Introduction – Turnaround
Exactly a year ago Hannover were sitting in 17th place in the standings and were staring relegation directly in the face. It had been a brutal year for the Reds. Between the tragic death of club captain and icon Robert Enke and the drawn out fight for survival, the season took a heavy toll on players and supporters alike. Fast-forward a year and the club is on the brink of qualifying for the Champions League. With 4 matches remaining, Hannover have long surpassed their greatest ever points total in the league and have done so in impressive fashion.
How exactly did this remarkable turnaround happen? Behind Hannover’s historic season lays an astute tactical plan that restructured this team and optimized the performances of many of their individual players. Mirko Slomka, former Schalke coach and Hannover player himself, has redefined and reorganized the team tactically and made them one of the most efficient teams in Germany. This piece will examine Slomka’s dynamic counter attacking team and explore how they have employed this tactic to overcome all odds.
“The accent in the counter attack style of play lays on the defensive team
function, with the emphasis being on the defender’s own half of the field
and letting the opponents keep the initiative of the game. This is to take
advantage of the space behind their defense for the buildup and the attack.”
– Rinus Michels
Counter Attacking as a Pure Tactic
Football is celebrated and analyzed because of its diversity on the pitch and off it. Tactically speaking, coaches and players are taught early in their football education about the various strategies implemented on the field. The subtleties of the chalkboards, notebooks and points and arrows can be the difference between relegation and promotion, between a win and loss and between the stagnation and resurgence of a team.
The tactic of the counter attack is one of the most widely used in football today. Last season, Mourinho’s Inter Milan utilized it famously to eliminate Barcelona in the semi finals of the Champions League. Uruguay under Oscar Tabarez also used it to great effect last summer at the World Cup, reaching the semi finals in the process. Going back further, Total Football and all its proponents have even made an art form of it.
As a pure tactic, counter attacking can be a quite reliable yet risky strategy. On one hand, it is reliant on a solid defensive foundation that is meant to sit back, absorb pressure and hold strong.
If executed properly it can provide a secure footing on which to build on while also being a deadly attacking tool that does not compromise a team defensively. It serves as an effective organizational apparatus and the execution is quite straightforward. Because of this it is also one of the safest bets for a result and as such is applied quite regularly by teams and managers worldwide.
On the other hand, a weak link in defense can undo all the work and leave you without much room for adjustment. A team whose game plan hinges on counter attacking can leave themselves quite short on options should the circumstances in a match change. For example, the counter attack works well when the opponent is chasing the game and coming at you. If they have the lead however and are content to sit back it neutralizes much of original game plan and forces the team to adapt and change strategies. Additional midfielders or attackers are then introduced to accommodate those changes, which in turn could throw off the team altogether. Therefore it can be one of the less versatile tactical moves.
But every drawback is balanced by certain advantages and so many teams utilize this tactic because it optimizes their output. Strategically speaking, counter attacking is used to take advantage of the opposition’s advance into your own half. The allure of scoring can thus be exploited by the amount of space evacuated at the back. If the opponent pushes players into the opponent’s half they leave themselves inevitably exposed at the back. By leaving one or two attacking players around that exposed half they can quickly take advantage.
Some have equated counter attacking with long ball tactics and “hoofing’ the ball up field and as such labeled it as dull and uninspiring. The analogy could not be further from the truth though. To pull off the perfect counter attack you require intelligent running and positioning as well as accurate passing from the back. Otherwise you risk giving up possession as soon as you acquire it. It also demands tremendous individual and team discipline and players quick enough to cover large amounts of space in little time.
In other words, counter attacking is the most direct path to the opposition’s net that does not compromise defense but relies on the precision of execution. In that sense it is quite difficult to achieve but when done right can be one of the most potent weapons in football.
How Hannover Deploys the Counter Attack
The best managers tailor their teams to fit the different attributes of its players. One cannot fit a square peg into a round hole as it were and like most other styles of play the counter attack is executed correctly only if you have the right players at your disposal. More importantly, it works only if those players are utilized correctly in the overall scheme of that tactic.
