What is Ball-Oriented Defending: How to defend, press and actively win the ball feat. Rangnick, Klopp & Nagelsmann
A team which wants to play ball-oriented football needs to look at its behaviour off-the-ball with utmost attention. Some may even argue that what a ball-oriented team does when they don’t have the ball is more important than any other facet of the game, as ball-orientation is mainly about keeping the entire team inclined towards the ball and creating advantageous situations thereon. There are certain pointers which are absolutely non-negotiable for a team to be able to benefit from ball-orientation.
You could also consider these pointers as traits or even as outcomes of a team that trains hard on their orientation with the ball. Whatever term we may use, the story remains that the team needs to keep these intact at all times and any diversion from these can break the system, structure, principles and all the man-hours put in during the training session, trying to perfect this. So what are the principles when it comes to ball-orientation?
i) Hyper-Focus on the ball and the ball only:
Every movement made by the team, irrespective of whether it is moving towards a flank or moving higher up the pitch, is based on the movement of the ball and not based on any other factor
ii) Compactness vertically & horizontally:
The team remains closely-knit both horizontally as well as vertically and this is the main reason why the team is able to defend in orientation to where the ball is as they cannot afford any gaps between the lines
iii) Intense Pressing & Closing-down:
Whenever the team decides to press or close down the opponent, there is no hesitation or skepticism in the minds of the players. There is only one reason why the press is activated and that is to win the ball back. Hence, the team goes all out with 100% intention to regain possession
iv) Forcing opponent to take risks:
We can call it a principle or simply a consequence of the way, a ball-oriented defends across the pitch. Whatsoever it is, it is an important aspect to keep in mind that the opponent in possession is put regularly in risk-reward situations. Owing to the ball-oriented team’s structure, pressing and high defensive-line, the opponents are forced to take risky options which don’t have proportional a reward possibility.
High risk always means high reward while low risk always means low reward. This is a rule that can be applied to many generic situations. However in football, there is an element of technical execution by a human player that comes first. Only when the execution is perfect, the high-risk high-reward rule comes into play. Take an example of an aerial through-ball by a team from its own-third directly into the opponent’s third. Only if the player executing the pass overcomes the pressing, gains space and time, picks a perfectly-timed run and executes the pass, the chance of a reward is possible. The probability of this being executed to perfection on a repeated-basis is nowhere close to the chances of the pass being over-weighted to the goalkeeper or under-weighted to become an aerial duel for the centre-backs.
While the above-mentioned principles form the foundation of how a ball-oriented team works, there are a couple of more principles which I personally believe that need utmost attention to: the use of Pressing Triggers and Pressing Traps.
a) Pressing-Cues or Triggers (When to press):
Since the intensity is at its peak during the press, it is not feasible to press without a systematic methodology in place. Such a methodology is constituted by what we call as pressing-cues or triggers, meaning a certain action/event which gives the signal to the defending team to activate the press.
These pressing cues may or may not be applicable to all thirds across the pitch depends on other factors like the risk appetite, level of pressure to be maintained against each opponent and so on. For example as far as pressing in the opponent’s own-third is concerned, some of the common pressing cues can be as follows:
i) Back-Pass by a CB to a GK
ii) Cross field pass by one CB to another
iii) Pass by CB to DM which has too much tempo on it, making it difficult for the DM to control
iv) Penetrative Dribbling/ ball-carrying by a CB
b) Pressing-Traps (Where to press):
While pressing-cues/triggers determine when to press, pressing traps determine where to press. These traps refer to zones which are created by the defending team to lure the opponent into playing the ball there and then activate an intense, high press to win the ball back. This is yet another way to add a strategic methodology to the high-pressing. Where to create traps depends on a team’s approach to the game.
