Site inactive

January 1, 2015

Note: This website is no longer being updated. For new posts, please visit Time on the Ball.

Mourinho stays true to form

December 1, 2014

In the last three seasons, José Mourinho’s teams have made the lowest number of interceptions in their leagues. What does that tell us?


In his controversial 2014 book The Special One: The Secret World of José Mourinho, Diego Torres, an investigative journalist with El País, depicts José Mourinho as a dictatorial narcissist obsessed with defending. And just that. In training sessions, following passing drills and high-tempo simulations of matches—four versus four, six versus six—Mourinho would supervise exercises designed to improve pressing, defensive coordination and the collective closing-down process. In some sessions, he would gather the attacking players inside their own penalty box, then have the team move together as one block to close down space. From that position, they would then rehearse out-balls and choreographed counter-attacks.

Continue reading »

Remodelling a masterpiece

November 13, 2014

Barcelona’s direction under Luis Enrique.


One would hope Pep Guardiola has not watched the first half of Barcelona’s 2-1 win at Almería last Saturday. Emotional health is important. If he has, he will have observed a lethargic display riddled with tactical confusion, hesitant passing and slow movement; players desperate for new ideas and attacking solutions; a system devoid of predetermined patterns designed to open up the opposition. For admirers of the Barça side Guardiola built, it was baffling at best. The man himself might have felt sadness over how his masterpiece has deteriorated, like if Leonardo Da Vinci had discovered his Mona Lisa altered with a black marker.

Continue reading »

The importance of Isco

November 3, 2014

How the elegant playmaker makes Real Madrid more fluent. 


Just over six weeks ago Real Madrid were in chaos. They had lost 2-1 to Atlético Madrid in front of an unrestful Santiago Bernabéu; the midfield seemed fragile and unbalanced; James Rodríguez struggled to settle; frustrated spectators lamented the departures of Ángel Di María and Xabi Alonso. Then came the switch. Carlo Ancelotti, having searched for that elusive tactical formula throughout the season opening, decided on 4-4-2. Since then Real Madrid have practically been unstoppable.

Continue reading »

Players of note

October 23, 2014

The parallels between football and classical music. 


For all the tools devised by clubs to gain that competitive edge—Prozone, psychologists, scientific recovery procedures—a more old-fashioned element may have slipped under the radar. Giovanni Trapattoni, now 75, once said that an appreciation of the complexities of classical music could educate professional footballers. “If you listen to Mozart, you’ll play better football,” he said. “You learn a lot about intervals, tempo, rhythm. You learn the logical skills you need to read a game.” The potential beneficiaries included Il Trap’s players, though how many took up the advice is unclear. “They sit in the dressing room with their MP3 players, and get far too worked up,” the Italian coach said. He would ask them: “Why aren’t you listening to Bach?”

Continue reading »

Recovering the balance

September 8, 2014

Carlo Ancelotti could attempt to solve Real Madrid’s midfield conundrum by using Gareth Bale in Ángel Di María’s old role. The move may be the lesser of two evils.


The eleventh chapter of Carlo Ancelotti’s 2010 autobiography The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius is titled ‘I decide the formation’. Unfortunately for the Italian, he does not always decide on the players. Having spent the opening months of last season searching for a well-balanced system, the coach discovered a 4-3-3 where Xabi Alonso anchored a midfield complemented by Luka Modrić (right side) and the roaming Ángel Di María (left). Real Madrid won Copa del Rey (though they played 4-4-2 in the final) and the Champions League. But the harmony was not to last. This summer club president Florentino Pérez ripped the Décima recipe to shreds by signing Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez before offloading Alonso and Di María.

Continue reading »

The game changer

August 19, 2014

Last season Chelsea’s adventurous style failed because they did not have a dynamic playmaker. With Cesc Fàbregas, that has changed.


Certain roles are compulsory in a successful José Mourinho team. Since 2002 nearly all of his sides have featured a playmaker creating danger in the final third: Porto 2002-04 (Deco), Chelsea 2004-07 (Frank Lampard), Internazionale 2008-10 (Wesley Sneijder) and Real Madrid 2010-13 (Mesut Özil). The exception was Chelsea 2013-14, where Juan Mata did not fit the bill. It is the only side with which Mourinho has finished lower than second place when in charge for a full season.

Continue reading »

Barça and the Sabella system

July 25, 2014

With Luis Suárez signed, Luis Enrique needs a system that can recreate the flair Barça have missed since Pep Guardiola’s departure. The model may be Argentina.


