Google+ Blueprint for Football: October 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Analysis of Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund

by Nicholas Baldacchino

After analysing a number of matches from Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, one could easily understand the passion and intensity in the football being presented.

Klopp presents a very intense and hyper type of play which also embraces the main factors of all great teams which is organisation and teamwork. When defending his team is very compact and, when the possibility is on, presses high with all his players staying high in order to keep team compact keeping the pressure on their opponent. 

When in possession, Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund had an array of different solutions; keeping the ball through possession, playing on the counter, playing direct on the striker, keeping a wide front or attacking with the three up front and gaining width through both fullbacks, whatever the solution it depended on the strengths and weaknesses of his team and the opponent.

When it comes to formations Klopp is a one-trick-pony mainly as his teams are fixed with the 1-4-2-3-1 formation which gives balance all over the pitch and the much needed flexibility when going forward.

Defensive setup
Defensively, Klopp’s Dortmund side operated with a flat back 4 at the back which shifted in unison depending on the area of play. When a long ball is played centrally, one central defender pushes out to win the ball from the striker the ball is directed too, whilst the full backs squeeze in to give cover and the other central defender falls back to give adequate cover for his defensive partner.

The 4-2-3-1 turns into a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 when defending with two perfect defensive lines which function in unison, are compact and within a perfect distance from one another.

The two central midfielders always give the much needed defensive cover and are a barrier in front of the defence at all times when Dortmund are not in possession. They give cover to the central defenders in switch into the back 4 if one of the central defenders ventures out. When the ball is played in transition onto the sides, the two central midfielders are quick to give necessary cover and defend the sides especially when full backs are caught in attack.

When loosing the ball (negative transition) – Dortmund are set up to press the ball immediately in order to win the ball back and attack therefore countering the counter. This takes place mainly when the opposing team has the ball at their defenders and Dortmund are pushing the whole team in the opposing halve to condense the area and not give the opponents time on the ball. When pressing is not on, the team gets behind the ball very quickly and start pressing when they are organised in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 shape.

When defending Dortmund condense the strong zone with as many players as possible to create a numerical advantage at all times in order to win the ball and counter quickly.

When defending dead ball situations, Klopp’s Dortmund defended man to man and with 10 men behind the ball.

Roman Weidenfeller has been Klopp’s No.1 throughout his tenure, a good goal tender, very capable with his feet but the most important characteristic is his height and strength in the air, his guts and leadership which has helped Dortmund in becoming one of the best teams around.

The main actors of the central defensive bloc of the Dortmund teams managed by Klopp are players who are very intelligent, capable of anticipating, very strong in the air and good in 1 vs 1s.  During the first couple of years players like Santana, Dede, Nevan Subotic and Mats Hummels were a fixture in the central positions, the only addition which was able to slip into the team during 2013/14 was the Greek international Sokratis Papastathopoulos who is still playing very well within the side.

The two full back roles which are an integral part in the  team set up have been filled in well by Marcel Schmelzer, the German world cup winner on the left and with Owomoyela in the first two seasons and the Polish great  Pisczek on the right which has turned out to be one of the best right backs in the world. 

The midfield pairing which give the balance and are pivotal to the team in both defensive and attacking functions have been mainly defensive midfield and a creative midfield maestro pairing for Klopp which have seen the likes of Club captain and stalwart  Kehl be paired with the technically gifted Nuri Sahin, later on Sven Bender and Ilkay Gundogan, two very good technically gifted midfielders who are full of energy and work hard.

In possession and attacking
Borussia Dortmund build play from the back in a very patient way. The team, when keeping possession in their own half, do so at a slower tempo and with the team wide, when ball is in opponents half, tempo is higher and more movement is made in order to create fast short combinations until a killer ball can be executed. 

When building up from the back they keep the ball with a very wide team with one midfielder come in between the central defenders who in turn receive the ball and play through the middle or on the full backs that are set up wide.

When the two central defenders are pressured, ball is played directly onto the striker who tries to combine with the three players behind him.

Up front the striker gives depth and drops to receive ball in order to combine with the three behind him in quick short combinations. The two side attacking players take different positions either giving width in the front line or tucking in to create an overload in the central areas with the full backs joining in attack wide to cross into the area. 
Figures 1-3 : in this passage of play Dortmund are quick to play ball from midfield into forward on the left hand side who in turn plays the ball into the attacking midfielder who quickly turns the ball into the right hand channel where the oncoming right winger plays a dangerous ball into the area
Fig. 4-7 : Borussia Dortmund in this passage of play keep possession of the ball for a minute starting play from the left hand side of midfield and ending up with a good chance to score. One may evidently see, the positional play of the team with all players supporting and creating angles at all time.

Positive Transition
Klopp’s Dortmund excelled in positive transition (the moment when the ball is won and an attack starts) as the game plan was built around winning the ball and going fast to attack the opponents when they are least organised.

