Toni Kroos featured in last month’s Total Football Analysis Magazine, so we’re taking a similar route in February. This month’s tactical theory piece takes a deeper look at three of the games legendary registas, Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso and Kroos.
Known for their sublime technical qualities and an elegance possessed by few, these players captivated us from their deep-lying role. We want to move beyond the surface of these mesmerizing displays to better understand how these registas asserted themselves upon the match.
This tactical analysis examines three ways in which these legends controlled the game. The first two relate to the attacking tactics of the game, whereas the third looks at the defensive aspects of the role.
#1 – Setting the tempo
The first idea we will touch upon is setting the match’s tempo. Registas tend to be among the most intelligent players on the pitch. They’ll use their football IQ and deeper position on the pitch to assess the vulnerability of the opposition’s structure and the readiness of their own team to attack. Continuously updating their mental image of the pitch allows them to keep tabs of their reference points (the ball, the opponent, teammates and space) in an interconnected manner. These reference points help them assess their side’s phase of the attack.
To more clearly articulate the phases of the attack in relation to tempo, we’ll speak of them as preparing to attack the opponent, attacking the opponent and attacking the goal.
As a team is preparing to attack the opponent, you’ll often see the regista use their supreme technical qualities as a focal point in the buildup. Their quick exchanges in deeper areas retain possession and slow the tempo, recycling possession with the anchor, buying time for centre-backs to set up line-breaking passes and the full-backs to push up the flanks. For this to happen, the deepest players have to buy time for their teammates to take up more expansive positions. Sending the long-range distribution too soon will simply lead in a turnover, so it’s critical to the build-out that the centre-backs and regista, as well as the goalkeeper and any participating midfielders, keep the ball secure with short passes while picking up their heads to identify the transitional moment to attacking the opponent.
In the first image, we have Juventus against Real Madrid in the 2014/15 UEFA Champions League semi finals. Pirlo has dropped in line with the centre-backs to direct the build-out. With Madrid organized today 4-4-2 middle block, there are very few available options higher up the pitch. The best-case scenario was sending the ball into the wings, but even then, Real Madrid’s wide midfielders are well-positioned to contest the pass. Rather than forcing a pass, Pirlo dribbles into the central channel to draw pressure from Gareth Bale. As Bale closes down, Arturo Vidal makes a sharp drop between the lines to give Pirlo an option. Once Pirlo released the pass, he intelligently moved against Bale’s momentum into the left half space, which is where Juventus managed to break the Real Madrid block.
With a team like Juventus, exceptional ball-playing centre-backs like Leonardo Bonucci may take up central positions, using their passing range and accuracy to fill a similar role to the regista. We see that now at Real Madrid with Sergio Ramos and Kroos near the interchangeable in the build-up.
If the centre-back moves into a central position, denying space for the regista outside of the opposition’s block, it’s the midfielder’s duty to locate space within the opposition’s defensive structure while simultaneously looking to create additional space either for his own long-range distribution or for his teammates to break through the press.
That’s what we see in our second image. Bonucci took up a central position, leaving Pirlo to find space within the middle block. At first glance, he takes up a curious position, standing in line with Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale. However, pressuring opponents is not exactly Ronaldo’s strength and Bale is still a considerable distance from Pirlo. That creates a large gap between the two forwards and the four midfielders. A quick exchange at the back eventually finds the regista, who takes his look higher up the pitch.
A positive first touch puts Pirlo in position to sell the defence on a pass to the wings. A gap emerges between Isco and Kroos, allowing Pirlo to split the two defenders and find his teammate, initiating the attack on the opponents and setting up Juventus with the direct attack to goal.
Each of the three registas highlighted in the article was known for their exceptional passing ability, pulling off long-range passes out wide or behind the line. All three of them had a common MO as the team progressed up the field. In the early phases, passes tended to be short and secure, using their press resistance to help break the opposition’s high press and progress the ball to the middle third. Once they beat the high press and the opposition settled into a middle block, registas then drew upon their speciality, long-range passes, especially of the diagonal variety.
During Real Madrid’s 2020/21 UEFA Champions League match in Ukraine against Shakhtar Donetsk, Kroos controlled the tempo of the match from just outside of the opposition’s block. Real Madrid would frequently set him between the two centre-backs, push the two full-backs higher off the pitch and overload the central channel against Shakhtar’s backline.
