June 20, 2020: Tactic Wars solution – Nam Dzoan
It’s a great pleasure for me to take part in Tactic Wars once again! The theme of the competition this time is a special one: the inaugural Continental Cup. Each of the six FIFA governing bodies will be competing against each other.
While you were hoping to manage team UEFA or CONMEBOL, you ended drawing a chance to manage team CAF. This means you can pick players from any African nation to represent your team. Your first match of the tournament is against team CONCACAF.
After scouting some of their friendly matches, you know them to be an attack-minded team who are possession heavy and will look to play out from the back.
They play with aggressive centre-backs and move into a 2-3-5 in possession pushing the WB’s up high to support with Hirving Lozano and Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic dropping next to Raul Jiménez. Michael Bradley steps into the midfield during the attack, attempting to help dictate the tempo of the play.
CONCACAF (3-4-3): Keylor Navas; Roman Torres, Michael Bradley, John Brooks; Alphonso Davies, Weston McKennie, Rodolpho Pizarro, Jesús Corona; Hirving Lozano, Raul Jiménez, Christian Pulisic.
CAF (4-3-3): André Onana; Achraf Hakimi, Kalidou Koulibaly, Jöel Matip, Noussair Mazraoui; Thomas Partey, Wilfred Ndidi, Idrissa Gueye; Sadio Mané, Hakim Ziyech, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
We know that Pizarro is very offensive and loves making runs into the box, so their 2-3-5 in possession will be more of a 2-2-6. They lack cover and speed at the back, and we will hurt them by the speed of our wing-backs and strikers. In addition, their centre-backs (bar Brooks) and midfielders are not composed on the ball. We will disrupt their possession game with intense high-pressing by the hard-working Sadio Mané and Hakim Ziyech, and congest the centre with our diamond midfield – which consists of some of the greatest ball-winners in modern football. Our skilful centre-backs will help us overload the midfield to create a free man, and our pacey offensive wing-backs will exploit space on the wings.
My team when out of possession
Looking at CONCACAF’s backline and midfield, I found that only Brooks and the two wing-backs are composed on the ball. We aim to press intensely to disrupt their short build-up and look to win the ball high up the pitch. Our team’s shape generally shifts according to where the ball is. Our back four would stay high and horizontally compact, and their movements would be based on the opponent front three’s. As Bradley and the pivot are not composed on the ball, we would invite the opponent to go past to them, then force mistakes from them.
If Keylor Navas pass to Bradley, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would force him to pass back. The striker would then press whoever received the back pass, with the help from the wingers if needed.
Should Navas pass to a left or right sided centre-back (e.g. Torres here), Aubameyang would make a curved run to cover Bradley and press the ball-carrier. The ball-far winger (Ziyech here) would make a curved run to prevent a pass towards the ball-far centre-back and then move towards the ball-far central midfielder (McKennie here).
In this example, if Brooks still got the ball from Torres, Ziyech would press him while covering his passing lane to Alphonso Davies, Idrissa Gueye moves slightly to close his passing lanes to Lozano, while Ndidi rushes towards McKennie. Aubameyang would mark Bradley, while Mané rushes towards Torres.
If the centre-back instead looked to play forward, my side would work to invite him to pass to the ball-near pivot (Pizarro here), then put him under pressure to force a mistake. Here, Pizarro gets the ball, but his forward passing options are covered through the central midfielders’ use of cover shadow – this is important as Lozano moves to the half-space to provide a passing option. Mané marks Corona, while Bradley is marked by Aubameyang. McKennie could be instantly pressed by Ziyech and Gueye. Should Pizarro pass back to Torres, Aubameyang would (again) make a curved run to press Torres, while Ndidi marked Pizarro, and Ziyech rushed towards Brooks.
In high-pressing situations like this, we aim to counter as fast as possible when winning the ball back. Our pressing scheme is designed so that in the counters, Mané and Ziyech could instantly make runs into the half-space or in the wide areas behind their wing-backs. The front three have great pace and on-ball quality and could also instantly get close and combine to get towards goal.
We expect that our side’s physicality and high-press would be too much given the opponent’s lack of technical qualities at the back and central midfield, so we will not have to defend deep a lot. But when we do, we will retreat to a 4-3-1-2, with Ziyech behind Mané and Aubameyang and the side being compact both horizontally and vertically. The diamond midfield is key to our defensive tactics as this shape could help us control acres of space in the centre and avoid being pushed too deep by intense pressing. In addition, this shape means that the opponent’s central midfielders – who are not press resistant – can be quickly be pressed from multiple directions. With our midfielders’ high work rate and defensive skills, the diamond could quickly overload the ball side and force turnovers. Tireless pivot Ndidi is expected to cover movements between the lines and into channels.
