Tottenham Hotspurs 1 Chelsea 1: Draw at the Lane

The starting line ups

In a match where both teams would have liked to get three points to close the gap between themselves and the table toppers up north, both teams had to settle for just one point on the day.

Spurs without winger Aaron Lennon brought in midfielder Sandro for just his 4th Premier League start of the season. Chelsea swapped new boy Oriel Romeu for Jon Obi Mikel  in the holding midfield role and Andre Villas Boas went with Didier Drogba instead of Fernando Torres for yet another big game.

Tottenham show intent from the off

Chelsea in what can be called their ‘new regular selves’ sat deep early on and invited Spurs onto them. The North Londoners obliged and pushed their fullbacks high up the pitch with their wide men tucked in and found space in what was supposed to be a compact Chelsea unit. Spurs moved the ball superbly and matched this with some intelligent running off the ball. The Blues were outnumbered 5v3 in the middle of the park as their wide men and fullbacks did not follow Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart when they made runs infield. Tottenham controlled possession, dictated the tempo and made the most of the space afforded to them to dictate the early proceedings.

Chelsea fail to track runners

Villas Boas started with Mikel probably to do a job against a direct opponent in van der Vaart or maybe Modric playing behind Adebayor. This would have been a typical holding midfielder/trequrtista (attacking midfielder) battle. However, this was not the case. As can be seen in the above diagram Tottenham played with no set player in this area but were still able to dominate it. This was done through intelligent runs from deep or wide positions by their midfielders into this area when Mikel was dragged out of position while covering teammates. The Chelsea players whose job would  have been to keep tabs on these players failed in their task and this did not help them win the midfield battle. Spurs’ midfielders showed great fluidity and chemistry when they attacked the space between the lines and overloaded Mikel.

In the attacking phase Chelsea also struggled to get going. Their ball movement was too slow and players’ off the ball movement was non-existent. They struggled to hold on to the ball for long periods and establish a rhythm. Ashley Cole and Jose Bosignwa/Paulo Ferreira failed to get into advance positions to supplement the attack. According to the Chalkboards below, Cole and Bosignwa both attempted two passes each (one of which was the assist for Sturridge goal) in the final third of the field. Reason for this was their failure to establish a hold in the midfield which would have allow them to bomb forward and offer width to the attack.

The above chalkboards show the limited amount of passes both fullbacks made in the attacking half of the field. The white arrow on Ashley Cole's chalkboard shows his assist to Sturridge. This was the only cross by a Chelsea fullback in the half. It should noted that Bosingwa did play at centre-back from the 33rd minute and was replaced at right back by Paulo Ferreira who only played one pass in the opposition half in the before the half was done.

2nd Half

4-5-1 > 4-4-2/4-2-2-2, Harry!!! (Well, at least in this case)

Despite the scores being level and Chelsea getting off more shots that Tottenham in the 1st half, the home team was definitely in control. Spurs manager, Harry Redknapp perhaps looking to test the defensive capabilities of makeshift centreback Bosignwa (put there when Ivanovic pulled up lame) took off van der Vaart and replaced him with Roman Pavlyuchenko. Spurs were now lined up in what seemed to be a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 shape. This move was perplexing as Tottenham were now undermanned in the centre midfield area. This meant that Luka Modric, who took up van der Vaart’s right midfield position, had to close down Oriel Romeu (who replaced Mikel in the holding midfield role in the first half) whenever he got on the ball. His direct opponent Ashley Cole now had the space to get forward and support Juan Mata on the left flank and overload right-back Kyle Walker. Chelsea exploited this left sided match-up for much of the second half . (Show A.cole vs Sturridge)

Tottenham struggled to get into rhythm with this new system. They also switched to a more direct style of passing, part reason was due to Modric’s change of position.  In the first half, he dropped deep from his central position to assist with building possession from the back. With the change, in the central midfield 2 of Scott Parker and Sandro they no longer had this type of player (a deep lying playmaker) to help with the ball circulation. The two wide men still drifted inside at every opportunity and looked to overload the midfield area (similar to the first half) and supply the creativity in the attacking phase.

