The centre is vital to success in the majority of sports. In chess, controlling the central area is considered a strategy that allows you the the best possible access to the board and can reach the entirety of the widthm as you can easily maximise the potential spaces which your pieces can move into. When you stick to a side, you have 180 degrees of possible movement. When you stick to the centre, you have 360 degrees.
When you think of the football pitch as a chess board you can easily see that this idea makes sense. Earlier, we mentioned why the wing-backs are not exactly ideal for build-up play from the back, and the same principle applies to your creative men. You want the players with the best passing range to be in positions where they can make the most of their skill-set, to utilise their full potential. You want your players to dominate the central areas. When you’re talking about dominating the central areas, you’re talking about the box-formation.
The box-formation is basically a very compact formation, with a back four guarded by two defensive midfielders, two midfield maestro’s ahead of those and an offensive duo upfront to score the goals. Ofcourse, when you come to Strikerless you expect my eponymous style to shine through and let’s face it, so it has. I present to you my own take on a box-formation; the Strikerless Box.
The formation is thus a 4-2-2-2-0, with a strong central column flanked by two marauding wing-backs. Some people will argue the formation lacks width, but this is a setup of such fluency and poise in possession that the players create width with their movement.
In a way, it’s all about balancing the roles and the way your players take the field. You want players to work off each other The anchorman is the ball-winner in front of the back four, with a Regista alongside to surge forward and distribute play. The central winger has the libery to roam forward because of the two behind him and the solidity from a complete wing-back who offers a threat going forward without sacrificing defensive stability. That is a sophisticated interlocking that certainly isn’t created by grabbing 11 blokes off the street and sending them out, it’s maticulate and precisely balancing out the roles of the players. The average position heat-map pretty much shows as much.
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.
Defensively, you can see the dual defensive line. The wingbacks have dropped deep to protect the flanks, enabling the defensive midfielder and the central defender to deal with the threat of the approaching opposing forward. Unless a team is really committed to the attack, they are always going to struggle to break through these extremely durable and well-organised lines with a full frontal assault.
The most logical approach would be to attack the box-formation where it’s most vulnerable; down the flanks. With eight of the ten outfield players located in a central position, the flanks are basically manned by one player pro flank. Get past him and you can outflank the massive defensive line in the central area. Sounds good, right? Let’s see what happens when a team attempts to do just that.
The team just shuffles over. The central column swings to the threatened side, with one of the defensive midfielders providing cover for the wingback, enabling the latter to take on the direct wide threat, in the knowledge that one of the defensive midfielders has his back in case he loses out.
Speaking of the defensive midfielders, a special role within the tactic is reserved for 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. You can see this most clearly when you look at the passing chart for an average match.
Defensively, both defensive midfielders tend shift sideways when required, in order 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, especially the Regista, can do the pressing as well, allowing other players time to re-establish a defensive line. On the pitch, it often looks a little like this.
The central area is packed with defensive players, the player receiving the ball basically has no options besides risky long range passes, as all the nearby passing channels are blocked by players pressing. The entire central column has dropped back, with the two central midfielders and the two defensive midfielders forming a square ahead of the center-backs, protecting the defensive line.
The entire style of play is based upon movement though and be it offensive or defensive, the team is able to transition between phases rapidly, breaking away and defending in numbers. Since a central tenet of the philosophy behind this formation is that its width will be fluctuating and never permanent, you will be dependant on the movement of the central and attacking midfielders, since mobility across the front line is essential when you want to generate some sort of width. Look at the next example.
As soon as the ball is won, players start moving forward. Lamela receives the ball and because of the compact formation, he will always have a few players nearby to distribute possession towards. Eriksen on the right and Dembele on the left are already making their runs into space, looking to cause trouble for the defence. That is, in a nutshell, how the tactic works.