Solving Problems Posed by an Opposition within a Framework

What kind of impact does opposition analysis make on our game model?

While watching Sassuolo vs. Inter for HGAS, I recognized a fascinating pattern within their pressing. It’s been long documented that the sideline is the best place to usher an opposition given the fact that the sideline acts as a de-facto defender, but Sassuolo did the complete opposite. Why would they do that? There’s a number of reasons, which will be explained next, but the short answer is quite simple: opposition analysis.

Crafting a match plan around available personnel:

It was known that Brozović would be missing due to a suspension, leaving Inter somewhat scrambling to fill one of the most important holes in their side. To do this, Inzaghi essentially played Barella as the deepest midfielder, which really isn’t his strength at all. (I think Pogba at United in build-up is a fair comparison? It simply isn’t their strong suit, and that doesn’t make them less-good, simply not good at that.)

To capitalize on this, in the first half, Sassuolo adapted their standard match plan to account for a potential central weakness. This starts with body positioning from the pressing of the front two and the positioning of the midfielder and winger.

Thank god for Medium and GIF’s. I missed you ❤

This specific sequence was one of the focal points of HGAS, not only because of how the goal was scored, but because it also demonstrated this box idea created to entrap Barella (in this case Çalhanoğlu) and Gagliardini and force a turnover. Below is the image I used in the article, which is the exact zone that Gagliardini checks into.

Raspadori’s run here is one of the most important pieces of the sequence for the purposes of this article. “Normal” teaching would encourage the player to angle their body the complete opposite direction. Berardi was already near Dimarco when he received, meaning that if the press had come from the opposite direction, it would have forced Inter to play in a zone they were already underloaded in… which they proceeded to do anyways.

Why? Scamacca’s positioning makes the pass to De Vrij potentially dangerous, he could lose the ball as he jumps out to press the instant the ball is released. This drops the ball precisely into the zone Sassuolo’s staff has identified as a danger zone, and the turnover results in the first goal.

General tactical decisions on a match to match basis…

Soon after publishing the past weeks HGAS issue, I received a DM from @Calum_Football who asked me about this tactic from Dionisi and just how risky it is. The simple answer is that it was risky, and it caused them to get battered in the wide zones (say hi >3 xG and zero goals) so it didn’t quite work seamlessly at all. BUT, it demonstrated a deviation from what I would imagine is their norm, so I went and watched Juventus to query this.

Look at how Scamacca scans to ensure an effective covershadow… tangential but so good.

A few differences here are important to take note of. Raspadori is sticking to the 10 position, rather than stepping forward to create a 4–2–4 pressing shape. Scamacca’s body positioning pushes the ball towards the side of the pitch where Hamed Traore applies instantaneous pressure. From there, a turnover is forced by the those three movements.

  • Inability to access the 6 easily (Scamacca and Raspadori)
  • Body angling of Scamacca forces the ball wide without overly angling it and allowing the pass central.
  • The rest of the team recognizes movement and uses it as a trigger to ensure the safety of Scamacca’s pressing.

Overlap between matches…

Inter and Juventus are two very different teams, but I believe that Sassuolo displayed very much overlapping principles in both of these sequences, with the exception of the zones allowed. I think most would agree that it’s simply impossible to equally defend every part of the pitch, something must be neglected. So in the match vs. Inter, the wide areas of the pitch were somewhat neglected and this allowed Inter a lot of space to attack and create chances. Conversely, the wide zones are exactly where Sassuolo wanted to win the ball against Juventus.

To backtrack slightly, both of these sequences also demonstrated an important aspect of Sassuolo’s game model; the importance of the front line on defending. Regardless of the formation being used (4–2–3–1, 4–2–4, 4–3–3, etc.) these forwards had the job of stopping the opposition build up while still high up on the pitch. Often, I like to visualize it like this:

The forwards create this cover-shadow type of thing with the connections between them that helps to limit potential passes central. This forces balls wide, where the team can collapse and win the ball to play forward. While all teams do something LIKE this, there is an intentional decision between the location in which this occurs. Steve Bruce may have had Newcastle’s forwards tracking backwards near immediately after losing the ball, or as the opponent attempts to build up, blocking deeper zones.

Related to this same idea, Sassuolo won the ball and played it immediately into a central vacuum. Both of the GIF’s above have the same principle displayed. The first pass after winning the ball is played immediately central, and the final 1/3 is attacked with speed to capitalize on an exposed back line.

This things immediately posed my next mental question, which is what kinds of things can we change within a game model to retain overarching goals, without drastically changing the way the team plays? In our last two examples, Sassuolo:

  • Changed the zone that they ‘conceded’
  • Changed the way their forward angled his press
  • Changed formations/pressing shapes

While simultaneously retaining game principles such as…

  • Forwards as the first line of defense
  • First pass forward (‘central vacuum’)

So while Sassuolo may have lost the match to Juve, I still believe these things are intentional ‘solutions’ to problems posed by an opposition game model, personnel, or lack thereof. With Inter, their game plan was successful as displayed by the two goals that they had scored.

This is one of the places that, in my eyes, a manager can really stand out from the crowd so to speak. Creating new problems for an opposition after they have solved the first ones will help you become unpredictable within a match. Let’s refer back to Inter vs. Sassuolo for this, while roughly 0.56 of Inter’s xG in the match came in the second half, this pales in comparison to the 2.4 xG that was created in the second half. Why? Inzaghi adapted to the problems that Dionisi’s pre-match solutions created for them. Plan before, adapt after.

Related to these topics and Sassuolo in particular, I thoroughly enjoyed this article from Martin (@Mtjtz_ on Twitter): “How Sassuolo’s pressing structure/defensive animation has prevented Inter to progress vertically ?

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