Tag Archives: 4-2-3-1

Nelsen’s shape and the need to drop a striker

As any Toronto FC fan will tell you, the team has a lack of quality strikers. Robert Earnshaw scored a few goals to start, went on a cold streak, then finally scored yesterday before (after?) injuring himself. That leaves the newly acquired and unproven Bright Dike and the consistently underwhelming duo of Andrew Wiedeman and Justin Braun as the only fit strikers at the club following the departures of Jeremy Brockie and Maxi Urruti and the injury to Danny Koevermans. With that in mind we need to ask ourselves, why does Ryan Nelsen insist on playing with two strikers?

Dropping one of the two strikers for a midfielder is an obvious solution on so many levels, starting with the lack of talent. TFC currently don’t have a single fit MLS quality striker, let alone two. Even Earnshaw when he was healthy showed he doesn’t have the ability to be an every week starter on a competitive team. The other problem with these strikers is their lack of versatility. Brockie may not have had a good scoring record, but of all the strikers contracted by Toronto this year he is arguably the only one who could competently link up with midfielders and his other strike partner. The rest are mainly poachers. This is the big criticism with two striker systems these days. Teams are packing the midfield so much that playing with three central midfielders has almost become a necessity to compete in that area. Playing two strikers is a luxury stronger teams or teams with extremely versatile forwards can do; TFC is neither.

One could argue that Ryan Nelsen and the Toronto brass have made it clear that they want to spend big DP money on a class striker (or two), so why change the shape now if in the future the 4-4-2 is what they’ll be running? If this site has taught you anything it’s that you cannot look at players and shapes in a vacuum. The answer to this lies not in the new striker(s) coming in but in Toronto’s two young players who have been the brightest spots in an otherwise dull season: Jonathan Osorio and Matias Laba.

Osorio was initially played in a wide role before being shifted inside to partner Laba before the Argentinian injured his ankle. The idea was that Toronto needed more creativity centrally as the duo of Laba and Jeremy Hall were too negative to add any thrust. While it did give Toronto an extra creator it’s not necessarily true there was any net gain in attack. It gave Osorio an added defensive responsibility as he and Laba were the sole holders, and if he did go forward to join the attack it left Laba alone in the middle, and as good as the young DP is and has been his biggest weakness is probably his mobility — a key attribute for the more defensive midfielder in a midfield two.

On paper the pairing of Laba and Osorio makes a lot of sense: a forward thrusting creator and a positionally sound destroyer who both can and like to keep the ball, but the more one plays to his personal style the more he exposes the other. That’s why a third midfielder would help maximize their abilities. Playing Osorio ahead of the two holders in a 4-2-3-1 allows him less defensive responsibility. He is also a better attacker closer to goal. Although he’s probably Toronto’s best passer from deeper positions that’s more an indictment on the rest of the squad. He’s at his best when he can arrive in the box from deep positions and combine with the forward. Defensively he’d now either be pressing a center back if the opposition were in a 4-4-2 or their deepest midfielder if they played a midfield three, which is ideal since Osorio is better as a presser than as a tackler.

It also helps Laba, too. His aforementioned (relative) lack of mobility would be less of an issue with him having to cover less lateral space. He would be free to anticipate passes higher up the pitch or to go win the ball with the knowledge that he had another sitter beside him.

Since one of my points is that TFC should drop a striker due to lack of able personnel in that position it is a fair question to ask: Do they have the right personnel to play a system with three central midfielders? I have already outlined why I think Osorio’s and Laba’s  talents are maximized in a 4-2-3-1 shape but the question is who is appropriate for that other midfield spot, and do Toronto have him? Frankly, the answer is probably not, but I still think they’d be better off switching to such a shape. So who does fill in? Again, vacuums. It depends on the style Nelsen would want to play. Want to use that extra man to sit back in a deep line before hitting on the counter? Might be a good idea to play the defensive minded Hall and free up Laba a bit to play ambitious forward passes. You’d leave Osorio high up with little defensive responsiblity and so would need two dedicated holders to form two narrow banks of four. If you want to use that extra man to dominate possession and press high up the pitch then the underused Kyle Bekker may be a better choice. He values the ball and is not afraid to pick up the ball deep as a first function midfielder and play forward passes in central zones, leaving Laba to be the more patient possession keeper.

