Arsenal vs Wigan

An intelligent and hard-working performance from Wigan saw them claim a famous victory over Arsenal at the Emirates and put more valuable distance between themselves and the relegation places. Franco Di Santo and Jordi Gomez scored within a minute of one another to stake Wigan to a two goal lead, and despite Thomas Vermaelen scoring yet another goal, Arsenal were unable to exert enough control at home to complete their comeback.

After Wigan’s impressive 1-0 victory over leaders Manchester United during midweek, Roberto Martinez retained the 5-4-1 system and all but one of his starters from Wednesday. The only change occurred in midfield, where Jordi Gomez replaced Shaun Maloney. Gomez started on the right side of midfield, so Victor Moses was switched to the left. The back five remained the same, with Maynor Figueroa, Gary Caldwell, and Antolin Alcaraz flanked by Jean Beausejour and Emmerson Boyce, while Franco Di Santo persisted up front, despite having not scored a league goal since November.

Arsene Wenger also made only one change to the team that comfortably beat Wolverhampton. Tomas Rosicky replaced Aaron Ramsey as the attacking midfielder. Laurent Koscielny’s ongoing suspension meant that Johan Djourou partnered Thomas Vermaelen in central defense, and Yossi Benayoun retained his place on the left wing, so Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the bench.

Arsenal started the game brightly, penning Wigan back for the first five minutes. Thomas Vermaelen was constantly driving forward from centerback, and he shot narrowly wide before Ali Al-Habsi was called upon to tip Yossi Benayoun’s header over the bar. But when the resulting Arsenal corner failed to beat the first man and Bacary Sagna’s headed pass was intercepted, Wigan broke quickly, creating a 4 v 2 situation. Victor Moses played Gomez down the left flank and Andre Santos was unable to stop him from crossing to an unmarked Franco Di Santo. Szczesny came out of goal to close down the angle and got a piece of the shot, but Di Santo beat Benayoun to the loose ball to end his scoring drought and  give Wigan a shock lead. A stunned Emirates then watched Mikel Arteta, who had been struggling with an injury for a few minutes, leave the field and head straight up the tunnel, leaving the Gunners with 10 men momentarily. Wigan immediately punished Arsenal’s distraction, as Moses beat Bacary Sagna with a brilliant swivel and fired the ball into the six yard box. Both Arsenal centerbacks, distracted by the movement of Franco Di Santo, failed to cut out the cross, and when Szczesny failed to gather cleanly, Jordi Gomez turned the ball in to double Wigan’s lead.

Aaron Ramsey came on for Arteta after the goal, and Arsenal set about getting themselves back into the game.  Wigan, much like AC Milan in the Champions League first leg, denied Arsenal space in the center of the pitch. Their back five pinched in tightly and the central midfield duo of James McArthur and James McCarthy dropped deep in front of them, leaving very little space for Robin Van Persie and Arsenal’s central midfielders to work in. On Arsenal’s right flank, Wigan did a tremendous job of neutralizing Theo Walcott. The extra centerback meant Beausejour could mark Walcott tightly without worrying about runs behind him, and Walcott was effectively a spectator, only completing 25 passes and finishing the game without a single shot on target, key pass, or successful dribble. In addition, Victor Moses’s pace and skill on the ball meant that Bacary Sagna had to be wary of coming too far forward, so Walcott was even more isolated. On the other side, Yossi Benayoun’s natural inclination is to drift infield onto his right foot, so Wigan were rarely stretched on that side. Even when Andre Santos, a natural left footer went forward, he preferred to come inside and take players on instead of hugging the touchline and providing width. Able to get forward but struggling to penetrate Wigan’s defense, Arsenal resorted to hurling crosses into the box, which Wigan dealt with fairly comfortably. However, Arsenal pulled a goal back when Tomas Rosicky, who did an exceptional job of turning on the ball and attacking the Wigan defense in the first half, gave Moses the slip and put a great ball into the box for Vermaelen, once again in an advanced position, to head past Al-Habsi.

