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.

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.

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 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.