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Lines and Diamonds: Part Six – Attacking Systems

This is part six of the series by The Hand of God.

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This chapter provides an overview of the most common approaches to structuring attacking systems and continues the discussion of how to exploit exposed space in a defensive system. Given the purposefully unpredictable and dynamic nature of attacking play, there is a far greater number of possibilities when setting up an attacking system, but there are a few basic frameworks common to most systems.

6.1 ATTACKING DUTIES

In addition to a player’s basic responsibility in the build-up phase, each player is also assigned a specific duty in the outright attacking phase. In the tactics creator, this division of responsibilities is represented by the duty instruction.

While systems vary in how strictly players are held to these responsibilities, an attacking system can be broadly divided into three groups. Defend duty players are the holding players who are responsible for providing defensive security behind the attack. Support duty players are linking players and creators who are responsible for maintaining possession and setting up chances for the attack (either directly or by aiding a playmaker). Finally, attack duty players are the runners who are responsible for overloading defenders and getting on the end of chances. Some playmaker roles fall somewhere in between, but for the most part, these three units correspond to a tactical emphasis on the principles of consolidation (defend), support (you guessed it: support) and mobility (attack).

The way you distribute duties to players will create the broad outline of the system that your team will adopt as play moves into the final third. This will determine where your more creative players will be looking to set up chances and where your team will tend to be exposed upon losing possession. This also means that duty will ultimately determine how exposed you tend to leave your defence when the team has moved up to attack the area, regardless of how attacking or defensive your overall style of play tends to be.

In most cases, a balanced attacking system that stands a good chance of breaking down an opponent’s defensive system will have three players responsible for making forward runs from various positions, at least three players holding their defensive positions behind the attack and at least three players responsible for linking the holding players and the more mobile players. There is also usually one player, either a deep-lying fullback or midfielder, who tends to stay deep but is given slightly grater license to step up to offer support in low risk situations. Keep in mind, these are only general responsibilities. Supporting players may occasionally attack space ahead of the ball just as holding players will occasionally step up to offer more support around the area, but they will usually only do this when the risk is low or the potential reward is very high unless they are prone to poor decisions.

Under any style, you can adjust this to get more players forward to provide more targets in the area, keep more players behind the ball to ensure there is less space exposed to opposition counterattacks or keep more players in between who will focus on simply circulating the ball. This can help you grab a badly needed goal, tighten up at the back or control the tempo of a match. However, this should not be taken too extremes without careful consideration. Simply piling numbers forward can be counterproductive if it leaves the team lacking players who can actually set up the final ball. On the other hand, an overly rigid attack will struggle to advance the play, and this can lead to overly simplistic attacking patterns and dangerous turnovers inside the middle third.

In the next several sections, I will describe the basic structures underlying common attack systems. Again, these are just broad outlines. In practice, the details of how the system segues into specific attacking patterns are vital, though having an idea of the basic structure underlying your roles and other attacking instructions will give you a balanced foundation upon which to build your attack.

6.2 THE SINGLE PIVOT

We will begin by looking at the most common methods for setting up the holding players. These are players who have been instructed to stay deep and remain ready to consolidate quickly in the event of a counterattack. The traditional set-up is to have a single holding midfielder sitting ahead of the central defenders with one of the wide defenders being instructed to get forward in attack. This will result in a lopsided 2-2 or 3-1 shape at the back with one flank exposed, though with the deeper fullback able to slot back into the defensive line quickly, the “outer” centreback can shift over to cover for an attacking fullback if necessary.

This set-up provides a balance between central protection from the holding midfielder and flank protection from the defenders. It’s well suited for dealing with teams that counterattack down the flanks, though it will be most effective defensively when the deep-lying fullback is positioned on the flank threatened by the opposition’s best winger.

The weakness of this set-up is that it does tend to leave one flank more exposed while the holding midfielder needs to cover a lot of ground in transition, especially if one of the centrebacks gets pulled wide or the defence drops deep. Athleticism and tactical awareness are important for the holding midfielder while the central defender placed next to the exposed flank will often need to have decent pace to chase down wingers and mobile strikers.

