Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Active and Waiting defenders in a flat-back-five

May 2, 2023 — Tottenham throughout the season, like Chelsea and Inter Milan, have used a flat-back-five out of possession, to their detriment. Here are three examples that showcase the ways a team can exploit this structure.

It might look like an impenetrable wall on paper, but it only takes one or two overeager defenders to jump, and create a space behind.

Figure 1.1 - Dier, Perisic and Davies step out to challenge the ball.
Figure 1.2 - Salah plays the ball to Gakpo behind Dier.

It’s difficult to go from a “waiting” stance to an “active” stance.

  • Romero and Porro are in the “waiting” stance: static, upright, flat-footed, and easily caught off guard.
  • Dier, Perisic and Davies are all in the “active” stance: bent knees, lunging at the ball, and reacting.

Every defender needs to be active.

This is something commonly seen with a flat-back five. Active defenders jump, space is created behind them, while waiting defenders are caught off guard, and the space behind is left vacant.

No one is ready for the ball in behind.

Figure 2.1 - An example from Chelsea's Champions League match against Real Madrid.

This example in Figure 2.1 didn’t happen, but it was something I was worried could happen based on Chelsea’s structure when they played Real Madrid.

Same concept. Two active defenders jump, space opens behind, and waiting defenders are caught off guard by the pass behind the active defenders.

The second example is what I was worried about during the Real Madrid match. It comes from Chelsea’s match against Brighton. A cross to a space in the box, from the right half-space.

Figure 3.1 - Mac Allister passes to March, with Gross making a run on the right. Mitoma anticipates the play and peels off to join the forwards, to outnumber Chelsea's remaining four defenders.
Figure 3.2 - March passes to Gross.
Figure 3.3 - Gross crosses to Welbeck for the headed goal.

Chelsea are flat, Chilwell jumps as the active defender, some chaos ensues in the box with confusion from the waiting defenders on who they should mark. All of those waiting are flat-footed in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.4 - What change I would make to improve Chelsea's defensive structure.

A subtle change Chelsea could have made would be to have the wing-backs step forward ahead of the center-backs so that when the ball is played forward. Chilwell would be better positioned to intercept a pass to Gross from March.

There would be less defensive movement, the marking assignments remain clearer.

  • Less movement, less confusion.
  • Less movement, easier to remain active ready to intercept or challenge the ball.

The final example comes from the Inter Milan match against Juventus. The free-man on the far side.

Figure 4.1 - Rabiot dribbles to his left.
Figure 4.2 - An active defender jumps to Rabiot.

Notice how flat the three Inter Milan waiting defenders are, ball-watching. The most they can handle is a cross into one of the three Juventus forwards that they’re man marking. Outside of that, their body is unprepared for any other pass.

Figure 4.3 - Rabiot passes to Cuadrado who is free on the far side.

It’s a mad scramble. Inter contract on the remaining forwards. No one checked over their shoulder and Cuadrado is left free in space.

  • Space behind the active defenders who have jumped to challenge the ball.
  • Space in-between waiting defenders, with a cross from a half-space.
  • The far side free man, beyond waiting defenders.

All three scenarios are problems for flat-back-fives.

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