The pivot is a central-midfielder who will sit deeper than his midfield counterparts. They play a key role in a team’s possession tactics in contributing to a team’s press-resistance during build-up play, helping beat the initial press by dropping in between the first and second lines of the press. They also aid ball-circulation, and can even as a quarter-back option to launch attacks from a deeper position with the rest of the team pushed forward.
However, there is so much more to this position and this tactical analysis will look at defining the subtleties of the role and explain, with tactical theory, how the pivot’s movement and positioning has a desired effect on the rest of the side’s attacking shape.
A brief overview of the position itself
The role of the pivot is nothing new to football, but this article is going to look at the impact of using tactics that involve a pivot dropping particularly deep. The focus is going to be on a singular pivot dropping in, rather than a double pivot, and this article will examine the knock-on effect of said pivot joining his two centre-backs, who are part of a back four formation, to create a back three. I will be discussing the flexibility the pivot’s positioning gives to the formation and it’s attacking shape, where it can so quickly change, for example, a 4-2-3-1 into a 3-4-3.
The pivot is generally the best passing player in the team and there is some debate within the coaching community as to the positives and negatives of having such a player operate so deep. But this analysis will look at the positives of this.
Thiago, for example, who features heavily in this article has the eleventh best passing percentages across Europe’s top five leagues respectively. With these players receiving the ball so deep they can get in possession as quickly as possible, and they can immediately look to break the lines with passes rather than your centre-backs looking to do this, who perhaps aren’t at the same level of passing ability as the pivot. We can see that Xhaka does exactly this in the image below.
The 3-4-3 shape is desirable in the build-up phase as it provides plenty of space centrally to play passes through, and this is one of the biggest benefits of dropping the pivot into the back line.
In a back three, the wide players (numbers five and six in the image below) can operate in the half-spaces which provide a greater deal of passing options than if they were part of a central defensive pair. This picture shows how the player in possession could conceivably play four different types of pass, and with the pivot dropped in to make this back three there is now more space centrally to bypass the first and second line of press in one pass.
As mentioned in the introduction, the pivot plays a vital role in helping their team beat the press, by offering a central option to the defence just beyond the first line of press. Therefore, it is important they operate close to the defence, particularly the two centre-backs.
Should the centre-backs lateral passing options be cut off then they can play forward to the pivot, and break the press in doing so. We can see Mascarell doing this for Schalke below, taking a central position between the two Bayer Leverkusen forwards, which allows Schalke to play through the press and continue playing forward.
If a side is looking to draw the opposition forward, then this positioning seen by Mascarell in the image above is useful too. By dropping into these areas of the pitch they become a very realistic passing option and therefore their positioning will encourage the opposition to press forward, generally as a unit, leaving space behind the defence.
Another way they contribute with this initial positioning in possession, is through their impact on the defensive transition, by protecting the team from the counter-attack.
Although the title of this piece is focused on how it affects attacking shape, it would be remiss not to mention defensive transitions, for, particularly if you subscribe to Raymond Verheijen’s four phases model, the defensive transition should be part of your in possession model.
Again, from the same game against Leverkusen we can see Mascarell is going to drop between Schalke’s two central defenders, and as he does so, their right-back, Jonjoe Kenny will push high and wide.
However, as Schalke’s centre-back Ozan Kabak looks to pass to Kenny the ball is intercepted, and in the image below we can see the result of this, as Bayer Leverkusen look to counter-attack.
If there were just two centre-backs here, then this would be a prime opportunity for the countering side to overload, however, Mascarell’s positioning protects Schalke defensively and they have a compact back three who are ably suited to protect their goal and delay the attack until reinforcements arrive.
The final brief observation I will make on the initial impact of the positioning of a deep pivot, before going on to discuss its impact on other positions, is the control it provides the team in possession.
As mentioned above, having your best ball player in possession at the back is a contentious issue with some arguing that they are wasted there and that surely you want them in possession in more dangerous positions, however, when the pivot is operating at the top of the half with the ball, it really pins the opposition back, and allows them to stretch the play wide, which creates plenty of gaps for the pivot to look to exploit from this deeper position with their passing.
We can see Bayern doing this with Thiago as part of the back three. Bayern are particularly fond of camping this back three well inside the opposition half, making it difficult for the opposition to get out of their half as well. If Bayern’s attack breaks down and the ball is cleared by the opposition, it has to go over the back three’s heads for them to gain ground, which isn’t always easy to do. Otherwise the ball goes straight back to the Bayern back three – straight back to Thiago – and Bayern can commence with their attack once more, deep inside the opponent’s half.
