When teams wait compactly in a low-block moving towards the ball, it becomes tough to penetrate the lines. The solution to this horizontal compactness is spreading the opposition out laterally, creating gaps in between the horizontal lines to play through.
This tactical analysis piece in the form of coaching/training analysis, will go through one coaching session on how to use the combination of overload and isolate to break horizontal compactness. Former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager, Pep Guardiola, has mastered these tactics in the Premier League, as we will show in this analysis, taking advantage of the added value of combining those two concepts to progress the ball to the final third.
Application in game-situation
Implementing this tactical strategy give Pep’s teams different strategic options to break the defensive lines; with one player always retaining position wide on the far-side. The first strategic option is just using the overload with a positional and numerical superiority on the ball-side to penetrate the lines. The overload used by Manchester City is depicted in the following picture, with five players joining the right flank creating a 5v4 to progress the ball to the final third.
The overload on its own is not very effective as when used with the isolated player on the weak side. This combination gives Pep’s team a second option if they can’t progress the ball due to the defensive compactness on the ball-side, triggering the isolation tactics. Switching the ball creates a qualitative (1v1 or 2v2) or quantitative superiority (1v0 or 2v1) on the opposite side of the field.
This tactical movement can be shown in the next picture with five players of The Citizens positioned on the right flank, and Benjamin Mendy positioned isolated in the weak side, crossing the ball to play a 1v1.
A third strategetic option is to use the isolated player as a decoy; start switching the ball to the weak-side; only to go back again to exploit the increasing overload generated because of the shifting defence to the weak-side. The concepts on their own are much less effective than combining the two of them. Being unpredictable when attacking, not able to know which one to defend, if you draw across to protect the overload, they can use the isolate payer, and if you don’t involve too many players, they can play through their combination.
In this training session, we are going to be working on using the “overload to isolate” tactical strategy to progress the ball into the final third. We present the session as it flows chronologically starting from the warm-up, albeit the design of the session began from the game training, where you exactly replicate the football situation that you want to improve and then downsize it to the other drills.
For the first part of this session, we designed a 5v3 rondo in which we would focus on the overload concept. Rondos are always an excellent drill to get the players in tune with the session, having a lot of touches and football-related movements to get warmed-up. Four players will be playing in the outside. At the same time, one would move freely inside the rectangle; if one of the defenders touches the ball or another player passes it out of bounds, the defenders switch with whoever is responsible for the unsuccessful action and the two people next to him.
This kind of rondo includes communication, decision making, and execution of those decisions suiting perfect in the coaching theory. To add a sense of direction and competition, we added a defensive punishment; if the team in-possession gets to play from the back player to the front and back again to the start, the defender team will have to win the ball twice. This rule provokes the principle of always trying to play forwards and not just passing for the sake of passing.
We do not want to be stopping or overcoaching at this point in the session, albeit the design would create that competence in players to increase their positional play in an overload situation, manipulating the defenders to one side to play forward. This implicit learning would be supported by positive feedback on the desired coaching points behaviours: off the ball movements, angle positioning, body shape, and weight on the passes.
There would not be any constraint included on this rondo, but a progression will be added to build-up on the tempo, getting them ready for the next part of the session. The defenders will be encouraged to make a safe pass between their team to count as a recover ball. Under this constraint, we increase the actions required as when the ball is lost, players should react counter-pressing. The tempo rises at the same time as we work implicitly on one of the most relevant principles of the positional play, fast transitioning to win the ball back as soon as possible.
The second part of the session will be a positioning game, using a 3v3+2 played in two grids to focus on switching the ball, instrumental part of the isolated concept. The ball will start in one of the grids, with the team in-possession playing a 3v2+1. Once they have reached the fifth pass, the third defender can come into the grid, creating a 3v3+1, encouraging the players to switch the ball to the other grid.
The in-position players are to take up positions as shown with two players in the outside and one in the middle. Players should be selected to be positioned in the rondo resembling their positioning in the game-specific situation that we are trying to replicate. Being the player inside a midfielder, the targets either wings or full-backs and the ones taking the side positions could vary from centre-backs, strikers, or even wingers. If the red team gets to win the ball, they should look to play to any of the targets and take out the wide positions as the blues sprint in to take the defending positioning with one going to the middle line waiting for the fifth pass to press.
In this part, the coaching points would be on overloading the players in their decision making to switch the ball into the far-side target once they got to the fifth pass. The anticipation of the play positioning the body to change the ball would facilitate this action. Also, the inside player should work as a link connecting the outside players looking for one in an excellent position to switch the ball. The width of the grids should be at least as long as two lanes to work on skipping one lane when switching the ball.
This drill should be split into blocks of 4 minutes, keeping the scores of how many switches achieved each team. In the breaks coaching points should be reinforced once they have experienced the game-specific situation creating consciousness of their competence.
The third drill is the central part of the session, where the whole concept of “overload to isolate” is reinforced. This would be in a constrain game 9v9+GK, in which the communication of the team will be overloaded to accomplished the desire tactical strategy. As aforementioned, we want to achieve the overload to isolate concept to progress the ball to the final third, so the game training will position the players in the middle third, with the coaching side set in a 4-1-3-1 against 3-2-1-3.
There will be two wide channels marked by the white lines; the blue team will start with the ball from the centre-backs. To be able to score on the big goal, they first will have to progress the ball through the blue dotted lines. For the red team, if they win the ball, they score by dribbling or passing the ball through the red line; this constraint maintains the awareness on the blue team keeping a rest-defence in the central channel, not over-overloading the wide spaces. One extra condition will be added to create the isolated concept; when the ball is in the wide lanes, the weak-side defenders have to stay defending in the middle section.
This session aims to progress the ball to the final third, either by using the overload or shifting the ball to the far-side using quality or numerical superiority. All the concepts mentioned in the previous exercises should be reinforced here, focusing mainly on the tactical concepts of the idea.
On the ball side, players should stagger, giving different options to the ball carrier, creating a numerical and positional superiority. While in the weak-side, either the wing or the full-back should remain isolated in the weak channel, with players anticipating the switch playing fast passes skipping lanes to get as quick as possible to the far-side.
Last but not least, the third strategical option should be coach, using the isolated player as a decoy, taking the ball out of the overload to make the defending team shift, only to go back to the overload and play with more ease.
This session would finish with a regular game where the players play competitively and freely. This should be the part of the session in which the coach assesses the success of it, determining whether the players can independently apply what was learned in the earlier parts of the session.
Nowadays, many are the teams that defend compactly shifting towards the ball. Through this session, we have gone through one of the concepts more frequently use to break those lines by Pep at his Manchester City; a theory also shared with one of his mentors Marcelo Bielsa who used this at Leeds United.