David Alaba has the ball in the left half-space. Müller and Götze move forward at the same time, while Lewandowski drops back and receives the ball from the Austrian in between Roma’s lines. After a short dribble towards the centre of the pitch, he plays the final pass into the right half-space. Arjen Robben sprints onto it and finishes with his first touch.
A goal so simple and yet so beautiful. The Bavarians played magical football that night. Robben’s goal was only one of seven that Bayern put past AS Roma. Every movement looked so simple and instinctive. Yet, at the same time, the Bavarians looked like a well-oiled machine. This match could well be the climax of the football that Pep Guardiola brought to Bayern Munich in his time there. During the game, they displayed one of the most important facets of positional play – switching the play.
What actually is a ‘switch’?
Whether I really have to answer this question in detail is debatable. Anyone who has even the slightest experience with football will have certainly come across this term. As so often is the case in football, there is no exact definition. Personally, I have my own, and I think it is in line with the definition of most people interested in tactics.
Before we look more closely at switches, we must first clarify how the pitch is divided. Basically, you can divide the pitch into different zones. This facilitates the description of individual players’ positions and approximately where the players should be. Furthermore, the pitch divides nicely into five vertical zones. Rene Maric has previously explained how the half-spaces differ from the wings and the centre.
A switch could now be defined as follows: when the ball is played from one zone to another and a zone is bypassed. For example, a switch could take place from the centre to the wing or from one half-space to the other.
However, I would not stick so strictly to that definition. It is possible to switch the play with short passes along the ground with ball partly moving through every zone. Ultimately, the most important thing is the objective of the move and where the ball is meant to end up. Switches over more than one zone make more sense as they get the opponent moving.
In this way, the ball does not move only from one zone to another (from the centre to half-space or vice versa; from the half-space to the ball-near wing or vice versa), which doesn’t get the opponent’s defenders moving, creating no gaps; but neither should it change three zones (from the half-space to the ball-far wing or vice versa) or more (from one wing to the other), as this gives the defenders enough time to effectively reposition themselves.
Rene Maric on half-space switches, which will come up later on
What is the point of switching the play?
Funnily enough, I’ve been asked that question more than a few times. I’ve often criticized vertical attacks down the wing. In our Kreisliga team, the ball was usually played early to the full-back and then launched down the wing. A striker would have often joined in, but I rarely saw my team playing the ball back to our six to then switch the ball to the other side. Interestingly, our best attacks were those that did include a switch to the other wing. As you can probably guess, we were not exactly dangerous on the attack.
But why should you actually try to switch the direction of play? One of my all-time favourite quotes from Pep Guardiola explains why:
‘Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other.’
A fundamental idea. The quote doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pass the ball about at all. Rather, the overriding goal of your passing should be to get the opponent moving. No matter how. And this is where switches come into play.
Pep Guardiola’s quote explains the thinking behind the planned-out switches in his idea of positional play. The opponent is to be moved through changing the direction of play, which should result in gaps being created. Ball-oriented movement when defending is the absolute standard in today’s football. Usually certain spaces are left open in order to make the space even tighter around the ball.
This is not only the case in football; the same concept applies in basketball where you can also force the opponent into making mistakes by getting them moving.
„The main goal is to just make the defense make as many decisions as you can so that they’re going to mess up at some point with all that ball movement and body movement and whatnot“
This is a good example from Pep Guardiola’s team. The Citizens play the ball about in their back three and pull out Arsenal’s attackers. Laporte finds Agüero between the lines due to his teammates’ clever movements.
The Argentine immediately has several options. On one hand, he can turn with the ball because Arsenal’s defender cannot press him as this would release Benjamin Mendy. On the other, a one-two with Bernardo Silva is possible. Or there is even a third option – a switch via Gündogan to the right to the completely free Riyad Mahrez.
So the key reasons as to why you should change the direction of play are the following: The first thing you do is get your opponent moving. This tires them out and can become an advantage in the course of a game. In addition, the opponent can make mistakes if they have to frequently move. They may move out too slowly, too quickly or not exert enough pressure on the player on the ball.
By getting the opponent to move, you open spaces somewhere on the pitch that can be exploited. With diagonal switches particularly, it is possible to get your best attackers into a promising position with a clear field of vision of the opponent’s goal.
As defensive concepts become more advanced, so too must a team’s attacks be better planned. A successful switch depends on the mechanisms and staggering in use.
What you need to carry out a switch
In order to play an effective possession game, a team’s players must follow certain rules to create a passing network that makes it difficult for the opponent to win the ball. Your structure in ball possession and successfully switching the play go hand in hand.
