When I first took the reigns at AEK Athens, they had not seen Champions League football for many years, at least not in the group stages. The primary goal when taking over was evident; break the dominance of Olympiakos, who had won the league in 18 of the past 20 seasons. The secondary goal was to establish Champions League football. The revenues to follow would be the foundation for developing the youth and training facilities to make AEK a self-sufficient and profitable club. At the time of joining Olympiakos had a player earning more than £60k p/w, while my top earner was on a third of that.
However, what has any of this to do with the contain mentality? Well, we were building a squad for domestic dominance. We could not possibly think about European dominance in the short term. With the prize money in the Champions League linked to success, we needed a system that would allow us to hold our own; especially considering a draw in a Group Stage match would pay our players salaries for a week.
With this in mind, I needed to build upon my domestically dominant 4-3-3 strikerless system but adapt it for the European fixtures. I needed a system that would keep the ball away from the opposition, be solid in defence, but also give us the chance of nicking the odd goal. I wasn’t going to change the formation, just the combination of roles and instructions. Here’s how it looks on paper.
We line up with a 4-1-2-3 strikerless system, much like the one I wrote about here.
Starting at the back, we have a defensive sweeper keeper between the sticks. Ahead of him are two central defenders flanked by supporting wing-backs. Protecting the back four and providing a creative link between the defence and midfield is my Regista, offering both defensive stability and bursts through my two workhorses, a pair of ball winning midfielders, to link up with the attack. The front three consist of two attacking midfielders with support duties supporting a central Trequartista.
- Contain mentality
- Very fluid shape
- Normal tempo
- Balanced width
Now, let’s get into the nuts and bolts. The following scenarios are taken from a Champions League match against AS Monaco (in-game date: February 2021). Monaco is a very quick team and possesses a lot of match winners. The key stats to take away from this game: Monaco has one shot on target. AEK have 75% possession, 975 passes with a 92% completion rate.
AEK defensive organisation
First and foremost when creating a system, I build from the defence. I set up most of my teams to play out from the back, so there is an argument for a three-man central defence to give more passing options and greater defensive stability against teams who play with two strikers. When I create a possession based system, I think about how we are going to create and utilise space. The lack of a third central defender offers us some challenges in finding space when playing out from the back, but this challenge is circumvented with the use of a Regista dropping deep to receive from the keeper. Moreover, we do not need to digress from the usual formation that I was using at AEK if I kept two central defenders, so this was the decision made.
Regarding our defensive organisation, it really is simple. The mentality spread across the back line is minimal, it’s a no thrills approach to defending.
- Slightly higher defensive line
The Contain strategy is the ultimate park the bus strategy. It reduces tempo and width to the minimum. The team will also look to waste time wherever possible. In defence, it drops the defensive line and reduces closing down. Since we are the underdogs in most European games, and we’re going to be under a lot of pressure, I set the defensive line to slightly higher so that the pressure when applied on the defence isn’t within such close proximity to our goal. In reality, this doesn’t affect the line too much with a contain mentality, but as we are coming up against quality players, I don’t want them having such easy access to shots just outside our area.
AEK defensive organisation in action
For a demonstration of our defensive organisation, I have picked a match against AS Monaco. We were 2-1 down from the first leg, having scored the all-important away goal. The defensive objective, as always in Europe, is to keep things tight and simple. We swarm the opposition, suffocating their attacks in order to make it as difficult as possible for them to move the ball around us. This opportunity for Monaco came in the 50th minute.
Bear in mind that Monaco plays a very fast brand of football. They get the ball out to the wings, using the pace out wide to create dangerous opportunities for crossing the ball. However, with our energetic team getting in their faces, we manage to keep Monaco at bay for the full 90 minutes.
[Note: White markings are used for AEK Athens players, red for the opposition. A red or white dotted line signifies a player’s next movement. A green dotted line means future ball movement]
To put the above into context, I have highlighted our back four (the right wing-back is off shot) and our front three. The guys in the middle, our ‘swarm’, look to reduce the space for the opposition to play in, and given that two of the three are ball winning midfielders, they’ll be all over the opposition who come into their zone. They press high and they press aggressively, sometimes at the detriment of our shape, but as long as the defensive line is intact, and the defensive midfielder maintains a solid position in front of the back four, we can afford this approach.
As the right winger moves down the touchline, he is engaged by my attacking midfielder, at this point space is closed down for him to move into and play is recycled to their right-back. The pressing from the front guys is the first line of support, and with my attacking midfielders instructed to close down much more, they’re happy to drop back and muck in with the rest of the team.
With the passing lanes closed down, Monaco will now aim to move the ball from their right side of the pitch to the left and start again. This technique employed by Monaco attempts to move us out of our defensive shape to enable them to penetrate the lines easier. You can see that my attacking midfielders have dropped deep now and joined the ball winners in the midfield. As the ball moves laterally, as does our midfield. Given we’re playing very narrow and very fluid, it is a common component to our play that the midfield is all within a small space. This makes it hard for the opposition to play through us.
