he wrote. “There is as yet, though, no other term for a player who operates as Wayne Rooney did towards the end of last season, playing off a front man as an orthodox 10 would but coming deep to help win possession.”
While the Rooney example does indeed highlight a role for which a specific name has yet to be assigned, it does not chime with my initial observations about the positions adopted by players like Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Özil during the World Cup. Where Rooney unsettles his opponents by going backwards, Sneijder and Özil surprise defences by going forwards – at least, further forwards than you would expect for players habitually referred to as ‘midfielders’.
In the 2011-12 season, the player whose profile most closely fits the bill of the ‘false 10′ is Cesc Fàbregas. In Barcelona’s new 3-1-4-2 configuration, it is he who can most often be found breaking beyond the forward line from midfield and bursting into the penalty area. Indeed, in the early part of the season, while operating in a hinterland between his colleagues in midfield and attack, Fàbregas managed to score five goals in his first seven appearances. With his well-timed runs, intuitive movement and accomplished finishing, there is no truer example of the false 10.
Tiny cracks may be starting to appear in the previously impregnable armour of Barcelona, with Real Madrid rampant and Pep Guardiola’s side rudely obliged to play catch-up, but this team’s place in history is already secure. The trophies and the unique, hypnotic passing style have made sure of that, but less remarked upon is the tactical legacy that they have bequeathed to the game.
As the first budding usupers begin to congregate at the gates of the Barca citadel, Football Further looks at five tactical maxims that Guardiola and his team have torn to shreds.
1. ‘Don’t mess around with it at the back’
As any Sunday league football captain will be only too happy to tell you, trying to play your way out of trouble in defence is the game’s cardinal sin. “Not there! Not there!” is the cry whenever a full-back checks inside and seeks to pick out a defensive colleague, or – heaven forbid – a centre-back attempts to carry the ball out from inside his own penalty area.
Professional football, particularly in England, can take a surprisingly similar view of players who try to build up play from the back, but Barcelona’s commitment to guarding possession extends to all areas of the pitch. Yes, passes inside your own area carry a risk heavier than passes made anywhere else on the pitch, but if you trust yourself to pass the ball five yards to a team-mate, why would that trust suddenly evaporate merely because you happen to be close to your own goal?
If anything, Barca’s players almost seem to enjoy playing each other into trouble at times, because they know their team-mates have been taught how to protect the ball properly. It is thanks to this confidence that they are able to rattle passes at each other at such an astonishing tempo, regardless of where they are on the pitch.
In the popular imagination, tactical innovations are often the product of deep rumination by battle-worn coaches desperate to reverse the fortunes of an ailing team. We are invited to imagine them pacing around their training ground offices late at night, a half-drained bottle of brandy within easy reach, or perhaps wide-eyed and manic, furiously rearranging salt and pepper mills to the bewilderment of their companions at a swanky dinner. Suddenly, the eureka moment arrives. The centre-forward needs to be withdrawn to a deeper role! The sweeper should play behind the defence! Wing-backs!
The reality, of course, is usually rather more prosaic – tactical shifts evolve by training ground experimentation, or are imposed upon a coach by injuries, suspensions or losses of form – but sometimes, a new strategy will present itself quite by accident.
With one sweep of Aaron Ramsey’s right boot, Marseille’s season lurched from desperate to tragi-comic on Wednesday night. Almost literally incapable of winning in Ligue 1 (where they have registered one victory in their opening 10 games), OM had found respite in the Champions League and were seconds from taking a valuable point from a dismal game with Arsenal when Johan Djourou’s cross drew in Marseille’s defenders like moths to a flame and left the Welsh midfielder with time and space to beat Steve Mandanda with an unflappable finish at the back post.
Defeat was cruel on Marseille, who had limited the visitors to just two clear second-half chances up to that point, although Borussia Dortmund’s unscheduled 3-1 defeat at Olympiakos means their chances of reaching the knockout phase remain in good shape. It would be unfortunate indeed for Didier Deschamps’ slide to slip from the competition at the group stage, for it is in the Champions League that their tactical escape route has been illuminated.
