The FA Level 1 coaching qualification must be tougher

A slightly different approach with today’s article- no specific match analysis, instead an overview of why I believe the FA need to improve their provision for grassroots coaches. My main focus of this article will be ‘The FA Level 1 award in coaching football’, or as I like to term it, ‘The FA mickey mouse award’. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed completing the course and had a great time, however I feel it lacked sufficient depth. Our grassroots coaches deserve better.

Player development

The FA value their Level 1 course at £150, and for that money I would expect better. They don’t lie in their initial advertisement of the course; we are promised a guide to ‘safe and enjoyable coaching’, and that is certainly what we get. But shouldn’t we be getting more than that? Money aside, is being told how to deliver ‘safe and enjoyable’ coaching really going to benefit our players development? I don’t think so. The FA states that the key stages of development in a young footballers life come between the ages of 8 and 12, and being Level 1 qualified enables you to coach children between the ages of 5 and 16, need to say any more? We are putting the young footballers of England in the hands of coaches who are just the subject of an ‘introductory’ course, and to be quite frank I believe that is unacceptable. A lot has been made in recent weeks of the standard of the Premier League, I can tell you one thing- it isn’t going to improve if our Level 1 award doesn’t improve.

The drills

For me, training sessions should address the tactical, technical, physical and cognitive areas of the game. The Level 1 award promises to ‘develop technical skills’- I myself wouldn’t call ‘shooting’, ‘passing’ and ‘heading’ technical skills, in my mind they are no more than fundamental, basic skills, skills that any aspiring coach should be able to teach without the aid of a course valued at 150 pounds. In fact, the drills and training exercises that the course did deliver were in my opinion too basic. One, named ‘Robin Hood’ if I remember correctly, involved a group of balls being placed in the middle of a square, with small groups of players on each corner of the square. Their task was to run into the centre, collect a ball, and dribble it back to their corner. This would continue until all the balls were gone from the middle, upon which the group with the most balls would be crowned the winners. Considering completion of this course allows you to coach players up to the age of 16, a drill such ‘Robin Hood’ is nothing short of pointless. How is it benefiting our players development? All it involves is a basic turn and a 15 yard dribble under no pressure at all- a basic skill. Our players should be challenged technically and tactically, drills should be comprised where players receive the ball in a crowded area and are forced to make their own decisions; do I or don’t I turn? Have I got room to dribble? What direction do I turn in? What direction do I dribble in? We need to start bringing up our players with the ability to make quick decisions under pressure, I personally don’t feel that a game of ‘Robin Hood’ is good preparation for any match situation.

I could highlight almost all of the drills in the Level 1 manual as being too basic, however I’ll save myself the pain and just describe one more. A shooting exercise this time, in fact this particular shooting exercise is the one upon which I was assessed on. Two goals are set-up, opposite each other, around 40 yards apart. On either side of the halfway point there are two ‘gates’ comprised of two cones a couple of yards apart from each other. There was two groups of players, one formed a line behind one goal on the left hand side of the pitch, the other formed a line behind the opposite goal on the right hand side of the pitch. The aim of the game- you’ve probably guessed it already; the first player from each group would dribble the ball through the ‘gate’ and then shoot at the open goal, following that they would then join the line of players behind the goal they had just shot at, and so on. My problem with this drill is near enough identical to my problem with the ‘Robin Hood’ drill- does it challenge the players decision making? No. Does it challenge their tactical awareness? No. Does it challenge their thought processes? Not really. Players should be challenged in training exercises to make decisions for themselves, and the Level 1 course delivers next to no challenging material for coaches to put into practice at all. Our young players require more!

The course content

The FA states that the Level 1 award will deliver information on the following:

  • Player and coach development
  • The FA’s respect programme
  • Laws of the game
  • An introduction to The FA’s Long Term Player Development Model
  • An introduction to football for all

Now that all looks very nice, but does the course really deliver all of the above? Perhaps more importantly, are all of the above really necessary? I think throughout this article it has been established that the drills presented don’t aid player development. The drills presented are neither tactically, technically, physically or cognitively challenging enough and don’t give our players the opportunity to develop their technical skills, their tactical awareness, nor their though processes.

The FA’s respect programme- I can see why it’s part of the course. Coaches do need to be educated on what is and isn’t acceptable conduct on the touchline. I would however question the length of course time spent covering the rules and regulations regarding conduct etc. For me, most of it was common sense and more emphasis could have been placed on the player development aspect, upon which I feel the course was lacking in significantly.

Laws of the game- Ridiculous. A coach paying £150 for a course doesn’t need to be told the rules of the game. I would suggest that anyone taking the course has followed football for long enough to know the laws of the game, plus there are so many grey areas in the game nowadays I don’t even think those at the top of the game are 100% clear on some of the laws.

An introduction to The FA’s Long Term Player Development Model- On paper it looks like a very beneficial element of the course, however in practice I would question how 99% of the material presented was delivered with player development in mind. Too much on basic skills, not enough on how to develop and improve.

An introduction to football for all- This element is in fact one of the major downfall’s of the course in my opinion. There is too much focus on spectators, parents and administration- an award in football coaching should be more advanced than this. We need to start placing more emphasis on developing our players on the pitch, yes the off the pitch elements are important, but they should be covered by a separate course. The Level 1 should be focused on 24+ hours of on the pitch player progression.