Looking at Toronto’s squad it’s probably best if they went with the former strategy. Although I think a midfield trio of Osorio-Bekker-Laba could actually do a good job of keeping the ball, especially when you add Bobby Convey into the mix, the problem lies in the back line. Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry have grown in recent weeks but they’re both adept at defending a deep line while full backs Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan are relatively poor passers in their positions. This is not even mentioning Joe Bendik whose two biggest flaws — agility and distribution — are the two most important attributes for a keeper in a press-and-possess system.

While Toronto don’t necessarily have the current players to play a certain system perfectly, the truth is the current squad probably doesn’t have the ability to play any system very well. But Nelsen can build around his current core of players and help maximize their abilities which is not being done in his current 4-4-2 system. The other criticism of Nelsen is his lack of creativity, he remains stubborn in his shape and style and reluctant to make substitutions until late in matches. He needs to get more creative and now is the perfect time of the season to do it. Play Bekker in a midfield three, push Osorio up behind the striker, heck maybe even try Convey behind the lone striker as a central winger to help overload the flanks. All these ideas have the potential to improve TFC and maximize the potential of their best players. And really, at this point Nelsen has nothing to lose.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Dortmund: Hosts pushed back but eventually break through

Both managers played their expected sides as Dortmund came to London looking to get back into the group. They both lined up in 4-2-3-1 shapes but there were differences in individual instructions and pressing.

Starting line ups

Dortmund press high

Jurgen Klopp said before the match that the way to stop Robin van Persie was to stop him getting the ball. Dortmund are known by their pressing and they did well here, harrying Arsenal at every turn and forcing multiple turnovers in the opening 15-20 minutes. The Germans couldn’t capitalize, however, and eventually Arsenal settled in and had an easier time keeping the ball.

This didn’t mean that Arsenal had the upper hand, however, as much of their possession was deep in their own half. Shinji Kagawa joined Robert Lewandowski in pressing Arsenal’s central defenders which pushed the entire Arsenal defensive line, which usually likes to operate very high, quite deep. Klopp’s plan was working; Dortmund basically were 4-4-2 without the ball as Kagawa and Lewandowski pressed the centre backs, their wingers were on the full backs, and Dortmund’s central midfielders pushed up to meet Arsenal’s.

Theoretically this should have left Aaron Ramsey free in the hole but often in the first half he was too far away from the ball to make a difference. As a result Arsenal looked best when they managed to manufacture possession in Dortmund’s half (via throw ins or free kicks) or when they went more direct; Theo Walcott was the home side’s most dangerous player of the half with his runs in behind Dortmund’s defense but a combination of good keeping from Roman Weidenfeller and great reading of the game by Mats Hummels kept Arsenal off the score sheet.

Dortmund lacking creativity, Arsenal find it

While the Bundesliga champions were doing well in their pressing they were unable to turn that into offense. After the frantic opening where Dortmund were routinely winning the ball off Arsenal their pressing was mainly meeting the player on the ball and jockeying, so they weren’t going to score by winning the ball in an advantageous position. They also lost Sven Bender and Mario Gotze to injury in the first half which severely reduced the amount of attacking talent they had on the pitch. Gotze is obviously a big loss in the final third and Bender has emerged this season as a force going forward. Last season he was the ‘vacuum cleaner’ alongside Nuri Sahin but when the Turk left Ilkay Gundogan was brought in to create from deep. When it became apparent Gundogan wasn’t suited for that role Klopp inserted Sebastian Kehl beside Bender and asked Bender to do more in attack, which he had been doing recently.

On the other side Arsenal’s attackers had started coming deeper and closer to the ball which allowed them to keep it better and to get it into Dortmund’s third. The goals themselves were not exactly created by Arsenal’s sustained pressure by their creative players in the opposition half – Alex Song popped up in an unexpected area with an unexpected bit of skill for the opener and the second was off of a corner kick. However, as the game went on Arsenal did look the more likely to create a genuine opportunity. Klopp tried to get his side back into the match by adding Lucas Barrios and pushing Kevin Grosskreutz back into central midfield but Grosskreutz isn’t exactly the type of player you want to have creating in the middle of the park when you’re chasing a game.

