What Possession Shapes Do Europe’s Top Teams Use?
Top teams’ ability to progress the ball becomes increasingly scrutinized in modern football due to the continued improvement of the defensive systems they face. This analysis outlines the buildup strategies of seven of Europe’s elite teams, and briefly discusses some of the trends observed within.
Written by Josh Manley.
Defending and pressing in modern football continues to improve from a team tactical point of view. Off the ball, teams are generally more compact and better organized than they ever have been.
In the Premier League for example, the likes of Wolves and Sheffield United show that you do not need world-class defenders to have a strong defensive system. Comparing their defensive systems to teams of a similar league position from just a decade ago shows exactly how much defending has advanced.
The defensive scheme of the opponent partly determines what possibilities there are for the team on the ball, meaning that as defensive systems improve, the buildup strategies also need to evolve. This is perhaps especially the case for ‘elite’ teams, who are usually likely to find themselves spending more time in possession, and therefore should look to optimize what they do with the ball.
Quique Setién’s experiments with a 3-5-2 system at the start of his tenure as Barcelona manager have already been documented. The back three and strong overloading When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. of the middle by a trio of midfielders and two dropping strikers gave them plenty of stability when circulating the ball. Despite this, they struggled to penetrate defenses due to their lack of ability to threaten through width and depth.
This issue is compounded by the squad available, in that Barcelona perhaps lack the presence of a fast attacker offering width and depth in the way that players like Pedro, David Villa or Neymar previously did. Ansu Fati is a potential candidate here but is still very young, while Ousmane Dembele continues to struggle with injury.
After those early games, Barcelona have switched to a 4-3-3 formation, a change which has partially but not completely solved the aforementioned issues with their attacks. Barcelona now primarily build with two players in the first line and have more presence against the opponent’s defensive line compared to with the 3-5-2 system.
Barcelona in their combination focused 4-3-3 shape.
Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation still carries quite a high focus on central combinations, as the wingers often drift into central areas. The central midfielders can occupy low or high positions in the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. depending on the situation, as well as making runs beyond the front three occasionally.
Often the high central presence of Barcelona is able to pin the opposition’s midfield back, leaving the 2+1 structure of the center-backs and Busquets as the main base upon which their possession game is built.
This would seem fairly risky, however due to the aforementioned factor of the opponent’s midfield being pushed back by Barcelona’s central overloading, Barcelona’s 2+1 is often only facing up against a lone striker of the opponent.
When opponents try to move into more aggressive pressing, Barcelona can attempt to solve this with Busquets dropping between the center-backs to form a chain of three, or with the central midfielders dropping deeper in the halfspaces.
Barcelona can still occasionally form a back three thanks to Busquets’ dropping movements.
This gives the center-backs another option, but the dropping of the central midfielders also brings out the opposition midfield potentially opening space for the center-backs to find passes between the lines to the forwards.
Overall, Barcelona’s buildup gives them good stability with the ball, especially since they have players in center-back and central midfield areas who are very comfortable with being pressured on the ball.
As one would expect under Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid’s buildup differs from Barcelona somewhat in that it is slightly less structured and less focussed on combining through the center.
Madrid build up in a 4-3-3 shape, but unlike many teams who use this system, the number six is not preferred as one of the key figures in their buildup. More important is the role of Toni Kroos in the left halfspace, who is very important in controlling the tempo of the game for Madrid.
General scheme during Madrid’s buildup.
With Kroos’ dropping movements in the left halfspace, Madrid’s buildup often takes a left sided focus, especially with the creative Marcelo also operating on this side. With Karim Benzema drifting over, as well as a dangerous dribbler in Eden Hazard or Vinícius Júnior, Madrid look to take advantage of overloads on this side in order to progress the ball.
Similar combinations can take place on the right wing, but less frequently. The wing focus of Madrid and positional freedom afforded to players means that the central areas between opposition defense and midfield can end up somewhat empty.
In this regard, Benzema is the glue that holds things together, as his filling of these spaces and ability to take the ball to feet under pressure allows Madrid to dissolve pressure where they would otherwise be punished for sometimes weak structures.
