The starting formations of Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid in last week’s Champions League games gave an interesting insight into the complexities of tactical analysis. The three teams were respectively described as playing 4-3-3, 3-4-1-2 and 4-2-3-1, but in reality all three sets of players lined up with broadly the same roles. This leads to two questions: why the differing interpretations, and why did each side have varying levels of success?
A player-by-player analysis of each team’s starting line up (below) demonstrates the similarities.
Each team played two specialist centre backs – David Luiz and Tim Cahill for Chelsea, Matija Nastasic and Vincent Kompany for City, Sergio Ramos and Pepe for Madrid – tasked with marking the opposition’s centre forwards. City were seen to play Zabaleta as a third centre back but his task was to cover Cristiano Ronaldo on Madrid’s left wing, which caused him to play wider than Nastasic on the left of the trio. In this respect Zabaleta’s role wasn’t dissimilar to Chelsea and Madrid’s right backs, who were both naturally covering the opposition’s left flank, but neither of whom offered any attacking intent. This was especially true of Alvaro Arbeloa who played very narrow for Madrid – almost resembling a third centre back – to combat City’s narrow attacking trio.
On the left of the defences, Ashley Cole, Aleksandar Kolarov and Fabio Coentrao all played broadly similar roles. None of the three had a team mate ahead of him staying wide and so they had to provide attacking width whilst defending the left back zone. Kolarov was supposedly playing as a wing back in a 3-4-1-2, and so his starting position was naturally further up the pitch, but given that Coentrao is a converted winger and Cole is renowned for his forward runs it is difficult to argue that the three players weren’t fulfilling the same role.
City’s other wing back, Maicon, was also tasked with providing attacking width but, most importantly, also offering defensive cover on the opponent’s left flank. In effect this was the same role given to Cesar Azpilicueta for Chelsea, a full back fielded on the right of midfield for defensive solidity. Di Maria, a natural winger, is a completely different player for Madrid, but his defensive discipline is well known, and the fact that he had to divide his time between getting forward and watching the opposing left back would suggest his instructions were actually quite similar.
In the centre of the pitch, all three teams started with two deeper midfielders – Jon Obi Mikel and Ramires, Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso – with a playmaker further forward – Oscar, David Silva and Luka Modric. Although these players differ in skills and quality, their roles were essentially the same – two to compete for midfield supremacy and one to link up with the forwards. This was the only part of the pitch that pundits agreed on the teams’ tactical similarity.
In attack, each team played with a central striker tasked with occupying the opposition’s centre backs and a deeper partner who broadly attacked from the left. Again, the roles were similar, but in this area of the pitch the interpretations were vastly different. For Chelsea, Eden Hazard led the line in an unfamiliar striker’s role, operating as a false nine to draw the opposing centre backs out of position, whereas Edin Dzeko is a natural target man for City and Karim Benzema has all-round attacking qualities and has played a lone striker role for Madrid and Lyon for a number of years. Again Madrid had a natural fit on the left, with Ronaldo playing in his favoured wide attacker role, whereas Juan Mata habitually drifts infield for Chelsea into central playmaking positions and Sergio Aguero plays as a second striker for City but found himself occupying left-of-centre positions due to Silva’s preference for playing in the right channel and Kolarov’s failure to offer consistent attacking width.
Despite the similarities of the roles, the individual players’ suitability defined both the positional interpretation and the team’s success. Generally Madrid’s success came from players entirely suited to the roles they were given, assisted by the fact that Jose Mourinho has played a similar shape for the past two seasons. Chelsea and City’s problems came in areas where the players were either uncomfortable in their position or lacking in the necessary skills to complete the role required of them.
With Chelsea, the shape was relatively successful at stifling Juventus, with Oscar showing defensive discipline to occupy Pirlo and the strengthened right flank comfortably dealing with their opponent’s left wing back. The areas of weakness were in attack – for all of Hazard’s good work in exposing Juventus on the break, neither he nor Mata could put the ball in the net when an opportunity arose – and the left flank – Mata’s high position and movement infield left Cole completely unprotected. Chelsea also suffered in central midfield. Neither Mikel nor Ramires were out of position, but Ramires’ energy is best complimented by a passer, yet Mikel’s limitations make him more suited to his familiar holding role, and his failure to move the ball forward invited pressure.
Man City were similarly caught out by unfamiliarity. Although their players’ instructions were essentially the same as both Chelsea and Madrid’s, Roberto Mancini clearly intended to play with a back three as he has done so on numerous occasions this season. Unfortunately City’s players are still not comfortable in the system, with Kompany looking a shadow of the dominant defender he portrayed last season. Ronaldo’s aggressive positioning confused things further by drawing Zabaleta much wider than either he or his teammates wanted him to go, but the winger’s threat should hardly have come as a surprise to Mancini or his players. Kolarov and Maicon failed to excel on the flanks, despite possessing precisely the qualities required, simply because their colleagues around them were so uncomfortable. Midfield and attack were less of an issue, but Aguero seemed confused as to what positions to take up, and the partnership of Nasri and Toure in the centre was surprisingly aggressive considering both players preference for attacking. It was little surprise that City improved dramatically once Mancini reverted to a familiar shape midway through the first half.
As expected, Madrid were by far the most comfortable, clearly benefiting from a familiarity in the system. However, this is not to say that Mourinho didn’t alter his usual shape and that the real success was the player’s suitability to their roles. Arbeloa tucking in almost as a third centre back was a ploy designed to help deal with Aguero and take advantage of Di Maria’s control of Kolarov and City’s lack of an advanced attacking threat down their left. For all of Arbeloa’s attacking limitations, defensively his positioning is good, and this has enabled him to fill in at centre back on several occasions. Ahead of him Di Maria’s defensive qualities have already been highlighted, but unlike Maicon and Azpilicueta he also has the offensive ability to be a constant attacking threat. Finally, in the centre of the pitch Madrid’s midfield combination possessed excellent balance and variety that Chelsea and City lacked.
All in all, this demonstrates the complexities of tactical analysis and how subjective formations can be. Man City clearly started with a back three, and yet their players largely performed the same duties as the back fours of Chelsea and Real Madrid. Di Maria is described as being Ronaldo’s right wing equivalent in an attacking band of three, and yet they had completely different defensive responsibilities – some vs none – and Ronaldo’s starting positioning was general twenty yards further forward. Aguero’s interpretation of his forward role is equally confusing – do you list him as a striker that drops deep, or an attacking midfielder that stays upfield in the same respect as Ronaldo?
What it does demonstrate is that formations and systems aren’t remotely as important as the players’ suitability. The idea that some systems can be fashionable – as the 4-2-3-1 is at present – is only as relevant as the idea that more players are identifying their roles within such a shape.