Having come through a relatively simple tie against the Bosnian side Siroki Brijeg, Aberdeen will now face Cypriot side Apollon Limassol in the third qualifying stage for this season’s Europa League.
In a strange symmetry with the Bosnian side, Apollon won their domestic cup last season, unlike the Bosnian side, however, the Cypriots finished third in the first stage of the domestic championship and third again in the mini league to decide the eventual champions. Apollon have a distinctly latin style of play and are dangerous in the attacking phase, defensively, however, there are weaknesses that Aberdeen can look to exploit.
Apollon came through their second qualifying round with a 5-1 aggregate win over FC Zaria Balti of Moldova. A 3-0 win in the first league in Cyprus preceded a 2-1 win in the second leg. The Cypriot side has more European success and experience than Aberdeen’s previous opponents Siroki Brijeg and should provide an altogether more difficult challenge.
Shape and tendencies
The second qualifying round tie against FC Zaria Balti gave something of a false impression of Apollon, they were three goals up in the first half of the first leg and essentially the tie was over. That said, the defensive structure of the Cypriot side was still evident early on.
In the defensive phase, Apollon drop into variants of a 4-4-2 structure with the front two either splitting to a 1-1 or pressing as a pair. Unlike the Siroki side that Aberdeen faced in their second qualifying tie, Apollon are far more active in the defensive phase, this means that they will press proactively from a medium defensive block, the halfway line tends to be the trigger for the pressing motion.
The two central midfielders Esteban Sachetti and Charalambos Kyriakou will press any loose pass in the central areas or any pass into an attacking player with his back to the press. The lone forward will most likely be the 25-year-old Croatian Anton Maglica who works hard across the front line to occupy the attacking side’s defenders and prevent them from having comfortable possession across the back line.
The Brazilian attacking midfielder Alex Da Silva is more of a luxury in the defensive phase. A pure number ten, the Brazilian will occasionally join Maglica in pressing the defensive players but more often than not he will remain static in the defensive phase, looking to preserve energy and gain a favourable position in space should Apollon win possession.
In this example, as the ball is played centrally by Zaria into the midfielder, the player receiving the ball is in a vulnerable position and the press is triggered. As the lone striker looks to prevent the ball from being reset back to the defensive line we have three Apollon players converge on the ball, this pressing structure is designed to constrict the man in possession and force a turnover.
In the more established defensive phase, Apollon form a standard compact structure with two compact lines of four. They will look to shut off any potential space in the interior and force Aberdeen to focus their attacks in the wide areas. The Argentinean midfielder Sachetti, in particular, is an excellent organising midfielder who controls the positioning of those around him.
I’ve highlighted the defensive structure for Apollon in his image. Just out of shot on the near side Zaria have a wide forward who has attracted the Cypriot side’s left back out to the wide area. The midfield four have remained relatively tight and compact to protect the threat of a pass into the central areas.
As with the earlier tie against Siroki, Aberdeen will look to exploit these wide areas and as such I expect to see Gary Mackay-Steven and Greg Stewart used in the first leg for the Scottish side as they will look to stretch the width of the field and create spaces in between the defensive structure of the Cypriot side.
In the attacking phase of play, Apollon pose an altogether more dangerous threat than that of Siroki Brijeg. Whilst the Bosnian side relied more on pace and power in an attempt to overwhelm the Aberdeen defence, Apollon have more tactical intelligence and flair in their side as befits a side from Southern Europe. The key player for Apollon in the attack and the pivot through which they look to play is the 33-year-old Brazilian Alex Da Silva, and although he lacks pace, his ability to link play is undiminished by his advanced age.
Apollon build up in a more patient manner than Siroki and will look to build numerical advantages through the thirds of the pitch to advance the ball.
Here I have captured a small example of the passing angles that Apollon will look to create to progress the ball. More often than not, Da Silva is the instigator in central positions, dropping deep to get on the ball before moving it forward through quick passes.
The two wide midfielders for Apollon are not the quickest and instead look to come inside to link play centrally, this, in turn, empties the space in the wide areas and allows the fullbacks for the Cypriot side to advance forward and offer pace in the wide areas.
In the final third, Da Silva is again the greatest threat. Here you can see that he has drifted into a pocket of space centrally with the far side wide midfielder coming inside to join the furthest line.
This is the kind of situation that Aberdeen will have to be extremely careful of, with the Brazilian being capable of threading through balls between defenders for his attacking team mates or unleashing a strike from distance. He is certainly more creative and tactically intelligent than the attackers of Siroki Brijeg.
Alex Da Silva, as well as being the chief playmaker for the Cypriots, is also their set piece taker.
Having looked back over five matches from the Cypriot side I have yet to see a discernible pattern in their corner routines in the attack. This suggests either that they do not have set corner routines that are practised or that the Brazilian approaches each opportunity to utilise corner kicks as a different opportunity to take advantage of the defending side’s weaknesses.
As with the report that I wrote on Aberdeen’s previous opponents Siroki Brijeg, I have watched the last five penalty kicks taken by Apollon and prepared a short video playlist.
Once more Alex Da Silva is the penalty taker in chief for Apollon, the Brazilian also has a tendency to shoot from an initial straight approach to the goalkeeper’s right-hand side. When the goalkeeper is able to hold his position for as long as possible, then the Brazilian can be forced into making a mistake.
It will come as no surprise that Alex Da Silva is the main danger for Aberdeen in this tie. The Brazilian is experienced and intelligent enough to be dangerous at all times, his lack of activity in the defensive phase is in itself a danger to Aberdeen as he is proactive in drifting into dangerous areas of the field where he will look to take the ball in the transition.
As well as the Brazilian attacker, the Croatian striker Anton Maglica will prove a handful for the Aberdeen defence, the former Hajduk Split striker has scored 17 goals in 39 matches for the Cypriot side. Maglica works well across the back line and has the pace to attack in behind the Aberdeen centre backs as well as the technical ability to link well with those that attack from deeper areas.
Suggested game plans
As with the previous round, one of the key features for Aberdeen will be the use of width, especially in the first leg. The aforementioned Mackay-Steven and Stewart should be used to stretch the width of the field, this should, in turn, allow Ryan Christie and Kenny McLean to take advantage of spaces in the centre of the field.
The Apollon defensive line is, whilst not quite as rustic as Siroki Brijeg, still not nuanced in their approach. In order to create space for the talented attacking midfielders to take advantage of, Aberdeen will have to utilise a lone striker that can force the defensive line deeper. It is unlikely that Derek McInnes will start with Adam Rooney with Jayden Stockley likely to be utilised as a nuisance to the Apollon defenders, alternatively, new signing Nicky Maynard would provide experience in the attacking third.
With Alex Da Silva posing a real threat, the presence of Graeme Shinnie at the base of midfield may be needed to neutralise the Brazilian attacker and keep him quiet.