I am not someone who is willing to walk blindly into the unknown. I make an effort to read up on the possibilities as well as the potential problems. I make every attempt to plan, and I strive to figure out a strategy for the long term ahead of time. How then, do I go about playing this game?
Since many teams employ a counter-pressing strategy, beating the press was my first priority. Do you want to learn how to win against a counter-pressing squad? The ball should then be given to the opposition. Let them have possession. If you do this, the opponent will not have the opportunity to chase and pressure you. From your own more organised structure, the opposition will appear to be much less dangerous.
In this particular instance, my research involved reading about and looking at the tactical analyses of managers who are well-known for the defensive organisation of their teams. I have, amongst other people, read articles about Antonio Conte, José Bordalás, Arrigo Sacchi, José Mourinho, Unai Emery, and, of course, the inevitability that is Diego Simeone.
My initial goal in this endeavour was not so much to imitate one of these managers as it was to identify the aspect of their strategy that is shared by all of them. I then want to build my own version of a defensive football style using these fundamental principles; preferably, I want it to be one that you could release and apply to a variety of different formations.
Following an extensive investigation into various sources, I arrived at four fundamental principles. These are concepts that will assist me in developing my defensive playstyle.
1. Dominate the axis of the field
The idea that these defensive-minded managers wanted to dominate the axis of the field, both numerically and intentionally, was a recurrent motif that emerged from all of the analyses. The concept that underpins it can be grasped in a straightforward manner. When the opposition’s forwards are directly in front of the goal, these attackers pose the greatest threat to the defence. The xG model gives the highest values to shots taken from the middle of the field and taken from within the penalty area. The vast majority of other scenarios present a level of danger that is much lower.
Because of this, the aforementioned managers treat the centre as if it were holy ground, and establishing dominance in this zone is one of the most important tactical tasks that is assigned to a team that is primarily focused on defence. It is unusual for the centre backs of a defensive-minded team to step out to cover when the ball is close to the goal. The backs are responsible for finding a solution, and if they can’t, the keeper will have to: the area in the axis must always be covered.
This is frequently reflected in the positioning of the players who play in the central midfield position. They are acting as bulwarks, protecting the space in front of the central defenders and cutting off the passing lanes into the space between the defenders. This is the area in which your opponents become potentially hazardous. In most cases, you will notice that a team whose primary focus is on defence will set up one or two controlling midfielders in order to cover these zones.
Depending on the situation, there are one or two controlling midfielders against one or more attackers, but the concept remains the same. By cutting off the passing lines, an attacker is prevented from developing into a threat in the area between the backs and the centre backs, the zone which is referred to as the half spaces.
2. Force them to the flanks
The tendency for opponents to be forced to the flanks is inextricably linked to the desire to dominate the centre of the field. After all, a team whose primary focus is on defence cannot cover all zones; instead, it will concentrate on protecting the most important areas along the field’s central axis, while the opposing team searches for space along the field’s flanks. In point of fact, the team that is defending generally rolls out the welcome mat towards the wings; this creates an open invitation to create havoc by crossing the ball high.
When a team scores from a high cross, it usually seems like an easy play to watch. If you have a winger who has a good cross and can dribble past a defender, as well as an attacker who is able to head the ball somewhat decently and position themselves effectively, then you have all of the components necessary to employ this strategy effectively.
If it were as simple as that, then players like Luuk de Jong and Chris Wood would have won the Ballon d’Or in the most recent voting, but unfortunately, the competition is much tougher than that. In order to further illustrate my point, I will refer once more to the xG model. It’s not uncommon for a header inside the penalty area to have an xG value that’s on the low end of the spectrum, and the effectiveness of a high cross is similarly unimpressive. When the opposing team defends in a compact formation and gives up a relatively small amount of space, it is common practise to have to send an awful lot of crosses into the box in order to score a goal. To put it another way, a defensive line that is well-organized should have little difficulty defending high crosses.
Let me quote a fairly recent example. Ajax vs Getafe. The Amsterdam club had significantly more possession of the ball, but they hardly created any legitimate scoring chances. However, Ajax fell into the trap laid out by the Spanish side, especially in the Madrid match, by opting for long balls and crosses from the wing, where the crafty and physically strong defenders of Getafe had little trouble with it. The Spanish team withdrew as a unit and slowed down the tempo of the game through tactical fouls.
The only areas of the field where one-on-one duels are allowed from a defensive standpoint are those occupied by his fullbacks. Even if the player on the right or left side of the defence is successful, an opponent will still face two centre backs who are guarding the crucial zone inside and outside of the penalty area. The very thought is terrifying. Unless you have the dribbling skills of Lionel Messi, Neymar, or Eden Hazard, taking an individual action from the sidelines is virtually meaningless.
