Article by Ben Griffis.
Anderlecht’s manager, Vincent Kompany, took full control of managerial duties after retiring from playing in August 2020. Kompany has begun a turnaround for the massive Belgian club after their struggles in recent years. He has brought in exciting, attacking football and shown a penchant for playing promising academy products.
Kompany’s tactics include smooth, quick passes in the midfield; one-twos around the penalty box to set free dangerous attackers; and the freedom for technical players like Francis Amuzu, Yari Verschaeren, Lior Rafaelov, and Benito Raman to show their skills. However, one of the defining characteristics of Kompany’s play style is his use of a back 3 in buildup.
Kompany’s back 3 is rarely composed of three center backs, since he almost exclusively plays a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2. Last season—20/21—he mainly employed a 4-3-3, but this season he’s favoring a 4-4-2. For this article, I will mainly discuss Kompany’s 2021/22 buildup, but will include examples from last season as well.
There are two interesting features of Kompany’s back 3 buildup compared to other managers who use a back 3 in buildup. First, the position Kompany instructs to drop deep isn’t constant. Depending on who is on the pitch, it varies between one of the central midfielders or the right back. Second, the player moving to form the back 3 never splits the two center backs. Rather, they join up on the right side of the center backs instead of between them. This is an interesting move because typically the midfielder would stay central and split the center backs.
The central midfielder and right back rotate who drops into the back line. Some games, the right back is in that position, other games a midfielder is. This can even change during a match, depending on substitutions and where the players are on the pitch when buildup starts. Sometimes, the right back will begin buildup in the back 3 while the central midfielder is coming back from the previous attack and they rotate during a single possession.
THE STANDARD TACTIC
Here is a diagram of how Anderlecht build up when the midfielder forms the back 3, Kompany’s preferred setup.
Anderlecht use this pattern most often, with Josh Cullen the midfielder who drops back. Albert Sambi Lokonga was in this position often last season, while Cullen would occasionally take up the role.
The midfielder has the ball and dictates play from deep when they drop back. He has the center backs available as options and will occasionally pass to the left-sided center back if put under pressure to shift the point of attack.
This next image is an often-used variation, where the right back joins the back 3 instead of a midfielder.
The following breakdown will give examples of both formations. We’ll begin by looking at the key features before diving into some variations Kompany uses.
ASYMMETRICAL FULLBACKS, NARROW WINGERS
The fullbacks are asymmetrical when the midfielder drops back. The left back pushes up the pitch near the left midfielder, while the right back stays deep near the back 3. This is highlighted below in the match against Seraing. Gómez, the left back, is higher than Murillo at right back and close to the winger Rafaelov.
This image also illustrates an important tactic of why Kompany keeps the right back deep in buildup. Because Kompany also instructs his wingers to come inside, sitting in midfield or attacking midfield spaces, keeping the right back deep opens up space for either player to run into. Anderlecht can play long balls to the winger running into this space, or use smooth, quick passes between the right back and winger to move the ball into open space with a numbers advantage. In the image above, we can see Verschaeren, the right winger, sitting narrow but making a run into the open space.
The image also shows Rafaelov, the left winger, as narrow as Verschaeren. One winger is usually a little deeper than the other, acting as a playmaker higher up the pitch while Cullen makes plays further back. And given that the left back is high and near the winger, the opposing right back has to choose which player to mark. This will open up either the left back or winger for a switch of play.
The image below illustrates this well. Cullen invites pressure from the opposing attackers, which opens up the option to move the ball to the left-sided center back. Rafaelov and Gómez are on the same line, unmarked, which will allow Anderlecht to shift the ball quickly from Cullen to one of those players and change both the tempo and point of their attack.
STRIKERS STAYING HIGH
Another feature of Kompany’s buildup is keeping both strikers high and in line with one another. This occupies both center backs, so that neither can shift to the wing to help their fullback without creating up a 2v1for their partner. This also leaves just the fullback and possibly a midfielder to defend against the right winger and right back’s joint attack. It further allows either winger to move behind the strikers and be open for a pass between the lines. If a center back pushes up to press the winger, they leave one striker unmarked. Both Verschaeren and Rafaelov are dangerous, technical passers, allowing them to find the tight angle passes to the open striker. The second leg Conference League qualifier against Laçi illustrates this well.
VARIATION: WIDE WINGER
This image against Laçi also highlights one of the most important elements of Kompany’s buildup—variations.
While Kompany normally has his wingers narrow, he likes variation in buildup. Anderlecht make their opponent’s scouting work difficult by varying several features of his buildup while keeping the overall tactic consistent. Take the recent Conference League match against Vitesse, for example.
