By Robin Bairner and Carlo Garganese
Tactics may not be the most glamorous subject when discussing the world's most popular sport, but three of the biggest games of the past week - Monaco v PSG, Liverpool v Arsenal and Manchester City v Chelsea - have clearly demonstrated just how important strategy is.
On Sunday night, in Ligue 1's top of the table clash, it was not star men such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and James Rodriguez who proved decisive - rather coach Claudio Ranieri outwitting Laurent Blanc in the second half as Monaco recovered to grab a 1-1 draw.
In the first half, the Parisian outfit looked comfortable. Having taken the lead early when serial set-piece threat Alex flicked on a corner for forgotten man Javier Pastore to head in his first goal of a disappointing campaign, PSG muscularly dominated the midfield through Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta.
Half-time offered the hosts the opportunity to reorganise and this would be time well spent by Ranieri. The Italian decided to sacrifice Lucas Ocampos, whose quick feet down the left had to make way for the more industrial Geoffrey Kondogbia, whose steel alongside Jeremy Toulalan brought the hosts the means to compete where previously they had been dominated.
In reply, Blanc failed to make best use of his hand, choosing to replace Pastore and Verratti for Jeremy Menez and Yohan Cabaye, respectively.
Monaco’s alterations brought them a foothold in midfield and freed up the flanks - particularly the right - allowing their full-backs to push forward. Where Pastore had been reliable in his tracking of Fabinho, Menez seemed disinterested and his introduction almost immediately signalled an increase of activity from the former Real Madrid loanee, whose cross provoked the own goal from Thiago Silva that saw the match squared.
"We fell away a little in the second half," confessed Matuidi to Canal+.
"Their change of tactics in the midfield really affected us because Toulalan found more room and was able to organise."
In the context of Ligue 1, a draw was not a poor result for PSG, who remain five points clear and firmly in control of the championship, yet they have still to prove themselves against a really top club this term. Blanc’s side have drawn all four of their fixtures against the other members of Le Championnat’s top four, and with the Champions League on the horizon, Sunday’s failure to win has posed a question.
Ranieri's tactical switch combined with Blanc's faux pas was simply the final example in a week that showcased the importance of an astute approach from the sidelines.
Last Monday, a Jose Mourinho masterclass saw Chelsea alter the direction of the Premier League title race with a superb 1-0 win at Manchester City. The home side had boasted a 100 per cent league record at Eastlands going into the game but boss Manuel Pellegrini was taught a harsh lesson by his counterpart.
Mourinho switched to a 4-3-3 system, dropped Oscar, and fielded three more physical and defensive-minded midfielders in Ramires, Nemanja Matic and David Luiz. Widemen Eden Hazard and Willian also dropped back in defensive phases to create a five-man midfield as City were invited to attack. Then, just as the 2012 champions approached the 30-yard mark, Chelsea pressed ferociously and launched lightning-paced counters. It was a ploy that devastated City, especially in the first half.
Pellegrini’s choices were limited by injuries, but his decision to play a flat four-man midfield – with the immobile Martin Demichelis and undisciplined Yaya Toure in the centre of the park – played right into Mourinho’s hands. It was too easy for Chelsea to transition and pick City off on the break, with their 1-0 victory fully deserved, as the Blues also hit the woodwork on three occasions.
On Saturday, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger suffered arguably the most humiliating 20 minutes of his career as Liverpool romped into a 4-0 lead at Anfield. Not for the first time, the Frenchman was outthought by his opposite number.
Brendan Rodgers described Liverpool’s eventual 5-1 triumph as “tactically brilliant” - and that is exactly what it was. Liverpool’s front four of Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez switched positions constantly, doubled up along with Jordan Henderson on left back Nacho Monreal and attacked all of Arsenal’s weaknesses. The slow and awkward Per Mertesacker was deliberately pulled out of position, while Laurent Koscielny’s suicidal high pressing was exploited with through balls in behind.
Rodgers had clearly studied Arsenal meticulously prior to kick-off and adapted Liverpool’s tactics accordingly. Wenger has never been one to change his skin and he sent Arsenal out with exactly the same gameplan he has always used. Manchester United's hapless boss David Moyes can be similarly criticised for refusing to curtail his side's bombardment of crosses during the 2-2 draw with bottom-club Fulham at Old Trafford.
To succeed in football today, a coach must be smart and flexible enough to adapt his tactics depending on the opponent and scenario. In three of the biggest games of the past week, Blanc, Wenger and Pellegrini have come out as losers in this regard. Mourinho, Rodgers and Ranieri have emerged as winners.