Continental football has become an anomaly for English clubs. Over the past few years, fans have seen talented City and Arsenal teams lose out in the group stage or round of 16 to some limited opposition. These English teams have not been lacking in quality, nor in drive (bar City’s abject performance in last season’s semi-final).
Yet, a tactical disconnect remains. They usually attack with reckless abandon; fielding midfields of attack-minded players who leave pockets of space in front of their defenses for the opposition playmakers to exploit (think Arsenal vs Monaco), or they push their full-backs too high up the pitch and leave space in the channels for strikers to run onto diagonals (City vs CSKA Moscow).
Mauricio Pochettino must avoid tactical naivety against continental teams who aren’t content to sit back and slug it out in the midfield. Teams like Monaco pose a threat despite their relatively low possession stats. Monaco’s midfield and defense are compact and savvy, if not bruising off the ball (Ricardo Carvalho is 38-years-old). These teams will look to skip the midfield and find an out-ball to the feet of their play-makers, or play a diagonal for their wingers to run onto.
This game is more cerebral, more nuanced. A team like Spurs will look to impose themselves, Pochettino loves his teams to possess high up the pitch and pin other teams in. This approach, although aesthetically pleasing, showed an austerity in results last year. Teams of the ilk of Barcelona got exposed on the break. If Spurs hope to have success next year they will need to add defensive savvy to their ranks. Milan Badelj would be a perfect start.
In possession, the Croatian midfield is footballing poetry. There is no ponderous play, no mundane passing across the defensive lines. Each midfielder flits in and out of the opposition lines, creating space off the dribble with decoy runs and causing havoc with incisive passing and superb ball control. Luka Modric is undeniably the star man, the catalyst for such purity of sport. Off the ball, however, there is another standout. Milan Badelj, the man who keeps Mateo Kovacic out of the first team, is the defensive master-mind.
For much of the game he sits alongside the center-backs, recycling the ball with an urgency most deep-lying playmakers lack. When his team lose the ball, he steps out in front of the defense, helping delay the attack and allow the midfield to regain its shape. When necessary, he goes into the challenge himself.
During the Euros he has won 80% of his tackles and made three interceptions. His timely challenge against the Czech Republic set up Perisic’s goal. However, his stats bely his true defensive qualities. Badelj plays football like chess, he delays his opponents and keeps the Croatian midfield from getting exposed deep in their own half. He doesn’t want to make the final tackle, but simply allow his team to reset in transition.
Offensively he acts as an out ball during sustained periods of possession in the opposition half, and his range of passing provides a launch pad for quick breaks. His touch is brilliant, and he has a knack for beating opponents off the dribble in deep positions that delights (although it leads to some heart-in-mouth moments). There is an obvious confidence to his play, that coupled with a defensive understanding and tactical maturity, makes him a good fit for Pochettino’s system.
The Tottenham squad is already replete with options to be deployed in Pochettino’s preferred double pivot at the base of the midfield. While many see Badelj as a perfect mentor for Eric Dier, he actually preforms a role more akin to that of Mousa Dembele.
While Dier is a defensive shield with few offensive duties, Dembele is the metronome at the base of the midfield. Moved deeper by Poch, Dembele has a relatively small offensive out-put (3 goals and 1 assist last season in the league), but his passing stats show an incredible maturity in possession (90% pass completion).
Badelj performs a similar role for Fiorentina, providing Borja Valero and Josip Ilicic with the ball in dangerous areas while influencing the game from deep (87% pass completion). Off the ball, however, his style is much different.
What Badelj brings to the table is a tactical stability that both Dier and Dembele lack. Dembele is all action, he loves to get sucked high up the field when Spurs go in search of the ball. While Dier sits when Spurs are in possession, on defense he loves to chase wingers into wide areas and make tackles. Badelj will always occupy his space in front of the defense.
Off the ball he will maintain a compactness, and ensure that transition play won’t expose the high press. He won’t get sucked too far up the field or get caught exposing the midfield while chasing a diagonal. Badelj can provide a distinct footballing nous to ensure Spurs enjoy their Thursday nights.
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