In the past, I have published (with permission naturally) parts of Lee’s (@FMAnalysis) superb Mechanising The Play series. In an effort to explain what I’m doing, I am going to try and expand upon Lee’s work. The first topic I wish to cover concerns layering your strikeforce. What is it, why should you do it and how do you do it? These are all solid questions and questions I shall try to answer in great detail, with explanatory videos and images to back up my words. For starters, just watch the video below to get an idea what I mean by layering attacks.
What you can see here is a rather typical strikerless attack. The defence intercepts the ball and clears it towards the flank. The winger looks for a team-mate in space and finds one of the attacking midfielders in space, dropping back into the space between the lines. The attacking midfielder receives and controls the pass and holds it up, whilst his team-mates surge forward to take up their offensive positions. A quick flick-through sees the attacking midfielder, whose run has overlapped the attacking midfielders position, go clean through on goal to cap a nice move with a clinical finish.
Whilst I characterise this move as being typical strikerless, the underlying concepts and principles can and should be universally applied to any formation and style of play. The reason why my teams play the way they do is because I try to layer the attacks, attacking a defence in multiple waves, making it harder for a defensive side to maintain a cohesive defensive line and adding an element of surprise to the equation.
Good off-the-ball movement is always an important element of any good formation. Any team worth their salt will try to refrain from using a one-dimensional style of play, which means they will try to not only have players moving into space to receive the ball, but also to make shadow runs, which means they are trying to create space for others by dragging defenders out of position. The video clip I referred to earlier shows a nice example of this. Because the attacking midfielder drops back between the lines, the defender is dragged out of position, which makes the defensive line susceptible to a through-ball down the middle.
Now this concept of players feeding off each others movement only really works if there is another player moving to exploit the space. This means that the team should preferably play in a cohesive formation, but should definitely have different layers. If every line makes the same run at the same time, the attacking patterns become predictable and easy to defend. A more irregular approach, with players arriving at different locations and times tends to be more difficult to defend. When applied correctly, this means that a single run by for example an attacking midfielder, can open up space for three or more others nearby, waiting to pounce on positional weaknesses by the opposing team. This knock-on effect of movements is quite versatile and something you should use. An attacking midfielder dropping dropping back into midfield creates space for a winger to run into, which in turn creates space out wide for an attacking full-back or wing-back to overlap.
Movement both on and off the ball is absolutely crucial to the success of the formation and the style of play. This particular formation and style relies on the exploiting of space. When your players remain static, no space will open up for others to exploit. This is again where the layering of attacks comes into play. In any tactic I create, I strive for the creation of at least three but preferably four or five different layers of attacking players:
- The main offensive outlet; in my case this usually means the presence of a Shadow Striker, the deepest forward player and the player the opposing defensive line focusses on when positioning. More traditional tacticians, the guys who field actual * shudders with disgust * “forwards”…. will usually not select two similar roles upfront when fielding a multiple-striker setup. The main offensive outlet is the most advanced offensive player.
- The advanced pivot; in my strikerless setups, this usually meant the Targetganche or Withdrawn Targetman. A player who drops back to play between the lines, feeding flick-ons and through-balls to more advanced players and players overlapping.
- The wide layer; you want to be able to stretch an opposing defence by drawing players out of position, which is why you need a wide threat. Depending on the formation you use, you can have a single wide layer consisting of a wing-back or winger on each side or a double wide layer, with a wing-back and a winger on each flank. When the wingers cut inside, the overlapping runs by the wing-back add an extra dimension and layer to your style of play going forward.
- The central midfield layer; the central midfielders or at the very least one of them needs to make late surges into the penalty area to add an extra layer. Depending on your midfield setup, you could even create two midfield layers, with one player on an attacking setting and a second on a support setup, which means they won’t be in and around the box at the same time, effectively creating another layer of attack.
These layers are created by toying around with the roles you assign to your players. By watching the players in matches, you soon observe how they interact with each other and if you need to tweak the roles or not. It’s basically a sophisticated form of trial and error. Any idea can look great on the drawing board, that doesn’t mean it will actually work in-game. It took me hours of tweaking and experimenting in previous versions to get the fluid and silky movement that eventually gained recognition as the Strikerless brand of football.
Looking at those formations and the roles I tend to use, it becomes apparent that I hardly ever give two players the same role attacking-wise, with the wide players as the only exceptions there. This is what creates the staggering effect during matches of players arriving into the penalty in waves instead of all at once, making it nigh impossible for a defence to stop the onslaught of marauding midfielders.