TACTICS: An insight into the modern pivot role

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.

PIVOT,
Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Fernandinho, Julian Weigl…

ESSENTIAL ATTRIBUTES
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.

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DM in buildup phase of “juego de posicion”

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.

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Example of DM in buildup phase of a team that doesn’t adhere to “juego de posicion”

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.

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Guardiola finaly abandons possession game; Man City v Barcelona match analysis

Despite stubbornly defending his way, Guardiola finally seemed to take a step back from his possession game and went for more pragmatic approach which was instantly rewarded with a win over his former club. Although City employed different approach against Barcelona, compared to the match played last week at Camp Nou, the match flow was quite similar. Barcelona went one up from the first shot on goal despite City being quite successful at closing them down.

GUARDIOLA’S GAME PLAN

1. ABANDONING POSSESSION AND PLAY OUT OF THE BACK MANTRA

Without his sweeper keeper, Claudio Bravo, Pep maybe didn’t want but simply had to abandon his desire to control the possession. That was the first step towards the change of strategy compared to match at Camp Nou. Playing with less skill full goalkeeper meant City can not keep the ball at the back against Barcelona pressing and led to much simpler game plan. The way Guardiola wanted to play at home, compared to the away match, is maybe best seen in clearances department. While City was reluctant to clear the ball at Camp Nou (only 15 clearances), at home ground they went for a long punt 25 times. Not allowing easy goals seemed to be the goal for Guardiola.

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Most important decision Guardiola made prior to the match was to abandon the possession game. Compared to Bravo in first match against Barcelona, Caballero had completely different ball distribution

Above you see the passing map for both City goalkeepers in the first and second match. While Claudio Bravo was able to get to 70 per cent pass completion rate, Willy Caballero had only 37 per cent. No doubt Bravo helped City keep the possession and control the match as Guardiola wants, it also meant that a red card Bravo received was a direct consequence of game plan.

With Caballero between the sticks City opted to clear the ball much more frequently giving the possession away but keeping nice and tidy at the back avoiding crucial mistakes close to his own goal.

As a consequence of this shift in approach, City had only 35 per cent of the ball at home ground while at Camp Nou they were only three per cent behind the best passing team in the world.

2. ZABALETA ROLE

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Tucking inside from left back position, Zabaleta brought Neymar with himself. This meant less players attacking back three and easier build up

Above you see a characteristic movement from Zabaleta who cuts inside from right back position. This forces his marker Neymar make decision. Does he go and track Zabaleta inside? In this instance he does and leaves Messi alone to cover Stones and Otamendi.

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However, when Fernandinho managed to break the pressing and if Neymar wasn’t paying attention, Zabaleta would find himself in acres of space to ping the ball behind the defensive line

Although Barcelona generally does well when pressing in numbers on the small space, above you see importance of Zabaleta’s positioning whenever the ball is on the left side of the pitch during the transition into the middle third. As Fernandinho manages to break the pressing Neymar remains in no man’s land and Zabaleta is alone with enough time and space to go for a direct ball behind high defensive line.

3. HIGH PRESSING

Although Zabaleta was important in breaking down Barcelona pressing and an option if Neymar wasn’t careful, City didn’t make much of it. They were most dangerous when they didn’t have the ball. Their positioning without the ball was formidable throughout the match. City managed 21 interceptions compared to only 10 of their opposition. However, it is even more important when they made the bulk of them. Two thirds of those balls City managed to get in middle third of the match between 30th and 75th minute. During the same period of the game Barcelona managed to intercept only four balls. To remind you, they had scored in 39th, 51st and 74th minute of the match while the first goal was direct product of work without the ball.

To conclude, it could be safely said that Guardiola went very pragmatic with his approach to the match. He kept what went well in the first game (pressing) and abandoned what wasn’t good. Once Claudio Bravo was banned for the match Guardiola had no possibility to go and win the possession game against his former team. He opted for direct game mostly over the right wing while waiting for runs from deep by De Bruyne and Silva once he managed to catch Barcelona on counter attack. Barcelona played same as they did at home and couldn’t produce much. Once City cut down on their own mistakes they went and won the game pretty much the same way they lost it last time around.

