Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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The switch from a box to a diamond next season

July 6, 2023 — A box midfield is inferior to a diamond in possession, but teams have been forced to use a box last season due to a lack of sufficient profiles for a diamond. They now have the profiles and should make the switch next season.

Figure 1.1 - 3-2-2-3 box midfield versus a 4-4-2

This is a 3-2-2-3 with a box midfield. This is the formation used by Manchester City, Barcelona, Arsenal, Liverpool, and many others last season.

Around the end of December, after the World Cup, these teams began to introduce this formation, copying each other.

Either the left-back or right-back invert into the midfield alongside the holding midfielder, while the other full-back moves over to form a back three with the two center-backs. The left and right center-midfielders occupy the half-spaces.

There are a few reasons why teams shifted to this formation:

  • Quick proficient full-backs are a dying breed: They don’t make many Joao Cancelo, Jordi Alba, Kieran Tierney, Andrew Robertson types anymore. Teams don’t have the quality depth at full-back to have backups. A back three now suits teams better.
  • The quality is in the midfield.
  • The war is won in the midfield: If you can effectively overload it, you have a better chance of creating chances and maintaining possession.
  • Triangles: It creates so many angles that work to play around the standard 4-4-2 that most teams use out of possession.
  • Shorter distances between certain players

The problem with a box midfield is the last point: the distance between certain players.

The backline and double pivot are close and form tight triangles that help to overwhelm the initial two pressing center-forwards. The issue lies in the susceptibility to shadow covering across the rest of the pitch once you work it past that initial press.

Figure 1.2 - Impossible passes in a 3-2-2-3 box.

Every one of these passes isn’t possible, on the ground, due to shadow covering. Defenders are in the path between the man and the ball. There are only so many avenues into these players further up the pitch. This forces teams to play through the wings.

Figure 1.3 - Ball is played to the left-winger.

When you play through a wing, the winger becomes isolated. They have two options:

  • One short pass to the left center-midfielder
  • One medium-sized pass to the left center-back

Nothing forward. Everything moves backward or into a dead end on the wing in a 1v1.

If the left winger chooses the pass into the left center-midfielder, that left center-midfielder then also becomes isolated with limited outlet options.

We’re lacking triangles when we move forward.

Figure 2.1 - 3-4-3 diamond versus a 4-4-2

With a 3-4-3 diamond, you solve all of the issues a box creates. Each player always has at least four open passes, which will allow teams to more easily pass between the lines rather than be forced to work the ball through the wings.

The problem of depth is solved through promoting, training, or buying the correct profiles for these four positions:

  • They need sufficient cover in center-midfield on both the left and right. They still play in the half-spaces, but they’re a tad bit deeper.
  • There is no double pivot, so the holding midfielder would need to be able to play as a single pivot. Not all can.
  • They need a central attacking midfielder. Not many have the depth at that position.

Manchester City, Barcelona, Arsenal, and Liverpool only had sufficient depth at holding midfield. Rodri, Sergio Busquets, Thomas Partey, and Fabinho were all capable of playing as lone pivots. Every team except Liverpool had enough depth in the attacking midfield role. They all lacked the depth in the deeper center-midfield role.

After six months and two transfer windows, now all four teams have the profiles for all four positions.

Figure 3.1 - Manchester City's depth in a 3-4-3 diamond. Each player's top two positions shown.

I theorized in February that Manchester City could switch to a diamond. The problem was that both Ilkay Gündoğan and Kevin De Bruyne were better higher up the pitch, and they lacked depth in right center-midfield.

John Stones only just started playing in the inverted right-back or center-back role in the double pivot with Rodri. Pep Guardiola wasn’t fully confident in Phil Foden centrally. Rico Lewis was only just starting to play further forward in midfield towards the final five matches of the season.

Figure 3.2 - Barcelona's depth in a 3-4-3 diamond.

Barcelona could have started in a diamond, but they lacked depth at right center-midfield. I mentioned in April that they could make the switch next season.

Figure 3.3 - Arsenal's depth in a 3-4-3 diamond.

Kai Havertz is better on the right, and so is Martin Ødegaard. Transitioning to a formation that can allow Havertz to roam freely to the left and right, in-between the lines, would be more beneficial.

Figure 3.4 - Liverpool's depth in a 3-4-3 diamond.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has now shown he must make the midfield his permanent home and does best in the right half-space. The signings of Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai now give them the depth they lacked last season.

This is not a formation for every team. It is a very delicate structure. If one player is off, they’ll concede or never hold possession.

It requires highly technical midfielders who can work in tight spaces and execute the short passes perfectly. The backline needs to be rock solid because the areas out wide will initially be exposed in transition. Teams need elite positioning and awareness to remain resolute and perform at the level required to make this formation successful.

In this video Johan Cruyff explains his 3-4-3 diamond, which he used frequently throughout his managerial career, most notably at Barcelona in the 90s.

Figure 4.1 - Johan Cruyff's 3-4-3 diamond at Barcelona in 1994/95

Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Mikel Arteta, and Jurgen Klopp, both indirectly or directly, are descendants of Cruyff, so they should take a significant portion of their inspiration from him.

Figure 5.1 - The positional movement of when in defensive transition.

As Cruyff explained in the video, out of possession, when the ball is lost, the central midfielders will cover the wide areas. The three center-backs should condense centrally and remain compact. The holding midfielder can come over to help overload the ball carrier and block off the pass infield.

Figure 6.1 - 4-4-2 out of possession
Figure 6.2 - 4-3-3 out of possession
Figure 6.3 - 4-2-4 out of possession

In settled possession, they can then transition into a 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-2-4 formation.

This is my vision for next season and the next evolution of tactics within European football. These aren’t new concepts. They’ve been used and practiced for decades. There are tons of examples.

Other managers, who are also obsessed with triangles, will want to copy this structure because of the combination of continued security in defense with the ease at which teams will be able to pass, but they won’t have the profiles to fit those positions.

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