A key part of Pep Guardiola’s philosophy, this article will explore the range of methods through which a ‘free man’ can be created in the attacking phases.
The benefits of having an unmarked player in each stage of possession are clear, with retention and progression of the play becoming far more seamless. However, achieving it isn’t always straightforward. The opponents will sometimes go man-for-man in build-up, or conversely, defend deep with large numbers. In these scenarios, intelligent solutions are required to ensure the free man is still created.
This piece will discuss the basic principle of creating the free man, as well as some of the more creative ways to achieve the effect.
The most simplistic way to create the free man is to instil the principle of achieving numerical superiority in each phase of build-up. By telling players to scan their own team’s positonal lay-outs and that of the opponents at all times, they can identify the numbers required to overload a certain area of the field.
For example, if the defending team have two centre forwards up against the attacking team’s two centre-backs, an additional player should drop deep for the side in possession. This creates a 3v2, with further support coming from the goalkeeper. Similarly, if the defending team press with three against the attacking team’s centre-backs and pivot, the solution might be to have another midfielder drop in to form a double pivot, creating a 4v3 scenario.
Having the spare man to pass to is perhaps most crucial in the first phase, as outlined by Dani Fernandez below;
“It is fundamental that the superiorities are built from behind, from the first line. Therefore, a fundamental principle of (Guardiola’s) idea of the game is that the ball comes out clean from the defence”
As the team moves up the pitch, the objective of creating overloads tends to become more challenging. However, intelligent positional play can force the opponents into choosing between two evils, leaving one of the options open to receive.
Imagine both teams play with three in the centre of midfield; to create numerical superiority in this area of the pitch, the attacking team’s centre forward decides to drop off the front line to form a diamond in the centre. The defending team’s centre-backs must now make a decision; do we let him go, resigning ourselves to inferiority in the midfield and allowing the centre-forward to receive between the lines. Or, should one of us follow him? Either leaving a gap in the back-line, or at the very least forcing us to narrow into a compact back three, leaving more space out wide.
It’s essentially a lose-lose scenario, created by one simple movement. The free man will either be the centre-forward himself, or one of the wingers who will have space to receive if his opposing fullback is forced to tuck in. Lionel Messi, especially during the Guardiola era, regularly played this ‘false 9’ role.
As we have seen with his Bayern Munich and Manchester City teams, Pep doesn’t always rely on the striker to create the central overload. Often, the fullbacks are tasked with moving infield, once again presenting the opponents with a problem they rarely manage to solve.
If the fullback’s opposing winger decides to follow him infield, he allows a clear one v one situation to open up out wide between the attacking team’s winger and the defending team’s fullback. While if he decides to hold his place out wide, he allows his opposing fullback to become the free man in midfield. Creating these kinds of dilemmas is a key way to achieve numerical advantages in different areas of the attack.
In the final third, creating an overload becomes difficult. Most defending teams will look to achieve deep overloads without the ball to ensure spare men exist as cover throughout the defensive phase. With this in mind, attacking transitions, as opposed to established attacks, often represent a better opportunity to achieve a numerical advantage high up the pitch.
When the opponents commit numbers forward in the attack, they risk being exploited on the break. If the counter-attacking team pushes themselves in transition, they can occasionally succeed in getting more players forward than the defending team can get back. The example below shows Gerard Pique breaking forward on the counter, becoming the untracked free man at the end of the move.
The next example shows Derby County creating a two v one in the final third following a defensive set-piece. As we’ve seen a number of teams do recently, Frank Lampard’s side defends the corner with all 11 players. Their opponent’s take the bait, pushing more men into the box. As soon as Derby recover the ball, they break away at speed, and with the defending team unable to match their pace, a numerical advantage is achieved in the attack.
Although Guardiola’s teams typically look to achieve superiority in numbers during the first phase of an attack, they will occasionally be robbed of that opportunity by an opponent that deploys a man-to-man marking scheme. While this presents a challenge in terms of progressing on the ground, it does offer up great rewards should that challenge be overcome.
In the example below, Swansea mark man-for-man against Man City’s build-up. Confident in their individual superiority, City continue to pass out from the back, drawing more and more pressure from their hosts in the process. Ultimately, they have enough quality to pass through the press, and Fabian Delph loses his marker to break into the final third with the ball. This creates a 4v3 in the attack, but Pep’s team are unable to capitalise on this occasion.
Overall, having as a principle the idea that ‘we must create overloads throughout the pitch’ can be of great benefit when it comes to progressing the play and retaining possession. However, it isn’t always easy to achieve, and players must understand how the different defensive strategies imposed on them can be exploited.
Exploiting defender’s ball orientated nature
One of the fundamental principles of Guardiola’s philosophy involves finding the ‘third man’. Xavi Hernandez spoke about the importance of this concept;
“What we need are players that understand our essence, the concept of the third man, the pass that creates superiority.”
Given defender’s tendency to focus most of their attention on the ball-occupant and the player who appears likely to receive next, a third attacking player can take advantage by thinking one step ahead.
