How tactically the Champions League is changing: Cut-backs, wing-backs and the decline of the no 9

The lastest Uefa technical report shows how teams are changing their Champions League tactics in search of success

It is a strange question to ask on the back of a record campaign for goals-per-game but, as the 2013-14 Champions League gets under way this evening, it seems that across Europe the centre-forward is suffering something of an identity crisis.

This is one of the prominent points to emerge from Uefa’s technical report on last season’s competition, which ponders how the role of the No 9 is being redefined in an age of wide attackers and false No 9s. The portrait it paints is of a lone, hard-running front man – “too lonely and too difficult” is how the England manager, Roy Hodgson, a member of Uefa’s technical team at the Wembley Champions League final in May, has described it – far removed from the telepathic partnerships and penalty-box sniffers of old.

Yet it is not the only trend to look out for as the group stage unfolds, with the success of Germany’s two finalists last season, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, suggesting teams will be looking increasingly beyond the Barcelona passing model to find other ways to win – with wide attackers, particularly offensive full-backs, more important than ever.

Where have all the strikers gone?

 

The chances are that, come the night of the final at Lisbon’s Stadium of Light on 24 May 2014, the top scorer for this season’s Champions League will not be a striker. In the 2012-13 competition there were 368 goals at an average of 2.94 per match – the highest in 21 seasons – and yet only two traditional centre-forwards, Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, with 10 goals, and Galatasaray’s Burak Yilmaz (eight) got more than five. “Cristiano Ronaldo registered his 12 goals from a wide starting berth; Lionel Messi got eight from his withdrawn position in Barça’s striker-less formation; and Thomas Müller scored the same number coming from deeper,” said Uefa’s report.

If these numbers highlight the importance of teams sharing the goals around, they must be read in the context of a shift in thinking that has left the modern centre-forward with so much more on his plate than the simple task of putting the ball into the net. It is an argument elaborated by Jan Age Fjortoft, the former Norway forward-turned-leading pundit for Sky Germany, who believes “the definition of a striker is changing”.

Not since 2006 has a recognised frontman – Andrei Shevchenko – finished top scorer in the competition, with Messi or Ronaldo taking that award in each of the past six seasons, and Fjortoft asks: “What is Cristiano Ronaldo? Is he a striker, is he a winger, is he a midfielder? What is Wayne Rooney? It is the same question. Ronaldo comes from the left side to inside right; Messi is more or less everywhere. You don’t see many strikers just hanging around any more and waiting for their chance. That kind of striker is dying out.”

Few top clubs operate with a front two and Fjortoft – who played for Swindon, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Barnsley before moving to Eintracht Frankfurt – singles out the phenomenal work rate of two lone strikers he has watched closely in both the Bundesliga and Champions League, Bayern’s Mario Mandzukic and Dortmund’s Lewandowski. “They are working all over the pitch,” he says. “The amount of running is enormous. Mandzukic and Lewandowski are exceptions as players who can work very hard and score many goals. It is hard to do both, I could never have done it when I played – my main thing was to be in and around the 18-yard box.”

Another question for members of the strikers’ union to ponder is: where are the home-grown frontmen? Tonight Fjortoft will be at Old Trafford, where David Moyes has Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck on the books. United meet a Bayer Leverkusen side whose attack will be led by Stefan Kiessling, but this is increasingly the exception to the rule. There is only one other English forward among the other Premier League contenders – Theo Walcott at Arsenal – and this problem seemingly extends Europe-wide. According to Uefa, of last season’s eight quarter-finalists only Galatasaray and Juventus fielded forwards from their own country, while in this summer’s transfer market the three most expensive fees spent by European clubs on centre-forwards were on South Americans – Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao and Gonzalo Higuain.

