TACTICS: An insight into the modern pivot role

After looking into the inside forward, at our next stop in exploring emerging roles in modern football, we will take a look at defensive midfielder position. It is yet another position that was heavily influenced by “juego de posicion” so succesfully implemented by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Looking to emulate this success, coaches around Europe adopted their own vision and interpretation of defensive midfielder position. Nowadays we often hear about pivot, half back, deep lying playmaker and so on.

They all describe the same position but different interpretations of it in various systems and phylosophies. Root of this change happened in Mexico with Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe at turn of century. As more teams pressed defensive line with two attackers, La Volpe employed a defensive midfielder who would drop between two center backs to build a numerical advantage in order to achieve controlled transition from defensive into the middle third of the pitch. A move known as “salida lavolpiana” or La Volpe’s transition.

Above you can see Mexico under Ricardo La Volpe and “salida lavolpiana” working in practice as defensive midfielder Rafa Marquez drops deep between center backs. They spread out while full backs go higher up the pitch occupying their markers thus creating more space for ball carrier in central position.

However, football trends changed with times and salida lavolpiana needed adjustments. Primarely as a response to formations with three attackers and gegenpressing. With rise of Barcelona, under Pep Guardiola, we have witnessed the development of positional play. To reach the middle third in an organized manner, and avoid opposition that plays high pressing game with three forwards, Guardiola introduced ball playing goalkeepers and his own type of defensive midfielder.

PIVOT,
Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Fernandinho, Julian Weigl…

ESSENTIAL ATTRIBUTES
Decisions, off the ball movement, ball control, passing, balance, vision, tackling, positioning, communication, work rate

Managers who want to ransition the ball from defensive zone into the middle third in organized manner might have particular requests, however, the basic idea is always the same. The aim is to find a free man between the opposition lines. Transition from defensive into the middle third of the pitch is particularly delicate as ball lost so close to the goal often means immediate chance for opposition. “There is no playmaker in world who can create so many good chnaces so consistently that close to goal as good pressing” are the words from Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola tries to evade that very pressing by passing around it.

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DM in buildup phase of “juego de posicion”

Above you see Guardiola’s Manchester City in their defensive zone looking to break the pressing and reach the middle third in controlled manner. It is immediately obvious that players are positioning themselves quite far away from each other. This forces the opposition to cover more ground or employ more players in closing them down. When everything works well, both counter meassures make it easier for Guardiola’s team to reach the middle third.

However, it is futile to look only at the role of defensive midfielder in isolation. Whole team needs to occupy right spaces if the team wants to be successful at keeping the ball and reaching the middle third in organized way against good pressing. The whole goal is to find a free man in between the lines. To be succesfull, all players need high standard of composure on the ball, ability to pass quickly and precisely while moving and changing positions. If executed well, combination of quick passing and movement creates a free man which allows the team to progress further up the pitch into next zone where defending team needs to reorganize and the process repeats.

Screenshot above provides valuable insight into how important decision making of individual player is for this strategy to work. Fernandinho plays a pivot role in this game and exchanges place with Fernando who cleverly recognises this and occupies deeper position. However, Fenandinho is let down by his first touch, then he fails to find free man quickly enough and is cought in possesion. Few seconds later City concedes due to an own goal from Kolarov.

This tells us that even if team is perfectly positioned on the pitch and at least one player is free to receive the pass, the strategy is very much dependant on individual players. However, mistakes happen and that doesn’t mean the strategy is invalid. Just not foolproof.

According to positional play, same strategy that is used in defensive zone is valid in attacking third as well. The idea is always to reach the advantage, be it numerical “2v1, 3v2…) or individual (i.e. Messi against weak full back). Defensive midfielder’s role is thus essentialy still the same.
Depending on manager’s needs a defensive midfielder might have different duties further up the pitch. They might be more conservative as Busquets is sometimes at Barcelona. At times dropping between the center backs to allow full backs go further forward. At times, he might have more active role, similar to that of Weigel at Borussia Dortmund.