What these principles bring to the defending team oriented to the ball is control over the game. It enables the team to stay on the front-foot and decide the tempo of the game even when they actually don’t have the ball. How it is perceived depends on the particular person’s view or understanding of football. Some may perceive this to be the way football is supposed to be play, some may perceive it as risky, some may see how ball-oriented defending can help a team when’s attack as well. So to understand the principles in a more detailed way, we can look at how it works in different thirds of the pitch, trying to address some key pointers about pressing: When, Where, How and How much
Ball-orientation in the opponent’s own-third:
When we talk about pressing the opponent in his own-third, it is common to assume high and intense pressure on the opponent centre-backs immediately after they receive the ball. But in truth, ball-oriented defending is far from pressing or committing to win the ball back all the time, in all areas and from all players. The pressing has a set of rules and fixed methodologies which have to be practiced and executed to perfection, to become a ball-oriented team who are tough to play-out against.
The most important factor for the defending team here is to start with the correct positioning right from the first-line of pressure. For a team that is ball-oriented, this would mean having central coverage up-front and not being sliced through vertically. Given the high-line defence, even a few seconds along with a few metres of space given to an opponent in the central areas can seriously threaten the backline. Of course, not having a high-line defence when the ball is in the opponent’s own-third is not even an option as the team won’t be ball-oriented anymore if it drops its defensive line deep. As mentioned earlier, the basic idea of ball-orientation in defence is about the entire team being as close to the ball as possible at all times.
Any structure that doesn’t have a narrow first-line press will be prone to be sliced through vertically owing to the gaps that can be utilized to link-up with the midfield. Especially with the increasing use of deep full-backs by teams in goal-kick situations, it is becoming easier to stretch the first-line press and create gaps through which ball can be progressed. Hence, the ideal positioning to begin the first-line of pressing with would be to ensure central cover. This would ensure that the opponents don’t get time or space from where they can create harm and naturally encourage them to pursue wider routes to progress the ball. If the opponent is pushed wider right from their own-third, it makes it easier to press them against the touchline and win the ball back by cramping space.
Dividing the pitch into 2 halves to force and keep the opponent in either of them:
We saw how it is of utmost importance to have central coverage during pressure in the opponent’s own-third and how it can drive the opponent wider during build-up. There is also a methodology by which the ball-oriented team can pin its’ opponent against the touchline, after which an intense-press can be activated. This can be achieved by maintaining angles as they close down the opponents during pressure.
To understand this better, let us take the example of a goal-kick. The first line of pressure (on most occasions) doesn’t start with a pre-determined angled but the angling of their pressure starts right after the first pass has been made by the goalkeeper. Assuming the goalkeeper starts play with the right centre-back, then the ball-oriented team angle themselves in such a way that the right centre-back can neither go back to the goalkeeper nor pursue any passing options in the centre by using shadow-cover.
Shadow-covering plays an important role in being able to send a team towards one flank and blocking any possible route to switch play. The important pointer here is that the shadow-cover created needs to cut out the passing option on the opposite side of where you want the ball-holder to go. In other words, if the defending team wants the ball-holder to go towards the right flank, then the shadow-cover needs to cut out the passing option available on the left. Of course, it goes without saying that first the defending team needs to have the right structure on the right-flank to be able to make such a decision.
Before the pass has been made by the goalkeeper to one of the centre-backs, there is numerical superiority for the ball-oriented defending team neither in the right nor the left half of the pitch as they focus on protecting the middle first. But once the goalkeeper has chosen a centre-back to pass to, the process of using shadow-cover to pin the opponent into one-half of the pitch, begins. The objective is to make the opponent full-back or wing-back receive the ball and create an overload around the ball to the extent that the only option that the opponent has, is to play it long with the hope of one of his forwards winning a duel against the backline. Since the ball-oriented team will swarm the player with the ball against the touchline, there is a huge risk of losing the ball in their own-half. So, on many occasions this play ends with the player with the ball attempting an improbable long-pass without sufficient space or time for an accurate execution and losing possession.
