I love football, especially, when a team plays an attractive and dominant style. That´s why I want to introduce you to Christian Fiel´s Dynamo Dresden. Usually, a middle-class team in the second German division, they caught my eye due to their modern and dominant approach – uncommon in the 2. Bundesliga.
Although, Dresden plays an attractive style of football (you are going to find an in-depth piece about their playing style soon on The False Fullback, although in German) the main reason I´m writing this article is the narrative that only the best teams with the best players can use positional play in order to be successful.
Especially, in Germany, the common view on football is characterized by the belief that only compact defensive combined with fast counter-attacks is the way small teams can be successful.
Of course, learning to attack by using specific concepts of positional play is probably harder than to defend deep and counter-attack, however, the long-term benefit of establishing a carefully planned offensive concept is probably higher.
In order to show you where a team like Dynamo Dresden can create advantages which will lead to more goals and more wins in the long team, I´m going to analyse their structure in the build-up and a real-world scene from their 4-2 loss against Karlsruher SC, the typical 4-4-2 counter-attack/long-ball team.
Creating superiority by positioning well
Before we dig into the specific scenes, I want to introduce you to the main concept of positional play, creating superiorities to end up in an advantageous situation.
There are different kinds of superiorities like qualitative, numerical and positional.
Qualitative superiority means getting your best players in their preferred spots against weaker opponents. The best example is a winger against a fullback. If Neymar is facing Matteo Darmian on the wing, his team has an advantage. It not necessarily has to be a dribbler on the wing, it could also be a taller striker in the box or a more skilled and intelligent midfielder in the centre.
Dynamo Dresden, for instance, does not have individual superior players, however, if one of their fast and skilled offensive players receives the ball between the lines against a taller but slower defender, he has an advantage.
Numerical superiority is self-explanatory. If you have a numeric advantage it is easier for you to play your way through the defence or score a goal in the box. Because the goalkeeper of the team in possession is more involved than the other goalkeeper, the team in possession naturally has a 11vs10 advantage. All the team in possession has to do is finding the free player by moving the ball intelligently.
Numerical superiority often occurs in a smaller context. For example, in the build-up, many teams either use a back-three or a midfielder who drops between the centre-backs in order to create a numerical advantage when they are pressed by two strikers.
Rarely teams play man-against-man in modern football because of the risks a man-vs-man approach has. In modern days era, teams try to close the ball near space leaving spaces on the far-side open. Therefore, numerical superiority can occur when the team in possession moves the ball quickly enough and finds those spaces.
The third form – and probably most difficult to understand – is positional superiority. Compared to qualitative and numerical superiority, it isn´t quite as visible. To have a positional advantage means to be better positioned than the opponent.
On an individual level, one could imagine the following scene. The team in possession has the ball on the left side, trying to cross it into the box. While the defender has to observe the ball and his opponent constantly, the striker can create a positional advantage by moving on the blind side of the defender, forcing him to either watch the ball or follow his movement. Consequently, once the cross arrives in the box, the striker is in the more advantageous position because he can see his opponent and the ball simultaneously.
This search for superiority should end in being in an advantageous position which either can be via a free man or another form of superiority. Certain tools are necessary in order to create those superiorities, we will identify a few, while analysing specific scenes of Dynamo Dresden. However, at this point we can conclude every team in possession should try to create superiorities because it will lead to more goals.
The article of Adin Osmanbasic gives further details of the topic of positional play
Furthermore, the tools in order to create superiorities are rather simple, however, the execution is difficult and depends on small details. Although you need technically gifted players, a few guidelines from the positional play would help every team, simply because even less skilled players can perform better in advantageous situations. Because one thing is crystal clear, having more time and space makes it easier for every player no matter which level of skill he has.
Positioning and applying pressure
Before I´m going to analyse one scene in detail, a quick introduction into the playing style of Dynamo Dresden. Under their coach Christian Fiel they are using a 5-2-3 formation which transforms into a 3-4-3/3-2-5 in possession with the wingbacks moving high up the pitch.
