Attacking Structures

Attacking structures are tactical structures formed by a team’s attacking shape, off the ball movement and on the ball movement. A team has separate attacking structures for when each individual player is on the ball that take into account the nature of each player’s individual on the ball movement.

An analysis of a team’s attacking structures is particularly useful for assessing whether the team retains compactness effectively in the attacking phase, and whether the nature of its compactness in the attacking phase enables it to create space, penetrate space and retain solidity effectively.

Attacking structures are more difficult to analyse than positional structures due to the variable nature of off the ball movement and on the ball movement. However, they can be analysed more generally in terms of vertical movement.

The vertical movement of a team’s players can be analysed in order to assess whether the team’s attacking structures enable its players to create space, penetrate space, retain solidity and provide attacking support effectively.

Creating Space

A simplified approach to assessing whether the vertical movement of a team’s players enables them to create space effectively is to consider the team’s use of forward movement partnerships.

Forward Movement Partnerships

A forward movement partnership is a pairing of two players (the partners) who are assigned nearby playing positions and make vertical movement such that their relative or combined vertical movement creates space.

Types of forward movement partnership include direct partnerships and overlapping partnerships, as well as off the ball forward movement partnerships and on the ball forward movement partnerships.

A direct partnership is a forward movement partnership where one partner (the attacking partner) is assigned a playing position that is ahead of or level with that assigned to the other partner (the ancillary partner) and makes forward movement to a greater extent than, or to similar extent to, the ancillary partner, such that the attacking partner tends to make forward movement ahead of or level with the ancillary partner.

In a standard direct partnership the two partners are distinct – there is a specific attacking partner and a specific ancillary partner at any given time. However, if their playing positions are level and they make forward movement to similar extents, such that their forward movement tends to be level, then the partners are indistinct – each player is instead both types of partner simultaneously. Such a sharing of responsibilities can also occur in cases where the partners are distinct but the two players interchange between being the two types of partner, although they would need to swap playing positions to do so in cases where their playing positions are not level.

An overlapping partnership is a forward movement partnership where one partner (the attacking partner) is assigned a playing position that is deeper than that assigned to the other partner (the ancillary partner) and makes forward movement to a greater extent than the ancillary partner, such that the attacking partner tends to make forward movement towards and then ahead of the ancillary partner.

In an overlapping partnership the two partners distinct due to their staggered playing positions. Again though, the players may interchange between being the two types of partner but they would need to swap playing positions to do so.

An off the ball forward movement partnership is a forward movement partnership that occurs as a result of both partners’ off the ball movement.

An on the ball forward movement partnership is a forward movement partnership that occurs as a result of one partner’s on the ball movement and the other partner’s off the ball movement (as only one player can be on the ball at any one time).

How Forward Movement Partnerships Create Space

Forward movement partnerships can create space as a result of each partner’s vertical movement drawing players out of position. They are particularly effective at creating space in this way as the relative vertical movement of the partners can create space for each partner to move into, while their combined vertical movement can create overloads which can create space in other areas for other teammates to move into.

Relative vertical movement can create space in both direct and overlapping partnerships, as long as the two partners make forward movement to different extents. The ancillary partner’s relatively lesser forward movement can create space ahead of him which the attacking partner can move into (or the ancillary partner is instead allowed more available space by the opposition team), while the attacking partner’s relatively greater forward movement can create space behind him which the ancillary partner can move into (or the attacking partner is instead allowed more available space by the opposition team).

Overlapping partnerships and indistinct direct partnerships in particular can be effective at creating overloads through combined vertical movement. This is due to the attacking partner’s tendency to move towards the ancillary partner in an overlapping partnership and the two partners’ tendency to make level forward movement in an indistinct direct partnership. However, a distinct direct partnership can also create an overload if the ancillary partner moves towards the attacking partner into the space created by the attacking partner’s forward movement, especially if the partners make forward movement to similar extents.

The potential for a forward movement partnership to create space is reduced if the opposition team uses an extra playing position in the relevant positional area in order to outnumber the partners. However, from the perspective of the opposition team, this sacrifices the use of a playing position elsewhere, either allowing more available space in another threatening area or reducing the opposition team’s own ability to penetrate space, depending on which positional area is ‘weakened’ as a result.

Composition of Forward Movement Partnerships

Combinations of component role types that can form notable off the ball forward movement partnership compositions are listed below. Similar component role types that can be used in on the ball forward movement partnerships are given in parenthesis.

  • Low risk forward movement partnership
    • Attacking partner = supporting player
    • Ancillary partner = sitting player (or hold-up player)
    • Tactical risk – low.
    • Most useful for – direct and overlapping partnerships that retain solidity to a greater extent.
  • Medium risk forward movement partnership
    • Attacking partner = offensive player (or dribbling player)
    • Ancillary partner = sitting player (or hold-up player)
    • Tactical risk – moderate.
    • Most useful for – overlapping partnerships that penetrate space and retain solidity to an average extent. In a direct partnership the ancillary partner would be unlikely to provide attacking support sufficiently to the attacking partner.
  • Overloading partnership
    • Attacking partner = offensive player (or dribbling player)
    • Ancillary partner = offensive player (or dribbling player), assigned a deeper playing position for a distinct overloading partnership or a level playing position for an indistinct overloading partnership
    • Tactical risk – very high.
    • Most useful for – direct partnerships that penetrate space to a much greater extent.