Why Aguero didn’t play, Barcelona v Man City analysis

Beefsteak is part of the cow while football is made of mistakes… That’s how Guardiola comforted himself after Barcelona served him with four goals. How many mistakes Guardiola made himself is difficult to judge. However, it is certain he will not abandon his philosophy. Ball playing goalkeeper is fundamental part of how he wants his teams to play and that won’t change. Goalkeeper, however, eventually might.

 
Barcelona is in trouble in the back line and as game progressed, Pique and Alba both had to be substituted. Despite that, Guardiola kept De Bruyne in nr. 9 spot until 78th minute when he finally introduced Aguero. Too late, however. But decision to have De Bruyne instead of his best striker from the first minute was driven from the way Guardiola wanted to confront Luis Enrique. Aguero was consciously sacrificed as De Bruyne was fundamental part of Pep’s game plan.

While the ball was at the feet of Ter Stegen, City was very high up the pitch. However, they didn’t press. They made sure to keep passing lanes in central areas covered and prevent Busquets, Rakitić or Iniesta to come deep and pick the ball. This forced Barcelona players into predictable passing from goalkeeper to one of the center backs and then to full back. That was the trigger for aggressive closing down.

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De Bruyne was fundamental to the way Guardiola wanted to close the center of the pitch. His hard work and physical resistance meant Barcelona could be effectively closed down. A job Aguero could hardly do well

Above you see the moment Barcelona passes to Mascherano on the right side. Once the ball was near the byline City attacked in packs in the constrained space. De Bruyne was crucial here as he has mentality and physical ability to shift from left to right following fast tempo Barcelona is able to produce in the defensive line. Furthermore, he is able to press intensively and then track back. Characteristics Aguero lacks although he might be better finisher.

How hard it was for Barcelona to cope with this intensity from the attacking line we can read from possession. First quarter of hour teams were split equally on the ball. However, most indicative is that players who spent most time on the ball among hosts were Ter Stegen and Umtiti.

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Guardiola’s plan to cut off midfield trio was a success as you can see that City’s pressing forced Barcelona to play down the wings almost exclusively (cource: @11tegen11

Above you see very good passing diagram from @11tegen11 and how this approach from Man City influenced Barcelona. Busquets, normally one of the most influential players and one who’s job is to connect defence and midfield was almost completely cut off. Their game suffered as well since Iniesta and Rakitić struggled to get on ball. Guardiola’s intent to seal off the midfield was quite a success. Instead of Busquets it was Digne and Mascherano who had to connect the lines and that is in big part thanks to De Bruyne’s mobility and hard work.

Despite solid performance that denied Barcelona the space and time in most dangerous zones, hosts managed to get into the lead after bizarre string of luck and Messi’s composure and determination. First Fernandinho slipped far away from goal and left the ball to Messi and few seconds later already won ball rolled right around penalty mark.

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Barcelona scored after series of bizarre incidents that resulted with Messi alone in the box. Chance he wouln’t miss if he had only one leg

At that moment Messi was still surrounded by Otamendi and Silva, but both of them expected to go on counter as the ball was already won. Less than a second later, Messi was already celebrating his first goal.

From that moment Barcelona takes the initiative for following 15 minutes which was the time City needed to get back into the match. Although there were no significant tactical changes, the visitors upped their game and managed to finish the half creating few promising chances themselves.

When second half kicked off it was expected that City would continue to search for equalizer since Barcelona didn’t do anything significant. However, another bizarre moment came in 51st minute. Any other goalkeeper in any other team would leave defence to deal with lose ball 20 yards from his goal. However, Bravo is brought to be a ball playing goalkeeper so he went to do his job and – failed miserably. Poor pass into the feet of Suarez meant a prompt shot at goal that Bravo attempts to save and rightly gets sending off for hand ball outside the box. At that moment game was practically over.

Despite very ugly result in the end, City did well in terms of stifling Barcelona. While first goal was rather unlucky, red card is direct product of the way Guardiola wants to play and it determined the final result. Most certainly Guardiola will not change his philosophy as ball playing goalkeeper is fundamental to the build up play, but he might try to find another keeper.

EPL: Tottenham v Man City match analysis – Three answers how Pochettino won

Highly anticipated clash between last two undefeated teams took place in London where Tottenham managed to beat Manchester City and remain the only team without a loss. Victory was accompanied with a clean sheet and exposed Guardiola’s worrying weakness in defensive line which is still far off the quality needed to keep possession he would like.