Let us have a look at an example of the same now…
Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig
This is an example from Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig in the 2020–21 season in an away game against Augsburg. You would be able to see clearly how the pressing was not intense in the first few seconds but once the centre-back played a horizontal pass across his own goal, the pressing trigger was activated.
Leipzig attackers along with their midfield ensured that a switch of play was not possible. You may try noticing how Poulsen bends his run to cover-shadow the opponent DM while Angelino waits for the centre-back to receive, turn and play to the full-back. If Angelino already closes down the opponent full-back, then the centre-back is going to receive and look for other options on the field, which may as well be a long-ball over the top. But the question is: What is easier? Winning the ball back high and wide even if it is 2–3 seconds later or forcing an error a few seconds earlier and winning the ball deeper into your own half?
This is why it is important to allow the opponent full-back to first receive the ball and then close down. This as per my understanding is what is called a Pressing Trap. You can clearly see how it forced Augsburg to try progressing from the flank where numerical superiority was in favour of Leipzig and switching flanks was not possible too. When these numbers pressurized the ball-holder, it did not give enough time/space for an accurate pass, leading to an easy interception followed by a couple of passes and a shot, (all in first-touch) to find the back of the net.
We can also look at examples of the above pointers demonstrated by other coaches who use this methodology to good effect. Since we already saw pinning down an opponent on the wide areas, we shall also look at examples of what happens when the opponents take the central route:
a) Ralf Rangnick
You would be able to see a narrow first-line irrespective of how wide and spread out the opponent centre-backs or full-backs are. As we had seen, the obvious benefit when the opponent tries to go wide using their centre-back/full-back is that Leipzig will be able to restrict them to that half of the pitch, cut-off switches and pin them against the touchline. Owing to that, there are situations when the opponent would try to take a central route and that’s when the narrowness of the first-line helps massively.
In the image above, you can see the exact moment the opponent midfielder drops deep and receives the ball from the goalkeeper. In this moment, every Leizpig player is closer to the ball as compared to any potential passing option. (Poulsen closer than the opponent’s DM, Werner closer than the opponent’s CB, Sabitzer closer than both CB as well as LB).
So in such a situation, the ball-receiver is forced to go back to the goalkeeper as he also has pressure from behind, which wouldn’t let him receive and turn. But since the opponents are closer to the ball than the receiver’s own teammates, any potential mistake in the execution can result in easy chances.
b) Jurgen Klopp
This game was probably the best non-Rangnick example I could think of, for how a team needs to structure itself off-the-ball while being ball-oriented.
Yes, there are tweaks and differences that each coach would instill in order to create their own versions from this ideology but the core principles remain the same.
Again, you would be able to observe patterns similar to the above example we saw from Rangnick’s Leipzig. In short, a narrow shape covering the central areas who always remain closer to the ball as compared to the potential passing options of the ball-holder/receiver. Hence, when this narrow structure keeps closing down the ball gradually, it would lead to a situation wherein the ball-holder is forced to go for longer options. Otherwise, even a small margin of error could prove costly owing to the closeness to goal from the centre.
So to summarize, the most important pointers to keep in mind are:
i) To start in the right positions (narrow/compact shape, closely-knit,
ii) To await/hold positions till the right moment (to see where the opponent wants to go: CB/FB/DM)
iii) To react together and start closing down the ball with intensity at the right moment (when the ball has been released by opponent into a particular area)
iv) The kind of reaction, movement and closing down by the team will depend on the location of the ball (wide or central route)
Ball-orientation in the middle-third:
Especially for a team that uses ball-oriented defending, it often happens so that pressing and defensive actions are at its maximum in this area of the pitch. When the opponent starts a possession spell in their own-third, the focus is on starting off with the right shape to stop the opponent’s verticality, direct him towards wide areas and pinning against the touchline with numbers. Of course, if the ball is won back within the opponent’s own-third itself, then nothing like it but since the opponent would also have various attempts to reach the middle-third and get past the first wave of pressure,
it is the last phase before the opponent can enter the final-third and get closer to goal.
