Let’s talk about tactics. Each week, clubs vary their approaches and over the season we’ll be analyzing how teams leverage an advantage by best using the resources within their squad.
Louis van Gaal’s Halftime Switch
Twitter’s trolls were quick to throw Louis van Gaal under the bus after his side’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Swansea City, even though he was forced to play a weakened hand due to injuries. He set his team into a system that is often oversimplified, because it’s a mixture of a 3-4-3 that turns into a 5-2-3 and then a 3-4-1-2 in attack. If he keeps playing that system throughout the season, we can get into more in depth. While many will say that he abandoned the system out of failure, it is important to see why and how the team was more successful after he added men on the wings.
Swansea set out in a very narrow and compact 4-2-3-1. While this is not the first time United have faced that shape since van Gaal took over, it is the first time the Red Devils have played a team that spread four players across the field to press.
In the team’s final warmup match against Valencia, the Spanish outfit limited the number of men that pressed the opposition. This allowed space for Ander Herrera and Darren Fletcher to get on the ball and create. The game plan after those two got on the ball was for them to either find a wing back streaking down the flank or send the ball into the creative feet of Juan Mata. Without men to thwart the two center midfielders, United attacked with ease, as Herrera pinged this lovely ball down the flank for Ashley Young.
Swansea manager Garry Monk jammed the area where the two midfielders operate though, cutting off the supply line to the middle of the pitch, which forced Manchester United to possess in a U-shape, switching the ball from wing-back to wing-back via the center backs, until a forced long ball was played or the Swans regained possession. The reason Swansea could play so compact though, was because on the flanks, there was only one player to worry about. In the clip below, United are frustrated by Swansea’s four and even though Herrera gets an inkling of space, if he receives the ball in possession, he will be forced to play the ball backwards immediately.
At the half time break, van Gaal needed to spread the game out and he did. The extra wide men forced Swansea to spread out, because they now had to defend the wings with two men instead of one. This opened up the midfield for Herrera and Fletcher to create and work the ball into Rooney and Mata, as well as the two wide players who also had cover through their full backs. Below, the halftime switch shows its benefits, as it freed up Januzaj down the right flank, giving him the freedom to run at defenders. He does so here and earns the corner that leads to Rooney’s equalizer.
Swansea won the match on a goal that caught two rather inexperienced defenders out of place. Tyler Blackett made his Premier League debut, while Ashley Young was stuck at left back. In a five back system, the three central defenders can mask his weaknesses, but in the back four, it is easy for his aerial ability, especially, to get exposed. Once Luke Shaw and Johnny Evans get back into the side, the halftime adjustment van Gaal made Saturday is a viable Plan B for United
Baines In Attack
Leighton Baines is an indispensable part of Roberto Martinez’s Everton squad. Not only is the left back tasked with defending attacking wingers, but also getting forward down the flanks. His key pass and assist statistics are exceptional for a full back, but without Seamus Coleman as a threat down the right side, Baines became more heavily relied upon in Everton’s build up against Leicester City. Martinez wants him high up the pitch and getting chalk on the soles of his boots.
To accommodate Baines’ higher position when working the ball out from the back, an interesting sequence occurs. Below, Everton is in the middle of switching the ball through its center backs. With Baines pushed so high up field though, Sylvain Distin is short on passing options. Gareth Barry spots the space and sprints to Distin’s left to give his center back an outlet. Once the Englishman gets on the ball, look for Baines.
He is nowhere to be found. The attacking full back is so high up the pitch, that it forces the player you would expect to be there, Steven Pienaar, to drop to gain possession from Barry.
The attack is hugely reliant on Baines’ vision, when it gets forward to score its second goal. Pienaar receives a diagonal ball from Romelu Lukaku in a swift attack by the Toffies. Off camera, Baines sprints forward in the attack to support his midfield partner. After getting the ball down the flank, the England international cuts it back for the South African, who finds Steven Naismith to make it 2-1.
By starting Baines further forward, Everton gets width and it enables the extra attacker to link up with the likes of Pienaar and Naismith around the 18-yard box. Baines’ forward movement was limited in the second half, as he did not receive the ball beyond the 18-yard box once.
Sterling Goes Streaking
There were a lot of tactical aspects in the Anfield opener, ranging from Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 and the variation of its buildup play to Southampton using Victor Wanyama as a battering ram in midfield.
Out of respect for the shift the Kenyan put in, we’ll feature a GIF to recognize him.
As fun as it would be to watch Victor Wanyama crunch Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, and others with success nine times, it is a bit more interesting to look at the movement and finishing of one of those Liverpool youngsters.
Some people joke about Sterling being a baby, but his football mind has certainly grown and his game is maturing as a result. Early last season, the starlet used his pace to get behind defenses, only for him to be caught by a defender or for him to make a, “Come on, man!” style miss – such as this one against Manchester City last December.
Of course, his finishing improves over the season, but he has been able to compose himself in front of goal and simply place the ball by the keeper in one-on-one situations.
His journey to goal was a bit different Sunday though, as he made a similar run into the middle of the park to get into the channel between Nathaniel Clyne and Jose Fonte.
In the 6th minute, he is off to the races via Daniel Sturridge’s through-ball.
While Sterling does get on the ball only to be ushered away from Fraser Forster by the Southampton defense, it sets the tone for the Reds’ opener over a quarter of an hour later.
Jordan Henderson zips that deliciously shaped through-ball into the path of the 19-year-old, who finishes with ease.
The diagonal run Sterling makes is not only for him though, as it opens up space for teammates as well. As the Reds look to double their lead, Sterling darts forward again, dragging Clyne with him to open up space for the on-running Coutinho.
Perhaps Sterling has grown out of the phase young players go through, when they feel the need do three step-overs before nutmegging their opponent to get by them.
Most of a player’s time on the pitch is spent off the ball, so Sterling having a look at his off-the-ball movement is an underrated part of his development that should improve more with time. If Sterling continues to make intelligent runs through the channels like those against the Saints, it will be another lethal weapon in Brendan Rodgers’ arsenal.
In order to keep this article fresh each week, I will need some user input. It is impossible for me to watch and breakdown all 10 games each weekend, as much as I would love to, so if you notice something that a team you follow closely is doing tactically, feel free to tweet me, @alexsfairchild, or drop a line in the comments section below, and I’ll gladly look into it.