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Tactical theory: Counterattack

What is counterattack?

A counterattack is a tactical term used to describe one of the phases in a game of football. Generally speaking, it depicts the change of possession where the defending team is quickly transitioning to the attacking phase and is trying to catch the unsettled defence of the opposition team off guard. This usually requires a very direct approach and lots of acceleration in order to be effectively put into place.

Teams will often utilise counterattack through various other mechanisms but that quick transition can generally be achieved via long balls, switches of play and, more often than not, through efficient and progressive wing-play. Some of the main benefits of a good counterattack are that the attacking team doesn’t have to go through a set defensive block but mostly has loads of space to work with while they march towards the goal.

However, the pace is the main factor here and unless it is present in both the movement of the ball and the player(s), a successful counterattack will be very difficult to properly execute. A counterattack should not be confused with the term quick transition as counterattack is purely in the attacking phase while a transition can be both a defensive and offensive tactical term.

Examples of counterattack in football

The tactical term counterattack is often closely associated with teams who thrive on good defending, soaking up the pressure and then hitting their opposition on the break. This means that the teams often deploying the counterattack tactics will be the ones who don’t mind giving up possession and defending most of the game.

However, this doesn’t mean that good positional teams can’t utilise these tactics as well. Still, counterattack is often mentioned with the more defensive teams such as José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur or Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. Those teams are adept at inviting the pressure and forcing the opposition to commit multiple players into the attack before they move to exploit space left behind their backs.

One example would be the defending team using the 4-4-2 structure to achieve compactness, frustrating the opponent endlessly by closing down all passing channels towards their box. However, they would also have pacey wide players and two centre-forwards positioned relatively high so that a quick and deadly counterattack can be successfully deployed.

Why use counterattack?

The counterattack is an effective way to quickly exploit space before the opposition has settled into their defensive shape. It is a tool smaller sides can use to carve open the bigger ones even though they may not have a lot of possession of the ball. These tactics can be highly effective if utilised properly and they even out the playing fields, especially if the team has the personnel to execute it.

Counterattack tactics are often used against heavy positional and possession-based sides who like to dominate their opponents.