Levadia’s 1-0 win over Nomme Kalju on Matchday 23 was a significant result in the title chase, moving Levadia to within three points of leaders Flora and above Kalju in the table, but it also brought into focus the tactics deployed by the top teams in the league.
The title race has been back and forth so far, with no team significantly taking control of proceedings. Indeed, Flora appear to have taken advantage of not being involved in European competition, and Infonet’s recent revival has lifted them in to 4th place, leaving them just four points off Kalju in 3rd.
Teams from Sillamae in 5th place downwards are dispatched relatively routinely by the big boys, barring a few anomalies (Kalju’s recent 0-0 draw at Narva for example), giving rise to the theory that the title will be won and lost in the matches solely featuring the top 4 teams. As all of the teams appear set in their tactical ways, this may very much be the case.
RdS has been scrutinising each of their strategies, and here we give you tactical analysis of each of the protagonists.
Current leaders Flora are one of many teams to deploy this formation. Luigend and Lepistu form a solid central midfield partnership, providing cover in the middle and support for the full backs.
Alliku and Logua are industrious, and like to drift inside to link up with Beglarishvili in the centre. They play a quick passing game, and very much focus on their four attackers linking up with each other.
In Albert Prosa, they've got a proven, clinical striker, who has good pace and strength, and he is also a good link-up player with his team-mates behind him.
Where Flora are perhaps weakest is in their lack of an out-and-out flair player in the mould of Allan (Kalju) or Manucho (Infonet). If they are pressed enough and not given time to work the ball around as they like, they don't always have that extra edge to get the ball where they need it.
Alliku, Beglarishvili and Logua are tricky players, but they are happiest when they are part of a quick-moving attacking unit.
- Good quality attacking players who are able to move the ball around quickly
- A proven striker to lead the line
- Lack of a genuine flair player
Levadia are the only team in the top four that resist 4-2-3-1. Their bog-standard 4-4-2 has attracted claims of archaic and out-of-date thinking, but in Teever and Ivanov they have a dangerous partnership, which is Levadia's biggest strength.
Subbotin has been a revelation this year, coming in from the right-wing to smash in an impressive number of goals, while Elhussieny provides trickery and reliable ball control on the left. Levadia like to get the ball wide to these two, and this forms a huge part of their approach
Levadia's two central midfielders are expected to participate both defensively and in attack, which puts more responsibility on their shoulders than in the other teams. They have the quality to perform their duties accordingly, but against teams that play three in midfield, they occasionally struggle to get hold of midfield.
In their recent 2-3 reverse at home to Infonet, this was particularly prevalent. Nahk and Melts put their focus on stopping the central midfielders feeding the wingers, while Aidara was able to break away when on the counter in the absense of a specifically defensive-minded midfielder.
If they can get the ball wide and feed the two strikers like they did against Kalju recently they are going to win more games than not, but if a team can pack the midfield and cut off the supply to Elhussieny and Subbotin, they might stand a chance.
- Two strikers who know where the goal is
- Tricky wingers who contribute both goals and assists
- A numerical disadvantage in the centre of midfield can lead to a surrending of control
- A lack of flair in the centre of midfield
Kalju are another team who use 4-2-3-1, often reverting to 4-4-1-1 when in defence.
Tarmo Neemelo usually leads the line for the 2012 champions, and his strength and hold-up play make him an ideal target man. Where he does lack, however, is in pace and flair, but his goalscoring record cannot be argued with.
Allan's absence on the left-wing for the remainder of the season is a huge blow for Kalju. His pace and trickery mean he has the ability to win matches on his own. Damiano Quintieri is often used on the wing, and despite seeming more at home in the centre he is a reliable option with his all-round quality.
Wakui is the nucleus of the team, operating in the trequartista role behind Neemelo and aiming the pull the strings in Kalju's attack. Wakui's movement is one of his biggest strengths, but the Japanese seems to go missing in the big games when crowded out by, say, a two-man defensive midfield.
Where Kalju have the most options is in the centre of midfield. There isn't such a focus on defensive responsibility, but Reginald offers a more defensively-minded option. Mool and Vunk are proven players at this level, with Prates offering something more attack-minded.
Kalju have struggled to create chances against the bigger teams, with Neemelo receiving insufficient support in attack. With or without Allan, a lack of support in the centre to meet crosses has been a recurring theme, as Kalju like to play wider than, say, Flora, and seem to stretch themselves too wide.
