Category: Tactic Theory

Building from the Back in a 4-1-2-1-2

We have seen a slight resurgence in the use of midfield diamonds in front of a back four in recent seasons, especially in Germany but also in England. The 4-1-2-1-2 or its close cousin 4-3-1-2 has always been popular in Italy and especially Serie B teams use the shape regularly. The reason for its popularity in Italy is very likely that Italy lacks the heritage of wingers that England has since Italian wide players are often wing-backs pushing out of a back-five. There is a great emphasis on controlling central areas in Italian football and, therefore, centrally compact shapes are popular. Evidently, Italian coaches aren’t as hesitant of sacrificing players in wide areas as English or Nordic coaches are. German and Austrian coaches seem to share this Italian mentality given the regularity the shape is used in those countries, with RB Salzburg, Wolfsberger AC and Werder Bremen are among the clubs making the shape popular.

The 4-1-2-1-2 gives coaches many possibilities both in attack and in defense. Tobias Hahn has written a superb piece on the possibilities coaches can use when pressing in a 4-1-2-1-2 and I definitely recommend that you read that piece. Therefore, I will look at the immense potential of building from the back using a 4-1-2-1-2. Also, I will finish this article by discussing various methods to create chances from wide areas, which is often the big hurdle coaches need to be cleared before being convinced by the formation.

Personal clarifications regarding the 4-1-2-1-2

Personally, my intentions in regards to building from the back in a 4-1-2-1-2 is to create the possibility of a clean progression of the ball out of our defensive half. To do this, I want to create numerical advantages if/when needed and I want passing triangles and diamonds to open up thanks to the positioning of the players. A large emphasis will therefore be placed on positioning in central midfield and usage of the half-spaces in terms of creating diagonal passing options between players. Thus, it looks something like the image below.

Starting positions in my diamond; strong presence in central areas and obvious staggering with three different midfield lines.

The Giampaolo way

The first build-up method I’d like to discuss is the one used by current Torino coach Marco Giampaolo. The Italian makes use of a midfield diamond where the two central midfielders are positioned on roughly the same horizontal line as the defensive midfielder. As you can see below, he also positions his full-backs deep. The aim is to maintain short, diagonal passing lanes between his goalkeeper, back-four and three midfielders. This helps create a stable build-up shape with obvious triangular and diamond shaped structures to facilitate good connections.

A hallmark of a Giampaolo team is its staggered and connected build-up shape with deep full-backs.

The goal with this setup is to attract pressure which opens up vertical passing lanes and then use bounce-passes or lay-offs followed by penetrative passes into the third man, the attacking midfielder in the example below, who is often positioned between the lines of the opponent’s midfield and defense.

Giampaolo’s teams often make regular use of third-man passing combinations in their attempts to progress the ball.

This method requires a lot of training because you’re really trying to manipulate the opponent into pressing you and then capitalize on them losing the compactness of their defensive shape. If possession is lost, your team is in good shape with hardly any rotations destabilizing the structure of the side. Thus, the defensive transition should, in theory, be quite straightforward since you can either counter-press due to the compact nature of your attacking shape, or drop off instantly with four defenders usually behind the ball.

High full-backs

One of the most criticized aspects of the 4-1-2-1-2 is its lack of natural width. One way of solving that issue is by pushing your full-backs high. This is, of course, very similar to how many teams, regardless of their formation, use their full-backs anyway. The image below highlights one rotation, teams can use to create a numerical advantage against a team defending in a 4-4-2. The full-backs are pushed forward, the center-backs split and the defensive midfielder drops in-between the center-backs to create a 3 vs 2 in the first line. Many 4-3-3 teams rotate in this exact same way, but one issue I often see is that the second line, behind the opposition strikers, is often vacated as both central midfielders are pushed higher in each half-space as in the starting positions here too.

For me, it’s crucial to keep a presence centrally in that area so I would advocate dropping the central midfielders into that space. The ball could be moved into them and create better connections and a clean build-up, but they would also attract opposition midfielders, potentially opening up passing lanes to the front three. Creating a back-three when playing out against a 4-4-2 is popular because it creates a numerical advantage in the first line. Additionally, the potential for the split centre-backs to dribble the ball forward in the half-spaces creates difficulties for the opposition wingers since they might be attracted to the centre-back but still worry about the high full-back. Either way, the team in possession has created positional superiority and can progress centrally or out wide.

Another, slightly more unorthodox way to create a back-three in the first line can be seen below. There are some progressive-minded coaches around the world that make use of a goalkeeper moving into the space between the two split centre-backs to create a 3 vs 2 in the first phase whilst keeping the defensive midfielder in the next line to make sure the central midfielders can still stay higher and create more horizontal lines for the team to occupy. As you can see below, just like with the previous rotation, the creation of a back-three in possession allows for better connections across the pitch as the team has better access to every zone with three players in the first line.

If you wish to keep your goalkeeper in goal and retain your defensive midfielder in the second line but still create a back-three in the first line, you could have one of the central midfielders drop diagonally just outside the centre-backs. That position is very hard to press for teams defending in a 4-4-2 as it again creates positional superiority with the creation of a 3 vs 1 against the opposition winger. If the ball-near central midfielder in the red team below would press the dropping blue, a passing lane would open up to play straight into the attacking midfielder or one of the strikers.

Equally, you could have both central midfielders doing this movement with full-backs pushed on and then have the two strikers occupying each half-space and the attacking midfielder in the central space. That way, you would have a presence between the defense and midfield lines of the opponent in each central space whilst retaining width from the full-backs. Also, the team would be set up well to handle counter-attacks with a 2-3 structure at the back.

The double pivot

Another rotation that I’ve seen is the one highlighted below. I think it might have been Jesse Marsch’s RB Salzburg that used this one, for instance. Simply, the ball-far central midfielder drops diagonally into the second line to create a double pivot alongside the defensive midfielder. This creates an extra option to play into centrally, thus increasing the available passing connections for the defenders.

Furthermore, that movement creates two distinct passing triangles on each side, resulting in numerical advantages of 3 vs 1 on both sides. Since the right-sided central midfielder and the attacking midfielder occupy space between the lines, the opposition midfielders will be reluctant to push high to support the press. If they do, they can be bypassed by vertical passes from the defenders and, if they don’t, the midfielders in the second line will have both time and space. Thus, the structure of the attacking team has again created positional superiority in central areas.

Passing triangles on each side of the pitch in build-up.

Chance creation from wide areas

Finally, I will look at three different ways to create chances from wide areas. As you will see in the images below, I’ve opted to retain the ball-far full-back in the half-space to prepare to defend a defensive transition since my idea is that he/she can simply move wide if the ball is moved centrally, but obviously this is up to every coach.

This first pattern aims at attacking the space behind the full-back with the movement of one of the two strikers. Here, I’ve positioned the right-back high since I want the left-back to be attracted to this positioning once the ball is played there. When the right-back then receives the ball and the left-back sprints to press, the ball will be played diagonally towards the penalty area to where the ball-near striker will make a run. From there, the attacking midfielder and the other striker attack the box as a cut-back or a low cross is on the cards.

Attacking wide areas with a striker.

Another option is highlighted below as the ball-near central midfielder will make a similar run from deep. Again, the aim is to attract the opponent’s left-back to the high positioning of our right-back. In this case, the ball-near striker will pin the opponent’s ball-near centre-back, thus giving our central midfielder time and space to pick his pass from down the line.

Attacking wide areas with a midfielder.

The third and perhaps most obvious method to attack wide areas in a 4-1-2-1-2 is to attack that space with the full-backs. In this scene, the ball is moved diagonally from left to right. The ball is worked into the right-sided central midfielder who is positioned in the half-space. From there, he/she threads the ball in-behind for the diagonal run of the right-back.

Attacking wide areas with high full-backs.

As I think this piece has shown, there are numerous possibilities to create progressive build-up mechanisms when using a 4-1-2-1-2. As with all formations, the key is how you coach it and what principles you instill into your team. As we’ve seen, the potential for fluid attacking play is immense and, hopefully, more coaches will try their luck at implementing a very dynamic and exciting shape when trying to build attack-minded teams to play entertaining and successful football.

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An early Christmas game and Bayern’s struggle in cold Moskva

It supposed to be a comfortable win for the best European team these days. No one expected a close encounter between Lokomotiv Moskva and Bayern Munich at a cold Tuesday evening. Even though Bayern showed defensive issues, there start in the season was good. The dominance developed under Hansi Flick continued and it looks like Bayern again belongs to the heavy favourites for the Champions League title. Flying to Moskva to face Lokomotiv, therefore, shouldn’t be a game to worry about. However, many teams struggled in recent history against the Russian or Ukrainian sides. Real Madrid will definitely confirm this. Tactically disciplined, the coach of Lokomotiv selected a match plan which is rarely seen in European football.

In order to stop Bayern’s dangerous offense, Marko Nikolic decided to make the centre as compact as possible while isolating the attacks on the wing. To do so, he decided to go for a formation often played by the great AC Milan under Carlo Ancelotti. The 4-3-2-1, or in Germany called the Christmas tree formation, leaves barely any space in the centre and naturally steers the offensive actions towards the sideline. Lokomotiv managed to stay compact throughout the whole game, even though conceding and early goal after Goretzka finished a technically outstanding attack through Tolisso and Pavard.

