The World Cup saw many tactical innovations and intriguing implementations. The one that perhaps stood out most of all for the two teams that made it all the way to the final – their use of a player who had very little defensive responsibility.
We often look at a player who doesn’t defend as a detractor. Players are told from a young age that they must defend, regardless of their position on the field. In many respects, this is true. But when you get to the professional level, roles can evolve in novel ways, and even incorporate a player who has limited defensive responsibility. It was refreshing to see two teams so clearly implementing a tactic around their attack-minded superstars at the 2022 World Cup, simply by having them prioritize the attacking side of the game. With that, I wanted to provide a potential argument into why having this type of tactic can actually be a valuable feature to a team going forward, without ruining their chances in defense.
THE GAME OF CAT AND MOUSEEmbed from Getty Images
When deploying a player like Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappé as your soul destructor in attack, it’s natural that you are defending with no more than nine or ten players at the back end of the pitch, in the truest of defensive phases – closest to the team’s own goal. The immediate advantage is that you then have this player freed up as a natural outlet in transition.
So what smart teams will often do is ensure they have a sound enough rest-defense in place to cope with the potential for a counter attack. Players like Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé are brilliant at what they offer going forward, but even they would struggle to win the majority of 3v1 battles if the proper structures were in place.
But in the modern-day game, fullbacks are more important than ever, and are often key creators for their teams. This means that a high-flying winger (or even a striker) can hang around in the wide areas, waiting to receive, exploiting that high position of the opposition fullback. They then have all the room in the world to explode on the break.
It then becomes a game of cat and mouse as to how you want to contend that situation. You could overload your right-hand-side and exploit Kylian Mbappé’s high position by moving your fullback into advanced areas. But the downside of that chess move is that the further and further that fullback advances forward, the further they advance away from one of the most lethal players in the world.
This becomes a particular conundrum for teams that prioritize their fullback within their attacking principles. You would not want to limit the brilliance that Achraf Hakimi can offer in attack, and even Matty Cash has been one of Poland’s top creators since pledging his allegiance. But by these players going about their business in typical ways, they lost the battle before it even began.Embed from Getty Images
Going back to rest-defense, you can often counter-act the high positioning of fullbacks or wing-backs by deploying a double pivot in midfield, who remain ready to immediately shuffle wide and handle those transitions. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea for example masterfully defended in transition en route to the Champions League final, through a 3+2 rest-defense. As soon as they lost the ball, the likes of Kante, Kovacic or Jorginho would immediately spring into action, often times ensuring even the back-line and keeper had little to do in defending the situation.
The problem is that you are often still needing to find a way to stop that magician from receiving the first pass. Only England truly set up for that defensive approach by positioning Kyle Walker in behind the French forward at the World Cup, and Mbappé then responded by either dribbling or playing the ball inside, as others gallivanted up the pitch to join him.
A smart ‘Channel Runner’ could also drift wide at the right moments to receive long passes into the half-spaces, rather than needing to wait out toward the touch-line. Someone like Barcelona Femeni’s Asisat Oshoala excels in counter attacking thrusts by using her pace and power to exploit the gaps in the opposition. Barca will defend in a compact 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1 in their defensive third, but Oshoala always remains ready to be used as that immediate outlet. When that player is as powerful as Oshoala, they can take on all the responsibility on their own as others work to join the party.Embed from Getty Images
The same goes for the pace and power of Mbappé, or the magic of Messi. They can simply take the world on all by themselves, and this is often where they excel. While I mentioned that a 3v1 situation is difficult for even these players to contend with, you wouldn’t bet against them in these situations, not least a 1v1 battle. Why not bring out the best in their strengths, rather than the most out of their weaknesses?
THE CASE FOR CONSERVING ENERGYEmbed from Getty Images
Another advantage of having this type of a player in the team is that they can focus their energies entirely toward the attacking side of the game. Erling Haaland is perhaps one of the best around in recognizing his own strengths, understanding when to amp up the pressure (usually in counter-pressing moments or when no one else will), and when to ease off and save his resources for later.Embed from Getty Images
We saw the same benefits for Lionel Messi at the 2022 World Cup for Argentina. Messi could often bound around with the swagger of a swift jazz musician well into extra time, when everyone else had the swagger of a broken snail. He never let his mind switch off in defensive phases. Instead, he remained switched on in studying the opposition, identifying the gaps, and understanding what positions to adopt so that he could immediately hurt them upon receiving the ball.
This is what separates Lionel Messi and the next level of mortal elites. He’s simply able to assess his surroundings and identify trends in the opposition, before masterfully exploiting those undertones.
But a question often asked in scanning circles is the question of when. The truthful answer to that is all the time – taking in as much information relevant to the situation as possible. In moments where the ball lies on the other side or even other half of the field, Messi has fewer pointers to take in for the present situation, and can focus on his future.
This means that rather than racing back to defend and wasting his energy making tackles, he’s able to walk around, and adopt positions on the pitch that will hurt the opposition. Perhaps more notably, he’s able to study trends that will help him to understand how and where to float around, within what we all know he accomplishes best before he even works his on-the-ball magic.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTSEmbed from Getty Images
It’s entirely true that we’re discussing the echelon of top footballers here, but having a player who doesn’t defend can be a great tactical innovation if that player can identify how best to use their attacking stance to hurt the opposition. This may be a controversial thought in circles that prioritize every single player being part of the defense. In fact, I would want every single one of my players to be part of the defense. But there’s no denying the advantages in place for having that player with fewer defensive responsibilities, both in creating a complex game of cat and mouse, and in conserving that player’s energy sources for what matters most. It’s no surprise that Argentina and France made it all the way to the final of the World Cup through this approach, even despite often defending with ten men or less.
So there it is! The advantages of having a player who doesn’t defend! Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Theory pieces, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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