The substitution, negatively affected Tottenham’s play as they were no longer able to dominate in the central midfield area to the same extent as they did in the first half.  The space which they now afforded the visitors helped them dictate proceeding as they were the better team in the second half.

Momentum shift

Chelsea’s play in the second half was incisive as they went on to look for the winner. The tactical switch from the host now meant that their deepest midfielder, Romeu, had more time on the ball and was allowed to play more progressive passes than Mikel in the first half. Tottenham passing became a bit careless and the Blues took advantage of  this and had them on the back foot for long periods of times.

Conclusion

Tactically, this game was more interesting when analysing Spurs’ play. Harry Redknapp seem to have his tactics spot on in the first half and with great movement, passing and a speed advantage was able to get the better of Chelsea in terms of passage of play. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to convert this dominance into goals. In the second half, his tactical switch played more to the advantage of the visitors as they were allowed to get back into the contest with the extra space give. Pavlyuchenko who may have been brought on to be a game changer was ineffective.

Andre Villas Boas would be happy with the one point on the night but would know with the guilt edge charges his team got they could have left the ‘Lane’ with all three points.

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Barcelona 2 AC Milan 2: Two points lost but one point gained

The starting line ups

Alexandre Pato gave Milan a dream start with a goal after just 25 seconds against the reigning UEFA Champions League Champions. The Brazilian cut through the square centreback pairing of Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano and ran approximately 20 yards with the ball before slotting it pass Victor Valdes. Massimiliano Allegri could not have wanted a better start for his men as they now had a lead to defend against the best team in Europe.

And defend they did…. 

The Rossoneri chose to defend deep, as so many other teams do against Barcelona, with their defensive line just outside the penalty area and their midfield not too far ahead. The back 4 and the midfield 3 zone marked the Catalans and closed them down in the attacking 1/3 with Kevin Prince Boateng hassling them higher up the park and then dropping into the midfield band so that Milan would have 2 banks of 4 in the defensive phase. Before picking up an injury, Boateng did well to throw the home team off from finding their rhythm early on by forcing them into bad passes and make them uncomfortable in the area of the pitch where Milan were basically allowing them to play. The Ghana international who was a revelation at the San Siro last season is thriving in this role of the forward destroyer which is a new trend in European football. The forward destroyer’s job is to put pressure on deep lying playmakers like Xavi in an attempt to neutralize their impact on the game. Last season Yaya Toure (Manchester City) was deployed in this role and similarly Park Ji Sung (Manchester United) against Milan in the Champions League in 2009.

Further back, Milan had a midfield trio made up of a box to box midfielder (Nocerino), a hard man (Van Bommel) and a creator (Seedorf). These 3 players kept their positions well and were rarely caught out and together with the defense made it difficult for Barcelona to play through them. Alessandro Nesta was the star man at the back and had a magnificent game making 5 interceptions, 3 clearances, 3 blocked shots and a crucial last man tackle against Lionel Messi. The away side conceded the flanks allowing the Catalans to get the ball out to wide areas  by blocking all passing lanes to good efficiency centrally (Barcelona had not 1 accurate through ball from 12 attempts). 63% of Barcelona’s shots to goal occurred outside of the penalty area is also testament to how good they defended as Barcelona are not known to attempt many shots outside of the area.

Besides Milan’s setup being defensively sound it also had a very good balance. Allegri chose to play with 2 forwards (a rarity for a visiting team to the Nou Camp) and allowed Boateng to play very close to them in the attacking phase. In theory, when they won back the ball they had enough numbers forward to mount a proper attack. What was the reality though was that they won back the ball so deeply that when they cleared the ball or tried to play in their forwards they often gifted it right back to the opposition. They had only 7 effective clearances out of 16 attempts and had a 40.5% success rate on long balls played. Pato touched the ball 27 times in comparison to his direct opposite David Villa who had 62 touches and he came off after 84 minutes. Barcelona bossed the game with their ‘sterile domination’ tactic of keeping the ball and this help them protect their abysmal centreback pairing from Milan’s front 2.

