Quite often, coaches whose philosophies are more ‘defence-minded’ will get criticism from fans and pundits. The likes of Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez have come under such scrutiny during their careers, especially while at clubs whose supporters identify with a more offensive approach.
Most football fans would like their team’s to be offensive and positive in their play, but not if it comes at a cost. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side, particularly in the second half of his tenure, were a possession focused team filled with technical players. They played incredible football at times, with their one and two touch passing sequences producing some memorable goals.
In the end, Wenger was hunted out of the Emirates Stadium by unhappy customers, who believed his lack of defensive nous had cost them success in recent years. The question is, can a coach implement a system that makes his team equally proficient at defending as they are at attacking? Is it possible to dominate games and still be compact and secure without the ball? The answer, thankfully, is yes. This article will explore how it can be done.
In Pep Guardiola’s system of ‘Positional Play’, retention of possession is a key component. It isn’t the end goal, but it is an essential part in achieving it. Guardiola’s belief is that being able to keep the ball for large parts of the game makes it more difficult for the opposition to create high-quality goal-scoring opportunities. Furthermore, he acknowledges that playing high up the pitch should mean that a mistake or a loss of possession is less of an immediate concern, and that defending in the opponents half is a safer strategy than sitting deep. Pep spoke about this recently in relation to his Manchester City side.
“I always try to convince the players when the ball is far away from our goal, we are safe. That is much better. It is important how few chances we concede.
“I have always been focused on defending well. The only difference is now we try to do it far away from our goal. That is a good signal to attack better. When you defend solid you attack better.”
For some possession-based coaches, emphasis is placed on total freedom in the attack. Offensive players roam wherever they like, while the fullbacks push on in support, regularly leaving just two central defenders and a holding midfielder behind the ball. On occasions when these types of teams lose possession, opponents know that the space exists to exploit them on the counter-attack.
Having possession and playing high up the pitch should not, however, equate to defensive fragility and reactivity. Although there were some teething issues in his first season at the Etihad, Guardiola has proved that intelligent positional play in the offense can not only aid the retention of possession, but can also guard against fatal counter attacks.
During his nine full seasons as a manager, Pep’s teams have always been recognised for their goal-scoring exploits. However, they have in fact failed to finish as the league’s top scorers on five occasions. Meanwhile, they have conceded the fewest number of goals in all but one campaign, his first year at City. Consider all the teams that work throughout the week on remaining compact in a low block, forcing the opponents out wide and dealing with crosses. None of those sides managed to achieve a better goals conceded record than Pep.
In light of this impressive stat, it’s hard to argue against the idea that ‘attack is the best form of defence’. But as mentioned, it’s not as simple as just keeping the ball for as long as possible. It takes positional training to ensure that every player knows their role in maintaining a desirable shape in possession, so that the moments out of possession are more easily managed.
Guardiola’s players are positioned close enough together to enable seamless retention of possession and effective combination play. While also distancing themselves far enough apart to achieve logical occupation of all the important zones and allow for easy progression up the pitch.
From a defensive standpoint, this spacing and staggering is equally beneficial. The players are close enough to be able to counter-press together following a turnover in possession, while also retaining a coverage of the field that prevents the opponents from cutting through them on the break. Johan Cruyff explained this well.
“Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.”
The idea, fundamentally, is to be organised in such a way that not only makes possession retention and progression more effective, but also that generates the conditions of the defensive phase that will inevitably arrive. While some attacking coaches will guide their players on how to be effective in possession, and then how to be effective out of possession, Guardiola attempts to tie both of these phases into one. It’s a proactive approach to defending, rather than a reactive one. Fernandinho spoke about this recently.
“The key is to be compact going both ways, when we are attacking and defending, because this is how to keep control.”
The image shown below is an example of how Man City frequently position themselves when on the attack. The wings are occupied by Benjamin Mendy and Riyad Mahrez, while the two advanced ‘half-spaces’ between the opposition’s midfield and defence are taken up by Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, with Jesus playing up front. Behind this attacking 5, the support is provided by Ilkay Gundogan in the ‘organising midfielder’ role, with Bernardo Silva and Kyle Walker either side of him in the deep half-spaces. Finally, Fernandinho and Otamendi sit on the deepest line. Man City are well positioned to attack effectively, while also being well positioned to recover the ball should a turnover occur, and to stifle their opponents’ on the counter.