The big advantage of the 4-3-2-1 is not only the compact centre but also the positioning of the players in respect to the line in front and behind them. Basically, the holes of each line are covered by the line in front of them, thus making it extremely difficult for the opponent to penetrate. Even when successful, the receiver can be pressed from three different directions. This way, Lokomotiv managed to break the rhythm of Bayern as well as gaining the ball regularly in a promising position to counter-attack.

Taking a closer look at the 4-3-2-1 reveals the basic idea behind the formation. Not only are the spaces between defenders well covered, but it also allows for cutting the available space for the team in possession in half. Basically, the formation functions as a wedge forcing the opponent to one side and then pressing aggressively. The striker plays the decisive role in steering the build-up of the opponent. Zé Luís often positioned close to the centre-backs and moved right between them once Bayern came closer to Lokomotiv’s half. By cutting the passing lane to the respective centre-back partner, the striker cuts the available space for Bayern in half. The effectiveness of the wedge has to do with the concept of relatively width which I’ve briefly explained in this Twitter threat.

However, the position of Zé Luís varied. Sometimes, he remained in front of the back-four in order to help the number tens to control the defensive midfielders of Bayern. He then would occasionally pick a pass or an action to press, for instance, once the centre-back faces the fullback he would move forward and urges him to pass the ball to the wing. Here, Lokomotiv seemed to focus more on Bayern’s left side, probably expecting more threat through the build-up from Alaba. Besides, the Austrian’s performances were poorly in recent games, so maybe Nikolic hoped for chances after individual mistakes made by Alaba.

By leaving the striker a bit deeper, Lokomotiv sometimes allowed for the switch through the back-four but remained more compact in the centre. Along with Smolov and Kulikov, Zé Luís formed a tight triangle effectively cutting the passing lanes to Bayern’s defensive midfielders. While the striker would close the diagonal passing lane in the centre, there was no need for the ballnear OM to stay narrow, thus he could move wider to block passes into the halfspace. Once again, Lokomotiv would form a triangle multiplying the space covered. Simultaneously, the ballfar number ten would move slightly towards the centre to be able to press once the pass is played to either Kimmich or Goretzka.

Bayern occasionally reacted by dropping Kimmich to from a back-three in possession. Even though this move makes it harder for the 4-3-2-1 to deny the switch, the advantages created a minuscule because the ballnear number ten is also able to close the passing lanes for a wider centre-back advancing with the ball. Nevertheless, it was surprising that Bayern did not select this tool more often. Especially, in the second half, holes would open up because the 4-3-2-1 is quite intensive in terms of shifting from one side to the other.

Even without the deeper Kimmich, Bayern managed to move the ball quickly from one side to the other which is crucial against the Christmas tree. Of course, the heavy focus on the centre comes at the cost of being exposed at the wings. Usually, the ballnear CM is responsible for moving out of position to press the fullback once he receives the ball in a wider position. A deeper winger can also be pressed by him. The fullback, in contrast, would face the winger in a high position. Coman and Zhivoglyadov duel is the perfect example. Usually, the diagonal structure would support the fullback because the CM is always close to help. Together, they can effectively defend both directions in which the winger can dribble. Due to the positioning of the number ten, the CM can fully focus on defending the diagonal line towards the goal. It is the responsibility of the OM to immediately attack a back pass to, let’s say, the defensive midfielder.

In general, this approach seems to be a reasonable choice against a team as dominant as Bayern. The disadvantage of struggling to press higher can be disregarded because pressing Bayern effectively won’t be possible over the course of 90 minutes. Nevertheless, Lokomotiv managed to do that in the opening 10 minutes by moving the block higher up the pitch. However, they’ve lost their precision in shifting over the course of the match. Additionally, Bayern intelligently used the available space of the 4-3-2-1 in the first half.

The role of Müller and the fullbacks made the difference

It didn’t take a lot of time until Bayern managed to find a way through the defence of the Russian side. Hansi Flick might not be known for spectacular in-game adjustments, however, the plan he develops for his team is often quite precise, thus changes are rarely needed. Against the 4-3-2-1, Bayern aimed at switching quickly through diagonal balls to their fullbacks. The first goal was a great example for this move. However, in the end, Lokomotiv managed to stop those moves quite often through compact and precise shifting.

As always, Flick’s team created an overload between the defensive line and the first midfield line. Therefore, they had quite a presence in the box once the opponent would cross the ball in.

Furthermore, they focused on stretching the defence of Lokomotiv, an effective way to create problems for the 4-3-2-1. Even though, the vertical compactness is great and opponent’s regularly despair on finding space in between the defensive shape, its biggest strengths creates its biggest weakness too. The Christmas tree formation is not particularly compact horizontally. Due to the low number of players in the midfield line, the fullbacks of Lokomotiv moved long ways to make the centre compact leaving the ballfar players completely open.

The example above perfectly illustrates the issues Bayern could create through their relatively wide formation. Especially, the CMs Krychowiak and Ignatjev had to cover a lot of space because they were the players moving out of the block to press on the wing. Therefore, after quick switches, Bayern potentially could have create more dangerous scoring options, however, they failed to do so consistently. Two things were decisive for that. One was the fact that the 4-3-2-1 effectively cuts switching options through the centre due to its structure. The switch through the centre-backs is quite often possible but takes a great amount of time, thus giving the defence enough time to be back in position.

As a consequence, the offense needed to play long diagonal balls to take advantage of the poor occupation of ballfar spaces. Those passes are difficult from a technical standpoint, whilst being easier to defend once the receiving player can not immediately attack. Only a few times Bayern could effectively use that tool against the Russians. One of it led to the goal. Here, another component of Bayern’s attacking plan paved the way to glory – their fullbacks.

Their French worldcup winning fullback duo posed a lot of issues for Moskva’s defenders. Usually, the CMs were responsible to press Bayern’s fullbacks, especially, when they were in a wider position. Bayern took advantage of this reference point and constantly changed the way the fullbacks would act. For instance, Hernandez would often move in the halfspace between fullback and centre-back while Tolisso, the nominal number ten would move deeper and Coman stayed wider. Then, Lokomotiv struggled to defend it properly. Doubling the French winger was probably the main plan. By moving the fullback outwards and having the CM covering the diagonal lane to the goal, the 4-3-2-1 is in theory well prepared to defend quick wingers. Both ways are defendable while an overlapping fullback can easily be picked up by the fullback of Lokomotiv.

The situation looked quite differently once the fullback was inverted. Now, Moskva’s fullback wasn’t sure whether he would stay narrower or would still press the wide winger. Occasionally, Lokomotiv decided to move the CM out to press, which opened the halfspace a little bit. In case Coman would win the 1v1 duel, the halfspace could be penetrated and Bayern would have successfully reached the box. Consequently, the ballnear OM would drop to close this gap. Then, however, Lokomotiv lost the advantage of the 4-3-2-1 to immediately put pressure on the back passes.

As one could see in the situation in which Bayern scored their first goal, Kulikov, the nominal DM was occupying the OM position for a brief moment but then decided to drop, thus Tolisso had all the time in the world to play the diagonal ball in the space behind the leftback.

Quite often, Lokomotiv struggled to shift correctly once a player from the line in front dropped deeper. If it wasn’t enough, the fact that Müller would rarely stay wide but function as a free-floating player between the lines forced the DM to stay more centrally or the ballfar CM and fullback to move closer to the centre. Consequently, Lokomotiv either struggled to support ballnear or to defend the far side properly. Using a late approaching Pavard on the right opened up dangerous situations for Bayern after switches to their right side. Again, the goal was the perfect example.

Conclusion

Overall, the game showed, however, that the 4-3-2-1 can be an effective way to break the rhythm of the offensive team and force them to the wings. Even though Lokomotiv tended to stay to flat with too many players on the same horizontal line, Bayern had a hard time to find space between the lines. Due to the fact that switches do not particularly belong to the strengths of Flick’s team, Lokomotiv was capable of making one of the best offenses on the planet relatively ineffective. Along with their good work in possession, they even had the chance to win the game.

Nevertheless, the game not only showed why the 4-3-2-1 can be effective but also highlighted a few potential tools against it. Especially, the clever use of the fullbacks and the role of Thomas Müller can be potential starting points for the development of perfectly working tools against the 4-3-2-1.

I will probably discuss how to play against the Christmas tree formation over at my patreon site. If you enjoy my analysis, make sure to support me for only 1€/month and receive exclusive content and directly interact with me. Every support is very much appreciated.

Conceptual of 4-2-2-2 /4-D-2 defense

In 2012, Austrian football team Red Bull Salzburg surprised the world with exciting football using the 4-2-2-2 shape. Ajax and also Bayern München had a hard time with the 4-2-2-2 ball oriented defense developed by Roger Schmidt and Ralf Rangnick. In this article, I will analyse the 4-2-2-2 pressing from a new perspective based on basketball defense tactics. First of all, I would like to explain some basic principles and rules of basketball.

What is a good defense in basketball?

Don´t let the opponent player short or pass easily. And to be able to immediately prepare a double team for the opposition dribble motion.

What is the best defense against the ball handler?

Shoot, Pass. Dribbling. Which play should a defensive player avoid most? The most dangerous play is to allow an open shot. Next is the pass. If the opponent pass the ball quickly, the will find a free player and hence an open shot.

