Euro 2012: England v Italy – Tactics, Stats and the Importance of Full-backs

Probable Line-ups
(Click to enlarge)

Sunday evening’s quarter-final in Kiev between England and Italy will see something of a role reversal whereby England will employ a rather ‘Italian approach’ against a more attack-minded Azzurri.

Roy Hodgson’s England have built upon the counter-attacking philosophy that divided opinion so much during Fabio Capello’s reign, while Italy, under Cesare Prandelli, will look to take the initiative and control proceedings through possession.

Team News & Line-ups
England will again line up in a 4-4-2-cum-4-4-1-1 with the personnel likely to be unchanged from those who beat Ukraine to top the group and set up this tie.

Much of the debate in England has centred around the right midfield role and whether Hodgson will use Theo Walcott to pin back the lively left full-back Federico Balzaretti, or whether he will again opt for caution and deploy James Milner to assuage the advances of the Palermo left-back. The latter seems most likely.

Danny Welbeck is expected to spearhead England’s attack with Wayne Rooney supporting him. However, Hodgson would be wise to use Andy Carroll at some stage for his aerial ability especially given the loss of Giorgio Chiellini whose commanding aerial presence will be sorely missed amongst the Italian back line.

The Azzurri used both a 3-5-2 and 4-3-1-2 in the Group Stage but are expected to keep faith with the 4-man defence which helped them qualify in their final group game against Ireland.

Leonardo Bonucci will come in alongside Andrea Barzagli at the heart of the defence, whilst Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti will be expected to provide much-needed width from the full-back positions.

In midfield, Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi will protect the majestic Andrea Pirlo who will compose Italy’s play. Interestingly though, Juventus dynamo  Marchisio will be switched from his usual left-central midfield role to the right so that the rugged Daniele De Rossi can directly combat the physicality of his idol Steven Gerrard in what will be a thrilling midfield duel.

Elsewhere, Riccardo Montolivo is expected to replace the unfit Thiago Motta in the trequartista role. But, other than in the 2-1 friendly win over Spain last year, the Fiorentina man has largely dissapointed for La Nazionale. So, Prandelli may decide to deploy the tougher, grittier Antonio Nocerino who actually ended up as AC Milan’s second-highest goalscorer in Serie A last season with 10 goals.

In attack, the more physically imposing Mario Balotelli will be chosen ahead of Antonio Di Natale to partner Antonio Cassano. Cesare Prandelli’s thinking may be that with an England side sitting deep, narrow and compact, Di Natale’s positioning and off-the-shoulder runs are likely to be largely ineffective.

Midfield Battle: 3 v 2, 3 v 3 or 4 v 3?
Italy will boast numerical superiority in the centre of midfield with a 3 v 2 situation for the most part so should dominate possession for large passages of the game, but may struggle when trying to  open up England. Riccardo Montolivo may even be forced deeper to collect the ball if he is unable to find space in between England’s two banks of four, so there could be a 4 v 2 or 4 v 3 duel at times.

With Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard lining up against Marchisio and De Rossi in midfield, Wayne Rooney will be expected to drop deep to try to nullify Italy’s otherwise free man Andrea Pirlo. England cannot afford to allow Pirlo time on the ball to dictate the play and dropping Rooney in and around the deep-lying playmaker would make the midfield battle a 3 v 3.

Danny Welbeck, rather than pressing the Italian defence high up, is also likely to focus on blocking the route to the midfield in a bid to force the Italians to either play out through their full-backs or go long towards Balotelli and Cassano down the  channels.

Much of this game will hinge on the ability of not only Pirlo to find freedom and influence the game, but also Gerrard, who could find himself in a constant struggle with Daniele De Rossi.

Unlocking the English Defence
With England sitting deep in the defensive phase, Italy are likely to have the majority of the ball in front of their opponents rather than being particularly penetrative. The problem for Italy during this game will be a common one: converting possession into goals.

Despite having an average of 60.5% possession from the two games against Croatia and Ireland, Italy failed to score a single goal from open play.

In fact, both England and Italy are similar in the sense that they have had the majority of their joy from set-pieces at Euro 2012: both teams have scored 3 via this method. It is say to say, then, that these situations could have a huge influence on the final result come Sunday night.

Avg. age, height and weight apply to the expected starting XIs

The good news for England is that Italy, on average, commit more fouls per game than any other team at the tournament (19 fouls pg). The Three Lions, by contrast, have made only 11 fouls per game on average.

Aside from set-pieces, much of the pre-match talk has revolved around exactly how Italy will score their goals in this match. Arguably, the Azzurri’s best chance of scoring will either be from moments of individual brilliance, or long shots.

Italy have taken 54% of their shots on goal in this tournament from outside the box and certainly have some very adept distance shooters in Cassano, Balotelli, De Rossi, Pirlo and Montolivo.

Alternatively, when Balotelli and Cassano drift out wide to work the channels, they will create space for the likes of Marchisio (and Nocerino if he is given the chance) to break from midfield and cause England problems, but it is hard to see Italy scoring many goals in this encounter.

English Right Flank, Italian Left and the Switching of Play
England will have a numerical advantage on the flanks and will need to make the most of 2 v 1 situations by breaking at pace on the counter-attack to expose Italy’s unprotected full-backs.

Statistics show that 41% of England’s attacks come down the right-hand side as opposed to the centre or left; and with an ever so slight majority of Italian attacks coming down the left (32%), one can expect this flank to be the busier of the two.

With Balzaretti pushing on to provide width on the left, there should be space in behind him and with the game naturally becoming more stretched in the second half, Theo Walcott will surely make an appearance. But before that, James Milner will want to confound his critics by offering more of an attacking threat down his flank.

