Thursday, 30 June 2011

What about the inverted full back?

With the development of inverted wingers over the last few years, the problems they can bring about for oppositions are well known. An inverted winger (someone who plays on the opposite side to the side of their preferred foot) often cuts inside onto their preferred foot, causing problems for conventional full backs who are forced to defend on their weaker side, while it also drags them inside, leaving space out wide.

One way teams have tried to deal with the inverted winger is by playing an inverted full back. An inverted full back is the equivalent of an inverted winger except in the full back position. Back in 2007, Lionel Messi playing on the right of a Barcelona front three, despite his favoured foot being his left, was kept quiet by the right footed Alvaro Arbeloa on his Liverpool debut playing at left back. Liverpool won the game 2-1. Inter Milan have done it regularly in in the past with Zanetti also playing on the left to keep the defence compact, a big feature under Mourinho and many teams have employed it in one off games to deal with the threat inverted wingers bring.

However inverted full backs have mainly been used in a defensive capacity to buck the new trend of inverted wingers instead of in an attacking role. With the new use of inverted wingers, the importance of attacking full backs has gone up dramatically.  If you see the balance Manchester United have, they usually play an inverted winger, be it Nani or Park, on the left with the attack minded Evra spreading the width. This gives them more options in attack.

Therefore, it is very important that full backs are able to attack, especially as they are the ones who generally have the most time on the ball.

The main player who you could say has attacked in an inverted full back position is the German, Philipp Lahm. Still currently acknowledged as one of the best full backs going, he has had tremendous success playing on both sides of the pitch even though he is right footed. At Bayern Munich and also for Germany he has played left back extremely often and has been able to link the play up well by cutting inside and pushing forward. His attacking strengths on the ball cannot be understated and it is a reason why he has been successful attacking from the full back position but that can't take away the fact that he has shown that it is possible to attack as an inverted full back.

In the attacking phase of play, an inverted full back brings a number of strengths to a team.


Let's say the green left back with the ball is an inverted left back. He cuts into the middle with the ball.

As he cuts in, his direct opponent, the opposition winger on that side, tracks him inside.

Meanwhile the green winger stays out wide stretching the play and offering the pass. The yellow team has a number of problems.

First of all, their right winger is completely out of position in the middle of the field whilst having to defend there. They're therefore cramped up and tight in that position yet the green team still have the option to play it out wide to their conventional winger on the left.

If the yellow team wins the ball, they are effectively too close together. As is often said in football, when you have the ball, you have to make the pitch bigger, when you don't you have to make it smaller. If your players are too compact in possession, then it is difficult to keep the ball particularly against aggressive pressing. Thus the green team can press quickly, closing down the space and winning it back.
With the inverted full back inside, it is the green winger's job to stay out wide and keep the pitch big. He is there for a pass to stretch the play. If the ball is played to him, then the full back either goes to meet him and leaves space behind, or the winger tracking the inverted left back goes to meet him, leaving the 3v2 in the middle:

The winger for the yellow team goes to pressurise the winger for the green team. This leaves a 3v2 in the middle of the pitch.

Going back to the original position, with the inverted left back on the ball, it could also allow an interchange of positions with a centre midfielder, allowing the inverted full back to stay in the middle, while the centre midfielder moves out wide, dragging teams all over the place. Manchester United have used this recently with Ryan Giggs in the middle swapping to the left hand side with the inverted winger. Inter Milan have also done this on occasions when Samuel Eto'o has played on the left by letting him cut inside while Wesley Sneijder moves to the left. Many other sides do the same when playing inverted wingers. It allows good interchanging and movement off the ball and opponents have to be well organised to deal with this unorthodox threat.

Of course there are problems with inverted full backs. Because of an obvious tendency to cut inside, they don't generally offer the overlap which is a problem espeically if you are using inverted wingers. It leaves space at a mimimum and makes it harder to break down a defence.

As said earlier, a good attacking side tried to make the pitch big to stretch the play and make space to work in. If the winger used on the same side of the inverted full back happens to be inverted as well, then the middle of the pitch becomes tight and there is less space to split a defence open. For example, Real Madrid have looked a far better team going forward when they've had Marcelo at left back. With Cristiano Ronaldo cutting inside from the left, Marcelo has the space to add the width and provide the overlap. When Arbeloa has played there, they have looked less of an attacking force.

It is also harder to play direct football with an inverted full back. Part of the reason why a lot of smaller teams haven't converted to a 5-man midfield, espcially in the Premiership is that you often need good ball players to make it work and take advantage of the extra man in midfield. Many smaller teams don't have these players so go with a 4-4-2 because it adds the extra numbers up front and if you're going to knock it long or hit it to the flanks then you are not making the best use of the 3 central midfielders. Instead they reinforce the other areas of the pitch where they are generally going to attack.

