Box Midfield: Advantages and Ways to Create

Michael Booroff
11 min readMar 1, 2021


So far in 2021, resurgences seem to be the topic of the day in the premier league. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City seemed to be doomed to another season of being first runner up after their 2–5 thrashing at the hands of Leicester City. Fast forward to now and they’re now setting records for consecutive wins in English football and champions elect.

Under Frank Lampard, Chelsea went from 1st to 9th in the matter of a month. Replaced by Thomas Tuchel, they now seem to have gained a bit more stability and are playing in a more coherent way, both in attack and defence.

Both are exponents of positional play, looking for numerical superiorities in the centre of the pitch, whilst also placing players high up the pitch to attack in unison. A better explanation of the use of positional play can be found on spielverlagerung, here and here, as well as from David Garcia here.

One thing that has been common for both sides recently is how players have been structured through midfield. Both have utilised a box shape in midfield, although have gone about this in different ways. Guardiola has used an inverted full back, usually Joao Cancelo, to position alongside the defensive midfielder, allowing the centre midfielders to operate behind the opposition midfield and closer to the forwards. This has often given the appearance of a 3–2–2–3, with the defensive line made up of the 2 centre backs and a full back moving more central.

Tuchel on the other hand has been more rigid with positional responsibilities to create this shape. Chelsea have either set up in a 3–4–2–1 or 3–4–1–2, with the forwards varying their structure, based on the situational needs of the game and the opposition. The former shape creating a box in central areas with 2 deeper lying central midfielders and two narrow forwards/attacking midfielders.

With a seeming increase in its use as of late, the rest of this article will be devoted to understanding the benefits (and potential pitfalls) of using a box midfield, as well as simple mechanisms to create this box in midfield.

Benefits of the Box

Similar to the tenets of positional play, the use of a box midfield can allow for numerical, and potential positional superiorities against an opposition. An obvious benefit being that a team is going to have more players in central areas of the pitch. Therefore, they should always have extra players in the centre, and a greater chance of either maintaining possession or advancing the ball.

Versus a team setting up with 2 or 3 central midfielders, a box midfield will always have the advantage of a central overload. This then creates the scenario where the opposition will have to manipulate their defensive shape in order to deal with this overload. If a wide player is forced inside to help cover, additional space has now been created for a full back, wing back or winger to receive the ball. If a centre back is required to step to deal with one of the advanced players in the box midfield, there is now more space to exploit in the opposition’s defensive line.

Even against a midfield diamond, a box midfield can offer positional advantages. Although 4v4 in the centre, the advantage comes in two forms. First, if the 2 advanced midfielders at the top of the box are positioned correctly, there is an ability to play diagonally to them through midfield. Theoretically, a pass from one of the deeper midfielders could bypass 4 players and put the receiving in a position to move into the final 3rd.

Secondly, there is the opportunity for a numerical advantage in an attacking area. The positioning of the two advanced midfielder against the opposition’s deepest midfielder will naturally allow for a 2v1 in this zone. This again causes a decisional crisis for the opposition, forcing some form of manipulation in their defensive shape. How will they cover this overloaded zone? Will one of the players in the diamond drop to cover? Will one of the centre backs jump to make it a 2v2?

In the case of a midfielder dropping, this allows space in front for the deeper midfielder to potentially advance with the ball. Depending on how the rest of the diamond reacts, there is also a scenario where a wing back could move centrally. If it’s the centre back who has to step up to cover, as above, a space now is opened in the defensive line.

The importance of staggering must also be taken into account when thinking about the positioning of a box midfield. While the positioning offers the ability to play vertically, if not staggered properly then the ability to advance the ball can easily be cut out by an opposition player standing between the passer and receiver. As Istvan Beregi points out in his analysis of Peter Bosz’s use of a box midfield concept for Bayer Leverkusen:

‘The central-midfielders should be positioned more to the centre -adapting to the opponent: inner side/shoulder of the oppositional central-midfielder-, whilst the attacking-midfielders have to be wider generally -outer side/shoulder of the oppositional central-midfielder, occupying the space between the CM-W channel. These rules help the central players to avoid blocking each other, offering more passing options, whilst maintaining the central channel towards the central-forward open.’

Linked to this is one of the potential drawbacks of using a box midfield. With so many players in central areas, there can be a lack of players positioned in width. The lack of width can create a scenario where if the opposition can defend compactly, a teams attack is essentially nullified. With little to no players positioned in width, there is no option to attempt to stretch the opposition shape and create openings to penetrate through. The staggering in the centre can help increase the amount of playable space, as well as the adaptable positioning of the midfield. This is something mentioned by Guido in his use of the box midfield in football manager.

A team utilizing a box midfield will also require wide players who are dynamic. Whether that is a full back, a wing back or a winger. This player will need to be able to cover the full length of the pitch in possession in order to offer width and a passing option to play into space and away from pressure. They will also need the understanding of when to regain position in negative transition or whether it’s needed of them to press (or counter press).

Mechanisms to Create a Box Midfield

So how are teams able to create this shape when in possession? Similar to my previous article when talking about midfielders dropping into the first line, there are infinite ways that this can be achieved while still having players positioned centrally. Here I will identify some simple ways the a box midfield can be achieved, whether that be as an initial set up or through the use of animation.

Initial Set Up

It would be easy to just use this section to make the point that teams will use a box midfield within a formation. However, as put by Joost van der Leij for football philosophy:

‘To be blunt: formations do not exist. Why would formations not exist? Everyone is using the concept of formations in football. So at least formations seems to exist. And in a simple way formations do exist. Formations exist as a word, a term used in football and as a concept. But concepts are abstractions. Concepts do not have a physical existence in the way the pitch, goal poles and the ball exist.’

