Much of the recent criticism of Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has revolved around a perceived lack of team identity, with his side at times appearing to press high and simultaneously maintain a relatively low defensive block.

Ultimately, the definition and strength of a team’s defensive block is central to their identity, especially when they’re out of possession. This dictates how aggressively a side will try to recover the ball from their opponents during defensive transition, as well as their ability to stop them from scoring.

Broadly speaking, there are three primary types of defensive block: low, mid and high. But how is each one structured, and what advantages do these blocks offer the teams that deploy them?

The High Block

We’ll start with the high block, which has become increasingly popular and widely used in the modern game. This is because of the sheer number of teams that now deploy a high press, which requires teams to adopt advanced starting positions and look to recover the ball quickly after conceding possession.

With this type of tactical approach, teams look to dominate the ball and space aggressively, by sustaining attacks and penning opponents into their defensive third. The high block enables this by creating attacking overloads, both during periods of possession and defensive transitions.

The high block often encourages teams to adopt a 4-3-3 formation, as this is typically compact and makes the process of effectively covering the opponent’s backline far easier.

Sides will often have clearly identified pressing triggers and attempt to recover possession aggressively for a fixed period of time after the ball is lost, before potentially dropping back into a more conservative “mid” block.

High Block Pros:

  • Sustain attacks and possession high up the pitch
  • Squeeze the pitch force opponents into mistakes in their defensive third
  • Keep the ball away from your own defensive third and minimise counterattacks

High Block Cons:

  • It requires a high defensive line and leaves considerable space in behind
  • Beating the initial press enables opponents to counter attack quickly
  • It requires elevated levels of physical fitness and positional awareness

The Low Block

Next up is the low block, which is commonly deployed by lower quality teams or those that want to play almost exclusively in transition. Superior sides may also deploy a low block when defending a lead late on in a game, or after their initial attempts to recover the ball have failed.

With the low defensive block, teams drop back into their own defensive third and minimise the space in front of their own goal. Usually, all outfield players will drop into their own half in order to create an incredibly compact low block, which prioritises position and maintaining shape rather than pressing the opposition.

The goal here is to make it difficult for a high quality team (or one that is chasing a particular game) to carve out shooting or chance creation opportunities. Ideally, sides that deploy a low block will also be able to create an out ball or direct passing lane during attacking transitions, as this develops counterattacking opportunities over time.

Teams that want to counter from a low block may well have specific pressing triggers, such as the ball being passed into a particular area or player in the attacking third. However, this remains an inherently defensive tactic, and one that’s focused on stopping the opposition and moving horizontally rather than vertically.

Low Block Pros:

  • The low block is easier to coach regardless of a team’s quality
  • It’s ideal for direct counter attacking teams who want to create space in the attacking third
  • Your team can be hard to break down and create chances against

Low Block Cons:

  • It yields possession close to your own goal
  • It can be hard to counterattack effectively or alleviate spells of pressure
  • It requires high levels of concentration and positional discipline

The Mid (or Standard) Block

We’ll close with the mid or standard defensive block, which treads the line between the first two defensive structures. Because of this, it’s arguably the most difficult to comprehend and implement, as it can be hard to establish the ideal defensive line or strike the balance between attack and defence.

Commonly deployed by teams that play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation, the mid block will typically start just short of the halfway line and stretch 30 yards or so into the attacking third. Sides that adopt a mid block will typically allow the opposition’s defenders time and space when on the ball, while looking to press with intent once possession is transferred into the middle or attacking third.

The core goal here is to dominate the space in the middle of the pitch, in order to pinch possession once the ball is passed forward and establish a solid foundation from which to counter attack. Often, two lines of midfielders will create a de facto pentagon shape in the middle of the pitch, closing any passing lanes or space in this area.

The mid block is subsequently very compact and difficult to play through. It’s also highly balanced and widely used by aggressive counter attacking teams, or those that are playing an opponent of a similar style or quality.

Mid Block Pros:

  • It attempts to strike the balance between defending and attacking effectively
  • It’s very compact and makes it hard for opponents to play through the middle
  • It’s easy to counter attack efficiently once the ball is recovered in midfield

Mid Block Cons:

  • It can be hard to establish the optimal defensive line height
  • If one player moves out of position, the mid block structure can be compromised
  • It often features more complex and nuanced pressing triggers
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