Is there going to be any tactical innovation in the future, or did we reach the end of any development? Interestingly, this question is asked regularly on Twitter. In my opinion, it does not take into account why tactical “innovations” happen in the first place.
No coach in world-football simply tries something new because he thinks this would be fun, contrary to every innovation one tries to solve a problem. To apply the definition of innovation to football one has to extend it because there are two motives why a coach creates a new pressing structure or changes the positioning of one of his players in a new way. One motive, of course, is to solve a problem, however, creating a problem for your opponent is also possible. As we know everything in football is connected, so we can conclude that solving a problem of your own team leads to a new challenge for the opposing team.
Let´s assume your team struggles to get behind the lines of the opponent and you, therefore, change the structure in possession. Pep Guardiola, for instance, introduced the inverted fullback during his time at Bayern because his team stuck into circulating the ball in an u-shape.
If you want to learn more about tactical innovations in football, the book by Jonathan Wilson is a brilliant starting point. In this book, he covers all the great teams during the history of football and for example, explains how La Maquina worked or why Ajax was so successful with Total football.
Or you try to press the build-up of your opponent effectively. Therefore, you maybe use a different positioning of your players. For example, Leverkusen under Lewandowski once noticed that most of the teams they faced would build-up through the halfspace. Therefore, their 4-3-3 pressing focused on closing this space.
However, everything in football is connected and therefore we can´t clearly distinguish between creating and solving problems because the approach a team selects depends on the characteristics of each player, but details are adjusted depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent. In the end, the goal is to win more games than before and not to try fancy tactical stuff.
In this piece, I want to discuss a formation used during the defensive phase which causes problems for many teams, and therefore, the strategic use of this formation during the pressing phase could be seen as an innovation. Although it is not used widely, a few are quite successful with it. As you may guess due to the title, it´s the diamond in midfield. Specifically, I want to discuss why pressing in a 4-3-1-2 causes so many problems for the build-up of the team in possession.
Therefore, I´m going to show you strength and weaknesses and the different ways teams used the diamond in pressing in order to regain the ball high up the pitch. For those of you who follow European football carefully, it´s no surprise that the main focus lies on RB Salzburg under Marco Rose, however, also other teams like RB Leipzig or Wolfsberger AC used/use the diamond quite successfully.
The centre is the key to control the game
This seems to be common sense that in order to control the game you have to control the centre, however, not necessarily with the ball. By using the diamond, the focused area of pressing is the centre. Because by creating a numerical overload the opponent has to either play through tight spaces or try to find other routes into the central space in front of the opponent´s defence often referred to as zone 14.
By closing the centre, the team out of possession has a major advantage because they can isolate certain players more easily. In football, the centre is the space which allows a continuation of play in every direction. Therefore, it is crucial to advance into the half of the opponent and to connect both wing-zones and the halfspaces.
One of the main strengths of using a 4-3-1-2 during the defensive phase is the fact that the centre, as well as the halfspaces, are covered while the players are positioned diagonally to each other. In order to understand why this is an advantage one has to understand the three different directions, a pass can be played as well as the pro and con of each pass.
There are three types of passes in football:
While a horizontal pass is quite safe, it does not generate any gain of space. Different to the vertical pass, however, here the opponent can press more easily because the receiver will most likely receive the ball with his back to the goal, however, the team in possession can advance into higher zones.
The diagonal pass more or less combines the strengths of horizontal and vertical pass. For one by passing the ball diagonally you can gain space, however, it is harder to press because the ball usually goes through different zones covered by different players and simultaneously can break through different lines. Furthermore, the receiver faces the goal of the opponent giving him a quicker overview of the structure of the specific situation.
Therefore, a diagonal pass changes the location of play both vertically and horizontally.
A diamond in pressing closes most of the diagonal passing option due to the players being positioned diagonally to each other. As a consequence, it is harder for the defenders to play penetrating passes behind the first pressing line.