Summary

The FA Level One award in coaching football is impossible to fail, and it shouldn’t be that way. The course need to challenge the minds of our country’s coaches, allow them to develop, and in turn this will aid player development. With all due respect, some of the members on the course that I participated in had about the same coaching ability as a banana, and guess what? They still managed to pass. Rather than being a course aimed at those who are new to coaching, I believe there should be less of an introductory flavour to the course and more of an advanced element. I will leave you with one statistic- a recent study showed that there were 26,000 Level 1 qualified coaches in England, and only 6,000 of those had gone on to complete the Level 2 qualification. I believe that has a lot to do with the price of the Level 2 course, but in my mind it just shows how interesting and inspiring the Level 1 award is. Our grassroots game needs a major overhaul.

PSG exact revenge over Mourinho’s men

Last night’s Champions League last-16 second-leg encounter between Chelsea and PSG certainly provided plenty of talking points. Is the Premier League good enough? Was the conduct of the Chelsea players acceptable? Why did Chelsea give PSG so much space to play after half-time? Jose Mourinho himself stated that the better team went through, and through this article I will attempt to ascertain just why the men in blue performed so inadequately. I will also explore the ‘dark arts’ of the game, the off the ball tactics as I like to term them. One thing’s for sure, in my opinion the English game requires a major overhaul.

The first half 

As the match settled into its early rhythm, it was apparent that Chelsea were playing with a 4-1-4-1 formation. Cesc Fabregas adopted an advanced position, seemingly more willing to get forward knowing that he had the insurance of Nemanja Matic behind him. When out of possession, PSG matched Chelsea in their 4-1-4-1 formation, however when in possession the French giants weren’t afraid to get plenty of players ahead of the ball. In the early stages it was Chelsea making all the forward running, pressing the ball high up the pitch and pushing their opponents onto the back foot. I have already eluded to the position of playmaker Fabregas, it was clear that he was aiming to penetrate in between the lines of PSG and get in behind their two more defensive minded midfielders, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti. It was in fact a seemingly energetic opening from the home side, Eden Hazard and Ramires were working back to support their full-backs and Matic seemed to be controlling the midfield, it seemed that initially all was well.

The men from the French capital struggled to make an impact early on. Focal point Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t doing enough to hold the ball up, and there wasn’t enough penetration in between an initially compact Chelsea defence and midfield. Javier Pastore and Edinson Cavani took up deep positions and were forced to play most of their football in front of the home side’s back 4, with Blaise Matuidi being the only man in a red shirt willing to attempt any meaningful runs in behind. Up until the half hour mark it was in fact a fairly even first half, with Chelsea’s early aggression being neutralised by PSG’s composure if not penetration in possession.

Following the controversial sending off of Ibrahimovic however, Chelsea dominated the rest of the half. The pundits in the Sky Sports studio seemed to think that PSG were in control with ten men, however it can’t be denied that up until half-time they were on the ropes to a degree. The French side were forced to adopt a 4-1-3-1 formation, thus making it easier for Chelsea to play through their initial light press due to the fact that they only had 3 midfielders instead of their original 4. This led to the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Cesc Fabragas and Ramires being able to find more pockets of space in behind the PSG midfield, and if it wasn’t for a few loose passes in the final third they’d have been heading into the break a goal or two up. That isn’t to mention the clear penalty that Diego Costa was denied, surely technology needs to be introduced into the modern game?

Chelsea bereft of energy 

The second half however was a completely different story. As much as PSG were accomplised with ten men, Chelsea were awful. The energy in their performance was unacceptable and they afforded the visitors far too much space, gaps between their usually compact lines began to appear, and for large periods it looked like they were the team playing with ten men. Was this a result of Mourinho instructing them to slow the game down (quite possible as 0-0 on the night would have sent them through), or their own lack of energy? A bit of both I’d argue, however the manager would have still expected energy in their pressing and movement off the ball, and as it turned out they ended up looking like a team of waxworks. It was too easy to play through them, the likes of Verratti and Matuidi were getting on the ball in deep midfield positions and driving through their lines, Cavani, Pastore and latterly Lavezzi were allowed time on the ball in behind the Chelsea midfield, and Matic was exposed. The reason for this isn’t rocket science- every single Chelsea player (aside from Matic, Cahill and Terry) was caught too far ahead of the ball throughout the half, and even Matic at times was too advanced and the gap between himself and his centre-backs was too wide. After the match Chelsea were heavily criticised for not being offensive enough- I disagree to a degree. Positionally they were very offensive in that they got plenty of players ahead of the ball, so I feel their approach in that sense was very forward thinking. On the other hand, the way they carried out that approach was unforgivable. Absolutely unforgivable and against Europe’s elite it was inevitable that they were going to be punished for it. Playing with a shape as high as they did is great as long as you execute it properly- press the ball in all areas, chase players off the ball, make a quick transition between attack and defence. They did none of that, and as a result it was too easy as I stated above for PSG to play through them. The away side didn’t in fact have to do too much to create space with ten men, it would be accurate to say that they were gifted space.

