Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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Spain shows why a pass forward is significant

Spain are an example of a team that not only keeps possession but also progresses forward. If the option forward is open for Rodri, he takes it, because one pass forward from a holding midfielder can completely alter the way an opponent occupies space.

Figure 1.1 - Rodri passes forward, ignoring the pass backwards or side to side.

The pass backward or side to side is open, but the window to the most forward pass into feet is also open. You take the most forward pass option if you want to progress through the center. If you want to progress through the wings, you would pass backwards or side to side.

Even if you don’t complete it, you force the opposition to defend the pass. If that pass is never even attempted, why guard the players centrally? The opposition can focus their attention more on the perimeter, applying pressure to Rodri, the defenders, and wingers while ignoring Pedri, Ruiz, and Morata.

Figure 2.1 - Rodri passes forward to Pedri, ignoring the switch or the passes backwards and side to side.

Rodri could switch to Lamine Yamal, pass to the left from where the ball last came, pass back to one of the defenders to continue to circulate the ball, or play the most forward pass central to Pedri.

Figure 2.2a - Pedri takes a touch and passes back to the center-back, who then passes out to Lamine Yamal.

Rodri turns and with his third touch he chooses to play the most forward pass central to Pedri. No hesitation. If there was space open behind Pedri when he received the ball, he could turn to play the center-forward in. When Pedri receives the ball, he takes his touch forward, and Georgia’s midfield collapses on him. He allows them to collapse and then passes backward.

Figure 2.3a - The space offered to Spain when Lamine Yamal receives the ball.

By playing the forward pass central to Pedri, when the ball is worked around to Lamine Yamal on the right-wing, a few things happen.

  • Yamal has space to go one-on-one with the fullback, with the second defender having to cover a lot of space to help double-team him.
  • The defenders have space for the pass back from Yamal.
  • Pedri is ahead of his marker with only a center-back in his way if he wanted to make a run into the box.
  • Most importantly, Rodri and Fabián Ruiz have space central.

Every Spanish outfield player has more space from that one pass by Rodri. Georgia is having to defend both the pass to the wings, the half-spaces, the pass back, and central; therefore, they are stretched.

Figure 2.2b - The pressing options for Georgia to remain compact when Rodri passes back to the center-back, ignoring the pass forward central to Pedri.

Hypothetically, if Rodri were to play a pass to one of the center-backs to get the ball to Yamal, ignoring Pedri, Georgia would defend differently. They’d be able to stay more compact because they wouldn’t be drawn centrally to collapse on Pedri. They’d immediately anticipate the pass wide to the wing.

Figure 2.3b - Georgia stays compact when Lamine Yamal receives the ball.

The difference in the amount of space is drastic.

  • Yamal has little space to go one-on-one with the fullback, and with the second defender having less ground cover, he can immediately help to double-team him.
  • The defenders have space for the pass back from Yamal, but that’s the only pass available.
  • Pedri is no longer ahead of his marker, and Yamal can’t play the pass into him, so he can’t make the run into the box, nor can Pedri check to Yamal to help.
  • Most importantly, Rodri and Fabián Ruiz have no space central.

Spain would then enter into a horseshoe shape, passing back and forth at the back. There’s no progression because there’s no central space. Everything must go through the wings.

And the same would happen if Rodri were to switch it to Lamine Yamal instead of playing back to the center-back. Pedri would be too far away from Yamal, Yamal would be forced into a one-on-one, and Yamal would either beat his man to cross or play back to the rest of the defense. If he plays back, they enter the horseshoe.

Figure 3.1 - Rodri passes straight forward to Fabián Ruiz, Georgia collapses on him, and then he passes out of pressure to the center-back.

The two most important passes when you want to play central are either the pass immediately forward or backwards. Straight forward, like this pass from Rodri to Ruiz, or straight backward, like the pass from Pedri to the center-back. Straight up and down the pitch.

Force the opposition to collapse centrally with a forward pass into the center of the pitch, play out of that immediate pressure, and then take advantage of the space between each defender when they expand, either centrally or in the half-spaces.

The pass doesn’t even have to break a line; it just needs to move straight up and down the middle of the pitch. Every midfielder is obsessed with playing forward because it opens space centrally. Finding the least obvious pass is the job of the holding midfielder. It is a mindset. Passing side to side is fine but if you are not obsessed with passing forward, enjoy the wings and the horseshoe around with no progression.

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