Currently in charge of German second division team Stuttgart, Tim Walter is one of the most innovative figures in modern football. The 43-year-old spent last season training Holstein Kiel, and his bold approach drew admiration from coaches across the globe.
As we will discover in this article, Walter deploys a wide variety of inventive methods for building out from the back. Extreme use of rotations and decoys, as well as an interesting interpretation of the pivot role, are among the most impressive features of his game model.
Building without a Numerical Advantage
A common principle for build-up play centres on maintaining a numerical advantage over the opponents. This way, the team in possession will have a free player to pass to, making progression out of the first phase more seamless. However, the search for superiority doesn’t always have to involve an overload in numbers. Additionally, striving to progress the play without a spare man can lead to great benefits further forward.
The image below captures a scene from Holstein Kiel’s away fixture against Arminia Bielefeld last term. A 6v6, including goalkeeper Dominik Reimann, is created in Kiel’s half of the field. Electing to play man-for-man during build-up allows them to create a numerical advantage in Bielefeld’s half, with Reimann sending a direct ball towards the right wing. The free man between the lines in this sequence was able to recover the knockdown and begin the attack.
While the example above highlights an occasion when Kiel took an aerial route to goal, it also shows how their search for second balls was far more considered than simply ‘playing it long’. For the most part, however, Walter likes his teams to propose the play on the ground.
“If I play a long ball that does not serve as a relocation but is only knocked forward, then I have no control. The ball can land with me or not, the chance is 50%. But if I play a short pass, I keep the ball 80 or 90%. That’s why I made it my goal to move the ball from the back to front.”
The positional structure shown in the first image is representative of how they often begin an attack, but the keeper’s short passing options would normally be improved by the use of rotations, decoys and dynamic centre-back movements. Instead of always seeking to create a free man through numerical means, the principles we will examine in this piece are aimed at disorganising the opponent’s marking scheme. The hope is that these strategies will generate enough space and time for one of the players to progress the attack, before exploiting the man advantage further forward.
Decoys on the first line
When a player is tasked with defending in a man-orientated fashion, the attacker being marked will naturally find it difficult to receive the ball. However, he can still aid his team greatly by exploiting his marker’s reactive stance. Instead of always looking to take possession, the attacking player might try to draw the defender away from space, opening a lane for one of his teammates to advance the play.
The likes of Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel, and Julian Nagelsmann are often noted for implementing this tactic, with one of their midfielders moving off to the sides on occasion to drag an opponent out of central lanes. Marco Verratti is particularly impressive in this regard, while Ilkay Gundogan is another player with a great understanding of how to profit from the strategy. Making use of decoys is also beneficial on the forward line, with Sergio Aguero and Roberto Firmino among the experts.
On the first line of the play, applying these methods for opening space is a lot more rare. Perhaps there is a fear over the potential risks involved, with the goalkeeper required to make line-breaking passes under pressure. But as we will see throughout this article, Walter is all for taking risks.
In the first clip shown below, Kiel’s left centre-back and left-back move further apart, stretching the opponent’s defensive system in the process. With a central passing lane now open, the keeper can progress the play by feeding a withdrawn attacker in space. The second clip shows the right centre-back moving towards the left, taking his marker with him. The left centre-back moves onto the next line to receive from the keeper with room to drive forward.
Kiel’s use of decoys last term was intriguing because of the risks associated. Unless the man between the posts is confident and efficient at making penetrative passes under pressure, possession can be lost in a dangerous area, with his side instantly becoming extremely vulnerable to conceding a goal. Some have called Walter’s methods crazy, but he prefers the term “courageous”.
As an amateur player, he mostly occupied defensive positions. But since transitioning to coaching, he is more focused on expressing his creativity by taking on the role of “offensive designer”. He wants his teams to dictate the play, manipulating their opponents in order to create the best conditions possible for the final stage of the attack.
Emptying the Pivot Space
In the last video, you may have noticed that Kiel often leave the ‘pivot space’ empty. Of course, this isn’t done because Walter fails to see the importance of a holding midfielder in build-up. Instead, it likely has more to do with his appreciation for the idea that it is better to arrive in space at the last second, rather than waiting there to receive. Furthermore, it allows them to use fewer players in build-up, leading to superiorities in the final third.
Walter’s approach frequently sees the designated holding player vacate the pivot space, allowing one of his teammates to arrive there just before receiving possession. The hope is that the player arriving at the last moment will have sufficient time and space to receive and progress the play before a defending player can get close enough to dispossess him.
