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).

Conclusion

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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Tactical theory

Pressing Resistance: the new tactical buzzword

Regarded as one of the antidotes to Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing, pressing resistance is the new tactical buzzword that has been doing the rounds in football discussions across twitter. From the average fan to pundits alike, the term is becoming a part of common football terminology as the seasons come and go. Thus, it is no surprise that huge amount of money is being paid to get such players in the transfer market. In this article, I will try to analyze what goes into the making of a press resistant player. 

Press resistance: what does it mean?

The term press resistance is self explanatory, ie, the ability to resist high pressure from the opposition when in possession. This requires skill to retain the ball in tight spaces. 

“If you have the ball you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible.” –Johan Cruyff 

As Cruyff points out, when teams do not have the ball, they often resort to making the pitch small for the opposition players to play in by 

  • Using a high defensive line. 
  • Being compact as a unit with very less space between the lines. 
  • Applying high pressure in the opponent half.

This decreases the time period for the player on the ball to make his next move successfully. As a result, most players tend to lose possession when facing such pressure. However the rare few who stand out manage to evade such pressure on a consistent basis. This enables them to pull their team out from a pressure situation in their own half to a dominant situation in the opposition half in a matter of seconds. The players who manage to do this form the basis of this article,ie, the ‘press resistant’ players.

The need of the hour?

“I want players who can make decisive moves in small spaces”

-– Johan Cruyff

Cruyff was arguably the greatest thinker football has ever known. Both as a player and a coach, he incorporated a style of play in his teams which inspired generations of coaches even years after he took a break from football. This quote exemplifies how much he valued press-resistant players. He was well aware that a team will always face situations in a game when the players are not best placed positionally. It is in these moments that a press resistant player will take them out of pressure and orchestrate the next move. Pep Guardiola would do this for Cruyff in his dream team. Today, a bunch of players fit this criteria across various leagues, Busquets in La Liga, Julian Weigl and Thiago Alcantara in the Bundesliga, Leandro Paredes in Italian Serie A, Marco Verratti in Ligue 1 and Paul Pogba in the Premier League to name a few. 

There are four phases in the game shown below:

Four phases of the game (image courtesy 

Adin Osmanbasic)

It is in the offensive transition phase(transition from defense to attack) that the likes of Busquets,Pogba, Verratti, Modric and the others in the list of press-resistant players make a significant difference that makes them invaluable to their respective teams. It is in these vulnerable moments when no side seems to be in any real control of the game that their actions ,maybe a small body feint, maybe a slight flick, maybe a simple-looking pass, put their teams in a dominant situation. In football terms, their action in that transition moment changes the phase of the game from one of offensive transition to that of offensive organisation. That one bit of brilliance which seldom gets recorded in the statistics section which enables their team to reach the final third from a vulnerable position near their own penalty box. This is what makes them special. This is what makes them worth all the cash clubs are ready to pay for their services. 

These players provide a plan B when teams fail to build up properly using the patterns they prepare before a game. When the patterns fail, it is these special breed of players who can take matters into their own hands(feet in this case) and drive into the opposition half. Real Madrid for example are a club who struggle when it comes to building up play from their backline. It is players like Modric and Kroos who often drop deep to ensure that they can advance play from their own half. Both of them make the best decisions in the smallest amount of spaces. While Modric excels in quick combinations before accelerating into open space in front of him, Kroos relies on his passes and subtle changes in his body posture to make the best decisions in areas of the field where most players panic. If Real Madrid ever have to go into a game without either of these two in their XI, one can be sure they will struggle to create the amount of chances that they normally do in a game. 

See the video below to see what they offer Real Madrid. (Thanks to analyst Istvan Beregi for uploading these clips)

Toni Kroos 

Types of press resistance

If one were to classify press resistance, there would be two types: 

  1. Collective press resistance: This mainly deals with the overall team structure during the moment of transition. It is mainly concerned with generating overloads which make it easier for the team in possession to retain the ball and progress play to the final third. The overloads, if used appropriately make it possible. Bayern and Borussia Dortmund in the season 2015-16 were the best teams I have watched when I think of a strong collective structure. Here is an example from analyst Istvan yet again. You can go through his twitter account to get more such videos. 
  2. Individual pressing resistance: This is what we are concerned with in this article. Read on to know more.

