Journalism undergraduate Billy Hawkins reflects on Beppe Sannino’s tactical masterclasses of recent weeks
FOUR wins out of the first six home games for Beppe Sannino – conceding only one goal in the process – reads as a rather joyous stat considering the dour belief that engulfed Vicarage Road in the autumn.
A victory in the game in hand – away at a Yeovil side still rooted to the bottom of the table – would leave Sannino`s men only six points off the final Play-Off spot, and in a prime position for a late surge in the closing stage of the season.
The key to the current success is undoubtedly the defence – although Sannino`s tactical plan has shown its frailties when away from home – with the scrappy results against Brighton and Birmingham founded on clean sheets.
For all the en vogue desire for high intensity pressing and turnovers in the final third of the pitch recalling and appropriating total football in the current footballing world, there is success to be found using other methods. Guardiola obsessives and Bielsistas, who rave about the incredible toil of the stylish clubs of the world, fail to see that sometimes the simple things are the best done.
Jose Mourinho sat his Chelsea side deep against Manchester City to great effect; two centre backs sit in what Ottmar Hitzfield calls “the red zone” – the area just outside the D seen as the pinnacle for attacking intent. Whilst they form the covering line, the two holding midfielders sit just in front forming a narrow square in the centre of the field and drawing any attacking play onto the wings.
This causes the opposition full backs to push forward, thus allowing the counter attack, where the pace of the attackers can take advantage of the space available in the final third against an increasingly stretched defence.
Sannino has taken the desire to sit deep to heart, notably in the Manchester City defeat with the interpretation of the WM, allowing Cristian Battocchio and Sean Murray to sit deep and create attacking moves in the empty space between the defensive and attacking phases of play.
The same formation was used against Nottingham Forest, and was successful until the three strikers brought on disrupted the three man defence.
Against Leicester – and the reversion to the 3-5-2 – play once again became a full pitch effort, with attacks down both flanks and through the middle at an almost identical ratio.
After the two goal lead – where both shots came through the middle of the pitch showing the dominance of the three man central midfield – Watford started to sit deep and congested the middle. Ikechi Anya moved further infield, leaving the left flank almost unattended, and Ritchie de Laet took advantage to cross for Matty James to pull one back.
Danny Drinkwater scored the equaliser deep into injury time, as Watford were camped on the edge of the box, while fitness and pressure took their toll. It was no surprise that – aside from Fernando Forestieri and Troy Deeney – the average position for every Watford player was inside their own half.
The review of the Birmingham victory is more promising, suggesting a desire to attack more, rather than sit deep.
Admittedly, as the final minutes approached, Watford fell deeper, but this decision restricted Birmingham to long distance shots; seven of their nine total shots came from outside the box.
Rather than the full team camped as deep as possible, the players tried to control the space as Arrigo Sacchi – who coached his players to perform as an interconnected grid of one unit – did with his Milan side. Every player bar the defenders was used in an attacking role, with Daniel Tozser – the deepest of the midfielders – sitting on the centre circle.
And rather than pack the central areas, Daniel Pudil and Marco Davide Faraoni stuck to the touchlines to prevent any opposition wing play – Birmingham`s most prevalent attacking zones.
Although these various matches show a lack of real identity – something missing since the departure of Gianfranco Zola and his desire for high intensity tiki-taka – the results are improving and the defence – something Zola had neglected – has improved by changing their style to a much more conventional form of deep lying cover play rather than man-to-man pressuring.
A desire for a defined style can be seen as certain phases of play bring everything together for success, but – whether through lack of fitness, or a steep learning curve for Sannino`s ideals – the players are struggling to hold out for 90 minutes. The style will come – and the home form will be transposed to away games as well – but until then, this writer is happy to see a victory – however scrappy – and a clean sheet as a different Italian imposes his style on Vicarage Road.