Following an indifferent first season at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino’s team have clicked into gear. A number of astute transfer decisions have created a deep squad with a number of potential options for Pochettino to utilise. Harry Kane has emerged as a genuine superstar, and Eric Dier has become a full-time defensive midfielder. But one of the key factors in their rise is Pochettino’s tactical system; this ruthless machine of a Spurs team is entirely different from the soft-centred teams of years past.
Alongside Daniel Sturridge, Coutinho’s signing in the January window of 2012/13 invigorated a previously stagnant Liverpool attack. He continued to blossom and played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s assault on the top of the table in 2013/14.
But despite signing as a tricky playmaker, Coutinho has now morphed into a shot monster. He is well in front of any Premier League player in long-range shots, and also ranks 1st in Europe’s top five leagues for 2015/16.
Basic Coutinho stats and their progression during his Liverpool career
Most of Coutinho’s basic stats exhibit a steady trend. That in itself is important to recognise, but more so is understanding why he’s grown in that way.
For the first time in half a decade, Inter Milan are involved in a genuine fight to win Serie A. With Juventus’ struggles in the early parts of this season, it has opened the door to a four-team battle for the title. Napoli have been arguably the most consistent team in Serie A, Juventus has clawed their way back to contention and Inter already have victories over title contenders Roma, and Milan. Roberto Mancini overhauled their squad during the Summer transfer window, and remodeled an attack that was previously based around striker Mauro Icardi. The Argentine had tied Luca Toni for first in goal scoring in Serie A at 22 goals. Adam Ljajic and Stevan Jovetic were captured on loan deals, with big money spent on Ivan Perisic and Geoffrey Kondogbia. Mateo Kovacic was the only main departure.
On the aggregate, Inter Milan’s attack has been acceptable, especially considering the upheaval at hand. Inter rank 8th in Serie A in total shots, 6th in the % of shots coming from the central part of the penalty area and 4th in expected goals for. There’s a bunch more numbers you could pile through and it would turn out in a similar fashion, ranking Inter’s attack as a respectable team but nothing special.
The manner in which they’ve attained this is fascinating. In an era where team attacking movements have never been more intricate, Inter are an outlier with their attacking approach oriented on athletic ability. They’ve switched between multiple formations: a 4-3-2-1, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and recently Roberto Mancini has preferred a double pivot within the 4-2-3-1 formation. The depths of which Inter’s formations have changed has reflected the constant search for a workable formula. So far it hasn’t mattered. They sit top of Serie A. But you get the feeling that the club at times is living on borrowed time with their over reliance on defense, especially in close game situations.
The most striking thing about Inter’s attack is the frantic tempo; constantly looking for passes into their attacking players. Most of the central midfielders that Inter have are broadly classified as athletic ball recyclers with the likes of Felipe Melo, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gary Medel. As a result, teams have often gone to man marking Inter’s central midfield which has forced either the double pivot or the three man midfield to do one of two things: either make a rudimentary pass to a teammate around them or transition the ball quickly to one of the attacking players.
The central midfielders are all fairly uncomfortable against the press, meaning the full-backs most remain slightly deeper to create an easier passing option should they come under any serious pressure. This makes it more difficult to release the full backs into advanced areas.
Inter can still occasionally get their fullbacks into advanced areas, particularly Alex Telles. But this occurs when they play 1v2 with a wide player, or they collect the ball in a non structured situation and advance it high up the pitch.
As a result, Inter have a tough time creating attacks from the back. When teams don’t pressure Inter’s backline, it can look sometimes that they’re bereft of ideas on how to build play from deep. This often leads to ponderous passing and the occasional ambitious long ball from their centerbacks. It gets even more worrisome when the opposition are pressing Inter. Udinese, and at times Fiorentina, pressured against Inter and it caused them to play on the back foot. During the initial stages of the Napoli match, even when Napoli were up 1-0 they hurried the Inter backline. Nagatomo was particularly targeted, and this forced Inter to retreat back to Samir Handanovic using him as a release valve to restart their attack.
