Tactical Analysis: The Rise of Centre Backs Rotating Into Midfield In Possession

Neel Shelat analyses a tactical trend that is in effect across elite-level football, the rotation of central defenders into the midfield line

Perhaps a decade or two ago, certain people could become professional footballers and reach the highest level even if they weren’t that good at the most basic aspect of the game – kicking the ball. Of course, goalkeepers could easily get away with it as their predominant responsibility was stopping shots with their hands, and to an extent, defenders playing for certain types of teams needed to have physicality, athleticism and strength in duels more so than being exceptional on the ball.

Today, though, that is no longer the case. Perhaps the most exceptional shot-stopping goalkeepers like David de Gea, Hugo Lloris, and Gianluigi Donnarumma might be able to get away with not being too comfortable on the ball, but for the average keeper, ball-playing ability is starting to become a must. Indeed, with the genesis of ideas like goalkeeper chains, there is a space for specialised ball-playing keepers as well.

Either way, as far as defenders are concerned, ball-playing ability has become standard to the point that a ‘ball-playing defender’ is hardly a profile anymore because every defender must be able to comfortably retain, circulate, and progress the ball. Of course, some players are better than others when it comes to any attribute, so there still is a lot of value in defenders who are very composed under pressure and/or can progress the ball through long-range passing and carrying.

If we zoom in on centre backs, though, there still remains one critical aspect in which they differ from any other outfield position as far as assessing their possession-play – off-ball positioning and movement. While everyone from full/wing backs, midfielders, wingers and forwards are scrutinised for how they behave and move when the ball is at their teammates’ feet, centre backs do not get so much attention. The reason behind that is quite obvious – centre-backs are pretty much always behind the ball in all phases of settled possession, so they have little off-ball movement to do. Their work in this respect is mainly focused on offering secure passing angles to teammates, but this is an incredibly micro aspect which naturally gets little focus in public analysis especially.

Now, though, things seem to be changing in this aspect of the game too. Of late, we have seen the rise of centre-back rotations into midfield ahead of the ball. This season in particular, Thiago Motta’s Bologna have popularised such rotations and attracted a lot of worldwide interest, but other teams have been experimenting with such ideas for a slightly longer while. At the surface level, this may seem a very risky strategy that can leave the back line exposed, but there is a lot more to this idea than meets the eye.

Some Patterns

Before we delve into any specific examples, it is worth clarifying what exactly we are looking at because centre-backs in midfield are not entirely an alien concept.

There are a few things we are not interested in. For one, centre backs who operate in midfield through all phases of possession, such as John Stones’ role for Manchester City. For all intents and purposes, the Englishman should be assessed as a defensive midfielder in possession because that is where he remains right from goal kick build-ups to the chance creation phase in the final third. He is a centre back in midfield, but he is not a centre back rotating into midfield, and that’s what we’re interested in.

Similarly, we are not looking at overlapping centre backs (Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United did this so effectively in the 2019/20 EPL season) or wide centre backs who simply push forward in possession (often out of a back three – such as what Inter’s centre backs are famously doing this season). These players either go past midfield or even if they do not push up fully, they stay alongside central midfield. We, however, are interested in centre backs rotating into (central) midfield.

To be even more specific, we are interested in dynamic rotations in settled possessions situations. This means that the common goal kick build-up rotation that most back-three-using teams employ to play out short does not qualify. Most often, the central centre back (CCB) starts just outside the box in front of the goalkeeper, who has the wide centre backs on either side of him in a 3-1 shape of sorts. Again, there isn’t a lot of rotating in this case as the CCB simply drops back in to form a back-three once the ball goes beyond the box.

So, what we are looking for is a very specific sort of rotation. A few teams that often use/have used them include the aforementioned Bologna, Vincenzo Italiano’s Fiorentina, Tim Walter’s Hamburg and Wilfried Nancy’s Columbus Crew.

Looking at these coaches’ CoachID radars at these respective clubs, we can start to identify a few clear patterns and striking similarities between them.

For one, all of these teams place an incredibly heavy emphasis on deep circulation, as that obviously is the phase where central rotations can have the biggest impact. For similar reasons, they all rank quite low in terms of long balls and wing play.