In a single pivot system, the holding midfielder must react quickly to intercept passes out of defence.
In a single pivot system, the holding midfielder must react quickly to intercept passes out of defence.

In most cases, the deep fullback would be a Support Duty Fullback. A player in this role will generally sit deeper and look to help recycle possession next to the holding midfielder, though he will step forward to put in a cross in risk free situations. To avoid being exposed down both flanks, it is important for this player to make good decisions and not burst forward at times when it would put the defence at risk.

It is also helpful if the holding midfielder is comfortable on the ball. Though he does not necessarily need to be a brilliant creator, he will often be called upon to act as a deep distributor, so it is advisable to use a player who will at least make intelligent passing decisions. It is also advisable to avoid players or roles with an overly restrictive passing range unless the deep fullback can be relied upon to provide consistent distribution from the flanks.

In the tactics creator, a single pivot attack can be set up with the following roles:

Central Defender Roles: Any two Central Defender roles
Midfield Role: Any Defend Duty except the Halfback
Deep Fullback Role: Any Defend Duty role or a Support Duty Fullback

6.3 THE DOUBLE PIVOT

The double pivot serves as the foundation of the 4-2-3-1 attacking system (which is not necessarily the same thing as the 4-2-3-1 defensive system). Here, a second holding midfielder replaces the deep-lying fullback. This allows both fullbacks to get forward and provide width with the attack ultimately having a 2-2 shape at the back (though it tends to be more of a 2-4 when building up from a deeper position).

The main benefit of the double pivot is that it locks down the centre with a compact column of holding players. This makes it a good option for shutting down counterattacks that look to funnel the ball to a lone striker through an attacking midfielder. The two holding midfielders are also useful for cutting off the supply to an isolated striker who is poor at winning the ball in the air.

A double pivot system cuts off support through the centre, but it exposes space behind the fullbacks.
A double pivot system cuts off support through the centre, but it exposes space behind the fullbacks.

The emergence of the double pivot was also driven by a couple of attacking developments: inverted wingers and deep-lying playmakers. By allowing both fullbacks to get forward, this system allows wide forwards and wide midfielders to come inside without having to worry about sacrificing width, and by placing a more defensively sound midfielder next to the deep playmaker, it allowed traditionally attacking midfielders to be shifted into a deeper position where they could dictate the flow of build-up play without being overburdened by defensive responsibilities. The double pivot, then, is ideal for a style of play that looks to control possession in deep positions.

The weakness of the double pivot is that both flanks are often exposed when possession is lost. Against fast wingers or a striker who likes to pull out to the flanks to receive the outlet ball, it’s helpful to have central defenders who are quick off the mark, though if you must rely on slower defenders, you can also compensate by ensuring the two holding midfielders are fast and athletic enough to consistently shift over and cover for either of the attacking fullbacks.

While not necessarily a weakness, a double pivot system does require the right personnel to pull off effectively. In the absence of two fullbacks who can actually make an impact in the final third, the double pivot can end up lacking a cutting edge. At worst, it will result in an attacking system based upon six players whose talents are mostly defensive.

When using a double pivot, it is also important to ensure there is at least one accessible linking player between the most advanced striker and the holding midfielders. An advantage of a double pivot is that it can open up space behind the striker, but if no one is utilising this space, you will simply risk isolating the striker and forcing play down the flanks. This linking player does not have to be an attacking midfielder. You can also use an attack-minded central midfielder, a wide player who moves into a more central position or, to a lesser extent, a false nine in a strike partnership.

When choosing a linking player, you should look for a player with good off the ball movement and ball control. Good off the ball movement is necessary to ensure he’s able to find space ahead of the holding midfielders. Good ball control is necessary since the holding midfielders will often need to put more pace on the ball to ensure it’s not easily intercepted or the linking player is not put under pressure before it arrives. For the same reason, at least one of the holding midfielders should be able to reliably deliver a precise long pass, though neither one necessarily has to be especially creative.

Here is how to set up a double pivot:

Central Defender Roles: Any two Central Defender roles
Midfield Role: Any two Defend Duties except the Halfback or one Defend Duty partnered with either a Support Duty Deep Lying Playmaker or, to some extent, a Regista
Fullback Roles: Unless you are being defensive and keeping numbers back, these should usually be two Attack Duties, one Attack Duty partnered with a Support Duty wingback or, in a slightly more defensive or possession-oriented set-up, two Support Duty wingbacks.