“The 3-4-3 is particularly effective against sides that deploy two central strikers and Barcelona’s 5-0 demolition of Villarreal on the opening weekend of the La Liga season owed much to Pep Guardiola’s courageous decision to counter the visitors’ strike-force of Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi with a three-man back-line. Napoli’s intrepid 3-4-1-2, meanwhile, has not prevented them from making the early running in Serie A.”
This week’s Pitchside Europe blog for Eurosport attempts to understand why teams can be so resistant to the idea of playing with only three defenders. You can read it here.
In the endlessly self-mythologising Premier League, it was perhaps inevitable that a visit to Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium would be cast as the sporting equivalent of the descent into Hades. It is a place, we are told, where madness and brutality reign, where identities are called into question, reputations torns to shreds, and from which only heroes emerge unscathed.
The Britannia is clearly a foreboding place for opposition teams to visit, but Tony Pulis’ side have also come to represent a pan-European vision of the most rugged extremes of English football. Andy Gray attracted widespread scorn for wondering aloud how Barcelona would handle Rory Delap’s long throws, while Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti rebuked critics of his side’s patient approach play last season by fuming: “If you want to see us play like Stoke City, you’ll have to change coach.”
If Stoke have become a modern byword for direct, no-nonsense football, it is certainly borne out by the statistics. In the 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea last Sunday, the hosts saw just 34 percent of possession. They averaged 38 percent of possession across the whole of last season, and their pass completion rate in the opposition half of 56 percent was the lowest in the division. This Stoke side may have given their supporters mid-table stability and a first ever FA Cup final appearance, but they have not done it with the ball at their feet.
To accuse Pulis of wilful brutishness, however, is to overlook the fact that physical robustness is a fundamental prerequisite to success in the Premier League. You only have to look at the way that José Mourinho went about spending Roman Abramovich’s billions at Chelsea, or the way Roberto Mancini is constructing the current Manchester City side, to recognise that there is nothing perverse about Stoke’s approach.
Despite being prefaced by a World Cup that was characterised by stodgy, unadventurous football and which produced the lowest goals-per-game ratio (2.27) since the notoriously defensive 1990 tournament (2.21), the 2010-11 European football season was generally a positive one for teams that sought to keep the ball on the deck and play an expansive game. Football Further examines some of the tactical trends that have emerged in the continent’s major leagues over the last 10 months.
1. Keepers with good feet
The recent retirement of Manchester United’s Edwin van der Sar has drawn attention to the value of goalkeepers who can set attacking moves in motion by distributing the ball in an intelligent and enterprising fashion. In a masterful piece for the Financial Times last week, David Winner explained how van der Sar’s coach at Ajax, Louis van Gaal, made a priority of developing his ability with the ball: “Van Gaal… had something more sophisticated in mind: to turn van der Sar into the first ‘sweeper-keeper’, the pivot of his new, high-speed ‘circulation football’ (which became, among other things, the precursor to the current Barcelona style).”
With teams better organised defensively than ever before and attacking players more and more adept at pressing opposition defenders, a goalkeeper who passes the ball well can be a priceless commodity. Victor Valdés provided a superb recent example in the second leg of Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. With the score 0-0 early in the second half, Valdés used a goal-kick to play a one-two with Gerard Piqué – positioned near the right-hand corner flag – that lured Real’s attacking players up the pitch. Upon receiving the return ball from Piqué, Valdés curled a risky but perfectly executed first-time pass to Dani Alves on the right flank, taking five opposition players out of the game and setting up a counter-attack. Seconds later the ball was in the net, and Barca were on the brink of the final.
This season’s Champions League semi-finalists reached the last four with an average aggregate winning margin in the quarter-finals of four goals, making them the most comfortable set of semi-final qualifiers in the Champions League era (post-1992).
