Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Why Tottenham are like Bayern (and what they can learn from them).

Recently on the Guardian Football Weekly Podcast James Horncastle said this "at their best when they have 2 natural wingers, in terms of Bale and Lennon. A bit like Bayern, whenever they don't have Ribery or Robben or both they lose a bit of their fluency" (at 30.30). It may have been intended as a much more general comparison, but he has a point, the way the two sides line up in an attacking sense is very similar.

They are second and third in their respective leagues and have a reputation for being exciting going forward. The front 5 in each team are quite similar in stature and in how they line up; both are well known for their wingers; and they each utilise a central midfielder who has previously spent time playing on the wing (Modric and Schweinsteiger), usually accompanied by a more defensively minded partner (Parker or Gustavo). This midfield partnership is less assured for Bayern Munich as injuries have severely disrupted the consistency of their selection - both Robben and Schweinsteiger having been out for large periods, resulting in Mueller taking up a position on the Right Wing and Kroos playing behind Gomez. This, however, is not their first choice selection when Robben is fit, and although Kroos is probably the first choice partner for Schweinsteiger in central midfield, this is by no means a certainty. For this reason I have chosen only to focus on Schweinsteiger and not his midfield partner due to the lack of consistency in this position.
To continue the comparison of players, Gomez and Adebayor are both relatively mobile and mostly play as a lone striker with support from Mueller and Van der Vaart respectively. Similarly Mueller and Van Der Vaart play a role which can be tricky to describe, neither is really a playmaker as they both look to get into the box and provide a goal threat, leaving the playmaking to Modric or Schweinsteiger behind them, however neither is really a striker either.
 As this table from WhoScored shows, both sides maintain a similar level of pass completion; win a similar amount of aerial duels; take a similar number of shots; and get the vast majority of their goals from open play. The main differences here though are significant in illuminating the differences between the sides, as Bayern have a significantly higher average possession (65% to 55%) and "win" double the amount of dribbles per game (16 to 8).
This table compares the important stats that I intend to discuss, which I have collected from WhoScored. They are accurate as of 15 March 2012 and I've highlighted areas of particular interest.
Schweinsteiger vs Modric
Despite having nearly double the number of starts, Modric has a similar number of goals and assists to Schweinsteiger. Aside from this however the stats of these 2 players are fairly similar - Schweinsteiger makes more passes per game but this is in part attributable to the manner in which he occasionally drops deep to form a back 3 in order to receive the ball.
Gomez vs Adebayor
These two are both similar in stature and tend to do better in a lone-striking role. They both play this role quite differently, as we can see by Adebayor's higher passes and assists, indicating he attempts to link up more whereas Gomez looks to provide a more constant goal threat.
This is where the major differences between the sides lie. Firstly, Robben and Ribery both maintain a much higher ratio of goals/assists to games, similarly they both complete a far higher number of dribbles per game. Ribery plays a far higher number of passes per game with Robben roughly matched by Bale and Lennon a distant fourth. These stats represent a vastly differing style of play between the 2 sets of wingers. Bayern Munich play with inverted wingers meaning the left footed Robben plays on the right and looks to come inside with the right footed Ribery doing the same on the left, the two often combining with each other in the centre of the pitch, taking shots or crossing/playing short passes to Gomez. In contrast, Tottenham play with their wingers on the same side as their dominant foot. This causes Tottenham to focus more upon stretching the opposition defence and getting longer crosses into the box from a very wide position. What is interesting is that, contrary to what you might expect from inverted wingers, Bayern manage roughly the same number of crosses per game as Tottenham, indicating the ability of their wide players to vary their game.
Bayern's recent wins over Basel and Hoffenheim, in which they scored 14 goals in total, demonstrated their wingers’ style. Almost all the goals resulted from Robben and Ribery playing very narrow, with Ribery finding himself on the right hand side of the pitch at some points receiving short through balls from Robben.
Van Der Vaart vs Mueller
Naturally, the high level of involvement and narrowness of the Bayern Munich wingers has an impact on other players and, although the shorter crosses and passes have contributed to Gomez’s impressive strike rate, the narrowness that this requires has restricted the influence of Thomas Mueller, when compared to Van Der Vaart. Admittedly these stats are probably slightly misleading, as Mueller has spent a lot of time playing on the right in order to fill in for Robben during his injuries. Despite this, Van Der Vaart’s superior number and accuracy of passes, as well as his greater ratio of assists/goals to games is clearly indicative of a player who has a greater influence upon the attacking play of the side. This is backed up by Mueller's stats when playing behind Gomez against Basel and Hoffenheim recently where he had a pass accuracy of 80 and 76 respectively and completed only 35 and 21 passes (though he was substituted after 70 and 62 minutes in these games) as well as managing a solitary goal and no assists across the 2 games.
Unsurprisingly comparing Bayern and Spurs doesn't result in an exact mirror image, and the differences are significant. Although the comment definitely has some reasonable foundation, the impacts of the different styles of the players in each team are significant. In recent weeks Bale has been fielded in varying roles such as on the right or in the centre in an attempt to try and vary his approach, in response to the recent attempts to mark him out of games. While this is a move that is necessary for Tottenham in order to provide a less predictable threat, the route to achieving this is to encourage Bale to vary his play within his position on the left by occasionally seeking to play shorter balls into the box or to come inside and act as a wide striker as described at the bottom of this article, in a manner similar to Robben and Ribery. This is also a variation that Aaron Lennon could do with incorporating into his game and reflects one of the differences between Bayern being a top class European side and Tottenham being a very good side. Tottenham’s individual play occasionally lacks variation, and they haven't developed an alternative system or helped to develop Bale and Lennon's games in order to deal with this.

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