BVB Dortmund 3:0 FC Bayern – Pressing Analysis

Borussia Dortmund caused a slight upset (to some) on the weekend by beating the dominant Bundesliga champions FC Bayern 3:0. This was quite surprising as Pep Guardiola hasnt lost a single match with Bayern in the league (until Augsburg the previous weekend) & the team was breaking all sorts of records. This was no fluke though, BVB accomplished this dominant scoreline through intelligent defensive movement.


Importance of Positioning & Ball Circulation 

Many believe (and most commentators) that Bayern play with too few defenders & thats why they are exposed on the break and concede goals, similarly to FC Barcelona. What most people miss is that having a small amount of defenders is not a huge risk at all, as long as you can press correctly.

To be able to press correctly & survive with only a few defenders, Bayern must be able to circulate the ball within the opponents half. Pep has said before that great positional play on defense comes from great positional play on offense, & a team should complete at least around 15 passes before their positional play in possession is good.

In possession, teams like to circulate the ball and move the opponents around, & when they finally take advantage of spaces they have opened by moving the opponent, it is usually played into a player who is attacking the opened space, while he has many pass/combination possibilities to penetrate through the defense (think of Messi’s wall passing sprees). A great spell of possession like that naturally offers many players on the possessing team in the same area. That is the key to a good press or gegenpress, having lots of numbers in a tight area to be able to close down the opponent immediately. If the ball is lost higher up and the gegenpress fails, the team who just lost the ball has extra time to transition backwards and stop a break, or the opponent will pass backwards if a counter attack isnt available, thus making it  not very dangerous at all to play with a few defenders, as long as the circulation and positioning are great. This is the key to how BVB stopped Bayern Munich.


Dortmund Defensive Shape & Pressing

Similarly to how Dortmund set up their shape against Real Madrid in the second leg of CL Quarter Finals (Analysis of the game by Spielverlagerung’s MR here:, Dortmund again began their shape by purposely having their 2 forwards lopsided towards the left, leaving an open space on the right side of the field for Dante.

Dortmund leave Dante open on purpose

Dortmund leave Dante open on purpose

When the ball finally reached Dante, then BVB began their pressing, Hoffman would press Dante as Lahm would drop between the 2 centerbacks and the 2 fullbacks played as False Fullbacks & moved into Center Midfielder roles in possession.

This press was very flexible in terms of which players marked which players, so i will show 3 different scenes from the early parts of the game to demonstrate the variety of the BVB shape. As a team they performed space-oriented defending (closing down spaces near the ball) while having some man-marking aspects within the movement.

Hoffman presses while covering Ribery, Sahin marks Alaba while Kehl marks Rafinha

Minute: 1:43 in the game

Neuer plays the ball out to Dante who is open, while Reus and Aubameyang roughly mark Lahm & Martinez respectively. Hoffman begins pressing while making sure Ribery is in his cover shadow. He covers Ribery while he is man-marked because if he didn’t Ribery could be used as a pass option that could allow different entry into the BVB shape. Mkhitaryan pinched inside while Kehl marked Rafinha & Sahin man marked Alaba, the false fullbacks. They made sure these 2 could not receive the ball and turn, because if they did then the Dortmund defense would have to drop much deeper as the Bayern player would then be higher up the pitch & have a view of the field so he could play a long ball over the higher line (pass possibilities/ranges become closer/more dangerous to BVB goal as he gained a view of the field closer to goal) , among other things. This would cause the defense to drop deeper & effectively ruin the press.

Gotze, Schweinsteiger, & Mandzukic were higher up the pitch but werent playable. Unlike the 3:0 Bayern win earlier in the Bundesliga season vs Dortmund, now Dortmund had Hummels in the back line. Bayern defeated Dortmund earlier in the season by having a much more direct approach to their 3 forwards & winning the long balls against Friedrich among others, because of Dortmund’s injury crisis earlier in the season. Grosskreutz, Sokratis, Hummels, & a more experienced Durm were much more competent in facing longer balls now & Bayern would most likely lose such a battle causing a transitional & open match, so they had to look more often for shorter buildup options.

Minute: 2:45 in the game

Minute: 2:45 in the game

Again Dortmund leave the defensive halfspace (& effectively Dante) open. Lahm plays a ball into Rafinha who is unable to turn because of the pressure, & he bounces the ball immediately out to Dante in space. Now Hoffman begins to press again while blocking Ribery, of course.

A variation here is that Schweinsteiger now dropped deeper in the midfield in the space a 6 would usually play. Now instead of just pinching in to protect his halfspace, Mkhitaryan man marked Schweinsteiger during the BVB press while Sahin marked Alaba & Kehl man-marked Rafinha.

Notice it is about a 4v4 up top for Bayern against Dortmund’s defense. Any ball that was tried to these players was contested as a situational man-marking moment (for example Gotze dropped & Sokratis followed him). Dortmund’s defender would either win the long ball, or pressure the Bayern player, not allowing them to turn, while this was happening the rest of the Dortmund team recovered back and pressed the ball as well. So this was naturally a riskier decision.

Minute: 7:45

Minute: 7:45

Here is another situation where BVB forced the ball to the open Dante. This particular press led to Dante kicking it straight out of bounds due to the pressure & lack of options. Again Dante receives it, this time from Neuer who received the ball from Lahm under pressure from Reus and Hoffman presses while covering Ribery. Kehl marks Alaba this time while Mkhitaryan marks Rafinha who was in his proximity. Sahin decided to mark Schweinsteiger as he drifted into a space where an 8 usually plays & could possibly drop quickly to receive the pass from Dante & move the Bayern team up the pitch.

As you can see, which Dortmund player marked which Bayern players changed a lot just within the first 8 or so minutes. BVB’s defensive movement was most importantly based on condensing the space high up the pitch and man-marking short options, each player would naturally mark whichever short option was in their proximity due to the positional fluidity of Bayern’s players, who constantly switch around with each other. Marking shorter options is key to the press.