6.4 THE BACK THREE

The back three is similar to a single pivot, but the third central defender tends to stay slightly deeper and more central than a deep fullback. This results in a more centered 3-1 shape at the back with either of the outer central defenders ready to shift over to protect the two partially exposed flanks.

The main benefit of the back three is that neither flank is completely exposed. The outer centrebacks are well positioned to quickly shift over if the opposition tries to counterattack down the flanks with the other two centrebacks well positioned to keep a compact 2 in a more central position (whereas a fullback might need more time to shift over into a more central position).

In possession, the back three is also well suited for keeping possession at the back, especially if the opposition is relying on a lone striker to put pressure on the defence. Against an aggressive defence, this can see opposition players lured forward with space opening up for a pass to the wingbacks.

With that in mind, the outer centrebacks should be comfortable on the ball, and ideally, they should be able to play a quick, precise pass down the touchline and potentially even carry the ball forward if the situation allows. It’s also beneficial for the outer centrebacks to be relatively quick if the opponent prefers to counterattack through pacy wingers.

The weakness of the back three is that both flanks are nevertheless somewhat exposed and the holding midfielder must still cover a lot of ground, especially if the defence drops deep in transition. Many teams prefer to use a creative player in the holding role, but if this player lacks athletic and defensive qualities, this poses a massive risk if the other central midfielders lack the ability to recover their positions promptly. Ideally, the holding midfielder is both an adept distributor of the ball and an energetic stopper.

Here is how to set up a back three:

Central Defenders: Any three Central Defender roles or any two Central Defender roles if using a Halfback
Midfield Roles: If using three Central Defenders, the safest option is to have an additional Defend Duty ahead of them, though an athletic and defensively capable Support Duty Deep Lying Playmaker or Regista can also work. If using two Central Defenders, use a Halfback to create the back three with either an additional Defend Duty role or a Support Duty Deep-Lying Playmaker ahead of him.
Wingback Roles: These should be support or attack duty wingbacks

6.5 USING SPACE DURING COUNTERATTACKS

If you can recognise how the opposition sets up its holding players, you can get an idea of how to effectively launch counterattacks. Targeting space in transition is useful both if you just want to transition quickly with a more attacking style or if you want to launch more fast breaks with a more defensive style.

If the opposition is leaving flank areas exposed, the most efficient means of exploiting that space is to use an attack duty wide forward or wide midfielder on that flank. A wide forward can be especially dangerous given that he will be inclined to stay further forward when defending. Alternately, you can also use a mobile striker or attacking midfielder instructed to move into channels. This will pull the player further away from a direct run on goal, but it can open up gaps in the defence for either the run of a teammate or a through ball that he can attack with a diagonal run back into the middle.

If the opposition is leaving central areas exposed, especially with a slow or defensively poor holding midfielder trying to cover space ahead of a defensive line inclined to drop deep, support duty strikers and attacking midfielders will prove more useful, though they will still need teammates making runs to counterattack effectively. The most effective partner for a central support player is an attack duty forward, though fast midfielders eager to attempt forward runs and move up in support are also helpful assuming they have the speed and stamina to consistently outpace recovering defenders.

You should also consider the individual qualities of the opposition’s holding players. Fast wide players can still be effective when matched up against a slow fullback staying back, and they can be totally devastating when matched up against a slow central defender who will be forced to come wide to deal with them. Small defenders and holding midfielders will struggle against tall, powerful support forwards who look to collect clearances and hold up play. Aggressive defenders and holding midfielders can find themselves lured out and skinned by skillful attackers. There are many possibilities here, so when playing a counterattacking approach, an eye for detail will yield rewards.

6.6 USING SPACE BEHIND THE DEFENCE

Next, we will look at how to set up the team’s creative support and runners. The simplest space to exploit is space behind the defence. This area is vulnerable when an opponent pushes up to compress space, and attackers can encourage this space to open up by using strikers who drop off to offer support to the midfield in a bid to lure out the opposition defence.