Madrid have probably the most unstructured buildup of the top teams in this article. The extremely high individual ability of players like Kroos and Benzema and the strong group tactical understanding such as in their left sided combinations means that Madrid are still able to build up with moderate success. Their attack relies a lot on strong individual performances though, so when the players are not on top form, they can end up struggling without strong structures and planned mechanisms to fall back on.
Liverpool’s dominance this season has been helped by a buildup structure which is relatively flexible, and this ability to progress the ball with differing degrees of directness. In any case, their possession game is usually conducted with a high level of speed, which many teams struggle to deal with.
In terms of its structure, Liverpool’s buildup is partly characterized by the rotation of fullback, central midfielder and winger on each side of their 4-3-3 shape, which gives them variability in terms of where different players may appear in each possession phase.
Liverpool’s flexible 4-3-3 system.
For example, on the right, Trent Alexander-Arnold may move forwards and provide width, while Jordan Henderson is deep in the right halfspace and Mohamed Salah operates in the channel between opposition fullback and center-back. Alternatively, one could see Alexander-Arnold staying back to form a pseudo chain of three alongside the center-backs, while Salah holds the width and Henderson stays in a higher position from which he can make diagonal runs into wide areas.
Liverpool primarily have two players in the first line, but in some situations a third player can join in alongside the center-backs. For example, one of the fullbacks can stay deep as alluded to, or one of the central midfielders can drop further back. This includes Fabinho, who occasionally drops between or to the right of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.
A widely acknowledged aspect which distinguishes Liverpool’s buildup is the extent to which they use their fullbacks for ball progression. This makes Liverpool different to many other sides. In most teams, the midfielders are usually expected to be the primary ball-progressers, and the fullbacks are expected to take a less active role in progressing the ball, instead fulfilling tactical functions such as off-the-ball running or being positioned to prevent counter-attacks. For Liverpool, it is often the midfielders who serve these functions, while the fullbacks drive the team forward.
Andrew Robertson’s energetic running with and without the ball on the left side is key for Liverpool, but arguably more important in this respect is his right-sided counterpart Alexander-Arnold. Alexander-Arnold’s strong ball striking technique affords him an incredible playmaking repertoire for a fullback, particularly with regards to crossing and switching of play. As a right back he often finds himself starting from wide and/or deep zones, which are typically the least pressured zones on the pitch, making it hard for opponents to apply sufficient pressure to Alexander-Arnold without compromising their defensive cover in other dangerous zones.
Van Dijk, aside from his incredible defending, is another player with a strong passing range which is useful for helping Liverpool progress the ball. He is often the one delivering long diagonal passes to Alexander-Arnold on the right. Alternatively, van Dijk’s passing range also helps Liverpool play more direct to the front line, with floated passes over the opposition defense, or into zones in front of the defense where the second ball can be counterpressed After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. by Liverpool’s forwards.
Overall, Liverpool’s buildup is structurally flexible, usually with a good tempo, and with strong use of switching of play as well as being able to play more or less direct depending on the situation. All of this makes them a formidable team when building up, before one even discusses their incredibly talented forward line.
Writing a concise, generalisable summary of Manchester City’s possession game is somewhat difficult due to the variety of schemes which Pep Guardiola is capable of deploying. This season has seen a 4-4-2 with two false nines, an asymmetric back three and the trademark 4-3-3 system with advanced eights as well as several other arrangements. As all avid fans of football tactics know, and especially those who have read Pep Confidential, eleven names put on the field by Guardiola can mean anything, and there is no certainty until the match has started.
However one possession structure which City have ended up returning to regularly during the season is the asymmetric shape seen against the likes of Burnley, Leicester, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and more.
Numerically it could perhaps be described as a 3-1-5-1 shape. It is usually formed from the starting point of a 4-3-3 formation, where the left back pushes forward and the left winger pushes inside, either playing on the opponent’s defense or dropping between lines. On the right side meanwhile, the right back tucks in alongside the central defenders and the right winger holds the width.
City’s commonly used asymmetric shape.
