During their return to the Premier League last season, Wolves made a habit of preying on clubs much bigger than themselves. Portuguese coach Nuno Espírito Santo guided them to 16 points against the top six, a record bettered only by title winners Manchester City and runners up Liverpool.
While Nuno’s team excelled in the championship with a more possession-based approach, their 7th place finish in the top-flight came primarily thanks to an efficient counter-attacking game. A solid defensive base allowed them to endure long spells without the ball, with the opponents often lulled into a false sense of control. Their capacity to sense vulnerability saw them pounce on any loose touch or hesitation before launching the break-away.
Of their 47 league goals in 2018/19, 10 came during the offensive transitions. This article will outline the principles that make Wolves so effective in this aspect of the game, before using video to illustrate how they execute different counter-attacking scenarios.
The Counter Argument
Although winning matches is critical, football is also an entertainment business. Many coaches feel a responsibility to provide customers with an exciting, attractive style of play.
But what does is it mean to play attractive football? For some, patient build-up through the thirds is entertaining. For others, short-passing systems are boring to watch, instead favouring high intensity, rapid counter-attacks. ‘Entertaining football’ is a matter of individual preference. More importantly, even if a coach does favour a possession-focused game model, they will still need to train their team to make effective use of the counter.
“If you think I’m not going to utilize this for our team then you’re crazy. I love the counter attack! I use it, but it’s not the style I set-up in.”
The 2015/16 Premier League season saw Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester storm to a shock title victory with just 42% possession on average. Meanwhile, some of Manchester United’s greatest goals during the Sir Alex Ferguson era came from lightning-quick break-aways, as was the case with Jose Mourinho’s La Liga winning Real Madrid side.
Often, pundits and fans will bemoan how certain attackers are being held back by their coaches’ ‘defence-first’ approach. However, many forward players flourish in counter-attacking teams, with more room to utilise their speed and/or dribbling qualities.
When the opponent commits to an attack, the potential exists to exploit their open stance with a counter-punch. If a team can execute an attack during the opposition’s most vulnerable moments, more space is likely to exist for the forward players to combine with each other and generate high-quality opportunities.
“Counter-attacking is a fantastic item of football, an ammunition that you have, and when you find your opponent unbalanced you have a fantastic moment to score a goal.”
Nuno has stated in the past that clean sheets are always the first objective for his teams, but he also recognises the importance of having a clear plan for making use of every opportunity they get to attack. Teams are sometimes accused of ‘parking the bus’, with seemingly little intent to get forward and threaten the opposition’s defence. Although Wolves did typically defend deep against the top sides last term, Nuno says they went into every game with a clear plan as to how they could come away with all three points.
“We cannot build a gameplan on a draw. You have to prepare to win. Always to win.”
Whether you favour a counter set-up or a possession-based approach, the important thing is that players have a collective idea and effective strategies to exploit the attacking moments.
Structures: As soon as a turnover occurs, the structure used in the defensive phase becomes the starting point for the offensive transition. This, along with the attacking set-up used by the opponents, will dictate where the space is, and where the possibility to create free players might be during the counter-attack.
In order to execute breakaways effectively, It is therefore essential to identify the opposition’s established possession structure. For example, If they leave two defenders on the last line, space should be open down the sides. If they also play with a high defensive line, there will be lots of space to exploit in behind. The layout of their midfield is also an important consideration, as it will determine what spaces are open for ball-carriers or other link players, should they be required.
Wolves’ preference for a low-block 5-3-2 system with wingbacks helps them to exploit counter-attacks, as Matt Doherty and Jonny Castro are well-placed to provide extra support if necessary, often by carrying the ball diagonally towards goal or by acting as links. Furthermore, their role in defence frequently sees the opponents forced infield, where one of the three midfielders can complete a turnover and launch the attack.
The decision to play with two forwards regularly helps them to create instant man-for-man scenarios against the opposing centre-backs. Finally, by defending deep, they invite the opponents players to push up, creating more space to exploit in behind.
Overall, Nuno recognises the benefits his formation provides in each phase of the game, as well as understanding where they can hurt different opposing structures.
“What we want to build with our shape is something that can cope with every moment. When you have the ball and when you don’t have the ball.”
Personnel: Along with the formation and defensive strategy used, the attributes of individual players will also influence how a team approaches the counter-attack. Both of Wolves’ first-choice strikers, Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez, have the pace required to exploit the space in behind opposing defences. Additionally, they possess the dribbling ability to carry the play forward themselves. Adama Traoré provides an extra option in both regards, while midfielders Rúben Neves and João Moutinho have the passing range to feed the attack quickly and precisely.