The only worry Mauricio Pochettino had prior to the match at White Hart Lane was injury to Hary Kane and his replacement. In the end he opted for highly energetic Heung-Min and later we will see why. On the other side, Guardiola needed to go without arguably the best player Kevin De Bruyne and Nolito. Catalan mastermind had to adopt his game plan for match against a team that conceded only 3 goals in six matches and none of them from open play.

Without De Bruyne at disposition, Guardiola looked for more cautious approach with two defensive minded midfielders. Fernando started in line with Silva but rarely ventured forward while Fernandinho was sitting much deeper. Fernando had a task to shield the defence despite starting higher up the pitch than Fernandinho who had to connect the defence and midfield often overlapping Fernando.

Using two strong defensive minded midfielders was a sound plan against Tottenham, however, the match turned on its head quite quickly for the visitors.

Both teams came on the pitch with an idea to close the opposition as high as possible. If you ask Guardiola, that is his standard plan wherever he plays. Pochettino, on the other hand, could have opted for more passive approach but that would mean conceding space to City and relying more on luck not to concede a goal throughout 90 minutes.

Therefore, also Pochettino went for an active attempt to obstruct City’s transition into the middle third. On one side if executed well that would stifle Guardiola’s team going forward and open chances for Spurs. As game progressed, it was evident Tottenham was focused on closing down and seeking chances mainly from lose balls or turnovers that pressing would provide high up the pitch. As Juergen Klopp recently said, “there is no better play maker than high press. You win ball high up field and need only one pass to break on goal”.

To be honest, both teams were doing well pressing the opposition, however, it was Tottenham that made the breakthrough in 9th minute.

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City followed Guardiola’s postional play to the leter. Spacing between players was big and should have given them opportunity to play out of pressing. However…

Above you can see the whole game in one frame. Guardiola’s positioning game is obvious as his players are well spaced and responsible to take care of the ball and get it through the midfield into consolidation and controlled attack. Two centre backs are well apart making it difficult for opposition to close them down and same is valid for midfielders Fernando, Fernandinho and Silva. Three attackers are also spread out to keep the distances between the opposition bigger in order to exploit that space.

The principle of spacing out the players on the pitch in order to force the opposition to do the same is crucial to the way how Guardiola wants his teams to play. However, to make it work, most important is his defensive line and the goalkeeper. If those players don’t have technical ability to pass and control the ball under pressure, distances between his players become liability instead of strength and his whole idea doesn’t work.

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High defensive line, six players pressing the opposition and offensive midfielder that shifts ball side to help team mates, ensured City couldn’t establish their game and threaten Tottenham

Above you can see the same frame from the Tottenham perspective which tells the story how and why they won the game. First, Pochettino went for very high defensive line to compress the space three City midfielders can operate in at risk of leaving the space behind. However, Guardiola doesn’t like long aimless clearances so that wasn’t really a risk.

To cut off the transition, Tottenham used all of their six front players. Offensive midfielder, in this case Eriksen, had to shift ball side and help close down the ball carrier. Above you see him rushing to help Wanyama who tackles Fernandinho which springs a quick counter that puts Tottenham in lead.

The intensity and teamwork in these defensive situations resulted in 11 turnovers from visitors and two goals for Tottenham as another misplaced pass from Kolarov was efficiently used by Alli to score another. Quick direct passing from Tottenham meant City often had trouble getting back into position to defend and second goal was proof of that as well.

During the second half Guardiola changed his approach and in 60th minute changed to diamond in midfield in order to better control the ball as Tottenham was losing strength to close them efficiently. However, as time passed that didn’t produced anything and City started desperately looking for goal pinging long balls. Again, without an effect. In meanwhile, Pochettino responded to diamond in midfield introducing Dier instead of Sissoko. Wanyama and Dier pairing made Spurs defensive block much stronger as Eriksen shifted to right wing.

In conclusion, it seems both teams came on with same idea to get chances by winning the ball high. However, City couldn’t match the desire and intensity of the hosts. Also, Tottenham again revealed that City doesn’t posses quality in the defensive line to play his way effectively against the best opposition. At the same time Spurs proved to be strong contenders for the title this season.