The ball is now being worked further to Monaco’s left. Our midfield shifts across the pitch until it is time to engage the ball. At this point, we are relatively organised and hold a good shape. The attacking midfielders fall in line with my central midfielders and my Trequartista spearheads the closing down of the man on the ball. My Regista sits just in front of the central defenders to reduce passing opportunities into the front men.
Monaco now looks to make a move and advance towards our goal. Our players will now engage the ball holder, with our wider players moving inwards to narrow the central areas of the pitch. My Regista also shifts across to position himself in front of the ball as he protects the back four.
Monaco has some excellent players, and their skill is evident as they work the ball around us. Mbappe now moves in from the wing to receive the ball. Our wing-back will track the movement infield and our midfield will move towards the goal to block off any passing lanes.
At this point, Monaco has not committed many players forward, so there are no players for my midfield to mark. My two central defenders have picked up to the two Monaco strikers, who are playing a 4-4-2 system. When the attack is as quick as Monaco, it can take a second or two for the midfield to reposition when pressing is this aggressive. The main objective for my midfield now is to get back into the area and pick up a man. With no men to pick up their secondary objective is to block off any shots or crosses.
Now with the ball progressing into our penalty area, the midfield shift down to get into position to block off any passes into the box. Our defenders will show the ball carrier onto their outside foot and make it hard to pass the ball back across goal.
The final phase of the play shows the midfield fully aligned now to block off any passing opportunities. With more men in the box, they would be man-marked by the midfield (shown below). Since the only striker in the box is easily marked by my other central defender my other players position themselves for the block.
As alluded to above, here is an example of an attack from the other side of the pitch where more players have committed forwards and wait for a cross in our box. It is a similar situation in that the player on the ball is forced into the channels, the midfielders create a wall to block passing options, and the defence and midfield man-mark their opposite numbers in the area. (My wing-back right is just out of shot here).
To conclude our defensive organisation I have shown how our very aggressive and narrow midfield shifts dynamically from side to side, covering the full length of the pitch to block out passing lanes and pressure the man on the ball. The aggressive pressing of the attacking midfielders draws them back into midfield to create a 4-1-4-1 shape in defence. When the opposition team break to within our penalty area, the press is triggered and the central midfielders will chase down the ball at any cost.
Our ability to move in line with the ball movement and the sheer volume of players through the midfield due to the very low mentalities across the board makes it very difficult for teams to break us down. At times, as demonstrated above, the very narrow positioning of the players can create some unwanted grouping, however, when the opposition moves the ball about patiently, this plays into our hands, which is how we’ve managed to pick up so many points in Europe.
AEK transition from defence to attack
For those who might have read my other tactical posts, you will know I always like to build up from the back with slow and simple passes. Maintaining possession in our own half, rather than aiming for long kicks upfield. The simple way to achieve this is to induce a move know as Lavolpista, which is the fanning of the central defenders out wide to create passing options. You can achieve this either organically through your defensive midfielder dropping between the central defenders, or by using a third central defender.
This movement, which causes the central defenders to push wider, enables our build up from the back to be relatively unopposed and allows us to work the ball out patiently. This slow and methodical approach results in at least 60% possession in most Champions League games. In the Champions League, we had the highest possession, highest number of passes and the best pass completion ratio of any team in Europe, if that sort of thing rocks your socks.
That said, a lot of the possession is meaningless by design. With the aim being to keep the ball away from the opponent. If the opponent doesn’t have the ball, they cannot score. Remember, the aim here is to not lose the game.
The build up
- Play out of defence
- Pass into space
- Shorter passing
- Retain possession
- Be more disciplined
We build up through our keeper, who is instructed to distribute the ball short to Llorente, our Regista. He will drop in between the defence to collect the ball, using this space created between the centre-backs to open up passing lanes.
What tends to happen is we will patiently move the ball around the opposition, typically around the half-way line, creating overloads across all areas, working the space to create openings and using the passing ability of Ascacibar and Llorente to play pinpoint passes through the opposition for us to counter. Using the pass into space instruction will lead the players to play more passes for the advanced players to run onto, rather than into their feet. Through balls are a key component to our goals as the opposition press us while we sit deep playing short and sharp passes.
Because we play a narrow three in the attacking midfield strata, the opposition defence struggle to pick up the extra man, usually, he is the one breaking through and will have the majority of our scoring chances.
AEK transition to attack in action
From the same match above, the next set of screenshots will show how we use out slow and patient play to build-up from the back. How having a numerical advantage in the defensive positions enables us to work the ball around any number of attacking systems. This ball retention and rotation is key to our ability to retain the ball and keep it away from the opposition. I won’t go into too much detail here because it really is elementary football, but this gives you an idea of how we build-up the same way to maintain a possession orientated game.
