Particularly since the turn of the century, football has been increasingly the subject of a scientific approach. Many people argue that football is a simple game made complicated by idiots, but is it really that simple?
In reality, it can be quite chaotic and complex. The aim of studying the game in great detail is to gain a deep understanding of why things happen, and how they could perhaps be done better. Being curious and relentless in your pursuit of knowledge definitely doesn’t make you an idiot. Provided you can take the large amounts of information you’ve gathered and conceptualise it, you can give players a depth of understanding in a digestible form. Furthermore, your systems and concepts can bring structure and clarity to the chaos.
The search for definitive answers can, however, come at a cost. Many coaches become rigid and fixed in their application of knowledge. As mentioned, it’s important to conceptualize and categorise the information so as not to overload players mentally, but it’s equally important that these concepts and principles aren’t restrictive.
An example of restrictive instruction is when coaches tell their players to ‘always keep the ball on the floor’. Other examples include; ‘always play one or two touch’, ‘always play it short’, ‘always pass forward’, ‘always move the ball quickly’. But these aren’t always the best option. Surely we should help players find the best options in a variety of situations, rather than telling them what is universally the ‘right’ way to do things. When coaching is rigid, players often forget logic. Everything in football is situational, and there are no definitive, all-encompassing answers.
If players are given rigid or overly-restrictive instructions, they are bound to malfunction in a situation that requires another solution. A robot can only do what it has been programmed to do. Coaching needs to involve the development of player’s own decision-making abilities. This way, they can remain adaptable and versatile, and avoid becoming robots. As mentioned, your systems and concepts are essential, but they need to incorporate an element of adaptability to account for different scenarios.The more versatile the information you give your players is, the more adaptable they will be. The more rigid your instructions are, the more limited they will be.
The modern game will ask them to be adaptable. Football appears to be moving away from fixed answers and rigid methods in search of a more balanced approach. The future is fluid and dynamic and coaching must follow this trend.
Perhaps the most important responsibility of the pivot player, at least in a possession-based system, is to break opponent lines. Sergio Busquets is recognised as the master, using intelligent body shape and passing to create progressions into the attacking third. Often referred to as the ‘holding’ role, it is usually relatively static. Busquets rarely strays out of the space between his defenders and midfielders, providing a link between the two.
While the Spaniard is extremely effective with penetrative passing, there remains an element of one-dimensionality to his game. Breaking lines can be done with passing or dribbling, and aided with runs off the ball. Busquets only really contributes one of these. The onus is on his teammates to provide the other dimensions. It has worked just fine, but imagine the possibilities if he did have those other layers to his game.
This summer will see the arrival of Frenkie de Jong at the Camp Nou, signing a pre-contract agreement with Barca in January. The Dutchman is expected to play as an 8 initially, but is likely to eventually take over from Busquets at 6. Just 21, De Jong represents a more dynamic future for the pivot role. Not only can he break lines with excellent passing, he is also an incredible ball-carrier in central areas. He consistently bypasses defensive lines with the ball at his feet.
“Normally midfielders only pass the ball, but I can dribble as well.”
In the video below, De Jong dribbles through the centre, drawing pressure from opponents and leaving space elsewhere for teammates to receive. It’s possible that the space is vacated purposely at times for the youngster to carry the play forward. Either way, when a pass to the next line is not on, he still has the ability to progress. This multi-dimensional aspect of his game may become symbolic of the role over the coming years.
Since his Eredivisie debut, De Jong has the best dribble success rate in the league at 85%. Additionally, he has attempted more passes than anyone in Holland this season, completing 92% of them.
Taking the idea of exploiting all three line-breaking dimensions further, the emerging centre-back also appears to be increasingly dynamic. Ibrahim Konate and Dayot Upamecano at RB Leipzig can regularly be seen bypassing opponent lines using all three dimensions. Matthijs de Ligt at Ajax is another example of this trend.It seems more and more coaches are recognising the benefits of having players in every position who are of ‘ultimate value’ in possession.
If a central defender has the ball at the base of the attack, there will normally be three opponent lines to bypass before the team has a quality goalscoring opportunity. Broadly speaking, he can break those lines in three ways. Having players who can break each line in front of them using each dimension makes them of huge value to the team. If he can only break those lines through passing, for example, then he limits the chances of moving the play forward, and makes it easier for the defending team to prevent progression.
The video below highlights the aforementioned young centre-back’s ability to exploit each line-breaking dimension, as well as their capacity to break each of the three lines in front of them. In an ideal world, every player on the team would have the skill-set to break each line in front of them using each of the three dimensions. While for centre-backs this means having the capacity to break one, two, or three lines with passing, dribbling, or runs off the ball, strikers or wingers will likely only need to break one line using each of these methods. An example of a winger who provides ultimate value to his team is Raheem Sterling at Manchester City.
