Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dunga to make a return to the bench?

During the 2010 World Cup, I was among several voices to suggest that, whether Brazil went on to glory or fall at an earlier hurdle, and regardless of aesthetic considerations, this was a team that played with the cohesiveness of club side. More to the point, I reckoned that Dunga appeared every inch a club coach, having managed to instill a mechanical quality in his team's play.

Granted, international football provides less of an opportunity for coaches to impose their model on a squad than is true of their club counterparts. There are, though, some managers who seem to imbue any side with a system that is distinctively their own; whoever hires Arrigo Sacchi, Marcelo Bielsa or Alberto Zaccheroni for instance surely knows that these are not the most holisitic nor improvisational of coaches and that their unyielding methods seem to accompany them wholesale. You want this coach, you sign on for the whole package. So perhaps such coaches, assuming the playing staff are compatible, are suited to making the switch between club and country.

Dunga, when we consider his lack of experience, might seem an odd addition to that crew. But what if he were to take the jump the other way around? Yes, club management is a different kind of gig, surely there is no greater baptism of fire for a rookie than the pressure of negotiating Brazil through an international tournament.

Following his exit from the national team, there was serious talk of Dunga being replaced by current Internazionale boss Leonardo. The speculation was rendered credible by recalling how Leonardo had merely been through a stint as youth team coach before making the jump from various directorial functions to senior team coach within the AC Milan empire. Either way, that still amounted to some serious fast-tracking.

In Dunga's case, there were rumours last year that he might take the managerial reins at his old club Fiorentina, and this time round he is being linked to another team close, perhaps closest, to his heart, Internacional of Porto Alegre.

Overall, the southern Brazilian club has been a success story in recent years, collecting two Libertadores, beating Barcelona to collect the World Club Cup gong and narrowly missing out on the domestic league title in the midst of dubious refereeing in favour of eventual winners Corinthians (according to post-facto comments by Corinthians' own president at that time). The Colorado, along with São Paulo, have perhaps more than any Brazilian club been a model of institutional stability, organisation and youth player production, Alexandre Pato, Sandro and Giuliano being notable examples.

Inter also formed a young Carlos Bledhorn Verri (Dunga's real name) since adolescence, though in truth it was as much Dunga himself who did the forging, by force of his sheer resolve. In a manner which would echo Scott Parker's career at Charlton Athletic, Dunga initially struggled to make an impression as a striker, all bustle and no finesse, only for him to refashion himself as an enforcing midfielder. His European career spells would take him to Pisa, Fiorentina and Stuttgart and would propel him towards his crowning achievement, vindication even, when he lifted the World Cup in 1994.

An admirer of Dunga's Brazil, Michael Cox of dissected the system that the disciplinarian coach implanted upon the side between the aftermath of the 2007 Copa America success and the impressive World Cup qualification campaign in South America. It was a pity, others suggested that Spain and Brazil did not cross paths during the finals and we were left with a sense of what could have been one of the great tactical match-ups in history: the world's best possession-based side versus the best counter-attacking side. As Tim Vickery remarked, Brazil were potentially more lethal when defending a corner than were opponents who were taking it.

If only in terms of its assymetry, that Brazil side bore a resembleance to the 4-2-2-2 of the 1982 side whom Dunga held in scant regard. Of course, Telê Santana's central midfield pairing of Toninho Cerezo and Falcão couldn't be further removed from the destructive stylings of the Gilberto Silva - Felipe Melo double act. As with Éder almost three decades ago, Robinho played as a winger-cum-support striker on the left. But for the wide-of-centre role along the other flank, Dunga's preference for the application of an-round player such as Elano contrasted with Santana's use of the artistic Zico playing higher and with licence to drift inside and combine with Socrates, the side's other advanced playmaker. In this later respect, the trequartistas were also representative of the broader difference in style between the sides; whereas Sócrates was languid and imaginative, Kaká was percussive and objective.

How is all this relevant to S.C. Internacional?

Current coach Celso Roth is grudgingly respected but not universally liked amongst the fans, who look at his CV and see a litany of 'nearly-man' moments. As the Brazilian phrase goes, he is the eternal "Paraguayan horse", meaning that he starts campaigns spectacularly well only to fall at the later stages whether on account of insufficient tactical nous or poor psychological masterand just when the going gets tough. It is true that Roth steered Inter to the Libertadores title in 2010, but this was after being hired ad hoc following the sacking of Jorge Fossatti and with the team already at the quarter-final stage. More specifically, the sceptics reckon that even though Roth is adept at organising teams, his vision of the game is too reactive and also derivative.

His predecessor Fossatti had struggled to mould Inter in a 3-4-2-1 shape and with a counter-attacking style, this in a team overflowing with creative midfielders and wanting in quality wing-backs. Domestic results were dissapointing but Fossatti did have the good sense to introduce a 4-2-3-1 arrangement towards the end of his reign which better distributed the players over the pitch and lent the defence more protection whilst thrusting young speedster Taison into a wide-attacking role. Upon commandeering proceedings, Roth did well not to shake things up and so a counter-attacking style took hold - not that a 4-2-3-1 is necessarily conducive to counter-attacking, but rather the ultra-defensive posture of central midfield duo Guiñazu and Sandro ensured that most of Inter's elaborate play restricted itself to in and around the final third.

Since the summit of glory reached in August, things have not gone so smoothly for Inter and Roth. To be fair, such is the precarity of player contracts with Brazilian clubs and so alluring is the interest of European club suitors, standout talents in these competitions tend to be sold on immediately by their clubs who calculate that these players have reached their peak of their South America-based cycle in terms of media projection and so it is better to cash in. Tottenham Hotspur had already signed Sandro months before his bow-out in the Libertadores final, for example, and Inter had to plead with the North London club to be allowed to continue availing of the defensive midfielder right up until he would join Spurs' opening league campaign. This just goes to show the logistical as well as business minefield that Brazilian clubs have to negotiate in terms of maximising yield from their player assetts. With a Libertadores Cup on his CV, Sandro could have been hawked to a higher bidder, but Spurs had offered the cash before Libertadores success had even looked like a remote possibility.

In the wake of the South Africa World Cup, Brazil's sports media was filled with talk of the 4-2-3-1 which, despite its obsequiance across Europe this past decade, is a relative novelty in South America. Inevitably, Roth was accussed of adopting this formation as one might any mere fad and just when it was enjoying popularity. Which is a bit unfair. Would Roth or any Brazilian coach for that matter be unjustified in looking far afield for tactical inspiration? The same critics who denounced this supposed display of fickleness often were the same who simultaneously accused him of stubborness and of being wedded to antiquated tactics such as 3-5-2 or his occassional use of three defensive midfielders. Roth could never please everybody even if he tried.

With this in mind, Inter has begun to rebuild so as to best emulate the team in place during the first half of 2010. However, such rebuilding need not be anywhere near as thorough as that which the likes of Flamengo or Fluminense, other clubs to have enjoyed recent success followed by transfer market depredation, have had to undergo. A replacement was and still is needed for Taison to open up the attack. Zé Roberto was brought in from Vasco da Gama but, bizarrely, Roth has insisted on fielding an advanced midfield trio without the only player comfortable attacking from wide areas.

