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Champions League technical report 3: Knockout tactics

In the third extract from the new UEFA Champions League technical report, the expert panel explains how teams change their tactical approach from group games to the knockouts.

Julian Draxler converts Wolfsburg's fine second goal against Gent
Julian Draxler converts Wolfsburg's fine second goal against Gent ©Getty Images

"If we're looking for trends, I think it could be a good idea to look at coaching questions as well," UEFA technical observer Peter Rudbæk ventured on the day after the UEFA Champions League final.

"Some things happen during the group stage. Other things happen when you go into the two-legged ties. And the final is something different altogether. I think that specific experience in the Champions League is an important asset for the coach."

The points raised about the use of long passing by goalkeepers dovetail with the question of whether to press high on centre-backs and expend energy by putting pressure on the goalkeeper, in a bid to encourage the opposition to play long and thus disrupt their construction patterns at the back.

Top ten goals of last season
Top ten goals of last season

However, as the competition edged closer to Milan, risk-management principles held sway over panache and adventure.

The technical observer's thoughts on one first-leg match in the knockout rounds read: "They began the match by pressing high in the first 30 minutes and forcing their opponents into a lot of turnovers in their own half, but without being able to turn the regained possession into clear chances – partly because of good defending by their opponents and partly because they were reluctant to commit too many men forward to attack. They focused on keeping a shape and defending well as a unit and were careful not to leave themselves open to counterattacks. The chances they conceded were from corners."

A review of another away team included the observation: "They had stable possession but their midfielders played from behind the ball all night. Because of the lack of numbers supporting attacks, they were very solid in transitions from attack to defence and denied their opponents any counterattacking opportunities."

However, high pressing and early ball-winning were still key weapons in the armoury of the top teams, with Barcelona and Bayern München fully committed to this doctrine, as well as Laurent Blanc's Paris Saint-Germain.

Highlights: Paris v Man. City
Highlights: Paris v Man. City

"Out of possession, PSG press quickly," the technical observers at their games against Manchester City noted. "They had great energy from [Blaise] Matuidi and [Adrien] Rabiot in midfield. But they experienced the odd problem in transition and had to rely on the one-on-one defending abilities of Thiago Silva and David Luiz."

Wolfsburg also reaped dividends during the round of 16 tie against Gent, with Julian Draxler's goal which put them 2-0 ahead in Belgium being a prime example of a success derived from high-ball recovery. Benfica were also effective in aggressive collective pressing in midfield, which allowed them to launch counters based on interceptions and early-ball recoveries.

Highlights: Zenit v Benfica
Highlights: Zenit v Benfica

Zenit, like Gent, were prepared to throw players forward, leaving themselves occasionally vulnerable to quick transitions based on sudden overloads in the wide areas. The question is whether, ultimately, the successful teams are the ones whose game plans prioritise the elimination of risk.

As Diego Simeone said after the final: "Real Madrid were better because they won. The team that wins is always the best."

Mircea Lucescu, the Shakhtar Donetsk coach, expressed a note of caution: "We have to be careful how far we go down the road of wanting to win, without looking too much at the quality of the game."

The above article appears in the new UEFA Champions League technical report for 2015/16: download now