Antonio Conte’s Spurs, as expected, have gotten off to a flying start. Conte’s team have gone unbeaten in their eight Premier League matches so far, playing some fantastic, easy on the eye football in the process. The variety in their attacking play has helped the team to 14 goals in 8 matches, with just 5 conceded in the process. In our recent analysis of Conte’s team, we posited that the team only had one key dilemma to solve – what to do against low-blocks who want to sit very deep against them. As opposition teams sort Tottenham out, Conte’s quest to combat the low-block appears to be growing all the more difficult by the match. They failed to claim victory against 10-man Southampton earlier in the week, and yesterday had to wait until stoppage time for Davinson Sanchez’s winner. So with that, we take a quick look at how teams like Antonio Conte’s can disrupt a low-block and generate scoring chances, taking examples from Spurs’ own 1-0 victory against Watford at the weekend.
WHAT IS A LOW-BLOCK?
Before getting into the discussion of how to beat a low-block, let’s first define what this actually means. Any football pitch can be divided into thirds, based on the direction a team is playing: the defensive third, the middle third, and the attacking third. When defending in each of these thirds, there is a different type of defensive stance associated with each third: the low-block, the mid-block, and the high-block. The low-block occurs in a team’s own defensive third, as they compact the field, get narrow and attempt to stunt the opposition’s progress toward goal. While a team may defend in all three thirds of the pitch over the course of a game, and therefore adopt all three blocking structures, we can study the average position of players to assess what part of the field a team spent the most time in. If a team spends the most time defending in their own third, then we can title what they’ve done throughout the match as setting up to defend in a low-block.Embed from Getty Images
A low-block typically involves all eleven men, if not eight or nine, behind the ball. Typically in a 4-4-2 or 5-4-1 defensive shape, these teams will stretch their players across the width of the eighteen yard box. They then defend in a compact structure, not allowing any space in between the lines for penetrative passes through the centre of the pitch. In doing so, they often leave more room to be exploited in the wide areas, but will attempt to shut down these areas of the field immediately upon the ball entering into a wide zone. With so many numbers behind the ball, it then becomes very difficult for the opposition to generate chances. So that is exactly what we want to identify today. How to beat the low-block. Here are four ways that teams can do exactly that.
1: QUICK SWITCHES & OVERLOADS
Teams sitting in a low-block often compact the centre of the field, intentionally leaving room out wide. This is under the assumption that they cannot simply shut down all areas of the field, and that the middle is the priority due to its closer proximity toward the goal. When a ball enters a wide area, one to two players will usually be responsible for reacting with a bit of pressure to stop the team from taking advantage of the wide area, as the rest of the team shuffles ever so slightly across. The goal for the defending team is to force the attacking team back toward a congested centre, or out of bounds.
This means that any team attempting to use the wide areas must to do so quickly through one-touch play and quick switches from right to left or left to right. Utilizing early crosses once a ball has found its way to a fullback or wide man in space could be key, as it would allow the opposition less time to pressure the ball and set themselves up to defend a cross.
In taking advantage of the wide areas, a team should also look to create wide overloads. In doing so, they’re looking to create 2v1 opportunities where they can isolate an opposition defender, expose them, and then deliver into the penalty area. Sheffield United for example would do this with attack-minded centre-backs joining the wing-backs on the overlap. This is actually what we suggested Tottenham consider doing in our recent analysis of the team, but that is yet to come to full fruition. Borussia Dortmund would also use wide overloads to unbalance an opposition defense under Edin Terzic and Lucien Favre, before using that overload to switch play to the other side. That’s because overloads provide two key advantages. They can help a team to create space on the strong side (where the opposition have reacted by pressuring the ball), or on the weak side (where the opposition have fewer players).
In Tottenham’s 1-0 win over Watford, they tried to use overloads on the right between Moura and Emerson Royal to create chances down the flanks. Watford reacted brilliantly, with the winger and fullback practically on top of each other, and working in tandem to stop this. But Tottenham still found their way toward 43 crosses in the match through using quick switches of play from one side to the other (particularly left to right using the central midfielders to switch). With a bit more accuracy in their crossing, and incisive movement timed to perfection, Spurs could have used one of these wide crosses to their advantage.
