German coach Joachim Löw wants to take the next step towards his vision of perfect football. At the 2010 world cup, the Mannschaft surprised with refreshing football based on high speed counter-attacks after winning possession, mostly from deep positions. The English side in particular saw the backs of pacey players like Lukas Podolski, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller all too often.
Now Löw wants to shorten the distance to goal to be covered by his side after possession is won – by moving the crucial ball winning moment to where it really hurts: into the opponent’s half or even the last third of the pitch.
But the rare, pure fore-checking aside, possession can only be won high up the pitch in the precious seconds right after it was lost. That is, right after the winger lost the one-on-one with the full-back or right after the interception by the opposing holding midfielder. Winning the ball back high on the pitch cannot wait until after the now defending side has withdrawn to form a defensive block inside its own half. In essence, Löw wants to eliminate football’s eternal trough between attack and defense, defense and attack.
But how does one do that?
When a team loses possession, there are two basic options. The classic one is to withdraw into one’s own half and set up the defensive shape behind the ball before the opponent has done any harm. The more modern one, aimed at by Löw, is to defend forward, in an attempt to win back the ball right where it was lost. Two vastly different approaches.
Here’s a display of the first strategy: after possession is lost, all players (give or take an offensive player) quickly move back towards their own goal, targeting an imaginary line (marked in plain white) between wherever the ball is and their own goal.
However, there is a disadvantage of this approach as it leaves the initiative to the opponent. Your own team just reacts: once the attackers switch sides, for instance (see the pass from attacker 2 to attacker 7), the imaginary line between the ball and the goal moves, leading to unnecessary swing movements in the defenders’ runs back to the goal – see the assumed run of defender 6.
Apply this to 8 or so players simultaneously taking part in the move back and there can be a lot of runs wasted.
In this sense, attempting to win back possession when and where it got lost is much more efficient as players directly charge the ball in a straight line of fire. But needless to say, the risks are much higher. If the ball can not be recaptured right away, the opponent has acres of space in front of the last line of defenders, as everyone else is ahead of the ball, not behind it.
I think there are two strategies to minimize the risk of giving up space.
1. The team needs to act cohesively—already when in possession. To increase the chances of winning back the ball, the distance to be covered needs to be short enough to deny the opponent’s players close to the ball the time they need to free themselves from the on-setting pressure on the ball. That means that during possession the distances between all players need to be kept short (10-20 meter max) and the team needs to move across the pitch in a very cohesive way (i.e. the Barca way).
This highlights why it’s important to break down the entire game into just two states: in possession or not in possession. Sides need to prepare for one state while still in the other one, just like chess players thinking many moves ahead.
This also implies that the build-up of play either has to be deliberately slow to allow everyone to catch up, which is a strong contradiction to the widely accepted principle of keeping up the pace while passing to exploit weaknesses in the defence. Moving away from that for the sake of being able to set up counter pressing would be a crazy paradigm shift in football.
2. Immediate counter pressing after the loss of possession can only be launched on a case by case basis. I.e. when one’s own attack took place in a way that leaves enough players in the ball zone (thereby ruling this tactics out for most counter-attacking teams). But contingency also applies to where on the pitch the ball is lost. It’s fairly easy to free oneself of pressure on the ball in the centre of the pitch where there’s 360 degrees full of options to turn to. Not so on the wing, where it’s much easier to pin down the opponent.
A key role (for example at Borussia Dortmund, by far the most adept Bundesliga team at recovering possession right after it was lost) in deciding when to charge for the ball is assumed by one of the two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He has a good view of the pitch in front of him and may anticipate the loss of possession a moment before every one else. Thus he may pressure the players who the ball was lost to while they are still looking to control the ball, often by linking up with the full-back. Here forward-defending often constitutes an efficient surprise element. The other players in the ball zone lend support while the players on the far side can move backwards into covering positions behind those in the vicinity of the ball.
Involving a holding midfielder and a full-back in such an operation highlights the risks involved. If they fail (to at least force the opponent to pass the ball backwards), there’s nothing left in the way of the now attacking opponents who can proceed to attack the back line that is now missing a player.
There are combinations between both approaches as well, in particular by teams in lower leagues: once possession is lost, the players in the zone around the ball (to be defined, for instance with a radius of 15 meters from the ball) attack the ball while everyone else retreats along the lines described above. The actions of the first group will hopefully delay the opponent’s counter-attack until the second group has regrouped to an extent that it’s no longer a counter-attack.
But if the strategy fails, the risk is that the team loses cohesiveness between midfield/attackers and defense and uses resources (i.e. runs) that jeopardize the density needed closer to the box to defend the goal.
