As my tactics setup evolved and developed, I noticed my build-up from the back was far too easily disrupted by high-intensity pressing sides. They targeted my deep-lying playmaker and, at times, my ball-playing defender. Players generally respond universally when under pressure and faced with no way out; they will boot the ball away, either forward or to the sides. I often struggled against these Gegenpress sides, especially if their players were on par or even better than my own. If my players were technically superior, they generally managed to evade the press. Still, for large parts of my tenure with Millwall, my side was not one of the better in the league, despite the success being strung together every season.
I experimented with the wing-back roles to see if they could help me get out from under the relentless pressure of these Gegenpressing machines. Inverted wing-backs helped alleviate the pain during the initial stages of build-up. Still, they left my formation awfully narrow and thus vulnerable to pressing in a different area of the pitch. Inverted wing-backs cut inside when your side has possession of the ball, which offers you an additional option to pass the ball to when evading a high press. When encountering a middle block press, it leaves you lacking wide options and thus being more susceptible to a turnover.
Most other wing-backs offered similar pro-and-con-considerations. Either they helped us evade a high press but caused trouble with a middle block press, or they were great versus a middle block press but a liability in a high block situation. Either way, experimenting with the wide defenders was not the answer to my problems. Further tweaking and balancing were required.
Ideally, I wanted more numerical superiority when building up, especially if my opponents fielded two central forwards or a central forward and an attacking midfielder aggressively closing down my central defenders. Numerical superiority or plus-one when building up was needed to play the brand of football I had in mind effectively, with a calculated, methodical build-up from the back.
Conveniently, this numerical superiority principle applies for a variety of reasons, both in and out of possession. In defence, the reason is simple. Because one-on-one defence is a calculated gamble, you should give yourself more than one chance to keep someone from getting through your back line. And, because forwards move around both on and off the ball to drag and manipulate defenders out of position, you want to make sure you have someone staying behind to safeguard the most important part of the field, in front of your goal. You need a backup defender. Of course, you could crowd the middle of your defence with six, seven, or ten outfielders if you wanted to, but adding a body to the back line takes a body away from somewhere else where he could be pressing or attacking, so you don’t want too many spare defenders. And there you have it: plus one.
On the field, the plus-one principle operates slightly differently. You may have seen Twitter drop terms like “numerical superiority” and “the free man,” which are simply different ways of expressing you want more attackers than defenders in a specific area of the field so that someone will be open. But who and where are we talking about? Ideally, both the player with the ball and the teammate to whom he wants to pass should be unmarked, thus an attack has two plus one challenges to address at the same time. First, how do you get an attacker into space so that he may receive the ball, face play, and choose his next move? Second, how can you provide him with a strong passing option in whatever area of the field you want to travel to next? Both of these questions may impact the shape of the back line.
The solution to my numerical superiority conundrum hailed from Argentina and Spain, pioneered by Ricardo la Volpe and further developed by Pep Guardiola. I was going to use the salida lavolpiana, which means building up with three players in the offensive phase, primarily two centre-backs and a defensive midfielder dropping to form a three-chain with the full-backs tending to go further wide.
With both wide defenders moving forward and pushing opposing wide forwards back, your two defenders and defensive midfielders are up against one or, at the most, two opponents, achieving numerical superiority in this initial phase of the attack. One of these three players is generally free to bypass the first line of pressure and pick the pass that will get us out of our defensive third in a controlled, purposeful way. This setup, meant to approximate the Mexican buildup that Guardiola admired, became known as the salida lavolpiana, the La Volpean going-out.
Once a player has space and time on the ball, we should use it. Regardless if it’s the half-back or one of the two centre-backs, this player in space should make the most of this freedom and push forward to play a line-breaking pass and relieve pressure on the back-line. If this takes too long, the pressing front-line will play catch up and punish you for dallying on the ball.
If your players get past the initial press, the half-back will push forward and take up his original position in defensive midfield. On paper, this is where the salida lavolpiana has a natural advantage over a three-back formation: it’s built for flexibility. The defensive midfielder acts like a centre-back in the buildup, but he’s still a defensive midfielder, and once his services are no longer needed at the back, he can charge forward and snuff out counters in midfield.