Possible mistakes

There are a couple common mistakes that could happen during such a press.

If Hoffman blocks Dante from passing into Alaba instead of Ribery

If Hoffman blocks Dante from passing into Alaba instead of Ribery

If Dante would receive the ball in his open space & Hoffman pressed while covering Alaba as the short option, Dante could immediately use Ribery as a wall or different form of penetration into the Dortmund shape. Dante could play a long ball into Ribery’s feet & he would immediately pass it inside to the open Schweinsteiger (or Alaba if Sahin drops off). This would effectively allow Bayern to turn and have space near Dortmund’s goal. Then Schweinstieger could either play a pass through, shoot, or he can keep the ball to circulate high up the pitch as they just successfully penetrated Dortmund’s shape and forced them back (which would lead to a good press & easier defensive transition).

If BVB players marked deeper options instead of the immediate short passes during the press.

If BVB players marked deeper options instead of the immediate short passes during the press.

If Dante received the ball open & Hoffman pressed normally while covering Ribery, but Sahin marked Schweinsteiger (deeper option) instead of Alaba, Dante could directly play a pass into Alaba to turn. Allowing Alaba to turn there would effectively take 3 Dortmund players out of their defensive shape, this would leave the BVB defense very stretched. Alaba then has many pass combination possibilities. Such a moment vs FC Bayern would be absolutely catastrophic with their quality. This moment would end up in either a goal, a good shot, or again Bayern pushing Dortmund into their own half & circulating the ball which would lead to a nice gegenpress most likely & an easier transition in defense.

While watching the game it would look dangerous to leave so much space between the BVB midfield line & BVB defensive line open during the press. But, even if you leave a massive amount of space behind your midfield, if the opponent can not play the ball there – is it truly dangerous to leave the space open? As you can see here, it is okay to leave the 6 space, or any space open for that matter if you can press correctly & not allow the opponent into that space (See piece on ‘Dead Spaces’ & the Option-Oriented defending of Swansea City by Spielverlagerung’s MR here: This concept is similar to the idea of Bayern having only a few defenders. If they are able to press correctly & the opponent never has a chance to get into an advantageous position against such few defenders, is it truly dangerous? If a team clears the ball, the ball is probably inaccurate & wont find the forward against so few defenders, or it will be too hard – & Neuer the ultimate goalkeeper would sweep it up. A clearance with the correct accuracy & pace is extremely rare & Pep (& Dortmund for that matter) obviously will take their chances  with that decision.

Klopp’s successful plan

In the end, Klopp managed to stop the buildup of Bayern Munich with his team’s defensive movement. Dortmund scored their goals in a transitional sort of setting (arguably not the first goal from the throw in, though it was a quick throw before Bayern entirely recovered). This transitional sort of game for them is obviously advantageous, they managed to stop Bayern’s effective ball circulation, blocked all the short options & didn’t allow direct circulation – which meant Bayern’s positioning for circulation high up the pitch was negated, they weren’t able to gegenpress efficiently, & it was more difficult for them to transition back as they naturally play with less players who predominantly focus on running back in defensive transition & stopping breaks.

In the end it was a great performance & a deserved 3:0 win for Klopp’s Dortmund

Halfspaces Part 2 & Mixed-Positions


In my last piece, I spoke about halfspaces (my last piece – I mostly talked about the attacking aspects of halfspaces, but now i will elaborate and speak about the deeper halfspaces while in possession. Half spaces have many different effects all over the field, as well as having an important role in the defensive phase, but that’s enough information to write for a later piece.

Using half spaces in deeper positions while in possession is a great way to progress the possessing team up the field, and also penetrate the opponent’s lines. When in halfspace a player can either receive the ball in space unmarked and progress through the lines, or the player can be marked – which is where they can open some spaces.

Willian of Chelsea drifting into halfspace, opening central spaces - Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion from twitter for the Willian screenshot

Willian of Chelsea drifting into halfspace, opening central spaces – Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion from twitter for the Willian screenshot

Most of my examples will show graphics that are attacking against a team who is in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape, this is because its most obvious to see the effects of half spaces against these shapes (most of the time).

LCM drags marker wider to open central spaces & allow penetration

LCM drags marker wider to open central spaces & allow penetration, he lays it off to the DM who can play it through

In this graphic, the LCM (left-central midfielder) drifts wide into halfspace and receives the ball. This drags his marker wider than usual, stretching the normal length between the 2 central midfielders. This leaves a gap to progress further up the field into a dangerous area.

Augsburg player drifts wide dragging his marker wide, lays it off to the DM who can now play it through the midfield

Augsburg player drifts wide dragging his marker wide, lays it off to the DM who can now play it through the midfield

Augsburg had this approach vs Bayern in their recent domestic cup match. This allowed them to play a direct ball into their striker between the lines. This is because Bayern played with a 4-4-2 defensive shape, probably due to Augsburg’s 4-1-4-1. Bayern didn’t have their usual 4-1-3-1-1 pressing shape coming out of defense because Augsburg didn’t have a CAM (central attacking midfielder/#10) between the lines, allowing Bayern to leave the single striker to the CBs (center backs) and push up their midfielders, similar to their approach against Barcelona in their 7-0 win where Bayern would collapse on the ball & shut their pressing trap if the ball got in between the lines.

Bayern pressing high in a 442 shape, compressing the center. Because Messi is the only player behind the lines and a CB can mark him.

Bayern pressing high in a 442 shape, compressing the center. Because Messi is the only player between the lines and a CB can mark him.

As you see, this is a similar approach to how Guardiola approached the Augsburg game.

