An Exploration of the 4-3-3’s Flexibility, Part Two

Part Two: The adaptability of the 4-3-3

In part one the rise in popularity of the 4-3-3 along with domination of world soccer by Barcelona and the Spanish national team was looked at. The misinterpretation of possession and it’s favored formation as the be all and end all of soccer development by many pundits and coaches was also looked at and compared to other misunderstood tactical trends of the past.

In part two, we will pick up where part one left off and explore the adaptability of the 4-3-3 and debate how useful the formation can be as new tactical obsessions have emerged to blunt possession orientated teams.

The first point to make about the 4-3-3 is that in build-up and attack play, it is rarely actually a 4-3-3. This applies to it’s defensive shape as well as many coaches who use or say they use a 4-3-3 defend in a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 and transition to something that is still not quite a 4-3-3 in attack. Essentially, the team lines up to start each half in a 4-3-3 and never really gets into that shape again.

The most common alignment in initial possession when playing out of the back in a 4-3-3 is a 2-3-2-3. The fullbacks join the holding midfielder’s line, the front three stretch the opponent’s back line, the two center mids(usually referred to as “attacking” mids, even though they do far more than just attack) look for space centrally and the centerbacks split wide of the penalty area.

That’s not a 4-3-3 if you look at the positions on the field without any knowledge of the names of the positions, anyone would identify the shape as a 2-3-2-3. Of course, there would be issues with a coach identifying a formation as only having two dedicated defenders, publicly. A high level coach could face scrutiny from pundits and a youth coach would potentially be inviting mass hysteria from the player’s parents if they ran home and said they only play with two defenders! It’s much ‘safer’ to publicly identify your formation as one with a back four, even if you almost never have four players in your back line.

Louis van Gaal would stand as one of the ultimate examples of not caring what anyone outside of his team thought about his formation, system, training methods and so on. And he rightly identified the formation he utilized at Barcelona(internally) as a 2-3-2-3. He did this as far back as 1997, as can be seen in the image below. It’s part of an impressive and useful Powerpoint presentation he and his staff used with Barcelona.


This highlights what is well known and well understood in the modern game, the simple fact that fullbacks are in many systems now really wide midfielders more than they are backs. They spend the vast majority of their time either in attack or defense in positions in advance of the centerbacks. Fullbacks do still end up in the back line during defensive action in their defensive third but in a high possession, attack minded team that presses out of possession is it really correct to identify these players as fullbacks?

The Barcelona fullback pairing of Jordi Alba and Dani Alves took perhaps the most liberal of definitions in being called fullbacks in their time together. Currently, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker for Tottenham similarly should be looked at as wide midfielders and not fullbacks. Alba and Rose can often be found as the most advanced player in their opponent’s half at the end of an attacking sequence. Alves and Walker’s positioning on the right becomes extremely high when the winger/mid in front of them drifts inside as Lionel Messi did with Alves. All four are also routinely involved in pressing actions well in advance of their centerback pairing as well.

Are coaches then held back in getting what they want out of their players because of position names and traditional formation designations? US Soccer advocates using numbers in place of position names. Is this any better? No. It’s arguably worse to call a fullback a “2”, as this number in of itself provides no information.

The numbering system also seeks to create confusion as the position/number link changes with each formation and it is naive to assume every team in the country should be playing the same formation all of the time. And every coach’s definition of what he expects from his “7” would differ from one coach to the next anyways. So why the need to advocate for this antiquated way of identifying positions? The US Soccer numbering system is based off the English numbering system from the 2-3-5 formation used through the 1920s. How is that in anyway applicable and helpful to coaches and players in the modern game?

What if coaches freed themselves from the limitations of position names and numbers and freed themselves from traditional formation designations as well? If you play a 2-3-2-3, then call it that. If you don’t really have fullbacks, then don’t call your players fullbacks. The game of soccer is fluid and positions and formations need to be fluid as well and most importantly players need to understand that.

Players need structure of some sort, yes, especially at youth levels, you would not get too far with sending eleven players onto the field with the message of “figure it out”. Providing players with a template to position themselves and then training them in how to adapt to what the opponent’s present to defend them would enable a team to seamlessly play in multiple formations within the same game. And less emphasis on positions and formations, which actually dictate very little, would allow this exploration to come about.

We see Pep doing this every week for Manchester City. Only Pep is orchestrating these movements, he doesn’t have time for the players to figure it out on their own because his directive is to win games and trophies. Youth coaches should not be orchestrating all of their player’s movements in games. They should be allowed to explore solutions to tactical problems largely on their own. Especially in attack. Taking time in training to show these situations and orchestrate the movements to cope with them would be the correct approach.

The players can then be given the game, because the game is for the players, to see if they can apply what was taught in training to a game situation. The youth coach would be able to take pride in seeing his centerbacks and holding mid switch to a back three to deal with a center forward pairing pressing them high up the field on their own. Or a wide player recognizing their teammates are 3v3 in the center and moving in to the half space to try and provide support.

As a template for this learning process, the 4-3-3 provides a plethora of tactical movements to twist  and mold it’s shape to deal with the opponent’s defensive shape and tactics. Below we will look at several different examples that provide tactical solutions and can be utilized from the platform provided in the 4-3-3.

Tactical Solutions for being 3v3 in Central Midfield

When the 4-4-2 was a more common formation, the 4-3-3’s three central midfielders offered an advantage for controlling possession centrally. It is much more common now to see three central midfielders than it is two and in order to maintain numerical superiority, a fourth central midfielder is needed.

In a 4-3-3 that fourth player can come from seven different outfield positions across the back and forward lines. The four wide players, however, would be better able to move into the half spaces, which we will see below. That leaves the center forward and the centerbacks as the three players ideally suited to be able to quickly move from their defensive positions into a central position.

