While the so-called excruciatingly named “group of death” looked tantalising on paper with 4 great teams together in one group, there is always the possibility that games between big teams can be a little dull – Germany versus Portugal was a perfect example of this. Germany were some way short of the benchmark set by pre-tournament hype, and Portugal were very deep and unadventurous for the first 70 minutes. The game could have had a different complexion had Mesut Özil been more involved in the link up play from the three-quarters line.
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At the turn of the year, last season’s champions, Inter, had been considered by many to be all but out of the title race. When Leonardo was appointed, he vowed to turn things around with love and hugs rather than a cold and heartless iron fist. Since his appointment Inter have played 9, Winning 8 with just the 1 loss against a currently impressive Udinese side. This represents a marked change of form and they are beginning to pick up momentum.
Momentum is something that other sides at the top of the table have lacked in the past few weeks, on Tuesday and Wednesday night Inter’s title rivals provided the perfect platform for them to catch up a pack trying their hardest to fall over themselves. With Milan, Lazio and Roma all drawing and Napoli and Juventus both losing, the top 5 or 6 are very tightly crammed together and Inter had the chance to leap into 3rd place by winning at the Stadio San Nicola.
Just over a year ago the Ukranian side Shakhtar Donetsk were lifting the final edition of the UEFA Cup. The ‘miners’ also competed in the 2009/10 edition of the Europa league but were dumped out of the competition by beaten finalists Fulham FC. For all of Shakhtar’s wonderful, short, accurate passing they failed to penetrate the South West Londoner’s organised defence.
Throughout the two legs the Ukrainians failed to use any width to attack Fulham, choosing to cut inside and shoot into a crowded penalty area on almost every occasion. On the few occasions they did contrive to use width and were in behind the defence they scored, if only they had learnt to do this a little more often.
A season on and they have made it to the Champions League group stage, the draw has handed them as good a hand as was possible. They have been drawn against Arsenal, SC Braga and FK Partizan. The group is one they will fancy their chances of getting out of, especially after having taking 6 points from their first 2 games. It has been an intriguing journey, personally, to witness from afar the change in attitude and tactics that they have undergone since I saw them lose at Craven Cottage.
Their performances so far in the Champions League this season suggest that they have transplanted some of their lateral passing for more incisive movement at the attacking end of the pitch. Without winger Ilsinho who has moved back to Brazil and Fernandinho, carrying a long term knee injury, there have been outings for younger Brazilians in the squad such as Douglas Costa, Alex Teixera and Willian. Despite having come a long way since their over intricate passing style that appeared to ultimately result in no gains there are still a number of areas in which they will need to improve if they want to progress further than the 2nd round of the tournament.
Starting from the front, one of the signings made by Lucescu last January was the young Brazilian prodigy Douglas Costa. Costa had been linked with a number of clubs before having a poor season full of off the pitch troubles and then signing for Shakhtar. The young starlet has reined in his tendencies to cut in and shoot, but not enough to give him the real unpredictability required to open up the very best defences. Usually deployed on the right hand side of an attacking three as an inside-out winger, he has been given plenty of license to cut inside but he needs to change his approach at the top level.
Above we can see, marked in yellow, Costa when he does not have the ball at his feet has the tactical sense to stay close to the touch line and on the full back’s shoulder offering the threat of picking up balls in behind the full back’s inside shoulder. This is very good play for the winger and will cause full backs lots of problems if his team mates can play balls in between centre back and full back for him to run onto.
However when he does get the ball to feet, we see the same pattern emerging where by he will charge in-field and very often shoot from upwards of 25-30 yards because there is rarely enough space to continue a run or find an accurate pass. In fairness to the lad, on this occasion he feigns to shoot and lays off a nice pass for Luiz Adriano to score with. Willian, who regularly plays as the left winger (also inside-out), has a similar tendency to cut inside too often but usually finds a pass to Jadson or Gai in the centre. Willian’s pass completion rate in the game against Partizan was 91% to Douglas’ meagre 54%.
The central play of both wingers means that Shakhtar were often a very narrow team last season, to get by without the wingers width a lot of attacking play is required from both full backs. Darijo Srna (Right) and Razvan Rat (Left) tend to play very high up the pitch, particularly in games where Shakhtar are dominating possession.
There are a number of observations to be made from the pitch map above. First of all, as discussed earlier, the very narrow positions of both wingers (10 & 20) as well as the high positions of the full backs. While Tomas Hubschman (3) plays a very capable role as defensive midfielder he tends to get sucked into the middle of the pitch looking to block off play and intercept passes which leaves tons of space in the channels to be exploited on the counter attack.