In this instance, it’s Rodrygo offering width while Lucas Vázquez remains in a deeper position. However, the constant is that Kroos is the one determining when the team should simply possess to continue manipulating the opposition’s defensive shape and when there should be a progression to attacking the opponents. In this example, he’s in his preferred region of the pitch, near the left half space. As a right-footed player, his open body orientation allows him to drive the ball into the right-wing for his teammate. When Kroos sends that pass, his teammates know that the assault on the opponent’s ranks is on.
A faster tempo allows teams to exploit the spaces in the opponent’s structure and behind the backline, whereas a slower tempo is designed to manipulate the press to create spaces for more direct attacking opportunities. In a sense, the slower tempo serves to set up the faster tempo.
One thing we commonly saw when Pirlo was running Juventus’ attack was that if the opponent retreated into a low block, the Italian champions often relied on Pirlo to either break the opposition’s press or play to someone else who could do the job, often a winger. You might recall the Mario Mandžukić role during his final years at Juventus. He often lined up as a wide forward to position himself 1v1 in the box against a shorter defender with lesser aerial capabilities. That basic idea is at work in the next sequence.
With Real Madrid set up in the low block, Juventus was unable to break through the central part of the pitch, at least not on the ground. However, they could still look to target Marcelo’s aerial defending. That’s exactly what unfolded.
Pirlo sent his pass to Stephan Lichtsteiner at the back post. The Swiss international managed to win the header, setting it back in the direction of Claudio Marchisio. A poor touch from the Italian prevented him from setting the ball into the path of an oncoming teammate, but a weakness was spotted and exploited by the brilliance of Pirlo.
Setting the team’s attacking tempo is a key responsibility of a regista. Using their football intelligence, exceptional vision and world-class technique, they’re the ones who determine when the team should simply keep possession and win should be that transition to attacking the opponent. A slower initial tempo is commonly used to set up faster, more direct attacks on the opposition. This power falls squarely on our registers.
#2 – Spacing the pitch
As mentioned, one of the top qualities of our registers is their exceptional technical ability. Watch any highlight reel of Pirlo, Alonso or Kroos and you’ll see them effortlessly drive the ball 60 metres onto the foot of a teammate. To put that ability to use, their teammates have to take up an expansive attacking shape.
In addition to setting the tempo, registas play an important role in the buildup, buying enough time for their teammates to take up the team’s attacking shape. Pep Guardiola once said that it takes 17 passes for a team to get into its attacking shape after a low recovery. Whether or not a team needs 17 passes is one thing, but the major premise is that a successful build-up allows teams to transition from the compact defensive structure into a more expansive attacking shape.
Registas use their press resistance to lead the buildup, keeping the ball secure, even while under duress. That’s the first job in helping the team space the pitch. Here we see Kroos helping Real Madrid navigate Barcelona’s counterpress before using a switch of play to break Barcelona’s press.
Press resistance to fend off the counterpress as a necessary quality, but so is the ability to combine that press resistance with an understanding of how to manipulate the opposition’s lines.
That’s where we get our first Alonso example. Going up against his former club, Real Sociedad, which also happens to be where he is starting his coaching career with the B team, he’s done well to position himself in the middle of five opponents. Of the five players, the two behind him are furthest away, meaning that he’s positioning himself to draw pressure from the opponent to his right. His body orientation allows him to see not only that specific defender but also the two in front of him.
When the pass comes in, he baits his defender into attacking the ball in an attempt to intercept the pass. However, Alonso uses his body well to turn to his left, setting him up on his preferred right foot to play a split pass between two Real Sociedad players, one of whom is a young Antoine Griezmann.
As the lone player between the two centre-backs and the line of midfielders, Alonso uses his positioning not for the long pass, but to simply break the next line. With Real Madrid well-positioned to attack either the wings or the half spaces, his decision to play short was the right one, improving the team’s speed of play, allowing his teammates to run at the backline and maximizing the number of options in attack.
In situations where the regista has to play within the opposition’s pressing structure, there’s an understanding that they may not have the time or space necessary to drive those long diagonal passes that bypass the defence. However, players like Pirlo, as you see in this next example, can use their technical qualities to hit an accurate, intermediate-range, one-touch pass to switch the point of attack. He was well aware of the space available to Lichtsteiner, as well as the pressure from Bale and Ronaldo. His ability to play the first touch pass broke Madrid’s compact press, allowing Juventus to progress into the attacking third of the pitch.