The False Nine

Perhaps the most well known tactic for creating a 4v3 in central midfield is the use of a false nine. A false nine is a center forward who occupies the traditional center forward space when defending, in between the opponent’s centerbacks, and then drops away from them into the center of the field in possession to link play with the center mids. This forces the centerbacks to decide to either let him go unmarked or follow him. Following leaves space in the back line to be exploited by the wingers, not following allows the 4v3 to be created.

It is a simple but effective tactic that allows the creation of a diamond midfield to play around three center mids. The term false nine can and has been misused. Kyle Martino of NBC Sports features regularly on their Premier League coverage and has misused the term. Martino identifies a false nine as any player playing in the center forward position who is not normally a center forward.

This is incorrect and spreads misunderstanding to viewers of NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. By Martino’s logic, when Jake Livermore, a center midfielder, filled in for several games at the start of this season for Hull as a centerback he would have been a ‘false centerback’, which of course, he was not. He was simply being played out of his natural position. Cesc Fabregas featured as a false nine for Spain at Euro 2012 and is normally a central midfielder but he did play a false nine role. When Andre Schurrle played as a center forward for Chelsea a few years back he played a traditional center forward role and thus was not a false nine, even though he is normally played in wide positions.

Below is a short video highlighting the most basic idea and movements from the false nine role.

One could also solve this problem by permanently playing with an attacking midfielder as a constant fourth midfielder and asking the wingers to vary their movements infield more than usual and effectively switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond. This though would sacrifice defensive coverage in the wide areas and negate a front three’s ability to stretch a back line(this is highlighted by Johan Cruyff in a video below). It wouldn’t be an unreasonable tactic for seeing out a close game, however, as this subtle change would allow for better defensive coverage centrally if a team was comfortable giving up some space out wide and decided to sit deep and see a game out.

Using a Centerback as the holding midfielder

Similar to using a center forward to drop directly into the central area of the field in build-up and attack play and play as an attacking midfielder, a centerback can be used as a fourth midfielder as well. This tactic would be of good use against a 4-2-3-1 as the opponent’s attacking mid would be forced to deal with two holding midfielders and not simply able to press or mark the lone holding mid in a 4-3-3.

Rotational movement of a three player midfield may also solve this situation as this movement could allow players to get free in a 3v3 situation. However, there are multiple reasons why this tactic would not be preferable. Johan Cruyff believed that two holding mids and one attacking mid was too defensive and did not allow for opportunities to advance the ball centrally with just one advanced midfielder looking for space between the defensive and midfield lines.

Rotational movement could also create that issue if the opponents allowed a center mid dropping deep to go unmarked, effectively making a 1-2 midfield into a 2-1. Introducing a centerback as an additional holding midfielder would allow for both a double pivot and two players in advanced midfield positions looking for space between the lines.

Secondly, rotational movement of a midfield three sacrifices having a dedicated holding midfielder, something some coaches, like Peter Motzenbecker of Abbey Villa S.C., are unwilling to give up. Peter explains why below:

I find incredibly important to have a fixed holding midfielder, rather than rotation from that spot. If you want your two further midfielders to rotate to get on the ball deep, that’s fine, but especially in the youth game, there are too many transitions to not have someone fixed.

The defensive importance of the holding midfielder is something that should not be overlooked in build-up and attacking movements. In a high possession team with aggressive positioning the holding midfielder is arguably the most important position to allow the team to play in this way. Barcelona’s incredible attack play would not be possible without the attacking talents that featured for them over their period of dominance but it also would not be possible without Sergio Busquets’ ever present outstanding understanding of the fixed pivot position.

Both the false nine and centerback moving into central midfield are examples of offering direct support to a midfield three without drastically disrupting those three players positioning and roles in the team.

A great current example of using a centerback in midfield is provided to us from the Australian A-League. Tim Palmer has done a great breakdown of Melbourne City’s formation in build-up. City doesn’t utilize a 4-3-3 but it does give a good visual as to the different positioning when they are defending to when they are attacking. The interesting twist on what City has done is that they use a right centerback in midfield and their right back tucks in to take his place.


Credit for this image goes to Tim Palmer and can be found in his excellent analysis here: Tim Palmer Football

The left back still moves out wide leaving them with an asymmetrical formation. It’s an interesting idea similar to the futsal tactic of placing the fixed defender on either side of the court to join that sided winger while leaving the opposite side of the court with only one player. Varying this tactic and creating an asymmetry on different sides of the field could be useful in making playing out of the back less predictable and less easier to deal with as most teams set out to defend in symmetrical formations.

Utilizing the half spaces

Additionally, recognizing that the field is wide enough to break it into five vertical zones introduces the “half spaces” to tactical discussion and solutions. Using the space that is not quite in the center but not quite in the wide areas and making players aware of this space offers a wide range of benefits. The use of the half spaces is a complicated tactic on to it’s self, here we will just discuss how positioning players there in build-up can help to alleviate the 3v3 situation centrally.

If centerbacks and center forwards are best able to directly help out centrally, wingers and fullbacks are also able to assist centrally by occupying the half spaces. Again, discussion of the half spaces has become a popular topic and it’s usefulness currently in attack play is due to the fact that most defensive formations don’t have players positioned to defend these areas. Opposition wide midfielders and fullbacks are meant to deal with the fullbacks and wingers of the 4-3-3.

However, the problem for these defensive players is what to do when the player they expect to be in the wide areas moves infield. It’s the same issue for centerbacks caused by the false nine’s movement. If a winger moves into the half space and the opponent’s fullback doesn’t follow, he’s free of being marked and can support the 3v3 situation in central midfield. If the opponent’s fullback follows, that space out wide can be exploited by a fullback advancing down the touchline.

For a fullback moving into the half space, the opponent’s wide mid can follow and deny him supporting the central midfielders or not follow and allow him to assist ball circulation centrally. If the opposition wide mid does follow the fullback into the half space, the winger on that side would be able to drop deeper in the wide areas into this vacated space and get on the ball, once again tempting the opponent’s fullback to follow or not follow.