It goes without saying that 4-2-3-1 is not some kind of monolith and that players of varying styles can be accomodated by it. Even so, if the formation was indeed developed in Spain with the intention of facilitating as many ball-playing specialists as possible, then some of Celso Roth's colourings of the format seem disconcerting. For example, Gattuso-esque midfielders such as Guiñazu and Tinga have often featured in the three-quarters role. Rafael Sóbis, whilst hardly an immobile target man in the Serginho Chulapa mould, clearly struggles to reproduce his best form playing so wide and relatively deep. Then there is the impact of Giuliano's departure for FC Dnipro which, though good business for Inter in terms of cash stumped up by the Ukrainians, served to highlight how little Roth trusted the young playmaker who was ideally suited to any of the advanced midfield positions in the system. Inter now have a similarly-hewn tyro to follow in Guiliano's footsteps. Oscar, who featured in the successful South American U-20s tournament, should be accomodated so as not to leave Argentine enganche Andrés D'Alessandro exclusively burdened with dictating the play, but if Roth was loathe to use Giuliano - what chances him calling upon an even younger talent?

The suspicion prevails that Roth is trying to squeeze players into an immutable system of play when he would do as well to institute a new structure to suit the characteristics of the players at his disposal. For example, the classic Brazilian 4-2-2-2 or even a diamond midfield would make sense in that at Inter have more than two defensive midfielders, two playmakers and three strikers in the senior squad who would be considered part of the 'starting fourteen', if we are to go by the law of 11 + 3 super substitutes. For the sake of dressing-room contentment, it may be necessary to introduce a two-striker system.

If indeed Dunga does land the managerial hotseat at the Beira Rio stadium, it will be fascinating to see whether he takes such a measured approach or whether, convinced of the merits of his system with the seleção, he will try to implement that assymetric formation which was variably4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2 or 4-2-2-2 depending on who you talked to. What was discernable to all eyes, though, was the torted shape and the diagonal running from the outside-left (Robinho) to the right-of-centre midfielder (Elano, sometimes Dani Alves or Ramires). Each one of the latter three brought his own qualitites to bear on a berth that required diligence and dynamism. Were he to reconstitute this with the current Inter squad, Dunga would find Guiñazu and Tinga can offer the hard running of a Ramires, though no obvious candidate to replicate Elano's quintessentially balanced game. Perhaps Oscar can be remoulded to become something of a box-to-box player (albeit one with finesse), something of a big ask within the context of Brazilian playmakers and the almost Argentine-like reverance they are afforded. In any case, it would surely serve Oscar in a future move to Europe since even playmakers there are expected to contribute defensively.

For the wide-attacking role, Sóbis, though nowhere near as fast as Taison and certainly not anywhere near as tricky as Robinho, could do a job cutting onto his preferred right-foot. The Luis Fabiano-role would be contested by the rangy, aggressive youngster Leandro Damião and new signing, Argentine number nine Fernando Cavenaghi, but it is hard to see Alecsandro, with his lack of composure in the penalty and his earned distrust from the Inter faithful, clambering back up the pecking order to be the targetman. Pedigree would give Cavenaghi the nod but the 3-player limit on non-naturalised foreigners may provide more starting opportunities for Leandro Damião.

Early days yet, but the best addition so far to the Colorado has been Argentine defensive midfielder Mario Bolatti. The player won himself a transfer to Fiorentina in early 2010 on the back of steady performaces for Angel Cappa's Huracán plus, of course, that dramatic goal which clinched World Cup qualification for Argentina in Montevideo. At six foot three inches, Bolatti becomes an valuable bulwark against high balls aimed between Inter's ageing centre-backs, something which Sandro used to provide. The last thing anybody was expecting however, least of all the player himself was that he would notch up three goals in his opening two games for Inter (from a career-total of nine, to date) but apart from understandably ingratiating himself with the supporters, such a feat now provides Inter with an added threat from set-pieces. Dunga, let it be said, placed a premium on well-rehearsed set-pieces as a part of Brazil's offensive armoury.

Taken within the wider context of Brazilian football, and despite the ignimony over Brazil's World Cup exit and Dunga's hostile demeanour throughout the tournament, it is hard to conceive of the 1994 Cup-winning captain being treated with ridicule or even scepticism should indeed he chose to enter club management in Porto Alegre. Unprofessional outbursts aside, no one could accuse Dunga of being managment putty in the meddlesome hands of the Brazilian Football Confederation and its notoriously politicking patriarch, Ricardo Texeira. On the contrary, the former Inter player demonstrated an uncompromising integrity against special interests in stark contrast with some of the shady dealings that have pervaded the gravy train that is and was the Brazilian national team in recent years. If such an experience has not gelded him for the intrigues and pressure of a club coaching job, then he surely will lose no time in trying to impose his will.

As for the implications of what style of football Dunga represents and how his teams, nay before kicking a ball, would be perceived, it is hard to say. It is true he is a poster boy, a convenient one at that, for the kind of dogged, more athletic football that seemed to take hold in Brazil since the dawn of the nineties. But it is not as if Brazilian coaches nationwide have needed any encouragement in following suit as Brazilian midfields became beefed-up, nor have many had the means or disposition to fight a rearguard ideological reaction in homage to the sides of 1982 and 1970.

Arguably the most entertaining club side of recent years, the Santos of Neymar and Ganso would be immensely popular champions were they to sweep to the league title with their customary panache, and deservedly so. But the fact remains that the most successful Brazilian sides of recent years, in terms of silverware have been defensively-minded, and in the cases of São Paulo and Fluminense, even cagey.

A Dunga-led side would not be melifluous entertainers but they almost certainly would be effective, better at doing what most Brazilian sides end up resorting to anyway.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Two cents on England's midfield versus Denmark

Here is a maelstrom of thoughts on the tactical component of England's midfield set-up versus Denmark in Copenhagen.

Leading up to the game there was much discussion surrounding 19-year old Jack Wilshere and specifically Fabio Capello's pronouncements on the Arsenal man playing a deep-lying role. Perhaps the waters were muddied by Capello's allusions to Claude Makélélé and his eponymous role. The Guardian's Paul Hawyard, for instance, prompted an intriguing debate by questioning whether a holding role would "shackle" Wilshere

Amidst all this, I thought it might be timely to delve into some of the points raised in that ensuing debate and try to seperate hot air, as I see it, from substance.

The notion of a player having "natural position" or being "played out of position" is constantly levelled at coaches who make anything from radical alterations to slight adjustments. Such a view can also be needlessly restrictive, after all, many players can perform in more than one recogniseable position without significantly altering their role or much less subverting their innate qualities.

For instance, is Lionel Messi necessarily shackled when varyingly being started at outside-right in one game and false centre-forward in the next? Is there a noticeable rise or dip in his performance? Does his natural game suffer?

This, I must qualify, is not to be equated with those reliably versatile players, those jacks of all trades who often appear to exude seven-out-of-ten in every category yet nine-out-of-ten in no particular one (which still, let it be said, amounts to what are demonstrably good players).

So often do we overlook that positions and roles are not fixed, sovereign coordinates but rather colourings detectable on a vast spectrum, one position invariably bleeding into another. In the above example of Messi, the player will obviously benefit from a certain degree of freedom to displace himself to those areas and towards those players with whom he feels most comfortable. The day some benighted tactician plays Messi as a central midfielder or at left-wing back, these logical leaps will doubtless induce us to decry such abuse of a player's faculties.

Even the most fervent tactical chartspotter will suffer fatigue when attempting to pinpoint a player's fixed position along the spectrum; akin to attempting to define a precise shade of blue. Yet in the face of such an engulfing reality, reactions range from weary to forensic. The late Gianni Brera for instance bequeathed the Italian language an impressive lexicon of tactical terms and definitions for various positions in football. This legacy was not confined to a sports-media chateratti but permeated down to the popular classes and their vernacular. Which may explain why Capello with his holding forth on "the Makelele role" probably thought he was merely using verbal shorthand or engaging in casual bar-talk, not exhaustive nit-picking.

