By Bob Pearce and Mihail Vladimirov.
‘The only interesting part of the game’
When we began these conversations I said that I saw the game as periods of ‘inactivity’, mixed with spells of excitement around the goals. We are now coming to what I used to see as the only interesting part of the game – the goal scoring chances.
It’s only natural that fans look at the goals and goal-scoring situations as the main source of excitement and interest of any football game. Goals are what the game is all about and why it is played. Scoring goals and preventing the opposition doing so are the two basic aims for each team in every match.
But, as a game, football is a low-scoring sport, so goals are rare occurrences in matches and there are many scoreless draws or low-scoring games. During any 90 minutes there’s rarely more than a few goals and a handful of really good goal-scoring situations. It could be reasonably argued that if these are no more than 15-20% of every game, why waste 90 minutes of your life for only a total of a few minutes really exciting action, when you can enjoy all that excitement by simply watching the highlights? It makes sense for fans to be really passionate about the 15-20% and find joy in these moments, but I also think they should be equally interested in understanding how what they just saw happened. If not, then these fans would remain ‘blind’ to so many aspects of the game and so many things would remain grey and foggy.
For me, the other 80-85% of every match is about so many other things happening and the goals and goal-scoring situations are really the by-product of all these. In modern football, tactics and strategy are now playing a bigger part than ever before in how each game is played, and so understanding just exactly how your team is scoring and conceding goals will become clear by exploring the depths of the tactical side of the game. But that’s the way my brain functions and of course I know that not every other football fan thinks like this.
Chances will be created very differently under the three basic styles of attacking we’ve talked about. Within the counter-attacking soak-up-and-burst-out style, the team’s attacks will be almost judo-like, by using their opponents’ strengths against them. Having allowed them to over-commit, they hit the space they’ve exposed before they can recover and regain their shape. This attacking from the back is fairly easy to grasp as an idea, but what about the detail of how you need to exploit those situations? Are there any particular counter-attacking patterns of play we’d see that are most effective? Are they seeking to just put the ball in the space behind the defence and race for goal or will they look to drag what remaining defence there is around to maximise the space?
As with the majority of the tactical aspects in the modern football, counter-attacking has different models and ways of being used. We could simplify it into three main types.
The first one is the so called ‘route one’ approach. Basically, it aims to smash the ball forward (either towards the centre-forward or down the flanks for the wingers) and hope they can conjure up goal-scoring situations largely on their own. There isn’t any sophisticated movement or on-ball patterns here, as the team often only commits between two and four players on the break (the two wingers and the two central attackers either as a proper forward pair in a 4-4-2/3-5-2 formation or the vertically split duo in the 4-2-3-1 variations). It’s just a case of a direct ball coming straight from one ‘hot zone’ to the other, bypassing the midfield zone and looking to exploit the space vacated by the opposition as quickly as possible.
In the second variant, the team is encouraged to commit more bodies forward, which means there is the possibility for some variety in the attacking moves. The main emphasis is still to transition the ball into the final third as quickly as possible, with the players needing to be good in carrying the ball at speed (meaning speed and trickery are the key attributes required). But instead of simply smashing the ball up to the most advanced player, the team is expected to spread swiftly in attack with the players going in twos or threes, enabling quick and sharp passing exchanges as the team progresses up the pitch. They could be one-two passes over short distances, or there could be a longer, defence-splitting diagonal balls, aiming to switch the play at least twice, to further destabilise the defensive structure of the opposition. For this approach formations which are able to provide three midfielders (no matter whether in 1-2 or 2-1 midfield format) are a great fit due to the ability to send several runners from deep both through the middle and down the flanks.
To further diversify this approach, the manager could instruct players to provide different angles and points of attack. Logically, for this to happen the shape should contain different type of players. I’ve always regarded Mourinho as a master of this particular counter-attack approach, and his Real Madrid side is one of the best counter-attacking teams I’ve witnessed in my time as an analytical football fan.
