As the most decorated manager in English football history says “Attack wins you games, but defense wins you titles”, it has become almost synonymous that in order to win the biggest prizes, your defense should be equally as good as your attack. However, if your team is an incredible unit, they can also play in a term called “deep block”
The “deep block” or the “low block” is referred to the defensive shape or the defensive organization of a football team without the ball. Usually the deep block consists of two banks of 4 (sometimes all 10 players) to defend the spaces that the team with the ball is looking for. Many managers in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A have used it to perfection.
If I can draw up two examples of a deep-block, they would be Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Chelsea in the first game of the Premier League season 19/20 and Inter Milan’s defensive masterclass against FC Barcelona in one of the games of the last decade in 2010 Champions League semi final.
Chelsea had the ball for most of the first 65 minutes, but they were down 3-0 in the scoreline because of the fact that they gave United too much space to counter within the midfield. United on the other hand showed how to play in the deep block.
“(Chelsea) were not compact defensively, too much space to play, not enough aggression on the ball, the defensive line, the midfield, the attack, they were not compact. (Forward) Tammy Abraham was staying up, (Ross) Barkley was staying up, (Mason) Mount was staying up, Pedro was staying up.
It’s just a basic principle, you have to defend compact, and Chelsea was never that, so it was too easy for Man United,”Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
Manchester United on the other hand, was brilliant playing in the deep block. The three behind Anthony Martial i.e. Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, and Marcus Rashford created an organization for Scott McTominay to defend the midfield spaces. Paul Pogba was instrumental in giving the balls into the channels, feeding the front 3 in the small-time United had the ball.
In the second example, in one of the greatest Champions League encounters of all time, Jose Mourinho provided the fans with one of the most dominant defensive masterclasses of all time.
The Portuguese coach deployed only 3 players to attack the counter-attacking spaces in Sneijder, Eto’o, and Milito. Chivu played almost a second full-back to cover Messi’s spaces alongside Zanetti. Cambiasso also had joined in to stop Messi at times creating what Italians call “Gabia” (Jail) for the best player in the world to make sure he doesn’t dictate play.
After Motta’s red card, the defensive shape became even more compact as Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder both sacrificed their attacking capabilities to drop deep and help the team out defensively.
How to play in a deep block?
We have boiled the practices of the deep-block into 2 categories. The basic principle of this way of play is to ensure that you cover the spaces within the midfield areas and ensure that the team that has the ball goes sideways. The more sideways passes ensure that the defensive players cannot come with the ball to the advanced areas neither can they track the runs of the players because they are looking for the sideways pass all the time.
The two practices are as follows
- (1) Goalkeeper passes out to the blue full-back
- (2) The blue full-back will play the ball to the left-wing position exactly where the dummy is placed. The right right-back intercepts the play and this is where the defensive organization begins. The red right-back switches play to attack the narrow side of the pitch and score.
- (3) The full-back on the narrow side receives the ball and penetrates at the blue defense.
- (4) The blue defense, despite in a deep-block, has to go 1v1 with that red full-back to stop the attack.
The blue team should have a good defensive organization with all the 4 defenders aware of their positions. The central midfielders, who are also deployed as defenders without the ball should ensure sideways passes from the red-team which will automatically result in 1v1 situations. Now the blue full-backs must ensure that they time their tackles to perfection to beat the 1v1 situations.
Central defenders checking on striker’s movement
(1) Goalkeeper gives the ball to the blue left-back who switches the play to its right-wing dummy.
(2) The red left-back intercepts play and give a diagonal pass it to the RM or the RCM. The RM takes the ball and runs at the advanced position. Meanwhile, the blue defensive is organized completely.
(3) The red RM then has to square it for his striker.
(4) The blue RCB must cover the low pass to ensure that the red striker doesn’t get his strike away. The blue LCB must cover the cross to ensure that the red striker doesn’t head it on target.
It is all about emergency defending in this scenario. The whole responsibility lies upon the two central defenders who check the movement of their opposition striker to ensure that he doesn’t score the goal.
We have seen in this case that if you want to win games, it is not just about scoring more goals than your opponent. It is also about conceding lesser goals than your opponent. And if you can drill your team to play the deep-block to perfection, your team might be considered as a unit that frustrates the life out of your opposition.