Creating a +2 in Possession (Part 2)

To save the possibility of repeating myself, if you haven’t read part one, I’d highly recommend. This will act as a standalone piece, but the thoughts across the board are very much intertwined and the introduction at the beginning will explain the overarching concept.

So what’s today about?

This article will be aimed at one specific aspect of our goalkeeper in build up discussed in the last piece, and that’s looking at the rest defense required to allow a goalkeeper to play so high. To start, I’ll do a quick review for anyone who may have forgotten topics in the last article.

First we talked about the importance of a goalkeeper when building from the goal kick. They act as a permanent +1 against an opposition who can’t use their goalkeeper to defend so high up the pitch.

After, we got into the meat and bones of my point which is trying to get the goalkeeper even higher up the pitch and near the opposition half to participate in a large capacity in the build up. In the image below, our addition of a +1 in the back allows for more width across both the front line and the midfield line.

I discussed a couple of ideas that came out of this, with one end goal of “Create High Quality Chances” specifically using cutbacks and striker movement within the box as a means of creating these moments.

To use the image above, the goalkeeper is so wildly off his line, that the goal is very exposed. Now, this has it’s defensive advantages too, but the main question I’ll aim to answer today: “Do the pros outweigh the cons?”

The first thing that needs to be thought through is what types of tactical decisions in the overarching game-plan would compliment dangerous positioning by a player as critical as the goalkeeper. For example, attacking fullbacks may often get caught out of position, but their absence can be papered over by the center backs or even a covering midfielder. The goalkeeper obviously doesn’t have that luxury, in any capacity, so our game model changes need to be more drastic. Number one immediate thing we can do is cross of the idea of regrouping after losing possession. We don’t have time, and unless our goalkeeper is Usain Bolt, he will concede at least one goal from half per game.

Soooo… John returns back to his favorite style of play; gegenpressing. German for ‘counter-pressing,’ this will be the basis for all of the discussion held in the subsequent sections. The logic is largely straight-forward, in order to keep your goalkeeper safe, the ball must be won back as soon as humanly possible. Many sides counter-press not only because of it’s defensive aspects, but because it is also one of the most effective methods of chance creation. I’m sure by now everyone has seen the Rangnick quote about the most dangerous time to score is 7 seconds after winning the ball, which is true, but it is not my focus in this specific piece. We are counter-pressing to defend. While this may add to the high-risk, high-reward aspect of the side, I personally hold the opinion that this is non-negotiable, and is important for our third part of this article which focuses on the roles (and recruitment) of midfielders. This begs the next question: ‘how?’

Introduce Professor Fink version of John. The first idea that I’m going to discuss is absolutely batshit crazy, almost enough crazy that it might work?

I think first it’s important to simply define rest defense, because it’s a bit of a buzzword these days. Essentially, this is your defensive thought process while in possession. For example, the positioning of your CB’s, 6, opposite side fullbacks, these all fall under the category of rest defense; and are hyper-exaggerated in a gegenpressing system because of the intensity required.

You might be wondering why Bielsa is the cover photo, well, that’s because we’re talking about the idea of man-marking in possession.

Our first rest-defense in this structure will essentially require the offensive players to man-mark the opposition while they’re off-ball… sorta. Yeah, this is going to be complicated and maybe impractical, but it’s the thoughts that count! Let’s start with our diamond structure from the last article and the 3–3–5 in the opposition half.

To illustrate above, the opposition is lining up in (honestly a pretty wide) 4–3–3 shape, with a man-oriented press. First key point being the two situations formed and shown by our boxes. The midfield and defense creates almost a rondo shape 6v6 *cough rondos matter cough* whereas the numerical superiority of the 5v4 in the offensive line is simply horizontal. Our first/immediate problem here is that the 6v6 is a bit too even. We’ve got possession of the ball and a goalkeeper, why are we down a man? To do this, we’ll subtract a man from the front line while continuing to pin the rest of their defenders, essentially losing nothing and gaining a +1 in the build up box. Striker is the most obvious choice here, because he’s central and largely blocked by the midfield, but this also makes him a bad decision because he will struggle to actually help the ball-carrier due to the midfield cover shadow.

Instead, we’ll focus on the wingers, who have the ability to drop into more threatening areas.

