Much like life in general, football is always evolving. It twists and turns, repeats and refines. In a way, there is a cyclical pattern visible as traits hailing from days of yore re-appear, evolved, refined, tweaked to give them new meaning in the ever-changing context of football. As positions become more and more defined by the roles of the players active there, the importance of the formation itsself has diminished. Terms like “that team plays in a 4-4-2 formation” or “they line up in a 4-2-3-1” can useful as a rough guide, but they are not absolute truths. Many teams, especially those on a higher level, are agglomerations of bundles of attributes, carefully balanced to suit the needs of the cohesive unit.
The concept of an absolute formation no longer exists, if it ever existed to begin with in modern football. It’s a myth, crammed into our heads by analysts and newspapers, oversimplifying things. There’s no such thing as playing 4-4-2, as no 4-4-2 is the same in the way they actually take to the field and move around on the pitch. Every team has at least an attacking shape and a defensive shape. You don’t play with a back four the entire time, you play with three at the back when going forward, as one of your wingbacks joins the midfield, four at the back when transitioning between attack and defence and perhaps five at the back when defending, as a midfielder may drop back to help out the defenders. Players are defined less by their positions than by what they can do.
In that regard, Strikerless has experimented with expanding existing roles and trying to break the stereotypical view. You could say it’s what this blog does by default. In terms of expanding on actual roles, we’ve had the Withdrawn Targetman concept in previous versions of the game, but what got this post rolling were a few tweets I picked up and full credit goes to Filip Borowski for the idea.
— Filip Borowski (@FilipBorowski) April 25, 2016
@MerryGuido Advanced ball winning midfielder idea here 😀
— Filip Borowski (@FilipBorowski) April 25, 2016
After watching the game, I concluded that Filip’s suggestions were right. Radja Nainggolan, Roma’s midfield warrior, is generally deployed in front of the back four, clattering about making tackles and collecting bookings, his role almost entirely of regaining possession and distributing it simply with short passes. Even though he is capable of playing in more advanced positions, he generally doesn’t for the sake of balance. In this game though, he was deployed in a far more advanced role.
As Squawka’s heat map shows you, his action zones are hardly in front of his own back four, they are situated more towards the attacking midfield stratum. Since Nainggolan isn’t going to turn into a younger reincarnation of Francesco Tutten all of a sudden, it’s safe to assume he will still be the aggressively fore-checking midfielder he was when fielded in defensive midfield, tasked with protecting the back four. So what happens when we field a player with this style of play in offensive midfield?
The premisse of such a move is breathtakingly simple yet quite elegant and sort of a throwback to the days of Chapman’s WM-formation. Acting as a lynchpin, a pivot of sorts, is this aggressive defense-minded midfielder. Unlike tradition would have it, he is not there to act as a focal point for the offensive end of your tactic. Instead, he is there to act as the first line of defence, actively harrying in the attacking midfield stratum, winning the ball there but otherwise maintaining position when his team is on the offence. He acts as the primary defensive block placing the initial phase of pressure on the opposition.
It has been nearly 20 years since Carlos Alberto Parreira prophesied the future of football as 4-6. He envisaged a system of four defenders providing a platform for six creative players who would constantly interchange. I feel we can take this a step further and speak of a 3-7 idea. Within the current Match Engine, we have all noticed how overpowered attacking wing-backs and their crosses are, so it would sense to employ them where possible, which means they will play as semi-midfielders. To balance the attacking intentions of the wide defenders, I am employing a classic anchor man to sit in front of the two central defenders, creating a triangle of three defensive players and a wide, crescent-shaped bank of offensive players.
The seven players in the offensive bank all have to be able to rotate, attack and defend, which almost naturally implies a form of universality. People like Michels, Cruyff, Lobanovskiy and Sacchi strived for universality, where every player on the pitch takes a collective responsebility for each aspect of the game. Not in the sense that the forward is now tracking back to help with the off-side trap, but more in the sense of for example a forward pressing an opposing defender on the ball, allowing his team-mates either time to link up and help or fall back to take up a more reliable defensive stance.
Anyway, since universality is closely associated with Total Football, it’s becoming a sort of buzz-word. In a way, universality is part of some mythical style of play, which combines the aesthetics of short and intricate passing, aggressive pressing, fluid movement on and off the ball and positional interchangeability with the results that deliver trophies. But there cannot be beauty without the presence of some sort of beast. Balance must be maintained and this is where the Advanced Destroyer comes into play.
Whilst nepotism currently prevails and I will be fielding my own virtual son in the attacking midfield slot for as long as possible, this is the player I had intended when I envisioned the role and he will play the role against stronger sides in the Asian Champions League and in friendlies versus European and South American sides. Song Yo-Han is a defensive midfielder whom I’ve been re-training to play in the attacking midfield stratum as well. He is extremely well suited for the aggressive harrying I had in mind, whilst his passing skills ensure he does not disrupt the attacking flow of play.
