Components of Defence (out of possession)
High Defensive Line
A high defensive line was adopted from Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. The logic behind it goes back to the concept of space. In possession, the defensive line moves up the pitch with the rest of the players, creating passing outlets should the need arise. Out of possession, the defensive line stays high, reducing the playing space for the opposition, counterpressing with high intensity or waiting to deploy the offside trap on more ‘route one’ counter attacks.
Linked to a high defensive line is counterpressing. Many seem to think this is hunting down the opponent at high intensity for the whole game when it’s far from it. As Sacchi explains, the “unfair advantage is their style of play. I heard the same thing at Milan. We didn’t run more than the others. We just ran better.” When the ball is lost high up the pitch, Man City have their front three press the ball, with their midfield three pressing the opposition midfield. This blocks off passing avenues, constricts the space (thanks to the high defensive line) and puts the player with the ball under pressure, potentially forcing a mistake or causing him to launch it upfield.
Counterpressing can be explained by its two aims that ultimately distinguish Klopp from Guardiola. Firstly, it denies the opponent a chance to counter attack and score (Guardiola) and it also gives an immediate chance to attack the opponent before they can reorganise (Klopp). Essentially, it goes back to possession and control. When you have the ball, you control the factors involved in winning. Without the ball, your opponent has that power.
This idea of control through counterpressing is explained when Cruyff says, “When I don’t have control of the ball, what do I do? I press to get it back, it’s a way of defending.But more important is that I like to have the ball.” Guardiola echoes this idea, “I want the ball for 90 minutes. When I don’t have the ball, I go high pressing because I want the ball.”
What is important here is using all players to press and not just those behind the ball. Cruyff explains that, “In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender.” Guardiola exhibited this recently in his frustrating attempts to turn Sergio Aguero into more of a ‘false 9’, dropping deeper out of possession to help press the opposition. The Argentine revealed this from an interview in 2018, “As well as my responsibilities as a striker, he wanted to get me involved as the first defender of the team. I think this season we were on the same page with Pep. He told me he was happy with my performance and his anger was worth it because I had a better year”.
However, counterpressing was not without its issues for Guardiola as he learnt in his first season with Man City. “I try to play in one way all my career and here, with high pressing, but it is different in England. Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt.” It was through facing more aerially dominant or ‘traditionally English’ styled teams such as Stoke, Burnley and Crystal Palace that Man City struggled against at times. Not only this but many players were not accustomed to playing this way, and lapses in concentration proved disastrous. Balague writes: “He also taught his players how to mark an opponent, teaching them to focus on a rival’s weaknesses – while accentuating what you were good at, to fight the battles you could win, in other words. It was a revelation for Pep, who lacked the physique to beat a tall, powerful, central midfielder in the air – so he learnt, under Cruyff, to avoid jumping with his rival, but to wait instead. Cruyff’s theory was: ‘Why fight? Keep your distance, anticipate where he’ll head the ball and wait for the bounce. You’ll be in control while he’s jumping around.” This goes back to the importance of intelligent players who are also disciplined.
It was through this learning of how to improve their counterpressing that Man City excelled. However, since his time in Germany, facing Jurgen Klopp’s teams have posed a huge threat to Man City’s ability to win, even more than Mourinho’s ‘Anti-Guardiola’ negativity. Speaking about Klopp, the Man City manager said: “They have an intensity with the ball and without the ball, and it is not easy to do that. I don’t think there is another team in the world attacking in this way with so many players capable of launching moves in an instant. I learned a lot in Germany the first time I played his team. I was new and it was ‘wow’, what a good lesson. We lost 4-2. Afterwards in the league I learned a bit more about how to control those situations but it was never easy. They have a specific way to attack you and you have to be in control.”
It was apparent that Man City needed to fine tune their counterpressing for the times that they were exposed. And this was achieved through a principle Guardiola has outrightly denied, despite it being blatantly evident.
Tactical fouling is something that Guardiola’s side has come under great scrutiny for in recent years. Pep has denied this, stating, “Of course there is contact, there are fouls, but when it happens (it is because) you arrive late and that is why there are referees, to make yellow cards or red cards or whatever they decide. I prepare to do our own game, that is what I want, knowing of course the opponent, but I never said I’m going to do that to punish them or cancel them (by) making fouls. Never.”
Despite this, evidence emerged that Man City coaches have instructed their players to do exactly this. The first instance was found in Man City’s All or Nothing documentary when a team talk given by assistant coach Mikel Arteta instructed: “David, Kevin, Gundo, make fouls. If there’s a transition, make a foul”. Not only that, but Domenec Torrent, ex-assistant coach of Guardiola and now manager of New York City FC, reiterated this: “When we lose the ball it’s very important for Pep to press high in five seconds. If you don’t win it back within five seconds then make a foul and go back.”
There are two reasons for this tactical fouling. The first is to deny the quick counterattacks from the opponent which often was the Achilles heel of the team. This was brought to Pep’s attention by Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool particularly. Furthermore, this tactical fouling must be done high up the pitch to prevent a quick accumulation of yellow cards.
As mentioned, Guardiola’s first defender is his striker, so the front three must play a pivotal role in being the first line of defence. This can be shown by looking below at the foul count of more advanced players in recent seasons (2017/18 and 2018/19 respectively). Notably, Fernandinho has a consistently high foul count. This seems to be Guardiola’s ‘plan B’ if the initial press fails – Fernandinho breaks up the play at any cost before a chance can be created.
If we think of this similarly to xG – the further a shot is from goal, the less likely it is to be scored. The further an opponent is kept from goal, the less likely they are to create a scoring chance. As much as we think Guardiola is a total attacking coach, his reasons for tactical fouling show a more negative, passive reasoning.
If we summarise this defensive approach we get the following as illustrated above. A high line defence to restrict the space the opponents have, a reduction in the playing area, the front three press the ball, the midfield press the midfield. This allows for any defenders to reset their position as we will examine in more detail further on. However there is a glaring concern behind the high defensive line – an abundance of space. Opponents could try to beat the offside trap with long balls over the top. This is where the final player comes in to help correct this.
Earlier on we saw Cruyff’s quote, “In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender”. We looked at the implications for the first part and now we can address the second. By having a goalkeeper comfortable on the ball, two major things can be achieved. Firstly, he can come out of the box confidently and break up counter attacking balls over the line of defence. And secondly, he becomes the first point of the build up play, essentially giving Man City an extra player advantage. The reason for this can be seen below.
Effectively, the goalkeeper becomes a ball-playing defender, and the two centrebacks widen the playing area to create passing channels in a back three effectively. This gives two easy passing avenues for Ederson when pressed by the opposition. Fernandinho can drop back to help the transition. If moved down the left, Zinchenko can invert to midfield with Sterling dropping back, almost creating a 353 or 362 formation in the early stages of transition. As always, the triangulation and principles of space remain key here. Guardiola highlights the importance of the sweeper keeper when he says: ”I’m sorry, but until my last day as a coach, I will try to play from my goalkeeper”.