Until now, we have seen how appropriate spacing and staggering in the offensive phase can protect a team against counter-attacks, and can help in recovering possession quickly. On an individual level, the same principles can be applied. The easiest example of this relates to the organising midfielder in an attack-minded side, with Sergio Busquets dominating this role over the last decade.
When Barcelona have possession in the final third, Busquets will regularly hover just behind the play. He does this not only to offer an out-ball, but also to prepare for a possible loss of possession. Should Barca’s attackers lose the ball, the opponents looking to break will be met by Busquets. He can then quickly dispossesses them and get the Blaugrana back on the front foot, just as the opposition had begun to switch off from their defensive duties. Like Pep’s teams, Busquets acknowledges that he can be conscious of the defensive phase while his team are in the offensive phase, and vice-versa.
“He gives us all a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball.”
The video below shows different ways in which the Spanish international carries out this task. For much of the sequence, he can be seen hovering behind the ball and recovering possession whenever Bilbao attempt to clear. Notice also how he is sometimes ahead of the ball while his teammates drop deeper to receive and play direct passes into the last line of attack. This way he can win the second balls and restart the play.
(Video from Allasfcb)
The kinds of actions carried out by Busquets are often referred to as ‘ring-fencing’. He frequently takes advantage of the blind-siding factor that exists in these situations. As the opponents look to turn and break forward on the counter, he often comes from behind and recovers possession from outside the attacking players’ line of vision.
As discussed throughout this section, it is important for players and teams to consider the fact that their positional play in possession will become their starting point on occasions when the opponents complete a turnover. By remaining close enough together to facilitate counterpressure, as well as maintaining sufficient coverage of the space to ensure that the opposition can’t break through easily, sides on the attack can be well prepared to manage the transitional moments.
So far, we have discussed the importance of remaining in touch with more than one phase of the game at any given time, acknowledging the benefits of compact positioning and logical spacing to stifle the opposition’s counter-attacking potential. As mentioned, these principles should help to facilitate an effective counter-press, a concept that we will now examine in more detail.
Counterpressing involves pressing the opponent in the immediate aftermath of a possession loss. Instead of transitioning into the established defensive phase immediately, the team who has lost possession can attempt to ‘counter the opponent’s counterattack’. The reasons for implementing a counterpressing style of transitional defending are three-fold:
- Prevent the counter attack
- Recover possession
- Exploit opponent’s disorganisation as they transition from defence to attack
Counterpressing can be split into four main categories:
-Man-orientated: each player sticks to an opponent, with the player closest to the ball tasked with applying hard pressure.
-Space-orientated: the players surrounding the ball-occupant suffocate the space, blocking off exit routes.
-Passing-lane orientated: players shut off passing lanes in the hope of forcing a misplaced pass, or sufficient hesitation for the player closest to him to be able to make a tackle.
-Ball-orientated: applying pressure to the ball in large numbers, with little thought of surrounding passing options or the retention of an organised shape.
One of the masters of counterpressing, Marco Rose and his teams generally fall under the umbrella of space-orientated counterpressing, collapsing in on the space around the ball-occupant in an attempt to force a quick turnover. However, they have also been seen applying other variations. During the 17/18 season, seven of their goals came directly as a result of counterpressing in the final third.
In a counterpressing situation, the opponents have switched their mindset from defence to attack, and are therefore likely to have begun the process of broadening their positional layout. This in turn creates spaces that weren’t previously there. If the ball is recovered during these moments, the opportunity exists to exploit the new space before the opponents have a chance to transition back to an organised and compact defensive shape.
In order for counterpressing to be effective, It is necessary to create the right conditions ahead of time. If the attacking shape is too broad or disjointed, the immediate instance following a loss of possession will be equally so. As we’ve discussed, in order to be effective in each phase of the game, the relationships between those phases must be close.
Marco Rose’s teams typically attack in a 4-diamond-2 formation. The fullbacks arrive to provide width in the final third, but overall the shape can be regarded as being particularly narrow, and therefore has a high level of horizontal compaction. This level of compaction in central areas serves to aid their vertical focused attack, but is equally beneficial to the defensive transitions. With large numbers around the ball in tight central spaces, an opponent who dispossesses them can be pressed easily from all angles. The video below highlights this effect.
Following a misplaced pass in the final third, three RB Salzburg players immediately seek to close out the space surrounding the ball-occupant. His passing options are shut-off and he has nowhere to go in a 1v3 scenario. The inevitable occurs as RB recover the ball after less than two seconds before feeding the open space on the outside. Notice again the influence of the players pressing from the ball-occupant’s blind-side.
