This will be including World Cup 2018 references and example, subjects will primarily be positional-play, defensive strategy(positional-offball) and how to control the transitions.
Horizontal — Vertical lines
If you want to succeed in your positional-play, one of the keys is to create a lot of horizontal lines. You can have your fullbacks adjusting their position according to whether they are in the ballside or not, the fullback closest to the ball-carrier will typically seek a position out of the shadow of the pressing player so he can be hit with a short pass or have a position deep with the intention of a long ball, to get behind the line of the defense. The fullback in the other side, will typically either be in the wide areas to create width in the team which can be used when switching the play or have a position in halfspace so the player being used to change sides can pass to him inside of the opponents wing, furthermore his position centrally will make it better for the team to succeed in the transition and win the ball back fast by gegenpressing.
Let’s have a look at Belgium vs Japan. Early in the game Belgium were using four players, in front of Japan’s first pressure. Belgium having 5 horizontal lines, with overload in central spaces, but this doesn’t mean Belgium are in positional-superiority, because when they play from the relative and permanent phase 1, they will not be able to control the next phase, with Japan being in numerical superiority. This is because with a short pressing distance they can create 2vs1 on all of the six Belgium players, while Belgium is having a long passing distance to each of them. In this sequence, Belgium have problems with coping Japans shadow pressing, forcing them to kick a long ball, because they lack patterns in the transition from phase 1 to 2.
Belgium could be much more efficient with a three-man build up, having Witsel and De Bruyne creating two horizontal lines, and vertical, by occupying the space in front and behind Japans central midfielders, in the central space. Having the two wingers in halfspace, could stretch Japans organization more, if Belgium was able to switch the play with one/two touch between them.
A team can have few horizontal lines, but still be in control, in positional-play, by having a lot of vertical lines. In this example, I’ll be analyzing the same match, only looking at Japan in possession. Japan who I think were one of the positive sides at this WC, having a lot of good positions throughout their campaign, seemingly worked a lot in this area. They showed that creating positional superiority isn’t necessarily by having local numerical superiority in relative phase 2.
Between vertical line 2 and 3, and 5 and 6 it’s clear that Belgium has positioned six players, because Japan has positioned players in the space between the midfield and defense, on the in- and outside of Witsel and De Bruyne. Japan is underloading the ball-side by having created a width with three players, 3vs1, two in wide areas and one in halfspace. Especially the player in halfspace is important, because he has stepped out of Lukaku’s shadow, which is also because of the Japanese player being in their own half. This ends up creating problems for Lukaku in his covering of one-and-a-half pressure. By his positioning, he can receive the ball and be able to put pressure on Belgium’s right fullback.
Furthermore Japan has three-four players on the top-line, tying five Belgium defenders, which makes it difficult for Belgium to press successfully and easy for Japan to control the wide areas and running deep in the channels. Especially Osako can be a key, if Japan switch the play fast.
Short passes vs long passes, vice versa
Pep Guardiola often talks about him having a preference to short passes because they are less risky, it’s easier to control the transitions because of the short pressing distance. It’s easier to make a successful pass if it’s 5 metres vs 20 metres. The last one, should be quite obvious.
In another note, I think Napoli, during Sarri was one the best teams, I’ve ever seen, to play short forward passes with high speed and precision, the passes though was only succesful and effective because of the players positions. They penetrated their opponent by creating local numerical overload, sometimes local numerical underload but having local positional overload.
Short passing, is only going to be successful, if the receiver of the ball has his body position facing the sideline, if the pass is with high speed, look at De Bruyne doing this — probably the best in the world at that at the moment, if the pass is penetrating a line of the opponent.
So why was the long pass, being used so much if some of the best teams(clubs) in the world uses short passes with great success? The long pass is very useful to play out of the opponents pressure, ex. the long ball from Pickford to Kane, one of the most used for England, because they lacked patterns and strategy in open-play. The second ball is quite important because the long ball usually is a 50/50 dual, therefore you often wanna kick the long ball to the player on the last line, like Kane, because midfielders and wingers can move inside and pick up the second ball, or the long pass can be wide, having the winger, as Man City do it, by laying it off to either the offensive midfielder or the fullback.
The long pass, can also be quite efficient if the opponent is having high pressing lines, and you have a quick attack(er) versus a rather slow defen(der)se, because you want the 1vs1 sprint, the attacker is usually turned towards the opponent goal and the defender usually has his back towards his own goal, forcing him to turn his body 180 degrees, which obviously gives the attacker an advantage. The team on the ball, can then play rather low and sideways on their own half, forcing the opponent to give up space either in front or behind the defensive line.
From the final, WC 2018, France vs Croatia. In this case, it’s a good idea that Subasic, plays a long ball, because France is doing well in their pressure by pressing one-and-a half with their six players in front, but Croatia isn’t prepared, Vida could have taken a lower position, allowing Subasic to play short, with France having a long pressing distance, it could’ve worked out, but it’s the final, so I guess you don’t take any ‘chances’. The square is the most important area, in order to win the second ball, for both teams. Furthermore it’s important for Brozovic, Modric and Rakitic to close down the central area, so France can’t play forward on the transition.
Passing distance — pressing distance
I think the passing distance should depend on the pressing distance of the nearest opponent, because if he’s far away, a backwards pass should be as short as possible, not giving the opponent an opportunity to move their defensive organisation further up the pitch. If the pass is sideways, then the passing distance, usually, should be as long as possible, forcing the opponent to move sideways and giving space on the inside. It always depends on the opponent and which positions your team is in, in that particular situation, because the spaces open/closes in a second.