The final one, Dribbling. Dribbling allows oppositions to move forward. However, from another perspective, the opposition´s ball handler can´t pass or shoot while he dribbles. It can be understood that the furthest state from the shoot is a dribble. The defensive player will be able to actively ball challenge to the dribbling player using an overload.

Basketball tactic “Pack Line defense”

Before explaining football, let’s introduce one of the basketball defensive tactics, “Pack Line Defense”. This tactic was created by Dick Bennett of University Wisconsin(USA). However, the model of this tactic was born long ago. So it’s also one of the most classic basketball defense.

What is a “Pack Line”?

The “Pack Line” is a virtual line about 1m behind the 3-point line (Fig.1). The concept of pack line defense is to compactly protect the area inside the pack line. It is a kind of man-to-man defense, but it has a unique point.

Fig.1 Pack Line

“Don’t go outside the pack line”

For example. Fig.2 shows the situation that # 1 has the ball. In a common man-to-man defense, the defensive player positions in the b’and c’. These positioning is a little like the cover shadow in football. But, in the pack line defense, they are positioned at B and C.

B and C are positioned on the edge of the shadow created by A as if the ball is the sun. At this time, B (C) can point to both ball-man # 1 and mark-man # 2 (# 3). This stance is called a “pistol stance” because it is similar to holding a pistol in both hands. And, the position overlooking the ball-man and the player who next ball-man is called “Gap” (next the next is “Help”).

# 1 can easily pass to # 2, but it is difficult to shoot with a dribbling straight ahead.

Fig.2 Gap position

Close-out of B is an important action (approach quickly to the opposition from the gap position is called close-out). Due to the close-out, #2 can’t shoot and pass to the far side. It is also difficult to dribble inside.

Fig.3 shows the pass from #1 to #2.

Under no circumstances do we let the opposition drive the ball baseline. We need to force the dribbler towards the middle of the floor where our help defenders are located.

Fig.4 shows the pass from #2 to #4.

And finally pack oppositions dribble-man!

Only three actions are allowed to the oppositions player with the pack line defense.

  • Pass to the both side player.
  • Shoot outside the 3 point line, in our close outs pressure.
  • Dribble toward the middle of the floor, but we must not dribble or pass through the five points (Fig.5). Because it ’s easier for the opponent to shoot with free.

Fig. 5 Protect 5 point

The 4-2-2-2

Let’s talk about football!

4-2-2-2 consists of four DF, W6er, W10, and 2FW. FW, W10, W6er and CB are inside the PA width as shown. Make a hexagon, like surround the area several meters outside the center circle. You can set the height freely. The fig.6 is only convenient for explaining the width using the center circle. However, the distance between FW and CB should be keep within about 25meter.

Now, let’s draw a pack line and hit five points as in basketball. I think Figure 6 is the best. Draw the Pack line a few meters outside the PA. If “Plug” is located at the edge of the center circle, “Elbow” is in the middle of the half space and “Block (I call Frank)” is about 10m ahead of the offside line.

For example. Opposition’s shape is 4-4-2 with W6er. When the opposition’s RightCB is Ball-man, Left10 and Right6er step on the shadow created by LeftFW, and pistol stance. RightFW and Right10 stand Gap Position with pistol stance (Fig.7).

If oppositions right CB chooses a pass to RightSB, Left10 is closed out to oppositions rightSB. LeftFW and Left6er step on the shadow created by Left10. At this time, Left10 allows oppositions RightSB only three plays. Pass to RightSH and ball sweep past the right side of the body, pass, or dribble. Finally, LeftFW challenges the ball that moves inside the field.

Fig. 7 (left) and Fig. 8 (right)

In this situation, problem is too far between LeftFW and oppositions RightCB for close out. So RightFW move to near the oppositions RightCB.

If oppositions RightSB choose a pass to RightSH, Left6er and LeftSB are close-out to oppositions RightSH. LeftCB and Right6er step on the shadow created by Left6er. (Fig.8)

At this time, LeftSB must never let oppositions RightSH vertical dribble. We need to force the dribbler towards the middle of the field where our help defenders are located. And finally pack ball!

Fig.9 Pack ball

4-2-2-2 Weaknesses and 4-D-2

The weakness of 4-2-2-2 is 3DF with WGB. For example, oppositions shape is 3-4-3.

If oppositions RightCB is a ball-man, LeftFW approaches as shown in the fig.10. If Left10 steps on the shadow created by LeftFW, he can’t close out to the oppositions LeftWGB. Because the distance is too far.

If the Left10 positioned more outside. Oppositions RightCB can pass via Elbow or Frank. This is big problem.

The simplest of improvement is to transform the shape into 4-D-2. 4-D-2 consists of four DF, Pivot, WSH, 10, and 2FW. In 4-D-2, widen the distance between two FWs. 10 must protected “Plug”. So I call 10 “Pluger”.

If LeftFW approach to oppositions RightCB, LeftSH and pluger step on the shadow created by LeftFW (Fig.11). The distance between LeftSH and oppositions RightWGB is shorter than 4-2-2-2 shape. So LeftSH can close-out to RightWGB.

Fig.10 (left) and Fig.11 (right)

Pluger and LeftCB steps on the shadow created by LeftSH.

Finally, as shown in the fig.12, press the oppositions RightFW as in 4-2-2-2 shape.

Exercise Example 7vs6 Game

The purpose of this exercise is to help our defensive players understand tactics and choose the right role.

Fig.13 7vs6 Game

  • Close-out.
  • 2 player step the shadow created by close-out player.
  • Pack.

The blue team tries to connect the ball from A to A’. However, they must go to A’ via B . The red team is defensive. Take the ball and try to dribble through either end line.

Divide the field into three parts in this exercise. Prepare a pack line and 6 points as a mark.

– Special rules –

Blue team can use only 3 people in zone1 (Zone2). Red team has a maximum of 4 people.

Zone 3 can only use B of the blue team. B must not go out of Zone3. As an exception, Red team’s players are allowed to run through within Zone 3. So, Red team can intercept in Zone 3.

Conclusion

4-2-2-2 defense made by Ralf Rangnick and Roger Schmidt is a ball-oriented defense. But my plan is more man-oriented. But very similar. But if you focus on the space occupied by a player. Three things are important in my plan.

  • Is the distance for closeouts good?
  • Are you in the gap position with a pistol stance?
  • Can you take care of the right side of the player who has closed out?

When a team meets these three conditions, the center of gravity of the team inevitably shifts greatly to one side. like their 4-2-2-2 defense.

Finally. Pack line defense is more effective in college basketball than the NBA. Why? Because there are many good 3Point shooters in the NBA. But, no 3 point shoot in Football. So, I think this 4-2-2-2 / 4-D-2 defense plan has great potential.

How and why does the third-man principle work so effectively?

Tak, tak, tak, that´s the sound the ball makes when it is passed quickly between teammates. But its more than simple passes, it feels like the players move as a unit, it becomes poetry in motion.

As a football fan those moments are rare, and therefore remembered for a long time. If you look back at history, teams like the Dutch national team and Ajax Amsterdam of the 70s, AC Milan around 1990 or Barcelona under Pep Guardiola from 2008-2012 come to mind. Those were the great teams that not only were successful but also played the game in a way which is often described as the beautiful, the right way of playing football.

All of those teams have in common that they are influenced by the idea of total football which was introduced by Ajax under Rinus Michels in the 70s.

In contrast to the school of Michels, Cruyff and Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri developed his on playing style throughout the years in Italy. Of course, influenced by coaches such as Guardiola, Sacchi or Conte, Sarri managed to give his teams an identity which was different from what we saw before.

Especially, his Napoli side which managed to gain 91 points in the 17-18 Serie A campaign but still couldn´t win a championship, is the blueprint of the way Sarri wants his teams to play. One dominant concept of this team was the 3rd man concept.

Although the actual action is rather simple, the concept is one of the most important yet undervalued tools in football for teams to play successfully in possession. But, why is the 3rd man concept so important? Which details make it so valuable and why should we take a closer look at it?

Well, because understanding every detail of the 3rd man concept will elevate the game of your team to a higher level. Therefore, I´m going to analyse the principle in detail in this article.

The basic action

For everyone who is not familiar with the 3rd man concept, it is basically a passing combination including three players. So, the idea is that player A wants to pass the ball to player B, however, the passing lane is closed. Hence, player A uses a third player (I will refer to him as the third player), player C who is open. Now, player A passes the ball to C who plays a simple layoff pass to B. By using the third man, player A could successfully move the ball to player B.

While the actual action is rather simple, the concept behind involves different ideas. I will use Napoli under Sarri as the example throughout this analysis to illustrate the potential actions the 3rd man principle triggers.

The basic idea behind the 3rd man principle

We already know that the third man principle is used to pass the ball to a player that is covered by a defender. In order to understand the idea behind it, we have to take a look at the main goal a team has in possession.

Except of obviously scoring a goal, a team in possession should always look to find the free man in an advantageous position. Hence, the different concepts such as the switch or the 3rd man principle only serve as a tool to find the free man.

In case of the third man principle, the player ultimately receiving the ball, in my example from above, player B, should be the free man. Due to the fact that teams nowadays do not defend 1v1 but rather try to cover the space and shift towards the ball, moving the ball intelligently can create a free man.

In order to find a free man, Napoli tries to create pressure by passing the ball to Marek Hamsik in the example above.

