Kante crucial for Chelsea’s positional play – a situational example

This is an excellent example of how to use the half space and create space for the six in a 433 if you are attacking against a three centre back system that uses a six.

The whole thing is really simple, and rests on the positional play idea of moving out of space, then filling that space. Meanwhile the angle of movements, weight and speed of passing is critical.

Again, it shows how slight details make all the difference in positional play.

Here is an example of how Kante’s movement was crucial in creating space, and slight positional advantages in midfield.

Here is the video:

And now the details:

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3133: Heaven for ball playing defenders and quick midfielders with positional sense

The 3133 is a logical next step for teams who play with a back three, ball playing centre backs and a number six who is responsible for building up the game. Compared to a 352 system, it gives more stability in the middle, with better structures for attacking and counterpressing.

The overload in midfield creates more combinations, and instead of waiting in position, the attacking players can step into duels with the defenders on the run, from an unmarked starting position.

If interpreted correctly…

  • with good distances between the players
  • movements made in the right moments, with right speed and right direction
  • combined with purposeful ball circulation,
    this system allows for fluid attacking combinations, with low risk of counterattacks.

Starting from all these triangles, the opponent’s team shape can be manipulated to allow for a controlled progression up the field.

3133 v 343 triangles.png

I will show some examples of patterns whereby increasing the distances between the opponent’s back five, and in key moments turning towards the goal in an area where the opponent doesn’t have access to the ball, the best type of pass can be played.


The best pass there is

 A slicer pass. The attacking player is facing the opponent’s goal, without pressure, and another player is making the run behind the defence, already with an advantage over the defender marking him. All there is to do is to play an accurate ball on the ground, in front of the running player with the right weight on the pass. 

Why slicer? Imagine a sharp knife effortlessly slicing up a large piece of meat. That is how the ball just whooshes between the opponent, slicing up the whole team.

Slicer passes have a very low risk of being intercepted, or the opponent starting a counterattack from them. They allow for the attacker to receive them on the run, having already an advantage to the goal, or beating the defender with his first touch.

Why is there a possibility to play many slicer passes in a 3133?

  1. The back three can move the ball around without pressure. 
  2. The 343 can easily become a 523, in which case the access to the deeper halfspaces becomes very poor. These areas are close enough to the space behind the defence, and the middle that one good pass can create a goal scoring chance.

Midfield overload and the need for ball playing defenders

3133 sideback steps out.pngIf the opponent defends with a combination between zonal and man marking – ex. 2 defensive midfielders shift from side to side, one sideback steps out to the extra midfielder – then the ability of the centre backs with the ball becomes key.


The better and swifter they move the ball, the bigger the advantages will be in later stages of the buildup. By exploiting even small advantages, they can manipulate the opponent’s shape. One of such small advantages can be a midfielder who is about to be pressed with a slight delay. Just enough delay to make the defending team move to the ball, therefore leave space elsewhere.

343 sideback marking duties.pngCapitalising on the anticipatory mistakes of defenders can be another one of these small advantages. It is normal for defenders to anticipate where the next pass is coming based on the reference points in the game. For example if the central defender is attacked from a certain angle, his counterpart can adjust his positioning more accurately, as certain passes can’t happen. Well, if he is a more skilled player, the pool of possible next actions is larger. So it might happen, that the defender overadjusts his positioning, as he weights certain actions less likely than they are if the ball is with this particular player. An advantage is created, where there used to be none.

The far side holding midfielder will be caught between two different t possibilities. Either keep his distance with the other holding midfielder and close the passing lane to the striker, or stay wider, more man to man with the far side 8 and leave that central zone open for the striker to move back. This would be a diagonal pass. 

The role of the six – opening passing lanes without the ball

The number six has a crucial role in creating passing options for the centre back in the middle.

The opponent can either go man to man on the three defenders, in which case the defenders open as far as possible, and they can find forward passing lanes, or the six creates a 4 v 3. Easy game.

If the three strikers play zonally, just covering the passing lane to the six, then the sidebacks will be more dominant in building up the game. The three defenders have to position themselves asymmetrically. They circulate the ball to one side, pulling the three attackers there, before quickly playing a sideways pass to the far side, where the sideback is as far as possible from them to maximise the space to step into.

There is a frequently used mixed system, where the strikers play mostly zonal, but if the distance between the three of them gets too big, the central one is manmarking the number six. Essentially to always take the six out of building the attacks. Still, the positioning of the six will be crucial.

WB run.pngThe middle of the three defenders will have the option to dribble forward. At a certain point the striker has to step out to him. So the initial position of the six will determine the angle from which the striker attacks the ball playing centreback. It is possible that the striker can’t cover any forward passes with his pressing angle. The holding midfielder on the ball side has to choose between marking either of two players. If the sideback steps out in the halfspace, the wingback has the chance to play 1 v 1, run behind and receive a ball from a diagonal angle, with no pressure on the player who makes the pass. Bingo!

Searching for speedy 8s with excellent positional sense

Creating more space for the sideback.pngIt is certainly possible that the side players of the defending team’s first line will provide additional cover to the space on either side of the two holding midfielders, by covering the pass from the central defender. In this case the sideback has more space to receive and play forward.

The role of the 8 is a really curious one in this system. Of the back three of the opponent the sideback is likely to get wider and close the halfspace, leaving the other side holding midfielder to step back with the 10. On the other hand if the sideback decides to stay narrow and inside, the space between him and the wingback will get too large, and the 8 can make a direct run into the space behind, or play dismarking 1 v 1 on the defensive midfielder. 

If the wingback of the opponent steps out early, it is possible for the 8 to run into the space behind the sideback.8 attacks the space behind.png

The above examples show the need for two distinctively different qualities in the 8s. The sense to manipulate the opponent’s defensive shape with your positioning. And the speed and game insight to run into open spaces between the defenders in the right moment.


