Create the diamond

By John Cartwright

I’m fed-up watching Professional players pass the ball sideways and backwards. I fully understand the tactical importance of ball possession, but there seems scant understanding, real purpose and practical outcomes with ‘possession football’ – it should be to create openings (channels) in an opponent’s defensive lines through which penetrative action can be made as often and as positively as possible.


The opportunity to ‘breach’ these channels is NEITHER recognized nor attempted as frequently as they should be and negative, simplistic passing of the ball has become a priority over penetrative passing and runs with the ball.

Whenever possible, attacking play should simulate a ‘diamond’ shape of four players: two players should position themselves at an angle each side of the player in possession of the ball and a fourth player should position him/herself in a forward space. The player on the ball has a number of options to decide on – a pass to his/her right, a pass to the left, a pass forward or a penetrative run forward through a channel with the ball.

Too often in games, the deep player on the ball will select a wide player to pass the ball to when an opportunity to pass or run the ball forward is possible. It is often the case that players are not aware of or have insufficient tactical vision (understanding) to set up a ‘diamond’ shape: instead of players who should move to positions to ‘flank’ the player on the ball they either do not move into this role or they stand directly in front of the deep player on the ball and in doing so shut off an open channel to a more forward colleague. It is also a regular occurrence to see a channel open up and the forward player is unprepared to move into it to receive a pass.


The creation of the ‘diamond’ shape assists ‘flank’ players to either open-up a channel should their marking player follow them, or should the marking player stay in the channel the ‘flank’ player can receive the ball unmarked. This positioning also allows the ‘flank’ players the opportunity to make runs off the ball to support a front player if a pass has been delivered to him/her down the channel.

It must not be overlooked that it is often possible for a deeper player to run the ball forward down a channel. This creates an ‘overload’ (2v1etc.) or decreases the distance between deep and forward players. Once again tactical understanding or ‘fear’ of failure on the part of deeper players in making this type of attacking ‘surge’ stops this situation happening too often. This attacking movement on the part of a deeper player MUST be recognized by his colleagues and a rotation of positions must take place to cover any defensive space the deeper player has left behind.

The opportunity to create a ‘diamond’ shape in each of the thirds of the field is possible on many, many occasions and should be used whenever possible. Negative passing and simplicity must not continue to flourish. A positive attitude built on sound practice, skilled ability and better game understanding must be at the forefront of development and filter into the game at all levels.


34 thoughts on “Create the diamond

  1. The running with the ball into open spaces is the least coached it seems. There are more teams now trying to keep the ball than ever before, I was at a school District U11s competition recently, where I would say 80% of the teams were trying to play with the ball on the floor. It is a great point you make about the lack of running into spaces at the top end of our game, where they should know these essential basics. My team Leeds have made massive improvements this season under Bielsa. Last year I was frustrated to watch the same players stand still, little movement a few passes before it was pumped forward and became a 50/50 ball. This year the same team under a new coach are now offering themselves in wide and forward positions. The CB pontus janson isn’t afraid to take the ball into forward positions when the opportunity arrives. A completely different approach this season has seen them go from mediocrity to challenging for promotion.
    I’m presuming John regardless of the formation you set up with, the options to play this way will always present themselves? Do you have a preference when setting up teams, 433, 4141etc?

    • Hi David. Systems of play(team shape) is established around the ability of the players available at the time. However, if possible I prefer a 4.3.3 formation.
      This is the shape that Barcelona use. I like it because it provides both width and depth. I prefer the central shape to be a 2.1 this allows there to be at least on player available centrally if his partner is required to fill in a defensive ‘hole’ or is involved in a forward attacking situation. Barcelona’s midfield shape is 1.2 the single player being Busquets. If he covers back or breaks forward there tends to be a loss of players in this important area of the field at specific times in a game. So 2.1 and not 1.2 for me.