Bayern's usual pressing shape

Bayern’s usual pressing shape

This is Bayern’s usual shape when they press opponents (most opponents have a #10 between the lines). The DM stays deeper with the opponent’s CAM, while Bayern’s RCM marks the opponent LCM. Now Bayern’s LCM pushes up to press the opponent CB who is on the ball, while covering his assigned CM with his body shadow. This forms a sort of 4-1-3-1-1 shape while pressing, if the ball managed to get in the center Bayern collapse and shut their pressing trap. (Great piece on pressing traps within a 4-1-4-1 by Rene Maric -

Halfspace player dragging winger inside

Halfspace player dragging winger inside

Another option to mark the halfspace player is when the opponent’s wide player comes inside to mark the player in halfspace. This opens space in the wide area for the possessing team’s FB (full-back) to progress through and make a run. With the FB moving up unmarked to join the possessing team’s winger, this forms a 2v1 on the flank vs. the opponent’s FB. This is an advantageous position because when the opponent FB is beaten, naturally the opponent’s CB must come out to meet the wide player, which leaves advantageous numbers in the box to score.

Some teams play in a defensive shape with 3 CMs protecting the center and halfspaces. In my last piece i showed you how Bayern used a lot of switches of the ball to be able to make runs through halfspace against Leverkusen (who play a narrow 4-3-2-1). There are various different approaches to open up spaces against a 4-5-1/4-3-3 defensive shape, but i will give a couple of my own examples.

Augsburg vs Bayern last year pushing the FB high & having the DM and Winger in halfspace to open spaces

Augsburg vs Bayern last year pushing the FB high & having the DM and Winger in halfspace to open spaces

Because a 4-5-1 has so few forward outlets, it is less dangerous for the possessing team to commit more defenders to the attack, which is a key feature for my examples. Though Bayern didn’t play 4-5-1 last year, my graphic is a situation where they were in such a shape

One approach vs. a 4-5-1 is to overload halfspaces, this is because they are already protected – simply standing in this zone wont have the same effect as usual because the player is already marked, keeping spaces closed. A particular form of progression Bayern, Augsburg, & others (Bundesliga is arguably the best league in terms of tactics) used last year did this very thing.

The FB pushes up while the DM drifts into halfspace, opening central space on the opposite side of the field

The FB pushes up while the DM drifts into halfspace, opening central space on the opposite side of the field

The FB of the possessing team pushes up very high, which allows the winger inside. One of the DMs drift into wide halfspace, this group tactical movement overloads this zone which moves a large concentration of players into one part of the field. One of the results of this movement is the opening of central spaces towards the opposite side of the field.

Alba makes a run into occupied halfspace, escaping Diego Costa in Atletico's 4-5-1

Alba makes a run into occupied halfspace, escaping Diego Costa in Atletico’s 4-5-1

vs. Barcelona in the SuperCup final, Atletico Madrid defended in a 4-5-1 shape with Diego Costa (a main attacking outlet) dropping to the left to mark Alba (so Atletico don’t get overrun in central midfield) on defense. Fabregas drifted into halfspace as the LCM, naturally being marked by the opponent’s RCM who is protecting the halfspace. Neymar had the ball wide against Atletico’s FB. This left Diego Costa to mark Jordi Alba, and Alba made a run into the already occupied halfspace. Diego Costa, who is normally a striker, was reluctant to track a run in behind the defense. This meant the opponent’s CB had to come out wide to meet Alba, leaving less defenders in the box. Alba made a cross to the far post where Alexis Sanchez barely missed an open goal.


Before i begin talking about mixed positions, it’s important to note the difference in distances when a player is pulled diagonally from one point as opposed to being pulled horizontally or vertically from the same point.

The different distances it would take to meet an opponent in different directions

The different distances it would take to meet an opponent in different directions

Diagonal pulls are always mathematically larger than normal vertical or horizontal pulls, opening up more space than usual.

5x5 square - use Pythagorean Theorem to solve diagonal distance (hypotenuse)

5×5 square – use Pythagorean Theorem to solve diagonal distance (hypotenuse)

Using the Pythagorean Theorem we can see in a 5×5 meter square of space (smaller scale of actual space on the field), moving horizontally or vertically from one of the corners would mean the player left his original point by 5 meters. If he left his space diagonally to the opposite corner, the player left his original point by 7.1 meters. This means there is an extra 2.1 meters created which is a huge amount of extra space in football. That extra 2.1 meters (again, this is a smaller scale) can provide extra time to shoot, pass, dribble, etc.

To prove this point, you simply use the equation A(squared) + B(squared) = C(squared) to find the diagonal length (C), which is how far a player would move diagonally. For this example the equation would be 25 + 25 = C(squared). When the square roots of both sides are taken it is found that C = 7.1 meters (amount of distance a player would cover diagonally).

Moving diagonally puts the player in between positions

Moving diagonally puts the player in between positions

Whenever a player leaves his position horizontally or vertically, he moves into another position within the teams formation (the vertical & horizontal lines of the formation), but if he moves diagonally, he is in between positions. This is called being in a MIXED-POSITION (co-named with Rene Maric – @ReneMaric on twitter).

18 zone grid of a football field, with mixed position zones highlighted

18 zone grid of a football field, with mixed position zones highlighted

When looking at the 18-zone model of a football field, these positions are usually found in the zones 4.5, 5.5, 13.5, and 14.5. Mixed positions aren’t ALWAYS in these zones, the positioning can vary based on how the opponents are set up (it simply means that the player is in between positions).

Highlighting the "between the lines" and "halfspaces" zones on the field, notice where they intersect

Highlighting the “between the lines” and “halfspaces” zones on the field, notice where they intersect

These positions are both between opponent lines as well as being in half space. These positions have the basic effects of both. While in halfspace a player drags opponents out of position to open spaces, and its the same for these positions, though it creates a bit more space. At the same time, the player is in between the lines so he can drag the defensive line out of position and even play a ball through, make a run, shoot, dribble, etc.

