The art of the Half-Space: The Gladbach System

Hello everyone and welcome to another FM17 project. This time the spotlight falls onto Borussia Mönchengladbach: a historic team for German Football, ‘Die Fohlen’ have enjoyed their most successful spell in the 70’s and are widely regarded as one of the best footballing institutions in Europe. Having developed players like Marko Reus, Andre-Ter-Stegen in modern times or Herbert Wimmer, Berti Vogts and Günter Netzer in the golden decade of 70-80′ that saw them win eight trophies and make a series of appearances in European finals, BMG’s legacy is tied to several pillars of traditional German football philosophy: youth development, coaching excellence and tactical innovation.

The nickname ‘Die Fohlen’ (i.e. the foals, the young horses) isn’t incidental either, in that respect. Hennes Weisweiler, the coach that kick-started BMG’s golden decade, developed a style of football based on fielding highly energetic young players and employing an offensive-minded philosophy and powerful play that attracted fans from all over Germany. From the fans’ point of view there’s no doubt towards the visual relevance their tactical style had in that regard. Young, aggressive, quick, physical, hard-working and hungry – a horde of foals indeed.

The club has experienced a resurgence in their performances as much as their identity since appointing Lucien Favre as coach back in 2011. Prior to that, there were relegation battles, disjointed performances and a complete lack of vision that ultimately drove the club as low as the second division (98′ and 07′). Under Favre, the team re-discovered their emphasis on youth development as well as a tactical style that integrated elements of counter-pressing or ‘Gegenpressing’ with work-ethic and compact defensive displays.

A good article on the particularities of Favre’s style can be found here. Since the Swiss took over in 2011, BMG enjoyed 3rd and 4th placed finishes in the league and Favre’s tactical approach meant The Foals were once more amongst Germany’s elite. Players like Raffael, Xhaka and particularly young sensation Marco Reus have propelled the club to a mini-renaissance, however even that would prove to be short-lived. We are in 2017, Reus has long left for BVB, where he made his mark as one of the most efficient attacking players in the Bundesliga, Favre has left BMG after a dispute with the club’s board and The Foals found themselves ending the current campaign with a 9th placed finish.

I’ve taken it upon myself to ‘re-invent’ this club, maintaining elements of their core identity and pushing them to the next step in terms of domestic and maybe even European Success. The principles will be simple:

  1. Have a strong presence of young players (preferably German) in the squad and gradually build them into first-team performers.
  2. Develop a style of play that doesn’t venture far from ‘Die Fohlen DNA’. In terms of FM, here’s how I see it:
  • hard-working players and system relying on player’s determination, bravery, work-rate and stamina
  • a football style based on collective feats rather than individual brilliance
  • intelligent tactical strategy that seeks to exploit team’s strengths and minimise weakness

You don’t need to know a lot about BMG to know they’re probably the most hard-working, aggressive squad in the Bundesliga. The stats do that justice:



I’m looking to build on these core foundations of the team as much as the legacy of the above-mentioned Favre. Perhaps what he was most famous for was his narrow shaped 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 that allowed wide players to use space centrally in intelligent ways as well as maintain a robust tactical shape. This refers to one of those terms I keep mentioning a lot when talking about tactics, and in no way is that by coincidence:

The Half-Space

Image result for pitch football half space


Increasingly popular in modern football discourse, the half-space is a key strategic concept that has often been overlooked in traditional football thinking. Of course, there are a number of ways of interpreting space on a football pitch, however the most common markers of formation based interpretations usually exclude this term from the conversation. There a are plenty of reasons why understanding how the half-spaces can be best used can be extremely beneficial.

“Theoretically, one could even argue that the half-space is superior to the middle. From the half-space, both the middle and the wing are options. But from the midfield there are only the two identical half-spaces, which both have the same end product and a clear path to goal.”

The quote is ‘stolen’ from a fantastic article on Spielverlagerung which goes into great detail in analysing the particularities and interpretations of this spacial concept. Find the full article here, I strongly recommend you read it. For a short summary, though, we have the several points to guide our thought process:

1. Using the half-spaces allows for the ‘surprise element’ against the most common/traditional formations (4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3), which all emphasise either the middle or the wings, leaving gaps in the horizontal third quarter. Agglomerating the half-space usually results in opposition players being drawn out of position and an increased variety in the way space is manipulated.

2. Correct interpretation of the half-space allows for great flexibility in space coverage, be it defensive/attacking transitions or compactness of shape in rigid situations.

3. The geometrical applications of the half-space allow players positioned in that area to be better connected to various aspects of play as well as for players to have a better visual perspective on the situation on the pitch.

Part One: The System

I will start from the fact that if half-space theory is understood correctly then one quickly draws conclusions about the style of play that would enable a team to reap the full benefits of employing the half-space as the main tool for space-manipulation. Be it in defence or attack, elements of pressure and pass geometry are much more efficient if there is more than one player exploiting the half-space, or if the strategy of play revolves around a collective application to exploiting the half-spaces.

There are many formations that can be employed to illustrate a style of play like that, however I will go for the 3-4-3 as my big goal for FM17 was understanding this formation in as many applications as possible. So here are my key considerations for employing a 3-4-3 that will make its’ aim to exploit the Half-Space.


1. The BMG squad possesses a good mix of technically gifted players with good movement off the ball and vision as well as hard working defensive-minded players.

2. The application of the system will seek to exploit the intelligence and movement of the front three whilst relying on the work-rate and defensive know-how of the rest in a combined fashion. 

