Basic Principles of Defending

This is a piece written by guest author Experienced Defender from the SIGames forums.

Why have I decided to write this article? Simply because I've noticed too many people tend to make "defensive overkill" in their tactics (along with those who make attacking/in-possession ones, or both).

When I say a "defensive overkill", I mean needlessly aggressive - and consequently risky - way of defending. Though it sometimes may also pertain to an extremely passive manner of defending.

For example, when you see a tactic with the following instructions - (much) higher DL, (much) higher LOE, extremely urgent pressing, prevent short GKD + counter-press - and all these while playing on a high-risk mentality (positive or attacking, let alone very attacking), it's a clear example of  defensive overkill. Add the "Get stuck in" and/or "Use tighter marking" to the aforementioned instructions - and you have a "recipe for disaster".

Why? Because good defending and (too) aggressive defending are not the same thing by any means. It seems to me that people who use these extremely aggressive defensive instructions disregard the fact that your players may not (always) be capable of executing everything you tell them to. In other words - what you want from your players is one thing, but what they are actually able to fulfil is quite another.

There probably are exceptions - such as world-class teams - that might be able to successfully implement even the most aggressive styles of defending, but I fear they are few and far between.

Before I itemize what IMO people need to be aware of when it comes to defending, I also want to emphasize two universal principles of the tactics creation process:

1. Mentality affects all other settings, both attacking (in possession) and defensive (out of possession). When you change the (team) mentality, you automatically change not only individual players' mentalities, but also: tempo, passing style, (attacking) width, time-wasting frequency, defensive line (DL), line of engagement (LOE) and pressing intensity. Arguably, even tackling might become more aggressive when you up the mentality (and vice versa), or at least I gained such an impression (though I cannot be sure about that without confirmation from SI).

2. The way you defend affects the way you attack, and vice versa!

Now, let's explain what defensive tactical instructions actually mean and do, one by one:

The defensive line and LOE work in conjunction in the sense that they together define how vertically compact your team is. Logically the smaller the distance between DL and LOE, the more vertical compactness; the greater it is, the less compact your team is when defending. Does this mean that you should play with maximum DL (much higher) and minimal LOE (much lower)? Absolutely not! While that would make your team extremely compact, it also creates plenty of space both behind your defence for the opposition to potentially exploit and on their territory to build the play up almost unobstructed (unless you apply more aggressive pressing and tackling, but that makes you even more vulnerable to balls over the top). My general advice would be - look to avoid any kind of extremes when creating a tactic, both in defence and attack.

Pressing urgency defines how early and aggressively your players will move (out of position) to press the opposition player on the ball when he enters their zone of (defensive) responsibility. As a team instruction - it applies to all players! Therefore - the more urgently you press, the more disrupted your defensive shape will be; and vice versa - the less urgent pressing is, the more stable the defensive shape is. Does it mean that you should never use more aggressive pressing styles? Absolutely not! Here you need to recall the aforementioned fact that mentality affects everything. So - generally speaking - the higher the mentality, the less need for high pressing intensity (urgency). On the other hand, higher pressing urgency makes (relatively) more sense when you play a more cautious style of football that involves greater vertical compactness (view the part on DL and LOE) and a sort of low defensive block (e.g. standard DL/lower LOE or lower DL/much lower LOE combos). Because in this kind of situations, your players are closer to each other when defending, so if one of them gets drawn out of position, others can come quickly to help him out. 

Unlike pressing and tackling, marking applies to an opposition player when he is not in the possession of the ball. So marking is considered successful when you prevent the player you are told to mark from receiving the ball/being available for a pass from his teammate who has the ball - not when you take the ball away from him (that's tackling). Now, in modern football, it's highly uncommon to instruct a player to specifically mark a particular opposition player, let alone to ask more players to do that (there are occasional exceptions of course, such as asking your AMC to mark the opposition DMC if he is their key player/playmaker). Therefore, the "Use tighter marking" team instruction actually means telling your players to try and act like a shadow to the opposition player that is closest to them at any given moment in order to put as much pressure on him/them as possible and thus (hopefully) thwart their attacking build-up play. But given that not all players are equally good at marking, you cannot expect that your team will always win the ball back immediately. When tight marking makes (more) sense as a team instruction? Like higher pressing intensity when your team plays with a rather low defensive block and maintains a relatively high level of vertical compactness. When, on the other hand, the tight marking may be risky? When you play with a higher DL (especially if opposition forwards are likely to outpace your defenders) and/or when your vertical compactness is rather small (meaning a greater distance between DL and LOE).

