United’s Biggest Weakness: Defensive Transitions

 

Manchester United have conceded 6 goals in 7 games so far while managing to keep just one clean sheet. Their xGA (Expected goals allowed) is 7.9 which is the 10th worst in the league so far. This means that United should have conceded roughly 2 more than they actually have, and have David de Gea’s inspired form to thank for not doing so. 

This record comes against a modest opponent roster of Leeds, West Ham, Wolves, Southampton, Newcastle and Everton. The big boys are yet to come. It’s clear United have defensive issues. Signing Varane (who has settled in excellently for his part) hasn’t really helped the defence improve as of yet. In this article we’ll explain the major problem in United’s defence and offer some solutions to fix it.

 

Analysing the problem

Let’s jot down all of United’s key defensive numbers to understand exactly where we are facing issues. These are 21/22’s Premier league rankings for United’s team defensive stats:

 

Passes into penalty area allowed: 6th best
Number of Shots faced: 7th best
Shots faced within 6 yard box: Worst in EPL

Shots faced within 18 yard box: 2nd worst in EPL
Shots faced outside of box: 2nd best

Errors leading to opponent shot: 6th best
Dispossessed (Possession loss due to tackle/pressure): 6th worst in EPL
Miscontrol (Possession loss due to poor ball control): 4th best
Aerial win % (Aerials won/Aerials contested): Best in EPL

 

This provides some insight into our defending this season. We seem to be okay in terms of allowing passes into our area and shots from afar. Shots created from open play passes and set pieces (Huge improvement thanks to Eric Ramsay) aren’t high either. Our players’ miscontrols aren’t an issue and our aerial win % is amazing (Lindelof has been the best with a 87% aerial win rate). So lets list down the biggest problem areas:

 

Shot creating actions allowed from dribbles: Worst in EPL
Shots faced within 6 yard box: Worst in EPL
Shots faced within 18 yard box: 2nd worst in EPL
Dispossessed (Possession loss due to tackle/pressure): 6th worst in EPL

 

These 4 seem to be the issue and if looked at in a combined way they read – We lose the ball due to opponent pressure/tackle, which leads to a counter dribble at our goal, which creates a shot, which is a shot taken within the D box, and all of this happens A LOT. Long story short, we’re giving away too many clear cut chances in defensive transitions.

Before I go further let me make some terms clear.

What is a transition? A transition in football can be defined as the process of recognising and responding in the first few seconds after losing or regaining possession of the football. In recent years, teams at the highest level of football have recognised this process as a way of gaining a competitive advantage over their opponents.

The 2 types of transitions are attacking transitions and defensive transitions. The former term is reference for when the team gains possession and initiates their attack and the latter is when teams lose the ball and react to the opponent’s attack. United are pretty good at the former. Quick counters after regaining the ball have led to some well-worked goals under Ole’s tenure. The likes of Fred, Pogba and Bruno are good counter-initiators from deep while players like Shaw, Rashford, Greenwood and now Ronaldo are great dribblers and creators/scorers on the break. Ronaldo’s 2nd goal vs Newcastle is a great example of a good attacking transition.

It’s defensive transitions where United are terrible. And ‘terrible’ isn’t an exaggeration here. United are the worst in the league for giving away shots from dribbles they face and 6th worst at being dispossessed due to tackles/pressures. A combination of these effects is what leads to a large amount of steal-and-run opportunities for opponents. Couple this data with the fact that United concede most shots within the D box and a clear strategy for United’s opponents emerges – Sit back in an organized fashion, let United have the ball and commit men to break the block, press and steal the ball at the right moment and counter quickly via dribbles to create a clear cut chance. It’s a strategy that suits the majority of the teams United face in the first place. They usually aim to organize in low blocks and hit us on the break. A little bit of planning on the timing of the pressing/tackling opportunity and attacking pattern can go a long way in ensuring a high success rate gameplan. Which is what the likes of Everton, Aston Villa, West Ham and Young Boys have done to great effect in recent weeks. The fact that 4 of United’s last 8 opponents ended up with more xG (Expected goals) than United by the end of the game is telling. They got clearer chances to score and probably should have won on merit. United salvaged a win in 2 of these games – Villareal and Wolves, thanks to De Gea’s heroics and 2 late winners. That won’t happen too often if this remains the strategy.

 

Examples of issues in defensive transitions

Enough stats! Football is played on the pitch innit?
Well, please be warned in case you are a United fan. If you thought the stats were painful, the visual examples below are new levels of hell. Here are 4 examples of defensive transition situations in the recent weeks:

 

We start with the one whose wounds are still fresh. Against Everton, Bruno takes a very poor corner which is cleared first-time from the Everton box. Gray picks the ball in a decent position outside the box. Transitions are all about choices. I’ll be explaining every United player’s choice from here on. Firstly, Fred has a choice to run with Gray and give his team time to regain shape or attempt the tackle on Gray. Fred goes for the latter, and this isn’t something he has thought through. It’s a natural tendency for him – he is a press and tackle ball winner who always goes for the ball. It wins him a lot of his duels which usually helps United.


Usually. In this case, it’s the wrong choice as he’s too late and Gray skips past him easily. Gray then sees his next challenger in Wan-Bissaka. United’s center-backs are still jogging back from the Everton box after the corner. 

Unlike Fred, Wan-Bissaka decides to hold his position and force Gray wide, carefully tracking him from the side.This is a good choice from AWB that allows Fred to recover and engage Gray in a second attempt. Surely, now sandwiched between 2 great ball winners, Gray’s number should be up?

But, no. Gray pushes off Fred with a strong shoulder. It should be noted that Fred went for the ball in both cases and lost. A tactical foul on Gray near the halfway line stops the counter early and prevents the catastrophic sequence of events that is about to unfold next. These are the things smarter teams do. More on that later.

Coming back to the scene of United’s crimes, Wan-Bissaka is now faced with the same choice again. But this time he takes the other option, preferring to lunge forward at an in-control Gray who has a lot of space to pick out a pass.


This is the wrong choice, as AWB’s rash pressure opens the gap for the oncoming Doucoure who has acres of space with only Luke Shaw parallel to him and a determined Lindelof (who has done well to run back from the Everton box) behind him. Shaw has enough ground on Doucoure and should be able to cover the angle to the goal with his speed easily.

But in possibly the most inexplicable choice in this series of wrong choices, Shaw aggressively runs towards Doucoure who has the great honour of 3 United players closing in on him for no real reason. This movement of United players in transition where they get attracted to the ball-carrier like moths to a flame is seen often in games and is possibly the biggest criticism of the transition tactics. They have no idea how to move and usually decide to just attack the ball carrier in a gung-ho fashion without thought or organisation. This will be seen in the other examples too. 

Shaw’s aggressive charge completes it’s image of foolishness as a simple feint from Doucoure sends Shaw flying past him and takes Shaw out of the equation. Lindelof’s emphatic recovery must be noted here. He is now in position to block Doucoure’s path to goal. This would have been a goal-saving track-back from Lindelof, if Shaw had just held his position to block the natural pass to Townsend. 

Sadly, that was not meant to be and Doucoure makes the obvious pass to the oncoming Townsend who gleefully accepts the invitation to shoot from within the box which makes it 1-0 to Everton. 

Our next example takes us to the Wolves game earlier in the season. United were up to their usual passing around without any real sequence or penetration. A crowd of United players in the D box are stuck around the same area (clear indictment of our poor positioning during attacking sequences) which leaves Fred with no option but to attempt a wide pass to AWB who asks for it. 

Even if the United attackers’ poor positions forced such a pass from Fred, he probably shouldn’t be making such a mistake anyway. He passes straight to Adama Traore who picks up the ball and presents Fred and Pogba with the same choices. To lunge or not to lunge?

 

United’s pivot both decide to take Adama head on – Fred pretty aggressively so and Pogba in his own lethargic way. Stylistic choice apart, both midfielders invite Adama to do what the footballer with the most dribbles in the league does.


2 touches later Adama has skinned both players and sped past them. Once again, it should be noted that while Fred was taken out thanks to his forward lunge, Pogba was still on his feet and had enough time to foul Adama in a spot that was much closer to the Wolves box than United’s. He refuses to do so, lifting up his hands to convey his innocence for something where innocence wasn’t required at all. 

Adama does what Adama does, covering the middle third with such speed that Fred and Pogba are now out of the equation. Varane and Maguire are the final 2 defenders to beat. It’s a 2v2 situation with Jiminez in support. Varane does well to hold off from pressing forward and tracks Adama’s run while Maguire tracks Jimenez behind him. Good choice by Varane.