Inter’s poor build-up structure and Napoli’s poor press force Murillo into a difficult situation. He has three main options: pass it back to his GK, make a near-suicidal pass to a teammate in the midfield, or hoof it as far as possible.
Very little of the Inter attack goes through the central midfield, and when it does, it’s often forcing the attacking players to receive the ball much deeper than they would like to. It makes sense to get your best players on the ball as much as possible, but the attacking players are much less dangerous when being asked to collect the ball in the midfield with their backs to goal.
When Inter deviate from playing redundant midfield players and instead use Brozovic, they trade defense structure for a bit of offensive spontaneity. Brozovic is a talented dribbler who can get himself out of tight situations with his light feet and in one smooth motion can either pick out a pass to an attacking player, or create the pass that creates an opportunity for a teammate to advance play.
This suggests the best midfield going forward would be utilising Brozovic in a double pivot alongside one of the many destroyers. Geoffrey Kondogbia, for example, thrived last season at Monaco alongside creative midfielders, but has struggled this year in a midfield full of mostly redundant pieces.
Upon transitioning into the opposition half, Inter’s attacking play is largely based on individualism. The likes of Ljajic, Perisic and Jovetic are adept at receiving the ball in somewhat unconventional areas and quickly putting pressure on the opposition with either a pass or dribble. At its best it’s an efficient way of bypassing their weaknesses in the midfield and producing good scoring chances, particularly when the attacking move involve striker Mauro Icardi. Their only goal versus Lazio symbolized that.
This is Inter at their best: a quick tempo involving a defensive action -> quick pass to the attacking three -> ball into Icardi. It’s everything that Roberto Mancini wants Inter to be with the roster he’s accumulated. However, strip out those moments and you find an attack that is often stagnated. It’s the consequences of relying on individualism to paper over the cracks. When the killer passes aren’t available, Inter will still try and force them in and meekly secede possession. Inter also have a penchant for long range shots when things don’t go their way with the club ranking in Serie A’s top 6 in shots from outside the area.
And here’s the big kicker, the attacking structure that Inter have built has come at the expense of their talisman goal scorer Mauro Icardi. Icardi has been dying for service this season. He’s been receiving the ball about as little as a striker of his caliber can and it’s easy to see why. Inter have built an attack that is the antithesis of a poaching striker. Numerous Inter build up plays in the final third involve overloading on either side and a gap in the central area. When that happens, often times there’s little support for Icardi in the areas that a #10 would generally occupy. This means Inter often rely on 30/35 yard passes to create a chance for Icardi.
In theory, a permanent switch to the 4-2-3-1 should help rectify these type of situations going forward. There’ll be times when Icardi will communicate to those around him that he is available for a ground pass, but yet no one will provide him the ball. Even though Jovetic wears the #10 on Inter, he doesn’t play as a nominal #10. He moves around all over the place and occupies different positions playing at times; sometimes like a wide player and at times like a second striker. That type of versatility is needed considering the one dimensional nature of the central midfield, but it can come at the expense of building a consistent rapport with Icardi. He’s also quite happy to let fly outside the box shots if he doesn’t sense anything happening around him.
The 4-0 victory against Frosninone in late November was arguably Inter’s best attacking performance. Three of the goals that came in the second half were created from some beautiful team passing and hinted at what Inter could be if they get their attack going. Ljajic’s role in particular was important because he did the brunt work of the creativity on that night, occupied the #10 areas that Icardi can get service from and generally stayed attached to him. He played a nice 1-2 with him which led to a tap in for Icardi.
Jovetic was also more consistent when playing closer to Ljajic, and although his touches were still spread out, there was more of an emphasis on being closer to Icardi for link up opportunities.