Let’s have a look at this situation, also from the final Croatia vs France, I think it’s Perisic on the ball. For me, he has 3 options, in which I’m going to analyze.
Option 1, the pass with the shortest distance, and I also think that it’s the smartest pass in this situation because of Croatias positioning and Frances pressing. Croatia has three players in front of the ball, which could make an impact if he chose passing option.France has nine players behind the ball, therefore it wouldn’t make sense if Croatia tried to attack or keeping pressure on France with a sideway pass and forward run. Furthermore, to choose option 1, then the receiver could play the player in the initially option 2, a pass in which could gather the opponents and then play wide on the lay off. Option doesn’t make sense, because the passing distance is longer than the pressing distance of the nearest opponents, which would make it a 1vs2. If Vrsaljko plays on his first touch and the winger, Rebic could get into a wide position fast, he could get a 1vs1 dual, that would make it 50/50. In this situation, play it ‘safe’, don’t risk a transition in which you can’t control, therefore a short backwards pass is preferred.
There is no value in playing a teammate which doesn’t have an advantage of receiving the ball, in those situations you should attract the opponents by dribbling close to them to do combinations or just switch the play. Furthermore the player in possession, should pass it if he doesn’t have an advantage of being in possession. Local numerical superiority does not always equate positional superiority/balance.
The ability to play under high pressure from the opponent, making sure that the level of decision making is being held at a high level, and the perception is still 360 degrees. Through the years, in which I’ve seen and understood football, Messi is for me the player at the highest level to do this. He can keep possession, by either passing at a high level or dribbling.
It’s very difficult with a high level of press resistance, in the national team, because one player can only be that good at keeping possession, if he doesn’t get help from his teammates. The reason why, is in order to get these patterns, you have to train on this behavior with a high frequency, having really strict principles and sub-principles towards which runs in which situations from which players, there has to be a strong relation between players close to each other on the pitch, ex. the 6 and 8. There simply isn’t time for that, in the national squad.
Therefore I’ve found an example from Real Madrid vs Barcelona, in which Busquet has his back towards RM’s goal, high pressure from Kroos, Modric also getting closer and Ronaldo ready to intercept the ball if he loses it. Busquets has the ability to dribble in front of Kroos, so he can adjust his body position, and awaits movement from his teammates and opponents, which Rakitic eventually does, running in the back of Modric. If Rakitic hadn’t made this run, Busquet probably would have just played wide to Alba, making the seconds on the ball useless, but with his ability to keep possession under high pressure and movement from Rakitic, seconds later Barcelona scores for 1–0.
The less pressure the player on the ball has, the greater opportunity there is, that he will make a good decision for the team. The more pressure the player on the ball has, greater is the possibility that he’ll play through the opponents lines but also a great chance that he will lose the ball.
While looking at a team in possession, the more players moving simultaneously showing a better understanding of the patterns and which behavior the coach would like to see from his players.
Busquet against Kroos, El Clasico.
Controlling the opponent and their positions, while not being in control of the ball, has seemed quite important in this World Cup. It means that the team without the ball is closing down passing lines in their pressure, while also controlling the spaces regardless of opposition player on the ball passing it vertically or horizontally, through the flanks or the centre. Usually a team with success in positional-offball, will create a hourglass figure, overloading the central area, forcing the opponent to attack wide.
In this example Uruguay is clearly controlling the central space, with the player pressing the ball carrier, while closing down the passing line for the player between the midfield and defensive line. Controlling zone 14 is the key, because that’s usually the area in which first and second assist comes from. With Godin and Gimenez from Atletico Madrid, it’s no coincidence that Uruguay excel at this, because Simeone in Atletico has dominated this area in European elite football for the last years.
Uruguay is comfortable by having the opponent making a high cross from the wide area, because they cover the space in the penalty area well. Furthermore in Atletico, they want the opponent centrally, outside the penalty area, because then they make the frame of the goal as small as possible, also the keeper in his perception has the play in front of him, making it easier to control his movement and predict which way to go.
France should, in this example, choose the option 1 instead of 2, because the short backward pass, with the shortest passing distance, has the opportunity to play a forward pass, inside the Uruguayan organization.
Controlling the transitions
Transitions are one of the keys to control the match, because chaos arise and whoever can control that chaos has a big advantage. The best way to prepare for a transition is to defend with 2+, always having a numerical superiority, having man-marking and players defending the space in front of them, closing down the passing lines.
In this example, Germany has poor preparation for the defensive transition, they don’t control the central area, especially Özil is important, if he moves inside, he could also play an important role in possession. Werner can lay off the ball to him in his first touch, having Özil facing the opponent goal, with the possibilities to make a chip-ball, combinations, penetrate central channels with a low cross.
South Korea, can in this situation, play forward on the breaking-ball, because Germany tries to accelerate the play by passing on one-touch in the space between the midfield and the defensive line.
In defensive/offensive transitions, the next 5–7 seconds is crucial. In the offensive transition, it’s very important playing forward passes, through the defensive lines of the opponent, while they aren’t in the postional-offplay balance. In order to succeed, they have to have a player in a wide position, stretching the opponent forcing them to make a decision, and a player in a deep position tying up the defensive line as high as possible.
A successful offensive transition often happens when the first or second pass, is to a player who is faced towards the goal, having the ability to dribble forward and/or passing forward, rapidly. The ball has to travel as fast as possible as forward as possible.
Often a transition happens when a team is trying to go from the relative phase 2 to 3.