10 Out of 10: Mesut Özil, Philippe Coutinho and a Dying Breed of Footballers

joshjdss
Mesut Özil and Philippe Coutinho were amongst the Premier League’s most exciting players to watch not too long ago – but why we can’t we watch them anymore? Why has football left them behind?

The ball is played over the top, into his path, as he runs infield from the right. He collects it with his left foot.

His second touch lifts the ball over the goalkeeper who’s rushed out to meet him just outside of the penalty area. He carries on towards goal.

Two defenders are arriving on the cover, attempting to protect the open goal. He takes another couple of touches with his left to set himself as continues across the area.

He lifts his left leg back to shoot. The two defenders bite. He simply takes a fifth touch near the penalty spot. The defenders are on the floor.

He takes a sixth touch and sets himself one last time. The seventh touch is him side footing the ball into an empty net from just outside the six-yard box.

That was a moment of magic from Arsenal’s Mesut Özil against Ludogrets in the Champions League in 2016. Now, less than four years later, Özil is unable to get into an Arsenal side that sits ninth in the Premier League.

But it’s not just him struggling in modern football. The Number 10 has all but disappeared from the game – from Juan Román Riquelme to Philippe Coutinho.

What happened?

In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathon Wilson touches upon Riquelme and the problem of the Number 10 (or eganche as the Argentinians know it) in footballing tactics.

He laments Riquelme as the “last of the old-style playmakers,” the player that sits behind the strikers in a 4231 or 4312. The style that led to playmakers like Mesut Özil.

And in José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, that’s where Özil played.

He had Di Maria and Ronaldo either side of him and was just behind Benzema. In 2011/12 Real Madrid won La Liga with a then record 100 points. Özil led the league in assists, essentially creating a goal every other game. Arsenal spent just over £42 million on the German in 2013.

It’s not as if he was a failure in England either. Look at performances like this, where (even though later on in his Arsenal career) every good thing that happens for the North London side went through him. He’s won three FA Cups with Arsenal, and most importantly, a World Cup with Germany in 2014.

He was once amongst the most creative and stylish players in England, perhaps the world. Now it seems he is no longer needed.

The same can be said for Philippe Coutinho.

The Brazilian was once Anfield’s beloved Number 10 – getting into the PFA Team of the Year in 2015. Before he left for Barcelona in 2018, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp told him: “Stay here and they will end up building a statue in your honour.”

“Go somewhere else, to Barcelona, to Bayern Munich, to Real Madrid, and you will be just another player.”

He wasn’t wrong.

But maybe not for the reasons he implied.

Despite still retaining a penchant for the spectacular in his post-Liverpool career, Coutinho never really settled at Barcelona, and was eventually sent out on loan to Bayern Munich for the 2019/20 season. He’s not flourished in Bavaria either.

Perhaps we’ve failed to see the best of these playmakers recently, not due to them losing the tough battle for places at European Super Clubs, but due to the fact that, tactically, football has moved on.

The Number 10 has become a position that is obsolete – a word that even football isn’t immune to. Does anyone sit a sweeper behind a back four anymore?

As mentioned, football favoured a 4231 when Özil and Coutinho were at their best. Even when teams played two strikers like Liverpool did under Rodgers (Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez) they played a diamond in midfield with a player like Coutinho at the tip – just behind the forwards.

As 433 emerged as the preferred formation for clubs around the world (especially with the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona) the playmaker was put out wide. That seemed to be where the position was heading – starting on the wing and drifting infield into the space in-between the lines.

Oddly enough, Özil played on the wing for Germany when they became world champions. The position wasn’t alien to Coutinho either, who “during his best spell with Brazil, in the qualifiers for Russia 2018, played more on the left of a front three, but having the freedom to go back and act as a Number 10,” according to Natalie Gedra.

Then came the introduction of wide forwards.

Cutting inside, players like Pedro and David Villa at Guardiola’s Barcelona and Sadio Mané and Mo Salah at Klopp’s Liverpool, now looked to score the goals, not just create them. The width then came from the fullbacks pushing forwards.

Of course creativity was still wanted. Creativity was still needed.

