When coaching build-up play, it’s important to give players alternative routes of progression. Every coach will have a preferred method of building attacks, but the opponent’s approach to defending will change from game to game, and even within games. It is therefore essential to implement a varied approach that accounts for the different challenges that opponents might present.
When it comes to adaptability in build-up play, former Real Betis head coach Quique Setien is one of the very best. His teams have a clear and recognizable general approach to building attacks. However, they are also well viced in changing tack when the conditions require them to. This article will discuss adaptability in the build-up phase, using Setien as the reference point throughout.
Fundamentally, Quique Setien is a progressive, positive coach. He prefers his teams to be the protagonist, and counts Johan Cruyff as his biggest inspiration. Throughout his career, he has shown an ability to find creative solutions to ensure his team’s collective offensive work can defeat more illustrious opponents. He never reverts to negative football, and isn’t shy in criticising those who do;
“Simeone’s Atlético play like he did. I told that to Cholo; I love what you do, the titles, what you have achieved… but I don’t like how your team plays.”
In November 2018, his Betis side defeated Barca at Camp Nou, scoring 4 goals in the process. After the game, Sergio Busquets gifted his shirt to Setien and wrote the message “To Quique with appreciation & admiration for your way of seeing football”. The image below shows a typical Real Betis line-up from that season. However, Setien isn’t married to one formation and has sometimes elected for back four systems.
The main approach that Setien’s side use to progress can be considered as primarily horizontal. The 1st and 2nd lines retain possession while moving the ball from one flank to the other. This stretches defences and should a gap appear between the lines, Betis will look to play through. If the midfield line opens up, the strategy is to play penetrative passes into the forwards, before combining centrally or feeding the advanced wings for a cross.
The video below highlights an occasion where this represented the appropriate strategy. With Celta Vigo lining up in a low-block, Betis can circulate possession seamlessly on the 1st and 2nd lines. Celta lack compactness, leaving gaps centrally to play through. Betis’ offensive midfielders receive in the ’10 space’ before supplying the advanced wings and moving into the box for a cross. Had the opponent’s defensive line been as poorly spaced as the midfield line, they would have looked to make the final breakthrough centrally. However, Celta’s back-line is narrow, meaning the space exists to exploit out wide.
A low-block with poor spacing in the midfield line is a luxury unlikely to be encountered too often. When building against teams who sit off, Betis’ typically look to shift the ball horizontally, moving their opponents defensive unit across each time. The defending team can’t move as quickly as the ball, meaning that space will eventually open up to progress down one side.
Depending on how the opponents respond to this progression, Betis either combine on the wing before crossing to the box, or feed the ten space via the wing-back. Often, neither channel will be particularly open by the time Betis get the ball there. However, they are adept at combining with one and two-touch sequences in tight spaces to find a way through the opponent pressure. Should there exist no opportunity to progress down the wing, they will look to make a quick switch to the open space on the far-side.
The 1st video below shows Betis patiently circulating possession, slightly more oriented to the left side of the pitch. They then make a quick switch to the less occupied space on the right side before playing down the line and crossing to the back post.
The 2nd video shows Betis building on the right side of the pitch, drawing the opponent’s defensive block over in the process. From here they play in tight spaces before switching to the underloaded side for the free man to arrive unmarked. (each of the next 3 videos were taken from this goals compilation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIep0TJPirc)
As with most advocates of the ‘Positional Play’ approach, Setien’s teams constantly attempt to achieve numerical advantages. First with the 3 defenders and the holding midfielder, and secondly with the wing-backs, the near-sided central midfielder,and the inside forward. If the opponents commit more men to apply pressure, a player further forward will usually drop deep to provide support and ensure that a free man always exists in the first phase of the attack. Their play when opponents stand off them normally involves more touches of the ball in order to draw pressure. However, one and two touch play forms a large part of their approach in tighter spaces or where opponent pressure exists.
Even without the adaptations we will see in the second part of this piece, Quique Setien’s general approach to build-up is versatile enough to cause problems to sides that sit off, no matter how diligent the opponent’s defensive strategies are. Below is a summary of the Spaniard’s build-up principles where high pressure doesn’t exist.
- Build with numerical superiority with the intention of pinning opposition back in their half and creating the ideal positional lay-out with width & depth.
- Shift possession horizontally to move opposition defensive block from side to side, before progressing down one flank when sufficient space opens up to do so. From here, combine to create a crossing opportunity, or feed the ten space using a link pass via the wing-back.
- If a gaps open up to penetrate centrally, feed the attackers positioned between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line. From here, either combine to break through centrally, or feed the wings for a cross.
- Where opponents are compact and organised in shifting their block, build the play on one side before switching quickly to the far side to exploit the open space/free player.
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, every team should have alternative routes for progression. A one-dimensional approach can be stifled quickly by well-organised opponents, and having different strategies in place to overcome these challenges is therefore an essential part of any comprehensive tactical design.
As we’ve seen, when the opposition sits off, Betis can go about implementing their horizontal-based approach. Moving the ball from side to side, trying to create the conditions to exploit the wide areas. However, the opposition doesn’t always sit off. Often, teams will try to nullify Setien’s preferred approach by pressing or marking high up the pitch during Betis’ build-up. This makes it difficult for them to implement their short passing game, and so they must find other ways to progress. What makes Quique Setien such a special coach, and the ideal case study for this article, is the invention and problem-solving capabilities his teams show in progressing out of the first phase of an attack.
