Due to the coronavirus lockdown, UEFA has decided to postpone Champions League matches indefinitely. It would be a shame not to witness another historic campaign, with the remaining teams still lining up and preparing to play it out.
In an already exciting group stage, smaller teams like RB Salzburg, Club Brugge, or Dinamo Zagreb also managed to put up a fight and state that they belong there. Group C consisted of a particularly interesting quartet: Manchester City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, and the aforementioned Dinamo. All four’s tactics are built on an offensive style of football yet with entirely different approaches. The race was on for the second place behind Pep Guardiola’s club and promised some future classics of tactical battles.
This tactical analysis of Dinamo Zagreb will focus on how they always adapted to their opponents using different defensive schemes. This first part will break down their 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 defensive structure. Before going into details, it is important to point out the tactical flexibility that makes Dinamo an unpredictable opponent. Without a real challenger in their home league, Nenad Bjelica can experiment to some extent with his defence. This allowed him to use mostly three schemes in the Champions League rather than sticking with just one. Let’s see the most successful one.
It would be foolish to say that Dinamo didn’t make the most out of their European opportunity. They started off with one of the biggest surprises of the tournament, a 4-0 win against Atalanta. They were clinical with their counter-attacks throughout the group stage and ended up scoring ten goals and five points. From a defensive perspective, the big picture was more nuanced. They conceded 13 goals, 95 shots from which 37 went on target. In a course of six games, these are relatively huge numbers but it doesn’t tell us the details of how Bjelica had to prepare his team against the other three. However, the various types of defensive actions and their metrics (defensive duels, aerial duels, interceptions, and clearances) can demonstrate the small differences that Dinamo had to face.
The Croatian side had a busy campaign in the group stage, registering 465 duels on the defensive end (53.1% success rate), 189 in the air (49.7% success rate), 282 interceptions, and 144 clearances all together. When analysing their opponents and their tactics, a few eye-catching statistics from the charts should be considered. Dinamo put together a strong performance against Manchester City, focusing on defensive compactness and zonally marking on their own half. This resulted in an outstanding number of interceptions (123) and cleared balls (68) as well as the most duels (167). In the matchup with Atalanta, they were forced into an aerial battle (84) while the wider formation of the opponent was responsible for the relatively smaller amount of defensive duels (140). Shakhtar were the most evenly matched side to Dinamo, also represented on the chart. They tried to build up from deep, hence the 29 clearances. However, the tactical mismatch between the formations led to just 58 intercepted balls, a missed opportunity to put more pressure on Shakhtar.
Tailoring the formation
According to the different football sites, Dinamo played all but one game with five defenders on the pitch. The defensive schemes deriving from this formation allowed the team to tactically adapt to their opponents and stay true to their game plan. We will focus on their back-three and back-five system used in Manchester and both Atalanta games.
The team could easily scintillate between the 5-3-2 and the 3-5-2, however, the reasons behind the tactical choices differed. Bjelica needed to prepare for two very different matchups with the same set of players. The position of the Dinamo wing-backs is what brings the apparent change in the defensive schemes.
In Manchester, the team played a position-oriented zonal coverage with the players moving as one block, paying attention to each other more than to the opponent. Bjelica felt this could be the only way to limit City in front of the goal. They held their formation, rarely pressed the opponent, and kept the space between the lines as narrow as possible. They allowed City to dominate the possession in the midfield (81%-19%) as long as they couldn’t find that last pass into the congested defensive third. The home team amassed 20 shots, 15 from inside the box but still just scored twice. This might be contradictory with Dinamo’s original goal but we will see the downside of this coverage type as well.
Back in Zagreb, however, the defence and the midfield were much more man-oriented within those zones with more pressing as well. In general, Gian Piero Gasperini instructs his players to continuously rotate their positions on the wings, creating triangles or even rectangles where the ball could move. Therefore, the traditional zonal coverage would have failed due to how much space the opponent could find between the lines. Deploying four players out wide including the full-backs to combat this positional rotation proved to be effective. This resulted in greater gaps between the players but greater presence where the ball was played and Dinamo could focus on the flanks more efficiently without losing their initial structure.
To press or not to press?
Bjelica did a brilliant job preparing the team for both approaches. From the players’ perspective, it requires a huge amount of discipline and tactical awareness to be able to play in two diverse defensive schemes. If we take a look at the pressing intensity (PPDA) apart from the general statistical analysis, the difference is evident. This would be passes allowed per defensive action and it is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed in the attacking half by the sum of interceptions, tackles attempted, and fouls committed. The smaller the number, the more intense the pressing is.
Dinamo first produced a 6.3 against Atalanta then 15.0 against City. Considering the equation, the big difference can come down to two factors. Atalanta play a more direct type of football with fewer combinations, while Guardiola famously instructs his players to pass shorter in the attacking half. The other reasons could be Dinamo’s braver approach and through it, the different type of zonal marking that worked against the Italian side.