With an inverted full back you don't have the direct option of a full back getting crosses into the box. They will cut inside and it leaves you with less opportunities to hit it long because of less bodies in the final third. Hence teams who played with attacking inverted full backs would have to be more patient especially as their wide men may be forced to stay deeper; at points they would be the only player out wide on that side. With the inverted full back inside, it is also handy to make best use of that instead of playing it direct which wouldn't suit the shape of the team.

Defensively a problem will arise if the inverted full back comes up against a convetional winger. A conventional winger will obviously try to run at them out wide, onto the inverted full back's weaker foot and causing the opposite problems to a conventional full back against an inverted winger. In possession the full back can be closed down and shown out wide.

Even considering these problems though, there are still good reasons to include inverted full backs in both the defensive phase and the attacking phase. Perhaps now, in the time where inverted wingers are becoming a bigger feature, inverted full backs will become a new feature of the modern game, stopping attacking patterns from opponents and causing problems in possession. Of course the right players and training as well as a balance would have to be used but inverted full backs may become a common feature sooner than you think.

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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

My favourite team goals of the last decade

Speak of great goals and most people have different opinions as to what counts as a great goal. Some speak of great runs, some great strikes, volleys, overhead kicks etc. I mainly think of lovely intricate team moves with lovely passing and overlapping and interchanging. I would much rather see that than a 30 yard belter, no matter how impressive it may be. Though I wouldn't say no to a overhead kick from the edge of the area

There's something beautiful about a genuine team goal. When they pass it about, moving it from side to side, interchanging, varying the the pace of the passing. It's lovely to watch when it works. The famous Brazilian 4th goal against Italy in the 1970 final comes to mind when thinking of team goals. That goal has often been voted the one of the best World Cup goals ever and it's no wonder. To see such a great attacking side produce something like that was brilliant. Of course it was a lot slower than the play nowadays but it's still hard not to admire it.

Nowadays it could be described as a lot harder to score team goals. The organisation is generally better, the game is quicker so it's harder to keep hold of the ball, and teams have also tried to include specialist players in their team. This means some may well be good passers, some may be direct and physical, some may be good tacklers. But not many teams have 9 or 10 players who can all control and pass really well. Arrigo Sacchi famously dislikes the use of specialist players commenting that in his team "“the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball.”

These days Barcelona are possibly the biggest example of a team where everyone can play the ball. Ok they have different roles and tactical responsibilities but they if you chose their best line up, ( they can all control, pass and get involved with the possession of the ball, even Valdes the goalkeeper.

That's why you won't see lots of other teams following the Barcelona example. Barcelona have players that can all circulate the ball really well and keep control of possession yet they all have the ability to move, find space, work clever tactically, work hard, press well and be physical when they want to. Hence they don't need specialist players because they have ball players who have assets necessary to be able to play other sides of the game. To be able to find players that can do all of these things really well is very hard.
Hence to score a good team goal you have to have a number of players who can control, pass, move and get into space.

So on that here's my favourite three team goals of the last decade:

3. Manchester United 4 - 3 Real Madrid 2003 (Ronaldo 2nd goal)

A memorable game, between two European giants. The brazilian Ronaldo scored a hat trick that wasn't enough to stop Manchester United winning 4-3 though Madrid went through 6-5 on aggregate. However his second goal was mainly down to the brilliance of his team mates.

Unlike the other two that have come just above this, this goal wasn't just moving the opposition from side to side waiting for gaps. This was a team move designed to find a goal or a chance as quickly as possible but still finding the true essence of passing it in to the net. Man United give the ball away high up the pitch on the Madrid left and from there it is beautifully worked into Zidane in the middle of the pitch with some quick one touch passing and dinks. Zidane takes it over the half way line, just about keeping it away from Giggs while Figo and Ronaldo stretch the defence by peeling away out wide. Zidane plays it to Figo on his left hand side who comes into the area turns onto his right foot then left foot wrong footing two United players before playing a curling lob onto the cross bar.

Yet the move doesn't end there. McManaman takes over the ball on the right, allowing Salgado at right back to make a run inside, recieiving the ball, passing it off and continuing his run into the area. There is then some short passing between Figo, Zidane and Guti on the edge of the box, before Roberto Carlos makes an overlapping run playing it into Zidane then recieving a the return, a through ball that sliced the defence open. He then plays it across the goalkeeper into Ronaldo's path. A great goal all about quick circualtion of the ball from defence to attack and then playing it round on the edge of the box before slicing United open and scoring. A lovely goal.

2. Argentina 6 - 0 Serbia 2006 (Cambiasso)

World Cup of 2006 was a big chance for Argentina to do well in after their poor performance in the previous tournament. The team structured around playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme put in a whole host of good performances with a new up and coming player called Lionel Messi making a couple of substitute appearances. It was only when Riquelme, probably the outstanding player of the world cup that year, was substituted that Argentina let slip their chance and lead against Germany and went out on penalties.

