Defend better to Attack better and vice versa!

SkotMektominaj
4 min readMar 11, 2023

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If we break a game of football, we would be able to classify any passage of play into one of these three parts — in possession, transition, and out of possession. We tend to consider these three to be separate and completely different from each other. But in reality, each one of them is dependent on how a team performs the other. The purpose of the manager is to make his team play in such a way that frustrates the opponents, which can be done in each of these three phases of play. Demonstrating this via examples:

In-possession phase

Pep Guardiola has mastered the in-possession phase. He likes his team to keep possession and do stuff on the ball that will frustrate the opponents. We know this by a better term today — Tiki Taka. Having a high possession is the best way to deprive the other team of the ball, reducing the opponent’s threat to a minimum. This is generally achieved by creating overloads, preferably in midfield, either by an inverting fullback or by a withdrawn forward (popularly called a false nine).

Transition phase

The term Gegenpressing derives from the German for “counter-pressing”, a tactic that focuses on winning the ball as soon as you lose it, thereby dominating the transition phases in the game. A team is the most disjointed while transitioning, which makes coaching for/against such situations tougher. You need players to be properly coached to execute it, a lack of which will make players will look like headless chickens running around. Jürgen Klopp is the most widely known among current managers to execute this tactic. A single player not pressing properly can have a cascading effect on the rest of his teammates, where they might be left open to defend against opposition attackers in isolated situations.

Out of possession

Defending deeply might be the best and easiest way to neglect the threat by employing two defensive walls in front of the goal. This forces the opposition to play a lot of side-passes, not allowing them to penetrate goal-threatening regions of the pitch and limiting as many opposition possessions in the half-spaces. Although this ‘parking of the bus’ is seen as anti-football, it has brought great success to the likes of Jose Mourinho & Diego Simeone in recent future.

Zinchenko inverting to become the extra man in midfield. Image Source: https://www.coachesvoice.com/cv/inverted-full-backs-guardiola-cancelo-trent-alexander-arnold-lahm-football-tactics/
San Dyche explains the importance of defending the V (orange-colored region) in The Coaches Voice. Image Source: https://www.coachesvoice.com/cv/sean-dyche-masterclass-burnley-liverpool/

Consider a scenario, when a team let’s say A, defending deep, wins the ball, it creates an opportunity for them to counter-attack while the opposition (team B) is not in a proper defensive shape. The way the team A counter-attacks will depend a lot on where they have won back the ball and how fluidly they have carried it higher up the pitch. Similarly, the manner in which team B will defend the counter-attack will rely on where their attackers lost the ball.

Once you win the ball back, the next step is to keep it away from danger. This, for me, is the most important phase while defending. There are defenders who might kick the ball away out of play, or try to progress it through a pass or carry, depending on the situation. A good attacking threat can be created based on how a team handles these defending scenarios. For this, they will need to have players who can progress the ball well in defensive positions so that when they win the ball, the defenders can quickly pass the ball forward to the midfielders, who can then launch a counter-attack. This fast-paced attack can catch the opposition off guard and create scoring opportunities. If you see a team frequently hoof a ball up the field as soon as they win the ball, it means they lack a player of this quality.

They say “possession is the best defense” and rightly so. Being a constant threat while attacking will pressurize the opposition to make mistakes on a regular basis. Having meaningful possession in the opposition half will limit the amount the goalscoring opportunities the other team will have. Frequent attacking threats will force the opposition to defend deep and play a high defensive line themself. Subsequently, it will help them in winning the ball back early in case of a loss in possession. Recycling the ball is another great way to build patience in a team. Instead of being direct at every opportunity, it is important to play some extra passes to take advantage when the opposition goes off guard. Even if the team does not have the ball, their attackers can look to press the opponents and try to win back the ball. A successful high press might lead to a goal-scoring opportunity.

Overall, the way a team defends or attacks resembles how they attack or defend respectively. If a team relies on counterattacks frequently, it means they lack players in defensive situations who have the composure to retain possession in pressure situations. On the other hand, a team that is capable of playing a high defensive line shows that their attacking threat is capable of pressurizing the opposition into defending deep. This is the reason why teams do not start conceding fewer goals just by buying better defenders. Or having a surplus of attacking talent does not result in more goals (directed at you, Chelsea!). They need to have a proper balance among the attackers, midfielders, and defenders.

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SkotMektominaj

Trying to share my views on football while learning about it. Twitter - @SkotMektominaj