What you often see from Hannover are quick 2-3-pass moves that span essentially the entire field. That moves the ball from defense directly to attack in a matter of seconds without giving the opponents the time to collect themselves. As quick as that sequence occurs though, its execution involves a series of more intricate steps.
Slomka has turned a defense that leaked goals like a shoddy faucet into one of the most reliable in the league. Hannover’s backline has become the heart and starting point of their counter attacking game. Last season Hannover had the league’s worst defense. It was arguably their biggest shortcoming and played a significant part in their struggle against relegation. Slomka had to find a way to address those concerns and without the luxury of a large budget he instead fine-tuned a tactic that did the job for him.
Before moving to Hannover, Emanuel “Mad Dog” Pogatetz had a reputation in England that very much lived up to his nickname. A magnet for bookings and penalties eventually made him a surplus to requirement at Middlesbrough and Hannover picked him up on a free transfer. Since joining the Saxony based club, Pogatetz’s has refined his game to impressive levels. Under Slomka, his tackling has become a lot cleaner and the team has lost only 5 of the 23 matches he started. Similarly, Steve Cherundolo and Christian Schulz have been fantastic all around fullbacks. Both are disciplined enough not to compromise space by foraging forward and as such they further supplement the defensive wall Hannover have set up in front of goal. It is not unusual to see Hannover’s backline remain flat in most matches and despite the appearance it takes a good amount of drilling and cohesion to get that right. That discipline has become the foundation of Hannover’s counter attacking game.
The organization of the defense is therefore Hannover’s first line of defense as well as attack and has been decisive in its transition play. The role of the defenders first and foremost is to stay patient, sniff out mistakes made by the opponent and frustrate them into giving up the ball. They do that primarily by keeping the play in front of them and ensuring that no one gets behind the defense. As such they are happy to let the opponent have more of the ball, knowing that eventually the ball will be turned over. Slomka has drilled the Hannover defense well enough to be able to do that.
The second role of the defenders is the subsequent launching of the counter attack. One of the defenders picks up the ball and immediately plays it forward to one of the sitting midfielders. It is important to have multiple outlets in defense to play that ball directly to the midfield rather than hoof it up the field or clear it aimlessly. Any delayed passing or movement across the defense allows the opponents to retreat and withdraw men into their own half.
The phrase “break on the counter” is often used in football and describes a lightning fast attack out of the back where a team storms the opposition’s half immediately upon gaining possession. This can be quite exciting to see in action and is the key to Hannover’s efficient counter attacks. Their incredibly quick transitions out of the back have been pivotal in their impressive winning rate. What makes up those transitions is worth a closer examination.
To hammer home just how efficient and quick Hannover have been on the break one must look only to the 14 goals they have scored this season on the counter that lasted less than 10 seconds. It is precisely that speed of thought that makes or breaks a counter attack. The two most vital aspects of such a transition are the positioning of and passing of the midfielders.
Sergio Pinto, Manuel Schmiedebach and Lars Stindl are three players that have been crucial in making that transition happen. Pinto in particular has served as a quasi-deep lying playmaker that effectively links Hannover’s breaks. All three have featured as the team’s primary link up players between defense and attack.
The positioning of Pinto and Stindl essentially get those counter attacks going. They are the gears in the Hannover machine. Both players are tasked with sitting in front of the defense, not only to provide additional defensive cover, but to be the spring step of their attacks. The most difficult aspect of this role is the dual requirement of playing with their backs to the opposition’s goal as well as being able to quickly read the game ahead of them once they turn with the ball. If one looks at the average positioning of both players it becomes apparent that they are instructed to sit deep for that purpose alone. And if they lose the ball they are close enough to their defense to be able to recover again.
To elaborate further, the passing out of the back works best if the midfielders are in place and are quick and accurate enough with their passes. Therefore the second element of importance is the precision with which the midfielders move the ball. Pinto and Schmiedebach have amongst the team’s highest passing completion in matches, which makes those transitions so effective. Take the 3-0 win against Frankfurt earlier this season for example. Frankfurt had almost twice the amount of possession, won more duals on the ground and in the air and out passed Hannover nearly twofold. That said, the midfield pair completed a combined 56 passes, more than any other player on the field while Frankfurt’s midfield and attack turned over the ball a combined 79 times. Hannover have been good at exploiting turnovers because of the precision and quickness of their passing.
