Three Carat Diamond; A Lopsided Midfield

The tagline for this site is “dare to think outside the box”, which is both a play-of-words on the idea of not fielding an actual striker as well as a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally or from a new perspective. For my new tactic, I have decided to create a spin on the traditional diamond tactics. Naturally, the formation has a strikerless twist. Playing in this formation offers you a midfield diamond, which in turn enables you to pass the ball and play between the lines of both back four and midfield, as well as midfield and forward line. If you have followed the site somewhat regularly, you can see that such a concept of play appeals to me and suits the strikerless style.

The formation

A traditional diamond formation has a number of features, regardless, of the actual distribution of players on the pitch. A traditional diamond formation uses wide defenders that push up the pitch, it packs the midfield and it uses a central defensive player who either drops deep enough to form a back three or sits just ahead of the two defenders at the base of midfield. The keys to the formation are generic and to an extent even universal: even defensive zonal coverage across the pitch, the creation of width and the linking of the various banks of players. My own spin on this tactic looks like this.

The diamond-shape in this tactic is made up by the three midfielders you see here as opposed to the four midfielders a diamond-shape more traditionally encompasses. For this diamond-shape to work, it needs a mixture of players who can both defend and attack. Player-wise, you need a Mezzala with pace and creativity at the head of the diamond, someone who can get between the players of your forward line when the ball is coming in from out wide.

As such, the other midfielders in the diamond are required to have more conservative roles, especially the player who forms the base of the formation. Traditionally, the player forming the base would be the player sitting in front of the defensive line, in this diamond the base is formed by the ball-winning midfielder.  In this position, that of the ball-winning midfielder, you need someone who is both comfortable on the ball and has a good football brain, someone who can push and prompt when you have the ball and also when you lose it.

Traditionally, this player would marshal the team defensively and form a sort of pivot on which the entire side revolved when transitioning from offence to defence, sitting in front of the defensive line. In my setup, the pivot is located further away from the defensive line, with the Segundo Volante and Mezzala offering more mobility. This is an aspect I intend to zoom in on later in this article. For now, it is sufficient to describe him as the defensive safeguard in the diamond play, making sure that the Mezzala and is free to roam. He acts as a sort of vacuum-cleaner, sweeping up opposing attacks.

The flanking players that would traditionally form a narrow, 2-man midfield on the right and left of the diamond have been rolled into a single Segundo Volante in this setup. Defensively, he helps in protecting the defensive line, while he pushes up to form a two-man midfield with the ball-winning midfielder when the team is in possession.

This diamond-shape serves the central midfield intensively; there, lots of pass-to possibilities exist. One of the traditional weaknesses of a diamond-shaped formation, the lack of wingers, has been rectified by dropping one of the central midfielders and using a formation with actual wingers. This generates an operational shape with a rather narrow, compact formation when the team is defending and a relatively wide formation when attacking, without sacrificing the strength of the central midfield.

The images above show you the average formation of the tactic, the passing triangles created and the heat map of a random match. As you can see, the result of this unorthodox setup is a numerical superiority in the central areas of the pitch, quite often in the opponents’ half of the pitch. With quite a few mobile player-roles out there on the pitch, there are plenty of passing interactions, especially focused to the right flank, where the Mezzala pops up in the space between the Shadow Striker and the right winger.

The offensive orientation of the diamond is interesting, of course, but this type of play also entails risks as a matter of course. In case of ball loss, the team is suddenly wide open in the defence; the diamond is very vulnerable to counter-attacks, especially own its own right-hand side. Selecting players with tremendous work rate and accepting that your wide defender and Segundo Volante tend to get booked fairly often tends to balance this risk. This only happens during counter-attacks. If the opponent comes across its own left side, building up from the back, an opponent has to get past the initial high press by the Mezzala, before running into the Segundo Volante and the wide defender occupying that flank. Those attaching great merit to midfield creativity are well taken care of in the diamond. The game is rather fluid, with the Mezzala and Segundo Volante adding extra dynamic movement to the already flexible movement pattern of your average strikerless formation.

A more conservative diamond-formation generally sacrifices natural width in favour of two strikers and four central midfielders. It tasks every player outside of the anchor midfielder and the two centre-backs to create width by darting wide. The lack of width a more conventional diamond tactic suffers from has been somewhat remedied by dropping one of the four midfielders, removing the presence of strikers altogether and sticking two wingers up front in conjunction with a Shadow Striker and Mezzala providing penetration into the opposing penalty area. Just a little example of the typical movement of this diamond.

The diamond tends to shift and adapt its shape depending on the circumstances. When the ball moves out to a flank, be it offensively or defensively, the Segundo Volante (SV from now on) will adjust his positioning. In this instance, the ball is brought out to the right side of the defence. Subsequently, the SV shuffles over the right side of the midfield area to make himself available for a pass. When he receives the ball, one of the Ajax midfielders moves forward to pressure the SV, which in turn opens up space for the Mezzala. A variation on this play would be that the Ball-winning Midfielder makes himself available for a pass and delivers a direct cross-pass towards the Mezzala, while the SV surges forward to fill the gap left behind by the Mezzala.

This specific diamond

I briefly touched upon this subject earlier in the article. What makes this tactic work is the role distribution and interaction between the three midfielders. Each player has his own set of tasks and his own role to play as a cog in the finely-tuned midfield machine that is this lopsided diamond. Effectively, one player takes up the guise of the creative outlet, the second player acts as a shuttler and the third player acts as an anchor.

