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“As flies to wanton boys are we to de Zerbi; They move us for their sport."
The act which encapsulates the consolidation of possession and desire to create control perhaps more than any in world football, is the dignified stance of Marlon, stopping the ball with the sole of his boot for Roberto de Zerbi’s Shakhtar.
De Zerbi states:
“I like the sole as a technical gesture because it gives you total control, with the reception on the inside foot. Sometimes the ball gets away from you a bit”
This seems to reference the ‘bounce’ of the ball on a microcosmic level, and subsequently the de Zerbian commitment to control insofar as even small potential for technical variance should be eradicated, and the ‘bounce’ conquered. To some, the sole control is perhaps the most rudimentary, and the first taught to children chasing endlessly after the ball; it is a first step, rather than the goal. As it takes any momentum away, its considered easier, but ultimately a basic to overcome when players become more capable of working with the ‘bounce’. And this is the most common rebuttal to emphasis on the sole: it kills the tempo. However, for de Zerbi, this is a feature rather than a bug. In positional play, “the objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.”
The sole aims to be a provocatory gesture whilst control is maintained; it is the embodiment of composure, a static act, encouraging the opponent to close the distances. The team in possession decide when the transition ensues, and have a suitable amount of time to calculate options in possession, increasing legibility through increasing time, whilst reducing opposition control by provoking impetuousness and breaking stucture through encouraging a press which opens space in between the lines. Emphasis on this facet may seem pedantic; however, even slight uncontrolled directionality cedes control to the opponent, whereas the sole maintains centrality. When you have the dynamic edge, continuing the transition, using the directional pace of a ball to your advantage makes sense; however, in consolidated possession, it grants the opponent the greater benefit of foresight and reduces in possession flexibility and thereby control. To centralise again takes another action, and hence more time of the opponent to react to a cumbersome reorientation – these again may seem minute details; however, maximising playing out of pressure is about fine margins, and maximising space created, whilst not being caught out for being overzealous.
De Zerbi is aware of the potential aesthetic element of this technique which embodies an ideology towards control; cautious that the means becomes the end. The aim is provocative as Antonio Vacca explained. The question subsequently becomes, why does this gesture bring the opponent out? The first reasoning is potentially looking at the sole as a psychological instrument; a matador waving a red cape at a bull. However, why do the opponent come out beyond a seemingly controllable instinct if it is so profitable (for the possession side) – in the first few instances, when the technique was being pioneered by Vacca, impetuousness would make sense, but, the level of modern analysis would mitigate this by seeing it as a common element of de Zerbi’s game. When the ball is stopped by Marlon – the game state becomes static, which temporarily benefits man-orientation as the opponent can prevent any progressive passes by getting tight. However, firstly an extra man can be added to the equation to undermine the basis of man-orientation in the keeper, with Consigli at Sassuolo being particularly fond of the ball roll progression against man-orientated opponents. However, even in more advanced regions, stopping with the sole becomes dangerous because dynamism is introduced via player movement, with the team in possession being the instigators, all the while, Marlon can evaluate the options with time in possession, leading to potentially dangerous direct balls, in addition to other ways around manipulating more static man-orientation in the centre such as playing the ball into feet between the 2nd and 3rd lines, use the space to link up with onrushing players, and using the dynamic superiority to make the ball before the markers, undermining previous cover shadows. Up-back, up-back - constantly moving and changing the placement of the ball thereafter and using the dynamic edge created through being the instigators.
Alternatively, should the opponent remain diligent, close off space well whilst preventing any progressive passes, Marlon can progress simiarly to Consigli, provoking the proximity, creating either a two v one, with the increased proximity increasing the strength of the passing connection to the nearby player, thereby allowing him to better adapt around the opponents cover shadow, because he (the opponent) has less time to react and is ball focused. Or, alternatively, Marlon could continue progressing until enough territory is gained to allow an advanced direct ball into the forward players, where the bounce then becomes advantageous, as the arena of play is altered, and the stakes mean any positive bounce benefits the attackers disproportionally. Meanwhile because the opponent are rigid in their orientation, and Marlon high, the counterpressing stucture (of Shakhtar) is usually conducive to sustaining pressure which better facilitates risks. When looking to stop, build, control and reinitiate then, the sole seems pertinent.
The sole thus typifies the positional play maxim of “The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.” And the corresponding press-baiting element encapsulated by Sun Tzu “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him.” Shakhtar seek to play on the precipice. This moreover explains the emphasis on central compactness, because it allows the opponent the illusion of getting closer whilst nevertheless remaining strong within the tight latticework of passing connections, where the short distances create interconnectivity to subsequently release the touchline winger or the players sitting in between the lines – playing comfortably in tighter with a supporting stucture draws the opponent closer, minimising coverage elsewhere, and this is done a controlled fashion via the sole, rather than through erratic adaptation. Against man-oriented opposition, finding space in between the lines is typically easier, whereas against more zonally compact sides, the route to progression typically occurs out wide.
