How FC Basel are planning long-term with Alex Frei – tactical analysis
After being handed the FC Basel job ahead of the 2022/23 season, Alex Frei has been handed what seems like a long-term project. Frei was previously an FC Basel player between 2009-2013 so knows the club and the area well.
Having just led FC Winterthur to promotion in the 2021/22 Swiss Challenge League, Frei was appointed coach of Basel along with assistant and former Basel player Davide Callà. The pair had a successful period at Winterthur and have started okay with Basel.
Over the last four years, Basel have had five different managers. There was a growing frustration amongst fans with one fan stating ‘in the long term one trainer after the other will simply come and go and you won’t build anything up.’ The previous manager was sacked due to the ‘unsatisfactory development of the first team.’
Alex Frei is a relatively young coach and has worked his way up the coaching ladder. His previous roles include sporting director, youth team manager and interim manager, all at a range of clubs.
Over the summer, Basel had 19 new arrivals and 21 departures, making it a busy first transfer window, including former PSG and Leeds United striker Jean-Kévin Augustin. The average age of the squad has been brought right down to 23.1 years old. The long-term project being implemented is enough to excite any manager or football fan.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by the former Borussia Dortmund man in the 2022/23 campaign so far. In this analysis, we will delve into the tactics that will be used to guide Basel to a high finish.
The graphic below is Basel’s percentile ranks amongst other teams in the 2022/23 Credit Suisse Super League. It covers three main categories with a range of subcategories. The pink coloured segments represent the attacking data, the yellow is possession and the white is defending data.
Basel ranks relatively high for goals per 90, xG per 90 and opponent penalty area entries per 90. Their style of play heavily involves them entering the box whether that is centrally or out wide. The data supports their attacking style of play and shows they can score goals with relative ease.
Their crosses per 90 rank is extremely low however, they do tend to cross the ball following the isolation of their wide men against the opposition fullback. They tend to cross the ball from the right-hand side and are extremely accurate with the majority of their crosses entering the six-yard box.
This area of the game is what Alex Frei bases his style on. A high-possession dominant side that completes a large number of passes. Their rank for passes per 90, possession and accurate passes are all virtually the best in the league. The impressive nature of their accurate passes shows how dominant they are and how well they set up with the ball.
Furthermore, Frei’s side completes a good amount of final third entries per 90. Their style, which will be covered in more depth later, involves making the pitch as big as possible and setting up with plenty of options available to pass to.
As a ball-dominant side, their defensive data is not as strong as in other areas, which is as you would expect. Basel dominate the ball and pride themselves on winning it back quickly. Their PPDA and opposition xG per shot are quite high. PPDA is a useful stat to determine how aggressive a team is off the ball, as we will discover, Basel are not an overly aggressive pressing side. They look to win the ball back in a good area and affect the game with their strategic defending.
With the ball in their control, Frei sets his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This formation involves two midfield players and a number ten. By playing this way, Frei’s team are able to dominate the ball and build up play effectively, see the below image. Having two midfield players enables Basel to always have a passing option. In central areas, quick rotations and movements are utilised to ensure possession is sustained.
As mentioned, Basel are excellent at building out from the back and progressing play. Their formation and set-up allow for them to quickly and effectively overload the midfield area. The example above shows how Basel can change a two-man midfield into a three-man midfield ensuring that one player is always unmarked. To do this the ’10’ drops deep alongside the other midfield players. Next, one of the midfield pair moves closer to the defence and acts as a single pivot.
Once Frei’s men have progressed play into the middle third of the pitch, their set-up changes. This is the area of the pitch in which Basel look to penetrate their opponent and move forwards. To do this, Frei instructs his fullbacks to play higher and more advanced than they are in the above image.
By doing this, they now occupy the space in the wide channels and are always a spare man to pass the ball to. The fullbacks have a very important role in the attack, but their role in the build-up is just as important. The below image shows how Frei sets his players up into an almost a flat midfield four.
The fullbacks are instructed to play in line with the midfield players and this creates a flat line covering the width of the pitch. Frei’s centre-backs are encouraged to be on the ball and continue to pass it until they can find a penetrating pass. By having a good base to build on, Basel’s attacking players are able to remain further up the pitch as they try to affect the game with their off-the-ball movements.
