“Positionally, he seems like a veteran with or without the ball. With the ball he makes what is difficult look easy: he disposes of the ball with one or two touches. Without the ball, he gives us a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball.”
When Johan Cruyff was appointed Barcelona manager in 1988, Pep Guardiola was lining up on the right-side of midfield for one of the club’s youth sides. While watching one of his games, Cruyff felt the youngster would do better in the pivot role and asked coach Charly Rexach to move him there for the second half. Guardiola quickly began excelling at the base of Rexach’s midfield and just 2 years later, Cruyff made him a central part of his legendary ‘Dream Team’.
Guardiola has continually referred to Cruyff as an idol and his main source of inspiration as a coach. It therefore came as no surprise when he pulled off a similar trick upon being put in charge of the first team himself in 2008. Keen to restore Cruyff’s philosophy at the Camp Nou, Pep took Sergio Busquets with him from the B team to form a midfield triumvirate with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. ‘Busi’ would soon become recognised as the best pivot of his era as Barca conquered all before them.
A decade later, Busquets is still regarded by most as the reference point for the position. A master of time and space, his legacy as a player will likely be even stronger than that of his mentor. His importance to arguably the greatest club side of all-time will never be in doubt and with hopefully a few more years still to give, we should appreciate his genius while we can.
This article will explore ‘El Pivote’ and provide coaches and players with practical tips on how to succeed in the role. I will first detail the technical tools needed, followed by the fundamental tactical components, before showing how a player can add layers to their game and become a master of the role. I will finish by speaking about the position’s recent evolution, as well as shining a light on the next generation of holding midfielders.
If a player doesn’t have the technical base to carry out actions, all the tactical knowledge in the world becomes almost entirely useless. Before progressing to the core tactical responsibilities, players must hone their technical skills relative to the position.
In teams that look to build from the back, the holding midfielder will need to receive from his central defenders or goalkeeper on a regular basis throughout the game. Therefore, he will need to be adept at taking possession of the ball while facing away from the play. Before receiving, the best players will scan their surroundings, taking note of the positioning of both their opponents and teammates. This way, they can make decisions on what to do with the ball before they have it.
They will ensure that they receive possession with as much time and space as possible and the potential to progress the play further in one or two touches. The likes of Frank Lampard, Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas are great proponents of scanning, and it’s use is important in all positions. Specifically relating to receiving the ball in the holding role, the clip below shows Busquets scanning, allowing him to decide on his next action ahead of time.
After a player has scanned the space and positional landscape around him, putting himself in the line of pass, his next action will be to receive the ball from his teammate. If, as mentioned previously, the holding player receives while coming towards the ball, his receiving angle and touch will need to be appropriate. On occasions when the player has engineered time and space to turn into the play, he can make things quicker and easier for himself by receiving on the ‘half-turn’. This allows him to face the play fully with a 180 degree turn, as opposed to having to rotate the full 360 degrees. The opponents will have less time to pressure him and he can progress the play by driving forward or making a pass.
Further to receiving on the half-turn, a player should also look to take the ball on his back foot. In other words, if the player is facing half towards his own goal and half towards the opponent’s goal, his first touch should be taken with the foot closer to the opponents goal. This allows for a more seemless transition to facing the play and keeps the momentum of the ball moving forward. Where opposition pressure is arriving, the player should also look to take a ‘directional touch’ away from the opponent. Even if there is no pressure, a directional touch into the space you’d like to move into is beneficial in speeding up the play.
Now that the holding player has the ball facing the play, he must be capable of carrying out a variety of passing actions. His short passing and long passing need accuracy, as well as the appropriate weight. He must be capable of making precise ground passes, as well as lofted passes. Achieving this is a matter of conscious repetition. Lofted passes can bypass defenders when the passing lanes are too narrow. Meanwhile ‘zipped’ passes along the ground should be used when opponent pressure would be able to cut out a slower pass.
To make it easier for a teammate to apply the same receiving and first-touch principles mentioned earlier, the pass should also be played to the their backfoot when they’re taking the ball on the half-turn, and in front of them when they’re coming onto the play.