Neymar in a mixed position, in between many positions

Neymar in a mixed position, in between many positions

Moving into a mixed position has various impacts on the opponents. Whatever player gets dragged by the mixed position player to leave their zone will be unbalancing the defense in some way, providing an advantage somewhere on the field. There are various possible effects of being in a mixed position, I’m going to share a few examples of mine.

Robben pulling many players towards him in a mixed position - noticed all the space that is created from this

Robben pulling many players towards him in a mixed position – notice all the space that is created from this

The LCM gets dragged out of his position by the player in the mixed position

The LCM gets dragged out of his position by the player in the mixed position

The first example is if the LCM of the opponent drifts in a high-left mixed position (from his point of view). This opens a lot of central space and allows for a free CM to progress through into the space, he can then shoot, pass, or dribble. The exposed CBs have to decide which one will quickly press the ball player (if they manage to choose), it must be quick because a ball could be played into the unoccupied space.

The opponent's CB leaves his position to mark the player in the mixed position

The opponent’s CB leaves his position to mark the player in the mixed position

The second example is if a CB leaves his space to follow the mixed position player. This leaves a gap in the defensive line that could be played through. There is also another pass possible to the opposite winger because the CB that is left alone must cover a large amount of space on his own.

The FB leaving his zone to mark the player in a mixed position

The FB leaving his zone to mark the player in a mixed position

My third example is when the FB leaves his position to follow the player in the mixed position. This would leave the winger free, & on a larger scale – this leaves the possession team’s FB 2v1 vs. the opponent winger, if he tracks back. A ball can be played to winger or FB & if they beat the winger who tracks back, they can attack halfspace and pull opponent defenders wide for an advantageous number of attackers in the box.

The winger leaves his zone to follow the player in the mixed position

The winger leaves his zone to follow the player in the mixed position.

The final example is when the winger follows the player in the mixed position, this has almost the same effect as if the FB followed the mixed position player. It leaves the possessing team’s FB free, & on a larger scale – it leaves the FB 2v1 against the winger and the possessing team’s FB. The effects of winning the 2v1 would be the same as the previous example.

Willian of Chelsea in a mixed position - Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion on twitter for the Willian screenshot

Willian of Chelsea in a mixed position – Special Thanks to @SeBlueLion on twitter for the Willian screenshot

These are just some examples – in my graphics it shows the False 9 of a 4-3-3 moving into the mixed position, but many different players can move into these positions, and they can cause various different reactions from the opponents. My examples are just for you to get a better understanding of the effects of being in these spaces between positions.

New Spaces to target & the Evolution to protect them


Jose Mourinho always spoke about how the “space between the lines” was the most important space. He is even quoted saying so: “For me, the game between the lines is most important.”

Over time teams have adapted to protect this area by tightening the space their midfielders and defenders give between themselves. This space was one of the main areas that teams looked to (and still do) exploit in the attack. Lionel Messi’s False 9 role especially was about finding space between the lines and exploiting it.

Messi finding space in between the lines

Messi finding space in between the lines

When a player is in between the lines, he has passed the opponents entire midfield, and now he is only facing the back 4 of the opponents. There are so many options once in this position, a player can dribble at the back 4, he can shoot from distance, he can find a pass and play his teammate through, or he can combine with a teammate and make a run in behind the line. It’s very hard to defend against these options because you are caught in a flat back 4 line.

This piece was inspired by an in depth tactical conversation i had with a friend, Rene Maric (@ReneMaric on twitter) about the spaces that are targeted in today’s game and possible ways teams/players could evolve to solve these problems.

The Defensive Line

Before i begin talking about these spaces, it is important to know how a back line works. According to Arrigo Sacchi (Legendary Milan manager of the late 80′s), his defenders always had 4 references when defending. They referenced: The Opponents, The Teammates, The Space, and The Ball.

- The Opponents -

When referencing the opponent, the defenders must analyze how many opponents there are around them. If there are a lot of opponents threatening to penetrate the defensive line, the defenders should analyze this situation and drop their defensive line deeper. This is because when the line is dropped, there is less space for the attacker to run into behind the defenders and attack the goal.

Defenders analyzing the situation by referencing the opponents

Defenders analyzing the situation by referencing the opponents

- The Teammates -

When referencing their teammates, the defender must analyze how many teammates they have around them. If there are the right amount of teammates around the defender and in a solid shape, the defensive line will feel more comfortable defending higher up and leaving more space in behind. This is because there are more teammates than opponents so the defense can handle any attacks/runs in behind. Defending higher up also makes it tougher on the opponents because it will put more defenders higher up the field making it tougher to play through.

Defender referencing teammates and holding a higher line

Defenders analyzing the situation by referencing teammates

- The Space -

When referencing the space, defenders must analyze the amount of space they are leaving behind them. If the defenders feel like they are giving up a dangerous amount of space, they need to analyze the situation and drop deeper. When the defensive line is on the half way line, they are giving up a large amount of space, and if they are not very fast and there is a threat they can feel uncomfortable doing this. On the other hand, if there is not a dangerous threat to goal and the line is very deep, the defenders need to analyze this and push up the line to leave more space in behind. If the line is too deep then there will be a lot of space in the center that the opponents can expose, if the line is too high there will be too much space in behind the defense to exploit, so they must constantly change the depth of the line depending on the situation.

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing space

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing space *”to much” should say “more”*

- The Ball -

When referencing the ball, defenders must analyze the position of the ball and adjust accordingly. There may not be many opponents threatening to penetrate the defensive line, but if the ball is in a dangerous area where they can be played a good ball, the defensive line should analyze this and adjust the depth of their line. Some defenses might see this and immediately push up the line to catch the opponents offside. Other defenses will drop the line deeper to avoid the danger of the attacker running in behind. If there is only one striker trying to make a run behind the defense it doesn’t seem very dangerous, but if the ball is with an opponent in free space on the flank, the opponent can easily play him through, so this is dangerous.

