Category Archives: Tactical Analysis

Germany: Favourites for the Euros? Part 3 of 5: Options from the bench (Goalkeepers and Defence)

You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Part 4 will look at the back-ups in midfield and attack, and Part 5 will look at the Strengths and Weaknesses of the side.

Part 3 of 5: Options from the bench – (Goalkeepers and Defence)

Options from the bench

Goalkeepers

As goalkeepers are only really subsituted in the case of an injury, I will look at the back-up options should anything happen to first-choice keeper Manuel Neuer.

René Adler – The Bayer Leverkusen keeper is currently considered second choice to Neuer and is only 26 years old himself, perhaps showing that keepers are maturing ever earlier in their careers nowadays. Unfortunately the native of Leipzig has been very unlucky with injuries in the past and has not played a single game yet this season after injuring his knee in a pre-season game against Red Bull Salzburg. Adler had established himself as Germany’s number one before the World Cup in 2010 but a rib injury forced him to miss out and Neuer took his chance with both hands. Adler’s main strengths are his excellent reflexes, his aerial ability and the presence he commands on the pitch. The German has been back in training since late October but it is unknown when he will make his return.

Ron-Robert Zieler – The former Manchester United youth-team player and current Hannover 96 stopper made his debut for Germany against Ukraine and was rather unfortunate to have conceded 3 goals, which were mostly due to poor defending. In that game, the 22-year-old pulled off a number of brilliant saves particularly in the second half and deserves credit for his performance. As recently as 2009 he was struggling to get into the Northampton Town side when on loan from the English Champions and he only made his club debut for Hannover earlier this year. Zieler is a great shot stopper, evidenced by his shot-to-saves ratio of 78% in the Bundesliga, better than anyone currently in the Premier League. He also has great concentration and his great reflexes allow him to save more close-range shots than most. The youngster is not perfect however, and should look to work on his distribution and saving long shots in order to improve as a keeper. Zieler is expected to be third choice for Euro 2012, unless he suffers a severe dip in form. Head over to Manutd24 blog for this great piece on the goalkeeping sensation.

Defenders

Germany has many alternatives to the first-choice full-backs

In the full-back areas, Joachim Löw has many alternatives to the current starters Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng, although it is unlikely the former will be replaced as he is the captain of the team.

Benedikt Höwedes – Like Boateng, Höwedes is naturally a centre-back but has the quality and the attributes to play on the right side of defence as well. The young Schalke youth product provides a greater crossing ability than his team-mate and has the advantage of (when fit) playing every single game for his club, of which the same cannot be said for Boateng. According to the statistics, Höwedes would provide a more solid defensive presence but would not be as adventurous when attacking. As well as his excellent crossing, Höwedes’s anticipation allows to make several interceptions per match, and this would be useful no doubt against the better sides in the competition. Strength and speed are two of his best attributes and his aerial ability means he would not be your typical marauding right-back. As for his weaknesses, the defender needs to improve his concentration (a vital quality for a defender) and perhaps his ball retention. Höwedes’ versatility means that he will probably play a big role in Germany’s Euro 2012 campaign.

Christian Träsch – The 24-year-old is a very difficult player to analyse, simply due to the number of different positions he has played in. He usually appears as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2 system for Wolfsburg, but has been mainly fielded as a right-back for his country. Träsch is no doubt third-choice but his versatility could mean he gets to play more games than you might expect. A very good dribbler, evidenced by his 1.9 successful dribbles per game, Träsch provides a mix of the styles of Höwedes and Boateng. Like the Schalke defender, he is a good crosser of the ball, although with Germany’s system and style of play, this is not necessarily vital. Träsch also packs a good long shot, unlike the other two options, and his interception skills are naturally good, considering he is a defensive midfielder. 3 assists to his name so far this season show that the midfielder’s passing is one of his strengths too. Tackling is not his greatest strength, shown by his 2.9 tackles and 1.1 fouls per match, but this will improve with time. He could be at a disadvantage, in that he doesn’t play regularly, if at all, at right-back for his club, so would be rusty if called upon in a high-pressure situation.

Marcel Schmelzer – A running machine, Schmelzer played every single minute of Borussia Dortmund’s league-winning campaign last year. However, owing to injuries, he has been unable to repeat that this year, and his performances haven’t quite reached the heights of last season as of yet. He is able to get forward at will for his club side, with a double pivot giving enough protection for him to do so.

Dennis Aogo – Aogo currently plays for Hamburg, who have suffered a terrible start to their season, winning just three of their first thirteen games in the league. As a result, Aogo has not enjoyed a particularly successful season thus far, and there is for improvement. Aogo has made the second most key passes a game for Hamburg, behind Gokhan Tore, showing his ability to get forward and deliver. Despite this, he has just one assist to his name so far, although perhaps this is more down to strikers like Marcus Berg and Jose Paolo Guerrero wasting good opportunities. A strong passer of the ball, Aogo is also rarely dispossessed, a vital characteristic for a defender.

