In a new series on Back Page Football, Tim Hill outlines two of his tactical observations from the previous weekend of football. This week, he glances over Chelsea v Arsenal, Manchester Utd v Sunderland and Mainz v Hoffenheim.
In a weekend that Didier Drogba ploughed through a knee-knockingly nervy Arsenal defence and Barcelona drawing at home against Mallorca, there was plenty of narratives that the papers’ journalists could latch on to. However, there were several tactical matters that tickled this writer’s tedious interests.
At the Stadium of Light, Manchester United were quite literally, showered with s**t before the match. This match, as well as showing the United players the diet of the Sunderland players, illustrated how wonderfully one-dimensional and old-fashioned Michael Owen is. He was partnered by Macheda, who, after his wonderful entrance into the English media attention after his pivot and shot against Aston Villa, has not followed through with the initial promise shown. His inability to create for Michael Owen showed how English football has evolved, indicating the necessity for a forward who can link the play and create something for himself. He was understandably withdrawn for the creative and better-suited Dimitar Berbatov at half-time who dropped deep and looked to link-up play. Someone’s got to do it, and who better than vixenish Bulgarian, Dimitar Berbatov?
Whilst Drogba and Anelka were running a French-themed riot with the Arsenal defence, the Chelsea defence were deeply in thought, pondering how to negate the incessant Arsenal attack. With lots of library hours racked-up, Chelsea had a perfect defensive game-play. Instead of the high-pressing approach favoured by Rafa Benitez when he was at Liverpool, Chelsea sought sit-deep, happy to let them play the ball wide and in the depths of midfield, whilst not allowing them any time and space further forward. It is this same approach that was used against the best possession-based footballing team, Barcelona, by Inter Milan last season. Such research and bookworming may become a popular discipline in the Premier League season, where Carlo Ancelotti’s discourse may be a ‘best-seller’.
With Arsenal creating through a web of passes and small movements, it means the distance between the players cannot be too large. The implication is that to move large distances, bigger numbers of players need to be involved to get further up the pitch. Playing on the counter-attack is the best way to completely destroy Arsenal’s game-plan. If you can defend well, as Chelsea did, then spring an attack quickly, you’re always going to create something against the often unprotected Arsenal backline.
John Obi Mikel showed tactical discipline too, understanding that he could not dive in to tackles like he sometimes does. He often just looked for potential interceptions in the play, standing deep and standing off the Arsenal players, knowing too well that keeping a tight shape was more important than winning one-on-one battles. As the disciplined pivot in the midfield, it allowed the energetic Ramires and the rampaging Essien to break with the attackers without destroying Chelsea’s defensive stability.
Moving to mainland Europe, land of coffee and returning Gypsies, the tactical chameleon that is Thomas Tuchel once again showed a new change in colours. Against Hoffenheim, Tuchel started with a 4-3-3 with Leverkusen new-boy (next season) André Schürrle playing up-front with the muscle-hoarder Ádám Szalai and the wily Tunisian Sami Allagui. André Schürrle drifted around the front-line with the ever-impressive Lewis Holtby as a wing-man; the two young Germans caused much mischief and tom-foolery for the Hoffenheim defence, who were not helped by Thomas Tuchel’s constantly unpredictable tactical changes throughout the ninety minutes. His 4-3-3 moved to a 4-4-2, to a 4-3-1-2 and then back again to a 4-3-3, and even then, this writer wasn’t too sure about what was going on. By the end of it, my notesheet looked like an unused blackboard from Good Will Hunting, rather than simple notes on a football match.
Hoffenheim showed much more than the previous team despatched by the hands of Mainz, however. With the technically able and composed Luis Gustavo in midfield, they were able to cope with the pressing-game with greater ease than Mark van Bommel and his ilk, meaning they had a better control over the game. When Gustavo was not given the ball, Hoffenheim opted for long-balls towards strikers Demba Ba and Vedad Ibišević, whose strength and raw power disrupted Mainz’s rhythm as much as Mainz’s pressing disrupted theirs. For a while there, it seemed Mainz had met their match, until Lewis Holtby proceeded to ruin all Hoffenheim hopes with a wonderful passing display that effectively sent the archaic figure of Josep Simunic off and sent the Sinsheim-based team back down the A67 with nothing to show for their first-half ventures.