AS Roma in Boston 7/25 Training Session

AS Roma’s week of preseason preparation at Harvard University’s Ohiri Field continued on Monday evening. The session ran from 5:30pm to about 7:00pm and like Sunday evening’s session, the focus was on team play. It was Roma’s second field session of the day. The first session at 10:00am, according to Roma’s website, involved the players doing fitness work, sprints, ball work and small sided games.

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Double sessions are an occasional controversial topic for soccer coaches as there is much debate as to how much these sessions can hurt a team’s fitness over the course of a long season. The foremost opponent of double sessions across Twitter is Dutch fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, who has made a habit of attacking coaches who use double sessions.

Be interesting to see if AS Roma has a run of injuries or poor form this season if Verheijen swoops in and takes a knock on Luciano Spalletti’s training methods. He’d be joining a long line of top coaches mind you, Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham Hotspur drew the ire of Verheijen this past spring when Spurs did their annual collapse on the verge of achievement. However, Tottenham did have one of the best injury records in the EPL last year despite (or perhaps because of?) double sessions.

While every approach to training is open to critique and doubt and praise and so on, the session put on by Spalletti last evening was quite interesting to take in and provided another night of possible useful exercises for coaches to put into practice with their teams this year. Let’s get onto to the session itself.

Straight from the off the session was interesting as the AS Roma players spent a short amount of time juggling and then went straight into a 12v12 exercise. There was no formal warm-up or stretching prior to this.

The setup had full size goals with a keeper in each at the top of the penalty areas and eleven outfield players per team, for a total of 24 players, 12 per team. There were five cones splitting the playing area in half vertically. The extra player in each team was a second center forward and the teams were set out in a 4-3-4 with one center forward from each team either side of the cones splitting the field.

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What looked a bit odd, the extra center forward, quickly made more sense once Spalletti explained the exercise and the players got underway. Each goalkeeper would roll a ball out to their right centerback, thus having the teams moving the ball up opposite sides of the field, and the teams would simultaneously play up their right side and finish with a shot in goal. Then both teams would play up their left side. The ball and players involved in the passing were restricted to one side of the field and the center forwards alternated their involvement accordingly.

There was no defending, there were players from the other team in the way of the passing and movement but they did not actively defend the play. It is not uncommon for a team to go out and work through various passing patterns against no one(shadow play) but this twist of asking two sets of players to do so at the same time did add an element of difficultly.

Shadow play with plastic men as defenders is used as well but the advantage to actual humans is that their positioning would alter slightly, giving at least some movement to deal with and more of a fluid element to the exercise.

Now many coaches may love this idea but not all of us routinely have twenty-four players at one session in which to try it out!

The patterns used both involved the winger checking in from a wide position into the half space and then either the fullback or centermid making a run into the space vacated by the winger. From there a ball was put into the center forward who then laid off to the same winger who had checked into the half space as he would then make a central run into the center forward’s space.

Afterward, the teams then played a game of 11v11, the extra center forwards now gone. The restriction in this game was that once the ball had moved into the defending team’s half, only the back four could defend. The three midfielders could drift into their half but could not actively defend. The forwards had to wait at the midfield line. Initially, both teams looked to get into the opponent’s half as quickly as possible and then use the 6v4 advantage to patiently create a chance. This seemingly allowed them to work both on fast transitions out of their half and then patience in creating chances further forward.

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About two-thirds of the way through the approach of both teams changed, as Spalletti looked to begin instructing them to play back to the keeper, open up and build methodically out of the back upon regaining possession. The language barrier, of course, made knowing exactly what Spalletti was asking difficult but he did shout repeatedly at one point while pointing back to the keeper and the team obliged and played back to him.

From there, once again as on Monday, four players dropped out of the main group and did some running and jogging on the far side of the field. These were returning players from the Euros, Daniele De Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi, Stephen El Shaarawy and Radja Nainggolan. This was their last involvement for the session.

The main group then played a half field game of 10v10 with no apparent restrictions. Both teams seemingly played a 4-2-3.

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For the second night in a row, after working together largely in one group, they split into smaller groups to finish out the session. The goalkeepers and some of the forward players worked on finishing and some of the midfielders worked on playing either passes or chipped balls through or over two lines of four plastic men.

