Since the introduction of the diamond system into the Liverpool team last season, the overall performance of the team improved radically. This article aims to look at the various build-up plays that are involved in the 4-3-1-2 system or the diamond system, as it is commonly known.
The basic principle in this system is to control the game while holding possession of the ball but also have the option of making a fast counter attack when opponents lose possession on transition. The idea is to move the opponent by constant ball circulation until an opening arises to attack the goal. The 4 main ideas behind the build up are:
- Construction Phase (Defence)
- Ball Circulation Phase (Midfield)
- Creative Phase (Midfield and Attack)
- Finishing Phase (Attack)
Every team tends to follow these 4 basic steps when building up the play. The methods with which each team builds will differ depending on their formation, system, style and other factors like players’ physicality. Some teams could spend little time in the defensive phase and go directly to the middle or attacking third while some teams like West Ham (under Sam Allardyce), who generally prefer long balls to build-up, could take a direct long ball route to reach the finishing zone.
Phase 1: CONSTRUCTION PHASE:
Brendan Rodgers prefers to use the goalkeeper and 4 defenders in this phase to circulate the ball in defence. The risks taken in this zone, while building up, should be minimal due to the fact that this is the last line of play and possession lost in this phase could result in a direct attack at the goal.
The few key points to keep in mind while playing in this zone are:
- No vertical pass from one player to another (avoid a square pass) during the build-up.
- Play angled passes to reduce risk of losing possession.
Holding possession in this zone should be of high priority and the build-up has to be patient to allow players in other zones to move into right positions for the next subsequent phases. This phase mainly focuses on building a solid foundation for an attack and also to provide defensive support in case the opponent breaks on the transition.
In image 1, the ball is circulated among the 4 defenders. As the play develops, Gerrard (8) drops in between the 2 centre-backs and this allows the 2 full-backs to push forward. Now the 2 wide centre-midfielders (Allen and Henderson) drop by the halfway line, providing support to the play. If an opening doesn’t arise to move to the next phase, the ball is shifted back to the goalkeeper and the phase restart
Phase 2: BALL CIRCULATION:
This phase, after the initial construction, allows the circulation of possession in the middle third. In this phase, the 2 full-backs would have moved into the middle, in line with the central-midfielders. The deepest playing midfielder looks to spread the play from the back and the 2 wider midfielders support the defence and attack. Sterling (10), in the tip of the diamond, drops deep into the midfield so as to increase the number of passing options.
In the above setup, Manquillo (19) receives a pass from Lovren (6) in the construction phase. The backward movement of Henderson (15) provides an option for Manquillo to play. Henderson would have to either hold up the play till support arrives or make a horizontal pass backward (in case he’s facing his own goal) since a vertical pass, to Sterling (10) in this stage, could lead to loss in possession and subsequent attack from the opposition.
Playing it back to Gerrard (8) will be one of the safest options here. Gerrard could now pick out any one of the available passing options and continue the build-up. This phase is done when the opponent have settled into their position and there is a lack of opening/space to play. This phase, with constant ball circulation, provides the opportunity to make the opponent lose their concentration and positioning and gaps will emerge within their setup. These gaps or openings will be exploited in the next creative phase.
One of the noticeable features in Liverpool’s recent play has been the long diagonal pass from Steven Gerrard from his deep position. The build-up in this move is similar to image 2.
Gerrard receives the final pass (E) from Henderson. When Lovren shifts the play to the right side of field, Moreno makes his forward run into the space left by Allen and Balotelli, who along with Sterling, move towards the direction of play (right side). Gerrard could now pick out Moreno on the far left, who will have space around him since Liverpool forced their opponents to shift to the right side before switching the play. Moreno could then start the final finishing phase or could return back to the consolidation phase (2nd phase).
The build-up to the final pass in the above move is similar to the one mentioned in image 3. The play starts off in left side and then Gerrard switches to Manquillo on right side. We could see the movement of Moreno on the far side as soon as Gerrard passes to Manquillo. Now Manquillo doesn’t make the pass to the middle third, instead plays it back to Gerrard who completes the diagonal pass to Moreno.
