By Naveen Maliakkal
First, let us boil football down to its most simple concepts. In football, a side can look to control two things—space and the ball.
Now, both teams enjoy possession of the football over the course of a match. However, matches can occur where neither team controls the ball. In my opinion, controlling the ball has to do with a team’s ability to maintain possession when they desire to maintain possession. Clearly, controlling the ball has its benefits, as one can only score if one has the ball.
Controlling space involves controlling where the ball can go. Even at the highest level, one team may be willing to concede possession. However, football matches always involve two teams looking to control space. The team out of possession looks to control areas on the pitch with the goal of preventing the opposition from successfully moving the ball into those areas. In this sense, we can define the “proactiveness” of a defensive side as the preference for controlling the space around the ball, either controlling the space the ball occupies at that moment in time or forcing the ball into a space that the side controls. Either way, the side tries to dictate the play so to win the ball.
If the team out of possession looks to control space to prevent the opposition from successfully moving the ball into certain areas and with the hope of winning the ball, then the team in possession looks to control space so to move the ball successfully into certain areas and to maintain possession.
A team that can control the ball and space, simultaneously, has potent possession. No matter how organized and disciplined the players, a defensive structure will concede space somewhere at any particular moment in time. Control of the ball and control of space allows a team to force their opposition to react to them in a more predictable manner. They can use their possession to create openings to exploit; they can create areas where the opposition inadequately controls space. They can then find and exploit spaces the opponent inadequately controls before they can react—before they can reallocate resources to regain the desire level of control of that particular space. Therefore, a team that can simultaneously control the ball and space can pull apart has the potential to dominate to the greatest degree¹.
It is also important to understand that the team without the ball should set up in anticipation of winning the ball, and a team in possession should set up in anticipation for losing the ball. In the former case, such an understanding will allow for a more effective exploitation of valuable spaces after possession is won. In the latter case, such an understanding will allow for more effective control of important spaces, helping to prevent the opposition from exploiting dangerous areas, and possibly reduce their ability to control possession, immediately after the ball is lost. Football is a fluid game. A team is always attacking and always defending, regardless of whether they have the ball. Therefore, trade-offs exist between controlling space in possession and controlling space when a loss of possession occurs, and vice-versa. Concerning how a team should optimally set up in the dynamic environment that is a football match, this fluidity makes the decision-making process of players and the determination of ideal playing structures rather complex.
A modern example of a side that spent a significant amount of time effectively controlling space without the ball, and understood that they were always attacking and always defending, regardless of whether they had the ball, was Atletico Madrid’s 2013-14 team. These sides—those that rely on/spend a relatively large amount of time controlling space without the ball—tend to have to play not only in an organized and disciplined manner, but have to play with a high level of coordinated intensity.
Everyone on Atletico Madrid worked diligently to help the side control space. When Atleti looked to press their opponent’s higher up the pitch, the front two looked to press, while blocking the passing lanes into the half-space. When the ball shifted to a particular side, the wide playmaker pushed up to press, and the forward on that side had to move to deny passing lanes back to the center—the area Atleti looked to control above all others.
In their own half, either in a mid-level defensive shape or a deep defending shape, Atleti often maintained their narrow 4-4-2 shape, which helped them control the center of the pitch. To main a compact shape, the team’s shape needed to constantly move from side to side, as the ball moved from side to side. Atleti worked to flood the ball-side, looking to wall off the opposition, using the sideline as another defender.
Here, they could isolate the wide player, and look to win the ball. With them flooding the ball-side of the pitch, passes into the center of the pitch became quite risky, as Atletico had plenty of men to make interceptions, close down receivers, and/or pounce on loose balls. Atletico built their side around a physical approach to have greater success in making those interceptions, tackles, etc. in those tight spaces, to better control the center of the pitch. With their willingness to defend deep, they had to be proficient in breaking up play, lest they concede central spaces so close to their own goal, which could pose a significant threat.
