Ryan Tank provides a tactical analysis about the Europa League match that ended Nice 1-3 Lazio
Nice possession and progression approach
Both sides had a similar basic shape of 3-5-2/5-3-2. Both sides implemented a patient circulation within the 1st phase of build up. From the defensive third, both Nice and Lazio tried to access the higher area using both half backs from both half spaces. Another similar principle was that both sides played with one defensive midfielder. Despite some similarities, there were a couple of differences in the set up by each coach. The picture above indicates that there were different moves. But, in practice, it was more dynamic than the information contained in the graphic.
In the first line, Nice used three at back to progress the ball to the third line. The first line in the build up was Marlon and Marchand on both half spaces flanking Dante as center half. Both half backs (HB) were tasked with the same role and duty.
Mendy, at 6, was used to help the first line to secure the circulation. Mendy stayed close to the first line in a deeper area and moved up to adjust his positioning according to the progression to the 3rd line. He moved across the six to offer the safest option had the progression access been blocked or the closest ball carrier to him was in a disadvantageous position because of the opponent’s press. Mendy’s ball oriented positioning meant the 6 was always able to offer an option for Nice to switch between half spaces; to deceive the press; or to invite the opponent to step out. And like the most modern 6’s, Mendy had to also balance the onward movement of either of Nice’s half backs by covering the vacated space at back.
One of the fundamental principles in Nice’s progression from the first line to the next lines was that they tried to stay close in a narrow structure as they looked to establish strong connections between players around the ball to support the patient possession.
Sneijder was arguably the most important player in Nice’s offensive play. His technical capability + Nice’s attacking set up enabled him to take part and create play around Nice’s 8 and 10 space. There were two important principles in Nice’s ball progression. The first one was the left half space focus. In this principle, Wesley Sneijder was often found to occupy the half space around the attacking third or middle third. His positioning was balanced by Walter who often doubled up the half space with the Dutchman. Where Walter would position himself was depending on where and how Sneijder would be moving. Sometimes Walter moved wider toward the flank and at other times, as Sneijder moved wider, Walter balanced it by occupying the more central space. In this left side attack, Nice would try to access Sneijder in the first place.
Above was the situation prior to the opener by Balotelli. Walter and Sneijder swapped positions and managed to manipulate Lazio’s midfielders and also enabled Walter to receive a pass. The next deception was executed by Walter and Jallet followed by moving into the box. The latter played a backward pass to Sneijder who occupied the left half space just outside of the box. A one touch cross by the Dutchman was met by the head of Balotelli and resulted in the first goal.
The second principle was the ball carrier from the first line played the ball to the space behind Lazio’s midfield line. Again, Sneijder was crucial in this principle. The space targeted by Nice’s first line was the space which was often occupied by Balotelli or Sneijder. If Balotelli was the one to receive the pass, he often played a side pass either to the flank or to the center or backward to the nearest defender. A different advantage would be generated by Nice had Sneijder been the one receiving the pass. With Sneijder’s creation ability, he was able to identify more dangerous options in the higher spaces, meaning that Sneijder could generate more progression play than Balotelli.
All of this general set up had established a 3-1-5-1/3-1-4-1-1 formation in Nice’s possession phase.
Lazio’s build up and possession purpose
One of the most different aspects in Lazio’s possession compared to Nice’s was that despite both sides progressing patiently from the back line, Lazio were more direct in their final third penetration. Lazio also switched the ball between both flanks more often than Nice. With such an approach, Simone Inzaghi’s players tried to create big distances for the opponent to cover and forced them to keep shifting horizontally.
From the early stage of the match, Lazio had indicated that they would emphasise the progression through the left side of the field. Bastos, the right half back, even often received the ball in the half space, in the 1st line, then dribbled it diagonally forward toward the center before hitting it to the left half space or flank.
As mentioned in the early part of this piece, Lazio used the half back to progress the ball from the defensive third. One simple method they used to make it easier for the half back to progress was, the midfield three kept their distance from the first line. This approach was different from the one applied by the home side, where Mendy always kept his position close to the first line of possession. With Gennaro and both 8’s intentionally moving away from the first line, Nice’s 2nd line of press was dragged away and deeper toward Nice’s defense which in turn created more space for Lazio’s back three to circulate at will.
Lazio’s 8 positioned quite wide compared to the opponent’s 8 players. The purpose behind this positional play was to drag Nice’s 8 wide as well as open a clean passing lane for the ball carrier to access the vertical depth in the tip of the overload.
Radu and the center half stayed at the deepest line of the overload. Two wide players on the flank corridor tried to stretch Nice’s horizontal compactness with Savic on the tip of the overload. From Radu, the deep pass could be played to two different targets. The first one, to the player in the half space (Savic) and the second one, to the widest man in the ball side flank (advanced winger). The diagonal-onward dot lines on Savic indicate the next route he might have flicked on to after receiving the deep pass from Radu.
If you remember the way Caicedo equalized, a similar pattern could be identified. A deep pass to the left flank was flicked on by Lulic directly to Caicedo. Miscommunication between Dante and Cardinale allowed Caicedo to grab the ball and slot home the equalizer.
The other progression pattern was playing the ball to the wing back on the flank and let the wing back make an early cross (a long float diagonal pass) to the center 9. Had the pass not reached its initial purpose, Lazio had prepared for such situations with counterpressing.
The positional structure shown in the graphic above indicated different purpose of possession between Lazio and Nice. Three Lazio players stayed on the far side should the ball be switched from the ball side area. Lazio’s 2nd goal started by Luis Alberto who played the ball diagonally right from the left half space, in the middle third, to the right touchline in the final third.