Sterile domination

In a post match interview after being knocked out by Barcelona in the Champions League in March, Arsene Wenger coined the phrase ‘sterile domination’ when he described the opposition’s first half performance lamenting that though they had the majority of the ball they only managed 2 shots on goal. On Tuesday night Barcelona had just 4 shots on goal in the first half with minimal penetration. The Spanish Champions though have no problems with keeping the ball for long periods with limited success. In fact, one of their strengths is their patience.

Pep Guardiola made a slight adjustment to his usual front 3. Messi who usually plays as a lone centre forward in a false 9 role was deployed in a slightly deeper postion with David Villa, who usually plays on the left flank, filling the centre forward position. Pedro played wide on the left with Dani Alves coming forward to give the attack width on the right. Alves was allowed to come forward unchecked and unmarked due to Milan not playing with any wide attackers usually when he got the ball he was 1 on 1 with Zambrotta. He also did not have to worry about Milan exploiting the space he left behind because when they Barcelona attacked Abidal tucked in alongside the central defenders so they had a 3v2 advantage against the Milan front 2 to avoid being caught on the counter attack. Keita assisted the struggling defense on the few occasions the Rossoneri threatened.

In the 1st half, Barcelona moved the ball around as they usually do with Iniesta and Xavi dictating proceedings, always being the reference point of the attack but the movement ahead of the ball at times was not there. Early on a lot of their passes went astray and they just did not look their precise, clockwork self. The energy of Boateng contributed to this as it was evident when he picked up his injury and subsequently came off the Catalans began to look their regular selves. Allegri brought on Ambrosini in place of Boateng played him on the left of the midfield trio and deployed Seedorf behind the strikers. This affected Milan’s initial strategy as Seedorf is not as energetic as the Ghanaian so therefore the home team was more comfortable in possession. In the 36th minute Messi finally was able to execute a penetrating run through Milan’s defense and set up Pedro for the equalizer. Abate could have done a much better job against the Argentine and Zambrotta left the goalscorer free in the area but the goal seemed inevitable at this period.

2nd Half

Barcelona continued where they left off in the 1st half with the momentum all with them. Guardiola shifted David Villa out to the left flank, Pedro to the right and Messi resumed in a central position as a lone forward. Villa was not having much success in the central position and Cesc Fabragas and Messi have struck up a great on field relationship when the former Arsenal man is played as the most advanced midfielder and the World Player of the Year is played as a false 9. This had the be Guardiola’s thinking when he made this adjustment. The Catalans had upped their tempo and they were more fluid with Messi as the lone centre forward. The space he created when he dropped deep was exploited by Cesc making forward runs and Villa and Pedro drifting inside.

The go ahead goal came from a right footed freekick from David Villa and finally the scoreline reflected the dominance of the home team. Milan with the scoreline not in their favour anymore had to now come out of their shell and chase the game. They did this by pressing Barcelona in their half trying their best win the ball high up the field and making it difficult for them to retain possession but they did this without much success. What they were able to do with much more success was not give Barcelona any clear chances to score and the back 4 did remarkably to keep them in the game.

Barcelona and Milan's shape in the second half. Note: Barca's wingers both dropped back in the defensive phase to transform the shape into a 4-1-4-1.

4-3-3/4-1-4-1 vs 4-4-1-1

Allegri made the first tactical substitution of the night when he took off Cassano and brought on Emmanuelson. With this substitution he switched Milan’s shape from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-1-1 giving  Zambrotta some help dealing with both Pedro and Dani Alves and giving the team some width in attack. Guardiola’s response to this was to take off Seydou Keita who had a wonderful game and bring on Carles Puyol to not only sure up the defense but to allow Busquets to play where he is most comfortable and influential in the holding midfield role. Barcelona were now playing a 4-3-3 when they attacked and a 4-1-4-1 when they defended. They now had an  overloaded the midfield 3v2 and with Busquets excellent ball retention skills combined with the talents of Xavi and Cesc made it difficult for the Rossoneri to get a foothold on proceedings. Milan chose to press both Barcelona centrebacks with Pato and Seedorf which meant that when Busquets got on ball he was either not closed down or if he was by one of the midfielders a space was created in the middle of the park.