Composed PSG

When you are given time and space on the ball you must make the most of it, and in fairness to PSG they were very sensible with their use of the ball. Nothing was forced, they regularly picked the right ball and as a result they managed to complete 669 passes at a success rate of 84%, a very respectable statistic indeed. As a result of this, the away side were able to execute 83% of their 12 shots from inside the Chelsea penalty area, showing that it wasn’t just passing for the sake of passing, it was passing with progression and purpose. It is here where English football needs to learn a major, major lesson. Had that been Chelsea in PSG’s position, 5 minutes left on the clock and needing a goal, I can guarantee that the ball would keep getting lumped forward aimlessly in the hope that they’d get a lucky break and fashion a goal scoring opportunity. The same could be said of the vast majority of English clubs, Arsenal being the obvious exception. If the long ball was a pre-planned tactic I would have no problem with it, Manchester United have had a lot of joy out of the pre-planned long ball this year. However time and time again, English clubs resort to it as a form of panic, and right from grassroots level the coaches in our country willingly endorse the long ball- it needs changing. From my own experience of playing Sunday league football, whilst playing left-back and centre-back I was frequently instructed to ‘put it down the line’ and ‘put it over the top’, it seemed coaches favoured the territorial game over the possession game. We need to teach our players to have confidence and composure on the ball, and we need to teach them how to make quick, clever decisions on the ball when under pressure. Resorting to the long ball is often the low-quality, ‘safe’ option. All of the PSG players we saw yesterday were young once, bought up to play a certain way, and it was a pleasure to see them pass the ball as they did yesterday and get their reward. Yes I do believe it is possible to coach players to become more comfortable on the ball, however we need to start coaching them in that way at Sunday league level, not Premier League level.

The manner of defeat

As poor as Chelsea were, the manner of their defeat will irritate Mourinho. As much as I was impressed by PSG, I certainly feel that they weren’t amazing, with the space Chelsea afforded them they couldn’t score from open play. However in my opinion that wasn’t down to the quality of their play, more down to the fact that their star forward was off the pitch and they were lacking a suitable replacement. In my opinion it is a cardinal sin to concede from set-pieces, especially from Chelsea’s point of view as they employed a seemingly solid man-marking system with zones along the 6 yard box also being covered. Players just lost their individual battles, they were second to the ball, and we’ve all seen the pictures of the second goal- I would suggest a lack of communication was also present. Take nothing away from Thiago Silva and David Luiz though- two excellent headers.

Clever or Unsporting? 

The big talking point in the Sky Sports studio was the reaction of the Chelsea players after Ibrahimovic’s challenge on Oscar. This may or may not be controversial depending on your own values, but I myself saw nothing wrong with the reaction of the men in blue. If you can get away with it, you do it- it’s called being clever. In the modern game referee’s don’t dismiss players for verbally protesting, so if you can do it to gain an advantage whilst not harming your own team’s chances I see nothing wrong with it at all. What I have got a problem with however, is the extent to which Diego Costa tries to gain an advantage. He does it in a way that could easily see him being sent-off, he was lucky to stay on the pitch yesterday and the more Mourinho defends him, the worse he is likely to get. Graham Souness stated that making the most of things ‘isn’t the British way’, but is the British way a winning way? No it certainly isn’t. Chelsea gained the advantage they wanted by being clever, they just couldn’t take the advantage they had gained. Yes it probably isn’t the sporting way to play, but it’s what the game of football has come to. By denying it, as a country we are just going to be left even further behind than we already are. I would encourage all children to make the most of challenges, strikers to nudge defenders in the back and vice-versa, to waste time, to tactically foul and buy fouls like PSG did in the last 5 minutes of yesterday’s match. Controversial I know, but all grassroots coaches need to take heed of the modern European approach, prepare our players for the modern game, and not listen to traditionalists such as Souness.

Conclusion

So to conclude, an even first half, a one-sided encounter after the half-time break. It was a lacklustre Chelsea, and the lack of energy in their second half performance was unacceptable. PSG were deserved of their quarter-final spot, yes their two goals came via set-pieces, but so did Chelsea’s. Chelsea weren’t aggressive enough in defence, compact enough in midfield, and lacked quality in attack. In the Premier League they can get away with being open as teams in England are tactically inferior to their European counterparts, however PSG found them out yesterday. Their compact shape, aggressive defending and composure on the ball was far superior to any side Chelsea have faced so far this season, and that shouldn’t be the case. We need to ask ourselves why, and we need to start substituting entertainment for quality. We need to stop seeing Sunday league matches ending 3-3 or 5-4 or 7-2, and instead drill our youngsters on how to play efficiently both with and without the ball. The standard of English football isn’t good enough and it needs to be addressed. Either that, or brace yourselves for more seasons of European heartbreak.

A final word on PSG- a tidy, dangerous outfit, however I don’t feel they’re currently at the level of Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid just yet. They’re getting there though, beating Chelsea is definitely a good scalp and they’re a team to be avoided. A favourable draw and we could well be seeing them in the semi-finals. As for Chelsea- the Premier League is now a must.

Jose gets the job done

‘Finals aren’t for playing, they’re for winning’- the words of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho after seeing his side run out 2-0 victors over Tottenham in this evening’s Capital One cup final at Wembley. In my opinion, these words reflect how he is the best manager of his generation. Football is a results based business, and whilst Jose may not always play the beautiful game, he certainly plays the winning game.

