What’s in a name? The Immortal Bard asked us this. Since I’m not a pretentious poet, I have opted for a name which aptly describes the visual shape of the formation. It looks like a big dick. The raison d’être for this abomination of a formation is twofold and not at all related to the name; I want to afford some freedom to my playmakers and dribblers and I want to enable them to defend as a block high up the pitch.
The first reason makes sense. Combine the already closely packed heart of the pitch with the withdrawn nature of the strikerless formations and you get an opposing midfield which is constantly outnumbered in the center of the pitch. If the players are intelligent enough to move into space, this means there is an endless supply of passing options available to every player who is smart and skilled enough to play the passes.
Just look at a match situation from one of the earliest test matches. Kurz has opted for the pass towards Sogliano, who has a lot of time and space to receive the ball. At the same time, Kurz could have opted for several other options for a pass, most of these players have a lot of space around them or a passing option nearby to prevent pressuring by opposing players.
The pressing is conditional pressing, due to the shape of the formation. Unlike the unrelenting counter-pressing you’ve seen me use with other strikerless setups, this formation is unable to close down all over the pitch all the time.
The goalkeeper is free to distribute the ball towards the wing-backs. The wing-backs can often pass the ball towards one of the wide midfielders/wingers, at which point the pressure trigger is activated and the team defends high up the pitch en bloc. They don’t initiate pressing until midfield so as to invite opponents forward and leave space for counter-attack, as well as being unable to because of the positioning of the players. I do feel that last bit needs some explaining, which I’ll do by referring to an in-game situation.
The entire team shifts to the side to contain the ball and pressure opposing players. The wing-back pushes forward to provide the wide cover necessary, the rest of the defence shuffles over to provide cover. The midfielders also move to the side, effectively blocking off the passing routes for the player in possession.
No, the name of the tactic is very much related to the formation and how the players shape up. I am a firm believer that formation is not an absolute but based on the players on the pitch and their characteristics. So how does a football formation relate in any way to a dick?
If you have some imagination, it looks like a big dick with two balls to the side and what with me being an immature twat and ever-so-slightly inebriated at the time, I figured it would be a good idea to just name the tactic for its vague resemblance to a phallic shape.
On a slightly more serious note, allow me to explain how the tactic actually works. The forward midfielders are not exempt from defensive duties, like most strikers are. They are expected to pressure the opposing central defenders and defensive midfielders, whilst the central midfielders are expected to align themselves with the defensive midfielders and outnumber the opposing central midfielders.
Effectively, this creates two lines of defence, the first being the actual defence, which is usually stationed deep-to-medium high, the second being the midfield line (in this case the defensive midfielders and the central midfielders), which is positioned on or slightly over the halfway-line. The wingbacks are the hybrid players in this formation, linking up with either midfield or defence, depending on where their presence is actually required and providing pivotal and crucial movement when switching from attack to defence and vice versa. The average position heat-map pretty much shows as much.
The key players are the defensive midfielders, who basically form a double pivot in midfield, funneling the ball forward or sideways to keep possession or open up the opposing defence with a chipped ball over the top or into space, as well as maintaining a defensive balance and backing up the central defenders by either supporting them or closing down attacking midfielders on the opposing team.
Offensively, the defensive midfielders’ performance on the pitch is determined by roles and player characteristics, but generally speaking I want to see classic creator-destroyer pairing in defensive midfield. One who can regulate the build-up and can use the odd long-ball, and one who mostly maintains his defensive positioning and restricts his passing to low-risk passes to maintain possession. I’ll look into both aspects of the defensive pairing.
Offensively, we can see both defensive midfielders here, highlighted in red circles. The right defensive midfielder has assumed the creator role, basically making himself into a sort of Pirlo, dictating play from a role quite far away from the opposing box, probing the opposing defence for spaces to exploit. The left defensive midfielder meanwhile is protecting the defence and controlling the heart of the midfield area.
Defensively, we can see that both defensive midfielders have shifted sideways to protect the defence and allow the defenders time to re-group. The re-positioning by the defensive midfielders also allows the central midfielder to move forward and pressure the man in possession. If needed, the defensive midfielders can do the pressing as well, allowing other players time to re-establish a defensive line.
In such instances, the shape of the midfield isn’t really a box, it becomes more crescent-shaped. The central midfielders tend to fan out. One goes after the player in possession, aggressively closing down who-ever has the ball, knowing the defensive midfield pairing is providing cover in case he does not succeed, effectively protecting the back-line. The other central midfielder maintains a position just wide of the defensive midfielder pairing, which allows him to pick up any wide runners and provide cover for the wingbacks.
What is noticeable in all the screenshots I have shown you so far is just how important proximity is in the passing game going forward. The box enables players to triangulate when going forward, always in the vicinity to one another, thus keeping possession and maintaining a stranglehold on the opposition.
Since a central tenet of the philosophy behind this formation is that width will be fluctuating and never permanent, depending on the movement of the central and attacking midfielders, mobility across the front line is as essential as the presence of attacking wingbacks. The wingbacks offer the necessary width going forward, either crossing the ball for onrushing midfielders to head or volley home, or doing something which I call “hooking.”
This basically means the marauding wingback gets level with the defensive line, luring an opposing wingback wide, stretching the defence, before cutting inside to connect with the through-ball played by one of the midfielders. The movement-pattern basically resembles a hook, hence hooking. The wingbacks tend to bag quite a few goals this way, especially if they are fast and have a decent shot.
The rest of the attacking patterns are pretty similar to my other strikerless setups. You try to generate space for the attacking midfielders or the running central midfielders to run into and get in behind the defence.