Quite often, coaches whose philosophies are more ‘defence-minded’ will get criticism from fans and pundits. The likes of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Rafa Benitez have all 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 play on the edge of the opponent’s box 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 believes, as I’m sure Wenger did, that being able to keep the ball for large parts of the game makes it more difficult for the opposition to score. Furthermore, he acknowledges that playing high up the pitch should mean that a mistake or a loss of possession is less of a concern. 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.”
It’s clear that Wenger and Guardiola agreed on this point. However, the former wanted his teams to play with freedom in the attack. Within reason, his attacking players could roam wherever they liked. The fullbacks/halfbacks pushed on also, often leaving just 2 central defenders and a holding midfielder behind the ball. On the occasions when the Gunners lost possession, opponents knew that the space existed to exploit them on the counter-attack, and they so often did. But it didn’t have to be that way.
Having possession and playing high up the pitch should not equate to defensive fragility and reactivity. Although there were some teething issues in his first season at the Etihad, Guardiola has proved that ‘Positional Play’ in the offense can not only aid the retention of possession, but can also guard against fatal counter attacks.
During his 9 full seasons as a manager, Guardiola’s teams have always been recognised for their goal-scoring exploits. However, they have actually failed to finish as the league’s top scorers on 5 occasions. Meanwhile, they have conceded the fewest in all but one campaign, his first year at City. Think of all the teams that work throughout the week on remaining compact out of possession, 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 I’ve already mentioned, it’s not as simple as just attacking as much as possible, or even 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. Pep’s players play close enough to together to enable seamless retention of possession and effective combination play. While also distancing themselves far enough part to achieve good coverage of the entire space, occupying all the important zones and allowing for easy progression up the pitch.
From a defensive standpoint, this ideal 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.
“When the other team has the ball we are all under instruction to win it back. We defend with 10 outfield players. 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 in the opponent’s half when on the attack. The wings are occupied by Sane and Sterling, while the two ‘half-spaces’ between the opposition’s midfield and defence are taken up by Silva and De Bruyne, with Jesus playing in front of them. Behind this attacking 5, the support is there from Fernandinho in the ‘organising midfielder’ role, with Delph and Walker either side of him in the half-spaces.
On this occasion, you can see that Walker recognised an opportunity to roam forward due to a strong numerical superiority in his initial area. Behind the line of support are Stones and Otamendi, while goalkeeper Ederson is no doubt positioned outside his area prepared to deal with any quick ball over the top. 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.
In stark contrast, the first GIF below shows the issues with Arsenal’s positional play and how it left them exposed on the counter. One sloppy pass from Alexis Sanchez and Fellaini can play Di Maria through in acres of space and with an immediate 2v1.
Had Arsenal’s supporting players been better positioned, they could have counter-pressed more effectively, cut off the passing lane to Di Maria, and had better coverage of the last line of defense if the ball did somehow get that far.
The next GIF is another good example of Arsenal’s weak positional play under Wenger. Again, It’s Sanchez who loses possession, but the support structure behind him makes it easy for Fabinho to carry the play forward without immediate counter-pressure.
Further to that, the Arsenal players are then all drawn towards the ball and pay no attention to Berbatov and Martial behind them. When the pass comes through to Martial, he has a 2v1 and picks out Barbatov to score. Their lack of knowledge of what to do out of possession under Wenger was quite shocking. However, had their positional play in possession been better, both of these goals could have been avoided.
Arsenal had become known in England as ‘Barcelona lite’, particularly in the first few years of their Emirates Stadium era. Admittedly, the free-flowing, elegant, one and two touch play was enjoyable to watch. Wenger built a team around Cesc Fabregas, formerly a trainee at La Masia, and the Gunners became a favourite for neutral viewers. However, during that period, they failed to win a single title. It took them 8 years to even win a cup competition following their move to the Emirates.
Ultimately, Arsenal came short because they only applied some of the philosophical principles of the Barcelona model of play. They failed to consider how they could limit the opponent’s attacking threat, not just by having lots of possession, but crucially, with intelligent positioning on a collective level.
Wenger knew that his players were suited to an attacking game. He knew they had the ability to keep the ball and combine to break down any defence. He knew they weren’t nearly as skilled defensively as they were offensively, and so should stay as far away from their own goal as possible. But unfortunately, he didn’t appear to know how to implement an offensive game-plan that simultaneously prevented his opponents from playing through them with ease on the break. While there is generally more than one reason for a club’s failure to realise their ambitions, it’s a tactical tweak that could have brought him a lot more success in the second half of his tenure.
Until now, we have seen how appropriate spacing and staggering in the offensive phase of the game 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. Sergio Busquets has become the poster boy for this role and is a great example of how developing a player’s tactical intelligence can be just as important as developing the technical components of their game.
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 he and his team are in the offensive phase, and vice-versa.
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 courtesy of Allasfcb)
The kinds of actions you saw from Busquets are often referred to as ‘ring-fencing’. While he may be the master, there are a number of holding midfielders who excel at this task. Julian Weigl at Borussia Dortmund is another player who takes advantage of the ‘blind-siding’ factor. He often comes from behind and recovers the ball quickly after a possession loss. Consider the effort that defending players must put in when pressing against a team adept in possession, only to be stifled by the intelligent play of Weigl or Busquets as soon as they look to counter-attack.
Many teams try to ‘Defend with Possession’, keeping the ball to prevent their opponents from scoring. But Guardiola’s teams take this one step further. They attack in a way that will make their defensive phase more effective, and defend in a way that makes their attacking more effective. Ultimately, by ‘Defending in Possession’, Pep’s teams remain in touch with more than one phase of play at a time and as a result, are well prepared to cope with transitions.
“I don’t divide football into attacking and defending. In football, everything depends on everything.”
*Final note: Movement in the final third can be slightly 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 can also vary depending on how many opposition attackers have stayed forward, as shown with Walker’s run from deep in image 1.