Thursday, 19 January 2012

"Pass the football to the left hand side" - "El Clasico" Analysis

Well, Mourinho's team selection surprised many including me, but for 20-25 minutes it looked to be justified. He setup essentially 4-3-3 on paper but when Barca had the ball the midfield three were tight with Ronaldo in particular defending deep tracking Alves.
Therefore the directive looked simple; defend as a synchronised unit particularly in midfield cutting of passing angles. When the ball is won back, the key was quick transition of the ball into wide or channel areas, Ronaldo on the left being the favoured ball. This made perfect sense since Alves is always high up the pitch and if Ronaldo reacted quickly he could expose the space vacated by Alves.
Typical positional snapshot in the 1st half
This certainly came to fruition after 12 minutes when Febregas lost possession left of center about 25 yards from goal, within seconds Ronaldo was on his bike and motoring in behind Alves. Benzema found him with a good angled pass and he had a one on one with Pique. A trademark step over created the angle and a low left foot shot went through Pinto's legs. Maybe Pinto could have done better. Real was 1-0 up.
This tactic continued for another 15-20 minutes and if Real's final ball was better they might have had another opportunity or two. But, Real's concession of possession (30% v 70%) and a mentality to drop deeper after the goal was always a problem and allowed Barca to dictate.
Whether it was deliberate or not, Barca also began to favour left side too, with Iniesta hugging the left side.
Again this made perfect sense, since Abidal does not play as high as Alves and Benzema was not tracking deep like Ronaldo. The thinking might also have been to expose Altintop and Carvalho who have not seen a lot of action this season. Fabregas although drifting favoured left side inside of Iniesta.
It was no surprise then that all of Barca's clear cut 1st half chances happened or materialised on the left hand side. 

Iniesta's area of operation

Fabregas found Sanchez with an angled ball from the left which Sanchez headed against the woodwork. Messi stung the palms of Casillas after being played through on the left hand side of the box. Iniesta should have scored after a passing exchange initiated from the left opened up Real. But he fired wide from 8 yards.

In all fairness, Altintop had a decent game and one on one was playing well against Iniesta. But Iniesta's use of others around him created problems.
Real needed half time or a change in approach as it was only a matter of time before Barca scored. Half time arrived, 1-0 Real.
No changes at half time and it started with more of the same, with Iniesta wide left. On 48 minutes it was to be Iniesta's wide play and desire to take on Altintop that led to a Barca corner and the equaliser. The resulting corner was swung in and Pepe was caught napping allowing Puyol to bullet a diving header passed Casillas. Real will be disappointed at losing such a soft goal.
Again, 5 minutes later an Iniesta and Fabregas one two combination on the left allowed Iniesta to volley on goal, with a timely Ramos block diverting the ball onto the post. Another warning.
Ironically, in an almost personal mission to buck the trend, Altintop went forward and turned Iniesta inside out. The cross was met by Benzema and his header struck the post. Encouragement for Real but it was to be a one off endeavour. It felt like Real would only score again from a set piece or a fast break. However, they both relied on the getting the ball.
The game then for a 10-15 spell was spoiled by the antics of Pepe. Disgusting is the only way to describe his feigning of injury and deliberate stamp on Messi's hand while he lay on the grass.
In between Pepe's antics Real made a double substitution on 65 minutes, bringing on Ozil and Callejon for Diarra and Higuain. This appeared to create a midfield diamond when read clockwise of Pepe, Alonso, Ozil and Callejon with a swap of Alonso and Callejon later in the match. Ronaldo and Benzema both up top, with Ronaldo slightly behind on the right.

Barca now and again tried to find the rapid Sanchez who was playing on the shoulder of the defender, with a longer surprise pass. But it was used sparingly in favour of finding Iniesta wide left.
So on 75 minutes Iniesta again progressed wide and forward, Altintop conceded a throw in stopping him. Abidal came up to take the throw in. A short throw to Fabregas, resulted in a tackle and another throw in.  Abidal this time found Iniesta, played a quick one two and passed inside to Busquets who found Messi 35 yards out in a central position. Real shifted left in the direction of the ball. Altintop tucked in and Ronaldo watched the ball. Abidal decided to stay wide. He was spotted by Messi who switched play back to the left side. Abidal was in and he finished with aplomb for a defender.
The plan was undone for Real, like the previous encounter Barca did not panic and reversed the scoreline. They believe so much in their passing game and in each other.

Callejon provided some endeavour but to no avail and Ozil was literally non existent. Pepe was removed and replaced by Granero but you could not see a way back for Real.

Barca saw the game out with little stress introducing Adriano, Cuenca and Thiago in the last 10 mins for Sanchez, Febregas and Xavi.