An additional type of on the ball forward movement partnership is a pseudo-overlapping partnership. This is formed when two players in level playing positions are the partners in both an off the ball high risk direct partnership and an on the ball low risk direct partnership, but the off the ball attacking partner, who tends to receive the ball when ahead of the off the ball ancillary partner, is also the on the ball ancillary partner. The composition is therefore:

  • (On the ball) attacking partner = supporting player
  • (On the ball) ancillary partner = offensive and hold-up player, assigned a level playing position

In overlapping partnerships the ancillary partner may be used as a deep-dropping player (as well as being a supporting or sitting player), in order to create space more effectively for the attacking partner to move into.

An overloading partnership differs from the other notable compositions of forward movement partnership due to the similar extent of forward movement made by the two partners. It is therefore less likely to create space as a result of the relative vertical movement of the two partners but can be more effective at creating overloads in more advanced areas though their combined vertical movement. While overlapping partnerships can also create overloads in more advanced areas, in an overloading partnership there is a greater tendency for both partners to move into more advanced areas and to then remain close to each other.

One or both of the partners in a forward movement partnership may also be a positional, attacking phase or on the ball auxiliary player in the relevant positional area. Suitable auxiliary playing position role types depend on the positional responsibilities each player is expected to perform and examples are given in the Responsibility Distribution guide.

Use of Forward Movement Partnerships

The use of forward movement partnerships (off the ball forward movement partnerships in particular) in central midfield, on both flanks and in central attack should enable a team’s players to create space effectively through their vertical movement.

Direct partnerships can enable a team to penetrate space more quickly due to the attacking partner’s more advanced positioning, as well as to retain solidity more effectively due to the ancillary partner’s deeper positioning (if he makes forward movement to a lesser extent), but they can make it more difficult for a team to create space effectively in comparison to overlapping partnerships.

Therefore, a team that tends to attempt to penetrate space quickly from deeper areas (as is the case with the defensive football core style), or a team that tends to attempt to penetrate space directly (as is the case with the direct plays attacking style), typically uses more direct partnerships.

Overlapping partnerships can enable a team to create space more effectively due to the use of both relative and combined vertical movement, but they can make it more difficult for a team to quickly penetrate space and more difficult for it to retain solidity effectively in comparison to direct partnerships.

Therefore, a team that tends to attempt to create space in more congested advanced areas (as is the case with the attacking football core style), or a team that tends to attempt to create space by cycling possession (as is the case with the short plays attacking style), typically uses more overlapping partnerships.

However, regardless of a team’s playing style, in central midfield, where providing cover is of higher importance than stretching play and creating chances, a team typically uses at least one off the ball low risk direct partnership. Furthermore, each partner is typically either assigned a central midfielder playing position or at least used as a positional auxiliary central midfielder, as this enables them to provide each other with sufficient defensive support in the defensive phases.

On the flanks and in central attack, where stretching play and creating chances are of higher importance than providing cover, a team typically uses off the ball high risk forward movement partnerships and off the ball overloading partnerships, while also taking into account the suitability of direct and overlapping partnerships for its playing style as discussed above. Off the ball medium risk overlapping partnerships can also be suitable but are less commonly used.

However, off the ball overloading partnerships are mainly used on the flanks and, if used in central midfield or central attack, they are typically only used to supplement high, low and medium risk forward movement partnerships. This is because overloads in wide attack can be effective at creating space in central attack, while the use of relative vertical movement in central attack is particularly effective, as explained below. An exception is an off the ball overloading partnership made up of an offensive centre midfielder and an offensive centre forward. This can work similarly to an off the ball high risk direct partnership made up of a supporting attacking midfielder and an offensive centre forward, with the offensive centre midfielder acting as an auxiliary supporting attacking midfielder.

The use of an overload in wide attack can cause an opposition team central defender to be drawn out of position towards the overload, creating space in central attack.

The use of relative vertical movement in central attack means that an opposition team central defender must either allow himself to be drawn out of position towards the deeper ancillary partner, thus creating space in the opposition team defence for the attacking partner or another player to potentially penetrate behind the defence, or allow the ancillary partner available space so that he can penetrate space more easily from in front of the defence.

Even against a three-man central defence this can be the case, either if an opposition team central defender is drawn out of position by a player in wide attack (due to an overload or a deep wide player who has not yet returned to his defensive position) or if there are enough players acting as central attackers at the same time to occupy the opposition team central defenders (bearing in mind that they may have defensive support from elsewhere); for example, two central attackers along with two wing forwards who act as auxiliary central attackers can result in this effect (although a wing forward may need to be on the ball if he is an on the ball auxiliary central attacker).