Balzaretti and Abate are both competent going forward but less so going the other way, so Milner and Young will be tasked with exposing their flaws on Sunday night.

The Azzurri will have to be very wary of England making quick transitions from wing to wing when attacking in order to not be exposed too easily. Italy’s narrow midfield will be forced to shuttle across to mark the space (above) depending on which flank England are attacking. Therefore, switching the ball to the opposite flank quickly could enable the Three Lions to expose the vacated space and run at the Italian defence with plenty of room – possibly with a numerical advantage too.

Second-half Danger for Italy
England have scored 3 of their 5 goals in the second half of games whilst the Italians have notably dropped off in this period – conceding both their goals mid-way through the second 45.

Despite La Gazzetta Dello Sport presenting the facts that Italy have, on average, covered more ground per game this tournament than England (109.3km to 105.3km) perhaps to calm fears surrounding team fitness, the issue will still be a worry for the Italians. After all, even the most untrained of eyes will have noticed the way the team’s performances have slacked and cost them results in the Group Stage.

What is more, Antonio Cassano has been unable to complete 90 minutes so far at this tournament after his mini-stroke in October 2011 kept him out of action until late April, and Andrea Pirlo is another who, at 33, may struggle with the physical demands of this match in the late stages. So, any bets pertaining to some form of English second-half or extra-time triumph may be wise.

This game is unlikely to be a thrilling roller-coaster of a match. It will certainly not be played in a harum-scarum manner. It will be tight, organised and played at a slow tempo for long periods, but will be a fascinating tactical battle nonetheless and could well spark into life with spells of back-to-back counter attacking.

All in all, it is near impossible to call a winner here and the bookmakers’ odds reflect this. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that whoever prevails, Jogi Low’s frighteningly sharp Germany side await them in Warsaw.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Newcastle 2 – 2 Tottenham: Tactical Analysis

Newcastle preserved their undefeated start to the season after twice coming from behind to earn a deserved point against Tottenham at St James’ Park.

Alan Pardew named the exact same starting eleven that saw the hosts conquer Wolves at Molineux before the international break.

Harry Redknapp dropped Jermaine Defoe to the bench and brought in Jake Livermore to play in central midfield alongside Scott Parker. The pair anchored a trident of Luka Modric, Rafael Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale who were supporting lone front-man Emmanuel Adebayor.

Interestingly, Redknapp opted to use inverted wide players with Modric on the left and Bale out on the right – the position he occupied for Wales in the recent European Championship qualifiers.

In the early stages, Newcastle took the initiative and came forward attempting in-depth cuts either down the channels or over the top of the Tottenham defence for Demba Ba and Leon Best. However, the approach did not pay dividends so the home side began to show more patience in build-up play and took less risks by playing lateral passes and trying to work the ball wide.

Newcastle began to occupy territory in Spurs’ half and the visitors struggled to forge any significant attacking threat. The tendencies of Modric and Bale to come inside onto their stronger feet meant there was an evident lack of width but Newcastle even managed to stifle any play through the middle.

Newcastle were very effective with the use of a fairly high defensive line – this opportunity granted to them through the omission of Defoe – and kept compact in midfield. Yohann Cabaye and the militant Cheik Tiote showed great tenacity in midfield and hurried Tottenham’s less comfortable ball players, Parker and Livermore, whenever they received possession in their own half ready to initiate attacks.

After suffering sustained pressure with no genuine out-ball, Modric and Bale switched flanks to try and rectify Spurs’ problem. Though there was no notable change in fortunes with this tactic, the North London club did actually take the lead rather against the run of play shortly after.

A lapse in concentration from Cabaye inside his own half enabled Livermore to poach the ball and present Adebayor with a free run at Newcastle’s defence. The Togoloese target-man was then tripped by Steven Taylor inside the box despite seemingly being averted away from goal. Van der Vaart subsequently converted the penalty and gave his side the lead.

In the immediate aftermath of the goal and the run up to half-time, Newcastle departed from their patient game-plan entirely and thrust forward with zeal looking for an instant reply. Buoyed by the St James’ crowd, Newcastle increased the tempo and drove forward thus compromising their shape and discipline. This nearly cost them. Tottenham almost exposed a gaping hole on the break with a 2 versus 2 situation but for a critical interception of an Adebayor flick-on header intended for Van der Vaart.

Straight after the break, on 48 minutes, Newcastle leveled the scoring through Demba Ba. Gutierrez worked some space for himself after Modric, who was beaten all too easily, failed to divert him wide enough. The Argentine then delivered a cross for the head of Ba who netted.

In a similar vein to the period of play that followed the first goal, the pace and intensity of the game cranked up a notch, but this time both sides took it in turns to pour forward.

For Newcastle, Gutierrez and Obertan pushed up-field and held much wider positions while Cabaye, in the middle, was much more venturesome than he had been up until that point. The outcome was that Tottenham hit back on the break whenever possible with quick, direct, surging attacks.

For a good 10-15 minutes, the game was played in a frenzied manner. Both teams’ midfields were frequently over-committed and out of position so a period of end-to-end football ensued.

On the hour, the game slowed and Newcastle began to take control once again holding possession well in the Spurs half. But against the run of play Jermaine Defoe scored having only been on the field for 4 minutes.

Besides the obvious goal, the introduction of Defoe altered the game to Spurs advantage hugely in the fact that Newcastle were impelled to drop their defensive line deeper. This gifted the away side more space in which to operate and for arguably the first time in the game, Tottenham dominated the possession and looked the more likely to score.

