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Three of the Most Common Football Tactics Explained

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Three of the Most Common Football Tactics Explained
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Tactical Analysis: Three of the Most Common Football Tactics Explained, their flaws and points to consider when strategizing the tactics

If you have ever wondered why football is so great then let it sink now in you that it is because it can be played in millions of ways.

Professional football has come a long way such that every team would need a manager to mould the team the way it should play football. A team’s style of play is call their “tactic” or “system”.

If you are still wondering what I mean by tactic or style of play, take a look at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Would not you see great difference in their playing style/strategy?

It should be noted that a team’s formation does not necessarily depict its style of play or tactics although the formation says a lot about the tactics. This has been one major misunderstanding between some fans and pundits of the game.

Difference between football formation and football tactics

A football formation describes how the players in a team generally position themselves on the pitch. Football tactics range from the way a player stands or moves, to the pace, style, positioning and movement of the entire team

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In a professional football game, there are very few formations (in the range of tenths to hundreds) a coach or manager could employ on his team but there are hundreds to millions of tactics a manager could strategize at.

Here, we give you three (3) of the most commonly used tactics in football accompanied by some of its most used formations where available.

1. Tiki-Taka Tactic

Anyone who has watched European football over the past 12 years will have witnessed the rise of Tiki-Taka football. Both Barcelona and Spain used it before and are still using it. Today, we see other teams like Dortmund and Ajax implementing the same tactics. A system which was adopted by late Barcelona and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff during his coaching days. The tactics has helped many teams who adopt it achieve great results, winning league titles, European cups and international tournaments.

Johan Cruyff postulated that, for the system to be effective, short, intricate passing and fluid movement between every player on the field be considered However, the key to its success is overloading the midfield area with technically skillful players who can retain possession of the ball for large periods of the game; adding intelligent, nimble attackers who are able to create space and drag the opposition out of position.

As the saying goes; “if the opposition team haven’t got the ball, they can’t score”. Tiki-Taka draws on this by holding the ball for at least 60-70% of the game and controlling the pace of play.

Key Points to consider when strategizing Tiki-Taka Tactic

  • The Goalkeeper acts as a sweeper
  • The defenders most be good on the ball
  • Midfielders should be fluid or fluent in passing and movement

Illustrating the Tiki-taka football tacticThis is the most difficult tactics to implement a formation in because the system is solely base on fluidity. However, having one holding midfielder is a must. This gives the other two, more creative midfield players license to roam and concentrate on providing goal-scoring chances.

To create more space for the midfielders, the full-backs need to continuously force their way up front joining in the attacking play.

A good illustration here as of date is Barcelona when they play their default 4-3-3 formation. You would see their full backs of Dest/Sergi Roberto and Alba roaming continuously upfront to create space for the midfielders hence disturbing the shape of the opposition midfield whilst providing an outlet for midfield players in possession.

Flaws or Weakness of Tiki-Taka Tactics

Tiki-Taka football has seen a decline in recent years, especially as opposition teams have found success in pressing the team in possession or hitting them on the counter-attack. This could be a major reason why teams like Barcelona, Dortmund and Ajax etc who still practice Tiki-Taka as their main system tend to suffer in many cases.

Many teams today now respond to a tiki-taka team by just sitting back and allow the tiki-taka team to play infront of them why maintaining their compactness to sniff out any danger in the final third until the ball is retrieved. At this point, the tiki-taka team will be lacking numbers in defence since the tactics requires many players in attack. This therefore gives their opponent a major advantage in a counter attacking situation as they are lacking lines in defence.

As a result of those weaknesses being exposed, Tiki-Take has become more direct. Again, the style has revolutionized the game as we know it, thereby making it a much more aesthetically pleasing sport.

Luis Enrique's Barcelona is a good example of a tiki-taka tactic team
Luis Enrique’s Barcelona is a good example of a tiki-taka team in the last 8 seasons

2. The High Press Tactics

Contrary to the other tactics, the high system press requires intelligence off the ball rather than on the ball. This is the governing factor behind the high press system. The core of this tactics is that the higher up the pitch you retrieve the ball the shorter you go to get into a goal scoring position.

