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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
different kind of superiorities like qualitative, numerical and positional.
- Qualitative superiority
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Positioning and applying
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.