Stevie Grieve on Tactics: Choosing a Defensive System

As part of his regular column for the Supplement, Stevie Grieve shares his tactical insight of the game. In this edition, he outlines some of the many consideration and decisions a coach is faced with when choosing an organised defensive system.

How do you break down the system you wish to defend in?

First of all, you need to identify the style of play of your opponent and the preferred defending method of your team. Where is the balance between them?  Then identify key players, and where and how can you direct play to stop them being an influence

Your strategy can be applied across all parts of the team or broken down into smaller parts; collective, units, groups, pairs, individuals.

Other considerations are:

  • Block Height
  • Block Width
  • Zonal System or Man-Man.
  • High press, medium press, or no pressing build up

Then consider where do you want to direct the opponent, the potential regain zones and who the free players might be. Some opponents will have a special player of high quality; how do you compensate to play 1v2 against them, and how can we limit their influence even if they receive the ball in a dangerous area?

Pressing high

If you want your team to press high, this could force the opposition to play long. Consider then whether the opposition will have a physical superiority, for example a 6ft 5, physical CF who likes a physical game. Does your team have someone who can compete with that? Also, if want to allow the long passes to defend high balls, do the opponent have players who will make runs behind to unsettle your defence?

Even if you don’t press high, will they just go long anyway? How do we deal with the long ball and make sure we can retain enough compactness that we are comfortable?

Playing against a possession team

Alternatively, against a strong possession team, you may be happy to sit in a medium block, and be passive in how your team press, instead preventing penetration angles and allowing wide passes. You might allow the CBs to drive into space while looking to prevent any easy penetration options by retaining a strong zonal organisation. Sometimes players might have to take unorthodox positions to do this.

When making these decisions, you need to know some things about the opponent; if you man-mark and prevent any short passes, do your team have the possibility to be manipulated from clever movement?

If you take Barcelona as an example – you may feel that playing man-man marking in midfield is a good idea, but you need two attackers as an outlet. If one attacker marks a defensive midfielder and you play 2v2 in midfield, will there be a choice of being regularly exploited? You may choose to have your far side player to tuck in, prevent passes diagonally to the far side winger and allow the far side full-back to be free.

If you decide that you do not want that, then you may elect to play zonally to maintain a defensive block and start pressing passes in the opposition half.

The angle of press and type of press

When the opposition start their attacking play, you should consider what angle of press you’d like to have on the opponents’ first pass;

  • Vertical press; start the press from your central midfielder on the centre back, or from your wide midfielder on a fullback or centre-back
  • Horizontal press; start the pressing from your winger on the fullback when the opponent centre-back passes to full-back.
  • Diagonal press; start the press from your centre forward running diagonally to the centre-back when he receives ball from out wide.

Then consider they type of press you want your players to execute

  • Ball Oriented; Quick pressure on the ball on every pass and dribble, often with more than one player
  • Option/Space Oriented; blocking the passing lanes rather than the man
  • Team mate/Organisation Oriented; pressing while staying in position and not being drawn out of zone

All of these methods have weaknesses; how can we hide them while we work hard to prevent chances?

Coach’s Decision

You’ve taking your decision on how to press and organise defensively. What needs to be considered to implement your option successfully?

Starting a high press in a high block, using a diagonal press

From starting in a zonal high block, you decide to press the opponents’ centre-backs in their half as positionally the opponent are not comfortable when their defensive midfielder is cut off, and often build through the FB on the touchline as a consequence.

Now that the block height and pressing angle is set, your reference will be to press the space to kill all passing angles once the ball is played to the fullback.

The problem you could face is that if your press start too narrow or too high, your team might be exposed down the sides allowing the opponent to win space and force you back. Another potential problem is that you may not have the correct distances between your lines, horizontally and vertically. The co-ordination in your team between individuals, units, groups and the collective must be very well organised.

Diagonal first press from CF in a 4-2-3-1; Zonal Organisation when defending man-man in midfield

SG Picture1.jpg

If you divide the field into zones, you can assign each player an area they should be able to cover, and have different compensation mechanisms to ensure that if in various situations, you can adapt and retain compactness, not be overloaded and prevent penetration. Here, we see a team looking to prevent the defensive midfielder from taking possession and having a system where the far side central midfielder moves diagonally if the centre forward is busy pressing the defensive line and build up. The ball side winger might block the diagonal exit pass and leave the deepest player in a difficult build up zone (in the corner) which could trigger a vertical press from the near side winger, which triggers the movement of the same side full-back jumping into midfield.


Diagonal zonal press to set a wide man-man pressing trap; far side winger preventing circulation

SG Picture2.jpg

In this example, Manchester City start in a 4-2-3-1, with the highest of the three central midfielders (the attacking midfielder) is designated to mark Busquets, in order to make Barcelona struggle to build up. To prevent easy passes which bypass the press, the centre forward will press diagonally and lock on, man-man on the centre-back. As this happens, Raheem Sterling must block the forward pass before he can set the trap to press man-man on the touchline.

