When it comes to a game of the magnitude of a Champions League final, arguably the biggest fixture outside of the World Cup final, I tend to put a bit more effort into my preparations. Rather than wholly rely on my scout reports, I will also watch a couple of my oppositions recent matches.
We had a week to prepare, having finished the season with an emphatic 5-1 home win against Real Madrid to complete an invincible domestic season.
However, the Champions League final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow was an entirely different proposition.
We were up against a resurgent Chelsea side who had finished second to Man City in the league, reached the EFL Cup final and won the FA Cup. To add an extra dimension, they are managed by Diego Simeone. He wasted no time in introducing himself when I first took over at Barcelona, defeating me in my second game in charge.
I will not be changing our shape for this game. I will be making adjustments based on my findings. We will still go into the match using my trusted 4-1-3-2 shape.
Simplistically a team has two organisational states: it is either attacking or defending. Everything between is transitional, i.e., it is transitioning from attack to defence after losing the ball, or transitioning from defence to attack after winning the ball back.
When preparing for a match, gaining an understanding how a team defends and attacks is key to creating a game strategy to nullify the opposition strengths and while utilising yours. Let’s take a look at some of my pre-match analysis ahead of the biggest game of my FM17 career.
Diego Simeone Profile
Diego Simeone is well known for his aggressive approach. Viewing his profile we know he is likely to play a direct 4-4-2 system. We are going to be pressed by the opposition, and while they have no particular team marking instructions, I expect some players to be told to mark tighter. Typically this is likely to come from the central areas, with the central defenders more than likely marking tighter.
We have to expect that at some points they would switch between counter and control, depending on the match situation. I would not expect them to play with a balanced mentality throughout the game.
Finally, from the team lineup, Chelsea are more attacking down the right side of the pitch. I would assume that Hazard is deployed as a wide playmaker with Pulisic being used as a winger.
To get more information on how I expect them to behave on the field, I watch their 3-1 home win against Man United. I want to see how they setup against strong sides. I need to make sure we cater to their strengths and can exploit their weaknesses.
Chelsea Defensive organisation
Using the Data Analyst view to get a betting sense of what is going on, I analyse the position of the defensive line, the movement of defenders when the opposition has the ball and the overall compactness.
The Chelsea defence is quite narrow in structure. The right sided midfielder has chased Greizmann back infield, which is to be expected due to their aggressive pressing instruction. It is evident that there are spaces to exploit on the flanks, however, I also observed the full-backs following players out wide to create lateral spaces between the defenders. There is scope here to pull the defence out of shape.
The central defenders also seem keen to chase down the ball carrier, as evidenced in this piece of play, where Griezmann was able to create space for his attack partner to move into and Pogba finds him with a simple ball over the top.
Based on these findings, we have a good idea of the space that will open up if we can pull the opposition away from their designated position due to their pressing instructions. Once we have identified where space is and where the gaps in the defence are, we can move into it with the intention of disorganising and unbalancing their structure. The aim is to take advantage of this disorganisation with the objective of scoring.
To take advantage of this, I will employ a tactic used by James (@FMPressure), and instruct my two outer central midfielders to hold their position. The aim is that when our midfielders have the ball, the opposition midfield pull out to close them down, leaving my advanced playmaker free to pass into my strikers, creating a 3v2 overload.
Moreover, I will instruct these players to move into channels. This will allow them to find space, but also pull the opposition out of position. With this movement, we should be able to find the forward runs of our strikers and get some nice through ball opportunities.
Chelsea transition from defence to attack
Simeone loves to counter. Moreover, he loves the long ball. He has two big strikers and two quick wingers. Can you see where I am going with this?
In a lot of the highlights, the balls played forward were neither high nor low in the majority. They mixed up the passing, but it was effective. Man United also play a 4-4-2 which meant the Chelsea strikers were able to receive the ball with relative ease.
You can see here the gap between the midfield and attack. The instruction is clear for the attackers, both stay up high and wait for the long ball.Saul had just run through the middle for United, but Süle had come out from central defence to close him down and immediately pumps the ball upfield to start an attack. There’s no patient build-up, here.