Often, it won’t be as easy as receiving the ball and moving the play forward unopposed. Opponents will regularly put the holding player under pressure, either before he receives the ball or upon receiving it. Therefore, he needs to be resistant to pressure by ensuring he stays on his toes and has quick feet in possession. Players who can bypass pressure from the holding role by taking an oncoming opponent out of the game with a dribble or a trick have an extra dimension to their game. Busquets is a master at evading pressure and continuing progression of the play.
The ultimate aim on an individual and collective level should be to move the ball towards goal in an effective manner. Therefore, the holding midfield players’ main responsibility is to pass forward where possible. Generally speaking, a team will have defensive lines out of possession. It is the role of the pivot to break these lines in order to move the ball onto his more offensive teammates. It might sound simple, but opponents will apply pressure to the holding player when he’s on the ball, while if they sit-off him, their spacing is sometimes too narrow to play through initially. In the next section, I’ll discuss different ways of getting around these issues.
Another important role of the pivot is to switch the point of the attack when the play becomes congested on one side. Whether through their own design or due to the natural flow of play, teams will regularly find themselves building the play heavily on one side. The team will shift over accordingly to ensure that lots of passing options exist. The defending team will normally respond by moving across with them, leaving one side of the pitch ‘underloaded’. Provided there is an outlet, like a progressing fullback or a withdrawn winger, the holding player can receive the ball at the base of the crowd before switching the play to the free man on the far side.
The third critical responsibility of the holding player is to recover possession and get his team back on the attack quickly following an opposition turnover. A players reading of the game and positioning is crucial in this area and he can’t switch off just because the play is ahead of him. When the ball is in the attacking third, the holding player should hover behind the play, ready to recover possession in the event that his team surrender it. Players like Busquets and Julian Weigl are masters at positioning themselves ‘behind the scenes’. The action is often referred to as ‘ring-fencing’ and also relates to the collective.
In terms of carrying out the basic tactical responsibilities of the holding role, Weigl is one of the best. After a promising start to life at Borussia Dortmund, injuries and a loss of form have seen his career stagnate somewhat. However, his exceptional talent and expert understanding of his position should lead to a resurgence over the next couple of years. The video below outlines the fundamental basics in tactical responsibility needed to play the pivot role effectively.
The best holding midfielders will also have a good understanding of Numerical Superiority as a principle, and won’t engage in a phase of play where they are not needed. For example, If his team builds out from the back and the opponents don’t apply any pressure on the Central Defenders and Goalkeeper, he can position himself in the midfield and allow the defenders to take the ball out by themselves. Conversely, if the 2 defenders and goalkeeper are being pressured by 2 attackers, he needs to come short and help them escape the first line of pressure. This is known as ‘Salida Lavolpiana’. Providing the team with constant numerical advantages in the first and second line is an essential part of the holding role. Further to this idea, he must also provide possessional support to the wide areas with link passes, one-two’s and triangulation to ensure retention and progression.
In general, the holding player should have the greatest overall understanding of the game on the tactical level. Often referred to as the brain of the team, he must be capable of dictating the speed and direction of the play, as well as organising the positional play of his teammates in accordance with a given situation. He should know where to drop in, how many players are needed to achieve superiority in a certain phase, and whether or not the team should look to build patiently up the pitch, or progress quickly with one and two touch play/long passes. Jorginho is the organiser in Maurizio Sarri’s systems in the same way that Busquets is for Barcelona.
Mastering the Role
Most teams recognise the effect that a quality pivot can have on a game and as I mentioned earlier, they will often try to nullify their influence with heavy pressure, marking, cover shadows, or narrow spacing. Knowing how to retain influence in spite of these factors is what makes the likes of Jorginho and Busquets so great.
In terms of dealing with the issue of pressure, the holding player needs to be press-resistant. Teams will sometimes allow the holder to receive possession before applying lots of pressure to force a mistake. As we saw with the Busquets signature move previously, having a trick to manoeuvre out of a tight situation with ball at your feet is an important tool.