      • Hello John. I am surprised by your preference for the 2-1 instead of the 1-2 triangle… The foremost elite, innovative coaches – notably Guardiola and Klopp have continued to primarily employ a 1-2 shape with high pressing fullbacks and hard working wide forwards. This is the Cruyff/Barca gold standard which albeit requires super elite holding players in the mould/calibre of Busquets. Of course, both of these coaches are flexible enough to drop to a 2-1 when required but their default formation is to push the opposition and harry with advanced midfielders giving the No.6 more space and encouraging one of the centre backs to come forward. This is a matter of taste but there are more triangle combinations with a 1-2 shape compared to the 2-1. It is instructive however that Spain effectively employed a 2-1 shape with both Alonso and Busquets during their supreme era. Given the players at Spain’s disposal it seemed impossible that Del Bosque would not have played as many midfielders as possible in his team. In my opinion, despite the many criticisms of their attritional “tiki-taka” that Spanish team: 2008-2012 is the greatest international team that has ever played the game.

  2. Hi Diploma. Glad you enjoyed the blog. I’m sure there have been others in the ‘keeptheball’ library that have been as interesting as this one over the past years but i’m happy this one this one holds a special place for you.

  3. Hi Kramekosum. I prefer the 2.1 set-up because it allows either player to make supportive runs to establish the 1.2 formation, what I don’t like is the times when the deeper player is pulled into a more advanced situation. At these times the central mid-field area is left vacant.
    I believe Bousquets is an excellent player and fills spaces at the back of the team if the full-backs or central defenders have gone forward, again the single player shape leaves the space in mid-field. But as I said a team shape depends on the ability of the players available.
    I agree with your assessment of the Spanish team of the 2008/12 period. The problem with so many teams today who try to play a ‘form’ of Spain’s possession style is that they fail to accept that their players do not have the ability of emulate that playing style.

  4. Charlton Athletic have been playing a midfield diamond on many occasions in League 1 this season. It works quite well and I feel that manager Lee Bowyer has skilfully utilised the players he has at his disposal in order to make it work. He is fortunate to have a young player on loan from West Ham, Josh Cullen, at the base of the diamond who uses the ball well and always makes himself available to receive passes from his defence. Another promising young player, Joe Aribo, plays on either the right or left side. There is fairly limited rotation, however, in matches i have seen with the players keeping their starting positions. They move across the midfield area as a block and up and down the field. A lot of responsibility is placed on the full backs to provide width and sometimes the opponents take advantage of the space behind the full backs.
    A general weakness i have noticed at all levels, with the unwillingness or inability bring the ball forward from defensive positions, is the easy job this gives to holding midfield players in the opposition ranks. Because passes are made earlier than they need to be, the opposition holding midfielders can stay in position, screening their centre halves, for longer than they should be allowed. They are not drawn away from covering the channels into which the passes could be made and intended for the strikers. If players were more skilled and aware of when to run with the ball, then these defensive midfielders could be drawn away from their comfort zone and passes could be made into the channels or else into the feet of strikers if this is the ball that is on.

  5. The battle between Manchester City and Liverpool for Premier League winners is going right to the wire and either of these two outstanding teams has the right to claim that they would be worthy champions.
    My own personal preference would be for City to ultimately claim the title – just! I lean slightly towards them because, apart from in defence, their squad is made up of relatively small players. As at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola has coached players to possess a low centre of gravity and therefore able to withstand the physicality of a tough league in which their technical skill shines through. The strong foundation of each player enables them to protect and manipulate the ball, whatever the physical challenge they are subjected to. As someone who has closely followed the coaching approach of the Premier Skills methodology, I see this reflected in the play of Sterling , Aguero, Silva and others, as it was with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta at Barca.

  6. Hi Steve. Your description of City’s playing ability is ‘spot-on’. Guardiola, has built teams with individualism as a playing priority, all subsequent playing requirements have been attached to create total playing needs. I say all, but I believe Guardiola, misses out on aerial quality in attacking situations. I’m not suggesting City should have ‘donkey’ up front, but there are games in which aerial ability could be used positively as added opportunities to supply more chances to score against teams who defend in large, congested numbers.
    The type of player(s) I’m describing should be capable of individualistic ability but either through height or jumping power be able to meet high crosses and head the ball at goal or to a supporting player to finish. Heading is an important part of the game; in defending and in ATTACKING. Possession football has reduced heading opportunities and in my opinion this has produced a lack of attacking variation to the game.
    Remember, when space on the ground is limited, there’s ALWAYS space in the air !

