Defensive shape

A team’s defensive shape is, basically, the shape they use when they are defending. Usually described by a formation, this describes the shape and positions the players take up when the other team have the ball.

The point of a defensive shape is to filter out attacks and win the ball back. To do this, teams need to ensure they force the opposition as far away from the goal as possible. Filtering players wide is the best way to do this as the goal is in the centre of the pitch and if teams are attacking down the wing because of your shape, they cannot score apart from crosses which aren’t as effective in the modern game as they were just a short 10 years ago.

Before teams started thinking about filtering attacks wide, it was assumed the best way to defend was to use a shape that had balance all across the pitch and thus used the “Two banks of four” in the 4-4-2, retaining balance all over the field and there were no positions vunlerable without a man occupying them.

The 4-4-2 provides excellent coverage all over the pitch, 1 player in each zone, 2 down the middle. However the transition to 4-5-1 dominance in the modern game allows them to have 3 down the middle against the 4-4-2’s 2. This means that the team playing 4-5-1 can do everything much easier: closing down, holding possession, filtering attacks wide and holding their shape in the midfield.

The 4-5-1 has a much better defensive shape and attacks better than a 4-4-2 because of the one man advantage down the middle. It is, however, important to look at how the 4-5-1 uses this one man advantage. By looking at the Barca or Chelsea 4-5-1 or the 4-1-2-3, we get a very good look at how they use it to their advantage defensively.

Chelsea’s Defensive Shape

As you can see, the triangle formed by Mikel and the 2 Centre-Back’s filter attacks wide, they cannot run through 3 defensively immense players forcing them wide, and when they’re forced into going wide they are met by the Winger (Malouda/Mata), central midfielder (Ramires/Lampard) and fullback (Cole/Bosingwa) in a triangle of their own who press them until they win the ball.

Their defensive shape is all about forcing the opposition into the wide areas where they are much less dangerous and winning the ball back with the 3 players who eventually chase them.

Another formation with the exact same principle is the 4-2-3-1. Manchester United are a good example of this:

Manchester United’s Defensive Shape

Here you can see Manchester United’s shape, they use their triangle much higher up the pitch than Chelsea which means attacks are filtered quicker and their entire team is based around it.

Rooney works extremely hard, chasing any player who comes down the middle whilst Anderson and Cleverley cover. However, Anderson and Cleverley need to be very positionally aware and not close down everything. These aren’t the best players for the job and as such Manchester United may struggle against better opponents if they leave their position allowing them to attack down the middle.

It also comes at the cost of a player less when pressing wide positions when compared to Chelsea’s 4-1-2-3. Now only the winger (Nani/Young) and fullback (Smalling/Evra) press rather than these and a central midfielder like in Chelsea’s system. It is interesting to note that these are arguably the fittest and fastest players in the team which is why they have so much success defending.

So the choice managers make between 4-1-2-3 and 4-2-3-1 in the modern game usually comes down to how far up the pitch they want their triangle and whether they feel their central midfielders are clever enough to cover effectively. Teams like Chelsea tend to play extremely fit, pacey and strong players in the central midfield spots, Ramires, Essien and Meireles all fit the bill and they have an excellent anchor man in John Obi Mikel so it is no surprise AVB favours the formation.

Sir Alex Ferguson, on the other hand, has no real holding player of quality. Carrick can do an average job there (although he’s probably better suited to the 4-2-3-1) but there isn’t any really anybody else so they’d have to take out one of Cleverley or Anderson to play Carrick and have to make Rooney play deeper so, again, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the 4-2-3-1 being played, especially considering the fitness levels and work rate of the wingers and fullbacks they employ.

So from a subtle change from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1, teams have completely changed the way they go about defending. It used to be about making sure you had enough men in every zone, now it’s about setting up a shape that is designed to outnumber you through the middle to make sure you can’t attack there, and force you wide where their fittest players close you down. Even a small thing like defensive shape has developed and evolved so dramatically in football recently it’s incredible.

I hope you enjoyed my first every article for Push Them Wide as much as I enjoyed writing it!

2 comments on “Defensive shape

  1. How on earth can this have no comments? A very well written piece and some thorough analysis which most readers can take something from. A brief reference to 4-2-1-3 is all I’d say is missing. Even if unfancied and not as common as the 4-1-2-3 or the “inverted 4-4-2” variant of the 4-2-3-1, you do get shapes where the apex of the triangle sits deep and has more emphasis on defensive responsibilities than the second striker of a 4-2-3-1 who has both the inclination and instruction to track back (e.g. Rooney), even when the opposition doesn’t have a third midfielder that he can mark.

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