Counter-pressing and aggressive defending: How Stockport County have kept six consecutive clean sheets – scout report
League Two has always been one of the toughest, fastest and most direct leagues in the world. Many clubs inside the competition are aggressive, rapid, clinical and also very direct in their football ideas. The fourth tier of England also keeps turning into a very competitive league where teams from the categories above look deep into various sides to learn more about football and players that have incredible stamina and power to play at other levels.
It’s not that easy to maintain a regular streak throughout the season at League Two, and even after getting promoted, as obviously the difficulty of levels above gets higher between promotions. Even if a team comes back, the emotional decline and loss of vital players can really turn into a serious problem for them if they do not react quickly. If you go down at League Two, you go out of the professional level in England. Consequences surely would be tougher than any top-tier side can imagine.
One of the keys to staying in England’s fourth division, getting promoted or avoiding relegation has been rigid blocks who have great coordination between the lines and different situations to keep the clean-sheets or try with all they can to avoid goals.
Stockport County is the definition of what you can’t do and what you can do to stay in the league. They have started with a really poor record, conceding 19 goals in the league. However, this record was before their last six matches, which have included the EFL Cup and FA Cup as well. Now they have performed really well. They have kept a clean sheet in six matches with a modern, proactive and aggressive idea of how to defend. It’s also risky, but a very effective one if it’s executed well and all the parties do their job with great commitment.
After 17 matches being played, let’s take a look at the tactics deployed by Dave Challinor. This tactical analysis piece will be a team scout report of English League Two side Stockport County and their defensive approach in their last six matches.
Aggressive defensive approach
Stockport County has shown an aggressive approach that doesn’t change its idea in different blocks. Even in a low block, Challinor’s team keep being very aggressive, mostly their midfielders, who are a key part of the system as they are very intense and concentrated to mark opponents, normally jumping off their lines every two-to-three seconds. However, not only the midfielders are important in Stockport, as wing-backs play with the right aggressivity too and centre-backs are really intense as well and dynamic to go out and cover.
If we go to the data, Stockport County is the fifth-most intense team in League Two, as they average 7.4 in the ‘challenge intensity’ metric which counts how many duels, tackles and interceptions are made through a minute of the opposition’s possession. They’re also one of the six teams who make fewer fouls per 90 minutes.
In this set-up, Stockport County places their mid-block, where we can see why wing-backs are a very important part. The pressing traps are set up to attack the opposition’s full-back. They look to overload central areas, with two midfielders marking their opponents tightly. This forces rival centre-backs to play out wide where a full-back is kind of free but it is all part of the trap. The ball is played outside and Stockport’s wing-back Calum MacDonald goes there with a lot of power, forcing him to play a risky pass to the middle and then they would win the ball back.
Stockport also likes to press very high teams who play on high blocks, however, they allow rivals to advance some meters on the pitch to then set up their mid-block.
One of the things that catch the eye during the high press is the roles of the three midfielders who are frequently doing interesting exchanges between heights. In this example, we can see how the defensive midfielder or number ‘6’ is the one that has elevated more on the pitch to press very close to the centre-back on the ball. Behind him, the right-midfielder covers, who doesn’t appear in the image, and beside him is Myles Hippolyte, who has a vital and functional role between the lines.
Among the other midfielders and players on the pitch, Hippolyte is one of the freest players who has a more functional role and does not depend on the zones and positions the opposition is trying to play.
When Stockport goes and presses high, he’s the one to block one of the rival midfielders, however, this can change and he can go forward and mark the centre-back. When setting their mid-block, Hippolyte makes himself one of the biggest players in the team as he follows every player on the ball and looks to mark them all very tightly.
And even on the low block he has a functional role that is to support his wing-backs, as we can see in the picture below: He doesn’t try to block passing options behind him, he goes there and overload the spaces to confuse and stress the ball-holder.
One of the most common automatisms in Stockport’s mid and low blocks are the triangles they look to make on every zone of the pitch, which are made by the three midfielders or sometimes the wing-back if the ball is played outside. Their off-the-ball surveillance goes from one wing to another, where they look to force players to make mistakes and play with little space, pushing them to the line.
This example demonstrates exactly what we are talking about. The opposition is looking to play through the left side of Stockport’s defence. On this occasion, Hippolyte is the player marking tightly, and the other two midfielders set the triangle-blocking passing options. This makes the opponents go back and restart attacks, where they start to stress and lose the ball in risky zones.
Counter-pressing defensive transitions
Stockport County has shown in their recent matches an effective, risky, proactive and modern idea on how to defend what is probably the most difficult to train and contain – the defensive transitions. Most teams around the world, who play in top-tiers, second-tiers and different countries, played with a structure that they call ‘rest-defence’ that normally sets up in a 2-3, with two defenders and three midfielders, however, this can change with an inverted full-back, as Manchester City for example does. Another shape is the 3-2, for teams that play in a back-three and they keep their three centre-backs and two midfielders. As well we can see rotations here, a centre-back who overlaps and a full-back who drops deep, etc.
