5 Tactical Conclusions From February


As we head into March and the heart of European competition, today on the blog Michael Cox of Zonal Marking delivers his five tactical conclusions from the month of February.


Alves has become a weak link

Daniel Alves’ defensive weakness has often been overstated – the Brazilian is clearly an attack-minded right-back who concentrates his efforts in the opposition half, but at his peak Alves defended well – just in an unusual way. His energy forced the opposition left-winger backward, his incredible stamina was vital in Barcelona’s heavy pressing, and his pace allowed him to recover his position quickly, even when Barcelona lost possession suddenly.

In recent weeks, however, a weakness has become clear – Alves gets dragged too narrow into the centre of the defence, and opponents can create chances by knocking the ball over his head. This was obvious in both Milan and Real Madrid’s recent victories over Barcelona, but it’s been a continual theme since the start of 2013.

Alves isn’t even able to defend in his old style – Jordi Alba has become Barcelona’s more attacking full-back on the left, and Alves has started to play a more conservative game. Unfortunately, he’s not really suited to that role – and the Brazilian’s defensive weakness has been exposed more than ever before.

Dembele deeper

Stylistically, Mousa Dembele must be one of the Premier League’s strangest footballers. He initially made an impact at Fulham as a wide forward, and it was somewhat surprising when Martin Jol brought him into the centre of midfield. But the Belgian thrived in that position, breaking forward powerfully from the centre of the pitch, and that has become his permanent position since his summer move to Tottenham.

But strangely, considering his positional development, Dembele’s greatest weakness from that position is his lack of goalscoring. Having found the net within 25 minutes of his debut, a substitute appearance at home to Norwich, he hasn’t registered a league goal since – and has managed just 18 shots in 19 league games, a rate less than the likes of Sandro, Chieck Tiote and Steve Sidwell, who all play as defensive midfielders.

Dembele’s style is partly because of his introduction to football. “I always played on the street with two lampposts that were like a basketball pitch,” he told the Daily Mail. “And we could not shoot. You had to dribble and touch the ball on the posts to score, we never shoot the ball.”

There are also tactical concerns – since Sandro’s injury, Dembele has played a much more defensive role because Scott Parker needs more support in the holding midfield role, so goals are likely to be even rarer.

Bayern’s defensive resilience comes from ball retention

Bayern’s defensive record this season is absurdly good – they’ve conceded just eight goals in 24 league games, and even more startlingly, just one from their twelve away matches, a 1-1 draw at Nurnberg in mid-November.

Bayern complete the fewest tackles, and the fewest interceptions, in the Bundesliga. Their astonishing defensive record is primarily because of their excellent ball retention, and in that sense, Bayern have become the best side in Europe at defending proactively, keeping the ball to prevent the opponents having attempts on goal.

Barcelona are the only side around that boasts a better pass completion rate and more average possession per game, but they aren’t anywhere near as defensively solid – they’ve conceded in their previous 13 matches.

Bayern combine Barca-style possession dominance with more solid positioning at the back, a less exaggerated defensive line, and more height to help defend set-plays. Bayern concede just 7.8 shots per game, two less than any other Bundesliga side, and 1.5 less than Barcelona. Pep Guardiola’s influence at the club might be tricky to determine.

Juventus’ defence must be stopped intelligently

Andrea Pirlo’s influence since he joined Juventus in 2011 has been extraordinary – he was the main man in their unbeaten title success last year, and has also performed well throughout the club’s return to the Champions League, after a couple of seasons away. Slowly, opponents have realised that they must close down Pirlo, to prevent him being a constant influence on games, and spraying his long diagonal passes over the defence to onrushing attackers.

Juve are a much weaker side when Pirlo is occupied – but they also have something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card just behind him. Leonardo Bonucci isn’t as talented as Pirlo, but he can step forward from Juve’s back three and thump some superb long balls towards the wing-backs, essentially working in Pirlo’s shadow.

It’s amazing how few teams concentrate on stopping Bonucci. Usually, Italian clubs play with three attackers, and instruct one to mark Pirlo, with the other two focusing upon stopping the ‘outside’ centre-backs moving forward in possession.

Left-sided Giorgio Chiellini, who started his career as a left-back, can be dangerous on the ball. But Bonucci’s long passes are significantly more dangerous than Andrea Barzagli’s half-hearted forward bursts from the right. Opponents should stop Pirlo, then Bonucci, then Chiellini – and leave Barzagli free.

West Ham crossing rarely results in goals

Sam Allardyce recently praised his team in a post-match interview, by citing how many crosses they’d attempted throughout the game – effectively one every two minutes. But crossing remains an extremely inconsistent way of creating goalscoring chances, especially if this is a side’s primary approach.

That’s summed up by Matthew Jarvis’ statistics this season. He’s delivered 165 crosses this season, with a decent cross completion rate, yet hasn’t recorded a single assist. His woes are inextricably linked, of course, to the form of Carlton Cole, Andy Carroll and Marouane Chamakh – none of whom can be considered prolific centre-forwards, and Jarvis’ individual performances haven’t been disastrous.

But West Ham are too predictable in their play. Allardyce has received constant criticism for the Hammers’ home form since he took charge in 2011, but their away goalscoring record this season is terrible – nine goals in 14 games.

Allardyce will be aware that his side cross the ball more frequently than any other Premier League team – 29, two more than Everton and Reading, but with only 4.1 shots on target per game, the approach is clearly limited.



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.