In Depth Analysis of Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia’s last friendly before the 2014 World Cup was vs. Mexico in Chicago, Illinois. This match saw various improvements and new aspects to the Bosnian National Team. I feel it would be great to analyze the performance of the team within various phases of it’s own system. In this analysis we will look at the Defensive Shape, High Pressing/Pressing Attacks, Combination Ability, Positional Structure, Ball Circulation, and aspects of the Gegenpressing/Counterpressing of the Bosnian National Team in depth. I will focus only on the first half of the match. This is because quickly after the second half began substitutions began to occur. The fitness levels of the teams also dropped a lot in the second half of play, which made executing the systems a lot more sloppy (which could be an aspect to worry about in Brazil). Thankfully, the only goal of the match occurred in the first half!

Bosnia’s Defensive Organization

This aspect of Bosnia’s game has improved enormously recently. Some credit for this goes to the new players entering the starting lineups such as Kolasinac, Hajrovic, & Besic. Mexico lined up in a 3-1-4-2 formation while Bosnia was in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation which is newer for them as Bosnia usually played with two true strikers.

Bosnia forcing Mexico into an area dominated by Bosnia. Lulic and Misimovic enter a 2v1 duel with Reyes. Meanwhile, far side FB Mujdza performs interesting movement.

Bosnia forcing Mexico into an area dominated by Bosnia. Lulic and Misimovic enter a 2v1 duel with Reyes. Meanwhile, far side FB Mujdza performs an interesting movement.

Mexico manage to escape & are forced into another Bosnian pressing trap on the far side.

Mexico manage to escape & are forced into another Bosnian pressing trap on the far side.

Right from the very first minute Bosnia exerted defensive dominance with intelligent defensive movements. In the first image Dzeko forced Salcido into a pass towards the right side with his more left-tilting positioning in that moment. In the right sided area of the field Bosnia had a 6v5 if you include Dzeko & Salcido, or a 5v4 situation without them. Here Bosnia had the clear advantage. The 3 forward Mexican options were covered by 3 Bosnians in a man-oriented sort of fashion so that if the ball was received the Mexican player wouldn’t be allowed to turn. Coupled with that Misimovic & Lulic pressed Reyes while covering two of the options. Dzeko was oriented towards Salcido to challenge if a back pass were to occur. Here Reyes lost the 2v1 duel but the ball bounced Mexico’s way in a dangerous area & it allowed them to hold possession and switch the field. Another interesting aspect of this scene was the far side Fullback Mujdza was moving into the 6 space (Space where the traditional #6 would play, defensive midfielder) in order to aid Bosnia’s pressing structure & not allow Mexico to have numerical control of the center. Without this movement it would’ve been much easier for Mexico to enter Bosnia’s defensive shape in higher areas & create dangerous situations. Another important note is that Hajrovic was man oriented towards the Mexican left-wingback Ponce for the entire match.

In the second scene, Mexico play the switch ball into what seems a less pressurized zone – but really its another trap. This trap’s difficulty level to perform was made much easier due to the disconnected nature of Mexico’s shape. The 3 Centerbacks for Mexico and the Defensive Midfielder were deep during possession while the 8s (Mexico’s Central Midfielders), the Wingbacks, & Mexico’s strikers were very high up the pitch. Personally, i believe Mexico have excellent players with a lot of technical quality & such an approach is strange to see. Mexico had many players forward who tried making runs to drag and pull defenders around, while the other forwards try to exploit the space. This didn’t work very well because Mexico’s defenders were very easy to isolate and press into inaccurate passes.

Hajrovic remained man-oriented towards Ponce which made him look almost like an extra Rightback. Mujdza stayed oriented towards the Meixcan 8 – Pena. While Besic, Pjanic, and Lulic shifted across in accordance to the movement of the ball, blocking easy forward passes. On the far side Salihovic had no need to mark Layun as a pass to Layun would be very difficult to execute as well as being easy to read. So Salihovic tucked inside to help the compactness of Bosnia’s shape – so he could aid in the pressing of the 2nd ball if Mexico were to try a long ball down the center.

Dzeko first stayed in the center while Salcido had the ball, leaving Moreno and the left side completely open. When the pass was played, Dzeko quickly shifted across to press Moreno (meanwhile, Misimovic shifted across as well towards Salcido). Moreno was completely isolated from any close passing options or combination possibilities. All the near side Mexican players were marked as well. So when Dzeko pressed Moreno, Moreno was forced into an inaccurate long ball towards the center of the field in hopes of Mexico winning the ball due to a slightly higher concentration of players in the center of the field. This didn’t work, as Besic simply intercepted the ball and Bosnia began their attack.

*Note: Some of these aspects within Bosnia’s pressing resembles how BVB Dortmund pressed Bayern in their 3-0 victory, find my Analysis of that match here: http://adinosmanbasic.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/bvb-dortmund-30-fc-bayern-pressing-analysis/

Again Bosnia force Mexico into the open space which is actually pressing trap.

Again Bosnia force Mexico into the open space which is actually pressing trap.

In this scene we see another example of the Bosnian’s looking to isolate Mexico in the wide defensive zones. Hajrovic remained man-oriented towards Ponce. Pjanic, Lulic, & Besic once again shift across the field in relation to the ball again, with Pjanic blocking Pena while Mujdza marks him from behind. This time we see Salihovic on the opposite side of the field move into the 6 space to mark Mexico’s far 8 (Herrera) & provide stability in Bosnia’s defensive shape.

Dzeko was once again tilted towards one side (this time the right of Mexico) in order to force the ball in the opposite direction. Misimovic performed the same movement Dzeko did earlier when performing this trap. He remained in the center of the pitch leaving the flank open. When the ball was played he then quickly closed down the isolated Moreno, who tried a ball into Pena. Pena was in a 2v1 duel vs. Mujdza & Pjanic who won the ball.

Again Bosnia look to isolate the Mexican wide defenders, though this time there was an option for Moreno. Bosnia managed the situation and pushed Mexico out of their shape.

Again Bosnia look to isolate the Mexican wide defenders, though this time there was an option for Moreno. Bosnia managed the situation and pushed Mexico out of their shape.

Again the ball was played out to Moreno. Mujdza took up a position as if he were a 6 while Hajrovic looked like a FB marking Ponce. Besic was oriented towards Vazquez while Pjanic marks Herrera. Lulic & Salihovic leave the far side open in order to improve Bosnia’s compactness.

This time Ponce dropped deeper in order to provide a pass option to Moreno. Misimovic wasn’t able to apply good enough pressure so Moreno was able to play the ball. Ponce received the pass but Hajrovic didnt allow a turn, while Mujdza blocked any inside pass possibility. Ponce was only able to return the ball to Moreno as Misimovic was running backwards to help Hajrovic pressure Ponce. Once Moreno received the ball back he could only play it backwards because he had no forward options. Bosnia successfully pushed Mexico out of their defense.

You may be thinking: “Why doesn’t one of the forwards attempt a diagonal run into the flank & receive a long ball in open space?” or “Why doesn’t the winger who drops (Ponce, for example) try to do a 1 touch lay off or ‘hook’ pass (a pass while turning the body & beginning run for a wall pass return)?”

Good questions, Mexico actually tried both of these methods and ran into some problems. When Mexico played long balls into the flanks for their strikers the strikers became quickly isolated. By the time the ball was controlled if it was a good quality pass Bosnia already shifted their defensive shape across the field and put a lot of pressure on the striker. The striker either lost the ball or attempted a cross which was inaccurate.

When the wide man who received the vertical pass & attempted a lay off pass into the center Mexico lost the ball immediately. The pass is quite easy to read & with everyone being so tightly marked (along with Bosnia’s defensive shape being compact meaning more players around the ball) it is easy to tackle the ball away and begin an attack. This means Mexico’s only answer would be to position their players differently in possession.

Nearing the end of the half Salcido had an interesting role. He was moved to the right side & was allowed to move freely. He moved across the pitch which improved Mexico's structure. Besic pressured Pena who passed it to Salcido, Besic continued his arching run & end up following the pass towards Moreno.

Nearing the end of the half Salcido had an interesting role. He was moved to the right side & was allowed to move freely. He moved across the pitch which improved Mexico’s structure. Besic pressured Pena who passed it to Salcido, Besic continued his arching run & ended up following the pass towards Moreno.

Moreno played the ball back to Salcido due to a lack of options. Besic drifted off of Moreno while Mujdza oriented toward Pena inside. When Salcido received the ball Dzeko pressured him, causing a pass back to Moreno which Hajrovic intercepted.

Moreno played the ball back to Salcido due to a lack of options. Besic drifted off of Moreno while Mujdza oriented toward Pena inside. When Salcido received the ball Dzeko pressured him, causing a pass back to Moreno which Hajrovic intercepted.

These scenes highlight Bosnia’s defensive awareness. A graphic doesn’t truly do this scene justice, but i will try. Salcido’s interesting movement actually really improved Mexico’s positional structure & gave them the potential to play into Bosnia’s shape and create. This makes it even more impressive that Bosnia was able to force Mexico into losing the ball in such a quick & intense environment. Besic’s initial arching pressing run immediately blocked Mexico off from the inside of the field, forcing them wide. With less space out wide Mexico found it more difficult to find passing options. During this time Mujdza oriented towards Pena and blocked an inside pass. Besic positioned himself after his run to block any diagonal inside passes, while Hajrovic was still with Ponce. Moreno then passed back to Salcido. When Salcido was receiving the ball both Hajrovic and Dzeko realized they can force Salcido into a predictable pass thats easy to intercept.

Dzeko immediately pressed Salcido from the side to not allow a turn or time on the ball, forcing his vision of the field towards the flanks. Hajrovic began running in anticipation for the predictable pass to Moreno. Hajrovic intercepted the ball and began running up the field. This moment was excellent in displaying Bosnia’s pressing intelligence as a group.

As I said earlier, Bosnia has improved a lot in this aspect of their game. Their defense (including high pressing) was their main source of creating good chances.

Bosnia’s High Pressing/Pressing Attacks

Bosnia only performed high pressing movements during Mexico’s goal kicks or when a pressing trigger occurred. This is another aspect of Bosnia’s game that improved a lot from recent matches. Previously the pressing was uncoordinated & easy to break by finding an open vertical pass. Now the pressing is very well coordinated and Bosnia caused many turnovers higher up the pitch.

When Mexico had a goal kick Bosnia made sure all short options had a man loosely oriented on them, while leaving Mexico's left open. The far side FB always tucked inside to help the team's compactness while leaving the wing open.

When Mexico had a goal kick Bosnia made sure all short options had a man loosely oriented on them, while leaving Mexico’s left open. The far side FB always tucked inside to help the team’s compactness while leaving the wing open.

Salcido received a pass from the keeper to the right. Lulic pressed him not allowing Salcido’s vision to face forward & possibly play Layun. Dzeko and Misimovic were loosely oriented on Moreno and Reyes, not allowing them to receive the pass. Hajrovic stayed quite a large distance off of Ponce as to lure Mexico into playing him the pass so he could be closed down. Talavera wasn’t pressured as pressing the keeper can be a very unstable decision. Pressuring the keeper has to be done extremely well as  Talavera immediately counts as an extra player against pressure. Talavera makes it 11 in possession vs Bosnia’s 10 pressuring (as Begovic doesn’t help pressure). The best passing keepers can immediately take advantage of this numerical superiority, & Mexico has somewhat of a history of good passing keepers (particularly in 2006 where Guardiola said he fell in love with the Mexican team). Talavera played the ‘obvious’ pass to Ponce & Hajrovic immediately presses him while all options are covered. Salihovic realized the play was moving to the opposite side of the field, so decided to tuck inside & help the team stay compact to win any long passes. He left Layun and the opposite flank open, but of course the pass to Layun is very risky and difficult. Ponce under pressure attempted a long pass to Jimenez.

Sunjic applied intense pressure from behind to not allow Jimenez to coordinate himself for a jump and header challenge. Pjanic, Besic, and Mujdza were all goal side of their opponents which created a 4v1 duel vs Jimenez. Bosnia easily won the second ball that bounced off of the first challenge by great positioning & pressure on the targeted area. Due to Salihovic tucking inside, even if the ball bounced in favor of Mexico Bosnia would still have a 6v5 situation if you include Salihovic & Spahic who was marking Chicharito in the immediate area.

Another goal kick for Mexico. The same principles from the first scene apply here.

Another goal kick for Mexico. The same principles from the first scene apply here.