Why do they create pressure? Because the opponent is able to press and if Hamsik turns with the ball he could easily play a pass between the lines and create a dangerous situation for the defence of Udinese.

Those two motives, the risk of getting outplayed and the chance of conquering the ball, lead the opponent to press aggressively. Usually, several players of the defensive team will focus on that area and try to make the ballnear space as tight as possible. As a consequence, other spaces aren´t tightly covered anymore. Preferably, the player ultimately receiving the ball is positioned in such a space. If he then receives the layoff pass, he should have time and space to control the ball and make the next move for his team.

In the example above, Diawara didn´t have any space due to the position of the striker and the midfielder. However, the striker starts to press and the fact that Marek Hamsik receives the ball lead to a short movement of the midfielder towards the Slovakian midfielder. As a consequence, Diawara has more space once he receives the ball.

This example shows the effect of creating pressure with the first pass in an extremer way. Here, three players of Udinese have the possibility to press. Hence, the blue space opens which Napoli can use by applying the 3rd man principle.

However, creating a free man is not the only objective of the usage of the third man. Both examples so far show another aspect which is important to consider. The player receiving the ball in the end, faces the goal of the opponent while his team advance closer towards it.

One has to understand that facing the opponents goal gives the ball carrier the possibility to see most of the players on the pitch as well as the structure of the defence of the opponent. Of course, simply turning the body once receiving the ball is also possible, however, in the modern game this is rarely possible due to the compact defences and the high game IQ many players possess.

Here, for instance, Diawara has enough space, hence he can simply turn with the ball.

The structure

Now, the question arises which preconditions have to be met in order to use the third man combination. As always, triangles and diamonds play a particular important role due to the diagonal passing lanes that are created.

More general spoken, it is important that the players of the team in possession position on different vertical and horizontal lines. The more they create due to their positioning, the easier is the 3rd man concept useable.

For instance, if the 3rd man principle is used to overplay a defensive line, the third player should be positioned higher in order to occupy the defence and free-up the player to which he plays the layoff pass. The centre-back-winger-central midfielder combination is for example one of the more common actions where the creation of several horizontal lines due the positioning is visible.

But not only the number of horizontal but also vertical lines which are occupied/created is important. The reason is that diagonal passes are harder to defend than vertical or horizontal passes. Hence, creating two diagonal passing lanes instead of one vertical and one diagonal is beneficial for the successful use of the concept. Furthermore, the third man is able to turn with the ball more easily if the defender tries to speculate for the layoff pass.

Once the first pass is played vertically, the third man has a harder time turning with the ball in one direction, hence he can only play the layoff pass. Furthermore, the spacing can be less optimal and the player who presses the CB can maybe even intercept the first pass to the CM.

Furthermore, the body position of the CM only allows layoff passes which are slightly played backwards. Every other direction requires great body control as well as a great first touch.

In the case of a diagonal structure, the CM has various possibilities depending on the pass of the CB, the positioning of the DM and the behaviour of the defender.

For example, if the pass is played to the right foot of the CM he can turn over his right shoulder. If the defender moves slightly diagonal because he anticipates the layoff pass or his initial position was more centrally, the CM of red can capitalise on the behaviour of the defender.

If the CB passes the ball to the left foot of the CM, he will probably adjust his body position slightly and is able to play a layoff pass. That pass can easily be played horizontally forcing the DM to move forward.

The third option for the CM would be to turn around his left shoulder and attack the space behind the defender of black. This is possible once the defender does not approach the CM diagonally from the centre. As a reaction to the different angle of the defender, the CB could play a harder pass towards the left foot of the CM, signalling him to turn over his left shoulder.

A perfect example for the non-verbal communication of players by passing the ball. At Napoli one could observe this regularly. Especially, because every pass had a purpose. Therefore, the 3rd man concept was used in different ways and not only in the described order by Napoli.

In my opinion there are five important points a team has to consider in order to use the 3rd man concept effectively.

  1. Position on different horizontal and vertical lines
  2. Try to create passing angles which give you several possibilities
  3. The spacing has to be good
  4. The body position of the third man has to be correct in order to play the layoff pass
  5. The pass has to be played as flat as possible to allow a first contact layoff pass

I quickly want to explain point three which goes hand in hand with the creation of advantageous passing angles. Players have to take into consideration that there positioning decides whether the use of the 3rd man action will be successful or not.

Here as coaches, it’s important to create guidelines helping the players to orient easily on the pitch. The perfect spacing means that the three players involved in the action are positioned far away enough that the defender can´t defend two players simultaneously. However, the passing lanes still have to be short in order to speed up an attack and play a simple layoff pass.

The third man principle as a tool to open space

I already mentioned that the 3rd man principle is used to create space for the player ultimately receiving the ball. Although, the main task of the third player is to create a connection to the second player, this does not have to be the case all the time.

He can also be used to attract opponents while playing a simple one-two with the first player. However, this simple one-two can ultimately free-up the third man.

Napoli under Sarri used the 3rd man concept regularly in this way.

In this scene, the passing lane to Hamsik was closed due the positioning of the striker while one of the defensive midfielders or the striker could press Diawara if he would try to turn around with the ball. In order to solve this situation Napoli would use the third man concept.

By passing the ball to Diawara, Napoli creates pressure and lure the striker out of position. Consequently, the passing lane to Hamsik is open, although not for Diawara. That’s why he passes the ball back to the centre-back who can give the ball to Hamsik easily. In fact, the third man concept as we know it was present when Diawara passed the ball back to the CB. The difference in this situation, the CB was the one initiating this action.

While is seems to be trivial and only a small detail, Napoli also used the 3rd man concept to create more space for an overlapping fullback. Usually, a winger dribbles towards the defence in order to force them focusing on him and then he would pass the ball out to the fullback. The problem is that especially against a deeper block, this two-man action is easy to contain. Therefore, Napoli involved a third player.

Now the winger would dribble towards the defence, pass the ball to the central midfielder while sprinting forward without the ball. The central midfielder would then pass the ball to the fullback. The difference in this approach is the short switch from the wing to the halfspace and the movement of the winger who creates space.

However, the short switch is important because it distracts the defence for a few second from the threat the overlapping fullback is and towards the central midfielder. Those few second moving towards the central midfielder create more time for the fullback once he receives the ball.

The 3rd man principle to control the speed and rhythm of the game

In possession switches play an important role as I outlined in my piece for thefalsefullback. Switches help to move the opponent, force him to make mistakes and find open space. In order to successfully move the opponent, speed and rhythm play an important role.

For one, if you move the ball faster, the opponent needs to react more quickly which more likely leads to mistake being made. Furthermore, rhythm is crucial to surprise a defence. If I manage to increase the speed of my combinations suddenly, I can catch the opponent sleeping which can be advantageous for me.

The 3rd man concept can help increasing speed or changing rhythm all of a sudden. Due to the short time spans in which each player has the ball, the combinations are quicker. Moreover, the quick layoff pass can trigger an increase in speed.

That’s why Napoli under Sarri sometimes used the third man concept to switch the play to the far side. How did this look like? For instance, the left centre-back passed the ball to the central midfielder who played a layoff pass to the other centre-back, a common movement during the build-up phase to connect the centre-backs.

If the centre-back now wanted to switch to the right-back, he could either turn around with the ball or play a quick layoff pass to his partner. Napoli´s centre-backs were usually positioned close to each other. The other centre-back would then pass the ball to the fullback. Hence, the 2nd line pass increased the speed while the third man action before triggered the speed increase and changed the rhythm.

The third man principle during the build-up phase

As we now know the general ideas behind the third man concept as well as the details which are necessary for a successful usage, let´s take a look at real game situations.

During the build-up phase the 3rd man principle has to general applications. One would be to evade pressure and try to find the free man in the first build-up line. The other application is the transfer of the ball from the defenders to the offensive players in the second or attacking third.

In the example above we could see that the 3rd man principle is useful to move the ball to the defensive midfielder who then can advance the ball in higher zones. Another common situation is that the centre-back wants to move the ball to the other side, but the opponent tries to cut the connection to his centre-back partner. Then the defensive midfielder can function as a connector. That’s why most teams either use a triangle or a diamond during build-up.

Or the attacking team is able to attract the opponent while moving the ball quickly. As in the example above, they would be able to use the third man concept to attack the open space. Again, creating pressure to create space is the main idea.

Once we take a look at the transfer of the ball to the final third, the action that comes to mind is the pass of the centre-back through the halfspace to one of the wingers who then plays a layoff pass to the central midfielders. Here, it is crucial to move the opponent before and create space for the centre-back. If he then dribbles with the ball, he directs the focus of the midfielders of the opponent towards him. In fact, he creates pressure. Hence, they won´t pay close attention to the central midfielders, a potential advantage once the winger plays the layoff pass to the central midfielders because they then have more space to operate.

However, the pass to the winger is not the only option for the centre-back moving forward. At Bayern with Robert Lewandowski you could observe regularly that the Polish striker would drop a few meters and could receive diagonal passes from the centre-back. As we discussed before, diagonal passes are preferable because it gives you more option to continue. Either he turns around with the ball or he can lay off the ball in one of the halfspaces. Especially, when they can use the third man principle out of the build-up to switch dangerous goalscoring opportunities can be created.