After 17 games, Inter’s attack can be best described as still a work in progress. To their credit they have been ruthless in capitalizing on defensive errors and turning them into goals. Their 4-0 victory over Udinese was a testament to that, as they scored three of their goals from defensive errors by the Udinese backline. Inter are blessed with a couple of hyperactive creative midfielders in Ljajic and Jovetic, while Icardi has still managed to score goals at an impressive rate despite being much more of a supporting player than the main focal point offensively. It’s probably fair to say that the offense still being this choppy is a bit of a concern despite having no European football to deal with, but it’s also fair to say the massive roster upheaval Inter had over the summer means this shouldn’t be a surprise.
The Frosinone performance showed a road map that Inter could head down and find attacking success, but this level of performance needs to be attained against teams with a sturdier defense. In an era where a lot of teams are zigging, Inter are zagging. If the club can find more cohesion going forward, we might be looking at the first Scudetto for Inter since the treble winning season six seasons ago.
Arsenal overcame Bayern Munich in a match few expected them to win. In a calculated tactical display, Arsene Wenger’s team sat deep and used impressive counter-attacks to cause Guardiola’s team a number of problems.
There cannot be any doubts about the quality of Arsenal’s general co-ordination in the attacking organisation phase. But these are not skills that would be needed often against Bayern; this would be a completely new challenge. When Arsene Wenger’s team have been presented with these challenges previously, they have generally faltered. He has been accused of naivety, but his approach to the game against Bayern proved that Wenger is capable of altering his tactical approach should the situation demand.
Bayern’s main threat, much like Arsenal, comes in the attacking organisation phase. And as a result, Arsenal would spend much of the game without possession. Their approach to dealing with this changed throughout the game.
Jurgen Klopp’s arrival in England was met with much fanfare, with supporters eager to see whether his Liverpool team would play at a higher intensity than the one Brendan Rodgers finished with. Initial reports suggested Liverpool would operate with a 4-2-3-1, but the roles of James Milner & Emre Can created an interesting shape with & without the ball.
It’s been interesting to see the tactical change Marseille have undergone since the departure of Marcelo Bielsa. Last year Marseille played in multiple fluid formations in an ultra aggressive pressing system, whether in a 3-4-3 or a spread out 4-2-3-1. This year has been considerably different as Michel has Marseille playing under a much more conservative (relative to Bielsa) 4-3-3 formation. The use of Abdelaziz Barrada as a left sided central midfielder has been interesting as well, with his presence at times creating at times a 4-2-2-2
PSG countered Marseille’s 4-3-3 with their own similar formation that unlike for Marseille, has been a staple for PSG for quite a long time. Le Classique was home to dueling 4-3-3s, a fascinating encounter between by far the best team in France, in PSG, and a mercurial Marseille club that have been much better than their 16th place showing.
Under Marcelo Bielsa, Marseille were one of the most aggressive pressing sides in Europe last year. The intense man-marking system had its flaws (both short- and long-term), but it also had its considerable positive effects. Marseille were one of the best at establishing a chaotic tempo and getting out to early leads, very similar to the 2013-14 Liverpool side. The pressing system also suited certain members of last season’s Marseille squad.
This year has been different. Marseille still press but not to the degree they did last season.
Against PSG, it was more of the same. Marseille set up at times in a 4-4-2, very happy to allow PSG to pass from the back.
It’s a considerable change from last season’s Marseille squad but it was also a welcome change in some ways. It displayed a sort of pragmatism that Marseille lacked at certain times last year. What made the new found conservatism even more profound is Marseille found ways to mix and match this with the intense man marking system. Even though Remy Cabella was listed as a LW, he drifted inside with and without the ball.
Motta is dispossessed, which creates a counter attacking opportunity leading to a handball infraction just outside the penalty area.
When Marseille got it right, PSG had stretches where they clearly struggled to create a passing tempo from the defense onto their attack. It showed more variety in Marseille’s off the ball structure than was present with Bielsa as their manager. It also allowed for OM to soak up pressure and play on the counter primarily, something that they didn’t do much last season. Roman Alessadrini took charge of the right hand side and was very direct while Michy Batshuayi presented himself as a credible target man when Marseille needed to play long balls to him to relive the pressure from PSG’s pressing of the OM backline.
