“Libero”-ated — A look at the Principles behind how Gabriel Heinze’s teams Play Out from the back.

It started with a tweet, as invariably many of these things often do. Perhaps, if you go back even further it could be traced to reading the excellent Spanish Language book Modelo Heinze. Alternatively, at it’s inception this was all spurred by the announcement Atlanta United had secured the services of Gabriel Heinze as their manager for the 2021 MLS season.

Nonetheless, as with any footballing “rule of thumb” there was a need to expand the concepts originally proposed. Delving further around Gabriel Heinze’s Positional References for how his teams play out from the back.

While it would be frivolous to probe much more inside Gabriel Heinze’s devotion to building from the back. The most significant element to note is that he has been consistently vocal on seeing the game as “a whole”, and not a divisible set of individual parts.

Therein the importance “El Gringo” gives to playing out can in essence be interlinked with a couple of considerations.

Not only does building from the back establish a platform for his team to go forward with both the numbers and effective distribution of players across the pitch. It also achieves attacks finish higher up, with a greater quantity of players connected around the ball. Which in turn allows to press in the opponents half within a far more favourable series of conditions.

The latter element is usually overlooked, yet is a crucial aspect that underpins why Heinze persists in playing out, even when his sides are being heavily pressed.

I don’t like to use the word ‘tactics’, I prefer to talk about the positioning of players on the field.

Atlanta United Introductory press conference with Gabriel Heinze — 21st of December 2020.

When asked to describe his tactical philosophy in his recent introduction to the US media, Gabriel Heinze seemingly raised a few eyebrows with a response that felt somewhat out of the ordinary in the modern game.

What has been met with a mixture of surprise and scorn, was in all likelihood more a case of Heinze simply explaining that broadly speaking his philosophy primarily responds to a series considerations in relation to his players characteristics, and the role he wants them to perform within the team.

Ergo, rather than emphasizing say a pure formation/position(s) on the pitch based approach (I.E: shape vs shape). The former Vélez, Argentinos and Godoy Cruz boss favours creating specific contexts, in terms of duels from which the team can generate a superiority.

Tying this back to building up from the back specifically, the creation of these contexts are heavily influenced by the perceivable spare player. This is to say either the goalkeeper, and first and foremost the location of the “Libero” — when the opposition looks to Press/Cover certain outlets.

Based on his most recent coaching, I’ve identified an initial 3 key positional distinctions for said Libero, worth noting.

[**Original full video used for the compilations can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uImrM7udXW8&feature=youtu.be **]

The leading presumption these days is when an opponent plays with two forwards, in order to keep a +1 spare typically a central midfielder drops in to become the free man — a tactic popularly dubbed “La Salida Lavolpiana”. However, this isn’t necessarily always the case inside Gabriel Heinze’s idea.

As can be seen using the Rosario Central — Vélez Sarsfield match, the Libero: on this occasion is midfielder Gastón Giménez (currently with Chicago Fire in the MLS), but he actually holds ahead of the centre-backs.

A positional snapshot & overview of team shapes from Rosario Central vs. Vélez Sarsfield — Superliga Argentina 2019–20.
Build-up examples from Rosario Central vs. Vélez Sarsfield: against a 1–2 Opposition Forward Line.

The above clips help highlight the previously touched on caveat that when the opposition forwards start from a wider position, acombination of two Centre-backs and one Pivot in a triangle shape build-up is generally the preferred MO to provoke the opposition press. Therefore generating space behind the first wave of onrushing attackers.

When viewing said vacated area in relation to the game’s Six Key Spaces, it would be arguably most common that these movements allow the team to arrive; in-front of the opponents wide players.

Equally though, on the other side of the equation if the pivot does drop versus open opposition forwards, they’d ordinarily reduce the keepers time and angles from which to play from as a result of this.

The goalkeeper’s function, especially when a team wants to instigate a press from their opponent, is an added critical consideration here.

When in possession, in this case the keeper is the only true free player. Therefore their understanding (as well as that of their teammates) around mechanisms on how to “pin” the opponent and then overload them, is paramount.

An excellent mini-thread from Adin Osmanbašić, currently at Heinze’s future side Atlanta United, on pinning and the role of the goalkeeper within this.

Overall and in summary, said triangle shaped build-up as demonstrated vs Central/against forwards who press from out to in, has been a core tenet for Heinze throughout his coaching career to date. With countless other illustrations such as against Gimnasia in 2018 in the archives.

Even sticking to this under extreme duress, as their game with Gabriel Milito’s Estudiantes de La Plata showcased.

A primary difference for when Gabriel Heinze’s teams have preferred to adopt the Lavolpe styled build-up phase back three, was when opponent’s forwards started from a narrower pressing position. So, opposition forwards covering (own) centre-backs, with wide players picking up the wing-backs/wide spaces.

