5 Tactical Conclusions From January


A month into the new year and plenty of football still to play in 2013. As we look forward to the business end of the Champions League season, Michael Cox of Zonal Marking offers 5 conclusions from the month of January.


Plenty left in the season for Real Madrid

Real Madrid have given up hope of challenging Barcelona for La Liga this season, but recent displays have proved Jose Mourinho still commands sufficient respect from his players to turn in superb displays of pressing and quick counter-attacking on occasion.

The first half of Real’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona was possibly the best demonstration of pressing Barca you’ll see – Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Callejon joined Karim Benzema in closing down the back four, while both Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira were brave with their positioning, leaving Ricardo Carvalho to follow Lionel Messi into the midfield zone. Real dominated the first half and should have been at least 1-0 up at half-time.

Meanwhile, their superb 5-0 destruction of Valencia was a fine example of their counter-attacking prowess. All too frequently, opponents see corners as a decent route to goal, but end up leaving themselves exposed at the back and concede within 20 seconds of the corner being delivered. Ronaldo’s speed over long distances is sublime, Angel Di Maria makes excellent runs, while Ozil knows precisely how to use the ball efficiently. The first half at the Mestalla was amongst the best displays of Mourinho’s tenure.

The common theme is a drop in performance in the second half. Granted, against Barca they were tired, while against Valencia they could switch off. Still, it’s something to consider ahead of their meeting with Manchester United, especially given Sir Alex Ferguson’s side’s tendency to comeback from 1-0 down.

Liverpool's attacking versatility

Having spent the first half of the season depending upon Raheem Sterling and Suso, a duo still a couple of years away from being able to turn in consistent displays, Brendan Rodgers now finds himself with a plethora of attacking options. Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho are new arrivals, while Fabio Borini has returned from long-term injury to provide another option.

Those three and Luis Suarez are all capable of playing either wide or through the centre, and it’s not unrealistic to imagine Rodgers playing a revolving quartet upfront – Sturridge, Coutinho, Borini, Suarez – and giving them freedom to take up positions as they please.

But there are two problems with such versatility. First, if Rodgers does give his players freedom of movement, the centre of the pitch can often become congested, and the side lacks natural width. The majority of players prefer to take up central positions where they can be permanently involved in play, and if this happens too much, the side becomes too easy to defend against.

If he wants more structure, the versatility can tempt the manager into unnecessary meddling, and it would be frustrating to see a long-term project supposedly based around familiarity between players undermined by players changing roles from game to game.

Cazorla drifting inside

Having used Santi Cazorla predominantly as a central attacking playmaker so far this season, January saw Arsene Wenger experimenting with the Spaniard drifting inside from the flank. In the 1-0 FA Cup win over Swansea, Cazorla started from the left, Theo Walcott played on the right, with Olivier Giroud upfront and Jack Wilshere as a number ten.

That structure gave Arsenal more ball-playing ability – Cazorla came inside to offer another short passing option, while Wilshere started relatively deep before charging forward into attack. Theo Walcott played on the right and offered pace in behind, while Olivier Giroud played as centre-forward but dropped deep to link play.

This might be an option in the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. Jupp Heynckes side have the second-highest pass completion rate and possession behind Barcelona in Europe’s major five leagues, and those games will be a battle based around quick passing and heavy pressing, so the presence of Cazorla would offer another passing option.

Cazorla actually made his name in a wide role at Villarreal, and is probably more comfortable drifting inside (from either flank) rather than playing as a permanent number ten. The form of Lukas Podolski and Walcott will discourage Wenger from dropping them, but he’ll need to be tactically clever against Bayern.

United's options to limit Ronaldo

Manchester United’s strategy against Tottenham was interesting – Phil Jones was used in a right-of-centre defensive midfield role, and was instructed to get out and stop Gareth Bale coming inside. Rafael has generally coped well with the Welshman in recent seasons, but United had been ripped apart when Bale moved into central positions at Old Trafford.

With Jones shutting down Bale’s space effectively, Sir Alex Ferguson might opt for a similar system to stop Cristiano Ronaldo when United meet Real Madrid in the Champions League. United are well aware of Ronaldo’s ability to score goals, but he’s become even more effective since moving to Madrid and being used permanently on the left flank – his tendency to cut inside and shoot powerfully is obvious.

Ideally, Ferguson would have Darren Fletcher available to play that role – the Scottish midfielder did something similar as United stopped (an admittedly ageing) Ronaldinho in 2010 at the same stage. Jones seems to have become a handy, versatile jack of old trades, and though Real have other attacking options, stopping Ronaldo will be the priority.

Counter-Attack might be best for Galatasaray

Galatasaray’s purchase of both Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba will force Fatih Terim to change his system. So far this year, he’s favoured a fairly standard 4-4-2 formation, but will want to use Sneijder as a classic number ten in a central position.

Drogba’s ability – or perhaps even preference – for playing upfront alone means a 4-4-1-1 formation appears likely. Then, a counter-attacking approach might be best in the Champions League: Drogba is excellent at leading the line for a reactive side, as he showed with his displays for Chelsea last year, while Sneijder also won the European Cup in a counter-attacking side with Inter in 2010, and will hope his partnership with Drogba becomes as successful as the one he forged with Diego Milito.

In the league, Terim might opt for a 4-3-1-2, the system he favoured during his first spell with Galatasaray. After all, he still has three other forwards – Burak Yilmaz, Johan Elmander and Umut Bulut – although restrictions upon the number of foreign players allowed to be fielded at the same time means Elmander is unlikely to see much action following the new arrivals.



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.