Tackling simply means the intensity and level of aggression your players are told to put on the opposition player who is in possession at the moment in an attempt to rob him of the ball. Get stuck in - more aggressive tackling. Stay on feet - more measured and cautious, meaning your players will wait a bit longer before trying to make a tackle, lest it is mistimed. Like both marking and pressing, more aggressive tackling is less risky (makes more sense) when coupled with a lower defensive block and greater vertical compactness (and vice versa). And for precisely the same reason.

Prevent short GK distribution means asking your forwards (or more advanced players in general) to get closer to opposition defenders, in order to make it risky for their goal-keeper to distribute the ball to them. The aim is obvious - try and prevent the opposition from building from the back. Here you need to consider your formation in the first place. If you use a more top-heavy system (e.g. 4231 or 424), the instruction makes more sense (and is less risky) because you have a solid number of players up front who can press the opposition back-line without getting (too) far away from their (defensive) positions. Of course, if you want to play a counter-attacking style of football that looks to "lure" the opposition into your territory before winning the ball and launching a swift counter, then the Prevent GKD instruction can be counter-productive (the reason is logical).

The choice of Defensive width should depend on basic strengths and weaknesses of your defence, and not necessarily just nominal defenders but also (more defensive) midfielders. This is (admittedly) one of the trickiest instructions in FM. Basically, if you believe (feel?) that your defence can more successfully deal with crosses (jumping, positioning, marking, heading) than low pass through the middle for (fast) opposition forwards - play with narrow defensive width. In the opposite case - set it to wider (anticipation, acceleration, concentration, positioning, marking, tackling, decisions, composure). If you aren't sure what to do - or ideally, your defence is equally good in dealing both with crosses and passes through the middle -  just leave it to standard. And take into account not only your defenders' abilities but also those of opposition players. For example, your defence may be very good in the air, but what if an opposition striker is even better - and perhaps also faster at that? Plus - speaking of narrow defensive width - bear in mind that crosses can be low (or whipped), not just floated.

In the first part of the post, I inadvertently omitted two defensive transitional instructions - Counter-press and Regroup. So before I deal with defensive player instructions, I'll touch upon these.

Counter-press tells your players - except for defenders - to start pressing the opposition and try to win the ball back immediately as it's been lost. It can be risky because more players will simultaneously run at the opposition player on the ball to press him, so they may leave space behind them that can be exploited due to disruption of your defensive shape. Therefore, you need to be careful when using counter-press, especially when you play against good sides that are able to take advantage of the extra space you have left between and/or behind your lines. Advice: Do not use counter-press together with more (let alone extremely) urgent pressing, and vice versa. Or if you do - be prepared for potential troubles.

Regroup does the exact opposite of counter-press - it tells your players to get back into their defensive positions and defend from there according to regular out-of-possession instructions and their individual player instructions. It's logically (much) safer than counter-press and is generally recommendable when playing against better sides

Now - on defensive player instructions. There are three, and they do the same as their team equivalents, only on an individual (player) level. Accordingly:

Mark tighter PI is the equivalent of the Use tighter marking TI

Tackle harder is the equivalent of Get stuck in  and the meaning of Pressing intensity is obvious, I think

Given that in the opening part of the post I explained what each of these instructions does, I assume there is no need to repeat all that in this post. Instead, I'll try to offer just a couple of hopefully constructive suggestions.

First on pressing. If you want to put a lot of pressure on the opposition in order to prevent them from building from the back (or at least make it as difficult as possible), you don't need to use more or extremely urgent team pressing. A lot safer way to do that is to maximize individual pressing intensity for your 3-5 most advanced players in their PIs. In that case, though, the Prevent short GK distribution TI may be a bit of an overkill. When it comes specifically to pressing, you need to know that individual player pressing intensity is interrelated with team pressing intensity, while both are affected by your team mentality. In other words, whatever pressing intensity you set for an individual player, the actual intensity of his pressing will automatically change when you change the team pressing intensity and/or mentality.

Similarly, you don't necessarily have to use hard tackling - aka Get stuck in - and/or tighter marking as a team instruction. Instead, you can tell certain players to tackle harder and/or mark tighter in their player instructions. 

