Breaking down a low block is something that top sides around the globe can face on a weekly basis. The reason opponents’ engage in defending in this way is to reduce the opportunity of being caught out, and ensure they remain organised, stay compact, and consequently reduce space for the attacking team to play in.
It’s difficult to break down. And there are countless games where a team has either drawn or won games by employing this system against teams with far superior technical or athletic ability.
This tactical analysis and tactical theory article looks to break down the tactics teams employ to navigate their way through such a defensive system. It will specifically focus on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who both frequently face low block’s. This analysis will highlight the similarities in their approaches to successfully break a low block, but also look at a few different tactics that both manager’s have used in the past.
The overall goal when breaking down a low block is of course to get behind the defence. This can be done from wide areas as it can from central spaces, however, invariably to work an opening, it requires the possession team to stretch the opponent horizontally before forcing one of the defenders in the back line to push out of the last line of defence, and exploit the space behind them. But how is this achievable?
We can see an example of a common low block set-up in the image below with the red team in a 5-4-1 shape.
Purposeful possession, circulation and use of the wings
It’s firstly important to ascertain how the space is accessed which can facilitate drawing defenders out of position.
One of the most well covered necessities for attempting to break down a low block is ensuring there is patience as a unit and the ball is circulated effectively from one side to the other. In doing this, the possession team force the opposition to continuously switch from flank to flank, and space can eventually be created between defenders and between the lines, for a forward pass to be made.
Passes of a good, sustainable tempo are important, whilst the shift of the pass needs to be made off few touches. The ball can be switched in one fell swoop with a long pass from one side to the other but this is more risky in terms of accuracy and having potential to be intercepted, leaving the previously in possession team vulnerable to the counter.
Having a shape like the one exhibited by Liverpool in the image below can be preferable when seeking to shift a low block across the pitch repeatedly. We can see Liverpool have three central players and two full-backs all in relatively equal distance from the next player, spread from one flank to the other. This allows them to switch the ball quickly and with very high completion passes. The players in front of them are screened by the West Brom midfield, but note how three of these players are specifically stood between the lines. Here they can potentially receive passes with enough space to take a touch, turn, and draw the defence out of position. The lateral passing of the five players highlighted will drag the West Brom midfielders aiming to keep these players in their cover shadow from side to side, and with enough patience and quick passing, there will eventually be space to break this line and play into these players.
The full-backs position is also worth noting. They are very wide and further forward than the central three players in this back five. With the compactness of the opposition, they have ample space to receive the ball and drive down the line themselves, but they also have the potential to access space behind the opposition full-backs, should a lofted diagonal pass be played to this destination. The threat from these wide players, particularly ones as dangerous as Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold means the opponent runs a risk at being too narrow, and should these two players start receiving possession behind the defence with those lofted diagonal passes or start whipping dangerous balls in, the opposition will start to press these areas more and sacrifice space inside for players to receive the ball between the lines in more central areas.
Whilst it is important to look to play forward, for these kinds of passes are what will generally engage defenders to come forward, they can also be lulled forward with backwards passes too. For this to work the ball needs to have been worked forward initially with purpose and the ball-carrier needs to be engaged by a defender with some intensity. The backwards pass can then bring the low block forward, lulling them into a relatively intense press, and space can now be created between the lines to attack.
Positioning of the forwards to manipulate the back line
To break this block down, attacking teams look to draw defenders out of the back line, and then hit the space created by this.
There are a couple of ways to approach this. Firstly, low blocks often have five or even six defenders operating in the back line. This means the defence can have several players operating in the central channel, and therefore, lowering the chance of a team scoring in the most dangerous area of the pitch.
If the team operate with two forwards in the central channel, these players can be man-marked as well, with a third centre-back, often operating in the middle of the three, sitting spare to sweep – a la catenaccio.
One approach is therefore to leave this central space vacant with players moving into this area at the last possible moment. If playing with a front three, two of the wide forwards can shift out of this area and look to create overloads with highly positioned full-backs.
The central striker can wait in midfield or in the 10 space and should any of the three centre-backs get drawn out of the central channel to deal with the threat of the overloads in wide areas, a through pass can be played for this striker, like in the image below.
It is easier to overload in the wide areas if the forwards leave the centre of the pitch and shift across. As long as there is a presence close enough to the centre of the pitch (we can see three blue players in this example close to the highlighted area), the central defenders tasked with keeping the central channel compact will stay in position.
Having a wide forward who can draw a full-back forward and out of the low block is advantageous as well if the in possession team has attacking full-backs like Liverpool’s. An opposition full-back can be easily drawn up without a centre-back looking to cover in behind, for the centre-back will always want to protect the central channel. Dragging the opponent out like Sadio Mane does in the image below, creates enough room in behind for Robertson to make a late looped run around the outside to receive a lofted through pass.