But it now comes from two of the three midfielders in a 433.

The midfielder that can sit in the inside left or right positions. The midfielder that can carry the ball quickly and vertically from box to box. This new Number 6 position is embodied by players like Kevin De Bruyne and Luka Modrić (who Wilson calls the “first of the new” style of playmakers).

Their mobility also helps with the defensive aspect of the game, which is a part of football that classic Number 10s struggle with.

Players like Riquelme and Özil were never blessed with the pace and box to box energy of the new style of playmakers, making pressing (something integral in the modern game, from Guardiola’s blocking of the passing lanes to Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing) virtually impossible with them in the side.

Squeezing the pitch and winning the ball back high is now a team’s first line of defence, and it starts from the front. If one of your front three can’t do it, why play them?

“It was Riquelme, mournful of demeanour, graceful of movement and deft of touch, who best embodied the old-style eganche until his retirement in 2012,” Wilson also wrote.

“Riquelme has become less of a player than a cipher for an ideology.”

Some footballers play too early to see the tactical advancements that would truly benefit their style. Some play too late to have any part in the new world of football.

Oddly enough, when Germany manager Joachim Löw was asked about Özil in 2018 he said the same thing.

“The situation of the playmaker or Number 10 doesn’t really exist anymore and hasn’t done for a long time,” he said.

“Guys like (Gunter) Netzer, (Michel) Platini and Zidane haven’t been around for a while. These days the playmakers, the ones who make the play, are in deeper, more defensive positions. These are very important positions, the ones who control the game and have more contact with the ball than the ones further forward. The classic Number 10 no longer really exists.”

Even Juan Mata, a player who excelled as a Number 10 for Chelsea, has said that the role is “maybe not extinct, but not as used as before”.

“In the past, there was always this pure Number 10, behind the striker or the two strikers, depending on the team. With different systems now, that position has evolved into a different one,” he pointed out to The Athletic.

It seems that Jack Grealish’s preferred role (but note that he does start on the wing at times) at Aston Villa is the Number 10, and he’s had a good season – but look at where Villa are in the table.

Maybe he should look to Manchester City’s David Silva, whose role has changed throughout the years. He’s gone from the classic 10, to the wide playmaker drifting in, to now being part of a midfield three. He shows that not all playmakers are being left behind. The great ones can adapt.

The Number 10 is undoubtedly a skilled position filled by fantastic players – but can those players find a part to play in modern football?

Whatever the future holds for them, footballers like Özil and Coutinho will always know at least one thing.

They’ll know that when they were at their best, they were always a 10 out of 10.

This topic has no doubt been written to death, but I enjoyed it – hope you did too! Also, hopefully I’ll have something written that isn’t football-related to read about in the next week or so too. Who knows?

Pep Guardiola & Manchester City: Pressure Makes Diamonds

Ardfern (Cropped)
Better late than never, but here’s a look at Manchester City against Arsenal on Wednesday night – and Pep Guardiola’s old, but not outdated, tactics.

No one would disagree if someone said that sport is about evolution.

It’s about taking what those have done before you, what people are doing now, and building upon those ideas to make something better. To make something that is all conquering and unbeatable. To make something that beats even the ideas you based it upon.

Pep Guardiola has done just that, building upon the ideas of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan and, especially, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

It’s no secret how much of an impact Cruyff had on Guardiola – his famous quote is: “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.”

In short, what Pep does is based upon what Cruyff did. In turn, what Cruyff did was based upon what Rinus Michels, his manager at Ajax in the 1970s, did. That great Ajax side played a 433 that turned into a 343 – dominating possession and dropping a midfielder into the defence (essentially having three backs).

Cruyff did the same at Barcelona when he was in charge – playing a 343, and controlling possession with a greater number of midfielders than the opposing team. This was dependent on the fact that Cruyff’s team had, in essence, two diamonds. These diamonds helped create passing angles for both the back three and the midfielders.