  7. Hi all. The creation of a ‘diamond shape’ in attacking play is often noticeable but goes unused. Instead of both penetrative passes being a priority and support play linkage happening, too often negative passes are made and support play fails to take place. Safety-first football has become a prime part in today’s possession-conscious game.
    So many attacking possibilities go unused for both individual and group involvement that could bring excitement and success into the game. Instead the ball is passed sideways and backwards to produce negative statistic figures. The ‘diamond shape’ is neglected and simplisity flourishes.
    Guardiola’s, playing style can be often questioned with regards to negative passing. However, he is astute enough to know the importance of individual playing quality that is prepared to conjoin with others when necessary to produce team success. Unfortunately, too many followers attempting to copy City’s style do so without either the talent nor game understanding required to play it so we see ‘fractured’ performances full of effort but littered with faulty football.

  8. Hi Dave. I think they are a club who are gradually improving. They have a good squad but it lacks the extra qualities in mid-field. They have variations in their attacking play and are prepared to either play possession or direct football. Defensibly they look pretty solid both in the air and on the ground and look well drilled from front to back when defending.
    They look a club that needs a couple of players who can add ‘class’ to move them into the top levels of European football.

  9. I am currently reading “They Played For John Lyall – The West Ham Years” by Tim Crane.
    From 1974 until 1989 John Lyall was the first team manager at West Ham. Together with the years 1961 – 1974, when Ron Greenwood held that position, this was the Golden Age for the east London club. During John Lyall’s tenure, 77 different players played in the West Ham first team. The book comprises interviews with all 77 players, relating their opinions and impressions of John Lyall’s approach and methods and their memories of West Ham at that time.
    In these interviews there is constant reference to the attention to basics which was the hall mark of West Ham from that era. John Lyall referred to them as “good habits”. Some players came through the youth development structure from a young age and so those habits had been ingrained from their earliest years. Other players were signed from clubs in all four divisions and so had to learn the ‘West Ham Way’ when well into their twenties. But the majority added considerably to their football knowledge, even if their time at Upton Park was quite short.
    At this moment in time, we have seen the emergence of a number of talented individuals in the English game and there is justifiable hope that a promising future could be around the corner. Most of the interviews in the book were made just before this emergence of talent became apparent and so many of the ex-players are quite critical in their views of the neglect in coaching the basics which they received. Despite the recent tournament success with the England under age teams, I feel that we would do well to take note of these warnings because i see plenty of instances where a player of talent is failing to lift his eyes regularly to survey areas of the pitch around him, where body adjustment is poor and playing on the half turn is not a natural part of the playing repertoire.
    John Lyall, like Ron Greenwood before him, made an enormous contribution to both West Ham in particular and to English football in general. It would be a tragedy if that work were not to continue.

  10. Well said Steve. Today’s children, because the influx of youtubers are all interested in rainbow flicks etc but the basics of kicking a ball or receiving it are forgotten.

  11. Hi all . Last night’s game – Man. city v Leic. was an example of what I have said for a long time about ‘possession football’ and City’s version of it in particular. The amount of possession they achieved in the area around Leic’s penalty area was huge however, crossing of the ball tended to be hard and low because City lack aerial quality in attack. Had they a player with aerial ability they would have won this game easily and their position at the top of the Premier League would have been over well before the last couple of games.

  12. Hi all. Before we all get too excited about our success in both Euro football competitions it is interesting to no note that of the 44 players starting these recent games, only 7 players were English !