Conclusion

Dortmund did well at first to stymie the supply to van Persie but eventually the Dutchman found the ball at his feet (and head) to score a brace. Injuries and a lack of creativity hampered the visitors but they will be buoyed by Marseille’s loss as they still have a chance to qualify for the next round.

To be successful they will need to:

1) Have their key players return from injury

2) Continue to press intelligently and use it to foster their attack

3) Have their high line withstand the inevitable counters – an in form and cerebral Hummels coupled with a quick rest of the defense (Santana, Schmelzer, and Piszczek) are capable of this

Overall a decent showing from both sides but Dortmund will be disappointed as they desperately needed the three points more than Arsenal.

Greece 1 – 0 Canada: Halftime switch lets Greece dominate 2nd half

How the two teams lined up

Both Canada and Greece went into their friendly with an interesting mix of veterans and youngsters. It created for a fairly disjointed affair which was definitely not helped by the pitch and after a fairly even first half a tactical switch from Fernando Santos helped give Greece a victory.

Mirrored formations

Without Julian de Guzman Canada lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. This somewhat mirrored Greece’s formation which oscillated between a 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and 4-1-4-1. When Canada had the ball De Rosario naturally found himself beside Karagounis who played deeper than Katsouranis, and when Greece had the ball de Rosario in turn was the one pressing Karagounis. It meant that the two key playmakers for each side were canceling each other out.

When each player has someone they are naturally lined up beside it makes pressing easier. Since you are usually stationed beside an opposition player anyway you are able to easily press him and Greece was finding joy disrupting Canada’s passing by pressing in Canada’s half. When either Cann or Jakovic had the ball Lymberopoulos would cut off a passing angle and the Greek midfielders would press their counterparts. This didn’t let Canada settle into a rhythm and forced de Rosario to drop deep to help Canada maintain possession.

The problem was that when Canada did maintain the ball it was hard to break down the Greek backline which was insulated by Karagounis and another bank of four. Canada needed some sort of clever movement, a combination of full backs bombing forward, Hutchinson or Johnson making an unexpected run, or the front three of Simpson, Occean, and Jackson exchanging space. Occean tried hard but he was physically over-matched by the back four of Greece. It probably would have been better for Hart to play Jackson up front with Ricketts on the right wing in order to try and beat Greece on the ground.

Teams more dangerous without the ball

As a result of the teams canceling each other out each team actually looked more dangerous without the ball. Greece pressured Canada in their own half and looked like the only way they could break down Cann and Jakovic would be to win the ball high up the pitch. They kept attempting to play the ball over the top which is not a good idea against the pair. On the other hand Canada got their best chances from poor passing at the back from Greece. Both Jackson and Simpson had Canada’s best chances when a pass around Greece’s box fell to them but they ended up shooting wide. Canada’s front men should have been instructed to hound the Greek defenders, the pitch offering no advantage to the man on the ball.

Half time switch proves crucial

After a straightforward first half in which one could argue that Canada could have won Fernando Santos made numerous changes in player personnel and one tactical change that allowed Greece to dominate. In the first half Hutchinson and Johnson had two players to press but in the second half Santos introduced Mitroglou to play behind Lymberopoulos. This meant that when Canada’s central midfield pair pressed like they did in the first half the space behind them was naturally filled by Mitroglou. This has a knock on effect as the central defenders now have a decision to make whether to follow him or not. If they do they create even more space behind them which is even more dangerous and if they stay the attacking midfielder has the ball at his feet with time. Time and time again Canada was cut open by Mitroglou and in truth it wasn’t so much his skill as his positioning that wreaked havoc. The goal came after Greece had dominated the entire half although the goal itself wasn’t inherently tactical. Straith should have cleared the cross easily but it’s worth pointing out a couple things. First is a simple statistical phenomenon, if you throw a large number of balls into the box there is a higher chance one will be mis-cleared or bobble your way. Greece was launching attack after attack and by random error one was bound to create a good opportunity. Secondly Canada looked tired after having to defend for so long. Many of the players are still in their pre-season and playing without the ball is always more fatiguing than playing with it.

Centre of the pitch for the start of 2nd half. Johnson and Hutchinson pressed too high giving Mitroglou free space. He would then be unmarked or draw out Cann to create more space.

