March 22, 2023

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The World Cup is another reason to talk about open ball defense

Golovin’s technical assist: put the defender down with feints and rolled out into an empty net

Golovin’s technical assist: put the defender down with feints and rolled out into an empty net

Hello! You are in the blog of the site about the football tactics “Kontrpress“. If you are interested in tactics and analytics, then you definitely stumbled upon us earlier – we have been analyzing matches, teams, players, tactical trends on our website for almost 5 years. Our direction now is long reads with an emphasis on the depth of analysis and lengthy preparation of each text, with deepening into narrow topics, into tactical theory. We have been thinking about starting a blog on for a long time in order to increase the coverage of our texts – first of all, to develop discussions on football topics, which we lack in the analytical space. Now we will publish here our main longreads and start with the last two published at the beginning of this year in the wake of the World Cup. Forward!

The two main tactical discussions in the Russian-speaking analytical space during the last World Cup were Saudi Arabia’s defensive plan for Argentina and the Guardiol-Lovren game in the semi-finals against Argentina before the penalty against Livakovic. The open ball and the reaction of the defense to it is the context that unifies these tactical discussions, and there is nothing surprising in the discussions around it, since situations on an open ball do not have one solution, and its choice depends on the perception of the game by the coaches and the habits of the players.

We have already been involved in discussions during the tournament (you can find it on our website), but we need to fix the very fact of discussions and the scatter in the interpretation of non-obvious episodes by different people, arising from the difference in the perception of the game and specifically the perception of situations on an open ball.

The open ball and the reaction of the defense to it is the context that unifies these tactical discussions, and there is nothing surprising in the heated discussions around it. Open ball situations do not have one solution: you can defend with a falling line of defense, and with a high line that maintains height to the last, there is no winning or losing strategy here. The choice really depends on the perception of the game by the coaches giving the solution to the situations, and the habits of the players (both individual and developed in interaction with partners). In addition, in the Russian-speaking tactical culture, the idea is extremely stable that you always have to fall on an open ball, even in moments that do not require it, and one of the main tasks of the central defender is to always keep the attacker in sight. The Saudi game is the radical opposite of this approach.

The text consists of three parts. The first part is “text within text”, related to the designated topic: we fix the trends in the flow of the game at the World Cup in the context of attack-defense clashes, which are inextricably linked, and explain the value of situations on an open ball in the flow that has arisen. The second part is a theoretical analysis of defense behavior strategies on an open ball: their nature, pros and cons, indirect effects at the level of game dynamics and psychology. The third part is an analysis of specific episodes and interactions in World Cup matches, both successful and unsuccessful.

The tactical pattern of the World Cup consisted of trends related to each other

Why did we even decide to talk about the game on an open ball against the backdrop of the World Cup? Because such situations are rare in the tournament, from which the owning team could aggravate or at least speed up a viscous game. Football at the World Cup was very dense, defensively focused, built on minimizing risk – and this is a clear trend in international football. The tactical trends of the World Cup cannot be assessed as the trends of football in general, but it is still interesting to understand them. And it is important to consider them in conjunction – they are all interconnected.

1. Refusal of high pressure or its dosing. Meeting an opponent in the middle block

High pressing is a tool that opens the game in both directions. It provokes ball losses and in the most acute cases provides quick attacks in the space where the pressers are immediately ready to attack free zones. But if the opponent breaks the pressure, then he himself gets the space and dynamics to accelerate the attack. Opening the game is a risk, and in the specifics of the national team tournament, many coaches were not ready to take the risk. In the specifics of the 2022 World Cup, the energy consumption of high pressing is also important: in the conditions of an extremely short preparation for the tournament and short microcycles, it is extremely difficult to constantly press and at the same time distribute forces correctly. Here, too, there was a risk of physical exhaustion or injury. The approach of many coaches at the World Cup is to reduce all these risks: why chase an opponent and open the game if you can dry it,

The most obvious example of this approach is the national team of Morocco. The team did not cover the beginning of the attack from the goalkeeper, did not go into active pressure on the back pass and waited for the opponent in the middle block, but almost did not let them into their third due to excellent organization. The constantly blocked center and the pressure of the eights in short bursts drove the opponents to the flanks, where Morocco quickly rebuilt and avoided overloads. Compactness between the lines and between the players, constant pressure on the ball, quick movements in short bursts made Morocco a team that defended a lot, but very organized and reliable.

An alternative option is to dose high pressure and switch to it under the influence of the flow of the game. Japan in the group with two top teams defended a lot with a low block, but at the break of the match with Germany, they changed the scheme in order to press more aggressively, with clear 1-v-1 orientations, and not leave a free player under pressure, but against Spain included aggressive pressing at the start of each half. Korea was the 2nd team in the group stage in terms of pressed possessions, 2nd in high returns and 3rd in shots after high returns (Opta data), but against Uruguay, Paulo Bento’s team did not press the opponent’s third at all, even with goal kicks, the most convenient situations for pressing – let it go to the central circle, stood in the middle block and kept compact.

Almost all the top teams at the World Cup (except for Spain) also used a rollback to the middle block, gave freedom at the beginning of the attack and waited for the moment for more aggressive pressure. For Argentina and France, one of the reasons to roll back is to give Messi and Mbappe a break, who are minimally busy without the ball. The Netherlands defended aggressively without the ball – through personal orientations and 1-in-1 replays from the back – but they pressed very metered on the other third, and a couple of attackers blocked the passing lines from the central defenders to the wingers and included in the pressure only in moments when the defender could cut off them in charge.