For those of you that follow me, you’ll appreciate that it has been a very long time since I’ve written anything more than a 150 character tweet or slightly longer paragraph about my save on Slack. You will also hopefully be aware of what’s happened in the 6 years I’ve been in charge of Al-Wahda.
For those of you that don’t, I’ve turned Al Wahda from a team on the fringes of Champions League football into the best team in Asia. We’ve dominated the UAE Gulf League ever since we pipped Al Ahli to the Gulf League title on the final day of the season in my 1st year in charge. A surprise Champions League win against Guangzhou followed the year after and we’ve gone from strength to strength since then. We have gone on to win another 2 Champions League titles and have had 1 Final appearance in the Club World Championships where unfortunately we were taught a footballing lesson by PSG.
It is fair to say that in 2021 Al Wahda is starting to become a team with a global reputation and following. As such we went into this year’s Asian Champions League as defending champions and strong favourites to retain the crown. We would of course face the inevitable challenge of strong teams from China and Korea as well as an emerging force of teams from Saudi Arabia.
We sailed through the group stages without much problem and dispatched Iranian side Sepahan comfortably in the 2nd round. There is then a 4 month break before the Quarter finals take place. We were drawn against Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad, who’d knocked us out a few years ago on their way to eventually winning the Final. That season they even went on to lose to Arsenal on penalties in the Club World Championships final. A difficult draw…
On paper we looked a lot stronger than the Saudis and with Facundo Colidio, Angel Correa, Danny Villalva and Omar Abdulrahman there was the potential for plenty of goals in the tie.
A trip to Jeddah was the 1st hurdle to overcome and despite temperatures reaching 43 degrees, a sole goal from Omar Abdulrahman gave us a vital 1-0 away win to take back to Abu Dhabi.
Now normally the Al Nayhan is a fortress and I might be right in thinking that we haven’t lost at home in any competition for almost 4 years. What could possibly go wrong?
Al-Wahda 0 – 2 Al Ittihad
Now again for those of you that follow me on twitter you’ll know that I don’t take losing games particularly well, especially important games like a Champions League Quarter final. I was furious. What had happened? We were setup perfectly from the first leg, how had we managed to throw that all away?
Al Ittihad had scored their 1st goal from a long speculative effort that had come off Rodrigo Marzooq’s backside. The 2nd was again from outside the box that crept under Abdullah Hasan’s left arm when at full stretch. At the other end we’d missed several clear cut chances and Facundo Colidio had hit the bar when it was easier to score.
I was fuming. My last big challenge is for Al Wahda to lift the Club World Championship and we’d gone and ballsed that up without even getting to the semi final of the Champions League. I received the inevitable yellow card from Mrs Mendoza for throwing my toys out of the pram in the living room over “just a game”. Luckily she was in the room else the poor sofa would have been seeking a new home once I was done with it.
I had to walk away, cool off, get my head straight and get back to work. I put the match to one side with the promise to myself that I would go back at some point and look at what really did go wrong.
Anyway here I am, a few weeks later, starting to pull apart what went wrong that night and what i can learn, if anything, from that hugely disappointing night.
The Game in more detail
The Al Ittihad Goals and Initial Thoughts
Before I get into looking at my own team I thought I should start with the Al-Ittihad goals as ultimately they were the most important reason we lost. The 1st goal had a hint of good fortune about it but I would argue that we weren’t quick enough to close Grassi down. Given our whole game is built around an aggressive pressing game, this should be our bread and butter.
The second goal is more of the same and what is really disappointing is the fact that a lot of our issues are caused by several stupid mistakes. For starters it is obvious which player is going to receive the ball from the throw in yet for no reason whatsoever Ghanem runs away from him at the last minute. He then makes amends by initially winning the ball back but is a bit soft and just gives it straight back. There are certain players sitting far too deep and actually making no attempt to move whatsoever. We started too deep despite having a high line on our tactics and were too slow closing Al Ittihad down. I can’t help but feel that our defenders were overly complacent in their approach and their lack of aggression hasn’t helped either.
We were playing at a normal tempo at the time but maybe in pressure matches like this in future I should look to up the tempo a bit more at the start of the game. We didn’t put the opposition under enough pressure early on and paid the price. That can’t happen again.
Both passages of play leading up to the goal came from set pieces and I think potentially the defensive positioning setup on set pieces, especially throw ins could be looked at. Saying that normally we rarely concede from set pieces so that makes me think that there aren’t any drastic changes required necessarily, just to ensure that any opportunity for the opposition to have room to shoot from outside the box is eradicated.
Annoyingly there weren’t really another goal scoring opportunities to analyse, was just typical the two they had they scored from.
These things do happen in football and despite being 2-0 down after 34 minutes we still had the attacking prowess to turn games like these around. We didn’t though.
Looking at stats alone we should have won that game. Obviously stats alone don’t win games but ultimately we should have taken the chances we had and then the 2 goals Al Ittihad scored wouldn’t have mattered. We didn’t though and so instead I need to look at why we conceded the goals we did, why we didn’t create more chances and what can I learn to avoid it happening again.
