In the first championship round of 2019-20 Danish Superliga, Nordsjaelland hosted FC Copenhagen for the second time this season. Copenhagen having done the double over their opponents in the regular season came to the postseason on the back of a strong finish. Nordsjaelland, on the other hand, had to bounce back after their 1-0 defeat to the league leaders FC Midtjylland. This tactical analysis will walk us through the tactics used by both the teams.
The game turned out to be an entertaining fixture, with both teams sharing the points after a 1-1 draw. But was it an equal affair? Let’s find out from this analysis.
Nordsjaelland lined up in a 3-4-3 formation, the one that they used in their previous loss to FC Midtjylland. Ulrik Jenssen’s red card in that game meant that he was suspended for this one. The 19-year-old, Ivan Mesík was drafted into the left-centre back position in place of Jenssen. In another change, Isaac Atanga replaced Kamal Sulemana and was brought in as the striker. This allowed Damsgaard to move into the left-wing.
Copenhagen, on the other hand, lined up in their preferred 4-4-2 formation. They made no changes to their lineup that won 2-1 against Randers the previous week. Their key midfield partnership Zeca-Falk was again relied upon by their manager Stale Solbakken.
Copenhagen’s without possession
Copenhagen decided to keep a mid-block this game and were pretty much conservative in their approach against the league’s highest scorers, having just 37% possession. They had a PPDA value of 17 in the match, which went up to 22.1 in the first half. Since they played with a two man forward line, they were surely not going to press Nordsjaelland’s centre-backs well. This was due to Nordsjaelland outnumbering Copenhagen with their 3 centre-backs forming a 3v2 situation. So Solbakken decided to position his forwards in such a way that they cut off passing lanes to the two central midfielders of Nordsjaelland.
In the above image, we can see that the forwards of Copenhagen have aligned themselves in such a way that the passing lanes to the Nordsjaelland’s midfielders would be blocked. Also, they ensured that their midfield duo of Falk-Zeca would keep close tabs on the Nordsjaelland’s midfielders and press them. In the image below we can see that the midfield two and the front two form a box to make a compact structure centrally. This is somewhat similar to Diego Simeone’s tactics at Atlético Madrid.
This ensured that Nordsjaelland’s midfielders remained a little quiet and made less impact. The duo of Kudus and Andersen made fewer passes than the centre backs as Nordsjaelland’s centre backs struggled to bring them in to build their play. Kudus made a total of 50 passes, with just 5 of them being progressive ones. Andersen made 57 passes, 9 being progressive. Whereas when you compare it with their centre backs, Hansen, Mumin and Mesík attempted 57, 86 and 63 passes respectively. They were hence made the chief progressers in this match for Nordsjaelland, attempting 15, 15 and 11 progressive passes respectively. Copenhagen’s plan of blocking the central space can be shown by the average positions of their front 2 and 2 wingers.
In the image above we can see the average positions of those players, playing very centrally to block central passing lanes.
Nordsjaelland’s plan during build-up
Though Copenhagen tried to make life difficult for Nordsjaelland to build their play, they still found a way to succeed. They split their centre-backs very wide that middle one occupied the central space. The wide centre-back each occupied the left and right half-spaces and sometimes the wing spaces too.
In the above image, we can see how far apart they have positioned their centre-backs. This, coupled with Copenhagen’s mid-block (see their forwards), ensured the centre backs have lots of time on the ball. Another important provision it gave to them is that it allowed their full-backs to stay higher up the pitch with the forward line. This gave them a 3-2-5 formation on the ball. The wing-backs formed to be the main creative outlets, something similar to how Liverpool use their full-backs. The image below has the average position of their RWB and LWB, circled in the image.
In the above image, we can see the positions of the wing-backs. The right wing-back is as high as the forward line (black circle). The left wing-back is in a similar position but he is not visible in this frame. We can see both of them clearly in the following image. The presence of 3 centre-backs allows them to move up freely.
They made effective use of this tactic to break the compactness of Copenhagen’s midfield. The presence of a wing-back higher up the pitch and wider ensured that Nordsjaelland made a forward line of five players against Copenhagen four defenders, giving them a numerical superiority. Since Nordsjaelland’s three forwards pinned the four defenders of Copenhagen this gave huge space to the wing-backs to operate. We can see in the image below the amount of space afforded to the wing-backs.