Adrian Dubious is the head coach of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine Men’s soccer team, who’s team utilized a ‘false’ fullback on a regular basis on their way to regular and postseason conference championships and the program’s first win in the NCAA Division Three tournament as well. The Monks had an exceptional defensive record and part of that was because of the defensive stability offered by having a fullback move centrally and form a double pivot with the holding midfielder while maintaining a back three.

The Monks played against teams that, for the most part, were most effective only in quick, counter attacking, overly direct movements immediately upon regaining possession. Dubois found that the two holding midfielders and back three guarded against these quick counter attacks well. Saint Joseph’s would defend in non-counter attacking situations in a 4-1-4-1, making this tactic applicable to a 4-3-3 defensive formation.

This 3-2 block allowed for secure ball circulation in deep positions while the front five were given a good deal of freedom to move in advance of the ball and look for spaces to receive passes in. The wingers, in what was nominally a 3-2-4-1, gained much from this setup as they were afforded many chances to take players on in 1v1 situations. And when you have players well able to be successful in attacking 1v1 situations, you want to be sure they are given the chance to do so as often as possible.

The use of fullbacks in central positions has become popular recently and Pep’s use of them early on with Manchester City drew lots of attention. It is important to remember, and Pep says this all of the time, all of his ideas have been taken from someone else. Pep was a master pupil of Johan Cruyff and he utilized a fullback in central midfield as well when he coached Ajax and Barcelona. He  describes this in the below video, which if you have not seen, is an incredible insight to the mind of Cruyff. Most telling is his statement that he was actually much more defensive than people thought.

The half spaces can also be utilized by wingers further up the field in attacking movements inside the opponent’s half. As mentioned above, this movement leaves the opponent’s fullback with the decision to follow the winger or not. This movement can be effective for different types of wide players. Goal scoring wide players playing as inverted wingers, right footers on the left wing and vice versa, may find more opportunities for shots on goal with late movement looking to receive passes off the center forward. Strong dribblers can unsettle defenses by dribbling into the half space as it is confusing as to who should close him down and if he’s closed down by an opposition midfielder, it would free up a center mid for the attacking team.

Playmakers like Juan Mata of Manchester United can also find space for their incisive passes from the half space and may find it easier to lose their marker than they would operating in the traditional center attacking midfield position. This advanced half space in front of the opponent’s back line would have been previously occupied in the 2-3-5 and the W-M that followed it by inside forwards. However, inside forwards would have been operating in these spaces during all phases of play. Permanently playing with inside forwards in the modern game can be effective but moving players in and out of these spaces in attack would possibly do a better job of unsettling defenses.

These above tactics can be utilized to solve a range of tactical problems, not just dealing with facing a three player midfield by an opponent.The use of a centerback or fullback in midfield, for example, allows a team the option of using a back three in build-up to deal with facing two center forwards and create a more comfortable 3v2 situation. The holding midfielder dropping in between the centerbacks to create a back three is another popular option for a 4-3-3 being pressed by two centerbacks.

From switching to a back three with the holding mid a team would switch to a 3-4-3 and sacrifice it’s three player midfield. However, many of the above tactical options could be used in this situation as well to further change the shape. Deploying both fullbacks centrally as the holding mid drops would create a 3-2-2-3(a modern W-M), bringing one or both wingers into the half spaces and leaving the fullbacks in the wide areas would shift the shape into a 3-4-2-1. These are only a few examples and shows the near endless flexibility of the 4-3-3 as a starting point for a very diverse tactical approach.

Utilizing these tactical solutions from the platform of a 4-3-3 allows for a good deal of improvisation from a team or even a couple individuals within the team. Interchanging positioning in attack but reverting to a set formation while defending can give a team unpredictability in one phase of play and stability in another.

That’s what makes the 4-3-3 a useful platform, it can vary itself in it’s attacking shape when needed and is an effective formation for a pressing orientated team as well. Teams can also alternate between pressing in a 4-3-3 shape and dropping off into a more conservative 4-1-4-1 due to either their opponent’s style and level or as dictated by player fitness levels or the game situation.

Whether the ultimate goal for a team is at a high level to win games and trophies or for a youth team to develop it’s players into complete players, both of these situations would benefit from an unpredictable attack and a solid defense. Coupling a move away from traditional ways of identifying positions and formations and freeing players from restraints would benefit any team at any level. Introducing these concepts to a team would also lead to further discoveries in tactical ideas from players, not every tactical tweak in a team needs to come from the coach.

There is concern in the US and Europe that the creative player is becoming harder and harder to find. The loss of street football in Europe and it’s practical non existence at any point in the US is cited for this occurrence. That environment can’t be replicated but if we both teach players tactical solutions and encourage them to explore them and give them the freedom to solve problems on their own, we can let creative players emerge and flourish. Harsh tactical guidelines and playing styles crushes individuals creative spirit.

The formation, any formation, needs to be understood as the starting points for a team, because you do have to start somewhere,  but no team should be defined or limited by it’s formation. The 4-3-3 is a great starting point because of the range of attacking shapes it can take and it offers good defensive cover as well, especially for teams looking to press high up the field. It’s an excellent template for talented players to grow and express themselves in.

The ultimate challenge for a team and it’s coach would be to develop a truly fluid, ever changing and cohesive style that would defy any numerical label as to it’s formation. It may have rose in popularity for misunderstood reasons during Barcelona and Spain’s dominance but it shouldn’t fade away now that the newest trends in coaching circles have moved away from keeping possession. The 4-3-3 is an excellent starting point to begin an evolutionary journey for a team looking to fully explore it’s attacking capabilities and creativity.


An Exploration of the 4-3-3’s Flexibility

Part One: The Rise of the 4-3-3 alongside our obsession with possession

Ever since Barcelona and the Spanish national team’s domination of top level soccer from 2008-2012, the 4-3-3 formation has become synonymous with possession orientated soccer, especially at youth level in the United States. Playing a high possession style doesn’t just come from selecting a particular formation and the 4-3-3 isn’t the only formation a possession orientated team can utilize either. Why then is it used to suit teams who seek to play in this way?

