The play of any team is based on defense. The days when you could say “you will score as much as you can, and we will score as much as we want” are long gone. In modern football, no club with ambitions to win anything significant can do that without a well-built defense.
BETWEEN ATTACK AND DEFENSE
Since football, in which attackers and defenders, naturally, have opposite objectives, essentially boils down to delivering the ball into a zone in which it is easiest to score, the development of football generally affects the balance between attack and defense. At some points, priority was given to some or other defensive formations, while at other times they were overshadowed by various attacking formations, which ultimately determined the predominance of offensive and defensive styles of football in different periods of time.
Team play may be divided into three distinct stages: defensive actions, bringing the ball to the shooting position and scoring the goal. In this regard, according to the famous Dutch coach Rinus Michels, one of the key signs of a high-level team is the ability of the coach and the players to find an optimal balance between defending, getting ready for an attack, and attacking. In fact, this is exactly what shapes the distinct style of the team. According to the majority of experts, the most important factor in the finding of the proper balance in the coordination of team play is the very arrangement of defensive play. For this reason, it would appear useful to briefly examine the key trends in the development of modern football with consideration for changes in defensive tactics, the most effective of which coaches have sought with an allowance for the individual attributes of their players.
ROUNDS OF EVOLUTION The quest for the most effective defensive formations in football, as well as in other sports where the objective is to score a goal, is essentially about coaches trying to design versions of defense that involve man-to-man marking, zone defense and their combination. While man-to-man marking involves the arrangement of defense in such a manner that every player is strictly responsible for every opponent he has been assigned to, zone defense requires that every player cover a certain area of the pitch and tackle any opponent that moves into the area the defender is covering.
Taking one or another method as a starting point, coaches sought the most efficient tactical formations by varying the number of players in different lines – defenders, midfielders and attackers. If we consider the highest level teams, we can see that at different times priority was given to different structures. For example, in the 1960s, some teams in our country would arrange their defense so that two inside defenders were positioned more or less parallel to each other in relation to the goal line, while in other clubs one of the inside defenders would mark opponents and the other one would be positioned slightly behind, as a safeguard. Essentially, it means that some teams used zone defense, and some – man-to-man marking.
At the 1974 World Cup, the Netherlands national team introduced a new type of defensive play which involved putting pressure on the opponents on their own half of the pitch, so as to get the ball as soon as possible – the so-called Dutch total football. This tactics would later receive widespread recognition around the world, including our country – in the 70s and 80s it was successfully employed by teams led by Valery Lobanovsky. At the 2000 European Cup and the 2002 World Cup, almost all teams used various versions of zone defense, in which the defenders, at different times during the game, would be aligned along approximately the same line across the pitch – in instructional literature this became known as “playing the line”.
Naturally, the transition from one defensive tactics to another in world football was not random but rather stemmed from different efficiency of defensive actions. This is also supported by a comparative statistical analysis of the performance of those teams (at the 1994 World Cup) that employed various defensive arrangements. The teams that employed zone defense conceded about 50% less goals than those who used man-to-man marking and the sweeper, while the goal scoring performance of the teams that employed different defensive strategies was approximately the same.
ZONE DEFENSE IS THE BEST
In the last few years, almost all of the strongest teams in the world have used various versions of zone defense. This became particularly apparent at the latest 2006 World Cup. In a word, it is safe to assume that at the turn of the 21st century defensive play finally shifted from man-to-man marking and sweepers to zone defense. It should also be noted a new interpretation of zone defense has emerged in the form of zone pressure. It involves intensive and tight pressure put by the defensive players on the opposition’s offensive players in different areas of the pitch, either individually or collectively.
In zonal pressure, the opponent is deprived of time and space that he needs to handle the ball, as the defending team’s players cluster in certain areas of the pitch, depending on the position of the ball and the chances of its delivery to some or other areas of the pitch by the opposition’s offensive players. This kind of pressure is based on the anthropometrical, motor and technical attributes of the players that allow them to cover a certain width and length of the pitch both individually and in collectively.
Zonal pressing may be combined with various tactical formations of team play, i.e. with different combinations of outfield players in different lines, different positions of players in relation to one another in those player lines, and different number of lines themselves. The 2006 World Cup observations showed that the participating teams used at least nine tactical formations:
4+4+2 3+5+2 4+3+1+2
4+3+3 4+2+3+1 4+1+3+2
4+1+4+1 3+4+3 4+4+1+1
One of these formations, 4+4+2, was widely used by a considerable number of teams, while the other ones – by just one. For example, the 4+1+4+1 was only used by the Czech Republic national team. Also, some teams transformed their tactical formations during the tournament and specific games, depending on how they were faring in the tournament and in the game, on player disqualifications etc.
