All posts by Scott

Conditioning a practice to suit session objectives

The 3-team transfer possession exercise is a commonly used practice for several coaches and has a number of technical, tactical, physical and mental outputs that makes the practice effective.  Within this article I will provide alternative conditions, that I have watched or coached, that allow for different tactical or technical elements of the game to be more prevalent. 

Basic set up

Basic set up

As shown above the most basic set up of the exercise is to have three even teams working in a rectangle, split into three zones.  Two teams work together to retain possession (blue and red) and a pressing team (yellow) will attempt to stop transfers either through regaining the ball in the box where a team is building possession, or through intercepting an attempted transfer pass.  In order to make a successful transfer, the team in possession must complete a set number of passes before being able to play through, round or over the opposition interceptors.  I have seen a variety of conditions within this basic set up to promote certain behaviours or technical/tactical ideas.  In my own coaching, I have had a pressing team defend for a set period (90secs – 3mins depending on desired outcome) with a score given to the defending team for how many times they allow a transfer. In this case, the lower the score the better.  Alternatively, the practice can run for a set period of time with the defending team transitioning to an in-possession team should they successfully regain the ball and the team relinquishing possession then becoming the pressing team.

Considerations

Before using this practice, I would always ask myself the following questions

  1. What are the objectives of the session?
  2. How can I progress the practice to further challenge the players individually and collectively?
  3. How do I ensure the scoring system reflects the objective of the session?

With these considerations, it can allow the coach to structure the session based on a number of elements.  It may relate to a specific element of a game model that you wish to implement or could relate to a strategy that may be used on a specific match day.  By knowing your desired outcomes this practice, and the detail the coach provides can allow for players to improve individually and collectively.  

Constructing the attack to play through

Receiving behind the line of pressure

In this exercise the scoring system is based on the number of transfers the defending team allow. The objective for the team in possession is to make a set number of passes to then play into the middle zone to a player in the red team, who has to receive and play into his own box.  Within the practice four goals are added on the outside of the pitch to promote behaviours on transition.  If the defending team (yellow) regain possession they look to score in any four of the mini goals. A goal for the defending team results in a point deduction from the score.  It is the coach’s discretion to organise the extent of the pressure from the defending team.  This practice demands a number of technical skills to be executed properly, specifically the passing skills of the team keeping possession and the receiving skills of the team looking to receive in the central zone to then release into their own zone.  

When constructing passes in the first box, the team in possession should look to make the pitch as big as possible through providing depth and width.  However, what is beneficial about this practice is that the possession must have an outcome.  During this phase of possession, the team keeping the ball need to constantly scan forward to see who is free between the lines, how the opposition are defending in the middle zone and how they can play through as quick as possible to a player who is able to turn.  The body shape during the build-up should allow for the blues to see the furthest away red player and by doing so, they are then able to see more passing options. The technique of playing through is one that players need to execute effectively.  Passes through the lines should be firm and if possible should have an element of disguise.  As demonstrated in the diagram, when the blue player receives he opens up his body to a play straight pass down the line.  By adding disguise to the pass, it can move out individual players and create bigger gaps between defensive units to play through.  To ensure that the pass is effective it should be played into the receivers furthest away foot, allowing them to turn whilst receiving possession and speed up the next phase of the attack.

The receiving team (red) must remain disciplined, focusing on the timing of the movement and the ability to receive and break out the middle zone as quickly as possible, either through a dribble or pass. When the blues are building possession, the reds need to recognise the moments to drop into the middle zone as by being stationary in the zone for a prolonged period, they can become easily marked.  A general rule that can be added to ensure players are not stationary is to promote ‘show and go’.  If the player is in for longer than 2/3 seconds they need to get out and rotate with a teammate and in doing so test the organisation of the screening players in the central zone.  When dropping into the middle zone, the player receiving needs to trust the blues to find them in positions that they are able to turn freely and play into their own box.  As demonstrated, playing behind the line of yellow defenders eliminates them when the pass is played through the lines making it easier to turn and escape pressure. When receiving the player should allow the ball to run across his body onto his back foot and if possible, receive on the move.  As the ball travels players should be encouraged to check their shoulders to ensure they are aware of the space around them, along with potential pressure from opponents and passing options to teammates.

Playing through in a 4-3-3

Within this exercise the coach can structure the possession players to replicate their positions on match days.  As demonstrated the structure of the possession teams could replicate a 4-3-3 with a 4-1 set up for the blues and a 2-3 for the reds.  The reds may initially be positioned in the middle with an onus on the front 3 to know when to drop into the middle to create a 3v2 against the two yellow screeners.  This structure can develop a number of relationships including the CDM with the two centre midfield players as well as the relationship between the centre midfield players and the striker.  The CDM will need to work on his movement and positioning to allow the centre backs to play through into the striker with the centre midfield players playing with a body shape that allows them to see both goals and can open up passes into the striker.

Playing through in a 3-4-3

Alternatively, this can be done through using a 3-4-3 with the blues operating as the three centre backs and two pivot players with two red wing backs occupying the middle zone.  By splitting the pitch in three vertical zones it can create a visual for players to better understand principles or rules that you wish to apply in a match day.  For example, in the back 3 you may ask the centre backs to occupy all three zones, allowing them to work the ball across the pitch better and stretch the 3 yellow pressers.  In doing so it can potentially open up passes to the centre midfield players to turn to play through or round the two screeners.  It can also strengthen relationships between the box in midfield and work on creating combinations of passes inside from the wingbacks.  By playing with two pivots, it allows them to work on their relationship and opening up passing lanes through the two CAMs through moving away from the ball.

Creating space to play round

Playing round the opponents

In this exercise the middle zone is split into 3 areas, with the wider areas (shaded) for the possession players to carry the ball into the middle zone, either driving through or combining to then play a pass to a red.  Similar to the previous exercise, a point can also be scored by transferring through the central zone via a red dropping in to receive and turn.  If the defenders regain possession they can look to score in the four mini goals placed on the outside. This again promotes behaviours on transition, including regaining the ball quickly through suffocating the player in possession and the passing options that they may have.  Once again, if the defending team manage to score this can reduce the score of the transfers they allowed or instead reduce their time defending.