A team should organize itself in ball-possession into triangles and create diagonal passing lanes. Furthermore, the distribution of players on the pitch plays a fundamental role. Every zone on the pitch should be occupied by a player. In this way, you can exploit the gaps that the opponent leaves with their ball-oriented defending.
„The goal is to find the free or unmarked man by moving the ball, positioning, or player movement.“
In order to create a suitable structure in ball-possession, rules or principles of positional play can be used to prevent some areas from being occupied by two players and others from not being occupied at all. According to positional play, a maximum of three players should be on the same horizontal line and a maximum of two players on the same vertical line.
‘The free man must always be supported in order to take advantage of their value. To provide this support, Guardiola’s teams usually underload the farthest point away from the ball, i.e. they leave the furthest diagonal point roughly unoccupied while the team supports areas around the ball aggressively.’
Supporting the player on the ball is the first crucial point. Let’s have a look at the two examples below. Which structure is more apt for changing the direction of play?
It is pretty clear that a switch would be easier with the left-hand side image’s structure. The player on the ball is well supported by three players (red diamond). These players are also well supported (blue triangles). Finally, there are also many connections to the ball-far half-space and wing (purple triangles).
The staggering on the right side, on the other hand, is not appropriate for a switch as the player on the ball does not have enough support. Even though there are three players close by, there are hardly any diagonal passing lanes. In addition, the number six who has moved towards the ball blocks the passing lane to the centre-back and the full-back with the ball has no possibility to play a pass into the centre.
The passing network in the middle of the pitch is also worse positioned. Ultimately, the red team can probably only execute a switch by playing through the centre-backs. But in this case the ball is only played outside the opponent’s defensive block and doesn’t put pressure on them.
However, it does not solely come down to your structure in ball-possession. The players’ actions are also decisive. The goal is to force the opposition into pressing you which in turn creates space. Principles like third-man runs or attracting the opponent with short passes are essential.
(Interesting from 4:00)
In this interview, Kyle Walker gives a great explanation of the importance of three-meter passes between two players. The point is to attract the opponent, pulling them out of position and opening spaces.
The different kinds of switches
The Diagonal Ball
Jerome Boateng gets the ball from Thiago in the centre. What follows has been seen countless times. Boateng looks up briefly and then plays one of his precise and delicate diagonal balls to Kingsely Coman. Arsenal can only drop back and watch as the young Frenchman has a 1v1 ahead of him.
Those not too familiar with football would probably associate a switch with a diagonal ball like this. The basic requirement for this is an open space on the other side. In today’s football, most teams use ball-oriented defending in order to make the space around the ball as narrow as possible.
As always, there is a counter-development to every development in football. In order to take advantage of the weaknesses of ball-oriented defending, the six needed to have the ability to hit precise, long passes.
Due to continuously improving pressing, the six had less and less time and thus centre-backs like Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng or Gerard Piqué came into play. All of them are characterized by their excellent passing quality along with their world class defensive skills. Their ability to hit precise diagonal balls gives their team an advantage over the opponent’s defence.
At Bayern Munich in particular, long diagonal balls were and still are used regularly to crack open the opponent’s defence. With Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Xabi Alonso or Holger Badstuber, they always had players who could play these passes perfectly.
Holger is a brilliant passer. I think back to how he played the ball with his left foot diagonally out to Arjen Robben. It was almost as if the pass were guided. Who can play a pass like that other than him?
Hermann Gerland about Holger Badstuber
With players like Arjen Robben or Franck Ribery they always had wingers who were very strong in 1v1s. These diagonal balls were used to move the opponent so that they would make mistakes, such as not closing the space down quick enough, which Bayern’s wingers could then exploit. Under Pep Guardiola, these 1v1 situations out on the wing were systemically produced.
In addition to breaking through the opponent’s defence, there are other advantages of this kind of switch. The opponent’s defenders have to move quickly to avoid large gaps opening up. This constant shifting uses up energy and many lower-level opponents end up making mistakes later in the second-half, which a team like Bayern Munich can punish.
However, these diagonal balls also have disadvantages. Firstly, these passes spend a lot of time in the air. The opponent therefore has time to shift and can immediately press the player who receives the ball. In addition, the opponent only has to adjust their position once. Whereas, with switches through more areas of the pitch, the defensive players must adjust their position more frequently and are therefore more susceptible to errors.
Along the ground
Compared to long diagonal passes, changing the angle of attack with short passes between several players is more difficult to carry out as more players have to be in the correct position. However, it does result in more advantages for the team in possession. It is generally known that flat, short passes are faster than long balls; therefore, the team in possession can accelerate the game, lure the opponent into pressing and attack the resulting open spaces more easily. Furthermore, these short passes require less technical skill than long diagonal balls.