The first video below shows Setien’s side returning to the goalkeeper due to limited options of progression via the channels. The opponents attempted to congest the spaces across the line in front of Betis’ back three, in order to block off the passing lanes they would normally look to play through. In response to this defensive scheme, Betis retreat further to draw the opponents out of space. Once this has been achieved, the goalkeeper plays a lofted pass over the pressure and into the pocket behind them.
The second video shows a progression of this tactic. Instead of playing through the midfield or down the sides, Betis will sometimes bypass these areas by taking an aerial route to the attack. The midfielders can then look to win the 2nd ball on the other side, allowing them to recover possession facing the play before combining centrally or feeding the wing-backs. The idea of ‘playing long and getting in behind it’ is not new. However, the way Betis manipulate the positional landscape in order to create pockets of space and have numbers ready to recover the second ball, means the frequency at which they can actually profit from the method of playing over pressure is high.
So far, we have outlined the basics of Quique Setien’s dual approach. We’ve seen how they try to find routes for progression using horizontal play, and how place more emphasis on vertical play to progress under more pressurised conditions.
However, having a plan A and a plan B is often not enough. It’s important to give players the tools to solve problems within these two plans. There are so many obstacles that the opponent can present in a given situation. Setien coaches his team on how to overcome these issues to ensure that they can always find a way through.
When opponents deploy marking schemes against Betis’ build up, It becomes difficult to create the free man who can progress the play. One way that Setien’s players attempt to lose their markers is by exploiting the benefits of rotations. Rotations have the potential to disorganise and disorientate opponents, creating dilemmas that often result in a player on the attacking team becoming free. The video below shows an example of rotations in an attempt to open up closed-off passing lanes. Two Celta players focus on blocking off passes into pivot midfielder William Carvalho, while the third player tries to prevent easy circulation across the back-line.
Recognising the problem at hand, centre-back Barta returns the ball to the goalkeeper before moving into the midfield. Having engaged the marking of a Celta player, he receives possession again before quickly returning it to the back-line. This first act opens the horizontal passing lane from Sidnei to Mandi. As the ball travels between those two, Bartra moves back into the first line, again dragging a marker with him. As a result of these movements, the forward passing lane between Mandi and Carvalho opens up.
One of the more simple ways in which Setien’s team evade marking/pressing during build-up involves the use of wall passes. Wall passes are perhaps more common further up field in attempts to find attackers between the lines behind cover shadows. However, they can also have benefits in escaping pressure during the 1st progression.
The opponents in the clip below cut off the goalkeepers passing lane to the central player in Betis’ back three, while also retaining access to his surrounding teammates. To overcome this challenge, the holding midfielder drops short quickly to provide a lay-off/wall pass to the side. His marker follows him, allowing the 3rd man in the sequence to receive facing the play, and with space to carry the ball into.
The final way in which Setien’s teams show adaptability, invention and tactical intelligence in the first phase of an attack includes the use of ball-carrying defenders. Despite only playing with 3 in the back line, Betis’ defenders are given license to recognise space and move into it when short passing options are shut off. They regularly step into midfield to drive the play forward, drawing central pressure from the opponents and creating space out wide in the process.
While Betis prefer to build out with the intention of pinning the opponent’s back and breaking them down with horizontal circulation, they aren’t always afforded this opportunity. However, Setien’s teams are coached with invention and adaptability in mind, and so can still progress effectively out of the first phase in spite of varying conditions. The list below helps to summarise his methods for building against pressure or high marking schemes.
- Goalkeeper bypasses pressure with lofted passes. Attacking players well positioned to win 1st ball and knock downs. Exploit the space in opponent’s half with central combinations or feed arriving wide-men.
- Take advantage of opponent pressure by drawing them out to create space further forward, before exploiting with direct attacks.
- Initiate rotations to disorganise marking schemes and create a free man to progress the play, or open up a previously closed off passing lane.
- Task a player further forward with dropping deeper to offer lay-off/wall pass. 3rd man can receive facing the play and behind his marker/cover shadow.
- Ball-carrying defenders to progress from 1st phase when passing options limited. Draws pressure from opposing players, allowing ball-occupant to then release possession to a free player in space further forward.
While it’s important to have a clear strategy, remaining adaptable and being able to respond to changing circumstances within games is equally crucial. Teams that are rigid and one-dimensional are often relatively easy to stifle. Players should be coached on how to solve problems and overcome hurdles throughout games.
Quique Setien is perhaps the master at adaptability in build-up play and his teams always show intelligence in finding alternative routes of progression. Executing the first phase is arguably the most important aspect of any tactical design, and coaches looking to learn more about this area would be wise to continue watching Setien’s teams.
At 60, he’s not exactly a hot prospect, but there’s still time for him to manage a Champions League side before he retires. There have been rumours about a possible move to Barcelona in the near future, and there’s little doubt that fans of the Blaugrana would enjoy watching the thoughtful, positive style of play he’d bring with him.