Rotation 1.png The wingback starts the run, diagonally to the goal of the opponent. The 8 wide and back. The 10 pulls towards the half space. If he is not tracked, the sideback might take a step towards him, making him less able to defend the long ball. You can make this rotation when the central defender looks up. Then he can play a diagonal pass to the wingback running straight to the goal.

This rotation can also work if they start doing it a pass later, the moment the sideback is about to receive the ball. then the pass is a slicer pass, and the wingback has to adjust his run.

A midfielder moves wide

Back 3 shifts over.pngIf the side player of the three attackers goes very close – man to man on the three defenders – so much so that they leave the half space completely open – then a possibility arises for one of the midfielders to step back, and attract pressure from the wingback.

Due to the possible poor access of the wingback to this player dropping back, it is likely that they will be able to turn open with the ball. This is the moment for the wingback to be as high as possible, while still giving a passing lane to the midfielder who dropped out.

The midfielder who moved back and turned with the ball has multiple pass options forward based on how well the opponent’s back five shifts. The first instinct should be to play the ball behind. If the sideback comes out too much, the midfielder running behind must receive the ball. If the centre back goes sideways to take this player, the striker might be a better option.

What happens if the opponent’s midfielder can track the runner 1 v 1? The wingback will be the next player to pass to, and then due to the lack of access to him in a deep position he can dribble diagonally to the goal. 

If the central midfielder follows the 8 outside, then the striker can move back into that space, and the midfielder can make the run behind. It basically becomes a case of dismarking with reverse movements.

What is the right moment for the 8 to drop? It is the best if the 8 starts this movement just when the central defender starts moving the ball to the other side. While the opponents are shifting, he can move freely in the opposite direction of their movement.

There you go. A few things to consider, and build up patterns in a 3133 against a 343. As a big fan of playing with as many players with skillsets of 8s and 10s as possible, this formation gives me more stable and balanced possibilities for controlling possession than a traditional 352.



Australia: 4231 with wide first line of circulation

I read more about Australia’s buildup to the World Cup than I watched them in previous tournaments. And that speaks loads about the work Postecoglou did. Clips of the 3421, possession based football and counterpressing of the Socceroos started showing up a lot on Twitter.

And then the pressure, and criticism from the media got to him, and he ended up resigning after qualification to the tournament was secured. You can read more about the whole story here, or read Tim Palmer’s excellent analysis of the Socceroos.

I was very disappointed. The tournament is very difficult and hard work for a manager. But it is the type of work that gives you and experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. I am sure Postecoglou would have proudly told stories of banter and funny incidents in the camp to his grandchildren. After working for it, he deserved to be there at the main event and have those experiences. But it wasn’t to be. And in came van Marwijck and the 4231.

He also earned to be in the tournament on his own right, since he guided Saudi Arabia to the World Cup in direct qualification. However he left that position after negotiations for a new contract broke down.

The Lineup

Australia starting 11.png

In possession: Fullback – winger dynamics
(and how it could be improved)

Their last training game was against my home country, Hungary. This preview draws mainly on Australia’s possession in that match.

The following picture show very well the basic idea behind the positioning of the fullbacks and the wingers. The fullbacks push higher than Jedinak and Mooy, almost to the line of the wingers. Leckie and Kruse move inside the the half space, and start off from the shoulder of the fullback. On the ball side Kruse moves away from his defender. The positions of the midfielders is a bit peculiar here, but more on that later.

Australia shape example

They attempt to open the half spaces between the lines in possession. The following positioning rules apply:

  • Both fullbacks push higher than the double pivot.
  • Wingers start from the half space, just in front of the back four of the opponent.
    On the ball side the winger can move back towards the ball. If the fullback leaves him he asks for the ball free between the lines. If the fullback follows him he makes a quick reverse run and attacks the space behind.
  • The two centrebacks take positions wider that the double pivot.
  • The three central midfielders are very close to teach other. Rogic starts from the central space, rarely moving in between the lines, or coming in front of the midfield.

Rogic starts from behind the midfieldThis positioning creates a very open shape in circulation. The distances between the central defenders and the fullbacks can get large, which leads to excellent counterattacking opportunities for the opponent. Especially on the far side of the pitch.

The fullbacks keep the width throughout the whole circulation, but they rarely receive the ball from the central defenders. If they do, they immediately pass it back with one touch. This way the risk of loosing it when their first line if open is low, plus they can move the opponent’s shape to the side, with more space appearing on the other side. This is one of the positives of this open structure.

If the central defenders can change the sides quickly, on the ball far side there is immediately a 3 v 2 situation, with the fullback and winger in advanced starting positions.

Winger moves back by space opened by fullback - 20th minuteOn the right side the fullback-winger dynamics work really well. The Hungarian left fullback moves out so much and so close that the winger stays in a large space totally behind the midfield. Normally these dynamics are pretty easy to defend, especially considering that on the ball side Hungary are in a 5 v 4 overload. Wide dismarking patterns were also very successful against the Czech Republic.

Notice the positioning of Rogic. When the central defender dribbles in and the winger moves back, Rogic is in front of the two central midfielders, or between them, but not pushing in behind the opponent’s midfield. Even though the two holding midfielders are on the ball side, and could easily allow Rogic to push higher with better positioning.

Positioning of the attacking midfielders

Australia poor structure in possession 16th minAgainst Hungary their left side was more active in possession. Sainsbury attempted to dribble into the game frequently. The difficulty started in front of him. The field occupation of the attacking midfielders and the striker was poor. They all stood on the same line, together with the two fullbacks there were five players on the same line. This structure is disadvantageous, it not only doesn’t stretch the opposition, but also it is a poor starting position to counterpress from.

If a defender steps out, there is nobody in a more advanced position to attack the space behind him.

Also the distances between he players are not as good as they could be. If Sainsbury would dribble in wider, he would open more passing angles. If Risdon would start from a deeper position he would offer more security, and also an extra pass option in case Leckie receives between the lines.

Due to the space being limited between the lines of Hungary, and due to Leckie trying to move away from the fullback stepping out, he could only receive and get in front of the midfield line. By then Risdon was already in a so advanced position that he had to stop and step back. This prevented him from receiving the pass in front of him, on the run and beating the fullback with a dynamic advantage. As he could have if he started his run later.