However earlier on in the tournament they played brilliantly in a 6-0 thrashing over Serbia and produced a stunning 24 pass move that ended in Cambiasso firing it into the net.

At the centre of the move as he was with much of Argentina's play was Riquelme who passed it round from the centre with ease and got the other players around him involved.

The beauty of the goal is the way they move from left to right and then back again, waiting for the opportunity to strike and then when the moment came breaking through with terrific accuracy and speed of passing and movement. It's something you see all to little in the modern game; teams waiting and being patient with possession before striking when the gaps appear. Here was a great example of what you could do if you passed as a team, moved up as a team and ultimately dominated as a team. A terrific goal that was worthy of goal of the tournament.

1. Liverpool 1 - 3 Barcelona 2001 (Overmars)

It was around this time (2000-2002) that Gerard Houllier's time at Liverpool was peaking and their counter attacking style of football annoyed but got results. Though it was at this time that he was ill and out of the game, Phil Thompson was proving to be a good caretaker boss, playing roughly the same style of football that was frustrating oppositions and getting good results.

Barcelona were their first opponents in the second group stage and came to Anfield the year after going out to them 1-0 on aggregate in the Uefa Cup the previous year.

Barcelona however seemed a far better outfit than they previously had been and were 2-1 ahead at this stage, playing some wonderful passing football. 

You can see Barcelona toying with Liverpool, moving it from side to side, moving it forward then back, varying the pace before the Liverpool's defence seemed to get frustrated, pushed up and Xavi played a lovely ball over the top for Overmars who rounded Dudek and tucked it into the net.

It's such a beautiful goal because Liverpool couldn't get anywhere near them in the build up. Bear in mind that they were losing at this stage with 5-10 minutes left. They were trying to, they were closing down, they were keeping their shape but a team made to counter attack were being outclassed by a mesmerising spell of Barcelona possession, as most teams have become accustomed to since. Each player gets involved with the Barca move, varying the pace, mainly keeping it short, teasing Liverpool, moving them about, frustrating them and then hitting them behind. It's a wonderful move (around 30 passes) and killed Liverpool off on a night where they were completely dominated by Barcelona.

You can see the full 3 or 4 minutes leading up to the goal here (very Barca possession based) -

Anyone got their favourite team goal of the last decade? Comment below.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Classic Matches: AC Milan 3 - 3 Liverpool

First in a series of tactical analysis on some recent 'classic' matches.  

Liverpool set out in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Gerrard and Alonso in midfield, no Hamann, while Kewell played off Milan Baros. Milan set out in a 4-4-2 diamond formation with a narrow midfield and Crespo and Shevchenko up front.

Paolo Maldini got a goal inside a minute for Milan from a Pirlo free kick so Liverpool were already behind. The main plan for Liverpool seemed to be an attacking one with no 'destroyer' in midfield and with Harry Kewell hoping to cause problems for Milan's backline, with Gerrard and Alonso providing cutting passes in midfield. Unfortunately for Liverpool it never really turned out that way.

They had a number of problems tactically. First of all in midfield. Gattuso and Seedorf, the wider players, were very narrow. They were in fact mainly playing centre midfield roles with Pirlo in the holding role and Kaka in attacking midfield. Therefore Alonso and Gerrard were completely surrounded, - they had to cope with four midfielders in the centre.

The wide men, Riise and Garcia, did try did come inside to help out as did Kewell on Pirlo but as soon as the ball went out to Cafu or Maldini the wide men had to go out and close down the full back and then there was yet again space in the middle.

Milan's diamond midfield. Gerrard and Alonso don't know who to pick up

Gerrard and Alonso close down poorly and get caught out of position - both Seedorf and Kaka are now able to run at the defence after a simple pass by Seedorf.

Kaka now has the option to slip in either striker or even Seedorf. This was a pattern for the whole of the first half; Kaka getting in behind the space vacated by Alonso and Gerrard and being able to run at the defence.
Another example:

Pirlo has too much time to play the ball and not enough pressure from the attacking midfielder. Gerrard and Alonso are unaware of Kaka in the space behind and are instead concentrating on Gattuso and Seedorf.

A simple pass is played through to Kaka, taking Alonso and Gerrard out of the equation. Carragher has to come out and close down Kaka and then Seedorf, leaving space in behind him.

Kaka now has space to play in either Shevchenko or Crespo, cutting in from out wide.

This was the main problem for Liverpool in the first half. It's no coincidence that Kaka had such a big influence on the game - he always found space behind Alonso and Gerrard who were really poor and he then got the chance to turn and run at Liverpool's defence.