The good versus the great

What is it that defines greatness on a football field? Is it the winning goal in a World Cup final? Is it the assist that led to a late winner in a World Cup final? Is it the save that stopped a certain goal late in a World Cup final to take the match to penalties and eventually win it? Or is it the pass that preceded the assist in the winning goal? Ask any football fan or analyst about the scorer of the winning goal in the World Cup final and he will answer it spontaneously. Then ask him to name the player who assisted the winning goal and it is likely that he may fumble before giving the answer. Next ask him to name the one who assisted the assister(seems like a tongue twister,right? ) and it is highly likely he won’t be able to give that answer. What exactly does this highlight? Not enough value is given to the good work done before the 2-3 actions that eventually lead to a goal. This leads to undermining the work the press resistant players do few seconds before the assist that creates the goal. Such actions go unnoticed because goals are what people come to watch football for. In a way,it’s understandable as the quote below shows:

“That is what makes football special, and what makes football what it is. It takes so much effort to score that each goal is celebrated that little bit more joyously. Any one goal,at any time in the game, can be the difference between delight and despair. The goal is football’s beauty and she is a rare and reluctant beauty indeed.” — quote from The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally.

So one cannot blame the fans for neglecting those little aspects which happen 5-6 seconds prior to the goal, the actions that play a pivotal role in the goal itself. 

So, it is no surprise that you will never see the likes of Pirlo, Xavi, Busquets, Modric or Kroos winning the Ballon D’ Or. Cruyff used to call the Ballon D’ Or a ‘media circus’. But there is something that these players do on a football field which is gaining lot of popularity across social media and post match discussions nowadays. The work they do is dominating the field of football analysis. They have some peculiar traits which separate them from average players. This is what I will look at in the following sections.

What makes a press resistant player?

1. Checking shoulders and taking in lots     of input in a short span of time                                                                                             This is a trait which is common among the players who excel in bringing the ball out from deep situations. Xavi is probably the best example of this type of player. Within a fraction of seconds, he is able to take in a lot of input about the game scenario just by checking his shoulders. By gazing over his shoulder, he makes sure that at all times he knows where the spaces are that can be exploited. He also takes into account the positioning of his teammates (he even knew where his teammates would be a few seconds after he received the ball) and his opponents. This is what made him one of the best players to control a game. His ability to take in so much input in a fraction of milliseconds is what made Xavi one of the best press resistant players.  The quote below perfectly defines him. 

“Xavi laid down a style for the national team and marked an era. He was an expert at moving the ball on with one or two touches but when he had to hold on to it, he did that too. When it came to dictating the pace of a game, studying matches, he was a maestro. Teams would drop deep and wait and he would always find the solution, patiently. In 10 minutes, he knew the team in front of him perfectly. He was a leader.” — Vicente Del Bosque

2. Ability to see the bigger picture(and       game intelligence)
When one watches players like Sergio Busquets, it seems that they have eyes at the back of their head and more time compared to other teammates. It makes one wonder what is it they have that the others don’t? There is no answer as simple as the one I am going to give you now. They have an incredible amount of game intelligence. They know exactly what the manager wants from the team. Every movement they make, every pass they make is an attempt to make sure that their team is able to create a favourable scenario to score. Busquets is a player who comes to mind immediately when it comes to manipulating opponents with his body movements. He is a master at disguised passes. Busquets often positions his body in such a way that makes it seem that he is going to pass to a wide player. As a result, the opposition winger tries to prepare for the pass to Barcelona’s wide man by drifting sideways. This slight movement from the winger is enough for Busquets to thread a pass through to a player like Messi between the opposition lines.  WM formation on twitter can give you a collection of such videos. Scroll through his account to see more game clips of Busquets’ game intelligence. 

Busquets pretending to pass to RB Sergi Roberto. His body position acts as a trigger for the opposition winger to close down Sergi Roberto. This also forces the near side CM to cover for the winger who has drifted wide. Passing lane between Messi and Busquets opens up as a result of this.


Busquets passing to Messi through the lane he opened up with his clever disguise.