Also the positioning of the double pivot can be a problem for Australia. Normally the two players stand wider from each other, and on different vertical lines compared to the central defenders. In certain situations the two holding midfielders stand too close to each other on the ball side.

Leckie runs behind the fullback.png

Due to the starting positions, the run of Leckie is read by the central defender. Meanwhile there is nobody in the centre between the lines. Mooy and Rogic are in the same position. Rogic could push higher, and threaten to make a run from between the lines.

The Rogic role

Against Hungary Rogic constantly stands between the two central midfielders If the ball is between the two central defenders or holding midfielders during circulation. This works surprisingly well, as the Hungarian midfielders stand very close to each other, not really covering the half space at all.

As a result a large space appear in the Hungarian midfield, between the central midfielder and the winger. This has two positive effects:

  • On the ball side there is space to make a pass breaking the lines.
  • At side changes with a quick sideways pass the opposite half space is open to make the pass forward.

Side changes, pass up to the halfspace open.pngEither Rogic can sprint into that space, or the winger can move back. However in the situation above both try to move into that space. A better movement pattern would be for one of them to run behind, and the other to move back. Especially since there is no pressure in the ball, and Hungary still leave enough space behind to be exploited.

The positioning of Rogic changed for the second half. Rogic started his runs more and more from behind the Hungarian central midfielders.

Rogic free Czech.pngThe positioning of Rogic in the middle was crucial against the Czech Republic as well. The Czech team defended a bit differently then Hungary. In the 4231 shape the striker took one of the central defenders. The three remaining midfielders took Mooy and Luongo man to man, but also the winger in the ballside halfspace. This way Rogic was free on the ballfar side. If the central defender stepped up prematurely to Rogic, the far side winger could make the run behind.


Australia have a simple system. However there are plenty of things they could improve when it comes to the application of the system. They can probably do enough to carve open a passive defence that lets them circulate the ball through the back four. But once the opponent starts utilising pressing triggers, and limits the time the central defenders can spend on the ball, it can get tricky. Especially with the width they leave between the back four.

They are in a difficult group. The smart money is on France to finish top. In my estimation the second place will be decided between Peru and Denmark. However Australia promise to be fun team to watch in the tournament.



France: Shine on you crazy diamond

France are undoubtedly one of the strongest team in the competition. With a deep squad overloaded with talent and individual quality, they are one of the teams to watch this summer.

The team has a lot to make up for after the lost European Championships on home soil two years ago. The talent pool got a lot stronger, in fact I would struggle to pinpoint either position as their clear weakness.

However… the question is how those individuals will gel on the pitch.

The only question remains how their midfield will look. Pogba and Kante seems to have cemented their positions, and Griezmann is set to start as number 10. Who will join them in the midfield diamond remains a doubt.

France team shape

All in all the shape of the French team in ball circulation resembles more a 2332, or a 4132 depending on how we look at it. The fullbacks are pushing up quite high. Griezmann starts from the top of the diamond. He makes runs behind the defence, asks for the pass through the midfield line, or participates in reverse moves in the halfspace.

Basic structure France

France play in a stable structure during their ball circulation phase. When Umtiti has the ball Pogba moves out to the left side, Lucas pushes up between the lines. With Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele playing all very close to each other, this creates a 4 v 4 against the back four of Italy. On the ball far side the width is provided by Pavard.

Simple rules

The movement of France in ball circualtion can be written down with very simple rules:

  • The fullback has to push behind the midfield line if the ball is with any of the players in the first line of the buildup on his side.
  • The fullbacks occupy the whole width of the pitch.
  • One midfielder always in the central lane. Either between the central defenders or in front of the opponent’s midfield line.
  • Two midfielders higher than him, always moving in front of the midfield in the halfspace, or behind the Italian midfield, but always pulling to the outside of the opponent’s 8s.
  • Reverse movement between Griezmann and the inside 10s Dembele and Mbappe.

Let’s see some examples of these rules in action.


Griezmann plays as a number ten. Dembele and Mbappe make runs in the channels. Their roles are more vertical, while Griezmann also moves back off the shoulder of the defenders, and receives the ball between the lines if the passing lane opens up between the Italian midfielders. These moments occur mostly when Kante opens the passing lane with his positioning.

Kante opens the passing lane to Griezmann.png

Even if his first touch takes him in front of the midfield, Griezmann can hit accurate diagonals to the advancing fullback. The width the fullbacks provide gives France an option to always keep the ball, make the opponent shift sideways, therefore open up more space in the middle.

Mbappe is looking to run into the channel immediately. There are very few scenarios I would be more afraid of as a central defender than this one. The defender has to give depth to Mbappe to counter the speed advantage of the French youngster. Mbappe starts his run very early, even a slight lapse of concentration for the central defender can prove to be fatal. Not to mention that the defender also has top shift towards the ball while doing all of this. Not an easy task.

Variations in the starting positions of the attackers

Against the United States they payed in a 4321 formation, Mbappe and Griezmann close to each other under Giroud. Or the usual 4312, with Giroud and Mbappe wide in front of Griezmann. This was due to Giroud and Mbappe playing on either side of the American sidebacks.

The key in defending against France is maintaining pressure on the ball in midfield, and a compact backline where the players constantly support each other. Otherwise the likes of Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele time their runs excellently and find the free spaces if the defender stepping out from the backline is not properly supported.

Fullbacks and diagonals

With very little pressure on the ball in the deep halfspaces, and the fullbacks pushing up, the French team can always switch the play from one side to the other. Pogba and Tolisso are excellent at hitting these diagonal passes.

Griezmann starts from behind the 6The fullbacks serve as targets for diagonal balls. The trio of Griezmann, Dembele and Mbappe can immediately make the runs into the spaces between the defenders. The attacker on the ball side runs the channel, the other two attackers arrive in the middle. Tolisso moves under the ball on the right side, covering the space behind Pavard.

