Systems - Mobility of Position and the Disruption of Formations

Posted by PhaseOfPlay on January 17, 2013, 06:32:02 PM

Mobility of Position and the Disruption of Formations

One of the maxims of tactics in coaching and managing a football team is that tactics are like a short blanket – Pull one end up too high, and your feet will get cold; Pull the blanket down to cover your feet and your head will get cold. The trick is to find the happy medium which gives you balance and maximum coverage with minimum exposure. As we have seen previously, there are underlying principles that influence the flow and shape of both attack and defence.  We will look at one specific principle here – mobility – and how it affects the shape of the other team, and how different types of mobility can temporarily shift the space on the field.

A Few Basics –

Before we begin, the following will be based on a number of parameters. Firstly, Liverpool will always be the team facing “upward”. Thirdly, the reference points will be a 3-channel by 4-zone grid. Secondly, the field and formations will be split into four bands along the length of the field. If the field is compressed by a defence pushing up, the 3x4 grid merely stretched to accommodate this – if you are considering the implications of a back four pushed up, for example, imagine the grid being stretched from the goal-line to the back four, and the other three lines being compressed to compensate:

The Channels are always rigid though. Thirdly, as a result, formations will always be spoken of in four bands rather than three, with freedom to extrapolate positioning for different formations if desired (so a 4-4-2 could be broken down to a 4-2-2-2, a 4-1-3-2 or a 4-4-1-1, for example). The bands are: Defensive Zone, Defensive Mid Zone, Attacking Mid Zone, and Forward Zone. Fullbacks will be considered Defensive Mids for the sake of argument and clarity, if they are regularly pushed high. From this, you can extrapolate roles such as Wingbacks and Box to Box midfielders, etc. Lastly, a reference to this article posted by Royhendo in the Principles thread will give a good summary of where this thread is going:

Additionally, ignore the actual players in positions - they are just there for reference, so Stewart Downing is the Left Back merely for example, Sterling is the right winger over Borini, etc. The ideas work regardless of who plays where.

And so we begin…

The Field is not the same for both Teams -

If we look at the Principles of Play, then, and specifically mobility, we can start to see the logic behind formations and why managers favour some formations over others, and why they build their defences in different areas of the field to other coaches. Let’s start by looking at a Liverpool 2-3-2-3 against a 4-4-2, using our 3x4 cell grid mentioned earlier:

What we can see here is that there are virtually no usable spaces behind the opposition back four if they play with conservative fullbacks. What we also notice, though, is that there ARE spaces in FRONT of the opposition fullbacks. These spaces mean that the wing forwards can drop off into these spaces against a 4-4-2 team, and the fullbacks will either have to follow the run, which will create space for an Enrique or Johnson to attack; or they will hold their position, which means that the wing forward will have space to play in. This is intriguing in light of Rodgers’ statements concerning Suarez playing wide. If he plays in this space (as he frequently does now), the fullback is either going to be beat by Suarez’ dribbling, meaning the central defenders will be overloaded. If he plays conservatively and tightly marks Suarez, whoever the left back is will have a lot of space to play with. If the opposition outside right mid then decides to play conservatively also (as McClean did for Sunderland), then the opposition attack begins to be rendered ineffective already, as their starting positions will not be optimal for quick counter attacking, and most teams playing a 4-4-2 in the Premier League aren’t looking to make the Play.

Another thing we notice is in central midfield – it is accepted that a midfield three against a 4-4-2 will have a numerical advantage in the middle of the field, but while that is great in terms of possession, essentially it makes one of the midfielders redundant, spatially. When we look at our diagram again, we see that Lucas is the one that is left with a lot of space to patrol, but nobody to mark, essentially. It also explains why Gerrard dropping into this space from a more forward central position, as he did against Sunderland, will have a lot more space to plan his passes. So what do we do with the redundant player? In terms of playing against a 4-4-2, we can see that the dangerous spaces for a Liverpool team under Rodgers are behind the fullbacks. The two central defenders are occupied by a forward each. So what is the solution? The solution is simply to have Lucas drop into the defence, freeing up both central defenders to occupy these spaces whenever the ball is played in. Add to that two athletic wingbacks, playing selectively in their attacking runs, and we can see how we are managing the space defensively, eliminating most of the opposition opportunities to penetrate quickly, and forcing them to play a slower build-up game. If this is not their natural attack, they will surrender possession a lot more often than they would like. The movement of the wingers and central midfielders into the two spaces underneath the defending team’s fullbacks also pulls their shape apart as their players track their man, creating space in the 4-4-2 that didn’t previously exist.