Especially when the opponent is playing with two defensive midfielders against a diamond, the team which uses the diamond has the advantage that they close effectively every passing lane and multiple players are close to the defensive midfielders which eventually helps to press them.
For instance, in the example above, the striker closes the passing lane to the midfielders while the number ten can cover the space behind or orient towards one midfielder. That’s why the triangle of the number ten and the strikers is so important. Not only does it close the diagonal passing lanes in the sixth space but also protects the player who is pressing. If the three players do shift correctly, every switch can be pressed immediately with two other players covering the space behind.
Doubling or tripling as well as closing the space available in every direction is no problem because of the structure in the centre. Here, the right and left midfielder can have different tasks. For instance, to defend the defensive midfielders or the central midfielder of the opponent depending on the formation used. Or they are positioned wider, simply closing the halfspaces and pressing aggressively once the ball travels to the wing.
To do so, the anchor of the diamond, the number six, is crucial. Although it depends on the interpretation of the diamond, he is the one filling the gaps and closing the passing lanes while being able to move out of position quickly if necessary.
Especially the connections between each midfielder due to the short distance allows a team using the diamond to create an extremely compact defensive shape in the centre. Besides that, the system is quite flexible, for example against a back-three it is easy to move from the diamond to a flat 4-3-3 with the strikers closing the halfspaces as Leipzig did against Hertha BSC last season.
While the Wolfsberger AC Gerhard Struber created a 4-3-1-2 with the three midfielders playing on the same horizontal line quite often due to different man-orientations, RB Salzburg under Marco Rose used the central midfielders in a slightly higher position creating a 4-1-2-1-2. However, this always depends on the shape used by the opponent.
Now one could argue that the wing zones are the weakness of the diamond, while this is partly true due to the lack of players there, however, the structure allows teams to easily press at the wing by isolating the ball carrier.
Dynamically closing space – the idea of space and time
The lack of coverage on the wing seems to be one of the reasons only a few coaches select this formation during the defensive phase. However, Johan Cruyff once said that every disadvantage has its advantage. This also applies for the 4-diamond-2, because the space on the wing can actually be one of the major threats for the team in possession.
In order to understand this paradox, we have to introduce the concept of a dynamic game which football is, although when people start thinking about football tactics, they start by talking about formations. I did this mistake as well, and I would say that formations still matter, but not the one you see at the beginning of every tv broadcast. It is more about the formation in every phase of the game as well as the movements in it.
So, for instance, a 4-4-2 during a high press does not have any meaning without context. It depends on the movement of each player. However, it can be helpful to take the formation as the starting point of the explanation as well as an approximation of the spaces covered due to the positioning of the players. The problem with formations is, that they convey static although football is a dynamic sport.
Especially, during the pressing phase, the dynamic is better than static.
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If I would simply shift all the time without pressuring the ball carrier, the team in possession would have an easy life advancing with the ball because they would have time which leads to better technical execution and decision making.
On the contrary, if you attack your opponent dynamically, time and space change quickly forcing the ball carrier to make quick decisions in a constantly changing environment. Consequently, more mistake will be made leading to turnovers and counter-attacking possibilities.
Take this example as an illustration of the dynamics created due to the open space. Mukiele receives the ball wide due to the space available, however, this past functioned as a trigger for Schalke 04. As you can see, multiple players have access to this space and are therefore able to isolate the right-back of Leipzig.
Once the pass is played towards Mukiele, Schalke starts pressing aggressively. By timing their moves so perfectly, they make use of the short time span in which Mukiele aligns his body and controls the ball. Consequently, between the last checking and the ball control, the environment in which Mukiele is, has completely changed. As a consequence, he has to orient again while not having the necessary amount of time leading to worse decision-making.
This principle of early anticipation and therefore immediate pressure isn´t exclusively reserved for the pressing in a diamond but is used in every formation. However, the diamond in midfield favours those situations due to the different spaces covered.
