Spurs sacrifice shape in pursuit of fluidity

Back in early January I wrote an article on Tottenham discussing the change in their approach this season from last (https://nasher3230.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/wingers-take-central-role-in-tottenhams-title-challenge/). To summarise it seemed clear that Tottenham’s wingers, usually Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, were given license to roam across the pitch to help Rafael Van der Vaart support the lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor. However, since writing the article, Spurs have taken this strategy to the extreme and now look completely devoid of width, and in the North London Derby with Arsenal at the Emirates they turned a 2-goal lead into an embarrassing defeat through a lack of shape and positional discipline.

In the first half of the season the plan was extremely effective as opposing defences were faced with the duel threat of Tottenham’s wingers either attacking down the flanks and crossing or cutting inside to shoot. Both Bale and Lennon seemed to grow as players and provided more assists and goals. However, to emphasise the point, this was a case of specialist wingers given the freedom to occasionally move infield or switch flank.

Gareth Bale in particular has now seemingly adopted a central position that has ruined Tottenham’s shape and also nullifies many of Bale’s biggest attributes. Playing centrally neither Bale nor Lennon gets to use their pace as much as playing out wide (save for running on to the occasional through-ball such as the one Bale received from Luka Modric that earned Tottenham’s penalty against Arsenal). Both Bale and Lennon are also decent crossers of the ball but it is telling that Tottenham have not scored a headed goal in the league since September, despite having Adebayor to aim for in the box. Finally, when opposing teams crowd the central areas Bale and Lennon lack the ball skills to keep possession like Modric and Van der Vaart.

The worrying thing for Tottenham fans may be Bale’s attitude. Since becoming one of the team’s stars he increasingly seems intent on taking centre-stage, even at the expense of the team’s shape. Whether Harry Redknapp is encouraging this or whether this is simply a result of the winger’s ego is not certain.

To solely blame Bale for the Emirates debacle is unfair, and tactically Tottenham were awful. As already mentioned Bale won the penalty in the first half running between Arsenal’s centre-backs, despite starting wide on the left. This seemed to make his mind up and it is difficult to remember him running at Arsenal’s right-back Bacary Sagna again in the match. After half-time he drifted all over the pitch, at times dropping deep to collect the ball from the defence, but spent the majority of his time attacking the inside-right channel and running into Arsenal’s midfield. If Arsenal were concerned with how to neutralise Bale they needn’t have worried – Bale neutralised himself with his positioning.

Elsewhere, Tottenham’s midfield lacked any sort of balance. In the first half, Modric and Scott Parker sat very deep to watch Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, with Louis Saha dropping onto Alex Song. This largely removed Saha as an attacking threat, despite his opening goal. Modric and Parker’s positioning gave Arsenal lots of possession which allowed them to go in at half-time level.

At half-time Redknapp rejigged the midfield, bringing on Sandro and Rafael Van der Vaart. His wholesale changes were a surprise – Arsenal lined up exactly as they have done for the last few years, yet Redknapp was happy to completely scrap a pre-planned strategy that had initially put them 2 goals ahead. Sandro was supposed to provide extra midfield protection with Parker, and Van der Vaart was deployed wide right. Unsurprisingly Van der Vaart provided no width down the right, and with Bale attacking through the middle Tottenham became extremely narrow. Sandro and Parker both lacked the discipline as defensive midfielders, often leaving Modric as the deepest Tottenham midfielder by charging forward themselves, and Arsenal ran riot.

Ironically losing shape is usually Arsenal’s biggest fault. Theo Walcott is often criticised for not playing his wide-forward role effectively, and Alex Song is prone to charging forward from his holding midfield position leaving the defence horribly exposed. Arsene Wenger trusts his players to make the right decisions and refrains from giving them individual instructions, often to Arsenal’s detriment, but Redknapp will want to rethink his strategy and convey that to his team quickly.

In the last few weeks the individual qualities of Tottenham’s attacking players have often masked some disjointed team performances, although the tepid draw against League 1 Stevenage in the FA Cup demonstrated that they wouldn’t get away with it forever. If Harry Redknapp is looking to distance himself from the England job, then he is going the right way about it.

Is India’s Premier League Soccer the future?

2012 will see the inaugural Premier League Soccer competition take place in India. It follows in the footsteps of the hugely successful Indian Premier League cricket competition which began in 2008 and has now run for four seasons. In that time it has become the world’s leading club cricket competition and attracted the best players from around the world. The league has proved lucrative for both players and team owners by taking advantage of cricket’s biggest market.