Nani to a certain extent got into a similar position-role to Sneijder’s one. The Portuguese International was deeper than Caicedo and in the pressing phase, he picked up Mendy when Caicedo stepped forward to press the center half. The ex-Manchester United man was tasked to move across the 10 space to help overload the half space in accordance with Lazio’s positional play. The biggest difference between Nani and Sneijder is Nani is not a “play maker” as Sneijder was.
Pressing set up to contain the opponent’s possession
Nice slightly focused their positional play on the left half space so it was crucial for Lazio’s right sector to be able to eliminate the progression number available for the ball carrier. One of the most essential pressing actions was the timing and speed of movement from the right central midfielder to press Nice’s ball carrying half back supported by the cover behind the said central midfielder during the opponent’s left side attack.
Every time Nice’s half back approached the middle third, Lazio’s ball side 8 (Murgia, in the picture above) would have to move up to put an angled press to not only reduce the clean progression lane for Nice’s half back but also block the potential option behind the ball side 8’s cover shadow. The other crucial aspect was the cover from the other players to the area behind the pressing 8.
From the graphic above, the next passing option for the ball carrier was the options around the near half space and center, which was the space of Sneijder and Walker. Nice’s players occupying the center would be taken by Gennaro (Lazio’s 6) and whoever stayed in the half space would be occupied by Lazio’s near half back (Bastos). Lazio were impressive at implementing such a pressing play.
Sometimes, when Nice’s ball carrier managed to access the target on the half space, the next passing route to the onrushing wing back also can be indentified and Lazio’s wing back was able to constantly contain such an obvious option. And when it was contained, the Lazio players would have enough time to recover their defensive shape.
A similar assignment can also be identified in Nice’s press. Balotelli picked up the center half while Sneijder stayed with Gennaro. Both Nice’s 8 responsible to press Lazio’s half backs. When they were able to, Lazio would progress through both of their wing backs. But, when the option was unavailable, there would be a deep pass to the left half space in the final third to Savic or to the center to Caicedo. If Savic managed to receive the pass, as mentioned earlier, he would try to find quick access to Caicedo or, as the alternative, Savic moved toward the flank swapped position with the wing back and allowed the wing back to bring it into the center.
Not only in the high press, some similar principles could also be found in middle-block and low-block where both clubs applied a 5-1-2-1-1/5-4-1
No system’s perfect. Lazio impressive press but not without flaws. One of the methods used by Nice to create space inside of Lazio’s block was circulating the ball between both half spaces and waiting patiently until the Lazio midfield lost its intensity and spacing. Here is one of the scenes.
Nice exploited Lazio press
At 29:56 when the ball is on Nice’s right half space, Lazio’s far 8 (Murgia) was dragged to the center as he needed to cover the shifting to the left side by Gennaro and Savic . And along with the switch from Marlon (right half back) to Dante (center half), Murgia made a slight onward (in the center corridor) press to contain Walter should the ball played into Nice’s midfield. As a result, the cover to the right half space was reduced. Thus when Marchand (left half back) received the ball, it was left to one of Lazio’s 8 to put pressure on Marchand. In turn, this then enabled Sneijder to have a huge spatio-temporal advantage as he received the pass from Marchand. With such a huge advantage, Sneijder then easily deceived Muriga followed by a pass (by Sneijder) to the free Walker who occupied the space behind Murgia.
Lazio’s other pressing weakness was identified by the Dante-Sneijder connection. The Brazilian showed some promising attacking connections with Sneijder as the Brazilian often managed to find Sneijder in the pocket space behind Lazio’s midfield. Nice failed to generate next promising move(s) because of Sneijder’s gesture and positioning after receiving weakened his connection to the higher area.
For Nice, the problem was different. In some cases, they managed to trap Lazio’s possession near to the touchline in Lazio’s defensive third. This meant Nice was able to isolate Lazio’s possession to one side thus forced the ball carrier to play a premature long ball forward. The problem was, when the press isolated the opponent to one side, the cover player (from the midfielder line) positioned himself too high up the pitch too near to Lazio’s far side first line players (in the half space) instead of occupying the more central area. The effect was obvious, it allowed too much vertical space and totally weakened Nice’s counterpress. Lazio recovered and re-circulated possession easily.
On top of all, the compactness was weak. The hosts allowed too much horizontal spaces and weak cover from deeper players meant there was also a vertical compactness issue.
The goal in the 2nd half
Lazio managed to add two goals by Savic. Particularly the second goal was triggered by a planned dis-marking pattern by Lazio players. The pattern took place in the wide area. This would take minimum 3 players to be directly involved in. The principle was simple, playing an aggressive diagonal pass through the horizontal space between two defenders.
Here is the mechanism: if there was a player with the ball on the flank, a player from the half space had to deceive his marker by dragging the marker wide to the touchline. And when the lane opened, the ball carrying player had to make an aggressive flat diagonal pass to the center. If possible, the depth target could execute it at his will. But, if not possible then another player had to support by providing the best passing option.
When Radu advanced with the ball on the touchline, Immobile dropped slightly to the half space. This dragged Marlon slightly out of his post in the back line while on the right flank of Nice’s defence, Burner was tied up to Lulic which in turn weakened the cover to the horizontal space between Marlon and Burner. Radu capitalized quickly and played an aggressive diagonal ground pass to Caicedo. As Caicedo was not in an ideal position to execute it by himself, the forward then made a cutback cross to Savic: Nice 1-2 Lazio.
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