Now there are several ways of pressing with the diamond at the wing. For one it depends on the philosophy and risk-aversion of a team, the positioning of the opponent plays a crucial role too. As one could observe at RB Salzburg, the striker was often the one forcing the centre-back to play the pass to the wing to the fullback. Consequently, the striker would apply pressure by continuing his run simultaneously using his cover shadow to block the passing lane to the centre-back.
The fullback now would be either pressed by the fullback or central midfielder depending on different factors. Usually, the fullback of Salzburg anticipated the pass and once the ball travelled to the fullback of the opponent, he would start his run and dynamically close the space. Two important things that needed to be considered. The timing and speed of the fullback are crucial. If he starts too late or too early, he can easily be outplayed or the pass won´t come in the first place. If he is too fast, the ball carrier can use a quick body feint to unbalance him, if he is too slow, it gives the receiving player enough time to turn and make a decision.
Moreover, the central midfielder had to be in a position to close the diagonal passing lane which the fullback can´t close. At the same time, he has the possibility to press the ball near number six of the opponent. By using his cover shadow, the fullback has the task to close the vertical passing lane down the line. In order to cover the space, the centre-back orients towards the hole and could eventually take on the winger of the opponent. Lastly, the number ten closes the horizontal pass in the centre leading to high compactness for Salzburg at the wing with lots of passing lanes blocked and a diagonal shape covering the space behind.
Alternatively, the central midfielder can press aggressively at the wing as we could see in the scene of Schalke against Leipzig. The Wolfsberger AC under Struber used this movement as well. It gives you a better-secured wing-zone but makes you more vulnerable in the centre because you have one man less. Especially, when the central midfielder does not have the perfect timing, the number six can have a hard time covering the space left, giving the opponent the chance to play through the centre.
Lastly, the specific movement depends to a huge extent on the positioning of the opponent. For instance, if the centre-backs of the opponent are positioned relatively wide and they use the goalkeeper to create a back-three the striker might start his pressing run more diagonally out of the centre, having the defensive midfielder of the opponent in his cover shadow. Then, the central midfielder of the team defending can push outwards to press more easily because the risk of getting exposed is lower.
Pressing triggers – the advantage of pressing with a diamond
Interestingly, several teams which use the diamond not only force the opponent to the side what seems to be a common-sense across many countries but rather force him inwards into the centre. Logically, the overload centrally playing in the 4-diamond-2 is the major reason. Nevertheless, it is worth discussing both forcing inwards and outwards.
The reason why most teams try to force their opponents to the side is simple. The sideline helps to defend because it limits the available space for the attacking team. As a consequence, the defending team is able to isolate the ball carrier more easily because they only have to close five directions instead of eight (vertical both directions, horizontal, diagonally forwards and backwards). Usually, three players are enough to literally close every available passing lane for the ball carrier while pressing him.
Furthermore, the forcing of the opponent to the side has the advantage that the concept of pressing through is applicable by the striker. With pressing through I mean that one player presses the ball carrier dynamically but does not stop his run when the ball carrier passes the ball to a teammate but continues pressing and consequently leaving the passer in his cover shadow.
By forcing the opponent in the centre of the pitch, it is possible to use the numerical superiority to press. The 4-diamond-2 is perfectly prepared to press in the centre of the pitch due to the diagonal structure in place.
In order to understand a few principles in pressing with the diamond, it is worth taking a look at different teams using the 4-diamond-2 mainly RB Salzburg under Marco Rose and Wolfsberger AC under Gerhard Struber.
Ways to dictate the direction of play
To start things, we can take a look at the pressing of Wolfsberger AC. Wolfsberg´s strikers press the centre-backs with curved runs from the outside, therefore forcing the opponent in the centre of the pitch directly. This leaves the centre-backs of the opponent in a position in which they get pressed quickly and have to decide quickly in an environment uncomfortable for every last man.
