PAOK FC 2018/2019: Their invincible season – scout report
The last time that PAOK FC lifted the Greek League was back in 1985. Over the last decade, PAOK started to invest more and more money into the team, and as a result, the team started to be more competitive. But as always, something was missing. PAOK won the fifth Cup in their history in 2017, after 14 years. Next year they managed to make this back to back with another win in the Greek Cup as well as finishing second in the Greek Super League. Everyone in the team was sure that next year was going to be their year to claim the League title after a 33-year wait. To the surprise of the fans, the team would go on to win the 2018/19 Greek League whilst remaining invincible, with 26 wins, 4 draws and 0 defeats.
In this tactical analysis piece, we will break down how PAOK managed to remain top of the league throughout the season, specifically showing in this analysis how the team played with and without the ball. Furthermore, manager Razvan Lucescu created innovative tactics during the season, which ultimately helped them overcome the trials and tribulations they faced throughout the season.
Principles with the ball
Razvan Lucescu, PAOK’s manager, chose the 4-2-3-1 formation on the majority of occasions during the 2018/19 season. Alexandros Paschalakis was in goal for most of the season, while Leo Matos and Andre Vieirihnia, the former player of Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, were the right and left full-backs. Fernando Varela and Jose Crespo were the two centre-backs. The two defensive midfielders this season were rotated between Mauricio, Jose Alberto Canas, Yevgen Shakhov, Pontus Wernbloom and Josip Mišić.
They were joined in the winter transfer period by Sergio Oliveria from Porto, who had joined on loan. Diego Biseswar, Dimitris Pelkas, Amr Warda, Leo Jaba, Dimitris Limnios and Omar El Kaddouri were rotating in the three positions of the attacking midfield area. Aleksandar Prijović was the centre forward until Al-Ittihad paid his release clause and bought him in the winter transfer period. This gave way for former Arsenal player Chuba Akpom, who took his chances and became a fan favourite.
Starting the scout report of PAOK FC from the back, Paschalakis likes to play the ball to one of the two centre-backs. PAOK FC are a team that prefers a possession game, and wants to dominate on the pitch. For that reason, the two centre-backs should have the technical ability to face difficult situations and overcome them.
When PAOK FC are playing against opponents that are pressing in a medium block, it is easy for the goalkeeper to play a pass to the centre-backs, and then they transfer the ball to the flanks, where the full-backs have a crucial role in the positional play of the team.
PAOK’s build-up game is different when facing opponents that they can put high pressure on the field against. Lucescu thought of a few different scenarios to manipulate the opponent and break the lines to transfer the ball into the final third of the field. The first scenario was when the centre-backs or the full-backs were receiving the ball and they were under a high-block pressure. The two defensive midfielders were deep in the field and were trying to support the possession.
The right and left attacking midfielders were taking a wide and high position in the field. The attacking midfielder was coming almost in the same line with the centre forward. Because of this, PAOK managed to stretch the opponent’s defensive line and create free spaces between their lines. The players of PAOK in the attacking line could, therefore, take advantage, as the opponents that were pressing high would not be able to support the defence efficiently.
Another scenario that Lucescu thought of was to build up the game with the centre-backs while the full-backs were taking a higher position. To do so, one of the midfielders had to come deep, between the two centre-backs. In this system, the centre-back that was the carrier of the ball and could go wider as a full-back and play a long ball to the final third of the field. This is a more aggressive scenario than the other one, as the full-backs are higher on the pitch and can supply offensive support. In that way, the full-backs could carry the ball higher up the pitch and become extra players in the offensive part of the game, which gave PAOK more flexibility in the opponent’s half.
Moreover, the opponent is trapped and has to decide if the lines are going to be high and try to pressure the game from the back, and will risk defending outnumbered with the participation of the two full-backs, or will follow a more conservative tactic with a medium-block pressure and try to regain the ball deeper in the field.
The full-backs were playing a crucial role in Lucescu’s game plan for PAOK. For that reason, very often a player from the attacking line was stepping deeper in the middle third of the field.
With that opposite movement – the upload moves from the full-back and the back step from one of the forwards- in the middle third, they were trying to overload a small area and outnumber the opponent.
That action would lead the full-back to have more space and go higher up the field and receive the ball after a combination game with one of the defensive midfielders, who was close to the ball and supporting every action.
Furthermore, an especially important role in the offensive part of the game involved the two defensive midfielders of PAOK. These players were the linking players between the defensive and the attacking line when the opponent was pressing high. Both defensive midfielders were coming deep in the pitch and were supporting the defence. That was a way for PAOK to keep the balance between the lines, as the players that had the possession of the ball had more options to pass the ball and get away from the high pressure.
Additionally, if PAOK’s players did break the first and highest blocking pressure in their field, they would have more chances in approaching the opponent’s box and would create some chances. This is because the midfielders would receive the ball with more free space in their back, and the high-block pressure would break.
Linking the lines and supporting the game from the back was not the only job that the defensive midfielders had to do. Their next responsibility was to support the attacking line in the final third by giving extra options in and out of the box.
The role of the defensive midfielders was a box to box one by supplying support in the whole vertical part of the field.
PAOK the whole season got many goals from the defensive midfielders, either directly from them, or indirectly by their assists. It is also worth noting that PAOK got 30.3% of their goals from their midfielders. PAOK in total scored 66 times and the 20 were from midfielders. This is an indicator of the impact that the defensive midfielders had in PAOK’s game during this invincible season.
