Tactics recap: Manchester United 1-1 Shakhtar Donetsk

Manchester United picked up an away point in a 1-1 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk. It was a game in which both sides largely cancelled each other out.

Wayne Rooney missed out with an injury he’d picked up the day before in training. Without his favored withdrawn forward to play in the hole behind Robin Van Persie, David Moyes opted for more of a 4-3-3 shape than United’s usual 4-2-3-1 (or 4-4-1-1 if you prefer). Michael Carrick played the holding role while Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini played the box-to-box shuttling roles to his left and right respectively.  Antonio Valencia was wide on the right, Danny Welbeck on the left of midfield.

Shakhtar lined up in a 4-2-3-1 so the midfield battle was 3 v. 3 and everyone had an obvious direct opponent. Cleverley and Fellaini picked up Shakhtar’s holding midfielders Fernando and Tomas Hubschman and Carrick picked up Shakhtar’s #10 Alex Teixeira. Both midfields were rather rigid and predictable in their movement and neither side was really able to dominate the midfield zone. Just 22% of Shakhtar’s attacks came through the middle third of the pitch (that is, if the pitch were cut lengthwise into thirds) and only 27% of United’s attacks came from the middle. Instead, both sides tended to build their attacks out wide with fullbacks overlapping the outside midfielders. 

Graphic via whoscored.com

Both sides scored slightly fortunate and remarkably similar goals. Welbeck opened the scoring after Fellaini received a pass on the right edge of the penalty box near the end line with his back to goal. He was able to spin off Hubschman and play a low ball across the six yard box. Center back Yaroslav Rakitskiy wasn’t able to get a clean clearance on the cross and Welbeck pounced to tuck it in from close range.

United didn’t go in search of a second after taking the lead. Instead they sat in a little deeper in their 4-1-4-1 defensive shape and looked to soak up pressure. Despite a few spells of sustained pressure from the home side, United kept their shape well and never looked terribly stretched at the back. However, they also didn’t look like creating their own opportunities on the break. The 4-1-4-1 shape meant United didn’t have anyone playing off of Van Persie to provide an outlet to spring a counter. Typically United would defend with a 4-4-1-1. Rooney would provide defensive pressure on the deepest midfielder then break into space to provide an outlet pass to quickly link play forward with Van Persie. Without him, Van Persie was isolated up front. 

Shakhtar left midfielder Taison snatched an equalizer in the 76th when Nemanja Vidic couldn’t react quickly enough to a low ball driven across the six yard box. It bounced off the defender’s legs and into the path of Taison to put away.
In the end you could maybe argue United were made to pay for their lack of attacking endeavor after they’d gone ahead but the away draw against a solid Shakhtar side at an imposing venue is hardly a terrible result. 

Serbia must face international ban

Shortly after the melee that ensued after the final whistle of England's 1-0 European Championship win over Serbia, video surfaced on YouTube of Serbian supporters audibly directing monkey chants towards England's Danny Rose (below). Rose, understandably, reacted angrily to the racist chants and kicked a ball into the crowd, an action that would earn him a second yellow. He has since said that the racist chanting had gone on all game and that he was twice hit by stones thrown from the Krusevac crowd, claims captain Jordan Henderson has since confirmed.

The behavior from the Serbian supporters was disgraceful but hardly surprising for a nation with a well documented history of racially motivated taunts and violent behavior at football matches. In 2003 Serbian ultras directed racial abuse at black Wales players. In 2007 black England U-21 international Nedum Onuoha was the victim of racist chanting. In a Euro 2012 qualifier in Genoa last year, the referee was forced to abandon the game after Serbian ultras clashed with police and threw flares on the field. All of these incidents were met with farcically weak punishments from UEFA. At best the Serbian FA has shown an inability to deal with racism and crowd violence. At worst, they've shown an unwillingness to do so. Their behavior in the aftermath of yesterday's incident suggests the latter.

Despite the clear video evidence proving the contrary, the Serbian FA released a statement saying there were no instances of racism throughout the match and that in fact Rose was to blame for the fracas that broke out after the final whistle.

