Positional pyramid and its diagonal orientation

If you have taken an intrigue in football formations, the pyramid is a recognizable geometric shape. Over the years in football, tactically, we have seen the pyramid structure in formations invert, return back to the upright ‘Christmas tree’, and invert yet again. The basis for the evolution are the quality of the players in the formation, principles of play in each phase and in general, perhaps even the ongoing tactical trend.

Pep Guardiola, however, with his unique approach to positional play tends to break the established structure of a textbook formation. His systems bring in fluidity and adapt to the behaviour of the opponent. Not only does he adapt the tactical set up and subsequent periodization to each opponent every week, he expects his players to be intelligent enough themselves to recognise tactical nuances and modify their approach on the pitch. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg quoted Pep saying to him, ‘Pierre, the most important thing is, if they are close to you, go out and if they are open, you go in, but you need to read it.’ Pep would say- ‘You need to tell me after one minute, how do they play.’

The positional pyramid is diagonally oriented

Is there any geometric shape that the players look to achieve in this kind of fluid positional system? In a system that relies heavily on creating triangles between players, I believe a pyramid is somewhat discernable, but we need to tilt our heads a little to notice it.

To understand how this pyramid that is tilted and aligned diagonally comes into being, we must first review the fundamentals of positional play — Positioning along different horizontal and vertical lines in order to create angles to each other, superiorities behind lines of pressure, finding the free man and immediate counter-pressing once possession is lost.

The first three attacking principles gives a visual of a team that is expansive, uses width and depth in attack and relies on constant overlap and underlap runs in the inside channels. But the defensive organisation in such a system is the real challenge. A logical drawback of playing with a wider attack higher up the pitch is the larger spaces that a team leaves behind to defend. How can a system balance both attack and defence?

“Defensive organisation is the cornerstone of everything else I want to achieve in my football.” — Pep Guardiola

It begins with the understanding of this foundational statement by Oscar Cano Moreno, “Take into account that during the attacking process, you’re creating future defensive conditions and vice-versa.” We cannot separate attack from defence. They are intertwined, and one is a consequence of the other. The reinvention of the inverted fullback by Pep at Bayern was a by-product of this challenge.

In the traditional model where the pyramid is upright, the focus is central towards the opposition goal. The direction of attack is vertical. Most often the centre forward acts as a reference point as the highest player in attacking organisation. The wide players serve as outlets if the space is closed in the centre. The ball can be played wide with the intention of arriving again back to the centre in the box.

A traditional formation creates a pyramid with a vertical orientation and focus

Although the positioning of the players can create triangles, the spaces lateral to each player is big and these can be exploited by the opponent in case of loss of possession. The distance to counter press the ball is also bigger which means the opposition will find room to move the ball around these lateral spaces when the team presses them. It is difficult to close down every single opponent immediately coming out of an attacking phase and eventually, the opponent is bound to find a free man in space.

The positional game creates a pyramid (3–2–1) that with a diagonal orientation and focus

By shifting the focus of attack from central to a wide player in the corner, the direction of attack is also shifted diagonally rather than vertically. As a consequence, the vertical distances between the players get reduced. Atleast in the zone of interaction between the teams, the lateral spaces are not as big as in the upright pyramid, which means the distances to counter-press are also smaller. Multiple smaller triangles are formed within this pyramid structure with downward apices. On the pitch this translates to having a nearby cover player for every two offensive players. Furthermore, this system targets the utilisation of half spaces more effectively and the inside players between the lines can position freely depending on opposition markers to create superiorities behind lines of press.

The boundaries of this 3–2–1 pyramid involves three key roles — Depth, Width and Cover. The central player, the centre forward in the examples above pins back the defensive line and constantly maintains depth creating bigger spaces for players between the lines to thrive. The wide player on the touchline, who is the focus of this attack provides width to the overall formation. By stretching play, the wide player opens up channels inside for the players between the lines to attack. The cover player is positioned closely behind, but not in the same vertical lane to immediately intervene in case possession is lost and recycle or switch the point of attack if there is an overload.

We see these three roles consistent in both Man City’s and Barcelona’s positional game. The players offering depth, width and cover form the pyramid and the direction of the attack gravitates towards the wide player focused on the right wing. Since it is a positional system, the player who plays the role of this wide player is irrelevant. In the case of City, Mahrez (RW) is the focus on the right and in Barcelona, Dest (RB) stretches the width. While the players hold this pyramid, the more technical and creative players look for spaces on the inside to receive a line breaking pass and open up the opposition. Having a cover player closely behind to defend allows the creative player to take more risks, and the wide player always provides an outlet to play to constantly pin the opposition back without enforcing a defensive transition upon themselves.