Switzerland’s first goal in the recent friendly against Germany highlighted the importance of shape even though it doesn’t serve quite well as an example for the broader issues discussed here (winning possession high up the pitch) because Germany loses the ball fairly deep in build-up play in the back of the full-back, which is always a nightmare.
A German midfielder (white shirt no. 7) loses the ball and the holding midfielder (white no. 6), around 10 meters off the ball, attacks the Swiss midfielder who the ball is lost to. But he doesn’t get anywhere close to him before the Swiss players passes the ball to his winger, into the back of the German full-back. This leaves only Per Mertesacker (white 4) between the ball and the German goal. But we’re far from the immediate vicinity of the goal, so there are options on how to defend.
Still, Mertesacker retreats all the way to his own box where the winger puts the ball through to Eren Derdiyok who finishes it off. I think it’s a long-standing weakness of Mertesacker that he avoids one-on-ones at all cost due to his lack of maneuverability against pacey and agile players. When still at Werder Bremen he once avoided a one-on-one with Robino by retreating over some 40 metres – right up to the point where the Brazilian no longer needed the one-on-one because he was close enough anyways to finish it off with a shot from just outside the box.
Had the holding midfielder not immediately attacked the Swiss player on the ball but retreated as well, he could have linked up with Mertesacker to help him keep the Swiss winger away from the danger zone, a tactical goal Mertesacker didn’t dare to accomplish on his own.
The point being: one player charges forward, another player retreats and as a result the attacking team gets too much space to exploit in between. That’s why Löw has highlighted in interviews before the tournament that cohesiveness and short distances between all players is an absolute prerequisite to controlling a game.
To sum up the comparison, aggressive forward defending to immediately recover possession in the opponents half is risky and only works if the side acts cohesively (already during possession) and if it is implemented on a case-by-case basis. Not all situations on the pitch are equally suitable, which adds quite a bit of implementation risk because it needs a lot of training for all players to instinctively tell one from another.
But where there are risks, there are rewards. Hardly anything is won when possession is recovered deep into one’s own half, the distance to the other goal proofs too long in most cases. But there’s a lot of spoils when the ball is recovered right after it got lost in the first place: the distance to the goal is shorter and, crucially, the opponent gets caught dissolving his defensive order to counter attack.
Theories and tactics are useless if a side doesn’t boast the right players to implement them. But Germany has Mesut Özil. Very few players grasp fluid, complex situations as quickly as he does. See his brilliant display in the second leg of the champions league semi finals against Bayern Munich: when Sami Khedia won the ball, Bayern’s centre-backs and just about everyone else thought Özil would put it through to Karim Benzema. But he instead spotted Ronaldo somewhere on the edge of his vision and set him up inside the box, exploiting a rather marginal positioning error by Philip Lahm.
In the chaos following turnover of possession, Özil thrives (although obviously he can not be reduced to that). If Löw wants to increase the occurrence of change of possession in the opponent’s half, it is so he can capitalize on his most powerful offensive asset. The following chart shows what I call the Özil moment:
Now, if there is a challenge to Özil’s skills in these kinds of situations, it’s Mario Gomez. Just like Özil is constantly the first to understand what’s going to happen next on the pitch, Gomez turns out to be the last just as reliably.
That’s why it is so crucial for Özil in particular and for the German game in general that Miroslav Klose finds the excellent shape he was in at Lazio earlier this year before his injuries. He may not be as nimble as he was five years ago, but over the past ten years he has developed from the classic German Kopfballungeheuer (a terrifying header of the ball in World Cup 2002) to a truly modern striker, boasting smart vertical runs.
This season has put to rest all my hopes that Gomez might achieve the same elevation of his game and be of any use outside the box as well. Even inside it he missed out a lot lately due to his suspect first touch/shooting technique and clumsy gear ratio.
So how much risk does Germany actually need to take?
Löw is prepared to take the risks outlined above partly because his side can field the kind of players he needs to reap in the rewards. But he also thinks that Germany’s opponents will show more respect than during the 2010 world cup and will sit much deeper to deny space to the impressive line-up of creative midfielders the Nationalmannschaft currently boasts: Mesut Özil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Mario Götze – plus the pacey Lukas Podolski and Andre Schürrle.
I’m not sure I actually agree with this assessment. Two out of three teams in Germany’s group traditionally see themselves as creative teams with not bad an offensive line-up themselves: Portugal and the Netherlands. Secondly, the Euro (for the last time after the greedy upgrade to 24 teams next time, sadly) kicks off immediately with open, high-intensity matches that we typically only get to see at the world cup once it gets to the quarter-finals.
A lot hinges on this tactic being applied at the right time. It can not be sustained over 90 minutes anyways. If used too often it will also likely backfire as recently Germany’s back four did not display the fine-tuning needed for risky maneuvering.