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This week’s tactical threat: Shakhtar’s buildup phase

Real Madrid and their poor pressing will face one of the best managers in Europe at coaching buildup phases.


De Zerbi's possession principles

Over the last few years, Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi has turned into a superstar among football nerds and hipsters. De Zerbi's Sassuolo team became one of the most tactically exciting sides in Italian football, showing intricate attacking mechanisms in possession, most notably when they played out of the back.

Sassuolo were impeccably coached, and they exhibited many of the mechanisms and principles you would expect of great possession sides.

  • Inviting the press: Sassuolo frequently passed the ball across their defensive line to attract opposition pressing, forcing the opponents to commit more players forward and leave larger spaces behind their pressing line.
  • Wall passes: Let's say player A wants to pass the ball to player B but can't do so because an opponent is pressing. A cannot pass the ball directly to B, but he can pass the ball to a player C who is in a more convenient position and can then get the ball to B. This is known as a "wall pass". Sassuolo center backs often did this when under pressure, using the holding midfielders as the wall when they needed to pass the ball to the other center back. The first half of the video below shows how Sassuolo invited Inter's pressing and used wall passes to break through it.
  • Overload to isolate: One of Pep Guardiola's most famous sound bites summarizes this principle easily. "Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other." Sassuolo were very good at keeping the ball on one side of the pitch, attracting opponents toward them, and quickly moving to the other side, where their attackers now had more space to operate against displace and isolated opponents. This is useful to break the opposition press and to disorder compact, deep defensive blocks.
  • Keeper involvement: De Zerbi's Sassuolo often involved keeper Andrea Consigli in the buildup phase. He could exchange short passes with his teammates to invite the opposition press or deliver good long passes to bypass the opposition press entirely.

De Zerbi's possession structures in Sassuolo and Shakhtar feature an interesting quirk: unlike most possession-based teams using 4-3-3, he usually goes for a 4-2-3-1. The fullbacks take rather conservative roles in possession and remain closer to the center backs, while the wingers stay wide to provide width in the attacking structure. The double-pivot play unusually close together to maximize their ability to find each other through safe passes and keep the ball. Meanwhile, the striker and number ten roles usually do not participate much in the buildup, looking more to hit the box from deep positions rather than holding the ball up and linking up with teammates.

Passing network of Sassuolo against Juventus, a Serie A game played on May 12th, 2021.
Between The Posts

De Zerbi's Shakhtar Adventure

This summer, De Zerbi ended his tenure with Sassuolo and joined Shakhtar Donetsk's ever-fascinating sporting project. For the last two decades, Shakhtar has developed an excellent academy and scouting system that helps them find, develop, and sell talent from their own region and Brazil. Then, they pair up this player talent with stimulating managers like Paulo Fonseca or De Zerbi, who espouse more aggressive and attacking football ideas.

However, both Rome and great possession structures were not built in a day. Shakhtar still has a way to go before adapting to their new coach's style, which shows in their performances and results. In the Champions League preliminary stages, Monaco was noticeably superior to them in the second leg game (24 shots from Monaco vs. 7 from Shakhtar). Still, Shakhtar made it through due to a comical but unfortunate Monaco own goal during extra time.

Shakhtar struggled to play out of the back due to Monaco's pressing, and they were frequently forced to give up on short passes and try long passes to their forwards instead. Their midfield rotations to disorder the Monaco defense were also slow, with the players still needing more time to develop more chemistry among them.

To boot, Shakhtar now has a striker problem since both Junior Moraes and new signing Lassina Traoré are injured—the latter with a long-term injury. Against Real Madrid, De Zerbi will likely use one of his wingers—Pedrinho or Tetê—in the striker role, although midfielder Alan Patrick has also played the striker role in a couple of recent games. This issue makes it harder for Shakhtar to score even when their possession play manages to dominate games.

Despite the issues in Europe, Shakhtar has managed to impose De Zerbi's possession principles against their Ukrainian league opponents. To give a very punctual example, here's a neat buildup sequence from their recent game against Zorya Luhansk that showcases some of the principles we mentioned before, such as inviting the press, overloading to isolate, and using the keeper to bypass the press.

Alaba and Militão to the rescue

If Real Madrid continues to press as poorly as they have in the last two months, this Shakhtar game could end up looking very similar to the one against Villarreal last month. Time after time, Villarreal players could easily pass their way through the disorganized press from Los Blancos. Emery's Villarreal used the same possession principles that De Zerbi loves to implement in his teams, such as inviting the press, wall passes and overloading one side of the pitch to isolate opponents on the other side.

Fortunately for Real, Villarreal's attack lacked enough punch to capitalize on all the open spaces left behind Real's pressing line while Eder Militão and David Alaba stepped up with one of their best performances in a Real Madrid shirt. The center-back pair consistently managed to abort many of Villlareal's attacks, either with good interceptions outside the box or last-ditch interventions inside the box. If Ancelotti's men do not improve their pressing significantly this time around, the pair will have to put out fires across the pitch once again.

Real Madrid CF v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

However, this time around, they will also receive help from Ferland Mendy, who is finally back with the squad and will likely start this game to improve his match fitness ahead of the upcoming Clásico. While the French left-back cannot single-handedly solve the team's defensive structure problems, his recovery pace and an outstanding ability to win individual duels will be extremely valuable to compensate for the deficiencies in Real's pressing.

Ultimately, however, Real should not be relying on their defensive line's ability to put out fires. The only way for the team to defend consistently well is to find a compact defensive structure that does not give away acres of space to opposition attackers. If Ancelotti's men continue to struggle so much with the pressing mechanisms, there is no shame in returning to the deeper block defending that Carlo's teams have usually implemented in the past.

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