This is a short blog on understanding the “maths” of defending.
I have deliberately kept it short so that it doesn’t give you an overload of detail and information that can lead to confusion.
The aim is solely to give you ideas that you can work with and utilise for your teams.
“Defending is about the work you put in…..” is a quote that I like from Pep Guardiola.
I agree with this quote 100% that work ethic and focus are essential to the teams organisation when defending – but – I also believe you must develop your players defensive understanding in three key areas.
(1) Space (2) the maths of the situation (3) 1v1 mentality.
“The pitch is the same size for both teams. Your team must understand how to use the space better than your opponents”
A simple idea is to split the pitch into three zones (as shown in the diagram). Now decide which zones that you want your team to prioritise defending in.
Making this decision will determine whether your team use a high, medium or low block.
This may change for certain aspects of the game (for example, when the opponents goalkeeper is about to restart the game with a goal kick) or certain moments in the game (winning or losing late in a game) or even for certain opponents.
Its important, to understand how to play in each type of situation (High, Medium, Low) and to give your players an understanding of this via training sessions that create different match scenarios.
The maths of the situation
This is a big thing that I like to coach with all players/teams that i work with.
To read the game and the situation they are in – both in attack and defence.
When defending as a team, you have a huge advantage from the moment you see the formation or know the formation of your opponents. This enables you to work out the number of players in the opponents defensive line (back 4 or 3) and their tendencies to attack with both full backs or just one.
Why is this information important? well, it gives you a calculation of how many players will join the opponents attack and how you can cover the space defensively.
For example – when playing against most British teams, the central defenders are often players who rarely outplay or bring the ball forward. This tells you, that you can often rely on these players to stay behind the ball and that they will have difficulty picking good passes that (1) break lines or (2) cause your team problems.
Also – knowing which foot the player is most comfortable with, enables you to begin the process of defending by forcing the ball to this player and their weakness.
An example would be playing against two central defenders that are both right footed.
The player on the left side is the one to target as they will be less technically able than the central defender playing on the right side. Using this type of “pressing victim” is a simple way of your team recovering the ball or making the opponents play predictable.
Another aspect to consider is the danger of each player in the opposing team. Without knowing your opponent, you would have to assume that the least dangerous players would be the ones furthest from your goal.
So using this method, an order would look like (least dangerous to most dangerous) – Goalkeeper, Central defenders, full backs, midfielders, wide players, number 10s, forwards.
“When defending you can use this knowledge of formation, central defenders and the prioritising of players as a way of setting up your team defensively”
For example – dropping into a medium block, and allowing your opponents central defenders to have the ball will give you a 10v8 situation (11v8 if you include the goalkeeper). Once a pass is played to a full back, you can go and apply pressure and either (1) lock play to the line (2) force play back to the centre of the pitch.
if you are a coach that likes to lock play to the side line, you gain an extra advantage in this situation as you can now squeeze players across the pitch and cut the game to one side. Now, you have an even greater advantage in the “maths” player situation around the ball.
If the central defenders, pass the ball forwards (to midfielders or attackers), this should be your chance to apply pressure and steal possession due to the maths of players being in your favour (10 v 8) and your team being compact.
This prioritising of players enables your team to decide which players you are happy to have the ball and which players you must block, harass and deny having the ball.
“Giving your players this understanding is crucial as it helps them to think collectively and act to certain situations in the game. To play in harmony”
The maths becomes particularly important as the match becomes stretched out at the end of games or when you are reduced to 10 players.
When playing with 10 v 11 due to a red card,
Do your players know how to act? – Have you practiced this situation in training?
Giving your players the comfort and understanding of maths and space when defending will make these situations much easier.
For example, where is the opponents extra player in the 10 v 11 situation?
Often, its a central defender and therefore, the player furthest from your goal. So there is no need to panic if you are able to keep your overload situation in the defensive 3rd of the pitch (number of players the opponents commit to attack vs the number of players you have to defend).
In most cases – the opponents will always choose to leave two players back to mark your one forward. So the extra player is in the opponents defence and therefore, actually causing little harm to your team. But, you must educate your players on this.
Also – if you are very brave, you can keep two forwards upfield as the opponents will nearly always instruct a full back to cover or a midfielder to stay back and keep the 3v2 balance when attacking.
So again the overload situation is a long way from your goal and danger.
The placement of these two forwards is also interesting. If you place them in the spaces between each full back and central defender, you may find that the opponents full backs are blocked in and stay back – so two forwards can easily “pin” the opponents back four into place.
Now, by forcing the play to stay with the opponents central defenders, you are nullifying the opponents danger and also controlling the space on the field and creating a “numbers up” situation behind the ball for your team.
Therefore, understanding space, how to use it, and which opponents to prioritise are key areas to educate your players in.
“The maths of defending is key to your teams thinking and collective organisation”
The use of triggers for pressing or for moving as a group in certain moments are also very important. But, triggers are very personal to each coach or when playing against different opponents.
Collective thinking on when to press, where to press, who to press, whether to force inside or outside are all part of your game preparation and defensive organisation.
But, again – understand space and the maths of defending comes 1st and the triggers of pressing are the “cherry” on top of the cake in order to steal possession more often.
Its also likely that by controlling space – and the number of players you have in the space – will often enable you to recover the ball without the use of pressing.
This is due to passing errors of your opponents and the realisation that at some point they will need to pass forward into a situation where you have an overload of players (and a greater chance to intercept and recover the ball).
This is why its much easier to defend in a low or mid block than to be a high pressing team. To develop a team that presses well in all moments of the game and collectively is very difficult – but nevertheless, very rewarding and my personal preference.
In all forms of football and especially defending, the mentality of your players to win 1v1 situations is crucial.
You can be in the right organisation as a team and ready to defend – but, then you must be strong and aggressive in all 1v1 situations to win the ball.
In short, your players must not forget to tackle! or forget that each player winning their direct 1v1 duel is an essential starting point to controlling the game.
Catch you soon.
— A preview of my new book will be available to download here at 1pm on 07/06 —