Game of Numbers #5 – Changing Shapes Mid-Game

One of the truest tests of any tactically adept coach is to identify mechanisms for changing around their team’s fortunes mid-game. This is never an easy task, but one that managers must be reflecting on not only with their substitutions, but with the potential for changing the master-plan on a grander scale, whether that be a tactical tweak in style or system.

In what was one of the games of the weekend, an absolute banana firecracker that you have to see, Leverkusen lost their early lead 3-2 to Freiburg, with both teams making pivotal formational changes as the match wore on. Crucially, both teams changed back to the shapes that they’ve prioritized since the start of the season, calling into question why they ever abandoned their favoured choice in the first place.

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Freiburg and Leverkusen both started the match with clear attempts to combat the other team’s shape – both kicking off with a back-three. The Breisgau-Brasilianer set up in their second-favourite 3-4-1-2 formation, utilizing Woo-Yeong Jeong in between the lines as an auxiliary player who would float up in the high press and then relinquish in their mid-block.

Die Werkself on the other hand also set up in their alternative 3-5-2 formation, with Kerem Demirbay severely wide left in many phases, particularly in the high-press that became 5-2-3.

This front three matched Freiburg’s 3+2 build-up, as the forwards sandwiched Nicolas Höfler in the process – not allowing him any time or space to receive the ball. Schick would then nicely cover-shadow Höfler in moments where he wanted to limit time on the ball from the centre-backs, as Andrich prepared himself to step up on the Freiburg man at any moment.

The same however could be said of the other eleven, even if less tactically complex. Freiburg’s front-three also matched up nicely against Bayer’s back-three, with Seoane’s side struggling to find adequate avenues forward all afternoon. Woo Yeong-Jeong perfectly understood when to drop deeper in his role to coincide with Leverkusen’s movement up the pitch, and otherwise led the press with the right vigour and intensity required.

Although Streich achieved defensive stability from the off, it was Seoane’s side who dominated the match through the initial shapes and structures set into motion. Freiburg themselves couldn’t find a route through the centre of the pitch against Leverkusen’s 5-2-3, and weren’t able to make much of their early possession and those initial stages of circulation. A calamity from Manuel Gulde then led to a disastrous start for Streich’s men, after Odilon Kossounou’s outrageous carry out from the back eventually led Kerem Demirbay to smack the ball into the net. The 21-year-old centre-back smartly assessed opportunities to carry forward throughout the match, but he will do well to have another attacking thrust as strong for the remainder of the season.

Leverkusen looked the stronger side from there, nicely floating between that 5-2-3 and 5-3-2 across the defensive phases of the game. Christian Streich knew he had to make a change in the second-half, and used an injury to Manuel Gulde as the perfect opportunity to switch to a back-four. They went from their alternative back-three shape to their favoured 4-2-3-1, that has led to much success this season.

In that shape, they immediately achieved more fluidity and connection between the lines, a hallmark of the fact that they’ve gained consistency and chemistry in that system at the start of the season. This is always one of the dangerous elements to changing shape for the start of an encounter. The team simply haven’t had as much game exposure in that 3-4-1-2 this season, and the principles of play that allow the team to connect in possession haven’t had time to become as well established. They say not to fix a working formula, and Streich might have learned his lesson.

Freiburg were immediately more fluid out from the back, allowing Vincenzo Grifo to drop into the left-half-spaces to receive out from the back, and involving Mark Flekken in the process of their 2+3 diamond shape. They quickly scored from a corner kick thanks to Matthias Ginter’s bullet header, but it was the fact that they were now getting into dangerous areas and achieving greater connectivity between the thirds that allowed them the opportunity to score.

As Grifo’s positioning became one of relative fluidity, Woo Yeong-Jeong could then take more opportunities to float in between the lines himself, which ended up playing an essential role in Freiburg’s second goal of the match. Jeong’s pressure completely confuzzled Tapsoba into terror, before playing a snail of a pass toward his goalkeeper. Jeong picked it up, played it across to Gregoritsch and the centre-forward found himself in the right place, right time, once more. We now interrupt this program to bring you a commercial break.

