There’s no doubt that modern football teams are adopting increasingly compact blocks when in and out of possession, regardless of whether this is deep in nature or high up the pitch.
This was in evidence during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, where sides like Morocco (who reached the semi-finals) and Japan deployed compact and deep defensive blocks to gain superiority against positional attacking sides including Spain and Germany.
Not only can attack-oriented sides find it hard to break down deep and aggressive defensive blocks, but they may also be susceptible to rapid counter attacks throughout. In this post, we’ll explore how you can set about breaking down a deep defensive block, without putting yourself at risk on the break.
Dominate the Space
As defensive blocks become increasingly compact (both from a vertical and horizontal perspective), it can be difficult to structure attacks centrally or exploit space in behind the channels.
However, this also creates additional space both in front of the defensive block and wider on the flanks, and attacking sides must look to dominate these areas and keep their opponents penned in their defensive shape.
For example, adopting a high defensive line makes it easier to effectively sustain a front foot press, while also sweeping the area in front of the opposition’s block and recovering any longer passes or clearances.
Then, you can look to launch attacks by creating overloads on the flanks, which enables you to retain possession more easily and potentially draw opponents out of position (widening the defensive block and developing additional spaces centrally in the process).
Consider Adopting a Back Three
One of the biggest tactical evolutions last season saw Pep Guardiola implement an attack-oriented 3-2-4-1 shape at the Etihad, with this coinciding with the side’s stunning run-in and eventual treble success.
This tactical switch saw John Stones often deployed in a hybrid central midfield role alongside Rodri when City had possession of the ball, with the England defender asked to drop deeper and cover the right flank during defensive transitions.
This was done in part to counter low defensive blocks, creating an overload centrally and committing at least one additional player in forward areas during attacking phases of play. More broadly speaking, adopting a back three of any description works in a similar way, especially as your wide attackers or wing backs can provide natural width while contributing to a formidable high press that’s capable of going man-for-man regardless of the opponent’s formation.
For example, a starting 3-4-3 shape can easily morph into a 3-3-4 during attacking phases or when counter pressing, while a 3-5-2 formation lets you shift seamlessly into a 3-2-5 system that allows for aggressive man-for-man pressing against a deep-lying back five.
Engage in Constant Movement and Recycle the Ball
On the subject of Manchester City, it appears as though Pep Guardiola’s side have become adept at breaking down low blocks consistently during their recent period of dominance. This is borne out by the side’s consistently high goal scoring returns, despite facing some of the most defensive lineups and shapes ever seen in the Premier League.
At the heart of this success are Guardiola’s core principles of play, which include constant movement among the attacking players and relentless (and often high tempo) rotation of the ball. Make no mistake; these ideals are key to breaking down deep defensive blocks, although they take time to coach successfully and rely heavily on natural fitness and positional understanding.
Movement is particularly key, not least because this helps to draw opposing players out of position and may create confusion in the defence. Additionally, this may help to create space for runners from deep, while tiring defenders through the deployment of repetitive runs in and out of space.
Certainly, many iterations of Guardiola’s City side have deployed inverted wingers who are pacy and mobile, with these players encouraged to make constant runs inside and out their opposing fullbacks. These runs gradually fatigue defenders who are being asked to play without the ball and in a defensive shape for an extended period of time, potentially incurring errors or creating more space in which to operate.
In terms of ball rotation, there’s a similar goal of keeping your opposing players moving, with subtle changes in tempo and frequent switches of play causing issues with energy and positioning over time. This tactic is also built on positional understanding, while players must have good technical skills and a variable passing range too where possible.