So how does the ball-oriented team actually execute ball-winning in the middle-third? As always, this too is a coordinated effort by the entire team right from the team’s centre-backs to the forwards. They all have pre-determined actions/movements depending on the area through which the ball enters the middle-third. However, each line (defenders, midfielders and attackers) has an overarching theme that acts as the foundation for their actions and decisions made in the middle-third.
To understand better the overarching theme of each line, we can have a look at the image above in which the ball-oriented team is defending in a 4–4–2 Diamond against the opponent in possession in a 4–3–3. We will also be looking at the activities such as ‘Squeezing’ and ‘Swarming’ in detail.
In my opinion, the most important line of pressure (arguably) right until the opponent progresses the ball into the final-third is the first-line. As we saw in the previous section about pressing approach in opponent’s own-third, the attackers set up the base/ foundation to guide the opponents into a particular direction, restrict them into one half of the pitch and then close down. Similar to that, central coverage will be applicable also against an opponent trying to enter the middle-third. The first objective is to not let them enter the middle-third at all and instead force them to make riskier decisions. However, the additional responsibility begins if the opponent has managed to penetrate through the attackers or by passed them from either side. In that case, the task in hand is quite simple: track-back to reduce the space between the lines for the opponents in possession of the ball. I would like to call this action as ‘squeezing’ as the objective is literally to squeeze the opponent for space. The logic yet again is simple; When the opponent lacks space, he is bound to take an extra second or two which is when the closely-knit lines (attackers & midfielders) close down the ball-holder and win the ball back.
Let’s look at an example of this particular movement:
We can also have a look at an example from a game and for this, I am going to take you back to the 4–3 Liverpool win against City once again:
In the video above, you can see Man City comfortably pass through Liverpool’s first-line of pressure by going wide early and using their fullback. However, Liverpool stop City from entering further into the middle-third owing to their ball-oriented high defensive-line along with the midfield-three also sliding across towards ball-side. It was then the work of attackers, especially Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
Firmino is quick to see that Fernandinho receives a square-pass at a slow tempo (pressing-trigger) from Danilo at left-back. Since Firmino was already not too far from Fernandinho, he was quick to press him and also close down Gundogan. Gundogan knew he cannot afford to turn after receiving the ball and hence plays it back to Otamendi but Salah had already covered that option. From there, it was simply a blistering-quick attack by Salah & Mane to make it 3–1.
In this scenario, the goal was created only owing to the pressure by Firmino and Salah who squeezed the space between them and their midfield on the ball-near side. Again, it is important to remember that it was made effective owing to the rest of the team keeping the playing area absolutely small for the opponent. Only then will any pressure applied by any player translate into winning the ball back and then creating a chance from it.
The midfield-line is usually needed to start with the right position between defence and attack, occupying the absolute centre of the middle-third. So in terms of setting-up against the ball entering the middle-third, the midfield line’s movement is mostly horizontal (right-to-left or left-to-right). The direction of movement will, of course, depend on which side is being used to progress the ball by the opponent. The scope for vertical movement within the middle-third is quite limited owing to the forwards in front of them and the defensive-line behind them. Specific opponent-based tweaks can also be carried out like you can see in the image above, how the attacking-midfielder or no.10 of the ball-oriented team is marking the opponent’s defensive-midfielder while the 3 CMs are responsible of shifting side-to-side and cover the width of the pitch.
You can see in the image above how Leipzig’s midfield-line as well as the entire team (similar to Klopp Liverpool vs Man City) has shifted to the ball-side and made the playing area really compact for the opponent. The only way the opponent can progress the ball further is via long-switches to the other flank. These switches have to be in such a way that they are not too long for their own player to chase down nor too short that Leipzig will be able to shuffle across in time to close down the ball-receiver. Adding to this, the ball-holder needs to execute these passes to perfection while he will also be pressed and closed down. If the Leipzig attackers need to be able to press with full intensity without having to think about being beaten, then the midfield-line need to be in the right position to step in. This is the logical reasoning behind the midfield-line having to shift from side-to-side and cover the width of the pitch, in situations when opponent tries to enter from the wide areas. If the opponent wants to enter through the middle, then the midfield-line pretty much needs to maintain their position while the next plan of action will either be for the attack-line or the defensive-line depending on whether the ball is in front of midfield or it has reached behind them.
