Category: Team Analysis

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.

Holstein Kiel U19 and their concept of dynamic space occupation

Revolutions are very rare in football. Pep Guardiola once summed it up perfectly when he said that in the end, he’s just trying to use existing ideas that he picked up from another team and adjust those ideas to the needs and characteristics of his team. Therefore, I would suggest that we deal with evolutions rather than revolutions in football.  

A remarkable evolution of the game could be observed last season at Holstein Kiel. Under coach Tim Walter, the back-four operated with a lot of risk, tried to solve everything playfully and wanted to build up the game from behind. So far so good, this is not yet a real evolution of the way a team tries to build-up. However, the back-four of Tim Walter´s team behaved differently. They did not hold their positions but rather moved fluently and varied the occupation of different spaces constantly.

In order to receive the ball, Kiel´s players dynamically moved in the space in order to receive the ball but then left the space unoccupied again. Even the central defenders took part in these movements. This meant that regularly a central defender would move out of the cover shadow of his opponent after a pass and move into the six-space without the ball. Kiel went so far that sometimes only two players occupied the first line, and these were not always the central defenders, but sometimes the LCB and RB, sometimes LB and RB and once even RM and LB.

The same principles could be seen again and again. At first glance, the game of Tim Walter’s team looked like that of a team that followed the principles of positional play. However, it only looked that way at first glance. Although the usual principles could be seen, Holstein Kiel acted much more dynamically, occupied spaces more flexibly and overloaded some spaces more.

Ultimately, this style was dubbed Walterball by Tactics-Twitter. Which of course does not really describe the style. All in all, it is a dynamic occupation of different spaces.

Since Tim Walter is no longer head coach at either Holstein Kiel or VfB Stuttgart, we need a different team to analyse the different principles and actions. Fortunately, Kiel U19 coach Dominik Glawogger seems to have been influenced by Tim Walter, as many of the classic actions that characterised Holstein Kiel last season can still be observed in the U19 of Holstein Kiel.

Consequently, in this article I would like to take a look at the U19 of Holstein Kiel and explain various principles and actions of the dynamic occupation of different spaces.

Clearing the six-space

In order to occupy spaces dynamically, those spaces have to be unoccupied by both the own team and the opponent. In the case of the U19 from Holstein Kiel, this is primarily the six-space. Although the Kieler structure in possession often resembles a 4-3-3, the defensive midfielder seldom acts in a role as a deep connector, but pushes significantly further forward. This also applies to the two eights who occupy the half spaces, but often act in line with the striker or move between the defence and midfield chain.

Consequently, the opponent has to retreat further, and Holstein Kiel creates a lot of depth. The now open six-space can be occupied again and again by one of the central defenders or the fullbacks. Especially against the 4-4-2, which is regularly used by teams in Germany, this strategy is ideal. In the 4-4-2, the space behind the two strikers is already poorly occupied but is often compensated by a good vertical compactness. Against the Kiel players, however, this does not work in high pressing, because many players of the Störche position themselves further forward. If the opponent does not follow those players, there is a risk that they will be susceptible to quick attacks after a long ball.

The following graphic describes the basic situation of the Kieler build-up. Either the wing players or eights act on the same line as the striker to tie the four-man line. Furthermore, the Störche can always create a free man because the opponent is often forced to play 1v1 in the last line as well as in midfield. Ultimately, it is always a risk for the defending team to defend completely 1vs1 without having an additional player to protect the spaces behind the defensive line.

What makes the Kiel game so dangerous is the use of the goalkeeper. Many teams use the goalkeeper only as a run-through station and support in building up the game. In Kiel, however, he plays a fundamental role, as he is the man who often plays the ball into the free six-space.

Thus, the team from Northern Germany manages to create an 11vs10 advantage in possession. It is also crucial that one of the central defenders is allowed to move into the six-space. If he would not be allowed to do so, but would have to hold his position, the opponent would always have the possibility to create a 1vs1 out of a 2vs1 overload for the team in possession of the ball by using the cover shadow intelligently.