The transitions were all about pace. Get the ball up to the big guys at the first opportunity. They are quite one-dimensional.
With United not using a defensive midfielder to sit in front of the Chelsea forwards, they were able to take down the long passes after the defenders had won the ball back and cleared it up the field. With Chelsea playing a pressing game it is likely that they will win the ball from us in many areas of the pitch, and when they do so, they will launch it forwards quickly, which could cause us issues as we transition into our defensive shape. With this in mind, we will need to either put immediate pressure the ball carrier and the space he has to operate in or get into our defensive organisation as quickly as possible. Ensuring we close the spaces between the lines.
One way to ensure that you can get back into your defensive shape quickly is by not marking tightly. This will put more emphasis on being in position, rather than covering the defensive opposite. However, with the ball often being a quick and long one from Chelsea, I think a strategy of having a combination of man markers and space markers will be important.
To achieve this, we will ensure the central defenders are always tightly marking the two big Chelsea attackers. I will then have Boateng, my strong defensive midfielder sitting just in front of them marking the space. I will change his instructions to close down less and to hold his position, so he does not deviate from this area.
We will look to create vertical compactness with our shape to reduce the room to move the ball with a combination of team instructions and player roles/duties in the defensive midfield position.
Chelsea Offensive organisation
Playing with two towering strikers suits Chelsea’s direct game. One could assume a lot of long balls into the strikers, who measure up as 6’3 and 6’6. A quick look at their squad stats before viewing the highlights shows Hazard with over 30 assists and their two towering strikers with over 50 goals between them. It is no surprise that the first goal highlight is one of Hazard beating his man out wide to cross in for a headed goal by Fitzpatrick.
To nullify this threat, we are going to need to pressure Hazard to limit the space he has both deep and laterally. To provoke him into making a mistake so that we can win the ball back, we need to ensure that when he does receive it, he does so under pressure and with limited space to operate.
Using a defensive midfielder sitting just in front of the defence, it gives an extra piece of cover, should the wingers manage to get a cross in.
Usually, we play with supporting wing-backs, so it is likely I will change their instructions to be more defensive, possibly even a defensive full-back.
Chelsea transition from attack to defend
We know that Chelsea press aggressively, meaning that they will press the ball ahead of getting back into their defensive shape.
We can see that the players are looking at the ball, rather than looking to get back into their shape. In this passage of play, there is space to exploit between the centre-back and the full-backs. When losing the ball, the aim for Chelsea is to get it back as quickly as possible at the expense of their defensive shape.
If we can find their pressure zones and move the ball away from them we can take advantage of any disorganisation and available space. Chelsea will look to pressure in the centre of the pitch, with a narrow shape, by pulling in their wingers to help with the pressing of the ball carrier. If we can keep possession of the ball in tight areas before moving into the space that will open up naturally we should be able to exploit their weakness. Possession is key to our philosophy, so in this respect, we just need to play our natural game. Our midfielders will be given freedom to play mixed passes and risky passes to open up the Chelsea defence, which we should be able to do with our freedom of movement and passing ability.
I kept the same 4-1-3-2 system, however, I changed my wing-backs to be defensive full-backs. This nullified the Chelsea wingers effectiveness, having completed just one cross all game. My central defenders and the defensive midfielder had 53 interceptions between them.
We won the game 3-0 and with relative ease. We pressured the Chelsea wide men and forced them inside where we swarmed them with our 4 central midfielders. We broke at pace and two of our goals were long through-balls.
The example above demonstrates the two central midfielders, Mariscal and Cisterna occupying the Chelsea central midfielders, which draws out Mere, the Chelsea central defender, to close down the ball carrier. This allows him to slip a simple through ball into the attackers.
In summary, our pre-match preparation allowed us to nullify Chelsea’s main attacking threat, their long balls and crosses into their attackers. It also allowed us to exploit their weaknesses, their undeniable urge to press the ball player at the cost of their defensive shape. By spending just a little bit of time observing the opposition ahead of our game, I was able to come up with a plan that would lead us to a routine win.
I don’t do this for every match. I have faith in my players to win most matches. However, you cannot take any chances in a Champions League final.