Champions League: Tactical analysis of the Last 16 ties

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TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) analyses the first four Champions League Last 16 ties.

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool | Tuesday 18th February 2020, 20:00 | BT Sport

Atletico Madrid are a team in crisis heading into this clash, and that is  far from ideal when coming up against a rampant Liverpool side.

Diego Simeone’s hosts are in the midst of an injury crisis, and with Joao Felix, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa all expected to be major doubts to make the first leg, goalscoring options are short, and up against such an imperious defence, it is hard to see past Jurgen Klopp’s side.

Although Atletico’s underlying data highlights their wastefulness in front of goal in La Liga, the lack of strikers to select, coupled with having to use Vitolo and Angel Correa centrally, means the Madrid men now lack one of their main attacking threats, with the utilisation of crosses from wide areas to threaten the Liverpool defence.

Kieran Trippier has excelled at right back, but he is also expected to miss out, and Klopp’s side will be expecting to dominate this clash over the two legs.

Atletico’s clashes with Juventus in the group stage indicate how they will set up, and it is indicative of how Simeone approaches these European games, looking to sit deep and defend for long periods, with a structured backline, before looking to counter.

However, with a lack of a focal point up top, and up against the pacey duo of Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez, Atleti will struggle to get out against Klopp’s side. Attacking down the flanks is how Napoli managed to beat Liverpool, so the roles of Koke and Saul Niguez will be crucial, but it is extremely hard to support Atleti in this clash.

The hosts’ defensive numbers are unsurprisingly excellent, with only 15 goals against at an Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 18.03, so Liverpool will have their work cut out trying to break down this rigid outfit. There will be little space in behind for the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to exploit, so the roles of Jordan Henderson and Georginho Wijnaldum from deep to create, as well as provide the late runs into the box, will be key to opening up opportunities.

An intriguing clash, especially from a tactical point of view with one of the best defensive managers in the world coming up against Liverpool’s fast, flowing attacking football, it will make for fascinating viewing.

I’d be expecting a particularly tight first leg, with Atletico looking to stifle Liverpool and avoid conceding an away goal, so opposing goals would be advisable. However, over the two legs, and given Atletico’s worries going forward and further injuries at the back, I believe Klopp’s side will have too much for the Spanish giants.

Borussia Dortmund v PSG | Tuesday 18th February 2020, 20:00 | BT Sport

Next up is PSG against Dortmund, and it starting to look like it could finally be PSG’s year to make progress in the Champions League.

Despite Neymar’s injury struggles, Thomas Tuchel has found a way to get the best out of his side, and their displays against Real Madrid in the groups, particularly at home, show a side maturing and adapting tactically.

Not looking to rely upon the attacking talents of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani this season, which would often leave PSG exposed at the back, Tuchel has been willing to sacrifice some of the attacking threat in exchange for defensive resilience, and the addition of Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera to the midfield has been crucial.

There will therefore be a willingness, and a better ability, to soak up pressure against a Dortmund side who themselves look to play open, expansive football, and this can at times be their own downfall, as seen in domestic games against RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen this season.

Fantastic going forward, with Jadon Sancho starring this season, BVB are often left open at the back, and the pace of Mbappe is going to be a particular worry for Lucien Favre’s side.

In addition to this, the threat of Angel Di Maria cannot be overlooked, and he will be given more of a free role further forward than in previous years, with more defensive solidity in behind the Argentine allowing him to thrive, particularly in Neymar’s absence. Mbappe will look to target Mats Hummels, and Dortmund do look to play a high line, meaning they could be left exposed against PSG’s excellent counter.

PSG’s mix of experience and youth at the back is working well, and although they did struggle away at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, the context of the game where a point was enough for Tuchel’s side is important, and the German manager is showing a fantastic ability to adapt on a game-by-game basis.

Key to PSG’s hopes is their ability to learn from past mistakes over the previous seasons, and as aforementioned, they look like a maturing side, who are ready to kick on. Marco Verratti, Gueye and Herrera represent a much more solid spine than in recent years, and they are tactically suited to frustrating the German side.

Although the clamber will be to back goals in this game, I’d be approaching it with a bit more caution, as I believe that PSG will look to sit in the first game, looking to utilise the counter against Dortmund, and this could lead to a tighter game than first expected.

Dortmund’s 0-0 with Barcelona in the groups took this mould, and the Germans will be wary of not conceding away goals in this clash, and with the threat PSG pose on the break, could see them stepping off a little more than normal.