In fact the high pressing is the defensive equivalent to quick transition as after winning the ball after an aggressive pressing the team can attack the opponent before it gets organised.

Thanks to an array of quick players behind the striker - which throughout Klopp’s era was always a good player capable of holding up the ball and scoring goals both with his foot and in the air - Dortmund were equipped with the correct mix to be able to play in many different ways and have different options in order to break the defensive block of the opposing teams.
Fig. 8-9 : In these figures we can see how from 5 players in own half in less than 5 seconds Dortmund have 5 players in proximity of Mainz’s penalty area whilst still in possession. 
The players who have been most influential up front during Klopp’s rein have been Lewandovski who has turned out to be one of the top strikers, Lucas Barrios previously and Aubemeyang later. In the attacking midfield positions players such as Grosskreutz, Blaszczykowski - mainly wide on the right, Kagawa, Goetze and Reuse and Mkhitaryan have all been of impeccable service.

This was the thesis carried out by Nicholas Baldacchino as part of his UEFA B Licence qualification.  Nicholas, who has since obtained his UEFA A Licence, is currently the Head Coach at Mqabba Youth Nursery in Malta and can be followed on twitter.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bite Size: Big-Fish-Little-Pond-Syndrome

Why is it that some players show exceptional talent at one side but then look utterly lost when they move to a bigger club?  Often this is blamed on a generic reason - character - when in truth the big-fish-little-pond syndrome explains it better.  The main points of this syndrome are listed here:

- Research has shown that an individual who attend a high-ability school had a greater possibility of lower academic self-concepts than another individual who went to a low-ability school.

- When someone is in an environment that expects high achievement there is the tendency that such an individual shrinks away rather than rising to the challenge.

- To put this in context if two fish of roughly equal size are put into different ponds - one large and one small - there is the probability that the one in the smaller pond does better.

- In 1966 American sociologist James A Davis warned parents against sending their children to those that are typically considered as the better colleges if there was the chance that they would be towards to lower end of the graduating class.

- When an individual feels that he is among the best in his team he will act in that way. Placed in a team where he is one of many - talent wise - there is the chance that he loses that edge.  

- A prime differentiator is intrinsic motivation: those individuals who find the drive to improve within themselves, rather than needing external motivation, tend to do better when placed in high achievement surroundings.  

Go here to read a more in-depth piece about the Big-Fish-Little-Pond-Syndrome.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Liverpool's Blueprint: A Wrong Turn

The following is an extract from Liverpool's Blueprint; an e-book that looks at the past, present and future of Liverpool's academy.  This e-book is available for sale here with profits from sales made till the end of December 2015 being donated to Alder Hey hospital.

“The road to hell is full of good intentions,” goes one saying.  “Hindsight is 20/20,” goes another.   Both are apt when it comes to discussing Liverpool’s academy, particularly its location in Kirkby.

When Liverpool announced that 55 acres had been bought in Kirkby with the aim of building the club’s academy in the area, it was seen as a visionary move.  This was to be Britain’s first club-based football academy and would be providing Liverpool’s youths with all the facilities that one could dream of.  Such was the state of youth development at the time that one newspaper, in reporting the news felt the need to highlight that the academy was going “to supply youths even with beds”!

Yet within the club there was a realisation that transfer fees were going to spiral and, equally, that the best way to ensure a degree of player loyalty was by developing them.  The pending impact of the Bosman ruling, and the lack of loyalty that could result off it, also preyed heavily on the management’s mind.

“We believe that it will be vital in the future that the club be able to produce as many of its own players as possible, as a consequence of the Bosman judgement. Although our record is an excellent one, the soccer academy will enable us to compete with anyone in the world.”

It was an understated move but very much in the style of the man who made that statement, club secretary Peter Robinson.  His work never received the credit that it deserved by this was a man who had played as important a role in building Liverpool as had the various managers who had been put in charge.  Most of the decisions that he took, along with chairman Sir John Smith, ensured that Liverpool remained well ahead of the rest of the league both on and off the pitch.  

This move, in their mind, was going to ensure that Liverpool’s dominance would continue.

He had every reason to feel confident.  Liverpool had looked at the various models that existed around Europe, in particular those at Ajax and Auxerre.  At the time, Ajax had just won the Champions Cup with a team heavily made of home grown players whilst Auxerre had enjoyed substantial success in France adopting a similar model.  Both had off-site academies and it was their lead that Liverpool were following.

In truth, a reluctance to leave Melwood also played a big part.  “We did look at great length at combining the academy with the senior set-up, but we would have had to leave Melwood for that to happen and that would have caused a major amount of upheaval,” he admitted years later.  “In the end, we decided to go along the Ajax route because we wanted to retain Melwood.”

Sadly, it proved to be the wrong decision.

Gary Neville talks of the importance that seeing Manchester United’s first team players train on a regular basis had on his career.  It allowed him to see first-hand what they were doing and how hard they were working in order to succeed.  This, in turn, helped him determine just what he had to do in order to make it into the first team himself.  And all of this was possible because everyone at Manchester United trained in the same complex: he could physically see what the first team players training.

