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Breaking Down a Compact Defence

By TT, 09/01/17, 12:00PM EDT


“Maybe the future of football is a beautiful green grass carpet without goals, where the team with more ball possession wins the game." Jose Mourinho

Although many football idealists may dream of the football utopia Mourinho depicts above, the one thing that will always remain constant in the capricious world of football is the team that scores the most goals wins the game.

The history of football has somewhat been dominated by a constant struggle between two sides--idealists vs pragmatists or as some would describe, football vs anti-football. Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff’s Totalvoetbal famously toppled the Italian catenaccio after its decade of dominance in the 1960s. The highly defensive Catenaccio tactic, however, was merely an adaptation of Karl Rappan’s Verrou system used with great success with the Swiss national team in the late 1930s.The Verrou put an end to the popular W-M system developed by Hugo Meisl and most notably used with his Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ that reigned world football in the first half of the decade.

Most recently, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have brilliantly overachieved in both domestic and continental competition. Although their intense, passionate and defensively-organised style is entertaining to watch, they are the antidote to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side that revolutionised post-modern football with their mouth-watering positional play.

For teams that play a possession-based style of football, or any team that dominates games, breaking down a deep, compact defensive block is a key problem. Below I have explained some of the most effective ways this can be done to create high xG (expected goals) chances, rather than just shooting from range or lumping speculative balls into the penalty area.


Combinations/Runs from deep

One-twos, third-man running and other runs from deep have become increasingly common methods used to break down a packed defence. The main theory behind their effectiveness is how they give the attacker a dynamic advantage, allowing them to find small spaces behind the static opposition back-line while staying onside. ‘Dynamic Advantage’ is the phenomenon whereby a moving player can easily move past a player standing still or moving at a significant lesser speed.

They also make use of the blindside. A defender’s attention will naturally be focused towards the ball, allowing players to make runs in the blindside without the knowledge of multiple defenders.

Below is an example of Tottenham using these runs to great effect. The first pass into Alli acts as a trigger for the movement of other players.

Spurs Runs From Deep

The most possession-dominant team of the last decade have been FC Barcelona. They have averaged over 62% possession in each of the last 9 La Liga seasons and thus have become experts at penetrating packed defences. One of the many reasons that Lionel Messi drops to receive the ball in deeper areas than most forwards is that it allows him to start pick up pace before running at defenders, making him almost impossible to stop. The clip below demonstrates how Guardiola’s Barcelona used one-twos and third-man runs and the benefits of blindside runs and dynamic advantage to slice through defences like a hot knife through butter.

What both Tottenham and Barcelona have in common is that they are possession-based sides that execute forms of positional play. To use these methods effectively, an attacking structure with players in good proximity to each other is required. In the first video, we can see how Tottenham’s diamond structure gives both Dembele and then Alli a plethora of immediate options.

What is also required is forwards that possess instinctive creativity and the ability to work in tight spaces. Barcelona’s combination play in the final third comes naturally to players that have taken part in one-touch 7v2 rondos everyday for years. That’s why I would argue that although un/semi-opposed passing or combination drills may seem the more obvious choice in training for this phase of the game, small-sided possession games in tight areas may be more relevant. In addition to this, a midfielder who can break lines with passes to enable the ball to find players in advanced areas (e.g. Dembele to Alli) is key to this.


Barca Combinations

Backwards passing to open up ‘10 space’

“Zone 14” became a football buzzword in the early noughties following a number of studies on how the majority of goals in the sport were scored. Although it seems obvious now, this area just in front of the penalty area wasn’t always regarded with such importance. Said studies, along with the increasing popularity in zonal defending rather than more man-orientated approaches (mostly due to Arrigo Sacchi’s success as Milan coach between 1987 and 1991), mean that teams nowadays massively prioritise this central area when defending in their own half. It can therefore be difficult to find space in these areas, with this possibly being one reason for the death of the classic no. 10.