The diagrams below depict their tactical line-ups from the first legs of their quarter-final ties, before there were any leads to be defended or deficits to be overturned.
NB: The diagrams show average positions from the first half of matches only, so as to provide a clear indication of how the teams approached each game in terms of formation.
[Squad numbers: 1. Manuel Neuer; 22. Atsuto Uchida, 4. Benedikt Höwedes, 32. Joël Matip, 2. Hans Sarpei; 17. Jefferson Farfán, 14. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, 18. José Manuel Jurado, 11. Alexander Baumjohann; 7. Raúl; 9. Edu]
A peculiar tactical phenomenon has been witnessed in France in recent months. In a microcosm of global trends that have shaped the game over the course of the last decade or so, Ligue 1′s top sides have all – without exception – begun to ditch their preferred formations in favour of a 4-2-3-1.
Marseille, whose title and Coupe de la Ligue successes last season were founded on a pragmatic 4-3-3 shape, were the first team to make the switch. For the crucial Champions League group game at Spartak Moscow in November, Mathieu Valbuena was moved infield from the right flank and allowed to adopt the central playmaking role that he covets. Didier Deschamps wanted to capitalise on the fact that Valbuena “is very accurate with his shooting” and the France international proved as much in the 18th minute when he put OM ahead with a precise, curling effort into the top-right corner. Marseille went on to win 3-0, in what was their most coherent performance of the season to date, and their 4-2-3-1 continues to emerge for high-pressure encounters, such as Sunday’s 2-1 defeat of Paris Saint-Germain.
Another team synonymous with the 4-3-3 in recent years has been Lyon. Towards the end of the first half in their 4-1 win at Saint-Etienne last month, however, Yoann Gourcuff was allowed to advance a little further forwards and occupy the role of the classic number 10 that was his at Bordeaux. With Jérémy Toulalan and Kim Källström retreating into deep, central positions, it meant Lyon were playing a 4-2-3-1 and Claude Puel reflected that it gave the team “a certain balance”.
The switch brought the best out of Lisandro López, moved to the left flank in support of central striker Bafétimbi Gomis, in much the same way that André-Pierre Gignac’s best form for Marseille has coincided with the times when he has played from the left in support of Brandão. Occasionally isolated when used as lone strikers, both López and Gignac appear to relish seeing more of the ball and both men are particularly adept at cutting inside and shooting at goal with their stronger right feet.
While analysing the tactical trends that emerged during the 2009-10 Premier League season, Football Further speculated that the increasing popularity of ‘inside-out’ wingers could lead to full-backs being re-deployed on the opposite side of the pitch in a bid to counter the threat of wide players cutting in from the flanks onto their stronger feet. There are no clear indications that any such counter-trend has taken hold just yet, but the experiences of Liverpool’s Glen Johnson and Sunderland’s Phil Bardsley provide interesting case studies.
Johnson and Bardsley, both right-backs, have been playing at left-back for their clubs this season. Johnson was moved to the left side of the pitch by Kenny Dalglish a few weeks ago, in order to accommodate 20-year-old Martin Kelly in the other full-back position, while Bardsley has been filling in at left-back since taking over from the injured Kieran Richardson (himself a converted midfielder) at the end of September.
While using a right-footed player at left-back makes sense against a left-footed winger, such as Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben, who constantly seeks to move infield onto his preferred foot, Johnson and, particularly, Bardsley have demonstrated with their recent performances that they can also provide interesting options in the attacking third.
Wide midfielders and full-backs are often instructed to ‘pass on’ wingers who cut inside to their defensive midfield colleagues, but if those wingers are followed by full-backs doing exactly the same thing, the defensive team can find themselves overloaded. A winger who pulls wide towards the touchline, meanwhile, creates space in the inside-left or inside-right channel for the full-back to move into. Full-backs advancing forwards and moving infield thus often find themselves in more space than they would if they attempted to beat their opposite number on the outside, where they can be more easily funnelled towards the corner.