Here you can see that even when the wide men, Riise, Garcia and later on Smicer, came inside, Liverpool's midfield still had troubles with the Milan midfield especially with Cafu and Maldini pushing up and down the flanks.

Riise and Garcia (circled) have come inside to help out in the centre yet Gerrard and Alonso have still left Seedorf and Kaka in space behind and Cafu and Maldini both have plenty of space for the outball to the flanks.
Both Gerrard and Alonso were completely overcome in the middle. Sometimes they'd push up, sometimes they'd stay deep. The problem was that it was effectively 4 vs 2 at points in the middle and Milan were picking Liverpool off on the counter attack when Alonso and Gerrard moved forward.


The biggest problem for Liverpool's back four was not only having Kaka running at them but also the movement of Crespo and Shevchenko. Both made lots of runs in between the full backs and centre backs which caused all sorts of problems. The fact that Liverpool also pushed up made it harder for the back four who had no real pace and were in big trouble against the Milan front line.

As Pirlo looks to play the ball over the top, Shevchenko and Crespo are making runs between the full backs and centre backs. There is plenty of space in behind for them to run into.

The ball is played to Shevchenko while Crespo has already beaten the other defenders for pace.

Shevchenko has the option to play it for an easy finish in the centre for Crespo and it takes a good tackle from Sami Hyypia to stop him doing just that.

The second and third goals were also great examples of their movement. For the second goal watch how Shevchenko runs over to the right for the through ball by Kaka. As he does that, Crespo moves over to the left behind Carragher. This stretched Liverpool and Carragher ball watching left Crespo too much space to finish the counter attack.

Again there, Gerrard and Alonso had been sucked into closing down the midfield and had left Kaka a lot of space to run at a shaky defence.

The third goal:

As the ball is played to Kaka, Crespo and Shevchenko are level. Carragher and Hyypia are close together and there isn't much gap between them

As Kaka recieves the ball and flicks it past Gerrard, Shevchenko stays deep and pulls across, moving Hyypia along with him. Meanwhile Crespo is sprinting between Finnan and Carragher

As Kaka plays the pass between the gap created by Shevchenko, Crespo has the pace to sprint between the full back and centre back to poke past Jerzy Dudek.

This movement also helped out in a defensive sense. Finnan and Traore had no direct marker so they would have been a good outball for Liverpool but because of Crespo and Shevchenko playing between them and the centre backs, they were more reluctant to go forward and when they did, they left lots of space for Crespo and Shevchenko to exploit.

In this formation, the problem could have been overcome by playing very narrow and compact. The problem there was that Cafu and Maldini were really pushing high up and stretching the play on both sides, meaning Liverpool couldn't afford, to just soak up the pressure tightly; they would have been broken down easily.

Liverpool's attacking play

Liverpool's attacking play initially after the first Milan goal was positive. They had a couple of half chances as they forced Milan back, with Hyypia and Carragher staying up even after a corner and players getting into the penalty area waiting for crosses to come in. Their best chance of the opening peiod was a Hyypia header from 12 yards out that went straight into Dida's arms.

However Milan soon took control of the game and Liverpool struggled to build on any heavy pressure. Part of the problem went down to what was mentioned earlier - that Gerrard and Alonso were outnumbered in midfield. Milan simply got numbers back and stayed compact. This meant Gerrard and Alonso stayed deeper but didn't have any options with a lack of dynamic full back play and the sheer organisation of the Milan midfield and back four. Milan were happy to allow Liverpool on to them but Liverpool struggled to open them up or get in behind their defence. In fact the controversial handball by Nesta in the build up to the second goal was the first real time Liverpool had got behind the defence.

Most of Liverpool's play was slow and laboured and there wasn't much tempo to it. The orginal idea according to Benitez was that they would press Milan up the pitch and take advantage of the lack of pace of their back four. As noted even before the final, PSV Eindhoven, Milan's opponents in the semi finals, had caused them all sorts of problems with a high tempo game that got at Milan. But because of the early goal from Milan, they could afford to sit deeper and Liverpool were forced into a change of tactics.

One of Liverpool's main patterns in attack was to knock it long for Baros into the channels. He would then keep hold of the ball and players like Kewell, Gerrard and later Garcia could come from deep to support him. With this tactic, it cut out the Milan midfield and tested out their aging back four as Baros was able to drag one of the centre backs with him leaving space in the middle.

The problem was that the support wasn't good enough. Garcia did cause a couple of problems in the middle but he couldn't do much to support Baros and Gerrard was often crowded out and was also slightly more restricted because of his central midfield role.

Other than that there wasn't much bite going forward for Liverpool. They tried to move Milan about with some slow short passing which showed (they had 55% possession in the first half) but they couldn't break a Milan who soaked up the pressure well and then hit them on the counter attack.