However there were consequences to the 4-4-2 set up that OM played defensively, and PSG exploited it when the opportunity presented itself, especially when Marseille became quite narrow.
Serge Aurier’s Positioning
The use of Remy Cabella as a LW this season has come with mediocre results for Marseille and against PSG that didn’t change; though this time, Cabella was also a hindrance defensively. In the modified 4-4-2 system defensively, Cabella’s positioning was all over the place as he drifted inside many times. Sometimes he & Barrada would alternate who would play as the nominal left sided midfielder in defensive phases.
Occasionally it ended in good results, like the instances where Marseille would try and create transition opportunities. Other times, it left acres of space for PSG to punish when given the opportunity. Serge Aurier is perhaps the most forward-venturing fullback in Ligue 1 and he was a constant nuisance for Marseille with his positioning, putting a huge strain on Paulo De Cegile and the OM backline to cover up.
This was a constant theme for Aurier. What made this particularly tough was that Di Maria and Aurier would often times alternate positions. Di Maria would come deeper despite being the RW and Aurier would go forward. Combine that with the brilliant movement of Marco Verratti and It resulted in PSG’s first big chance of the match.
The constant switching between Di Maria and Aurier was a powerful weapon for PSG, and it also displayed the damage Di Maria could inflict from deeper areas. Aurier when going forward is very comfortable on the ball and it proved too much for Marseille to handle. De Cegile isn’t lacking mobility but there was no chance he could cover the entire right hand side by himself, as Cabella was slow to shift. No LB in the world could, nor should, be faced with 1v2’s against the likes of Di Maria and Aurier. Marseille had no counter to this whilst both Cabella and Barrada were on the pitch and it brings into question why Michel is continually playing both Barrada and Cabella on the left side.
It was a masterclass showing from one of the best RBs in Europe. Aurier wasn’t flawless (he gave up a penalty that could’ve equalized for OM in the 2nd half) but his overall performance displayed both the endless stamina and skillful talent he possesses.
Multifaceted Michy Batshuayi
With Michel setting up Marseille to play primarily on the counter attack versus PSG, Batshuayi was tasked to play multiple different roles. At times he was asked to play as a point of reference of some sorts, other times he tried to give width to compensate for Cabella’s continued escapades into the central area. There were even multiple occasions where Batshuayi would collect the ball from inside his own half, another sign into both how committed Marseille were to playing on the counter and how big a stranglehold PSG had in terms of raw possession.
When Marseille wanted Batshuayi to run through the channels, he had the mobility to do so.
Against a lesser type of opponent, these kind of instances could’ve resulted in breakaway caliber of chances. It didn’t against PSG because they have the type of mobility at CB to sniff it out and turn possible quality chances into run of the mill stuff.
The goal by Marseille though exemplified the all -around capabilities that Batshuayi possesses. He collected the ball around midfield to keep hold of possession for the team.
And then made a typical center forward run and got on the head of Barrada’s cross.
There were also moments where Batshuayi would try and create offense for himself, one of those instances occurring two minutes after the 55th minute penalty save from Kevin Trapp, resulting in a half chance that was parried away. Performances like this are a strong indicator into the caliber of player Michy Batshuayi could become. Against lesser opponents, Marseille’s half chances could’ve been B+ caliber of chances, and most of Marseille’s chances have Michy Batshuayi’s fingerprints all over them.
The performance produced by Marseille was a indicator that they are certainly not the caliber of a 16th place team, which is also backed up by the data. It wasn’t a perfect performance, as PSG did create three clear cut chances from open play, but that’s usually a given when PSG play anyone in Ligue 1. PSG at times looked genuinely troubled with Marseille’s change of pace defensively and were hit on the counter multiple times including the opening goal. Bordeaux did similar things against PSG earlier in the season and it’s the clear tactic to use against a possession dominant side like PSG.
