Strikerless; The Triple Pivot

There is no such thing as overkill. When you’re playing around with abstract concepts like say… not fielding any actual forwards during a game of football, that’s not a bad code to live by. This got me thinking, especially after being inspired by a post by Chris Darwen… What kind of tactics do real-life teams use to be successful and how can I convert/pervert (cross out the option you deem suitable) those into strikerless ideas. During the last few World Cups, 7 of the last 8 semi-finalists have used a double pivot, but they also fielded a forward. So what would happen if we were to remove the forward and instead slot him into the defensive midfield. That’s right, it’s the birth of the triple pivot system!

Just to be sure we all understand what we’re talking about here, a triple pivot is the deployment of three defensive midfielders, who may be used to protect the defence in a deep block, to prevent the opposition space for counter-attacks, to keep possession by overloading in the first phase, the reasons are almost endless, the triple pivot can be very useful at times.

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The default setup of such a triple pivot looks to distribute the various tasks of a regular midfield between the three players in the defensive midfield position, aiming to generate more space for the other players by drawing the opposing midfielders further forward. I generally opt for a setup with one defensive player and two supportive players. I am want my players to protect the back-line, enable smooth and fluid ball circulation, snuff out counter-attacks and help to initiate attacks by supplying the players in more advanced positions.

The biggest advantage of this triple pivot lies in the flexibility it offers, it allows one or two of the pivots to move forward, supporting the attacking midfielders but also keeping their other duties in mind. The triple pivot can be as flexible as you like and the three players may have totally different duties, as long as they are not all looking to get involved with the attacking phases at the same time. I’ve set up a system where there is one defensive role, one supportive role and one more offensive role. You can generally use whichever roles you prefer, as long as you maintain some sort of balance.

On the subject of the pivots having different duties, a strength of the triple pivot is that one defensive midfielder can press the ball without leaving lots of space as the other pivots can stay in position, either marking the opposition number 10 or false 9 or maintaining a good position to react if the initial press is bypassed. The double pivot offers huge defensive stability and is an extremely useful tool to help teams maintain a structured shape. Having two defensive midfielders centrally prevents others being dragged out of position to press. If there was only one pivot and his press was bypassed, it would force a central defender to leave the defensive line and press the attacker, which in turn would leave a gap. Helping the defenders maintain solid positioning is a key part of Matic’s role at Chelsea, he will press almost anywhere in his own half to allow defenders to stay in the defensive line.

My setup consists of a Half-Back for the defensive part. He doesn’t excel offensively, he’s not the one making the Hollywood-passes, nor is the one to score a heap of goals or rack up assists like it’s nothing. He isn’t a proficient force defensively, normally he’s not the one with the great last-ditch sliding challenge or the skillful tackle on an opposing player. No, the Half-Back is the master of the Transition phase of play and his main weapon is his positional awareness and vertical and lateral movement across the pitch. Yes, the noble Half-Back, the invisible driving force in defensive midfield. You could argue he is the glue that holds the team together.

The Half-Back looks to serve a role somewhere between an aggressive sweeper and the more traditional defensive midfielder. During the various phases of the game, he takes up different roles and positions, all of them inconspicuous. He sacrifices his own offensive aspirations to allow the wing-backs more freedom. He just sits in between the defenders or in front of the defensive line, plugging gaps, intercepting the ball and keeping possession.

The supportive role is formed by another primarily defensive player, pushed further up the pitch in a support role. The ball-winning midfielder is supposed to close down the opposing midfielders, harassing them all the way and either winning the ball or buying time for the other players to shuffle back into their defensive positions. Like the Half-Back, he’s supposed to be a master of transition-phases, not just a brawny, mindless enforcer. Whilst a healthy dose of aggression is definitely not frowned upon, his main strength lies in delaying opposing midfielders and allowing the other players to re-structure the defensive line.

In the not-too-distant past, your traditional defensive midfielders were widely considered to be the midfielders who did the dirty work, guys like Gennaro Gattuso, Nigel de Jong, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. Defensive midfielders were underrated. Stereotypically, defensive midfielders are portrayed and viewed as aggressive, wild and cynical players. That’s not to say that’s not how some of them played. However, they do possess other traits and offer alternative options besides the destroyer role. Basically, while a defensive midfielders’ primary role is to shield the defense and goalkeeper, they can and should also be tasked with starting their teams’ attacks immediately after breaking down the attack of the opposition, thus giving them a more constructive role. That’s what the Ball-Winning Midfielder on a support setting aims to do.

The offensive role is formed by a Roaming Playmaker. This player is basically a sort of hybrid between the wandering midfielder we usually see further up the field and the generally more static defensive midfielders we are used to. What I want is a player who penetrates the opposing lines far more frequently; a withdrawn box-to-box player or basically the Roaming Playmaker. My guy is expected to initiate attacking play from deep and make himself available all over the pitch in the follow-up.

In order to highlight the true value of the Running Regista, I need to take a page out of the playbook of an entirely different sport; ice hockey. In ice hockey, an assist is attributed to up to two players of the scoring team who shot, passed or deflected the puck towards the scoring teammate, or touched it in any other way which enabled the goal, meaning that they were “assisting” in the goal. There can be a maximum of two assists per goal. The assists will be awarded in the order of play, with the last player to pass the puck to the goal scorer getting the primary assist and the player who passed it to the primary assister getting the secondary assist. It’s those secondary assists I want from the Roaming Playmaker. The Roaming Playmaker is supposed to come in from a deep a position and pick up loose balls or help set up an attack from a more advanced position than usual. In an ideal situation, he can penetrate the defensive line for a finish inside or on the edge of the box, but keeping the passing flow going is his primary asset to the way I want to play.

This setup helps to generate pockets between the opposition’s defence and midfield. These pockets of space occur because the AI does not know how to deal with the three defensive midfielders. Generally, one of two situations arises. The first situation sees the defenders and midfielders remain fairly static and maintain their shape. This means the midfielders have no real opponents because of my lack of actual midfielders, which means their midfielders generally pick up on my attacking midfielders, leaving my remaining midfielder wide open.

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When the opposing team stands down in order to maintain their regular shape, they generally allow our midfielders to pass and move forward freely, overpowering the opposing forwards and just finding the space with the central midfielder, who is generally left wide open because the opposing midfielders tend to pick up our attacking midfielders. I’ve fielded a Central Winger in the MC(A) position, which means this player will turn and run towards goal when he gets the chance, which tends to cause all sorts of problems for the other side.

The second situation sees the opposing midfielders step it up a notch and actively engage our triple pivot in the defensive midfield. This stretches their team though and since their defenders never defend on the half-way line, this situation also opens up a pocket of space for us to exploit.

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So yeah, a triple pivot, because sometimes overkill actually works.

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