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2009 Champions League Final: A Tactical Review

May 18, 2011 1 comment

Starting formations

United started the match strongly and within two minutes Ronaldo had forced a good save from Valdes after Anderson won a free kick on the edge of Barcelona’s penalty area. They played with a high tempo, attacking with pace and directness, and by the eighth minute had already taken five shots while Barcelona had none. They also succeeded in forcing Barcelona to play uncharacteristic rushed long balls up the pitch which United’s defenders dealt with easily.

United’s plan was clear from the first few minutes. They were going to press aggressively high up the pitch and try to disrupt the supply from Barcelona’s defense to their midfield, rather than sit deep and try to disrupt the supply from Barcelona’s midfield to their attack. The focal point of this pressing was Ryan Giggs. When Barcelona’s central defenders had possession Giggs, together with Ronaldo, would close them down and chase the ball all the way back to Valdes. The result was that while on paper United had a midfield trio of Carrick, Anderson and Giggs to match Barcelona’s trio, in reality United’s shape was much closer to a 4-4-2 than a 4-3-3. During extended spells of Barcelona possession Giggs would drop slightly deeper and loosely mark Busquets but most of the time he stayed in his advanced position.

Giggs played a very advanced role and focused on pressing aggressively high up the pitch

United's first half formation

The result of this was that whenever Barcelona was able to bypass Giggs they had a 3v2 advantage in central midfield. While that in itself was worrying it was made even worse (from a United point of view) by Guardiola’s tactical masterstroke.

Barcelona began the match in their standard 4-1-2-3 formation with Henry on the left, Messi on the right and Eto’o through the middle, but in the fifth minute Guardiola switched Eto’o out to the right and Messi into the center. It was a small tactical change but it was one which set the tone for the rest of the match, and one which Sir Alex had no answer for.

Formations from the fifth minute onward

In the two seasons since the final, and especially this season, Messi playing as the central striker rather than out on the right wing has become a common occurrence but at the time it was a surprising switch. It wasn’t the first time Messi had played in a central role but primarily he was still considered a right winger/wing-forward, and United probably wouldn’t have expected the switch. Now instead of Evra marking Messi out on the wing (at the time it didn’t seem like an outlandish idea that one full back by himself could contain Messi) they had to deal with Messi in a central role, floating freely between United’s midfield and defense.

The switch caused United several problems. Firstly it left Vidic and Ferdinand with no one to mark, a situation they probably wouldn’t have expected going into the match. Secondly, and more importantly, considering Giggs was playing in such an advanced role it effectively gave Barcelona a 4v2 advantage in central midfield. Even when Giggs dropped deeper to mark Busquets Barcelona still had a 3v2 advantage with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta against Carrick and Anderson, and they used this advantage to great effect. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi completed 66, 56 and 43 passes respectively, 165 in total which accounted for 43% of Barcelona’s passes. The corresponding numbers for United’s midfield “trio” were 93 completed which accounted for 26% of United’s passes. On the flip side while Barcelona’s central defenders accounted for 15% of Barcelona’s passes, United’s central defenders accounted for 29% of theirs. While the overall ball possession stats were roughly even, 51% in favour of Barcelona, it’s clear it was Barcelona who were passing the ball in the areas of the pitch where they could actually hurt the other team.

Carrick received a lot of criticism for his performance in the final, and if rumours are to be believed even Sir Alex placed a large portion of the blame for the loss on Carrick’s shoulders. While he certainly didn’t play well, to me much of the criticism seems excessively harsh. The tactical decisions of both managers left Carrick in an impossible bind. If he dropped deep to mark Messi he left Anderson alone against Xavi and Iniesta. If on the other hand he joined Anderson and challenged Xavi and Iniesta he left Messi free to roam. No matter what he did it was going to be a losing situation for United. In the end he didn’t fully commit to either choice and not only did Xavi and Iniesta control the midfield but Messi was allowed to roam free, constantly finding himself in space between the midfield and defense.

Messi consistently found himself in acres of space between United's midfield and defense

Sir Alex needed to react and find a way to deny Messi time and space in between United’s midfield and defense. Eto’o and Henry were constantly threatening runs in behind United’s back four so having Ferdinand or Vidic follow Messi into midfield would have been too risky. While that may limit Messi’s effectiveness it leaves the back three too vulnerable to simple runs in behind the defense. The obvious choice then would have been to drop Giggs into a deeper role alongside Anderson, essentially taking up Carrick’s place while Carrick drops even deeper to mark Messi. While that leaves Busquets free, if the choice is between leaving Messi free and leaving Busquets free, well that’s no choice at all.

