Overlapping Centre-Backs – Tactical Analysis

Any team’s style of play needs to fit the personnel and formation. But a relatively unexplored tactical innovation arising out of the re-emerging rise of back-three formations is the concept of overlapping centre-backs.

Teams like Sheffield United and Atalanta have achieved widescale success utilizing attack-minded centre-backs, who frequently find themselves in advantageous positions, attempting to join the attack and create chances for their teammates. By adopting this style of play, these teams create overloads in wide and/or central areas, and push more numbers into the box, where the delivery of crosses can be a great asset. On the surface, this may seem like a very simple approach. But the concept of overlapping centre-backs is far more complex than just the simple nature of a centre-back running around a wing-back. So let’s get right into this Tactical Analysis all about Overlapping Centre-Backs.

use of back-three Formations

Utilizing attack-minded centre-backs works best in a back-three formation. There are more of them and so naturally, it is much easier to use them in attack. With only two centre-backs, the attack-mindedness of these players might be reserved for set-pieces and/or a long-ball passing game that sees them as key playmakers out from the back. Sheffield United have used this approach playing in a 3-5-2 formation, where their central midfielders become engaged higher up the pitch in attacking phases, becoming more of a 3-1-4-2. Atalanta on the other hand have achieved success utilizing centre-backs in attacking areas in a 3-4-1-2 formation.

Of the three centre-backs, it is important that all three shift with the play and the two not engaging as much in the attacking phase remain compact, close together on the same side as the overlapping outside centre-back. However, teams like Sheffield keep their back-three approach even with the centre-back out of position. This is through the defensive midfielder adopting a position alongside the centre-backs.

Although not in the graphic, the positioning of the goalkeeper should also be high up the pitch in case the high-line of the defense suddenly get beat. That said, if the two centre-backs and defensive midfielder shift with the play, they should be able to recover relatively successfully after turnovers. With the overlapping centre-back stretched high up the pitch, the other two need to ensure they remain compact, and without too much depth in between them and the ball. This is where having a third centre-back becomes particularly handy in having the cover in case of any slip ups.

The middle centre-back remains less involved in the attack, and constantly works to provide balance based on the positioning of the other two, particularly the one engaging in an overlapping run or attack-minded move. The defensive midfielder may choose to occupy the position of the out of place centre-back, or position themselves higher up as the two centre-backs shift over alongside each other and the triangle shape above becomes more inverted. In order to effectively circulate the ball, the centre-backs and defensive midfielder look to maintain and create a triangular shape, that loosely changes with the movement of the ball to the left and right. They should remain relatively compact together while doing this, ensuring they can keep possession and advance the ball forwards more quickly. With this shape, diagonal passes become a more frequent occurrence, as the defenders look to break the lines.


Teams that play with overlapping centre-backs don’t just do it randomly without any predetermined plan. A team like Sheffield United for example look for moments where there is space to advance into in the wide areas, when there is a lack of pressure on the ball toward the halfway line and when there is an opportunity to create a 2v1 situation up against an opposition defender. All three of these moments may act as triggers for a centre-back to make an overlapping run.

From then on it is all about the movement and timing of the run from the centre-back, which needs to match the speed at which the team is keeping possession. The overlap is used to stretch the opposition’s back-line and cause chaos with a new number that might not normally be in the opposition’s half. The 2v1 situation that is created through the overlap forces the opposition defender into a difficult situation. If the defender tracks the overlapping centre-back, the wing-back will have space to advance into through a diagonal run.

If they do not track the run, the wing-back can play the centre-back in and try to create an opportunity for a cross.

In order for the overlap to occur successfully, the wing-back must be positioned within a reasonable distance away from the nearest centre-back. Then the wing-back’s first touch should be back toward the centre of the pitch. If the wing-back touches the ball toward the touch-line instead, the overlapping run of the centre-back would be telegraphed. By the wing-back touching the ball inside, they create confusion as to whether or not they should pursue the centre-back on the overlapping run.