Up front Luiz Adriano has shown that he has what it takes to bag goals and has steadily been upping his haul year on year since moving to the Ukraine. He is a versatile player who can play as a traditional number 9 on the shoulder of the last man as well as dropping deep to interchange and link up with Jadson in the hole. He’s not bad with his head either. He has been joined this summer by former Arsenal striker Eduardo, who appears to be rebuilding the career that was on the ropes after that Martin Taylor reducer. The Striker has 4 goals in 7 games so far this season, hopefully he can rediscover the ice cold finish that brought him to the Premier League in 2007.
To round off with a pointlessly interesting statistic, Oleksiy Gai the Shakhtar central midfielder passed to every one of his team mates 2 or more times when they faced SC Braga except to his central midfield partner Tomas Hubschman. I’ve not heard of any John Terry style antics from the pair so we’ll have to assume that this is a sign of their new found commitment to onward rushing attacking play?
The true test of just how far Shakhtar have come will be against a side who play a very similar brand of short passing football next week. They will play Arsenal on consecutive game weeks, first home then away. If they can maintain the kind of passing football I have seen from them over the last 18 months I would like to think that they will win over a few fans from these fine shores. These are the two games I have been most looking forward to in the whole group stage since the draw was made.
It’s difficult to pay any kind of lip service to pre-tournament friendlies; France lost 1-0 against China on Friday, Serbia lost 1-0 to New Zealand last week and England achieved uninspiring and undeserved victories against Mexico and Japan. Except for ensuring that plenty of big name stars will not be appearing at this Summers tournament and giving journalists a look at the new rounder, better, faster, stronger Adidas ball so that they can publish their concerns and condemnations. What have we learnt from these friendlies?
Italy boss Marcelo Lippi sent out his side for their first International friendly on Thursday evening, they had played some practice games against local Serie D sides near their training base in Sestriere, Turin. Italy are one of the only sides to have waiting until after the June 1 squad deadline before unveiling any sort of team. Italy lined up in a 4-3-3 formation similar to the one which had taken them through the early rounds of qualification. Di Natale and Iaquinta were to provide with as well as support with Andrea Pirlo playing from deep to try and create.
This plan to wait for any kind of competition appeared to have backfired though, with Italy starting very slowly and conceding a poor goal in the 11th minute to Arsenal’s young striker, Carlos Vela (he didn’t try and chip it this time). The goal came from a communication error between the two Italian centre backs, Bonucci and Cannavaro, Cannavaro was looking to step up to play the Mexican runners offside but Bonucci follows his man into the box after having already lost him.
Italy were unable to keep up with the Mexican full backs, I really hope Mexico continue to play like this when the World Cup starts. Whenever Mexico had won the ball back the full backs bombed up the flanks, Salcido on the left and Aguilar on the right. Marquez sat in front of the two centre backs as a sweeper, yet another attempt to resurrect the role of sweeper.
To try and counter this Italy were defending very deep as soon as they lost the ball. Forcing Iaquinta and Di Natale to try and pursue the fullbacks, a task that Iaquinta was openly refusing to do stating “He [Lippi] asked me to follow the full back. But if I did this I didn’t have the energy to join the attacks.” Asking his wide men to track back meant that Alberto Gilardino was isolated against 2, or at times 3, centre backs high up the pitch. It was difficult for Italy to maintain possession in any attacking areas and they struggled to put any kind of threatening passing moves together.
In the second half Lippi changed the system around to what looked more like a 4-2-3-1, bringing on Simone Pepe to play on the right wing, moved Iaquinta further infield towards his favoured left hand side and Maggio came on at right back for Zambrotta. Marchisio was playing from a bit deeper than the other two players attacking players. This change did have the desired effect in the attacking third of the field, Pepe and Iaquinta were able to provide better support for the lone Gilardino. But Mexico dealth with the Italian attacks very well.
The midfield and attack were pushing forward together and pressing well when Mexico had the ball in their own half, but the back four were still rooted to the Italian 18 yard line. There was acres of space between the lines for the Mexican midfielders to pass and move into and they were able to hold onto the ball with few objections from the Italians.
Arrigo Sacchi sums up the need for the team to move as a unit with the following quote: -
“I used to tell my players that, if we played with twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward, given our ability, nobody could beat us. And thus, the team had to move as a unit up and down the pitch, and also from left to right.”
