Maximizing Use of Full-Backs in the Attack
A common complaint you often hear from coaches who fail to breakdown a defensive side is that they " lacked quality in the final third." Defensive compactness is a common theme at almost all levels of the game today when you are in clear possession of the ball at the halfway line and beyond. Breaking down a block of 8-10 players from 25 yards out can therefore be extremely difficult, but one way of potentially solving this problem is to get full-backs into unorthodox attacking positions and possibly create an overload in a high value area of the pitch.
Below you can see Leeds United U23 team's effective use of getting the right back into a central position, behind the line of midfield pressure and then creating an opportunity where the right back can drive at the opposing center back and leads to a goal.
Timing is crucial here for two reasons. Firstly, the central midfielder must be able to twist and turn against an opposing midfielder to play forward. Without that scenario, if the full-back takes off too early and the ball is not secured by the central midfielder, the attacking team is then susceptible to the counter attack. Secondly, the space in front of the center backs must be open, so if the opponents are playing with two holding midfielders and neither of them come out, the passing combination may remove the opposing wide midfielder, but will not open up space centrally, and again could leave the team open to the threat of the counter attack. Below shows the manipulation of the opponent's holding midfielders to create the space for the pass into the full-back.
Below you can see the change of speed in the attack once the opportunity does open for the full-back to get into that position. With an attacking overload, you only have a window of time before the defensive team recovers. Typically the higher the level or the better the team, the quicker that recovery is. When we talk about players playing at their maximum today, this is a great example why it applies to focus and decision making, as much as it does towards effort. The commitment and confidence of the full-back to execute the pass, run, and cross is ultimately what leads to the goal.
How would I coach this? Again, it's pretty complex and with so many variables such as timing, there are a variety of different ways and starting points. My focus as a coach primarily would be communicating the space that we want to exploit, as well as how we must try and remove one of the holding midfielders in order to access it. Below I have created a 10v9 situation with a 30x10 yards central area. Inside the central area, there are only two defensive players allowed at any time. With the numerical advantage, the team in possession may not find the specific situation open, but they will have freedom to rotate different players into different positions, and try to unlock the center of the pitch. Below you can see that the full-back makes the run a little too early, but the #7 drops in to keep possession, overload the opponents, and create the space on the weak side of midfield for the #6 to drive into and create an opportunity on goal.
The attacking team should see a reasonable amount of success with this so the natural progression would then be to add an opposing player, so it becomes 10v10. I would also add a central goal so the pressure is incentivized a little more. The game now becomes a little more difficult for the team in possession and, added to the fact that the defensive team are naturally going to prevent the ball into the central space, I would add one more condition to the game: If the team in possession uses the central space and score, they are awarded 2 points. If they do not use the central space to score, the goal is worth one point. The key difference to address here is where penetration occurs. For example, in the example below, although they do work the ball into the middle, they penetrate from the wide flank, so the goal counts as one, as oppose to two points.
After this, I would look at expanding the field and then making use of the vertical space using an 11v11 game with two wide vertical zones on each side of the pitch (See below). The conditions of the game are simple: The team in possession are free to move anywhere inside the pitch, but when the ball is played into a wide channel, the outside back and outside midfielder cannot occupy the same one. Therefore, they must interchange and either use the movement to create space to keep possession, or penetrating and attacking the opposition. I choose this exercise because it all depends on how the opposition react and challenges the players to make decisions, without maybe restricting them to finding one set solution.
Below would be where I would see the benefits of being flexible with the idea of full-backs running outside to inside. You can see that the opponent's defend with a central block and this creates a 2v1 out wide whenever the center back drives forward. Again, the speed and flexibility of Leeds United players to read this opportunity and take advantage of it to create the goal is excellent.
Overall, I would want to expose the players to as many opportunities that the situation can provide, as oppose to focusing on one particular scenario. In the first Leeds United clip, the movement of the two wide players in tandem is something that we have seen glimpses of in Bielsa's training, so I would certainly not dismiss it's influence here. However, I think the ability of Leeds players to create a variety of different types of attacking situations from wide areas, shows that they are also working with this based off the actions and shape of the opponents.
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