Wigan reacted well to Arsenal scoring, and managed to provide enough attacking threat to keep Arsenal from pinning them back into their own half. Because Di Santo often dropped all the way back onto Arsenal’s holding midfielder, Wigan couldn’t use him as a target man to bypass Arsenal’s pressure. Instead, they usually attacked down their left through Victor Moses, who was able to consistently dribble past Arsenal defenders, especially the usually solid Sagna. Once Wigan got forward, Beausejour could advance in support of Moses, forcing Walcott back and negating Arsenal’s ability to counter quickly. On the other flank, Jordi Gomez moved in toward the center, letting McCarthy and McArthur sit in front of the Wigan central defenders, and leaving Emmerson Boyce to provide width on the right. As Arsenal committed more and more players forward, Wigan had more opportunities to break. Their best chances in the second half came when Moses got behind Arsenal’s defense, but Szczesny was able to deny him on both occasions.

Despite Moses’s profligacy in front of goal, Arsenal were unable to capitalize and score an equalizing goal, and the loss of Mikel Arteta had an obvious effect on their play. In possession, Arteta’s range of passing and decision making allows Arsenal to play at an extremely high tempo, keeping the defense off balance and making it easier to penetrate through passing or dribbling. When Aaron Ramsey replaced him, Arsenal immediately became more ponderous in possession. While there is no question about Ramsey’s technical ability, he takes three or four touches when Arteta would take one or two, allowing defenders to recover around the ball. In addition, Arteta works extremely hard to make sure he is in a position that provides balance to the team, which is especially important with how many players Arsenal commit forward in attack. Since Ramsey usually plays in attacking midfield, the role that Rosicky was filling, Arsenal were often left open after losing the ball, especially after Vermaelen had moved forward. Alex Song was forced into holding in midfield and became visibly frustrated at his teammates when he was unable to join in attack. As the game progressed and Arsenal became more and more desperate, they began to overelaborate on the ball and force the ball forward. Apart from one occasion when Walcott got in behind their defense, Wigan looked comfortable for the last quarter hour of the match. Roberto Martinez made the intelligent decision to bring on Conor Sammon for Di Santo, and his ability to hold the ball up ensured that Arsenal never exerted enough pressure to find a late equalizer.

Roberto Martinez once again deserves great credit for the way his team are playing at the business end of the season. While Arsenal mistakes and misfortune contributed to both goals, his team were extremely solid defensively and caused the home side numerous problems going forward. Wigan are close to securing top flight survival, and on the basis of their recent performances, they will be a credit to the division next year. For Arsenal, yet another disappointing loss means that the battle for third place and automatic qualification to the Champions League is once again on. They will have to recover from this defeat, and perhaps more importantly, the loss of Arteta before a critical match against Chelsea this weekend.

Udinese vs Napoli

Before the match, Udinese and Napoli found themselves in very similar situations. Both had been eliminated from Europe during the week (Udinese by AZ, Napoli by Chelsea) and both knew that a win would take them above Lazio and into third, the final Champions League place. Francisco Guidolin’s counter-attacking tactics worked brilliantly for an hour, staking Udinese to a 2 goal lead, but after a controversial red card, a missed penalty, and a furious comeback from Napoli, Guidolin had to watch from the stands as an Edinson Cavani double restored parity at full time.

The visitors played in what was similar to their usual 3-4-3 system, but injury and rotation after their extra time defeat in midweek meant several changes. Miguel Britos replaced Salvatore Aronica as the left-sided centerback, while Andrea Dossena filled in at left-wing for the injured Christian Maggio, pushing Juan Zuñiga to the right side. Up front, only Edinson Cavani retained his place in the side, as Marek Hamsik dropped to the bench and Ezequiel Lavezzi was left out of the squad. Goran Pandev started as the right sided forward, while Blerim Dzemaili played in a withdrawn central role.

Francisco Guidolin also retained his 3-5-1-1 formation while making sweeping personnel changes, his side having been knocked out of Europe a day after Napoli. The midfield trio of Asamoah, Pazienza, and Pinzi remained the same, but Diego Fabbrini played off of Antonio Di Natale, while Giovanni Pasquale and Roberto Pereyra came in on the left and right wings. In defense,  Danilo and Andrea Coda started on the right side of Udinese’s back three.