The most intriguing feature of Defoe’s role was the position he took up when Spurs were not in possession. Of course, when his side were advancing forward with the ball he lined up on the shoulder of the last man, but without it he dropped deeper and seemed to occupy Cabaye – presumably to deny Newcastle their preferred opening gambit.

Newcastle made a tactical change on 72 minutes when they withdrew both strikers – Best and Ba – and replaced them with Shola Ameobi and Hatem Ben Arfa.

Ameobi lead the line on his own while Ben Arfa was deployed in the Number 10 role behind him. Cabaye was part-relieved of his creative duties and held his position more alongside Tiote in a partnership similar to that of Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong/ Yaya Toure at Manchester City. The new system appeared to be a 4-2-3-1.

The trouble for Newcastle was that with only one striker, Tottenham had a surplus of men at the back therefore Ameobi made no marked impact and to make matters worse, Ben Arfa was unable to craft any worthwile space for himself in behind Parker and Livermore.

Tottenham continued to look comfortable until a late Shola Ameobi goal (another goal against the run of play) changed the complexity of the game once more. Both sides reverted to the helter-skelter approach which broke out after every goal scored in the match.

In the end, the draw was a fair result, but both sides will feel they could have stolen all three points in the dying minutes.

Posted in Tactics Board | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Football in the English Media and the Need for Cultural Change

At times, English football can feel more like a soap opera or theatre production than professional sport. The chaos and commotion that encircles the game is almost incomprehensible to those without an interest, but to the many who watch, read, listen to and simply live football, every day is as enthralling as the next. It is the myriad of media coverage the game receives and more importantly the stylistic conventions of that coverage that makes English football a never-ending whirlwind of emotion.

Football reporting in this country is, and always has been, based upon an ever-running narrative, so it is primary practice within the industry to seek out and accentuate a story-within-a-story. Whether they encompass romance, tragedy, joy, woe, gallantry, cowardice, or whatever it may be, writers and reporters will seek out any opportunity to heighten the histrionics within their work.

But because the story is at the forefront of all reporting, factual information is repeatedly twisted, skewed and even superseded by utter fabrication. Frankly, it seems Journalists are entitled to write near-enough what they want providing their finished article corresponds with the on-going narrative.

This is certainly the case when dealing with some of the game’s personalities – or characters which is perhaps a better representation of their roles within media coverage. These characters are cast from players, managers, chairmen, referees, governing figures and anyone else boasting a high profile worthy of column inches or airtime.

As a rule, the more entertaining a person is, whether it be that they are charismatic, endearing  and amusing, or, abrasive, vociferous and downright controversial, the more interesting a story becomes. So with this in mind, journalists magnify personality traits and exaggerate stereotypes wherever they can as means of enriching their everlasting saga.

The most obvious examples are of course Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger: two men helpless to resist becoming caricatures of themselves in the media.

Ferguson, since coming to England, has always been painted as a cold, hard, disciplinarian: a man immersed in traditional British values. Wenger on the other hand, is presented as the calm, cordial, cultured and profound professor. But in reality, these are pseudo-personas which are misleading and rather inaccurate.

Rather oddly, the man that serves best as an example to highlight the delusion surrounding these media personas is former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri. The Italian was dubbed ‘Crazy Claudio’ and ‘The Tinkerman’ for the way in which he profusely modified team tactics and line-ups when facing differing opposition.

Now, in the more tactically involved parts of Europe, this measure shows wisdom and astuteness; in Britain it denotes weakness. Think, how often can the phrase “We’ll let them worry about us” be heard in English football? Very often. It is an archetypal British attitude.

So, in theory, it is the same attitude one might expect Sir Alex Ferguson to bear, given that he is such a mighty British traditionalist after all. Well, de facto, the Scot actually adopts a very pragmatic, European approach. He manages in a similar way to Ranieri and a host of other managers on the continent by regularly bringing in different players and adapting formations to cope with, or generate, different threats accordingly.

By contrast, it is Wenger the Frenchman, who is obstinate and refuses to play any other way or deviate from his plan a – even in the face of defeat. Furthermore, Wenger has gone on record affirming his belief that the 4-4-2, a time-honored British system, is the most rational formation. Ferguson on the other hand, famously claims to have only ever deployed a strict 4-4-2 once in his entire managerial career.

Despite all of this, the media, for years and years, have all too conveniently chosen to ignore these very apparent aspects of the two managers’ personalities. Why? It does not fit the narrative. Simple.

A journalist’s primary duty is to inform, educate and entertain, so it is extremely disenchanting to realise so many top writers are willing to falsify so much information. All too often they choose to relinquish two of their most important duties for the sake of entertainment through sensationalism.

But it is unfair to denounce the entire profession. After all, English newspapers reflect English society, and in a dying industry they must endeavor to meet the demands of the public even more so. Simply put, writers are compelled to write what sells.

In England, an inaccurate or even bluntly fabricated story about a player’s personal life which is either dramatic or humorous, but plays on its audience’s emotions will sell more than a wholly factual tactical preview or instructive piece on match preparation. Fact.

Why then do the audience demand this? One of the key determinants is the general attitude towards football in England: the country’s football culture. Another, which is interlinked with the first, is social class.

Football is still widely regarded as a game on these shores. It is firstly considered a form of entertainment. Many would deny this, but consider the impatience and hostility of an English crowd when a team is attempting slow, patient build-up play -perhaps passing the ball around the defence. In many other countries this type of pragmatic approach is tolerated if it improves a team’s chances of winning. Here it is blasted. This is partly why the ‘English way‘ has always been direct. English fans want to be entertained, they want to see end-to-end, helter-skelter, fast, attacking football with plenty of goal-mouth action.

