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Tactical Analysis: Possession play with a midfield diamond

The midfield diamond has had somewhat of a resurgence in the past year. Generally associated with a 4-4-2 formation, the formation can be written as a 4-1-2-1-2, or more easily a 4-3-1-2, as there is less of a distinct separation between the pivot and the two wide central-midfielders compared to the separation between the attacking midfielder, or the 10, from the two wide midfielders.

So why use this formation? Without entering into a conversation about whether formations are relevant, it’s pertinent to point out the obvious, that if your squad is littered with central-midfield talent, and a lack of wingers, then this is a natural formation to end up with, just as England did under Sven Goran Eriksson almost two decades ago. However, attacking full-backs are also a requirement, as is a desire to play with a front two, and so again, without wading into a discussion on the importance of formations, it greatly depends on personnel and your own convictions as a coach.

The examples I will use in this article come from Marco Rose’s Borussia Monchengladbach and David Wagner’s Schalke, both of whom have played with a midfield diamond on a number of occasions over the last year.

Initial build-up phase

To begin with, we should look at how the formation generally looks when possession begins with the goalkeeper.

We see a pretty standard back four configuration with both full-backs pushing up high, whilst there is a single pivot. The image below shows this formation when used against a team not looking to press too high.

However, when used against a team with a high press, the formation provides plenty of benefits in helping teams stretch the press horizontally and creating opportunities to play forward and beat it.

Firstly, if we look at the image below we can see how deep the pivot now drops to support the two centre-backs. At the same time, both full-backs drop deep and sit very wide, stretching the press. They can potentially receive here, or if the press diverts their attention to the full-backs, then the pivot is immediately available just beyond the first line of the press.

On top of this, the two wide central-midfielders drop deep in the half-spaces where they sit unmarked and beyond the second line of the press, offering the opportunity to break the lines should the centre-backs feel bold in possession.

However, with other formations that use a midfield three, like a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3, should the centre-backs feel uncomfortable playing short passes and decide the best option is to play long, this can surrender possession too easily with the centre-forwards unable to secure possession from an aerial ball. 

Due to the four central midfielders in the diamond, three central-midfielders can drop in to support the initial efforts to beat the press, whilst the fourth midfielder, the number 10, can be available to quickly sweep up any knockdowns from a long ball played forward.

If we focus momentarily on how deep the pivot can drop we can see how the midfield diamond answers one of it’s most common criticisms – it provides no width in attack. This isn’t true for a few reasons, one of which we will discuss in more detail in a later section, but the central depth provided by the pivot allows the full-backs to push forward aggressively, essentially becoming wing-backs, and giving the formation similar aesthetics to a 3-4-1-2.

With the full-backs pushing forward, it allows the wide central-midfielders to remain inside in the half-spaces and gives the attack that much needed width which can either help the team get behind the opposition wide areas or stretch the opposition’s defensive shape, creating space inside for forward passes in the central channel and half-spaces.

The role of the wide central-midfielders (up, back and through)

With the presence of a number 10 pushing an orthodox midfield three into a midfield four, it gives the wide central-midfielders a touch more freedom to drift wider than might be expected with a standard midfield three. Particularly with the absence of a winger on either flank, there is certainly enough space for these players to drift wider. However, unless the ball is with the full-back, they are unlikely to shift entirely over onto the flank.

As already mentioned, these players will operate in the half-spaces during build-up play. They are most effective when starting behind the second line of the opposition press and can drop deeper to receive a vertical pass from the centre-back. This is the first instance of how the “up, back and through” pass pattern is used and how the diamond structure supports this pattern so well.

With the four central-midfielders on three different horizontal plains, there is a natural stagger which supports ball progression. This can be done through the central channel, with the ball being played from centre-back vertically into the feet of one of the wide central-midfielders, who can then play the pass back to the pivot as we can see in the image below.

The pass could even be played from the centre-back into the ten or, more likely, from the pivot into the 10, as we can see below. Again, we will see the same pass pattern but this time with each of the two wide central-midfielders supporting this pass. 

The formation doesn’t just lend itself to the central channel either. With the full-backs pushing forward at the right moment, they can offer a passing option from the player in the half-space just like in the image below too.

What’s interesting about this formation is how it staggers this passing pattern, not once but twice, as the ball is initially played forward into one of the wide central-midfielders, and then again either into the number 10 or the two centre-forwards. With the latter, the number 10 is an obvious option for these players to drop the pass into, but with both of these options, the wide central-midfielders need to immediately switch from being the forward line-breaking passing option from the first pass, to becoming another option for the second “up, back and through” passing pattern, which we can see in the image below.

