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The importance of half spaces

Through the decades, several football strategies, tactical shapes and formations have become the golden standard, only to completely disappear from the scene years later or be surpassed by new strategies, shapes or formations.

It’s also possible to make simple divisions of the field. Many coaches divide the filed for simplicity into three columns, the two wings, and the central axis. Louis van Gaal differs by cutting the field into 18 rectangles, 6 vertical by 3 horizontal, in which players have certain tasks and responsibilities. Football’s fertile ground used to be zone 14, that golden square in front of the penalty area.

The middle column here is a little wider but the field is still divided into the middle and the wings. Depending on which part of the field the players are in and which of the four phases of the game the team is in (in possession, out of possession, defensive/offensive transition), certain players will have different tasks based on the four reference points of Arrigo Sacchi. Another alternative is to divide the field into pure geometric splits, e.g. 18 zones (3×6) of equal proportion to one another.

Dividing the filed with a focus on tactical events

But why should there be an additional division of the wing-center-wing into the half-spaces?

“90% of Manchester City’s goals come from this area,” Brighton midfielder Steve Sidwell said after attending a two-day session with the Football Association of Wales as part of his A Licence course a fortnight ago.

“When they build-up play on the left, (Oleksandr) Zinchenko comes into central midfield and (Leroy) Sane stays way out wide and pins the full-back there.

Personally, I am in favor of a division that is more focused on the tactical events, key strategic areas, and their respective game situations. Therefore I divide the field into three basic areas: the wings, half-spaces, and center.

The last decade, many tacticians, among them Pep Guardiola (Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City) and Jürgen Klopp (Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool), started focusing on utilizing something called the half-spaces. The half-space is a zone on a football field, between the center and the wing.

According to Pep Guardiola, it’s the ‘half space’, the channel between full back and center half on either side of the area. In fact chunks of coaching courses are now devoted to it.

Theoretically, you can make the wings in the picture above even smaller, extend the half-spaces and the middle. But, the center will always refer to the middle. The center is usually seen as the main zone. Whoever controls the center, controls the game.

In the end, football is about scoring more goals than the opponent. The center zone is closest to the goal and you can pass in every direction (left, right, forward, backward, and four diagonals). However, this zone is also often the most crowded. In addition, more space must be surveyed (360°) by the passer. Therefore, teammates and opponents can easily be overlooked. The lack of time on the ball, coupled with the challenge of lacking space, does not generally occur on the wings, where the opponent’s shape is usually less compact than in the middle. The wing is usually less crowded and the winger needs only survey 180° to see the whole field. Also, turnovers in the wide zones are less problematic than in the center but has the disadvantage of the sideline, which allows players from passing to only half of the directions (forward, backward, left or right and two diagonals).

Getting the ball to your most creative players in spaces where they can hurt the opposition is not a new idea. The challenge is to find a space where your best players will have the chance to be more dangerous.

The goal is located in the center of the field; both teams’ shapes change for the purpose of ball-oriented defending, reducing space, and zonal marking, depending on the position of the ball. If the ball is on the wing, then both teams will look different than when the ball is in a central position.

When a player has the ball in the half-space, he can still pass in every direction, similar to the center, but he has the advantage of having more space than in the center. It also has the added benefit of facing the goal diagonally instead of vertically, meaning that the player does not have to face away from the goal.

At Barcelona, Guardiola utilised the full width of the pitch and devised methods to pull opposing players away from the central zone in order to gain a numerical advantage.

Former Barca forward Thierry Henry gave a fascinating insight recently on Sky Sports.

“If you stand between the right-back and the right centre-back and Sam [Eto’o] or me does the same on the other side, suddenly you hold four players alone,” he said.

“Just from you being high and wide, and then coming back in, you are actually freezing four players because we are threatening to go in behind. With Eto’o and me running in behind, and Xavi and (Andres) Iniesta on the ball, with (Lionel) Messi dropping, either you die, or you die.”

