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On the sixth day of World Cup, South Africa gave to me: A strong Swiss defence & a system change for Uruguay

June 19, 2010

I may have ended up with a minor egg on face after my Serbia predictions that proved to be fruitless. This may have been uncomfortable for myself, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the clean-up operation in Switzerland. Now this clean-up operation was not a dairy-based fizzog moment ill-judgement, but one of unadulterated joy that must have culminated in a boxer-short type clean-up, I, for one, would not have been ashamed of such a clean-up.

His detractors state he is too defensive, they could be right, but he also just masterminded a victory against Spain. The Swiss fight for victory was helped by Spain’s attacking problems, notably too little width, when it was only until Jesús Navas entered the fray that Spain looked like they have different options in attack.

The ‘General’s’ defence plan

So what did Hitzfeld do to combat the threat of the apparently unbeatable Spanish attack?

As zonalmarking pointed out, the Spanish made plenty of wrong decisions in their opportunities which did not help their cause. It has to be noted that as shown by the Dutch when they played the Danish, a narrow system can be easily defended against if implemented correctly. The Spanish lined up without natural width which played into the Swiss hands.

Spain after losing the ball, indicate how narrow they play.


Average positions of Spain: Notice how bunched up the midfield are

By playing so narrow, it didn’t stretch the Swiss defence, reducing the possibility of gaps opening in the defence for the Spanish to exploit. The problem with Spain’s narrowness is that the full-backs aren’t there to offer late deep runs, ones where world-class full-backs like Maicon offer against tight defences. Sergio Ramos demonstrated he lacks the composure to be ‘that extra man’ in the final third, a move in particular stands out in the Swiss game, when he turned the left-back and spooned a shot wide of the near post. I talked about the importance of the full-back position earlier on this week, and the importance and significant of players in the full-back position seems to have reared its head again.

Swiss pressure
The Swiss midfield and defence kept a very compact shape, allowing Spain to dominate possession and control the match. They attempted to hold a high-line, reminiscent of the Danish defence against the Netherlands.

The midfield dropped deep, resisting the urge to close down and press all over the midfield. This reduced the space between the midfield and defence, the spaces that Silva, Iniesta and Xavi all like to operate. The Swiss midfield closed down when a player with the ball moved within five yards of their space. This plan allowed the Swiss to hold their shape and help keep linkages between the midfield and defence, so everyone could cover the space if a player moved out of position.

If a Spanish player got hold of the ball in between the two lines, Swiss defenders were instructed to close the player down. The benefit of having midfield and defence so close was that people could close them down from all angles and if a defender rushes out, leaving a gap, a midfield player could drop back into the vacant position.

Their 4-4-2 shape was flexible, Tranquillo Barnetta or Gelson Fernandes dropped back into a full-back position. Here Tranquillo Barnetta has dropped into a right-back position, causing Eren Derdiyok to drop back into a left-sided midfield position. This made it even harder for Spain to keep possession.

Red marks indicate defenders, Yellow indicates midfielders, Blue indicates Forwards

The compact and narrow Swiss defence that knew how to press sensibly caused Spain massive problems in breaking them down. They moved as a unit and this reduced the space available to the Spanish players to work in. Hitzfeld still is the target of criticism, despite the countless awards and trophies he has won, yet he organised a defensive unit so well-drilled (as Senderos went off injured and von Bergen came on and maintained organisation) that he blunted the simple, yet magnetic pass and move football of Spain, one of the favourites for the World Cup.

Uruguay move from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3 and gets results

Against France, it was noted that Uruguay played a very defensive 5-3-2 with two very deep midfielders, whilst this stopped France creating anything in the way of goal chances (but I wonder whether the French lack of goals can be attributed to something else?), Uruguay did not fare any better with goalscoring chances. Often Diego Forlán was found too wide and Suárez was left isolated up front by-himself.

Oscar Tabarez changed their system, replacing the creative midfielder Ignacio González with Palermo forward Edinson Cavani. It didn’t bring a great change in their potential to keep possession and control the game, but it offered better options upfront without hampering their strong (sometimes too strong) defence.

Against France, Ignacio González was often found deep in midfield and in the wide positions and found it hard to link up with Forlán and Suárez.

Ignacio Fernandez heatmap

Edinson Cavani was found in positions much further up the pitch, able to link the deeper lying Forlán with the further forward Suárez. Cavani also offered some much needed mobility in the central area, able to move with the ball and produce some good movement off the ball.

Edinson Cavani heatmap

The width was provided by Maxi Pereira and Alvaro Pereira but most of the danger was through the good movement of Cavani and Forlán behind Suárez. The second Uruguay goal came from good link-up between Cavani and Suárez, who managed to overload the right side of the South African defence. By having three strong players holding up the ball, they could easily get support from the wide positions and from midfield players, offering a lot more of a goal threat than against France.

Oscar Tabarez went against the system that got Uruguay through qualification and the one that defended well against a France side, albeit how poor both teams were. This narrow 4-3-3 offers a much better attacking threat than the 5-3-2 that Tabarez started with but their attacking display against South Africa suggests that this change may be permanent.

Uruguay formation against South Africa

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One Comment leave one →
  1. handys permalink
    June 22, 2010 5:45 pm

    It was just amazing how disiplined the swiss playes against Spain. I think it is important for every team to do exacty what you coach sais. Otherwise you will end up like france.

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