There did seem to be a couple of other little tactics going forward. When they got into the final third they did try some direct balls into the box for the forwards to head down - Kewell, a very good headerer of the ball tested out the 5 foot 9 Cafu on a couple of occasions in the air while Liverpool did have 2 or 3 shots on goal from knock downs but it was all a little bit hopeful rather than incisive.

When Garcia moved into the middle after Kewell's injury, he often, like Baros, had the ball played into his feet with his back to goal to turn and lay it off to other midfielders. But overlaps and runs from deep were again limited and didn't cause too much problem for Milan.

Second half

Rafa Benitez had a lot of work to do after his team's poor first half in which they were outclassed and so set about making the tactical changes necessary, to, what in most people's minds, save Liverpool's pride and dignity.

On came Hamann for the right back Finnan and from there came a change of formation as shown below.

The change meant a whole host of things. Liverpool moved into a back three of Traore, Hyypia and Carragher. This added an extra man in the middle of defence so they could afford to track one of the strikers should they go out wide, knowing that there was cover in the middle. Meanwhile Smicer and Riise played ahead of them as wing backs, though in slightly different roles. Riise mainly stayed wide on the left, knowledgable of the more attacking Cafu on that side, whie Smicer often came into midfield, with Maldini slightly more reserved than Cafu.

In the centre, Hamann coming on made the world of difference for Steven Gerrard. Gerrard has always struggled positionally in the centre of midfield, often neglecting the space he should be covering and not always concentrating on what is behind him. This was plainly evident in the first half when him and Alonso allowed Kaka far too much space behind them to roam. In the second half, Hamann's presence shored up that area of the field meaning Gerrard could get further forward and attack more convincingly than he did in the first half along with Luis Garcia.

As the second half got under way, the difference was clear in the centre however nerves still seemed there in the Liverpool players. Dudek flapped at a simple cross, Traore gave away possession thus letting Kaka run with the ball as he did in the first half and win a free kick in which Shevchenko forced a good save off Dudek.
However it became more evident that Benitez's changes were working. 9 minutes into the second half, Gerrard headered a Riise cross into the right hand corner of the net. It was a great header yet without Hamann coming on, Gerrard would not have been as committed to get that far forward into the penalty area.

Garcia's role is often not mentioned in the second half yet he was quietly excellent. His positioning was causing Milan a lot of problems. He drifted between playing attacking midfield with playing a supporting striker role, between Pirlo and the centre backs. Thus sometimes a centre back would have to pick him up, and sometimes Pirlo would pick him up. He he had some neat little ideas and made some terrific runs forcing Milan players out of position. Also, the fact that Smicer was making runs into the centre allowed Garcia to move further forward because he wasn't needed as much in midfield.

Vladimir Smicer scored the second goal with a strike from just outside the penalty area and suddenly Liverpool were back in it. They were closing Milan down in possession and forcing them to give it away. Gerrard and Garcia were getting around Pirlo on the ball and cutting Milan's supply line. Pirlo had been dictating the play in the first half yet he couldn't in the second half; he isn't a physical player and he wasn't mobile enough to deal with Gerrard and Garcia harrying him and closing him down.

Seedorf was being forced further and further back while Alonso was dictating play from deep. When Liverpool had the ball  Alonso moved deep, especially when the centre backs had it. This meant he was far more involved in the game and could be played in by a short ball and control the play from there with his excellent passing.

It also allowed Carragher to get forward as Alonso came across to cover his position and also pick any return passes up.

Alonso drops deep, looking for the ball

As Carragher recieves the ball, Alonso comes over to the right

Carragher now moves forward down the right because of the cover from Alonso

Meanwhile, Kaka who had been the biggest problem for Liverpool in the first half had been silenced. It's widely thought that Hamann came on and shut him out by tightly man marking him. The fact was that Liverpool kept him under wrapped, zonally there because there was always one or two players in that area of the field and so there was less space. In fact at points it was Alonso rather than Hamann following Kaka.
Kaka's supply line from Pirlo had also been stopped by Gerrard and Garcia.

The build up to the third goal was a mixture of many of the things already mentioned plus a tactic that Liverpool had tried in the first half:

Alonso and Smicer (circled) are inside and deep, leaving space and cover for Carragher to get forward.

As Carragher charges forward, Garcia, playing in a higher role than in the first half, is high enough to attract Jaap Stam following him

From there on, comes a tactic that Liverpool had used in the first half, with balls into Baros with his back to goal to lay off. The difference here is that Hamann has come in and added the extra cover defensively, allowing Gerrard to get forward. In the first half, only Kewell or later Garcia would have been able to support Baros. Here Garcia and Gerrard have supported Baros. Baros and Garcia have dragged both Stam and Nesta across, allowing Gerrard space to run into.

Gerrard recieves the backheel from Baros and wins the penalty that gives Liverpool the chance to get level

Xabi Alonso stepped up to take the penalty and converted the rebound after a great save from Dida.

