Another pulsating weekend of football action in EU member states has been and gone, and all we can do is reflect and hope next Saturday and Sunday are just as action-packed.
I began my weekend with two successive 2-0 triumphs – Hoffenheim’s conquest of Schalke on Friday evening, followed by Zenit’s cruise to victory over the downwardly-hurtling Tom Tomsk.
Subsequent to that interjection of Russian action, I found myself back in the realms of the Bundesliga as Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund sought to inflict a third successive defeat on Wolfsburg.
After an embarrassingly lacklustre first-half against Bayern Munich on the season’s opening day (during which Wolfsburg were allergic to the ball or their opponent’s half), positive tactics in the second half at last gave Wolfsburg some identity.
I understand what Steve McClaren was trying to achieve at the Allianz – setting his team of new purchases up to stifle the crisp passing game of a non-dismantled juggernaut.
If it had worked, we’d be lauding McClaren as a tactical genius. However, it didn’t, and resultantly, Wolfsburg were left chasing a point in the second half and looked nothing like potential title challengers.
Of course, Schalke nearly burrowed their way to the title last season, and McClaren’s FC Twente won the Eredivisie with dull and negative tactics.
However, that successful bid at least saw the Enschede side hold on to the ball – indulging in endless bouts of melina that drew less tactically astute teams into leaving gaps.
Although the former England manager is now in a more intelligent and disciplined league, the players he has at his disposal surely suggest he should be trying to get his side playing with the ball – even away from home?
It might have been a 4-4-1-1 system that injected some life into Wolfsburg during that improved second-half in Munich, yet McClaren’s take on the system at the Westfalenstadion was again intent on ball-neglection.
With the team built to accommodate a synergistic partnership between Diego and Edin Džeko, Wolfsburg’s lack of creativity or control in the midfield is painfully apparent.
They let Dortmund dominate possession – which they did, patiently, ambitiously and complementarily- and paid for doing so by falling to a 2-0 loss.
The only time Wolfsburg sought to use the ball and push high was on Diego Benaglio’s goal-kicks – the Swiss international punting for Džeko or Mario Mandžukić to head on as Wolfsburg stood in a width-laden 4-2-4.
From Germany, I hopped over to Spain and watched Barcelona’s home tie with Hércules CF. As you’ll all know by now, the majestic Catalan giants saw their throne toppled as Esteban Vigo’s side comfortably won 2-0.
Admittedly, Barca looked sluggish and bereft of any true invention or incision – Pedro’s second half introduction did see him run David Cortés ragged, but his delivery with either foot was abysmal.
Similarly, the multitude of set-pieces taken by Xavi never cleared the first man, and David Villa’s movement was uncharacteristically poor – letting the defence’s offside trap get whipped out in perfect tandem and catch him stranded.
As well as ensuring his team parked the bus – a ‘4-5’ with barely a corridor between it – when necessary, Vigo enabled his controversially promoted minnows to attack in a 4-3-3, thus exposing Barca’s advanced full backs.
The Spaniard’s substitutions were tactically masterful too – Sendoa constantly pushed Barcelona back after his introduction on the left wing, and the visitors should have added to their tally.
Alas, a busy schedule dictated that I could catch just the one game on Sunday, and so I opted to tune in as Mainz hosted Kaiserslautern – two cities less than one hour apart.
The aforecited engagements meant that I only took in one half of the action, but that was enough to glean some interesting tactical insights from Thomas Tuchel and Marco Kurz respectively.
Kaiserslautern sought to play on the floor a bit more than the hosts, though ultimately, both sides wanted to knock the ball over the top – Mainz to Sami Allagui, Kaiserslautern to anyone breaching the home side’s high line.
While this meant the tempo remained exhilaratingly fast, it also led to no pattern of play being allowed to develop: at times it felt like an endless circle of long throws for flick ons.
It was one of the intended recipients of these throws who broke the deadlock – Srđan Lakić continuing his feat of scoring in every game so far after exposing a pair of centre backs stood miles away from their ‘keeper.
Despite Mainz going on to win the game 2-1, Kaiserslautern paradoxically displayed more attacking ambition in the first half than they did during the entire 90 minutes when beating Bayern Munich!
For starters, Kurz selected Erwin Hoffer for the 4-4-1-1 – the Austrian striker replacing Adam Nemec who played the role with a midfield mindset against Bayern.
Correspondingly, Mainz’s midfield diamond shape allowed Kaiserslautern to push their full backs forward – something Bayern’s width-laden 4-2-3-1 prevented them from doing.
It’s also worth noting that during the first half, the Kaiserslautern defence stuck to their defined roles well – the brutal Jiří Bílek eradicating the space Lewis Holtby wanted, and Rodnei rendering the constantly-fed Allagui so anonymous that Tuchel hauled him off at half time.