The player at the tip of the diamond (in this team, Guardiola) that involved the back three, would also form the base of the diamond in the midfield (although incredibly narrow in the first one, it is seen in the two images below):

The outside centre backs would eventually sit as wide as they could (along with the wingers, who didn’t play as conventional wing backs) which made the pitch as big as possible – an advantage when attacking. This formation also helped the central midfielders in-between the lines, placing them in the inside left or right positions, allowing them to find space.

So getting to Guardiola.

He did a similar thing when he was Barcelona manager. He created a back three when on the ball by spreading his centre backs (Piqué and Puyol or Mascherano) out incredibly wide, and dropping Busquets in-between them to make a three, which is useful against teams playing two strikers (below):

With the two full backs in the wide areas of midfield, it makes a de facto 343. He did something like this at Bayern Munich, letting Thiago or Philipp Lahm come deeper and sit between the centre backs, or by completely inverting his full backs into midfielders during the build up.

What’s this got to do with Manchester City on Wednesday? This provides a little bit of context before diving into how Guardiola set his team up.

Namely, decades later, the same tactical ideas still prevail.

Where this is going may well be obvious to some. City, of course, set up in a 433 formation to start (below):

This 433 is what City held when they were defending.

The principle that Guardiola subscribes to, is that of making the pitch as big as possible when attacking and as small as possible when defending. The same principle as Cruyff.

This is done with City’s press as it prevents the other team starting comfortable build up play. If they don’t win the ball back instantly, they stay in this 433 formation – making sure the opposition have no space to exploit.

But what was noticeable (when considering the 433 becoming the 343) was what City did in possession.

In the pivot role, Gündogan still picked the ball up from the two central defenders – either Laporte or Garcia. But he wasn’t alone. Kyle Walker also stepped into midfield several times.

This let Laporte step up into the same horizontal midfield level as Walker, just behind Gündogan. By inverting a full back Manchester City had made a diamond that started at the defence (below):

That image also shows the advantage of doing so. Aubameyang has come inside and followed Walker, which, although not seen, has given Mahrez on the right acres of space. But if he didn’t come inside, City would completely overrun midfield. It’s done again here:

The space this movement created led to Manchester City’s first goal. That and David Luiz.

Mahrez and De Bruyne had swapped positions. Mahrez was in the inside right, and De Bruyne was wide, which, due to Aubameyang cutting infield to follow Walker, meant he was in plenty of space. This space allowed him to get his head up and put the ball in the box that Luiz didn’t properly clear. That mistake led to Sterling scoring (below):

As mentioned, Guardiola wants the pitch to be as big as possible when attacking. The wide men become so important in this. If Walker is inverted, De Bruyne or Mahrez need to be in that position on the right hand side to spread the defence out and create more space for others.

On the other side Mendy was the one staying wide. This came into effect with Manchester City’s first goal. Mendy’s width meant Sterling was free to come inside, allowing him to get into the box and score.

With Walker in midfield, Mendy needed to be hugging the touchline, providing width and creating space (an example of this below):

But was it specifically designed to be a diamond starting at the defence?

This becomes unclear with how the midfield was shaped at times.

The reasoning may be more to do with sheer numbers as opposed to certain shapes, but the foundation that Cruyff laid is still there. Outnumber the players in midfield to dominate the ball, all while making the pitch as big as possible. This photo shows Manchester City have the numbers – but it’s hardly a diamond (below):

You can note that Saka may be closing Gündogan down, negating their numerical advantage in midfield. But if he does, again, Mendy will be in space – as De Bruyne was with the goal.

Walker stepped into midfield to essentially create a 343. Gündogan was at the tip of the defensive diamond and – with Silva and De Bruyne in the half spaces – at the base of an attacking one. That formation would look something like (but not exactly depending on positional interchanges) this image below:

Although not using the exact same system, Pep has built upon an idea used in the 1990s, which itself was built upon an idea used in the 1970s. It’s one of those things that once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. Once it’s been done, it cannot be undone.

History repeats itself. Maybe because time is a flat circle. Or a flat diamond.

Hopefully this made sense – I thought it was amazing that the same ideas from the 1990s are still being used today. I’m only writing about football right now because it’s all that’s going on, but, who knows what the future may hold. If you want to see any videos on tactics, this is a great watch and super informative in regards to the real ins and outs of Cruyff’s system.