Midfielder moves under the ball

If the fullback can’t play forward immediately, the midfielder on the same side moves under the ball. At the pass back the attacker who attempted to run the channel moves towards the ball, At this moment a player can attack the space behind.

Pavard move back, Mbappe run behindDue to the positioning of Chiesa when Mandragora stepped up to press Tolisso, the wide passing lane to Pavard was open, as he moved back and pulled De Sciglio out Dembele could move in the reverse direction and run behind De Sciglio.

Kante and the 8s

Kante either pushes behind the Italian striker in the six space or plays between the central defenders. In the first case he might attract a midfielder with him, making the distance between the opponents bigger. This moment Griezmann can move back and receive between the lines. On the far side Dembele runs into the space on the outside of Griezmann’s defender. This prevents the defender from stepping out with Griezmann.

Tolisso pushes past the midfield.pngIn the midfield Pogba and Tolisso play outside of the Italian midfielders. They only have to decide whether to move in front of the Italian midfield, or to push behind the line. Tolisso pushes past the midfield when:

  1. Mbappe is not in the half space between the lines.
  2. The pass goes to the central defender on Tolisso’s side. This has the following positives:
  • The Italian 8 is less likely to press Varane.
  • Pavard, Mbappe and Tolisso create a 3 v 2 against the Italian winger and fullback.
  • Suddenly the Italian back four has 4 attackers to deal with. But there is Pavard as the extra man wide. If the defenders play far from each other to have better access to the wide space and the midfielders stay narrow to prevent passes to the feet of the strikers Pavard can receive wide. If the midfield is wide, the passes to the feet of the attackers are possible.

Attacking processes vs a back five: The curious role of Matuidi


Metuidi starts from wide when Umtiti dribbles in.png

Kante constantly moved back between the two central defenders in the buildup phase against the USA. This allowed the central defenders to open up wide and dribble into the game in an area where the USA team shape gave them poor access to the ball.

Mendy stayed deep, as the 8 moved out to him. This way they created a 2 v 1 with Umtiti on the number 8. Matuidi started from a wide position, pulling the wingback out with him. Meanwhile Giroud was on the shoulder of the sideback, this way a player running into the wide space immediately created an overload. However in this situation Mbappe is too far from this space to make a run.

Matuidi run from deep - 27th min.pngThe Americans couldn’t press Mendy due to his distance from the midfield. It also didn’t help that the wingback always stayed in the backline instead of pushing up to press Mendy. Not to mention that the whole team was too long.

The central defenders always stayed on one line. They could not support each other and take up runners from deep positions. Matuidi took advantage of this with excellently timed runs on the outside of the right sideback. Giroud was on the ball side of this defender, which prevented the defender from taking up the run of Matuidi.

Griezmann run through 36th minThe French attempted to double up on the midfielder attacking Umtiti. For example by Matuidi moving back, therefore also opening the space for Mendy to attack. Umtiti is excellent at beating his opponent even when he gets pressured. He can dribble diagonally, with Pogba waiting free on the other side. Then he can play the long pass to Griezmann making the run behind the defence. Griezmann gets free after making the reverse move with Matuidi.

Giroud and Mbappe often positioned themselves in the opponent’s defence, on the outside of the two sidebacks. This sometimes increased the distance between the American central defenders to the point that Griezmann could run free behind the defence.


France have one of the best talent pools and squad depth in the tournament. With their diamond midfield the formation seems to suit the players available at Deschamp’s disposal. They are one of the teams to watch this summer.

Portugal: Excellent patterns from top attacking talent

Normally there is a lot of hype and expectation surrounding the current European Champions at the World Cup. This is not so much the case now.

It is almost like still nobody believes Portugal won the Euros. Or  they can go far in the tournament again. Even though the attacking talent of the team got a lot better in the last two years. The question marks are over the backline. When a 36 years old central defender from Rangers has a realistic shot of a starting place in your team…you are in trouble. No disrespect to Rangers, or Bruno Alves.

Possible starting eleven PortugalTheir basic formation is a 4231 with narrow attacking midfielders. Ronaldo moves across the width of the opponent’s backline, and even steps back in the half space. This makes it rather a 4222-esque formation.

Circulation tendencies

The Moutinho and Carvalho are their most active players in the first phase of ball circulation. One of them moves to the deep half space, the other pushes a little bit higher in the central space. The two of them always move in reverse directions vertically. If one pushes up, closer to the opponent’s midfield, the other moves back.  For Algeria this caused a defensive problem they were unable to solve. If the central striker moved back with Moutinho, then Carvalho could pass straight to Bruno Alves if playing through the lines was not possible on the ball side. If the striker pushed up to the central defenders and a midfielder moved up to Moutinho,  suddenly more space appeared in the midfield for a striker to step back.

Against Tunesia Adrien Silva was the midfield pair of Carvalho. Adrien Silva played the role differently than Moutinho. They were constantly changing positions with Bernardo Silva.

In that game Joao Mario demonstrated excellent ability to escape pressure in the midfield by dribbling and pass to a free attacker between the lines. Him and Adrien Silva worked in opposite roles. If one moved in front of the opponent’s midfield the other played between the lines. Mario is an excellent dribbler, but without the ball he is a more stationary player who doesn’t attack the spaces, holes in between the defenders.

Buildup through Moutinho moving in front of the midfield - 9th min v Algeria.png


The positioning of the fullbacks is very conservative. Normally when a midfielder moves between the fullback and the central defender the fullback pushes up between the lines, becoming a winger. Not the case with Portugal.

Soares and Guerreiro start from in front of the opponent’s midifeld line, or on the same line. They make the run forward only when a forward pass breaks the line. This ways Portugal has five players in front of the opponent’s team shape, covering its whole width. This approach makes for a controlled possession game. Long sideways passes that can serve as pressing triggers for the opponent are never to be seen.

They are very patient in possession, waiting for the moment when the chance opens up for a risk-free pass through the lines.

