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Friday, November 12, 2010

Thank You Rafa

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tactics: Are Barcelona reinventing the W-W formation?

The Question: Are Barcelona reinventing the W-W formation?

To counter teams who sit deep, Barça push both full-backs up the pitch – echoing the 2-3-2-3 formation of the 1930s


Barcelona players celebrate
Barcelona players celebrate yet another goal. Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP

Football is a holistic game. Advance a player here and you must retreat a player there. Give one player more attacking responsibility and you must give another increased defensive duties. As three at the back has become outmoded as a balanced or attacking formation – though not as a defensive formation – by the boom in lone-striker systems, coaches have had to address the problem of how to incorporate attacking full-backs without the loss of defensive cover.

For clubs who use inverted wingers, as Barcelona do, the issue is particularly significant. For them, the attacking full-back provides not merely auxiliary attacking width but is the basic source of width as the wide forwards turn infield. The absence of an Argentinian Dani Alves figure in part explains why Lionel Messi has been less successful at national level than at club level. For Barcelona, as he turns inside off the right flank, Alves streaks outside him, and the opposing full-back cannot simply step inside and force Messi to try to use his weaker right foot. Do that, and Messi nudges it on to Alves. So the full-back tries to cover both options, and Messi then has time and space to inflict damage with his left foot.

It is the same if Pedro plays on the right flank, and the same when David Villa plays on the left. Barcelona's wide forwards are always looking to cut inside to exploit the space available on the diagonal, and that is facilitated if they have overlapping full-backs. Traditionally, if one full-back pushed forwards the other would sit, shuffling across to leave what was effectively a back three.

Barcelona, though, often have both full-backs pushed high, a risky strategy necessitated by how frequently they come up against sides who sit deep against them. With width on both sides they can switch the play quickly from one flank to the other, and turn even a massed defence. They still, though, need cover in case the opponent breaks, and so Sergio Busquets sits in, becoming in effect a third centre-back.

That, of course, is not especially new. Most sides who have used a diamond in midfield have done something similar. At Shakhtar Donetsk, before they switched to a 4-2-3-1, Dario Srna and Razvan Rat were liberated by Mariusz Lewandowski dropping very deep in midfield. At Chelsea, Luiz Felipe Scolari would often, when sketching out his team shape, include Mikel John Obi as a third centre-back. And Barcelona themselves had Yaya Touré dropping back to play as a centre-back on their run to the Champions League trophy in 2008-09.

What is different is the degree. It is not just Barcelona. I first became aware of the trend watching Mexico play England in a pre-World Cup friendly. Trying to note down the Mexican formation, I had them as four at the back, then three, then four, then three, and I realised it was neither and both, switching from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, as it did during the World Cup.

Ricardo Osorio and Francisco Rodríguez sat deep as the two centre-backs, with Rafael Márquez operating almost as an old-fashioned (by which I mean pre-second world war) centre-half just in front of them. Paul Aguilar and Carlos Salcido were attacking full-backs, so the defence was effectively split into two lines, a two and a three. Efraín Juárez and Gerardo Torrado sat in central midfield, behind a front three of Giovani dos Santos, Guillermo Franco and Carlos Vela. The most accurate way of denoting the formation, in fact, would be 2-3-2-3: the shape, in other words, was the W-W with which Vittorio Pozzo's Italy won the World Cup in 1934 and 1938.

Of the same species as Pozzo

Pozzo first latched on to football while studying the manufacture of wool in Bradford in the first decade of the last century. He would travel all around Yorkshire and Lancashire watching games, eventually becoming a fan of Manchester United and, in particular, their fabled half-back line of Dick Duckworth, Charlie Roberts and Alec Bell. All centre-halves, he thought, should be like Roberts, capable of long, sweeping passes out to the wings. It was a belief he held fundamental and led to his decision, having been reappointed manager of the Italy national team in 1924, immediately to drop Fulvio Bernardini, an idol of the Roman crowds, because he was a 'carrier' rather than a 'dispatcher'.

As a result, Pozzo abhorred the W-M formation that his friend Herbert Chapman, the manager of Arsenal, developed after the change in the offside law in 1925, in which the centre-half – in Arsenal's case Herbie Roberts – became a stopper, an 'overcoat' for the opposing centre-forward. He did, though, recognise that in the new reality the centre-half had to take on some defensive responsibilities.

