Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Seeing is Believing

My eye
Photo by Orangeacid

The tremors from the Champions League match between Manchester City and Bayern Munich should still be felt throughout the football world.  The question continues to arise as to whether this was tactics or talent.  The answer, of course, is both.

Pep Guardiola is changing the course of football history by changing the game.  This is unlike the self-proclaimed Special One who is effective but never works outside of the box.  In the City game, Pep did what he used to do at Barca and flooded the midfield with his 4-1-4-1.  There was simply no room for City's midfield triangle in their 4-2-3-1 (though to be fair, City really had 2 at the top as Aguero rarely tracked back to help on Lahm).  But it wasn't merely formation, it was the suffocating tracking and pack hunting of Bayern.  When a City player go the ball on the outside he was immediately pressured and every one of his outlets was marked tightly.  The only ball would have to be a perfect ball or a dangerous cross field long ball.  But there was no time for either.

It has been reported by players like Cesc Fabregas that Barca works much harder in training than he expected.  And all the talk of the system.  But as pointed out well in the Guardian by Gary Neville (the former United player is, I believe, one of the best tactical commentators out there, as well as very entertaining broadcaster), it's also largely hard work.  That is, Pep demands intense pressure and tracking in addition to intelligent marking of outlets.  And it would seem his offense anticipates that the same will happen to him, so he floods the midfield with triangles and outlets.  Four players is not enough -- Lahm is behind the midfielders as well as the defenders to allow for even more ways out of trouble.

Bayern has a dramatically different style and set of players than Barca.  Muller, Schweinsteiger, Ribery, Robben -- none of these players have ready counterparts at Barca.  Indeed, people questioned whether his system was workable with this style of player or whether he would have to adapt and bring in smaller, quicker players.  All of this would take time -- the time that David Moyes seems to be begging for these days.  But instead, Bayern quickly adopted to the new style and has done so emphatically.  They embarrassed City with possession, at times passing it through the City midfield without purpose as if to taunt them.

I remain constantly shocked that there are fewer copycats of Pep.  I expected the same of Liverpool from Brendan Rodgers.  His prior team, Swansea, played a similar possession game though with less of the defensive pressure.  And they did so to great effect with marginal talent at best.   But now at Liverpool his teams look similar to almost all BPL teams, playing with much more directness and relying on Gerrard cross field passes as well as the speed and intensity of Suarez and Sturridge.

But then it happened, and unfortunately it happened to Spurs.  Of all people, Sam Allardyce was clearly watching that Bayern game, and immediately delivered the same formation to stifle Spurs 4-2-3-1.  By clogging the center of the pitch with midfielders, Spurs controlled most of the game but rarely got off an effective shot.  And West Ham, while not having any short passing ability -- and while not having a true striker on the pitch -- were able to put three past Spurs on counters.  In the role of Pellegrini (whom I thought almost deserved dismissal after that game against Bayern) was AVB, as the Spurs manager never adjusted.  Gylfi Sigurdsson simply couldn't stay deep or out wide, but continuously fell for the bait and crunched into the crowds at the top of the goal box.

There is a trite saying in soccer about there being only two rules:   (1) When you have the ball go to space, and (2) When you don't have the ball go to space.  Pep Guardiola has seized upon these rules, putting together a system which doesn't allow you to do either but allows his team to do both.  When will the rest of the world start to see it?

This is farlieonfootie for October 9.

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