It sounds daft, doesn’t it? Defensive midfielders instead of defenders. What’s next, you mad Dutchman? Defenceless as well as strikerless? To be fair… The idea originally came from a Twitter conversation regarding that very same concept. Defenceless football. Sounds like it belongs on a niche blog like mine.
— RTHerringbone (@rtherringbone) June 23, 2014
It started as a three man defence, it ended with three defensive midfielders forming an advanced defensive line. Whilst it was certainly entertaining, the results were not that good. In fact, we often leaked goals like crazy, relying on a world class forward line to keep us in the game.
I’ll spare you the details, because the whole concept just didn’t work. However, my interest in the concept was recently rekindled by an interesting thread on TheDugout’s forum (register an account if you don’t have one already!). I’ll briefly describe the premisse of the thread.
As you can see, the premise is to retain the ball in the middle of the park and to have a natural triangle for safety. Boateng at centre-back isn’t there for any active defensive role, he’s more of a sweeper/regista when put behind the half-backs, as can be seen by his passing map in a 3-1 victory against PSG. The idea is that the two half-back will then drop back to perform more like conventional centre-backs and to turn the shape into a high-pressing five at the back. To accentuate this, I have the centre-back closing down more in order to push him up the pitch, and have both half-backs on the same instructions (fewer risky passes, ease off tackles) in order to help ball retention and to encourage them to fall-back before engaging in defence so that we’re not caught too easily on the break.
Either side of this triangle, there are two complete wing-backs, whose jobs are to get forward and help with attacking play. Obviously, being Bayern Munich helps a fair bit personnel-wise. As a result, you’d want two mobile half-backs, and a centre-back that is comfortable on the ball.
Now whilst this isn’t the pure defenceless tactic I tried to work with, it comes pretty damn close, with just one pure, actual defender on the team-sheet. I figured it would be nice to see how it developed and if I could use any of the knowledge I had gained. The two main problems Kiz (the original author) identified were the susceptibility of the defensive unit to counter-attacks and wingers running amok. In his own words:
In a recent game against Gladbach, we had our defensive flaws pointed-out obviously to us as the ‘middle 4’ (WBs and HBs) were all caught-out on the counter-attack. We tried to close-down as well as possible, but due to running back and not being comfortable in position, the opposition winger was able to get the ball into the box and cause problems due to them having an extra man in attack against our lone centre-back. As it was, the ball was headed-away by Boateng, only as far as Raffael, who casually slotted-home as we were sprung asunder.
Both problems would be instantly solved by dropping the wing-backs one position, into the defence. With their roles set as Complete Wing-Backs, they would still maraud down the entire flank, but defensively, they wouldn’t be on the back-foot as much as they would be in the original concept. This way they can combat the opposing wingers, as well as allowing the team (the half-backs mostly) more time to re-position because they don’t have to worry about the wide threat.
In reality, this changed very little in terms of the average shape of the team, barring the fact that the Half-Backs were no longer responsible for combating wide threats and could therefore focus on their primary roles, snuffing out counter-attacks and reinforcing the defence. Just look at the average shapes.
The first shape is my own, the second the original used. Whilst this formation would still struggle versus two man strike-forces, it did illustrate how the role of the half-back changes when you use two of them at the same time. In an earlier article, I described how the half-back played in combination with two central defenders. The combination of two half-backs and the absence of at least two defenders means their behavior on the pitch changes.
When combining the half-back with the lone central defender, this role seems to change, evolve as you wish. No longer is the half-back the midfield maître d, merely concerned with maintaining the balance between defence and offence, he is becoming even more fluid, more involved. A forward sweeper, a sweeper-holder, a man able to make full use not just of the brush, but of the dustpan too. He’s not just a convenient passing option for the defenders, helping to create an overload, nor is he just a claustrophobic obstacle in retreat, trying to delay the advancing opposition so his team-mates take up their positions. He is now the most important defender and he fulfils the role as you have come to expect from the humble half-back; umambigious yet inconspicuous. A prime example of his changed role to illustrate my point.
With the opposition on the offence, the team moves into its defensive positions. The wing-backs have dropped back and provide cover on the flanks, leaving the half-backs to deal with more central threats. Both half-backs have been highlighted and their positioning is superb, being in a position to either support their team-mates and snuff out passes into space. The player closest to the central defender is in a position to shadow the run from the opposing forward, with the other half-back being in a position to either take on the winger, should the wing-back fail to contain him, or move into midfield to shut down the passing lane towards the onrushing midfielder.
With this redefined definition of the half-backs demeanor within the parameters of this experiment, I also feel confident to comment on the possibility of an entirely defenceless formation. The half-backs seem to need a reference point for their movements, a fall-back position if you will. They need a defender to determine the defensive line they have to guard or drop back into. A truly defenceless formation seems impossible within the current Match Engine, but this is probably as close as you can get to a defenceless formation.