2011: A Space Oddity

Posted on June 19, 2011 by

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The study of tactics in football is, to a great extent, the study of space: between individual players, and between lines of players. But finding space on a football pitch is increasingly difficult, and the players who can find it and the managers who can exploit it are always in the highest demand.

There are a variety of reasons why space is at a premium in modern football. Most obviously, players these days are generally highly trained athletes at the peak of physical fitness, and regular squad rotation is far more commonplace now than ever before, such that the 22 players on the pitch are capable of covering a lot more ground in a shorter space of time than they were even 15 or 20 years ago. Indeed, pressing is more-or-less a necessity for most top-level sides now, so even if a talented playmaker receives the ball in a little patch of space, he will have very little time to turn and pick a pass.

There has also been a move towards four bands/lines in tactical formation, rather than the traditional three;  the 4-4-2 is no longer the default setting, having been replaced by the 4-2-3-1 or one of its close cousins. The 4-3-3 and the 4-5-1, although crudely notated as three bands, all denote four or even five different lines of play – the five-man midfield will generally have two advanced wingers, two central midfielders and one deeper, holding midfielder, for example, and modern fullbacks spend a great deal of their time considerably more advanced than the two centre-backs with whom they share “back four” status.

So where can teams find space in 2011? As teams seek to ‘compress the space,’ and make sure there is no ‘space between the lines,’ and with the rise of inverted wingers and wide-central-midfielders contributing to a focus on ‘narrowness’ as a defensive strategy, there is less and less space for top sides to exploit.

The central defence

Ah, the good old central defence – where space is freely abundant and centre-backs roam around great grassy plains like majestic, solitary antelope, nonchalantly eating grass picking simple passes into midfield, unhurried and untroubled by the presence of lions or hunters opposition defenders. The move towards one central striker (rather than two) leaves one opposing centre-back unmarked, and this has partly inspired the rebirth of the libero, whereby ball-playing defenders like Gerard “Piquenbauer” Pique are encouraged to carry the ball out of defence and into midfield. Elegant, technically gifted defenders like Phil Jones have been in particularly high demand recently, as their tactical role can prove vital in linking possession between defence and a packed midfield. A modern central defender needs to be able to make intelligent use of the space afforded to him.

But perhaps this libero’s ‘rebirth’ is in peril, its growth stunted as managers seek to restrict centre-backs’ space by pressing two-vs-two (or four-vs-four) high up the pitch, hoping to force goalkeepers and defenders into long-balls rather than short passes. Attackers with the mentality and the attributes to press and tackle (‘defensive forwards’ in Jonathan Wilson’s parlance) play an increasingly important role – stamina, work-rate and determination can be valued more highly than the traditionally hallowed flair, pace and skill (note that Ferguson generally favours Ji-Sung Park over Nani for tight Champions League ties, and Dirk Kuyt is an integral part of Liverpool’s attack despite patently lacking in the first-touch and acceleration departments). Anyone who watched England U21s recent draw with Spain in the U21 European Championship will have seen how ball-playing defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling struggled to pass out of midfield due to the pressure Spain’s forwards put on the ball even from the goalkick, and Barcelona now regularly rely on Busquets dropping deeper into central defence to outnumber opposing pressers, for example.

Full-backs

Absolutely vital to the modern game, the full-back spends his time running up and down the wings, finding space and offering a constant out-ball. He can stay deep when the team needs to defend, but these days full-backs are an integral aspect of any top-level side’s attacking strategy. Very difficult to mark (it takes a supremely fit and determined winger to track their constant running) they provide the necessary width to stretch defensive units, especially as wide forwards are generally encouraged to cut inside (see Alves’ and Abidal’s function for Barcelona, exploiting the space that their wide forwards, Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa, vacate).

But of course, as with centre-backs, all is not rosy in the full-back’s garden. In fact, their patios are starting to get a bit more cluttered than they used to be, and neighbours’ overhanging foliage is making them feel claustrophobic. I’m talking, again, about ‘defensive forwards’ – specifically ‘defensive wingers’ – who are not just a luxury or a passing phase, but an absolute necessity for any effective defensive strategy. No manager would neglect to counter the threat of Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Luis Suarez – nor should they ignore the fact that players like Real Madrid’s Marcelo pose a potent attacking threat. As such, even the harmless old full-back finds his space regularly restricted. Watch how aggressively/firmly PSV tried to deal with the effervescent threat of Fabio Coentrao in the Europa League this season, for example:

Defensive midfield

As midfields are generally split into two or three lines, the defensive midfield has taken on a particularly unique role. For many of Europe’s biggest clubs, the deep-lying midfielder is responsible for recycling and distributing possession, receiving the ball from his defenders and picking simple passes to the wide players and more advanced midfielders. Michael Carrick of Manchester United, Lucas Leiva of Liverpool and John Obi Mikel have at times each been derided for their style of play – particularly common is the assertion that they contribute little to the team other than simple sideways or backwards passes, that they’re not true matchwinners.

But there’s a reason why defensive water-carriers are held in such high esteem by their managers, and Michael Carrick in particular has friends in high places (Xavi Hernandez and Michael Cox, for example). But perhaps it took the rise of a true master of the role – World Cup and twice-Champions League winner Sergio Busquets (about whom Sid Lowe wrote this eloquent piece) – for people to appreciate the midfield-passer’s importance. A surprisingly large amount (considering Barcelona’s other notable threats) of this years Champions League Final build-up was dedicated to examining how United might disrupt Barca’s flow by tasking Rooney or Park with disrupting Busquets’ passing game. But it is difficult to stop a player like Busquets – his quick wit and simple passing game means that he doesn’t require a great deal of space to be effective, and opposing teams are unwilling to go for wholesale midfield pressing, for fear of committing the cardinal sin of leaving space in front of their defence.