Per Mertesacker – As you would expect from a man of his height (6ft 5in), Mertesacker is very strong in the air and rarely loses an aerial duel. The Gmerna also possesses great awareness and aniticipation skills, which often allow him to be in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, Mertesacker suffers from alack of speed and athleticism, which has been shown up in a few games for Arsenal this season (mainly because of their high line, which leaves space in behind). Despite having an injury-free campaign so far, he is known to be somewhat injury-prone and this could hinder him in the future. It is, I agree, pretty unfair to call a man of 79 international caps a back-up, but on current form I think Loew will go with Badstuber and Hummels in the centre of defence. Wikipedia sum up Mertesacker’s style of play, when they say,

At 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in), Mertesacker is commanding in the air but he is also sound in defending on the ground.He often uses his strength to shrug opponents off the ball and his standing tackle ability to win balls. He rarely slides or makes dirty tackles. Question marks have been raised about his speedand he had been badly exposed in a friendly against Poland.He compensates his speed for his excellent positional play. Despite his height he is regarded as a clean player as he is rarely booked.Due to his height and strength, Mertesacker is also a scoring threat in set-pieces.

Also known for his durability Metesacker played whole 90 minutes in Germany’s all seven games at the 2010 FIFA world cup in South Africa.

Despite often being criticized for being not vocal, he is a good defensive organizer. Mertesacker is also a neat distributer of the ball. He averaged 46.3 passes per game in 2010-2011 season, the third highest in the Bremen squad, and the second highest pass success rate, with 82%. Often Mertesacker is paired with a more mobile and faster defender who can track-back in counter attack situation like Mats Hummels, Arne Friedrich and more recently Laurent Koscielny, though he had successfully formed one of the best defensive pairing in Bundesliga with the equally sized Naldo during his time at Werder Bremen.

Arne Friedrich – For a versatile and solid defender with 82 international caps, it is surprising to learn that Friedrich is currently a free agent. He is only 32 years old, and I believe he could provide valuable nous and experience to even the best defences in Europe, even though he has had a long history with injuries. Friedrich provides the ideal foil for someone like Mertesacker, due to his relative pace and ability to cover. It remains to be seen whether Friedrich will keep his place in the squad due to his current status, but his hopes look rather slim.

Other options – Benedikt Höwedes (mentioned above) and Jerome Boateng (mentioned in Part 1) are both natural centre-backs and either would be a good option should there be any injuries to the other centre-backs. Heiko Westermann, of Hamburg, is another good option who has experience and could slot in with ease.

Conclusion

Germany have many different options in their defensive positions, and most of them are in their early-to-late twenties, meaning they have plenty of time to develop and have yet to reach their peak. Strength in depth is key to success in month-long tournaments and it is clear that Germany possess it in abundance.

 

Germany: Favourites for the Euros? Part 2 of 5: Tactical Analysis and Alternative Systems

If you missed Part 1, you can find it here

Part 2 of 3: Tactical Analysis and Alternative Systems

Tactics

This is Germany's default tactical system, the 4-2-3-1

Joachim Löw generally sets his side out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is very similar to lots of other national teams.

Defence

In defence, this system becomes more of a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-4-2. The reasons for this are that, 1) Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller drop back to help out their full-backs, thus creating two rigid lines of 4, 2) Mesut Ozil often pushes high up on the defence to try and win the ball back as quickly as possible. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger act as two defensive midfielders normally would, squeezing the space between the lines and aiming to stop the opposition central/attacking midfielders playing.

Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber/Per Mertesacker often sit deep and do not let their opponents play in behind them and this cleverly covers up Badstuber and Mertesacker’s lack of pace. Lahm and Boateng on the outside are two quick and solid defenders and so they rarely get beaten on the outside.

This system differs from their biggest rivals next summer in that the two wide forwards drop back and the central attacking midfielder pushes up, while for Spain the opposite is the case, as Xavi drops deep to help out Busquets and Alonso while whoever plays wide stays up the pitch to try to win the ball back quickly through fierce pressing. Spain also play with a high line while Germany prefer to sit back, soak up pressure and counter.

Attack

First things first, Germany’s transitional play (counterattacking) is superb. They attack with speed and in numbers, helped out by the great passing ability of Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield. Of course, the main skill of being a good counterattacking team is to have pace, and Germany have it in abundance. The two full-backs, Lahm and Boateng are very quick, as are the two wide forwards/wingers Podolski and Muller. Klose himself is no slouch either.

However, to suggest that Germany are purely a counterattacking side would not be wholly true. Not one of their six goals in the last international break (3 vs Ukraine, 3 vs Holland) was scored from a counterattack. Under Jogi Löw, they have developed into a passing side and they can open up stubborn defences by passing through them. Their ability to keep possession and wait for the right moment to attack (like Spain, just quicker) is an underestimated asset. When Germany want (or usually need) to, they can also play direct football with the Starting XI, and the same cannot be said of Spain (unless they start with Torres or Llorente). Klose is a great header of the ball (as seen in this goal against Holland last week) and in Muller, Podolski and Lahm, they have some great crossers too.

I agree that Germany may have been undone at the World Cup in South Africa because of their failure to keep possession against Spain and because their counterattacking style did not work in this type of match, but since then they have developed considerably and I am sure Löw has recognized all the mistakes he (and his team) made in 2010 and has worked hard on them since.