Borussia Monchengladbach’s assistant coach, Rene Maric, also tweeted something along these same lines:

So instead of viewing the formation as something absolute, consider it more as the general positioning that players will take up when in possession. Examples of a box midfield can occur within a 4–2–2–2 or 3–4–2–1/3–2–4–1 depending on the number of defenders in the first line.

The Japan national team are an example of how a box midfield can be used with a back three. During their games in the EAFF E-1 football championship in 2019, they would use a box midfield in order to offer progression of the ball in central areas. The positioning of the midfielders at the top of the box also allowed to exploit the space either side of China’s defensive midfielder. In these positions they could receive vertically from the bottom of the box or through the wing backs:

And as discussed at the beginning of the article, since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at Chelsea, his side have occasionally used a box midfield. The occasional nature of this box is often due to the structure of the three forwards. When there are 2 deeper lying attackers behind a central striker, this can often create this box in the centre. As Tuchel explained when discussing Timo Werner as Marcus Alonso’s positioning during their game v Newcastle:

‘We know that he [Timo Werner] likes to drift out a little bit to the wing, in-between full back and centre half, so we try to bring him into these positions. He likes to play next to a guy who’s a reference in the middle, like Tammy [Abraham] or Oli [Giroud].’

‘We wanted to escape the pressure on the half positions today. We had Mason [Mount] in this position on the the right hand side and we put Marcos [Alonso] more on the inside to have Timo in the high position and use his speed.’

Example from the game v Newcastle of the rotation between Werner and Alonso. Werner position centrally (left) and Werner positioning wide while Alonso moves centrally to maintain the box shape (right)

The box can also be utilised with a 4-man defensive line. As mentioned by Jesse Marsch when discussing how his Red Bull Salzburg side set up in their champions league match versus Liverpool in 2019:

‘When we played against Liverpool in the champions league the second game at home. Against the ball, we played a diamond in the midfield, but with the ball player two 6’s and 2 10’s. Almost like a 4–2–2–2.’

‘So we’ll use our tactics to address the formation and the habits of the opponent a little bit. To arrange ourselves so that we can make sure that we can close spaces the right way.’

As you can see from said game, Salzburg take up a box in midfield when in possession, with Dominik Szoboszlai advancing to position alongside Takumi Minamino, and Enock Mwepu posiitoning deeper. Out of possession, Minamino becomes the top of the diamond, while Szoboszlai and Mwepu are able to alternate on the left and right.

Through Animation

A box midfield doesn’t have to be something to that’s stuck to religiously. It could be something that can be constructed during possession to take advantage of the opposition’s defensive shape. Through moments in the game, and through the interchange of positions, a box shape in midfield can be created to find a path to attack. As Rene Maric tweeted, the use of animation and the changing of shape during a game is being made use of more and more:

Coaches and players have the creativity to come up with so many different ways to construct this shape in midfield. Below I have tried to put together a few ideas that have come to my mind about how it could be achieved. These generally revolve around three common themes, 1) the repositioning of defenders into midfield 2) adjustments from midfielders and 3) dropping of forward players into midfield.

The repositioning of defenders into midfield would mainly revolve around the positioning of the full backs. While there is an ability to have a centre back step into midfield, the need for central security in case of a loss of possession would mean a player in a wide area has more flexibility in moving central without disrupting the overall shape of the team. The initial idea of having the full backs moving into midfield to create a box would be both inverting into the pivot space, with the deepest midfield dropping between the centre backs. This wouldn’t necessarily need to be both. As an example, one could invert while the other could move more centrally, similar to how Man City have set up recently.

In midfield, there are some ideas based upon different formations. In a 4–3–3, an idea could be to have both the advanced midfielders drop deeper, with the wingers moving centrally to occupy the advanced spaces of the box. The full backs would then be required to provide the width in all stages of possession.

In a 4–2–3–1, with the bottom of the box already set with the double pivot, the lopsided positioning of the wide players can help finalise the advanced positions. With one of the wide attacking players holding their position, the other can move centrally. The central midfielder would then need to adjust their position slightly to complete the required box shape.

As for the forward dropping into midfield, this is potentially something that could occur in a 4–2–3–1 (also in a 4–3–3, but would require more movement from players in midfield). The idea could be that the centre forward drops to join the attacking midfielder between the lines to create the top of the box. This however would leave no players in an advanced position to break through the defensive line. Thus, the responsibility would fall on the wingers to make penetrating runs, but to do so diagonally in order to find more central positions.


While a box midfield can offer numerical and positional superiority in the centre of the field, the narrowness of the shape can put some coaches off. Reluctant to commit so many players to the centre of the pitch, consequently leaving the wide areas exposed when the ball is lost. While the increased number of players around the ball might help in negative transition, this would need to be coached to a high level to avoid being vulnerable when possession is lost.

But a box midfield doesn’t necessarily have to be stuck to rigidly every time a team is in possession. These could be fleeting moments. Something that occurs when the stars align, players move perfectly in relation to each other and the opposition are set up to allow it. To use the quotes of Andy Brassel and Rene Maric to close this argument:

‘A Tactical system is just a template. it’s still up to the interpretation of the players.’ — Andy Brassel

‘We can add some things, that we play a certain way, a certain style that we believe is more entertaining and also more successful. That’s what we can do as coaches, but it’s always depending On the players.’ — Rene Maric