Systems - Space, Time and the Principles of Play

Posted by PhaseOfPlay on January 10, 2013, 05:35:32 AM

Intro from the Editor

It feels odd doing an intro, but as we've now seen a couple of Systems threads, I should maybe explain what we've been brewing in our smoke- and liquor-filled Scribes' bunker.

The original idea here was to do a series of posts on systems-related subjects, because we've seen a lot of good stuff on that subject on the boards this last few months. That's not to say we didn't always have that kind of discussion - it's just the quality of analysis has been noticably excellent of late.

PhaseofPlay's background means he has more to say on this topic, so in due course he'll be following it up with another. Please weigh in with your thoughts and remember, no question is a daft question in this context. We can't complain about the quality of punditry and journalism in our country if we're not prepared to learn for ourselves, eh?

Over to PhaseofPlay...


Space, Time and the Principles of Play

In light of Royhendo's "Systems" threads, I thought I would add something that might help people with analyzing what the objectives are that Brendan Rodgers might be looking at during his tenure at Liverpool FC. This thread in the "Systems" series will concern itself with the Principles of Attack and Defence that seek to manipulate the available space in a game of football, and how different teams might get their identity by concentrating on specific principles in their system of play.

Space + Time = Tactics –

A lot of people reduce the game, in several ways, to a simplistic explanation that does neither the game nor its concepts proper justice. Some people like to say that the game is 11v11 and whoever has the better players will win. This is only partially true. Others will say that the game is eleven 1v1’s, and whoever wins the most 1v1 battles will win the game. This is also only partially true. What drives the game more than any other concepts are the notions of time and space. Everything in the game happens in relation to these two concepts, and these two concepts are fundamentally related to each other. In short, when a team has the ball, they want to create as much space as possible and take advantage of any space that the defending team leaves empty. Conversely, the defending team wants to reduce space as much as they can, both locally around the ball and, through use of the offside line, globally away from the ball. This is the principle of compactness. There are a number of determinants of how space and time are manipulated. One is skill. The most skilful players have the ability to create space around them, and space equals time; time, then, affords the player the ability to make better decisions. Another determinant is intelligence. This is evidenced in positioning, movement and speed of play. And the determinant we will focus on, which encompasses the others, is formation and strategy. This works first on a global level, and moves to a local level at the ball in how it creates, manages and manipulates space. A game, then, is a constant contest between two groups of players trying to change the space the other team is working in, either by expanding or creating it on the attack, or reducing it and compacting it on defence.

Principles of Attack and Defence –

The tools that are used to manipulate this space are generally called the “Principles of Play”, divided into attack and defence principles. They have some national variations and different explanations, but they essentially drive at the same thing – how a team or a sub-section of a team can manipulate space with the ball and without the ball. The Principles of Play, additionally, can and do counteract each other, all things being equal. They are to be seen below:

The common principle of both attack and defence is Depth. This basically means a team needs more than one layer or line of action to their team, and is why we have team that play in 2, 3 or 4 lines or units. The specific principles of attack that we will refer to, then, are Penetration, Width, Support, and Mobility. This is best remembered in the maxim “if you can’t go forward, go wide; if you can’t go wide, go back; if you can’t go back, then move until you can go forward again”. The corresponding defensive principles, then, are Pressure/Delay (to prevent penetration), Cover (to mark the supporting attackers), Balance (to ensure that width doesn’t create central space through which to penetrate) and Consolidation/Concentration (to ensure that mobility doesn’t destroy the shape of the defence). If we understand that these principles are continually going back and forth, from transition to transition, and that all successful teams operate all of the principles at any one phase of the game, then we can begin to examine the impact of formations and mobility within formations with each other. It can be said, almost, that the best teams build through the principles, and that the very best are adept at the last principles better than most of their opponents – they make better late runs and have better movement on attack, and they consolidate in any area of the field around the ball in a disciplined manner better than any of their opponents can attack. A good attacking team will have players who can penetrate on the dribble or with a pass. It will have players who understand the need for quick support in both the positive and negative space around the ball (positive space for construction of the attack, negative space for retaining possession and switching play). It will also have players making blindside runs and late runs to the back post at the execution of the final ball. Conversely, a good team will understand when it is right to apply immediate pressure and when it is right to delay; how supporting players should be marked and their runs tracked; and importantly, maintaining balance and consolidation in front of goal in the defensive third, to reduce the chance of conceding and increasing the chance of a regained possession.