The structural advantages of Dresden
Because Dresden´s positioning and ball movement are very good, it is hard to press them effectively. On the other hand, Dynamo has several options to advance and create goalscoring opportunities because their build-up is well-structured.
For instance, the ball-near striker would press the LCB using his cover shadow to block the passing lane to the DM. In order to reach the DM nevertheless, Dresden could use the third-man concept. The second striker has to decide whether he wants to stay in his position in order to tighten the centre or press the CB immediately.
Even if the striker presses the CB, the diagonal passing options help the ball carrier to play a pass with the first touch to the DM.
If striker would stay deeper to cover the centre, the CB would still have the option to switch to the far side where the RCB would have space available.
The third possible scenario would be that the striker who pressed first would drop in order to close the passing lane to the left DM of Dresden while the other striker presses the CB. Then, a pass directly back to the LCB would help Dynamo because the LCB would have more space available.
The possibilities of playing through the centre
One could ask himself whether the defensive midfielders of Karlsruhe could simply press the DMs of Dresden. While this is possible, the numerical superiority of Dresden in the centre, gives them multiple other options to progress the ball.
For instance, Dresden focuses on the movement without the ball and constantly uses tools like the third-man concept to free-up a player. In order to use the third-man concept, it is important that the midfielders do not stay on the same horizontal line. Again, diagonal passing lanes offer multiple advantages for the team in possession. Diagonal passes are naturally harder to press because the receiver often faces the opponent´s goal.
In this particular scene, the DM closer to the ball can move higher, creating space between the line of strikers and midfielders of Karlsruhe. Although KSC´s DM can apply pressure immediately, the DM of Dresden can escape this situation with a simple layoff pass. Here, we can see the use of the third-man concept in a simple example in order to get behind the first line of pressure.
The DM who receives the ball, in the end, is in an advantageous situation because he not only has the necessary space to operate but he also faces the opponent´s goal once he receives the ball. Once again, the numerical superiority of Dresden in the centre leads to tremendous advantages. The striker in the yellow-marked space can be reached immediately after the DM receives the ball facing the opponent´s goal. Due to the overload in the last line (Together with the wing-backs, Dresden forms a 5v4 situation) the striker can destabilize the defence with a simple layoff pass if one of the centre-backs is following him.
This leaves the second DM of Karlsruhe in a precarious situation. Either he steps up pressing the DM of Dresden who receives the layoff pass, risking that he is too late and gets overplayed. Or he stays, trying to close the space but leaving the DM of Dresden with time and space in order to plan the next attacking move of the Saxonians. Furthermore, if he tries to press, his timing has to be perfect, if he starts too early, the DM who plays the layoff pass does not have to play that one but rather can use the space. If he is too later, Dresden´s second DM has already too much time controlling the ball.
Positional superiority against a 4-4-2 – the halfspace progression
However, the well-structured build-up of Dresden offers further advantages and routes the ball could travel. Important to add here is that the clear guidelines in positioning are crucial for the success of Dresden in terms of advancing the ball in higher zones.
This situation perfectly shows the positional superiority established by Dynamo. Although, the scene presents a 3v3 situation on the left-side, the positioning of Dresden´s players created different options. If Karlsruhe closes down one, another opens. In fact, this is probably one of the best definitions for superiority. No matter how the defence tries to defend it, the team with the ball just have to choose another route helping them to advance.
“It’s a game of position, not possession! It’s about how you place yourself in relation to the others on the field when you have the ball and where you should be so that you can continue pressing when you lose it.”– Domènec Torrent, Ex Guardiola Assistant
The positioning of Dresden leads to positional superiority in this scene. While Karlsruhe defends with two players on the same vertical line, Dresden sets up a triangle leading to diagonal passing options for the centre-back. Therefore, the centre-back has three passing options he can use depending on the movement of the right-winger and right-back of Karlsruhe.