 

Varane does well to hold off on Adama until the defensive third and then closes in to cut Adama’s approach to goal. It’s Maguire’s actions that are debatable in this sequence of events. Maguire had a constant eye on Jiminez throughout the transition, so his choice to stay inward and create the space for the pass is questionable. One reason could be him offering extra protection to Varane in case Varane also gets dribbled past, which is fair to an extent since Adama is a potent dribbler. But even then, Maguire’s positioning to cut out the pass seems wanting. 

A very modest slow pass is enough to beat Maguire thanks to his poor positioning. Jiminez has a good sight on goal. The other problem of Maguire’s decision comes to the fore here. If he left the pass to block Jiminez’s path to goal with the confidence that he could block the shot…..

…then he totally miscalculated. Maguire is in no position to block now as Jiminez gets the shot away. These are the kind of shots that Mason and Ronaldo converted this season. Giving them away so easily isn’t a good idea. The real worry here was Jiminez aiming for the far post. If clinical, he could end up scoring and even if DDG got a leg or hand to it, the chances of a tap-in for the oncoming Wolves striker in the box would have been high. Thankfully, neither happens as Jiminez’s shot is a near-post one that De Gea saves easily. 

We stay with the Wolves game for the next example. Technically not a steal-and-run situation as Wolves win the ball back in their third this time and Moutinho looks around to kickstart the move. But United’s shape is in it’s attacking nature and starting to transition to defend so the same logic (or lack of) applies to defend the upcoming transition.

The front 3 are taken out immediately. Bruno and Mason look tired. Pogba attempts a jog back while AWB is just tracking back after attacking down the right. He has a nice cover on his Wolves counterpart as of now.

Moutinho carries the ball taking Pogba out of the scene first. AWB who was covering his man, suddenly makes the really odd decision to change direction to run towards the ball carrier Moutinho. Again the moths-to-flame effect of United players running towards the ball carrier is visible here. AWB has no need to do this. Thankfully, Fred has anticipated the problem and is already running towards the wings pro-actively this time. 

AWB’s poor decision leaves him in no man’s land as he creates the gap for someone as skilled as Moutinho to thread the ball through. Neither does AWB intercept the pass nor is he marking the receiver on the left wing, Jiminez. Poor choice. Fred is honing in on Jiminez as Adama makes the central run. Varane has a choice to make here to stick to the center and trust Fred to cover the wings or go for Jiminez himself. 

Once again, attracted to the carrier, Varane makes the choice of going towards Jiminez, completely abandoning the center. This is another ball-affinity choice that was unnecessary considering Fred had almost caught up to Jiminez by now. Fred’s correct choice and his ability to cover good areas quickly are wasted with Varane’s wrong choice. The gap is created for Adama to run into and Jiminez really doesn’t have to think hard before playing into that area. 

Jiminez plays the ball and Adama has the speed to run towards it. Varane and Fred both are completely taken out with this obvious pass and Adama now has Maguire running behind him, struggling to keep pace. 

Adama receives the ball inside the box which makes any chance of tackling him zero. Fred’s busting his gut to get back and recover the ball but once again presses a little too over-zealously. A left-footed shot from Adama in that position would have been improbable and easy to save for DDG if it ever came. 

A simple feint is all it takes for Adama to sidestep the aggressive Fred and create an angle for his right foot. Maguire probably had a choice here to cover centrally after seeing Fred’s run back but the pace at which Adama was operating was too much to track probably. Trincao holds his run to present the clear passing lane for Adama’s right foot. 

Maguire is in no position to cut the pass as Adama lays up a perfect ball for Trincao’s left foot. Central location, left foot, inside the D box, almost close to the penalty spot – chances don’t come any clearer than this. But Trincao fluffs the shot as it rolls wayward of goal and United are saved by a prayer. 

 

Our final example takes us to Newcastle at the start of the season. Yes, even the easy 4-1 win had given us occasional transition trouble and Newcastle’s goal is a perfect example of our difficulties in transition.

The move starts deep from Newcastle’s half – again not a classic steal-and-run-from-the-center-of-the-park example but the same issues are highlighted. Almiron at the centre of the pitch is noticed and played towards from deep. None of the United attackers pressing the passer or trying to intercept is one issue, but that can probably be forgiven considering how deep the start of the pass is.

What comes next is a bit more problematic. Like we’ve seen a few times before, both Matic and Shaw have an immediate desire to move towards the ball. Shaw especially has no need to and would have been better off holding his position and tracking back while Matic troubles Almiron a little. Almiron sees the 2 converging United players and takes advantage. 

One smart touch is all it takes. Almiron hits the ball into space with his left foot and starts the counter as Shaw and Matic collide into each other in comical fashion. One advantage for the attacking side in a transition is that they usually have acres of space. Even a heavy touch from Almiron doesn’t cause him to lose the ball. Saint-Maximin turns and runs around Maguire who now has to make a very familiar choice – to lunge or not to lunge?

The comedy of events reaches a new high as the Newcastle fans cheer Almiron who jumps over a sliding Maguire. Maguire chose ‘lunge’ and upgraded his choice to ‘emphatic sliding tackle’ – a completely unnecessary act that cedes control and confidence to Newcastle and leaves him in no shape to recover for the rest of the counter. Varane stares at his partner’s mistake wondering how he can stop both Newcastle players. 

Varane decides to cut the angle towards the goal as he tracks back. He turns to see who he has for support. He knows he needs a 2nd person to regain the numerical advantage. He notices Shaw, who has done well to recover from his clash with Matic and is recovering good ground. These are the moments where a well-thought out transition defence shines. Both players ideally should know who takes which player. Varane motions Shaw to take Almiron on even though Shaw is far away. This probably isn’t a bad choice since Varane probably wants to cover the angle to Saint-Maximin on priority. But it leaves Shaw with a lot to do.

To his credit, Shaw does cover ground aggressively but Almiron still has time to pick out a pass – a pass which Varane should be blocking. Varane’s entire reason to hold back was to mark the real threat of Saint-Maximin, right? 

The ball from Almiron is good here but for Saint-Maximin to get it so easily shows how Varane goofed up. The decision to hold and cover the angle of the pass was correct but the execution was completely off. Varane probably didn’t expect Almiron to pass early or pass so accurately and that reads badly on him. 

Right-back Manquillo’s run is the obvious play for Saint-Maximin who takes a nice touch and waits for the defender to overlap. Varane again has a choice to lunge or hold. He decides to go for the tackle – again probably not the best of choices. Varane seems desperate to make up for his mistake of allowing the pass in the first place. A calm and composed Varane has the ability to hold his position and then quickly cover Manquillo’s path after the pass. 

But the reality of his failed tackle allows Manquillo to pick up the ball and enter the D. Varane is in no state to recover for a shot block attempt. It’s back to relying on a De Gea special (or prayers) for United at this point. 

Manquillo makes no mistake while slotting the ball in the far corner.

 

Possible solutions to defend transitions better

So what are the solutions for this issue that seems to be plaguing us regularly? There are largely 3 options:

 

1. Coaching out bad habits: Probably the fastest way to gain some quick improvement, the low-hanging fruit is to simply coach the players to change their bad habits. Most players’ initial reaction is to counter-press, as opposed to regaining team shape & delaying the counter. When the opposition is equal or more in number, it is typically better to drop off in an attempt to get more numbers behind the ball which United players rarely do. Like moths to a flame they get attracted to the ball and perform really clumsy lunges or display aggressive acts of pressing that are completely unnecessary. This puts them in must-win situations which isn’t sustainable for a top team. No team can win all the duels in such speedy transitions under pressure. A few will slip through and the resultant chances given are usually very high xG big chances within the D as the stats showed. United need to show restraint in transition and come up with more set patterns to track back and constrict the spaces that opponents use to counter. Right now, every counter chance against United seems like an invitation to run into acres of space which is further amplified by unnecessary presses/tackles.

