Ask any coach or player about the most difficult task in football and you’ll get the same answer, scoring a goal.
Watch any top team play a lower level team from their league. Odds are the less talented side will sit in a low block and defend for their lives. Given the disparity in talent, you might expect the top side to use their total qualitative advantage to claim an easy win, but, more often than not, the match becomes a slog with the more talented side battling for 90 minutes to find that one clear breakthrough.
As the game continues to evolve, studying the innovators and top clubs within the game gives us an idea of current solutions and future paths forward. While the top sides have the undisputed advantage of top talent, their attacking and defensive principles offer insights that lower-tiered teams can take to their own clubs.
In this tactical analysis, the topic concerns the interactions of attackers that lead to goals. Since scoring is the most difficult aspect of the game, analysing and developing a clear understanding of the most effective attacking principles allows teams to improve their shot creation with the personnel available on the wage bill. This analysis will examine five tactical interactions that top clubs use to create more effective attacking moves.
If you read my training analysis article on runs behind the line in a two forward system, one of the teams I showcased was Getafe. Their success this season is largely due to their control of the central areas of the pitch. In attack, especially in transition, the 4-4-2 diamond midfield overwhelms opponents as Getafe quickly play into high targets, link up centrally, or use a narrow switch of play to their far-sided box-to-box midfielder. The point is simple…get to goal quickly through numerical superiority.
They’re not the only side in Europe utilising central overloads. In fact, you could argue that many of the top clubs, including PSG, Barcelona and Liverpool, are applying this positional tactic. Barcelona and Liverpool are fairly similar in that the three forwards commonly position themselves from one half space to the other. At Barcelona in particular, the narrow use of the forwards allows for greater connectivity among the group. The additional benefit is that teams must overcompensate for the central threat of the forwards and midfielders, creating room on the wings for the outside-backs to join the attack.
I’ll go into more detail on Liverpool’s set up in the next section, so for now let’s focus on PSG. The Ligue 1 side lead the Big 5 European league with 68.43 xG. On a per shot basis, they’re averaging 0.159 xG, which is a really extraordinary number that indicates the high quality of the chances they’re creating. While there is a considerable gap in talent between the title-holders and the rest of the league, the Parisians have already qualified for the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals by defeating a rejuvenated Borussia Dortmund side. So how are they utilising their talent to such great effect?
Thomas Tuchel has moved to a 4-4-2 in the side’s most recent matches. The idea is to get his top attackers on the pitch while allowing Neymar Júnior and Ángel Di María to create from the half spaces.
It’s common to see PSG progress through the wings, so highlighting them in the central overloads section might seem odd on the surface. However, it’s the presence of their central players that creates such a headache for opponents.
With Kylian Mbappé and either Edinson Cavani or Mauro Icardi up top, opposition defences will generally commit three players at the back. Further down the pitch, PSG are likely to have both pivots and the far-sided attacking midfielder positioned within the half spaces. Adding to the central presence is the far-sided outside-back who’s ready to burst into the newly available space in the attacking third.
Given the incredible talent PSG fields, opponents try to remain plus one at the back, then match PSG’s numbers elsewhere. However, Les Rouge et Bleu overloads near the ball while occupying key central areas. As the side rondos in the overloaded area, they’re attempting to unbalance the opponent. Once the defence overcommits near the ball, PSG will play out of pressure before playing an intermediate or long pass to one of the forwards or attacking midfielders.
In a mid-January Ligue 1 matchup, PSG didn’t waste any time getting on the scoreboard. After Neymar Júnior atoned for an errant pass with an immediate interception, PSG regained their attacking start positions. As Monaco moved to counterpress, Neymar played diagonally to Mbappé, who set the ball back to Marco Verratti. PSG is not quite ready to attack the goal. Since the recovery came on the wing and they already had numbers there, the home side connected a few passes to draw the Monaco defence in, creating more space in the areas PSG wanted to ultimately attack.
