We have seen a slight resurgence in the use of midfield diamonds in front of a back four in recent seasons, especially in Germany but also in England. The 4-1-2-1-2 or its close cousin 4-3-1-2 has always been popular in Italy and especially Serie B teams use the shape regularly. The reason for its popularity in Italy is very likely that Italy lacks the heritage of wingers that England has since Italian wide players are often wing-backs pushing out of a back-five. There is a great emphasis on controlling central areas in Italian football and, therefore, centrally compact shapes are popular. Evidently, Italian coaches aren’t as hesitant of sacrificing players in wide areas as English or Nordic coaches are. German and Austrian coaches seem to share this Italian mentality given the regularity the shape is used in those countries, with RB Salzburg, Wolfsberger AC and Werder Bremen are among the clubs making the shape popular.
The 4-1-2-1-2 gives coaches many possibilities both in attack and in defense. Tobias Hahn has written asuperb piece on the possibilities coaches can use when pressing in a 4-1-2-1-2 and I definitely recommend that you read that piece. Therefore, I will look at the immense potential of building from the back using a 4-1-2-1-2. Also, I will finish this article by discussing various methods to create chances from wide areas, which is often the big hurdle coaches need to be cleared before being convinced by the formation.
Personal clarifications regarding the 4-1-2-1-2
Personally, my intentions in regards to building from the back in a 4-1-2-1-2 is to create the possibility of a clean progression of the ball out of our defensive half. To do this, I want to create numerical advantages if/when needed and I want passing triangles and diamonds to open up thanks to the positioning of the players. A large emphasis will therefore be placed on positioning in central midfield and usage of the half-spaces in terms of creating diagonal passing options between players. Thus, it looks something like the image below.
The Giampaolo way
The first build-up method I’d like to discuss is the one used by current Torino coach Marco Giampaolo. The Italian makes use of a midfield diamond where the two central midfielders are positioned on roughly the same horizontal line as the defensive midfielder. As you can see below, he also positions his full-backs deep. The aim is to maintain short, diagonal passing lanes between his goalkeeper, back-four and three midfielders. This helps create a stable build-up shape with obvious triangular and diamond shaped structures to facilitate good connections.
The goal with this setup is to attract pressure which opens up vertical passing lanes and then use bounce-passes or lay-offs followed by penetrative passes into the third man, the attacking midfielder in the example below, who is often positioned between the lines of the opponent’s midfield and defense.
This method requires a lot of training because you’re really trying to manipulate the opponent into pressing you and then capitalize on them losing the compactness of their defensive shape. If possession is lost, your team is in good shape with hardly any rotations destabilizing the structure of the side. Thus, the defensive transition should, in theory, be quite straightforward since you can either counter-press due to the compact nature of your attacking shape, or drop off instantly with four defenders usually behind the ball.
One of the most criticized aspects of the 4-1-2-1-2 is its lack of natural width. One way of solving that issue is by pushing your full-backs high. This is, of course, very similar to how many teams, regardless of their formation, use their full-backs anyway. The image below highlights one rotation, teams can use to create a numerical advantage against a team defending in a 4-4-2. The full-backs are pushed forward, the center-backs split and the defensive midfielder drops in-between the center-backs to create a 3 vs 2 in the first line. Many 4-3-3 teams rotate in this exact same way, but one issue I often see is that the second line, behind the opposition strikers, is often vacated as both central midfielders are pushed higher in each half-space as in the starting positions here too.
For me, it’s crucial to keep a presence centrally in that area so I would advocate dropping the central midfielders into that space. The ball could be moved into them and create better connections and a clean build-up, but they would also attract opposition midfielders, potentially opening up passing lanes to the front three. Creating a back-three when playing out against a 4-4-2 is popular because it creates a numerical advantage in the first line. Additionally, the potential for the split centre-backs to dribble the ball forward in the half-spaces creates difficulties for the opposition wingers since they might be attracted to the centre-back but still worry about the high full-back. Either way, the team in possession has created positional superiority and can progress centrally or out wide.
