Playing against teams who defend deep can be a frustrating experience for attack-minded teams who thrive on space and momentum. When Jose Mourinho managed Chelsea in 2004, he coined the term "parking the bus" for a tactic where there were ten players behind the ball and the team offered minimal threat going forward. Since then, more and more coaches have become aware of an ultra-defensive approach from the opposition. However, beating a low block is not just about playing against teams who have decided to ‘park the bus’. Naturally in most high-level games, because of score, flow or fatigue, a team will opt to defend relatively low. This may last seconds or stretch into longer periods of the game, but ultimately, a coach today with an attacking onus on the game will have to solve these pictures with their team.
Although a full coaching book could be dedicated alone to beating a low block because of the number of dynamics involved, I want to focus this article on using width. I did a recent article on verticality in an attacking system, so maybe this is a follow-up about attacking when vertical space is not available. For example, if a team positions their center backs on the edge of their 18 yard box, there is not a lot of space available for attacking players to threaten in behind. Many teams struggle with this scenario and it can lead to frustration and more direct play from deeper areas, which both favor the defensive team sitting in a block. Below is an example of Tottenham Hotspur 'beating the block' with width from a game in 2018. The tactical view allows us to see the lack of space available in behind the Watford defensive unit, as well as the movement of the Tottenham full-backs to get involved and ultimately create the winning goal.
So how would I work a training session around this theme? Here are some ideas that I would look to use at different aspects of the session.
For a warm-up, I would use a passing exercise to paint the picture of switching the point of attack in order to create those wide overloads. The speed of ball circulation plays a big role in moving the opposition and the more comfortable players are at moving the ball at a high tempo, the more time and space the wide players can find themselves. In this passing pattern, I would look to recreate this picture below from the Tottenham example where center backs are bouncing the ball off a holding midfielder, before moving it wide for wide forwards and full-backs to combine.
This is where I think unopposed passing patterns can be very useful if there is relation to the game and a direct correlation to the scenarios that you are looking to create. In the exercise below, twelve players work in total with two balls going at the same time. Players follow their pass and there are three variations in total, giving the players different options and ideas in wide areas. Passing distances here would be around 12-15 yards so players can get used to receiving and passing over realistic distances. In terms of timing, I would look at 60 seconds total in order to keep the intensity as high as possible.
The next step would be creating a game scenario where players can get more repetition in terms of seeing a specific situation and, at the same time, be challenged in variety of problem solving and solutions. There is not 'one way' to take advantage of a wide overload primarily because in a low-block, defensive teams have time to adjust and provide cover. Therefore, in my eyes, teams must have a number of ideas and different ways to create outcomes in these spaces.
Below are some clips from Argentina versus Nigeria in the 2018 World Cup. I think it's a great example of how many different situations can arise in wide areas over the course of a game when a team is defending deep. Argentina had to wait until the 86th minute when Marcos Rojo finished from a cross to win the game. As a coach, your challenge is to paint as many pictures as this in the session because 'beating a block' is not about solving one problem, but rather having enough variety in your attack to finally choose the right key to open the lock.
The exercise below is designed to work on a variety of scenarios that Argentina demonstrated against Nigeria. The attacking team is set-up in a 4-3-3 with maximum width from the wide forwards. The full-backs primarily work as 'bounce players' but when the ball is in their wide zone, they can push up and add to the attack. If the defending team win possession, they can score in either wide goal for one point, or in the central goal where there is a goalkeeper for two points. Attacking players have the freedom to move anywhere in the game, but ideally you would want them to provide width when the ball is on their side.
Moving the session towards bigger spaces and giving the players more freedom to see certain scenarios and experiment with different solutions, I would look at two alternatives. The first is pretty simple where it's an 11v11 game inside a smaller space. The objective here is to reduce any vertical space in behind a back four so the conditions of the game are always compact and congested. This will naturally leave more space in wider areas and potentially lead the players towards those areas to try and solve it.
A further progression (see below) could be to add wide channels and introduce a constraint that the attacking team must now have had possession in all three horizontal channels before they can score. This can continually challenge teams to circulate possession more and 'move' the opposition shape, rather than continuing to attack down one side. It also has the potential to open up central spaces during the switches and players can become aware that inside channels can become open.
Overall, I think that success in coaching this lies in providing potential solutions rather than giving concrete answers to your players. Creating these pictures in a training session and allowing players space to see and experience what works and what does not, takes skill for a coach to not only design the right session, but also be aware of when to step in and when to step back. Video analysis can be crucial in the training environment because not only can it allow players to see the success or the struggles of how they performed, but it can also start the dialogue amongst themselves which can also lead to increased engagement and understanding.
This article was written by Gary Curneen. If you would like to support the FREE work provided by Modern Soccer Coach, there is more information on Beating Low Blocks and other session ideas around tactical scenarios on Modern Soccer Coach: Coaching YOUR 4-3-3 book (see below).
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