How to coach the principles of defensive transitions- tactical analysis
Finally, we are on to my favourite topic in football, defensive transitions. As some who covers the German Bundesliga and Liverpool primarily, it’s pretty obvious to see why I enjoy talking/writing about this topic so much. Defensive transitions occur constantly throughout a game or practice, and although classified as more of a defensive tool, counter-pressing is equally an offensive tool and a key component of most successful possession-based sides. If counter-pressing is done effectively, possession and attacks can be sustained in good areas, leading to control over a game and the opposition, and if combined with offensive quality, can lead to goalscoring opportunities. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the principles of defensive transitions, analyse how top teams are effective in defensive transition, and break down how to coach these principles with coaching practices included.
Below we can see a flow diagram I created showing an overview of what’s involved in a defensive transition. Throughout the course of this analysis, each component should be covered in detail along with practices that include these components.
The pressing aspect
We will first look at the pressing aspect of counter-pressing, with the difference between pressing and counter-pressing simply being when it takes place, with counter-pressing occurring following a loss in possession. Therefore, some of the coaching points involved in pressing also apply to counter-pressing, and these are highlighted in green at the bottom of the flow diagram.
These coaching points come mostly on the individual who is pressing the ball carrier, who in this example is Alex Oxlade Chamberlain against Norwich. We can see the situation that occurs below is immediately after the ball is lost by Liverpool, and shows the picture Oxlade Chamberlain sees. We can also see the two immediate passing options the Norwich ball carrier has, and Oxlade Chamberlain’s position in relation to these options.
We can see next that within under two seconds, Oxlade Chamberlain has applied immediate pressure to the ball carrier, and is also covering both passing lanes to the Norwich players. He is able to do this because the speed of his run is optimal to allow him to slow turn and manipulate his body effectively, and he is aware of the opposition players around him and the angles and passing lanes. This example also serves as an example of counter-pressing not having to revolve around winning the ball back, but it can also be used to delay the opposition or dictate them into one area of the pitch (in this case backward).
Notice also how Liverpool’s structure allows them to cover these options from behind also, in case the player pressing the ball carrier is unable to stop the pass. This three-man structure is something we see highlighted in the practice below.
We can see a different example here, with Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aránguiz counter-pressing following a loss in possession. Aránguiz’s starting position is a poor distance away from the player receiving the ball initially, and so Aránguiz has to increase the speed of his run in order to reach the player and counter-press effectively.
He does however reach the first receiver and prevent forward play, but when the ball is played backward he continues his higher speed run. Therefore, he is unable to manipulate his body optimally, and is unable to win the ball back, fouling the Frankfurt player. The intensity and body positioning is good, but the speed is slightly too fast, but the outcome is not terrible with Frankfurt’s counter-attack being delayed. Again, structure impacts pressing distances.
Practice- 6v3 rondo
This practice highlighted allows for both pressing and counter-pressing scenarios to be replicated, with all the principles included. A team of six keeps the ball away from a team of three, and if the team of three win the ball they look to retain possession- which creates a counter-pressing scenario for the team of six. This means that for the team of six (blues), the main coaching points and outcomes are as follows:
-Hunger to win the ball back
-Training the reaction to win the ball back
The team of three can be focused on heavily despite not actually being the ones counter-pressing, as if the pressing skills learnt can be directly translated into counter-pressing opportunities. One of the main principles of this three pressing is the manner in which they do so. Pressure always needs to be applied in front of the ball in order to help prevent vertical passes, while two covering players can press sideways options. When coaching this I always find that breaking this down in terms of roles/jobs helps players understanding. The arrows in blue show the ‘priority’ jobs of the player, in that if they do these jobs correctly an issue shouldn’t be posed. If the central player gets tight enough to the ball carrier, forward or diagonal options should be cut off, leaving the covering players the option to anticipate more to go and press the sideways option.
Constraints can be added to help this, with rules such as if the ball goes through two red players at any point they concede 3 points or some kind of punishment to reinforce that this is not the desired behaviour. To make it more game realistic for the team of six, goals can be added on each edge of the area, which can represent passing lanes for the counter-attacking side, with vertical passing goals worth more points, which encourages more emphasis on stopping forward passes. The coaching point of structure and rest defence can also be applied, with observations around team shape and length of passes. All of the coaching points mentioned in the flow diagram in green can be coached and worked on within this small possession game.
Immediate reaction to losing the ball
Teams or players who don’t counter-press well process the environment around them slowly. The word ‘reaction’ is the key one here, with decisions having to be made quickly by the counter-pressing team in order to successfully win the ball back or delay the opponent. But what is the counter-pressing player deciding on, and what affects their decisions? The basic decision is do you press the ball or do you cover (both are active processes), and these depend on the points highlighted in the flow diagram, which I’ll go through in more detail now.
The following examples each show different factors going into the player’s decision. Here we can see a basic trigger for a press here, with the player taking a heavy touch out of their feet and the presser being a close distance to the ball carrier. This triggers the player to make the decision to press inwards despite covering a man, as they are confident of winning the ball back, which they do.
Here we see a trigger based on urgency, with Liverpool having a lack of players able to apply immediate pressure to a ball carrier, which is a key principle mentioned within the previous practice. The presser Gini Wijnaldum is too far away to apply pressure to the first ball receiver, but has the intelligence to read the pass wider and can adjust his run to this player. He is triggered to press immediately due to the lack of bodies in this space, and a lack of pressure on the ball would allow the opposition to immediately counter-attack with vertical passes. Wijnaldum delays the opponent using the pressing characteristics mentioned, and Sadio Mané recovers to win the ball back.