Liverpool had provided one of the greatest comebacks in history. Yet there was still half an hour to play when the third goal went in. They made the decision to sit back and keep it tight instead of going for it.

It therefore became even tighter in the middle. Liverpool had Milan numbered in midfield and were keeping compact there. Thus players who had had so much space in the first half, Seedorf, Pirlo and Kaka were finding it difficult to regain that space. Therefore the wide positions were becoming more important.

Liverpool's midfield of Hamann, Alonso, Gerrard and Garcia, lnked by the blue, making it a lot tighter for Milan's midfield of Pirlo, Seedorf, Gattuso and Kaka, linked by the orange.

It has to be said Ancelotti made some clever changes. On came the left footed winger Serginho for the more centrally inclined Seedorf while Jon Dahl Tomasson came on in place of Hernan Crespo. Meanwhile Djibril Ciise came on for Milan Baros, an inevitable move - Baros was becoming frustrated and tired up front and Ciise could make use of his lightning pace against an aging and tiring Milan backline on the counter attack.

Extra time

Serginho was a problem for Liverpool. As already said with Liverpool sat back a lot more compact, the wide positions were becoming more and more important for Milan to break them down. Serginho had the tendency to stay wide on the left hand side whereas Seedorf was drifting inside a lot and allowing Maldini to roam down the flanks while he cut into the middle. With Liverpool's formation change in the second half, this initially favoured Liverpool with Smicer as the right wing back only having to deal with Maldini. When Serginho came on, Liverpool had to bring one of the central players out there to help out on that side. Not only that but Smicer, not a great defensive player, was up against the fresh legs of Serginho. And with Smicer's attacking movements more centre inclined in the second half, he was leaving more space out wide for Milan.

Rafa Benitez therefore moved Gerrard, who had played right back a few times early on in his career, to the right hand side while Smicer moved into the middle. Gerrard could therefore use his physical abilities and his strong tackling better than Smicer could. Of course this could have been seen as negative but with Serginho becoming a big influence on Milan's attacking patterns, Liverpool couldn't afford to let him have space to make forays down the left hand side.

Meanwhile the change of Tomasson for Crespo added something extra in the midfield area and surprisingly not from Tomasson himself. Jon Dahl Tomasson was more experienced than Crespo in a deeper role behind the striker and with Liverpool proving to be tough to break down, the ability to circulate the ball quickly in midfield was becoming more important for Milan. However though Tomasson could do that, it was Shevchenko who was dropping deep and getting involved with the play, trying to outnumber Liverpool's midfield as well as move them about and create chances for Milan. This left Tomasson up against three centre backs at points but meant he could be a target man, a skill that he could do better than the Ukrainian.
Shevchenko (red) has dropped short looking to help the circulation in midfield and cause Liverpool problems in that area. Meanwhile Kaka has come out wide because of a lack of space in the middle with Liverpool's two holding men.

In this example, Serginho is looking to get a cross in. Notice Shevchenko again dropping deep while Tomasson has got behind Traore looking for the cross.

However when Liverpool had the ball, it was Tomasson who dropped deep and Shevchenko who stayed up front. In this position, Tomasson had better positioning and defensive experience than Shevchenko. Shevchenko was also higher up the pitch, so he could use his speed to close down the centre backs quicker than Tomasson could and also, should Liverpool give it away in defence, use his pace to take advantage of that.

Tomasson in the blue has dropped deeper into an attacking midfield position, leaving Shevchenko up against the centre backs.

As extra time moved on Ciise's pace was being used, not as an attacking threat, but mainly to give the rest of the team a short break and force the Milan backline deeper so that the transition from defence to attack took longer.

Liverpool's wing backs were being pushed further and further back, to the stage where it was becoming more and more of a back 5 as shown here
Liverpool's back five, with Gerrard and Riise not showing too much ambition to get forward.

In the second half of extra time, it was becoming more and more defence vs attack. Liverpool weren't showing too much ambition because they were so tired and they were struggling to move up the pitch. Rui Costa came on for Gattuso to add some more creativity to Milan and to try and help Cafu on the right hand side.

Milan's play was not desperate, they weren't hitting it long every second ball but they were passing it around on the ground pulling Liverpool from one side to another and because of Liverpool's tiredness they were dropping deeper and deeper. Therefore Milan got more time in midfield and it was effectively like a training ground exercise; one side attacking on side defending.

One criticism of Milan's attack was possibly not using Maldini further forward like he had been in normal time. This would have meant that Liverpool would have had to pull an extra player from the centre out to the right and added an extra dimension to Milan's play. However tiredness may have been an issue for Maldini, like most of the other players on the pitch.

