April 21, 2020: Tactic Wars Solution – Artyom Osipov
Before we show you Artyom’s solution, let’s remind ourselves of the challenge he was posed.
It is time for the MLS All-Star match and you have been selected to coach Team MLS as they face Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United during the Red Devils’ pre-season tour.
— Total Football Analysis (@TotalAnalysis) April 21, 2020
I have been selected as the manager of the MLS All-star team and in the pre-season tournament to face Manchester United. My job is to pick a team suitable to compete with the English giants and to create a gameplan that can get me the victory over Ole Gunnar Solskjær. There is no excuse for losing, so I need to pick the best tactics to beat the opposition.
Manchester United (4-4-2 diamond): de Gea; Shaw, Maguire, Lindelöf, Wan-Bissaka; Fred, Matić, Pogba, Bruno Fernandes; Rashford, Martial
This is the team Ole is likely to put out, with the main leaders fit and ready to play.
MLS All-star (3-5-2): Hamid; Parker, Long, Escobar; Hollingshead, Chara, Gressel, Zusi, Barco; Joseph Martinez, Vela
I am lining my team up in a flexible 3-5-2 formation with Hollingshead and Zusi playing wing-backs or wingers depending on the game state. You can see my formation below.
This is how both teams are likely to look on the pitch.
In the first section of this tactics wars solution, I will give you the analysis of opponent’s attacking play and I will write about my team’s defensive organisation.
I will have my team defending in a mid-block in 5-3-2 formation against Manchester United. I believe there are several reasons for this decision.
Firstly, the class of their players is impeccable, especially the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, who can construct and create on their own, in this match they will be paired together. So, I don’t want them having too much time on the ball.
Secondly, the pair of pacey forwards in Martial and Rashford forces me to go with three central defenders, as it provides additional man in the middle in case one of the other defenders gets beaten. Additionally, it is my goal to make it harder for Pogba and other United players to play long balls for them running in behind, and thus my defence will sit deeper to minimise the damage of this option.
Finally, I think this defensive system suits the player I have and it is pretty solid for stopping United’s attacking threat.
So, let’s go into details and see how I want my team to play in this match defensively.
The MLS All-star team will be using 5-3-2 formation with Barco switching from the position of attacking midfielder to playing as a left midfielder. You can see that I want my #8(Diego Chara, who is one of the best defensive midfielders in the MLS) to man-mark #10(Bruno Fernandes). The point of playing 4-4-2 diamond is having a central overload(usually 4 against 3) and thus progressing the ball through the central areas. With United having numerical superiority in numbers in midfield and also the creativity of the players they have there, I want to shut them down as much as possible during the game.
Also, another advantage of playing in United’s formation is the ability, with having good passers, to progress quickly with vertical passes to the final third, and then the pace of their forwards running into the spaces between the defenders can do the rest. Our objective is to prevent this from happening too.
Because of the reasons I mentioned in the last two paragraphs, my team will use several tactics to minimise the attacking potential of the Red Devils. As I said before, my deepest lying midfielder will be on Bruno during the whole game in order to prevent the direct passes into him from the rest of United’s midfield. In case Fernandes decides to drop deep to collect the ball, Chara would remain position-oriented and the task of marking the Portuguese player would be handed on to one of the two remaining midfielders. Let’s look at the example to see this in motion.
So, if Bruno (red #10) drops deep to receive the ball, Chara doesn’t follow him and stays in his position, while the other midfielder(in this case Gressel, blue #7) starts covering Fernandes. In order to prevent United from having the open man in midfield(in this example, red #8), one of the strikers would play as a shadow to close down the passing option to that player.
My other two midfielders will position according to space-orientated man-marking, so when Pogba or Fred enter their zone with the ball, they will man-mark them. If they will pass the ball or leave the zone without the ball in general, Barco and Gressel will return to their initial positions.
Having five people at the back gives us several advantages when defending. First of all, if any Manchester United player decides to play the long balls or through balls to Rashford or Martial, we will have a natural 3v2 advantage, plus the full-backs. In the case United opt-in for the pass to the flanks to one of their full-backs (Wan-Bissaka or Shaw), they will always have a direct opponent in Zusi or Hollingshead.
Our initial plan can be an antidote against the midfield of the English side, but they still have very talented centre-backs when it comes to passing. Maguire and Lindelöf are great passers of the ball, so we need to expect some creative play from them too. I believe that Maguire will be the one to carry the ball forward, as he’s done this multiple times in this season at United.
I am planning to utilise my forwards, Carlos Vela and Joseph Martinez, in different ways and give them different defensive tasks. Martinez will have the duty of applying situational pressing to Matić when he is on the ball, while former Arsenal player will be positioned in right half-space and will be tasked to apply only occasional pressing to Maguire. So, if Harry decides to push up with the ball, Vela will mark him and track him down. In case Lindelöf would want to push up, Martinez will have to switch from marking Matić to tracking the Swedish player.