  13. The success of English teams in European competition this week reflects the strength of the English Premier League, and not the strength of English football.
    The performance of Ajax for 90 minutes in the first leg at Tottenham and in the first half of the second leg in Amsterdam, illustrated that this famous Dutch club has unearthed some exciting young talent and the coaching is starting to produce football that is comparable to their brilliant teams of the past. The great shame is that the team will break up almost immediately as their young players are tempted to sign for big European clubs who can pay far higher wages than Ajax.
    I think that we could get a far more accurate guide to the relative standings of the current crop of Dutch national team players and those in the white jersey of England, when the two countries meet in the UEFA Nations League semi final in Portugal. Holland’s performances have improved considerably in the last few internationals with the inclusion of several Ajax youngsters.
    We do have some young talent that could lead England into the final stages of international competition against stronger opposition than we were favoured with last year in Russia. But the limited game time afforded to most of these young players in first team matches is the biggest stumbling block I feel. The conclusion is being reached that you can’t have a strong domestic League and a strong National Team. Actually you can, but it requires leadership and people prepared to stand up and introduce and enforce rules that compels Premier League clubs to field a minimum number of English born players in each match during the season. If the big English clubs take a hit with such rules and the League ceases to be the money-spinner it presently is, then so be it.
    When a young, talented player like Loftus-Cheek is routinely substituted at about the same time in each match as he was last night for Chelsea against Eintracht Frankfurt after producing a fine performance, capped with a superb goal, then the best interests of English football are not being met.

  14. Hi Steve. Yes to your comments. However, for all the young players, past and present, the limited number who reach top level has not been anywhere near enough. Lack of playing time is a reason, but poor development methods are not providing the correct education for youngsters here. Skills, tactics, understanding, mentality, all fall short in practice and are alarmingly missing in match-play throughout the whole development period.
    There is insufficient compareable linkage between practice and competitive playing. This gulf in our development structure leaves important areas of learning not given sufficient time for understanding and ability to be absorbed to produce high playing standards.
    It is more likely that young player success is more a matter of luck than design. Our youngsters deserve a much better ‘football pathway’ and then we would need less import of foreign players into our game here.
    I’m sorry to say —— don’t hold your breath, an improved development ‘pathway’ is unlikely to be introduced —— old habits are often too difficult or not seen necessary for changes to happen.

  15. It was ironic that after a first half which was often uncomfortable for them at Brighton, Manchester City clinched the League title when Laporte put them in the lead with a header from a corner and the result never looked in doubt after that.
    Laporte’s aerial ability has been a key factor in City’s success this season,although more often in defence than in attack. He has had a number of central defensive partners – Kompany, Otamendi, Stones – but he has shown himself to be good in the air and therefore not a typical City player.
    When Pep Guardiola was at Barcelona he bought Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But his time at the Nou Camp was short lived, with the reason given that Guardiola decided to use Messi as a ‘false number 9’ and so there was no place for Ibrahimovic. Or maybe Guardiola decided that giving their play an aerial variation was something he did not want to pursue?
    The ‘Mail On Sunday’ has published statistics which reveal that City average at least 200 passes a game more than any of the other teams who have won the League Title during the last 15 seasons. They also “make nearly half the tackles and boss the possession like never before.” In contrast, when Leicester won the League in 2016, they “completed only 248 passes per game with just 42.4 per cent possession.”
    I recall that following Leicester’s title success, John expressed the opinion that if other English teams followed Leicester’s example then we would be capable of beating any team in the world. But instead, we have very largely copied the possession game, without the skilled individualism of a Barca and resulting in a game style often providing too much negative passing and possession.
    I do not believe that Guardiola is totally fixated on possession, regardless of the players at his disposal. When he left Barcelona and went to Bayern Munich, he took great pains to stress to the Germans that it was not his intention to create Barca Mark 2. He realised their strength lay in their wingers, Ribery and Robben, and the goal machine at centre forward, Lewandowski. The big Pole continued to score prolifically during Guardiola’s time in charge, serviced by Ribery and Robben.
    It will be interesting to see if Guardiola makes any adjustments to City’s playing style next season and, if so, how the rest of the League reacts.

