Overloads in football occur when one team has more players than the opposition in a specific area of the pitch. Overloads can be established either when a team has the ball or does not have the ball.
When in possession, overloads are created by players moving away from their starting position, such as wide players moving into central areas or central players moving out towards the touchline. This ensures a team has more than one player in that zone.
Out of possession, defensive overloads occur when a team has more defenders than attackers in a specific area of the pitch. This is most common in the defensive third, where attackers spend most of the time numerically underloaded simply because teams tend to have more defenders than attackers.
There are many ways in which an overload can be created. One example is a full-back in a 4-3-3 moving inside to add a fourth player to central midfield, which will almost always overload the opposition’s central-midfield unit. The four players form a box midfield, with the inverted full-back sitting alongside the pivot, and the two number eights positioned higher, to receive closer to the opposition’s back line (below). The three remaining players in the defence then readjust to cover across the pitch. This role has been particularly prominent for Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, with Kyle Walker, João Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko all performing the role. Phillip Lahm also played the inverted full-back role particularly well under Guardiola at Bayern Munich.
Another way to create an overload is through a single pivot dropping alongside the two centre-backs to form a three, often after a full-back has moved into central midfield (below). This creates an overload against two centre-forwards, which means it is easier to get the ball into midfield, and also allows the full-backs to push forward. Fernandinho, Fabinho, Rodri, Toni Kroos, Kalvin Phillips and Sergio Busquets are all adept as a pivot player, but are also able to drop into the back line and progress play from there.
The most common overload is a two-on-one out wide against an opposition full-back. When a winger is attacking, an overlapping or underlapping run from the full-back on their team can create a wide overload. The player on the ball can play a pass to this teammate, or use the supporting run as a decoy to take their opponent away from the ball, and then drive at goal or cross. Liverpool have been brilliant at creating overloads out wide, with the pairs of Mo Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Sadio Mané and Andy Robertson, up there with the best full-back-and-winger combinations the Premier League has ever seen. Not only can they create 2v1 situations quickly and easily; they also punish the opposition by taking advantage of them.
The use of a dropping centre-forward is another common method of creating an overload in central midfield. Central defenders are unlikely to follow this movement, even though it creates a central overload high up the pitch. Lionel Messi has been most effective at doing this, playing as a false nine in Barcelona’s exceptional teams for years. Karim Benzema has also done this effectively for Real Madrid, creating an overload in midfield, but then turning and looking for the forward runs of the wingers. The Spanish national side also had great success with Cesc Fàbregas playing as a false nine to overload midfield (below).
Defensive overloads are most common when a team uses a low block. Wingers tracking back can prevent opponents creating 2v1s against their full-backs, and can actually create a defensive overload if the opposition’s full-back decides against pushing forward. Defensive overloads are also very common around the central defenders, especially with many teams using only one centre-forward, who would be outnumbered by two or three centre-backs.
Overloads create passing options for the player in possession and give defenders a decision to make as to whether to stay with the ball-carrier or track the runner. This helps teams progress up the pitch and break into the final third more quickly.
Overloads in the final third help create chances to shoot. Off-the-ball, penetrative movements can be found to break the last line, or used as decoys to enable the ball-carrier to line up a shot on goal.
As players have to move away from their starting slot to create overloads, they will have different in-possession and out-of-possession roles. With versatile players, teams can then vary how they play to target an opponent’s specific weakness on a game-by-game basis.
The overload-to-isolate principle involves a team committing extra players to one side of the pitch, which draws more defenders across with them. On the other side of the pitch, one player – usually a winger – stays out wide, ready to receive a switch of play in as much space as possible. If the team cannot progress down the overloaded flank, they then switch play quickly to get their winger 1v1 against a defender. This strategy is usually used when a team has a particularly good dribbler on the wing. Examples include Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben at Bayern Munich.
In order to create an overload, a team needs to dominate possession for long enough that their players can make the movements required to get into their new positions. This therefore means players must be comfortable on the ball, potentially against a press. As such, they risk giving the ball away if they aren’t good enough.
Versatile players are required. For example, not all centre-forwards can drop in to receive and create a midfield overload, and not all pivot players are comfortable dropping into the back line to be a third centre-back. Without this versatility, it is difficult to take advantage of any overload.
The main reason not to use an overload, however, is that any overload in one area by definition means an opponent is free elsewhere. If the ball is turned over, the opposition could look to exploit this or any space that has been left on the transition, or through a counter-attack from deep.
The entire point of creating an overload is to allow the team to progress up the pitch as quickly and efficiently as possible, so it is important to make use of any overloads. Football is a low-scoring sport and overloads in the final third are rare, so any team with an overload in an attacking position must do everything they can to punish their opponents and take advantage.
Forward runs off the ball from supporting players are therefore very important. This will discourage any defender from engaging with the ball-carrier, and therefore make it more difficult for them to delay the attacking team’s progress.
The timing of the release of a pass is also very important when looking for a runner in an overloaded situation. Front-foot passes can be made more quickly and so make it difficult for the defender to react and move on to the runner once a pass is made. This is important when a 2v1 has been created out wide against a full-back (above). The detail of the pass – weight, angle, smoothness and timing – must give the runner the best possible chance of controlling the ball without slowing the move down.
When defending against a wide overload, defenders should use the touchline as an extra defender whenever they can. Defenders should use their body shape and the angle they approach their opponent with to guide play away from goal and towards the touchline. The aim should be to force the opposition’s play towards the corner flag; this is a less dangerous part of the pitch, and it means the player on the ball is more likely to check back, which will give other defenders time to recover. This might be the key moment that turns a defensive 1v2 into a 2v2.
If facing a central overload, the defender has to prioritise the ball over any runners, and try to delay the ball-carrier's progress as much as possible. Another tactic would be to try and force the ball-carrier on to their weaker foot.
Alternatively, when a team is already set in their defensive block (above), they can respond to any central overload the opposition creates in a very specific location with aggressive man-marking. That is, players might have to follow opponents into zones they might not normally go into, to ensure the opposition cannot progress any further.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice