5 Tactical Conclusions From September


With almost two months of football played in the new season, today on the blog Michael Cox returns to share his five tactical conclusions from the month of September.

Barcelona are still Barcelona

Barcelona’s playing style under Gerardo Martino will be more variable than under Pep Guardiola or Tito Vilanova, but the default approach will be the same – possession play. Last weekend’s 4-0 win over Rayo Vallecano attracted plenty of attention because it was the first game since before Guardiola took charge that Barcelona had been dominated in terms of possession, but overall Barca’s average share of the ball has been extremely similar to under Vilanova last season.

There will be more variation, however, and the Rayo performance demonstrated that Barca are now capable of sitting back before striking on the counter-attack. Cesc Fabregas has commented that Barcelona should play counter-attacking football when needed, while Gerard Pique added that Martino “has the same football philosophy, to maintain possession of the ball, but he also has other options and that's a good thing, in the sense that it gives us alternatives.”

For the vast majority of games, it will be the Barcelona we’ve become accustomed to over the past five years – but when they travel away to clubs who like to keep possession of the ball but are vulnerable to quick attacks, it makes sense to be more reactive. This isn’t a new Barcelona, but there will be more variety in their play.

Manchester United play too deep

For the past couple of seasons, Manchester United have had five decent centre-backs to call upon: veterans Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, plus the younger legs of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. The latter two have been fielded in different positions, particularly at right-back, but they both consider their primary position to be in the centre of defence.

Sir Alex Ferguson was clever at rotating his centre-backs, and in certain situations it made sense to drop one of his more established players. In last season’s 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, for example, Evans was favoured over Vidic, and played excellently alongside Ferdinand.

Vidic and Ferdinand remain the best partnership, but both have lost pace and need to defend deep. This means United have been rather passive without possession, dropping close to their own goal and inviting pressure. It’s easy to criticise Moyes for this, but it’s been a gradual shift over the past few years – both players have been caught out in terms of pace, and prefer to defend close to the penalty box.

The majority of top-level sides are more aggressive with their positioning, however, and dropping so deep means United can be overrun in midfield without the ball. Evans has become a fine defender, and deserves a chance following five games of the Vidic-Ferdinand combination.

Chelsea might need Mikel

The injury suffered by Marco van Ginkel robs Chelsea of a midfielder we hadn’t yet seen much of – but it weakens Jose Mourinho’s side in the centre of the pitch, arguably the zone where they had the fewest options anyway.

Ramires and Frank Lampard has been Mourinho’s favoured combination so far, with their roles changing depending upon the type of fixture. In the opening day win over Hull, for example, both were given license to charge forward into attack in a flexible double pivot, whereas in the 0-0 draw at Manchester United both players remained solidly in front of the defence, protecting the centre-backs.

But Ramires suffered a knock in midweek and Lampard’s advancing years means he’s not capable of the 38-game seasons he regularly turned in during his peak years. Instead, Mourinho will have to use John Obi Mikel more than he would have liked, with David Luiz also an option in the holding role.

Mikel could turn out to be a pivotal player for Chelsea this season, particularly in big games. Neither Ramires nor Lampard is a natural holding player, and Mikel offers more positional discipline and tactical responsibility, which could be helpful when trying to contain opposition number tens.

Monaco will get even better

Last weekend’s 1-1 draw at PSG demonstrated that Monaco are already a fine, cohesive unit – and the worrying thing for the reigning champions is that there’s surely more to come from Claudio Ranieri’s side.

Now seven games into the season, Ranieri’s major problem has been his inability to field his (probable) first-choice starting XI because of injury concerns. Joao Moutinho, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Jeremy Toulalan have all missed games because of fitness concerns, meaning that they’re yet to start together as a trio.

Meanwhile, James Rodriguez – Monaco’s most expensive summer signing – has been on the fringes of the side, seemingly after failing to impress Ranieri on the opening day, while Emmanuel Riveire’s good form has arguably compromised the role of Falcao, who has been forced to play a deeper role.

But when Toulalan returns alongside Kondogbia, allowing Moutinho to play behind Falcao, and when Rodriguez establishes himself in the side, Monaco will become even better – they could stun the rest of Ligue 1 by winning the league title at their first attempt.

Roma could be here to stay

Roma’s start to Serie A has been sensational – five wins in five games, with twelve goals scored and just one conceded. Many expected Rudi Garcia’s new project to take time, but so far there are absolutely no signs that the players are still attempting to adjust.

An interesting feature of Roma’s league campaign has been that no player has scored more than twice, with nine separate players getting on the scoresheet in just five matches. Each area of the side has been strengthened, with Maicon and Mehdi Benatia improving the defence, Kevin Strootman already a huge influence in midfield, and Garcia’s old favourite from Lille, Gervinho, providing pace on the flanks.

But the old guard – Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi – have arguably been Garcia’s best players, despite speculation their status may be demoted under the new coach. Crucially, Roma don’t have any European distractions this season. October seems them face Udinese, Inter and Napoli – a difficult fixture list. If they’re still going strong this time next month, Garcia’s could launch a serious title challenge.



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.