Why didn’t de Rosario find space after Greek switch?

One might ask the question why Mitroglou found so much space after Santos made his switch and De Rosario didn’t. The difference was that Karagounis was able to recognize the new set up and when Greece lost the ball he immediately dropped back to shadow De Rosario. While it’s probably true that Santos instructed Karagounis to do so, after all he was the one who changed the shape of the game, it is disconcerting that not one of Hutchinson, Johnson, or Hart realized the danger before it was too late.

Hart identifies problem but too late

Shortly after the goal Hart brought on Edgar for Jackson and switched to a 4-3-3, presumably in order to field an anchor man to deal with Greece’s attacking midfielder. Canada immediately looked better defensively and this change in formation was probably a better move than simply asking one of the central midfielders to drop deep because it moved Canada’s playmaker away from Greece’s deep lying midfielder. It also afforded Hutchinson more freedom to get forward and his deep runs often caught Greece unaware as Canada pushed forward for an equalizer.

Conclusion

A good match to show how a change in formation needs to be accompanied by a change in individual tactics. Fernando Santos made the switch and Stephen Hart was late to respond. By the time he did he had run out of time and his team had run out of energy. Canadian fans can take solace in that for the first half they were at the very least equal to a decent line up and that Hart at least has the ability to recognize tactical issues, they now just have to worry if he will be able to realize them quicker and when he does if he has the depth to change the match.

Widzew 0 – 0 Polonia: Kretek’s pressing almost earns him an upset

Widzew's interesting shape with Duric running back and forth vs. a classic 4-2-3-1

Jose Maria Bakero has had a great start to the season with Polonia Warszawa. After taking over at the end of last year and performing above expectations his now money laden side was the only team in the Polish Ekstraklasa to take maximum points from all of their matches, that is until they traveled to Lodz. While the media was busy asking how Widzew would contain both Smolarek and Sobiech, the two Polish internationals starting together for the first time, Kretek was busy coming up with the answer: don’t let them get the ball.

The first thing to note is how Widzew’s shape mirrors a 4-2-3-1. It is a bit of a lopsided 4-4-2, sometimes it looks like a 4-1-3-2, and without the ball it resembles a 4-1-4-1. All of this sounds like Widzew are disorganized but that could not be further from the truth. Kretek has a clear plan and his side bought into it today and they were rewarded with a clean sheet against a side that was up to this point unstoppable. The key men in this set up are Duric and Pinheiro. Kuklis started last week against Wisla in place of Bruno Pinheiro and subsequently found himself on the ‘Worst XI’ of the Ekstraklasa website for that week. Pinheiro is a defensive midfielder who gives the players in front of him license to break forward. He rarely makes forward runs, is good in the air, not afraid to tackle, and most importantly positionally aware. His lack of movement is in fact an asset. Duric, on the other hand, has an endless motor. He needs it as Kretek asks him to play two positions; both central midfield beside Panka when not in possession and as a second striker to Sernas when they attack.

Polonia lined up in the now standard for world football, 4-2-3-1. Bakero also decided to invert his wingers with Bruno on the right and Smolarek on the left. However, it was not uncommon to see Smolarek and Bruno switch sides in the first half. Neither is what you would call a natural winger and so both gravitated towards the middle. Unfortunately for Polonia neither of their full backs seemed too intent on attacking the space this created. Mynar made the occasional forward run and looked good doing so but Brzyski seemed content to let Smolarek try and do everything.

Set up when Polonia has possession; Widzew mirrors their opponents with each player assigned a specific player to press

So with all this as a set up it was not surprising to see a disjointed start to the match. Neither side was able to sustain possession in the opposition’s half but for two different reasons. For Polonia the story was just how hard and where they were being pressed. As shown in the second figure when Widzew got in their 4-1-4-1 shape each Polonia player had at least one person instantly pressing them, save one of the center backs or the goalkeeper. Not only was each Polonia player being pressed by a specific Widzew defender, they were being pressed all over the pitch. Tralka and Mayoral had real trouble linking up with the front four. Duric hounded Tralka, the man Polonia attempted to play through, and he was a thorn in Polonia’s midfield all match. This meant that Sarvas, Sobiech, Smolarek and Bruno needed to drop deep to get near the ball but they weren’t all too interested in doing so. Even if they did Widzew’s pressing was so good that Polonia were forced into long balls.