The Libero in this case dropped back behind the centre-backs, meaning they flattened out the line creating a bigger horizontal space that had to be defended by a team that wanted to play narrow.

Games versus Heinze’s former side Godoy Cruz, along with an away fixture against Unión de Santa Fe, both afforded good expressions of how Gastón Giménez this time situated himself between central defenders Lautaro Giannetti and Luis Abram, as below.

A positional snapshot & overview of team shapes from Vélez Sarsfield vs Godoy Cruz — Superliga Argentina 2019–20.
Build-up examples from Vélez Sarsfield vs Godoy Cruz & Unión de Santa Fe vs Vélez Sarsfield: against a 2–2 Opposition Forward Line.

The likely belief behind this adaptation is firstly, with a bigger space to defend one opponent cannot pick up two players in-front & in-behind, just with their position/cover shadow.

Add to this, it routinely promotes the ability to keep players advanced in central positions higher (Full-Backs stay wide in this scenario) releasing them to influence the game more.

Therefore if we continue analysing this from the attacking Key Spaces point of view; behind the opposition central midfielders.

Significantly this is a big overarching benefit to this practice. Which is married to the fact when opponents sits back trying to congest the pitch, the general preferred solution is to start attacks from centrally. Being that this makes it harder to neutralize the play to just one lane or area.

Another example to support this method comes again vs Unión, while additionally denoting the difference in the keeper’s function too.

In this scenario the goalie is more so tasked in moving the ball, and asa result the opponent, from side to side. (Whereas when the Libero is in front, the remit is to “break lines”/go longer earlier.)

By highlighting the first two caveats, there is a sufficient body of evidence to proclaim that throughout Gabriel Heinze’s budding managerial career when adopting a back three, it has mainly been comprised by a midfield pivot temporarily dropping in alongside the centre-backs during the build-up phase.

However, there are a handful of times Heinze’s Vélez played a fixed back three. Usually in what has been widely touted as a “Bielsa-esque” 3–3–1–3.

Said shape still yielded the inclusion of a separate, sole pivot stationed ahead of the Defensive trio. Which, for the purposes of this explanation is best described as the Libero being level.

Ostensibly this was usually as a result of the inclusion of Fernando Gago in the XI, and Gastón Giménez dropping to the back-line permanently (or vice-versa). Albeit a notable occasion actually came against Arsenal de Sarandí, with fellow central midfielder Mauro Pittón at the base of midfield.

A positional snapshot & overview of team shapes from Arsenal de Sarandí vs. Vélez Sarsfield — Superliga Argentina 2019–20.
Build-up examples from Arsenal de Sarandí vs. Vélez Sarsfield: 3–3–1–3 against a 2–1 Opposition Forward Line.

Not only was it the comprehensive manner of the victory that gave much to talk about in the media. But the different nature of the setup for this contest also imparted a series of eye-catching positional references.

For some time now it has been common to see a substantial amount of teams set up in a low block, with almost a mirrored two–one of narrow wide players and a lone forward looking to block the inside passing lanes.

Typically, against such tactical puzzles Heinze would match up in predominantly a 4–3–3. So, to deviate markedly towards a 3–3–1–3 as Vélez did in this instance was especially memorable. Given it effectively pitted a back three versus theoretically only a single opposition forward.

One of the main reasons for this though, was by having Pablo Galdames and Braian Cufré (alongside Pittón) as wing-backs stationed inside. This meant they not only occupied space behind the opponent’s wide two: Joel Soñora and Gastón Álvarez Suárez. They also, by drawing them inside the pitch, allowed for sharp diagonal balls from the back that put Ricky Centurión - Wide Right, and Lucas Janson - Wide Left, in 1 vs 1 duels on the wings.

In actual fact Defenders on the ball bypassing the midfield early, wide area rotations — where the winger and wide player alternate both the level and lane (*so no two at the same level + lane*), are longstanding staples of Gabriel Heinze’s Positional Play.

Mix in the principle of having a minimum of two options ahead of the ball carrier, 5 vs 4 in attack. Plus positioning “One wide, One inside and One deep” as well, and you have yourself a collection of references that have been vital to Heinze’s game-model over the years.

This notwithstanding, the Arsenal win does help exhibit the cautionary ingredient to this piece. Of how there is a great deal of nuance to be factored alongside any fundamentals.

Whereas what would be deemed a conventional way of Vélez playing out versus an opposition 4–2-1–3 or 4–3–3, against Club Atlético Colón — is well established. The dynamics of the game, and even chaotic moments within it, mean the principles proposed (should) act more so as analytical references of play, to help create — over and above inflexible rules.

“I’ve finally accepted myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand’s outstretched… & when it happens, I give thanks for it!”