3. Body position when receiving

This is the technical aspect which separates the average players from the rest. The best press resistant players need fewer touches to open up the whole field to make their next move while the others struggle. The small details like receiving on the back foot or the foot which is further away from the player marking him,a low centre of gravity and ability to shield the ball effectively play a big part in a player’s ability to evade pressure. Toni Kroos of Real Madrid is one of the best players to watch when it comes to body position while receiving. The way he uses his body to shield the ball is also something that must be taught to young players at an early age. It is no surprise that he hardly loses the ball in a game. Playing usually in the halfspaces, unless there is an opponent coming to pressurise him from his blind side, he always takes the touch on his farthest foot(right foot if he is playing in the left halfspace and vice versa). This enables him to switch flanks easily while also giving him the opportunity to play on the near side if the situation demands. On the other hand, if the opponent approaches him from the blind side, he receives the ball on the other foot while using his body to keep the ball away from the player marking him. Such small details go a long way in deciding the flow of a game. Thus, it is no surprise that Kroos is so highly rated. The basics look simple but hard to execute under pressure.Kroos(see the video that I shared earlier again) does it time and time again which makes him a great player. 

Another point to note is that some teams use poor body position as a pressing trigger. Once they see a player receiving with his back to goal in his own half, they exert a huge deal of pressure which makes it difficult for the receiving player to retain possession. This has been mentioned in this article by Judah Davies.

4.Ability to combine in small spaces and progress upfield through those small spaces

If you have to use just one criteria to include a player into the category of press resistance, then this is the criteria you should use,ie, combining in tight spaces to advance play forward. Two players I can think of who do this on a consistent basis are Marco Verratti and Luka Modric. They have a very low centre of gravity(Modric and Verratti helped by their small frame) which helps them in tight situations. They attract 2-3 opponents towards them which frees up space for their teammates. Normally it is difficult for ordinary players to withstand such pressure without losing possession. However, the skillsets(superior ball-carrying attributes, perfect weight on their passing) of these three players enables them to come out of such situations and create dangerous chances for their respective teams. In this excellent analysis of Luka Modric (by Tristan Thomas), we see how pivotal a role he plays in offensive organisation phases for Real Madrid. Because of weak positional structure(see the analysis again and observe the lack of Real Madrid players between the opposition lines), Modric is often faced with lack of progressive passing options. He is then forced to take the initiative in dribbling the ball into the final third. With his dribbling and quick 1-2s he is able to create avenues for progressing the ball upfield which is otherwise not possible with Madrid’s poor positional structure.This makes him an irreplaceable member of the Real Madrid team. Without him, they seriously struggle in build up. Modric committing his future to Real Madrid should come as a relief to his coach and fans alike. 

Marco Verratti is also a similar type of player. However unlike Modric, he enjoys a good positional structure around him which means he does not have to initiate attacks on his own. One or two decisive turns in areas where he is surrounded by opponents followed by a pass to a free man like Di Maria or Matuidi preferably between the lines is enough to help his team launch attacks. Like Modric, he adds a great deal of balance to the PSG side. In his absence, PSG got knocked out of the Champions League against a side they should have beaten had Verratti been fit. However, fate had other plans as a late Kevin De Bruyne winner in the second leg was enough to knock them out. 

This is the type of situation Verratti finds himself in during some games. He attracts three players towards him and unlike most players has the skills to beat them and release others with a pass.

Watch Verratti wriggle his way out of such situations without the slightest bit of discomfort. Such situations go unnoticed in the game due to the beauty of some goals PSG manage to score. The maker of the video has done a good job compiling the clips.

5. The art of diagonal dribbling

This is an aspect which is seldom brought up in post-match football discussions. When Messi beats 3-4 players enroute to a goal, there is something about the mechanics of his movements with the ball that enables him to gain so much ground with the ball,something which is rarely brought up by pundits after a game. However thanks to Spielverlagerung analyst Tom Payne, people now have access to the uniqueness in Messi’s dribbling. What makes it successful is the diagonal nature of his dribbling. Diagonal dribbling is useful because it enables a player to bypass defenders without actually having to confront them. Moreover, by dribbling diagonally, it is possible for a player to shift from a packed zone of opponent defenders to a zone where the defensive structure is weak;all this being done without actually beating all the defenders (watch David Silva in the build up to this goal) in the packed zone. Thus, diagonal dribbling can lead to overloads in an underloaded area if it becomes successful. The free man due to the overload created can be decisive in the final outcome of the attack.