Real now need to go and score at least twice at Camp Nou and with a similar game plan I can't see that happening. A greater share of possession is needed along with more midfield creation and endeavour. I would expect Di Maria to play if fit and Callejon possibly too.

Let's see what next week brings...

Mini "El Clasico" preview

Sorry thought I posted this yesterday, so here's what I wanted to say ahead of the game yesterday...

Tonight's "El Clasico" will be interesting in the sense that Madrid need a home win to have a chance of beating Barca over two legs it would seem.

Mourinho will be without Di Maria, Khadira and Arbeloa resulting in his team selection materialising into a tougher task. Di Maria would have almost certainly played along with Arbeloa too.
Unless Guardiola has something extraordinary up his sleeve, we expect Barca to play their usual high pressing and fluid passing style. The only question being 3 or 4 at the back, with 4 appearing the favoured approach, turning rapidly into a 3-4-3 from 4-3-3 when in possesion.

Their last encounter in La Liga was a 3-1 away win for Barca, despite a 1st minute goal from Benzema. Barca's patience and reluctence to be sucked into any other game than their own, paid off handsomely.

Mourinho I think has to go toe to toe with Barca and ask questions of them in defensive areas. Betis at the weekend proved that if you can see a decent amount of the ball and get in behind Barca's midfield, goals are possible...even at the Camp Nou.

Of course this means a few things. Firstly, winning the battle for possession of the ball, the key area being midfield. When in possession, a quick transfer of the ball is important as Barca are just as good retaining possession as they are with the ball.

A feature of the game may be the quick transfer to Benzema and Ronaldo in wide or channel areas, Alonso has tried this "Out ball" a few times in recent games to some effect and it would certainly transfer Barca onto the back foot. The support is then crucial to transition this play into a true attacking phase.

Ozil has to step up his game and his contribution in behind the Barca midfield and avoiding the attentions of Busquets is important.

What will Mourinho do...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Mourinho plays ping pong with Coentrao...but Marcelo and Benzema are the winners.

Malaga 0 v 1 Real Madrid - Copa Del Rey 5th round,  2nd Leg 

Just a quickie on the recent Copa Del Rey cup tie.Leading 3-2 from the first leg at the Bernabeu, Real went into this game with Ozil, Benzema and Marcelo on the bench. Kaka, Coentrao and Pepe all found a starting place. 

Madrid lined up 4-3-3 on paper but quickly turned into a 3-4-3 in attack. Malaga were essentially 4-5-1 but in attack they were 4-3-3.

Real starting line up 4-3-3

The first half was generally a tight affair with Malaga competing well in midfield
and acheiving some early success in wide positions, from Monreal and Eliseu.

Mourinho was concerned, captured on camera bemoaning his sides contribution and instructing his players from the technical area.

Alonso, Diarra and Khadira were playing narrow to allow Arbeloa and Coentrao forward into wide positions but apart from some early Diarra, Arbeloa and Kaka triangular like exchanges and the odd Khadira, Coentrao and Ronaldo exchange, Madrid were lacking penetration. Add to that an off colour Ronaldo and Kaka, a Malaga five man midfield getting behind the ball, the game had 0-0 strongly looming.

Ozil came on 2 mins from half time after Khadira was forced off with injury.

Enter Mourinho at half time...Like he did in the 1st leg, he was not willing to accept his teams inefficiencies and Kaka made way for Marcelo. Coentrao moved to right side of the midfield three and Marcelo slotted in at the left of the back four, but as usual in a wing back fashion.

Real lineup after half-time

Again Malaga started brightly but Madrid's defence was resolute, with Ramos and Pepe solid as a rock for the whole game. Particulary at set pieces where Madrid were exposed in the 1st leg and lost goals as a result.

On 60 minutes, Coentrao moved across the park to left side of the midfield three but the breakthrough was still not  materialising. So when Willy Caballero pulled off a great save on 63 minutes from a Ronaldo header it was looking like "one of those nights".

Coentrao moves to left of the midfield three

Coentrao completed his "ping pong" by swapping with Marcelo; Mourinho enforcing this change by physically speaking to Coentrao and Marcelo on the side line during a break in play.

Seba Fernandez was replaced on 66 mins by Rondon who joined Ruud Van Nistelrooy up top. So Malaga were now 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 when Eliseu or Isco joined the attack. Mallaga had to force the issue now in search of a goal to swing the tie in their favour. Almost instantly this move appeared to be undone when Higuain had the ball in the net on 67 minutes. But he was rightly ruled offside, although it should be mentioned he took his diving header very well.

It was to be Higuain's final contribution as he was replaced by Benzema a minute later. Coupled with Marcelo's promotion to midfield, this proved to be the decisive move from Mourinho.
Coentrao completes his "ping pong" & Benzema enters the fray

Three mintutes after Benzema's introduction he had the ball in net, albeit helped by Cabellero.