Of course, the wide midfielders’ role isn’t limited to this one passing pattern. They contribute to creating overloads on either flank. This is another reason why the concern that there isn’t enough width from a midfield diamond isn’t a valid one. With the full-back in possession on their wing the midfielder shifts over, albeit still remaining at least somewhat in the vicinity of the half-space, not shifting entirely onto the wing. With the full-back and wide midfielder together, this attack has only two players. As long as the opposition have a winger and full-back in place to defend this attack, few teams are going to create overloads as such. However, due to there being a number 10 occupying the centre of the pitch and ensuring that the opposition centre-backs have to remain central themselves, it provides the opportunity for one of the centre-forwards to shift across towards the flank and create this 3 v 2, like we can see in the image below.

This is where this formation differs from one like the 3-5-2, for instance. The 10 space is left vacant in the 3-5-2 and so the centre-forwards will often drop into this area. If they shift over to the flank to create an overload, then the centre-back may be tempted to follow and nullify this overload attempt. However, with the diamond, the number 10 will keep the centre-backs occupied by two players even if the centre-forward shifts across to create the overload on the flank and, therefore, it makes it far easier to create this numerical superiority then it would be otherwise.

The final advantage created from these wide central-midfielders is creating an overload in the central channel too. In total there are four midfielders in the central channel and this crowds this area, whilst leaving space on either flank for the full-backs to exploit. However, should the opposition’s defensive shape lack compactness, then it can aid ball progression through the middle. This can be done with the up, back and through pass patterns highlighted earlier, but it can also be achieved like in the image below, where Monchengladbach sought to stretch the opposition centre-backs and have one of their wide central-midfielders hit the space between the two of them. With both of Monchengladbach’s centre-forwards occupying a centre-back each and their number 10 doing likewise to Roma’s defensive midfielder, it creates an overload in a central area. Had the centre-back in possession been able to hit the space between the two Roma centre-backs, there would have been the chance to exploit this space.

Counter-pressing opportunities

The overall compactness created by the diamond also leads to excellent opportunities to counter-press effectively. With the proximity of the 10 to the two centre-forwards, there can immediately be three players swarming the ball in the frontline. Should they lose possession whilst in midfield, there are four players who can again swarm possession from all angles, whilst depending on the height of the full-backs, there is support on the flank to prevent the opponent playing easily out to the wing to bypass the counter-press. There is horizontal and vertical compactness evident throughout their possession play, with the centre-forwards never straying too far from their number 10, who in turn doesn’t move too far away from his midfield. We can see two of their back four in the picture as well, supporting their midfield with a high line.

Even in the advanced attacking phase, if the ball is central, it is highly likely that the midfield diamond will be relatively compact still. As well as providing quick and easy passing options in the central channel for the player in possession, it allows them to counter-press very quickly. We can see how compact Schalke’s midfield four is in the example below.

In these instances, there is the concern of players just crowding the ball. The positioning of the full-back is vital to first ensure there is an outlet and, secondly, prevent the opposition from crowding the ball themselves. In the example below, we can see that Roma’s midfield react to Monchengladbach’s press by swarming the ball themselves, leaving left-back Ramy Bensebaini free to receive on the left-flank as he makes a late run forward to provide the width needed.

Teams can afford to be more direct too, as the diamond aids ball retention from knockdowns, regardless of whether their forward or the opposition centre-back wins possession. As long as at least one of the full-backs provides the width, it is unlikely that an opponent can outnumber the team with the midfield diamond in the central channel. Any one of the four midfielders is positioned to quickly react to a loose ball and continue their team’s in possession phase. 

The pivot is particularly useful, for they bridge the gap between their midfield and defence whilst allowing their team to still commit at least three central-midfielders around the ball. Again if they play a long ball forward, like in the example below, their positioning between the midfield and defensive lines still gives that level of compactness but allows the midfield to push a little further forward than they might have otherwise.

As soon as the pivot counter-presses, moving into position to quickly regain possession, due to the stagger created by their diamond formation, there are immediate options for them to move the ball on and not get caught in possession themselves. We can see in the example below that the ball-carrier has three easy options on. If they are to play the furthest pass forward, then the forward would also have two immediate options on themselves, such is the stagger created by the diamond.

Conclusion

There is plenty more to explore in this formation in regards to its impact in the possession phase and, frankly, each one of these sections could have had an article dedicated to it. Nevertheless, this article has aimed to highlight some key advantages of a midfield diamond and give an overview of how two sides who have used it frequently in the past 12 months have benefited from its structure.

Whilst there are shortcomings with every formation, one of the most commonly seen arguments is the lack of width provided. Hopefully this article has pointed out that this is somewhat of a fallacy and shown the benefits of crowding the central channel and using the half-spaces.