These are a couple of things that I haven’t mentioned.
Because Gressel and Barco will be positioned according to spatial orientation, occasionally man-marking Fred or Pogba, they will sometimes act as cover shadows for Martial and Rashford, cutting off the passing lanes to them because of their positions.
We will have the dominant presence in our box because of the tall players in Parker and Long, who can compensate for the lack of height in Franco Escobar.
Our defensive system is solid and will help to avoid United creating big chances in this game, maybe only limiting them to half-opportunities. Solskjær hasn’t been able to build an organised style of possession play at United yet, so we need to take advantage of that. In terms of them playing long, because of our formation and the defensive roles of player I believe we will be able to successfully counter this threat.
This is my defensive tactics for this game, and in the next section I will break down our offensive transition.
As our defensive plan for this game is defending in a mid-block with most of our players in our half, United is likely to throw a lot of their player forward to break down our block. We will look to exploit the spaces their players leave with the runs of Martinez, Vela, Barco and occasionally our wing-backs(Hollingshead and Zusi).
In the image above you can see one example of my team’s transition from defence to attack. The ball is lost in the half-space and our defenders immediately look for the run of Martinez on the flank behind Wan-Bissaka. Barco (#10) will replace Martinez as a forward with his run(you can see the trajectory in the picture). Then, depending on if Martinez goes through or not, we would have a quick counter-attack with 2v2 in the box(Barco and Vela against Maguire and Lindelöf), or we will begin our phase of possession play. Vela on the right side and Martinez on the left side with Barco coming in from behind can be deadly for United in transitions, as they are all speedy and have a great sense of positioning. There are some rotations to this pattern, as Barco can be the one making a diagonal run instead of Martinez, with Joseph staying centrally. Crosses into the box can be very efficient during the counter-attacks.
Outside of the passes to the running forwards, another option for offensive transition is Barco or Gressel offering themselves as an option for ball progression. In the example below Barco can open between the lines and then drive forward with the ball.
One another option can be using the help of the wing-backs, that can make the third-man runs possible. In the example below, you can see that one of the centre-backs passes the ball to the flank and then Barco is offering himself between the lines and behind the United’s midfield. Gressel or Barco can also open themselves for a pass closer to the touchline too, so there are a lot of variations to this.
The main patterns are using the runs into the space behind the United’s full-backs, the involvement of two central midfielders in the build-up and using the full-backs as an intermediate link for further continuation of attacks. Barco is the constant figure in Atlanta when it comes to the focal point in the team’s transitions, so hopefully, he can show his qualities in this game too.
In the next section of this tactic wars solution, I will look into our principles of attacking play for this game.
We have a lot of attacking quality in our team, and my tactics can help me utilise the full attacking potential of this team. We need to put up a fight against the superior United side, so we will have to use every card we have in our pocket.
First of all, during the offensive transition, our shape will change from the defensive 5-3-2 into the more attacking structure. Our wing-backs will push higher and Barco will be joining the forwards to form an attacking trio, so our formation will be somewhat similar to 3-2-5.
The obvious drawback of using the 4-4-2 diamond like Manchester United do is the lack of defensive width. Their central midfielders will have to mark our wing-backs, and while Fred is likely to fulfil his responsibility, Pogba can give additional space for Hollingshead. It can create enough time for the left-back to pick a pass. Barco can benefit from it hugely, as he likes to drift wide and receive the ball, and then go back to the centre to create chances.
We would aim to exploit the lack of width in the opponent’s defensive organisation. In order to do this, my team will aim to switch the play quite often in this game, as the receiver will have enough time to get the ball and then lay it off for the arriving teammate(or to drive with the ball himself). The opponent midfielders won’t be able to mark the wing-backs as they are starting too far off, and the same goes for the full-backs(moreover, it would be too risky for them to leave their position, as there are always Vela or Barco, who would be happy to exploit that space). You can see my idea in the example below. Our left-sided centre-back Tim Parker will make a long switch to the right flank for Zusi, who then will lay the ball off to the coming Gressel.
The same thing can be applied on the left flank too, however, it will be more difficult to execute as Barco will have to be the one in the role of Gressel.
Both Gressel and Zusi both have great passing skills, and their roles can interchange during the game. They both can play in the right midfielder or right wing-back positions, so there will be no problem if, for example, Zusi will drive forward and Gressel will take his position.
However, even though the above-mentioned example is for sure applicable, I want my team to create passing triangles and overloads, especially on the right flank. Gressel, Zusi, and Vela are all perfect for this tactic. The LAFC forward tends to drift wide to the right flank during the games and we have the perfect personnel to adapt to his movement. You can see my ideas in the image below.
So, as I said before, Gressel and Zusi have great passing abilities, plus Vela will drift wide to support them. We have a great opportunity to create overloads on the right flank with those three. We will have the 3v2 superiority unless Bruno will try to help and drift to that flank too.
As Vela leaves his position and Martinez can’t be left alone in the striking position, so Barco will be joining him from the left. They are playing very similarly to this in Atlanta, so it won’t be a problem.