Do you see where Neymar’s looking? As he starts his run into the space behind Mbappé, he glances at Kamil Glik and notices the Pole has moved tighter to Di María. Notice the shift in PSG’s positioning. With PSG starting to move higher and more central, the Monaco players must adapt their shape, quickly identifying threats and closing gaps. Amidst the action, Neymar’s run is untracked, so he takes his opportunity with a strong run behind the backline.
Verratti’s chip is brought down on the chest and directed towards goal. Glik had no chance to recover, leaving Neymar with loads of time and only the keeper to beat. Even though Neymar’s run starts on the wing and Verratti’s pass comes from the half space, PSG had too many players high in the centre of the pitch for Monaco to handle. As a result, the central overload commanded the attention of the defence, gifting Neymar a free run behind the lines and an early goal.
Isolations producing a qualitative advantage
As mentioned in the previous section, Liverpool commonly deploy their three forwards from one half space to the other. That narrow positioning offers a few central benefits. First, they have numbers in or near the box when the attack transitions from “attacking the opponents” to “attacking the goal”. Second, some of their top attacking players are connected high up the pitch, typically triangulated as Roberto Firmino will drop into the midfield as a false nine. Third, Firmino’s movement between the lines opens up running lanes to goal for Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah.
In response to Liverpool’s starting positions, opponents must commit their numbers more centrally, which makes perfect sense. Assuming a side wants to remain horizontally compact, they will defend in three of the five vertical channels.
The issue is that two of Liverpool’s top attacking players happen to play outside-back. As the opponent is drawn centrally, which Liverpool can achieve quite easily given the numbers and quality they have in the middle, space opens up for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson on the wings. These wide playmakers are two of the top crossers of the ball in Europe. Additionally, TAA leads outside-backs in the Big 5 European leagues with 12 assists this season with his Scottish teammate tied for fourth overall in EPL assists with seven.
Liverpool knows that Alexander-Arnold or Robertson playing 1v1 against an opponent will produce the final third magic they need. Of the two, Robertson is an excellent 1v1 dribbler, whereas Alexander-Arnold’s movement is exceptional. Paired with his crossing ability, Liverpool really only need him to create a half-metre of space for a quality delivery.
Whether a side wants to get the outside-backs isolated on the wings or, like Real Madrid, prefer to isolate the wide forwards, the tactical concept these sides pursue is isolations which produce a 1v1 or 2v2 qualitative advantage. If your preference is for the wide forwards to operate as isolated playmakers, watch the Bayern teams of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. The whole tactical system was designed around isolating these two players in the attacking third and letting them use their qualitative superiority against the opposition.
Whether a side wants to mimic the deep playmakers like Liverpool or the high, wide forwards like Real Madrid and past Bayern Munich sides, a strong central presence enables the exploitation of the wings. Move the opponent centrally to then attack wide. Once you move them wide, take advantage of the disorder and numerical equality centrally. Pull the opponent across the pitch, disrupting the defence with each change of direction.
When you dissect Jürgen Klopp’s tactics at Liverpool, the central overload is one of the first things you’ll notice. The three forwards keep the opponent’s backline, typically a four or five-man group, in the central channel and half-spaces. As you can see in the image above, that leaves a lot of space for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to progress play via the wings. In this sequence at Anfield against West Ham, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain completed the long switch of play to Robertson. With West Ham pressing centrally, the pass and first 15 metres of dribble penetration were unchallenged.
While the first frame gives a nice view of how to isolate your playmakers in space, this one is a fantastic reference point for movement in the box. The highest runner, Firmino pushes the two centrally positioned defenders deep into the box, virtually screening the goalkeeper, Łukasz Fabiański. Between Firmino’s run and Mané’s decision to stay at the top of the box, Robertson had a clear passing lane to Salah at the penalty spot.
