When people talk about Total Football, they are usually referring to the attacking phase of play. The positional switching and movement off the ball it delivers has always captivated managers around the world and it’s always been an ideal people are trying to replicate in FM. The whole concept is based on fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your teammates runs. In this way, players use the movements of their colleagues for reference rather than zones on the pitch.
People tend to forget that these same ideas and principles so often associated with attacking can also be applied to the defending phase of football. Fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your teammates, maintaining a tight and cohesive wall of players between your own goal and the opposing team. In an ideal situation there ought to be no more than 25 to 35 metres between the forward line and the defenders. The reason for this is to constrict the space in a vertical sense, hence reducing the distances between players thus making it difficult for the offensive team to pass or dribble through the middle of this compacted space.
Looking at the game, such an idea is feasible. Just look at the heat map above. The forward line is in close proximity to the defensive line, the distance between the two is not very great and there are a fair few players between both lines to help defend. You can also see that when a team lines up like this, there are large spaces on the pitch they are automatically ceding to the opposition.
This basically means that this defensive tactic can never defend against all attacks everywhere on the pitch. Had I opted to push up the defensive line to employ my counter-pressing strategy, the team would leave a lot of space behind the defensive block. In this case, where the team sits deeper and more compact, they will allow space in front of the defensive block, allowing the opposition possession of the ball in this area.
Now in my eyes, total defending covers both scenarios. It’s a hybrid of the high up the pitch counter-pressing and deep defensive block, soaking-up-pressure defending. Because I want to defend with the whole team, the choice for a Very Fluid mentality makes sense. Looking at the team roles, this is what I want to achieve.
GK: Distribute Safely
DC: Disrupt Attacks Judiciously
DL/R: Disrupt Attacks
DMC: Halfback: Disrupt Attacks
WBL/R: Recover Possession After Defensive Transition
MC: Recover Possession
AMC: Keep Possession Away From Pressure
Shadow Striker: Keep Possession Under Pressure
During an actual match, this is what I am looking for. This is a second season match, where my Sliema Wanderers team takes on Scottish champions Celtic. As you may expect, Celtic have a vastly superior side and they are expected to win this match, easily even. Any result that keeps the damage limited would be a good one, so a defensive setup would suit us well, considering the limited abilities of my own squad.
I reckon there’s a lot going on in that match clip, so I intend to break it down, using a series of screenshots to explain what is going on and which defensive strategies are used. In this match-clip against Celtic, we start out with a situation where Sliema chose to press high up the pitch, basically whenever one of the defenders had the ball. It is important to understand the situation of the game in this phase of play. Both Celtic wing-backs go wide to outflank the three Sliema forward line midfielders. Both centre-backs have split wide and the midfielders are spread out. Celtic are trying to open up as much space as possible by drawing our players out wide.
The clip starts with a Celtic defender receiving the ball. As soon as the defender receives the ball, we can see the counter-pressing part become active. With the defence not under pressure, the forward line moves forward aggressively to pressure the Celtic defender in possession. The defender has options on the ball, but those are mostly wide options. Most passing options in his immediate vacinity are covered by Sliema players blocking the passing lanes.
With only a risky passing option to the left and a Sliema player bearing down on him, the Celtic defender goes for the the traditional British approach and hoofs the ball forward into space. There is no immediate threat for our defence, with two Celtic forwards being covered by two defenders plus the half-back screening just in front of the defence. The right wing-back can tuck inside in case of emergencies to provide cover.
The Celtic defender has played the long ball, which is floating towards our left wing-back, because Celtics two central options are marked by three Sliema players. On our left side, we can also see Celtics James Forrest making a run towards the ball. With no immediate players to press, the forward line and midfielders drop back, to constrict the amount of space given away.
In this next phase, we see the entire team retreating to await the outcome of Forrest and our left wing-back Bianciardi challenging for the ball. The defenders retreat, to cover for a possible loss of the ball, with the responsebility for the marking of the second striker left over the half-back, who incidentally is a bit late to cover the run of his marker, but is covering a run by his team-mate, albeit poorly, the obvious excuse being that the team is from Malta.
