Talking Tactics: Javi Gracia’s Watford

Javi Gracia’s Watford are flying in the Premier League as we enter the first international break of the season, with four wins of a possible four to their name. Some say it may be a fluke, but you can only beat what is in front of you. Lewis Steele takes a look at Watford’s 4-2-2-2 and Javi Gracia’s styles that have overseen this superb start for the pre-season relegation candidates.

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It took a matter of minutes after the full time whistle at Vicarage Road for the inevitable to happen. The headlines and office jokes we saw coming when the idea of Watford beating Spurs first came into our head: “Can Watford do a Leicester?”, with bookmakers offering odds of 500/1 for Watford to repeat ‘the miracle of 2016’.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It has been a great start, but ‘doing a Leicester’ won’t happen again, not in the next decade or so anyway.

Despite this, something, evidently, has been going right at Watford. After four games, The Hornets have maximum points thanks to wins against Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and most recently an impressive victory against Spurs.

The shortened odds for Watford may be the talk of social media, but another bookmakers tip is quickly looking ill found: Javi Gracia was the bookies favourite to be the first through the proverbial door and the winner of the ‘sack race’ of 2018/19.

That prediction is proving to be rash and the reason for that is the fact the Spaniard is probably the least known gaffer in the division. The Spanish coach had enjoyed stints at Malaga, Rubin Kazan and other teams across the continent, but is not a household name in management.

Although with no major top flight silverware to his name, Gracia made a name for himself when at Malaga for being a ‘giant killer’, often taking points off the big boys such as Barcelona, whom he got four points against in his first season at the club.

Before Malaga, Gracia won promotion with Almeria, adopting a 4-4-2 formation with Aleix Vidal and Charles as the strikers. Gracia left before the new season due to a rift with the board, who wanted to sell the players who got them promoted.

His sides press high up the pitch but in a staggered manner, forcing teams to go long, ‘like lions swarming over a gazelle’, as has been said by Spanish experts.

Gracia has an old fashioned view of the game, believing that the harder his teams work, the better results they will get, but in general he is a modern coach that relies heavily on high pressing off the ball and has a strong focus on analysis of future opponents to pinpoint weaknesses.

He wasn’t too dissimilar as a player, with a high emphasis on tactics and organisation.

“He was always talking, correcting, organising. He understood the mechanisms, tactically he was sharp, a leader. Sometimes, like with Diego Simeone who I played with at Lazio, you know they have something. Javi has that” said former teammate Darko Kovacevic.

Off the ball, for Gracia, the ‘pressing in stages’ is key.

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The 4-2-2-2 system that Javi Gracia plays is a sister of the classic 4-4-2 that many English sides used in the first decade of the 21st century.

As is evident in the above graphic, Watford’s formation off the ball is this classic 4-4-2 with the two banks of four behind the ball, led by Deeney and Gray who initiate the pressing.

The narrow structure as is clear limits the opposition to pass from side to side, rather than advance via through-the-lines forward passes.

Most of the best attacking teams use fast, vertical passes. Watford’s setup meant that on Sunday, Spurs often had to pass in a U shape, which doesn’t really advance the play. The staggered system invites long balls, with Gracia placing trust in Cathcart and Kabasele to mop up said long balls.

The hallmark of a solid side looking for safety is normally this rigid defensive structure, making themselves hard to beat. However, what they do on the ball is what makes them stand out from a crowd of many candidates vying for a mid table finish.

On the ball, Watford have Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes who operate in ‘free roles’. Listed on the team sheet as wide midfielders, the duo drift inside and play as central midfielders, with the former scoring three goals in August, making him a candidate for the player of the month.

Both of these attacking midfielders have dual functions and both have played many games in their career in central roles.

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In Will Hughes’ heatmap from the weekend win over Spurs (above), it is evident that although his primary position was in that deep defensive position on the right flank, but often he cut inside and affected the game from a central position.

In fact, the early season performances of Will Hughes have led to many questioning why he hasn’t been selected for the UEFA Nations League games by Gareth Southgate.

Against Tottenham, Hughes showed glimpses of his best and proved why he was brought into the Derby County side as a 16-year-old and won so many plaudits from such a young age. If he continues this form, he will certainly push for a place to fill the creative void in Southgate’s midfield.

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Hughes and Pereyra are key to Watford. They cut inside, so the width comes from the full backs Daryl Janmaat and Jose Holebas, the latter of whom has four assists to his name already this season, level with fellow left-back Benjamin Mendy at the top of the assists charts in the division.