From the start, Udinese’s objective was obvious, they set out to deny Napoli space in the attacking third and hit them on the counter. Defensively, both wingbacks tucked in to form a back five, while the three central midfielders sat in front. The initiative was with Napoli, but they struggled to break down a very compact Udinese defense. When Napoli got the ball forward, Cavani moved from the left to a more central position, while Dzemaili dropped off. Udinese’s back three simply stayed narrow to deny Cavani space, while Pasquale, the left wingback, pinched in to mark Pandev. Asamoah then moved left to check Zuniga and Pazienza played deep in front of the defense to deny Dzemaili space there.

This led to Napoli’s central midfield duo of Walter Gargano and Gohkan Inler having the most space and time on the ball. Even though Udinese had more central midfielders on paper, Napoli’s pairing dominated the game. Inler made 72 passes during the game, no Udinese player made more than 28. Even when Fabbrini dropped back into the midfield zone, Napoli simply had Hugo Campagnaro advance forward from centerback to provide another attacking option. But all this space was in front of the Udinese defensive block, and Napoli struggled to find a way forward from there. The substitutions meant that the usual understanding was missing between the front 3, and Lavezzi’s dribbling ability would have been extremely useful in breaking Udinese down.

When Udinese won the ball, they looked to counter immediately, either by playing a long ball to Di Natale or going down their left flank. If the ball went to Di Natale, he would try to flick the ball to Fabbrini making a supporting run. On the left flank, since Asamoah had already moved left defensively, he was in a good position to get forward into the space behind Campagnaro and Zuñiga. Since Napoli were 3 v 2 at the back and had their wingbacks marking Udinese’s wingbacks, Gokhan Inler usually ended up coming wide to track Asamoah, leaving only Gargano covering the center of the field. Udinese took advantage of this by having Giampiero Pinzi make driving runs into this space, and both goals (from Udinese’s only two shots on target) came as result. When Udinese countered after a Napoli corner, Fabbrini picked up a long ball targeted for Di Natale, and was able to play in Pinzi to give Udinese a lead. Napoli failed to learn their lesson, and Pinzi made two more right to left runs into the box, first heading Pasquale’s cross against the post for Di Natale to turn in, then just failing to make contact with a chance that could have made it 3-0. But at that point, Udinese were two goals up, looked extremely comfortable defensively, and seemed in good shape to see the game out.

But on the hour mark, Fabbrini was given an extremely harsh second yellow card (he had pulled out of the challenge, but Campagnaro acted like he’d been shot). Udinese’s ability to counter-attack and keep possession evaporated, the link between Di Natale and the rest of the team was gone. Udinese uses Di Natale as a target man, but he prefers to use his array of flicks to find teammates, not hold off defenders while his team moves up to support him. Within no-one to run onto the flicks, Udinese couldn’t get forward and had no way to alleviate the pressure as Napoli began to pour forward.

Walter Mazzari responded to the sending off immediately. Marek Hamsik had come on for Gargano a few minutes earlier, and Eduardo Vargas, a forward, replaced Britos,  a centerback. Since Udinese had only Di Natale left up front, Napoli no longer needed three center backs and switched to a back four, with Vargas moving to the left wing. When in possession, which was nearly all of the remainder of the game, Napoli had both wingbacks well advanced, Inler holding in front of the two centerbacks, Hamsik and Dzemaili in front of him, and Vargas-Cavani-Pandev across the forward line. Having started 3-4-1-2, Napoli were now playing 2-1-4-3 and putting an immense amount of pressure on Udinese.

Udinese were entrenched in their own area, they kept the same shape with a backline of five and three midfielders sitting in front, but Di Natale dropped all the way back as well. Udinese often had all ten of their players in their own penalty area. With such a compact defense dropped so deep, Napoli poured numbers forward, but still struggled to break Udinese down. The best opportunities came they generated resulted from fouls Udinese committed in and around the area, and Handanovic saved Cavani’s poor penalty before being beaten by his superb free kick. Only when Udinese finally tired did Napoli find a way to break through, runs in behind the wingbacks led to Cavani scoring the equalizer, as well as a decent chance for Zuñiga to win the game, only to be foiled by Handanovic.

Credit goes to both teams, Udinese for their defensive strength and efficiency in attack and Napoli for their attacking vigor in the closing stages. While Guidolin will feel his team were cheated by the sending-off, they lost their lead not because they were down to ten men, but because Napoli and Mazzari were able to react to the change much more effectively. Both sides remain level on points, one point away from the final Champions League spot.

