Football is about getting closer (and eventually in) to the goal
I was just checking my DM’s the other day when I saw a question from one of my followers that asked about a tactical concept. Upon reading my answer, he was left surprised. He questioned if it really was that simple. My answer was that there were some intricacies to it but fundamentally, yes. It is that simple.
This dialogue left me thinking about people missing the simple fundamentals when looking for the “insight”.
I’m a big advocate for the “intricacies” crowd. The general discourse is still too shallow, that I agree with wholeheartedly. Sentences like “he scored X amount of goals, he can’t be bad for the team” and “he has no trophies, he is trash” does bug me quite a bit.
Having said that, people that are troubled by this shallowness, tend to throw themselves too deep into the delicacies/details too quickly that some fundamentals get overlooked.
As arguably the GOAT of basketball Michael Jordan once said:
Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.
And, one more quote for you, this time much closer to football by Mikel Arteta:
It’s (all the details of football) a lot to take (in), so that’s why you have to rely on your principles.
These two quotes came from different people from different fields. They are also both in a very different context than I’m using it in but the point stands.
The fundamentals provide you a framework to work on the intricacies. They are like a friend you can fall back on when you lose your way. A parent that you find the courage in, to explore the world for the first time when you are a child.
So how do they work in football?
A lot of team analysis (and the why’s of football tactics) can be (maybe even should be) minimized to trying to get closer to the goal, in order to get a general grasp of them. One team tries to get closer to the goal, the other are trying to stop them from getting there.
We know getting the ball into the goal is the ultimate goal in football (no pun intended), and we know we have a better chance of getting it into the goal if we get the ball closer to the goal.
BUT, many people overlook (or at least undervalue) this simple fact when discussing a specific concept regarding football tactics.
Compactness. It is used a lot, discussed a lot. It is the first single thing I look for when judging managers. The main reason I don’t rate most of the purists of football as managers though I appreciate their creativity and courage to try their way to the ultimate end.
Compactness is about having more bodies close to each other in a certain area. Less space for the other team to work with. Pressing and blocking lanes become easier when you are compact. Less space, more success with less (physical) effort.
Vertical compactness means having your forward line closer to your defensive line. This is done by dropping the forward line deep by many teams lower in the table, and by pushing defensive line very high by elite teams.
Horizontal compactness means narrower formations. This is used where the whole defensive block shifts according to where the ball is. If it’s on the right wing, the whole defensive block shifts to the right and the widest left sided defender ends up in the box with the widest right sided defender pushing up to pressure the ball carrier.
Central compactness is the same idea, but for the central areas. I consider it as a must since the considered (central) areas are the most dangerous ones for the opponent to have the ball in.
This is why a well structured 532/541 block is really frustrating for elite teams to face. It is one of the most centrally crowded formations in football with 3 cbs and 2/3 midfielders.
So, the central area is too crowded to attack it with great efficiency. Not just in 5 at the back formations but in all successful defensive setups. So, what do we do if we can’t force the issue through the middle? Where do we attack the opponent?
That’s where the halfspaces come into the picture.
Don’t let the fancy word keep you away from it’s simplicity though. Halfspaces are important, because they are closer to the goal than the flanks and they are less clustered than the central area.
That’s it. You get the ball closer to the goal but also avoid the central defenders that crowd the area that is in front of their goal, the central area.
The importance of the half-space has also brought some other tactical concepts into our world.
It is why the on ball formations with 5 players in the highest line, like a 235 or a 325, have been getting more and more popular. If you have 5 attackers in your furthest line, you naturally have players in the halfspaces. The widest two stretches the back-line, pins the fullbacks. The center forward occupies and alerts the two center backs. The other two forwards are naturally in the halfspaces where there are more space because of the presence in the other 3 areas.
So, let’s go back to the 541 we talked about now. It does crowd the central areas but it also gives you the ability to be more aggressive in defending the halfspaces because of the 3 center backs. The wide cbs are able to jump the halfspace receivers with more conviction because they still have 2 cbs in the box to deal with the central forward/s. Refer to the successes of ultra aggressive cbs like Rudiger and Romera have had in a back 3.
