Though football evolves and new tactical philosophies and methods seem to be introduced into the elite game weekly, one thing that remains a constant in each and every coach’s ideology is the critical importance placed on being able to play into and through the centre. However, facilitating an effective reception behind the opposition’s first line of defence in the central lane can be a double-edged sword.
If achieved, the advantages are countless as it forces the opponent to compress and narrow their shape, with all the consequences that are triggered (they jump, resulting in more spaces appearing in-behind and in wider areas).
Though, due to the complexity of manoeuvring in that area, a good number of individual and collective strengths are required to execute this tactic successfully.
Here, we will discuss some of these virtues, starting with individual compilations of midfield specialists, and moving on to collective dynamics of different teams around the world. We will also include and place special emphasis on FC Barcelona’s Cadet A (u16) 22/23, coached by Ivan Carrasco, with whom I have had the pleasure of working as an analyst this past season.
AMADOU HAIDARA: RECEPTIONS FROM INSIDE:
Let’s begin with the first example of midfielders who are not at the absolute elite level but are true specialists in the art of positioning themselves behind the first defensive line in order to receive the ball in the best possible conditions. We will see scenarios where the midfielders receive from the outside, inside, and on differing heights and lines. We start here because many of the discussed technical gestures will be repeated throughout the study.
The main distinctive trait of Haïdara compared to the following two examples lies in his ability to position himself when receiving a frontal, vertical pass from the central channel.
At 0:05″ or 0:25″, we observe his diagonal approach and the body shape of letting the ball run across his body to control it with his back foot, followed by a pass using the opposite foot after turning to face forward.
On the other hand, at 0:45″, we see how he combines control and pass with the same foot after allowing the pass to come inside and turning his body during the control. It’s a refined technique.
TIJJANI REIJNDERS: SCANNING:
With the Dutch midfielder from AZ, we can appreciate the micro-details in his control with the back foot when receiving a pass that we have seen and will continue to see. However, in his clips, we can clearly assess his scanning ability to observe his surroundings and determine what kind of control/decision he can and is allowed to make.
Let’s pay attention to 0:37″ when he approaches the sideline with an opponent closely marking him: he performs a double scan by turning his head in both directions before realizing that he can let the ball run to his back foot, all whilst turning.
At 1:50″, once again, there is emphasis on the head turn before receiving a pass from a teammate, and again once the pass is released by his teammate; repeating the head turn in different moments, this time to play a progressive pass into advanced areas.
WATARU ENDO: BODY SHAPE AND TRAJECTORIES TO RECEIVE FROM THE OUTSIDE:
The Japanese Stuttgart star is particularly skilled at assessing how to position himself and progress after his first touch when a central midfielder is being looked for from wide channels: with a horizontal pass from a fullback or wingback.
At 1:16″, we can see an excellent example of this as he separates from his marker and aligns himself on the same horizontal line as the ball, preparing his body position while offering support. This is one of the most pivotal details in this type of scenario.
At 1:49″, we observe the mentioned body shape as he approaches with a diagonal body position and executes his first touch with his back foot (a situation where it would have been tempting to control with his left foot and allow the opponent to close in).
Another strength seen in the clip is his ability to provide his team progression by allowing the ball to come to him only to attract and provoke opponents out of their shape, giving him the opportunity to offer continuity if he doesn’t see a clear passing option, or if he senses he is entering a dangerous area. With Endo, we consistently see him maintaining a specific body position and using the back foot for control to maintain options, often playing the ball back to attract opponents and/or play in the same corridor.
INDIVIDUAL PRINCIPLES AGAINST A MORE PASSIVE DEFENCE:
With Marc Bernal, we can discuss other interesting principles, this time in a scenario of a more established positional attack.
In the first clip, he “wanders” at the same height as the nearby defender, maintaining a diagonal body shape that allows for quick changes of direction, including the “return pass” option to the first line if he’s pressed aggressively. He scans the surroundings by turning his head and plays a direct pass forward.
In the second and fourth clips, we see a repeated pass. Bernal turns to face the ball in the first instance, and in the second instance, when the defender jumps again to intercept the pass, he has more space and can execute a similar turn.
In situations where there is a numerical advantage of one more player against their first line of defence, the repetition of the pass to adjust the positioning can be very advantageous. As the two players are marked by the same defender, the mere act of repetition becomes an advantage, as the defender’s adjustment does not allow him enough time to arrive to apply pressure.