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing the ball

Defenders analyze the situation by referencing the ball

The best defenders are constantly using these 4 references points Sacchi mentioned at the same time to decide how they will defend.

Cutback Cross Zone

Almost every team i have watched in any league have a tendency to not cover the top of their box when the ball is wide. This can be a result of either lack of positional intelligence or lack of work rate. This is an incredibly dangerous area to leave uncovered, so it’s amazing how many high level teams leave it uncovered.

Kroos scores against Leverkusen from a cutback cross in acres of space

Kroos scores against Leverkusen from a cutback cross in acres of space

When a team is running back towards their goal and dropping their defensive line (usually very deep into the box to not concede crosses in behind them), the Center Backs (CBs) should be about “arms length” off of the forward as Jamie Carragher puts it on his TV show - Monday Night Football. They should be slightly ahead of their man so they can effectively close down any option of the ball being played to them. Here in lies part of the problem, it is very difficult to read a forward & change speed/direction with him effectively (Thiago Silva is one of the best at this).

Thiago Silva keeps up with Messi and intercepts the cutback cross

Thiago Silva keeps up with Messi and intercepts the cutback cross

At any moment that the defense is running back towards goal, the forward can drop off and sit around the edge of the box, while the momentum of the defenders sprinting back carries them away from the forward.

Fernando Torres drops off from poor marking and scores from a cutback cross in the SuperCup final

Fernando Torres drops off from poor marking and scores from a cutback cross in the SuperCup final

This zone is where the Defensive Midfielder (DM) (& hopefully one more Central Midfielder (CM) helping the DM because the top of the box is too much space for one Midfielder to cover), should be covering the edge of the box. They should cover this area IMMEDIATELY! It is very important to protect this zone, if it isn’t protected the forward is sitting in free space to be able to shoot off of the cross. Many goals are conceded this way all across Europe’s top 5 leagues.

Even late CM runners like Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal can take advantage of this space. He scored a great volley vs Sunderland this way.

Ramsey exposes space at the edge of the box not being marked and scores from a cutback cross

Ramsey exposes space at the edge of the box not being marked and scores from a cutback cross

This exposes the of work rate CMs have in defensive transition, & also exposes if any CM/DM have poor positioning. The best DMs always cover this zone, the ones i constantly see doing this are the likes of: De Rossi, Busquets, Javi Martinez, and even Philipp Lahm when he plays as DM.


All of the top DMs/CMs in the world will have to learn to always protect this zone with intelligence, and always have the work rate to get back into this zone when in defensive transition. Eventually all top clubs will have these type of intelligent & hardworking midfielders. I believe part of the problem is that a lot of Midfielders don’t see the importance of protecting this area immediately on the break. They think most of the danger will be dealt with by the defensive line, but in reality this zone is just as important.

Half Spaces

The final important zone this piece will cover is called HALF SPACES.

If you evenly divide the field into 3 vertical zones (left, central, and right), you would have 1 central zone & 2 flanks. Half spaces are the spaces between the flanks and the central zone.

Half Spaces

Half Spaces

Attacking this zone is an advantage because when you are in half space, you have a whole 360 degree playing angle. You can play to the left, to the right, forwards, and backwards. It is similar to being in the central zone, but less crowded most of the time. When on the flanks, players are limited to 180 degree playing angles. they can go forwards (down the line), inside (to the left or right depending on which side), or backwards. This means they are limited by the touchline, cause if they go over the line they are out of bounds and they give away possession to the opposition. It acts as an invisible wall defenders can press you against. Pep Guardiola even called the sideline “the world’s best defender.”

The playing angles available when playing in halfspaces, the center, and on the flank

The playing angles available when playing in halfspaces, the center, and on the flank

Making runs into this zone will expose lack of defensive work rate of Midfielders. Most Midfielders are very unwilling to track runs in behind their own defensive line.

Using Bayern as an example – This means if the Winger has the ball and the Fullback (FB) makes a run into this zone (just how Alaba does many times per game) and he isnt tracked properly, it causes the opposition CB to come out wide into the half space to meet the FB who is attacking, because the opposition FB is already on the Winger. Now that the CB has left the box, the FB (or whoever made the direct run into half space) can put the ball into the box with the only opposition defenders usually being the other CB and the opposite FB on the far post. This would leave the Striker (Mandzukic) and the opposite Winger (Muller) in the box vs. 2 defenders. Usually there is also an attacking interior CM for Bayern entering the box for crosses so its 3v2 for Bayern! This is how they scored vs. Schalke, and they constantly try to open up these zones with switches & attack them.

Ribery plays Alaba into Halfspace, Alaba is poorly marked so the CB comes out to meet him, leaving Kroos, Mandzukic, and Muller (off screen) vs 2 defenders for the goal

Ribery plays Alaba into Halfspace, Alaba is poorly marked so the CB comes out to meet him, leaving Kroos, Mandzukic, and Muller (off screen) vs 2 defenders for the goal

When receiving the ball in these half spaces, a player has many options. They can cut inside & shoot, they can play a teammate through from that angle, they can combine with a teammate and make a run in behind to pull the line apart, or they can cross. Being in half space also means that when this zone is attacked, the attack is closer to goal. This means its much easier to be accurate with the techniques being used (passes, shots, crosses).

Different ways to attack Half Space, With FB overlapping

Different ways to attack Half Space, With FB overlapping

It forces the opponent into almost the exact same tactical movements as if you were on the flank, but gives extra options. If you switch the ball from half space to half space the opponents will shift across the field, similar to when balls switches flanks, etc.

Bayern constantly use switches to open up half spaces. This is even more advantageous for them as they have Robben/Lahm on one flank & Ribery/ Alaba on the other, probably the best flanks on the planet. When the ball is switched, the CM/DM who should be protecting the zone in front of the CB+FB (halfspace) hasnt shifted completely across yet, so the zone is open for an unmarked attack.