Surely, utilizing a 4-3-3 as a team’s base formation goes beyond the fact that if Barcelona and Spain used it, then it must be the way forward. Before going into it’s flexibility and debating just how useful a formation it is for a team looking to dominate possession, let’s first look at what the formation offers in it’s most basic form.

What does the 4-3-3 offer?

Three players in central midfield

This is often cited as a major benefit of the formation as it allows better ball circulation centrally against a two player midfield. When defending it also allows for one player to screen the back four and still leave two center mids in more advanced areas to press or mark opponents.

Four players in the wide areas

With fullbacks and wingers on both sides of the field this allows for a team to open up in possession and attempt to stretch their opponent’s defensive shape. Unlike a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, which also utilize four players in wide areas,  the high initial positioning of the wingers occupies the opposition fullbacks and limits their ability to disrupt build-up play. The fullbacks can then also operate in more room in the wide areas and seek to provide support both to central midfielders and centerbacks.

Centerback Partnership

The ideal setup for dealing with a lone center forward. It also allows centerbacks to form a diamond shape with their goalkeeper and holding midfielder in possession, which can be used to the advantage of teams with a goalkeeper comfortable on the ball.

Lone Center Forward

The one area of the field in which the 4-3-3 is usually at a numerical disadvantage. The lone center forward is either left to deal with two centerbacks who can mark and cover him or three centerbacks who can pass him off to one another as he moves around the back, if their opponent uses wingbacks to deal with the wingers.


The above describes what seems like a very useful template for a team looking to dominate possession and territory. The wide players can stretch the opponent’s defensive shape, the three player midfield can combine with one another and the wide players to advance the ball and break defensive lines in key central areas.

If a constant holding midfielder is used, he can provide defensive cover while in attack and facilitate changing the point of attack from a largely fixed position.

However, how easily can these advantages be countered and turn the team using a 4-3-3 into one that may be able to keep possession but not pose a goal scoring threat?

The 4-2-3-1 offers the near perfect counter system to the 4-3-3. It deploys two holding mids to limit the space in front of the back four and coupled with an attacking mid, matches the 4-3-3’s three player midfield. The wide midfielders can sit a bit deeper and narrow and allow the 4-3-3’s fullbacks possession, yes, but not in threatening areas.

As a unit a team in a 4-2-3-1 can allow initial possession and press aggressively when the ball is played into the wide areas. This can be most easily done when a fullback is in possession. A team in a 4-3-3 with limited access to it’s midfield players, inability to use the wide areas and an isolated center forward can easily be blunted into playing around the back line in the dreaded “U shape” Pep Guardiola derided in Pep Confidential. 

An extremely narrow 4-4-2 defensive shape can also blunt the 4-3-3’s ability to be used as an effective tool for controlled build-up play as the center forward pairing can press the 4-3-3’s centerbacks, the fullback nearest to the ball can be pressed by a wide midfielder and the opposite side wide mid can tuck in and create a 3v3 centrally against the 4-3-3’s three midfielders. This can force a team in a 4-3-3 back to the keeper quickly and into a long  clearance.

The 4-3-3’s ability to stretch the opponent’s defensive shape only works if the opponent wants to deny possession in the wide areas. A common tactic is to defend in a narrow block and squeeze out the space centrally while allowing for space out wide in less threatening areas. Being compact while defending can refer to both vertical and horizontal compaction. A defensive block that doesn’t get stretched in either direction and can maintain it’s discipline can completely blunt a possession orientated attack.

These different shapes and pressing tactics have been well, well, spoken about, documented, written about and analyzed over the last couple of years. Pressing became the next big thing in coaching circles, then pressing triggers, counterpressing(gegenpressing) and so on and you could argue possession turned into a dirty word.

That’s a whole other discussion in of itself. As Pep has said, possession was never the purpose of his Barcelona. That was what was most easily seen, however, and thus became the easiest part of what Barcelona did for coaches to replicate with their teams. Possession for possessions sake, the over use of the phrase tiki taka, became prevalent in youth soccer circles.

Just as now we hear coach’s screaming “press press!!” or counting off the five seconds in which the team has to win the ball back every time possession is lost. These coaches mostly though have not provided their players with how to press or when or what to do when those five seconds are up. They blend pressing and running into the same thing. Pundits jump up and down about which Premier League team ran the most at the weekend, distance covered has become the replacement for yesterday’s dominant statistic, possession percentage.

The true identity of what is happening on the field is never fully understood. Pep demanded far more than just possession and Mauricio Pochettino does far more than just simply tell his players to run around like maniacs until possession is regained.

As Jonathan Wilson has stated, this is the history of the game’s tactical developments. Hurbert Chapman’s W-M was misinterpreted as being a defensive, more negative system than the 2-3-5 it replaced. Helenio Herrera’s infamous catenaccio wasn’t as defensive as it became known to be. Herrera himself sums up this phenomenon of misinterpretation quite well:

The problem is that most of the ones who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my Catenaccio included. I had Picchi as a sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward

Replace “catenaccio” in that quote with “system” and it’s a quote that Pep, Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and many others would readily stand behind. “They forgot to include the attacking principles” can be said for those who played tiki taka and thought they were playing like Barcelona or those who think they’re playing like the current Liverpool and Tottenham sides by screaming “press!!” upon loss of possession.

What does all that have to do with the 4-3-3 formation? In the way the style of play was misinterpreted, so is it’s favored formation. In that keeping possession was never really just about keeping possession, the 4-3-3 is never really a 4-3-3. It’s true capabilities lie in it’s ability to change and adapt.

In Part two we’ll look into the 4-3-3’s ability to change it’s shape with specific examples of tactical options from Europe, Australia and even the state of Maine in the US…


Rondo and Positional Play Exercises

A little ways back, Jens Schuster, a German coach, posted an excellent presentation with a litany of exercises for rondo and positional play based training. I’ve personally used many of these exercises already this fall season and have used them as a springboard to develop new exercises as well.