One theme which cropped up in discussion of Wilshere's role was the promotion of 'versatility'.
Towards that strand of footballers who are praised for their consistently even performances across a variety of positions, we are usually more accepting of their temporary displacement and even the resultant discretion of their performances. It is as if their natural game didn't seem eye-catching enough to warrant attention in the first place or to be missed thereafter. They are "doing a job", as the parlance goes. Maybe they could be doing a better job elsewhere but this doesn't nag at our conscience nor is our sense of there being some harmony in the footballing cosmos disturbed.

Nonetheless, let's examine this custom in its other manifestations; what if the fruits of this job-doing are the shackling of a player whose plenitude is blatantly being curtailed ? His versatility becomes a personal degradation and a collective atrophy since the benefits of his natural 'specialised' game we can't bear to go without.

Bringing this back to England and Wilshere inio the context of that Denmark game, it is difficult to discern what Wilshere's role was or, for that matter, what it was intended to be. Was he simply to share duties with Frank Lampard, as one of two indistinguishable parts? Would this be tantamount to overlooking their quite different qualities?

The Chelsea man's movement is locomotive and his instinct objective, whereas the Arsenal tyro is more elusive and imaginative respectively. Lampard is associated with conclusion where Wilshere's game is more conducive to progression. And if they were intended to be a central duo, what office were they entrusted to share, caution or enterprise? The emphasis could have been towards sitting-back but equally getting forward as often as possible might have been the priority. We are told by those advocates of yoking box-to-box midfielders in pairs that the players themselves will sort it out and come to an understanding. Yet there might be recrimination if the sum of the two players is a pale diminishment of their seperate contributions from when they were both individual parts.

Furthermore, Arsène Wenger's assertion that he sees Wilshere as "more of a box-to-box player" is probably attested to by heat maps, but surely it also ought to be qualified by the admission that he is very much a box-to-box playmaker, whereas Lampard (closer to the steamrolling Bryan Robson archetype) is patently not.

Once again, the contentious question of what constitutes a holding midfielder rears its head. To some, the omnipresence of this term in football-related conversation is an irritant. I can't help but think that here language and culture come into play. For many pundits in the Anglophone world, the term has become synonymous with "destruction" and "defensiveness". But is this necessarily the case?

Not so with Spanish for example, where the term mediocentro - literally, 'centre-half' -is the stock phrase that survives into the present day and describes all kinds of central and holding midfielder to the point where there is no distinction between the two. A central midfielder is a player who holds. The degree to which a holding midfielder's particular qualities render his role more or less destructive/creative is as varied as the gamut of players themselves to whom the term is typically applied: Xabi Alonso, Nigel de Jong, Andrea Pirlo and Gilberto Silva are but some of the players usually denominated "mediocentros". This habit is indicative of a common denominator: these players try to stay behind the line of play relative to the ball either as an obstacle or as a reference (a rallying point from where attacks can be recycled again). Ironically, this is a maxim that has been articulated by John Giles, someone who is openly scathing of what he considers to be a senseless veneration of the holding midfielder (though it is not unreasonable to presume that Giles' wrath has been stoked by the preponderance of those holding players who are overtly defensive and lack creative faculties).

It could well be that Fabio Capello envisages Wilshere as a holding midfielder, but certainly the mere presence of another player (any player) accompanying him will entail some licence for Wilshere to venture forward. This is by no means an uncommon arrangement elsewhere. In the classic Spanish double-pivot typified by Valencia between 2000 and 2004, David Albelda was an overtly defensive component whilst Rubén Baraja, though dutifully exercising positional caution, was more of a box-to-box all-rounder. More recently, and perhaps more comparable to England and Wilshere in terms of creativity, is the example of Villarreal and Borja Valero who was redeployed from a more advanced position to partner Bruno Soriano in central midfield, with Bruno clearly more inclined to screen the defence. We could even go back to Cesc Fàbregas' early career at Arsenal when he was occassionally paired with Gilberto Silva or later Mathieu Flamini. Then again, all this could prove to be conjecture were it to emerge that Capello is anticipating a lone holding role for Wilshere in the Pirlo fashion. It would follow that Wilshere would then be England's deepest-lying midfielder, but the knock-on effects are such that Capello would have to consider placing two enforcers in the mould of Gattuso and Ambrosini ahead of the young creator, as did Ancelotti with Pirlo.

One certainty that did transpire in the Copenhagen friendly, was that whatever the doubts surrounding Lampard, Wilshere's deployment in a relatively deep role did bring clarity and fluidity to an area in which England have been orphaned for what must seem like forever. How refreshing it was to see an England goalkeeper and his centre-backs offered a reliable option for the releasing of a first ball out of defence and which wasn't the full-backs spreading to receive, all the while knowing that Wilshere not only served as an outlet to relieve pressure from the press of opposing forwards, but could also subsequently distribute the ball in a manner that was neither overambitious nor bureaucratic.

As regards Lampard and Wilshere in a central pairing, the suspicion abounds that as holding players go they are perfunctory exponents and that both need the company of a specialist to liberate them. But is either man happy to be that safety net to the other for certain passages of play?

Michael Cox of observes that Germany's Basti Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira formed a well-rounded partnership at the 2010 World Cup that somewhat surprised people given Schweinsteiger's more wide-midfield attacking origins. Even more interesting was Schweinsteiger's willingness to sit in midfield and Khedira'a occassional attacking incursions. However, a moot point is whether Germany's midfield stability and fluidity would be adversely alterted were the attacking liberties in the equation to fall 70:30 in Khedira's favour. Paradoxically, Khedira's incorporations into the attack are so dangerous precisely because of their comparative rarity when held against those of Schweinsteiger, in that they are less predictable. With Lampard and Wilshere however, neither is as naturally inclined to screen a defence as is Khedira, which leads me to the following conclusion.

Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere can reign in their dissimilar progressive instincts to play as auxiliary holding midfielders - but not to one another. There is a case to be made for the inclusion of a dedicated holding player of any variety (destructive or creative as the circumstances of each game dicate) - a trio then being formed, enabling both Lampard and Wilshere to more fully exude their respective games without concern for adulteration.

This does raise the question of where Gerrard (among others) would then play - but we've been down this weary road before.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inter vs Inter: Club World Cup preview

No, this is not some concocted spin on in-fighting among the nerazzuri.
Internazionale's problems have been well documented of late, the only contention being whether this is due to Rafael Benitez's tactical obduracy and fitness regime, sheer bad luck with injuries or a perfect storm of all of the above.

But what about their Brazilian namesake, SC Internacional of Porto Alegre?

It's no secret that for any South American club side, the intercontinental gong is seen as the pinnacle of club competition, an attitude completely at odds with the esteem in which European supporters hold it - some more than others, it must be said.

For Inter (the Reds, as opposed to the Black-and-Blues), there is an element of viewing this clash in Manichean terms; the chance to show the rest of the world that no matter how they whisk away the best Brazilian talent at a young age to the higher pay and esteem of European leagues, they cannot ignore or disrespect the South Americans' credentials. Of course, whatever ignorance exists on may be borne out by the reality that winning a one-off match against a European champion (featuring at least three star Brazilian players) is hardly testament to definitive superiority.

We take it as a given that such intercontinental ties should be dismissed by fans of English teams, what, given the cultural isolation between Northern Europe and South America that exits (sometimes self-imposed in the case of England and international tournaments). But besides the innate intertwining of history that exists between Spain and Portugal and their former colonies, there are also strong demographic links with Italy.

