It ends on Saturday, 30th May 2020.

Champions League final day. It’s Barcelona lining up in a 4-1-4-1, against Sporting CP in their aggressive 4-2-3-1.
 
A fairytale journey to the final has led Sporting to face up against one of the world’s premier teams. It seems unlikely for Sporting to have even reached the final, let alone stand a chance against Barcelona. Well, the scoreline says they didn’t.
 
A 3-0 win for Barcelona saw the underdogs fade away. The game was as one-sided as it sounds as well. Barcelona saw 12 shots on target from 23 attempts. Sporting saw one from two.
 
That isn’t the end of the story though. Messi tucked away two penalties, one before the fourth minute and the other after 18. Vrsaljko scored in the 86th minute after a poor clearance from a corner. Dembele picked it up at the edge of the box, feinted right, went left and his deflected shot fell to the right back to tap home.
 
Three completely avoidable goals. You could say it was only a matter of time, but at any given point Sporting had isolated the striker, first Suarez and then Mandzukic. Barcelona had to rely on Dembele and Messi to drive the team forward. Their midfield could control possession, but to get it past the halfway line they relied on the genius Messi, most of all.
 
Overlaps from fullbacks caused endless problems, but crosses were fruitless. The Sporting defence held strong against Barcelona, which is a far cry from Champions League opening fixture which saw A.C. Milan crush Sporting 5-1 in Portugal.
 

 

You can see from the average positions we isolated their striker, but their aggressive fullbacks, superior individual skill and my lazy wingers were too much. We didn’t track the runs from wide inside by Messi. For whatever reason, in the lineup image, Messi was at LCM, and Diawara was at RM, but that definitely was not the case throughout the game.

Tuesday, 17th September 2019.

A breezy midweek, under the lights, fixture. Still warm at 17 degrees Celcius. An 18:00 kick off, but by 19:45 the air would be cold.
 
Sporting kicked off, but with 8 seconds on the clock, the writing was on the wall. A poor pass from Bragança ricocheted off Palacios for Bonaventura to pounce on.
 
Luckily with less than 30 seconds gone, the play had turned over ready for Marques to drive at the box. A shot from 18 yards was palmed by Donnarumma to his left, but no one was there for Podence’s follow up low cross along the six-yard box.
 
This sloppiness was evident throughout the game, only exaggerated by Sporting’s tactic. Their usual 5-2-3 was great defensively against direct teams or those teams with 2 or more up front. Against the Milanese 4-1-2-2-1 however, the Portuguese side crumbled. The midfield trio for Milan of Kessi, Biglia and Fabregas were too dominant in the middle of the park for Sporting’s duo of the aforementioned Bragança and the experienced Vukcevic.
 
Milan’s fullbacks pushed high, but Sporting’s wingers didn’t track back. Sporting’s back three marked the one striker with ease, but couldn’t track runs from deep.
 
Everything went wrong for Sporting, but this led to a drastic change. The 5-2-3 went into a short hibernation. Out sprung the 4-2-3-1.
 

 

A.C. Milan’s (in red) with-ball average position, versus Sporting’s (in green) without-ball average position.

Wednesday, 2nd October 2019.

Shaktar Versus Sporting. 4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-3-1.
Our original 4-2-3-1 design
 
I think from post-match analysis both teams lined up almost identically, which means it is down to individuals winning their individual battles. Luckily for us, this is where we excel at.
 
No team in Portugal has more direct wide players. Our wide players are absolutely sensational at taking on defenders. If we can get 1 vs 1 out wide, they can consistently beat the opposition and gain territory for us.
This clip of Podence attacking the Shakhtar defence comes from the first minute of the game. The intent is obvious.
 
The opposite is not true. When Petryak gets the ball wide, with room to run, Acuña pushes him into Silva forcing him to pass sideways or be dispossessed. A quick interception afterwards gets us on the counter, and with an aggressive push, we find Marques who powers home.
A focus on cutting passing lanes let to a turn over of the ball. Direct passing afterwards led to a goal.
 
This aggression is what won us the game. Our striker was never isolated from the rest of our side. Santos, the attacking midfielder, buzzed around Marques. If that didn’t happen, Marques could drift wide for support.
 