But it was also a reminder as to the massive gap between PSG and the rest of the field in Ligue 1. On an off day, PSG were still able to get in behind Marseille’s defense. In a battle of 4-3-3s, PSG’s version looked more compact defensively even with Marseille doing a number of things right.
The use of Remy Cabella at times effectively gifted PSG the right hand side and both Di Maria and Serge Aurier took great advantage of it. It looks increasingly unlikely that Marseille’s best lineup shouldn’t include both Barrada and Cabella, and it’ll be up to Michel to play a traditional winger if he wants to keep his version of the 4-3-3.
There are clear signs that Marseille will right the ship and move up the table. The problem is just how quickly can they climb up and salvage a possible shot at a Champions League birth for next season.
Olympique Lyonnais have only taken four points from a possible nine so far this season, a far cry from the start they were hoping for. Lyon can take solace in the fact that both Monaco and Marseille have also had similarly lackluster starts, two clubs who think they should be part of Ligue 1’s top three. Lyon have been uninspiring over the last five halves of play, and Rennes helped contribute to that with a compact showing defensively away from home.
Stade Rennais had a pretty defensive lineup going into the match, even by their standards. Pedro Henrique started as a makeshift striker, despite usually operating as a winger. Former Lyon player Mehdi Zeffane was put into the starting lineup, but as a left sided midfielder in front of the back five, instead of as a fullback.
As the game kicked off, Lyon immediately took up their narrow 4-3-3 defensive shape. However, normally Lyon would prefer to have the front three in wider positions, defensively. Lyon at their best like to press along the flanks and the sidelines, giving them opportunities to regain possession and possibly launch attacks the other way.
Rennes aren’t known for their pressing, and are certainly not in the same category as Marseille last season under Marcelo Bielsa. Their defensive style is more similar to the likes of Nantes & Saint Etienne, who prefer to do their defensive work in the midfield and allow the opposition time on the ball in non-dangerous areas. However, Rennes’ manager Philippe Montanier had Rennes press the Lyon backline continuously, particularly in the first 20 minutes. This led to Lyon making questionable decisions and forcing potentially dangerous turnovers.
The result of this was that Lyon were unable to establish rhythm to their attacking play. Lyon prefer to utilise the central areas, more so than most Ligue 1 sides, and the width is provided from a combination of their forwards drifting wide, or fullbacks bombing up the touchline to create overloads. At their best, Lyon are able to blend the centrality of their attacking players with the width from the full-backs (Rafael & Bedimo) into a fluid attack. Rennes recognised this, and seemed to dare Lyon to beat them only by attacks starting from the outside; the clogged up the centre of the pitch, so only simple options were taken by Lyon to keep possession of the ball.
The first goal by Pedro Henrique came just a couple of minutes after, via a mistake from Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa & Jordan Ferri. The goal was a reward to Rennes for their determination and tactical preparation coming into the match.
As the game moved further along, the intensity of the Rennes press slowly started to decrease. It wasn’t necessarily because of the positioning of the front five from Rennes, as they still were fairly high up the pitch.
Henrique didn’t change his positioning but allowed the backline of Lyon to make passes. Nabil Fekir became a more central threat and Lyon were able to hem in Rennes into the final third more often, evidence by the 180 final third passes that Lyon created (the highest mark from a Ligue 1 team so far this season).
Lyon Fullback deployment
One of the staples of Lyon’s offense is how high up the pitch the likes of Rafael and Bedimo are positioned, to provide additional width when Fekir & Lacazette don’t drift out wide. Lyon aren’t a very cross happy team (they were in the bottom three last season in crosses per game and chances created from crosses), but Lyon use this width to create 2v1s on either flank when the middle is unavailable to build through.
We saw similar things with Lyon after the Rennes opening goal, as they started to involve their fullbacks more often in an effort to bypass the middle of the pitch.
