Game of Numbers #4 – Counter Attacking to Score Goals

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Counter attacking football is often frowned upon, as some sort of marker for inferiority along the spectrum of what makes the “beautiful game” so beautiful. In the quest to establish beautiful football, possession-based play often reigns supreme, with the bitter ugliness of grit and determination seen as a lower standard way of approaching the game. But when done right and done effectively, counter attacking football can be the deadliest approach to winning football matches. That notion came to prominence over the weekend, as both of last season’s Premier League title contenders dropped points, and Bundesliga giants RB Leipzig crashed down the stairs at Union Berlin.

In Game of Numbers Issue No. 4, we discuss…

  • United’s counter attacking brilliance via Marcus Rashford vs. Liverpool
  • Newcastle’s left-sided use of Allan Saint-Maximin vs. City
  • Union Berlin’s outstanding breaks via Becker & Siebatchu vs. RB Leipzig

Let’s dive in like Bruno Fernandes! (we secretly still love him despite his awful dive).

RASHFORD’S RED DEVIL RUNNING

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For the past couple of weeks, I have been crying out for Manchester United to try a counter-attacking approach akin to their time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They don’t yet have all the players to play the high possession-based football that Rangnick and Ten Hag both love to see, and they would strongly benefit from utilizing the pace and power of Rashford, Sancho and, yes, even Martial, on the break.

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When you combine that with the fact that they have defensive midfielders in Fred and McTominay who are capable of shuttling and shuffling strongly out of possession, more than any other part of their game, it makes logistical sense for Ten Hag to try out this counter-attacking approach against one of the league’s supreme spellbenders.

Against Liverpool, having just been battered and bruised by Brighton and Brentford, Ten Hag was right to seek reinforcements. But a change in style of play is never easy for a man of Ten Hag’s stature, who backs himself to play high-functioning, high-octane, possession-based play. To his credit, the Dutchman smartly surrendered his ideologies to accommodate the opposition and their approach. This is one of the ultimate tests of any high-functioning team playing under a high-functioning manager. Can they adapt their needs to suit their opposition? Manchester United did exactly that, in walking their way to a 2-1 win over the Reds with just 30% of the possession. So how did they pull it off?

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“Ten Hag was brave” is a statement you’ll probably be hearing around the block this week, after selecting Varane, Malacia, and Elanga for the first time this season. Every one of those decisions paid off, each bringing their own sense of physicality and panache to the situation that allowed United to achieve defensive resilience and counter attacking success. Varane in particular had one of his best nights in a United shirt, endeavouring to get stuck in to every challenge, and make life miserable for Luis Diaz, who the Red Devils consistently targeted with tactical fouling.

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However, the key selection on the night was in utilizing Marcus Rashford’s pace and power on the break, from a central position up top. Rashford had started both of the previous matches from the left, and looked sad as can be. Almost like someone had knocked the ice cream cone out of his hand. But from misery to jubilation, Rashford clung out from the ashes (that’s not a saying), and bamboozled his way past a Liverpool high-line through sheer speed and determination.

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But while Rashford is quick, he’s not just an excellent counter attacker for his pace. The 24-year-old’s movement has always been intelligent, and playing in the number nine slot allows that combination of pace and perception to come to life. The Red Devils often looked to utilize a winger from an inverted position on the break, in an awkward spot where neither Henderson nor a full-back could track their movement.

They would then release someone like Jadon Sancho on the ball in these dangerous areas, looking to entice the opposition’s centre-back into making a move before slipping in the pass. Rashford can be seen above excellently positioning himself in between Liverpool’s centre-backs, where he accomplishes enough space away from his trackers to set himself up for a positive touch before the moment of truth.

After regains of possession, United could also directly hit the wide channels in behind the fullbacks, again enticing the opposition centre-backs out of position.

This is where someone like Anthony Elanga can then thrive on the other side, as he races into a central position. It’s exactly how Brentford used Ivan Toney the previous week to release Bryan Mbeumo through the middle. On this particular occasion, Gomez’s initial starting position was enough to thwart Rashford’s ability to play that Ivan Toney-esque pass, and he opted to dribble instead.