In general, if there is space to be found for creative midfielders on a football pitch, especially those who like to ping adventurous through balls and long passes around, it tends to be in a withdrawn role, just in front of the defence. The use of a double-pivot defensive midfield (i.e. the ‘two’ in the 4-2-3-1) has become increasingly popular, to help midfields retain possession. Players like Luka Modric and Andrea Pirlo, who might (in a previous era) have naturally preferred a traditional ‘number 10’ advanced-playmaker role, have flourished in a deeper position where space is slightly more abundant, and they have time to turn, look-up and survey the field of play in front of them. Xabi Alonso is another masterful playmaker whose natural passing game suits a withdrawn role – he, like those mentioned above, lacks some of the physical attributes necessary to dominate and influence a game from the heavily congested space in front of the opposition’s defence, but is comfortable dictating possession from a deep, looking for little patches of space that become available and reliably threading passes through.

Attacking midfield

There is very little space to be enjoyed here, especially in the central positions. Modern Zidanes, Rui Costas and Riquelmes have had to move deeper/wider in search of space, or they have had to be far more athletic and strong in their battle for the ball. The classic artistic, creative ‘number 10’ has undoubtedly struggled. This is still the most effective area (in an attacking sense) in which to receive the ball, so surging midfield runners like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, as well as ‘inverted wingers’ cutting into the centre, and ‘false nines’ (see below) dropping deep all seek to exploit the advanced midfield positions whenever space appears, however transiently. Notice how Leo Messi generally takes the centre-forward or the wide-right position as his ostensible starting point, but does most of his damage from the central space between the opposition’s midfield and defence.

Traditional/False Number Nines, and the space ‘in behind’

Jonathan Wilson has suggested that “a striker’s primary function is no longer to score goals, but to create the space for others to do so.” This is a fairly revolutionary change in the role of the number 9, and it has clearly had implications for the careers of traditional poachers and finishers. The tyranny of the centre-forward is over. Imagine Michael Owen, in his lifeless, droid-like voice, desperately trying to persuade his determined coach not to render him obsolete (just replace ‘Dave’ with ‘Fabio’ in this clip and you’ll get the idea).

Those strikers who still command respect (and high transfer fees) tend to have the physical attributes to create and score their own chances. Capable of flourishing in the absence of space, beasts like Didier Drogba, Andy Carroll and Zlatan Ibhrahimovic are still sometimes chosen to spearhead attacks, holding up the ball and bringing in the players around them. But more pertinently, any centre-forwards who lack the strength or tenacity to go shoulder-to-shoulder with bruising six-foot-plus centre-backs have tended to drop deeper or wider in search of the ball. Barcelona, full of archetypes, have the ultimate false-9 in their ranks – Lionel Messi. Perfectly complete in almost every department but brawn, the little Argentinian is adept at drifting away from his marker, either dragging them out of position to create space for others to exploit, or finding himself unmarked and doing the damage himself.

Some clubs still see the benefit of a speedy number 9 holding the line, however. Aston Villa were willing to stump up a lot of money for the fairly one-dimensional Darren “always offside” Bent in January, and Manchester United (who, it should be noted, have been heavily beaten by Barcelona in two recent European finals), have used the pacey Chicharito up-front for most of the latter part of this season. A player who doesn’t add a great deal to build-up play, and doesn’t possess the strength or the mentality to bring in others around him, he is a good tactical fit for a team which thrives on the intelligent creative play of Wayne Rooney and the effective use of wingers’ crosses across the six-yard-box. He is, in many ways, the classic poacher, and as such it is surprising that he has supplanted a more creative, more complete player in Dimitar Berbatov. But the Little Pea does something vital for United – he forces opposition defences deeper, scared, as they are, by the threat of simple balls over the top for Chicharito to chase. This creates space in front (rather than behind) the defence which Wayne Rooney has the ability to exploit. A Berbatov-type, who drops deep to collect the ball, offers no real threat ‘in behind,’ so defensive lines are happy to push up and compress the space, giving Rooney far less room in which to manoeuvre.

The end of the Odyssey?

So where can space be found on a top-level football pitch in 2011? Well, for sure, nowhere: no position or area of the pitch is sacred. Of course, if a team focuses its defensive strategy on restricting space in one section of the pitch, then the effect may be that it leaves gaps elsewhere – so, naturally, the availability of space depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the teams in question, and astute tactical minds (both on the pitch and off it) will have to locate the space and use it as intelligently as possible. Perhaps we will see the continued evolution of tactical formations as managers try to exploit the tiny pockets of space to be found – a 3-man defence for example, as favoured by Napoli this season, gives more room for the development of the libero trend, or the hypothetical advent of the ‘Christmas Tree’ (4-3-2-1) might give new life to the Number 10 playmaker by reducing his numerical disadvantage in front of the opponents’ defence.

For now, though, we can delight in fast-paced, fluid, intelligent football practised by artists such as Xavi Hernandez, who make the best of whatever meagre space is available. When asked about his function in the Barcelona side, he replied: “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do, I look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space.” It has been a notable theme of the past few years of football that the players held in the highest regard are either those capable of creating and finding space for themselves or their team-mates, those capable of flourishing despite the absence of space, or those most committed to restricting the space of the opposition. Players who do none of these are fading, slowly, into obsolescence.

By Phil Dodds (@CrowdGoBananes)

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Posted in: Football, Tactics