New Zealand v Slovakia: Wingbacks, wingers and last gasp equalisers
The match between Slovakia and New Zealand has been one of the most surprising of the tournament so far. It was of decent quality, with some quality attacking play from both sides and extremely well organised defending. It also showcased two very different formations, New Zealand fielding a 5-2-2-1 with wingbacks, and Slovakia a 4 -2 – 2- 1 – 1. I quickly warmed to New Zealand as a team, they set out to play good possession based football and employed my favourite tactical invention ever – wingbacks. It is a risky strategy, it does rely on having 3 centre-backs, two of which need to be highly mobile, in this case Reid and Smith, and the wingbacks themselves have to be the most important players on the pitch. New Zealand were blessed in this respect in having Lochhead and Bertos, both had incredible engines and Lochhead particularly impressed with his ability to cross accurately, and at pace, from deep.
The match also highlighted the match-up between Slovakia’s more fluid approach and New Zealand’s tactical rigidity, and with the match being pretty even and open we are perhaps left none the wiser as to who’s approach was better. Slovakia maintained their form in their own half, when launching an attack from the back, the centre backs would remain deep, Skrtel being used to launch the ball up for Vittek to flick on on occasion, but more often one of the two centrebacks would place a short pass for Strba or Hamsik to look up and propel Slovakia forward. Whoever picked up the ball would remain deep for the attack while their centre midfield partner would advance up the pitch. The wide options were offered by advancing fullbacks, especially from West Brom’s improving Marek Cech and the less effective Debavnik, and from the highly impressive Vladimir Weiss and again the slightly overshadowed partner Jendrisek. Weiss and Jendrisek swapped position throughout the match with Weiss offering the most attacking threat on the pitch, regardless of what side he played on. It is a simple game when you have pace and a decent touch, and Weiss highlighted this, though his end product was not always there. He was the driving force behind the best move of the match which resulted in Sestak firing wide from close range. The ‘front two’ Slovakia played, consisting of the physical Vittek and the slightly more crafty Sestak, deployed themselves as more of a old style centre-forward, competing with the back 3 at all times, while Sestak was more likely to drop deep and receive the ball from Hamsik or when the wingers cut inside.
Below we can see a typical Slovakian attack from the first Half.
Strba has received the ball from his centre backs and advanced forward, allowing Hamsik (ringed) to find some space. Strba plays the pass along the arrow to Jendrisek who has switched with Weiss (yellow underscore) and is hugging the touchline. During this period of the first half Slovakia seemed to have gotten to grips with New Zealand’s defensive alignment. The LB Cech (underscored blue) has cut inside to draw a man with him, in this case Rory Fallon. However, the important thing here is that Slovakia are lining up with four in attack without having to commit their two centre midfielders too far forward. New Zealand’s defensive three have been shifted to the left after Lochhead (circled red) has not tracked back quick enough. This draws Bertos, bottom of the screen, having to move infield to protect an otherwise gaping hole, allowing Strba to play a simple ball to Jendrisek. New Zealand’s back three were organised enough to cover when Lochhead or Bertos advancing forward and were caught quickly on the break, showing the tactical awareness of a country of a much higher FIFA ranking.
Slovakia’s first half goal showed how effective they could be on the break but from a New Zealand standpoint was a disappointing goal to concede. It was certainly not the sort of goal that would typically be conceded when utilising a 5 man defence.
Worse for New Zealand it was scored in precisely the same way they had sought to attack the Slovakian’s – early, deep crossing. Worst of all for New Zealand the provider was Sestak, meaning that Vittek was the only aerial presence they had to deal with. The New Zealand back 3 was drawn out of position by the pace of the attack and the fact that Smith, playing on the left of the back 3, has come out to close down Sestak after Lochhead had been caught in a tangle with Jendrisek (bottom of the screen). Perhaps Reid can be attributed some of the blame, as the closest man to Vittek he found himself a few strides behind the forward, but it was an excellent cross and a decent header. Interesting to note Hamsik taking up a position on the outside of the box, functioning here as a true box to box midfielder. While Hamsik’s performance did not contain the fireworks many pundits were expecting, he showed himself to be a leader by example, always offering himself for a pass and tracking back and forward more than anyone else on the pitch, perhaps with the exception of Lochhead.
New Zealand however were less fluid, but equally as effective, going forward, attacking in a much more deliberate and methodical manner. Their linchpin was Simon Elliott, the veteran midfielder, who as well as delivering decent set pieces, also ran the game from the heart of their midfield. Like Hamsik, always being available for the pass and seemingly constantly having the time to look up and pick a forward pass. Playing alongside Vicelich, a converted centre back, he was allowed more freedom in the centre of the pitch due to his partner’s willingness to drop deep at almost all times. He was equally benefitted by Hamsik and Strba’s decision to split their midfield , with one dropping deep and one playing a slightly more advanced role. This allowed him a pocket of space to pull the strings from. Elliott was also one of the few NZ players with the confidence to release the diagonal ball out to the marauding wing backs. New Zealand had a front 3 of Smeltz, Killen and Fallon who seemed to lack the cutting edge that a top team would generally need, byut they were able to put themselves about, causing some discomfort for Liverpool’s Skrtel.
I doubt either of these teams will advance through their group. Paraguay and Italy have more about them across the pitch, but New Zealand and Slovakia have shown that they are not just making up the numbers. Slovakia, more than New Zealand, could spring a surprise against Paraguay, though a lot will rely on whether Hamsik is able to justify the praise heaped upon his technical ability. But New Zealand will be a tough unit to break down and predictions of drubbings inflicted upon them by all members of their group are happily quite far from the truth. They present teams with a new and unusual proposition, with the 5 man defence with wing-backs being an under-used formation. Aside from the fact teams will be unaccustomed to playing against that tactic, they are also highly organised and led by an inspirational figure in Ryan Nelsen. Their athleticism is also key to their success, with Lochhead, Bertos and Reid in particularly looking fresh and full of running for the whole 90 minutes. Like many of the unfancied teams, their biggest concern stems from a lack of goal scorers, but they looked consistently dangerous from set pieces, and before they equalised Shane Smeltz had a gilt-edged headed chance. A warning though; for much of the second half, Slovakia asked Strba to stay closer to Elliott, and ignore Vicelich, with Elliott being on the receiving end of some particularly hard challenges. With him being marked out of the game, New Zealand’s potency was much reduced, with Fallon, Killen and Smeltz lacking the capacity to drop deep and influence the gane.
Slovakia are similar in that they have a well-organised and reasonably solid defence, again led by a Premiership-quality centre back in Martin Skrtel. They also rely heavily on their centre midfielder Marek Hamsik who was seemingly required to initiate and play a role in finishing most of Slovakia’s attack. For a 22 year old this a lot of pressure to deal with, though as he adjusts to the pace of the World Cup we could still see the emergence of a real talent. Slovakia also do have more options, Weiss, my man of the match, was highly impressive, and Sestak looked a useful proposition when receiving the ball with his back to goal.
A post by Nick Robbins