What is the situation, then, if the other team plays a 4-3-3? In terms of the forwards against the defence, the situation is the same:

But now the space behind the wingbacks is occupied by the opposition wingers. This then necessitates the Liverpool wingbacks to play more conservatively. Dropping Lucas into the space between the defenders will help, but it will also leave a central midfielder free. So for this type of formation, the key mobility actions will come from the wingers, as before, but also the wingbacks. The game will almost become a battle of which team’s wingbacks will be more effective. Essentially, for a Rodgers team against a 4-3-3, the game comes down to who has the most skilful players, whose fullbacks can do a complete attack and defence job, and whose forwards can eliminate the opposite central defenders the most.

Against a formation such as a 3-5-2, though, things get a bit tricky. As we will see, the space behind the wingbacks is still vulnerable, but the space in which the front three can comfortably move in order to drag the opposition defenders out of their zones is now completely absent – in fact, the wingbacks and the outside central defenders effectively double up on the Liverpool wingers. This explains the trouble Liverpool had creating chances against Villa, who were disciplined and hard-working, as well as incredibly focused on the principle of consolidation. This left little attacking space free, and forced the wingbacks more forward than was safe, which necessitated the central defenders (Agger and Skrtel) wider to cover for the wingbacks and to split cover of those vulnerable spaces behind the wingback positions. The trade-off (the short blanket again) was that we left the central zone very vulnerable, with Lucas not only having to occupy his own midfielder, but having to effectively cover Weimann and Benteke when the ball was lost on transition. The only effective way to manage these spaces, as mentioned in the Back Three thread, is to match their formation:

This effectively eliminates ALL the vulnerable spaces, tactically. On the other hand, it turns the game, much like against the 4-3-3, into a game of individual match-ups; the outcome then rests more or less in open play on who can get the better of their match-ups – if our individual forwards are better than their individual defenders, then we should create chances. If their wingbacks are better than ours, we are at risk of overloads. If their central midfielders are individually weaker than ours, then we should dominate that area of the field. This is how the field and its space and time are manipulated through system and formation changes to take advantage of the other team. It is why tactically flexible coaches like Benitez succeed where others don’t. It is also why great harnessers of individual talent like Ferguson and Mourinho need to have access to good individual players. It is also why in one sense Rodgers will have success – our game will be built on extreme mobility of both players and the ball. In another aspect, though, if we get stuck playing the same system when there are clear vulnerabilities against a certain small number of teams, we may not get results we deserve on talent and skill alone.

Mobility from Position –

So now that we can see a simple view of the vulnerable spaces within certain formations, we can also see how mobility becomes more important. The overwhelming majority of defences these days play a ball-oriented zonal defence. This is a defence which takes its shape according to the position of the ball on the field, with covering defenders aligning themselves according to the position of the next man in their line. However, that is not to say that marking does not take place – it certainly does. Marking will take effect both when the ball is close to a player’s zone and when the ball is near the goal. Primarily, though, movement from position will occur between the boxes. As we can see above, there are certain sensitive areas for different formations. How a team moves within these areas will say a lot about their game intelligence, their tactical plan, and their physical mobility. The key movements to take advantages of these spaces are checking runs, of which there are two types – active checking runs, and false checking runs. An active checking run is a run where the player actively seeks to receive the ball. A false checking run may look to receive the ball, but is also intended to drag a defender out of position and create space behind them. Suarez frequently makes active checking runs into midfield to receive and turn and go at defenders. Downing’s run for THAT goal versus Sunderland is an example of a false checking run, where the intention MIGHT be to receive the ball, but the run is made with the knowledge that a defender will have to track it, and thus leave position, which creates a pocket of space for someone else. A good gauge of how smart a team is and how well they understand the game is how many of these checking runs and the subsequent penetrating runs into the space from a 3rd attacker are made. This, over most other things, is the sign of a cultured team.

Reading the Game –

If we look at formations in this manner (coverage of space, manipulation of the opposition through movement from position,  penetration into space created, understanding of the principles of play and which principle the opposition are looking to emphasise), then we can see how the Rodgers 2-3-2-3 can be altered to nullify the threat the opposition poses, not just by an actual formation change, but with simple movements of players to cover spaces in possession that could be vulnerable on transition. In order to do this, though, the team needs to be adept at reading the game, understanding what the opposition are trying to do on the ball, and what spaces they are likely to leave, if any. What I would imagine Rodgers is looking to do, is build a team that is mobile enough to change the defensive space of the other team through their timed and choreographed movements, or change the defensive space through individual skill when the shape of the other team is covering the effective spaces well. This is why the oft-made cry of “two or three transfer windows” is justified – there are only certain types of players who will understand these subtle movements, and at Liverpool Rodgers finally has a chance to pursue them to realize his vision. These players will be clever, agile, good with the ball and positionally sound. But more importantly, they will be intelligent enough to understand space and how it is being changed and shaped by both the movement of the ball around the field and the movement of players to create space for the ball. It is why we have seen some more direct patterns of play recently. It is also why the future of a Brendan Rodgers Liverpool could be, under the right circumstances, as exciting as anything we played in 1988 or 2009.

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