Atleti did have a potentially significant weakness due to their narrow shape, and overlapping fullbacks could exploit this. When the ball moved out wide and Atleti players went to isolate the wide man from the rest of his team, there existed the potential for an overlapping fullback to receive the ball, on the run, with plenty of space to whip a cross into the box.
Given this potential threat, Atleti needed to reduce the profitability of crosses, so to mitigate the harm such crosses could do to them, and they did this by building a side that could dominate opponents in the air. For this reason, aerial domination has much more value to sides that tend to defend deep and funnel their opponent’s attack into wide areas than sides that look to defend further away from their goal.
With Thibaut Courtois, Atleti had a giant, commanding, mobile, octopus in goal. In Diego Godin, Miranda, Felipe Luis, Juanfran, and Tiago, Atleti had five players at the base of their structure who won close to or more than 60% of their aerial duels. Their domination in the air allowed them to mitigate this potential weakness of conceding space to overlapping fullbacks. It also helped them defend set-pieces (and attack from set pieces), an important attribute given the increased potential of conceding free kicks in dangerous areas due to their willingness to defend close to their goal and to proactively defend. Clearly, Atletico’s style of play and their personnel fit like a glove.
While Atletico Madrid could control space out of possession, they did need to control space in possession. For Atleti, and deep defending sides in general, operating as a counter-attacking side allowed them to maximize their ability to exploit space with fewer attacking resources, so to limit the extent to which they may lack the ability to control important spaces, when they initially find themselves out of possession. Given their decreased willingness to control the game with possession and allocate their resources towards that aim, instead of looking to create the openings into the spaces they wish to control with the ball, they let their opponent’s attacking shape create the openings for them.
Once they win the ball, they look to quickly exploit this misallocation of resources, due to the opposition’s attacking shape, through a quick attacking transition. And while Atleti look to exploit their opposition’s inability to control space in the event of a change in possession, Atleti’s defensive shape allowed them to maximize the effectiveness of their counters. By keeping a narrow defensive shape, once the ball was won, the player on the ball had a greater ability to interact with a larger number of his teammates, as the distance the ball must travel to reach a team is shorter due to the compact defensive shape. The greater ability to interact increases the players’ ability to dynamically specialize²; it increases the options the team out of possession has to take away to stop the counter-attack; it increases the ability of the ball to change direction; it increases the ability of the team to quickly move the ball into the desirable spaces their opponent does not control.
Obviously, being able to analyze the options and execute in such a short frame of time requires a high level of decision-making and technical ability. Thus, to call Diego Simeone or Atletico a defensive team would not do them justice as they clearly understand how their play out of possession affected how they played in possession and vice-versa.
Now, when a deep defending side wins the ball, they often have to travel 60-70 meters, often asking their forwards and wide players to cover large distances in a short amount of time. However, as described above, these players have to expend quite a bit of energy while defending. One could have a couple players operate as passengers defensively, but then it becomes easier for the opponent to control space, while having possession of the ball—the most potent resource. Therefore, having passengers, especially against the best sides in the world, is not an option for a team that desires success at the highest level. Therefore, Atleti’s style of play places immense demands on the physical fitness of players, both in possession and out of possession.
The extreme physical demands of this style, in addition to the particular roster one has to construct to effectively defend close to one’s own goal, partially explains why some sides look to defend higher up the pitch. By playing higher up the pitch, they look to keep the play farther away from their goal, allowing them to divest from certain player attributes, like aerial ability, and allocate resources towards other desirable characteristics. They also look to win the ball in more advanced areas, which shortens the distance between defense and the goal. This means that the attackers need to cover less ground to get into good goal-scoring positions, and it increases the effectiveness of their counters/transition play.
By playing higher up the pitch, these sides also push the boundary between the “onside space”, which is the space where the opponent’s players are onside, and “offside space” away from their goal. If they did not play a high line, they would concede a large amount of free space in onside space. That would make it too easy for opponents to play through their pressing and through their lines.
