Monday 25 August 2014

Courtois vs. Cech: And the Winner is...Chelsea FC

José Mourinho intended to keep it secret who would be his “number 1” in goal until the league kicked off. His choice was between 32-year-old incumbent Petr Cech and the ten years younger Thibaut Courtois, Belgium’s national goalie, who was returning from a loan spell at Atletico Madrid, where he became champion in La Liga and played the Champions’ League final. News reports indicated Cech had appeared nervous at the training ground a couple of days before the first game, possibly indicating he was to be benched.

On the first league day, it was indeed Courtois who made his appearance. Chelsea beat Burnley 1-3 after having been 1-0 down. In the first home game, Leicester City was the opponent. After a goalless first half, the Match Of The Day commentator concluded it had been the poorest half-time performance of Chelsea under Mourinho ever. The Blues turned the game around in the second half, beating Leicester 2-0. Gary Lineker asked Mourinho after the game whether “strong words” had been said during half time. “Objective words”, replied the Special One.

When Diego Costa opened the score, the path to victory had already been paved by Courtois, especially with an incredible foot-save in a one-on-one with Leicester striker Nugent. The confidence demonstrated by Courtois also with some – easier – aerial interventions – as Alan Shearer in the BBC studio indicated – is all-important for the rest of team: to know there’s a really solid lock on the door serves as a confidence boost to the entire team. Quite arguably, Chelsea had won the game with Courtois’ save(s) – Diego Costa’s and Hazard’s goals merely sealed what had already been won. Already in his first home game for Chelsea, the Belgian youngster had convinced the most ardent Cech fans he was the obvious choice going forward.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

When Lineker asked Mourinho about the decision, the Special One confirmed it had been a tough choice – Mourinho is known to have placed more faith in Cech after he returned from a severe head injury in 2007 than the goalkeeper had had in himself at the time, setting the Czech up for years of successes at Chelsea. When Chelsea won the Champions’ League final only two years ago, Cech had a big stake in it – saving penalties during extra time and shootout. Today, he’s still considered to be outstanding – and a club monument at Chelsea.

The Portuguese explained in the post-game interview that when he must choose between (the interests of) individual players and club, he chooses the club. Courtois had a 2-year contract left at Chelsea and in case he would not play, they were likely to lose him to a competitor. Mourinho is known for predicting even the most unlikely of events – this was an easy shot. Club over players. Mourinho is willing to sacrifice his lieutenant for the good of the army – not his own glory.

When he benched Casillas at Real Madrid for Diego López, people suspected a clash of egos was what was going on. Sacrilege. Mutiny. None of that. After the 2014 CL final and the World Cup, people are starting to realise that what Mourinho was trying to do, was set up Real for a new successful era. Let’s see if they will manage to win La Liga with the reinstated San Iker. Given Real’s impressive midfield and frontline, their fate will probably be not as bleak as the one of the Spanish national team – of holding hands while going down together. But to win another trophy, Real will need to score plenty of goals.

What about Petr Cech? His career is far from over. He has the choice between remaining at Chelsea as a cherished substitute or become number one at pretty much any top club in the world – happy to take on an experienced goalkeeper likely to remain top of his game for a couple of more seasons. I would advise him to elect the second – it’s not admitting defeat, it’s choosing wisely. 

Cech will remain Mourinho fan for life. Why? ‘Cause he understands it’s not at all personal. It has nothing to do with Cech not being good enough today – not even necessarily not as good as Courtois is today. And the Happy One will not force him to choose either the exit or the bench option, for the same reason.

Source: tn.nova.cz

Few youngsters get the love from Mourinho Courtois is getting – not by words, but by deeds. Courtois must be special. Personally, I will never be a real fan of him, due to his Racing Genk past. Objectively, he’s probably already the best in the world in his position – and likely to get only better over the years to come.