Alternative Systems

4-3-3

Another system Löw could choose to employ, the 4-3-3

4-3-3

Although Löw has, to my knowledge, not yet tried out the 4-3-3, I will try and explain why I think it could work as a plan B for Germany.

  • The 4-3-3 is perhaps the best system for possession-based play and it would allow Germany to keep possession even more than they already do. The introduction of Kroos, who has been playing brilliantly for both club and country, in a central midfield role would give greater passing options to the side and would also mean that Khedira (or Schweinsteiger) could get forward more, like he did for Real Madrid against Zaragoza on Saturday.
  • In fact, these three midfielders could take it in turns to go forward, as they are all adept defensively and offensively, and this would give Germany the element of surprise, whereas their system is rather predictable at the moment (except for the movement of the front 4).
  • With a solid three-man midfield, the full-backs could push further up the field and move into the space vacated by Ozil (who would definitely drift inside) and Muller. Lahm and Boateng have excellent attacking abilities and, if this system was used, they would be able to show that more often.
  • The counterattacking play of the side would not diminish severely, as they would have three good passers of the ball in midfield (Khedira’s ability in this respect is massively underrated) and they would still have the pace of Muller, Klose and the full-backs. They would only lose the speed of Podolski on the left and Ozil spraying the ball out to the flanks.
  • Miroslav Klose would have the opportunity to drop deep into ‘the hole’ as he loves to do. He does this quite often at the moment but Ozil is usually occupying that position. This would help drag defenders out of position and allow Muller, Ozil or one of the three midfielders to try and attack the space left by the defender. (This would be slightly like a ‘false 9,’ although Klose would not drop off as often as Messi for Barcelona, Silva for Spain, Fabregas for Barcelona etc.)
  • As far as my untrained eye can see, one of the only real weaknesses to this system would be the obligation to use Ozil on the wing, where he is not quite as effective, and he tends to drift inside anyway. They could also lose the attacking threat of Muller coming inside, because it is very difficult to play with two wingers who come inside, as Spain showed against England last Saturday.

3-4-2-1

The 3-4-2-1 Germany used against Ukraine, except I have changed the starting XI

3-4-2-1

This is the system Löw used against Ukraine, although he did not have the right players fit in order to use it to its full potential. I have a few points to make about the 3-4-2-1.

  • Arguably the two key players in this system are the wing-backs and Löw started with Denis Aogo and Christian Trasch against Ukraine, whereas the first-choice pairing would be Lahm on the left and Thomas Muller or Andre Schurrle on the right.
  • Having Gotze and Ozil in the team rather complicates things as they tend to make the same runs and want to do the same thing. Perhaps this could be fixed by switching to a 3-4-1-2 with Ozil in behind Klose and Gomez.
  • The 3 centre backs were often caught too high up the pitch against Ukraine and would need to provide more defensive solidity. Generally one of a 3-man defence likes to step out of the back and act as an additional midfielder. In my opinion this should be Hummels who has been playing this role brilliantly for Dortmund since the beginning of last season. The ‘libero’ can help to start attacks or even counterattacks by stepping out of defence and Hummels would be ideal for this.
  • In terms of disadvantages, this system would really hinder the movement and understanding between the trio of Muller, Ozil and Klose. Muller would have far more defensive responsibilities and as such, would be unable to contribute as much in an attacking sense.
  • Also, despite it being a 3-man defence instead of a 4-man one, it is arguably less attacking (obviously this depends on how Löw uses the system, but the players suggest it would be) because there are only 3 out-and-out attacking players in the team.
  • Width is a real problem. Muller and Lahm would be very capable wing-backs but they would have to be more careful when attacking as they don’t have any full-backs in behind them to cover. In a defending sense, the opposition full-backs and wide forwards could double up on the wing-backs and create opportunities out wide, something Germany found out against Ukraine.

Conclusion

Well, this was just a brief look at how Germany play at the moment. Head over to Zonal Marking to check out this piece about Germany or Bundesliga Fanatic for this article about the game against Ukraine and this one for the match against Holland. Part 3 will be up sometime during the week!

Germany: Favourites for the Euros? Part 1 of 5: A Look at the Starting XI

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series. Part 2 wil look at Germany’s tactics in detail and their alternative systems while Part 3 will look at their options from the bench and their strengths and weaknesses.

With Spain’s recent disappointing results and Germany’s comfortable win over Holland on Tuesday, it would not be outrageous to say that ‘Die Nationalmannschaft’ are currently the favourites for next summer’s European championship. Having won nine and drawn three of their 13 matches this year, they are on top form and if they play as well in Euro 2012 as they did against the Netherlands (probably their best performance under Jogi Loew) then who’s to say they can’t go all the way.

The Team

Germany's starting formation and team

That is perhaps what an injury-free Germany side would look like next summer. This means that Germany potentially missed 3 starters on Tuesday (if you consider Mertesacker a non-starter), a frightening prospect considering just how well they played.

The goalkeeper will almost certainly be Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, while on the right of defence Loew is as of yet undecided between Neuer’s club mate Jerome Boateng and Schalke’s Benedikt Hoewedes, two natural centre-backs although the place will probably go to Boateng.