Within the exercise the focus shifts towards the players playing in wider areas of the pitch and their decision making of when to carry the ball, and when to release it quickly to exploit spaces elsewhere.  The players situated in the wide areas should have an open body shape facing in the pitch to allow them to see where pressure is coming from and also where they can look to take their first touch.  When they receive possession, they should look to explode forward early, limiting the time the yellow screeners have to get across and recover possession.  When keeping the ball, the team in possession should still look to scan forward and see the spaces in central areas and look to play through when possible. However, to stretch the screening players, the team in possession need to circulate the ball quickly.  

The team not involved in the build-up phase of the exercise now have decisions to make when they see a blue player drive with the ball in a wide zone.  They need to assess whether the player in possession can dominate the 1v1 without support or do they need to get across to potentially become a ‘bounce’ pass option round the defender.  In order to free up spaces on the side of the pitch, their movement into the central area can attract the interceptor’s attention and potentially force them to narrow in, meaning that when the ball is switched it is harder to them to cover the space and defend the wide zone.  

Rotation on the switch of play

Once again, this exercise can be applied to a team shape and in this instance, focus on rotations as the ball moves from one side of the pitch to the other or on potential ways to exploit the opponent once the ball is in the wide area.  As shown above it can promote rotations such as the centre midfield players bouncing out to the side to take up a fullback position, the fullback going high and the wide player playing on the inside.  By doing this it can allow centre midfield players to receive naturally facing forward and have more passing options to break the defensive organisation.  It can strengthen the relationship between wide players and fullbacks, with the fullback knowing when and how to overlap when the wide player steps into the middle zone.  The purpose of any rotation is to find a free man who is able to receive and play forward.  If the coach allows the yellow team to have more freedom in how they press it may encourage the yellow screeners to follow players on rotations, meaning centre backs need to have an awareness as the ball travels to them to ensure they can find the free man quickly.  Timings on the rotation is also important and can be reinforced through this practice. If the rotation takes place late (on the centre backs first touch), it means players will not give themselves time to be set to receive and understand the picture round them. Alternatively, if they rotate early (before the pass is played by the left back), they will be stationary for a prolonged period making it easier for the defenders to control the situation.  

Combinations in wide areas

Once the ball reaches the sides of the pitch, it can challenge the players to make the right decision as multiple options are available including whether to play directly through or round the defender. Whether it is a quick combination to play round, via the right winger, or going directly to the fullback, this situation allows players to work on playing first time passes under pressure as well as taking positive touches to speed up the attack.  What this exercise does repeatedly is allow the team in possession to better understand when to attack down the side or when to circulate the ball back round the pitch.

Third man runs

Promoting third man runs

In this exercise there are two ways to complete a transfer. The first is through a player being able to receive on the half turn in the middle zone and play through. The second is by springing a third man run into the shaded area as shown above.  Similar to previous practices the use of small goals on the outside can be a target for the defending team once they make a regain, which prompts a reaction from the teams who have lost possession to try and regain the ball as quick as possible.  In this exercise you can also award a point if the yellows are able to make 2 passes on a regain which promotes quick reactions to suffocate the man in possession as well as the passing options, whilst also being aware of the goals on the side of the pitch.  

Due to the dimension changes this encourage players to look forward and find passes into the middle zone.  With this condition and more passes likely to be played into this central zone, it will encourage players underneath the ball to be ready to support when players receiving can’t turn due to pressure from behind.  Another consequence of playing more forward passes in tighter areas is that players will need to receive under pressure and be able to protect the ball.  This then promotes the receiving technique with pressure from behind and encourages players to either bounce the ball back if receiving square, or to be inventive and to beat the defender to then play through.  Furthermore, with passes more frequently being played into the middle area, the movement into these areas needs to be timed and if players do not receive in that area, can they rotate out quickly to free the space for others.

Pressing a specific player

Pressing a “target” player

In this exercise the focus can now turn to the defending team and working on how they structure their press.  The scoring system remains the same with the team in possession looking to play round or through the pressers, gaining a point for every successful transfer.  Again, if the pressing team make a regain, they look to score in any of the four small goals.  However, there can be greater rewards for the pressing team depending on how and when they press.  For example, awarding the pressing team two goals if they manage to make a regain in a certain area of the pitch or from a certain player and then score from that position. 

In the example highlighted above the emphasis is on forcing the play onto a certain player in the opposition (this may be highlighted from an opposition analysis).  Prior to the exercise the coach may only tell the defending team who is the “pressing target”.  This then allows the coach to see if the teams in possession recognise who that player is and how they may change their strategy to prevent one player being exposed in a certain area of the pitch.  The defending team in this case need to be patient in how they press and force the ball into the player that they can intercept from.  When pressing the “target”, the timing needs to be precise.  If the pressing player jumps out their slot early they may leave themselves to be played through or over.  The speed of approach will be determined by the body shape and awareness of the “target”.  If the receiving player has his back to goal and has not scanned behind, it can allow the presser to be aggressive and approach with speed.  However, if the receiving player has a good body shape, the presser should slow down sooner on approach but still get close enough to try and force the receiving player to play back or sideways.  

Forcing to an area

Regaining in specific areas of the pitch

When focusing on regains in certain areas, it allows the defending team to force play into an area of the pitch and make the possession teams play predictable.  In doing so, they can then create opportunities to be aggressive and win the ball back in areas that allow them to go and score quickly.  Firstly, the pressers will need to communicate effectively to ensure that they are structured as a narrow front three to force the game into wide areas.  This exercise can encourage the screening players to give information to the players in front about when to press and how to angle their approach.  Players also have to decide the right moments to go and press with the intent of winning the ball, as well as knowing when to slide across to protect the space.  As shown above, the yellow centre midfielder leaves his slot to press the blue in the wide zone.  There are a number of factors that determine when to press and when to stay and delay. Firstly, the centre midfielder will need to assess the weight of the pass that gets played into the shaded area and if they can get out quick enough to put immediate pressure on the first touch. When doing so, they also need to decide the angle of the approach and ensure they block forward passes in order to slow the attack down.  Furthermore, these moments also trigger movements from the rest of the defending team and how they provide sufficient cover round the ball to be in a position to intercept a pass or pick up a loose ball.  A rule that can enforce compactness is that the defending team must be in the two zones closest to the ball when the ball is in the shaded area and all players must be in the central zone when the ball is that area. 

