Inability to break Birmingham’s compactness frustrates Wigan

A laborious Wigan Athletic hosted Birmingham City in a fiercely contested Championship affair that ended 1-1. The visitors defended well to protect their lead until late on, but substitute Craig Davies snatched the equaliser for The Latics. Birmingham showed some good foundations of an effective away side, whereas Wigan showed good tactical flexibility that might see them through the season.

Wigan came into the match with hopes of securing a consecutive home win after defeating a lacklustre Blackburn side 3-0 at the weekend, in which The Latics performed well for the duration of the game, and boss Caldwell would have been most impressed by how his side took control defensively. However, such is the diversity of the league that Birmingham posed very different question’s to Caldwell’s men. Looking to build on their 2-1 away win at Leeds, Gary Rowett’s side proved a tougher nut to crack.

From the first whistle, it was clear to see that Birmingham had come to defend. Defending in a compact 4-1-4-1 shape, the visitors didn’t afford Wigan much space in the centre of the pitch. Wigan’s strategy to counter this was questionable, though, and they made themselves easy to defend against due to the predictability of their patterns of play and lack of tempo changes when circulating the ball. The Latics fielded a back three, so naturally found space to the sides of striker Clayton Donaldson when circulating the ball, even when Donaldson was joined by midfielder Davis during the press.

Common prob
Wigan often lacked presence in central areas, leading to stagnant build-up play.
Unlike his right-sided counterpart Morgan, Warnock more often than not used his initiative to drive into the empty space in front of him in the left half space to progress the ball up the field. However, Warnock lacked options ahead of him and was forced to pass wide to makeshift wing-back Perkins early in the build up.
Due to Birmingham’s good spacing and shifting towards the ball, coupled with the lack of Wigan presence behind the opposition midfield, Perkins was restricted to either playing the ball back to the nearest centre back or infield to Power or Powell, who would bounce the ball back into defence due to being pressured. Nick Powell often occupied the same passing lane as Max Power and would have been more effective if deployed higher up the pitch, but Birmingham were very content with shifting from side-to-side and pressing the ball carrier, and Wigan’s switches of play were largely ineffective. Yanic Wildschut was Wigan’s most prominent outlet early on in the match, drifting into wide left areas and using his strong 1v1 ability to get the better of Spector.

ubt
Using an up-back-through mechanism can create space in central areas.
Wigan needed more presence behind the opposition midfield line, and this could have been achieved by sacrificing a centre back and bringing on Jacobs as a number 10. Wigan’s early build-up play would not have suffered from losing a defender as Birmingham only really pressed the back line with one player, rarely with two, and Max Power could support the defence to progress play. Moving Nick Powell higher up the pitch would provide numerous benefits for Wigan. Firstly, this would enable Wigan to play through their opponents rather than around them, moving the ball into areas that would increase chance creation. This could have been done against Birmingham by using Gilbey and Powell in an up-back-through mechanism to create space in the centre, which may have proved fruitful if combined with an overload on Birmingham’s defensive midfield space. Birmingham played a zonal marking system with man-orientation, which meant that overloading Kieftenbeld’s zone would have caused problems. Second of all, having Powell higher up the pitch would provide more support for Grigg, and his presence between the lines could occupy defenders to free up the likes of Wildschut and Gilbey more often. Thirdly, Powell moving higher up the pitch would afford more space and time to Max Power in deeper areas, who could then find players in front of him more effectively. One of the greatest benefits of Powell playing higher would be the increased level of connectedness in the team: Powell could drift wide to support the wing-backs and combine with either Wildschut or Gilbey to provide an overload when the ball is in wide areas, and switches of play would be more easily executed.

powell
Keeping a back three and utilising Powell (circled) higher up provides more options for the ball carrier, potential overload situations, and allows for easier switches of play.
Nick Powell has the potential to be a dynamic player but his positioning is often questionable. In early build up against Birmingham he would often provide a very similar passing option as Power, which in turn reduced the space for either of them receiving the ball and restricted Wigan moving the ball into key advanced areas. Powell is more effective further up the pitch due to his ability on the ball in tight spaces, which reflected in Wigan’s equaliser, where he played in Grigg, who crossed to Davies for the goal.