City’s strong occupation between the opposition defense and midfield lines often lends them a dominant position from which to launch attacks, especially against weaker teams. The opposition’s midfield line is often pinned back, leaving the buildup diamond consisting of the right back, two center-backs and defensive midfielder with a relatively low amount of pressure, which they are usually able to outplay.
It is especially unfortunate for City that Aymeric Laporte has suffered with injury this season, as the relatively frequent use of a back three in possession would have suited him very well. Laporte is their only left footed center-back, and is very good at taking advantage of the angles afforded to him on the left side of a back three to find flat diagonal passes into midfield or switch the play.
In this system, City often look to employ an ‘overload to isolate’ strategy, in which City initially position more players on the left side of the pitch when building up, attracting opposition pressure before switching the ball to the right winger, usually Riyad Mahrez, who hugs the touchline. This has been a staple throughout Guardiola’s career.
So, City’s buildup in this system frequently looks to take advantage of Mahrez’ one-versus-one dribbling abilities. Mahrez can also bring others into play from here with underlapping Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. or overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping.runs from the right central midfielder, often Kevin De Bruyne, or occasionally from the nominal right back, often Kyle Walker.
Overall, City are often able to establish game control thanks to their strong distribution of players across the pitch, although it has to be said that their ability to completely constrict opponents is somewhat weaker than in previous seasons under Guardiola. Again, they make prominent use of switches of play in order to progress the ball and put their dangerous attacking players into preferable situations.
Bayern had troubles under Niko Kovač earlier in the season, but they have since improved under the leadership of Hansi Flick, with plenty of impressive displays in the Bundesliga and Champions League.
Integral to Bayern’s buildup in their 4-2-3-1 system under Flick is the central midfield pairing of Joshua Kimmich and Thiago. Both players have strong playmaking skills, and take up intelligent positions in relation to the center-backs in order to control the tempo of Bayern’s buildup.
Bayern’s possession shape.
Their positioning is flexible, allowing Bayern to build with two players in the first line with Thiago and Kimmich in front, or dropping off to either side of the center-backs. Alternatively, they can form a back three, often through Kimmich dropping in between the center-backs and Thiago taking up the number six role.
Jérôme Boateng and David Alaba also compliment Bayern’s buildup with their own skill sets. Boateng has good passing range and ability to switch the play, as does Alaba, who is very strong in bringing the ball out from the back, especially when operating from the left halfspace.
Alphonso Davies usually pushes high on the left, allowing the left winger, usually Serge Gnabry, to move inside. Benjamin Pavard at right back also has license to get forward, but generally acts less aggressively, so the right winger, often Kingsley Coman, ends up holding the width.
With the likes of Thomas Müller and Gnabry able to drift between lines, as well as Robert Lewandowski receiving into feet, Bayern usually have decent options between the opponent’s midfield defense.
At the same time, with the speed and skill of players such as Davies and Coman operating in wide areas, as well as a buildup diamond which allows them to quickly switch play from side to side, Bayern can also create threat in wide areas.
Overall, Bayern’s buildup is relatively flexible, especially in the first two lines and able to penetrate centrally and through wide areas when progressing the ball. Most important though is the quartet of Boateng, Alaba, Kimmich and Thiago, which gives them a great foundation from which to control games and build attacks.
In the first leg of PSG’s Champions League Round of Sixteen tie against Borussia Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel fielded an unexpected 3-4-3 system. This ended in disappointment, as PSG struggled to penetrate Dortmund due to an overly passive interpretation of this system in possession.
Afterwards, Tuchel returned to a more familiar 4-2-2-2 shape which PSG had been using previously, sometimes with asymmetric variants. Tuchel also used this system for the second leg, where an improved PSG were able to redeem themselves and win the tie.
PSG’s 4-2-2-2 system.
Like Bayern’s scheme, the first two lines of PSG’s buildup in this system are primarily controlled by the quartet made up of the center-backs and central midfielders. The first choice players in these positions are generally Thiago Silva, Presnel Kimpembe, Marquinhos and Marco Verratti.
Key to the buildup are the roles of the two attacking midfielders, usually Ángel Di María and Neymar. They usually look to position themselves in the halfspaces, where PSG can look to reach them with line breaking passes between opposition wide and central midfielders.
