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Tactical insight: Five themes from the UEFA Futsal Champions League finals

The ramifications of a goalkeeper who can play as a fifth attacker, set plays and the benefits of 3-1 and 4-0 formations are among the topics that engaged the UEFA Technical Observer.

Palma goalkeeper Luan Muller caught the eye at the UEFA Futsal Champions League finals
Palma goalkeeper Luan Muller caught the eye at the UEFA Futsal Champions League finals UEFA via Getty Images

It was an audacious run that simply did not stop. Striding past one illustrious opponent after another, ambition growing with every stride into uncharted territory, suddenly the target became more visible, until – despite a late stumble – the improbable and glorious goal was achieved.

With his dazzling foray into the Sporting CP penalty area in the final, Palma goalkeeper Luan Muller did just that, leaving four opponents trailing in his wake at the Velòdrom Illes Balears and ultimately setting up Mario Rivillos's neat finish as the hosts took the lead in the UEFA Futsal Champions League final.

Luan Muller's starring role for Palma in Futsal Champions League final

Muller then saved from Sporting's Pany Varela in the decisive penalty shoot-out as finals debutants Palma took the crown, to the delight of the home fans in the 6,600-capacity arena. Not since Ekaterinburg in 2008 has a team's first major piece of silverware been the biggest prize in European club futsal.

Antonio Vadillo's team gate-crashed the final four after edging out former winners Kairat Almaty and eventual semi-finalists (and fellow finals debutants) Sporting Anderlecht in the main qualification round. Lisbon giants Benfica were their next victims, ousted 4-3 in a breathless semi-final.

The last giant stride towards glory came in the shoot-out against serial finalists Sporting CP after Zicky Té had obstructed the most direct path to the victory podium by cancelling out Rivillos's opener to force extra time.

2023 Futsal Champions League final highlights: Palma 1-1 Sporting CP (aet, 5-3 pens)

The outstanding Muller was named player of the tournament by UEFA Technical Observer, Miguel Rodrigo, for his "galactic level of performance" in both of his finals matches.

"It was like it was written in a script," said Vadillo, who averted his gaze as the penalty drama played out and later heaped praise on his Sporting counterpart. "Nuno Dias is the best coach in the world at preparing for matches, but we were perfect. The plan was to neutralise Sporting's strong points. We had to dig in in the dying minutes as they pushed us back."

Playing in his seventh final after becoming the first player to reach 75 UEFA futsal club appearances, Sporting captain João Matos admitted his side had "struggled with Palma's intensity and will in the first half", though they improved after the break.

Rodrigo noticed that fervour too, saying: "Palma were very fast on the counterattack, especially with Muller as fifth attacker. But they also used a high block out of possession and managed to keep up this high intensity throughout – 90% of the time they used player-to-player marking with a perfect cover structure."

Futsal Champions League semi-final highlights: Sporting CP 7-1 Anderlecht

Benfica, who also utilised a high block with aggressive pressing, claimed third place with a 4-3 victory over Anderlecht, who were led by livewire 37-year-old captain Gabriel Gréllo. Sporting CP reached the final by blowing away Anderlecht in a brutal display of finishing, their 7-1 win founded on a blizzard of six goals in the first 12 minutes.

The final was low-scoring, but there were 24 goals in the course of a final tournament defined by bold attacking strategies, particularly the use of powerful pivots in 3-1 formations (see clip below) and the versatility of goalkeepers in possession, most notably in the final where Brazilian-born Armenian international Muller was up against Sporting CP's Brazil international Guitta (see clip below).

Unsurprisingly, Palma players dominated the team of the tournament. Sporting's Portuguese World Cup and double-EURO-winner Erick made the XI alongside Muller and his Palma team-mates Rivillos, Cainan De Matos and former Benfica star Hossein Tayebi.

Technical themes

The Technical Observer panel noted five key themes:

The goalkeeper as fifth attacker

"This action, running with the ball 'coast to coast' as they say in basketball, is worthy of a tournament MVP," declared Rodrigo of the move where Muller emerges from goal on the right to create a numerical advantage – a common feature of his play throughout.

With the passing line to his left cut off, the Palma No3 advances higher before dancing past the pressing duo of Diego Cavinato and Pany Varela and setting up Rivillos for the final's first goal.

Muller was not alone. Guitta, his opposite number in the final, displayed similar bravery in possession in both of Sporting's games. Meanwhile, Anderlecht's Diego Roncaglio and Benfica's Leo Gugiel both got on the scoresheet and also excelled in build-up to complete a full set of Brazilian-born first-choice goalkeepers on show.

Futsal Champions League tactical analysis: Goalkeeper as fifth attacker

Defending against fifth attacker

This clip shows one of the tournament trends as to what to do when confronted by a goalkeeper advancing with the ball.

As soon as Benfica beat the high press to find keeper Gugiel (22) on the right, Palma's players switch to a 1-3 formation. Iranian winger Moslem Oladghobad cuts off the passing line across court while Palma's back three mark their opponents, forcing Gugiel into a risky shot that invites a counterattack. "This was a strategic decision by the coach," noted Rodrigo. "It worked well during the first half in the semi-final, then the Benfica coach found a solution in the second half when Gugiel scored."

Futsal Champions League tactical analysis: Defending against the fifth attacker

Attacking set plays

Seven of the 24 finals goals came from attacking set plays: three corners, three kick-ins and the free-kick in this clip where Anderlecht's Croatia captain Franko Jelovčić (20) feints to shoot before flicking a disguised pass with the outside of his left foot to Gabriel Gréllo. Meanwhile, watch Dragan Tomić (7) drift across Gugiel, distracting the goalkeeper enough for Gréllo's shot over Arthur's low-diving block to bypass the goalkeeper's grasp.

It's worth noting that this free-kick came after a kick-in – choreographed during a timeout by coach Luca Cragnaz – had invited a foul from Bruno Coelho. Rodrigo said this goal was an example of "high quality by both the taker of the set play, with good timing, and the one-touch shot with power and precision".

Futsal Champions League tactical analysis: Attacking set-plays

Attacking in 3-1 formation

This clip from a crucial moment in the final highlights the tournament's most dominant formation. Sporting No10 Pauleta receives the ball from Guitta, passes across to Pany, who hits the ball forward first-time to beat the Palma high press. Anton Sokolov (13) collects the ball with Marlon in close contact and spins to his right to score what could have been a defining goal. It was ruled out after a VS check adjudged the Russian pivot to have pulled the shirt of Palma's Brazilian fixo.

"The 3-1 system was generally used with a clear intention to finish, to gain width and depth in attack," noted Rodrigo. "It was the system used the longest by the four teams, who all had dominant pivots." It was also more effective: four goals were scored by teams in 3-1 formation, whereas only one goal resulted from a positional attack in a 4-0 set-up.

Futsal Champions League tactical analysis: Attacking in 3-1 formation

A 4-0 formation for control

This passage of Palma play in this clip from the final illustrates the most potent use of the 4-0 formation by the team that used it best. With the versatile 34-year-old Chaguinha instrumental, Palma seize control of the game in a concerted bout of possession, passing, moving, rotating and probing for space while testing Sporting's player-to-player marking system. The move features nine passes in total, ending with a dangerous shot towards the second post.

It is also clever game management at 1-0 up, with just three minutes to go until half-time. Palma coach Vadillo drew praise from Rodrigo for the "intelligent" way he switched between the 3-1 attack and 4-0 "when his team was ahead and wanted a long build-up, with long ball possession to calm the game down".

Futsal Champions League tactical analysis: 4-0 formation for control