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Being compact in central areas

Being compact in central areas

In this blog, The FA’s games insight analyst, Dan Simpson and the FA’s youth coach developer, Chris Sulley, talk about the importance of being compact in central areas. They use examples from the Euros to illustrate their points.

Protecting the goal at all times when out of possession is paramount to a team’s success.  To achieve this, it’s important to remain compact and disciplined in central areas in order to keep the opposition as far away from goal as possible.  The closer to the goal they get the more compact you must be. 

Importance of being compact centrally? 

Failing to stay compact centrally allows the opposition opportunity to play between defensive lines, and often into their most creative and attacking players.  This can in turn lead to higher quality goalscoring opportunities.  Timo Werner’s early chance in the quarter-final, of the Euros, for Germany against England is a great example of this where both Rice and Phillips got attracted to the same side of the pitch, opening space for Havertz to receive easily in between the defensive lines.  See 1 min 16 secs in this video.
Limiting space for the opposition to play centrally and forcing play wide instead keeps them far enough away from goal to allow your players to recover and take up solid defensive positions.  
Once you have pushed the opposition into wide areas it is important to get tight and prevent crosses or stop them combining to create goal scoring opportunities.  Switching off for a second may be all the attacker needs to play inside or deliver a cross under little or no pressure.   
Now you have the opposition playing in wide areas it allows you to condense the space and win the ball back through tackles and interceptions. We would encourage players to not be content to just kick the ball out of play but rather counterattack or retain and build the next attack.   
England were very good in the Euro’s forcing the opposition into wide areas and then getting enough pressure on the ball to either stop the cross or deal with it when it comes into the box.  This appears to be an area that the coaches worked on in preparation for Euro 2020 as they have limited their opposition to an average of just 13 touches in the box per game. 


This process can start with your strikers in the finishing third of the pitch, and there is no better example than Roberto Mancini’s Italy.  Mancini himself is a very organised and structured coach, owing much to his playing days but he appears to be heavily influenced by Arrigo Sacchi’s Italian team of the 90s, and in particular, the Euro 96 finals held in England.  This current crop of players appeared to be very well drilled tactically and move well together as an entire team.  They set the press by allowing the opposition that first pass and when one player goes to press, he is instantly backed up by the rest of the team who press with real intent and conviction.  We saw this from the England players especially Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips working as a pair with one pressing and the other supporting. This is then followed by the other players taking up support and covering positions. 

Select the animation below to see this in more detail:

Central Midfield Profiling 

The role of the central midfielders is crucial in making it difficult for the opposition to play through centrally to their striker or other attacking players.  Regardless of what system a team plays, the coach faces the decision of playing with one or two holding midfield players, and this will be dependant on what they believe the teams shape should be, or the players they have available.  Opposition threats or playing style may also impact this decision.   
Denmark’s Pierre-Emile Hojberg was arguably the most outstanding central midfielder of the tournament and displayed strong characteristics to not only win possession back for his team more than any other player at the Euros (51), but also showed an excellent passing range to assist 3 goals, 1 more than any other central midfielder in the tournament.  Watch Denmark’s opening goal against Russia on 59 seconds in this video, is a great example of this passing ability. 
The profile of the central midfield players can vary greatly and most of the top teams tend to play a holding midfielder who sits behind the play ready to defend when possession breaks down.  France’s N’golo Kante is a great example of this as he is fantastic at reading the game to intercept passes but when winning the ball back his role is to pass the ball to the more creative players.   
Another type may be the ‘quarter back’.  A player like Italy’s Manuel Locatelli who is perhaps not as mobile to cover ground and make tackles and interceptions, but who can play various ranges and speeds of pass.  Andrea Pirlo was a classic example of this as he wasn’t great at winning the ball back, however done enough to help his team and was a magician when he got on the ball. 
To make it difficult for the opposition to play through central areas there are some key characteristics required of the holding midfielders.  They must enjoy defending and be willing to cover distance.  England’s Kalvin Phillips covered a total of 83kms throughout Euro 2020, second behind Italy’s Jorginho (87km).  It is important however to be aware that the holding midfielder will often not be the one to actually win the ball back but will be the agitator in forcing the opposition into certain areas where the ball can be won on the 2nd, 3rd or 4th pass later.    

Considerations for coaches 

  • In your midfield would you play one, two, or no holding midfielders? 
  • What do you expect from your central midfield players in terms of roles and responsibilities? 
  • What players do you have available in your squad and what type of players do you want playing in midfield areas?  
  • Do you want a player who can break up play and give the ball to the more attacking players?  Do you want a ‘quarter back’ style player who may not be particularly mobile but can play a wide variety of passes?  Or is it a combination of both? 

Comment below. 

  • This is a really good article and thought provoking. The key thing is to recgonise the danger the opposition may cause and adapt the defensive strategy to stop that threat. This can be identified via individual profiling or team strategy of the opposition. On the flip side in this example Rice and Phillips physical profiles and tactical understanding especially enabled this defensive strategy to be employed. They were clear in their understanding and execution of their role . The defensive responsibility they achieved supported the creative attacking players ahead to attack with flair and creatively as a front 4 with the added assurance and security that they had defensive support in transition should an attack break down.