In this episode of Game Insights, Chris Loxston (Group Leader Football Performance Analysis & Insights), Arsène Wenger (Chief of Global Football Development) and Pascal Zuberbühler (Senior Football & Goalkeeping Expert) offer their analysis of the tactical system deployed by Al Ahly during their FIFA Club World Cup 2021™ win over Monterrey. The trio explain how the Egyptian outfit set up in a low block and shine the spotlight on the main tactical aspects as they launched counter-attacks that sought to expose the opposition’s defence. The three experts then take a look at some of the roles performed by individual players within the low block and their responsibilities as the team transition into the counter-attack. Loxston, Wenger and Zuberbühler round off their analysis by discussing the importance of supporting runs and how the opposition can set up to counter such a system.
Part 1: Mechanics of Al Ahly’s counter-attack
Core components of Al Ahly’s low block
Al Ahly set up with a low block and adopt a very aggressive approach. Their objective is to lure the opposition into their own half, win the ball back and then break forward as quickly as possible in an effort to outnumber the opposition in the final third.
Al Ahly v. Monterrey (FIFA Club World Cup 2021™ second round)
Al Ahly position themselves in a low block in which they anticipate the moment they can win the ball and transition into a counter-attack. Once they regain possession, their first instinct is to play a forward pass, with the centre-forward making a long, direct run through the centre of the pitch, supported by the wingers, who run into the channels. At the same time, the defensive line pushes up quickly to the halfway line.
Importance of the first pass
“It is important to play the first pass forward in a counter-attack, because if you play a sideways pass or a back pass, the opponent has time to regroup and to recreate the defensive structure, so you don’t give them time. A characteristic of modern football is the quick transition, from defence to attack and attack to defence, and to use that moment where the opponent is disorganised.” (AW)
Defending the width of the penalty area
Another feature of the Egyptian side’s low block is how they organise themselves to ensure that they cover the width of the penalty area and protect the centre of the goal. Although they leave the wide areas open, they have plenty of players positioned centrally to deny the opposition space and deal with any crosses that may come in. The main objective of the low block is to prevent the opposition’s access to goal.
Defending with aggression and anticipation
To enable the team to break away on the counter-attack, the Al Ahly centre-back anticipates passes into the opposing centre-forward and aggressively steps out to intercept or make a tackle. He is backed up by the centre-midfielders, who aggressively fight for second balls, and once they win it, they play into the channels for the wide players to chase.
Part 2: Player commitment to principles of Al Ahly’s low block
Role of the central midfield duo
Within the low block, the two centre-midfielders are tasked with preventing the opposition from playing through them. To do this effectively, they stick very close together so as to prevent the opposition from playing the ball into the strikers, and instead, force them to play out wide.
Shuffling across to cover
When the right wing-back charges out to press the opposing wide player, it is the centre-back’s responsibility to realise this and shuffle across to cover the vacated space. Once the first centre-back shuffles across to cover, the other two centre-backs follow suit and shuffle across in tandem to again cover spaces and bridge gaps.
Aggressive defending at set pieces
In this clip, we can see how Al Ahly use a blend of man-to-man and zonal marking. Inside the six-yard box, they employ zonal marking, whilst everywhere else they deploy man-to-man marking. Monterrey play a short corner and the centre-forward, Hussein El Shahat, double-presses the ball. Meanwhile, the entire defence pushes out to press the ball as they look to win possession and launch a counter-attack.
Importance of playing quick
“When being aggressively pressed in a situation like this, it shows that the maximum time you have on the ball is two touches. Even here, with two touches on the ball, play got intercepted because it was not quick enough.” (AW)
Al Ahly’s defensive actions
The heat maps show how Monterrey’s defensive actions are spread across the pitch as they tried to build play and attack. In contrast, Al Ahly’s defensive actions are highly concentrated in front of their own goal as they looked to suck the opposition in and catch them on the counter-attack.
Part 3: Dynamics of Al Ahly’s counter-attack
Winning the ball back
“Many balls in the modern game are won like this; they are not necessarily won by the player who is facing the ball, but many times by the player who is coming back and is behind the attacker. In today’s game, the modern characteristic (of winning the ball back) is done by the players who are coming back and are not seen by the player who has the ball. They are not expecting a player to come in like that, and so it happens because the player in possession is not aware of it.” (AW)
Al Ahly win the ball and begin to mount a quick counter-attack. Here, the centre-forward performs a short movement to catch the defender out. By dropping to receive the ball, he drags the centre-back with him before quickly changing direction and spinning into the space behind. His team-mates are aware that he will make this short movement and so play the ball over the top as they look to put him in on goal.
Supporting runs from behind
In this instance, Al Ahly stop another Monterrey attack from developing and immediately play forward into the centre-forward as they aim to mount a counter-attack. As soon as the ball is played for the centre-forward to chase, the two wingers burst forward to provide support from behind. Their objective is to offer the centre-forward passing options or pick up any second balls, before driving into the channels.
Breaking in numbers
As soon as Al Ahly win the ball back, they immediately spring forward in numbers to take advantage of the spaces left behind by the opposition. Here, we can see seven players making long runs and looking to support the counter-attack, which despite requiring a lot of energy, is incredibly difficult for Monterrey to defend.
Playing against the counter-attack
When facing a team that sets up with a low block and looks to counter-attack, there are typically two solutions. Firstly, you can try to bring the opposition out of their defensive positioning by giving them the ball and allowing them to dominate you so that you can counter-attack them instead. This option involves you defending deep. Alternatively, you can play a very high block and look to win the ball back as quickly as possible to prevent the counter-attack.