5 Tactical Observations From August
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How are teams shaping up early this season? As the opening month of the football season draws to a close, Michael Cox from ZonalMarking.net delivers 5 tactical observations to bare in mind as season 2012-2013 moves into September.
Having taken over at Fiorentina in the summer, Vincenzo Montella is busy building one of the most exciting and attractive teams in Italy. He has purchased no fewer than four talented creative central midfielders – tidy Spanish midfielder Borja Valero, languid Chilean number ten Mati Fernandez, the enigmatic Alberto Aquilani and Serie A veteran David Pizarro. Former Ajax forward Mounir El Hamdaoui and Colombian winger Juan Cuadraro have also been signed. There has also been significant investment at the back, but the likes of Facundo Rancoglia and Gonzalo Rodriguez lack Serie A experience, and may take time to settle in. Besides, building such a creative midfield means Fiorentina will inevitably leak goals.
Fiorentina used a 3-5-2 system in the narrow 2-1 win over Udinese, but both Aquilani and Fernandez started on the bench. In order to get these players into the side, Montella will probably shift away from that formation and experiment throughout his first few weeks in charge. The final piece in the jigsaw is the centre-forward position. Dimitar Berbatov has been strongly linked, as has serial mover Marco Borriello – but Fiorentina might be better off using Montenegrin superstar Stevan Jovetic as their primary striker. He can be so much more than a poacher, but with creativity coming from elsewhere, his two goals against Udinese might be an indication that he is Fiorentina’s answer upfront.
In fact, there were only two Serie A game this weekend when both sides scored – and if Fiorentina’s match was sure to be one, there are no prizes for guessing that Roma’s was the other. Zdenak Zeman’s crazy brand of all-out-attack football has returned to The Eternal City. Last season under Luis Enrique, who had arrived after great success with Barcelona B, Roma essentially tried to copy the Pep Guardiola template – 4-3-3, a strong emphasis upon possession, frequent use of a false nine and much more. Zeman promotes a more urgent, direct form of football – he used a 4-3-3 with Roma some 15 years ago, and the same system remains, but Roma will play the ball forward much more quickly, and will always have a forward close to the penalty spot.
His first game in charge finished, inevitably, as a goalfest – a 2-2 draw against Catania. “Passing the ball horizontally is pointless and it allows our opponents to get settled in,” Zeman complained. “If we don’t speed it up and shake off our markers in midfield, then we’ll go nowhere.” Roma are still adjusting from Luis Enrique’s philosophy, and the more direct and attacking they become, the more likely Roma will be involved in some thrilling, high-scoring matches.
Continuing the theme of clubs playing attacking football and therefore likely to both score and concede plenty this season, Martin Jol has assembled a highly interesting team at Fulham this season.
As with the second half of last season, he essentially fields five outright attacking players. Moussa Dembele has been converted from a winger/forward to an attacking central midfielder, and he’s used in conjunction with two wingers, Damien Duff and Alexander Kacaniklic, a deep-lying forward in Bryan Ruiz, and an outright striker, Mladen Petric. Having scored seven goals against Norwich and Manchester United, they shouldn’t suffer too much from the expected departure of Clint Dempsey, especially with new signing Hugo Rodallega yet to play a significant role.
Mahamadou Diarra is the anchorman in midfield and rarely strays from a defensive position, but at 31 he isn’t as mobile as in his Real Madrid and Lyon days. He can be overrun in front of the defence, and although Jol has a solid back four, Fulham should be one of the most entertaining sides in the league this season. If Jol didn’t change such an attacking approach for an away trip to Manchester United, he’s unlikely to compromise for many other matches.
Three games and three draws for Paris St Germain is a fairly embarrassing start to the season, when you consider the capital club outspent every other Ligue 1 club put together in the summer transfer window. While no coach would complain about the arrivals of world class players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, Carlo Ancelotti seems to have been given some players that don’t really fit into his preferred Christmas Tree formation.
Ezequiel Lavezzi, for example, is a limited football that excelled at Napoli because he was given a specific task – stay wide and high up the pitch, stretch the play and provide directness on the flank. He did that job excellently, but his suitability for a different formation is highly questionable. In a Christmas Tree shape, Ancelotti has used him both as an attacking midfielder and an outright centre-forward dropping deep, but didn’t play well in either system, and was sent-off when used upfront.
Ancelotti is highly committed to the Christmas Tree shape – he used it at Milan when Silvio Berlusconi allowed him to, and occasionally played it to good effect at Chelsea. But PSG’s set of players – with gifted wide players like Lavezzi and Nene, a brilliant number ten in Javier Pastore and a world-class striker like Ibrahimovic, the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Ancelotti’s predecessor Antoine Kombouare is surely the way to go.