Another, slightly more unorthodox way to create a back-three in the first line can be seen below. There are some progressive-minded coaches around the world that make use of a goalkeeper moving into the space between the two split centre-backs to create a 3 vs 2 in the first phase whilst keeping the defensive midfielder in the next line to make sure the central midfielders can still stay higher and create more horizontal lines for the team to occupy. As you can see below, just like with the previous rotation, the creation of a back-three in possession allows for better connections across the pitch as the team has better access to every zone with three players in the first line.
If you wish to keep your goalkeeper in goal and retain your defensive midfielder in the second line but still create a back-three in the first line, you could have one of the central midfielders drop diagonally just outside the centre-backs. That position is very hard to press for teams defending in a 4-4-2 as it again creates positional superiority with the creation of a 3 vs 1 against the opposition winger. If the ball-near central midfielder in the red team below would press the dropping blue, a passing lane would open up to play straight into the attacking midfielder or one of the strikers.
Equally, you could have both central midfielders doing this movement with full-backs pushed on and then have the two strikers occupying each half-space and the attacking midfielder in the central space. That way, you would have a presence between the defense and midfield lines of the opponent in each central space whilst retaining width from the full-backs. Also, the team would be set up well to handle counter-attacks with a 2-3 structure at the back.
The double pivot
Another rotation that I’ve seen is the one highlighted below. I think it might have been Jesse Marsch’s RB Salzburg that used this one, for instance. Simply, the ball-far central midfielder drops diagonally into the second line to create a double pivot alongside the defensive midfielder. This creates an extra option to play into centrally, thus increasing the available passing connections for the defenders.
Furthermore, that movement creates two distinct passing triangles on each side, resulting in numerical advantages of 3 vs 1 on both sides. Since the right-sided central midfielder and the attacking midfielder occupy space between the lines, the opposition midfielders will be reluctant to push high to support the press. If they do, they can be bypassed by vertical passes from the defenders and, if they don’t, the midfielders in the second line will have both time and space. Thus, the structure of the attacking team has again created positional superiority in central areas.
Chance creation from wide areas
Finally, I will look at three different ways to create chances from wide areas. As you will see in the images below, I’ve opted to retain the ball-far full-back in the half-space to prepare to defend a defensive transition since my idea is that he/she can simply move wide if the ball is moved centrally, but obviously this is up to every coach.
This first pattern aims at attacking the space behind the full-back with the movement of one of the two strikers. Here, I’ve positioned the right-back high since I want the left-back to be attracted to this positioning once the ball is played there. When the right-back then receives the ball and the left-back sprints to press, the ball will be played diagonally towards the penalty area to where the ball-near striker will make a run. From there, the attacking midfielder and the other striker attack the box as a cut-back or a low cross is on the cards.
Another option is highlighted below as the ball-near central midfielder will make a similar run from deep. Again, the aim is to attract the opponent’s left-back to the high positioning of our right-back. In this case, the ball-near striker will pin the opponent’s ball-near centre-back, thus giving our central midfielder time and space to pick his pass from down the line.
The third and perhaps most obvious method to attack wide areas in a 4-1-2-1-2 is to attack that space with the full-backs. In this scene, the ball is moved diagonally from left to right. The ball is worked into the right-sided central midfielder who is positioned in the half-space. From there, he/she threads the ball in-behind for the diagonal run of the right-back.
As I think this piece has shown, there are numerous possibilities to create progressive build-up mechanisms when using a 4-1-2-1-2. As with all formations, the key is how you coach it and what principles you instill into your team. As we’ve seen, the potential for fluid attacking play is immense and, hopefully, more coaches will try their luck at implementing a very dynamic and exciting shape when trying to build attack-minded teams to play entertaining and successful football.
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
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.
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
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.
three types of passes in football:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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