The PLS will largely copy the IPL’s format. Six teams will be auctioned off as franchises to various companies and corporations keen to profit from its expected commercial success. The competition will be a standard league, including home and away ties, concluding in the top four teams going into a semi-final and final to determine the champion. All 33 games will be played over seven weeks. Each team will have an international coach and a limited number of foreign players. It is hoped that, aside from being profitable, the competition will help the development of Indian football.

However it is clear that Premier League Soccer will not have the same impact as the Indian Premier League for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the PLS will not have the financial appeal to attract the world’s best players when similar financial packages can be offered in other major leagues. Similarly, players are unlikely to get permission to play a two month competition in India when clubs are already at odds with International sides over an overly-congested calendar.

Secondly, football is not nearly as popular in India as cricket, which is less a sport and more a religion, and so the competition lacks the marketing potential in its host country. The IPL is almost totally reliant upon Indian broadcasting revenue and a football competition would not command the same investment. The competition would also have to compete against the English Premier League which is already regularly shown on Indian television.

Thirdly, football has been a global game for many years, with multi-national teams dominating the top European leagues. The concept of taking the best players from different countries would lack the novelty factor. Also, while cricket is a team game, it is a sport largely constructed of set plays with individuals and lacks the required interplay and teamwork of football. While it is possible to assemble a group of international cricketers into a cohesive team in a short period of time, such a task would be near impossible in football.

Finally, the foreign players would be far superior to the local players in each team. The IPL has a limit on four foreign players which aims to help the development of Indian cricket, but the ability of the local players does not detract from the quality. Indeed, the top Indian cricketers (including MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar) are the teams’ most popular players and are a major reason for the league’s commercial success. This would not be the case in football, with India lacking any football heritage or star names.

Despite this, there are reasons to think that Premier League Soccer could form the template for smaller football nations in years to come. The league does not need to reach the revenue of the IPL to be considered a success, and with players such as Fabio Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo and Fernando Morientes it is sure to have some local appeal. On an international scale, the format of the competition should still create a small following based on curiosity if nothing else.

The standard of the players should also have a positive effect on Indian football. With no flagship league, a novelty competition will at the very least increase local interest in the sport and inspire more people to play football. Equally the Indian players involved can only benefit from playing alongside experienced internationals and under respected coaches (and John Barnes).

But mainly it is the format of the competition that could become popular. Rather than attempting to create a traditional league season over 8 or 9 months, a short-term competition appeals to both the participants and the fans. Foreign players only have to commit to living and working in India for a short period of time, and so are more likely to sign up than if it had been a longer competition. Also, with overseas players likely to be in the twilight of their career, a reduced number of games would not ask too much of their fitness levels. A regular programme of two games a week for each team helps maintain interest and with the top four teams competing in an end-of-season play-off, the majority of games can be deemed important.

As football continues to look for new markets and further expand its global appeal, it is not unthinkable for similar competitions to spring up in other parts of Asia and Africa. Rather than attempting to compete with the European leagues it would be a way to grant a level of exposure to smaller footballing nations and players looking for a route into the big leagues. For a few weeks of a year at least, the footballing world’s attention may soon be on India, Thailand or Ghana as much as England, Spain and Italy.

Dark days behind them at the Stadium of Light

Sunderland’s decision to sack manager Steve Bruce and appoint Martin O’Neill has dramatically changed their season. When O’Neill took charge of his first game against Blackburn on 11th December Sunderland found themselves in 17th position in the league with 11 points from 14 games. Following Saturday’s victory over Swansea the club sits in 10th place with 27 points, having accumulated 16 points from just 8 games under their new manager.

Under Bruce, Sunderland averaged just 0.79 points per game, scoring 1.14 and conceding 1.21 goals per game in the process. Under O’Neill the team has seen a huge improvement to an average of 2 points per game, scoring more (1.63) and conceding fewer (0.88). This record is all the more impressive given that O’Neill’s brief tenure has included away fixtures at Tottenham and Chelsea and a home game against league leaders Man City. Had Sunderland demonstrated this form from the beginning of the season they would be currently sitting in 4th place.

So how has O’Neill brought about this change in fortune?

Team Selection

Martin O’Neill has had the same squad at his disposal, and has largely used the same players and the same formation. The table below shows the players that have started in the league for Sunderland under both O’Neill and Steve Bruce. Ten players have started at least half of the games under both managers, with four starting at least 75%. However, two players in particular have been used much more frequently under O’Neill. David Vaughan mostly warmed the bench for Bruce but has since started every game, while James McClean has gone from playing in the reserves to becoming an active member of the first team.

One point that does come across is the consistency of selection under O’Neill. Nine players have started at least 75% of the games, compared to only five players under Bruce. In fact three players have started every game for O’Neill and, but for injuries to Simon Mignolet, Wes Brown, Kieran Richardson, Sebastian Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner, that figure could easily be eight. This also suggests that, rather than O’Neill being luckier with player availability, he has simply identified his favoured players much more quickly than Bruce.

