How to coach rest defence- tactical analysis
Rest defence is a vital part of any teams structure and for me is one of the ultimate dilemmas in football. When considering any kind of attacking play, the defensive implications must also be considered, and so this adds to the complexity of creating an effective structure. The main question that comes up within the topic is how does a team’s structure allow them to both attack effectively, and still be stable defensively in order to win the ball back should it be lost, and within this tactical analysis, and this more or less defines rest defence. Rest defence is the defensive structure a team holds when in possession, in order to prepare should a transition occur. Throughout this tactical analysis, we will explain why rest defence is so important, how to structure rest defence effectively, and how to coach it to your players.
Why is it important?
Rest defence allows teams to counter-press effectively and more efficiently, and therefore allows them to prevent counter-attacks, regain possession and sustain attacks. You can train your team to be excellent individually at counter-pressing, but if the structure is incorrect or not optimal, no matter how good your players are at counter-pressing you will likely be caught out.
It makes sense to start by looking at the structure of some of the best rest defences, and the general principles they tend to have. The way Liverpool build-up also mirrors the structure in which they counter-press, allowing for efficient counter-pressing over minimal pressing distances. Their structure tends to mirror this below, with the full-back providing width and an inside forward occupying the half-space, while two central midfielders are directly behind the ball.
We can see this structure here, with rotations occurring but the same spaces being occupied, with two central options behind the ball, a player providing width, and occupation of the half-space. This leads to a shape which includes the offensive principles of height, depth and width, and is also compact enough both vertically and horizontally that if the ball is lost it can be regained and lanes can be cut immediately.
We can see a second later the ball is lost, and pressure can be immediately be applied on the ball carrier by one of the central midfielders, while the other can cut the passing lane through. The distance the central midfielder has to cover to press the ball carrier is made shorter by their starting position (rest defence), and therefore it gives them a higher chance of reaching the ball quicker and regaining possession.
This point of compactness is really highlighted in this image here from RB Leipzig‘s 3-3 draw with Borussia Dortmund. Here, having just had possession from a throw-in, Leipzig have nine players all in an extremely compact shape around the ball, meaning when possession is lost Dortmund have no space to play in and possession can be regained.
With a shape this compact, players have to be technically proficient to play in tight spaces and exploit what limited space there is, and suddenly we see why some of the best counter-pressing teams recruit and have such players that can operate in tight spaces, as the tighter the structure is in possession, the more compact it can be out of possession. Players like Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and many more are, and have to be, good in tighter spaces.
Below we can see Leipzig employing a similar counter-press structurally to Liverpool, with two players initially behind the ball and pressure being applied by one of these players, while the other cuts a passing lane.
Links to Ice Hockey
Counter-pressing in this way with two central players staying behind the ball mirrors many of the forechecking systems we see within ice hockey, with a 2-1-2 forecheck seen below. Pressure is applied immediately to the player on the ball/puck, and two plays tuck behind on the ball side to prevent the opposition progressing through. The left defence man, who in our football examples is a central midfielder, is ready and capable to step in should the ball/puck get past the immediate pressure, and the other central option would then shuffle across. Within ice hockey the use of the boards means that in forechecking cover is applied in wider areas than in football, as if the ball goes into a wide area in football the ball can go out, unlike ice hockey. This application of ice hockey is something I will write about further in this analysis and in future articles.
What does bad rest defence look like?
Having discussed what Liverpool’s rest defence should and pretty much always does look like, we can use a good example from their UEFA Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid here to show what happens if one slip up can occur within the structure. We see here in this screenshot Liverpool are in the same structure previously highlighted. Milner should provide width to Firmino in the half-space, and two players are behind the ball. However, with this in extra time and Liverpool pushing for a goal at 2-1, Robertson continues his run forward to support, which harms Liverpool’s rest defence.
We can see here the resulting damage, when Firmino loses the ball. Milner has moved to provide some width while Robertson’s run has continued, the other central midfielder doesn’t come across and so a large space is open right in front of Atleti, who play into the space and score from the resulting counter-attack. One lapse in concentration and discipline and the tie is over.
When considering how to prevent counter-attacks, the side in possession can either get better at retaining possession so they don’t lose it as often, or improve their counter-pressing and rest defence to manage and nullify the counters. If teams play very expansive football, they rely on their ability in possession, and therefore sacrifice this rest defence, which can lead to some possession-based teams being susceptible to counter-attacks.