Widzew, on the other hand, simply didn’t commit enough players forward to sustain any kind of attack. Mindaugas Panka would be the man expected to drop and get the ball from defense, turn and play a pass but he was effectively man marked out of the half by Mayoral. Mayoral was afforded the ability to track Panka all over the pitch because Sernas was dealt with by the center backs and Tralka had Duric under wraps. Widzew’s attacking game plan resorted to thumping balls towards the athletic Sernas and have him either control the ball, earn a free kick or throw in, or try to beat out a defender.

There was barely a chance in the half, in fact the first shot on net came right at the end of the half but it was a good chance. Brzyski had the ball deep in his half and played a delightful long diagonal ball for Sobiech to run on to. Sobiech in fact found this space because of Widzew’s intense pressing. Broz was following a Smolarek run back into Polonia’s half which created a space between the full back-center back channel. Sobiech was clever enough to find it but his shot was saved by the tandem of Szymanek and Mielcarz.

The second half also started tentatively, neither side able to fashion any sort of attack. Bakero responded by subbing out Sarvas, who had an anonymous match, for Gancarczyk, a more classic right winger with lots of pace. As a result Bruno went to the attacking midfield position. Because of this Bruno was given more space in the center of the park than Sarvas ever had and he managed to find the ball a few times but Pinheiro was usually there to shackle him.

However not long after that substitution Widzew enjoyed a spell of dominance where they should have scored. The first signal of intent was from Dudu who was one of the only Widzew players to have the will to attack and he saw a strike go wide. Then a long ball caught Mynar sleeping and Sernas was well saved by Przyrowski. This seemed to give the hosts confidence and now Widzew were more inclined to engage their midfield. Perhaps their best chance came when Pinheiro made a fantastic sliding tackle in the middle of the park and joined the attack for what seemed like the first time in the match but Sernas could not finish. Widzew’s pressing had been their defensive trademark in the first half but now it was providing them with offensive chances.They routinely won the ball in good positions as a shell shocked Polonia were out of sorts for about 15 to 20 minutes. Luckily for the visitors Przyrowski stood tall and they regained their bearings.

After the string of chances for Widzew the game died down and settled back into it’s defensive beginning. Kretek’s men remained solid at the back while Bakero’s squad settled down and were seemingly happy with the draw. At half it seemed like Widzew were hanging on and would have to tire because of their intense pressing but the pressure eventually broke down Polonia and created a few glorious opportunities. Were it not for some poor finishing and good goalkeeping Kretek would be celebrating a deserved victory over the league leaders. The lack of mobility and willingness to drop deep and play long balls cost Bakero another chance at three points, Widzew were simply not willing to sit back and let Polonia have the ball.

Lech 0 – 0 Dnipro: Zielinski defends deep to eke out aggregate win

The lineups at the start of the match

Jacek Zielinski has been criticized by some for turning offensive powerhouse Lech Poznan into a defensive minded side. In three domestic matches his side had only conceded one goal but they had also only won one match, a 5-0 thrashing last week. Meanwhile Dnipro had won five of seven matches in the Ukrainian league and needed to overturn a one-nil loss at home to advance in the Europa League.

Both squads lined up in identical 4-2-3-1 formations so the tactical intrigue was limited to individual players. Lech lined up with the right footed Kielb on the left wing and Krivets in a central midfield role. Meanwhile Dnipro had Rotan shuttling into wide areas behind their powerful if immobile striker Seleznyov. The first thing to notice was the difference in the two lone strikers. Seleznyov was keen to stay on his axis, on the shoulder of the last defender. While he at times was found drifting into the channels, in truth this is when he looked most dangerous, he didn’t feel much like dropping back. Tshibamba, on the other hand, was very active in going wide and dropping deep into midfield. This might have been a managerial instruction. On every goal kick and throw in it seemed that Tshibamba would be the target, even to the point of dropping deeper than Stilic. Of course the benefit is that Tshibamba is now attacking the ball in the air, he is much better at that than the skillful Stilic, but this also opened up space up front for Stilic and Kielb to attack.

