5 Tactical Conclusions From December


As we head into the second half of the football season, today on the blog Michael Cox shares his thoughts on the final month of 2013.

Andre Villas-Boas was an extremist

Andre Villas-Boas continually had problems with a high defensive line during his ill-fated spells in English football. It was a clear struggle at Chelsea, where he didn’t last a season. At Tottenham, things went better at times – the side sometimes worked well as a unit to put pressure on the ball, and some of the defenders were more suited to the system. However, it was extremely rare that Villas-Boas had no injury problems at the back, and he was forced to rely on Michael Dawson, a centre-back Villas-Boas had initially judged unable to play in his system. The club captain is a perfectly decent defender when allowed to play in zones he’s comfortable in, but was continually embarrassed over the past couple of months against strikers with any kind of pace or intelligence of movement.

Confusingly, Villas-Boas seemed to understand that the high defensive line was problematic. When Spurs got thrashed 6-0 at the Etihad, he immediately responded by completely changing his strategy for the next week against Manchester United, using two deep banks of four in a 2-2 draw.

However, for Spurs’ next game against serious opponents, Liverpool, he reverted to the ‘high block’, as he calls it. The 5-0 defeat wasn’t in any way flattering to Liverpool, who had the most simple task imaginable in penetrating the Spurs defence.

Villas-Boas’ commitment to that one tactic – despite seeing it repeatedly torn apart – makes him one of the most stubborn tacticians in the recent history of football.

Leverkusen are the Bundesliga’s second force

Realistically, there’s no title race to speak of in Germany. European Champions Bayern Munich are unbeaten, seven points clear at the top with a game in hand, and could well break some of the astonishing records they set in 2012/13. The fact Pep Guardiola will be able to rest key players ahead of European Cup matches also significantly increases their chances of becoming the first side to successfully defend the Champions League title.

The closest thing to challengers are Bayer Leverkusen, a status they confirmed with their excellent 1-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund in December. The scoreline suggests this was a narrow victory, but Leverkusen absolutely dominated, continually storming past Dortmund’s makeshift backline with clever combinations upfront.

Stefan Kiessling came towards the ball intelligently and Jens Hegeler took up clever positions between the lines as part of a diamond formation, allowing Son Heung-Min to continually sprint in behind from a left-sided position, scoring the only goal and going close with the game’s other clear chance, too.

That victory at the Westfalenstadion suggests Leverkusen are the second-best German side, as things stand. It remains to be seen whether they last the pace – Leverkusen have a reputation for tailing off in the final few matches – but Dortmund will have to fight to finish second, let alone first.

It’s no longer strange to see matches without a proper centre-forward

Roma’s 2-1 victory over Fiorentina was an exciting match – two attack-minded, technical sides played open football and produced an exciting game, where the majority of play came down the flanks.

The most interesting feature of the contest, though, was obvious simply from looking at the teamsheets. Without Francesco Totti, Rudi Garcia fielded ex-Fiorentina attacking midfielder Adem Ljajic upfront, and instructed him to stay between the lines in central positions, encouraging midfield runners forward, and playing neat passing combinations. At the other end, Giuseppe Rossi is more of a natural forward – he currently tops the Serie A goalscoring charts – but he’s a small, nimble footballer based around link-up play rather than getting on the end of crosses.

This is no longer some kind of futuristic ideal dreamt of by tactical obsessives – it’s actually happening. The traditional number nine remains alive and well, but it’s perfectly natural to see 22 players on the pitch, and not a striker between them.

Atletico Madrid are thriving because of what they do without the ball

As a whole, Spanish football is obsessed with possession. That’s been obvious throughout the national side’s astonishingly successful run over the past half-decade, and is also reflected in Barcelona’s insistence upon dominating the ball, too. When you think of Spanish footballers, you generally think of midfielders, and you think of midfielders who put their foot on the ball, play the simple pass, then move into space for a return ball.

But Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are bucking the trend. Amazingly, despite being joint-top of La Liga, they have only the ninth-highest average possession statistics in the league. Even more incredibly, they have the third-worst possession statistics on their travels, and instead play almost solely upon the counter-attack.

Where Atletico excel is when it comes to winning back possession. They boast the highest number of tackles per game – 26. They pack the centre of the pitch without the ball, pressing the opposition intensely in a lateral sense.

Some Spanish footballers don’t consider tackling a virtue – but Simeone’s side have demonstrated you can move to top of the league while excelling in this respect.

The Premier League’s best attacking midfielders use space intelligently

Manchester United suffered back-to-back defeats at Old Trafford in early December, an extremely rare occurrence. On both occasions, they were up against a highly intelligent number ten that used space intelligently – Everton’s Ross Barkley, and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye.

Barkley and Cabaye embody similar qualities. Neither are naturally creative, languid playmakers that drift in and out of games – they’re central midfielders pushed higher to bring physicality, tenacity and positional intelligence to the attacking department of a side.

Cabaye pressed high up the pitch then dropped back into midfield, essentially playing a dual role, while Barkley varied his position intelligently, collecting possession both in front of, and beyond, the Manchester United midfield.

United seemed too static and boxy to cope with such intelligence, and it’s not surprising that they’ve been linked with transfer moves for both players – they could do with players who position themselves intelligently in midfield, providing angles for attacks and helping to start the pressure high up the pitch.



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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.