Fullback dynamics

When Carvalho receives the ball in the deep left half space, Bernardo always attacks the channel, pulling the fullback with him. If the pass is not on, they play to Soares through Pepe. Due to the Soares starting from close to the central defenders, Pepe can pass in front of Soares, who receives the ball on the run past the midfield. If the opponent doesn’t shift quickly enough to the ball side while remaining compact, their fullback is in a difficult situation. He might step out too early, which gives the chance for Bernardo to turn behind him, and for Soares to find him with the ball.

Bernardo run through - 49th minute v Algeria.pngAt these side changes Bernardo might move just outside the opponent’s wide midifelder – Uruguay operate with similar movements. With Soares they are 2 v 2 against the fullback and the wide midfielder. Ronaldo and Guedes keep the channel open. This way after the pass to Soares Bernardo can become the third man by running through the channel. If the six of the opponent got attracted by the run of Bernardo, the centre opened up for Guedes.

Leaving out the centre in possession

Change of sides and pass up through the halfspace - 18th min v Algeria.pngPortugal have a very halfspace focused possession game. The central zone is almost entirely left free, only one of the holding midfielder stays there, standing int he six space. However nobody occupies the central space between the lines permanently.

Guedes starts from the back of the opponent’s six, making forward runs if the central defenders gets too far form each other. If the ball is in the deep half space, the farside central defender moves into the half space on the other side. This way the moment he receives the ball, he can pass the ball between the lines immediately.

A triangle waits for the pass through the midfield. Guedes moves back and receives the ball behind the midfield at a diagonal angle. Guerreiro immediately overlaps, and Ronaldo makes the run while giving maximum pass angle to Guedes. If the starting positions and the communication between the opponent’s fullback and winger are not working, these runs are impossibly to defend.

Run behind the space of the fullback and run int he central zone - 36th minute.pngIf the pass to Fernandes is not on, the ball can go to Guerreiro. If the fullback steps out to press him, the space appears in the backline to make the run into. The central defender of the opponent on the far side always has to make a decision. Either come more to the ball side, or the space in the middle opens up for Guedes to make the run into. Portugal scored their second goal from exactly this attacking process.

Short distances between the attackers

Bernardo marked by the fullback, Ronaldo makes the run behind him.pngThe narrow 4231 formation allows for a lot of different reverse movements, positional changes between the attackers.

Soares was always available as a free passing option, if the fullback pushed up to Bernardo.  In that case Ronaldo immediately made the run behind the fullback, and Guedes ran forward into the space opened by Ronaldo. Soares had to receive far enough from the opponent’s wide midfielder to have time to play a ball into space for Ronaldo.

Ronaldo moves deeper between the lines - 17th min v Algeria.pngSilva makes the run from the pass of Carvalho 17th min.png The triangle of Ronaldo, Guerreiro and Carvalho keeps the ball, meanwhile the six of the opponent shifts to close the ballside halfspace. Now the central defender has to take over the run of Guedes, and Bernardo Silva can run into the space opened between the central defender and the fullback.


Bernardo Silva move back, Joao upAgainst two strikers William Carvalho moves between the two central defenders. Joao Mario and Adrien Silva push behind the two central midfielders of the opponent, pulling them apart. Bernardo Silva moves back in the space between these two central midfielders for the diagonal pass.

When Pepe receives the ball they don’t give any short pass options on the side of the ball. The fullback is already overlapping, Joao Mario moves under the FB between the lines to collect the second ball. As soon as the ball is played forward Bernardo Silva also anticipates the second ball.

Narrow defensive shape

The midfield four defender very narrow. Andre Silva and Joao Mario started from the six space, Bernardo Silva and Quaresma started higher than Carvalho and Adrien Silva in the centre. Especially Quaresma, who played closer to the Tunisian fullback on his side, preventing passes to him from the middle.

Central focused defence.pngTheir centre focus and narrow defensive shape can be demonstrated with this instance. Andre Silva marked the six, Joao Mario pressed the sideways pass between the two central defenders. He tried to press from the outside, to prevent a pass wide to the fullback. Meanwhile Ricardo Pereira moved higher to have better access to the fullback. Bernardo watched the first touch of the player receiving the ball. If he takes the ball inside, he has to cover the passing lane on the inside of Joao Mario. If he takes the ball outside, he might have to cover the diagonal passing lane from the fullback in case Joao Mario can’t prevent the pass to the fullback.

Defending the diagonal.pngAt diagonals the midfield shifts slowly. The central defenders remain 2 v 1 against the striker in the centre. The space behind Guerreiro pressing the winger is not defended well. Especially with Quaresma on that side, who is not known for his defensive discipline. Quaresma has a too high starting position, he prevents the ball on the ground to the fullback, instead of defending from the inside. That way he would cover the space behind the fullback better and he would have a better chance of stopping him from overlapping.


The Portuguese team improved in attacking talent compared to the one that won the Euros two years ago. Their safe approach in possession is the right one for tournament football.

A second place finish behind Spain is most likely in the group. Then a close encounter with a strong, organised Uruguay team. As Ronaldo said before the team travelled to Russia, in football anything can happen and they just have to give themselves a chance. The team is certainly strong enough to do that.

And on a personal note, I have sweetspot for Raphael Guerreiro. I would love to see as much of him on the pitch as possible, since he didn’t feature much for Dortmund this year. For that very selfish reason, I hope Portugal go very-very far in the tournament.




Uruguay: Ultra safe possession game with wide overloads

It is often hard to predict lineups of international teams. The gameplan is often not as detailed as with club sides. The coaches have less time to spend with their teams, and there can new faces introduced almost every game due to changes of form or injuries. With Oscar Tabarez in the role for twelve years now, this is clearly not the case with Uruguay.

Uruguay likely starting 11.pngTheir lineup is a mixture between 442/4222. Their obvious strength lies up front with Cavani and Suarez. The midfield and the wingers are creative, with the fullbacks ready to overlap. This results in a safe possession game, dominating possession, with most of the chances created from the wide areas.