 

2. Tactical fouling: United aren’t the first team to face transitions. Most top teams employing a possession system do. The dangers of being caught in such situations when you commit numbers forward in an attempt to spread play are always high. This is where the subtle but important art of tactical fouling is beneficial. If the risk to go for a tackle/press and the chance of being dribbled past are both high, then sometimes a simple trip or body block near the halfway line can be just the best tool to stop a deadly counter early. Fernandinho is a master of this and often bails Manchester City out with the use of smart tactical fouls. The reason he’s a master is because he often makes them and doesn’t even get a card for it. United midfielders don’t have to show such prowess in the dark arts. Even the fouls which get a yellow card will do. Fred against Everton and Pogba against Wolves in the above examples are clear use cases of a simple tactical foul that stops a dangerous counter near the halfway line. United need to be less naive in defensive transitions and do what’s necessary. 

 

3. Buying a defensive midfielder: I kept this option for the last since I really don’t want to make it sound like a transfer solves everything. But when you sorely lack the profile of a holding defensive midfielder, it has to be said. All said and done, Fred and Scott are 2 ball-winning/box-to-box midfielders who are masquerading as holding midfielders. They are press-and-tackle monsters who have minimal talents in the finer art of positioning. In this article we explain why McFred are the best option for the current system, but the current system isn’t the best option for United). While the above 2 solutions can help them be better at their job, it’s probably wise to get someone who is an expert at the job. United have other reasons to buy a defensive midfielder too with the team’s need for better build up and progression from deep also crying out for a young Matic-style midfielder. This player has to be adept at positioning and strictly not be a high press/tackle player – someone who has high positional IQ to take up good positions in transition and help the defenders in stopping counters. (We detailed this requirement along with the passing ones to make up a summer 2021 shortlist here.)

 

If Varane’s signing was meant to help United concede less, then Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and the coaching staff probably had a very myopic view of the problem with United’s defence. It was never about the center-backs. Lindelof and Maguire suffered in defensive transitions in the last 2 seasons and Varane has simply joined them in being another talented defender lacking the required midfield protection in a team that’s probably lacking the required coaching guidelines to defend transitions better. Until these issues are ironed out, United’s opponents can line up knowing that a well-planned counter approach can help them create big enough chances to win. The best players and riches cannot make up for a lack of tactical application. The disease United have been harbouring under Ole for more than 2 years called ‘Poor Defensive transitions’ has now reached critical levels that are threatening to derail their entire campaign. 

 

Why do McFred start for United

 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s pre-match press conference comments, before the key UCL tie against Villareal explaining the importance of Scott McTominay and Fred to United’s starting XI, have made fans questioning why McFred enjoys so much importance and preference in United’s pivot for a good part of 2.5 years (Most of Ole’s tenure). Especially coming off the back of a few unimpressive performances in September, the United manager’s selections and tactics have been questioned in recent weeks. But like most things in football, the answer isn’t black and white. United definitely have issues under Ole which are clearly linked to a lack of structures and processes, which gives rise to a lot of variation and extremities – and within this variation Fred and Scott are Ole’s go-to midfield men thanks to their ability to cope.

 

United’s major issue under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

 It’s hard to pinpoint a singular issue but there is one overarching gap/criticism of Ole’s reign which, despite his amazing success in 2.5 years, prevents United from becoming elite. The issue under Ole is that the players aren’t being helped by the system/tactic. If they perform/cope, it’s not really because of the system, but despite it. United are not laying out clear patterns & processes to make things easier for the players during the game. For example, we have had build up issues for a while. Shaw being able to progress even after the build up structure being bad is him performing despite the system. He’s just that good dribbling and passing wise. It doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t get the required support. A player might play out of his skin & manage on a day or a new signing might come in & do better but it doesn’t change the fact that the existing system doesn’t facilitate. 

  A tactic has to leverage its players strengths & mitigate its player weaknesses. United aren’t doing that as well as they can under Ole. The summer window created an imbalance which has only opened us up more to the system inconsistency & inefficiency we always had. We now have more attacking players who have high ball-affinity & are left leaning & no holding progressive CM profile except Matic. But transfers only solve so much. We need more emphasized structures that put less pressure on the players. These patterns are what players fall back on when things don’t work out. This reduces the burden on individuals. The absence of these forces them to take matters into their own hands – an exaggeration of which especially in attack is what fans refer to as ‘individual brilliance.’

  That’s not always a bad thing. Giving players freedom & promoting flair is good, but there’s a balance. The current United side, thanks to the composition of its current personnel, is on the wrong side of that balance. Against Aston Villa last week, the burden on individuals was clear. The drastic change this year could be down to the immense attacking talent at Ole’s display. The temptation to go direct or rely on the world-class qualities of the attackers (Eg. Bruno’s final ball + Ronaldo’s finishing) seems to be bypassing logical system rules.

 

The value of Scott McTominay and Fred

  Where do McFred come in all of this? In a system as dynamic as this, which lacks structures and protection for its players, the players who have the best ability to cope become the natural picks. This is where Scott and Fred shine. Their physical and mental attributes alone form a huge reason for their preference. Both players regularly top the running charts for United, have good coverage of area, are naturally fit players who tirelessly do their jobs till full time and are usually available for selection 90% of the season. These aspects were confirmed by Ole in his recent presser before the Villareal UCL tie:

 

 “The stats for them two [McTominay & Fred] together, we’ve had many good results. The energy and desire, I really like to have the two of them. I can trust them to give us what they’ve got. Fans will always have opinions, it’s easy to say who should be playing.”

 

 The intensity and coverage that Ole needs in the chaotic environment that is United’s midfield can only be provided by Fred and Scott. Ole also refers to some ‘stats’ here. Let’s dive into that. There are some objective numbers backing McFred as well.

  

  As you can see in the above viz, last season Fred won the ball back most for United. His ball winning stats are all in the top 10 percentile in Europe and he is by far United’s most important tool for winning the ball back so that we can play our game. When he’s not on the pitch, United sorely lack a player who can win the ball back quickly and efficiently.

 In 21/22 so far, Fred’s per 90 defensive actions ranking (among players >2.5 90s played) reads:

3.6 Tackles Attempted: 1st
2.8 Tackles Won: 1st
27.1 Pressures: 1st
6.6 Successful pressures: 1st
12.1 Recoveries: 1st

 Paints a pretty clear picture, doesn’t it? Fred is immense for United off the ball.

 Let’s also list down Scott’s contributions in the same way:

2.1 Tackles Attempted: 2nd
1.1 Tackles Won: 3rd
13.9 Pressures: 4th
2.9 Successful pressures: 8th
6.1 Recoveries: 11th

While not as intense or efficient as Fred, Scott’s value in the defensive department is clear.

So we know now Ole likes the intensity, consistency & mentality of the duo and the ‘stats’ he’s referring to back up their ball-winning ability on the pitch as well. The next question on your mind might be – But why do we need 2 ball-winners in midfield anyway? Why can’t we have 1 or 2 playmakers in the pivot instead?

 

The answer to this is straightforward – United have too many creators and scorers on the pitch in their 4-2-3-1. Bruno who plays CAM is one of Europe’s elite creators and for all practical purposes a key pass machine. He ensures high chance creation and final 3rd balls at the cost of losing the ball in possession thanks to ambitious passes and shots. Ahead of him, United have a star-studded cast of Ronaldo, Greenwood and Pogba and in rotation (for now) Cavani, Sancho and Rashford. Pogba guarantees more ball-playing talent and already leads the league for assists. Ronaldo and Greenwood are starting often thanks to their ability to finish the chances Pogba and Bruno create. The front 4 is packed with creativity and scoring to the limit. Some might say it’s beyond the limit and is hurting retention and safety since all 4 lose the ball a lot thanks to ambitious shooting and passing. 

 

 With this kind of setup and a lot of ball losses to deal with, the pivot essentially becomes a ball-recovery engine for the team. With the fullbacks often caught ahead on the flanks, the front 4 as attacking as they are and the CB pairing focussing on winning their duels to ensure they aren’t bypassed by opponent attackers, the pivot 2 are under unreal pressure to cover a lot of area in midfield, win the ball back and recycle it efficiently to the front 4 again. This creates a high ball-winning pressure which can only be satisfied by Fred and Scott. The below viz confirms the contributions in defending and progression from the midfield 3 options:

 

There is a reason Bruno-Fred-Scott is the preferred mid 3. They have the right balance of progression and ball-winning Ole wants. Matic’s lack of agility, coverage and defensive intensity mean that he can’t cope while VDB and Mata don’t offer as much progression or defending. The reason why Pogba doesn’t make the pivot is also visible here. Defensively he can’t cope, which Ole has learnt through a few experiments. But given Pogba’s quality, Ole has now turned to use him as a winger. McFred becomes the default pivot. All of this is also indicative of the lack of good options in midfield which is a good argument. We felt United needed a holding playmaker CM this summer and are badly ill-equipped without one (Read our CM shortlist here). But let’s keep that aside for now and work with what we have.  