If we consider the formations used at the 2006 World Cup, we can highlight several points of interest. All teams used various versions of zone pressure (with different number of players in the defensive, midfield and offensive lines), but only a few of them (Croatia, Korea and Costa Rica) opted for formations with three defenders (see Fig. 1). The absolute majority of teams employed formations with four defenders. This situation has not changed since then, and it is now the global trend in association football in the world, not least because the teams that played with three defenders at the 2006 World Cup did so with a conspicuous lack of success.
The teams that played with four defenders at the 2006 World Cup and continue doing that now can be divided into two groups. To the first group belong those national teams whose formations include three lines (defensive, midfield and attacking), i.e. 4+4+2 and 4+3+3 (Fig. 2). The second group consists of those teams that have four relatively distinct lines in their formations. Those formations are: 4+2+3+1; 4+1+4+1; 4+3+1+2; 4+1+3+2; 4+4+1+1 (Fig. 3). If we consider the formations with four lines, we can notice that they could be arranged differently. In some teams this tactics was employed by introducing a player in a position "behind strikers” or "behind two strikers”. Other implemented it by assigning completely different tasks to different players in the midfield, namely: one or two purely defensive midfield anchors and attacking midfielders.
WITHOUT TIME AND SPACE
The key purpose of a defending team’s players that use a zone pressure is to make sure that the opponents have neither the time nor the space to handle the ball, primarily by clustering the defenders in certain areas of the pitch depending on the position of the ball, and putting tight pressure on the opposition player who is in either in possession of the ball or is about to get hold of it. Depending on the situation, the defensive players may put such pressure in different parts of the pitch either individually or collectively.
Limiting time and space for the opposition player who is handling the ball requires meeting certain conditions. The defending team’s players must, most importantly, keep the players in the player lines, as well as the different player lines themselves, very tight, particularly in the defense and the midfield. Since the physical, anthropometric and technical attributes of an adult player allow him to sufficiently reliably cover an area of about 100 square meters, the required tightness of the defensive line may be achieved when the defensive players are aligned:
- along the same line in relation to each other, across the pitch in a 8-10 meter long area;
- on different lines in relation to each other, along the pitch in a 12–15 meter long area.
Consequently, outfield players that apply zone pressure, regardless of the tactical formation, try to move inside a distinctive 25x30 meter irregular rectangle.
NOT LOSING THE POSITION AND ONE ANOTHER
Depending on where the ball is when it is possessed by opposition attackers, the players of the defending team move together in a certain direction along the width or length of the pitch. When doing so, they try to retain their positions in relation to each other while keeping the structure of the lines within this irregular rectangle which, in this process, starts moving (see Fig. 4). If the opposition attackers bring the ball into a zone assigned to a defensive player, the defensive player must proceed from covering that zone to tackling the opponent in “one-on-ones” and even “two-on-ones”. Also, any player of the defending team must take responsibility of everything that happens in the zone that is adjacent to the one that he is covering at any given time, and must, if necessary, safeguard his teammates.
While in man-to-man marking the defensive players are only ”assigned” to specific opponents, zone pressure requires them to anticipate the actions of both the opposition attacker that is within their “coverage area” and the opposition player that is in possession of the ball, and to evaluate their ability to act in a coordinated fashion.
For this reason, a defensive strategy that employs zone pressure puts much greater demand on the ability of the players to anticipate the development of situations during the game, than in man-to-man marking, i.e. requires the highest level of anticipation which, in fact, is precisely the factor that determines the level of a player’s individual tactical skills. Another very important factor is the communication between the defending players, since their continuous contact allows better interaction when performing their immediate functions.
SPECIFICITY OF LOCAL SITUATIONS
Team formations that allow using zone pressure employ various specific tactics for individual and collective actions of the defending team. An analysis of the games of leading clubs and national teams employing this kind of pressure has allowed distinguishing a few local defensive situations that are typical for different tactical formations, namely:
- “one defensive player against one opposition attacker without the ball, positioned in front of him along the pitch”;
- “two defensive players against one opposition attacker without the ball, positioned in front of them along the pitch”;
- “two defensive players against one opposition attacker in possession of the ball, who is moving towards them along the pitch”;
- “two defensive players against one opposition attacker without the ball, who is positioned between them along the pitch”.
The actions and interaction of the defending team in each of the typical local situations above are common for different tactical formations employed by those teams that use zone pressure; however, they differ drastically from the actions and interaction of the defensive players in those teams that employ man-to-man marking.
Let us recapitulate. The players of a team that uses a certain version of”playing the line” in defense, need to be able to:
- anticipate the development of situations during the game;
- act correctly and interact with the teammates in typical local situations;
- communicate with the teammates – not only to warn them about the progress of events, but also to act as a safeguard.