In this example, you can see that the narrow Leicester 4 man midfield block really crowds the central areas to not allow Man City players easy reception close to the box. You can also see that the wide cb’s are quite close to City players in the halfspaces and they are ready to jump them on the point of reception since Evans provides security behind the two. Also, the Leicester block has shifted to the left as can be easily seen by looking at the positioning of the 2 widest LEI defenders.
This idea that gives significance to the halfspaces, is eventually the same idea that accentuates the importance of needle players (not that rare of a profile though). Ball retention in congested areas are a tactical plus for every team. It is an advantage just because you have someone on the team that can play their game and keep the team’s possession moving despite how tight the spaces are. Players that have elite first touch, agility, and understanding of space will always be valuable in world football. And, they might be getting more important as the physical levels are improving in the world football so the spaces are getting smaller and smaller.
I always give the same example when talking about this concept, but watch 2017-20 Liverpool, with and without Bobby Firmino and you’ll understand what I’m trying to emphasize.
Also look at why Liverpool’s usage of more technical players in the midfield in Harvey and (partly) Curtis, overlapped with Jota replacing Firmino in the first XI. Harvey/Curtis have much more of a between the lines presence than Henderson/Wijnaldum. And, Jota has way less than Firmino, obviously.
My one pet peeve with needle players is that they are mostly not too mobile and they are not too willing to do the dirty work off the ball. This is why Firmino is one of my all time favorSort byites because him on the field means that you have an elite needle player without having a tactical liability on the defensive side of the game.
We’ve talked about how the width of our furthest line (includes but isn’t limited to 5 player forward lines) allows us to have players naturally position themselves in the halfspaces. We make our team wider to stretch the opponent block horizontally to then find spaces in the halfspaces.
But, the football pitch isn’t unidimensional. We can also stretch our opponents with depth. This is where the term “runner” comes in. The term “runner” can assume many meanings in various contexts but in the context of depth I use it as a player that poses a threat in behind with his movement and physical profile.
A pure runner would be someone like Dan James. He is not comfortable when he gets the ball to his feet since his deficiencies (like his touch and composure) is much more apparent when he is receiving when is (more) stationary. But, when he is running in behind and he receives while running with space in front of him his exceptional speed, acceleration, and quick strides gives him an edge over defenders.
In the other end of the spectrum would be someone like Mata when he plays out-wide. His deficiencies in physicality makes him non-viable option to stretch the opponent but his incredible touch and understanding of space made him one of the best ball-to-feet (between the lines) player of his era.
Some superstars obviously combine the two to varying degrees which made them extra special. Players like Hazard, Neymar, Messi (and more, obviously) are prime examples of this phenomenon and they are my favorite players to watch on a football pitch.
My main point about depth is that if you lack an effective runner and an effective ball-to-feet player in your front line, you can’t have an attack that is around the best of the best. You have to have at least one of each. Look at the best front threes of recent times and you’ll see a balance of these profiles.
The reason for this argument is that when everyone drops deep with no one running in behind effectively the opponent defenders are so much more comfortable to aggressively step out to pressure receivers on their reception point. But, also, when there is no one that is effective between the lines, your team can be ineffective against great low blocks. An example of this were at times seen with Liverpool when they were transitioning from a false 9 Firmino to a more box 9 like Jota. Mane/Jota/Salah front three worked very well against most teams but when they faced some well-drilled compact low blocks, they struggled to generate answers. Less space in behind meant that the team severely needed a needle player that is effective in tight spaces which that front five (with Robbo and Trent holding width) simply didn’t have. So, they turned to hopeful, endless crosses from wide which bared no fruit in the end.
Thinking about a question in my dm’s led me to write 2k~ words about width, depth, halfspace, compactness. But, the ramblings must end, and I must publish. So this is the end of this writing. Hope to see you soon for the subsequent editions.