Our keeper is instructed to pass the ball short to our Regista from goal kicks. Our Regista obliges by dropping deep between the central defenders, who if you remember are instructed to stay relatively high. This movement frees up the Regista to receive the ball as the central defenders occupy the strikers of Monaco. The result is the ability to bring the ball out unopposed.
Once in possession of the ball, Llorente has two clear options immediately either side. He can also pass it slightly longer to the wing-backs, who are also unmarked at this stage. Llorente passes the ball out to our left wing-back who is in acres of space.
Our left wing-back then has the option to move the ball back inside, or advance with it to Colidio, who can get away from his marker, ready to receive the ball.
Once in possession, Colidio makes a simple pass infield, and the build-up is complete. I have another example, which is almost a carbon copy, but it demonstrates how building up from the back can be achieved relatively simply, provided you have the extra man in defence to facilitate it.
This time a goal kick from the right side. Again, Llorente drops between the two central defenders unopposed to collect the ball.
The options available to Llorente are plentiful. He opts for the long pass out to the left wing-back again.
A simple ball infield and we have now bypassed the attack of Monaco with simple ball movement, aided by having the numerical advantage in defence.
We’ve completed our objective of offering up simple passing options, keeping the ball away from the opposition, and working it into areas where, if the time is right, we can be more dangerous. It is a simple, and very effective tactic that can be employed quite simply if you have the players in space to receive.
To conclude our build up examples, I have shown how we create a third-man in defence to aid in the transition of the ball from the defence to attack. This third man creates effective overloads and opens up passing lanes for us to exploit as we move the ball forwards around the opposition and out to safer areas of the pitch.
AEK offensive organisation
Finally, I will show our offensive organisation. As offence is our secondary objective, it is key that we make the most of it when the chances are presented. And that means we must present our strikers with excellent opportunities.
- Stick to Positions
Things are relatively left untouched when it comes to attacking instructions. We have two supporting attacking midfielders flanking a Treqartista who pulls all the strings, who is also our primary attacking threat. Our Regista is instructed to play more direct balls, and our ball winners are more than capable of playing defence-splitting passes when the opportunity presents itself.
AEK offensive organisation in action
As alluded to in our build-up discussion, we like to work the ball out wide in the initial phase, and then look to bring the ball inwards as this is where we’re dominant when it comes to the numbers in the middle of the park. In this example, we are mid build-up but quickly move to the attack, as is synonymous with this system. We are also capable of a well-worked goal, but that would require a series of 20 screenshots, given how long we retain the ball for before attempting to score.
To kick off proceedings, our right wing-back has the ball following a build-up from the back. Are you noticing a pattern here with our wing-backs having the ball and moving it back inside? There are options in possession as Monaco are a little deep at this phase, but their defence is playing a high line.
Once the ball has moved inside to Llorente, he wastes no time moving the ball forwards to Colidio. And this is where we show how we quickly break through the lines to create counter attacking opportunities, using a contain mentality.
Colidio has two options. Pass it into space for Aronis to run onto, or back to our wing-back who is in more space our wide. The ball does move wide, and this triggers our attacking midfielders to sprint through the lines.
Our left wing-back now has a choice to retain possession and pass it back inside to the central midfield, or launch it forwards into space for a straight race between our attacking midfielders and the Monaco defence.
Aronis is much quicker than the Monaco defenders who are scrambling to get back. This was the goal that allowed us to progress to the next round of the competition.
To conclude our offensive organisation, I have shown how we build on our patient and possession orientated play out from the back, using the pace of our forward players to score quick and simple goals. Retaining possession in deeper areas allows us to control the game and dictate the tempo of proceedings. However, using the pass into space instruction, the players are not afraid to launch balls through the lines for our attacking midfielders to run onto. Often resulting in good goal scoring opportunities.
The formation and Instructions
I know some will be interested to see the formation and instructions in one place, so here they are. Bear in mind these are the instructions given to my players who possess a specific set of attributes. Moreover, these are slightly adjusted depending on the opposition and how the game is playing out.
The formation and player instructions
The team Instructions
Playing on a contain mentality has yielded some very entertaining results. In the match against AS Monaco, we had 75% possession and created 12 shots on their goal. For a system that is primarily based around defence, I have shown that it can be used to great effect when you have a specific strategy in mind for your games.
The aim of this strategy is to keep the ball, reduce all risk and first and foremost stop the opposition from scoring. It is ideal for games where you’re ahead and you need to hang on for a result, but it is also useful for those games where you are the huge underdog and you just need any result at all.
I managed to progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League with this system, bossing the likes of Monaco, Juventus and Tottenham Hotspurs. It can work with different shapes, but the key is the compactness and the ability for the players to cover all areas of the pitch to reduce the space the opposition have to work in.