Even with the defensive traits of McFred, the midfield is barely being dominated by them which is one of the main reasons for United’s recent form. Until last year, McFred somehow coped with these system gaps, but this year with the addition of Ronaldo and the higher attacking (read possession losing) quotient of the front 4, the pressure on the pivot and CB pairing in transitions is even more intense leading to some very open games (Like West Ham and Aston Villa) where possession retention and circulation were tough and a lot of time and energy of the squad was spent in winning the ball back and competing in 50-50s.

  

What is the way forward?

 So far, we have deduced the following: 

  • United’s setup lacks structure and hard-coded processes
  • In such a volatile setup, with 4 attackers to carry, the pivot needs to be a consistent ball-winning machine
  • Fred & Scott are the best ball-winners and preferred pivot choice as a result
  • Even this might not be ideal and seems like too much to manage in 21/22

 

We circle back to the lack of processes to ponder over solutions.  As mentioned above, a tactic should mitigate player weaknesses but United don’t provide any such cover for the pivot or backline. For example, Fred’s weaknesses are his poor first touch and affinity to lunge forward instead of holding position. These haven’t been covered for. Either due to a lack of coaching or players not being receptive to coaching, both continue to be an issue in Fred’s game. His excellent ball-winning and underrated progression are masked by those rare but critical moments when he loses the ball under pressure in a deep area or loses the 50-50 in a transition. A system that allows him more time on the ball or more protection in transitions would be beneficial.

 Which then brings us to another question – Why can’t the system change enough to facilitate Pogba or Matic in the pivot? For all theoretical purposes, it can. One can argue that their progression traits (as shown in the viz above) are valuable enough to justify playing them in midfield. But they then require a system that covers for their defensive weaknesses. If the need to run around intensely to win the ball is reduced, Matic and Pogba can start – and this is clear since Ole uses them against low blocks (like Newcastle recently) to good effect where that need is minimal. But the lack of set patterns and processes means covering for deficiencies isn’t easy. In a nutshell, the message from Ole and his coaching team seems to be – ‘We can’t cover for your weaknesses, so be as consistent and well-rounded as possible.’  This leads to him picking/wanting players who can do most things without having any glaring weaknesses in their game. Which isn’t a sustainable approach to building a tactic or team.

 The same effect was seen with the CB pairing. United leave themselves open on transitions so often, that the CBs face a lot more duels than they should. The expectation then becomes – winning duels consistently and efficiently. Varane to Lindelof was an upgrade with the aim of increasing that duel winning rate (which Lindelof couldn’t maximize due to being average in aerial duels). But the fact that the CB pair face a lot of duels in transition hasn’t changed. No matter how good Varane and Maguire are (and they are pretty good as we explain here) , exposing them repeatedly will cause a few to get through and those few goals are usually the difference between trophies and losses. 

 

 It’s the same for the pivot. No matter how good Fred and Scott are at ball-winning, a system that forces them into so many defensive actions is probably not a title-winning one anyway. In short, McFred are the best at what they do and deserve to start for that reason, but for United to win titles, no midfielder should probably be doing what they do in the first place. It’s not a complaint against them, it’s a complaint against the tactic under Ole. And upgrading every position (like Varane for Lindelof or Scott for a new CM) can only take you so far at the end of the day. If the root issues aren’t tackled, no player can perform to his best. 

 A good example is Chelsea under Tuchel. They are defensively solid without the need to get into so many duels. Tuchel has covered for his player’s weaknesses and given them a system to fall back on, which limits the situations they struggle in considerably. The best example is Jorginho, who was always criticized for not being defensively strong. But, like Matic, his progression and playmaking was always exceptional. In a system where he isn’t forced into defensive actions regularly and has time on the ball to do what he does best, he is a gem. And that’s what Tuchel has provided him – to the point of success of Ballon Dor shouts.

 In summary, Ole is justified in starting McFred. His comments on their intensity and stats are right. They are the best fit for the system United currently play with. But the larger question is whether this is the path for the future – whether repeating this process or even slightly improving on it can get United to really control transitions, dominate midfield, create efficiently, win consistently and lift the trophies the Old Trafford faithfuls have been dreaming of. That’s a question Ole has to think much harder about than his recent presser responses. 

 

 

 

 

Underdog Stories: Denmark

While Euros 2020 (or 2021) may be hailed as a revolutionary step in the tournament’s history but it isn’t the first time such a ‘revolution’ has happened in Euros. A throwback to 1992 will put more light on some ‘revolutionary’ steps in Tournament’s history- from becoming the first ever international tournament to allow player names on the back of team jersey to introducing the back-pass rule in the game. The tournament was also the last Euros to award 2 points for a win and have 2 groups of 4 from which 4 teams advanced to semi-finals. And of course, who can forget Denmark’s victory in that Euros, a team which wasn’t even supposed to take part in the finals.

Denmark’s victory in Euros 1992 had all the ingredients of a unforgetful footballing fairytale. It is the story of a team who didn’t qualify for the finals- who went onto win the thing, beating the World Champions- West Germany (now unified Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall and Eastern Bloc), the French and European Champions- the Dutch; surely this would be a story that was woven into the tapestry of footballing folklore?

The Danish team had somewhat earned a reputation of playing ‘Beautiful football’ loosely based on the principles of ‘Totaal Voetbal’ or ‘Total Football’ but also using some hard core principles of English football- especially in defensive phase of the game. The Danes had a glorious 1980s- exceeding expectations by participating in World Cup, Euros and even Olympics- the highlight being a 3rd placed finish in 1984 Euros, held in France. The architect behind the resurgence of Danes was the German Sepp Piontek who led the team from 1979 to 1990. While Sepp looked at the attacking phase of the game, his assistant- Richard Moller Nielsen looked after the defensive aspect of their game. Both of them were different in terms of their coaching ideologies yet complemented each other very well. The cocksure team, including the likes of Michael Laudrup, Morten Olsen and Preben Elkjaer swaggered and scythed their way through the opposition. It was this attack first, defend second mentality that proved to be their downfall though at what would be the peak of this squad’s cycle. The ageing squad finished bottom of the group in the Euros 1988 then failed to qualify for World Cup Italia 90. It felt like the end of an era.

When Sepp Piontek decided to step down from his duties, the Danish FA wanted to appoint another foreign coach who could continue the way the Nordic nation played the game. First choice Horst Wohler was unable to free himself from a club contract. Eventually, Richard Moller got the nod of national team manager, a decision which wasn’t respected by the squad, the national media and the fans- because of his inexperience at a big stage, ability to manage the ego of big names and most important- his pragmatic approach to the game which was exactly opposite to what everyone wanted.


(Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

The latter was the biggest hurdle to win over the players, media and fans. But Richard stuck to his approach of coaching- emphasizing on team cohesion and more defense-oriented game rather than a free-flowing game of football. Richard had his reasons to emphasize on the team cohesion based game- majority of the regulars for senior team played together for a long time, right from youth levels at international stage to playing together at club level. The core of the team played together for the Copenhagen giants- Brondby IF. One more reason for Richard to adopt this approach was also the influence of ‘English game’ on their neighbours Sweden- Bob Houghton and Roy Hodgson’s work in Sweden completely revolutionized the Swedish game. Nielsen took inspiration from this hence went forward with this tactical approach. 


