The “Shape” of Football to come? — How Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester City & Co. are helping challenge the paradigm behind formations

With the bulk of a truly crazy, unforgettable football season come to an end, I found myself, much like I imagine many others would have, reflecting on some of the experiences and main learning’s I had taken from the 2019–20 campaign.

This in truth, was potentially why I was almost instantly compelled to write a piece around one of the many excellent The Coaches Voice Masterclass lessons over the past year and beyond.

The particular video in question, is a lesson from the current England second in command, and former Chelsea Assistant manager Steve Holland. In it, England’s Assistant Manager does a more than admirable job of trying to challenge some of the built-up conventions that we’ve by in large embraced around a team shape. (5 at the back is Defensive. 2 up front is more Attacking & so on, & so forth.)

Without a doubt, like all great work it is content that provides as much privileged insight, as it does also ask worthwhile questions of its viewer. One I’d unequivocally recommend to be watched in full.

The overarching theme on offer, is primarily as a reminder that a footballing formation is highly relative. This is not necessarily new information of course. However, one of the first conclusions to draw alongside would be how perception behind certain actions is hugely influential when analyzing.

I.E and not disagreeing with Holland as such, my initial thought when digesting the simile’s provided, was to recall a dogma I’ve focused on for a while now which is: “Attack (or better put “Arrive, as it represents the more dynamic nature of the reality) with 6 — Defend (or if you prefer “Cover) with 4”.

What then made this even more engaging, was the comparison in relation to that of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC.

Even factoring in the superb @tacticsboardtw clip was taken some time back, Klopp’s explanation is something that has always stayed with me (why will become clearer a little later.)

In this context though, it also helps shine a light on how oftentimes analyzing something as dynamic as a footballing shape, can be somewhat akin to the Elephant and the Blind Men fable!

Numbers momentarily notwithstanding, the overall premise of the video certainly still holds true in my opinion. In that across a lot of football sides at present, there are consistent patterns to their system(s) that can be extrapolated.

Therein though, the difficulty lies in that the methods to enact them can tend to vary. On occasions more wildly than others.

Liverpool, City, Leeds: Same, Same — But Different!

The idea of Attacking, or again more accurately at least Arriving to the box with 6, is a principle that has resonated with me for some time. Perhaps dating all the way back to when it was most allegorically told, in a segment within one of Bielsa’s very own Masterclasses, at the Aspire Academy Conference in 2016.

When marrying the core idea of both the last two videos, the understandable comparison between Herr Klopp’s side and Marcelo Bielsa’s 2019–20 Championship wining heroes springs straight to the mind.

Equally, as has been well documented in this excellent All Stats Aren’t We Review, irrespective of breaking down to the “with 5” or “with 6” aspect. There are also pronounced similarities between the offensive elements to Pep Guardiola’s side and that of which he considers: “The best coach in the world”.

Expanding on the theme, it is important to distinguish that even across such a small sample size of just 3, or even 4 teams if we include Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in to the melting pot. They all still do things notably different. Not least in terms of the ways they try to occupy their shape(s).

Who Occupies Width — How Do You Generate Depth?

Parting from the premise that systems are indeed flexible and fluid (& at least to varying degrees work in relation to your opponent too). There are still always a series of spaces that you should either be occupied or arrived at, in order to have the best possible opportunity to generate a superiority over the opponent.

Arguably the current ubiquitous standard in terms of pitch distribution to support this, revolves around what is commonly presented as “Guardiola’s Half-Space theory.”

Attending to this type of sectorization even loosely. As well as overlaying it (or even if not) with different modern day methodology such as say Positional Play. It would be fair to suggest a consistent trait is that said top sides embrace a philosophy that a structure should help facilitate a team with:

- Depth.

- Width.

As well as finding the at times overlooked:

- “Half spaces”.

When doing so, this not only provides a platform for players to directly intervene (in an attacking sense). But it also means they can contribute indirectly.

