Defensive Transition: Shifting My Lens From Attack to Defense

Article by Ben Griffis

Around the start of the Qatar World Cup, I began shifting more and more of my analysis from buildup and attack to defense. From in possession to out of possession. I’ve always had a weird love for the defensive side of the game after being forcefully moved from attacker to center back by my coach when I was 9. And let me tell you, I can’t thank him enough for that!

People that have been following me on Twitter for a while have probably seen a gradual shift in the tactics things I tweet out. I’ve tried to make a concentrated effort to learn more about how teams set up out of possession and all of the different ways they can address their opponents—reactive or proactive.

In my past I was studying to be a business researcher. One of the biggest things you learn from the start of your PhD in any social science is to view the world through different theoretical lenses. There are countless theoretical frameworks that people “look” at a scenario with to describe it. Depending on what “pair of glasses” you have on, you’ll describe the scenario differently. Two examples are Agency Theory and Transaction Cost Economics. Without going into much detail, these are very similar theories to describe how parties interact, but depending on which theory you subscribe to (either in general or for a specific research paper) you will analyze a relationship differently.

Football is similar. If you were to look at almost any event from an attacking/in possession lens, you will likely come to a different answer to the question “why did that happen?” than if you viewed that event through a defensive lens. And no lens is “right” or “wrong”. They’re just different.

I’ve been slowly but surely trying to get better at viewing players, sequences, and games through a defensive lens rather than the attacking one I think most people default to. I certainly did!

This past World Cup was incredible as a fan of defense, and to be honest I loved seeing people complain about how boring it was because of how few goals there were at times because it showed me I needed to double-down on my efforts to both understand more and to spread the defensive gospel.

Some of my favorite work since starting to analyze football in about 2020 was two threads I wrote on Hervé Renard, who after this World Cup needs no introduction. This thread below was my first-ever big work on defense/general out of possession tactics.

After I wrote that thread, I went back in to Renard’s games with Saudi Arabia because I remembered them playing similarly in AFC Qualifiers. Spoiler, they had.

I then made many Polish fans very angry with me by digging into their defense and providing examples on how Argentina might be able to beat it in their must-win match vs Poland. I really enjoy this thread because the game perfectly backed up my arguments… Argentina broke down Poland by using the ways I said Poland could be broken down. I don’t like to toot my own horn very often, and I’m not doing that now, but it really gave me the confidence to keep moving in my defensive journey.

I share all of these tweets mainly to back up me saying that I’m not only interested in defense/out-of-possession, but that I’ve started getting deeper and deeper into this abyss that many people would hate to be in because it’s not “beautiful” or “good football”. Some would describe any team that purposefully defends and allows the opponent to have the lion’s share of possession as “negative” or “anti-” football. Diego Simeone and José Mourinho are two world class managers who are often described by these terms.

Naturally, if people only watch football with an attacking lens, they will dislike any defensive-minded tactic. No matter how may trophies they might win, their team’s style of play would likely look bland and boring. On the other hand, a fan with a defensive lens would likely enjoy this style of football and possibly even view a Pep Guardiola-style possession tactic as boring since there’s little defending. Despite enjoying the trophies coming into their team, they might not like his style of play.

Outside of general styles of play, individual matches can be viewed from an attacking or defensive lens and, just like in business research, the lens you use will lead you to describe matches differently. Take, for example, Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Chelsea recently. Spurs set out a deep, structured 5-4-1 block and allowed Chelsea to have loads of possession in the final third.

Looking at it with an attacking lens, you might say that Chelsea were wasteful and brought the loss onto themselves as they couldn’t do anything with the ball and made plenty of mistakes. Ziyech and Sterling might appear to have had poor games on the ball because they were allowed freedom to have the ball near the box but failed to score or create a goal.

Looking at the game with a defensive lens, you might say that Chelsea were forced into poor decisions and to try something risky after having all their first, second, and third choices cut off by Tottenham’s players and shape. Tottenham were able to nullify anything Chelsea tried to do in the final third because they cut off all central routes into the box and forced Chelsea onto the flanks. Despite having tons of the ball right in front of Spurs’ box, Chelsea had just one shot in the box and hardly completed any passes into the box.

There’s no right or wrong in this analysis. It’s simply two different ways of describing the events that took place in the game. As I’m trying to develop my defensive lens, I’m of course going to watch all matches with a defensive viewpoint. I’ve stopped focusing as much into how teams are building up in possession and why, and more into how the team out of possession is shaping up to passively or actively defend that build up, and why. It’s a weird shift, to be honest, because so much analysis out there that I’ve learned from is focused on the whats & whys in possession, with relatively less on the whats & whys out of possession. Pressing is probably the only out of possession topic that comes to mind as having lots of detailed and varied analysis on, likely because many top teams in the 2010s were a pressing machine.

Similarly, individual bits of play can bee judged differently depending on the lens. Take this video below, for instance. The defensive lens I watched this game through made me view this play as Bakhtiyar Zaynutdinov forcing Arsen Zakharyan into a bad shot. Zaynutdinov comes out to meet Zakharyan and forces him onto his weaker left foot, making his split-second shot very poor. Conversely, an attacking lens might see that Zakharyan does well to beat one of the best center backs in the Russian Premier League this season before making a mistake and shooting far wide. Another interpretation might even say that Zakharyan beat Zaynutdinov and put in a good cross to a teammate right in front of the net who made a mistake when heading it. Again, none of these analyses are right or wrong. I view this from a defensive lens and see it as a Zaynutdinov victory, you may view this from an attacking lens and see it as a Zakharyan mistake.

Overall, the lens that we watch or analyze with will change how we perceive everything happening on the pitch. Particularly the “why” elements such as why did team A lose or why did team B struggle to create in the final third, among many others. I think most people tend to have an attacking lens as their base, which is understandable since the ball is always with the attacking/in possession team and we’re normally drawn to how a team moves the ball to try to score. Even from a stats/analytical point of view, the default is always in-possession. That makes sense, since basically every metric widely available to and used by the public is on the ball. Even the relatively few defensive-focused metrics. I’ve started trying to mitigate this for defense but it’s going to be fairly complicated and nearly impossible to do with most publicly available data sources.

The more I dive into defense, the more I realize how little I know about defending and how incredibly deep you can go. People have dissected Pep’s tactics thousands of times over and there are still elements I’m sure we’re missing. For every article diving into a team’s structure in possession, you could write an article diving into the opponent(s)’s structure out of possession. However wide or narrow the topic is, all in possession passages have a corresponding out of possession passage just waiting to be analyzed.

Funnily enough, in the middle of my journey to look at things from a different perspective than I had done for most of my analyses, my brother gifted me a book (Destiny Disrupted: A History of The World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary) which presents history and historical events through Muslim historians’ lenses. Ansary wrote the book for Western people in order to offer a different perspective into events that are naturally written from a Eurocentric viewpoint in the West. I’m working my way through the book now and beyond being a fantastic read, it’s a reminder that there are many ways to analyze any event.

Business research, football, history… analysis of events from all fields are products of their authors’ lenses. The term “beautiful football” is rarely used to describe strong, flexible, dominant defensive performances but might be used to describe the teams that play against those strong defenses and have 65% of the ball while scoring 1 goal and conceding 3. “Football lost today” is something you can read online after those matches. But changing the lens with which we look at an event, a passage of play, or a game allows different insight.

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