Maguire will stay in his position, as leaving Barco and Martinez only against Lindelöf is a death sentence, so we will have superiority in numbers on the right. There are several possible outcomes:
1)Vela will be able to receive the ball with lots of space ahead of him, and he will drive inside and destroy the defence with his runs and passes
2)Gressel will drive forward through the centre with the following pass to the attacking trio
3)Zusi will make a third-man run to open himself on the flank and then cross or play through the centre
I believe my team will have a tendency of attacking through the right side of the pitch, because of the player that I have there and because Chara will have different tasks to Gressel, covering the middle of the pitch on his own. So, Barco and Hollingshead won’t have the same amount of support. However, we still have some plans of attacking through that flank too.
Barco, just as Vela, likes to drift wide, receive the ball, and then go to the centre to disrupt the defence. He attempts six dribbles per game with over 50% success rate this season, so he can be the focal point of attack for our team. In the example below, you can see one of the instances where Barco can get the ball from the left-back, and then go to the centre. From there, he can make a through ball to Martinez(the combination the Atlanta United fans see on a regular basis) or to the Vela. Moreover, he can return the pass to the flank to Hollingshead. Despite having one less attacking player on this flank, the qualities of Barco make a tremendous difference. Once he has space, his speed and dribbling can do the rest. He averages three shots on target, so he can pose direct goalscoring threat for de Gea too.
Using both our full-backs will help to stretch United’s defence, and then the likes of Vela and Barco can cut inside and penetrate the central areas. Having width is one of our main advantages in the attack, so we will definitely use it.
Another weakness of United’s set up is their centrally-oriented midfield. For example, in 4-3-3, one of the central midfielders can close down the pocket between the full-back and the centre-back. However, with United playing with a diamond in midfield my attacker can make runs in behind the defence, and Lindelöf with Maguire won’t be able to clear all of those attempts. You can see several examples of this below. I think we might catch United’s defence sleeping several times in this game, and that can be enough to make a difference.
I don’t want to get a lot of players involved in our attacks, because, as we all know, Ole’s United can be deadly during counter-attacks. The three attackers, the wing-backs and occasionally Gressel – this is the list of players that will participate the most in the attacking play of the team in the final third. In the next section of this tactical analysis, I will outline our principles during attacking transitions and having enough player forward and a balanced number of player at the back can play a big difference.
Defensive transition and pressing
Due to Manchester United’s level of players available to them my team needs to be ready and tactically aware of how to form a defensive block after the possession loss and not to get exposed in transition. We are not looking to attack with small numbers, but my tactics propose that we have a balanced number of people at the back(three defenders and one or two midfielders). Having enough players in attack will allow for efficient counter-pressing and preventing any chances of counter-attacks.
As I mentioned in the defensive section, the main advantage of United’s shape is them having a lot of passing option in vertical channels in central areas and in half-spaces. So, we are looking to counter-press after the loss in a way that will ensure that Red Devils won’t have any obvious passing lanes to pass the ball. Our team is looking to counter-press several times and if United manage to bypass pressure, we will try to roll back into our basic defensive structure as fast as possible.
The principles of width, height and depth during the attacks will help the team to counter-press efficiently and cut down passing lanes. During the build-up on both flanks, my team’s attacking structure always has one player providing the width(in most cases the full-backs), the player in the half-space(mostly Barco or Vela), and several people behind the ball in the centre(Gressel and Chara).
This allows the team to be compact on both sides of the pitch. I created several images below with the examples of the ball lost on the right and left flanks and in the middle.
In case the ball is lost on the right flank, Barco(#10) will have to cover Pogba by creating a shadow. Other than that, you can see that the MLS team has a player in the half-space(#9), player providing width(#6), and two players centrally behind the ball(#7 and #8). This way, the blue team achieves compactness and thus is able to counter-press as every easy option for United is closed.
The same principles apply when losing the ball in the central areas and on the left flank, you can see the examples above.
The United’s full-backs won’t look to push forward that much as they won’t want to leave Hollingshead and Zusi behind them in case of the re-transition. Thus there is practically no danger of them exploiting the space behind our full-backs.
I believe beginning the defensive transition with pressing is the best solution for the MLS team, as the individual class of the opposition players can break down our defence the seconds after we lose the ball. Pogba and Fernandes are the masters of finding the teammate running in behind, and with Martial and Rashford my team can be easily exposed. So, the team needs to counter-press for the first second and try to regain the ball, or at least make a foul or get a throw-in. Anything to give time to regroup into the defensive shape. If nothing mentioned works around, the team tries to quickly form a mid/low block in order for United striker not to have the space behind the defenders.
I believe that, despite United’s superiority in class and their prestige, the MLS All-star team’s tactics can turn the tables and get the win for my team. This would be the big day for all the MLS fans and the football in the USA in general: the first big victory over the eminent English club and the sign of soccer moving in the right direction.