The Dribbling Center-Back Is Next Tactical Evolution


Every half-decade, tactics change as coaches constantly seek a cutting edge. Long gone are the days when tactics shifted only every few decades as coaches utilized a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 with little tactical nuance. Guardiola changed that with his breakthrough 15 years ago at Barcelona due to his hyper-focus on tactical superiority. Combine that with the advancement of the information age, where everyone has access to the latest coaching methods, and what you get is a boom of intelligent and tactically sophisticated coaches at every level of the game. 

With that said, I think the next evolution of the game will revolve around the center-back position.

That evolution will look like center backs who are ball-carrying specimens with the license to dribble from the back line to beat the press and create an attacking overload. We've seen spurts of it like Frenkie De Jong at Ajax and Joel Matip in moments at Liverpool, but we have yet to see a team incorporate this into their tactical set-up long-term. As in actively creating this situation for their center backs through 90 minutes. In my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the loss of the occasional turnover when taking this action.

Think about it; we were always heading in this direction.

Most of history, until about a decade ago, was marked with big and physical center backs whose sole job was to win headers and hoof the ball down the field. The stereotype was true- the center-backs of old were by far the worst outfield players on the pitch with the ball at their feet. That changed with Guardiola and Barcelona. Suddenly, center-backs had to be just as technical and good at passing the ball as anyone else on the field, as they were the first line of his attack. The term ball playing center-back was coined, and practically overnight, center-backs who couldn't perform the technical requirements of modern tactics were expelled from the top clubs.

The result was that most teams at the top level copied this and became possession heavy as they now also had players at every position who were great on the ball and could pin the opposition deep in their half. Their superiority lasted about a decade until 2020.

About three years ago, clever coaches developed their counter-tactic to the possession-heavy teams that played with high lines. By employing quick forwards in-behind and vertical progression once they regained the ball, coaches could neutralize the impact of conceding possession for most of the game. Suddenly it became common to see strange results from teams who were usually successful by dominating possession. 

The best example was the Aston Villa and Liverpool game of 2020. Liverpool was fresh from a Champions League trophy a year before and had just won the latest premier league trophy. Aston Villa, on the other hand, had barely survived relegation by a point. Those two sides met early in the following season, and despite having 70% possession and completing more than twice as many passes, Liverpool lost. And not only did they lose, but they got blown out by a 7-2 score line to a far inferior team on paper. Aston Villa killed them on the counter by exploiting their high line. In that same season, Leicester City dispatched Manchester City 5-2, and Bayern Munich lost 4-1 to Hoffenheim, all games where the team with over 70% possession got blown out.

Then came the next tactical evolution to counter this counter-tactic. Possession-heavy teams attempt to mitigate the risk of their high line with two changes to their system. 

The first is known as "Rest-defense." Rest defense refers to the shape a team will take while in possession to snuff out any potential counterattacks. Arteta's Arsenal teams are one of the best at this. In the final-third, they create a 'wall' around the opposition's box so upon a turnover, their players are in proximity to either win the ball back, force a bad pass, or commit a foul before a player can launch a counter.

The second change is the prioritization of athletic center backs who are quick and explosive enough to win foot races against a forward in open space in case a counter does occur.

And in connection to this topic, that means the first wave of tactical evolution 15 years ago created technically proficient center-backs, and the second wave, which we are currently in, prioritizes pace in the back line.

That means the next generation of center-backs will be technically gifted and athletically explosive. The natural progression is they start using those gifts on the ball, opening the door for a new tactical evolution with two distinct benefits.

The first tactical benefit is how to counter the high-pressing tactics most teams now utilize. In the same way, there are advantages to playing through a high press for the numerical advantage it offers in the opposition's half; the same benefits exist if the press works. With the first wave of tiki-taka, well-coached teams with technical excellence would tear their opponent apart by playing through their basic pressing schemes. Well, defensive tactics have evolved and caught up to now, where organized teams can set up pressing traps that suffocate the attempts of even the most technical teams to play out of the back.

Well that's where the evolution of the center back comes in. One way to beat the press is to create a numerical overload, and what better way to generate numerical superiority than by beating a player 1-on-1.

The center-back is uniquely equipped to do this because the opposing forward will take an exaggerated angle to force the center-back to move in a specific direction and activate a pressing trap. The prevailing thought is that this will invite a ball the pressuring team wants. But that entire method falls on its face if, rather than playing the pass, the center-back carries the ball, eliminating the forward, who is in a vulnerable position to defend a dribble. That one movement is powerful in destabilizing the press.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

*Ben White at Leeds

*Jakub Kiwior at Zilina

*Dayot Upamecano at Leipzig

*Ben White at Leeds

The second advantage is what a dribbling center-back offers as part of an attack. 

Away from beating the press, a center-back with these qualities can be an asset in creating goal-scoring opportunities. Teams are so preoccupied with tracking fullback runs, following roaming midfielders, and accounting for floating forwards that the center-back receives no attention. This opens the door for center-backs to receive the ball with momentum and space, creating the most difficult situation in the sport- defending a player running with speed, as all it takes is one subtle change of direction to evade a tackle.

A well-timed ball-carrying run from the center-back can collapse everything a team wants to do defensively. If someone steps out of the midfield to stop the center-back, you leave space for someone to exploit. If you decide to stay home and let the center-back continue carrying the ball, you've got someone running with momentum into your box. And if you make this decision a half second too late, a change of direction eliminates your tackle. It's a pick-your-poison kind of dilemma with no way to defend both at the same time. 

Here are a few examples from different levels:

*Xavier Zengue at University of Dayton

*Joel Matip at Liverpool

*Jakub Kiwior at Zilina

*Joel Matip at Liverpool

And to mitigate the risk, the backline collapses behind the ball-carrying center back. It is no different than the movement backlines already make when someone steps out to engage in a challenge they may lose. You could also deploy a back-3 which naturally provides the cover of two additional center-backs.

And if you think this evolution is limited to just the men's game, you're mistaken. Here is Emily Madril, formerly of Florida State, doing it at the highest level of college soccer.

*Emily Madril at Florida State University

In the last 15 years, we've seen Strikers evolve from the cumbersome goalscorers of old who relied on strength to a generation of false-9 architects who float in-between lines. We saw wingers shift from the old days when they drove down the line and whipped in crosses to a new preference of playing on the same side of their weak foot to drift inside and shoot. We've seen fullbacks migrate from being used to create width to drifting into center midfield to create overloads. And we've seen the near-extinction of the traditional 10 who floated all over the field with complete freedom, as modern teams choose to generate chances through tactics, not the 10.

Perhaps the one position excluded from this paradigm shift was the center back, but that will soon change. I believe we will see the best teams in the world employing radical ball-carrying center-backs who destabilize presses and defenses and play a vital role in creating goal-scoring opportunities.

And if you think it's too risky, that it'll never catch on, remember that the same was said when Guardiola demanded that his center-backs and goalkeepers start playing from deep all those years ago. Then he started winning every trophy, and the perception soon changed.

It'll take courage to employ a dribbling center back or two in the same lineup, but I believe it is the future of how the game should be played.

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