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.
A surprising line-up by Thomas Tuchel, as he opted to bench some of his regular starters. Sven Bender played as the 6 and the extra centre back as well. When dropping deep, he filled the space between Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Mats Hummels. Bender often tried to utilise long vertical passes, to the dropping-deep Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. Eric Durm filled the left back position, benching Marcel Schmelzer. Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the opposite flank tried to create attack from wide areas. In midfield, in front of Bender, Tuchel paired the natural defender, Matthias Ginter who occasionally dropped deep to the 6 with Moritz Leitner.
Roger Schmidt, as usual, fielded his 4-4-2. Admir Mehmedi started on the right wing and Karim Bellarabi shifted to the left. One of the potential reasons for such a setup was that Schmidt wanted Bellarabi to attack diagonally and hit Dortmund with his right foot. Mehmedi was a bit different, with his indenting-movement, which enabled him to fill the 8 both on half-space and central area to make sure the shape was secured in central areas. At 6, Kevin Kampl and Christoph Kramer were paired once again, and played a very important part within Schmidt’s system.
Basically, Dortmund shaped up in a 4-1-4-1. But this would be transpositioned into a 3-men-behind as Bender dropped deep in the first phase of attack. This created a 3v2 situation against Leverkusen’s first-line press helping them to bypass it and allow for easier progression. This numerical superiority meant Bender could move into the 8 or make a vertical pass directly to Aubameyang, the false 9 in Tuchel’s positional play.
With Kramer and Kampl oriented to Leitner and Ginter, Dortmund (Bender in this context) gained some space centrally which helped to make a direct passing lane from the back-line to Aubameyang. Again, in this phase, when Aubameyang saw the opportunity, he dropped deep and created another numerical superiority along with Leitner and Ginter against the 6-pair of Leverkusen (3v2 for Dortmund). As the numerical superiority provided positive impact to Dortmund’s first line of attack, Leverkusen needed to deal with such movement. Kramer was often the one to respond it and put pressure on Bender. This often meant that Kampl was outnumbered by three Dortmund players.
But this didn’t mean the Dortmund shape was a flawless one. In some specific situations, particularly when Leverkusen were able to establish the horizontal compactness (through the assistance of both indented-wingers) and executed it properly, it meant they defended the central area better, there would be a gap between the three-chain and midfield-line of Dortmund. Such a gap had negative impact to the connectivity of play which meant they lost the central access.
Leverkusen were very compact centrally, as ever. Tuchel asked for a more direct approach from his players. In such play, we can see Mkhitaryan (or Aubameyang if possible) as the main target of the long ball from the deeper players. Here, Dortmund relied on how Mkhitaryan could create play through his explosive movement. Such direct play also effected how the full backs played. This was partly the reason why we didn’t see very aggressive play of Eric Durm or Lukas Piszczek. The long ball directly to the furthest forward players meant the full backs were automatically relatively late to move forward.
Against the ball, the ball-oriented shifting was a standard one, as the far-side winger had to make sure he covered the far half-space or the centre. In their defensive-play, Dortmund opted to play a relatively middle-block as they start the press from the central-line. Aubameyang would determine the pressing manner as he was the first-wave of press and the most aggressive one as well. Here, Dortmund mostly shaped in a 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 and waiting for Leverkusen to come out. This allowed Leverkusen to have relatively high procentage of possession in their deep-development. The pressing-shape was adjusted as, one example, Leitner went forward to track the dropping-deep 6 of Leverkusen or even higher as he took Bernd Leno.
Leverkusen, as shown on the first graphic, pressed high-up the pitch trying to force Dortmund to play a lot of long balls in uncomfortable situations. Some defensive issue can be seen in their high-block press. When Dortmund built up with a situational three at the back formation, Leverkusen needed to equal the numbers to halt the progression. This was an issue when the lines behind the forward-duo were a little bit late to move out to cover spaces in the more advanced areas.
For example, when Bender and Sokratis managed to drag the attention of the 9-duo, to the right side, and the ball was switched to the left, back to Hummels, this situation forced Mehmedi to come up and press Hummels. Mehmedi’s movement allowed huge space behind him which allowed Durm to receive any distribution form Hummels. Tin Jedvaj was tasked with covering Mehmedi’s vacated space. Mehmedi pressing-manner also provided some space for either Leitner or Ginter to stay on the ball-side half-space and get close to Durm to maintain the nearest passing-lane, keeping the connectivity alive.
When Leverkusen managed to regain possession deep in their own half, for example, they would circulate the ball across the back-line trying to find good access for progression..
As Schmidt wanted Chicharito or Stefan Kiessling to get involved in this phase, he needed to make sure the passing lane was clear. It was the 6-pair, Kramer and Kampl, who took this duty. They occasionally moved wide to the half-space or even to the flank to open the central area. This made the 6 space available so any 9 was able to drop-deep to help created a vertical access.
