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Juventus 3-0 Barcelona

Similar to Barcelona’s trip to PSG last month, Juventus’s emphatic first leg triumph further highlighted the Spanish champions’ issues under Luis Enrique.

There were no real surprises to Juventus XI. Gonzalo Higuain started ahead of Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado. Meanwhile, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira protected Max Allegri’s experience back-line.

Enrique was without the suspended Sergio Busquets, which forced the Barcelona manager to field Javier Mascherano in midfield, whereas Jeremy Mathieu was a surprise member in the away side’s back-line.

Juve’s wonderful start to the match was a combination of exploiting the away side’s weaknesses along with their imbalanced shape, which ultimately defined the overall tempo of the match.

Juve squeeze early

One of the key elements to Juve’s success was their quick start. In the opening minutes, Higuain had already spurned a free header from six-yards out via Pjanic’s free-kick.

But from open play, Juve’s high-pressing ensured Barcelona couldn’t settle into their preferred tempo. Higuain and Dybala monitored the Barcelona centre-backs and Cuadrado occasionally stepped towards Mathieu to make it 3v3 at the back.

An attempt to overturn Juve’s press witnessed Mascherano slot into a deeper zone, which therefore offset Khedira to push forward to limit the Argentine’s influence from midfield. Barca were marked across the pitch due to Juve’s cohesive pressing: the full-backs were tight on the Barca wide players – Dani Alves succumbed to an early booking due to concessive fouls on Neymar – Suarez was isolated upfront, while Pjanic tracked Iniesta’s movement in midfield.

Enrique was infuriated by goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen’s reluctance to play passes over the top for Suarez to chase into the channels and viciously showcased is disappointment within the opening five minutes. Obviously, Juve were unable to sustain this press throughout the match – nor was it likely their intention to do so – but it still represented a significant feat to the Italian champions’ positive start.

Barca’s flawed system

The other key factor associated with Barca’s issues was the initial set-up. What appeared to be a 3-4-3 ahead of kickoff was a back three in possession, but supposed to be a back four when Juve broke forward. However, Enrique’s men were uncertain of their duties from front to back.

Sergi Roberto left his right-back zone to help overload central areas, whilst making vertical darts into the channels to provide penetration going forward. Mathieu, on the other hand, rarely ventured forward in the opening stages despite the hosts allowing the Frenchman space to step into their half to play passes out the back. Perhaps Allegri wanted Mathieu in advanced positions so Juve could break into the right channel in transition, along with the fact that the Barcelona centre-back isn’t the strongest defender on the ball.

Iniesta was unable to control the game – though it’s not one of the traits the Spaniard is renowned for – whereas the other issue stemmed from the left flank. Iniesta started the match as the widest midfielder, but his narrow positioning along with Neymar operating as a wide forward meant there was no cover on the flanks, which therefore forced Mathieu to step to the left to cover space against Cuadrado.

Essentially, there was ample space in the channels for Juve’s wide players to manipulate, and it’s unsurprising that the buildup to both of Dybala’s goals stemmed down the flanks.

Dybala goals

Slack defending contributed to the simplicity of Juve’s opening goals, but the fact that the buildup was nearly identical justifies Allegri’s approach. Higuain switched the ball to the right flank to place Cuadrado in a 1v1 situation with Mathieu, which ultimately resulted in Dybala ghosting into the box and quickly firing the opener past ter Stegen.

Subsequently, Juve sprung on the counter-attack down the left flank for Mandzukic to run at the recovering Sergi Roberto before pulling the ball back for Dybala, who curled another super effort past the Barcelona goal-keeper. Towards the end of the half Alex Sandro broke past Rakitic down the left to provide a pull-back opportunity for Higuain that ter Stegen nearly pushed away into danger.

Barcelona encountered difficulties protecting pull-backs from half spaces, but more worryingly was their reluctance to track Dybala, Higuain and Khedira’s late runs towards the box. Juve’s crucial first half chances followed the aforementioned template that highlighted Barca’s issues in wide areas – against the wide players and tracking Dybala’s movement to the flanks – along with Busquets’ absence ahead of the back four.

Messi Magic

The other aspect of Juve’s quick start meant the hosts could drop deeper, remain compact, and swarm the away side when they attempted to penetrate in central zones.

Busquets’ absence was critical to Barca’s issue because Mascherano failed to dictate the tempo of the match with his passing and lacked the range and confidence to play penetrating passes from deep. Meanwhile, out of possession, the Argentine was culpable for being caught on the ball via pressure and failing to track late runs towards the box.

Therefore, Barca were devoid of creativity in midfield: with Rakitic and Roberto unsure of their roles, and Iniesta marked out of the match, only a dangerous cross from the often open Mathieu nearly troubled Juve, but Giorgio Chiellini blocked Suarez’s diving header. Ultimately, it took brilliance from Messi – forced to beat at the minimum two players whenever he found space on the field – to create the game’s best chances.

The first opportunity involved a breathtaking reverse ball that bisected the Juve defence to play in Iniesta, but his poor finish witnessed Gianluigi Buffon push away the Spaniard’s attempt seconds prior to Dybala’s second goal. Frankly, Messi was involved in two other major chances in the second half that should’ve resulted in away goals.

First, a failed combination with Neymar led to the Argentine sliding a low effort inches wide of the far post. Then, Messi received the ball in a pocket of space to bamboozle Chiellini before playing in Suarez who rolled Bonucci, but fired his shot wide. Majority of Barca’s attacking play was bland and lethargic, and it’s surprising they failed to record an away goal given the several chances created through Messi’s greatness.

