Check Your 6

June 21, 2018

"If we win anything this season, it will be thanks to that decision to move Lahm. All the other pieces fell into place the moment we put him in central midfield." - Pep Guardiola

 

On August 30, 2013, Bayern Munich and Chelsea faced off in the European Super Cup. As Coach of Bayern, Guardiola inherited a star-studded team that had just won the treble under Jup Heynckes. At the heart of that treble-winning side was a double pivot featuring Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez.  Both players were set to reprise their roles that night, despite carrying some injuries.  Guardiola, however, was not fully convinced that Schweinsteiger and Martinez were the right fit for his tactical plans.  Neither was Domenec Torrent, Guardiola's assistant.  In the middle of the match, on Torrent's advice, Guardiola  decided to move Phillipp Lahm from his usual position as right back, into role of the the #6, known as the pivote or organizing midfielder.  Lahm stepped in as a single pivote!   It was a genius decision. 

 

Only 5 ft and 7 in., Lahm was never seen as the star of the team.  A quiet and loyal player, Lahm spent his entire career at Bayern.  He was considered by all as a versatile and professional player.  But he has another important quality.  He is a really intelligent player.  That day, Lahm instantly showed his quality.  He displayed remarkable positional awareness and passing consistency, always in the right place at the right time.  He held up the ball at the right time, dictating the pace of play and springing the forward attacking players at the right time.  It was as if Lahm was born for the role.  Guardiola had found his 6! 

 

Bayern won the match against Chelsea after a penalty kick shootout.  In the post-game press conference, reporters were ready with questions about this new position and role for Lahm.  And Guardiola was ready with the response.  "Philipp Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level."  

 

 

 

Here in Seattle, we are at the start of a new youth soccer season.  Coaches here and all across the country are studying their player rosters trying to figure out how to put it all together.  Its a puzzle.  Where on the field should we place players if we are to get the best out of them for the benefit of the team?  It can be a tough task.  You've got to really know your players, their technical abilities, fitness, grit and intelligence.  At the youth level, you've got no choice but to work with what you have and to really give young players an opportunity to play in a variety of positions.  Still, you need to put the puzzle pieces together in a way that positively impacts the development of each player, as well as the team. 

 

When we speak of player development, we are usually referring to the obvious stuff - technical abilities, fitness, focus and intelligence.  Its all important.  Team development also requires attention to many things, including the coach's playing philosophy, style, team bonding, player personalities and camaraderie.  It really is tough bringing a group of players together and getting them to play as a unit.

But where to start?  For the coach who favors a possession-style of play, its easy.  Check your 6!  In fighter pilot jargon, "Check your 6" means to be aware of whose behind you.  For the modern youth soccer coach, "Check your 6" means paying attention to who is running the show for your team.  Who is the conductor of your orchestra.  It's not the coach (sorry to disappoint all you coaches).  Its the 6.

 

The 6 goes by many names, defensive midfielder, holding midfielder, pivot, organizing midfielder.  Of these names, organizing midfielder describes the job the best.  It conveys not only a sense of role, but most importantly a sense of responsibility.  "Defensive midfielder" seems myopic.  The 6 has more to do than just defending.  Holding?  Well, yes, holding up play, holding the ball, holding the line, regulating tempo, those are all within the 6's job description.  But neither of those terms really covers it for me. 

 

The 6 is responsible for organizing the entire team on the pitch.  They need to be in every player's business.  It is a role of immense responsibility and requires real game intelligence.  That's why for a possession-minded, positional team, the 6 should always be the player with the best combination of technical abilities, attacking instincts, defensive technique and game awareness.  In short, the smartest, most skilled player on the team.  Not necessarily the fastest, but certainly the most all around skilled player.

 

The 6 plays directly in front of the center-backs. His or her job is to play collaboratively with the back four (numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5), win as many balls as possible, keep the defense organized, provide supporting cover when any defender is ranging forward and organize attacking plays from the back. Organizing midfielders are typically rugged, strong players capable of challenging for the ball, winning it and holding it.  

 

 

In a properly organized team, all roads lead to the 6.  In the photo below, we see Sergio Busquets playing as the 6 for FC Barcelona.  He is at the heart of it all.

 

 

On my teams, the 6 is responsible for another important job, regulating the tempo of the team.  The 6 manages the heartbeat of the team.   Its a big job because our desired style of play is focused on possession and Positional Play (Juego de Posicion).  Key to this job is mastering La Pausa - the pause.  La Pausa is just that, pausing the ball and stopping the team's movement up the field in order to draw a defending player out of position to create space behind them or to draw an entire defensive block out of position.  Slow down the heartbeat.  Once the space is created, exploit it and move up the field.  Increase the heartbeat.  The 6 is the team's metronome, but with vision!