goalCaldwell stuck to a three-man defence, though, and his decision to bring on Craig Davies rescued a point for the home side. As the game went on and Birmingham began to sat deeper, Wigan pushed for an equaliser but also looked quite fatigued. For a five minute spell, Wigan were playing in a 3-1-2-4 shape, with Powell joining Grigg up front, Wildschut and Jacobs playing extremely high and wide, and Power sitting behind Gilbey & MacDonald. This shape meant that Wigan were able to sustain pressure on Birmingham’s defence due to having better spacing and thus a faster, more effective circulation was possible, but the away side still closed important spaces. Wigan’s tiredness showed as their midfield struggled to continuously support attacks, which led to Caldwell changing strategy. Ultimately, the introduction of Davies meant both of Birmingham’s centre back were simultaneously occupied for the first time in the match, which led to the sub sneaking in at the back post to score a deserved goal.

Birmingham had taken a controversial lead on the stroke of half time, which was surprising as not only did they have very little possession, but their deep shape and compactness meant that they rarely had an outlet when they won the ball back, so struggled to keep the ball well. However, when they opened up their shape and countered quickly, they were effective, hitting the woodwork twice. Their lead was controversial, though, as Donaldson appeared to be offside before winning a penalty from Bogdan. Not only that, but Davis, who scored from the rebound, had encroached in the box before the penalty had been taken. That is not to take away from Birmingham’s display, mind, as they defended very well for the majority of the match. They largely restricted Wigan to play in wide areas and forced them to use crosses as a means of creating chances, which proved ineffective as Wigan lacked numbers in high areas and Grigg was not all that successful in the air. Their defensive strategy may not prevail against teams with superior movement, though.

Despite Grigg’s impressive hold-up play (for his physical stature), he is often outnumbered and isolated when receiving the ball, and a main focus point for Wigan will be the need to work on finding players in space behind the opposition midfield to improve their chance creation, as opposed to relying on the dribbling ability of Wildschut and using crossing from deep as a strategy.

In Defence of Literal Translation – Counterpressing and Half Spaces

The progressive rise of interest in tactics has sparked much debate on social networks such as Twitter, with a considerable proportion of the debate centred around new terms such as ‘counterpressing’ and ‘half spaces’. Alongside the growth of interest in tactics is the self-labelled ‘modern’ Twitter coach – one that insists upon being forward thinking and open minded. However, despite the preachings of modern philosophies, there seems to be dissension over such new tactical terms.

It appears that some Twitter coaches, those not in favour of new terms, cannot actually grasp the concepts and thus believe that excellent writers like Rene Maric of Spielverlagerung are simply rebranding concepts that already exist. For example, there has been confusion over the differences between high pressing and counterpressing, and channels and half spaces. To put the record straight, each term represents a different concept: high pressing is not the same as counterpressing, nor are channels the same as half spaces.

Counterpressing – what’s all the fuss about?

Apparently, counterpressing is a new term to describe high pressing, which means it is no more than a rebrand of the same concept, perhaps made up to help coaches and writers sound fancy. Rumour has is that the word is used in Germany, which, you know, makes it a buzzword. That is, of course, if you believe the ignorance implied on Twitter.

The term counterpressing is actually a literal translation of the German word ‘gegenpressing’, which means pressing in the moment of defensive transition. That is, the moment the team in possession loses the ball, they press as opposed to getting into a deeper defensive shape. There are variations of counterpressing (leeway-oriented, access-oriented, passing lane-oriented and ball-oriented (once again, these are literal translations and not ‘fancy phrases’)), which can be read about in great detail here.

“But Jamie, this doesn’t sound like the same as high pressing, so why are so many people confused?”

The only explanation for the confusion I can think of is that due to counterpressing occurring in defensive transition, possession is often lost high up the pitch, meaning that defensive transitions start high up and therefore so does the pressing.

“So it’s basically high pressing then, right?”

Yes and no – context is key. If a team loses the ball high up the pitch and counterpresses then, yes, it is, in a way, high pressing. Alternatively, if a team loses possession in midfield or an even deeper area and still counterpresses, it is not high pressing but it is still counterpressing. ‘High pressing’ describes any type of pressing that occurs high up the pitch, whether that be in the defensive transition moment or defensive organisation moment, and that is probably where the confusion derives from.