Mass immigration during the past century-and-half dictated that over half of today's populations of Uruguay and Argentina is of Italian descent, and large swathes of southern Brazil whence S.C. Internacional draw their support, can boast a similar profile. This has a natural effect of a) better enabling certain players to claim Italian, Spanish or Portuguese citizenship and thereby become eligible to play as EU-community players and b) promoting a level of awareness of southern European club sides among the Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian public. In the case of Brazil, we have big club sides such as Palmeiras and Cruzeiro who were previously called Palestra Italia or indeed smaller sides such as Juventus from São Paulo, founded by Italian immigrants.

In terms of how this affects the World Club Cup, it is certain that claiming the reigning Italian and European champion's scalp would be seventh heaven for the legion of Internacional supporters. For the Milanese outfit, on the other hand, perhaps fans would not exactly cry tears of dispair or joy, but there is at least some pride at stake here and not just in terms of equaling their rossoneri city neighours who won the prize in recent history. The Argentine and Brazilian playing staff at Inter will lend this clash a touch of particular interest and it is hard to imagine Esteban Cambiasso or Lucio taking this adventure lightly.

Admittedly, and from Internazionale's perspective, the intrigue surrounding the mini-tournament in Abu Dhabi has increased somewhat due to the 'deliver-or-be fired' sign that seems to be floating above Rafa Benitez head.

Nevertheless, there was never any danger that this competition would be taken for granted on the part of Internacional, and the consensus in Porto Alegre seems to be that Rafa's difficulty is Celso Roth's opportunity. The Spaniard's managerial counterpart has admitted to effectively having given up on trying to dispute the Brazilian league title since about two-thirds of the way through and instead focusing all his efforts on an immaculate preparation for Abu Dhabi.
Even the final games of the Brazilian championship were treated as training exercises in advance of the World Club Cup, with tactical alterations being tested and players being rested/put through their paces in accordance with the coach's masterplan.

As if that wasn't enough, hardly a day has gone by when the sports media has not reported on every possible muscular contraction or bruise emerging out of Appiano Gentile thousands of miles away. Inter di Milano's injury crisis may be worrying Massimo Moratti but it is being relished by Inter de Porto Alegre and alterations to playing strategy are being realised on this basis.

At this juncture it is best to sound a cautionary note; poor domestic and continental form is no more an indicator of how Benitez' men will perform in this very singular and special tie than is Internacional's predilection for patient, elaborative football a sign of how they will set-out to face blatantly superior opposition. What price the nerazzurri, counting on the likes of Zanetti and Maicon, will play out of their skins and generate a revival that could turn their entire season around?

As for the colorado let us bear in mind just how they won this title the last time around. In 2006, a Ronaldinho-led Barcelona was not able to break down Inter's massed ranks that included some details of man-marking. Inter nicked the game with a counter-attack in the second-half. It was a similar story the year before; a miserly Sao Paulo defeated Liverpool albeit in a manner that was not overtly different to the style of football that they usually paraded in Brazil ( playing at times with five men across the back).

So how will Roth approach this game tactically? Will he smell the blood of a stumbling Internazionale and look to capitalise on this by sending out his team in their customary open manner?

In my opinion this would be foolhardy, since recent history suggest that the only viable way for the South American club sides to topple European opponents is by sitting deep. In this year's victorious Libertadores campaign, Roth managed to push the team's defensive line up signicantly higher than is the norm in Brazil and encouraged his players to press their rivals whilst staying compact as a block. But this was generally against sides who are used to playing in a much more dispersed manner.

Consider, after all, the distances that exist between lines. Thiago Silva has spoken of the difficulties he faced after moving to Milan since at Fluminense he had been accustomed to loitering in the vicinity of his own final third. With defensive midfielders, advanced midfielders and forwards all seperated over a greater extent of pitch than one would expect to find with a European team, defensive funcitons are in theory zonal but in practice become man-to-man, such is their predictability. But now the Reds will be facing an Italian club who are used to playing in a more compact style week-in, week-out.

My own view is that whilst Roth would prefer his players to defend aggressively, he will be sensible enough to sit quite deep and in a 4-3-2-1 formation. The Christmas Tree is hardly new to Inter; indeed, their Libertadores campaign typically featured that or else a 4-2-3-1 depending on the opposition they faced. In practical terms, this equated to Roth removing one of the offensive midfielders for a more combative player when the occassion so suited.

The run-in for the domestic championship did see Internacional revert to a more Brazilian 4-2-2-2, but as mentioned above, the marking duties in such a scheme are usually mirrored in the positioning of the opponents; volantes pick up the centralised meias, the meias pick up the rival volantes and so forth.

Against the nerazzuri however, the Brazilian side would be facing a 4-2-3-1 set up with emphasis on pace and doubling-up along the flanks. Bear in mind that the Brazilian 4-2-2-2 differs from the Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini variations: whereas Arsenal and Villarreal entrusted their playmakers (Pires, Cazorla etc) to shore up the flanks when out of possession, the Brazilian equivalents usually stay central and indeed dormant for large periods in the defensive phase. It is hard to imagine that Roth will want his offensive full-backs (Kleber and Nei) to be exposed to constant 2v2s from the likes of Maicon and Pandev.

What we might see therefore is an extremely defensive midfield trivot featuring the tenacity of Pablo Guinazu, Tinga and Wilson Mattias. Note that not one of these players is really a playmaker in any sense. The former two have been used in more box-to-box roles in the past but overall the emphaisis here would be on shifting across to screen the vulnerable full-back whilst also screening the central area just in front of the back four.

Creative duties will almost exclusively be delegated to the advanced midfield pair (D'Alessandro and probably Giuliano) who will be expected to feed a lone striker, the rapid Rafael Sobis or the bulkier presence of Alecsandro. The choice of the later will largely depend on how confident Roth feels about entrusting his men with possession. The more technically adept Sobis is clearly the man to lead the line if quick counter-attacking is the order of the day. Alecsandro can hold the ball up for the encroaching pair of enganches plus the overlapping full-backs if Inter are to have any hope of elaborating their play. This would have the advantage of relieving the Brazilian side of pressure and taking the sting out of the game, rather then converting the game into a to-and-fro contest, a contest in which they could never be sure as to when they would recapture the ball.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tactical Variations for the Clásico.

Will Mourinho try a tactical variation in the Clásico at the Camp Nou?

His stated favourite platforms of play are the 4-3-3 and the 4-diamond-2, though he does tend to tweak both formats to accomodate whatever players he finds at his disposal. There has been talk of Zé Mário jettisoning the improvising presence of a mediapunta in order to beef-up the central midfield.

And yet, it's hard to imagine José Mourinho dispensing of the creativity of Mesut Oezil, even if the benefit of a midfield trivot (Alonso-Lass-Kherdira) does appeal to him. It largely depends on how badly Mourinho will want his players to hold on to the ball - and last year against Inter, Pep Guardiola saw just what a Trojan gift was his rival's renunciation of possession. So whilst the potential gains in terms of adding Lass to the central midfield are obvious - aggression and anticipation in closing down Xavi and Iniesta - surely Mourinho would be loathe to forego the asset of that immutable front four (Oezil, Cristiano, DiMaria and Higuaín) who almost alone are expected to generate solutions in the final third whenever Madrid's collective play requires something more intricate beyond the 'Alonso + raking pass = counter-attack' staple.

Oezil as a false nine?

