Most Liverpool fans wanted a group of death. An opportunity to test their regenerated side against some of the continent’s finest, along with the prospect of trips to some of the most iconic arenas in world football. Instead the pots, seeds, and pieces of paper aligned to hand Liverpool a group of balance, which includes the most successful team in the competition’s history, the perennially underrated Basle, and the completely unknown PFC Ludogorets Razgrad.
This report will take a look at the Razgrad side, and will be the first in an ongoing series assessing Liverpool’s upcoming European opponents. The report is best served with a large helping of the Anfield Index Champions League preview podcast, hosted by Marco Lopes.
Eastern European Pedigree?
The current incarnation of the Ludogorets club* have made big waves during their short history. Formed as recently as 2001, the club were promoted to the Bulgarian top division in 2011 having been taken over by Bulgarian entrepreneur Kiril Domuschiev a year earlier. They won the Bulgarian A Group at the first time of asking, and have won it every season since.
The extra funds made available by Domuschiev have seen the club dominate their domestic league with a modern style of football based around passing and movement. They’ve added some Brazilian flair to their Eastern European steel, emulating a formula which has been successful for other club sides in nations bordering the Black Sea.
Despite being a relatively unknown fledgeling club, Ludogorets have already made an impact in European competition. Their first qualification came in 2012/13, where they were knocked out in an early Champions League qualifier by Dinamo Zagreb’s dramatic stoppage time winner in the Croatian capital.
They qualified for the 2013/14 Champions League, entering at the second qualifying round (as they did this year), beating Slovan Bratislava, and Partizan Belgrade, before being knocked-out in the group stage play-off by FC Basel, who they’ll face again in the season’s group stage proper.
This Champions League elimination saw them drop into the Europa League where they topped a group containing PSV Eindhoven, Dinamo Zagreb, and Chornomorets Odesa. They exited the competition at the hands of Valencia in the last sixteen, having beaten Lazio in the last-32, which included a shock 0-1 win at the Stadio Olimpico in the first leg.
Ludogorets have been able to dominate the Bulgarian domestic game during the past few years thanks to a blend of financial clout, sensible recruitment, and an effective playing style. They like to keep possession where possible, and will work the ball out from the back. The midfield can be fluid at times, and even though one of the centrally based players will be the designated holder, they won’t be averse to swapping positions should the need arise.
As is the case with the tactics discussed below, the set-up they use in their domestic league could differ from the one deployed in the much tougher Champions League matches. However, given their philosophy it wouldn’t be a surprise if they stuck to their guns and played their usual game, especially when you consider their relative success in last season’s Europa League.
Ludogorets are a team which appear to be settled on a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation which will utilise two central dictators, spraying passes around to the more creative forward or wide players. In recent games the central two have consisted of either Bulgarian Svetoslav Dyakov, or the Portuguese Fábio Espinho. In their triumphant Champions League playoff game against Steaua Bucharest, they played alongside each other.
Below are the tactics used in the play-off game with the only personnel replacement being in goal. Usual keeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off in this game so is suspended, and usual back-up Ivan Čvorović is injured, so the relatively untested 23-year-old Georgi Argilashki is in line for a rare start.
Their formation and general approach to the game provides a solid foundation on which to build, regardless of the balance between defence and attack. For these tough away games in the group stages, they could utilise more defensive wingers, and ask the two central midfielders to be more reserved, but the positional assignments might not deflect too much from the norm.
Current manager Georgi Dermendzhiev is a boss who will spend as much of his time on the training pitch as he will in the office, having worked with the players for three years as an assistant manager before taking the top job this season.
80 – Júnior Caiçara
The right full-back who won’t disappoint when it comes to the Brazilian stereotype for his position. He likes to get forward and can pull out an unexpected trick; both of which can serve to either drive his team forward, or put them in trouble at the back.
17 – Dani Abalo
Spanish winger who impressed in the last league game against Botev Plovdiv, managing to get himself on the scoresheet with a powerful right-footed effort from outside the area. Can drive the team forward and look to get into the box if play is on the opposite side. Could lose his place for the Champions League tie to Bulgarian number 7 – Mihail Aleksandrov, but has given the manager a welcome selection headache.
93 – Virgil Misidjan
Dutch left winger who will look to cut inside onto his right foot using trickery and skill.
80 – Marcelinho
The attacking midfielder will look to make things happen behind the striker. If he plays, a lot of the central attacking burden will be placed on his Brazilian shoulders.
88 – Wanderson
Another Brazilian, signed from São Paulo club Portuguesa this summer, scored the magical goal which kept Ludogorets in the Champions League. His laid back volley from the edge of the area meant the game versus Steaua went to extra time.
27 – Cosmin Moți
If Wanderson kept them in the race, it was the Romanian centre-back Moți who took his team over the finish line, and into the Champions League group stages. His heroics between the sticks, once goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off in extra time, saw him save two penalties in the shoot-out, after scoring the first spot-kick himself!
*The club is seen as a successor to the original Ludogorets Society for Physical Education and Sport organisation, founded in 1945, which boasted the town’s first football club. It’s for this reason that the club are sometimes referred to as Ludogorets 1945, and the year is used on the current club badge.