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Example of DM in buildup phase of a team that doesn’t adhere to “juego de posicion”

Above we can see a still image of Borussia Dortmund in possession against Real Madrid. German team is very narrow even in possession due to their counter pressing strategy. However, Julian Weigl who is the player designated to connect defence and attack, is high up the pitch with the responsability to keep the ball circulation. Being narrow helps Borussia to exchange quick short passes and allows them to catch oppostion in counter pressing if they lose the ball.

Independently of individual manager’s requests, in positional game the goal always remains the same. Players need to occupy their positions, move the ball and progress down the pitch in order to create advantage. It requires lots of skills and is primarely the reason why any Barcelona player under Guardiola, could basically play any position.

EURO Italy v Germany: How Loew stopped Italy, an analysis

Highly anticipated Euro quarter final between Germany and Italy didn’t disappoint even if only one goal was scored from open play and the game itself dragged through the extra time and then penalties. In the end Simone Zaza, who made more steps running up for penalty than in actual game, together with Pelle, Bonucci and Darmian sealed the faith of Italy while Jonas Hector brought Die Mannschaft through to the semis.
It wasn’t only the name and reputation of the teams that made the game intriguing. That little bit was added up by two managers who were up against each other and were expected to make few surprises for their counterpart. In the end it was JoachimLoew who came up with tactic that mirrored his opponent to cancel Italy out of the game. Conte had little space for manouver as, already mediocre individual quality of his players, was furtherdepletedd by injuries to Candreva and De Rossi while his back upThiago Motta got suspended.

German manager stated after the game he decided immediately after Italy v Spain match how his team is going to confront Italians. Easier said than done. It was a surprise when official team sheets for Germany came out with positions marked on the pitch. It is always a risk for manager to change the shape of the team in just four days and for such an important game. However, Germany showed its versatility and individual class to adopt so well and counter the team that masterfully countered everyone else, including the defending champion Spain.

Germany had a plan to defend three different situations when Italy had the ball and they all had the same goal. Prevent the ball easily reach either of the forwards.

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First rule of playing against Conte: Don’t let them easily move the ball forward

At goal kicks Joachim Loew set up marking tasks to block passing lanes but also to immediately pressure any player Buffon would hastily pass the ball. This forced Italian goalkeeper to punt the long balls forward where Germany had numerical advantage to win any second balls.

die manschaft block italy
Second rule of playing against Conte: If they get on the ball in defence, mark the strikers tightly and cover passing lanes to middle zone

Once the ball reached Italian defensive line, and if his team wasn’t able to press immediately, they went to block passing lanes into the middle zone from front. Lot of credit has to be given to Mueller and Gomez as well as Oezil who was joining them in this. You can see above how they looked to cover the midfield letting the Italian defenders on the ball. Although Bonucci and Chiellini are exceptionally dangerous when they are allowed time and space to pick the pass this was fine as last line of German defence had time to man mark Pelle, Eder and Giaccherini who was often playing as third attacker making runs from deep. Wide players, Kimmich and Hector are in half spaces ready to support Kroos and Schweinsteiger as well as their direct match ups. This combination of man marking in last line of defence and passing lane block in the first line ensured two things.

Italy had eventually to punt the ball forward where Loew’s men had a spare man (Hummels in this case) and firmly marked opposition ready to get to any second balls, or risk making a mistake and lose position very deep in their own half.

However, whenever opportunity presented, Germany would press immediately the carrier of the ball with the aim to push him to sidelines and then gang up to take the ball and counter. This wasn’t particularly successful, however, you can see below they managed to tackle the ball carrier six times during 90 minutes of play and intercept it twice in Italy own half.

Even when on the ball Germany positioned itself on the pitch very high to congest the space for Italy forwards who need the space as they drop deep. This worked well for Loew as even when they lost the ball Germany could execute quick counter press to win the ball back high up the pitch.

