On Thursday, playing the first leg of their round of 16 tie in the 2019/20 Europa League, the Swiss team Basel travelled to Frankfurt to face off against Adolf Hütter’s squad.
Basel were playing after a two-week break following the Swiss league’s decision, on February 28th, to postpone any upcoming matches due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Marcel Koller’s team looked to use their freshness to try and pull off an upset win at the Commerzbank-Arena.
This tactical analysis will look to break down how both managers made use of their tactics to try and gain an advantage over the other.
On paper, Adolf Hütter used a 4-1-4-1 formation to start off the game. The Austrian manager put out a backline that saw Obite N’Dicka starting on the left side as the left-back, Martin Hinteregger paired up with David Abraham as the centre-backs and Almamy Touré was deployed as the right-back.
The 36-year-old experienced Makoto Hasebe would play as the single pivot, defensive midfielder, in front of the defence. While Filip Kostić was on the left wing, Sebastian Rode, Djibril Sow and Daichi Kamada were the attacking midfielders tasked with supporting the lone centre-forward, André Silva, the loanee of AC Milan.
For the other side, Koller used a traditional 4-2-3-1 for his team. The back-line of four was formed of Silvan Widmer at the right-back position and Omar Alderete and Eray Cömert as the two centre-backs, while Blas Riveros started on the opposite side. Fabian Frei and Taulant Xhaka paired up to form the duo of central midfielders, while Raoul Petretta, Samuel Campo and Valentin Stocker were used to support the Brazilian centre-forward Arthur Cabral.
Spreading the field
Despite the paper lineups showed a different alignment, Hütter actually used his players to create a formation spread over multiple lines, trying to assure width as well as central superiority to be able to advance the ball more easily and try to open up the opponent’s defence.
Above is the graphical representation of the average field positions for the Frankfurt starting lineup. What we can make out of it is a more three-at-the-back defence formed of N’Dicka, Hinteregger and Abraham.
Kostić and Touré show advanced and wide positions as the two wing-backs used by Hütter. Rode and Sow look as the more box-to-box, transitional options in midfield, with Hasebe playing behind them to offer support and Kamada in front of them, to provide an option between the lines.
The 4-1-4-1 shown on paper, in reality, starts to look more like a fluid 3-1-4-1-1 spread over multiple lines, adaptable to game situations but aimed to produce space between the lines and width to be able to effectively operate on the wings as well.
The frame above portrays a better understanding of how Frankfurt lined up on the field. The three-at-the-back line of defence is wide and far apart to offer support on the wings, if needed.
One of the wing-backs, in this instance Kostić, is drawn inside to create superiority between the lines of Basel, while the other is deployed wide and high on the opposite wing. Kamada and Silva pair up, to allow for one of them to drop back and receive the pass, while the other can support the attack with runs behind the defence.
Frankfurt can then use their central superiority to receive and pass the ball through the lines of Basel. Having an advanced option wide on the wing, the German side maintained the option to move the ball on the flank and position for a cross inside the box.
This is highlighted in the frame above. Rode, the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder, plays the pass on the right wing where Touré is isolated and waiting to receive it. His teammates will immediately look to attack the defence with runs inside the box, waiting for the cross to come.
Frankfurt produced a total of 24 crosses in the 90 minutes played against Basel, showing a clear tendency of the crossing game implemented in their tactics for the game. In turn, the Swiss team only managed to send off 7 crosses over the course of the game.
By establishing the search for numerical superiority early on, the German side was able to force their opponent into committing to a compact and tight defensive block to try and counter that.
As highlighted in the picture above, Basel tightened their formation as much as possible, trying to match against the Frankfurt attackers positioned centrally and prevent any passing combinations between their lines of defence.
However, this presents different opportunities for Frankfurt to attack by moving the ball towards the wing. In the frame displayed, Hinteregger sees the chance of playing a launch pass directly from the back towards the right wing, where Touré is once again positioned to receive the ball in wide-open space.