United's midfield formation left Carrick and Anderson outnumbered

Dropping Giggs deeper would have helped

Sir Alex acknowledged after the match that he got his tactics wrong and only he will know why he didn’t react when he saw what was happening. United’s high pressing approach wasn’t effective in limiting the supply to Barcelona’s midfield, and when Barcelona’s midfield received the ball they consistently found themselves in 3v2 or 4v2 situations. Whether making a change would have had any effect on the result is an altogether different question, but it would at least have made it more difficult for Barcelona to control the match.

When the change did come it came in the form of a halftime substitution. Anderson made way for Tevez and while the Argentinean brought some more energy and attacking thrust it did nothing to address the real problem of Barcelona’s midfield dominance and Messi’s free role and ultimately had little influence on the match. Giggs moved into a deeper role alongside Carrick, Park and Rooney switched wings and Tevez played up top with Ronaldo, but United’s attacking play didn’t change. As they had done in the first half as soon as they won the ball they looked to play long diagonal balls out to the wide areas, bypassing Barcelona’s midfield and looking to exploit their weaknesses in the full back positions, but apart from a few instances when Rooney exploited the space behind Sylvinho and got into good crossing positions United struggled to get the ball into Barcelona’s penalty area, and the times they did Barcelona dealt with the situations relatively easily. Pique in particular had an excellent match at the heart of Barcelona’s defense.

Sir Alex brought Berbatov on for Park in what was by now a 4-2-4 system and unsurprisingly Barcelona were able to carve through United’s midfield at will. The second goal came in the 70th minute when Lionel Messi capped off his excellent night by heading home a Xavi cross. United fought on till the end but Barcelona defended well and the United comeback never materialised.

In a match of two decisive tactical decisions Guardiola outfoxed his opposite number just like his players outperformed theirs. Manchester United will feel disappointed they didn’t perform to the best of their ability and when the two sides meet again on the 28th of May at Wembley they will be desperate for revenge. It remains to be seen whether they have learned from their mistakes of two years ago.

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Categories: Tactics

Can İlkay Gündoğan replace Nuri Şahin?

May 10, 2011 3 comments

While title celebrations at the Signal Iduna Park are still very much ongoing Dortmund fans received some bad news yesterday when Nuri Şahin announced that he will be joining Real Madrid next season in a deal reportedly worth €10-13m. The midfield playmaker played a pivotal role in Dortmund’s title triumph and at this point the Bundesliga Player of the Season award seems like a mere formality. Finding an adequate replacement for Şahin is vitally important for Dortmund and the club has been quick to react, announcing the signing of 20-year old German youth international İlkay Gündoğan last week. The 1. FC Nürnberg midfielder is seen as Şahin’s heir apparent and in this post, using statistics collected from the official Bundesliga website, I will look at whether Gündoğan can replace Şahin in Dortmund’s midfield.

For Gündoğan moving to Dortmund will be a large step up in terms of responsibility, both on and off the pitch. Moving from a midtable club, even if that club is Der Club where the players have to carry the weight of the club’s history on their shoulders, to the reigning champions is always a big step, but moving there to replace Şahin will make it doubly so.

Şahin’s role is the most important in Dortmund’s team. As the deep-lying playmaker he is the motor in the midfield and the conductor of the team’s passing game. Over the course of the season he attempted 1803 passes which even though he missed the last few matches due to injury is almost 300 passes more than the second best Hummels. Adjusted for playing minutes he contributed 14.9% of Dortmund’s passes which is comparable to the likes of Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal and Paul Scholes at Manchester United in terms of what percentage of a team’s passes a player contributes. On a per 90 minutes basis he attempted 63 passes on average.

Gündoğan’s role at Nürnberg is slightly different. He generally plays in a more advanced position and operates more in the opponent’s half than his own. In fact 61.5% of his passes were in the opponent’s half compared to 49.6% of Şahin’s. Gündoğan can and has played in a deeper role but it’s not the role he has primarily played this season.

His more advanced role to a small extent explains his lower passing numbers. Over the course of the season he attempted 745 passes or 37 passes per 90 minutes. As a percentage he contributed 10.6% of Nürnberg’s passes. You would expect those numbers to increase somewhat when playing in a deeper role. I considered going through his matches this season and separating them based on which role he played but the sample sizes are small enough as is that I don’t think we could draw any meaningful conclusions from them if we made them even smaller.

Note that in the above numbers I only included passes in open play. Since Şahin also takes corners and free kicks while Gündoğan doesn’t the 114 corners and 86 free kicks taken by Şahin would even further increase the gap between the two.