Alaba attacking half space with a direct run after the ball is switched

Alaba attacking half space with a direct run after the ball is switched

My friend Rene Maric has an excellent analysis of the Bayern Munich vs. Leverkusen match on Spielverlagerung ( He talks about how Bayern would switch the ball constantly to be able to open up the half spaces before Alaba would attack the space. This is because Leverkusen plays in a narrow 4-3-2-1 (the shape i modeled the blue team above on is Leverkusen in Rene’s piece) formation & defends these central and half space zones very well with their 3 CMs. Bayern had to switch the ball a lot to open up the spaces.

This is a very dangerous area that Bayern in particular are amazing at exposing, it exposes the lack of work rate of midfielders to track runs from deep by CMs or FBs like Alaba or Lahm.


The evolution that came to mind from my conversations with Rene Maric was that when the Midfielders learn that they must track these runs deep in behind their defense, that CBs would have to evolve to be able to step up into the DM spot so the shape isnt ruined by the run. If the run is made and a CB doesnt step out, this means there are a lot of players in the defensive line (4/5+1 player who tracked the run). This would leave the midfield with less players and space would be there to exploit by the opponents. So CBs would have to be able to step up into the DM spot when such a run is tracked & be able to resist pressure & build play like the best DMs can when the ball is won, then switch back. A suggestion to this role could be  a player of the Javi Martinez mould. He is skilled enough to play both CB & DM greatly. This might very well be the future of how the best CBs can play to solve these tactical problems.

Analyzing Arsenal 2013/2014

The need of Mesut Ozil

Many people are saying that Arsenal weren’t in need of a player like Ozil. First of all, when a player is one of the best players in the world, you will most likely need him. Second of all, Arsenal last season had an issue of lacking directness from midfield. This is because players like Cazorla, Wilshere, and Ramsey like to come towards the ball and build the play rather than make runs in the gaps of the defense. Rosicky is Arsenal’s midfielder who did the best job of providing directness, but has had injury problems. Rosicky likes to dribble directly at a defense and go passed players, and he also makes runs in behind the defense. A problem with Rosicky though, is his offensive positioning. He looks to find space in between the midfielders and defenders of the opponents but he doesn’t do the best job of getting in a position within that space where a passing lane to him is created so he can receive the ball.

This type of play is exactly what Ozil can provide.

Ozil being Direct

The picture above is one of Ozil vs Australia in the 2010 World Cup, where he first became known worldwide. In the picture, Ozil spotted a gap in the defense and made a run from midfield in behind the defense. He received a great ball but couldn’t finish it off. Ozil has the speed and the intelligence to make defenses pay for leaving gaps open, which other Arsenal midfielders lack. He will continuously look to exploit these gaps and either provide an assist or finish it himself. Ozil’s finishing has not been the best throughout his career, but last year he talked about really working on his finishing so he can score more goals, and last season proves he did just that. In the 2011/2012 season he scored 4 goals in the 2,570 minutes he played. In the 2012/2013 season he more than doubled that figure with 9 goals in the 2,058 minutes he played, and he will only keep improving.

Here is a video of Gary Neville analyzing the problems with lack of penetration and directness from the midfield of Arsenal. He also talks about how Arsenal teams of the past were great attacking teams who were very penetrative.

Ozil’s Intelligence

Ozil has world class touch and technique, but really his very best quality is his intelligence. He is an incredibly intelligent play maker. He doesn’t even need to touch the ball to create goal scoring opportunities.

ozil vs holland 1

Here is one example of his great movement. This is Germany vs Holland in the EURO 2012 tournament. In the red circle is Ozil, what he did here was he drifted out to wide positions, and when he did that the defensive midfielders of Holland (in the yellow) were worried that he would overload the flanks with Muller and have a 2v1 vs the fullback. So Ozil dragged the defensive midfielders (both of them came over to that side because Khedira was there too, Sneijder wasn’t tracking him) over to the side of the field, this left enormous amounts of space (in the blue) for Schweinsteiger to run into. When a world class player like Schweinsteiger has that much space in front of your goal, it will be dangerous. Schweinsteiger here played Gomez (in the white) through the defense and Gomez scored the first goal of the game.

ozil vs. holland 2

Here is another example from the same match. Ozil (in the red) drifted out wide once again and dragged one of the defensive midfielders (De Jong) with him, this left Van Bommel covering large amounts of space infront of his 4 defenders. Schweinsteiger ran into this pocket of space (blue) that Ozil created and once again played Gomez through to score and give Germany the 2-0 lead. In this game Ozil was rated the flop of the match in Germany. This is because the general public don’t realize his influence on a match if he doesn’t get an assist or a goal, but in reality he created both of those Germany goals.

ozil finds space

Here is an example of Ozil finding space and having good positioning. As you can see, Ozil has found a lot of space between the midfielders and defenders of the opponents, but what makes the difference is his positioning within that space so he can receive the ball. He moved directly in line with the center back (off screen) and received the ball in a clear passing lane. Once Ozil is in between these lines, even if its more compact than in the picture shown above, he has world class control and technique and can tear teams apart with passes, dribbling, or shooting from within this space.

Ozil’s work rate

As you can tell, Ozil has a great offensive work rate, constantly moving and creating/attacking spaces, but the main fault in his game is his defensive work rate. He can drift in and out of games because he fails to mark opponents defensive midfielders or track back defensively. This is one of the main reasons Carlo Ancelotti felt that Ozil didn’t fit into his squad. Cristiano Ronaldo is also not very active defensively, and a top tier team can’t afford to have two players not working on defense.

The way Ancelotti’s new system at Madrid is set up is in a 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 sort of mix.

