Football tactics: What is the half-space, a low-block and the role of a ‘number 10’

Football is a simple sport, right? 22 sweaty people in varying degrees of tight, vibrantly coloured polyester. Wearing a mixture of attire that nobody would ever choose. Running around a patch of green, possibly muddy brown, smooth or bobbly grass. Kicking a bag of air into a pretty formation of string, held up by a solid, though often wonky, rectangle. There’s no need for tactics in football.

It is a simple game.

Hearing a group of deeply passionate parents or even 20,000 eager fans groan and let out the phrase “why are you passing backwards”. Well, why are they passing backwards? Football is simple remember. You have to put the bag of air into the pretty string.

There are obstacles in the way of course. Whether it’s the weather, the pitch, the referee, the Saturday night hangover or, more commonly, the opposition.

You have the big lump of a centre half that blocks the whole box. The marauding midfielder that rats around your ankles for 90 minutes, kicking you at every chance. Or the lanky striker, the one that hasn’t had a shower in a few days, sticking his elbows into your face when trying desperately with every inch of your body to win that header. We all know these guys. The footballer stereotypes. They’re all there to stop you from achieving that aim. Score a goal. Preferably more than the opposition.

So, when we hear words such as ‘half-space’ and ‘double-pivot’ we can get confused or angry. Is there any need for these words? Don’t they just complicate the simplicity of the beautiful game?

Yes, they probably do. But in the world of competitiveness and winning, these words are nuanced ways of expressing how to get the better of the other team. They aren’t a reason to show off or express tactical knowledge.

A team is more than a few numbers that dictate a vague symmetrical pattern that visualise a formation. Football isn’t symmetrical, it can’t be completely planned for. It can be exploited.

Therefore, these words alone can’t make teams and players win games. But, if used and explained in the right way, they can give that tactical edge. If used as a way of passing on information and instructions to players that other words don’t, they will be effective. Paint pictures that only these certain phrases can paint.

Oh, and they do sound good as well.

Football tactics: commonly used words

Half-space

So, to start things off, in this mini-series I’m going to be taking a look at these words and phrases that have recently started to crop up in analysis. People may or may not like the words, they also may or may not understand them. This first word isn’t necessarily football tactics but more of an area on the pitch.

The term ‘half-space’ refers to the areas in between the wings and centre of a pitch. It’s a simple one really because it is the space half-way between the centre of the pitch and the flanks.

Similar to the role of the number ten, which I will cover later in this article, the half-space is meant to be an area on the pitch that is grey. Defenders don’t want to push out into it and midfielders can be caught blindsided by movement into these areas.

It’s very similar to the term ‘in between the lines’ but, referring more commonly to the areas surround the 18-yard box rather than between the layers of opposition formations. When the ball navigates it’s way into the half-space, the options open up. It’s not too narrow to cross, but it’s not too wide to shoot. There is usually a reluctance to foul in the half-space because of set piece danger and therefore the attacking side has all the power.

The ball can be threaded through to three main areas, the wing, inside the box and laid off for deeper runners in the centre. It also doesn’t limit the attacking team to one side of the pitch and can be a useful area to find opposite flanks to spread the attack.

If you want a more tactical and in-depth review of the half-space then it can commonly be found on YouTube, Twitter and other sites.

My verdict on the term half-space is that it is extremely useful in describing a specific area of the pitch which can be hugely advantageous. If players can learn to use the half-space properly and find their way into it, either receiving the ball or driving in, it’s a vital area of the pitch. Especially for fluid, possession-based teams with smart players with a lot of flair.

Low-block

In a nutshell, the low-block is a fancy way of defending deep. Not always a park-the-bus type of tactic in football, but retreating to the edge of the defensive box. The word implies a deep line and much deeper engagement point. Rather than press high, drop low and get into shape.

A low-block is also a tactic that can be shifted to at periods during the game of football. Whether it is the end of a match, with a slender lead, and the team needs to retreat. Equally, it could be a tactic used to draw on the opposition and look for fast paced counter-attacks. The low-block also isn’t just about fighting for your lives. If it’s implemented correctly, it can be aggressive and force the attacking side backwards. Leaving them short of ideas.

When thinking of a successful low-block, Jose Mourinho might come to mind. He has implemented it successfully at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan most successfully. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone also mastered the shape in the last decade. His Spanish side favour a narrow low-block as well. As to pigeon hole the attacking side to play out wide, banking on his defenders clearing any crosses.

It can also be implemented with almost any formation. Most commonly associated with ‘two-banks of four’ in front of the goal, so as to stop the attackers playing in the half-space. Antonio Conte has also used a low block, with two defensive midfielders as well, to great success in England.

My verdict on the term low-block is that it is used too often. A team, such as Sam Allardyce’s West Brom, use this tactic to grind out any points, playing “prehistoric football”. However, when a so called ‘bigger team’ uses a low-block it is often frowned upon.

The idea that it is easy to put 11 men behind the ball and win games is a myth. There are genuine nuances to tactics and football, and although Allardyce may use a low-block, describing it with the same term that is used to portray the way that some of the great teams and managers play, is the opposite of football heritage.

Number 10

Finally, for this first article, what is a number 10?

Well, it stems from the historical 1-11 formation with positions taking set numbers that almost every team would follow. Until football and tactics really came to the fore, a number 10 would be either a striker or a winger in a standard 4-4-2. As times evolved and the 4-2-3-1 came about, the number 10 would sit ahead of the deeper midfielders and behind the strikers. Or, in the hole.

Joe Cole celebrates Chelsea FC's first Premier League title.
Joe Cole, one of Chelsea’s best number 10’s and a prime example of the positions that have changed with more tactics in football

But, as more tactics and ideas in football develop, the idea behind the number 10 has changed. Some want a ‘second/shadow striker, some want a small, nimble, agile dribbler and some want a pass finding, assist seeking architect.

This means that depending on which sort of ‘10’ you want, will vary how they play. If we look at Juan Mata or Joe Cole as two of Chelsea’s best 10s of recent times (excluding Eden Hazard as he was a winger with the number 10 shirt). These players were both wizards with the ball at their feet. They importantly played in the half-space and found deceptively small areas in between lines to receive the ball and damage the opposition.

Due to their size and ability to ghost around the pitch under the radar, these two provided an attacking outlet that can harm opposition defences even without the ball.

My verdict on the term number 10 is that it now covers a range of positions and roles underneath it, making the number alone, not clear enough to be used as it once could in a debate. Although it still describes a position on a pitch, and that hasn’t changed massively, the sentence “play like a 10” can mean a lot more now than 20 years ago.

Written and edited by Tom Coley @tomcoley49

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