2: CHIP BALLS OVER TOP
Teams attacking against a low-block can expect to have the vast majority of the possession. Naturally, a lot of that possession will come in the final third, as they quickly shift the ball around to try and move the opposition out of position. So recognizing that they’re going to have a lot of the ball, the team needs to be efficient in picking their moments to take risks. Riskier passes like flicking a ball over the top of the opposition defense into space can be met with resistance from strong, aerially dominant defenders. But they are far more expressive and powerful than simple, sideways passes that don’t do anything to advance a team toward goal. This is perhaps where Antonio Conte’s team were most effective in breaking down Watford’s block. They looked for moments to time a high pass over Watford’s big men at the back, with Kane and Son roaming centrally and looking for space to run onto that pass and connect. As we discussed in How to move like a world class striker, this is an incredibly difficult art. The timing of the forward’s run needs to perfectly match the timing of the pass. But Spurs have players capable of creating (Hojbjerg, Moura, Reguilon) and players capable of timing such runs to a tee (Son and Kane). This is exactly why they were able to generate some of their best chances from these moments, and on another day, they might have scored.
3: SHOTS FROM RANGE + INDIVIDUAL SKILL
One of the primary principles of a low-block is to force shots from less than ideal positions, i.e. from distance, as opposed to shots from ideal positions, i.e. inside the eighteen yard box. But from a positive perspective, that means space can often be available to take shots from range. So in all of the attempts to not play into the opposition’s hands, it is okay to look for the right moments to take shots from outside the eighteen. Giving the ball to a maverick, or a particularly talented player who can work tight spaces and produce something out of their own skill can be an effective strategy. Through these two mechanisms, Tottenham were able to force many of their 21 shots against Watford. Eventually, one of those shots was bound to go in, and in fact, one of those shots did go in. Take the famous sports saying “If you don’t shoot, you don’t score” as a prime example of this. Anything can happen when you take a chance. On this day of writing, Anthony Gordon of Everton had a terrible shot against Brighton, destined to go wide, only for Adam Lallana to re-write the story and deflect it into his own net. This kind of thing happens when you take risks. The important thing is to take the right risks.Embed from Getty Images
The decision of when to pass versus when to shoot is one of the most important in trying to break down a low block. The best thing to do is to find a skillful player with half a yard of space, and allow them to work the angle for the shot when the time is right. Shots from thirty to forty yards aren’t going to cut it, but shots from just outside the eighteen can find their way with the right amount of power and accuracy.
Another advantage to shooting from distance is the opportunity it presents from ensuing goal kicks. Teams operating in a low-block rarely ever then decide to play out from the back. But if they do, an opportunity immediately presents itself. The attacking team should then use everything in their power to press their opposition high and take advantage of the one brief moment that their opposition are not set up to defend in a compact block. If they can win the ball on a tackle, they should go immediately toward goal and look to score. Spurs had one of these moments against Watford, and nearly made it count.Embed from Getty Images
Again, it’s about finding a balance between patience in possession and taking opportunities to shoot. Possession will also do wonders in wearing the opposition down, mentally exhausting them to the brink. Mistakes are then likely to happen late on in games, and a shot out of nothing can suddenly turn into a goal.
4: ATTACKING SET-PIECESEmbed from Getty Images
The fourth and final way to break down a low-block is to use set-pieces. Teams that are set up to defend in this way will likely have worked all week not only on shape, but their ability to defend from set-pieces as well. So this is not an easy task. But again, mental exhaustion at the end of a game can take centre stage. As we saw with Tottenham Hotspur’s match against Watford, someone can easily lose their marker, and a player can be free on goal to head home the deciding goal. That’s exactly what happened when Heung-Min Son delivered to Davinson Sanchez in the 95th minute – which happened to be Spurs’ only attempt in the six-yard box in the entire game.Embed from Getty Images
The attacking team should therefore constantly look to get the ball to their mavericks – the players who can dribble in tight spaces and win fouls. If they can do this effectively, they will have plenty of opportunities to score from set-pieces either through a direct free kick, or a whipped ball into the box. The ease at which this can occur is perhaps not as easy as it sounds. One of the defining characteristics of a low-block is the patience that the team will display when defending. They don’t dive into tackles, understanding that if they shuffle and slide effectively, they’ll win the ball through their shape. Watford for example only gave away six fouls on Saturday. That is why using a strategy like overloading one side of the field and isolating a player 2v1 is perhaps more effective than a single player working a bit of magic. But, if done right, this can be an excellent way to beat the low-block and add an extra bit of dynamism to a team’s attack.
conclusionEmbed from Getty Images
Breaking down a low block is a difficult task for any team. But with these four methods, teams like Spurs can feel more comfortable in knowing how to achieve the result they crave, even when all seems to be going against them. We suggest teams like Conte’s coming up against a low-block use a variety of switches and overloads, flicks over top of the defense, shots from range, individual skill, and set-pieces to generate chances, hoping that eventually, mental exhaustion will take center stage and they’ll be able to convert.
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