The big advantage of pressing from the wing towards the centre is that the ball carrier is usually forced on his weak foot. Usually, the right centre-back is right-footed while the left centre-back prefers his left foot. When the striker presses inwards, he actually presses from the side of the strong foot of the centre-back. Therefore, he is not able to protect the ball unless he uses his weak switches to his weak foot – quite often centre-backs have only one strong foot. As a consequence, the team pressing has an advantage.
Furthermore, the ball carrier is under immense pressure because the diamond closes the passing lanes to his central midfielders while he is pressed by Wolfsberg´s strikers. Quite often, the horizontal pass to his partner is the only option along with a long ball. However, then the same movements happen again. Because the ball far striker of Wolfsberg closed the halfspace while orienting towards the deeper fullback, he can immediately start a curved run and forces the centre-back inwards again. Only this time, the other striker is closer and along with the number ten able to press aggressively.
By using those movements during the pressing phase, Wolfsberg applies the principle of denying the switch and effectively isolating a player. Because of their pressing movements, the pitch gets slowly tighter for the team in possession. Mistakes appear more frequently, and a calm and coordinated build-up is not possible anymore. Here, I want to stress how important the use of the cover shadow is, something every coach should teach his players.
Interestingly, Salzburg under Marco Rose used similar movements, although with a significant difference. While the ball near striker also presses from the outside in order to force the switch, Salzburg reacted differently. The second striker would press more from the inside to the outside, forcing the opponent to the wing.
Therefore, he often waits in a slightly deeper position starting his run once the pass is played rather than waiting for the pass. Again, this creates more dynamic pressure as well as a more compact shape centrally. However, it always depends on positioning, body position and height of the pressing line.
The difference to the pressing of Wolfsberg? Salzburg creates even more dynamic by forcing the opponent in one direction. This allows the players to continue their runs once a pass is played instead of changing direction. Furthermore, the opponent only finds space at the wing, consequently, they have to pass the ball in that zone. Of course, by pressing through, Salzburg is able to isolate the fullback/winger receiving the ball on the wing.
How to react once the first line of pressure is overplayed?
Logically, it is unrealistic that the opponent always plays around the diamond and never finds a hole in the defence. Therefore, it is necessary to know how a team using the 4-diamond-2 can react.
On the one hand, the diamond provides a numerical overload against most teams in the centre of the pitch, along with the diagonal structure, many passing lanes are still closed for the opponent once the first line is overplayed. Besides, the strikers can quickly press from behind creating high local compactness.
A good example would be a pass from the fullback in the space behind the strikers. Here, the team using the diamond against the ball is still able to press with the central midfielder and the number ten while the number six covers space behind and the strikers can recover. More dangerously would be a pass behind the central midfielder, although the defensive midfielder as the anchor of the diamond would still be able to press quickly along with the centre-back pushing out. Essentially, this is one of the biggest risks, when defending with the diamond. Because once the central midfielder is pulled out of the centre, the compactness is lost and the team in possession can play quick diagonal passes against the direction in which the defensive block shifts.
While the diamond provides a high degree of local compactness, the overload in the centre has a downside. The far side is less well covered compared to a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 against the ball. Therefore, the main goal should be to prevent switches especially to the far halfspace in your own half because it makes one vulnerable and one loses a lot of energy because of the long ways to shift.
The goal should be to either gain the ball as quickly as possible in the centre or push the opponent towards the wing and out of the dangerous spaces. Then, the normal pressing movements can begin again.
In conclusion, the diamond is an interesting formation to use during the defensive phase because it essentially covers the most important spaces in modern football while giving team flexibility to change the system quickly according to the structure of the opponent.
However, simply using a diamond is not enough. Compactness, isolation of the opponent and pressing with a clear plan in mind is essential to take advantage of the various options a diamond provides. That’s why I wanted to present you certain movements and ideas teams like RB Salzburg use in pressing. Essentially, those principles are best used in a diamond. So it is more about the philosophy and the players why a team should choose the 4-diamond-2.