In all its simplicity, the threat of a through ball remains a defining element of modern tactics.
In all its simplicity, the threat of a through ball remains a defining element of modern tactics.

If the defence pushes up and holds a high offside line, good passers and fast attacking players can supply you with a steady stream of chances with simple runs onto through balls. To encourage through ball patterns, you should have attack duty forwards or attack duty wide midfielders who are instructed to make forward runs into space behind the defence.

With runners in place, it is a matter of having creative passers who can hit properly weighted balls into depth. You can encourage this by having these players instructed to play more risky passes and more direct passes. The further forward these players are, the better, though this depends largely on where space is available. Normally, a team that is pushing up will be compressing space ahead of the midfield line, so it may not always be possible to get the ball to a creative player sitting directly in front of the opposition defence.

With that said, it is not necessarily beneficial to have strikers who focus on creating depth in the build-up phase, though it can be. On the one hand, having a striker creating depth can open up space for a creative player to control and play a through ball, though it can also make it easier for the defenders to anticipate the striker’s run and play the offside trap. On the other hand, encouraging a striker to be more involved in supporting the midfield can lure an aggressive defence into opening up even more space for a through ball.

Overlap patterns and third man combinations are also useful for exploiting depth behind a defence. For overlap patterns, it is best to have a support duty player ahead of an attack duty player instructed to attempt forward runs. The support duty player will drop off, lure out a defender and expose space for the overlapping player to receive the ball and make a run behind the defence. For third man combinations, you again want a support duty player to lure out defenders and open up space, but here, you are looking for a runner to slip into the exposed gap from a wider position. Normally, this would be an attack duty player instructed to roam and attempt forward runs, especially one who has been instructed to sit narrower (if a wide player) or move into channels (if a central player).

In terms of the qualities of the players attacking this space, acceleration and pace are paramount, though being able to time one’s run well and quickly control a through pass may reduce the player’s need to buy himself a few yards before being able to prepare himself for a shot. For the players supplying the through balls, vision and an ability to play long range passes will make things much easier for the runners.

6.7 USING SPACE BEHIND THE MIDFIELD

The space ahead of the defence (and behind the midfield) is traditionally the domain of skillful playmakers, though it can be effectively exploited by any kind of link-up player along with agile dribblers and long shot specialists. This area is vulnerable when an opponent does not use a defensive midfielder to offer cover behind the midfield, and it’s particularly vulnerable when an opponent’s defensive system leaves them at a numerical disadvantage in the central midfield area. In build-up play, attackers can help open up this space by creating more depth between the deeper midfielders and the strikers, especially if the opposition defensive line is quick to retreat.

When receiving the ball behind the midfield, a player will depend much more on either having the strength to physically hold off defenders or the exceptional technical skill to work past the pressure that will be closing in from all sides. A player who can keep his cool under pressure can be particularly effective. If the player can keep his cool, there are many attacking possibilities here ranging from 1v1 duels to support-based attacking patterns that look to work the ball through the opposition defence. This space can also be useful as a platform for playing through balls to a mobile forward or wide midfielder attempting to make runs behind the defence.

Generally, the roles best suited to taking advantage of this space are support duty strikers (especially the false nine) and attacking midfielders (other than the shadow striker). Attack duty central midfielders and wide players who have been instructed to cut inside on the ball will also get into this area, though they will need exceptional technical ability to effectively control the ball while running at the defence.

1v1 duels will result from having players receiving the ball in this space or moving into it with instructions to dribble often. For duels, you will want to use excellent dribblers who will be inclined to come slightly deeper to receive in order to give them time to turn and accelerate. Even playing closer to the defence, players can quickly turn or change direction can be devastating between the lines. Agility will help these players quickly play the ball forward or even open an angle for a shot.

A pair of agile strikers can work magic when there’s space between the lines.
A pair of agile strikers can work magic when there’s space between the lines.

Though more difficult to pull off, having deeper players attempt to overload this area is very effective at provoking panic in defenders. Simple overload patterns will occur more often with attack duty midfielders instructed to make more forward runs, and overlap patterns will result from having a more advanced support duty player looking to play the ball to an attack duty player making runs from midfield. In both cases, it can be helpful to instruct the more advanced player to roam and move into channels to make space for the runner from deep to receive the ball. Again, even in central areas, good acceleration and off the ball movement are vital for the players making the runs while the linking player will typically need the strength, balance and passing ability to hold off pressure long enough to make the pass.

