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Lines and Diamonds: Part Five – Defensive Systems

This is the fifth instalment from The Hand of God

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This chapter provides an overview of the most common defensive systems. When selecting a defensive system, the manager must choose where to offer cover, where to offer balance and how much support and depth to offer in the early stages of the build-up phase. All defensive systems require the team to compromise somewhere, and this means every system’s strength is offset by a commensurate weakness that a savvy opponent can exploit.
5.1 DEFENSIVE SHAPE AND THE HIGH BLOCK

Your choice of formation instructs your team on how to line up to defend space inside their own half. A team that presses in a high block will typically see players compress space towards the ball and apply intense pressure immediately from their positions in the attacking phase. In these situations, it is common to see the team’s holding midfielders stay back in a deeper line of cover as the forwards and more attack-minded midfielders try to win back the ball.

With that in mind, if you intend to play an aggressive pressing style, particularly against an opponent reluctant to commit more than one or two players forward in attack, the defensive system is likely to be of less concern. In this case, you will be more dependent on the ability of your attacking players to press effectively and the ability of your holding players to deal with fast attacks if the first wave of pressure fails. However, if you do not intend to defend in a high block or anticipate that your opponent will be able to consistently push you into your own half, a well chosen defensive system is vital.

When choosing how to best exploit weaknesses in an opposition defence, you should consider your attacking style, the opposition’s defensive style and the opposition’s willingness to commit players forward in attack. If you build up attacks in a more intricate fashion and push the opposition into their own half, then choosing an attacking system that looks to exploit space exposed in the opposition’s defensive system is likely to yield greater benefits. On the other hand, if you play a counterattacking style you may benefit from giving more consideration to the sort of space left exposed by the opposition’s attacking system, especially if the opponent looks to have their attacking players apply pressure high up the pitch. Of course, when facing a defensive opponent who keeps a rigid shape and is quick to consolidate in a deep block, you may still be forced to deal with the defensive system.

5.2 SYSTEMS AND PLAYERS

By helping the team to more easily carry out certain tactical principles, some systems are inherently better suited to dealing with specific threats, but any fundamentally balanced system can adapt against any opponent. When pushed deep, players in any system will attempt to get very compact and protect the most dangerous shooting positions in front of their goal. Further up the pitch, players in any system will shift as a team to protect the space nearest to the ball.

Teams will shift forwards, backwards and side-to-side to protect space and remain compact as the ball moves around the pitch. Individually, players will step out of position to pressure when a player receives the ball in space. This will happen in any system, and a well executed 4-4-2 can potentially keep the lines compact enough to neutralise a diamond midfield just as a well executed 4-3-1-2 can force play wide and stifle wingers on the flanks. In many ways, the purpose of the defensive principles of play is to help players recognise how to adapt to different challenges without losing the underlying organisation of the team.

Since all systems are adaptable, your formation is never a guarantee of victory regardless of how tactically astute your choice is. A well chosen system of play will create advantages and disadvantages, but the extent to which you capitalise on these advantages and mitigate these disadvantages depends greatly on the players in the system. An advantage is only as dangerous as the player who will look to exploit it, and a disadvantage is only as dangerous as the players who will be called upon to deal with it.

The way you manage these advantages and disadvantages comes down to the nature of your tactical philosophy. Generally, a flexible manager is more likely to proactively make use of these advantages and disadvantages by adjusting his system to exploit and neutralise aspects of his opponent’s system. On the other hand, a more systematic manager will normally be more concerned with whether the players at his disposal have the qualities to overcome any potential disadvantage inherent to his preferred formation.

Any formation will expose space somewhere, and that exposed space will always give opposition players an opening in which they can attempt to free themselves to receive the ball. There are two situations in which this happens. First, an attacking player can consistently find space if an attacking system creates a natural numerical advantage against a specific part of the opposition’s defensive system (for example, having 3 midfielders matched up against the opposition’s 2). Using these natural overloads is the most efficient way of exploiting a defensive system’s weaknesses.

The right players and style of play can balance out a formation’s inherent shortcomings and make the most of its advantages.
The right players and style of play can balance out a formation’s inherent shortcomings and make the most of its advantages.

