During Part 1 of “Dismantling the Pyramid”, we discussed the style and importance of Fernando Diniz’s unique approach to football; but what does his Fluminense team actually look like on the pitch? This article will focus on their build-up – how they progress the ball from the first third into the opposition half – and highlight some of the key principles of Fluminense’s game model.

Attracting Pressure

One of the revelations of the 2022/23 Premier League season was Roberto Di Zerbi’s Brighton, and their unique approach to their build-up. They have a very clear structure of 7 deep players (GK, back four + double pivot) who are positioned very close together, using their proximity to play short, quick passes to draw the opponent’s press into specific areas, in turn creating space further up the pitch for the front 4 players to exploit, enabling the attackers to attack in big spaces rather than small.

Fluminense’s build-up has a similar fundamental idea – attracting pressure near their own goal to uncover spaces further up the pitch – but arrive through very different means. Where Di Zerbi is positional with his provocation with the ball, using a rigid structure and emphasis on ‘pausing’ on the ball, Diniz prefers to draw pressure with combinations and dribbling in a more fluid manner. The players are free to associate around the ball as they see fit, without rigid positional ‘rules’ to constrain them, thus creating large numbers of players in close proximity to the player in possession.
Stemming from this ultimate principle, Fluminense have numerous tactics and strategies to try and create these conditions.

a. Dribbling from Goal-Kicks

Firstly, phases of possession from goal kicks are started with a dribble rather than a pass. Naturally, to bypass the rules of the game, the goalkeeper must tap the ball a few centimetres to start the play but there is always a player standing right next to him to immediately dribble with the ball. Most commonly, it is Andre, who plays the role of a #6 in Fluminense’s system, but other midfielders are also free to drop as well.
This enables the first action to be immediately driving directly at the opposition’s first line of pressure, making it almost impossible for the opponent not to start their press. Naturally, a player dribbling 6 yards in front of his own goal is one of the biggest possible provocations to press and most opposition teams who want to press high will find it impossible to resist.

Therefore, from the very first moment, Fluminense’s build-up is geared towards creating the conditions they want – i.e. the opposition pressing high and leaving space behind. Of course, this inherently comes with large degrees of risk, so how do they ensure security in this high-stakes situation, where any mistake leaves their own goal vastly exposed?

b. Carousel Goal-Kicks

Bringing outfield players into the six-yard box from goal kicks also allows Fluminense to perform arguably the most novel aspect of their play: their rotating goal kicks. This particular tactic offers a new way of interchanging positions to lose markers, and more resembles plays one might see in basketball or futsal, but to implement it on a larger scale presents a whole different challenge (for example, attacking rotations in basketball typically occur within half a court but a whole basketball court fits inside less than one penalty box on a football pitch).

When faced with a man-to-man high press against their goal kick, Fluminense often respond with a rotating ‘carousel’ to move their players into new positions. This takes advantage of one of the rules of the game to disrupt and disorientate the man-marking scheme, as opposition players cannot follow their direct opponent into the box before play is live.

The important aspect, however, is not that the players are simply rotating positions as that may not solve any of the dynamic issues posed by the press – for instance, one response for the opponent could be to adapt to become a bit more zonal and wait for the ‘carousel’ to finish spinning before picking up their new opponent in the same zone. Therefore, the advantage Fluminense gains is not when the players arrive at their new positions, but rather in the moments in between.

As the players move, they are ‘in between’ the players or zones of the opponent’s press and therefore generate a small period of time where they can be free of a marker. Due to the rules of the game and the fact that the goal-kick taker chooses when the ball becomes live, play can be started in the moments where Fluminense’s carousel naturally places their players in positions between opponents, ready to break lines.

This gives Fluminense the chance to disrupt both zonal and man-oriented pressing schemes, along with simply injecting confusion into the opposition with their novel movements, often allowing them to find a free man to progress.

Furthermore, the spinning of the carousel does not have to be perfectly symmetrical. In the process of rotating around, Fluminense can adjust their structure slightly, for example moving an extra player into a particular zone and therefore create a numerical overload to utilise. For instance, in the example below, Fluminense start with just two players on the right side of the pitch, but as the players circle around, each player moves up in sequence and Fluminense end with 4 or 5 players around the ball, creating the overload through which to progress.

This is particularly useful against teams which adapt to become a bit more zonal against this tactic and wait for the new positions to settle, but here Fluminense can choose to overload certain zones in a dynamic and unpredictable way. The proactive nature of the rotation always gives Fluminense the first-mover advantage and the opponent is naturally playing catch-up to adjust their pressing scheme, whilst simultaneously trying to deal with the general confusion simply injected by the novel nature of the approach.

