While it’s fair to say that the low defensive block is no longer in vogue, it has been effectively deployed by successful coaches throughout the 21st century.
Two of the tactics main supporters are Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone, with the latter’s defence-minded and deep-lying Atletico Madrid side one of the toughest teams to play against in European football.
Of course, many will argue that it’s easier to defend in a low block and counterattack, rather than pressing high and transitioning defensively when losing possession.
However, the low block still requires tremendous discipline and excellent coaching, so here are some tips to help you organise your team in this respect.
What’s the Purpose of a Low Block?
Broadly speaking, the main priority of a low block is to protect and defend the goal, in order to minimise the space centrally and in front of your goal for opponents.
Typically, teams that deploy a low block allow their opponents to retain possession in defence and midfield, before compressing the space and looking to make interceptions once the ball enters the final third.
From here, they should then look to launch rapid counterattacks, exploiting the space in behind the opponents’ presumably higher defensive line.
Interestingly, current Roma coach Mourinho always talked about using a relatively low defensive block to control the space on the pitch and optimise transitions. There’s an argument to be had about whether this tactic is quite as effective in the age of the high press where teams look to control both space and possession, but it can still be an effective tactic when coached well.
How to Coach a Low Block
There are many principles that underpin an effective low block, so understanding and imparting these is crucial as a coach. Here are some considerations when coaching these tactics.
Understand the Structure and Dimensions of a Low Block
The classic low block structure comprises three lines; namely defence, midfield and attack. However, these lines are incredibly compact and leave little space in between, while they also tend to be narrow and cede space in the wide areas.
Most low blocks position the defensive line on the edge of the 18-yard boxes. From here, the block should measure between 15 and 20 metres vertically, requiring the forward line to be positioned inside their own half.
The block should also measure approximately 33 metres horizontally, highlighting the focus on compressing space centrally and forcing opposing players into specific areas of the pitch.
These outlines can form the defensive structure of your low block, creating a framework in which individuals may begin to develop their own positional awareness.
The Importance of Discipline
Discipline and special awareness is key in a compact low block, with defensive players required to hold their line while being mindful of the movement in front of them.
Attacking players should also be wary and prepared to drop back and cover in instances where spaces appear, or if the oppositions commits more players (and especially defenders) to their attacks.
However, while players can drop back and cover within a rigid low block, defenders should not be tempted out of position to try and recover the ball. Discipline and repletion are key here, as it’s in many players’ natural instincts to step forward and win the ball whenever the chance arises.
Instead, the focus should be on maintaining positional integrity and minimising the distances between players within each defensive line, so individuals only look to pinch the ball when in position and presented with the opportunity.
Creating Offensive Overloads During Coaching
Another key principle of the low block is to achieve consistent defensive compactness, both horizontally and vertically. One way to help coach this is to set up a practice with an offensive overload, ideally in the form of 6X5 game where the defensive players are required to protect the centre circle.
Initially, the focus should be on simply covering the space as a unit and preventing passes from being threaded into the centre circle to a teammate. This also requires defenders to be watchful and focused when out of possession, as they look for runs being made around them and strive to close the space and prevent balls from breaching the line.
Then, you can set up four goals around the edges of the pitch, which the defensive team are able to score in after winning possession. They subsequently have to be patient and use their judgement as to when to nick possession, while this exercise also encourages them to think about launching transitions and the offensive part of their game.
These drills are simple but effective, especially when initially coaching a low block and ensuring that players have the right positional discipline and mindset to pull this tactic off on the field of play.