Since the start of World Cup Qualifications in September 2016, Iceland scored 16 goals from set pieces. That is 41% of all their goals. In defensive phase, they are hard working and compact using 4-4-2 defensive shape. On offense, they are extremely vertical, counter-attacking team.
Apart from Sigurdsson, Iceland lacks technical ability and the team plays to their other strengths. Physical strength, height, speed, teamwork and work rate. Due to lack of technical skills, Iceland is heavily oriented towards set pieces. Their long throw-ins and corner kicks have been extensively analysed. Goal kicks frequently pass under the radar as rarely they are treated as a possible threat to the opposition.
Iceland takes them seriously and looks to take the most out of them. Here’s a brief analysis of their direct play from the back.
Guardiola’s presence in Barcelona revolutionized modern football in many ways. We have already taken a look at changes that went through with wingers and defensive midfielders. However, Spaniard is most renown for his attacking prowess. Here we will pay attention to attacking third and rise of false nine role. Traditional number nine role is usually associated with out-and-out striker like Alan Shearer or Gerd Muller. Players with impeccable finish and real threats in the box. False nine, however, is something completely different and is born as a response to packed defences modern football often employs. It should be mentioned that it is often called deep lying forward, or second striker sometimes. The differences are mostly in a way how different players execute this role while the principle remains the same.
The role itself was used as early as 1930s in Austria and later during 50s in famous Hungarian national side. However, modern false nine appears with Francesco Totti at the turn of the century and the real effectiveness was expressed by Guardiola’s Barcelona. It was so effective that even Spanish national side used it and won the 2012 EURO with Fabregas in the slot.
Leo Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Francesco Totti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney…
Off the ball movement, vision, ball control, passing, decision making
What makes this role really effective is, above all, the intelligence of the player and, only after that, his skills. While traditional striker was primarily a poacher who relied on his team mates to deliver the ball in the box, false nine is kind of opposite. It is essentially an attacking midfielder with ability to drift back towards the midfield and creating chances for his team mates.
The main problem a false nine poses to defence is his movement. It makes defenders think hard if they should go and cover the striker, leaving their position and creating a gap, or keep the position leaving the drifting player alone.
Above is the example from famous 5:0 Barcelona win over Real Madrid in fall of 2010 when Messi was playing the false nine role. You can see exactly why this role is so dangerous. Carvalho, the center back, decides to help Khedira to close down on Messi leaving his position. From that moment it isn’t four players covering the width of the pitch but only three. This opens up space for left winger to exploit and score.
Crucial here is the ability of player in false nine role. Nothing would have happened if Messi wasn’t able to escape the pressing with great ball controll. Furthermore, if he didn’t have the vision to see the pass between the defenders or ability to execute it perfectly, Barcelona would never have the chance to score.
Above you see maybe more illustrative example of what happens when CB doesn’t track the movement of false nine. The defence has to react to ball shifting to right winger but after a pass back to center false nine has time and space to an open player on the weak side.
Above is an example of situation created by a center back leaving the defensive line and closing down the false nine. If the false nine is able to break the pressing spaces open for onrushing wingers on either side since opposition has fewer players to cover same width.
If we want to call the role false nine, deep lying forward or anything else, the essence of it is always the same. As well as the dilemma it imposes on defenders. With more teams employing holding midfielders, or even two defensive midfielders, this role is increasingly more difficult to execute. As spaces get tighter and packed with more men behind ball, false nine has less space to drift back and be effective. Therefore, it is no wonder only the most refined and gifted players have the chance to play it and be successful.
Before the match at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger met Mourinho 14 times and failed to get a single victory against his side. Everything he thought about for the Saturday game was useless and, in the end, he was saved by a bit of luck and good intuition. Two changes gave him an assist and a first goal against Mourinho in nine long years to claim a point in a match with Man Utd.
Arsenal came to Old Trafford without defeat since Day 1 of the Premiership wit three wins and two draws in last five matches. Wenger’s team was a clear favourite against the hosts that didn’t connect two wins in a row since August. To make it worse, United had to face Arsenal without suspended Zlatan Ibrahimović and without both starting center backs, Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Nevertheless, Mourinho was encouraged by a win in League Cup against Guardiola’s City and two matches in Premiership without a loss. Thus, he ditched six men defence he employed to get some kind of result against Liverpool and Chelsea, and went for relatively open match against Arsenal. Well, to his standards at least.
