Why Vardar have the best defence in the leagueArticle
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FIRST-HAND INSIGHT: Our journalist Nemanja Savic claims Vardar have the best defence in the VELUX EHF Champions league, and has the means to prove it.

Why Vardar have the best defence in the league

Vardar have already thrilled and exited, puzzled and dazed many with their triumphant breakthrough mid-way through the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase.

As a breath of fresh air, at the point when the last season’s favourites are still some way off the pace in the competition; Macedonian champions have found a way to stun the competition and produce beautifully consistent performances - in great part due to their tenacious defence.

It is now a question everyone has been asking – can Vardar maintain their form in the coming months, as the European top flight progresses, and especially in the aftermath of the EHF EURO 2016, which is bound to upset the rankings, and set the pace for a season finale?

Moreover, what makes them and their defence so special in comparison to the likes of Kiel, Veszprem, Barcelona and Kielce?

Statistically, Vardar have conceded the fewest goals in the competition so far (149). However, based on their goal-scoring prowess the team from Skopje is listed only ninth with 177 (29.5 per match), which may be subject for later discussion.

With five wins already in the bag, Vardar would have had the bragging rights of an unblemished campaign so far if it weren’t for the defeat against KIF Kolding Kobenhavn (33:31), which is the one and only time relentless Macedonian side put the guard down this season, having let more than 25 goals into their net.

Even with the empathic loss in Denmark, Vardar’s defence is averaging just below 25 conceded efforts per match (24.8).

In addition to that, not many have been in the cauldron of Skopje’s Jane Sandanski arena and lived to tell the story with points in the bag.

Vardar have conceded only 22 goals per game at home in the Jane Sandanski arena, making them the toughest home defence to break this season in the VELUX EHF Champions League.

As much as they do not lie, these are only numbers. Continue below to see how they relate to what we have seen on the court so far, from Skopje to Copenhagen.

Variety is the spice of life

Vardar have a vast offering in term of their defensive styles. Whether it is the dynamic 6-0 with Maqueda, Abutovic and Karacic in the hearth of the defence, or an electrifying 5-1 utilising the active hands of Dibirov, Vardar are playing their defence with exuberance, flair and finesse.

The rotation is simple, yet effective; and moreover devastating for their opponents, especially if converted into a semi-counter.

To understand why, let us take a look at their usual setup where Maqueda is on the right (as number five) and the crafty playmaker Igor Karacic sits on the left (number two spot), with the rugged Abutovic and Toskic protecting the middle. With enough power, anticipation and quickness, it is a time bomb ready to explode into a semi counter in no time.

The key to the calamitous effect Vardar’s defence is the cognitive ability of player in defensive rotation to anticipate, cover and close out any opponent.

As a result, opponents’ chances are limited with the aggressive stance, length, strength and movement, to provoke turnovers. In many instances you will see a shot coming through, however from the weakest possible position – a tactical decision, opening only the angle the keeper is covering.

Balkan temper with a Spanish twist

Spanish coaches have been leading innovation in the Champions League for several years now, and Raul Gonzalez is another witty tactician with ample knowledge and the right approach.

Vardar were a spirited bunch assembled by Veselin Vujovic to play his signature tooth and nail Balkan game, but the arrival of the resourceful Spaniard has brought a lot of finesse; and while the temper is still there, a few tactical tweaks have gone a long way.

Evidence to that are the individually crafted defensive instructions within a simple functioning system, and smooth transition.

Ideally, the end product of such an efficient defensive setup is the semi-counter. Karacic is making incisive runs from the left towards centre to form a lethal three-man fast break with wings spreading out the opposition defence.

In many instances, same approach is used from the get go, with the mobile backs like Dujshebaev favouring a swift movement of the ball to create opportunities.

It is only one example of how to use defence to create offence. Options are countless; the only constant is speed in transition, allowing fast movement of the ball from defence to attack.

6-0 still rules them all

Vardar’s defensive variety consists of a simple principle – you cannot have too much of the same thing. In reality it is in far more than that, as the incredible variety shown in enforcing the beautifully simple 6-0 is nothing short of amazing.

There is no Balkan team without a 6-0 defence. This beautifully simple yet versatile structure is the building block for any team aware of its roots.

As much as the simple yet efficient 6-0 system is a must have in the scrapbooks of any Champions League outfit, even more incredible are the ways to implement it - being it the lock-down aggressiveness of the battling Zagreb, or the deep and dynamic movement on the verge of 3-2-1 displayed by Vardar.

It can vary in form and shape, and while there are instances where a player or two is needed up front to disrupt attacks, the efficiently executed 6-0 is the constituent for the game plan of the Macedonian powerhouse.

The big test

However, with six games into the group stage, we are still looking at the early signs of what may or may not become a genuine FINAL4 contender. Entering the second part of the group encounters, there will be little if any margin for error, and consistency is key.

Having two games against Barcelona coming up, there is no better way to test your defensive prowess, as well as my own claims, than a double-header against the defending champions.

Call it ‘the big test,’ but I am sensing a power shift in comparison to the last season already, having already stated that Raul Gonzalez’s team is built for great things.

While success might not have been in the cards last term, the Spaniard’s shrewd game plan to raise efficiency in attack through the lock-down defensive awareness, allowed them a concept on which they can build towards their pinnacle of form.

Nemanja Savic is a media and communication professional from Serbia, with passion for sports, media, storytelling, traveling and music. He has got a degree in Media & Communication Studies and a diverse professional profile; working as a journalist, translator, media manager and content creator.

Strong handball background and genuine love for the game, sees him perfectly suited for his current filed of work. Needless to say, Nemanja enjoys working as an EHF journalist - and being a former player, sees his work as a way to connect his great passions - media and handball.

TEXT: Nemanja Savic / br