In the third clip, Bernal offers a dynamic passing option while running, allowing the same movement for him to turn and face forwards.
MICRO: LETTING THE BALL RUN
We return to a game situation where the opponent adopts a more aggressive press, and our team is facing a high-pressure situation during a build-up play.
Apart from the different type of controls mentioned earlier, all of them are less dangerous than this one. The one we will discuss now is arguably one of the most useful in this specific game situation. It happens when the central midfielder receives a frontal or slightly vertical pass from the central lane (keeper, CB), near the edge of their own penalty area, with an opponent pressuring him closely.
There is always a risk involved if the decision-making is not accurate, and making the right decision is the most complex part. However, if the player manages to position their body between the opponent and the ball, and the pass is delivered with enough speed, or if the opponent arrives just a fraction of a second late (e.g., Tonali in the 2nd clip) then allowing the ball to run until it reaches the back foot, making minimal adjustments while starting a run can be an effective and workable solution, both in terms of detecting (primarily) and executing the move.
MICRO: STOPPING MOVEMENT WHILST SUPPORTING IN THE SHADOWS:
Although in the case of Angel Gomes at 0:13” the movement sequence was not intentional, the concept can still be relevant.
Generally, when supporting in the shadows or the space behind the forwards to receive the ball, the tempo of the supporting runs is continuous. However, in certain situations, particularly when facing a first defensive line with two strikers (or a striker and a midfielder jumping), it can be interesting to stop the trajectory halfway through, maintaining the intention to eventually provide support in wider spaces.
This movement forces the second forward, who is further away, to narrow and cover the area where the initial pass was intended, which can be challenging for him.
If Angel had not stopped his run, he would have arrived faster to receive the horizontal pass from the fullback. However, it would also allow the opponent midfielder to intervene in that space.
RELATIONSHIPS FROM INSIDE:
Here, we will address mechanisms in which a player is found behind the defensive line in a direct relationship between central players, either in positional attacks or in scenarios against a mid-high/high blocks.
FINDING THE CENTRAL-MIDFIELDER AFTER SPLITTING THE OPPONENT’S LINES THROUGH DRIVING, THEN RETURNING TO THE CENTRE WHILE THE CENTRAL-MIDFIELDER STAYS HIGH THROUGHOUT:
Driving forward whilst carrying the ball in order to narrow the first defensive lines in a more advanced position, a routine pass is given to the fullback, then we detach backwards to open a passing line 5-10m behind, thus separating their first and second lines of defence. We observe this as a natural response in left-footed CB Andrés Cuenca.
Applicable to Bernal’s (CM) trajectory when being closely monitored by the 2 forwards. Lines are stretched with a feign of coming closer, but he continues to stay separated, preventing one of the strikers from reaching too far.
FINDING THE ADVANCING PIVOT WHILE “8’s” OPEN UP:
In three scenarios, the pair of “8’s” mobilize the opposing central midfielders within a 4-4-2 formation, emptying the central lane. In response to this situation the pivot positions himself so that the distance becomes too long for the opposing strikers to intervene effectively. This allows him to be found with a diagonal pass from the centre-backs since the longer distances make those passing lines more likely and viable options.
FINDING THE CENTRAL-MIDFIELDER WITH A THIRD MAN RUN FROM THE STRIKER OR “8”:
This dynamic is widely used when it comes to searching for a nearby teammate whilst also looking further up the pitch. There are similar sequences, with Gistau (striker) in one case and Quim (8) in another. In both scenarios, the movements originate from the ‘pinning’ of the last defensive line with the “8” and the striker.
Another alternative to find the pivot player higher is when there is significant movement by the opposing central midfielders, as seen in the clips. Dani (pivot) recognizes himself as free, adjusts his run to receive the short pass, and shows good cooperation with the fourth man attacking the defensive line after the combination play.
DOUBLE PIVOT ROTATION AND LINK-UP:
The initial rotation allows the pivot to make the first reception with his back to the opponent, usually without a favourable body position or the possibility of advancing from there. But it is a necessary first pass.
Gundogan starts on the left and Rodri on the right. When they exchange positions and pass through a short dribble, there is an initial loss of reference for the opposition that enables the ball to be played inside.
Upon return to the first line, as there’s rarely an option turn after the first pass inside, a direct relationship between the central midfielders is created: close proximity between them, body orientations, and angles that facilitate the connection. We can observe how Rodri drops slightly deeper to receive the diagonal pass.
DOUBLE PIVOT: ONE OCCUPIES ‘MARKED SPACE’; THE OTHER WAITS AT THE BACK:
It’s a nearly identical dynamic to what we see with Manchester City, but now with the U.S. u20 team, starting with the 3+2 structure, but with the difference that there is no rotation involved.
Against a passive opponent, in this case, a 4-4-2 formation, if one of the two central midfielders positions himself in the “marked space” of the opposition’s strikers, their initial midfield marker will rarely follow him as they perceive him to be marked. By playing with the angles of the pass and the direction of the play, you will find the first player capable of turning.
With the closest pivot positioned diagonally from the furthest pivot who is waiting inside, the link-up between them allows for a more favourable reception; a dynamic control and a diagonal movement.
CENTRAL-MIDFIELDER INITIALLY DROPS AND RECEIVES FROM BEHIND AFTER THEN MOVING FORWARD:
In these two clips, we observe situations where the central midfielder (Dani Ávila) drops to the first line at the same level as the centre-backs and can turn to face forward with the involvement of support from the central-lateral channel (right-back in the first example, 8 in the second).
Due to the angles of the pass, it will often require a diagonal line of play inside-outside-inside to successfully find the central midfielder while in motion. This is because the passing lanes from the centre-backs will be blocked, making the reception complex.
CLOSE POSITIONING BETWEEN THE FULLBACK AND CENTRAL-MIDFIELDER:
To expand on the previous point, in this clip we see a similar relationship, however this one involves the fullback and a diagonal pass, though the connection is still classed as a connection from inside.
When facing an opponent who aims to defend the pivot from the diagonal pressing line created by the pair of strikers, this detail becomes interesting.
The close positioning of the fullback allows for a CB-to-fullback pass with minimal travel time. Additionally, when a central defender plays the pass, the change in marking on the pivot in the diagonal line creates an opportunity for the central midfielder to be free to receive the ball from the fullback in a diagonal passing angle that facilitates his turn to advance play.
It is important to recognize when this positioning and intention are truly advantageous. If the pivot is closely marked by a midfielder who can potentially jump to intercept the pass, the risk increases because the extra time allowed for the pass to the fullback may allow for a small readjustment. However, in this particular scenario, it works well.
POSITIONING OF THE “8” IN DIRECT CONNECTION BETWEEN CENTRAL-DEFENDER AND PIVOT:
We can observe the difference in positioning depending on the height of the position occupied by the 8 in relation to the pivot when the pivot receives a direct pass from the centre-back (it is important to note that this is a frontal pass that doesn’t facilitate the reception and requires a very quick release).
In the first clip, the right-sided 8 (Dani Ávila) positions himself slightly ahead, making it difficult for the central midfielder (Bernal) to turn and pass. Bernal quickly plays the ball away.
In the second clip, Ávila positions himself deeper, at a slightly more parallel height, allowing Bernal to find him with an instinctive “no-look” pass. This immediate connection enhances the progression, even though both players eventually return to the starting point.
PARALLEL DOUBLE PIVOT IN BUILD-UP AND CONTROL FUNDAMENTALS:
When facing an opponent in a 4-4-2 formation that releases one of their central midfielders to press with the strikers, creating a defensive block of three against the square formed by our centre-backs and central midfielders, the repetition of passes between the centre-backs becomes a necessity.
Saca and Natali (the centre-backs) demonstrate good timing in reading when to play the ball inside, exploiting the space behind the midfielder who is unable to arrive.
Dani and Bernal (CMs) excel in their first touch, allowing the ball to run to a more distant position while maintaining a diagonal body position. This sets them up to face forward, even though both passes were difficult to control.
USE OF “RETURN PASS”:
Another advantage of a well-worked double pivot is the “parachute” effect it provides when returning to the first line. It is a powerful tool to manipulate pressing attempts and phase transitions by the opposition (from a mid-block to high press).
When retreating towards the centre-backs or goalkeeper, the initial approach and subsequent coordination between the pivot players are crucial (distances, positioning, etc.). A significant number of build-up patterns benefit from this, as it prevents the opposition from applying pressure and allows continuity in the team’s play.
