Modern defensive systems

Football in recent years has come through serious development, which was caused mainly by the game’s cyclicality. Styles are changing each other continuously at the top of European football, but a trend is clearly visible: the strengthening of attacking football gives a boost to the defending one, as managers have to find out new solutions against the inventions, and vice versa. We are lucky, as nowadays the two processes are happening at the same time. The main purpose of this post will be to introduce the readers the most wide-spread defensive approaches, how does the defending look like at top level.

Average football fans make the same mistake very often: they consider this beautiful game as the battle of good and bad, in which the attacking football plays the role of the hero, while the defensive one is the evil that should be defeated. We all have heard it many times that for a 0:0 the teams shouldn’t get points, or that there should be attacking time in football… But the reality -as we could see many times- is much more complex.


Football can be divided in four phases:

  • attacking
  • transition from attacking to defending
  • defending
  • transition from defending to attacking

Naturally these processes can’t, and shouldn’t be considered as separated things, every little detail influences the other ones. That’s why already the attacking style defines how the team will defend and if they will succeed or not. But we can see that in a different perspective, so the team has to remember how they would like to defend, so they should attack in such way that allows them to be able to make a proper transition to defense.

Although many fans think of it as an evidence, I would like to mention that, that to ease defending the team should be compact. This means that while attacking players have to watch out and don’t leave too big gaps between each other, both horizontally and vertically. If they stay compact, they don’t give the opponent the chance to counter them fast after winning possession. The team concentrates its forces in a small area, which eases having possession (and as we know, if the opponents don’t have the ball, they cant cause real danger) and regaining it, or just switching back to defensive shape.

Red team stays compact while attacking.


Or gegenpressing, in German. This means pressing the counterattack. It is not world-wide known, but more and more teams use it, as they discover its huge potential. The phase could be described in a way, that after losing the ball the team puts pressure on the opponent, so they can’t do the their transition fast, thus the defending team can organize itself, or -what is even better- can win  the ball before the attacking team reaches their half. As I mentioned before, it’s important to prepare for counterpressing while attacking, with proper positioning. They shouldn’t forget, that just staying close to each other is not the best thing to do, because with a too narrow shape they would leave huge spaces open, which could be exploited with long balls easily.

The other thing that influences the success of counterpressing is organization, not just positionally, but in terms of roles as well. As the sudden pressure on the ball requires huge activity, the players may work with too much intensity, for example sprint 70 meters for attacking the ball carrier. This exhausts them in the first half already and can’t perform well in the remaining time, because of physical problems. That’s why every coach needs to have detailed plans about where and with what intensity wants his team to counterpress, and how long should they do it. About the latter one: Pep Guardiola was who instructed his team to counterpress for five seconds, and if they can’t win the ball back, get back in their defensive shape. This is called ‘5 seconds rule’ and is used by most teams in Europe. With this teams can avoid losing their shape, as the continuous moving of the ball could force them out of their positions, what would be harmful for them.

But to talk about the other aspect, the place of the pressing. As every defensive mechanism, this one’s aim is to force the opponent into uncomfortable situations, from where they can’t attack effectively. And what’s the best way to do it? Occupy the central area and the halfspaces, so the opponent can’t play there if you do it well. Thus they will have to play backwards or pass the ball to the flanks. This can be reached by closing down only the forward passing lanes, but with putting pressure on the ball carrier from every angle. The latter one wants to win the ball back immediately, while the first one is okay with avoiding the danger.

But now check what counterpressing approaches exist:

  • man-marking
  • space-oriented
  • passing lane-oriented

Let’s start discussing with the first one. That’s the easiest version, but maybe the weakest one as well at the same time. Only one player of the pressing team focuses on the ball, the others try to mark their men. The biggest drawback of the system is that with moving away form the ball carrier creating a 1v1 situation is easy, which is risky for the team, and can mess up everything for them.

The red team uses man-marking in the area of the ball.

