By Bob Pearce and Mihail Vladimirov.
A new found fluidity
We talked about stretching and squeezing space when in and out of possession, and I can see how the front and back players can do this by pushing up, dropping back, and pulling out wide. But being in the middle, aren’t the midfield limited in how much they can stretch and squeeze space?
Physically speaking – yes, they are not in a position to do as much stretching as the other players. This is simply because you wouldn’t want them to roam too far away from their prescribed midfield positions because the risk of leaving that particular area of the pitch too open and unprotected is too big. As we talked about last time, the midfield is the crucial area, so the onus should be on having this unit well balanced and with clear roles and aims of what to do and what not to do.
But tactically speaking, the midfield is very capable of providing that stretching element. It doesn’t have to be physically – i.e. by running up and down, left and right. It could be as simple as providing the required type of passes to literally stretch/split the opposition from the central area. Think about Pirlo, Alonso, Scholes, Gerrard et al, and how many times we see one of their trademark cross-field passes literally open up the opposition and stretch them. The stretching effect is that by pinging such passes in one particular zone (maybe down one of the channels), the opposition will try to cover it and will move there. The crucial thing is that by doing this they will open up space elsewhere that a runner can exploit – and suddenly you have the opposition stretched all over the place.
Out of possession, the midfield will squeeze space by simply acting in synch with the rest of the team. To illustrate this point best, just picture a pressing team. The front players will be the first pressing wave and the defence will be the last line – the covering line. So the midfield will have to position themselves in such a way to be in touch with the front players and be the second pressing wave but also not to be far away from the covering line and not leave too much space in between these two lines. By doing all of this intelligently and with the required timing and cohesion, the midfield is very much capable of playing a pivotal role in squeezing the space for the opposition by both joining in the pressing line but also keeping in touch with the covering line. As we can see once again, the midfield is “required” to do a dual job, but this is what a midfield unit is all about.
If the defence line is sitting too deep or or the attacking line is too high, the team are leaving too much space and becoming exposed or disconnected? Is it the responsibility of the defence and attack to push up or drop back to cover this space?
Yes, if the space between the lines is too big there would be plenty of gaps left. This could lead to both the team being hugely vulnerable between all the lines and also being disjointed and finding it hard to transition between the phases.
It’s not one of the lines’ duty to remedy this – it’s the team as a whole’s responsibility to ensure this is not going to happen. This is just because all the lines should act in synch and everything is connected. For example, if the space between the defence and midfield is too big there are two variants: a) the defence push up and be in touch with the midfield; or b) the midfield drop deep and limit the space. If it’s the second variant then the front line as a result should drop deep to be in touch with the midfield or the team would find it extremely hard to string together attacking passes and construct meaningful attacks, even if the team is set up to hit on the break.
If there is huge space between midfield and attack then we again have two variants: a) the front line drop back and be in touch with the midfielders; or b) the midfield push up and limit the space. In the second variant it would be the defence’s duty to push up too or there is a risk of a huge gap between midfield and defence opening up and the team being exposed, especially on the break.
You said before that a reactive team choosing to limit the space the opposition has in their half will stand off usually in two banks of 4. You said this was particularly so if their opposition is with a 3 man midfield. Can you explain this a bit further?
The explanation is simple. If your opposition has a midfield advantage (3-v-2 for example), you wouldn’t want to go and press them as you become an easy target to be outpassed via the space you will inevitably leave in behind. So in this scenario the only solution is to drop deep, stand-off them and try to squeeze the space for them. If you are a 4-4-2 team against a 4-3-3 team, this is done by having two deep-lying and compact banks of four.
Of course, you can choose to stand-off them even if you are matching them 3-v-3 in midfield, but in this scenario you could also have the choice to go on and press them as the risk of the opposition outpassing you is smaller. It’s when you have a numerical disadvantage through the middle when you probably must avoid pressing your opponents and instead drop into solid and compact banks.
Outnumbering the opposition in midfield allows one team to dominate, but surely, given the limited space a point comes where ‘more is less’ because the midfield will become congested and reduce the available space to work in.