Pozzo found the perfect player for the role in Luisito Monti. He had played for Argentina in the 1930 World Cup but, after joining Juventus in 1931, became one of the oriundi – those South American players who, thanks to Italian heritage, qualified to play for their adopted country. Already 30 when he signed, Monti was overweight and, even after a month of solitary training, was not quick. He was, though, fit and became known as Doble ancho (Double wide) for his capacity to cover the ground.

Monti became a centro mediano (halfway house) – not quite Charlie Roberts but not Herbie Roberts either. He would drop when the other team had possession and mark the opposing centre-forward, but would advance and become an attacking fulcrum when his side had the ball. Although he was not a third back, he played deeper than a traditional centre-half and so the two inside-forwards retreated to support the wing-halves. Italy's shape became a 2-3-2-3, the W-W. At the time it seemed, as the journalist Mario Zappa put it in La Gazzetta della Sport, "a model of play that is the synthesis of the best elements of all the most admired systems", something borne out by Italy's success.

Footfalls echo in the memory

To acknowledge that modern football's shape at times resembles the 1930s, though, is not to repeat Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, and lament the futility of a world without novelty: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new'? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time." Nor is it to argue that tactics are somehow cyclical, as many bewilderingly do.

Rather it is to acknowledge that fragments and echoes of the past still flicker, reinvented and reinterpreted for the modern age. Like Mexico, Barcelona's shape, at least when they use only one midfield holder, seems to ape that of Pozzo's Italy. Those who defend three at the back argue that, to prevent the side having two spare men when facing a single-striker system, one of the centre-backs can step into midfield, to which the response is few defenders are good enough technically to do that, and why not just field an additional midfielder anyway? What Barcelona and Mexico have done is approach the problem the opposite way round, using a holding midfielder as an additional centre-back rather than a centre-back as an additional midfielder.

But the style of football is very different. It is not just that modern football is far quicker than that of the 30s. Barcelona press relentlessly when out of possession, a means of defending that was not developed until a quarter of a century after Pozzo's second World Cup. In the opening 20 minutes at the Emirates last season when Barcelona overwhelmed Arsenal, the major difference between the sides lay not in technique but in the discipline of their pressing.

Inverted wingers, similarly, would have been alien to Pozzo: Enrique Guaita and Raimundo Orsi started wide and stayed wide, looking to reach the byline and sling crosses in. Angelo Schiavio was a fixed point as a centre-forward – no dropping deep or pulling wide for him. The two wing-halves, Attilio Ferraris and Luigi Bertolini, would have been too concerned with negating the opposing inside-forwards to press forward and overlap.

Nonetheless, the advantages of the W-W for a side that want to retain possession, the interlocking triangles offering simple passing options, remain the same. Having Busquets, the modern-day Monti, drop between Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué is not just a defensive move; it also makes it easier for Barcelona to build from the back. Against a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, Busquets can be picked up by a deeper-lying centre-forward or the central player in the trident, which can interrupt Barcelona's rhythm (just as sides realised after Kevin Keegan had deployed Antoine Sibierski to do the job, that – counterintuitively – Chelsea could be upset by marking Claude Makélelé); pull Busquets deeper, though, and he has more space to initiate attacks.

There is a wider point here, which relates to notation. Looking at reports from the early 70s, it seems bizarre to modern eyes that teams were still listed as though they played a 2-3-5, which had been dead for the best part of 70 years. Yet that, presumably, was still how journalists and their readers thought. Future generations may equally look at our way of recording formations and wonder how we ever thought it logical that a team playing "a back four" could feature fewer defensive players than a team playing "a back three".

We understand that full-backs attack and that in a back four the two centre-backs will almost invariably play deeper than their full-backs, but the formation as we note it does not record that. Barcelona tend to play a 4-1-2-3 or a 4-2-1-3, according to our system of notation; heat maps of average position, though, show it as a 2-3-2-3. Barcelona, like Mexico, play a W-W, but not as Pozzo knew it.

Tactics: What does a central midfielder do in 2010?

What does a central midfielder do in 2010?

July 30, 2010

Jon Obi Mikel

It’s this year’s must-have for any side looking to finish near the top of the Premier League: a player who prompts the question, ‘What does he do?’

This man is a central midfielder. He’s not a tackler, nor is he a creator. He doesn’t score many goals – in fact, he rarely looks to get into the box. So what does he do?It’s a question asked by Arsenal fans about Denilson. It’s a question asked by Manchester United fans, about Michael Carrick.

And it’s not just the fans who ask. Britain’s most famous football pundit, Alan Hansen, has the same question about Jon Obi Mikel, who started the majority of games at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield as they won the Premier League lastseason. “What does John Obi Mikel do?”, asks Hansen.

