Friday, March 18, 2011

Tactical analysis of UEFA Champions League action

Jonathan Wilson of Sports Illustrated writes of his tactical analysis of all the UEFA Champions League matches from this past week-


Twenty years ago, when striker partnerships were still alive and well, they came in two basic forms: a big man and a quick finisher, or a deep-lying creator and a quick finisher. In the former, the finisher played off the big man, waiting for knockdowns and flick-ons; in the latter he played ahead of him, waiting to be fed with through-balls. In Manchester United's rediscovery of 4-4-2 (a slightly odd phenomenon given the agonies Sir Alex Ferguson went through to replace it), the front pair is very much of the latter kind. Javier Hernandez is lightning quick, while Wayne Rooney has reverted to the role in which he made his name, as a support striker, rather than as the lone frontman he was used as last season.

That presents a major problem for defenders. The orthodoxy playing against a rapid center forward is for a team to defend deep to deny him space behind them to attack. Do that, though, and a defending side leaves space in front of the back four, between the lines of midfield and defense; give Rooney that sort of room and he can destroy sides. So from that point of view, the Rooney-Hernandez partnership looks ideal in theory -- just as the Rooney-Michael Owen partnership did for England. There must also, though, be personal chemistry, something that Owen and Rooney never had (only once did one provide a direct assist for the other); Rooney and Hernandez seem to have it, and they terrified Marseille.

So does that mean that the old-school 4-4-2 is back, and that Ferguson was misguided in abandoning it? No. For one thing, this was 4-2-3-1 in the guise of 4-4-2: intuitively, it seemed Rooney was playing just off Hernandez, in front of a midfield four, and he did go beyond his strike partner relatively frequently as you'd expect a second striker to do. But look at the heat-maps and the uniqueness of Rooney's play is revealed. He dropped so deep at times that his average position was in a line with Nani and Ryan Giggs (although Nani played far wider on the right than Giggs, who had with Patrice Evra overlapping from fullback, did on the left), so the shape resembled 4-2-3-1 with Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick effectively acting as shields in front of the back four.

And for another, all United's win did was highlight all the reasons Ferguson had for tinkering with the system in the first place. He was moved to act after the Champions League quarterfinal in 2000, in which United drew 0-0 away to Real Madrid, but were beaten 3-2 at home, their relative openness exposed repeatedly despite the comparative evenness of the game. That followed home games against Borussia Dortmund and Monaco in which United conceded early away goals that effectively eliminated them. It could easily have been a similar story on Tuesday: although United had 57 percent of possession, both teams mustered 10 shots on goal. Given a scoring draw would have taken Marseille through, that underlines how easily United could have gone out, potent as its attacking duo were. Injuries permitting, a change back to 4-3-3 seems probable for the later rounds.

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