The team selection

When Sky Sports revealed the line-ups ahead of today’s intriguing clash, it was instantly apparent to me that Chelsea would be very difficult to beat. Their lineup featured three centre-backs- Gary Cahill, John Terry, and Kurt Zouma- it wasn’t hard to guess that this meant the men in Blue weren’t going to adopt a Liverpool style 3 at the back. It was evident that either Gary Cahill or Kurt Zouma would be charged with filling the void left by the suspended Nemanja Matic, and as it turned out, it was the Frenchman who got the nod. This Chelsea lineup told me a lot about the winning instincts of Mourinho, there was a lot said pre-match about how Ramires would probably be given the task of sitting in front of the back four, however I daresay a player with such forward thinking tendencies wasn’t ever a contender for the spot in the mind of ‘The Special One’.

The early exchanges

Chelsea adopted a 4-3-3 formation (largely a 4-5-1 when out of possession), whereas Tottenham stuck to their now familiar 4-2-3-1. The opening stages of the match actually featured a great deal of possession from the men from West London, they were recovering the ball quickly, however possession without penetration would be a more accurate way to describe their play. It was clear that Kurt Zouma would play the holding midfield role, with there being a very fluid nature about the shape ahead of him. It was obvious the Diego Costa was the main forward, however behind him the quartet of Eden Hazard, Ramires, Willian and Cesc Fabregas all had their own roles. It was apparent that all four had been given licence to attack, however getting back behind the ball when out of possession was a must. That being said, Hazard was definitely deployed in a different way than opposite wide man Willian, with the latter working very hard to support full-back Branislav Ivanovic, and the former happy to take up a position around the halfway line when Spurs were in possession. Ramires was up and down- often the furthest forward of the four, however frequently finding himself alongside Zouma in a deeper role, whearas Fabregas was setting the early tempo and would move either forward or backwards in order to be in line with play, he never found himself too far away from the man in possession.

Cutting off the space

As the first half and indeed the match wore on, it was evident that Chelsea would play with a deep defensive block. After starting off the match with a slightly higher press in search of an early goal, it seemed that bodies behind the ball and narrow gaps between the lines was the name of the game for Jose. When a team doesn’t adopt a high press inside the opposition half, the common way is for a lot of pressure to be put on the ball when it the opposition cross the halfway line. Many watching the game may have thought that Chelsea did this, that they got men behind the ball and put a lot of pressure on the ball so that Spurs couldn’t play penetrating balls forward, however in my eyes they did something different. Throughout the match I don’t feel that Mourinho’s men put a lot of pressure on the ball at all, yes there was some light pressing from the midfield, however the aim of the Chelsea players was to cut off the space in the midfield so that the player without the ball had limited options. There was nothing complex about the way they did this, the tracking back of Willian meant that Ivanovic could tuck in and be tight on Spurs’ left-sided midfielder (Nacer Chadli), and even though Hazard didn’t do much tracking back, Fabregas helped left-back Cesar Azpilicueta cover Chelsea’s left hand side, in the meantime cutting out the threat of Andros Townsend and latterly Eric Lamela. Already by covering the space in between their defence and midfield, Chelsea were able to comfortably deal with two of Tottenham’s main threats.

Kurt Zouma

An effective if not amazing performance by Chelsea’s makeshift deep-lying midfielder, however I found the way he was deployed to be very interesting indeed. There’s no doubt that Jose Mourinho felt that Christian Eriksen was a major threat for the men in white, and at times in the first half especially it seemed that Zouma was man marking him to a degree. On the occasions upon which the Dane drifted out to the left the Frenchman would follow him, not afraid to leave his position in the middle in order to ensure that Eriksen wasn’t found in space and with room to turn and dribble at the Chelsea back four. If this was the case, Ramires would fill in the holding midfield role- another example of the superb organisation from the Chelsea outfit we saw today. The fact that Zouma was allowed to follow Eriksen was a clever tactical move from Mourinho, but to me also shows why the Chelsea boss is so good at what he does. Many players when placed in the central defensive midfield position would be afraid to leave their post, afraid to move away from the centre in fear of exposing the back four, but the message had been drummed into Zouma it seemed. Kurt Zouma may not have thought this was a good tactical decision, however Mourinho had faith that Ramires would recognise when cover was needed, and also gave Zouma the confidence and belief that this was the right tactic. Jose Mourinho isn’t just a superb tactician, but a superb man-manager as well.

The occasional positioning of Zouma when the ball was either in the arms of Petr Cech, or at the feet of the Chelsea back four when they had time on the ball was also fascinating. Ramires would fill in the defensive midfield position, and Zouma would adopt the position of a common number ten. Bizarre it may sound, I can see the logic- it gave Chelsea a long ball option whilst keeping Diego Costa as an option in behind. Zouma, a centre-back by trade, was charged with winning the flick-ons from any long balls that were played forward, and in the process this would theoretically give the Blues a better chance of retaining possession, bringing Costa into play, and gaining territory in a quick and easy way. In fairness this didn’t pay off on too many occasions on which it was tried, however I could see the clever thinking behind it and it just shows how much detail Mourinho goes into when planning his tactics.

