Tag Archives: Tactics

Yoann Gourcuff – changing roles in changing times

Following the group A profile on France passthesugar has done a little bit of research into one of their more anonymous, yet outstanding, prospects – Yoann Gourcuff. Gourcuff is in a cluster of footballers who haven’t quite reached the lofty heights of a Messi or Ronaldo, but have seen their stocks rise considerably to the point where a breakout World Cup could see them become household names. After all, nothing like the World Cup can start the rumours of 7, or even 8, figure transfer rumours and if you can never be considered an all time great without World Cup success on your resume.

The much maligned Gourcuff left Milan and a frustrating spell where he never fully lived up to they hyped expectations for Bordeaux on loan in 2008. At Milan, the Frenchman had been hampered with injuries and consistently left out by none other than Carlo Ancelloti who preferred Kaka. At Bordeaux Gourcuff had an immediate impact, helping the side to the double in France and become a European force. Their defeat to Lyon in their impressive Champions League was a bitter disappointment and may be attributed to a long and continuous spell of football for Bordeaux which has left Laurent Blanc’s squad’s lack of depth on show. The Les Girondins have been one of the form sides for the majority of the past two years, and it is only recently that they have let their ascendancy slip to the advancing Lyon.

Gourcuff had much to do with their rise to prominence. He is a proper, old-fashioned playmaker, who sends purists into a flurry every time he is on the ball. There’s little pizazz or showy tricks in his repertoire (think Ronaldo and Messi), but Gourcuff consistently shows that creative football does not automatically mean flair. However, recently, Gourcuff has been poor, particularly in their Champions League exit. In this piece, we’ll show that its more due to the the demise of the classic number 10.

In 2009 Gourcuff was employed by Blanc in an advanced, central role that gave him freedom to sit in behind the frontmen and push forward regularly. Many observers hoped that his role might prefigure a renaissance in the kind of traditional playmaker whose decline in recent years has ben a keen source of regret to purists who salivate for patience and wit.

“I think we’re losing that position, that number 10. It feels like there are none left and that’s a great pity,” said Lionel Messi in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine in August last year. “Football is harder now; it’s more physical, there is more contact. It’s a shame. Number 10s were players who participated more in the game, got a lot of the ball and who made the game beautiful.”

Recently, however, the sparkle seems to have worn off. Their definite slump may be attributable to their stubborn formation. It’s been mentioned previously by passthesugar that football has evolved dramatically over the past two seasons, with the now antiquated 4-1-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 being swamped by the new wave of modern set ups. Their main nemeses, Marseille and Lyon both opt for a 4-3-3. Against the traditional 4-4-2 Bordeaux’s setup can give their playmaker in Gourcuff time on the ball and space between the defence and midfield to exploit. But these two teams in particular have learnt to crowd this area and stifle the dangerous Gourcuff with a specified holding player.

One of Bordeaux’s trademarks in recent times has become their changing formations to match different opposition. The default is the 4-2-3-1 with an option to add Brazillian Fernando up front and sacrifice a holding midfielder if goals are the order of the day. In the 1-1 draw at home to Marseille in January, Blanc opted for a 4-1-3-2 that quickly became a 4-1-4-1 with little effort.. The space in front of the first-choice back four of Chalmé, Michaël Ciani, Marc Planus and Trémoulinas was patrolled by skipper Alou Diarra, with Gourcuff, Jaroslav Plašil and Wendel operating in support of Marouane Chamakh and Yoan Gouffran. In possession, both Chalmé and Trémoulinas pushed well forward, with Diarra dropping back into defence to provide cover and Gouffran moving up front alongside Chamakh. When play broke down Gouffran fell back alongside Gourcuff, with all four advanced midfielders actively pressing Marseille’s defenders. Bordeaux took a 1-0 lead when a robust Chamakh challenge prompted Steve Mandanda to spill the ball into his own net and would probably have held on for victory had Planus not been harshly sent off for a foul on Mamadou Niang with half an hour to play. The fluidity of Bordeaux’s midfield, in which players like Gourcuff and Plašil are comfortable adopting defensive positions, means the defenders feel safe in exploiting space when they see it, and the Mandanda own goal came from a marauding run and cross down the right by Ciani. (this is shown below)

Bordeaux’s flexibility was demonstrated afresh intheir 2-1 victory over Olympiacos earlier this month in the second leg of the Champions League last 16. The team set out in the custom European 4-2-3-1, with Wendel pushing forward from left-midfield at Bordeaux goal-kicks to give Chamakh a target for his trademark flick-ons. (shown above) Plašil would subsequently drop back into midfield alongside Diarra and Fernando, creating what was effectively a 4-3-1-2. Wendel and Plašil’s ability to drop deep allowed both Fernando and Diarra to press their opponents high up the pitch, with Diarra on one occasion in the first half chasing his man all the way back to the edge of the Olympiacos penalty area. When Diarra was sent off after picking up two yellow cards Gourcuff dropped back into a defensive midfield position, but Bordeaux were still able to close out the win.

