Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders - 2023 Advent Calendar Series, Day 2
Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to scottmartinmedia.com or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment.
Today's featured excerpt comes from the November 2021 magazine. It's called, "Tactical analysis: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders."
Ever wonder what separates the top midfielders in the game from the pack?
There’s no universal set of physical traits in the middle of the park and you can argue there’s very little separating their technical qualities.
So what’s left?
These players have an exceptional understanding of the game which is manifest in their movements off the ball.
Through video research and tactical analysis, my goal is to identify which movements help these players dominate the tight confines of the midfield.
Given that elite players tend to play for world-class teams that tend to be possession-dominant, this analysis is slanted more toward the attacking side of each midfield role than the defensive duties.
However, there are some defensive examples, as well as images focusing on the movement mechanics of specific players.
This group of midfielders shows incredible intelligence with their tactical movements, as well as the way they use their body to improve their odds of success.
The article categorizes players with a standard 3-man midfield identification. Though not each player in the report plays in a 3-man midfield, their roles within the team’s tactics are closely related to the responsibilities of a 6, 8, or 10.
#6 – Muscle and maestros
Let’s start with the 6s, muscles and maestros.
First up is Casemiro, the muscle in Real Madrid’s midfield. Real Betis were engaged in the build-out and thought they had found their opportunity to play through Real Madrid's press. A window of opportunity to play into the top line opened up, so Betis took their chance.
The intelligence of Casemiro's movement is that he quickly assesses his reference points to identify the likeliest action Real Betis will undertake.
Tying this into the four reference points, the Brazilian positions himself with respect to the opponent within his zone and calculates the angle of a potential pass based on the position of the ball and the locations of nearby teammates and opponents.
Further, he sees the space they are targeting. Understanding those reference points helps him coordinate his starting position, which then allows him to cheat closer to the passing lane and respond to the threat with early movement into that lane.
In the article, body orientation, especially spatial occupation in a forward-facing stance, is a running theme.
Rather than playing the way you face, the idea is to take a proactive approach and face the way you want to play.
That idea is present in Jorginho's role at Chelsea.
Getting into a forward-facing position between the lines allows the deep playmaker 6s to better set the tempo of the attack, determining when there's the transition from preparing to attack the opponents to attacking them.
As Jorginho receives between Juventus's midfield and forward lines, he is able to play forward, cueing his team to make their move towards goal.
Whether in or out of possession, a common theme among elite 6s is the understanding of how to quickly analyse the four reference points and determine their response. That response is a product of threat analysis and an understanding of opportunities higher up the pitch.
#8 – Box-to-box bosses
Moving along to the 8s, our box-to-box bosses. Some, like Toni Kroos, play more of a deep-lying playmaker role whereas others, like Leon Goretzka (featured in the article, not this thread), offer a true box-to-box presence.
Let's have a look at our first #8, Kroos. The German’s role is best described as a regista, a deep-lying playmaker whose attacking starting position is often in line with Casemiro, Real Madrid's #6.
Much like a basketball player has "his spot" on the floor, Kroos prefers to take up a starting position in the left half space, just outside of the opposition's press. It's his hot spot.
The more difficult cross-body pass to his left is a short-distance option, whereas the less complicated pass is the 50 to 60-yard diagonal drive to his right.
In the first instance, the more difficult technique is aligned with the shorter distance, whereas in the second, the longer pass is met with a more simple technique with a greater margin for error due to the spacing of the opposition.
But checking into a deep position isn't the only point to emphasize. It's also important to examine how more advanced players, such as #8s, arrive in those deeper locations.
Take this four-frame sequence of Paul Pogba as an example. Not only does he move into the pocket of space in front of the first line, but the angle of his approach is exceptional. Pogba initially runs on a straight diagonal to take the space quickly while it's still available.
In the second frame, he starts to curve his run so that, in the third frame, his hips have already started turning in the direction he wants to play. The fourth frame shows his body orientation as he hits a first-touch pass that breaks the Villarreal press.
The bent pass over the press is stunning, but it's his check into depth and the way he tailors his approach to accommodate the striking technique that allows him to complete the pass.
Since these players attack from both depth and height, we will transition into the latter part of our analysis on #8s, identifying how they contribute to the attack from higher up the pitch.
If there's a better player in the history of the game at striking a balance and attacking from height and depth than Xavi, make your case, but know it will be viewed with the highest degree of skepticism.
That space between the lines is not yet ripe for attacking, so Xavi takes up a position of depth to lure the midfield line forward while Barcelona's forwards attempt to stretch the height of the attacking space.
Xavi received a pass in front of the Milan midfield, then played backward in an attempt to further lure the opposition higher up the pitch. As Milan steps forward, Xavi slides centrally to offer a split pass.
Even though he doesn't change his height in an objective sense, he does penetrate the midfield line by coaxing them forward. Relative to the positioning of the ball, space, the opponents, and his teammates, Xavi is now attacking from a position of height.
He has engaged the midfield line of the press, most especially the mid who is lingering in a deeper point. The #6 is now forced to step higher up the pitch, widening the gaps between the back and midfield lines. That's precisely what the Barcelona of old targeted in open play.
The #10 – Midfield magicians
Moving to the 10s, Xavi’s midfield partner, Iniesta, was a master at drifting to either side of the opponent's midfield line.
Though it was common for him to check deep to offer a numeric superiority near the ball, it was equally common for him to initially start higher up the pitch, pinning the opponent's midfield, and then dropping deep into the space he had created. As the opponent stepped forward, leaving gaps between their lines, Iniesta looked to break their lines with runs, dribbles, or passes.
That's precisely what happened in this match against Sevilla. The keys here are pinning the opposition high up the pitch, checking into a deeper space to receive, and then taking the space given.
Watching the top #10s play, you'll find that they are also masters of dismarking. Somehow, they will push high into the final third without commanding the attention of either the backline or opposing midfielders.
There's a stealth quality to them even though they're one of the players on the pitch that receives the most attention from the opposition. Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne is a fantastic example of this. The way he drifts into support positions underneath his front three or darts high into the half spaces to receive the ball in the box and provide a negative cross is a masterclass in midfield movement.
1) City forwards pinning Liverpool defenders deep.
2) De Bruyne’s deceleration to dismark from Curtis Jones.
3) Tailoring run to the 1st attacker’s positioning and passing lanes
De Bruyne isn't the only #10 in Manchester to make the list. His Manchester United foe, Fernandes, is also a master of movement off the ball.
As you watch the former Sporting Clube midfielder play, you'll find that he is exceptional at identifying pockets of space in the left and right half spaces, then sending a dangerous ball into the box.
Much like Kroos, there's an element of "finding his spot" on the pitch. Especially from the left half space where he can bend a ball into the path of his runners or crack a shot himself.
As you watch the play, there is that element of pulling himself outside of the run of play, targeting his preferred spot just beyond the opposition's press. In doing so, he finds himself in a forward-facing position with time and space to play forward into the path of runners.
At times, the best way to go forward is to start by going backward. That's precisely what he does with his positioning before playing a dangerous ball from the half space. In the end, it should be a sense that within each match there's a game within the game.
Midfielders are not only trying to position themselves with respect to their teammates or the position of the ball, but they're also analyzing their other two reference points, the opposition and space, to identify how they can make a positive contribution to their team's attack.
At times, that means checking toward the ball to get it on their feet. At other times, it's pulling themselves away from play, setting themselves to play off of the second or third attacker.
Sparked your interest?
You can read the full, 5.4k-word analysis exclusively on Total Football Analysis. Click on the link to read about more off-the-ball movements from the best midfielders in the game.
Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers
Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders