Creating a +2 in Possession (Part 1)

Did the title grab your attention enough? Good, let me explain. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to explain two tactical progressions that would drastically alter a team’s control on a match, and their ability to create numerical superiority across the pitch. This is done through two pieces, the first being the goalkeeper. Moving them further up the field to aid in progression and possession, similar to what is done at clubs like Manchester City, but imagine this on steroids? The second piece of the puzzle is the ‘6’ or our anchor-man in midfield. Yeah, we’re removing him. There will no longer be a midfielder responsible for breaking up counter attacks or recycling possession, we won’t need him anyways.

So to break this up, we’re going to have three pieces on three different categories, and a fourth piece that wraps everything into one. First is today’s article, which will look at the usage of a goalkeeper in deep build up, and further progressing into the opposition half, before rounding it up with some discussion on the goalkeeper’s role in “sustained pressure” in the opposition half. After that, we’ll discuss some defensive safeguards to make this possible, and how a team would defend while in possession. Essentially: what rest defense is required for a club who also puts their goalkeeper on the half line? Finally, we’ll focus on this concept of altering traditional views on a midfield 6, and a bit of how it applies to recruitment as well.

To start, I think it is most logical to begin from the deepest possible position of possession, which I would argue is a goal kick. We will use this as our first hypothetical scenario, as everything becomes drastically more abstract after that. I probably haven’t studied enough top flight football to make conjecture like this, but I’m willing to bet that a majority of the best clubs have some sort of automatisms created to circumvent progression from their goal kicks, and I’ll talk about this more, but you will have to wait until the final, longer piece. Today, we will focus mostly on two main shapes that I’ve hypothesized would aid in progression the best.

The first, is essentially a 4–3–3 which focuses a bit more on wide progression by using a single pivot and two wide 8’s. That said, in the subsequent paragraphs, we will look at a variety of permutations that this shape could look like in defense. Here in the image below, and I’ve highlighted the main important connections. Due to the volume of diamonds across the pitch, I’m titling this one “The Diamond” for ease throughout the rest of the piece.

Our next formation, while similar, adds a second man into the deeper midfield area, essentially using a double pivot. The focus here is on much more central progression and creating overloads in that area. This is why the wingers have dropped deeper into the half-space zone and almost all of the width comes from the wingbacks in this case. The blue highlighted zone in the image below demonstrates the numbers created in the center of the pitch. This one’s got no fancy name, it’s just a 4–2–3–1.

Shapes are cool and all, but let’s dive deeper shall we?

Goal Kick Build Up:

The main intentions behind this larger project is to investigate how we can utilize a goalkeeper in a volatile position like the middle third, but of course, we have to get there somehow. So, the next topic to look at is transitioning possession from the defensive 1/3, to the middle 1/3, starting from the goal kick. There’s a few methods to do this, the first (and maybe most common?) is some sort of automatism. This is essentially a rehearsed routine of passes utilizing things like a third man run to find free space in an advantageous position. I think of Sarri as the popularizer of this, although I have almost zero evidence to suggest that, he’s certainly one of the best examples. Conte also. The other method is similar, rehearsed movements that create a variety of unpredictable options. I talked about this a bit in my Dortmund piece, similar movements often resulted in similar passing patterns, but there was a higher encouragement on players to find their own solutions. My personal preference is the second, and that will be my focus, but almost all “options” created in this method, can also be turned into a more complicated automatism.

Possession requires a purpose and intention behind it, where do we want to have the most strong possession of the ball? Our two formations will have two different hypothetical ‘dominance’ zones which cater to their strengths. The diamond, first, will be look at the wider areas.

These yellow areas not only denote which zones we’re looking to possess, but also the zones that will most often have some form of numerical superiority. Let’s add some pieces onto the board now to look at what this would look like.

I think ideally you’re stretching a team with more verticality here too…

So, including the goalkeeper, you’re looking at least 6/11 players comfortably in the wide areas, while another 2 adding support from the midfield. This is our ideal situation for this diamond formation, because it creates wide diamonds!

Let’s rewind a bit now, we need to use the goalkeeper and the positions of each player to get us up to this point on the field. Back to the goal kicks!

Our first pass will be the most important pass, and in this case, you have 5 options (technically 6, you can also smash it long.). The two center backs, the 6, and the fullbacks with a lofted pass. From here, it gets a lot more complicated, because rather than focusing on an ideal pass, we’re going to talk about a variety of options that each player is presented with.

Same glow = same passing options, solid line = ground pass, hash lines = air pass.

Fair few passes that aren’t shown here that you could also elect for, but the general idea is this: regardless off opposition, this diamond shape promotes wide combinations and depending on opposition, the first first pass can vary causing a shifting, subsequent chain reaction of passes to progress. Thousands of potential permutations simply created by the opponent and the player’s own decisions. The goal here should be to create a structure that creates options and those options further progression.

Another way to visualize this idea is to revisit the image prior, which nicely shows each of the important groups. The two wide combination groups are vital to the progression, while central combination groups help provide defensive security, variance in attacking direction, and a joint between the two sides of the pitch. The final box between the 6, CB’s and GK displays our foundational piece of the puzzle. Each player who appears in multiple sections acts as a way to transition from sector to sector, while the 6 basically connects them all.

In future parts of this series, I want to talk more about this diamond shape and it’s advantages, but for now, the narrow 4–2–3–1 that was shown earlier gets a chance to shine for a bit.

In this shape, you’re probably looking at causing most of your problems through the center of the pitch, with minimal width being provided by one or two players, specifically the wingbacks. My immediate problem here is that without a qualitative superiority, you will likely struggle, while a club like City, has thrived in a similar shape. You’ve only really got the wingbacks wide, although the inside forwards could also drift out there as well.

