Champions League Matchday 2: Tactical Battles to Watch
We enter Matchday 2 of the UEFA Champions League with palpable excitement, as the first round provided entertainment, shock value and tactical conundrums galore.
Let's go to the drawing board and take a look at some of the key tactical factors in some of the week's most enticing encounters.
United's Counter, Shakhtar's Core Strength
Manchester United are in a bad way, and the last thing David Moyes will have wanted when trying to rectify a nose dive in form was a trip to Eastern Europe.
The Donbass Arena is a horrific place to go, and it's rather rare any visitors take a share of the spoils; the crowd is incredibly hostile, the travelling is unfavourable and Hirnyky boss Mircea Lucescu really knows how to dominate a game on his own turf.
The same task awaits United as it would anyone: Can you grab a hold of the game and stop Shakhtar dictating?
This Ukrainian outfit is not what it once was, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho, Razvan Rat and Willian all leaving in the last 12 months. Still, Lucescu has recruited well and, after bedding in his new players, will stand to have a very strong group once again.
With Fernando, formerly of Gremio, integrated, the midfield looked extremely solid against Real Sociedad and held out for a vital 2-0 away victory at Anoeta on Matchday 1.
Many have suggested La Real were extremely unfortunate, but Lucescu's men deserve more credit for the job they did and the game plan they devised.
Shakhtar will have more of the ball at home and rely on their new-look midfield duo to shut the gates for United's attackers. Their 4-2-3-1 formation hasn't changed an awful lot despite a host of stars leaving, but it's fair to say Alex Teixeira is not the dynamic, world-class presence Mkhitaryan represented.
United will be looking to counter, at immense pace, to craft their best opportunities. Perhaps this is not the sort of game Shinji Kagawa is suited to given his current role in the team, and a 4-3-3 formation with Danny Welbeck would be a wise choice.
La Real—Better Away Than at Home?
There's a touch of Aston Villa about the way Real Sociedad struggle to win games they control.
No, we're not comparing the two in terms of player personnel and quality, but both have dynamic, enthusiastic, rapid players who thrive more on the counterattack than they do when asked to force the issue.
Jagoba Arrasate has multiple creative talents at his disposal—Antoine Griezmann, David Zurutuza and Xabi Prieto, to name a few—and should be capable of picking the lock, but so far this season his troops have struggled when facing 10 behind the ball.
The Txuri-Urdin had a night to forget as they fell to Shakhtar on the opening matchday, and if they don't win at Bayer Leverkusen, their dreams of qualifying could be over.
Luckily the game is at the BayArena, meaning the Werkself will be asked to force the issue and Arraste's men can absorb and counter.
Leverkusen, too, are a side that prefer to counterattack at pace, but in welcoming back Lars Bender they have a more legitimate shot at breaking their opponents down while seeing more of the ball.
Carlos Vela on the counter versus Bender's ingenuity.
Transitions Key at the Etihad Stadium
Manchester City face the gargantuan task of hosting the defending European champions Bayern Munich on Wednesday, where much of England will get their first good look at Pep Guardiola's charges.
Die Bayern are averaging the highest possession per game on the Continent with 70.2 percent, and Manuel Pellegrini will know his side are going to be starved of the ball despite playing at home.
That's not ideal, as the City fans will rightly bay for a response after their side fell at Villa Park this weekend, and the longer they go without the ball, the more disgruntled the crowd will get.
The key for City will be to use their transitional opportunities well and play a clinical game in front of goal.
Fernandinho and Yaya Toure will absorb a lot of pressure in front of the back four and do a lot of chasing, and when a turnover is created, the latter will be key in surging forward.
Bayern's 4-1-4-1 formation—should it be used—is far from watertight, and Yaya is the perfect player to match up against a single holding midfielder. He's unstoppable when on form.
Be it Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Javi Martinez, no one can stop the Ivorian train once he's in full flow. He is central to City's hopes of driving forward.
The Use of Complete Forwards
Atletico Madrid travel to Portugal to take on FC Porto on Tuesday for another sizable away test.
Fresh from tasting glorious victory in the Madrid derby at the Bernabeu, Diego Simeone's men must enter the Dragao and face a side far more cultured and experienced on this battleground.
Los Colcherones are new to the scene, the rigour of the schedule and the competition itself, and it's almost impossible to predict how they'll get on.
If guessing the result is hard, predicting how the game will play out is even harder; Atleti are as likely to find another gear as they are to fall flat on their faces, and Simeone's formation is tough to predict.
Instead, look at the difference in how two complete forwards are used by their respective managers as a gauge for how systems can define a player.
The home side boast Jackson Martinez, an unstoppable goalscoring threat who has proven everyone wrong in his quick acclimation to European football. He's big, strong, able to link play and boasts great feet too, making him the prototypical modern target man Jose Mourinho simply adores.
Contrast that to Diego Costa, who is less formidable in the air but still strong as an ox. He does his better work when fanning out into wider areas and leaving his traditional striking role.
Paulo Fonseca will play centrally through Martinez, while Simeone will allow Costa to drift away from his position in the side and create mismatches in different areas. The reason? Porto play a single striker, Atletico often play two.
If you tune in at the Dragao, you'll see two complete forwards playing completely different roles—it's not often that happens.
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