In the image above, I focused mostly on the potential to drop into the half spaces, where they’d hypothetically have room to receive from the keeper (with some help from teammates moving out of space) and escape pressure… but also add to the numbers in case of a turnover.

So yeah, let’s refocus a bit because I drifted too far into the possession ideas. You’ve got a 6v6 in that box, which is exceptionally dangerous. We need at least an extra man so that we’re able to man-mark at all times. The midfield will stick to man-marking our opposition midfielders, CB’s on the wingers, and the GK is drifting near the striker. (that last part is where I’m a bit ehh…) The addition of wingers dropping into this box either solves the defensive problem and creates a means of progression, or it creates an outlet ball over the top as the CB’s track them into the midfield.

Our goal here is to keep a defender near you at all times, with the exception of one player, who will aid in the rest defense as well as the progression of the ball through his positioning. This would be the wingers, who would act almost like a pivot, taking turns dropping into the space, while the striker fills the gap. This would either result in continuing to pin the CB, or having space to run in behind. This movement is critical to our rest defense as well as our progression.

It’s a bit muddy, and it totally relies on the opposition having a similar man-oriented pressing structure, which is going out of style, but the idea is there. If you keep an opponent within 5–10 yards, pressing after losing the ball will always be easier, while space may become cramped. This makes that extra man (whoever he is at any instance) drastically more important. Worth noting too that for a fun progression, the front line can shift one direction and have the fullback drop a bit to the sideline, creating a wide 2v1 or at a bare minimum, space to play a ball.

Some important key principles here:

  • Intense counter-press, win the ball back quickly to prevent opposition chance creation. We are not pressing to score, we are pressing to defend, chances are a bonus.
  • Stay in close proximity to opposition players, specifically in the midfield.
  • Compact midfield, sometimes rotating outward to create space between the lines if an opposition is playing tight man-marking.
  • Supporting player dropping into the 6v6 to create a numerical advantage if counter-pressing is required.
  • CB’s movement backwards to support the goalkeeper if opposition pressing angles remove them from play. They should always be available. (Sub-point: balls played to the CB’s is a perfect time for the above rotation of the wingbacks into the wide zone.)
  • Use the front line not only to pin the opposition back four, but also to create a free man who is able to either a) be an option for progression/chance creation, or b) fill space to aid in a counter-pressing scenario.

Very intertwined with more progression content, but generally speaking, this was my first and most outlandish solution to our danger problem. I’m unsure whether or not a team can be coached to pick up on these types of intricate clues, or where all 11 players can recognize when they have space to receive or aid in the rest defense, but it’s a fun idea I think.

Moving onto the next defensive solution, I’m going to take some of the overarching principles from the last section, sprinkle on a few new ones, and reuse a majority of the organization/shapes.

I’d like to begin by talking a bit more about our counter-pressing principles because they’re slightly altered from the ‘common’ beliefs on gegenpressing. For starters, as mentioned in the introduction, our focus is purely defensive. A lot of managers will talk in depth about how their counter-pressing is one of their best chance creation methods. Let it go on record that I’m one of the biggest subscribers to this philosophy, but I don’t think it quite fits.

Let’s take this image as an example. We’ve got not one or two, but three players massively ‘out of position’ given the turnover location in the middle of the pitch. The two fullbacks and the goalkeeper probably have a combined 150 yards to cover before they’re back in position. That means the midfield has one responsibility with their counter-pressing: delay long enough for our team to get back into position, or win possession back quickly. We’ve already established our +1 in the opposition half and I’m not too worried about looking for an extra leg up to score.

That said… if the ball is won in this sequence by the nearby midfielder, it’s a pretty nice opportunity (below). To me, this is nothing more than a plus, rather than an actual aim of our counter-pressing.

Turning over the ball in midfield will likely lead to a lot of chances like this, especially with our supporting man from the offensive line, whether that be a full-back or one of the three forwards dropping in.

Leading into the next category, is the concept mentioned in the man-marking section about a supporting player, because I think a lot of people might question how much that player actually brings to the table. Which is fair, I agree. Let’s look at it a bit more in a diagram.