The importance of the next options

Along with a good structure for the initial third man action, it is beneficial if the attacking team creates a connected shape with multiple passing options for the third player or for the second player to continue. Therefore, the movement without the ball is crucial to create options to even use the play with the fourth man.

In order to secure a good structure, the principles explained like positioning on different horizontal and vertical lines as well as creating diagonal passing lanes are important. Furthermore, the balance in terms of where on the pitch the players are positioned is important.

For instance, last season Borussia Dortmund tried to overload the left side constantly, however, they had too many players on that side leading to a disbalance overall. The consequences were that the team of Lucien Favre couldn´t switch quickly to the other side or halfspace, hence their combination became ineffective because they did not manage to play through tied spaces the opponent could create due Dortmund´s disbalance.

However, there was another important point why Borussia Dortmund struggled in possession, which is also crucial for the third man principle in the last third – vertical movements without the ball were missing.

The third man principle as tool to overcome a defence

Several teams heavily focus on the third man concept in their plan to overcome the defence of an opponent. Teams like Napoli but also Antonio Contes Chelsea, Inter or Juventus are just a few examples. Those teams often have in common that they circulate the ball in deeper zones, invite the opponent to press and then use those quick third man combinations to use the open space the higher pressing created.

Therefore, those passes from the centre-back to the winger in the halfspaces are crucial. From there on, many different options are possible.

Here, I want to stress the importance of the right structure again. Having options to continue the attack is crucial for the successful use of the 3rd man concept as a tool to overcome a defence. Essentially, movement without the ball is the decisive factor in terms of attacking successfully.

When we take a look at Napoli under Maurizio Sarri one can quickly identify that one player of the Italian side always moved deep behind the last defensive line. This has two reasons. Number one, it created a passing option which was a direct threat for the opponent. Quite often you could see that a layoff pass was played, and the next pass was immediately a throughball to the forward moving attacker.

If the pass couldn´t be played because the defence reacted accordingly, the player receiving the layoff pass would have more space because the defence had to move backwards. So, no matter how the defence reacted, Napoli created a positional advantage for themselves.

Following the principle of creating pressure to create space, they often used the third man concept to create space only to then play a backwards pass to the central midfielders. You may ask yourself why attack if you play the ball backwards anyways. However, think for a second what happened through the applied 3rd man concept.

Let´s assume the striker is the third man and passes the ball to the winger between the lines, for example, Insigne. Lorenzo Insigne could then either try to create a shoot, pass the ball behind the defence or backwards. No matter which action he decides to do, the fact that he was the player receiving the layoff pass and not the central midfielder already, forced the defence to narrow the space around the Italian winger. As a consequence, the central midfielders could position higher and still have enough space to operate. From there on you could observe how Marek Hamsik took a shoot, switched the ball to the other side or give it up to Jorginho whose chippasses behind the defence were always a threat.

As I mentioned with the example of Borussia Dortmund, vertical movements without the ball are crucial not only for the 3rd man concept but also for the game in possession in general. Especially, when those vertical movements cross a horizontal line of the opponent leading to communication issues for the defence, the third man principle can be perfectly suited to take advantage of those movements.

Take this example where left back Ghoulam moves forward through the halfspace without the ball. The 3rd man principle is the ideal tool to use the dynamic of the run without the ball. Ghoulam can start his run early having an advantage over the defender who has to react. When the striker of Napoli now plays the layoff pass, Ghoulam will have few seconds in which he won´t get pressed because none of the defender can step up the face him due to the striker and left winger of Napoli waiting for the possibility to attack the blue marked space.

Here, multiple possibilities to continue the attack are possible for Ghoulam. Either Mertens, the striker turns around and moves in between the two CBs into the blue marked space or Insigne attacks this space diagonally. No matter who is performing the run, Ghoulam can play the throughball immediately.

Due to the fact that the CB may try to press Ghoulam, it would be good if Mertens performs the run behind the defence while Insigne stays wide in order to stretch the defence. Either the left-back of Napoli plays the throughball or he passes the ball to Insigne when the right-back of Inter follows Mertens.

One detail I want to mention is the movement of Mertens. First, he starts to sprint towards the opponent´s goal, stops and drops a few meters. By performing this movement, he pushed the defence back and created more space for Ghoulam.

In general, different vertical movements combined with the third man concept can be really dangerous for the defence. The reason is that the dynamic created by the movement and the short individual possession times challenge the opponent in terms of communicating and reacting as a collective.

Hence, it is beneficial to have the third player dropping a few meters and playing the layoff pass to the forward moving player. Add a fourth man sprinting behind the last line of the defence and you have an almost unstoppable attacking move. Especially, when the fourth player moves diagonally in the space behind the defence. The diagonal movement creates a situation in which the fourth player is always outside of the vision field of the defenders who try to contain the third man combination.

Especially, in attack the third man principle can ideally be used to surprise the defence and use the advantages of the dynamic of the offense. Similar to the example with Ghoulam above, one can regularly observe how the layoff pass can be played to a player sprinting towards the goal. Again, the fact that the first pass creates pressure and forces the attention of the defence towards the third man, creates more space for the player ultimately receiving the ball.

As one can see, the possibilities are endless. However, it needs a lot of coordination between teammates to fully use the potential of the 3rd man principle.

Conclusion

This article was a brief overview of the third man concept. Of course, one can even describe the concept in greater detail and illustrate the endless possibilities. However, I think I gave you a useful overview over the most important ideas behind the 3rd man.

If you have any questions, you can always ask me via Twitter 😊

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Tobias is a football enthusiast and especially loves the positional play of Pep Guardiola. Furthermore, he is the founder of thefalsefullback, check out his website -> https://thefalsefullback.de/category/english/

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.  

Why small teams can be successful with positional play

It´s been a while since my last piece written in English. Over the summer, I took a break – didn´t watch any football and focused on other things I wanted to learn – and that was brilliant. I didn´t enjoy analysing and writing about football that much anymore, and I would say that you could see it because the quality of my work went down.

Therefore, I needed this football-free time span, focusing on improving my statistics knowledge, my university grades and read many books giving me new stuff to think about.

However, I love football, especially, when a team plays and attractive and dominant style. That´s why I am back because I want to introduce you to Christian Fiel´s Dynamo Dresden. Usually, a middle-class team in the second German division, they caught my eye due to their modern and dominant approach – uncommon in the 2. Bundesliga.

Although, Dresden plays an attractive style of football (you are going to find an in-depth piece about their playing style soon on The False Fullback) the main reason I´m writing this article is the narrative that only the best teams with the best players can use positional play in order to be successful.

Especially, in Germany the common view on football is characterize by the believe that only compact defensive combined with fast counter-attacks is the way small teams can be successful.

Of course, learning to attack by using specific concepts of positional play is probably harder than to defend deep and counter-attack, however, the long-term benefit of establishing a carefully planed offensive concept are probably higher.

In order to show you where a team like Dynamo Dresden can create advantages which will lead to more goals and more wins in the long team, I´m going to analyse their structure in build-up and a real-world scene from their 4-2 loss against Karlsruher SC, the typical 4-4-2 counter-attack/long-ball team.

Creating superiority by positioning well

Before we dig into the specific scenes, I want to introduce you to the main concept of positional play, creating superiorities to end up in an advantageous situation.

There are different kind of superiorities like qualitative, numerical and positional.

  1. Qualitative superiority

Qualitative superiority means getting your best players in their preferred spots against weaker opponents. The best example is a winger against a fullback. If Neymar is facing Matteo Darmian on the wing, his team has an advantage. It not necessarily has to be a dribbler on the wing, it could also be a taller striker in the box, or a more skilled and intelligent midfielder in the centre.

Dynamo Dresden, for instance, does not have individual superior players, however, if one of their fast and skilled offensive players receives the ball between the lines against a taller but slower defender, he has an advantage.

  • Numerical superiority

Numerical superiority is self-explanatory. If you have a numeric advantage it is easier for you to play your way through the defence or score a goal in the box. Because the goalkeeper of the team in possession is more involved than the other goalkeeper, the team in possession naturally has a 11vs10 advantage. All the team in possession has to do is finding the free player by moving the ball intelligently.

Numerical superiority often occurs in a smaller context. For example, in build-up, many teams either use a back-three or a midfielder who drops between the centre-backs in order to create a numerical advantage when they are pressed by two strikers.

Rarely teams play man-against-man in modern football because of the risks a man-vs-man approach has. In modern days era, teams try to close the ballnear space leaving spaces on the far-side open. Therefore, numerical superiority can occur when the team in possession moves the ball quickly enough and finds those spaces.

  • Positional superiority

The third form – and probably most difficult to understand – is positional superiority. Compared to qualitative and numerical superiority, it isn´t quite as visible. To have a positional advantage means to be better positioned than the opponent.

On an individual level, one could imagine the following scene. The team in possession has the ball on the left side, trying to cross it into the box. While the defender has to observe the ball and his opponent constantly, the striker can create a positional advantage by moving on the blind side of the defender, forcing him to either watch the ball or follow his movement. Consequently, once the cross arrives in the box, the striker is in the more advantageous position because he can see his opponent and the ball simultaneously.

This search for superiority should end in being in an advantageous position which either can be via a free man or another form of superiority. Certain tools are necessary in order to create those superiorities, we will identify a few, while analysing specific scenes of Dynamo Dresden. However, at this point we can conclude every team in possession should try to create superiorities because it will lead to more goals.