(The compact defensive structure of Danish National Team under Richard Moller Nielsen)

Their start to Euros 1992 qualification group was good- a 4-1 victory against another Nordic side- Faroe Islands but a lackadaisical display of football despite the score-line. This display started a war of words between Nielsen and the Laudrup brothers. A goalless draw against Northern Ireland and a home defeat to footballing powerhouse at that time- Yugoslavia resulted in a nationwide eruption. The Laudrup brothers decided to quit national football because of the entire change in tactical system which rendered their natural game useless. Calls for Nielsen’s sacking were ever increasing but with time, the remaining team eventually settled down and adapted to Nielsen’s setup- a good run of 5 consecutive victories in their qualification group including a historic win on the road against Yugoslavia but it was not enough. Yugolslavia finished first in the qualification group while Denmark missed out on finals of Euros 1992, finishing behind Yugolsavia at 2nd place. A summer break for the Danes was awaiting, a most probable sacking for Nielsen was on the cards. But then, an UN order changed the course of their footballing history. The war struck Balkans entered into a very ugly phase of the war and sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia by the UN- which resulted in the Balkan country’s participation in upcoming Euros null and void just 12 days before the start of Euros. Their place was given to the Danes. Nielsen had a Herculian task of preparing the squad for Euros in comparison to the other participating nations who had a head start of months when it came to training. After trying his best to reconcile with Laudrup brothers- only Brian decided to return back from this hiatus- becoming the last person to be named in the 20-man squad for Euros. Even after getting a last-minute lifeline, there was still another problem for Nielsen. Regular football season wasn’t finished in Denmark because of which many clubs didn’t release the players who were to take part in the Euros. Initially, only 7 players reported for training camp. Only after all club football was concluded in Denmark, did the remaining players join the training camp. Kim Vilfort, the 29-year old midfielder and captain of Brondby IF, joined the training camp after the others joined on a later date because of personal reasons.His 7-year old daughter- Line Vilfort was getting treatment for Leukemia and a last-minute respite came in the form of her improving health and his daughter’s insistence to take part in the Euros which prompted Kim to join the training camp.

The team travelled to Sweden with almost zero expectations, everyone including the players weren’t expecting to even get out of the group stage which consisted of host nation-Sweden, France led by Eric Cantona and Jean Pierre-Papin and Gary Lineker’s England. Only one man believed in absolute victory- Nielsen himself. And he eventually was able to instill this mentality in his tightly knit squad also. A hard-fought goalless draw against England provided a good start to the Danes. The Danes went into the next match against Host nation with some confidence but a narrow 1-0 loss to the Swedes put Denmark on the verge of elimination. Their last match? Against one of competition’s favourite-France. Everyone counted Denmark out. Danes didn’t just need a victory against the star-studded French team but they also needed the other match’s result to go their way.  But against all odds, Denmark did the unthinkable. Not only they defeated France 2-1 but the result of other match also went their way which meant that 2 of tournament’s favourite- France and England were eliminated. Denmark achieved this victory without their midfield cog- Kim Vilfort who had to leave the national team to go back to Copenhagen in order to stay close to his daughter, whose health was again deteriorating. His replacement- Henrik Larsen pulled the strings from midfield against France- also ending up on the scoresheet and the winner came through Lars Elstrup- who came on for Brian Laudrup, late into the ending stages of the match. This particular substitution changed the outlook of Richard in front of the squad who now bought the picture potrayed by Nielsen, especially Brian Laudrup who despite being substituted in the crunch moments of the match for Elstrup, held no qualms about it. Finally, buying in the team ethic-based approach of his manager.  The Danes despite being out of shape still achieved the unthinkable, that too without any rigourous training. The manager rather treated his squad to regular leisure activities of Mini Golf and eating out at McDonalds. The Nordic countries took their place in the semi finals. Their counter parts? The defending Euro champions- the mighty Dutch and the World Champions- Germany, who knocked out the Scots and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)- comprised of the countries who were once part of now defunct Soviet Nation.

With Kim Nilfort again joining his team mates, the Danes took to the field in Gothenburg against the Netherlands- spearheaded by Marco Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. The Duo’s performances in last Euros brought the crown home for the first time in Oranje’s history. This time, they were out with the mission to defend their crown. But, they didn’t expect that Denmark will come all guns blazing on them, right from first minute. Henrik Larsen gave an early lead to the Danes. Their ultra-attacking approach in this fixture resulted in defensive vulnerability at the back but they had Peter Schmeichel to thank. He somehow kept the Dutch attack at bay but Dennis Bergkamp eventually struck gold at 23rd minute, equalizing the score. The Danish team then changed back to their more compact and defensive shape, welcoming a barrage of attacks from the Dutch. But, they counter-attacked whenever they got the opportunity. Just 8 minutes later, Denmark took the lead- again Henrik Larsen scored who then became the joint top scorer of the tournament. Denmark then used their pragmatic approach to see out the match. Peter Schmeichel, Kim Vilfort, Kim Christofte were having the game of their lives. But a fumble inside their own defensive half saw Frank Rijkaard to equalize the score. After dull extra time- given the fatigue got the better of both teams, the match went to penalties. The veteran Dutch keeper- Hans Van Breukelen tried his best to unsettle the underdogs but it all went in vain. The star striker- Marco Van Basten saw his penalty being saved by the ice giant- Peter Schmeichel. Peter mimicked the stance of their 1960 Olympic Silver medal winning Danish keeper- by sticking a chewing gum on the outer periphery of the goal post every time the opposition player came up to take the spot kick- trying to unsettle them. Van Basten eventually crumbled under this unsettling trick and his poor spot kick was saved by Schmeichel. Kim Christofte was charged with the final spot kick. A conversion meant that Denmark will go into the finals. Unfazed by Van Breukelen’s antics, he kept his cool and slotted home the winner. Denmark advanced to a historic final.

In other semi-final, Sweden gave the world champions a fight for their money but the Germans were able to defeat the hosts in a narrow 2-3 victory. The Danes faced the undaunting task of fighting the world champions. But what happened on 26th June, 1992 in Ullevi Stadion, Gothenburg will remain in the memories of not only the Danes but in the memories of every football romantic. Danes, who were the last to arrive to the party to which they were uninvited, were the ones to celebrate first.


Line ups for final of Euro 1992

Early waves of German attacks were repelled, Schmeichel turning shots away from Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Klinsmann. Temporary stands were being erected in Frankfurt ready for the victorious Die Mannschaft’s return to home soil. John Jensen though, had other ideas. Not known for his goal-scoring prowess, having previously struck the post earlier in the competition. Faxe as he was known to team mates arrived at the edge of the penalty area as Povlsen cut the ball back. He struck it first time and sent a bolt past Bodo Illgner to give Denmark the unlikeliest of leads after 18 minutes.

The Germans were shell shocked. Their confidence shattered. Meanwhile, Danes played with all their might in order to keep the Germans at bay who started to go all guns blazing in 2nd half. But at 78th minute, Kim Vilfort received the ball in German’s defensive end from a long goal kick of Peter Schmeichel. What he did after that will always be remembered by the Danes. A brilliant solo effort, which included wrong footing 2 German defenders and taking a shot from his weaker left foot- which ended up into the goal via the goal post. It was 2-0. A final nail in the coffin of German defense was delivered by the man who had decided to not go to Euros and stay back with his family, only for his little daughter’s insistence to play in the tournament. Denmark- European champions for the first time in their history and arguably the biggest underdog victory in history of the sport.

Half of the team was recalled from it’s vacation, half of the team had to cancel it and ended up pulling the biggest upset. And it wasn’t just luck. It was a team effort, not the effort of manager or certain individual players. It was a proper team performance. To many observers, they were essentially coming in to make up the numbers. Nobody expected Denmark to be able to compete. The tournament was won, one that the victorious team were not even part of 26 days earlier. The tournaments slogan was ‘Small is beautiful’, perhaps then aptly won by a nation of a mere 5 million people.


(Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

And this victory changed the course of Danish Football. Peter Schmeichel went on to win even more laurels with Manchester United, Henrik Larsen secured a big move to Arsenal. Brian Laudrup and Flemming Povlsen won domestic titles with AC Milan, Rangers and Borussia Dortmund respectively. While Michael Laudrup was not the part of this squad but his achievements at club level elevated the level of Danish football to new heights. Kim Vilfort’s performances at Euros attracted interest from major English, Italian and Spanish teams but he decided to stay with his beloved Brondby, whom he took to semi finals of UEFA Cup a year before and regular participation at European stage followed- thereby becoming a club legend and club’s record goal scorer in his 12 year stint with the Copenhagen club. He had to sadly see his daughter succumb to Leukemia just 6 weeks after his Man of the Match worthy performances in the final. As described by his former coach Morten Olsen, Kim had “an indomitable winning mentality” and he “always believed it could be done, no matter how bleak things looked.”  This attitude was surely never more apparent than in the midst of the triumph and trauma of his summer of 1992. This prompted him to become a vocal participant, raising awareness about Leukemia and Cancer and also taking ambassadorial for many organizations- raising awareness about Mental Health- which itself was a societal stigma at that time. Richard Moller Nielsen was finally able to woo the public and media who were against him. In 2014, Richard Moller Nielsen was posthumously entered into the Danish football hall of fame, after succumbing to a brain tumour earlier that year.