Promoting counter attacking actions

As demonstrated above, a progression to this practice would be to create an end zone behind both possession boxes gives the pressing team a counter attacking focus when they regain the ball.   What this does, is allow the team that win the ball to focus on transitional moments and how the defensive structures can enable them to break quick and exploit the spaces vacated by the possession teams. In this exercise the coach may put a time limit on how long it should take to score once a regain is made and allow the players to figure what is the quickest way to goal.  It can encourage players to show composure on regains to make the right decision whether to pass or dribble and it can also improve the understanding of the strikers and the spaces to exploit once the ball is won. By adding in this transitional element, it allows the players to connect the out-possession work to reactions on transition, allowing transitions to become structured rather just a reaction to winning the ball.  

Chaos

Some of the best learning that players will get is when the session and the structure of the session is chaotic.  A way to create the chaos is to allow the defending team to press the way they want by sending as many players into the buildup boxes as possible.  Points can be awarded to the possession teams when they manage to either play round, through or over the pressing team.  Further chaos can be added to the defensive team by allowing the possession side to connect with the other possession team immediately, without any pass limit. 

Committing opposition in a block

Depending on the defensive structure, the team in possession will have to process quickly the spaces that can be exploited.  If the defending team press aggressively, the possession team will need to find solutions quickly to play over the press through making the pitch as big as possible and looking to open passing lanes into the middle channel.  In order to make effective decisions, players must have an awareness of the spaces available, passing options in possession and creating angles of support should they not receive the initial pass.  If the defending team are more conservative in their approach, it means that constructing possession may be easier. However, playing through, round or over the defending team may be more difficult.  As highlighted above, a method that can be used in this case is for players to step in with possession and entice the press from one of the screeners which can then create space in behind for players to move into.  Isolating an opposition player in the ‘block’ alongside clever movement can allow you to create an overload round that player to through. 

For the defending team, giving the players full autonomy on the defensive structure means that communication and co-ordinated pressing is of paramount importance.  To ensure that this is done with clarity, the coach may select a ‘captain’ whose job is to communicate the strategy to his teammates prior to the practice beginning. The pressing team have the freedom to adapt their strategy during the exercise which will enable the coach to see who are effective communicators and who can read the game and change the strategy if required.  Initially, what can happen is that the pressing team will start with aggression and look to press with a high intensity.  What then becomes important is how the players react to breaches and how they recover back to a narrow and compact shape before pressing, as if players press in small numbers they are likely to be played round and exert energy.  This can often lead to players having to think about game management, selecting when and how to press and being ready to turn and react to balls that are played over the press.

When players have full autonomy, it is important that the coach reflects with the players and questions their rationale for their adopted approach.  In doing so, it can create opportunities for the coach to provide clarity on the finer details of using a certain strategy.  

It can also allow the coach to reflect on an individual basis to see how they felt in certain moments and relate it back to how they may face a similar scenario in the game.  Again, it can allow the player to understand finer details of how to press, receive under pressure or play a certain pass related to their position.  

Conclusion

In summary, the 3-team possession practice is adaptable and can be used to suit a number of objectives.  In order for this practice to relate to the objectives of the session, the coach must ensure that the conditions and the scoring system encourage behaviours and actions that promote the objectives.  For example, if the aim of the session is to work on playing round the opponent the dimensions may be slightly wider than usual with zones in wide areas that promote dribbling and combination play.  What makes this practice applicable in a number of ways is that although there can be a primary focus (i.e. playing through), there is a still an objective for the defending team on how to press and regain possession.  This dual focus then allows for every player participating to gain something from the session, making it effective and enjoyable.

The attacking structure and success of S.S. Lazio

Simone Inzaghi is into his fourth full season as manager of Lazio and has achieved relative success in that time, winning the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana twice by overcoming Italy’s dominant side of the last decade, Juventus.  However, this season has saw Lazio mount a serious challenge to Juve’s dominance of Serie A with Ciro Immobile leading the way as the league’s top goal scorer (27) and Carlos Alberto topping the assists chart (11).  They are the second highest goal scorers on 60 goals, 10 behind the impressive Atalanta who lead the league with 70. However, Lazio do boast the best goal difference having conceded 11 fewer than their counterparts from Bergamo. In this article I will examine how Lazio have been so successful in possession, assessing their structure to build and finish attacks as well looking closer at Europe’s leading marksman, Ciro Immobile.

Overview

The games analysed were home matches against Inter Milan and Bologna.  Lazio were consistent in their approach, playing a 3-1-4-2 with possession being of little importance to the Biancocelesti who averaged 47% across the two matches.  Personnel was fairly consistent with a midfield of Lucas, Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto in both matches with Immobile the main attacking threat.  Bologna played a 4-2-3-1 with Inter matching up their opponents, setting up in a 3-1-4-2. 

Creating overloads in the build up phase

In both matches against Bologna and Inter, Lazio adjusted to ensure they managed to construct attacks effectively and enter the middle third of the pitch.  An important strength is the confidence and competency of the back 3 to step in with possession and play passes to break the first line of pressure.  Alongside this, the awareness of Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto to drop down on the build up to become the free player and create an extra pass makes it very difficult for a team to pin Lazio down and create numerical superiority.  I felt that Lazio managed to create these overloads in 3 ways.