As shown by the video, there are a number of key mechanisms that determine the success of a counter-pressing situation in relation to making the initial ball-recovery. Namely: numbers in central areas to close out the space around the ball-occupant, angled pressure to shut-off passing options and a high level of intensity to ensure the opponent can’t exit the pressure.
What happens next is also key. As mentioned, the opponent’s switch from an established defensive state to an attacking transition state, meaning the wide midfielders often leave their supporting defensive roles to charge forwards. Sometimes the fullbacks will push ahead, and this natural tendency to broaden the play in the attacking phase often leads to the spaces in the wide channels opening up.
Whenever Rose’s teams counterpress successfully and recover possession during the opposition’s attacking transition, their next thought is to exploit the ‘new space’. The video below highlights this, with an example of Red Bull winning the ball back high up the pitch before exploiting the space down the sides and completing a cross to the box.
Many pressing teams will have a general rule regarding how many seconds should be spent counterpressing before retreating to an established defensive phase should the press fail. However, having ‘access’ to the ball occupant can influence this number. Rose’s sides tend to counterpress for between four and five seconds. However, If after this time they still have good access to the ball and the opportunity remains to recover possession in the transition, they can extend the counterpress further. Once the five seconds are up or access has been lost, they retreat to their established defensive shape/rest phase.
During his 2016 appearance on Monday Night Football, Jurgen Klopp called counterpressing situations ‘the best playmaker in the world’, and when you watch both his and Marco Rose’s teams play, It’s hard to argue with this sentiment.
Ultimately, defending with a high back line means that vast space exists for the opponents to potentially exploit on the counter, should they be given time on the ball during these transitions from defence to attack. In order to ensure that this space isn’t capitalised on, it’s important to create conditions that allow for possession to be regained in the immediate moments after losing it. As we have outlined throughout this piece, compact positional play and optimal coverage of different zones in the established attacking periods can help to achieve this.
However, given football’s often chaotic nature, occasions will take place where the opponents do manage to break effectively by bypassing counter-pressure quickly and carrying the ball through any spaces that have emerged. In these moments, it’s important that the defensive block of players delay the counter-attack by guiding the ball-occupant away from goal, or by trying to put the ball out of play with a challenge. If carried out successfully, this should allow the remaining players to recover their defensive positioning and organise themselves in a compact block.
It’s also essential that in moments whereby the opposition’s counter-attack is proving to be of genuine threat, tactical fouls are used, once again with a view to creating time for the team to establish an organised defensive unit. The quote below comes from Manchester City’s summer signing Rodri, with the midfielder admitting that he is instructed to commit strategic fouls as a tool to stop dangerous counters. The subsequent clips illustrate the concept, with Fernandinho recognising the threat that exists before putting in a challenge to stop the ball-occupant in his tracks.
“I’m playing a role that is not usual for me. Knowing how to stop the game, the tactical foul. Knowing when I have to squeeze and when I have to stay.”
Pep Guardiola has repeatedly denied accusations that he emphasises the importance of committing tactical fouls on occasions when City’s primary methods for preventing counters have failed. However, Rodri’s comments make this hard to believe, while footage of assistant coach Mikel Arteta reiterating this message in the dressing room at half-time of their game against x provides further evidence against Pep’s claims. In all likelihood, the denial is simply to detract attention away from the strategy and prevent referees from handing out bookings each time it gets utilised.
As we have seen, being a possession-based team that plays a high defensive line shouldn’t automatically equate to defensive fragility. In fact, intelligent positional play during the offensive phases can make it extremely difficult for opposing teams to capitalise on the open space in behind. Maintaining compaction during the attack can facilitate counterpressing in numbers should possession be turned over, while retaining a protective block of players behind the play should prevent the deeper spaces from being exploited. Finally, on the rare occasions that neither of these tools achieve the desired effect, tactical fouls can delay the opposition’s attack and give the rest of the team more time to recover and establish an organised defensive unit. Ultimately, teams should be conscious of the defensive phases while in the attacking phases, and how their positional play in possession will naturally influence their ability to cope during transitions.
*Final note: Movement in the final third can be more free at times in order to disrupt the opponents’ defensive shape, evade markers, and create overloads in certain areas. However, the same counter-pressing principles apply, and the support structure behind possession must remain. The number of players making up the supporting structure/protective block can also vary depending on how many of the opposition’s attackers have stayed forward.