In this episode of Game Insights, Chris Loxston (Group Leader, Football Performance Analysis & Insights) and Arsène Wenger (Chief of Global Football Development) discuss playing balls in behind both retreating backlines and deep backlines and the skills that need to be instilled in order to pull them off, as well as provide some insights on how to defend against them. They also pay particular attention to the various movements a striker can make against a deep defensive line. Basing their analysis on actual footage from recent FIFA tournaments, Wenger and Loxston show how opening up the defence, running in behind and dropping off are all effective ways for forwards to create the opportunity for the perfect through-ball.
Part 1: Introduction
Playing in behind the defensive line
An attacking team is always eager to play balls in behind the opponent’s defence, as they lead to chances with a high probability of scoring and are notoriously difficult to defend against. However, to use these balls effectively, at least one player is needed to make the necessary run and convert the chance, as well as another player who can anticipate the situation and play the appropriate pass.
Passer-receiver understanding is key
The effectiveness of playing balls in behind depends largely on the understanding between the passer and the receiver of the ball. If the timing, direction and quality of both the run and the pass are right, these balls are basically undefendable.
A runner's game intelligence
The runner must be capable of anticipating the moment when their partner will play the ball. For this reason, it is important to stay patient until the moment to start the run arrives. The combination of positioning and timing are core aspects of a runner’s game intelligence.
Using the offside rule
Sometimes, playing the offside trap is the only method defenders have of stopping a fast player.
Importance of the body position for evaluating space
"You need to educate players so that they do not only watch the ball. They need to have a look at the space available. This demands a special body position. If my body is turned to always face the ball, I do not see the space in behind that is available. The good strikers always have in their mind where they could go if there is an opportunity for them to get the ball."
Part 2: Inside and outside line breaks
Inside and outside line breaks
Inside line breaks are much more difficult to create than outside line breaks because there is less space available in central areas. Defenders learn to recognise the threat and defend in a more organised and compact manner.
Exploit space in between the lines
Minimising the amount of space between the defensive and midfield lines is crucial for the defending team. If the space is small, the midfield has a chance to recover and pressurise the opposition's strikers. If it is big, the midfield line can be broken more easily with a penetrating pass. The opposition will then have more time to turn and exercise their attacking abilities inside this space. It is no surprise that the teams who lose the most games also tend to concede the most midfield line breaks.
Mali v. Saudi Arabia (FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019™)
From a throw-in, Mali manage to quickly switch the ball to the centre, from where the defence can be taken out of the game by means of an outside line break. The angle and weight of the pass make it impossible for the goalkeeper to intercept the ball.
Distance between defensive line and goalkeeper
The distance between the defensive line and the goalkeeper plays an important role in the modern game. In this clip, the defensive line is still quite high at the time of the outside line break, making it difficult for the goalkeeper to come out and intercept.
Part 3: Effective movements against a retreating backline
Japan v. Netherlands (FIFA U-17 World Cup Brazil 2019™)
The player dribbling with the ball has a variety of options with which to break the line. Because the left centre-back is running too far inside, creating an angle for the pass, the attacking player ultimately decides to place a diagonal ball into the run of the central striker, who scores with his second touch. The combination of the dribbler having various passing options and his ability to play the right pass at the right moment creates a goalscoring opportunity. This again demonstrates that, when executed well, a ball behind a retreating backline can undo the opposition.
Reading cues to break retreating backlines
The player with the ball runs straight down the inside-left channel, sees that the left centre-back is coming too far inside, and plays a diagonal ball into the path of the striker in the central channel. The striker is aware of the centre-back’s movement and drifts into the area on the defender's blind side, increasing the space into which the player with the ball can pass. The ability of both attacking players to read the cue of the out-of-position centre-back was integral for the goal to be scored.
Attacking space in behind
Although the wide players did not touch the ball during this attack, they were constantly looking to attack the space in behind, pushing the backline further rearwards. With these two coordinated runs, Japan were able to pull apart the opponent’s retreating defensive line, creating a gap in the centre big enough to play through.