For Denmark, this wasn’t the last international tournament victory. The Danes went on to win the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995 with majority of the core’e nucleus being the players who played together at Brondby IF-led by Kim Vilfort.  Kim retired from international football after the 1995 Confederations Cup victory and eventually hung his boots in 1998. Even after retirement, he stuck down to work for his childhood club, working with the youth teams as the head of scouting and recruitment, hoping to find the ‘next generation’ which can take the mantle from his generation and even do better than them. In the present day, his beloved team finally won the League after a 16 year wait and at the heart of this team was a 20 year old midfielder Jesper Lindstrom who was himself scouted by Kim many years ago.

When asked about the Euros victory, he always pointed out to the team spirit of that Danish side- “We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.” 


(Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The generation of Richard Moller Nielsen has inspired the future generation of footballers in Denmark, who always look upto the cult heroes of 1992. What happened in Copenhagen a few days back was a testament to the spirit of Danish people, together no matter what the situation is and yesterday’s victory against Russsia against all odds put them into Knockout rounds of yet another Euros. And it was possible because of the team spirit and the backing of ‘the 12th man’, the fans. Telia Parken saw another chapter unfold. Even if Denmark doesn’t win their next match, their deeds in this Euros will be remembered forever.

god bedring, Christian


(Photo by Pool via REUTERS)

Underdog Stories: Czechia

 

Czech Republic (or Czechia). The moment you hear these 2 words, you get the images of Prague and it’s clamouring medieval era streets and of course Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer, Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros and who can forget the man, the myth, the legend: Antonin Panenka. 

Once the mighty yet underdog nation of Czechoslovakia boasted some of the most technically astute players ever known to man and their dark horse performances at various international tournaments, highlight being the 1976 Euros where they triumphed against all odds. This was the result of widespread change at grassroot level, also involving the use of Sports Science in the game. The country started churning out very good prospects which made the core of this team.

The West Germany of 1976 was a war-machine, ready to crumble any opposition in their way. Reigning world and European champions, they were still led on the touchline by the brilliant mind of Helmut Schön and directed on the pitch by the legendary Franz Beckenbauer. While West Germany did their part in dispatching the host nation, Yugoslavia in the second semi-final in Belgrade, 24-hours earlier in Zagreb, the Netherlands had been caught off-guard, losing their semi-final in extra-time against the largely unconsidered Czechoslovakia. 

 Czechoslovakia had twice been beaten World Cup finalists, in 1934 and 1962, and had reached the semi-finals of the very first European Championship in 1960. 16 years between those latter two peaks in achievement, this new appearance at the business end of a major international tournament was most unexpected. Failure to qualify for all major tournaments beyond the 1962 World Cup, apart from 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where Czechoslovakia played in group stage and lost all three matches, had left them looking ineffectual as a football-playing nation. In fact, after becoming European champions in 1976, they would revert to recent type and fail to qualify for the 1978 World Cup. It all made their success of 1976 seem like a mirage.

 

(Photo by Andrew Teebay/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

A 3-0 defeat to England at the Old Wembley had provided Czechoslovakia with a shaky start to their qualifying campaign. It was a game that put the Don Revie led England into a false sense of security. They would win only two further games, both against the group minnows, Cyprus. When the two nations faced one another in Bratislava, exactly one year after England’s victory, there was a complete change of fortunes. Czechoslovakia came from a goal down to win 2-1 and the advantage was now theirs. England finished with just 1 defeat in their qualifying campaign but the group was won on other competitive results against Portugal- heart break for the Englishmen, a party like mood in Czechoslovakia. 

During the quarter finals, Czechoslovakia was pitted against USSR. It was the classic Eastern Bloc face-off. The more day-to-day life in Bratislava and Prague was directed from offices in Moscow, the more Czechoslovakia wanted to bloody the noses of those pulling the long communist strings. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was still very fresh in the mind.  It was a symbolic 2-0 victory that Czechoslovakia obtained in Bratislava during the first leg and a defiant 2-2 draw in Kyiv during the second that took them to the finals in Yugoslavia. Jozef Móder was the hero of the piece, scoring the opening goal in the first game and both of Czechoslovakia’s efforts in the return.  

The team waiting for them in the semi-finals was the Netherlands. Johann Cryuff waiting for the fatigued Czechoslovakia team alongside Johan Neskeens, Rob Rensenbrick and Co. Another shocking victory, this time with a score line of 3-1 saw the minnows progress to the final. Was it a case of Dutch becoming complacent, or Czechoslovak organisation and determination definitively winning the day? On a rainy evening in Zagreb, it was quite probably a helping of both as, while Czechoslovakia were an increasingly potent force, Oranje were within the grips of one of their finest ever tournament meltdowns. Getting on the end of Antonin Panenka free-kick, Anton Ondruš, the Czechoslovak sweeper, opened the scoring with a beautifully directed first-half header. However, he then levelled the game for the Netherlands in the second half with a disastrously graceful side-footed volley, which found the top corner of his own goal. The game progressed into extra-time. With a penalty shoot-out looming over, František Veselý worked his way down the right flank, before arcing over a cross to the back post, where it was met by the head of the long-striding Zdeněk Nehoda. Netherlands were then caught in the open for a third time with less than two minutes remaining when, with an almost Cruyfian flourish, Veselý rounded Piet Schrijvers to make it 3-1. In what was an eventful game, Jaroslav Pollák was sent off on the hour mark for Czechoslovakia after mistiming a sliding tackle on the saturated turf. Things even turned sour when Johan Neskeens was sent back to dressing room for a mistimed tackle, culminating the meltdown of the Dutch during the course of 120 minutes. It had been a game played with a great sense of skill and style in torrential conditions. This was confirmed when both sets of players embraced one another upon the final whistle. The respect was there for all to see.

The following day, with a little over 25 minutes of their semi-final against Yugoslavia remaining, Die Teammannschaft were trailing 2-0. But the West Germans dramatically turned the game around for a 4-2 victory after extra-time. Another historic final for Czechoslovakia. The West Germans stood between them and absolute glory. Amidst all of this, the legend of Antonin Panenka was there in the making. A 2-0 advantage was cut down in the very last minute by the Germans with a Bernd Hölzenbein equalizer from a Rainer Bonhof corner. The match went down to penalties and then Antonin Panenka got the opportunity to win an international trophy for his home country, which he did- via a chipped penalty which became to be known as the ‘Panenka’. Francesco Totti vs Netherlands in Euros 2000 semis, Zinedine Zidane vs Italy in World Cup 2006 final. There are countless examples of the Panenka penalty over the years with many such moments coming in most crucial of matches.

 

(Photo by Karl Schnörrer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

What a way to write history on a grand stage and this victory along with various changes made at grassroot level resulted in the rise of a potential golden generation in the late 1980s, early 1990s with clubs like Sparta Prague, Slavia Prague, Bohemians 1905, FK Viktoria Plzen, FK Jablonec, FK Mlada Boleslav seeing an increase in the talent coming through the youth ranks. But the “Velvet Revolution” and the collapse of political order in 1989 brought an end to the various sporting schemes which helped the game thrive in the country. A funding gap was created due to this with influx of money decreasing over the years, which saw the outflux of talent from the country. By 2005, only 5 members of National Team were plying their trade in the country’s top tier league competition and rest of the members were making a name for themselves abroad. 

Playing under the new nation of Czech Republic (called Czechia in present day), the so-called exciting prospects took the world by storm in 1996. With the Bosman ruling and its potential game changing impact, a new market opened up for the Czech players to make a mark at club level and Euros 1996 became a stage to show their talent to the world. The underdogs defied the odds and reached to the finals of the competition and were moments away from getting hands on the coveted trophy but an Oliver Bierhoff double (including a golden goal winner) shattered the dreams of this tiny new nation, losing the match by the score line of 2-1. A revenge complete for now unified Germany.

 

(Left-Right) Back row: Jiri Nemec, Jan Suchoparek, Michal Hornak, Pavel Nedved, Lubos Kubic and Petr Kouba. Front row: Radoslav Latal, Pavel Kuka, Karel Poborsky, Radek Bejbl and Patrik Berger.(Photo by Professional Sport/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

But this tournament opened up the gates to European club football for many of it’s international players with the change in ruling of Non-European players allowed in squad in many countries after the Bosman ruling. Pavel Nedved joined Lazio, spearheading the Czech football revolution for many years and making his mark at Lazio and then at Juventus. Karel Poborsky (and his famous “Poborsky Lob”) joined Manchester United, winning a Premier League medal in his 18-month stay at the club, then moving to Benfica, Lazio and finishing his career in Czech Republic. After losing Poborsky to their arch-rivals Manchester United, Liverpool turned their attention to Patrik Berger, who spent 7 glorious years at the Merseyside club, then moving further south and joining The Pompeys, Portsmouth and then Aston Villa before calling it quit on his career in England, moving back to his native country to see out his last few years of the career. 