So there we have it. The best three teams in one of the world’s best leagues all field a player in the centre of their team who apparently has no specific purpose.

History

Claude Makelele is the key man in all this. Whilst at Real Madrid he was declared ‘the most important player at the club’ by various teammates who depended on his steady, reliable presence in the centre of the pitch. Unfortunately, one man who didn’t value his contribution was club President Florentino Perez. Makelele was paid far less than the ‘Galacticos’, Perez refused to give him a more lucrative contract, and Makelele opted to leave for Chelsea.

Perez was scathing after the Frenchman’s departure, saying, We will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres.” Which, of course, entirely missed the point, and he was widely criticized for his ignorance.

After making an immediate impact at Chelsea, pundits were queueing up to express their admiration for Makelele. By the very nature of being classed as ‘underrated’ by everyone, Makelele ceased to become underrated. There was no-one left who didn’t rate him.

In fact, it probably went the other way – his position was given the name ‘The Makelele role’, as if he had either invented the role, or brought a particularly new slant to it. Articles like this one - “To this day, I still believe that Real Madrid won the 2002 Champions League because of one man, and one man only…Frenchman Claude Makelele” – eventually managed to actually overrate Makelele, for that ‘one-man team’ statement is not true of any side in history, not even Maradona’s Argentina in 1986. It’s no less ludicrous than Perez’s view.

The strange thing is, no-one ever clarified what ‘the Makelele role’ actually meant. It certainly referred to a defensive midfielder, but did he have to be alone in that position? Was Makelele playing ‘the Makelele role’ when fielded alongside Patrick Vieira for France?

Regardless, his impact sparked a sudden obsession with deep-lying central midfielders. Furthermore, after his debut season at Chelsea, the astonishing victories of first Porto and then Greece at European level promoted the virtues of defensive-minded football. Premier League teams looking to play 4-5-1 formations simply took out a striker and used another central midfielder instead.

Even Real Madrid realised their error in trying to play without a defensive midfielder, and bizarrely signed Thomas Gravesen from Everton. This rather ignored the fact that he wasn’t a holding player (he merely had the appearance and disciplinary record of one). As Oliver Kay said at the time, “While Gravesen might have produced more tackles than any of his Everton team-mates this season, a holding player he is not. At Everton, in fact, he requires a ball-winner, Lee Carsley, to do his legwork and to cover him on his charges upfield…his aggression is not of the type that will break down opposition attacks like that of Claude Makelele, whom Real sold to Chelsea without a second thought in 2003.

Claude Makelele

And yet, four years later, we’re back to the pre-Makelele situation. In England, no-one has any respect for modern central midfielders.

Change in emphasis

The deep-lying central midfield role has changed, even in the short seven years since Makelele’s move to Chelsea. The first factor to consider here is the decline in the use of classic number 10s. We’re seeing less of players in the Zinedine Zidane and Manuel Rui Costa mould, and more like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi – who are capable of playing centrally, but generally start from wide roles. Without a designated central playmaker to stop, managers are less insistent on fielding a ‘tackler’ deep in midfield to stop him, and we have fewer simple ‘creator v destroyer’ battles.

Makelele himself was a tackler, a man described in a piece by Sam Wallace as a “ferocious midfield terrier”. Makelele clearly thought tackling was his main job, saying “You just enjoy it, you enjoy playing football, tackling, giving the ball. When you are small you have to tackle at the right moment. He might be tall, he might be strong but if you tackle at the right moment you’ll win it.”

This is now more difficult, because hard tackling continues to be stamped out through stringent refereeing; we increasingly see free-kicks given for ‘reckless’ challenges that would have been deemed fair just a decade ago. There’s a reason Javier Mascherano, an old-style tackling defensive midfielder, had the worst disciplinary record in the Premier League last season.

This is the first part of the story. The second part involves attacking tactics – now more than ever before based around short, quick passing in the final third. Therefore, intercepting is the new tackling. It’s not as spectacular, not as obvious, it won’t get the supporters on their feet (nowhere traditionally cheers a crunching tackle as much as English football terraces), but it’s just as useful. More so, in fact: by intercepting a pass to the player you’re marking, rather than tackling him when he gets the ball, you’re not risking a free-kick or a booking. You’re immediately in possession, whereas after a tackle, the ball can run away to an opponent. And there’s more chance of launching a quick counter-attack, and transforming defence into attack swiftly.