The same applies to media coverage. Fans want to be entertained. They want to laugh; they want to cry. English football fans want to read about bloodied heroes like Terry Butcher, and overnight villains like David Beckham in 1998 – not training methods and trends in build-up play. Tactics and technicalities are shunned.

But that comes as no surprise given that football is nothing short of a working-class phenomenon here. It is a complex, inverted snobbery and dislike for education within English working-class culture which has led, and will continue to lead, hundreds of thousands of fans to reject tactics and deny their importance every single weekend at football grounds up and down the country. They see football as a battle; not a game of chess. To most English fans, a player who has the heart of a lion is far more admirable than he who possesses the cunning mind of a fox.

Tabloid newspapers are the market leaders and trendsetters within football print and it requires only a simple equation to establish that fact: the majority of  football fans are of a working-class background and the majority of working-class citizens prefer to read tabloid newspapers than broadsheets.

Now, the fact the average English red-top reader does not wish to run his or her eyes over a perusal of tactics on a Monday morning and would rather indulge in vivid tales of redemption or revenge for example, means, understandably, papers print exactly that.

Tabloids, like The Sun, and The News of the World previously, set the benchmark for modern football reporting in England. Their coverage of the sport as a soap opera worked wonders. It elevated interest in the game and sold millions of papers at the same time, creating a carousel effect. The result saw rivals, including quality papers, feel obliged to adopt the same approach which has led to today’s situation whereby the English press work in tandem to add to the cauldron of excitement that is English football.

The irony is that various newspapers, which are in fierce competition with News International owned publications, collectively contribute to Rupert Murdoch’s money-spinning merry-go-round on a daily basis by embellishing Sky Sports’ flagship product: the Premier League.

Interestingly, it is possible that where the working-class have influenced and affected the conventions of football reporting in England, middle-class intellectuals in Italy have had the biggest impact on their football-media culture.

Italians have an irrefutable passion for tactics. Similarly to the renowned Austrian coffee house culture born in the 1920s, Italians meet in cafes and restaurants within  their local piazzas to discuss the aspect of football they love most.

The pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport and Tuttosport, among many others, are often filled with rigorous examinations of tactics and team selections. But it is intriguing that Italians, who are generally considered to be an emotionally sensitive population, do not demand the type of coverage English audiences are used to.

The English method of covering football has been ingrained in media culture for years, but even now, as the game itself has moved on, subversive writers in Britain are hard to come by. The industry certainly does not smile upon them. Students and young aspiring writers are taught to ensure their articles impact on a human level and concur with any on-going narrative. They are effectively constrained to doing so through fear of failing in the industry if they try to break the mould.

Granted, a roller-coaster of emotion is far more thrilling for an audience, but an increase in informative material on football, purely football – that which physically happens on the turf, not in the mind – is essential to a healthy balance of coverage. It galling to see so much print focusing on off-the-pitch scandal when there are so many fascinating matches which receive barely a mention in comparison.

The upshot of  the current approach is that Italians, Portuguese and Spanish fans, to name a few, are generally better educated in football than their English counterparts, and this needs to change.

When a nation such as Italy or Germany performs poorly in a major international tournament just about everything is scrutinised. Whether it be team selection, in-game tactics, training regimes, pre-match preparation, coaching staff, or accommodation and travel arrangements, everything is investigated.

By contrast, in England, the press, led chiefly by the tabloids, are rather more irrational and less measured in their outlook. If the Three Lions do badly, one can expect headlines not to dissimilar to ” The Three Kittens” and other such puerility.

Wins are over-hyped and defeats over-criticised. If the team begin to do well in qualifying or even a solitary friendly, all of a sudden a media bandwagon sets out that the team will win the next big tournament. Journalists surrender their integrity by opting to discard their knowledge of opposition teams’ strengths and weaknesses in favour of stirring up national interest.

If the team lose however, it would be no surprise whatsoever to read instant assumptions that there was a lack of passion, character and commitment. Nothing is mentioned of talent or tactics. It all seems to rest on how hard the players beat their chests, or worse, what they were doing in their private lives.

In recent years this has begun to change but the human element and narrative still dictates reporting. The English press like to take one idea and run with it. Currently, the scarcity of technically gifted players appears to be the sole reason England do badly, despite the fact that Holland, a nation which produces many  of the most technically talented players in the World, has  failed to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy even once.

A rational appraisal of the situation always seems unlikely with the English press. A media storm is always brewing. But these are simply the conventions of one country’s coverage. They differ from others, just as playing styles and attitudes to towards the game do. There is no distinct right or wrong way to report on football but perhaps a happy medium between the English and said Italian method offers a utopia to dream about. Or not. Perhaps the earmarked ideal could in fact be realised in the near future.

Globalisation of football is happening on a daily basis. Distinct footballing identities that set nations apart have been blending together for years now as the dispersal of playing talent has continued to increase. The influx of foreign players and managers to England has seen everything from simulation to new systems of play permeate through to the very roots of the domestic game, so there is everything to suggest there is further room for expansion.

Tactics have been a growing part of the English game in recent years and they will only get bigger. There was a time when English football abided by the 4-4-2 religiously; now an array of teams play 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1 and it is only matter of time before the 3-man defence arrives with an Italian or German manager.

English fans will evolve, just as the game does, and will demand more than just the typical emotive episodes from their football coverage. But by all means, shifts in footballing culture take quite some time. Only then, when audience demand sufficiently alters, will newspapers reflect it. In the meantime, thankfully, a growing fleet of tactics-based websites and blogs are leading the charge.

