WFI Tactics podcast w/ segment on Arsenal's approach this season and why Spurs employed 3-5-2 in derby

The excellent Stevie Grieve explains the difference between tactics (a more overarching philosophy that dictates how sides approach football regardless of opponent) and strategy (how within your tactical set up you plan on exploiting the weaknesses of a given opponent) on a recent World Football Index Tactics podcast. Most interestingly he discusses the tactics we've seen employed by each of the top 5 sides this season and how their strategies have changed based on game-specific circumstances.

He talks in depth in the first 12 or so minutes about how Ozil's role has changed with Alexis playing as our number 9 as opposed to Giroud. As we've discussed here at Soccermetrica, Grives points out that Sanchez drops into deeper positions and floats into the channels which encourages Ozil to make those runs in behind the defense in the space vacated by Alexis. Alternatively, when Giroud plays up front he stays central and higher up the pitch which encourages Ozil to move into deeper positions to get on the ball and create. It's no surprise then that we see Ozil with more goals and fewer assists than he had at the same point last season. Importantly, both strategies can be effective and allow Arsenal to be flexible in how they approach individual games based on the opposition and changing scenarios over the course of a match.

Around 18 minutes Grieve puts forth his thoughts on why Spurs went with a 3-5-2 against us (it allowed Son and Kane to press our two center backs, the wing backs to press our full backs and still left them with 3 v. 3 in midfield). It's a fascinating podcast and I highly recommend all of the WFI Tactics pods. Grieve delves deeper into game analysis than you'll get from just about any other source and does so in a way that's easy to follow and understand.

Thoughts from Italy 2-0 Belgium

Emanuele Giaccherini scored the game winner for Italy in the 32nd minute from an inch perfect diagonal ball over the top from Leanardo Bonucci. Graziano Pelle sealed the win for Italy in the 93rd with a thumping volley from a cross from the excellent Antonio Candreva.

Italy and Belgium found themselves in historically unfamiliar positions going into this match. Belgium's highest ever finish at a European Championship was third in 1972 when they were the host nation and only four teams made the finals. Italy on the other hand have won four World Cups, a European Championship and have been Euro runners up twice, including in 2012.

However, Belgium are currently second in the FIFA World Rankings, boasting a wealth of big name players throughout the squad. By contrast, this Italian side has been considered by many to be the weakest they've brought to a major tournament in some time with expectations low.

Despite being the top ranked side in the tournament, there were still large doubts about whether Belgium could be included in the group of tournament favorites. Some of those doubts centered around the relative inexperience in big games among the squad but an even bigger question was whether they could develop more cohesion and tactical nous under manager Marc Wilmots than they showed in the World Cup in Brazil where they often looked disjointed and less than the some of their very talented parts. The answer to that question today was an emphatic no. You'll struggle to find a clearer example than this match of tactics and a superior manager winning out against more talented opposition.

Facing the most gifted manager in the tournament in Antonio Conte, Wilmots' side looked desperately unprepared against Italy's 3-5-2. At halftime, with Belgium down a goal after being thoroughly outplayed, it was shockingly written in a Telegraph live feed that journalist Raphael Honigstein had mentioned that a Belgian colleague had told him Belgium had trained once during the week against a 3-5-2 and the first team were beaten 4-0.  Belgium looked utterly helpless at how to approach a system they rarely come up against. 

Both wide attacking midfielders Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne stayed high up the pitch when Italy were in possession which left the two holding center midfielders- Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan- to defend nearly the entire width of the pitch in midfield. Italy's wing backs, Candreva on the right and Matteo Darmian on the left, took up extremely wide positions on the touchlines. With Belgium defending as a fairly narrow midfield two, the Italian wing backs continually found the space to collect diagonal balls into the channels. This forced Jan Vertonghen and Laurent Ciman to close down the ball in wide areas from their fullback positions, leaving a large gap between themselves and their center backs. Italy's two midfield shuttlers Marco Parolo and Giaccherini, and the second striker Eder, were able to run into that gap and overload the Belgium fullbacks. With 2 v. 1's in the channels, Italy were comfortably able to get to the endline and provide cut backs and crosses into the penalty area.

Defending with only a midfield two also created defensive problems for Belgium in the middle of the pitch. With Fellaini, Hazard and De Bruyne all staying high up the pitch when Italy were in possession, Nainggolan and Witsel had to cover a tremendous amount of ground. Not only were they responsible for defending Italy's center midfield three, they also had to worry about quickly shifting into the channels to help their fullbacks when Italy got the ball in wide areas. As a result, the two split some 10-15 yards apart from one another in positions somewhere in between the middle of the pitch and the touch line, leaving a huge gap between them. Italy were easily able to play forward passes between that gap into Pelle dropping off from the center backs. Higher up the pitch Fellaini, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku didn't press the Italian center backs or Danielle De Rossi in his holding midfield role so they were able to comfortably pick their heads up and find a forward pass.