SG Picture3.jpg

As Barcelona were allowed to circulate possession out to the other side, City now commit the far side winger to cover the far side barcelona centre-back, preventing their full-back from switching play via him or the goalkeeper. This forces Barcelona to pass down the line into City pressure from behind, with all central options marked or all spaces to play through blocked. Often, if someone drops very deep, the centre-back (Stones on the left/ Otamendi on the right) go too.

Zonal Organisation when not pressing in your own half

SG Picture4

In this instance, Real Madrid decide not to press, and instead reduce the space Dortmund can play into, keeping play in front of the midfield. Each player has a zone to cover and maintain distances, not making the space to compact. Each player is close enough to the opponent to discourage passes, forcing the centre-back to step into midfield, leaving him vulnerable in transition if there is a turnover. When this happens, Toni Kroos, playing as the spare man in midfield, gives security to press the ball if a team mate is lost or the opponent evades pressure.

Both centre-backs are very tight to Aubameyang (due to his electric pace). By staying close, they force him to run into areas where they know he will run into, meaning they can react quicker and be less exposed to acceleration after a forward pass into space.

Preventing penetration by adapting your defensive shape in the midfield line

SG Picture5

In this situation, Leverkusen don’t want to play 3v3 in central midfield, instead wanting to have a spare man there. Here, the far side winger moves inside to mark the far side central midfielder, leaving the far side full-back free. This is fine, as he is less dangerous than Iniesta. If the far side winger was to stay in a standard position on the white circle, Iniesta could receive and turn between the lines and attack the defensive line. Brandt blocks this option.


Creating a defensive system in a low block

SG Picture6

If your team is being pushed far back by wide passes, you may adjust your width of the defensive line to have the full backs press the winger very quickly, in order to discourage the outball and contain play centrally. When we make an adjustment, we need to ensure all the spaces are covered positionally, while we press the ball and force it into a specific area. Each player should have cover in between and behind each pairing, with the ability to cover the most amount of space with the least amount of players.

If the full backs go wider, the winger will play narrower to block the straight pass between the full-back and centre-back. Atletico want to play with five central players and block any central or channel access, while being able to attack the wide pass defensively. With the attacking midfielder dropping off to prevent circulation, the far side wide midfielder tucks into a central positon, keeping the opponent within pressing distance.


Positional Adaptations to defend with flexibility

SG Picture7

When you’ve have decided to mark 1v1 across midfield from a zonal base, against a team playing direct or into the space we leave between the lines, you need to make sure your team is not exposed when you attempt to defend the forward pass. To give yourself flexibility, you need an extra player who is free of marking or pressing responsibilities and looks to cover behind opponents to attack the ball.

SG Picture8

In this situation, the centre-back moves between the lines, marking his direct opponent with the defensive midfielder in a position where he can fill in the space left. A standard reaction to this situation might be to instruct the full-back, centre-back and far side full-back to shift over temporarily. But instead of asking four players to change position, one player can drop in instead (the defensive midfielder), and move back into midfield once the centre-back is back in position after the ball is passed away from a central zone.


Man-Marking preventing possession teams; a fallacy

We often read in print media or on TV punditry that the best way in Scotland to play against Celtic is to “go man-man”. In this case, Celtic will then very often manipulate the opposition’s position with better players, leaving space by not starting zonally, and using different methods to block penetration angles such using flat lines and assigning an opponent to each player – as seen in third goal v Hearts this season – and also the fourth goal in same match, where they did not shift marking responsibilities across the line to press Sinclair when he was running towards the box.

If anyone wants to employ a man-marking system; watch Atalanta. It’s an interesting method and very flexible, something which would be helpful in the SPFL when trying to beat Celtic.


Stevie has been a coach since he was 16, working initially in Scotland with Dundee, Raith Rovers and East Fife. He has now coached in 5 countries including being a head coach in Switzerland and India. Stevie has written many books including 'Coaching the 4-2-3-1', and was the expert analyst for the hugely successful Asian Tactical analysis show, Mindgame. He is currently doing his UEFA A Licence and holds an SFA Advanced Childrens Licence

'Stevie Grieve on Tactics: Choosing a Defensive System' have 3 comments

  1. November 6, 2017 @ 10:51 am Jay

    Great article Steve. Thank you


  2. December 10, 2018 @ 7:02 pm Sam Medeiros

    Thanks Stevie, great work, good read on trying to read the opponent


  3. February 8, 2019 @ 11:34 pm Baboni

    This is really fantastic,I love it.
    Thanks Stevie!!


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

© 2019 90MinuteCynic. All rights reserved.