In fact, you get something resembling a handball setup, with the offensive side largely arranged in a sort of crescent shape around the defensive block and attempting to find openings in this flesh-and-blood bunker.
Flashes of individual brilliance may be sufficient to force an opening; for example, a cross or long ball may fall over the defensive line, a defender may make a mistake, or a long shot may go in; however, organizationally, in such a defensive formation, you can easily defuse most of the attacking options of your opponent, provided that your field occupation and balance with the formation are en point.
3. Keep the field compact
We have a tendency to think from the offensive side things when we consider the various factors and circumstances that determine which zone of the field is occupied more often. After all, when you have possession you have the potential to cause trouble for your opponents.
As a defensive-minded manager, on the other hand, you do not think from your own personal strength. The managers who were just mentioned indicated in interviews that the opposing team primarily had possession of the ball in zones where their own team gave them permission to have possession of the ball. Their opponents did not gain possession in these zones by their own strength or merit but by the design of the defenders.
In essence, defensively, these managers not only dictated the opponent’s play across the width of the field (see Principles 1 and 2, by shielding the important central zones with a surplus of bodies and forcing the opponent to the sides) but just as much in length. They were able to prevent the attackers from sliding into spaces between the lines and create overloads in these central areas. The defensive concept here was to keep one or two men in the front of the defensive line.
The defensive line is typically placed somewhere between eighteen and twenty metres away from the goal. In my case, it’s right on the very edge of either a really advanced block or a middle block that sits relatively deep. Either way, it’s pretty deep. This positioning is based on the idea that the team is set up deep enough to build an impregnable fortress consisting of two lines within seconds with six, seven, or eight field players in and around the penalty area, but far enough from the own keeper that you do not allow the opponent free play in your own half of the field and invite too much pressure on your defensive line.
At the same time, there was also the common denominator of keeping attacking options available for a counter-attack, while at the same time preventing an opponent from sliding defenders into key zones in the axis of the field. This was accomplished by ensuring that attacking opportunities were left upfront at all times. You could opt for offensive roles that drop deep and pressure defensive midfielders. We prefer to keep at least two men forward. In this scenario, the field occupation and the overall composition of the team are both factors that are considered to be of critical significance.
4. Defend as a team
The analogy of an accordion was utilised by several managers when they were documenting their defensive strategy. A formation can expand and contract like an accordion, but in order to keep its cohesion, it must never have too much space between the lines of the formation. The iron defence mentality contains an inherent paradox in that each player must defend in order for the team to attack together. The attackers are the first line of defence in this scenario.
The attackers buy time for their teammates to engage the defensive positions by applying pressure up front and causing disruptions during the build-up. You first attack as a team, and then you defend as a team. Even when their teams are in the attacking phase of the game, these managers are thinking about what to do if they lose possession of the ball. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that field occupation and balance are important concepts in this context as well.
5. Breaking out fast is our creed
The vast majority of teams that prioritise defence rarely achieve a high percentage of possession. Many managers, both virtual and in real life, appear to think that possession is an end in itself when in reality, possession is merely a means to achieve certain goals. A certain Amsterdam manager claims that it is possible to defend by frequently holding onto the ball, but that this method of defence is best suited for teams that are particularly strong offensively.
We will not be scoring high percentages in terms of possession because we are going to play a defensive style of football, which is obviously linked to our results. Since I am managing weaker sides, I don’t expect to have possession often. In light of this, I would also like to relate to you an anecdote that was told to me regarding Jorge Sampaoli. As the national coach of Chile, he made light of the significance of possession after a loss in which his team had 73 per cent of the ball. “I went to the bar with a woman one night. We talked all night. We laughed, we flirted, I paid for her drinks. At 5 a.m. a man came in, grabbed her arm and took her to the toilet. They had sex and she left the cafe with him. But that doesn’t matter, because I had most of the ball that night.”
Verticality is where our primary focus lies rather than possession. The verticality concept is excellent for a formation that does not include a striker, and it also functions very well for teams that want to play in a defensive manner. You can create space in your opponent’s half of the field by lowering yourself relatively far and luring the opposition forward. You are in a position to capitalise on the fact that your defensive line has absorbed the pressure by choosing a play style that is more direct and capitalises on the space the offensive side has left in its wake.
You are essentially attempting to force a breakout by making a few forward passes as quickly as possible. Because of this, you will be less susceptible to being counter-pressed because most players won’t feel the need to close immediately and will be able to wait in their defensive positions for the direct pass to come. This will make you less vulnerable to the opposition’s defensive pressure.