“The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.”

Adherents to the rather loaded term of positional play perceive football to be a game of dynamic spatial occupation. Subsequently, players will move in relation to the ball carrier and their supporting teammates. These reference points mean movements carry implications when working under a 5/7 zone structure which provides the framework for optimal creation of passing angles and maintenance of connections. Movement and subsequent vacation of space sends a signal to rotate, typically on the horizontal axis.

Also embedded within the framework of positional play is the idea of the qualitative superiority. This seeks to manufacture instances of real inequality despite there being numerical equality. Synthesising with the perception of dynamic space occupation rather than positioning, these can be interpreted together to suggest you want to optimise the reception conditions for your best players, so that they are situated in an environment conducive to their abilities. And it is in this aspect I feel the 4-1 structure underlapping dynamic generated between Bernando Silva and Jack Grealish excels.

The first step in the process is manufacturing access to Grealish, positioned on or near the touchline to provide maximum width – the rationale is almost identical to that of Shakhtar Donetsk under Roberto De Zerbi (discussed here). However, summarised, the opponent is posed with a compactness/convergence conundrum where the central compactness provided by the narrow 2-3 structure signals for their front line compact if they want to press, whilst the half-space occupation in between the lines limits the potential for the full back to widen his positioning prior to ball sided commitment by Manchester City. This maximises time for Grealish in possession, who before reception is unmarked which allows him the potential for direct infiltration, to win a foul or to dribble backwards to attempt to open alternative passing lanes.

City’s wide triangle of left-back, left-winger and left-sided half-space player.

Because of the positional configuration, the underlap is performed by the half-space player sitting in between the lines (Bernando Silva in this instance). The consequence of this when building deep is for the width holder to receive the ball wide triggering full back pressure to prevent progression. The player in between the lines underlaps, drawing the centre back wider, forcing the whole defence to shuttle to maintain compactness. This can be particularly effective against winger-to-deep-full-back defensive orientations on the first line because the central orientation of the (possession) full back means he vacates the space allow the winger to receive, with a link generated from the ball-side centre back directly to the winger due to the full back’s depth vertically stretching the opposition.

Creation of access to the winger therefore is a relatively uncomplicated process conceptually. Either the full back sits wider (in the half-half-space using a 7-zone model) while the nominal central left central midfielder sits narrower to provide an additional passing option requiring coverage. The method of coverage is typically the winger compacting; hence, the full back can receive with a strong link to the winger while the underlap can proceed because the half-space player was covered by compactness (one or multiple cover shadows working in combination). The reason behind not wanting the half-space player to receive directly is the undermining of the first line pressing structure as he creates access to the players sitting between the lines, pertinently Rodri, and allows for a transition to be catalysed through accessing the opponent’s last line.

In a direct sense, the pass to the winger is so dangerous and therefore demands a swift and committed opposition reaction because the underlap has a central discombobulating effect. This is due to the tracking of the underlapping player being under the remit of a central player thus creating a void for Grealish to move into on his stronger foot to subsequently drive at the defence and potentially unlock the underloaded flank. Thus, the player previously responsible for the inverted full back attempts to compact on Grealish and the space, creating space for the full back to then receive.

To attempt to codify this pattern it goes something like:

Access to width holder; space (wide), opposition full back jumps; space (wide), underlap to exploit; space (half-space, vacated by the underlapping player), player previously on deeper full back looks to compact on dropping width holder; space (behind), pass to full back. Blind-side run from width holder away from full back to potentially link.

If blind-side option is infeasible, look to switch the play (either directly or through a conduit) or if more advanced, attempt a deeper cross. This is a common sequence because it is predicated on the defending team reacting well and covering the vital spaces as they open accordingly – most teams are drilled in to how to close off the space City look to exploit making the more simple permutations of the sequence, such as a direct pass to the underlapping player or finding direct access to the pivot player to recycle to the far-side, or lack of space compensation through compacting the zone the centralising width holder (qualitative superiority) is attempting to exploit thus allowing the dribble inside etc., This therefore is the attritional variant of the strategy when the more direct transitional opportunities do not arise due to the underlapping player being too easily constrained and the space to dribble inwards being swiftly covered. It nonetheless provokes a degree of opposition ball sidedness which can be looked to be exploited for a switch whilst consolidating possession and gaining territory.

This example against Leicester highlights the potential for excessive opposition ball-sidedness:

Çağlar Söyüncü is required to cover the space as Youri Tielemans is behind play and Marc Albrighton is distanced from Grealish meaning the space in between the lines to dribble into, or to potentially find Rodri, is accessible.

The result?

The opposite flank is vacated with a player of João Cancelo’s technical proficiency being capable of consistently playing such difficult balls, particularly when time is manufactured via the necessity to close the more pressing dangers of the underlap and Grealish infiltrating centrally. This links to a point previously made on the site: ‘wrong-footed’ full backs having good central access to exploit progressive options.