How the Principles affect Team Play –

When we look at the Principles of Play individually, then, we can instantly recognize that there are certain principles that could be considered hallmarks of different teams. For example, if we look at Manchester United, we can see that their main focus in terms of attacking Principles is Width – they play, currently, almost a 4-2-4 formation, or even a 4-1-1-4 at times, with the two wingers staying wide, stretching the play, and creating space for the midfield two to act as anchors in order to switch the play if one side gets congested:

Similarly, if we look at Barcelona, we can see that their main attacking Principle is Mobility (although Support is also a large factor in their play):

Other teams tend to focus on defensive Principles. A Hodgson team, for example, tends to focus almost exclusively on Consolidation, working on the basis that covering the space in front of goal makes it more difficult for the other team to score  (largely true), leaving the attack up to fast counterattacking patterns (penetration) to score goals:

So we can see that although formations might be the same, one man’s 4-4-2 is different to another’s, based on which principle of play the team is focused on. A team that wants to win the ball early will focus on the defensive principle of Pressure, with Cover as a secondary principle. A team that wants to focus on penetration will usually have a target player up front to play up to with runners from midfield attempting to get beyond the target man. A team that wants to focus on possession will need to focus a lot more on Mobility to ensure passing options for the man on the ball at all times, while a team that wants to cut out passes will focus on Balance, ensuring the weakside of the defensive zone is always covered. It is within these principles of play that teams assert their identity as much as in the skills of the individual players.

How does this affect a Brendan Rodgers team ?

In terms of the style of play that Rodgers has brought to the team, it is interesting that although there are many comparisons to Barcelona, the team that Rodgers’ system is most based on, in terms of principles, is Van Gaal’s Ajax from 1995 – a team that was the epitome of support angles. If we look at the real shape of the ideal Rodgers’ Liverpool, it morphs between a 2-3-2-3 and a quasi-3-4-3, with Lucas dropping into the central defence much like Busquets does for Barca. The key difference is that while Barcelona make more penetrating runs beyond the man on the ball (or they just penetrate through the dribbling of Iniesta and Messi), the current Liverpool team base their movements on taking up supporting angles for the man in possession, and building penetration in phases. This requires that almost all players stay in their shape so that at any point in a possession, the man on the ball should know exactly where his support options are. This means that, Suarez apart, the mobility Liverpool seeks is mobility of the ball rather than mobility of the positions. If we look at the 2-3-2-3, we can see that it lends itself to some excellent support angles:

These angles allow the players to play the possession game with less regard for vision and more regard for distances and passing lanes between players. It allows the ball to be moved with speed and accuracy, and makes use of negative space passes as well as positive space passes. We can see then, that when a team is playing against an on-form Liverpool, that the passing can be mesmerizing, the ball moving from player to player, line to line, with ease. When Liverpool get into this rhythm, and a player makes an unexpected move from position, it creates a moment of indecision in the opposition defence, and typically results in a bad move from the defender that creates space for a Liverpool player. Good examples of this are Cole’s goal against West Ham, and Suarez’s goal against Sunderland from Gerrard’s pass into the space created by Downing’s crossfield run. This is the model of a Rodgers attack, and something that will become more consistent with time. Later, we shall look at how different formations might react to these movements, and how mobility, added to the support structure of the Rodgers system, will help to unbalance and destroy the structure of an opposition system – something that will become important in the future against defensively disciplined teams like Villa and Stoke.

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