Updated: Aug 4
As teams develop and improve their build-up play, along with their ability to progress the ball in possession, I’m fascinated by the possibility around whether they potentially become more predictable and easier to read when they are in and around the final third. It's quite normal that can improve in any area of the game, and it still can potentially take away or decrease your efficiency in another. For example, becoming a better attacking team may may you more expansive and at risk defensively. Opportunity cost would also suggest that when you are working on one aspect, you are not working on another, so I think it’s important to point out that this is not an article pinpointing weaknesses in attacking systems, but rather one where I’m trying challenge what the next evolution is. As more coaches go through formal coach education, players are getting exposed to organized coaching and environments at earlier ages. Does this correlate in too much structure versus creativity? Let’s take a closer look.
In Jed Davies’ excellent book, ‘The Philosophy of Football: In Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa’ he details four key languages of the game. The first one is ‘Up-Back-Through’ where an entry pass into the feet of a central player engages the opposition’s central defense, the ball is then played to a player underneath the ball, who then plays the ball through space created behind the center back who was dragged out, and into an oncoming teammate who is running through. Below is a classic example from Chelsea under Jose Mourinho's first spell at the club and one that I think a number of teams at all levels look to utilize today.
I wrote about crossing a few weeks ago and how team's dependence on it as an attacking threat has diminished in recent years. With central attacks becoming more and more popular for teams, does an over-reliance on the 'up back and through' make teams become more predictable? There are two potential limitations with this tactic:
First is the distance between forward and opposition defensive midfielder. Compact defensive lines are very much part of the modern game, so the center forward has limited time before one or even two holding midfielders are collapsing on the ball and creating a 1v3 situation with the forward. (See below)
Secondly, if the opposition defend in a narrow block, they very well might block passing lanes into the forward initially. This can slow down circulation of the ball, draw center backs higher in possession and open up the threat of the counter attack. In the example below of Bournemouth versus Liverpool, you can see the compactness between the two lines of pressure, but also the distances between full-backs and center-backs, making it very difficult for the initial pass and for the wide runner to find space to run into. (See below)
The great Kobe Bryant once said in 2014, "To be unstoppable, you have to first be predictable. If you’re unpredictable, you don’t know what the heck you’re going to do. So how can you dictate to the defense what you’re going to do? So you have to be really simple." I think this is a really powerful quote when it comes to possession based teams because you require an initial level of predictability in your game when you are beginning the journey as players have to develop confidence in the season, along with an awareness of who is playing alongside them. That process of evolution can be accelerated depending on the level, but I do not believe that it can be bypassed. We need this stage as coaches and players, so that everyone can become more efficient in the movements and more committed to their decisions. Going back to Kobe’s theory, the next step is dictating to the opponent. For me, this is where the top teams differentiate themselves when they are attacking. Manchester City and Liverpool do not have a Plan B, where they go direct and sacrifice their principles. Instead they just have more strings to the bow when it comes to Plan A. If the best teams don't have access to the 'up back and through' they will still find goals from aspects like wide areas, set pieces, and long range shots. There is no doubt that the top teams today will find a number of different ways to beat you.
Facilitating unpredictability as a coach is very much like coaching creativity in the sense that it is enormously complex and depends on a number of variables. When Thierry Henry described the philosophy of Pep Guardiola in those great days at Barcelona on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, he broke it down in the video below, where there was very high levels of disciplined structure in the first two-thirds of the pitch, and then the players were free to do what they want in the final third. I think this is an outstanding piece of insight for a coach, in terms of balancing structure and creativity. However, I don't think it's easily transferable to every level because if it was as easy as directing to your team to do what they want in the final third when you don't have the caliber of Barcelona, the chances are you will still struggle to score goals.
Player profiling is therefore a critical element of facilitating that creative license effectively when attacking centrally. Looking at Thierry Henry specifically, he had a number of elements to his game that were world class, most notably speed and quality of finishing. Although he was never considered a great 'back to goal' player, his creativity and shooting range allowed him to create chances when he was under pressure in the final third. Below are some of his goals with Arsenal when he was facing away from the goal
What happens if you don't have a Thierry Henry on your team? My advice would be twofold. Firstly, coaches must work on developing forward players who can not simply receive the ball and lay if off, but who also can use pressure, as Kobe Bryant said, to "dictate to the defense." This is not a modern trait of center forwards and something that, with over-reliance on up, back and through or rondo's, we may actually be coaching out of players. Session structure certainly comes into play here. As we look to create players who can excel in 1v1, it's important to recognize that the majority of forwards will receive pressure from the back, and look for them to develop different solutions in their game. Jonas Munkvold is a coach who has done some excellent work on the different angles that different positions receive pressure from and how we must adjust sessions accordingly. A great example of this skillset in a game is below with Brazilian forward Edmundo playing for Vasco De Gama against Manchester United in 2000. He senses the pressure from the center back, flicks the ball and spins to collect it on the other side and score. Phenomenal piece of skill, but twenty years later are players being coached or encouraged to do this today?
My second piece of advice would be that, because this is very much a process in terms of development, you will have to expect a lot more individual mistakes in the final third and deal with that. One way of doing this would be to give players the license to try to twist and turn, but if it does not work, then there is an expectation to counter-press aggressively. Below is an example from Mo Salah with Liverpool where he tries a turn, it does not work, but he wins the ball back and creates a shot on goal. This can be coached at any level of the game and is a great way to almost 'trade off' with your team that you will give them more freedom, but they must recover in a positive way if it does not work.
Overall, if teams are going to evolve tactically, then surely improving improving the profile of your attacking players must be part of that process, especially if you do not have access to the transfer market. Individual development within a collective structure may well be the next frontier for the game. We are already seeing how coaches like Klopp and Guardiola are getting credit from their own players for helping them improve, so maybe this also aligns to the needs of the current generation also.
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