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Third rule of playing against Conte: Even when you have the ball push high so if you lose it you can counter press quickly and deny space for their strikers who’d love to drop deep before spreading the play down wings

Although we didn’t see too much from Italy in the first half mainly because defensive phase of Die Mannschaft, elaborated above worked so well, Italy managed to show what happens when defence loses concentration for a moment on image below. All principles of German defence failed to kick in and in 43rd minute Italy was allowed unopposed possession in middle zone. Germany had a backup plan but even that failed.

when  it fails
If all the above rules fail, set up the offside trap but take care of Giaccherini’s run from midfield

As Bonucci picked up a ball unopposed German defence pushed up to make an offside trap successfully leaving out of play Eder and Pelle. However, Kimmich fails to react in time and lags behind just enough for Giaccherini’s trade mark run from deep. Schweinsteiger has forgotten him and was moving out with defensive line to set up off side. Didn’t take long for Bonucci to spot that deep run as it is rehearsed move and hi lofted a long ball over the defence for Bologna midfielder to run on to. Despite a cut back and follow up shot by Sturaro Italy fails to punish rare mistake from German defence.

First half finished as a hard fought battle with Germany more in possession due to Italy playing a waiting game, similar to their first match against Belgium. Die Mannschaft countered this very well mimicking Italian shape and had more options in attack. However, that was cancelled out by great defensive effort from Italy.

While both teams were defending in very similar fashion, except Italy was less eager to press high up the pitch, they attacked quite differently. Above example from Italy is their typical move and their limited squad offered little diversity to what was seen before. It was either long ball from Bonucci to on rushing Giaccherini or for strikers who dropped deep to receive the ball and spread it to wings. If opportunity arose, they would quickly combine to get directly to goal. However, Loew had all those moves well studied and largely prevented.

Germany, on other hand offered much more versatility going forward. Frequent rotations of offensive players had Italian defence constantly on toes. Additionally, Germany didn’t hesitate to move both outer central defenders, Hummels and Hoewedes, up the pitch where Hoewedes would often overload right side with Schweinsteiger, Mueller and Kimmich while Kroos was dropping deeper to help out Boateng.

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Even if Germany pushed their center backs forward, they only broke Italy on penalties

Above you can see how far Hummels went to create overload, same happened on the other side where Hoewedes would go high (although, not with the ball). This high positioning of center backs drained slowly drained the energy from Italian team that had to defend and keep concentration high throughout the match. Finally, Germany scored due to overload on left and cut back for Oezil who wasn’t tracked as he was running from deep.

Italy was lucky to equalize fairly quickly from a lucky penalty but the game essentially change little from second half till the end. Germany was ever more dangerous with numbers and towards the end of 90 minutes Italy switched to 5-4-1 with Eder dropping back to cover for German CB’s going forward.

There were few key areas that shaped the game. First, Joachim Loew who decided to mimic Italian shape in order to cancel it out and, consequently, Germany defence from front. Both teams defended extraordinarily well but Germany did it so well that they defended even when they had the ball. Pushing central defenders high up the pitch allowed them to regain possession quickly with counter pressing when they lost the ball and also provided them with more players in offensive zone to control the possession tiring Italy out.

In the end, limited Italian talent stifled Antonio Conte and his ability to change anything in a way he attacked, he made most with this squad and only penalties denied Italy the chance to progress to semis beating current World Champions.

Croatia v Portugal analyisis: Croatia had better players but lesser manager

Sometimes you lose a game, because you are unlucky, and sometimes because you are inept. That is the short story of a long hard fought battle Croatia and Portugal played in last 16 match at EURO. Having 17 shots and not a single one on goal, might be unlucky in some cases. It might also mean that one of the sides basically didn’t know what it was doing. Or whatever it was trying, was trying the wrong things. As the stakes are huge in knock out stage both teams came on the pitch determined not to get caught in possession allowing easy chances. They were both disciplined in defence and applied little to no pressure on opposition defence line. Initially, in possession, Croatia was looking for long balls from defensive line to Ivan Perisic who seemed a good target for such approach with his 1,87 m against 15 centimetres lower Southampton right back Cedric.

