A League Of Their Own - Steffen Siebert - ebook

A League Of Their Own ebook

Steffen Siebert



How champions win and how they can be beaten. A League Of Their Own provides readers with a closer look at the FIFA Club World Champions, such as FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester City. Readers will catch a glimpse into the history of these clubs while also learning about the individual philosophies of some of the top coaches. This book discusses different tactical philosophies as well as how these tactical approaches have been adjusted by some of soccer's greatest coaches, such as Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Luis Enrique, and Louis van Gaal. Finally, readers will be taken through case studies of each individual team with a step-by-step analysis of how these tactical setups are successful and how they can be exploited. Each case study will provide a discussion of how each team sets up when in attack, defending, and in transition. Not only addressing how and why these tactical setups are powerful, this book also breaks down and specifies just how lesser teams can exploit the subtle weaknesses by adjusting their attacking, defending, and transition strategies. Winning the tactical battle on the pitch creates endless possibilities, and perhaps evens the playing field to continue intrigue of the game.

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Steffen Siebert

A League of Their Own

The Secrets of Club Soccer Champions

Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd.


The contents of this ...IntroductionHistory of the 4-2-3-1System of PlayDefendingAttackingWhy a 4-2-3-1?Leagues of the WorldComparison Between LeaguesComparison to the Rest of EuropeFC BarcelonaHistoryFC Barcelona CoachesJosep “Pep” Guardiola (2008-2012)Tito Vilanova (2012-2013)Gerardo Martino (2013-2014)Luis Enrique (2014-Present)FC Barcelona’s Key PlayersGerard Piqué (2008-Present)Sergio Busquets (2008-Present)Andrés Iniesta (2002-Present)Dani Alves (2008-2016)Lionel Messi (2003-Present)Neymar (2013-Present)Luis Suarez (2014-Present)General Setup Under Luis EnriqueCase Study #1: A Barcelona WinCase Study #2: Beating BarcelonaFC Bayern MunichHistoryFC Bayern Munich CoachesLouis van Gaal (2009-2011)Jupp Heynckes (2011-2013)Josep “Pep” Guardiola (2013-2016)FC Bayern Munich Key PlayersManuel Neuer (2011-Present)Philipp Lahm (2002-Present)Jerome Boateng (2011-Present)David Alaba (2011-Present)Thomas Müller (2008-Present)Franck Ribéry (2007-Present)Arjen Robben (2009-Present)Robert Lewandowski (2014-Present)General Setup Under Pep GuardiolaCase Study #1: A Bayern Munich WinCase Study #2: Beating Bayern MunichManchester City FCHistoryManchester City CoachesRoberto Mancini (2009-2013)Manuel Pellegrini (2013-2016)Manchester City FC Key PlayersJoe Hart (2006-present)Vincent Kompany (2008-Present)Aleksander Kolarov (2010-Present)Yaya Touré (2010-Present)Kevin De Bruyne (2015-Present)David Silva (2014-Present)Sergio Agüero (2011-Present)General Setup Under Manuel PellegriniCase Study #1: A Manchester City WinCase Study #2: Beating Manchester CityReal Madrid CFHistoryReal Madrid Coaches (2009-Present)José Mourinho (2009-2013)Carlo Ancelotti (2013-2015)Rafa Benitez (2015-2016)Zinedine Zidane (2016-Present)Real Madrid’s Key PlayersPepe (2007-Present)Sergio Ramos (2005-Present)Marcelo (2007-Present)Luka Modric (2012-Present)Gareth Bale (2013-Present)Karim Benzema (2009-Present)Cristiano Ronaldo (2009-Present)General Setup Under Zinedine ZidaneCase Study #1: A Real Madrid WinCase Study #2: Beating Real MadridCredits

The contents of this book were carefully researched. However, all information is supplied without liability. Neither the author nor the publisher will be liable for possible disadvantages or damages resulting from this book.