The Team

Joachim Low’s first-choice tactic is the most popular formation in football today, the 4-2-3-1. In goal, they have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world today, Manuel Neuer. The Bayern Munich stopper is still only 25 years old so should have at least 7 or 8 years ahead of him in goal for the national team. In defence, Low plays with two attacking full-backs in Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng. Both players are two-footed and so could swap positions if needed, and in fact Boateng’s best position is in the centre of defence. Although these two players are attacking, they are defensively very good as well, and I believe Lahm has probably been one of (if not the) the best full backs in the world for the last five years, along with Ashley Cole and, more recently, Dani Alves. Despite some recent controversial comments in his autobiography, Lahm is likely to be captain at the Euros next year. His consistency is perhaps his key asset and his passing ability is very underrated as well. Despite playing on average 9.8 long balls a game, he has the highest passing success rate of any Bayern player at 90.6% (only including those who have started more than five games).

His team-mate on the other side of defence (for both club and country), Boateng, has arguably been a victim of his own versatility. Boateng played the whole of the World Cup 2010 at left-back, while when he was used at Man City (rarely) he played on the right of defence. He signed for Bayern in the hope that he would play alongside Holger Badstuber in the centre, but he has only started half of his 12 matches so far in his preferred centre-back role. His crossing ability needs to improve in order for him to become a top-class full-back but he is solid enough to be considered first-choice.

In the centre of defence, Jogi Low has a choice of two between Per Mertesacker, Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels. Let’s say he picks the latter two (Mertesacker is covered below anyway) and take a look at their games. Hummels has been a revelation since he moved to Borussia Dortmund in 2009 and was instrumental in their title triumph last season. His man-marking skills are top-class and he has kept many brilliant strikers quiet in the Bundesliga, both this season and last. One key aspect of his game is his ability to get forward, acting as a deep playmaker and the first man of a counterattack. He is able to do this through his dribbling skills, and this is something he could bring to the international stage. Another quality he possesses is the remarkable ability to concede next to no fouls (0.3 per game this season) and as a result, he was carded just twice in the whole of last season, and has been shown a yellow twice in sixteen games this season, an astonishing statistic considering his position. However, the reason why he is able to do all this is through his number one quality, and that is his anticipation. He is just like Thiago Silva in this regard, in that he is always positioned correctly and he makes defending look just so simple. He has carried on his great form of last season into this campaign and he can now be classed as one of the best defenders around.

Alongside Hummels, Holger Badstuber has slowly integrated himself into FC Hollywood’s starting line-up and can now be considered a starter for club and country. He is very solid mentally and his positioning is very good as well. He is also very decent in the air, which means both he and Hummels are good at dealing target men or crosses into the box. Not a man to cover himself in glory, Badstuber is a no-nonsense defender and will most likely play the sweeper/stopper role while Hummels acts as a ‘libero.’ Like the rest of the defence (and indeed the whole team), Badstuber has a great passing ability, something which is becoming increasingly necessary for the modern-day centre-back.

Their midfield is set up like most 4-2-3-1s, with a ‘Doppelsechs” (double pivot – 2 of 4-2-3-1) comprised of one defensive midfielder (Sami Khedira) and one deep-lying playmaker (Bastian Schweinsteiger). Khedira has not been performing too well lately for his club side, Real Madrid, and he has only started seven of Los Blancos’ fifteen games in La Liga and the Champions League so far. However, just like Klose for example, he seems to always play well for the national team, and in this position he is by no means a ‘destroyer,’ more of an all-rounded deep-lying midfielder with the ability to defend as well as to get forward. He tends to play the ball short to his fellow midfielders rather than spray the ball out wide to the wingers/full-backs (à la Xabi Alonso) and this is proved by the fact he has played one long ball per game this season to Alonso’s 9.8.

Bastian Schweinsteiger - photo courtesy of guardian.co.uk

As for Schweinsteiger, his switch from a winger to a central midfielder around 3 years ago has proved a masterstroke, and many people (including myself) now regard him as one of the best around in his position. Like Khedira, he is very good defensively (he has made 2.8 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per game), however he clearly contributes more offensively, having contributed 2 goals and 3 assists to Bayern Munich, while Khedira has yet to register on either count. He plays a more expansive passing game to Khedira, attempting 9.2 long balls per game and with the likes of Lahm, Muller and Boateng in the side, this is a very good tactic. ‘Schweini,’ as he is known in Germany, tends to dictate the pace of the game whenever he plays, and some have even labelled him ‘the German Xavi,’ which is not a bad comparison considering they have both played the most passes in their respective leagues.

Further up the field, Podolski tends to hold his position as inside-left while the trio of Mesut Ozil, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller change positions with fantastic fluidity (more about them later). Podolski has never really been rated very highly at club level (despite a three-year spell at Bayern Munich) and is currently at FC Koln, the club with whom he started his professional career. His role at his club side is different than where he plays for “Die Nationalmannschaft,” as he usually plays as a lone front-man or a second striker in a 4-2-3-1 for Koln, while he plays on the left of the attacking trio for the national side. This means that he has far more defensive responsibility than he does when playing in the Bundesliga, something which he carries out well. He’s more of a reliant or dependable player than most, putting in consistently good performances, but not the player you’d look to to create something out of nothing. Despite being a left-footer on the left wing, Podolski likes to cut inside and from there he can use his long range shooting ability to good effect. Set-pieces and his finishing ability are two more aspects of his game which stand out, although ‘Prinz Poldi’ is definitely the attacking player most at risk of losing his place (as described in Part 3).

