It’s a giggly feeling we’ve all gotten. Sitting in the cinema and the lights go pitch black. The few intermediary seconds allow our mind to wonder. What type of film will it be? Will there be love, conflict, adventure, violence, a rite of passage of some sort? The possibilities are endless. Our minds briskly conjure fantasy after fantasy until the roaring music snaps us into a galaxy far, far away…
It’s hard to stop munching o n the popcorn. All eyes are glued to the gigantic screen ahead. But squint a little, and start seeing something different. Sure, it’s a fun movie. A fun movie that shares the same blueprint plot structure with any other tale of adventure. There is a hero who is suffocating in his mundane reality. There’s nothing arousing in his world until some bygone quest oddly raises him to prime importance. There are no qualms to cling to and thus the adventure begins. Our hero shrugs off all challenges admirably, fights off all enemies honourably, and succeeds, naturally. Sure, he gets some help en route from a wise mentor or two, but the story isn’t about them. Mine is.
Go back to the creative darkness. Sink deeper into it. Forget any yellow rolling credits or Warner Bros logos. Embrace the sojourn in imagination. A little house may appear. Maybe a playing card. You’re in a medium of boundless creativity and possibility. A medium that knows one equal: the penalty box.
Football. It’s a rather simple game. A wise manager instructs a team. The players are drilled in three main ways: where to be, what collective shape to keep, and where to move into. Position, shape, movement are all, at least to an extent, predetermined. The team’s quest is just simple. Score. And score more than the opponent. The protagonists do not do their bidding in zero-gravity. They battle in the plainer realm of roughly 6,901 square metres.
A football pitch. To better grasp the concepts by which it is governed, it must be split into three thirds. The defensive and middle thirds are where the manager has full control. It’s a mundane world where rigidity and authority reign supreme. Sure other managers place more emphasis on fluid football but all the same, those two thirds are theirs.
Take two teams. One donning ink-blue and fielded in a classic 433. The fullbacks are instructed to offer width and stretch the opposition by hogging either touchline. The left and right wingers are both more inside minded. The striker is told to remain central where he can occupy both of the opponent’s centre-backs. And one of the central three midfielders offers verticality and dynamism to the team by making constant runs from deep to join up with the attack. Their foes are sporting marker-red. They play a more pragmatic 442. Not keen on adventure, the team is defending deep and narrow with two banks of four. Their only real hope is for the striking duo to produce some game-winning magic.
In the first two thirds of the pitch (from Ink-blue’s reference) the contrast in styles is stark. The only thing keeping Ink-blue from entering the penalty box and causing chaos is Marker-red’s fortress of eight. The game hinges on a threshold. A thin, imaginary line runs across the latitude of the pitch. Cross it and enter a world of boundless creativity and possibility. Cross it and enter the final third.
In the final third, managerial instructions hold no bearing. There is one mission: score. How Ink-blue does that depends entirely on where Marker-red’s eight defensive men are positioned and the open spaces around. All variables are subject to change by the second. To that degree, there are only a handful of concepts that a manager can coach to his players in relation to the final third: link up play, one-two passes, blind side runs, finishing, and most importantly, point of entry.
I emphasise, a team’s point of entry into the final third is vital. It’s a form of creating organised chaos. The members of Ink-blue will know which attacking positions their teammates undertake. A player will hence be better equipped to find one another with a key pass, or to use a teammate as a decoy and create space for himself. Furthermore, if the crossing of the threshold is properly choreographed by Ink-blue, they can disband of Marker-red in a flash.
Take the image as reference. The blue lines represent the general attacking movement that Ink-blue will display while entering the final third. Imagine the RCM, who is not pictured, to have comfortable possession of the ball. The fullbacks continue to keep their width, while the rest are more congested towards goal. The players on Marker-red cannot let a foe bypass into the penalty box unmarked, thus every Ink-blue runner will attract a shadow. The arrows tangent to the red dots represent that shadow. It’s Isaac Newton’s football: every attacking action calls for a defensive reaction.
Ink-blue’s left back is making a dash down the flank. If no Marker-red player picks his run up, the LB will be free in open space. If an Ink-blue teammate finds him with a pass, the LB will have all the time he needs to deliver a pinpoint cross. However if his run was tracked, it was by either the RB or RM of Marker-red. Already, the shape of Marker-red’s fortress of eight is disrupted. This greatly plays into Ink-blue’s hands. The LW now has options for his own movement. Whatever he does, other players from the right side of Marker-red’s defensive shape will take note. He thus can choose to surge forward in support or to lurk in dangerous areas at the edge of the box. Either way, he will attract defenders.