Chelsea have their new number 1 for the next decade. How’s that for a boost of confidence? Money cannot buy you a team that will become champion. But it does hire you a genius, i.e. someone who – according to Einstein’s definition – does not solve, but prevents problems.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Belgium vs. Argentina: Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold

Before elaborating upon the obvious tactical shortcomings, directly leading to the elimination of a promising Belgian squad in the quarterfinals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it is important to acknowledge the merit of coach Marc Wilmots. It was he who, for instance, surprised the nation by calling up the till then unknown youngster Divock Origi to take the place of the injured Benteke in his World Cup squad. Origi turned out to be no less than a sensation for Belgium, earning him a €12.5m transfer to Premiership side Liverpool.

Then on to the weaker side of Wilmots, and his assistant Borkelmans: tactics.

July 5th. Belgium was to face Argentina in the quarterfinals. The 2014 generation of the Belgian Red Devils was believed to be even stronger than the best performing side in national history, the team knocked out in the semis in ’86 – by Argentina. Who-ever was to win, it was sure to be an epic battle! 

Source: belgiumtowineuro2016.com

But it turned out to be a non-game. Why was this? Belgium had won all of its games that far – admittedly, none against an opponent of the stature of Argentina. Was Sabella's team simply “a size too large” for the talented but inexperienced Belgian squad? Even though both sides actually met, we'll never know. What we can conclude from the confrontation is that with the tactics employed, it was a game Belgium could only lose. Play the game ten more times, with the same formation, Belgium will be behind at half time ten more times.

The fatal mistake:

In its previous four games, Wilmots had fielded 4 defenders: 2 centre-backs and 2 wing-backs. Belgium had thus beaten Algeria, Russia, South Korea and the USA. Little reason then to change, one might think, and, indeed, Wilmots again fielded his preferred four: Vertonghen on the left, Alderweireld on the right, Van Buyten and Kompany in the centre. Never change a winning team! Right? Wrong – horribly wrong. Reluctance to question a formerly winning strategy is usually due to hubris or laziness – and rarely goes unpunished. In his authoritative chronicle Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman, as a notable example, points out that, "simply taking the same approach to...strategy in a series of repeat performances [is] unlikely to sustain a high level of results."

To see the nonsense behind adopting the same defensive tactics against Argentina as employed in the previous games, one only need reflect for a moment upon how Argentina differs from all of Belgium's previous opponents. Without going into too much detail, all previous four opponents had been happy to cede the play to Belgium and speculate on creating an opening from the midfield or via the wings. Typically, these teams operated with a sole striker and relatively offensive midfielders on the sides. Perhaps with the exception of Dempsey, the Belgian defence was yet to face a forward that could match their quality. Even in the case of the USA, it was still “1 against 4”, so not too worrisome.

What about Argentina? Here comes a team that has not just 1 offensive player that can match – nay, outperform – his direct Belgian opponent in terms of overall skill, not just 2, not 3, but 4 – even with Agüero having been injured. They go by the resounding household names of Di María, Messi, Higuaín and Lavezzi. And yes, they were all there in Sabella's starting line-up. Quite a different ballgame from what Belgium had been up against so far; both because of the number and the quality of the attackers on the opposing side.

Fielding four attackers naturally implies that one cannot attempt to dominate both in the defence and the midfield. Sabella's line-up clearly spelled out his intentions: to complement his four-headed attack, he opted for four defenders and two defensive midfielders: Mascherano – more used to playing as centre-back – and Biglia – known in Belgium neither as particularly dynamic nor unpredictable. Argentina was playing defence + attack, virtually without midfield. Their ideal scenario would be to score an early goal and lock the game – perhaps sealing the deal on the counterattack. And even if Belgium were to score first, Argentina’s frontline could be counted on to score at least once.

How then does one defend against such a formation? “With the winning team!”, Wilmots apparently thought. Given that Sabella did think carefully about the game, what are the implications for Belgium of playing with the same formation as it had in its previous games?

The implications:

First implication: Van Buyten and Kompany no longer had one striker to share between the both of them in zone, but instead had to mark one each – and not just any one: Higuaín and Messi, respectively. So no spare central defender to pick up the odd ball making it through as in the previous games. One mistake and there would be only Courtois left to beat.