Second, an attacking player can get beyond a first or second defender (or both) to run into that space from a deeper position. These overloading runs can be done via dribbling or via movement with the intent of receiving a penetrating pass. In both situations, an attacking player receiving the ball in an exposed space will normally force a defender out of position, and this can open up space for subsequent movement and penetration. Close to goal, this can open up space for a shot or isolate a defender against a dangerous attacker who can then use his skill to create the space he needs to shoot.

The most important part of any defensive system are the players who will most likely be dealing with these dangerous situations. These players must have both the tactical acumen to recognise the right response to a dangerous situation and the ability to successfully carry out the right response. Without the right players, any system can collapse simply on account of the players’ abilities.

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5.3 4-4-2

Over the past couple of years, the 4-4-2 has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the popular imagination, but in truth, it never really fell out of favour. The formation is a staple of world football due to its simplicity and even distribution of players. This provides a measured and flexible foundation for channeling play and containing wide threats without sacrificing a counterattacking threat.

The strengths of the 4-4-2 are a balanced midfield and depth in transition. The two banks of four are the 4-4-2‘s most distinctive feature. The balanced midfield line ensures space ahead of the fullbacks remains reasonably protected even if the wide midfielders tuck in to cover for a central midfielder.

Equally important are the two strikers. In the defensive phase, the two strikers can harry and isolate opposition defenders to prevent the opposition from easily controlling possession at the back and force the ball to be played out to the fullbacks. In the attacking transition, the traditional strike partnership allows the team to stretch an unbalanced opposition defence while offering multiple outlets for deep passes out of the defensive third. Once the ball is at the feet of a striker, the two attackers are able to offer one another immediate support with less of a need to rely on hold-up play.

The main weakness of the 4-4-2 is the lack of cover afforded to the central midfield area. The space ahead and behind the central midfielders is highly vulnerable to an attack equipped with a creative holding midfielder, an advanced midfielder or a creative forward. When facing such an attack, the exposed areas down the central column of the formation places a much greater burden on the central midfielders and central defenders.

In a 4-4-2, it is vital that the central midfielders are both athletic and tactically astute. They must be able to both quickly step forward to apply pressure ahead of the midfield and recognise when they must track deep to offer cover in the space ahead of the central defenders. Similarly, the central defenders must both be adept at recognising when to step out to deal with a ball that penetrates the midfield line and when to offer cover for their defensive partner.

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5.4 4-4-1-1

The 4-4-1-1 is likely the most widely used defensive formation in top division football. It attempts to mitigate the defensive vulnerabilities of the 4-4-2 by withdrawing one of the forwards into the attacking midfield position. This preserves the defensive benefits of the two banks of four without overly compromising the team’s ability to pose a counterattacking threat.

Like the 4-4-2, the 4-4-1-1 offers a balanced midfield, but as opposed to offering multiple counterattacking outlets in depth, the attacking midfielder drops back to cover space ahead of the central midfielders and offer immediate advanced support in the attacking transition. The quality of the attacking midfielder will have a massive influence on how the system plays out.

An athletic and hard working attacking midfielder will both help the striker pressure from the front to channel play into wide positions while also diligently dropping back to mark the opposition’s holding midfielders when play moves into the defensive half. At the very least, the attacking midfielder will make it more difficult for the opposition’s deepest midfielder to comfortably control build-up play, and this will ease the burden placed upon the central midfielders and allow them to focus more on cutting out passes to the opposition’s more advanced midfielders.

In the attacking transition, the attacking midfielder offers a closer outlet for a relatively simple forward pass from the defence or midfield. This is useful if the team prefers to play it short out of the defensive third, though the attacking midfielder is not quite as effective at carrying out fast transitions as a second striker. The attacking midfielder can be effective at opening up a successive pass to the striker by drawing off a holding midfielder, but compared to an outright second striker, he will not be as effective at stretching an unbalanced defence. However, this ultimately comes down to a question of style as opposed to an outright strength or weakness.

The weakness of the 4-4-1-1 remains the lack of cover behind the central midfield area. Though the attacking midfielder allows the central midfielders to protect this space more effectively, it remains vulnerable if gaps do open up in the midfield line. The central defenders must be able to step out to deal with a threat between the lines without exposing a gap for a pass that would leave a striker through on the goal.