Cristiano Ronaldo: A Short Ronalysis

Anton Zaitsev (Cropped)
I’m attempting to dip my toe into the deep, fascinating waters of football tactics. So here’s a very simple, and very short, look at Cristiano Ronaldo against AC Milan in the Coppa Italia.

Cristiano Ronaldo is used to being the centre of attention.

Nothing’s changed in that regard here – especially since I decided to focus on him when Juventus played AC Milan in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final yesterday.

The highlighted zone below shows, incredibly simply, where he operated. In basic terms, he was looking to get touches on the ball in the space in-between the lines for a shot, or make late runs into the box to score from crosses (and sometimes, a mixture of the two).

Ronaldo played up front with Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala either side of him. Initially, Ronaldo wasn’t playing on the shoulder of Milan’s defenders, or looking to run in behind and create space either. He moved in the space in-between the Milan defence and midfield.

You can see that in the photos below. In this one, he’s in-between the midfield and defence (demonstrated by the blue lines) so he can get a shot off when he’s closer towards Milan’s goal.

In this photo you can see that even after Milan had a man sent off and were playing deeper, leaving less space, he was still finding room to move.

But as the match went on this wasn’t his only course of action.

He wasn’t just dropping deep like a False 9 to get involved, or simply sitting in space. The highlighted zone in the first image shows that he had the freedom to move out wide – which he did. This is shown in the photo below, even if it is on the break (which Ronaldo can still execute as well as anyone in the world).

Another example of this was in the 18th minute, just after the sending off. It also includes what he was doing earlier.

Ronaldo was on the left wing, and eventually drifted inside, finding a pocket of space. Even as the play moved towards Milan’s box, he still didn’t make a run into the area straight away. He was very methodical with his movement, and always wanted to get involved in the build up play.

When he did get the ball outside the box and in front of the defenders, he, as you would expect, operated a shoot on sight policy.

In the photo below Dybala has the ball on the right hand side of the penalty area. Some Centre Forwards might make runs like the ones illustrated by the blue arrows – either to receive a pass and shoot when closer to the goal, or to drag defenders with them and give Dybala more space for a one on one.

Instead Ronaldo sat outside the area, received a pass from Dybala, showed some skill on the ball to shift it on to his left foot and then shot (that movement is shown with the red arrow). He’s got it in his repertoire to score from there, so why shouldn’t he have a go when he has the chance?

That photo shows what I mean (hopefully). Combining all the points of sitting in space, shooting when possible, and not making runs into the box all the time.

The corner that led to Juventus’s penalty was from Ronaldo not running towards goal straight away. He sat off, no one was in the box, so Dybala had a shot from outside the area. It then deflected off a defender for the corner.

But this wasn’t all he did. We all know Ronaldo loves to get on the end of crosses. So when he saw the opportunity to make runs into the box he obliged – they just weren’t constant. He does this in the photos below.

Here he is looking to get on the end of Danilo’s cross.

Here he’s calling for a ball in from Bernardeschi, seeing the space in the penalty area.

Here he’s moving off the back of the midfielder.

Then after that, he runs towards goal to get on the end of a cross (if Dybala lays it off on the overlap to his right) or pick up any spills from the keeper.

So a mix of finding space deep and then making late runs is what Ronaldo went with. He did lay the ball off at times to run into the penalty area, and then get on the end of a cross. In the 12th minute he drops deep to get a touch, lays it off for Pjanic who spreads the ball out to the right, then makes a late run into the box to get on the end of a ball in.

However he did show some rust – so Ronaldo is human. Coming back with higher fitness levels than before the Serie A suspension doesn’t stop you from misplacing a few passes it seems. But I’m going to guess he’ll get back into the swing of things sooner rather than later.

Even if he did shoot nine times without scoring and had a penalty saved – this variance in play easily shows why Ronaldo is Ronaldo.

Like I said, very short and very simple. It’s a bit of something different, hopefully I’ll try and do some more tactical stuff like this, but hopefully in a bit more detail. Maybe I’m stating the obvious writing something that is essentially, ‘Ronaldo is good at football’ but, it was fun to do regardless.