Disguise your pass
"Hide your pass. You teach the great no. 10s when they are young boys: 'Don't show: disguise what you are going to do. Once you have made your decision, get your defenders to think something different.' This is mostly decided by where you look. Defenders look at your eyes, they know where you will go. So, if you want to surprise them, don’t do what they expect from you."
Part 4: Effective movements against a deep backline
Opening up the defence
With a bending run, the forward uses the space between the outside and inside defenders to open up the defence. Since the outside defender is marking a winger and the inside defender does not want to leave the centre exposed, the gap between the two is large enough to break through.
Runs in behind
The closer the backline is to the goal, the more important attackers' lateral movements become. Strikers need to move sideways in attempt to drag their markers with them. The gaps created by drawing defenders across makes it possible to play balls through the deep backline. Without these gaps, there is no room to play through-balls, making it hard to break the line.
This puts the central defender in a position where they must decide to either follow the striker who is dropping off or stay and hold the defensive line. By coming short, the striker can draw in the central defender and then get behind them through a quick combination.
Part 5: Examples
Example 1: USA v. France (FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019)
The USA play their way down the left side to just outside the penalty area and shift the ball into the centre. The receiver of the pass initially has a poor first touch but adjusts by placing a perfectly weighted ball into the path of the striker, who is onside and finishes well.
Forming triangles is a foundation for hurting the opposition in the final third. They allow the attacking side to combine in an area of the pitch where they will always face heavy pressure.
Shifting and diagonal play
In modern football, the game often develops in a way in which play shifts from outside to inside and vice versa. Diagonal balls can be used to make these shifts within a game happen.
Example 2: Ukraine v. Panama (FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019)
The clip begins with a good 2v1 situation on the right wing. Here, the wide player moves inside with the ball, to which his team-mate responds with an overlapping run down the right wing. The good movement of his team-mates gives the player with the ball several options to keep the play flowing. He can:
(a) play the ball out wide;
(b) play a square ball inside to a supporting team-mate; or
(c) pass diagonally between the left-back and the centre-back (behind the defensive line) and into the path of the striker.
He takes the third option and the Ukrainian striker scores from a relatively acute angle.
Pushing the line
Making a deep run, the striker not only occupies a goalscoring position, he also pushes the opponent’s line backwards as the defenders have to adjust themselves and their line to his run in behind. The space this created between the defence and midfield line led to more options being available to the ball carrier.
Example 3: Spain v. Tajikistan (FIFA U-17 World Cup Brazil 2019)
The striker drops off at the right moment and the central defender moves out relatively late, opening up the space behind him. Spain's striker takes advantage of this by playing a one-two with his team-mate, quickly turning back into the space created by the out-of-position defender, and then ending the one-two with a first-time finish.
The difficulties drop-offs create for defenders
These drop-offs are extremely difficult to defend against when highly skilful attackers time them to perfection. In general, defenders are constantly having to orientate themselves as well as keep an eye on their opponents, and ultimately make decisions based on the situation. If a defender holds their position in this scenario, the attacker can turn in the direction of play. However, the distance between the defending side's midfield and defence is still small enough for a midfielder to intervene should the defender have chosen this option.
Key qualities of a striker
To successfully finish attacks of this type, strikers need to have special qualities. They should have the physical ability to move away from the opponent with a short burst and immediately run deep again. They must also be able to make quick decisions and implement them, which ultimately includes clinical finishing skills. Lastly, strikers should understand that if they are willing to work, they can create space for themselves.
Part 6: Final thoughts
Improving the vision
"The guys who make you win are the guys who see [what happens on the pitch]. So, let's educate the vision. In particular, the three-dimensional vision: help players analyse the depth of the field and give a good ball. We have to equip players technically, but we shouldn’t forget to educate their vision that helps play these balls in the first place. This is something that needs to be educated between 12 and 16 years of age."
Ideally, a player should master all facets of the game: seeing and passing into space as well as running into the space at speed, at the right moment, again and again.
Importance of running in behind
In the last three years in the Premier League, the teams that made the most runs deep behind the opposition's defence have always ended up winning the league.