In some cases, it enables a direct turn once the defensive block has been widened and the second line of the opponent fails to arrive in time to apply pressure (as seen in Ecuador’s play or the second clip from FC Barcelona).
RELATIONSHIPS WITH WIDE PLAYERS:
The following videos will cover the dynamics in which a player is found from the wide areas of the field.
FINDING THE FURTHEST PIVOT AFTER A RUN FROM THE CLOSEST:
One of the most challenging relationships to control with two players occupying the central area is the following scenario: whether it’s from an lateral centre-back (first clip) or, especially, from a fullback dropping to the same horizontal height as the pivots.
Reaching that position is difficult because, and this is one of the key factors, once the player receives the ball in the wide area, the midfielders tend to drop deeper in a circular movement, prioritising covering their backs instead of jumping to the pivot in front of them.
In the worst-case scenario, there is a backward pass to the centre-backs if the strikers narrow to close the gap that where the pivot is positioned.
In the best-case scenario, a situation of the pivot receiving the ball in an open space and potential switch of play is achieved (first clip). However, it is also very common to play with the attraction of the opponent that the pass creates, forcing an opponent’s central midfielder to jump and then play with the pressure on the same side, as shown in the second and third clips.
FINDING THE RUN FROM THE CLOSEST PIVOT:
Now we observe the alternative to the previous dynamic. This situation involves a pass from a different height (deeper) and unfolds in a different game scenario (higher pressing). It is very similar to the previous principle, but this clip perfectly exemplifies the other possibility when playing with a double pivot and the closest pivot attacking advanced spaces.
SHADOWING THE JUMP ON THE PIVOT:
Another mechanism is through double attraction by dropping into the same channel against the player that must mark the pivot.
Let’s focus on the effect of T. Tomás’ positioning at 0:17″ when receiving the ball from the central midfielder (Karazor), or Martinelli’s positioning at 1:00″.
Why is it that in the first example, Karazor is not marked, while in the second example, Rodri has to move away, thus freeing up the inside- outside space for Xhaka?
It is because the players dropping enter the field of vision of the opponent, thus attracting their attention.
When the central area is occupied by two players and there is the option to quickly play to either side and then back inside, it becomes complicated for the opponent if at least one central midfielder cannot be involved in that direct pressing structure.
If the central midfielders face immediate threats behind with attackers dropping, it will be difficult for them to reach their intended positions.
CENTRAL-DEFENDER FINDING PIVOT AFTER DRIVING:
It is a CB-pivot relationship, but the essence of it is pretty similar to the dynamics from wider areas.
When facing a midfield diamond in a 4-4-2 formation, taking advantage of the moment when the play switches to the CB can be useful to then continue with another switch, this time with a bigger advantage.
If the dribbling by the CB is aggressive and surpasses the first line, as seen with Mings, the threat of the pass behind the midfielder creates the previously mentioned effect: the midfielder drops deeper in a circular movement to prevent the through ball, forgetting about his initial marking job.
In this scenario, the CB can play with the midfielder who is free and facing forward, creating an opportunity for a switch of play. This can be observed with Douglas Luiz at 0:17″ in the clip.
FINDING THE CENTRAL DEFENDER IN A BACK 5 BEHIND THE FIRST DEFENSIVE LINE:
It is a very typical mechanism in teams with a backline of five, where during restarts and build-up plays, the goalkeeper occupies the height of the central CB, effectively pushing a “nominal” defender into a more advanced position.
This mechanism is very similar to the relationships previously seen, where the furthest central midfielder is found forward a dropping fullback and after a run from the closest central midfielder. However, in this case, we add the variation of a member of the first line (defender) advancing and occupying that height (Coates at 0:16″ in the clip).
DYNAMIC THIRD MAN MOVEMENT FROM THE CENTRE-BACK IN A “WALL” PASS:
Once again and to conclude the study, we have another example where the player responsible for receiving the ball in an advantageous position behind the first line is a centre-back.
In this case, it involves a much more dynamic reception, as the centre-back releases the ball to the dropping fullback for a wall pass, but then takes advantage of the momentum of his run to become a viable option as the third man once the fullback has progressed and the second striker has dropped deeper.
By Jordi Bacardit – @jordibp29