The Magic Triangle

The Magic trio of (left to right) Ozil, Klose and Muller

No, this is not going to be a paragraph about some maths theory I know nothing about, rather three players whose understanding and fluidity makes it seem they’ve played together their whole life. Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Miroslav Klose are key to their country’s hopes of winning their first tournament since 1996. Able to switch positions with surprising ease, their movement is a nightmare for defenders. The ability to counterattack with these three players (+ Podolski) could cause many teams a lot of trouble, as Ozil has the ability to find the pass, while Muller, Klose and Podolski all have the pace needed for an efficient counter.

Muller started the 09/10 season in Bayern Munich’s second team, and by the end of it was the World Cup’s leading scorer. His astonishing rise to fame could have seen him become complacent and push for a move to a bigger club, but he stayed and his performances this season have been consistently excellent. His ability to draw a foul could come in handy due to Germany’s excellent set-piece takers, and his record of 2 goals and 3 assists in 12 league matches so far is not to be sniffed at. Muller’s finishing skills are very good for someone who plays on the wing, and his crossing is excellent but his ability to spot a pass is underrated and he should play a key role in Germany’s campaign in Poland and Ukraine.

The playmaker Ozil has not been an automatic starter for Real Madrid this season after Kaka’s recent return of form, however there is no doubt about his place in Germany’s side. Although he is rarely able to complete a full 90 minutes, his contributions when on the field are vital and I would argue he is the key man in Germany’s system. The reasons for this are numerous. Firstly, his playmaking abilities are second to none, and his passing skills are crucial for the likes of Klose and Muller. Despite not being the quickest player on the field, he can dribble extremely well and in a counterattacking system this is definitely necessary. Ozil may not contribute the most defensively, but with two holding midfielders and two hard-working wingers, this isn’t particularly worrying.

Finally, we come to Klose, Germany’s second top scorer of all time (he only has 6 goals to go to beat the 68 of Gerd Muller). His great start to life in Serie A with Lazio came unexpectedly but he is another who has always performed for Germany while his club form has wobbled. Clearly, goalscoring is his main asset, although under Low he has become more instrumental in Germany’s build-up play. He often drifts to the right while Ozil and Muller exploit the space he leaves and this can cause defenders problems (see Germany’s 3-0 victory over Holland on Tuesday), and he gives Germany something none of the other attacking players can, an option in the air (see the second goal in the aforementioned match). This means that if their plan A isn’t working, Klose can act as a target man, which he did brilliantly a few times while at Bayern Munich.

The understanding of where each other will go, where to put the ball and the ability to draggplayers out of defence for one of the other two to exploit the space is natural and something which hours on a training pitch can’t teach. To repeat, this trio is crucial to whether Germany succeed next summer, and let’s hop that they all keep fit and in form for the rest of the season.

Conclusion

The German team are very used to playing with each other and this is most certainly a positive aspect not every team can boast. Their ‘magic triangle’ will be necessary to unlock stubborn defences who sit deep and stay compact and is one reason for their thumping victory against the Netherlands. The defence is not the strongest, given that they have only kept 2 clean sheets in their 13 matches this year (one on Tuesday and one against the lowly Kazakhstan) and this will be explored in Part 3.

England 1-0 Spain: England frustrate Spain by sitting deep and staying tight and win through a set-piece

Summary

The match unfolded almost exactly as everyone had expected it to. Almost. Spain dominated possession, created many more chances than the home side, and spent barely any time in their own half. The result, however, as they have become accustomed to in recent friendlies, did not go their way, with the home side coming out 1-0 winners, thanks to a Frank Lampard header at the beginning of the second half.

England

Fabio Capello sprung a surprise the night before the match by announcing that Phil Jones, playing in only his second international, would play in central midfield, a position where he has played once for Manchester United and a handful of times for his former club Blackburn. John Terry, in the midst of a race row over comments he allegedly made to Anton Ferdinand, was an unused substitute. Capello elected to play Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka together at the back, with the out-of-form Glen Johnson on the right. Darren Bent played on his own up front with Theo Walcott and James Milner on the flanks in a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 formation.

Darren Bent was very unfortunate in my opinion, as he was so isolated in attack, yet he never stopped trying to run the channels and closing down the man in possession. Danny Welbeck, who replaced him, was more fortunate as England had grown into the game by the time of his substitution and therefore he received more support from midfield.

Spain

Spain, on the other hand, had their full-strength team out on the field. They lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with David Villa, David Silva and Andres Iniesta up front. The manager Vicente Del Bosque chose the 22-year-old Valencia defender Jordi Alba to play at left back, a position many believe to be Spain’s weakness. Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata, despite their sparkling club form, were only good enough for the bench.

In hindsight, I truly believe that Spain do not need a double pivot of Alonso and Busquets. Because they have so much possession (it was 71% in this game), no matter who they play against, I think they can afford to fit in a more adventurous midfielder, like Fabregas or Mata, and take out one of these two holding midfielders. This worked at Euro 2008, when Marcos Senna was the only defensive midfielder in the side.