The variety in the Chelsea play

Chelsea’s tactic was to adopt a deep defensive block and to cut off any space in between the lines of their midfield and defence, however the positioning of their players throughout the match was ever-changing. These may seem trivial points that I am about to make, however I feel that they can’t be underestimated because of the effect they would have had on the opposition. As already stated, Edin Hazard was Chelsea’s left-sided attacker whilst Willian would occupy their right flank, however towards the closing stages of the first half they changed their positions completely. Hazard suddenly adopted the classic number ten position behind Diego Costa, thus giving Spurs defensive midfielders Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb a totally different proposition. This in turn prompted Willian to not just stick to the right flank but control the whole of the pitch whilst still being an extra man in midfield behind the ball. This in my opinion allowed Chelsea to be slightly more attack minded as they searched for a goal before half-time, whilst also making no big compensation to the defensive side of their game. As it turned out they managed to win a free-kick deep in the Spurs half just before half-time and score- coincidence or not? I’ll leave you to decide that one.

Another minor point regarding the positioning of players once again involves Kurt Zouma. Early in the second half Chelsea won a throw-in in an advanced position.They chose to take a long throw deep into the Spurs box, where, you guessed it, none other than Kurt Zouma appeared in order to try and win the ball in the air (Ramires covered for Zouma during this passage of play so they weren’t compensated for defensively). This was something that only happened once in the game, however was it a sign that Chelsea were willing to offer more going forward in the early stages of the half in order to try and catch Spurs cold? They did in fact score in the early stages of the second half, Mourinho’s plan or coincidence? Once again I’ll let you decide.

Some final thoughts…

In summary, I feel that this was a very impressive team performance from Chelsea. The got men behind the ball, defended deep and made it very difficult for Tottenham to penetrate them in behind- in fact, can you recall a clear cut chance that Spurs managed to muster throughout the whole match? Nor can I. It was a job well done for Jose’s men, the energy in the team was fantastic, everyone knew what their job was and they were supremely organised. They closed the game out well in the last ten minutes, that was the one phase in the game where they put more bodies around the ball, pressed the player in possession and broke up the game by means of what some may call cynical play, others may call tactical fouls.

Spurs will be disappointed with the goals they conceded, but it was job done for Mourinho. The perfect performance and the perfect result, his first trophy in two years and you could see how happy he was at the end of the match. Will there be more success to follow for Chelsea this season? You’d be a brave person to bet against them.

Liverpool pay the price for losing their way

A hostile Turkish atmosphere greeted Liverpool for the second leg of their UEFA Europa League clash against Besiktas. As a Liverpool fan I was anticipating a tricky match against the dangerous Istanbul-based outfit, however given our first leg lead I expected us to progress to the last 16. What I witnessed in the following 120 minutes however had me tearing my hair out and scribbling feverishly on my notepad in front of me.

The reds did in fact start the match excellently, adopting on paper a 3-4-1-2 formation they were passing the ball around well, taking the sting out of the match and proving a dangerous proposition both with and without the ball. With a formation as fluid as Liverpool’s, the players were never going to remain rigid in their positions, and throughout the entirety of the first half they looked like a very well-organised, well-drilled outfit. It was clear to me that the men from Merseyside were playing with two holding midfielders in the form of Emre Can and Joe Allen, with Raheem Sterling playing just ahead of them as the more advanced central player with something of a free role. On from that, the wing-backs Jordan Ibe and Alberto Moreno provided seemingly excellent engines up and down the flanks. They weren’t afraid to attack, and when the Besiktas wingers took up a high position they would also drop back to create a solid back 5, tucking in close to the centre-back trio of Dejan Lovren, Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure when they could. The two front men Mario Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge weren’t just a square front two, one of the two would drop off deeper and aid the away side in outnumbering the Turks in midfield.

All of the above contributed to a very controlled, textbook first half performance for an away tie in European football from Liverpool. Many aspects of their game were very good, and firstly I’d like to highlight the midfield pressing of Can and Allen as being a particularly impressive factor. Usually your stereotypical defensive midfielders will sit back, allow the players higher up the field to press the ball when the opposition have it in their own half, and only engage the opposition when they cross the halfway line and begin to enter the final third. The reds adopted a different tactical approach however, with either Can or Allen (commonly Can) coming out of position and engaging with play early, before the Besiktas attack had reached the halfway line. This pressure applied to the ball forced the Turkish outfit to play the ball backwards on many occasions, thus limiting the effectiveness of their transition between defence and offense. Once the ball had been played backwards, the defensive midfielder who had been pressing the ball would drop back into position in order not to be caught ahead of the ball should it be played forward quickly. This tactic also allowed the likes of Sterling and either Sturridge or Balotelli to pick up the extra men in the Besiktas midfield, thus depriving the man on the ball of options. Coincidentally, the home side did play a lot of long forward balls towards striker Demba Ba in the first half, whether this was to combat this high midfield press of Liverpool I don’t know, it could have just been that they felt the much changed Liverpool defence may be a little soft-centred.

Another impressive aspect of the first half from a Liverpool point of view was their passing of the ball- it was excellent. Simple one/two/three touch football kept a rhythm and intensity to their play, and definitely took the sting out of what was a very hostile atmosphere. At times it was passing for possession’s sake (which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing given their position in the tie), however the reds also passed the ball with a purpose when they could. The free running in between the lines from Raheem Sterling and the incisive passing of Emre Can allowed them to create opportunities in front of goal, and the likes of Sterling himself as well as Daniel Sturridge may just be kicking themselves for not taking the opportunities they were offered. In fact many of you may be reading this now thinking ‘where did it all go wrong for Liverpool’- when taking notes in the first half I wrote one sentence that would prove to be very telling come the end of play: ‘Liverpool slightly uneasy when Besiktas press’- upon the final analysis, ‘uneasy’ turned out to be a very mild way of describing how the reds were feeling.