A major part of the defensive-line’s movement is bound to be forward or diagonally forward, depending on which vertical lane is being used to by the opponent to progress the ball into the middle-third. Just like the attack-line which tracks back and ensures ‘squeezing’ the opposition for space, the defensive-line pushes up, gets closer to the midfielders and ‘squeeze’ the space between lines furthermore.
To summarize all the pointers we had seen in this section, I would like to show you a short-clip in which we will see Rangnick’s Leipzig defend the middle-third while the attackers, midfielders and the defenders all execute their respective duties and squeeze space, close down and press the ball-holder to win the ball back.
As you saw in the clip, Leipzig were setup in a 4–2–2–2 formation (which was the most frequently used shape by Rangnick) and you would be able to see how the ball-near attacker (Poulsen) and ball-near defender (Halstenberg) squeeze space by tracking-back and stepping-up respectively. With the midfielders also shuffling to the ball-side instead of staying centre, there is a numerical superiority around the ball which makes it easier to win the ball back.
Here you can see how less the distance is between the team’s left-back (Halstenberg) and the striker (Poulsen) while there is also support from other players (highlighted yellow). This is in case the players forming the diamond lose out on any of the duels and possession goes back to BVB, then there are enough options to counter-press immediately.
The above example naturally leads me to talking about ‘swarming’ in this section. Swarming is a key team activity that happens often in the middle-third for a team using ball-orientation. As the name suggests, this term simply means swarming the ball-holder with numbers to form multiple cover-shadows around him and ultimately win the ball back. This could be done by two, three or even four players depending upon the location of the ball and the ball-holder on the pitch, especially in the middle-third.
The 2v1, 3v1 or occasional 4v1 pressures are effective in winning the ball back for obvious reasons. But if it is indeed so effective, then why cannot all teams deploy pressing/ closing down in high numbers?
The most common reason for why not every team can do it is the lack of a narrow, compact and a water-tight ball-oriented defensive system in place. As we had just seen, ball-orientation allows teams to squeeze the space available for the opponent. When the playing space is already limited and on top of that, if the defending team has more numbers near the ball, 2v1, 3v1 or even 4v1 is possible. This is because there is constant and continuous cover to the player who goes into pressing or closing down owing to the attackers, midfielders and defenders being always close to each other.
Imagine similar 2v1 or 3v1 pressures happening with the rest of the team’s shape not being narrow or compact. It would simply be an impossible task if the two/three who are pressing the ball-holder don’t have support coming in if the pressure is evaded.
Variations in Swarming:
We saw how ball-oriented teams can squeeze space for the opponent and swarm the ball-holder to win back possession. However, there can be slight variations in the details when it comes to the pressing. For example, we can look at two variations in pressing done by ball-oriented teams. This is not to say that these two are the only allowed and existing ways to win back possession but we can look at these two to understand how different ways work in an equally effective manner.
First let us have a look at the S.A.R.D Rule by Rangnick:
S.A.R.D is simply the abbreviated form of four German words that the player needs to remember while pressing the opponent with the ball. (as quoted by current RB Leipzig Head Coach Jesse Marsch in a webinar)
S — Sprinten (Sprinting)
A — Alle Gemeinsam (All Together)
R — Reingehen (Going in)
D — Dazukommen (Second Wave of Pressure)
These are meant to be taken as the four absolutely important steps to be considered by Rangnick’s team as they approach an opponent in possession of the ball, to press. So what do these terms exactly mean?