Xabi Alonso & David Silva

One interesting aspect of Spain’s style of play was the use of Xabi Alonso. This is a player unique to the modern game, and he has no equivalent. This season, he has become accustomed at Real Madrid to dropping in between the two centre-backs when in possession, allowing their full backs to push high up the pitch. He is able to do this due to his fantastic passing range and acted almost as a quarterback for most of the game, spreading play out wide to the wingers/full-backs. Against England however, he regularly dropped in on the left of the three, perhaps wary of Sergio Ramos’ weakness on the left-hand side.

I don’t think I was alone in thinking that Iniesta and Silva would support the central striker Villa in attack. However, as had happened in their 3-1 victory over Scotland in October, David Silva played as a ‘false 9,’ the position Lionel Messi occupies for Barcelona with Villa cutting in from the left and Iniesta playing very narrow on the right.

This could perhaps be a ploy by Del Bosque to add a few tactical alternatives for Euro 2012, so that he can switch to a plan B if things aren’t going his way. In the same way, I believe the Spaniard is trying to mimick Barcelona’s extremely successful style of play, with Silva playing in the Messi position. He could if he wanted to field an all-Barcelona front six, with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets in midfield and Villa, Fabregas (false 9) and Pedro up front.

England stay tight and sit back

Spain expectedly had an enormous amount of possession but weren’t able to do much with it. In fact, Adrian Chiles on ITV produced the stat that by the end of the game England had had 3 shots, while their opponents had had 23, however they both recorded just 2 on target. This highlights the fact that Spain often became frustrated and had a lot of long shots out of desperation.

England did not press too high up the pitch, but sat back in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Scott Parker protecting the back four. To give credit where it’s due, all three of Parker, Jagielka and Lescott had excellent games and the latter two certainly justified their selection. They looked to try and counter Spain using the pace of the wide men Walcott and Milner, but they rarely got the chance and Spain defended well when they did.

Spain’s left back – a weakness?

There has been much debate about Spain’s left-back slot recently, as World and European champion Joan Capdevila is currently warming the bench at Benfica. The incumbent in this game, Jordi Alba, played very well and got forward numerous times. He linked with Villa and Silva well, although his overlapping runs were well tracked by Theo Walcott, except for one midway through the first half. Defensively, he was sound and he kept Walcott quiet by sticking tight to him and not allowing the Arsenal winger to get a run on him.

On this performance, Alba will be unlucky not to keep his place, although there are plenty of other options should Del Bosque wish to experiment before the European championships next year. Jose Enrique, the Liverpool defender and Nacho Monreal, who plays for Malaga, have both been mentioned as possible candidates although Monreal is being kept out of his club side by Eliseu, nominally a right midfielder.

Substitutions

Both managers made the maximum allowed six substitutions, taking advantage of the quality that was at their disposal on the bench. In terms of making an impact, Danny Welbeck, Jack Rodwell and Juan Mata stood out for me.

Welbeck twice ran at Gerard Pique, his former team mate at Man United, and both times exposed his lack of pace, something which has been covered up well at Barcelona. He looked to stretch the play and got a lot more support than Darren Bent, whom he replaced, had got in his 65 minutes on the pitch.

Jack Rodwell looked totally at ease, despite this being his debut and the match being against the best side in the world. He played alongside Barry (who had replaced Lampard) and Parker in a deep 3-man midfield, but was allowed the licence to push forward on occasion. In one move, he linked well with Welbeck but couldn’t control the ball as he approached Pepe Reina in goal. Like Phil Jones, he sees his future at centre-back rather than in midfield, but David Moyes at Everton has consistently played him in a ‘double pivot’ (the 2 in a 4-2-3-1) and he looked assured.

Juan Mata, a very similar player to David Silva, played on the right hand side of the front 3 and looked to drift inside and find space, which he did on occasion, but Parker was often there to plug the gaps. He was given more defensive responsibility after Spain had switched to a 4-4-2 (with his Chelsea team mate Fernando Torres and Villa in attack) but was shackled by another team mate of his, Ashley Cole.

Conclusion

As I said in the intro, Spain controlled the game but some superb individual performances by England, in particular Jones, Lescott and Parker, contrived to stifle the reigning World and European Champions. Neither Jagielka nor Lescott was dragged out of position by the ‘false 9’ Silva and they never left any space in behind them. Parker frustrated the likes of Silva and Iniesta in the holding midfield role and just ahead of him, Jones and Lampard had good games themselves. This wasn’t quite as bad as conceding 4 to Argentina or Portugal, and I doubt Spain will be worrying too much about this loss either.

Real Madrid 7-1 Osasuna: Madrid thrash depleted Osasuna

Real Madrid 7-1 Osasuna

 Real Madrid thrashed a severely depleted Osasuna side to go to the top of the table. The game was relatively competitive until the 54th minute, when the 21-year-old left-back Eneko Satrustegui was sent off on his debut, and Osasuna simply couldn’t compete after that.