Some Words On Nottingham Forest and The Championship

(Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Full disclosure, I am Nottingham Forest fan, but, bear with me.

First thing’s first, great win last night.

Forest hadn’t won any of the last 10 games they’d played against Cardiff, and had only picked up 2 points since beating Leeds 2-0 on the 8th of February (albiet, not scoring against QPR at home last match in, shall we say, strange circumstances).

In my time following Forest, the most successful Championship seasons were the ones under Billy Davies, when they made it to the playoffs. That was quite a while ago – basically 10 years ago.

When Billy Davies most recently took Forest into the Championship playoffs to play Swansea, they won 56 points at home that season, losing only 3 games – taking the game to the opposition. Sabri Lamouchi’s Forest don’t really play like that, their best results seeming to come when they have less of the ball.

Take Forest’s recent home loss to Charlton – more of the ball, 2 shots on target, and a 1-0 loss.

Maybe that would suggest that Forest need someone with a little creativity to make something happen at home when they should have more of the ball. Joao Carvahlo fits that mould, but, it seems pretty obvious that Lamouchi doesn’t really fancy him, and why would he change a side that is currently 3rd to fit him in? But that’s another conversation for another day.

The Reds play best on the counter, which suits playing the ‘bigger’ sides and playing away from home, when the opposition has the ball. Take that 2-0 win over Leeds – 30% possession, but only conceded 1 shot on target.

But this difference in style doesn’t matter. In the Championship it’s all about picking up points, and Lamouchi has a team that does this. A team.

And I love this team.

You saw it against West Brom when Matty Cash scored that equaliser in injury time – everyone going all out, and never quitting.

Speaking of Matty Cash, he has been superb this season – and everyone knows all about the tackles and the possible Poland call up. Last night’s goalscorer, Tiago Silva, has had a good season too, although (as a friend mentioned to me last night) could do with a little more consistency in certain parts of his game (like goalscoring).

Sammy Ameobi is an enigma, often snatching embarrassment from the jaws of pure class. Joe Lolley seems to be coming into form after shaky start to season and getting over the election. Grabban might have gone off the boil, not scoring since a 1-1 draw against Reading in January, but you saw his class with his assist for Silva last night.

But still, I love this side. Brice Samba is a hero in every sense of the word, and has been fantastic in goal this year, bringing something Forest have needed in an age – a competent goalkeeper.

But, you can have a great team in the Championship, and it means nothing. Ask Leeds last year. Yes teams like Brighton in 2015/16 and Middlesbrough the season before that struggled in the playoffs but got promoted automatically in the years after, but having a good season means nothing in the playoffs – it’s about getting hot at the right time.

This is why I hate the Championship. It’s a mess. It’s always been a mess. It’s so congested between 2nd and 6th. It’s not like good teams get promoted, and you never have to see any good sides ever again – parachute payments mean good teams go up, and the ones that come down just take their place. You have to take any chance you get in this division.

Forest have been in this league for over a decade now.

It’s incredibly tough. But (touch wood) if Forest can stay in the playoff places, I like them against a Fulham or a Brentford. They will come on to Forest and dominate the ball – which suits them perfectly. But then again, if either of them come into the playoffs with some form, it doesn’t matter – it’s the team playing well that usually wins (like Aston Villa last year).

The Championship is a tough place to be, and that’s why I hate it. One game is a win away against Brentford, the next is a loss to Birmingham. The next game is a win against Leeds, the one after that is a loss at home against Charlton. It’s not exciting, it’s stressful.

But be careful what you wish for. I’ve wanted Forest to be out of this league for so long, and I nearly got my wish few years ago – into League One.

But still, this is an opportunity for Forest, but nothing more. Nothing can be taken for granted.

The Championship – always to be here? I hope not.

Liverpool’s Constantly Moving Goalposts

(Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
I don’t mean literal moving goalposts. That’s not why they’re 22 points clear. I mean that for some reason, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool’s recent success always seems to be good, but then not good enough.

