The Art Of Building From The Back.

By Rhulani Mokwena

I put on a tweet a few weeks ago that grabbed a lot of attention. Basically, I was illustrating the similarities between Barcelona’s build up and that of Orlando Pirates FC. Both showing how their deep lying playmakers were used as third centre halves in the build up process by dropping between their centre halves and creating superiority for their team in trying to bring the ball out from the back while pressed with two strikers.

However, when coaching build-up play, it's important to give players alternative routes of progression because every pressing scheme requires a different build up solution. I have often said that soon, build ups will be trained as part of set plays because of their importance and regularity in which goalkicks occur during a match and the fact that, the ball starts within the six-yard box. And although a lot of coaches have their preferred method of building attacks from the back, the opponent's approach to defending/high pressing will change from game to game, opponent to opponent and even within the same games, pressing schemes change. It is therefore essential to implement a varied build up approach that accounts for the different challenges that opponents might present. 
When it comes to adaptability in build-up play, of course we all know that Pep Guardiola is the most talked about “build up technician” but one of my favourites must be Real Betis head coach Quique Setien. I have observed and read a lot about him, with keen interest this season and it is interesting how Betis have clear and recognizable build up patterns, like Man City. Both are very adaptable, provide complex alternatives when presented with different conditions. The difference between the two is that while Pep speaks a lot more about a vertical build up, Setien seems to recognize the benefits of incorporating both horizontal and vertical build up applications. 
Therefore, I want to to discuss build up. And the importance of build up principles and moreover the importance of adaptability in the build-up phase. 

So, to start of with, we have spoken at length about Pep’s game model in my previous articles but maybe today’s let’s start with Quique and probably the basis should be to show his starting formation, although Real Betis seldom use one formation. Below is an image of their “regular” starting line up… 

I recently read Quique Setien was described as a progressive thinking coach that is always looking for solutions but also a coach that prefers his teams to be the protagonist because he seems equally sober in understanding his teams’ limitations. He’s a coach that looks to exploit opponents through individual qualitative superiorities, he finds creative solutions to ensure his team's collective work can defeat his more illustrious LaLiga opponents. He is not one for responsive football and and is a huge advocate for positive, attacking football. His recent comments on Diego’s Simeone and his Atletico Madrid side raised a lot of eyebrows and created a huge storm. 
“Simeone’s Atlético play like he did. I told that to Cholo; I love what you do, the titles, what you have achieved… but I don’t like how your team plays.”
However,  back to build up and Betis. The main principle that Setien's side use to progress from deep areas can be considered as primarily horizontal. The 1st and 2nd lines retain possession while moving the ball from one channel to the other. This stretches opposition defences while looking for pockets to exploit and should pockets open between the lines, Betis will look to play through. If the midfield line opens, the strategy is to play vertical passes into the half spaces that allow for players to turn and advance play. This then can result in either combining centrally or using their wings or fullbacks for a cross.
The image below highlights exactly this. Betis playing against a defensive Celta Vigo. Betis circulate possession on the first and second lines looking to provoke Celta, who are quick to lose their compactness and start leaving gaps in the midfield line for Betis to play through. Betis' offensive midfielders receive in the ‘half space' before supplying the winger and moving into the box for a cross. Had Celta Vigo’s defensive line been as lacking in compaction as their midfield line in this instance, Betis they would have looked to become more aggressive centrally. However, Celta's back-line is narrow, meaning the space exists to exploit are out wide.

A low-block with poor spacing in the midfield line is a luxury unlikely to be encountered too often by teams that build from the back. When building against teams who sit off, Betis' typically look to shift the ball along the first and second lines, moving their opponent’s defensive unit across each time. As soon as enough space open, the aim to progress and even create overloads down that side.

