No matter how good a team are at maintaining possession, it is inevitable that you will lose the ball at some point. That’s okay, it happens, it’s not something you can prevent. What you can do something about is how you decide to react. This is where transitions come into play and happen so frequently that it’s important to get them right. Every time possession gets turned over, the attacking team need to change their mentality and positioning to reflect the fact that they are now defending. When considering defensive transitions, I will look at how quickly a team can make that change and what that change actually could be.
Usually an attacking team try to set up to maximise the space on the pitch, the players will be positioned high and wide to open up space between defenders. Whilst the defending team usually try to set up more compact, to deny space to the attacking teams and keep them away from key areas on the pitch such as near the penalty area and goal. Moving between these two mindsets efficiently throughout a match will determine games, the best teams are capable of seamlessly navigating between the two. Defensive transitions are moving from an attacking state to a defensive state. Moving from having possession with an intent to score a goal to not being in possession with an intent to get possession back and not concede.
Even in Figure 1 and Figure 2, Football Manager 2019 now acknowledges transitions when creating tactics to add to their realism.
When you lose possession, there are two main ways of trying to win the ball back. You can try to win the ball back immediately, this is commonly known as ‘counter pressing’ or ‘gegenpress’ popularised by Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and now at Liverpool. If this isn’t an option then you will revert straight to a defensive set up that aims to deny space to the attacking team in key areas, this may be in your half or just approaching the penalty area. This is usually the default option for a team, especially for lesser teams against more threatening opponents. I’ll take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of each option and when each should be used.
When trying to win the ball back immediately, it usually requires a high burst of energy in the short amount of time after losing possession to swarm the opponent. An example of this is Barcelona under Pep Guardiola and their 6-second rule, where within 6 seconds after losing the ball the Barcelona players blitz the ball and opponent with the aim of forcing an error and retaining possession as quickly as possible.
The clear benefit to this style is that if it works, you minimise the amount of time that the opposition has possession and you maximise the time that you have possession since you win the ball back so quickly. Unfortunately, that’s under the condition that you do win the ball back. If you don’t win the ball back quickly, it’s hard to maintain such a high intensity of effort and pressure so you are forced into the second option and revert to a designated structure.
In that short space of time, the main aim is to win the ball back so defensive structure may be neglected. Again, if you can’t win the ball back quickly then it may take you longer to revert back to a designated structure and a team may capitalise on this extended transition period where players may be out of position. Due to the potential negligence in structure, this type of press is usually only used when losing possession in the opposition’s half. This gives you more time to revert back to a defensive structure if you fail to win the ball back.
When you fail to win the ball back immediately, or if you choose not to even try to, then you need to have a defensive structure that you move to every time your opponent has possession. The main aim is to not concede a goal and a mechanism to do that using a structure is to try to deny space to the opposition in key areas. What you define as a key area can depend on specific matches but generally a structure is constructed to deny space in your penalty area and anywhere within shooting range on goal. Depending on where you lose the ball can reduce the options that you have. Losing the ball in the opposition’s half allows you to try to deny ball progression into your own half before the opponent even get anywhere near your goal. Once they manage to get into your half you can then attempt to stop them progressing near to your penalty area. Whereas if you lose the ball in your own half then you need to immediately assume a structure that denies space near your penalty area.
Compared to turtling, a gegenpress will require certain type of players that are capable of frequent short high intense periods. Not every team has those players so that style isn’t even an option so some teams. The potential drawbacks of failing to win the ball back and neglecting defensive structure puts more emphasis on one on one defending and so is utilised more by teams that have a higher quality of individual players. When you turtle and drop deep to deny space, you are utilising the short spaces between players to cover and as a result you don’t need high quality individuals but those individuals to work as together. It’s a tactical decision whether or not to use the gegenpress and teams that are expected to win will use it as a way to gain an advantage with little risk.
Credit to Football Manager for acknowledging transitions in their tactics page, love the development