Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with not being Bayer Leverkusen (he said, grudgingly). The counter-press need not be an attacking strategy. It can stop opposition attacks before they begin and enable a slower possession-based game. That is precisely how van Gaal’s press works. It is debatable whether this is the best way to use a press and whether Manchester United’s attack is working at full capacity. But the numbers and my observation both suggest the reason United are not replicating the exciting gegenpressing style is because they just don’t want to.
By contrast, Tottenham Hotspur look like a club that is trying but failing. Under Mauricio Pochettino, a manager who learned these tactics playing for Marcelo Bielsa in Argentina, Spurs have created a good number of attacks at speed (32) and stand third in the league with 89 shots attempted early in possession. These are not world-beating numbers, but they reflect a club trying to speed up the tempo of the match with their press.
Following their short decline and the advent of financial fair play regulations, Chelsea changed their transfer strategy drastically. A focus on younger players to both rebuild the squad and to sell to fund other purchases developed. So far, the strategy looks a strong one.
Manchester City’s graph bears some worrying similarities to what Chelsea looked like before the decline. The club is not buying the foundation of a new club in the age 20-22 subset, and their purchasing is focusing even more strongly on the late peak 26-28 age group. While City at first seemed to have learned some of the lessons of Chelsea’s poor spending strategy, their recent acquisitions reflect a new form of risk-taking.
Again, this improvement in attack looks less like a fluke and more like something the manager helped to engineer. Pardew is far from a radical or innovative tactician, but he has shown the key managerial ability to tailor relatively simple systems that get the most out of his best players.
At both clubs, Pardew recognized that his strongest attacking players, midfielders Moussa Sissoko at Newcastle and Yannick Bolasie at Palace, were most effective with the ball at their feet in the open field. He therefore constructed counterattacking setups aimed at striking quickly, tactics that played easily to his players’ strengths.
The statistics bear this out. Not only did Pardew’s sides create more shots from dangerous positions, but they created more shots off fast-moving, direct attacks.
For now, talk of a crisis looks overblown. Manchester City may be on a 4-3-5 run, but the club’s goal difference over that span is plus-six (21-15). The bad stretch has been marked by an inability to pull out close wins while running roughshod over weaker teams in victories. The other issue has been losses in which Manchester City had the better of the balance of chances. By expected goals, an estimate of chance quality based on shot location and several other factors, City has created more than its opponents in nine of these twelve matches despite claiming points from only seven of them. Some of these differences are very small, and so nine victories would be unlikely, but this shows that Manchester City’s primary problem has not been the creation of good scoring chances.
For Juventus, the key was attacking a Real Madrid weakness. With superstar playmaker Luka Modric injured and defensive midfielder Asier Illaramendi out of favor, Madrid Manager Carlo Ancelotti shuffled his lineup. He played defender Sergio Ramos on the right of a midfield two, paired with Toni Kroos on the left. This pairing had been effective in the quarterfinal against Atletico Madrid, but Juventus seemed to have it sniffed out early.
Kroos was charged with driving forward from midfield while Ramos held the line in front of defense. On the flanks there was a similar pattern. Marcelo attacked from his left fullback position while Dani Carvajal remained mostly in reserve. The effect was a lopsided defense, and Juventus pounced on it from the start. Of Juve’s completed passes into the attacking third, about half were played down Madrid’s weaker left flank, compared to passes down the center of the pitch or on the right flank.
The engine of this return to form has been Philippe Coutinho. When Rodgers first instituted the 3-4-2-1, the headline change was the use of Raheem Sterling in a lone striker position. Yet it has become clear that Coutinho’s role is the indispensable one. The Brazilian playmaker has typically been joined by a goal scorer (usually Adam Lallana) in the duo behind the striker, meaning that Rodgers’ trust is on Coutinho to carry the creative load.
We can see the extent of the Brazilian’s contributions by looking at the passes he has attempted and completed into dangerous areas. When a pass is completed into a region that includes the center of the penalty area and extends a little past the top, there is a chance of at least 1 in 3 that this pass will lead to a shot attempt. The map shows the likelihood of a shot resulting from an attacking move following a completed pass to any location on the pitch. The red zone in the center of the box is clearly distinguishable.
As usual, Barcelona fill the center of the penalty area with good chances. No other club in Europe has as many shot attempts from the danger zone in league play. Barcelona have attempted 216 DZ shots; England’s Manchester City have the second-most (194) but City have played two more matches than Barcelona.
The key to Barcelona’s dominance in attack is simple. Their front line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez has no equal in world football on paper, but what is impressive here is how Suárez has been integrated into the attack without taking opportunities away from either Messi or Neymar. In fact, he seems to have made them both better. It was to be expected that Suárez (3.1 per 90) would attempt and assist more danger zone shots on a per-minute basis than his predecessor, Alexis Sánchez (2.4 per 90). But strikingly Messi and Neymar have also picked up in chance production at the same time.