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5.5 4-3-3

The 4-3-3 is an attack-minded system designed to get the best out of fast, skillful wide attackers. The system’s main benefit is the wide forwards’ ability to offer both depth and advanced support upon a change of possession. When possible the wide forwards will look to act as counterattacking outlets who can quickly support the centre forward. This enables them to quickly push play back out of their own half, stretch an unbalanced defence and effectively exploit any space exposed down the flanks.

The increased balance of the forward line is also effective at disrupting opposition attempts to control possession at the back. This will channel play into the midfield area, though the relative lack of balance in the midfield area will put a greater defensive burden on both the fullbacks and central midfielders. In a 4-3-3, it is absolutely vital that the three central midfielders have the athleticism and tactical awareness to protect both the central spine and the space ahead of the fullback.

When playing a 4-3-3, you have the option of a flat midfield or a midfield triangle with a defensive midfielder. The flat midfield offers slightly more balance. This offers more immediate protection for the fullback though the central midfielders must have the tactical intelligence and positional sense to know when to pressure, when to offer cover and when to track runners between the lines. This will also require the central defenders to be more capable of dealing with balls that do penetrate the midfield line.

The defensive triangle offers more cover. This will allow the two central midfielders to play a less mentally demanding role since they can rely on the defensive midfielder for natural cover, and it will also ease the defensive burden placed upon the central defenders. However, this will put more defensive demands on the fullback as he will more often find himself isolated against an attacker.

In both cases, the main weaknesses of the 4-3-3 are the gaps ahead of the fullbacks and, to a lesser extent, the space ahead of the central midfielders. Though the central midfielders typically won’t find themselves at a numerical disadvantage unless facing a diamond system, the natural shape of the system can leave space for a deep, creative player who can, in turn, funnel the ball into space behind the wide forwards. The natural enemies of the 4-3-3 are attacking fullbacks and creative, skillful wingers who can potentially isolate and overload the fullback.

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5.6 4-5-1/4-1-4-1

While the 4-5-1 is a relatively defensive system, its ability to dominate the midfield area makes it quite flexible with the right personnel. Defensively, it is ideal for congesting space in the centre of the park and forcing the opposition to play more direct to get behind the midfield line. This has made the 4-5-1 a very popular system in leagues filled with skillful talent, though it increases the risk of a team getting boxed into its own half, especially if they lack a striker who can hold up the ball.

The system’s strength is the availability of balance and cover in midfield. This makes it very difficult for the opposition to play through the middle, and while the five man midfield means there’s usually only one outlet pass immediately available in the attacking transition, the formation’s numerical strength in midfield better enables a team to try play the ball out from under pressure. Compared to a 4-3-3, the 4-5-1 also places fewer physical and defensive demands on the central midfielders, allowing the manager to rely on more technical, creative players in these positions.

As with the 4-3-3, you have the option of a flat midfield in an outright 4-5-1 or a midfield triangle in a 4-1-4-1. The flat midfield offers slightly more balance with a flat five being particularly effective at responding to a switch of play, but this will also require the central defenders to be more capable of dealing with balls that do penetrate the midfield line. The defensive triangle offers more cover. This will allow the two central midfielders to play a less mentally demanding role since they can rely on the defensive midfielder for natural cover, and it will also ease the defensive burden placed upon the central defenders. However, it’s slightly less effective at guarding against a switch of play.

The main weakness of the 4-5-1 is the isolated striker. If the 4-5-1 is pushed deep, the opposition can control possession at the back, especially if the striker lacks the physical attributes and positional intelligence to single-handedly pressure opposition defenders. The space behind the striker is also vulnerable to a creative deep midfielder, though less so than in a 4-3-3.

In the attacking transition, the team can be vulnerable to a quick change of possession if the striker is incapable of chasing down clearances and holding up the ball, though a team that can play the ball out from under pressure can reduce their reliance on clearances and good hold-up play. However, pulling this off consistently requires midfielders and defenders with exceptional ball control, composure and mobility.

The also means that the 4-5-1 benefits greatly from athletic wide midfielders. Even with a striker who can hold onto possession or a midfield capable of playing out from pressure, the midfield needs pace and energy to get players into good supporting positions. With a plodding midfield, the 4-5-1 can quickly see players forced to play the ball into touch or the striker crowded off the ball.