3. A general characteristic of the 3-4-3 is that its’ main advantage (the wings) are also its’ main disadvantage. Correct allocation of roles and team shape set-up can help smother the disadvantage, as much as particular attributes for key position such as the wide centre-backs and the wide players.


Shape / Formation / Mentality



The Reasoning behind the Team Instructions

I can already hear you saying ‘but… but.. it’s not a 3-4-3!’  :lol:  And before you do go on, I should say that I pay as little attention to formation cliches as much as I do to how much sugar I’ve got in my coffee. If you’ve read any of my previous stuff, you should find decent enough reasoning to my thought process there. All in all, what the FM tactics screen shows is about 5% of what really matters, as you’ll see in the upcoming analysis.

A very fluid set-up for the collective style of play mentioned earlier on, a standard mentality that allows me to neutralise the ‘generic approach’ and dissect the players that attack and defend via duties/roles and instructions. Whilst that might sound contradictory at first, the idea is to channel team efforts collectively towards space coverage via fluidity and balance the risk via mentality.

– a system that aims to manipulate space, hence ‘pass into space’: this instruction will exploit complex player movement and will take advantage from either the two deep passing options finding a player into space with a long ball or the attacking mids with a shorter pass

– even though I want my lines close to each other, I do not want my players too close to each other horizontally, given how many numbers we have in midfield. I’ve chosen a wider team shape to help stretch us out in that sense

– I have two deep passing options: one molding with the back three and the other a bit more advanced and creative, hence I ticked ‘play out of defence’, in order to exploit their functionality

– the tempo has been left at ‘normal’, as well as the passing at ‘mixed’ as I trust the players to choose between a long ball/short pass according to the situation (key note: our squad features some of the best decision-makers in the league)

– I want to work the ball in the box, given the front three are instructed to roam and create space via movement

– Even though I employ a ‘normal’ defensive line, I’ve instructed the team to close down more, so that we feature elements of high pressing in our style of play. I also use ‘prevent short GK distribution’ sometimes, when I feel we could benefit from additional pressing from the front three.
A juxtaposition that should explain better why I chose the current set-up:


You can see how high the number of players ‘concentrated’ in the half-spaces is, as well as having wide players that are instructed to ‘sit narrow’. Apart from the pressure on the half-spaces, we create a central ‘circle’ shape that will aim to circulate possession and maintain possession-based pressing.

Analysis of play

attacking shape

in our most attacking form, we become a 3-2-5 that shows good coverage of width and two deep passing options – the HB and the DLP, each prepared to offer support either side of the pitch, or create additional pressure in the left or right half-space. With the help of the DF who is instructed to ‘hold up the ball’, our wingers and attacking mids are much more involved in the final third


the two attacking mids have instructions to roam from position and will often drift from the centre to the flanks, or in other words, agglomerating the half-space :) here is a prime example of that in action:

in the next screenshot notice Hazard (AM) drifting away from Barcelona’s marking all the way to the flank where he offers himself as a potential passing option:

in the same move, after about 3 seconds whilst the ball is circulated between the HB and the defenders, Hazard moves back to the centre and receives the ball:
defensive shape
our initial shape from a goal-kick. notice how wide the LCB and RCB are and the DLP & HB offering passing options to help build-up from deep 
the high press defensive shape. hard working player for the left winger sees him maintain good coverage of potential attacking threat on the flank. the front three (AM,SS,DF) press aggressively :


the deep press: wide players track back to almost ‘wingback’ thanks to high work-rate and high fluidity


pressing trap

one of the key elements of ‘half-space defending’ in this system is the pressing trap achieved through numerical superiority and positional flexibility. Given the fact the our two axis formed by the DLP+AM and the HB+SS in the centre of the pitch can drift either centrally or towards the wing, we manage to create numerical superiority in most situations of play. This helps us put pressure on the opposition either through the passing triangles that these movements create, or defensively, where we have 4 players pressing wings and 6 pressing the centre of the pitch  Key elements here? High Fluidity + Player mobility/workrate. Here is an example:

we are being hit on the break by Barcelona and Suarez has the ball in an advanced position. Our HB and DLP are cutting passing lanes towards the middle of the pitch, where Suarez has the most passing options. The next passing option he has is towards the wing where we have Hermann (RWM) outrunning the opposition player. In the meantime, we have the CB, HB and the DLP all applying physical pressure on Suarez.

Two seconds later, Suarez is being succesfully tackled by our CB and Hermann (no 7 ) drifts inside and picks up the ball to initiate a counter-attack. 
Key players for the system:
– hard working & fast wingers
self explanatory, absolutely key requirement for any 3-4-3
– mobile & fast LCD and RCD
the flexibility of the back-line is a key element of this system: the wide CB’s are responsible for covering both wide and central areas, so they need the attributes to pull that off

– intelligent attacking midfielders 
the two indispensable tools of the system: they are responsible for key elements in maintaining possession and attacking space. High stats for technical and mental attributes are very important here.
With the help of three key signings, Van de Beek (DLP/HB), Lucas Alario (DF) and Matthijs De Ligt (CD), we have pulled of a clean swipe in our very first season:
I will focus a bit more on issues of squad building in the next post, which will likely be featured on the SI forums rather than on the blog:
Leave your thoughts if you liked what you’ve read and as per usual… no download available ;)


Author: LPQR

founder & main content/rant producer at

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