Door 23: Offensive Pressing-Trap Players (using Iniesta and Messi in 2011)
The phrase sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? We are used to thinking of pressing traps as a visual effect from the collective when opponents are lured into playing passes into seemingly opened spaces within the defensive formation, only to have multiple defending players collapse on the ball to win possession.
That is the correct idea.
However, there are sometimes players which arrive in football who have amazing talents while in possession of the ball. Players who can purposely trigger the opponent’s pressing traps, only to expose them as they collapse while leaving other spaces open. They are like offensive pressing traps for the opponent – they trick them into closing their traps for the benefit of the offense.
Explain the Konzept
The two best examples I can think of for this concept are Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta. It is no coincidence that arguably the greatest team to ever exist (see video) had both of these players at the same time and in their ideal positions to collapse the defense.
Playmakers who can both dribble and pass the ball (and score goals in the case of Messi) can best collapse the defense when they enter the space in front of the opponent’s defensive line through dribbling or receiving the ball there and then dribbling for a slightly longer period of time.
Once they have entered this space, they have the options to pass to a teammate or shoot on the goal. Generally, the opponent will immediately pressure the ball to squeeze the ball out of the most dangerous offensive zone (what most coaches would call “between the lines”).
The options to dribble past multiple players or to shoot from distance don’t seem so efficient here, so the best idea is typically to pass to a runner. To properly support such playmakers, they need movement-strikers (or other positions) to make runs behind the defense.
Positioning between opponent defenders off the ball or making runs past the defense serve two main purposes: they either pin back the defenders from attacking the ball carrier or they give an open passing option toward an immediate shot on goal if the defender leaves this position. If the opponent stays with the strikers, then the playmaker can shoot or dribble even closer to the goal before creating the same dilemma as above.
If we think specifically about the case of Messi and Iniesta, they were both positioned between the lines AND in the halfspaces (a position I called “mixed-position” in 2013). From these positions they can receive the ball and then dribble diagonally toward the goal.
Not only are they collapsing the defense and midfield as they are attacking the last line of defense, they are not exactly in the center where it is more difficult to play forward due to defensive pressure and angle toward the goal.
Also, they are not on the wings where it is difficult to have the same collapsing effects on the defense or offensive impact due to the distance from the goal, but in the halfspaces – a perfect environment for them.
Iniesta would be in the left offensive halfspace and Messi would be in the right. They can both dribble diagonally toward goal with using their dominant foot cutting inside while keeping the ball on the opposite side of the body from the opponent and making it easier to pass with the inside of the foot in any direction.
At this point they’ve reached their ideal “creative positions” where they are dribbling at the defense without pressure stopping them to play forward and they have strikers running behind for them.
Once you’ve played your offensive players into “creative positions” as I like to call it, the offensive action is more or less done. All that is needed is the final pass and the shot, and that depends on the reaction of the defense and the quality of the players.
Of course, the assist and the finish are very important, but as a coach the main goal is to bring the players into these situations so that they can execute it. Guardiola has a famous quote where he told his Barcelona team “I can bring you to the final 3rd, but from then on its your job to score the goal.”
I mentioned above that another effective way to reach this creative position is to dribble into it. I gave the example of Messi and Iniesta being already positioned in this space and then receiving the ball, but that was not always the case. Guardiola’s Barcelona was far less strict positionally than many think – they did not keep a constant positional structure across the entire field in their positional play.
Often, to keep the ball under pressure they needed their playmakers to drop out of their high positions and deeper into midfield to overload the opponents press, maintain possession, and then look to progress through the opponent formation again.
As Messi and Iniesta would drop deeper into central midfield next to Busquets and Xavi, the 4 of them would begin moving off of the ball freely, combining passes, and using dribbles to bring the fall forward and break past the opponent midfield line. This often resulted in Messi or Iniesta taking on an opponent midfielder with a dribble and bypassing them to enter the creative position.
This has a bit more of an extreme effect. The more a player dribbles the ball, the more time the ball hasn’t moved a large distance (relative to a pass), and typically the more opponent players coming to pressure the ball. Dribbling the ball for longer periods tends to bring more and more opponents to the ball, which is why many youth coaches seek to avoid their young players keeping the ball for long periods as it almost certainly results in loss of the ball.