6.8 USING SPACE AHEAD OF THE MIDFIELD

The space ahead of the midfield is useful for controlling possession, switching the point of attack and setting up shots from outside the area. These latter two patterns of attack are especially useful when a team is sitting back with nine outfield players congesting the penalty area. Against a more aggressive defence, the space ahead of the midfield can also be used to lure midfielders forward and open up space behind them for a penetrating pass.

This area is vulnerable when an opponent does not use an attacking midfielder to cover space ahead of the midfield, and once again, it’s especially vulnerable when an opponent’s defensive system leaves them at a numerical disadvantage in the central midfield area. In build-up play, the team can further open up this space by trying to create more depth between the defence and the strikers.

When switching play, it’s helpful to have midfielders in deeper positions, though you do not want them so deep that the opposition has plenty of time to react to the shift. In either case, having deep midfielders who are comfortable playing more direct passes is important for carrying out this attacking pattern and making the best use of this space. Against an entrenched defence, it’s also useful to encourage players to circulate the ball faster to deny the opposition any extra time to shift to the opposite flank.

The positioning of the receiving players depends greatly on the availability of space on the flanks. Against a well balanced midfield, encouraging a wide player to create more width and not push too far forward can help decrease the chance of interceptions, though receiving the ball further from goal will increase the time that the opposition has to respond and shift to the player’s flank. Against a narrow midfield, wide players can push up more readily, though in this case, having the player carrying out the switch of play closer to him will reduce the chance that the defending fullback will have time to step out to make the interception.

When simply using this space to control possession, a double pivot midfield will prove most effective. The double pivot is also effective at luring multiple midfielders forward to open up depth for a slightly more advanced midfielder, such as an advanced playmaker or support duty central midfielder, to receive and control the ball.

Finally, having space exposed ahead of the midfield can create the possibility of cutback passes if the defence is pushed deep. In this case, you will want to utilise the flanks with skillful wide players who can drive to the byline and pin the defence into their area, though to encourage cutbacks, you will want to encourage them to play fewer crosses while having midfielders who make late runs to the edge of the area. Supporting central midfielders and box-to-box midfielders are ideal, though deep-lying support midfielders like the regista will also make occasional runs to the edge of the area.

6.9 USING SPACE ON THE FLANKS

The space on the flanks can be used both to achieve quick penetration behind the midfield and to pull opposition players out of a central position to open up space for penetration down the middle. This area is vulnerable when an opponent’s defensive system lacks balance due to the absence of wide midfielders and, to a lesser extent, wide forwards. Attacking players will best utilise this space when wide players look to create width and central players are encouraged to move more freely to find space.

There are many possible uses for space on the flanks. Fast, skillful wingers who can get the ball at their feet and take on an isolated fullback are the traditional option, though creative passers who can place dangerous angled passes back into the middle will also thrive here when space is plentiful. Generally, skill is more valuable than pure pace when exploiting space ahead of a fullback, though space on the flanks will also give pace merchants a better opportunity to control the ball and then knock the ball beyond a pressuring fullback.

Exposed defenders struggle most when matched against attackers who highlight their shortcomings.
Exposed defenders struggle most when matched against attackers who highlight their shortcomings.

Support and attack duty wide players can both be very effective on an exposed flank, and it’s mostly a case of what you’re looking to achieve. Support duty players will be more effective at drawing fullbacks out of position to allow themselves or a teammate to attack the space behind him. Agile dribblers can be especially effective in a support role since this will consistently give them opportunities to control the ball comfortably and force an exposed defender to commit as he runs at the defence.

The reduced threat of interceptions from the opposition midfield means an attack duty wide player can quickly get the ball behind the midfield if they have the skill to receive a high velocity pass under pressure and quickly turn a fullback. Attack duty wide players may also represent a better option if the opposition is leaving a lot of space behind their defence. Still, you should be careful here since the opening ahead of the fullback will make an attacking wide player a tempting option even when there’s a good chance that the marking fullback will be able to intercept or quickly pressure him off the ball.

