The men playing in the pockets are causing more tactical problems than ever this season and Premier League managers know it. Adam Bate looks at why finding the so-called ‘half spaces’ has become the biggest tactical issue for the top bosses…
"We discussed space the whole time. It was all about making space and coming into space." - Barry Hulshoff of the 1970s Ajax side [Brilliant Orange]
The importance of the space can be overlooked. There is a tendency to describe games in terms of individual battles. That last word itself is an example of the military terminology of football. Goalkeepers caught in no-man's land. Managers with transfer war chests.
But Hulshoff and his Ajax team-mate Johan Cruyff offer a persuasive alternative. Their vision is of a game that is actually decided in favour of the team who successfully avoid such contests. The side that uses skill and savvy to elude the opponent in order to win.
It's the search for space that is key.
That has rarely been more apparent than in the Premier League this season. Antonio Conte's Chelsea are on course to regain the trophy thanks in large part to the coach's success in using a 3-4-3 formation to unleash star man Eden Hazard.
Elsewhere, there is David Silva and Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. They all share game-changing qualities but, interestingly, not a position. Their coaches strive to come up with shapes and formation that best free them on the pitch.
A brief history
It was ever thus. While 4-4-2 was the default shape in English football going into the Premier League era - even Arsene Wenger admitting that "no other formation is as efficient at covering space" - formations have always been in flux.
The No 10 role was a reaction to that, dropping off the front. Coupled with more mobile forwards it was enough to give Arsenal a key advantage in the early years of Wenger's reign thanks to the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.
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"Arsenal have done very well against the 4-4-2," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "Henry doesn't play through the middle, he goes into space, and Bergkamp drops off. Henry needs space to play. If you give it to him he destroys you, but if you deny him space you've got a chance."
In his first spell at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho gained a major defensive advantage against the 4-4-2 by creating a triangle with Claude Makelele the free man in the space at the base of his midfield. "There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop this," he explained.
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The reaction to these changes brought the rise of the 4-2-3-1 formation. Briefly ubiquitous in the Premier League, it was also used by the top three teams at the 2010 World Cup. It remains the most obvious attempt to free up the creative player in the No 10 role.
Hence Mesut Ozil drifting around between the lines for Arsenal, hoping to provoke uncertainty among the opposition. Should a midfielder drop deeper to cover him or does the centre-back engage and risk exposing a gaping hole in the back line?
A new solution
The problem is that this central area can become congested, particularly with many teams playing two holding midfielders. So where is the space against the 4-2-3-1? Chelsea's 3-4-3 formation succeeds in getting the wide forwards into positions that are difficult to deal with.
Conte switched formation for various reasons, not least defensive stability, but it's had the effect of freeing Hazard from defensive duties up against the full-back. It's no coincidence that the Belgian has emerged once again as arguably the Premier League's best player.
Hazard is operating in the space between full-back, centre-back and midfielder. Perhaps that explains why he appears to have been targeted on a rotating basis by so many different opponents. Playing in the space left in a 4-2-3-1 has made him a tricky man to mark.
This 3-4-3 is not the only way that sides seek to get their key men into space. Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have played as "free eights" for Man City. "The intention is to play from the back and then scroll it to me and David, so we can be five against four," explained De Bruyne.
Pep Guardiola is even known to divide the pitch into zones and places huge emphasis on an area that German coaches have long focused upon - the "halbraum" or half spaces that offer greater possibilities than the flanks but more freedom than the busy central zones.
Jurgen Klopp is a keen exponent. When the Liverpool boss gave Daniel Sturridge a piece of paper to hand to team-mates during the game against Southampton in January it was to change the system in order to find the "half space for [Adam] Lallana and Coutinho".
The half space
Klopp has since said it is "really not easy to defend that position" and so important do the likes of he and Guardiola regard this space that the identity of the player occupying it is not of primary importance. Certainly, it is not only reserved for the traditional playmakers.
Guardiola recognised that full-backs are so often the free men and can penetrate this area by underlapping the wingers ahead of them. The term "half-space libero" was coined to describe David Alaba's role at Bayern Munich. Philipp Lahm performed a similar function.
That explains Klopp's thinking in asking erstwhile midfielder James Milner to operate at left-back for Liverpool, despite the player's initial reluctance. "This kind of full-back in the team now, it's much more like a midfield player," Klopp told Monday Night Football.
"They have to play in the half spaces, they have to play really high, they are the wingers or central midfielders sometimes. The rule is to be an option in terms of getting a pass or be protection. If you are an option you can be high or you can be in the half space."
Juan Mata once lauded Cruyff for his "intelligent use of the ball and the spaces" and full-backs being asked to find that space to attack the opposition certainly sounds an awful lot like total football. The real battle is the battle to find space. Hulshoff would surely approve.
Individual brilliance still matters, of course. Hazard's quality makes him far better equipped than Milner or anyone else to take advantage of time on the ball. But even Hazard can be ineffective when he finds himself in the wrong system or the wrong areas of the pitch.
It's the half space that has helped him to flourish and Conte's formation change that has helped his star player to find them. Guardiola, Klopp and the rest are still working on solutions of their own.
It seems the space race is set to continue.