Over the two legs, PSG are the standout option, and I would expect them to have enough to see off the Bundesliga boys.

Tottenham v RB Leipzig | Wednesday 19th February 2020, 20:00 | BT Sport

Arguably the toughest tie of the first week’s fixtures to unpick, it should be another exciting encounter, with Jose Mourinho tasked with stopping the free-scoring German side, who have undergone a small domestic wobble in 2020.

Julian Nagelsmann has had to adapt to losing holding midfielder Diego Demme to Napoli, and in a draw against Borussia Monchengladbach, the struggles to replace him were apparent.

However, a switch to three at the back against Bayern Munich in their 0-0 draw showed a much more structured approach from Leipzig, and it was Marcel Sabitzer who impressed alongside Konrad Laimer in the centre of the park, and helped keep the Bavarian giants quiet.

RB were unlucky not to win in Munich, with an uncharacteristically wasteful Timo Werner spurning two golden opportunities, and after a slight wobble around the winter break, it looks like Nagelsmann has found a more balanced system, particularly against top opposition.

With the likes of Christopher Nkunku and Tyler Adams on the break to cause problems, Tottenham will have to be wary of the German sides counter threat, whilst they may have their work cut out up against the impressive Dayot Upamecano at the back.

With the Leipzig backline comfortable on the ball, as well covered to stop the Tottenham counter, despite Spurs improvements in recent weeks, I will be fancying the German side to continue their impressive European form in this clash.

Harry Kane’s absence still worries me, and despite some improvements and a more structured approach from Spurs in recent weeks, I can see Lucas Moura becoming isolated up front, particularly if up against Upamecano. Giovani Lo Celso is impressing, and he will be expected to pull the strings, whilst both he and Harry Winks did impress defensively against Manchester City last weekend.

However, the underlying statistics and dominance from Manchester City cannot be overlooked, and Tottenham still have a number of defensive vulnerabilities, particularly down the right side, where Serge Aurier’s defensive ability, coupled with the lack of support available in front of the Ivorian, means Leipzig will have plenty of joy.

Southampton showed how Spurs can be opened up on the counter-attack, and Leipzig’s threat in these situations has been apparent throughout the season, and I can’t see past the German side for this clash, even with Mourinho looking to work his tactical magic once again.

Atalanta v Valencia | Wednesday 19th February 2020, 20:00 | BT Sport

Atalanta’s all-out, attacking approach has been apparent once again this season, but how they adapt to a two-legged tie will be particularly interesting. It could see a more cautious approach from the Italians, especially with away goals becoming a factor, and they come up against a Valencia side who cannot be underestimated after progressing from a particularly tough group.

Knocking out last season’s semi-finalists Ajax, as well as picking up four points against Chelsea, highlight the threat the Spanish side pose, and a number of these results came in amongst an injury crisis, making it all the more impressive.

A domestic win over Barcelona a few weeks ago further reinforces Valencia’s ability to upset the big guns, and this should be an enthralling encounter between two underdogs in European football.

Whilst showing in the home game against Chelsea that they are more than capable of playing on the front foot, Los Che’s win at Stamford Bridge, as well as against Barcelona, showed the threat Albert Celades’ side can pose on the counter.

Coupled with a strong ability to sit and frustrate, with defensive solidity coming from Gabriel Paulista in the defence and the impressive Geoffrey Kondogbia holding in front, Valencia have variety to their game and are well capable of frustrating.

Up against an open attacking unit in Atalanta, it makes for an intriguing tactical battle, and Valencia will be keen to utilise their counter-attacking talents to pick up goals in the away leg in Italy.

Dani Parejo will pull the strings in midfield, and stopping him will be crucial for Atalanta, and the mis-match in formations should lead to there being plenty of space available for both sides to exploit and reinforce that we could see an open affair.

The attacking prowess of Atalanta can’t be overlooked, netting an astounding 61 goals in Serie A this season, with the underlying data to back up these numbers. The Bergamo boys have such an array of attacking options to utilise, it becomes hard to unpick who will start, and quite how Valencia will stop the threat.

Unlike the other three games, I expect this one to rack up the goals, and could be one to keep an eye on with cards if the referee selected isn’t particularly lenient.

I fancy Atalanta to qualify from this clash, although it is incredibly close to call. But La Dea’s all-round attacking approach should have enough to defeat the Spanish side, albeit in what should be a high-scoring affair.

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