As soon as the second half began, it was obvious that Besiktas coach Slaven Bilic had got stuck into his troops at the break. The intensity in their play increased tenfold, they played with smaller spaces between their lines, squeezed up, played with a higher line, and in the process made the pitch much shorter. All of a sudden every visiting player was being pressed when they had the ball, and the way they failed to adapt to this new-look Besiktas is what really disappointed me. There was no composure on the ball and it was quite alarming to see the amount of stray, aimless passes being made by those in red shirts. The lack of accuracy in their passing meant that Liverpool’s midfield found itself running back to it’s own goal far too often. An organised team should have their backs to goal almost all the time, the play should be in front of them- the reds midfield was getting caught ahead of the ball far too much. and if you look at Besiktas’ goal, you’ll see there was a whole host of men in red running back towards their own goal having been caught out ahead of the ball.

There were many fundamental errors made by Liverpool in the second half; their passing was inaccurate, the pace of their play was slow, the man on the ball was bereft of options, the hold up play of Sturridge and Balotelli was poor- however there was one tactical move that really did baffle me, and could in fact have been the cause of their inability to control the match from the 45th minute onwards.  It was excellent in the first half, however in the second half Brendan Rogers changed the shape of the away side’s midfield. Instead of sitting alongside Joe Allen, it seemed for large parts of the half that Emre Can had adopted a more advanced position, leaving the reds with only one defensive midfielder. You could see the thinking behind it, an away goal for the English side would have killed the tie, considering the intense pressure that they were under in terms of territory however, I found it a strange move. Can’s more advanced position didn’t just hamper Liverpool defensively, in my opinion it hampered them as an attacking force as well. Can adopted a position commonly right of centre, in front of Allen and alongside Sterling and latterly Lallana when he came off the bench. This meant that when Liverpool did get the ball forward, Can (who was clearly struggling physically as well) would take up the space on the right hand side between the lines and deprive Liverpool’s more creative players of the ball. This meant that the likes of Sterling and Lallana were both forced to adopt similar positions on the left hand side of the pitch, and due to Can taking up the right hand side, they weren’t allowed the freedom to move around the pitch and use its full width to provide adequate service to striker Sturridge, who often cut a forlorn figure up front. Had Can held his position alongside Allen, I feel those two could have got on the ball more and played more incisive balls forward towards a more free-flowing attack with Sterling and Lallana being allowed more freedom. I may be being harsh on Liverpool’s summer signing from Bayer Leverkusen, however I feel he slowed play down and wasn’t the creative force that the reds needed in the position he adopted. This resulted in the ball just being played back into Liverpool’s defensive third time and time again, and in the end they did well to only concede the one goal and force the penalty shoot-out.

So in the end it was Dejan Lovren’s wild spot kick that settled matters, however after showing such control and composure in the first half I believe that this was a Liverpool side whose inexperience in Europe told come the final knockings. It was clear from his team selection that Rodgers placed the Europa League at the bottom end of his priorities, however as a fan it would have been nice to see the team progress to the last 16. Tactically inept you could argue, they certainly were caught out after the break. This was a Liverpool side still learning at how to apply their European trade, and on the other hand, a Besiktas side enjoying it’s finest European season in years.

Atletico’s tactical weaknesses exposed by clever Leverkusen

Last night the BayArena played host to Bayer Leverkusen’s clash with Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League. I must admit I was surprised with the result, in my mind the Spanish champions were favourites for the contest. As it turned out, the tactical ill-discipline displayed by the the away side combined with some clever play from the Germans meant that we were treated to somewhat of a shock.

The focus of this report will be predominately on Leverkusen’s attack, an advertised 4-4-1-1 formation turned into a 4-1-3-1-1 when the hosts were on the ball. This shape matched up against Atletico’s usually secure 4-2-3-1. What immediately struck me during the contest was the use of space by the home side. It seemed apparent to me that they were willing to make the pitch as wide as possible, with full-backs Hilbert and Borges getting forward at every available opportunity. This observation was reflected in the final match statistics, with only 26% of Bayer’s attacks being carried out down the middle of the pitch. There was however, one very strange tactical decision made by the Spaniards that aided Leverkusen in their attempts to penetrate from wide positions, that decision being the positioning of their right-back Juanfran. Juanfran’s average position throughout the match was that of a right winger, beyond the halfway line, and at times it seemed like Diego Simeone had instructed him to play as an additional right-winger alongside Arda Turan. The final match statistics also reflected Madrid’s tendency to attack down the right flank; 47% of their attacks were carried out via that side of the field. This trend was seemingly acknowledged by Leverkusen, and they then went on to expose it in excellent fashion.

