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Individual defensive tactics: 1v1 defending against a forward with pace


Alexiou Konstantinos has a look at individual defensive tactics specifically how to defend against a forward with pace


I was watching Liverpool’s emphatic win over Arsenal in the Premier League on replay last week. During Liverpool’s second goal, during a counterattack for the Reds, the ball finds its way to Mane in a 1v1 against Holding on the edge of the box.

1.1

As soon as Mane makes his first touch in 1.1 , we can already see Holding showing him to the outside channel , taking a very extreme sideways approach. The blue dot signifies where Holding should do his defending if he had gone with a frontal approach, a.k.a. “face to face”.

1.2

So, Mane simply advances deliberately a few meters in the outside channel , taking Holding with him (1.2-1.4)

1.3

1.4

Then a simple turn and acceleration in the opposite direction into the space he opened for himself in the inside channel (1.5 and 1.6)

1.5

1.6

He shoots and scores, 2-0 for Liverpool just before halftime (1.7). Holding was hopeless from the beginning.

1.7

One of the perks of  being a Football Manager researcher is that I get to observe and analyze a LOT of games. Can’t tell you how many times I see that mistake in defending approach and mentality in the lower tiers of football . The fact that I still see it happening with professionals at the top level just baffles me.

So , as the blue dot in 1.1 signified , it’s really a decision between frontal and sideways approach. Let’s look a bit closer at Holding’s shortcomings:

So, Holding lets the distance  between him and Mane shorten  – thinking his sideways positioning leaves Mane with only one viable option (the outside) – therefore is expecting the Senegalese to run down the line and is getting ready to run with him and cut him out or block him with a sliding tackle. The fact that Mane dragged him a few meters with his dribbling and opened up space on the inside completely eludes him.

The most basic problem with sideways positioning: doesn’t give you much control width-wise in these situations , which means the moment players like Mane decide to switch and accelerate in the opposite direction (and with players such as Robben, Rashford, Deulofeu, Hazard etc it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”), you have to first reposition in order to run with him and those valuable milliseconds give the attacker the time and space he is searching for. Watch what happens in the following 3 frames between 40.02 and 40.03. Once Mane starts making his move, Holding is still repositioning and making that half turn to accelerate to the right.

When Holding in 40.03 starts his “pushing off the ground first step” phase, Mane already has left him behind. All it took was a fraction of a second. By the time Mane get ready to pull the trigger, Holding is done.

Where , when , and how the defender executes the sideways approach ?

Where: As we position further away from the central axis of the pitch , preferrrably where the half spaces (red area in the pitch below) end and the side spaces appear. Reason being that in those areas, players like Mane will be actually more inclined to restrain themselves on the byline if we adopt the sideways positioning , simply because cutting inside from that far off to the side leads to ANOTHER defender, usually a CB or a covering DM, and the space is effectively closed. Now, if you manage from that position to make a Robben type long shot and a goal, more props to you but the probabilities are and always will be with the defending team.

When: there is an overload in the defender’s zone, meaning 1 defender versus 2 (frequently) or more (rarely) attackers. Staying in that same Liverpool -Arsenal game, let’s hypothesize that at some point Can or whoever makes a split switch of play to Mane on the left , who has Wijnaldum supporting , and the situation in Holding’s zone is 2v1 (for argument’s sake \, let’s also hypothesize that at that point in time Arsenal defenders has some reorientation to do and momentarily Holding finds himself in that predicament).

Holding faces Mane in the border of half space to side space, but with the addition of a possible underlap or overlap by the onrushing Wijnaldum. This time Holding has 2 players in his vicinity to contain , and sideways positioning is perfect because it gives him control of the space that can be attacked behind him by Wijnaldum (easier to turn and run, he is already halfway there) plus the sideways movement backwards that buys time for a defender to come help him while at the same time not letting Mane move past him with the ball (something that would be easy for the Senegalese if he had Holding face to face like in the frontal approach), instead commiting him down the byline.

How: Sideways approach in relation to the ball, NOT the man . Watch:

Here Holding is positioned with the body of Mane as a reference point, thus making it easy for the Liverpool man to move the ball explosively to the right and past him. What we as coaches want from the defender is the ball as the reference point. Above, Holding’s right foot should be starting to land close to or over on the outside of the imaginary infinite line that starts from the ball , as the red dot signifies. This is HOW you force the player down the line.

Last but not least , observe the overall passivity that characterizes Holding’s positioning. He really appears on the backfoot and not on top of things, he can’t really tackle or challenge effectively for the ball from that position and the most important thing from Mane’s perspective is the option to do exactly what he did in this specific goal is still available. Holding thinks he shut it down but he was evidently mistaken.

Now we need to understand what Holding should have done i.e. frontal approach. We have Phil Jones, one of the best CBs in the Premier League this year, against young prodigy Tammy Abraham in a 1v1 in the right edge of the box.

1.8

Watch how Jones initially positions himself in relation to the ball as we discussed above , effectively shutting the right foot of Abraham(1.8) even when he starts dribbling forward. Jones constantly repositions himself to kill the right leg, while lowering his center of gravity preparing for explosive actions , like sprinting or tackling (1.9)

1.9

Getting further in position when Abraham starts his step-over dribbling (1.10) ,

1.10

Eventually taking the ball away from Abraham’s feet. Also notice the difference in approach mentalities : while Holding’s was passive , Jones’s frontal one was aggressive. Abraham just can’t “see” (more of a mind trick , because in reality the space on the pitch is still there) the option Mane saw due to Jones’ positioning so he attempts to unbalance Jones with some impressive dribbling which Jones easily deals with.

The best thing about the frontal approach in those more central areas , it gives you absolute width control. Whether your opponent tries to run right or left , you try to stay ball oriented at all times and you are in a position to tackle him and strip him off the ball , with the added mental bonus that you don’t give your opponent a clear option such as taking you on in a Robben or Mane – like fashion.

The only thing wrong with the frontal approach is that you can’t defend adequately any space behind your back. If you get taken on you have to commit to a “card” foul or a penalty but that’s the beauty of it : in these central congested areas Holding was he can’t worry about that , he has to trust the GK or another defender will protect the space on his back , his main priority should be not to let Mane do what he did.

Even Crystal Palace’s Joel Ward , who got manhandled by Rashford in the early stages of the recent United – Palace game , few minutes later imposes himself on Rashford and kills his flair and dribbling – through options with his frontal approach , making him run soullessly in a dismarking effort and eventually giving up and laying the ball back to Matic. (again , control width – wise).

So, now it’s up to the manager and the coaches to train and instruct their defenders how to defend 1v1 properly against that dangerous type of player like Mane. Attackers have been making a living for years playing clueless defenders like that, so you simply can’t leave it to chance and rely on the player to make the right call depending on the situation or hope that the attacker messes up. You as manager and coach have the tactical expertise and have to remind , demand and reinforce that habit. Obviously Wenger didn’t care enough to give any kind of personalized instructions  to his defenders the days prior to the game , or even bother to teach it in his training sessions the preceding week. Please don’t be that manager! Wenger failing to give any kind of substantial focus on defensive tactics during an in-season microcycle is certainly one of the main reasons he hasn’t been a  champion since 2004, but that’s a topic for another day.

Alexiou Konstantinos

Alexiou Konstantinos

Sports science graduate (major in football strength and conditioning), Uefa B licensed soccer coach, worked as an FM researcher, trying to finish my UEFA A courses. Big Man United fan
Alexiou Konstantinos

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