This scene is slightly different. This time Mexico had less short options to play out of the back to, probably in order to establish more of a presence farther up top if pressed into a long ball. Hajrovic again coaxed Talavera into passing to Ponce. Hajrovic immediately closed down Ponce, forcing him into an inaccurate pass. This is an aspect that Mexico didn’t plan for when they decided to commit more people forward when building from the back with shorter passes. The dynamics of the game.

Mexico did have more players forward, but Ponce was pressured in a way that didnt allow Mexico to gain any sort of advantage from that. First off, you can notice in the area of Salihovic & Lulic, Mexico have a 3v2 situation. Bosnia managed the space in a way that made Mexico pass to the seemingly obvious choice, Ponce. When Hajrovic pressed Ponce, he did it with incredible space and in a jockeying motion. While jockeying the player’s body covers much more space & casts a bigger cover shadow. Hajrovic pressed from the inside to the outside here. This coupled with the intensity speed and agility put Ponce under immense pressure & forced him to the outside. He attempted a difficult pass (but the only slightly open chance) to Pena. Pjanic was already anticipating the obvious pass to Pena and tackled from behind to win the ball. This scene showed the great 1v1 pressing ability in duels from Hajrovic.

This scene shows a Bosnia pressing attack that occurred due to a pressing trigger that happened.

This scene shows a Bosnia pressing attack that occurred due to a pressing trigger that happened.

The continuation of the pressing attack from the previous scene, forcing Mexico back & eventually losing possession.

Continuation of the pressing attack from the previous scene, forcing Mexico back & eventually losing possession.

Moreno played the ball to Salcido who was the ‘free man’ here. Misimovic was more oriented towards Reyes in this scene, so Salcido began to carry the ball forward between the two forwards. Pjanic was oriented towards Vazquez and took him away as a passing option for Salcido. Besic was deeper to cover any vertical passing options. Once Salcido dribbled forward into this area concentrated with Bosnian players the Bosnians took up a loose asymmetrical shape. This shows that they were all on the same page & understood their roles to the extent that they knew how much they could ‘freestyle’ their positioning in certain moments. The most important fact is to always keep the principles of the defensive organization, which was to not allow anyone inside & constantly force Mexico back.

You may be thinking: “But Pena is alone to his left, & Herrera/Layun are open for a pass as well!” Another good thought. The way Bosnia began to slowly close down on Salcido was forcing him to the left, which made a pass to the seemingly open right side incredibly difficult. It would probably be an inaccurate pass, as well as easy to read for Lulic, Besic, and Salihovic. Pena on the left was seemingly open as well. Though Dzeko’s positioning coupled with Pjanic’s pressure on Vazquez made this angle incredibly tight. If Pena received the ball Mujdza wouldn’t allow a turn & Bosnia would shut a pressing trap on him with the surrounding players. That situation might have been successful if it were Busquets making the pass & Messi receiving. They are some of the best players in history & even they would probably avoid such a pass.

Dzeko looking to tighten the angle for a vertical pass freed Moreno up slightly, who was connected to Mexico’s left side. As you remember, this is the area where Bosnia looked to isolate Mexico most often.

In the second part of the scene you will see that once the pass was played to the open Ponce Hajrovic immediately closed him down. The Bosnian midfield shifted across once again so that Pjanic was blocking a forward pass to Pena (who was also marked by Mujdza) & so that Besic was oriented on Vazquez, leaving the unplayable far side more vulnerable. Pjanic and Hajrovic began closing down Ponce very quickly & since Dzeko was oriented towards Moreno his only option was a difficult pass across the center to Salcido. When the pass to Salcido occurred Misimovic & Lulic immediately realized they had Mexico isolated and unbalanced in possession. Misimovic closed down Salcido while Lulic blocked any out pass to Reyes, forcing the ball back to the keeper under continued pressure which led to a turnover by a lob out of bounds.

This is a great example of some the key elements of defense. It isn’t about covering every space for the opponent, but knowing how to compromise & which spaces to allow the opponent. This way you can control the movement & eventually execute a defensive attack to recover the ball. It also shows that cliché factors such as aggressiveness and will are needed for good defense. A defensive phase can last a long while & when an opportunity arose the players had to attack viciously and quickly to make the Mexicans panic.

Bosnia’s Combination Ability/Ability to escape Gegenpress

Bosnia has had trouble being able to combine quickly to escape pressure when they first win the ball & the opponent gegenpress to immediately win it back. A lot of times the Bosnian players aren’t positioned correctly to create options for the player who won the ball & become easily isolated & lose the ball in dangerous areas. Sometimes individual quality is also lacking & they cant keep control of the ball under pressure with high ball speed. This rarely occurred in this match but i feel it could be a lingering problem for the squad.

*Note: Here is an excellent video by AllasFCB highlighting the Spain U21 team’s combination ability and ability to escape pressure of the opponent. This is how the best players do it. 

The Mexican goalkeeper kicks it long & Salihovic passes the ball to Lulic with his first touch & Lulic returns with his first touch. Meanwhile, the Mexicans are quickly closing in to regain the ball.

The Mexican goalkeeper kicks it long & Salihovic passes the ball to Lulic with his first touch & Lulic returns with his first touch. Meanwhile, the Mexicans are quickly closing in to regain the ball.

Salihovic returns the ball again and Lulic becomes isolated & loses the ball. Fortunately for the Bosnians it went out of bounds. Meanwhile, the Bosnians had an advantage on the far side of the pitch.

Salihovic returns the ball again and Lulic becomes isolated & loses the ball. Fortunately for the Bosnians it went out of bounds. Meanwhile, the Bosnians had an advantage on the far side of the pitch.

The scene begins with another Mexican goal kick. This time they decide to skip the short passes out of defense & go straight to the forwards area (something that Bosnia has begun to do in order to avoid pressure as well). Salihovic easily intercepts it & passes it to Lulic with his first controlling touch. Lulic immediately returns the pass as he was probably told there was no turn possibility.

The Mexicans gegenpressed well, even Chicharito came back to aid the press. Instead of combining and finding a way across the pitch, Salihovic returns the ball to Lulic who was immediately closed down. Lulic held up the ball 2v1 and eventually it was kicked out for a Bosnian throw in. Similar to Bosnia in the earlier scenes, Mexico left the far side open in order to obtain near side superiority & local compactness. The difference though is that Bosnia still had routes to move the ball in a controlled & quick fashion to their advantageous side. Though they weren’t able to do it because Lulic took too long on the ball & Salihovic wasn’t looking to attempt a pass to connect Bosnia across. This is an example of the very few times Bosnia struggled to escape the gegenpress in this match.

Salihovic intercepts a hopeful ball to the flank in this scene & plays a ball out to Lulic immediately. Mexico does well to close down. Lulic plays an incredible long diagonal to Dzeko who flicks it back to Misimovic. Misimovic half-volleys to ball across into the open space for Mujdza to progress the team up the pitch and obtain match control.

Salihovic intercepts a hopeful ball to the flank in this scene & plays a ball out to Lulic immediately. Mexico does well to close down. Lulic plays an incredible long diagonal to Dzeko who flicks it back to Misimovic. Misimovic half-volleys to ball across into the open space for Mujdza to progress the team up the pitch and obtain match control.

Here Bosnia shows off their excellent technical quality in ball control & passing when escaping the gegenpress. When Salihovic intercepted and immediately played a ball ahead to Lulic, Mexico had done a great job of closing down options & isolating Lulic. Lulic played an excellent long pass inside that required incredible accuracy to fit in such a space. Dzeko controlled it as it bounced in the air, he then flick it back to Misimovic who was on the opposite side of the initial Mexican pressure on Lulic so his field of vision was facing the open space. Misimovic then played a half volley into the open space to Mujdza who ran up the field causing Mexico to retreat. This allowed Bosnia to settle into a controlled position for possession.

An obvious aspect of this scene is that it is incredibly difficult to pull off. Bosnia relied a lot on longer forward passes to Dzeko who has excellent technical quality and physical presence. Dzeko is able to posture up and control passes against the pressure of opponent center backs very often, but will it work in every match? Bosnia will have to rely a bit more on their positioning & quickness of movement with high speed passing to avoid such situations in some future situations, but that is something they have struggled with.

Misimovic is able to play an uncontrolled ball out to Lulic under pressure. Mismiovic began making an overlapping run & Salcido joined Layun in pressuring Lulic in hopes of winning the 2v1 duel.

Misimovic is able to play an uncontrolled ball out to Lulic under pressure. Mismiovic began making an overlapping run & Salcido joined Layun in pressuring Lulic in hopes of winning the 2v1 duel.

Salcido was initially pressuring Misimovic & Misimovic was able to play the ball out to Lulic facing him towards the sideline. As Misimovic was making an overlapping run Salcido made the intelligent decision to join Layun in a quick 2v1 duel & leave Misimovic open. This would most likely result in a Mexico victory in the duel correct? No. Lulic was able to use his body and keep the ball on the far side of the defenders while using his near side arm to push stiffly away from the pressure for momentary relief. In this moment he was able to turn with his body and play a flicked pass through to Misimovic. This highlights Lulic’s incredible ability under pressure. Once Misimovic received the ball he was joined by Dzeko & Hajrovic in a 3v3 situation. This ended in one of the best chances of the game as Pjanic made a late run and barely missed a great cross by Hajrovic. If a team has the technical quality to beat a press, spaces begin to open & dangerous chances are created. It is well known that a lot of talent out of the Balkans (more popularly Croatia) are very technical players.

Another brilliant combination & pressure escape with a long ball to Dzeko who flicks it to Besic. Besic then plays it out to the advantageous area.

Another brilliant combination & pressure escape with a long ball to Dzeko who flicks it to Besic. Besic then plays it out to the advantageous area.

We have yet another incredible moment of gegenpressing escape. Salihovic plays a long ball from a throw in to Dzeko, who has pressure on his back. This area is clearly dominated by Mexican players. Dzeko is still able to control the ball and flick it over to Besic and lead him towards the open side. Similar to Misimovic in the earlier scene Besic was on the outside of the initial Mexican pressure so when Dzeko was able to avoid pressure and control the ball, Besic’s positioning all of a sudden becomes incredibly advantageous for Bosnia’s possession. This is the risk when pressuring a team with great technical quality. He controls the ball & plays it out to Mujdza who advances the team yet again.

Dzeko has been the main ingredient & the head ‘escape artist’ for Bosnia in pressure situations. Similar to how Ibrahimovic has the ability to control a lot of high long passes under pressure, Dzeko does the same. Manchester City fans don’t need to be told about Dzeko’s great technical ability. But one must question how reliable such an approach is when facing the very best pressuring squads with world class center backs.

Bosnia’s Positional Structure & Ball Circulation

This aspect of Bosnia’s game is what caused them to have the most problems during the game, as most teams do. A lot of teams have positioning & circulation that isn’t the most efficient for the form of pressure/defense they are facing. Offense is definitely the more abstract phase of the game and therefore could be considered much more complex in that sense. Bosnia had the opportunity to open very promising spaces for a more controlled & dominant attack but failed to execute or looked for some other way to attack. This is possibly due to their coach (Safet Susic) communicating to the team that he wants them to focus more on switches of play through the wings/flanks & focus on more crosses. For this reason i feel the players sometimes avoid playing a more central penetrating pass in favor of a wide pass leading to a cross, while the attackers concentrate on the far side of the field. They concentrate on the far side of the field for similar reasons teams become compact on defense during a long ball, for higher probability of winning the ball, or the 2nd ball.

*Note: This form of ball circulation and positional structure is very similar to the approach of Real Madrid under Carlo Ancelotti or Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Real Madrid scored most of their 160 goals in the 2013/2014 season in this manner. See it here in this video. 

Pjanic receives the ball from the right flank (in perception of the Bosnians) & turns towards the opposite side of the field while being pressured. He plays a poor ball to Salihovic which ended a possibility of an interesting attack in that moment.

Pjanic receives the ball from the right flank (in perception of the Bosnians) & turns towards the opposite side of the field while being pressured. He plays a poor ball to Salihovic which ended a possibility of an interesting attack in that moment.

Salihovic returned the pass to Pjanic as his space was closed down. Pjanic has an opportunity to try to quickly combine with Dzeko vertically (or could've passed into the red space had there been someone positioned there) but decides to play the ball wide.

Salihovic returned the pass to Pjanic as his space was closed down. Pjanic has an opportunity to try to quickly combine with Dzeko vertically (or could’ve passed into the red space had there been someone positioned there) but decides to play the ball wide.