It would be uncharacteristic of the coach, sure, since he has always tried to play with one recogniseable centre-forward (with Gonzalo Higuaín currently being the closest thing to that) - preferably a bustling targetman, and thereby having an outlet to relieve pressure when Madrid are pinned deep or else to bypass midfield during the attacking build-up. Although the rapid, surgical counter-attack is still the mainstay of this Mourinho offering, it is a modification from his Internazionale and Chelsea formats; relying less on bludgeoning rival defences so much as dizzying them with rapid interchanges among four pacey attackers.

But alongside such technical matters, we may also have to admit an element of political agenda; namely, that Higuain alone is expendable amidst the intrigue that pervades the Bernabeu club hierarchy. No matter that Mourinho way well like the Argentine striker, for all that he may value Pipita and disregard the shabby consideration which is afforded him by elements within the club and a Pérez-compliant Madridista press, the Portuguese coach has never been the type to refuse to plunge the sword where no quarter is expected and could well be imagined turning Higuain's lack of political capital to his own advantage. So basically this would make Higuain benchable, whilst leaving the annointed ones (Ronaldo, Oezil and DiMaria) in the starting line-up.

Barcelona's high-line:

The varying interpretations of the false Nine role tend to complicate life for opposing centre-backs, particularly those who are perhaps not the quickest across the ground and instead relish treading on the toes of their goalkeeper and minimising aerial balls into the box. The more torpid they are, the greater their comfort at playing deeper but this has the effect of enabling the opposing false-nine to lure said centre-backs out of their comfort zone lest they cede the numbers advantage in midfield (generated by the false nine dropping deep to combine with his own midfielders).

Alternatively, and against a relatively high defensive line, the false nine's distracting movements have the effect of setting-up those dreaded diagonal runs from the 'outside-to-in' forwards; inside of the full-back and leaving the stranded centre-back in a one-on-one situation (if indeed he is lucky to still be in contention) with the attacker.

It is not hard to imagine such a scenario in the Camp Nou with Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Maria as executors of the outside-to-in run, whilst playing against what will surely be a very high Barcelona defensive line, all aided and abetted by Oezil's inverse movements.

But one might question to what extent would Oezil's forward-to-midfield movement be a fait accompli, necessitated by the more pressing concern for Madrid; that they must prevent Barcelona from converting midfield possession into a monologue, and all the more so in the context of a technically modest trio (Xabi Alonso notwithstanding) standing athwart this procession. Therefore, Oezil might well spend most of the game lurking closer to midfield anyway to relieve the pressure on his teammates in this sector. And given that Lionel Messi could himself be acting as the false nine who drops to triangulate with Xavi and Iniesta, the pulse of the game would likely gravitate towards this central midfield area. Concurrently, the Barcelona centre-backs would be as well to let Oezil drop off and not follow him, since his main function may become less one of drawing opponents onto him and more of trying to ease telling balls into the Barcelona defensive third. And with two centre-backs staying even and holding their line, the Barcelona full-backs would have much greater impetus to station themselves higher into the middle third, thereby drawing Ronaldo and Di Maria further away from making those defence-splitting runs.

To prove this later point, just try imagining the opposite scenario; if Barcelona were to play their customary high line, if Puyol were to constantly track Oezil towards the midfield, and if Dani Alves and, say, Maxwell/Abidal were to station themselves closer to the holding midfielder, Gerard Pique would find himself playing as a de facto sweeper and ergo could be playing onside two Madrid attackers (Cristiano Ronaldo and Di Maria making those diagonal runs) with acres of space behind even him. With Puyol accompanying him more closely, the offside trap could still be activated all while at least being able to count on the security of a 2-v-2 situation (a risk which Barcelona are often happy to incur anyway, most notably whenever Pique strides forward to initiate and follow-through on attacks, and either Sergio Busquets will drop back or Eric Abidal can tuck in from wide alongside Puyol). If you will, it is a proactive and provoking way of arresting the opponents' attempts to man-up in this particular sector; rather than accepting the static picture of marking distributed before them, the defenders are willing to assume the even numbers risk by threatening to overload another sector. In the win-win scenario, the opponents would withdraw one of their attackers thereby allaying the 2v2 scenario in the first place. This is the rejection of the need for permanent cover. Marcelo Bielsa, justifying his propensity to select full-backs or defensive midfielders in a three-man backline, explained it thus:

"The important thing is to spread over the pitch well, to have a tight block, that our defenders and forwards are separated by no more than 25 metres, and that we don’t have people in defense busy marking someone who doesn’t exist."

Arrigo Sacchi, the arch-proponent of the zone, was elaborating these ideas more than two decades ago. As he told Alessandro Zauli in 2000: “Our true formation was movement… we weren’t concerned with having situations of numerical superiority at the back”.

So a game of cat and mouse could await us at the Camp Nou, albeit one of an attacking, risk-taking nature.

Who will assume the greater risk to receive the reward?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Villarreal's South American-European fusion:

Villarreal prove that it is possible to play 4-4-2 across four lines

Above figure 1: Villarreal's 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 shape.

If Jonathan Wilson's explanatio
n as to raison d'être of the 4-2-3-1 formation is true (affording licence to playmakers and dribblers in an age of increased physicality), then little wonder it first became popularised in Spain, that country that produces a phalanx of ball-players; players who would be miscast if they were to operate as traditional box-to-box dynamos in a 4-4-2. Witness, for example Roy Hodgson's struggles to impart lessons on Liverpool's more adept ball players, or more pointedly, Joe Cole's entire history as a young footballer.

Another reason perhaps why 4-2-3-1 is advantageous to such players, is that it enables them to defend higher up the pitch. When their team recovers possession, the creators are in closer proximity to both their own forwards and to their opponent's goal. Closer, in other words, to their natural habitat, to their comfort zone. Clearly you would not want to see the likes of Joe Cole or Theo Walcott vainly huffing and puffing inside their won final third.

It is a staple of tactics-centred discussion that formation is not an absolute but a neutral template subject to the holistics of exploiting player characteristics. From this principle can be extrapolated a further observation; the formation (based on average starting position) is not the shape a team will adopt during defensive phase, with teams switching to one or even two seperate configurations depending on the mome
nt of play. As Rafa Benitez said of 4-2-3-1; it can transform itno a 4-3-3 (4-2-1-3) or a 4-4-1-1 depending on the human material available and the manager's preferred model of play or his overriding specific objectives for the game at hand. Clearly some formations are more congenial to certain transformations than others due to the simplest of positional adjustments, and so 4-3-3 can become 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 invariably morphs into 4-4-1-1, 4-3-1-2 tends to become 4-3-2-1 and even 4-2-2-2 can be transformed into a 4-2-3-1 through the application of one of the strikers.

Internazionale under Jose Mourinho played a 4-2-3-1 (that became 4-4-1-1 in the defensive stage) but that, under a different coach with a different set of proirities and the same group of players, may well have been rendered it a 4-2-1-3 (becoming 4-2-3-1 in defensive phase). [This seemed to be the intention that Rafa Benitez was entertaining at the start of the 2010-11 Serie A season; a more pro-active Inter stationed further up the pitch which in theory would alleviate Samuel Etoo' and Goran Pandev of much defensive burden. This plan of course has been overturned by an unseemingly concession on the part of Benitez towards positional autonomy and tactical assymetry largely at the behest of Samuel Etoo, with the result that Inter now resemble a leftward-inclining 4-2-2-2 whenever Milito dislodge
s the Cameroonian international towards a nominal wide role].

All of the above permutations are in adherence to the near-universal truth that top-flight teams nowadays can no longer afford to work less than nine men behind the ball (Fabio Capello dixit), the dilemna is one of how to configure these nine men in an effective manner without causing total distortion of their natural game. For certain players, there must be a compromise made between standing around idly and tracking back all the way to their own corner flag.