When our registas aren’t playing within the opposition’s structure to set up teammates to exploit open space, they look to use their pinpoint accuracy in long-range distributions. If they’re going up against a middle block, it’s easy enough to drift outside of the opposition’s lines to find the necessary time and space for long-range passes. But that can be tricky against a low block. In some instances, as you see in our next sequence with Alonso, the opposition’s forwards may not drop behind the ball. Rather, they may look to commit to a higher position on the pitch to serve as an outlet for their teammates.
That means teams have to create space for the regista’s distribution. One of the ways teams can do that is to overload one area of the pitch, enticing the opposition to send more numbers and become unbalanced. Penetrating passes to deeper targets are another way to decrease the space between the midfield and defensive lines. In either instance, the objective is to make the opposition’s press more compact, which, in turn, creates a pocket of space for the regista to occupy and initiate his long-range passes. Real Madrid has done just that in the sequence, in this case, taking advantage of the large gap between the midfield and forward lines.
Once Alonso has the time and space to take a touch up field with the correct body orientation, he’s able to drive a pass into the box for Karim Benzema.
One of the things Pirlo and Kroos have in common is that they started their careers higher up the pitch as #10s. They had exceptional vision, but the compact spaces and more advanced starting positioning, as well as the visual limitations associated with the position, spurred the move to a deeper part of the pitch. From this deep area, all three of these players could put their technical and tactical qualities to better use.
And that really is the differentiator. Some players may see the opportunity but not have the technical qualities to complete the action. Others may have the reverse, possessing world-class technical ability but a poor understanding of the game and limited vision of opportunities higher up the pitch, letting their teammates’ runs go to waste. The legendary registas have always combined these two qualities. Those are the tools they use to direct the attack and take full advantage of their team’s expansive attacking shape.
#3 – Role in rest defence
While registas are not typically known for their defensive prowess, they have a role to play.
First and foremost, they play a prominent role in the team’s rest defence. Since they attack from deeper positions, their very presence occupies a pivotal counterattacking space. With the registas protecting the backline, they allow the centre-backs to remain in deeper positions. The very presence of the regista is itself a defensive contribution.
Even if the opponent looks to play long, as Real Madrid did in our first defensive image, targeting the run of Ronaldo, Pirlo’s in a position to contest the second ball. You see here that he’s well connected to his backline offering coverage in front of them and backtracking support as the ball is played over the top.
When the second ball does fall between the midfield and defenders, Pirlo’s right there to make a nice sliding tackle and help Juventus regain possession.
In open attacks, the regista can work in tandem with his midfielders to track runners who are targeting the space between the lines. In most cases, you’ll see a regista paired with a ball-winning midfielder to account for the former’s poor defensive qualities. In the case of Alonso, he was equally skilled on the defensive side of the ball, giving his fellow midfielders more freedom in the attack.
In the match against Real Sociedad, we saw him pick up the first runner into the midfield and track him into the right half space before transferring him to Pepe.
The reason he released the runner is that he saw the need to slide back to the centre and pick up the runner heading into that channel. Once Xabi Alonso released his mark, he slid back to the middle to take away the passing lane to a runner in a more threatening area.
Finally, they’re valuable members of the counterpress. With all three players, it was common to see them push higher into the midfield at opportune times to challenge for the ball. Especially in the cases of Pirlo and Kroos, whose defensive qualities are rather limited, they might push higher up the pitch to allow more defensively sound midfielders to protect the space in front of the backline.
Kroos did just that against Barcelona. As Barcelona made a low recovery and looked to quickly progress up the pitch, Kroos made a nice read on the ball, funnelling his opponent into the wing and poking the ball out of play, allowing Real Madrid to set up defensively.
While it’s not their point of emphasis, we find that top registas helped their team control the game with their defensive qualities too, primarily through their presence in the rest defence, protection of the backline and movements in the counterpress.
An uncommon role in the game, the traditional regista Is a player who asserts control over the match and directs his team’s play. Supreme technical qualities are a necessity, but that’s not enough to play the role well.
As we’ve seen in this analysis, legendary registas control the game through their tactical understanding. Setting the tempo and allowing their team to dominate the match through spatial orientation are key qualities. They are the field generals, running the show from the deeper region of the pitch. Out of possession, it’s more their intelligence than their defensive excellence that helps control the game.
The ideas at play in this article, the ones that set apart these legends from the rest of the field, were meta-level, transcendent properties of the game. They weren’t just playing the game, they were envisioning it, then bringing their intellectual vision into reality. Controlling matches was the product of their beautiful football minds.