The screen shot below shows an example of Belgium's bizarre defensive shape. Andrea Barzagli is able to easily collect possession from Bonucci. De Bruyne and Hazard are neither trying to close down the ball nor drop in to midfield to give Belgium a midfield bank of four. Nainggolan and Witsel split to either side of the center circle so they can shift wide if the ball goes into the channels, leaving a large gap in the center of the pitch. In the left of the shot you can see Pelle dropping off from the center backs to exploit the space where he can receive a penetrating pass. Belgium's defensive shape was basically a 4-2-4 which is something you might see out of teams that like to press hard high up the pitch. However, the front four did almost no pressing in the first half and Italy were easily able to play through a surprisingly disjointed defense.

Wilmots' did improve in the second half as the front four worked harder to get tight to the ball higher up the pitch, forcing Italy into more hopeful long balls forward and some sloppy giveaways. It's a mystery why Wilmots didn't take this approach earlier in the match given the age and athleticism of his side relative to Italy. Of Italy's three center backs and three center midfielders, only the 29 year old Bonucci is younger than 30.

Belgium Assessment:

The Red Devils were disorganized and uninspired in the opening 45 minutes raising questions about whether Wilmots is suited to getting the most out of a squad bursting with talent. Both Lukaku and his second half replacement Divac Origi were massively disappointing. Lukaku couldn't seem to bring the ball under control and gave away possession time and again. Origi missed two straightforward opportunities from inch perfect crosses from De Bruyne. The Manchester City wide man was too quiet himself for long stretches of the match as was Hazard on the opposite side of the pitch. Belgium should be more comfortable in their remaining matches against Ireland and Sweden, sides that will play formations that will cause the Belgians less confusion. However, if they aren't better organized and more committed from the opening whistle they'll be no guarantee they get points from those fixtures.

Italy Assessment:

The Italians were unsurprisingly organized- the Juventus quartet of Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci at the back is the best defense in the tournament. They used the space the wingbacks were afforded on the channels well. Candreva was particularly excellent down the right. Parolo and Giacherrini offered enough energy and endeavor in their shuttling roles and although Pelle was guilty of squandering a couple of first half chances to make the score 2-0, he ultimately finished off the chance that put the result beyond doubt. Despite this excellent, professional performance, Belgium were an ideal opponent for this Italian side. They tried to take the game to Italy, leaving space for Conte's side to exploit on the counter. Belgium also used a relatively high line and didn't put much pressure on the ball, which ultimately led to Italy's opener when Bonucci was able to pick out Giaccherini in behind the defense with a long diagonal. Italy and Sweden will not look to have as much of the ball as Belgium. They'll drop deeper and force Italy into unlocking them with more creative buildup play. With few creative options in the squad, Italy could struggle to create chances. However, with the win today they're virtually guaranteed a place in the last 16 with just one more point. They're a better team than both Ireland and Sweden, coached by the best manager in the tournament so I expect them to win this group.

Rodgers starts in 4-2-3-1 then makes changes

4-2-3-1 has been the popular formation in the Premier League the last few seasons but one that Brendan Rodgers did not use during his side's surprising second place finish last season. Rodgers has stated he prefers 4-3-3 with a single holding midfielder and two runners over 4-2-3-1 because it allows for more vertical passing options. He's stated that in 4-2-3-1 the two holding midfielders can often end up playing too many harmless side to side passes to one another. You can hear Rodgers explain in the video below.

One of the big pluses with 4-2-3-1 of course is that two deep lying holders provide better cover for the back four than one. When Liverpool played 4-3-3 or a diamond 4-4-2 last season, Steven Gerrard operated as the lone holder. Gerrard is a fantastic player but isn't always positionally disciplined and at 34 isn't as mobile as he once was. As a result, Liverpool's defense was often left too exposed. They scored a remarkable 101 goals but conceded 50, 13 more than the Manchester City side that would beat them to the title and 23 more than Chelsea. Their capitulation at Selhurst Park after going 3-0 up in the penultimate game of the season, a game that would end 3-3 and all but give City the title, summed up Liverpool's biggest problem in an otherwise great season- they were incredibly fluid and could score with ease but struggled to change their approach and tighten things up when circumstances dictated they should do so.

Perhaps as a result of his side's openness last season, Rodgers opted for a 4-2-3-1 today with Lucas and Gerrard holding in front of the back four. Liverpool were certainly more solid and compact defensively. They did not get as stretched on the counter and Southampton didn't create much the opening 45 minutes. However, they also offered far less penetrative passing than we saw last season. When Liverpool play 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1 if you prefer) and Gerrard gets the ball in deep areas he generally has 4 midfielders in front of him to play forward passes into- the two shuttling center midfielders, Coutinho and Allan likely candidates, and the two wide midfielders (Figure 2). As a result Liverpool play more vertically, get forward more quickly and have more players in the attacking third. In the 4-2-3-1, Lucas sits alongside Gerrard, leaving him with only 3 midfielders higher up the pitch to play forward passes into- the #10 (Coutinho today) and the two wide midfielders (Sterling and Henderson today). When the opposition defends in banks of four as Southampton did today, having three attacking midfielders in advance of Gerrard rather than the four we see in a 4-3-3 makes it easier to defend- Southampton's midfield bank of 4 has a 4 v. 3 advantage in the midfield zone (Figure 1). As a result, Liverpool played a lot of sideways passes between the holding midfielders and center backs and struggled to funnel the ball into the attacking third at pace.