As far as players are concerned, the number one metric that can help identify centre backs who rotate into midfield in possession is progressive/forward passes received. Obviously, in any straightforward formation, the centre backs are the deepest outfielders and therefore the ones playing far more progressive passes than they receive, but that is no longer the case when they step into midfield.

However, things are made murky by overlapping wide centre backs, who also rank very highly in this metric but are decidedly not the players we are looking for. So, unless one has a custom dataset in which they can apply filters to things like pass reception locations, manual filtering based on watched match-action is still needed.

With that done, we find that the data profiles of centre-backs who rotate into midfield have a fair bit in common.

They are all excellent ball progressors through passing and/or carrying, and can more than hold their own when forced to take opponents on with the ball at their feet. Thanks in no small part to the influence of team style contexts, all such players rank quite highly in terms of the volume of their passing involvement though completion rates differ wildly based on the freedoms and responsibilities of their roles, which we will now explore.

Some Examples

So far, we have used a lot of words and graphs to explore a concept that would surely be best explained by actual visuals, so this is a fine time to start taking a look at some examples of centre backs rotating into midfield and use them to understand the use-cases and effectiveness of this tactic. (Note that all the GIFs in this piece are at 2.5x speed.)

At the most basic level, the primary objective of centre backs rotating into midfield from the in-possession team’s perspective is to find a free player whom they can easily look for in a central area. The idea here is that almost all defensive organisations focus on keeping a numerical superiority at the back (such as two centre backs against a striker), which is compensated for by conceding a numerical superiority to their opponents up front (such as one striker against two centre backs). By rotating a centre back into midfield, the in-possession team adds an element of dynamism where they can control where their numerical superiority exists, adding the possibility to move it from the back line and into central midfield. This dynamism is why we are placing such an emphasis on the rotation aspect of this tactic rather than just looking at centre backs who step into midfield (who, as we discussed above with the example of Manchester City, may effectively be treated as midfielders as far as the opponents’ defensive approach is concerned).

The advantage that centre backs have over inverting full backs in this respect is in their very name – their centrality. As we have explored in previous deep dives into the build-up tactic of goalkeeper chains, the use of a goalkeeper in possession is another way for teams to generate numerical superiorities in build-up situations. Of course, the goalkeeper has to be centrally positioned, meaning they are best suited to combining with centre backs. So, if we pair centre back rotations with a heavy goalkeeper involvement in the build-up phase, we get a devastating combination for central progression.

Take, for example, this sequence from the Columbus Crew’s recent CONCACAF Champions League tie against the Houston Dynamo. Watch the left centre back (#21) step into midfield from a back three at first, after which the ball is sent back to the free goalkeeper, who finds the free player in the middle with time on the ball.

In this case, it is hard to fault the Dynamo’s defensive organisation. They were doing a very good job of closing out the centre and even successfully discouraged the pass to the rotating centre back initially despite a numerical inferiority, but the additional involvement of the Crew’s goalkeeper made it impossible for them to stop everything.

Quite simply, an almost guaranteed outcome of centre backs rotating into midfield is the opening of passing lanes. These lanes can be to the centre back (as we saw in the above example), or to someone else as the centre back drags an opponent out of position. Look at, for example, Bologna’s handiwork in which the centre back’s rotation into midfield opens a passing lane from the full back to the goalkeeper which would have otherwise been a complete no-go.

If afforded freedom, rotating centre backs can also help solve problems in build-up situations. More often than not, such problems involve the player in possession seeing all of their passing options get blocked off and/or getting squeezed into a corner. Dropping a midfielder or forward to support them is not a sure-fire solution as they too may be followed by an opponent, but a free centre back can get across undetected and offer an escape.

A lot depends on the opponent’s defensive approach (which we will discuss towards the end of this piece), but in certain cases, well-coordinated centre-back rotations can blow open the centre of the pitch and enable easy and effective progression. Observe, for instance, this beautifully choreographed double-rotation by Tim Walter’s Hamburg (who, at their peak, were perhaps the most interesting team in the world in this respect) which leads to an incisive pass being played through the middle.

In other cases, this progression may even come in the shape of carrying into space. Watch here how the Hamburg centre back drags the opposing striker away, allowing his full back to drive straight through the middle after he receives the ball.

There are many more nuances and details worth diving into in this topic, but these examples should be enough for the purposes of this piece. In a nutshell, centre back rotations into midfield can help with three things: positioning a free player in the middle, opening up passing lanes and creating space in midfield.