Above you can see how he, mostly successfully, closed the middle of the pitch forcing Arsenal to build up down the flanks. He was defending zonally oriented on a man while Arsenal was transitioning to the middle third.
He did press Arsenal on his half, however, he did it very selectively. There were two triggers for Man Utd to get out of their defensive shape and close down on opponent in their half.
First trigger were deliberate long balls from their own defensive line. United doesn’t dwell on the ball in their half if they can avoid it. Even less so when opposition is pressing high. Without Ibrahimović upfront, Mourinho instructed his defenders to clear the ball into specific areas. Mainly down the flanks and near the touchline. Reasoning behind this is that receiver of the pass will have less space to cleanly trap the ball. This was the trigger for whole squad to raise their defensive line. Rashford was first man to chase the ball ensuring the receiving full back/defender has also minimal possible time to turn towards United goal and pick his next pass. In meanwhile, midfielders ensured to man mark anyone who could receive that pass. Theoretically this would give Man United a chance to clear the ball on their own terms and react to it with a possibility to win the ball high up the pitch.
Another pressing trigger was largely a reaction to Arsenal actions as United players would defend from front to chase down any back pass to Peter Čeh. The point behind wasn’t really to win the ball high, but to force an opponent to hoof the ball in an uncontrolled manner and then regain the possession since Arsenal lack any strength or aerial ability in the advanced positions. Theoretically, that would allow United to win the ball deep/medium position while opening routes for a quick counter attack when they still had their attacking players in advanced positions against unbalanced defence.
ARSENAL COUNTERING UNITED ZONAL DEFENCE IN MEDIUM BLOCK
Above you see one of solutions that Arsenal provided to avoid the marking in middle third. One of the weaknesses of man oriented zonal marking is that defender will follow the opponent in his zone. Arsenal is using this with clever off the ball movement from Mesut Ozil and Chilean Sanchez. While Ozil leaves his position in middle towards the right channel, Pogba follows him opening the space. This, in turn, is used by Chilean who drops deep from his central forward position. Depending on reaction of defence, he might have time and space to face goal side or, at least, pick a back/sideways pass.
Arsenal used reverse movement as well to the same effect. At times it was Theo Walcott who would make horizontal movement from right wing position into the centre of the pitch. This would either pull away his marker Darmian or make an overload in the middle. If Darmian followed, a space would open for right back Jenkins to exploit.
MANCHESTER UNITED – OFFENSIVE ORGANIZATION
Due to high value of points in this game (more for the confidence of the team than table position), United was quite reluctant to commit too many men to offensive. This was surely influenced by presence of Theo Walcott who can exploit the space if given. Thus, Darmian largely stayed back together with Michael Carrick to cover for counter attacks. This meant Mourinho had only two central midfielders and Juan Mata to connect their midfield and attack. Despite this, the work rate and off ball ability of Mata/Herrera proved quality more important than quantity.
While Arsenal was quite solid on defence, the quality of Mata and Herrera provided numerous troubles for them. Above animation is an example of typical movement those two made. Herrera was able to find space and use the ability of Martial’s one trick (cut inside) to receive the pass and unbalance the defence. After Herrera got attention from defence pulling out of the line one of the centre backs there was space behind that was open for Mata to exploit.
This cooperation in the end resulted with seemingly easy finish from Mata from inside the box. However, while it looked pretty straight forward clear chance, it took great deal of composure and technique to connect with such a fast ball. You will notice it was gain a third man’s run that concluded Man United move.
Unlike Mourinho, Wenger was trying to unsettle United defence with number of players in the offensive third. While Sanchez was very effective in a deep lying striker role coming deep to pick a pass, he had no support Mata provided to his team mates. Whenever Sanchez went deep Ozil and Walcott went infield often joined by Ramsey. Unlike United, that failed to give an advantage to Arsenal as their runs were predictable and United defence always had an answer due to deeper stance.