The dynamic full back duo will bomb up and down the wing looking to create goals on the counter attack. Often, only one of them will go, allowing Watford to always have a three man defence should they be countered on.

With the importance of the wing backs and the wide midfielders highlighted, the most important role in Gracia’s side is the two who patrol the centre of the park: Ettiene Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure.

Football is Gracia’s life and passion, and his start to the season with Watford has been nothing short of exceptional.

His tactics bring a perfect balance – defensive solidarity and attacking prowess, caused by the use of positional play and interpretation of spaces.

By any standards, it is early days for Watford, but the tactics Gracia employs seem basic, but his players understand them and they are working to great effect.

Watford are eager to tie down the still young coach to a new deal, according to The Daily Mailand that is testament to his early season form, driven by his well thought out 4-2-2-2 formation.

Talking Tactics: Marcelo Bielsa’s Philosophies

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Marcelo Bielsa is quickly winning praise in England for his fast start with Leeds, but who exactly is ‘El Loco’ and why are his philosophies so lavished in the footballing world?

To the shock and delirium of many English football fans, Leeds United appointed ‘El Loco’ Marcelo Bielsa ahead of the new season. Literally translating as ‘the crazy one’, Bielsa adopts an innovative, fast moving style of football that has won him global plaudits from some of the best coaches in the game, including Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino.

Surprisingly, many neutral watchers in England knew nothing of the Argentinian coach, and some still don’t. A couple of months into his spell at Leeds, we have learnt that Bielsa is indeed a very interesting character: he sits on a cooler during matches, is not afraid to make first half substitutions if things aren’t going right and employs a translator to help him with his interviews in a very odd yet admirable style.

Bielsa’s first job in management was with Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys, who play their football at the stadium now called ‘Estadio Marcelo Bielsa’ in Rosario, Santa Fe.

Taking the job in his mid thirties, Marcelo Bielsa’s meticulous style became evident months into his two-year stint at Newell’s. The dedicated coach racked up circa 25,000 miles in his Fiat 167 as he fled around the country trying to persuade players to join the club. Often, it was his eye for talent that made him stand out from the crowd, as he brought the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Mauricio Pochettino to the club, both of whom went on to have playing careers at the highest level.

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Just like all revolutionary coaches in sport, Bielsa has a desire for detail. When the Argentine took over at Leeds, this was clear. He installed sleeping quarters at the training ground and went against the norm of English football training patterns, by insisting that Leeds do double sessions with the players allowed to rest in the sleeping areas in between.

In essence, he has transformed Leeds’ training from a couple of hours in the morning to a nine-to-five job, with the players having demanding physical schedules as well as intense lectures in front of a tactics board learning about their next opponent.

Before his arrival, Bielsa watched all 51 Leeds games from last season, so he knew his players inside out. He completely immersed himself in the club and its surroundings, and thus far it is paying dividends, with Leeds flying in the league.

Top coaches such as Simeone, Guardiola and Pochettino swear by Bielsa as one of their biggest inspirations in management. Pep Guardiola visited Bielsa in Argentina before he took the job as a coach at Barcelona B, his first job. In fact, the two spent 11 hours at a barbecue at Bielsa’s Rosario home talking football and tactics.

Why? Bielsa has won a couple of Argentinian league titles as well as guiding Argentina to Olympic glory, but why is he so coveted in the wider footballing community?

“I only believe in Plan A. Plan B is to get Plan A to work”

Perhaps taking inspiration from Bielsa, a vast majority of top coaches in world football tend to stick to their core beliefs and not stray away from them. For example, Guardiola would never ‘park the bus’ based on the opposition in the same way Simeone refuses to depart from his defensive counter attacking game.

Bielsa sees the notion of changing tactics mid game as failure or a sign of weakness. If he doesn’t believe in his own way, why should the players invest so much attention and effort to believe in Bielsa?

That doesn’t mean El Loco is afraid of change – far from it, in fact. In the game against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium a fortnight ago, Bielsa hauled off his key midfielder Kalvin Phillips with not even half an hour on the clock, for tactical reasons. When Leeds needed a goal, it was always going to be one striker for another, rather than throwing Bamford on for a defender and changing the game plan to throwing balls into the box.

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It doesn’t always work. In his early days at Lille, Bielsa made three changes before half time and ended up having to play an outfield player as a goalkeeper, before changing his mind and swapping the outfield player. Lille lost that game 3-0, to Strasbourg. His style is rash and sometimes backfires, but often it works.