When opponents choose to mark the holder in an attempt to prevent him from receiving the ball altogether, he needs to be able to use his intelligence to shift his opponent away from the space. One way of doing this is known as a ‘double movement’, and the video clip below shows Weigl utilising it to create more space for himself. Notice how he moves one way, urging the opponent to adjust accordingly, before returning to his previous position to receive unopposed. The German youngster also makes use of the ‘return pass’ effect.
If the holder already has the ball and is looking to feed a player on the next line of the attack but can’t because of the positioning of an opponent, he can use a ‘return pass’ to free up the passing lane or to simply free himself from a marker. If he moves the ball onto a teammate either side of him, the opponent is likely to shift his positioning in accordance with the ball. The passing lane/space to receive should therefore now be open provided his teammate returns the ball to him quickly enough.
When the opposition try to block off passes to the holding midfielder using cover shadows, he can make use of wall-passes. The video below shows Jorginho being shut off from the first phase of build-up by cover-shadowing attackers. He instructs his defender to make a longer pass to the striker who drops to support. The striker then lays the ball off to Jorginho who can now receive facing the play.
On occasions where the opponents press the first phase of an attack, the holding player should know to instigate a quick progression to ensure the ball is more difficult to dispossess. Furthermore, it will allow his team to take immediate advantage of the space that has been vacated further forward. When opponents choose to sit off and remain compact, however, the holding player needs to apply the principles of ‘La Pausa’ to create space that isn’t initially there. By halting progression of the play and circulating the ball in front of the opponents 1st line of defence, teams like Barcelona will often look to draw pressure before playing through.
Simply shifting the ball quickly from side to side as opposed to playing forward can lead to gaps opening up to play through. Further to this, literally standing still on the ball, hoping that the opponent will eventually give in to the urge to press, can create space behind the presser for a teammate to take advantage of.
In general, the principle of ‘La Pausa’ is to wait for the positional landscape to change, both of your team and the opposition, before progressing the play. Sometimes teammates will need additional time to find the ideal position to receive and it’s crucial that the holding player knows how to halt the play momentarily before progression can take place. Playing forward quickly isn’t always appropriate or possible. Manipulating the conditions before executing the progression is often the best option.
Principally, the pivot must understand how to patiently move the opponents when they are deep and compact, and to play through them quickly when they are not.
Another essential tool for a master of the holding role is known as ‘False Implications’. The concept takes advantage of the moment between implied action and action. In an attempt to second-guess the attacking team, defending players will regularly respond to an implication. For example, if a player has the ball and shapes to pass it wide, a defender might move towards that side in order to be better prepared to deal with it by the time the action is carried out. The player with the ball can take advantage of this by mismatching his implied action and his action with a pass in a different direction. This can be used to free up players and open up previously closed passing lanes. Once again, Sergio Busquets is the master and can be seen using the tactic in almost every game. This is also why it’s important to teach defending players to travel while the ball is traveling, rather than before it travels. The video below shows Busquets’ famous reverse pass.
Evolution & Next Generation
When we think of the best holding midfielders of the last decade, we tend to view the role as being quite static. The ‘sitting’ player will move with the play but generally remains in the space between his defence and midfield. The next generation, however, are showing clear signs that an evolution of the holding role is taking place. Recognising the benefits of having a holding midfielder who can carry the ball into the attack as well as passing it there, players like Frenkie De Jong are being given more license to drive forward.
It remains likely that the holding player in a team will spend most of the game at the base of the midfield, using his passing qualities to progress the play. However, having the capacity to drive forward with the ball, drawing pressure from opponents and opening up space elsewhere for teammates, can make the holding player even more valuable. To account for the fact that he has vacated the pivot space, a full-back can move infield or an offensive midfielder can drop back.
If this evolution does continue, perhaps we should look at re-terming the position. If they become universally more dynamic, the term ‘holding’ won’t really be applicable anymore. Considering their organisational role in and out of possession, the title of ‘organising midfielder’ might be more appropriate in the future. Using the term ‘pivot’ would remain an accurate representation of the role.
The video below shows De Jong displaying the ability to leave the base of the midfield with the ball. Other possible reference points for the position after Busquets include Lucas Torreira at Arsenal and Brescia’s Sandro Tonali.