Launching the ball into space
While their opponent used their alignment to try and operate more freely between the lines and build up positional attacks using their multiple lines spread across all levels of the field, Basel often used a more direct approach.
The Swiss team tallied 52 long pass attempts out of a total of 312 passes, a higher number than Frankfurt, who cumulated only 49 long pass attempts out of a total of 570 passes.
Furthermore, the difference in length of average pass into the final third is even bigger. For Basel, a pass into the opponent’s third of the field would normally travel 33.4 meters, while for Frankfurt a similar pass would be reduced to only 25.9 meters.
Marcel Koller chose those tactics to try and take advantage of the advanced field positions and the often wide alignments in Frankfurt’s three-at-the-back line. In order to be most effective, Basel would often have multiple attackers running behind or between the pockets of space created inside Frankfurt’s back-line.
In the highlighted frame above, the Swiss squad is trying to quickly take advantage of the advanced position of the right wing-back of Frankfurt. They launch the ball directly aimed at that space, looking to catch Touré off guard.
Staying consistent throughout the whole game to their tactics, as time went on and the Frankfurt side started to commit more and more to chase the equalizer, Basel was presented with even more opportunities to take advantage of the space offered by the German back-line.
They used precisely the same philosophy in building up the possession they scored their second goal on.
As highlighted, Basel posts up three attackers waiting for the launched ball, aiming to take advantage of the space offered by the German defence.
This time, Touré is caught way too advanced to effectively track the wide-open runner of Basel. The two other Basel players are attacking each of the two centre-backs, which leaves the wide-open space for Campo to run towards, waiting for his centre-forward to win the aerial duel.
The ball gets to him in a great position to threaten the box, while the Frankfurt captain Abraham is left all alone, trying to defend in an impossible two-on-one situation.
As expected, the two Basel attackers are able to take advantage of their numerical superiority and the huge opportunity created, and they move up 2-0 on the scoreboard.
The threat of pressure
The second constant element of Basel’s tactics is their commitment to generating pressure, early on in Frankfurt’s build-ups from the back and high up the field.
The aim was, preferably, to create turnovers inside the opponent’s half of the field. However, more importantly, Basel tried to slow down as much as possible the advancement of the ball and take advantage of the wide and far apart lines of Frankfurt, by putting their defenders in tough situations to pass the ball from.
Just like the frame above is trying to highlight, Koller’s side looked for every opportunity to position into a compact block that could generate pressure high up the field, immediately as the goalkeeper plays the goal kick pass.
By having players to match against every single one of the three defenders in the back-line, and two other pressers taking away the most immediate options in central midfield, Basel often forced the attackers of Frankfurt to drop back from their positions in order to receive the ball.
As soon as the ball moves, so do the Basel pressers, immediately looking to take away any passing options and eliminate the possibility of quick advancement of the ball.
In the frame above, the Swiss players are able to put the Frankfurt players into a very tough situation, at a numerical disadvantage deep inside their own third of the field.
Basel continued to maintain such advanced lines of pressure, against an opponent that was trying to come back from a two-goal deficit and, as the game went on, looked to further their lines even more.
This constant pressure forced Frankfurt into abandoning their principle of building through short passes and trying to play long balls through the back, making it much tougher to connect with their attacking players.
The results of those tactics can be seen in the number of 75 ball recoveries by the Basel squad. 14 of those ball recoveries took place inside the opponent’s half of the field.
Despite dominating in possession, tallying an impressive 62% share of the ball, Frankfurt weren’t efficient in creating good goal-scoring opportunities.
The two sides produced the same number of open play shots, 11. Frankfurt did it out of a total of 51 attacks, at a conversion rate of 22%. Meanwhile, their Swiss opponent converted 29% out of their 38 attacks into shots. Even more impressive is the 1.31 xG (expected goals) for Basel, compared to the only 0.96 of Frankfurt.
This analysis aimed to highlight the difference in the tactics deployed by the two managers, and how Koller’s side used their more coherent game plan to upset the Bundesliga team with a 3-0 away win.