Playing wide is what the Mexicans wanted from Bosnia here, even momentarily winning the ball. Eventually Hajrovic creates space fo a cross to the back post but Mexico's 5-3-2 in defense had it well covered.

Playing wide is what the Mexicans wanted from Bosnia here, even momentarily winning the ball. Eventually Hajrovic creates space for a cross to the back post but Mexico’s 5-3-2 in defense had it well covered.

Pjanic received the ball from the right and turned to continue the flow of the ball towards the opposite side. In this moment had Pjanic played Salihovic forward while Herrera was on him, Salihovic would’ve been completely free (yellow arrow) to move forward & combine with Lulic or Dzeko or even shoot from the top of the box. The ball was straight to Salihovic and Herrera quickly closed Salihovic down to end a possibility of a vertical approach. When Pjanic receives the return pass he is facing forward with no pressure on him. There was a big space between Vazquez and Herrera. If Pjanic had played a ball to Dzeko he most likely would’ve been crowded out. If Pjanic tried to quickly play the ball to Dzeko and run forward to combine it would’ve possibly worked, though it would be hard to have enough pace to cover that much distance without Mexico getting into good positions.

You can notice that Bosnia had Mujdza, Besic, Pjanic, and Salihovic in the midfield in this scene vs Mexico’s 3 midfielders. The best solution here would have been if Pjanic had moved into this space and allowed the others to control the ball & play the vertical ball to expose the thin midfield. Instead, Mujdza was the man trying to provide the connection between midfield and attack, positioning himself slightly higher. Pjanic played the ball out wide to him immediately. When defending in the 5-3-2, Mexico leave the flanks in midfield very open so its easy to progress up the pitch through the sides. But when in a deep defensive block playing into this space is exactly what Mexico want. The middle is crowded so the natural tendency is to play the ball wide. It seemed as though Bosnia had a big overload on the flank, but Mexico shifted across quickly and condensed the space. Mexico even won the ball momentarily before Bosnia flicked it wide to Hajrovic in a 1v1.

Finally, Hajrovic creates enough space in his 1v1 duel to launch a cross far post. Dzeko and Lulic tried to orient themselves towards the back post with Pjanic coming from behind. This plays exactly into Mexico’s hands as they have a very populated back line and probably felt very confident with this method of Bosnian circulation. They won the ball but gave it away with a very poor clearance. This shows another aspect of danger when playing in this way. If Bosnia don’t get off a shot from the cross, they will most likely be open on the far side in the midfield. Most of the midfield shifted across near side to help combine and create an opportunity for a cross, while the attackers orient themselves towards the far post of the goal. If the cross fails then there is a big space to exploit and Bosnia isn’t structured correctly to execute a successful gegenpress and win the ball immediately. As Pep Guardiola has mentioned before, “The phases of the game cannot be separated.” This means if you have poor positioning and circulation in possession, you’ll have poor positioning when trying to press after you’ve lost the ball, which will cause poor transition defense.

*Note: Atletico Madrid had similar problems vs Chelsea in the 2nd leg of the Champions League semifinal before conceding a goal. They had problems with their positioning and circulation which translated to their defensive phases. Find my analysis of Atletico’s change in positioning and circulation here. http://adinosmanbasic.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/atletico-madrid-31-chelsea-ball-circulation-analysis/

Sgsin Lulic plays a very accurate pass into the center to Misimovic & then makes a run while Misimovic dribbles towards the flank while being pressured.

Again Lulic plays a very accurate pass into the center to Misimovic & then makes a run while Misimovic dribbles towards the flank under pressure from Herrera.

The Bosnians combine on the flank, eventually Misimovic plays it to Pjanic, who then plays it into Besic. Besic dribbles Pena & enters the advantageous area of the field for Bosnia & launches a shot that misses the target.

The Bosnians combine on the flank. Eventually Misimovic plays it to Pjanic, who then plays it into Besic. Besic dribbles Pena & enters the advantageous area of the field for Bosnia & launches a shot that misses the target.

Lulic has the ball on the flank and plays a very accurate threaded pass inside to Misimovic, & then makes a run down the flank. Misimovic receives the ball & begins dribbling towards the flank under pressure from Herrera. Herrera probably felt confident that he was shepherding the Bosnians towards the flank where Mexico could control the situation.

This time it was different though. Lulic and Misimovic combined & eventually Misimovic play it backwards to Pjanic who took up an excellent position to provide support to the attack. Pjanic then immediately plays the ball into Besic. This shows a big contrast to Bosnia’s earlier approach where they opted for the cross. This time they played the ball in a controlled manner into the middle into a dangerous area. This gives Bosnia a better chance to have a more dangerous attack & allows them to be positioned much better if the ball gets lost so they can win it back immediately with the gegenpress.

Besic does excellently to dribble Pena, which allowed him to enter the advantageous side of the pitch for Bosnia and create a dangerous situation. Bosnia here had basically a 3v3 in front of goal if you include Salcido. Besic lets off a shot that is off target, but the possession and circulation of the ball definitely boosted Bosnia’s rhythm and confidence on the ball. That was the best way to exploit Mexico’s defense while remaining completely dominant and control.

*Note: Manchester City faced a similar system near the end of the 2013/2014 season vs West Ham when they were playing to clinch the English Premier League title. They moved to the ball in order to move their opponents & create spaces. Eventually Samir Nasri received the ball with the opportunity to move forward & he let off a shot from the top of the box to give City a goal. Shooting from within 20 yards is quite common vs 5+ in the back as it leaves the midfield to be exploited while making the back line very difficult to penetrate. Find the video here. 

Hajrovic receives the ball and turns in a pocket of space, he dribbles forward and passes to Dzeko who laid off to Besic, attracting more Mexican players, then Besic kicks it out wide to Misimovic.

Hajrovic receives the ball and turns in a pocket of space, he dribbles forward and passes to Dzeko. Dzeko laid off to Besic, attracting more Mexican players. Then Besic kicks it out wide to Misimovic.

Salihovic overlaps while Misimovic turns with the ball. Misimovic plays the ball forward and then makes a vertical run. Lulic plays an excellent pass inside once again towards Hajrovic who had extra space due to Misimovic's run.

Salihovic overlaps while Misimovic turns with the ball. Misimovic plays the ball forward and then makes a vertical run. Lulic plays an excellent pass inside once again towards Hajrovic who had extra space due to Misimovic’s run.

Hajrovic takes advantage of the space created by the runs of his teammates. Both Lulic & Misimovic being moving into position to receive a cross.

Hajrovic takes advantage of the space created by the runs of his teammates. Both Lulic & Misimovic begin moving into position to receive a cross.

Hajrovic finds a nice pocket of space for himself and receives the ball on a turn. He begins dribbling forward and plays it to Dzeko who then plays it to Besic. These quick passing spurts within combinations while being pressurized causes Mexico to get closer and closer to the ball as they attempt to win it. The flip side of that is that the far side gets more and more open. Besic plays the ball out to Misimovic immediately & put Bosnia was in a good situation. Salihovic overlaps while Misimovic tries to hold the ball under pressure from Herrerra after he passes to Salihovic & receives a quick return pass. Instead of exploiting the far side of the field Bosnia decided to hold the ball and allow the Mexicans to shift over so they could target the opposite side.

Misimovic turns and plays the ball to Lulic then makes a vertical run. Lulic immediately plays the ball to Hajrovic who has some extra space thanks to Misimovic’s run. Hajrovic then begins to dribble forward and take advantage of the space he was allowed. Meanwhile, Misimovic and Lulic begin moving inside. Dzeko, Misimovic, & Lulic were ready for a nice short cutback cross, but the Mexican goalkeeper catches the cross. Cutback crosses are much more efficient form of attack than crossing into a crowded box, as we will see with Bosnia’s goal.

Bosnia’s Goal

Bosnia eventually scored a goal right before the halftime whistle. It came from their original approach. Begovic played a long ball skipping the defense and any sort of pressure in build up from the Mexicans. Once the ball was won they played an early diagonal to the far post. Eventually ending in a great cutback cross & a goal.

Bosnia positioned themselves well to win the 2nd ball off of the 1st challenge with Dzeko. Besic immediately played it to the open Dzeko. Dzeko played an early diagonal to the far post.

Bosnia positioned themselves well to win the 2nd ball off of the 1st challenge with Dzeko. Besic immediately played it to the open Dzeko. Dzeko played an early diagonal to the far post.

After securing the deflection, Lulic was facing away from goal. Salihovic made an excellent unmarked run into Halfspace (or halbraum in German). He then performed an excellent cutback cross to the far post area dominated by Bosnians for the goal.

After securing the deflection, Lulic was facing away from goal. Salihovic made an excellent unmarked run into Halfspace (or halbraum in German). He then performed an excellent cutback cross to the far post area dominated by Bosnians for the goal.

As i mentioned earlier, this approach is a bit riskier in terms of potential mistakes. Which is ironic as most would say a longer passing approach is more controlled than positioning more players forward and circulating possession. If Dzeko’s long ball in the first part of the scene bounced Mexico’s way when the Mexican player deflected it Bosnia would’ve been very vulnerable on the break.

*Note: Gegenpressing or Counterpressing is pressing immediately in defensive transition. It can be the key to asserting yourself in a match. For Bosnia they had much more control & dominance when they played in a more brave way in terms of positioning and possession. They were structured correctly to gegenpress immediately and control the match. Real Madrid also had a similar performance vs BVB Dortmund in the Champions League quarter finals first leg. BVB is known for their gegenpressing but it was Madrid who dominated the match, which is a good comparison as i said earlier that Bosnia and Madrid are similar in some offensive aspects as well. Find my video here. 

Begovic avoided building from the back & launched a long ball towards Dzeko. The Bosnians positioned themselves well enough to win the 2nd ball. Then Besic played the ball immediately to Dzeko who was open after drifting into space following his aerial duel. Dzeko turned and immediately played a long diagonal towards Lulic who was 2v2 if you include Salihovic supporting from behind.

The Mexican defenders deflected the pass and it bounced out wide. Lulic was able to get to the ball first and hold off pressure from the defenders. Salihovic made an excellent run into halfspace and Lulic played a no-look through pass. The far post was immediately populated by many Bosnian players. Dzeko, Hajrovic, and Misimovic all rushed into the box. They made sure to not venture too close to the keeper in order to be open for the cutback. Salihovic immediately played a sharp low cutback cross & Hajrovic connected well to score the goal on his first touch.

*Note: I also talked about the various effects of a cutback cross in the Atletico Positional Structure & Ball Circulation Analysis!

Conclusion

In the end, it was a very improved Bosnia side from what viewers were used to seeing. Though it was interesting to see Bosnia avoid the short building game in order to avoid pressure from the opponents and potential ball losses close to their own goal. Will they be able to consistently play longer passes to Dzeko even against the very best sides in the world? We can’t expect Dzeko to win every long pass & for us to win every 2nd ball against the highest quality players. It’s a dangerous game to play & we could become exposed in transition. That being said, Bosnia has some very excellent technical players & i believe they could control any team if they did the movements correctly. They have many athletes & great heart on defense as well.

Another thing to think about is the pace of the team in combination situations. Misimovic is a player who has had his pace & stamina decay with time, though still has excellent quality. Though in moments of high pressure he frequently loses to balls to tackles or isn’t able to move quickly enough to combine with his teammates out of pressure. It could be worth considering making him the #1 substitute for Bosnia where he can come on later in the match and have a much more successful run out. Players like Medunjanin could then fit into the lineup & help with his athleticism and technical quality. Maybe its also possible to move Salihovic higher up the field if Kolasinac starts and have both Mismiovic and Medunjanin on the bench ready to go. Though if Kolasinac plays central defender with Spahic Bosnia could have both Kolasinac and Medunjanin on the pitch at the same time with Misimovic as the substitute. This would improve Bosnia’s technical quality and athleticism tremendously as well as having Misimovic having much more success when other players are slightly more tired.

All in all the Bosnian team has improved a lot recently and should be an exciting team to watch in Brazil. It will be interesting to see if they stick to their wide circulation approach, which caused some inefficient ball movement from the midfielders where they didn’t know whether to switch the play or continue in the more compact areas for a cross. An alternative to the more wide approach is that they add more diagonality to their build up. In other words they look for more angled ways to penetrate the opponent defensive shape & expose the middle if they have to, or halfspaces. Most of Bosnia’s moments of success were when they were more connected and diagonal in their circulation approach. Drawing the opponents towards them with the ball then intricately exposing the opened spaces & ending in nice shots or crosses. Definitely a team to look out for.