The limits of the side’s versatility were finally exposed in their 3-1 Champions League quarter-final first leg defeat to Lyon when, with Ludovic Sané deputising for the injured Planus and Plašil occupying a midfield holding role in place of the suspended Diarra, Bordeaux were undone by an uncharacteristically nervous defensive performance that saw them concede two sloppy goals in the first half.

On-song, Bordeaux are a fine team to watch, with both full-backs pushing on, Wendel and Plašil buzzing around on the flanks, Chamakh linking the play intelligently and Gourcuff illuminating proceedings with his spell-binding mastery of the ball:

Blanc’s impressive set up as made him the firm favourite to succeed the clown Domenech as the French national coach in the summer. Chamakh looks likely to head to Arsenal and interest in Gourcuff will only rise following the World Cup.

The most surprising thing about Bordeaux’s 3-1 defeat to Marseille in the Coupe de la Ligue final last month was the apparent ease with which Didier Deschamps’s side closed out victory after taking the lead in the 61st minute. With the muscular pairing of Edouard Cissé and Charles Kaboré patrolling in front of the Marseille defence, Gourcuff had no room in which to manoeuvre and he was forced to retreat in similar fashion when faced with Jérémy Toulalan and Maxime Gonalons in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon:

Confronted by physically imposing and well-drilled opponents who effectively shut off space in their own defensive third, Gourcuff was made to play further and further from the Lyon penalty area and, despite Bordeaux’s desperate need for goals, spent much of his time trying to coax his team-mates into life from inside his own half.

Originally held up as the heir apparent to Zinedine Zidane as France’s playmaker-in-chief, doubts are beginning to creep in about Gourcuff’s suitability as a true number 10. L’Equipe’s football writers last week published their France XI for the World Cup (below) and it featured Gourcuff alongside Lassana Diarra in a midfield holding role, with Franck Ribéry granted attacking freedom in central areas behind Thierry Henry. A panel of experts on French TV show Téléfoot reached a similar conclusion about where Gourcuff should play, while his own father, Lorient coach Christian, feels his son would be better suited to the role of a deep-lying midfielder organiser akin to Milan’s Andrea Pirlo or Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso.

To date Gourcuff has failed to convince in a playmaking role for France. He is not helped by Raymond Domenech’s persistent use of strikers rather than midfielders in the wide areas of his 4-2-3-1, who shirk their role in the creative process because they are unaccustomed to playing in midfield, but existing trends have already highlighted the need for central creative players to adapt to the quicker pace of the game by changing their position or changing the way they play. Lacking the pace to re-locate to the flanks, Gourcuff’s only option appears to be to ‘do a Pirlo’ and retreat into the kind of deeper role in which he operated during his formative years at Rennes and where he has already played on occasion for his current club. At 23 he and his coaches have a decision to make.

“It’s the best position for Gourcuff in the future,” said Domenech at the end of last year when asked if Gourcuff could play in a deep midfield position for Les Bleus. “I enjoyed playing further back,” admitted the player himself, meanwhile, after slotting in alongside Alou Diarra in Bordeaux’s 1-0 home win over Paris Saint-Germain in December.

Should Blanc leave Bordeaux, Gourcuff is bound to follow suit. His likely destination remains unknown but his future position on the pitch may require even more thoughtful deliberation. Quotes like this one: “That goal was no accident.” “It showed there was something magical about him. I felt ill when Zidane retired. Watching Gourcuff has cured me. When I see players like him, I feel like a small boy again.” from Cristophe Dugarry will mean that the pressure is well and truly on the young lad to perform in South Africa and lead their strong set up to glory.

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Lacklustre Liverpool

Honestly, what is going on at Anfield? Their insipid display over the weekend against an extremely poor Chelsea has almost put an end to what has been a dramatic and sudden decline from title contenders to mid table wanderers and Champions League threat to Europa League failures. Much has been said about Benitez and his debatable transfers. Much has been said about “that loss” to Reading in the FA cup. Much has been said about Torres and his seemingly endless run of injuries. Liverpool are at the tipping point. Turn it around with new owners, a new manager and new players and they are a big enough club to go straight back to the top four. But inaction could spell a long banishment to football wilderness.

Football for the day gives you the inside information and all the opinions that matter. Today, in tactic Tuesday, focus will be put on the ‘Pool’s lack of direction on the pitch.

What’s changed between last year, where Liverpool were genuine title challengers and this year’s failure?