These are both a great collection of exercises on their own and a wonderful source of inspiration for coaches to adapt, change, scale up or scale down the exercises to suite their coaching style, level of player and team and the ambitions of those teams in terms of style of play.

One such exercise is one of Pep Guardiola’s rondo games, the 4v4+3, seen in the video below:


The only drawback to this work was it is originally in German. Through a slightly painstaking and time consuming effort I was able to get a rough translation of these exercises into English. It is not perfect, far from it, but the translation does help to provide a better understanding of some of the exercises.

You can download the translated version using the link below:


The original version can easily be downloaded directly off of Jens’ twitter profile. Schuster is definitely worth a follow on twitter if you are a coach.

In an email exchange with Jens he had some additional comments on some of the exercises:

I’ve used almost all forms in training. I think most forms are suitable for non-professional youth teams, but I think it depends on your playing philosophy which are the best rondo-forms for your team.
I think Rondos like
  • 05. 2 + 1N vs. 1 + 1 vs. 1 IM FELDERWECHSEL
  • 12. 2 MAL 4 vs. 2 IM 4 vs. 4 vs. 4
  • …..
  • 23. 5 + 1 vs. 2 ‘PASS ZWISCHEN DIE LINIEN‘
  • 31. 4 + 4 vs. 2 + 1 + 1 ‘DRUCK AUS 2 EBENEN‘
  • 48. VOM 7 vs. 1 BIS ZUM 7 vs. 7
  • 53. ‘FRISCHER GEGNER‘ IM 4 + 4 vs. 4
you can do with almost every team.
Definitely an excellent resource for any coach of any level. Have a look and be sure to check out Jens’ twitter as well!

AS Roma in Boston 7/26 Training Session

After two interesting evening training sessions for Luciano Spalletti’s AS Roma at Harvard’s Ohiri Field, Tuesday evening’s session had some reoccurring exercises from Monday and work on set pieces.


The building in the background is Harvard University’s American football stadium. It is unsuitable for soccer training as it is lined for American football and is not a natural surface.

One development worth mentioning however for AS Roma supporters, all four players who competed at the Euros, Daniele De Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi, Stephen El Shaarawy and Radja Nainggolan, participated in the full training session with the main group. It was the first time they had done so in the evening session since arriving in Boston. The previous two nights they all dropped out early and did some running off on one side of the field.

The session began similar to the previous evening, with some juggling and no formal warm-up, before going into a 12v12 exercise. The pace of this exercise was not done at full intensity, same as Monday evening, so this may have been serving the purposes of a warm-up, albeit a more intricate one! At least some of the players did also walk from the hotel to the training ground, a distance of just over half a mile.

The 12v12 exercise once again involved two teams, with an extra center forward each as the twelfth player, playing combination passes simultaneously up opposite sides of the field. The field was again split vertically down the middle with cones and the ball and players involved had to stay on the same side of the field the play started on. Area was the width of the field and the goals were at the tops of the penalty areas.

Once again, they utilized several different combination patterns, like on Monday, but the two constants were the ball from the keeper was always to the holding mid and the winger always wound up checking into the half space from a wide position. One twist on Tuesday from Monday was the center mid moving into the fullback space and that served as the trigger for the fullback to push up the touchline and eventually put the ball into the center forward from a wide position. The crosses to the center forward were once again mostly played into feet and kept on the ground, high crosses were rare whether it was meant for Edin Dzeko or Totti.

This covered the first thirty minutes of the session. The next thirty minutes involved the two teams splitting up. One group worked on attacking right sided corners, while the other worked on attacking set pieces from about 30-35 yards out. After fifteen minutes, the groups switched.

For the attacking set pieces exercise, four plastic men held the offside line at the top of the penalty area. Two attackers would stand offside and four would run into the penalty area off the free kick delivery. The two offsides players would check back, one coming all the way out by himself about 7-8 yards past the wall and the other checked his run when he met the onrushing players and crashed back into the penalty area with them.


The corner kick group worked only on the right side with a couple variants of attack. One was a short corner routine and the other was predicated on a player coming out of the six yard box towards the corner to take a ball into feet and then laying it off to the corner kick taker to put the ball in. Only thing of interest here was Totti got frustrated with his balls into the six yard box. He seemingly, again language barrier makes this difficult to asses, initially didn’t like the return ball he was getting to set him up and then was just frustrated as his service was a bit off.


The two groups then came back together and finished with a 11v11 half field game and the extra goalkeepers did some work catching crosses in the opposite goal. The session ended around 7:00pm as a group of VIPs was brought down to the field to meet the players.


Today instead of training, AS Roma arranged two friendlies against local sides with half the squad slated to play in each. The morning match was against a FC Bolts team from the Premier Development League, the fourth division of US soccer, which Roma ran out 5-1 winners.

Spalletti was quoted before the trip expressing some disappointment over only having one field with which to train. He said sometimes it was necessary to train different “departments” on separate pitches but that they would adapt and tighten the spaces for training. That raises the question of how Spalletti may have done some of the team’s work differently if he had two full fields instead of one. The goalkeepers did on one night jump over to an adjoining unlined field to work on punts and goalkicks, however.

Anyway, whether all the methods used were a matter of preference or necessity by Spalletti this week, it has been a delight to take in the training of such a high profile Club as AS Roma.

AS Roma in Boston 7/25 Training Session

AS Roma’s week of preseason preparation at Harvard University’s Ohiri Field continued on Monday evening. The session ran from 5:30pm to about 7:00pm and like Sunday evening’s session, the focus was on team play. It was Roma’s second field session of the day. The first session at 10:00am, according to Roma’s website, involved the players doing fitness work, sprints, ball work and small sided games.


Double sessions are an occasional controversial topic for soccer coaches as there is much debate as to how much these sessions can hurt a team’s fitness over the course of a long season. The foremost opponent of double sessions across Twitter is Dutch fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, who has made a habit of attacking coaches who use double sessions.