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5.7 4-1-3-2

This is the more defensive variation of the 4-4-2 diamond. Diamond formations aim to congest the central area of the pitch without sacrificing a counterattacking threat. In terms of tactical principles, the formations are based on offering cover in the central midfield area while maintaining depth in transition. Traditionally, diamond formations have been most common in leagues where teams try to build complex attacks through the middle, though it can also be useful for teams with central defenders who are simply very good at defending attacks from the flanks.

The system’s defensive strength is the amount of cover offered in the central midfield area. The four players in the “diamond” are able to quickly outnumber and overrun any attempt to work the ball into central spaces. In the case of the 4-1-3-2’s defensive diamond, the defensive midfielder allows the three central midfielders to apply pressure more freely while the outer central mids can focus more on being ready to shift over to help the fullback.

Like other dual striker systems, the two forwards can harry and isolate opposition defenders to prevent the opposition from easily controlling possession at the back and force the ball to be played wide. This works to the advantage of the narrow formation since it gives the midfield more time to react and shift over. In the attacking transition, the traditional strike partnership allows the team to stretch an unbalanced opposition defence while offering multiple outlets for deep passes out of the defensive third. Once the ball is at the feet of a striker, the two attackers are able to offer one another immediate support with less of a need to rely on hold-up play.

The weaknesses of the defensive diamond are the flank areas and the space ahead of the midfield. Though the central midfield players are afforded the cover needed to step out and pressure deep midfielders at a moment’s notice, the formation’s natural shape can see a deep midfielder given time to carry out a switch of play. On the flanks, the fullbacks are badly exposed if the midfield doesn’t shift promptly, and against a team with skilled wingers or attacking fullbacks (or both), the 4-1-3-2 will struggle to contain attacks coming down the flanks. This is an especially dangerous situation if an opponent is adept at supplying crosses to powerful forwards.

The quality of the team’s fullbacks is paramount in the 4-1-3-2 since they must able to both deal with the exposed flanks and provide width in attack. Fullbacks who are comfortable stepping up into midfield, both in and out of possession, are vital to making the system work. The fullbacks also depend greatly on the work rate and defensive ability of the outer central midfielders. These players are typically energetic workhorses who can cover a lot of ground in both defence and attack, though in the defensive diamond, the fullback can also look to the defensive midfielder to slot into the defensive line if he has to step forward to pressure an opposition player.

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5.8 4-3-1-2

This is the more attacking variation of the 4-4-2 diamond. Like the 4-1-3-2, it aims to congest the central area of the pitch, but with the attacking diamond, the defensive midfielder is sacrificed for an attacking midfielder. This means the additional cover is shifted to the space ahead of the midfield.

The system’s defensive strength is still the amount of space covered in the central midfield area, though the attacking diamond sacrifices cover behind the midfield for a player who can both consistently mark the opposition’s deep midfielders and help the two strikers pressure opposition defenders. This means the 4-3-1-2 is much more effective at quickly channeling the opposition’s build-up play and preventing a switch of play through a deep midfielder, but this is offset by placing a greater defensive burden on the fullbacks and central midfielders.

In the attacking transition, the 4-3-1-2 offers a dangerous combination of immediate depth and advanced support. The team will have the option of playing it short to the attacking midfielder or hitting a deep pass to one of the two strikers. Meanwhile, the two advanced players who do not receive the ball can create havoc by stretching an unbalanced defence with good off the ball movement.

The weakness of the attacking diamond are the flank areas and, to a lesser extent, the space behind the midfield line. With an attacking diamond, the fullbacks must be even more capable of defending their flank single-handedly since they cannot look to the defensive midfielder to slot in behind them if they step out to pressure. This makes the flanks significantly more vulnerable to skillful wingers and marauding fullbacks.

The absence of a defensive midfielder also places a greater burden on the central midfielders. The outer central midfielders must be able to quickly shift and protect the fullback whenever possible while the inner central midfielder must recognise when to track runners into the space behind the midfield. If poorly organised, the central midfield can get stretched with an opening for a pass behind the midfield exposed as a result. Still, the fact that the attacking diamond makes it difficult to play through the middle means it is still quite effective at cutting off the supply to a central playmaker.

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5.9 4-3-2-1

The modern pyramid formation (also known as the Christmas tree) is a slightly modified version of the attacking diamond. Here, one of the strikers is withdrawn into the attacking midfield position to allow for even better control of central areas without overly compromising the team’s ability to pose a threat in the attacking transition.