Space on the flanks creates excellent opportunities for overlap patterns, combination patterns and simple overload patterns. In the case of overlap patterns, a supporting wide midfielder or wide forward can lure out the opposition fullback to create space for the run of a wingback or attacking fullback. This is especially useful if the overlap pattern utilises a supporting central midfielder to work the ball around the defending fullback and get the ball directly to his teammate’s feet. Combination patterns work in much the same way, though here, the wide midfielder or wide forward is typically the one making the run into space to get on the end of the central midfielder’s pass.

Simple overloads will result most frequently when there are two attack duties placed along the same flank as the isolated fullback. This pattern can be effective at pulling a central defender into a wider position. In a less direct style of play, it’s also effective at forcing the defence to shift, and this can create opportunities for a dangerous switch of play.

Space on the flanks is not only useful for wide players. It can also be used to open up space for runs through the middle. Wide players can do this by staying wider to create width while central players, especially strikers and attacking midfielders, can help do this with instructions to lure their markers out of the middle by moving into the channels, roaming or running wide with the ball. This can allow for combination play through a congested centre, though to make this work with central players, you will need multiple players creating space for one another with exceptional movement and technique.

As discussed in the preceding section, space on the flanks is useful for setting up cutbacks and making the most of switch of play patterns. With space available on the flanks, the chance of a switching pass being intercepted is reduced, and this can allow for the receiving player to push up closer to goal. However, some may still prefer to receive the ball in space before accelerating on the ball and taking on an isolated fullback at pace.

A lack of balance in midfield can leave a fullback isolated at the far post, and in effect, a floated cross to the far post achieves the same thing as a switch of play. This can be very effective when the fullback is poor in the air. To further take advantage of this, you can place a powerful striker, flank target man or even an imposing, attack-minded midfielder on the same side as the fullback.

Regardless of which system you use and where space is available, there are always multiple possibilities, but it is always important to consider where space is likely to be available, how players in your system will likely make use of that space and how their teammates will aid them in using that space. With different opponents, you will face different systems and different players protecting space in those systems, and with those differences, different possibilities open up while others are inevitably closed off.

6.10 SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Regardless of where you look to utilise space, it is important to ensure that there are creative players linking the more mobile attacking players with the deep-lying holding players. A core aspect of the principle of depth is that, however much space you open between your striker and central defenders, you must actually have players utilising the space in between. The tactical use of depth is about more than just space. It’s also a matter of the availability of passing options in that space. Without those options, you will simply have players isolated from one another.

The team’s more advanced creative players should have solid off the ball movement to ensure they can find space to receive the ball, good vision to ensure they can spot a pass and good technical ability to ensure they can either draw deeper defenders onto them or supply a good final ball from wherever you expect them to be operating. Against very defensive opponents who are quick to consolidate in their area and leave little space to attack, these requirements become all the more important, just as they do if your attacking system is facing a defensive system that naturally closes off the space in which you’ve instructed these players to operate.

Bunching your creators together will do the defence’s work for them and force more direct passes.
Bunching your creators together will do the defence’s work for them and force more direct passes.

You should also attempt to create multiple distinct and reliable paths of support linking the more mobile attackers and holding players. This means having at least two support duty players who operate ahead of the system’s holding players and deep-lying support players. Basically, you want to avoid having the team moving into the penalty area with two relatively flat lines with only one possible route in between. Supporting players occupying the same general area allows the opposition to get comfortably compact and cut off the supply to your attack with minimal effort.

The most efficient way to avoid this is to have one supporting wide player and one supporting central player, but two central players can also work as long as you make sure they don’t cluster together. If you rely solely on central players to link and supply the attack, encouraging at least one of them to move into the channels and, if possible, roam will see them take up more varied positions. This is especially important when playing against narrow formations. Team shape settings that encourage a supporting or attacking wingback to aggressively push into advanced positions in the build-up phase will also ease the burden on a central pairing.