To further emphasize the difference in responsibility, if we ignore the matches the players missed due to injury Şahin started every match and played 96.1% of Dortmund’s minutes compared to Gündoğan’s 81.2%. For Gündoğan to fill Şahin’s boots he will need to be very strong mentally to not crumble under the pressure and responsibility.

There are also significant differences in the types of passes the players contribute. Şahin is a very ambitious passer. Of his passes in the opponent’s half 63.8% were forward passes, 20.9% sideways passes and 15.3% backwards passes. Of his passes in his own half 59.1% were forward passes, 20.2% sideways passes and 20.7% backwards passes. Contrast this with Gündoğan who is more conservative. Of his passes in the opponent’s half 35.2% were forward passes, 30.3% sideways passes and 34.5% backwards passes. Of his passes in his own half 42.9% were forward passes, 24.4% sideways passes and 32.7% backwards passes. While I don’t have statistics on their ratios of short to medium to long passes from watching almost all of their matches this season I can say that Şahin has a wider range of passing and is better at long range passes than Gündoğan who prefers short and medium range passes.

In terms of passing accuracy the two are very close. The success rates of Şahin’s forward, sideways and backwards passes in the opponent’s half are 63.3%, 85.6% and 96.4% while for Gündoğan they are 66.5%, 86.3% and 94.3%. In their own halves their sideways and backwards pass success rates are 92.9% and 95.2% and 90.0% and 98.9% respectively. The only real difference is in their forward passing in their own halves where Şahin has a success rate of 65.6% compared to Gündoğan’s 53.7%.

Şahin is also a more creative passer. On average he created 3.61 goal scoring chances per 90 minutes which is more than any other player in the top five European leagues. Even though Gündoğan played in a more advanced role and should therefore theoretically be in a better position to create goal scoring opportunities he created only 1.23 chances per 90 minutes.

In addition to being vitally important to Dortmund’s passing and attacking game Şahin is also a very good defender. Per 90 minutes he completed 3.26/3.92 tackles for a success rate of 83.2%. He also made 2.22 interceptions and 7.28 loose ball wins. From observation I can also say he is disciplined and has good defensive positioning and awareness.

Gündoğan’s defensive work rate is also good but in terms of easily measurable contributions he is not as good as Şahin. Per 90 minutes he completed 1.18/1.43 tackles (82.8% success rate), made 1.38 interceptions and 5.22 loose ball wins. His more advanced role partly explains the lower numbers.

So to return to the original question, can İlkay Gündoğan replace Nuri Şahin? While always keeping in mind that he is only 20 years old and still has a lot of room to improve, and that playing with better players will naturally make him better, in my opinion the answer is no, at least not directly. While they share some similarities they are still very different players. Gündoğan is more of a short passer and a dribbler (dribbling is actually the one metric where Gündoğan outperformed Şahin, both attempting more dribbles and having a slightly better success rate) who floats around midfield, receiving the ball in more advanced positions and looking to create from there. Şahin plays a deeper role and demands the ball more, always visible and always vocal in midfield, and with a wider range of passing both short and long. I think Gündoğan’s natural role is the more advanced midfield role that Kagawa and Götze have played this season. For Gündoğan to perform Şahin’s role in this current system he would need to both improve and adapt several parts of his game all at once.

If Klopp truly intends to replace Şahin with Gündoğan I suspect it may necessitate a tactical switch away from the midfield triangle with two holding players and one more advanced to an inverted triangle with just one holding player and two more advanced. This would of course result in Bender as the sole holding player having to take more responsibility in Dortmund’s passing. Dortmund would also lose the defensive solidity that comes with a duo of central holding players.

It would also mean there is a small risk that Dortmund’s attacking play could become too narrow. Dortmund’s wingers like to come into central areas to join in the short passing combinations with the midfielders, and it’s situations like this where Şahin’s long range passing is so valuable because with one pass he can quickly play the ball out to an advancing full back looking to exploit the space in the wide areas and maintain the width in their attacking play. With Gündoğan you lose some of that and I think that’s something Dortmund would have to be wary of.

Ultimately I think the transfer of Gündoğan to Dortmund is a good move for both the player and the club. It gives Klopp another midfield option and for Gündoğan it’s a good place to develop as a player and a good next step in his career. There are many question marks and it remains to be seen how Gündoğan will do at Dortmund but I think the one thing we can be sure about is that at the end of the day old Kloppo will still be laughing, and for as long as he is at Dortmund it’s a fair bet the Dortmund fans will be laughing as well.

Categories: Players