Furthermore, the tools in order to create superiorities are rather simple, however, the execution is difficult and depends on small details. Although you need technically gifted players, a few guidelines from positional play would help every team, simply because even less skilled players can perform better in advantageous situations. Because one thing is crystal clear, having more time and space makes it easier for every player no matter which level of skill he has.

Positioning and applying pressure

Before I´m going to analyse one scene in detail, a quick introduction into the playing style of Dynamo Dresden. Under their coach Christian Fiel they are using a 5-2-3 formation which transforms into a 3-4-3/3-2-5 in possession with the wingbacks moving high up the pitch.

The structural advantages of Dresden

Because Dresden´s positioning and ball movement is very good, it is hard to press them effectively. On the other hand, Dynamo has several options to advance and create goalscoring opportunities because their build-up is well-structured.

For instance, the ball-near striker would press the LCB using his cover shadow to block the passing lane to the DM. In order to reach the DM nevertheless, Dresden could use the third-man concept. The second striker has to decide whether he wants to stay in his position in order to tighten the centre or press the CB immediately.

Even if the striker presses the CB, the diagonal passing options help the ball carrier to play a pass with the first touch to the DM.

If striker would stay deeper to cover the centre, the CB would still have the option to switch to the far side where the RCB would have space available.

The third possible scenario would be that the striker who pressed first would drop in order to close the passing lane to the left DM of Dresden while the other striker presses the CB. Then, a pass directly back to the LCB would help Dynamo because the LCB would have more space available.

The possibilities of playing through the centre

One could ask himself whether the defensive midfielders of Karlsruhe could simply press the DMs of Dresden. While this is possible, the numerical superiority of Dresden in the centre, gives them multiple other options to progress the ball.

For instance, Dresden focuses on the movement without the ball and constantly uses tools like the third-man concept to free-up a player. In order to use the third-man concept, it is important that the midfielders do not stay on the same horizontal line. Again, diagonal passing lanes offer multiple advantages for the team in possession. Diagonal passes are naturally harder to press because the receiver often faces the opponent´s goal.

In this particular scene, the DM closer to the ball can move higher, creating space between the line of strikers and midfielders of Karlsruhe. Although KSC´s DM can apply pressure immediately, the DM of Dresden can escape this situation with a simple layoff pass. Here, we can see the use of the third-man concept in a simple example in order to get behind the first line of pressure.

The DM who receives the ball, in the end, is in an advantageous situation because he not only has the necessary space to operate but he also faces the opponent´s goal once he receives the ball. Once again, the numerical superiority of Dresden in the centre leads to tremendous advantage. The striker in the yellow-marked space can be reached immediately after the DM receives the ball facing the opponent´s goal. Due to the overload in the last line (Together with the wing-backs, Dresden forms a 5v4 situation) the striker can destabilize the defence with a simple layoff pass if one of the centre-backs is following him.

This leaves the second DM of Karlsruhe in a precarious situation. Either he steps up pressing the DM of Dresden who receives the layoff pass, risking that he is too late and gets overplayed. Or he stays, trying to close the space but leaving the DM of Dresden with time and space in order to plan the next attacking move of the Saxonians. Furthermore, if he tries to press, his timing has to be perfect, if he starts too early, the DM who plays the layoff pass does not have to play that one but rather can use the space. If he is too later, Dresden´s second DM has already too much time controlling the ball.

Positional superiority against a 4-4-2 – the halfspace progression

However, the well-structured build-up of Dresden offers further advantages and routes the ball could travel. Important to add here is that the clear guidelines in positioning are crucial for the success of Dresden in terms of advancing the ball in higher zones.

This situation perfectly shows the positional superiority established by Dynamo. Although, the scene presents a 3v3 situation on the left-side, the positioning of Dresden´s players created different options. If Karlsruhe closes down one, another opens. In fact, this is probably one of the best definitions for superiority. No matter how the defence tries to defend it, the team with the ball just have to choose another route helping them to advance.

“It’s a game of position, not possession! It’s about how you place yourself in relation to the others on the field when you have the ball and where you should be so that you can continue pressing when you lose it.”

– Domènec Torrent, Ex Guardiola Assistant

The positioning of Dresden leads to the positional superiority in this scene. While Karlsruhe defends with two players on the same vertical line, Dresden sets up a triangle leading to diagonal passing options for the centre-back. Therefore, the centre-back has three passing options he can use depending on the movement of the right winger and right-back of Karlsruhe.

First of all, the pass to the wingback is the first option for the left centre-back, however, also the less threatful for the opponent because the wing is naturally a space where the defensive team has the advantage of using the sideline to defend, resulting in isolations for the ball carrier.

Nevertheless, a pass to the wing can be still useful. Especially, when the player occupying that space is positioned high-up the pitch. Then a team faces the trade-off between overplaying a defensive line or gaining more space. Furthermore, a quick change in rhythm can catch the defence out of position. For instance, a pass to the wing could mean an extreme increase of the speed at which the attack is played. When the wingback increases the speed once he receives the ball and the offensive players sprint into depth, the defence can make two mistakes. Either they aren´t able to defend a throughball quickly enough or they fall too fast leaving space in the centre for the defensive midfielders of the team in possession.

Therefore, the defence can´t completely ignore the wingback and only focus on defending the centre. By moving out of position, the right-back or the right winger of KSC can press, however, the positional superiority of Dresden adds a cost to every movement of KSC´s players because it opens other passing lanes.

When the right winger of Karlsruhe (marked red) moves out to press, he has to orient towards the side earlier enough. If not, the wingback of Dresden would have too much time to overplay him. Therefore, the space available for a pass between the lanes to the LW. This is one of the passes regularly observable during Dresden´s build-up.

Once the LW receives the ball he has the advantage because he has the inside line, while the right-back is positioned wider due to the threat provided by the wingback. The ballnear centre-back faces the striker because Dresden has the numerical superiority in the last line. Although he could press the LW, the striker of Dresden would receive more space. Alternatively, the ballnear DM of Karlsruhe could close the passing line. Then it would be most profitable for Dresden to switch to the other side or attack the centre via the CB.

There are several additional options for Dresden when they establish an even superior positioning. Quite often their back-three stays rather flat instead of diagonally. Although, the angle to pass the ball to the DM would be less optimal, Dresden´s halfbacks could hurt the defence even more if they move slightly forward. This position can be established by either advancing with the ball or being already in that position.

Now, the striker of Karlsruhe has a harder time pressing the centre-back effectively because the halfspace is open for a dribbling. Due to the fact that the striker would have to press more from the side, the CB can protect the ball easier.

When the LW of Dresden moves more to the left side and pulls the FB with him, the striker can be a potential passing option for the ball carrier causing issues for KSC while applying pressure which leaves open spaces somewhere else.

Furthermore, once the fullback of Karlsruhe focuses too much on the movement to the sideline in order to press, the LW can always start a run behind the defence and Dresden can use a long ball to hurt the defence. Therefore, several different options to advance arise due to the positional superiority of Dresden in this zone.

Applying pressure and the third-man concept

The first scene against Karlsruhe illustrates why applying pressure by dribbling and passing the ball into tight spaces is crucial. After switching the ball from the left halfspace to the right, their right-centre back moves forward while getting pressed by Karlsruhe´s striker.

Due to the back-three of Dresden and the two central midfielders moving in the channels Karlsruhe struggled to press the build-up effectively. The diagonal passing options created helped Dresden to overplay the first line of pressure. Due to the diagonality in build-up, the strikers couldn´t use their cover shadows effectively. Dresden not only created numerical but also positional superiority due to their positioning and patient ball circulation.

Here, the left centre-back of Dresden was pressed by the right winger of Karlsruhe. Consequently, the switched the ball to the other side to make use of potential open spaces.

Due to two midfielders in the centre, both strikers of KSC had to hold their position in order to close the passing lane into the midfield. Therefore, they could start their run once the ball travelled to the next centre-back which gave Dresden´s players a few seconds to control the ball. This little extra time made the difference between reacting to Karlsruhe´s pressing or actively trying to use the space which was opened due to the higher pressing.

“Positional Play consists of generating superiorities out of the defensive line against those who are pressing you. Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean.”

– Juan Manuel Lillo

As we could see, Dresden already created numerical superiority in the first line, according to Juan Manuel Lillo – one of the teachers of Pep Guardiola – crucial in order to attack effectively.

Furthermore, the centre-back moved aggressively forward with the ball once the striker tried to press him. By doing this, the centre-back draws not only attention towards him but also put pressure on the defence. Because at one point they have to press him, consequently their attention was drawn towards him leaving his teammates open.

Besides the action taken by the right centre-back, the structure of Dresden gave the ball carrier enough passing options. Although, the DM was hardly reachable due to the pressure applied by the striker, the centre-back had still the option to pass it wide or to look for the striker between the lines.

The right wingback was the obvious option, consequently, the midfielders focused on pressing Patrick Ebert – on the right. Here, another important point Dresden does well in general. Due to their balanced structure, they are able to move the opponent which opens holes in the defence.

Dynamo Dresden does this in particular very well, it´s not about the movement of the ball. Moving the ball is only a tool in order to move the opponent. By doing this, you force them to constantly adjust their position which leads to mistakes made over the course of 90 minutes.

“The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.”