The two back fours, with the help of four other players, worked on defensive shape again. The back fours took turns defending an empty goal against a 1-3. The focus was on pressing the wide player on the ball and then dealing with a ball chipped into the center forward from the lone midfielder after the winger laid off to him. The key seemed to be on quickly stepping the line on the back pass and then tightly marking the attackers as they made their run onto the chipped ball.

The above group of twelve then finished with a game of 4v4v4 in which one line of four played between the other two. The two outside lines had to keep possession and attempt to play through the middle line to the group on the opposite side. Interception of a through ball from the middle group got them out of the middle as they would switch with the group who’s pass they picked off.

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At the conclusion of the session just about all the players went over to the supporters and signed autographs and took selfies. The Roma associate working the check in said they had made a point of telling the players they needed to go over after each session for a bit. The previous evening only Florenzi made an extended effort to go over. Even Spalletti was coaxed into posing for a selfie by one overzealous coach taking in the session 🙂

Right before the above, Spalletti was alone with one of the younger looking defenders talking to him for several minutes about something from the previous exercise on defensive shape. Apologies to AS Roma fans who may find who this was to be interesting but my familiarity with the squad is not the best! A picture of their chat is below, if anyone can identify the young lad, let me know in the comments!

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Another evening of great insight into how top teams prepare for a coming season along with some excellent technical ability on display, the likes of which is not seen in person around here all that often! Worth the trip to Harvard if you can make this week.

 

Spurs Stall Out Away to Hull, 1-1

After Tottenham’s midweek disaster at home to Manchester City, Spurs were hoping for a quick three points and a rebound away to Hull City(Tigers). Any one of the bottom ten teams would have done following Man City, with everything so tight in tenth through twentieth position there’s plenty of reason for optimism when facing any of them. But Hull were tough for Spurs to breakdown at the Lane earlier in the year only able to come away with a 1-0 victory thanks to a Roberto Soldado penalty. There would be nothing to save Spurs this time around, however, and Tottenham had their worst performance in the Sherwood era.

The match saw a return to Tactical Timmy’s much maligned 4-4-2 formation, which initially looked like a major tactical blunder as Hull have fielded a 3-5-2 formation at times this season. A back three came into popularity as the preferred counter to two striker systems and subsequently went away with the trend towards 4-2-3-1 and other single striker systems that made three centerbacks redundant. Luckily, Sherwood was spared being outclassed from the get go by Steve Bruce, as Bruce also opted to go 4-4-2. Hull paired their new strike force of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long up top, with the two operating together with good effect.

Despite the similar formations, the approach in possession of the two teams could not have been much more different. Spurs dominated possession with a 77% percent pass completion rate and 61% of the ball and looked for chances on goal with both slick passing counter attacks and sustained build up play. Tottenham’s two forwards, Soldado and Adebayor, worked the channels or dropped off into midfield to assist the build up play on a regular basis. Hull’s front pairing stayed higher up the pitch looking to get onto the end of long balls and attack Spurs directly. Jelavic made himself useful with his physicality and Long used his excellent pace to good effect.

The main tactical feature of the game was space in between the defensive and midfield lines, for both teams , when defending. It is no surprise to see this from Spurs in a 4-4-2 as their lack of a holding midfield player in four or five man midfields has been well, well, documented. But Hull allowed too much space in between their two banks of four as well and it’s a bit of surprise neither side took advantage of this more, as the two goals came from a sequence starting with a goal kick and a free kick.

The opening goal came in the opening fifteen minutes of the match as both sides created excellent chances one after another in short order that perfectly exploited the other sides weakness. Unfortunately for Spurs, Adebayor’s volley was saved but Long was able to chip Lloris and put Hull ahead. The snapshot below shows, perhaps, Spurs best chance from open play, a series of short combination passing followed with a short cross from Soldado and an outstanding volley from Adebayor.