First of all, the pass to the wingback is the first option for the left centre-back, however, also the less threatful for the opponent because the wing is naturally a space where the defensive team has the advantage of using the sideline to defend, resulting in isolations for the ball carrier.
Nevertheless, a pass to the wing can be still useful. Especially, when the player occupying that space is positioned high-up the pitch. Then a team faces the trade-off between overplaying a defensive line or gaining more space. Furthermore, a quick change in rhythm can catch the defence out of position. For instance, a pass to the wing could mean an extreme increase in the speed at which the attack is played. When the wingback increases the speed once he receives the ball and the offensive players sprint into depth, the defence can make two mistakes. Either they aren´t able to defend a throughball quickly enough or they fall too fast leaving space in the centre for the defensive midfielders of the team in possession.
Therefore, the defence can´t completely ignore the wingback and only focus on defending the centre. By moving out of position, the right-back or the right-winger of KSC can press, however, the positional superiority of Dresden adds a cost to every movement of KSC´s players because it opens other passing lanes.
When the RW of Karlsruhe (marked red) moves out to press, he has to orient towards the side earlier enough. If not, the wingback of Dresden would have too much time to overplay him. Therefore, the space available for a pass between the lanes to the LW. This is one of the passes regularly observable during Dresden´s build-up.
Once the LW receives the ball he has the advantage because he has the inside line, while the right-back is positioned wider due to the threat provided by the wingback. The ball near centre-back faces the striker because Dresden has the numerical superiority in the last line. Although he could press the LW, the striker of Dresden would receive more space. Alternatively, the ball near DM of Karlsruhe could close the passing line. Then it would be most profitable for Dresden to switch to the other side or attack the centre via the CB.
There are several additional options for Dresden when they establish an even superior positioning. Quite often their back-three stays rather flat instead of diagonally. Although the angle to pass the ball to the DM would be less optimal, Dresden´s halfbacks could hurt the defence even more if they move slightly forward. This position can be established by either advancing with the ball or being already in that position.
Now, the striker of Karlsruhe has a harder time pressing the centre-back effectively because the halfspace is open for a dribbling. Due to the fact that the striker would have to press more from the side, the CB can protect the ball easier.
When the LW of Dresden moves more to the left side and pulls the FB with him, the striker can be a potential passing option for the ball carrier causing issues for KSC while applying pressure which leaves open spaces somewhere else.
Furthermore, once the fullback of Karlsruhe focuses too much on the movement to the sideline in order to press, the LW can always start a run behind the defence and Dresden can use a long ball to hurt the defence. Therefore, several different options to advance arise due to the positional superiority of Dresden in this zone.
Applying pressure and the third-man concept
The first scene against Karlsruhe illustrates why applying pressure by dribbling and passing the ball into tight spaces is crucial. After switching the ball from the left halfspace to the right, their right-centre back moves forward while getting pressed by Karlsruhe´s striker.
Due to the back-three of Dresden and the two central midfielders moving in the channels Karlsruhe struggled to press the build-up effectively. The diagonal passing options created helped Dresden to overplay the first line of pressure. Due to the diagonality in build-up, the strikers couldn´t use their cover shadows effectively. Dresden not only created numerical but also positional superiority due to their positioning and patient ball circulation.
Here, the left centre-back of Dresden was pressed by the right-winger of Karlsruhe. Consequently, the switched the ball to the other side to make use of potential open spaces.
Due to two midfielders in the centre, both strikers of KSC had to hold their position in order to close the passing lane into the midfield. Therefore, they could start their run once the ball travelled to the next centre-back which gave Dresden´s players a few seconds to control the ball. This little extra time made the difference between reacting to Karlsruhe´s pressing or actively trying to use the space which was opened due to the higher pressing.
“Positional Play consists of generating superiorities out of the defensive line against those who are pressing you. Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean.”Juan Manuel Lillo
As we could see, Dresden already created numerical superiority in the first line, according to Juan Manuel Lillo – one of the teachers of Pep Guardiola – crucial in order to attack effectively.