Posted in Special Features | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2011/12 Barclays Premier League Predictions

With the 2011/12 Barclays Premier League season impending, I have decided to compile a list of my predictions for the final table on Sunday 13th May 2012

Winners: Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson’s management in recent years has verified the maxim that ‘football is now a squad game’. The Red Devils utilised their wealth of talent last season to reach an FA Cup semi-final, UEFA Champions League final, and, of course, win the Barclays Premier League.

This summer Sir Alex has added reinforcements to the value of around £50M and may yet still complete the acquisition of arguably the world’s best playmaker: Wesley Sneijder.

United, with their sheer quality, know-how and togetherness, will be too strong for the chasing pack.


Champions League Qualification:
Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal

Manchester City should build upon last season’s performances to close the points gap on Manchester United whilst securing Champions League football fairly comfortably. With Roberto Mancini feeling much more assured of his position, his team will surely be more enterprising in attack this year and take wins from games they would have drawn previously.

Chelsea are set to undergo a transitional phase under new tactician Andres Villas-Boas, but the nucleus of a successful team remains and he should be able to guide them to a top-four spot with his famed meticulous planning and scientific approach.

Contrary to the hysterics surrounding Arsenal throughout pre-season regarding the potential loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Arsene Wenger, as he has proved time and time again, will get the very best out of the players he has at his disposal. The Gunners never have trouble creating chances and the signing of Gervinho from Lille should provide them with goals from wide areas to support talismanic front-man Robin Van Persie. They need to add a new centre-back before the transfer window ceases otherwise the task of pipping Liverpool for fourth will be far tougher.


Relegation: QPR, Swansea, Blackburn

Queens Park Rangers have complications at boardroom level and as everyone in football knows: stability is key to a successful club. On the pitch, QPR have signed strikers Jay Bothroyd and DJ Campbell in the hope that  goals alone will secure survival. However, a defence which looks only good enough for the Championship will probably be their downfall.

Swansea have been tipped to recreate the romance of Blackpool’s season in the Premier League with their expansive attacking style, but as we know, Blackpool were relegated. Swansea will ‘make a lot of friends’ in the top flight, as the media so patronizingly proclaim, but will ultimately suffer relegation. They do not have the quality to survive this division.

Blackburn Rovers is a club in turmoil and Steve Kean’s side could well fall victim to the drop this year. Rovers fans are seriously disillusioned with the running of their club – especially transfer affairs. Venky’s, the group who own Blackburn, touted the likes of Ronaldinho and David Beckham as arrivals at the club; instead, David Goodwillie arrived from Dundee United.

Steve Kean’s relative inexperience, combined with a squad which has been weakened by the departure of Phil Jones and potentially Chris Samba, makes Rovers a solid bet to go down.


Final League Standings:

1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Tottenham Hotspur
7. Everton
8. Stoke City
9. Aston Villa
10. Sunderland
11. Fulham
12. West Bromwich Albion
13. Bolton Wanderers
14. Wolverhampton Wanderers
15. Newcastle United
16. Norwich City
17. Wigan Atheltic
18. Blackburn Rovers
19. Queens Park Rangers
20. Swansea City 


Player of the Season: David Silva (MCY)

Top Goalscorer: Robin Van Persie (ARS)

Signing of the Season: Roger Johnson (Birmingham to Wolves, £7M)


Posted in Premier League, Special Features | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Italy 2 – 1 Spain: Azzurri Pass Spanish Exam

Italy grabbed a significant 2-1 win over World Champions Spain in Bari last night – exactly one year after Cesare Prandelli’s managerial debut ended in defeat to Ivory Coast.

Riccardo Montolivo opened the scoring for the home side but the lead was cancelled out just before half-time when Xabi Alonso converted a penalty. Liverpool’s Alberto Aquilani came on as a substitute to score a fortuitous winner for the Italians late on after some good work from Mario Balotelli.

Daniele De Rossi returned to the midfield following his previous exclusion for failing to adhere to Prandelli’s ‘code of ethics’. He played alongside Andrea Pirlo and Thiago Motta, with Montolivo ahead of them in a more advanced role. Prandelli, as promised, selected the diminutive duo of Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio Cassano to lead the line.

Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with a trident of David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Santiago Cazorla supporting lone striker Fernando Torres. Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez were missing so Andoni Iraola, Raul Albiol and Javi Martinez stepped in to fill their roles respectively.

An energetic and assertive start from Italy incited a feeling of buoyancy among the Bari crowd and forced the Spaniards into insecurity from the outset.

It looked to be a full-scale role reversal initially as Italy, captained by Antonio Cassano in front of his hometown crowd, hassled Spain high up the pitch and controlled the ball for long periods. The Italians looked like a Barcelona tribute act at times, while the Spanish, uncharacteristically, squandered possession in dangerous areas on multiple occasions and were constrained to playing long balls from the back through Gerard Pique.

Italy came forward with great confidence and an expansive style. Their efforts nearly paid off on 5 minutes after some sharp one-touch passing created an opening of space for Domenico Criscito who saw his cleanly struck effort hit the post from 20 yards out.

The left-back was soon to be involved again though. In the 11th minute, Riccardo Montolivo glided in behind the Spanish defence to receive a well measured through pass from Criscito and execute a deft chip which clipped the underside of the crossbar on its way in.

Things got worse for Spain just moments later when Fernando Torres was forced to come off after suffering mild concussion.