 

 

Using La Pausa not only requires a smart player, but also a technical one.  It is easier to make these pauses in your own half when the pressure is not as great.  To pull it off higher up the field where the defensive pressure is greater, the way Iniesta, Xavi and Modric do regularly, is vastly more difficult and requires a more technical and quicker thinking player.

 

There is also a unique possession instinct that a 6 must have.  When under pressure most players look to release the ball quickly.  Not the 6!  Their first instinct must be to keep the ball and take advantage of the expectations of the defenders.  If you are dribbling with the ball at pace, the defender will try to run with you.  Put your foot on the ball and the defender might go by you.  But now what will you do?  Why did you stop?  For the 6, this pause must always be with the intention of maintaining the integrity of the team's shape, the relative distances between players and waiting for the right time to move the whole team forward together.  

 

Watch this video and try to follow the movements of the organizing midfielder.  Notice his pauses, his rotational supporting movement and the way his pace and every pass and touch on the ball communicates the desired tempo of the team.  Negative passes to consolidate, achieve more comfort in possession and imbalance the defenders.  Forward passes when he sees that attacking opportunities are presented.

Now watch the video again and start at 30 seconds into the clip.  You'll see a deep negative pass from the left outside back to the left center back.  Watch the movement of the organizing midfielder and the center backs as they recover defensive positions.  Notice how the organizing midfielder really increases his pace to maintain good relative distance with the two center backs.  Pause the clip at about 32 seconds and you'll see a triangle between the 6 and the two center backs (4 and 5) surrounding the two opposing strikers. 

 

 

Then notice how the 4 and 5 quickly split wide, causing the two attackers to separate and move wider, and the 6 quickly drops into the central space created.

 

 

The keeper then plays the ball to the 6, splitting the pressing strikers.  The 6 then turns and calmly, with a much slower cadence, dribbles into the large space in front of him, assessing the next opportunity to organize the the team and launch an attack.

 

Seven seconds of positional and tactical perfection!  And at the center of all of it is the 6.  That is why it is so important to identify that player first.  

 

Who is that player on your team?  Who could be that player?  As far as I'm concerned, this is the first and most important decision for a coach starting to assemble a team, but it requires a holistic approach. Always start with a critical evaluation of the back four - the goalkeeper, the two center backs and the defensive midfielder.  For the Positional Play coach, these four players are the heart and the start of possession.   Possession begins with the keeper, playing out of the back.  To play out of the back successfully and keep the ball, the level of understanding between the keeper, the center backs and the organizing midfielder must be of the highest order. 

 

These players typically play together in an area of the field and game moments that feature the greatest pressure and the highest risk.  Think about it.  When playing out of the back, the opposing strikers are typically pressing in this area.  Lose the ball here and the opponent will punish you.  Plenty of coaches worry about this and prefer to have the keeper hoof the ball upfield to outside wingers or worse, punt it to no one in particular.  Better to do that than risk losing the ball in the six yard box, think these coaches. 

 

Its true that less technical players have trouble playing out of the back.  So perhaps the back is where your most technical players ought to be!  Don't give up on the idea of finding and developing your 6. Even if your players lose the ball and let in a goal, the work you are doing will pay off with patience and time.

 

First, make an honest assessment of each one of your players.  Is there a player who

  • has a well developed first touch

  • is a technical player

  • can see the field in 360 degrees

  • can win the ball

  • can hold the ball and shield it from defenders

  • can see beyond the next line of pressure

  • can create and exploit space

  • knows where to be and when to be there

  • can regulate and alter their own pace and the pace of the team

Probably not, if you are coaching players between the age of 7 and 13.  Obviously, no player that age has all of these qualities and abilities in professional form  But who among them comes closest?  Who among them has potential?  Who among them expresses interest in the role?    Try each of your players in that role.  A skilled coach tries to see the player beyond their current position or ability level.  Try to do that, and you may be surprised by what you discover.  Like Philipp Lahm, your 6 may hiding in another position just waiting for their opportunity to become the heartbeat of your team.  Developing a 6 is the most important and perhaps the most satisfying experience you will have as coach of a possession-based team.

 

And as you think about your roster and your players, watch this clip of Phillip Lahm just killing it as the organizing midfielder, the 6.

 

 

 

 

 

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