Liverpool were losing this and, although it was a conscious decision, the impact was there nevertheless and it was being felt years later.

“The manager wants it. The owners would like it. It would be great for our kids to be close to the first team. It would be fantastic for us to do it. Everyone would like it to happen. The manager has spoken about it a lot,” Frank McParland, by then academy manager, said in 2012 about the possibility of having all players on one site.

Worse than the issues caused by young players not seeing the first team players and learning off them, however was the resulting ‘us and them’ mentality that fragmented the club, wasted millions and – worst of all – stunted the career of dozens of young players.

It is all too symptomatic of the leadership – or lack thereof - at the club at the time that this was allowed to happen.   The decision to bring in Gerard Houllier as joint-manager, rather than as an outright replacement of Roy Evans, was a prime example of this.  

Liverpool had not sacked a manager since Don Welsh in 1956 and, as the Liverpool board at the time didn’t want to break that tradition, they pushed on with the farcical idea.  Closer examination of Liverpool’s past would have educated those running the club that success had always stemmed from the club’s ability to take tough decisions when the time came.  Sentimentality was rarely shown towards players when their performances were faltering, selling them to ensure that the team remained on top.  Yet this time they abdicated and, even worse, they continued to do likewise every time that they were faced with a similar situation.

One of the reasons that Houllier was brought in was his experience in setting up the Clairefontaine academy from which so much of France’s success at the time stemmed.  The idea was that, apart from reshaping the practices at first team level, he could also provide help the academy by dipping into his experience.

On paper, it was a good enough idea.  The problem was that a man like Houllier was never going to be content with making suggestions and let others decide whether the wanted to act on them or not.  He was a man who was convinced of his methods – as most top managers are, it is fair to point out – and so felt that whatever he was proposing over the academy should be automatically adopted.

This would have been fine if his remit also covered the academy.  Alas it did not; that was Steve Heighway’s job.  And Heighway, whilst willing to listen to what the manager had to say, was also convinced of his own ideas on how best to develop players capable of playing for Liverpool FC.

Actually, the relationship didn’t get off to a bad start.  Soon after Evans had resigned, making Houllier the sole manager, he went to watch the reserves train and quickly pointed at two players who were good enough to train with the first team.  A couple of weeks later and one of those players – a certain Steven Gerrard – was making his first team debut for Liverpool.

Indeed, Houllier played a pivotal role in shaping the career of young players like Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Gerrard.  He provided them with a disciplinary framework that allowed them to thrive and guided them in a way to ensure that they were could develop properly thus ensuring that their potential could be fully realised.

Sadly, he was less patient with others.  After Gerrard made the step to the first team, no other player progressed.  Stephen Wright (the other player that Houllier had identified alongside Gerrard) made some appearances but his progress was cut short when Abel Xavier was signed.  Another Stephen, Warnock, showed promise yet he too found himself unable to break into the first team.

Things hardly improved when Houllier left.  Initially some players were given an opportunity.  Neil Mellor got some games and scored a couple of memorable goals whilst others like Darren Potter, Stephen Darby and John Welsh featured briefly.  With time, those opportunities started to get less and less.  If anything, the situation worsened.

Whereas Houllier had at least kept up appearances, Benitez wasn’t interested.  Instead, he quite visibly started setting up his own reserve team in Melwood.  Players were bought specifically for the reserves with the intention being that of having a ‘B team’ training with him at Melwood.  Some of these players had potential (Mikel San Jose, Antonio Barragan) but others had clearly been signed to make up the numbers (Jordy Brouwer and Vitor Flora).  

The message was clear: if you won’t give me a say in the youth system then virtually no player will make the jump from Kirkby to Melwood.  The physical distance between the two training complexes became an unsurmountable barrier and it was as if the two were distinct clubs. 

It should have been up to those running the club to put an end to this but, again, it was symptomatic of the leadership at the time that nothing was done.  Money was invested in the academy and money was spent on Benitez’s reserves with no clear idea of having anyone accountable for all that investment.

Heighway’s departure provided the club with an ideal opportunity to start re-uniting.  Sadly, by then the political infighting had taken a turn for the worse and rather than giving Benitez some say, the policy of alienating him was stepped up with the appointment of Piet Hamberg.

The Dutchman had a good reputation in youth development and his appointment was partial admission that perhaps the academy needed some new ideas having been for so long under the guidance of one man.  Even so, it was a strange decision not least because there had seemingly been no consultation with the manager prior to his appointment.

The result of this decision was the gap between Kirkby and Melwood grew wider than it had ever been. 

Those were wasted years; a period where Liverpool were knowingly throwing away the money that had been invested into the academy not to mention the emotions and aspirations of those players who were enrolled during that period.  Whilst the chances of a player making it at a big club like Liverpool are always very remote, they became practically non-existent during that time.