The examples below highlight this effect. In each instance, the first player on the ball makes a forward pass, with the receiver pressured by multiple defenders. A third attacker has made his run as the first pass is played, with the intention of receiving from the second man. As mentioned previously, the defenders are focused on the first and second attackers, leaving the third man in the sequence to receive unmarked.
The third man effect can also be achieved by disguising intentions. Defenders will often respond to implied actions in order to be better prepared for the subsequent action. However, an attacker’s implied action doesn’t always match up with the action that follows.
The master of disguised passing, Sergio Busquets regularly expresses intentions to pass the ball in one direction, waiting for the defenders to prepare accordingly before playing a reverse ball in a different direction.
The example below perfectly illustrates this. Looking towards the right wing, Busquets shapes as though he wishes to pass to Pedro. Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso prepares by moving towards the right, as well as ushering his teammates to do the same. As a result of this, a previously closed-off passing lane has now opened up towards Messi between the lines. Busquets mismatches his implied action with a converse action, playing the reverse pass towards his Argentinian teammate instead.
The use of ‘false implications’ or disguised intentions can also be used on a more collective level, again to exploit the defending team’s natural tendency to focus the largest part of their attention on the location of the ball.
One way we see this tendency capitilised upon is when an attacking team builds the play on one side of the pitch, before shifting the ball across to the other side for the final part of the move. Guardiola has spoken many times about this principles, often comparing it to other team sports.
“Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other.”
– Pep Guardiola
The main reason this is so effective is because defending teams will normally look to prioritise closing out the space surrounding the ball. In doing so, they sacrifice space elsewhere, and if the attacking team are able to retain possession and play through tight spaces on the congested side of pitch, their exists the opportunity to exploit the open space on the far side.
The clip below illustrates this effect. With Ajax overloading the right side of the field, the opponents look to maintain compaction surrounding the ball by shifting their defensive block across. After successfully playing through the overloaded side, the attacking team moves the play across to the underloaded side to find the free man in space. The free man in this case, Donny van de Beek, also takes advantage of the ‘blind-side’ effect, something that will be discussed in the next section of this article.
In both cases, the free man is the far-sided fullback. Their markers, typically the defending team’s wide-midfielders, have moved infield in order to allow the remaining midfielders to close out the space on the other flank.
Earlier in this piece, we saw Manchester City achieve numerical superiority in the final third as a result of individual superiority in build-up. Swansea went man-for-man with the intention of preventing City from progression through the ‘free man’. However, the away side’s quality was enough to bypass the pressure, leading to a 4v3 in the attack.
Players adept at dribbling and ‘outplaying’ defenders with the ball can also be used to achieve numerical superiority as a direct consequence of their induvial superiority. Again exploiting defender’s natural tendency to focus mostly on the immediate threat, a dribbling attacker will often attract multiple defenders towards the ball, leaving teammates free elsewhere.
The example below highlights this effect. Ousmane Dembele drives forward on the break, drawing the attention of multiple defenders in the process. Christian Pulisic recognises the opportunity to take advantage by making an overlapping run to receive untracked through on goal.
In the instance above, the attacking team had an obvious numerical disadvantage. However, it is clear that these scenarios can be manipulated by adding a dribbler to the move, drawing defenders away from their markers and creating a free man in the attack.
All the examples in this section show how defending team’s natural tendency to focus on the immediate threats (the ball, the first man, and the second man) can be exploited with simple manipulation.
Another way in which Guardiola’s teams look to create the free man in the attack involves the idea of arriving in space, as opposed to standing in it. Growing up, many of us were taught to look for space off the ball, before moving into it and calling for the teammate in possession to pass the ball to us.
However, making late runs into space can be more beneficial. If a player stands in space waiting for the ball to come, he gives the defenders time to get tight and close out this space. If a player instead identifies the space and only moves into it at the last moment before receiving, he should have just enough time to complete the next action before the defender can react and close him down.
Further to this, if attacking players join up with their teammates in building the play, rather than just ‘waiting up front’, they can achieve the numerical superiorities in the centre that we discussed earlier. Pep has often spoken about the concept of arriving in the final third.
“Everyone is allowed to arrive in the box, but none are allowed to stand in it.”
This idea can be implemented throughout the play. The holding midfielder can vacate the pivot space, leaving it open to drop into and receive at the last second. Equally, the centre-forward could drop off the front until the winger is ready to deliver a cross, before arriving in the box at the last moment to score. The concept of arriving should simply make it more difficult for defenders to mark their men, and should create more time for the attacker to execute an action.
Fabregas and Xavi were great exponents of the concept during their careers at Barcelona. The clip below shows the former making a late run from deep in behind the opponent’s defensive line. His burst forward goes untracked and he can receive in the box as the free man.
While the example above highlights the use of midfield runners in central areas, this tactic can also be exploited on the outside of the opposition’s defensive line. Again by building the play on one side with the intention of finishing on the other, Barcelona often task the ball-far central midfielder with making the overlapping run on the ‘blind-side’.