Whilst this isn’t the most preferable place to attack from, it serves a function in creating some space behind the defence who will have to shift and react. Any attack that prevents the low block from staying relatively static is a good thing, and a through ball for the full-backs will result in a crossing chance where the defence aren’t set.
In the event there is a centre-forward in the central channel then this run by the forward can create opportunities for more than one player.
We can see this below in an identical run to Mane’s by Giorginio Wijnaldum as Henderson has the ball again in an identical spot to the previous image. Robertson could hit this space if he wishes, but actually in this example he moves away bringing his marker further from the attacking space as well, leaving Mane in the central area as an option to make this run too. However, he decides to stay central ensuring the closest centre-back remains close to him instead of covering the space. This leaves the highlighted Roberto Firmino to make a run unmarked from a very deep area.
Drawing the opposition full-back out creates space across the back line, causing a knock on effect. Below we can see how Mane’s run towards Robertson creates space behind. West Brom’s right-sided centre-back sees this and shifts across to cut out this space, but in doing so, leaves space inside for Firmino to attack. We can see both of these areas highlighted.
Using the 10 space to create openings
The 10 space can be used to great effect as well, and whilst we’ve looked at examples of Liverpool thus far, we will shift here to looking at Guardiola’s City. Similarly to Klopp, Guardiola will often leave this space open, with players dropping into this area only momentarily. If they don’t immediately receive possession they drop back out.
This is done with the intention that if a player can receive the ball unmarked in this area, between the lines, the central defenders must press this player or concede a shot from outside the area.
The natural reaction is to press even if a shot from this distance might be less dangerous than the through pass.
Below we can see how this space is left open with the centre-forward dropping into the area to receive possession.
Guardiola always has attackers on the shoulders of the opposition full-backs and this situation suits these players perfectly. As the forward receives the ball the centre-backs are drawn out and the ball-carrier can slide a through pass into the vacated space. In this example Raheem Sterling is perfectly positioned to cut in behind and latch onto the through pass.
If the attackers can be picked up man-to-man by the defenders it creates chances. Liverpool will at times look to match up each defender with an attacker, with these players still playing between the lines rather than on the shoulder, but by matching up their quick attackers with defenders they fancy their chances in 1v1 situations.
Guardiola does this but generally just with the central players. By matching up the three centre-backs in the image below with three centre-forwards, he uses his forwards to subtly drag these players apart and leave space between them. In this example Phil Foden is in the 10 position but isn’t right in the middle of the 10 area. He is on the edge, away from the ball, but by operating between the lines, he is in the perfect position to move into the space created by his centre-forwards movement. The ball-side forward drags his defender towards Kyle Walker, showing for the ball, and this allows Foden to steal in behind into the space, undetected.
Guardiola will have his forwards drop away from centre-backs and make late runs once the wide forwards have dragged a defender out of shape.
Admittedly the example below is more of a mid-to-low block but the principle is the same. Note the importance of the positioning of Sterling on the left-wing, ensuring the right-back can’t tuck in once his centre-back pushes forward to challenge the ball-carrier. As the ball is played out of this area and bounced back to João Cancelo, Aguero makes his run into the space created to receive the through pass.
The first thing to note is the importance of a sid being able to circulate the ball purposefully with a decent tempo. If teams don’t force a low block to shift across the pitch or forwards, they’re going to have a difficult time creating goal-scoring opportunities.
Secondly, having attacking players play between the lines means both the opposition midfield and defence are having to focus on defending the same players, whilst there is always a viable forward, line-breaking pass option for any of the midfielders or defenders circulating the ball. It also means that if one of these attackers in between the lines receives possession, the opposition defenders will have to step forward to pressure them,and in doing so create space in their own back line which can be exploited, in the many different ways this article has highlighted.
Whilst the key details in breaking down a low block are the same, we can see that variety is key when approaching this. Drawing individual defenders out of the defensive structure and exploiting the space left is the best way to break it down, but focusing attacks down the wide areas whilst leaving the central space free truly only works if there is some threat centrally too. Even when that space is left vacant there must be players dropping in and out of it to keep the central defenders focused on defending this zone. Mixing up the focus of attack, and approach, is a key ingredient to breaking sides down. As much as it helps to have intelligent strikers who have excellent off-ball movement, it is just as important to have a consistent threat from wide areas. With Liverpool, it’s the crossing ability of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, with City it’s the pace and 1v1 ability of the likes of Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling. This threat across the entire pitch is what makes breaking down a low block much easier.