 

(Photo by Andrew Teebay/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

While the current crop of players made a name for themselves with their performances and winning their dream moves to the Elites, the next batch of youth was brimming on the chance to send shockwaves, in which they succeeded. The U21s of Czech Republic performed very well at U21 Euros, finishing runners up at 2000 edition which was held in Slovakia and winning the competition in 2002, hosted by Switzerland and brought the talent of iconic Petr Cech to the mainstream. Both the editions of competition saw the involvement of many players, who then went to have a good career including the likes of Petr Cech, Milan Baros, Zdenek Grygera, Marek Jankulovski, Jaroslav Drobny, David Rozehnal, Tomas Hubschman, Radoslav Kovac. (Tomas Rosicky was supposed to take part in 2000 edition but he had become a mainstay in senior team by the time qualification rounds for the tournament were over).

Carrying this momentum forward, Czech Republic again gave the European powerhouses a tough fight, reaching the semi-finals of 2004 Euros, setting up a clash with another underdog team in Greece. Milan Baros’ performances almost took them to another European final but an silver goal winner again destroyed the dreams of this tiny nation. An appearance at 2006 World Cup was another highlight for the country but by the turn of the decade, the Golden Generation was in its twilight years and the outflux of talent to neighbouring countries of Germany and Austria curtailed the development of many prospects. 

 

(Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

But with ex-players getting into administration level jobs in the Czech Republic FA, things are turning around. Karel Poborsky himself is the Technical Director, looking after the development of players representing the country at youth levels and creating a good path for them to take the chance to represent Czech Republic at senior level when they are ready; by trying to emulate the same sporting schemes and atmosphere from which their Golden Generation benefitted. 

A country which influenced German and Belgian Football Renaissance is itself going through the same phase and the signs are looking good till now. Exciting prospects like Alex Kral, Adam Hlozek, Adam Karabec, Alex Kral, Michal Sadilek, Ondrej Lingr, Ondrej Sasinka, Christian Frydek, Filip Soucek, Dominik Plechaty, Zdenek Hucek, Vojtech Patrak, Matej Polidar have stepped up and made a mark for their hometown teams and for country at Youth Levels too, again attracting the attention of scouts from other parts of Europe.

And Monday’s match against Scotland was an example of this Czech Football Renaissance. A brace by Patrick Schick which included a lobbed goal from 50 yards out is just the start of this generation’s rise to the top. The journey is long but the Czechs are ready for it, no matter what hurdles lie in front of them. 

 

(Photo by Craig Williamson- SNS Group via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Tactical Analysis: Unai Emery’s Villarreal

With normalcy kicking in i.e fans returning slowly and steadily back to stadiums, cup finals will have another aspect to become memorable- now that the 12th man will truly be back. One fanbase which will be travelling to support their team is that of ‘Yellow Submarine’- Villarreal CF who will be playing in their first ever major final- UEFA Europa League 2020-21 final in Gdansk on 26th May.

Gdansk is a coastal city situated in Poland with proximity to the Baltic Sea. Known as Danzig in German, it was a major port for launching the infamous German U-Boats. Kind of ironic that a team who got their nickname from a Beatles track named ‘Yellow Submarine’ will play a final in Gdansk.

The club has a chance of winning their first ever major trophy in the club’s 98 year history. Such an occasion would have been bland for Villarreal CF had there been no fans but they have their footballing gods to thank now that it is safe to some extent to allow certain percentage occupancy of stadiums.

The Rise of Yellow Submarine from depths to the surface 

Villarreal, a town of roughly 50,000 occupants is home to the El Submarino Amarillo. A club very close to the small community is an example of how a small club can harbor the ambitions of taking the fight to the elites. The club has spent majority of its time in the lower divisions of Spanish footballing pyramid before going under a change of ownership by a local businessman (and one of the wealthiest persons at that time in Spain) Fernando Roig Alfonso. Under his astute ownership, the club underwent a revolution- rising to Segunda Division at the start of 1990s before reaching La Liga for the first time in their history in 1998. Unlike the usual money-minded profit leeching businessman owners in football, Fernando Roig’s Alfonso focused more on the investment in human resource rather than spending cash just for the sake of it, slowly and steadily building one of the best scouting networks and youth development programs in the Valencian district (and eventually one of the best in Spain), fighting toe to toe with it’s local rival- Valencia CF who also were enjoying their glorious era at the same time. The club suffered the ignominy of relegation after their first season in La Liga but the club learnt from this experience, worked hard and worked efficiently to win back the promotion and build up the team slowly and steadily to climb up the table in La Liga over the years. 

This new-found stability provided the club to compete in now defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup, reaching its final 3 times and winning twice- the latter which provided the chance to play in UEFA Cup (2003-04) for the first time in its history- not bad for a club who wasn’t playing first division football 5 years back. On their major European Debut, the club became a dark horse- reaching the semi finals on their first attempt. This was the chance for the Yellow Submarine to make a name for themselves on the big stage. But their local and arch rivals, Valencia CF, stood in their way. Valencia did overshadow Villarreal yet again, going on to win the trophy themselves. But this budding club learnt from it’s experiences- another appearance in the final of UEFA Intertoto Cup provided the Yellow Submarine to play in UEFA Cup (2004-05) but this time it was yet another budding club in AZ Alkmaar who were themselves looking to break the dominance of the Old Guard of Netherlands- the big 3: Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord Rotterdam- who ended up putting a brave display in the Quarter Finals. Ever gracious in their defeat, Villarreal again learnt from this experience and side by side building’s it’s profile and attracting the interest of some footballing giants- Diego Forlan, Juan Roman Riquelme to name a few with whom they reached to semi finals of UEFA Champions League on their debut- under the stewardship of Manuel Pellegrini.

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

An 88th minute penalty miss by Riquelme in front of the 23,500 seater El Madrigal ended up costing Villarreal an opportunity of contesting for the grand prize in Paris that summer, a miss which sent Arsenal to their first ever UCL final. Yet another heart break but the club yet again gracious in defeat, learned from this experience.A slight slump in form saw the club out of action in UCL. But this absence was short lived. The club achieved it’s best ever league finish-2nd place in 2007-08 La Liga season which ensured them of an automatic place in UCL Group stages of 2008-09- playing in a group which consisted of yet another English giants, reigning UCL winners at that time (and Yellow Submarine’s opponents on 26th May)- Manchester United, the pride of Glasgow- Celtic FC and Danish side Aalborg FC. The Valencian side had the opportunity to play the Mancunian side again- playing against them for the first time in group stages of 2005-06 CL campaign- churning out an entertaining 0-0 draw on both occasions. Even in this campaign, both sides drew 0-0 at Old Trafford and El Madrigal. They finished 2nd in the group- advancing to R16 where they outclassed Greek champions Panathinaikos. Yet another Quarter Final appearance beckons for the budding club. And to add spice and seasoning to the occasion, they were matched up with Arsenal. A feeling of revenge developed among the tiny town- to take the fight to London and finish off the tie after a 1-1 draw at El Madrigal. But it was Robin Van Persie who produced one of his best ever performances in UCL for Arsenal in the 2nd leg- sending Villarreal and their strong fan contingent back home.

(Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Another slump of form and managerial merry go around kept Villarreal away from defying the odds but again this slump was short lived. Yet again the footballing gods graced the club. This time it was a slot in newly branded UEFA Europa League (2010-11) after RCD Mallorca were found to have massive financial implications. The club, just like it’s hard working population of the town it represents which has historically consisted of Orange and Mango cultivators, took this granted opportunity like there was no tomorrow. A mix of entertaining yet pragmatic performances saw the El Submarí Groguet reach yet another semi-final of European Competition- beating sides such as Club Brugge, PAOK, Dinamo Zagreb, FC Twente, SSC Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen. This resulted in a clash with tournament’s favourite FC Porto led by a young and enigmatic Andre Villas Boas and spearheaded by Radamel Falcao- the competition’s top scorer. But Villareal also boasted some local cult icons- led by Giuseppe Rossi. Villarreal started the match in best fashion- taking the lead at Estadio Do Dragao but the second half saw one of the best ever performances in UEFA Europa League’s recent history. With the support of the fans, The Super Dragons responded with a staggering 5 second half goals to win the first leg. Villareal won the 2nd leg 3-2 but it wasn’t enough. Yet another exit at the semi final stage, yet another ‘what could have been moment’ for the Yellow Submarine. 