As with other narrow systems, the main strength is cover in the middle, and the 4-3-2-1 excels at its ability to disrupt build-up from deep midfield positions. This makes it ideal for disrupting attacks based on a deep creator or a pair of holding midfielders, and it’s ideally equipped for cutting off a switch of play through the midfield. The two attacking midfielders are also able to step forward to help the striker pressure defenders, though compared to an attacking diamond, it is likely to give central defenders a bit more time on the ball if the opposition looks to recycle possession at the back.

In the attacking transition, the 4-3-2-1 remains a threat, though the advanced support offered by the two attacking midfielders makes it better suited for teams that prefer to play the ball short. However, if the ball is played deep to the striker, the attacking midfielders are also well positioned to quickly move up in support and cause problems for an unbalanced defence.

The weaknesses of the pyramid formation are essentially the same as those of the attacking diamond. The lack of balance in midfield means the flank areas are exposed, and without athletic, defensively capable fullbacks and outer central midfielders, the defence will be vulnerable to both attacks down the flanks and angled balls slipped into space ahead of the central defenders. Still like the attacking diamond, it is well structured to prevent opposition players from quickly supplying the ball to a central playmaker.

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5.10 4-2-2-2

The box formation (also known as the magic rectangle) is a modification of the defensive diamond. It takes the diamond’s focus on preventing penetration through the middle to an extreme designed to make life as difficult as possible for central playmakers and attackers who like to dribble through the middle. It should be no surprise, then, that the box formation came to prominence in Brasil.

The system’s strength is the compact column of midfielders in the middle. Though the formation’s natural shape sacrifices balance, the cover added by the pair of defensive midfielders frees the central midfielders to pressure aggressively while completely locking down space ahead of the central defenders. The box midfield allows for few opportunities to build attacks through the middle, and it is extremely effective at channeling play out to the flanks.

In the attacking transition, the two strikers offer depth and present a danger to an unbalanced defence, though the box formation relies on highly mobile and technically skillful central midfielders to quickly disperse and offer supporting outlets. These players must be quick, agile and comfortable with taking the ball out to the flanks.

The main weakness of the box formation is the exposed space on the flanks. The midfield offers even less balance than a diamond system, and when pushed deep, the formation is vulnerable to seeing an isolated fullback exploited by a switch of play or overloading run. However, the situation is not quite as dire as it looks at first glance. With two defensive midfielders, both the central midfielders and fullbacks are given cover to step out to deal with wide threats.

In the case of a central midfielder shifting wide, the defensive midfielder offers natural cover behind, and in the case of the fullback stepping out, the defensive midfielder can slot into the defensive line. Still, to make this work, it is vital to have energetic and defensively capable fullbacks, and while the central midfielders are primarily relied upon to act as the system’s shuttlers and creators, they should also be capable of quickly chasing down attackers and applying pressure across the midfield.

Given its weakness, powerful central defenders who can defend crosses are a necessity if the system is used in a league where are attacks are much more likely to come down the flanks. If the opposition is relying on short, skillful attackers, the 4-2-2-2 can be very effective, but the defensive situation will be much more precarious when the defence is asked to deal with a combination of skillful wingers, attacking fullbacks and tall forwards.

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5.11 4-2-3-1

The 4-2-3-1 is an attack-minded system best suited for teams that defend in a high block against an opponent inclined to keep players behind the ball. The three forwards supported by an attacking midfielder can be deadly on the break, though the space left behind the attacking four can leave the deeper players exposed to quick passing and movement through the midfield.

The system’s primary strength is based in transition play. The depth offered by the forwards and the advanced support offered by the attacking midfielder allow the team to quickly dismantle and overrun an unbalanced defence. With the wide forwards less inclined to track back than wide midfielders, they remain better poised to offer quick support to the striker while wasting less energy to quickly get back in the defensive phase.

The system is also effective at channeling play, though the space exposed in midfield makes this a high risk game. The four attacking players are well positioned to prevent an opponent from controlling possession at the back, and with capable fullbacks and central midfielders, this can force an opponent into moving the ball forward and playing a more direct game.