Second implication: both Vertonghen and Alderweireld – both not used to playing wide at their clubs, nota bene – were now being faced with a quicksilver opponent. Yet, they were still supposed to also provide attacking impulses – after all, they were the wing-backs. Naturally, if you are facing 4 attackers with 4 defenders, two of them being wing-backs – correction, centre-backs fielded as wing-backs – whenever any of the wing-backs takes part in offensive play, your defence is outnumbered. You can mark in zone as much as you want, if you’re outnumbered, you’re up for a tough challenge.

The overall result: by fielding only 4 defenders against Argentina’s four-headed attack, Belgium was operating an extremely risky 1-against-1 tactic - typically deployed only when a team is hopelessly behind in the score.

Moreover, the Red Devils out on the pitch gave the impression of not believing in their chances - hard to say whether the naïve tactics employed had anything to do with this. The formation Wilmots opted for might have worked, but at the very least required the players buying into the belief of being able to beat the opponent and of the opposition not calling for a change of tactics. That the players clearly hadn't, though, left the team with a mismatch between formation ("fearless") and attitude ("fearful"), rendering it most vulnerable. This exacerbated the risk of using a formation with little defensive safeguards.

It thus indeed turned out to be a high-risk, low-return strategy. After 7 minutes, Higuaín scored. A ball bouncing off a Belgian defender unluckily, as most Belgians like to believe? Rather a mere matter of time – a space and chance to occur sooner rather than later. And Argentina effectively switched to the counterattack. The Belgian coach had blindly run into Sabella’s plan in such a naïve fashion his Argentine counterpart hadn’t dared to dream.

Source: telegraph.co.uk

A more promising way for Belgium to approach the Argentina game – in 7 simple steps:

You are up against a team that has 4 star players: together, they happen to form the attack. Then 6 defenders. No real connection between the two. Defending against such opposition is actually the straightforward part:
  1. The sheer quality of each of the forwards requires that each one of them is to be man-marked by a defender with a sole mission: to neutralize his direct opponent.
  2. By no means should Belgium’s attack in this game come from the wing/full-backs. They are to carry out defensive duties only, especially considering that the full-backs are actually centre-backs at their clubs.
  3. When you face a side as strong, attackingly, as Argentina, your number one priority is the heart of the defence. This is to be as strong as possible. In the case of Belgium, this would mean staffing Vertonghen and Kompany here.
  4. The empty space created by moving Vertonghen from left to centre is filled by Lombaerts, a very solid man-marker.
  5. It does not make sense to field 36-year old Van Buyten against the quicksilver Argentina forwards – especially not in a 1 vs. 1 system. Before the start of the game, Van Buyten was included in FIFA’s team of the tournament. So he would be the first person on the sheet, right? Wrong. An army should adopt different tactics according to different circumstances”, noted Sun Tzu. That is how one wins a war. All previous games were circumstantially completely different from the game against Argentina – with the Belgian central defenders sharing one mediocre forward between the two of them.
  6. To move away from the imprudent 1 vs. 1 line-up, an additional central defender is fielded. Not Van Buyten, but Vermaelen, who, although certainly not at his best, is still a superior man-marker.
  7. This leads to the following defensive strategy: Lombaerts on the left and Alderweireld on the right, with one mission: man-mark Di María and Lavezzi. Vertonghen and Vermaelen in the centre, with one mission: for Vertonghen to man-mark Messi, who tends to drop back into the midfield, where Vertonghen is also comfortable, and for Vermaelen to man-mark Higuaín. Kompany in the centre, as a modern libero, with the tasks of picking up any balls that inevitably come through, carrying them out of the defence and keeping the defence organised at all times.
Five players with only defensive duties. Wouldn’t the rest of the squad then be so outnumbered that the ball will constantly be on Belgium’s half?  No, because the midfield was entirely Belgium’s for the taking. When the defenders would flick the ball on, there would be only Fellaini and Witsel to pick it up, as Argentina was playing with no-one in between the defensive midfield and the offence.

Moreover, in addition to this much more solid defence, there would still be space to field Fellaini, as a buffer before the defence, rather than marking Messi when in the midfield, a task he had actually been charged with – the idea alone –, Witsel to further dominate the midfield, ánd De Bruyne ánd Hazard to create the danger ánd Lukaku or Origi as striker.

Now play the game again. See what happens. Not sure who would win. But a game we would have for sure. One to watch – and one to remember.