PEP TALK - 02: Pep Guardiola’s big challenge – Low block
PEP TALK is a new series on SportsKeeda. Click here to read PEP TALK 01 – First Impression.
It has been nearly a month since Pep Guardiola took charge at Manchester City. The players are slowly getting accustomed to the methods of Guardiola. Having come from different academies, where they played in systems very dissimilar to Guardiola’ style, it is going to be a tough time for the players to attain the required technical skills, tactical understanding and develop synergies amongst themselves.
With 9 days left for the new season to start, and with one friendly game before that against Arsenal, City’s new manager will be keen to see how well the players have taken to his playing system.
Against Dortmund in China, City had some issues in coping with the opponents in high-pressing. City’s shape while high-pressing BVB was porous and let the opposition permeate through the middle and get into dangerous positions.
The back-line of three center backs had problems in dealing with Dortmund’s narrow wingers. If the center backs were staying narrow and tracking the wingers to the midfield, then they were opening space behind the near-side wingback. Dortmund’s wingbacks were overlapping the wingers to create scoring chances.
While these are the loopholes that Guardiola needs to fix in the coming days and get his squad ready to play the way he wants, there is an even bigger challenge fronting him. As he walks through the isthmus that is the transitional phase from Bundesliga and it’s pressing style to Premier League - physically dominant and deep defending teams - Guardiola is bound to experience new things. On such thing is, he might find himself playing against teams that are more than willing to sit back and defend.
Low block – A brief introduction
Low block is a defensive mechanism, adopted by almost all teams at some point in the game, wherein the team without the ball defends deep and close to its own 18-yard box. Some teams defend with a low block or deep defensive line purposefully – knowing that bottle-necking the passage into the box is one of the methods to prevent the opposition from scoring. Some teams, on the other hand, move deep as the opponents come closer and closer towards the goal and adopt it only during certain scenarios of the game.
In the past, we have witnessed teams defending deep in order to deny space near the goal for the teams that dominate possession. The best examples are that of Inter Milan against Barcelona in the second leg of Champions League semi-final 2009-10 and, Chelsea against Barcelona in the first leg at the same stage of Champions League.
In both matches, Inter Milan and Chelsea stifled the Catalan team’s attacking prowess by staying extremely compact and having very less ball possession. Staying compact to deny space is one of the main characteristics of the teams that defend deep.
Teams that defend deep mostly try to be passive in nature and look to pose attacking threats mainly by counter-attacking. The image attached above shows a deep defending team with both horizontal and vertical compactness. Some teams are not as horizontally compact as the one shown above. Teams also use the wingers or wide midfielders to cover the width while defending very deep.
How can Guardiola beat low defensive blocks? An analysis
Defending with a low block is considered by many coaches as the only way to win against teams that play the possession style. While it is possible to press aggressively and constantly or counter-press or play narrow or play vertically, many still stick to the technique used by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan. But is it possible to beat a low block defence? Yes. If so, how?
By providing width and stretching the compact defences
The main aim should be to cover the entire width of the field, which Guardiola’s teams regularly do, so as to spread out the attack from the left to the right. This affects the way the opponents position themselves. The teams that defend deep usually try to cover the central zones or have a compact shape. Such teams have ball-oriented movements. As the ball shifts from the central regions to the wings, the team also shifts – in the process, closing down space and passing options of the player on the ball.
This forces the attacking teams to circulate the ball from one wing to another, in “U” shape, without any penetration. But consider the situation when the ball is in the center – the wings are generally unoccupied by the defending team.
It could so happen that the defending team might not want to compromise with the horizontal compactness while moving the wide midfielder towards the ball. Such situations can leave open the half-space and wing on the far side. Accessing this half-space will be tough for the attacking team. However, the wing can be easily occupied, since it takes time for the team to shift, through a switch ball.
If the defending team is stretched and horizontal compactness is lost, then not just the space on the far side wings, but also space in the central region can be freed up. This can be accessed through a combination play triggered by a switch pass.
Here's a video of Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone doing the same against Chelsea.
Overloads to unlock space on the far side
Another possible way of opening gaps in low defensive blocks is by concentrating the play on one particular region of the field – usually the wing or the half-space. This involves the attacking team focusing on combinational play in a narrow space and thus inviting the deep defending to press and win the ball. Since the defending team concentrates on blocking the ball progression through the space, it leaves open space on the far side.
This space can be attacked by the free player through a switch ball or a direct diagonal ball. Overloading and focusing one side and finishing the attacking move through the other side has been one of the key aspects of Guardiola’s teams.
City players were seen practicing this in one of the training sessions. It could be for beating teams that defend deep by surprising them by attacking the under loaded side of the field. Here’s a video.
Gaps in the defensive block and combinational play
If the defending team tries to block the passing options on a wing by using only a minimal number of players and maintains the presence in the wing or half-space on the far side, then inadvertently, gaps will be opened in the defensive block. Such gaps prove to be the difference between losing and winning a game.
Guardiola likes players who are good at decision making and ball control in tight spaces and the center. Such players will obviously take advantage of the free space and some extra time on the ball and assert their dominance over the opponents close to them.
Pass combinations can be tried during such situations, to drag the defenders out of position. If by chance excess space is available in front of the defensive line, then even through balls and shots can be fired from just outside the box.