When Jurgen Klopp walked on to the pitch in Madrid for the last Champions League final, Liverpool had lost every final he’d taken them to. They hadn’t won a single thing.

At that time he’d only won one cup final as a manager – a 5-2 win over Bayern Munich in the 2012 DFB-Pokal with Borussia Dortmund. Klopp had lost 6 of his 7 appearances in major cup finals (I’m not going to list them all, look at them yourself).

And (rightly so) questions were asked of Klopp and Liverpool. Could they win anything? Could he win anything? Football teams (and pets) seem to take on the personality of their managers (and owners), and Liverpool had taken on Klopp’s image of the ‘nearly men’ – and taken on all the good stuff too, the power, the pace, the passion, you know it all.

But they hadn’t won anything. That’s why that final against Tottenham Hotspur was so important. (Side note: it was important for Mauricio Pochettino as Spurs hadn’t won anything either, and with far less appearances in cup finals. Look where he is now)

Lo and behold, Liverpool win the final. Cue scenes on Merseyside, hailing Klopp as a genius, Virgil van Dijk’s Ballon d’Or campaign, and so on and so forth. The tables had turned, and so they should have – the collective monkey was off everyone’s backs.

They also finished with 97 points in the league that season and still came second to Manchester City’s 98. (Side note: They had 0.02 less Points Per Game than City that season. What a mad season)

Pep’s Manchester City had amassed 198 points in two years, and they were absurd totals to try and beat. Again, Liverpool were football’s nearly men, letting a 10 point lead over Manchester City slip last year seemed to make them bottlers again – not cup final bottlers, now they’re league bottlers.

Did the goalposts begin to move? How can you be bottler if you’ve won a trophy? But still, letting City win after being 10 points clear is a fair criticism – if you want to be champions, you can’t let that happen. I would argue that Klopp just needed that first trophy to give them lift off, but again, fair point.

97 points would have won you the league in all but the last two Premier League seasons, by the way. Klopp’s work was brilliant, but not quite brilliant enough. But still, everything seemed set up for them to make a run at the league the next season.

Now here we are in February 2020. Liverpool have basically won the Premier League. All that’s left is for them to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. The number of Premier League records they can break is endless (again, read them yourself, it’s mind boggling). Klopp has built possibly the greatest team the Premier League has ever seen.

But in my eyes, people are moving Liverpool’s goalposts.

The metaphorical ones. Every time they seem to accomplish something, it’s all of sudden a case of “yes that’s great, but what about this“. They became the first English side to win the Continental Treble when they won the Club World Cup in December. “Yes that’s great, but what about the English treble?”.

Well, they’re certainly good enough. The league is already a formality to be quite honest, and they need only three more points to match Manchester United’s title winning treble team, and fourteen to match Arsenal’s Invincibles. There’s still 38 more points up for grabs.

However, ask any fan, of any club, in any league – if you can guarantee them a league title and nothing else, they’d bite your hand off.

But still, the goalposts were moved.

Liverpool should be winning the treble. They’ve already won the league, concentrate on the cups – win everything. “Liverpool must win the treble to be remembered like Man Utd’s 1999 heroes.” Like Example said, “Don’t give me that, that’s a load of tosh.”

Apparently being the best Premier League side of all time isn’t enough to be remembered.

Yes, they’re good enough as I’ve already said, but what Liverpool seem to have to do to impress everyone seems to constantly change.

They’re obviously 1-0 down in the tie to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League, but bigger comebacks have been made in that competition. They’re still in the FA Cup, despite Klopp taking criticism for fielding the youth team, and not showing up to game. It’s not like they’ve just completely fobbed all of those competitions off for the league.

Liverpool haven’t won the league in about 30 years. They should go for it. And they have. But why do they have to go from only having to win one thing, to winning everything – in less than a year? Why do they have to win the treble? I’m not saying don’t go for it, I’m saying everyone needs to stop changing what Liverpool have to do to become a great team.

I understand why people say it, but Liverpool are team that could dominate for a decade, not just one year.

Why do we have to move the goalposts? Why can’t we just set them down, take a seat, and enjoy what we’re watching?