So to rewind again, we’re looking to focus our progression through the center of the pitch. Often an opposition is defending as narrow as possible, making this difficult. To do this, our goal-kicks will always start by going wide, and coming back inside, meaning the goalkeepers availability is even more important in this formation than the others.

Now, if an opposition allows the first pass to go central so easily, we will obviously take it, but I’m working under the assumption that those opportunities will be very far and few between. From here, the passes look a big different compared to the last section. If a CB receives, my preference is that he plays the ball wider to a fullback as much as possible or recycles back to the goalkeeper if that option is unavailable. We want to get the ball (and thus, the opposition) as wide as possible first. After that, the ball moves central. An important piece here is the height of the fullbacks when receiving. Their starting position should naturally be higher so that the CB and GK have the space to clear their line and aid in quick circulation of play forward.

This might look something like this…

Orange: player movement, Green: ball movement, Solid: ground pass, Hash Lines: lofted pass. Included a couple of lowered opacity players to help show the movement a bit better. .

So this gives you an example in the first section of how a variety of options can be proposed to each player when receiving, and how a formation can facilitate that. Our second example exemplifies a type of passing pattern that could be used to expand an opposition.

I feel like we lost a bit of the point here, so let’s refocus again on the goalkeeper. In all of these moments, it is imperative that not only is the goalkeeper making himself an available option for a reset or safety pass, but that he is competent enough to play under pressure. I’ve had this project idea in my head for a couple months now, but Carl just recently posted a very timely example of a way that a goalkeeper can demonstrate this ability on the ball. This example is in a slightly different phase of play, but in each clip the goalkeeper demonstrates a competency on the ball. Similar to the touches that a center back can take in the build up to manipulate a defender’s body shape, goalkeepers have a unique opportunity to do something similar, but with extra time and as an extra man.

This all leads into the next section, as all of these skills become more impactful with space to defend in the back line. Beyond the defensive aspect though, I want to talk about how a goalkeeper can make an important impact further up the pitch,

A ‘Sustained Pressure’ Phrase

A definition is probably the best way to start this, because really, what is a ‘sustained pressure phase’ John? Going to borrow a graphic I didn’t use for the Dortmund team analysis to show this. Essentially, ‘sustained pressure’ is when a team is able to dominate possession in the opposition half. They’re continually putting pressure on the opponents defense and making it difficult for them to build out on their own.

I honestly have no idea what was in my brain when I made this? Helps explain the idea which is what matters.

This phase of play is where our goalkeeper conversation becomes the most interesting, because I think we can bring him even higher than seen in that image above. Ideally, the goalkeeper would functionally play as the center center-back, all the way to line with them, and willing to do all of the things a center-back would do in those same positions. The benefits here are pretty obvious, using your goalkeeper so deep in the build-up allows for someone further up the pitch to be more dangerous somewhere else, but further optimization and elaboration is still possible.

To do this, we’ll jump back again to the build-up structures that we had talked about earlier in the article and look at what sort of shapes could be utilized higher up the pitch, and the potential benefits to them in the opposition half.

So here’s your first (rough) image, of what a 3–3–5 would look like when using the goalkeeper this high on the pitch. This specifically stemmed from the diamond image, although I’m not really sure there’s much difference between the two. At least not offensively, defense is the next section of this project and so we’ll differentiate in that category next week.

The immediate point to be made here is the sheer amount of width afforded to this lineup, in all three lines, is near impossible to match anywhere else. A front five is able to comfortably occupy the 5 vertical zones, and is probably one of the most common aspects of ‘modern’ football. Meanwhile, in the midfield, our (first) extra man gets pushed here. This allows the midfield to span from half-space to half-space, and it has enough players to allow one of the 8's to shuttle wide and support the fullback if the circumstances call for it. In the image below you can see how even when drawing one of the midfielders all the way wide, we’re still able to match up pretty well 2v2 in the center of the pitch, while creating almost a 5v3 in that wide area. Pretty cool what types of possibilities the extra man opens!

Of course, this is a little bit possession-possibilities-without-purpose-ey, so let’s add some sort of directive to our offensive thoughts to extrapolate the hypotheticals. Massive point for these next few paragraphs: Create High Quality Chances.

  • Wide combination play is encouraged through the starting formation, and this continues to be the case higher up the pitch. Look to free the winger or FB for a cutback or a cross.
  • Use the numbers found in the front line to pin defenders and create a free-man, and use one-touch passing to find that man.
  • Utilize the value of the half space runs, cutbacks, and third man runs.
The striker could also make this run, while the winger drops into the box over his shoulder.
  • Use the width created by the front line and midfield to aid in quick switching and attack the opponent from a different angle.
  • Similar to the goal-kick scenario, begin by playing the ball wide and moving it back central to force the opposition lines to shuttle and focus wide, before using the GK as an avenue of quick switching.
  • Use passes wide as a trigger for a winger to vacate space and the 8 to make a run in behind the defense.
  • Run of the striker on the CB’s blindside to open up a high quality chance in the box, while midfield crashes for potential rebounds.
Ideally the fullback would follow the winger inside to open that space behind, if not an unmarked man has now entered the midfield.

I think this mostly covers the scatterbrained thoughts I had on the in-possession aspect of this topic, hopefully it was coherent enough to follow my thought process and we’ve got a solid foundation to build around for the next part of the series. Around the same time next week we’ll take the next step and look at the rest defense required to facilitate such a dangerous position for a goalkeeper.

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