5 Tactical Conclusions From November

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Toni Kroos continues to display his value at Bayern Munich while Paul Lambert is slowly turning Aston Villa around. Today on the blog Michael Cox offers his five observations from the month of November.

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Toni Kroos is Bayern’s key man

Franck Ribery has enjoyed a fine 2012, Thomas Muller has become a more consistent threat from the right, while Mario Mandzukic has proved an inspired signing. Yet it’s Toni Kroos who is now the heartbeat of this Bayern side – his reliability in possession, his ability to create chances from tight spaces and his versatility makes him extremely tricky for opponents to stop.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is the finer football and certainly more of a leader in the Bayern side, but the purchase of Javi Martinez means his presence as a deep-lying distributor is actually less important. Were he to become injured, Martinez and Kroos would be able to compensate for his patience on the ball, while Luiz Gustavo is another good option in the centre of the pitch.

Kroos is more tricky to replace. Tactically, his understanding of the game is almost perfect – he moves deep to provide an extra midfielder when necessary, but can also play close to the centre-forward to become a goal threat. He drifts to the left to create overloads with Ribery, then to the right to combine with Muller. He instinctively understands the shape and pattern of the game, and his positional ability – perhaps unusually for an attacking player – is the most important feature of his game. 2013 should be a big year for him.

Aston Villa are close to being a fine side

Paul Lambert’s side are hovering just two points above the relegation zone after a difficult start to the campaign, but in the past month Villa have shown signs of progress – and Lambert is building a good side.

The decision to use Christian Benteke rather than Darren Bent upfront has received significant attention – but it’s difficult to fault Lambert’s logic on the evidence of Villa’s performances so far this season. Bent has been a peripheral figure in his six starts – and although he’s a more regular goalscorer than Benteke, his lack of involvement in games mean Villa struggle to get the ball forward and retain possession in the opposition half.

Benteke’s all-round play is far superior. He’s a huge physical presence and the perennial target for long balls, identifying the opposition defender that appears weakest in the air, and positioning himself accordingly. His hold-up play allows Villa to get up the pitch in support, and his height when defending opposition set-pieces is also handy.

The rest of Villa’s side is extremely young – Brett Holman and Brad Guzan are the oldest regulars at 28, and Lambert is genuinely trying to build a long-term project. A shaky start was inevitably with inexperienced youngsters plucked from the youth system or the lower leagues, but Villa are unbeaten in three matches and should rise up the table shortly.

Max Allegri has found a system that suits Milan

It wasn’t his plan A, nor his plan B or even his plan C – but Max Allegri has stumbled upon a 4-3-3 system that seems to suit his squad, and Milan are finally starting to play good football.

Still reeling from the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (amongst other big names) Allegri struggled to replace the Swede upfront. Maybe it was inevitable that the best solution was to not replace him at all – in recent weeks, Allegri has fielded a mobile front three with Kevin-Prince Boateng in the middle, energetically shuttling between midfield and attack. He’s not so much a false nine, more a very false box-to-box midfielder – but he carries the ball forward and offers a goal threat.

This means the proper forwards are fielded wide. Robinho and Bojan Krkic are both more comfortable when drifting in from the flanks, but the real star of the show has been Stephan El Shaarawy. His record of twelve goals in 15 Serie A appearances this season is incredible for a player that has just turned 20, and he’s almost single-handedly keeping Allegri in a job.

For how long Allegri remains is another question entirely – but after this tactical discovery, Milan should at least be fighting for the European places this season, rather than battling to get into the top half.

Arsenal need Koscielny

One could highlight various problem areas for Arsenal at the moment, but the issues at centre-back are particularly concerning; Per Mertesacker has been Arsenal’s best defender this season and Thomas Vermaelen is the club captain, but both are better when paired alongside Laurent Koscielny.

Michu’s first goal in Swansea’s fine victory at the Emirates on Saturday afternoon was a perfect illustration of the problem. Both Mertesacker and Vermaelen were drawn towards the play and got themselves too square, creating a huge gap between the full-backs to Michu to exploit. Vermaelen has always had a tendency to move high up the pitch, and needs a covering defender, while Mertesacker needs a quick centre-back alongside him to compensate for his lack of pace.

Koscielny is badly needed to sweep behind a centre-back colleague, and the news that the Frenchman is out for three weeks could hardly have come at a worse time. Arsene Wenger will be praying he returns before Arsenal’s Christmas fixtures, when they face four matches in ten days, or else Arsenal will struggle to keep clean sheets.

Fiorentina are potent from set-pieces

When working under Walter Zenga at Catania and Palermo, coach Gianni Vio became famed for working exclusively on set-pieces, and his appointment at Fiorentina has seen a dramatic increase in the number of goals Vincenzo Montella’s side have scored from dead ball situations. In Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Sampdoria, defender Stefan Savic nodded in both goals when completely unmarked.

Sampdoria coach Ciro Ferrara blamed his players for poor marking, but Fiorentina are scoring so many similar goals that Vio must take a large slice of credit. They’ve scored eight goals from set-pieces, which explains why an unusually high proportion of goals have been scored by centre-backs – in addition to Savic’s double, Gonzalo Rodriguez has scored four and Facundo Roncaglia netted against Parma. This wasn’t the primary reason Montella decided to use a 3-5-2 system this season, but an extra spot for another centre-back is certainly useful.

Further forward, Fiorentina have a relatively small side – Stevan Jovetic is the primary striker, and although he’s become more of a traditional goalpoacher, he isn’t the most potent in the air. Alternative options like Mounir El Hamdaoui and, in particular, Luca Toni are greater threats from corners and set-pieces – but it’s the centre-backs who are worth backing to open the scoring.

 

 

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.