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Systems Football: ‘Defence’ Part III – Tiki Taka / Totaal-Voetbal

Introduction: the foundations (part 3/5) – Defence

This is a five-part series of articles that aims to introduce football coaches and fanatics to basic concepts in a systems football approach (such as tiki-taka). The systems approach to football is founded upon a system of complexity and unity.

Part three of this series promised an illustrative insight into the defensive components that make up a successful systems football approach. In truth, each part of this series of articles are overlapping and interlinked since the pertinent approach is one that advocates an approach of ‘oneness’ and ‘wholeness’. It would therefore be both difficult and impractical to isolate the component of defending in a systems approach without linking defending with each and every aspect of the system.

In both approaches of totaal-voetbal and tiki-taka, it is likely that the possession statistics will be balanced in your favour; therefore, the way in which you think about defending needs to be altered.

This article will cover three aspects of defensive thinking in a system’s approach: movement, pressing and compaction. At the end of the article will be some general advice from the professionals (Ashley Cole, Michael Carrick…) about how to deal with your opponents.

It is important to remember that whilst systems football is an approach that finds the middle ground between science and art, the components when broken down are not alien to us as knowledgeable football analysts. But, it is the way they are packaged and formed together as one single approach that intrigues us. As always it would be impossible to cover everything concerning defending in a systems approach; however, this article has picked out three of the most important aspects of defending in a systems approach.

Please find links to part’s one and two at the end of this post if you are yet to read them.



In the Ajax model and formation from week two a flexible formation was presented to you (3-4-3/4-3-3 and so on) just by moving two players. However, in the Barcelona model it is not the centre back who becomes a midfielder, but the contrary as a midfielder becomes a libero and the full backs become midfielders in the change over of possession. The model aims that your team is to have more possession (65%+ in most cases), therefore players roaming forward is not nearly as risky as it would be in a more balanced match of possession, even so – the roaming forward must be a calculated and controlled one. Never reckless.

4-3-3 to 3-4-3


In week two we covered how formations are both possession-based and zonal dependant. The above animation shows the importance of movement by the defensive line; as possession changes over the team’s formation alters:

The defensive midfielder drops back and becomes a central defender, the free man who is able to act as a covering and ball playing defender. The two existing central defenders are the marking conscious defenders.

The full backs push on into the space created as the inside forwards move inside, taking their markers with them (re: week two’s concept of off ball movement to create space).

This of course is all theoretical and in practice the controlled surge forward will be a purposeful and concentrated one (down the left or right).


Week two’s training exercise illustrated how third-man running is imperative to quick and precise passing. The concept of ‘found-space’ is easily created for full backs to run into and is one that Barcelona capitalise on time and time again.

In the Ajax model Rijkaard played as a centre back turned defensive midfielder when possession was won. However, Barcelona’s model is exactly as shown in the animation. Busquets drops into the centre of defence, while Puyol and Pique spread into wide positions while Barcelona are in possession, often right out onto the touchlines to create space for themselves and give the oppositions attackers the headache of either pressing out of position on the wing or allowing them the space. The two full backs are then fully covered and enabled to drive forward into the found space and compacts the play higher up the field.

The full back is a position that truly developed in Brazil in the 1950‘s and after the 1994 World Cup, Jack Charlton came forward and stated that he believed the full back to be the most important player in attacking movement. However, this rationalised truth has been present throughout footballing history:

Carlos Alberto (1970) for Brazil was given the freedom to roam forward as Everaldo, on the opposite flank, tucked in and became the third centre back. But in more recent years it has not been uncommon for both full backs to take a Carlos Alberto stance on attacking movement. Jorginho and Branco, Thuram and Lizarazu, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, Zambrotta and Grosso, Anyukov and Zhirkov and so on.

“a full-back who creates is an important part of winning”  Arsène Wenger (2012)

Dani Alves has completed 63 assists for Barcelona from 2008/09 – 11/12, this only highlights the significance in the importance of the attacking full back. An assist compilation as good as any goal compilation is shown below:

At Euro 2012, there was one particular match whereby an attacking full back made a significant influence on the outcome of the game. In the Italy v Croatia group C match, full back Ivan Strinic was clearly given half time instructions by manager Bilic to push forward and get crosses into the box. Strinic attempted 10 crosses (37% of all Croatia’s crosses) and the tactical change was successful as the assist for Mario Mandzukic’s goal came from a Strinic cross (Italy v Croatia Match Report)



“The purpose of pressurising is to decrease both the time and the space which an attacking player has in which to make his pass or his dribble.” Charles Hughes

A study in 1988 of 16 international matches showed that possession was won 13% of the time in the attacking third. A staggering 66% of goals scored were from this 13%.