Impact on the full-backs
The most obvious effect it has on attacking shape is from the freedom it provides full-backs. By having the pivot move into the back line to join the two centre-backs, the full-backs can push on, becoming wing-backs. From here teams can look to create overloads in wide areas, or allow the wing-backs to have autonomy over their flanks, and have their wingers or wide forwards stay more narrow centrally. We can also see in the image below, how the width created also opens up central passing lanes into the midfield.
The threat provided by this new width and height of the wing-backs, is useful against teams operating in a deep block where the middle of the pitch can get particularly crowded, therefore the highest percentage chance of finding space is on the flanks. Again, similarly to the image above, it will stretch the opposition and provide space between players to potentially play passes. These spaces can be few and far between against an effective deep block so any way of creating them should surely be encouraged. If the opposition resist this and stay narrow, then there should be plenty of space for the pivot to find the wide players in attack, as we can see Bayern do against Hertha Berlin below.
Bayern’s use of the deep pivot provides their left wing-back Alphonso Davies, who is arguably one of the most dangerous attacking full-backs in European football, with plenty of space where he can truly showcase his best talents.
The threat from Davies means teams have a choice to make. Either they mark him tighter and stretch themselves, providing more space inside for the pivot to play a pass through, or they allow Davies to have space and in doing so create opportunities for the wing-backs to cross or attack the opposition full-backs. Below we can see Davies operating in space on the left-side as Thiago has possession at the back for Bayern.
By no means does the pivot have to drop in between the centre-backs though, and ,in fact, dropping to either side of the two centre-backs can be a creative way to provide extra space for the wing-backs to receive and attack from.
An example of this is seen below where the pivot (number four) drops at an angle to the left-side of the two centre-backs. As he does this he is able to lure the opposition right-winger towards him and slightly away from the left-back, leaving the left-back in more space.
Arsenal often have their pivots drop either side of the centre-backs rather than centrally. As they do this it creates the back three, but as in the image above it also tempts the opposition into pressing with a front three rather than a front two. This movement specifically targets a winger or wide forward to push forward enough to leave space on the flank for the wing-back.
We can see this in the example below. Xhaka won’t start in this position, but the trigger for his movement will be the movement of the left-back to go down the line looking for the diagonal ball from the centre-back. By dropping in, Xhaka can tempt the right-winger to press him and leave space for his left-back.
The shape of the wingers and forwards
The domino effect of the pivot dropping deep continues in regards to the effect the wing-back’s new position has on the wingers. To truly get the most benefit from the high wing-backs, teams such as Bayern will have their wingers tuck inside into the half-spaces.
From the position below, Phillipe Coutinho can link up with a quick one-two with Davies, receive the ball himself and turn, or perhaps even let the ball run through for Lewandowski, still sitting in a central position.
The winger who has now drifted inside, has the freedom to operate in central spaces, and with the pivot operating in their deeper position, can now join the forward/s in looking to receive the pass through the lines in between the defenders.
With the wingers coming inside the pivot can look to play centrally too, and not just look to play in the wing-backs every time. With increased numbers inside the centre-forward can make a run towards the ball leaving space behind them. Earlier I mentioned the advantages of having such a complete passer operating from deeper areas and this is a prime example of the benefits. As the forward moves towards the ball, the wingers who are now operating in the half-spaces can make runs behind the forward into the space they have vacated. We can see this happening in the image below.
These movements can be seen in areas closer to the halfway line as well. One thing we see prevalently with a deep pivot, is the creation of the midfield box. This is an excellent mechanism to employ in order to play directly from the back line into the forward line. The image below highlights how much space can be created in the middle of the pitch just from the pivot dropping deep.
The movement from the pivot to drop deep creates space to play passes through, specifically it opens up the opportunity for the pivot to break the first and second lines of press with one pass and play the ball directly into the centre-forward’s feet.
This creates opportunities behind the centre-forward, as the image shows below. The centre-forward’s run into the space created by the pivot, allows the team in possession to play an “up, back and through” combination, where the number eight has three attacking options once in possession. He can either play the wing-back in behind, or the two wingers who have tucked into the half-spaces.
As much as the pivot is important in facilitating ball retention and launching direct attacks from deeper areas with well-placed diagonal balls, their movement into these deeper areas creates so many possibilities further up the pitch.
In this same issue, Cam Meighan discusses tactical flexibility, and the pivot is a key position in providing such flexibility within a formation. Formations shouldn’t necessarily be seen as binary and the simple movement of a pivot dropping into the backline can open up the benefits of an entirely different formation from, for example a 4-4-2 into a 3-4-3. On top of this their movement can create space behind them to aid in successful forward play. The argument that playing a pivot so deep takes away their potential impact in more advanced positions certainly has plenty of merit, however, this analysis has aimed to show the benefits that can occur should they do exactly this.