The ‘10 space’ is any central area between the defensive and midfield lines of a team. Benefits of finding players in this area are obvious: it allows players to turn on the ball and run at the opposition centre-backs and it gives the opposition centre-backs a problem that can lead to gaps being created in the defensive line. Backwards passing (such as the pattern shown above) to deliberately open up gaps between opposition lines is now very common among possession-based sides and advocates of positional play.

This method can be particularly effective against teams that are not particularly organised as a defensive unit. For example, teams that apply pressure on the ball without the players not in the immediate area to the ball moving accordingly (making ball-orientated movements) or teams that like to keep a deep defensive line but with holding midfielders with a tendency to be caught out of position. It is obviously less effective against teams with a high back line that is disciplined in its vertical shifts or a team that constantly keeps a defensive midfielder between lines in their own-third defensive phase.


“The intention is not to move the ball, rather to move the opposition.” Pep Guardiola


The above quote sums up positional play and this penetration technique in particular pretty well. It is about moving the opposition to disrupt their vertical compactness. The video below, that I made for my Barcelona analysis I wrote earlier this year, shows FC Barcelona under Guardiola using backwards passing to find gaps in the disorganised Santos defensive block. The benefits of the ‘10 space’, of course, being the main cause of Messi’s success in the now legendary ‘False 9’ position in which Guardiola deployed the Argentine.

Halfspace switch

In relation to the aforementioned Guardiola quote, if the previous section was about moving the opposition vertically to create space, this is the creation and exploitation of lateral spaces. The idea behind this is teams building up on one side, forcing the opposition to shuffle to one side of the field, then switching to an empty space on the other.

As demonstrated below, the halfspace is the best zone to execute this switch as passing from the centre doesn’t give the wide player enough space to get around the full-back, and switching from the opposite wing will give the opposition a chance to shift across as the pass will have to be played with a different technique.

Less Space for the Winger

Long pass gives opposition time to shuffle over

Perfect distance/angle.

Halfspace final ball

A close cousin of the halfspace switch pass, is the halfspace over-the-top pass. Instead of being more of a pre-assist (switch wide followed by a cross), the over-the-top pass is more aimed at directly setting up a goal. Halfspace-to-halfspace is the best lofted final pass due to its geometry.

As you can see below, a central lofted pass is very difficult to control for the forward, plus is almost impossible to redirect with a header.

Difficult angle

A deep cross from a wide area is easier to cut-out for defenders.

The opposite halfspace is the best place for the runner as it not only creates the perfect angle shown above, but it gives the runner blindside advantage on the two centre-backs.

For this to be effective, it’s important that the team has width on the final line on both sides. This draws the fullbacks attention out to the flank and creates a possible channel for the runner moving through the halfspace.

Dribble-release in zone 14

Needle players have the ability to keep the ball in tight areas and draw opposition players towards them, before releasing the ball out of these tight pockets into space. Again, it shows how getting the ball into ‘Zone 14’ is vital to success in the final third.

This is a method of penetration was used by many old-school skilful no. 10 players such as Juan Roman Riquelme as well as a new-wave of inside forwards who may have previously been used as wingers (players such as Philippe Coutinho and Christian Eriksen). These players are all good in tight areas with a high level of ball mastery but must possess great vision and be able to play a perfect weight of pass.

The clips below show how these players first dazzle the opposition with quick feet, and then execute perfect through-balls. This can be particularly effective as it is a method of penetration without relying on width on both sides on the field. In turn, this means the attacking team is less vulnerable in defensive transition.


Low Passes Through Channel

Moving the opposition laterally through passing will not only open up wide spaces, but may create inside channels to play through. Again, this is dependent on width on the final line, as well as a midfield that can keep position effectively and pass with an intensity that moves the opposition. This is obviously more difficult if the opposition are pressing the attacking team’s number 6(s)/ centre-backs.

This once again utilises both dynamic advantage and blindside movement as wide players will often begin their runs from the wide zone into the halfspace in the blindside of the fullbacks.



Although all of these methods are easier said than done, when coached effectively they are a much better alternative than simply lumping it into the box, shooting from far distances, or hoping for a lucky bounce.