Nandez and Arrascaeta find moments to rotate inside to the half spaces. This opens the space wide, and gives extra pass options for layoff passes from Cavani and Suarez.

The two matches I analysed for this preview were the recent game against Uzbekistan, and the friendly against Austria. The former was particularly interesting, as Suarez was not in the lineup.

Ball Circulation – Movement of the Wide Players

Option 1: Play starting in front of the opponent’s wide midfielder in the halfspace

Nandez overlap - 7th min v Uzbekistan.pngThe two central defenders don’t dribble into the game much, in circulation rather Vecino moves back to make the pass that breaks the line. Even against opponents playing with one striker.

Cavani and Suarez often play relatively wide, starting from between the opponent’s central defender and fullback.  The wide players double up on the winger of the opponent in a deep position.

This has multiple advantages:

  1. Moving out of the cover shadow of the central midfielder stepping out to press Vecino.
  2. Good starting position to run into the space behind the fullback if he tries to press the wide player.
  3. Close distance and easy layoff passes to the winger who rotates into he halfspace.
  4. Two forwards can occupy the whole back four.

When Vecino receives the ball Nandez is already in front of the opponent’s wide midfielder, horizontally very close to him. Pereira is higher and next to the line.

This starting position provides stability, safety while it is also a good starting position to make overlaps from.

  1. Nandez was close to the midfield in case they lost the ball, he was in a prime position to counterpress.
  2. With a central midfielder moving out to press Vecino, the left winger of them had the following choice to make:
    1) Cover the space next to the midfielder pressing. In this case the ball could go straight to Pereira. Suarez or Nandez could run behind the pressing fullback.
    2) Stay wider, in which case the pass to Suarez was on. 

The moment the pass forward is made Nandez sprints forward to attack the space behind the fullback moving out to press Perreira.

Option 2: Striker/winger reverse runs from narrow starting positions

Wide 1 v 1 - 51th minute v Uzbekistan.pngThis was another example of Uruguay’s ultra safe structure in circulation.

Vecino and Bentancur drop deep, even they are In front of the strikers of Uzbekistan.

The fullbacks are on both sides outside of the wingers of the opponent, the wingers pull inside a little bit. The moment the fullback receives the ball from the central defender the striker makes the run behind the fullback. If the pass forward is not on, Vecino rotates under the ball in the halfspace, and has two pass options: 

  1. Cavani steps back a little bit off the central defender, and the pass through the lines is on.
  2. Meanwhile Nandez runs on the inside of the fullback, diagonal ball behind the defence is on. 

Run on far side 51th minute - Uzbekistan .pngAnother frequent tactical weapon they use is the runs into the channel from either a striker or Nandez the moment Vecino is free on the ball in the deep halfspace. Cavani steps back, trying to give a pass option to Vecino stepping back a little bit. Meanwhile Nandez would make the run on the inside of the far side fullback.

Halfspace, winger dynamic when opponent presses - 56th minute v Uzbekistan.pngIf the opponent attempts to press passes back to the central defenders, the two central defenders and two holding midfielders might get under pressure. Usually the space opens up between the midfield and the defence of the opponent, due to them being uncomfortable in pushing out the defence against Cavani and Suarez. 

Due to the narrow starting positions of Nandez and Arrascaeta the opponent plays 1 v 1 across the last line. If the central midfielders want to push up and press 1 v 1 in midfield the space opens up totally in between the lines, making the defenders play in a large space against individually superior players. In this example Nandez steps back between the lines. Suarez gains space as the central defender attempts to leave him and cover behind the fullback. Meanwhile Pereira makes the run forward.

Vecino receives past the two strikers - 12th minute v AustriaHere the two 8s pull the Austrian 8s apart, Vecino receives behind the strikers. Cavani steps back a little to receive in the open passing lane, and more importantly to open the space for Arrasceta to run into.

We have to dedicate a few worlds to Vecino. The International midfielder has an excellent ability to beat the midfielders who are late in pressing him. Vecino can use his press resistance and dribbling to beat players who are not supported by the rest of their team in their pressing endeavours. He is also the main creative force in the team’s possession. He has the responsibility to make the pass breaking the lines in most situations.

Option 3: Individual dismarking of the winger

Individual dismarking - 2nd minute v Austria.pngWhen the ball is in front of the opponent’s midfield line they always have a player in their first line of the buildup in the wide or half space. This is normally the fullback, but due to rotations the winger or a central midfielder can fill this position temporarily,

If the fullback gets pressured next to the line the winger gives him a pass option. With individual dismarking the winger can step back into the space between the lines or run behind the defence depending on the situation.

4132 structure - 7th minute v Austria This individual dismarking of the winger works also when Vecino steps back for the ball. The far side winger – Urretaviscaya – pushes up, Cavani comes under the long ball between the lines.

The constant dummy runs of Urretaviscaya into the space behind pushes back the defence. This creates more space for Cavani to move between the lines.

Option 4: Counter-clockwise rotation to break the midfield line

Fullback dynamic.pngFullback dynamic 2The fullback asks for the ball in a shallow position. The winger moves back, while the midfielder starts from closer to his own goal. When the winger drops to receive from the fullback the 8 runs into the space opened wide. After the initial pass the fullback can move diagonally inside and receive back. The whole movement looks like a counter-clockwise rotation.

When the fullback receives inside, he has three pass options:

  1. Striker in the same side halfspace.
  2. Midfielder on the other side.
  3. Player on the shoulder of the far side fullback. The farside fullback is already looking to make the overlap if this option happens.

What is the upside of players moving back and creating overloads/rotations in shallower positions? The big positive of the wingers constantly moving back so close to the first line of the buildup and then making forward runs from there is:

  • They can arrive full speed into overload situations higher up the pitch.
  • If the opponent uses zonal defence: If they start a forward run in front of the opponent’s midfield, they immediately create a crisis situation for them. Should a player from the midfield track their run? Should a defender signal to take them over?
  • They spend most of the time behind the ball line, this makes it an ultra safe approach.
  • They reduce the access of their marker to the ball. This is particularly important against man marking.
  • If the fullback doesn’t follow them, they can double up on the winger of the opponent, and keep the ball, circulate it as a defensive approach.
  • Running forward and receiving a diagonal pass: If the forward run before the diagonal is made at the right moment, then the receiver is likely to be without pressure (during the run) and receive the ball in a place where the fullback has no access to him yet – lofted diagonals work best.