Ozil and Marcelo broke at pace from midfield after Alono's clearance. Marcelo's contribution was key as he ran parallell with Ozil who had possesion. 35 yards from goal, Marcelo made a great run across Ozil prompting the covering defender to move a few strides inside, therefore creating  the space for Benzema on the edge of the box. Benzema actually "fluffed" his attempt to open his body up and bend to the far corner, but Cabellero who had been excellent got it all wrong and the ball squirmed through him and Real took the lead. 
Bezema Goal, supported by Marcelo

Real then without much of note saw the game out with Ramos and Pepe ensuring no slip ups. Madrid progressed to the quarter finals to set up another "El Classico".

Mourinho has to be credited here for his tactical changes, especially the switch of Marcelo. Marcelo's pace allowed him to advance quickly with Benzema and Ozil and his intelligent run was enough to create space for Benzema to pull the trigger and hit the target.

The Coentrao "ping pong" was a little strange but I think he was simply trying to mix things up to stimualte his team into action. Coentrao has a good engine and was certainly up and down the pitch, albeit to little effect at times. Regardless, Mourinho finally came out the winner for his persistence and constant communication to the team of his intentions.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Dons v Killie - Dare you to try three at the back?

After a comfortable win at Forfar, the question in my mind is what team The Dons will play this weekend against Killie?
Considine and Milsom are likely to return but it appears Osbourne and Pawlett are out for several weeks. Vernon and Chalali are likley to shake off knocks.

The Dons are at home, coming off two wins, confidence returning...should we go for it at home? 

My main thinking is that with not all the personnel available; Osbourne, Pawlett, Mawene all likely to be missing, should we have a go at Killie and line up 3-5-2 or 3-4-3? 

Craig Brown has favoured 4-4-2 but maybe its time for a change?

Lining up in this way gives the Dons attack minded players more license to get forward when in possession and be more natural. Milsom and Fyvie have proven to work well together in the middle of the park, and in wide positions Fyvie is not comfortable and it's not his natural game. In this line up their aim is to create and support for the front two. Arnason sits behind providing that hybrid of defensive and midfield thinking. 

Jack is comfortable further forward on the right and has an eye for goal as he has demonstrated this season. Robertson has played wide left both in defence and midfield (pre-season) so again it's a position he is comfortable with. Again, they provide supply to the front but they have defensive duties too when not in possession. They have young legs to get up and down the flanks.

Now, the back three. If Mawene was fit, then I would suggest Reynolds, McArdle and Mawene but I feel if a three is played this weekend it will be Reynolds, Considine and McArdle.

3-5-2 line up

Of course, a formation is never truly rigid and changes as the team is with or without possession. When in possession it's important the Dons get into wide areas and Milsom or Fyvie join the attack, therefore 3-5-2 becomes 3-4-3. When the ball is lost, the players try to re-shape to 3-5-2.
Another more attacking variation could be 3-4-3, introducing young Mitch Meggison who has played in this formation during pre-season to some affect. Chalali would drop out with Milsom pushing wide left in a front three.

3-4-3 line up

This may be a little over adventurous but The Dons did play a similar setup in a friendly pre-season and looked good. The key here is the contribution in wide areas both in an attacking and defensive sense. This formation should in theory promote pressing higher up the pitch and suppress opposition full backs. Arnason again has his mind on his defence duties and drops in when The Dons don't have the ball, again changing the dynamics of the formation.

It's worth a try in my mind, because the 4-4-2 has largely been unsuccessful this season.
I welcome your thoughts...

Friday, 6 January 2012

Foster out, Reynolds in....

Wow, after only posting my 1st blog on Wednesday stating the removal of Foster from the back four, Bristol City have swooped in and will sign Foster for a sum believed to be in the region of £250,000.00. I can only conclude that Derek McInnes is buying him for his pace and athleticism and will utilise him in wide areas. If he plays in defence then troubled times are ahead for Bristol City (see previous blog).

So one goes but another arrives. Former Motherwell defender and Scotland B International Mark Reynolds arrives on a loan deal until the end of the season. Reynolds arrives from Sheffield Wednesday where he appears to have been on the fringe for most of the season.
Reynolds can play in the middle or left side and on paper this appears a smart move by manager Craig Brown. Reynolds captained Motherwell and made near 200 appearances. He was also a past transfer target for Rangers and Swansea so he must have something to offer.