To conclude, United did very well to both, limit Arsenal and create in front of their goal. Visitors were saved by a bit of luck and hunch from Wenger who, midway through the second half, introduced Olivier Giroud and changed the fruitless approach. In the end, Mourinho might be held accountable on the fact he left Rashford on the left flank when Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced. It was young forward who was supposed to mark Arsenal winger in right back position when fatal cross to Giroud was swung in. Either way, Murinho didn’t get what he wanted despite a solid performance and his team is still looking for confidence although this game seemed a step in right direction. Arsenal on other hand, had a poor performance, especially in the second half and lost the opportunity to challenge the very top of the table. Yet, it is a long season.
After looking into the inside forward, at our next stop in exploring emerging roles in modern football, we will take a look at defensive midfielder position. It is yet another position that was heavily influenced by “juego de posicion” so succesfully implemented by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Looking to emulate this success, coaches around Europe adopted their own vision and interpretation of defensive midfielder position. Nowadays we often hear about pivot, half back, deep lying playmaker and so on.
They all describe the same position but different interpretations of it in various systems and phylosophies. Root of this change happened in Mexico with Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe at turn of century. As more teams pressed defensive line with two attackers, La Volpe employed a defensive midfielder who would drop between two center backs to build a numerical advantage in order to achieve controlled transition from defensive into the middle third of the pitch. A move known as “salida lavolpiana” or La Volpe’s transition.
Above you can see Mexico under Ricardo La Volpe and “salida lavolpiana” working in practice as defensive midfielder Rafa Marquez drops deep between center backs. They spread out while full backs go higher up the pitch occupying their markers thus creating more space for ball carrier in central position.
However, football trends changed with times and salida lavolpiana needed adjustments. Primarely as a response to formations with three attackers and gegenpressing. With rise of Barcelona, under Pep Guardiola, we have witnessed the development of positional play. To reach the middle third in an organized manner, and avoid opposition that plays high pressing game with three forwards, Guardiola introduced ball playing goalkeepers and his own type of defensive midfielder.
Decisions, off the ball movement, ball control, passing, balance, vision, tackling, positioning, communication, work rate
Managers who want to ransition the ball from defensive zone into the middle third in organized manner might have particular requests, however, the basic idea is always the same. The aim is to find a free man between the opposition lines. Transition from defensive into the middle third of the pitch is particularly delicate as ball lost so close to the goal often means immediate chance for opposition. “There is no playmaker in world who can create so many good chnaces so consistently that close to goal as good pressing” are the words from Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola tries to evade that very pressing by passing around it.
Above you see Guardiola’s Manchester City in their defensive zone looking to break the pressing and reach the middle third in controlled manner. It is immediately obvious that players are positioning themselves quite far away from each other. This forces the opposition to cover more ground or employ more players in closing them down. When everything works well, both counter meassures make it easier for Guardiola’s team to reach the middle third.
However, it is futile to look only at the role of defensive midfielder in isolation. Whole team needs to occupy right spaces if the team wants to be successful at keeping the ball and reaching the middle third in organized way against good pressing. The whole goal is to find a free man in between the lines. To be succesfull, all players need high standard of composure on the ball, ability to pass quickly and precisely while moving and changing positions. If executed well, combination of quick passing and movement creates a free man which allows the team to progress further up the pitch into next zone where defending team needs to reorganize and the process repeats.
Screenshot above provides valuable insight into how important decision making of individual player is for this strategy to work. Fernandinho plays a pivot role in this game and exchanges place with Fernando who cleverly recognises this and occupies deeper position. However, Fenandinho is let down by his first touch, then he fails to find free man quickly enough and is cought in possesion. Few seconds later City concedes due to an own goal from Kolarov.
This tells us that even if team is perfectly positioned on the pitch and at least one player is free to receive the pass, the strategy is very much dependant on individual players. However, mistakes happen and that doesn’t mean the strategy is invalid. Just not foolproof.
According to positional play, same strategy that is used in defensive zone is valid in attacking third as well. The idea is always to reach the advantage, be it numerical “2v1, 3v2…) or individual (i.e. Messi against weak full back). Defensive midfielder’s role is thus essentialy still the same.
Depending on manager’s needs a defensive midfielder might have different duties further up the pitch. They might be more conservative as Busquets is sometimes at Barcelona. At times dropping between the center backs to allow full backs go further forward. At times, he might have more active role, similar to that of Weigel at Borussia Dortmund.
