Most managers, myself included, prefer aesthetically pleasing brands of football. We are not content with merely winning a game, we want to win in style, preferably a grand style. Okay, I am not really sure if this applies to most managers, but it bloody well applies to me. I blame my Dutch genes for that little quirky trait. The Dutch are quite apt at losing games but declaring themselves the moral winners because their style of play looked better. I mean, Van Gaal anyone?
Anyway, enough of my ranting and back to the topic at hand as promised in the title. What many people seem to forget is that there can be beauty in clean defending. The same ideas and principles so often associated with the attacking phases of football are just as easily applied to the defensive phase. The fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your teammates, maintaining a tight and cohesive formation, it’s just as much a hallmark of a strong defense than it is a characteristic of a strong offense.
That brings me to the concept of the phalanx. As an avid gamer, I played my fair share of the Total War series and well, you can’t play these games without picking up a thing or two regarding shield walls, testudo’s or phalanxes. The phalanx formation was a close-rank, dense grouping of warriors armed with long spears and interlocking shields. The Spartan phalanx was legendary in classical antiquity and renowned for hammering home the importance of keeping one’s shield up. It was not for the protection of the warrior carrying it, but for the warrior at his side. When the shield was dropped it created a gap in the impenetrable defense, which could be exploited.
I want to apply the concept of the Greek phalanx to how I organize my teams defensively. If that sounds intriguing (or just sufficiently hipstery), read on!
So why the whole phalanx analogy? It’s not an effort on my side to sound pretentious or make simple things needlessly complex, but an actual effort to use an analogy to explain what I do when I organize my defense. There are a number of core principles I use to organize the defensive shape of the tactic and I want to use the concept of the phalanx to explain and elaborate.
1. Compact lines win the battle
The concept of a classic phalanx relied on a compact formation, so its warriors were able to cover each other with their shields. That is really no different than your average football formation under perfect circumstances. I have elaborated on the concept of compact and cohesive formations before, so just allow me to summarize and say that a compact defensive formation gives away less space and makes it more difficult for an opposing team to penetrate the lines.
In an ideal situation there ought to be no more than 25 to 35 meters 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. This concept isn’t merely about playing destructive, restrictive and negative football, the concept is also about balancing the heart, which wants to attack, and the mind, which tends to focus more on defense. You can’t be on the offense all the time, but neither can you defend for 90 minutes and come out on top (hello José, that means you too!).
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, especially down the flanks. This brings me to the second analogy with the phalanx, which I will look at in the next paragraph.
In order to create a compact formation, it is quite important to find the right balance in player roles for your central players. How you do this exactly depends on a myriad of factors. You have to take your preferred style of play into account, the expected passing build-up, as well as which players, are pivotal when the game transitions from one phase to the next. I generally mess around with various configurations in pre-season. Ultimately, I want to end up with average positions that look like the one I screenshotted above in terms of compactness.
In the screenshot above you can see how the team lines up when pressing higher up the pitch. You can still see that the team is fairly compact in the central area. The distances between the various players are no more than 25 to 30 meters and the team looks dominant in the central area of the pitch, where most of the opponents are located.
In this second screenshot, we can see what happens when our formation shuffles to protect a flank. The ball is out wide and the entire top of the central pillar of players swings out wide to block the threat, remaining in a tight and compact shape. The roles I selected for my midfielders were mostly defensive and supportive, which means they are generally careful regarding turnovers and restricting space. The forward three are mostly instructed to pressure the opposition into making mistakes and allowing the players behind them to regain their defensive positions.
2. Control of the central area of the battlefield (pitch)
The concept of a phalanx was that it was used to dominate the heart of the battlefield. It was a rather rigid formation, which could shuffle over to defend against threats from the flanks, but such lateral movements generally weakened the central area of the formation. Instead of counter-acting this weakness, the phalanx was generally flanked by supportive troops such as skirmishers, cavalry, or light infantry. The key area of control was the central area.
One aspect of football I deem equally important is control of the central areas of the pitch. When you control the heart of the field of play, you automatically limit the opportunities your opponent has, whilst increasing your own options exponentially. The freedom of choice is greater in the middle of the field. There is no boundary created by the touchline.
Just have a look at the screenshot above, which perfectly illustrates my point. One generally has eight basic directions from which the ball can be played (forward, backward, left, right, and four diagonal lines), which means keeping possession becomes a lot easier. A team that bases their play around establishing a greater presence in the center will have many more choices and thus be more dynamic. The opponent must also not only defend the two flanks but the middle and both flanks, because from the center of the field either are directly playable.