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Shortly after, Hull exposed Spurs’ lack of a holding midfield player and got their goal by pulling Vertonghen and Dawson, Spurs centerback pairing, apart vertically from one another as Vertonghen went forward to challenge Long in the air from a Hull goal kick and Dawson marked Jelavic. Neither Vertonghen or Long won the ball in the air but it fell behind them, came to Jelavic who flicked it into the path of Long who easily raced by Dawson and away from Vertonghen to score with a nice finish 1v1 with Lloris.

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Hull were content to keep playing the long game with both Jelavic and Long looking effective. And their long passing game was quite succesful, they completed 24 of 53 long passes(45%) while defensively, Long and Jelavic took away Spurs short passing options and were able to force them long. But Spurs only completed 12 of 39 long passes, 30%, and were poor taking free kicks inside their own half, completing just 3 of 10.

Shane Long was an outstanding nuisance in this match, he committed five fouls in and around Spurs area, created two chances, scored a goal, received fifteen passes from Hull’s half into Spurs half, recovered possession twice, won five of his twelve aerial duels(four in Spurs half) and was fouled three times himself. He showed exactly why Hull brought him in, pace, good finishing and an ability to be generally very energetic and annoying to his opponents for 90 minutes.

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Hull setup their front pairing in their initial defensive block in between Spurs centerbacks and central midfield pairing of Bentaleb and Dembele while their midfield four took up positions around the halfway line. This was a more proactive defensive block than that set out by Tony Pulis when Palace played Spurs, Pulis allowed Spurs central midfield pairing plenty of possession and took away their other options, here, they were pushed further back and not allowed to easily receive passes from the back. But it did create the potential weakness of, again, space between the lines for Eriksen to operate freely. Eriksen received 47 passes, including ten that crossed from Spurs half into Hull’s.

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Eriksen was able to complete 17 of 20 passes in the final third, 40 of 50 passes overall and had three shots from outside the area. Unfortunately, two of those shots were off target and one was blocked. He did hit Adebayor with six passes, two received inside the area, and also found Soldado with a pass eight times. But Hull did a solid defensive job inside their own area and Eriksen’s ability to roam didn’t end up hurting Hull.

Spurs also showed an ability to counter effectively, at least in terms of getting from their own half into Hull’s defensive third, with rapid sequences of passes on the ground. In the snapshot below Spurs move from their defensive third into Hull’s area with five well placed passes and win a corner.

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Adebayor showed yet another dimension to his game against Hull, his ability to hold up back to goal against a centerback and take passes into feet and then look to layoff. Yet again, in this match Spurs were able on several occasions to hit Adebayor with a pass in or around Hull’s area from a central position because of the space in between the lines. Below, one such instance shows Adebayor receive a pass and then lay it off moments later to Eriksen(who’s not in screen) at the top of the area who then gets his blocked shot off and it goes out for a corner.

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The goal scored by Hull highlights well enough why there is a need for a more defensive minded midfield player on the pitch for Spurs, despite Les Ferdinand’s comments this week that he doesn’t like holding midfielders. He wants his midfield players to be more complete players, capable of contributing to the build up and attack play and also playing a role defensively. But that’s what all managers want, ideally, yes, you would want complete players in the central areas, but they are not so easy to find or cheap to acquire, there are only so many Sergio Busquets type players to go around.

What can be done in  to replicate this type of player? One, is to play a double pivot, two deep mids who take going forward in turns, with a strong understanding that if one goes, the other one stays. Spurs haven’t been able to find a partnership that has worked in this capacity so far, as it does for Man City and Chelsea quite well. Secondly, the creator/destroyer central pairing in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, which Spurs fans will remember Harry employing with Sandro and Luka Modric to great effect in the past, Sherwood hasn’t really given this a go yet either, that even Harry recognized the need for a Sandro or Scott Parker type in midfield is damning even more of Sherwood’s nativity.

Those are two options to avoid the holding midfield player being run out in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 that Sherwood and Ferdinand fear doing so badly. Or they could just play a holding mid and admit they do not have a Sergio Busquets type player kicking around at the Lane at the moment. So long as they continue with this preference of selection, Spurs will continue to see problems in the middle of the park. Spurs interception chart below shows a glaring lack of interceptions made in the particular area of the field where a holding mid would take up his position.