Isco Madrid

In offense, Ronaldo would drift out wide to the left where he enjoys playing the most and Isco would come inside off of the left into a more central playmaker role. On the right, the right midfielder will move up and down that flank providing directness and also some width, while sometimes being able to cut inside and attack that “14.5 Zone” similar to Robben. This makes Madrid look like the similar sort of 4-2-3-1 shape, with one of the defensive midfielders also joining the attack, from last season. On defense, Isco leaves the central role and moves out to the left and defends that flank because he has a better defensive work rate than Ronaldo or Ozil. Ronaldo can stay up top with Benzema and defend vs. opponent center backs, which makes Madrid look like a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 in defense. In order for Ozil to play the central play maker role he enjoys, he would have to work very hard defensively, which is why he doesn’t fit into the system. The system is built around Cristiano and making up for his lack of defensive work rate.

Ozil 3v2

In the 2011 Champions League semifinals vs Bayern Munich, Ozil’s lack of defensive work rate was exposed by his opposite central play maker, Toni Kroos. Ozil stayed really close to the striker in the match, while Kroos noticed this and dropped deeper, this created a 3vs2 situation in the center of midfield in favor of Bayern Munich. This caused Madrid to be overrun in midfield by Munich. Madrid ended up losing on penalties to Bayern in that years semifinals.

Arsenal’s Defensive Midfielders

Arsenal has recently re-signed Flamini for free after he left AC Milan. Flamini made his debut vs. Tottenham in Arsenal’s 3rd match of the 2013/2014 season. One thing that was immediately noticeable was how much Arsenal improved defensively when he came onto the field.

Usually, when Ramsey and Wilshere play together as defensive midfielders in a double pivot, they aren’t very good defensively. They aren’t very good at blocking passing lanes and making interceptions.


This is Wilshere and Ramsey vs. Tottenham in match day 3 of the 13/14 season.  Here they let 3 Spurs players in between the Arsenal midfield and defensive lines. Here Chadli (in yellow furthest down in picture) receives the ball and turns. He begins running at the defense with 2 teammates against just Arsenal’s two center backs. Here Mertesacker makes a great tackle on Chadli to stop this attack. In match day 1 of the 13/14 season Aston Villa earned a penalty (and scored) when Wilshere and Ramsey were poorly positioned and got played through. Agbonlahor received the ball in between the lines and ran passed Koscielny and was brought down by Szczesny for the penalty.

Flamini as DM

In that game vs. Tottenham, Wilshere was subbed off for Flamini with around 10 minutes to go in the first half because he was feeling sick. Flamini came on and there was immediately a difference on defense. Here you can see that Flamini was sitting a bit deeper, just infront of the Arsenal back 4, protecting the area in between the lines. Highlighted with the white circle is Flamini blocking the passing lane into the midfielder in between Arsenal’s lines, this forced Tottenham to play the ball wide. When Tottenham played it wide, space was more congested because they were forced against the sideline and Arsenal won the ball and almost scored off the break. Another noticeable thing was when Tottenham wingers got down the flanks and were in dangerous crossing positions, Flamini immediately dropped just inside or on the edge of the box. When Wilshere or Ramsey play they are usually very slow to cover that area, that area is very dangerous because a cross can come in and pick out a midfielder runner, or a striker can quickly drop off and receive a cutback cross and try to finish it while the defenders are still sprinting towards goal with their momentum. During this game Arsene ended up spending the last few minutes of the game with 6 defenders in the back line. He said after the game that he did this because he was expecting a lot of crosses into the box, and he was correct. Due to Flamini and the rest of the team doing so well at forcing Tottenham wide, they knew the attacks of Tottenham in the last few minutes would come from wide positions, and the back 6 did its job and sealed the 1-0 win.

Arteta as a Defensive Midfielder, and Flamini in offense

Flamini did well on defense as a defensive midfielder for Arsenal, but was very poor on offense. These days the best defensive midfielders are skilled in both offense and defense. Once Arsenal had the ball and began building play, Flamini would run away from the ball. He would move high up the field and leave the center backs. This is very bad positioning for a defensive midfielder. If Arsenal were to be put under intense pressure, they would need a defensive midfielder pivot with great control, passing, and positioning to help them play out of the pressure. Flamini’s positioning wasn’t the best and can be exploited if Arsenal are put under pressure.

Arteta pivote

Here is a comparison. The yellow circle is showing where I noticed Flamini would run into, This leaves the center backs by themselves and causes a disconnect between the defense and the midfield. Arteta is very skilled on the ball and can play very well under pressure. He takes up the correct position as a midfield pivot, just in front of the center backs able to support anyone who needs somebody to pass to under pressure. When Arteta receives the ball in front of the defense like that, he can play very accurate long balls to the wingers or the striker. He can also play quick short passes to the other central midfielders, all the defenders, and the goalkeeper. He is the center of the build up play and a very important player. Flamini lacks the great ball control and passing to be able to play this role effectively, but he is good defensively.

Arteta defense

This image shows how skilled Arteta is on defense. He is by far Arsenal’s best defensive midfielder, even though that’s not the position he played most of his career. On defense, he also sits just in front of the back 4 and covers passing lanes very well. In this image, shown with the red circle and arrow, Arteta moves his body and closes down the player on the ball while simultaneously blocking him with his body from passing to the 3 open Spurs players across the field. Arteta has great defensive stats. He has 108 tackles and 97 interceptions, both the highest in the squad. He uses his body well to block passes into the center of the field and forces players towards the sidelines or towards the side with less teammates of the opponent. He controls teams while on defense, very intelligently using his positioning. Arteta rarely flies into a player going in for a tackle, what he does is block off options using his body while at the same time closing down the player, this gives the opponent no options and less space. When Arteta does this, he waits for the opponent to make a mistake and then steals the ball off of him. In transition defense, if he can, Arteta immediately closes down the player on the ball and either doesn’t let him turn, or if he has already turned, forces him to the side of the field with less teammates using his body to block off the other passes. This makes transition defense a lot easier on Arsenal and provides more time for other players to get back. Arteta himself said that he has been watching how players like Busquets, Alonso, and Carrick play so he can play the same way for Arsenal, and he does it very well.