Refers to the players movement from their start position till they reach the opponent to be pressed. They need to sprint at the opponent in full speed. Ideally these pressure attempts need to be in short-bursts or in other words, small distance x max speed with as much intensity as possible to maintain physical efficiency
A — Alle Gemeinsam (All Together):
The pressing needs to happen together as a team and not just by 1–2 players alone. We have seen the reasons as to why this is important already in the previous sections
R — Reingehen (Going in):
In this context, going in 100% into the action of winning the ball back from the opponent without an iota of doubt. S There has to be no hesitation during the attempt to win the ball back and the player’s approach must almost be like like attempting to run through the opponent
D — Dazukommen:
Dazukommen refers to the second and every following wave of pressure that follows after a press has been initiated. When one player starts the pressure, there has to be a follow-up pressure from the next closest player to ensure that the pressing-spell which was initiated, proves successful to the team. If there is no second or third wave of pressure that follows the first one, then the team in possession can progress the ball easily after beating the first pressure attempt alone. This will also defeat the purpose of a team being oriented to the ball as the opponent will gain space + time on the ball against a high and narrow line of defence.
Breaking down the process of a player pressing an opponent into smaller steps helps the players remember ‘how’ they have to press and it is also easier to identify and point-out the exact point when they go wrong with pressing.
For example, if a player didn’t sprint to close down the opponent and was too slow which allowed the opponent to progress forward, then it is easy to point out to the ‘Sprinten’ in S.A.R.D. Another example could be that a player didn’t go all-in to win the ball back and it was half-a-tackle which allowed the opponent to win the duel comfortably, then the problem area was ‘Reingehen’ in S.A.R.D.
Avoiding the ‘Half-Press’
What it ultimately enables the players to do is seamless execution of the ‘press’ at all times as it is absolutely critical in order for the entire system to work. A team that deploys a high-line but does not press the opponents correctly can simply be by-passed with through-balls in behind the last line. So these principles are to be instilled into minds of the players so deeply that they can execute this systematic pressing by default. It also helps in avoiding the ‘half-press’ that a lot of players tend to do unintentionally. What I mean by a ‘half-press’ is when a player’s press is not intense enough to reach the ball-holder and close him down nor is it weak enough to stay near a potential passing option. Such situations are the worst for a defending team as the ball-holder is neither closed down nor is his passing option marked and it is an easy route to progress the ball.
You can clearly see in the above clip how Bruno Fernandes on Van Dijk, Wan-Bissaka on Robertson, Lindelof on Jota, all do a half-press. In other words, they do not close down their opponent intensely enough that the ball-holder has no space nor do they stay back in their positions to be able to intercept/ close down the next ball-receiver.
This is exactly what Rangnick had spoken about in the coaching conference with Coaches Voice recently when he spoke about adding little bit of pressing to one’s game, he went on to say:
“What is a little bit of pressing? A little bit of pressing is like a little bit pregnant. You are either pregnant or you are not, either you want to press or not!”
If you haven’t already, then try noticing in the future how the teams who have top coaches either press completely or don’t press at all. In most cases, you would find the teams who have clarity in this aspect to press well.
Close down and not tackle by Julian Nagelsmann:
This was a very similar idea to Rangnick executed by Nagelsmann during his time at RB Leipzig. Almost all of the principles from Rangnick were retained but the major change being the frequency of tackling. Nagelsmann believed in engaging his players in as few direct duels as possible while trying to win the ball back. He instead believed in closing down the space + time available on the ball for the opponent with the team being oriented to the ball but forcing the opponent to make a mistake rather than proactively tackling the ball.
The reasoning behind this was that he believed that his players would have to invest extra energy if they have to tackle and win a ball back. Moreover, the tackler of the ball is usually not in the best body-position or angle to contribute to attacking immediately after winning the ball back and he could also be prone to losing the ball if counter-pressed by the opponent. So RB Leipzig adopted to be ball-oriented, press/close down on cue, give no space/time for the opponent but not tackle.