If Nuno’s squad was void of these attributes, it wouldn’t make sense for him to deploy a low-block defensive structure. For example, if his strikers lacked paced and he didn’t have any ball-carriers, they might be better placed defending high more often than not, giving themselves less distance to travel during the attacking transitions. Once again, when deciding on how your team sets up in defence, it’s essential to consider how that will affect the opportunities your attackers get to use their skillset once possession is recovered.
Time Efficiency: Perhaps the most important consideration when outlining principles for exploiting the break-away, teams must ensure that time is used in the most efficient manner possible. On average, Wolves’ successful counter-attacks last season lasted just 8.5 seconds. It’s imperative that the opponents aren’t given the chance to transition effectively into their defensive structure.
Most of the goals Nuno’s team scored in these moments resulted from between 1 and 3 passes. Generally speaking, any more than that led to a break down in the move. As we will discover, the first point of reference was always the furthest attacker, with the aim of putting him through on goal as quickly as possible. To further aid the pace of the attack, the strikers would begin their runs as the ball was being recovered.
Passes were played in front of the receivers, ensuring that the momentum could be maintained. Meanwhile, there was a clear emphasis on fast actions with little time for hesitation on the ball in passing or shooting opportunities.
Width: Related to the idea of making efficient use of time, it’s also important that players provide only as much width as is necessary to break through the opponent’s last line of defenders. Wolves typically restricted their counters to the width of the penalty box, while the wings were only used occasionally. This is because it’s important to maintain shorter distances between the attackers to enable them to combine quickly with one another.
Additionally, the defensive line is likely to only consist of between two and three players during these moments, meaning that width isn’t generally required to increase the spaces between defenders. Finally, If the attack is built via the wings, the distance to goal is greater, therefore giving the opponents more time to recover an organised defensive structure.
With that said, the strikers should look to make their runs in behind from the ‘outside’ of their centre-backs. This diagonal movement should allow them to maintain a better view of the ball as it’s played over the top. If both forwards do this, it should also provide enough seperation between the defenders for isolation to occur.
Steps for Executing the Counter-Attack
1. Pounce to recover possession
Along with directing the play into certain areas where a turnover can occur, Nuno’s side also look to press on triggers. These can include simply having quality access to the ball-occupant, as well as hesitant play, receiving with their back towards goal, having limited short-passing options, or taking a loose touch.
As discussed, it’s crucial for the forwards to recognise the development of the play and prepare to make their runs into space as the turnover is occurring. If the opponents have managed to progress the ball beyond them, Wolves’ strikers suddenly don’t have an obvious reference point when defending. In these scenarios, they can instead put more focus on preparing themselves for the turnover by taking up positions from which they can run in behind.
It’s also important that the recovery falls to a player who has the attributes required to launch the attack, although this happens naturally on many occasions with Neves or Moutinho recovering possession themselves. Alternatively, it might involve one of the centre-backs aiming for these players with their clearing header or interception.
In other scenarios, Jota and Jiménez may have completed the turnover, putting them in a position to initiate the counter immediately. As we will see, this is often followed by a dribble with no options ahead of the ball. Overall, the ball should ideally be recovered to/by the midfield or forward line.
In some situations, it might also be necessary to ‘secure’ possession momentarily by escaping a counter-pressing action from a nearby opponent.
2. Launch the attack
When the ball is recovered in midfield, Neves or Moutinho must quickly make a decision on who to release. As mentioned, the first point of reference should always be to assess whether or not the furthest attacker is free. If he is, then the direct option should be chosen.
If the furthest attacker is occupied, the next option is to feed a link player in space. The link player doesn’t always have to be a dribbler, and can simply be a player who is better positioned to feed the last attacker. He may also just be a ‘stop-gap’ figure until the forward is available to receive.
Releasing a dribbler on the break-away should draw additional defenders towards the ball, leaving other players free. Meanwhile, it should give teammates extra time to get forward in support. Of course, this also means that the defenders have more time to get back, and so it should only be used when no quality options exist in behind.
In situations whereby one of the forwards completes the initial recovery, they may look to carry the play forward themselves, or pass the responsibility over to their partner while they provide supporting movements. As we stated earlier, the location in which the ball is recovered will heavily influence what the counter-attack will look like. Therefore, some of the principles change slightly when the turnover is completed by a forward as opposed to a midfielder or a defender, as the video will show.
Overall, it’s important to try to limit the number of passes to three, while the ultimate goal should be to create an opportunity with just one pass. Fundamentally, if an attacker is free to receive in behind, that option should always be chosen. If not, connect the play with a dribble or a link pass.