The situation could have escalated even further when Giuseppe Rossi lobbed a through ball into the path of the incoming Cassano who took a touch and then went down after some minor contact, but no penalty was given.

Soon after, Spain tried to rally but were restricted to shots from distance. Their world renowned tiki-taka football was missing. Andoni Iraola and Santi Cazorla both struck hopeful shots from just outside the box which soared off target.

Disaster struck for Italy just before half-time when Giorgio Chiellini brought down Torres’ replacement Fernando Llorente in the box with a tug of the big striker’s shirt. A penalty was awarded, but the Juventus man escaped without a booking. Xabi Alonso stepped up to face Gianluigi Buffon and scored with a composed finish down the centre to bring his side back into the game somewhat undeservedly.

After the break it was all change. The early period of play was interrupted by a wave of substitutions, but soon after Spain began to dictate increasingly as the Italians went into retreat. Roles restored.

Del Bosque’s attack gradually became more potent and started to unsettle Italy. The 2010 World Cup winners exhibited their flair and pierced through Italy’s defence a number of times.

David Silva led the charge. The tricky playmaker was Spain’s main outlet and created a continuous supply of chances for his side.

On 62 minutes Llorente should have made the scoreline 2-1, but a deflect shot bounced wide of Buffon’s left post.

Shortly after, Xabi Alonso hit a bobbling effort from 25 yards which caused problems for Buffon.

Italy were under pressure. Their only relief came from the sharp runs of substitute Mario Balotelli on the counter attack.

Spain should have scored once more; again through Llorente, but an incredibly brave swooping header from Italy’s Criscito denied them from point-blank range.

Juan Mata had Spain’s final chance of any significance but failed to clinch a winner. A Silva cut-back was followed up by an acrobatic Mata volley which then cannoned off Llorente and was eventually cleared.

The Azzurri punished Spain with a goal against the run of play in the 84th minute. Alberto Aquilani, after coming on a second-half substitute, stole a lucky winner for his side via a deflection off Raul Albiol which wrong-footed keeper Cassilas.

Posted in International Football | Leave a comment

Tactical Preview: Barcelona v Manchester United – UEFA Champions League Final 2011

At 7.45pm on Saturday 28th May, Barcelona and Manchester United will face each other at Wembley in this season’s Champions League Final. Both clubs will be hoping to win their 4th European Cup.

The fixture is a repeat of the 2009 final which was held in Rome, where Barcelona ran out 2-0 winners. On that night, United were overrun in midfield and later blamed “shoddy defending” for the defeat.

This time around they will hope to have learnt their lessons. However, the current Barcelona team are considered a much stronger side while United, in many people’s opinion, have become a weaker force.

Team News
Neither team have players suspended and there are very few injury problems. For Barcelona, Eric Abidal has fully recovered from surgery on his liver tumor, but is only expected to make the bench regardless of having started the last 3 games. Sergio Busquets meanwhile, will start. He was cleared of any potential UEFA charge despite being accused of making racist remarks against Real Madrid’s Marcelo in their semi-final encounter.

Manchester United’s selection problems come in midfield. Darren Fletcher had been out for 2 months with a virus, but even though he managed a full 90 minutes against Blackpool, suspicions remain over his condition. Rather than physical, Ryan Giggs’ mental condition has been called into question this week. The flying Welshman was exposed as the man who took out a super-injunction to prevent news of his affair breaking out. The damaging press attention cannot have done his preparation much good and this has heightened doubts around whether he will start or not.

Probable line-ups

Line-ups/ Formations
Barcelona will line-up in their typical 4-3-3 formation, but will have a much changed look in defence from the side that won in 2009. Dani Alves, who was suspended then, will play at right-back instead of Carles Puyol, who will fit in at left-back ahead of Abidal and Adriano. This means Javier Mascherano will act as a makeshift Centre-Back to partner former Machester United man Gerard Pique.

The midfield three of Barcelona will be exactly the same as 2009, but it is upfront where the differences lie. Pedro and David Villa will play either side of Lionel Messi.

Regardless of whether Pedro or Villa start on the left or right-hand side, their starting positions are, in essence, a trivial matter. Barcelona’s revered fluid system means all 3 front men are interchangeable and switch regularly throughout a match, though Messi tends to operate through the centre primarily, as a false No. 9.

The system United employ, and the personnel within it, is much harder to predict. Sir Alex Ferguson could opt to go with a 3 man midfield to match Barcelona man-for-man, but it is expected he will keep faith with the 4-4-1-1 formation which has seen his side reign supreme throughout the season.

Any one of John O’Shea, Rafael or Fabio could get the nod for the right-back spot.  The first has more experience in Europe and is certainly wiser in the defensive aspect, but he lacks the pace and agility required to handle the movement and individual skill of his opponents. Rafael or Fabio meanwhile, have this in abundance plus are more adept in attacking play, but both tend to be rather more erratic defensively, so this is a tough call. The rest of the Manchester United defence practically picks itself.

In the wide midfield positions, Antonio Valencia will be selected ahead of Nani as the team is far more balanced with the Ecuadorian on the right. Valencia works much harder defensively and also has a better delivery from wide areas which will be crucial to United’s chances. A Ferguson favourite, Park Ji-Sung, will start on the left and will have the great responsibility of either containing Dani Alves, or pressing him back.

In the centre of the pitch, Carrick will almost certainly start. However, the identity of his partner is a lesser known fact. There are questions surrounding both Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs’ ability to maintain the tempo this fixture will demand for such a sustained period of time. Giggs’ is 37 and it believed he does not possess the stamina to cope. So if Ferguson deems Fletcher fit enough, he will fill the role and function as the team’s factotum. Otherwise, it would be no surprise if Anderson took to the field. The Brazilian has experience of a final, after turning out in 2009, and has great a energy and work-rate which could be key in closing down Barcelona options on the ball.