 The Line-Ups

 For the hosts, there were only three injury worries, with Marcelo, Kaka, and Ricardo Carvalho missing out on the game against Los Rojillos. For most sides this would be a disaster, with these three players some of the best in the world in their respective positions, but to a team like Real Madrid, with tremendous depth in their squad, it was barely noticed. One positive was the appearance of Nuri Sahin, who I will write about later.

Osasuna, on the other hand, had almost a full team of players on the sidelines, either injured, or in one case suspended. Their entire first-choice back-line were injured, after Sergio and Marc Bertran injured themselves against Levante, Roversio nursing a long-term injury and Jukka Raitala picking up a muscle strain in the week. Right-winger Alvaro Cejudo also sat out the visit to the capital, having been sent off in the 2-0 win against Levante. Jose Luis Mendilibar decided to replace him with midfielder Javier Calleja and pushed Raul Garcia further forward.

 First Half

Jose Mourinho sent his side out in the usual 4-2-3-1 formation, while Mendilibar went for a vague 4-3-2-1, with Nino leading the line and Ibrahima and Raul Garcia in behind.

The match started out at a slow tempo, with Madrid expectedly dominating possession but failing to do very much with it. Osasuna sat deep and usually had 10 men behind the ball, while they played a defensive pressing game, squeezing the space for the Real Madrid players to work within. They hassled and harried the opposition and particularly packed the centre of the pitch. Mendilibar did this, knowing that Madrid would play with two inverted wingers in Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, and it worked for about 20 mins. On the other hand, using two inverted wingers does have a distinct advantage – it opens up a lot of space for the full-backs to exploit, which Coentrao and Arbeloa certainly did.

One interesting aspect of Madrid’s style of play was the use of Xabi Alonso. This season, he has become accustomed to dropping in between the two centre-backs when in possession, allowing Arbeloa and Coentrao to push high up the pitch. He is able to do this due to his fantastic passing range and acted almost as a quarterback for most of the game, spreading play out wide to the wingers/full-backs.

After a quarter of the game, Madrid had had 78% of the possession, but were moving it around too slowly to be able to break down Osasuna’s rigid defence. There was a clear change in tempo around this mark, and they immediately got their reward. Di Maria got inside the left-back Satrustegui and delivered an inch-perfect cross for Ronaldo to head in. Osasuna got one back totally against the run of play, when Ibrahima scored off a quick free kick while the whole Real Madrid defence were complaining to the referee.

It was not equal for long though, and barely two minutes later Di Maria delivered another brilliant cross from the right for Pepe to head in. Neither of the Osasuna centre-backs is very big (the tallest is 6”0) and so crosses were an obvious tactic.

Madrid had 42% of their attacks down the right-hand side, despite their best player being a left-winger. This was clearly a ploy to attack the inexperienced left-back Satrustegui, who looked nervous at the best of times. He stood off Di Maria on both of the opening goals and was probably relieved to be sent off, cutting his afternoon 40 minutes short. As Madrid found their stride, they began to put together some neat passing patterns as well. Higuain scored the third goal after a great move and this gave Di Maria 3 assists before half-time.

Second Half

The second half was dominated again by Madrid, who were one man up for 40 mins, and was not competitive at all. Their slick passing led to four more goals being scored, including a hat-trick for Ronaldo (his 12th triple for the Spanish giants) and there really wasn’t much to talk about, with the oft-used cliché “like a training match” coming to mind.

Substitutions

Osasuna took off their central striker Nino and replaced him with the defender Marcos Perez, with Ibrahima playing as the lone front man thereafter. Captain Punal was taken off for the centre-back Ruben, as Mendilibar attempted to stop Madrid going into double figures, while David Timor was a like-for-like replacement for Javier Calleja in the 86th minute.

Angel Di Maria unfortunately pulled up with what looked like a hamstring injury and was replaced by Karim Benzema. Benzema originally started off on the right-wing (where Di Maria was playing) but moved into a second-striker position shortly afterwards. The eternal struggle between Benzema and Higuain to be the team’s first-choice striker was probably won by the Frenchman today, as he scored two goals in 40 minutes.

Ozil was brought off for Callejon, meaning he has yet to complete 90 minutes in match this season. However, the most interesting substitution came in the form of Turkish midielder Nuri Sahin. Bought from German champions Borussia Dortmund for €10m, the defensive midfielder was expected to compete with Khedira to become Alonso’s first-choice partner in midfield, but injuries have held him back this far. I believe he will go on to establish himself as a starter, but he will clearly need more minutes to get his match fitness up to scratch and to get a good understanding with his team-mates.

Conclusion

This was another case of Real Madrid effectively killing the game off before the break and relaxing after it, even though they did manage to score more in the second half. The sending off changed the game slightly and meant that Osasuna had one less player to contribute to their counter-attacks, which in turn resulted in them losing the ball far more quickly than before, and so Madrid dominated yet another match.

Osasuna stay in 8th place, somewhat surprisingly as they have the worst defensive record in the league, letting in 24 goals in 11 games so far. Madrid have now scored 39 goals in their 11 games, conceding just 7 times and sit four points above second-placed Barcelona, who travel to Bilbao to face Athletic tonight.

 Next up for the leaders is a trip to take on Valencia, who currently sit 3rd in the league, while Los Rojillos host another Madrid-based side, Rayo Vallecano, currently 12th in the table.