When Pep Guardiola left Barcelona in 2012, the consequent struggle for unpredictability was not completely unpredictable. The ‘philosopher’—as Zlatan Ibrahimović called him—had brought continual innovation by tweaking his tactics in fear of being found out. In his final season, the changes were probably too many. Under his successor, Tito Vilanova, they were probably too few. Vilanova’s preference for tactical stability—a more classic 4-3-3 system—underpinned a consistent and triumphant league campaign, but it also left them outthought in the Champions League where Bayern München won 7-0 on aggregate. Last season Gerardo Martino installed a more direct style to provide an alternative attacking plan. But the lack of flair remained while the side’s renowned fluency faded.

Continue reading »

Lessons from the Clásico

March 24, 2014

Five thoughts on the 3-4 showdown at the Santiago Bernabéu.


1. Neymar’s positional switch

On this evidence, the Brazilian’s deployment on the right is not to be repeated. The switch created new angles for his dribbles, but it seemed an unwelcome change. Two options presented themselves. Neymar could go on the outside and gamble on raw pace, but with Marcelo the opponent – a Seleção team-mate – success always appeared unlikely. The second option was to cut inside, but Neymar is right-footed and Real Madrid stayed tight centrally. Instead his most dangerous moments came when running in directly behind the defence. Marcelo occasionally struggled in his positioning and Neymar created danger by galloping across the back-line behind Pepe and Sergio Ramos. Doing this, his movement was distinctly different from his customary role on the left, where he predominantly receives the ball to feet, and where he can dribble on the inside and outside to greater effect.

Continue reading »

Return of the king

January 3, 2014

Assessing the start of José Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho presser

Chelsea’s season has not seemed overwhelmingly impressive. The strikers are struggling; the midfield is unbalanced; few defenders have stood out. The side’s passing game has often stuttered. Of the victories Chelsea have claimed, few have been convincing. Neither has José Mourinho’s work, according to many. Some have even suggested the Portuguese has lost his touch.

Continue reading »

Saying goodbye to Guardiola’s Barcelona

September 23, 2013

“Without the ball we are a disastrous team, a horrible team. So we need the ball.” ~ Pep Guardiola


True idealists are rare in modern football. Perceived romantics – say, Arsène Wenger – also believe their style to be the most efficient. In the old days, when Barcelona’s centre-backs hugged the touchline at goal kicks and Victor Valdés played out that risky short pass – despite facing opponents ready to close down like a pack of wolves – Pep Guardiola viewed his strategy as logical. Barça were weak without the ball. Not attempting to keep it was a greater risk. In the long term, Valdés’s seemingly irrational pass proved the most rational of all.

Continue reading »

Napoli tactics: The Italian Rafalution

August 10, 2013

What can we expect from Rafa Benítez’s side this season? 

Arsenal 2-2 Napoli

If Walter Mazzarri’s counter-attacking 3-5-2 system exuded boldness and innovation, Rafa Benítez’s arrival signals a return to more ordinary tactics. At the 2013 Emirates Cup, Napoli’s first team played a balanced but stale 4-2-3-1 system displaying the best and worst of Benítez the tactician. Do not expect a vibrant and radical ‘Revolution’. This will be ‘Rafalution’.

Continue reading »

Thiago’s role: A shift in thinking

July 21, 2013

The use of Thiago Alcântara as a defensive midfielder signals a further shift towards possession-based thinking. 

Pep on bus

Pep Guardiola has established a reputation as an innovator. On Saturday, in Bayern’s 4-0 drubbing of Hamburger SV in the Telekom Cup, the first radical moves unfolded. The European champions lined up in a 4-1-3-1-1 formation. Fascinatingly, Thiago played as a defensive midfielder.

Continue reading »

Barça: The quest for reinvention

July 12, 2013

The signing of Neymar will boost Barça, but Tito Vilanova needs more than that.


In his biography of Pep Guardiola, journalist Guillem Balague portrays a man constantly absorbed in deep thought. Ahead of games, the manager would spend hours in his office visualising the game, dwelling, deliberating, niggling over every detail. Interrupting visitors talked to him, but they never got through. At some point, Guardiola would get a flash of inspiration: “I’ve got it. I’ve got it. This is how we are going to win.” 

Continue reading »

Real Madrid: The self-compromise of hiring Mourinho

May 12, 2013

When signing José Mourinho, Real Madrid consigned themselves to the mentality of winning at all costs. Now they are learning the price. 

Jose Mourinho, CSKA vs Inter

The same night Frank De Bleeckere blew the final whistle and José Mourinho darted triumphantly across the Camp Nou turf, Marca pressed one of its most pro-Mourinho front pages. With one game, the Special One had proved he could do what seemingly no other Real Madrid coach could; overcome Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and reach the Champions League final. Even though Real Madrid had been eliminated by Lyon in the round of 16, they revelled in Barça’s failed mission to lift the European cup at the Santiago Bernabéu. “Mou, you have earned it,” Marca’s cover said. “Your place in the final. And your signing for Madrid.”

Continue reading »