Second Half

Enrique removed Mathieu at half time for Andre Gomes, meaning Mascherano moved to centre-back, Samuel Umtiti operated as a left-back and the Portuguese midfielder sat at the base ahead of the back-line. The tactical alteration ensured Barca had cover at left-back, and although Sergi Roberto still charged forward into midfield, Rakitic often moved to the right touchline to maintain width.

While the tactical shift slightly improved Barca’s shape, Juve’s best period of the second half – the build up to Chiellini’s third goal – witnessed Mandzukic charge down the left create another pull-back for Khedira, and Cuadrado also charging into the aforementioned space that led to an identical move where Higuain’s tame effort was easily handled by ter Stegen. Minutes later, a quick free-kick over the Barca defence should’ve sealed the match but Higuain’s preference to shoot rather than play the ball across goal to an unmarked Mandzukic led to another important ter Stegen save.

Barca dominated possession for majority of the match following Chiellini’s goal, while Juve maintained a deeper line and slowly turned to defensive options off the bench to secure the result. Enrique’s men still found pathways to goal via Suarez getting the better of Bonucci on numerous occasions, but largely through Messi finding space in midfield to create.

Conclusion

Juve were deserving winners, here, despite producing a far from perfect performance. Allegri exploited the systematic flaws in Enrique’s unorthodox XI by breaking into space in the channels, combined with the intelligent positioning and individual brilliance of Dybala – who scored two great goals and forced the away side into fouling him across the pitch.

Juve’s initial energetic pressing flustered Barca, and they took a commanding lead, protected key zones around their box for large spells to neutralize Barca’s key attackers in the final third. However, Barca’s poor set-up and Busquets’ suspension was also pivotal at full-time, along with poor finishing around the box as Messi created the two best chances of the match.

Allegri has been the victim of a second leg collapse at the Camp Nou in the past, and though a supreme performance from the Barca front three isn’t farcical, the experience of the Juve defence combined with their tactical discipline and organization suggests Barca may not have enough to turn the tie. Enrique may need more than the individual brilliance of his three star attackers to overcome this well-drilled Juventus side.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Barcelona’s identity crisis suggests “Messidependcia” lives

Barcelona’s 1-1 El Clasico draw against Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid was perceived as a loss rather than one point gained. Though it may only be December – with more than half the season to play – Real’s six-point lead over their rivals is an assuring gap.

The Spanish champions’ recent rut includes four draws in five games, in which Enrique’s men have struggled to impose their authority on opponents and are simply devoid of attacking flair in the final third. In majority of these matches, the Catalan side’s attack was completely tame, and you could argue that in most scenarios, barring Lionel Messi’s brilliance, Barca were rather fortunate to avoid defeat.

The treble winning season witnessed Barca go on a tremendous run of form at the turn of the year that possibly coincided with Messi moving to the right so Luis Suarez could roam laterally into the channels to lead the line. Last year they broke away from the pack in the first half of the season, but suffered a losing streak in the spring – that included a Clasico defeat to Real and a Champions League exit by Atletico – and were ultimately rescued by Suarez’s glut of goals.

Perhaps the tactical periodization so heavily mentioned when many defended Barca’s poor form under Enrique is responsible for their slow start to the season, but stylistically, the issue seems more severe. Where you could once argue Barca possessed the best XI in world football, the fear of potential injuries encouraged the club to heavily bolster their depth over the summer.

The arrival of Denis Suarez, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Samuel Umtiti, and Paco Alcacer provided depth in areas that Barca felt they risked vulnerability if injuries occurred. But where you can argue that the reigning Spanish champions have a better squad, Enrique’s men haven’t necessarily progressed.

Success is often the downfall for most football clubs because if you tinker with a winning side you risk tampering with the overall balance. Yet, when clubs opt to persist with the current squad or improve depth, they often experience regression as opponents identify ploys to negate their threat and equally evolve as well.

The issue many had highlighted during the early stages of Enrique’s tenure, but in terms of the club’s philosophy following the Guardiola era, the current Barcelona side still featuring Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets is drifting in a different direction. Enrique’s signings have been predominantly direct players opposed to legitimate ball treasurers, which was an integral trait in midfield during the Guardiola era.

In truth, it starts with their work-rate out of possession: the high intense pressing, and swarming counter-press in central areas is barely displayed. Dropping into two banks of four, Messi and Suarez have remained central – though they perform their fair share of closing opponents down from the front – but Barca retreat into their base shape, conceding ample space in central areas.

Elsewhere, as witnessed in the most recent draws at the Anoeta and Clasico, when Barca encounter heavy pressing, they no longer possess the personnel capable of retaining possession until the opposition tired. Simply marking Busquets out of the match deprives Barca of control in midfield, thus leaving the front trio isolated upfront and starved of service, whereas the option of Gomes, Arda Turan, Rafinha and to an extent Denis Suarez have been overrun and out-worked in central areas.

This was also witnessed in a comeback victory over Sevilla a few weeks prior, but Messi’s second half brilliance was pivotal to the eventual outcome. Messi was forced to drop deeper to spread possession, play penetrative passes in advanced positions, and ignite breaks with his dribbling, which resulted in a goal and game-winning assist from the Argentine.

Essentially it takes away from Pep Guardiola’s initial plan of keeping Messi within close proximity of the opposition’s goal, but the Argentine’s passing range prevents Barca from simply aiming to quickly play passes into the attacking trio’s feet. Talks of “Messidependcia” have decreased in recent years, but if Busquets’ influence is negated, Enrique’s Barca now seem heavily reliant on the 29-year-old.

Messi has scored 62 per-cent of Barcelona’s goals since defeating Manchester City at the Camp Nou in mid-October, and in many of those games he’s been the defining factor between wins and losses. Though Messi wasn’t at his best against Real, he was still involved in the club’s best moves and frankly should have won the game.

