In football everyone has a different view on what constitutes the ideal way to play. In the past number of years we have become accustomed to Barcelona with their Tika-Taka style of play and for some this is the ideal way to play. This of course evolved over time and can be traced back to the Ajax of the 1970s and Total Football as advocated by Ajax and Rinus Michels. However this trend focuses on possession of the ball and provides only one end of what I see as a continuum where on one side we have Tika-Taka and Total Football seeking complete control through ball possession, while on the complete opposite side of the scale we have what would be referred to as total defending seeking complete control without possession. In the middle of this continuum you would have the counter attacking style of play where the focus is seeking control in transition. The way I see it a defensive system can take one of those three forms and vary along this scale. For the purposes of this article the focus will be on creating the perfect defensive system seeking complete control without possession of the ball.
In terms of total defending there would be numerous variables that would need to be taken into account in order to create the perfect defensive system. The system would require cover between the midfield and defensive line and would need to compact space as much as possible. However before talking about the required shape of the team it is important to examine the player characteristics necessary to carry out such a defensive formation. All players would need to be equally comfortable in 1v1 situations and 1v2 situations where the opposition have the advantage. This requires individual ability to understand and execute when to press to win the ball, when to press to delay and when to stand off and not press. Communication between team members and different lines and sections of lines would also be necessary to have an understanding of what fellow teammates are going to do, what the opposition are doing and how to respond. Discipline and teamwork although requirements for any successful team would be necessary in this style of play in order to have the discipline to execute different types of pressing and the teamwork to cover areas of the pitch, players and one another.
Once these individual player characteristics are met then the defensive system could be implemented. The main idea behind total defending is based on the same principal of possession football. In playing a possession style of play a team takes a different formation depending on where the ball is on the pitch. An example would be when a team in possession of the ball will have a different form when playing out of their own third compared to in the final third. This same principal applies to total defending where there would be different formations depending on where the ball, is what the other teams formation is and the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. In a high block press where the opposition have the ball in their own third an ideal formation would be 4-2-3-1 as this would allow the defending team to engage in a high block press with more numbers in forward areas. This would change when the ball is in the middle third where the formation would be a 4-4-1-1 allowing for more compactness and pressing in central areas which is important as the opposition are closer to the defensive teams goal. In a low block the formation would be a 4-1-4-1 in order to close space between the defensive and midfield lines and again block central areas. These changes in formation are dependent on the location of the ball and pressing would be dependent on the collective understanding of triggers to press such as a sideways pass and poor control by the opposition.
The final aspect of this defensive system would be combating the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. This brings together the other aspects of the system such as individual player characteristics and different forms based on the position of the ball. The ideal system would be able combat the strengths of the opposition through nullifying the opposition’s key players while at the same time providing cover for teammates and important areas of the field. This could be achieved through a hybrid between zonal and man marking. An example of this can be seen where Bayern Munich employed this under Jupp Heynckes against Barcelona in last year’s Champions League semi-final. This forced the Barcelona to play long balls out from the back at goal kicks. This requires players to be adept in 1v1 situations but also for the team and individual players to understand which players to prioritize in man marking and what areas of the field should still be covered. The areas covered would be dependent on where the ball is, the players being man marked and the free players left open. By leaving players open for passes the defensive team is controlling where the play is going without being in control of the ball. This allows the defensive team to press more effectively through anticipation and a collective understanding of triggers such as a horizontal pass, poor control of the ball and the moment a player puts his head down when controlling the ball. Employing this system would only really be effective at higher levels of the game where video analysis would allow mangers to identify key opposition players, style of play and formation in order to combat them.
This is my view on how the perfect defensive system would operate. Possession football seeks to control the game through control of the ball and this style of play has been highlighted in the media and by fans as the idealized style of play. However it only gives us one side of the continuum of how a team can play and the prefect defensive system would be based on the same principles at Tika-Taka football but would be to the other extreme. For me the formation would not be a static one and would be based on individual and team characteristics when the ball is in different areas of the field. Therefore the most important aspect would be having the players who have the ability to understand and implement the tactical principals. This is because the players are the ones who go out on the pitch and once they are on the pitch they must take ownership of the tactics. This system can be summed up as needing players with the necessary individual and team characteristics in order to counteract the position of the ball on the pitch and characteristics of the opposing team.