Updated: Jul 28
In Atlanta United's eternal struggle with wasted possession, a tactical change might help. This will be the first of two articles discussing why Atlanta United should play a box midfield. In this article we will break down the formation and look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of the formation so that in the second article we can look at other real-world examples and why it could make sense for Gonzalo Pineda's men.
History of the Box Midfield
The box midfield has been a concept in one form or another for a long, long time. It was first known as the WM formation because the players make the letters on the tactical sheet--clever right? This formation has been used in some form for a long time with Herbert Chapman's(above) 1930s Arsenal side widely considered to be the most effective at the original formation, and they were very successful with it and managed to win the 1930 FA Cup and the first division in both the 1930/31 and 1932/33 seasons. The main difference between now and then in terms of basic tactics is the increased use of the width of the field in modern-day soccer. For reference, the typical formation in the 1930s was a 2-3-5, not a common formation today. Hopefully, this kind of very uncommon lasting success with a basic set of tactics helps to create some faith in the system.
Now to the fun part: tactics. The box midfield formation is designed to allow for better use of possession and relies on the idea that you will control the ball for long stretches of time. It does this through 3 main advantages: The midfield is designed to allow the team to play wide players up and down the flanks effectively, have a numerical advantage against most midfield formations, and, crucially, to allow the team to operate in half spaces and in between the opposition's defensive lines. Each of these ideas are interconnected but are still different and different coaches place slightly more importance in some of these advantages than others but every box midfield in modern soccer generates these advantages if correctly implemented.
Before looking at the advantages of the tactical setup it is first important to be able to visualize the lineup and how the ball could play through the team. A typical team setup might look like the left, a very common 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 which Atlanta United uses. On the other hand, the right is a box midfield.
There should be 3 things jumping out at you: the square of four midfielders, the three center backs, and the two wide players that are labeled as everything. These are the simplest outcomes of the box midfield. There are two easy ways of getting to this formation either you can move to it when you have possession like Arsenal or you can line up in it like Barcelona. Now that we can visualize the setup and have said, "Huh. Yeah, it makes a box," we can now talk about basic tactics.
To understand how you get the three main advantages below it is important to understand how the ball comes through the formation. In this example, the formation is already set and we are just going to play the ball up from the goalkeeper to the striker. Obviously, there are many permutations but a basic example would look something like this:
Notice the ability to play the ball around the defense and how nobody in the attack is marked without a defender having to move to them? Cool. Now we are ready to look at the advantages. (Also notice that the box isn't a perfect square but often a messed up trapezoid thing.)
Freeing Up the Wings
This is by far the simplest advantage so we can discuss it first. The concept is simply that you can have wide players on either side of the field whose job is to go up and down the flank and force the defense to stay wide. This is helped by the fact that in this box formation, the wide players can always be helped by two people to offer an option and create passing triangles. (If you didn't know, passing triangles are a big thing. People LOVE passing triangles.)
For instance, in this scenario (left) the ball is with the right winger and the defense has collapsed on the wing to try to win the ball back. To help this the two right-sided central midfielders can shift over to create a passing triangle(right). This should always create an option for the winger and there will likely be lots of space in the middle and on the opposite side if the winger can switch the ball to the other side.
This kind of "just pass it out of pressure" is always harder to execute in game but it is very doable and there truly is an advantage to having players in the midfield be flexible to slide to either side to overload a wing and draw defenders out of position.
Numerical Advantage in the Midfield
The second advantage is also an easy concept but can be very beneficial when the attacking team is holding possession. Because of the simple fact that the team is playing with four midfielders against most modern defenses, the team will both be able to hold a numerical superiority in the middle of the park and will be able to quickly create overloads in under-defended spaces of the field, such as the wing as shown in the freeing up the wings example. Most modern tactical setups have a 3 man midfield with the most common formations having two players sitting deeper while an 8 or 10 pushes higher up the field.