To be frank, that was the negative aspect of the Clasico result from a Barca perspective. Although they squandered two legitimate opportunities to secure maximum points, it took Iniesta’s return to slightly improve the entire dynamic of Barca’s play. The Spaniard is one of the few core players remaining from prior success, and though his game is heavily based on his swift dribbling, he still represents a calm presence in possession.

But Iniesta’s lack of consistency in terms of overall displays at the club level suggests that even his presence in the XI isn’t the definitive answer. Rakitic and Suarez’s poor form, the slight tweaks to Neymar’s role – that saw the Brazilian hug the touchline before cutting inwards – combined with the unrealistic demands on the new young summer signings to immediately adapt to the Barca style coincides with the current identity issue at Camp Nou.

Once renowned for their wonderful team play and built around a ball-retention philosophy, Enrique’s Barca transitioned into an individualistic side suffering in a broken system. Coincidentally, it’s rivals Real, that pride themselves in buying the best individuals under Florentino Perez, that now represents a pragmatic cohesive side under Zidane.

Real pressed the Barca midfield intelligently at the Camp Nou, and under the guidance of the magnificent Luka Modric they comfortably disrupted the hosts play and enjoyed positive moments on the counter. Even with several first-team players unavailable due to injury this season, and Cristiano Ronaldo possibly suffering from regression, Real have found ways to win games, whilst remaining compact and defensively resolute at the back.

Ironically, now, Real’s midfielders can control games though ball retention and pass their way to victories, along with still retaining the devastating frontline that can exploit the smallest errors on the counter-attack. In what’s clearly a hybrid of proactive and reactive football, the most important element to Zidane’s success involves keeping fringe players happy, and being able to count upon his entire roster to abide by the Frenchman’s pragmatism through tactical discipline.

Real Madrid haven’t been stellar this season, but unlike Barca, when playing poorly, they’ve found ways to win games. When key players were missing, and the youngsters filled their roles admirably, meanwhile at the Camp Nou it’s difficult to harp the same tune. Enrique’s tenure as Barca manager has been equally peculiar: despite claiming the treble in the first season and a league-cup double last year, the reigning champions have failed to perform well over the duration of a full season.

Losing integral players that understood what was once Barca’s default system – like Dani Alves, Xavi and Pedro – has essentially provided a stylistic dilemma, but equally placed additional workload on Messi, in particular. Where Enrique can’t be faulted for turning to youth, Messi’s brilliance won’t overshadow the issues at Camp Nou.

The increasing concern on individualism amongst the front three and quick counters leaves Barca without a clear systematic approach. Perhaps Iniesta’s return and the eventual winter break can allow several Barca players to rediscover their optimum form to alleviate the pressure, but with Real representing possibly the most settled side in Europe – given the personnel – Enrique’s margin for error is slim.

Barca may have improved their depth this summer, but at the moment they simply aren’t performing as a cohesive unit under Enrique, and the reliance on Messi is reaching insurmountable levels.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Atletico Madrid 2-3 Barcelona: Barcelona’s front three expose plucky Atletico and begin to take shape under Luis Enrique

Neymar Messi at Atletico

Barcelona came from behind on two separate occasions in the first half to defeat Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon.

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Diego Simeone was without Koke and the suspended Diego Godin, forcing the Atletico manager to make a few alterations as Raul Garcia and Jose Gimenez slotted into the starting XI.

Luis Enrique made no changes to the side that defeated Atletico in the first leg encounter at the Camp Nou.

In search of a result, Atletico strayed away from the approach that was successful in the past against Barcelona – pressing higher up the pitch, and pushing their fullbacks forward, which proved successful, but equally costly.

Pattern Change

From the opening minute it was evident that Atletico were adopting a more proactive approach at the Vicente Calderon. Simeone’s side required two goals to secure progression in normal time, and it was unsurprising to see Atletico press higher up the pitch for large portions of the first half.

The two strikers pressed the centre-backs, while the wide players quickly closed down the attack-minded Barcelona fullbacks. But where Fernando Torres’ goal may have encouraged Simeone’s men to revert back to a low block, the home side continued to push forward in search of more goals.

While we’re accustomed to Atletico maintaining a low block in their half while Barcelona monopolizes possession, here, the hosts pushed forward at every opportunity, thus leading to an open first half.

Wide Areas

The main theme of the match, however, was the activity in wide areas. Atletico’s improved first leg performance – in comparison to the league encounter at the Camp Nou – witnessed a winger and either Koke or Mario Suarez drifting wide in aid of the fullback to create 1v3 situations against Messi and Neymar. The attempt to replicate this successful approach without the ball proved futile, as Messi constantly evaded Mario Suarez’s attempt to provide additional cover.

However, Atletico’s proactivity was key factors in both goals. Guilherme Siqueira moved ahead of Messi to intercept Javier Mascherano’s cross-field pass, which led to Torres’ opener. Then, Juanfran powered past Neymar and Jordi Alba before colliding with Javier Mascherano to earn a fortuitous penalty.

Ultimately, Atleti’s best chances were also created in wide areas, with Siqueira and Turan combining on two separate occasions, with the former finding Griezmann unmarked in the box – the Frenchman’s tame effort was saved, and he theatrically appealed for a suspected Jordi Alba hand ball.

Barca Breaks

The downfall to Atletico’s proactivity, though, was the lack of protection in transition. While the full backs surged into space behind Neymar and Messi, they equally left ample space vacant to arguably the best attacking trio in world football.