Opposition instructions - both positional and player-related - can also be a useful defensive tool. However, I am not going to deal with them here, simply because most people seem reluctant to use them. Another reason is that they can be used in a number of different ways, both successfully and in the wrong way.

I believe you all know what Offside trap means, so the actual question is when it can be wise for you to use it. My personal theory is that the following conditions need to be satisfied for me to consider the use of the offside trap:

  • defenders (or at least central ones) need to be of similar quality and characteristics

They also need to be tactically intelligent in the first place (anticipation, decisions, teamwork...), and preferably also possess some speed, because if the trap fails - which occasionally is certainly going to happen - faster defenders will logically have a better chance to correct the mistake than slower ones.

Perhaps not necessary, but I personally prefer my centre-backs to have played together for some time, so that they would know each other well-enough and thus be as coordinated as possible

It's not advisable to use OT when playing with a lower defensive line, because if it fails, there will be little defenders could do.

Centre-backs should play on the same duty so that they would hold the line better. Perhaps this is not always necessary but is at least advisable IMHO

Now that the Offside trap has been sorted out, let's get to the examples...

Example No. 1 of a good defensive set up

You want to play a typical possession-based style of football, looking to keep the ball as much as possible, patiently building your attacks up until an opening occurs in the opposition defence. Let's assume you picked the right formation and set up all roles, duties and attacking team instructions in the right way. So what about defensive instructions?

  • mentality: positive
  • in (defensive) transition: counter-press
  • out of possession: higher d-line, higher LOE, prevent short GKD (optionally use offside trap)

Example No. 1 of a risky defensive set up

  • mentality: positive
  • in (defensive) transition: counter-press
  • out of possession: (much) higher d-line, (much) higher LOE, prevent short GKD, extremely urgent pressingget stuck in, use tighter marking (optionally use offside trap)

Do you see the difference between the good and the risky setup? It's obvious.

Example No. 2 of a good defensive set up

You want to play a fast and intensive attacking style of football. As in the previous example, you have set everything else in the right way, only the defensive part remains.

  • mentality: attacking
  • in (defensive) transition: counter-press
  • out of possession: higher d-line, standard LOE, use tighter marking (optionally prevent short GKD, use offside trap)

Example No. 2 of a risky defensive set up

  • mentality: (very) attacking
  • in (defensive) transition: counter-press
  • out of possession: (much) higher d-line, (much) higher LOE, prevent short GKD, more or extremely urgent pressingget stuck in, use tighter marking (optionally use offside trap)

So the difference between the "right" and the "wrong" is basically very similar to the one described in Example No. 1.

Example No. 3 of a good defensive set up

In this case, you want to play a bit more conservative style of football that looks to rely on solid defence and swift counter-attacks whenever a good opportunity presents itself. Once again, you have everything set up well, only the defensive part is "missing". So, let's see...

  • mentality: balanced
  • in (defensive) transition: none (optionally regroup)
  • out of possession: standard d-line, lower LOE, use tighter marking (optionally get stuck in)

Example No. 3 of a risky defensive set up

  • mentality: positive
  • in (defensive) transition: counter-press
  • out of possession: much higher d-line, much lower LOE, more or extremely urgent pressing, get stuck in, use tighter marking, prevent short GKD

Example No. 3 of an overly passive defensive set up

  • mentality: cautious
  • in (defensive) transition: regroup
  • out of possession: (much) lower d-line, (much) lower LOE, (much) less urgent pressing, stay on feet

Example No. 4 of a good defensive set up

Finally, you are a complete underdog playing against a much stronger team, so your primary goal is just to (try to) avoid a defeat if possible (rather than looking to win). 

  • mentality; defensive
  • in (defensive) transition: regroup
  • out of possession: standard d-line, lower LOE, use tighter marking

Example No. 4 of an overly passive defensive set up

  • mentality; (very) defensive
  • in (defensive) transition: regroup
  • out of possession: (much) lower d-line, (much) lower LOE, (much) less urgent pressing, stay on feet

Now, after looking at all the above examples, I guess you see the point of this unofficial guide on defending.

3 thoughts on “Basic Principles of Defending”

  1. What about a possession based tactic with a balanced mentality ( say Spain 2008-2012 or Barcelona FC under Pep)? Both used very low mentality (especially Spain) with heavy pressing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.