In the 2020–21 Bundesliga Season, Nagelsmann’s Leipzig maintained a unique record as they were positioned 2nd highest in terms of pressure attempts in the opponent’s third, 3rd highest in terms of pressure attempts in the middle-third and all this while they were also 2nd in terms of possession% but they were the 2nd lowest in the league in terms of tackle attempts. This is slowly changing in his current tenure with Bayern Munchen but this was certainly the case as far as his RB Leipzig were concerned.
In an interview with the 11freunde.de, he talks about the same and goes on to mention, “I prefer to force the opponent to make a bad pass than to win the ball in a direct duel as duels are associated with too many coincidences”
This cannot be confused with the half-press that we saw earlier as the closing down happens perfectly and there is a shadow created in front of the ball-holder that is big enough to not let him make a pass but the energy, effort and overall risk of being beaten is saved by not tackling unless necessary. However, you would also notice that the other principles like closing down the ball-holder, maintaining minimum gap between lines, high-line defence, are not missed out. To summarize the section, different coaches may add small tweaks to the details and nuances but retain the major principles.
Ball-Orientation in the team’s own-third:
The objective is to maintain a narrow, compact structure with the last line trying to be at a height which restricts the opponent from entering and staying in the final-third owing to a constant lack of space and time. It wouldn’t be an over-statement to say that this is the main objective of the defending team itself. The height of the defensive-line does not want to drop low or rather low enough to afford time and space to the opponents in the final-third, irrespective of the opponents’ quality to find the space in-behind. This is something which can be a double-edged sword, in the sense that it is almost always difficult for the attacking team to approach but can also put the defending team at risk as well. Why is it so?
The Double-Edged Sword:
There is an inherent risk that the defending team faces whenever the opponent enters the final-third as perfectly-timed runs coupled with well-weighted passes can indeed lead to conceding chances from dangerous areas. But the very strength of this style of defending lies here as well. The height of the defensive-line constantly keeps the size of the pitch vertically limited for the opponent.
It is a way of indirectly provoking the opponent to take the risk and go for ‘that’ pass in-behind the defence without worrying about losing possession. We can look at it from the perspective of a Poker game. Imagine a player raising the bet while the other player is thinking whether he should call his opponent’s bluff or fold and let go to minimize damage. In this case, it is entirely a gamble as to what decision is to be made next and that depends on the gut, hunch, knack of the player. However, the difference here is that it is not entirely a gamble and there are some control-determinants in the hands of the defending team. Let us look at how such a control is established in the gamble:
a) Hyper-focused in the centre:
The opponent is never allowed time and space in the zone-14 or while trying to enter this zone. The CBs or DMs are always present in these zones and ready to close down the opponent on the ball before he gets sufficient time to execute his decision.
Yes, the team does move based on the movement of the ball given that the defensive system is ball-oriented. However, they still always protect the central zone irrespective of where the ball is.
b) When to hold and when to fold:
In order to be able to establish an effective defensive system in the final-third, the defensive-line needs to be adept at decision-making in moments of pressure. One such decision that the defensive-line needs to get right as many times as possible in a game, is about their positioning. In other words, when do we hold the height of the line and when do we fall back?
This is a challenge that any defensive-line is bound to face as the line chooses to remain as high as possible, even as the opponent approaches the final-third. So it is absolutely critical that the line knows when to drop and when to hold the height. The most basic rule to be remembered by the backline is to make their decision based on the existing/potential pressure on the ball-carrying opponent during the attack or opponent’s positive transition.
Let us take an example of an opponent’s counter-attack in which three opponent attackers are against the ball-oriented team’s back-four. (4v3 in favour of the defending team) This means that the midfielders of the defending team are still tracking-back and the defensive-line are left all by themselves to handle the situation. In such a scenario, the defensive-line does not hold its height and chooses to gradually fall-back while containing the dribble/ball-carrying of the opponent to ensure he does not have acres of space in front of him. This ensures that no defender from the back-line is beaten 1v1 by the opponent attacker in the final-third as he avoids committing to it.
