Read the first and the second part here and here
I talk about the exploitation of space purposely here as I’m about to talk about the attacking phase and this must be understood. It’s a bit shorter than the defensive phase happily as it relies more on the creativity of the players within a system, rather than the defensive which is very much adherent to a system.
On a high level, there are three types of attacking phases; counter attacking, long ball and deliberate build up. Obviously these bleed into each other on occasion but it’s worth you as an analyst to watch the change of possession and seeing which one is more prevalent than the other, and very much relevant, what phase the opposition was in. One of my major problems with the way that City play is that no matter what phase or positioning of the opponent that City win possession, they will always attempt the deliberate sub-phase. Essentially, now and again we play the ball too slowly when we should counter attack quickly. There are binary opposites in football. Norwich’s possesional subphase should be greeted by United’s counter attacking subphase when the transition happens. City greet it with their own possessional phase. It’s like countering a warrior with a caster (BOOM! RPG reference).
I admit that I actually have a preference for counter attacking phases as I’m English so think football is a sport about how much of an athlete you are. Athletes rule in counter phases as it’s all about pace and balance. Again though the questions of where this fits into the overall should be in the forefront of your mind. Where was the ball won? Teams enter counter attacking from different points of the pitch depending on opposition. How was the participation in the other attacking phases different from the counter? Was the break down the flanks or the centre? Which flank? Why? Where were the hybrid players?
All attacking phases have the big picture of scoring goals. However, this is simplified. It would more accurate to say that all attacking phases have the goal of wanting to get their forward on the penalty spot with space around them to take a shot. Thus you should look at how they create assists, and not goals. Goals are generally scored by forwards who generally make their own decision on whether to take a shot using that decision making freedom. You just can’t legislate for this as an analyst. You have to concentrate on the systems that created the assist rather than looking for the talent of the striker. You can’t prevent a 30-yard volley into your top corner. You can stop the pass that gives them the ball and space to hit it. Therefore, you should be looking at how this pass developed and not how the ball went into the net.
Do y’all remember the Mighty Ducks? Remember the V formation that used to win them games in increasingly unlikely scenarios? That’s posessional build up play like Barca, City, Dortmund, Ajax, etc use. That’s all it is. It’s moving your players forward piece by piece and passing throughout the lines to control possession as you created overloads by possession rather than athleticism. I’m probably going to piss an inordinate amount of people off here (but if you think of Mancini, you might appreciate it) but Barca’s/Ajax’s/City’s/Dortmund’s passing system is actually the most cautious and defensive possible. It tries to negate risk at every possible section and with every possible pass. These teams (and I include my own) are the attacking equivalent of those shithouses who box on the outside just in case they might get hit. As a boxer. Scared of getting hit.
Of course, top level football is all about the proper balance of the risk/reward system so these teams who move forward piece by piece win 8-0 and the guys who throw caution to the wind and attack get beat 8-0. Part of my cynicism of football stems from the development of a game that encourages practicality over spirit; heroes don’t exist in the modern game and it’s worse off for it. I’d give my right bollock for a young Maradona to appear. That guy was fearless and didn’t just want to dispense with the slow build up; he physically needed it, to shoot as many times as humanly possible. The damaged geniuses are always the best players and goals per minute ratios always massively, hugely and almost offensively miss the bleeding point. Fuck me, I miss Maradona.
Just in case I didn’t stress the important bits; in a counter attacking phase you need to watch the hybrid players transition speed, the exploitation of the defensive diagonal of the opposite team, what overloads were created by pace and the amount of players committed to the phase. Counter attacks that commit too many players are prime candidates to counters themselves as any team full of kids will tell you (Villa?).
When you’re watching the more possessional based build up, I always try to pay attention to the width of passes. Defences absolutely hate balls that move from one wing to another quickly as they can’t slide/organise quickly.
Another thing to really watch out for in an attacking phase is the shadow runs. I came under some criticism on here a while back when I was talking about why Barry is great because I didn’t really explain this properly so I’ll try to take the chance to do so now.
An active run is a run that moves with purpose purely of getting the ball. A shadow run is one that moves off the ball for the purpose of moving a player away. An inactive run is one that moves for the purpose of moving into space created by the shadow run.
There are different terms for these apparently, and mine isn’t the same as everybody’s. Courses were updated since I learnt this stuff so you can forgive me. It’s even more confusing that recent pundit-wonderkid Neville refers to an inactive run as a third man run but this doesn’t cover the proper terming of what third man running is.