Milan’s final throw of the dice was to bring on Alberto Aquilani for Van Bommel, typical attack minded player for a defensive minded one and Barcelona took off David Villa for a natural winger in Ibrahim Affelay. The Dutchman got the perfect opportunity near the end where he should have put the game to bed but he shot directly to Christian Abbiati and with 1 minute (or so) to go in stoppage time the champions were made to pay as Thiago Silva headed in the equalizer from a Clarence Seedorf corner kick.

Conclusion 

Barcelona would definitely feel hard done by for not getting all 3 points because of the way they dominated this game but one would be harsh to not think that Milan didn’t at least deserve a point given the way they defended. Fittingly, their equalizer was scored by a central defender.

The Catalans for the 2nd game running have drew 2-2 and though they won their first La Liga encounter 5-0 (vs. Villareal) they haven’t yet looked to hit top form but it’s early day still. The Cesc Fabregas/Lionel Messi relationship looks one that would bear a lot of fruit during the course of the season and with Andres Iniesta possibly facing a spell on the sidelines it would be given its chance to blossom.

The Rossoneri seems to have the sufficient strength in depth to go far in this year’s tournament and if they continue to defend similarly to how they did on Tuesday night they maybe serious title contenders

Note: All stats mentioned in this article were acquired from whoscored.com

Follow me on Twitter @jabari53

Manchester United 3 Tottenham 0: United party like it’s 2008

The starting line ups

With 9 days to go before the end of the transfer window Spurs travelled to Old Trafford, which is already an unhappy hunting ground for them, with the uncertainty of star player Luka Modric’s future dangling over them. Manchester United had their own worries after being dealt a double blow in the game against West Brom as the injury bug bit both starting centrebacks Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and questions were being asked about their young Spanish goal keeper David De Gea.

United’s dynamic attack

United started the better of the two teams putting Spurs under early pressure by moving the ball quickly and getting it into dangerous positions to create goal-scoring opportunities. They seemed determined to target Spurs young right-back Kyle Walker with majority of their attacks going down that flank in the first half. In the build up they would attempt to play an early ball to out to that flank in order for Ashley Young or Nani to try and get the better of the right-back in a 1v1 situation and whip in a cross. When the opportunity to capitalise from a quick build up wasn’t on the home team displayed the free flowing, interchanging of positions attack that Sir Alex Ferguson seems to have brought back from 2007/08. The wingers tucked in and played centrally or even doubled up on a single wing and the forwards took up deeper positions or played on the flank if it was left vacant by one of the wide men. One of the midfielders at times even joined in the rotation of positions. What this created was overloads either on the wings or in the midfield. Spurs played with 2 centre midfielders and United took advantage of this by making it a 3v2 situation in this area always. This overload would mostly consist of the one central midfielder who got forward, a striker who has dropped deep and winger tucked in. Quick passing in this area usually allowed them to find the spare man who then had the time and space to shoot from outside the area or raise his head to pick a pass with limited pressure on the ball. Observe Nani become the extra man in midfield and get a free uncontested shot off in the video below.

The 2 midfielders are preoccupied with Rooney (striker dropped deep), Cleverley (midfielder advancing forward) and Benoit Assou- Ekotto, who job it would have been to follow Nani inside, has his hands full with Welbeck who interchanged with the Portuguese winger. Also note that Cleverley ended up being one of the two furthest forward United players.