Cullen has dropped back into the defense like normal, Murillo is deep while Gómez is very high, and Rafaelov is narrow as both strikers occupy the center backs. Yet Amuzu, the right winger, is high and wide instead of narrow. This variation opens up an incredible amount of space for Murillo to run into. This also allows Amuzu to come deep and be open for a pass as well, having time and space to turn before dribbling at the opponent.
VARIATION: RIGHT BACK JOINS BACK 3
Another key variation in Kompany’s buildup is changing the position that joins the back 3. While Kompany prefers Cullen to drop back, the right back occasionally forms the back 3. The pattern this season revolves around Killian Sardella. Most of the time when Sardella is on the pitch, he forms the back 3 while Cullen stays higher.
We’ve already seen an image earlier where Sardella formed the back 3 against Vitesse. Here is another example in the second leg against Laçi.
When the right back forms the back 3, the right winger and Cullen have the freedom to drop deeper into the space vacated by the right back, or push up higher like in the image above, in order to facilitate dangerous attacks starting from further up the pitch than when Cullen forms the back 3.
Another element of buildup when the right back forms the back 3 is keeping one midfielder central and deep. In the image above, Marco Kana is sitting above the back 3 to give an easy option to whichever player has the ball. While Anderlecht’s defenders are very good with the ball at their feet, the midfielders are still better, so Kompany instructs one to stay deep in case their skills are needed.
We can see this in progress last season against Club Brugge. Sambi Lokonga is dropping back to offer a passing option while Murillo is in the back 3.
And while Sardella is often the right back who joins the back 3 most often, Murillo is also able to pick up this position. Even though Cullen normally joins the back 3 when both he and Murillo are on the pitch, Kompany likes his variations and will sometimes instruct Cullen to pick up the role in front of the defense while Murillo forms the back 3. Take, for example, this image from the opening match of the season against Union Saint-Gilloise.
Sardella started the match but was replaced by Murillo at halftime. Murillo continued to pick up the same positions as Sardella, but several times Cullen would form the back 3 instead. Anderlecht used both patterns in the second half in an attempt to confuse the fellow Brussels club, although it didn’t work out as Anderlecht lost 1-3.
VARIATION: PLAYING 3 CENTER BACKS
While infrequent, Kompany can play three center backs from the start. This was the case in the match against KAS Eupen.
We see Taylor Harwood-Bellis in the position the right back or midfielder normally pick up next to Hoedt and Delcroix. This allowed both central midfielders to pick up central positions, allowing for more symmetry in their attacks. Both fullbacks could pass to a close midfielder or winger, rather than this option being available to just the left back.
CULLEN’S NEW ROLE THIS SEASON
Cullen is the midfielder forming the back 3 this season, taking over this duty from Sambi Lokonga last season. Cullen previously sat in front of the back 3 or stayed higher up the pitch, but after Sambi Lokonga’s transfer he is now the midfielder Kompany trusts with this role.
In this match against Club Brugge last season, Sambi Lokonga dropped back while Cullen remained in midfield. Majeed Ashimeru and Kristoffer Olsson have rotated this season as the player who remains in midfield while Cullen forms the back 3.
Vincent Kompany’s buildup shape is fairly consistent—a player drops back alongside the two center backs to form a back 3—but has many subtle variations that each offer different attacking threats. One midfielder usually drops into the back 3 while the right back stays deep and the wingers come narrow, but Kompany will also change this to have the right back form the back 3, opening up both midfielders to create attacks closer to the goal.
Anderlecht’s buildup shape and tactics help enable their swift attacks through skillful wingers and strikers. By keeping the two strikers high and wingers narrow with space to run into on the wing, Anderlecht can draw their opponents out of position to create defensive gaps for their attackers to exploit. This leads to exciting, attacking football and lots of shots.
This shape also enables Anderlecht to have decisive playmakers in all three thirds of the pitch. Cullen is a quality long-ball passer, Verschaeren and Rafaelov both can pass and dribble past defenders, and Benito Raman picks up excellent positions to help feed Joshua Zirkzee.
Vincent Kompany is still growing as a manager, but it looks like he’s devised a strong buildup shape that enables his team’s attacks. After an opening-day loss to Union, Anderlecht have recorded two draws and four wins in all subsequent matches, scoring 14 goals and conceding six—three of which came in the first leg against Vitesse.
Anderlecht are always a fun side to watch, but Kompany’s buildup tactics and variations make the matches even more entertaining. Each match it looks as though Vincent Kompany has come up with a new tweak to address issues in the previous match, something that has to be mentioned and commended.