Runs of the Attackers
Equally as important as the positional discipline of the defense and the quickness of the midfield are the runs of the forwards in a counter attacking system. Without the right runs the distribution will suffer and the ball will inevitably be given up. The simplicity of this tactic lies in its structured nature. Similar to American football, counter attacks can be structured as pattern plays where forwards are instructed to run and follow a certain pass, knowing that that’s where they will receive the ball. The key however is in the editing and reading of the plays as it happens. Forwards have to know when to make what runs and adjust either as the game progresses.
Hannover’s talismanic striker, Ya Konan, has made an art form of this calculated movement. The Ivorian was picked up from Rosenborg for the measly sum of just over half a million Euros and has repaid the fee many times over. This season he has already scored 13 and assisted 7 goals in 25 league matches. Hannover have yet to lose a match in which the Ivorian has scored.
Ya Konan’s influence goes beyond just statistics however. The ingenuity of his contribution comes down to the timing of his runs. The target man in a counter attacking system needs not only pace but good ball control to minimize the time it takes to control and move the ball once he receives it. Again, the quicker the action, the more efficient the counter. In their 2-1 win over Köln Ya Konan had less touches than 17 other players on the pitch yet scored both goals with the two chances he was presented. Ya Konan can create just as good as he can finish and in their win against Kaiserslautern he assisted all 3 goals by again maximizing his touches on the ball.
Assisting Ya Konan are Konstantin Rausch and Mohammed Abdellaoue. Rausch, used as a left back with the German national team at the youth level, is primarily deployed as a winger/wing forward in Slomka’s system while Abdellaoue is more the traditional target man that Ya Konan can play off. Rausch gives Ya Konan a wide option that can cross or overlap if necessary and Abdellaoue is the ever-present focal point of Hannover’s attack. He drags defenders out of their position for his teammates and provides the hold up play for anyone making the run into space. The variety in attack from all three is key so that their runs provide the midfield passers with an array of options when they transition the ball.
Together they are almost always the only Hannover players in the opposition’s half. They are the end product of the team’s quick counters and are involved in most of the goals. Without their intelligent runs and movement the rest of the team lack the necessary outlet to complete the counter attacks.
So when Hannover score a goal through a counter attack in less than 10 seconds it follows exactly this path. The defense collects or intercepts the ball deep in their half and immediately move it on to the waiting midfielders ahead. Those link up players then proceed to pick out the runs of the attackers.
Because the Hannover players are primed and drilled to anticipate the pass before it happens they are all in good positions to receive the ball. Moreover, Slomka’s organization has made his players more aware of their surroundings and where the rest of the team is on the pitch during a match. That makes the transition from defense to midfield to attack more efficient and explains the quickness of thought when they move forward.
Is it a Sustainable Tactic?
As was alluded to earlier, the outcome of Hannover’s strategy is very much reliant on its precise execution. In that sense, Slomka’s side has a small margin of error during a match. That is reflected in their overall record so far this season. Hannover have either won or lost their games this year and not much else in between. This past weekend, they recorded only their third draw of the campaign, the fewest in the league.
Two of those three draws have come against Leverkusen and Hamburg, two of the league’s more possession oriented and compact teams. Both are more comfortable sitting back and absorbing attacks and against a thin forward line like Hannover’s it’s entirely feasible to imagine them having an easy time keeping them out. In such a case, Hannover are forced to be more proactive in their play which may not suit their game entirely.
What’s more, on several occasions this season their conservative tactics failed against sides that were overly aggressive in their attack and found ways around Hannnover’s defense. Aggressive pressing sides like Bayern, Dortmund and Hoffenheim exposed Hannover’s sitting defense during the season, soring a combined 11 goals against Hannover in the 3 matches. Perhaps Slomka did not set out to necessarily win games against opponents like that but a team always benefits from tactical versatility. Hannover will most likely play in Europe next year and while the counter can be a quite effective tactic against continental sides it is insufficient in the long run and will inevitably be exposed. That said, Slomka is not beyond surprising anyone at this point.
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