Throughout the years you learn new things in life. This is obviously also the case with football and my knowledge about it. Many myths have been debunked and one of them is that every academy plays a way that has been perfected or invented by a senior side. I could not have been more wrong. This is why I write these case studies in academy football in Europe to show what the differences and nuances are in football. In this case study, I had a look at 20+ games in the Championnat National U17 in France, which is the highest division of that particular age bracket.
In this case study, I look closer at the roles of players instead of formation, and perhaps that is where the future lies of tactical tasks within a game. If you view a tactical plan of a combination of individual and collective roles, rather than a formation – a formation is nothing more than a starting point for a team. This is important to remember as I’m going deeper into the system I have analysed.
Individual roles are given to the players in a game, but there is always a set number of rules and principles within the system that everyone needs to abide by. The system I have taken a look at focuses on attacking through dominance in central zones. In the examples, the opponent plays in a 4-3-3. In this article, I will look at the three aspects of this philosophy that I came across the most.
Dominant in central zones
Principle number one is to be always be dominant in the central zones of the pitch. Dominance can mean different things, but in this case it means that when the ball is in control of the team they want to create from the central zones with many players in the central zones or players moving into the half-spaces. When the ball is out of possession and in the central zones, there will be aggressive pressing to regain control of the ball.
In the image above you see the starting positions of both teams and at first this doesn’t seem to special in the central zones. Both players have six players in the central zones, but the difference hides in the approach. The team that wants to play dominant in the central zones has no players wide, but has four players playing in the half-spaces. The reason why they do it is because they want to dominate with the ball from the moment the ball is in the central zones. The full-backs and wingers can invert quite quickly in that particular case.
In the image above you can see how that looks like. Obviously, not the whole team will play in the central zones at the time, but the idea is to create overloads in order to dominate the central zones while in possession of the ball. One of the inverted full backs will move up on the pitch closer to the defensive midfielder to create a compact unit of four in the middle of the pitch to create a 4v3 situation.
The wings are not completed unused when in possession of the ball. The rule in these case is that only one player can occupy the winger per build-up phase or attack. In the image below you can see how that can look like.
In the image above you see two situations portrayed. The first one is where the left full-back leaves his position from the half-space to the wide space and has the whole channel for himself as the rule is that only one player can play wide. This means that the full-back needs an attacking skill set that suits the playing style without being classified as a wing-back.
The second situation is where the right winger does something similar and steps out of the half-space zone into the wide space. From the moment he plays wide, the players playing centrally will move forward and get into the box to convert a possible cross into a goal.
Without the ball, there is a strict rule to let the players on the wing have the ball. Allow them to progress, but the dominance is always in the central zones. Marking them tightly, blocking pass lanes to the central zones, and moving as a unit to the creating threat in the half-spaces. To force players on the wing to make a decision, the defence is strengthened.
Create through central zones
Creating chances is vital, so much is obvious, to get into good opportunities to score goals. In the case of possession of the ball you can create through midfielders when you gain or regain possession in the middle third. When the opponent has a shot and you have to build up from the back, however, the aspects of play are different. In this system it’s important that you have ball-playing central defenders: your central defenders need to be comfortable with dictating play AND need to have the quality to pass the ball behind the defensive line.
In the image above you see that the central defender leaves his starting position and assumes a position closer to the defensive midfielder. His ability to break lines with his passing is very important as he can reach the advanced midfielders and the wingers from where he stands, and instantly start an attacking thread. It’s important for the central defenders to be very comfortable on the ball, but it’s also important for the advanced player to understand that he can make that pass, and therefore they need to make movements towards the ball – anticipating a line-breaking pass.
It was quite interesting to see how principles and rules were more important than a set formation. Fluidity is very important and to see 15, 16 and 17-year-old players carry this out was very thought-provoking.