long passes to perisic 1st
long passes to Perisic in the first half

However, this didn’t work well as Perisic was quickly crowded out by Portugal defence or there were not enough Croatia players to pick up the flick-ons and profit from this mismatch. Combined with these high balls to Perisic, Croatia was using every other possible occasion to channel the play down either wing as you can see in their 1st half offensive zone passing.

croatia 1st half offensive third passing
Poor use of midfield and ineffecting wing play from Croatia in 1st half
However, as they were still quite cautious not to get hit on counter, full backs Srna

and Strinic didn’t go far enough to create overload in wide areas so Portugal dealt with them easily. Below you can see a good example of Portugal defence as the left winger Andre Gomes closes down Srna allowing Raphael to worry only about Brozovic Adrien Silva can position himself to pressure either Brozovic or Modric while Rakitic ‘s run is already under attention of William. Defensive line, in fact whole Portugal, is positioned as in defending schoolbook and they indeed played team defence throughout the game.

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Team defence from Portugal
Below shot shows huge space in centre midfield as Rakitic pushes forward out of the picture. Space vacated by him isn’t used as both, Modric and Badelj, were firmly anchored on centre line since Croatia is channelling their play through the wings. This way they lose natural 3 on 2 advantage in this area and, as they are too cautious to commit full backs forward, they don’t create any sort of overload in spaces they actually want to attack. Whole Croatia idea of offense was playing into hands of Portugal. Even when they managed to put some crosses in, and they were only eight (two successful), Fernando Santos cleverly replaced agile Ricardo Carvalho with slower but stronger and taller centre back Jose Fonte. Combined with Pepe, those two dealt with everything Croatia could offer in first half.
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Croatia game plan didn’t include using of midfield center zone

Portugal was all to happy to defend and was fairly successful doing so. While Croatia had to change something as they had the ball but nowhere near danger zones, Portugal had to wait and react. And indeed Croatia came out of dressing room more eager to do something. For the beginning they started employing much higher pressing. Thing we have seen in the game against Spain that gave them few chances through balls recovered higher up the pitch and that cost them the goal after poorly executed pressing on Spain defensive line.

Additionally, Srna and Strinic pushed forward while Perisic went more central, although still in left wing slot. Despite this more aggressive approach, Croatia still remained true to their long diagonal balls from Corluka or Modric for wingers to get into dangerous position. Not surprisingly, in second half they had the same number of long passes as in the first half when they tried it 26 times. This says that despite more aggressive full backs the main game plan that produced only three low quality shots didn’t really change. You can see below how Croatia is still unwilling to use most dangerous zones of pitch.

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Even in second half Croatia is stubborn to put in ineffective crosses  abandoning the middle

What changed was number of crosses that Croatia doubled in the second half. The result was again the same and lot of low quality shots were made resulting with more frustration.

However, really significant change came from Portugal. As Croatia went for more dubious quality pressing, suddenly spaces opened for Portugal. Their passing went more direct, in a way as a result of higher pressing that made for rushed clearances. However, as this pressing often wasn’t executed well, it offered better quick long passes. Noticing this, Fernando Santos made two crucial decisions. He put in 18 year old Renato Sanches and changed his shape from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 with wide wingers Nani and Qaresma. While Sanches was disrupting Croatian game with his physical presence wide wingers occupied vacated spaces of Croatian full backs that pushed up.

The second half situation is really best illustrated by comparison of Portugal offensive passes during 90 minutes of the game. You can see that in first part of the game Portugal was focused mainly down the flank where Cristiano Ronaldo was dropping deeper. Even those passes that came from right were largely aiming at him. However, the second half debunks the idea of Portugal as only one man team.

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Change of formation and approach mid through second half

If you look at above diagram you will notice two things. Most obvious shift of point of attack to the right. This is due to more attacking play of both Croatian fullbacks, but also as targeting the weakest link in Croatia, Lazio reserve Ivan Strinic. The other important change compared to 1st half is the nature of passes. Suddenly there are a lot more of direct long balls into central and wide areas. This, however is due to Croatia poor pressing and great reaction from Fernando Santos who changes shape and uses whatever Croatia was giving him.