With Messi and Suarez upfront out of possession, and Neymar occasionally tracking back – Barcelona often dropped into two banks of four with Rakitic, and Iniesta at times moving into wide areas – Enrique’s approach to bypass Atletico’s pressing by quickly facilitating the ball to the attacking trio was effective.

Barca simply exposed the space behind Atletico’s fullbacks on several occasions through methodical direct moves. Neymar’s equalizer stemmed from a Gerard Pique headed clearance, and the Brazilian sprinting past Juanfran into vacant space. Subsequently, a simple punt from Marc-Andre ter Stegen nearly led to another Neymar goal, but the Brazilian was rightly ruled offside. The issue in that move was that Atletico’s Siqueira and Gabi were left in a 2v2 situation against Messi and Neymar.

It was evident that Atletico’s intent to go toe-to-toe was a gamble, and it was odd seeing the reigning La Liga champions continuously picked off by simple, direct attacks. Neymar’s winner also highlighted Atletico’s defensive naivety, with Messi storming into acres of space down the right, and Jordi Alba – who was accused of handling the ball – quickly sprinting to the home side’s box to direct the Argentine’s cross into Neymar’s path.

Enrique’s decision to encourage his men to quickly play passes to the attackers has tormented Simeone’s side this month, but here, Barca’s talented trio benefitted from the space Juanfran and Siqueira left available.

Rakitic

One key aspect throughout the first half was Rakitic’s movement in midfield. Not only does the Croatian offer Barcelona’s side a different element in central areas, but his verticality epitomizes the Catalan club’s philosophy under Enrique.

While Barcelona is likely to dominate possession in most matches, the emphasis on long spells of ball retention has been replaced with quick, vertical passes to the forwards, which could explain the attacking trios increased dribbling and fouls suffered. With Busquets at the base, and the combination of Iniesta and Rakitic shuttling, the midfield equally suits the system. Iniesta is a dribbler that isn’t renowned for dictating the tempo of matches, while Rakitic was free to make intelligent, powerful runs into space.

Likewise, Barcelona did enjoy a 3v2 overload in midfield, so with Gabi and Mario Suarez pressing Busquets and Iniesta, Rakitic often operated as the spare man in central areas. In the 18th minute, Rakitic’s forward run into the right channel nearly set the Croatian free, but Messi’s pass was over hit. Although the away side was likely to encounter difficulties maintaining control of the match, Rakitic’s forward runs posed issues. The Croatian earned a corner when he latched onto Neymar’s lay off, and a Dani Alves pass that found Rakitic unmarked at the edge of the box led to the corner that resulted in Miranda’s own goal.

Under Enrique, Barcelona have identified a rejuvenated sense of direct play: from Rakitic’s untracked vertical runs into space, to the initial ball that ignited the break to Neymar’s winner, there’s no surprise that a stable XI and shift in play has increased the Croatian’s significance in the squad.

Second Half

Sadly, the match reached its peak in the first half. Gabi’s dismissal at half time forced Simeone to replace Griezmann with Saul. Atletico dropped into a 4-4-1 without the ball, and retreated deeper into their half, offering minimal threats on the break.

The home side’s best chance came with 20 minutes remaining, when Torres flew past Busquets thus leading to Cani firing a devastating shot on goal, but ter Stegen punched the substitute’s effort over the net. Messi dropped deeper into midfield to ensure Barca retained possession to kill the game, and despite Atletico ending the match with nine men, the away side was unable to build on their lead.

Barca effectively got the job done in the first half.

Conclusion

In the span of 17 days, Enrique has rectified his disappointing results against tougher opposition by defeating Simeone’s Atletico on three separate occasions.

Despite two early scares, Enrique’s reluctance to alter his approach proved decisive: Barcelona’s front three were devastating in transition when they broke into space behind the fullbacks, quickly placing their attacking trident in positions to isolate defenders with their dribbling.

Nonetheless, while Simeone’s reactive low block has tormented Real and Barca in recent years, it appears the latter has found an ideal solution to their shortcomings, while the reigning champions were exposed in their attempt to outplay Enrique’s side.

Perhaps Enrique’s Barcelona possess a few flaws throughout the squad, but the focus on quick vertical passes to the strikers is a shift from the days of patient, meticulous ball retention – more importantly, it’s working.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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The Champions League has surpassed the World Cup as the pinnacle of world football

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Courtesy of Flickr/Arturo Miguel

Cities across the world will be in the midst of a soccer craze. Throughout June and July, bars and local pubs will hit capacity, the streets filled with passionate supporters, and plastic flags will be blowing in the wind.

Yes, it’s World Cup year.

Every four years, FIFA’s illustrious tournament brings people in unison to enjoy the global game. Hearts are broken, stars are born, and one country will gasp in glory –– obtaining bragging rights as World Champion for the ensuing four years.

This is arguably the ultimate sporting event.

In 2010, 700 million viewers tuned into the World Cup finals between Spain and Holland, while approximately 3.2 billion watched at least one match in the tournament.

In a few weeks, eyes worldwide will be set on Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s not like the duo are unfamiliar with the attention, but the increased expectancy to dominate in Brazil will be instilled, especially with both failing to match irrational targets for their national squads in previous years.

The two superstars are undeniably the best players of our generation; some can argue that they will be the best to ever play the game. Their consistency, goals per-game ratio, and ability to perform under heaps of pressure are astonishing for their clubs, but many have harshly lambasted the duo for lesser performances on the international stage.

The World Cup may be the largest sporting event based on viewership, but is it still the pinnacle soccer event?

Currently, top players in the past who have claimed World Cup success are put in a separate category to those still searching for international glory. But with the vast changes in the modern game regarding transfer fees, wages, and the physical demands of playing for club and country, players would prefer to prolong their club career, rather than endure a career-impeding burnout.

