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Can you Stun your Opposition with a Soccer Tactics Change at Halftime? (Yes… Here’s How)

Every coach and every player has experienced this.  The best laid out plans; the team set up to play, to exploit our strengths and negate those of our opponents.  Then, we concede early, perhaps twice, and the plan/soccer formation has to change.

The English Premier League team Arsenal are a case in point, illustrating that the scenario above is as likely to occur on the hallowed playing fields of the professional game as it is on a Sunday morning at the local park.

Following twenty two years under the same manager – Arsene Wenger – and considerable success, a change at the top took place over the summer.  The new manager, Unai Emery, had established a reputation as a man who could over achieve with an average team, winning three consecutive Europa League titles with the Spanish side, Sevilla.  Then, he had a short but successful spell with the over-funded French team, PSG, winning a number of trophies.  Rumor has it, though, that he fell out with the Brazilian Neymar, and in the distorted world of modern soccer that was enough for him to be moved on.

At Arsenal he has made a good start.  The team lay fifth, just off a third place, and are going strong in all cup competitions.  In the league, they have 21 points from twelve games at the time of writing.  However, astonishingly (and pertinently for this piece) no less than sixteen of these points have been won in the second half.  In fact, the team have been behind at half time in no less than seven of their league matches, but gone on to lose just one of them.

While the reasonable criticism might be made of Unai Emery that he is not getting the first half right, he is certainly achieving success in the second.  There are several ways he has achieved this, and we will look at them in detail below, as his techniques are extremely adaptable to all levels of play.

Changing Personnel and Substitutions

Emery has displayed a willingness to change his players around early in games.  Coaches can identify a number of reasons for a change:

  • A player is having an ‘off-day’. Of course, confidence is all in soccer, and taking a player off because they are struggling can be damaging to self-esteem; coaches need to consider the long term risks against the short term benefit.  This is especially true when coaching young players.  Really, winning here should take its place in the list of priorities behind player enjoyment, player development and the self-confidence of team members.
  • A specific risk has been identified which could be nullified. For example, where a team has a tricky winger who is giving the full back a tough time.  Switching a pacy midfielder to full back, while bringing on a sub to fill his or her position can change the course of a match.
  • To initiate a change in formation – we will consider this in more detail below.

Change In Soccer Tactics Explained

Something that every coach can learn from the those at the top of their profession is the balance between sticking to philosophy, and adapting it for different circumstances.  Emery’s Arsenal like to play a possession based game, playing out from the back and moving the ball at pace.  However, sometimes, opponents can negate this by packing their midfield.  When this happens, a tactical change is to play the ball earlier and longer, looking to exploit the space in behind a pushed up back line, and to give the team’s pacy wide players a chance to run.

Clearly, for this tactic to work one of two conditions need to exist.  Firstly, our team needs to possess pace to get behind the opposing defense and/or, secondly, a strong target man type center forward who can hold up a long pass until support arrives.

Change in Soccer Formation Explained

A brief note for those new to the game:  in the formations listed below, the goalkeeper is not represented (the numbers shown total 10, not 11.)  The first figure refers to the number of defenders, the second to midfield (or sometimes defensive midfield, in which case the next figure relates to attacking midfielders) and the final number always refers to strikers.

As we are using the Arsenal model as a basis for this blog, we can say that this team like to play a 4-2-3-1 formation.  Here, all players are comfortable on the ball.  The full backs like to get forward, which can leave the defense exposed.  Two central defensive midfield players who are strong passers are employed.  In front of these, two wide midfielders and a central player, who doubles as a No. 10, are supported by the center forward.

When changing formation at half time, it is important that players have trained under that arrangement, and are very clear about their personal responsibilities.  For example, if changing to 4-4-2, does one of the strikers drop into midfield when possession is lost to create a 4-5-1 formation? With 4-3-3, do the three strikers pressure as a unit high up the pitch, hoping to win possession or force a long, hopeful ball from the defense?  Or do they drop and look to pack the midfield, nullifying any opposition threat that way?

Formations can be changed because of injury forcing a substitution.  It can result from a desire to hold on to a narrow lead. For example, shifting to a 5-4-1 set up, which is strong defensively while offering the threat of a quick break. Of course, the change may be to get back into a game.

Sticking to Plan

Sometimes it is not necessary to change plan.  A part of Arsenal’s second half success is that their high possession, fast moving play means that opponents tire. This leaves more space as the game progresses.  The good coach decides whether it is best to trust their original soccer formation. If not, then they move to a different one in the hope of changing the outcome of the match.

Those that get that decision right most often are the ones that tend to have the most successful teams.

The video clip below illustrates a number of the points above.  The clip shows a wide player being changed with a more centrally minded midfielder.  The goal, as well as including a lot of individual skill, show the pace of Arsenal’s movement. The way the three midfielders support the central striker – also note No 2, Hector Bellerin, the full back, getting into the box.  The scorer, Aaron Ramsey, is the kind of player who offers the tactical benefit of arriving late in the opposing penalty area.  The player he replaced, Alex Iwobi, is a more of a traditional winger.

The clip demonstrates that changes in tactics and formations do work.


If you like this post, you’ll love our post on injury prevention tips for soccer.




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