How did both teams line up?
The Al-Ittihad formation is not quite as negative as the Al-Shabab monstrosity but is very much setup to play on the counter. The 3 key players for Al-Ittihad were Grassi, Madu and Al-Biladi.
For those of you not familiar with the Al-Wahda players (shame on you, you should be!) these were those who started:
A more detailed look at our tactic can be found below (apologies the screenshot is taken a few weeks later so players are different but approach is the same)
What went wrong in attack?
The one stat that does jump out is that we only had 53% possession when normally we average between 60% and 70%. There is only one team that restricts us to that low amount of possession in the Gulf League and that is Boring Boring Al-Shabab. It tells me what i already knew, Al-Ittihad, despite being 1-0 down, had come to defend for their lives and hope they caught us on the break.
This is nothing new to me as most teams fear the Al Wahda war machine when it rolls into town. When we hit our stride we can annihilate teams, as we did to Hatta a week after this match when we put 10 past them. There are still those teams that are incredibly good at frustrating us and Al-Ittihad like Al-Shabab are one of those teams.
Despite a reasonably standard looking formation it was clear very quickly that the opposition were playing defensive.
The use of their wingers to tightly man mark my attacking wingbacks caused all sorts of issues as one of our usual main passing outlets was taken away from us. Granted i still think our fullbacks made it a little easy for them by not really making too much effort to break from their marker.
It was clear that chances were going to be hard to come by as whenever we had the ball we were met by a wall of black and yellow.
That wasn’t to say we didn’t create some chances, a few of which we should have really put away and the woodwork played a part too.
Maybe not the easiest of chances but on any other day i’d have hoped at least one might have gone in but it wasn’t to be. Normally however I would have expected us to have had 3 or 4 that could have gone in which makes me think that maybe our general play wasn’t as good as it maybe should have been. Time to look at things in a bit more detail.
Win or lose after every game I look at the individual player stats to see how everyone did and where players either excelled or didn’t meet my high expectations. It is even more important when we lose to see who didn’t meet expectations and then look to understand why and prevent that happening in the future.
A big part of our game now is our passing and keeping the ball and the player stats above can tell me a lot about how well we were doing that. I tend to set a standard of 85% pass completion as an indicator as to how well things have gone to plan. Bearing that in mind my initial reaction is I’m pleased with how we kept the ball well in the middle of the park. How things should work in theory is that the ball is worked out from the back with Ghanem acting as a pivot and keep the ball moving out of own half without having to resort to punting forward. Once we’re over the half way line, Bawazir will take over and link up with Correa and Colidio in order to form openings for the two shadow strikers or wing backs to exploit. From the stats it appears this was working however the number of passes completed is maybe a bit lower than I would have expected. I will need to look at Ghanem and Bawazir’s pass maps to see exactly where those passes were going in order to establish whether them being restricted prevented us was creating more openings.
Sticking with pass completion rates i can see that the shadow strikers, Omar Abdulrahman and Daniel Villalva, and wingbacks rates are well below the 85% threshold mark. Normally our shadow strikers and wingbacks link nicely in order to create space for the hugely talented Baek Jung-Soo to put dangerous crosses into the box. Al-Ittihad have obviously spotted this from the first leg and have targeted this interaction by getting their winger to man mark the wingbacks and hence stop the link between shadow striker and wingback. Without even looking at specific examples I know that without a clear passing option out wide the shadow striker, when in possession, would be forced either to try a risky pass or instead look inside and be met with the 7 man wall in front of him. Another area to look at in detail.
My final observation on our passing completion rates is my two centre backs who are also below the 85% threshold. This on first viewing indicates either poor decision making from them or that the opposition has pressed them when in possession, forcing them to go long rather than use Ghanem. Final area to look at.
I have therefore 3 areas to look at in more detail:
Bawazir and Ghanem
I was slightly concerned that although Ghanem and Bawazir had made a lot of passes that many of them would have been back rather than forward because of how Al Ittihad were setup. Looking at the above graphic it does seem that the majority of them went forward and that both were looking to stretch the opposition by moving the ball out wide. No drastic changes required here I think.
Abdulrahman, Villalva, Marzooq, Baek Jung-Soo
Looking at the above player passing graphic and the passing completion rates in the match stats I am drawn to the fact that the four wide men have got quite a few passes intercepted. I mentioned earlier in my initial observations, Al Ittihad were man marking my two wingbacks so I wanted to check where those intercepted passes were:
On first glance I’m slightly concerned by Marzooq’s two passes that have gone long as he shouldn’t be passing that long in his own half unless he was under pressure. Baek has also had a long pass intercepted from inside his own half and it clear that the two Al-Ittihad wingers were very much setup to make my two wingback’s life uncomfortable. Something to bear in mind should we play them again.