Depending on how the opponents respond to this progression, Betis either combine on the wide channel before crossing to the box or feed the “10space” through their wing-back. Often, neither channel will be particularly open by the time Betis get the ball there. However, they are adept at combining in tight spaces to find a way through the opponent pressure. Should there exist no opportunity to progress down the wing, they will look for quicker ball circulation to change their point of attack and switch to the open space on the opposite channel.

Another image here highlights Setien's primary routes of progression. The 1st shows Betis patiently circulating possession on the 1st and 2nd lines, slightly more oriented to the left side of the pitch. They then make a quick switch to the less occupied space on the right side before breaking the line so that they can deliver the cross into the box.

The 2nd image shows how Betis build heavily on the one side of the pitch, drawing the opponent's defensive block to create an overload intentionally.  From here they play in tight spaces to invite the press before switching to the underloaded side for the free man to arrive unmarked.

Generally, Betis incorporates attempts that are aimed at consistently achieving numerical superiorities. Which is the highest order and the most important principle In build. First with the 3 defenders and the holding midfielder, and secondly with the wing-backs, the near-sided central midfielder, and the inside forward. If the opponents commit more men to the press, a player further forward will usually drop deep to provide support and ensure that a free man exists in the first phase of the attack. This being the ultimate objective, find the free man.

Even without the adaptations we clearly see that Quique Setien's approach to build-up is versatile enough to cause problems to sides that sit deep, no matter how diligent the opponent's defensive strategies are. Below is a summary of the Spaniard's build-up principles where high pressure doesn't exist.

1. Build with numerical superiority in own half with the intention of inviting the opposition out to press and then look to back create the ideal positional lay-out.
2. Dominate possession and seek to find horizontal ball mobility to move the opposition defensive block from side to side, before finding verticality that will ultimately ensure that his teams reach the flanks when spaces are created.
3. From there, they combine to create a crossing opportunity, or feed the “10space” using the wing-back.
4. It’s vital that If pockets open to penetrate centrally, the ball is quickly given attackers positioned reach to turn between the opposition's midfield and defensive line.
5. Where opponents are compact and organised, Betis retain possession and build the play on one side before looking to change the point of attack quickly to the opposite to exploit the dead zone.

Now building up from the back and building the play should not be terms used to describe one thing. This is a topic I’ll cover soon in one of my next articles.

As I mentioned at the beginning, every team should have alternative routes for progression from the back. A one-dimensional approach can be stifled quickly by well-organised opponents, having a plan B/C/D/E/F etc essential in any comprehensive tactical orientation. I noted in my previous tweet too of how Orlando Pirates have created numerous build up strategies in seeking to find possibilities from high pressing teams.

When the opposition sits off, any team looking to dominate possession will seek to use a more horizontal-based approach. They will look to move the the ball from side to side, trying to create the conditions to exploit the wide areas.

However, the opposition doesn't always sit in zone 2 or 3. Often, teams will try to nullify even teams like Betis from building from the back Setien's by pressing or marking high up the pitch during Betis' build-up. This obviously makes it difficult for them to come out from the back and so they must find other ways to progress and create chances.

What makes Quique Setien teams so special and the ideal for any coaches looking for ideas on how to build up from the back is that he is constantly is evolution and seeking ways of problem-solving his teams build up in progressing out of the first phase of an attack.

This image below shows Setien's side returning to the goalkeeper due to limited options of progression. The opponents attempted to congest the spaces across the first line of Betis’ back three, in order to block off the passing lanes they would normally look to play through. Taking advantage of this, Betis retreat further to draw the opponents out of space. Once this has been achieved, the goalkeeper plays a lofted pass over the pressure and into the pocket behind them. The tactic of 'Drawing out to play through' has become increasingly common in recent years. 'Drawing out to play over' adopts similar principles and is perhaps a safer approach to bypassing pressure. This is something Man city so so often too.