Here the counter-press and aggressive nature of it is based on the location of the ball and the distances of pressing players. Gladbach gain possession in a wide area and Leipzig immediately counter-press. Konrad Laimer the pressing player immediately makes a jump towards the central option and prioritises this passing option. The pressure is intense as the touchline can be used as an extra pressing player effectively, and therefore the Gladbach player has fewer options and can be better pressed.
Here we see a different example from the same game, where Marcel Sabitzer illustrates that the decision can also be made to cover based on the features mentioned. Here Sabitzer does not press inwards on Florian Neuhaus due to the distance between the pair, and also due to the body orientation of Neuhaus, in that Neuhaus is ready to immediately play the ball forwards and is, therefore, harder to press. If Sabitzer looks to press inwards and cut off the lane to the receiving player (Alassane Pléa), then the central lane also opens up and Neuhaus has the intelligence to play through this lane also.
This example shows the opposite in regards to body orientation. The pressing distance between the two players is small, and the length of the pass from Atletico is fairly long, meaning it takes time to get to the receiver (Koke). Koke is also receiving on an angle and not at a 100% optimal body position, and so Oxlade Chamberlain sprints forward quickly to win the ball aggressively. His pace also allows him to win the ball back, and so pace is a desirable characteristic for players within counter-pressing structures.
Bad decision making
The following examples show some poor decision making from players. We see here in a rare lapse in judgement from Jordan Henderson an error is made, with Henderson missing an initial opportunity to win the ball back early, with what looks like sufficient cover around him and pressure on the ball carrier. Henderson perhaps doesn’t press early due to Alexander Arnold not being too tight on the ball carrier.
However, when the ball is then played to this player, Henderson still doesn’t apply pressure to the ball and is instead worried about the cover behind him. As a result, there is no pressure on the ball and Aaron Mooy picks out a pass which effectively removes all the players in the image from the defensive phase, and Brighton threaten goal as a result. Henderson here should recognise the lack of pressure on the ball, and look to press Mooy early before his body orientation improves.
We can see a much worse example here, with Harry Winks and Tottenham. Like an earlier example, the ball carrier takes a heavy touch with a pressing player in close distance, but this time Winks chooses to maintain his position and allow the Leipzig player to chase after this heavy touch and control it. The factors of distance and urgency should come into play here and trigger Winks to press, but he remains in this position, not really covering much with the ball going wide, and as a result, Leipzig launch a counter-attack.
Practising decision making and awareness
Below we can see another rondo type game that can be used to coach counter-pressing, with this time a focus on awareness and decision making. The team of four keeps the ball in a square from a team of two, while one red player roams around the square waiting to receive should the reds win the ball. This causes the team of four to think about shape and structure, and forces them to constantly scan for the whereabouts of this roaming player outside the box, as this affects their decision making with regards to press or cover. Concepts such as the nearest player pressing can then be introduced, along with the angle and direction of pressing runs and cover shadow, but the main takeaway from this practice should be the importance of scanning when out of possession. To work on cover shadows and awareness a simple 2v1 piggy in the middle game can be set up, with cones on either side of the middle player and the team of two trying to play through these.
Counter-pressing to prevent vertical passes
This session is more game-related than the others and therefore is more complex and involves virtually every coaching point identified. The attacking side (reds), look to score as many goals as possible within two minutes, while the blues look to defend and effectively run down the clock. If the blues get the ball past the red dotted line, all the red team has to get behind this line before they can attack again, with the clock still running throughout. Therefore, the reds are encouraged to counter-press to prevent the ball from being played past this dotted line and are motivated by a scoring/timing element, which probably acts as one of the main motivations for players within your sessions. A target player can be added behind the red line to simply prevent the defending team from just booting the ball up the pitch aimlessly.
Within this session, the coach can question the reds on their offensive shape and how it allows them to counter-press, allowing the players to explore this for themselves, and various coaching points will be included, such as:
-Hunger to win the ball back (Eventually this extrinsic motivation should be removed and a player should have this hunger ‘programmed’ almost)
-Counter-pressing to prevent forward passes
-Body shape to prevent vertical passes
-Awareness of passing lanes and when to press or cover
As always, when coaching these I prefer to use questioning or discovery rather than verbal instruction, as verbal instruction has been researched academically to have some limitations regarding decision making, particularly in anxiety-inducing environments. Giving your team a shape and commanding them on how best to operate within this counter-pressing shape will benefit short term, but various academic sources refute the idea of any long term benefit of verbal instruction. Feel free to tweet me or message me for any information on my sources.
This practice took inspiration from ice hockey power plays and the offside rule in ice hockey, so feel free to research around that also.
In truth, there is probably enough content for a second article on this as well as an upcoming video podcast, and so keep an eye out for those pieces of content, in which I will likely talk on one of the biggest factors underpinning all of counter-pressing which is the structure that you do it in. Counter-pressing and transitions are a vital part of modern teams’ tactics, and as I mentioned in my previous piece on offensive transitions, most practices can be used to train both parts of transition, so once again check that out if you haven’t already. Transitions happen constantly in the game and can look random or chaotic at times, but the more we can control the chaos in these moments through structure and quick decision making, the more chance we have of success.