In the end, the goal came after Strinic was caught in possession deep in the Portugal half and again the man of the match, Renato Sanches, pops up to run whole length of field before passing to Nani on the edge of the box.

To conclude, the key to the game was Croatia and it’s stubbornness to (poorly) use the wings abandoning the centre of the pitch despite the obvious talent there. As an effect of this, Portugal coach makes change in shape and uses strong Renato Sanches to disrupt that little movement of ball in the middle that Croatia made. Also, Cristiano Ronaldo finally playing disciplined game for the team. As a last words… No doubt this was adaptive Fernando Santos’ winning over stubborn one dimensional Ante Cacic.

Thanks for reading!

EURO 2016: Italy – Sweden post match analysis on Italy

After great display against Belgium, there was a lot of expectation on Italy to confirm the first win with another good performance. On the other side, Sweden failed to win the “easiest” game against Ireland and was under pressure to get at least some result before the last game with one of the tournament favorites Belgium.

However, Italian manager Antonio Conte didn’t succumb to hype and didn’t feel he needs to prove anything. His sole aim was in line with Italian tradition and that was to get the result and result he got. His counterpart on Sweden bench, Erik Hamren almost got what he wanted in what was labeled the most boring game of EURO so far.

I can understand that feeling, but games at this level often aren’t played for fans but for result and literally, in the end, Italy got it. Apart swapping Darmian with Florenzi Conte didn’t change anything in his game. If there was any significant change it was playing even more cautious than against Belgium when in possession.

While Bonucci often surged upfield with ball in first match, this time Conte ordered him to be more disciplined. After all, Sweden got only Ekdal and Kallstrom in central zone of midfield and Italian manager was satisfied with numbers advantage there. There was really no need to risk with Chiellini pushing forward when in possession as it was the case in match against Belgium who fielded three classy players in center field.

The other change in gameplan Conte employed was more pressing on opposition defensive line. While against Belgium he was satisfied to wait for a counter or a good long ball, Italy accepted the role of favorite in match against Sweden and pushed the defensive line a tad bit more. Not enough to compromise whole defensive shape, though.

In all other parts, the gameplan was identical to first match. It was all about long balls from De Rossi, Bonucci and Chiellini. They went either diagonally to wide players pushing high up the pitch or to Pelle and Eder. The idea was always the same. Once the diagonal ball went to flank it would be crossed in front of goal.

long passes ita
However, those long passes largely missed the target as Pelle failed to cope with Swedish centerbacks which led to his substitution in the end. As shown in the diagram above. Italians had a bit more luck with diagonal long balls, but subsequent crosses were again out of reach for Pelle. In fact, only four out of 16 reached the target and two of them came after corners.

Italian game with the ball really wasn’t working as intended by the end of the half, but that was the same as it was in the match against Belgium until it actually worked and opened up the game. However, Antonio Conte was more interested in not losing the game than winning and he knew Sweden needs the points more. As he was sound in defense and Sweden was as much as impotent in attack as Italy, he decided to wait and play the game as he played against Belgium waiting for that long ball or that cross to finally connect.

lopta s  l boka na desni - ita

This is typical Italian attack after the long ball has been played either, directly to wide backs Candreva or Florenzi, or passed to them from centerfield. Arrow shows where could Italian midfielder move if they were really interested to keep the ball. However, that would mean compromising defensive shape and open up to possible counter-attack. A thing Conte really wanted to avoid even if that meant way less chance to threaten the Swedes.

It was a game where both teams weren’t really prepared to lose. Italy covered space and made futile any attempt from Sweden to effectively cross or pass vertically, while Italy felt secure they won’t let any goals in and happy to wait for their chance. That came very late and proved Conte was right while Sweden might have regret the points lost they really didn’t do enough to endanger opponents.