Of course, there is a much greater defensive burden placed on the fullbacks and central midfielders. At a minimum, the two central midfielders must be supremely athletic and tactically astute, though the attacking midfielder will ensure they can sit back and focus their efforts on the opposition’s more advanced midfielders.

The weaknesses of the system are the gaps ahead of the fullbacks and behind the midfield line. Simply, a true 4-2-3-1 leaves plenty of space in midfield that can be exploited by mobile attackers. Without defenders and midfielders who can cover this ground, the system can quickly collapse if faced with an aggressive opponent of sufficient quality.

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5.12 4-2-4

The 4-2-4 is similar to the 4-2-3-1, though the transitional support offered by the attacking midfielder is sacrificed for the additional depth provided by a second outright striker. Like the 4-2-3-1, the 4-2-4 is a very attacking formation best suited for situations where a team is desperate for a goal against an opponent that is inclined to sit back and commit few players forward in attack.

The strengths of the 4-2-4 are essentially the same as those of the 4-2-3-1, though the presence of a second striker in place of an attacking midfielder means it is better suited for very direct play that looks to quickly transition down the flanks. The absence of the attacking midfielder also adds to the defensive burden placed upon the central midfielders since they will not be able to rely on one of the strikers to consistently mark the opposition’s holding midfielder. This creates an even greater risk of the midfield being overrun if the opposition takes a more aggressive attacking posture.

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5.13 5-3-2

Though systems with three central defenders are often described as having “three at the back,” the recovery shape of such systems is normally a back five with wingbacks who can shift back and forth between midfield and defence as needed. Though the days of the sweeper are long gone, systems based on central defenders are still premised on allowing aggressive defending at the back by ensuring there are numbers available to plug any space that opens up as a result of a defender stepping out of position.

Though nominally sacrificing balance in midfield, the 5-3-2 is actually a quite flexible system that offers a combination of added cover and balance in the defensive line with the two strikers offering immediate depth in attack. The third central defender allows any defender to step out to close down attackers while retaining a back four. This leaves the central defenders free to pressure aggressively when the ball penetrates the midfield line, and it allows the wingbacks to freely step up into midfield when attacks are coming down the flanks.

While the formation’s natural shape leaves gaps behind and to the sides of the midfield three, the back five is organised to cover these spaces as soon as they are threatened. Still, this flexibility places a greater demand on the awareness and decision-making of the players to actually carry it out, so while a back five offers an intriguing solution in theory, it requires hard-working and intelligent players to actually execute it properly.

Structurally, the main weakness of the 5-3-2 is the space ahead of the midfield line. Though the midfielders can rely on both one another and the extra central defender for cover, attempting to apply pressure too high up can open up space ahead of the back five and lead to a loss of organisation. This means that the system can struggle to assert control in midfield when facing deep lying midfielders and ball-playing fullbacks who are happy to take their time on the ball, and this can lead to a situation where the team is pushed deep, allowing the fullbacks to quickly burst forward to supply a quick cross into the area.

To prevent this situation from emerging, it is helpful to have a trio of athletic central midfielders who can pressure aggressively and cover a lot of ground over the course of a match. Unlike diamond systems, the wingbacks do not necessarily need to be solid defenders given the extra cover offered by the third centreback, though for the system to work, they need to be fast and hard working in order to both offer width in attack and shift quickly when defending.

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5.14 5-4-1

Just as the 5-3-2 is a back five counterpart to the 4-4-2, the 5-4-1 offers an interesting alternative for managers who want the extra security of a third central defender combined with the 4-5-1’s ability to dominate the midfield area. Though a very defensive formation by nature, the 5-4-1 is extremely difficult to break down, and like the 4-5-1, its shortcomings in the attacking transition can be overlooked if the team has the right personnel.

The strength of the 5-4-1 is balance, and from a defensive perspective, it is the ideal formation for a team that struggles to defend the flanks. The wingbacks are both naturally shielded by the wide midfielders while also having the flexibility to shift up to create a midfield five if necessary. This significantly lightens the defensive responsibilities of the wide defenders, and for more daring managers, it also offers a good opportunity to repurpose outright attacking players for these “defensive” positions.

Behind the midfield, the cover provided by the extra central defender offers a solution to the problem of a flat midfield four, though compared to an outright defensive midfielder, relying on the third central defender to protect the space behind the midfield line means attackers receiving the ball there will still have more time to control the ball and possibly exploit space left by a pressuring central defender if his teammates do not respond appropriately.