This gives Fluminense the chance to disrupt both zonal and man-oriented pressing schemes and it’s this sort of variety within Fluminense’s game model that enables them to have more unpredictability in their game.

1. Using the Full-Backs as Bait

One final weapon Fluminense have in their build-up arsenal is the type of pass they use. First, they try to attract the press by dribbling directly from the goal kick, and then they fluidly overload the spaces around the ball to try and tempt the opposition to follow their chaos in a man-oriented way, in turn leaving disorganised spaces ripe for exploitation.

If none of that works, Fluminense can then try to provoke pressure by chipping the ball out to the FBs, invoking a classic pressing trigger for the opponent as the FB is receiving in both a disadvantageous position (due to the pressure against the touchline) and nature (the chipped pass in the air is harder to control).

Due to the technical nature of their FBs – in particular (ex-Real Madrid) Marcelo – and the fact that numerous players are close by to support, Fluminense are confident of playing out of this awkward situation with quick combinations and flicks around the corner. It is a typically Brazilian solution and one that is perfectly aligned to Diniz’s philosophy based on creativity and expression, keeping the ball in the air with chest control or heel flicks, and simply outplaying their opponent through skill as if they were riffing on Copacabana beach rather than in a competitive football match.
Through these various means, Fluminense’s build-up is geared towards creating the conditions they want from the very first moment, but once the opponent has started playing high, how do they actually ensure they can actually beat the press?

2. Freedom to Create Overloads

Unlike Brighton, who generate advantages in build-up not necessarily through numerical superiority but rather supremacy through timing, Diniz places more importance on having clearer numerical overloads to create more safe passing options against high pressure. Naturally, this sacrifices (or some would argue ‘wastes’) players who could be providing width or depth away from the ball to pin the opposition but this is less important in Fluminense’s game model as Diniz prioritises the players’ freedom to associate around the ball in order to create short passing options.

In many situations, Fluminense can have 2 or 3 extra players around the ball, such as below where 8 players are positioned towards the right side of the pitch, ready to combine to exploit past any press that tries to trap them against the touchline. Rather than rely on structure and spacing to stretch the opponent, Diniz places confidence in his own players to find solutions against the pressure, and in turn progress possession more organically.Without the constraints of ‘normal’ positions, players are always free to move towards the ball to provide passing options. The idea is that no matter how many players the opposition commits to press high, Fluminense can always have more, for example by having more advanced players drop deeper or with ball-far players on the other side of the pitch shifting across, both of which have happened in the situation above.

This basic principle of ensuring numerical overloads around the ball not only aligns with Diniz’s philosophical preference for giving freedom to his players but also helps to reduce the risk that inherently comes with trying to play out from the back in this manner. Whereas many observers might see Fluminense’s build-up as risky – after all, baiting the opposition into your territory always leaves open the possibility that they overwhelm you when they get there – it’s likely that Diniz sees his approach as a way of always ensuring a free (and therefore safe) passing option for the player in possession, no matter how many players the opposition decides to press with.

Of course, creating overloads might seem so fundamental to any style of play that it might seem pointless to highlight but it is clear that there is a higher emphasis on this specifically within Diniz’s game model. For instance, other teams may not be so desperate to create overloads that they would compromise their structure away from the ball by having ball-far players coming across the pitch to support, but Diniz places no such restriction to reach this end.

3. Staggering Ahead of the Ball

Despite the freedom given to his players, the structure is not completely random and the players themselves still have to arrange themselves such that they can effectively combine and progress play. At an individual level, players are always trying to find a space behind and between two opponents and thus create an angle which eliminates a line of the press. With multiple teammates moving to support at the same time, the idea is to create numerous passing options in all directions for the ball carrier.

The players are often staggered in diagonals or zig-zags to create indecision both vertically and laterally, thus utilising their positioning to threaten multiple lines of the opposition press. This helps to create options for quick wall passes into the third man to evade supporting layers of the press.The overloads around the ball also try to create options either side of the ball carrier to evade or overwhelm cover shadows. In the situation below, the Cruzeiro player is trying to apply pressure to the ball while blocking the passing lane outside into Marcelo, whose relatively narrow position makes him easier to cut off. However, the close proximity of both CMs centrally gives Melo an abundance of options through the other side, thus utilising the central angles the presser has given up.Should the supporting Cruzeiro player then jump to press this central receiver, Lima (LW) has already dropped deep to overload this next line to create an option for the subsequent pass. This ultimately stems from freedom given to both CMs and the LW to come into an area where the LB and LCB are already occupying, therefore enabling Fluminense to comfortably overload the press.

As it happens, a pass into the free man centrally is not how this particular possession actually played out (as will be shown in the next part), but it nevertheless highlights the advantages and objectives of Fluminense’s game model.

To be continued even further…

By @_invertedwinger