I read a lot about how you prepare a team, develop a system, a philosophy, total football, pressing, possession, counterattack, occupy spaces, lines of players. Everyone is a manager on his own with his beliefs and methodologies, everyone says they are fine strategists, they are careful to thorough details. All greedy scholars chewing football since childhood.
You get out of the locker room and take your seat on the bench, aware that both you and your players have omitted nothing, ready to react to whatever happens.
Is it really so? Did you prepare everything and are you ready to react no matter what? If we sit at a table, you will be able to talk for an hour about how you painstakingly designed your team on the field, the result of a complicated analysis of a thousand numbers after considering factors billion, or about outflanking opponent as you have read and studied by knowing every skill and fallacy.
Good boys. Those 11 pawns are nice, aren’t they? Now I take out one randomly, doesn’t matter which one. Let’s see what your facial expression is. What happens to your system and your otherworldly philosophy?
It may be for a disciplinary action, for an injury when no subs are available. If your answer is only a nebulous idea in the making, it means that maybe you have not studied enough; you are not ready to take your place on the bench, not true that you are able to treat everything in detail. The demonstration of knowledge of football is also in these things because one of the qualities of a leader, a manager is the mental flexibility, the ability to estimate events, be prepared to be able to handle any eventuality.
This is football, you send on the pitch eleven players but one goes in the shower earlier. You are now thinking, “Well, it happens yeah, so?” It happens approximately in one out of six matches, you take five matches ongoing and you find a team without the full line-up. You’ll have spent more time choosing a hypothetical penalty taker. Legit, no doubt, but while a decent penalty taker is automatically chosen, such a critical and frequent situation requires major attention.
The starting point of the process is always that every match is different and with its own needs.
The first instinctive thought as we know is to renounce to a forward.
Doesn’t matter if your lineup is already set up with only one forward, a 4-4-1 means starting from the typical balance and the space occupation of a 4-4-2 and giving up the pressure on the opponent defence line. Your opponent will not have trouble in moving out from defence with the ball, both centrally and on the side. A layout that focuses on covering the own half and that requires a major and qualitative effort from the most defensive players to develop some offensive action, as they have to start far without the possibility to hide themselves. On paper, your pressing line falls a few dozen of meters deeper than usual.
Put aside the idea of reducing the problem to a “let’s just try not to sink” and take care only of your own half. Leave two forwards and see it as “a 4-4-2 without a defender” or “a 3-5-2 with a sacrifice in the midfield” or “a 3-4-3 with less offensive options “. If you start from the first case, it means leaving the mechanisms between your players in the attacking midfield intact. It’s a bold choice and a big risk for a team badly organized that’s not able to read the different tactical situations created on pitch. One of the midfielders will have to assist the defenders when opposition assaults with four attackers, critical when the attack come from the middle and the central defender needs the support of a central midfielder.
You are confident with two strong central defenders, two performing full backs and decide to keep three midfielders. A line up like that leaves you two strikers who are still trying to annoy opposition’s build up and three lungs to handle three opponents attempting to broaden the flow. While creating opportunities, at least one must be good at giving support to the strikers but under the magnifying glass, we find the ability of the two forwards to create opportunities through technical and chemistry. One of them can still be moved between the lines if you have the feeling that it may be more efficient there.
If you think with a man down just you can just dismiss your fantasista, you still have a lot to learn. A number ten to support the two ahead is a solution, it’s up to you to recognize the problem that you encounter from time to time and apply the most appropriate option. Three men to work in the last forty meters of the field are the bottom of a 3-3-1-2 that will test the skills of your defenders in one on ones but can also lead you to get a positive result. You don’t need to renounce to see the goal, more than true when you necessary need to score.
You want to score, a key may be to keep your three offensive arrows and leave a huge strain on your two midfielders.
The versatility of the defenders will be crucial as they are anticipating the strikers when the midfielders cannot switch, as well as the ability to not let second balls becoming a disadvantage.
Have you ever thought to use a 3-5-1?
Not wanting to leave benefits in that sector of the field, it aims to intensity in midfield. Always to be remembered that upfront your forward will only be alone chasing playable balls, but you may be able to minimize properly inferiority by keeping the distance between players shorter and taking the right references when marking. If you start from a 3-5-2 these should not change as well as certain mechanisms in build-up. Individual play in midfield is the game changer and what you want to avoid.