So far, so good, right? On paper, it looks great. In reality, there are a few snags in the implementation. More specifically, when the half-back surges forward, the centre-backs are often sluggish in resuming their old positions in the heart of the defensive line.
You can see what could go wrong in the above situation. That lovely crescent-shaped defensive line… You are one turn-over away from someone carving your defensive line open like a Sunday roast. Sadly, this happened to me several times as well.
We lost possession as we transitioned between shapes, and we got punished for it. So if I were suffering from a particularly bad case of confirmation bias, I would seize this opportunity to blame the game. The half-back hasn’t been coded properly or the defenders are too sluggish for whatever reason, is the flavour of the month. As it happens, I try to look into the context of why certain events occur.
The most logical solution, in my mind anyway, is that the split between my defenders is somewhat lopsided because the entire setup is lopsided. Instead of using a single defensive midfielder, right smack-dab in the middle of my formation, I have opted for a double pivot in which one of my midfielders acts as a half-back and the other acts as a Segundo Volante. This means that my left centre-back has to move way further out to the flank to accommodate for the half-back dropping back, whereas the right centre-back doesn’t necessarily have to move at all, yet does anyway because that’s just how the game works.
Now I could start cursing and cussing, but on the other hand, I’m using a setup that defies logic in a way. This is not how a half-back is traditionally used, so you are going to see some odd movement if you use one in a non-standard context. At this point you can either chuck the entire idea out the window and go back to the drawing board, or you can look at parameters you can influence and stick to it. Guess which option I took?
Changing the half-back was never an option for stylistic reasons, so that means I have to balance the rest of my midfield and defence to accomodate the presence of this specialist role. The key to balancing my setup with this lopsided half-back turned out to be tweaking two roles; one of the wide defenders and the opposing wide midfielder.
I want to zoom in on the tweaked wide defender first. What I wanted was a hybrid role, a player who can play like a centre-back one moment and a fullback the next. The reasoning behind this concept is that a central defender will not move into a space already occupied by a team-mate. If I could make the right-sided central defender move far less to the sideline, I would make the gap between the defenders far less gaping, while still enabling the half-back to drop back.
This isn’t the same as just slapping an inverted wing-back on and calling it a day, as an inverted wing-back, even on a defend setting, will surge far more forward and take up position in the half-space in front of the back-line. Believe me, I tried this and this is pretty much how it panned out. With no player curbing the movement of the right centre-back, it did not remedy the problem at hand.
In this case, the defender role has been tasked with sitting more narrowly when the team has possession, only offering a wide outlet by dribbling with the ball when he personally receives the ball. In this case, it’s generally okay for him to move forward, as the half-back will resume his original position as well, and the spread between the defenders will be closed.
Instead of creating a gaping hole in my central defence by employing a lopsided half-back, the right centre-back is forced to maintain a more central position due to the presence of the full-back, who maintains a more narrow position when the team has the ball. In a way, he does the opposite of what an inverted wing-back does.
In terms of balancing out my formation, I am not done yet. Again, this is a lopsided half-back setup, so I am facing difficulties previously unforeseen. The traditional half-back is a single pivot, whereas mine operates as part of a double pivot. The double pivot not only causes a lopsided setup, it also creates a separate gaping hole in midfield which needs plugging.
As the half-back drops into position, he vacates space in the defensive midfield area. Because I do not field a central midfielder, that leaves opposing central midfielders with an ocean of space large enough to sail an aircraft carrier through if needed, it is a problem that needs solving, as it makes us susceptible to a counter-attack.
Plugging the gap shouldn’t be difficult, and in fact, it isn’t that difficult. If one player drops deep, someone else should step up to cover this zone or space. Since our left wing-back tends to surge forward, the left wide midfielder can drift inside to take up residence in the space the half-back has just vacated.
Enter the wide playmaker. I implemented the vanilla role, with no further tweaks. The advanced playmaker will look more like a midfielder when employed in a supporting role, operating closer to the MCs or DMs (depending on the configuration) and providing greater possession balancing. While they will still come inside and exploit the space between the lines, they will not do so to try to create an opportunity for themselves rather than playing through passes to the more attacking players.