My starting point, like most coaches, was to simply work on getting the best out of my team. I asked myself one simple question: How can we get better every day? My goal was to always take one step forward, whether that was working to turn a poor team into an average team, transitioning a good team to a great team, or consistently keeping a great team at their peak (which is actually one of the most difficult endeavors in sport!). To do this, I decided that I needed to learn more about the certain approaches that coaches take and why, and how these approaches coincide with their principles and their vision. By exploring the patterns of how different coaches succeed more in-depth, I could better comprehend and formulate my own personal beliefs as a coach while incorporating different elements and applying them to my coaching style. I aimed to take the best of what the top coaches do, and integrate it into my own personal coaching philosophy.

This book will explore the history of some of the most famous soccer clubs in the world, and I will analyze the tactical setup of previous and current coaches. Additionally, this book takes a closer look at specific games, examining how the chosen teams set up to win the tactical battle and get the most out of each specific player. The teams that are focused on in this book are FIFA Club World Champions, such as Barcelona, who won this title in 2009, 2011, and 2015; Bayern Munich who won in 2013; and Real Madrid who won in 2014. Manchester City, a team that won the English Premier League in 2011-2012 and 2013-2014[1] is also included. The coaches of these clubs have also been named to highly prestigious awards.

This book will explore the tactical setup and philosophy of coaching greats such as Pep Guardiola, who won FIFA Coach of the Year in 2011, and Luis Enrique who was named FIFA Coach of the Year in 2015[2]. The teams detailed in this book have key players that are known for their prowess at club level, as well as with their national team. These players include former national team captains such as Philipp Lahm (Germany), and current captains Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), and Lionel Messi (Argentina). The players at these clubs are perhaps the best in the world. There are no two names more well-known today in world soccer than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. These are the only two players who have taken home the Ballon D’Or in the past eight years—Messi has been awarded the trophy five times, and Ronaldo three times[3]. Finally, we will take an in-depth look at other special players who have been integral to their national teams that have won the two most recent FIFA World Cups (Spain in 2010, Germany 2014). It can be argued that these teams, their coaches, and the key players are among the best in the world. However, it still remains possible to beat these teams, and we can see more clearly how to do this when their tactical setup is broken down and analyzed.

In addition to the case studies of each team, I also provide a history of each club, and discuss the influence that recent coaches have had on these clubs. There will also be an in-depth discussion of the integral players for each club as well as how these players are used in the current and past systems. There will also be an in-depth discussion on the attacking and defensive setups under the current coach at these clubs.

A universal theme for every coach is that they have encountered a team that is more successful or talented than they. For this reason, I use case studies to analyze just how these great teams can be conquered, by whom, and how this was tactically achieved. I also provide a discussion of how the weaknesses of these great teams were exploited, thus defeated by teams despite their superior players.

One of the best aspects of soccer is that the use of proper tactical approaches and execution can make even the most superior team vulnerable to defeat. I aim to demonstrate how these great teams have been beaten. This involves a discussion of the adjustments that teams have made to defeat these top teams, as well as to demonstrate the many options that exist to beat the great teams with the right tactical know-how. Winning the tactical battle on the soccer field creates endless possibilities, which is one of the most intriguing aspects of soccer.

History of the 4-2-3-1

The 4-2-3-1 system of play is perhaps the most widely used system in professional soccer over the last decade. This formation has been highly successful, likely due to its setup in midfield, using two defensive midfielders and three offensive midfield players.

Tactical formations in professional soccer have evolved over the years to match the increasing talent of the modern player. During the 1990s, the primary formation, used by the majority of the top teams in the world, was 4-4-2. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990s[4] that the 4-4-2 formation began to evolve. Slowly, the midfield four that was seen in the 4-4-2 formation began to cool to a more flexible 4-2-3-1. In fact, France even used this formation before it was cool, winning the World Cup in 1998 and UEFA European Championship in 2000. Two other key teams that utilized the 4-2-3-1 was AC Milan under manager Arrigo Sacchi, and the Brazilian national team with Mario Zagallo.

More teams gradually began to understand the power of using this kind of midfield shape. To control the center of the field effectively using three players, as compared to the two traditionally used in the 4-4-2 shape, increased the chance of having a stranglehold on the game, thus increasing the likelihood of winning. Additionally, the 4-4-2 would have the wingers pushed more centrally; in the 4-2-3-1, these wingers now had the freedom to move more dynamically on the field.

As a result of these patterns many goals were created through zone 14 (see page 11), located in the middle of the field, immediately outside the 18-yard box.

