Updated: Jul 28
In the previous article, we looked at the basic set of tactics that the box midfield relies on and some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with having a box midfield. In this article we will look at real-world examples of box midfields in action, why it could make sense for Atlanta United, and potential signings to make it practicable.
All across the top flights of European football some of the most successful teams implement a box midfield. This includes Manchester City who are currently hoping to complete a monumental treble if they can beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final and Inter Milan in the Champions League final. To achieve this success, though, each team approaches the box midfield slightly differently. This is seen in their implementation of the formation in attack and how they transition into it from defense and their given lineup.
Mikel Arteta's side has been one of the most improved teams between last season and now with Arsenal winning 15 more points this season than last, just barely not enough to win the Premier League title for the first time in almost 20 years. In addition to their fairly unexpected success this year they are also an interesting case study for the box midfield because of how they implemented it. Arsenal typically lines up in a 4-3-3 that typically, other than some slight personnel changes depending on injuries and form, looks like this:
You should notice that this does not have four midfielders. Huh. If Arsenal doesn't line up with a midfield four then how do they play a box midfield? Well, it is kind of a trick question because when they transition into attack Oleksandr Zinchenko will become a midfielder. The rest of the defense will slide over to the left and Zinchenko will push up to be one of the deeper midfielders alongside Jorginho while Martin Ødegaard and Granit Xhaka push farther forward as the pair of attacking midfielders. This leaves the team looking like this when attacking:
This is one example of how a team can transition into the box midfield from their defensive setup and a very real option for how Atlanta United could transition, as well. Once they are in the box setup the team then aims to take advantage of a few of the options provided by the box midfield. Both Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard commonly attack in their respective half-spaces, have scored a number of goals from these areas outside the box, and have each registered 7 assists. In addition, because of Jesus's play-making ability Arsenal is very good at allowing him to find space. When opposition teams are trying to mark the midfielders by drawing players around they leave space behind them. Arsenal commonly exploits this in two ways, one option is by pushing Xhaka and Ødegaard out wide. This allows Jesus to come into a lot of free space in between the opposition's midfield and defense (left). Or if the opposition uses their winger to mark one of the defensive midfielders Zinchenko, for example, then Arsenal would push Gabriel into space out wide and allow him to link up with Martinelli on the flank (right).
Manchester City is another very different way of playing the box midfield in that they actually line up in it. Inverting fullbacks is a classic tactical move that many teams use and isn't only for box midfields. It consists of a fullback moving inside to the midfield. An "everted" fullback, however, is purely a Guardiola thing. Pep plays with John Stones (or occasionally Rico Lewis) as a DM from the get-go.
In addition to a new way to get to the box midfield, Manchester City also focuses on different benefits that the formation affords. The main benefit that City capitalizes on is that it allows De Bruyne to operate in between the midfield and defensive lines and then make runs in behind when underlapping with Mahrez/Silva/Foden. This allows him to get in behind and be dangerous, either cutting the ball back for Haaland (below) or taking a shot himself.
The formation also allows for better interplay with the wingers. A great playmaker like Gundogan or De Bruyne is able to play Manchester City's wingers into space when the opposition's fullbacks step up to mark the overloaded midfield.
The last example we are going to look at is Xavi's rejuvenated Barcelona. After a few years of not winning the La Liga and disappointing Champions League campaigns Barcelona was a shadow of their self. This led to the team hiring ex-star Xavi to come in and get the Catalans back to the top of La Liga and the Spaniard did this with the help of a box midfield. This use is different though because it was less for better tactics and more to help get more great midfielders on the team sheet. Nonetheless, it is still an interesting example of an entirely different use of the tactical setup. Barcelona starts in a classic 4-3-3 much like Arsenal's except instead of rotating a full back into midfield Xavi rotates in his left winger, Gavi, and pushes up Balde to left wing.
Once the team is in the box set up they can then take advantage of many of the common benefits of the midfield that many teams use but they also make a fairly unique tactical decision to compress the field. Barcelona will fairly often compress everyone except for Ousmane Dembele to the left. This draws the defense to the left with them and allows Dembele to use his lethal mix of explosive pace, masterful footwork, and ambidexterity to get behind the opposition's defensive lines and score.
Atlanta United's Implementation
Finally, back to Atlanta. Atlanta's current setup is a 4-2-3-1 and for the sake of simplicity, we are going to work with a full-strength squad to look at options of how to play the box midfield. In my mind Atlanta United could play either an Arsenal-style transition or we could just line up in the box formation like Manchester City. But not everything we could do we should do. The Manchester City model has too much risk and pressure on individual players to be successful for Atlanta. So because I think we are better suited to the Arsenal transition we are only going to look at that option and it's positives and negatives.