In addition, there are more attacking possibilities when executing these switches. It is easier to react to the defenders’ behaviour, meaning that mistakes and gaps can be punished more easily.
What you need
The basic requirement for this kind of switch, i.e. from one side to the other, is an appropriate structure in possession.
Triangles, diamonds and staggered lines in ball-possession not only make it easier for a team to circulate the ball, but they also connect all the players on the pitch.
In this example you can see that Leipzig’s Diego Demme is not adequately supported; there are too few passing options in the centre, no triangles close to the ball or any movements to support him. A diagonal switch is therefore not possible. As a result, Leipzig have no other choice than to work it to Kevin Kampl through the central defenders. This takes quite a long time and Leverkusen can easily reposition themselves. We see a lot of these switches via the centre-backs in the Bundesliga.
There are teams who, for example, build-up with two central defenders who stand relatively wide apart. When the two of them pass the ball to each other, the ball has to travel a relatively long distance, meaning the ball spends a lot of time in motion and there are no connections […] These are the best moments to apply pressure.
Switching the play via the centre-backs is not ideal in many respects. On one hand, it takes quite a long time to shift the play and the opponent will have enough time to adjust to the new situation.
Beyond that, no pressure is exerted on the opponent’s defensive block. If you pass the ball beyond their first pressing line for example, the opponent must not only shift position, but they also have to press more intensively as passes behind their defensive line or between their midfield and defence are easier from this position.
But of course there are situations where you have to move the ball between the centre-backs to beat the first pressing line. What is key is how the midfield is staggered. Manchester City show this week after week. The centre-backs move the ball about until a gap opens up.
In this example, you can see how City move the ball about between their back three. In comparison to building-up with two central defenders, the ball doesn’t have to travel as far, which makes it harder to press.
Arsenal try to press with three attackers. But since City’s midfielders are clever behind them, Laporte finally manages to beat the press.
In comparison to many Bundesliga teams, City do not then switch the ball back to the other side via the central defenders. As a result of City’s numerical superiority in the centre and the players’ good positioning in the five vertical lines, they are able to play through the centre.
Mendy can immediately play it to Fernandinho who switches it out to Mahrez on the other side.
Pep’s team started the attack in the right half-space and ended it on the right wing. For many fans of football, the purpose behind this move is not quite obvious. This is another reason why Guardiola’s game is more often than not dismissed as merely possession for possession’s sake. Why do City play like this?
Their objective is to play the ball to the free-man. In order to do so, they attract the opponent to the left with their first switch, and then they switch it out to Mahrez on the right. If Walker had have played the pass directly to Mahrez, he would have had less space and been up against more opponents.
The key for Manchester City is the midfield players who position themselves behind the first pressing line in the half-space and centre. Mendy can immediately play his pass. The diagonal staggering makes it more difficult for the opponent to cover the passing lanes. They do put pressure onto themselves with the pass back into the middle, but they are well enough positioned to escape the pressure and attack the open space.
The value of diagonal staggering and the resulting passing lanes should not be underestimated, as Adin Osmanbasic explains:
‘The value of diagonal play can be observed here. Diagonal passes eliminate both vertical and horizontal lines of the opponent defensive shape. This eliminates a large portion of the opponent players while moving towards their goal and attacking through a zone that is usually underloaded by the opponent. Also, when attacking the field from one side diagonally towards the other the players have a connection towards varied zones, like the flank or the center. While attacking from the center means you have the same option on either side’
In the following example, Liverpool manage to beat West Ham’s man-oriented pressing quite easily. As always, it is important that the player on the ball has support and that, with Keita, they have a player occupying the centre. In this way, you can easily get free of the opponent’s press and then play the ball into their weak spots.
You can also see here how many diagonal passing options James Milner has. This facilitates not only play with the ball and beating the press, it also helps with counter-pressing should the pass be intercepted. Liverpool overload this zone and, with their diagonal staggering, have immediate access to the opponent should the ball be lost.
It turns out that, although van Gaal’s four phases can be used as a simple division of the game, the phases should never be considered independently of each other. The game phases always influence each other.
The Half-Space Switch
Switching the play from one half-space to the other is a special kind of switch; therefore, I would like to dedicate a separate paragraph to it, especially since the half-space switch cannot be compared to a switch from the centre out to the wing, even though the ball passes through the same number of zones.
A switch between the half-spaces is strategically more useful since it offers many different passing options and many opponents find it difficult to defend attacks from the half-space. Four-man defences have particular problems with defending attacks from the half-space effectively. If you want to learn more about half-spaces, Rene Maric’s article is the one to read.