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The match did display the contrast in styles that two teams can have while playing the same basic formation, no 4-4-2s are the same and we saw that clearly in this match. But just because Spurs version of 4-4-2 is not “orthodox” does not mean it can and will always be effective. Sherwood moved away from it for a while and fielded a 4-1-4-1 to good effect against Swansea but it will be interesting to see if he will break away from it again. And once Sandro is fit he will have the option of pairing him with his Brazilian counterpart, Paulinho, or his buddy from last season, Dembele, in the center of the park. If he chooses not to use the creator/destroyer tandem with a fully fit Sandro, who has proven himself in the Premier League, at his disposal, serious questions will start to be asked about Sherwood.

In the meantime, Hull City can come away from this match the much happier of the two sides, as they took a valuable point from a relatively in form, big club and having done so by executing their game plan better than the boys from the Lane. Bruce’s approach created a goal and stifled Spurs creativity and open football well enough to take something from the match, he succeeded where Stoke, Palace,Swansea and even Manchester United failed, putting the breaks on Sherwood’s free flowing football and making them pay for their defensive shortcomings.

Check back later in the week for a closer look at Bentaleb’s and Soldado’s performances against Hull City

The Similar Influences of Adebayor and Bony

On Sunday when Spurs came out on top against a struggling Swansea side, one of the more interesting subplots of the game was the similar play of Wilfried Bony and Emmanuel Abedayor. Both were operating as the lone front man for their respective teams and were able to influence their team’s buildup and attack play effectively down to their excellent work rates.

Spurs won the match fairly easily and Adebayor outscored Bony as well, 2-1, on the day but it’s safe to say Bony deserved at least the one goal and Adebayor certainly had the better supporting cast. All else being equal between the sides, which it is not, the simple fact that Adebayor had Christian Eriksen working behind him and Bony had Jonjo Shelvey as his supporting attacking mid certainly goes a ways in tipping the odds in Adebayor’s favor.

Both were on the receiving end of plenty of passes, with Adebayor receiving 56 passes to Bony’s 48. The chart below shows that they both were able to help the buildup but also still wound up in positions in and around the area to finish attacking moves with shots on goal. They were essentially able to cover two jobs typically assigned to a center forward pairing on their own. We saw this from Adebayor against Crystal Palace as well, when he made Roberto Soldado look redundant. Bony is always left on his own and must certainly miss the attacking qualities from Michu who has been out injured.

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Bony was on the end of a pass inside the area four times against Spurs and from those passes he mustered three shots and a goal. Likewise, Adebayor took in four passes in Swansea’s area and had three attempts for two goals. Bony added two shots from outside the area after receiving a pass, one of which hit the woodwork, possibly the one threat he was able to offer that Adebayor was not. Most of the passes into Bony were from wide positions, where as Adebayor’s movement was more varied and he took passes from all over. But looking back at the chart, neither of them spent much time operating in front of the opposition area, they were both working the flanks or coming deep to get on the ball.

Where as Bony created more shots, six to three, Adebayor was both the busier and more successful passer of the two, completing 39 of 45 passes, an 87% completion rate, but Bony only completed 25 of 35, a 71% completion rate. Bony’s passing was also far more constricted, most being short passes in central positions and offered almost nothing in the final third. Adebayor on the other hand, sprayed his passes much more and was able to play passes into the final third as well.

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What was both lacking from the two was an ability to win challenges in the air. Adebayor won just one of his five headed challenges and Bony only one of his six. Bony is very much a physical force and Adebayor is not a pushover himself, making it a bit surprising they weren’t winning many duels in the air. Both have put their heads to good use, Bony has won 41 of 86 headed challenges this season and Adebayor scored with his head this week and assisted with it last week. Neither dominated in the air in this particular match.

Adebayor was clearly the better of the two, even beyond just looking at the goal tally. But both him and Bony are asked to do very little in the defensive phase, they had one tackle and one interception between the two of them, and tasked with being a major influence when their side are in possession. Bony also hit the woodwork from range, very nearly matching Adebayor with a brace of his own, but never the less, it was a great display from both lone forwards of matching their much needed goal scoring ability with an excellent work rate as well.