The UEFA Technical Observers' review of the 2021/22 UEFA Champions League season focuses on the rise of the five-man back line, and the fluid five-strong attack they are designed to counter.
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"Often we speak about tactical systems and very often we forget that a defensive system with a very different behaviour has a completely different effect."
This quote by Roberto Martínez, the Belgium national coach and UEFA match observer, features in an analysis of three and five-man defences in last season's UEFA Champions League found in the newly published Technical Report of the 2021/22 competition.
Martínez's words are pertinent for highlighting how a formation can mean many things, depending on how it is applied. While the most common formations in 2021/22 were 1-4-3-3, 1-4-2-3-1 and 1-4-4-2, 17 of the teams involved from the group stage onwards started at least one match with a back three or five – and coaches took varying approaches.
Of the teams who played a back three/five regularly, Atlético de Madrid come under the spotlight in the technical report for their approach in their quarter-final against Manchester City when, as the report notes, "their 1-5-3-2 formation became a 1-5-5-0 at times". With it they limited City to two shots on goal in that 1-0 first-leg loss.
In the second half of the return fixture, Atlético actually had 13 shots. They had managed just one in the first half but suddenly, in Martínez's words, "were a different team", drawing further debate: one observer described the preceding 135 minutes as "a damage-limitation exercise" while another saw the logic in coach Diego Simeone's approach as to sustain the intensity of their late push any longer against City might have been "impossible".
As the report highlights, Simeone's men had showed against Manchester United in the previous round the attacking potential of their system when, to quote the report, "both full-backs played almost as strikers in the build-up" at times.
Centre-backs stepping up
The role of centre-backs within the back five is another talking point with Benfica catching the observers' eye for the way they would push one of their centre-backs up the pitch in their group-stage matches under then coach Jorge Jesus. To quote the report: "One of the three centre-backs would leave the defensive line to challenge an opposition midfielder in an attempt to disrupt the opponents' build-up. With this their system became a 1-4-3-3 and it was a ploy that Jan Vertonghen, in particular, carried out effectively."
In the case of Chelsea, who set up with a 1-3-4-2-1 structure, they drew attention, meanwhile, for the way one of their outside centre-backs – César Azpilicueta or Antonio Rüdiger – would step forward to support attacks. Against opponents in a low block there was space for a player like Rudiger to use in front of him and the German, now at Real Madrid, ended the campaign ranked third in the competition for passes into the final third with 109.
Five up front
It is not just back fives under the microscope in the report but front fives too. UEFA's observers offer the example of Julian Nagelsmann's Bayern München, last term's 31-goal top scorers who set up in a 1-3-2-5 attacking shape – or in 'Five Lanes'. The report explains: "They had five attacking players at work in the final third – two wingers, two attackers between the lines, and Robert Lewandowski at the tip – and as their goals' total shows, this approach gave them the option to play through or around their opponents."
The flexibility of teams today mean that others ended up in a similar shape too, notably English champions Manchester City whose 1-4-3-3 starting formation morphed into a 1-2-3-5 in possession involving, as the report says, "a line of two centre-backs followed by the single pivot Rodri and full-backs alongside him, playing inside in the half-spaces. Further upfield, their talented attacking players thrive within this framework with City making more passes in the final third (1,955) and attempting more through-balls (28) than any team."
City had the benefit of Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva working productively between the lines when the ball was switched to their side, and the report seeks to explain the impact of these No8s, who "when the ball was switched to their side, would quickly seek an overload with the wide attacker on the touchline or look to make runs behind the defence in the area between the full-back and central defender. Alternately if either No8 dropped, this had the effect of dragging an opposition centre-half out to create space for a winger to run into."
A final point regarding front fives is the balancing act required to ensure the defence behind is not exposed. On Bayern, the club's former defender Willy Sagnol is quoted as citing their vulnerability to counterattacks, evidenced in their quarter-final loss to Villarreal. "If they lose the ball on the right or left side they have problems in defensive transition," he said.
Meanwhile Roberto Martínez noted one possible solution in the use of inverted full-backs, as deployed by Pep Guardiola's City. "Sometimes we think the inverted full-back is to give the extra line of pass but it is not," he is quoted as saying. "It's to be ready if you lose the ball as you can defend the ball quicker in a central area and stop the opposition."