Above we can see a still image of Borussia Dortmund in possession against Real Madrid. German team is very narrow even in possession due to their counter pressing strategy. However, Julian Weigl who is the player designated to connect defence and attack, is high up the pitch with the responsability to keep the ball circulation. Being narrow helps Borussia to exchange quick short passes and allows them to catch oppostion in counter pressing if they lose the ball.
Independently of individual manager’s requests, in positional game the goal always remains the same. Players need to occupy their positions, move the ball and progress down the pitch in order to create advantage. It requires lots of skills and is primarely the reason why any Barcelona player under Guardiola, could basically play any position.
Rarely you see such a different two halves of football match as it was in La Liga match between Sevilla and Barcelona on Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán Stadium. The way Sevilla was playing the first half was indeed impressive as Barcelona struggled to get on the ball and establish authority they are used to. A small but significant change made in half time turned the game around. Before we get to that we should respect Jorge Sampaoli’s side and see how they managed to minimize the Barcelona’s threat and go ahead.
Lot of teams try but rarely one can succeed pressing highly skill full defensive line of Catalan club. Sevilla employed very high pressing, and although Barcelona managed to escape it at times, they couldn’t do it consistently enough to get into their rhyth
DENYING BARCELONA POSSESSION
In the first half Barcelona had only 47 per cent of the ball. Above you can see why. While Sevilla was largely defending in 4-4-2 shape, with Vazquez stepping up from midfield to join Vietto, the whole team was very high preventing the goal keeper distribution. Sevilla made sure to close down the centre of the pitch as you can see above where Vietto, Vazquez, N’Zonzi, Nasri and Sarabia guarded the three central players. Additionally, Vietto was keeping an eye on central defender while Sarabia took care of his full back.
As central trio Busquets, Rakitić and Denis Suarez were locked out, Barcelona was forced to play down the flanks. As hosts kept defensive line very high, Barcelona found it difficult to transition to middle and offensive third in an organized manner.
Where Sevilla really excelled wasn’t the defensive phase of the match but once they were in possession. Sampaoli took a deliberate gamble attacking with his left back who was most of the time very high up the pitch.
This allowed Vitolo to occupy rather central position during most of the match and play in line with attacking midfielder Vazquez and more advanced Vietto. Alongside Sarabia, those three were most dangerous players during the first half. The key for their space and time on the ball was, however, Escudero. He occupied Sergio Roberto and Rakitić leaving Vitolo, Vietto, Nasri and Vazquez to deal only with Busquets, Daniel Suarez and center backs. This often created overloads in small spaces and deeper in the Barcelona half it was even more dangerous due to lack of defensive work from Messi and Suarez. Sampaoli took a gamble there as advanced positioning of his left full back meant opposition right winger was allowed more space in case of quick counter attack.
While Sevilla looked really good in first half and managed to get into the box almost at will, all of that changed during the period and essentially made it possible for Barcelona to win the game.
Catalans came into the match with an idea to exploit left side and overloaded the central area together with left half space.
Above you can see typical Barcelona during the first half. Luis Enrique decides to keep Lionel Messi in an attacking midfielder slot while in possession which overloads the left side of the offensive third. He was probably counting on exploiting Mariano’s attacking mentality but we have seen before that it was actually Escudero who was higher up the pitch mostly. Additionally, when pushed back deeper into their half, Sevilla would transform into 4-1-4-1 shape and there were always N’Zonzi or Nasri available to close down Messi who was in central area. Whatever the reasons behind Enrique’s thinking, overloading the left side wasn’t really producing the performance he was hoping for. It was even unfortunate choice as it meant that Escudero could venture forward even more without a threat of leaving Messi in the space behind him.
THE CHANGE IN SECOND HALF
Above you see the comparison of Messi’s positioning during the first (left) and second (right) half. Enrique abandoned his approach from first half and brought Messi back to right flank for the rest of the match and this made all the difference in the end. Although he scored in first half, Messi and Barcelona played much better after the half time.