We have seen in recent yea
rs, the past three seasons to be specific, the disturbance rendered by teams trying to not just tweak their formation, but thinking they can do so without overhauling their model of play. Arsenal, in a post Vieira-context, come to mind. That their 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 variants have not made them less vulnerable to conceding goals is due to a lack of intensity in their pressing, and not necessarily ferocity in the tackle. The football is arguable more expansive than ever but they are playing with the purpose and effectiveness of the lacsadaisacal Barcelona side of 2007-2008, going through the motions, usually comfortable but never quite convincing. This is largely borne of a side and a manager whose platform of play was built around defending relatively deep, absorbing pressure and then hitting teams on incisive ball-to-feet counter-attacks.

Yes, the Arsenal of the 2001-02 or even the Invincibles vintage could elaborate play to the point of dizzying opponents but this was tempered by two factors:
firstly, Arsenal's most convincing wins when coupled with poised and deliberative build-up play came at a time when in the Premier league many more mid-to-lower table teams played a very open, vertical and naive form o
f football. These green pastures abounded before inferior teams began to employ their essentially negative take on 4-5-1 and set-up camp around their own final third. Put simply, teams are no longer pouring forward and affording the Gunners ample space to cut through them on the occassion of counter-attacks.

Secondly, there is the small matter of Europe: can it be purely coincidence that Wenger's most successful foray into Europe came only in 2005-06 after switching to 4-2-3-1 for European encounters? It was seen at the time as a concession towards negativity, but in reality with an extra playmaker between the lines it helped Arsenal masticate possession as well as defend more effectively.

That older Arsenal (2000-2005) was a side which tended to switch from 4-2-2-2 to a 4-4-2 in defensive phase. The strikers were exempt of defensive duties whilst the wide playmakers were expected to align themselves with the rock-solid central midfielders in a line of engament, but in order to avoid space between their back four and midfield opening it was necessary to move the two banks close together; effectively Arsenal had two lines of defence which were usually stationed deep-to-medium high, which means that the midfield line (the first one to pressurise opponents) would either set up on the cusp of its own final third or else just inside its own half, respectively. Of course, the amount of times this would happen was barely noticeable since the proportion of time spent without the ball by Arsenal, who maintained possession much better than
did their domestic opponents anyway, was miniscule.
And even when forced into such a position, the side was blessed with quick passers and fast runners like Pires, Ljunberg and Henry so that the counter-attack was surgically effective and quick.

Those sides were also predicated on a defensively solid double pivot in midfield drawn from two of Vieira, Edu and Gliberto Silva. The departures of Vieira and Edu was monumentous in its implications for the sides playing style from 2005 onwards, for although Wenger would spend the next three seasons mai
ntaining the same formation (4-2-2-2), his promotion of Cesc Fabregas changed the complexion of the midfield. Shorn of Vieira's industry, the team was left with only one fetching midfielder (Gilberto or Flamini) covering now for three ball-players instead of two.
Of surpreme importance here was the defensive contribution and positional intelligence of Robin Van Persie from about 2007 until 2009. Even when playing as a strike partner to Emmanuel Adebayor, he consistently would drop off to form a first barrier of defence in the midfield; which meant that Arsenal could switch to 4-4-1-1 in defensive phase. More enticingly, the Gunners could even afford to allow their wide playmakers to partipate in pressing higher up the pitch (now more medium than low) in what was effectively a advanced midfield band of three (Hleb/Ljunberg on the right, Van Persie central and Rosicky/Nasri on the left); so 4-2-2-2 could become 4-2-3-1 when necessary. Arsenal were demonstrably more comfortable with this medium pressing during this transition period of 2007-09 than their confused attempts in a Barcelonaesque guise since 2009. Perhaps a return to this intermediary template might be recommended if the experiment with 4-3-3 continues to prove anaemic.

For a side who look effortlessly assured in a 4-2-2-2, one need not look further than Villarreal. When this team met Arsenal during the March 2009 Quarter-finals of the Champions League, both were playing lar
gely identical formations. At time I recall saying that Manuel Pellegrini's men would essentially be facing a more athletic version of themselves and it largely panned out. But the larger corpus of Pelle
grini's work at Villarreal from 2004-2009 offers encouragement for those who wish to build an side who will elaborate the ball but away from the popular 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 boilerplate.

Manuel Pellegrini's template was restored by current coach Juan Carlos Garrido following a brief parenthesis under Valverde who tried to introduce a Sacchian 4-4-2 based on high defensive line and hard running; didn't really suit the players' style. Basically, under Valverde they resembled a Premier League but they were foresaking their heritage; born of a South American style at a continental European tempo, like a Wenger side but without the physical intensity nor explosiveness. Like a traditional Wenger side they didn't initiate pressing until midfield or sometimes even deeper so as to invite opponents forward and leave space for counter-attack. Like Arsenal, two wide midfielders provided pause and playmaking, this figure rising to three whenever they switched to 4-2-3-1.

There is a tactical reason as to why South Americans find playing in Villarreal to be such a soft landing.

What is noticeable is just how
important an element is proximity in the passing game of sides like Villarreal.They like to triangulate when going forwa
rd, always in the vicinity to one another. Pellegrini said that all five channels of attack must eventually be occupied, but not by designated personnel

Brazilian journalist Rodrigo Leitão from the coaching website Universidade de Futebol has called this Wenger/Pellegrini shape a "U-shaped midfield" as a sort of compromise between the flat midfield four and the pure box midfield of Brazilian and Colombian sides; the former is more conducive to defensive cohesion whilst the later privileges the twin central playmakers. Pellegrini's model allows the wide playmakers to converge centrally when the side has possession, but they must return to defend the flanks during defensive phase. Brazilian playmakers on the other hand have no such obligations, usually opting to loiter centrally just behind their two strikers whilst leaving the grim work of assisting the exposed full-backs to the defensive midfield duo behind them (hence the prevalence of 'broken teams' in Brazilian football).
Apart from the ever-prevelant 4-3-1-2 enganche set-up, the Villarreal model is the most widely imitated interpretation of 4-4-2 across the South American continent. This is true of sides like Nacional of Uruguay, Lanús of Argentina and it was true of the River Plate coached by Pellegrini back in 2003 who caused a furore by moving D'Alessandro out to a wide position. Similar charges of sacrilege were laid at the Ricardo LaVolpe upon his return to Argentina in 2006 to coach Boca Juniors. The arguments laid forth by LaVolpe were practically self-evident: that without a singular fixed enganche, it becomes less easy for opponents to mark such a crucial player out of a game, and since the playmakers will spend much of the match swapping flanks and rarely static, assigning man-marking duties will be a big ask anyway. All that
is asked of the playmaker in return is a little more mobility and a willingness to work behind
the ball, as lesson which Deco and Luka Modric (and even a re-born D'Alessandro playing in Brazil) have taken on board, alas something which Pellegrini clearly failed to impart upon an intransigent Juan Roman Riquelme in 2007.

Garrido's current format heralds a return to the successful and entertaining ways of old. In Pellegrini's final year the wide playmakers (interiores-mediapuntas) were two from Robert Pires, Ariel Ibagaza and the injury-ridden Santiago Cazorla. Now Borja Valero joins a rehabilitated and delectable Cazorla for the 'wide' postions. When in possession they are rarely far from each other (even if one stretches the play, the other will invariably shift across to a central area much like Pires and Ljunberg did at Arsenal).