On average, the top-sides play 50-60 games a season; when you include friendlies and international tournaments, the aforementioned numbers incline. Last season, Chelsea playmaker Oscar played 71 games, and he’s currently featured in 56 since the start of the new campaign. Xavi Hernandez, a key cog in Spain’s international success over the six years, has appeared in a minimum 55 games per season, thus highlighting the physical demands of a modern day soccer player.

With the World Cup held in the summer –– after an excruciating club season –– players enter the tournament fatigued, and often find it difficult to reach their best form. In retrospect, the UEFA Champions League is an 11-month marathon –– when you include the qualifying rounds –– in which teams have an entire season to derive a well thought-out plan to claim European glory and maintain energy levels; simply it’s a larger measuring tool opposed to seven games within a month. Managers are able to turn to the market and build a team that suits their philosophy, whereas international managers are forced to work with the players at their disposal.

Ahead of the 2010 Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, Jose Mourinho stated his thoughts on the European tournament.

“This game is the most important in the world,” Mourinho said. “It is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can’t buy the best players. If you hold it to be important, you have to transmit that to the players.

With that being said, Mourinho’s acknowledgement of the best players featuring in the Champions League was factual. The World Cup’s four-year gap has slowly become a nuisance, opposed to a timely feat focused on the significance of the tournament.

Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, also agreed that the Champions League has surpassed the World Cup.

“I always said that club football is better than national team football, by far,” Wenger told Arsenal.com

“You have the best players from any country in the national team. In any big club you have the best players of all the countries in the world. It’s as simple as that.”

This year’s World Cup will be missing a few star performers, which inhibits the overall quality of the tournament. The likes of Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba and Arda Turan won’t feature in Brazil this summer, yet the aforesaid men were prominent figures in the Champions League knockout rounds.

The average career of a professional soccer player has decreased over the years, which explains why many have focused on achieving European glory.

Now the best players are moving to the biggest clubs in the world to increase their chances of winning the Champions League; the tournament has slowly become a goal that every player aspires to achieve.

In the past, former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, shared his thoughts on the rise of the Champions League.

“The Champions League is the best competition in the world now, better than the World Cup, better than the European Championships; it’s a fantastic tournament,” Ferguson said.

“Have you seen the last six World Cups? It is better going to the dentist, I suppose.”

While both tournaments are a drab during the group-stages, there’s a vast difference between the two in the knockout rounds. The Champions League two-legged knockout set-up enables a variety of approaches, and challenges managers tactically, especially with the away goal rule.

The World Cup, on the other hand, has faced its critics in the past due to amount of conservatism in the latter stages. Look no further than Spain’s success under Vicente del Bosque –– they have yet to concede in the knockout round during his reign, and average a solitary goal per game. Del Bosque’s approach is logical, but in terms of overall quality and excitement their fixtures have been tedious.

Ronaldo and Messi have already achieved European glory –– the former once, while the latter has claimed three –– and despite not replicating their imperious form on an international stage, both men have produced sensational performances on numerous occasions. If they continue to maintain the consistency that’s elevated them into elite players, there’s no question that the duo will be put in the same conversation as Diego Maradona and Pele, regardless of their international shortcomings.

Perhaps the World Cup may be the largest sporting event in the world, but it is no longer soccer’s most prestigious tournament.

The Champions League provides a platform for the best players and managers to showcase their talents on a yearly basis to a global audience. The level of play is higher, the best players feature on a consistent basis, and the competition is stiff.

The days of defining a player’s career based on their international success are over.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in FIFA, Published Work

 

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Tactical Analysis: Bosco Lions vs. 2-1-2

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The 2-1-2 has been the Bosco Lions’ preferred formation since their existence. Other formations were experimented with in the early days, but this system enhanced the performances of their attacking players. Defensively, the Toronto-based side has never been strong, yet they always had an abundance of attacking impetus – and the players who were playing consistently for the first time had the potential to increase this threat.

Flashback to three years ago; Sunday’s – usually utilized for leisure time or rest – brought together a group of friends that decided to form a soccer team. Initial success wasn’t expected, but the determination to win was evident. On a weekly basis these young men took the field in their bright lime green jerseys and put their bodies on the line for one another.

Their road to glory wasn’t a formality – penalty shootouts, nail-biting late winners and a surmountable attempt at revenge against rivals DMP is what led them to lifting a championship on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. They did the impossible. A team built to have fun and potentially grow into ‘winners’ did the unthinkable on their first try.

It’s easy to win a title, but defending the crown is a difficult task. The hunger was gone. Complacency snuck upon them, and although their confidence levels increased, they were unable to replicate such success.

What happened?

This team did encounter a few changes that conflicted with their natural balance, but as a whole they improved over the past three years. The core of the team is the same, and the players who were beginners at the time have improved vastly. These players know how to win, so what’s the issue?

They’ve won more games than they’ve lost during this period, but they fail to prosper when it matters. The dependency on individual brilliance hit an all-time high, and although this method of attack was positive, Bosco has been overrun in midfield on several occasions over the past few years.

Is there a talent issue?

No.

Bosco could field their five best players for longer periods of the match, and the chances of them claiming another title would still be slim. Their method of attack has become predictable, whereas they’ve yet to instill a proper defensive system.

However, despite all the flaws they hold, this Bosco side isn’t a lost cause. In short, they lack a bit of structure and tactical discipline. More so, this is a simple guide that can be beneficial towards these young men maximizing their individual talent. A key component that leads to success in indoor soccer is cohesion, and below I will explain what Bosco needs to do to achieve a cohesive system.