If you read any of my work you know how much I enjoy Tim Walter’s tactics, but this expansive risky, rotating style of play comes at a cost. With so many players committed in higher areas, the counter-pressing structure of the side can be weak or non-existent at times, and so they can be hit on the counter, as we can see below. With the ball in a central area, no player is behind the ball and in line with it in order to press to prevent vertical passes.
We can therefore see that when the ball is lost in this area, no pressure is applied and the opposition can launch a counter-attack easily, with eight Stuttgart players now ahead of the ball.
Below we can see an example of Manchester City’s offensive structure against Man United. Kyle Walker inverted while Bernardo Silva provided lots of width in order to stretch the Man United midfield. This width by Silva provided problems in Man City’s counter-pressing structure, and is something which United and Jesse Lingard in particular exploited.
We can see the scenario created below, where Silva is so wide he is out of shot. Walker drives forward and ultimately loses the ball for City. We can see already the spaces which appear before the ball is lost.
When the ball is lost, there is some fairly poor structure, but still an opportunity to press inwards at the ball to prevent vertical passes. As we can see the player stands still, showing a lack of awareness in blocking a useless passing lane and opening another to Lingard. Because of Bernardo Silva’s extremely wide positioning in the offensive structure, the pressing distance is far too large for him to recover, and so Lingard operates in this space. United were able to create several high-quality chances from counter-attacks as a result.
How to coach rest defence
When planning coaching sessions and devising practices I find it useful to think what I need within the session to make it as realistic as possible. Within any rest defence session, the following needs to occur within the practices:
-Loss in possession
-Reaction and movement to adjust structure
Within my practice design, I facilitate all of these points.
Having previously written pieces on coaching counter-pressing, those practices can also be used in the broader topic, with some lending themself more to a counter-pressing structure. This practice below is one I have highlighted several times and is one of my favourites. 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. The main topic, therefore, is to press to prevent vertical passes.
This practice encourages thoughts on structure as the team has to keep the ball within this area otherwise they get less time to score. There are multiple variations of this idea which could also be used, one of which is highlighted in practice three. Therefore, when attacking and scoring goals, the team also has to consider what happens if they lose the ball, how they can win it back, and how they can prevent the ball getting past this red dotted line. This practice was again designed around ice hockey and the forechecking which occurs in order to keep the puck in the opposition zone during a power play, as if the puck leaves this zone every player has to retreat and time is lost to score with numerical equality. To encourage further thoughts on structure, a cone can be added at either side of the pitch to indicate that every player has to be at least this high on the pitch for the goal to count. If the team scores an amazing goal but aren’t vertically compact, the goal won’t count and is pretty heavy reinforcement for the player which didn’t stay compact.
Numbers seen above are just an example, this practice could be done up to eleven per team.
This next practice helps to increase the number of turnovers you get from the attacking team, therefore allowing for more counter-pressing to take place. Again it is attack against defence, although you could easily open it up to a normal game. Here the team gets one point for a normal goal, but five points if they score a goal through combining in the half-space zones highlighted. This space is made very tight, and so players are likely to play into there and lose possession, resulting in counter-pressing around a loss of possession in the half-space, a very real scenario which we want to practice. Not only are we working on our rest defence but some practice is also allowed on offensive principles.
Our final practice focuses on keeping the ball in the area it is lost, and therefore relies on compactness around the ball when in possession in order to transition effectively. One team keeps possession while the other presses to win it back, if the team wins the ball, they have to play two passes within the same square and then pass into another square. On the flip side, if the team in possession initially loses the ball, they have to prevent the ball leaving the box they lost possession in, or they concede a point. The teams switch constantly with the transitions so that the first time a team wins the ball back, they play two passes then switch, then after that they simply look to retain.
If you want to encourage diagonal passing and therefore counter-pressing of diagonal passes, the pitch shape can be adjusted accordingly to facilitate this play and shape the behaviour of the learners to play diagonal passes.
As this analysis has shown, rest defence is a vital defensive tool which can also be used as an offensive tool by teams to sustain attacks in high areas of the pitch. Jürgen Klopp once said that: “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.” For this counter-pressing situation to exist, the rest defence or structure of the team must be excellent, and so it is a vital part of football which must be coached.