Principles without the ball
The first thing that the players of PAOK were doing when losing possession of the ball was to try to regain it in the same area that they lost it. To achieve this, the most common scenario was the players that were closer to the ball were putting instant pressure on the opponent that had possession of the ball and the rest of the players were restricting his options to pass by marking their closest opponent in the area.
Moreover, if needed, PAOK managed to find support during the game from the defensive line: there were times when one of the centre-backs was stepping higher up the field, in the middle third, and supporting the attempts of the team to regain possession of the ball high up the pitch. This let the team restrict the chance for the opposition to have a counterattack and also regain the ball high up the field, with many players already having a high position on the pitch.
If PAOK’s players could not take the ball high up on the pitch, they were trying to organise their defence deeper in the field. It was the moment when the 4-2-3-1 formation was turning into a 4-4-2. The attacking midfielder turned into the second striker and was the first block of the defensive line next to the centre forward.
The two wide attacking midfielders were stepping deeper in the field to form a straight line of four players next to the defensive midfielders. The players of PAOK were starting the defensive block high up the pitch and they were pressing the opponent in the final third of the pitch. This lets them restrict an easy passing game and progression of the ball into the middle third, and their box.
If the opponent did manage to break the lines and go deeper in the field, PAOK’s players were trying to be as compact as possible. To achieve this, the defensive line was receiving support from the two wide attacking midfielders, who were coming even deeper in the field and were supplying defensive support in the flanks of the field.
Another way for PAOK to become more compact was from the defensive midfielders. These two players were supporting the area in and around the box with their positioning. They were the players that were making the difference as they could supply defensive support by becoming the extra player in the flanks or in the central part of the field. That was an efficient way for PAOK to protect its goal.
Another fundamental part of PAOK’s game style without the ball was that the players supported each other and covered their positions when they are out of it.
For instance, when a full-back is out of position because he tries to regain possession of the ball high up the pitch, then another player will cover his position.
In that way, PAOK had a compact shape, which was very tough to penetrate, as every player tried to cover responsibilities which were not his, in reality, but by doing so, the players covered more distances on the field.
As a result, this puts more pressure on the players of the opponent as they try to break the lines continually, and every time they do so, they have to face again a player that is coming from the back and supporting the defence.
A shock that PAOK FC surpassed
In January’s transfer window, PAOK had to manage an unexpected loss: Aleksandar Prijović, PAOK’s top scorer with 18 goals had to leave because Al-Ittihad triggered his release clause. The team had to manage his loss and find a solution to cover his gap and his ability in scoring goals.
That was the momentum for Chuba Akpom to grab the chance. Akpom had been in the shadow of Prijović, as until then, the role that Akpom had in was as a back-up centre forward.
Prijović is the kind of centre-forward that is extremely dangerous in the box. He has the ability to score with his head and with his foot. Moreover, he knows how to use his body well in the box. For that reason, until then, the team was trying to “feed” him as his scoring abilities were top-quality. The priority for the team was for the ball to reach Prijović, who was like a “goal-machine” for PAOK, and he was the player that could unlock the opponent’s defence. This fact can be proved by his statistics, where he had 0.74 goals per 90 minutes and 0.53 expected goals per 90 minutes.
For that reason, PAOK had to adjust to a new reality and keep making things work. Despite that there was no centre-forward in the team that could finish the chances with great ease, Lucescu managed to find another solution to get over that issue. Now, he had a centre-forward that was so good at finishing like Prijović but was an excellent player out of the box and could support the game in the middle third of the field and be more creative. That player was Akpom, a player who came from the Arsenal academy and had many appearances in the Belgian First League, the EFL League One and Championship. Lucescu changed his team’s play in a more collective way.
Because of Akpom’s ability out of the box, other players took advantage of that and started moving into the box. So PAOK had more players in the box and more possibilities/options for someone to finish the chance and score a goal. Prijović’s last match with PAOK was against Levadiakos. Until then, PAOK scored 24 goals, 18 of which were scored by Prijović. Until the end of the season, the team managed to score 42 goals, eight of which were came from Akpom. So it’s clear to see that the team managed to find more solutions than before in scoring goals.
A statistical comparison between Prijović and Akpom will show the differences: Prijović that season at PAOK scored 0.74 goals per 90, while his expected goals per 90 was 0.53. Same indicators for Akpom show that he scored 0.34 per 90, while he had 0.52 expected goals per 90 and 1.53 expected goals per 90. Those numbers can prove Prijović’s finishing ability.
On the other side, if we compare the two players out of the box, we can see that there is also another difference between them: Akpom had 2.44 successful dribbles per 90, while Prijović had just 0.33. Akpom was creating 1.39 chances per 90, while Prijović was creating a smaller amount of chances for his teammates: 0.57 per 90. As far as the ball recoveries go, Akpom regained the possession of the ball 1.48 times per 90, while Prijović had about half of this number with 0.78 ball recoveries per 90. This statistical analysis shows the differences between the two players and how the team adjusted to the new situation, trying to work as a collective.
That year many people were waiting for PAOK to be a strong and competitive team that would try to claim the League title. This is something that the team was showing with the football that was being played from the earlier seasons under Lucescu. What many people did not expect for that season was for PAOK to have an invincible season. Despite the unexpected scenarios that showed up during the season, PAOK adjusted to every situation and managed to remain at the top of the Greek Super League until the end of it.