In some other situation, Kramer stayed centrally whilst Kampl occupied the near-ball flank. such swinging-6 positioning managed to drag the opponent focus to one side and opened the space on the far ball side flank, in the middle-third, that being occupied by Chicarito and made himself available as the outlet from Dortmund first-phase press, as well as pushed Leverkusen’s full back to get further forward.
This scheme had its own issue. In the context of clean progression, Leitner was the issue for Leverkusen. As aforementioned, Leitner played as the 8 so he was the one to keep an eye on Kramer when the midfielder dropped-deep to help creating central access for Leverkusen deep-circulation. In this situation, the central space was blocked so Leverkusen had to take the long ball option.
But it was not always a wasted one. When the structure was executed properly it would be a success zugriff planned, a German term which can also be translated as a plan to create an access by a purposely missplaced-pass then recover by claiming the second ball, or regain it by gegenpressing. This scheme was established by the extremely-narrow-shape of the midfielder-four. The gegenpressing in this scene gave some positive impact to Leverkusen transition, particularly as it managed to fail Dortmund’s counter-attack.
Right after the break, Tuchel got Marco Reus in to replace Pulisic. The other (major) adjustment was the basic formation. In the second-half, Tuchel decided to play with an asymmetrical basic shape of 3-5-2/3-4-1-2. With three dedicated central defenders + double pivot in front of it, Dortmund possession game in the deeper area was strong as the central-control was well-occupied.
On their second phase of attack, Tuchel still utilized Aubameyang as the connector between the deep-circulation and more advanced area penetration. Reus as we can see always tried to exploit the half-space.
Schmidt took Kampl out and replaced him with Ramalho as the new 6. He was assigned a simpler duty compared to Kramer. From Dortmund, Julien Weigl was brought in to replace Bender. But all of these substitutions didn’t bring any significant impact, as both sides were struggling to deal with each opponent’s defensive barrier.
Despite the struggle from both sides, individually, there were some interesting note to be taken. Wendell played an inverted wing back-esque role which resulted in some positive impact on the attack and stabilized the center. A good signal as the wing back is developing into a more complete player. Moritz Leitner also played exceptionally; some of his positioning (off the ball movement) in attack actually gave potential situation for Dortmund and might have given better result if utilized properly.
So did Christoph Kramer: a world-class midfielder. His pressing resistance helped him to find space for a better passing-lane. His defensive positioning enabled him to support the need of gegenpressing and kept the shape stayed compact.
Good defensive play from both sides. Dortmund won it by the single goal from Aubameyang but Leverkusen deserved a draw.
Initial line-ups: Juventus vs. AC Milan
Massimo Allegri lined his team up in a 4-3-1-2 basic shape. A salida lavolpiana in Juventus’ deep build-up means the central defensive duo, Giorgio Chiellini & Andrea Barzagli, shifted wide and let the central midfielder, either Marchisio or Pogba, collect the ball from Buffon. Stephane Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra were played as the wing backs. In the midfield, Stefano Sturaro and Hernanes played, respectively, as the right 8 and 10. Paulo Dybala was paired with Mario Mandzukic up front.
Juventus, as often, attempted to overload the flanks. The focus on the ball-side area was strong and their horizontal shifting enabled them to have a numerical overload at all times. They often established an overloading that consisted of 6 players which managed to trouble AC Milan’s wide attacks.
Juventus shifting and overloading
Despite their good shifting, there was actually an issue within this phase of play. Juventus – or maybe Hernanes himself – often defended in a 4-3-2-1/4-3-1-2 basic shape, with Hernanes staying slightly higher then the three midfielders. This potentially gave Milan better penetration if their midfielders were more vertical. However, this advantage was rarely utilised.
This issue occasionally occurred in Juventus middle-block press, for example. Their structural block exposed the vertical space between the lines which, in turn, provided some opportunity for Milan to progress by pushing the 8 forward, receiving the ‘wall pass’ from the front line. Take notice of Hernanes’ and Juventus’ central defenders’ positioning:
An illustration of Juventus’ occasionally poorly structured press. Juventus shifting was ruined by the positioning of Milan forward trio as they engaged Juventus defenders. When Romagnoli found the space, he made a forward pass which was picked up by Niang. Hernanes’ positioning also played its own part in the lack of spatial compactness within this Juventus press.
AC Milan fielded a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation, with the two ‘wide’ forwards positioning themselves in central zones rather than keeping the width. The front line was filled by Carlos Bacca in the middle, flanked by Alessio Cerci on the right and M’Baye Niang on the left. Juraj Kucka, Ricardo Montolivo, and Giacomo Bonaventura occupied the midfield and in defense, there were Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonelli, Alex, and Alessio Romagnoli.