 

Atletico Madrid 3:1 Chelsea – Ball Circulation Analysis

Atletico Madrid sealed their place in the Champions League 2014 final vs Real Madrid with a 3-1 away victory at Stamford Bridge. Until Chelsea’s first goal, Atletico were having problems with their ball circulation & with their positioning, which automatically translates into all other phases of the game. Then after Chelsea scored, Simeone and Atletico became much more aggressive with their positioning, which caused them to be much more fluid and dominant. Small positional details can completely stop or start great ball circulation, translating through to all phases of the match, and this Atletico victory was a perfect example of having to go a goal down to really begin asserting dominance.

Atletico’s Static Possession

Inefficient positioning of the far 6, causing problems.

Inefficient positioning of the far 6, causing problems.

For the time before Chelsea’s goal, most of Atletico’s possession game resulted in super tight combinations down the flanks, ultimately being controlled by Chelsea by being forced wide and contained.  Just as Atletico like to be extremely narrow in defense, they were very narrow vs Chelsea in offense with their “front 4″ shifting across the field together, relying mostly on high speed combinations and movements – though the structure of the team wasn’t adequate at these early moments to take advantage of these aspects in Atletico’s offense.

A main aspect of Atletico is that they do not occupy the 10 space (space where the classic #10 plays). Even so, they still control this area without anyone actually having to be positioned there. The space is controlled by the fact that there are so many players nearby that can enter it at any given time, & usually Atletico fluidly enter the space when needed. A main problem vs Chelsea was the passiveness in offense of either of the 6s to enter this space.

The passiveness of both 6s while in possession actually allowed Chelsea’s Willian to do a great job of occupying them both & causing Atletico’s possession to come under much more pressure than it should have due to the fact they were becoming disconnected from the other half of the pitch. As you can see Chelsea played very narrow, & condensed the spaces around the ball while leaving the far side of the pitch opened. In this particular scene Atletico ended up playing the ball out of bounds under pressure during their combinational movements.

I also highlighted what would’ve been a possibility if Mario, the far 6 in this situation, had moved higher and occupied a higher space. Depending on the movement of the Chelsea players in this hypothetical situation, options would’ve opened up. In my situation Mario receives the ball in a higher space from an inside pass by Filipe Luis, providing a connection to the far side of the pitch, where Hazard would have great difficulty marking so much space (as we will see in the future), or where Mario could also play a vertical pass to Turan and combine when an initial pass angle to Turan was much too tight.

Note: If you want to read further about Atletico’s ENTIRE system under Simeone (as my analysis is more about the importance of ball circulation & positioning in possession), with talk about aspects such as the control of the 10 space without occupying it – then check out this great analysis by my good friend, Rene Maric – (http://spielverlagerung.com/2014/05/16/atletico-madrid-under-diego-simeone-2014/)

Buildup Problems Early

Atletico's static positioning easy to cover.

Atletico’s static positioning easy to cover.

Atletico's static positioning results in predictable buildup & easy ball win by Chelsea

Atletico’s static positioning results in predictable buildup & easy ball win by Chelsea.

During buildup moments early in the game Atletico’s 6s again lacked the initiative to get involved. In this particular scene they stayed in their position, being easily covered by Torres and Willian, to the point where Chelsea’s 6s (David Luiz and Ramires) didn’t even bother applying pressure to them from behind to not allow turns, as they were confident that Atletico’s 6s wouldn’t receive the ball.

Torres applied passive pressure to whichever defender had the ball while staying close to the Atletico 6, Tiago. Willian focused more on Mario, at first Ramires began running forwards towards Tiago to provide extra security & not allow easy entry into the Chelsea shape. Azpilicueta blocked any possible pass to Koke, so Filipe played it back to Godin who then played a hard, fast paced ball leading Miranda towards the right.

At this moment Ramires left the higher spaces and began dropping into the near side 6 space next to Luiz, leaving Tiago and Mario completely unmarked, but unable to receive the ball due to their lack of fluid movement. Torres and Willian shifted across with the ball, staying more oriented towards the Atletico 6s, Willian was close to the ball so he applied passive pressure to Miranda to hurry his pass a bit more. Miranda then lobbed the ball high and long towards Turan in the right halfspace, heavily dominated by Chelsea players, who easily conquered the ball duel.

Passiveness of far 6 subtracted a circulation option & contributed to worsened counterpress in transition.

Passiveness of far 6 subtracted a circulation option & contributed to worsened counterpress in transition.

In this scene we find Atletico attempting their usual flashy and incredibly effective combinations again. Though it again ends in a failure in possession. Koke attempted a risky horizontal pass inside the deep Chelsea shape into Diego Costa, & it was intercepted by Ivanovic. These types of ball losses allow Chelsea to easily progress high up the pitch & if their transitional offense fails to yield a goal scoring opportunity – begin their offensive organization. When the ball is intercepted the Chelsea player already has a forward field of vision & therefore can see the entire field which allows him to perform dribbles easier and make less mistakes in transition. Because the far 6 is so deep, Atletico do have a more secure structure in defense in terms of numbers retreating backwards. The key word here is retreating, they do not want to be moving back into their own half.

Again I demonstrated a possible situation if the far 6 had moved into the higher space, Koke could’ve circulated the ball through Tiago into Mario who would then have many options to play. Due to Mario’s positioning being farther away from the play, Atletico’s counterpress immediately when the ball is lost lacks numbers and depth. An important aspect of pressing is the idea of “through pressing” – meaning that even the opponents farther from the immediate pass options of the ball player must be covered for the most efficient pressure & highest chance of ball winning. If in this situation Mario was higher up the pitch & the ball was still lost, the counterpress would’ve been much quicker and more structured, instead of slow and lacking depth – which allowed Chelsea to easily progress up the pitch. Torres would still have been marked by 2 central defenders, one of which could have stepped up for an interception while the other covered in the event of a long ball (if too long its an easy sweep up job for Courtois). Though this more passive mindset is understandable seeing as it was the CL semifinals and Atletico were the away team, this is a great example of a time when an opponent might’ve been shown a bit too much respect in terms of Chelsea’s transition offense, making Atletico have a bit less swagger and aggression that they usually show.

After Chelsea’s Goal

More aggressive positioning of Atletico & involvement of central defenders in the attack immediately changes rhythm of the match.

More aggressive positioning of Atletico & involvement of central defenders in the attack immediately changes rhythm of the match.

Immediately after Chelsea’s goal Atletico’s attitude changed, in need of at least 1 goal. The very quick response time of Atletico to changes in the game is impressive and something we will see again. Immediately they became more fluid and controlling, with Koke and Turan roaming inside and Mario Suarez pushing up, leaving Torres 2v1 vs Atletico players instead of the previous 3v1. With these more aggressive positional movements, the midfield & forward lines became more populated & the positioning structure throughout the team was much more connected and stable during possession – which immediately translated to Atletico’s pressure when the ball was lost, having quickness to the ball, more aggressiveness, & a higher number of players within their press.

In this situation Koke received the ball from Turan who then moved forward after passing. Torres was more oriented towards Atletico’s left so Tiago & Godin were more dangerous options. Here is where Miranda stepped up into midfield and received the ball from Koke, who also then proceeded to join the attack, Miranda then played a direct pass into the highly populated and pressurized area by Atletico players, immediately showing signs of a more dominant Atletico team showing up to play.

Fluid Buildup

A deep tilting 6 splitting the central defenders creating a 3v2 with Turan & Koke dropping into halfspaces helps fluidity of buildup.

A deep tilting 6 splitting the central defenders creating a 3v2 with Turan & Koke dropping into halfspaces helps fluidity of buildup.

Previously Atletico had problems in the buildup phase of the game, but after the goal the Atletico 6s took much more initiative in possession. Mario dropped between the 2 central defenders creating a 3v2 now vs Torres and Willian, allowing more creative freedom from the defense. Tiago moved wide into the space between Godin and Filipe, while Turan and Koke dropped deeper into the halfspaces. Now Atletico during buildup had 8 players in an area where Chelsea were pressing with 6, not to mention the Atletico goalkeeper adding an extra option to the buildup.

Here a direct pass from Mario to Tiago in space was in danger of being intercepted by Torres, but due to the Atletico overload in buildup, Mario was able to play the ball forward to progress the team up the pitch into Turan, & Turan was immediately connected to the forward-facing Tiago, who received a lay-off pass & moved up the pitch with game control. This is in complete contrast of the earlier buildup example where Atletico were forced into a more risky long ball & lost possession, here they had Tiago with full field vision & time on the ball forcing the opponent to retreat. This buildup was much more controlled & allowed Atletico to have a higher chance of doing something productive with their possession vs Chelsea, who defended the long balls very well.

Atletico’s Goal before Halftime

Koke playing the ball wide to the excellently positioned Tiago who plays a vertical pass.

Koke playing the ball wide to the excellently positioned Tiago who plays a vertical pass.

Turan immediately lays the ball off for the inside run of the excellent Filipe Luis, who plays it to Koke then to Costa.

Turan immediately lays the ball off for the inside run of the excellent Filipe Luis, who plays it to Koke then to Costa.

Chelsea's narrow shape shifts across aggressively & Costa switches the play to the open Turan.

Chelsea’s narrow shape shifts across aggressively & Costa switches the play to the open Turan.

Turan attracts defenders while Filipe & Koke make runs into the box. The free Tiago receives the ball & plays an early diagonal into the onrushing Juanfran.

Turan attracts defenders while Filipe & Koke make runs into the box. The free Tiago receives the ball & plays an early diagonal into the onrushing Juanfran.

Juanfran performs and excellent cutback cross going against Chelsea's momentum & Adrian puts it in.

Juanfran performs and excellent cutback cross going against Chelsea’s momentum & Adrian puts it in.

This goal was an excellent display of the improved Atletico circulation. The team connectivity in important zones was apparent as the ball switched play many times, opening spaces and confusing Chelsea defenders. Koke again dropped to help the midfield remain adequately connected & circulated the ball against Chelsea’s 4-5-1/6-3-1 defensive shape to finish out the half – Chelsea had used this same formation vs Atletico in the first semi final leg & against Liverpool when they won 2-0 due to the infamous Gerrrard slip.

Here Tiago excellently positions himself in anticipation of a pass coming from Koke in the center. Tiago is positioned so that when he receives it he can immediately play a vertical penetrating pass towards Turan, and that’s just what he did. When Tiago played this pass Filipe Luis began an inside diagonal run, as usual with his False-Fullback movements similar to famous positioning of the Bayern fullbacks, though Filipe’s movement is more due to combination momentum rather than being a central midfield building option. Willian sticks closer to Tiago at this point in order to prevent a return pass, & Koke excellently positions himself to connect the team to the far side attackers. Koke receives the ball & then plays it into Costa. When Costa received the ball Chelsea’s narrow defense shifted across very aggressively in order to prevent any danger, though they over-committed to protecting the central zone & were uncoordinated in their movement – leaving Arda Turan open for a switch by Diego Costa.

When Arda Turan received the pass, Willian and Ivanovic committed to him, while Filipe made a diagonal run into halfspace, which i suspect was more to drag Azpilicueta with him rather than to actually receive it. At this moment Koke also joined the attackers already in the box, & Willian’s commitment to Turan had left Tiago completely free. Tiago received a return pass inside & played an excellent early diagonal ball into halfspace to the onrushing Juanfran who made a great diagonal run in behind Hazard. Once Chelsea’s defenders realized that Juanfran had escaped Eden Hazard, all 3 of Terry, Cole, & Cahill shifted across very quickly and aggressively towards him – & this ironically, is an aspect that helped Juanfran’s cutback cross reach the desired target. Adrian had positioned himself at the back post after the long diagonal & Juanfran’s cutback cross took advantage of the rushing Chelsea defenders’ momentum to play a cross against their direction of momentum making it incredibly difficult to stop the cross.

This is a main aspect of cutback crosses that is so interesting. The cutback cross cannot be offside & attacks the goal & defense by actually playing a pass AWAY from the goal! This is a very unique technique that results in many goals, as I’ve detailed in my earlier pieces. The fact that Atletico remained connected & the ball movement was quick through all those switches of play & to finish it off with an excellent cutback cross shows just how much their play improved after conceding.

Mourinho Changes Chelsea’s Shape – Simeone Reacts

In the press conference after the match, a journalist asked Diego Simeone:

“The fact that Chelsea introduced two strikers, did that help you?”

