In this blog, Dan Simpson, The FA’s Game Insight Analyst and Ben Futcher, The FA's Youth Coach Developer discuss the benefits and risks of centre backs stepping into midfield and he highlights some key considerations for coaches.
Throughout Euro 2020 we saw centre backs being prepared to leave their defensive line and step into midfield areas to defend. A strategy that carries a lot of risk if it goes wrong, but high rewards for when done well.
The tournament saw a total of 45% of teams playing with a back three. This included pre-tournament favourites Belgium who played with a back three in each of their games. England often played with a back four but switched to a back three against Scotland in the group stage before starting with a 1-3-4-3 system against Italy in the final. This increased trend of teams playing with a back three may be a key reason why we have seen centre backs being more aggressive to step out and apply pressure as when they do. They still have two defending players behind them, compared to just one when playing a back four.
We saw teams gain a lot of success from this strategy throughout the tournament and in particular teams like France, Germany, Portugal and Italy. Each of these teams were brave enough not only in stepping out to press, but at times also being prepared to mark attacking players all the way inside the opposition half of the pitch.
When out of possession a back three most commonly becomes a back five, and with a lot of teams playing 1-5-2-3 their midfield often becomes outnumbered. Having a centre-back who is not afraid to be aggressive and apply pressure in midfield areas prevents this overload in a key area of the pitch. With this in mind, it can often affect the decision making of the player on the ball, whether to play the pass into their forward players or not. And as this pass is often played between the defensive lines and into the more attacking and creative players it stops these players from getting the ball, turning, and potentially creating goal scoring opportunities.
Being able to intercept or disrupt the opposition’s play in this way can have a significant benefit as if successful it allows you to win the ball and counter-attack from key areas. Knowing you have two more centre backs behind you also provides cover and minimizes the risk of receiving a red card if you conceded a foul as a result of a badly timed or overly aggressive challenge. This gave licence to players like Germany’s Mats Hummels who hasn’t got fantastic pace but can still step out and be aggressive whilst trusting the players behind him to defend in 1v1 situations.
Stopping the midfield players being outnumbered
Despite having extra cover behind, this may still be seen as a risky strategy to employ. Failure to get tight enough to affect the initial pass, or to stop the receiver turning can leave lots of space in behind your defensive line and as a result you are reliant on your team-mates tracking runners to avoid being exposed in behind. As players are isolated in the back line, they must be strong and comfortable defending 1v1 situations and therefore it is important to have the right players in the right positions to deploy this strategy.
When your centre backs are not starting in strong defensive positions the risk of one stepping out to press becomes even greater. This was seen in Holland’s game against Czech Republic when Stefan De Vrij got his timing wrong in stepping out, leaving space in behind and exposing Matthijs De Ligt in a 1v1. This then resulted in a sending off, giving Czech Republic the numerical advantage and ultimately contributed to Holland losing the game 2-0 and exiting the tournament.
Another high-profile example from the tournament was Spain’s equalising goal against Italy in the semi-final. Throughout the tournament, the Italian centre-backs were comfortable and extremely aggressive stepping out to defend in midfield areas. However, in this game Spain played with a false nine which meant Bonucci and Chiellini didn’t know whether to step onto Morata or not. This indecision allowed Morata to receive between the defensive lines before linking with Dani Olmo to get in behind and score.
What skillset must your players have to be successful?
The first and perhaps most important attribute to be successful is to recognise when to step into defend in midfield areas. This requires excellent anticipation and reading of the game to identify where the ball is coming from, where the striker is, an awareness of your own position as well as what support you have behind you. This will determine whether to step onto the striker or to hold your shape within the back line.
Your body position is crucial and rather than simply rushing out you must come forward with the intention of running back to defend any ball that gets played in behind. Portugal’s Pepe is a great example of this. Once you have these elements in place and you have made the decision to go timing becomes key and the goal is to affect the receiver’s first touch in order to prevent them turning, but also to ensure they can’t play an easy pass.
One player who displays all these attributes is England’s Harry Maguire as he is constantly adjusting his position and body shape to read where the ball might go before stepping in to either intercept or prevent the opposition turning and playing dangerous passes. However, his presence and anticipation alone is often enough to actually prevent the ball being played at all.
Here are some considerations for coaches:
- How can we produce players who are comfortable defending in midfield areas?
- Does my practice design allow space for defenders to step in but also provide a large enough area to defend the space behind?
- Are my centre backs comfortable enough defending 1v1 situations in large areas to deploy this strategy?
We would love to hear your answers, please comment below.