Guangzhou Evergrande Tabao came into the game on the back of some brilliant form in the Chinese Super League. Out of 15 games, Guangzhou have 13 wins and the first place spot. Chongqing Lifan arrived at the Tianhe Stadium with only one win in seven and took the title of the underdog for the clash.
This tactical analysis will delve into the Chinese Super League match between Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao and Chonqing Lifan. In particular, the tactical tussle for superiority between Jordi Cruyff and Fabio Cannavaro that was fascinating to watch.
Evergrande usually line up in a variation of a three-man midfield. More recently they have employed a 4-2-3-1 and did so again against Chongqing. Elkeson who scored in the last two outings started on the bench in favour for Anderson Talisca. A huge sign of the depth at which Guangzhou have at their disposal
Chongqing have set up in a 4-3-3 with a sole defensive midfielder for most of the season. The big news was surrounding the captain, Alan Kardec. The Brazilian missing was a big blow for Jordi Cruyff’s side. Without their top goalscorer, they would need to find goals elsewhere for this away tie. In reality, their formation resembled more of a 4-4-2 both in and out of possession.
Arm wrestling early
The start of the game was a real arm wrestle for the teams as they both felt their way into the match. Chongqing’s only real spell of possession was actually in the first ten minutes, but as the half wore on, it was clear only one team would have the ball.
Chonqing look to press high early
An early tactical analysis of Chongqing made it evident that they looked to press high early on. Evergrande, however, played through them quite easily. They would have both full-backs drop fairly deep. This meant Evergrande were, in essence, playing out with four defenders against the two strikers. After a few failed attempts, Chongqing dropped to the halfway line. From there on in, Evergrande faced no real pressure until they reached the halfway line.
Chongqing’s defensive set up
Chongqing set up in a medium 4-4-2 block. They defended zonally, shifting across to keep the play in front of them. They would often look to win the ball in wide areas with Evergrande’s full-backs. The pressure would only start on the halfway line. This played into Evergrande’s hands, however.
Evergrande’s ball possession strategy
Evergrande’s main strategy was to drop their full-backs low and keep their wingers high and wide. This stretched Chongqing’s 4-4-2 as maximally as possible. From there on, they would make penetrating runs into the space. Any time an Evergrande player received the ball with time and space on the halfway line, we would see at least one of if not two penetrating runs into the spaces either side of the centre-backs. This seemed to be Evergrande’s priority rather than playing into the feet of Paulinho or Talisca.
Therefore the two Brazilians rarely featured until Cannavaro gestured for them to drop down deeper. It was an interesting analysis of the situation from Cannavaro. In the end, it worked better as it meant their two most gifted players technically were the ones looking to play the penetrative passes. Additionally, it meant the more agile wingers and midfielders of Guangzhou could look to exploit the space in behind.
Guangzhou’s poor defensive transition structure
However, the issue that arose for Guangzhou was in their defensive transition. They committed their wingers high to keep the opposition full-backs pinned back. Then either of the two wingers or the two midfielders would make penetrative runs. Guangzhou didn’t have an effective counter-press as they lacked a central player in midfield to slow or break attacks down. The space therefore just outside of Chongqing’s box was huge. Adrian Mierzejewski would sit in the space, pick the ball up and then break on Guangzhou. The poor counter-press structure was the key reason why there were so many counter-attacks for Chongqing.
Chongqing’s counter attack
Once they won the ball, Chongqing would look to break with four players mainly. This meant that at times it was four versus four at the back for Guangzhou. With a bit more quality in the final pass, Chongqing could have had a multitude of chances. However, the main issues were bourne out of a lack of understanding of the key principles in the counter-attack.
When countering, there are a few key points to be aware of. You are either aiming to get a good attacking player one versus one or possibly set up an overload, where you isolate an opposition player with two of your teammates. Chongqing did neither. Often, they would look to continue the counter-attack when they didn’t have numerical superiority, such as the five versus four seen below. In this situation, it would be better to recycle the ball and look for another avenue of chance creation.
Additionally, the ball carrier would elect early in choosing one side to attack, instead of keeping his options as open as possible. When in an overload situation, the defence will look to keep the opposition to their numerically superior side. Chongqing were terrible at recognising which side this was and attacking the opposite side. In the attack below, Mierzejewski could drive with the ball to keep more options open and create an overload on the right side.
Finally, they rarely gave it to a wide player and allowed them to attack one against one with their defensive opponent. Creating these one versus one situations are vital in the match. Any good attacker should be able to beat his marker and create something if given enough opportunity.
Guangzhou later won a free kick on the edge of the box around the 30-minute mark. Talisca curled a lovely strike into the back of the net to give Evergrande the lead. Chonquing had an immediate reply. Once again it was a counter-attack. They managed to get their winger, Jim Feng running directly at his opponent. He jinked his way through including a nutmeg and a sumptuous finish to make it 1-1 and game on.
Second half tactical tweaks
The second half saw a slight change in tactics for Evergrande. While they kept the same players and relative formation, there were some tweaks to the system. Instead of playing beyond the last defensive line, Evergrande looked to play more between and through the lines of Chongqing. This coincided with Talisca starting to take up a role coming off the right wing. In effect, he swapped with Lifu Yang who played more centrally. The goalscorer Shiaho Wei also began to come inside more and hug the touchline less. This tactic was presumably a response to the lack of quality chances created in the first half for Fabio Cannavaro’s side.
Fluid counter-attacking strength
Chongqing came out in the second half in the same fashion as the first. As before they looked to play in the counter. It was also evident that their attacking transitional structure was extremely fluid. Any four of Marlinho, Mierzejewski, Fernandinho and Jim Feng could pop up in any position. This fluidity can be both a strength and a weakness. The strength of it was that Evergrande struggled to find a familiar and regular way to deal with the counter-attacks. They couldn’t man-mark as they would get dragged out of their zones. This happened on a few occasions and caused problems for Evergrande. In the image below, the left-back follows his man all the way in. Fernandinho then runs into the resulting space and nearly scores.
The downside of a fluid structure
However, playing in such a fluid manner means there is less structure and regularity in your attacking play. This occurred on a few occasions when the attackers of Chongqing had to take an extra second to check the positioning of the teammates. This slight delay in attack can be crucial and was a key reason for many of the attacks breaking down as Evergrande got numbers behind the ball. In the image below, Feng doesn’t know whether Mierzejewski will stay or drive into the space. The resulting delay gave Guangzhou time to get men behind the ball. In effect killing the counter-attack.
Because of the fluid structure, Chongqing also lacked a figurehead to play the ball into. Often when winning the ball back, a team will face immediate pressure. It is helpful therefore to have a figurehead and out ball to play into. This usually will come in the form of a striker or two. Chongqing didn’t have this and it meant they couldn’t establish general possession if a counter-attack wasn’t on.
Change in defensive tactics
As Guangzhou began to play more and more through Chongqing, we saw a change in their defensive tactics. They began to sit in a 4-5-1 formation in order to give them better coverage in their middle defensive line. This worked better and forced the play out wide to the full-backs of Evergrande. It had the counter effect though of reducing their numbers on the break. The counter-attacks dried up for Chongqing as they hung on for the point in the last ten minutes. Chongqing managed to come through the last ten minutes of attacks by Evergrande to seal a vital point away from home.
An interesting tactical battle occurred in this match between Jordi Cruyff and Fabio Cannavaro. Both managers employed tactical shifts as a result of the events unfolding on the pitch. Neither Cruyff nor Cannavaro managed to get the better of their opposite counterpart and in hindsight, the draw was a fair result for both sides.
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