In order to combat against this defensively, teams placed two holding midfield players in this area (zone 14), attempting to cover the most technical players, who were trying to receive the ball.

System of Play

Choosing a system of play requires considerable effort and reflection for a coach. The coach must have a good grasp on his or her own philosophy and approach to coaching, and of course the game of soccer. The coach must ask himself: What is my coaching philosophy and vision? What types of players do I currently have and whom can I obtain? What are the approaches that are non-negotiable for me? What is the level of talent, and the tactical setup from the opposing team(s)? The answers to these questions will greatly shape how a coach aims to implement their vision into the tactical approach.

The four moments that remain constant during a match are attacking, transition to defense, defending, transition to attack, and back to attacking. Attacking and defending serve as the umbrella for these aspects and there are principles of play that remain constant for offense and defense.


The primary focus of defending revolves around pressure, cover, balance, compactness, and control & restraint. I will discuss each of these at greater length.


When pressuring the ball, the players must learn to make a decision during the game as to where they will establish pressure. This decision will be shaped by the coach’s overarching defensive philosophy, and the coach will train the player to recognize the triggers that call for different types of pressure.

The coach must first decide if he wants the player(s) to pressure high up the field, or to pressure a specific opposing player. Again, this will depend on their overall philosophy. Coaches with a high control approach, such as Guardiola or Enrique, will utilize an intense pressing system. The aim of this system is to win the ball back as soon as possession is lost. Therefore, they may train their players to push higher, which places greater pressure on the opposing ball carrier.

The decision of where and how the team will pressure the opposing player is influenced by the quality of players that the opponent has. The final question in determining the timing of pressure is: Where should the players ideally be placed to attempt to win the ball back? Teams that prefer to build up slowly from the back may be more comfortable winning the ball in their own third. Teams that tend to be more aggressive may look to win the ball back in their offensive third, attempting as a result to give themselves more scoring opportunities.


The second area to focus on defensively is covering the player who puts pressure on the ball. These players provide support to the defender pressuring the ball. The decision here is whether to use man-marking, zonal defending, or even a mix of both. Another factor to consider regarding coverage is where and when the defender should track the opposing player, or if he should stay connected to the rest of the line. This is a scenario that will likely depend on the type of opponent that the team is playing against.


The player(s) providing balance is responsible for assisting the defense in maintaining a good shape. They must be able to view the field and anticipate changes by the offense.


The final aspect of defending is compactness. Compactness refers to the degree of space between the players of a given team. The goal for defenders is to reduce the space between their own players to limit the ability of the attacking team to find space between the defending team.

The key is to be as compact horizontally and vertically as possible. A coach who utilizes a zonal style of defending will likely require less space between the players and between the lines (back-line, midfield players, forwards). The zonal-minded coach will look to eliminate space for the opposing team to receive the ball within their own formation, forcing them to use the outside channels instead.

Conversely, the coach who prefers to use man-marking or a mix of zonal and man-marking may allow for greater degrees of space. Both of these approaches have benefits and consequences. The overall coaching approach will help shape the degree of risk that a coach is willing to take. A coach who uses man-marking and intense pressure may be able to win the ball back quicker than a zonal approach, but at the same time they also risk leaving space between defenders, or even behind the defensive line.

Talented players such as Messi, Lewandowski, or Bale, who are known for their technical ability and speed, could possibly exploit this space. Therefore, we see just how important it is for a coach to develop a well-thought-out philosophy, as this will guide the coach in making well-informed tactical decisions to match his philosophy.


The attacking side of the game tends to be less structured than defense. One explanation for this is that players are given the freedom to be creative. This is not to say that an attacking structure does not exist; however, it may not necessarily be as structured as the defensive side of the game and therefore leaves more room for creativity. One of the primary attributes of a good attack is how well the players can improvise and look to disrupt the organization of the defending team. The offensive players are constantly looking for ways to get past the defense. There are four primary motives that the offense is looking to attain, and these will be discussed further below.


The term penetration means to force a way through, often by overcoming resistance. The coach who uses a more forceful style of attack may look to penetrate as quickly as possible even if that results in a high risk of losing the ball right away again.

