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. 6, featuring the following:
- Lucy Bronze’s positional switch to a ‘Floating 8’ role.
- Fulham’s incisive attacking play vs. Nottingham Forest.
- Salih Özcan’s crucial role in defensive transitions for BVB.
Let’s jump into Game of Numbers Issue No. 6!
LUCY BRONZE AS A ‘FLOATING 8’Embed from Getty Images
FC Barcelona Femení had a slow start to their first match of the season, initially struggling to find avenues forward in Tenerife’s 5-4-1 defensive block. UD Granadilla Tenerife compacted the lines both vertically and horizontally to stunt Barcelona’s progress forward, but in an abnormally high-line that spurred Giráldez’s team to hit long passes over the top. They were caught offside from these attempts time and time again, particularly in their quest to spray in behind for Geyse’s speed.
Even with excellent ball-players at the back in Keira Walsh and Mapi León, Barcelona struggled to find the right avenues to play forward, and were far too slow and methodical in playing forward. They built out in a 2+1 to 3+1 shape, with Lucy Bronze significantly lower (and sometimes inverting), compared to Fridolina Rolfö’s high position from left-back. This gave the shape a 3-1-2-4 appearance in the creation stage, which meant Tenerife accumulated more numbers in their defensive and midfield lines, leaving Barca to pass the ball around the back.
They had the most success in their wide overloads between Bronze and Caroline Graham Hansen, where 16-year-old Vicky Lopez sometimes engaged in the fun. But their play in the first half became predictable, and Tenerife stunted the ability of the Blaugrana to play sound passes into the penalty area. Instead of creating chances for fun, they won a myriad of corner kicks, which ended up being their best attempts to break down Herrera’s team before the go-ahead goal. Barca would have benefited from prioritizing Fridolina Rolfö’s pace and precision in the final third down the left, as it was the Swede who came up with many of Barca’s best chances throughout the match.Embed from Getty Images
Conveniently, they ended up scoring the opening goal through an odd Geyse ricochet, shortly after Lucy Bronze powerfully carried the ball forward from an inverted fullback position.
Giráldez’s stand-in staff then threw Marta Torrejon into the mix, switching Lucy Bronze to central midfield, thus allowing Barcelona to bring their best mix of control and threat. A ‘floating 8’ is essentially a central midfielder that has freedom to roam forward as they please, knowing a protective ‘6’ sits in behind to sweep up the messes. Bronze fulfills this role wonderfully well when given the opportunity, as it allows her strong ability on the ball to influence areas of the pitch closer to goal.Embed from Getty Images
Bronze’s mobility and intelligent movement completely undid Tenerife’s 5-4-1, particularly as she broke lines simply by dribbling and pulling players out of position. This is an excellent way to break down a compact low-block, and it showed in Barcelona’s control of the match from that moment on.
They scored their second again from a strong Bronze carry through the centre, where Caroline Graham Hansen was eventually afforded room to strike from distance and catch the keeper off guard.Embed from Getty Images
The positional move proved to be a smart one, particularly in injecting more life into a rather slow approach from the Blaugrana up until that point. Tenerife had nicely stunted Walsh’s positioning and ability to get on the ball, through Ange N’Guessan’s attempts to screen passes into her path as the lone centre-forward. They were then forced into playing around the low-block rather than through the lines, which meant that their best attempts came from corner kicks and their nice “bus routine” (as we call it).
This involves players stacking themselves on top of each other like a double-decker bus, and then rushing in at the moment the ball is played, leaving one player to ghost in late and head the ball toward goal. This is how they conjured up one of their better first half moments from Irene Paredes’ noggin, as Barca struggled to use Bronze and Hansen’s wide overloads to create much of note. The former Lyon and City fullback lacked the necessary connectivity in many moments until moving position, and the deeper role slightly restricted the intelligent injection of pace that she can add through the centre when deployed correctly.Embed from Getty Images
Encouragingly, Barca put up a strong showing from a defensive perspective, also stunting Granadilla’s ability to play forward. They defended in a 4-1-4-1, enticing the opposition to play in between the lines, where Keira Walsh acted as her normal defensive warrior self, cleaning up all the messes. Tenerife had more success playing passes over the top where Leon and Paredes lacked the necessary pace to handle N’Guessan, as Walsh handled everything played in front of her masterfully.Embed from Getty Images
In the end, the move from the coaching staff proved to be a productive one, and it now leaves Jonatan Giráldez with much variety to work with in his starting selection next time out. The signs from this match suggest that they may have more luck playing both Bronze and Rolfö further forward, where they can more readily impact the game and inject greater variety into the team.
FULHAM’S INCISIVE ATTACKING PLAYEmbed from Getty Images
I worry for Nottingham Forest. Fulham have not been the strongest possession team in the league by any means this season, but they ran riot around Steve Cooper’s side, displaying several moments of magic en route to a dominant display. Andreas Pereira masterfully floated around the pitch to skillfully dance his way around opponents, Aleksandar Mitrović nicely selected moments to drop deep toward the ball, and Harrison Reed nicely selected moments to float up and join in on the fun.
Since the transfer window began, Forest have essentially injected their team with hard-hitting defensive warriors, capable of playing quickly on the break and making themselves a nuisance in all phases of the game. The likes of Renan Lodi, Willy Boly and Taiwo Awoniyi have each come in from teams known for mastering this kind of defense-first, explosive attacking approach, and to some extent, their approach worked. They were brutal, cynical, disruptive battering rams, fouling at every turn, and then looking to play on the break against Fulham’s heavy possession (59%). Unfortunately, they left out two of the best at that exact art this season – Lewis O’Brien and Jesse Lingard. O’Brien has completely signified Forest’s disruptive handling of defensive transitions so far this season, winning absolutely everything as he gallivants back.