Defensive issues

Cavani disjointed from rest of team shape, open halfspace.pngCavani is too far from the rest of the team shape in defence. This leaves the six space open. The deep midfielder and the far side central defender can double up on the Uruguayan 8 stepping out to press.

When the six has the ball the winger on the other side stands man oriented.  In fact they defend man to man on the side of the ball too.

Due to the man orientation of the wingers, quick changes of sides in front of the midfield, and then passing through the half space work wonders against them.

Austria wide dismarking.pngIn this moment the positioning of the midfield is off. Bentancour and Vecino are on the same line. Urretaviscaya is not in a good position either. Neither close enough to take out the fullback from the game, nor covering the passing lane to the winger. Perreira too far to put pressure on the vertical pass. If Vecino were closer to the defence, and diagonal to the winger, he would be able to help Perreira, cover the space behind him a little bit, and create a 3 v 2 situation behind the ball, and maintain better diagonal compactness. 

Central defender dribbles in - 8th minute.png As in the picture, the central midfielder and the central defender are 2 v 1 against the Uruguayan 8. Through this extra player quick changes of sides or passes through the lines are possible.

In this same situation above the Austrian winger moves back very close to the midfield. In these situations Urretaviscaya tucks inside, and Perreira moves out to press once the Austrian fullback receives the ball. Meanwhile a striker can attack the space behind Perreira, pulling the Uruguayan central defender into a wide position.

Uruguay don’t try to press long sideways passes in front of their midfield. They are rather passive in their defensive approach. They maintain compactness, but they don’t really try to execute organised movements to win he ball.


Uruguay have most things you need to go far in a tournament. Organised team, solid tactics, cohesion between coach and team, individual quality.

I would not be surprised if they would finish on top of group A. After that a game against Portugal might follow. Looking at both teams, I am not sure I would fancy the current European champions in that encounter.

Uruguay are certainly good enough to make a match against most teams in the tournament a close encounter. That gives the team a chance to go far and pull off another surprise finish. Just like eight years ago.

Russia: Hosts, question marks, low expectations

Russia is a weird team to profile. There was a lot of talk, and a whatever it takes attitude toward making the national team successful. They even talked of starting the national team as a club side in their own national competition. However the big plans did not come to fruition. They will start the tournament with an ageing and injury-ridden squad.  

Many players are absent with injuries, who might have expected to start this summer. In defence Vasin and Dzikhiya will be missing. This lead to the call up of 38 year old Sergei Ignashevich.

Kokorin – considered the country’s top attacking talent – will be watching the tournament from the stands. Meanwhile Dzyuba, a prolific striker and top attacking talent in Andre Villas-Boas’s Zenit saw his career slow down and spent the last months on loan at Arsenal Tula

Cheryshov played a back three (3421) with the national team for most of his tenure, due to the preference of most Russian club teams to play with a back three. However in recent pre-world cup friendlies they fielded a back four. They started in a 442 shape against Turkey, and a 433 against Austria.

How strong are they?

The midfielders lack mobility, the wingbacks will hardly beat anyone 1 v 1, the attack is rather static and ball movement far too wobbly and slow. Very few of their players seem special on the world stage.

So how about the sum of the players? The qualities of the individuals do not seem to click and complement each other apart from a few partnerships. Doesn’t sound very good, does it? 

The side will struggle to score goals, with a lack of organised movements and very few players who are special on the world stage. However their group draw is very easy, and progressing from the group is possible. Getting past the last 16 would be a huge surprise, as both likely opponents Portugal and Spain are far better quality. 

Tactical Trends in the Friendlies

One of their players who might be worth watching is 22-year old Aleksandr Golovin. He played as a winger throughout his youth career, but switched to a deep playmaker role under the current CSKA Moscow coach. He was back on the left wing against Turkey. In the middle Dzagoev and Smolov started as the striker partnership.  

Structure at cross 2nd ball - 24th minute TurkeyBased on this one friendly I don’t think Golovin’s best position is on the left wing. Even if he got an initial advantage over the fullback, he had to pull back the ball on his right foot. This caused problems for the strikers in the timing of their runs.

The moment he cut back the ball on his right the initial advantage for the strikers in the middle was gone. The defenders had  more time to settle, take their reference points. Now the defenders could push out and attack the ball instead of having to clear the ball while retreating. Not to mention that bringing a hard cross to the first post with the right foot is very difficult if not impossible from this close to the line. Such crosses are easier for the goalkeeper to collect.

Even if chance creation from the initial cross was difficult, their structure for collecting the second ball/clearance was decent. Instead of attacking the far post, Samedov moved in front of the box, Zobnin and Gazinskiy took different lines in the central zone. 

Samedov – mobility on the right wing

Samedov often asked for the ball inside, between the lines. As the ball was switched to him Smolnikov made the overlap with full speed. The fullback was eager to get forward.

Samedov moves deeper, one striker wide - 43. minute v Turkey.pngSometimes Samedov moved in  front of the Turkish midfielders. The roles about which Turkish player should go with him, or how to defend him in these moments were not clear. The central midfielder on this side stepped out, leaving too much space between the lines. Meanwhile the fullback also moved out, but in a position that was totally inaffectual. He left space wide, while not gaining any access to the ball. Smolov could be isolated 1 v 1 against the Turkish central defender.

Despite his good initial movement without the ball he failed to capitalise on it. He is neither the player to beat an opponent with dribbling and speed in these situations, and was too heavily reliant on his right foot to thread a final pass through to Dzagoev arriving from behind,making a run through to the goal in the blindside of the ball far central defender.

