Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Half Court Offense

Am I the only one that thinks that a good team in modern football needs a good "half-court" offense?

Defending has become king in the sport (some of the "better" quality matches in European play are often 1-0 matches) and that's because of the way teams are able to fall back into defending.

It's no longer the back 4 with support from the midfield, we now see systems where the back four open up gaps for midfielders to step into. This essentially generates 7 man defensive units ready to counterattack.

What's kind of upsetting about this system is: It works! Especially when you've got a goal in your account, this system works. Even so, it seems that nobody has the answer and nobody has figured out the formula to break down the 7 man defensive line.

Most teams try to touch the ball from side to side, but often too slowly, and even so, with 7 men, it's kind of hard to be spread out enough to be hurt. When that doesn't work a few players will try to crack it from the outside with mixed results.

A good long distance shot seems to be the answer, especially if it's released by the keeper, deflected into play, or if it cracks one of the posts. That slowly pulls the midfielders out when they realize they need to step up to the shooter, and starts creating chaos as players scramble to reestablish their positions.

The problem(s)? Good shooters are hard enough to find, great shooters are even more rare. Coaches are also unlikely to give long-rage shooting a priority, especially when the "fundamentals" of the game continue to be so "fundamental". Moving the ball around and "creating space" is hugely important in the way the modern game is approached, but maybe that approach needs to change...

Is the game evolving so that passing + finishing are now going to take a backseat to long distance shooting?


SMS said...

There are numerous ways to break down a packed in defense depending upon the amount of risk you are willing to take. Most teams give themselves a chance to score if they put 9 players in the box and provide quality service.

The problem lies in the opportunity for the opponent to counter-attack. How many players are required to break down the defense depends upon the kinds of players you have. German teams typically do not try to pack it in, not because they couldn't, but because in the Bundesliga it is a very dangerous thing to do. Every team has gargantuan forwards an numerous players who can rake quality service into the box.

Packed in defenses are usually beaten by poor clearances. Identifying a good match up and pounding that puppy to get poor clearances has worked numerous times for my teams. Identify a situation that an opponent doesn't handle well and beat it to death until they make some changes.

Thirdly, midfield play matters a great deal against a packed in defense. Pressure must be maintained high up the pitch to keep the pressure on the opponent and force mistakes. The ability to count on your central midfield allows fullbacks to look for attacking opportunities. Most teams even at the highest levels are either basically counter-attacking teams that search for an early goal and defend, or are possession teams that want to dominate the ball and pull the opponent apart with passing and individual skill.

I view the long shot as another kind of service. It needs to be on frame with power and struck in such a way that it is hard to hold. Roberto Carlos was one of the best at hitting those kinds of balls. Very few keepers could hold them even if struck from 40 yards. As with everything else this requires practice.

Modern football is mostly about transition. Teams possess or sit back and nothing really happens unless the ball turns over. Then the drama begins. Can the defensive team return to shape before the offense can create a scoring chance?

All of the above scenarios involve creating transition chances of some kind. Service can be thought of as a purposeful attempt to create transition situations. Even the ball to the target forward gives the offense a chance to transition.

The world class teams are distinguished from the really good teams by the way they take their chances. The best teams squander very few of their opportunities. How often has Chelsea, Liverpool, Man U., Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, etc. won a game with one or two chances? How often do they win because of a single forced mistake?

Anthony said...

I've been giving this some thought, and I really don't think you need a long shot to open up defenses. When a team is defending with 7 or more players, the key is possession (quick possession) and accurate passing.

Think of the way Arsenal plays. They maintain possession really well, attack in with quick passing into the lanes that the defense creates. As a defender shuts down that lane, Aresenal brings the ball back changes the field (switches it), and comes in again. Even if they don't switch fields, they generally don't attack in the same area. However, what they are doing is distorting the shape of the defense to open up a lane for them to actually attack into that the defense can't shut down.

When you have a very organized defense, you defend, and either retain or regain your shape, so you end up being able to cover any of the spaces available on the field. This organization requires the defense all to be able to work together, as well as the midfielders understanding their role in the defense. By doing so, you prevent any sort of through play, maintain superior position (through the run of play), and are able to control the last third of the field.

Back to Arsenal. Arsene Wenger preaches patience, ball control (through quick, accurate passing) and 5-man play. The first two are pretty obvious what he coaches: first, don't expect to score on every, be willing to start the attack over, from a different position, and second control the ball, and make the opposition chase you. The third thing that he stresses is a little more difficult to understand, but is the key to their offense.

If you take a step back and look at most European sides, you can see that their play revolves around triangles. That is, when a player has the ball, he knows the two direct options for passing, and those two players realize they are part of that "triangle", and move to open up those passing lanes. It sounds easy, but when you watch an MLS game, it just doesn't happen. Players do not understand how to read the play and realize when they are part of the play, or if they are going to be part of the play. Two often, MLS play is one-dimensional in the attack and possession breaks down (as obvious in the constant turnover of possession). These triangles on the field and constantly change as the game moves; players transition into and out of the current possessing player's triangle. Organized defenses, look to shut down these triangles and force play to where they want it, neutralizing the attack. This is frequently happens with teams that defend with 7+ or more players, and as SMS points out, it becomes a game of transition.

Now, back to Arsenal. They do the triangle thing, but with 5 players, making it much more difficult to shut them down, even when they are playing a very good team (Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool). But the true key to this 5-player play is that they pull the defense out of shape slowly, so they don't realize they have lost their shape. The quickness of play keeps the defense focused on where the ball is, they lose their shape, and suddenly Arsenal is attacking into the weakness they created.

It is important to note, a lot of the time these weak spots are very small, so it often looks like Arsenal makes some incredible passing to unlock the defense at the final moment of attack, when in actuality, they have been working towards that the whole time.

Arsene Wenger teaches his players the keys to beating these packed in defenses. Arsenal plays an incredibly attractive and exciting type of soccer, they are constantly attacking, and to most it seems like you never know when they might score. It keeps fans on the edge of their seats usually.

Unfortunately, you don't get to see this quality of play or tactics in the MLS or most FMF games.

The play in MLS just isn't sophisticated enough for this to work (players do not have the soccer intelligence they need), so a packed defense often is successful.

In FMF games, the players seem to be too individualistic for this to work - they don't play for the team, they play for themselves. Too often I see a FMF player get the ball, do his "moves" on the defense and then pass the ball away. Then the next player gets his chance to shine.

For me, it is so aggravating to watch both leagues play, as either I am watching players who don't have the soccer intelligence to play how they should, or they have the intelligence but don't care, the game is more about them.

I am guessing these two leagues are probably major influences in your post about half-court defense. It probably comes down to coaching, and getting players to think differently about the game.

The Hammer said...

Thanks for your comments guys... there's definitely more thought in there than I expected.

I'll have to go back and re-read some of this to chew it down.