Jacek Kielb is a naturally right footed player and so he found himself constantly cutting in onto his favoured foot and two of Lech’s most dangerous strikes in the first half came about when Kielb found space in the middle and struck, once he was saved and once he shot wide. Meanwhile Dnipro also found themselves mostly attacking down the left. Their left fullback, Denisov, looked a lot more willing to go forward than their right back. This meant Konoplyanka had a lot of support when attacking and he was a constant threat when he had the ball, Denisov’s tireless running offering an outlet. Lech’s right wing was pinned back, Wojtkowiak and even Kikut finding no joy going forward but they were competent in defense. It should be noted Kikut is an adept right back and he buffered Wojtkowiak well.

Both sides needed their wings to be their attacking outlets because both Stilic and Rotan had trouble finding the ball. Both attacking midfielders had trouble shaking the double pivots both sides employed. Neither side had a numerical advantage in midfield so neither side dominated possession and in truth both sides remained cautious, preferring their front fours to try and unlock the defense. In fact Lech’s best move of the half came when Stilic won the ball in midfield and Lech countered. Tshibamba again drifted wide to create space which was filled by a forward charging Krivets but the Belarussian’s final ball was poor.

When watching Krivets play this match I could not help but be reminded of Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern man is clearly a superior footballer but broke through as an attacking midfielder and was a goal scorer and goal maker. Krivets is often deployed in a more advanced role but in this match played alongside Bandrowski. He was tidy in possession, made smart passes, won his share of tackles and went forward when there was an opportunity. He had an overall understated but fine match.

In the second half it was apparent Lech were content to defend deep. They invited Dnipro to come at them and were more than happy to soak up pressure and stay in their defensive shape. Dnipro shortly brought on Homenyuk for Kalynynchenko which brought about a change in formation, Homenyuk went up front, Rotan went to the right wing and the visitors played a 4-1-3-2. Instantly Rotan found space on the right, something he couldn’t find in the middle because of Lech’s double pivot and the lack of movement by Seleznyov. The striker was the next one to be sacrificed as he came off for Oleksander Gladkyy. Dnipro were now more fluid as their new strikers were more mobile and the change in shape allowed Rotan to move about the pitch and Lech had trouble picking him up.

Tshibamba had faded by about the hour mark and not long after Wichniarek came on for him. Though not as willing to drop deep in possession Wichniarek showed great pressing from the front. Neither team really pressed all that well in the match but the newly introduced striker clearly had energy and he did well to disrupt the possession out of the back. Dnipro dominated possession as the match went on and Lech defended deeper and deeper. Dnipro tried to create space to exploit but Zielinski’s men were well disciplined and Dnipro were forced into early crosses which Lech on the whole dealt with well.

Dnipro's 4-1-3-2 near the end of the match

After the introduction of Drygas for Stilic Lech got their best chance of the second half. Kielb had the ball on a counter and cut in once again. Krivets used a run by Wichniarek to find space to his right and Kielb slipped him in but Krivets was well blocked. Lech however did not need the goal and usually countered with only 3, maybe 4 players in the latter stages of the game. They showed they were content with sitting deep, conceding possession, and only pressing in dangerous areas. It worked against Dnipro but one wonders if Zielinski will need to change his philosophy in the next round.

Auxerre 2 – 0 Zenit St. Petersburg: Speed on the counter and defensive discipline

Zenit had a slight advantage heading into France but Auxerre were always going to have a good chance with their defensive record and all they theoretically needed was a single goal to go through. In the opening leg Zenit bombed midfielders forward so it would be interesting to see how Auxerre dealt with it. An interesting selection by Spalletti was to play the usually attack minded Semak in a holding role. Meanwhile Jean Fernandez brought in the right footed Contout for Birsa on the left wing.

Auxerre scored a quick goal, just eight minutes in when a quick ball out to the right earned them a corner. Pedretti flighted in a great ball where an unmarked Hengbart, who would go on to have a fantastic match, headed home powerfully. Questions will surely be asked of Zenit’s marking on the goal and their lack of men on posts although it was probably too high to be cleared.