The role of certain players without the ball can be to Fix different opposition to areas of the pitch through their location in respect to them/the ball. The maxim of: “One player should not be able to cover two opponents” is my favoured description for this. (This tying into the adage: “You want your opponent to have defend as much space as possible too of course.)

That in turn affords a specific (tactical) benefit - such as compensating for the Transition Moments within the game. As well as the possibility to win the ball back earlier and/or higher.

One thing I’ve noted even more this season, is a great deal of mainstream analysis focusing solely on how poorly “Team X” Defend, completely neglecting the impact that Attacking effectively has towards it.

It’s precisely this type of ill explored narrative, that serves only to pervert footballing debate. Rather than instead try to stimulate it with learning and growth of knowledge.

To take an opposing stance to said dominant style. The most enlightening explanation I’ve personally encountered in respect to analyzing Football as a whole (& not a dichotomy of Attack -or- Defence), has been that of Paco Seirul.lo’s “Phase Spaces” hypothesis — expertly synthesized in the clip from coach Camilo Speranza.

A snapshot from Leeds United’s notional attacking shape in their game vs QPR at Loftus Road back in January: Harrison & Costa providing width on this occasion. With Mateusz Klich & Pablo Hernández controlling the Intervals. Bamford pinning the opposition centre-backs to give his team depth.

Game model nuances aside though, where teams like Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester City can also at times mirror, and others vary. Is “Who” generates the width and “How they attack the depth. Notwithstanding who’ll then be using the aforementioned Half-Space intervals.

What does stay consistent across the board is an emphasis on how important decisions in respect to individuals characteristics, and the relationships they enact throughout the 90 minutes, are to the way a team chooses to construct their tactical framework. This directly underpinning their play game-to-game.

As touched upon, receiving in different areas of the pitch, or “zones” if you will, tends to present the game in an entirely different context (Back to goal, side on, facing forward etc.). So when selecting players for said mission(s), it is usually done with the understanding that they will lean on certain skill-sets/ways of communicating without the ball, potentially more than others.

The dynamic nature of football means at times it will be Wing-Backs who provide Width (coming on to the ball facing forward breaking into space), and the wide players tuck in to occupy the Interval Spaces (receive the ball on the half turn). With the centre and interior midfielders then compensating as cover (at times back to goal + look to “set the ball” in transition ) — E.G: the current Liverpool team.

Or for example, as Pep has made famous: one, if not both of the Wing-Backs can play inside close to the pivot. Allowing the wide players to open the pitch. Meaning on this occasion the interior midfielders (or as they’re known the two City “№8’s”) are the ones controlling the intervals.

This is unquestionably all something that’s ever changing. Both tactically within a match, but also evolving strategically year on year — as this video from @FootballMadeSim explains. Comprehensively covering Manchester City under Guardiola as the prototype.

The crux of the point being, that some teams choose to ignore width at the expense of depth, or others vice-versa. There are tactics that opt to use width as a decoy, to play inside (which can be referred to as the “Opposites” principle). While others do so to penetrate by creating overloads on the wing.

Regardless of differences, and without breaking down further into the minutiae, or circling back on the significance of spacing, player relationships Et Al.: the best sides attempt to use as many of the same players to rotate positions and even alternate shapes within a game when the contest dictate it.

An outstanding compilation from Jed Davies (@TPiMBW) of Leeds United 2019–20 and how differently the players can attack within what is still a recognizable structure. Plus, the significance of their relationships upon these and to how they can rotate.

To 2021 and Beyond!

All in all rounding up, if you strip back the plethora of tenets. This piece was perhaps more than anything, a somewhat cathartic way to arrive at a conclusion highlighting that rather than there being a “true” binary vision of the game dominated by Formation and Position. There is nowadays within the variations, a body of work that justifies deliberation that Attack and Defence are in essence indivisible.

If a team can Attack well, with numbers (the “How” to do so is largely subjective, albeit not the “What”, or even “Why”): they can engage effectively higher up the pitch, and in turn allow a scaffolding so to speak, from which to Defend better.

The inverse being true of setting out to Defend in a proportional, coherent manner gives the probability to attack far more effectively.

“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!”