#2 Defending with the ball

Tactical

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You like a possession-based game. Your players like it too.  This is shown by the technical practices you focus your training sessions around and the enthusiastic response you get from your players.  They like plenty of the ball at their feet – I mean who wouldn’t? It’s football right!?

But when it comes to matches, your teams’ use of the ball is only decent in your own half of the pitch; possession regularly fizzles out when you cross the half way line (if you even get that far!).  After all, in your own half, you usually have a numerical advantage and the players can often receive the ball facing the way they are attacking – whereas in the attacking half, your players struggle both physically and technically to retain possession with their backs to their opponents and without overloads in their favour.  Worse still, due to this your team, which had spread out to build possession (just like you & Guardiola coached them too) keeps losing possession in dangerous areas – leaving you vulnerable to the counter attack.

It doesn’t take long before the players, the parents (their sighs have been getting louder and louder, week on week, with each passing breakdown…) and even you as coach are starting to doubt your possession rich philosophy.  Players start to take less risks in their own half. You warn them about over-playing and find it hard to stay patient when yet another poor pass leads to an incisive counter attack from an opponent. ‘Sorry lads, we just haven’t got the technique or physicality needed to play this way. Let’s go more direct – at least until the results improve…’

I wonder how many Coaches and their teams give up on possession of the football simply because they struggle to use it to attack with?  Is the only choice: possession or direct play? Could they be missing a trick? Could possession actually be used for something other than creating beautiful team goals?  

It was the opening game of World Cup 2018 that got me thinking about this.  Russia vs Saudi Arabia. I had resolved to write a series of vlogs during the tournament, based largely on the tactics utilised by the team managers/coaches – with the intention of  putting them on our new free coaching website www.edgeofplay.com .  I did my research on each team and would jot down notes throughout the games.  Despite it being the game to open this much anticipated tournament (for which, like many others I am sure, I had already plotted how I could watch as many of the games as possible without my wife filing for a divorce – ‘I’m doing vlogs on the games honey – for the website – it’s work really…’), this particular fixture didn’t exactly fill me with excitement. However, I did my research beforehand and found that Russia liked to play a physical, counter attacking game. As hosts they hadn’t had as many competitive fixtures in the build up to the World Cup, and, with little in the way of footballing superstars, there was a general anxiety that they could be embarrassed and eliminated in the group stage.  

Saudi Arabia meanwhile had only recently brought in a new Coach. In a far cry from their old, direct style of play, he preferred a possession-based game – building from the back.  His problem was that, like all national teams, they did not get to work together on their tactics anywhere near as much as club sides could. Could he have possibly coached a group of players, who in all fairness were relative unknowns on the world stage, and got them playing free-flowing, passing football in such a short space of time? This question did intrigue me.         

Seeing the opening exchanges was really interesting.   Saudi Arabia were immediately looking to play quick 1 and 2 touch passing with tempo.  They worked some nice little passing triangles around Russian chasers – those training ground rondos coming to the fore. Were Saudi Arabia going to turn up, play beautiful football and thump the hosts on the opening day – heralding a new super team on the world footballing landscape?  Was their new coach going to make a group of previously unknown players into a team of world beaters – playing to the Barcelona circa 2008-2011 blueprint – and showing you don’t need superstars to make a successful team??

No.

My mind got carried away with a fantasy.  I think it was because I have always coached my teams to play out from the back and play a passing game, even when the players weren’t all technically, or psychologically, suited to it.  The idea that you can play a true possession based, no fear style regardless of the individual technical and physical attributes of your players is appealing. It would mean anything is possible - anything is coachable.  

The reality in this game dawned soon after the opening phases of play though. Saudi Arabia were going nowhere with their possession – as in, they weren’t getting out of their half with it.  Technically, their first touches were letting them down in tight areas; physically, they didn’t seem capable of shielding the ball when the Russian forwards applied any kind of pressure. Soon Russia, who could have been forgiven for being a tad nervous about performing as hosts on the world scene and for being in the rare situation of being against a team they were expected to beat, were reading the telegraphed passes of the Saudis.  All too easily, they were stealing possession in the opposition half and counter attacking at pace (their preferred style of play).

In football we often talk about momentum in games – seizing the initiative early, setting the tone, winning the early battles and finding your match rhythm.  Through careless use of possession, poor defensive transition and sloppy marking at set pieces, the Saudi’s kindly set the Russian match rhythm for them. They gifted possession to a team that liked to press and counter and it wasn’t long until the score-line ran away from them too.  The tails were up and suddenly everything became pressable for the Russians.  The left centre back for Saudi Arabia looked increasingly awkward with the ball at his feet, and more and more Saudi midfielders were getting drawn in deeper in an attempt to play their way out of trouble.  Once the home side realised that the visitors didn’t have an ‘out’ ball, or a way to get in behind the Russian midfield with a pass (let alone in behind the back 4!), they smelt blood and didn’t look back.

To beat a press and build possession, at some point you will have to break lines.  You have to find the gaps, however small, to get the ball beyond an opposition midfield.  You have to get them turning – looking back to their own goal and away from yours! The ball then needs to be retained by forwards through a combination of movement, control, body positioning and shielding.  As opposition midfielders turn and drop towards the ball, it needs to be set back to your own advancing players. A few more passes, potentially a switch of play, and you should have secured possession and stolen some territory.  The opponents’ defensive unit naturally drops back, their pressing players have had some of their energy (and enthusiasm) ran out of them without the adrenaline rush of success and you can start to dictate the pace of the game in an advanced area – within striking distance of the opposition goal.  

