The use of half-spaces is nothing new, but they grew more prominent in the football vernacular during Pep Guardiola’s time as Barcelona’s Head Coach where he frequently referred to using them.
In this tactical analysis, I am going to give a brief overview of the tactical theory of how the half-spaces can be manipulated to progress the ball and, seeing as Guardiola is going to feature a fair bit in this month’s magazines, I thought I’d give some examples from other teams, instead giving an analysis of the tactics of the likes of Graham Potter at Brighton, Brendan Rodgers at Leicester, and Lucien Favre at Borussia Dortmund and how they use the half-spaces to move the ball up the pitch.
In the below image we can see the pitch divided into five sections. There are of course the wings, and the centre of the pitch too. In between these areas we have the half-spaces called as such because they are literally the spaces between the centre and the wings.
When making a pitch grid you may choose to make the half-spaces wider or more narrow based on your own preferences, giving onus to a larger central space for example, but nevertheless it is still going to be roughly what we see in this image
If we were to prioritise areas on the pitch, the first place we would ideally want to be able to play through is the centre. From this area, you can play to either side of the pitch at roughly the same distance. And most importantly, by positioning yourself in this area in an attack you have the best shooting position where you can effectively strike the ball to either side of the goal, rather than if you were to shoot from the wing or the half-space where due to the goalkeeper’s near post positioning, you are likely going to have to go to the far post with your shot.
Due to its significance in attacking successfully, teams will look to prevent the opposition from attacking through the centre of the pitch by crowding this area when out of possession. This forces teams to go wide.
Playing on the wings can be difficult with limited space as you can only play one way rather than two ways as you can from the centre. You are also the furthest you can be from goal in this area.
As I’ve said, the half-space is between these areas. It is wide enough where you can find space to play forward past a team guarding the centre of the pitch with their defensive shape, and yet central enough where you can still build attacks where a shot from the half-space in the final third is far more threatening than a shot from the wing. But again, we must state that the preference is always to get into central areas. As we will detail in this piece, you have excellent angles to play into central areas from the half-spaces or to play behind the defence in the half-space or flanks that can lead to creating space centrally from a cross.
Of course on the wing, you are likely to cross more and from the half-spaces you can still do this, but due to the proximity to the goal you are likely to instead use a pull-back cross which can be so dangerous, and we see the likes of Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, just two examples, using this frequently.
It needs to be said that although players can perhaps find it easier to get space playing in the half-spaces, it is more so when they take these positions whilst standing between the lines.
The half-space isn’t a magic area of the pitch where a player can always stand and receive a pass, rather it is a channel that can be used to receive passes, or to manipulate the opponent’s shape to play a pass through, but not necessarily into.
Playing forward diagonally
By the very nature of the half-space area being between the central area and the wings, it provides a diagonal passing option for a player to receive in, or a player to pass from. These passes are at a shorter distance than if they were played from the centre to the wing, or vice versa, and so, therefore, will naturally give a better likelihood of completion due to few opposition players being stationed between the passer and the recipient. On top of this, the shorter distance the pass is, the more likely it is that it will be to the player’s feet, making it easier to retain possession.
The examples that I am going to show in the next two sections come from build-up play, or attacking play, essentially breaking down the use of the half-spaces in both one’s own half and the opposition half, although there will be some crossover in a few instances.
However, what we will see through all of these examples is how the half-spaces give teams a chance to play passes forward into players into space whatever channel they are in. Players will absolutely be able to receive in the half-space, but the space can be used to manipulate the opposition’s shape to open up other passing lanes, ideally in the central channel too.
We can see two examples in the following images. The first one shows a player operating in the right half-space able to play inside to the central-midfielder due to the angle created by the ball-carrier operating in the half-space.
The second image shows the ball-carrier in the central channel with the ball, and they are also able to play forward, due to the angle created by a player moving into the half-space to move. I wanted to specifically use this example to show that with teams playing out from the back, the half-spaces aren’t restricted to being used by the centre-midfielders. In this example, it is a right wide-forward dropping in to receive the pass.
There is such a variety of ways a team could wish to build up using the half-spaces that it wouldn’t be possible for me to detail them all, so I’ve attempted to use a rather rough, fluid formation in the examples above, and those that follow. These shapes could be either a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3. For the former formation, we see plenty of teams drop their pivot in between their centre-backs to create a back three in the build-up, allowing their centre-backs to operate in the half-space whilst the pivot is in the central channel, with the best angle to pierce passes through the first line of press into the half-spaces. This 4-3-3 with the pivot dropped in or 3-4-3 can be seen in the image below.
We can see how both centre-midfielders beyond the pivot are positioned in the half-spaces. Here they can potentially receive the pass as their team builds out from the back.
However, they are also leaving the central space free. Should one of the wide players of the back three have possession, their central-midfielders operating in the half-space means they could break two lines and play directly into the centre-forward.
It is the space created by both the centre-backs and centre-midfielders operating in the half-space that creates this option. With the centre-midfielders operating higher than they would in a midfield box, which I’ve shown below, they still create the space for this kind of pass and be able to instantly support the centre-forward. The positioning of the centre-midfielders comes down to whether the coach wants his centre-forward to receive the ball in plenty of space, or immediately have options. Of course, the wide forwards or wing-backs in this option could invert whilst the other pushes behind, but that’s another discussion for another analysis.
I mentioned how it’s not a magical space, and that players can’t just hope to stand in these areas and expect a pass. However, if they choose to operate between the lines, they should be able to create a good angle for the passer as if the player has the ball in the central channel or the wing, and the distance to a player in the half-space should be the same.