To complete the picture, you can see another diagram above representing Barcelona attacking lanes during the game. It is obvious Barcelona spent the same amount of time in the central area during both halves. However, their wing play changed significantly. In first half they almost abandoned the right wing leaving it exclusively to Suarez and Sergio Roberto. Displacing Messi wide in second half meant more time on that part of the pitch and even more time on the ball for Messi. While he had only 25 touches in the first part of the match, the shift to right wing meant also he touched the ball 42 times, almost doubling his time on the ball.
In conclusion, Sevilla played great half and a lot of credit goes to them. However, by placing Messi centrally Enrique played into their hands allowing Escudero to create more space for Vitolo. At the same time, having a strong defensive midfielder in N’Zonzi made it difficult for Argentinian to find space in well placed Sevilla defence. Credit goes to Luis Enrique for realizing the problem and solving it as well.
It is no secret that biggest football stars aren’t just players. They earn as much shooting commercials as playing football. Cristiano Ronaldo is selling us anything from underpants and deodorants to cars. Did you ever ask yourself why is that? Popularity comes with success and various brands employ footballers to sell us their products. It is very much the same with tactics. The whole football world wants to emulate successful teams. This past decade, it was Barcelona so everyone wanted to play like them including the Spanish national side.
As teams throughout the world strived to be as successful as Catalans, we have seen the rise of popularity of 4-2-3-1 formation with wide strikers. Their success made a worldwide trend in football and today most of the teams use the same formation and even roles. It is, therefore, worth to take a look at the role that is widely employed at all levels and see what makes it so important and popular.
Essential attributes: Decisions, off the ball movement, acceleration, technique, finishing.
While the 20th century was dominated by prolific wingers, today it is difficult to find one in any of the top teams. In the modern game, it is the full-back’s job to bomb forward and put the crosses in from wide. Where winger used to rule, today you will often find an “inside forward”. Think of Thierry Henry in Barcelona or Robben at Bayern to get an idea.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “It’s funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal. Strikers going inside are far more dangerous…”
While inside forwards emerged within 4-2-3-1 formation, they have different roles in different teams. They are players who are either two-footed or play on opposite side of their preferred foot. This makes it hard for inside forward to cross the ball but his assignments rarely include crossing. The main job of an inside forward, or inverted winger, is to use his acceleration and technique to take on their man and drive towards the goal.
Tactically, Guardiola’s inside forward provides a challenge for the full-back that is marking him. When his team is in possession, inside forward needs to stay wide to keep the defense stretched. This makes gaps between the defensive line wider and more exploitable.
Above you can see Guardiola’s Manchester City in possession. Nolito is playing an inside forward role and you can see how important it is for him to keep discipline and stay wide. His positioning means Manchester United needs to stretch their defense which is then exploited by Silva. Off the ball positioning and teamwork is essential for a player in this role. If he was a bit hastier and wanted to score, he would go inside and cancel the option of a pass to Silva.
Once on the ball, inside forward needs the technique and dribbling combined with acceleration and good decision making. All these come together since he needs the ability to go past the full back that marks him. Once away, he can shoot since his stronger foot has a wider angle on the goal, or pass to one of the teammates.
From the tactical side, good inside forward provides a challenge for any defense. His movement from wide towards the center creates confusion in the defensive line. This comes from a fact that an inside forward is first marked by a full back. But, once he moves more to the center, responsibility for marking him becomes a gray area.
If the defense isn’t well coordinated and lacks communication, inside forwards can create all sorts of problems since the full-backs need to make difficult decisions in the short time window. Do they shadow the forward’s run inside?
Above you see a situation where a full-back decides to track the inside forward. This creates space for the onrushing opposition full back who has acres of space to either cross the ball or pass it back into the central areas.
The second GIF demonstrates a situation where full-back decides to pass the inside forward to his center back and tracks the run of full back. However, this creates a potential overload on top of the box.
Obviously, full backs do not defend alone but as a part of the team which makes it harder for forwards. For that reason, a good inside forward must be able to make a decision quickly as to exploit any hesitation, slip of concentration or misunderstanding in defense. Only then physical attributes such as acceleration and pace come into play.
While inside forwards have different tasks and responsibilities within different teams, they all pose a same fundamental dilemma for the defense. This is the main reason why coaches love to use such player on the pitch. Come back to see the next part where we will examine another important role often used with inside forwards. The false nine.
The article originally appeared at Fieldoo , a service for connecting footballers, agents and football clubs.