This is part of the How Football Works series, a piece-by-piece look at the mechanics of the game
If you’re a football team that would like to get the ball past the other team and into the net, you have three basic routes to pick from: over, around or through the defence.
Each has its drawbacks. Lobs over the top might as well be gift-wrapped for the opposing goalkeeper. Sneaking around the sides sounds clever until you get trapped against the touchline. And zig-zagging through the middle is just plain hard, what with all those mean people trying to snatch your ball away.
But what if there were a secret fourth way, one that goes over and around the defence at the same time? A team that could pull that off sounds hard to stop. They might even be top of the league.
Liverpool’s love of long diagonals isn’t exactly classified intel — it’s become a signature of their style of play under Jurgen Klopp. In each of the last six seasons, they’ve opted for the over-slash-around shortcut more than any team in the Premier League, and for the most part it’s worked out pretty well for them.
Here’s Virgil van Dijk undressing Chelsea the other day with a textbook diagonal to set up Liverpool’s third goal:
What makes this sequence so effective? Besides having a player at the back who’s really good at kicking the ball 60 yards, there are seven key tactical points to pulling off the perfect diagonal.
Let’s run through the list.
1) Play to the other side first
Before you can play around the defence, it helps to drag them all the way to one side of the pitch first, widening the space on the opposite wing.
As Pep Guardiola explains in Marti Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential: “In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.”
On the goalscoring sequence above, Van Dijk doesn’t actually pass out to the left sideline before turning to the right, but his unopposed carry out of the back draws Chelsea that way anyway. His eyes and hips sell the possibility that he might play around the defence with a short pass to the left-back, Joe Gomez, who would have options between the lines and Darwin Nunez running up the wing.
To head off that immediate danger, Chelsea shift ball-side — their widest midfielder and defender are inside the width of the centre circle when Van Dijk turns and plays a diagonal to the other side.
Earlier in the game, Van Dijk used the same principle to pull off a rare (for him) right-to-left diagonal. Instead of bringing the ball up the left side, he turned inward and dribbled toward the middle before slipping the ball to Conor Bradley, who exchanged passes with Curtis Jones on the right sideline. That not only drew Chelsea to one side, it also rearranged Liverpool into a back three so that the now-central Van Dijk could spin and hit a diagonal to Luis Diaz on the weak left side.
2) Overload the middle
As well as dragging the defence to one side, a good diagonal sequence should try to lure the back line up the pitch first to make space to play behind them. The surest way to do that is to bring lots of players into midfield so that the opponent will want to tighten the space between their lines.
On Liverpool’s goalscoring diagonal, it’s actually the right-back, Conor Bradley, who receives Van Dijk’s pass. That’s because the right-winger, Diogo Jota, has pulled all the way over to the left side to create an overload between the lines. The only way Chelsea can hope to mark everyone in midfield is to keep their back line very high.
When the diagonal comes, the nearest defender, Benoit Badiashile, has to take an angle that closes the horizontal distance to the receiver and takes him back 20 yards toward goal. It’s just too far for him to catch up to Bradley before he can bring the ball under control.
3) Make space on the ball
A player who wants to play a diagonal needs time to get his head up to survey the field, not to mention room to turn and wind up for the hero ball. Creating space in the build-up with good passing and movement is a team effort.
Before his diagonal, Van Dijk plays a one-two with Alisson that baits Cole Palmer, who’s marking van Dijk, into jumping the backward pass to close down the goalkeeper. To keep Palmer from cutting the pitch in half, Alexis Mac Allister drops to the ball from midfield and plays a one-touch relay back to Van Dijk.
That little exchange breaks Chelsea’s first line of pressure and gives Van Dijk the space he needs to dribble forward, turn and pick out the diagonal.
4) Get a runner in the channel
Arguably the most important player on most diagonals isn’t the passer or the receiver — it’s the team-mate running the inside channel to create a dilemma for the defence.