Due to the half-space being generally too wide for a central defender or midfielder to move over to comfortably pick up a player, and too narrow for a wide player to tuck inside, it means players can pick up space in these areas, especially if they choose to operate between the lines. We can see Jadon Sancho doing this in the image below.
This means that if the ball is with a centre-back we can still see a similar pattern from the earlier image of the goalkeeper playing into the half-space. Mats Hummels is able to break the lines with a pass into Thorgan Hazard who is sat in the half-space and between the lines, in this example.
Dortmund are particularly effective at using the half-spaces to build from and will have their centre-backs drive forward, looking to bring the press towards them, before playing a diagonal ball through the central space into a midfielder, or forward, teammate as we can see in the image below, similar to the earlier example of playing inside from the half-spaces.
Playing forward in the opposition half
A lot of the reasons teams will continue to use the half-spaces in the opposition half are the same as they would be in build-up play, but of course, with now fewer opposition players behind the ball, teams will be looking to directly create goal-scoring opportunities. These may come from passes being played from the half-spaces into central areas, or by playing behind the defence, where teams will look to have a forward either take a shot on themselves or make a pull-back cross, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
Due to the closer proximity to the goal from the half-spaces than from the wings, teams will seek to pull defenders – either full-backs or centre-backs, out from the back line into these areas, and then hit the space in behind them. As they do this they can drag another defender out of the back line, although this time horizontally, and create space centrally. Below we can see how the attacker’s decision to drop away from the opponent’s goal brings the defender with them, allowing his centre-forward to move behind him, creating space between the two centre-backs as he does so.
In the example below, we can see how the central-midfielder vacates the forward half-space to create the passing option for the winger, and in doing so, the forward’s run will pull the Wolves defence across, leaving spaces between them in the centre.
The player operating in the half-space isn’t always just a decoy to bring a defender out of the back line.
Brighton will often have a central-midfielder start in the half-space before moving out of the space to allow a forward to drop into the space, and in doing so, draw a defender out of the back line.
In the above example, Aaron Mooy moves out of the centre and facilitates space for the Solly March to drop into.
March lays the ball off to Mooy who is now in a wider position and then makes a run instantly further forward into the half-space, having brought a centre-back out of the defensive line. We can see this below. Mooy’s pass draws another defender over and leaves Neal Maupay in a 1 v 1 situation centrally.
Brighton have several passing patterns to bring defenders forward in the half-space and then to attack the space immediately behind them. We can see another example of this below, with a near-identical passing pattern, but this time Mooy moves directly behind the forward.
Diagonal passes can be played from these areas should the winger or forward operate on the shoulder of the defender. Although initially, it is a lower reward pass, playing from the half-space into the winger is the safer option, because they are in a 1 v 1 battle with the full-back.
We can see below how James Maddison plays left-winger Harvey Barnes in behind the full-back, with his centre-forward being closely marked by two central defenders.
If a player can receive in the half-space in the opposition half and turn, they immediately have several good options on.
In the case below, Barnes has space to turn. From here he can drive forward, play Vardy in behind, play Maddison in behind, who is on the left wing now, or play laterally to the supporting midfielder on his right. He could conceivably even look to play his right-winger in too. All of these options are available because of the amount of space he is in, but also because of the various angles that are open to him thanks to this position. Both of these factors come from being positioned in the half-space.
Driving forward in the half-space can be particularly effective in the final third where they can bring the opposition defence more narrow. Of course, if a back four is narrow, there is space on the outside of them.
You are likely going to see both full-back and centre-back get narrow, and should you engage the full-back, a centre-forward can spin off as Jamie Vardy does in the example below.
From this area, Vardy can cut behind the back four and receive a straight pass through the half-space channel.
Teams in possession will leave these spaces open, knowing that the opposition aren’t going to put players in there.
For the defence in the image below they don’t want to give any space to the centre-forward who is being marked by two defenders, or the Leicester right-winger who has a left-back marking him.
Should one of these defenders push up into the half-space, it would leave the possibility of them being hit in behind. The half-space is, therefore, not an area of priority for them. A quick interchange, like the one we see below and the initial ball-carrier can receive in the half-space as he spins behind his marker to receive in this area.
The defenders will then have to give the ball-carrier more attention in the half-space, for they are now a priority. This can open up passing lanes behind the opposition defence.
Finally, there is a great advantage for a forward to take up a position in the half-space for they can play between the centre-back and full-back without being marked tightly. This is particularly effective when their team is on a break against a defence operating with a high line. The space the forward gives themselves by taking this position gives them an advantage in a foot-race as the ball is played behind.
We can see this in the example below as Achraf Hakimi receives the pass on the right, drawing the left-back Alphonso Davies into him. Hazard is operating in the half-space, a good distance away from the centre-back David Alaba, and as Hakimi draws the left-back in, he slides a pass in behind into the half-space where Hazard latches onto the through-pass.
Frankly, this analysis merely scrapes the possibilities of using the half-spaces. I have attempted to give an explanation as to why teams will seek to use them and give subsequent examples showing different patterns that a small number of teams use as a result of positioning players in these areas.
In conclusion, using the half-spaces gives teams a way of playing passes, at an angle, into areas of the pitch they might not be able to from the centre or from the wings. It also forces the opponents who are currently positioned in the centre or the wings to get pulled into the half-spaces themselves, and consequently create space around them, and most importantly, behind them.
Defences will seek to prevent teams from playing into central areas, but using the half-spaces can give an angle where this is possible, or draw players out of the centre and create space for players to receive.
Overall, they create an element of uncertainty for defenders as a whole, and any tactic that does this is something teams should want to explore.