Anyone who has played football at any level will understand that from a young age we are taught to do exactly what Atletico did on frequent occasions last night. When they were attacking down the right, all of their players shifted over to the right slightly, thus squeezing the play and making themselves more compact. A common, fairly standard tactic, however Bayer were able to expose it. The Germans were in my eyes very clever, with the right-back Juanfran vacating his position so much, their natural tendency could have been to focus on attacking that flank and exposing the space left behind, as it turned out they did the complete opposite. Whenever Atletico lost possession in the final third, Bayer would firstly look to attack quickly in order to catch the Madrid midfield ahead of the ball (they played over 70 long balls in order to turn Atletico and make them defend whilst facing their own goal), and secondly they would direct their attacks down the left hand side of Atletico (the opposite side to which the space had been vacated by Juanfran). Now some of you may be recognising what the Germans were doing. As already stated, when attacking down the right flank, the men in silver would all shift over to the right, and Bayer were able to recognise that this left a lot of space on the opposite side of the pitch of which they could attack. The stats don’t lie, 49% of Leverkusen’s attacks were carried out down the left hand side of Atletico, a seemingly simple but very effective tactic. It was in fact a tactic that led to Bayer scoring what turned out to be the winning goal- Madrid left-back Siqueira was drawn in narrow, and some clever play from Bellarabi meant that he was able to feed goalscorer Calhanoglu who had happened to find space on the left hand side of Atletico’s defence- textbook tactical execution from the Germans.

Overall, as good as Leverkusen were I felt it was a strange performance from Atletico. They tried to crowd and press the ball in the midfield, however the pace of the home side seemed to catch them out. It was a performance lacking the energy required and that must be a concern for coach Simeone. On the other hand, the Argentinian’s opposite number Roger Schmidt will be over the moon. No away goals conceded and a lead to take to the Vicente Calderon, I would suggest that this is the most finely balanced of all the last 16 ties. That being said, I expect the men from the Spanish capital to raise the intensity of their performance for the second leg. It promises to be a fascinating encounter.

Well-drilled Monaco teach Arsenal a lesson

I was a very interested observer for tonight’s UEFA Champions League clash between highly fancied Arsenal, and solid, if seemingly unspectacular Monaco. From a tactical point of view, my focus was on Monaco. I was intrigued by their supreme defensive record this season, 22 clean sheets in all competitions and only 22 goals conceded in 37 matches all in all, a superb record. Could they mix it with one of England’s best attacking forces though? The answer to that question was as it turned out, unanimous.

Arsenal set up in their familiar 4-2-3-1 shape, with Sky Sports advertising Monaco’s formation as being a 4-3-3, to which I assumed would turn into a 4-5-1 when they didn’t have the ball. I was therefore immediately surprised, as it became clear in the opening stages that the men from the French Riviera adopted a 4-4-2 formation without the ball, with Joao Moutinho playing alongside Dimitar Berbatov up top. It was also clear fro the opening exchanges that Monaco’s gameplan was to sit behind the ball, adopt a compact, narrow shape and press the ball in the centre of the pitch. For the first 5 or so minutes however, this was proving fairly ineffective. Arsenal were moving the ball around quickly, finding the gaps in between the lines of the Monaco midfield and defence, and more tellingly finding a lot of space down both flanks. I believe this problem was down to the Monaco full-backs, Toure and Echiejile being unsure as to whether to stick with their men out wide, or retain the compact nature of their back four and surrender the space out wide. In the end they ended up in between positions, and were lucky not to be punished.

As the game developed into its natural rhythm however, we began to see just how comfortable Monaco were both with and without the ball. One thing that immediately struck me was that, when in possession, the Ligue 1 outfit only adopted one defensive midfielder in the shape of number 2 Tavares. I must say this was a surprise to me, as I expected a team that has only conceded an average of 0.58 goals per game this season to play with two defensive midfielders when in possession, as an insurance policy should they be dispossessed unexpectedly. Their formation when they were in possession of the ball was in fact a 4-1-4-1 formation, and even at times a 4-1-3-2 when Moutinho pushed forward alongside Berbatov. This to me signified that this was a side willing to commit numbers forward in attack, however I was still asking myself the question- how could a team with such ambition be so defensively sound? The first time Monaco were dispossessed in the final third I had my answer; the energy and organisation in their midfield was second to none.  As soon as they lost the ball the midfield trio of Dirar, Martial and the hugely impressive Kondogbia all filtered in behind the ball seamlessly. They attacked as a unit and defended as a unit, and I was hugely impressed with their in-game adaptation to the different situations they were faced with. When Arsenal had the ball amongst their back 4, the French outfit would adopt a 4-4-2 as previously stated, however when Arsenal crossed the halfway line, a defensive block of  a back 4 and midfield 5 would be adopted, thus creating a 4-5-1 formation. This level of organisation was excellent, and showed that every individual knew what was expected of them. In addition, when in this 4-5-1 formation, the decisions of the midfield as to when and when not to press were excellent. Commonly, one of the midfield 5 would press the ball around the midfield, with the other 4 dropping off and narrowing the space between the lines. At times when Arsenal started to move the ball quicker, 2 of the 5 would recognise the situation and press, and 3 would drop and defend the space between the lines- it is this adaption to the situation that they were faced with that I believe makes Monaco the supreme defensive outfit that they undoubtedly are.

In addition to being excellent without the ball, with the ball the visitors were first class. Much was made pre-match as to how Monaco were going to execute the transition from defence to attack, Souness and Redknapp in the studio stating that Dimitar Berbatov wouldn’t run and chase and when Monaco cleared the ball it would just come straight back. What the pundits didn’t take into account was how comfortable the away side would be on the ball. The way they played themselves out from the back was excellent, every defender was comfortable on the ball, as was every midfielder. There were no hopeless, aimless balls just lumped forward, and in the second half especially, Joao Moutinho added a few flashes of brilliance that helped them retain possession in the final third which helped them greatly in protecting their lead.

