Fundamentally, football is a game that consists of 11 players on either team. The team in possession will usually have an 11v10 situation outfield, as the defending team’s goalkeeper can be excluded as they will look to stay in goal. As the teams organise in their respective structures, situations will arise in different areas of the pitch. For each situation, we can look to assign numerical values to each team depending on how many players they have within the situation that can be considered ‘active’. A player who is said to be ‘active’ is one which is either looking to make themselves directly available to a player in possession (for the team in possession) or looking to close off a pass (for the team not in possession). However, the space for interpretation of which players are considered active in the situation opens the potential to vary how we look at each situation. For instance, a player on the ball-far side of the pitch could be in space, available to receive a pass. For the purposes of defining the numerical values for the number of players in each situation, however, we should only look to consider players within a closer proximity to the player in possession. Doing so will allow us to determine areas of numerical superiority, equality, and inferiority. In this article, a standard 1-3-2-5 possession structure will be used against a 1-4-5-1 out of possession structure to demonstrate a variety of situations.
Finding positional superiority within situations of numerical equality or inferiority
The above graphic demonstrates how a 4-5-1 block would be expected to react to the left central defender receiving the ball in a 3-2-5 attacking structure. As can be seen in this image, we do not expect any form of numerical advantage to occur on the ball-near side of the pitch with the first pass out to one side. The defending team will likely be able to shift their block to the side of the player in possession to attempt to block passing lanes to nearby supporting players and close down the space that they have the potential to receive in. Therefore, we are likely to experience numerical inferiority or equality with the first pass out to either side of the pitch. In the case of the above example, we can interpret the situation as a 4v4 around the ball.
Here, we see that the opponent has one player to every player of ours; therefore, we can define this situation as numerically equal. It is important to factor in the defending team going 2v1 against the centre-forward, as is common practice for teams to do due to the danger of potential passes in-behind their backline in the centre of the pitch to the run of the centre-forward. The goal of this situation, as it is with the majority, is to progress the ball to a free player by eliminating opponents. The creation of one of these opportunities is called ‘creating a superiority’. Since we are not in a state of numerical superiority, we must instead find what is known as positional superiority. Positional superiority can be defined as the creation of a free player that isn’t available simply due to numerical superiority in the area, or in other words, one which has gained a positional advantage over their opponent. While this type of superiority will therefore most often take place in numerically equal of inferior situations, it can still occur in areas where numerical superiority is present.
The above image exhibits how a lateral movement from the player in the inside channel to a wider position has opened up a passing lane, eliminating multiple opponents from play.
In situations of numerical equality and inferiority, the creation of any passing lanes to free players will have to be through positional superiority, since, by definition, numerical superiority is not present. We must therefore look to gain positional advantages over the opponents in this area. However, since the opponent will possess enough numbers to close down each player and leave no one free, these positional advantages will normally only last for a brief period before an opponent reacts to the creation of the passing lane and looks to cover it. From this, we can conclude that the key to creating superiority in numerically equal or inferior situations is to create passing lanes quicker than the opposition is able to destroy the passing lanes. If we are able to achieve this, there will exist enough time where we have a positional advantage over the opponent to execute a progressive action that will eliminate one or more opposition players.
Before we discuss specific movement principles that will help us frequently find positional superiority, we must first briefly look at the concept of positional inferiority. Positional inferiority is the potential of a defending player to simultaneously cover more than one attacking player. This will exist when the horizontal spacing between two or more players for the team in possession is too small.
Here, there are two players in the left wide channel for the team in possession with very little horizontal separation. The consequence of this is that the defending team now have a ‘free defender’, despite the situation being numerically equal. As a result, the team in possession will find it much harder to find positional superiority, as the free player for the defending team can look to defend space that a player could potentially move into, or even create a 2v1 against the player in possession. Therefore, we want to maintain sufficient horizontal spacing between our off-the-ball players in order to never be in a situation of positional inferiority so that we are able to maximise our ability to create positional superiority.
Now that we have established how to stretch the opponent’s numbers as much as possible in a situation of numerical equality or inferiority to prevent an additional free defender, we must discuss how different movement principles could help us generate situations of positional superiority. One of the most common methods to create positional superiority is through the use of blind side movements.
Here we have the same image that was previously shown to demonstrate an example of positional superiority. However, we can see that it also involves the use of a blind side movement to gain this positional advantage. The player in the left inside channel was previously in the cover-shadow of one of the opposition midfielders, before making an outward lateral movement to free them of the cover-shadow. Typically, we will see blind side movements occur more frequently against zonal defences which will be utilising these cover-shadows to block passing lanes, as the player casting the cover-shadow is in front of the player attempting to gain a positional advantage. This is in contrast to man-orientated systems, where the defending player will usually be behind the player they are marking and will therefore be able to track their movements more easily.
