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Liviu Bird Answers Your Questions About Tactics

American Soccer Now's resident tactician tackles three more reader-submitted questions about the inner workings of the beautiful game. Plus: We now have GIFs!
BY Liviu Bird Posted
December 16, 2013
3:52 PM
IT WAS SO MUCH FUN the first time, we’re back for a second round. In case you missed Part 1 of the #AskASN Q&A, the premise is simple: you ask a tactical question in the comments section or on social media, and we answer. Let’s get to it.

One Change to Ideal Starting XI

In that first Q&A, I named my ideal United States starting lineup for the 2014 World Cup, and multiple readers rightfully pointed out one flaw: I left Geoff Cameron out. Considering league form and national team favor, he slots in nicely at right back instead of Timmy Chandler.

In the comments section, Doug Aguililla asked: “No love for Geoff Cameron at RB who by all accounts is playing very well in the EPL?”

You’re right, Doug. Mea culpa. Cameron has played well, and he’s shown that he can play in the middle (in defense or midfield) or at right back, despite head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s constant insistence that he sees Cameron mostly as a central player.

Other questions about my lineup centered on John Brooks starting in the middle instead of Omar Gonzalez or Clarence Goodson (soccerjohn and Tom provided two of several questions). Brooks has a much higher ceiling than both Gonzalez and Goodson, making him the better choice.

Gonzalez’s feet are suspect, and he is prone to bonehead moments in the back that Brooks hasn’t had anywhere near as frequently despite being just 20 years old. Goodson’s career clock is ticking, and he still has to regain some form since moving to the San Jose Earthquakes.

Looking at Brooks, Gonzalez, and Goodson’s statistics on Squawka provides some numerical data to support the idea that Brooks has an edge on his older counterparts. (Of course, all numbers are subjective, but Squawka has one of the best track records of distilling Opta data into usable metrics for player evaluation.)

Despite the disparity in data points, Brooks looks better than the other two in terms of his passing accuracy. Gonzalez made a couple of defensive errors based on Squawka’s calculations, while the Brooks and Goodson have clean slates.

Brooks has a lower percentage of duels won than the other two, but he still has not been at fault for any goals against Hertha. In a strange quirk of the Squawka system, he gets docked points for having suffered more fouls than he has committed, while he has been five of seven on tackles, eight of 15 in headed duels, and two for two on the dribble.

His youth is what tips the scale. He shows the most promise of any center back in the player pool moving forward, and he has to be given a chance to develop. Twenty may be young by American standards, but by world standards, he needs to be playing as soon as possible.

Beating Bayern Munich

Dynamic teams are a staple of the modern game. 2014 MLS All-Star Game participant Bayern Munich is a high-pressure, counterattacking team that can also possess with the best of them. So while Russell Watland’s question wasn’t specifically about the Bavarians, on the occasion of them playing the All-Stars, we’ll treat it as such:

The newest tactical craze sweeping Europe came from Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund last season, and it’s meant to directly counter FC Barcelona’s tiki-taka style. It’s called gegenpressing in German, or counter-pressing.

The idea is that teams trying to play from the back can only string so many one-touch passes together before they make a mistake. Counter-pressing pounces on those opportunities against tiki-taka teams, makes teams that can’t play look silly, and forces most teams to dump multiple 50-50 balls up the field throughout the game.

It may have come from Dortmund, but Pep Guardiola’s Bayern has perfected the high-pressure system and strangled multiple teams with it this season, including Dortmund. Each player has a role in preventing play out of the back and winning the ball as high up the field as possible:

• D1: The center forward applies immediate pressure on the ball and cuts off square options along the back line. The nearside winger and nearest central midfielder cut off wide and central options, respectively.

• D2: The middle block is crowded out, leaving no easy passing lanes.

• D3: The long option is usually the only attractive one, but by the time the ball gets there, four players can converge.

It’s a system that uses the attacking principle of width to the defensive team’s advantage, creating numbers-down situations for the attack that makes it impossible to hold the ball. The way to work through it is to keep the ball moving at a high tempo and, at the right moments, look for a long ball.

To get out of a high-pressure situation, a team has to take advantage of the space that it is given, however small it may be. Even the most organized pressing teams will usually leave spaces between its lines of players.

Checking runs off defenders into those spaces allow a player to receive the ball at his feet. Once the initial line of pressure is broken, a short ball into negative space can open options up the field.

It may seem counterintuitive to essentially play the ball backward toward the mass of high-pressing players, but it works as long as the receiver doesn’t try to hold the ball too long or turn back into pressure.

Ball movement between the higher lines of pressure usually draws more defenders forward, leaving space in behind. (Every movement creates a countering movement by the opposing team, opening spaces on the field. Tactically deliberate soccer is chess, not checkers.)

A well-timed and well-placed long ball exploits the space and favorable numbers in behind. However, if teams go straight to the long ball and just loft them up all game, the chances of gaining possession are slim. The decision to go long is based on recognition of visual cues after enticing one too many defenders to step high.

Most teams at any level will have trouble getting beyond a high-pressure system, making it possibly the most effective defense in soccer. It’s no coincidence many of the best teams employ some form of high pressure.

More Tactical Reads and Twitter Follows

Finally, we’ll end on a question from loyal reader Kirun, who wants to know where he can find more tactical discussions and breakdowns:

Unfortunately for those of you who are averse to Twitter, that platform is really the best way to get tactical information. I’ve limited this list to just five people who tweet in English, but it’s a good place to start:

Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) is the most well known person you’ll find on this list, and he’s perhaps the best-known tactician in the world, with over 100,000 Twitter followers. He runs his Zonal Marking blog, as well as contributing largely tactics-based stories to ESPN, The Guardian, and FourFourTwo.

Kieran Smith (@KieranSmith1) is a UEFA A-licensed coach based in Madrid. Some of his stuff is in Spanish, but the vast majority if not all of his tactical breakdowns, using screenshots similar to those you see on ASN, are in English.

Louis Lancaster (@LouisLancs) also uses screenshots to break down tactics on Twitter. He’s also a coach with a UEFA A License, and he often tweets ideas for training sessions and exercises. He’s a good follow to gain some perspective on that side of the game.

Adin Osmanbasic (@AdinOsmanbasic) runs his own blog and tweets annotated screenshots, mainly focused on major European leagues and teams. He also does some great work in video form, such as this look at Bayern Munich’s preseason win over FC Barcelona, where you can see gegenpressing at work:

Gary Kleiban (@3four3) isn’t much for tweeting tactical analysis, but he is a highly opinionated, highly respected coach who knows quality soccer when he sees it. He and his brother, Brian, run the 3four3 Coaching School and blog and the Total Futbol Academy in the Los Angeles area. (Brian is also the Chivas USA U14 coach.) Be prepared to be stimulated and quite probably offended — Gary won’t pull any punches.

Have a tactical question you would like answered in the next #AskASN tactical Q&A? Leave it in the comments section below, or tweet it to us using the hashtag. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s resident tactical expert. He also writes for SoccerWire.com and will be providing World Cup coverage from an American perspective for The London Telegraph. Follow him on Twitter.

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