So in summary, as poor as Arsenal were, Monaco were excellent. Yes Arsenal didn’t move the ball nearly as quickly as they needed to, however the constant hassling from the men in blue contributed a great deal to this lack of intensity from the Gunners and we should take nothing away from their performance. Theo Walcott used his pace to provide some openings late on, however the visitors looked extremely comfortable throughout the contest, in fact the goal they did concede was due to an uncharacteristic error from midfielder Kondogbia. From an Arsenal point of view, they will be disappointed with the goals they conceded- a long range deflected effort, a counter attack which could have been prevented through better decision making from Per Mertesacker, and an individual error from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the third- the second and third goals from a Monaco perspective however were taken very well. Yes Arsenal had their chances, Giroud could have and probably should have scored, but this was a tactical exhibition from Monaco. A special mention as well to centre-back Abdennour; he was superb for the visitors and proved to be the stalwart at the back that every defensively successful team requires.

Can Arsenal turn things around in the second leg? Based on the organisation that I witnessed from Monaco tonight, I would say the answer to that is a resounding ‘no’.

Why the Manchester City players need to start taking responsibility in Europe

A lot has been made of Manuel Pellegrini’s tactics in the Champions League this season, not least during last nights match against F.C. Barcelona. Having observed last nights match closely however, I feel the tactics implemented by the Chilean weren’t as bad as people are making out, and his players need to start taking more responsibility for their execution of the gameplan.

City lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, a questionable 4-4-2 formation given that they knew Barca would come at them with an interchangeable 4-3-3, however it wasn’t the actual formation, more the execution of the formation that was the problem. Around 5 minutes in, when the rhythm of the game had been established, it became very clear to me that the men in sky blue were too rigid, too fixed to their positions. Adopting the 4-4-2 shape with the ball is fine against Barca, it gives you two focal points and the ability to attack them in space often left down the flanks due to their full-backs pushing on, and over the many years I have been watching Barcelona week in week out, taking the game to them has seemed to unsettle them to a degree. Adopting the 4-4-2 formation without the ball however was a tactically inept decision from not just the manager, but the players themselves. Lets start with the very basic issue that arose in the opening exchanges of the encounter- City knew what they were going to be faced with prior to the match, a midfield 3 from Barcelona of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic. It doesn’t take a genius to see the fundamental problem; the 4-4-2 involves two central midfielders, Barca lined up with 3. Add that to the central movements of Lionel Messi and Neymar, and City found themselves severely outnumbered in the centre of the park. Manuel Pellegrini received a certain amount of criticism for this decision, however was it too much to ask of either Edin Dzeko or Sergio Aguero to attach themselves to Sergio Busquets for example? The man who loves to control the tempo of the match was allowed to do just that, no-one stepped near him, the Barca midfield was afforded acres of space. Simple it may sound, the second best team in the country came unstuck by it.

Another baffling tactical decision made by Manchester City last night, in the first half especially, was the amount of space they left in between the lines. As I’ve already eluded to, the space between their attack and midfield was too great and Busquets was allowed too much time in the ball, however the space they then left in between their midfield and defence was unforgivable. It allowed the likes of Rakitic, Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, and Suarez the space to be able to pick the ball up in behind James Milner and Fernando, turn unchallenged and have time on the ball in the final third of the pitch. The gaps between the lines were a result of one thing- a very rigid formation. City needed to be more dynamic last night against the quick, incisive passing of Barcelona, however it seemed throughout the contest, first half especially, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Lee Dixon on commentary was bemoaning the fact that they weren’t pressing the ball, a valid point, however the rigidness of their formation meant they couldn’t press effectively during the first half. Aguero and Dzeko were spectators without the ball, meaning if Milner or Fernando did press Busquets or Iniesta in possession they would be leaving even more space in behind the midfield. As a result of this they of course stood off Barca, and we all know how deadly the Catalans can be when they’re in possession. Last night the City forwards has just as much defensive responsibility as Vincent Kompany for example, in failing to do their bit without the ball, they put their whole team in trouble.

At half-time any score seemed possible, however the performance of the reigning Premier League champions in the second half proved that in my mind, a properly executed 4-4-2 can work against Barcelona. In the second 45 minutes, City pressed the ball all over the pitch. The Barca back 4 suddenly didn’t have time on the ball, they were giving away possession cheaply, their midfield was being rushed, their forwards didn’t see as much of the ball. This all came from the City players pressing from the front, pressing as a unit and making the pitch smaller. Yes they were taking a risk by leaving space in behind, but no tactics are risk-free and it turned out to be a well judged risk from Pellegrini. You look at City’s goal, yes it came as a result of an error in possession from Barca, but that error was bought about by the high intensity and pressing in the City game.

So to conclude, I feel the fact that the 4-4-2 formation was maintained throughout the match from City (before they went down to ten men) indicates that it wasn’t a bad choice of formation from Pellegrini, and it was the lackluster approach from his players in the first half that let him down. One thing I do know is that if they replicate yesterday’s first half in Spain, we won’t be seeing them in the hat for the quarter-finals.