  1. Isolating an opposition player to play round 
  2. Milinkovic-Savic or Alberto recognising when to drop down to create two pivots
  3. Strikers dropping down into the midfield line to create a 4v3

Isolating an opposition player to play round

Isolating Vecino to play round

In the game against Inter Milan, Lazio managed to build successfully through the isolation of midfielder Vecino by Radu and Luis Alberto and playing round him on the switch of play.  In this match Inter’s initial defensive strategy was for the two advanced midfield players to press the outside centre backs of Lazio with Lukaku tasked with managing Acerbi and Martinez dropping down to prevent the pivot, Lucas, from getting time and space to turn and play forward.  This then often freed up Milinkovic-Savic and in particular Alberto on switches of play across the back 3.   As shown in the diagram Lazio would often build through the right side of the pitch to drag Inter across and work the ball across to Radu. As the ball shifted across the pitch, Luis Alberto would position himself blindside of Vecino making it extremely difficult for the Inter centre midfield player to know the exact angle of pressure to eliminate a passing lane to Alberto.  As the ball travelled, Radu was very clever with his first touch, taking it towards Vecino to entice the CM out of his position and freeing up Alberto to receive with time and space to turn and play forward.  Although these movements directly affect the players around the ball, it cannot be underestimated the positioning of the wingbacks and strikers to allow this overload to happen.  As is often the case a 2v1 in a bigger space is better than a 3v2. As the play is circulated from right to left Jony makes a forward run to take Candreva into the Inter back line. Further isolation to Vecino is created through the movement of Immobile and Caicedo who come across to the side of the ball with one striker dropping off the back line and into a position to potentially receive a pass from Radu.  Although they are unable to find a passing lane, Immobile is able to occupy Brozovic who is more concerned about shutting off the pass rather than supporting Vecino.  This then isolates Vecino entirely and allows Lazio to enter the middle third of the pitch without any pressure.  It is also important to note the discipline Alberto shows as the play develops to Radu from Felipe.  Instead of making his initial movement to the ball he moves out of Vecino’s eye line and into a position where it is impossible for the Inter centre midfielder to have an awareness of Alberto and the ball at the same time.

Milinkovic-Savic or Alberto recognising when to drop down to create two pivots

Using Milinkovic-Savic to find the free player

As highlighted in the diagram, against Bologna the two strikers managed to occupy the entire back line, meaning that the wing backs were often spare on the build-up and the route to escaping the initial press.  When pressing high, the wingers did not directly press the outside centre backs, instead shut off passes to the wing back.  With Lucas being marked tight by Soriano, Milinkovic-Savic drops down and is able to play a first time, round the corner pass to Lazzari who is able to then carry the ball into the space and combine with the strikers.  As he arrives to play the pass, Milinkovic-Savic slows down to give himself as much time as possible to get set before playing round the corner, turning his hips as he plays the pass to ensure it reaches Lazzari who does not have to break stride and crucially, can speed up the attack.  When Milinkovic-Savic drops down, the weight of the pass from Patric has to be manageable in order for the centre midfield player to play a controlled first-time pass. This is crucial as if the ball is lost in this position, it can allow Bologna an opportunity to break from a central position.  What is important to note in this passage of play is the movement and awareness from Lucas.  As he is initially marked tight, an instinctive movement may be to move towards the ball to evade pressure. However, by standing in his position or adjusting away from the ball slightly it creates a passing angle for Milinkovic-Savic to drop down and receive the ball.  This movement is consistent in both the Inter and Bologna matches where he often stands still to allow the free CM to drop down or move away from the ball to create a bigger space for the CM to operate in.

Using Alberto to enter the middle third

Against Inter Milan, the free players tended to be either Milinkovic-Savic or Alberto. When the Inter CMs jumped to press this often allowed either of Lazio’s centre midfield players to drop down and receive blindside of the initial presser.  In this instance when Strakosha clips the ball to Radu it entices Vecino to jump out his position to press leaving Alberto free.  Again, when this pass is played Lucas recognises that he is picked up and makes no attempt to support Radu, instead he stays away which creates more space for Alberto to drop down and receive with time and space to turn and carry the ball into the middle third.  When Radu receives the ball and is pressed by Vecino, Alberto makes a movement that allows him to not only receive the ball but to do so in a way that he can take the ball across his body and drive forward.

Both Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto have a great understanding of when to drop down and create an extra passing option on the build-up. However, it is important to highlight the role of the centre midfield player not dropping in.  If the ball was on the side of Alberto, Milinkovic-Savic would then push higher towards the striker in order to create a passing option higher up the pitch to speed up the attack should Alberto receive the ball and quickly be put under pressure.  By also pushing higher into a position between the lines it can occupy more opposition players, creating more space for Alberto to turn when receiving possession.

Strikers dropping down into the midfield line to create a 4v3

Correa dropping to create a 4v3

In the match against Bologna, the prevalent approach for the visitors was to adopt man to man marking across midfield.  If Alberto or Milinkovic-Savic were picked up tightly when dropping down, it then opened up avenues for one of the strikers to drop in and create a 4v3 centrally.  As demonstrated in the diagram, Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto both occupy the half spaces when Lazio have secure possession of the ball.  As the ball travels back inside from Petric into Felipe, Alberto recognises how tight he is marked and edges away from the ball, dragging Poli out of position and as a result opens up a space to play through the opposition midfield.  Although this movement creates space, the strikers must have the intelligence to time their movement effectively to ensure when they receive the ball they have time and space to turn and drive or be set so that if they do receive under pressure they are comfortable enough to set back to midfield or roll the opponent. Correa is intelligent enough to know that when Alberto peels away from the ball, he is opening up a passing channel to drop down and receive the pass.  On this occasion Correa waits till Felipe takes his first touch then drops into the space. However, he lacks awareness of the lack of pressure behind him and takes a negative touch back the way and ends up setting the ball back to Patric. This situation could have been used for effectively by Lazio if Correa managed to take his touch forward to commit the opposition defender. Alternatively, the pass may have missed Correa and went through to Immobile who was playing slightly higher.  Although under more pressure, Immobile could then set back to Correa who is in a position to receive facing the opposition goal.  Although this moment was not maximised it did highlight the understanding Lazio had to control the build-up and create overloads regardless of the defensive strategy used by the opposition.

Midfield positioning and exploiting the space available

In both matches Lazio faced off against different strategies and defensive systems, meaning the areas to exploit were different. However, Lazio managed to gain success through spatial awareness, support underneath the ball and moving the opposition into positions that created space to play on the opposite side of the ball.