The zone-oriented version can be considered as a more developed one, and that was the type that made the word gegenpressing world-famous, right after Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund shocked the world and got into Champions League Final. It’s based on intensity and the huge immediate pressure on the ball carrier. Sometimes we can see, that almost the whole team chases the ball, but they still concentrate on having a good structure. The style’s ancestor is Netherlands of the ’70s. It was a more primitive system, but was a perfect fit in those years’ football.

And a video can be seen here about the system, which explains it with scenes from the Germany-Italy match:

The players try to keep the opponents in their cover shadow, thus the ball carrier loses his passing options and is forced to kick the ball long, and if he doesn’t do that there’s big chance of losing it in their own half.

Zone-oriented counterpressing.

Last but not least we have to mention the passing lane-focused version, which became famous because of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. In this approach the ball carrier is not pressed that much, and he thinks that he is able to pass to a teammate. But the pressing team concentrates on this and tries to intercept with closing down the passing lane. But if they can’t do that, they can still switch to a man-marking counterpressing.


Nowadays it’s used by Atlético Madrid, and in their matches the concept is clearly visible. (Although their approach contains elements from the zone-oriented version as well.)

It’s okay, but why is this useful? -can you ask. If a team loses the ball while attacking, they become vulnerable. The defense isn’t organized, there’s no opportunity for the immediate transition, and the counterpressing is trying to solve this problem. With putting pressure on the counterattack, they give time to their teammates to organize themselves and can prevent the opponent reaching their half. Furthermore, counterpressing improves attacking as well. When the opponent tries to attack, their defense becomes disorganized, which can be exploited by the pressing team. And as the ball is still on the other half, they can attack the goal immediately and don’t have to spend time on building up the attack. Counterpressing desn’t seem like a bad idea, does it?


It’s impossible to write about defending without mentioning the ‘classic’ pressing as a key element of it. Nowadays most teams start organizing their play with this aspect and it is liked topic of football analysis. So I will try to explain it in-depth, and try to find answers of questions like what is Simeone’s secret or why is Leipzig so good this season.

When talking about pressing we mustn’t forget, that compactness is one of the most important factor here. All of our attempts can be ruined by huge gaps between our lines, as the opponent will be able to find free men in large spaces, and these players will be able to receive without any pressure on them. To avoid such issues, the team should press in a  both vertically and horizontally narrow shape, because with good connections between the players you can force the opponent wide.

“Touchline is the best defender in the world”

– Pep Guardiola

To reach this, a team can use many different approaches, but at first I would like to demonstrate with a video, why teams shouldn’t misunderstand the quote above and have to remember staying in a narrow shape.

Because the fact that the opponent has to play on the flank doesn’t mean that a team is pressing well. They have to take advantage of that near the touchline players have only a 180° passing angle, so they should press there even harder than in the centre. In the video above the lack of this pressing in wing areas means that Manchester City have huge space to play in, as they don’t keep their vertical compactness and don’t press the Citizens near the sideline. And with this we reached the point where we start talking about the details and see what kinds of pressing are common now.

It’s widely accepted to start analyzing pressing with the numbers of strikers they use to do it. Nowadays using two forwards is the most wide-spread approach in European football, but we can’t forget the other ones as well, because we can see great mechanisms using different number of strikers in this phase. Usually the type of the pressing influences this number. As I mentioned in my previous post, when talking about pressing we can distinguish active and passive pressing, depending on the place where the team starts to attack the ball.

I will start the analysis with the one striker pressing, and divide it in two parts, as I’ve written above. All the variants will be analysed with a team that uses them, as the main purpose of this article is to introduce the existing trends.

The 4-1-4-1, or 4-5-1 is getting more and more fashionable, maybe because it is less risky than a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. I mean, that if a team wants to press the build-up, they have to use high defensive line, but in such a shape the defensive midfielder gives the opportunity to the defenders to stay deeper, because with his positioning he covers the gap between the lines.

The DM stays between the lines.

But in a formation you can press in many different ways, so let’s check the passive pressing. In this type the team doesn’t have to put pressure on the ball-carrier defender, it’s enough to close down every forward passing options with proper positioning. To reach this, the usage of cover shadows is important.

