Emergency Supports: Connecting The Team
Recently, I rewatched the documentary, 'Take the Ball, Pass the Ball', which was a detailed dissection of FC Barcelona when Pep Guardiola was the head coach from 2008-2012. During one of the final moments of the documentary, Guardiola said,
"People become managers for all kinds of different reasons. My motivation is tactics, that's why I became a coach, to dissect the game and find solutions. The basic concept which Johan Cruyff injected into our veins many years ago was that doing the simple things well gave you a 75% chance of winning. And one of the simplest things in football is passing the ball. After that things get more complicated! But the pass is what unites the group. The ball is moved around the pitch from one player to another, everyone participates in the overall game plan by making that pass. That's what we worked on from day one."
The statement that spoke the loudest to me was the one I highlighted in bold. The reason being is because yes, passing the ball is a simple action on its own, however, doing it within the context of principles and sub-principles, fundamentals, team structures, player qualities, environmental constraints, game plans, opposition qualities/game plan and many other factors, passing becomes a lot more complicated. More specifically, the one main question that came to my mind after listening to Guardiola in the documentary was, passing the ball one time is relatively straight forward, but how do you continue playing the next pass?
Each week, there are many clips or highlights floating around the internet from games in which teams start their attacking moves with their goalkeeper and arriving into the final third. The goal that inspired me to write this was the one Manchester City scored against Arsenal on October 17. Certainly there were many important actions that ultimately led to City scoring, however, the actions from Rodrigo and Cancelo stood out to me the most. Had they not positioned to provide emergency support to Sterling, Aguero, and Mahrez, the probability of City arriving to Arsenal's penalty box with the ball under control would be less likely.
When in possession of the ball, the role of emergency support serves multiple functions to the team, however, in my opinion, one of the most important functions is take up a position behind the possessor, guaranteeing a simple passing option to connect the next pass. By positioning behind the ball, the player providing emergency support will generally be 'facing forward', increasingly the likelihood of playing a forward pass after receiving.
Now, let's examine the move that resulted in City's goal, beginning at 22:03 in the game.
Here is the goal:
The goal appears to begin from a great pass from Dias, however, had these three actions not happened before Aguero received freely in midfield, the probability of the goal happening would presumably be less.
The first action I want to discuss (not shown in the highlight clip) is at 22:16 in the game when Ederson (Manchester City #31) plays a line splitting pass to Sterling (Manchester City #7), who is then surrounded by four Arsenal players inside City's defensive half.
As the pass is played into Sterling, Rodrigo (Manchester City #16) stayed connected to the play, positioning behind Sterling, offering a clear emergency support in order to 'connect the next pass'. By positioning in good depth behind Sterling and away from the opponents, Rodrigo was able to receive freely, setting up the next action.
The second action in succession happened at 22:23, when Rodrigo was able to play a forward pass after receiving from Sterling towards Aguero (Manchester City #10) moving to support the play.
As the pass was traveling to Aguero, Gabriel (Arsenal #6) reduced the space quickly and Saka (Arsenal #7) moved to create a defensive 2v1 against Aguero. In order to 'connect the next pass', Cancelo (Manchester City #27) adjusted his positioning behind Aguero to remain connected, while far enough from the opponents to play the next pass to Dias (Manchester City #3).
Once Dias received the backwards pass from Cancelo, he was able to play through the lines towards Mahrez (Manchester City #26), which helped Manchester City progress beyond six Arsenal players.
The third action happened at 22:30 when Mahrez received the pass from Dias, as he was quickly pressed by Tierney (Arsenal #3).
As the pass traveled to Mahrez, Cancelo quickly moved to support him and then held his position 3-4 steps away from Mahrez, being in a position to receive or to quickly counter-press should Mahrez lose possession. Ultimately, Mahrez did not set the ball towards Cancelo, but it could be said that the emergency support option gave more confidence towards Mahrez to use his quality and help the team progress towards the final third. The idea is that in this case, the emergency support helped 'connect the next pass' by not even receiving the ball.
Finally, after a well coordinated attack, City was able to score the only goal of the game.
Upon reflection, there are many factors that must be taken into consideration when trying to 'connect the next pass'. Often times individual quality such as a pass or dribble catches our attention, however soccer is a contextual sport. So, rather than simply focusing on those technical actions, perhaps it is worth analyzing the context in which those actions took place to better understand how or why they happened. A friend and colleague of mine, Camilo Speranza once said, the roles of each player changes when the ball moves. In soccer, every player has a role to play, and the role of providing emergency support to the possessor should not be overlooked or undervalued.
Thanks for reading.