Offensively Zenit were extremely fluid. Danny and Bystrov both played centrally when the Russians had the ball with Danny having license to roam wherever he wanted as the diagram shows. Bystrov usually chose a direct route to goal to help support Kerzhakov and Zyryanov, Shirokov, and at times even Semak burst forward to support the attack. The flip side of this is that when Zenit lost the ball it was difficult for them to get back in their defensive shape. Ideally it looked like Spalletti wanted his men to line up in a flat 4-1-4-1 when Auxerre had the ball but the home team countered, spraying the ball wide where Danny and Bystrov were supposed to be and where their quickest players, Contout, Oliech, and Jelen were.

In possession Le Tallec often found himself near Semak, and in truth the former Liverpool midfielder didn’t have a great offensive game and his best contribution was pressing the deep lying midfielder. Zenit had their players make unpredictable runs and as a Russian squad it is tempting to compare it to the organized disorder of Boris Arkadiev’s sides of the 30s and 40s. Players ran into zones you wouldn’t expect and suddenly Mignot found himself marking Danny or Pedretti would run into Semak. Jean Fernandez seemed to tell his team to keep their shape no matter what, so while Zenit were unable to drag defenders out of their zones this left Auxerre somewhat predictable and Danny was able to find space rather easily between the two bands of four. Zenit’s best chance of the first half came from a run from Semak, Le Tallec clearly not comfortable tracking him back into the Auxerre half, and the ball broke to Kerzhakov who probably should have had a penalty awarded to him.

Meanwhile Auxerre were intent to work the ball down the left flank. Whereas in the first leg Jelen drifted to the right in this leg he lingered to his left. This opened up space in the middle which Le Tallec failed to fill but the inverted Contout was more than happy to cut in. In truth Auxerre never really looked like they wanted to get the ball to Oliech out wide and Contout was having some degree of success on the left wing, but the second half showed Danny’s frailty in defense.

The second half actually started with a great chance from the visitors, it was again an unexpected run untracked by Auxerre that did the damage, Zyryanov overloading a zone usually inhabited only by Bystrov. This allowed Bystrov some space and he burst forward in a trademark direct run to goal only to be saved well by Sorin who had a confident match.

Auxerre answered back quickly, and the goal was very similar to their first. A quick counter down Auxerre’s right left Oliech one on one with Hubocan and the winger earned his side a corner. It is hard to blame Danny for not providing Hubocan with defensive help, he is after all the playmaker of the side given a free role, and with Semak and Shirokov the other two midfielders who are supposed to provide cover Hubocan was always going to be exposed. The corner was simple, Pedretti another fine delivery, Coulibaly rose to flick it on and the agile Jelen hit a smashing volley to give Auxerre the aggregate lead. Spalletti clearly needs to sort out his side on corners as it is one of the reasons they lost out on Champions League football.

Spalletti did decide to change things soon after, Danko Lazovic coming on for Zyryanov. It is a change this author agreed with, it moved Danny to the centre and Lazovic played wide left as Zenit lined up in what looked like a 4-2-3-1 shape. This put less defensive responsibility on Danny’s shoulders but we were unable to see the ramifications of the switch because of the red card to Malafeev.

It sounds like a broken record at this point but the move started off a counter attack down the right. Pedretti slipped a ball to Jelen down the right wing who had acres of space as Zenit pushed for the away goal. Oliech had made a fine run down the centre and Jelen played a superb ball to him. Anyukov and Malafeev rushed out to meet it and it seemed as if Malafeev was already sliding when Anyukov nudged it. The keeper made a fine save, the only problem was he was 20 yards outside his box. A legitimate red card for hand ball destroyed the tactics for Spalletti, but again Zenit’s backline was exposed as a quick pass to the wide area from deep caught them out. Zenit kept a sort of 4-2-2-1 after the red card as Birsa came on for Le Tallec. Birsa manned the left wing as Contout slipped in behind Jelen, but at this point the rest of the game was disjointed and predictable. Surprisingly Auxerre found it difficult to keep possession, even after Hubocan’s red card. In truth Hubocan didn’t do anything malicious all match but the two yellows show just how exposed he was. Zenit resorted to hitting high, hopeful balls into Auxerre’s area and actually had a couple decent half chances, but the confidence of Coulibaly and Sorin in the air was enough to see the stalwart French side through to the Champions League proper.