Athletic Bilbao vs Manchester United

The starting lineups for both teams

“It has been a disappointing year.”

Sir Alex Ferguson’s response to a question about his side’s struggles in Europe seems a massive understatement. After failing to advance from what seemed a simple Champions League and struggling to survive at home against Ajax, his Manchester United side were trounced by an Athletic Bilbao currently seventh in the La Liga standings. While currently top of the English league, the nature of this European defeat suggested a lack of quality in this Manchester United side, and what’s more, a lack of tactical nous from a manager whose greatest European success arguably occurred twenty nine years ago.

Manchester United came to Bilbao knowing exactly what they were going to face. Athletic’s 3-2 victory at Old Trafford meant that United needed to win and score at least twice to go through. There was no question of a change of strategy from Marcelo Bielsa either, who said before the game, “The key to the match is the same: have the ball, prevent them from having it, attack, try to cause damage with those attacks, y prevent them from doing the same to us.” True to his word, Bielsa once again called upon what has been his first choice eleven nearly all season; Javi Martinez, Ander Herrera, and Fernando Llorente all returned to the starting line-up after having been rested for the loss to Osasuna.

The responsibility then lay with Alex Ferguson to make a decisive tactical shift, and having been overrun in midfield during the first leg, he switched from the 4-4-2 fielded at Old Trafford to a formation that was broadly 4-2-3-1. Javier Hernandez dropped to the bench, so Wayne Rooney was the main striker up top, with Ryan Giggs playing behind him. Ashley Young started down the left, but switched flanks throughout the game. Ji Sung Park and Michael Carrick started as the holding duo at the base of midfield. Finally, Rio Ferdinand came in as the left-sided center back alongside Phil Jones.

From the start, United tried to prevent Athletic from dominating possession, and were fairly successful, as possession for the game ended 50-50. Defensively, they pressed high up the pitch, especially from goal kicks and throw-ins. Cleverley, Rooney, and Young would step high to pressure the back four. Ryan Giggs tracked Itturaspe, who would check into the space in the center, while Park and Carrick then followed Ander and De Marcos in central midfield. Osasuna successfully disrupted Athletic’s play from the back from doing the same at the weekend, but Athletic were able to escape  United’s pressure in three ways. One was bypassing the first line of pressure by having Irazoiz play to the fullbacks, who would bring the ball down and combine quickly with the wings and central midfielders. The second was by having Javi Martinez carry the ball out of defense, and one of his forays forward led to Iker Muniain hitting the post. The third was  playing directly to Fernando Llorente (absent at the weekend), whose strength and height enabled him to hold off either Johnny Evans or Rio Ferdinand while his teammates rushed to support him.  And of course, the first Athletic goal came from Llorente’s exquisite finish from a long ball over the top.

United were also more deliberate in possession.  United tried to keep the ball under Athletic’s pressure and advance as a team. Michael Carrick stayed deep in center midfield to provide a frequent outlet for his teammates, and Rafael and Patrice Evra both advanced on the wings. However, the decision to involve more players in build-up actually made United less of an attacking threat. Due to how Bielsa instructs his players to “unmark” once they win the ball, they can become unbalanced and vulnerable to counterattacks immediately losing possession, and United’s best chances in the first leg came from exploiting the space Athletic left when moving forward. But because, apart from Wayne Rooney’s first minute chance after being played in, United slowed the game down after winning the ball, Athletic were able to regain their marks. In the final third, Athletic’s tight marking led to United’s play being funneled to the wings, and Athletic’s numbers in the box meant that they were seldom troubled by crosses into the box. In addition, the non-stop running associated with Bielsa’s teams meant that pushing Athletic back defensively had no effect on their ability to get numbers forward in attack. Ferguson’s selection must be questioned here, while the decision to play Rooney up front alone was probably made to prevent him from having to track Itturaspe defensively, the lack of pace on the counter hurt United offensively. In addition, Ryan Giggs was probably not the best choice in a highly physical game, while Tom Cleverley was virtually anonymous in an unfamiliar right-sided position.

