In our latest analysis series: Game of Numbers, we break down the various tactical undertones of the modern game, most notably the roles that individual players hold on the pitch to help their teams explore avenues for greatness. Positions are often broken down into ‘numbers’ to describe the areas of the field that a player may operate. This series aims to illustrate the ever-changing, fluid nature of those roles, and the ways in which various footballing teams may use the same players in the same roles to completely different effect. This is Issue No. 1, featuring the following:
- Lucas Paquetá & The ‘Bernardo Silva Role’ vs. AC Ajaccio
- Joachim Andersen’s ‘Quarterback’ Role vs. Arsenal
- Musiala’s Masterclass vs. Eintracht Frankfurt
Let’s jump into Game of Numbers Issue No. 1.
LUCAS paquetÁ & the bernardo silva roleEmbed from Getty Images
Lyon kicked off the 2022-23 Ligue 1 season fashionably, with a narrow 2-1 win over promoted side AC Ajaccio. Highlights of the match included Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso returning to the club that kickstarted their careers, and 19-year-old Johann Lepenant making his Ligue 1 debut after impressing last season for Ligue 2 side SC Caen. But the man who stole the show from a tactical perspective was Lucas Paquetá, the Brazilian midfielder who attracted attention from Arsenal among many other top European sides this summer.Embed from Getty Images
For his silky smooth ability on the ball, Paquetá would be best classified as a ‘Midfield Maestro’; who can also feature as a ‘Creative Ten’ in either a central or wide role. Against Ajaccio, Paquetá operated in a deeper role alongside Lepenant, in what can only be described these days as the ‘Bernardo Silva Role’. This is where a smooth operator drops deep in build-up phases to receive and drive the team forward, even when the team already have an exceptional ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker’ to break through the thirds. This gives the team the advantage of freeing up spaces in central channels and half-spaces to play through the thirds, especially when the opposition diligently track the traditional ‘number 6’ that often is that ‘DLP’ (e.g. Rodri or Lepenant).
As you can see from the image above, Johann Lepenant finds himself sandwiched in between Ajaccio’s front two high-block. Paquetá says ‘no problem!’ and responds by roaming in front of the press to receive from the centre-backs.
In this part of the field, the Brazilian can then use his cruise control to break lines on the dribble, or his imagination to clip balls over the top for runners to chase. In turn, this then creates a secondary consequence of having that second midfielder in a deeper role in case possession changes hands. While we would all consider Kevin de Bruyne or Houssem Aouar to be more defensively-minded and defensively-sound, with greater mobility and an innate ability to get back and defend in transition, it ends up being Silva or Paquetá that then do the dirty work in defensive phases alongside that defensive midfielder. That spare midfielder can then thrive in attacking phases, holding a more advanced role in case possession changes once more.Embed from Getty Images
Simultaneously, having that ‘DLP’ traditional ‘number 6’ means the ‘8’ operating in the ‘Bernardo Silva Role’ is not restricted to a deeper position. They can still roam and float about as they please. They still have the freedom to generate chances in the final third, or even have a pop at goal. Bernardo Silva himself scored 8 goals in the Premier League last season, even when deployed alongside a more natural box-to-box goal-scoring presence like KDB or Ilkay Gundogan. So while the role is evidently deeper than we’ve become accustomed to for players with that level of imagination in the final third, it is not a strictly deep role that restricts their ability in attack. If anything, it only allows their quality to shine in new horizons.
For now, we’re continuing to quantify the Bernardo Silva’s and Lucas Paquetá’s of the world under the umbrella of our ‘Midfield Maestro’ prototype, which can dovetail as either an ‘Attacking Midfielder’ or a more reserved ‘number 8’. However, it will be intriguing to see the evolution of the Bernardo Silva role, from both the Portuguese playmaker himself at Manchester City, and Lucas Paquetá at Lyon.