The term’s popularity has come from its repeated use in media circles, tactics bloggers and – you bet – on the pitch. Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, RB Salzburg, Ajax and Bayer Leverkusen have all used counterpressing in recent seasons with varying degrees of success and the high intensity aspect of it unsurprisingly encapsulates onlookers, not least for its entertainment value but for the appreciation of football intelligence on show.

How can there be half of a space?

If you thought counterpressing and high pressing was easy to mix up, then you have a lot of reading to do when it comes to half spaces and channels. I will gladly admit that I previously comprehended the terms ‘half space’ and ‘channel’ wrongly in the past, in this analysis of Atletico Madrid (in this image – I thought that the space between the centre back and full back was a half space, how wrong I was). After reading, re-reading and asking on Twitter, this piece on half spaces finally provoked my brain to make sense of a concept that I initially overcomplicated.

My initial interpretation of half spaces, embarrassingly, was that they were channels. Thankfully, an epiphany moment saved the day and it finally clicked, to me at least, that half spaces are categorically not channels. The term half space translates literally, again, from a German term, ‘halbraum’. Much to the horror of fascist Twitter coaches, this unfortunately means that the term is not an ornate way of describing a channel, but rather a literal translation and nothing more. As Rene Maric pointed out, it is as good a term that is going to exist for the actual concept, as terms such as ‘half zone’ and ‘pre-wing space’ just don’t fit well.

Half spaces and channels have been muddled all too much. There are two half spaces on every football pitch on the planet, similar to how there are two wings and one centre on every football pitch on the planet – half spaces are merely fixed vertical strips in between the centre and the wings. By fixed, this means that the actual zone that the half space exists in does not move, regardless of team shape. That’s easy to understand, no? Why the confusion with channels? Well, channels are the gaps (or spaces) between players, and the most popular or well-known channel is the one between the centre back and full back. I can almost hear the shout of “work the channel” from that obscure Sunday League match right now. The commonly known centre back-full back channel often resides where the half space does, which has led to confusion and controversy amongst other things.

The half spaces are fixed vertical strips that move for nobody. Not Lionel Messi or Tony Hibbert. Nobody.
The half spaces are fixed vertical strips that move for nobody. Not Lionel Messi nor Tony Hibbert. Nobody.
Channels exist between players in central areas too, not just in half spaces or the wings. The space between the blue centre backs (above) is a channel, as is  the space between the red left centre back and left back, both of which are in the central area of the pitch and not the half spaces.  Hopefully that example has cleared up much of the confusion between channels and half spaces, which could lead to enhanced knowledge and potentially better coaching.

The term half space has been used by the German FA for years and more recently by top coaches in the form of Jurgen Klopp and Lucien Favre, not just by narcissistic tactics bloggers. If the world’s best coaching organisation and proven managers are talking about half spaces, why the hell shouldn’t you and I?

Usefulness in coaching

Understanding the concepts of counterpressing and half spaces can make you a better coach. Ever heard of the saying, “knowledge is power”? Rubbish – applied knowledge is power. Knowing the difference between counterpressing and high pressing, the variations of it and its benefits and drawbacks can be largely useful as a coach. Imagine knowing how to coach individuals and teams how to use one of the most powerful answers to possession-oriented football. Sessions could focus on training the rapid shift in mentality from attack to defence, or could revolve around the type of counterpressing to be used; and seeing players embrace a modern way of playing would be truly rewarding.

Knowing the strategical benefits of half spaces in offensive and defensive moments would improve a system if applied correctly during training. For example, a session focusing on the positioning of players could have emphasis on certain players occupying a half space in various different phases of offensive organisation, which could lead to improved stability and connectivity in possession, as well as improved balance in transition. Applying the importance of half spaces could work wonders in defensive moments by facilitating the use of pressing traps (e.g. Wingers being half-space oriented in early opposition build up to isolate the wings before overloading when shifting over), better team shape and – heck – counterpressing could be worked on simultaneously.

Twitter coaches’ biggest gripe seems to be that players would not know what such terms are, but as long as the coach ensures that players understand the actual concepts and the reasons for using them, it doesn’t matter how they are termed. There is no law stating that a coach has to call it counterpressing or a half space, but, for the sake of football, embrace concepts that are being delved into.

Overcomplicating football? No. Understanding football and being a better coach? That’s your choice.

Bayern’s Unorthodox Full Backs: The ‘False’ 2 & 3?