Sounds easy written down here – but in reality it’s far from it.  If you don’t have the player with the composure and craft under pressure to pick a clever ball forwards, or the player with the necessary attributes to receive the pass and retain possession for long enough so your team can move up, you can easily end up in the situation Saudi Arabia were – playing right into the hands of your opponent.        

Now imagine the difference in the stadium if Russia had had to really work for their chances.  Imagine the growing impatience of the fans and how that might transmit to the nerves of the home players.  Imagine if they then had to build their own match rhythm, from the back. How could Saudi Arabia have used some of their possession play still, but without inviting pressure and conceding the initiative so cheaply?  It got me wondering about the notion of defending with the ball and how a team like Saudi Arabia could utilise this idea.  

I first heard the phrase defending with the ball from Brendan Rodgers, when he was the Manager/Coach of Swansea City.  They had built a reputation for possession-based football; they were able to use it in their build up play and attack with it.  However, if they were looking to protect a score-line they were quite content to retain possession in their own half indefinitely – almost like a larger scale possession box game you might use in training - possession for possession’s sake.  It was a tactic that maybe explains why a player such as Leon Britton, who had come up through the lower leagues with the club and who was far from a household name beyond Swansea, suddenly had one of the highest pass completion rates in the Premier League.  He was the central midfielder, the pivot who dropped in between the centre backs to receive the ball and keep the possession ticking over.

So what were the benefits of this approach for a team like Swansea?  Well they were numerous actually. Firstly, due to their confidence (persistence!) at playing out from the back – they rarely gave possession away cheaply in dangerous areas.  The goalkeeper is an important factor with this as they will often set the tone with their initial distribution and their ability to receive the ball back and keep it circulating.  Also, retaining possession in your own half - where you will likely have greater numbers (therefore more space/gaps to play with) and will have more opportunities to receive the ball facing towards the way you are shooting - should, in theory, be easier than in your opponents’ half.  

When looking to protect a lead, it can be all too easy to get dragged deeper and deeper as a unit.  When you finally win the ball back there can then be a tendency to send the ball forwards (as far away from your goal as possible!)  quickly and directly. However, all that tends to happen is you encourage wave after wave of opposition attacks. Time can seem to stand still in these moments.  The concentration required can exhaust your players until more and more mistakes creep in to their performances. Sometimes you hold out, sometimes you don’t – but because your opponent has more of the ball, they seem to be calling the shots.          

Alternatively…

If the score-line is to your liking, you can therefore maintain possession and leave your opponents to chase after the ball.  Whilst some may relish a press, I’m sure the vast majority of wingers, attacking midfielders and forwards would rather be using their energy (which is not inexhaustible, no matter how fit you are) to attack with.  If they haven’t got the ball though, you can run down their energy and frustrate them. Game management. Make them chase. Starve their time on the ball. After-all, no matter how good they may be, they will usually struggle to impact the game as much if they have less touches of the ball. Prevent them building up a match rhythm, individually or as a unit.  With the clock ever ticking, and the match drifting away from them, the rare times they actually do get the ball – they’re fatigued and impatient. Your own forwards meanwhile, whilst they will need to keep making movements (often dummy runs) to occupy the opposition defenders and defensive midfielders, can stay relatively fresh in these moments – waiting until an opportunity to get played in behind arises.  (Such as the opposition back line getting enticed higher and higher up the pitch to get the ball back – leaving spaces and gaps behind). Your players only play these incisive passes though when the chance of success (scoring) is likely enough. They don’t force the play – everything is on their terms.

Going back to the World Cup fixture then, and the predicament facing the Saudis – could they have utilised this approach favoured by Rodgers’ Swansea side? Probably not fully to be honest. Swansea had the technical players required, the physicality and a Manager/Coach with the time to work with his players on a daily basis to implement his tactics.  Even so, watching that match made me think Saudi Arabia could have found something of a balance between their old, direct style, and their new coach’s desire to play possession-based football. They could have played out from the back, working their short passing game – forcing the Russian’s to chase and increasingly feel like time was against them. They could have maintained possession until a trigger-point: a moment where the risk outweighed the reward.  A moment where their players collectively sensed that possession was about to be lost. At this point, their forwards could make the runs and their player on the ball could look to play a more direct ball in behind – perhaps into a channel. They could then push up behind it and look to get to it first. If they retain possession, they can attack or look to build possession from there to create with. If the Russian’s win the ball back (more likely), they will at least now have to build from the back. They will have to build their own match rhythm.  Their forwards, who have just pressed unsuccessfully, will not be able to counter attack quite so easily. Certainly food for thought isn’t it?             

So if you’re a grassroots coach who believes in a possession-based approach and like your teams to play out from the back; you have a goalkeeper and defenders who like the ball at their feet and midfielders who can pick a pass, but, for whatever reason, your forwards struggle to hold the ball up and allow your team to move up the pitch with possession – well maybe this ‘defending with the ball’ is an idea you could employ, even if it is just for spells in certain games or against particular opponents.  You’ll give most your players more time with the ball at their feet (literally the name of the game right?), restrict the time opposition players have it (and in doing so tire and frustrate them), dictate the tempo of the game more and if desired, run the clock down by defending with the ball, instead of without it.

If your overall aim, your bigger picture, is to coach your team to attack with possession, from back to front, but they aren’t quite ready for it yet, instead of succumbing to playing direct because it’s ‘less risky and will do for now...’ perhaps defending with possession could be a nice precursor – a step nearer to your desired final outcome of a free-flowing, passing approach.

         

  

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