“Don’t mark a player, cover the space between two players.”

– Pep Guardiola

This means that if the striker just used man-marking on the holding midfielder, the defender could progress with the ball and start organizing from deep. But if he ran towards the defender without the usage of cover shadow, the six would be able to receive in huge space and would have too much freedom.

With proper positioning it’s easier to prevent forward passes.

This year PSG is the team that uses this formation when pressing, so to get to know the methods in a 4-1-4-1 I will analyze their pressing game. I’ve already written a piece on Emery’s side, but repeating it once will be useful. The Parisians press in a 4-1-4-1 almost perfectly, with blocking the opponent horizontally. They prevent passes to the holding midfielder in the way I explained it above, while they don’t leave the opponent’s fullbacks progress near the touchline. The contribution of the wingers is required of course, who close down the fullbacks at the moment they get the ball and cover their options towards the middle.

And how does it look like in reality?

And now we can continue with the active pressing in 4-1-4-1. This approach has to different types: the one, when the formation remains the same and the one, where the team switches to a 4-4-2. The latter one will be analysed later, but I discuss the switch here. It can be done in two ways: pressing with a midfielder or pressing with a winger. It’s easier to use the first one, because the team only has to fill the gap he leaves, by moving the defensive midfielder there.


Stepping up of the winger is a more difficult thing, because it needs complex movements by the team. If they don’t want to mess things up and lose control in some areas, they need to fill in the gap on the flank. The strong-sided central midfielder should drift towards the flank , while the defensive midfielder steps up in his place (as you can see it in the picture below), and the whole midfield line shifts in that direction.


This was clearly visible in Atlético Madrid’s play last year when they used this formation:


But the active 4-1-4-1 pressing looks like this: the striker attacks the centrebacks aggressively, while with a curved run he closes the passing lane towards their mate. At this time the holding midfielder is usually zonally man-marked by a central midfielder. This version is used sometimes by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who already play this style at a high level. After the striker forced the defenders pass the ball to the flank, they put immediate pressure on the ball carrier and defend the zone of the ball .

Naturally I don’t forget to illustrate it with screenshots from the Citizens’ matches. Although in these pictures the goalkeeper passes to the flank, the concept can be seen well.

And last but not least I have to mention another aspect of the pressing, which is pressing trap. These traps look like mistakes by the defending team, they leave a gap for a player with a passing lane open, but when the opponent passes the ball there, they surround the receiver. If a team wants to win the ball on the other half, they usually prepare pressing traps, because with normal pressing they force out long balls, but with this they can win possession high up on the pitch. Let’s see an example:

Looks like zonal counterpressing, doesn’t it?

 And now it’s time to talk about pressing with two strikers. There are more formations, I’ll start with 4-4-2 and 4-2-2-2. Because of their similarities they will be part of the same topic, but of course I’ll describe them, highlighting the differences.

Passive pressing in this formation looks somehow like this. The two attackers’ main task is to position themselves close to the opponent’s holding midfielder, thus closing down passing options towards the middle. During this the midfield line has to stay horizontally compact, and react with shifting to passes to wing areas.


Marcelino’s Villarreal was the team that preferred defending in such style, what was quite characteristic:

And obviously we can’t forget the 4-2-2-2 version. In this formation the emphasis is on the central spaces, even more strongly than in the previous one. The front six positions itself very narrowly, forming a hexagon. With this they can have such a large presence in the middle, that almost no other formation can offer. This formation is mostly used in the German Bundesliga, by coaches who have already worked with Ralf Rangnick – Roger Schmidt and Ralph Hasenhüttl.

As you can see it in the pictures, local compactness is indispensable in this formation, because only with this can you force the opponent to the flanks, where winning the ball is much easier.