In the second half, United faded badly, probably due both to their effort expended pressing in the first half and their knowledge that the tie was slipping beyond them. Athletic were rampant, but due to some wasteful finishing, had only Oscar De Marcos’s deflected strike to show for it. Part of Athletic’s inconsistent results this year have been their profligacy in front of goal, and while Fernando Llorente has scored with 23.3% of his attempts this season, Susaeta, Muniain, Toquero, De Marcos, and Ander Herrera have only converted 9.5% of their chances, another reason why Llorente’s first half withdrawal will be so worrying for Athletic fans. If Bielsa’s side want to ensure that their entertaining style of play brings substantive reward at the end of the season, either in the form of Champions League football or a Copa del Rey or Europa League title, they will need to improve their efficiency in front of goal. For now though, the Basques will surely be reveling in their hugely entertaining and immensely deserved defeat of a faltering European giant.

AC Milan vs Arsenal

AC Milan thrashed Arsenal 4-0 in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal at the San Siro. The Italians now look set to advance to the next round while Arsenal will have to hope for a miracle to have any chance of recovering from possibly their worst ever European performance.

The visitors began the game in Arsene Wenger’s trademark 4-3-3 formation. After Per Mertesacker’s injury at the weekend, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny played in the center of defense, while Kieran Gibbs made his return from an extended absence, slotting in at left back. Thomas Rosicky was somewhat surprisingly selected to start on the left wing, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Thierry Henry started on the bench.

Max Allegri sent out Milan in their usual 4-3-1-2 formation, with Kevin Prince-Boateng played behind a front two of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho. Clarence Seedorf started on the left side of midfield, but an early injury meant that he was replaced by Urby Emanuelson in the 12th minute.

From the start, two things were readily apparent, both of which played a major role in how easily Milan were able to defeat Arsenal without ever truly controlling the game (Arsenal had 57 percent of possession and outpassed Milan 473-340). The first was that Arsenal’s defense, especially the centerbacks, struggled mightily to deal with the movement and athleticism of Milan’s attacking trio. In addition, Arsenal had no idea how to attack Milan’s narrow formation, which lead to them having the lion’s share of possession but not registering their first shot on target until they were down three goals.

Due to Milan fielding a front two against a back four, Ibrahimovic and Pato were marked directly by the Arsenal centerbacks. Playing Ibrahimovic primarily on the left and Robinho on the right was a masterstroke by Allegri, because it meant that the less mobile Vermaelen had to track the speedy and agile Robinho and Laurent Koscielny had to mark Ibrahimovic, who outweighs him by 20 kilograms. Milan were able to use Ibrahimovic as an long outlet, and he was extremely successful at bringing the ball down and either turning his marker or laying the ball off to the advancing Milan midfielders.  Koscielny wins almost 70 percent of his aerial duels in the English league, but was helpless in the air against Ibrahimovic. The tandem’s movement was also critical to stretching the Arsenal backline laterally, Ibrahimovic’s movement across the face of the defense distracted Vermaelen and created the space Boateng ran into to volley in off of the crossbar. The second goal came from Ibrahimovic breaking the Arsenal offside trap by exploiting the space behind Sagna on Arsenal’s right, and the third goal came when Vermaelen was unable to change direction quickly and his slip gave Robinho the space to fire in a shot at the near post.

Arsenal were no better offensively, as their collective passing and movement were nowhere near good enough to break down Milan’s defensive structure. While the prematch consensus seemed to be that Arsenal would be able to exploit Milan’s narrow formation, Arsenal couldn’t make headway on either flank. On the left, Rosicky preferred to come inside onto his stronger right foot, narrowing the attack. Theo Walcott stayed wide, but his strength is running into space behind defenders, not taking defenders on 1v1 or working 2v1 situations. Because Milan were able to use Ibrahimovic to bypass the lines so successfully, Walcott usually had to track back defensively to mark Antonini, and Arsenal never won the ball high enough up the pitch to give him a chance to exploit that space. Even when Gibbs and Sagna advanced, they were worried about leaving a 2v2 or 3v3 situation behind them, so they never got forward quickly enough to work a 2v1 against a Milan fullback. By the time they moved up the pitch, Milan would already have their three central midfielders in front of their back four and begin comfortably shifting side to side. Arsenal’s central midfielders had to play against 4 or 5 direct opponents in the center of the park and struggled to find a penetrating pass. Aaron Ramsey was particularly anonymous, and a player like Yossi Benayoun probably would have been more effective in such tight spaces.