Teams like Sheffield United and Atalanta, really further this movement through intensity and energy. With the amount of intensity the centre-backs put into the overlap, the opposition’s defender has no choice but to be convinced that the centre-back will receive the ball. This can be a decoy run or the real deal, as the centre-back receives the ball and makes a dangerous pass into the box. If it does end up being only a decoy run, the ball carrier (wing-back) can fake a pass to the player before carrying it inside. With the centre-back still in a great position to receive, the opportunity to play in the centre-back still hasn’t disappeared. If the opposition’s defender tries to recover their position and engage the ball carrier, the overlapping centre-back will become free once again for a pass. Further, if the pass comes into the opposition centre-back in the first instance, a cross is not the only option. They can also take the defender on, play a give-and-go with their wing-back or cut it back for the near-sided central midfielder. As a result, the 2v1 creates numerous options for the team to take advantage of wide areas. This is something Sheffield United do very well and one of the reasons why they are the primary focus of this article.

underlapping runs

Overlapping runs are not the only type of movement that players can do to cause chaos and disrupt their opposition. Players will also benefit from “underlapping” runs. This occurs when the centre-back makes a forward run on the inside of the wing-back. Like the overlapping run that pushes the wing-back inside, an underlapping run can create an overload in central areas, as evidenced above. With the centre-back occupying a position that might normally be occupied by a central midfielder, the central midfielders can then engage higher up the field. It is no surprise that players like John Lundstram and John Fleck were such key players in the box for Sheffield United in 2019-20, thanks to their positions being covered by their centre-backs.

Beyond providing the central midfielders time to go forward, this underlapping run forces the opposition to become more narrow in the quest of stopping the centre-back, creating space out wide again for the wing-back. It is important for the wide centre-back to understand when to make underlapping runs as opposed to overlapping runs. This may occur when their striker or central midfielder is already occupying a wide area, making it not only irreverent but dangerous for the centre-back to make a run into the wide area. The central defender can also exploit space with an underlapping run when the opposition central midfielder is dragged out wide. If the centre-back can recognize this space, the underlapping run will easily be able to exploit it. Just like the wing-back’s first touch should be inside when the wide centre-back is to make an overlapping run; the wing-back’s first touch should be to the outside, down the line, when the centre-back is about to make an underlapping run. As a result, the direction of the first touch of the wing-back can provide a spark for the centre-back to time a run in the appropriate direction.

Just like the overlapping run, the underlapping run does not necessarily need to result in a pass. Unbalancing the opposition can be another great outcome of the pursuit, even if the centre-back never touches the ball.

The underlapping run can also be useful after a switch of play. The central midfielders may be involved in the switch and/or already high up the pitch, so the centre-back can become the best option to make a forward movement in attack. The wing-back could also make this movement inside as the centre-back makes an overlapping run instead, but this is less effective on a switch of play as it would require more time. By making an underlapping run, the team can switch play more efficiently without killing their time edge. With this approach, the positioning of the far-sided centre-back always needs to be in a position to switch play. They should not start too far wide in case a counter attack occurs, but they can gamble higher up the pitch than the middle centre-back, as shown in the example above. Timing of the movement into the space becomes extremely important as if they are too quick, the moment is gone and the other team will recognize what’s happening. If they are too slow, the defensive midfielder may be forced into a riskier pass.

elements of an effective practice

When practicing overlapping centre-backs, it is important to emphasize elements that go beyond just the overlap itself. Here are some key things to consider and practice when training overlapping centre-backs.

  • Transition moments and what to do when things go awry and a loss of possession occurs.
  • Shifting with the play to remain compact in cases of losses of possession.
  • Receiving on the half-turn to be able to play forwards, backwards and under pressure.
  • Disguises, fake passes and where to take the first touch to get out of tight situations and manipulate the movement of the opposition.
  • Short passes into space or feet + longer passes into space depending on speed of overlapping/underlapping plays. Speed of pass needs to match speed of player.
  • Timing of the run into the space on the overlap/underlap. Not too quick, not too slow. Must match movement of the ball.
  • Types of crosses: inswinging, outswinging, cut-backs, near-post, far-post.
  • Types of changes of direction to switch play in case the overlap/underlap doesn’t come off and too much defensive pressure remains in front of the players.
  • When to overlap vs. underlap. When to exploit space and when to stay put.
  • Speed and endurance of the centre-backs.
  • Communication, recognizing body language, recognizing potential triggers to make the right decisions.


Overlapping centre-backs are an innovative approach to the game that can easily disrupt the opposition. But this concept needs to be done right, otherwise it can also disrupt one’s own team. With all the recommendations and guidelines found in this Tactical Analysis, teams will be able to successfully implement an overlapping centre-back approach, such as Sheffield United and Atalanta.

So there it is! A tactical analysis of Overlapping Centre-Backs. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and be back soon for a discussion of Inverted Fullbacks, just like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Also be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite.

You might also like…

-> Chris Wilder – Sheffield United – Tactical Analysis
-> Gian Piero Gasperini – Atalanta – Tactical Analysis

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