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2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

FIFA World Cup 2022: How Ecuador’s midfield balance and movement gained three points against Qatar – tactical analysis

The World Cup officially started yesterday as Qatar and Ecuador took to the stage for the first game of the tournament, where the South Americans were widely the better team on the pitch of the Al-Khor Stadium. History was made indeed, as Qatar debuted at a World Cup, and none team had played their first World Cup only by hosting it and not qualifying before. Ecuador also join the history books as they were the first nation to win the first match against the hosts. This really explained how the match elapsed.

Gustavo Alfaro’s surprising squad showed the world why they are one of the tips for being dark horses in the competition, and how they have been working at every phase of their game with young and experimented players, in past years where they won a direct spot in the South-American World-Cup Qualifiers.

On the other hand, the hosts, Qatar were absolutely stomped by the rampant and electric Ecuador’s game style that really block all the ways for them to try and create goal-scoring chances. They were suffocated by Alfaro’s team’s exchanges to high press and the intensity of midfielders Jhegson Méndez and Moisés Caicedo when they tried to progress through the central areas of the pitch. The Asian champions couldn’t break the solid and coordinated block from Ecuadorians who had solid performances from Piero Hincapié as well in terms of passing and anticipations off his line.

Ecuador ended up winning three points thanks to a double by Enner Valencia who really shined as a mobile centre-forward, in a really tough group for them as they would have to face Netherlands and Senegal in their following games. In this tactical analysis, we dive into the tactics of both teams and see how Gustavo Alfaro’s Ecuador won the first of three intense battles that are coming for his team.

Lineups

Ecuador changed their shape from the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 where Enner Valencia and Michael Estrada really did a great job with dynamic and constant movements, going wide and dropping deep to help their team progress.

Hernán Galindez was the goalkeeper in this first game, his league title with Aucas made him win the run of the goal against players like Moisés Ramírez or Alexander Domínguez, The back-four was composed of explosive and attacking full-backs including Genk‘s player Angelo Preciado on the right and Pervis Estupiñán on the left, with Piero Hincapié and Félix Torres in the centre of the defence, with the Bayer Leverkusen player deployed on the left-side and Félix on the right.

The midfield line formed of Romario Ibarra over the left, Moisés Caicedo and Jhegson Méndez as the double-pivot and Gonzalo Plata on the right wing. As mentioned before, Estrada and Valencia closed up a really interesting lineup.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

Félix Sánchez on the other hand set up a 5-3-2 that in attack turned to a 3-5-2 with very attacking full-backs over the flanks with the likes of Pedro Miguel running down the right wing. Saad Al-Sheeb was the goalkeeper, who didn’t have the best night of his career. Pedro Miguel and Homam Ahmed were the offensive wing-backs, completing the back-five with Bassam Al-Rawi, Boualem Khoukhi and Abdelkarim Hassam.

The midfield had Hassam Al Haydos, Karim Boudiaf and Abdulaziz Hatem, to try to provide a threat with Akram Afif, who was everywhere trying to do things on his own as his team didn’t showcase good football and Almoez Ali was the centre-forward.

Defensive approach and the Caicedo-Mendez block

One of the clearest sights inside Ecuador’s system is how intense they are when the ball is played through the middle. They exchange quite often the mid-block to high pressing, however, their pressing structure is totally set up to make midfielders pull triggers in the most aggressive ways. With players like Moisés Caicedo, who’s a ball-winner machine through the pitch and Jhegson Méndez who put in a massive performance, showing his great defensive capacities, Ecuador could stress their rivals.

Their 4-4-2 shape turned into a 4-3-3 with one of the wingers of the strong side of the ball advancing some meters to join the forward line, to then form a narrow front-three up-front. They allowed Qatar to have the ball out of their own penalty box and advanced some meters on the pitch, around the half-way-line. As we can see in this data viz of Ecuador’s Defensive Territory, it shows an exact positioning of when they were biting with the pressure and waiting to win the ball.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

This narrow front three looked to close down Qatar’s passing circuit with their number ‘6’ who was behind this pressing line and couldn’t move properly to find space and turn completely the pitch. This is a great example of how Ecuador looks to deploy their first defensive line. Romario Ibarra is the one who has jumped from the midfield to join Estrada and Valencia, however, Qatar moved the ball to the other side of the pitch, so Gonzalo Plata is ready at that wing to join the forward line and Ibarra to track back to the midfield. These wide players were also important as they offered to shadow movements and presence to stop them from progressing on the outside.

‘La ‘Tricolor’ blocked all the paths through the middle to force them to play long balls in case Qatar didn’t find a way through, and they were basically doing that during the majority of the match, as they were stunned by Ecuador’s game.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

If Qatar found space to progress over the flanks, and then from out to in, one of the Ecuadorian midfielders would have to jump to cover these spaces where a rival player could run with time and space and make damage against them. With the dynamism and intensity Moisés Caicedo and Méndez provided, Ecuador were in really safe hands with these well-timed coverings, which didn’t need to tackle every time. Only with the suffocating and tight press, Qatar restarted their build-ups and ran out of ideas. This was one of the most common actions when Ecuador started attacking transitions.

Los Angeles FC’s player, Jhegson Méndez really showcased his fantastic abilities in different moments and contexts for his National Team. He maybe hasn’t got the eye on him like Caicedo or experimented Gruezo has, but his World Cup debut was really one to watch.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis
When Qatar looked to progress from out to in, the Ecuador sided-midfielder jumped off his line to mark aggressively the next ball receiver.

However this wasn’t the only job for Mendez and Caicedo, they had lots of tasks to complete during this match. Gustavo Alfaro during his post-match press conference revealed what he said to his players before the start of the game: “I told them the stories of the Roman Coliseum, where they throw Lions to fight against Spartans. Later they found the rounded fangs of lions and their clipped claws. I asked them if they wanted to enter with clipped claws and rounded fangs or how they want to enter”. Inside the metaphor, it really showed the aggressive and battling system of Ecuador, and mostly the double-pivot role.

Akram Afif, Qatar’s best player and second-striker, dropped really deep and even joined the centre-backs line on some occasions as he’s very good technically, but also because his team weren’t finding passing connections and options to progress. When this free player appear through the middle, and he was the only one to do it for Qatar, midfielders jumped to mark him. One in front of him to close down his vision going up-front, at the other from behind to orient him out, forcing him to make a back pass or a lateral pass.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis
Akram Afif received the ball, through the middle, but the aggressive marking from Caicedo and Méndez from behind forced him to make a back-pass.

They were also very coordinated and intelligent to leave a little distance between them if something didn’t go as planned, they were still narrow and trying to close all lines possible. This picture is a perfect example, as Caicedo goes more centrally again, against Afif, who was thinking of executing a progressive pass to the flanks, but Brighton’s midfielder marked him and forced him to play a back pass for his centre-back.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

Ecuador’s key inside their defensive compactness and balance was the synergy between the double-pivot, who really understand and communicate a lot about who was going to jump and who covered behind, as well to decide when to track back and not press the ball-holder anymore. Nevertheless, the narrow front-three and the proactive back-four, especially full-backs, also did the job but obviously in different ways, as the forwards were more passive and full-backs for example were super-aggressive when someone was trying to drive with the ball in wide areas.

Mendez’s role with the ball and how they try to progress

Ecuador had a very simple on-the-ball dynamic that started with Jhegson Méndez’s movements, who would step back from the midfield and join the back-four, to then form a back-three. This automatically generated a numerical overload with a 3v2 against the centre-forward partnership Afif-Ali from Qatar. As Mendez would drop deep, Moisés Caicedo stayed between these two strikers, but this also had sense, as Brighton‘s midfielder looked to pin them narrowly to make space for the centre-backs who pushed wide to receive with space and play with their full-backs or break through-the-lines.

Behind them, both wingers played more inverted, especially Gonzalo Plata as a ’10’, and full-backs moved forward as wing-backs, with movements from Estrada and Valencia too, to the outside or centrally.

