Football has evolved through numerous tactical phases over the years, from the simplistic, attack-laden formations of the early 20th century to the Italian-inspired and highly organised ‘Catenaccio’ system that was incredibly defensive and helped Inter Milan win consecutive European Cups in the 1960s.
In the modern age, virtually all of the sport’s best sides look to play a progressive style that’s focused on a high defensive line and aggressive, organised pressing. In fact, even less well-resourced sides are now deploying this type of offensive approach, with Premier League side Brighton best epitomising this.
While the use of defensive systems and a low block is increasingly rare in the modern age, the question that remains is whether this can still be effective? I’ll explore this in more detail in the post below!
The Masters of the Low Block
While few teams consistently rely on a low block in the modern game, some managers continue to call on this tactic on a recurring basis.
Take Jose Mourinho, for example, who recently received criticism for ‘parking the bus’ as AS Roma drew 0-0 away at Bayer Leverkusen in the second leg of their Europa League semi-final (qualifying for the tournament’s showpiece match in the process).
Leading 1-0 from the first leg, Mourinho started with a de facto 3-5-2 formation, but this quickly became a 5-4-1 when Leverkusen had the ball (the Germans recorded 72% possession during the 90 minutes). Xavi Alonso’s side also recorded 23 attempts at goal to one during the game, with Lorenzo Pellegrini having Roma’s sole, off-target strike in the first five minutes.
Throughout the game, Roma resisted the urge desire to counter or commit men forward at all, despite having ample opportunity to do so. Instead, they retained a five-man defence and compact low block throughout, simply looking to hold onto their first-leg lead and focusing entirely on their defensive shape.
Like Mourinho, elite managers including Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone also regularly deploy low defensive blocks, although the former’s sides are typically a little more aggressive and dynamic during attacking transitions.
Is the Low Block Still a Successful Strategy?
As we can see, Mourinho has enjoyed some recent success with his defensive approach, winning the Europa Conference League last season in the Italian capital before qualifying for the Europa League this time around.
However, Roma have been eliminated from the Coppa Italia and are in sixth place in Serie A, with the side four points off the Champions League places. So, a Europa League win may be their only chance of qualifying for the 2023/24 UCL, but Roma will first have to overcome a Sevilla side that has won the tournament on six previous occasions.
As for Conte, his Spurs outfit struggled for form and attacking fluency this season, struggling in all cup competitions and falling down the league before the Italian’s dismissal. While Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side remain in contention to finish second in La Liga, they’ve become less effective in Europe and no longer carry the threat or impact that they once did.
There’s a couple of key takeaways here. Firstly, it seems as though the low block is no longer a tactic that can sustain long-term success, despite its limited effectiveness and potential impact in single, one-off games.
Secondly, I’d argue that the low block is increasingly ineffective against the aggressive and organised collective pressing used by a growing number of teams at the highest level. After all, the purpose of a low block is to control the space during matches and counter aggressively when the opponent is vulnerable, but teams that press high often look to monopolise possession and space while sustaining continual waves of attack.
So, in instances where teams deploy a passive low block, they’ll simply be penned in by front-foot sides with high quality players and genuine tactical understanding.