As Kanye West would say – “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”.

The famous 3-3-1-3 and more conservative 4-2-3-1 styles

Leeds’ star coach has been hailed in world football for his tactical innovations, namely his eye catching 3-3-1-3 formation, which gained popularity in Bielsa’s Chile, Marseille and Bilbao sides.

The system demands highly demanding pressing, elaborate attacking and fluid transitions that combine for a very exciting style of play.

The eccentric formation consists of: three defenders ample on the ball; a defensive shield in the middle of two inverted wing backs; an enganche; a front three of a target man and two wide men.

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Perhaps most eye catching of the formation is the playmaker just behind the front three: most notable in this role was Dimitri Payet during Bielsa’s stint at Marseille.

This player is given the most freedom and is relieved of pressing duties, thus is the biggest creative outlet in the system. Enganche is the traditional playmaker that is the prompt for attacking moves.

The wide men stay as wide as possible, creating overloads in the wide areas, allowing the playmaker to excel.

The un enganche y tres punta belief galvanized the French league at the time and Marseille fought for the title right until the end, where they were beaten by multimillionaire giants Paris St-Germain.

As is similar with most of the pioneer coaches of attacking football, many forget about the defensive side. Bielsa’s sides are more than equipped off the ball.

Chile adopted a high intensity style around this famous 3-3-1-3 formation and although not littered with talent, the South American nation have over performed in tournaments in the past decade, especially on the continent.

Whilst at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola stated that Barcelona’s draw at the San Mames, home of Bielsa’s Bilbao, was their toughest game of the season. He said that Bielsa’s men played like lions as the Catalan giants struggled to cope with their high pressing.

In that very season, the Basque club earned their way to surprising finishes in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, achieving the final in both competitions.

It isn’t just the eccentric 3-3-1-3 formation that Loco has up his sleeve, as he often turns to a 4-2-3-1 system with high full backs, which he is adopting thus far in Yorkshire.

Bielsa’s aim is to have one more central defender than the opposition have strikers, which facilitates his high line and pressing style of play, as only one spare defender means there are more players to push forwards.

“Concentracion, permanente movilidad, rotacion y repentization” – concentration, focus, rotation and improvisation.

Even though the shape may look slightly different, the idea and emphasis is the same. The key components are speed, verticality and fluidity: each player is expected to improvise within the system and fill in for one another.

Bielsa swears: “if football was played by robots, I would win everything”. He has a belief in his system that if players carry out his orders of where to be on the pitch, they will succeed.

The robotic comment seems strange, as Bielsa relies heavily on improvisation in situations for effectiveness.

He believes that totally mechanized teams are “useless, because they get lost when they lose their script”. The role of the enganche, in both systems, thus, is crucial.

Whether it be Dimi Payet at that high flying Marseille side in a 3-3-1-3 or now at Leeds, Samuel Saiz, the creativity and improvisation aspect is crucial. The playing style is about movement – you may watch Leeds and not know what position certain players are playing, because they have to be multifunctional similar to Pep’s City, where Kyle Walker pops up all over the pitch in wing back, midfield and centre back roles depending on the situation.

His interesting character and demeanour  

Bielsa has an affinity with fans and tries to drill into his players that they must fight for the supporters who work hard to afford to come and watch their team. He said: “[players] are an extension of fans, [players] are those people.”

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During pre season, Loco wanted to make the players know what it takes to earn a ticket, so made his squad go around litter picking for the time that it takes for the average earner to make enough to afford a Leeds United home ticket.

He believes that he is the boss, but he is separate from the players. The captain, Liam Cooper, was voted for by the players – Bielsa believes the captain is the voice of the players, so he should not have a say in who wears the armband.

What you do on the training pitch win you matches, but the finer details are what win you titles. The small changes Bielsa has made at Leeds will go a long way to making this side better equipped to fight for promotion.

This has always been the case: when at Chile, he changed everything from the dimension of the pitch to the font on the signage around the training complex, because he saw a font he liked at Santiago Zoo.

He speaks adequate English, but does not want his message to come across wrong, so relies heavily on his translator.

These finer details helped setup Chile’s golden generation which won back-to-back Copa America titles – they will be crucial for Leeds in a division which is so often decided on tight margins.

Leeds have started brilliantly, but they have done before. This feels different. Bielsa has a blueprint that he will stick by and the players can only improve, unlike previous years when it was potentially a new manager effect driving improved performances for a short period of time.

The buzz around the city is different and better than it has been for over a decade, with 20000 watching Tuesday night cup ties at Elland Road to see Bielsa’s Leeds in the flesh.

Bielsa has never had vast amounts of money to spend, so his ideas are crucial. He has a system that he believes in – if he can transfer this belief to the players, Leeds will go far.

Talking Tactics: Arsenal v Manchester City review

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Welcome to Talking Tactics: the home of weekly tactical analysis, whether it be a comprehensive breakdown of themes I have spotted over the weekend of football, or previewing an exciting battle that is around the corner.

The first edition focuses on the Premier League’s opening weekend blockbuster fixture between two heavyweights in Arsenal and reigning champs Manchester City.

On the day Pep Guardiola’s City got the better of The Gunners in Unai Emery’s Arsenal debut, despite not being at their best.

Let’s have a look what tactical themes Guardiola employed to get the win, whilst also keeping an eye on Emery’s gameplan and how it may have helped Arsenal’s ultimate poor performance…

LINEUPS: 

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles; Guendouzi, Xhaka; Ozil, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan; Aubameyang.

Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Ederson; Walker, Stones, Laporte, Mendy; Fernandinho; Mahrez, Gundogan, B. Silva, Sterling; Aguero.

THEMES: 

  • City playing with inverted full backs
  • Arsenal sitting deep and narrow, defending in a 4-4-2 inviting City to play wide
  • Pep’s transition between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3
  • The varying roles of Benjamin Mendy
  • Stones and Laporte’s ever growing importance

City’s use of inverted full backs

It’s not a new invention, in fact we’ve seen City play with inverted full backs many times in Pep Guardiola’s tenure in Manchester, especially in his debut season.

The reason in the first season was Guardiola’s acknowledgement that Sagna and Clichy were not capable of bombing up and down the touchline like the trademark Guardiola full back seen in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Walker and Mendy at City. He instructed his full backs to come narrow to overload the midfield and gain a numerical advantage. Often, this paid dividends, but it left City susceptible to the counter attack, as his defenders didn’t have sufficient recovery pace.

“If you’re a full back, you’re a failed winger or failed centre-back, no one grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville” 

Jamie Carragher made this joke at the expense of Gary Neville and although it was humorous, it was an underlying realism of football of a decade ago. Full backs were seen as the least important players on the pitch.

In modern times, they are as important as any other player. In a Guardiola system, they could be viewed as the most important. There is no coincidence that Pep Guardiola spent circa £130m on full backs in summer 2017 and then went on to break all those records – they are pivotal to how his teams play.

Benjamin Mendy yesterday was no exception to that rule. After an injury ridden first season at the Etihad, Benjamin Mendy is back. City fans salivated at the thought of him back bombing up and down the left flank, utilising his venomous low cross.

At the Emirates, however, we saw a different Benjamin Mendy. Yes, he still did get forward quick at every opportunity, but often it would be in the left half-space.

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In the above image, you can see when Aymeric Laporte, the left centre-back, receives the ball, Benjamin Mendy is in a narrow position as an auxiliary central midfielder. This gives City the necessary numerical advantage, whilst creating space for the winger, in this case Raheem Sterling.

Fabian Delph often occupied this role last season, but in a less aggressive manner and mostly deeper. In fact, Mendy’s role against Arsenal was probably the middle ground between the Delph role of last season and the Mendy ‘wing back’ tactic of very early 17/18.

It is not just on the ball that this tactic helps City, it is off. Mendy occupied the half space with his body shape open, allowing him to read and intercept many balls to prevent the counter attack.

City concede so few chances not because their back four is simply unstoppable, but because the first line of defence is so quick to get the ball back. If it goes through the first line of press, there is another, and if it escapes that, there is Fernandinho. No surprise that Fernandinho accumulates so many yellow cards per season.

Indeed, it was this occupation of the half space in a defensive manner that led to City’s opener.

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As you can see, when Riyad Mahrez crossed the ball into the Arsenal penalty area, Benjamin Mendy (#22) and Fernandinho (#25) were positioned in similar positions, ready to intercept a clearance.

Mendy did pick up the loose ball, before passing into Sterling. The Frenchman made an overlapping run which left Bellerin in two minds, allowing Sterling to take it round him and finish well.

The inverted full back is a role that I am sure we will see many times this season from City, especially away from home, as they look to assert dominance.

Pep’s fluid formation changes

One feature of Pep Ball that makes him stand out from other top coaches is his in game management.

