5 Tactical Conclusions From April

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Bayern Munich display their tactical adaptability. Tomas Rosicky is key to Arsenal's tempo. And Real Sociedad are superb on the break. Today on the blog Michael Cox returns to deliver his five tactical conclusions from the month of April.

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Bayern are fantastically adaptable

In the build-up to Bayern’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, we were fascinated by the imminent battle of possession between the two clubs – Jupp Heynckes’ side were the only club in Europe that boasted possession and pass completion statistics comparable to Barcelona. The Catalan club hadn’t recorded less than 50% of possession in a single game since before Pep Guardiola took over as manager in 2008 – could either of these ties finally be the moment they were dominated?

The answer was simple – no. Bayern didn’t even attempt to take on Barcelona in terms of possession, instead focusing upon Tito Vilanova’s side’s traditional weaknesses – a lack of strength, a lack of height, and a vulnerability to counter-attacks, particularly down the wings. Once Bayern had established their advantage in the tie, they were happy to invite Barcelona pressure before springing forward on the break – Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were excellent, both defensively and offensively.

It’s most impressive, of course, because it’s the complete opposite to how Bayern have played all season. Barcelona remain a wonderful football side, but they’ve never been so tactically adaptable as Bayern – whether dominating possession or playing reactively, Heynckes’ side are lethal.

Rosicky is vital for Arsenal’s tempo

For the second consecutive campaign, Tomas Rosicky has found fitness and form in the last couple of months of Arsenal’s season – and he may prove vital to their chances of finishing in the Champions League places.

Arsenal have plenty of other creative midfielders, of course, but the Czech playmaker brings something different – he makes Arsenal play at a higher tempo. He has tremendously quick feet to evade opponents, he always looks for a forward pass, and he bursts forward powerfully to link with the main striker. He’s even a feisty tackler, leading Arsenal’s pressing from the top of the midfield triangle, and while his long-range shooting is often wayward, it does bring a certain level of urgency to Arsenal’s attacking.

Arsene Wenger has stumbled upon a lopsided combination of players that provides control, creativity and incision. Aaron Ramsey has done well alongside Mikel Arteta deep in midfield, then to the left Rosicky and Santi Cazorla have rotated and combined nicely between the lines, allowing Theo Walcott to play higher up, providing penetration alongside either Lukas Podolski or Olivier Giroud. Arsenal’s only problem is how to accommodate Jack Wilshere, who currently doesn’t merit a place in the starting XI.

3-5-1-1 is an option for Juventus

Antonio Conte initially treated a 3-5-2 as his alternative formation against other sides that used a back three. But after successful experimentations against the likes of Udinese and Napoli last season, it eventually became his default system. It’s rare to see a side using two proper centre-forwards high up the pitch, regularly combining with each other – but the use of a midfield three, and wing-backs for width, means Juve’s forwards don’t have to regularly drop deep, or drift wide.

The 2-0 away defeat to Bayern was a significant blow, with Conte sticking to the 3-5-2 rather than using an extra midfielder in a 3-5-1-1. Mirko Vucinic’s fitness problems were supposedly to blame, but Conte must still regret not playing a more cautious system to pack the midfield – the emergence of Paul Pogba means a midfield quartet of he, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio is now possible.

Conte has played that way a couple of times since – most notably in the comfortable victory away at Lazio. It will probably remain an alternative system, but the best sides continue to evolve – and with the imminent arrival of Fernando Llorente – a man comfortable playing upfront alone – 3-5-1-1 might be the way to go next season.

Real Sociedad are brilliant on the break

While Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side play a more reactive game, Spanish football is largely based around midfield dominance and possession play – the extraordinary form of the national side, as well as Barcelona’s run of form over the past five years, has made ball retention the default approach throughout La Liga.

But Real Sociedad are doing something entirely different – and seem set to qualify for the Champions League with their lightning quick counter-attacking football. The San Sebastian side have only the eighth-highest average possession in the league, and the eighth-best ball retention – but they manage the third-most shots on target in the league, behind only Real Madrid and Barcelona.

There’s no real secret to their success – they simply use the ball efficiently as soon as they win it, and possess extremely quick players capable of running with the ball at speed, and making intelligent decisions in the final third.

Unusually for a side that relies so much on the counter-attack, Sociedad have habit of coming back from behind to pinch points late on – usually, reactive sides depend upon the opposition dominating and leaving space at the back. Centre-forward Emanol Agirretxe is particularly useful in this respect – he can play on the break, but is also capable of fighting for the ball in the air.

Fulham need another central midfielder

Martin Jol’s side were always likely to struggle without the inimitable midfield role played by Mousa Dembele, but their solution this season has been particularly troublesome. Giorgos Karagounis has done a decent job, but the Greek legend lacks mobility, Chris Baird is a handy option but is too functional to give Fulham any creativity in the centre, while Eyong Enoh and Mahamdou Diarra are unlikely to be at Craven Cottage next season.

April was particularly notable, however, for Steve Sidwell collecting two red cards. He’s played more frequently than any other Fulham player in the centre of midfield this season, but showed his lack of discipline by getting dismissed for a late tackle against Queens Park Rangers, then doing the exact same thing just 12 minutes into his return against Arsenal.

Fulham have embraced their position as one of the Premier League’s smaller clubs, and it’s difficult to blame them for not adequately replacing a star like Dembele – but unless they invest in a good central midfielder this summer, 2013/14 will be a struggle.

 

 

Follow Michael on Twitter: @Zonal_Marking

And read more of his work at ZonalMarking.net

A firm believer in traditional shirt numbers. I also write for ESPN, The Guardian, FourFourTwo & others.