If there’s one tactical trend that continues to dominate football, it’s the use of an increasingly compact defensive block. This applies to both high and low defensive blocks too, as teams look to squeeze the central areas of the pitch and optimise their chances of completing quick ball recoveries.
However, this does have the consequence of creating significant space in the wide areas, and opponents may look to exploit this through swift counterattacks and so-called “switches of play”.
Of course, the switch of play is already an established and well-known playing tactic, and one that can serve numerous purposes during a game of football. We’ll explore this tactic and its potential benefits in more detail below!
So, What are Switches of Play?
Width is definitely an important attacking principle in football, especially in an age where teams look to remain as compact as possible.
When teams attack down one side of the pitch, their opponents will typically shuffle across to close down space rather than creating a wider defensive block. This concedes space on the opposite flank, which can be exploited via quick diagonal passes (or switches of play) that help to launch rapid counterattacks.
It’s important to note that switches of play work as both attacking and counterattacking tactics. In terms of the former, frequent switches of play help to keep a deep and compact defensive block shifting from side to side, in the hope of causing their shape to loosen and creating space to exploit over time.
What are the Main Elements of Successful Switches of Play?
While there may be various in-game scenarios that allow for effective switches of play, execution is key if you’re going to utilise them effectively and minimise the risk of being caught on the counterattack. So, here are some key elements to a successful switch of play:
- Accurate Passing: Passing accuracy is key when executing switches of play, both in terms of direction and the trajectory of the ball. Make no mistake; the weight and angle of the ball dictate how likely it is for the pass to be intercepted, and whether the receiver will be able to control the ball without having to break stride or halt their own momentum.
- The Positioning of the Receiver: Switches of play should be something that are worked on in training, with the starting position of the receiver another key crucial consideration. Not only must they be an onside position when the ball is played (which can prove challenging given the distance the ball may have to travel), but they should ideally build well-time forward movement and momentum so that they can start running at the opposing defence immediately.
- Creating Angles and Avoiding the Press: If your opponent is clustered around the ball on one side of the pitch, this situation lends itself to an intense and aggressive press. This may make effective and well-time switches of play challenging, so you should work on executing such passes from different angles (such as the right back and right-sided centre back position). This will automatically help you to beat the opponent’s press and launch switches of play from alternatives areas of the pitch, which is also something that the receiver will have to prepare for in terms of their positioning and initial movement.
How to Defend Against Switches of Play?
When defending against potential switches of play, your ability to close down the ball and shut off available passing lanes is key. This may cause your opponent to seek out a much safer, shorter pass, potentially back towards their own goal.
Of course, we’ve already touched on how switches of play can be executed from different areas on the pitch, but in this case, you’ll need to sustain a coordinated press to force the ball into a deeper space from where it would be difficult to launch a long or direct pass.
If your opponent is able to affect a switch of play, the defensive focus should turn to shifting the defensive block across the pitch as quickly as possible. This is in order to close down the receiver with speed and aggression, either in a bid to recover the ball and launch a counterattack or force them backwards and away from the goal.
A flighted aerial pass should certainly act as a pressing trigger for the defending team, as this increases the likelihood of a quick turnover and effective counterattack.
From an individual defender perspective, it’s also important to remember that receivers will often collect switches of play close to the touchline. In this instance, fullbacks or wide midfielders may find it beneficial to curve their approach and cut off access towards the centre of the pitch, preventing direct dribbles or passes inside in the process.