Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Countering Possession Football: An Analysis of Two Contrasting Strategies

Playing against teams such as Barcelona and Spain can be very tricky, not just because of the sheer quality of their players, but their tiki-taka play style. With the fact that they can dominate you start to finish, there isn't much you're able to do but stick to your plan and hope for the best. There are a few methods however that, with a bit of luck, can give you a decent chance against them, as teams have shown us in the past.


This tactic was perfected by one Jose Mourinho, which has brought him success against Barca especially with Inter. Anti-football is a simple tactic, designed to frustrate the opposition and just keep them at bay, although it requires a lot of defensive organisation and determination from the players as well as a bit of luck.

The most recent example of anti-football is Chelsea's performance against Barca in the Champions League semi-final, where they sat extremely deep and spent the majority of the game in their own half whilst Barca passed the ball around but finding it difficult to infiltrate the Chelsea defence. Di Matteo's side needed luck when they were broken down however, as Messi missed a penalty and his teammates failed to take their chances, which were scarce.

The diagram on the right shows both formations in the second half of the semi-final, after Terry had been sent off. Barca's downfall was not all down to Chelsea's performance, their narrow formation (in defence) meant that they were susceptible to a counter-attack down the flanks, and Drogba (LM) & Mata (RM) looked to break quickly into the open space.

As soon as they won the ball, the Chelsea players would hoof it into the flanks, which induced a chase from both sides, which was won by Mata and Drogba more than expected despite them being further away from the ball than their challenger, due to the Chelsea players having more desire and determination than their Spanish opposition.

Chelsea's victory in this match was very much like Inter's semi-final win against Barca, both winners had a man sent off and ended up striker less, both set out in an anti-football manner and both had luck on their side.

Heavy Pressing

Another method which is probably more effective (and doesn't rely on luck as much) than the anti-football tactic is one shown by Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao in their 2-2 draw against the Spanish giants. I don't need to say much on this as I have found a perfect video describing it, but I'll make a general review of the system.

Bielsa set his Bilbao side out in an extremely aggressive man-marking system, which involved on and off the ball pressing (players would close down the player on the ball but their teammates also pressed the possible passing options of said player). Once there was no chance of the passing option who was pressed receiving the ball, then the Bilbao player who moved forward to close them down would back off and retain their original position.

The video is much clearer than what I've said, and I really recommend you give it a look, even more so if my explanation sounded confusing which in honesty, did to myself slightly.

These two methods are, in the defensive aspect, poles apart, one consists of sitting back, letting Barcelona pass the ball whilst not letting them play killer balls through the defence by staying organised. On the other hand, Bielsa had Bilbao pressing heavily, though still staying reasonably structured, they denied Barca time on the ball and made them rush a pass whilst cutting out as many passing options as possible. This often lead to them winning the ball after a mistake from their opposition.

However in attack, they were similar as they both got forward quickly, attempting to score on the break. While I say this, 99% of teams playing Barca have to try and score on the counter-attack, as they don't have much option since the odds are stacked against them if they want to try and keep possession against Barcelona's intensive pressing.

In my opinion, I would say that Bielsa's method is the more effective of the two purely because the Bilbao team is much more weaker than Chelsea's. Anti-football also requires a lot more luck than Bielsa's method, though the latter needs a much higher fitness level as the side would be pressing for 90 minutes. To make a summary, both systems have their advantages and disadvantages over the other (also, everything in football tactics is relative, one system would suit one team whilst the other would be best used by another.) but for the reason I said at the start of this paragraph I think the tactic Bilbao used is better overall.

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  1. Any idea on how to implement the heavy pressing method on FM?

    1. It's been a long while since I've played the game, but I remember that you can set Closing Down to "Anywhere on the pitch".

    2. Sorry for the late reply!

      Uhm, have a high-ish defensive line to make the area which the opposition have to work in very small, then have man-marking and a very high closing down.

      However, I could imagine strict zonal marking along with high closing down could work...

      You shouldn't use the tactic for a full season though because your players would get very tired and you'll have a slump in form come the last 10 or so games.


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