Redefining the keeper position

There’s nothing new about a sweeper-keeper. A goalkeeper who plays as a sweeper and supports the team in possession is quite common in modern football. Most teams demand technical profiles while recruiting keepers who are calm in possession right from the moment the ball is rolled into play and the opponents press them well into the team’s own defensive third. But Tim Walter takes it a step further and uses his keeper in a role similar to the powerplay phase in futsal. I take the case of Daniel Heuer Fernandes, the goalkeeper at Hamburg, to explore this positional innovation deeper.

A look at Fernandes’ involvement depicts how far he drifts outside his penalty area leaving his goal open to participate in possession. The players’ average positions during the game shows the goalkeeper’s average position well outside the box.

Meanwhile from his passmap, we see the number of passes he plays at the base of his defensive structure, often slotting in as an extra defender during build up. The passes are played from almost all areas outside the box in the defensive third, and occasionally, even the middle third.

An extreme moment was against Bremen with Hamburg under pressure to equalise, had their GK play key passes in the opponent’s half in the final minutes.


The principles of play involving the keeper is based on the rotations that are trademark of Walter’s teams. Both at Kiel and Stuttgart, his teams build up from the back using dynamic rotations that constantly create positional superiority in the midfield and create a free man to play out of. Understanding the movement these rotations create along with its underlying principle sheds more light on the specific demands of the GK as a libero in certain moments.

Let’s take a situation where the CB on the right side is in possession of the ball building out of a 4-2-3-1 and the opponents have picked a moment to press them in a ball-oriented manner closing all near options and denying them an opportunity to switch sides.

The opponent CF closes down the ball carrier, the LM the RB and the CM the pivot. The CB could play the ball to the other CB in the adjacent channel, but the AM is not far off to close him down either. In most situations, the CB would either look to play the ball long to the forwards or play back to the GK to regain superiority at the cost of moving backwards.

However, in Walter’s rotations, the CB plays the ball sideways and then pushes up. By doing so the CB immediately creates positional superiority behind the first line of press. Simultaneously, a player from the midfield, the CM or a fullback who had previously pushed up, drops lower to become the free man. These rotations are quite similar to the 4-0 or 3-1 rotations in futsal where positional superiority outweighs numerical superiority since the area is smaller and it’s always 4v4.

Notice how in this movement, the GK slides over to the right to create a better angle in possession. GKs by instinct try to always protect their goal and hence position themselves always along a line connecting the nearest threat and the centre of their goal, the shortest route back to safety in case of an error in possession. But in this game model, the GK has a more sophisticated role to facilitate possession by creating the right passing angles. By sliding to the right, the GK slowly shifts up into c3 providing numerical superiority.

Following this rotation, the opponents have two choices – either to continue pressing high or to hold and protect the centre. If the opponents press high as in this case depicted below, the space in the middle between the lines opens up. Here, the AM positioned in c4 is free to receive a line-breaking pass and turn towards goal to attack. Numerical superiority is held in c3 with a 3v1 against the opponent CF.

If the opponents fall back with the aim of protecting the spaces in the centre and denying room to receive between the lines, the build up continues through the free man in the rotation and Hamburg are able to push higher up using their GK. Numerical superiority is still maintained and the CM can always pass it back to the GK for safety.

The objective is to win superiority in each zone – be it numerical, positional or qualitative. Had the GK been positioned deeper in his area, the opponents would have been more encouraged to press the players in c3 despite the movements to generate the free man, forcing the play back to the GK. However, since the GK is higher up in c3, he immediately provides that superiority won through short passes. Instead of having the players protect the goal and maintain possession, in this philosophy, it’s the superiority generated that does the job. Therefore, it doesn’t matter where the GK is positioned as long as the team wins superiority.


The keeper often supports the central defenders by acting as a sweeper between them. This libero role, seen in the game model of many other teams, enables the CBs to split wider apart and push higher up in search for a progressive pass without the risk of being outnumbered by the opponent forwards who press. Hamburg also create a back-three while building up with Fernandes playing libero between his CBs.

The distinctive attribute though, of Fernandes’ role as a sweeper-keeper, is how high he pushes out of his box, almost into the middle third as we see below, leaving his goal wide open. This allows forward players to occupy strategic spaces giving positional superiority.

The build up is maintained using rotation of players at the back creating constant triangles or diamond structures to outnumber the opponent forwards who press.

Even though the keeper leaves his goal unattended, the belief of the team is that there isn’t a threat as long as they have possession of the ball. With this belief, every time Hamburg is in position, the goalkeeper quickly transforms into an outfield player and plays with his feet outside the box.


A known fact is that the team in possession has the possibility of using their keeper as a passing option, but the team out of possession cannot use their keeper as a pressing option. Hence the team in possession always holds overall numerical superiority. This logic has been used in building out of the back with the keeper to ensure a clean ‘exit’ out of the opponent’s high press. Tim Walter takes this a step further and involves the keeper not only in the build up phase but also the construction phase in the centre of the field. This effectively results in an overall numerical superiority for Hamburg in the most important part of the pitch.

Involving the keeper in the build up in pivotal role almost as an extra CB means one player can push further up to occupy a positional role. This is a huge advantage as the extra player has the liberty to position between the lines or allow one of the forwards to pin back the defensive line instead of dropping back to help out in the build up. The fluid rotations allow the players to exchange roles dynamically through their movement.

In this example above, the GK helps win 3v2 superiority in zone b3 while the players in c3 are engaging in rotations during build up. Further up Hamburg have three players pinning back the defensive line, two offering width in the wide channels and two players positioned at different heights between the lines. Having the extra player really helps the team to hold positional superiority further up giving them a big advantage in possession.

It definitely carries the risk of inviting a moment of high man-oriented press where a loss of possession almost certainly results in giving away a cheap goal. However, the positional advantage is quite big for Hamburg, and if built up well, the opponents struggle to press one player short and are constantly pinned back having to defend all the spaces in the middle.


The need for goalkeeper to occupy the right spaces in possession to facilitate better passing angles is usually limited to the penalty area when they are attempting to play out of a high press. Once the team is further up, the GK usually plays as a sweeper to collect loose balls played out. In Hamburg’s system the positioning of the goalkeeper is even more crucial to be involved so actively in keeping possession outside the penalty area. We’ve seen evidence of this in his passmap earlier as well.

Take this case below, as his CB picks up the ball in the outside channel, the GK needs to occupy the adjacent channel by drifting further wide and high rather than deeper as a GK would conventionally do.

This positional behaviour, similar to what a CB would do, is important to facilitate the right passing angle to build out. It also allows the outfield players like the RB to stay higher up and wider in the outside channel. Had the GK sat deeper, it would have encouraged the opponent to jump right away.

Positioning also allows to create more advantageous situations of numerical superiority in general. It’s intuitive to understand that a 3v2 superiority holds more advantage if the players are positioned in a triangle rather than a straight line, or a 2v1 if the players are at a good distance and not directly behind each other. The same logic applies if the keeper is one of the players creating the superiority.

In the example above, since the CB is in one of the inside channels, the GK creates more advantage by occupying the other vertical channel rather than if both are positioned in the same channel. Thus the GK has to move wider like another CB to make a better passing angle to surrounding teammates.

We see a similar case in the game against Bremen as well, where in a very unorthodox manner, the GK leaves his spot in front of goal to offer the right passing lane in the adjacent channel and help build up with a 2v1 superiority.


Opponents hesitate to accept the invitation to press with an open goal ahead because the extra player positioned somewhere deeper can immediately create a threat in transition with one vertical line breaking pass.

Look at this situation below where the opponents have a potential 2v2 pressing situation in b3. The two forwards can jump and press the GK and the CB with an open goal in behind.

But if you notice in the second frame, the CF still scans to check the space he leaves behind if he presses because when playing against a team having that extra player somewhere, you simply can’t allow passes through the middle as the entire back line is pinned back by forwards.

We see the consequences of leaving spaces in the centre to jump in the next example. Here the opponents decide to engage in a high man-oriented press with the GK outside his area.

Hamburg manage to play out of the press and a few seconds later engage in a an attacking transition with the opponents’ back line pinned 4v4. The costs of being unsuccessful in the press is conceding crucial spaces in the centre with Hamburg’s forwards in position to transition with numerical and positional advantage.


Walter’s system is a fresh innovation that redefines the role in which goalkeepers have been used in the game. Although teams that like to dominate with the ball are already familiar with the ball-playing keeper who is comfortable with the ball at his/her feet, Hamburg’s employment of the keeper in the attacking phase opens up a Pandora’s box in how spaces can be exploited when they have the ball. They tend to dominate most of the possession, and having the extra player further up immensely helps in pinning back the opponents, who are reluctant to jump out of their structure to press.

In Hamburg’s case, the results do not correspond to the game model they like to play with because of lack of finishing when in front of goal or getting caught out of organisation defensively. Regardless of this, Walter’s model at Hamburg offers plenty of ideas for teams looking to dominate possession in the same way, especially during build up and construction and are worthy of greater attention in tactical circles.

The dynamic nature of space on the pitch

Space and time are the two most commonly utilised words in the vocabulary of football. The game of football involves players with personalities and physical attributes who are constantly moving, and their positions affect the free spaces which the opposition looks to recognise and exploit in order to progress the ball towards the goal. Therefore, success in the game is attributed to the accurate interpretation of these spaces by players during the game. 

The coach has the responsibility of conceiving a game model through which all the players of the team can easily recognise those spaces. The interpretation is however not merely an individual objective. Success in executing the game model or plan also demands that a group of players, or ideally the whole team interpret the same spaces in the same way. This means that at any moment in time, two or more observers in different positions on the pitch must interpret the nature of the same space with fairly high consistency. As a coach or an analyst, your role is to see spaces in the same manner that players do, despite having a very different vantage point off the pitch. If you want to convey your ideas using the lexicon of space in football, it is imperative to understand the nature of those spaces to achieve similar consistency in their interpretation. 

Football analytics has progressed to the point that using tracking data and pitch control, it is able to formulate the mathematical space occupied by every player on the pitch to great accuracy. Nevertheless, when it comes to analysing how the game is perceived in the mind of a player, current mathematical models have a lot more variables still to consider to accurately interpret spaces the same way that players see them on the pitch. 

Abstractness of space beyond geometry

The issue with attempting to achieve an objective analysis of space in football is its abstractness. Space on a pitch doesn’t exist the way it is usually depicted by coaches on a tactic board. Every player who has played the game understands this. A coach’s tactic board represents the players as 22 identical circular objects and their positions define the space available to play. For example, space between the lines is represented by the area of a trapezium bound by the positions of the four defending players (two defenders and two midfielders). When a coach illustrates this space at half time in the dressing room, it is a static two-dimensional eucledian space determined only by the cartesian coordinates of four identical circular board magnets.

During the game, space in terms of its physical properties is not static. Space is dynamic. It is not only bound by the positional coordinates of the players at that particular instant but also their momenta. The speed and direction along with the body profile of each player influences each individual player’s momentum which subsequently influences the space held by the players. Furthermore, apart from the spatial variables, there is also the variable of time. Space in football exists only at a certain moment in time and is rapidly changing in relation to time. This dynamic property of space means that it is always transforming. Hence, to understand spaces, it is necessary to understand how the spaces are transforming with time and not just their geometry at any instant in time. 

There are other variables that also affect the space such as the momentum of the ball, and the weather conditions and the pitch conditions. Subsequently, if the player looks for a teammate to pass the ball, the momentum of the teammate and the body profile are also taken into consideration to calculate the space to play a specific type of pass. During the game, players constantly perceive spaces on the pitch taking into account all these variables intuitively and simultaneously.

We call this “phase spaces” and is defined by: where the ball is, what situation it is in, where the opponents are, the distances between the ball and the opponents and our own players, the trajectories made by each player and each opponent and the ball, the way the game is oriented, the organization that the game has. And all of this constitutes only a game situation that lasts a tenth or two tenths of a second. The moment the ball changes from site, change the players and a new situation appears. And likewise successively.

― Paco Seirul·lo,
on his theory of ‘Phase Spaces’ (Espacios de Fase)

In the first example with the help of tactical illustrations, we see a situation where the CB who has received the ball from the left side of the pitch is looking to switch the play to the right. Positioned in the inside channel, the CB has two players in the outside channel, the RW and the RB.

