The objective of the game is to score goals, but certain variables such as the scoreline can influence a particular team’s desperation to ruffle the net. The following team styles represent some of the methods used to control the game and instigate attacks:
For years, the golden rule for coaches everywhere was ‘pass and move’, and this tenet is still enshrined in possession football. Quite simply, teams attempt to hold onto the ball for as long as possible, at all times choosing the easiest possible pass (hence the many times you see defenders passing the ball along the defensive line).
There is logic behind this seemingly banal style though. By keeping hold of the ball, the opponent’s frustration will hopefully draw out certain players from their starting positions, making spaces for killer through-balls which would otherwise be impossible. Moreover, by keeping possession, you encourage the opponent to chase all over the pitch, impacting their stamina and further allowing you to control the pace of the match.
With 11 players to get past, scoring a goal is a tricky task at the best of times. However, the beauty of counter-attacking football is to use the other team’s desperation to score to your own advantage.
By withdrawing into your own half, but keeping a man or two further up the pitch, the goal is to take the ball off the opponent while they have players committed to the attack and thus out of position. Once you have the ball in your own half, you have more space to deliver a through-ball for your strikers, who will be lurking around the halfway line and will have fewer players to negotiate.
This tactic, while extremely risky and reliant on solid defending, can render impressive results and is often utilised by teams who are defending a lead or field a 4-5-1 formation (meaning the lone striker can get isolated in front of 4 defenders if both sides are set up properly).
Often used to deride ‘boring’ teams, the long-ball style of play is genuine route one football. Rather than spend time on the ball picking the pass, exploiting small gaps in the opposition’s defensive or utilising the flanks, the long-ball is employed as an opportunistic method of attack. By pinging the ball up the field from defense or midfield, the hope is that the strikers will either latch onto the hopeful pass or exploit any mistakes by the defenders. Because the long-ball is dealt with in the air most of the time, any team employing it needs to have a strong target man.
Since the days of Stanley Matthews and Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone, the wings have always been a key part of attacking football. By spreading the ball wide, you allow a different angle of attack and offer a number of opportunities for the winger; take on the fullback and drag central defenders out of position, cut inside and drive forward at an angle, or whip in a cross from deep for the strikers to attack.
A further development in wing-play has been to alternate wingers on the left and right flanks. If a winger is losing the battle with his fullback, switching wings can provide a breakthrough for the team. This was effectively employed by Portugal on their way to the final of the 2004 European Championships, with Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo frequently exchanging wing positions.
A common method for technically deficient sides, using the set-plays means exploiting all types of free kicks, throw-ins and corner-kicks. In the absence of quick, skilful players, such sides will use the break in play provided by set pieces to pack the box and attack the ball when it is delivered.
The chief distinction in defensive tactics is between individual and team responsibility, reflected in the rise and fluctuating popularity of zonal defense and man-to-man marking.
Zonal defense is basically self-explanatory. To cover for a team’s (or player’s) lack of pace or technique, every defender and midfielder is given a particular zone on the pitch to cover when the opposition has the ball. This is particularly important during set pieces, but does rely heavily on every player fulfilling their duties and keeping their concentration.
Ideally, the opposition will be facing two lines of four players covering the entirety of one half of the pitch. The defensive line is particularly important as, with proper communication and synchronised movement, it can exploit the offside rule and prevent all long-balls and through-balls succeeding. Generally speaking, zonal defense is fundamentally simple but allows sides to deal with all types of attackers on the opponent’s team. However, it can be fraught with danger if any individual fails to cover his area of the pitch.
The term is often associated with continental (and particularly Italian) football and, once again, is extremely simple at its core. Whereas the defenders and midfielders are responsible for zones in zonal defense, man-to-man marking means certain individuals are responsible for guarding a particular opponent. Man-to-man marking is particularly effective alongside a sweeper who has a free role, enabling him/her to support anyone having problems with his opponent and reducing the potency of through-balls and balls played over the top of the defence for forward players to run onto.
However, man-to-man marking requires incredible discipline on the part of the marker, and good decision making on the part of the manager. If a slower defender is matched up with a pacey striker, the results could be grim to say the least!