Tactical theory

Staggering: A brief introduction

“The main problem I had to solve when my players were in possession of the ball was the one of creating space: searching for, creating and occupying space in the different parts of the field and exploiting that space in an effective and positive way.”– Giovanni Trapattoni

The above quote by arguably one of the most successful Italian coaches ever sums up how obsessed coaches are with managing space. Football in spite of being a ball game, is mostly about managing space. The one who controls space effectively more often than not ends up winning. Guided by this knowledge, coaches come up with different positional play models that facilitate the usage of space in an efficient way to make sure that they control a game. The strategies for controlling the space may be different for different managers. Some managers may prioritise managing space without having much ball possession. Diego Simeone is probably the first name which comes to mind when thinking of such a strategy. Another strategy is based on controlling the space with an emphasis on having a lot of ball possession. Pep Guardiola represents this style of play. 

The obsession with space brings with it a concept called staggering. Both strategies mentioned above use it in varying amounts with the basic objective remaining the same, ie, to control space. Whereas a proactive approach seeks to control as much blade of grass as possible on a football field to have more space to play with the ball, a reactive approach seeks to control the important areas in front of its own penalty box to limit the opposition’s prospects of controlling that area where most chances are created.

What is staggering?

Whether you end up watching BBC Match of the Day or Sky Sports Monday Night Football, it is very common to hear discussions about formations. However, top coaches like Guardiola, Klopp and Allegri devote very little time to formations. According to Guardiola, “Formations are just numbers”. Similar things are said by Klopp and Allegri. So, if these top coaches do not discuss formations, what do they discuss before a game? More often than not, their discussions involve how best to use the available space on the pitch with the players they have. For proactive coaches, this involves ensuring good connectivity throughout the length and breadth of the football field. For reactive coaches, this involves limiting the space for their opponents to play in. Regardless of whether the approach is proactive or reactive, the concept called staggering can help reach the objectives required to be achieved in each approach. 

Staggering is basically the arrangement of players of a team at different heights and widths on a football pitch. If this is to be represented on formations, then the presence of various lines in a formation represents staggering. For example, the classic 4-4-2 formation has 4 lines including the goalkeeper. The Dutch 4-3-3 has 5 lines. Similarly a 3-2-4-1 formation ( used by Paulo Sousa’s Fiorentina) has as many as 7 lines). 

Why is staggering important?

“4-4-2 makes my bum twitch”– Louis van Gaal

In an interview with The Guardian, Louis van Gaal openly expressed his dislike for the 4-4-2 formation as opposed to the 4-3-3 or the 3-5-2 he was using on a more regular basis at Manchester United. Despite the supporters begging for a return to Sir Alex Ferguson’s classic 4-4-2, Louis van Gaal was adamant not to change his much famed philosophy. What was the thing about 4-4-2 that makes Louis van Gaal’s bum twitch? If one were to think about the playing style of Louis van Gaal’s teams, one can easily find out the answers. 

“PSV always play very compact and well organised soccer. This means playing dominantly in a different sense of the word. I link the term dominant with offensive soccer and playing in the opponent team’s half. I also choose to play like this because we are always trying to excite the public. If you play offensive soccer, the fans are entertained. If you play passively, you are only occasionally dominant.” -Louis van Gaal

With a 4-4-2 formation, the possibilities for ball retention are not as good as a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2. In a 4-4-2 formation, there are 3 lines(if we consider Sir Alex Ferguson’s 4-4-2) as opposed to Louis van Gaal’s 4-3-3 which has as many as 7 lines. 

“The good thing about a 4-3-3 formation is that it creates a large number of lines. If you play a 4-4-2 with a flat 4, there are only 3 or 4 lines. With a 4-3-3, there are 6 lines which enables good pitch coverage and from a mathematical point of view, a lot more passing angles”– Louis van Gaal

Thus, a 4-3-3 formation enables more lines and as such better possibilities for dominating a game with the ball. The availability of more passing angles and greater area coverage during possession make it difficult for an opponent to win the ball. If a team has good technical players, formations like 4-3-3 can help a team to play proactively. One of the reasons Manchester United struggled under Louis van Gaal was because of underskilled players in central midfield like Marouane Fellaini. Without good technical players, ball circulation becomes sluggish making it impossible to play the type of offensive football Louis van Gaal craves. 

“I like to use five lines, excluding the goalkeeper: the back four, a central midfielder playing from the back, two outside midfielders pushing forward, one striker lying back or up front and two attackers on the wings.”

“In an attacking formation the field of play is from the bottom half of the center circle to the opponent’s penalty area. This creates a pitch of 45 meters in length and 60 meters wide. With a length of about nine meters for every line.”— Johan Cruyff

This brings us to another aspect of a good staggered structure. A team with efficient staggering has to run much less compared to a team with poor staggering. As Cruyff pointed out, if there are more lines, the distance needed to be covered by a player in a particular line is lowered (a minimal 9 metres for Cruyff’s teams). This allows a team to generate conditions that favour quick regain of possession immediately after losing the ball. By employing a counterpress, it is possible for a team to win it back quickly and launch the next attack. The masters of this are Pep Guardiola’s teams: Barcelona at first, then came Bayern,Manchester City is a work in progress. Having admitted that he “knew nothing about football till he met Cruyff”, it is no surprise that Guardiola adopted this lesson from Cruyff’s coaching manual. 

However, problems arise when the spacing between the lines is not optimal. It is imperative that there should not be a big space between the lines( not more than 10 metres according to Cruyff). This makes teams vulnerable to counterattacks. On the other hand, good staggering helps in counterpressing by blocking more passing angles,more spaces and more lines (read this interview by famous twitter analyst Adin Osmanbasic).


Instead of formations, it will be better for pundits on social media and various football review shows to discuss about staggering. I have tried to share with you all my limited knowledge on staggering. It will be helpful if more knowledgeable people write articles on it. As a fan, I am interested in knowing the movements which help in realisation of the concepts of staggering. I hope someone better equipped than me shares more on the topic. 


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