In wider football, there seems to be a conception that players and teams are less able to defend than in previous eras. “Defending is a dying art” according to Sean Dyche, who added: “You can ask coaches across the country, the one thing they are struggling for is defenders who can defend and want to defend.” His has not been a lone voice.
The pertinent distinction is between those who can defend and those who want to, because traditional defending is not seen to be as synonymous with clean sheets as it was previously. Recently, 28-year old Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann remarked that he is “not too keen on tackles”, before elaborating that he prefers “pressuring the opponent into a mistake, that we cut off his angles so that he makes a mistake when he tries to find a team-mate with a difficult pass”. There is a lot more to defending than making tackles, winning duels and heroic saving blocks in the penalty box; defending is about the team’s overall behaviour and structure on and off the ball.
Going to my Everton save, the on the ball aspect should be emphasised. They average by far the most possession in the league, 60.67%, over 5% above the next contender, Chelsea. They also have the highest pass completion ratio, passes completed, fouls against and, perhaps surprisingly, the joint lowest dribbles per game. I make constant tactical iterations depending on in-game patterns and general musings, but establishing control in the centre of the pitch by recycling the ball is a long-term strategy, as opposed to just a tactic.
If defending is about keeping a shape, attacking must be about disrupting it. And what better way to do that than catching a team in possession, when they are transitioning to attack, and out of their defensive positions? To minimise the chances of that happening, you can either take the Tony Pulis approach of making your team highly structured, never allowing players to roam from their positions and putting all the onus on the opposition to break you down, or maintain a more fluid shape but take extra care not to lose the ball until you’re in a position to press as a unit. Yeah, this sounds simplistic, but implementing it has many more nuances. The former must be excruciating to play against when implemented well and can be extraordinarily efficient when you have a go-to way of scoring, such as set pieces. However, it can also fall apart with one lapse of concentration, which must be exhausting for players to avoid when they are doing all the running without the ball. It is physically and mentally draining, and can leave the team chasing shadows for ninety minutes when this catch-all strategy is not producing that one necessary outlet or set piece.
The need to avoid being caught when transitioning from defence to attack, while maintaining a healthy long-term playing style, is precisely why I do something very uncommon: use players in standard roles with no individual instructions. Screenshots of my three tactics, as of now, are below.
While I sometimes experiment with duties, the standard roles with no added player instructions are rarely deviated from. Building around the alchemy of the team rather than individuals, while having relatively consistent line-ups and tactics, creates a synergy between the team’s parts. A collective understanding of what teammates are going to do with and without the ball. To me, this aspect of communication dictates a player’s reaction to their teammates’ action, which is far more important than what that action actually is. It is no surprise that I change team and set piece instructions more than anything else, as they are merely short-term tactical components of a long-term strategy.
With this framework in place, I specifically base my defensive approach on balancing the need to disrupt the opposition’s build-up with stopping them scoring.
A team’s mentality is essentially how risk-averse they are. This explains why Everton become more cautious in their tempo, width and passing directness on the ball, along with their defensive line and closing down off the ball, in line with their mentality becoming more defensive. On the ball, I let them take some risks in their passing directness and tempo on the controlling tactic, because each player is likely to know where their teammates are and what they are going to do. More than likely, the opposition won’t disrupt our build-up until the final third if they’re a weaker opponent sitting back, and if they do the opposite, we are likely to create chances in the spaces they vacate. By not asking the team to exploit an area of the pitch, pass unexpectedly into space, run with the ball, or create overlaps or underlaps, they are unlikely to become systematically imbalanced through players vacating their positions or performing unnecessary actions. The tactic allows them to be more expressive and roam from positions, but that’s only meant to be utilised on a case-by-case basis.
Off the ball, the instructions emphasise closing down, because my objective is for the team to regain the ball as soon as they lose it. They’re relatively risk-averse on the ball so that they’re in position to recover it. The other instructions are there in case the initial press doesn’t work; they can stay tight and foul their opponents rather than letting them get past. My defensive line is relatively deep for two reasons: to account for the different types of strikers Everton will play against, and to counter-act the offside trap being there. Everton don’t play with strikers, mainly because there is no standard role for them, and in the past my teams’ moves have often broken down between midfield and attack. That said, strikers stretch defences and give the team an edge of unpredictability. Although the offside trap itself might be unnecessary considering how deep the defensive line is, I always play Football Manager as if I am giving the team these instructions in real life. Without that addition, they might take tight marking too literally! Furthermore, while width only affects your shape on the ball, I avoid stretching my team to avoid the repercussions of losing the ball in isolated areas.
Obviously, there are multiple ways to keep clean sheets and achieve similar objectives. Some managers focus on player instructions and keep team instructions to a minimum. To some extent, understanding those player instructions and how they interact with each other involves a level of complexity that I haven’t fully understood. On the other hand, team instructions are more overarching and it is almost impossible to have a defined way of playing without using them. Similar difficulties are faced when trying to prevent team and player instructions overlapping and conflicting. I let players express themselves and roam from their positions so that their natural moves can be accommodated in some way without pigeonholing their overall game or over-complicating the tactic!
The most important things to take from the article are the objectives of defending, along with the importance of team communication and synergy. Getting the latter two right will generally make your team more coherent and risk-averse regardless of your tactics or strategy. Often, however applied, simplicity can connote a great awareness of how complicated each element of the game is; every tactical change will have many indirect consequences and spill over effects.