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Why the FB-to-FB switch is great, but why it shouldn't catch on

|| You shouldn't always copy the big guns ||

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Mark Thompson

Nov 05 2019

5 mins read

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A quick note that my Twenty3 colleagues’ presentation on ‘How to break down a set defence’ from the StatsBomb conference on Innovation in Football is available to watch here.

If you’re a subscriber to this newsletter then you probably know that full-back to full-back switches are one of the past couple of weeks’ fashionable tactical discussion points. Michael Cox wrote a lengthy article about Liverpool’s use of them against Tottenham in The Athletic; StatsBomb put out their own tweet about it too; and I’m sure it’s been mentioned on a bunch of football podcasts over the past 10 days.

Cross-field switches are nothing new, of course. They’re the cousin of the ‘Hollywood pass’ which central midfielders of 5-10 years ago latched onto. But in the current era of football, these full-back switches make a lot more sense than their glitterball predecessor.

The main reason for this is that teams don’t usually care about the opposing full-backs and they’re usually positioned that little bit deeper. Let’s take a look at an example that happened the same weekend as the Liverpool-Spurs match, but by the other Premier League team on Merseyside.

Look at the space that Djibril Sidibé has around him when he plays this cross-field ball (albeit on his weaker foot).

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As a bonus, the above screenshot also shows Lucas Digne (12), the recipient, just at the bottom of the image, and you can see how much space. Because the pass from Sidibé is on his weaker foot the execution isn’t super — it’s accurate but a little floaty — but Digne still receives it in yards of space (below).

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The Brighton player coming across to Digne, Davy Pröpper, actually puts in more effort than often happens when a full-back receives a switch. I think that, because full-backs aren’t one of the opponent’s primary threats, players are less likely to sprint out to close them down. (Granted, I don’t have data to back this up, which would be interesting to check out).

This lack of opponent pressure has obvious effects. The full-back has more space to control the ball in, and they’ll likely have space once they’ve done that to drive and attack. Even if they don’t, the opportunity to properly control the ball is huge. Sidibé’s pass wasn’t an easy one to control, and chesting it down took Digne forward a few more yards, but because he had that space it’s still clearly in his control:

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Everton have gained about 30 yards with that cross-field switch and have the ball clearly under their control (not just because Digne has it at his feet uncontested, but they’ve got a player in support as well). Even if Digne plays it back to the supporting player, Bernard, Everton are now playing firmly in the final third of the pitch when they were near the halfway line a moment before.

What other passes gain you 30 yards where both the pass-maker and pass-receiver are unpressured, eh? The full-back switch can do it for you.

And yet…

  • How many teams have full-backs who can both make and receive these passes?
  • How often is this type of switch actually worthwhile, compared to other options at hand? (There’s a reason that ‘Hollywood pass’ became the name given to the old type of long switch: a scoff at glory-hunting).
  • Will the full-back switch lose effectiveness quickly as teams realise that they need to make just a little bit more effort to close down the recipient, and/or pick up on tells for when a full-back is preparing for one of these passes?

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The full-back switch could suffer from something similar to ‘Goodhart’s law’, for which Wikipedia gives Marilyn Strathern’s definition: ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’. When a full-back switch comes to be seen as an inherently good type of pass to the point the pass-type starts becoming a target, it stops being a good type of pass (Strathern’s version is pithier).

But the full-back switch presents an interesting question in terms of presenting new ideas to coaches or players. This particular pass type definitely has some value in the current tactical era. But its value will probably drop pretty quickly if the pass is over-used. Maybe there’s only a handful of times per match when this switch makes sense, but how do you train players to be cognisant of a situation which might happen so infrequently? Will attempting to introduce it into players’ repertoires inevitably lead them to try it out more than is wise to do so, as they’re eager to put the new skill into practice?

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see whether more teams start trying to imitate Liverpool in this way. They probably shouldn’t, but it’s not like that’s stopped any tactical trends du jour before.

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By the way, as an addendum, here’s Sheffield United with a rather different kind of Hollywood pass — from centre-back to two very large players on the wing.

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Lovely stuff.

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