Having seen on the team passing map the low number of passes that were actually made into the Al-Ittihad box I was interested as to why both Villalva and Abdulrahman struggled to penetrate the Al-Ittihad defence. In most games that we dominate, both my shadow strikers link up with the wingbacks to get balls into the box for Colidio, Correa and the opposite shadow striker to attack. Below you can see some of the scenarios faced that prevented them from getting the ball into the box.
Omar breaks forward but Al-Ittihad’s man marking limits his options and ultimately we lose possession.
Having re-watched the match several times it’s clear that Al-Ittihad’s plan was not to allow us to stretch the play and instead turn our width against us by packing the channels with defenders and as such cut off our shadow striker’s passing options. It was a very clever tactic that would explain our lack of real chances. We’d need to do something different in the future to narrow the channels and bring our players closer together to hopefully create more passing options. Definitely food for thought.
Al-Kamali and Al-Meqbali
We like to play out from the back to help us dominate the game and as such I need my centre backs to get the ball to the right players. When looking again at the passing map our two centre backs had 21 passes intercepted. When looking at each one the majority were from defensive headers after a goal kick or long clearance by the Al-Ittihad defence. There were however a few passes made by Al-Meqbali that stood out.
The whole idea with the tactic is for the defenders and attackers to use Ghanem, Bawazir and Correa as pivots in each of their respect thirds of the pitch. As much of a beast that Al-Meqbali is physically, he’s not the brightest and that showed with some of his “attempts” at a hollywood pass, one of which you can see below:
We’re just surrendering possession with stupid passes like that and one takeaway could actually be to use one of my less physical but more technical centre backs (Khalifa) for games like this.
Al-Kamali on the other hand was excellent throughout and as i’ll now cover in our defensive play continues to be one of our most important players.
On the whole we defended reasonably well, other than the two goals that I touched upon earlier, given that we restricted Al-Ittihad to 8 shots, 5 of which were from distance. We won 83% of our tackles and made 62 interceptions which I’m pretty happy with. We did still lose so we can’t have been that good. A re-watch of the match on full highlights definitely showed examples of both the good and bad parts of our defensive play. The below illustrates that nicely:
One area that we weren’t at our best was at pressing players in the middle of the park and some of that may have been down to me setting our defensive line one notch off the highest. The idea behind that at the start of the game was to avoid the ball over the top whilst still pressing. In practice it didn’t quite work like that and the Al-Ittihad midfield had far too much time on the ball.
Again more food for thought about what defensive line we should be playing against Al-Ittihad. They are the sort of team that can create something out of nothing so if we are giving them something to work in then we are only going to create problems for ourselves.
I think for the most part we defended reasonably well and the more I watched the more I appreciated that their lack of threatening shots on goal were down to our good defensive work. On another day we’d have kept a clean sheet, the game would have finished 0-0 and we’d have gone through 1-0 on aggregate.
Initially this was a result that drove me mad with frustration and anger but after having a few weeks of re-watching and analysing the match itself I now think I understand where we got it wrong.
- We were sluggish out of the blocks and our tempo was too slow meaning we didn’t match Al-Ittihad for intensity.
- We were playing too wide and Al-Ittihad exploited that defensively by plugging the channels and preventing us from getting the ball into the box. A more balanced width and higher tempo would probably be more suitable to bring our players closer together and allow shorter, quicker passes to not allow the opposition time setup their defence and hopefully find ways through. We definitely have the technical players to operate in close quarters so it is something I will be considering.
- Our defensive line needed to be higher as we didn’t press enough for both the goals and also gave Al-Ittihad’s central midfielders far too much room.
- Appreciate that Al-Ittihad are a bunch of bastards and not to underestimate them. There is a reason why they won the Saudi Arabian League, Champions League and almost won the Club World Championships a few years ago!
I don’t think anything is needed drastically for our overall tactical approach as for the most part the way we play is very effective and that is why we are the best team in Asia. However we can always be better and the Al-Ittihad showed me chinks in our armour that needed to be mended.
I’ve found the process of going through the game with a fine tooth comb really interesting as it’s given me plenty of insight into where we can be exploited and ideas for what we can do to turn things in our favour when things aren’t going to plan. It is a very useful exercise that I would recommend to anyone either struggling with results or just looking to improve. The time and effort is definitely worth it.
Now conveniently when the 2022 Asian Champions League draw was made we were draw in a group with our good friend Al Ittihad. Time for revenge…
(For those of you that follow me on twitter or Slack you will know that I’ve actually played both games against Al-Ittihad now, implementing some of the things I’ve picked up when I’ve been writing this post.)
As much as I’d love to promise to write a post on those 2 games to show you how changing/not changing things made a difference I think it is highly unlikely I’ll have the time given fatherhood is rapidly approaching. My plan instead will be to post the pkms on my slack channel #diegomendozatv and then have it as an open discussion to analyse what worked, what didn’t and where we still have work to do should we face them again.
So that was a bit of a mammoth post in the end but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe, just maybe you might get another one before 2018. 🙂
Thanks for reading,