Such triangles allow the ball to be played back with the intention of playing it forward immediately by the principle of verticality. A system where the overall focus is diagonal rather than vertical, occasionally opens up the opportunity for a vertical pass to a player between the lines who can dismantle the opposition centrally. A recent statistic highlighted City as the team that played the most number of passes backwards. However, what wasn’t taken into account was the distance of these back passes. There is a difference between playing a pass all the way back to your keeper and playing a pass to a player close behind you with better vision who can then play a killer pass forward. From a chess analogy, it’s like taking one step back to take two steps forward.

There are two important facets to this diagonal pyramid — the offensive triangle and the defensive triangle. The offensive triangle allows continuous options to penetrate the space in behind the opposition defence. The defensive triangle allows an immediate overload to be created in order to win the ball back, and continue attacking. Once again, the players who are involved in the creation of these triangles do not matter. In this example, Jesus, Torres and Walker provide depth, width and cover respectively. Fernandinho is the pivot who gets the ball out of the defence, Gündoğan plays in the half space between the lines and Bernardo Silva drifts out wide.

In the tactical scheme from before, we see how the RW, CM and RB form the offensive triangle on the wide right. The RW threatens to attack the space in behind from outside, and the CM who plays between the lines can exploit the same space from the half space, if the opposition LB gets drawn out too far. The RB who has pushed up closely behind has control and provides a double threat, freezing the opposition.

In case possession is lost and the opposition look to force a defensive transition, the RB, CM (pivot) and the CB who forms the cover in this pyramid can immediately press to create an overload. A 3v3 situation will most often ensure that possession is won back and the CF and RW can maintain the attacking phase without the overall structure having to drop back too much.

So far we have zoomed into a specific zone of interaction on one side of the pitch where the game is being played. What about the other side? A wide player is positioned on the opposite flank for a possible option to switch. The rest of the players clearly do not mark every single opponent. However the risk-reward ratio is not that big and as long as the ball is won back immediately (within six seconds as Pep theorised famously) and possession maintained, the system appears to function well.

Pep has himself acknowledged the weakness of every strength that presents in his positional game: “There are two or three zones on the pitch that are undefendable. If we play with a winger high and wide on each side of the pitch then there are definitely a few zones which can’t be defended, no matter the system.” However, the fundamental principles behind the diagonal pyramid is consistent.

“We always want to attack inwards, it’s the same as basketball; move the ball to the middle so the opposition close down central spaces, then move it to the side at the last possible moment to give somebody an open opportunity to shoot.”— Pep Guardiola

In many instances, the players do not hesitate going direct, hitting the diagonal ball out to the wide player, rather than building up with short passes. The positional advantage is still maintained due to the positioning of the players in the pyramid and the way the opposition gets pinned back. Both the instances with City this season, against Wolves and Arsenal resulted in goals involving Riyad Mahrez, the wide player. This only emphasises the importance of the wide player as the focus of this positional pyramid that is oriented diagonally.

The efficiency of this pyramid was evident since the time Pep introduced it with Barcelona in 2009. Thierry Henry revealed how the system worked years later in a Sky Sports feature, “If you stand between the right-back and the right centre-back and Sam [Eto’o] or me does the same on the other side, suddenly you hold four players alone,” he said. “Just from you being high and wide, and then coming back in, you are actually freezing four players because we are threatening to go in behind. With Eto’o and me running in behind, and Xavi and (Andres) Iniesta on the ball, with (Lionel) Messi dropping, either you die, or you die.” As Henry said, central midfielders Xavi and Iniesta tended to be the ones delivering devastating passes from the half spaces at Barcelona back then.

The need to understand the positional game as a geometric structure is purely because players perceive spaces and shapes of surrounding support as geometric shapes, triangles, boxes or diamonds. Seeking out a shape visually on the pitch enables movement to be better choreographed, yet provide dynamic adaptability to the opposition behaviour. The evident spatial advantages in the diagonal movement provides a subconscious incentive for players to adhere to the positional system without much cognitive processing. The system also allows plenty of variability, which is why Gündoğan or De Bruyne are able to play as a centre forward in this system in any given instance, and Cancelo or Bernardo Silva can play as an inside player or a wide player depending on the situation, as long as the fundamental principles of the positional pyramid are upheld.

The beautiful game is a microcosm of our complex human society. Sunday storyteller, Time traveller, Football fiend. At other times I practice Medicine.

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