Eventually, Nordsjaelland would make a switch to the opposite flank’s wing-back and create chances by playing crosses or cut-backs. In the example below, the forward line of Nordsjaelland has pinned the defenders of Copenhagen leaving Thychosen free on the blind-side. This results in a 4v4 situation in the box, 2nd image, for Norsdjaelland but the keeper can claim the cross from Thychosen.
So, Copenhagen decided to pin their wingers to the opposition’s wing-backs and track them. This was again manipulated well by Nordsjaelland. In the example below, we see Varela going wide to press the wingback. This then creates a huge in between Varela and the near centre-back to play a through ball. Atanga then makes a well-timed run into space and this makes the wing-back to underlap.
In another example below, we can see that the centre-back has the ball. The RWB on the far side makes a run and draws the attention of the opposition’s left-back. The left-back leaves his marker, the winger circled red and follows the RWB. This opens a passing lane to the winger with no one marking him.
In the image below, the left-back of Copenhagen is in a dilemma to choose whom to press. He either has to press the wing-back, or the forward in the half-space who has dropped deep. He decides to stay closer to the wing-back, hence opening a passing lane for the forward.
Nordsjaelland kept on manipulating Copenhagen multiple times this way. Sometimes a forward would drop deep without any marker following him due to the off-ball movements of his teammates. There was a huge gap between the midfield and defensive lines of Copenhagen. When the midfield line moved forward to press the opposition, the defensive line did not cooperate by going forward leaving spaces in the middle third. In the image below we can see Varela staying closer to the LWB. The centre-backs are pinned by the striker. This ensures when Damsgaard (red circled) drops deep, he has no marker following him and he receives the ball in space.
The goalkeeper at times would help Nordsjaelland defenders in their buildup by stepping up. In the image below, he asks the middle centre-back to go wider. This allows the left centre-back, Mesík, to go into the left-back position.
In the second half both the teams’ tactics remained the same and Nordsjaelland were even more proactive in using their wing-backs to proceed forward. In the image below, we can easily summarize the two teams’ tactics. The compact midfield of Copenhagen has given zero central penetration for Nordsjaelland. But it opens an opportunity to use the wing spaces through the wing-backs. Wing-back in the image receives a long ball from the centre-back with a huge amount of space and no marker. This also creates a 2v1 situation for Nordsjaelland with Copenhagen’s left-back.In another way of creating chances, Nordsjaelland decided to play the ball in behind the defence. They would then ask their forwards to isolate themselves with the centre-back in a 1v1 situation. The image below shows Sulemana making a run and potentially in a 1v1 situation with centre-back. He would carry the ball very well and take a goal-scoring chance that was worth an xG of 0.25 (big chance).
Copenhagen’s direct approach
Copenhagen came out with a very direct approach that saw them use long balls to progress the ball upfield. They decided not to build from the back and instead launch long balls. In the image below we can see the passes made by the goalkeeper of Copenhagen in the match.
We can see a lot of long balls played by him where few of them are successful and others unsuccessful. They also decided with a direct throw-in into the box instead of working their way. When we look at the key passes that they have created most of them are from corners and direct throw-ins. The key passes made by them are given in the image below.
Eventually, their goal came from a corner kick when J. Stage put the ball into the net following a cross from Pep Biel. During their long balls, they decided to squeeze all their players to a particular side of the pitch. This ensured they could easily win the 2nd balls after the long ball was launched. We can see that in the image below when they oriented their players to just one flank.
Their ability to win aerial duels gave them an edge in winning these long balls and launching an attack. In the image, we can see that the striker engages in a duel with the centre-back after which Copenhagen win the 2nd ball and start their attack.
Apart from direct attacks, they also tried to break their play in the midfield using their mid-block. Once they recover the ball they start their counter-attack. In the image below, we can see the Copenhagen players closing down Mesík, who has the ball. This forces Mesík to play a wrong pass, indicated by the red arrow, into an unoccupied space. Copenhagen then start their counter-attack, 2nd image, which later results in a corner and then a goal.
