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Tactical theory: Isolation

What is isolation?

Isolation is a tactical term that refers to a strategy of underloading a specific side of the pitch in an attempt to isolate the attacker with a sole defender. Similarly, isolation in a defensive phase can mean that all access to a certain player from the attacking team is denied, thus stopping the ball to be played into him. However, it’s something we generally always connect with attacking tactics as it’s an important part of positional play.

This tactical term is also closely related to both overloads and underloads as both aspects play a key role in successfully employing this strategy. Creating isolation for your key and most dangerous players is crucial when constructing the attack as it allows them the time and space to do the most damage possible in a short period of time.

Apart from the aforementioned terms, we can also mention switch of play, superiority, decisional crisis, wing-play, acceleration, positional play and advantageous position as closely connected to isolation.

Examples of isolation in football

The most famous example of isolation is the overload to isolate strategy. These tactics include movement manipulation in which the opposition defenders are dragged over to one side of the pitch to react to an overload, leaving the other side completely or almost entirely unmarked. The attacking team would in that scenario quickly recycle the possession from the overloaded side to the underloaded one where they find their forward(s) isolated in either a 1v1 duel or completely alone.

Of course, this requires pace in both movement and ball recycling as well as a high level of understanding and concentration from the players in tight spaces to be executed properly. For that reason, we mostly connect isolation with highly positional teams and coaches like Pep Guardiola, Erik ten Hag, Thomas Tuchel or Julian Nagelsmann.

These coaches are putting a lot of emphasis on manipulation, proper space occupation and swift interplay, making their teams capable of executing the said isolation tactics properly.

Why use isolation?

Isolation is an effective tool to put your best forwards and key players in an advantageous situation. Often, if the opposition’s scouting was good enough, they will ensure high priority targets are always well covered. However, with proper use of isolation, space can both be created and exploited to reach the danger areas.

Of course, it all comes down to proper execution, which can often be very difficult to achieve. But the rewards are big and can lead to more success in the attacking phase of play.