When Iniesta or Messi dribble past the opponent midfield and then begin to dribble toward the opponent defensive line, this inevitably results in a longer period of time which the ball has been dribbled by 1 player – and so there is normally a far more compact opponent and more players coming toward the ball in this case.
For players who are offensive pressing traps it is an even more desirable situation, as less space and time due to more opponents doesn’t normally bother them – but it opens their teammates to an even higher degree!
Every team is different in how it is structured and where they move their players, but generally the movement strikers and wing players should be positioned in a way where they pin the opponent defenders and open these central spaces for the playmakers to either receive the ball within or dribble into as a result of overloading central midfield a bit deeper.
If we look at the case of Barcelona under Guardiola when Messi and Iniesta played in the offensive halfspaces, there were 2 main ways Guardiola accomplished this: Using two narrow wingers and two high fullbacks or using 1 central striker and 2 wider wingers.
The two narrow wingers would position themselves between the outside backs and central backs of the opponent while the fullbacks would position themselves higher on the wings between the opponent wide midfielders and outside backs.
This normally occupied the defensive line and the wing players of the opponents – creating a nice pocket of space just outside the opponent’s central midfielders, which could be exposed using a central midfield overload of 4 players such as Iniesta, Messi, Busquets, and Xavi.
The team would then circulate the ball and expose the reactions of the opponents, ideally, they can get the ball to Messi and Iniesta to dribble at the opponent center backs and collapse the defense. If they couldn’t because the opponent closed these spaces with narrower positioning, then the team could look for the opened fullbacks on the wings or the strikers in behind the defense.
In the second option, the central striker would position between the two central defenders while the wingers positioned outside the opponent formation on the wings, similar to the positioning of the high fullbacks in the previous example. In this case the team would keep it’s midfield diamond, and the team would play with 3 defenders.
The central defenders are pinned back and so are the outside back and potentially even the wingers of the opponent depending on how they play. The midfield diamond goes to work to exploit its advantage in central midfield using either a stricter positioning where Iniesta and Messi wait for the pass in the offensive halfspaces, or more fluid positioning where Iniesta and Messi drop deeper next to Xavi and Busquets to bring the ball past the opponent midfielders in a different fashion.
We later saw a more extreme version of this back 3 when Fabregas would play the central striker role, and he would alternate between the striker and playmaker position with Messi or the both of them would drop into midfield to create an overload of 5 central midfielders while the wingers kept their high positioning and the back 3 were spread a bit wider and higher to occupy the outsides of the opponent formation.
This phase where Barcelona managed to play 5 central players at once to play through the middle and collapse defenses was arguably their peak and the peak of positional play football.
Drilling the Konzept
So how do we teach our younger players to become efficient in such a role? I will provide two sample drills I have used which I found to be effective, but it is important to remember that one must have the players with the talents for such a role (as a coach must always build a team based on their player’s talents) and that one must encourage the players to dribble in difficult situations even after multiple mistakes. It is hard to execute this role.
Messi loses the ball very often still, but as a youth player he lost the ball even more and his coaches kept encouraging him and allowing him to re-play situations where he made mistakes while in “creative positions” so that he could learn how to do it better.
It is hard to control a ball with one’s feet at such a precise level, so the players will make many mistakes. Let them try and retry again. Once they learn to dribble in tight spaces and find the right passes as the defenders begin to collapse onto them, they will be an impactful piece to the team’s offense.
We can start with this smaller-sided drill. This drill takes the individual and forces them to play against multiple defensive players while having smaller goals around the player as passing options. It is more common to see coaches train dribbling in even numbered situations (1 vs. 1) or in overloaded situations (such as having a neutral player joining the possession team), but we rarely see offenses being trained in underloaded situations when looking to teach playmaking. This drill underloads the single player on the ball, forcing him to dribble and attract his multiple opponents while he still has multiple passing options – just like in a creative position.
This can be quite an intense small-sided drill so make sure the time doesn’t extend too long before giving a small break, while repetitions would normally be higher. Keep the small goals in a realistic distance from the dribbler that would fit the match when it comes to looking for slipped passes behind the defense. You may add players or goals as you see fit, I generally look to have 1 more passing option than there are defenders – so they cannot simply guard 1 goal each.