This free flowing attacking strategy worked well for the Red Devils (as it did in their previous 2 games) due to the universality of their attacking players. Rooney and Welbeck can both lead the line and play the support striker role or even on both flanks. Young and Nani also can play in either wide areas or behind the striker and can chip in with goals so won’t mind having to run on to a final ball. Both Cleverly and Anderson are very much comfortable having to play slightly higher up the park than their centre midfield positions with the former being no slouch on flanks. This versatility meant that each one of the attacking players could have found space in various parts of the attacking 1/3 and be comfortable to make a play when given the ball. Tottenham’s defense to an extent dealt well with United’s attack well with for the majority of the first half.  An audacious Young headed attempt and a Tom Cleverley shot from outside the 18 yard area.

Tottenham’s response

In the defensive phase Manchester United chose to press Spurs only when they crossed the half line in an attempt to force them to commit men forward and capitalise on the space left behind. Spurs used a slow, patient build up and waited for openings appeared to penetrate the home team’s defense. Their was some rotating of positions similar to United with Nico Krancjar advancing forward, Jermaine Defoe dropping to the midfield to receive possession and Rafael Van der Vaart floating all over the pitch to help with the build up, overload the wings and to get to the end of final balls. Bale also drifted inside from time to time to capitalise on space between the lines. However the reasons why United’s attacking play worked and theirs didn’t was their ball movement was too slow to give the defense any sort of problems, their fullbacks were more cautious (so they were undermanned in the attacking 1/3) and United’s attack had a much better understanding amongst themselves. Tottenham though did try to play some quick combinations and also tried to transition from defense to attack to catch their hosts on the counter attack. In terms of chances they were limited to shots from outside the 18 yard area and weak efforts that ended up straight to De Gea. United’s young centre-back pairing of Phil Jones and Jonny Evans did well to protect the young goalkeeper by cutting off attempts made to play in Jermaine Defoe. Jones, who made his first start for United also did an excellent job transitioning the defense to attack quickly with some wonderful runs (with the ball) out from the back after winning the ball back epitomising United’s tactics on the night, quick movement of the ball forward and overloads in attack.

The diagrams below shows United’s dominance in the 1st half.

The above diagrams shows the comparison of where Manchester United (top) and Tottenham (bottom) attempted clearances. Spurs attempted 9 clearances inside their penalty area while United attempted only 4.

This diagram shows which areas of the pitch Tottenham (top) and Manchester United (bottom) made passes from. United had the comparative advantage in the attacking 1/3. 24% of their passes where played in this area in comparison to Spurs' 16%.

United turn on the style

In the early stages of the half Manchester United attempted to resume their dominance but it was Spurs who would threatened in the early minutes on on the counter attack. Soon after the match turned into an all United affair. The home team’s fluidity got progressively better as Spurs began to become more careless in possession and more gaps started to appear in their defense. United capitalised on this and really turned on the style.

In the video below Manchester United’s fluidity in attack can be seen (observe the various positions and roles picked up by different players) as well as their quick transitions from defense to attack to create goal scoring opportunities.

Harry Redknapp eventually switch to a 4-4-2 by bringing on Roman Pluychenko for midfielder Kyle Livermore and dropping Van Der Vaart to the midfield but this was to no avail as Spurs were out of it both mentally and physically and never really look up to mounting a proper comeback.

The synopsis of the second half was United started too get success (score goals) with the football they were playing as Tottenham drifted more and more out of the match

Conclusion

This was an exemplary performance by Manchester United as they continue to display the type of football that they want to play this season, which is a completely 180 degree opposite of the boxy and predictable attack from the last two years (which Ferguson implemented for the team to deal with the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez).

Tottenham, on the other hand, who just weren’t ready for this game (after their first game was cancelled and their squad clearly unsettled due to the transfer window) would not be too bothered about the loss and would hope that they have a clear view of the way forward for their team as the transfer window draws to an end by time they play Manchester City on Sunday.

Follow me on Twitter @jabari53

Arsenal vs Udinese: 1-0 to the Gunners

First half lineups

The post Cesc Fabregas era officially began on Tuesday night at the Emirates as Arsenal came up against the entertaining Italian unit, Udinese. Together with the Catalan-born midfielder’s departure questions also loom over the future of Samir Nasri and he was left out of the matchday squad with according to the club’s website a muscular problem. Jack Wilshere also did not feature as he was out with an injured ankle. For the Italians they were playing their first competitive match without Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Christian Zapata all instrumental members of last season squad.