He often says he spends the first ten or fifteen minutes analysing the opposition and then gives his instructions. He has four or five tactics up his sleeve that he works on leading up to the game and then utilises them in play.

For example, against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season, Pep deployed Gabriel Jesus as a ‘false nine’. He would often drop deep allowing Sterling and Sane to tuck in behind him and make runs inside the full backs. The United defence wasn’t educated enough to know how to cope with City.

Although City only won via two goals from set plays that day, they tore the United defence apart and the 2-1 scoreline was very flattering for United.

At the Emirates on Sunday, Pep started with his base 4-3-3 formation, or 4-1-4-1, depending on how you look at it.

Often, however, City would employ a 3-4-3 shape.

Guardiola starts with a base formation, but often it looks different in and out of possession.

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In the above image, you can see Mendy (#22) occupying the left wing position, whilst Sterling and Bernardo Silva are playing off Aguero in a trio. Kyle Walker (top right corner) would occupy a right centre back position, similar to that he played for England in Russia. This left Riyad Mahrez (furthest right) in space, allowing switches to both Mendy and Mahrez easy for City.

Off the ball, however, City would defend in a 4-4-1-1 shape.

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You can see the transition from the 3-4-3 to a 4-4-1-1 within eight seconds in the above images. Sterling would drop in, as would Mendy, allowing two banks of four, helping City win the ball back easier, whilst limiting Arsenal’s space.

These are just a couple of examples of the fluidity of City’s transitional play, illustrating how quick they can change shapes.

Against a deeper block, which we may see next week when City play Huddersfield, who knows what shapes we may see City in. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw them play with a base of Stones and Laporte, supported by Fernandinho, but with every other player in an attacking role.

As was said, Pep will weigh up his opponent in the opening stages then make a move. When you see the master gesturing with his arms, it isn’t for no reason – he is instructing his players on what shape to use. A lot comes naturally, but Guardiola makes in play changes based on his opposition. He did so yesterday and it helped City on and off the ball.

Arsenal’s flawed game plan and painful playing out from the back

Before I start, this is not a scaling attack on Unai Emery. The first game of the season against the best team in the league is a big, big ask. But, Emery got his game plan wrong.

He instructed his players to be very narrow out of possession, probably to stop City playing through the middle. In some ways, it worked. Sergio Aguero was quiet, whilst Ilkay Gundogan struggled to make an impact from midfield in De Bruyne’s absence.

However, this just invited City to play it wide. John Stones and Aymeric Laporte both finished the game with a 93% pass completion rate, as Stones would often look to fire the ball early into the feet of Riyad Mahrez.

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As is evident, Arsenal looked to shut off any balls through the middle, limiting Aguero. However, this left a lot of room for the likes of Riyad Mahrez to get the ball and pick a pass or cross.

It was all new for most of these Arsenal players, who are not used to Emery’s ideas. It was almost painful watching Arsenal play out from the back. Playing out from the back is an approach most modern coaches use, but it is not done for the sake of it.

Many football fans think playing out from the back is used by some teams simply because they are against ‘lumping the ball up’. It is not. Far from that, in fact. Playing out from the back has a purpose to draw the other team out and create space at the other end of the pitch.

Arsenal seemed to take note from City, setting up from their own goal kicks with the centre backs on each corner of the box and one of the midfielders dropping in to create a triangle. This allows the wing backs to push up. The aim is to make the pitch bigger. The image below shows City’s ideal setup on a goal kick:

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From Ederson’s goal kick, because of the spaced out players, they have a three on three with Everton’s back line. The ball in this instance was chipped to Sane, who played in De Bruyne to set up Jesus for the goal.

Arsenal tried to play out from the back yesterday, but it just did not work. That doesn’t mean Emery should do away with it. It comes with practice. I’m sure the same can be said for Sarri’s Chelsea who are also implementing this for the first time.

However, against Manchester City wasn’t the best place to start. Cech was lucky on a couple of occasions, whilst Arsenal looked shaky when City’s trio of Sterling Aguero and Bernardo Silva pressed them in the 3-4-3 shape.

Overall, it was a pleasing afternoon for Guardiola and a big lesson for Emery. It is only match day one and I am sure Arsenal can bounce back stronger.

As a footnote, the importance of Stones and Laporte was crucial to City in every department at the Emirates, whilst on the other hand Arsenal’s back four looked very poor.

Check back soon for more ‘Talking Tactics’ pieces!