In this tactical analysis piece we explore the what, why & the how of defending deep. In the examples we have used a 4-3-3 shape but the principles apply to any other formation.

What is Defending Deep?

“A team shape & attitude to sacrifice possession with the aim of protecting space to counter attack”

5 Key Principles

Dropping Off to Concede Possession to Invite Pressure: Every player gets behind the ball and defends their own half of the pitch. As soon as possession is lost and cannot be regained quickly players make quick recovery runs back into their position located in their own half. This gives the opposition controlled possession which is what we want as the defending team to invite them to try and progress up the pitch but leaving space in certain areas of the pitch to exploit when the ball is won. Inviting pressure can be risk & reward tactic by giving the opposition more possession to try and score.

Protecting Space Behind & In Between: By dropping off into a deep defensive shape and into a compact team unit this will restrict space for the attacking team to play in. The idea is the central area of the pitch is very compacted to prevent passes through the middle of the pitch and teams being able to play in between the lines and into the spaces that allow players to run at the defensive line to play combinations. The shape should invite the ball to played outside and into wide areas for the team to slide across the pitch preventing those forward passes. With the deep defensive shape it also means the lack of space in behind the back line for runners to penetrate. In addition the goalkeeper must have a good starting position to firstly prevent the initial through ball or to be in a position to deal with it efficiently. A key part of this is the distances between units both vertically and horizontally to remain in a compact shape.

Working Together As A Team: As soon as the ball is moved across the pitch, the team shape needs to follow quickly but keeping those good distances between. If one player in the unit isn’t quick enough to slide across, space become available to play in/through. Every player in the team needs to know their own responsibilities and also the teams. For example if the central midfield player decides to leave their position and press the opposition centre back in their defensive third, a huge space will be created for the opposition to play in and could leave the midfield unit overloaded. Each player has to be on the same page and aligned with the teams tactic to defend deep and drop off. If some press and some drop, big spaces will be created which is that last situation we want.

Pressure on the Ball: Defending deep doesn’t mean being passive and allowing the opposition “free possession”. Within a deep shape the defending team still need to apply pressure on the ball. Key triggers can be used to initiate the press such as when the ball is played to the full back inside the defending half of the pitch, the wide player presses. Or when any player receives the ball in the defending half, the nearest player goes to press. The remaining players must slide and balance off to cover. If a team is too passive and minimal pressure is applied it will be easier for the attacking team to break through the shape or play quickly around the shape.

Regaining Possession to Counter: The key problem when defending deep is the ball is generally won in the defensive third which is a long way from the goal. With attacking players so far away from the goal it takes great effort & desire to transition quickly and reach the opposing final third. It is so important in this setup that the first and second passes are completed to gain some control in possession or to transfer the ball forward. Defending deep does bring its advantages with the opposition throwing numbers forward in an expansive shape that will create spaces to play or carry the ball into. #9 has to be reliable and link the play up being the main outlet for the team, If possession is not secured it will mean another wave of attack and it can become very hard to get out of the final third. #7 & #11 need to be quick and direct to carry the ball up the pitch or run forward.  Forward players have to accept they will spend long periods defending without the ball. As a coach/manager think carefully if the players you select have this sacrificial attitude.

Why defend deep?

How does it look?