One of the unsung heroes of my by now (in)famous strikerless formation is the Half-Back. 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 beating heart of the team and 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, bar one. I want to discuss the role of the half-back during the offensive phase of the game, during the defensive phase of the game and most importantly during the transition of offence to defence and vice versa.
The offensive role
First of all, we want to look at the role of the Half-Back during the offensive phase of the game. How does he line up, what is the role he plays, how does he aid the team? As I mentioned earlier, his role is often inconspicuous. His role during the offensive phase of play is exactly that, inconspicuous. The Half-Back is basically an aggressive sweeper now.
By either dropping back or remaining stationary, the Half-Back forms an effective bank of three at the back, allowing the wing-backs to move forward. If the wings aren’t occupied consistently enough or with enough presence, it is difficult to provide width in the middle and attacking third of the pitch. The Half-Back isn’t a traditional defender as such, as he’s basically guarding the defensive line, staying slightly ahead of the two central defenders. His movement is crucial to the team effort though, as it allows the two wing-backs to move forward and add some much needed width, allowing for an efficient overload in the middle and attacking third.
The above clip pretty much demonstrates my point. The Half-Back is often unmarked and can receive the ball, either directly from a distribution by the goalie or because the wing-back passes it to him. His positioning makes him an invaluable pivot in the build-up from the back.
The defensive role
Defensively speaking, I want to differentiate between the snuffing out of counter-attacks, which, whilst being defensive work, is not part of the defensive phase of play and the actual defending done in the defensive phase of play. The former will be discussed in its own paragraph, the latter is being discussed here. During the actual defensive phase, the Half-Back tends to act as a screen in front of the defence, so basically as a normal defensive midfielder would.
Here we see the opposing team coming forward and this is the teams actual defensive shape, with the wing-backs tucked in on the defensive line and the Half-Back in defensive midfield, guarding the central area in front of the defence. So where does this screening come into play? Allow me to elaborate with a simple video.
In that simple attacking movement, there are several instances which highlight how the Half-Back protects the defence and how his lateral positioning helps out his team-mates. Initially, we can see the Half-Back has taken up a central position, which he maintains upto the point where a counter-pressing trigger occurs and the left wing-back is drawn out of position.
We see the Half-Back moving laterally to protect the now exposed left flank. One of the central midfielders can deputise in the central area of midfield to pick up a runner, thus allowing the Half-Back to take up a position on the flank, where he can cover the run of the wing-back. Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular, the Half-Back remains almost invisible, yet his movement protects the balance of the entire team.
A poor clearance and a few heartbeats later, the Half-Back has taken up a slightly more advanced position, to combat another threat to the defence. The opposing midfielder has picked up the ball, so again the positioning by our Half-Back has to be spot on to eliminate most threats to the defensive line.
When we examine the situation closely, we can see that the Half-Back has taken up a slightly more advanced position, which enables him to kill three birds with one stone. I know that’s not an actual proverb, but it applies to the situation. The Half-Back has now effictively cut off the passing lane towards the opposing teams striker, simply by re-positioning himself. An added benefit is that opposing player in possession, Fiore, is now being pressured directly by an opponent, whilst the Half-Back and one of the other midfielders are nearby to help out, adding some indirect pressure to the situation. The final option his positioning offers is the possibility to cover a run from deep by the opposing midfielder highlighted in red.
In the final situation, we can see the Half-Back has positioned himself wide, trying to block off the run by the opposing midfielder. His lateral movements have allowed the other defenders time to re-position themselves, essentially eliminating the threats, which just leaves the lone winger and his direct runs.
In this case, the winger does not dare take on the Half-Back by himself, instead passing it for one of the forwards. As the video above shows you, the Half-Back still tracks back and wins the ball with a superb sliding challenge, showcasing one of the few spectacular challenges he has made during this match. As you have seen, the Half-Back mostly relies on his positioning to fulfil his defensive role.
The transition from defence to offence
The transition phases are often overlooked in terms of importance, but in reality it’s these phases that often determine how successful you are in your endeavours. Is your side able to capitalise on the other teams mistakes and are you capable of keeping it tight and coherent at the back, even when you unexpectedly lose possession? Initially, I want to look at the transition from defence to offence or basically the start of any good counterattack.
During the transition from defensive phase to the offensive phase of the game, the Half-Back can play a number of roles, but they all rely on his positioning. When the ball is won high up the pitch, he plays the role of a pivot in defensive midfield, similar to his role in the attacking phase of play.
As the Half-Back is supposed to drop back from midfield into defence to take up his defensive position, he is often in an advanced position compared to the center-backs. This means he is often the recipient of their headed clearances, as he as the time and space to receive the ball, swivel and look for a pass, often towards the wing-backs, who are also key players in terms of transitioning.
Naturally, teams fielding an attacking midfielder could throw a spanner in the works, but even that is a problem that can be solved. The Half-Back again needs to rely on superb positioning and on-the-ball skills, as you can see in the video below.
The Half-Back has to compete with an opponent for the ball, but his positioning sees him win the ball and allows him to play a clean and simple pass towards a team-mate, who sets up an attacking move. Nothing spectacular, nothing too fancy, but lose the ball there and your team-mates will end up in a world of hurt. Again, let me show you.
Losing possession there would leave the defensive line severely exposed, as a simple pass down the flanks would leave my own wing-backs exposed and a pass over the top down the middle would see my center-backs forced to sprint against their opponent to win back the ball or pray that the goalkeeper does a Neuer and rushes out of his goal to clear the ball.
Whilst it’s hardly glamorous or spectacular what the Half-Back does, it’s absolutely crucial to the teams efforts to transition from defence to offence. If you want to catch an opposing team off-guard with a quick and critical counter-attack, you have to be able to quickly transition from offence to defence and as you can see, the Half-Back is one of they driving forces behind these transitions.
The transition from offence to defence
I highlighted the importance of the transition-phases in the previous paragraph before elaborating about the transition from defence to offence. In this paragraph, I want to stress the importance of the transition from offence to defence. You see, both the AI teams and your own are at its most vulnerable when they lose the ball and have to move from an attacking shape back to a defensive shape, which means players have to track back and take up new positions.
In this transition-phase, the Half-Back is mostly required to snuff out counter-attacks by the opposing side, as he moves from his position in the attacking phase as part of the back three to a more advanced role in defensive midfield. He can stop counter-attacks dead in their tracks either by winning the ball through an interception or successful tackle or he can delay the onrushing forwards and midfielders long enough to allow the other players to track back and take up their defensive positions. Either way, to effectively fulfill this role, he will need to move quickly and be intelligent in his positioning.
The above screenshot shows you exactly what I mean by delaying the opposition. By moving forward the Half-Back shuts down a passing lane towards the forward, making it a very high-risk pass. As the midfielder hesitates, the wing-backs will track-back and the two center-backs will cluster together, effectively reestablishing the back four from the defensive phase, all because the Half-Back bought them the time to do so.
In the match-clip below, I want to show off some of the positioning the Half-Back tends to do. There’s not much to analyse from it, it’s just the Half-Back positioning himself between an opponent and the ball, snuffing out through-balls and counter-attacks without actually having to engage an opponent.
Whilst the interceptions are certainly an important part of the way the Half-Back fulfills the role, his most important contribution towards the team effort is not the amount of interceptions, but the time he buys his team-mates to track back and take up their defensive positions. It’s the aggressive fore-checking and excellent positioning that allow his team-mates time to re-group that is the Half-Backs most important effort for the team.