How the 2000s changed tactics #4: Off-the-ball movement

March 12, 2010

Movement is not a new thing in football – as outlined by Jonathan Wilson in Inverting The Pyramid, the hallmark of the legendary Hungary side which famously beat England 6-3 in 1953 was their players’ tendency to drift out of their natural position and switch with teammates, thereby confusing the opposition about who they were supposed to be marking.

But there seems to have been a resurgence in the popularity and importance of ‘good movement’ in recent years. The main effect of good off-the-ball movement in modern football is that it draws the opposition out of position, hopefully creating space in a key area. If you’re a striker, being marked by a centre-back, then coming deep towards the play in midfield will either (a) leave you unmarked and free for a pass or (b) tempt the centre-back to follow you, therefore opening up space in the heart of the defence.

But (b) is only really effective if you have another player who can exploit the space. In the 4-4-2, a classic example of how movement worked was for one striker to drop deep, bring a centre-back with him, and then his strike partner would make a lateral run across the defence to move into the space created. But this is fairly basic; because attack and midfield were a considerable distance from each other in a 4-4-2, it was reasonably difficult for the two to interchange fluidly through movement.

The shift towards four-band formations has the natural effect of narrowing the gap between the forward(s) and any onrushing midfield players, meaning it is a lot easier to exploit the space created by the movement from a forward. Whereas in a 4-4-2 it was often simply a case of one forward assisting another, in a 4-2-3-1 formation, for example, a run from the lone striker can create space for one of three supporting players, with the widemen considerably closer than they would be in a 4-4-2.

And of course the reverse can apply (a winger creating space for a forward), there can be a knock-on effect (an attacking midfielder creating space for a more defensive midfielder) and with the advent of attacking full-backs, wide players often create space for full-backs on the overlap. In short, the fact that four band formations are naturally more fluid than three-band formations has increased the importance of movement.

The resurgence of focus on movement probably started with Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side. As Paolo Maldini has said (also taken from ITP):

‘Before Sacchi came to Milan, the clash between two opposing players was always the key, but with him it was all about movement off the ball, and that’s where we won our matches’.

It should be understood in relation to other aspects of modern football – an increased focus on ball retention in midfield makes movement in attacking positions more valuable, whilst the increased pace of modern footballers and the tendency to play on the counter-attack (primarily because there is more space to exploit) have also contributed.

Good movement is important in all attacking positions, and the popularity of the lone striker has made it particularly vital for certain types of players who play in that role. A particular master of it was Pedro Pauleta (above), the Portuguese striker. Whereas ten years ago the primary aim of lone strikers was to hold the ball up, today they are increasingly concerned with making intelligent runs off the ball – hence why players such as Wayne Rooney and Liedson can be fielded on their own upfront, and this also partly explains the rise of the false nine.

As is the case with many aspects of beautiful modern football, Arsenal provide some of the best examples. This goal (at 1:22) shows how Robert Pires’ left-right run takes the Chelsea centre-back away, creating space for Patrick Vieira to run into:

Whilst this is a similar but more recent example; Theo Walcott’s right-left run draws Nemanja Vidic out of position, making space for Samir Nasri to exploit.

Equally, good movement on the ball can create space for opponents to move into. There are no better strikers in terms of movement than Fiorentina’s Alberto Gilardino – this video shows how a very, very simple movement creates a goal for Alessandro del Piero overlapping him on the left. Gilardino moves the ball twice towards the centre of the pitch, moving the defender five yards towards the centre – then lays the ball off for Alessandro del Piero, who is in oceans of space as a result:

Any other suggestions of relevant goals? This topic more than any other in this series has emerged because of multiple factors, so comments outlining anything excluded here would be welcome.

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