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Soccer Tactics – Breaking Down Defensive Teams

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It has become more prevalent for the better soccer team that dominates a game in possession not to win or even lose. By better we mean a team with more highly skilled players who play their system well together. In international competition they typically end up in the final four and in league competitions they routinely occupy the top five spots.

Quite often their system of play has been innovative and they enjoy initial success. But once the competition adjusts they are less successful. Less successful in this context doesn’t mean they drop to the bottom, but rather that they don’t win the titles they used to win or defeat the “easy teams”. To illustrate a few prominent examples:


Spain invented the “tiki taka” possession game focussing on precise passing over short distances supported by quick runs into space. The opponents were chasing players and ball and eventually a space was created around the penalty box which Spanish players exploited to scorer goals. When their opponents had the ball Spanish players quickly closed in on the ball carrier with two or three players to pressure him into a mistake. At the same time a second layer of defense closed down all passing lanes. So the combination of high pressure and possession game was effective and led Spain to successive Euro and FIFA championships. But then the opposition adjusted by setting up defensive walls and essentially letting the Spanish pass the ball around without giving them space to penetrate into dangerous areas. When opponents gained possession they used super fast break counters to catch the Spanish defense out of position and get an attempt at goal. The result is that Spain has lost its domination and advances in tournaments.

Pep Guardiola

Pep was the embodiment, if not the creator, of tiki taka at Barcelona. He was successful with it in Spain and then was hired first by Bayern Munich and now by Manchester City to create dominant teams. In Munich he did create ball possession dominance but in three years struggled to deliver the success that the quality of the roster (and management) demanded. He did win three successive championships but was knocked out of the Champions league semi-finals three years in a row, twice in embarrassing fashion. Even in the Bundesliga his team faded in the second half of the season. Why? because everyone knew what to expect and adjusted to it with their own strategy. A similar pattern is emerging at Man. City. A solid season start with nine winning games at the top of the table has turned into mediocrity (at a high level still). Man City will not win the EPL.

Jürgen Klopp

One of my favourite coaches for enthusiasm and ability to quickly turn a team around. His stile isn’t tiki taka, it is high pressure, requiring lots of running, and a fairly direct play into the box to generate scoring chances. His teams play through the middle and down the sides, they switch play often enough. It is a game strategy this coach embraces, with one exception. Initially at Dortmund Klopp was very successful, then teams caught on, personnel changed, and results dropped. Now at Liverpool he has inspired his team early, charged up the table bringing Liverpool back into contention. As of late his team is in a terrible slump, particularly against weaker teams, losing against bottom EPL teams and lower league clubs in cup competition. Klopp’s game demand a huge physical effort to keep the high press up and to transition quickly to defense upon loss of possession. His players are marathon sprinters. They get fatigued in a game and as the season goes, especially if key players get insured. I wouldn’t play a permanent pressing game but allow the team some periods of rest and sitting back.


With two exceptions the teams I have coached were the weaker teams in competitive youth and university leagues. I have coached against the Spains, Peps, and Klopps in  my world. I wasn’t surprised by their play because I scouted their teams and games and had a very good idea who they played and which players to watch for in particular. Good professional coaches do the same, so there is no surprise.

I had no choice but to move into a defensive mode. Here are proven soccer rules:

  1. If the clearly weaker team tries to ignore the strength of their opponent and play “their game”, they get slaughtered – Liverpool, Man City, Spain still generate lopsided wins.
  2. If there are equal strength teams on the pitch it becomes a very entertaining chess game as each will play to its strength and be successful in certain phases of the game.

So the clearly weaker team MUST move into a defensive shell and rely on counter attacks, without exposing their own defense while doing so. This usually results in a flat back defensive line of five or six players with a flat four defensive midfield  line 10 m or so in front of the defense. One or no attacker is kept up to challenge defenders or at least keep a couple of them back. The space here doesn’t allow to get into all of the tactical formations to accomplish this strategy.

The strong team now is forced to find a way through this tight defensive mesh and despite 70%-80% possession, gives up the ball 1 out of 4 times. This change of possession is the opportunity the weaker teams rely on the start a fast break counter attack quite often ending up in 2v1, 3v2, 4v3 advantage at the other end. The longer the game stays close the better the chance for the weaker team to snatch a point or a 1-0/2-0 win.


First of all the coach must realize that the ONE game strategy has been adapted to by some teams. The moment they recognize this in a game (or even before a game) they need to be able to change game plan. Instead of setting up occupation outside the opponents penalty box and passing the ball sideways and backwards waiting for a gap in the defense, they must adapt themselves. The goal is to break the two defensive walls, creating spaces for penetrating passes through the middle or crosses from the goal line into the back of defenders. Here are some traditional ways:

  1. Take defenders on 1v1 with your best dribblers (thinking of Ribery and Robben at Bayern Munich). This draws out the supporting defender and starts to open up spaces for quick runs and passes into the back of the defense.
  2. Set up 2v1 to get by defenders, tried and true tactics are give & goes, overlaps. You’ll see them from good teams and they work.
  3. Switch the side of attack quickly.
  4. Move your attacking player around randomly to confuse the defense. Get your center forward to make diagonal runs to the wing and have a wide midfielder break to the center. It will distract the defense and open up spaces.

Additionally you can consider:

  1. Play the odd long ball just to send the message that it’s not all possession.
  2. Intentionally give the other team the ball and then win it back and launch your own fast break counter catching the other team out of shape and balance.
  3. Vary your style during the game.

Teams that you can study who are more or less successful AGAINST WEAKER DEFENSIVE MINDED teams are Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Juventus, Germany,

The one thing is for sure – sticking to one formation and one style doesn’t work in a game, in a season, or in a tournament.

We have a great book to help you practice successful high-speed transition: Competitive Pro Fast Break Soccer Practice Plans & Drills

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