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Tactical talking points

As West Ham's clinical counterattacking meets Fiorentina's possession-based approach, UEFA's technical observers explore the strategies that helped the finalists stamp their tickets to Prague.

Saïd Benrahma enjoys scoring for West Ham against AZ
Saïd Benrahma enjoys scoring for West Ham against AZ Getty Images

This article also appears in the official UEFA Women's Champions League final programme. Get your copy here!

UEFA produces technical reports for each of its club and international competitions. These reports are based on the observations of top-level coaches at the games and insights from a team of performance analysts. They highlight the key tactical trends and innovations from each season as well as providing a comprehensive statistical record, and they are available for free on uefatechnicalreports.com soon after the end of the campaign. Here, the technical observers run the rule over Fiorentina and West Ham's semi-final triumphs.

Counter arguments

Highlights: West Ham 2-1 AZ Alkmaar

West Ham's chief attacking threat comes during transitions; they break with terrific speed and power. The east London side are happy defending deep and conceding possession in the knowledge that when they do win the ball, they can quickly launch an attack. It makes David Moyes' team as dangerous out of possession as they are in it. As soon as AZ were dispossessed, the Hammers sought to find Michail Antonio through the middle or used a diagonal pass for the pacy Jarrod Bowen. On the other flank, Saïd Benrahma carried another threat thanks to his dribbling acumen and subtle combination play with Lucas Paquetá.

Ultimately, both of the Premier League outfit's goals in their first-leg comeback victory stemmed from set pieces – another potent weapon in the armoury that exploits their physical advantage. Antonio's winner came when he pounced on the loose ball following a corner, a clinical finish that sums up West Ham's attacking approach. "I always want to be in and around and wait for something to drop," said the forward. "And this one dropped perfectly."

Highlights: AZ Alkmaar 0-1 West Ham

Of course, the Hammers' attacking threat would mean nothing without strong defensive footings, foundations that had to soak up a lot across the tie. In the second leg, hosts AZ enjoyed two-thirds of the possession as the visitors approached the game with the singular aim of not conceding: a no-risk strategy in which the main out-ball was a long, targeted pass from the defence to the final third.

West Ham's 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-4-2 when they are defending as they condense the space and force opponents out wide in the knowledge that the same physical attributes which make them deadly at set pieces are also handy at the back. "West Ham are a team of good defenders who know how to snuff out a chance," rued AZ coach Pascal Jansen in Alkmaar. And, of course, the English hopefuls know how to take their chances as well: after they withstood everything the hosts could throw at them, substitute Pablo Fornals broke with pace and delivered the sucker punch deep into added time.

Fluid Fiorentina

Highlights: Fiorentina 1-2 Basel

Fiorentina were the better team in their first leg against Basel, even if they did lose. They had more possession and led all the main metrics, but that final pass was lacking. The Viola had problems overcoming the visitors' defensive tactics as the Swiss side sat deep and looked to counter. The hosts' own strength in transitions was largely nullified. "It was a hard-fought game," admitted defender Luca Ranieri. "We dominated the first half. Then we conceded a bad counterattack and the 2-1 goal came from a set piece."

It left the Italian outfit with an uphill battle in the second instalment, and they were on the front foot from the off, pressing high and controlling the game. Fiorentina had learned the hard way of the threat Basel carry with their speed and directness, so the bold approach was not without risks. They managed them well, though Fiorentina still struggled to break down Basel's low, resilient block. Despite using the flanks effectively, with left-footed wingers Nicolás González and Jonathan Ikoné combining nicely with the full-backs and delivering plenty of quality crosses into the box, the visitors could not convert. Instead, the goal that levelled the tie came from a corner, González nodding in left-back Cristiano Biraghi's delivery.

Semi-final highlights: Basel 1-3 Fiorentina

Basel edged back in front from a set piece of their own, much to the annoyance of Fiorentina boss Vincenzo Italiano: "We knew that they're dangerous from set plays and they punished us twice [in the tie] from those situations." His players at least responded by resuming control, and although initially frustrated by a familiar failing of missed opportunities, they eventually triumphed 3-2 on aggregate in extra time thanks to two goals that stemmed from crosses.

The first was lashed in by González after a delivery by right-back Dodô, further underlining the importance of the full-backs for Fiorentina as the starting 4-3-3 becomes a fluid 3-4-3 in attack, with the wide defenders advancing and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat dropping back. The late winner highlighted another key facet of their play – impact off the bench – as substitutes Luka Jović and Antonín Barák combined to set up a mouth-watering clash of styles in the final.

Get the official final programme

Get the lowdown on finalists West Ham and Fiorentina and look back at another memorable campaign with official 2023 Europa Conference League final programme. Soak up the tactical analysis, find out all you need to know about Prague and Eden Arena, pore over the season’s European football map and enjoy final ambassador Vladimír Šmicer reliving his glory days. Get your copy here!

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