“You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal not eighty” Guardiola (2009)

The art of pressing was a concept widely recognised after Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s book ‘The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models’. In his study Lobanovskyi recognised that there were three different types of pressing in football: full-pressing, half-pressing and false-pressing. However, successful sides coordinate and utilise all three. Full-pressing is the most widely recognised aspect of pressing, whereby the opponents are under pressure and aggressively hunted deep in their own half. Half-pressing only comes into practice when the opponents cross the half way line and false-pressing is when a team pretends to press. To pretend to press is to have one player close down the player in possession, while the others sit off. The theory behind this is that the mistakes are still caused despite not full-pressing.

Lobanovskyi would often instruct his team to work in phrases of all three. To full-press early on and then completely switch to false-pressing to throw the opponents and still induce the key error.

“the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play. If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counterplay, then we need to find new a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game. You have to go forward in such a way and with such a range of attacking options that it will force the opponent to make a mistake. In other words, it’s necessary to force the opponent into the condition you want them to be in. One of the most important means of doing that is to vary the size of the playing area.” Lobanovskyi 

Through compacting the play whilst in possession, a defensive ploy is intertwined with an attacking strategy. As the team move forward in possession and compact into a ‘rondo-style’ (week one) zonal approach to possession, the players are already in place in the event to lose the ball to act quickly and immediately press in these same dangerous zones. On winning the ball back, the players are already in perfect position to begin the process of picking at the lock once again.

“Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.” Johan Cryuff

In the diagram above the two world’s of attacking and defending merge together. The theoretical scenario shows that in such an approach, a ‘whole’ systems approach, you simply cannot attack without thinking about defending; just as the defensive forward movement shows you cannot defend without thinking about attacking.

As the play is compacted into the right-wing zone, players are playing in a rondo-like manner, one which will have been well-practiced in training and therefore, an uncomfortable scenario that is made comfortable to the team in possession. In the event the ball is lost (to the oppositions left back in the scenario), as stated already, the players are already perfectly placed to press and force an immediate error. The left back is left with kicking the ball out of play and playing the ball back to a keeper; in which case the forward is awaiting for the predicted pass, to pounce and press. The keeper will then have no time to pick out a pass and usually will resort to kicking the ball out of play or a long ball played forward; the striker is then out numbered by the defenders left around him.

Simply, in the scenario the opponents win the ball back, the aim is then to give the opponents no space and to force an immediate error and an immediate return of possession. Of course, you can argue that this is theoretical; However, with play consistently being forced into the same zones time and time again, you learn to understand the space around you in these zones and this scenario in particular is one that Barcelona see frequently because of this. By understanding the compacted zones you can then work on team unity in pressing:

“You cannot go (press) on your own…You work on zonal pressure, so that when it is in your zone, you have the capacity to press. That ability to press immediately, within five or six seconds to get the ball, is important. But you also have to understand when you can’t and what the triggers are then to go for it again because you can’t run about like a madman.” Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers, like Guardiola implements a six second rule whereby the opponents are most vulnerable in possession. Six seconds to force an error and win the ball back. A six second hunt to smother the ball.

If the ball is not won back within this time zone and it is no longer appropriate to use this approach, the team must fall back and perform a controlled press as a singular unit.

There are then triggers for when to press, so the team knows when to do this together, as one. Devastatingly coordinated. A coalition between eleven players.

One of these triggers is highlighted in the scenario given, a player wins the ball and then turns back to goal. In doing this, the defender has narrowed down his options to only pass the ball back as the players immediately are in place to not allow the defender the opportunity to turn.

The second is when the opponents takes a bad touch, an uncontrolled one. The opponent will then need to look down to relocate the ball; thus losing sight of the field around him for those few seconds. It’s those first few seconds that matter most, in your survival of the perfect full-pressing approach.



I warned you didn’t I, of the overlap in trying to isolate the details of a systems approach. Through the defensive movement forward into selected areas, the rondo-like approach in small zones and the possibility of an aggressive immediate press many of the benefits of player compaction has been made obvious in how to both defend and attack, since they are simply ‘almost’ the same thing.

However, to highlight the importance in compacting a deep defensive line closer to the midfield two juxtaposing diagrams has been provided below.

