Interactions of attackers that lead to goals - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from May 2020. It's called, "Tactical Theory: Interactions of attackers that lead to goals.”

Ask any coach or player about the most difficult task in football and you’ll get the same answer, scoring a goal.

Watch any top team play a lower-level team from their league. Odds are the less talented side will sit in a low block and defend for their lives. Given the disparity in talent, you might expect the top side to use their total qualitative advantage to claim an easy win, but, more often than not, the match becomes a slog with the more talented side battling for 90 minutes to find that one clear breakthrough.

As the game continues to evolve, studying the innovators and top clubs within the game gives us an idea of current solutions and future paths forward. While the top sides have the undisputed advantage of top talent, their attacking and defensive principles offer insights that lower-tiered teams can take to their own clubs.

In this tactical analysis, the topic concerns the interactions of attackers that lead to goals. Since scoring is the most difficult aspect of the game, analyzing and developing a clear understanding of the most effective attacking principles allows teams to improve their shot creation with the personnel available on the wage bill. The full analysis examines five tactical interactions that top clubs use to create more effective attacking moves. This post focuses on the last two, using the half space and vacating key areas.

Using the half-space

Not long ago, bombarding the box with crosses was a common attacking tactic. The combination of observation and data has confirmed that crosses are generally low-percentage attacking plays.

Instead of settling for the easy cross, or the long-distance shot with low xG, most teams are trying to play the final pass from deep in the half-space, be it a negative cross, through ball, or combination play. The idea is to start from a more dangerous position with a high possibility of a quality distribution leading to a shot on frame.

Pep Guardiola is a master of the half-space. Wherever he goes, his club learns how to use this vital zone to unbalance the opponent and get behind them. When Guardiola left FC Barcelona, the playing philosophy suffered, especially as Xavi and Andres Iniesta left the club. However, the vibrant attacking football he brought to FC Bayern München continued on, even despite the necessary tactical adjustments due to personnel changes. Deeply instilled in the club’s playing philosophy is the concept of attacking from the half-space.

Within his preferred 4-2-3-1 system, Hans-Dieter Flick often slid his #10 into the half-spaces with the wide attacking midfielders. The obvious advantage is connecting the two should the ball enter their zone. One of the two players will typically play a bit higher, stretching the backline, while the other slides in between the lines to offer a line-breaking outlet. Their threat does not stop there. The #10 and his wide attacking midfielder will oscillate from high and low starting points, attempting to free the teammate behind the lines.

Beyond the connectedness of the two players, the numerical and qualitative advantage Bayern gains forces the opposition to overcommit to this zone. That action releases Munch’s outside-backs to move higher up the pitch. Alphonso Davies, Benjamin Pavard, and Joshua Kimmich offer such a strong attacking threat in the wings that the half-space starting positions and activity help to free up the wings for the outside-backs.

Building the attack in the final third and progressing the ball into the half-spaces of the box brings tremendous advantages. In terms of off the ball movement, progressing into the half-space areas of the box demands the opposition’s attention. That’s shooting range, so the defense must respond quickly. As the defense moves to contain the threat, new spaces emerge in the central channel. Those new gaps lead to improved passing lanes and better endpoints for the runners. Both the passes and finishes offer a much higher percentage of success than a simple cross from deep in the wing.

In Bayern Munich’s last Bundesliga International GmbH match before the Covid suspension of play, they faced an FC Augsburg 1907 side that was up for a fight. Late in the game, a counterpressing recovery set the Bayern attack in motion. Once the defense reached their line of resistance, Goretzka played the pass wide to Gnabry. Just outside the penalty arc, Davies, made a run into Bayern’s right half-space, attempting to either create a central lane for his teammate or receive and attack from inside the box.

Davies’ run allowed Gnabry to cut inside and play a give-and-go off of Goretzka. The combination gets Gnabry behind his defender, meaning the last defender between him and the goal will have to leave the middle to apply pressure in the half-space.

As the central channel clears out, Gnabry’s little chip over the feet of the defenders is met by Goretzka, putting the three points beyond doubt. From Goretzka’s initial run to the combination in the box, Bayern Munich effectively drew the Augsburg defenders into the half-space, leaving the more dangerous central space untended.