In attack, Wayne Rooney will play behind Javier Hernandez (Chicarito) in a partnership which has flourished in 2011. Though the line-up will expectedly be 4-4-1-1, United’s central midfielders may sit a little deeper when not in possession and Rooney could be asked to occupy Sergio Busquets to even up the midfield battle. Therefore, the system could operate more like a 4-2-3-1 than 4-4-1-1.

Styles of Play
Barcelona will of course play their typical game which has exalted them to point of being branded ‘the greatest club side ever’ by many. They will look to dominate possession, press high up the pitch and use their movement in between the lines, individual skill and fluidity to cause problems for United.

The old aphorism that foreign teams cannot handle the pace of the English game has no place here. Barcelona will play at a tremendously high tempo. They will try to pin United back into their own half and shut down every man as quickly as possible, in order to win the ball back as far up the field as they can.

One major potential difference however, could be the positioning of the Barca full-backs. Usually both full-backs push on well into the opponents half (see diagram left) to increase pressure, provide width and stretch the play, giving the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro and Villa more room to work in. Both centre-backs split fairly wide and Sergio Busquets drops in between them.

On this occassion however, Guardiola will be well aware of the pace and threat from wide areas that United possess on the break. So he may either inform his full-backs to hold just beyond the half-way line, or perhaps only Dani Alves will be given license to push forward, meaning the remaining 3 simply shuttle across to cover the vacant side. Busquets would not be required to drop in.

In attack, Messi, Villa and Pedro will probably all take it in turns to get at Nemanja Vidic whose key weakness is dealing with quick and tricky opponents. The same can be said for John O’Shea if he starts.

Barcelona will want to score early and simply keep the ball from United, and there is no doubting if this happens the result will surely end in victory for the Catalans.

Judging by Manchester United’s pre-match preparation, it seems Sir Alex Ferguson will try and play Barcelona’s at their own game. Chris Smalling has claimed his teammates have been practising  a pressing game and have been told to not get caught dropping deep without the ball.

Sir Alex, in a press conference, stated that concentration was of paramount importance to United’s success. This suggests his team will try to keep it tight for as long as possible, to frustrate Barcelona and limit their ideas.

United will probably use a zonal approach to marking Barca’s key man Lionel Messi. Rather than have a man track him for the entire game, which will open up space elsewhere for one of Barcelona’s various other match-winners, the Red Devils will probably assign different men to pick him up as he drifts into their designated zones.

Darren Fletcher will probably be dispatched to impose strictures on the productivity on Xavi, while Michael Carrick will come slightly deeper to pick up the ball from the defence and initiate attacks. A great deal will depend on how well Carrick keeps and uses the ball. If he can elude the first wave of pressure and play either his wide men or Rooney into space, United could expose the likes of Puyol and Pique for pace.

Antonio Valencia could hold the key to United’s goalscoring threat. The right-winger will look to get around the outside of Puyol with his pace and then whip balls in for the crafty poacher Hernandez and aerial predator Wayne Rooney. The fact that Mascherano is operating as a centre-back alongside Pique, who is known to have aerial frailties, should give Ferguson confidence.

The battle of Park Ji-Sung and Dani Alves is arguably the most enticing of all from a tactical perspective. The Korean’s principal objective will be to assuage the threat of his opponent, and that is no easy task. But in Park, United possibly have the answer: a tireless worker who is capable of tracking Alves up and down that flank all night long. Park will effectively have to man-mark the Brazilian but also attempt to get in behind him when the time is right. Wayne Rooney may also have a part to play in this as he tends to drift out to the left at times.

Another of Rooney’s duties, rather unexpectedly, will not necessarily be to free himself of Sergio Busquets as much as possible; rather the opposite. Busquets is not your typical ball winner, he is what some call a ‘new-age’ holding midfielder. The young Spaniard is very accomplished in pressing, jockeying and intercepting play, but he is also a vastly underrated ball player and most, if not all, moves begin with him. He is absolutely vital to Barcelona’s build-up play, so if Rooney can sit on Busquets when Barca have the ball at the back and cancel him out as an option Barcelona will find it harder to play their normal game.

As the game goes on, Sir Alex Ferguson will be very aware that play will begin to open up as it is almost impossible to press at such a tempo for 90 minutes. Therefore, it would be no surprise to see the Scot deploy Paul Scholes, a doyen of long-range passing, to take advantage of the gaps available.

The key to Barcelona winning this game will be their ball retention, movement and intricate combinations in and around the Manchester United defence, whilst also taking the necessary precautions to not get caught in 3 on 3 situations in defence. The men they need to stop are Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney.

Contrastingly, United’s hopes rest on trying to prevent themselves from falling too deep when on the back-foot. In attack they will rely on wide play, crosses into the box and numerical advantage situations on the counter to expose a makeshift defensive line-up. They will need to track the threat of Dani Alves, stifle Xavi’s distribution and get tight to Lionel Messi, being careful not to give him enough room to accelerate and gain momentum in dribbles.

This season’s Champions League final will be a truly fascinating watch. If Manchester United manage to overcome the odds and defeat a side of Barcelona’s ilk, it will be impossible to deny them worthy champions. But there is a reason this group of players have been lauded as possibly the best ever. Barcelona play the game with great élan; they truly are a pleasure to watch. So for this reason, it is no revelation that they are the neutrals’ favorites.

