Written by Mustapha Hassan
One of the main problems facing big teams nowadays is the deep-block, because of the lack of capabilities of most other teams by comparison. Smaller clubs often resort to the deep-block as a solution in their matches against the big teams, and therefore, coaches need to find a solution to this dilemma that they face in many matches.
We have already seen many tactical solutions, for example, utilizing wing-backs in a 3-5-2, such as Atalanta under Gasperini or Sheffield United under Wilder in 2019-20. The main task of the wing-back is to expand the field horizontally (maintain width) to loosen the deep-block and create space between the opposition’s defense.
Another solution to overcome the deep-block used by Gasperini and Atalanta involves positional rotation. Gasperini wants his defenders and midfielders to join the attack, which leads to confusion for the opposition, and new corridors of space in between their lines. Here we explore the 4-1-3-2 shape as a potential solution, and its ability to exploit an opposition’s low-block.
The build-up structure
One of the best ways to play against a deep-block may be a 4-1-3-2 structure, which is infrequently used by teams.
This method allows players to create a diamond in the opposition’s half, maintaining an effective shape to break down the defense and also press immediately after losing the ball. The build-up can also utilize this diamond shape of the attacking five, giving the ball carrier more passing options and allowing the ball to move faster. One team that utilizes this structure is Juventus under Pirlo. The Old Lady utilize a rhombus shape, with even greater width than the diamond shape. The rhombus affords Juventus more options in wide areas, while a diamond structure may allow a team to play more effectively in central areas. In practice however, it’s a very small difference.
In the diamond, the #6 has the most important role, as they can be involved at the base of an attacking quartet, or at the top of a diamond that incorporates the two centre-backs and goalkeeper.
As mentioned, the rhombus structure has more width than a diamond to allow the team to play horizontally more easily. Below is an example, in Juventus’s 1-1 draw against Benevento.
Juventus’ players created a rhombus structure to play more laterally during the build-up, playing several horizontal passes into the fullbacks to advance forward (as shown).
The attacking phase and high press
When the team move the ball into the opponent’s half, the 4-1-3-2 formation turns into a 3-5-2, with the lines converging in a way that allows the creation of two offensive diamonds. The #10 becomes the link between them, and the strikers move wide into the half-spaces (as shown).
As pictured, the idea of attacking diamonds depends on the convergence of the lines so that the ball carrier has more passing options and thus the team continues in attack. In addition, the 3-5-2 allows the attacking team to create two attacking diamonds in the opponent’s half, with the wing-backs advancing forward, and the strikers moving wide.
In this case, the team can create dangerous attacks on the opponent’s goal. Once the ball reaches one side of the field, for example the right side, the striker who is in the left half-space moves to the middle, and the left wing-back advances. This then presents the ball carrier with more than one chance to pass the ball into dangerous areas on the opponent’s goal, as shown below.
Here is an example of that from Atalanta’s match against Fiorentina in the eleventh round of the 2020-21 Serie A season, which ended with a 3-0 victory for Atalanta. When the ball was passed to the left side, centre-back Rafael Tolói moved into a central channel, while Duvan Zapata remained in the half-space with Robin Gosens, the advanced wing-back. With Gosens and Hateober maintaining their width, and Ilicic moving inside, the ball carrier has three decent options to pass the ball into the box.
However, one down-side to playing in this manner is that it can expose the team to counter-attacks. It is therefore necessary to apply a high-press instantly after losing the ball, maintaining that 3-5-2 structure. The team cannot afford to leave any space available in central channels and must close the middle immediately. If they are able to limit the opposition’s ability to play into the wide areas, they may be more effective in winning the ball back and restarting the attack.
One of the greatest challenges for top teams in the modern game is finding a solution to break down a deep-block. This article should help coaches and managers have a greater understanding of how to break down a low-block utilizing formations like the 3-5-2 / 3-4-3, wing-backs and a high-press. Atalanta are a phenomenal example of a team who do all of this so effectively well, and many top sides around Europe are beginning to take note. With all of these tips and tools in mind, any team attempting to overcome a deep-block should have all they need to know to pull it off.
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