With the defenders maintaining horizontal compaction as they shift across to close out one flank, the space opens up on the far-side for a player to arrive as the free man. In both intances shown below, the opponent’s right-back is forced further infield by the left-winger, allowing space for the overlap to take place. Additionally, the overlapping player can make his move out of the defender’s line of vision, making it even more difficult for him to pass off his marker to a centre-back and get out to cover the outside.
In the example we saw earlier, Ajax fullback Joel Veltman was given the task of becoming the free man following the switch of play. However, in these examples, the fullbacks have stayed back, lulling the opponents into a false sense of security. An overlapping run from the central midfielder is more difficult to predict, with Iniesta and Fabregas both arriving on the blind-side as free men.
Arriving late in the opponent’s box has been a strategy used throughout football’s history. Arriving into space during the first phase of build-up, however, has been less common. The principles remain the same; moving into space instead of standing there can give the receiver more time to make the next move.
Holstein Kiel, managed by Tim Walter, are one of the most innovative teams in European football when it comes to build-up play. As we will see in the next section, they often make use of rotations to increase the receivers time on the ball. Another clever strategy they use to acheive this involves emptying the pivot space.
Instead of always having a designated pivot player to link the play between defence and attack, Kiel will sometimes leave this space open. The intention is for one of the centre-backs to arrive late into the midfield before receiving from the goalkeeper.
As shown by the GIF above, the defender moves into the pivot space at the last moment before receiving off his keeper. While a static pivot player would have likely been marked closely and with his back to the play, the centre-back can move onto the play with more time and space to make the next pass.
As mentioned previously, the opponent’s defensive strategy will often make it difficult to create the free man simply by way of an overload. Often, the defending team will man-mark, and in order for an attacking player to become free in these instances, creative solutions may be required.
Much like Man City achieved against Swansea, individual superiority can often overcome the challenge of man-marking. While a defending team’s natural tendency to commit multiple players to stopping a dribbler can also lead to another attacker becoming free.
Aside from these methods, rotations can also aid the process of creating the free man by having a disorganising effect on the opponent’s marking scheme. A well-known feature of Man City’s positional play, the fullback, winger, and attacking midfielder on both flanks can rotate with each other at any point in the attacking phase.
City’s rotations aren’t limited to the wings, however. Often, playmakers Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva will be followed closely by opposing midfielders, making it difficult for them to receive in central areas. By swapping positions with a teammate, they look to confuse their markers in the hope that more time and space can be created to receive.
The GIF below illustrates this. De Bruyne is marked by Newcastle’s right-sided midfielder Josh Murphy, while Gabriel Jesus is shut off from receiving between the lines by Mo Diame. De Bruyne moves onto the last line of the attack as City move the ball out to the wing. Murphy chooses not to follow his man, instead going out to press the fullback on the ball.
Jesus drops into De Bruyne’s initial spot, followed closely by Diame. The two City players then revert to their original positions. Diame half follows Jesus until De Bruyne receives with time and space, at which point he leaves Jesus go before moving towards the Belgian international. De Bruyne has enough time and space to pick out a lofted through ball, while Jesus is free to receive the pass in behind. Creating confusion in the minds of defenders is key to opening up time and space for receivers.
(GIF courtesy of @11v11Sam)
Many coaches in the modern game make use of rotations. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, and Quique Setien’s Real Betis are great proponents of this tactic, and their sides can be seen exploiting the effects in all phases of the attack. Leeds wide rotations are a crucial part of Bielsa’s system, consistently helping to create openings down the sides.
Setien’s team also apply rotations in wide areas, but perhaps more notably use them to create the free man during the first phase of build-up. Undoubtedly the most interesting team with regards to rotations in build-up play are Tim Walter’s Holstein Kiel.
As we saw previously, Kiel will sometimes leave the pivot space open for a centre-back to move into at the last moment before receiving. Their invention in the first phase doesn’t stop there, however. Sometimes, they can be seen engaging in up to four seperate rotations in the same build-up sequence.
The GIF below shows an example of this. The opponent’s marking scheme is such that none of the keeper’s short-passing options represent true potential for progressing the play. In order to increase the time on the ball for each receiver, the Kiel players engage in a series of rotations.
On this ocassion, the attempt isn’t quite succesful. However, it is an extreme example of using rotations in build-up to create time and space for a free man to progress the play. Against less focused and diligent opponent’s, at least one of the rotations would have likely created the opportunity to progress the play.
Overall, it is clear that rotations can be used to create the free man in each attacking zone. Confusion over who to mark, and a general disorientating effect can create moments of seperation between attackers and defenders, giving the former just enough time and space to progress with the ball.
To conclude, the benefits of having a free man in the attack, unmarked or untracked by defending players, can be enjoyed in a number of ways. False implications can be used to shift defenders out of passing lanes and break cover shadows to find a free man between the lines. Equally, simple third man runs can take advantage of defender’s tendency to focus on the first and second attacking player.