Central midfielder Pizarro is by nature an offensive player and likes making forward runs, so he should be considered a central attacking midfielder. Therefore, CONCACAF’s offensive shape will be more of a 2-2-6 than a 2-3-5. Mané and Aubameyang’s main duty is to press the nearby central midfielder having the ball (Bradley here) and continue their press if he passed back to a centre-back or even to the keeper. Ziyech would have to keep track of Pizarro’s flexible movements.
Here, we can see that our 4-3-1-2 promoted the use of cover shadow (like Mané’s here) and gave the opponent very little access to zone 14, especially with defensive experts like Ndidi or Partey. CONCACAF side don’t have an elite line-breaking passer from deep, so it will be hard for them to find players between the lines.
The opponent will likely try to attack through wing combinations. Here, Bradley finds Corona, who will then be pressed by Partey. Borussia Dortmund’s Hakimi will keep an eye on Pulisic’s movements into space and could help Partey if needed. An aggressive and not defensive-minded player, Hakimi (or Mazraoui on the other side) will often step out to press Corona. Ndidi will need to be alert to follow Pulisic movements should the wing-back leave space for the winger to run into.
Here, the opponent overloaded the right-wing with Pizarro’s wide movement. The diamond midfield will shift towards the ball side, with Ziyech pressing Rodolpho.
My team in possession
As CONCACAF are a possession-heavy side, we expect them to press high to quickly regain possession. Our keeper and back four are comfortable on the ball, we will build from the back to invite them to commit men forward and leave space in behind for our pacey strikers. We will build up in a 3-4-3. Ndidi will drop deep to become the third centre-back, with Partey and Gueye in front of the back three. This creates a 3-2 structure with multiple passing options. To disrupt this central build-up, the opponent will have to pull their wingers narrow and commit at least one pivot to press.
When that happens, we will try to quickly combine through either wing, with our front three staying close and overloading the ball side – and supporting movements from the two central mids. CONCACAF only have one wide player on that wing, so naturally, their whole shape will have to shift towards that side. From there, we can continue combining to progress the ball, or quickly switch the ball to the other side towards the ball-far wing-back. The likes of Ziyech and Partey are totally capable of making quality switches, and our wing-backs will utilise their devastating pace to exploit the open space on the far side.
Here, CONCACAF’s front three is pressing our back three while covering their passing lanes towards our double pivot. Having just received Koulibaly’s pass, Matip can quickly send the ball towards the right-wing so that Ziyech and Mazraoui can create a 2 vs 1 against Bayern Munich’s Davies. Aubameyang and Mané can instantly make supporting runs, while Hakimi is waiting for a ball towards the far side.
Given our side’s quality on the ball, there will be many incidents in which the opponent have to defend deep. We will then attack in a 4-2-2-2, with Partey and Ziyech the more offensive midfielders, and Aubameyang and Mané between the opponent’s back three to pin them, threatening to make runs in behind. Our having four men in midfield will force the opposition wingers to stay narrow, leaving our full-backs 1v1 against their wing-backs. We will try to create numerical superiority in midfield through patient positional play. First, our centre-backs have a 2 vs 1 against Jiménez. After some exchanges of passes, one of them will be free to dribble forward. Koulibaly and Matip are both great with their feet, and whoever of the two can carry the ball and make himself a temporary extra midfielder. Our narrow midfield can then quickly overload the ball side, leading to one of them becoming a free man. This free man can then instantly combine with the forwards, or create a 2 vs 1 against the opponent’s weak-side wing-back.
In the below example, we are trying to overload the left side, with Koulibaly carrying the ball. We are having a 5 vs 5 on the ball side (marked by the red box). Here, Koulibaly can find Ziyech free on the far side. Ziyech can then rush towards goal and find the strikers with a razor-sharp through ball, or combine with Mazraoui to send a cross in.
The ball side overload will also help us counter press effectively upon losing the ball. Aggressive counter presses from all sides by the likes of Partey and Gueye will likely force CONCACAF’s midfielders to turn over possession.
This tactical analysis has shown that we have the personnel advantage as well as the tactical superiority over the CONCACAF side. Our strengths in work rate and defensive competence will be the key to our winning the tactical battle. We will likely be able to exploit their weaknesses in transition, and also through slow possession play.