Real Sociedad 0-1 Real Madrid: A Tactical View

This article was written for spanishfootball.info

Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side defeated Real Sociedad in a closely fought game that was settled by a first-half strike from the Argentine Gonzalo Higuain.

The Line-Ups

Jose Mourinho was without Ricardo Carvalho, Raul Albiol and Nuri Sahin for the trip to Sociedad, so he used Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back with Sergio Ramos moving to left-sided centre-back. He sprung a surprise by selecting Fabio Coentrao and Lassana Diarra ahead of Marcelo and Sami Khedira respectively, perhaps with one eye on their trip to Lyon in the Champions League in midweek. Higuain got the nod ahead of Benzema and Mesut Ozil was selected ahead of Kaka, who has begun to rediscover his Milan form this season.

For the hosts, regular starters Asier Illarramendi and David Zurutza were unavailable, as was Gorka Elustondo. Philippe Montanier, Sociedad’s coach, made a few unexpected changes in terms of formation and personnel. Illarramendi was replaced by Markel Bergara and attacking midfielder Zurutza was effectively replaced by the centre-back Mikel Gonzalez. This resulted in a change from 4-2-3-1 (which they’ve used for the other 9 games this season) to 5-4-1. Liassine Cadamuro replaced Alberto De la Bella at left-back, while the French wonderkid Antoine Griezmann and Imanol Agirretxe were left on the bench, with Daniel Estrada and Carlos Vela picked to play instead of them.

First Half

One thing was clear right from the first minute of the game, and that was that Real Sociedad were going to sit deep and try and hit Madrid on the counter-attack. It was also obvious that Coentrao was given almost the entirety of the left flank to exploit, as Ronaldo was instructed to play more centrally than he has been used to in previous games, presumably to try and help break down their opponent’s five-man backline. In the ninth minute, Coentrao received the ball on the left and found Higuain between the right-back and right centre-back with a lovely through ball and Higuain made no mistake, chipping over keeper Claudio Bravo. (They’ve won the last 67 league matches in which they’ve taken the lead, not a good sign for Sociedad).

Indeed, this is something that a lot has been written about recently, Madrid’s propensity to try and kill the game off before half-time. In their two previous victories (4-0 vs Malaga, 3-0 vs Villarreal) all 7 goals were scored before the 40-minute mark. Perhaps Mourinho is looking to the long-term of the final stretch in La Liga (presumably in a battle with Barcelona) and the closing stages of the Champions League, (as well as the two Clasicos against Barcelona) and is trying to keep his side as fresh as possible until then by letting them relax slightly in the second halves of their games.

Sociedad defended with two rigid banks of 5 (defence) and 4 (midfield), which could have isolated Carlos Vela up front, but Xabi Prieto often drifted inside to the no. 10 role when they were on the ball, with Cadamuro pushing up from left-back. Daniel Estrada, usually a right-back but playing as a right-midfielder, also pushed up to support the Mexican striker when in possession. The problem was, they were so often chasing the ball that they barely created any chances in the first half. Madrid had 70% of possession before the break and played most of the first 45 minutes in Sociedad’s half. They created a few chances themselves after the goal, none of them clear-cut, bar a Higuain shot straight at Bravo when one-on-one right before half-time. Key to Madrid’s domination were Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso, who barely missed a pass between them.

Madrid’s control of the game continued until the break, with Real Sociedad not having a single shot on goal in the first half.

Second Half

Real Sociedad came out into the second half looking much more energetic and motivated. As is usual in a 5-man back line, one of the centre-backs (they took it in turns) began to foray forward, creating an extra midfielder and creative outlet. The full-backs also pushed further up the pitch, with the 3 centre-backs spreading out across the pitch. It was a lively start to the second half and the match was fairly balanced.

Carlos Vela had a great chance on the hour mark but could only fire at Iker Casillas. Immediately after that, Antoine Griezmann came on for Estrada and Kaka came on for Ozil, who was poor by his standards. In fact, the whole Madrid side were relatively disappointing after half-time, and looked less dynamic and energetic than they have done in their previous high-scoring victories. Benzema came on late on and played on the left of the 3 in the 4-2-3-1 with Ronaldo going up front, presumably because he was fresh and would be able to track back more. Coentrao continued to give Carlos Martinez a tough time, so the Spaniard was replaced with a few minutes to go.

There was little of note in the second half, from a tactical perspective. Both sides continued in the same shape as before and there were practically no chances to speak of.

Conclusion

In the end, the game was settled within the opening ten minutes with a brilliant finish from Higuain. Other than that, there weren’t many good opportunities for either side and the match was pretty dull, both from a tactical point of view and a spectator’s. Coentrao was the man of the match as he dominated Madrid’s left-hand side, with Ronaldo playing more as an old-fashioned inside-left than anything else.

Mourinho will be happy with three points but his side were far from convincing on Saturday evening. There is plenty to work on, and it will be interesting to see who he picks in his team for the midweek trip to Lyon.

Montanier’s risk of changing formation and players in the end did not pay off, but his side showed good character and spirit in the second-half and gave Madrid a decent game. He should start Griezmann next game against Rayo Vallecano and will hope that Illarramendi and Zurutza are back for that away trip after their respective injuries.