But the key moment of the night came from an old combination from the Solskjaer days of counter attacking intelligence, as Anthony Martial rose from the ashes (that’s a saying!) to assist Rashford.

Here the 24-year-old can be seen picking up a position to the left of Liverpool’s Joe Gomez, on his blindside. Liverpool meanwhile over-compacted themselves in the immediate aftermath of losing the ball to Martial, and the Frenchman took that split second advantage in threading the ball through to the striker.

If United can cultivate the positives from this performance, particularly the ability to explode on the break even when keeping more of the possession, they can establish a clear identity that manages to become a happy marriage between Ten Hag’s philosophies, and the style that best fits the players at this moment in time. If not, this match will still live long in the memory as an emblem for what United can achieve at their very best.

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN VS. KYLE WALKER

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Speaking of stuff you’ve already heard, Allan Saint-Maximin absolutely terrified and terrorized Manchester City’s right-hand side on Sunday. It culminated in a stunning 3-3 draw against the Sky Blues, where the French forward served dinner on a plate with two assists, four key passes, and five dribbles. This, as has already been pointed out extensively, came in large part down to City’s use of inverted fullbacks, where Newcastle could immediately target the wide areas in transition.

This my friends, is an oversimplification. In fact, on the day, Kyle Walker had a decent afternoon. He made 7 recoveries, won over 50% of his duels (55%), and used his speed to stop several quick attacking transitions. Yes, there was a moment where Joe Willock made Walker look like he was the one that had stolen Rashford’s ice cream, and eaten it right before kick off. That much is true. There were also many times where ASM danced his way around Walker like he was auditioning for a school play. That much is also true. But Walker wasn’t all that bad. Allan Saint-Maximin really was just that brilliant.

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Regardless of inverted fullbacks or not, City are going to over-compact central areas in defensive phases nine times out of ten. Here you can see both ASM and Almiron in plenty of space to receive the ball out wide, with Gundogan and Rodri actively angling their bodies toward the wide left for Guimarães to play into.

When you have the quality of a player like Bruno Guimarães to play a diagonal over a reasonable distance, it then makes it much easier for a dazzling dancer like Saint-Maximin to shine. Checkmark number one ✅. ASM is then able to find himself in acres of space to work his twinkle toe magic and cast a spell on City’s defense as they collapse toward the goal. This was the first warning sign, but City didn’t correct their approach. Here we go again like we’re Fabrizio Romano.

In this instance, Kyle Walker again over-compacted the situation in the quest to block the immediate action and the potential for the shot; leaving too much space for ASM to receive inside the box. The idea behind this kind of compactness is to cut off central avenues as the key priority, and then immediately pressure if the ball finds its way out wide. But when coming up against a player of Saint-Maximin’s incredible threat level, you must pay more attention to stopping the first pass. Walker found that out the hard way.

Yet in some ways, Manchester City adjusted to Saint-Maximin’s threat. Shortly before their first goal, you can even spot the Sky Blues double-teaming the Frenchman. Add John Stones getting caught in no man’s land, and you could even call this a triple team.

Unfortunately, the double-team/triple-team approach naturally takes away bodies from the penalty area, should the wing wizard break free. So when Saint-Maximin wins the battle of wits, Almiron is then free to pick up the header in the box.

Essentially, Man City over-compacted the play when they didn’t need to, thus vacating space to receive. They then over-complicated defensive situations when trying to adjust to Saint-Maximin’s artistry, involving too many of their numbers to the cause.

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But Newcastle’s ability to allow Saint-Maximin to thrive came not only from his own brilliance, but from the balance in the team. Joelinton has served as a wonderful left-sided partner for ASM since his move to central midfield under Howe, due to his tireless energy to overlap and underlap the Frenchman. This only creates more chaos around an already chaotic performance artist, regardless of Joelinton receiving the ball or not. Checkmark number two ✅. Even then, the team would be nothing without their ability to respond to the inevitable transition when Saint-Maximin loses at least one of his twenty-five dribbles (5/6 in actuality). Dan Burn provides that wonderful balance and allows the Frenchman to gamble, knowing the burly bully in big Dan Burn sits in City’s wake on the break. I should be a rapper.