After the centre-back received the ball with space, they automatically looked to find their full-back. Immediately after getting in touch with the ball, they were trying to play it from out-to-in to one inverted winger or execute chipped passes to centre-forwards who moved a bit wide in these stages of the build-up.

Pervis Estupiñán and Angelo Preciado’s ball technique and confidence when on the ball gave Ecuador the keys to breaking the blocks when they were trying to create positionally. Ibarra or Plata’s appearances through the middle were the following step after these Caicedo and Méndez movements to make full-backs receive with space. As you can see in this picture, Estupiñán was even helped by Enner Valencia who crossed all the pitch to provide a passing option. That is the mobility that defined Ecuador yesterday.

Even if full-backs didn’t play a part in this build-up, their position also helped centre-backs, mainly Hincapié, to make through passes for advanced players.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

These Méndez movements were also finished off by a supporting run through the middle. If one of the centre-forwards partners did get attracted by one of the Ecuadorian centre-backs, there was a space generated behind them, so Méndez would definitely run into that zone to receive the ball and make his team progress in little touches and forward passes through the lines.

As Akram Afif went close to Félix Torres, Méndez took advantage of the space at his back, to make the supporting run and receive the ball.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

When Ecuador set up in the middle third, Gonzalo Plata and Romario Ibarra started to show off their abilities. They were super dynamic, especially Plata, to receive the ball and drive from one side to another, but also receiving the ball behind Qatar’s midfield line where they have plenty of road to roam.

Rapid attacking-transitions

Gustavo Alfaro said in his post-match press conference that they have been “working on attacking transitions, during the past 15-days. I told them that after winning the ball-back, they’ll need to play one or two touches to finish the play”. That was exactly how Ecuador scored their two goals tonight and also created several chances through this tactical setup. Normally, Ecuador would look to play one pass from one player to other, often between midfielders, who were the constant ball-winners, to one of the centre-forwards who would unhang from their position to receive.

The first goal came through an attacking transition that ended in a penalty. Mendez, who really had a wonderful match, won the ball back thanks to a brilliant slide tackle. He got up, passed the ball to Plata and this one returned it to him. After that, he saw Michael Estrada dropping off his line looking to receive behind the Qatar midfielders.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

The action then turns into this: Wingers join the transition looking to run behind the full-backs or between the full-back and centre-back. Estrada, who’s in-possession of the ball, doesn’t carry it a second. He decides to make a brilliant through-pass to Enner Valencia making the run, who then was fouled at the penalty area.

Again, as said in this analysis, it’s a simple display by Ecuador but is greatly taken and this kind of setup mostly gets the job done if they’re executed by the right players. The second goal was also scored this way, they won the ball back in the midfield. On that occasion, Moisés Caicedo, who this time carried the ball forward, tried a through-pass too for Gonzalo Plata, however, it was blocked. He then picked the rebound and passed it to Preciado, who had a brilliant-performance creating threat from his wing, and executed a lovely cross for Enner Valencia.

Another time, this situation was repeated. Ecuador won the ball back as they were owners of second balls. In this case, it was once again, Jhegson Méndez who won height on the pitch and realised one of the greatest executions of the match, with a brilliant and delicate pass to Romario Ibarra who ran with space but couldn’t get past the goalkeeper with his shot.

2022 World Cup: Qatar vs Ecuador - match analysis - tactical analysis

Conclusion

Within two minutes of the match, Ecuador already had scored but the goal was disallowed after one of the most controversial decisions we have seen from VAR. However, it marked what the game was going to be for Qatar, who really didn’t catch up with their football and were completely rolled by Gustavo Alfaro’s Ecuador.

After they wrapped up the 2-0 result in the first half, Ecuador really slow the speed and rhythm of the game. Even one of the key players, Méndez, said during a post-match interview that they did play at half-gear, but obviously fully aware of what can happen in a football match. They still have two big matches, so they have to be careful about their decisions.