Intro   

The 2-1-2 is a common formation used in indoor soccer that relies on two hard working strikers and an energetic, yet tactically disciplined midfielder – pretty much a box-to-box midfielder. Here, the midfielder has two jobs – they need to be able to link play with the attackers, but also provide astute defensive cover for the two defenders. Playing one midfielder is the risk, because there’s a great chance that your side is overrun in midfield, which is why this player needs to be tactically disciplined.

Base shape   

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Bosco Lions 2-1-2

Bosco doesn’t possess two naturally gifted strikers so they often field two grinders upfront. Their main strength is in midfield, and while they do possess competent defenders, these men are attacking minded.

A key feat towards the success of this system is the positioning of the midfielder. In the past, he’s often positioned himself with his back to goal, or roamed higher up the pitch searching for space to receive the ball. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the sole purpose of this system is to sustain possession, and hand the midfielder full control of the match.

In retrospect, the system I’m about to present is similar to the way Pep Guardiola’s sides play. In the early days at Barcelona, Dani Alves would play as a right winger – which led to a great understanding with Lionel Messi and tons of goals from the right side – with Eric Abidal sitting back to provide balance. In Guardiola’s final year, Barcelona played a 3-4-3, which ultimately became a 3-3-4 as Alves bombed forward, and Sergio Busquets dropped in between the defenders.

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David Alaba and Phillip Lahm are in the widest/highest positions on the pitch as fullbacks.

Now, Guardiola implements a 4-1-4-1 at Bayern Munich – although his approach is risky, the field at the Vaughan Sportsplex is neither wide nor long. The Spaniard encourages his fullbacks to surge into advanced positions, while his midfield players drop deep to dictate the tempo of the match.

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Alaba and Lahm are higher up the pitch out wide, and Thiago dropped deep. In this screenshot he’s about to play a pass to Lahm, so he can drive forward.

However, while the generic shape is a 2-1-2, the aim of this system is to end up in a 1-2-2. Ball retention is pivotal, and even though this system could be somewhat conservative, if executed properly, it’ll lead to success.

Without the ball

The most important feat regarding success in 5v5 matches is your shape when your opponent has possession. Your side can field a lineup with a strong attack, but if they’re disjointed as a unit without the ball, there’s a good chance that you won’t succeed over the long-term.

More so, shape is a factor that most teams tend to overlook – but little do they know that your defensive shape wins you the big games, especially against superior opposition. Defending at the Sportsplex should be fairly simple – based on the size of the field, assigning each player a man would be the easy route to take.

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How Bosco should be set up on goal kicks and when the goalie has the ball

The first area that needs to be addressed is defending your opponent’s goal kick or when they opt to play passes to their goalie. This is the only time Bosco should press high. The forwards should close their defenders – midfielder on midfielder and the defenders should keep tight on their attackers. The main goal is to force the opponents goalkeeper to concede possession, and if this press is executed properly then there’s a 99% chance he will.

Apart from those scenarios, Bosco should NEVER press high or press the goalkeeper, unless you’re confident you’ll steal the ball or force him to concede possession. Defensive solidity, organization and cohesion are pivotal in a 5v5 match, and majority of the time it makes a difference.

To avoid being overrun in midfield, or dragged out of position, it’s important that the strikers drop a few yards away from the opposition’s defenders. The aim is to stay compact, and force your opponent to work hard to break your backline down. Regardless of the situation, the attackers should always be behind the ball, which requires improved work-rate on both ends. Below I break down two scenarios that are likely to occur.

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Our shape if the defender beats Randy

Here, the right defender evades Randy’s press. The wide men is the least threatening player so Jose should drop back to cover him, while Randy picks up the left defender. Steve/Nooch should press the opposition’s midfielder, while Bosco’s midfielder should close down the opposition’s right defender.

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If Claudio/Jose gets beat by a defender

Another situation would be Jose/Claudio getting beat by the left defender. Here we still want Jose/Claudio to hustle back and cover the player out wide and Steve/Nooch to close down the midfielder. Bosco tends to concede fouls when their forwards relentlessly track back in attempts to win the ball from the defender that beat them – this gives them the responsibility to keep wide player on their flank, and ensures that the three defenders protect central areas.

In Bosco’s most recent fixture, this defensive model was displayed in the second half after going down 4-1. Subsequently, the opposition failed to threaten Bosco’s goal for the rest of the match. Coincidence?

Midfielder

The 2-1-2 Bosco intend on playing leaves the midfielder with a huge task on both ends – as stated earlier, this player is practically a box-to-box midfielder. Although that isn’t necessarily a bad option when playing inferior opposition, the idea of playing a box-to-box midfielder in a single pivot can be suicidal.

This formation abandons that philosophy – the midfielder in this approach needs to be tactically disciplined, as he’ll be somewhat of a deep-lyer. The main responsibility this player withholds is dictating the tempo of the match. This player is effective when the ball is at his feet. He drops deep to receive the ball and build play, but he’s also required to constantly string passes together, in search of openings.

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Here you see Thiago dropping deep. This allows Alaba and Lahm to push forward, but the centre back the freedom to play long diagonal balls. Also if Lahm or Alaba lost the ball in their zone, Thiago provides defensive cover when either centre back is forced to sweep up.

On the defensive end, he drops deep to become the third defender. Many can see this as an impractical approach, but this is important because it ensures that Bosco always has a numerical advantage at the back.

In the past Bosco has relied on their midfielder to be their attacking thrust, and in certain situations he should be, but this role allows him to be beneficial to Bosco’s overall play. By no means is the midfielder shackled to tactical instructions – indoor soccer provides a lot of openings and chances to break on net, and the midfielder should only push forward when the opportunity is certain.