Since a central tenet of the Villarreal philosophy is that width be fluctuating and never permanent, mobility across the front line is as essential as the presence of attacking full-backs. At least one striker ought to be comfortable drifting out to the flank (as per Thierry Henry) and Garrido is blessed to be able to call upon two of the quickest strikers around; Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar who has proved a perfect replacement for Nihat. That both forwards have doubled as wingers for their respective national sides gives an idea as to their pace. Perhaps the Yellow Submarine has been lacking the Plan B of a more muscular, fixed reference in front of goal since the departures of Joseba Llorente, Guille Franco and Jozy Altidore, but now they have a mobile and technically-giifted quarted in front of holding midfielders Marcos Senna and Bruno. Another option is to replace Senna with the more lightweight yet technically gifted Cani.

Figure 2 below: Villarreal attack - the wide-midfielders move into central areas, whilst a striker takes up a wide position.

It is a common sight to see one of the interiores, a full-back and a striker all whirling around along one flank, only to switch the play if and when the attack becomes congested. The maxim remains the same - three players must be in proximity in order to exchange passes at all times- and it is as much as defensive as an offensive principle; the higher the chances are off ball retention.

Below: Fig 3: Villarreal in defensive phase: pressure begins inside own half and 4-1-3-2 (Senna pressing alongside widemen), before becoming two flat banks of four stationed deep when necessary.

In defensive phase, the team can afford to keep both strikers relatively high since the midfield tends to drop off, conserve energy and only press the ball once inside their own half (whilst arming a potential counter-attack). Nilmar and Rossi are such livewires that they can be entrusted to find sp
ace along any of the five channels in the opponents' half regardless of whereabouts across the pitch they find themselves, thereb
y justifying the deeper positioning of the two banks of four.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Game Changer: the moment Rijkaard's Barcelona came to life

Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona, April 2004, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu

For Madrid, the result was merely confirmation of what had been a deflating title run-in and the first in a series of chastenings for the hitherto Midas-like touch of Florentino Pérez. For Barcelona, the victory was not enough to propel them past a Valencia who were on their way to collect the second La Liga title of Rafa Benitez' reign.

Recall that the merengues had started the 2003-04 season with the discarding of Claude Makélélé which, whatever the financial merits of the deal, was rendered all the more crass for the depreciative and exaggerated comments made by Perez surrounding the future Chelsea player's footballing ability. What proved to be even more debilitating was the dismissal of Vicente Del Bosque when the party celebrating his landing of the 2002-03 title had nary turned cold.

Of the Del Bosque affair , one can say that Valdano and Pérez's justifications - the cited need for a more "modern" and "scientific" coach who would administer an aristocratic dressing-room with personal dettachment- were unconvincing to say the least. That the appointee should be Carlos Queiroz, who had a proven track record of developing young players, was not necessarily inconsistent with the Perez regime's raison d'etre; "Zidanes and Pavones". Queiroz would fabricate a generation of superlative tyros, so the thinking went. His technocracy need not have been an impediment either; witness his role in honing Manchester United's all-conquering 'strikerless' system later in the decade - an oeuvre borne out of the innovative approach displayed by his Portugal youth sides of the early 90s.

No, what was disconcerting about the direction which the Madrid project was taking was that they had dismissed Del Bosque as a 'yes man' for the bootroom and, even more patronisingly, as a tactical naïf; notions which Sid Lowe has pointedly dynamited in the wake of the Salamantine coach's lifting of the World Cup in South Africa. The Real Madrid of the Florentinatum between 2000 and 2003 should have been, by rights, a dysfunctioning circus. And yet Del Bosque managed to foster tactical cohesion on a squad that was never even remotely his in design and no matter the imbalance in superstar-plus-rookie player acquisitions the board would hoist upon him during each transfer window, Madrid did not implode; they won titles.

All of which brings us to the matter at hand; a retrospective of a game, primarily from a tactical viewpoint, which was sapphism for the doomed Queiroz project and a declaration of intent for the Barcelona of Rijkaard and Ronaldinho who would soon initiate a renaissance for the blaugrana club. It was the signalling of the end of a hegemony in Spain, the end to an inferiority complex and the opening-up of a marriage between style and success.

As to the individuals: who to hail as protagonists?
For Barcelona the obvious candidate is Ronaldinho whose scooped pass to set up the winner was symptomatic of the club's new-found confidence. Edgar Davids, acquired on loan from Juventus during mid-season, would offer tenacity and positional nous to the central midfield and take up the slack for his more artistically inclined teammates. What to say about the then 34-year old Phillip Cocu, versatility incarnate, who would switch back to central defence as the second half wore on.

Most tangible, above all, is the appreciation one can hold for Xavi given his presence on today's global stage. I recall the moment of disbelieving marvel, watching in a bar in Alicante mostly populated by Madridistas, when Xavi uncharacterisically ghosted into the box to flick, Matrix-style, an looping volley over the head of Casillas in defiance of a Madrid defence which had gone to sleep trying to execute the offside trap. Butterfly from a cocoon moment? Remember that Xavi up until December 2003 had always played as a holding midfielder, having been groomed to inherit the No.4 shirt from Guardiola. Now he was playmaking but across a greater expanse of the turf.

Madrid? That Esteban Cambiasso, still boasting a hairline, would be shipped out to Internazionale at the season's end was perhaps the ultimate proof of what Steve McManaman would alude to when identifying Florentino's inconsideration of that 'middle-class' of players. Indeed, Cambiasso would go on to demonstrate to all and sundry that a so-called middle-class player, with some support and guidance, can later become a very, very upper-middle class player and exactly the kind of stabilising presence that Real Madrid have been lacking in midfield over recent seasons.

Overall, it was hard to avoid the impression that Queiroz was, by this stage, scrambling for solutions in an improvised midfield pairing. Granted, Cambiasso was not yet the finished article, but his midfield partner Beckham was postionally horrible. Effectively, Beckham was entrusted with playing as fetcher and bulldog to Cambiasso's orchestrator which meant that the England man had to be everywhere and one place at the same time. This is a role better suited for players with the ferocity of Genaro Gattuso or Owen Hargreaves and even then they are effectively playing as appendages for other more tempered holding players. Makelele and Mascherano naturally are two examples of how game-reading and positional discipline is an artform in a situation where most players struggle to adjudicate the right balance between contrasting prerequisites of energetic combativeness and serene concentration.

Figure 2)

In the absence of such an enforcer, and revelling in his slightly more advanced role (though not quite stationed between the lines), Xavi had the freedom of the park to exchange short passes with Ronaldinho and Overmars and even to work his way into the box (See figure 2 above).

So now for the numbers part, the splitting of the hairs. Were Barcelona playing a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 or something in between?

Figure 3) Barcelona's closely operating midfield triangle.

My own impressions are that though Xavi was playing slightly ahead of Davids and Cocu, he was not starting from a seperate band; this was still a tight three-man midfield (see Figure 3) and one which seemed to avoid the potential problems diagnosed in such scenarios by Jonathan Wilson in his recent meditations on the related subjects of 4-2-1-3 and 'broken teams'. To summarise: Cocu held the deepest position just ahead of the centre-backs whilst Davids, barely ahead of him married energy to criteria in shuttling around to shore up various sectors with his harassing and pressing. Xavi started from the same latitude as per his current Barcelona position, namely that of an interior something of a 'box-to-box' playmaker (as confusing as that may sound). The Argentine term No.8 seems the best description of a position which, in terms of positioning and movement if not necessarily style, lies somewhere between the No.5 (deep-lying) and No.10 role.