Across the flank there is movement too. Ink-blue’s LB is making his overlapping run out wide. His fullback teammate must respond with guille. If the LB’s run is wide and with the intent to cross upon receiving the ball, Ink-blue will need to have a body positioned at the back post for a tap in. The RB and RW both must attack that space. The RB will run it into from further wide and will likely be shadowed by Marker-red’s LM. The RW, as previously said, is more inside minded. He will enter the final third through more bodies, but that bodes better for Ink-blue.
There is purpose in congesting the middle, especially when it’s right outside the opponent’s penalty box. It’s a way of keeping all your opponents in one place, and allowing for increased freedom for your teammates out wide. Once they make their overlapping or interior runs and the opponent’s men peel out of their shape to chase the fullbacks, the centre becomes easier to manipulate. Passing lanes and shooting angles begin to open up. Marker-red’s fortress of eight has been reduced to a last line of four defenders with a midfield pivot protecting them a couple of metres ahead. Far easier to exploit.
Ink-blue’s RB is running in to attack the far post, and the RW must attack the same general space. But he needs to direct his run to cause maximum problems, to run into the penalty box through Marker-red’s bodies. Specifically, through the LCM and LB. Allowing a sprinting opponent to easily bypass is suicidal in football and thus the odds are suggestive that both the LCM and LB will shuffle to keep up with Ink-blue’s RW.
To quickly recap, Ink-blue’s LB, LW, RB, and RW have all thus far entered the final third. The LB is making a wide run on the left, and the RB is sprinting towards the far post. The LW is lurking outside the box in bid to attract opponents towards him whilst the RW is trying to break through into the penalty box. Marker-red’s LM and RM have been pushed back on their respective flanks. The LB and LCM have been taken out of shape by the opposing RW and the RB, RCM, and RCB are all keeping wary of Ink-blue’s LW.
Marker-red’s defensive shape has been reduced to a makeshift last line. Uncertainty at Ink-blue’s attacking movements is causing angst in mind and positioning. Here, a team’s point of entry into the final third can wreak most havoc. The process itself is governed by two main principles: (1) the opposing defensive men function as ‘gates,’ (2) the open space behind the ‘gates’ can be accessed through numerical overloads or luring the ‘gates’ away.
Attacks can have a lifespan of mere seconds thus all the aforementioned runs took place whilst the Ink-blue’s RCM was in possession. Two Ink-blue players are attacking the far post, the area of one Marker-red ‘gate,’ the LB. In result, two more Marker-red players have been lured by the attacking runs as the LB cannot solely cope with the numerical superiority of Ink-blue runners. In consequence, free space has opened up in the penalty box. But as the image shows, three Marker-red players remain standing guard, two centre-backs and the RCM.
The striker must now move into the space. Naturally, any movement from Ink-blue’s striker will attract one if not both of Marker-red’s centre-backs. That’s exactly as desired. As the striker makes his movements, he is reinforced by a deep run from the LCM. Within the arch of the penalty box, two Ink-blue players are making attacking movements to enter into open space. Marker-red’s last ‘gates’ are posed a dilemma they only have a second to solve. It’s a list of worries: do I stay with the striker? Do I pick up the midfielder’s run? Do I keep watch on the LW? The answers must be perfectly coordinated. But the RCM has his back to both the centre-backs nor is there any time for communication. Synced cooperation is unlikely. To sum it up in brief, to err is to human.
The final third has no restrictions. It has no guidelines or instructions. It’s the area where every footballer dreams to be: unlimited freedom metres away from goal. But the final third does have foundations. Finishing, short passes, close control – that’s all for drills and coaching. How a team enters the final third, how it isolates opposing defenders and disbands narrow defensive shapes, is all tactical. The points of entry into the final third, hence, are of prime importance. For if the opposing defenders are seen as ‘gates’ guarding the open space behind, they can also be inferred as ‘points.’ ‘Points’ that succumb to pressure, uncertainty, and angst. ‘Points’ that allow for entry into the final third.
Featured image credits: Statszone