Diego Simeone smiled, and replied with:

“Great question. I think at the determinant moment Chelsea had the necessity to score, and they were probably going to bring on another striker, and that made it possible for us to bring on 5 midfielders. I think we benefited greatly from that and the fact that they had Eto’o, Torres, & Hazard up in the high line – that left a lot more spaces for us to control the game.”

Diego Simeone’s answer is great, and its precisely what occurred when Chelsea brought on another striker. The same moment that Chelsea were bringing on another striker, Simeone switched his Atletico side to a 4-1-4-1 formation, showing their impressive reaction time to changes within the game.

Atletico extremely overloading one side of the field to open space, then switching it again.

Atletico extremely overloading one side of the field to open space, then switching it again.

Juanfran again makes an excellent run into halfspace in behind Eden Hazard, cutting the ball back to Turan & Costa who were 2v2 & goalside of their defenders.

Juanfran again makes an excellent run into halfspace in behind Eden Hazard, cutting the ball back to Turan & Costa who were 2v2 & goalside of their defenders.

This goal occurred immediately after Atletico had been performing quick and intense combinations down the left flank, with many players. They were again very narrow which caused a massive overload, Atletico is perhaps the most extreme team in terms of compactness in all phases. The main difference now is that they remained connected to the spaces that they opened with their play. Atletico defend extremely narrow to one side of the field because they know they can commit so many numbers & leave the far side open due to their ability to not allow the opponent to switch across the pitch. In that same way, Atletico played very compact and quick on one side vs Chelsea, while maintaining their connection to spaces that they opened, be it in the center or on the other side of the pitch.

Tiago received the ball while free in the center again because Atletico shifted Chelsea’s defense to the left side. Tiago again saw that Juanfran was exploiting the space in behind Hazard with an excellent diagonal run, then Tiago played a long early diagonal pass. To which Chelsea players again rushed towards him, while the far side Atletico players rushed the far post and received a cutback cross. Turan and Costa were both goalside of Ramires and Ivanovic respectively. Turan then headed the ball against the crossbar & it came back to him, then he proceeded to easily slot it in the bottom corner for the 3rd goal.

Atletico again overload the left side, but play vertically into opened space in a different manner.

Atletico again overload the left side, but play vertically into opened space in a different manner.

My final graphic is an example of how Atletico exploited spaces they opened with their ball circulation & positioning in a different and effective way to the previous cutback cross goal assists by Juanfran. This time Ba was on Tiago, which left Mario Suarez free. After Atletico had dragged Chelsea’s defense towards the near side, Filipe Luis then played the ball back towards Mario. Chelsea’s midfield 4 had lacked compactness so Koke found himself in a pocket of opened space right between the two 6s. Koke received the ball excellently on the turn and was able to dribble past both Luiz and Ramires to enter the space between the opponent midfield and defensive lines. Here Atletico had a 4v4 situation & Koke played an excellent ball through to Sosa’s diagonal run behind the back of Cahill. Filipe Luis also made a diagonal late run into the box and received the ball from Sosa, chipped a cross across the face of goal, but nobody was there to finish.

Excellent Simeone

This was a well deserved victory in the end. Maybe Atletico gave too much respect to Chelsea in the beginning which threw them off their usual game. After Atletico conceded a goal the whole game changed and Atletico put on a great display. The rest of the game was a great display of aggressive positioning and intelligent circulation coupled with dominant control of the football match. Well deserved Champions League finalists, & possible winners.

BVB Dortmund 3:0 FC Bayern – Pressing Analysis

Borussia Dortmund caused a slight upset (to some) on the weekend by beating the dominant Bundesliga champions FC Bayern 3:0. This was quite surprising as Pep Guardiola hasnt lost a single match with Bayern in the league (until Augsburg the previous weekend) & the team was breaking all sorts of records. This was no fluke though, BVB accomplished this dominant scoreline through intelligent defensive movement.

 

Importance of Positioning & Ball Circulation 

Many believe (and most commentators) that Bayern play with too few defenders & thats why they are exposed on the break and concede goals, similarly to FC Barcelona. What most people miss is that having a small amount of defenders is not a huge risk at all, as long as you can press correctly.

To be able to press correctly & survive with only a few defenders, Bayern must be able to circulate the ball within the opponents half. Pep has said before that great positional play on defense comes from great positional play on offense, & a team should complete at least around 15 passes before their positional play in possession is good.

In possession, teams like to circulate the ball and move the opponents around, & when they finally take advantage of spaces they have opened by moving the opponent, it is usually played into a player who is attacking the opened space, while he has many pass/combination possibilities to penetrate through the defense (think of Messi’s wall passing sprees). A great spell of possession like that naturally offers many players on the possessing team in the same area. That is the key to a good press or gegenpress, having lots of numbers in a tight area to be able to close down the opponent immediately. If the ball is lost higher up and the gegenpress fails, the team who just lost the ball has extra time to transition backwards and stop a break, or the opponent will pass backwards if a counter attack isnt available, thus making it  not very dangerous at all to play with a few defenders, as long as the circulation and positioning are great. This is the key to how BVB stopped Bayern Munich.

 

Dortmund Defensive Shape & Pressing

Similarly to how Dortmund set up their shape against Real Madrid in the second leg of CL Quarter Finals (Analysis of the game by Spielverlagerung’s MR here: http://spielverlagerung.de/2014/04/09/borussia-dortmund-real-madrid-20/), Dortmund again began their shape by purposely having their 2 forwards lopsided towards the left, leaving an open space on the right side of the field for Dante.

Dortmund leave Dante open on purpose

Dortmund leave Dante open on purpose

When the ball finally reached Dante, then BVB began their pressing, Hoffman would press Dante as Lahm would drop between the 2 centerbacks and the 2 fullbacks played as False Fullbacks & moved into Center Midfielder roles in possession.

This press was very flexible in terms of which players marked which players, so i will show 3 different scenes from the early parts of the game to demonstrate the variety of the BVB shape. As a team they performed space-oriented defending (closing down spaces near the ball) while having some man-marking aspects within the movement.

Hoffman presses while covering Ribery, Sahin marks Alaba while Kehl marks Rafinha

Minute: 1:43 in the game

Neuer plays the ball out to Dante who is open, while Reus and Aubameyang roughly mark Lahm & Martinez respectively. Hoffman begins pressing while making sure Ribery is in his cover shadow. He covers Ribery while he is man-marked because if he didn’t Ribery could be used as a pass option that could allow different entry into the BVB shape. Mkhitaryan pinched inside while Kehl marked Rafinha & Sahin man marked Alaba, the false fullbacks. They made sure these 2 could not receive the ball and turn, because if they did then the Dortmund defense would have to drop much deeper as the Bayern player would then be higher up the pitch & have a view of the field so he could play a long ball over the higher line (pass possibilities/ranges become closer/more dangerous to BVB goal as he gained a view of the field closer to goal) , among other things. This would cause the defense to drop deeper & effectively ruin the press.

Gotze, Schweinsteiger, & Mandzukic were higher up the pitch but werent playable. Unlike the 3:0 Bayern win earlier in the Bundesliga season vs Dortmund, now Dortmund had Hummels in the back line. Bayern defeated Dortmund earlier in the season by having a much more direct approach to their 3 forwards & winning the long balls against Friedrich among others, because of Dortmund’s injury crisis earlier in the season. Grosskreutz, Sokratis, Hummels, & a more experienced Durm were much more competent in facing longer balls now & Bayern would most likely lose such a battle causing a transitional & open match, so they had to look more often for shorter buildup options.

Minute: 2:45 in the game

Minute: 2:45 in the game

Again Dortmund leave the defensive halfspace (& effectively Dante) open. Lahm plays a ball into Rafinha who is unable to turn because of the pressure, & he bounces the ball immediately out to Dante in space. Now Hoffman begins to press again while blocking Ribery, of course.

A variation here is that Schweinsteiger now dropped deeper in the midfield in the space a 6 would usually play. Now instead of just pinching in to protect his halfspace, Mkhitaryan man marked Schweinsteiger during the BVB press while Sahin marked Alaba & Kehl man-marked Rafinha.

Notice it is about a 4v4 up top for Bayern against Dortmund’s defense. Any ball that was tried to these players was contested as a situational man-marking moment (for example Gotze dropped & Sokratis followed him). Dortmund’s defender would either win the long ball, or pressure the Bayern player, not allowing them to turn, while this was happening the rest of the Dortmund team recovered back and pressed the ball as well. So this was naturally a riskier decision.

Minute: 7:45

Minute: 7:45

Here is another situation where BVB forced the ball to the open Dante. This particular press led to Dante kicking it straight out of bounds due to the pressure & lack of options. Again Dante receives it, this time from Neuer who received the ball from Lahm under pressure from Reus and Hoffman presses while covering Ribery. Kehl marks Alaba this time while Mkhitaryan marks Rafinha who was in his proximity. Sahin decided to mark Schweinsteiger as he drifted into a space where an 8 usually plays & could possibly drop quickly to receive the pass from Dante & move the Bayern team up the pitch.

As you can see, which Dortmund player marked which Bayern players changed a lot just within the first 8 or so minutes. BVB’s defensive movement was most importantly based on condensing the space high up the pitch and man-marking short options, each player would naturally mark whichever short option was in their proximity due to the positional fluidity of Bayern’s players, who constantly switch around with each other. Marking shorter options is key to the press.

Possible mistakes

There are a couple common mistakes that could happen during such a press.

If Hoffman blocks Dante from passing into Alaba instead of Ribery

If Hoffman blocks Dante from passing into Alaba instead of Ribery

If Dante would receive the ball in his open space & Hoffman pressed while covering Alaba as the short option, Dante could immediately use Ribery as a wall or different form of penetration into the Dortmund shape. Dante could play a long ball into Ribery’s feet & he would immediately pass it inside to the open Schweinsteiger (or Alaba if Sahin drops off). This would effectively allow Bayern to turn and have space near Dortmund’s goal. Then Schweinstieger could either play a pass through, shoot, or he can keep the ball to circulate high up the pitch as they just successfully penetrated Dortmund’s shape and forced them back (which would lead to a good press & easier defensive transition).

If BVB players marked deeper options instead of the immediate short passes during the press.

If BVB players marked deeper options instead of the immediate short passes during the press.

If Dante received the ball open & Hoffman pressed normally while covering Ribery, but Sahin marked Schweinsteiger (deeper option) instead of Alaba, Dante could directly play a pass into Alaba to turn. Allowing Alaba to turn there would effectively take 3 Dortmund players out of their defensive shape, this would leave the BVB defense very stretched. Alaba then has many pass combination possibilities. Such a moment vs FC Bayern would be absolutely catastrophic with their quality. This moment would end up in either a goal, a good shot, or again Bayern pushing Dortmund into their own half & circulating the ball which would lead to a nice gegenpress most likely & an easier transition in defense.

While watching the game it would look dangerous to leave so much space between the BVB midfield line & BVB defensive line open during the press. But, even if you leave a massive amount of space behind your midfield, if the opponent can not play the ball there – is it truly dangerous to leave the space open? As you can see here, it is okay to leave the 6 space, or any space open for that matter if you can press correctly & not allow the opponent into that space (See piece on ‘Dead Spaces’ & the Option-Oriented defending of Swansea City by Spielverlagerung’s MR here: http://spielverlagerung.de/2013/01/03/die-spielzuge-des-jahres-laudrups-elegante-schwane/) This concept is similar to the idea of Bayern having only a few defenders. If they are able to press correctly & the opponent never has a chance to get into an advantageous position against such few defenders, is it truly dangerous? If a team clears the ball, the ball is probably inaccurate & wont find the forward against so few defenders, or it will be too hard – & Neuer the ultimate goalkeeper would sweep it up. A clearance with the correct accuracy & pace is extremely rare & Pep (& Dortmund for that matter) obviously will take their chances  with that decision.

Klopp’s successful plan

In the end, Klopp managed to stop the buildup of Bayern Munich with his team’s defensive movement. Dortmund scored their goals in a transitional sort of setting (arguably not the first goal from the throw in, though it was a quick throw before Bayern entirely recovered). This transitional sort of game for them is obviously advantageous, they managed to stop Bayern’s effective ball circulation, blocked all the short options & didn’t allow direct circulation – which meant Bayern’s positioning for circulation high up the pitch was negated, they weren’t able to gegenpress efficiently, & it was more difficult for them to transition back as they naturally play with less players who predominantly focus on running back in defensive transition & stopping breaks.