However, the high line does impose a cost on the side that utilizes it—they increase the amount of offside space. Therefore, an opponent will have more success playing a ball into the space behind the defense than they would against a deeper defending side like Atletico Madrid. These sides must place a larger emphasis/depend more on the quality of their pressing at the front (this not only includes the intensity but also the coordination of the pressing, and the use of concepts like pressing triggers so that they tend to press when the particular allocation of resources by both sides makes it advantageous for them to press), have a greater need for their keeper to sweep, and rely more on the ability of their center backs to make recovery runs, as a last resort, if the offside line gets beaten. So while there may exist the potential of lowering the physical burden on the players, a side relying on/spending a large of time controlling space without the ball imposes a high physical cost on their players.³
In addition to the physical demands of relying on controlling space without possession, another problem is that it leaves the side vulnerable to two types of teams—other teams who can and are willing to spend the game controlling space without the ball, and teams that can control space and the ball.
Against teams that concede possession to their opponents, there is a risk that one team will have to play a possession-based game. Instead of having one’s opponent create openings for them, now the side must create openings with their possession. If one has tailored a XI/squad to control space without the ball, looking to attack into less controlled space, then this could prove quite problematic.
While a side might have an excellent ability to control space without the ball, that does not speak to their ability to control space with the ball against sides that give them the ball, especially if they have specialized in playing without the ball. Chelsea struggled last season when teams gave them the ball, leading to their signing of Cesc Fabregas (it will be interesting to see in the Champions League, as the English Premier League lacks enough sides who can exploit Fabregas’ poor defensive positioning and understanding, how Chelsea cope against sides like Bayern, Barcelona, and Real Madrid) and Diego Costa, giving them a better ability to control space in possession. Liverpool, without a fit and fresh combination of Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, have yet to figure out a method for consistent success against sides that give them the ball. Their inability to control space with the ball forces them to rely heavily on individual brilliance. And with their intense high pressing seemingly gone, they have lost their ability to control space out of possession as well.
However, even greater problems can come against a side that can better control space and control the ball. This type of side has the ability to dictate terms to the opposition better than any type of side. This possession-based side must still control space when out of possession4 but it spends much less time actually doing so. Instead of engaging in the more physically-demanding side of the game with the frequency of a side like Atleti, this team spends more time in possession, imposing physical costs on the opposition. By moving the ball patiently and consistently, they looks to move their opposition around, forcing them to expend quite a bit of energy, while also looking to create and exploit openings, create chances, and defend their own goal by not conceding possession.
Now while the ball moves faster than the players, the team in possession still needs to have the ability to exploit such an advantage. In this kind of team, the dynamism in possession needed to consistently score goals, while simultaneously controlling space and the ball, means that the nature of the decision making process for each player becomes much more complex, as the team wants to give its players more options from which to choose. By reducing the constraints on the optimization problem faced by the players, the unit, potentially, has a greater robustness to the changes inherent in the dynamic environment of a football match. With the system set up to provide a player with plenty of options at any particular moment, the team has a greater need for players to identify and execute the correct option5.
Therefore, a side that looks to control the ball and space requires the intelligence, decision-making, familiarity, and technique, both on-ball and off-ball to control space with the ball. Essentially, a greater emphasis is placed on each player’s ability to extract information from their environment, understand the proper action given that information to optimize the team’s performance, and then have the ability to execute the proper action, with this process constantly running throughout the match. Referencing Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society again, the greater the ability to profitably decentralize the in-game decision-making process, the great the ability to exploit the benefits of local knowledge—the knowledge players reveal on the pitch, during a match, which is unknown until revelation and revealed through the trial-error-feedback loops they engage in through their actions and by observing the actions of others.
To avoid the need to rely on the intelligence and ability for players to coordinate their action, a manager could look to make the game simpler for the players, limiting the number of options available to his players. Essentially, a manager works to reduce the transactions costs of his players’ interaction with one another. However, in limiting the number of options, a team becomes easier to defend, as they become predictable. They have less of an ability to interact with one another, reducing their ability to dynamically specialize, and control space, either in possession or out of possession. They also have the potential to lose the ability to exploit the local knowledge that players reveal over the course of the match. All of this makes them less robust to the dynamic nature of a football match.
