Five defensive lessons

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Michael Cox, editor of, draws five defensive conclusions from the group stage...

The South American sides are defensively excellent. For a continent often characterised by flair and attacking football, the backbone of that continent’s success at this tournament so far has been well-organised, disciplined and resilient defensive play.

In 15 group games, those sides have conceded just six goals between them. Even taking into account the fact that this is a World Cup fairly light on goals, that is an extraordinary record.

Want a clean sheet? Defend deep and narrow. A good example is Australia – who were thrashed against Germany when they tried to keep a high defensive line, but fared rather better against Ghana and Serbia when the back four sat 20 yards deeper.

North Korea had a similar experience in reverse: their ultra-defensive approach worked well in the opening game against Brazil, but pushing up and giving Portugal space to exploit in behind resulted in the heaviest defeat of the World Cup. Switzerland kept a clean sheet against pre-tournament favourites Spain by sitting deep, but they lost the crucial second match against Chile when their high line was broken.

Defensive flexibility may be the future. In Europe we’re used to seeing sides play four at the back, and varying the attacking players according to the opponent. But Chile and Mexico have both fielded their defences in a reactive manner, shifting between three- and four-man defences according to the shape of their opponents.

Both like to have a spare centre-back – Marcelo Bielsa switches between the two systems with substitutions, whereas Javier Aguirre does so more fluidly, by moving Rafael Marquez and the two wing-backs forward or back as necessary. Both conceded just two goals in the groups, and have both outwitted opponents and dominated possession of the ball in deep positions.

A player ‘between the lines’ still causes problems. Most teams defend against a central playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 by instructing one of their defensive midfielders to pick him up and stay goal-side. It's notable that the teams who have let the opposition playmaker ‘go free’, almost treating them as a withdrawn striker rather than an attacking midfielder, have often been made to pay through strikes from distance.

Two prime examples are Japan v Holland, where Yuki Abe played in front of Wesley Sneijder, and Ghana v Germany, where Ghana’s midfield three pressed Germany’s two deeper midfielders, and let Mesut Ozil free between the lines. Both Sneijder and Ozil smashed the ball in from the edge of the area when in a dangerous amount of space, to score the only goal of the game.

The cooler climate means teams can play at various tempos when they don’t have the ball. Although the general approach has been to sit deep, we’ve also seen some pressing high up the pitch from Chile, Brazil, and Australia in their first match.

Intensive pressing has had mixed results – we might learn more in the second round. Chile’s pressing seemed to be working flawlessly until it resulted in clumsy tackles against Spain, and the high defensive line caused Oscar Bravo to perform a less than convincing sweeper impression. Regardless, tactical variety in a muted tournament is welcome – in Germany four years ago, it would have been impossible to press all over the pitch for 90 minutes.

More from Michael Cox:
June 22: Mind the quality? Feel the width
June 17: Defences on top in first round
June 12: Back three back in fashion

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