The story goes that, in order to convince big players with big egos of his disciplined philosophy, Arrigo Sacchi – the last manager to retain a European cup – told Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten in training one day that they should pick ten attacking players and try to score against Sacchi’s five man defence.
Along with AC Milan’s number one, Giovanni Galli, Saachi lined up defenders Mauro Tassotti, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi. Gullit and Van Basten teamed up with ten of Milan’s midfielders and strikers including Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni, and Pietro Paolo Virdis. They had fifteen minutes to score and had to restart on the half-way if they lost possession. Not a single goal was scored.
On current evidence, it seems this anecdote has finally filtered down through international football. The weaker teams in the competition have attempted thus far to thwart their opponents by being well-drilled, organized and disciplined. Of course, defensively orientated teams and five-man defenses have been around for decades, but now, with professionalism so firmly entrenched across the world, the time and the money is available to create fit, intelligent and organized players even at the lower end of the pay scale. The successful global distribution of the game is effectively leveling the playing field for all involved.
This defensive optimization has now become a worry of the greater and grander teams in the world competition, especially of the European teams. France, England, Italy and Spain have all struggled so far in the group stages. Each team, no doubt, has their own reason for their shortcomings, but is it a coincidence that the European elite are being given so many problems by overtly defensive opposition?
The ‘Mourinho Method’
Before this year, the previous five winners and finalists of the Champions League have been offensive sides that have emphasized passing and attacking runs (If you were to discount Porto’s win in 2004 as an aberration, the tradition goes back even further). Barcelona, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, AC Milan, even Bayern Munich are fairly homogenous in their offensive ethos. Then, this year, comes Inter Milan, who may have achieved what may come to be described as a watershed moment in European football. The moment in question is Jose Mourinho’s vanquishing of the epitomic forward-thinking passing team, Barcelona, with an overtly defensive, counter-attacking side.
Jonathan Wilson, in a fantastic article in The Guardian, postulated that Inter’s Alamo-esque performance at the Camp Nou, in which the Nerazzurri achieved only 16% – yes, 16% – of the possession and surrendered territory so readily, could provide a new template or strategy for teams across the world. Given the differing shapes, it’s unlikely that teams such as New Zealand or Algeria are using the ‘Mourinho method’; but, thanks to the aforementioned spread of professionalism and quality coaching, it is becoming quite evident that teams that place their priorities on defending are posing a question to the European superpowers’ – just like Mourinho’s Milan – who may have forgotten how to break them down after being dominated by, and idolizing, offensive teams for such a long time.
Spain were confronted by a Swiss side that was quite content to allow the Iberians possession and defended with two compact lines of four that continually pressed throughout the game. Certainly there are some parallels with Inter that could be drawn here. Consequently, the Spanish failed to seize the initiative. Much like Barcelona, they were too narrow in the final third and found it impossible to strike up a passing rhythm while being stifled by the Swiss defenders. Resultantly, the strikers and their creative players vacated the dangerous areas in order to receive the ball. Vicente Del Bosque did bring on Jesus Navas in the second half to provide some width but the Swiss were more than comfortable in dealing with his aerial balls.
Italy similarly played into the hands of their meager opposition. New Zealand’s three man defence was more than comfortable in dealing with Italy’s narrow 4-4-2. Against the All Whites’ 3-4-3, the Italians were well matched all over the field and couldn’t outnumber them in any offensive manner. It was an almost monumental – yet basic – mistake by Marcello Lippi who really should’ve known that New Zealand would utilize a three man defence having done so in their opening game. The decision was so vexing, in fact, that it could have only stemmed from arrogance or ignorance. Either way, Lippi acknowledged his mistake by morphing his side into a 4-3-3.
England also fell foul to a three man defence. Algeria’s extra men in midfield even gave an undeniably defensive team –Karim Matmour, the striker, is usually an attacking midfielder – parity on possession. It was a formation that seemed almost alien to the England players; they couldn’t draw out Rabah Saadane’s side, pass through it or get in behind it because there were so many bodies behind the ball. Admittedly there are question marks over the performance of the players but there’s no denying that Algeria’s defensive priority had allowed them to out-man Fabio Capello’s team in every dangerous position. Capello, of course, failed to adapt.
The South American Bombardment
Compare this now to the South American sides who have also come up against defensive opposition.
Argentina bombarded Nigeria with three talented central (but free to wander) front-men and complemented that with Di Maria wide on the left. But it was the inclusion of another wide-man in Maxi Rodriguez (who replaced Juan Veron) in their next game that enabled Argentina to cause so many problems for South Korea. The Korean defence was stretched well by the wide men and this gifted space to Higuain, Carlos Tevez, and Lionel Messi in the middle. South Korea did decide to chase the game, unlike Europe’s opposition however, and this attributed slightly to the score-line.
Brazil bombarded their North Korean opponents in a similar way. In the end, it was no surprise that Maicon was the man that broke the deadlock. North Korea’s five man defence was overloaded on their left by the presence of Luis Fabiano, Elano and Maicon. Split the pitch in half lengthways and it’s obvious that the Korean’s found themselves on the wrong end of a 2 versus 3 situation on the left despite having two extra defenders on the right hand side.
This game also highlighted how tough it can be to subdue a truly defensive outfit: Korea had 28% of the possession, yet only lost the game by the odd goal.
Clearly the difference between the Europeans and the South Americans has been Europe’s inability to throw caution to the wind and get enough men forward in both central and wide positions to cause problems. Moreover, Brazil and Argentina have assigned defensive responsibilities to just four men, giving license to everyone else to get forward without worrying about defensive duties.
At the moment, Europe seems to be reeling from the extirpation of the thesis that the opposition want to win the game as much as you do.
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