Wide boys

For Fjortoft, the success of Bayern last season was born out of the realisation that they could not compete with Barcelona in the middle of the field – and so went down the flanks instead. “There was a time every team wanted to play like Barcelona but Bayern realised they’re not good enough doing that,” says Fjortoft, who was at the Nou Camp on the night the German side triumphed 3-0 to complete a 7-0 aggregate semi-final success. It is one thing passing your way through opponents with a once-in-a-generation trio of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Messi in their prime, but Barcelona’s finely tuned machine spluttered to a halt last spring, hindered by Messi’s lack of fitness, and was ultimately outwitted.

According to Uefa, goals scored by traditional through balls are on the wane and getting wide is now the key to countering the deep-lying defensive block. “The barriers to penetration through the central area meant that supply from the wide areas continued to be a major source of goals,” said its technical report and Bayern – visitors to Manchester City on the second match day – provide the perfect example with their two full-backs, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, stationed high up the pitch. “The full-back is more or less the most important attacker,” adds Fjortoft. “You used to have a defined role but Alaba can probably play where [Franck] Ribéry plays and be brilliant.”

That pair provide the modern archetype, with Ribéry cutting inside on his right foot and Alaba going beyond on the outside, and it is a trend which has led to a rise in the goals scored by cut-backs from the byline, which reached a high of 38 in 2012-13. It also helps explain Moyes’ summer-long pursuit of left-back Leighton Baines, who was one of the continent’s leading creators of scoring opportunities last term.

Break out

Wimbledon fans are unlikely to remember Egil Olsen – their manager for a brief, unhappy spell in 1999-2000 – as a tactical genius but, as Fjortoft observes, he set a template for modern football teams with a counter-attacking game that took Norway to the 1994 World Cup finals ahead of Graham Taylor’s England. “When I look back, I think we were a bit ahead of tactics in the way we played a lot of counter-attacks, even at home,” he says. For all the modern focus on keeping the ball, counter-attacking quality is a must for any Champions League hopeful this season, as indicated by the statistic that more than a quarter of the goals scored in open play in 2012-13 (79) came from this source.

If Barcelona turned possession into an art form, it is worth noting Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale won the trophy in 2010 with an average of only 45 per cent of the ball. Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund are the current masters, scoring five times on breakaways last season and reaching the 2013 final with an average of 46 per cent possession – the same rate, incidentally, as the Malaga side that Manuel Pellegrini led to the last eight. According to Fjortoft, the ability of Europe’s elite to counter-attack helps explain why teams who score first in the Champions League tend to go on and win the game (69.2 per cent was the stat last season), with the opposition forced to come out and so leave spaces to exploit.

The running men

One of the abiding memories of May’s all-German final was its speed and sheer intensity and we can expect to see more of the same this season, with players covering more ground at a greater pace than ever before. Bayern had to respond to Dortmund’s gegenpressing – pressing the opposition the moment the ball has been lost – and they did so and the results were spectacular.

As Fjortoft says: “The thing with Dortmund and Bayern Munich is they have 11 players out there running more or less all the time.” Uefa’s report revealed that in last season’s final “10 players (five per team) delivered more than 100 sprints apiece, spearheaded by the Bayern duo of Robben (125) and Müller (123).” The rest of Europe now has to catch up. In other words, fasten your seat belts…

Striking change: who got the goals

The art of goalscoring is evolving – of last season’s top 10 goalscorers in the Champions League only three can be described as out-and-out strikers:  

Champions League

Top goalscorers 2012-13

1 Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid (forward) 12 goals

2 Robert Lewandowski, Borussia Dortmund (striker) 10

3= Lionel Messi, Barcelona  (forward) 8

3= Burak Yilmaz, Galatasaray  (striker) 8

3= Thomas Müller, B Munich (forward) 8

6= Jonas, Valencia (winger) 5

6= Oscar, Chelsea (forward) 5

6= Alan, Braga (winger) 5

6= Karim Benzema, Real Madrid  (striker) 5

6= Ezequiel Lavezzi, PSG (forward) 5

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