In the end it was a great performance & a deserved 3:0 win for Klopp’s Dortmund

Halfspaces Part 2 & Mixed-Positions

HALFSPACES

In my last piece, I spoke about halfspaces (my last piece – http://adinosmanbasic.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/new-spaces-to-target-the-evolution-to-protect-them/). I mostly talked about the attacking aspects of halfspaces, but now i will elaborate and speak about the deeper halfspaces while in possession. Half spaces have many different effects all over the field, as well as having an important role in the defensive phase, but that’s enough information to write for a later piece.

Using half spaces in deeper positions while in possession is a great way to progress the possessing team up the field, and also penetrate the opponent’s lines. When in halfspace a player can either receive the ball in space unmarked and progress through the lines, or the player can be marked – which is where they can open some spaces.

Willian of Chelsea drifting into halfspace, opening central spaces - Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion from twitter for the Willian screenshot

Willian of Chelsea drifting into halfspace, opening central spaces – Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion from twitter for the Willian screenshot

Most of my examples will show graphics that are attacking against a team who is in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape, this is because its most obvious to see the effects of half spaces against these shapes (most of the time).

LCM drags marker wider to open central spaces & allow penetration

LCM drags marker wider to open central spaces & allow penetration, he lays it off to the DM who can play it through

In this graphic, the LCM (left-central midfielder) drifts wide into halfspace and receives the ball. This drags his marker wider than usual, stretching the normal length between the 2 central midfielders. This leaves a gap to progress further up the field into a dangerous area.

Augsburg player drifts wide dragging his marker wide, lays it off to the DM who can now play it through the midfield

Augsburg player drifts wide dragging his marker wide, lays it off to the DM who can now play it through the midfield

Augsburg had this approach vs Bayern in their recent domestic cup match. This allowed them to play a direct ball into their striker between the lines. This is because Bayern played with a 4-4-2 defensive shape, probably due to Augsburg’s 4-1-4-1. Bayern didn’t have their usual 4-1-3-1-1 pressing shape coming out of defense because Augsburg didn’t have a CAM (central attacking midfielder/#10) between the lines, allowing Bayern to leave the single striker to the CBs (center backs) and push up their midfielders, similar to their approach against Barcelona in their 7-0 win where Bayern would collapse on the ball & shut their pressing trap if the ball got in between the lines.

Bayern pressing high in a 442 shape, compressing the center. Because Messi is the only player behind the lines and a CB can mark him.

Bayern pressing high in a 442 shape, compressing the center. Because Messi is the only player between the lines and a CB can mark him.

As you see, this is a similar approach to how Guardiola approached the Augsburg game.

Bayern's usual pressing shape

Bayern’s usual pressing shape

This is Bayern’s usual shape when they press opponents (most opponents have a #10 between the lines). The DM stays deeper with the opponent’s CAM, while Bayern’s RCM marks the opponent LCM. Now Bayern’s LCM pushes up to press the opponent CB who is on the ball, while covering his assigned CM with his body shadow. This forms a sort of 4-1-3-1-1 shape while pressing, if the ball managed to get in the center Bayern collapse and shut their pressing trap. (Great piece on pressing traps within a 4-1-4-1 by Rene Maric – http://spielverlagerung.de/2013/11/06/beispielhafte-pressingfallen-beim-4-1-4-1/)

Halfspace player dragging winger inside

Halfspace player dragging winger inside

Another option to mark the halfspace player is when the opponent’s wide player comes inside to mark the player in halfspace. This opens space in the wide area for the possessing team’s FB (full-back) to progress through and make a run. With the FB moving up unmarked to join the possessing team’s winger, this forms a 2v1 on the flank vs. the opponent’s FB. This is an advantageous position because when the opponent FB is beaten, naturally the opponent’s CB must come out to meet the wide player, which leaves advantageous numbers in the box to score.

Some teams play in a defensive shape with 3 CMs protecting the center and halfspaces. In my last piece i showed you how Bayern used a lot of switches of the ball to be able to make runs through halfspace against Leverkusen (who play a narrow 4-3-2-1). There are various different approaches to open up spaces against a 4-5-1/4-3-3 defensive shape, but i will give a couple of my own examples.

Augsburg vs Bayern last year pushing the FB high & having the DM and Winger in halfspace to open spaces

Augsburg vs Bayern last year pushing the FB high & having the DM and Winger in halfspace to open spaces

Because a 4-5-1 has so few forward outlets, it is less dangerous for the possessing team to commit more defenders to the attack, which is a key feature for my examples. Though Bayern didn’t play 4-5-1 last year, my graphic is a situation where they were in such a shape

One approach vs. a 4-5-1 is to overload halfspaces, this is because they are already protected – simply standing in this zone wont have the same effect as usual because the player is already marked, keeping spaces closed. A particular form of progression Bayern, Augsburg, & others (Bundesliga is arguably the best league in terms of tactics) used last year did this very thing.

The FB pushes up while the DM drifts into halfspace, opening central space on the opposite side of the field

The FB pushes up while the DM drifts into halfspace, opening central space on the opposite side of the field

The FB of the possessing team pushes up very high, which allows the winger inside. One of the DMs drift into wide halfspace, this group tactical movement overloads this zone which moves a large concentration of players into one part of the field. One of the results of this movement is the opening of central spaces towards the opposite side of the field.

Alba makes a run into occupied halfspace, escaping Diego Costa in Atletico's 4-5-1

Alba makes a run into occupied halfspace, escaping Diego Costa in Atletico’s 4-5-1

vs. Barcelona in the SuperCup final, Atletico Madrid defended in a 4-5-1 shape with Diego Costa (a main attacking outlet) dropping to the left to mark Alba (so Atletico don’t get overrun in central midfield) on defense. Fabregas drifted into halfspace as the LCM, naturally being marked by the opponent’s RCM who is protecting the halfspace. Neymar had the ball wide against Atletico’s FB. This left Diego Costa to mark Jordi Alba, and Alba made a run into the already occupied halfspace. Diego Costa, who is normally a striker, was reluctant to track a run in behind the defense. This meant the opponent’s CB had to come out wide to meet Alba, leaving less defenders in the box. Alba made a cross to the far post where Alexis Sanchez barely missed an open goal.

MIXED-POSITIONS

Before i begin talking about mixed positions, it’s important to note the difference in distances when a player is pulled diagonally from one point as opposed to being pulled horizontally or vertically from the same point.

The different distances it would take to meet an opponent in different directions

The different distances it would take to meet an opponent in different directions

Diagonal pulls are always mathematically larger than normal vertical or horizontal pulls, opening up more space than usual.

5x5 square - use Pythagorean Theorem to solve diagonal distance (hypotenuse)

5×5 square – use Pythagorean Theorem to solve diagonal distance (hypotenuse)

Using the Pythagorean Theorem we can see in a 5×5 meter square of space (smaller scale of actual space on the field), moving horizontally or vertically from one of the corners would mean the player left his original point by 5 meters. If he left his space diagonally to the opposite corner, the player left his original point by 7.1 meters. This means there is an extra 2.1 meters created which is a huge amount of extra space in football. That extra 2.1 meters (again, this is a smaller scale) can provide extra time to shoot, pass, dribble, etc.

To prove this point, you simply use the equation A(squared) + B(squared) = C(squared) to find the diagonal length (C), which is how far a player would move diagonally. For this example the equation would be 25 + 25 = C(squared). When the square roots of both sides are taken it is found that C = 7.1 meters (amount of distance a player would cover diagonally).

Moving diagonally puts the player in between positions

Moving diagonally puts the player in between positions

Whenever a player leaves his position horizontally or vertically, he moves into another position within the teams formation (the vertical & horizontal lines of the formation), but if he moves diagonally, he is in between positions. This is called being in a MIXED-POSITION (co-named with Rene Maric – @ReneMaric on twitter).

18 zone grid of a football field, with mixed position zones highlighted

18 zone grid of a football field, with mixed position zones highlighted

When looking at the 18-zone model of a football field, these positions are usually found in the zones 4.5, 5.5, 13.5, and 14.5. Mixed positions aren’t ALWAYS in these zones, the positioning can vary based on how the opponents are set up (it simply means that the player is in between positions).

Highlighting the "between the lines" and "halfspaces" zones on the field, notice where they intersect

Highlighting the “between the lines” and “halfspaces” zones on the field, notice where they intersect

These positions are both between opponent lines as well as being in half space. These positions have the basic effects of both. While in halfspace a player drags opponents out of position to open spaces, and its the same for these positions, though it creates a bit more space. At the same time, the player is in between the lines so he can drag the defensive line out of position and even play a ball through, make a run, shoot, dribble, etc.

Neymar in a mixed position, in between many positions

Neymar in a mixed position, in between many positions

Moving into a mixed position has various impacts on the opponents. Whatever player gets dragged by the mixed position player to leave their zone will be unbalancing the defense in some way, providing an advantage somewhere on the field. There are various possible effects of being in a mixed position, I’m going to share a few examples of mine.

Robben pulling many players towards him in a mixed position - noticed all the space that is created from this

Robben pulling many players towards him in a mixed position – notice all the space that is created from this

The LCM gets dragged out of his position by the player in the mixed position

The LCM gets dragged out of his position by the player in the mixed position

The first example is if the LCM of the opponent drifts in a high-left mixed position (from his point of view). This opens a lot of central space and allows for a free CM to progress through into the space, he can then shoot, pass, or dribble. The exposed CBs have to decide which one will quickly press the ball player (if they manage to choose), it must be quick because a ball could be played into the unoccupied space.

The opponent's CB leaves his position to mark the player in the mixed position

The opponent’s CB leaves his position to mark the player in the mixed position

The second example is if a CB leaves his space to follow the mixed position player. This leaves a gap in the defensive line that could be played through. There is also another pass possible to the opposite winger because the CB that is left alone must cover a large amount of space on his own.

The FB leaving his zone to mark the player in a mixed position

The FB leaving his zone to mark the player in a mixed position

My third example is when the FB leaves his position to follow the player in the mixed position. This would leave the winger free, & on a larger scale – this leaves the possession team’s FB 2v1 vs. the opponent winger, if he tracks back. A ball can be played to winger or FB & if they beat the winger who tracks back, they can attack halfspace and pull opponent defenders wide for an advantageous number of attackers in the box.

The winger leaves his zone to follow the player in the mixed position

The winger leaves his zone to follow the player in the mixed position.

The final example is when the winger follows the player in the mixed position, this has almost the same effect as if the FB followed the mixed position player. It leaves the possessing team’s FB free, & on a larger scale – it leaves the FB 2v1 against the winger and the possessing team’s FB. The effects of winning the 2v1 would be the same as the previous example.

Willian of Chelsea in a mixed position - Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion on twitter for the Willian screenshot

Willian of Chelsea in a mixed position – Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion on twitter for the Willian screenshot

These are just some examples – in my graphics it shows the False 9 of a 4-3-3 moving into the mixed position, but many different players can move into these positions, and they can cause various different reactions from the opponents. My examples are just for you to get a better understanding of the effects of being in these spaces between positions.

New Spaces to target & the Evolution to protect them

Intro

Jose Mourinho always spoke about how the “space between the lines” was the most important space. He is even quoted saying so: “For me, the game between the lines is most important.”

Over time teams have adapted to protect this area by tightening the space their midfielders and defenders give between themselves. This space was one of the main areas that teams looked to (and still do) exploit in the attack. Lionel Messi’s False 9 role especially was about finding space between the lines and exploiting it.

Messi finding space in between the lines

Messi finding space in between the lines

When a player is in between the lines, he has passed the opponents entire midfield, and now he is only facing the back 4 of the opponents. There are so many options once in this position, a player can dribble at the back 4, he can shoot from distance, he can find a pass and play his teammate through, or he can combine with a teammate and make a run in behind the line. It’s very hard to defend against these options because you are caught in a flat back 4 line.

This piece was inspired by an in depth tactical conversation i had with a friend, Rene Maric (@ReneMaric on twitter) about the spaces that are targeted in today’s game and possible ways teams/players could evolve to solve these problems.

The Defensive Line

Before i begin talking about these spaces, it is important to know how a back line works. According to Arrigo Sacchi (Legendary Milan manager of the late 80’s), his defenders always had 4 references when defending. They referenced: The Opponents, The Teammates, The Space, and The Ball.

- The Opponents -

When referencing the opponent, the defenders must analyze how many opponents there are around them. If there are a lot of opponents threatening to penetrate the defensive line, the defenders should analyze this situation and drop their defensive line deeper. This is because when the line is dropped, there is less space for the attacker to run into behind the defenders and attack the goal.

