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Counteracting Defensive Tactics and Strategies

Washington's new Technical Director, Gary White, shares his advice for breaking down an opponent's defense. To read more about Gary and his recent appointment as Technical Director, click here to be taken to the related story in this newsletter.

How do we break them down?

Every team we come up against adopts a defensive tactic. Our job is to analyze and counteract our opponent's strategies, try to break them down, and force them into disorientation. As coaches, we must find the gap and weakness in our opponent's game plan and exploit it.

If you can obtain a scouting report on your opposition prior to the game, it would obviously be to your advantage. I would advise that you try to obtain as much information about your opponents as possible, so you can be better prepared to beat them.

I also understand that maybe you will have a lack of scouting data on your opponents due to time or resources. If this is the case, the need to include within your annual training program sessions that address counteracting various tactics and strategies is of even greater importance. This is also an excellent tool for your players' general development and education, and will enhance your ability as the coach to affect the game on game day.

Obviously, before you can counteract various tactics and strategies, you will need to have good knowledge of systems and formations. You will also need to understand the principles of play in attack and defense, as well as the transition from one to the other.

The below information on counteracting defensive tactics and strategies derives from my coaching experiences at the International level and my education through FIFA and other elite Federation coaching programs.

I hope this will give you a further insight into analysis and evaluation at the highest level of the game.

Advice for attacking a reinforced defense:

The attacking team should avoid playing with a system that isolates the forwards centrally by creating a funnel shape. Look to vary your teams approach and don't play exclusively down the middle of the pitch.

  • Attackers should peel off and create spaces for the midfielders.
  • Plenty of interchange and rotation of positions.
  • Play in the flanks and distribute quality far-post crosses; or, get to the by-line and pull the ball across the penalty area for deep runs from midfield.
  • Pull the defense out; make them move.
  • Be direct when it is on; with limited touches, you must support and get underneath the attack (long-distance shooting).
  • Be patient and move the ball around quickly; start again and reload if it is not on and play flank-to-flank. Create space and then exploit it when it is on.
  • Make your opponents play predictably and force them into making a mistake.
  • Draw the sweeper out.

To play against a reinforced defense, a team needs well-developed technical skills to allow it to operate in confined spaces, and it needs to be constantly moving. Be careful not to lose possession!

Advice for attacking a zonal defense:

Open up the defense, create spaces between the lines and the players; vary the tempo of play.

  • Attack all across the pitch — flank-to-flank, top-to-bottom.
  • Switch the point of attack.
  • Move the play into the middle of the field.
  • Speed of play needs to be quick with limited touches (1-2 touches), change the tempo in the game.
  • Seek to gain numerical supremacy in attack, with the midfielders also having an impact going forward, especially in the channels.
  • Attackers need to be constantly on the move in and around the penalty area.
  • Get in behind the opposition (behind the defense).
  • Use individual and group skills with quality movement (decoy runs, cross-field runs, dribbling, feinting at speed, combinations, runs into space)

Advice for attacking a mixed defense (with tight marking of the attackers):

Draw the defender(s) into the unoccupied zones.

  • Change zone, free up space, spread the play out.
  • Attacking players retreat with the ball to draw out the defense.
  • Attackers receive the ball with their back to the defense; lay the ball off, pivot, change position and direction.
  • Attackers run towards opposing defenders with the ball and back into them.
  • Try to create 2v1 situations.
  • Win the attacking duels (by dribbling or feinting).
  • Put pressure on the defender in possession of the ball.
  • Play for the team and do not react to provocation!

Examples of Team Training Sessions – Attacking

1) 11v1: Keeping the ball and scoring – go over roles & responsibilities for your chosen system

Organization: The Blue team plays in its chosen playing formation. Try to cover the entire length and breadth of the field (see zones). The action starts from the goalkeepers (the players occupying a defensive position spread out wide as soon as they receive the ball).

Procedure: The ball is moved around quickly (1-2 touches each), with the players creating moves or working on simulated match situations and then trying to finish on goal. The number of passes made before shooting on goal should be restricted. The whole team is constantly moving, passing on the run and running into space to receive the ball.

Variations: A passive defense can be introduced to provide opposition (cones, dummies, static players, etc.).

2) 11v11 with the flanks free

Organization: Two teams of 11 on a marked-out pitch with the flank areas free. The teams adopt a specific playing formation (4-4-2/4-3-3/etc.) Have the other team adopt the system or strategy of the team you are next playing against!

Procedure: Normal play in the central area of the pitch. One player may enter the marked-out areas on the flanks by running onto the ball there; they are allowed a maximum of three touches and then they come back into play again (control, pass, cross). Players in the game are also restricted to 2-3 touches only. A goal from normal play scores one point; a goal scored from a cross is worth two points.

Variations: After the ball has been played out to the flank for an attacker, a defender may also enter the zone (to produce a 1v1 situation). The exercise can also be performed with two attackers on the flanks (producing a 2v1 situation).

Reduce numbers depending on your squad size or play against another team!

3) 11v11 in the central zone

Organization: The Blue team plays 1-4-4-2 and the Yellow team 1-4-3-3. Play takes place in the marked-out area. Off-sides are indicated. Also, have one of the teams adopt the system or strategy of the team you are next playing against — coach against that team!

Procedure: The goalkeeper always plays the ball to his team in the central zone. The team in possession of the ball is allowed three touches each and tries to enter the opponents' defensive zone (by passing or dribbling) by crossing the line. Once they have gained access to the defensive zone, play continues normally. A goal scored counts only when the entire team (apart from the goalkeeper) has crossed the halfway line. If the other team wins the ball, they play it back to their goalkeeper before launching an attack. Transition from attack to defense and from defense to attack.

Variation: After winning the ball, the opposition can start their attack immediately and try to score (without going backwards or passing back to the goalkeeper). Take out all conditions and play freely.

Reduce numbers depending on your squad size or play against another team!

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