On the goalscoring sequence, it’s Dominik Szoboszlai who takes off sprinting up the inside-right channel as Van Dijk winds up for the pass. If Chelsea don’t track that run, Liverpool can go straight over the top and be in on goal, but if they do follow the runner it opens space for the diagonal.
Badiashile plays it safe, taking a few steps toward Szoboszlai before awkwardly changing direction while the ball is in mid-air to Bradley. That moment of hesitation created by the decoy run winds up creating the couple yards of separation Bradley needs to get up the wing and deliver the ball into the box.
When a team-mate doesn’t make that inside run, it’s a lot harder to play the diagonal. In a similar situation early in the game, Jota didn’t even pretend to show for a pass in the channel as Van Dijk wound up for a long ball. With no threat over the top to worry about, Ben Chilwell could read the diagonal the whole way and cut it out before it got to Bradley.
5) Hold width
This one is pretty obvious, but a diagonal only works if the receiver stays wide while everyone else shifts ball-side. That’s a tactical choice. Some teams like to keep “minimum width,” tucking their weak-side winger in close to goal for a more direct threat, while others “hold width” or “make the pitch big” by keeping a wide player out near the sideline so they can switch the point of attack.
It’s also possible to have your cake and eat it too by tucking a winger in when the ball goes to the other side (minimum width) while rotating a full-back all the way up the wing (holding width). That’s exactly what Liverpool did with Jota and Bradley to set up their goal.
6) Play in front of the receiver
The difference between a “diagonal” and a “switch” is the vertical component — a good diagonal sends the ball not just to the defence’s weak side but over them at the same time. Ideally it should hit the receiver in stride, or at least in enough space to bring it down and dribble up the wing like Bradley.
Liverpool have been especially good at that this season. They’re completing 0.91 diagonals per game to a receiver “in stride,” where the diagonal is followed by a carry of at least five vertical yards. That’s 33 per cent more than the next-closest Premier League side in the last six seasons — also Liverpool, unsurprisingly, back in their title-winning season of 2019-20.
7) Prepare to win a lost ball
Diagonals are hard. They only work about half the time — 57 per cent, to be precise, with nine percent of Premier League diagonal attempts sailing out of bounds and the remaining third falling to an opponent. When they’re picked off, the same wide-open space that made attacking on the weak side so attractive can make for dangerous counter-attacks the other way.
A team trying a diagonal has to have a plan to win the ball back if it doesn’t come off. That mostly comes down to “rest defence,” a coaching term for keeping players in position to mark opponents in transition if they lose the ball.
On the failed Van Dijk-to-Bradley diagonal where Jota doesn’t make the channel run, Chelsea head the ball clear to Raheem Sterling, who would be able to counter-attack up the wing if not for Ibrahim Konate sliding out wide to cut him off while Mac Allister checks his shoulder and slides over to track Conor Gallagher’s run behind.
A lot of coaches worry, justifiably, that long balls will expose their side to counter attacks, but Liverpool manage to combine diagonals with effective counter-pressing to win back lost balls. In league play this season, not one of their 77 midfield diagonal attempts has led to a shot for the opponent in the next 30 seconds.
8) Have good players
Okay, fine, so this one isn’t a “tactic,” but all the other principles that go into setting up a diagonal only matter if you have the players to pull it off. Like most abstract playing concepts, whether a diagonal is a good idea or not depends on who’s doing it.
How teams use diagonals depends on who’s playing where. For years, Liverpool’s favourite diagonal was Van Dijk to Trent Alexander-Arnold getting up the wing from right-back. In the last year and a half, as Alexander-Arnold has come inside to a right half-back role, he’s gone from the team’s main diagonal receiver to their leading diagonal passer, aiming mostly for Diaz on the left wing.
Knowing seven tactical principles for an effective diagonal won’t get your team a Van Dijk or an Alexander-Arnold. Sorry, life’s not fair. But if you’ve got players like that, why not follow these handy steps to play over and around the defence all at once?
(Header design: Eamonn Dalton)