Salah’s shot was poor, but Fabiański still couldn’t handle it through the traffic as the ball went through his hands and legs, setting up Liverpool’s late comeback. Though Firmino doesn’t receive credit on the scoresheet, his run is invaluable in this goal. With Liverpool committing so many players centrally, it frees him up to make these highly impactful runs, allowing Salah and Mané to finish off the chances provided by Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
If you’ve played close attention to the UEFA Champions League, you’ve surely taken notice of an exciting Italian club from Bergamo that’s lighting up Europe on a shoe-string budget. Atalanta is one of the great stories of the season. With a wage bill comparable to 14th-place EFL side Reading, Atalanta’s mixture of veteran bargains and talented academy products has put the side into the Champions League quarterfinal. Total Football Analysis senior analyst David Seymour has written extensively on the sides attacking and defensive tactics. Given Atlanta leads Serie A with 61.50 xG this season, good enough for fourth in Europe’s Big 5, the read is very well worth your time.
One thing Atlanta does so well is positional rotation. Gian Piero Gasperini’s side consists of highly adaptable players who are comfortable operating in a variety of roles. On the team, Duván Zapata is the only true centre-forward. However, Josip Iličić, Alejandro “Papu” Gómez and Luis Muriel have all picked up starts at the other forward position in Gasperini’s 3-4-1-2, which is easily played as a 3-4-2-1 if the match calls for such tactics.
Of those four players, Iličić and Gómez are the mainstays. They start high up the pitch, but will gradually work their way into a deeper position. Gómez, in particular, will drop behind the line of four midfielders. When Gómez drops, Iličić will read the play and rotate into that #10 role while the once deeper midfielders push higher up the pitch. If the opponent settles into a low block, Papu will drop outside of the block, the holding mids will move higher and one of the centre-backs will push higher up the pitch in support of Gómez. These rotations are spatially directed. Once one space clears, someone must move to occupy it, meaning the collective understanding of their zonal responsibilities is extremely high. With so many rotations, it’s easy to see why opponents find it difficult to contain the Atalanta attack.
Once the initial round of rotations is complete, Atalanta’s top playmakers will look to tear through the opposition’s defensive structure. As the side begins the move towards goal, the trio of high central attackers who are off the ball start their deep runs to goal.
Given the heavy positional rotations, you might expect the goals to be pretty widely distributed. In fact, it’s Gómez and the three forwards who make up four of the top five spots on the team with 45 goals, as well as 20 assists, between them. This shows that, even though Gómez and the forwards drop deep to combine, they make runs into the box from deep starting points. These untracked runs are difficult to pick up. So positional rotations serve to unbalance the opponent, but also free up the top attackers, both in the build-up and when attacking the goal.
No one expected Leece to head into the half tied 2-2 with high-powered Atalanta, but the relegation fighters accomplished the task. Poking the bear rarely turns out well, and Leece suffered early and often in the second half, conceding a 7-2 loss to Gasperini’s side. At the heart of Atalanta’s second-half performance, as well as their wildly successful season, was scintillating, attacking football. Fresh out of the locker room, centre-back Marten de Roon carried the ball out of the back and played into Iličić who made a checking run inside. Notice the moment Iličić checked into the midfield, Mario Pašalić took his position up top with de Roon completing the positional rotation.
After a brief spell of possession on the left-wing, Iličić, who switched roles again, this time with Gómez, ran at the backline to begin the siege on goal. With forward Zapata and Gómez both in the left-half space, Iličić was able to pin the first defender and play Gómez in behind the backline. Typically, the roles are reversed with Gómez setting up his forwards, but this sequence shows the versatility of Atalanta and why their fluid, attacking style is so difficult to contain.
Gómez latches onto the pass and takes his shot. The Lecce goalkeeper, Pierluigi Gollini, made the save but sent the rebound into the middle of the box. Given the attention Leece had to give Gómez, Iličić’s run from the deep starting point was untracked. He produced the winning goal with a beautiful half-volley, keeping his side favourites for the final Serie A UEFA Champions League qualification spot.
Using the half-space
Not long ago, bombarding the box with crosses was a common attacking tactic. The combination of observation and data has confirmed that crosses are generally low percentage attacking plays. After all, not every team has a duo like Alexander-Arnold and Robertson at their disposal.
