Historically, counterattacking has been one of the great equalisers in football, enabling ordinary and largely unfancied sides to achieve unlikely successes.
The Greece side that won the 2004 European Championship in Portugal built their success on a solid defensive structure and sporadic raids forward, for example, while the incredible Leicester City side that won the 2015/16 Premiership title did so with a rapid and aggressive counter attacking style.
Of course, some have argued that counter attacking is becoming less effective over time, as more sides adopt a high press and possession-oriented style that looks to control both the ball and space and suffocate opponents.
However, there remains an art to counter attacking, and when executed well, this tactic can be truly devastating. Here’s how!
What is Counter Attacking?
From a historical perspective, it’s former FC Servette coach Karl Rappan who first developed the counter attacking tactic during the early 1930s.
This was thanks largely to Rappan’s adaptation of the classic 2-3-5 formation of the time, which saw him deploy a defensive sweeper (which later inspired the Catennacio tactical system) and compel his side to fold back into their own half while ceding possession in the midfield.
The goal here was to create a compact and deep lying defensive shape, which would invite the opposition forward and seek to attack the space left behind. It was primarily conceived to narrow the gap between Rappan’s charges and fitter, more professional opponents, negating any technical deficiencies while seeking to transition from defence to offence solely through counter attacks.
This describes the counter attacking tactic perfectly, while legendary Dutch manager Rinus Michels echoed similar sentiments when describing his own philosophy. He would talk about how this tactic relies on the defensive team function, using a compact shape and collective organisation to compete while yielding space and possession of the ball.
Then, rapid and often direct attacks would look to penetrate the space left in behind the attacking side, creating potential overloads in the final third.
How to Coach and Set Up a Counterattacking Side
Despite the perception of counterattacking as being a great equaliser between competing sides, it should be noted that there are instances where the tactic can be ineffective or counterproductive.
So, how can you go about coaching a successful counterattacking side and one that strikes the ideal balance between defending and maintaining an offensive threat? Here are some ideas to keep in mind:
#1. Make Use of Counter Pressing
Managers like Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have earned success by creating relatively aggressive counter attacking sides, who would defend with tenacity and strive to quickly create offensive overloads when they got forward.
This helped these sides to eschew possession of the ball in favour of controlling the space, with tenacious counter pressing a key element of this.
Counter pressing looks to win the ball back at the start of the defensive transition and once the ball has been lost, creating a short window of time in which to aggressively hunt the ball and turn it over at a time when the opposition is lacking defensive organisation.
With clear counter pressing or pressing triggers, a counter attacking side can be more effective in their offensive output, while taking more control of the space and game as a whole.
#2. Commit Men to the Counterattack
Courage is also required to counterattack effectively, not least because sides must commit bodies to the attacking third during forays forward.
This also explains why physical fitness, pace and positional awareness all contribute to effective counterattacking, as players must be willing to break in numbers and create sudden overloads in transition if they’re to make the most of their brief spells in possession.
Players must then be able to recover and get back into position quickly once a counterattack has been nullified, otherwise the game can become stretched and the attack-oriented side may gain an advantage.
#3. Focus on the Discipline and the Speed of Transition
Speed is also important when constructing counterattacks, as the primary goal is to exploit space and break in behind the opponent’s defensive line after the side has committed men forward.
One of the best tactics here is to play direct and accurate balls into targeted spaces behind the defensive line, which pacy forwards can run onto and lead the offensive raid. Then, it’s up to others to support the counter, creating those much needing passing options and overloads in the process.
Maintaining a compact shape and relatively deep back line is key during defensive phases too, and this requires discipline and concentration in instances where you’re required to defend for long periods of time.
Ceding possession for long periods will also cause your side to do more running as they shift from side to side, so it’s important that counter attacking sides use their substitutes wisely and stay as fresh as possible.