Penetrating Space

A simplified approach to assessing whether the vertical movement of a team’s players enables them to penetrate space effectively is to calculate a ‘penetration score‘ for the team. This can be done by scoring the contribution of each of the team’s more advanced players individually according to the extent to which their assigned playing positions and off the ball directness attacking instructions enable them to penetrate space when off the ball.

The contribution scores of each of a team’s more advanced players can be approximated as follows:

  • 1.00 – offensive centre forwards.
  • 0.75 – supporting centre forwards.
  • 0.75 – offensive attacking midfielders, offensive wing forwards.
  • 0.50 – sitting centre forwards.
  • 0.50 – supporting attacking midfielders, supporting wing forwards.
  • 0.50 – offensive centre midfielders, offensive wing midfielders.
  • 0.50false-nine (supporting and deep-dropping centre forward).
  • 0.25 – sitting attacking midfielders, sitting wing forwards.
  • 0.25 – supporting centre midfielders, supporting wing midfielders.
  • 0.25 – offensive defensive midfielders, offensive wing backs.
  • 0.00 – sitting centre midfielders, sitting wing midfielders.

The team’s penetration score can then be calculated by dividing the sum of these contribution scores by an appropriate target score that is considered to be high enough to enable its players to penetrate space effectively. This results in a penetration score of 1.00 or higher if this target score is achieved. A typical target score, given the above contribution scores, is 2.50.

High relative overall ability teams tend to use formations that give a higher penetration score, while low relative overall ability teams tend to use formations that give a lower penetration score.

Retaining Solidity

A simplified approach to assessing whether the vertical movement of a team’s players enables them to retain solidity effectively is to calculate a ‘solidity score‘ for the team. This can be done by scoring the contribution of each of the team’s deeper players individually according to the extent to which their assigned playing positions and off the ball directness attacking instructions enable them to retain solidity when off the ball.

The contribution scores of each of a team’s deeper players can be approximated as follows:

  • 1.00 – sitting sweeper, sitting centre backs, sitting full backs.
  • 1.00half-back (sitting and deep-dropping defensive midfielder).
  • 0.75 – supporting sweeper, supporting centre backs, supporting full backs.
  • 0.75 – sitting defensive midfielders, sitting wing backs.
  • 0.50 – offensive sweeper, offensive centre backs, offensive full backs.
  • 0.50 – supporting defensive midfielders, supporting wing backs.
  • 0.50 – sitting centre midfielders, sitting wing midfielders.
  • 0.25 – offensive defensive midfielders, offensive wing backs.
  • 0.25 – supporting centre midfielders, supporting wing midfielders.
  • 0.25 – sitting attacking midfielders, sitting wing forwards.
  • 0.00 – offensive centre midfielders, offensive wing midfielders.

The team’s solidity score can then be calculated by dividing the sum of these contribution scores by an appropriate target score that is considered to be high enough to enable its players to retain solidity effectively. This results in a solidity score of 1.00 or higher if this target score is achieved. A typical target score, given the above contribution scores, is 4.00.

High relative overall ability teams tend to use formations that give a lower solidity score, while low relative overall ability teams tend to use formations that give a higher solidity score.

Providing Attacking Support

A simplified approach to assessing whether the vertical movement of a team’s players enables them to provide attacking support (and defensive support in the defensive transition phase) effectively is to calculate a ‘support score‘ for the team. This can be done by scoring the contribution of each of the team’s players individually according to the extent to which their assigned playing positions and off the ball directness attacking instructions enable them to provide attacking support when off the ball.

The contribution scores of each of a team’s players can be approximated as follows:

  • 1.00 – offensive defensive midfielders, offensive wing backs.
  • 1.00 – supporting centre midfielders, supporting wing midfielders.
  • 1.00 – sitting attacking midfielders, sitting wing forwards.
  • 0.67 – offensive sweeper, offensive centre backs, offensive full backs.
  • 0.67 – offensive centre midfielders, offensive wing midfielders.
  • 0.67 – sitting centre midfielders, sitting wing midfielders.
  • 0.67 – supporting defensive midfielders, supporting wing backs.
  • 0.67 – supporting attacking midfielders, supporting wing forwards.
  • 0.67 – sitting centre forwards.
  • 0.33 – supporting sweeper, supporting centre backs, supporting full backs.
  • 0.33 – sitting defensive midfielders, sitting wing backs.
  • 0.33 – offensive attacking midfielders, offensive wing forwards.
  • 0.33 – supporting centre forwards.
  • 0.00 – sitting sweeper, sitting centre backs, sitting full backs.
  • 0.00 – offensive centre forwards.

The team’s support score can then be calculated by dividing the sum of these contribution scores by an appropriate target score that is considered to be high enough to enable its players to provide attacking support (and defensive support) effectively. This results in a support score of 1.00 or higher if this target score is achieved. A typical target score, given the above contribution scores, is 4.00.

However, a team that tends to cycle possession to a greater extent (as is the case with the short plays attacking style) typically requires a higher support score, while a team that tends to cycle possession to a lesser extent (as is the case with the direct plays attacking style), typically requires a lower support score.