If the defence are close to the attack then it is difficult to put passes together as easily as Mexico did on Thursday evening. My only thought would be that Italy were worried about the attacking speed and guile of the Mexican players, they have 3 very quick talented young strikers in Vela, Hernandez and Dos Santos. The second goal was setup by Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the oldest player going to the World Cup, he was able to drop off 10-15 yards, turn and put a ball in for Medina to rifle into the net. Bonucci was unsure whether to follow his man into the space or remain in the back four and once the ball had been played Cannavaro was caught ball watching and failed to track Medina back into the box.
Italy will certainly need to work on their passing as well as defensive movement before their first game against Paraguay on June 14. After the game they received a further piece of bad news with Andrea Pirlo likely to miss at least the first two games because of a calf injury, Ricardo Montolivo is the most similar replacement otherwise Lippi will need to redesign his Italy side.
Over the past decade the 3-man defence has led the life of an endangered species, slowly dying out. The decline has had much to do with the increase in popularity of single point attacks and correlates well with fewer and fewer 2 man attacks. When I began following football at a tactical level the 4-4-2 was the formation of choice and anything other than this was seen as some exotic monster from the continent.
“What are these ‘wing backs’ and ‘trequartistas’?” screamed the plebs “Give us our long ball up to the front man, flick it on, knock it in, repeat! Give it to us!” Perhaps this is a slight over reaction but the subtlety of playing three at the back is being lost as it erodes away, leaving us with nothing more than a memory of Germany triumphing at Italia ‘90 with the 3-5-2 and Euro ‘96 with the 3-4-1-2.
Last week in Serie A 4 teams played with 3 at the back. It has not quite had it’s last showing but it is certainly not favoured. Even in it’s heyday there were a number of teams who used a centre back in midfield as their defensive midfielder and ask him to drop into a back four when the opposition had the ball in their half. Roy Hodgson explains how England used this sort of system at Euro ‘96 here.
So when is a good time to play an extra centre back or a libero? The simple answer is against any 2 pronged attack. Two of your centre backs, usually the left and right centre back, take a man each and man-mark him. The libero will play in between making sure to mop up after the first challenge. The first challenge may not be won by your centre back but your libero will be expected to do his best to win the second ball.
This is the most popular use of a three man defence, it manifests itself under a number of different guises such as the 3-4-1-2. This is a good system to use against a team playing 4-4-2 with 2 quick strikers and 2 skilful central midfielders who are bossing the midfield. This formation will give you lots of width and allow you to outnumber your opponents in the middle of the pitch. You can then take the bull by its horns and play simple passes around them to try and create scoring chances.
When playing against a team who are looking to park the bus and play 8 very defensive players and 2 fast strikers, a team that will look to win the ball and play direct passes up to their 2 front men to try and score on the counter, the 3-4-3 is an good choice of formation. You can look after the 2 strikers with cover at the back but also have as many players as possible attacking the opposition goal.
The front 3 can move wide to try and stretch the opposition back line or cut inside to allow the right and left midfielders to overlap and get in behind the opposing team. Your central striker will have to be very versatile, looking to drop off when the wingers cut in but also good in the air when they push wide to put in cross.
This formation is very attacking and requires all of the players on your team to be very skilful, comfortable on the ball so they don’t panic when under pressure. There isn’t as much cover for mistakes in attacking areas as the team is stretched across the whole pitch.
This can also be seen as a 3-6-1 if the two wide players are of the attacking 3 are placed more centrally creating a sort of 3-4-2-1. Australia used this formation at the 2006 World Cup but it is has not had much of an airing following their progression to the 2nd round.
1-4-3-2 ( 5-3-2 with sweeper)
The rarest incarnation of the 3 man defence, it is also the most defensively minded. All of the width in this formation has to come from the full backs, if you have defensive full backs it won’t work. At the same time if your full backs are too attack minded from the Dani Alves school of attack you will leave yourself open to being countered with balls into the channels. This formation can work well when you are under lots of pressure.
How to beat a 3 man defence
The best way to beat such a defence is to avoid playing 2 strikers, playing 1 spearhead with very wide wingers or 3 strikers who are able to push wide and pull the centre backs out of place is most effective.
The most recent Rome derby illustrated both the best and worst ways to play against three central defenders. In the first half Rome played with 3 strikers but all of them very centrally placed, the centre backs dealt with this superbly. At half time Roma changed to a wider 4-2-3-1 and pulled Lazio out of position. They scored 2 goals to come from behind and win comfortably.