Liga MX

Tactics with Tom: Changing our Understand of Formations

After teaming up with Opta stats, the Récord website has been producing average player position maps as part of their online coverage of Liga MX. Average player position maps show, on average, where a player was on the field during a given match. They can greatly help us to understand a team’s formation and the roles of certain players.

Average player position maps can also question our beliefs of what certain formations look like. Here are a few examples of how average player position maps can change our understanding of formations.


Attacking full-backs

In modern football, the role of the full-back has changed. Full-backs are usually expected to contribute to both attack and defence, and often provide width and overlapping runs when going forward.

As a result, full-backs often don’t appear to actually be part of a team’s defence, particularly when one side is dominating a match, and pushing forward.

A couple of good examples from the previous jornada are shown below. These are the average player position maps of Necaxa and Pachuca.

necaxa pachuca


In both examples, the full-backs (2 and 24 for Necaxa, 12 and 6 for Pachuca) are significantly advanced from the 2 centre-backs, and almost in line with the midfield. When a defensive-midfielder plays deep, they can occasionally sit behind the full-backs on average.


Wingers further up the field than strikers

Whilst a high average position of full-backs is to be expected, this next observation wasn’t. On occasion, the furthest forward player on an average player position map hasn’t been a team’s striker, as you’d expect. Instead, it’s been a side’s winger. In fact, during jornada 9, 4 out of 18 teams had a winger as their furthest player forward on average.

The 2 examples below show Rodolfo Pizarro (20) as Chivas’ furthest forward player, and Jefferson Cuero (23) as Morelia’s most advanced on average.

chivas morelia

Perhaps both cases are a result of the strikers dropping off opposition defenders to get on the ball. Alan Pulido, Ángel Zaldívar (both Chivas) and Raúl Ruidíaz (Morelia) all regularly do this.

On the other hand, some wingers may not drop off the opposing defence, as that position is being taken up by full-backs that are pushing forwards. As the maps display, both Chivas and Morelia pushed their full-backs high during jornada 9.

The winger’s high positions may also be explained by their movement when a striker drops into an attacking midfield position, as they could be making runs in-behind.


Should we distinguish between wingers and inside forwards?

The term ‘fluid’ has often been used when describing Tijuana’s attack during the 16/17. Miguel “Piojo” Herrera’s attacking players have regularly been switching positions, and roaming from their starting spots. Throughout the campaign, Los Xolos’  ‘wingers’ have been known to often move inside from wide areas, both with and without the ball.

On the other hand, Pumas are a side that like their attacking players to stick to their expected role, and position. Pumas wingers regularly hug the touchline, particularly at home, making the pitch big.

The player maps below, both taken from jornada 9, illustrate the difference between the wingers of Tijuana (left, 7 and 18) and Pumas (right, 8 and 17). Note that Jesús Gallardo’s (17 for Pumas) deep position is a result of him being moved back to left-back in the 32nd minute.

tijuana pumas

The differences between the two ‘winger’ positions are evidently significant, and raise a question. Should we begin to distinguish between wingers and inside forwards when discussing line-ups and formations? This is something that happened historically, with the once-popular ‘W-M’ formation containing both wingers and inside forwards.

Furthermore, on occasion, a winger can drift across the pitch so much that, on average, they are on the opposite side to where you’d expect them to be. This happened with Tijuana’s number 18, Aviles Hurtado, against Pachuca last week. He started as a left-winger, but on average was positioned slightly to the right side of the pitch.


Overall, perhaps these average player position maps teach us that formations are just a basic start point, and that formations can be adapted in many different ways. One team’s 4-3-3 may look completely different to another team’s 4-3-3 in practice. Looking at these maps can help us to better understand exactly how various teams employ formations in multiple ways.

The maps also bring up a question of whether we can describe formations and positions in more detail, or with greater accuracy, in order to generate better understanding of tactics. For example, should an attacking full-back be considered as a separate position from a defensive one? Should wingers be described as part of the front lines of some teams, if they push beyond strikers on average, or as inside forwards in others?

We currently distinguish between defensive, attacking and central midfielders. Maybe it’s time to go further.




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