In short, Arsenal were terrible on the day, and this article hasn’t even touched on many of the other glaring faults that Milan ruthlessly exposed. Overturning a four goal deficit seems impossible, especially against a team as experienced as Milan. But nothing is impossible, and if nothing else, Arsenal’s performance can only get better.

Valencia vs Barcelona

Valencia stifled Barcelona’s usual possession play, but failed to come away from their Copa del Rey semifinal first leg with an advantage after Carles Puyol’s header canceled out Jonas’s opener.

Valencia began in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Adil Rami came in for the suspended Ricardo Costa at centerback, Miguel came in at leftback, and Pablo Piatti moved to the right wing so that Jordi Alba could play on the left wing, as he did during the league meeting in September. For Barcelona, Dani Alves was left out, so Carles Puyol shifted out to rightback and Javier Mascherano dropped into defense. Xavi Hernandez was rested, so Thiago and Cesc joined Sergi Busquets in midfield. Isaac Cuenca and Alexis Sanchez came in on the wings.

Right from the kickoff, the high pressure from both sides was obvious. Barcelona pushed as high in their usual fashion, often forcing Valencia to play all the way back to Alves, who then had no option but to play long. Valencia only had Soldado pressure the centerbacks, while Jonas dropped onto Busquets. Cutting off the short possession option meant that Valencia’s holding midfielders and centerbacks had more time to react to passes, getting tight to Barcelona’s midfielders (and Messi) and preventing them from turning. Barcelona were more capable of keeping possession than Valencia, but their commitment to passing short and building from the back left them susceptible to losing possession higher up the pitch.

Each time Valencia won the ball in midfield, they immediately looked to attack the space behind the fullbacks on either flank. Three times in the first twenty minutes, Pablo Piatti received the ball in space on the right flank. Twice, he tried cutting back inside on to his stronger left foot when crossing or shooting was the better option, but in the 18th minute he played in Roberto Soldado. Soldado beat Pique to the ball, but was denied by a Pinto handball outside the area which the referee and assistant somehow missed. Valencia’s breakthrough came down the other flank. After a long ball forward from Alves, Puyol followed Alba forward, leaving space for Mathieu to run onto a ball behind him. His cutback found Jonas who calmly finished first time.

Barcelona struggled to move the ball forward, the Valencia defense followed the “ball or man” maxim to a t, either intercepting the ball in front of the attacker or fouling them to prevent the attack from building. Neither winger had much success against their marking fullback either, although Sanchez escaped Miguel on a few occasions, the other Valencia defenders covered well. Cuenca was completely nullified by Mathieu, which led to him drifting inside to pick up possession. While this loss of width made it more difficult for Barcelona to attack, Cuenca’s defense-splitting pass from a central position led to the corner that Puyol headed home at the far post. It was one of only two Barcelona shots on target in the first half, the other being a Messi effort which was blocked harmlessly into Alves’s hands.

Barcelona started the second half extremely well, and their best spell of possession in the game to that point resulted in a Sanchez finish that was just ruled out for offside. Soon though, the game resumed the frenetic pace of the first half, as a Pique slip let Soldado run into acres of space down the left flank before his cross was blocked, and Messi and Piatti exchanged half chances. But tiring legs on both sides meant that the game began to be stretched, and spaces appeared in midfield. In the 55th minute, Messi received the ball in one of these spaces and was able to run at the Valencia backline before finding Thiago in the area. Miguel’s rash challenge conceded a penalty, but Alves was equal to Messi’s attempt, saving smartly to his right.

A few minutes later, Dani Alves came on for Sanchez, and nearly gave Barcelona the lead. His skill of the ball and chemistry with Messi (see here for a prime example) enabled the two to play through pressure. In the 73rd minute, Alves beat one defender on the edge of the area, before playing a 1-2 with Messi that set him through on goal before hitting the wrong side of the far post with his right footed drive. However, his influence on the game waned, and that attempt was Barcelona’s last clear-cut chance.