If in the same scenario, there was pressure from a teammate on the opponent carrying the ball, then a defender would not be hesitant in stepping out from his defensive-line and making it 2v1 against the opponent attacker. It is much less probable that an attacker is able to beat 2 players than 1 and hence, a full-fledged commitment from a defender to step out of his defensive-line is a calculated-risk in favour of the defending team in its own-third. Therefore, final-third defending boils down to such key decisions which are taken based on maximizing chances of winning-back possession while minimizing risk as well.
Creating numerical superiority pressures in dangerous zones:
When we say dangerous zones, we are talking about those areas from where there is enough accessibility for a shot at goal or a penetrating pass into the box to put an attacker through on goal. It is of utmost importance to ensure that the opponent has the least amount of space and time available in order to minimize the potential threat. Hence, Rangnick’s men try to create numerical superiority in these areas or in simpler words, 2v1 / 3v1 pressures against the opponent holding the ball. The idea is to either win the ball back or atleast send the ball to a less-threatening area (towards the wing). Once the ball is moved to the wing, then they can adapt to pressing the opponent against the touchline with 2v1 or 3v1, depending on the situation.
A clip of Rangnick’s Leipzig defending the final-third in which you can see all of the above points being demonstrated
Some Stats to demonstrate how Rangnick’s Leipzig behaved on the pitch from the 2018/19 Bundesliga:
i) Highest pressing success % in Europe’s top-five leagues in 2018–19 at 32% where a successful press refers to winning the ball back within 5 seconds of pressure.
ii) Aerial Dominance: RB Leipzig were the team with the highest aerial success % in the 2018–19 Bundesliga with 55.3%
There were only three teams ahead of this number among Europe’s top-five leagues. Given the playing style of RB Leipzig under Ralf Rangnick, aerial dominance is a critical element as the high-pressure in the opponent’s own-third and the middle-third naturally forced them to go long in an attempt to by pass the high defensive-line. This meant that the CBs Upamecano, Konate and Orban had to face aerial battles on a regular basis. The success in these aerial battles were key to winning back possession after a wave of high, intense pressing. You may be able to imagine how much of a waste of effort it would be, if after seconds of intense pressure, the defending team is not able to win a blindly-lofted long ball in the air and fails to win back possession. Hence, it was absolutely critical that the CBs are able to complement the midfield and attack lines who force the opponent to go long and take the aerial route.
iii) 2nd highest goalkeeper actions outside the penalty area in Bundesliga and 4th highest in Europe’s top-five leagues
These actions refer to the sweeping actions performed by the goalkeeper outside the penalty area. This is yet another important part of the system given the height at which RB Leipzig’s defensive-line positions itself. While the combination of pressing and the high defensive-line helps them win the ball back within the opponent’s half or catch them offside when they try to go long, there are some occasions in which a perfectly-weighted ball is played behind the defensive line to a perfectly-timed run of an opponent attacker. In such situations, the role of the goalkeeper is of immense value as if he is able to anticipate these situations and sweep outside the penalty area, then it completely stifles the opponent’s chances of creating danger.
iv) RB Leipzig had faced the 2nd least number of shots in Bundesliga and the 5th least number of shots among Europe’s top-five leagues
A major reason why it was possible to pull this off was all the factors that we just saw in the article; a well drilled defensive-system that is proactive, plays on the front-foot to put the opponent in difficult situations and make them take risks that carry minute chances of a favourable result.
I have tried to cover ball-oriented defending as extensively as possible at the same time trying not to keep it so long that it becomes impossible to read. It is, of course possible to discuss this topic a lot more in detail as well but in my next piece I will try to show the other side of ball-orientation which will talk about the effects of the same on transitions, possession and chance-creation.
If time permits, I will also try to cover training sessions which are useful for a team to inherit ball-orientation along with the right kind of player-profiles that a club needs to scout to be able to execute this style effectively.