The formation he used there was more of a 4-2-1-3, with Ozil clearly part of the midfield rather than the attacking band (even if he still stayed higher up the pitch and didn’t drop as deep in possession as other #10s generally do). But the key was the different functions nearly all of his players executed. Ronaldo was always staying high and wide on the left, sitting as a counter-attacking threat, and able to quickly receive the ball and initiate the swift breaks with his dribbling and overall movement. Ozil was always wandering around the pitch (generally down the channels, as he tried to drift away from any defensive midfielder occupying the space just in-front of the centre-backs, waiting to receive the ball and start attacking moves by feeding the players surrounding him). Di Maria provided the balance by sitting deeper and narrower on the right, able to either provide an angled pass for the players staying in advanced positions or simply run with the ball before looking to pick out someone in and around the box. In midfield, Alonso was always sitting behind the play, spraying passes all over the pitch with his pin-point accuracy. Finally, as defences were already forced to turn around and rush back to catch the likes of Ronaldo, Ozil, Di Maria and Benzema/Higuain, Khedira was quick to burst from deep and penetrate the opposition by arriving late and on their blind side The beauty of this team was that they were able to go down the ‘route one’ approach, or simply overwhelm the opposition by swarming forward in numbers, exchanging the ball at speed and using the imagination and vision of their players to constantly swap positions, interchange and create different angles for passing and receiving the ball in devastatingly threatening zones. More often than not this led to goal-scoring chances.
The third variant is what I call the possession-based counter-attack. In contrast to the above two approaches, this strategy counts first and foremost on heavy possession in deep areas. Then, when the recycling process successfully drags the opposition out of shape to create a gap somewhere on the pitch, the team move to the next gear and swiftly exploit that space either in a straightforward or in a sophisticated manner. With one approach it will be a case of the player on the ball directly seeking to play a through-ball for the runner to move onto and have a shot on goal. In the other approach, the passer-runner pair is assisted with a third player (a decoy runner) who aims to further open up the opposition’s defence by moving away, dragging a player or two, with the resulting gap then exploited by the main runner to move onto the ball and go for goal.
Basically this approach is all about patient build-up play from deeper and what appear to be non-threatening areas, working the ball intelligently in a ‘stand-by’ state, always ready to switch gears in a couple of seconds and provide the killer pass. Unlike the two other variants, here the team would dominate with the ball, pinning back the opposition who will have time to get back in their intended defensive shape. So it would be a rarity to see a team playing this style having the opportunity to counter-attack in a more direct manner, as in the other variants. Therefore the team would need superb ball-playing skills and high quality vision, combined with the complementary movement off the ball, to be able to first drag the opposition out of shape and then clinically exploit any free inch of resulting space. Generally this is what Barcelona did in Guardiola’s first year, before he took the possession obsession to another level and made his team less counter-attacking and much more concerned with having the ball nearer the opposition’s penalty area.
Principally this variant is suitable for managers like Benitez who aim to have the ball but are happy to see the team swiftly going for the direct counter-attack if the situation is clearly ‘on’. If the situations is not suitable for the team to develop such a quick attack, the team will continue passing and probing until the opposition concede space which can be quickly exploited. In a way this is the variant that combines possession play with the cutting edge provided by being willing and able to quickly go through the gears and transition forward to create a goal-scoring chance in a matter of seconds. The key is that neither aspect (the possession or the counter-attacking) is taken to the extreme. It’s a matter of balancing the approach to offer both sides of the coin, swiftly switching between the two ways of attacking depending on the situation.
So the soak-up-and-burst-out style plans to work with very few goal scoring opportunities, but they may be good quality opportunities, and they aim to take the most of them. The attacking waves style of play seems to be about ‘forcing’ as many goal scoring opportunities as possible, but the quality of these chances will vary between ‘excellent’ and ‘half-chances’. So, by definition, there will not be a particularly high success rate with converting these chances into goals.
Well, it’s just a matter of preference in how you want your team to defend, attack and control the game in your favour. Both approaches (when deployed and executed properly) should lead to the same outcome, but the path used to reach the end result is different.
The counter-attacking approach aims to sit deep, defend tightly and narrow in order to minimise the space for the opposition to spread in attack. In attack, the team counts on exploiting the space vacated by the opposition being lured out high up the pitch. The hope is that leads to good goal-scoring chances following the swift and purposeful attacks. So, it could be said the team aims to play a reactive football, both in defence and in attack.
The ‘all guns blazing’ approach aims to do the same things but from a different perspective, as the same outcome is going to be delivered via proactive measures. By aiming to simply overwhelm the opposition with an attacking style of play and high numbers of attacking players (a minimum of six and a maximum of eight, no matter the shape) they would be simply pinned back, forced to retreat and mainly focus on defending. Automatically this means you deny them the chance to attack, apart from the occasional counter-attack. In attack the aim is to create as many chances as possible, with the hope that at least a couple of them would be high quality and would lead to goals.
So one uses attacking as a defensive strategy and the other use defending as an attacking strategy.
At the end of the day both approaches could deliver the same number of high quality chances, even if the overall number of chances created would is quite different. Defensively both deny the opposition from having a high number and/or high quality goal-scoring chances. The only difference is that all of this is being achieved differently in terms of tactics and strategy.
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