Before the game was settled into any particular pattern, Arsenal were already on top with a 4th minute tap in by Theo Walcott from a Aaron Ramsey right flank cross. The movement of the Arsenal players in the play leading up to the goal was a mere reflection of the fluidity that the Gunners would play with for the remainder of the half. Udinese seemed intent to sit back and play on the counter attack with the hope of nicking a goal through their talisman forward Antonio Di Natale.

Arsenal Rotating midfield

The Gunners midfield trio of Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song constantly rotated positions making it difficult to for the Udinese midfield to pick them up. In the build up their shape would usually be two of the midfielders holding and one advanced but as the move progressed into the attacking third this would switch to one holding, one advanced and the other in between the two.

Song (green) and Ramsey (yellow) in holding postions as the play builds up with Rosicky (blue) in an advanced position

In the attacking third Rosicky (blue) advances with the ball and Ramsey (yellow) drops off while Song (not in picture) sits deeper

The advanced midfielder would usually make a forward run looking for the final ball capitalizing on the space created by Marouane Chamakh who played a false 9 role (This can be seen in the video below of Walcott’s goal). This rotating midfield trio helped to exploit a flaw in the Udinese system. The Serie A unit played with one holding midfielder, Agyemang-Badu, and due to the fact that the Gunners did not have a player playing consistently between the lines when he was drawn to the movement of one of their midfielders he often left a lot of space in front of the defense and this was exploited by either another midfielder making a forward run or a winger coming in off the flank.

Udinese’s dodgy defending

Intent to sit deep and play on the counter Udinese were surprisingly open. Besides the brilliant off the ball movement from Arsenal, Udinese was not compact in the defensive phase the space between there lines was too large most of the times and also their spacing amongst eachother left a lot to be desired. Debutant Neuton struggled in the left back position as he was given insufficient help from Pablo Armero who never looked comfortable in the defensive phase. Most of the Gunners success in the first half came down this flank. Overall as a defensive unit they were poor their marking wasn’t up to scratch, neither was their closing down of their opponents neither or tracking of runners. Arsenal main strategy to capitalise on Udinese’s poor defending was to play in runners in behind their defensive line by attempting defense splitting through balls and at times passes over the top.

In the above picture the large space between the Udinese defensive line and midfield can be seen (blue circle). Holding midfielder Agyemang-Badu (purple) is drawn to the ball leaving no one in between the lines to protect the back four.

Going forward Udinese looked threatening as they moved the ball quickly out of their half  trying to catch Arsenal out.  Most of their attack consisted of trying to play in Antonio Di Natale who was giving Arsenal’s defenders a lot to think about with his movement. Such was his threat that he caused Arsenal to play a bit deeper usual. When Udinese won the ball off Arsenal they were also able to play in either Pablo Armero or Mauricio Isla who capitalised on the space left behind by Keiran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna who were going forward aggressively in the Gunners’ attempt to pin their opposition back. Most of their attacks were with the three aforementioned attacking players with Giampero Pinzi and/or Kwadwo Asamoah supporting at times.

Guidolin makes a much needed adjustment

As the first half drew to its final stages the Udinese coach, Francesco Guidolin, switch his 4-1-4-1 defensive shape to a more compact 4-2-3-1 dropping Asamoah to play alongside Agyemang-Badu in front of the defense. Pinzi remained as the lone advanced midfielder. This change allowed either of the two holding midfielders to closely mark one of the ‘rotating midfield trio’ which may come into that zone and not have to worry about leaving space in behind as the other would cover for him. This proved to be a masterstroke as the Italians were now less porous and this gave them a proper foundation to build upon as they attempted to get back into the match.

La Zebrette takes charge

Udinese's lineup for the second half.