Build up to second goal vs Bologna

As we can see from the second goal that Lazio score in the game against Bologna, it comes from a rare moment when the opposition abandon the principle to man mark the midfield 3 and become more concerned at defending the space around the ball.  As Patric is under no pressure, he is then able to get further distance on his pass and clips a diagonal ball over the Bologna midfield line for Alberto who is free to receive and turn into space.  With Denswill stepping up to press Lazzari high up the pitch it makes it difficult for him to recover into position and support the back 3. 

Finishing the attack (Second goal vs Bologna)

As Alberto has time and space to drive, it makes it difficult for Bologna to recover their shape and get into a position to delay the Lazio attack.  When Alberto drives, Jony makes a run down the side to occupy Tomiyasu with Immobile ready to go in between Bani and Tomiyasu which isolates the left centre back Danilo.  Correa is clever enough to recognise this and peels opposite to Immobile before receiving a weight perfect pass from Alberto before finishing across the Bologna goalkeeper.

In the game against Inter Milan the defensive structure of the visitors was very narrow and compact, particularly on the side of the ball. When Lazio managed to enter the middle third, the spaces were usually on the outside of the Inter block on the opposite side of the ball as Inter often reverted to a 5-3-1-1 with the wingbacks dropping in the line of the back 3.  Lazio had two key methods of getting out, either through the centre back stepping in or through the opposite centre midfield player playing outside the Inter midfield 3.  

Felipe stepping in on the switch of play

As stated previously the pressure on the outside centre backs would come from Inter’s two centre midfield players.  This then meant that the opposite centre midfield player had to tuck in to ensure the distances between players denied Lazio the opportunity to play forward passes into the strikers.  With the pressure coming from Vecino, Alberto again found himself free to turn and open up.  As shown in the diagram below, the position of Milinkovic-Savic can cause a problem for Barella, particularly when getting out to defend the switch of play to Felipe. Milinkovic-Savic positioning himself high can occupy Barella as if he leaves his slot early, it can open up a through the lines pass from Alberto. Therefore, when Alberto is able to switch the play to Felipe, the centre back is able to step in with time and space.  The positioning of Marusic as Felipe receives the ball, prevents Young from stepping up to press as it would leave the right wing back free for an angled cross into the box.  

Milinkovic-Savic staying patient

An alternative way to exploit the same space can be highlighted by Milinkovic-Savic being the player who stays patient and wider than the Inter midfield block.  Once again Lucas is man marked by Martinez and unable to be an option to circulate the ball side to side.  As highlighted above in this example, Jony receives from Radu with the centre back continuing his run.  This movement after the pass is important as with Vecino tracking, it creates space for Alberto to drop underneath the ball and receive under no pressure to play a pass to Milinkovic-Savic who is positioned outside Barella.  The movement and positioning of Alberto enables him to receive the ball and have a good understanding of the picture in the forward areas.  He is then able to take a touch forward meaning the recovery time to defend the switch of play is shorter and gives Milinkovic-Savic more time to carry the ball.  As the ball travels to the Serbian, the movement of the players around him are crucial to allow him to step in with limited pressure.  Marusic looks to come inside which forces Young to go inside with him, allowing Felipe to overlap and become an option down the outside.  This movement can have an impact on Barella’s desire to press the ball, as leaving his position can free up a pass behind him. In this instance, this indecision allows Milinkovic-Savic to step in with the ball and hit a long-range effort off the cross bar. The use of the rotation on the switch of play can create confusion. In addition, the ability to exploit the space quickly makes it extremely difficult for a team to control the situation regardless of how compact they are on the side of the ball.

Milinkovic-Savic overloading the side of the ball

Although the midfield position centrally created success through switches of play, there were occasions that Lazio overloaded the side of the ball through the centre midfield players coming out of position to create an extra passing option.  As shown above, when the centre midfield players peel into these positions, it creates difficulty within the defensive structure.  Firstly, if the body shape of the centre midfielder is correct and they peel out with no applied pressure, he is then in a position to turn on the ball receive and pass forward.  However, if Brozovic were to leave his position and follow Milinkovic-Savic, it can create an opportunity for Lazio to penetrate centrally and play through for the striker.  In this instance the pressure comes from the wing back Young.  However, in doing so he frees up Marusic who is then in a position behind Young and can then pull the centre back into areas they are unfamiliar defending in.  The role of Lucas here is crucial as he recognises that as the ball travels, Milinkovic-Savic cannot turn and therefore must support underneath the ball to then play forward.  Milinkovic-Savic then plays a soft pass back to Lucas which initiates a first time pass round the corner for Marusic who is free to take on Skriniar in a 1v1.  There is an argument that not all 1v1s in football are equal and depending on the characteristics of the individuals involved, the situation can benefit one player more.  In this instance Marusic is more likely to gain success in a wide area against a centre back than up against a wingback/fullback who is more familiar at defending in these situations and areas.  

Third man runs

In the final third in both matches, Lazio used the third man run to good use, particularly in situations when the opposition were penned in and left limited space in behind.  In the game against Bologna both centre midfield players experienced success in making these runs.  In these examples Lazio are able to utilise and make third man runs effectively through:

  • Timing of pass and third man movement
  • Creating spaces to exploit in the final third through movements to drag opponents out of shape
  • Receiving the final pass facing the goal
Alberto arriving into the box

If we look at the diagram above, we can see that Bologna are in a position where they are defending deep in their own half in a wide area.  The use of the two strikers is important to note at this point, as up against one striker Danilo may decide to edge out slightly more to cover Denswill.  In the current situation, both centre backs are unlikely to leave their positions as they are occupied against the two strikers and are concerned with the threat of a cross ball.  As a result, this leaves gaps between fullbacks and centre backs if the fullback does not recognise the threat and narrow. This allows runners from midfield to arrive into box in the half spaces.  In this case, Lazzari has possession but is unable to go past Barrow as Denswill is positioned to provide cover.  Milinkovic-Savic makes an option underneath the ball and his positioning enables him to play forward early.  Lazzari plays a softly weighted pass which is recognised by Alberto who times his run well with Milinkovic-Savic playing a first time pass which Alberto is able to arrive on at speed.  Once in the box, Lazio are in a position where they have an overload with Alberto in possession along with the 3v3 with the two strikers and Jony against the two Bologna centre backs and the opposite fullback.  Although on this occasion the movement in the box does not result in a goal, Lazio manage to exploit the space provided through runs from deeper positions.