By pressing high you have reduced the amount of space available to the target man. The long ball is often played to play out of high pressure situations or to try to find a winner in the dying minutes of the game. If the defence sits deep, then the vast amount of space available to the forward, should he win the ball and gain control, enables the forward to hold up the ball and play in a midfielder driving forward.

The positioning of each player while in possession is set out to be perfect whilst in possession and in the event of losing possession at any given moment. Or as Graham Taylor says:

“The defensive positions you should actually concentrate on when your team has possession of the ball. Good defenders always assume that the ball is going to be lost and that puts you into good positions”  Graham Taylor (

This may well be true, but Guardiola, Lobanovskyi, Michels et al. clearly believe that every player on the team is a defender and every player on the team is an outlet when in possession.



Michael Carrick: “Force the opposition to play the ball where you want. Do this by stepping off the player you are marking and drawing them into a pass, then trying to intercept it.”

This ties in nicely with the concept of being in control of the situation despite not being in possession. You cut the action-reaction time by doing just as Carrick suggests; but allowing the opponent to see the space that you know he is about to go into and be confident that you are quick enough to beat him to the ball in this space. It is also true that teams often force opponents down the flanks as crossing rates are normally around the 20% mark in terms of their success rates; a far lower success rate than that of a through ball in a dangerous central position. The logic is simple.

Ashley Cole is arguably one of the world’s best left backs and any advice from him (on football related issues only) is invaluable. Here is Cole’s advice on how to deal with different types of opponents: [note – the following is not my work and has been directly taken from the excellent advice section at]

“The trickster

“Get out tight to him, and get on his first touch as quickly as you can. Show him inside to your centre-back or midfielder. When he puts his head down to take another touch or cross the ball, he doesn’t know where you are – that’s when you put your foot in and make the tackle. And when you make the first tackle, make sure it’s a strong one so he knows he can’t keep doing all the tricks all the time.”

The speedster

“Don’t get too tight because a fast winger will just knock it past you and run. Back off a little bit, let him have two or three touches then make the tackle. Against a tricky winger you let them have one touch and get tight, but against someone quick you want to drop off a little more so you can bide your time and wait until the moment is right to make the tackle. Show him down the line to block the cross. If he does manage to get past you, you’ve got a chance to stop the cross.”

The killer crosser

“Playing against somebody like David Beckham – a player who wants to get an early cross in – you need to stay right on his feet. If a player has a quality delivery, as soon as they get it out of their feet they will just cross the ball so you want to man-to-man mark them, near enough. You stay on his touch, don’t let him take two touches – make him play the ball backwards to his full-back or inside to one of his midfielders.”

The targetman

“You’ve got to mix it up. Someone like Kevin Davies is going to be bigger and stronger than you so when the ball is in the air you nudge them slightly because it makes them think I’ll be standing right on them next time, but then I’ll jump early and try and get elevation off him to win the ball. Or just try and win the second ball – step off him, let him flick it on and then intercept it. It doesn’t matter how big and tall the opponent is, if you make your presence known at the right time – just as you’re jumping – it’s going to put them off their game.”

The sledger

“If the winger is trying to wind you up, do the same to them. Try as much as you can to put them off and get in their head; get them thinking about something else. You can be friends off the pitch, but when you’re on the pitch, you want to win. If you kick someone, say sorry, help them up and explain it wasn’t meant.”

The flying full-back

“If you’re playing against an attacking full-back you have to make sure he keeps having to defend. If the full-back pushes on he’s going to leave a space in behind him, so as soon as your team gets the ball, sprint into that space and he will have to chase you. You do have to battle one vs one sometimes – if you go, he’s going to go; and if he goes, I’m going to go. But you have to have a good relationship with your winger, because sometimes he’ll have to track him. The key is to fight fire with fire and back yourself to come out on top.”


NOTE: sign up to’s free newsletter to be the first to be the first to know when the Tiki-Taka Handbook is to be released: a coaching handbook accompanied with explanatory purpose designed training sessions (all versions: ebook etc) and 11 diagrammatic player handbooks (hard copy only). 


Next Week (four): Midfield

Week Five: Attack


Read Part One Here (Basics: Week One)

Read Part Two Here (Positioning: Week Two)

Assistant Manager of Oxford University Centaurs and Head of Analysis. The Tiki-Taka Handbook can be ordered from: Director of inspire football events | Football writer & youth academy coach - | Writer on several websites as well as and many more | Please follow me on Twitter - @TPiMBW or | Always open for a reasoned debate so please leave a comment
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