Defending In Transition

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This will be the third in a series of somewhat accidental musings on the defensive issues at Rangers. When we attack to the best of our ability, we are all delighted. But we have been quick to criticise when we do not defend properly. We are used to a good defence. Our history is littered with great sides, built upon a solid, compact defence. The last major success was the run to the UEFA Cup Final in 2008, built, all will agree, on a solid defence. The quality of our defensive play has decreased since then, along with our attacking play -- at least until the dawn of the current season. We have been quick to take to the new attacking concepts displayed by the side, with its wing-play, intricate passing, possession and ultra-attacking full-backs. However, we have been slower to react to and accept the changing demands of our defence.

On the 14th May, 2008, Walter Smith handed over his team-sheet to the officials at the City of Manchester Stadium. The team would be based on the one principle that had already achieved the impossible in seeing Rangers in reach the UEFA Cup Final: Defense. This strategy had already seen Rangers overcome opposition that they had no right to overcome: Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina were dispatched in one way or another. The team to face Zenit St Petersburg that night consisted of:

GK Neil Alexander
RB Kirk Broadfoot
CB David Weir
CB Carlos Cuéllar
LB Saša Papac
DM Brahim Hemdani
RM Steven Whittaker
CM Barry Ferguson (c)
CM Kevin Thomson
LM Steven Davis
CF Jean-Claude Darcheville

Even the wide midfielders were conservative in nature, with Whittaker normally deployed at full-back. The team sat deep, and were compact. Two banks of four shuffled from side to side, marshalled by David Weir, dealing with the Zenit attacks as and when they came; Hemdani sat in between the lines for extra cover. Darcheville was an isolated figure, barely getting a sniff of the ball. The set-up was a clear zonal defence.

The Zonal defence is the most common defensive strategy in the game -- which is no surprise, considering it's one of the most effective. In a Zonal defence, each team will tend to set-up well-within their own half -- generally a specific point will be dictated by the coach. Each player is assigned an area or zone to mark relative to their team mates. Whenever the ball enters their zone, the player will press the ball-runner, trying to win the ball back, before retreating back into position if they fail.

Zonal defending is the most common defensive strategy because it doesn’t require fast players or great stamina like man-to-man defending; any side can create a zonal defence relatively simply. It is also fairly effective in breaking down opposition attacks. However, there are certain deficiencies in the Zonal defence. It is inherently passive. The team will sit deep, organised into zones, waiting for the opposition to take the initiative; the team cedes control of the ball to the opposition. It also takes time to set-up; a team will have to work hard to revert back into their defensive shape. This opens up the most problematic aspect of the zonal defence.

All sides are weakest in the transition from attack to defence -- so much so that an entire attacking tactic is conceived to target this weakness: the counter-attack. A team in attack will often be pushed high up the pitch, wingers wide on the touchline, full-backs bunching up behind giving support, forwards tussling with opposition centre-backs, and central midfielders scurrying about in between the lines. When the team loses the ball, it is inherently the most inconvenient and problematic shape in which to defend. Unless it is made a strength.

Pep Guardiola publicly stated that he did not trust, or rate, his Barcelona team without the ball. A deep, zonal defence was not going to be of any use because they just did not have the players to make it effective. To negate this weakness, Guardiola implemented the only strategy he could think of: the six second rule; demanding the team regain the ball within six seconds of losing it. It also played to Barcelona's main strength, which was possession, based around short fast passes and interchanges.

The six second rule is based around defending in transition. When the team loses possession, they will attempt to smother the ball and act aggressively to crowd out spaces and passing options. The nearest two or three players are key to its success, pressing aggressively with no fear, towards the player with the ball. These players press with an intensity and a predictability which enables other players to take up supporting positions, pressing players a little further away, to pro-actively press potential recipients of the ball. With two or three players pressing the ball the remaining seven or eight provide a secondary layer of pressing, cutting off potential passing lines. It will often see many players bunched up into a small area of the pitch. Often, harassing this aggressively will force the opposition into making mistakes, by forcing passes, making hurried decisions, misplacing passes. These mistakes will often see the return of possession.

The six second rule is extreme. It requires exceptionally well-drilled and high-energy players to make it work. Very few sides will be able to replicate it: only Barcelona and teams coached by Marcelo Bielsa and Guardiola manage to execute this rule effectively. However, the concept of defending in transition, or proactive defending, is one which can be replicated easily enough, at least to a diminished degree.

Part Two >>> The Spare-man Philosophy

The current Rangers attacking approach includes ultra-attacking full-backs, wide wingers and dynamic, interchanging central midfielders. We are often pushed very high up the pitch, trying to break down stubborn opposition. This means we are very weak in transition. Opponents have counter-attacked fairly effectively against us this season. The zonal defence is effective, but takes time to get into the correct position -- in our case, often too late to inhibit an attack. It is my contention that we need to leave zonal defending to one side, and focus on defending in transition. It means the nearest players to the ball pressing the ball-player, then a secondary, and perhaps tertiary, layer pressing players further away, stopping passing lines, and lanes of attack. At the very least it can force the opposition back, giving us time to set up our zonal defence.

It takes a significant conceptual shift to see defending as a proactive activity, rather than a passive, zonal activity. We need to forget about the Butchers, Goughs, Amorusos and Weirs of the past: they can't play in a proactive defence; they need to play deep and zonal. We need mobile and intelligent defenders. Our strength is now attacking; our weakness is defending. We need to encourage the former, and negate the later as much as possible. We need to get away from this idea that we need men behind the ball all the time, and we need to be open to the idea of defending in transition.

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