Michael Gregoritsch has been a fabulous addition by Freiburg’s recruitment team, and more fruitful in front of goal to start this season than the recruitment team would have likely imagined. His awareness of when to burst forward, when to hold his run, and how to use his physicality to hold-up the play and combat physical defenders have all been second to none in the Bundesliga this season. He waits for the exact moment to find a gap on the blindside (typically to the outside) of his nearest marker to exploit, and perfectly advances to that space to match the pass. It’s shown in the fact that he’s contributed 4 goals in 5 matches, the joint-most within Streich’s side.

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But back to the match, this fresh second-half-start from Freiburg then prompted Leverkusen to make a tactical switch of their own, as they re-adopted their favoured 4-2-3-1 themselves. They threw on a natural left-winger – the terrorizing Callum Hudson-Odoi, and moved Diaby wider to the right, where he could better connect with Jeremie Frimpong on wide overlaps and overloads. But it was down the left where the impact was immediately felt, as Hudson-Odoi’s pace and trickery immediately caused Freiburg a headache. His right-footed dominance and desire to cut inside allowed Sinkgraven to gallop on the overlap, and consistently forced his defender into a difficult situation to contend with.

When considering all the options, you’d want to be able to force your man to the outside as a full-back nine times out of ten, which allows you to shape your body toward the touch-line and simultaneously force the player away from goal. But as soon as that player cuts back and drives inside, you’re now up against the run of play, chasing down a player rather than doing any sort of positive angling and shepherding away.

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The full-back and wing duo down Freiburg’s right couldn’t contend with the combination, and Hudson-Odoi’s immediate impact was felt when he put a cross on the plate for Patrik Schick to bolt into the back of the net. The bullet header marked Schick’s first goal of the campaign – providing an encouraging sign for what may be to come with the team finally picking up a useful left-winger to match Diaby’s pace down the other side. Part of the reason why Schick struggled to score until now arose from the loss of Florian Wirtz in between the lines. They were evidently missing that man who could drive through the centre and create moments of incisiveness for Schick to thrive off, and it showed in the fact that both of their goals against Freiburg were scored from strong intention in dribbling the ball toward goal.

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But the match wasn’t over there. Freiburg continued to push and probe in their own 4-2-3-1, and won another corner kick down the right side. And if there’s one thing you don’t want to allow Freiburg, it’s a  corner kick. They are simply lethal in the air, and they smartly adapt their approach to suit the opposition’s weaknesses. On this occasion, Gunter whipped the ball into the front-post for Nicolas Höfler to flick on, where Ritsu Doan met the flick at the back-post and funnelled the ball over the line. While it was a tap-in for Doan, scoring the winning goal creates a signal of intent for his manager to start him in the next match, and not just rely on throwing him on after the first half fails to go as planned.

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Freiburg held onto the lead in the final fifteen minutes via switching back to a defensive 5-3-2 (floating into that 3-4-1-2 in attack), achieving a hard-fought win for the fifth time in six matches this season.

All and all, both managers made smart adaptations to change the game in their fortune, even if sometimes in response to the other. Leverkusen’s early dominance was quickly evaporated from Freiburg’s formational change to 4-2-3-1, and then Seoane was quick to switch his own shape to the same system, allowing Hudson-Odoi to terrorize the left. This was a fantastic tactical battle that took Freiburg to the top of the table for the time being, and one certainly worth remembering as an excellent example of why it can be best to simply stick to a team’s favoured formation in establishing consistency. But had both teams stuck to their 4-2-3-1’s from the start, this might not have been as intriguing of an encounter, or one worth writing an entire article about.

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In our latest analysis series: Game of Numbers, we break down the various tactical undertones of the modern game, most notably the roles that individual players hold on the pitch to help their teams explore avenues for greatness. Positions are often broken down into ‘numbers’ to describe the areas of the field that a player may operate. This series aims to illustrate the ever-changing, fluid nature of those roles, and the ways in which various footballing teams may use the same players in the same roles to completely different effect. This is Issue No. 5 – Changing Shapes Mid-Game.


-> Game of Numbers – #1 – Lucas Paqueta & The Bernardo Silva Role
-> Game of Numbers – #2 – Walker & Cancelo Back Where They Belong
-> Game of Numbers – #3 – The Evolution of the Target Man
-> Game of Numbers #4 – Counter Attacking to Score Goals

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