The game model requires the RB to create superiority behind the line of press by moving into a position between the lines. For the RB to offer a passing option to the CB, the space between the lines needs to be interpreted. In this situation, we commonly define the space between the lines as the area of the trapezium whose vertices are the four opponent players – a, b, c and d. This is how we expect the coach or analyst to illustrate this space to explain the game model on the tactic board.

However, during the game, the players do not perceive this space as a static geometrical shape. It is perceived dynamically by also considering the momenta of the four players – pa, pb pc and pd respectively. Note that the teammates, the CB carrying the ball and the RW are also in motion and have their individual momenta pCB and pRW respectively, which influences the behaviour of the opponents a, b, c or d and subsequently affects the space for the RB to receive the pass.

The momentum of an object is conventionally represented by the letter p. It is the product of two quantities, the object’s mass (m) and its velocity (v): p=mv

Thus, we see that the space between the lines the RB and CB perceives is a dynamic entity in motion that undergoes instantaneous transformation. For the RB to receive the ball successfully, we have to consider how the space changes in relation to the movement of the RB with a momentum of pRB and the motion of the ball, pball, when the pass is played. The space changes if the opponents react to the actions of the RB and CB.

Hence, these two need to pick the right moment in time to execute the action while the space remains relatively constant due to the inertia of the moving opponents. (Newton’s first law of motion or law of inertia states that an object in a state of rest or motion continues to do so unless acted upon by an external force). Note that the position and movement of the RW in this situation is necessary for partly maintaining the space as constant for a longer time period by pinning back the defensive line formed by c and d

Now let’s look at this tactical illustration one frame further, after the pass has been played. The manner in which the actions of the CB (the passer) and the RB (the receiver) influences the nature of the dynamic space and their perception of it, determines the actions that follow. Depending on how the RB perceives the space, he/she may decide to receive it with a touch and play it directly to the CF facing the same direction of momentum, or turn and look to play a deep pass into the space in behind on the outside channel for the RW. 

As with the spaces between the lines, bound by the positions of the opponents, the spaces in behind are also influenced by the momentum of the players. If the previous example demonstrated how the motion of players of the same team influences the space, here we see the case of space being influenced by two opposing players. For the space behind the opponent d to be viable, it is necessary for d to jump with a momentum pd (press leaving the position in the defensive line) and for the CF to be in diagonal momentum pCF to attack the space. The sum of these opposing motions (along with the position of the last defender d) impacts the viability of the space. Similarly, the space on the outside channel is influenced by the momenta of pc and pRW, both who are competing to win the same space. In this case, the one who is quicker to recognise the space and react by accelerating to it wins the space. For the sake of consistency of using the jargon of physics, here acceleration (or more accurately – Force, f) is defined as the rate of change of momentum with time. Players respond to changing situations by rapidly accelerating and decelerating using the forces generated by their musculature.

The representation of players as circular objects having the same physical properties leads us into believing that they are able to move in all directions with the same magnitude and quality. Although it serves for simplicity while explaining tactics, I posit rather that the players are better represented having an anatomical orientation. This way it is easier to understand through intuition that a player can accelerate in a forward direction faster than sidewards or backwards. It also factors the law of inertia which provides a better interpretation of spaces in tactical illustrations.

The representation of the same example as above, but with anatomical orientation of the players conveys more information about the nature of spaces during the game

I dive into another example to illustrate how body orientation and motion affects the nature of space. Let’s take a 2v2 situation of a CM progressing with the ball in attacking transition against defenders a and b, with a teammate LW on the left.

The CM targets to play a pass through the defenders targeting the wide space on the outside channel. He/she predicts that the LW, despite being onside while the pass is played, has sufficient forward momentum to meet the pass in the targeted space. Let’s assume that the CM, right footed, decides to play the pass on the ground with the inside of the foot that curls inwards into the path of the LW. 

Although the defenders a and b are separated by a physical distance of 10 metres, the space to play the pass through isn’t defined by the mathematical value of 10 metres. In the first case, we look at what happens when the defender a is tracking back with a momentum of pa and the defender b who is facing the oncoming CM decides to step forward with a momentum of pb. The space to play the pass through is closing in and effectively less than 10 metres considering the time it takes for the ball to pass through the defenders with a momentum of pball.

In another case, we see the defender b tracking back the run of a third player CF with a forward momentum of pb. Here, the space to play the pass is expanding although the distance between the defenders at this moment is still 10 metres. Considering the momentum of the ball pball and the defender pb, the pass will pass through with greater success because of a bigger gap. Thus, we see how the body orientation of the players and their directional momentum influences spaces on the pitch.

Contemporary football is familiar with the use of Voronoi diagrams to mathematically calculate the space occupied by each player at any instant. In mathematics, a Voronoi diagram is a partitioning of a plane into regions based on distance to points in a specific subset of the plane. Using tracking data of players positions during the game, coaches and analysts hope to objectively identify spaces in opposition structures that they can exploit and adjust their players positioning during different phases of the game better. 

Above is a Voronoi diagram of two teams, the blues in attacking phase playing entirely in the half of the reds who are currently defending. I would like to zoom into a specific part of the pitch on the left where the left winger from the blue is positioned on the shoulder of the right back from the reds. 

The mathematical Voronoi generated suggests that the left winger occupies a major area of the outside channel including the space behind the defence compared to the right back, a. But if we look at the body profiles of the players along with their directional momenta instead of viewing them as circular points (from which the Voronoi was generated), we see that the LW is only able to gain superiority in the space in the outside channel with a forward body orientation and an initial forward momentum pLW which gives the LW an advantage over the defender a with a back/sidewards momentum pa.

It is easy to understand this scenario intuitively from the perspective of the CM who is on the ball. For the CM, the space behind the defence is only viable if the LW is in forward motion towards that space. On the contrary, if the LW is oriented backwards without initial motion, facing in the same direction as the RB, the CM cannot play a pass to gain the same advantage as before.

In this case, the CM doesn’t view the space in behind in the same way, although the positions of all the players are exactly the same as they were earlier. As the body orientation of the player is different, the subsequent spatial configuration should also change so as to favour the defender a than the LW. Here I have manually adjusted the geometry of the Voronoi to portray the disadvantage for the attacking team purely because of the body orientation and momentum factor.

The Voronoi diagram does not take into account the position of the ball, the speed of the players or which way they are facing, which invalidates any conclusions that are drawn from it. Pitch Control, an alternative created by William Spearman, Lead Data Scientist at Liverpool FC, is much better at estimating the probability of successful passes, and evaluating the passing options of a player.

It is undoubtedly a great tool to view how the players occupy spaces in any instant and analyse their probabilistic pass options. Nevertheless I find it still far from predicting how players interpret spaces during the game. The science calculates the variables that take place on the pitch as they happen, but players anticipate what will happen in the future time. A forward can make a double movement and the space he/she wins as a consequence is not in the direction of the initial movement, but rather the second movement. The player has seen this space and anticipated the movement long before executing it.

How players conceive space-time models

So far I attempted to explain the dynamic nature of space and how players perceive them during the game. But the game is played by displacement of the ball. As the players are mostly occupied with tracking and technically manipulating the ball, they aren’t able to observe this dynamic transformation of spaces the way you have just visualized previously as an analyst. Instead, through periodically scanning their surroundings, they construct a panorama in their heads with multiple images. This panorama helps them conceive a space-time model. A space-time model is a prediction of how space-time will transform in the near future. The closer the model is to how the space-time is in reality, the better the player is able to choose the right action during the game.

One can never know with perfect accuracy both of the two important factors which determine the movement of an object — its position and its momentum.

— Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle

As a player if you scan something in your surroundings moving at a particular momentum p, even when you look away you are able to predict its position after a certain time t. A player is constantly predicting the positions of everything in the surroundings – teammates, opponents and even the ball – while not observing them. Assuming that everything on the pitch obeys the laws of classical mechanics, the simple kinematic equations of motion helps calculate the same results that players do intuitively without any background in physics! Furthermore, the results are not as important as the ideas of space-time that are conceived during the game.

Kinematic equations of motion in physics

Let’s look at an instance of the blues looking to progress the ball up the pitch with the CB carrying the ball out of the back.

The CM is currently a free option to pass the ball to. For the CM to recognise that he/she could be a progressive outlet for the CB, the CB needs to estimate the nature of the space by scanning the surroundings.

Upon scanning, the blue CM observes the opponent red CM starting to press with an initial momentum pCM. This pressing action in the surroundings effectively changes the space that blue CM initially had to receive the ball. 

Although the blue CM has scanned and identified the oncoming press from behind, while looking away towards the ball, the CM needs to predict how much space he/she will have by the time the ball arrives. This would depend on both the momentum of the marker pCM and the ball pball and their respective distances.

By conceiving a space-time model that predicts what will happen by the time the ball reaches the CM, he/she will decide whether to play the pass back first touch, or to turn and progress the ball further to the AM. The space-time model also gives a sense of where the pressure is coming from which helps orient the CM with the right body profile. The accuracy of this model ensures a successful action that is both safe in terms of keeping possession and advantageous to the blue team. This is also an example of contracting space as a result of markers closing in. 

As another instance of space-time modelling, I take the instance of the RB in possession of the ball on the right side of the field. The opponents engage in a ball-oriented press trying to forcing the RB to either play the long ball or play backwards. The CM on the right outside channel steps forward to provide a narrow outlet for the RB in the space bound by the surrounding markers. 

On the inside channel, the AM is man-marked by the red CM. So, when the AM tries to move behind the line of pressure in front of the red defence, the CM follows closely. This creates space centrally in the inside channel behind the red CF who angles his/her run to press the situation on the right. The blue CM on the right who steps up, scans and observes the motion of the AM clearing up the space and the other CM on the left who is moving forward into that space behind the red CF. 

When the blue CM on the right receives the pass from the RB, he/she can securely play the pass behind the press of the red CF into the space being created. The space-time model predicts the motion of the players affecting the space and presents a viable opportunity for the CM to play the pass to the fellow CM in the centre. The initial scan detects the momentum of the fellow blue CM and predicts his/her position in the next frame where the pass can be played to break through the press. Although in the previous frame the space appears to be smaller, the movement of the AM and the marker away from it and the angled motion of the CF shows how the space is expanding.

Players use predictive space-time models to manipulate the perception of space-time by surrounding players. Take the example of la pausa, where a player delays his/her action for the space to become more viable and advantageous. This skill is a demonstration of how space-time modelling enables a player to predict how the play will develop in the near future and thereby manipulate the positioning of the surrounding players and their subsequent perception of space-time.

The relative nature of space-time

Relativity of space-time accounts for the idea that space is subject to the perception of an observer. The players who play the game are the active observers and thus their respective interpretation of space has an element of observer bias. How much space and time a player perceives he/she has is influenced by a lot of factors, but most predominantly by his/her scanning behaviour. Each scan gives an opportunity to capture an image of the surroundings where a picture of the surroundings reaches the observer at a speed of light. 

Space and time are relative — they depend on an observer’s speed. But the speed of light is more fundamental than either.

― Einstein’s theory of special relativity

Since the observers (players) are in motion, the perception of space and time is relative to each observer. Constant, efficient and active scanning enables players to model their space-time predictions as close to reality as possible and consistent to one another. Ultimately, when a pass is played between two players it is necessary for both of them to interpret the spaces similarly for the action to be effective.

The technical abilities of the player also plays a big role in the perception of space and time. Technically better players perceive having more time and space than technically weaker players in similar situations during the game. Perception of space is also dependent on player profiles and positions. A central defender tends to perceive more time and space being on the outside of the positional structure than a central midfielder or a forward. Similarly wingers or fullbacks perceive the spaces on the outside channels differently. By virtue of players getting habituated to constantly perceiving familiar spaces because of their regular positions, they tend to shape their playing profile and instincts accordingly. A midfielder might sense the need to make a quicker decision and switch the ball to the other side because of contesting for tight spaces among opponents and focus on collective superiorities, while a winger tries to buy time and isolate opponents in wide areas to take them on in 1v1s more frequently. 