Since the half-space is itself a dangerous area, defenders must apply heavier pressure, preventing the opponent from shooting. As the defense moves laterally and diagonally to deny the shooting lane, other opportunities emerge. At this distance, the central pass to Goretzka is a simple one. The accuracy and ease of passes from the half-spaces make them ideal areas of the pitch to send the final pass.

Vacating key areas

Moving on to the final interaction in this piece, this is one that you likely picked out to some degree in each section. When discussing vacating key attacking areas, the ideas at play are those of space and time. At the moment a key attacking space was vacated, the opposition likely had a strong foothold in that area, meaning any attempt to penetrate through that zone would either have a low percentage of pass completion or fail to contribute to the primary aim of scoring. The time simply isn’t right to attack that space. More work is needed, so the team leaves the area in an attempt to create the space they want to attack.

This is an attacking principle I referred to in my training analysis article on runs behind the line in a three-forward system. By leaving a key attacking area, the idea is not to abandon progress through that zone, but to clear it of defenders, allowing the attacking team to return to that area under better conditions. Watch Karim Benzema’s movement in the build-up. He’s always looking to sacrifice a high position to get a teammate behind the defense. As he drops deeper, his teammates look (or at least they should look) to move behind him in the space vacated by the defender.

Among those higher, attacking players, the first movement you’ll generally see is a player in the highest line of attack drop deeper into the midfield. As he moves, his nearby teammates must watch for the gaps to open up. If the #9 drops into the left-half space, the left-forward and left-sided attacking midfielder, possibly even the left-outside-back, should make a darting run into the emerging space. As the space opens and numbers are nearby to make the runs, the time is ripe for action.

Back in April 2018, a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal matchup between Real Madrid C.F. and Juventus Football Club saw Cristiano Ronaldo earn a standing ovation from his future fan base for an exquisite bicycle kick. You know the one, the second of his two goals. Before that legendary strike, he capped off a nice early sequence to give the LALIGA side the lead. The image above gives an idea of their starting points as Los Blancos prepared to advance into the Juventus box. Isco initially held a high starting point on the touchline, but Marcelo’s overlap sent the Spaniard into the half-space. Marcelo received a pass from Sergio Ramos and maintained possession while Isco made his move.

Rodrigo Bentancur and Andrea Barzagli initially followed Isco into the half-space, but both dropped off as soon as Madridista returned to the wing. Glancing at the newly emerged opening, Isco immediately returned to the half-space. Marcelo Vieira recognized the opportunity to split the defense and played Isco in behind the defense and into the half-space.

Isco sent his cross from the half-space, exactly six yards from the endline. While he crosses the ball, Ronaldo and Benzema were battling with Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, and Kwadwo Asamoah in the box. You can see the value a player like Benzema brings to a club in this goal. He and Barzagli are tussling in the box, the Frenchman trying to cut in front of the Italian to screen him from the cross, whereas the Juventus man was trying to deny Benzema a shooting opportunity. Little did he know that Ronaldo was on the prowl, ready to latch onto the cross.

My photo editing doesn’t do the strike justice. From a difficult angle and in a full lunge, Ronaldo is able to bend the ball with the outside of his right foot, sending it past Gianluigi Buffon for the opening goal of the tie. While I could have simply referenced the goal in the last image, the conclusion of Benzema’s screen is really worth seeing. While there’s a chance he makes contact if Ronaldo isn’t there, his ability to get in front of Barzagli and Chiellini denied the defenders a meaningful opportunity to block the shot.

Plus, with the Real Madrid forwards abandoning the near-post early in the sequence, they effectively provided a target for Isco. Both Isco’s run behind the line and the occupation of space by Ronaldo and Benzema shows the value of vacating the space you want to attack. Drawing defenders away from those key spaces was vital to each of the final passes in the move.

Intrigued? The full article offers 4.1k on the five-pronged topic, including sections on central overloads, isolations producing a qualitative advantage, and positional rotations. Head to Total Football Analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

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Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the final installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid

Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini

Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession

Day 17 - Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?

Day 18 - Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system

Day 19 - Training runs behind the backline in a two-forward system

Day 20 - How short centre-backs have a big influence

Day 21 - Creighton University: An inside look at NCAA Men’s Soccer’s most data-driven team

Day 22 - The dark arts in the age of VAR

Day 23 - Interactions of attackers that lead to goals