“See there’s a rule of life that says you’re either growing or you’re dying. The tree’s either growing or it’s dying. So’s grass. So’s a marriage. So’s a business. So’s a person.”
– Lou Holtz
Football is in an ever-evolving state. Most of the times in the smallest nuances, other times it can seem more revolutionary. We may see new ways of utilizing team tactics, it can be a different deployment of position specific principles or simply taking an existing idea to a new level.
In the coming weeks I will try to write a short series to recollect and share some of the things that has inspired me during the 2019/20 season which now seems to be cut short due to the current COVID-19 situation. I also invite you to comment or to question what you will read.
This series is by all means not meant to favor or prioritize any team or tendency over one another. The order of which I plan to develop the series are random at best. Also the content is meant to be short, sweet and to the point – leaving room for further exploration or discussion.
Let’s get this started…
The advancing center back
It might be considered a bit of a ‘hipster’s choice’ but especially within this season many teams have gone for a three at the back system. Within this tactical approach it has become more visible that teams allow one of the wider center backs to not only to participate but also to finalize the team’s attacking play. Specifically, with Sheffield United in the Premier League and Atalanta in the Serie A and Champions League.
Already in the 2018-19 season Sheffield United came to the attention of many when the club suddenly rose to the 2nd place of the Championship and secured a direct promotion to the Premier League 2019-20. This was in stark contrast to the 11th place the club had achieved in League One in 2015-16. Thus, completing two promotions within four years under the management of head coach Chris Wilder and assistant coach Alan Knill and with players like defenders Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, Kieron Freeman, midfielder John Fleck and striker Billy Sharp being an active part of the team all the way from League One to the Premier League. Astonishing.
But did they just continue the style of play from the Championship to the Premier League? The answer is yes, more or less.
As shown below, Wilder and Knill have made a small adjustment to the midfield while in the Premier League and are now employing a holding midfielder instead of an advanced. This could obviously be a tactical and more cautious move due to the higher level of the general opposition in the Premier League.
The following images contains examples of how Sheffield United allow their two wider center backs Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham to join in the attack. In many of the matches in the Championship – as depictured against Aston Villa – the runs were often in the wides zones. Going into the Premier League the focus is now much more going through the halfspaces, as seen against AFC Bournemouth and against Manchester City.
The club from Bergamo has not looked back once since Gian Gasperini took the helm at Atalanta in 2016. Quickly taking the club into top 4 in the Serie A for four consecutive seasons and qualified to the Champions League round of 16 for the first time ever in the club’s history.
Much of the attention has – rightly so – gone to the players up front; especially Alejandro Gómez, Duván Zapata and Josip Iličić for being the main contributors to Atalanta’s high scoring performance this season.
For me, however, the spotlight also needs to be cast on Gasparini’s favoured three at the back and the style of play that allows for a very dynamic positional play no matter which team they are up against. It is a somewhat clear priority for Atalanta to allow the center back who comes out of the back with the ball to go further up to achieve numerical superiority. Sometimes also in similar fashion as Sheffield United to finalize the attack.
In the first Champions League match against Valencia this was very evident and contributed in the first two goals.
To sum it up
When deploying three at the back the advanced center back can deliver a moment of surprise and momentarily provide a numerical superiority on a given location of the pitch. As seen with Sheffield United it has evolved from overlapping to underlapping and in the case of Atalanta it seems to be even more dynamic and allowing the players to interpret the situation – roughly speaking.
Another fascinating aspect of the evolving role of the center back is the time that both coaches have had to firstly implement a style of play that allows such exploration and nextly to use it without a clear compromise. In that way it has become a habitual trait no matter who plays the position and obviously gives the team a socio-affective superiority in many situations.
For me this opens the game and allows for new questions to be asked and answered; if/then and what/when. Cracking this can give new possibilities to structure a team in the different phases of the game which we know to influence each other throughout the effective playing time.
As mentioned in the very beginning: I invite you to comment or to question what you have read. I hope this maybe have inspired or intrigued you as it has me.
Nikolaj Hørby Kjeldsen
Head Coach U-17, AaB
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