— Pep Guardiola

Moreover, the objective of positional play is to break through opponents’ lines. In this example, Dresden executed this thought nicely. Instead of passing the ball out wide and giving the opponent the possibility to press with the help of the sideline, the right centre-back plays a great pass between the lines to the striker. The fact that Karlsruhe had to shift to their left-side helped opening that space. The winger of Karlsruhe speculated whether the pass would be played to the wing, while the defensive midfielder oriented towards Dresden´s defensive midfielder. Consequently, the passing lane to the striker opened.

Because of the pass between the lines, Dresden applied pressure. This is another crucial principle of positional play. Sometimes you have to apply pressure by passing the ball in dangerous spaces in order to open room somewhere else.

As a consequence, the defence of Karlsruhe tried to press and taking advantage of the situational overload in the red marked space. However, the positioning of the striker allowed him to use several routes in order to hurt the defence. For one, his diagonal body position allowed him to turn around quickly and use the space behind the centre-back.

Important to add here is that it is the ball-far centre-back who had to follow the striker, therefore, he was diagonally behind, and the striker had the advantage to turn in either diagonal direction without giving the centre-back a possibility of intercepting.

The reason why the ball-far centre-back had to push out was the numerical superiority Dresden created by pushing the wingbacks high up the pitch. As a consequence, the left-back of KSC had to defend the RWB while the RW of Dynamo was able to occupy the ball-near CB.

Another advantage of the numerical superiority for Dresden was the space created on the far-side. Interestingly, the KSC midfielder who pushed forward to press the back-three didn´t cover his position properly giving the LCB a tone of space on the left.

Therefore, the striker of Dresden had three options to hurt the defence applying the third man concept. Both would make use of the numerical superiority Dresden created. Either he plays a layoff pass to the DM who could easily switch to the left side (blue space), or the striker would try to play the throughball to the right winger and therefore taking advantage of the space opened. Also, the left winger performed a diagonal run offering another option while simultaneously opening space on the left. The third option would be to start a dribbling and disbalance they defender who tried to press him.

The last option named could be a perfect example for qualitative superiority. The CB was taller and slower and less mobile than the attacker, thus, giving the striker the advantage of acceleration and agility. He could simply use the speed of the CB to unbalance him by quickly turning in one direction with the perfect timing.

However, the numerical superiority in the last line can have one major disadvantage in this situation. Only two players can apply pressure immediately after losing the ball while Karlsruhe has more players to play out of that situation. Furthermore, the high position of the right centre-back offers KSC open space to play a long ball into. One of the weaknesses of Dresden so far this season.

Conclusion

This scene should show you how many possibilities and advantages arise from a more structured approach with the ball, especially adapting the principles of positional play. Those once like creating superiorities, using switches to move the opponent or incorporating the third-man concept into the build-up can be extremely valuable for every team.

Of course, it always depends on the quality of the players. If you only have physical strong but technical weak players, this approach is probably inferior to one focused on long balls and winning the duels to gain the second ball. However, even in the lowest leagues, a better structure and clear guidelines in possession can help every player. In the end, football is always about time and space. Everything is easier when you have time and space to control a ball and make a decision.

How to press using a diamond

Is there going to be any tactical innovation in the future, or did we reach the end of any development? Interestingly, this question is asked regularly on Twitter. In my opinion, it does not take into account why tactical “innovations” happen in the first place.

No coach in world-football simply tries something new because he thinks this would be fun, contrary to every innovation one tries to solve a problem. To apply the definition of innovation to football one has to the extent it because there are two motives why a coach creates a new pressing structure or changes the positioning of one of his players in a new way. One motive, of course, is to solve a problem, however, creating a problem for your opponent is also possible. As we know everything in football is connected, so we can conclude that solving a problem of your own team leads to a new challenge for the opposing team.

Let´s assume your team struggles to get behind the lines of the opponent and you, therefore, change the structure in possession. Pep Guardiola, for instance, introduced the inverted fullback during his time at Bayern because his team stuck into circulating the ball in an u-shape.

Or you try to press the build-up of your opponent effectively. Therefore, you maybe use a different positioning of your players. For example, Leverkusen under Lewandowski once noticed that most of the teams they faced would build-up through the halfspace. Therefore, their 4-3-3 pressing focused on closing this space.

However, everything in football is connected and therefore we can´t clearly distinguish between creating and solving problems because the approach a team selects depends on the characteristics of each player, but details are adjusted depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent. In the end, the goal is to win more games than before and not to try fancy tactical stuff.

In this piece, I want to discuss a formation used during the defensive phase which causes problems for many teams. Although the formation is not used widely, a few significant teams are quite successful with it. As you may guess due to the title, it´s the diamond in midfield. Specifically, I want to discuss why pressing in a 4-3-1-2 causes so many problems for the build-up of the team in possession.

Therefore, I´m going to show you strength and weaknesses and the different ways teams used the diamond in pressing in order to regain the ball high up the pitch. For those of you who follow European football carefully, it´s no surprise that the main focus lies on RB Salzburg under Marco Rose, however, also other teams like RB Leipzig or Wolfsberger AC used/use the diamond quite successfully.

I wouldn´t call using the diamond in the centre an innovation, nevertheless, rarely did teams in history use the diamond during the pressing phase so systematically that it was hardly possible for the opponent to build-up.

The centre is the key to control the game

This seems to be common sense that in order to control the game you have to control the centre, however, not necessarily with the ball. By using the diamond, the focused area of pressing is the centre. Because by creating a numerical overload the opponent has to either play through tight spaces or try to find other routes into the central space in front of the opponent´s defence often referred to as zone 14.

By closing the centre, the team out of possession has a major advantage that they can isolate certain players more easily. In football, the centre is the space which allows a continuation of play in every direction. Therefore, it is crucial to advance into the half of the opponent and to connect both wing-zones and the halfspaces.  

One of the main strengths of using a 4-3-1-2 during the defensive phase is the fact that the centre, as well as the halfspaces, are covered while the players are positioned diagonally to each other. In order to understand why this is an advantage one has to understand the three different directions a pass can be played as well as the pros and cons of each pass.

There are three types of passes in football:

  1. Horizontal
  2. Vertical
  3. diagonal

While a horizontal pass is quite safe, it does not generate any gain of space. Different to the vertical pass, however, here the opponent can press more easily because the receiver will most likely receive the ball with his back to the goal, however, the team in possession can advance into higher zones.

The diagonal pass more or less combines the strengths of horizontal and vertical pass. For one bypassing the ball diagonally you can gain space, however, it is harder to press because the ball usually goes through different zones covered by different players and simultaneously can break through different lines. Furthermore, the receiver faces the goal of the opponent giving him a quicker overview of the structure of the specific situation.

Therefore, a diagonal pass changes the location of play both vertically and horizontally.

A diamond in pressing closes most of the diagonal passing option due to the players being positioned diagonally to each other. As a consequence, it is harder for the defenders to play penetrating passes behind the first pressing line.

Especially when the opponent is playing with two defensive midfielders against a diamond, the team which uses the diamond has the advantage that they close effectively every passing lane and multiple players are close to the defensive midfielders which eventually helps to press them.

For instance, in the example above, the striker closes the passing lane to the midfielders while the number ten can cover the space behind or orient towards one midfielder. That’s why the triangle of the number ten and the strikers is so important. Not only does it close the diagonal passing lanes in the sixth space but also protects the player who is pressing. If the three players do shift correctly, every switch can be pressed immediately with two other players covering the space behind.

Furthermore, the diamond in the centre allows the covering of space behind the strikers and further creates close connections between the players. Doubling or tripling as well as closing the space available in every direction is no problem because of the structure in the centre. Here, the right and left midfielder can have different tasks. For instance, to cover the defensive midfielders or the central midfielder of the opponent depending on the formation is used. Or the player a bit wider, simply closing the halfspaces and press aggressively once the ball travels to the wing.

To do so, the anchor of the diamond, the number six, is crucial. Although it depends on the interpretation of the diamond, he is the one filling the gaps and closing the passing lanes while being able to move out of a position quickly if necessary.

Especially the connections between each midfielder due to the short distance allows a team using the diamond to create an extremely compact defensive shape in the centre. Besides that, the system is quite flexible, for example against a back-three it is easy to move from the diamond to a flat 4-3-3 with the strikers closing the halfspaces as Leipzig did against Hertha BSC last season.

While the Wolfsberger AC Gerhard Struber created a 4-3-1-2 with the three midfielders playing on the same horizontal line quite often due to different man-orientations. In contrast, RB Salzburg under Marco Rose used the central midfielders in a slightly higher position creating a 4-1-2-1-2. However, this always depends on the shape used by the opponent.

Now one could argue that the wing zones are the weakness of the diamond, while this is partly true due to the lack of players there, however, the structure allows teams to easily press at the wing by isolating the ball carrier.

Dynamically closing space – the idea of space and time

The lack of coverage on the wing seems to be one of the reasons only few coaches select this formation during the defensive phase. However, Johan Cruyff once said that every disadvantage has its advantage. This also applies for the 4-diamond-2, because the space on the wing can actually be one of the major threats for the team in possession.

In order to understand this paradox, we have to introduce the concept of a dynamic game which football is, although when people start thinking about football tactics, they start by talking about formations. I did this mistake as well, and I would say that formations still matter, but not the one you see at the beginning of every tv broadcast. It is more about the formation in every phase of the game as well as the movements in it.