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Even then, we all know the brilliance that Newcastle’s #10 can exude all on his own. He loves to drive through the centre of the pitch, and astutely recognizes moments where he can use the body positioning of a defender to his advantage. Checkmark number three ✅. Here he recognizes John Stones breaking his back and bending his hip in all kinds of ways, and smoothly moves past him before playing the killer pass into Callum Wilson for the second goal.

In the end, City couldn’t get to grips with Allan Saint-Maximin all night long. It had far more to do with ASM’s brilliance than Walker’s inability to defend from an inverted fullback position. That extended to the quality of his teammates to play passes into his path, the balance of the team serving his needs both in and out of possession, and City’s in-game failures to adequately adjust their approach to handle his exceptionalities.

If only we saw this kind of play from Allan Saint-Maximin every week. Then he’d be a true world beater for the grandest stage.

BECKER ON THE BREAK AT UNION BERLIN

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We end this issue of Game of Numbers with another masterclass in counter-attacking, providing depth to how to effectively play on the break with a front-two. Few teams in the world of football accomplish this feat as efficiently as Union Berlin, who thrive on forward thrusts thanks to the dynamism of Sheraldo Becker, and the aerial prowess of new-boy from the Young Boys, Jordan Siebatcheu.

For the first goal of the game, Union win the ball in their own penalty area, and immediately play forward into their strikers to hold the ball up and bounce to a nearby central midfielder. They then spin around to create space behind Leipzig’s high-line.

From there, it’s all about verticality and timing. We’ve spoken at length in the past about how effective counter-attacking requires verticality in both forward movement on the ball and off the ball. You want to limit the opposition’s ability to recover shape, in finding the quickest route to goal possible. Union Berlin perfectly elucidated this notion on Saturday, as Becker smartly saw the space to advance into through the middle of the pitch, and the passer smartly saw the gap to play into in that exact area.

It’s a match made in football heaven, and the perfection behind the pass then means that every single defender bar one quickly becomes eliminated from the situation. Becker is then allowed to sprint at goal, with Siebatcheu still in poll position to catch the final ball-watching defender off-guard in that 2v1 footrace.

Becker then wastes no time, eliminating the defender with the pass on only his second touch. With only the finish left, Siebatcheu ends the move in clinical fashion.

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On the second goal, the same clinical principles remain in place. The ball is won in central midfield, and the first look is a forward pass into the nearest striker. With little pressure on Siebatcheu’s back, he’s then able to play the next pass toward Becker, making a run on the blindside of the furthest defender.

From there, the 27-year-old Suriname international is then able to explode the dynamite in his boots and escape on the break, pushing the envelope on the dribble. By the time he reaches the penalty area, only two defenders have recovered position, and those two have a massive gap between them. Becker immediately recognizes this fact, cuts onto his left and bangs the ball into the back of the net.

Here we can see the two preeminent facets of counter-attacking brilliance take center-stage. Not only did Union Berlin brilliantly accomplish verticality in immediately playing forward into their space-seeking strikers, they exceptionally accomplished timing and precision in their swift moves – recognizing pockets of space to further exploit the situation at the right moment.


RECAP

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All and all, it was a great weekend for the counter attacking warriors of the world, with the likes of Rashford, Saint-Maximinin and Sheraldo Becker showcasing exactly why this can be such an effective approach to take against possession-dominant teams. Each team kept below 31% of the ball in their match this weekend, yet each achieved a positive, unsuspecting result.

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With that, in this week’s Game of Numbers, we’ve countered the common notion that counter attacking is lame. When done effectively, such as through the following cases:

  • Rashford’s space seeking to set himself up for the finish;
  • Allan Saint-Maximin’s dribbling magic; &
  • Union Berlin’s verticality into their strikers…

We can see why counter attacking is such an effective approach for any footballing team to deploy; particularly when against all the odds.


So there it is! That’s it for this week’s issue of Game of Numbers! Be sure to check out more from this series below, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

-> Game of Numbers – #1 – Lucas Paqueta & The Bernardo Silva Role
-> Game of Numbers – #2 – Walker & Cancelo Back Where They Belong
-> Game of Numbers – #3 – The Evolution of the Target Man

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