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Patrick Mills is here to tell us about the inverted full back- a feature of Pep Guardiola teams, and one that we now see in practice at Manchester City.
Following the announcement in February that Pep Guardiola would take over from Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City ahead of the new season, football enthusiasts have been fantasising about what the Spaniard might bring to English football. A student of Johann Cruyff, Guardiola’s methods during his previous stints in charge of Barcelona and Bayern Munich gained plaudits from across Europe. In spite of this, many of the Pep’s ideas and innovations have remained foreign to the Premier League. Guardiola’s approach is an interpretation of the tactical system ‘Positional play’ or ‘Jeugo de Posicion’. The primary aims of which are to create quantitative, qualitative and positional superiority over the opposition. Starting with playing out from the back, it is essential that Guardiola’s teams always have a spare man over the opponents in order to make possession retention more seamless. Crucial to successful implementation of Positional play, the team must also seek to create one v one scenarios with the aim of taking advantage of certain players’ superior quality over their markers. It is also important that the team dictates the movements of the opposition by moving themselves and the ball, drawing opponent players out of spaces/positions which Guardiola’s team wishes to gain.
These are just some of the underlying principles of Guardiola’s preferred approach; there are many other aspects of his system which premier league fans are likely to be witness to over the coming weeks and months. In Pep’s first competitive game in charge of City, against Sunderland, one thing which surprised and confused sections of viewers was his use of Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy. As Lahm and Alaba have done at Bayern, Sagna and Clichy took up the roles of ‘inverted full backs’. This involved them moving infield in front of the two centre backs and the number 6, instead of forming overlapping runs beyond City’s wingers, as modern football expects a fullback to do. It left many fans and pundits wondering why Guardiola would choose to do this and what benefit it had for the team. But as we will see, there are many benefits from inverting the fullbacks.
By instructing both full backs to move infield, this allows the central midfielders to move higher up the pitch to support the attacks. It gives them the freedom to play between the opponents’ defence and midfield lines to receive the ball and supply the striker or wingers, or have an attempt at goal themselves. Furthermore, their presence in this area of the pitch, often referred to as zone 14, forces the opposition’s centre backs to make a decision on whether to press or hold their line. Should they choose the latter, the central midfielder will have time and space to dictate their next move, while deciding to press would leave a gap in the defence, giving the central midfielder the option of exploiting this with a through ball. The central midfielders also have the option of joining the striker in threatening the opposition’s defensive line and running in behind, while the other central midfielder occupies zone 14. Furthermore, they may choose to drift out wide and create a numerical advantage by combining with the winger against the opposition’s full back.
On most occasions, inverted full backs will play just in front of two split centre backs and a number 6. Therefore, when the team is fully established in an attack, there are five attacking and five defending, excluding the goalkeeper. When teams use Salida Lavolpiana, which simply refers to when the two centre backs split and the defensive midfielder fills in between them to aid with building out from the back, the full backs normally press high up the pitch and join the attacks, along with the two central midfielders and the front three. This, in theory, leaves just three outfield players defending. In recent years, we’ve seen how this can create problems when the opposition counter attacks, as with Everton under Roberto Martinez, and Arsenal, amongst others. By inverting the fullbacks, the team becomes much more prepared for losing the ball, both from a numerical and positional standpoint. It allows the central midfielders and wingers to attack without compromising their team’s defensive structure. Given that there are five attackers and five defenders, the opposition will find it difficult to counter attack and successfully get sufficient numbers forward to match the team with five defending. Although the typical format is five attackers and five defenders, the defenders do have the possibility to join the attackers provided numerical superiority is still being achieved. For example, if the defending team only leaves one player forward, this means that the team should push further into the opponents half to ensure that they still have sufficient numbers to keep the ball and utilise the spare man.
By playing with inverted fullbacks, the central areas of the pitch, where possession is invariably decided, are well stocked with numbers. This not only makes it easier to keep possession, but also means that when the ball is lost, there are sufficient bodies to win it back quickly. With regards to keeping the ball, having more numbers than the opposition in central areas means there will always be a spare man to pass to in order to keep possession going. The spare man is a crucial component of positional play and is essential to the transitions through each phase of an attack. When possession is lost, Guardiola’s teams aim to win it back quickly within a pre-set number of seconds, if this fails, the players must form a cohesive defensive structure. Positional play promotes playing in tight spaces to take advantage of the open spaces later on in the move. With that said, if possession is lost, the team is well set up to win the ball back quickly because they are close together in groups.
Having more numbers in the centre of the field means that there is inevitably more space out wide. Opposition teams will typically try to counteract the quantitative superiority in the middle by instructing their wingers to come infield to even things up. However, this in turn creates a one on one scenario between the winger and the opposition’s isolated full back. By building the attack on one side, then quickly switching the play to the other, the wingers should be afforded a free run at their fullback. This is another example of where the opposition players have an almost impossible decision to make, with both leading to one benefit or the other for the team deploying inverted full backs. The opposition winger must decide whether to move in-field to overcome the numerical disadvantage, or to support the fullback in defending against their winger. The fact that playing inverted fullbacks will regularly create 1v1 situations for the winger is likely one of the main reasons for Guardiola’s decision to use the approach. At Bayern Munich, Guardiola showed his appreciation for traditional wingers by having Ribery, Robben, Costa and Coman in his squad. The exponentially fashionable trend over the last decade has been for full backs to press high up the pitch and provide the team’s width, while the wingers cut inside. But the rebirth of inverted fullbacks means that wingers can receive the ball out wide and take on their fullback, like they are supposed to do. The image below shows how narrow Sunderland’s midfield has become in trying to match Man City’s numbers. After a quick switch of play from left central defender Aleksandar Kolorov, Raheem Sterling now has a 1v1 situation against Sunderland’s isolsated fullback.
With the many benefits of using inverted fullbacks becoming more evident in the modern game, we may well see a dramatic shift in the role of the full back over the next few years. It creates positional and quantitative superiority, accommodates qualitative superiority, and makes opposition counter attacks less of a threat. But the biggest draw may be the conflict it causes in the minds of the opposition players. They are constantly forced to choose between two evils. Do I afford the central midfielder time and space in zone 14, or do I press, leaving my striker free to run in behind? Do I move infield and allow the opposing winger to play 1v1 against my fullback, or do I leave my central midfielders outnumbered in the middle? For each player on the opposition team, there are various permutations to their decisions on the field when playing against inverted fullbacks.
The inverted full back was always likely to be the first of Guardiola’s tactical imports to create discussion amongst Premier League fans and pundits. However, over the course of his first season in England, more surprises should be expected from Pep’s team. With Claudio Bravo joining from Barcelona, City’s commitment to playing out from the back will inevitably become more relentless. As the players gain a deeper understanding of Guardiola’s philosophy, expect there to be a couple more surprising positional changes, too. Maybe Pep will convert Aguero into a false no.9. Perhaps he’ll transform Fabian Delph into the best left back in the country. Who knows what innovation the Catalan has planned next. Whatever the case may be, the Premier League will undoubtedly be a more intriguing and sophisticated spectacle as a direct result of Pep Guardiola’s presence.