As Henry said, central midfielders Xavi and Iniesta tended to be the ones delivering devastating passes from the half spaces at Barca – but the strategy evolved at Guardiola’s next club.

At Bayern, Guardiola still focused on the half space (or halbraum), but he began to use it differently, deploying the full-backs there when the team attacked.

“What does the opposition winger do when the opposing full-back surges inside on the switch of play? Does he go with him, leaving his own full back exposed and also meaning he won’t be effective on the transition?

“Or does he leave him, meaning there is a numerical superiority in the centre? Does the full back come? Then that will leave the winger free.

“The centre back can come, but that leaves the number nine free. There are so many dilemmas. Added to this, the number 10 would often run the deep midfielder away as well. All in all, it created a huge space inside.”

At Bayern’s training ground, the pitches were cut to highlight the half-spaces. Other teams in England followed suit. “We did the same at Boro and Swansea,” Adams admitted. “It’s very useful for possession drills and defending games.”

Jose Mourinho lamented: “Manchester City buy the full-backs for the price of the strikers.”

After a disappointing first season in England, Guardiola had indeed spent big on full backs, bringing in Kyle Walker for an initial £45m, Benjamin Mendy for £52m and Danilo for £26.5m.

Mourinho’s comment seemed to miss the point though: full backs are crucial to Guardiola’s style of play and have to be intelligent, technically adept and athletic in order to do what he needs them to – in both attack and defence.

“Only certain full backs are comfortable operating in that half space,” Adams added. “The instructions to them at City are unbelievably detailed and tight. You have to give a lot of credit to anyone who can play like that.”

The tactic of moving the full-backs into the half spaces can leave City vulnerable on the counter. This is something we have witnessed in many games this season.

City’s full backs have to be extremely athletic to get back into position if the ball is lost. Like all Guardiola’s teams, City uses the instant press and the full backs are so athletic that they can get back into a slot within two or three seconds.

Example of utilization of half spaces

For the sake of explanation, imagine a team in a 4-4-2 is defending against a 2-5-3 team in their buildup phase. The 2 – 3 – 5 is a formation used from very attacking teams to secure much possession higher up the pitch and to also be able to have enough players to press on the transition to defense. Manchester City obtains that formation with the Full Backs tag inside and the two attacking midfielders move higher to the attacking line.

The six of the offensive team drops slightly and faces up vertically and centrally between the central defenders. The 4-4-2 team is in their “normal” positions. They must not move and this is the basic shape of the offense and defense. Both teams will now play towards a goal; that of the defending team. One team on offense, one on defense.

Passing game

Football has a goal-oriented nature and the factor of players able to defend with pressing and cover shadows (close passing line), diagonal passes are an important alternative to vertical and horizontal passes.

Vertical passes are considered the fastest way to gain space. The problem is that the view of the field is restricted for the pass receiver since he usually has his back to the opponent’s goal and can’t see what’s going on behind him. Also, if the receiver has an opponent on his back, he can’t turn towards goal and must play the ball back.

Horizontal passes are primarily used to shift play, move the opponent or switch sides and can also help escape pressure zones especially when a tea recovers the ball land the opponent immediately press. But lateral passes don’t directly gain any space, so there is no pressure placed on the opponent’s goal.

A diagonal pass, however, both directly gains space as well as shifts play, which means that the pass receiver has a good field of view and a safer opportunity to pass. The risk of a lack of pressure on the opponent from horizontal passes and the limited viewing angle from vertical passes are circumvented by the diagonal pass. Thus, diagonal passes combine the advantages of the vertical and horizontal passes, while neutralizing the respective drawbacks

A diagonal pass causes the opponent to make a more complex movement than is the case from horizontal and vertical passes. The opponent must adjust both their direction and their height, not just one or the other. In most cases, this requires the opposing players to behave somewhat asymmetrically. The individual defenders within the group must move slightly differently, which can lead to more errors and the creation of free spaces. A well-trained team will be able to utilize them for their own purposes.