After the break Udinese came out looking for the equaliser and began to press Arsenal higher up the pith and made it difficult for them pass the ball comfortably out of their half as they did in the 1st half. The momentum was now with the visitors as they spent most of the half in their host’s half. Their fullbacks picked up positions higher up the park, Asamoah left his deep position to support the attack (in the defensive phase he remained alongside Agyemang-Badu) and Armero, Pinzi and Isla all tried to link up with Di Natale in an attempt to break the Gunners’ defense down. They did play some impressive football. Armero, in particular, had a much better half partially because Udinese had the upper hand and he had less defending to do than in the 1st half.

Arsene Wenger’s men were forced into playing a lot of long balls out of the back by their and never seem to get a grip of their high pressing. They did though have opportunities to extend the lead as they utilised the pace they have on top to capitalise on large spaces being left by an Udinese team who were growing in confidence. The French tactician did make a tactical substitution during the course of the half and this was to take off Rosicky and bring on Emmanuel Frimpong. This substitution was obviously to add more steel to the midfield. Frimpong though did not come on to play a holding role together with Song in order for Arsenal to see out the tie with a 1 goal advantage but instead he joined in the ‘rotating midfield trio’ as they tried to win back the midfield with some physicality.

Conclusion

In the end Udinese were clearly the better team throughout the 2nd half but didn’t have a goal to show for it and would think they have seen enough of Arsenal to have a go at them in the return leg. The Gunners on the other hand would be disappointed that they didn’t score a next goal in order to take a comfortable 2-0 lead to the Stadio Fruili in a week’s time.

Tactically, the visitors were outwitted early on by the home team’s movement and intelligent overloads especially in between the lines but once Guidolin had adjusted his formation and get his team to be more compact Udinese was right back into the tie. It should be interested to see what sort of tactics would be implemented by both coaches but more so by Arsene Wenger giving that his side was clearly outplayed in the latter half of this leg.

Liverpool vs Sunderland: Kenny’s men fail to dominate

The starting lineups

The Kenny Daglish-era at Liverpool continued into the 2011/12 season with a plethora of new signings, new found hope of Champions League qualification and what seems to be a brighter future for the Anfield unit in comparison to 12 months ago. Their first fixture of the new season was a visit from Steve Bruce’s Sunderland who similarly has heightened expectations and seem to be aiming for a top 7 finish given the signings they made over the summer.

To the surprise of many, Raul Miereles and Dirk Kuyt were left out of the starting line up for Liverpool with debutants Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson starting instead.Charlie Adam also made his debut. Luis Suarez who had only returned to training 1 week prior week from his summer holidays which followed his successful Copa America campaign with Uruguay was another surprise starter. For Sunderland debuts were handed to new signings Wes Brown and Sebastien Larsson.

From the kickoff it was clear what the attacking strategies of both teams would be. Sunderland attempted to play the ball into Asomoah Gyan as quickly as possible for him to knock down or pass to support striker Stephen Sessegnon who would then tr to link up with link up with the Ghanaian with a quick 1-2 or get the ball to the flanks so that they could have gotten crosses in. Liverpool, surprisingly, were also a bit direct in their play but they were more purposeful in possession by keeping the ball (a bit) longer and linking up play better.

Liverpool attacking strategy

The Merseyside team started off the game by playing the ball down the channels for their forwards to run onto. Suarez and Carroll drifted out to the wide areas to combine with the wingers and full backs in an attempt to overload the wings or create openings for teammates. They also played the long ball out of the back with Andy Carroll being the main recipient whose job it was to knock the ball down to his strike partner or midfielders. Liverpool also attempted to get in behind the Sunderland backline by way of quick combination play and also counter attacks on the few occasions the opposition got forward in numbers.  Their passing was crisp, precise and full of intent in the first half and though they weren’t as fluid as they were at the back end of last season they were looking good enough for the first game of the season.

Suarez (yellow) drifting out to the wing taking his marker (green) with him and creating space (blue circle) for teammates to run into. If he is left alone this creates a 3v2 overload on the wing.