Be interesting to see if AS Roma has a run of injuries or poor form this season if Verheijen swoops in and takes a knock on Luciano Spalletti’s training methods. He’d be joining a long line of top coaches mind you, Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham Hotspur drew the ire of Verheijen this past spring when Spurs did their annual collapse on the verge of achievement. However, Tottenham did have one of the best injury records in the EPL last year despite (or perhaps because of?) double sessions.

While every approach to training is open to critique and doubt and praise and so on, the session put on by Spalletti last evening was quite interesting to take in and provided another night of possible useful exercises for coaches to put into practice with their teams this year. Let’s get onto to the session itself.

Straight from the off the session was interesting as the AS Roma players spent a short amount of time juggling and then went straight into a 12v12 exercise. There was no formal warm-up or stretching prior to this.

The setup had full size goals with a keeper in each at the top of the penalty areas and eleven outfield players per team, for a total of 24 players, 12 per team. There were five cones splitting the playing area in half vertically. The extra player in each team was a second center forward and the teams were set out in a 4-3-4 with one center forward from each team either side of the cones splitting the field.


What looked a bit odd, the extra center forward, quickly made more sense once Spalletti explained the exercise and the players got underway. Each goalkeeper would roll a ball out to their right centerback, thus having the teams moving the ball up opposite sides of the field, and the teams would simultaneously play up their right side and finish with a shot in goal. Then both teams would play up their left side. The ball and players involved in the passing were restricted to one side of the field and the center forwards alternated their involvement accordingly.

There was no defending, there were players from the other team in the way of the passing and movement but they did not actively defend the play. It is not uncommon for a team to go out and work through various passing patterns against no one(shadow play) but this twist of asking two sets of players to do so at the same time did add an element of difficultly.

Shadow play with plastic men as defenders is used as well but the advantage to actual humans is that their positioning would alter slightly, giving at least some movement to deal with and more of a fluid element to the exercise.

Now many coaches may love this idea but not all of us routinely have twenty-four players at one session in which to try it out!

The patterns used both involved the winger checking in from a wide position into the half space and then either the fullback or centermid making a run into the space vacated by the winger. From there a ball was put into the center forward who then laid off to the same winger who had checked into the half space as he would then make a central run into the center forward’s space.

Afterward, the teams then played a game of 11v11, the extra center forwards now gone. The restriction in this game was that once the ball had moved into the defending team’s half, only the back four could defend. The three midfielders could drift into their half but could not actively defend. The forwards had to wait at the midfield line. Initially, both teams looked to get into the opponent’s half as quickly as possible and then use the 6v4 advantage to patiently create a chance. This seemingly allowed them to work both on fast transitions out of their half and then patience in creating chances further forward.


About two-thirds of the way through the approach of both teams changed, as Spalletti looked to begin instructing them to play back to the keeper, open up and build methodically out of the back upon regaining possession. The language barrier, of course, made knowing exactly what Spalletti was asking difficult but he did shout repeatedly at one point while pointing back to the keeper and the team obliged and played back to him.

From there, once again as on Monday, four players dropped out of the main group and did some running and jogging on the far side of the field. These were returning players from the Euros, Daniele De Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi, Stephen El Shaarawy and Radja Nainggolan. This was their last involvement for the session.

The main group then played a half field game of 10v10 with no apparent restrictions. Both teams seemingly played a 4-2-3.


For the second night in a row, after working together largely in one group, they split into smaller groups to finish out the session. The goalkeepers and some of the forward players worked on finishing and some of the midfielders worked on playing either passes or chipped balls through or over two lines of four plastic men.

The two back fours, with the help of four other players, worked on defensive shape again. The back fours took turns defending an empty goal against a 1-3. The focus was on pressing the wide player on the ball and then dealing with a ball chipped into the center forward from the lone midfielder after the winger laid off to him. The key seemed to be on quickly stepping the line on the back pass and then tightly marking the attackers as they made their run onto the chipped ball.

The above group of twelve then finished with a game of 4v4v4 in which one line of four played between the other two. The two outside lines had to keep possession and attempt to play through the middle line to the group on the opposite side. Interception of a through ball from the middle group got them out of the middle as they would switch with the group who’s pass they picked off.


At the conclusion of the session just about all the players went over to the supporters and signed autographs and took selfies. The Roma associate working the check in said they had made a point of telling the players they needed to go over after each session for a bit. The previous evening only Florenzi made an extended effort to go over. Even Spalletti was coaxed into posing for a selfie by one overzealous coach taking in the session 🙂

Right before the above, Spalletti was alone with one of the younger looking defenders talking to him for several minutes about something from the previous exercise on defensive shape. Apologies to AS Roma fans who may find who this was to be interesting but my familiarity with the squad is not the best! A picture of their chat is below, if anyone can identify the young lad, let me know in the comments!


Another evening of great insight into how top teams prepare for a coming season along with some excellent technical ability on display, the likes of which is not seen in person around here all that often! Worth the trip to Harvard if you can make this week.


AS Roma in Boston 7/24 Training Session

As part of their preseason preparations, AS Roma is spending nearly two weeks in the United States. In what seems like an interesting twist on the usual big European Club comes to America for preseason tour for the benefits of promoting the Club at the expense of the team’s preseason training, they are spending July 24 through the 30th in Boston for training only. No matches, at least not officially, before heading off elsewhere for their now annual friendly against Liverpool in the We’re Both Owned By Americans Derby.


It must be some sort of relief to Luciano Spalletti and his staff to at least get a solid week of training with no flying. As we’ve seen already this preseason, Jose Mourinho is none to pleased with how Manchester United’s trip to Asia has gone thus far and you can imagine most managers loathe these preseason trips that are done mostly for the purposes of growing the brand of the Club. That is the norm now for top European sides.