Posted in European Football, Tactics Board | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tactical Preview: Manchester City v Stoke City – FA Cup Final

Probable line-ups.

Stoke City and Manchester City will square off at Wembley in the 130th FA Cup Final at 3pm on Saturday 14th May. The Citizens will make their first appearance in an FA Cup Final for 30 years, while Stoke have never made it this far in their entire history. So, whichever side runs out victorious, it will have been long overdue.

In the run up to the event, both sides have enjoyed fairly strong form. Manchester City have secured Champions League football for next season with 4 wins from their last 5 games. Stoke meanwhile, are unbeaten in 5 and have scored no fewer than 12 goals during that period.

Team News
Both sides have selection problems ahead of Saturday’s game. Carlos Tevez featured for City in their 1-0 win over Tottenham, but it is unclear whether Mancini trusts his level of fitness for such an important fixture. Meanwhile, Gareth Barry should come back into the team after missing the last 2 matches.

Stoke will definitely be without Ricardo Fuller and Danny Higginbotham, who have already been ruled out for the remainder of the season. However Robert Huth, who has scored 9 goals for the Potters this season, could be back in time. The German has been in Spain receiving treatment on his knee and hopes to be given the all clear on the day of the game.

The fitness of Matthew Etherington is rather more unclear, the winger who tore his hamstring against Wolves only a few weeks ago has responded well to treatment, but like Huth, he will have to face an eleventh hour fitness test.

Line-ups/ Formations
Manchester City will, in all probability, line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation which we have seen throughout most of the season. Contrary to the popular misconception that they use 3 holding midfielders, only 1 of these is actually a holding midfielder: Nigel De Jong. Gareth Barry does play alongside the Dutchman in a slightly deeper area of the pitch, but his role is different, he is entrusted with retaining possession and initiating attacking play: Barry is a passer rather than destroyer.

David Silva and Adam Johnson are expected to feature out wide for City but there is a small chance James Milner could be selected ahead of either, for his workrate and defensive abilities. Tevez may start upfront with Yaya Toure behind him, if not Mario Balotelli or Edin Dzeko will come in for the Argentine.

For Stoke, fitness permitting, Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant will occupy the wide midfield positions with Whelan and Rory Delap in the centre. Tony Pulis could withdraw striker Jonathan Walters and deploy Dean Whitehead to give the Potters another man in the midfield, but after a stunning 5-0 Semi-final win using their regular 4-4-2, Walters should get the nod to partner Kenwyne Jones up-front.

Styles of play
Of all the teams likely to feature in an FA Cup final, Manchester City are possibly the most well-equipped to tackle Stoke. Physically, Stoke are one of the tallest and heaviest teams in the Premier League with an average height of 186cm and average weight of 77.5kg. Manchester City however, match up fairly well in this department measuring 183cm tall on average and 77.4kg in weight.

This should aid City in their defense against Stoke’s aerial assaults and famously threatening set-pieces, however, throughout the season, Roberto Mancini’s side have been found vulnerable in this area.

Pullis’ men will know that their biggest opportunities during the game will most likely come from set-plays, after all, 48% of their Premier League goals have been sourced via this method. Therefore, a key aspect within the game will be the way in which Manchester City both defend set-pieces and limit the amount of fouls they commit.

Strictly regarding style of play, Tony Pullis’ is an advocate of direct football. His team’s philosophy is to move the ball quickly from defense to attack, scrapping complex build-up play in favour of moves which involve fewer passes and simply work the ball into dangerous areas as often as possible. Manchester City on the other hand, implement slow, elaborate build-up play into their game and place a heavy emphasis on retaining possession whilst relying on individual expression in the final third to create goal-scoring opportunities. This is almost the perfect way to combat a direct approach.

Mancini knows this, so it will not be surprising if he instructs his side to keep the ball for long spells and play at a slower tempo than normal. Stoke are effective in winning the ball back and launching quick in-depth counter-attacks, but a slow and measured passing game from City should reduce the chances of surrendering the ball cheaply in dangerous areas. Stoke absolutely must try to speed up City’s play by pressing them quick and hard in spells throughout the game.

A mixture of lazy punditry and newspaper narrative has led to a widely-held opinion that Stoke are merely a long-ball team. They are not. Wing-play is probably Stoke’s foremost policy. Still a very direct approach, it is very different from a centre-back simply lofting balls aimlessly up the pitch. Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington will carry most of Stoke’s open-play threat.

Manchester City will need to cut the supply from out wide to the likes of Jones and Walters if they are to win the game. This is where Mancini will have to make some big selection decisions. A combination of Zabaleta and Milner down the left-hand side would certainly offer the team more defensively. But by contrast, Silva cutting inside to open up space for Kolarov to advance would provide more of an attacking threat and at the same time would pin Pennant back in to his defensive duties. This principle can be applied to the right-hand side too.

Put simply, City can either attempt to contain Stoke’s dangerous wingers, or press them back. Much of this will depend on how conservative or adventurous Mancini feels on the day.

Whatever the outcome, the game is sure to be an interesting watch. With such contrasting styles competing against each other, it will be a tribute to the diversity of the English game, and it is fitting that this should be an FA Cup Final.

To summarize, Stoke will need to make their set-pieces count, try to up the tempo of the game, utilize their wingers and attempt to stifle the movements of Silva, Yaya and Tevez in between the lines. Manchester City will have to defend well from set-pieces, limit fouls in key areas, restrict Stoke’s wing-play, retain possession for long periods and use intricate play to penetrate the opposition to defence.

Posted in Tactics Board | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment