By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 8, 2021) US Soccer Players – The UEFA Champions League returns next week with the start of the knockout stage. It’s the place where the continent’s best 16 teams now have a shot at the most prestigious club trophy on the planet. It’s also the place where different coaching styles and tactics face off against one another for continental supremacy.
Barring any issues regarding travel restrictions tied to the ongoing pandemic, the round of 16 starts on February 16 with two games: Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig vs Liverpool. Bayern Munich, the defending champions, play on February 23 against Lazio. The round will conclude with second-leg contests played between March 9-17. The round’s final matches are Chelsea against Atletico Madrid and Bayern vs Lazio.
What the Champions League offers up are coaches and players from all over the world who are employing different styles and techniques. It specifically allows coaches to utilize an array of tactics and formations, some tested and proven in domestic leagues, in an elimination tournament like no other. Here are five different formations to watch for as the UCL returns to action:
The defending Italian champions have been trying to win the Champions League for a decade. The addition of Cristiano Ronaldo a few years ago hasn’t landed them the trophy. At least not yet.
Tactically, first-year coach Andrea Pirlo is using a 3-4-1-2 formation. It’s no great shock that his lineups rely heavily on midfielders to get the attack going. Up front, Ronaldo is the target man. He usually comes through in that department. Soccer remains a team game. This is a side that needs to remain cohesive defensively, especially should Juve keep advancing, in order to stop the tournament’s best strikers from getting on the score sheet. Weston McKennie has been a key contributor as well, something that has delighted USMNT fans.
Round of 16 opponent: Porto
Atletico Madrid (4-4-2)
Madrid’s other club has played the role of spoiler before in the Champions League. They remain a dark horse to win it all this time around. Diego Simeone knows how to get the best out of his players. He’s trying to the same thing again now using the classic 4-4-2.
Players may change, but Simeone has used this formation for years. This season, Atleti has been playing amazing soccer. Their top players, most notably striker Luis Suarez, are all in great shape. Simeone has tinkered with his formation at times, sometimes opting for a 3-1-4-2 or 3-5-2. One thing does remain constant, don’t underestimate this team.
Round of 16 opponent: Chelsea
Manchester City (4-3-3)
This club has been a contender for this trophy ever since 2008, when its owners spent massively on the team. Pep Guardiola is a veteran coach who’s been in many high-pressured situations. The looming knockout stage is certainly another one of those.
Guardiola likes to use a 4-3-3 but will change formations based on the opponent. He prefers a high press with the aim of regaining possession as quickly as possible after losing the ball. That’s where players like Kevin De Bruyne shines most. The key for Man City is allowing their opponents to tire. The way to beat Guardiola’s City? Employ a similar style and cancel out whatever he tries. Recent editions have shown that this works.
Round of 16 opponent: Gladbach
The Catalan giants had a meltdown during the knockout stage last season, obviously something they want to avoid this time around. This season has already proven problematic, but that’s relative to this type of club. They’re once again in the knockout round, once again thanks to Lionel Messi. No surprise, he continues to carry this team with his offensive prowess.
Under coach Ronald Koeman, Barca has employed a series of formations. We’ve seen them set up as a defensive-minded 4-2-3-1, a departure from the 4-3-3 used as recently as last season. Under this lineup, Messi plays centrally and dictates much of the play in the final third. The offensive supporting cast of Moussa Dembele and Ansu Fati haven’t always been effective. That’s a problem when the team goes down early and Messi is called upon, almost single-handedly, to try to dig them out of a hole.
Round of 16 opponent: PSG
Thomas Tuchel liked to employ the 4-3-3 last season, and Paris Saint-Germain reached the final. Under new coach Mauricio Pochettino, PSG has started games primarily in a 4-4-2 setup. Pochettino tinkered over the past few weeks, using an array of lineups such as 4-1-4-1, 4-2-2-2, and even a 3-5-2.
Don’t be surprised if Pochettino implements a 4-4-2 attacking style when the team has possession, only to switch to a 4-1-4-1 characterized by pressing when they are on the defensive or up by a goal. At Tottenham, he liked to use a 4-2-3-1 that featured quick passes and a build-up that started in the defensive third. PSG has its limitations. If Neymar can get hot again, there is a chance they can get to a second straight final.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- College soccer shifts to spring
- Preview: The delayed 2020 Club World Cup
- Weston McKennie’s numbers
- MLS in the January 2021 transfer market
Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com