I understand that this is a concept used for the offensive phase of a tactic, when the team has the ball, whereas the premise of this article is to look at how to defend more effectively. Well, this concept of control also applies to defending, if you restrict the passing options an opponent has in the central area, you improve your chances of winning the ball or the opposition turning it over in an effort to break through the lines.
As you can see, our formation is relatively narrow. The flanks are left for the opposition, whilst the team instead retreats into a strong central block. As soon as the ball is moved into a central position, the opposition is left with almost no passing options. I have highlighted the passing routes towards each teammate, but most are unrealistic, highly risky passes because of the distance between players or the proximity to my own players, capable of closing down passing lanes with minor movements.
In terms of the game, I generally opt for a normal team width when I am focussing on the defensive aspect of the game. If the formation becomes too narrow, it’s too easy to get flanked and overrun. This basically means that this tactic can never defend against all attacks everywhere on the pitch, instead opting to shuffle over to a specific side to combat a threat there. We attack as a team, we defend as a team.
3. You need proper support to make this work
It was difficult for a phalanx to change direction once deployed, and would advance toward the enemy in a great rectangular block. This meant that by its very nature, the phalanx was susceptible to being flanked, outmaneuvered. The Greeks and Macedonians generally employed screening forces on the flanks to ensure the phalanx wasn’t flanked. Without proper support, the phalanx was vulnerable.
The way I set up my defensive formation is pretty much the same. I opt for a strong central presence, with six to eight central players (or players tucking inside from the flanks), depending on the preferred formation. This does leave us with a similar weakness to sides attacking down the flanks into space.
When the ball is played wide by the opposing side, the central column sort of swings to that side to combat the threat on the flank. Because the central column is generally comprised of multiple players, it means that the central area is still sort of covered, but if an opposing team is able to switch the ball to the other flank quickly, they can bypass the central column and do a lot of damage. This is where my support troops come in handy, the wide players.
Regardless of formation, you always have at least two true wide players. These are supposed to be your support troops on the flanks. Again, the formation you use is irrelevant, the role these guys are supposed to play is what counts. When you use a truly narrow formation, you generally have only two wide players. These guys should be primarily tasked with protecting the flanks. If they are good enough, they can have a role to play going forward, but they should start with protecting the flanks of the central column.
In wider formations, you could have up to four wide players. You can have some of them move inside (inside forwards or inverted wingbacks tend to do that) to add extra weight to the central column, or you can have a double screening force, dividing defensive and offensive duties between the various wide players. It’s up to you really. Just use the preseason to balance the formation out in terms of roles.
4. Various lines, each with their own task
The hoplites that made up a phalanx fought in a tightly-packed rectangular formation. Within the phalanx, each man’s shield overlapped that of the man to his left, and he partially sheltered behind the shield of the man to his right. That does not mean each line had the same function. In a traditional battle, the forward line would slam into the opposition, grinding shields together and making the occassional spear jab. The second line would do the real damage, as they had their hands free to use their spears to thrust at will. The third line (and subsequently other lines) would be too far back to do actual damage. They instead pressed forward, pushing themselves and their comrades forward by sheer force of numbers
The formation I have used as an example throughout this article pretty much illustrates this point. I’ve tried to craft a tight and cohesive formation, with three distinctive banks of players. I generally use three banks of players as well. One offensive bank, one supportive (or midfield) bank and a defensive bank. Even if you’re not into strikerless formations, you can use a similar setup.
In my example, the first bank consists of the attacking midfield trio, which is clustered closely together, which automatically gives them a numerical advantage against most opponents. Defensively, they are tasked with pressing and harassing the opposition. They are not expected to actually win the ball, they should block passing option, forcing opponents into making risky passes. The emphasis for the forward bank is very much placed on positioning, both in an offensive and defensive sense, as at least one of them is also expected to pick up on opposing defensive midfielders.
The midfield trio, which is V-shaped, is equally clustered. These players provide a large part of the midfield balance and the link within the midfield between the defensive line and offensive bank positioned in the attacking midfield stratum. These midfielders have a host of responsibilities as they need to be protecting the defense, winning possession, linking play as well as creating chances for the forward three. As I said, balancing these three was quite a difficult task, which took some trial and error to get the roles right.
The final bank is the defensive bank, which is made up out of two central defenders, again in a stopper/cover combination. The idea is that one player aggressively engages the opposition, whilst the other stays behind to provide a bit of cover.