Synopsis of Sunderland’s first half 

In the defensive phase Sunderland sat back and tried to absorb Liverpool’s attack. They defended in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Sessegnon sometimes pushing up to assist Gyan in pressing the centrebacks. Liverpool’s central midfield pairing of Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam were allowed time on the ball as the Sunderland midfielders sat right in front of the back four. Steve Bruce’s attacking strategy went well for all of 4 minutes as Liverpool weren’t settled into their rhythm as yet and Sunderland attack was able to combine and win 2 corners in the space of 3 minutes. After this period their target man Asamoah Gyan was being crowded out by Jamie Carragher and co. and did not win a single aerial duo for the remainder of the 1st half neither was he allowed to get to passes played into him. Due to Sunderland’s non-committal of men in attack, lack of patience when in possession and the Ghanaian being upfront on his own Carragher and either Agger or a fullback were able to double up on him and make his task difficult. Liverpool’s defense thus made Sunderland’s main attacking outlet redundant and this enabled them to dominate proceedings for the remainder of the half.

Observe the large amount space between Charlie Adam (yellow) and Sunderland midfielders (green). This illustrates how deep Sunderland was defending

When Luis Suarez made amends for a missed penalty and put Liverpool in front they seemed to be on their way to an opening day victory but poor game management ensured that this did not happen. The thing about teams who play a direct style is that it is much harder to control a game when playing this way as the length of time one stays in possession is not that long to frustrate an opponent. Also Liverpool did not get the second goal which would have definitely killed off this game off so Sunderland was able to still play with some caution knowing that they only needed one goal to get back in the tie. At the end of the half  they did play higher up the park but rarely threatened Liverpool but they were allowed enough of the ball to feel like they were still in for a point at least.

2nd Half

Sunderland came out of the break with a lot more purpose and intent, they pressed higher up the field and the momentum of the game was now shifting. Liverpool started to become very careless in possession as they lacked the precision which they had in the 1st half. They even tried to capitalise on spaces left behind by a more advanced Sunderland but to no avail as inaccurate passes saw them struggle to get out of their half at times at the beginning of the 2nd period. During this period of dominance Sunderland equalised through a stunning volley by Sebastien Larsson. Liverpool were now jaded and Sunderland were the team playing with all the confidence.

King Kenny reacts

The Liverpool legend soon after made a change to his starting line up by bringing on Dirk Kuyt for Henderson who instantaneously linked up well with Suarez on the right flank and created a chance which was blocked and went out for a corner. In Liverpool’s case its a pity he didn’t start  because he and Suarez has great chemistry as was shown last season and he would have help their attack be a bit more fluid. Their time on the pitch together lasted a mere 15 minutes and didn’t bear much fruit as the Uruguayan was clearly not in top shape and looked exhausted for most of the 2nd half. His replacement was Raul Meireles, who has been probably Liverpool’s best player under Daglish, and the team was now lined up in 4-2-3-1 shape with Meireles, Downing, Kuyt play in the ‘3’ with the latter two interchanging the wide right and central roles with Kuyt sometimes supporting Carroll up top.

Liverpool's shape when looking for the winner late on.

Not much came out of Liverpool with their new shape as they still could not create any threatening chances and break down Sunderland’s resolute defense.

Conclusion

Liverpool, though they showed positive glimpses early on they were not convincing enough throughout and would need to play a style of football similar to that which they played at the back end of last season if they would like to achieve Champions League qualification. At the post match news conference Kenny Daglish did say that the team needed time to gel but one would hope that the fluid Liverpool of a few months ago has not been converted into a defensive unit who are just interested in grinding out results.

Sunderland were unsurprisingly cautious as they played away from home. They did well defensively and progressively got back into the game and got a well deserved draw.

Overall nothing really happened in the game tactically and a draw was a suitable result as both teams had their moment. This match was definitely not a clear indication of how both teams would play throughout the season as both teams have a lot of new players on their rosters and it will take time before they both get their identities.