These movements can be into space both beyond the last line and in front of it. The domination of the ball allows Basel to pick the right moment in which to play a pass. The centre-backs find themselves in possession of the ball for large periods of the game and are prone to playing diagonal long balls.
In the example above, the centre-back has spotted the run off his fullback and is able to play a direct long ball into the space. On this occasion, it is the fullback who makes the run but often the wingers found themselves on the end of these impressive long balls. For a team who dominates possession, it can at times be difficult to break opponents down, especially when facing a low or mid-block. This method of progressing play helps beat their opponent’s defensive structure and speeds up play.
The data tells that Basel don’t play long regularly, in fact, they have the second lowest number of long passes per 90 in the league with 37. This emphasises their style of play and that they look to play short and penetrate the opposition however they can mix it up and play long, such as in the example above. the impressive nature of this is that they have the highest accuracy of long passes at 59% showing just how effective these diagonal balls are.
Further up the pitch, the attacking players are excellent at linking up with each other and combining. The ’10’ and striker are coached well and work excellently together making runs into space and dragging defenders with them. Frei has obviously worked hard on drilling his forward players into understanding space and how to affect the game, even without the ball. The below example shows how the striker is aware of a potential situation and makes a selfless run away from play, opening up space.
Making the run into the space is 21-year-old Zeki Amdouni. Amdouni has been a regular for Basel in the number ’10’ position. Despite him wearing number ‘9’, he is well-suited and almost tailor-made for the ’10’ role. He finds himself making good runs and linking play. He is a great finisher in the box and is very direct. He is certainly a player to watch over the coming seasons, he also made his international debut for Switzerland in September. Below are his penetrating carries for far this season.
His style is made to flourish by Frei as he is given a license to roam and carry the ball. Along with this, the third-man runs made from deep midfield are brilliant and cause all kinds of issues for opponents. Below is an excellent example of how the striker dropping deep frees up space behind which is penetrated excellently.
This off-the-ball movement and third-man run has clearly been worked on by Frei. It enables Basel to attack so centrally and exploit the middle part of the pitch.
Out of possession
Although they don’t spend a lot of time without the ball when they do they are still very assured. Their style of play out of possession is to not aggressively press like Liverpool or Manchester City. They are much more measured and conservative about when they press. Their method out of possession helps to conserve energy whilst at the same time, they remain somewhat in control of what their opponent does.
By deploying this system they remain structured in their defence and midfield whilst the more advanced players engage directly with their opponents. This way of pressing works if, like in the example above, the players can read the play and are alert to the next potential pass. Frei encourages his forward players to work hard and apply some pressure on their opposition.
The midfield is alert to any potential threats centrally and are instructed to apply a large amount of pressure if the ball finds itself in the middle of the pitch. On a number of occasions, the midfield players aggressively engaged with their opponent to reduce the likelihood of play progressing centrally. For Basel, this worked well. However, on occasion, they were caught out with a few quick passes, something to be wary of.
Upon regaining the ball Basel look to break forwards quickly. By doing this they can gain the most from their wide players who often find themselves in space. The below example shows just how many options the ball carrier has to pass to.
Each of the forward players looks to make a direct run forwards into the space behind the opposition defence. By doing this it means that the opponent has to make a decision on whether to drop deep or commit to the man with the ball. Their counterattacks are quick and often lead to goal-scoring opportunities.
When looking to regain the ball, Frei wants his men to remain structured and be alert to threatening situations. Like their principles for when they are without the ball, Frei instructs his team to stop the ball from being played centrally. They are quick to react on and play in the midfield and look to nullify it as soon as possible. This often involves more than one player actively pursuing the ball.
Overall Alex Frei is an exciting manager with an exciting group of players at his disposal. Basel currently sit seventh, way off where they would usually expect themselves. However, this project is a long-term one and one that will hopefully see rewards not too far into the future.
Frei’s core principles and philosophy align well and are suited to the modern-day game. He has implemented them excellently so far and is just lacking some experience and quality on the pitch at times.