Editor’s note: this piece, written by Lee Scott, first appeared in These Football Times in December 2013. With the author’s permission, we reprint it. If you don’t read These Football Times, you’re missing out. TFT‘s team regularly puts out original content covering the wide world of football. Give them a read; add them to RSS feed. Finally, you can read more of Lee Scott’s excellent tactical analysis over at his own site, FM Analysis, and you can follow him on Twitter at @FMAnalysis.
Over the last decade, the discussion of and debate over football tactics has suddenly become fashionable. From being something that you could only read about on one or two dedicated sites there are now a growing number of independent blogs and websites that offer a depth of analysis to help us all to understand the game as amateur coaches from our own homes. What though, is meant by football tactics?
The increased number of matches that are shown live on TV or even as part of a highlights package have convinced us that tactics purely mean numerical formations as these are depicted on our screens at the start of each game with the players placed on a grid in their expected position on the field.
Football though is far too dynamic for any pre-game computerised graphic to accurately show exactly how a team will play simply via a formation shot. A 3-5-2 can become 3-4-3 or even 5-4-1 in under a minute on the field as players react seemingly organically to the events on the pitch around them. What most fail to understand though is that these fluctuations in position and formation are for the most part pre-planned moves that have been worked on by coaches all week to the point that the players know exactly how they are to move and respond in order to counter any threat posed by their opponents.
There are a number of new managers appearing throughout Europe that coach with an emphasis on strategic planning, from Ronny Deila at Celtic to Thomas Tuchel who, up until the end of last season, was coaching at Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga. We’ll be taking a closer look at the strategic changes that Tuchel uses and in particular his use of the defensive block throughout a match.
The German manager is the perfect example of a young coach who is capable of planning a match strategy and ensuring that his team are aware of a series of alternatives that can be used in any game depending on the opposition. This strategic planning can see Tuchel have his side switch formations seamlessly several times during the course of a match; even within each formation there are certain strategic choices that stand out when analysing their style of play.
The most obvious and common is Tuchel’s use of the defensive block. It is common to see Mainz switch from a high block with pressure applied high up the pitch early in the game to a low block, allowing his players to rest out of possession and defend in a more compact, deep position.
The High Block
Here we can see Bayern Munich in possession of the ball midway inside their own half. The deepest of their three midfielders has the responsibility for building the attacks from deep and controlling the tempo of the game.
At the start of this match, Tuchel instructed his side to defend in a high block trying to disrupt the passing rhythm of Bayern. In this high block, the three most advanced players are given instructions to use their body shape and position to cover more than one of the Bayern players. This is a specific strategy that is evident throughout a number of Mainz matches as they seek to use a high block but also want to give themselves a numerical advantage in the central area at the same time.
As you can see, the Mainz side are positioned in such a way that the man in possession is given only two options to advance the play: he either plays a direct pass or tries to beat his opponent by dribbling. Either of these options is risky and gives Mainz a higher chance of winning back possession.
This is the second example from the same match against Bayern and this time the initial press in the high block has been bypassed by a direct pass to the wide area. It’s interesting to note how Mainz then adjust without moving out of the high block. The initial move to engage the ball is conducted by two players, one of whom has the dual responsibility from the first example. This time the advanced player drops in to support the defensive phase and cover space whilst the deeper player involved in the defensive movement looks to cover a pass or run directly up the line.
Again, all of these movements will be coached and prepared in advance of the game so that the players are familiar with the shifts in position and formation.
The Low Block
On this occasion, Bayern are in the second phase of an attack having moved the ball from a wide area to a deeper central position. This time, however, Mainz have switched to a low block and are content to sit in a compact shape. When this shift from high to low block initially occurs the opposition are caught of guard.
In this example, Bayern may have expected that by circulating possession to the deep position they could draw Mainz out and create space and angles to make the attack easier. Instead Mainz sit low in two distinct banks. The interesting variation to a normal low block is that there is a spare man or joker sitting between the two lines. This small positional shift gives the defensive block more flexibility and makes it harder for Bayern to play through the centre.
Once again, we can see that Mainz are using a slightly different positional set up to counter the threat posed by Die Roten. The most advanced player tries to shield the pass to Lahm in the centre of the pitch and the two wide attacking players have moved towards the centre of the pitch, with the two deeper midfielders holding a narrower position. In the low block, this creates a funnel that prevents Bayern from playing the ball into the central areas and forces them to attack down either flank.
Finally, this image is taken from a match with Bayer Leverkusen and shows the low block with two distinct banks of defenders. It’s worth noting the shape of the higher defensive line with one player occupying a deeper position. This player can quickly drop further and become the joker that we have seen earlier in this article and can move across to support other defensive players should the ball be played into their zone.
It’s easy to see why the low block allows your players to save energy as they are closely supported by teammates and the onus is very much on the attacking team to move and make something happen. At the same time, switching between the two distinct options keeps the opposition on the back foot as they are not sure which block or press they will be facing as they go to start each attack.
The need to play a more quick and direct style against a high block can lead to your opponent rushing the start of their attacking phase only to see that you are set out in a low block looking to soak up pressure and cut off the direct pass.
Thomas Tuchel resigned from Mainz at the end of last season following a prolonged period in which the relatively small club performed above their stature and expectations. He seems to have decided to take a year off from the game but when he returns to take another job, that club will have secured one of the most strategically astute coaches from the new generation of Europeans.
It will certainly be interesting to see how he applies the lessons learned during his time at Mainz to a bigger club with larger resources.