Picture taken from Tom Payne’s excellent analysis on 

Borussia Dortmund

Picture from the analysis on

Borussia Dortmund. Another feature Tom Payne talks about in his article is how diagonal dribbling can completely demolish a team that relies on man orientations during defensive phases. Diagonal dribbling, if successful can lead to a free man who can then create dangerous situations up front. Gündogan was effective last season for Borussia Dortmund because he offered them an alternative route when building up from deeper areas due to his diagonal dribbling skills. He is one of the best box to box midfielders when fit and this partly explains the reason why Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was so keen on getting him. It is in games where Manchester City will face a high press (namely Liverpool and Tottenham) this season that Gündogan may well be the key for them. These teams are likely to trouble Manchester City’s passing game by suffocating them in the build up phase. Guardiola will look to get his team to bypass that press and get the ball circulating behind their opponents’ midfield line to get players like Silva and Agüero in dangerous positions. Gündogan will come in handy because of the amazing level of press resistance he possesses. Below is a scenario which Man City may encounter against teams like Liverpool this season.

Probable scenario when Liverpool and Man City go head to head this season. Liverpool trying to disrupt Man City’s build up with a high pressing game. Stones being the free man has the ball and he tries to find Gündogan with a simple pass. Gündogan drops deep to help the build up and is closely followed by Coutinho.


Gündogan uses his skills and gets past Coutinho. He now has acres of space to attack. This is the advantage a press resistant player gives a team.

Gündogan has a lot of space to attack as well as options in all sides.

6. The Vision to release the ball at the          right time

There are several characteristics which go into the making of a successful pass. 

“Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.”— Johan Cruyff

As Cruyff puts it, a successful pass is one which is delivered at the right speed, right time and at the correct foot of the teammate. Marcelo Bielsa was also known to teach his players in training about the various ways of communicating through a pass. Bielsa researched and found some 36 ways of communicating through a pass. 

There are some players who excel in the timing of their passes. They know when to play one touch football and when to delay the passes. Xavi was one of the masters at this. This enabled him to dictate the tempo of the game according to his will. Sometimes, he will release the ball faster to get runners free. At other times, he will wait an extra second or two to make sure his teammate is in the best possible situation to receive the pass. By delaying the pass, he would bring more players towards him which will free up space for another player in more advanced areas. Sometimes, the delay in passing was to ensure that his teammate is in the right position to receive the pass. At other times, he will release wingers or fullbacks with early balls. This variation in timing of passes is crucial in the retention of possession. Depending on the situation, the best press resistant players in the modern game are able to make the best decisions for their team. 

Xavi has the ball and is looking to find Iniesta in space. Iniesta is not accessible to Xavi because the #10 of the red team is blocking him with his cover shadow. So Xavi delays his pass to allow Iniesta to reposition himself.

Xavi’s delay in the pass enabled Iniesta to get into a good position for a Xavi pass. Xavi finds him with the pass.

7. The use of body feints to create favourable scenarios for ball retention

When faced with a situation in which there are no progressive passing options for the ball carrier due to efficient use of cover shadows by the opposition, some players can manage to create a passing option by using body feints. The use of body feints leads to a temporary change of opponent body posture. This creates a small window of opportunity for the ball carrier to pick out a pass to a teammate who was previously marked by the opponent using cover shadows. The pass can be easily picked out by players like Julian Weigl. By pulling off such passes, they put their team in a strong position from a position of uncertainty, thereby highlighting the importance of a press resistant player in deeper phases of build up. 

Conclusion

Gone are the days when young kids used to play street football for hours and hours. This can be attributed to the growing influence of technology. Kids nowadays spend more hours playing games on a PlayStation or Xbox. This has led to a lack of technical players who have the skillset similar to the likes of Bergkamp, Zidane, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and the numerous names who graced football in the years gone by. There is a struggle to create such players today. The KNVB recommend playing mini games of 4 v 4 in the early years of a child to help him develop the technical traits early. Without street football, the emphasis is more on coaching. Coaches must find solutions quickly because the breed of press resistant players are dying. However, there is hope even in despair as this Rinus Michels’ quote suggests 

There will always be talented players. They occur and they are not the result of hard training”

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