Figure 1:  Three advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in 4-2-3-1 formation. Opposition has 2 v. 1 advantage on Coutinho in Liverpool's attacking midfield zone.

Figure 1: Three advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in 4-2-3-1 formation. Opposition has 2 v. 1 advantage on Coutinho in Liverpool's attacking midfield zone.

Figure 2:  Four advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in a 4-3-3 formation. Attacking midfield zone is now 2 v. 2. Wanyama and Schneiderlin each have a direct opponent.

Figure 2: Four advanced midfielders for Gerrard to pass to with Liverpool in a 4-3-3 formation. Attacking midfield zone is now 2 v. 2. Wanyama and Schneiderlin each have a direct opponent.

After Southampton equalized, Rodgers switched to his more attacking 4-3-3 shape replacing Lucas with Joe Allen. Although the shape gives Liverpool more attacking thrust, immediately we saw some of the same defensive problems Liverpool were faced with when they played that formation last season. Gerrard was left to shield the back four on his own and almost immediately Liverpool conceded possession with Gerrard out of position towards the left wing. With no one patrolling the center of the park for Liverpool, James Ward-Prowse got the ball in acres of space in the middle of the pitch and was able to drive uncontested at the Liverpool center backs. The 19 year old Southampton midfielder made the wrong choice in trying to shoot from 25 yards out with better passing options on either side of him but a more experienced side will punish Rodgers' side for allowing themselves to become that open.

Rodgers then replaced Coutinho with Rickie Lambert and moved to 4-4-2. With Allen higher up the pitch than Gerrard Liverpool were even more open and Southampton continued to threaten. Liverpool got the winner however, more as a result of some good fortune and hesitant Southampton defending then Rodgers' tactical changes. Lambert appeared to handle the ball on the sideline in the build up to Liverpool's goal then Southampton failed to deal with the second ball after Clyne initially headed clear a Henderson cross. Sterling nodded Clyne's header towards an unmarked Sturridge at the back post for a tap in.

Incredibly, with his side continuing to look stretched defensively in midfield, Rodgers elected not to use his third sub to bring on a third central midfielder for Sturridge or Sterling. Emre Can seemed like the obvious choice. Instead Sterling, Sturridge and Lambert all stayed high up the pitch and Liverpool defended with a midfield three of Gerrard, Allen and Henderson. Southampton continued to be dangerous and Liverpool were fortunate to escape with the three points. Morgan Schneiderlin rattled the crossbar for Southampton and Shane Long missed an open net with a follow up header.

Rodgers is an excellent manager, adept at changing systems while still getting his sides to play fluid, coherent football. However, his decisions today seemed strange. At home against a side gutted by players departing on summer transfers, you'd have thought he'd be a bit more adventurous with his team selection and gone with a 4-3-3 from the outset. Yet when the circumstances of the match dictated he should make cautious changes, he did not.

Ghana's draw a surprise but Black Stars match up well against Germany

Ghana picked up a vital 2-2 draw with an impressive display against Germany in what was a wildly open second half. The surprising result was the latest in what has been an unpredictable World Cup. After Ghana's opening match defeat to the USA, it looked like they'd be heading out early against the group favorite. But while the result was a bit of a surprise, the Ghanaians actually match up quite well against Germany.

Ghana is a side that prefers drawing the opposition out then using their gifted and pacey midfielders to break quickly on the counter attack. Against the USA, the Americans sat extremely deep after their early goal and forced Ghana to break down their compact defense. Ghana never had the space to run in behind and play on the counter. The US had just 36% possession and while that looks like a good thing on paper for Ghana, it meant the US never moved enough players into advanced attacking areas to allow themselves to become exposed at the back. Ghana had to be patient in possession rather than playing their preferred direct, vertical game.

Germany on the hand were a very different opposition. They prefer to control the game, maintaining possession high up the pitch. This meant Ghana could get into an organized defensive shape (which they did only in the opening half), wait to win back possession and then break quickly behind the German midfield 3 of Lahm, Kroos and Khedira and the fullbacks Boateng and Howedes. Germany left themselves incredibly open and were made to pay with Ghana's pace on the break. Ghana had just 37% possession but were a much more threatening side than they'd been against the US. They were guilty of leaving themselves far too exposed in the final 10 minutes as fatigue crept in, and were rescue by poor German finishing and a heroic Kwadwo Assamoah tackle on Muller, but in attack this was Ghana at their pacey, direct best.