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The outcome is, you will see a team playing with an incredible high line of press, with all outfield players roaming and harassing the opposition when in possession. Teams who adopt other tactics will often let the opposition hold possession in their own half, safe in the knowledge they can do little harm as long as they are far from goal. High press is a standout tactics because no matter where the ball is, harassing the opposition still occurs.

Key Points to note when strategizing a High Press Tactics

  • Defenders should play a high line
  • Midfielders are advised to win the ball in opposition half.
  • Defence starts in attack. Therefor your attackers should be good tacklers
Illustrating the High Press football tactic
Illustrating the High Press football tactic

Examples of teams who practice high press in recent seasons include, Liverpool, Atalanta, Dortmund, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Real Sociedad etc.

This tactic can easily work well against teams who like to maintain possession (especially the tiki-taka teams) like we saw in the 2018-2019 second leg Champions League Semifinals between Liverpool and Barcelona when Liverpool demolished Barcelona to a 4-0 at Anfield.

Pressing the opposition puts incredible pressure on each and every pass the opposition makes. One slip up, and suddenly you’re in an advanced position with a number of your attacking players already up the pitch.

For it to work then, you need ten outfield players who press as an entire unit. It can be one maybe the most tiring tactics to implement for players, as they are required to get in the faces of the opposition for a full 90-minutes, but it’s rewards can be huge. Defending starts at the very top of the pitch, so select a striker who is unselfish, mobile, and doesn’t mind getting involved in the physical side of the game. This kind of striker is usually referred to as a Mediapunta or a false 9. For Example look at Firmino at Liverpool, Benzema at Real Madrid, or Wayne Rooney during his last two seasons at Manchester United.

Flaws or Weakness of the High Press Tactics

Long-ball teams (a form of counter attack) can succeed against pressing teams. Lifting long balls over the defensive line, fast players who are willing to run the channels can suddenly cut your entire press out of the game, exposing the space in-behind your team. For example, we saw Aston Villa hit seven (7) goals pass Liverpool in a 9 goals thriller game in the 2020/2021 Premier League season thanks to their long ball counter attacking system.

Types of High Press Tactics

Apart from the general high press tatctics we have learned and understand, there is a renovated type of high press in the game today. A system that nowadays is called the Klopp’s heavy metal football (Gegenpressing).

Jurgen Klopp’s heavy metal football / counter press (Gegenpressing)

A perfect example of high press team is Jurgen Klopp’s current Liverpool. However, Klopp started implementing the tactics while at Borussia Dortmund. This helped Dortmund reach the Champions League finals in 2012.

The essence of the counter press philosophy is not only that teams press their opponents, but that they do so with particular focus and zeal when the ball is in the opposition territory; in effect, countering the counter-attack.

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It requires the forward line to commit to a lot of running as they are instructed to rapidly close down opposition defenders in order to force an error when an attempt is made to play the ball out from the back.

Klopp explained: “Gegenpressing lets you win back the ball nearer to the goal. It’s only one pass away from a really good opportunity. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good gegenpressing situation, and that’s why it’s so important.”

The intense pressing game is, naturally, structured insofar as it involves the targeting of weak links in the defence – the least adept on the ball, for instance – and it involves careful calculation of risk.

Klopp's Liverpool a good example of a high press football tactic
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool is a good example of a high press football tactics

3. The Counter-Attack

In recent years, the decline of tiki-taka gave birth to the most devastating tactics of football, Counter–Attack. This tactics requires that a team (team A) draws the opposition (team B) into her defensive third, a counter-attack starts when the team (team A) steals the ball and launch into an attack at break-neck speed.

Essentially, the tactic involves dropping deep, allowing the opposition to have the ball and come forward with it, committing players forward and leaving gaps in behind as they go. The aim is to take the ball off the opposition, exploiting the space left to attack and score.

Key Points to consider when strategizing Counter-attack

To successfully execute a counter attack, the following points should be noted;

  • Defenders remain solid and compact
  • Deep midfielders sprint attacking moves
  • Wingers should be advised to exploit spaces.

Illustrating the counter-attack football tacticCounter-attacking sides are often split into two units – defend and attack. The defensive unit sits deep and tight, pouncing on any loose ball to regain possession. At this point, they ping the ball forward to their attacking unit. These players are often fast and skillful, allowing them to sprint into space and create 1-on-1 situations with defenders.