Overloads and collecting second balls after goalkicks

Long goalkick, 2nd ball - 52nd minute v TurkeySamedov’s inside positioning creates the extra man to collect second balls after goal kicks. With the Turkish midfielder caught between him and Gazinskiy, there is an extra man on the ball side for collecting the second balls. Meanwhile Dzagoev and Smolov play off each other, one making the aerial duel, the other attacking the space behind the defence.

Meanwhile Samedov and Gazinskiy press and collect the ball that bounces back. Smolnikov presses the winger very aggressively from behind. Smolnikov was eager to press forward and make use of every pressing trigger. Not only was he active in overlapping in attack, but he demonstrated a level of proactiveness and aggressivity in pressing the ball that is rare to see in international football.

Team Defending

Problem with distance between central defenders - 7th min v Turkey.pngIn their own third they play a narrow 4411 system. Their issues are with the distance between the two central defenders when the fullback moves out to press the opponent’s wide player – in this case the fullback coming up. Ignashevich moves out to the halfspace, Kutepov is too far from the striker.

The far side central midfielder – Zobnin – is not sliding back to close the space between the two central defenders. The ball side central midfielder is not covering the passing lane to the striker.

Not to mention that Golovin is not very active in pressing backwards and applying pressure on the wing in case the ball surpasses him.

Central midfielder has to step out in the halfspace - 48th min v Turkey.pngAs with most  international sides, the defending of the strikers can be an issue. They can leave the midfield unprotected. This combined with the width of their midfield line due to the man orientation of their wingers on the fullbacks can cause a real issue. The central midfielders have to cover too much space, as they have to step out to press in the halfspaces.

The two strikers often start defending too far from the midfield line. They can’t put pressure on the ball in the halfspace, they get isolated and they can’t cover the passing lane to the six space from the deep halfspace. Due to the distance between Zobnin and Gazinskiy, it is easy to double up in the midfield on the player who attempts to press in the halfspace. 

Their defending in the wide areas can be exploited too. Golovin’s lack of closing back once the ball got past him caused problems. One example of this came in the 54th minute, when Zobnin moved wide to track the player who made the run behind the fullback stepping out on the winger. Golovin didn’t close back to the central midfield position, this space was used by the fullback to overlap and make a free cross.  

Basic mistake in the workings of a back 4 - 59th min v Turkey.pngIn some moments the back four looks very shaky, especially when it comes to deciding when to take which reference point. For example here Malli can make a free run, Smolnikov is too far from the central defenders. The midfielders are too far from the last defender on the picture. Either Kutepov doesn’t have to step out, a midfielder has to track the run of Malli or the fullback has to be in that space. Any of these solutions can work.

This situation arose after a hopeful clearance from the goalkeeper. A pretty straightforward, easy to read situation for a well organised defence. But they looked anything but that.

So back 5 or back 4?

Although after playing two World Cup friendlies with a back four starting again with a back five would be surprising, but still certain moments might be useful in highlighting the individual qualities or certain tactical issues of the Russian team.

Attacking Processes in 3421

The game against France featured their preferred 3421 formation. Golovin played as one of the deep playmakers in front of the back five.

In the buildup phase France played with a narrow 433. The winger attacked the Russian sideback when he attempted to dribble into the game. In this moment Golovin only had to step out of the cover shadow to receive the ball free past the first line of the French defence. 

Russia attempted runs from midfield the moment the fullback stepped out to the wingback, a fairly common tactical occurrence if a back five and a back four meet. 

Attacking the space behind the fullback v France - 6th min.pngThe moment the French fullback stepped out to the wingback, an attacking midfielder – Erokhin in this case – made the run behind.  The larger the distance between the central defender and the fullback, the more effective these runs are. Or if the central defender is occupied, he might support behind the fullback too late and the Erokhin can get an advantage with his run. In this particular instance Miranchuk moved back in front of the defensive midfielder, so there was no manipulation of the backline, the central defender could simply let him go.

Lack of movement from players in advanced lines

Not to mention that the ball circulation was slow, so the French backline was already compact when Golovin received the ball. They were not stretched by having to shift from one side to the other all the time. 

In other cases the problem was more severe than the movement of certain players. Sometimes nobody attacked the space behind. With such static attacking players the team was easy to defend.

After a while Mbappe started defending from Golovin instead of pushing out to Neustadter. The ex-German-became-Russian central defender was pressed by the young Frenchman only at backwards passes or slow sideways passes.  However the French team often didn’t move up together, or in the right moments.

Zhirkov as a wingback

Ball wide to Zhirkov - v France 15th minute.png One of such instances was when Golovin passed back to the sideback. Dembele and Mbappe pressed on the ball side, but Erokhin could rotate into the free space left by Dembele. The 4 players in midfield created a 4 v 3 overload, which left the far side holding midfielder free. Erokhin could quickly change the play out wide to Zhirkov with the French team concentrated in the middle.

This particular instance showed how Zhirkov is unlikely to provide a serious attacking threat. Even though he had large free space in front of him, and from the Erokhin’s body position the pass could have been expected, still Zhirkov didn’t attack the space without the ball. He only started running forward after the ball was on its way. Despite the positional disadvantage of Pavard, he read the pass far sooner and could start his run earlier, taking away the initial advantage of Zhirkov.

Could be better pass angle to Zhirkov - France 16th minute.pngThis situation showed how the Russian team was too conservative in their ball circulation. Zhirkov didn’t attack the space in front of him aggressively enough while the French team shifted over. Meanwhile Kudryashov didn’t use the ball or his body to manipulate the pressing angle of Dembele, and create a better passing lane to Zhirkov. By simply dribbling into the game, or dropping his shoulder he could have created a much better passing angle to Zhirkov. 

Instead of passing in front of the French team shape, he could pass diagonally through behind Dembele, and release Zhirkov. But Zhirkov didn’t make the run forward either. 



Overall a team which was put together more in mind with who was available rather than a clear gameplan in mind. Most of the team is ageing, and the synergy between the players on the pitch is not without flaws.

However they are in an easy group. Progressing from the group is all that can be expected from this team.