Football history have seen many great teams. From the Dutch Totaalvoetbal masters in the 70’s, the Brazilian national teams of yesteryears and Arrigo Sacchi’s back-to-back European champions of AC Milan to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. All great teams are remembered for something. In 1991, Red Star from Belgrade or rather, Crvena Zvezda, became the last Eastern European team to win the European Cup. Still, as great an achievement as that was, they’re not widely remembered as one of the great teams. This is despite their tactical flexibility and the insane quality of their counter-attacks. As I said, all great teams are remembered for something. And Red Star’s squad of 1991 were the masters of the counter-attack.
As Red Star won the cup, of course it would make sense to look at the final. However, Red Star decided to play for penalties, which they did and then won after scoring all five, and therefore killed the game out of respect to their opponents, Olympique Marseille. So I decided to instead look at the two semi-finals against Bayern München, which best symbolizes what Red Star were all about, aggressive pressing and counter-attacking with pace.
It’s difficult to discuss Red Star’s system, as it changes in the game between a back-four/back five, two/three central midfielders and one/two strikers. If you would make me I’d say it was a sort of 4-1-4-1, but as I will illustrate, it was not in anyway rigid or what you’d expect. No matter what system though, the intent was clear; defend deep, press aggressively in midfield, and counter with speed. This they executed perfectly against Bayern.
Before we start, I want to apologize for the differing quality in the illustrations, as content to watch the full matches in HD was impossible to find.
In the first-leg the line-up read like the following: Stojanovic; Radinovic-Belodedic-Marovic-Najdoski; Jugovic; Binic-Prosinecki-Savicevic-Mihajlovic; Pancev.
As you can see, the team starts their defending quite low, with Binic, Prosinecki, Savicevic and Mihajlovic making up a classic midfield four. However, Jugovic (the holding midfielder) is nowhere to be seen in this picture, as he’s dropped in to basically make up a back five with Belodedici acting as a libero behind the defence.
Same shape to be seen here, but notice the positions of Binic on the right and MIhajlovic on the left, as this will be discussed further later.
As the ball enter the midfield, Red Star started pressing aggressively to win it and unleash the likes of Pancev, Binic and Savicevic on the counter. They just both zonal and man-marking, as it can be seen below with the right back, Radinovic (circled in yellow), leaving the defensive line to mark his opponent. The same can be said about Jugovic who marks his man closely. Prosinecki and Savicevic combine with one pressing and covering the other.
Belodedici – the libero
One of the classiest defenders you’ll see was Miodrag Belodedici. The Romanian won the European Cup with Steaua a few years earlier and was given the key role in Red Star’s defence. Belodedici played as the libero, sweeping up behind the other defenders, controlled the defence after his will and regularly stepped up with the ball to initiate attacks.
The above picture is from the second-leg with the other three defenders circled in yellow. Belodedici is just out of shot.
Now, Belodedici is visible, organizing his fellow defenders. We can clearly see the man-marking from Jugovic, Radinovic and Marovic with the Romanian sweeping behind them.
Here is an interesting shot of the back-four. Belodedici as the libero again, with the other three making up almost a diamond defence in this instance. It could regularly look like this too, with Mihajlovic, defending far more on the left than Binic on the right, filling in as a left-back.
Belodedici earned the nickname “The Deer” because of his elegant style of play, and would regularly glide through the defensive line with the ball at his feet ready to set up attacks.
With the ball it usually looked a normal back-four, with Jugovic trying to get on the ball in midfield. However, as seen below, it had a different look when Belodedici stepped out.
He was both the man cleaning up defensively and organizing the team, as well as the deep-lying playmaker, who exchanged duties with Jugovic to get the mercurial talents of Prosinecki and Savicevic on the ball as much as possible.
Binic and the counter-attacking position
Dragisa Binic was one of the fastest footballers you’re likely to see. He himself claimed to run 100 metres in 10.5 seconds, and although that remains questionable he definitely had an unusual level of pace in him. He was stationed on the right, with clear instructions to stay as high as possible to be an outlet for the team when defending, which in turned would create the famed counter-attacks.
This is the deepest he would go, but compare it to the position of Mihajlovic on the left.
Again, not really bothered about the defending. Ridiculously high positioning, but made possible due to the position of Mihajlovic and the makeshift back-five. Notice the absence of Jugovic, who’s followed his man into the defensive line. Savicevic and Prosinecki working close together again.
MIhajlovic is nowhere to be seen here, with Binic again staying high. We’ve seen this recently with Cristiano Ronaldo in Carlo Ancelotti’s 2014 Champions League winning Real Madrid, and the results were the same; the trophy.
The video above shows the first goal of Red Star’s away win against Bayern in the first-leg. It’s an absolutely fantastic goal, with the sheer speed of the attack frightening making it almost impossible to defend against. After winning the ball by the corner flag, a few quick, short passes are exchanged before Prosinecki releases Binic down the right flank with a brilliant pass. Here is the ultimate demonstration of the tactic of leaving Binic high and releasing him from defensive duties as Bayern can’t cope with his pace and then his inch-perfect pass finds the onrushing Pancev who makes no mistake. It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful and it’s a breathtaking counter-attack.
This is the second goal of that semifinal first-leg. While maybe not as well-worked all the way through the pitch, it’s still class at a very high speed. The clearance finds Pancev, who collects the ball. Savicevic immediately realizes the opportunity and starts his run. Pancev plays a perfect pass and Savicevic’ control and pace takes him away from the Bayern defender easily. The Montenegrin genius finishes emphatically, which is even more impressive when you see the way the ball wobbles up just as he is about to hit it. Again, impossible to defend against.
Even without discussing the tactics, Red Star had an incredible team. Sinisa Mihajlovic is well-known by most, but the likes of Darko Pancev and Dejan Savicevic both finished as runners up for the Ballon d’Or in 1991 and were brilliant players. Sir Alex Ferguson had the following to say when asked about his Manchester United team’s Super Cup win against Red Star a few months after they beat Bayern and Marseille to the trophy:
“The entire Red Star side was terrific. Dejan Savicevic, Darko Pancev, Robert Prosinecki, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic… all brilliant players.”
Clayton Blackmore, who played for United in that game, said the following:
“They could have been even better than the current (2011) Barcelona side”.
High praise indeed, as it should be for the team from Belgrade. Tactically fascinating and one of the best counter-attacking teams of all time, they should be remembered in the same brackets as other great teams. Unfortunately, the team was split up in the following years, as the Balkan wars broke out in full force, and football lost a brilliant team. Some players went on to achieve success elsewhere, including Mihajlovic and Savicevic, who scored for Milan in the 1994 Champions League final, and some never managed to reach their previous heights. That shouldn’t in any way taint the memory of these players though, as they will remain heroes and immortal to the fans of Red Star for eternity.