Joe Payne runs the rule over Gateshead's tactics ahead of what could be a very good season for The Heed.
Gateshead will go into the new National League season with dreams of promotion to the Football League. They have attracted lots of interest due to their attractive style of play, and have recruited well over the Summer transfer window as they look to build on their strong finish to last season. Mike Williamson’s side picked up 39 points in the second half of the season to move away from the relegation zone and into 14th place.
In this article I will assess Gateshead’s tactical philosophy under Williamson in each phase of play, with these being attack, defence and transition.
Gateshead are known to be a side who aim to build their attacks from defence. They look to keep the ball on the ground and use their defenders to progress the ball forwards safely, even from goal kicks. But how exactly do they look to do this?
First of all we have to consider Gateshead’s preferred formation. They like to use a 3-4-2-1 shape, with three centre backs who are flanked by wing backs, two central midfielders, two more advanced midfielders, and a centre forward. During build-up, Gateshead look to form a 3-2-5 shape by pushing their wing backs high and wide, level with their centre forward. The four midfield players form a ‘box‘ shape, with the two more advanced midfielders pushing high up to the last line of attack to form the front five. This leaves Gateshead with the three defenders and two deeper midfielders to form the 3-2 build-up shape, as we can see below.
Notice from the above image how the back three is very flat. The aim of this, when coupled with the fact that Gateshead’s front five are very high, is to attract the opposition press to create space between the midfield and attack. By doing so, Gateshead are able to drop at least one of the attacking midfielders (usually Greg Olley or Adam Campbell) deeper to receive a pass from one of the defenders in lots of space. To play this way, Gateshead must have good technical players who can receive the ball when they’re within close proximity of opposition players.
One of the issues with this build-up shape is that it’s fairly easy for opposing sides to press. For instance, a side could set up in a 5-2-3 formation and utilise a man-to-man pressing system, ensuring that they have one player marking each Gateshead player. When you consider that Gateshead are comfortable passing to a teammate who has opposition players near them, it can cause problems for them as they could be susceptible to losing possession during their build-up, where they have the ball close to their own goal. Because their wing backs are high up the pitch in the last line of attack, and this front five are, by design, far away from their defence during build-up, it could cause problems for Gateshead during defensive transition if they lost the ball here. This is where their goalkeeper comes into the conversation.
From the below image we can see how Gateshead used their goalkeeper to form a back four, whilst maintaining the double pivot and front five ahead of the defence, giving them a 4-2-5 shape. Notice again how the players on the outside of the back four are quite deep, again attracting the opposition press. The benefit of using the goalkeeper within the back four is that Gateshead now have a spare player, even though all other outfield players are being marked by opposition players. In this instance, the opposition centre forward has two players to press: the centre back and goalkeeper. This gives Gateshead a numerical superiority during their build-up, and they are able to progress the ball forwards.
In this example, Gateshead’s goalkeeper was able to pass the ball forwards to one of the attacking midfielders who has dropped deeper into the space that was created. This requires Gateshead to have a goalkeeper who is very comfortable on the ball, as they will have the responsibility of progressing the ball forwards into the midfield, rather than just along the defence. The attacking midfielder who dropped deeper to receive the pass from the goalkeeper was then able to quickly play another pass to the right wing back, and as we can see below, Gateshead found themselves moving at pace towards the opposition goal with a four against four situation. This is known as an artificial transition. This means that they have created a situation where they were able to generate a sudden increase in tempo – going from a slow build-up to attacking at speed – without there being a turnover of possession. In essence, they’ve created a counter-attacking scenario where they have space to move the ball into at speed, but without regaining possession as they already had the ball.
Here’s one more example. Below we can see how one of Gateshead’s attacking midfielders has dropped into that space between the midfield and attack, and was able to receive the ball from one of the deeper players in lots of space. He had time to control the pass, turn, and progress play forwards without being dispossessed by an opposing player. This creates another artificial transition for Gateshead, and they are able to attack at speed towards the opposition’s goal.
Once they are in to the final third, Gateshead look to position five players in the last line of attack. Usually these five players consist of the two wing backs, two attacking midfielders and centre forward. This makes sense as they are normally the five players furthest forwards, with the back three and two central midfielders behind them making up their rest defence – that is, the players who are positioned deeper when Gateshead have possession in the final third, to deal with defensive transitions in the event of opposition turnovers of possession. One of Gateshead’s outside centre backs in the back three is also able to push up into midfield when they have possession in the final third, forming a 2-3 rest defence. This makes the transfer of Regan Booty very important. The left-footed player is able to play in Gateshead’s midfield duo, or on the left side of the back three.