Unai Emery will be pleased with his side’s performance in this game, but not with the outcome. A score draw is not the best result to take to the Camp Nou, where an even better defense performance will be required. Another concern is whether the high pressure can be repeated. Valencia accumulated a staggering six yellow cards during the game, mostly as a result of tackles players felt they had to make to prevent Barcelona attacks. For Barcelona, they will be confident in their ability to win at home, especially with Xavi returning. It was surprising Guardiola didn’t introduce him in this game, since there is probably no better player in the world at finding space in a congested midfield. Nevertheless, Valencia needing to score to advance should lead to an entralling game in the return leg.

Juventus vs Udinese

Today’s match between first-placed Juventus and third-placed Udinese saw an Alessandro Matri double solidify the Turin club’s position atop the Serie A table.

The home team’s decision to wear their pink strip at home meant that Udinese could wear their traditional black and white. Udinese also lined up in their usual 3-5-1-1 formation. Samir Handanovic was in goal, while Domizzi, Danilo, and Ferronetti were the centrebacks in front of him. Giovanni Pasquale and Dusan Basta played on the left and right wings respectively. Mauricio Isla, Gelson Fernandes, and Pablo Armero formed the trio in the center of midfield and Almen Abdi played behind Serie A leading scorer Antonio di Natale.

Antonio Conte changed Juventus’s shape to match Udinese, fielding a 3-1-4-2 formation. Chellini, Barzagli, and Bonucci started in defense, meaning usual right back Stephan Lichsteiner was pushed forward on the right wing and Marcelo Estagarribia came in on the left. Andrea Pirlo played behind Arturo Vidal and Emmanuele Giaccherini in midfield and  Fabio Quagliarella partnered Alessandro Matri up front.

For most of the first half, Juventus struggled to play through the center (which made sense, Udinese had 3 centerbacks and 3 center midfielders), so most of their dangerous attacks occurred on the counter (especially after corners) and from playing to the wings. Since both teams fielded three at the back, the wingbacks on each side matched up against one another, and the first chance in the game was a result of Basta failing to track Estagarribia, who was put through on goal in the second minute but failed to finish. Estagarribia was much more involved in attack, both due to being a natural attacker (as opposed to Lichsteiner, usually a right back) and how willing Chellini was to advance in support of him. Play down this flank also led to the opening goal, when Estagarribia beat Basta to put in a dangerous cross, Quagliarella got in front of his marker at the near post, and Matri reacted to the rebound before the Udinese defense.

Udinese, on the other hand, were able to play through the center more frequently. When Vidal and Giaccherini moved forward, Andrea Pirlo was left as the only player in the thirty yard gap between attack and midfield. Apart from a great tackle late in the first half, he often struggled covering that gap after Juventus lost possession, which led to Isla and especially Armero finding success running into that space. Udinese were unable to capitalize on these opportunities mostly due to ineffective movement from their front two. Di Natale liked to move toward the right into the space Chellini had vacated moving forward, but this often separated him from the rest of the team. Abdi failed to impose himself on the game as well, leading to his replacement by Antonio Floro Flores at halftime.

In the second half, Juventus moved to a higher defensive line, which had positive and negative consequences. Because there was less space between the lines, Pirlo was able to intercept passes more frequently, which led to a period of sustained pressure from Juventus. However, when Isla intercepted a horizontal pass in midfield, he was able to quickly dribble upfield and create a 3 v 2. Di Natale’s diagonal run toward the right flank finally paid off, creating enough space for Floro Flores to score the equalizer. Udinese created two other chances on the counter, but Di Natale couldn’t finish either.

Then Conte made the decision that swung the balance of the match firmly in Juventus’s favor. Claudio Marchisio replaced Quagliarella and within 90 seconds he created the winning goal. His first time pass found Matri in the box, who was able to create a yard of space to fire across Handanovic. Marchisio’s introduction to midfield also allowed Juventus to outnumber Udinese 4 v 3 in the center. Udinese couldn’t cope with Juve’s possession and ball rotation, so Guidolin gambled and brought on Battochio for Domizzi, going 4-2-2-2. But it backfired, Basta and Pasquale struggled to cover the flanks in defense and provide width in attack, so Udinese’s central midfielders kept getting pulled wide in defense. Juventus were even more comfortable in possession and saw out the match easily.

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