Building on the use of blind side movements, certain passing combinations can be used to help find positional superiority. The above graphic demonstrates a situation where a centre-forward is positioned on the opponent’s backline. As the ball is played, the centre-back will get tight to the centre-forward to prevent them from receiving on the half-turn. The superiority in this situation has not yet been achieved despite the pass being played through the midfield line, since a free player has not yet been found. The free player in this situation will be the ball-near central midfielder, who makes a blind side run off their marker into the space between the lines as the ball is being played to the centre-forward, ready to receive a lay-off pass as a free player having escaped their marker. The midfielder can now be said to have created positional superiority, as they have managed to eliminate the opposition’s midfield having made themselves a free player.
This is an appropriate example to draw attention to the concept of socio-affective superiority. Socio-affective superiority is the ability of the team in possession to understand and interpret situations before the opponent can. In this case, socio-affective superiority would come from the central midfielder seeing that the centre-forward is showing for the pass from the centre-back, and immediately looking to make that movement to support the centre-forward to receive the lay-off. Meanwhile, the opponent marking the central midfielder will have not yet reacted so will not have moved back to close off the space between the lines for the lay-off to be played into. This, in combination with the use of a blind side movement which meant that the opponent did not see it occur and therefore did not react, led to the team in possession generating a free player between the lines through positional superiority.
Another principle which can be utilised to help us generate positional superiority is the principle of reorganising ahead of time. As we previously discussed, creating positional superiority is about being able to create passing lanes quicker than the opponent can destroy them. Therefore, we want to be able to reorganise quicker than our opponent at each change of situation. What this means, is that if our players can gain positional advantages before the ball has even reached the player who will be the one looking to execute the action involving the superiority, then we can find these superiorities before the opposition has managed to reorganise from the change in the angle of attack (a change in angle of attack being a change in which of our players has possession of the ball). In simpler terms, we want to look to create passing lanes to the player before they have even received the ball.
In the above example, the opponent has good cover of the space between the lines from the perspective of the player currently in possession. However, due to the finite nature of the cover that their line of five can provide, their cover is reduced elsewhere. In this situation, a gap has formed in their line of five for the player in the right inside channel to receive in. However, that gap can only be accessed by the right-sided central midfielder, rather than the left-sided one currently in possession of the ball. Therefore, the player in the right inside channel should look to make a movement to be able to receive a pass from the right-sided central midfielder through the gap in their cover. Once the pass is played to the right-sided central midfielder, positional superiority is created, allowing a pass to be played to the free player between the lines before the midfielder who should be covering them can shift across.
The last method of creating positional superiority that we will discuss is utilising rotations. Rotations can be used to temporarily reduce the opposition’s cover within a numerically equal or inferior situation to create a free player.
The above example displays a situation of numerical equality on the left side of the pitch. The players perform a rotation as shown, with the left-sided centre-back moving into the wide channel, the left-back moving into the inside channel, and the left-sided wide forward dropping in front of their midfield line. The key action here is the dropping of the wide forward, who takes with them the opponent’s central midfielder whose cover shadow they were previously situated in.
This forward movement from the opponent’s central midfielder, as shown above, creates a temporary gap in the opposition’s midfield cover. The left-back moving into the inside channel now becomes a free player, unable to be tightly marked by the opponent’s right-back due to the danger of leaving a gap in the backline for a pass into a potential run in-behind from the player now in the wide channel. Therefore, a pass into the left-back will result in ball progression through positional superiority. An example of a team that uses rotations as one of their mains sources of creating positional superiority is Atalanta, managed by Gian Piero Gasperini, who form diamonds on either side of the pitch that the players rotate within, in a number of ways, in order to gain positional superiority.
Creating and taking advantage of situations of numerical superiority
Now that we have discussed how to find superiority in situations of numerical equality or inferiority, we can investigate how to create and take advantage of situations of numerical superiority. What we have talked about so far will not only help us find positional superiorities, but numerical as well. The reasoning for this is that what we are doing, by creating passing options and supporting the player in possession, is moving opponents to one side of the pitch. Each time we create superiorities, we are forcing the opposition to make a decision: either they can commit more players to whichever side we are looking to play through, or, they can let us continue to find superiorities and progress the play. However, if they decide to shift players towards the ball, which teams will usually do, then they are reducing their numbers on the ball-far side of the pitch. Therefore, as long as we can maintain sufficient numbers on the far side of the pitch, we will be able to generate numerical superiorities. The more they commit to covering the potential passing lanes on the ball-near side, the greater the superiority that can potentially be generated on the far side of the pitch.
Here, we have a situation of numerical equality on the left side of the pitch, akin to those looked at earlier in the article. Through the proper use of horizontal spacing in order to not create positional inferiority, the defending team has had to shift their block to the ball-near side of the pitch so as to not be in a situation of numerical inferiority. However, since we are now discussing finding numerical superiority, we are interested in what consequences the shifting of the block will have on the far side of the pitch. As we mentioned previously, the opposition’s central defenders will nearly always go 2v1 against the centre-forward to cover passes into the most dangerous area of the pitch: in front of their own goal. That, combined with the shifting of the opponent’s block to the ball-near side, leaves a situation of numerical superiority on the far side of the pitch. In this case, a 3v2 is created across the right inside channel and the right wide channel. Furthermore, if the opposition were to shift their block to an even greater extent to create a ‘plus one’ situation in their favour, there would be potential for a larger numerical superiority on the far side of the pitch. This might occur if, for example, we were consistently finding positional superiorities in the numerically equal situations.