However, no matter which players make up the front five, Gateshead keep a strict 3-2-5 or 2-3-5 shape when in the final third. In the below image we can see Booty overlapping on the left side of the pitch, meaning he’s now part of the front five. One of the other attacking midfielders recognises this, and stays deeper to become part of the rest defence. This shows a flexible rigidity to Gateshead’s attack, as they can use different players within the same system.
This 3-2-5 shape is the same as all of the elite sides in world football are currently using when they have possession of the ball in the final third. The back three are able to cover the width of the pitch better than a back two would be able to, and if one of these players is dragged out wide to defend, there are still two other defenders in the central area to defend.
The front five are able to occupy all of the key zones in the last line of attack, with these being each wide space, the central space, and the left and right half-spaces – that is, the space between the centre of the pitch and the wide areas. The wide players can stretch the opposition’s defensive line by staying on each touchline, which can create gaps for the middle three to exploit. If they come up against a side who operate with a back four, Gateshead will have a numerical superiority in the last line of attack, and this can reduce the distance between the opposition’s defence and midfield to prevent them from becoming isolated, allowing Gateshead to push higher up the pitch. This makes it easier for them to regain possession in the event of a turnover, and they can initiate another attack without having to build from defence again. This allows Gateshead to sustain possession better and gives them a greater chance of controlling matches.
In the below example we can see Gateshead’s front five, and how the three players in the middle of the front five are close together. This helps them to counter-press effectively once they have lost the ball in the penalty area, and they are able to win the ball back immediately. The ball eventually falls to the deeper midfielder on the edge of the penalty area, who gets a shot away.
Out of possession, Gateshead usually form a 5-2-3 mid-block (below) when the opposition have possession in their own third. They achieve this by dropping their wing backs into the back five, and pushing their two attacking midfielders forwards into the front three. The wing backs are also able to push up next to the central midfielders, forming a 3-4-3 shape, but not to the first line of the press. The means the recovery distance that the wing backs will have to cover will be less than if they were higher up the pitch, and makes it easier for them to form a back five if they need to defend deeper on the edge of their penalty area.
The inclusion of Booty also allows them to be more flexible in their out of possession approach. Booty can be used either in either defence or midfield, and if he’s in defence, he can be pushed up into the midfield when the opposition are building play from defence, allowing one of Gateshead’s central midfielders to press higher up the pitch. This helps them form a 4-2-4 shape, as we can see below.
When the opposition have broken through Gateshead’s high press and they are forced to defend on the edge of their penalty area, they form a 5-4-1 low-block, as we can see below. Gateshead achieve this by positioning their two attacking midfielders on the outside of this midfield four.
Gateshead use a high line when they are in their mid-block, looking to push their defensive line higher up the pitch to limit the space between their defence and midfield. This gives the opposition less time on the ball when they have possession, and makes it easier to implement a successful press. However I feel like this has the potential to be exploited, as Gateshead seem to have a slight lack of pace in their defence. From the below example we can see how high Gateshead’s defensive line is. Their left wing back has pushed up higher to press, leaving space in the defensive line in the process, but he is unable to successfully close down the opposing player. This allows the opposition to play a through pass over the top of Gateshead’s defence with space for an opposing to run into.
As previously mentioned, Gateshead position their two attacking midfielders on the edge of their midfield four in their 5-4-1 low-block. This means that they are higher up the pitch and closer to the centre forward than if they were defending deeper as wing backs. In the event of a turnover of possession, these attacking midfielders will be high up the pitch and ready to attack. Alternatively, if Gateshead decide to go long once they have won possession back in their own third, the centre forward (usually Marcus Dinanga) is tall enough to challenge for aerial duels, and the two attacking midfielders will be close enough to support him and pick up second balls. When you add this to the fact that Gateshead’s attacking players possess a good amount of acceleration, it makes them a real threat on the counter-attack, and through offensive transitions.
Dinanga’s physicality also gives Gateshead the option to go long and skip their build-up if they are caused problems by an aggressive pressing structure. However I feel like this wouldn’t be playing to his strengths, and there are a fair few defenders at this level who would be able to win a large amount of aerial duels against him.
From a structural perspective, Gateshead are set up to defend defensive transitions very well. They operate within strict positional play principles, where they essentially have five players in attack, and five players in defence. This rarely changes. However I feel like there’s the potential for their defence to be exploited during these moments, as there seems to be a slight lack of pace and power across the back three. When they come up against those sides with extreme physicality in attack – for instance Boreham Wood, who place a huge emphasis on their strikers winning duels and generally being effective during offensive transitions – they may struggle.
Author: Joe Payne | @shrimperStats | 31.07.23