Split Centre-Backs and the need for a Pivot

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The prevailing mood watching Rangers these days is invariably one of confidence and excitement. Ibrox has been packed to the rafters every other week, and a strong contingent eagerly travel to those far off places up and down the country. Rangers fans have been treated thus far to a brand of football often foreign to Scotland: fast, dynamic and relentless. But with the increase in positive play, there has been an increase in nerves and tension during one particular phase of play: when the centre-backs split and the 'keeper has the ball at his feet. Grimacing faces anticipate mistakes, followed by a collective gasp or relieved sighs when big Foderingham miss-places the ball, or safely manages to pass the ball on to a team-mate.

There is a preponderance of complaints in this country when 'keepers mess around with the ball in defence; when the ball goes astray, or leads to a chance for the opposition, one will find a section shaking their heads and pointing their fingers, railing against the very notion of 'keepers attempting anything other than lumping it long. It is an old-fashioned view that 'keepers -- and defenders -- should not be attempting anything complicated in defense. The old-guard go apoplectic when stray passes lead to chances.

Despite these old-fashioned views, it is surely not in doubt from modern audiences that this is the right way to play? Split centre-backs have been pioneered by those sides respected and applauded for playing football the ‘right way’ -- Guardiola's Barcelona and Bayern Munich; the Spanish National Side; and any side that Marcelo Bielsa has coached in recent years, like Chile and Athletic Bilbao. It involves an inherent trust of the ball playing abilities of your central pairing and 'keeper.

Making the shift from the long ball to passing is difficult. Not only does it require technical ability, but it takes bravery, confidence and unwavering faith from the management team. Mistakes will be made, but they need to be endured. The best example of a traditional long ball team making this change is Wales. It was the confidence and faith shown by Gary Speed, and then Chris Coleman, that forced Wales into a good passing side, enabling them to go from 116 in the world to 9 (with a little help from Gareth Bale).

Wales' Dutch number two for Speed's tenure, Raymond Verheijen, suggests that the methods used were not easy to implement in a side that was not used to passing the ball from the back:

“We started with the position of the players and we forced them to keep passing in training and competitive games. [...] As a head coach you have to be strong. Accept that you will lose, sometimes you lose two or three nil, then at some stage the players will improve.”

By splitting, the two centre-backs occupy positions vacated by the full-backs to the left and right of the penalty box providing the 'keeper with two passing points (LCB and RCB) by which to move into Phase 1. The full-backs also then have freedom to push forward from a position of possession. The two centre-backs have more space to pick a pass into Phase 2, with 5 potential passing points (RB, RCM, DM, LCM, LB). The primary benefit of splitting the centre-backs is to facilitate ball retention in a controlled way. A lumped ball up-field removes this aspect of control, leaving the team with a 50/50 chance of winning an aerial dual to retain possession.

The secondary benefit is what it can force the opposition to do. When the 2 centre-backs have possession it can force the opposition to press. Two centre-backs are relatively easy to press, if the opposition have two strikers or are well drilled. However, if worked quickly, it drags the opposition out leaving more space for passing into Phase 2, with 5 potential passing points against 4 opposition midfielders. Of course, if the opposition decide to sit back, then the team in possession have time and space on the ball to build slowly from the back; Phase 1 is easy to reach, but Phase 2 is a little trickier.

This has worked well for us thus far. Teams have tended not to press as high, allowing us to retain possession relatively easily. However, when we eventually come up against better opposition we can be sure they will look to press a little higher, trying to disrupt our possession. We've seen teams press sometimes, forcing the centre-backs to pass back to Foderingham, forcing a few grimacing faces from fans. This will only become more common -- the next game against St Johnstone could show the difference.

Ostensibly, we play 4-3-3, but with our possession and pressing game, we really end up more like a 2-5-3, with both full-backs acting as wingers. This creates an obvious risk. Time and time again we have seen teams defend deep and break with pace and purpose, exposing our centre-backs. We have lost a few goals already this season and could/should have lost more. Again, a better calibre of opposition will cause more problems. It is with this in mind that a Pivot is needed.

The player that most encapsulates the role of the Pivot is Sergio Busquets. Dropping deep, Busquets vacates the default defensive midfield position to create a temporary back 3, which increases the horizontal space across the back line, providing Valdes with 3 potential passing points (LCB, Pivot, RCB). Moreover, by dropping back, Busquets creates massive amounts of space for Xavi and Iniesta in midfield. With Busquets between the centre-backs, the 3-man defence are able to spread play effectively, while also covering that central point which is a key space for opposition counter attacks.

Rangers unfortunately do not have a natural Pivot. Our three-man midfield are naturally more attacking-type players. They rotate position so one drops deeper than the others but, as we have seen time and time again this year, we are very vulnerable on the counter, suggesting that the defensive midfielder is not coming deep enough.

However, somewhat more optimistically, Eustace could be the answer. Eustace is a natural defensive midfielder: a good passer of the ball, strong in defence, and doesn't roam about. It would be easy for him to drop deep to create a 3-man defense while in possession, providing Foderingham with 3 potential passing points, while also allowing more space for our midfield and full-backs. He would also provide cover in the central area to block a counter-attack.

There is little doubt that splitting our centre-backs is the right way to play. It has worked well thus far, whether opponents press or sit back. However, it will only get more difficult when we come up against better opposition, and our vulnerability on the counter will only get more exposed. We need a Pivot; one that can create a 3-man defence to increase our ball retention, negating any pressing tactic by the opposition; one that can drag opponents out of position, creating more space for our midfielders, full-backs and attackers; and, crucially, one that can cover our defensive line when teams counter.

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