Overcoming the Low Block
The way in which teams within the English Premier League have altered their styles throughout its near 30 year duration, is key to the evolving of the league. It has made the brand stand out more than other countries league’s, and the nature of its football is a testament to it’s team’s. The Premier League (COVID-19 aside), is box office, though the latest trend is perhaps scuppering excitement levels on match days.
Football existed before the Premier League of course, but with the rebranded top tier, the focus shall sit with the PL years when dissecting it’s strategic trends.
The smaller, less financially equipped teams would defend & the larger, wealthier teams would attack. Multiple games would garner coupon busting results each week, but in the main, Goliath would often prevail.
In the past few years (possibly since Pep Guardiola arrived to the FFP compliant Manchester City), there has been more and more football concentrated on complete near domination of play. With teams looking to control the ball in a more patient manner, the ball players and tempo controlling players have prospered with more touches and opposing defenses retreating deep into their own half. Where the functionally of any system has been well drilled, the midfield and versatile attackers (that have become common place), have been able to dominate games at will.
In order to disrupt the status quo, and in recognition of the changing patterns of play, ‘smaller’ & less lavish clubs have begun to accept the loss of possession, and look to control areas where they are often under siege. This has led to even less of the ball for the lesser teams, with 70-30 percent splits more & more common.
Upon Mo Salah’s arrival to Liverpool FC some years ago, the reds were seen as a team that could be got at by the majority of the league. Whilst they were in transition, under the early Klopp regime, teams would often look to accept the end to end nature of play and allow certain risks in order to attack.
Mo’s first season allowed space in behind opposition defenses due to this, and thus a prolific and somewhat absurd goal haul was the result. This snap shot in time, and other examples led to teams looking to shut counter attacking teams down, and simply give up attempting to balance the possession stats.
This became known as the low block.
The low block, an approach used to stifle a swarming attacking force, either by sitting deep to close of the inevitable counter, or sitting deep to frustrate the offensive teams by way of defensive numbers.
The common factor, sitting deep.
This idea, style of defensive solidity or tactic is a means of assuring free scoring teams are reduced to half chances by limiting space in the final third. The XG drops, the chances created drop and the possession of the ball sits comfortably outside of the defensive team’s box. Jose Mourinho (a tactical genius at times), has used this way of setting up to great use, others have since followed suit and incorporated it into their common game-plan.
The idea of negative football has been raised less and less, often by frustrated coaches of the ‘super 6’. This defensive low block has been used to such effect, it can even be argued that in the last few seasons, it is the most common used strategy by teams playing against these larger clubs.
Where Liverpool, pre pandemic, were dominant and ruthless, it was only Manchester City would dare go head to head with the reds. All other teams, including Manchester United, would set up deep with a view on catching Klopp’s team on the break. The more defensive side would often be accepting of conceding possession on multiple occasions, in attempting the quick attack in behind their high line. This would limit the low block team to very few chances, and many sides would in fact channel their best chances off set pieces. The continual ability to defend their own box would in a sense make them equally adept at attacking the ball, as it were.
The idea that it’s negative play, anti or any other disparaging notion is misguided. If it suits teams to present a viable and working method to steal a point or cause an upset, then it is a tactic that deserves recognition, certainly to an extent. To accept a loss, and potentially a heavy one is not in any managers best interest. To set his team to protect themselves and their goals against record is sound coaching and a type of play that takes hours of relentless training to incorporate effectively. The end of season relegation battle could be determined by those snatched points or amount of goals shipped.
Team’s are now fully adversed in their roles in closing off space to superior opposition. Wingers very quickly become secondary full back’s, allowing the actual full back’s to tuck in and close space. The sitting midfield that was once anchored by one player, is now a duo, and the passing lanes are closed time and time again.
The true genius of Pep was to be able to overcome this tactic like no other. Regardless of money spent or strength of squad, the patterns of play needed to reflect what was in front of them. That Manchester City have consistently broke down teams incorporating the low block with ingenuity and ever moving pieces both inside and wide, should not be dismissed.
Liverpool have struggled more and more this term. Despite the obvious lack of structure with key defenders missing, and others re-deposited, it is the job of Klopp to evolve himself.
Each tactical shift (in this case the defensive block), needs to be answered with an offensive shift in itself. I believe that the old school number 9 will return, strike partnerships will become more common (see Leicester recently), and teams will look to add additional men up front to overcome.
The move from two central midfield operators to three in the last decade, could reverse itself soon enough. The need to push full backs higher and overload low sitting teams will become more common, and the dreaded high line incorporated by the more courageous coaches will be needed to overwhelm.
Either way, the move is now in the hands of many coaches to adapt their own attacking styles. The gulf between the bigger teams created this need for more defensive play, its now over to the likes of Klopp, Pep, Ole & Tuchel to find ways to win these type of games.
Time will tell how the next season unfold’s.