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Tactical Analysis

Deconstructing the Perfect Counter-Attack

Arnab Ray looks at what constitutes the perfect counter-attack and breaks down Belgium’s winner against Japan in the 2018 World Cup’s Round of 16 game

As the footballing world came to a complete standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I, like hordes of others, took to YouTube to get my regular doses of football. The sheer amount of content available on the platform ensures that there are rabbit holes for every football fan regardless of what appeals to them. A Guardiola fan-boy? Here’s a video of an absurdly well-crafted Barcelona goal with every player getting a touch of the ball complete with a counter in the corner of the screen for the number of passes in the move. Looking to hype up the next big French winger emerging in Ligue 1? There has to be a compilation of “Goals || Assists || Skills” and the like accompanied by absolutely terrible background music. The absence of a video either means that the player is not worth your time or you’ve truly uncovered a hidden gem in which case please get in touch with us at OOTB for we could do with your contribution to our Young Players segment.

As a Manchester United fan, the late noughties was my first digital stop in the trip down memory lane. I made my way through all the classics including some downright obscene goals on the counter. YouTube did everything to cater to my specific need for counter-attacking goals and it wasn’t long before it served up the round of 16 tie between Belgium vs Japan in the 2018 World Cup.

Deconstructing the perfect counter

Trailing 2-0 going into the final quarter of the game, Belgium mounted a remarkable comeback to seal their place in the last eight of the tournament. A dramatic late winner in any knockout game makes for compelling viewing but Nacer Chadli’s goal had the added benefit of being an absolutely sublime counter. In fact, it had all the components of a perfect counter-attack.

Turnover of possession: To be deemed a “proper” counter-attack, the turnover of possession has to take place in the team’s own half. In the case of Belgium’s late winner, the first phase starts with a Japanese corner as the game edged towards extra time. Counters following corners or free-kicks in wide areas are usually good value for money owing mostly to the obvious reason that at least one of the centre-halves has made their way up for the set-piece. This is often mitigated by asking the full-backs to remain deeper and winning the second ball should it be cleared. Despite these measures, the transition represents a moment of weakness and can be preyed on if the counter-attacking team has the nous to do so. The later in the game this happens, the deadlier the attack can be as fatigue sets in making those recovery runs from a defensive perspective all the more difficult.

The move starts with Thibaut Courtois easily catching the ball swung in from the corner. He’s immediately on the move and looking for options. At the same time, Thomas Meunier, Kevin De Bruyne, and Nacer Chadli have all sensed the chance of a quick counter and are on their way. Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard have remained up field (not in frame) and will have roles to play as the move progresses.

Finding the ball carrier: The next important phase is to ensure that the ball finds its way to a ball carrier before the opposition have had a chance to regroup and find their defensive shape.

In this instance, Courtois has the simple job of rolling the ball into the path of De Bruyne, one of the world’s best ball carriers. The Manchester City man excels at driving into space with the ball at his feet. Add to this his vision, his ability to make the right decision in terms of which teammate to pick-out and the exact moment when the pass has to be played, and you have a defensive nightmare on your hands from Japan’s perspective. The above graphic should already set alarm bells ringing as not only does De Bruyne have space to run into but options on either side and in front of him; another crucial aspect of a deadly counter. Too often a quick counter will peter out because the player in possession has too few options and is forced to make a low percentage play such as attempting to dribble past multiple opposition defenders. There are no such problems here for Belgium.

Off-the-ball movement: Now that Belgium have manufactured numerical and positional superiority and have the Japanese defenders back-pedalling, it is up to those without the ball to make cohesive movements in order to drag the opposition defenders further out of position.

Lukaku may have his fair share of detractors but he displays textbook centre-forward play here as he makes a move towards the centre, dragging his marker with him. This leaves space for the overlapping full-back in Meunier and provides a simple option for De Bruyne. The runs of Hazard and Chadli also play their part as the near-sided defender has to maintain his position and cannot afford to move towards the centre.

De Bruyne plays the pass at just the right moment to Meunier and Belgium now have numerical superiority on the edge of the Japanese box as the right-back runs on to ball. Belgium have made the transition from their own box to the opposition’s final third with just 2 simple passes.

The final ball: Composure in the final third is a much sought after quality and the coup de grace comes when Meunier plays a first-time ball into the box towards Lukaku.

As illustrated by the above graphic, one defender has no option but to try and block the cross while the other sticks tight to the obvious danger of Lukaku. The rest of the Japanese players haven’t been able to keep up with Chadli (a second half substitute). This is when Lukaku shows yet another brilliant piece of awareness as his step over takes the man marking him out of the game completely leaving Chadli to stroke the ball home and send Belgium through to the quarter-finals.

The cohesion behind a successful counter-attack doesn’t happen magically. Much of this stems from repetition in training and translates to results on the pitch provided that the players have the physical capacity and mental acumen to pull it off when it matters the most. Speaking to The Times, Wayne Rooney had this to say about the counter-attacking prowess of that United era team:

Attacking is about combinations too and even though people say our United team had all these great players, in reality our biggest strength was as a pure counterattacking machine. We would sit back in our shape, win the ball and just go.

We trained counterattacking from one goal to the other. In the drill we had eight seconds to score. We put a striker on the halfway line and two players on either side of the goalposts. One would play the ball up to the striker and both would sprint to join him. With two defenders against you, you had eight seconds to score.

We knew if Ronaldo, Park, Nani and I were sprinting forwards and the runs were right, nobody would catch us and the goal Ronaldo scored against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, or one I scored against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford in 2007, came from those drills.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve watched both those goals multiple times over the years. The Bundesliga has been home to some scintillating counter-attacking football over the years and the Premier League has gone down that route in the recent past with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool leading the charge so to speak. “They play football the right way” is an oft-repeated phrase in the world of football. Just what this “right way” constitutes is a seemingly never ending debate. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say and this particular beholder is a massive fan of a swift counter-attack.

Read all our Tactical Analysis articles here.

Arnab Ray

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