As you can see in the graphic above, each player has his own specific tasks and duties within the midfield diamond. I will look at each individual role now.

The anchor

As we mentioned earlier, in a more conventional diamond formation, the anchor formed the base of the diamond. In this setup, the anchor is not the base of the diamond. Instead of sitting in front of his own defensive line, the anchor is now playing in a central midfield role. The idea behind this is that it allows the defensive line to push higher up the pitch, without getting caught by counter-attacks because the man protecting the line is not moving forward but in a more static position in central midfield.

Moving the anchor to the left flank of the midfield, in turn, frees up space for the dynamic right side of the midfield with the Mezzala and Segundo Volante bursting forward. The anchor acts as a pivot, determining the defensive positioning of the entire team and acting as a lynchpin for the entire transition from defence to offence. He often snuffs out counter-attacks, just by positioning himself well and protecting his more mobile team-mates.

In a conventional diamond shape, I would have opted for an Anchorman as a role to fill these tasks and duties. While the Ball-winning Midfielder (BWM from here on) is not the most static option I could select the central midfield anchor role, neither on support or defend, I feel he plays the part better than a Deeplying Playmaker (DLP from here on) would, who is often not quite as aggressive in the duels as I want the anchor to play. A BWM, regardless of Defend/Support setting, will chase and tackle but he will also restrict himself to safe passes most of the time. The choice for this specific role boiled down to choosing between the added mobility of the BWM versus the added risk in terms of passing the DLP offers as vices. Trial and error and the players at my disposal have forced me towards the decision for a BWM on Support to play this part.

I do realise that BWM’s are notorious for wandering out of position and leaving your entire midfield exposed, yet I have opted to make him the defensive lynchpin around which my entire midfield revolves in terms of defence.

The shuttler

The player plugging the gap left behind by the Mezzala’s movement has to be a pure athlete; the amount of running (with and without the ball) and fanning wide off the ball when he has to protect and cover their wide defenders is remarkable. That protection of the wide defenders is incredibly important. When the diamond defends, normally, the deeper two midfielders fan out to track opposing full-backs and stop two-on-one overloads against their own defenders. If they are able to intercept and grab it, they will immediately move forward and initiate a counter.

As the SV moves forward to track the movement of his Mezzala compatriot, he effectively forms a two-man block in central midfield with the more static Ball-winning midfielder. Please note the use of the words “more static” as opposed to just “static”, as the Ball-winning Midfielder is, as mentioned earlier, by no means an entirely static role, just static enough to function effectively within the parameters required in this setup.

For more information on the Segundo Volante role, I will refer you to Cleon and an article he wrote on the role. I want to quote the bit I find most important to suit my needs in this specific tactic.

The Segundo Volante

You’d expect a Segundo Volante to help start and support attacks, while also chipping in with assists and scoring too. The role suits systems where you might lack central midfielders like in a deep 4-2-3-1. The player would play like a central midfielder in possession of the ball but should act like a defensive midfielder when out of possession. It’s worth noting that if you use this role on an attack duty the player might seem ‘reckless’ in a positional sense because he will be going very high into the final third of the pitch and taking up those kind of positions. So if you lose the ball, you could find him struggling to regain his natural position.

That’s the basic overview of the role. But the role is so much more than the above and is a very demanding role. If you use this role then you need to make sure you have a player who is fit above all else. Even the most fittest player will still get low condition at times due to the role being that demanding. In my own saves, I often find myself having to substitute the player in most games due to condition reaching -70% around the 70-75 minute mark.

That pretty much sums up the role of the SV in my tactic. He has to fill the gap in central midfield left when then Mezzala surges forward into the space vacant between the right Winger and the Shadow Striker. The SV will help in recycling possession and chips in with the odd goal and assist as well.

The creative outlet

Our final cog in the machinery is the Mezzala. Whereas the previous two players are a bit inconspicuous, the Mezzala is the centrepiece of this setup. He is both a creative outlet for the team as well as a goalscoring threat. The entire formation is geared to make the Mezzala shine. I have created space upfront for him to run into and I have geared the entire formation to provide him with support in terms of crosses and through-balls.

The above goal describes how the Mezzala operates. He drifts between the lines, looking for space. He acts as one of the players to set up an attack by launching the wingers into space with a cross-pass, before moving into the box to get on the end of the cross. His mobility and creativity make him one of the top goalscorers of the team.

So why did I opt for a Mezzala and not a Box-to-Box midfielder, Advanced Playmaker or any other role? Again, I will refer you to Cleon and an article he wrote on the role. I want to quote the bit I find most important to suit my needs in this specific tactic.

Football Manager 2018 New Roles Explained

The Mezzala is unique because it’s the only central midfielder role that actively seeks to move into the half space due to hardcoded behaviour. Similar to a Box-To-Box Midfielder but with less defensive responsibility, the Mezzala gets into attacking positions that an Inside Forward would usually be found in. He is a cross between an inside forward and a box to box midfielder, a player who uses flair, guile and ball skills to unlock defences while operating in the half spaces between the attackers and midfielders. While he serves to offer support to the defensive phase this is limited to being a passing outlet rather than a more physical presence that protects them.

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