  16. Hi Steve. Thanks for your reply. As always you make an interesting read.
    The Man. City squad and playing style are well-blended, but there is always new styles and players to be considered — nothing stays the same in life or on the football ground.
    My belief about City’s future success is that they will need to have more attacking variations as opponents defend against them in more numbers and depth.
    Aguerro, is a splendid player and must fit into any future playing style. However, he tends to drop deeper to receive on many occasions and links attacks well, but there is a lack of a target player of high all-round playing ability who can offer good attacking options in the air.
    A playing style that has Aguerro, playing off a more advanced colleague with high ability in all playing aspects would create a huge problem for any opposing team.
    City’s ‘play-round ability in the front third is without doubt —- brilliant. But even though they produce excellent crossing positions, too often these are not delivered because there is no ‘target player’ available to attack high crosses. a fantastic Coach. Perhaps he has something different in mind. Whatever it is he must be prepared for adaptations in attacking play as, I have already mentioned, nothing stays the same!

  17. Charlton Athletic rode their luck a bit in beating Doncaster Rovers on penalties to reach the League 1 Play Off Final last Friday.
    Grant McCann looks to be doing a good job with Doncaster. They played some good football and showed a lot of determination in overturning 1-2 deficit from the first leg at their own ground. I was impressed with their striker, John Marquis, who looks to have come on a lot since he was a young player at Millwall. His movement and running off the ball was good and indicated good work on the training ground. McCann spent the early years of his senior playing career at West Ham and though he did not make many first team appearances, he seems to have used his time there wisely in gaining ideas which he has brought into his work as a manager and coach.
    Many players who have enjoyed illustrious playing careers have not made a big mark afterwards when they have turned to coaching or managing a team. It is often the less celebrated players who go on and prove to be the better coaches. So it will be interesting to see how Grant McCann’s career develops.

  18. On checking back the DVD recording of last Saturday’s FA Cup Final, Manchester City v. Watford, I noticed a very good example of what John Cartwright has written concerning the forming of a diamond shape to release an attack on the opposition.
    The second half had just started and Watford, 0-2 behind, were desperately trying to get back into the game. They attacked vigorously down the right and a dangerous situation emerged to the left of the City penalty area, close to the corner flag. Left back Zinchenko got back to help snuff out the danger but he was closed down in an over populated part of the pitch. Immediately Laporte, David Silva and Sterling took up positions to form a diamond with Zinchenko. The ball went into the two players at angles with the Ukrainian and they exchanged passes before giving it back to Zinchenko who immediately clipped it forward to Sterling. The forward sold a superb dummy to evade his marker without touching the ball and he broke clear.
    A great piece of attacking play which almost brought a goal. A shame it didn’t because it would have been goal of the season and a change from the ‘pile-drivers’ that usually receive that accolade. But an illustration of what will happen when players, as John puts it, “create the diamond”.

    • Hi Steve. It seems we have a personal ‘chat’ with each other. I would like to express my admiration for your football knowledge and interest in the game.
      There are opportunities all over the field to ‘create the diamond’ and so many attacking options can develop from it. It’s a pity so few clubs make use of it. — another weakness in our development education!

  19. The ‘Pep’ philosophy of getting men around the ball to closely support all over the pitch lends itself totally to having these ‘diamond’ situations and also the prevalence of the half positions that occur. Furthermore,once the ball was pushed up to to Sterling – with enough pace for the ‘get out’, David Silva – constantly checking the shoulder – moved to a new angle to allow a touch back if Sterling had wanted. City are a team with so many good habits, and its their integration of these with the creation of the diamond, making them eminently watchable and at times utterly ruthless.

  20. Hi Brazil94. Yes, the options that can be used from the ‘diamond’ shape can be such an important part of the game.
    This type of thinking doesn’t seem to be attract our development process .

  21. Hi John and Steve, can I just say from the outset this is quite a brilliant post ( that I have been pondering on, in probably the best by far technical tactical blog on the web!) and relates to the Premier Skills Coaching. Clearly John is criticising the coaching currently taking place and for players to constantly make ‘good’ angles angles and being aware of where to run and re-position themselves.