Fundamentally, I believe that the ball is the only thing that is absolute in the game. Everything else is relative, subject to the interpretation of the players who play the game. Although the geometric standards of the field, and it’s canonical elements like the dimensions of the penalty box or the boundaries of the goal are also absolute and irrefutable, the spaces within them generated by the players’ positioning and their subsequent actions are interpreted relatively.

This explains the technical challenge of scoring a goal versus playing a pass. A pass, even a long one, can be off by a couple of metres and still be counted as accurate because the receiver has the freedom of space to adjust and adapt to the margin of error and still receive it successfully. A shot on goal, however, if off by even millimetres results in rebounding off posts or a fingertip save by the keeper. Even the referees and linesmen cannot be a hundred percent objective in their interpretation of the players actions on the field, since they all are in motion, and are limited by their respective vantage points. Therefore I believe that only the ball is absolute, much like the elusive truth we constantly seek in our lives. Everything else ― Space, time, actions, tactics, justice or motivation ― is just an illusion. On the pitch, I, as a player, am trying to sell you the illusion that I have more space than you, the referee my perspective of justice, my coach a belief that the tactics are working and the spectators the motivation of collective triumph through a game of football.

Without the ball there is nothing; the ball is the mother, the source of life in football. What’s the goal there for? For the ball to go in it. Without the ball, nothing has any meaning.

― Juanma Lillo

Chaos or order is just a matter of perspective

I believe that the abstractness and relative nature of space should help us appreciate the power of perspective in the game, and in the universe. I reflect upon an anecdote a good friend of mine once shared: He said, “In our daily lives, we appear to be living in chaos and the nature of events manifest a great deal of unpredictability. But if we zoom out to the level of planet earth, we observe a relative order how the earth spins on its axis each day so consistently. Then we think about the geoclimatic changes, the great land masses and oceans moving on the planet and find another level of chaos, but if we zoom out to the level of the solar system, we find more order in the structured orbits of all the planets. And we can extrapolate this nature further on to the Milky Way or the expanding universe and notice the same phenomena. The variables of space and time are ultimately a question of perspective.” 

Similarly, playing the game of football is like being in the midst of chaos. The events happening around the player are so dynamic and unpredictable, and no player recounts having experienced the game in ‘real time.’ But sitting in the stands high above the level of the field, we question why the pass wasn’t played to the winger who has been positioned in free space for the last two minutes. Even further away, watching the game on a screen sitting on our couches we notice far less of what happens during the games, doused by the relative order of the same attempts to attack and score that our team has been attempting for the past hour.

The objective of a game model is to offer players cues to recognising the same spaces efficiently through common principles of play. To develop as a coach or an analyst, we must embrace the chaos that the game presents at the level of the players who play it and not hide behind the order of observing the game that a privileged perspective offers. Understanding spaces in the game as dynamic entities rather than static geometry helps us appreciate how the game is actually played and what makes it beautiful.

Brighton’s beautiful game

Brighton and Hove Albion is a team that has clearly caught my eye this season in the Premier League. Under Graham Potter, the Seagulls have shown leaps of progress in the previous season already. Some of their commendable performances this season were the second halves against Manchester City and Liverpool, two of the strongest sides not only in the English Premier League but also in Europe. Brighton fought hard to achieve a draw against Liverpool, and despite conceding a couple of goals against City in defensive transitions, they were electric in attack often putting the heavyweights on the backfoot. The game against Leeds United away was one of the most exciting games of football with plenty of chances despite ending in a draw.

Just as the manager himself was, I was quite surprised too to notice the reaction of the Brighton fans after the game for the kind of football they play and their current position in the league table. Although the lack of goals and wins are evident, his side is highlighted by a clear set of principles that define their playing style. They are a possession-based team that build up with superiorities and press aggressively upon losing the ball. In this analysis I attempt to dive deeper into some tactical aspects of Brighton under Potter referencing moments from their last draw against West Ham United.

The attacking phase: patient buildup and construction

In the attacking phase they build up patiently. In fact, Brighton are the slowest team in the league at progressing the ball up the pitch, as they average just 1.04 metres per second of progression.

They are tactically flexible in terms of formations. They are comfortable playing either 4–2–3–1 or 3–4–2–1. The common aspect of both systems is the way they construct their attack. The goalkeeper is the first attacker and is comfortable with the ball at his feet. In many situations he drives outside his box with the ball at his feet as a deep libero. This allows his two CBs to drift wider. This is a very important principle because the wider and higher the CBs are able to move, the better they are able to connect with the advanced players through line breaking passes. They are also better connected to the fullbacks with short passes, and in general this ensures better width to the structure coming out of the back.

The first passing option out of the buildup is the two pivots who are crucial to the Brighton system in orchestrating the attacking phase. The two central midfielders occupy the two inside channels and try to be positioned at different heights. From here they can form triangles with the FBs and the CBs and advance the ball further up the pitch through short passes that break lines of press. Yves Bissouma is a fundamental member of the two-man pivot system, and he is usually paired with either Jakub Moder, Pascal Groß or sometimes Adam Lallana.

Against many teams, the two pivots are tightly marked, in which case Brighton still want to maintain their fundamental of patient buildup through short passes instead of launching the ball long. They just look for other options. Sometimes in a 4–2–3–1, the FB drops to buildup with 3 players which is a familiar system anyway when they play 3–4–2–1.

In most cases, Brighton prefers to have their fullbacks higher up and wide to provide width. If the pivots are not an immediate passing option, they look for alternatives to play the short passes through the centre. Here comes into play the dynamic role of the attacking midfielders and forwards. Having so many players in advanced positions, one of them can easily drop deeper to offer an outlet through the inside channels while forming triangles with surrounding players who can act as the third man to get the ball out beating the first line of press.

In both systems 4–2–3–1 and 3–4–2–1, Brighton have atleast two attacking mids and one centre forward who play between the lines in front of the opposition defence. Neal Maupay, alongside Leandro Trossard or Alexis Mac Allister aren’t tall physical forwards who hold up defenders physically as target men. Neither are they the quickest sprinters who target the space behind the defense with runs in behind. Instead, they prefer to play between the lines making complementary movements that make space for each other with their positioning. The three forwards in the centre form a triangle. If one makes a run against the defensive line forcing them back, the other drops between the lines making space to receive a pass, while the third moves out wide and overloads the wide channels with the FBs.

The FBs bear the responsibility of connecting the attack and the defence with short passes, overloading the wide channels in attack offering width and immediately squeezing the space with the counterpress during defensive transitions. Having an engine like Cucurella is very handy in this system whom you find in one instance pressing outside his box, and in the next instance making the run on the far side for the switch of play.

The CBs are an important part of the possession style of play in both attacking with line breaking passes and defending with close range support. Brighton have ball-carrying CBs who are comfortable pushing up into the midfield if they find space.

The defensive transition: counterpressing

The key principle upon losing the ball is to immediately apply pressure. Brighton have the third highest successful pressure rate of 30.8%. Having a numerical superiority in every zone with players positioned to help each other out with short distances from each other plays a massive role here. In fact, the longer Brigton’s defensive transition lasts, the more dangerous the situation turns out for them with most such events leading to shots on goal conceded bringing the keeper into action. Brighton’s PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is around 11.2 which is fifth highest in the league behind City, Liverpool, Leeds and Aston Villa. With the CB positioned so high up the pitch, they prefer to win the ball back as far as possible from their own goal.

Brighton’s tackles attempted shows they prefer to counterpress higher up the pitch and away from the centre or around their penalty area (source:

Overloading the midfield with both pivots and forwards dropping deeper and CBs pushing higher enables them to create the superiority they need in specific zones. The other reason they prefer to win the ball back early is because they require their FBs and wingers positioned high and wide. A defensive transition forces the wide players back with the task of defending.

Brighton prefer to exploit players like Cucurella for his attacking qualities rather than his defensive ones. During a defensive transition, if Cucurella has the liberty of holding his position higher up because his central players are most likely going to win the ball back, it helps Brighton transition better into attack should they win back possession since they can always switch the play with a diagonal long ball.

With the goal of pressing they opposition high, they also pick specific moments defined by cues that trigger a high man-oriented press with the entire formation pushing up. The objective is to force the opponents to lose the ball or clear it long.

Positioning in zones

Brighton can be described as a team that likes to play very positionally both in the way they attack as well as defend. The players make sure the distances between one another are short creating lots of triangles for fluid passing networks in possession. They try to minimize their defensive transitions to the extend that the subsequent phases can be looked at as an extension of the existing phase.

In the zone of intervention, where the action around the ball takes place, the players are tasked at immediately putting tackles in to disrupt the opposition gaining control of a possible attacking transition. The players around the zone of intervention are positioned close to each other in a zone of mutual help to offer support through short passes in case possession is won back. Through these short passes, Brighton reestablish their rhythm and can then look to move the ball into the zone of cooperation where players are positioned strategically to advance the ball further up into the final third.

The fluidity of Brighton’s attacking system also has a structure to ensure its stability. For example, the two pivots who are always required to support the zone of mutual help by moving closer to the action. The FBs always must provide width in attack by staying wide. The forwards need to constantly drop between the lines to offer free passing lanes but at the same time be positioned behind lines of press to create superiority during possession. The CBs have to move wide to form the zone of cooperation for the ball to be switched, in which case the GK forms a link between them as a deep libero.

What is lacking?

Brighton’s disappointment this season is most definitely the final third. For the style of football they play and the chances that they create, they simply don’t convert them to score enough goals. This causes viewers and their own fans to question the practicality of their system of play. The lack of being clinical in the final third causes an understandable uncertainty in having all that amount of possession. They need to find more ways of arriving into the final third both centrally and wide. They also need to find ways to attack the space behind the defence quicker when the defensive line is higher up the pitch.

The other Achilles heel has also been longer stretches of defensive transition. They leave huge spaces behind to defend and this causes them problems against oppositions with quick, physical forwards who can exploit moments of counterattack and convert them. Although I’ve only analysed their open play, Brighton also concede from set-pieces which definitely needs some homework to sort out.

At the end of the day what matters in football is results regardless of the style you play. Currently Brighton play far better than what the results reflect about their performances. Graham Potter’s principles would be definitely better represented if they pick up their goalscoring form as well. Nevertheless, they are an exciting team to watch for their possession-based style and I sincerely hope that the pressure to achieve better results doesn’t cause them to sacrifice their flamboyance on the ball.

Bagdhad Boundejah: Is the Desert Fox overdue for Europe? — scout report

Baghdad Bounedjah is a prolific striker, constantly exceeding his expectations playing in the Middle East with the high profile Qatari club, Al Sadd SC. He holds a commendable record in the AFC Champions League and with the national team of Algeria. Yet, Bounedjah is not a name that critics in Europe talk about. Despite having interests by clubs like Leeds United, Lille and Marseille, Bounedjah continued to play for Xavi Hernandez project at Al Sadd awaiting the opportunity to play for an even bigger club.

He scored the goal that won the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations for Algeria, but his journey into professional football hasn’t taken the traditional route. At the age of 20, when most players are looking to play top-flight football at home or in Europe, Baghdad Bounedjah was at an amateur side in the sixth-tier of Algerian football. Today, not only are his stats skyrocketing, but his intelligence to play in his position are worthy of a closer analysis. In this scout report, I shall analyse Baghdad Boundejah’s profile as a centre forward and his tactics and movements to create space for himself. This tactical analysis of the 28-year-old Desert Fox striker attempts to justify why he is overdue for a stint in European Football.

Player Profile

Bounedjah is a right-footed centre forward mostly used as a lone striker up top. He is deployed as a target man where he uses his 180cm frame to fend of defenders and hold the ball up. If we look at his heatmap, we can see that he spends most of the game lurking around the defensive line or poaching for goals inside the box.

(source: wyscout)

He does like to drift wide on occasions to receive the ball or if he finds more space for himself in the wide areas. Centrally he does a brilliant job of hold up play and making good decisions even under situations of numerical inferiority. This makes his team-mates trust him well with playing the first ball to their targetman. He has an xGchain of 0.18 in counterattacks which is way ahead of the QNB Stars League average.

In this scenario, we see how the ball is played to Bounedjah, the highest player and he holds off the ball against the defender successfully. In this instance, in fact, he nutmegs the defender and draws a foul for his team.

