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False full-backs and full-backs in midfield

Rotations between full-backs and midfielders were crucial to starting attacks thanks to numerical superiority out wide.

Manchester City's Ilkay Gündoğan, Kyle Walker and João Cancelo in deep discussion
Manchester City's Ilkay Gündoğan, Kyle Walker and João Cancelo in deep discussion Manchester City FC via Getty Images

From the various roles of the No9 to the importance of adaptability, we examine some of the main talking points from the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League technical report.

Here we focus on rotations between full-backs and midfielders, which meant attacking players were often observed dropping into deep wide positions to receive the ball. Manchester City and Real Madrid provided great examples.

For the former side, João Cancelo could be seen playing in central midfield, with İlkay Gündoğan in the full-back position, ready to play forward and start attacks thanks to numerical superiority on the wing.

False full-backs...

İlkay Gündoğan goes wide and João Cancelo moves central as City regain possession
İlkay Gündoğan goes wide and João Cancelo moves central as City regain possession

It is difficult to discuss tactical innovation in last season's competition without dwelling once again on Manchester City and how, when in possession, their attacking players dropped back into deep wide positions to become false full-backs. City used this ploy to good effect, notably in their round of 16 tie against Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and also Gündoğan would step back into wide positions and, from there, turn and lead fresh attacks with a numerical superiority on the flank in question. The wide forwards, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez, would hold high positions out on the flanks to occupy the opposition full-backs, and the tactic worked well because of clever rotations with different players popping up in forward positions.

It was not just City. In the case of Real Madrid, midfielders Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos dropped into the full-back positions too – and deeper still, at times. In the second leg of their quarter-final against Liverpool, Kroos took up position between the centre-backs to help keep the ball and temper the home side's early storm of pressure. In the first leg of the semi-final against Chelsea, Kroos did it again, falling back to the same line as the three central defenders.

... and full-backs in midfield

Phil Foden on the ball for Manchester City
Phil Foden on the ball for Manchester CityUEFA via Getty Images

Cancelo, the Manchester City left-back, played as a de facto midfielder in the above-mentioned first-leg victory over Gladbach in Budapest, setting up both goals. This is not the first time that Guardiola has deployed a full-back in this way – at Bayern München, Philipp Lahm moved infield from the left in order to diminish what he saw as the risk from opposition counterattacks when his full-backs were out wide.

In the case of City, while Kyle Walker, on the opposite flank, could race back if the opposition broke, Cancelo, a player with less blistering pace, was already well placed to cover.

Explaining his approach to BT Sport's Gary Lineker after the second leg against Gladbach, Guardiola said that more players in the middle of the pitch meant more possibility of control. "You have control maybe when you lose it, but the main reason is to have four, five or six players to make short passes and have more control," he said, noting that Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko had also filled the role previously. "The big concept is we defend with the ball," he added.

An additional reflection by Dušan Fitzel, the UEFA observer at that match, was that by stepping inside, Cancelo allowed more space for Aymeric Laporte, a naturally left-footed defender, to have the ball on that side. He said: "Always when City started to build up play, he moved inside. Cancelo went in and also his opponent, which opened up his side."

A rotating cast

Whether they be false nines or false full-backs, the key is fluid movement, as shown in this example of City's left-sided rotation. They have Foden (47) providing width, Gündoğan (8) between the lines, and Cancelo (27) supporting on the halfway line. If Foden comes inside, Cancelo will go outside to provide width, with Gündoğan supporting the play.

Manchester City’s rotations in possession
Manchester City’s rotations in possession