The above example clearly shows the need for patience in this phase. Tottenham were well organised and forced Liverpool to rotate and maintain possession while moving the opponent. The play is switched to either side until an opening arises. Sterling drops into centre midfield to support the play while Sturridge and Balotelli look to exploit the space present if any.
This phase largely deals with the ability to move the opposition by holding possession of the ball and also to take advantage of the space created by the movement. Retention of the ball is crucial and the risk taken in this phase is slightly higher than the previous phase but in dangerous situations (when opponent presses relentlessly), ball is played back to the defence and the whole build up process is started again.
Phase 3: CREATIVE PHASE:
This phase is entered once gaps or space is created in the opposition setup during the circulation phase. This phase largely deals with the creative nature of an individual player or the combined efforts of 2 or more players to create a goal scoring opportunity. Once the space to attack opens up, the play is quickly shifted to that region and the finishing phase is executed. But if the opponent had sensed the danger (closed down the space), the play would be shifted to the previous consolidation phase while under extreme pressure, the play restarts back from the goalkeeper.
The movement of Henderson and Allen from their deep positions has allowed Liverpool to provide more options in this phase. With 2 strikers playing in this system, either one of the strikers has to move wide or drop deep to allow one of the central midfielders to join the attack. Henderson has been excellent in creating and utilising space in opposing defences and he provides an alternating route to attack. His lung-bursting runs have also enabled the use of counter attacks.
For the goal, Sturridge drops wide to receive the pass from Gerrard thereby leaving the space behind him. Henderson sees the space and runs into it. Sturridge finds him with a clever pass and Henderson assists Sterling for the goal.
Liverpool, last season, were feared for their pace on the break when opponents lost possession in transition. One of the main reasons why the diamond has become a huge hit in this Liverpool side is the utilisation of the front 3 of Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez (last season). The addition of Balotelli shouldn’t harm this side of the game as the principles would remain the same even in the absence of Suarez.
The presence of 2 strikers in attack along with Sterling (10) would inject pace and fluidity in quick transition and also the deep runs from Allen/Henderson would further provide legs when hitting opposition on the break.
The above image shows the movement of Sturridge/Balotelli when Liverpool make a quick transition from defence to attack. The play develops on the opposite side of the attack. If Sturridge starts the counter attack, then Manquillo and Henderson would provide support along with Balotelli.
Counter attacking in a diamond is much faster and it’s easier to get support from other players than in a traditional 4-3-3 system. In a 4-3-3 system, when the lone striker receives the pass, he should either hold up play or the nearest forward players must cover large spaces to receive the pass from the striker.
In the above scenario, Balotelli has to either hold up possession until support arrives or Sterling has to cover high ground to support Balotelli. Either way time is lost in transition and the opposition would have recovered in that time. The transition time in a 4-3-3 system is quite high as it mainly focuses on the possession side of the game – unlike the diamond, which allows swift counter attacks. Sturridge could lay-off the pass to Sterling or Balotelli (who are much closer) and the 2 full-backs could easily move forward into the space.
Phase 4: FINISHING:
Finishing phase is the final phase in the build-up and teams tend to take more risks in this phase than any other. The 2 strikers could run between the lines or make wide runs allowing Sterling (10) to join the attack. Sterling has flourished in his false 9 role, making late diagonal runs between opposing centre-backs. His pace and movement has stretched opposition defence and this space allows the central midfielders to exploit. The finishing touch could be from a cross or a through pass. This phase takes place only when the opposition are unsettled and the risk of losing possessions is minimal. The central midfielders stay behind the ball to control the game in the attacking third. When playing against high pressing teams like Southampton or Swansea, Liverpool will be forced to go back to the defensive phase quite often. This is to ensure possession isn’t lost when the opponent presses and the ball is retained to build the play from scratch.
Different systems provide different options to attack and each option could provide new alternatives to the attacking problems a team faces during a game. In most cases, it’s the quality of the players that decide the outcome of an attack.
“System are dying. Its about the movement of ten players now” Slaven Bilic
In Brendan Rodgers’ case, its 10+1 players.