Five defenders on the pitch, two side backs providing width and breath.
A different less defensive interpretation has them in line with midfielders to make a 3-4-1-1 or with defenders for a true 5-3-1. As you can see with the same players, you can occupy the field similarly but with different priorities, in each case the default is a hexagon drawn in your half to face the situation and not concede a goal.
Test case: 342
The left wing cuts in and loses possession. The ball comes to a central with a first touch to the forward, marked by the defender. Defenders are wide outside and away from the game, when the forward receives the ball his side movement creates space in the middle for three upcoming midfielders that are forcing many opponents to chase with this counterattack.
In the midfield, a situation that is created between #10 and #22 requires attention, an interesting example of what can happen when a team is outnumbered and the necessary reorganization required. #16 follows #44 carrying the ball but must change the marking as an opponent made a run behind him and the area under his responsibility.
After #44 avoids #38, we see a cross is performed. Even before entering the area #10 leaves #22 who will enter the area with two teammates ready to receive the cross exploiting some oversight. Defenders in the reaching range are #4, #8 on #10 but loses him outside the box and the defender that will eventually tackle him arrives late, conceding a goal chance. Definitely on spot to see #10 being the one to track down the midfielder while winger #7 stays wide with a full back as target before cutting in the area.
With #24 on the ball, two defending midfielders are in position to press direct opponents but behind their back, they have #10. Opponent midfielder plays a one-touch pass that overtakes them and finds the teammate in a forward position that can generate three vs three if pace is used. We need to see if winger #7 follows #3, if defender #4 has to keep an eye on his forward run together with central forward #44 which should be a #16 affair. In a play like this one it’s not to exclude that #16 has to step up to cover the ball or another player, leaving #44 to his mate.
Rolling the highlight, it’s true that midfielders are doing a good job in shortening the distance with the ball carrier. However, we note down how the central defender presses up in the middle leaving the central forward to the right defender while #7 gives space to the opponent on his flank.
Here #10 is willful to go back with the objective to gain the ball he’s lost in first person. His position is even more far from his natural one as the time goes, so he falls on the left where midfielder #8 is fine in interrupting the attack.
On a goalkeeper’s throw, #16 challenges the ball. He does it leaving his competence’s zone and going to double team a forward. Forward #12 can flick-on to #44 taking advantage of the hole in the middle and the possibility to have #4 late and out of position. Alternatively, #19 in a support position. We have potentially five players of the attacking team on the second ball, six if we consider full back #24 ready to dash in the direction of a ball played on the side.
The header involves a midfielder that has immediately two clear passing solutions on both flanks, leading to a dangerous cross: with three passes, goalkeeper one already counted, the outnumbered team concedes an easy chance. The ball is played on the wing where #7 allows room to #24 that needs to beat left defender #58, who had to move out. Once the dribbling has been successful, ball is cross in the box where four defenders face three. #12 tries to be unmarked standing between #8 and #16 whose task is to anticipate in the space on top of the six yards.
After the re-initialization of the build-up, we see three forwards to choke defenders centrally, two wide and high players to undermine the defense. It is in the final pass to the left wing that the error occurs, the defense is able to recover and intercepts despite an initial not optimal position.
In an attempt to strike up an action working the ball, the keeper passes to the left defender, the ball is lost in the midfield. A midfielder wins a tackle and looking up he sees three mates versus one opponent: the rest of the defensive line is wide and should not recover. The ball is immediately delivered to one of the three but the control is far from impeccable and indeed, it eases the defence’s recovery.
Again same introduction, ball lost on the left and counterattack through the middle. Outnumbered, the defense focuses in covering any central gap. That is the area to be given priority, that is the shortest path to reach the goal and what has to be protected, with transitions like these you try to slow the flow of the ball and try to move it on the side.
Third time, the tackle leads to a foul. Under the spotlight now there is the defending team badly covering the field regardless of the bonus man. Three forwards are not involved in the not possession phase, clearly overtaken and far from the ball. Moreover, midfielders have the wrong references: on the right, there is a one on one opportunity.
A corner is kicked long and the defence gains possession like a breeze. Except two man marked by three defenders in the kick off, everyone is in the box.