JOACHIM ANDERSEN’S LONG PASSING PANACHE
The 2022-23 Premier League season kicked off on Friday night with a match between Crystal Palace and Arsenal, with two ex-Gunners going head to head. Arsenal kept a deserved clean sheet despite Palace’s positive possession, and it was a night of enjoyable debuts. Oleksandr Zinchenko thrived as he floated between an ‘Inverted Fullback’ role that took Granit Xhaka into wide left build-up spaces, and a more orthodox high position down the left wing as Gabriel Martinelli drove inside. Speaking of driving, Gabriel Jesus dazzled his way around the Palace defense as though he were the king of bedazzlement, creating a glorious chance for Martinelli to open the lead. William Saliba looked confident, strong and assured in and out of possession on his Premier League debut, walking away with a ‘Man of the Match’ performance. Even Cheick Doucouré looked bright as he floated between moments of ‘Anchoring’ the Palace midfield, breaking up play as a ‘Midfield Destroyer‘, and even some sound moments in possession of the ball where he clipped passes into Jordan Ayew’s powerful running down the right wing.Embed from Getty Images
But the real ‘Man of the Match’ was a man who will never get the plaudits having suffered the defeat – and that would be Crystal Palace’s Joachim Andersen. The Great Dane performed admirably as a ‘Ball-Playing Centre-Half’ out from the back, letting his long passing range fly on full display. Andersen accumulated 124 touches across the 90 minute match (1.38 touches per minute), without being dispossessed. Along the way, he completed a whopping 20 passes into the final third, 12 of his 21 long passing attempts (57%), and 91 total of his 104 passes (88%).Embed from Getty Images
From a tactical perspective, this meant that Palace built out from the back with Nathaniel Clyne in a back-three, where Tyrick Mitchell would gallop up the left wing to receive the Dane’s wide diagonals down the left. Concomitantly, Wilfried Zaha could then drift inside, causing havoc in the half-spaces. This then created difficult situations of 2v1 for Ben White to contend with, and Zaha floated his way around the pitch brilliantly in winning fouls and driving his team toward the penalty area.Embed from Getty Images
The pre-match plan from Vieira, recognizing Arsenal’s press, was likely to completely bypass midfield areas and work their way quickly from back to front. Not in a Sean Dyche at Burnley hope and pray esque way, but in an NFL Quarterback kind of ‘let’s use this fantastic player we have to our full ability’. Palace then took advantage of Andersen’s long passing expertise to clip balls over the top down the right half-spaces to right wing, where Jordan Ayew would again use that powerful stride to chase them down and try and get beyond Oleksandr Zinchenko. With the Ukrainian operating high in attack, this could have caught the Arsenal full-back out if Palace had prioritized a higher starting position from their rest-offence.
If the Dane can find moments where it becomes advantageous to play these long passes into the electricity of Wilfried Zaha, the Eagles may also fly higher in their upcoming matches. 20 passes into the final third ends up as an outrageous amount for any footballer, let alone one operating against an Arsenal high press that includes the fervidity of Jesus, Saka and Martinelli. Palace can continue to harness Andersen’s quarterback-like range in the upcoming weeks, and reap the rewards in the process as they look to establish their identity in a Gallagher-less era.
MUSIALA’S MASTERCLASSEmbed from Getty Images
Bayern Munich kicked off the 2022-23 Bundesliga season in style, walking their way to a smashing 6-1 win over Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt. Dayot Upamecano performed brilliantly through his robust defensive style, not letting Rafael Borré, Mario Götze or Jesper Lindstrøm have a sniff at goal. Joshua Kimmich meanwhile controlled the tempo of the match, pulling the strings from deep as he looked to play forward passes over the top with every opportunity.
But the real masterclass came in attacking midfield, where Jamal Musiala floated about the pitch as he pleased. The German youngster started the match as an orthodox left-winger on paper, but anyone who’s watched Bayern over the past few seasons will know that their left-winger ends up being Alphonso Davies instead; as the Canadian gets forward to deliver the bacon. Musiala was then free to roam all the way into the spots where you’d expect a ‘number 10’ to operate, making himself available for Kimmich’s progressive passes through the thirds. The 19-year-old would then look to shake and bake his way through the Frankfurt defense at every opportunity, driving forward with his unstoppable dribbling ability to close control. With Musiala firmly inside, Gnabry and Müller would then take turns swapping in and out of right-wing, to receive progressive passes down the right channel from Kimmich and Pavard.
Throughout his time at Bayern Munich so far, Musiala has already shown an innate ability to keep hold of the ball in tight spaces and work magic from dead-end mazes. But in Bayern’s opening two matches this season (last time out was a German Supercup win over Leipzig), Musiala has already shown impeccable vision and creativity in the final third. That should help to keep the electric Leroy Sané out of the lineup, even despite his formidable form under Julian Nagelsmann at the start of 2021-22. Musiala is perhaps better equipped to deliver the goods from Bayern’s eclectic give-and-go’s, where he can combine with the likes of Mané, Müller, and Gnabry to ring-around-the-rosy any opposition defense into death.
Bayern created several of these situations throughout the match against Frankfurt via Musiala’s ‘Inverted Winger’ role, as it allowed Die Roten to further compact central corridors and triangulate in close closets of space. They then scored several of their goals through breaking free in central channels, not even needing their width to win the match.
If Bayern continue at this rate, with Musiala in full flow attacking like a German god, Julian Nagelsmann’s team will be impossible to stop once again this Bundesliga season.
RECAPEmbed from Getty Images
In Issue No. 1 of Game Numbers, we’ve discussed the following…
- Lucas Paquetá’s deep role in build-up phases, allowing Lyon more avenues to progress through the thirds against AC Ajaccio’s 4-4-2 high-block.
- Joachim Andersen’s NFL ‘Quarterback’ brilliance against Arsenal to spray long passes around the pitch for fun, breaking the Gunners’ pressing attempts.
- Jamal Musiala’s masterclass of a performance against Frankfurt, where he played halfway between a ‘number 10’ and an ‘Inverted Winger’, allowing Bayern to compact central corridors and combine in swift triangulations.
What stood out to you during Friday’s matches in the new European season? Be sure to share your thoughts below and contribute to the discussion! Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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