In any case, you should always avoid relying on a single player to link and supply the attack and defence. This will allow the opposition to shut down your attacking system by simply marking a single player out of the game. An isolated support duty player will also be frequently forced into attempting high risk passes, and this can see your attacking play become rushed and error-prone. Even if your attack is built around a playmaker, a secondary creative outlet will help supply a greater variety of scoring opportunities as well as diverting the defence’s attention from the playmaker himself.

Creative players will be most effective and influential if they are positioned in spaces naturally exposed by the opposition’s defensive system. However, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid having your more advanced support players positioned in spaces where the opposition system offers plentiful cover. The need to deal with players in exposed areas will create openings to direct the attack through an area that the opposition is trying to protect, either by forcing a defender off the player he’s currently marking or leaving him 1v1 in a large swathe of space. This can give a heavily marked player a chance to impact the game assuming he has the tools to receive the ball and beat his man. Whether this is done via technical ability, aerial ability or some other means, these players will have a better chance of actually influencing play if they have either the balance or simply the sheer physical power to navigate a tightly defended area.

Still, there are two reasons you should avoid placing an outright playmaker in a well defended area. The first is that it will very likely reduce his ability to influence the game. The second is that it will encourage the rest of your team to try to finesse the ball into the congested space in an attempt to get the ball to the playmaker. Depending on the quality of the players around him, this can completely undermine the intended purpose of a playmaker.

If your options are limited, there are a few methods you can use to free up a playmaker. The first is simply to encourage the playmaker to roam by using either a personal instruction or a role that encourages greater mobility by default. This will increase the chance that he will actually move into any space that opens up. The second is to actually instruct the team to direct build-up play away from the playmaker. For example, you can create and utilise more width in an attempt to create an opening for a central playmaker. This can force the opposition to shift its defensive efforts into a different area and potentially open some space for the playmaker to receive the ball.

Just as it’s important to provide the attack with multiple linking players, it’s just as important to have multiple players who will be looking to utilise any space that opens up around the area and attack the final ball. With any system and attacking pattern, you should avoid attacking systems that only look to supply chances for a single target player. If this player is effectively marked or simply has a bad day, it won’t matter how well you’ve utilised space in midfield or how many different types of supply you’re providing. If all roads lead to the same dead end, the result will be the same.

In practice, this means that a tactic designed to quickly and consistently produce quality chances (as opposed to just controlling a match) should ideally have two players instructed to make frequent forward runs from either the midfield or forward line, ideally from two separate directions. Mobile fullbacks and wingbacks will occasionally attack the area as well, but these players are mainly useful for creating overloads to draw defenders off the goal-scoring forwards and midfielders. While they will offer the occasional goal, they should not be relied upon as a consistent target for your creative midfielders and forwards. You should also consider having at least one player who will either frequently attempt off the ball runs from a central position or create space for a shot via dribbling. Wide players can be consistent goal-scorers if they have the right level of ability, but central players will find themselves in better shooting positions more consistently.

When putting the finishing touches on an attacking system, it’s important to step back and ask yourself the following questions:

• Where am I leaving space exposed to counterattacks?

• Are the holding players well equipped to protect the space exposed around them?

• Where do I have reliable support in advanced positions linking attack and defence?

• Do I have at least two distinct routes for linking the attack with the holding and deep-lying support players?

• Where are the reliable runners who will consistently attack the final pass into the penalty area?

• Will I have runs into the area reliably coming from two distinct directions?

• What kind of defensive systems/styles will cut off the key creative links between defence and attack?

Answering these questions can help you identify problems before they cost you in competitive matches. If you have any doubts about what to expect, you should take advantage of preseason and even training friendlies as a way of observing how your attacking system will position players to create and utilise space. In preseason, it can be especially helpful to arrange friendlies against many different kinds of opponents to give you a sense of how a system will tend to adapt against different defensive systems and styles. Though you shouldn’t take the results of friendlies too seriously, they do give you an opportunity to assess the structure of your attack.

2 thoughts on “Lines and Diamonds: Part Six – Attacking Systems”

    1. It can work yeah but in a 433 I assume it’s the 41221 you are talking about? If so the formation is naturally defensive and because it used a DMC it means you can be more attack minded with the roles and duties you use. A defensive double pivot might be a bit overkill and make it hard for the remaining MC to be the sole link player from midfield.

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