3. Support the ball-occupant
During counter-attacks, support for the ball-occupant can come in different forms, and so players must be able to recognise when and what kind of help they should offer. For example, if the furthest attacker has been released in behind and central, his strike partner might simply look to occupy another opposing centre-back and leave the player on the ball in an isolated situation. Alternatively, if the ball-occupant has been released down the sides and isn’t in a position to shoot, the other forward might offer an option for a cross to the box.
These scenarios outline an important principle of support play on the counter: if the attacker on the ball looks like he can complete the move himself, provide support by occupying remaining defenders and drawing them away from the space. While if the attacker looks like he needs active help in finishing the move, offer support by arriving into the left-over spaces to receive the ball, or by facilitating a one-two. This idea doesn’t just apply to the forward line. The midfielders and wing-backs also need to assess the situation and provide support as and when it’s required.
As a general rule, it shouldn’t take more than 3 or 4 players to execute the counter, while the remaining players should be moving forward simply to ring-fence the attack and protect against a counter in the opposite direction. It’s also worth noting that the transition can end in different ways. Ideally, the team scores before the opponents can recover. However, winning a penalty or a freekick are also positive outcomes. Furthermore, it may result in an established attack, although this doesn’t take advantage of the extra space that existed in transition.
As mentioned, not every counter-attack can follow the same exact steps. Where on the field and what player the ball is recovered to, as well as what options exist ahead of the ball, will decide what actions must be taken to break through on goal. With this in mind, the video below breaks down Wolves’ approach to exploiting the counter-attack in three different types of scenarios.
The first scenarios illustrate their focus when the ball is recovered to the midfield and the furthest attacker is available to receive in behind. The second scenarios account for moments when the turnover occurs in the midfield but the furthest attacker isn’t available to receive in behind. Lastly, the third scenarios show their strategies when possession is recovered to the strikers in front of the opposition’s last line and with no teammates ahead of the ball. Of course, most of the counter-attacking principles discussed will remain the same in each situation.
Finally, the list below provides a summary of the important considerations and principles Wolves’ demonstrate during the offensive transitions.
- Identify where the space exists against specific opponents in transition and set-up to take advantage accordingly.
- Defensive strategy used should facilitate the qualities of attackers ahead of turnover. For example, Wolves can defend deep because they have the pace and dribbling abilities to travel large distances in transition.
- Anticipate moments of vulnerability before pouncing to complete turnover. Triggers can include; quality access to the ball, opponent receiving with back to play, loose touch or hesitancy in possession.
- When making the recovery, try to ensure that the ball falls to a player who can launch the attack immediately.
- As soon as possession is won, the ball-occupant should look for the furthest player in attack. The forward should be starting his run instantly upon the turnover and should provide a direct option in behind the opponent’s defence.
- If the furthest attacker is unavailable, feed a link player who can carry the play forward, or who is better positioned to feed the last attacker. Ball-carriers should also draw more pressure to the ball, freeing up other attacking players in the process. Furthermore, it will allow teammates to focus on supporting movements to receive from or create space for the ball-carrier.
- Passes should be played in front of receivers at all times to ensure the counter doesn’t slow down. Additionally, fast actions are needed with no time for hesitation in passing or shooting opportunities.
- Only as much width as necessary should be used, ensuring that the attackers are close enough to combine and break through the last line of defence.
- Support should arrive to exploit left-over space, to occupy defenders and free up the ball-occupant, or to create man-for-man scenarios/1 man advantages.
- Individuals should recognise when a forward run would hinder the attack, for example: by killing the space, or by dragging an extra opponent with him. Rarely should more than 3 or 4 players engage in the counter-attack fully. However, the remaining players should be moving up the pitch to ring-fence the attack and prevent a counter in the other direction.
- With support in numbers behind the ball, attackers should be encouraged to take risks.
Despite a slow start to the new season, Wolves are beginning to recover their form. A recent 0-2 win against Manchester City reminded us just how devastating they can be at exploiting the counter-attack, creating more clear-cut chances than their hosts despite having just 24% of possession.
As we’ve seen, Nuno Espírito Santo’s side are expertly organised during the offensive transitions, allowing them to overcome a series of high-profile opponents. Regardless of how a coach prefers to set up, Nuno is a great reference point for anyone looking to improve their team’s efficiency on the break.
Final note: On occasion, Wolves recovered possession high up having pressed their opponents into a mistake. While this article focused solely on counters that followed deeper recoveries, principles for creating chances following high recoveries can be found in this article on pressing: https://tacticsboard.org/single-post-mrose/
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