(source: wyscout)

If we look at the hard statistics, we see that he outperforms other players in his league in two departments fundamental for a striker — goals and assists. He averages 4.87 shots per 90 with an xG90 of 0.89.

(source: wyscout)

Not only is Bounedjah a typical goal poacher, he can also engage in playmaking in front of the box to create opportunities for teammates that run into the penalty area. His assist stats are unusually good for what you’d expect from a selfish box predator. He averages 1.31 shot assists per 90 and 1.78 through passes per 90 with a xA90 of 0.23.

(source: wyscout)

Bounedjah is also a pretty technical player for a centre forward, averaging 5.7 dribbles per 90, with 2.32 of them being successful dribbles. This shows that he has the confidence to take on defenders instead of playing the easy layoff back to his midfielders if he feels like it will create a bigger threat at the opponents’ goal. If we look at a map of his dribbles in the final third, we see that a lot of them closer to the goal were followed by a shot, converting five of those chances.

The quality of the QNB Stars League cannot be compared to the leagues in Europe, and that needs to be taken into consideration while looking at these percentiles, so I created a radar that takes into separate account his performances with the national side.

(Data source: wyscout)

We can see that he is pretty consistent while playing as a centre forward. He stands out in terms of successful aerial duels, progressive runs and successful dribbles per 90. It wouldn’t be fair to compare his stats to other strikers in European leagues as the level of competition and chances are not the same. But the fact that his statistics are so skewed should be enough to draw our attention. In the next sections, I shall pick certain instances that reflect upon his intelligent movement.

Runs at the defence

Bounedjah is constantly looking to make opportunities for his teammates to find him with runs in behind the opposition defenders. He looks for gaps in the defensive line that gives him room to accelerate with a diagonal run that can be spotted by the midfielders. Like a typical centre forward, he pins back one of the defenders by staying on the blind side of his shoulder and waits for the defender in front to leave his position. This gives him the opportunity to accelerate into the space left behind.

First let’s look at a long ball that is played from the defence, in this scenario from the AFC Champions League fixture against Sepahan SC. Bounedjah is positioned between the right back and the centre back. The moment the right back is out of position and not holding the line, Bounedjah gets a couple of yards of space to accelerate behind the shoulder of the centre back where he cannot see the centre forward. This movement is read by the Al Sadd defender in possession and he plays the long ball into the space behind the defence which Bounedjah receives easily. It is a great place to receive the ball too as it is around 20 metres from the goal line.

Now let’s look at another scenario above, this time in the creation phase of buildup. The ball is on the right flank in possession of the winger, who was played the pass out wide by the attacking midfielder from the centre. The opposition centre back had left his position to press the attacking midfielder and the defensive line is disrupted. Bounedjah uses this opportunity to attack the space he has left behind by making an angled run, once again behind the shoulder of the defenders to receive the pass near the edge of the penalty box.

Movement to create space in the final third

It is necessary for a striker to use intelligent positioning and movement to create space for himself in the final third, where the defenders give you no time and press as soon as they see the pass played to you. Bounedjah demonstrates great acuity and sharp instincts to find space to receive the ball. I’ll take a look at three scenarios below.

In the first example, Bounedjah finds space to receive the pass in front of the defence, between the lines. We see the play building up from the left, with the ball in possession of the central midfielder. Boundejah first positions himself on the blind shoulder of the centre back moving towards the goal. This forces the defender to drop back with him. Both the defenders are focused on the ball, while the space is in front of them.

In the next moment, Bounedjah quickly changes direction and accelerates towards the ball carrier into that space and is able to receive the pass without any pressure. The defender who was supposed to be marking him is caught by surprise because of Bounedjah’s positioning behind his shoulder out of his line of sight.

In another scenario, the play is building up on the right side as the opposition defenders are transitioning back. Boundejah positions himself on the far left, out of everyone’s sight and away from the immediate action. In this position, he can always attack a cross played in.

In the next moment, when the ball is cut back, Bounedejah checks his run and drifts inside behind the shoulder of the defenders where he is completely unmarked and in good position to take a shot at goal, even if he takes a touch to control the ball first.

Finally, let’s look at a similar scenario against Al Duhail in the Stars Cup. This time the ball is with the winger on the left who is dribbling at the centre back after having taken out the right back. Bounedjah makes a run into the box dragging the two defenders with him.

In the next frame, the winger cuts inside onto his right foot, and Bounedjah simply stops his run anticipating his teammates movement. The two defenders who were supposed to be marking Bounedjah have pulled away because of their momentum and this creates the space Boundejah needs to ask for the square pass to take a shot at goal.

Manipulating the position of defenders to create space for himself

I’d like to highlight a unique skill that Boundejah has that makes him different from other strikers. He is able to manipulate defenders with constant movement to create space for himself even when it doesn’t exist. This makes him extremely dangerous to mark.

Let’s take this specific case with the play developing in the midfield. As the ball is played into the attacking midfielder, Akram Afif, Boundejah starts moving wide first. Above, you can see that the centre back has spotted Boundejah’s movement and is drawn to him.

In the next frame, Bounedjah makes a movement inside on the blind side of the defender while he is distracted with the ball. He still senses Bounedjah’s movement and follows him in the same direction.

In the final moment, Bounedjah quickly changes direction and moves outside again leaving the centre back drawn out of position and caught by surprise. He manages to find space for himself behind the trailing left back and in a great position to pull the trigger after taking a touch in the box.

A good centre forward makes two runs, one for his defender, and one for himself. This movement is a great example how Boundejah manipulates the centre back using deception to first sell him a run inside and then quickly move outside to make space for himself. This instinctive ability to make these runs makes the Algerian striker a menace in the box for defenders to track.

Creating plays for teammates

In the final part of this report, I’d like to give an example how Bounedjah makes plays for his teammates that contributes to his high number of key passes and assists during games.

We see in this scenario against Al Duhail with Al Sadd in possession of the ball out wide on the right. Bounedjah signals to his winger, but Akram Afif, the attacking midfielder is free to receive the pass in space. If the ball is played directly to Afif, he will be pressed by the centre back.

Instead, Bounedjah drops closer to the ball carrier asking for the pass while Afif makes a run at the defence. As the pass is played to Bounedjah, he is able to set up Afif with a one touch pass that leaves him through in on goal. Bounedjah’s superior reading of the game helps find his teammates in lucrative positions.


Boundejah is a centre forward with many tricks up his sleeve that sets him apart from other strikers. His intelligence and movement to create space in the final third are skills that cannot be taught to a player. At 28, in his late twenties, Bounedjah is at a ripe age for a striker entering his peak years with a lot of goals to score.

The Desert Fox has been consistent with his club in the Middle East, the AFC Champions League and the Algerian National team. Although Xavi has a good project with Al Sadd and the arrival of Santi Cazorla has only made things better for the striker with many more chances created, any club in Europe would want to get their hands on him as soon as possible to see how he copes with the level of football in bigger clubs. Boundejah is a top-class centre forward that can further groom himself with a bigger challenge under the right coach in the right environment. The question is which club would best suit his style of play?

(This scout report was published on Total Football Analysis on 2 October 2020)

When I met a magician

I grew up learning to play football on the streets of Abu Dhabi. The city was home to hundreds of immigrants, especially from different countries of the Arab World. We often played barefooted, late into the night when the asphalt was cooler and wouldn’t scald the bottom of our soles. The parking lots, backyards and unattended real-estates would be an opportunity to share a piece of land with all kinds of barefooted individuals over a game that ran deep in our veins.

If we were lucky, we’d find a pitch with grass and goal posts every once in a while, and manage a decent game before it would get too crowded and chaotic, even violent. Official pitches were owned by rich clubs who mostly recruited only local emiratis. As an immigrant you had to find love in the more raw versions of the game.

There was nothing tactical about playing with Arabs, but it was all about style, technique and flair. So, you’ve been at the core of your team’s defence, won all your aerials and managed a close to perfect pass accuracy? Nobody cared. How many dribbles have you done defenders with, or more specifically, how many nutmegs this game? Those earned you respect.

The game is nothing without magic. By those standards, a grass pitch was seldom an opportunity to float some ping balls across the field. It was just an excuse to attempt the revered bicycle volley. In fact attempting a bicycle in a game was an honest representation of where you came from. Pelé once said, ‘The bicycle kick is not easy to do.’

Riga United FC gave me my first taste of football in Europe. Despite being an amateur club playing in the regional division, it was a hub for players from different parts of the continent – Germany, England, France, Spain – who most often grew up learning the game at proper academies back home. The difference in priorities for the same game was evident. It was miles away from the streets, here we played for three points.

The game is nothing without magic.

Yet, in the first game I attended of United, guess who caught my eye? A fellow Arab. His name was Kareem. They called him the ‘Moroccan magician.’ The way he received the ball with his slender legs and moved past players reminded me all about the streets. There was something about his game that seemed to slow down time. It cannot be explained in numbers or actions what exactly it was.

No coincidence, it’s a bit like watching Zidane play among other greats of the game. It was about the stepovers, the roulettes. The magic was in the movement. It’s about the way he danced past opponents who were determined to not make themselves look like they were playing another sport. It was never a lack of respect, but rather a love of magic. His game was an art that transcended pragmatism.

(Kareem Gouglou #7)

You can’t be an Arab and not be a bit crazy in the head. Beneath the veneer of compassion and humility is a congenital affinity for a shot of adrenaline every once in a while. I barely paid notice to it, until I moved out of the Middle East. Only when you come to a complex society like most of Europe, you realise rationality is the reason you don’t drive your 4-wheeler on two wheels or attempt a bicycle kick when your team is really looking for that crucial point.

It was never a lack of respect, but rather a love of magic.

It was outrageous. I think Kareem’s teammates around him frowned after he attempted it. “What was wrong with a simple header?” He completely mishit it, and it was a good opportunity to get ahead in the game. He was totally unmarked. Now he had blown it, going for the spectacular – or even the unthinkable. How many times a week in the Latvian football league do you witness goals scored by bicycle volleys? Especially in the second division, at an amateur club fixture on old generation artificial turf. Not too many.

But this was Kareem. He was there to turn heads. His responsibility as a magician preceded that of a centre forward. Hence he wore the illustrious number 7. If not, he’d have worn any other number to fulfil the protocol. I went and caught him after the game and said, “Salaam aleik, ya akhii.” “Greetings to you, brother. It is a pleasure to meet you. You remind me of home.”

Over the next two years, we’d have a lot of interesting conversations. He spoke beautifully about Essaouira, where he came from in Morocco, about the food and the beaches. Even our teammates, like Josu from Spain who visited him in Morocco, spoke about his home like it was paradise. A paradise where gems like Kareem came from. I once asked him about a striker’s movement after training. I remember him looking at me with his smile that stretched across his eyes, “My friend, in football you have to think geometry, but on the pitch.”

He was on and off at the club, and we all understood that he was probably recovering from an injury. But he was in his early thirties and clearly in his prime. His time away from the pitch did not make him rusty at all. In fact he came back smiling more often, even elegant with his long curly hair that he now needed to set back with a band during games.

“My friend, in football you have to think geometry, but on the pitch.” – Karim

And then came that evening, in a poorly lit public school pitch where United trained and played their home games – School 49, against United’s then most formidable opponents FC Caramba. It was the 8th minute when United won a corner. It didn’t matter where you were watching that game from, it couldn’t be missed:

Not before long, the ball came floating over the penalty spot, between the 6-yard and 18-yard boxes. Surely those are heavily marked zones. But not where you could reach Kareem. That altitude is a zone that belonged to him. He was already six feet in the air, and horizontal. That ‘son of a ..’ He did it! Bloody hell. He pulled it off. What did we just see? It was where Kareem had longed to be, up there far from reach, of any of us mortals. It was a goal, but it was so much more than just that.

My last conversation with Kareem was at our friend Emīls’ birthday evening. We were listening to music by Cheb Khaled and talking about where we learned to play football. Emīls lit a joint and passed it around talking about how once Kareem and him went to an empty pitch to play. Kareem had promised to show him some tricks, but he showed up barefooted. And his technique was twice as good.