In their defensive phase, AC Milan displayed a high-block defense, trying to press Juventus’ deep build-up. In this phase, Milan were focusing on both of Juventus’ central defenders, using them as the orientation of their first wave press. If Juventus managed to bypass this initial press and progress up the pitch, Milan adapted and transformed into a 4-5-1. Here we can see that Juventus tried to exploit the space between the lines; Hernanes or Paulo Dybala occupied the area as they were expected to be the vertical access of Juventus’ progression. Alex was tasked to man-mark Dybala, so it was him to defend against the Juventus striker, meaning he had to step forward. This led to space behind him.
On some occasions, this Alex defensive movement gave Juventus some potential space to move into. One such example occurred in the first half, when Hernanes occupied the space in front of Alex and received a pass. As Milan midfielders failed to stop it and relied on their backward shifting for an intense press would never be a wise decision, Alex had to move out to deal with Hernanes. This created the opportunity for Dybala to get into the space vacated by Alex. Fortunately for Milan, Juventus didn’t capitalize on this opportunity.
On the other hand, the inverted wide forwards within Milan’s defensive formation often proved to be crucial centrally. They helped to create a 4v3 or 4v2 in the central area, stopped the attack as well as builing a more compact shape in case of any immediate counterpressing.
Half time changes
The change, Alex Sandro coming on to replace Patrice Evra, started to take effect in the early minutes of the second-half. Alex Sandro’s verticality was useful as Juventus needed to stretch Milan out wide. He often found moving forward quickly and occupied the potential area for counter-attack. This change which positively-impact on Juventus attack was actually also influenced by the formation change. Juventus now were lined-up in a three central defenders, means their both wing back were given more license to push further forward. The only goal scored by Dybala was a perfect example: a pass from Paul Pogba to the onrushing wing-back ended-up with an assist for Dybala’s goal.
In attack Juventus were more of a 3-5-2, but transformed into a 5-3-2 or even a swing 4-4-2 without the ball, as one of the wing backs was deeper to the other, depending on the position of the ball. With three dedicated central midfielders and two wide-men, Juve were able to focus to the central area which gave some good support for their counterpressing.
In the second-half, Juventus also played with a more direct style in possession.
Milan themselves didn’t seem to change their tactic drastically. Against the ball, in a settled defensive-phase, they utilised an asymmetric 4-3-3/4-3-1-2, but he elementary issue was still there: the spatial compactness. Paulo Dybala and occasionally Paul Pogba, moved into the space between the lines, acting as Juventus’ primary outlet for circulating possession into the final third.
In attacking phases, Milan found it difficult as Juventus pressed them high-up the pitch which forced them to use a lot of long passing play. The other issue here was Juventus managing to isolate the striker, the passing target, as they formed a good shape to deal with not just the long ball, but also the long ball if Bacca was able to make a positive first touch. From such scheme, Juventus created the opportunity for a counter-attack. And as aforementioned, the presence of Juventus’ wing backs had been an important factor for them throughout the second half, being a valuable outlet in counter attacks. The role of these wing backs was to ensure they were available for a pass from the central defenders immediately, and with space to move forward into, they were easily able to progress play.
As they had the lead, Juventus were more comfortable with their defensive play. The involvement of their attackers was another key factor, as has often been the case during the Allegri era. In this phase of play, Juventus were in more of a 5-3-2/5-4-1 shape, with Dybala dropping even deeper and leaving Mandzukic alone forward.
Milan needed to push the equalizer, and this had an effect on their defensive playy. With Juventus lined up in a defensive three, Milan would use a man-oriented press, with the three Milan forwards each marking a Juventus CB. This was largely unsuccessful, as Juventus’ central defenders on the pitch were all capable of playing out of an opposition press. When Juventus beat Milan’s initial press, there was always the chance for Juventus to create numerical superiority in the second-line and quickly progress play.
Once again the forward exhibited his capability of playing at a high level. Dybala dropped deep, picked up the ball, created play, and pressed the opponent with proper gesture and positioning. On some occasions, some of his decision making could have been improved, as he often chose to pass the ball into a less strategically advantageous zone. But, of course, he has shown us how important he is within Juventus’ tactic. More playing minutes, more experience, and Dybala arguably becomes the prime protagonista for Juventus.
Both teams had difficulty creating valuable chances, and this created a drab match.
With this win, Juventus moved up to 6th place and 9 points behind the league leader, Inter Milan. This Wednesday, Juventus will host their important Champions League clash against Manchester City. They have already shown the defensive ability to trouble Man City, but without better final-third penetration it will be hard for Juventus to collect all three points from Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
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.