The Serbian FA statement said,
"FA of Serbia absolutely refuses and denies that there were any occurrences of racism before and during the match at the stadium in Kruševac. Making connection between the seen incident - a fight between members of the two teams - and racism has absolutely no ground and we consider it to be a total malevolence."

With regards to Rose the statement said,
"Unfortunately, after the fourth minute of the additional time and the victory goal scored by the guest team, unpleasant scenes were seen at the pitch. And while most of the English team players celebrated the score, their player number 3, Danny Rose, behaved in inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar manner towards the supporters on the stands at the stadium in Kruševac, and for that he was shown a red card. Unfortunately, it would turn out that was the moment the incident, that later developed, had started."
This official statement from the Serbian FA casts at least as big a shadow on Serbian football as the behavior of its fans in Krusevac. Rose was guilty of nothing more than representing his country as a black person. For the Serbian FA to deny the claims of racial abuse when evidence proves it happened and to somehow blame the victim of that abuse for the violent scenes is disgraceful. It shows they have no interest in cleaning up their act and that their FA is in fact complicit in the unsavory fan behavior. By denying there was any racism shown Tuesday evening, their FA is effectively saying to Serbian fans, "do what you please, we'll deny any claims against you rather than try to stop your behavior."

UEFA has to ban Serbia from all international competition for an extended period of time. The safety of black players should be the main focus of UEFA when they look into this incident. How can UEFA conscionably send a black footballer to play in an environment that clearly isn't a safe one for him? As long as Serbia continues to create an intimidating environment inside their stadiums, and continues to make no effort to change, they don't deserve the right to play in any international tournaments at any level.

UEFA president Michel Platini warned Serbia in February of last year that if they didn't control their fans they'd face expulsion from future club and international tournaments. Serbia has clearly failed on that front. If Platini fails to follow through on his warning, FIFA and UEFA will lose the tiny amount of credibility they have left.

While condemnation of the Serbian supporters' behavior has been nearly universal, a few folks in the British media were displeased with Rose's reaction to the racial abuse. Former professional footballer Paul Parker, himself a victim of racial abuse during his playing days in England, suggested Rose should have kept his dignity, walked down the tunnel and "saved his complaint for the official channels." But what have the official channels, ie UEFA, done to combat the problem of racism? On more than one occasion the behavior of certain Serbian fans has disgraced the sport yet UEFA continues to give them slaps on the wrist as punishment in the form of trivial fines and one match stadium bans. If black players continue to simply walk down the tunnel when they've been racially abused as though nothing has happened, as Parker suggests, the official channels will be all too happy to sweep the incidents under the rug and move on as though nothing did in fact happen. Roses's reaction raised the profile of this event around the world. People are demanding UEFA, for once, react strongly to the disreputable and dangerous behavior of Serbian fans. Contrary to what Parker suggests, Rose acted with an incredible amount of dignity- he stood up to intolerant, unacceptable behavior despite the threat of violence from Serbian players and fans. It's time for UEFA to do the same.

The modern football sweeper

"The fishing fleet lies dark against the sun-washed sea. Along the Tyrrhenian waterfront, a stressed football manager, unable to sleep, takes an early-morning walk. Oblivious to the shrieking of the gulls and the haggling of the dockside mongers, he strides on, asking himself again and again how he can get the best out of his side, ponders how he can strengthen a defence that, for all his best efforts, remains damagingly porous. As he paces the harbour, churning the problem over and over in his head, a boat catches his eye. The fishermen haul in one net, swollen with fish, and then behind it, another: the reserve net. This is his eureka moment. Some fish inevitably slip the first net, but they are caught by the second; he realises that what his side needs is a reserve defender operating behind the main defense to catch those forwards who slip through. That manager was Gipo Viani, his team was Salernitana, and his invention was catenaccio."
-Excerpt from Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics on the development of catenaccio, the system made famous by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan in the 1960s. The system employed a libero, or sweeper, who sat in behind a line of man marking defenders to provide cover and focused on counter attacking with long balls out of the back. In Herrera's version, the libero played behind four man marking defenders (in other versions the libero sat behind three defenders), creating a five man defense in a 5-3-2 formation. Inter would win three Italian league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups under Herrera.

