Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Attack wins you football games, defence wins you titles!

Viking Shield (via Erik Mclean at Pexels)

In the last year, we have seen Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan and Lille win their respective league titles. A constant between all three was the way in which they won their titles. All three sides played with a defensive first approach leading to consistent and controlled victories throughout the season.





The number of teams who look to attack in high numbers is a likely contributor to the return of defensive football. Many teams like to attack with their whole team which leaves them outnumbered if their team is to lose the ball in a dangerous area. A common characteristic of a team that is comfortable without the ball for long periods of time is their ability to counter efficiently, getting the ball to wide areas and use the pace on the wings to take advantage of space left by the attacking team, without leaving themselves open. This style of play is almost a perfect foil to stop creative sides. 




Last season, Atlético Madrid and Lille could not progress past the Round of 16 in the Champions League and Europa League respectively, and Inter Milan finished bottom of their group. You could see the boost that the early exits gave to all three sides mainly due to the fact they all had fairly thin squads which would have made a deep European run very hard to balance with domestic duties. 





Atletico Madrid managed to win their first La Liga title since the 2013-14 season under Diego Simeone. Atleti set up mainly in a 4-4-2 formation where they would stay as a compact unit and wait for the right moment to win the ball and then score. It was in wide areas, with Kieran Trippier and Marcos Llorente on the right-hand side and Renan Lodi and Yannick Carrasco on the left, where Los Colchoneros were at their best, and when you have somebody like Luis Suráez to score 21 league goals it makes the job much easier.



Atletico’s style is useful when it comes to playing against fast-paced teams as they look to take the sting out of every attack, leaving opponents frustrated and without answers. These tactics allowed them to pick their moments and launch their own efficient counter-attacks and win games. 



Inter Milan ended up winning Serie A by eleven points, which was the most comfortable margin out of the three teams. Under storied manager Antonio Conte, Inter based their game upon resilience, defending with all eleven in their half at times and then leaving their opponents hopeless, transitioning the ball through both central and wide areas. Inter enjoyed attacking on the right-hand side of the pitch, which was natural when they had Achraf Hakimi’s pace, that often had Serie A midfield and defences back peddling and therefore creating space for the forward players.



Due to the way Inter chose to play it was important to have energy in their midfield. Out of The I Nerazzurri midfield, Nicolò Barella was earmarked as the standout for his hard running and interpretation of space. In the attack, the old-fashioned little and large strike partnership between Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez was at work. The two forwards portrayed a big and little brother relationship that had been culminating since 2019 and reached its crescendo in the 2020-21 season, scoring 41 goals combined in the league. 



Lille were marshalled to the league title under the stewardship of Christophe Galtier. Sitting permanently in the 4-4-2 formation, Les Douges constantly frustrated opposition by denying space and keeping the ball in front of their strikers for as long as possible. Being such a well-drilled side, Lille scored many goals by taking advantage of their opponent’s mistakes. The patience shown by the current Ligue 1 title holders was key in their first title win in 10 years, considering the side only scored 1.6 goals per game (the least out of all title winners in Europe’s ‘Top five Leagues’) but only conceded 23 goals.



It seemed like Galtier and his team came into each game with a ready-made plan, knowing when they were going to score and in which games they were going to score plenty in. In true pragmatic fashion, Lille drew 11 games en route to the title, drawing to PSG, Marseille and Monaco away from home, showcasing their knowhow in the biggest French Stadia.  





All three clubs had been carefully planning their route to success over different periods in their own ways. Atleti choosing the hold of Simeone, Inter choosing short term gain over long term success with Conte and Lille appointing Galtier, and football director Luis Campos, at the right time to keep their Ligue 1 status in 2017.



All three have also been able to take advantage of the best team in their leagues being in transitional phases, with Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus changing managers, Barcelona being in financial turmoil and Real Madrid dealing with an unbalanced squad in terms of age.  



Lille probably deserve the most praise for their achievement, considering the amount of ground they have had to make up financially and footballing wise in comparison to the teams above them.  



Galtier was appointed by Saint-Etienne in 2009 to guide the side from danger and he was employed by Lille in similar circumstances, just to keep the club afloat. When he was appointed in 2017 he kept the team safe in 17th place and by the end of the 2018-19 season, Lille finished fourth, securing themselves a Champions League place. The transfer policy was the final sum in the equation.



In the market the Northerners have been calculated and shrewd, buying from Turkish clubs and finding players, who were previously a part of the PSG academy, for low fees. Buying younger players and having them develop under a club and a manager who has a track record in developing young talents, ended up being the push needed to knock over the Parisians, temporarily at least!

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