Identifying Space in the Final Third
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on October 12, 2016
Space is football’s most valuable commodity. But, what is it? To the average human being, it’s simply an area which simply consists of nothing. Nothing but the air we breathe. To a footballer, coach, or fan, however, space is everything. Space, when utilised correctly, is the single most important factor in the modern game, particularly in the attacking third.
To understand how best to utilise space within the final third, we must first understand what it is and how do we identify it. For this, it’s imperative to look past the constraints of “formations” and view the game of football as something similar to that of a game of chess – eleven players against eleven whose purpose, by any means necessary within the laws of the game, is to achieve an end goal. In the case of football, winning the game by scoring more goals than the opposition. Formations serve only to identify specific roles within a given shape. For example, a goalkeeper is not looking to score a goal, but to prevent the opponents from doing so. On the other hand, a fullback whom in defence, looks to stop his opponents from creating goal-scoring opportunities, may be the leading threat to his team’s attacking set-up. It’s all relative.
Watching football from this perspective opens your eyes to the endless amounts of space that exist on a football field, however, there are only a select few areas which are useful to us in the final third. These are also often the most difficult to find. To aid this, we can also split the pitch into six different areas, four of which we will be focusing on in this theory.
Firstly, the length of the pitch is split into three parts; the defensive third, the transitional third and the attacking third. While both the defensive and attacking third are respective of which side either team may be facing, the transitional (midfield) third always remains the same. Both the attacking and defensive thirds reach, as you would expect, from the byline to about halfway between the centre circle and the edge of the area. The transitional third holds the space in between.
The width of the pitch is also split into three parts, though the symmetry of the pitch means they are mirrored on either side. Here; we have the wing, the half-space, and the centre. When looking at the pitch, however, these spaces would read; wing, half-space, centre, half-space, wing. Obviously, the wing reaches from the touchline to the outside edge of the area. The half-spaces – something we’re not as familiar with as we should be in English football, given their positional advantage – occupies the space between the edge of the penalty area to the beginning of the outer circle of the penalty area on both sides. The centre, of course, is everything in between.
Once we have begun to view a football match from a more “neutral” perspective, and we understand the different areas in the attacking third, we can begin to look at how each area can be used to gain a specific advantage. Also, we can identify which areas you are most likely to find space and how best to utilise it.
“Whoever controls the centre of the pitch, controls the game.”
The centre of the football pitch is seen as the main area. There are many reasons for this, both defensively and offensively. The freedom of choice is greater in the middle, a player has a full 360-degree view of the pitch, along with 8 potential passing lanes to choose from. Also, the distance from the centre of the pitch to the goal is mathematically always going to be shorter. Therefore, in theory, a team who focuses their play through the centre of the pitch is more likely to be much more dynamic than a team who focuses their play down the wings. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its disadvantages, of course; as football has evolved, teams have packed the centre of the field in order to allow opposition players less time on the ball. Surveying a 360-degree area of a football field with a hard-hitting defensive midfielder bearing down upon you is not a pleasant experience. Players can be closed down from their blindside, and losing the ball in the centre of the pitch leaves your own central defence exposed. With such a short amount of time in which to combine an attacking move, teammates in good positions are often overlooked simply because the player on the ball is being rushed.
Though wing-play offers little in terms of dynamism, it allows teams to attack with much more freedom and space, without the threat of being dispossessed from behind due to the touchline (assuming they are facing towards the goal). From the wing, a player is able to survey the whole field, however, their passing range is limited by distance to their teammates – as I stated before, losing the ball in the centre of the field will leave the defence exposed. Therefore, playing a horizontal pass inside may be a risk, depending on the position of the opponent. In addition, the nature of the sport means that because the centre of the pitch is often packed with opposition players as well as teammates, players are allowed much more space on the wings.
The half-space may be the most underestimated area in modern English football. We have to look no further than Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, or Bayern’s Thomas Muller to understand the importance of this area in the modern game – it’s a space in which they both excel.
The half-space is seen as somewhat of a best-of-both-worlds scenario. The player is far enough from the crowded centre of the pitch to cause problems between the centre-back and the full-back, and close enough to the touchline to not have to worry about being closed down from their blindside. His position within the channel, between the four opposition players, is ideal – assuming they play a CB, FB, L/RCM and an L/RM. Though the player is surrounded by four opponents, his position in between all four of them is far better than if he were just two players.
If the player were positioned between just two opponents, they would most likely take up positions which are vertically parallel to himself in order to deal with any threat he may possess. That leaves two possible directions for which the player can pass or move in with the ball. However, if the same player were to position himself in the half-space between four opponents, although he is technically outnumbered, the distance between himself and the opponents is greater, and he is presented with four possible directions in which to move the ball – both horizontally and vertically. Therefore, it is far more beneficial to be in a 4-on-1 scenario in the half-space, than it is to be in a 2-on-1 scenario elsewhere on the field.
Of course, this is all theory. Putting such work into practice on the field is a different story, though the ability to understand the different areas in which space occurs is invaluable to fans, coaches and players alike. Finding the space is only half of the battle, utilising that space efficiently and effectively, however, is what separates the great from the good. Now we have identified the space, we can look at creating it.
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