Having established how to create situations of numerical superiority, we must now look at how we can take advantage of the extra player. First, we must consider is simply how we can arrive in these situations on the far side of the pitch. To get the ball across to the area of numerical superiority, we evidently have to play across to the opposite side. One thing we must acknowledge, is that the numerical superiority will only exist for a certain amount of time after we begin switch the play. As we pass across, the opposition will shift their block to the far side of the pitch in an attempt to maintain numerical equality or superiority around the ball. Therefore, the challenge for us is to switch the ball quicker than the opponent can shift their block. The first element which will help us achieve this is good lateral spacing between players we want to switch the play through. If the distances are uneven between players, we will end up playing an unnecessary number of short passes that will invariably slow us down. The second element to consider is switching the play via the midfield rather than the central defenders. If the midfielders can offer lateral support to the player in possession, we can find the far side quicker through them than we could if we played the ball along our backline. The reason for this is that we are decreasing the passing distance and so we will therefore arrive at the far side more quickly. Finally, it is pivotal that our players understand these situations and know how to recognise them in a game environment. If our players can identify the optimum time to switch the play, which is when the opponent’s block has shifted the most that it will, then we will be able to arrive in situations of numerical superiority much more frequently.
If we are too slow to switch the play, allowing them to shift their cover in time, we can look to repeat the process of switching the play until we either find numerical superiority or we manage to create positional superiority in a numerically equal or inferior situation. Some teams will spend much of the game in this state, ahead of the opposition, attempting to switch the play. This will either be caused by their inability to find positional or numerical superiorities, or it will be due to their deeper players’ inability to execute the passes once superiorities have been found, signifying the importance of having players in your team who will look to receive in front of the opposition and play through the lines. A good example of a player who excels at this would be Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara.
The goal in situations of numerical superiority is, like it is in situations of numerical equality or inferiority, to eliminate opponents by finding a free player. As long as we maintain numerical superiority within the situation, a free player will always exist. Although, as discussed previously, this is not an unlimited timeframe, as the opposition will immediately attempt to shift across to regain numerical equality or superiority around the ball. We must therefore be as efficient and as quick as possible at finding the free player, while progressing the ball past opposition players, within the overload.
Following on from the previous situation, and assuming that a quick switch of play has been achieved, the above situation will arise. Currently, the free player is the centre-back who is in possession of the ball, while the right-back is covered by the defending team’s left-back, and the wide-forward in the inside channel is covered by the opponent’s wide midfielder. Instead of the free player being in front of the opposition, we want to be able to find a free player after progressing the ball, that is to say, we want to find a free player having eliminated an opponent from play. In this specific situation, the fullback is far enough from the player in the wide channel that the centre-back could pass the ball straight to them and they would be free. Essentially, this means that the opponent’s fullback is only covering the space in-behind, and therefore this situation is in essence a 3v1 if we are looking to find a free player between the lines. This can be explained by the fact that as you shift the block to one side and so reduce the numbers on the opposite side, you will inevitably create space on the far side, since space is simply defined as the area between opposition players. And, naturally, if there are fewer players, there is a greater area between them. For the purposes of looking at a ‘plus one’ overload, which is harder to play through than a ‘plus two’ situation, we will ignore the potential of the centre-back to immediately find the player in the wide channel as a free player and instead act as if the fullback is close enough to close down the player in the wide channel if they were to receive the ball. To find a free player behind an opponent in this 3v2 situation, we must force an opponent to press the player in possession, also known as ‘engaging’ the opposition. Doing so will free a player behind the pressing opponent.
The graphic above demonstrates how we can look to use ‘third man’ combinations to find the free player. Since the engaged player pressing the centre-back is keeping the free player in their cover-shadow, we cannot directly pass to them. This is a fundamental difference with ‘plus one’ and ‘plus two’ overloads. In a ‘plus two’ situation, we can play directly to them since, as long as we have sufficient horizontal separation, it is only possible to keep one player in the cover-shadow when the player initially steps out to press the player in possession. Since this is a ‘plus one’ situation, we must find the free player via a supporting teammate. A teammate, who is being covered, can drop to receive to feet. Meanwhile, the free player should look to move underneath to receive as the free player. Once this occurs, it can be said that we have taken advantage of the numerical superiority by creating a free player having also eliminated an opponent; the eliminated opponent in this situation being the player who engaged the centre-back.
The purpose of this article was to go beyond the notion of only one free player truly existing for the team in possession because of the 2v1 situation against the centre-forward, and that you must find that one free player in order to progress the ball. While it is true that there is typically always one free player for the team in possession, and that finding this player behind an opponent will progress the ball, it is one of multiple methods to achieve ball progression. So, in addition to looking at how we can find the natural free player, I also wanted to explore positional advantages to create a free player in numerically equal areas of the field to explain how ball progression is possible not only in situations of numerical superiority, but also in areas of numerical equality and inferiority. I also wanted to examine the relationship between the positional and the numerical superiorities, primarily how attempting to find positional superiority in one situation will also help find numerical superiority in other areas.