More than being simply a tool used by Marlon, it can additionally be seen in short passing sequences, which functions under similar rationale of removing erraticism. Quick stop, then move possession under pressure to ensure the receiver has better conditions to receive due to a less erratic pass. Composure is understandably required to perform this, because removing dynamism when under pressure rather than quickly circulating is counter-intuitive and dangerous, but manageable.
To reify these concepts, the wonderful Dario Pergolizzi edited a video of Marlon’s touches against Genk. Noted should be the soles frequent usage when building up deeper contrasted to play in between the lines as deeper is where control is sought. The control enables legibility through removing momentum and allowing the ball carrier complete control of the next action. This moreover benefits the receiver, as the static conditions allow him to constantly use the dynamic advantage conferred to adjust body positioning around the opponents pressure to receive, as the erratic variable of the bounce, which influences potential passing angles is negated. The tight supporting stucture which enables the sole’s omnipresence is moreover demonstrated, as to entice, they require support to work around the opponent’s pressure, with the small distances providing greater adaptability around cover shadows, by increasing the pertinence of minor movements as the opponent has reduced time to intercept. The smaller distances in addition to centrality moreover frequently open half-space passing lanes, as the opponent’s central players compact, minimising their coverage in those regions.
Take for example the first clip. Marlon receives with the sole and roles it towards him, rather than allowing the ball to come across him. Maycon and Marcos Antonio proceed to a play a one-two which entices the Genk players forward, and triggers Solomon to come wide to inside to support, creating a half-space diamond, with the vertical and horizontal rotation between himself and his supporting FB generating confusion defensively, forcing the tracking CB to sit off and thus allow Solomon space in between the lines. This prevents the establishment of numerical parity and allows for tight circulation within the diamond, as prioritising cutting the vertical pass via compactness can be undermined by the diamond’s expansion creating space for the wider players, whilst focusing on the wider players leaves open the vertical. Moreover, the requirement to compensate numerically via cover shadows while pressing the ball carrier can then be undermined by the introduction of new angles quickly created by the support stucture, leading to even more routes of progression (up-back, up-back). Here the sole granted the initial control to progress, creating legibility for the players around him. The stucture provided the platform to both entice and support the initial provocation whilst killing the tempo allowed Shakhtar to take advantage of off ball dynamism through Solomon and Matvienko rotating. The sole was a component to overall desire for control created via numerical superiorities, diamonds which increase passing options, a central emphasis and discombobulating rotating movements. These complexities became actionable because the game-state was legible, the clockwork movement required predictability, allowing the Shakhtar players to react to controlled triggers during build-up.
Second clip demonstrated the control and conduct – signal Marcos Antonio inside to create a passing option to find the far-side CB now available because Marlon enticed the forwards run, generating a greater degree of isolation for subsequent progression – if unusually, the forward anticipates, the pass back to Marlon, as happened in the clip, which triggers the next step on the checklist for those familiar with Shakhtar’s methods to find the far-side CB through enticement, then creation of new passing angles using the dynamic superiority.
I love the clip at 1:22 because it shows Marlon stopping the ball after progressing slowly to gain full control to proceed with the vertical pass, granting him more control then over timing and weighting of the ball. It further demonstrates the half-space diamond in full effect, stretching the man-oriented markers to open the vertical.
2:54 yet again highlights the value of the dynamic superiority against passivity with regards to the stopping of play via the sole, as it provides the platform for players to interact within the tight spaces, gaining an idea of their teammates movements before the ‘chaos’, helping to control in between the lines play, characterised typically by the chaos of compaction and ‘the bounce’.
4:43 demonstrates everything moving around Marlon, static in possession. Off the ball movement rather than on ball movement creates new options as the opponent is constantly in a state of reaction, and covering newly opened angles whilst the Shakhtar players rotate. Common throughout is the half-space player dropping to then find the free full back after the winger committed out-to-in on the closing run. Even if tracked diligently by the defender, this pass is difficult to stop without conceding a foul.
Ultimately, the application of the sole should not be practiced by all sides, but the rarity with which it is outside de Zerbi is odd considering the emphasis teams place on control. Oftentimes opening up body positioning to continue transitions through moving the ball to move opponents is more advantageous. Perhaps at the highest levels such as Manchester City, the players are so technically and tactically proficient that the additional calculation time and erraticism reduction is negligible compared to benefits ascertained via circulation (moving the opponent more). Nevertheless, both as a provocatory and controlling gesture, its lack of application is surprising, and potentially something that will change as, all going well, de Zerbi’s profile amongst the European elite rises.