Here, rather than act as the conduit for ball movement, Cancelo pushes higher into midfield:

Pressure to track Cancelo creates direct passing access from the ball-side. Bernardo underlap draws Tielemans creating space in the centre, attempting to avoid the previously seen centre back overcommitment leading to Gabriel Jesus having acres of space. Thus having the desired central discombobulating effect.

If the blind-side run option from the width holder after the backwards pass is successful it generates the potential for a second rotation between him and the deeper player as shown here:

Rotation 1: Bernardo creates the space for Grealish to threaten through rotating and Grealish creates the space for Cancelo to receive by drawing deeper central compaction.

Rotation 2: Space exploited creates space for a give-and-go for Cancelo where they rotate horizontally, creating a wide 2v1 as Bernardo remains positioned there from the initial underlap.

If unsuccessful, Cancelo has time in possession to attempt to recycle or exploit the underloaded side.

Against RB Leipzig, because of their compact 2nd line press, Manchester City’s centre backs dropped deeper to create a level of detachment, granting them additional time and space in possession. When pressed, if connections are weak due to lack of possession compactness, the goalkeeper was used as a supporting option to restart attack. Both these served as vertical stretching tools which sought to disrupt Leipzig marking scheme, or otherwise allowing the defenders enough time to play accurate, unpressured passes.

Oleksandr Zinchenko would often come in more narrow than usual to occupy the spaces between the winger and forward, whilst Bernando would rotate and drop deeper to act as the connecting link, overloading Christopher Nkunku.

Zinchencko’s movement in between the lines created access to the region and breached the first line to link with Rodri, who can act as a connecting point to the far-side. As seen previously with Leicester, should this narrowing full back be prioritised – which because of the direct threat offered with regards to undermining the pressing effort and creating a transition through exposing uncovered/poorly covered space, I think he should; then a 2v2 underlapping situation potentially opens between Bernardo and Grealish.

City in this instance use the dynamic superiority provided by the possession team to make use of split-second decisions – where for an action to be successful, it must be played swiftly before the opposition can suitably react. They are initiating the movement, and hence, are ahead of their markers both in movement and in knowledge of future actions, while their principle-based coaching means particular movements imply others to teammates who use that superior knowledge to adapt quickly to create complementary movement which supplements the centralisation.

In essence, if you attempt to mark the full back when he is acting as the supporting link to the outlet, he will invert further creating direct access from centre back to winger or through the conduit of the rotating half-space player (here the support is needed contrasted to Leicester because of the depth of the centre backs). Nkunku here attempts to balance both, which cuts off the passing lane out wide but allows the more dangerous central infiltration. If the near-side central midfielder attempted to support by getting tight to Zinchenko hypothetically prior, the pass would have been cut, but the ball-side would have been overloaded allowing for Ake to switch to Dias. Such continued vacation of the centre would have likely allowed a direct vertical to Ferran Torres such as here:

An up-back and through situation is created through Leipzig getting tighter to their respective players, thus lowering compactness, and creating more available passing space in between the lines. Fernandinho is now on his markers blindside allowing the sequence to take place, while out of picture Mahrez narrows his runs, dragging the full back centrally, meaning coverage to the near wing is deserted – a common strategy of an attacking front five against a back four.

Southampton alternatively did not pressure Grealish aggressively when he received the ball out wide but rather allowed him, on occasion to be isolated against the full back, who would remain in jockeying distance but not commit wide. On these occasions he sought to use the space offered to run outside to in, using the space to generate enough momentum to get in front of the full back, allowing him to cut inside. This cutting was not the typical inverted winger attempting to shoot, as the cautious jockeying protected that, rather, he looked to go deep, near the touchline and into the half-spaces to play a cross or cutback – using the gained territory and provoked defensive state of retreat to create a chance amongst the transitional conditions.

Moreover, the tentative engagement, even if preventative of stopping Grealish from moving inside, allowed City to gain territory which creates a greater degree of detachment between Cancelo the opposition when he does come to support due to the desire to increase vertical compactness in deeper regions, and as possession is consolidated in a dangerously high area, that provides the opportunity for a threatening cross to be played. This potential is what made Cancelo centralise more, to gain more space for Grealish and potentially led to Bernardo being moved to the right, as the underlap was largely superfluous whereas having a left footed presence on the right improved the options offered down that flank as he offered more ball carrying and dynamism outside the box compared to İlkay Gündoğan.

Overall, using Bernardo’s skillset of being good at linking between the lines, and left footed to offer a direct threat following the underlap has complemented the more central/half-space orientation of Grealish and Cancelo. It has allowed Manchester City to get the best out of Grealish through allowing him the potential to engage in duels and hold-up possession to draw fouls and when played on the left, Cancelo, who can use the time generated by the sequence to attempt more technically difficult actions of which he is capable. It is a difficult manoeuvre to counter without negating pressing efforts through committing players deeper to deal with the overloads, as shown particularly by RB Leipzig who in attempting to cut the underlapping route, left space vacant for direct central line-breaking passing.


This was Jack’s first piece for Running The Show. Follow him on Twitter and make sure to check out his Substack.