5 Tactical Conclusions From March


How are Uruguay struggling with selection issues? Can David Villa still have an impact for Barcelona? How does Thomas Vermaelen fit in Arsenal's defence? And is Roy Hodgson making best use of his bench? Today on the blog Michael Cox of Zonal Marking returns with his 5 tactical conclusions from March.


Uruguay are struggling to find their best XI

As the reigning South American champions, and that continent’s most impressive performers at the last World Cup, Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay should be amongst the favourites for next summer’s tournament in Brazil. However, more than halfway through the CONMEBOL qualification process, they find themselves outside the qualifying positions – sixth out of nine sides, not even in the play-off slot they routinely finish in.

Tabarez has encountered problems over the past couple of years trying to find a place for Napoli forward Edinson Cavani, in a side that traditionally suits Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez’s talents well – they play upfront together in a 4-4-1-1 system. This is slightly odd – all three are flexible and unselfish players, and Tabarez has been perfectly happy to switch between formations in his seven-year reign as national coach.

Now, Tabarez is trying to evolve Uruguay’s system by introducing some midfield creativity in central positions. Amongst various formations and strategies, the one constant in the Uruguayan side was the presence of two holding midfielders – usually Egidio Arevalo and Diego Perez. However, in the recent home match against bottom-placed Paraguay, Tabarez instead played Nicolas Lodeiro, the former Ajax playmaker, just in front of Perez. Lodeiro was arguably the star player, but Uruguay recorded a disappointing 1-1 draw, as the rest of the side lacked fluency. With selection problems both upfront and in midfield, Tabarez is in a seriously bad situation.

Villa can be of use to Barca

He may have been a key part of the Champions League-winning side that will be remembered as one of the greatest teams in history – scoring the goal of the game in the 2011 final win over Manchester United – but David Villa’s Barcelona career hasn’t gone swimmingly.

This is Spain’s all-time top goalscorer, the man who spearheaded the side throughout Euro 2008 and provided valuable goals in World Cup 2010, but at Barcelona he’s never been the main attraction.

That, of course, is because of the presence of Lionel Messi. The Argentine is famed for his modesty and work rate – attributes it’s hard to question – but Messi demands to be the centre of the side. And why not? His goalscoring record is extraordinary, and he continues to be a reliable creator too.

Villa – like Pedro Rodriguez – is at his best when used as a functional attacker, with his primary purpose to get the best out of Barcelona’s number ten. Messi has sometimes been frustrated by Villa’s movement and distribution – while Pedro once noted that ‘it’s obvious to see which players didn’t come through La Masia’ shortly after Villa’s arrival. But in the Champions League victory over Milan, Villa’s role was crucial. He played as a central striker, pushing back the opposition defensive line to allow Messi space just behind. Villa may leave Barcelona in the summer, but he still has a role to play in 2012/13.

Koscielny and Mertesacker is Arsenal’s best centre-back combination

Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Tottenham hasn’t proved fatal for their Champions League chances – but it has prompted a re-think in the centre of Arsene Wenger’s defence.

At White Hart Lane, Arsenal were constantly caught out by through-balls played in behind the defence, with Thomas Vermaelen getting himself into some strange positions, and unable to cope with quick players sprinting past him. Furthermore, as Arsenal’s captain, it was surely Vermaelen’s responsibility to communicate with the rest of the back four, encouraging them to drop deeper when it was obvious Arsenal weren’t putting any pressure on the man in possession.

That defeat is the last time Vermaelen appeared for Arsenal, with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker preferred throughout the past month. This is a slightly uneasy situation – Vermaelen remains the club captain, but is unable to get into the starting XI.

Nevertheless, Arsenal look more secure without him. Mertesacker is a calm figure, and intelligent in a positional sense to compensate for his lack of pace, alongside the quicker Koscielny, who sweeps up behind.

Mateo Kovacic will become a fine regista

When Inter spent €15 million on Mateo Kovacic, an 18-year-old that had never played at a higher level than the Croatian league, there were plenty of questions about precisely how the youngster would fit into the side. In a slightly disjointed Inter team that has switched between a back three and a back four in recent weeks, with plenty of chopping and changing in the centre of the pitch, Kovacic’s role at club level remains undefined.

Kovacic made his international debut in a highly-anticipated derby with Serbia, where he was fielded as Croatia’s sole holding midfielder by Igor Stimac – asked to sit deep and cover when Luka Modric darted forward. He played the role superbly – his positioning was intelligent, but he also showed great guile and confidence on the ball, turning away from opponents before hitting positive forward passes into Croatia’s attackers.

Kovacic has the ability to play further forward – but in a league where the likes of Andrea Pirlo, David Pizarro and Riccardo Montolivo have been amongst the season’s best performers, a deep-lying ‘regista’ role seems to suit Kovacic best for Inter.

Roy Hodgson isn’t using his bench effectively

England’s disappointing 1-1 draw in Montenegro could have been a lot worse – after Montenegro introduced two extra attacking players in the second half, Roy Hodgson’s side were pinned back into their own half, unable to relieve the pressure.

It was amazing that Hodgson elected not to use any substitutes until England conceded late on. With his side unable to cope with the pressure upon their backline, struggling to dominate midfield and offering no counter-attacking threat to force Montenegro back, Hodgson could have introduced almost anyone, in any position, in an attempt to improve England’s performance in some way.

His reluctance to use substitutes surely doesn’t reflect a lack of confidence in his squad – he was happy to heavily rotate for the thrashing of San Marino, and had plenty of decent options in Montenegro. Instead, it seems more like an inability to change games with clever tactical switches, which is an important part of international tournament football, in particular.



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.