It has to be said, Milan didn't create too many clear cut chances in extra time. There was a ball over the top where Tomasson got free but he miscued, while several good crosses were put in by Serginho which caused Liverpool problems in particular Carragher who had to block several of the balls in despite having severe cramp.

The biggest chance of extra time fell just 3 minutes before the end of it.

Liverpool held on for the next few minutes and the game went to a penalty shoot out.

And there it was. A game that wasn't end to end with lots of chances but a game which was controlled by the midfields - Milan's in the first half, Liverpool's in the second. Liverpool then had to cope with several tactical problems in extra time, but dealt with them by sitting back and though riding their luck at times, got through extra time and won in an unbelievable penalty shoot out. It was tense, it was gripping and it brought out the best from not just the players but from the tactical minds of both Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez. In the end Liverpool came out top.

Some additional tactical comments from Rafa Benitez about the game (very interesting)

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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Carroll's role key for Liverpool next season

This piece was written for You can see the original article here -


Liverpool fans cannot get carried away by the performances in the final few months of the season. Since Kenny Dalglish took over the helm from Roy Hodgson, results and performances have hugely improved. More wins, more clean sheets, more goals, and far better performances on the whole. The pass and move style Dalglish favours has been a breath of fresh air, with the movement and quick incisive passing a delight at points. But they are still a lot of hard work away from a genuine title challenge.

In reality, the performances towards the end of the season did show that they don’t have as bad a squad as the media had portrayed them to under Hodgson. There was some exciting play and the whole tactical feel was more flexible and fresh. With Hodgson there was always a feeling of trying not to lose rather than to go for the win. Under Rafa Benitez, there was a more controlled feel and the football was very intense. Both Benitez and Dalglish’ methods can be equally successful if done correctly. But it has been a breath of fresh air to see such lovely attacking football with beautiful interchanging of movement combined with quick incisive passing.

There is less time taken to get forward. According to Opta under Hodgson the team had on average more possession than under Dalglish (53.2% under Hodgson – 50.6% under Dalglish) which seems bizarre at first but not as bizarre as you’d think; the team was more defensive and sat deeper, meaning and there was more passes between the defenders at the back, whereas now, the ball is usually played forward quickly, trying to create on a more regular basis rather than keep the ball and wait for gaps. However there is more attention on keeping the ball along the floor. Even Jamie Carragher, noted ‘hoofer’, has taken to a more simple passing game. The team has regained the higher defensive line that it had under Benitez and the flexibility of positions has been brilliant, most notably in the 5-2 win over Fulham. There has been a variety of different formations used; 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, even a variation on 3-5-2 and 3-6-1 have been used since Dalglish took over.

However, as said, there is still a long way to go. The hardest scenario at the moment is how to get the best out of Andy Carroll. Since his £35 million move in January, Liverpool have been at their best when he’s not been in the side. While Kuyt and Suarez have thrived together with this new approach, Carroll’s directness hasn’t yet fitted in. There’s been a feeling of being unsure of what to do when he’s in the team. Against Braga, the team made far too many long balls to him and the football was poor and certainly not incisive. In theory, he should fit in just as well as Kuyt. He’s strong, surprisingly good with the ball at his feet, and even has an underrated amount of pace on him. He just hasn’t fitted in for some reason, other than in the 3-0 win at home to Manchester City.

Of course it doesn’t help that his biggest strength is in the air and there are no proper wingers in the squad. This is something the team has lacked for years and is something that many fans are crying out for. This does however bring its own problems. With a straight winger in the team they have more of a responsibility to stay out wide. The team therefore has more settled positions and less opportunity to interchange positions and the play becomes more predictable. Unfortunately the quick passing becomes harder to pull off because the positions become more rigid. The performance against Fulham was all about swapping and changing and it came so naturally meaning that the play could be quick. If positions are more rigid then the play has to become more patient.

It is therefore very hard to get the best out of pass and move and also Carroll. One way you could possibly get the best out of both is to push the full backs high up the pitch, Barcelona style, and get them to get the crosses into the box, unBarcelona style, whilst still having the movement form Kuyt, Suarez and Gerrard etc without a winger. It’s clear a left back is needed; Aurelio is the best we have but is extremely injury prone and a new quality left back is needed, with Jose Enrique the favourite at the moment. On the right, Glen Johnson is obviously there and his attacking assets could be more important than it has been at any other point since he has come here.

Meanwhile in midfield a central playmaker may be what’s needed. Jordan Henderson is seemingly on his way already but it remains to be seen what type of role he will fill. If wingers are bought in, then someone who can spread the play with Lucas could be key in performances next season. Looking at the model Manchester United have would be helpful – their central midfielders keep the ball ticking around from deep positions. They don’t have a genuine attacking midfielder who plays between the midfield and front line because their wingers are such a key part of their play – Nani topped the assists chart in the league this season with 18 and Valencia and Park are big players for them.

