Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Playing in a 'good height'

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta wants his holding midfielders to find and then attack space from deep to progress play. Toni Kroos is the ideal role model for Declan Rice because he has perfected this ability to play in a ‘good height’.

Figure 1.1 - Real Madrid progresses with the ball on the right and Toni Kroos drifts into the middle of the pitch.
Figure 1.2 - Ball is passed over Bayern Munich's midfield to Toni Kroos.
Figure 1.3 - Toni Kroos receives the ball in space.

In an excellent in-depth interview with Stuart James for The Athletic, Declan Rice explains what Mikel Arteta wants from him when he plays as a holding midfielder:

I would never have done this before. I probably only learnt this about two or three weeks earlier. […]

So when (Bukayo) Saka gets the ball, that space there is occupied by no one,” he explains, pointing to an area that has opened up in front of him. And it’s happened a lot this season where I make that run into there [space] and you’re free.

The manager calls it playing in a ‘good height’. If I’m back here (much deeper), we can’t progress the play. We’d end up going back to Ben (White) and back to the centre-half. So that’s why he says he wants his No 6s to always be in ‘good height’.

They don’t want to waste space or allow the opponent to breathe.

If Kroos attacks that space, you force the opponent to track Kroos. If you don’t mark Kroos, he’s free. When you mark Kroos, others become free, because Bayern Munich have to allocate a defender to Kroos.

If Kroos never makes that run, and stays deep, Bayern Munich might successfully crowd the ball, and then force the play back to the keeper or defense. They are always a threat going forward.

It is a constant game of peek-a-boo. You never know where the next danger will come from.

Figure 2.1 - Toni Kroos is wide left when the ball is played wide right.
Figure 2.2 - Toni Kroos anticipates how Bayern Munich will press Real Madrid wide, and aligns himself into the center of the open space.

Anticipating where the space will be before the play starts, is also key to conserving energy. Kroos can jog because he has the experience to know how to angle his runs, to perfectly setup his body to receive within that open space. If he stays wide, where he started, Real Madrid would be forced back to the keeper.

The ability to move slowly, for me, is an important part of being a holding midfielder. Being able to take in all the information around you, to find the space, is a lot easier when you’re at a jogging pace. But not in a disinterested way, purposefully moving, like Kroos. There needs to be a reason behind every movement.

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