Defenders analyzing the situation by referencing the opponents

Defenders analyzing the situation by referencing the opponents

- The Teammates -

When referencing their teammates, the defender must analyze how many teammates they have around them. If there are the right amount of teammates around the defender and in a solid shape, the defensive line will feel more comfortable defending higher up and leaving more space in behind. This is because there are more teammates than opponents so the defense can handle any attacks/runs in behind. Defending higher up also makes it tougher on the opponents because it will put more defenders higher up the field making it tougher to play through.

Defender referencing teammates and holding a higher line

Defenders analyzing the situation by referencing teammates

- The Space -

When referencing the space, defenders must analyze the amount of space they are leaving behind them. If the defenders feel like they are giving up a dangerous amount of space, they need to analyze the situation and drop deeper. When the defensive line is on the half way line, they are giving up a large amount of space, and if they are not very fast and there is a threat they can feel uncomfortable doing this. On the other hand, if there is not a dangerous threat to goal and the line is very deep, the defenders need to analyze this and push up the line to leave more space in behind. If the line is too deep then there will be a lot of space in the center that the opponents can expose, if the line is too high there will be too much space in behind the defense to exploit, so they must constantly change the depth of the line depending on the situation.

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing space

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing space *”to much” should say “more”*

- The Ball -

When referencing the ball, defenders must analyze the position of the ball and adjust accordingly. There may not be many opponents threatening to penetrate the defensive line, but if the ball is in a dangerous area where they can be played a good ball, the defensive line should analyze this and adjust the depth of their line. Some defenses might see this and immediately push up the line to catch the opponents offside. Other defenses will drop the line deeper to avoid the danger of the attacker running in behind. If there is only one striker trying to make a run behind the defense it doesn’t seem very dangerous, but if the ball is with an opponent in free space on the flank, the opponent can easily play him through, so this is dangerous.

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing the ball

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing the ball

The best defenders are constantly using these 4 references points Sacchi mentioned at the same time to decide how they will defend.

Cutback Cross Zone

Almost every team i have watched in any league have a tendency to not cover the top of their box when the ball is wide. This can be a result of either lack of positional intelligence or lack of work rate. This is an incredibly dangerous area to leave uncovered, so it’s amazing how many high level teams leave it uncovered.

Kroos scores against Leverkusen from a cutback cross in acres of space

Kroos scores against Leverkusen from a cutback cross in acres of space

When a team is running back towards their goal and dropping their defensive line (usually very deep into the box to not concede crosses in behind them), the Center Backs (CBs) should be about “arms length” off of the forward as Jamie Carragher puts it on his TV show – Monday Night Football. They should be slightly ahead of their man so they can effectively close down any option of the ball being played to them. Here in lies part of the problem, it is very difficult to read a forward & change speed/direction with him effectively (Thiago Silva is one of the best at this).

Thiago Silva keeps up with Messi and intercepts the cutback cross

Thiago Silva keeps up with Messi and intercepts the cutback cross

At any moment that the defense is running back towards goal, the forward can drop off and sit around the edge of the box, while the momentum of the defenders sprinting back carries them away from the forward.

Fernando Torres drops off from poor marking and scores from a cutback cross in the SuperCup final

Fernando Torres drops off from poor marking and scores from a cutback cross in the SuperCup final

This zone is where the Defensive Midfielder (DM) (& hopefully one more Central Midfielder (CM) helping the DM because the top of the box is too much space for one Midfielder to cover), should be covering the edge of the box. They should cover this area IMMEDIATELY! It is very important to protect this zone, if it isn’t protected the forward is sitting in free space to be able to shoot off of the cross. Many goals are conceded this way all across Europe’s top 5 leagues.

Even late CM runners like Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal can take advantage of this space. He scored a great volley vs Sunderland this way.

Ramsey exposes space at the edge of the box not being marked and scores from a cutback cross

Ramsey exposes space at the edge of the box not being marked and scores from a cutback cross

This exposes the of work rate CMs have in defensive transition, & also exposes if any CM/DM have poor positioning. The best DMs always cover this zone, the ones i constantly see doing this are the likes of: De Rossi, Busquets, Javi Martinez, and even Philipp Lahm when he plays as DM.

Evolution

All of the top DMs/CMs in the world will have to learn to always protect this zone with intelligence, and always have the work rate to get back into this zone when in defensive transition. Eventually all top clubs will have these type of intelligent & hardworking midfielders. I believe part of the problem is that a lot of Midfielders don’t see the importance of protecting this area immediately on the break. They think most of the danger will be dealt with by the defensive line, but in reality this zone is just as important.

Half Spaces

The final important zone this piece will cover is called HALF SPACES.

If you evenly divide the field into 3 vertical zones (left, central, and right), you would have 1 central zone & 2 flanks. Half spaces are the spaces between the flanks and the central zone.

Half Spaces

Half Spaces

Attacking this zone is an advantage because when you are in half space, you have a whole 360 degree playing angle. You can play to the left, to the right, forwards, and backwards. It is similar to being in the central zone, but less crowded most of the time. When on the flanks, players are limited to 180 degree playing angles. they can go forwards (down the line), inside (to the left or right depending on which side), or backwards. This means they are limited by the touchline, cause if they go over the line they are out of bounds and they give away possession to the opposition. It acts as an invisible wall defenders can press you against. Pep Guardiola even called the sideline “the world’s best defender.”

The playing angles available when playing in halfspaces, the center, and on the flank

The playing angles available when playing in halfspaces, the center, and on the flank

Making runs into this zone will expose lack of defensive work rate of Midfielders. Most Midfielders are very unwilling to track runs in behind their own defensive line.

Using Bayern as an example – This means if the Winger has the ball and the Fullback (FB) makes a run into this zone (just how Alaba does many times per game) and he isnt tracked properly, it causes the opposition CB to come out wide into the half space to meet the FB who is attacking, because the opposition FB is already on the Winger. Now that the CB has left the box, the FB (or whoever made the direct run into half space) can put the ball into the box with the only opposition defenders usually being the other CB and the opposite FB on the far post. This would leave the Striker (Mandzukic) and the opposite Winger (Muller) in the box vs. 2 defenders. Usually there is also an attacking interior CM for Bayern entering the box for crosses so its 3v2 for Bayern! This is how they scored vs. Schalke, and they constantly try to open up these zones with switches & attack them.

Ribery plays Alaba into Halfspace, Alaba is poorly marked so the CB comes out to meet him, leaving Kroos, Mandzukic, and Muller (off screen) vs 2 defenders for the goal

Ribery plays Alaba into Halfspace, Alaba is poorly marked so the CB comes out to meet him, leaving Kroos, Mandzukic, and Muller (off screen) vs 2 defenders for the goal

When receiving the ball in these half spaces, a player has many options. They can cut inside & shoot, they can play a teammate through from that angle, they can combine with a teammate and make a run in behind to pull the line apart, or they can cross. Being in half space also means that when this zone is attacked, the attack is closer to goal. This means its much easier to be accurate with the techniques being used (passes, shots, crosses).

Different ways to attack Half Space, With FB overlapping

Different ways to attack Half Space, With FB overlapping

It forces the opponent into almost the exact same tactical movements as if you were on the flank, but gives extra options. If you switch the ball from half space to half space the opponents will shift across the field, similar to when balls switches flanks, etc.

Bayern constantly use switches to open up half spaces. This is even more advantageous for them as they have Robben/Lahm on one flank & Ribery/ Alaba on the other, probably the best flanks on the planet. When the ball is switched, the CM/DM who should be protecting the zone in front of the CB+FB (halfspace) hasnt shifted completely across yet, so the zone is open for an unmarked attack.

Alaba attacking half space with a direct run after the ball is switched

Alaba attacking half space with a direct run after the ball is switched

My friend Rene Maric has an excellent analysis of the Bayern Munich vs. Leverkusen match on Spielverlagerung (http://spielverlagerung.de/2013/10/06/bayer-04-leverkusen-bayern-munchen-11/). He talks about how Bayern would switch the ball constantly to be able to open up the half spaces before Alaba would attack the space. This is because Leverkusen plays in a narrow 4-3-2-1 (the shape i modeled the blue team above on is Leverkusen in Rene’s piece) formation & defends these central and half space zones very well with their 3 CMs. Bayern had to switch the ball a lot to open up the spaces.

This is a very dangerous area that Bayern in particular are amazing at exposing, it exposes the lack of work rate of midfielders to track runs from deep by CMs or FBs like Alaba or Lahm.

Evolution

The evolution that came to mind from my conversations with Rene Maric was that when the Midfielders learn that they must track these runs deep in behind their defense, that CBs would have to evolve to be able to step up into the DM spot so the shape isnt ruined by the run. If the run is made and a CB doesnt step out, this means there are a lot of players in the defensive line (4/5+1 player who tracked the run). This would leave the midfield with less players and space would be there to exploit by the opponents. So CBs would have to be able to step up into the DM spot when such a run is tracked & be able to resist pressure & build play like the best DMs can when the ball is won, then switch back. A suggestion to this role could be  a player of the Javi Martinez mould. He is skilled enough to play both CB & DM greatly. This might very well be the future of how the best CBs can play to solve these tactical problems.

Analyzing Arsenal 2013/2014

The need of Mesut Ozil

Many people are saying that Arsenal weren’t in need of a player like Ozil. First of all, when a player is one of the best players in the world, you will most likely need him. Second of all, Arsenal last season had an issue of lacking directness from midfield. This is because players like Cazorla, Wilshere, and Ramsey like to come towards the ball and build the play rather than make runs in the gaps of the defense. Rosicky is Arsenal’s midfielder who did the best job of providing directness, but has had injury problems. Rosicky likes to dribble directly at a defense and go passed players, and he also makes runs in behind the defense. A problem with Rosicky though, is his offensive positioning. He looks to find space in between the midfielders and defenders of the opponents but he doesn’t do the best job of getting in a position within that space where a passing lane to him is created so he can receive the ball.

This type of play is exactly what Ozil can provide.

Ozil being Direct

The picture above is one of Ozil vs Australia in the 2010 World Cup, where he first became known worldwide. In the picture, Ozil spotted a gap in the defense and made a run from midfield in behind the defense. He received a great ball but couldn’t finish it off. Ozil has the speed and the intelligence to make defenses pay for leaving gaps open, which other Arsenal midfielders lack. He will continuously look to exploit these gaps and either provide an assist or finish it himself. Ozil’s finishing has not been the best throughout his career, but last year he talked about really working on his finishing so he can score more goals, and last season proves he did just that. In the 2011/2012 season he scored 4 goals in the 2,570 minutes he played. In the 2012/2013 season he more than doubled that figure with 9 goals in the 2,058 minutes he played, and he will only keep improving.

Here is a video of Gary Neville analyzing the problems with lack of penetration and directness from the midfield of Arsenal. He also talks about how Arsenal teams of the past were great attacking teams who were very penetrative.

Ozil’s Intelligence

Ozil has world class touch and technique, but really his very best quality is his intelligence. He is an incredibly intelligent play maker. He doesn’t even need to touch the ball to create goal scoring opportunities.

ozil vs holland 1

Here is one example of his great movement. This is Germany vs Holland in the EURO 2012 tournament. In the red circle is Ozil, what he did here was he drifted out to wide positions, and when he did that the defensive midfielders of Holland (in the yellow) were worried that he would overload the flanks with Muller and have a 2v1 vs the fullback. So Ozil dragged the defensive midfielders (both of them came over to that side because Khedira was there too, Sneijder wasn’t tracking him) over to the side of the field, this left enormous amounts of space (in the blue) for Schweinsteiger to run into. When a world class player like Schweinsteiger has that much space in front of your goal, it will be dangerous. Schweinsteiger here played Gomez (in the white) through the defense and Gomez scored the first goal of the game.

ozil vs. holland 2

Here is another example from the same match. Ozil (in the red) drifted out wide once again and dragged one of the defensive midfielders (De Jong) with him, this left Van Bommel covering large amounts of space infront of his 4 defenders. Schweinsteiger ran into this pocket of space (blue) that Ozil created and once again played Gomez through to score and give Germany the 2-0 lead. In this game Ozil was rated the flop of the match in Germany. This is because the general public don’t realize his influence on a match if he doesn’t get an assist or a goal, but in reality he created both of those Germany goals.

ozil finds space

Here is an example of Ozil finding space and having good positioning. As you can see, Ozil has found a lot of space between the midfielders and defenders of the opponents, but what makes the difference is his positioning within that space so he can receive the ball. He moved directly in line with the center back (off screen) and received the ball in a clear passing lane. Once Ozil is in between these lines, even if its more compact than in the picture shown above, he has world class control and technique and can tear teams apart with passes, dribbling, or shooting from within this space.