One way of pushing players to become more valuable with regards to progressing play is to encourage competition using a simple card like the one shown below. Because the objective is to get closer to the opponents goal and each line is usually increasingly difficult to bypass, the first line is worth 1 point, the second is worth two points, and the third is worth three points.
Equally, a value is placed on each dimension, so to run beyond a line and receive is worth one point, to pass beyond a line is worth two points, and to dribble beyond a line is worth three points. This is due to the fact that a run to receive also requires a pass in order to become valuable, a pass requires a run to receive to become valuable, while a dribble beyond a defensive line doesn’t necessarily require any interaction from a teammate using one of the other dimensions. Furthermore, dribbling tends to have the most disorganising effect on the opposition’s defensive shape.
By multiplying numbers on the right by numbers on the bottom, you create a player’s value to your team specifically in relation to progressing the play. For example, your central midfielder shows a consistent ability to break both of the defensive lines in front of him, using passing and runs without the ball. He doesn’t however, have the ability to dribble beyond lines. His line-breaking value is found by multiplying 1×2 and 1×3 for runs off the ball, and 2×2 and 2×3 for passes, a total that comes to 15. Meanwhile, a central defender like Konate or De Ligt who can break all three lines in front of him using each method, would achieve an ultimate value of 35.
You may notice that the front players max value in terms of progressing the play is 18, 17 short of the max value for centre-backs. However, it is a tall ask for centre-backs to consistently exploit all three lines using all three dimensions. Additionally, the value relates specifically to progressing play, as opposed to representing a player’s total value to the team. The attacking players are more likely to score goals and provide assists, the more glamorous aspects of the game. Applying a ‘progressing the play’ value evens the playing field in a sense, and encourages players to appreciate the process of building the attack, rather than solely valuing the final actions of an attack.
It’s a simple idea, based on the desire to push players to have as many dimensions to their game as possible. The more line-breaking dimensions and the higher the lines they can break, the more valuable that player is in progressing the play.
The role of goalkeeper also appears to be heading in the direction of increased dynamism. Ederson at Manchester City plays a significant role in Guardiola’s possession-focused approach, while Liverpool’s Alisson is equally comfortable with the ball at his feet. They are no longer separate from the team, instead an integral part of the attack as well as the defence.
Many goalkeepers have stated that they first put on the gloves due to their lack of technical skill when playing outfield. Nowadays, their distribution and close control need to be at a very high standard. It represents a huge shift. Gone are the days when goalkeepers would train together without any interaction with the rest of the team until the 11v11’s part of the session. Watching videos of Man City train, we can often see Ederson involved in ‘Rondos’ and other possession games.
While we’re unlikely to see goalkeepers rotate with outfield players during games anytime soon, some coaches do encourage their number 1’s to leave their area to engage in possession further up field. The video below shows Hamburg keeper Julian Pollersbeck playing a part in build-up outside his box. (Video courtesy of Joao Nuno Fonseca)
Further confirmation that the goalkeeper is being seen as an integral part of possession comes from an interview with PSG U19 head coach Thiago Motta. Speaking about his philosophy, the Champions League winner referred to his system as a 2-7-2 formation.
Furthermore, he stated that his goalkeeper was the first midfielder in his line-up. These comments lead to misheld assumptions that Motta was revolutionising the game and that keepers would soon join the midfield line.
With later clarification coming, however, it turned out that Motta was not speaking about formations the way that we have become accustomed to. While most coaches still refer to a 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1 etc, some will include the goalkeeper by calling their shape a 1-4-3-3, for example.
Motta has taken the idea of including the goalkeeper in his formation one step further. Instead of describing his set-up from bottom to top, like the vast majority of coaches, the former Italy international refers to his shape from a horizontal point of view. The graphic below illustrates this concept.
As you can see, he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. Many coaches line-ups will resemble the one above. The only real difference here is that Motta looks to define the shape by wing-centre-wing, as opposed to defence-midfield-attack.
The future of positions/roles could look something like this:
- Goalkeepers who are inextricably involved in possession, even leaving their box to engage higher up the field against mid to low blocks.
- Central defenders who possess the passing and dribbling abilities of the previous generation’s midfielders.
- Multi-dimensional central midfielders who all have the ability to break lines with passing, dribbling and off the ball runs.
Whether these emerging trends take hold of the game in a universal way remains to be seen. But there’s little doubt that the future of football will favour the dynamic.
Not only do the individual positions appear to be heading for increased dynamism, who occupies each position is also becoming less rigid.
There are many levels to the implementation of ‘rotations’. Some teams allow their midfield three to swap roles throughout games, while others allow the outside players to rotate. There are a number of ways to deploy rotations, and a number of benefits to the tactic.
Rotations can have a disorganising effect on the opposition by causing confusion over who should be marking who. When opponents fail to respond effectively, additional space and sometimes a free man can be created. Even if they are adept at responding to the rotations, it can disorientate them and lead to subsequent mistakes.