Furthermore, the centre-back moved aggressively forward with the ball once the striker tried to press him. By doing this, the centre-back draws not only attention towards him but also put pressure on the defence. Because at one point they have to press him, consequently their attention was drawn towards him leaving his teammates open.
Besides the action taken by the right centre-back, the structure of Dresden gave the ball carrier enough passing options. Although the DM was hardly reachable due to the pressure applied by the striker, the centre-back had still the option to pass it wide or to look for the striker between the lines.
The right wingback was the obvious option, consequently, the midfielders focused on pressing Patrick Ebert – on the right. Here, another important point Dresden does well in general. Due to their balanced structure, they are able to move the opponent which opens holes in the defence.
Dynamo Dresden does this in particular very well, it´s not about the movement of the ball. Moving the ball is only a tool in order to move the opponent. By doing this, you force them to constantly adjust their position which leads to mistakes made over the course of 90 minutes.
“The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.”Pep Guardiola
Moreover, the objective of positional play is to break through opponents’ lines. In this example, Dresden executed this thought nicely. Instead of passing the ball out wide and giving the opponent the possibility to press with the help of the sideline, the right centre-back plays a great pass between the lines to the striker. The fact that Karlsruhe had to shift to their left-side helped to open that space. The winger of Karlsruhe speculated whether the pass would be played to the wing, while the defensive midfielder oriented towards Dresden´s defensive midfielder. Consequently, the passing lane to the striker opened.
Because of the pass between the lines, Dresden applied pressure. This is another crucial principle of positional play. Sometimes you have to apply pressure by passing the ball in dangerous spaces in order to open room somewhere else.
As a consequence, the defence of Karlsruhe tried to press and taking advantage of the situational overload in the red marked space. However, the positioning of the striker allowed him to use several routes in order to hurt the defence. For one, his diagonal body position allowed him to turn around quickly and use the space behind the centre-back.
Important to add here is that it is the ball-far centre-back who had to follow the striker, therefore, he was diagonally behind, and the striker had the advantage to turn in either diagonal direction without giving the centre-back a possibility of intercepting.
The reason why the ball-far centre-back had to push out was the numerical superiority Dresden created by pushing the wingbacks high up the pitch. As a consequence, the left-back of KSC had to defend the RWB while the RW of Dynamo was able to occupy the ball-near CB.
Another advantage of the numerical superiority for Dresden was the space created on the far-side. Interestingly, the KSC midfielder who pushed forward to press the back-three didn´t cover his position properly giving the LCB a tone of space on the left.
Therefore, the striker of Dresden had three options to hurt the defence applying the third man concept. Both would make use of the numerical superiority Dresden created. Either he plays a layoff pass to the DM who could easily switch to the left side (blue space), or the striker would try to play the throughball to the right-winger and therefore taking advantage of the space opened. Also, the left-winger performed a diagonal run offering another option while simultaneously opening space on the left. The third option would be to start dribbling and disbalance the defender who tried to press him.
The last option named could be a perfect example of qualitative superiority. The CB was taller and slower and less mobile than the attacker, thus, giving the striker the advantage of acceleration and agility. He could simply use the speed of the CB to unbalance him by quickly turning in one direction with the perfect timing.
However, the numerical superiority in the last line can have one major disadvantage in this situation. Only two players can apply pressure immediately after losing the ball while Karlsruhe has more players to play out of that situation. Furthermore, the high position of the right centre-back offers KSC open space to play a long ball into. One of the weaknesses of Dresden so far this season.
This scene should show you how many possibilities and advantages arise from a more structured approach with the ball, especially adapting the principles of positional play. Those once like creating superiorities, using switches to move the opponent or incorporating the third-man concept into the build-up can be extremely valuable for every team.
Of course, it always depends on the quality of the players. If you only have physical strong but technical weak players, this approach is probably inferior to one focused on long balls and winning the duels to gain the second ball. However, even in the lowest leagues, a better structure and clear guidelines in possession can help every player. In the end, football is always about time and space. Everything is easier when you have time and space to control a ball and make a decision.