Herrera's version of catenaccio ultimately fell out of favor after Inter were beaten 2-0 by Ajax in the final of the 1972 European Cup. Inter's rigid four man markers were drug all over the field by the fluid movement of Ajax's total football and, subsequently, zonal defending became the norm in professional football.

While man marking is a thing of the past and no top level teams use a traditional libero, certain teams have employed systems that, if not directly influenced by catenaccio, have stemmed from the need to address the same concerns catenaccio was attempting to address: particularly the need to have a free man at the back to provide cover. Juventus's current 3-5-2 system is quite similar to Hererra's 1-4-3-2 catennacio. Both used three central defenders. Although Juventus's three central defenders are more fluid and there is no designated libero to sit deep, the idea is to allow two to pick up attackers moving into their zone while one can drop slightly deeper and provide cover, the same philosophy behind Herrera's system (although Herrera's two center backs marked men rather than zones). Three central defenders allow Juventus's full backs to push higher up the field into attacking positions when in possession, operating as what we call wing backs. Again, this is something Hererra was doing in the 1960s. With ample cover in the center of defense, he would allow left back Giacinto Facchetti license to push on and join in the attack.

Michael Cox has written in his Zonal Marking blog of teams using a more modern version of a sweeper whose positioning is different to that of the traditional deep lying sweeper. He suggests the modern version of a sweeper is a defensive center midfielder that plays in front of a four man defense with attacking outside backs. When his team is in possession, this holding midfielder drops into the center of defense while the two center backs move wide on either side of him, forming a back three. This gives the two outside backs the freedom to push into the attacking third without leaving only two center backs to defend any counters that may spring. Barcelona have used this system to great effect with Sergio Busquets dropping between center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, allowing Dani Alves and Erica Abidal (now Jordi Alba) to get into very attacking positions. I highly recommend this article from Cox if you want a more detailed explanation on the use of this more modern sweeper system. Jonathan Wilson also wrote a fascinating piece on this subject for the Guardian back in 2010 that you can see here. 

Although both Barcelona and Juventus's systems represent modern day versions of sweeper systems, they're quite different in style and philosophy. The defense in Juventus's 3-5-2 sits deeps, invites the opposition to get forward, then looks to spring quick counters. Barcelona's defense makes the field compact by holding a very high line while the 6 attacking players press the ball. Their attack is focused on ball retention and dominating possession. Both employ three at the back with fullbacks providing width high up the field when in possession, but they differ in where on the field they like to do their defending and the importance placed on keeping the ball. These two teams offer a stark example of how systems fairly similar in defensive shape can be quite different in practice.

Links, 9/27/12 Edition

  • Michael Cox: Why the hate for zonal marking?
    •  "The chief criticism of defending zonally is that no one takes responsibility, an argument that misses the point entirely. Ex-coaches who persist with this line of debate are actually adopting quite a cowardly approach -- "No one takes responsibility" is a synonym for "There's no player I can blame." Ironically, it also demonstrates that they're unwilling to take responsibility themselves."
  • Chris Rowland: Football and Finance, Liverpool and the top six
    • " I hope I have been able to show a number of things. First, a realisation of just how catastrophically wrong things went in the years ’09/10 – ’10/11. Liverpool had turned into a club who changed managers on a yearly basis, wasted vast sums on a phantom stadium which couldn’t possibly be financed, had begun the trend of decreased transfer spending and swapped it for vast ineffective wage inflation, relying on player sales to break even."
  • Jonathan Wilson: The question: How troubling is Liverpool's start
    • Already there has been a marked improvement in pass completion, up from 80.9% to 86%, and from 73.24% to 78.9% in the opposition half. To put that into context, last year's figures were the best for Liverpool over a full season since Opta began collating data in 2006-07.The problem is all too familiar. Last season Liverpool converted only 9.13% of their chances, the lowest figure since Opta began producing its reports. It had been 13.59% the previous season but then Liverpool managed just 11.4 shots per game. When Liverpool finished second in 2008-09, they had 15.1 shots per game and converted 13.46% of their chances. But if 9.13% looked bad, this season's figure is far worse: a meagre 5.97%.