Here are two great videos analyzing how Busquets of Barcelona plays in both attack and in defense, he is the best player in the world for the role Arteta is trying to play, and it breaks down what he does.

Walcott and Giroud

Giroud occupying CBs

This image highlights how Giroud occupies two center backs at the same time, while Walcott provides directness and depth to the Arsenal attack with his speed. Giroud is very good at occupying two center backs at the same time. He began the attack next to the left center back, Vertonghen, and once Rosicky got the ball, he quickly shifted over to the other center back, Dawson. This makes the two center backs constantly worried about where Giroud is. Once he shifted across, Giroud began making a run and Dawson followed him while the rest of the defense held the line, this left Walcott onside. Walcott quickly made a run towards the corner and received the ball, then he crossed it to Giroud who scored. Giroud is big and strong and does well in link up play, as well as in the air. Giroud is known for scoring a lot of goals in his second seasons with clubs and it looks like that’s what will happen this season with Arsenal. He has very intelligent movement with a great work rate, but is a bit slow. When he occupies the center backs this also gives extra space to the players behind him, like the central play maker, because he doesn’t have to worry about the central defenders leaving Giroud. Usually what teams will do to counter players like Giroud is play with a high line and get the big and slow center forward away from their goal. The problem with that is that you are playing a high line against the quickest winger in the league, with Theo Walcott. Walcott creates depth by being direct and making runs, this pushes teams back because they are scared of his pace. This gets Giroud and the rest of the team closer to the goal. Walcott provides width on the flank as well. When he is wide, the defense has to make sure a defender is near him, this stretches the defense of the opponents laterally, providing more gaps in between players for passes, dribbling, or shooting. Walcott and Gibbs provide most of the width for Arsenal.

Cazorla and Transition Defense

Cazorla has been playing a lot for Arsenal on the left flank. Cazorla drifts very centrally during the game and offers an extra central midfielder and helps keep possession vs. the opponents. Cazorla may not be very direct but he does offer game control near the opponents goal. He doesn’t have the engine to get up and down the field and be the orchestrator of the squad, but he has excellent dribbling and passing. He can go passed players and cause defenses to become unorganized, he can also dribble very well to keep the ball, so he isn’t dispossessed very often. If he ever gets an open look at goal he has excellent shooting from distance and has scored a couple from range for Arsenal. He also has great passing technique and can play players through defenses very well. Due to Cazorla drifting inside so much, this means there is a lack of width on the left side, which is needed to stretch teams and make play easier for the team. This is where Gibbs comes in. Gibbs motors up and down the left hand side of the field, providing width, crosses, and runs.

Gibbs width, Cazorla inside transition d

Circled in yellow is Gibbs. When the ball is lost he runs back down the left flank while the defensive midfielder (Flamini here), Ramsey, and the other 3 defenders of the back 4 hold off the counter attack. A back 3 with a defensive midfielder just ahead along with Gibbs and an engine box-to-box type midfielder like Ramsey getting back is a very good base for a transition defense. A back 3 can be exploited with far post crosses though so its not perfectly solid. Ramsey plays a huge part for this team both in attack and defense. He moves up and down the field helping build play and keep the ball, along with making runs in behind the defense when he can. He is the orchestrator of the team, he connects the team with his engine, which is very important because Ozil has been known to cause a disconnect in his team between the defensive midfielders and attacking midfielders because he stays up so high. This is a similar role Xavi used to play at Barca under Pep, he would move the team up and down the field, exploiting gaps in the defense with his runs, while also getting back in transition defense. Playing this role takes  a lot of technique, intelligence, and endurance. Wilshere and Ramsey like to play this similar role but as for now Ramsey is in the better form so he starts in this role.

Building from the back

This season against Fullham and Tottenham there have been great moments of Arsenal building from the back, even when under pressure. The bravery of doing this has amazing rewards in the game. You can’t expect the passes to be 100% accurate every time, so mistakes will happen, but Arsenal must keep believing in themselves and playing in this way cause it will pay off immensely. Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Arteta all have good passing and composure on the ball, so they are able to play this way. Szczesny has also impressed with his passing under pressure so its definitely worth playing this way. Building from the back has many benefits. Deciding to build from the back means you will have more of the ball, but on the other hand, if Szczesny lobs it up field, the ball will most likely be lost. When Szczesny kicks the ball long, Arsenal’s attackers are back pedaling to get into a position to jump and challenge for the ball, while the opponents are getting a running start towards to oncoming long ball, most of the time they will win. Once the opponent wins the ball from the long pass, they will be able to attack an unorganized Arsenal defense, because they had just lost the ball and it is like a quick counter attack. This turns the tempo of the game into a very transitional type of game, where Arsenal aren’t in as much control as before and its a more dangerous match. If Arsenal continue to play out of the back under pressure then eventually the opposition will get tired. This will make it easier to play against the opponents, creates more gaps in the opponents defense, and make it easier to close out games vs. tired opposition.

This is a great video of Neville analyzing how Barcelona builds from the back and the risks/benefits of it.

These two are videos made by DezilDez [@DezilDez on twitter] highlighting Arsenal building from the back in the match against Fullham.

One last thing to mention, a great part about Arsenal in this 2013/2014 season is that this is the first season in a long while where they haven’t lost any major star players from their squad. For the past few seasons they have been losing their captains and their best players. This season the only losses worth mentioning are Chamakh to Crystal Palace and Gervinho to Roma, on top of those players being sold they signed Ozil. This makes the squad feel together, they already know how to play with each other from the last season so this season they will be even stronger. Now they have a strong base to the squad and brought in a world class player in Ozil, Arsenal are finally starting to turn things around.