Curls of the opponent – the decisive opening action

Interestingly enough, Kiel is accommodating the new goal kick rule. Since the ball can be received in the box when a kick is taken, the central defenders can already position themselves there. The effect is huge. Firstly, the distances are shorter and the ball can be moved faster. On the other hand, the angles are advantageous, because the GK can already receive the ball in an open position due to the shorter distance.

But much more important is that the opponent can be lured even more strongly. Because the CB is in the box, the striker has to move almost to the baseline to gain access. As a result, the angle is suboptimal for him and he opens the pass line into the centre.

Ein Bild, das grün, drinnen, farbig, Menge enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

Most teams trying to create a 1v1 out of a 2v1 use the concept of pressing through. In this case the striker starts to press the CB as soon as the ball is on its way to him. However, he does not stop his run once the ball travels back but continues to press the goalkeeper. The idea – by continuing the pressing run, the striker closes the pass to the central defender with his cover shadow while pressing the goalkeeper.

However, Holstein Kiel wants to provoke exactly this action. The CB can then move out of the cover shadow undisturbedly and receive the ball again. The striker did not create equality but took himself out of the game because of his run.

Ein Bild, das grün, drinnen, farbig, Drachen enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

Furthermore, it is important that the defensive midfielder pushes further forward. Why? Think for a moment about how the team’s structure in black would look like if the defensive midfielder would be positioned in the red marked space.

And? Exactly, the ballfar striker would probably drop deeper and would block the spaces as well as the passing lane to the defensive midfielder. Or one of the midfielders would push forward to pick-up Kiel´s number six. All in all, the red marked space would be better occupied, hence, the forward moving CB could be pressed easily once he receives the ball. Therefore, the risk of this action would tremendously increase while the positive effects of the simple one-two combination would diminish.  

Whoever controls the centre controls the game

In the graphic above, you can clearly see how the central defender is moving out of the cover shadow and hence can receive the ball. Interestingly enough, many teams react after a certain time in such a way that the ballfar striker is positioned a bit more central and is supposed to intercept passes of the goalkeeper. Consequently, Kiel´s other centre-back has more time on the ball. A consequence of the consistent use of the goalkeeper to create an overload.

But if the pass is now played to the advancing central defender, the opponent is faced with a challenge. Who will now move out in time. This has to be clearly coordinated, because one should already press when the ball is still on the way. If the defender leaves his position too late, he won´t be able to press the advancing CB who consequently can play a quick pass to one of his teammates in midfield.

However, this also shows the weakness and especially the risk of Kiel´s build-up. Firstly, the goalkeeper has to play the pass to the central defender regularly, because due to the pressing mechanisms the forward will usually press the goalkeeper. Consequently, either the six player close to the ball or even better the wing player can move into the hole early and press the central defender from Kiel. Accordingly, there are often quite tight situations in which the CB is involved in a direct duel.

Secondly, the risk is of course high, because a turnover in this zone will probably lead to a good chance for the opponent. Interestingly enough, this happens rarely. Tim Walter’s team in Stuttgart or in Kiel conceded goals more often because of the poor protection once the ball is lost high-up the pitch and the opponent managed to overcome the counterpressing, rather than because of a mistake in the build-up.

Accordingly, Kiel regularly take this risk, also in the U19. The calmness and courage to solve situations under pressure is particularly impressive for the young central defenders.

This is of enormous importance, because the possibilities, which result from the dynamic occupation of the six-man area, are very valuable for the team. This has to do with the angle of vision and the positioning of the players in the higher lines.

The example here is very simplified, because there was simply no player coming out to press the central defender. Consequently, Kiel have the great advantage that they can use their presence in the high zones to quickly advance from the build-up into the last third.

The exciting aspect of the central defender’s dynamic occupation of the six-zone is the advantage of the angle of vision that results. This is because the central defender receives the ball in an open position due to the advancing movement. Accordingly, he can pass the ball to a team-mate with two contacts or even with the first touch.