After an exciting first season under Marcelo Bielsa, when they started slowly before eventually reaching both the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals, this could be a difficult season for Athletic Bilbao. With five days remaining the transfer window, it remains possible that they could lose both Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, their two most established players.
With Athletic’s self-restricted available pool of talent, it will be literally impossible for them to bring in anyone of a similar standard – Llorente is the best Basque striker around, and with the exception of Xabi Alonso and arguably Mikel Arteta, unrealistic targets, Martinez doesn’t have a natural replacement either.
Besides, Bielsa’s insistence upon heavy pressing and relentless forward running is absolutely exhausting, and while Athletic were able to put up with it for the majority of their first season, there are suspicions that the players will simply run out of energy if they play that way for a second campaign running. Their opening weekend saw a 5-3 defeat to Real Betis, featuring some very poor defending, and their second match is against Athletico Madrid, who they have a very poor record against – but the main story this week is the futures of Llorente and Martinez, who are both literally irreplaceable.
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Fiorentina: I don't think Montella will be keen on changing his 3-5-2 in favour of a a formation relying on a pure striker. He has often made away with that kind of player last season at Catania, with Maxi Lopez sitting out games even before he was being linked with the January move to Milan. Morimoto was sent on loan to Novara. It was Bergessio, the hard-working modern prototype striker who does not wait for the ball inside the box, that got the nod ahead of the rest. So it will be 3-5-2 for Fiorentina all season long with most of the creative midfielders fighting for starting places.
Roma: With Pescara last season Zeman won a total of 26 games from 38. There is no compromise for him on that kind of style. We will keep seeing goals as long as he is there but he hopefully can adjust a few things along the way. With a weak defence it is not common for anyone to succeed in Italy's top flight.
Fulham: I agree, it should be an entertaining Fulham side we get to see this season. Much better than what fans were used to in recent years. However, it must be said they were more effective in those days than I can see them ever be under Jol. We'll see how things play out. I doubt Berbatov, rumoured to be close to signing for the Cottagers, can be a direct replacement on the pitch for recently departed Dembele who joined Tottenham.
PSG: Good analysis and fully agree with the fact that a 4-2-3-1 would be much better suited for this team. Ancelotti has reportedly been given until the end of September to 'adapt' his ideas. Leonardo will advocate for him but in the end if the investment seems like going down the drain the Qataris will not hesitate to sweep him aside. Lavezzi has been the best player in Serie A last season in my opinion and any good manager can make good use of him.
In this new system of Ancelotti he does come out as slow because he does keep the ball in his feet too much. That was what Mazzarri requested of him but he may be able to play a similar role if played out wide upfront as you suggest and things would suddenly improve. With Pastore's excellent goal record at Palermo two seasons ago by playing as the number 10 behind two strikers - 11 goals and 5 assists in 34 Serie A games - I believe he would be the right man to play in behind Ibrahimovic, who would allow him to run into the box when the occasion comes up just like Boateng did last season at Milan given Zlatan's characteristics.
Athletic Bilbao: Bielsa's style is a tiring one, no doubt. He will not be changing that any time soon even if he loses out on important players. They still reached the Europa League final last season but inevitably it took the toll as they dropped the pace at particular points in the season. They were Champions League candidates at one point but their March and May efforts were awful losing 7 out of their last 13 matches and winning only three of those.
Therefore it is not as much as it being their second season with Bielsa. In fact that should only mean they got used to his game even more. However, that kind of play, very reminiscent of Conte's style with Juventus albeit more offensive-minded, will during the season present a tired team that can more easily be beaten.
Michael, great stuff as usual!
One thing though, related to your theory on Bielsa and Athletic as an exhausted team. I always thought that Mourinho does the same to his (winning) teams. Look at the first season of Chelsea and Inter, following his departure. Now I've been watching Ronaldo and his start of season, Ozil as well, it could be the Euro effect, but what if Jose pushed them all the way last season and they'll struggle physically during this campaign? Do you agree/think it's possible? Thanks!
Thanks for the great analysis, Michael.
I really appreciate you focus on the teams who don't usually get all the attention. You managed to get me excited about watching Fulham play - that's quite an accomplishment :)
Hi Ocean - cheers for kind words. I was slightly surprised the Overs/Unders wasn't even more uninteresting for the Catania game, to be honest, I still thought there was value in going Overs. But you're right, there certainly won't be more value there soon, although I'll be interested to see the odds for the weekend match...
Hi mate, good observations, Roma's style will definately thrill but the bookie's already had overs in the Catania game well on side and doubt we'll be able to extract much value in that market but in running i feel 2nd halfs will be packed full of goals so may have an angle there.