Mainz show the benefit of pressing opposition full-backs
In a week that has seen interviews, analysis and prose about the only manager who could comfortably be in a Kraftwerk tribute act, there’s little else to write about. Apart from one thing. To complete this trilogy of ‘The story and times Thomas Tuchel and Mainz in the 2010/11 Bundesliga season’ (working title) – this will examine the aspect of Mainz’s game that is the most interesting – their pressing.
Tuchel gets his team working hard, and it is his high and hard pressing that typifies his managerial philosophy. Tuchel’s team for the majority of 90 minutes is extremely disruptive and assailing – always going into tackles to win the ball and never a team to shirk from defensive responsibilities. As impressive as their work off the ball is, with the ball they are direct and physical in their approach. Both parts of their game have natural symmetry; their work off the ball is translated into their approach in the final third.
Tuchel has brought together a team of players who work inexcusably hard. When they are not rapidly closing down on players with the ball, they’re picking themselves up off the floor after a sliding tackle. It is astonishing that Tuchel bought or borrowed ten players this summer who have bought his hard-working philosophy and are now all playing a part in implementing it successfully. Due to the physical nature of their game, Tuchel makes use of a large squad.
Pressing of full-backs
ZonalMarking points to a quote from Adam Szalai about how they forced Bayern into playing the ball to their full-backs, something that they could then use to put pressure on them and cause mistakes. This is interesting because what Mainz tried to do was to stop Bayern Munich starting moves off, halting the movement of the ball to a less manageable area. This has been seen before in one of these articles before, where against a Zdeněk Zeman side, Palermo pressed Lecce’s full-backs to stop the production of an attacking move.
This leads to a great tactical point. With the full-backs often being the players who receive most of the ball, they are very influential in starting moves off. It has also been predicted that they’ll start to become more prominent and important in the game by Jonathon Wilson. They have a large influence on the game because (a) they have the most time and space on the pitch (even with the advent of a variations of a 4-3-3, wingers are now used to close down and pressure the full-backs and) and (b) they can make clever runs from deep that are often measured, with the safety blanket of a defensive-minded midfielder who can cover their foray into the attacking third, which again, comes from the prominence of deeper lying midfield players from the 4-3-3. As well as this, they’re also used to outnumber the opposition in midfield.
By Mainz looking to close down the Bayern Munich full-backs Pranjic and Lahm, it had several implications. Firstly, by closing down a player in a deeper and wider position, it naturally narrowed the angle that they could pass the ball. This is purely down to the dimensions and size of a football pitch and the angles the full-back has to play with. The knock-on effect is that players had to come deeper and deeper to receive a pass from the full-back. This however allowed the Mainz to press in a closer proximity and area of the pitch, squeezing the space the team has to play in – further compounding the problem Bayern had to face.
By closing down the space the full-back has down the line, it put more significance on the skill and technical ability of the players in the central areas of the pitch. For Bayern, this put extra pressure on Daniel van Buyten and Holger Badstuber (thank God Martín Demichelis was out for this match). Neither of these defenders are well-known for their ball-playing abilities and they struggle when put under pressure, especially van Buyten. With the pressure put on the full-backs, central midfielders and centre-backs found themselves with the ball at their feet more and more as they dropped deeper and deeper. Mark van Bommel, who is one that likes to give it but not receive in this sense, is not as spritely as he used to be and when put under pressure, crumbles like his central-defender colleague van Buyten. With Mainz able to press higher up the pitch, it put more pressure on van Bommel on the ball. Bayern therefore were unable to stroke the ball around leisurely and their spine of the team looked nervous and shaky, often resulting in stray balls off the pitch.
Tuchel must be given a congratulatory bottle of the finest as he planned how to play to Bayern’s strengths. By giving the ball to certain players, players who are unable to play with players biting and snapping at their ankles, it really reduced the playing capabilities of this Bayern Munich side. It was the perfect example of how to make your opposition play to their weaknesses and into the hands of your strengths.
The plan to press in the full-back areas reaped its rewards as the first goal came after sustained pressure on Badstuber, who had moved into that position and he was put under pressure and gave the ball back to the archaic Hans-Jörg Butt who hoofed it no more than 40 yards out for a throw-in as he was closed down. This throw-in led to the goal as Holtby managed to out-clever the distracted Schweinsteiger and run beyond the defence and cross for Sami Allagui to back-heel in.
Lewis Holtby – playing a different role than usually found in an attacking midfielder
With this lack of manoeuvrability in the spine of their team, it was up to Lewis Holtby to make them look thoroughly geriatric. He’s sharp and quick over five yards and his enthusiasm for doing the dirty work is remarkable. This physical advantage manifested itself in two areas. Firstly, it allowed him to continuously put pressure on the central midfielders and centre-backs. In possession, it allowed him to be quicker on the turn and move the ball quickly up to the considerably more mobile Mainz forwards. His role is noteworthy because he’s occupying a position on the pitch that is usually for attacking usage primarily, whilst his role is more balanced with a defensive side and without him Mainz would not nearly be as effective.
With van Buyten being severely anchored by his immobility (he probably uses a mobility scooter when he goes out around Munich) it leaves van Gaal without much choice to play a slightly deep line. This does not help Mark van Bommel who plays better if he has less space to cover in the midfield. With the Netherlands, they play a considerably higher line and he’s able to maraud around in his ineffable style that only he can does. In the first-half of the match, Holtby’s considerable physical advantage caused great problems for the Munich defence and midfield as he had large areas of space to move into at a considerable pace. At half-time, he was substituted and he was a noted absence in the second forty-five minutes. His directness stretched and worried the Bayern defence and midfield who dropped deeper to counteract his pace and running through the middle. When Mainz replaced him and went to a 4-4-2, they were more disjointed and their passing was neither as penetrative nor accurate. It was only through another thing van Buyten and Badstuber do poorly, defending, that Mainz scored their winner in the second-half.
If Thomas Tuchel can manage to identify his opponents’ weaknesses as well as he did in this game against Bayern Munich, Mainz will continue to surprise people and make Mainz-meat out of fellow Bundesliga clubs. He has a vision and a philosophy that lines every aspect of Mainz’s game on and off the pitch. Throughout history, it is the teams that had a footballing ‘raison d’être’ that were successful and the coaches who had their own idiosyncratic way of playing leave a legacy and are prosperous. Thomas Tuchel carries a nerdish-charm about his work and his individualistic style of play could lead him to greater and larger jobs in the future.