The second image shows a progression of this scheme. Instead of playing through the midfield or down the sides, Betis will sometimes bypass these areas by taking an aerial route to the attack. The midfielders can then look to win the 2nd ball on the other side, allowing them to recover possession facing the play before then looking to establish play. The idea of 'playing long and getting in behind it' is not new. However, the way Betis manipulate the positional landscape before playing over pressure, means the frequency at which they can profit from this method is extremely high and limits the risk of turnovers.

'Drawing out to play over' and bypassing the midfield before winning the 2nd balls are of course highly vertical routes of progression. As stated earlier, Betis are not one dimensional they use both horizontal and vertical build-up methods to seek to find progression.

So, I have outlined the basics of Quique Setien's dual approach. Ive tried to show you how they try to find routes for progression using horizontal play, and how they use verticality to progress under more pressurised conditions.

However, having a plan A and a plan B is often not enough. It is important to teach players and equip them with the tools to solve problems that might occur during a match. There are so many obstacles that the opponent can present in a given situation. Setien is clearly aware of this and coaches his team on how to overcome these issues to ensure that they can always find a way through, within the context of his game model and its principles.

When opponents employ man-marking schemes against Betis' build up, It becomes difficult to create the free man who can progress the play. One way that Setien's players attempt to lose their markers is by exploiting the benefits of rotations.

Rotations have the potential to disorganise and disorientate opponents because of a team man marks, the advantage is with the attacker as he decides where the defender should be. This will then create a dilemma that often result in a player on the attacking team becoming free.

One of the simple ways in which Setien's team evade marking/pressing during build-up involves the use of wall passes. Wall passes are perhaps more common further up the field in attempts to find attackers behind cover shadows. However, they can also have benefits in escaping pressure during the 1st progression.

The opponents would normally cut off the goalkeepers passing lane to the central player for Betis' back three, like now, while also having access to his surrounding teammates. To overcome this challenge, the holding midfielder drops short quickly to provide a lay-off/wall pass to the side. His marker follows him, allowing the 3rd man in the sequence to receive facing the play, and with space to carry the ball into.

The other visible possibility of how Setien's teams show adaptability, invention and tactical intelligence in the first phase of an attack, this includes the use of ball-carrying defenders. Despite only playing with 3 in the back line, Betis' defenders are given license to recognise space and move into it. They regularly step out into midfield to drive the play forward, drawing central pressure from the opponents and creating space out wide in the process. This is a good option when passing options are limited on the second line.

While Betis prefer to build out with the intention of pinning the opponent's back and breaking them down with horizontal circulation, they aren't always afforded this opportunity.
However, Setien's teams are well drilled coached with invention and adaptability in mind, and so can still progress effectively out of the first phase despite varying conditions. We now look to summarise his methods for building against pressure or high marking schemes.

1. The Goalkeeper can bypass pressure with lofted passes. Attacking players well positioned to win 1st ball and knock downs. Exploit the space in opponent's half with central combinations or feed arriving personality players. 

2. Take advantage of opponent pressure by drawing them out to create space further forward, before exploiting with direct attacks.

3. Initiate rotations to disorganise marking schemes and create a free man to progress the play or open a previously closed off passing lane.

4.  A player further forward drops deeper to offer lay-off/wall pass. 3rd man can receive facing the play and behind his cover shadow.

5. Ball-carrying defenders to progress from 1st phase when passing option limited. Draws pressure from opposing players, allowing ball-occupant to then release possession to a free player further forward.
While it's important to have a clear strategy, remaining adaptable and allowing your players to be creative is important. Being able to respond to changing circumstances within games is equally crucial. Teams that are rigid and one-dimensional are often relatively easy to break down. So, players should be coached on how to solve problems throughout games, within the context of the game model and the principles and sub principles of each phase of the game.
Quique Setien is perhaps in my opinion the best at this and his teams always demonstrate adaptability and intelligence in finding alternative schemes of progression. Executing the first phase is arguably the most important aspect of any tactical blueprint. Technocrats looking for ideas to improve their teams build up would be wise to continue watching Setien's teams.


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