There is space to trigger the counter-attack; the team can be stretched with a relevant run of a forward and a deep move by a midfielder. With a midfielder to receive the pass, on the left a side player becomes a danger as he overtakes the corner kicker. On the other side a full back overlaps cracking the wall. #44 has the ball, cuts inside to give a meaning to the overlapping action before switching side. Unfortunately, the timing is wrong and due to a good opponent, covering the offence is mitigated. #10 pounces on the trajectory, manages the ball with composure before delivering back to a defender. In a fraction, winger #17 brings the ball on and just as quickly, he sees and uses a corridor to beat the opponent with speed. A lunge is attempted and this initiative let him end deep to cross. It’s a shame that the technical gesture is not as precise as the dribbling. Two mates are in the box ready to conclude and secondly as many coming far could be dangerous. So four players going to score regardless being outnumbered.
Defender #5 moves to the right with the ball, with only passing to the middle as an option as he can create much more. Being impatient, he kicks long. The goalkeeper kicks it back in the middle and it’s the defender that catches it. Under the spotlight three midfielder who are chasing the ball too and covering the exact same area while opponents have a striker who can contend the ball. Not to forget only one midfielder rushes forward, while the fellow remained in the rear. Slowly #8 steps in to shorten and when #22 gives him the back, the brought pressure and the positioning of this three companions preclude any easy option as they are all cut off. On the flanks, no open paths are appearing so the player is forced to play blindly a long ball, as he can’t find an easy and quick solution.
Test case 441
In this first example, although not a blazing fast action, time and room is granted to a midfielder that can operate at will without hurry. Despite the double line of four players, an overlap on the right creates difficulties, the pattern is performed by manual and the cutting in #19 enhances the movement of the ball carrier that doesn’t cross because well tackled by #32.
Another action on the right, chemistry well oiled as before but with a different inertia. #19 passes to the middle and the team with three quick horizontal passes switches side and finds a two to one on the left. Midfielders do not seem to be able to make it difficult but again we don’t see a cross thanks to a timely intervention of a defender.
On a throw-in, an attempt to undermine the outnumbered defense working the ball again, #17 is now under pressure on #24 when he gets the ball, forcing a back pass the first time, stealing the ball the next one. The team may try to strike up an attack and a long ball is played over #10. The forward however is isolated and must succumb to four opponents around him. In the following, #9 earns possession very far from the area, is accompanied on the outside while a mate runs centrally. It’s not enough to break down the defense though.
If you have impress a mark to your style and the way your team play, if your players have embraced the prolonged possession philosophy, you can see it even in these situations that players do not unlearn certain habits. A throw-in near the area may result in a considerable series of passes leading the team in the other half. Nevertheless, the lack of a man is felt more on turnover, on the exposure of a counter attack that can punish with a single flashy move. Those are risks a well-organized team can (and should) afford sometimes. You will understand if your defenders are the in the finest league and have been a good investment.
#45 takes the ball far from the area and #15 leaves the defensive line to mark the man. He is lead outside and from the moment he gains possession until he loses it, he is under the sight of three different players. After the ball floats around, the team handles the ball thanks to the forward in post position and to quit from the final twenty meters relies to a couple of back passes before continuing to work in the ball through the central axis. A long pass to the right is performed with the objective to find some depth while the striker needs to recover the natural central position to provide continuity. Two players come to hum the make his life difficult. With the game in the other team’s hand, we can see how good organization outputs good coverage and problems for the build-up, leaving few evidences of the red card and going for a one versus one efficiency. Avoiding easy gaps to exploit, players are forced to execute outstanding personal moves and consequently errors.
Another example of build-up, ball in the box and whole defense to protect the goal after a transition. After ten passes in twenty seconds, possession is in forward’s feet stationing in midfield, the defense rises thirty meters. More ten passes in twenty-five seconds, defense has permanently risen in midfield with right-back in possession meaning that the other lines have gained depth. The ball is lost after twenty-six passes and the players behind the line of the ball are five. The midfielders fold quickly, with firmness and responsiveness, so the counterattack is ineffective. It’s a demonstration of the fact that despite a continuous push up and attempt to move forward, players have the mentality and willingness to carry out the defensive phase and make an extra effort in the event of a sudden opposition’s assault.
Yet an attempt to work out a maneuver featuring dense passages. The opponent presses up to try to assert the superiority in numbers as close as possible near the goal.