There’s a film featuring Zinedine Zidane called Zidane: A 21st century portrait. It’s an art film where a camera focusses on the master for 90 minutes capturing his every action, every emotion during the game, with the music from Mogwai occasionally embellishing the visual. That’s it. But that is more than a treat if you’re a football player. It takes you to another dimension. I told Kareem about it. He was very interested. I told him, ‘Ya akhii, someday we should watch it, over a joint.’ He just smiled.

A couple of months later, I was in a lecture when Emīls texted me that Kareem was no more. “What do you mean, no more? He’s no more crazy?” That would have been harder to believe. In some way he was destined to be a myth among us. I rushed to Josu’s place where we met and reminisced his myth in part disbelief, and part solemnity. He was suffering silently among us, but with an outwardly smile that never gave it away. The magician had disappeared. There was no longer going to be any of his magic, on a football pitch.

Kareem’s legacy represented the values of a club like Riga United, where the world is welcome with all its colour and charm. Where every player holds an additional responsibility, along with playing football, to uphold the beauty of the beautiful game, as Pelé called it. I would never know if Karim did watch that art film on Zidane. But he definitely left vivid images of his own in those who watched him play.

There was no longer going to be any of his magic on a football pitch.

Players like Kareem don’t exist in records or trophies. You won’t find him on the goal records on a Wikipedia page. Players like Kareem need to be experienced, in person. Only then will you believe in magic in the beautiful game.

Kareem Gouglou passed away on 4 Sep 2018 due to cancer. He never told any of his teammates at Riga United about his illness. He just played on with a smile. This article was published on www.rigaunited.fc on 4-Sep-2019 as a tribute to Kareem, my teammate and friend.

One More Game

Into the early hours of dawn on a Saturday morning, the city of Istanbul dwelled in silence. The pigeons fluttered down the alleys around the Grand Bazaar district as the sunlight began to slowly embrace the city from the Asian side in the East to the European in the West. Istanbul sat at the border of two vast continents since the time it was still called Constantinople. Since then, the Byzantines ruled over these lands and then came the great Ottoman Empire. A beacon of the Silk Road, and a melting pot of ancient cultures, this beautiful city had seen many great battles. Tonight, however, it prepared for another big clash — the European Champions League final of 2021.

The serenity of the dawn was perhaps the calm before the storm. The world was at a greater war — a yearlong pandemic — which hadn’t spared Istanbul either. Amidst all the chaos and tragedy, the old men that sat along the alleys smoking cigarettes and water pipes were immersed in their own battles from dawn to dusk. A constant refill of kahve, straight from the cezve, and a board of Backgammon or Chess was all that they needed.

Further down the alley where it was darker and away from the seats the usual old men occupied, sat two men around their fifties. They were tall and dressed impeccably. One of them was bald and unshaven and his silver stubble glistened in the morning sun as he stared at the chessboard in deep concentration. The other was skinny and slightly taller and brooded over his pieces occasionally running his fingers through his thinning hair. They were riveted to the game in front of them and oblivious to the others around, the city, the pandemic and perhaps even the final that evening.

“Do we really have a final this evening?” asked Thomas ironically, giggling with his conspicuous German accent.

“I don’t know, maybe we decide to settle it here itself!” replied Pep, playing along the light-hearted mood, as the chess game distracted both the men from their hectic schedules, due their inherent nature to focus, compete and win at any game they played.

It was a long season, and the two football managers had endured stressful weeks since the start of the year as the tournament entered its knockout stages. They defeated the big sides of Pochettino and Zidane to reach the final, and tonight they would face each other to decide which of their sides would be crowned the kings of Europe for this year. Pep Guardiola had reached the Champions League final again after ten years and his project at Manchester City was hitting a crescendo in terms of his ideas that he wanted to implement. It had taken almost five years and millions of euros year after year. Thomas Tuchel, on the other hand, reached his second consecutive final. He took Paris St Germain last year in Lisbon only to suffer a 1–0 defeat to Bayern Munich. Since then he took over at Chelsea, and the team’s form skyrocketed, and they looked unstoppable at the moment.

This wasn’t the first time Tuchel and Pep found themselves sharing a friendly banter over board games. Their relationship went back to the days of the Bundesliga in 2014, when Pep was reaching new heights with Bayern Munich and Tuchel had established himself at Mainz but was taking a sabbatical following the footsteps of Pep, who did the same after his glorious years with Barcelona to avoid a burnout. Tuchel was one of the many admirers of Pep’s style of play, but his goal was to improve upon them with his own innovations, much like the quote from Da Vinci: Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.

Between the Odeon Square and the Hofgarten in Munich is a bar called Schumann’s that is open 24 hours a day. Charles Schumann who runs Schumann’s am Hofgarten is an iconic barkeeper who has won the World’s 50 Best Bars award and published various books and released documentaries. He would reserve a special place for Pep and Tuchel who would meet frequently in the winter of 2014–15 and spend long evenings on the creaky oak chairs examining their tactical ideas. They moved saltshakers on the table as if they were players and totally lose track of time to the classic jazz records playing in the background. In Germany it became popularly known as the Battle of the Schumann’s.

Pep’s years at Barcelona were an iconic tactical display for the entire footballing world. The magic he created with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets would echo distinctly for more than a decade and set the standard for young coaches looking for tactical inspiration from the positional play in Spain. In Germany, where the game was dominated in Umschaltspielen or transitions and counter-attacking football was common among the teams in the Bundesliga, Pep held his principles of positional play but made improvisations to balance the transitions like the reinvention of the inverted full back.

If Pep was interested in turning the transitions of attack-defence and defence-attack into the new paradigm, Tuchel opted to redouble the rhythm: the speed and frequency at which each player moves in sync with their teammates. He inherited a Dortmund side in 2015 from Klopp who defeated Pep in the DFB-Supercup. Tuchel combined elements of gegenpressing with positional play using a three-at-the-back system where every player had to fulfil multiple roles in his position. His idea was to gestate the play by generating pass lines that unravel the opposing team and thus reach the final third with more clarity. After a successful stint with Dortmund, Tuchel took up a new challenge at Paris with better quality of players and took them to their most successful run in the European tournament.

Charles Schumann always knew it was going to be a long night when these two were customers at Schumann’s. He used to tell his staff, “Don’t bother about food, they have enough talks about football to feed each other.” Just ask the double bass to turn up the volume, keep their glasses refilled and let them be. The dark walls of Schumann’s, the glass bottles of the finest spirits and the jazz music hosted the most innovative and progressive ideas in contemporary football between Tuchel and Pep.

Once the rage of the battles of the Schumann’s had died out into the late hours of a moonlight night in Munich, and the two coaches met each other at the Allianz Arena as Bayern and Dortmund faced off in Der Klassiker, it almost felt like the viewers were only privileged to see a small snippet of the intricate and complex vision of how these two viewed the game. So, when Tuchel stayed back on the pitch to prolong his ecstasy and enjoy the moment at Stamford Bridge after the game against Real Madrid when he beat Zidane in the second leg to book a place in the final, he thought of sending Pep a text. A European final is the most elite stage in football. Even those who hardly watch the game tune in to this grand showdown before summer. Yet, despite the stakes and the massive ambitions of the two mega-clubs to win a game of football, Tuchel felt that a private meeting with Pep was well deserved to celebrate their journey all along through this season, for one more game before the game.

“Don’t you find chess and football quite similar?” Pep remarked, now breaking a sweat in the Istanbul heat.

“Yes, I think there is a lot to take from it onto the pitch,” concurred Thomas.

“I took great intrigue in it after meeting Garry Kasparov, and his battles against Magnus Carlsen.”

“Yes you mentioned earlier, and I think I read it in Pep Confidential too!”

“Ah, Martí!”

“So, what are the similarities that you find, Pep?”

“For me it’s the occupation of spaces, the positional play, the use of pawns. I see the diagonal runs that I expect my team to make from wide and along half spaces the crucial work of pawns without which there would be no game.”

“I agree, totally!”

“I actually view some of the pieces like certain positions in football too. For me, the king is the goal. That’s what you protect and what you look to score against your rival. I see the rooks as central defenders, closest to protecting the king, but when they see the space, I want them to charge forward too. The bishops are the playmakers in central midfield capable of opening up the play with their vision and range of diagonal passing.”

“And the knights?”

“Can you take a guess, Thomas?” asked Pep grinning with his wide sparkling eyes.

“Of course! They are your full backs, sometimes inverting, sometimes jumping into attack — so versatile,” answered Tuchel, as they both began laughing. Then Tuchel lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes and asked, “So, who is your queen then? I know you have scrapped the traditional number 10 role since as long as I can remember. You had Messi at Barcelona, which makes sense because there is nothing he can’t do and no space on the pitch he can’t go. But who is your queen now, Pep? Who has the freedom to move anywhere — the most powerful piece in chess?”

“Thomas, the queen in my football has been and always will be: the ball. It’s the most powerful piece in the game and I always find ways to use it well. Is it impossible to play without it? No, but it’s difficult. It’s just not my cup of tea,” he replied, taking the last sip of his kahve.

“Thomas, the queen in my football has been and always will be: the ball.”

As one of the kings fell on the chessboard, Pep picked up the morning newspaper he found at the hotel and rolled it under his arm while standing up. “The journalists write anything these days. I hope there are none who have followed us or are trying to spy on us as we speak,” he commented with a serious tone scanning around the place if there were any suspicious onlookers.

“I feel like the farther we move from the pitch, the more distorted are our impressions of the game. Don’t you think, Pep?”

“I absolutely agree, Thomas. I feel sometimes the decisions that my players make, being closest to the action using their pure instinct, I could have never imagined those solutions. I feel wrong at times to demand so much from them, and I know I have a big list of players who I have disappointed or think I’m crazy. But then there’s the technical area, where we’d like to think we have some control to bring order to the chaos. Further away, up in the stands are the directors and the owners who think they understand the all the decisions. Then the fans in the stadium, the analysts. And finally, those who watch the game on TV, who have the most fun sitting on their couches or cheering their team from the pubs, but who understand the least of what is going on. And with the pandemic, it has just been hard for everybody. We are slowly losing this game.”

“What will you do after the final whistle tonight?”

“I really need a vacation. But I will spend time with my family. It has been such a busy quarter since January, I have barely seen them. We hardly got a break after last season except for the lockdown.”

“I know. We all need some time away from football for a while. This transfer season is going to be hectic. I have a big project to handle during preseason. Perhaps for a month, we can switch off from our jobs and turn on the TV and enjoy the Euros and ponder about this Super League stuff or whatever else the guys on top have been conjuring up in the meanwhile. We are all just chess pieces, aren’t we?”

“Indeed, and after the game we all go into the same box,” remarked Pep solemnly, shaking his head.

The two had a silent pact to not discuss about the club or their players that meeting before the final at the Grand Bazaar. It was better to save that excitement for the bright floodlights of the Atatürk Olympic Stadium that evening, where they would go into a state of hyperfocus for 90 minutes into another chess match against each other — a noisier and more unpredictable one, where the docile 32 wooden pieces would be replaced by professional athletes who would shed blood, sweat and tears for glory.

“Wars come and go but my soldiers stay.”


“No, but close enough — Tupac,” exclaimed Pep as he patted a surprised Tuchel on his shoulder.

“Wars come and go but my soldiers stay.” — Tupac Shakur

The boats ferried back and forth the Bosphoros in the backdrop of the immortal architecture of the Hagia Sofia in this city that represented the crossroads of human civilisation. Istanbul, a mystical city, where Liverpool fans and anyone in football believed after 2005’s upset of AC Milan by Liverpool that in this game, anything was possible. Even miracles.

Tuchel smiled looking at Pep sensing how far both men had come in the game for this big European night final. “It is going to be sensational tonight, Pep. But before we retire back into our hotels in anticipation of his great battle, are you in for one more game?” he smiled and asked, knocking his King on the chessboard.

“One more game it is then.”


Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction using real characters for inspiration from events that are mentioned in the references. The character development was in no way intented to influence the image of the people in the story.

Positional pyramid and its diagonal orientation

If you have taken an intrigue in football formations, the pyramid is a recognizable geometric shape. Over the years in football, tactically, we have seen the pyramid structure in formations invert, return back to the upright ‘Christmas tree’, and invert yet again. The basis for the evolution are the quality of the players in the formation, principles of play in each phase and in general, perhaps even the ongoing tactical trend.