The drill begins as the coach plays the ball into the player inside the triangle. They must hold the ball at least for 2-3 seconds before making a pass (enough time for pressure to arrive and force a dribble) so that they cannot pass immediately into an open goal. This forces the player to dribble in an underloaded situation and scan around to see what the best option is, adjusting the positioning, body position, and dribbling as needed.
If the player finds the open goal they get 1 point. If the player loses the ball the opponent keeps the ball and they have 10 passes to try and connect as many passes through the triangle as possible. Each connected pass is 1 point for them, so keep the triangle smaller to make it harder for them as they have the advantage. If the central player steals the ball and then scores, then the central player earns 2 points.
In this final example we look at a situation which resembles very closely a team trying to break down an opponent 4-4-2 block. You have the movement-strikers and high fullbacks pinning the defensive and wide players while creating pockets of space for the playmakers.
The objective is to get the ball into the playmakers and then create a valuable offensive action from it whether that’s an assist or a pass behind the defense which leads to a cross for the goal, the playmaker should look to set the goal up.
The defending team tries to win the ball, and counter onto the smaller goals to offer continuation of phases through the drill. The offensive team would counterpress immediately when losing the ball and look to continue the attack. Both teams are awarded 1 point per goal, and each repetition begins with the coach playing a ball into the deep central midfielders behind the playmakers.
The duration can be longer for such a drill when compared to the first drill, while the amount of repetitions can be lower due to the longer time for each repetition. The small goals are positioned in the halfspaces for counter-attacks.
1 large central goal wouldn’t work without a goalkeeper, and wing goals are not realistic for this situation – so two smaller unoccupied halfspace goals fit the situation. If the offensive team is struggling it is okay to add 1 player in the deeper circulation zones.
Suggest to the wide midfielders of the defending team to focus on defending the outside backs, while the back line defends the narrow strikers. This way the spaces for your playmakers open up more naturally and they get a higher amount of repetitions, as it is the goal to train these players specifically.
As the defense start getting exposed through the middle and become more compact as a reaction, the playmakers will have a tougher time receiving the ball or getting through – but it’s still possible to collapse the defense. The circulation of the team may naturally move toward the wing however.
With such a drill that leaves a lot of room for the players to make decisions, the defending team will begin to try to find solutions to what the offense is doing. When a drill resembles a real match quite closely and allows the players to go through multiple phases of the game (offense, defense, counterattacks, counterpressing, etc.) while the coach gives the formations and general objectives, it normal for more variable situations than what the coach intended to arise.
As mentioned earlier in this piece, teach the team how to exploit opponents who try to close the space for your playmakers (now you might have an overload on the wing, etc.). If you can teach them principles of football which apply to a thinking, moving, opponent defense then they will be better prepared for the variable approaches they see on the weekend when trying to free their playmakers.
Specific patterns may get more of what you want and may be needed at times, but in such an unpredictable sport with intelligent opponents it is difficult to create the exact patterned outcomes you are looking for on the weekend and making the opponent do the same or similar things each time.
Opponents will change so the players must read this and create goals in other ways. If the playmakers are struggling to get any repetitions whatsoever, consider adding a rule such as the wide midfielders must man-mark the outside backs in order to open up the middle.
Players with the level of quality which Messi and Iniesta have are rare. You may find only a few players which could compare to them in each generation. But there are many young players out in the world right now who have playmaking talent, and it’s important that we as youth coaches give them the most ideal environment we can.
Give them situations where they must dribble through tight spaces, collapse defenses, find the open pass through the defense, or shoot on the goal. With high amounts of repetition, encouragement, and a high level of play the players can begin to grow more in the qualities necessary for playmakers who can break down a defense.
Iniesta for example speaks of learning football in the street, and how each time he had to find a new answer for the tight defenses he faced. He had many different situations and found ways to dribble or pass through them, this type of environment is ideal for learning.
The best thing we can do as coaches is to put the players in the best role and system we can to fit them, giving them an ideal environment and playing level to grow. After that we seek to improve them through teaching them the game and letting them get a high amount of repetitions in.
We should be in service to the youth players, listen to their thoughts, and look to nurture them as much as possible in order for them to grow and hopefully become great and talented players. This, along with teaching character through the culture we create at our clubs will influence them as positively as possible as players and people, which is the ultimate success.