Most of the roles you can select for central attacking midfielders are specialised roles, ergo they cannot be customised and tinkered with. That pretty much left us with one role that could be modelled into something that resembles what we want. Once again, the role itsself is not that special, it’s an attacking midfielder on support with a few edited instructions to make him more aggressive when he engages his opponents, the rest is upto the player I field in this role, the aforementioned Song Yo-Han.
I randomly picked one of the matches were Song Yo-Han played and had a look at his individual performance. The image above highlights his action zones and all of his successful interceptions and tackles. I normally would have added aerial duels, but with Song being rather small, he generally loses most of those, so I chose to omit that specific variable. Either way, you can see that Song generally holds his position just outside the opposing penalty area, which is also where he has the most interceptions and tackles. The tackles just past the half-way line occur when the entire team drops back and the opposition has managed to get by the initial high block.
The effectiveness of the high block press with four players is evident. The picture above shows you the opposing teams passing chart, more specifically every pass they had intercepted. I will now expand on the role of the Advanced Destroyer in this setup. I will start by explaining the team process, before zooming in on the Advanced Destroyers role in said process.
Initially, the team press in a formation which is almost counter-pressing á la Klopp or Bielsa, as every player positions himself very high up the pitch in a man-orientated system. The centre-backs mark the opposition striker(s), full-backs mark wingers, the central-midfielders push as far forward as necessary to mark the opposition central-midfielders, unless they move into the first line of build-up which would then be the striker’s duty, and the wingers position themselves between the opposing wing-backs and wide midfielders, able to press either forward or backwards.
The 4-2-4 has morphed into a 4-4-2, which allows our Shadow Striker to press the opposition centre-backs very high and intensely, with the Advanced Destroyer staying in the gap behind that to block the passing lanes to any midfielder dropping back to collect the ball. Due to the team holding such a high line, marking all opposition players in central positions very tightly, this makes them most strong in the centre of the field when pressing. It is evident from the picture above that whilst there are plenty of team-mates around, the central defenders actually has limited options of what to do with the ball. The Shadow Striker is pressing, cutting off the short, lateral pass to the other central defenders and the potential press from the wingers cut down most options, where-as the presence of the Advanced Destroyer lurking in the hole, challenging any passing lane into central midfield, which complicates matters further for defender. He does what most players in similar circumstances do, which is hoofing the ball forward and praying for the best. An unwise strategy, which often leads to a turnover of possession.
Once again the AI has possession with the central defender. As with the initial example the opposing central defender has very limited options. He can pass it back to the goalkeeper, he can pass it the other central defender but every other passing option is risky, it can be compromised by the relentless pressing of our team, with the Shadow Striker conducting an advanced press and the Advanced Destroyer shielding the gap between their defence and midfield. Again, the defender opts for the easy way out and plays a long ball over the top, which is generally an easy prey for our defenders.
In the unlikely event the opposing team is able to get by this initial press, either by passing their way through or by successfully employing a long ball, the team retreats into a deeper block. The 4-2-4 shifts into a 4-4-2, which is focused around closing passing lanes. This is done by maintaining strong horizontal compactness. The wingers tend to drift inside from their respective flanks if the ball is on the opposite flank, which makes sense if the team wishes to maintain horizontal compactness, which in turn makes it very difficult for the opposition to find an open passing lane which would allow them to penetrate and have access to space inside or just in front our penalty area. Although the team tends to retreat into quite a deep block when the opposition progress from build-up, they still press with quite a lot of intensity in just in front of the half-way line and deep inside of their own half.
This second line of pressing is in action here. We can see the opposing team has managed to bypass the initial high block and are advancing on the halfway line. Again, the team strives to cut off as many passing lanes as possible. The short lateral passes are blocked, as are most of the wide outlets, either demanding a risky long ball over the top or a low-risk pass back to the other central defender, which in turn allows our own team to surge forward and press the new situation that has come into existence.
The final pressing line occurs when the team is in full retreat. The defenders will on the edge of their own area, the two defensive midfielders are screening the penalty area and the forward bank of four will press to cut out the crosses from deep. The Advanced Destroyer is more aggressive in such situations. With the two screening defensive midfielders nearby, he can afford to move out of position a bit more in his efforts to harry the opposing team.
Offensively, the Advanced Destroyer is a rather conservative contributor. He is not the man making the Hollywood pass or skipping past multiple opponents, he plays to maintain possession. This is normally done by playing short and simple passes, occassionally opting for a longer pass towards an overlapping wing-back. Generally speaking though, the Advanced Destroyer opts to pass the ball towards one of his running team-mates nearby. Either the Roaming Playmaker or the Shadow Striker are his preferred targets, though the Inside Forward drifting inside is a valuable passing outlet as well.