Pep Guardiola has yet again found success with the implementation of a ‘false’ position, this time with reigning European champions Bayern Munich. What is a false position, then? It could be argued that is an innovative twist on orthodox duties carried out by a player who functions for short periods of time in a traditional position, moving to other positions, such as between the lines, to either receive the ball, create overloads, and/or create space for teammates. In the case of the False 9, the example of Messi would involve him functioning as high as a traditional centre forward at times, but he would be found mostly in between the lines or drifting wide, more often than not dragging an oblivious centre back with him. The first time Messi functioned as a False 9 he was flanked by Pedro and David Villa.

A simple analogy of one of the many ways the False 9 can create space for others.
A simple analogy of one of the many ways the False 9 can create space for others.

The duties a full back has to perform in the modern era are arguably the most challenging the position has ever faced. Stamina is a prerequisite for any player hoping to succeed as a modern full back, supporting attacks more willingly than ever before whilst also having to perform standard defensive duties. A full back arguably faces its most difficult, energy conserving time in defensive transition. The lung-busting sprints back into defence from advanced wide positions seem a lot more demanding than providing an overlap. Trust me.

Guardiola is against building up play in deep wide positions, which is where the modern full back is positioned in early build up, due to the invitation of pressure it brings. Pressing against the sidelines is a common feature of Europe’s successful teams, namely Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, so it would be wise to avoid losing possession of the ball easily. The objective of Pep’s sides is to initially build play in the centre; Martinez, Lahm and Schweinsteiger have all been used as a pivot this season, dropping between the centre backs to collect the ball or create space for their midfield counterparts.

Guardiola, then, being Guardiola, has innovated and adapted Bayern’s full backs’ roles to suit his principles. In a typical expansive 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 shape, the centre backs split to the edge of the box, the full backs go touchline wide and join the midfield line, and the wingers come narrow into the half spaces between the opposition’s full backs and centre backs. Bayern do use this shape initially but movement from the full backs and wingers shows how Pep has challenged the dogma of full backs constantly providing width.

A typical version of a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 in the initial stages of build up. More like a 2-1-4-3/2-3-2-3.
A typical version of a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 in the initial stages of build up. More like a 2-1-4-3/2-3-2-3.

Build up play and the encouragement of counterpressing

Here’s Guardiola’s take: When a centre back is pressed, Bayern’s full back will move laterally into the half space from width, whilst the winger ahead of them will provide situational width. Imagine Boateng has received the ball from Rafinha and is about to play a pass to Dante, who will be pressed upon receiving the ball (below).

Dante is about to receive the ball and will be pressed by the opposition's left winger.
Dante is about to receive the ball and will be pressed by the opposition’s left winger.

Most coaches would insist that in such a situation, Kroos (above) should drop into the space to receive the ball, bouncing it to either Lahm or Ribery if he is pressured from behind or if he doesn’t check his shoulders. Instead, Guardiola prefers his central midfielders to be higher up, reducing the chances of the opposition recovering the ball in deep central areas.

By using his covering shadow, the opposition winger has blocked off the passing lane from Dante to Ribery (above). In a modern 4-3-3/4-1-4-1, Alaba would be where Ribery is and Ribery would be higher up, and the passing lane into width would still be blocked off. However, in Bayern’s case, Alaba moves laterally into the half space to receive the ball whilst Ribery provides situational width.

The opposition's winger blocks off a passing lane to Ribery.
The opposition’s winger blocks off a passing lane to Ribery.

Alaba will likely have more time on the ball than if Lahm or Kroos moved into the space due to him being unmarked, and Kroos is allowed to be higher up. If the nearest central midfielder presses Alaba, Kroos can find space between the lines and/or in the half space between the opposition’s centre back and full back. When this press occurs, space could be found centrally should the opposition shift across too slowly or if they are too narrow and ball-orientated on Rafinha’s side of the pitch. Muller or Kroos could receive the ball high up if Bayern pass up, back and through the central space. This could be done by Alaba playing a simple pass to Lahm, who could find Muller or Kroos with quick rhythm.

Muller or Kroos can receive the ball in high areas through good circulation of the ball, underpinned by good positional play.
Muller or Kroos can receive the ball in high areas through good circulation of the ball, underpinned by good positional play.