Taking the games between the Premiership’s so-called ‘Big Four’ last season, there were more successful interceptions than successful (non-aerial) tackles per game:

Stats taken from the Guardian’s Chalkboards facility, which uses OPTA data

46.1 compared to 38.9 is not a huge difference, but large enough to consider intercepting a more important way of gaining possession than tackling.

We can also find that the number of successful tackles in these games has declined in recent years, from 46.3 in 2006/07 to 38.9 in 2009/10:

Stats taken from the Guardian’s Chalkboards facility, which uses OPTA data

Again, given the relatively small sample size, the importance of this finding could be disputed, but it’s still quite a large drop within just four seasons.

Of course, the most obvious comparison to make would be between the number of interceptions in these games in 2006/07 and 2009/10. Unfortunately, OPTA have made a slight but crucial change in the definition of an ‘interception’ in that time, and therefore the comparison is invalid (for the record, the number of interceptions increased by around 200%).

Nevertheless, the discoveries that (a) there are more interceptions than tackles, and (b) the number of successful tackles per game is falling, gives weight to the idea that the art of intercepting is increasing in importance, and the concept of tackling is declining.

The key in all this? Positioning – footballing intelligence, knowing where to be, and when to be there. That is the area of the game that hasn’t changed much since Makelele’s arrival in England, and that was his biggest strength – he was never caught out high up the pitch, he was always on hand to break up attacks through the centre.

Distribution

This is where the central midfielder gets the most attention, and also the most criticism. The popularity of ‘the passer’ amongst managers owes much to the decline of two-striker formations, with 4-5-1s (more specifically, 4-2-3-1s and 4-3-3-s) favoured. In basic terms, this simply means an extra midfield spot available, and hence the destroyer-creator model was amended to give a destroyer-passer-creator system in the centre of midfield.

There is a more complex angle, for it also requires a different way of playing, This is summed up well by Sir Alex Ferguson. “The idea behind the 4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation. I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward…playing 4-5-1 requires a lot of patience.”

So from that short passage, we know that a manager wants ball retention and patience from central midfielders. Sideways passes are fine – there is less need these days to play the ball forward quickly. This nicely responds to the constant criticism of these players – that their passing is short and unambitious, a view which is rather similar to Perez’s thoughts about Makelele.

Here’s Michael Carrick’s passing Chalkboard from Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool, his final complete game of last season:


by Guardian Chalkboards

Granted, there are a few stray passes. But Carrick is still essentially doing what his manager asks him to – keeping possession of the ball. The misplaced passes are always more notable than the completed ones, but that’s because we’ve become so accustomed to central midfielders being excellent ball players.

Carrick is the man who has suffered most from the lack of appreciation for ball-playing midfielders in England. In Spain, the masters of possession football, he is much more popular. Take the views of Spain’s best two passers – firstly Xabi Alonso:

“If they are on top of their game and if Carrick plays, because for me he is a top player, then England will have a chance. If Carrick plays for the national team the way that he does for Manchester United, then it would be very good news for England. I think that he could easily fit in the Spanish system because I really like the way he plays. He reads the game so well, he is always ahead of what is going to happen and he is always in the right position. When he gets the ball, he plays it easy and he is available to his team-mates all the time. For me, he has the profile to play for Barcelona or any of the Spanish teams. He would also be very complimentary to Stevie.”

And then Xavi:

“Carrick gives United balance and can play defensively too. He passes well, has a good shot and is a complete player.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that the role consists of numerous small tasks. It’s often difficult to notice the impact of these players unless concentrating intently on the game. But when an entire night’s work is compiled into one video, a basic job can become beautiful. Here’s Carrick in the World Cup second round in 2006:

Here’s David Pizarro’s performance in Roma’s 0-1 win over Fiorentina:

Here are all of Sergio Busquets’ touches in Barcelona’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal:

The longer you watch, the more simple distribution becomes impressive. The key is not always in the actual pass, but (as Alan Hansen points out in the Carrick video), the initial control. That’s an area of these players’ game often overlooked – Busquets, for example, is a tremendously skilful player – see some of his moves in Barcelona’s win over Villarreal in January in the first minute of this video:

But Busquets’ main job is far simpler, of course. “Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer” is the Barcelona mantra for midfielders.

Football is largely moving towards that system of playing football, and for as long as ball retention is seen as important, the steady, unspectacular central midfielder will continue to prosper.

8/11/10 Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea, MOM Lucas Leiva

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009