If we think about a “normal” game structure with a central six that occupies the space marked in red, there is always the problem that the defensive midfielder receives the ball with its back to the opposing goal. Consequently, the third man principle has to be used and a good circulation is necessary to create a free man by either passing the ball to the free CB or the six-man who can turn with the ball. However, this will probably slow down the build-up of the game and the central defender will only receive the ball in a deeper zone in an open position

Positional play principles help

If the ball now reaches the central defender in the six-space as mentioned, the various principles of positional play help Kiel to get the most out of such situations.

Because of the open position of the receiver, the Störche create pressure and force the opponent to press. Now it is crucial that the offensive players aren´t positioned in the cover shadow and offer passing options to advance.

The Kiel players benefit from the fact that certain principles of positional play in possession of the ball are implemented by the team. Among other things, the various vertical zones are very cleanly occupied by the midfielders.

Dominik Glawogger’s team regularly succeeds in creating overloads. This is due to the positioning of the offensive players. Although the wing players often start in a wide position, they can regularly leave their position at the sideline and occupy the space between CB and FB. Together with the striker, they can occupy the whole back-four, hence, creating numerical superiority in the centre.

As a result, the central and defensive midfielders can detach themselves without major problems and turn around when the ball is passed to them. Along with the principles of positional play, the Störche generate pressure (red) in one space, thus space opens somewhere else. Especially here the players regularly try to find a diagonal solution so that the receiver of the pass is immediately in an open position again.

Especially, when the DM of the opponent steps up to press, Kiel looks for the halfspace switch because the other defensive midfielder will most likely focus on Kiel´s DM, hence, the CM is the free man. However, in those situations, Kiel is very flexible and tries to create problems by constantly using vertical movements.

In the end, the only thing left to do is to react to the opponent’s decision, as there must definitely be a free pass.

Of course, it always depends on the shape of the opponent in pressing, but the midfielders of Kiel usually have many passing options because of their overload in the centre.

For example, one can observe more often how quickly the ball is shifted to the advancing AV. Due to the pressure generated in the centre, there is more space on the wings and the Kiel players can quickly gain a lot of space and push diagonally into the centre.

All in all, the risky variant in the build-up game with the advancing central defender or a full-back who dynamically occupies the six-space serves the purpose of fast ball advance. Here the Kiel team acts very similar to the teams of Maurizio Sarri or Borussia M’Gladbach under Marco Rose.

Basically, it’s all about attracting the opponent by a deeper circulation in order to use the resulting space by means of fast combinations. One could, therefore, speak of a counterattack without a transitional moment.

This text was originally published in German on our main Website thefalsefullback.de

The attacking structure and success of S.S. Lazio

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

Overview

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

Creating overloads in the build up phase

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

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

Isolating an opposition player to play round

Isolating Vecino to play round

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

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

Using Milinkovic-Savic to find the free player

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

Using Alberto to enter the middle third

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

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

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

Correa dropping to create a 4v3

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

Midfield positioning and exploiting the space available

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

Build up to second goal vs Bologna

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

Finishing the attack (Second goal vs Bologna)

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

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

Felipe stepping in on the switch of play

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

Milinkovic-Savic staying patient

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

Milinkovic-Savic overloading the side of the ball

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

Third man runs

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

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

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

Using the third man from a deeper position

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

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

Winning the penalty vs Inter

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

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

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

Ciro Immoible

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

Threat on transition

Assist vs Bologna

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

Isolating opposition defenders

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

Running in behind

Winning the second penalty vs Sampdoria

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

Receiving without pressure

Using Correa to receive with time

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

Attacking the cross

Goal vs AC Milan

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

Conclusion

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

PSG Pressing in the 4-4-2

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

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

Amiens v PSG
PSG v Bordeux

Forcing the opponent to play long

Winger jumping to 3rd centre back

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

Forcing the opponent to play floated balls to the fullbacks

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

In possession structure leading to difficult counter pressing moments

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

Insufficient balance to sustain attacks

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

Amiens exploiting the space on the sides

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

Timing issues

Allowing the opposition centre midfielders to play through

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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.