Some Considerations

So far in this piece, we have explored a fair bit about what centre back rotations into midfield are, what they can look like and what they can achieve. Yet, there are a lot of other contexts and considerations we have overlooked, so let us finally rectify that.

First of all, we have not addressed a critical point that can underscore the effectiveness of these centre back rotations. In a recent piece published on the site, Dharnish Iqbal explored the importance of the site of football’s most important tactical battles, which is the centre of the pitch as common intuition would suggest. In his piece, he outlines rotations as one of the key tactics in-possession teams can employ to win this decisive battle, and as we have explored so far, well-done centre back rotations into midfield have a number of advantages that distinguish them from other rotations.

That is not to say, though, that these centre back rotations cannot coexist with other rotations. In fact, in most cases, the combination of the two is the key to success. Although this piece has not done so in any real depth, it is important to analyse the positioning and behaviour of other outfielders – especially those involved in the build-up phase – while analysing centre back rotations. This will help understand common progression patterns available to teams using these rotations.

For instance, teams using back threes from where a centre back steps into midfield are almost certainly going to be biased towards central progression, as their wing backs are generally high and wide while the deep midfielder(s) help overload central midfield as we saw in the Columbus Crew example.

Among teams that use back fours, the positioning of the full backs massively influences their progression possibilities. Of course, they have to stay deep to enable the centre backs’ movements in the first place (keeping an at least acceptable rest defence structure in place in case of turnovers), so their width is the most interesting aspect. Bologna, for instance, tend to spread out their full backs which keeps the option of wide progression through passes down the wing open, whereas Walter’s Hamburg’s extremely narrow full backs were geared to attack the centre (as we saw in our examples).

The fluidity and rotations offered by central midfielders are also important in enhancing the effectiveness of this tactic. Bologna have done a fantastic job in this respect, while Fiorentina’s more rigid midfield structure this season has led to the effectiveness of their centre back rotations and general possession-play dropping off compared to last term, when they too were more fluid.

This leads us to another important question that has an influence on this tactic: the degree of freedom afforded to the players and particularly the centre backs. This dictates the nature of these rotations, which can be anything from completely spontaneous to pre-designed automatisms.

This is clearly heading to the ideas of positionism and relationism, but regardless of which side of the spectrum a team falls under, player quality remains critical. Of course, for teams with greater freedom such as Motta’s Bologna, it is critical that the rotating centre backs have a great understanding and quick reading of positions and situations to make the right moves in an instant. At the same time, more choreographed moves such as the ones performed by Walter’s HSV also require great technical quality to be successfully executed. Moreover the quality of the free player can be decisive at the end of the automatism. As Jon Mackenzie puts it, “This is an important aspect of positional play: it’s not *just* about finding the free player; it matters *who* that free player is.”

Above all else, though, the main factor that influences the effectiveness and even employability of centre back rotations into midfield is the opposition’s defensive approach. If a team is defending in a 5-3-2 low block with an incredibly compact and narrow front five that follows a positional approach, no amount of centre back rotations is going to get them to budge and open up the centre. In this case, the team in possession must look for alternatives to progress the ball, such as wing play.

However, most teams are not quite so rigid. They employ at least an element of player-orientation in their defensive schemes, which is where these rotations come to the fore. The key objective of such rotations is to drag opponents out of position by moving their own players into places they don’t expect. In general, it may be said that the more the level of player-orientation in an opponent’s defensive setup, the more centre back rotations into midfield are effective.

This is why they are so effective in Serie A, which arguably has the highest degree of player-oriented defensive schemes in Europe’s major leagues. So, that is a big reason behind the success of the likes of Bologna and Fiorentina, and indeed from a different angle of overlapping centre backs, the likes of Inter, Monza and Genoa as well.

As football tactics continue to evolve and adapt, we will continue to see the rise of new ideas. An antidote to these rotations already seems to be brewing (albeit not in a directly oppositional context) in the form of option-oriented defensive schemes, but as we have discussed, there are truckloads of other factors that complicate things.

One thing seems certain, though: the idea of rotating centre backs into midfield is one that is spreading around the world, so we will continue to see this tactic being employed by teams for the foreseeable future at least.

Header image copyright IMAGO / Gianluca Ricci / IPA Sport

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