Like the 4-5-1, the main weakness of the 5-4-1 is the isolated striker. If the defence is pushed deep, the opposition can control possession at the back, especially if the striker lacks the physical attributes and positional intelligence to single-handedly pressure opposition defenders. The spaces ahead of and behind the midfield are also vulnerable, though players occupying these spaces will need to act quickly to make the most of them.

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5.15 5-2-3

The 5-2-3 pushes the wide midfielders of the 5-4-1 into the wide forward positions. This exposes the wingbacks, but it solves the issue of the isolated striker with wide attackers who will now be more focused on offering advanced support and depth in transition. The result is a system that is very effective at channeling play and posing a threat on the counter.

The three forwards offer more balance up front (while the five defenders offer more balance at the back), and this makes it difficult for the opposition to look to its defenders to control possession. However, this comes at the cost of an enormous amount of space being exposed behind the forward line. The key to an effective 5-2-3 are the two midfielders and the wingbacks. These players must be fast, hard-working and capable of dispossessing skillful attackers trying to run through the midfield. Whereas the 5-4-1 accommodates wingbacks in a more attacking mould, the wingbacks of the 5-2-3 must be exceptional defenders, even with the extra man at the back.

This gulf of space around the midfield pair is the main weakness of the 5-2-3. In practice, defenders can step out to create a 4-3-3 and the wide forwards might track back to create a 5-3-2, but unlike the 5-4-1 or an outright 5-3-2, this still tends to leave space exposed around the midfield. Deep-lying midfielders, players occupying the space ahead of the defence and players dropping off into the gap between the wingbacks and wide forwards will all be able to find the time and space needed to receive a pass and control the ball. If the midfield two can be pulled apart, then the defence can easily end up exposed. To neutralise these threats, it’s usually the case that the 5-2-3 must rely on quick, aggressive defending from the midfield and defence or run the risk of giving skillful attacks plenty of room to work the ball around the extra man at the back.

5.16 OTHER SYSTEMS

If you wish to try a true sweeper system, you will essentially get the benefits of a back five with the system’s natural cover at the back allowing the two “stopper” central defenders to be given more license to step out and pressure. However, this results in space being frequently exposed to the sides of the rigidly positioned covering player.

With the more dynamic positioning of a modern zonal defence, the space behind defenders shouldn’t open up if there’s a risk of an attacker exploiting it. In a sweeper system, that space exists by default, and a sweeper can struggle to cover that much ground against mobile attackers. A true sweeper playing under modern tactical assumptions typically benefits from a deep defensive block reducing the space exposed to runs behind the defence. Even then, quick wide players can make short work of a rigid sweeper system by running onto balls dropped into the space behind the fullbacks.

A true sweeper offers reliable cover behind the defence, but this can create more depth for attackers.
A true sweeper offers reliable cover behind the defence, but this can create more depth for attackers.

There are many more possible defensive systems beyond the standards described in the preceding sections. In some cases, you might find it benficial to line up with a true back three, three outright strikers or no strikers at all. These more unorthodox systems will create more pronounced disadvantages, but these can be balanced out with players and a style of play intended to cover up these shortcomings. The possibilities are endless, and you can extend the same principles discussed in this chapter to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of any system.

5 thoughts on “Lines and Diamonds: Part Five – Defensive Systems”

  1. What i learn from this guide is that if you want play on the counter, or use a low block you have to choose a formation that have at maximum 2 player in the striker or wide forward position… But in your series the school of defensive arts 2014 and 2015 you play successful a low block with 3 man ahead. So am i wrong? Has something changed? I’ve observed that if i play defensive in the game with my preferred formation (433) i suffer a lot… maybe i have to change the duties of my wide forwards ,for example from attack to support, to make them more inclined to track back?

    1. Anything works and my art of series is just showing how I play and the philosophies I use. Thogs work is also just talking about basic concepts too that doesn’t mean you can’t play outside of those parameters. However the shape and roles and duties have always been important for the type of football you are creating as some are better suited at it that others.

      for example a high pressing style would favour a 4231 a lot more than a 442 and so on due to players naturally being higher up the pitch and it being a top heavy formation.

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