If the players that rotate have different qualities, defenders must constantly adjust to the changing technical challenge. A good example of this relates to Man City’s wide rotations. On both flanks, the fullback, attacking midfielder, and winger all have license to swap positions throughout the offensive phase. Mendy can invert into the deep half-space, with Sane on the touchline and Silva in the half-space between the lines. Alternatively, Mendy can occupy the wide berth, while Sane moves infield and Silva drops deep. The same idea applies to De Bruyne, Sterling, and Walker on the other side. Given the different technical and physical profiles of each player, the rotations force defenders to constantly adjust their approach.
Other teams will rotate their central midfielders, with one dropping into the pivot space, another between the lines, and one providing a link between the two. Even if each player has similar qualities, the dismarking and disorganising effects can still be enjoyed.
At the extreme end, teams focus on occupying key spaces throughout the pitch without much concern for who occupies these spaces. The clip below is taken from Spain’s fixture with Germany. The player in focus is Isco, who takes up positions on either flank and between the lines, all within a minute of action. The idea here is to have players on the first line, the last line, the touchlines, and between the lines.
In truth, Spain have the luxury of being able to apply these methods due to the versatile and dynamic nature of their players. It may not be possible for less adaptable squads, but there’s no reason why we can’t develop players to play in this type of game model from a young age. Perhaps we need to specialise less and focus more on developing adaptability, encouraging fluid movement and positioning. (Video courtesy of Rondos Futbol)
The key is to ensure important zones or spaces are occupied, and the appropriate width and depth are achieved. Who plays on the first line, the last line, the touchlines, and between the lines can vary throughout. The benefits remain the same, with players becoming more difficult to control and nullify. Perhaps this fluidity will become more widespread in the coming years, with positional play being determined by what the situation requires, as opposed to being strictly pre-determined.
It is even possible that teams will constantly alter their formation throughout games in response to the situation. How many players occupy each line could vary continuously in search of the best solution. It’s a tall ask, but could we train players to adapt their positional layout during games in response to where the opponent numbers are and where the space is? Many teams alter their shape during games already, but how much of it is player lead and how much of it is pre-set by the coach or instructed from the sidelines.
Football is widely accepted to comprise of 4 key phases. Namely; established offense, transition from offense to defence, established defence, transition from defence to offence. While it’s perfectly reasonable to categorise the game in this manner to aid organisation, it is important to understand that they are not separate. Pep Guardiola spoke about this recently.
“I don’t divide football into attacking and defending. In football, everything depends on everything.”
Guardiola’s teams, among others, aim to attack in a way that makes the defensive phases more effective, and vice-versa. Their offensive phases are designed to make retention and progression of possession more seamless, and for players to be far enough away from each other to occupy the space and stretch the opponents, but also close enough to combine and create superiorities. However, the design also attempts to generate the future conditions of the defensive phases.
For example, the players are far enough apart to cover the space and close off counter-attacking channels for the opponents, but also close enough together to counter-press in numbers after a loss of possession. Even in the offensive phases, they are considering the defensive phases and trying to pre-determine their ability to cope, outlined by Fernandinho.
“The key is to be compact going both ways, when we are attacking and defending, because this is how to keep control.”
The image below is an example of how City line up in an established offensive phase. The first line is made up of Stones and Otamendi, while Jesus is positioned on the last line. Fernandinho takes up the 6 space, flanked by Walker and Delph in each deep half-space. The wings are occupied by Sterling and Sane, with Silva and De Bruyne in the half-spaces between the lines. The key objectives are achieved from an attacking perspective, but they are also in good shape to cope with a transition. On this occasion, Walker has recognised the possibility to roam forward as a free man, given the numerical advantage his team already has in the first phase.
In stark contrast, former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger appeared unaware of the importance of interlinking phases. One of his core beliefs was that keeping possession was the best way to prevent conceding goals. However, if the positional play of the attack is less than ideal, the team will suffer in transition. The GIF below highlights Arsenal’s lack of consideration for other phases while in possession. Following a turnover, Monaco break with ease into the open spaces. Arsenal only have one player on the last line, as well as insufficient access to the ball for quality and immediate counter-pressing to occur.
The attacking lay-out becomes the defensive transition lay-out as soon as the ball is lost, and so it needs to be conducive to managing these moments. Similarly, the defensive shape becomes the attacking transition shape as soon as possession is won.Ultimately, it is essential for there to be a close relationship between phases, designing one with the others in mind.
Football’s search for definitive answers can come at a cost. But as the game continues to evolve, the search for balance is the logical next step. We are beginning to appreciate that there can be more than one right answer, and the future game looks set to be dynamic and adaptable. Rigid, fixed roles and systems may gradually be left in the past. In developing the next generation, and in coaching the current one, it’s becoming increasingly important to find the right balance between organisation and fluidity.