Dave Challinor like his team to take a really modern ‘rest-defence’ approach which is counter-pressing. Executed by top managers like Jürgen Klopp or Jesse Marsch, it is something occasionally we can see in League Two or League One, as teams have very aggressive and defensive-minded players full of stamina and intensity to win the ball back. However, many pragmatic coaches see this as a high-risk display and a way to defend as spaces that can be created everywhere on the pitch if a team breaks the pressure, which normally is performed by two or three players close to the ball. They normally play in a 3-5-2 shape that transforms into a 5-3-2 in the defensive phase, nevertheless, some things change a lot.
This was a counterattack situation for the opposition. They pick the ball through the middle and throw a brilliant pass into space for their wide man on the left. One of the automatisms we are seeing in this first example is how aggressive and proactive are the centre-backs from the back three. As normally midfielders have full mobility going into attack, they leave several spaces behind, and centre-backs jump off their line with determination and full concentration to block passes or tackle opponents.
Another one is the defensive method we are explaining. The counter-press becomes very intense and powerful the second they lose the ball. On this occasion, we can see the right wing-back was high on the pitch, so he needed covering. However, he tracks back and the right-midfielder also comes close to locking up the player on the ball. It’s clear that the right-midfielder leaves a ton of space behind him and he stretches his own team, but as he comes to enclose the ball-holder, they have more possibility of winning the ball if they closed down all possible spaces to run.
Again, we can see how the structure cares less in an attacking transition for Stockport, as we can see one of the centre-forwards has joined the midfield line and is counter-pressing very tightly the player on the ball. The idea is that one of the midfield or forward line players tracks back to make numerical and suffocating overloads to the opponent.
Even the left-centre-back comes closer and elevates the number of defenders up to four. As well as this, you can see how proactive the centre-back is because he knows his right centre-back is covering the space behind. This play resulted in a tackle and Stockport won back possession.
The figure below shows how Stockport defend in a match against Tranmere Rovers from an attacking set-piece which turned into a defensive transition.
As we can see, the player who left as the last man, in this case, the right-wing-back, is getting very close to the receiver of the ball, which is marked already by two players, in this case, two midfielders. Before this man received through the lines, the ball was played from out-to-in where another Stockport player was doing the counter-pressing but as support didn’t show up, they could progress. However, in the next pass, they won the ball back, which is what we can see in the image below.
In certain moments, counter-pressing with two or more players couldn’t be possible. So midfielders, who are probably the most vital elements inside Stockport’s defensive system, look to track back and press very tightly the player running with the ball.
As various teams would prefer to do, midfielders after losing the ball normally come back to reorganise the team in a rigid and solid mid-block or low-block, to evade players appearing between the lines or running through many zones of the pitch.
On the other hand, Stockport like to stop attacking transitions this way. This is not a one-moment per game, quite the opposite, as they do it every time.
Normally, this risky set-up leaves sometimes defensive transitions to the back-line facing situations without midfielders covering. This last line executes coordinated movements of who goes in, and out and which ones has to take the opponents. As they play with a back-three, the typical formation you might see in the defensive display is a back-five, however, wing-backs go very forward into attack, so that might leave a back-four, like in this example.
The right wing-back has gone up to the attack. The opposition has picked the ball and started a rapid attacking transition and are facing a 4v4 situation against the man on the ball, two players wide and one going centrally against two of the centre-backs. On this occasion, the right centre-back covers the wing-back place and the centre-back usually goes out as his timing is the best between them all. Stockport likes to rely on this kind of anticipation of Fraser Horsfall, who in the picture below, is going to do it and block the opponent.
As a risky team leaving fewer men at the back and not relying on a usual shape but on a persecution way of defence, making triangles over the pitch to block spaces to the man on the ball, as mentioned before, this sometimes is going to generate holes through the pitch that opponents are trying to take advantage of. Relying on your defensive last line surely is a good decision if they’re physically imposing and have the determination and discipline to tackle players, however, one of them has to be also very attentive and ready for action. The goalkeeper.
This is one of the changes Stockport made and have been impressive during their last six matches, where they have kept those surprising clean sheets. Ben Hinchliffe has replaced injured Vitezslav Jaros and has made an incredible return to the team, preventing 1.69 goals. Not the biggest number as Stockport has been really good defensively but clearly a good one that keeps the team winning points and their opponents without scoring.
Stockport County has found inside a modern and dynamic defensive display, a great way to keep clean sheets and win points through this. They have won 10 points out of 12 thanks to this tactical setup and some changes they have been forced to do while the season has been played.
Dave Challinor has a really committed team that, with the right attitude, can get to the promotion spots. The 47-year-old manager has even been nominated for best manager of the month, thanks to the incredible shift his team has made in comparison to recent months. as shown in this analysis.