Anyways, onto the session itself. This session took place at 5:30pm local time on Roma’s first full day in Boston. According to the Club’s social media they had done strength/gym training that morning and this would seemingly be their only soccer-specific session of the day. The session lasted about two hours and was at Harvard University’s Ohiri Field.

The session began with the full group, short of the goalkeepers who had begun earlier, doing a short dynamic warm-up. It seemed very abrupt, it was at most fifteen minutes, if that.

Normally, by which normal means what one usually would see watching most training sessions available on YouTube, these sessions start off with unopposed work and/or work with the group split up by positions and some sort of small sided game(rondo).

Here, AS Roma went directly into a 10v10 game. The game was played in a box the width of the penalty area and about equally as long. At the top of both penalty areas were three small goals. Half way between the playing area and the goals was a dotted line. Two goalkeepers were inside each of the penalty areas behind the small goals.

The exercise began with a long ball played into the area in the direction of the center forward from a goalkeeper. The purpose was to keep possession in the area until a through ball could played out of the area to meet a run beyond the area and then finish in one of the small goals, shooting from behind the dotted line. With the incredibly tight spacing from 20 players in roughly a 45×45 yard area the ability to have enough time on the ball to play an accurate through ball with a correctly timed run was hard to pull off.


The progression to this game was relatively simple. The small goals were removed and the full sized goals, now defended with a goalkeeper, were moved to the top of the penalty area. The playing areas was now the same length but the width was extended out to the touchline. The only option to get behind the defense and have a shot on goal remained the same from the previous game. There were no crosses put in from wide and dribbling out of the playing area was, seemingly, not an option either.

The emphasis, and with the session being done in Italian it could be slightly different, was on quick combination play and fast transitions in order to play promising through balls in behind the defense. Most of the runs came from the wingers(both sides were playing a 4-3-3) but there were also fullbacks pushing high when wingers came inside and center mids making runs beyond the center forward. Edin Dzeko made some runs behind for one team, while otherwise holding the ball up, and Totti drifted around looking for space(and usually found it) and played others in behind.


The final progression extended to the playing area being slightly narrower than the full width of the field but stretched the length from the top of one penalty area to the other. It was more or less an unrestricted game of 11v11 at this point and naturally as would be expected, the players carried on in trying to play in the same manner in which they had been previously with the various restrictions in place.

With the space on the field opening up and the goals at the tops of the penalty areas the play opened up quite a bit as space was no longer at such a premium and both sides created chances and moved the ball effectively, again, in the manner in which it appeared they had been asked before. Spalletti made no stops during play in any of these games. He did walk freely in among the play(less so when the space was tigher) and was constantly providing instructions. He did speak to the group before resuming the next progression after a water break but he did not stop play at any point.


After the group had worked together through the warm-up and game exercises they split into two groups. Again, you would probably expect the opposite, that the full group would train after training in groups. It will be interesting to see(work allowing!) if this pattern is usual for Spalletti or just a one off given the nature of this session having just arrived here.

The forwards and midfielders worked on finishing on goal. It was a simple setup, three quick passes were played 25 yards out and then a one touch pass was played over the top of several plastic men to a striker running in on a full goal and looking to score past a keeper.

The defenders trained in two opposing back fours(later adding a holding midfielder as neutral player) on body shape, shifting side to side and pressure, cover balance when a fullback stepped to put pressure on the ball holder. This looked to be boring, tedious, work but the sharpness of movement, maintaining the correct body shape and later the speed of moving the ball along the backline was impressive. Certainly what you would expect from professionals even if you can imagine they’ve done similar work plenty of times before and can’t enjoy it much.


While that was going on a group of four players were doing some jogging/running on the far side of the pitch for a short while. It looked to be some players who had played in the European Championships(although Alessandro Florenzi was not one of them) including Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan. This group finished and left early.

The session wrapped up after this and all told the players were on the training ground for about two hours.

Aside from the obvious technical quality of a top European squad, it was interesting to see how Spalletti coached during the session, the seemingly quick warm-up and the approach of having the full group train together first and progress up to an 11v11 game and then go back and do work in smaller groups. Might be a training method worth trying out.

There was a good crowd on hand even with the Club only announcing that afternoon that the session was on at 5:30 and open to the public. It was originally to be a closed session. Who would be spying on an AS Roma session in Boston on a Sunday afternoon is anyone’s guess! But having closed sessions is probably normal enough at this level. Even Italy’s last national team manager, Antiono Conte, went so far as to ban members of his own staff from certain training sessions during the Euros.

Last bit to make note of, only Alessandro Florenzi came over for autographs and selfies after the session. Much to his own surprise as he flailed his arms out and pointed back in the direction of the supporters after he walked back over to the remaining players and staff. Evidently he felt a few other players should have gone and joined him but he was at least happy to sign and smile for selfies for a bit before heading off.

AS Roma will be at Harvard all week with many sessions open to the public. Definitely worth taking in if you’re in the area.


Quick Look at Benfica as Europa Encounter Looms

After Tottenham’s inspired comeback at White Hart Lane last Thursday against Dnipro the mighty Spurs last march towards glory continues next week. Spurs will face the current leaders of the Portuguese top division, Benfica, who had a good showing in the Champions League group stage going 3-1-2 and dropping into the Europa League despite collecting ten points in a group with PSG, Olympiakos and Anderlecht.

Benfica moved past PAOK in the round of 32 and currently sit five points clear at the top of their domestic league with the league’s best defense and an impressive 16-4-1 record including an unbeaten 8-2-0 record at home. The Portuguese league is not a top league in Europe but to be sitting at the top of Portugal’s big three, including Sporting Lisbon and Porto, means they are going to be a tough team to move past into the quarterfinals of Europe’s secondary competition.

It is tough to look back to back at Benfica’s group stage matches for analysis as one of their top midfielders, Nemanja Matic, now plays for Chelsea. Instead we will look to sort out their basic tactical approach based off their home leg in the round of 32 tie against PAOK.