Using the third man from a deeper position

Another example of this can be shown from a deeper position in the pitch and moving the opposition to create space in behind for the third man to run into.  When Radu has possession of the ball, Alberto makes a movement into a position that would normally be occupied by a fullback in a back 4.  This movement as previously discussed can create disruption in an oppositions defensive structure and in this case the movement does so, as it drags out Poli and creates a passing lane into Immobile.  The striker recognises and drops short, attracting pressure from Bani who follows Immobile into the space, leaving space in behind the centre back that is utilised by both Correa and Milinkovic-Savic who make runs in behind. The intial movement from Alberto triggers a number of movements across the pitch that leads to Lazio playing a long ball over the top for both players to run onto and results in Lazio gaining time and space to attack high up the pitch.  

The importance of the third man run cannot be underestimated, particularly in the game against Inter when Lazio came from behind to win a massive match in Serie A.  Playing against a disciplined defensive unit, Lazio managed to get back into the game through a penalty from Ciro Immobile that was won through the same link up that was highlighted in the Bologna game, only this time roles were reversed (Alberto arriving into the box).

Winning the penalty vs Inter

Marusic had possession against a packed Inter defence and played a ball back to Felipe who plays a pass into Caicedo.  As the ball is played into Caicedo, Alberto provides support underneath the ball and is facing forward.  As the ball travels back to Alberto, Inter step up ever so slightly to squeeze the line. However, with no pressure on the ball, Alberto has time and space to get his head up and pick the pass.  Milinkovic-Savic’s starting position is key to the attack.  By staying deeper than the line of the back 5, he is much harder to pin point and pick up as he travels into the box. He can also travel at speed with defenders finding it difficult to turn and react to the ball over the top.  From the ball over the top, he is able to get first contact on the ball which ricochets to Immobile who is fouled by Skriniar.

Another prime example of this is Milinkovic-Savic’s goal against Juventus on the 9thDecember 2019.  Alberto drops deeper to receive from the left centre back under no pressure and is able to turn.  This then triggers Correa to drop off the line of the Juventus defence, which distracts De Ligt and prevents him from recovering the ball over the top that Milinkovic-Savic runs onto and finishes well.  Consistent with the movement that won the penalty against Inter, the Serbian times his run well and by not starting on the last line immediately, allows him to generate speed when entering the box and not having to worry about being offside before receiving and finishing.  

The effectiveness of third man runs requires intelligence and precise timing from all involved.  Timing is the most important aspect as the purpose of these movements, particularly in positions higher up the field, is to receive in a position that makes it impossible for defenders to recover. As demonstrated by Lazio, if done effectively this can lead to goals.

Ciro Immoible

As it currently stands Ciro Immobile is in line to win the European Golden Shoe.  When observing his performances, it is no surprise due to his highly successful finishing rate (27.7%) and his movement to create space for himself which leads to many goal scoring opportunities.  One of the main characteristics that allow Immobile to be so clinical in a number of moments of the game, is his ability to free himself from his opposition marker. Although this seems simple, he makes subtle counter movements to create this space or uses the movement of other players as decoys to identify where he can receive the ball with time.

Threat on transition

Assist vs Bologna

If we look at Lazio’s first goal against Bologna, it comes from a period when they are defending relatively deep in their own half, with Bolonga happy to play with both fullbacks positioned wide.  In these moments, even when Lazio are defending deep, they are still able to be at their most dangerous, particularly Immobile.  Focussing on Immobile when Lazio defend deep, he is almost inactive in the defensive actions of the team. However, as Lazio are defending he is constantly ready to react and attack the space should they recover the ball.  A method that Lazio used effectively to regain the ball was to intercept passes and break from these interceptions.  As shown above, when Barrow is put under pressure and forced to set back quickly Correa is able to step onto the ball and intercept.  As soon as this happens it triggers Immobile to move and peel into the wide left area that is vacated due to Tomiyasu being so high up the pitch.  Importantly, Immobile’s first movement is to peel out before running in behind.  When Correa is travelling with the ball, it allows Immobile to create separation between himself and Bani and allows him to receive the ball at speed and drive towards the opposition goal, rather than receiving a square pass that is more likely to run through to the opposition goalkeeper. This movement creates space in central areas either directly in the box, as the centre back is now defending in the wide area, or on the edge of the box should a centre midfielder recover to a centre back position.  In this instance, Immobile slows the attack down slightly to allow Alberto to get to the edge of box before being picked out and finishing into the bottom corner. This movement from Immobile is nothing new but is effective considering his ability to carry the ball into space as well his calmness to find the right pass in the final third.

Isolating opposition defenders

This can be further shown in cases when Lazio are able to win the ball back and utilise the passing ability of Lucas.  Again Lazio’s method of regain is interception of a pass from the opposition fullback with Radu stepping in and setting the ball to Parolo.  The centre midfielder receives under pressure, however, the support underneath the ball from Lucas allows for a pass to the Brazilian who then plays over the top for Immobile to run onto and isolate Bani in a 1v1.  In this case, the timing of movement from Immobile is crucial as he needs to anticipate when the pass is likely to be played and start his run to ensure he arrives on the ball at speed.  This also ensures he has enough separation between himself and the defender to be in control of the situation.  If he decides to run as soon as Radu wins the ball, he will be in a standing position waiting for the pass to arrive.  He is also likely to be marked and unable to generate speed, both important aspects of a successful counter attack.  What Immobile does well in this instance is he remains patient, waiting for the precise moment to speed up and as Parolo plays the pass inside he quickly takes off down the outside of the centre back and is now in a position which has isolated the defender.  Unfortunately for Immobile his shot just goes past the outside post but it highlights his intelligence and anticipation to create a chance for himself in a moment of the game where Lazio were defending deep in their own half only a few seconds previous.  

