Expansive football has drawn a lot of attention in the last two decades for its aesthetic expression of the game, tactical prowess and technical superiority. The reason is simple. Teams that dominate possession and are able to successfully maintain an attacking phase, look dominant, create more chances to score, and win more often than teams that don’t. Although there are numerous ways in which teams achieve an expansive football structure in their attacking phase, I attempt to simplify them in this article by categorizing them as low expansive or high expansive.
Most football formations depict how a team defends without the ball. However, when a team has possession of the ball, the players need to position themselves to make the field as big as possible. They need to exploit certain areas of the pitch that gives them more control over the opposition, such as the centre, or half spaces. The attacking team also needs to move relative to the structure presented by their opponents who are defending them. Here comes the importance of positioning advanced players between the lines and pinning back defenders with forwards. Finally, the buildup structure provides a platform to recycle possession and continue maintaining the attacking organization. This buildup structure depends on how the opposition presses from the front — with one, two or three strikers.
The basic elements of a positional formation remain constant — width, superiority, defensive cover. Thus we would expect any kind of expansive positional attack to have players positioned on the wings to stretch the width, between the lines to create superiority behind lines of pressure, and close support range that can immediately offer defensive cover if the ball is lost. So how does categorizing expansive structures into low or high expansive help us?
Although the static occupation of zones on the pitch look similar in both systems, the dynamic movement of the players affects opposition structures differently. At a glance, we can see that in high expansive structures, players move outward from the top and tuck inside from the bottom. In low expansive structures, players move outward from the bottom and tuck inside from the top. In most game scenarios, opposition markers will track down players in their zones. Thereby, the movement of players create spaces than can be exploited by teammates. As a consequence, different movement of players are bound to create different spaces to be exploited. Let’s look at their nuances in detail with each type of structure:
Low expansive model
This type of positional attack is typical to a lot of teams from Spain. The fullbacks strive to push higher up as wingers and stretch the width. This draws the centrebacks out wider, and the central pivot drops deeper as the third centreback. The wingers tuck inside and either pin back the last line of defenders or play between the lines.
A lot of room opens up in the lower half spaces that needs to be occupied by central midfielders. Quite often we see the fullback pass on their defensive responsibility to a central midfielder who covers for them as they push higher. We often see creative playmakers building up the play from deeper where there is more space.
A consequence of facing low expansive structures is that the opposition tends to get more compact at the back line. The overlapping fullback adds superiority on the wide lane and, along with the inverting winger, creates a 2v1 overload for the opposition fullback. To balance this overload, the opposition winger is forced to track back and collapses onto the backline if he gets pinned positionally.
The backline gets compressed and the midfielders or wingers get spread out trying to defend the overloads on the wings. A 4–5–1 easily turns into a 5–4–1. This creates space in the middle which is why a creative player can thrive from deep. Sevilla during the 2019 season were a perfect example of this system with Jesus Navas, the RB pushing high up as an attacking player and Ever Banega having a lot of freedom to create plays from deep.
As the fullbacks push higher up in the wide channels, the centrebacks are drawn out and forced to defend wide spaces. This requires atleast one central midfielder to balance the distances between the centrebacks either by splitting them, or playing alongside them. This central midfielder is usually the pivot. Bringing the central midfielder out of the centre and onto the backline tends to sacrifice his qualities as a midfielder to beat markers with his body orientation, break lines of press by receiving on the farther foot and creating superiority in the middle. Instead the team relies more on his distribution in low expansive formations. Pay close attention to Busquets as he adapts to different systems Barcelona uses against different opponents.
Low expansive structures also affect the movement of the striker and the spaces that open up for a striker to exploit. As the opposition defensive structure gets compact, there is less room for a striker to make behind the defensive line of the opposition. A striker finds other players pinning back defenders and is often an excessive addition against the backline. A striker who can play as a false nine, however, can find a lot of opportunities to drop deeper and receive the ball as there are more spaces in the centre with the dispersion of the opposition to the wings. We frequently see Messi playing this role in the current Barcelona system (2020–21).
High expansive model
This system is more recent than the former, famously reinvented by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. The wingers tend to play a more traditional role of hugging the touchline. The central midfielders push up high and play between the lines, while the fullbacks invert and defend central spaces left by the midfielders.
As the fullbacks invert and play more centrally, very often the centreback, in possession of the ball, looking to play around an opposition, finds the winger directly in the wide channel. It becomes a tempting prospect for the opposition fullback on the same side to track the winger dropping deep to receive the ball and apply pressure, because if the press is successful, the centreback could get easily isolated against a counter attack from the wide.
With no threat behind the fullback, he is free to neutralize the winger by closing down the space immediately. Thus, contrary to how low expansive structures tend to make the back line compact, high expansive structures tend to draw out the backline and disperse it.
In such situations, an advanced midfielder looks to exploit the dispersed backline by making runs along the half spaces or inside channels. This makes the opposition vulnerable to through balls as the spaces open up at the back. How often have we seen these runs made by De Bruyne at Manchester City? If low expansive structures open up spaces in lower half spaces, high expansive structures create room in higher half spaces.
Another difference to low expansive structures is the room created for the striker. The striker has a lot more freedom to attack the spaces created by a shifting backline and can position himself anywhere along the line. However, for the central midfielders to successfully occupy spaces between the lines, he most often needs to pin back specific defenders in certain instances.
The fullbacks need to be technically skilled to play in the centre as overloading the middle will tend to attract opposition midfielders to mark players. As the superiority is created in the middle, the spaces tend to open up on the wide areas, especially on the opposite flank. There needs to be a winger positioned on the opposite touchline ready for the switch as an overload is created on one side.
“Low expansive structures tend to make the back line compact, high expansive structures tend to draw out the backline and disperse it.”
This categorization is conceptual and based on logical interpretation of how spaces are created. Actual game scenarios tend to be a lot more complex. Team structures nowadays tend to be asymmetric even, having an overlapping fullback on one wing, and an inverted fullback on the other. The decision making involves the qualities and characteristics of players more than merely tactical reasoning.
If you notice, both these systems create a 3-at-the-back framework in two different ways. I deliberately chose the 4-man defence systems to explain these models, not to infer that 3-man defence systems are inflexible, but rather the oversimplified assumption that a 3–5–2 is inherently expansive with the dynamic role of wingbacks. Tactical intricacies to a 3-man-defence is not only possible based on concepts like superiorities and overloads, but commonly utilized by many teams like those of Tuchel, Conte and Nagelsmann.
Although conceptual, this categorization hopes to provide clues on opponent behavior based on which model we chose to attack with. The spaces that open up by virtue of a team’s formation is a consequence of small-sided games that play out in different zones of the pitch, a small example of which I demonstrated earlier in both models. The infinite possibilities and combinations are what makes the tactical framework of the game interesting.