The club was flying so high over the years that it eventually was humbled down. But neither the club nor the fans thought that it would happen so soon. 2011-12 La Liga season- a season marred with club crumbling under hefty expectations and a horrendous form in 2nd half of the season saw the club falling down to Segunda. What’s worse is that their recently appointed manager- Manolo Preciado suffered a fatal heart attack on the same day of his appointment and sadly passed away. A tragedy like this coupled with relegation and mass exodus of it’s squad to greener pastures saw the club facing a Herculean task of coming out of this adversity unscathed. 

When all looked lost, the club yet again rose from the ashes like a Phoenix- a brave run in final gameweeks of the La Liga 2 saw the club clinch a 2nd place and automatic promotion back to La Liga. A reborn Villarreal with all of its highs and lows in this glorious 15 year period- straight away secured a place in UEL right after promotion. The 2nd half of 2010s saw the club become a regular of European competition, taking part in UEL and also fighting for CL spots. Yet another strong run in UEL saw the club reach yet another semi final in UEL (2015-16). Another English giant in Liverpool stood in their way. A strong 1-0 win at El Madrigal may just have been enough for Villarreal to secure their place in the final but The Kop provided Liverpool with extra vigour and it meant that another semi- final exit was waiting for Villareal. 

But their fortunes were to change. Another slump in form humbled the club and made them to restructure their strategies. And with yet another blessing from the footballing gods, they got the person who may just be the one who can change their fortunes- who shared the same philosophy about football, about life. The new man-in charge? Unai Emery.

(Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Tactical Analysis 

A humble and down to earth person off the pitch, Unai Emery has made a name for himself over the years in the Spanish footballing circuit. His spells outside of Spain haven’t been very successful but he is a person who has always been ready to take a challenge and test himself. Taking a job in Russia with Spartak Moscow, returning back home and achieving a legendary status in Seville. The charms of Paris and PSG attracted him after his stint at Sevilla,  followed by a fairly successful stint at Arsenal (given the North London side was in an era of transition). His flexibility in managing the resources at his disposal in Villarreal has seen him try various formations, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1 and even on occasion utilizing a 4-1-4-1 shape. At centre-back however, Emery has established the formidable partnership of former Real Madrid and Napoli man Raul Albiol, and youngster Pau Torres who has started attracting attention of various clubs in Europe. Emery has shown faith in the 24-year old Alfonso Pedraza, who previously had four loan spells away from the club. The young Ecuadorian Pervis Estupinan remains a solid rotation option for Villarreal to use at Left back after his loan spell at Osasuna. The creative Dani Parejo has been one of Villarreal’s key men this season after his move from Valencia, and has been partnered most often with another long-time Villarreal player – Manu Trigueros. And the attack is led by Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer. Gerard has been in the form of his life, enjoying his best spell of his career under Emery who has helped him improve even further.

Passing Map depicting the average positions taken by the players

Playing out from the Back

Unai Emery has always had a desire to play out from the back and that has continued on so far this season in 2020-21. In build-up and attacking phases, Villarreal’s formation shifts more into a 2-1-4-3. For purposes of simplifying things, you could also call this a 3-4-3, with Vicente Iborra/ Manu Trigueros dropping in between or alongside the two centre-backs. This allows the full backs to push wide and further up the field, stretching the play and creating possible openings to receive the pass while creating overload in the middle of the pitch- a possible numerical advantage over the opposition in same area by creating a diamond shape and a route both forward and backwards if things go awry. These shapes offer the Yellow Submarine options both forwards and backwards at proper angles to keep possession of the ball and avoid making dangerous sideways passes in their own half.

Villarreal trying to play from the back

Midfield Superiority 

If the opposition are then keen to try and bypass Villarreal’s midfield triangle, they are often forced into longer passes or the wide areas, closer to the touch-line. Dani Parejo and Manu Trigueros are the most frequent ball-winners for Villarreal, and in Francis Coquelin they have another player who can do the exact same job when needed.  In attacking transitions, they have a very vertical approach and as already noted, Moi Gomez and Gerard Moreno often drift inside. Their verticality naturally increases their use of through-balls down the middle rather than working the ball out to the wide areas and delivering crosses.

An attempt at through balls in central area of the pitch

While the Yellow Submarine started well in La Liga, their form has been topsy turvy which has left them at 7th place with 58 points, 3 point short of 6th place, ensuring a chance to play in the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League next season at minimum. But their performances have yet again come up in the Europa League this season. With the club’s penchant of performing at top level in European competition and Unai Emery’s experience at the same stage complementing each other, their performance in this season’s Europa League have been exciting to follow. They topped their group stage with relatively easier sides- Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel, Sivasspor of Turkey and Qarabag of Azerbaijan. They then went on to defeat RB Salzburg, Dynamo Kiev, Dinamo Zagreb to reach the semi finals where they were again paired with Arsenal. 

This was a tie which held a lot of importance to both the manager and the club, a chance at redemption and glory and possible revenge against the side who got the better of them twice before in KO rounds of both UCL and UEL. The first leg was played in Spain, at El Madrigal. Villarreal opted for a 4-4-2 with Manu Trigueros starting at left flank, trying to cut in and drop into more advanced midfield areas- creating an overload in the center and Parejo, Capoue sitting in deep midfield space and nullifying Arsenal’s approach of playing a narrower game. The biggest problem for Arsenal in this game was essentially self-inflicted. They tried to press high, with the wingers responsible for helping Smith Rowe. Saka and Pepe would press from the outside in, trying to force Villarreal through the centre where Smith Rowe, Odegaard, Ceballos and Partey would look to overload the Spanish side’s double pivot of Capoue and Parejo. But Villarreal were able to play out of this pressure.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 1)

Villarreal’s centre-backs and midfielders were comfortable handling the ball under this high pressure, combining to find a way out. Arteta’s choice of Smith Rowe upfront naturally led to an extra option in midfield, as the 20-year-old dropped back looking to make angles for his teammates. However, Villarreal were compact and organised enough to minimise space for Smith Rowe and Odegaard between the lines, forcing Arsenal to play more directly – in the end, 11.4% of the Premier League side’s passes were long balls (compared to 9.8% for Villarreal). Ceballos was sent off early on in the second half, which didn’t help Arsenal’s chances.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 2)

At that point they were 2-0 down, with Albiol heading home from a set piece to double Villarreal’s advantage. And it could so easily have been more. Arsenal continued to press as they had before, only now they had one man less. Unsurprisingly, this led to gaps for Villarreal to exploit in a midfield populated only by Smith Rowe (moved back when Arteta brought Gabriel Martinelli on for Odegaard) and Partey. Emery’s introduction of Francis Coquelin worked out, as the ex-Gunner frequently found himself the extra man in midfield and nearly set up a third goal for the hosts. In the end, it took a bit of individual quality and luck for Arsenal to get back in the tie and set-up a mouth watering 2nd leg clash in London. 

But, Villarreal was in control because their players were used to play a more pragmatic approach. Using the basics of seeing out the game, Villarreal defended well against an Arsenal side who again lacked the intensity which was clearly evident from their playing style. A 0-0 draw was enough to finally break the duck- a first ever final appearance in any competition for Yellow Submarine. And it came at the expense of tactically outclassing Arsenal, a sign of relief for Villarreal and Unai Emery.

A fairytale run across Europe will reach its final destination- Gdansk, Poland. With fans ready to back the Yellow Submarine against the Red Devils, a historic Europa League final is on the cards. A victory against Manchester United will not only mean a first ever UEL trophy (also first ever major title) but a victory against an opposition of the prestige of Manchester United, one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ of ESL will be such a sweet experience for Villarreal. 

No matter what happens on the pitch, this Villarreal side will not be just playing for a trophy, this side will be playing for it’s colours, for it’s Barrio, for it’s philosophy. 

The Ramones’ ”I Believe in Miracles” which has been heard quite a few times at El Madrigal on matchdays, will actually hold a brand new meaning for Villarreal if they end up taming the Devil in front of them and get their hands on that Europa League trophy.  

“I believe in miracles. I believe in a better world, for me and you”- the ethos on which this club, deeply attached to it’s smaller community, has worked during its entire history. 

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)