The Inverted Fullback: Interview with Glen Preston on Soccer Tactics in the Modern Game

As I mentioned in a few recent posts, I am a rather new head soccer coach. In my efforts to expedite my learning process, I turned to youtube (like all modern age geniuses) and discovered a channel that was incredibly educational, entertaining, and eye-opening on the tactical side of the game. I contacted the creator of this brilliant content, Glen Preston, and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions and offer even more great insight into modern trends in soccer tactics. If you consider yourself a student of the game or simply a fan, this is one not to be missed. You will never watch soccer the same way again after watching some of his videos.  Before we get into the questions, here is one of them:



1. Glen, please tell me about your playing and coaching background, and how did you get so into tactics? 

Up until the age of 19 I played for Sheffield United and Barnsley in the youth team and briefly as a reserve team player before playing more semi pro until the age of 25 when I had to give up football altogether...I then when into coaching at semi pro levels where I’ve have won 12 trophies in the last 9 years and become the Head of BU Football Academy

I got into Tactical Analysis because I felt that what I was coaching was too detached from the game, day after day I was coaching drills in isolation that had little context and I couldn’t coach specifics because I didn’t have a tactical blue print or the knowledge to do I started to study what all the leading teams were doing all around the world and started looking at every phase of play breaking down matches doing scout reports and asking at every pause of a video “why?” after years upon years and thousands of hours analyzing matches I was finally able to answer the “why” more often than not and I could finally apply specifics/context to my own coaching.



2. How important is the selection of a formation in the overall success of the team? 

You cannot win games without tactics but in truth the game is steering away from formations as they were known 10+ year ago so there is an argument to say they are becoming less important as play becomes more about principles and philosophies...for example teams in the modern game might attack in in one system but defend in another .... ‘juego de posicion’ concepts (positional play) mean that systems of play might evolve during the game. Pep is famous for playing more players in central areas of the pitch. For example.....if the opposition plays 2 cm’s he will play 3 ...if they match up 3v3 he’ll find ways to add a fourth midfielder etc. So it’s often hard to say we are playing 4-3-3 today as in truth if you count by lines, formations  could be called as 2-3-3-2, 3-3-1-3, or 2-3-5 and change with regularity.

3. Over the years I have heard a debate between either A. Coaches should have a system and players need to play in it versus B. Coaches should adapt the formation to the players at their disposal. What are your views on this dilemma and why?

I think it depends what position you’re in. If you’re Pep Guardiola you will have a range of strategies, but he will always have the resources to be able to go out and buy whoever he wants to fit those systems of play. Grass roots coaches need to work with what’s at their disposal and so the trick for those coaches will be to build a strategy that works around the strengths and weakness of that group of players. If you’re a grass roots coach and you all you know is your favored 3-5-2 but you inherit a group of players where you don’t have wing backs, don’t have wide defenders who can defend well in the channels, and 2 strikers who don’t complement well, then all you will encounter problems.  I believe most coaches/tacticians need to adapt to their environment.....very rarely will one strategy be dominant against all so my game plan changes based on my evaluation of the opposition. Again,  if you are Barcelona there is a good chance that you can always impose your will on the opposition because of the quality you have,  so maybe you don’t need to change game plans each week. However, if you are a smaller club with limited resources you need to find the right solution to beat better teams which will no doubt be a different strategy from the tactics you use against weaker sides.



4. Why do you think the world has pretty much shifted to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and away from a 4-4-2 and what are the drawbacks?

I’m not sure this is true, we are starting to see more teams revert back to 4-4-2 (Atletico, Leicester, Leverkusen Iceland etc.) especially when defending....but initially I think the emergence of 4-3-3 was to suit better quality of players that started to come through. This formation not only puts you in natural diamonds and triangles all over the pitch which is conducive to keeping good possession,  but it helped teams outnumber those who played 4-4-2 for many, many years in the center of midfield. With better technicians coming along,  teams sought to play through rather than over them and we saw a shift towards 4-2-3-1 which I believe came about through statistical analysis.

Research started to show the value of key space between the lines in an area called “Zone 14” and so we started to see more and more teams deploying this formation because it allowed teams to match up 3v3 in the middle vs sides playing 4-3-3, dominate 3v2 vs those playing 4-4-2 as well as play in pockets of space the 4-4-2 can’t defend so well....but,  it also placed 2 defensive cm’s around zone 14 when defending to protect the most valuable space but equally when attacking it placed 3 attackers between the lines in and around zone 14 to exploit this zone to maximum capacity. One of the other major advantages to 4-2-3-1 is that you can attack and defend in the same system fluently need never change. If you play 2 inverted wingers your midfield 5 is already very compact when you attack so when you lose the ball you don’t need to adjust or adapt leaving you free to press instantly and prevent play coming through the middle, a style of play made famous by Jurgen Klopp. Now we are again seeing another shift back to 4-4-2 especially for weaker sides in possession. Teams that don’t seek to keep the ball will play a 4-4-2 so compact and deep that it consumes all the space and forces play out wide where it is easy to defend...when teams win the ball back there only concern is breaking forward at lightning speed and trying to score within 6-8 seconds (Leicester and Atletico have really become the pioneers of this style of play)

5. How would you address defending the flanks playing with a 4-3-3 against a 4-4-2 when the outside back overlaps, the attacking mid and striker are on the strong side?

Difficult to answer because so many factors/variables that play out in these scenarios...first of all teams have to understand what type of defensive system they are implementing, do they defend zonally or are they taking a man orientated approach?...equally the game itself can change the dynamics of how you approach this....if you are losing for example you might want to take risks and limit the defensive responsibilities of your attacking wide players (this becomes a game of cat and mouse because when you defend your will be outnumbers but when you win the ball back your winger might be completely free in space to counter)....the next key consideration will be the abilities of your players or the abilities of the oppositions....if they are poor in 1v1’s you might again allow greater attacking license to your winger....if you have outside backs who are not strong defensively in 1v1’s you’re going to need greater support.....overall my preferred way of handling this (but doesn’t make it the right solution for every team) is to play zonally with dcm’s doubling up in the channels with my wingers tracking back to their zone based on where the ball is positioned so we always have 3 players minimum defending the flanks

 6. The whistle blows, what are the first 3-5 things you look for at the start of a match?

Good question....probably say the oppositions attacking lines first to see if there are any areas of the field they are outnumbering me.  What approach they are taking (pressing in a high, central or low block.  Are they playing out from the back if so with how many players....are they playing out wide, through the middle, long/short passes and what movements are there forwards making ).

Then its a matter of adapting my own team and ensuring players are spotting triggers and playing to my game plan or changing my game plan if needs be.

7. What advice would you give to young coaches about the tactical side of the game?

Read as many books as you can....I started out with very limited knowledge 10 years ago, I read every book I could find, I watched thousands of games and constantly and asked “why?” I surrounded myself around experts and mentors and then when I was out in the field I was not afraid to experiment or fail as I constantly tried new ideas without a care for if they worked or not but rather to understand the all these experiences would enhance the knowledge I had so that I could apply context, draw on experiences and prepare me for elite levels of coaching.


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