In addition to a basic midfield overload that should allow the midfield to better move the ball around and make better use of their possession, the formation also allows for the team to quickly overload an area and force the opposition defenders to choose whether to stay in formation and mark space or to move into the half spaces that the attack is operating in. This creates space options for playing quick passes around the defense or to switch the ball to an unmarked winger on the opposite side, a tactic that Barcelona has successfully employed many times with their right winger, Ousmane Dembele.
Say the opposition does line up with four midfielders, though, it will in all likelihood form a midfield diamond in which case the midfielders are again forced to choose between marking space and marking players, and if they stay in their diamond shape a diagonal in the midfield could bypass two midfield lines.
There is also now a numerical advantage in the attacking midfield line with the one DM being forced to mark both attacking midfielders. Say the midfield drops to a box to match the attacking formation, it basically rotates 45 degrees, then there will now be lots of space in between the lines for the attacking midfielders and striker to operate in, the next benefit of the box midfield.
Positional Play & Half Spaces
"Positional Play does not consist of passing the ball horizontally, but something much more difficult: it consists of generating superiorities behind each line of pressure. It can be done more or less quickly, more or less vertically, more or less grouped, but the only thing that should be maintained at all times is the pursuit of superiority. Or to put it another way: create free men between the lines. -Martí Perarnau
Positional play is simultaneously one of the most talked about aspects of soccer tactics and one of the most often misconstrued. The above quote is from the author of the series of books about Pep Guardiola's tactical evolution through Bayern, Barcelona, and now Manchester City. The most important part of this quote is the last sentence. The whole idea of positional play and most modern tactical setups is to get players into open space, which is almost always done by either creating free men between the opposition's lines or by getting players in half spaces which is the same idea as playing in between the lines except the lines are now vertical instead of being horizontal.
First, we will talk about how the box midfield can create chances in between the lines, and then we will transition to looking at half-spaces. The formation allows players to operate in between the lines in the midfield if the opposition doesn't come out of position to mark the man rather than space, which can also be dangerous for them. If the defense doesn't move out of position and chooses to mark their space rather than the box midfield's men the two defensive midfielders naturally sit in between their attacking line and their more attacking midfielder and the two attacking midfielders will sit in between their two midfield lines.
If they choose to mark the men then they leave space behind them and two quick passes can find one of the attacking midfielders in space behind their midfield, this idea is similar to the diamond midfield rotating at the end of the last section. This also goes back to the numerical advantage in midfield benefit where if the opposition decides to pull up a defender or pull in a wide player then that now empty space can be easily exploited.
The other way of getting into dangerous spaces in between lines is by having one of the attacking midfielders leave the box to get into that space once the play has started to develop. This had been fairly common for Hakim Ziyech to do under Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea. This also can get him into dangerous half space as he can run into the area between the center backs and the full backs.
On the tactics board, you will also notice that the wingers line up in the half spaces as well, that isn't realistic as the fullbacks will follow them to their desired width. This does mean, however, that because the fullbacks will be marking the wingers they won't be able to cover the movements of the attacking midfielders which is where most of the danger of the box midfield is created.
The box midfield is certainly not a flawless formation, however, as it has a number of tradeoffs. The formation assumes that you control possession and is really built to allow for good possession on the ball to create a continuous threat and keep moving the ball around the opposition's half looking for ways to create chances. This can create issues for the attack if they can't control possession because it can be dynamic and allow for quick ball movement but isn't a counter-attacking setup that a team with poor possession might look for. The real problem, however, is that isn't a defensive formation. Most basic formations are the same with slight tweaks between offense and defense, the fullback might make an overlapping run around the winger, etc. The box midfield, though, is only an attacking setup. Teams who play it then transition into their defensive formation when they lose the ball. This is what can help make this formation more adaptable because teams that line up in a 4-3-3, 3-4-3, and 4-2-3-1 all play this attacking formation, but then they have to transition back to their defensive setup when they lose the ball. Obviously, this is easier for some formations as the transition from the 3-4-3 is far more minor than the 4-2-3-1 but they all have some level of additional danger to being caught out in quick transitions. The formation also focuses more on playing through the middle and can leave the wingers more exposed than other formations. Despite this, the box midfield's benefits have been shown to far out way their negatives if implemented correctly.