The second part of the new Reactive Tactics section. This time we are looking at a defensive setup that can be extremely frustrating to face. Given the hugely positive reaction to this series it will now play a much larger part in the blog.

Have you played in South America before? If so then no doubt you will have at some point come across the dreaded defensive box system rolled out by the AI to frustrate you. The box for those that don’t know is a narrow midfield with two central midfielders and two defensive midfielders that operate very close together making it very difficult for your team to find any space. There are though of course small switches that you can make to effectively collapse the box and negate its strength.

Against Botafogo’s 4-2-2-2

The South American twist to this article came about after I started a save playing as Universidad de Chile with a mind to effectively recreating the tactical system imposed by the superb Jorge Sampaoli. One of the first matches I faced as La U manager was a seemingly innocuous pre season friendly against Brazilian side Botafogo. I say it was innocuous but as soon as I saw they had rolled out the box I knew I would have to switch around my preferred system in order to counter the threat. First of all let’s have a look at the way I had originally lined my side up.

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Attacking intent mixed with a three man defence. Frankly it’s my kind of football with lots of interchanging of places and the players all told to get the ball forward and into the attack as quickly as possible. Against the defensive box though this system would be rendered largely ineffective given the central strength of the opposition.

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Here we have the box. The axis between Lucas Zen, Brinner, Fellype and Eikeson is the obvious strength and the ‘box’ they offer not only defensive support but also simple passing options when in possession. Despite the obvious central strength though there are weak spots that we can look to exploit with slight structural changes.

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The wide areas are the most obvious section of the pitch in which we can exploit space. In order to lend their attack any sense of width whatsoever the Botafogo fullbacks would have to push right up the field. Now, it’s at this point that we have to make a choice, we can either allow the fullbacks to advance up the pitch opening up space in behind that we can look to exploit or we can pin them back denying the AI any width. For me the sensible move is to pin the fullbacks in position simply because allowing them width can help to layer their attack and build depth to the play. The second obvious zone is in our defensive midfield band. Here we can position a player that will be able to screen the defence whilst also offering a passing and continuity option. They key of course to breaking the box of course is also obvious. We need to position a player in the centre of the defensive box but not in a creative sense. What we are looking for is this player to close down the space and connection between the two defensive midfielders. This should disrupt and indeed break the box.

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Here we can see the initial structural change. In sacrificing the wingbacks we are taking a risk that the AI will continually press their fullbacks forward this is of course countered by us holding the wide strikers in position and telling them to hug the touchline. The sacrifice of the wingbacks was necessary to switch players into the centre. We have switched the midfield into a narrow diamond meaning that we have a defensive screen in front of the back three and a player in the AM position that is able to disrupt the AI defence.

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Here we can see the pressure that we are able to exert on the Botafogo defence after our switch of system. The box is clearly defined but there are no passing options between the four due to our diamond having cut off the passing angles. We also have the defensive midfield player at the base that is preventing any of the Botafogo midfield players from pushing forward. You can also see that the front three are also working to prevent any clear passing options to the back four. Essentially the result of this is for the Botafogo player in possession to be forced to play the ball long allowing us to turn over possession.

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Here you can see the effect of our tactical change whilst we are in possession the two central players in the diamond are forming a horizontal connection that allows an easy passing angle. The wall pass is available with Lorenzetti drifting in the space inside the box between the two defensive midfielders stopping either of them pushing forward to pressure the ball.

Stalemate at Halftime 

At the half there was still no score as whilst we have effectively stifled any attacking threat from the Brazilians we have also struggled to convert any of the chances that we have managed to create. Indeed the result of our initial switch have simply led to the contracting of the box.

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The halftime heatmap for Botafogo shows that we have denied them any width with little trouble but as you can see in the central area the box has contracted to the point that there is even less space available for our players to exploit. This then means that we need to adjust our structural approach once more to counter.

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A risk has to be taken in order to break down the AI’s defensive structure. In defence nothing changes with Diaz remaining as a screen player but all four are now instructed to play the ball direct to the attacking zone in order to apply considerable pressure on the Brazilian defence. In attack we now have two banks of three centrally and close together. This should help us finally break the box down.

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First of all we are looking to isolate the box further. Here you can see the ball about to be turned over as our free defender is unopposed in advancing to win the header. Our defensive screen is in place with two of the midfield diamond sitting relatively deep. This has drawn the AI box further on towards us. As the play is turned over and we transition to attack our three attackers will stretch the depth of the play and offer deep options pressing the AI defence back. Now the box is fully isolated and strained.

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As the play develops the AI have recovered slightly with the box reforming just in front of the defensive line. As the wide right forward takes possession though two of our three advanced midfielders make supporting runs. This combined with movement on the otherside of the pitch will result in the AI box being flattened almost completely as their players try to track the movement. In forcing the box to flatten it negates its defensive effectiveness and makes it easier for our players to play in space and create chances.

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Now as the play develops further and the ball is switched across the field the defensive box has completely collapsed and the AI are in disarray. Each of out attackers has a connecting player in close support meaning that the AI is forced to attempt to track movement at a variety of angles. This phase of play eventually led to the first goal as we were able to overload the AI at the far post leading to an easy tap in from our advanced midfielder.

In looking for different ways to counter the AI defensive strength in this game and using the match analysis tools as much as possible we have found a way to negate this frustrating style of play. In the end the match finished 4-0 as the AI were unable to deal with the two attacking banks of three that kept applying more and more pressure as the second half moved on.

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