The Rise Of Vertical Football

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Whoever has the ball is the master of the game" --Xavi

We have seen more 'masterful' performances from our team this season. Intricate passing and incisive movement has resulted in impressive possession stats of over 65%. This is our primary defence: restrict the opposition to as little of the ball as possible and you go a long way to negating their attacking threat. But we've still seen some calamitous defending when our opponents do get the ball.

Unfortunately, our attacking potency has also been somewhat diminished. Teams are starting to restrict our goal tally by defending compactly and deep. We were regularly hitting 4, 5, 6 goals a game at the dawn of the season. Now, we are struggling to get 2 or 3. It's not surprising. Rangers were a surprise package at the seasons start, with teams unsure how to cope. Now, they know what to expect.

On the continent, some of the best tacticians have been dealing with this problem for years. How to penetrate deep, compact defences when you have lost the element of surprise. Again, I look to Guardiola and Bielsa for inspiration. Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Chile, and now Bayern Munich have had to deal with teams sitting deep, restricting space. The solution is vertical football.

When teams defend compactly, they are subconsciously adopting a form of football that is concerned with the horizontal. It's quite common, and quite easy to spot. Generally, they narrow and retreat into two banks of four. Then they shuttle from side to side, depending on the placement of the ball. Its success comes down to how it forces the attacking team to adopt a horizontal attack, forcing the ball into the wide players where it's easy to defend. The shape that this creates is what Guardiola calls 'the U' - where the ball goes wide and forward, before being forced back and across to the other side. And repeat.

We are seeing this at Rangers. We struggle to penetrate and are often forced wide by the compact opposition. We go wide to Wallace or Tavernier, up to the wingers and are forced back when we can't get in behind, only to try the other flank. It creates a horizontal passivity in the attacking side.

Vertical football is a little more direct. It consists of direct, penetrating passes with the aim of breaking the lines of defence. It's not to be confused with route-one: this isn't getting the 'keeper or centre-back to 'hoof it' long! And it does not mean longer balls, but more vertical passes. There is a subtle, but significant difference between a long, aimless ball, and a long, targeted pass.

We've already seen hints of a more direct style at Rangers with more long diagonal passes to the wingers, with the aim of bypassing the defensive block of the opposition. Even at the recent Livingston game - at least early in the second half - we saw Tavernier go high and wide on the right, with the rest of the team shuttling over to the left, allowing for a long, direct pass to Tavernier, who was invariably in open space because the opposition had narrowed into a horizontal defence.

Guardiola’s teams are now more direct, but in a controlled manner - again, this does not mean long and high balls from the 'keeper or centre-back into the strikers. Guardiola looks for his teams to create situations where they can penetrate opponents rather than playing the ball from side to side; with the aim of negating the horizontal passivity and ineffective possession which afflicts possession-based sides.

Key to this vertical football is a slight tweak in formation. The 3-3-1-3. Guardiola uses it now and again for certain games, and Bielsa uses it on a regular basis, especially when manager of Chile (they still adopt a similar system under Sampaoli, a disciple of Bielsa). It's not even a new formation. Louis Van Gaal won the Champions League with a youthful Ajax side with this formation in 1995, with such players as Overmars, Kluivert, Litmanen, Davids, Rijkaard, and of course, the De Boer twins. Recently, Guardiola implemented this formation in Bayern's top-of-the-table clash against Borussia Dortmund. It resulted in a 5-1 thrashing. The line-up was:

The formation does not dictate the vertical, or direct, style, but rather just happens to lend itself very well to it. Most of you will be incredulous at me drooling, misty-eyed over a style of play that is nothing new. I am slightly drooling considering it, but I freely admit that it's nothing new. But it is a tweak to another, seemingly incompatible, possession-based game. The direct style has been implemented in many formations over the years. Most recently - 2 years ago - Jurgen Klopp's Dortmund were a great possession-based side, but played an incredibly direct style. Inspired by the tactics used by Guardiola against Dortmund, My mind drifted to considering a Rangers side utlising this formation:

A variation on Xavi's quote is for the Chess fans. Kasparov always said if one controls the centre, one controls the board, and therefore the game. The 3-3-1-3 allows for another midfielder in the centre, creating a combination that would be very difficult to negate for the defending side. It could completely overload the middle making any attack difficult, but it also stops the opposition from dominating the centre. The formation also allows for an extra man at the back: a three-man defence, providing extra cover on the counters. Another change I spotted at the Livingston game was a shift - during play - to a back-three when in phase one. Tavernier dropped back alongside Ball and Kiernan, with Wallace bombing forward. It allowed another passing option for when Foderingham had the ball, when Livingston often pushed three men up to man-mark - a sight we'll probably see more of. These changes still allow for proper wingers.

The 3-3-1-3 creates 4 horizontal lines of personnel, which allows for greater options on the vertical plain, and allows for quick transitions. A player can bypass a line without passing too far, and risk loosing control. A player has more options with which to surprise the opposition, and can be more effective in breaking the lines of defence.

Another benefit is allowing overloads. A quick, direct pass to the number 10 can break the lines of defence, and when combined with runners concentrating of one area can allow for an overload. Even if a team is doubling-up on a winger, the number 10, the RCM and the RW, can overload the the flank, creating a 3v2. Again, there were hints of Rangers trying to overload certain areas against Livingston: Oduwa drifted over to McKays flank, Law drifting wide to cover the departed Oduwa and combined with Holt and Wallace on occasion - albeit unsuccessfully.

There are also defensive benefits. Vertical compactness - as a result of the 3-3-1-3 - means that any side trying to attack us will have to force the ball through more lines of defence. Instead of just passing through 2 lines, they would have to pass through 3 or 4, making it very risky, and easier to recover possession.

Or, with the central ground firmly in our control, it would force the opposition wide, into inefficient attacks. It is much more manageable for a defensive set-up to force the opponent wide where we can over-power them. Moreover, harking back to Warburton's statistical sensibilities, it is generally inefficient for an attacking side to score by crossing the ball into the box: that is why Rangers invariably play corners short.

Finally, having a compact formation and overloads in central areas, it allows a team to press in greater numbers, and further up the pitch where ball recovery can be deadly to defenders out of position. Again, Klopp's Dortmund were masters of direct play, but incorporated a form of transition pressing, whereby they would press, in numbers, high up the pitch hoping to recover the ball when opponents were out of position.

This is only a hypothetical musing. It is highly unlikely that Rangers will be incorporating these ideas any time soon. Regardless, there have been hints of some variations in our play: whether overloads on certain flanks; a change to a back-three; or a more vertical, direct style of play. These subtle changes are encouraging. It makes me hopeful that a Rangers side in the future could be a tactically astute proposition for any side.

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