In reverse, our defence avoided any engagements with the ball player but cut all passing lanes through.
 
My flat back four leaves little room behind for penetrative passes. The LCM drops deeper to separate and isolate the striker from the ball-carrier. Our wingers come narrow to cut out passing lanes. It is easy to shift horizontally if Shakhtar switch the play.
Looking at Fred, he has absolutely nowhere to go here. He tries a ball to their right, but Acuña gets the interception. This is how the game played throughout. No pressing from my team means we focussed on our shape. We forced them sideways or backwards unless they wanted to try a risky pass.
 
 

Wednesday, 23rd October 2019

Our 4-2-3-1 has been tearing teams apart in the league. Since its implementation, we have scored 20 goals and conceded 2 in 5 games.
 
The biggest test was Shakhtar, but now we travel to Dortmund to face the yellow wall.
 
Fortunately, they’ve made one big mistake. They’ve tried to match us one on one.
 
With Aubameyang alone up front, we can nullify his only threat (his pace) by dropping our defensive line deep and engaging on the counter.
Average pitch positions for both teams. Aubameyang has no close support, compared to Marques who is reasonably close to our AM, Podence.
 
With Aubameyang dealt with, we focussed on scoring goals. Fortunately, I’ve managed to fall in love with one player in particular. Pedro Marques could be my secret lover. I wouldn’t complain. Maybe that is why he keeps long injuries.

Love Affair

I love Pedro Marques. He has scored 65 goals in 88 games. That’s 33 goals in 42 games at first team level in the league. At first team level, that’s 56 in 58 games across all competitions. On 10/12/2019 he picked up a torn calf muscle sprinting against Shakhtar, meaning he was out for three months. The next season, on 22/8/2020, he tore his knee ligaments being tackled against Braga, putting him out for another three months.
 
He adds sharpness to our attack. It doesn’t seem to matter the kind of service provided to him, he usually gets at least one shot to hit the back of the net. He can be having an absolute mare but it doesn’t make a difference. He can’t pass for toffee, and he doesn’t always help the team in the build-up, but it takes one good chance for him to bury it. The issue when your star striker is 22 though, is that if he does get injured, your back-ups are 17 and 18.
 
Don’t get me wrong, 18-year-old Miguel Pereria is going to be a star. After Marques got injured in the 2019/2020 season, Pereria scored 10 in 14. That is a great return for what was a 17-year old. At that age, however, they aren’t consistent enough. They get bullied. Pereira doesn’t have the mental attributes to lead a line for me. I need my striker to be on his toes, waiting for any opportunity.
 
Carlos Silva will be one of the worlds top strikers as well, but he’s still too raw to be a consistent number 9 for me. He’s 17 after all, and didn’t feature at all in the season we reached the Champions League final. He was only 16 then. 
Marques doesn’t have a custom image in-game, so I just added one in post. What separates Marques from the other two mostly is his player trait “Likes to beat offside trap” coupled with his great off the ball attribute.
Back to Dortmund. We won 5-2. A Marques hattrick. We definitely didn’t dominate the game as the scoreline suggests. In fact, the opposite happened.
I found the key passes interesting. Dortmund had nine key passes into our box. Just one led to a goal. This came from a poor Ristovski clearance. Comparatively, Sporting only had 5 key passes enter the box. Most of these came from wide areas. Low or whipped crosses into the box worked excellently when you have a striker with good movement, and a player hanging out at the far post.
Our quick passing through the lines of defence breaks teams down. At this point, no one could defend against our wide play. So many key passes came from direct balls to our left wing, where Acuña could do damage. As shown previously, our right flank relied on direct dribbling at the opposition defence. 
Dortmund may have had the lions share of possession and more chances on goal, we proved it is all about the quality of chances. The majority of shots on goal from Dortmund are outside the box, running away from the goal or with bodies in the way.
 

The Group Stage

We finished the opening round of fixtures with a big win against Dortmund. The next round of fixtures went as planned. We just needed not to lose to progress in second place. A 1-0 win versus Dortmund followed by two score draws against Milan and Shakhtar put us through. During this time we kept the 4-2-3-1 the same. 
 
During the group stage period, I learned a lot about my 4-2-3-1. I’ll share that knowledge in the next post.
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