Defensive Phase

Benfica’s base formation is a 4-2-3-1 but they really only appear in this setup in the build up phase of play. In the defensive phase they more closely resemble a 4-4-2/4-3-1-2, depending on where on the pitch they are defending. Whenever PAOK had possession in their own half Filip Djuricic, the #10, would push up alongside the striker, Oscar Cardozo(Lima is their other main strike option, who is on 8 goals in 20 league appearances), to form the first defensive line and would look to exert light pressure on PAOK’s centerbacks. Neither of them would put pressure on the goalkeeper if a back pass was made to him, instead they would stick tight enough to the centerbacks to deny them an ability to receive a pass.


Secondly, one of the defensive mids(the 2s in the 4-2-3-1), Andre Gomes would routinely move in behind the first defensive line and pickup PAOK’s deepest midfield player. Behind him the other three midfielders would form a bank of three and look to press when the ball was played to either flank. If Djuricic or Cardozo was in a position to do so, they would exert pressure if a pass was played to their sided fullback and the other would move to that side and pickup the closest centerback.


When Benfica were forced to defend in their own half they would drop off into a more standard 4-4-2 defensive block, with Gomes now sitting alongside his holding partner, Amorim and flanked by the wide mids and Djuricic remained further forward with Cardozo. They did a solid job of controlling the middle areas of the pitch when defending and left PAOK with not much more than shots from range as their best option of attack. Their defensive line was not particularly high either, the defensive block, even when the front three were pressing, did little to invite balls over the top.

When Benfica lost possession high up the pitch they were committed to an immediate press from all of their players in the opponents half. Even saw a willingness for the centerbacks to step forward into PAOK territory to deny a counter attack developing and win the ball back. When possession was regained in this transition after losing possession Benfica looked to pounce quickly with a rapid, quick counter attack from deep in PAOK territory, not wholly unlike what would be expected of a Borussia Dortmund counter.

Build Up Phase

Against PAOK, Benfica displayed a very patient build up approach when moving out from their defensive third. The fullbacks would push up in advance of the centerbacks, who spread far apart and allowed space for Andre Gomes to drop in between them to help keep possession. Initially, Benfica would look to advance the ball forward on the flanks looking to get it out to the fullbacks, who both completed a high percentage of passes by either moving the ball further forward when possible or moving it back to Gomes or the other holder, Amorim, or the centerbacks, who would switch the play to the other flank and look to move forward from there. The rightback, Maxi Pereira completed 41 of 48 passes, 85% and his partner at leftback, Silvio, likewise completed 47 of 53 passes an 89% completion rate.

If they found it not possible to move possession forward via the flanks they would look to play balls up to Cardozo and win second balls and move possession forward. Djuricic, the number ten, only attempted 21 passes, completing 18, but operated quite freely between the lines and showed a willingness to play the incisive pass to Cardozo or hit one of the widemen with a pass as well. Both defensive mids sat further back in the opponent’s half and did an excellent job of recycling possession and switching the play while at the same time being in place, along with the centerbacks, to guard against the counter attack.

The leftback Silvio showed a great ability to get on the ball in wide positions and move forward on the dribble, allowing the left mid, Gaitan to drift inside. Again, the fullbacks could push up freely as they were constantly protected by both holding midfielders.


Benfica didn’t look overly threatening but created several half chances against PAOK when the match was still 11v11(PAOK had a player sent off midway through the second half). Cardozo displayed an ability to make diagonal runs between the centerbacks looking for through balls from Djuricic, shoot from range and as a target man for crosses as well. He was nearly slipped in by Djuricic early on, flicked a header just over the bar from an incoming cross and forced a save from a well taken free kick just outside the area in the first half. He looked to be a multidimensional threat from the striker position with good support from Djuricic operating behind him.

Overall, in possession and when moving into the opponent’s final third, Benfica were able to vary their attack. They were comfortable maintaining possession, even under pressure in their defensive third, but still willing to hit a long ball towards Cardozo on occasion. Further forward, they were just as happy to whip in crosses as thread in passes to the opponent’s box and were able to play direct when winning back possession high up the pitch. They did not have a singular approach to moving forward in possession.

Defensively, they were rarely exposed when losing possession because they would put on an initial heavy press before dropping into a 4-3-1-2 and pressing just enough to deny time on the ball to PAOK in their own half and were able to get back into two banks of four when PAOK moved possession into Benfica’s half well enough to keep tight control over the central areas and leave PAOK without an obvious way forward.

If Spurs use their 4-1-4-1 system against Benfica, they will find it hard for their centerbacks to play passes and the holding midfielder can expect to be tightly covered as well. The selection of Adebayor would be useful, aside from his current excellent form, as he could drop away from Benfica’s backline and look to knock down long passes played to him from either Spurs’ fullbacks or goalkeeper for midfielders to run onto. Spurs should also look to their wide mids operating in front of Benfica’s fullbacks as outlets to move forward and beat their initial press and go directly at their backline. If Benfica are allowed to settle into a 4-4-2 defensive block they will be tougher to break down.

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With the centerbacks and holding mid covered, bypassing the midfield to either the wide mids or the center forward, may be Spurs best way to move into Benfica’s half.


This also makes Tottenham going 4-4-2 an attractive option as Adebayor and Soldado could both move around and look for space so that the midfield battle can be bypassed all together and give Spurs a chance to take on Benfica higher up the pitch with at least one of their defensive mids caught out.

Spurs may well find it beneficial to play 4-4-2 at home and take the game to Benfica and then switch to the 4-1-4-1 on the return trip to Portugal. Keeping Djuricic marked tightly will be an important task, if he is allowed to run free Cardozo will cause Spurs backline problems throughout both legs of the tie. Tottenham will also have to be careful in conceding possession cheaply in their own half as Benfica will not hesitate to transition into attack quickly.

Benfica are not the toughest opponents that Spurs could have drawn as both Napoli and Juventus have also moved into the last sixteen but they are far from the easiest as well and will provide a stern test to Tottenham’s European ambitions.