Nordsjaelland’s high press
Nordsjaelland came into this game with a plan of implementing possession-based and high-intensity football. From the word go they were determined in winning the ball back from Copenhagen. They would also counter-press immediately after losing the ball. They allowed 13.2 PPDA in the first half and 12.9 PPDA in the 2nd half. Their overall PPDA of 13 in the match is much less than that of Copenhagen (17.4). We can see their press in the following images.
Two of the front three would press the two centre-backs of the opposition, like in the above image. One among them will be the striker and the other forward would press depending on the location of the ball. If the ball is in the right flank, then the right-forward would press the left CB and the striker covers the right CB. The right wing-back then goes up high to press the left-back. Eventually, the two midfielders press their counterparts and the other forward marks the right-back. The same pattern takes place when the ball is in the other flank and the players orient themselves accordingly.
In the chart below, we can see the recoveries made by Norsdjaelland in the 1st half. Most of their recoveries are in the middle-third and almost 17 % of their recoveries came in the final third.
After their goal, Norsdjaelland shifted into a 3-5-2 formation by bringing Diomande into the midfield and Sulemana into the LWB position. This was done to protect their midfield by giving them a 3v2 advantage, like in the image below.
Nordsjaelland create tons of chances and misses big ones
Like said before, Nordsjaelland found one way or the other to create chances. They kept continuously pressurizing Copenhagen and created many big chances. They made 12 key passes and completed 3 out of 8 smart passes in the match. Their overall xG in the game was as high as 3.1 compared to that of 1.03 of that of Copenhagen. Let’s analyze how they created their big chances. Most of their big chances came from the winger or the wing back using cut-backs or crosses.
In the image above we can see that after passing the ball to Damsgaard, Atanga makes a run (red arrow). Immediately Damsgaard spots this and plays a ball over the top of the defence to Atanga. Atanga then cut-backs the ball for goal scoring chances. Eventually, the keeper makes the save, but Nordsjaelland got an opportunity from the rebound but Thychosen fluffs an open-goal chance and shoots it over the crossbar (see in the image below). This shot had an xG of 0.83.
Another example of them missing an easy opportunity is given below. The keeper eventually makes a save. This chance yielded an xG of 0.68.
When we look at the shooting opportunities of Nordsjaelland we see that they have missed 5 big chances in the match. Copenhagen’s keeper K. Johnsson had an excellent game making 7 saves. Those chances are highlighted in bold in the image below.
Ironically, their only goal of the match came from a very unlikely position and the xG of that goal was just 0.04 (11th row in the above table). We can see the location of that goal in the image below and also we can see how acute the angle is (circled).
Copenhagen’s search for a late winner
Copenhagen tried to attack much more after conceding a goal. They showed much more desire later to win the match. Their PPDA in the last 15 minutes went down to 9.4. The number of attacks per minute also significantly increased for them after the goal, from 0.33 to 0.58. Whereas in the same period, it dropped from 0.73 to 0.37 for Nordsjaelland. We can see the difference in the quality of the shots before and after 70 minutes in the following image.
Their xG/shot before conceding the goal was 0.04 and it rose to 0.11 after conceding. Especially in the last five to six minutes, they had four or five good chances of putting the game to bed. But Nordsjaelland’s resolute defending kept the scores level at full-time.
Nordsjaelland should be banging their heads on not taking three vital points home. The analysis showed that they created many big chances but failed to capitalize on them. Copenhagen’s sturdy approach coupled with some fine saves helped them to gain a point from the match. They could have even grabbed the three points in the end but a draw was the maximum they deserved.
Copenhagen sits in 2nd place at 57 points chasing FC Midtjylland, who sit 11 points ahead of their rivals. While a UEFA Champions League spot seems a far sight for them considering the form of their rivals. A place in the Europa League will surely be cemented if they can manage to win another few games. Nordsjaelland, on the other hand, sit 6 points behind the Europa spots with 9 games to go. It’ll be a vital final few weeks for them and not late until both teams meet again. Both the teams will be looking to grab a win in their next fixtures.