Pep Guardiola, however, with his unique approach to positional play tends to break the established structure of a textbook formation. His systems bring in fluidity and adapt to the behaviour of the opponent. Not only does he adapt the tactical set up and subsequent periodization to each opponent every week, he expects his players to be intelligent enough themselves to recognise tactical nuances and modify their approach on the pitch. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg quoted Pep saying to him, ‘Pierre, the most important thing is, if they are close to you, go out and if they are open, you go in, but you need to read it.’ Pep would say- ‘You need to tell me after one minute, how do they play.’

The positional pyramid is diagonally oriented

Is there any geometric shape that the players look to achieve in this kind of fluid positional system? In a system that relies heavily on creating triangles between players, I believe a pyramid is somewhat discernable, but we need to tilt our heads a little to notice it.

To understand how this pyramid that is tilted and aligned diagonally comes into being, we must first review the fundamentals of positional play — Positioning along different horizontal and vertical lines in order to create angles to each other, superiorities behind lines of pressure, finding the free man and immediate counter-pressing once possession is lost.

The first three attacking principles gives a visual of a team that is expansive, uses width and depth in attack and relies on constant overlap and underlap runs in the inside channels. But the defensive organisation in such a system is the real challenge. A logical drawback of playing with a wider attack higher up the pitch is the larger spaces that a team leaves behind to defend. How can a system balance both attack and defence?

“Defensive organisation is the cornerstone of everything else I want to achieve in my football.” — Pep Guardiola

It begins with the understanding of this foundational statement by Oscar Cano Moreno, “Take into account that during the attacking process, you’re creating future defensive conditions and vice-versa.” We cannot separate attack from defence. They are intertwined, and one is a consequence of the other. The reinvention of the inverted fullback by Pep at Bayern was a by-product of this challenge.

In the traditional model where the pyramid is upright, the focus is central towards the opposition goal. The direction of attack is vertical. Most often the centre forward acts as a reference point as the highest player in attacking organisation. The wide players serve as outlets if the space is closed in the centre. The ball can be played wide with the intention of arriving again back to the centre in the box.

A traditional formation creates a pyramid with a vertical orientation and focus

Although the positioning of the players can create triangles, the spaces lateral to each player is big and these can be exploited by the opponent in case of loss of possession. The distance to counter press the ball is also bigger which means the opposition will find room to move the ball around these lateral spaces when the team presses them. It is difficult to close down every single opponent immediately coming out of an attacking phase and eventually, the opponent is bound to find a free man in space.

The positional game creates a pyramid (3–2–1) that with a diagonal orientation and focus

By shifting the focus of attack from central to a wide player in the corner, the direction of attack is also shifted diagonally rather than vertically. As a consequence, the vertical distances between the players get reduced. Atleast in the zone of interaction between the teams, the lateral spaces are not as big as in the upright pyramid, which means the distances to counter-press are also smaller. Multiple smaller triangles are formed within this pyramid structure with downward apices. On the pitch this translates to having a nearby cover player for every two offensive players. Furthermore, this system targets the utilisation of half spaces more effectively and the inside players between the lines can position freely depending on opposition markers to create superiorities behind lines of press.

The boundaries of this 3–2–1 pyramid involves three key roles — Depth, Width and Cover. The central player, the centre forward in the examples above pins back the defensive line and constantly maintains depth creating bigger spaces for players between the lines to thrive. The wide player on the touchline, who is the focus of this attack provides width to the overall formation. By stretching play, the wide player opens up channels inside for the players between the lines to attack. The cover player is positioned closely behind, but not in the same vertical lane to immediately intervene in case possession is lost and recycle or switch the point of attack if there is an overload.

We see these three roles consistent in both Man City’s and Barcelona’s positional game. The players offering depth, width and cover form the pyramid and the direction of the attack gravitates towards the wide player focused on the right wing. Since it is a positional system, the player who plays the role of this wide player is irrelevant. In the case of City, Mahrez (RW) is the focus on the right and in Barcelona, Dest (RB) stretches the width. While the players hold this pyramid, the more technical and creative players look for spaces on the inside to receive a line breaking pass and open up the opposition. Having a cover player closely behind to defend allows the creative player to take more risks, and the wide player always provides an outlet to play to constantly pin the opposition back without enforcing a defensive transition upon themselves.

Such triangles allow the ball to be played back with the intention of playing it forward immediately by the principle of verticality. A system where the overall focus is diagonal rather than vertical, occasionally opens up the opportunity for a vertical pass to a player between the lines who can dismantle the opposition centrally. A recent statistic highlighted City as the team that played the most number of passes backwards. However, what wasn’t taken into account was the distance of these back passes. There is a difference between playing a pass all the way back to your keeper and playing a pass to a player close behind you with better vision who can then play a killer pass forward. From a chess analogy, it’s like taking one step back to take two steps forward.

There are two important facets to this diagonal pyramid — the offensive triangle and the defensive triangle. The offensive triangle allows continuous options to penetrate the space in behind the opposition defence. The defensive triangle allows an immediate overload to be created in order to win the ball back, and continue attacking. Once again, the players who are involved in the creation of these triangles do not matter. In this example, Jesus, Torres and Walker provide depth, width and cover respectively. Fernandinho is the pivot who gets the ball out of the defence, Gündoğan plays in the half space between the lines and Bernardo Silva drifts out wide.

In the tactical scheme from before, we see how the RW, CM and RB form the offensive triangle on the wide right. The RW threatens to attack the space in behind from outside, and the CM who plays between the lines can exploit the same space from the half space, if the opposition LB gets drawn out too far. The RB who has pushed up closely behind has control and provides a double threat, freezing the opposition.

In case possession is lost and the opposition look to force a defensive transition, the RB, CM (pivot) and the CB who forms the cover in this pyramid can immediately press to create an overload. A 3v3 situation will most often ensure that possession is won back and the CF and RW can maintain the attacking phase without the overall structure having to drop back too much.

So far we have zoomed into a specific zone of interaction on one side of the pitch where the game is being played. What about the other side? A wide player is positioned on the opposite flank for a possible option to switch. The rest of the players clearly do not mark every single opponent. However the risk-reward ratio is not that big and as long as the ball is won back immediately (within six seconds as Pep theorised famously) and possession maintained, the system appears to function well.

Pep has himself acknowledged the weakness of every strength that presents in his positional game: “There are two or three zones on the pitch that are undefendable. If we play with a winger high and wide on each side of the pitch then there are definitely a few zones which can’t be defended, no matter the system.” However, the fundamental principles behind the diagonal pyramid is consistent.

“We always want to attack inwards, it’s the same as basketball; move the ball to the middle so the opposition close down central spaces, then move it to the side at the last possible moment to give somebody an open opportunity to shoot.”— Pep Guardiola

In many instances, the players do not hesitate going direct, hitting the diagonal ball out to the wide player, rather than building up with short passes. The positional advantage is still maintained due to the positioning of the players in the pyramid and the way the opposition gets pinned back. Both the instances with City this season, against Wolves and Arsenal resulted in goals involving Riyad Mahrez, the wide player. This only emphasises the importance of the wide player as the focus of this positional pyramid that is oriented diagonally.

The efficiency of this pyramid was evident since the time Pep introduced it with Barcelona in 2009. Thierry Henry revealed how the system worked years later in a Sky Sports feature, “If you stand between the right-back and the right centre-back and Sam [Eto’o] or me does the same on the other side, suddenly you hold four players alone,” he said. “Just from you being high and wide, and then coming back in, you are actually freezing four players because we are threatening to go in behind. With Eto’o and me running in behind, and Xavi and (Andres) Iniesta on the ball, with (Lionel) Messi dropping, either you die, or you die.” As Henry said, central midfielders Xavi and Iniesta tended to be the ones delivering devastating passes from the half spaces at Barcelona back then.

The need to understand the positional game as a geometric structure is purely because players perceive spaces and shapes of surrounding support as geometric shapes, triangles, boxes or diamonds. Seeking out a shape visually on the pitch enables movement to be better choreographed, yet provide dynamic adaptability to the opposition behaviour. The evident spatial advantages in the diagonal movement provides a subconscious incentive for players to adhere to the positional system without much cognitive processing. The system also allows plenty of variability, which is why Gündoğan or De Bruyne are able to play as a centre forward in this system in any given instance, and Cancelo or Bernardo Silva can play as an inside player or a wide player depending on the situation, as long as the fundamental principles of the positional pyramid are upheld.


The clock beside his bed turned 4:00. The silence invaded the floor and the ceiling. The only sound was that of the rustling wind outside. He was lying in his bed, his eyes firmly shut. He wasn’t asleep. He was desperately trying to deafen out the silence. Two hours had passed.

The silence had infected people’s lives more than the virus. They called it a pandemic, ten years ago, sounding like an exciting plot twist to their lives. Now it had become a reality. Nobody seemed surprised by lockdowns, quarantines and curfews anymore. Initially, nobody paid attention to the silence either. They tried to evade it by keeping themselves busy. But after a while, it got to them. Especially in the early morning hours, the silence haunted them. Thoughts plagued their neural circuitry. Anxiety followed. Then came frustration. Fear. Pain. Depression.

His grandfather had told him, “It’s a disease, like every other disease. You have to treat it. Close your eyes. Pull the brake on those thoughts. Like your mum used to.”

His mom was the calmest person he’d known. She suffered from an autoimmune condition that caused fluid to build up in her lungs and resulted in difficulty breathing. Despite that, she strived to lead a healthy, active life. Every morning, she spent forty minutes on the yoga mat. Her session would end with her sitting in the lotus. Her eyes closed. Sometimes, he’d be up early and run around the house, only to halt abruptly at the peaceful sight of his mother sitting in deep meditation.

He suddenly opened his eyes, struck by the thought of his mother. She passed away ten years ago due to the virus. Her condition had made her more vulnerable than others. He rose up and sat still on the corner of his bed, staring dead ahead, remembering vividly the scene at the hospital as the doctors like space astronauts in full protection suits, took his mom away on a stretcher into the critical care unit. He never saw her again.

A few months after his mother’s death, he found his father hanging from the ceiling. His father had started drinking heavily, trying to cope with everything that was going on at the time in their lives. But he gave up, while his son was eight years old. He was raised by his grandfather since. The virus changed everyone’s lives forever. Society would never be the same.

His flat looked like a minimalistic prison cell that was kept clean to the tiniest speck of dust. There was an alcohol sanitizer next to every single device, on the dining table, and next to the main door. On a shelf of his wardrobe was a stock of many small sanitizers that he’d slip into the pocket of his jacket before heading out of the house. He mopped the flat twice daily and showered three times, each time after coming back to the flat.

Four months had passed since he moved into this flat in the city. The online classes at the university that he started in fall required a high speed internet for the long, elaborate zoom sessions in the morning and evening. Sometimes the classes were even scheduled into the night when professors were in another time zone. He had lived all this while at his grandfather’s place in the outskirts, where he had a small table set up for his online classes from school. He needed a bigger work place now since he turned eighteen and enrolled into a university.

He slowly rolled out of his bed and turned on his phone and the Wi-Fi. He then made a cup of coffee, sterilized his hands and sat down at his desk. Every night before going to sleep, he used to empty his cache and sign out of all online accounts. He especially turned off the internet. The software companies had recently developed an algorithm to track the amount of REM sleep and dreaming patterns of an individual. This information would help model behaviour profiles of an individual that would subsequently influence advertising patterns that the individual encountered online. As he turned on his laptop, repeating the elaborate process of logging in to all the accounts, he was greeted by half a dozen notifications from a software he had installed to specifically block targeted ads.

“The virus is not the only thing we have to immunize ourselves against,” prophesized his grandfather years ago. “They are coming for us. The virus attacks the body, but the body is built to resist it by nature. But the mind is not resistant. We need to be conscious to try and develop it. You have to train your senses to recognize anything that borders on being bait,” said his grandfather with conviction. “They are seeing what we see. They are listening to us. And they will feed us what they want.”