‘Switches between the half-spaces are therefore probably more effective from a strategic view because you move the ball from a space with which offers a lot of freedom to make decisions and possibilities to connect into two strategically differently areas of the pitch into another such space.’
Compared to switching it from the middle out to the wing, in the half-space you are still in a zone that provides a better angle of attack towards the goal. On the wing, the defending team can simply block passes back into the middle, this is not possible in the half-space as you can play the ball in more directions.
Another advantage of switching through the half-spaces is the fact that the game can be sped up a lot. We have already seen that the opponent is forced to constantly move with switches which makes it more likely for them to make mistakes.
Attacking options after a switch
As we saw at the start, you can create a 1v1 after a successful switch. Bayern Munich systematically used switches under Guardiola to get their talented wingers into a 1v1 against a weaker defender.
As is important before the switch, the team’s structure is also vital at the end of one. Changing the direction of play is useless if the receiving player is unable to cause danger with a dribble or pass.
In this example, the full-back receives the ball on the right wing after a switch. The blue team moved fast enough and the movements of the red team were anything but optimal. In the end, the defender had to play a complicated vertical pass down the wing under pressure.
Your objective should be to create new passing options as a result of the switch so that you continue the attack immediately. There are various situations that often occur as a result of a switch.
On one hand there are the already mentioned 1v1 duels and, of course, crosses into the box or passes between the lines. It is often easier to play past the opponent’s lines after a switch. Many defensive blocks do not move quick enough as the ball moves faster than the players which opens up gaps for the team on the ball.
Passes from the centre-back to the midfielders or strikers after a quick switch are probably the most common end-result. The goal of position play is to get past the opponent’s lines and changing the direction of play can help with this.
Manchester City, for example, often manage to create space following a switch and like to play a pass in between the lines to Agüero or Jesus, or, alternatively, to Silva or De Bruyne who then dribble into dangerous zones.
The attacking team becomes particularly dangerous if they plan the move after the switch against the direction in which the opponent will be moving, thereby using the opponent’s response against them. Examples of such moves would be diagonal passes between the lines, such as those that Liverpool, likes to use. Or they can simply involve a backward pass before the switch, as Bayern Munich liked to use. Their opponents would have usually began to drop deep due to the fear they had of Bayern’s attacker. This ended up creating space for the midfielders in the ball-near half-space. With this move, they could then continue the attack or rebuild from a strategically more advantageous position
In addition, switches present you with dynamic advantages. The best example of this would be a switch to a full-back or winger starting from their run from deep. They would have an advantage because they would receive the ball at speed and the opponent would still be moving horizontally.
Dortmund under Thomas Tuchel in particular used switches out to the full-backs, who arrived onto the ball with pace and were able to break beyond the opponent’s defensive line. This move is so dangerous as your team will be better prepared for movement as it is all planed. The opponent, on the other hand, has to switch from a rather static position to quickly shifting across horizontally.
Conclusion – Switches in possession
Switching the direction of play is a fundamental concept in football. In times of ball-oriented movement and compact defensive blocks, such switches must be well thought out and prepared. Should they be carried out correctly, the team on the ball can dominate the game and systematically force the opponent into making mistakes. The reason for which switches, for me, are one of the most important aspects in ball possession is easily explained with the following principle.
Everything is simpler when a player has time and space on the ball. Even the least talented player can be effective and dangerous in such a situation – any player is able to receive the ball and dribble towards the goal if they have time and aren’t under pressure. The trick is to get your best players into such situations so that they can display their qualities. In order to to create these situations, you first have to provoke pressure and then quickly switch the play. It’s actually a rather simple and basic concept. To finish with the words of Johan Cruyff
Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.
Book recommendations – Switches
If you want to learn more about positional play and switches in possession, we recommend the book Coaching Positional Play – “Expansive Football“ Attacking Tactics & Practices which deals with the concepts of positional play. In the book you receive insights on various concepts of positional play such:
- Support Play when the Ball is Out Wide
- Retaining a Balanced Formation in the Possession Phase
- The Transition from Attack to Defence.
- Switching the Point of Attack with Player Movement in the Final Third
- Technical/Tactical Actions for Attacking Through the Centre
As well as detailed practice drills. Definitely worth a read to get further insights into positional play.
Another great book we recommend is written by Lee Scott of totalfootballanalysis and deals with Pep Guardiola´s Manchester City and why the Citizens are so successful under the star coach. However, this book is not a normal football book talking about the season of Manchester City, it is more of a tactical analysis, explaining how the Guardiola-System works. For every fan of the beautiful game a must-read: Mastering the Premier League: The Tactical Concepts behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City