Running in behind

Winning the second penalty vs Sampdoria

In the game against Sampdoria, Immobile was at his best as he was able to complete a hat trick in a 5-1 victory at the Stadio Olimpico. The goal that impressed me the most was his involvement in his second penalty which allowed him to complete his hat trick.  As shown above Sampdoria adopted a conventional 4-4-2 approach with Lazio operating in their consistent 3-1-4-2.  In this case, Milinkovic-Savic is the player who drops down to receive on the build up with time and limited pressure.  This allows him to clip a ball over the top of the Sampdoria defence for Immobile to take down and show composure to slide the ball across for Alberto whose shot is handled. As Milinkovic-Savic receives, Adekanye makes a movement towards the ball, dragging in Colley who goes tight. Immobile recognises the space and curves his run behind the centre back, stepping up before receiving the ball over the top.  Immobile often makes the right decision with his movements through good awareness of the man on the ball, the movement of his teammates and the reactions to those movements by opposition defenders.  Crucially, Immobile is able to analyse these moments quickly and exploit the spaces as fast as possible, giving defenders less time to react and recover the situation.  In this case, Immobile doesn’t move into the space in behind when Adekanye goes towards the ball. Instead he waits till the centre back starts to make his move with the striker and then makes his curved run as Milinkovic-Savic has taken a touch out his feet to set himself to play the pass.  

Receiving without pressure

Using Correa to receive with time

When playing with a strike partner, Immobile uses their movement to create space for himself and by doing so, is able to receive with time and space.  With the score 2-1 against Inter and with only a matter of minutes to go, Lazio committed less players forward yet Immobile was still able to cause the Inter back line problems through utilising the movement of Correa to drag opposition players away.  In the example provided, Alberto has possession of the ball and although up against a compact defensive unit, Correa makes a movement in between Moses and Skriniar which attracts De Vrij across to provide cover.  As the Inter back line drops off, it allows Immobile to have space to receive under less pressure and as the pass is played, it gives Immobile more time to assess his next action.  In this instance both Young and Godin step up to try and intercept the pass, but Immobile takes a touch that breaks the line of the two defenders before forcing Padelli into a save.  Immobile’s ability to know where pressure is coming from and take players out the game in a few touches, can unlock deep lying compact defence’s and allow Immobile to manoeuver himself into a goalscoring position.

Attacking the cross

Goal vs AC Milan

In a crucial match against AC Milan at the San Siro, Immobile showed his capabilities at attacking crosses and creating space in the box.  In this case, his movement and positioning make it so difficult for the defender to see both Immobile and the ball at the same time.  As Lazzari is crossing from in line with the 6yd box Immobile is likely to receive an outswinging cross going away from goal.  As is often the case from crossing positions, defenders have set positions to recover into and become very focused on the ball and where they need to position themselves. Importantly, this focus on their own position often leads them to disregard the striker.  In this instance, Immobile uses this to his advantage delaying his approach into the box slightly by slowing down. This enables him to then speed up and attack the cross with a purpose when Lazzari delivers.  Alongside his change of speed Immobile makes a slight movement to the blindside of Duarte, who is not in a position to see both the ball and Immobile, meaning that as the cross is put into the box he has no knowledge of the striker’s position and can’t adjust in relation to the striker once Lazzari crosses the ball.  This then allows Immobile to get across the centre back and head the ball past Donnarumma as Lazio secured a crucial 2-1 victory.

Conclusion

Lazio are in a position to seriously challenge for the Scudetto when the season re-commences.  With a fluid offensive structure that appears adaptable based on the opposition, they will be confident that they can create chances whilst keeping a solid defensive structure when out of possession.  Although adaptable to the opposition, it appears that there are set ideas that if executed properly will yield success such as third man runs and exploiting the spaces on the pitch that the opposition offer.  With a solid foundation of gaining access to the middle third through sound build up play, Lazio will feel that it will be their quality of possession, rather than their quantity of possession, which will hopefully see them push over the line.  In Ciro Immobile, Lazio don’t only have a striker who is clinical in front of goal, they also have a striker that can score an array of goals and also create chances for teammates.  

PSG Pressing in the 4-4-2

Under Thomas Tuchel PSG have scored an incredible amount of goals in Ligue 1 this season (2.78 per match), regardless of the structure and personnel in the side. However, a team cannot base its success solely on its attacking principles and individual brilliance.  In this article I will look at PSG’s pressing structure in recent league matches and, although it has been effective, why they have conceded a number of goals along the way.

In the recent Ligue 1 games against Bordeux and Amiens, PSG set up in a 4-4-2 system with an emphasis of putting pressure on the opposition back line early, forcing defenders to play quickly.  In midfield, the two centre midfielders will go man for man in an attempt to close the space between the strikers and midfield lines with the two wide players playing narrow both in and out possession.  As we will see, when this works it can be effective but if the timing of the press is wrong, it can allow the opposition to escape the press and play through or become a threat on transition.  It is important to note that Bordeux played a 3-4-3 with Amiens operating in a standard 4-4-2 formation. 

Amiens v PSG
PSG v Bordeux

Forcing the opponent to play long

Winger jumping to 3rd centre back

As we can see from this diagram, the aggressive positioning of the strikers prevent the Bordeux back line from getting the opportunity to play forward with Neymar ready to jump on the pass to the outside centre back on the switch of play. As this happens the structure behind the initial press changes.  With Bordeux playing a 3-4-3, Bernat detaches from the back 4 and jumps onto the wing back with Kimpembe coming across to defend the long ball.  It is important to note that the two centre midfielders played with aggressive positioning, man marking Besic and Otavio and preventing Bordeux from circulating the ball through their two midfield sitters and forcing the player in possession to either play to the side and make the attack predictable or to go long early.   A consequence of a good high press is the opposition playing a long ball down the side, therefore it is vital that the centre back on the side of the ball is across quickly to ensure they are ready to defend the channel.  In this instance Kimpembe is able to get across quickly and, when the ball does go long, he is a good position to regain the ball and build an attack through heading the ball down to Veratti who has reacted well to the long ball by turning quickly in order to pick up the second ball.