A key feature of the positioning of the ‘false’ full back is the increased potential to initiate a counterpress should the ball be lost in deep central areas. If Alaba (above) loses the ball, he can be joined immediately by Lahm and Kroos who have the potential to block surrounding passing lanes, blocking 3 angles in a 3v1 overload situation. The most important zone in defending, the centre, is occupied with more bodies than in a system using orthodox full backs.

Building up play with a central drop in

Under Guardiola, the pivot drops in between the centre backs when he is pressured from behind or is blocked by an opponent’s cover shadow. This movement sparks the two central midfielders to provide opposite movements ahead of the pivot should he receive the ball, which creates space for them to receive in.

Bayern's shape with a central drop in from the pivot and opposite movements from midfielders.
Bayern’s shape with a central drop in from the pivot and opposite movements from midfielders.

The common coach would accept that the opposition have done well to block off passes to short central options in Schweinsteiger and Lahm, so a pass out wide to Alaba is the only viable option. Remember though, building up play initially in wide areas goes against Guardiola’s principles; a pass wide would invite pressure and losing the ball would be a likely consequence.

Bayern now have more space to work with.
Bayern have avoided pressure and now have more space to work with.

Bayern have broke through the first wave of pressure with Alaba moving into the half space, able to receive without being immediately pressed. The innovation doesn’t end there, though. Come on, this is Pep Guardiola at work here. The ‘false’ full back doesn’t only function more centrally in initial build up but also in attacking areas, often ahead of the winger.

Attacking aspects of the false full back against different shapes

The previous examples have shown Bayern playing against a proactive team and how they can play out of pressure. So, how do the full backs’ duties change when facing a low block? Many teams’ defensive shape when deep is 4-4-2, whilst some prefer 4-5-1. In some cases, a progression of 4-2-3-1 in possession is a 4-4-2 defensive shape when in a high block with the #10 joining the striker before moving back to join the midfield line, creating a 4-5-1, when in a low block.

A rebellion from the dogma of the full back always providing width: The 'false' full back is often higher than the winger.
A rebellion from the dogma of the full back always providing width: The ‘false’ full back is often higher than the winger.

In the case of playing against a low block 4-4-2, the ‘false’ full back looks to affect the game in high areas by attacking half spaces. Imagine Schweinsteiger (above) has passed the ball to Lahm after receiving from Rafinha. This switch of play triggers movement from Ribery to provide deeper width, and Alaba moves high through the half space. Ribery can receive the ball, potentially and most ideally dragging the opposition full back with him, to pass to Alaba who is in the half space.

The vulnerable half space is taken advantage of by the marauding 'false' full back.
The vulnerable half space is taken advantage of by the marauding ‘false’ full back.

Against a low block 4-5-1, the ‘false’ full back would function very similarly. But with any good ‘tiki-taka’ system, positional changes are made and one change affects the positioning of all others. Robben (below) is wide to offer a passing angle for Rafinha but also to stretch the opposition defence as the switch is about to occur. Lahm, Kroos and Schweinsteiger join the midfield line and ensure that they are man-marked to allow space for the pass from Rafinha to Dante. The positioning of Muller, though, is excellent here. Your standard lone striker would probably stay central between the centre backs in the situation below, but Muller positions himself on the left back as he knows the ball is about to be switched.

As the ball eventually gets to Alaba, the opposition left back faces the problem of having Muller and Robben to occupy, whilst the right-sided centre back will have to engage Alaba, leaving the opposition’s left-hand side vulnerable to any sort of movement.

An excellent situation for Bayern: The opposition's defence is vulnerable to any movement from the right.
An excellent situation for Bayern: The opposition’s defence is vulnerable to any movement from the right.

It must be said, though, that most of the movements shown in this article have to be timed to precision in order to be successful. Pep, once again, has potentially sparked debate and change in the footballing world with the implementation of ‘false’ full backs. The question that remains is in the title of this article: Can Bayern’s full backs be regarded as a false 2 & 3? Personally, i don’t think so. Bayern’s full backs simply have extra duties to perform and although the dogma of full backs providing width is challenged, it isn’t as if they operate so differently to the orthodox modern full back that they can be regarded as false*.

A perhaps more important question for teams in Germany and Europe is what approach can be taken to limit the effect of Bayern’s unorthodox 2 & 3.

* – Football hipsters may disagree.