So, for instance, a 4-4-2 during a high press does not have any meaning without context. It depends on the movement of each player. However, it can be helpful to take the formation as the starting point of the explanation as well as an approximation of the spaces covered due to the positioning of the players. The problem with formations is, that they convey static although football is a dynamic sport.

Maybe this focus on formations leads to the association of chess. Although various concepts of chess can be useful for football as well, for instance controlling the centre, the major difference between football and chess is the component of dynamics. Especially, during the pressing phase, dynamic is better than static.

If I would simply shift all the time without pressuring the ball carrier, the team in possession would have an easy life advancing with the ball because they would have time which leads to better technical execution and decision making.

On the contrary, if you attack your opponent dynamically, time and space change quickly forcing the ball carrier to make quick decisions in a constantly changing environment. Consequently, more mistake will be made leading to turnovers and counter-attacking possibilities.

Take this example as an illustration of the dynamics created due to the open space. Mukiele receives the ball wide due to the space available, however, this pass functioned as a trigger for Schalke 04. As you can see, multiple players have access to this space and are therefore able to isolate the right-back of Leipzig.

Once the pass is played towards Mukiele, Schalke starts pressing aggressively. By timing their moves so perfectly, they make use of the short time span in which Mukiele aligns his body and controls the ball. Consequently, between the last checking and the ball control, the environment in which Mukiele is, has completely changed. As a consequence, he has to orient again while not having the necessary amount of time leading to worse decision-making.

This principle of early anticipation and therefore immediate pressure isn´t exclusively reserved for the pressing in a diamond but is used in every formation. However, the diamond in midfield favours those situations due to the different spaces covered.

Now there are several ways of pressing at the wing. For one it depends on the philosophy and risk-aversion a team has, for second the positioning of the opponent plays a crucial role too. As one could observe at RB Salzburg, the striker was often the one forcing the centre-back to play the pass to the wing to the fullback. Consequently, the striker would apply pressure by continuing his run simultaneously using his cover shadow to block the passing lane to the centre-back.

The fullback now would be either pressed by the fullback or central midfielder depending on different factors. For example, on the position of the ball receiver or his teammates. Further, the way the ball ended up in this space. Usually, the fullback of Salzburg anticipated the pass and once the ball travelled to the fullback of the opponent, he would start his run and dynamically close the space. Two important things that needed to be considered. Here, the timing and speed of the fullback is crucial. If he starts too late or too early, he can easily be outplayed or the pass won´t come in the first place. If he is too fast, the ball carrier can use a quick body feint to unbalance him, if he is too slow, it gives the receiving player enough time to turn and make a decision.

The central midfielder had to be in position to close the diagonal passing lane which the fullback can´t close. At the same time, he has the possibility to press the ball near number six of the opponent. By using his cover shadow, the fullback has the task to close the vertical passing lane down the line. In order to cover the space, the centre-back would orient towards the hole and could eventually take on the winger of the opponent. Lastly, the number ten closed the horizontal pass in the centre leading to high compactness for Salzburg at the wing with lots of passing lanes blocked and a diagonal shape covering the space behind.

Alternatively, the central midfielder can press aggressively at the wing as we could see in the scene of Schalke against Leipzig. The Wolfsberger AC under Struber used this movement as well. It gives you a better-secured wing-zone but makes you more vulnerable in the centre because you have one man less. Especially, when the central midfielder does not have the perfect timing, the number six can have a hard time covering the space left, giving the opponent the chance to play through the centre.

Lastly, the specific movement depends to a huge extent on the positioning of the opponent. For instance, if the centre-backs of the opponent are positioned relatively wide and they use the goalkeeper to create a back-three the striker might start his pressing run more diagonally out of the centre, having the defensive midfielder of the opponent in his cover shadow. Then, the central midfielder of the team defending can push outwards to press more easily because the risk of getting exposed is lower.

Pressing triggers and the direction of force

Interestingly, several teams which use the diamond not only force the opponent to the side what seems to be common sense across many countries but rather force him inwards into the centre. Logically, the overload centrally playing in the 4-diamond-2 is the major reason. Nevertheless, it is worth discussing both forcing inwards and outwards.

The reason why most teams try to force their opponents to the side is simple. The sideline helps to defend because it limits the available space for the attacking team. As a consequence, the defending team is able to isolate the ball carrier more easily because they only have to close five directions instead of eight (vertical both directions, horizontal, diagonally forward and backwards). Usually, three players are enough to literally close every available passing lane for the ball carrier while pressing him.

Furthermore, the forcing of the opponent to the side has the advantage that the concept of pressing through is applicable by the striker. With pressing through I mean that one player presses the ball carrier dynamically but does not stop his run when the ball carrier passes the ball to a teammate but continues pressing and consequently leaving the passer in his cover shadow.

By forcing the opponent in the centre of the pitch, it is possible to use the numerical superiority to press. The 4-diamond-2 is perfectly prepared to press in the centre of the pitch due to the diagonal structure in place.

In order to understand a few principles in pressing with the diamond it is worth taking a look at different teams using the 4-diamond-2 mainly RB Salzburg under Marco Rose and Wolfsberger AC under Gerhard Struber.

Ways to dictate the direction of play

To start things, we can take a look at the pressing of Wolfsberger AC. Wolfsberg´s striker presses the centre-backs with curved runs from the outside, therefore forcing the opponent in the centre of the pitch directly. This leaves the centre-backs of the opponent in a position in which they get pressed quickly and have to decide quickly in an environment uncomfortable for every last man.

The big advantage of pressing from the wing towards the centre is that the ball carrier is usually forced on his weak foot. Usually the right centre-back is right-footed while the left centre-back prefers his left foot. When the striker presses inwards, he actually presses from the side of the strong foot of the centre-back. Therefore, he is not able to protect the ball unless he uses his weak switches to his weak foot – quite often centre-backs have only one strong foot. As a consequence, the team pressing has an advantage.   

Furthermore, the ball carrier is under immense pressure because the diamond closes the passing lanes to his central midfielders while he is pressed by Wolfsberg´s strikers. Quite often, the horizontal pass to his partner is the only option along with a long ball. However, then the same movements happen again. Because the ball far striker of Wolfsberg closed the halfspace while orienting towards the deeper fullback, he can immediately start a curved run and forces the centre-back inwards again. Only this time, the other striker is closer and along with the number ten able to press aggressively.

By using those movements during the pressing phase, Wolfsberg applies the principle of denying the switch and effectively isolating a player. Because of their pressing movements, the pitch gets slowly tighter for the team in possession. Mistakes appear more frequently, and a calm and coordinated build-up is not possible anymore. Here, I want to stress how important the use of the cover shadow is, something every coach should teach his players.

Interestingly, Salzburg under Marco Rose used similar movements, although with a significant difference. While the ballnear striker also presses from the outside in order to force the switch, Salzburg reacted differently. The second striker would press more from the inside to the outside, forcing the opponent to the wing.

Therefore, he often waits in a slightly deeper position starting his run once the pass is played rather than waiting for the pass. Again, this creates more dynamic pressure as well as a more compact shape centrally. However, it always depends on positioning, body position and height of the pressing line.

The difference to the pressing of Wolfsberg? Salzburg creates even more dynamic by forcing the opponent in one direction. This allows the players to continue their runs once a pass is played instead of changing direction. Furthermore, the opponent only finds space at the wing, consequently, they have to pass the ball in that zone. Of course, by pressing through, Salzburg is able to isolate the fullback/winger receiving the ball on the wing.

How to react once the first line of pressure is overplayed?

Logically, it is unrealistic that the opponent always plays around the diamond and never finds a hole in the defence. Therefore, it is necessary to know how a team using the 4-diamond-2 can react.

On the one hand, the diamond provides a numerical overload against most teams in the centre of the pitch, along with the diagonal structure, many passing lanes are still closed for the opponent once the first line is overplayed. Besides, the strikers can quickly press from behind creating a high local compactness.

A good example would be a pass from the fullback in the space behind the strikers. Here, the team using the diamond against the ball is still able to press with the central midfielder and the number ten while the number six covers space behind and the strikers can recover. More dangerously would be a pass behind the central midfielder, although the defensive midfielder as the anchor of the diamond would still be able to press quickly along with the centre-back pushing out. Essentially, this is one of the biggest risks, when defending with the diamond. Because once the central midfielder is pulled out of the centre, the compactness is lost and the team in possession can play quick diagonal passes against the direction in which the defensive block shifts.

While the diamond provides a high degree of local compactness, the overload in the centre has a downside. The far side is less well covered compared to a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 against the ball. Therefore, the main goal should be to prevent switches especially to the far halfspace in your own half because it makes one vulnerable and one losses a lot of energy because of the long ways to shift.

The goal should be to either gain the ball as quickly as possible in the centre or push the opponent towards the wing and out of the dangerous spaces. Then, the normal pressing movements can begin again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the diamond is an interesting formation to use during the defensive phase because it essentially covers the most important spaces in modern football while giving a team flexibility to change the system quickly according to the structure of the opponent.

However, simply using a diamond is not enough. Compactness, isolation of the opponent and pressing with a clear plan in mind is essential to take advantage of the various options a diamond provides. That’s why I wanted to present you certain movements and ideas teams like RB Salzburg use in pressing. Essentially, those principles are best used in a diamond. So it is more about the philosophy and the players why a team should choose the 4-diamond-2.