Game of Numbers #10 – Thuram’s Tormenting Transitions

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In our latest analysis series: Game of Numbers, we break down the various tactical undertones of the modern game, most notably the individual roles that players fulfill to help their teams achieve success. This is Issue No. 10, currently featuring the following:

  1. Marcus Thuram’s tormenting time in attacking transitions against Dortmund
  2. Miguel Almiron’s meteoric rise at Newcastle United

More to follow!

THURAM’S TORMENTING TRANSITIONS

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Since Marco Reus’s injury, Borussia Dortmund have been bad. They’ve struggled throughout the past five years in their ability to handle transitional moments, and barring a terrible defeat to Leverkusen last year, that’s perhaps never been so exposed than it was on Friday night against Borussia Monchengladbach. Daniel Farke’s men completely outclassed Dortmund on the break, particularly via the use of quick play through the vertical channels. The man that led that entire process was none other than Marcus Thuram – who recently featured in our ‘Direct Goal-Scorer’ breakdown. Thuram’s a quintessential model of the role, as someone who constantly endeavours to run behind an opposition defense. He’s the first outlet in transition, and this makes him absolutely integral to the team given that much of Monchengladbach’s brilliance this season has come on the counter. Combine that with Dortmund’s own problems at the back and the strange omission of their best transitional warrior – Salih Özcan, and Edin Terzic set his team up for disaster.

Gladbach set up in their typical 4-2-3-1 formation, with Christoph Kramer supporting Marcus Thuram in the press to become a 4-4-2 out of possession. While the likes of Ramy Bensebaini and Kouadio Koné defended brilliantly on the day, it was in the attack where Gladbach stood out, immediately exploding on the break to expose all of Dortmund’s weak-points within their high-line. Key to the process, Thuram would either position himself to the left of the slower centre-back in Mats Hummels, or in between Hummels and Schlotterbeck to receive from the through-balling brilliance of Jonas Hofmann and Lars Stindl.

So many ex-Dortmund players came back to haunt the Black & Yellows on the day, but none more than Hofmann, who flourished as a ‘Creative Ten’ in the second half. His ability to link play through the thirds and quickly join Thuram in transition caused Dortmund’s back-line a nightmare of a time, and he popped up with two assists on the night. But the true key to success was in Thuram’s ability to time his runs from out-to-in or in-to-out, perfectly matching the timing of the pass in behind.

He always maintained distance from Hummels, ensuring the BVB defender could never get a grip of his speed. This meant that he would often float in front of the German defender, and then explode left of the attack for others (i.e. Hofmann) to float through the centre from the right channels. This forced Hummels into one of his worst performances in a Dortmund shirt, and the vice-captain found himself substituted toward the end. He constantly stepped up when holding ground would have served him better, and he could not come to terms with Thuram’s speed throughout the night within Dortmund’s incessant desire to play with a high-line. 23-year-old defensive midfielder Antonios Papadopoulos entered the frame to replace the 33-year-old, and immediately gave himself several yards to contend with Thuram’s pace, playing in behind the attacker as Sule switched to the left. This approach has its advantages in marking, but Thuram could have then switched over to hanging out on the right and continuing to time his runs into space, with Papadopoulos playing him onside. This probably would have been a better plan from the outset nevertheless, not to mention including the key to Dortmund’s ability to break up the play in Özcan.

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But for Marcus Thuram and co., it was an exceptional evening. The Frenchman should have bagged a few more goals to his name and probably an assist or two, but that’s not to take anything away from his valiant performance against one of the Bundesliga’s top contenders.


MIGUEL Almirón’S METEROIC RISE

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If you had to replace any player in Newcastle’s side at the end of last season, Miguel Almirón would have been predictability high up the list. In fact, Miguel Almirón wasn’t even consistently starting for the first half of Eddie Howe’s reign last campaign, as his old pal Ryan Fraser held down the right-wing instead. Not to take anything away from an incredibly intense, defensively-sound wide warrior, but Almirón’s career never quite took off at Newcastle in the way many fans would have hoped. Prior to this campaign, the Newcastle wide-man scored a combined 9 goals between three seasons at the club, netting just a single goal in 2021-22. But with greater support in behind and the backing of his manager, Almirón has soared to new heights this campaign, and is on track to attain far and away his best season for goals + assists in the Premier League, possibly even smashing that 9 goal three-season haul in one single season.