In purely static terms, this meant that Barcelona left a gulf of space in central areas between the midfield and the front trio of Saviola (later Kluivert) flanked by Ronaldinho and Overmars but this turned out to offer something of an advantage. To paraphrase Roy Hodgson, Ronaldinho would "sag" back from Michel Salgado on the left flank, almost level with Xavi, and draw Salgado towards him. This in turn would create a vacuum between the inside- and outside-left channels towards which centre-forward Saviola would drag either one of the centre-backs (Helguera and the erstwhile full-back Raul Bravo). Concommitantly, Ronaldinho had two options; he could bear down diagonally on goal through the space between the Madrid right-full-back and centre-backs, or could also shift laterally into the centre, right on the verge of the final third so that he would temporarily occupy the unassigned 3/4 role which then Xavi, in turn would either opt not to clutter or else move forward in support of the Brazilian (see Figure 5 further below).

Cambiasso and, primarily Beckham, were left in a dilemna. Either one of them should drop deep to fill the vacated space in Madrid's back line (in light of Saviola's distraction of a centre-back) and yet leave the Ronaldinho-Xavi duet in a 2 v1 situation (against the man who stayed) and with ample time to orchestrate an attack some 40-50 yards from goal. Alternatively, they left the back line exposed to an infiltration from Ronaldinho himself or an out-to-in returning Saviola.

Even Madrid's capacity to shift their back-line across the width of the box as per the classic mechanism of a functioning back-four was compromised by Roberto Carlos' situation on the opposite flank. With Marc Overmars stationed high and wide, and on his stronger right-foot, it was less likely that the Dutchman would cut inside, at least not until reaching close to the byline, and this left the Madrid full-back isolated from his fellow defenders. To what extent Overmars was fulfilling a defensive as well as offensive role in keeping Roberto Carlos pinned back relatively subdued is open to debate; certainly the Brazilian persisted in advancing but this generated an abundance of space for Overmars and even his full-back Reiziger to launch forward into. With Cambiasso finding himself having to come to the aid of Madrid's vacant left-flank, the spaces for Xavi to dictate the game were amplified.

Offence-wise, Madrid were none too shabby. In a recogniseable 4-2-3-1, Raul fulfilled much the same brief as Saviola did for the opposition. Twenty-six years old and already a veteran, the Madrid idol was expected to perform his striking duties without the aid of an injured Ronaldo, and considering he was never really a pure centre-forward, he acquitted himself quite well, demonstrating intelligence through his economical movement and generating linking up well with the advanced midifeld trio of Zidane (left) Solari (centre) and Figo (right). The assigning of these positions is perhaps unsatisfactory since Zidane always tended to move infield whereas Solari was at ease in wide areas (as per Figure 4 below)

Only Figo stayed relatively wide, out on the right, and even then he often lauched diagonal runs. In praise of Figo, he avoided predictability by alternating extremely well with Michel Salgado; one minute the Portuguese would stretch the play to allow the full-back to storm diagonally run through the inside-right channel, the next he himself would move infield to facilitate the overlap for Salgado (see Figure 5 below)

The result was that Madrid often found themselves about 30 yards out from Barcelona's goal and with any four from Zidane, Solari, Figo and Salgado converging within a central area. Given the positional diligence of Phillip Cocu, not to mention the tirelessness of Edgar Davids, Madrid would constantly run into a forest of bodies, which they themselves would further populate and to the point where they invariably took shots from distance. This may paid have dividends in generating the the opening goal; which in truth was as much due to Barcelona's failure to clear a rebounded shot, but this breakthrough only came in the second-half when Queiroz's men were patently running out of ideas for attacking alternatives. Three minutes later, Barcelona would equalise with a goal which cruelly exposed Madrid's lack of defensive synchronisation; Roberto Carlos dawdling on-side whilst the defensive line pushed out, thereby allowing Van Bronkhurst to burst through and lift a ball for Kluivert (who had subbed Saviola) to head home virtually unopposed.

From there on out, the match settled into a pattern so familiar to us now; Barcelona patiently probing in possession - albeit punctuated by the incisiveness of Ronaldinho and Overmars' dribbling - and Madrid chasing shadows.

The Battle for Midfield

Figure 6) In terms of shape, Barcelona's midfield takes on a squared Brazilianesque appearance. Here we witness the benefits of no one Barça player permanently occupying the hole: Xavi moving forward, Ronaldinho drifting infield and Madrid do not know who to pick-up and how.

In Figure 6 we notice how Davids has stolen the ball from Figo in the inside-left channel just inside Barcelona's half. Instead of laying off the ball to whichever one of his centre-backs was not being marked, or even making a lateral pass to Van Bronckurst to his left, the Dutchman chose to exploit Figo's stranded status by advancing into midfield thus creating an overload. Solari has opted to sit very deep to keep tabs on Xavi, whose influence on the game had been growing, instead of trying to join Zidane and Figo in engaging the opponents earlier inside the Barcelona half. With Figo scrambling to get back behind the ball, Raúl dutifully tracks back so that Zidane would not be completely outnumbered in trying to stem Cocu and Davids from progressing. Yet for all Figo and Raúl's willingness, there was a palpable lack of intensity to Madrid's pressing game; uncoordinated, perhaps unrehearsed to the point where Puyol and Oleguer, not to mention Reiziger and Van Bronckhurst found themselves at times with no Madrid player available to close them down. Thus Barcelona were able to carry the ball out with relative ease either centrally (by passing their way in triangles through the outnumbered white shirts) or laterally through their advancing full-backs.

Another tell-tale sign of how improvised was Madrid's pressing tactic is the distance left between defensive lives, namely the first and second lines of pressure in midfield. Seperating the advanced trio (in this moment Figo, Raul and Zidane) from the central duo (Beckham and Cambiasso - who is just out of picture about 5 yards behind Ronaldinho) is a distance of some 20 yards which is remarkable when you consider the following...

Arrigo Sacchi's Milan tried to defend in two banks of four and no further than 12 metres apart. Jose Mourinho prefers his teams, regardless of formation, to defend in three banks, which he feels permits them to cover a greater expanse of the pitch. With roughly 7 metres seperating each line that amounts to 21 metres but this feat is only possible thanks to the midway presence of the holding midfielders. In the case of this particular match incident, the advanced-midfield line and the back four are so far apart (some 25 metres) that not even the endeavour of Beckham (seen here rushing to close down Davids) can bridge this chasm; Madrid have allowed themselves to be stretched, at a time when the liberalisation of the offside law had yet to be introduced, to the point where their advanced midfielders are as distant from the back four as were the strikers in Sacchi's two-band system! At any rate, Beckham's lot here is unenviable; his interception has left space behind for Ronaldinho (again, having sagged and drifted infield) to receive the ball and yet he must do something to reduce the gap since Cambiasso, clearly dreading Ronaldinho's capacity to turn and accelerate (does this not make anyone nostalgic?) has opted to drop off almost as deep as his central defenders.


This was the embryonic version of the present-day Barcelona set-up. Over the next two seasons, two league titles and the Champions League would follow whilst Rijkaard's team would go about consolidating their 4-3-3 set-up, all with significant variations on the template offered here. Cocu moved back to the Netherlands and would be be replaced by Edmilson from Lyon. The front three would preserve the same structure with Ronaldinho featuring on the left and Ludovic Giuly offering a like-for-like swap for Marc Overmars. Of course, Samuel Etoo would provide a degree of physical intensity and application which were not the repetoire of Saviola nor Kluivert and thus Barcelona could escalate their pressing game. The all-action role of Davids was replicated by the arrival of Mark Van Bommel, but an greater element of creativity was to be added in the form of Deco and Andrés Iniesta competing for the other midfield berth alongside Xavi. Now Rijkaard would be able to configure his midfield trio according to whether steel or art was required by the situation.