If you are outnumbering them there is a small (almost non-existent) chance of such over-crowding happening. This is simply because you will have the numerical advantage, so you are in position to simply pass the ball in triangles and bypass their midfield. From then you will have the space to proceed forward and hurt them.
The only scenario when such potential over-crowding could happen is if you are playing a 3-5-1-1 shape and the opposition has a three-man midfield. As you can see, in this scenario the midfield battle is 4-v-3 in your favour, so even with the numerical advantage the centre of the pitch would be crowded so you will have less of a chance to use that advantage in order to bypass the midfield and create attacks as smoothly as if the battle was 3-v-2 in your favour. That’s why you would need your wing-backs to actively push forward and provide the width (but this carries a big risk as, having only one player on each flank – your wing-backs – your opponent then has a 2-v-1 advantage down the flanks and could easily exploit the space left by your wing-backs pushing forward).
The worst case is when a 3-5-1-1 team faces a 4-3-2-1 team as this is going to create a very dull midfield battle with the latter team having a 5-v-4 midfield advantage and both teams having 1-v-1 on the flanks. This is the scenario when the ‘over-crowding’ you are talking about could easily happen. Then it’s a matter of whose midfield unit will provide more diversity in terms of roles and movement.
Is it possible to be outnumbered in midfield and not be dominated? Presumably the reactive team does this by retreating, surrendering the ‘Warm’ zone in the middle of the pitch and largely by-passing it entirely with long passes over the midfield into the ‘Hot’ zone.
Yes, precisely. You might deliberately set up to concede possession (hence the midfield battle) and soak up the pressure in order to invite the opposition deep into your half, and then hit them on the break. They will dominate you through the middle but this doesn’t mean you are going to be dominated as a whole. It could be simply that your defensive shape, positioning and concentration is so good that they are simply hitting a brick wall every time they go near your defensive third. They could have all the possession and all the midfield dominance but it in the meantime they are not hurting you and it could be that you are the dominant force if your counter-attacks are working well too.
It is like a boxer blocking punches while waiting for the moment that they see a weakness and going for the knock-out punch. They appear to losing the battles, but they win the war.
Yes, something like that. The trick is to ensure “losing the battle” is not so big or you could risk losing too many battles meaning you are going to lose the war too. Meaning if you are too over-run in midfield and the opposition is completely outplaying you while your counter-attacking strategy is not quite working, you could easily find yourself behind in the score-line and your whole strategy will be unsuitable.
I’m just picturing another situation where both teams play with a high defensive line, and the game becomes compressed into a highly congested midfield battle.
In such a scenario the likely winner would be the one providing better width in order to stretch the opposition. Additionally it’ll be the team with the better, more balanced and cohesive strategy in regards to how exactly its midfielders are going to behave that will have the tactical advantage that in such an equal battle will prove to be the decisive factor.
TV commentators talk about ‘switching the play’ when a long pass is played from side to side. Is this a horizontal version of a mini-counter attack? If there’s congestion here then there must be a ‘chasm’ somewhere else, so quickly transferring the ball there and exploiting it before the crowd can get over there.
Yes, the term “horizontal counter-attack” is perfectly suited here. That’s why more and more we are talking about horizontal stretching too. In modern football this is mostly done by central players (‘false 9’ from higher up the pitch or the so called “central wingers” from between the lines) drifting wider, creating overloads down one channel in order to open up space on the blind-side for an overlapper to exploit the space down the other channel.
Are some formations inherently proactive and reactive? Or is it how the formation is used that ultimately determines the style of play?
If we are to concentrate solely on the numbers, 4-4-2 is one of the most attacking formation as it morphs into 4-2-4 or even 2-4-4 in attack. Next it’s the 4-3-3 which could go into 3-4-3 attacking mode – it’s one man down in terms of sending players forward as it has seven, compared to 4-4-2’s eight.
On the opposite side are formations like 4-5-1 and especially 5-4-1, which are typically reactive formations with their nine players behind the ball.
But as a whole it’s all about the players’ roles, their movement and general patterns of play that will determine whether one formation is reactive, proactive or something in between.
I’m guessing that by ‘in-between’ you mean the team can be mixing up their proactive and reactive approach within the game depending on different situations and circumstances?
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