Finally, teams will be keen to press the midfielder out of the equation, but as the match progresses and players tire, he’ll slowly be handed the space to influence the match. The key is patience – most games are 50 minutes, and in reality the midfielder might take 10-15 minutes before he begins to dictate the tempo. He’ll receive the ball higher up the pitch, but his significance increases once he picks up the balls in pockets of space or at the edge of his own box.

In short, the midfielder’s role in this system is more defined – if he fulfills his duties, the chances of his side’s success increases. He needs to be disciplined, calm, a leader, and defensively astute – yet his ability to play incisive passes and eye for goal must be proficient.

Attacking philosophy

This system instills a sense of defensive solidity, so some may fear that Bosco’s approach going forward will be conservative. In fairness, this may be the case, but if you’re not attacking on the break, the intent should be to move up the field as a cohesive unit.

Virtually, Bosco should be a 1-2-2 when they’re possession. In order to do this, they must focus on ball retention. An issue Bosco encounters on the attack apart from a lack of movement would be their persistence to force passes. They continuously force long balls over the top, or attempt to squeeze penetrating passes into tight areas.

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Here, we see the Bosco midfielder as the last man – his job is to circulate the ball around the field, but also move laterally to provide a passing outlet for wide players that have no forward option. Bosco defenders seem to be hesitant with playing the ball backwards, but they should ALWAYS drop the pass back to the midfielder or the goalie if a passing lane isn’t available – the same goes for corner kicks, as the chances of completing a successful cross into the box is slim.

The longer Bosco holds possession, the less defending they have to do, which conserves energy levels. Likewise, not every pass needs to go forward. There’s nothing wrong with restarting the play and going back to your goalie or back to the player who initially played the pass. You can’t concede a goal if you have the ball, which is why possession is vital. Passing lanes will eventually open, legs will tire, and chances will be created, but Bosco needs to monopolize possession in a professional manner.

When the midfielder drops deep to receive the ball in any situation, the two defenders should be pushed into advanced positions. Majority of the time, this will create 3v2 situations and their will always be an outlet for the midfielder to play into. But the advanced positioning of the defenders is key, because it pegs the opposition into there half, as they now become an offensive threat.

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How Bosco should be shaped when they enter the oppositions half.

Essentially, the Bosco defenders are auxiliary inverted wingers on the attack. They have two options when pushing forward – they can either cut in and shoot, or drive forward and stretch the field. Each Bosco defender has the tendency to cut in and shoot, and while this is encouraged, the opposite winger’s job is to stay wide and stretch the field. Also, the defenders have to be disciplined with their movement, as they’ll be required to transition from attack to defence quickly to support the midfielder, if they’re caught on the break. However, if Bosco can sustain possession in a 1-2-2, their defenders will maintain high energy levels, and sprinting back into position won’t be difficult.

Bosco currently have three strikers at their disposal, and you can argue that they haven’t been utilized properly. Claudio is a pacy, dynamic attacker, Jose is a hardworking space invader, whilst Randy is a genuine poacher.

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Identical diagram to the one above, but now we’re highlighting the attackers.

Here, Jose and Randy are the two strikers up top, and Claudio would preferably slot into Jose’s spot, because they somewhat pose a similar threat. The diagram above encourages Jose to drop deep into space, and then subsequently move out to the flanks and push forward. Jose’s movement is key because it drags a defender out of position and allows either a defender or the midfielder to attack the space.

Jose/Claudio’s movement should be varied – dropping deep into the midfield and drifting over to the wing is encouraged, but most of their energy should be dedicated to their defensive duties. You should NEVER tire yourself out when Bosco has possession of the ball.

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The midfielder won the ball and sprints forward to put himself in a 2v2 situation. Jose is encouraged to make a diagonal run to drag the defender with him – this allows the midfielder to isolate the defender in a 1v1 scenario.

Also, Jose/Claudio play a pivotal role on the break if a midfielder or defender surge forward. There job is to make an opposite run from the ball carrier to drag a defender out of position, and give the carrier half a yard to make a pass or shoot.

Randy’s position is unique – no player on the team possesses the ability to get into goal scoring positions like him. This system will free up space for the midfielder to locate Randy and the defenders to take shots, which can potentially lead to rebounds for him to pick up. Randy needs to get to/near the box frequently, but he also needs to be aware of the space that Jose is creating for him to run into. If Tim/Araujo cut in, Randy will make a straight run into the box, but if the right defender provides width then Randy should make a diagonal run towards the box.

Conclusion

“Whether detailed or vague, good or bad, effective or ineffective, all football teams try to play a certain way to win.”

Richard Whittall, soccer features writer at theScore.com, stated that in his weekly ‘The Skeptical Tactician’ column, and frankly, it’s true. Bosco currently play a high-octane game that allows them to score, but there’s also heavy reliance on individual brilliance.

This system presented allows the forwards to be scrappy, the midfielder freedom to dictate the match, and gives the defenders a chance to express themselves in an attacking sense. Now, it will take time for Bosco to adapt to this system, but it’s a system that should lead to success over the long-term.

Furthermore, the system ensures defensive solidity and organization at the back, yet it requires patience, cohesion and possession to reap rewards.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2013 in College Soccer

 

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2 Guys and a MIKE – World Cup Draw Vodcast December 8th

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Courtesy of: Christophe Badoux

On the debut of the 2 Guys and a Mike vodcast, Tyrrell Meertins and Mike the Mod breakdown the World Cup Draw that took place Friday afternoon.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in Podcasts

 

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Paraguay 2-5 Argentina

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Argentina secured a spot in the 2014 World Cup with a convincing victory against Paraguay.