Forrest has beaten our defender in the air and flicked the ball on, right in the path of the on-rushing Husbauer. As I mentioned before, our half-back started too late, but he is hot on the trail of his opponent. He is also receiving back-up in the form of one of the central midfielders, who is starting to close down Husbauer. The second central midfielder is moving into space to close down possible passing lanes to the outside. The forward line is in the process of retreating onto our own half as well, tracking the runs of opposing midfielders.
Husbauer is immediately closed down by three Sliema players. Despite the nearby presence of Forrest, the Hungarian forward has no immediate passing option nearby. The only forward Celtic player is marked by the remaining defensive line. A through-ball would be picked up by the left central defender, who appears to have moved slightly wider. The right central defender is marking the forward, with the right wing-back providing cover. Our entire team is now grouped on our own half, in a tight block of players.
With no actual passing option, Husbauer is forced to play a back-pass towards Jem Karacan. At this point, there is no immediate threat for the back-line, so the forward line is free to do some counter-pressing. You can see two players immediately moving forward to close down Karacan. The Celtic midfielder has some passing options open to him though.
Karacan finds Commons open on the left, who is in space and can dribble towards the defender facing him. With no immediate threat for the back-line, the majority of the players can maintain their defensive positions. The only player who has to step out is the right wing-back.
Commons realises that there is an easier option than taking on the defender. Celtic wing-back Wayne Bridge offers a wide option. The added bonus from a Celtic point of view, Bridge has the space to overlap and move forward. We have ceded the flanks to Celtic, basically inviting them to cross the ball into the box. With a plethora of defensive players, there’s a decent chance our lads will actually win the header and clear the ball.
As expected, Bridge is going for it. Commons is offering a passing option in case Bridge cannot get past his opponent. In the back, several Sliema players are moving towards Commons, in case Bridge passes the ball. One of the players moving out is the central defender Petrassi. With the half-back and another centre-back still occupying the heart of the defence, he can afford to move wide to provide cover for the wing-back.
Bridge indeed does not manage to get past the wing-back and instead decides to pass the ball towards Commons. Commons has no passing options available to him. Bridge on the outside will still be marked by my wing-back, whilst Celtic’s main forward Troy Deeney is currently in an off-side position. The potential danger-man is Celtic’s right winger, but that would be an incredible difficult pass to pull off. Still, it is worrying that this player is left so wide open.
Commons has decided to dribble towards the back-line and look for a cross. Petrassi is already coming in and our right wing-back has tucked inside to shut down any passing lanes like that. The rest of the team have packed into the box. The only worrying bit is that no-one seems to have picked up the right winger. However, the team is defending as a unit. In the result of the video, you can see that Petrassi dispossesses Commons with a sliding challenge, followed by a shitty cross by Bridge and some weird shenanigans by my Maltese goalie, fumbling an easy cross.
What I wanted to show with this clip is what I mean by Total Defending. In this clip we’ve seen the team switch from counter-pressing high up the pitch to a deep defensive block, soaking up pressure. The Very Fluid mentality combined with a Counter strategy seems to pull off Total Defending quite nicely.
In case you were wondering how this match ended, here’s the overview and match stats.
Whilst some people believe Fluid and Very Fluid systems are mostly for the better teams in the FM-universe, I do believe a Very Fluid style of play can work for poorer teams. In fact, it offers you the possibility to defend with the entire team, which is definitely something you need when you are managing the minnows in FM or when you are outclassed like Sliema was against Celtic.
Be honest there, a 1-0 loss away to Celtic is a good result, however you want to spin it. The match stats show we we outgunned, as was to be expected, but not in a big way. The score-line represents that. A 1-0 loss, despite the two red cards, is a pretty decent result for a Maltese side in a European fixture.
Combine this total defending with the usual perks of a strikerless style and you get a lean, mean counter-attacking machine. Sure, the quality of our players is disastrous, but when it actually pays off, you can get some lovely results.