When chasing the game, a familiar sight is that of balls being lumped into the box to little avail. Ball retention isn't much of a problem, but clinical play in the final third can be, and if any team might suit a 4-4-2 it would be Kalju.
Putting Quintieri alongside Neemelo would give the attack balance, with Wakui and Reginald performing opposing roles in the centre of midfield, but the pitfalls of this formation are the same as what Levadia occasionally suffer, something which coach Igor Prins is obviously keen to avoid.
- Good wingers who can beat a man and put in a good delivery
- A proven goal-scoring target man up front
- Differing options in central midfield
- Poor support in the final third, particularly for crosses
- A lack of link-up between attackers
Infonet's pre-season ambitions of qualifying for European football appeared to be a little ambitious after a quarter of the season had passed, but a recent resurgence has coincided with a return to form for Manucho and Aidara.
The former leads the line with aplomb. His sheer athleticism and eye for goal have been the difference in several matches this season, and without him Infonet are much worse off.
Aidara sits in behind Manucho, and offers a similar athleticism. Valov has also found some form, showing the sort of performances that might not have been expected from him in recent weeks. Semakhin has been deployed ahead of his usual right-back position, and depsite a lack of genuine pace and skill, his industry and distribution have taken many by surprise.
Stalwart Konstantin Nahk still oozes quality on the ball, and provides a reliable defensive midfield option alongside another proven player in Tanel Melts.
Infonet are a team that like to mix up their attacking approach. They can get the ball through to Manucho via the athletic Aidara, or through the use of the wingers and overlapping full backs, who like to get forward. Their wingers aren't the strongest in the league, and a lack of depth in the squad has occasionally hindered them when Valov, Aidara and Harin have been out of form.
Their central midfielders perform their duties well, particularly in their recent 3-2 defeat of Levadia (see above). Manucho is their talisman, and without him they would really struggle. In the 4-2-3-1 system favoured by many, a player like Manucho is absolutely essential to lead the line on his own.
Aidara provides some additional flair, but his inconsistency and decision-making have been called into question at times this season, and it seems a lack of overall quality and depth in the squad could be their undoing.
- A talismanic striker who would find a place in any Premium Liiga team
- Two reliable central midfielders
- A lack of consistent, quality attackers to support Manucho
- A lack of squad depth
With Flora, Kalju and Infonet playing the same formation, their matches are often close affairs, with a focus on individual battles and the ability to break down the opposition's midfield.
Flora appear to be able to retain the ball better in their attacking unit, with Infonet's pace on the counter their focus. Kalju don't appear to have struck a balance in their team, something which has seen them struggle in these games.
Matches involving Levadia differ somewhat...
4-2-3-1 vs. 4-4-2
As can be seen from the graphic opposite, the key movements should centre around the defensive midfielders of the 4-2-3-1 system, as was the case for Infonet in their 3-2 defeat of Levadia on Matchday 21.
Their patrolling of the space in front of their defence cut off Levadia's supply from midfield, and limited their ability to get the ball wide.
Aidara's freer role behind Manucho allowed him to get in to the space behind Levadia's midfield on the counter, and to draw the defence to him. This created space for Manucho, whose flair thrived in such space.
Levadia's strikeforce didn't get the supply they needed, with the ball hitting the Infonet defensive-midfield wall on several occasions.
This approach is effective when the team is set up right, but for Kalju against Levadia on Matchday 23 it didn't pay off.
A static striker given no support and a technically-gifted trequartisa lacking some flair aren't conducive.
Flora's attacking unit can hold the ball better in these types of games, and they seem to have better balance, allowing them to play their way up the field.
It looks like Flora’s title to lose, despite their philosophy not quite going the way they wanted. Levadia are their nearest challengers, but a reluctance to conform to a 2-1 setup in midfield could work against them against the stronger teams. If they can forge their way down the wings in the big games, they will be there or thereabouts.
Kalju’s lack of creativity at the sharp end has seen them fall short in big games, and a similar lack of a back-up plan will see them continue to hit brick walls until they can make their attack work.
Despite Infonet’s apparent master key to the big games, their lack of squad depth and reliance on Manucho can’t go on forever. How long they can keep up their current run of form remains to be seen, and their underdog tag means they don’t feel the pressure of the teams above them. This could be their undoing though, with a lack of experience also undermining them every so often.
Chris Johns' Premium Liiga final table prediction