Ozil’s work rate

As you can tell, Ozil has a great offensive work rate, constantly moving and creating/attacking spaces, but the main fault in his game is his defensive work rate. He can drift in and out of games because he fails to mark opponents defensive midfielders or track back defensively. This is one of the main reasons Carlo Ancelotti felt that Ozil didn’t fit into his squad. Cristiano Ronaldo is also not very active defensively, and a top tier team can’t afford to have two players not working on defense.

The way Ancelotti’s new system at Madrid is set up is in a 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 sort of mix.

Isco Madrid

In offense, Ronaldo would drift out wide to the left where he enjoys playing the most and Isco would come inside off of the left into a more central playmaker role. On the right, the right midfielder will move up and down that flank providing directness and also some width, while sometimes being able to cut inside and attack that “14.5 Zone” similar to Robben. This makes Madrid look like the similar sort of 4-2-3-1 shape, with one of the defensive midfielders also joining the attack, from last season. On defense, Isco leaves the central role and moves out to the left and defends that flank because he has a better defensive work rate than Ronaldo or Ozil. Ronaldo can stay up top with Benzema and defend vs. opponent center backs, which makes Madrid look like a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 in defense. In order for Ozil to play the central play maker role he enjoys, he would have to work very hard defensively, which is why he doesn’t fit into the system. The system is built around Cristiano and making up for his lack of defensive work rate.

Ozil 3v2

In the 2011 Champions League semifinals vs Bayern Munich, Ozil’s lack of defensive work rate was exposed by his opposite central play maker, Toni Kroos. Ozil stayed really close to the striker in the match, while Kroos noticed this and dropped deeper, this created a 3vs2 situation in the center of midfield in favor of Bayern Munich. This caused Madrid to be overrun in midfield by Munich. Madrid ended up losing on penalties to Bayern in that years semifinals.

Arsenal’s Defensive Midfielders

Arsenal has recently re-signed Flamini for free after he left AC Milan. Flamini made his debut vs. Tottenham in Arsenal’s 3rd match of the 2013/2014 season. One thing that was immediately noticeable was how much Arsenal improved defensively when he came onto the field.

Usually, when Ramsey and Wilshere play together as defensive midfielders in a double pivot, they aren’t very good defensively. They aren’t very good at blocking passing lanes and making interceptions.

wilshere-ramsey

This is Wilshere and Ramsey vs. Tottenham in match day 3 of the 13/14 season.  Here they let 3 Spurs players in between the Arsenal midfield and defensive lines. Here Chadli (in yellow furthest down in picture) receives the ball and turns. He begins running at the defense with 2 teammates against just Arsenal’s two center backs. Here Mertesacker makes a great tackle on Chadli to stop this attack. In match day 1 of the 13/14 season Aston Villa earned a penalty (and scored) when Wilshere and Ramsey were poorly positioned and got played through. Agbonlahor received the ball in between the lines and ran passed Koscielny and was brought down by Szczesny for the penalty.

Flamini as DM

In that game vs. Tottenham, Wilshere was subbed off for Flamini with around 10 minutes to go in the first half because he was feeling sick. Flamini came on and there was immediately a difference on defense. Here you can see that Flamini was sitting a bit deeper, just infront of the Arsenal back 4, protecting the area in between the lines. Highlighted with the white circle is Flamini blocking the passing lane into the midfielder in between Arsenal’s lines, this forced Tottenham to play the ball wide. When Tottenham played it wide, space was more congested because they were forced against the sideline and Arsenal won the ball and almost scored off the break. Another noticeable thing was when Tottenham wingers got down the flanks and were in dangerous crossing positions, Flamini immediately dropped just inside or on the edge of the box. When Wilshere or Ramsey play they are usually very slow to cover that area, that area is very dangerous because a cross can come in and pick out a midfielder runner, or a striker can quickly drop off and receive a cutback cross and try to finish it while the defenders are still sprinting towards goal with their momentum. During this game Arsene ended up spending the last few minutes of the game with 6 defenders in the back line. He said after the game that he did this because he was expecting a lot of crosses into the box, and he was correct. Due to Flamini and the rest of the team doing so well at forcing Tottenham wide, they knew the attacks of Tottenham in the last few minutes would come from wide positions, and the back 6 did its job and sealed the 1-0 win.

Arteta as a Defensive Midfielder, and Flamini in offense

Flamini did well on defense as a defensive midfielder for Arsenal, but was very poor on offense. These days the best defensive midfielders are skilled in both offense and defense. Once Arsenal had the ball and began building play, Flamini would run away from the ball. He would move high up the field and leave the center backs. This is very bad positioning for a defensive midfielder. If Arsenal were to be put under intense pressure, they would need a defensive midfielder pivot with great control, passing, and positioning to help them play out of the pressure. Flamini’s positioning wasn’t the best and can be exploited if Arsenal are put under pressure.

Arteta pivote

Here is a comparison. The yellow circle is showing where I noticed Flamini would run into, This leaves the center backs by themselves and causes a disconnect between the defense and the midfield. Arteta is very skilled on the ball and can play very well under pressure. He takes up the correct position as a midfield pivot, just in front of the center backs able to support anyone who needs somebody to pass to under pressure. When Arteta receives the ball in front of the defense like that, he can play very accurate long balls to the wingers or the striker. He can also play quick short passes to the other central midfielders, all the defenders, and the goalkeeper. He is the center of the build up play and a very important player. Flamini lacks the great ball control and passing to be able to play this role effectively, but he is good defensively.

Arteta defense

This image shows how skilled Arteta is on defense. He is by far Arsenal’s best defensive midfielder, even though that’s not the position he played most of his career. On defense, he also sits just in front of the back 4 and covers passing lanes very well. In this image, shown with the red circle and arrow, Arteta moves his body and closes down the player on the ball while simultaneously blocking him with his body from passing to the 3 open Spurs players across the field. Arteta has great defensive stats. He has 108 tackles and 97 interceptions, both the highest in the squad. He uses his body well to block passes into the center of the field and forces players towards the sidelines or towards the side with less teammates of the opponent. He controls teams while on defense, very intelligently using his positioning. Arteta rarely flies into a player going in for a tackle, what he does is block off options using his body while at the same time closing down the player, this gives the opponent no options and less space. When Arteta does this, he waits for the opponent to make a mistake and then steals the ball off of him. In transition defense, if he can, Arteta immediately closes down the player on the ball and either doesn’t let him turn, or if he has already turned, forces him to the side of the field with less teammates using his body to block off the other passes. This makes transition defense a lot easier on Arsenal and provides more time for other players to get back. Arteta himself said that he has been watching how players like Busquets, Alonso, and Carrick play so he can play the same way for Arsenal, and he does it very well.

https://vimeo.com/59287663

Here are two great videos analyzing how Busquets of Barcelona plays in both attack and in defense, he is the best player in the world for the role Arteta is trying to play, and it breaks down what he does.

Walcott and Giroud

Giroud occupying CBs

This image highlights how Giroud occupies two center backs at the same time, while Walcott provides directness and depth to the Arsenal attack with his speed. Giroud is very good at occupying two center backs at the same time. He began the attack next to the left center back, Vertonghen, and once Rosicky got the ball, he quickly shifted over to the other center back, Dawson. This makes the two center backs constantly worried about where Giroud is. Once he shifted across, Giroud began making a run and Dawson followed him while the rest of the defense held the line, this left Walcott onside. Walcott quickly made a run towards the corner and received the ball, then he crossed it to Giroud who scored. Giroud is big and strong and does well in link up play, as well as in the air. Giroud is known for scoring a lot of goals in his second seasons with clubs and it looks like that’s what will happen this season with Arsenal. He has very intelligent movement with a great work rate, but is a bit slow. When he occupies the center backs this also gives extra space to the players behind him, like the central play maker, because he doesn’t have to worry about the central defenders leaving Giroud. Usually what teams will do to counter players like Giroud is play with a high line and get the big and slow center forward away from their goal. The problem with that is that you are playing a high line against the quickest winger in the league, with Theo Walcott. Walcott creates depth by being direct and making runs, this pushes teams back because they are scared of his pace. This gets Giroud and the rest of the team closer to the goal. Walcott provides width on the flank as well. When he is wide, the defense has to make sure a defender is near him, this stretches the defense of the opponents laterally, providing more gaps in between players for passes, dribbling, or shooting. Walcott and Gibbs provide most of the width for Arsenal.

Cazorla and Transition Defense

Cazorla has been playing a lot for Arsenal on the left flank. Cazorla drifts very centrally during the game and offers an extra central midfielder and helps keep possession vs. the opponents. Cazorla may not be very direct but he does offer game control near the opponents goal. He doesn’t have the engine to get up and down the field and be the orchestrator of the squad, but he has excellent dribbling and passing. He can go passed players and cause defenses to become unorganized, he can also dribble very well to keep the ball, so he isn’t dispossessed very often. If he ever gets an open look at goal he has excellent shooting from distance and has scored a couple from range for Arsenal. He also has great passing technique and can play players through defenses very well. Due to Cazorla drifting inside so much, this means there is a lack of width on the left side, which is needed to stretch teams and make play easier for the team. This is where Gibbs comes in. Gibbs motors up and down the left hand side of the field, providing width, crosses, and runs.

Gibbs width, Cazorla inside transition d

Circled in yellow is Gibbs. When the ball is lost he runs back down the left flank while the defensive midfielder (Flamini here), Ramsey, and the other 3 defenders of the back 4 hold off the counter attack. A back 3 with a defensive midfielder just ahead along with Gibbs and an engine box-to-box type midfielder like Ramsey getting back is a very good base for a transition defense. A back 3 can be exploited with far post crosses though so its not perfectly solid. Ramsey plays a huge part for this team both in attack and defense. He moves up and down the field helping build play and keep the ball, along with making runs in behind the defense when he can. He is the orchestrator of the team, he connects the team with his engine, which is very important because Ozil has been known to cause a disconnect in his team between the defensive midfielders and attacking midfielders because he stays up so high. This is a similar role Xavi used to play at Barca under Pep, he would move the team up and down the field, exploiting gaps in the defense with his runs, while also getting back in transition defense. Playing this role takes  a lot of technique, intelligence, and endurance. Wilshere and Ramsey like to play this similar role but as for now Ramsey is in the better form so he starts in this role.

Building from the back

This season against Fullham and Tottenham there have been great moments of Arsenal building from the back, even when under pressure. The bravery of doing this has amazing rewards in the game. You can’t expect the passes to be 100% accurate every time, so mistakes will happen, but Arsenal must keep believing in themselves and playing in this way cause it will pay off immensely. Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Arteta all have good passing and composure on the ball, so they are able to play this way. Szczesny has also impressed with his passing under pressure so its definitely worth playing this way. Building from the back has many benefits. Deciding to build from the back means you will have more of the ball, but on the other hand, if Szczesny lobs it up field, the ball will most likely be lost. When Szczesny kicks the ball long, Arsenal’s attackers are back pedaling to get into a position to jump and challenge for the ball, while the opponents are getting a running start towards to oncoming long ball, most of the time they will win. Once the opponent wins the ball from the long pass, they will be able to attack an unorganized Arsenal defense, because they had just lost the ball and it is like a quick counter attack. This turns the tempo of the game into a very transitional type of game, where Arsenal aren’t in as much control as before and its a more dangerous match. If Arsenal continue to play out of the back under pressure then eventually the opposition will get tired. This will make it easier to play against the opponents, creates more gaps in the opponents defense, and make it easier to close out games vs. tired opposition.

This is a great video of Neville analyzing how Barcelona builds from the back and the risks/benefits of it.

https://vimeo.com/73122802

https://vimeo.com/73609464

These two are videos made by DezilDez [@DezilDez on twitter] highlighting Arsenal building from the back in the match against Fullham.

One last thing to mention, a great part about Arsenal in this 2013/2014 season is that this is the first season in a long while where they haven’t lost any major star players from their squad. For the past few seasons they have been losing their captains and their best players. This season the only losses worth mentioning are Chamakh to Crystal Palace and Gervinho to Roma, on top of those players being sold they signed Ozil. This makes the squad feel together, they already know how to play with each other from the last season so this season they will be even stronger. Now they have a strong base to the squad and brought in a world class player in Ozil, Arsenal are finally starting to turn things around.