Despite the defeat, the man of the match is the center forward of the outnumbered team. Although isolated and overwhelmed numerically, the various players taking turns in his marking commit 13 fouls. An evidence of the importance of being able to fight on loose balls and to be able to protect the sphere, to not be anticipated even when the conditions are not the best.
Test case 432
On a ball led centrally by a central midfielder, the layout of the midfield line is puzzling. The central assists the left-back while the partner on the right results to be covering the ball. The left midfielder is one meter over the line of the ball leaving too much space on the opposite side where the opponents can create superiority since it is difficult to perform the chain movement. The three man shaped line is in trouble facing the movement of the ball across the width. On a cleared ball, defender #38 touches to striker #9. The central defender tries a faulty anticipation and opens the doors to a counterattack. When playmaking, a midfielder misses an easy opening by not looking to the left-back.
#9’s pass to #38 on the right fails. As you can see from the video wide backs are doing a fine job in falling back immediately to their competence line, fundamental behavior as they are the only one working down the flanks. Along with midfielders, pressing is initially positively applied but once again, players end up with bad positioning. Now on the ball and with the task to cover ten meters we have six players. Despite winning a first winning tackle, focus goes to the side where we have a two versus two resulting in a cross.
An attempt to stretch with pace is interrupted by a turnover. Under the spotlight again the wide backs and their defensive awareness. Significant movement of the forward #9 related to a pass from a midfielder to a winger. The forward snaps back to give density where the ball is and thanks that movement, on recovery of the possession he’s the ideal solution for his teammates. When you talk about forwards helping in no-possession phase and sacrifice, you should refer to these details.
Here we see how on the possession of a central defender, two full backs advance to the midfield line. As both teams are packed there, ball needs to be recycled with a back pass to the goalkeeper that can leave his area. Full backs come back few meters and regardless of being without a player, the d-line is way high. Aggressiveness of the defending team bring two players on the ball and more on a mate that is supporting. With a fast but precise ball distribution, a demonstration of how we can still find a vulnerability. Opportunities like this one might be rare in a match but need to be spotted and exploited in this way.
For example when a central defender is an advanced position and on the trajectory of a bad clearance. He looks for a midfielder while #9 comes deep and #35 runs depth. #8 seems to take advantage of this movement to hit behind the defender but he renounces instead. What matters is the coordinated movement of the forwards together with a wide player dictating the pass and depth, which is what leads to counterattacks. Dangerous ones.
#19 sends it directly to #44. Opponents are pressing fine, #2 pushes up to hide instead of free himself and the only affordable solution could be #8. By choosing not to risk or just because of insufficient vision, we get a long pass upon which the midfielders are slow to react. Problems of this kind of three-shaped midfield are exposed with a full back pressing in that zone, badly protected by #7. Overlap shown up, a cross is performed. On the rebound the team is still struggling with a side switch and a shot on goal. The attack continues with the entire line-ups in that half, three midfielders to guard in the middle of the defense and full backs generating panic.
Let’s see what can happen with a central midfielder and two on the sides. Right now the center one has lowered and there are no options. The moment he serves a ball in depth, no one is available and no one tries to be.
In another highlight that comes from an inactive situation, no one is visible in the midfield but opportunity sprouts from #10’s wriggle, deployed as right midfielder and clever in profit by the blind side. Possession keeps on going and #10 again is the man to go, in position and capable to perform another skilled move. On turnover only four defenders are behind ball’s line. The midfielders are not impeccable and prove up to the task only when the ball is in the box. They have to thank the defense though as its stalling gives time to act and #13 in particular deserves mention. Anyhow, everyone in the end returns and hold position, trying not to let the ball penetrate.
Here the outnumbered team is attacking in the other half. The distribution is elementary but patient, sign that there are difficulties in being able to deliver the ball to upfront players without giving up possession. Goalkeeper is asked intervention. The second ball is won but the playmaker is back to the goal and surrounded by several players, only one makes a tackle. That’s not enough as depth is gained with #11 who interacts with his fellow. Width is reached with a direct pass to #10, once again capable to give consistency and to lurk behind the opponent. We do not get a goal but it shows that despite a not optimal layout and a far from effective possession, focusing on offensive players and a bold attitude you can still find vulnerabilities and aim for scoring.