This might sound like a standard rotation, where the pivot moves away so that another midfielder can drop in. However, in Walter’s system it is frequently one of the two centre-backs that arrives into the empty space with a forward run off the ball. Each of the midfield players can push ahead to join the forward line in preparation for the final phase of the attack.
In the first example below, the left centre-back drops deeper to pull his marker out. The right centre-back then moves into the vacant space in midfield, receiving directly from the keeper before progressing the attack. The second clip shows the holding midfielder and left centre-back moving to open up the pivot space, allowing the right centre-back to arrive there and receive possession with time to carry the play forward.
Typically, a centre-back that passes to one of his teammates will subsequently drop back to ensure that he is open to receive again if necessary. Walter’s innovation sees the centre-backs engage in combination plays whereby they are permitted to make forward movements to receive on the next line. He spoke about this in an interview with 11 Freunde earlier this year.
“Many coaches tend to require central defenders to back off after playing the ball, before being playable again. I was wondering if it’s possible that they could make a run forward after the pass.”
Because they use fewer players in the build-up phase, his side are consistently able to generate numerical superiorities in the final third instead. In the first clip shown above, they exited their own half successfully despite having a total of five players positioned on the last line of attack. The opposing team had four, with the ball eventually falling to Kiel’s free man on the far side. It’s a high-risk strategy, but the reward is great.
In our previous article on build-up, we saw how Quique Setien deploys rotations during the first phase of play. The former Betis coach tasked his players with interchanging positions in the hope of disorientating their opponents. If the defending team’s marking or pressing scheme is successfully broken, at least one player on the attacking team should now be free to receive and progress the play.
Unsurprisingly, Walter takes rotations to the extreme. His team can often be seen completing up to four rotations in the same build-up sequence, all with the intention of increasing the separation for the ball recipient. In the first clip below, Kiel’s holding midfielder moves into the back-line, ushering the left centre-back off to the sides where he swaps positions with retreating left-back, Johannes van den Bergh. Recognising the free space in midfield, Van den Bergh moves to receive possession for a second time, enjoying the freedom to carry the play forward unmarked.
Kiel end the move with a 4v4 in attack, once again emphasising the benefits of using fewer players when building out from the back. Of course, using many players in build-up can also have positives, with a free player usually available to progress the attack. Additionally, more defenders are likely to be drawn out, increasing the space in behind.
However, Walter appears to prefer that his team frees up more space in their own half, allowing them to interchange positions, open up the pivot space, and stretch opposing lines in order to create forward passing lanes. The spare man can then be enjoyed further forward instead.
On occasion, we have seen Guardiola’s Manchester City play out from the back without a numerical advantage. As mentioned earlier, there are many other forms of superiority that can be used to progress from one phase to the next. For City, that superiority is sometimes based simply on individual quality. If the opponents go man-for-man when pressing against build-up, Pep’s team might persist with playing through the thirds anyway, relying solely on each individual’s ability to out-play their direct opponent with exceptional technique. For Walter, this luxury hasn’t typically existed.
“At Holstein Kiel, we may have a lower quality. But that does not mean we are inferior. I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but I can also build a team with individually less well-trained players and have great success.”
His focus is on generating other advantages over the opposition through collective movements and intelligent offensive principles.
As we have discovered, Tim Walter is one of the most inventive coaches in world football. His bravery and creativity are noteworthy, with many expecting him to progress to the elite level before long. Promotion with Stuttgart is certainly on the cards, and VfB are currently level on points with 1st placed Hamburger after three games of the Bundesliga 2 campaign.
Below is a summary of Walter’s innovative approach to building out from the back:
- Fluid shape with far more emphasis on principles of play than on formations.
- Regularly look to build without numerical advantage (including the goalkeeper), allowing them to create a free man further forward instead.
- Decoy movements on the first line to stretch the opponents and open central passing lanes into midfield.
- Vacate the ‘pivot space’, allowing one of the centre-backs or fullbacks to arrive there at the last second to receive and progress the play. Often enables the receiver to take possession facing forward and makes it more difficult for the player to be marked, increasing the space and time available to them on the ball. Furthermore, it allows the midfielders to join the forward line, creating numerical and positional superiority in advanced areas.
- Extreme use of rotations to disorganise the opposition’s marking scheme, again creating just enough time and space for one player to receive and carry the play forward.
- Once the team has exited the first phase of build-up, the focus is on exploiting the numerical advantage with rapid attacks, preventing the defending team from recovering parity.
Quotes come from 11 Freunde’s interview with Tim Walter back in May. You can find it here: https://www.11freunde.de/interview/holstein-kiels-trainer-tim-walter-im-grossen-interview/page/1