Neymar naturally enjoys a lot of creative freedom in his role, and often drops deeper from his nominal position, moving outside the opposition block to pick up the ball and look to progress the play with an individual action. When this occurred in the 3-4-3 as seen against Dortmund, it led to PSG’s shape becoming quite disconnected, as it left PSG with only two players positioned inside the opponent’s defensive block. A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. In the 4-2-2-2 system meanwhile, Neymar’s roaming is more acceptable as they start with a higher presence in advanced areas with the two strikers.
PSG’s best moments of course come when the attacking midfielders stay higher and are able to receive between lines. This is aided by the roles of the two strikers, who can play in the channels between the opponent’s fullbacks and center-backs, pinning them back to create more space for Di María and Neymar. Once the attacking midfielders get on the ball, the strikers are then in perfect positions to make runs into depth for Di María and Neymar to find.
Prior to football’s suspension, Juventus found themselves at the top of Serie A, winning a crucial three points against potential challengers Inter. Despite this, Maurizio Sarri’s first season as coach has been far from smooth, further evidence of which was found in their first leg defeat against Lyon in the Champions League Round of Sixteen.
The Sarri trademark is a 4-3-3 shape (or occasionally 4-3-1-2 formation) with heavy emphasis on one-touch play and third man combinations in order to progress the ball. While Juventus have not been able to consistently recreate the football Sarri became known for, this emphasis is still visible in the Turin side.
Juventus in their 4-3-3 system.
Unlike many teams, Juventus often initially build with a chain of four at the back, as the fullbacks tend to advance up the pitch later into attacking moves. Ahead of the defense, the number six, usually Miralem Pjanić positions himself in the second line with a fairly small radius of action.
The main way in which Juventus deviate from a strict 4-3-3 structure is through the movements of the left winger, who often drifts inside to play closer to the striker, usually Paolo Dybala or Gonzalo Higuaín.
On these occasions, the left central midfielder stays slightly deeper, while Alex Sandro at left back can move forward. On the right side, the balance depends on who is playing in each particular game. For example, when Juan Cuadrado plays right back with Aaron Ramsey in right central midfield and Douglas Costa on the wing, then Cuadrado often finds himself in a relatively reserved role, while Ramsey plays close to the forwards and Costa stays close to the touchline.
In any case, Juventus primarily look to progress the ball through the aforementioned emphasis on third man combinations. This can be through flat passes into the wingers’ feet for example, who can then look to flick the ball inside into the strikers. Alternatively, there can be flat passes into the striker’s feet for layoffs to onrushing midfielders or wingers.
Overall, Juventus are relatively structured and have the kind of emphasis in their buildup one might expect from a Sarri team. As already mentioned, they have struggled at times this season, which may be as much for psychological reasons as tactical ones.
The buildup schemes used by Europe’s top teams continue to evolve as the defensive side of the game also evolves. In most of the top teams in this piece, it is clear that there is an emphasis on structure and spacing which continues to grow stronger, with most teams occupying the space between lines relatively well.
For the most part, it would seem that more teams are making more heavy use of ‘positional play’ principles. On one hand, it could be said that this is improving the standard of buildup play in general. On the other hand, others may say that it is also leading to teams becoming more similar as they focus more on the same principles.
In recent years, the use of a back three when building up has become increasingly prominent. Several of the teams covered in this piece show an ability to switch flexibly between chains of two, three or four in the first line depending on game or situation. This was somewhat uncommon before the last decade or so, but elite teams now show a much higher level of adaptability.
Building with a chain of three primarily allows teams to make better use of the halfspaces when moving the ball out of the first line, which can offer advantages against certain opponents in terms of finding different angles to move the ball into midfield and avoiding opposition pressing in the first line.
From a narrative point of view, it can also be interesting to observe differences or similarities between certain teams. For example in LaLiga there is a Barcelona side with a relatively structured buildup which focuses on the center of the pitch, and a Real Madrid side with a less structured buildup which focuses more on the wings.
Meanwhile in the Premier League, both Liverpool and Manchester City are different in many aspects, but share a similarity in that they both make heavy use of switching of play to get the ball into dangerous areas.