A less forceful way of penetration would be to penetrate through the thirds of the fields by patiently passing horizontally until space opens up. Coaches may look to do this by attacking down the flanks, exploiting width to then cross the ball into the box, or through the use of combination. Again, this tends to also be influenced by the creativity of the individual player plus his technical ability, and tactical knowledge.

However, the coach must determine how he wants the team to start attacking. Is the goal to slowly build up the attack from the back? Is it to play the long ball with the aim of winning possession in the opposing final third? Or does the team look to use short passes to move the ball up the field? The coach often influences these strategies.


The primary focus in the supporting aspect of attack is to determine where support is necessary, and how the team looks to possess the ball. The key aspect of support is the responsibility of the players who do not have possession. The coach may look to push the outside backs high up the field to stretch the opposing defense, or he may drop a midfield player deeper to help the back four build up from the back. The specific roles and responsibilities of each player in an attack will largely be determined by the specific strategy, as well as the overall approach.


Contrary to a defensive approach, the attacking players will look to stretch the defense in the hope of creating more space to attack the goal. While the defense looks to maintain compactness, the offense looks to exploit width, perhaps by using their outside backs to push high up the field. This then forces the defenders to either leave gaps in their formation or leave players unmarked.

The location and timing of the width will be determined by the attacking strategy. Some coaches prefer to keep their outside backs deeper, and have their wingers provide the width, while others will allow outside backs to push up higher than the wingers to be able to overload certain areas. Other coaches may allow their outside backs to push higher when they build slowly from the back as opposed to if there is a quick counter attack.


Mobility, similar to width, is used to break down the defense. The primary goal of mobility is to use movement of individual players to move the opposing players in specific areas to then exploit them. These movements can be difficult for a defender to anticipate, and frequent mobility, when executed correctly, can be effective in breaking down the defense.

In summary, the question that a coach must ask when determining a tactical approach is how rigidly he should keep to the system or formation. A key to successful coaching is recognizing when to make adjustments, yet it is important to recognize how these adjustments will fit into the overall philosophy.

Why a 4-2-3-1?

There are specific reasons and benefits to using a 4-2-3-1 set-up. Perhaps one of the largest benefits is that this system incorporates four lines of players instead of the typical three as is seen in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. If there are four lines, they tend to have a higher degree of connectivity, making it more difficult to lose contact between them. This allows the offense to stretch the defense, creating more space and goal scoring opportunities for themselves.

Furthermore, it shortens the passing distances as compared to having three lines on offense. There are more options to choose from in the attack, and since the players are closer together, it becomes easier to quickly interchange positions, as seen in the Barcelona squad. This quick interchange makes it very difficult to defend, as the defense must anticipate these changes quickly. The back four in this setup are effective, especially when in possession as the full back can push higher up the field to provide support in attack, as well as to increase numbers in the attacking situation.

On the defensive side, there are also benefits to using a 4-2-3-1. Due to the compactness of the formation, there is a greater degree of flexibility, as the wingers only need to drop approximately 8-10 yards to create a 4-4-2 shape when defending. The 4-2-3-1 is a highly effective system because of the four lines of formation. This limits the running that the player must do, allowing them to play for longer at a higher intensity. These lines of four also create triangles or rectangles when defending, which can cut off passing lanes or dribbling opportunities for the other team.

There are many benefits to using the 4-2-3-1 with the main idea that having four lines instead of three can assist the players in adapting quickly to the opponent. It can also easily transition into several different formations such as a 4-1-4-1, 4-4-1-1, or 4-3-3 throughout the game. Finally, the use of three midfielders automatically provides more options defensively and offensively.

To avoid being caught unprepared, a coach must be aware of some potential limitations when using a 4-2-3-1. First, it is possible to become defensively isolated on the flanks. This may occur when playing against a team utilizing a 4-3-3 system or a 4-4-2 system. It is possible to be outnumbered by the other team when they are attacking from the flanks. Second, the coach must be aware that the team will need to manage the space that is created behind the full backs when the team is attacking. Perhaps the biggest limitation in using a 4-2-3-1 is the space created between the outside back and the winger. When the team is defending, they need to know how to manage these situations when they occur so as not to continually be exploited.

Leagues of the World

La Liga (Spanish)