Instead of settling for the easy cross, or the long-distance shot with low xG, most teams are trying to play the final pass from deep in the half-space, be it a negative cross, through ball or combination play. The idea is to start from a more dangerous position with a high possibility of a quality distribution leading to a shot on frame.
Pep Guardiola is a master of the half-space. Wherever he goes, his club learns how to use this vital zone to unbalance the opponent and get behind them. While I could show examples from his current Manchester City side or his successful Barcelona side, we’ll focus on Bayern Munich in this section. When Guardiola left Barcelona, the playing philosophy suffered, especially as Xavi and Andres Iniesta left the club. However, the vibrant attacking football he brought to Bayern has continued on, even despite the necessary tactical adjustments due to personnel changes. Deeply instilled in the club’s playing philosophy is the concept of attacking from the half-space.
Within his preferred 4-2-3-1 system, Hans-Dieter Flick often slides his #10 into the half-spaces with the wide attacking midfielders. The obvious advantage is connecting the two should the ball enter their zone. One of the two players will typically play a bit higher, stretching the backline, while the other slides in between the lines to offer a line breaking outlet. Their threat does not stop there. The #10 and his wide attacking midfielder will oscillate from high and low starting points, attempting to free the teammate behind the lines.
Beyond the connectedness of the two players, the numerical and qualitative advantage Bayern gain forces the opposition to overcommit to this zone. That action releases Munch’s outside-backs to move higher up the pitch. Alphonso Davies, Benjamin Pavard and Joshua Kimmich offer such a strong attacking threat in the wings that the half-space starting positions and activity help to free up the wings for the outside-backs.
Building the attack in the final third and progressing the ball into the half-spaces of the box brings tremendous advantages. In terms of off the ball movement, progressing into the half-space areas of the box demands the opposition’s attention. That’s shooting range, so the defence must respond quickly. As the defence moves to contain the threat, new spaces emerge in the central channel. Those new gaps lead to improved passing lanes and better endpoints for the runners. Both the passes and finishes offer a much higher percentage of success than a simple cross from deep in the wing.
In Bayern Munich’s last Bundesliga match before the suspension of play, they faced an Augsburg side that was up for a fight. Upon recovering the ball, Bayern played directly to Serge Gnabry on the right. His set to Thomas Müller was played behind his compatriot. As Müller and Daniel Baier raced for the loose ball, the Munich man got there first and poked the ball back to Leon Goretzka. With the massive space opening up between Baier and his backline, Goretzka took a quick touch around the defender and dribbled forward.
Once the defence reached their line of resistance, Goretzka played the pass wide to Gnabry. Just outside the penalty arc, the young Canadian, Davies, made a run into Bayern’s right half-space, attempting to either create a central lane for his teammate or receive and attack from inside the box.
Davies’ run allowed Gnabry to cut inside and play a give-and-go off of Goretzka. The combination gets Gnabry behind his defender, meaning the last defender between him and the goal will have to leave the middle to apply pressure in the half-space.
As the central channel clears out, Gnabry’s little chip over the feet of the defenders is met by Goretzka, putting the three points beyond doubt. From Goretzka’s initial run to the combination in the box, Bayern Munich effectively drew the Augsburg defenders into the half-space, leaving the more dangerous central space untended. Since the half-space is itself a dangerous area, defenders must apply heavier pressure, preventing the opponent from shooting. As the defence moves laterally and diagonally to deny the shooting lane, other opportunities emerge. At this distance, the central pass to Goretzka is a simple one. The accuracy and ease of passes from the half-spaces make them ideal areas of the pitch to send the final pass.
Vacating key areas
Moving on to the final interaction in this piece, this is one that you likely picked out to some degree in each section. When discussing vacating key attacking areas, the ideas at play are those of space and time. At the moment a key attacking space was vacated, the opposition likely had a strong foothold in that area, meaning any attempt to penetrate through that zone would either have a low percentage of pass completion or fail to contribute to the primary aim of scoring. The time simply isn’t right to attack that space. More work is needed, so the team leaves the area in an attempt to create the space they want to attack.