But now let’s see the aggressive pressing, which is used by Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid. Cholo’s side has developed this approach almost to perfection and has become a milestone in the history of football. What they do on the pitch and the ideal usage of pressing are almost equal, so we can consider their movements as the cornerstones of pressing, so it’s enough to analyse them in this topic. They have stopped using the traditional man-marking and started concentrating on cover shadows. This means that they cut all passing lanes towards the ball carrier’s teammates and force him to kick the ball long. This needs to be completed via reducing space in the area of the ball, thus not leaving opportunity for passes into free areas. The pressing works best against teams using two centrebacks and one pivot, such as FC Barcelona, who were impotent against it for a long time. In this pressing the two strikers start their movements from deep. One of them stays next to the six, while the other uses a curved run to attack the ball carrier.


During this the midfielders have to cover space in the middle, only in case of lateral passes do they move towards the sideline, but they shift as a unit, so they still reduce the space in front of the opponent.

Of course this approach also can contain pressing traps, that can be used in wing areas. Two approaches exist: when they leave a passing option next to the touchline or when they allow the ball carrier to pass the ball to the middle area.

But let’s check the proactive pressing in 4-2-2-2. In this type of pressing the two strikers stay close to each other and block passing options, but the approach has an interesting advantage too. If the strikers and the midfielders shift towards the ball’s side, the other side of the pitch becomes free. But the team can solve the problem in a clever way, which was presented by Hasenhüttl’s RasenBallsport Leipzig against Borussia Dortmund. The ball-far ten stepped upper to prevent direct passes to the free man, or at least direct flat passes.

But we can’t forget the pressing trap, of what this formation is capable, as with the six men up on the opposing half the team can isolate the ball carrier very well:

Atlético, 2013-14. GIF:

And we reached the other formation that applies two strikers when pressing, the 3-5-2. I have already covered the topic in a previous post of mine, so because of my laziness I will base this topic on that and use its pictures. The benefits of the system are like the ones of 4-2-2-2, as in both formations the biggest emphasis on the centre. The team can be dominant there via its five players there and force the opponent to the flank. It’s clearly visible when analyzing passive pressing, as the front five covers the space in the middle, while the wingbacks use man-marking on the wingers.

Képernyőkép – 2016-07-09 22:20:24

Naturally you can also press actively in 3-5-2, with the usage of wingbacks. Because of them it’s not necessary for the whole defensive line to shift, they do this job on their own and close down the wings.

And now have a look at pressing with three forwards. Nowadays it’s the least wide-spread version, and its cause might be that against two centreback it’s totally unnecessary to press with three men. And as the three at the back systems aren’t a common thing in European football, we see less of this approach. Its usage is similar to the previous ones, which means that cover shadow is the key factor. So it’s kind of an extended version of pressing with two forwards.


And with this the pressing topic came to an end, let’s continue with the deep block.


Every team’s first goal is to create a stable base in its play, on what they can build. This base can be many different things, but most times it’s good defense, not accidentally.

“We play like a small team without the ball, and that is what I like the most.”

-Pep Guardiola

Guardiola’s words highlight a truth, that defines football. You can be as good in attack as possible, but if you defend, you have to act like a small team and try to do everything against the opponents’ attacks. If you don’t do so, you will be like a giant without arms, an average team. And what should you do to defend well? Let’s see.

First rule: don’t mark man. Although we are in 2016, lots of teams still see man-marking as a key to their success, as if it would solve all their -even structural- problems. I don’t know if whether it’s good or bad, but this approach is not a solution in top class football. These systems are very easy to exploit with individualism and with well-coordinated teamwork. These days football is about controlling space, and it’s almost important to reach this if you follow your man everywhere, you give them what they want: space.

“Football is a game of position (of the ball, opponents, teammates, goals) and the distances/connections between these positions.”

-Adin Osmanbašić

After all these, there is no surprise in that Real Betis was knocked out by both Spanish giants:

Of course man-marking has lighter versions, which ones aren’t that drastic. Those systems that use only zonal man-marking. These ones can also be very harmful, but only when it isn’t clear, who uses man-marking and who doesn’t.