The key to the counter-attack is a getting the ball forward at pace. Bank on your best 3-attackers being better than their best 4-defenders. Get the ball to them before the opposition can reset themselves, and use the available space.

Flaws of the Counter-attack tactic

Without its key ingredients, the counter is a risky tactics to play. In football, you cannot sit deep and invite your opposition to play in your own half from the start of the game as almost every opposition player is in full mode.

However, the counter attack is great tactic to adopt when leading by scores. The opposition will be pouring players forward in an attempt to find an equalizer, thus leaving plenty of space for a counter-attack to develop.

Types of Counter-attack tactics

There are a lot of counter attacking tactics which i can group into two namely; formational or systemic counter-attacks. Let’s take a look at the most common counter-attacking tactics as used in the modern game.

A. Formational Counter-attack tactics

As the name implies, this type of counter attack is base on formation. Lets take a look at two of the most popular.

a. The Classic 4-2-3-1 counter-attack system

This is one of the most balance formations in the game which has been used recently by managers like Mauricio Pochettino in his last spell at Tottenham and Hans-Dieter Flick at Bayern Munich, champion of the 2020 UEFA Champions League. Along with the line of 4 defenders, there are 2 midfielders (Mediocentro), both of whom have a more defensive base role. In the next line of the team, there are 3 players who can be 2 wingers and an advanced playmaker.  A good example of the classic 4-2-3-1 counter-attacking tactic is that of Hansen Flick’s Bayern Munich with Gnabry, Perisic and Muller behind the sole striker, Robert Lewandowski.

Key Points to note in a Classic 4-2-3-1 counter-attack system

  • The team needs to have a normal mentality
  • There should be forced counter attacks
  • High passing ability and mixed passing style
  • Low rate of press
  • Hard tacking
  • Zonal marking must be great
  • Great instincts on offside trap

Flaws of the Classic 4-2-3-1 counter-attack system

Without its key ingredients, the counter is a risky tactics to play. In football, you cannot sit deep and invite your opposition to play in your own half from the start of the game as almost every opposition player is in full mode. Also, the amount of work imposed on the two defensive or central midfielders is massive and they could make easy mistakes when in possession or get cut off position while defending.

Hansen Flick's Bayern Munich  4-2-3-1 counter attack tactics
Hansen Flick’s Bayern Munich is a good example of a 4-2-3-1 Counter-attack team in the last few seasons

b. Classic 4-4-2 Counter-attack tactic

This is one of the oldest tactic in football. Despite going out of fashion, in recent years, 4-4-2 has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence, mainly thanks to Leicester City in the Premier League and Atletico Madrid in La Liga.

The key to the 4-4-2 counter-attack tactic is partnerships. The two strikers, midfield pairing and full-back and wingers each need to have to have a telepathic understanding of their role on the pitch.

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Key points to note when implementing the classic 4-4-2 counter-attack tactic

  • Your box-to-box midfielders must have all round skills
  • Wingers should supply crosses from the touchline.
  • Your strikers must be skilled at movements and finishing.

Illustrating the classic 4-4-2 counter -attack football tacticThe wide midfielders in most cases should be skillful, have pace and most essentially have a deadly accurate cross to find the striker.

In order to help them upfront like in most other tactics, the full backs need to overlap to provide an extra attacking option while keeping in mind to instantly back track in case of a lost ball.

For this system to work for you in most cases, a lot of service is needed of your two strikers who will be out there roaming the box to sniff out a chance at goal. Often times, these strikers complement each other by having different sets of unique skills. For example a tall striker who is good in the air and a smaller, more agile forward who can feed off any knocked down balls, like when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edison Cavani played together at PSG or Okazaki and Jamie Vardy Leicester City.

Flaws of the Classic 4-4-2 counter-attack system

The weakness of the 4-4-2 formation is the rigidity and amount of work expected of the two central midfield players. In modern football, it’s more fashionable to have at least three players operating in and around the centre of the pitch, leaving a two-man central midfield short of bodies.

When playing the classic 4-4-2 counter-attack system, it is therefore imperative to select tireless central midfielders who are comfortable when both creating and defending.

A good example of the classic 4-4-2 counter-attack system in the last few seasons in Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. They have all the ingredients required; two of the best wingers in a business, a strike partnership that knows where the back of the net is, and two busy central midfielders who could attack and defend.