They also need as many players on the pitch with a high level intelligence, decision-making ability, familiarity, and technical ability to maximize their ability to exploit the space, wherever and whenever it exists on the pitch, and to maximize their ability to control the ball. This, in part, is why some sides have looked to play midfielders at center back. They may also prefer a goalkeeper who can play with the ball at his feet to increase their ability to maintain possession, to potentially draw their opponent higher up the pitch, and to provide more interaction among the XI in possession. Much like a side out of possession should look to defend as an XI, a team that wants to maximize their ability to control space and the ball should look to attack as an XI (Avoid specialists, embrace dynamic specialization).
This control of space and ball style of play seems to have a higher degree of difficulty. With an insufficient amount of the elements needed to pull this off, the possession-based team may control the ball without adequately controlling space, leading to truly sterile possession. Or worse, they could lack the necessary control of the ball to sufficiently limit counter-attacking opportunities for the opposition, which would lead to their possession going from sterile to self-harming.
Yet, in addition to having greater potential for dominance and optimal on-pitch resource allocation a side that controls space and the ball has a higher ceiling it can reach and this style may allow a side to sustain success over a longer period of time. Controlling possession could help them experience less wear-and-tear, as they can let the ball do more of the work needed to control space rather than spending more time moving their bodies to control space out of possession. By playing higher up the pitch and with a potent system of counter-pressing, the side controlling space and ball seems to have a greater ability to limit the amount of energy expended over a long-period, keeping the game in the opposition’s half of the pitch.6
Therefore, if a manager wanted to find a way to give his club a sustainable long-term ability to compete at the highest level of European football, while maintaining an ability to compete domestically, then trying to develop a playing style based on control of both space and the ball seems like the way to go. And maybe that is exactly what Arsene Wenger is trying to do this season.
Follow Naveen on twitter @njm1211
¹Controlling the ball without controlling space is what I would define as sterile possession. A side like that cannot use possession it to create chances, and if the opponent can gain control of the space around the ball, they cannot even use possession as a form of defense.
²Much like Adam Smith’s idea that specialization is limited by the extent of the Market, essentially the ability of agents to economically interact, the ability for profitable specialization on the football pitch, at a particular moment in time, has to do with the ability of players to interact with one another
³While I think Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp are excellent managers, I do wonder whether their style of play has a greater potential to run an English side into the ground. There are a few potential reasons but none seem bigger than the lack of a winter break.
4This is normally achieved through counter-pressing, facilitated by their attacking shape, which not only allows the team to win the ball high up the pitch, but also limits the need to make long recovery sprints. Outside of counter-pressing moments, some system high pressing, dropping deep, and then looking to push their defensive lines further up the pitch, when possible, can serve as another way to control space. Adin Osmanbasic has a nice video of this using a pre-season match between Bayern Munich and Barcelona before Pep’s first season at Bayern.
5There is nothing as elegant as the pricing system of an economy (see Hayek’s The Use of Knowledge in Society) to help footballers make complex and coordinated decisions about the allocation of resources, such that a transcendent extended order forms.
6Granted, the impact of playing style changing the marginal returns to various skills could reduce our ability to empirically observe this. A team that defends deep and relies more on their ability to control space without the ball experiences greater returns on skills like strength, size, physical robustness, etc. A team that relies more on controlling space with the ball probably experiences less of a return on those characteristics, but may experience greater returns on other skills like technical ability, intelligence and decision-making related to maximizing the unit’s ability in possession, and familiarity which would reduce a side’s ability to profitably turn the squad over, which may lead to divestment from attributes an Atleti want to invest in, allowing resources to flow to more profitable skills. In this case, the reduced wear-and-tear does not show up in the injury table, but instead show up in the ability to more cheaply (cheap referring to the total cost, not just the money cost) purchase other attributes.