So the best option is zonal defending, which can be divided in three more smaller types, depending on what affects positioning the most:

  • position-oriented
  • man-oriented
  • ball-oriented

These groups are not divided sharply, teams usually apply combinations of them. In the first approach the units move together and the team shape remains the same. In the second one the opponent’s positioning modifies the players’ movements, which means that if an attacker is close to you, you can get closer to him in your zone, but can’t mark him. With this the formation will be less regular, but against a team playing Juego de Posición you can make them move more. And the latter option is based on the ball’s position, the team tries to have numerical superiority in that zone, but they have to do it carefully. If they try too hard, they will have huge spaces unoccupied.

As in every other phase of play, compactness is very important. Against a compact team it’s much more difficult to have presence between the lines, pass the ball there, so they will need to play it to the flank. This requires high level of coordination from the whole team, from the strikers to the defenders. The forwards’ job is to force out sideway passes and then keep the opponent there, and always tries to prevent passes to the holding midfielder. During this the midfield and the defense occupy the space in front of the box, mostly Zone 14.

Zone 14.

I divide defending into three more categories:

  • five defenders, team in three lines
  • four defenders, team in four lines
  • four defenders, team is three lines

The five at the back type has no version, where there are four lines of players, because using five players in three lines is unnecessary, it would ease penetration on the flank for the opponents, and because this formation can be quickly transformed into a four at the back one. In this version the emphasis is on the central regions, and as in pressing, only the wingbacks are on the flank. And you transform it into a 4-x-x in these ways:

Képernyőkép – 2016-07-09 23:04:02

And to talk about the two other options, firstly the one with four defensive lines. In this case the defensive midfielder(s) is the key figure of the defense, as his task is to defend the gap between the lines. With this the team can be calmer, as the DMs ‘got their back’. They usually apply zonal man-marking, so playing between the lines is not that easy for the opponents.

And now let’s talk about the last type. They have to be the most compact, as no plus line exists, nobody corrects the shifting and structural problems. And of course they have to be careful with the flanks, as they have no wingbacks, so they need to find out something to prevent easy crosses. That’s why Simeone’s Atlético started to use a narrow midfield line, which allows the fullbacks to step out for a 1v1 on the flank against the wingers (good fullbacks needed!). The Colchoneros are a great example for all teams using three lines in deep block:

Strikers prevent circulation, defensive lines are close to each other, the defending is a healthy mix of ball- and position-orientation.

And of course proper shifting is also important, if the opponent wants to change sides quickly. Atlético Madrid were a textbook example against Valencia:

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And with this I close the deep block topic, as analyzing every different system in-depth would be too long, and in general  I’ve written about every detail -the less space, the less thing to write about.


Last but not least we can’t forget talking about defending against crosses. To be honest, I’m not an expert in this topic yet, but I won’t leave it blank.

The basic concepts in defending against crosses are the same ones as in deep block. You can apply man-marking here also, but you won’t really succeed. The cause is simple: in this type of defending you have to focus on two objects: the ball and the opponent, which makes it reactive, while with the usage of zonal defending is a proactive one, you only have to concentrate on the ball.

Most teams use the mixed version, which means that most players mark man, but two or three men covers space. With this the runners can be slowed down and there are players who can attack the ball, but it can be dangerous if the ball is played to the other side of the box, where there aren’t any zonally defending players.

The hardest version is maybe the one that focuses only on space, and which one was used by Bayern Munich and Atlético last year. The Colchoneros conceded one goal from set pieces, the Bavarians zero.

Picture: István Beregi
Picture: István Beregi

And to finish with, here’s a textbook example of defending a cross with zonal defending, presented by Manchester City:

Passing lanes closed, proactive positioning from the back three.


I wish I was able to analyse the modern defensive systems kind of in-depth, and hopefully it wasn’t ‘tl;dr’ for you. As you can see, defending reached a level, that we haven’t seen before, so sit back and enjoy!

“Games aren’t won by those who play well, but by those who play safe.”

-Diego Simeone

Here are the articles that helped me when writing an article, special thanks to the authors of them:

Rene Maric: Counter- or Gegenpressing

Beregi István: A deeper look into defensive corner situations


6 thoughts on “Modern defensive systems

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