His mom used to joke about his grandfather’s conspiracy theories before, but since the pandemic, people just didn’t know what to believe in anymore. Truth had indeed become stranger than fiction. Every month was unfolding like a thriller TV series. They were no longer surprised by new developments, a new spikes in deaths, or a new law enforcing restrictions. Nothing startled them anymore. The state had taken over and democracy was no longer existent. People’s rights were secondary to global health safety. Every individual was restricted to their two-meter radius bubble, but nobody was entitled to his or her privacy.

Sometimes, he couldn’t resist the baits. He would find himself on his phone scrolling for hours, sitting on the toilet seat. He would only think about it while lying awake in bed. That’s when he become mindful of the digital addiction that had become widespread in society, which most often needed psychiatric treatment. Sitting on the toilet seat between a break from his online classes, he scrolled to video about a new airborne strain. “Researchers claim that the new mutant strain has a lesser mortality rate but can manifest with vision and hearing deficits that last up to 12 weeks. Pharmacological firms are yet again in a race to find a vaccine.” Since the pandemic began, there had been 268 documented mutations and a hundred others that were probably never discovered.

As he flushed the toilet, stood up and elaborately washed his hands and his face, he noticed a small papule over his left shoulder. It was perhaps a mild allergic reaction to the new vaccine he’d been given two days ago. He needed to get a booster after the weekend again. Every six months a new vaccine rolled out for the new mutations that were rising. He was one of the few, who was lucky to have been regularly vaccinated. In the last ten years, he had had about 20 vaccinations already. Millions around the world were still behind on their vaccination schedule. They had probably developed herd immunity, but without a seal in their vaccine passports their movement was severely restricted. A black market had emerged since a few years that was actually responsible for numerous STDs and infections. Unsterilized needles and probably a second-rate flu shot was being sold illegally as a vaccine. People were desperate. The fear of being locked in like an animal was greater than the virulence of a dangerously mutated strain. He sanitized his hands, and decided to get dressed up. He was feeling dizzy and nauseous. He really needed some air.

Escaping the house was a mission. It wasn’t easy. He was required to wear two FFP medical standard masks that were WHO-grade. The only ones that passed the WHO standards were the ones manufactured and sold by one of the pharma giants. An ingenious move that worked out finely for both parties and shareholders. Aside from the two FFP masks, he also needed to wear a face shield indoors in public places. Random stops and checks for temperature were expected, and those who didn’t comply were first subjected to a rapid viral test, and then arrested and sent for a PCR. Even a false positive result could mean ending up in an isolation camp for at least two weeks, sometimes longer.

As he sanitized his hands for the last time before leaving his apartment and picked up his keys, He heard the neighbour in front unlock the door and step outside. He held himself from opening his door yet. The space in the corridor outside flats was less than two metres, and if the CCTV noticed people getting closer, they could get into unnecessary trouble. He listened closely as the neighbour locked the door and walked towards the stairs across the corridor. As the footsteps grew fainter, he finally opened his door and stepped out. He became aware of his neighbour’s profile across the hallway. It was a blonde girl, roughly about his age, with short hair and a trim waistline. She had headphones plugged into her ears and a leather bag over her shoulder. He couldn’t notice her face behind the masks, before she disappeared down the flight of stairs. He didn’t know who she was, and had never spoken to her.

It was quiet outside despite being the middle of a workday. It was bright and humid too, and he perspired behind his masks. He walked with a brisk pace. He wanted to get to the store early, or else the queue would be long and would extend out onto the streets until the bridge, with each person standing two metres from the other. He cut through a couple of blocks and finally reached the street where the store was, only to find out he needed to wait in queue. He shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and made it to the back of the line, heaving a deep breath.

He pulled out his phone for entertainment. The only friends people really had during the days were ‘followers’ on social. They often viewed each other’s stories or videos and responded by emojis. The rush of gaining a new follower had replaced the basic human necessity to socialise. People began communicating even more vigorously over social platforms since the lockdowns were enforced even stricter, but he had grown tired of texting. If he wasn’t actively connecting to his followers through chats, they could easily forget that he existed. Initially people video-called each other a lot often, especially their families, but over time they had just become more insensitive and superficial. Mindful of a compulsive scrolling habit again, he locked his phone and slid it back into his pocket. He stared blankly at his shadow on the ground as the queue moved forward at a painfully slow pace.

Under the bridge he noticed some homeless people. Some of them were lying down, some were drinking. They would often ignore the two meter protocol and the police would arrive and take them away. Asocial behaviour had become the norm in society — an unconscious trend for a decade. Socialising was perceived as an activity that people of lower classes indulged in. The capitalistic universe had plenty of ways to keep the middle-class engaged. Connected to the internet, socially networked, psychologically and physically profiled and idiosyncratically fed his or her share of daily feeds to make him or her feel purposeful. The lockdowns and restrictions had become an opportunistic platform to engage the masses in advertising gluttony and keep them sedated.

“Excuse me, are you still in line?”

He was woken from his deep chain of thought by the person behind him in queue. He had forgotten to move forward for a while.

He finally managed to enter after waiting outside for about 25 minutes. There were two security guards in black inspecting the customers for honing proper protection and checking their temperature before entering. Inside the store, he went about looking for supplies in his face shield like everyone else. They hardly paid attention to each other and moved about like robots with their push-karts, each one two metres from the other. Nobody made any eye contact and just went about mechanically picking their supplies from shelves. As he pushed his kart along one of the aisles, he slowed down to a halt. He found himself lost in thought again. His pulse started to rise sharply. He looked around and no one took any notice. Soon, he started to feel dizzy and short of breath. He was gasping for air behind his masks. His chest was pounding and he could feel his heart palpitating. A high pitched monotone began to ring between his ears, and he slowly lowered himself to the ground. The lights of the store began to dim and his vision started to blur. He heard some voices, but they were unrecognisable and incomprehensible. He noticed a tug on his arm and a blurry profile of an individual in front of him in black. He didn’t remember anything after that.

He slowly opened his eyes and sensed some commotion around him. Personnel in full protective suits, similar to the ones who took his mom away, were walking around. As he regained his cognition and awareness, he noticed a police vehicle in front with two officers. He looked around him and realised he was in the back of an ambulance. A nurse came to him with a syringe and grabbed his arm. As she drew his blood, a paramedic came up to him to take a swab and engage him in the first interaction he had made since long.

“How are you feeling?” “You must have experienced a panic attack. Are you on any medication?”

He shook his head.

“Your vitals look perfectly normal. However, by protocol we had to do a rapid test and it was positive.”

He was alarmed. He pulled out his vaccination passport from his pocket to prove that he was up to date with the latest schedule.

“It could be a false positive, but to confirm, we will need to perform a PCR. Until then, the officers will escort you to the closest isolation camp.”

The camp was erected in the middle of the city but it looked more like a temporary detention facility. The officers escorted him through a series of doors and scanning machines that detected heat signatures. They finally reached a large hall where many people, like the homeless ones he had seen under the bridge, were herded in by the officers. They sometimes used force to separate the individuals who stood closer than two metres. It was noisy. He heard a woman scream as her child was taken away, and she was dragged into one of the units. The units were 5 square metre cubicles. Inside each unit was a small mattress on the floor, and a desk and chair. Each unit had a large window to the hall outside. There were 25 units in a block and 20 blocks spread in the entire camp. It was like a big exhibition, for human beings.

One of the workers took down his details and showed him which unit he was assigned. She said to him, “I see that your PCR test has been registered in the system, which means the lab is running it at the moment. You can wait here until we get your results. If you need something, just push the button over the desk.” As she shut the door behind him, he walked slowly to the chair trying to review the dramatic turn of events that had taken him suddenly. He sat on the chair with a hand holding his head.

He could do nothing other than wait for the door to open with the results of the PCR. He posted a story on his social of the cubicle and himself. The uncertainty was terrifying. He began thinking about the situation that he found himself in. What if the result was indeed positive and he would have to be taken away into another dark place like his mother. As he thought longer, he imagined the state of the people on the other side of the walls. How long had they been in there? What was their fate?

Several hours passed. It was late into the evening. He grew more accustomed to the uncertainty. He had 300 views on his story, but not a single reaction. None of his followers really cared. All he was, was entertainment to them, just as they were to him. Everyone out there in the world was probably hooked on to their own bait, feeding onto their digital dosage. Was there anybody actually alive? Or were they all living dead? Bearing the weight of these thoughts for hours, his eyes were moist. He stared coldly at the wall ahead, and a single tear trickled down his cheek.

The door creaked open, finally.

“Your results are negative.”

“The rapid test must have been a false positive indeed. You’re lucky it arrived quicker than usual. You are free to go. Do look out for any symptoms in the following days, though. And you know how to reach us.”

He spent the next weeks locked up in his flat. He was too traumatised to step outside. A recent article claimed that stepping out of the house was riskier than selling drugs during these times. The airborne strain had reinforced state restrictions anyway, yet again. Back in the isolation unit, he endured a wave of emotion as he reflected upon the fate of society, but here, in his flat, the silenced returned to haunt him. He found himself out of ideas, because it was his comfort zone. He didn’t bother to open social. He had lost interest. He felt more disgusted by the idea of indulging in another scrolling session mindlessly for hours. He couldn’t find the purpose in deliberately inflicting a thumb adductor strain. He paced up and down his flat all day, for days. He hadn’t bothered to clean it anymore. He thought about what made his personality so anal-retentive with these habits. Was it just the paranoia of his grandfather and his conspiracy theories, or was it a genuine hygiene ritual for everyone else too? Was this fucking virus even real?

That night he didn’t sleep. Just like the previous night. He stared apathetically at the ceiling, smothered by the silence. The indifference of the officers and everyone in authority who treated people like sheep disturbed him. The docile nature of individuals to accept everything that they were subjected to disappointed him. The absurdity of the behaviour of his followers on social, and the blank screen with names of his fellow colleagues listening to some pedantic professor on zoom classes disgusted him. The helpless screams of the mother at the camp terrified him. The memories of his mother and father tormented him. He questioned his own existence. He wasn’t looking for answers, however; he just wanted to see the light. It was 4:00 in the morning, but he was getting impatient to see the light. A light, so poignant that it sucked the darkest emotion into it. The light that shone behind the image of his mother sitting in peaceful meditation. The light that would instantly end this darkness that he felt he was truly suffering from. The silence had to be put to an end, through permanent silence.

He opened his main door without bothering to wear any mask. He left the door open and stepped outside. He walked towards the stairs, and climbed up, possessed by a singular thought of that light. As he reached the roof of the building, and swung the door open, he saw the light get brighter. His vision was tunnelled. He walked forwards towards the edge, hardly blinking. There was nothing worth leaving behind. He smelt freedom, unrestricted freedom, unlike what had crippled society in the name of the virus. Inside his head echoed a similar monotone that he heard at the store, but a lower pitch — calmer, less ominous. The noise shut out everything outside of him. In the background, he could hear faint sounds of his mom laughing and calling his name, like she did when he was a child. He walked closer and closer to the edge, looking for her face in the light. As he stepped right at the edge, he felt the breeze over the roof sweep his hair, waiting with open arms to carry him out of his hole. He closed his eyes.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

He was startled by a soothing voice that ended his trance. He suddenly opened his eyes.

“I’ve started coming up here too, since they sacked me at work last week. I realised they don’t lock the roof. It’s the only place where you can get some air these days without a mask.”

The monotone ended abruptly, and he felt his feet on the ground again. He turned around. He saw the blonde, with short hair that almost brushed her shoulders. She lit a cigarette.

“Do you want one too?”

He was lost as he looked into her emerald eyes. He noticed the sharp profile of her nose and her round lips. Her cheeks stretched and contracted into fine dimples as she smiled at him.

“Uh… Do you?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, yes — Sorry! It’s still quite early,” he replied, pretending to sound casual, as he reached out for a cigarette. She held the lighter for him. “Cheers.”

“Ha, it’s okay. Have you ever seen the city skyline from up here?”