Forcing the opponent to play floated balls to the fullbacks

In the game against Amiens, PSG again gained success through forcing the opponent to play long.  In this match the two strikers looked to press with the intent of forcing the centre backs to play long or back to the GK.  The positioning of the wide midfielders allowed the strikers to press, being narrow and enticing the Amiens goalkeeper to playing a long-floated ball into the fullbacks that can trigger the wide player to jump out and press aggressively.  As we can see in the clip the narrowness of Di Maria and Draxler invite the long-floated balls but the positioning of the wingers allows them to cover the fullback on the pass.  On this pass they become aggressive with the fullbacks ready to jump on the wingers and the striker ball side ready to press the backward pass to the centre backs who then have to play long.

In possession structure leading to difficult counter pressing moments

It is no secret that the best counter pressing teams are the teams that are proactive and think about regaining the ball even when they have possession.  A prime example of this would be the use of the inverted fullback by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City who ensures that the distances between players are short enough to allow quick regains, particularly in central areas.  For PSG counter pressing is of paramount importance, particularly in a league where they will dominate large portions of the ball (Average of 61% possession per match). Therefore, it was a surprise to see them lack a counter pressing structure and allow both Amiens and Bordeux to enjoy moments of transition and break out.  This may be down to the characteristics of the players in forward areas.  Edinson Cavani is a player who is aggressive in the air and likes to play on the furthest away centre back in order to generate speed when he attacks the cross.  His strike partner Kylian Mbappe is more aligned to playing outside the width of the box, either peeling into a position outside the left centre back or rotating with Neymar to receive wide and utilise his qualities in 1v1s in wide areas.  Although two differing player profiles can get the best out the players in an attacking sense it becomes difficult for PSG to regain the ball quickly high up the field with distances between the two being so far apart.  Contrary to this Liverpool have a front 3 that are narrow and play within close proximity, thus allowing them to surround the ball quickly and either prevent the opponent from making an accurate forward pass or forcing the player in possession to make a mistake. 

Insufficient balance to sustain attacks

As seen in the diagram against Bordeux, when Veratti picks up possession of the ball Bernat makes a run beyond with Mbappe and Neymar playing close together in order to create quick combinations, however when Veratti plays through the lines to Mbappe he makes a forward run to support ahead of the ball.  This then creates difficulty when PSG lose the ball as the structure behind the ball is not set to regain quickly.  With the two centre backs not close enough to De Preville it allows the striker to dictate the situation, either receiving into feet and turning or running in behind into the space when the centre backs step up with no pressure on the ball.  In this instance the distance between Veratti and Gueye is too big which prevents the opportunity to apply immediate pressure on the ball, allowing Besic to step out with possession and play a pass through for De Preville.  Fortunately for PSG the pace of the two centre backs allows for a recovery, however in the Champions League and against better opposition and against quicker strikers it can allow teams an opportunity to create scoring chances.

Amiens exploiting the space on the sides

Against Amiens, PSG faced similar problems in possession, allowing the opponents to break out and exploit the space in the vacated fullback areas.  As we can see there is a lack of balance in centre midfield with both Gueye and Paredes on the same side of the pitch.  This then means that when PSG try to play passes through the lines for the inverted wide players they are not set up to regain the ball quickly.  In this situation, the set up behind the ball allows Amiens to attack the free space with no one ready to apply immediate pressure to Zungu when he regains the ball.  Due to the compactness of Amiens, passes through the middle of the pitch are more likely to be intercepted. Although PSG have numbers in those central areas, if they are in front of the ball when the ball is lost, they cannot influence the game.  With both fullbacks playing on the outside of the pitch, it allows Amiens to break out inside PSG’s attacking shape and exploit the spaces vacated down the sides. In this instance Zungu steps out with the ball and Bakker is too far out to recover and prevent Otero from carrying the ball into the final third.  If we look at the balance of the team on PSG’s left it is clear that no one is playing deeper than the ball.  If passes through the lines are to be cut out it creates an opportunity for Amiens to attack the space on the counter.

Timing issues

Allowing the opposition centre midfielders to play through

When playing in any shape, the key to an effective press is not just the intensity of the initial pressure but the compactness vertically (e.g. midfield to strikers) and horizontally between players (e.g. centre midfielder and wide midfielder). Only when there is sufficient compactness between units and individuals can a team press effectively.

It is rare for the player who initiates the first press to win the ball, therefore there must be support around the presser to ensure players are ready to regain the second or third pass.  In the early stages against Bordeux the visitors managed to evade the press due to the distances between the midfield line and forwards.  As we can see the distance between Sabaly and Neymar is too big to influence the wingback when he receives possession. Sabaly is then able to find a pass into Besic who can then play through into Hwang behind the opposition midfield. There are a number of issues in this instance that allows Bordeux to play through the lines and attack PSG’s back line.  

Firstly, the distance between the strikers and the centre midfield players are too big. Although Mbappe and Cavani apply pressure there is a lack of support from behind, meaning that if Bordeux can find Besic or Otavio they can then turn under no pressure and play forward. Secondly when the ball does go wide Neymar is too deep and unable to influence Sabaly when he receives the ball. When Sabaly is able to find Besic, Veratti leaves his slot on the first touch of Besic, rather than when the ball is travelling.  This then gives the Bordeux midfielder time to play through and evade pressure.  

Again, PSG were able to recover the situation and allow the ball to go out for a throw in, however, if we look at the Dortmund’s second goal against PSG in the Champions League, teams with higher levels of quality can exploit the space through poor defensive positioning and a lack of awareness of space behind the opposition lines.

Conclusion

It is no secret that PSG will continue to dominate Ligue 1 this season and go on to secure the title fairly convincingly. In possession, they have a number of attacking options that allow them to break down opponents in different situations based on the characteristics of themselves but also the opposition. Out possession, it is clear to see that Thomas Tuchel wants his team to regain the ball high when possible and although they have the capabilities to defend high they can still be exposed to counter-attacking moments and being played through due to a lack of compactness. Although this will have little impact domestically it may be the fine line between success and failure in the Champions League.