It’s no surprise that Steve Cooper’s side immediately looked more productive with Lingard and O’Brien through the centre, and that they both played a pivotal role in the second goal.Embed from Getty Images
Without those players leading the charge, Forest looked relatively toothless. Fulham dominated the ball and passed it around with ease, with Willian and Pereira injecting fun variety into their attacking play. Both persistently won fouls to help release their team from pressure, and Pereira in particular made incredibly sound decisions on when to drop in, when to release the ball, and when to artfully dance his way around opponents.
With Reed acting as Fulham’s own O’Brien, the Cottagers quickly won possession back time and time again to restart their attacks and then look to combine in wide overloads. It was one of these wide overloads between Willian and Tete that eventually left room at the top of the box for Joao Palhinha to strike from distance, and he scored an absolute thunderbolt to grab the go-ahead goal.Embed from Getty Images
Marco Silva’s men still have much to sort out when defending set-pieces, but they’ve clearly established consistency and chemistry in all other phases of the game, from defensive transitions to attacking set-pieces to their fantastic link-up play between Andreas and Mitrović in the final third. This is an incredibly encouraging start from Fulham, and one that could now easily spur a top half finish.
Salih Özcan – BVB’S GAME CHANGEREmbed from Getty Images
Borussia Dortmund have been dreadful during defensive transitions for quite some time now. It became much of the debate around Marco Rose’s failure with the team last time out, prompting most of the worst defeats of the 2021-22 campaign. But this season, Edin Terzic and co. finally addressed the need for improvement, bringing in two hallmark signings that had the potential to immediately boost the team’s defensive appetite, aggression, and overall awareness out of possession. Nico Schlotterbeck has started the season in fine form, bringing that killer edge to the back-line. But the man to make the crucial difference to the 2022-23 campaign so far has been Turkish midfielder Salih Özcan, who came in for a bargain €5 million signing from FC Cologne in the summer.Embed from Getty Images
Salih Özcan has only been given his chance to shine in the team after an early-season injury to the immaculate Mahmoud Dahoud, but has fully taken the opportunity. Clearly more of a defensive presence, Özcan has held his own in possession, boasting career high numbers in passing percentage (86.5%), switches of play (1.43), and passes under pressure this season (10.0 per 90). But it’s been in transition where the Turk has excelled, and brought a completely different edge to the team.Embed from Getty Images
The 24-year-old possesses a wonderful engine, and covers open holes in a surprisingly quick amount of time. He’s wonderful in shifting wide to break up attacks and keep his opposition away from goal, allowing his teammates to recover in the process.
He’s aggressive without overstepping the line, and often uses his body to put his opponent off their game, before timing his tackles to perfection. These are all essential assets of the type of midfield ‘Anchor’ that Özcan has become for the Black & Yellows.
His teammates close to the situation know that they can go on and express themselves without worry, thanks to the brick wall that lays in behind. In essence, he serves as the perfect midfield partner for Jude Bellingham, and the Englishman’s fantastic box-to-box mobility. Bellingham is a defensive warrior all on his own, but one that remains more interested in pushing and probing forward. Since Özcan covers the spaces across (laterally) so exceptionally well, Bellingham can continue to be forward-thinking as he presses vertically and triggers his teammates to amplify their own game.Embed from Getty Images
Possessing that remarkable engine to quickly get across has meant that opposition clubs have rarely been able to exploit Dortmund’s high-line or lack of pace in behind this season. That’s been a massive issue in seasons past, but now they can’t escape the shackles of the 24-year-old’s presence in front of the back-line. Even despite their dominance, Özcan’s made more recoveries than any other player in the Bundesliga this season (14.6 per 90), alongside boasting an impressive pressure percentage of 40.5% and an aerial success rate of 80% (fourth highest in the league).
As evidenced by those remarkable statistics, not only does he cover space remarkably well, but the Turkish midfielder reads the play like a seasoned veteran. He’s always in the way to break up the play in transition, positioning himself in the exact right areas to lure his opposition into the wrong decision, away from goal or into complete and utter misery. Keeping somewhat of a distance as others gallop back, Özcan waits for the exact right moment to step up and intercept a pass, remaining cool under the pressure of the situation.
His close proximity to others in Dortmund’s immediate counter-press also remains essential, where he can often be found at the base of a narrow diamond. The only moments in which he struggles are when he’s either caught too high or too wide, without Jude Bellingham being well positioned to aid his endeavour.
The Dortmund newboy will just need to be careful in keeping moments like this to a minimum, ensuring he’s always well positioned to be that ‘Midfield Destroyer’ the Black & Yellows need him to be. But overarchingly, Özcan understands his role as the single pivot, responsible for holding down the entire team and allowing others to express themselves. His reading of the game and remarkable mobility to cover wide have been a massive benefit to the entire team in their quest to sure up their defense this season, and one of the key reasons why they’ve enjoyed a positive start to the campaign.
RECAPEmbed from Getty Images
In Issue No. 6 of Game Numbers, we’ve discussed the following…
- FC Barcelona Femení’s smart positional switch of Bronze into a ‘floating 8’ role, which immediately allowed the Spanish giants greater control over Tenerife.
- Fulham’s excellent attacking variety against Forest’s limited possession, utilizing Andreas Pereira and Willian to inject magic in the final third.
- Salih Özcan’s crucial role in repairing Dortmund’s defense this season, particularly in moments of transition.
What stood out to you during this weekend’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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