What does this have to do specifically with the half-spaces? On the one hand, the goal-focus in the half-spaces often automatically results in diagonality. On the other hand, where the diagonal passes are played is crucial. From the middle of the field, a diagonal pass leads away from the goal; from the wings, it heads towards goal, but from an isolated zone to a player who must be turned away from the goal to accept the pass.

Again, the half-space combines two positive aspects and makes the disadvantages rudimentary. Diagonal passes go from the half-space either into the strategically important center or to the wing but with the ball aligned with the view of the field and directed towards a goal. These advantages of the diagonality in the half-space and its underlying diagonal character are among the key features of this zone.

Furthermore, diagonal passes have an expansive character; to play a successful horizontal ball over 25 meters is as difficult as playing a vertical pass 25 meters because the opponent can block the channels quickly. A diagonal pass can break these vertical and horizontal lines, which gives a long ball a greater chance to arrive safely – in other words: the result is the opportunity to play a successful long pass. Another nice side effect: a diagonal through ball from the half-space into the middle simultaneously gains horizontal and vertical space.

Quality

For these tactics, you need players who can play in those positions and follow those philosophies.

Guardiola is very prescriptive about how his players get into the final third – but once they’re there, it’s down to their own talent and instinct.

According to Guardiola, the big thing is to get the ball into the final third in the best way possible. The best areas are the ones in which they can create the most opportunities. Everything was prescribed, with clear rules and instructions. But once you are in the final third, the players have absolute freedom to decide what to do.

That’s when individual brilliance takes over, with slotted passes to break the lines, wall passes, tricks, feints, surges of pace and so on used to breach a defence.

In an excellent recent interview with France’s SFR Sport (below), Guardiola suggested that using the full backs in the half spaces had never even been part of any grand design. Rather, he had found the best way to utilise the players at his disposal.

The interviewer asked why 35% of Barcelona’s attacks had come through the middle, while only about 25% of City’s do.

“When you have Xavi, Iniesta, (Sergio) Busquets, Messi, (Cesc) Fabregas, it is normal you play in that position in the middle. When you have players here like Sane, (Raheem) Sterling and (Kevin) De Bruyne, we attack more the spaces. In football there are fundamentals, but you adapt to the players you have.”

Conclusion: Is the half-space better than the middle?

Out of sheer enthusiasm, it may seem like the half-spaces are not the second-but the most important area from a strategic perspective. Although the center has numerous benefits and is simply the closest zone to the goal, there are many similarities between the half-space and center in terms of advantages. Furthermore, the half-spaces are complemented with more variability: From the center you can play on two similar things, from the half-space two different zones, e.g. even the middle. There is also the following effect; to play from the half-space into the middle is, due to the synergy effects (the shifting of the opponents and the momentary opening of spaces for direct passes into the forwards), more effective than playing from the middle into the half-space or trying to overload within the middle two zones.

Then there is the natural diagonal character of the half-space. Central fields of view are vertical and the combination play requires you to divert yourself somewhat from the goal. In the half-space, the basic options and the eight directions of movement remain, but the field of view is directed towards goal. Also the practical negotiating of two zones and the long-range shifted ball is more effective from the half-space than the wing. In the middle there are two sides to which the ball can move two zones and in the half-space there is only one. However, in the half-space there is the potential to shift the ball over three zones to the other half-space, which is probably the most optimal location to switch play – from wing to wing the ball must travel so fast that it becomes almost impossible to control.

All in all, the discussion here is already too technical. The fact is that the half-spaces are rarely mentioned in the public media, although they belong to the standard vocabulary of Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, exceptional coaches who train positional play uses half spaces for their strategies. Each coach uses the specific areas differently based on the quality of his players, his philosophy, and his game model. This article aims to give a broad overview of the use of the half-spaces even though we are just scratching the surface here. The possibilities are endless.

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