Diego Simeone's classic 4-4-2 counter-attack
Diego Simeone’s classic 4-4-2 counter-attack tactics as used in the 2020-2021 season

B. Systemic counter-attack.

This tactics of counter-attacking is based on the system or tactics implemented by the coach rather than on a certain formation.

a. Bus Parking counter-attack

This is a phrase which has been made famous by Jose Mourinho. From his days at Real Madrid till date, Mourinho has always been a master of counter-attack. However in recent year, during his stint at Chelsea (second stint), Manchester United and Tottenham, Mourinho revolutionized the philosophy of counter-attack to reproduce what we all know today as Bus parking and in some times also call low block.

The sole objective of the bus parking counter-attack tactic is to avoid conceding a goal. Attacking football is very much a secondary thought when parking the bus. This is to say that it’s all about frustrating the opposition and keeping a clean sheet. If the match ends 0-0, then so be it.

This system is however considered a counter-attacking system because once the bus parking team recovers a lost ball, they launch a counter at break neck speed. Many Premier League bottom 10 teams adopt this system though a perfect example would be Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham.

Points to consider when implementing Bus Parking counter-attack

  • The full backs would tuck into central areas
  • Wingers become default full backs
  • The sole attacker is left isolated

Illustrating the bus packing counter-attack tacticThe 4-5-1 formation is common when teams are parking the bus, as it provides two defensive rows of 4 and 4 players. The sole striker stays further up to close down the opposition when they have the ball in deeper positions. In most cases, this formation would change to a 6-4 when opposition teams roam around the bus parking team’s goal. As such, the wingers tuck in as full-backs and the striker becomes an extra body in midfield.

The defensive nature of the tactic lead to its name, alluding to building an impenetrable wall in front of your goal. To make a success of it, you need a disciplined team full of players who are willing to fight for every ball. Whilst it can lead to shutting the opposition’s offensive options down, you won’t find yourself winning many games with this tactic as you won’t be committing any players to attack. However, as explained earlier, a little mistake from the opposition team would see a bus parking team counter-attacking them to score a goal. And it has happened so with Mourinho’s teams on numerous occasions.

In general however, it remains a tactic teams will adopt in individual games rather than over an entire season .That is to say if you are up against a team you feel are of superior attacking ability.

Jose's Mourinho's Tottenham bus parking tactics
Jose’s Mourinho’s 2021 Tottenham is a good example of a Bus Parking team

b. The Long Ball Counter-Attack

If there is a tactic no football fan will want to approve of for their team, then it has to be the long balls counter-attack tactic. As a fan of the game, your first priority is entertainment. Unfortunately long balls counter-attack is just not entertaining. To many, it requires less of the more respected technical skills required. Defensive-minded teams are often the ones who adopt a long ball tactic.

The main idea is to play the ball forward from a deep position to the striker who takes the ball down and begins an attack.

Points to consider when implementing long balls counter-attack

  • The defensive midfielder would shift to defence to add more shield.
  • Tireless wingers who can attack and defend all round
  • The striker must be strong and good in the air.

Illustrating the long ball counter-attack tacticLong Balls Counter-Attack Tactic Explained.

To play this tactic successfully, the forward players need to be strong, capable of holding up the ball and good in the air. The long ball can also be used to play the ball into space for a fast attacking player to latch on to.

A couple of outstanding attacking midfielders who have the ability to join the attack and ensure the striker doesn’t become isolated is also needed in this system.

Long ball teams are generally defensively minded in their approach. Their intention is get the ball as far away from their goal as possible, using physical players up top to dominate the opposition in the air.

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Long ball football is often criticized as being ugly but it can produce moments of brilliance especially against counter-press teams.

West Brom manager, Sam Allardyce is perhaps English football’s most well-known fan of a long-ball strategy.

However, in the past couple of seasons, Sean Dyche’s Burnley has been on a par with the tactic. Although the tactic has not provided them with any trophy since their return to Premier league, which we all know you can’t win trophies with tactics like that in a 38 game competition, Burnley has however enjoyed memorable moments in the Premier League playing with this tactic.

sean dyche's Burnley long ball counter-attack formation
Sean Dyche’s Burnley long ball counter-attack team

 

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