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But it’s not just the goals. Virtually every stat has risen for the Paraguayan winger this season, and his defensive work rate has come to the forefront as a perfect personification of Newcastle’s mentality under Eddie Howe. His intensity and work rate were on full display against Chelsea, as the Magpies rocked the house down en route to a 1-0 victory. It was Almirón himself who assisted the goal for a change, from a powerful, driving run inside that forced Chelsea into a calamity of errors before Joe Willock smashed the ball into the back of the net.

His weight of touch to double-head the ball to himself was immaculately impressive, but it was the sheer speed of his movement that made him virtually impossible to stop in the moment. It’s amazing that he even managed to slow himself down to allow Willock to take on the shot himself.

These kind of driving runs have been a regularity this season, as the two-footed Paraguayan loves to cut inside on his stronger left-boot. Despite being so incredibly intense and your typical all-out ‘direct’ type of player, Almirón has the presence of mind to shift the ball left to right and work either side of the defender to best any 1v1 situation. While the results haven’t been mind-blowing from a statistical standpoint, the wing wizard has always looked like one of Newcastle’s greatest threats, allowing other players like Joe Willock to ghost around unattended. He’s formed a magnificent relationship with Bruno Guimaraes down the right-hand-side, constantly endeavouring to run in behind the opposition defense to meet the Brazilian’s incisive passing through the thirds. This even aids Kieran Trippier’s fantastic precision passing over top of an opposition defense, as opposition defenses simply can’t track his movement. As soon as he sees the opportunity for a teammate to play a pass in behind, he’s on the hunt for the space.

As seen against a team like Chelsea who operate in a back-three, this powerful running becomes a constant nightmare as the Paraguayan seeks space in between the gaps of centre-back and wing-back. As a player like Kalidou Koulibaly charges out to challenge him and create a 2v1, you already know the next line. More space becomes available for others to advance unnoticed. This is what the best dribblers in the world – the likes of Mohamed Salah and Neymar – do so incredibly well. While Almirón is clearly not at the same level and hasn’t even won over 50% of his dribbles this season, his constant buzzing like a bee serves as a constant nuisance for even the top-level of Premier League defenders to contend with. He never shies away from taking on several players at once, in fact backing himself in any 1v1 duel before playing the pass at the right moment.

Pep Guardiola would probably say that he lacks the skill of ‘La Pausa’, and his all-out directness is likely a major reason behind his lower dribbling percentage than the likes of Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin. Other Magpie dribblers inject variety within their speed of play and actively slow themselves down in specific moments to lull the opposition. But even then, this creates a nice balance between himself and whomever plays on the left wing, and constantly causes fear in the opposition.

Out of possession is where Almirón has taken his game to a whole new level, and completely justified his place in the lead-up to his goal-scoring climb. The 28-year-old has won a higher percentage of his defensive duels (73.6%) than any player featured in our ‘Direct Goal-Scorer’ cohort, showcasing his intense pressing and supreme ability to defend the wide areas.

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Only Everton’s Anthony Gordon (6.77) has made more successful defensive actions per 90 than his 6.39 within that cohort, with the Newcastle winger winning 61.5% of his tackles this season. That’s an uptake in form by over 35% on tackling success. When you watch him play, you see a workhorse who simply never stops running. For Eddie Howe, this is an un-droppable figurehead. Now that he’s chipped in with the goods at the other end of the pitch, his value to Newcastle has only skyrocketed to the very top. Whether or not he can keep this run of form going remains to be seen. But for now, Miguel Almirón has been one of the best wingers in the Premier League this season.


Be sure to check out more in this series below, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

-> Game of Numbers #9 – Moukoko Madness
-> Game of Numbers – #8 – Alexis Loera’s Midfield Shift
-> Game of Numbers #7 – Ben White’s Right-Back Revolution

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