Playing 'Arsenal Style'
While Arsenal's style doesn't perfectly suit us I like a lot of what Arsenal does so for now at least it can be called Arsenal style. The first question of how the 'Arsenal Style' would work is how the team would get from our current 4-2-3-1 to the box midfield. There are a number of moving parts in this concept but we have a solution for all of them. First, we need a fullback to rotate into the midfield and Gutman is a great option for that. Then, the whole defense needs to slide over to cover the space he just left, luckily for us we have two very good center backs in Miles Robinson and Juanjo Purata. The right back would need to be far less attacking than in our current setup, though, which is why I would suggest Ronald Hernandez. Then in our midfield and attack, everyone can line up the same as in our current squad. There would just need to be some rotations to form the box midfield (right) from our current 4-2-3-1 (left).
But now that we are in the formation what benefits does this do us? There are three main advantages for Atlanta playing the box midfield: It allows Caleb Wiley and Brooks Lennon to have more space to run and attack down the wings, it allows Giakoumakis to find space in the middle to be involved in the plays, and it allows the midfield to make better use of possession and make runs in the half-spaces.
Space on the Wings
One of the basic advantages of playing a box midfield, as mentioned in the previous article, is freeing up the wings and that could be important for us. Both Caleb Wiley and Brooks Lennon are fast and like to run down the flanks and the box could help make those runs more common and more successful. The formation is very dense in the midfield which will draw players off of the wings and, hence, frees up more space for our wingers. In addition, the formation forces the defense out of position and creates lots of mismatches on the field. This allows many players lining up in between the opposition's lines and in half spaces, allowing for more passing lanes that can make it very easy for the midfielders to play through balls for the wide players to run onto behind the defensive lines.
In this play, Manchester City finds their wide-open right winger on the flank with an easy long ball from their left defensive midfielder. This is a prime example of how teams are forced to compress into the middle to try to block the box midfield's passing lanes which opens space on the wings for wide players to attack.
Space for Tank
The next advantage is one of the benefits of the formation I am perhaps most excited about because it allows for better play into our new striker. Giakoumakis has already hit the ground running and has managed to score 8 goals in his first 11 games for Atlanta United and a box midfield could increase the amount of passes into him. There are two main ways that Atlanta United would be able to do this. By splitting their attacking midfielders they will draw the opposition's midfielders out wide with them or Almada or Rossetto could run behind the defensive line and cut the ball back for Gigi.
The first option is a tactic that Arsenal employed to get the ball into Gabriel Jesus at the top of the box because he is both a very good finisher and good on the ball to help distribute possession. For Atlanta, this would look like Rossetto and Almada pushing wide and drawing their defenders with them. Then Atlanta can either play the ball onto either flank to try to play their wide player through (red) or Atlanta can play a pass up to Gigi in space around the top of the 18-yard box (blue).
This last benefit is the highest beta. If the midfield can step up and handle the increased responsibilities in the new system then we could finally make use of our ridiculous possession numbers. Atlanta will be able to move the ball around well, but if not, the plays will be disjointed and we will risk counterattacks. If the midfield can handle it, though, Atlanta United will be very dangerous as all MLS teams will have trouble handling the ball movement and exploitation of space. One of the most exciting ways that this can be done is by the attacking midfielders making runs like in the Manchester City example. This can add another layer of danger to the attack and allows creative players to get on the ball in the most dangerous areas for assisting.
Unfortunately, no system is perfect and there are some downsides to Atlanta United playing the box midfield. The first main downside is that it puts a lot of responsibility on a currently underperforming midfield. While Almada can no doubt handle the responsibilities of being on the ball, he isn't going to be around very long and none of Sosa, Rossetto, or Ibarra have really proven themselves as great ball handlers. Next, it provides added danger to being caught in transition. Many MLS teams play low blocks and rely on fast counterattacks to catch teams out in transitions and this formation can provide extra danger as there are a number of moving parts that would ideally transition between offense and defense. Lastly, we don't have a great answer to who would play the right back/right center back role. In Arsenal, this is Ben White who is technically a center back although he is fast enough that he can play right back, as well. Atlanta United's options currently would be Luis Abram, Ronald Hernandez, or Noah Cobb. None of the options really instill me with lots of confidence for a kind of weird defensive role.
An answer to many of the downsides could come in the transfer market this summer, however, and Atlanta will at the very least need to find replacements for Luiz Araujo and Thiago Almada. This brings us to thinking about what Garth Lagerwey's three signings would ideally be. Clearly, you would need to sign a pretty much like-for-like central midfielder replacement for Thiago Almada but then in the box midfield you only need one wide player, and although Brooks isn't life-changing he is a perfectly acceptable cheap option. This leaves you with one DP slot and one more normal transfer. The normal transfer I would spend on a player to play the right back/right center back role but then the DP slot is still a question. With Tank I am now happy with our striker so maybe you get another good midfielder who has good skills on the ball.