When Xabi Alonso parted with the Reds fancying the riches and glamour of the Galacticos, Benitez unveiled his big summer signing – Alberto Aquilani. The ex Roma star was brought in as an ostensible straight swap for Alonso. This, however, was to prove fanciful, with the loss of Alonso obvious from the outset. Aquilani proved to be a different class of player. At Roma he posed a direct goal threat with quick feet and pushing forward across the pitch. His roal was similar to a Fabregas at Arsenal. Aquilani was not the player to match Alonso’s superb passing range who sat in an almostquarterback role, spraying diagonal long balls that became a hallmark of Liverpool. When Alonso arrived at Anfield, he also possessed an attacking bent, having been employed further forward at Real Sociedad, and so the hope for fans was that Benitez would similarly develop Aquilani into the holding regista role.

Aquilani arrived with much fanfare. Former Liverpool sweetheart and team mate at Roma, John Arne Riise remarked, “He is a fantastic player on the ball, very technical. He is different to Alonso but he is the sort of player who can break teams down. He is a very good passer of the ball; he runs a lot; finds space everywhere and he likes to get in the box to score goals.” Benitez also denied that Aquilani was brought in as direct cover for Alonso, “He is a very good player on the ball, and hopefully he can produce the sort of asses that we missed last season. Certainly at home against packed defences when we could only draw important matches.”

All the hype, however, was put on an indefinite hold, as injuries hampered any chance of a swift impact by the Italian. Appearances were limited by an niggling ankle injury until late October. Until recently, the unfortunate scapegoat Lucas was favoured in the starting 11. Much of the criticism levelled at Lucas has been unfounded. Lucas has been capable, if not spectacular, alongside Mascherano and often seemed to be derided simply as the man who kept Aquilani perched in the second row. Pundits and commentators around the world heaped pressure on Benitez to play Aquilani with Mascherano in the middle, but until the season had all but slipped away, Rafa resisted the temptation and consequently placing immense pressure on his own employment

At the start of April Liverpool’s season had already been slapped with a big fat F. At this point, Aquilani had featured in the starting lineup 5 times in the league, for 5 wins: 2-0 at home over Wolves, 1-0 away at Villa, 2-0 over Spurs at Anfield, 2-0 at home to Bolton and an comfortable 4-1 home win over Portsmouth. In this final match, Aquilani opened his goal-scoring account at the club and Benitez said afterwards, “Alberto has got desire and he is working very hard. When we have him available, he can give us a different approach on the pitch in different games.”

With reference to the below screenshots, Aquilani proved an effective link between the much maligned midfield and the incisive Torres (9) and Gerrard (8). The first screenshot shows his average position; further forward than that achieved by Lucas (21) or Mascherano (20).

Looking at the disappointing 2-2 stalemate with Birmingham at home (a result all too typical this season) Lucas was employed by Benitez to fulfill a similar link-man role. His average position is similar to that shown above for Aquilani – just inside the centre circle on the attacking half.

However, Lucas is a grafting and hard working player. He is willing to work back to defend, as shown by the first heatmap, compared to Aquilani, who possesses a more attacking mindset, as shown in the second screenshot.

(Guardian Chalkboards comparison of their passing statistics that informed the majority of these insights, demonstrates the conclusion Aquilani plays a more significant role in Liverpool’s attacking build up compared to Lucas.)

I can hear the budding football tacticians grumbling their disagreement already. Birmingham have proved strong opposition since promotion – defensively disciplined and well structured. Portsmouth, contrastingly, are unsteady at the back and lack the quality to control the midfield battle and offer any sizeable threat in attack. But the illustration is still achieved. Lucas is only favoured as he fits big bad Rafa’s uncompromising system that favours controlling zones. Fitness can not be the only excuse for Alberto’s absence, as he has been an unused substitute on nine occasions to add to his scrapbook of 12 appearances off the subs bench. Rafa has been willing to address the red’s stuttering attack without Aquilani, instead favouring Gerrard to control the centre of midfield and move Kuyt (18) into an advanced position. (Kuyt and Gerrard are circled) The formation map from Liverpool’s strong 3-0 win over Sunderland shows this move.

The nagging question that may as well be on a banner in the Kop is why Aquilani doesn’t play in front of Mascherano leaving Gerrard in his preferred position sitting in behind Torres. Recently, Aquialani has shown promise, but changes in late April are not where season’s are decided and changes were made too late in the piece. Indeed these four quality footballers had started together only once before the second week of April, in the match with Portsmouth, and the Merseyside outfit resembled the fluidity that got them so far in previous years.

Why would Benitez spend a whopping £17 million attracting the player if he was unsure and couldn’t trust him to perform the role. Overall, Aquilani’s mysterious season looks set to end in a failure. Whatever the scenario next season, Aquilani is one player who should be given the chance in the Premier League.

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