This was a strange feeling. A few minutes ago he was consumed in pursuit of absolution and freedom and an abstract sensation oblivous to everything, and now he seemed to enjoy a weird pleasure in a real social connection which he didn’t remember when he last had. He took a long drag of the cigarette and set his gaze upon the edge he was walking to earlier. It was a different view he had been moving towards altogether. Behind the masks that had been chained to his face, like everyone else’s, he couldn’t remember the last time he breathed such freedom. He noticed the sky painted violet with a tinge of orange at the horizon. He noticed the birds flying south chirping wildly. The clouds floated close, almost kissing the city’s tallest buildings. Far into the horizon, he noticed the hills on the outskirts of the city. Below the hills was the airport. The planes lined up in the sky in the distance waiting to land. The streets carved out geometrically over the city landscape designed to intricate perfection. The lights from the cars on the streets glistened like jewels, along with some apartments in the tall buildings where the people were already awake. He sensed a deep perspective of life that was still beating through this city. It was fighting through the darkness into the morning sun, and as long as it was fighting, there was hope.

“Yes. It is beautiful,” he concurred.

“I’m Sara. What’s your name? Oh, and by the way, you forgot to close your door downstairs! But, don’t worry, I shut it close before coming up here,” she reassured him, with a polite smile.

(Photo by Daryan Shamkhali on Unsplash. Design by Roshan Rao)

The 3–3–1–3 formation: Its audacity and its frailty

For anyone diving into football tactics, getting a grip of the 3–3–1–3 is a temptation that is hard to avoid. After all, it was popularised by an unorthodox Argentine nicknamed El Loco who, many top managers like Guardiola, Sampaoli and Pochettino, regard as their mentor and the greatest coach of the game ever.

Marcelo “El Loco” Bielsa — The coach who popularised the 3–3–1–3

It’s a hipster tactic. It screams in the face of conventional formations in modern football. When teams pick a safe strategy with which they can park the bus, the 3–3–1–3 looks like a jet plane. You rarely find guidelines to play a 3–3–1–3 during your coaching pathway. Anything if at all would be found on the internet written by some FM geek who experimented with it or self-proclaimed tactical buffs like me. At this point, however, I admit that I actually know very little of it despite having been obsessed with it like everyone else.

I gave it a practical shot myself in my early days of coaching a women’s team few years ago. It was a cup quarterfinal against a team that plays in the UEFA Women’s Champions League and I felt adventurous. There was nothing to lose. The game was open, end to end. But by half time, my pivot (and my best player) was fuming in the dressing room: “This is a disaster, I feel completely outnumbered in the middle and I can’t find one key pass. Our defence is all over the place.”

After watching Klich against Southampton this Tuesday, I can imagine why. Bielsa has unleashed the 3–3–1–3 at every club he’s been since the very first game — Bilbao, Marseille and Lille. But at Leeds where he has served the longest of all, he took a more cautious approach since the beginning with the 4–1–4–1 being his stock formation for most of this time in Yorkshire. The few games in which he has used the 3–3–1–3 has been a palpitating episode to say the least for a Leeds fan.

3–3–1–3 Overview

The 3–3–1–3 employs:

  • 3 centrebacks that stick quick close to each other,
  • 1 central midfielder that roams around in the space in front of the defence,
  • 2 highly mobile and versatile wingbacks that take up any role depending on the phase of the attack and
  • the attacking unit, enganche y tres puntas comprising of one creative attacking midfielder behind one central striker and two wide wingers
Bielsa uses the 3–3–1–3 in his first ever league game with Lille in France
Slide from Bielsa’s presentation on which formations counter which ones according to his theory of the game

From Bielsa’s presentations, it is clear that he chooses the 3–3–1–3 formation against two opposition formations, the 4–3–1–2 and the 4–2–2–2. The mathematical reasoning behind this choice is known only to him, but the decision to have one more defender than the number of opposition strikers makes sense. Both the formations by the opposition use 2 strikers, so having 3 defenders gives immediate numerical superiority while building up play from the defensive third.

So far this season, he has used the 3–3–1–3 twice before Southampton, against Burnley and Sheffield United. Both games were played with close margins, with Leeds winning 1–0 and 0–1 respectively. In the game against Southampton Leeds secured a triumphant 3–0 win, although Bielsa claimed in his press conference post-game, “The margins were closer than what the result suggests.”

Attacking organization

The centre forward is the focus of every attack in this system due to the lack of density of players in the middle. The first phase of buildup coming out of the keeper is straightforward and based on numerical superiority. The defensive flat back-3 provides sufficient width to deal with the press from the 2 strikers. The following three phases of buildup — construction, creation and finishing — however, are quite direct and follow rapidly. The reason is that the outlet out of the first phase to bypass the first line opposition pressure is only via the wingbacks.

The central midfielder in front of the defence is often either tightly marked or finds himself in a position of heavy inferiority. Hence, progression to the construction phase is initiated by the wingbacks either directly by a pass, or indirectly by starting a third-man run. As the play moves outwards from deep, the opposition finds it easy to apply high pressure forcing the play wide since there are no options back into the middle. The wingback is forced to make a quick decision.

An experienced utility player like Ayling or Dallas is able to play the pass quickly forward in the same lane to the winger ahead and cut inside into the half space. By beating the wide player pressing with a quick one-two pass, the wingback now creates an overload in the half space along with the centre forward and the attacking midfielder. The central midfielder now has time to cover defensively in case possession is lost.

Simultaneously, on the opposite flank, the other wingback can drift inside forward with the winger staying wide and create a 2v1 against the opposing fullback. This movement pins the defensive back line and forces them back, but it needs to be played quickly and the switch immediately. The players need to mobilize rapidly and attack the spaces in front. A miss pass or interception by the opponent midfielders risks a 4v4 turnover with the 3 centrebacks left isolated to manage the defensive line themselves.

Superiority in the middle can also be created by the forward dropping deep. An extra player in midfield provides support to the central midfielders. The winger can now attack the space left by the centre forward and the wingback can overlap to pin back the fullback and overload the same side. Once again the ball needs to be played directly without spending too much time in the middle with short passes. Most often we see direct balls and quick plays into the final third in the 3–3–1–3 system. In the game against Southampton, Leeds had 55 long balls and 277 short passes versus Southampton’s 38 long balls and 337 short passes. Leeds also had lesser percentage of possession.

It is important for the attacking midfielder to be positioned between the lines up ahead and not play too deep. This is probably why the 3–3–1–3 can be differentiated from a regular 3–4–3 (like the one used by Conte at Chelsea) because the latter makes use of a double pivot in the middle with the two midfielders playing more box-to-box and covering greater combined area in the centre.

When the attacking midfielder plays between the lines he can always function as a third-man off a direct ball to the centre forward. When he receives the pass, the defence is forced to step back to secure the spaces behind them. This buys him time to turn and look to switch play. If the wingback on the opposite side pushes up and inside to support, along with the winger they create a 3v2.

The centre forward and the winger on the other flank can pin back their markers with runs in behind and this gives space for the wingback on the other side to make an overlap giving the player on the ball options to attack from both sides. At the end of the finalizing phase, the team has width as well as players in the box to finish from a cross. We see the dynamic versatility demanded from the wingbacks who are required to function as either midfielders or wingers depending on the situation. This explains how Dallas created the opportunity to score the second goal for Leeds against Southampton in this game.

Defensive organization

The moments of transition are quite intense in this system. The priority of defensive organization is to delay and win the ball back as soon as possible. The more time the opposition is allowed on the ball in the centre, the greater the risk of conceding shots on goal. Illan Meslier needed to have a good game to keep a clean sheet against Southampton. He made 5 crucial saves which is greater than the average of 4 saves he makes per game.

Leeds’ man-to-man marking is the hallmark of the defensive organization. They close down all options in the middle, and the centre forward and wingers cut passing angles using their cover shadows. In this system, if the opposition creates a free man in the middle, one of the 3 centrebacks needs to step out of his line to close down the player.

Timing plays a big role here as to make this decision, the centreback needs his wingbacks to be in place to cover the backline. With the wingbacks always in transition, there is always a risk of running a scenario of inferiority against the backline as the opponents counter attack.

If you notice in this instance, Leeds have all men marked in the middle and in order to create this man-to-man marking, Struijk, the centreback has to also step up and pick up a free man. Then, the left winger and centre forward are able to cut passing lanes and force the play back to the goalkeeper. The vulnerable points of the 3–3–1–3 structure are always the spaces right in front of the defence and the spaces left behind by the wingbacks pushing forward.

Lack of central stability

An understanding of the system from the previous sections provides a hint as to why the 3–3–1–3 lacks central stability. If we look at the heatmap against Southampton we see a U-shaped occupation of the area around the 18-yard box in Leeds’ own half.

Leeds’ Heatmap against Southampton (source: WhoScored)

But the crucial areas in the middle around the centre circle are empty. For a possession based team, it is crucial to control the centre of the pitch and this explains why Leeds have lesser possession than usual in the 3–3–1–3 system. It is a formation better designed for direct play.

Leeds’ action zones against Southampton (source: WhoScored)

Leeds also spent a lot of time trying to build out of from wide areas in their own half using their wingbacks to progress into the next phase of attacking organisation. A central pivot who is primarily assigned as a defensive midfielder like Kalvin Phillips holds responsibility of constructing the attack after surpassing the first line of pressure.

Leeds’ touchmap against Southampton with halfspaces highlighted along with low control around the centre (source: WhoScored)

We can clearly notice Phillips’ absence especially looking at the areas of occupation. In the touchmap above, notice how the 3–3–1–3 tends to dominate play along the wide channels and in deeper areas. We see a lack of density of touches along the half spaces or inside channels. The 4–1–4–1, with a second row of four, also helps control the centre better and it is impossible for the single enganche to dominate the space around the centre circle in the 3–3–1–3 system.

The two central players, Klich and Roberts had in fact, the least number of touches in the team during the game (Harrison was substituted at half time). Klich usually averages a pass accuracy of 82% but in this game he only managed 13 accurate passes out of 19 with a pass accuracy of 68%. The central players have very little time to make the right decision, always having to play in numerical inferiority and need to play the right pass in two touches at the most.

Roberts (in midfield) provides the assist for Bamford’s goal against Southampton with his second touch

Roberts’ assist to Bamford for the first goal was played with the second touch, almost falling off balance attempting it. The central midfielder in front of the defence is simply overwhelmed by the area to cover as a box-to-box player. Without constant support from the wingbacks, it’s nearly an impossible position to play, and the wingbacks always need a certain cue from the opponents to decide their move. It is no surprise now why my pivot was left helpless at half time when she played this position, despite the attacking opportunities created.

3–3–1–3: conceptual or practical?

The success of this system relies on the ability to be brave and dominate the wide lane despite being pressed to the touchline. The linear stack of three players in a narrow lane need to engage in dynamic rotations to overcome opponents one by one. Bielsa’s four core principles: concentración, permanente movilidad, rotación y repenitización (concentration, permanent focus, rotation and improvisation) echoes louder than ever in the 3–3–1–3.

Leeds against Hull City in 2018 using rotations of players in a single narrow channel to progress forward

The risk-reward ratio is also pretty even, especially in transitions as you can have a 4v4 in attack than can soon turn into a 4v4 in defence. The absence of central players to provide defensive stability is the reason. It makes sense why Bielsa attested to the margins between the two sides being fine despite the result. The disconnect between attack and defence only gets bigger once the central players and wingbacks experience fatigue. In terms of periodization, playing a 3–3–1–3 in a competitive league every week is sure to result in burnout eventually.

Nevertheless for tactical inquisitiveness, the 3–3–1–3 is a beautiful system to explore for the understanding of superiorities and moments that lead to transition. There is very less room for error, but if every position dominates its zone individually, the outcome is fast-paced and exciting to watch. With every strength comes a weakness, and both appear quite evident in the 3–3–1–3.

Expansive football: A simplistic categorization

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.

Fig. 1 Categorization of expansive football models — low expansive versus 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.

Fig. 2 Low expansive model

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.

Fig. 3 Overload on the wide lane in a low expansive model

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.

Fig. 4 Barcelona vs Getafe from 2019–20 season demonstrating a low expansive model

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.

Fig. 5 High expansive model

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.

Fig. 6 Spaces created between the defenders in a high expansive model

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.

Fig. 7 Manchester City vs Schalke from the 2018–19 season demonstrating a high expansive model

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.

Fig. 8 A summary of both models

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.