Since the departure of the impressive loanee Steven Smith at the end of last season, left side has been occupied by Foster and I always felt this unbalanced the Dons. When Clark Robertson played he give us balance although he is young and had been used sparingly. Therefore, Reynolds natural left sided game plus Fosters departure (see previous blog) could work wonders for the Dons defence and team as a whole. Oh and he is a natural defender!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Despite the win, The Dons defensive deficiencies were on show

Well I should be delighted that the Dons recorded a victory against a Dundee Utd team on the ascendancy but...

Even a quick glance at the highlights shows that the Dons are still susceptible to shedding a goal or more a game (statistically 29 in 22  league games) and were fortunate to leave with 3 points. The Arabs had a decent shout for a penalty too in all fairness.

On a positive note, Kari Arnason's 35 yard strike would be worthy of winning any game. When "Arnie" plays the Dons have more to offer defensively and as we have witnessed, offensively too. This may explain why he has been utilised both in defence and midfield this season. The Dons may have a hard job holding on to the Icelandic international at the end of the season.

The Main Problem

However, as good as Arnason has been his defensive partners have not been up to scratch and the Dons defending can be amateurish at times. Failure to perform defensive basics and several individual mistakes have undone the Dons in several games this season.

Now, every defender makes mistakes it's just part of football and human nature. But that aside, defenders in my mind should be primarily pro-active; reading the game and occupying positions that ultimately enable them to prevent the opposition from scoring or mounting an attack. Combined with defensive prerequisites; tackling, aerial ability and more importantly in the modern game, ball have the nucleus of a defense materialising.

But I feel the Dons are the inverse. When your team are consistently defending re-actively and from bad positions, it's just not a sustainable defensive model. Compounded by midfielders masquerading as defenders and poor distribution several points have been lost this season as a result.

The Dons have had varying line ups at the back this season due to injury and suspension with Considine (21 of 22 league appearances) , Foster (22 of 22),  Malwene (18 of 22) and Arnason (18 of 22) forming the main nucleus of defence. However, as mentioned Arnason has frequently been deployed in midfield. 

The defensive supporting cast has been Rory McArdle, Ryan Jack and Issac Osbourne. McArdle being the only recognised defender from those three. 

Defense in focus

Andrew Considine for me is positionally poor and does not contribute at defensive set pieces as he should. He has a habit of being caught on his heals and consistently misjudging the flight of the ball, allowing the opposition to prosper.  It's an area he needs to improve on for sure. Ironically, he seems to be more effective in the oppositions box, contributing 3 goals to the Dons cause this season.

Richard Foster is not a defender to trade leading to the label of utility player. Personally I feel he has to play further forward to utilise his pace and allow him to be more natural. I am not saying that people can't be converted or utilised elsewhere on the pitch, it just doesn't work in Foster's case. He's not a defender. The captaincy needs to transfer from Foster too, as much as he has the ability to shout, he is not a leader.

Mawene in all honesty bar a couple of mistakes, has had a decent season and looks positionally sound and composed on the ball. He has also chipped in with 2 goals this season, continuing the trend of Dons defenders effectiveness at the other end.  When Mawene or Arnason are missing I feel the composure is diminished in the back four. He is an experienced defender with a decent CV of playing for Lens, Derby and Preston.

Arnason as mentioned previous is the stand out defender this season, but has frequently been utilised in midfield. It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul; what you gain in defence you lose in midfield and vice versa.

McArdle has has only started 5 games this season. He is far more comfortable at center back than full back where his lack of pace is exposed. He is decent in the air and has made significant contributions in the oppositions box like he did at Tannadice this week.

Jack has made headlines for some spectacular goals this season against Celtic and St.Johnstone and looks comfortable further forward. I feel he is just simply filling in at right back.

Osbourne is more defensive as midfielders go and his defensive duties have been tidy as a result.

Possible solutions

Immediate solutions are the removal of the common denominators Considine and Foster, with Foster being deployed wide right or left in the midfield. When Mawene is fit, he needs to find a partner in the middle whether it be McArdle or Arnason. I can't recall Mawene and Arnason forming a defensive partnership this season?

One interesting concept may be a back three with McArdle and Mawene protected with younger legs with options from but not preferably Foster, Jack, or Osbourne. Young Clark Robertson who has shown promise has only started once this season, but could add left sided balance but that is more likely to be part of a back four for now. When playing three at the back Arnason would play in front of the defence as marshal and protector.

Of course, defending is not just a defensive units responsibility. Great teams defend in all areas when they don't have the ball and work hard to retrieve it, the current Barcelona team are the finest example. "Special" midfield players that are very mobile and can snuff out attacks before they mature are worth their weight in gold. Scott Parker at Tottenham is a fine current example.

And finally, this one is obvious. If your team are creating and converting chances then that takes a huge pressure off the defense too. I intend to analyse the Dons offensive side over the next few matches.