Pressing starts with the forwards. Mislav Orsic and Bruno Petkovic did their best to disrupt any build-ups. Petkovic, usually lining up more up front, tried to keep the ball away from the centre. Orsic stayed a bit deeper and picked up secondary balls from the midfield while remaining close to his forward partner. He also initiated pressing as the first line and as the faster player. In practice, it didn’t look efficient as City always found a way to play through them while Atalanta were comfortable to launch long balls forward if the centre-backs were closed down. The simple solution to the problem was that against City, they stopped pressing.
Adapting with the midfield
With the same three midfielders, Arijan Ademi, Nikola Moro, and Dani Olmo – occasionally Mislav Orsic helping out – Dinamo aimed to ensure numerical advantage in the centre. Ademi and Moro, as two defensive midfielders, were the motors of the defence, constantly harassing the opponent. Olmo, now a Leipzig player, provided width on the wings, closing down the wing-backs or wide central midfielders. The main contrast in how they attacked the opponents’ possession again came down to pressing. Against City, the two defensive-minded midfielders were expected to ‘travel’ between the lines of the midfield horizontally while in the games of Atalanta, they had to move vertically up and down the pitch.
Moro’s absence from the second game against Atalanta brought negative effects on the otherwise organised midblock. He was replaced by Luka Ivanusec, a more attacking-minded midfielder. The pressing which proved to be effective in the first game completely failed in the second. The midfield became disorganised and Atalanta just ran through them. Gasperini managed to set a trap to Dinamo’s high pressing by putting Mario Pasalic in the starting line-up instead of Josip Ilicic. It was the key to the 2-0 victory and the move that Bjelica didn’t see coming. Pasalic was able to drop much deeper into his own half that it completely dismantled Dinamo’s zonal coverage as he increased the numerical advantage between the defensive zones.
Finding balance at the back
Above all, Bjelica altered his system between the two matchups on the wings as we saw in the analysis of the formation. Since Guardiola used Joao Cancelo as an inverted wing-back, positioning him more centrally, Leovac mostly stayed in line with his defence and didn’t mark him. On the right flank, Stojanovic stayed on the wing to block Benjamin Mendy’s crosses. This was necessary to minimize the danger as City led 43% of their attacks on their left compared to the 9% on the right wing.
Against Gasperini’s side, the two full-backs aggressively pushed up the field to neutralise their counterparts. If they were successful (mostly in the first round), Atalanta’s triangles on the flanks during their build-up were broken up effectively.
While the full-backs’ roles changed, the task of the centre-backs remained vastly the same in both games. The extensive use of half-spaces is one of the key concepts in Guardiola’s positional play. To deal with the constant presence in these areas, the 5-3-2 defensive formation could be a viable option and worked well for Dinamo. It was the task of the right and left centre-back to press in the half-spaces. Kevin Theophile-Catherine and Dino Peric were able to put pressure on the attackers as soon as they received the ball and effectively limited them to back passes. In contrast with this free vertical movement, Emir Dilaver provided the back-line stability. He remained in a central position and shuttled between the flanks to gather balls played behind Theophile and Peric.
Throughout the game, this remained their main principle. Being as compact as possible but helping out the midfield in the half-spaces. They did a fair job – City could threaten the goal more because of individual errors than any tactical issues. The only negative aspect of this coverage type revealed why it is risky to play and needs practice. Against a possession-based club like City, the threat that the team could be pinned to their own goal is high. The more compact the team, the easier they can play a clever but simple pass play through both the midblock and the defensive line.
When no opponent occupied the half-spaces behind the midfielders, the centre-backs remained narrow to each other during the opposition build-up. Dinamo had to defend in lower lines while they left the flanks open but took the risk of crosses and inside cutting movements as long as they defended with three at the back. We could see the same structure against Atalanta with the same instructions.
The scout report proved that the 5-3-2/3-5-2 scheme with zonal coverage could be a viable option in the upcoming season, in this structure they showed the most flexibility and balance. Both Bjelica and the players showed tactical intelligence and adaptability in the first two games of the Champions League. They were able to secure a clean sheet against the high-scoring Atalanta and limit Manchester City to two goals at home. They made the impression of a team capable of defending when it mattered and when they didn’t need to, score. Unfortunately for them, the match in Italy shattered the well-functioning system and revealed the flaws of the high-pressing 3-5-2.
We saw the key roles of the full-backs in efficient pressing and the importance of Nikola Moro, the 22-year-old all-round midfielder who can quickly outgrow his club. He provided stability, constantly kept up with the opponents, and defensively was the best player of the three-centre-back structure. Moreover, we could analyse the expected duty of the front line and the back three.
In the next part, we will switch our attention to the four-man defensive line starting with the matchup against Shakhtar. The adaption to their strengths resulted in a 4-3-2-1 asymmetrical formation, an interesting concept from Bjelica’s tactics book. Lastly, in the final part of this analysis series, we will examine why a flat 4-4-2 defence is never a good idea against Guardiola’s City.