Tactical Theory: Breaking the Lines

Match Analysis
Lee Scott

Lee Scott

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As football becomes more complex and coaches begin to use analytical analysis to devise their defensive systems it is increasingly more important that sides are able to remain creative in finding ways to progress the ball forwards in their attacking phase.

Defensive structures are becoming increasingly more compact as coaches throughout the game are becoming more aware of the importance of space within the game, when the likes of Denis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola moved to English football with Arsenal and Chelsea respectively they enjoyed huge success playing in the spaces between the defensive and midfield lines of the opposition. Clubs at that time were relatively rigid in their defensive organisation with the traditional ‘two lines of four’ (four defenders, four midfielders) giving little in the way of depth to cover the spaces between them.

As the years progressed we saw a tactical evolution of sorts with sides moving to integrate more staggered lines within their defensive systems, these staggered positions then closed down the spaces that the likes of Bergkamp and Zola had been able to exploit effectively.

As football evolves to the point that we are at today defensive systems have continued to evolve and teams have had to develop more creative ways to progress the ball forward through the thirds of the pitch.

One of the most important attacking mechanisms used at the top level of football today is the ability to break the lines of the opponents defensive setup. There are two separate means that a team can use in order to break the lines of pressure and move the ball up the field, the most common is a simple pass in to a player who is positioned behind a line of opposition players, the second is via a player dribbling the ball and moving past a line of opponents.

In this theoretical piece we will look at both in more detail.

Passing through the lines

Breaking the lines of opposition pressure through passing, or indeed through dribbling, is one of the key components of positional play, the method of play that was made famous by Pep Guardiola during his time in charge of Barcelona. In passing or dribbling the ball in this manner you are instantly creating an situation in which you can build your attack from an advanced platform with a section of the oppositions defensive structure effectively taken out of the game.

Teams like Napoli, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax in particular were highly effective last season in moving the ball in this manner.

The latter two developed an attacking system where the focus of the build up came from the central defenders who were comfortable in possession both when passing out from the back and in dribbling forwards in order to provoke a defensive player to engage them. Ajax in particular place a great emphasis on Davinson Sanches and Matthijs De Ligt to progress the ball forwards.

In the attacking phase they will look to play driven vertical passes through the midfield structure to a player in space. If that vertical pass is blocked by opposition defenders then the centre back in possession will usually look to quickly switch the ball across to his defensive team mate in the hope that a passing lane will be open on the opposite side.

Here I have recreated a situation where Sanchez would be in possession of the ball looking to progress the ball. Normally with the structure that Ajax use in the attacking phase the ball side fullback will retain a wide position to give an outlet pass, in the Ajax system specifically this pass tends to be made to provoke a movement from the opponents before the ball is returned to Sanchez or De Ligt who should now have a passing lane open to them.

I have included an example of what would be poor positioning from the receiving player who has drifted in between two opposition players, in the early stages of implementing a positional play structure this is a common error made. The correct position is in the highlighted space where he can take possession of the ball in a pocket of space and play from there.

This time the situation calls for the ball to be moves across to De Ligt in the left sided centre back position. Once again the pass from Sanchez to the right back is less than optimal and the defensive structure is such that there is no clear passing lane through to the midfield area.

When the ball is switched in to De Ligt he has options to use the left back or the deeper central midfielder, either passing option however would still result in playing in front of the opposition defensive structure. Instead the vertical pass in to space allows them to build the attack from in front of the defensive line.

Here De Ligt takes possession from Sanchez before dribbling the ball forwards in to space. As the opposition adjust to his run the young defender is able to shift the ball through the line of pressure to find a man in space.

I have taken this example from another defensive player who is extremely effective in playing forwards through the lines and, Leonardo Bonucci of AC Milan. In this clip Bonucci is playing for Italy and collects the ball in the central area. the Italian is confident enough of the ball that he plays a hard vertical pass that bypasses the entire defensive structure and finds the forward running into space on the edge of the penalty area.

Dribbling through the lines

In the central areas of the field the ability to beat a man one on one and break the lines in this manner can be crucial in creating space for your attacking phase. From deeper areas a defender carrying the ball forwards can provoke the defensive players to engage the ball and leave a gap in the defensive lines.

Here is an example of an in game situation in which the ability to either pass the ball through the lines or dribble through can create advantages in the attacking phase.

If the player on the ball in this example is able to dribble through past the line of opposition pressure then he can create advantageous  2v1 or 3v2 situations against the last line of opposition defence. Players like Mario Gotze and Mateo Kovacic can be potent attacking weapons in these central areas.

The Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic of Real Madid is one of the best dribbling midfielder in football, his balance and close control make him a handful for any opposing defence. Here he picks the ball up deep in his own half and immediately engages and beats a defensive player, as he does so the opposition are forced to move across and cover. The young midfielder however is not finished there and he engages and beats another opposition player before playing the ball forwards in to a more advanced area.

In this example Kovacic has the ball in a more advanced area, initially he passes forward and breaks the first line of opposition pressure. The key however lies in the fact that Kovacic then continues to move forward, when he takes possession of the return ball he is then able to engage the defensive player beating him in a 1v1 duel and striking the ball low in to the bottom corner.

The ability to play fluidly in this manner makes it extremely difficult for the opposition to create defensive structures that can stop the attack from moving forwards.


It will be interesting this coming season to see how many sides incorporate methods to break through the lines of opposition pressure in to their attacking play.

The natural genesis of this style of play appears to point towards more multi functional central players who have the ability to dribble of pass the ball through the opposition lines. Defenders and controlling midfielders who have the ability to attack in this manner could well be used more as game changers who can help their side to dictate the pace and tempo of the game.

Attacking in this progressive manner can be far more effective than employing aimless direct passes or looking to retain possession for possessions sake.

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