Luis Suarez has been a brilliant buy not only for his ability but also his versatility. When he was bought, many seemed to think that he would be employed in a deeper role, maybe out wide a bit more with Carroll up front. In fact when he and Carroll have played together, Suarez has been the one in the role higher up the pitch on the shoulder of the centre backs. This has been fairly clever tactically – defenders sit deeper because of his pace and skill and then Carroll can get into positions higher up the pitch to cause more damage in the air. When he wins the ball in the air further away from the goal then there is less danger for defenders because knock downs are in areas where it is easier to deal with and the play is still far away from the goal. When there are knock downs around the penalty area, the ball can go anywhere and if it lands in the right spots, chances and goals are created.

Yet having Suarez in a higher role leads to a possible outnumbering in the centre of the field where most of our attacking play takes place. If one or two out and out wingers came in, then the middle of the pitch becomes more vulnerable.

In fact the key to getting the best out of Carroll may lie in two teams of the early 2000s. The first of which being Rafa Benitez’s Valencia and in particular the 2-0 win over Liverpool in the first game of the 2002-03 Champions League Group stage campaign. Any who watched the match will remember how dominant Valencia were. Their passing was slick, the movement was quick and they pretty much tore Gerard Houllier's team apart, especially in the first half. The thing most people remember from that night was their midfield of Baraja, Albelda and Aimar, similar to the lovely balance we had a couple of seasons ago with Mascherano, Alonso and Gerrard. The Spanish duo and the Argentine completely dominated play that night, most notably in the first goal with the trio combining in a lovely one touch move.

However the pivot in attack for them that night was John Carew who gave them an out ball and allowed them to play it long for him to hold onto before their midfield pushed up and played their passing game again. For the second goal of the game, a long ball was played forward by Mauricio Pellegrino and Carew took it down with ease, held off a defender and laid it off to Ruben Baraja who burst forward and drove it into the corner. This was a great example of versatility that they showed and with players like Vicente and Rufete out wide they had a host of options. Yet Carew was the man in the centre who enabled their midfield to dominate.

The exciting thing is that Carroll at just 22, looks a far better player than Carew and has a far better eye for goal whereas Carew was simply there to hold the ball up and lay it off for Valencia’s midfield to dominate proceedings rather than as a goalscorer, where he is fairly poor. Carroll could do both and is surprisingly good with his feet as well.

The other model could lie with a less successful Bologna team at a similar time. put this team in their Top 20 teams of the last Decade and purely for a tactical reason. In attack they had the big front man Julio Cruz, who scored just 10 goals in the 2001/02 season and just 27 goals in his three seasons at Bologna. However, Cruz was key in Bologna’s 7th placed finish in the 2001/02 season. He was a handful for defenders and created space for other players to run into. His basic job with the ball at his feet was to lay it off to players who were breaking from midfield. The main one of these was the impressive Giuseppi Signori, an attacking player who was capped 28 times for Italy and was the main goalscorer for Bologna, scoring 66 goals in 142 games for them. He played a slightly deeper role than Cruz and often ran into the space created by Cruz as did the deeper lying midfielders.

Even looking at this video from the 2001/01 season in a 2-1 win over Verona, you can see glimpses of this system in full flight, with Cruz the target man and midfielders running from deep.

One clever way space was created for the deeper Bologna players to run into, was Cruz holding the ball and moving deep, dragging a defender or a midfielder with him. Thus players like Signori ran into the space and created big problems for defences. Because of Cruz's height and strength, defenders found it extremely difficult to deal with him so he would therefore prove a good option for an out ball while the other more impressive attacking players ran from deep to cause havoc in opposition defences.

Now if you relate it to the current more talented Liverpool side, swapping Cruz for Carroll and Signori for Suarez, there is a benefit in a system like that, just like there is in Valencia’s. Valencia’s was far better to watch and more successful (they won a league title with John Carew as their front man!) but Bologna’s with less talented players was very impressive, especially considering that they only just missed out on fourth place at the end of the 2001/02 season by 3 points.

Bologna’s system especially, helped set the mood for lone striker systems that have become prominent in the last decade with players who can hold the ball up and help teams keep possession. Rafa Benitez used this idea after poor away displays in his first season at Liverpool and bought Peter Crouch, who could hold the ball up well and was a much needed target man in an otherwise one dimensional strikeforce.

Thus, maybe using Carroll as a pivot for the team isn’t such a bad idea. Carroll is such a rounded player that he brings more to the table than Cruz and Carew did to their respective teams. He wouldn’t just be a battering ram up front. He’s a very talented striker and on top of it all, brings goals. If Liverpool can get him working to his maximum then the team will be a big force next season. Until then they need to find a system to get the team working together and having him in a pivot role, with midfielders coming from deep and full backs creating overlaps could work really well.

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