This is an attacking tactics principle I referred to in my training analysis article on runs behind the line in a three forward system. By leaving a key attacking area, the idea is not to abandon progress through that zone, but to clear it of defenders, allowing the attacking team to return to that area under better conditions. Watch Karim Benzema’s movement in the build-up. He’s always looking to sacrifice a high position to get a teammate behind the defence. As he drops deeper, his teammates look (or at least they should look) to move behind him in the space vacated by the defender.
This principle is applicable throughout the pitch, but, as this is an article on interactions that lead to goals, we’ll keep our focus higher up the pitch. Among those higher, attacking players, the first movement you’ll generally see is a player in the highest line of attack drop deeper into the midfield. As he moves, his nearby teammates must watch for the gaps to open up. If the #9 drops into the left-half space, the left-forward and left-sided attacking midfielder, possibly even the left-outside-back, should make a darting run into the emerging space. As the space opens and numbers are nearby to make the runs, the time is ripe for action.
Back in April 2018, a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal matchup between Real Madrid and Juventus saw Cristiano Ronaldo earn a standing ovation from his future fan base for an exquisite bicycle kick. You know the one, the second of his two goals. Before that legendary strike, he capped off a nice early sequence to give the La Liga side the lead. The image above gives an idea of their starting points as Los Blancos prepared to advance into the Juventus box. Isco initially held a high starting point on the touchline, but Marcelo’s overlap sent the Spaniard into the half-space. Marcelo received a pass from Sergio Ramos and maintained possession while Isco made his move.
Rodrigo Bentancur and Andrea Barzagli initially followed Isco into the half-space, but both dropped off as soon as Madridista return to the wing. Glancing at the newly emerged opening, Isco immediately returned to the half-space. Marcelo recognized the opportunity to split the defence and played Isco in behind the defence and into the half-space.
Isco sent his cross from the half-space, exactly six yards from the endline. While he crosses the ball, Ronaldo and Benzema were battling with Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Kwadwo Asamoah in the box. You can see the value a player like Benzema brings to a club in this goal. He and Barzagli are tussling in the box, the Frenchman trying to cut in front of the Italian to screen him from the cross, whereas the Juventus man was trying to deny Benzema a shooting opportunity. Little did he know that Ronaldo was on the prowl, ready to latch onto the cross.
My photo editing doesn’t do the strike justice. From a difficult angle and in a full lunge, Ronaldo is able to bend the ball with the outside of his right foot, sending it past Gianluigi Buffon for the opening goal of the tie. While I could have simply referenced the goal in the last image, the conclusion of Benzema’s screen is really worth seeing. While there’s a chance he makes contact if Ronaldo isn’t there, his ability to get in front of Barzagli and Chiellini denied the defenders a meaningful opportunity to block the shot. Plus, with the Real Madrid forwards abandoning the near-post early in the sequence, they effectively provided a target for Isco. Both Isco’s run behind the line and the occupation of space by Ronaldo and Benzema shows the value of vacating the space you want to attack. Drawing defenders away from those key spaces were vital to each of the final passes in the move.
While elite teams have the unique benefit of top-tier talent, both among the players and coaching staff, the rest of us can take the tactical ideas they produce and boil them down into concepts suiting our side’s personnel. We may not have a Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in our team, but sides like Atalanta have shown that clear concepts and intelligent players with diverse skill sets can produce top-shelf results.
Combine with my two recent training analysis articles on runs behind the lines (found exclusively on Total Football Analysis), this analysis of final third movements has reached roughly 10,000 words with 41 supporting images, seven of which are training ground activities. By boiling successful attacking moves down to their tactical principles, coaches and players can then go to work implementing the ideas with a better understanding of the necessary cues and desired outcomes. This is an area that is constantly evolving as coaches and players look for new solutions to current problems. These 10,000 words are a start, but also an acknowledgement that the work is never fully finished.