Going from the GK in possession, a winger dropping into the half space is quite frankly borderline useless. The pass (red) is pretty well covered by at least two defenders, and even if that pass is somehow made, receiving in that position is meaningless because the opposition will be on you pretty quickly. That said, the movement is still very important. Essentially, this forward dropping into the midfield can act as a passing trigger for the defensive line, knowing they know have added dependability within the midfield. With this, the goalkeeper or center back can attempt a ball lofted over the top to a striker or fullback and vertically stretch the opposition a bit more.

There’s a few other possible possession alternatives here that can be used, like a midfielder moving out wide to create space for the forward to receive (below), your mind can kind of wander here. The point remains the same: use our extra man to simultaneously aid in both defensive solidarity and chance creation. This is my first main principle of our true defensive solution.

My next defensive principles is a little bit strange and counter-intuitive to the things that I have grown up being taught about football; remove width. I was always told two things: defense tries to make space small, while attack tries to make it big. Quite binary and not entirely true but fair enough coach. Unlike the last section, I personally think that having all four opposition defenders ‘marked’ is pretty useless here. We’re going to pull one of the fullbacks off, depending on which side the ball is leaning towards. This will almost act as a pivot (lol) motion, where one goes forward and the other inverts backwards.

It’s kind of hard to illustrate with simple circles, but the ball is on the keepers right foot here, so the right-back is staying high and wide, pinning the opposition left-back. On the other hand, our left-back has dropped into the midfield. This gives the ball-side 8 the ability to shift over with confidence in the case of a turnover, creating a 3–4–4 midfield shape.

This, along with the ability to drop a winger in, makes our team unpredictable and strong in the midfield. We’re now able to create chances over top, or build through midfield options and wide options. There are a variety of opportunities for the center-backs (GK included) to build out from the back in some fashion, while being pretty defensively stable.

Our final point focuses on the midfield, those poor guys have been quite neglected thus far in our series. I’ve saved this for last because the entire next article is focused around them, but we’re essentially going to use all three of them for two purposes: pressing and moving. Seems very well, duh, but a vast majority of their job is going to be facilitating the attack and the defense. Football is a fluid game, of course, so they’ll influence in a variety of ways like runs in behind, but generally, their roles are pretty confined.

Returning back to our original fun graphics where everyone is super spaced out to demonstrate the movement I’d like from the midfield. They take over that central zone we saw previously, and move constantly within it, incorporating movement behind the defensive line and the forwards who drop deep. Ideally you’d add unpredictability while sacrificing minimal defensive solidarity in an already precarious situation. Most importantly for the midfield, this gives them the opportunity to receive and play on the half-turn. Let’s look at a way to do that:

Very basic idea here, our central midfielder makes a curved run into the space of our right CM, who is able to drop slightly with a curved run himself, receiving in a dangerous position. There’s a lot of midfield qualities here that will be important in the next article, but for now we’re kind of just brushing over ideas.

In the defensive side, their movement is equally as important, if not more. The balance is created by always making sure we have three players in that central zone, regardless of the movement demonstrated above. They have to be hyper-aware of positioning and movement from their teammates within the midfield, and be willing to cover space and stop their own runs if needed. In terms of actual off-ball actions: pressing is, as stated previously, non-negotiable. These players will be expected to be agile enough to pivot directly from attack to defense and win the ball quickly. At a bare minimum, the expectation is that they can close off passing angles and slow the opposition attack in time for our defensive line to recover properly. The pivot fullback is important here as well, because he is in prime position to recover, while our high fullback is bound to be caught out often. Next week, we’ll go much more in depth into these midfield oriented topics.

The final piece of this series will wrap everything into a nice little game model bow, but I’d like to review my important principles in the second section again because we’ll actually be using them.

  • Counter-Pressing: Defensive focus, use the compact midfield, recycle after winning possession unless concrete opportunity to move forward.
  • Supporting Man: Movement from front line players acts as a trigger for progression mechanisms, while also adding security in the midfield.
  • Pivot Fullbacks: The weak side FB inverts to help provide additional security to the midfield; our opposite FB pins the opposition FB high/wide.
  • Midfield Movement: Movement to create unpredictability while maintaining stability; used as a counter-pressing system.

I guess it would have been important to mention about 2500 words prior that this is a defensive focus in the opposition half, rather than an overarching philosophy. We wouldn’t be doing this in a box defending sequence, that would be dumb. Anyways, I think that about covers everything for today! See you in ~a week for part three, where a certain Englishman will be our focus!



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