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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
My friend Rene Maric has an excellent analysis of the Bayern Munich vs. Leverkusen match on Spielverlagerung (http://spielverlagerung.de/2013/10/06/bayer-04-leverkusen-bayern-munchen-11/). 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.