Passing

While the personnel may not have changed dramatically, Martin O’Neill has certainly altered the way Sunderland play. Steve Bruce favoured a more patient approach, leading to shorter passing and plenty of square-balls across the midfield and defensive line. Under O’Neill Sunderland have looked to play much more directly, with lots of long-balls down the flanks and into the forwards.

The Guardian Chalkboards below demonstrate Sunderland’s contrasting passing patterns under the two managers. The games away to Norwich and home to Fulham, both under Bruce’s management, show a great deal of short passing across the centre of the pitch.

(Under Steve Bruce – high volume of short passing in the midfield area)

Following O’Neill’s appointment, Sunderland’s passing is very different in games away to QPR and at home to Everton. The clusters of passing in the midfield has been replaced with longer passes from defence.

(Under Martin O’Neill – majority of passes bypass the midfield)

This change in passing is further reflected by Sunderland’s passing success under the two managers. In the fourteen games prior to O’Neill’s appointment the team had a passing success of 76%. In the eight games since their success rate has dropped to 70%.

Possession

Sunderland’s direct approach has resulted in a drop in their share of possession. In the eight games under Martin O’Neill, Sunderland have only had the majority of the ball once, against Blackburn in his first game in charge, and average 42.3% possession overall. Whether there is a conscious intention to cede possession to their opponents and adopt a counter-attacking style is unclear, but certainly a pattern is evident. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland averaged 46.6% possession, which may not seem to be a considerable difference. However they had at least 50% possession in seven of fourteen games, winning only once and losing three times.

This may have influenced O’Neill’s plans, as clearly attempting to dominate possession was not working. Wigan are one of the few teams that both Bruce and O’Neill have faced this season, and the statistics are interesting. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland had 53% possession and lost 2-1. Under Martin O’Neill Sunderland had only 37% possession and won 4-1.

Defensive Line

Sunderland’s ceding of possession has led to another feature under Martin O’Neill, that of defensive depth. While Steve Bruce hardly played an aggressive press, he did attempt to play a much higher line and looked to win the ball further up the field. Since O’Neill has taken over, Sunderland’s defence has dropped much deeper and they have largely looked to drop back into their own half before attempting to win the ball back.

The Guardian Chalkboards below show the tackles attempted in two games under Bruce and two under O’Neill. In the games under Bruce, at home to Fulham and Wigan, Sunderland attempt as many tackles in the opposition’s half as their own.

(Under Steve Bruce – tackles are attempted all over the pitch)

With Martin O’Neill the majority of tackle attempts occur in Sunderland’s half of the pitch.

(Under Martin O’Neill – tackles are largely consigned to their own half)

Using the Wigan game again as a direct comparison it becomes clear how much deeper Sunderland played. Looking at the players’ average position using ESPN’s Soccernet GameCast you can see how Sunderland’s central defenders attempted to push up towards the halfway line under Bruce, whereas for O’Neill they remained on the edge of their own penalty area.

(Under Steve Bruce – only 4 players’ average position is in Sunderland’s half)

 

(Under Martin O’Neill – in a complete transformation, only 4 players’ average position is in the opponent’s half)

Summary

It seems that Martin O’Neill has prioritised making Sunderland difficult to beat, by dropping deeper and playing more directly, but in doing so has actually got them scoring more goals and winning more games.

The balance of the team appears to be better. James McClean has provided natural width on the left to compliment Sebastian Larsson on the other flank. Behind them Phil Bardsley has been moved to his preferred position of right-back with Kieran Richardson taking the left-back spot, resulting in two left-footed players on the left and two right-footed players on the right.

This has also allowed Stephane Sessegnon, arguably Sunderland’s best player this season, the freedom to play centrally and link the midfield to Nicklas Bendtner up front. He seems to have revelled in the role, with three goals and three assists in the eight games under O’Neill compared to two goals and three assists in fourteen games under Steve Bruce.

At the back the likes of Wes Brown and John O’Shea have benefitted from a deeper line and consistent selection, while ahead of them both Lee Cattermole and David Vaughan combine energy and ability on the ball. It is unsurprising that Vaughan has featured so heavily for O’Neill in this system given that direct passing to the flanks was a large part of Blackpool’s style last season.

Time will tell if O’Neill’s initial changes turn into long-term plans. Either way, it has been an excellent start, and the club now have an outside chance of qualifying for Europe. It will be interesting to see how the Sunderland board back O’Neill in the transfer market, seeing as a lack of funds reportedly caused him to walk out on Villa.