While Rennes did a solid job in plugging the middle, there were a few attacking moves from Lyon that posed trouble for them, and they were all built from wide areas. The goal from Fekir was through a combination of Bedimo cutting inside in a failed 1-2 combination with Lacazette, Jordan Ferri’s high positioning on the right hand side and another forward run from Rafael.
It was somewhat fortuitous that Lyon scored despite the good things they did to unlock Rennes’ defense. The cross from Rafael on the right hand side was deflected onto Fekir, whose shot was also deflected past Costil.
It was interesting to see Lacazette’s positioning throughout the entire match. At his best, Lacazette can perform both as a striker who comes from the outside-in or inside-out. Lacazette wasn’t close to his best against Rennes and seemed to prefer cutting inside from wide areas. His performance more reminiscent of his earlier days as a winger than the striker of 2014-15.
One of the rare opportunities where Lacazette was able to effectively come from the outside-in was when he, Valbuena and Fekir combined on a lovely interplay that nearly resulted in a Grade A chance for Lacazette.
Some of this was due to Rennes’ defensive outlook, overloading the midfield and essentially gifting parts of the flanks, especially in the midfield. But also key was Rennes controlling the tempo of the game. Lyon ideally like to play a mixture of a quick tempo attack combined with doses of methodical football that’s more focused on creating throughball opportunities. Rennes forced Lyon to play the majority of the match as the latter, trying to break through against their defense, especially when they sagged back and dared Lyon to break them down.
Lacazette thrives on controlled chaos because his speed and strength combined with his quick shooting ability makes him a nightmare in those situations. He’ll find the spaces in between the CBs and make runs into the penalty box, which his teammates found last year in high abundance. Those runs weren’t available against Rennes, and the slow pace meant he couldn’t thrive in that vacuum, another feather in the cap to Rennes and their defensive outlook.
Rennes did a solid job defensively against Lyon. They weren’t perfect, but they forced Lyon to play a predominantly slow paced match, and they did a good enough job in limiting the opportunities that they created. Lyon are averaging 5.33 shots in the danger zone area (the center of the penalty box) this season which is 4th best in Ligue 1. Lyon attempted six versus Rennes, right around their league average.
It’s fair to say that Rennes were a bit lucky in nabbing two goals out of only six total shots, particularly considering that the shots were arguably stoppable on Lyon GK Anthony Lopes’ part. But one might argue that Rennes deserved that bit of good fortune for what they did to Lyon with that defensive lineup. Zeffane was great in his return to the Stade Gerland and did a surprisingly great job as a left sided midfielder. He assisted on the first goal and scored the winning goal.
It’s too early to predict doom and gloom for Lyon, especially considering that they faced similar struggles at the start of last year’s campaign. They do not look anywhere close to the side that took Ligue 1 by storm last year, but time is still very much on their side.
Rennes came to the Stade Gerland with a plan and executed it. The focus on defensive & compact football worked well for Rennes, and may provide a blueprint for other Ligue 1 teams to use against Lyon throughout the season.
First Knockout Round: Arsenal (away)
Leonardo Jardim was forced to make big chances to his starting lineup, as six players were unavailable due to injury or suspension. Andrea Raggi, Ricardo Carvalho, and Timoué Bakayoko were forced out of injured. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Lavin Kurzawa were in doubt and started from the bench. Jeremy Toulalan was banned.
Monaco’s most important tactical feature throughout their Champions League campaign was their defence. From six matches, they topped their group by scoring (only) four goals; but conceded only a single goal, from Benfica’s Anderson Talisca. In the last 16 – against Arsenal – Monaco won 3-1 at the Emirates before going through 3-3 on aggregate. Their journey was finally stopped by the Old Lady of Juventus in the quarter finals, as Arturo Vidal managed the only goal. In this article, we will look into some of the key aspects of Leonardo Jardim’s system, particularly the defensive play.