    John in an earlier post on this topic stated that ‘A playing style that has Aguerro, playing off a more advanced colleague with high ability in all playing aspects would create a huge problem for any opposing team’. In essence then, we have from the above the top of the diamond ( the advance colleague), Aguero to one side in the natural set up and then depending on the side he drops into requiring another to be in a parallel position to him and then the base man, making up the four points. I think John has identified the scenario establishing three of the four points. Inevitably, potentially, Man City would be more potent through the middle… and against lesser sides ( almost anybody) they could go for a back 3 with a fullback pushed up like Daniel Alves at his best. It is a case of where the second central attacker comes from. John also stated he prefers a midfield of two ‘holders’ and so the more advanced, surely would play in tandem with Aguero; although one of ‘holders’ in the 2.1 could advance. This is one for the ‘salt and peppers’…but I do like the way JC’s structure and use of two up top helps create the diamond.

    X X X (Fullback!)

    X (Aguerro)


    X X

    X X X


    I’m hoping when it loads to the site this will look OK!! However, of course this is just one way of looking at it; and the players would take up positions as required to CREATE a central diamond; which would allow for an easy transfer of ‘up, back and through’; yet a multitude of permutations are obviously possible.

    The key to me is to thoroughly COACH the idea, cement it, and then allow the players to react to the various movements of their team mates ahead of them.

  22. Unfortunately the above diagram did not transfer well… so the front three are spread; Aguerro drops to the side, deep off the 9; the advanced midfielder takes up a parallel angle to him, and we have one on the ball at the base; making a diamond.

  23. Hi Brazil94…..Don’t forget that John has pointed out that Aguero is superb at linking the play but Manchester City do not have a ‘target’ type of player who is good in the air and could therefore add variety to their attacking repertoire by attacking high crosses.
    When considering the work that Guardiola has done at the three clubs he has coached, I always recall the Champions’ League semi final 2nd leg in 2010 when Barcelona played Inter Milan. The Italians played for an hour with ten men but although they were under almost constant pressure, they rarely looked like losing the tie. Barca’s failure to “mix the game styles” was very evident on that occasion. This has been a similar feature at Manchester City in the later stages of the Champions’ League.
    At just one of his three clubs has Guardiola taken over a team when a target centre forward was already in place and that was Lewandowski at Bayern Munich. And of course he had Robben and Ribery out wide to service him with plenty of crosses.
    I have pointed out before that Guardiola signed Ibrahimovic for Barcelona and it seemed at the time that this was to give another option. But he did not remain at the club long and the only reason put forward was that Guardiola wanted to use Messi as a ‘false number nine’. Maybe that or the fact that Ibrahimovic is not the easiest player to deal with.
    I recall that in 1971 Manchester City, then under the management of Joe Mercer and the coaching of Malcolm Allison, signed Bolton’s Welsh centre forward, Wyn Davies,who was a giant and scored most of his goals from headers. But i don’t remember him being a great success at City and not long afterwards they bought Rodney Marsh from QPR, a totally different type of forward, full of skills and tricks. But he did not fulfil expectations and City never recovered the performance level they had achieved from 1968 – 1970.
    Sometimes it is very elusive finding that final piece of the jigsaw. Maybe the only answer is to develop such a player from your own youth academy.

  24. Hi Steve…How come you missed the points I made and jumped to the following conclusion… “Hi Brazil94…..Don’t forget that John has pointed out that Aguero is superb at linking the play but Manchester City do not have a ‘target’ type of player who is good in the air and could therefore add variety to their attacking repertoire by attacking high crosses.”

  25. Hi Brazil94….I wasn’t sure if you were fully understanding the importance of what John terms – “mixing the game styles”.

  26. Hi Steve

    You say ‘Hi Brazil94….I wasn’t sure if you were fully understanding the importance of what John terms – “mixing the game styles”.’ I beg your pardon????!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s