Alejandro Sabella aligned his side in a 4-3-3 with Lionel Messi, Rodrigo Palacio and Sergio Aguero leading the line. Fernando Gago, Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia formed a midfield trio, while Fabricio Coloccini formed a centre back partnership with Hugo Campagnaro.

Victor Genes opted to play in a risky 3-4-1-2 that saw Roque Santa Cruz and Jose Nunez form an attacking duo ahead of Jonathan Fabbro. Miguel Samudio and Victor Ayala played as wingbacks, while Cristian Riveros and Richard Ortiz were instructed to play deeper roles in midfield.

Argentina capitalized on Paraguay’s poor shape without the ball – blitzing the hosts on quick counter attacks – which gifted them a spot in next year’s World Cup, albeit producing a mediocre performance.

Shape

The general football fan often overlooks the importance of one’s defensive shape without the ball. Matches are usually blamed on a sole defensive error, or the vast gulf in class of the opposition. But as the modern game continues to evolve, the significance of a team’s shape without the ball becomes vital.

An interesting feat in this match was the naïve approach both sides maintained when they dropped into their shape. Sabella’s men often dropped deep, with the front three roaming higher up the pitch waiting to break on the counter – but despite it being successful, it was an odd decision for Sabella to make. Di Maria and Gago often drifted into wide areas to support the full backs, but it left the centre of the pitch vulnerable. Argentina’s attacking three were instructed to press the three centre backs when they tried to play from the back, but there was still loads of space to penetrate, and if this approach is replicated, a stronger side will do so.

Despite Argentina’s questionable shape, Sabella’s men possessed a competent threat on the counter attack . But Paraguay didn’t have the same luxury in their attack, which meant any attempt to replicate Argentina’s risky approach could open up gaps of space in their third. Paraguay failed to press the Argentinian’s when they were in possession, and they failed to keep a compact shape. The gaps between defence and midfield, along with midfield and attack were large, thus benefitting Sabella’s men on the attack – in particular Messi. Messi constantly dropped into midfield to pull defenders out of position, stamp his authority in central areas and provide Aguero and Palacio with service going forward.

In fairness, neither side looked phenomenal without the ball – the difference being Argentina’s shape had some sort of structure – but Paraguay looked disorganized an unbalanced when Argentina was in possession.

Paraguay’s front three

Although Paraguay’s shape was woeful, their front three did manage to trouble the Argentina backline. Each player was given distinct roles to play, and the balance in the attack was excellent. Santa Cruz drifted into wide areas to combine with the wingbacks, and he also made runs into the channels that offered Paraguay a substantial direct option.

Along with running the channels, Nunez operated around the edge of the box, but he preferred to stay near Coloccini and make runs off his shoulder. It was a compelling battle, and although Coloccini often got the better of the Paraguayan striker, Nunez did beat the Argentinian defender to Samudio’s cross to level the match, early in the first half. Of the three, Fabbro looked threatening in the final third. As the first half continued, the Paraguayan midfielder located pockets of space in midfield to drift into, played several incisive passes in the final third, and was determined to find gaps in the Argentinian defence to play penetrating balls.

Paraguay’s attack was lively in the first half – although they could’ve created more chances – but the midfield’s inability to take control of the match, limited the threat they’re capable of imposing.

Samudio’s width

Another interesting feat regarding Paraguay’s attack was the importance of Samudio. The Paraguayan wingback was eager to get into advanced positions, prior to the front three having an impact on the match. With Pablo Zabaleta also interested in pushing forward, along with his narrow positioning throughout the match, it was a logical for Samudio to attack the space.

Samudio provided assists for both goals, which highlighted his significance in Paraguay’s attack. Santa Cruz drifted wide and held up the ball, for the advancing wingback, who played in a lovely cross to Nunez for the first goal. Towards the end of the match, Samudio contributed to the second goal by attacking the space behind Zabaleta, to provide a cross for Santa Cruz to nod into the back of the net.

Samudio had a significant impact on the match, and could’ve given Argentina more problems down the left flank, but Paraguay’s inability to sustain possession led to their downfall.

Argentina exploit space

Sabella’s men failed to dictate the match in terms of possession – despite not being pressured, their midfield had trouble retaining possession, playing several misplaced passes. This was the main reason why Messi dropped so deep throughout the match, and when he did, Argentina always made positive moves forward. Their three attackers sat higher up the pitch and the gap between midfield was enormous, which explains why they heavily relied on quick breaks to threaten the Paraguayan back line.

But with Paraguay pushing numbers forward, this left Aguero, Palacio, Messi and Di Maria – who pushed forward swiftly – free to attack the Paraguayan centrebacks. Three of Argentina’s goals stemmed from Paraguay being stretched on the counter attack. Simple balls over the top led to the two penalty calls, whereas Messi combined well with Gago who played a delightful ball to the onrushing Di Maria, for Argentina’s third goal.

Argentina didn’t need to dictate possession – although Sabella and many supporters expected them too – because of Genes’ naïve tactical approach.

Conclusion

Argentina’s performance was far from spectacular, but the threat they posed on the counter attack merited a victory. Paraguay’s reluctance to keep a compact shape and attack cautiously led to their downfall, adding to another disappointing loss in their qualifying campaign.

Genes’ front three were efficient, but they rarely received service, despite having a fair share of possession. With Messi dropping into midfield, Paraguay relied on Samudio’s width – which created two goals – as it was their only source of creativity once Fabbro departed at half time.

Sabella’s approach shouldn’t be overlooked as they took advantage of Paraguay’s deficiencies, but their defensive approach was inexcusable – especially from a team of their calibre. Argentina will head into next year’s World Cup as potential favourites, but performances of this nature will diminish their hopes of rising to the occasion for the third time.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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