Counter-Attacking football:- A modern-day amalgamation

counter attack soccer

Modern-day managers are well-equipped with versatile formations and tactics, counter-attacking style in one such style which does seem pleasing when it pays off and a good amount of security for results makes it an effective weapon.

It is one which involves a team withdrawing players into their own half but ensuring one or two attacking players are there near the halfway line to start the quick break. The idea is to get strikers isolated from opposition defenders by lurking on the halfway line.

This is chiefly used when a team is leading in a game or when it is up against a tougher opposition and are happy to concede possession but not goals. As a tactic for the whole game, this can be reliable yet risky ploy if proper care is not taken. It is reliant on a solid defensive foundation that is meant to sit back, absorb pressure from the opposition and hit them on the break whenever possible.

This was all about the introduction to one of the most passive, yet effective styles in football. Now, let’s get straight to the tactics board and analyse the formations that are used to implement this style. There are three well-known formations that are used to implement this style of play, they are – 4-4-2, 4-5-1 (can be 4-1-4-1) and 3-5-2 (can be 5-3-2).

Let’s analyse these formations by means of tactics board and bring out some valuable points out of it:-

4-4-2 :-


As we see in the image above, the 4-4-2 formation which basically can be used both in possession style and as well as in counter-attacking style. In possession style, the wide players and midfielders will be higher up, whereas, in counter-attacking style, they’re deeper doubling up their roles with their defenders.

The two wide players are doubling up with their respective fullbacks filling up the gap in between the centre-back and full-back. This will ensure that no opposition crosses are allowed time and space. The two central midfielders will sit deep in front of their centre-backs not allowing any through balls in between the lines and cutting the central supply lines of opposition. Since they’re deeper, it will allow them to double up with their centre-backs to mark the strikers if needed.

When in possession, two outlets for their attack are the two strikers who are lurking in and around the central area. The alluring of the opposition into their own half means the wide areas are there to attack without being marked, so one of the forwards will occupy the wide areas for quick release of the ball, the other will be in between the opposition centre-backs trying to hold up play if the ball comes to him.

The wide men will join up the attack if the two strikers held up play and allow them the space to run into.

While defending, it’s like two banks of four defending their goal with each space covered, on the other hand, the attack is dependent on the two strikers and their ability to find the gaps in the opposition half and create space for others to attack.

This counter-attacking 4-4-2 was famously used by Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City and we all know how triumphant that was. They won the toughest league in Europe (Barclays Premier League) last season.

4-1-4-1 (or 4-5-1) :-


This is basically a conventional 4-1-4-1 which may be used for controlling the midfield and playing through the central lines with predominantly only one striker.

In counter-attacking style, this formation tweaks a bit, it becomes 4-5-1 just because the two midfielders ahead of the defensive midfielder (or the anchorman) are deeper than their usual positions, what this does is it fills up the gap in between the centre-back and full-back allowing wide men to be more adventurous in their attacking play and not only concentrate on doubling up and helping the fullbacks.

A lone striker is used with the ability to hold up the ball and allow runners from wide areas to support him. The two central midfielders will also look to run beyond him and create goal-scoring chances. The other role for the striker is to create space in between the last line of opposition defence for the central midfielders and wide men to attack.

Managers with 4-3-3 as their primary formation use this 4-5-1 as their defensive plan to hold the lead or to cut out any chance of space in behind their defence very easily.

3-5-2 (or 5-3-2) :-


As we see in the image above, the 3-5-2 formation. While defending it more often becomes 5-3-2. This is the other formation which can be used only in counter-attacking style.

The wing-backs act as fullbacks while defending, the centre-back of that side will double up and help out the fullback. The holding midfielder is there as an extra assurance ahead of the three centre-backs, the two central midfielders ahead of him will support the holding midfielder to cut the central supply lines.

While attacking, there are two strikers for the defenders to look up to as an outlet. Their job is to hold the ball and allow the support to arrive from wide and central areas. One of the two will also look to exploit the gap the opposition fullback vacated and try to create space centrally for runners and his partner. The two central midfielders will also look to play on the gap in between the centre-back and full-back to stand up crosses at the far post. The wing-backs will act as wide players while attacking, they will look to widen the play up with their clever runs and early crosses into the box.

If executed properly, it can provide a secure footing on which to build on while also being a deadly attacking tool that does not compromise a team defensively.  It serves as an effective organisational apparatus and the execution is quite straightforward. Just because of the safe outcomes and best bet results, many managers apply this whenever needed.

It has few drawbacks too, a team which hinges on this game-plan have fewer alternatives when they fall behind in the game, rather the manager has to change the style or formation which may affect the balance of the team.

If we see the broader picture, the success rate of this style is increasing day by day and it should increase the way teams are deploying it.

Modern-day football primarily hinges on results and not on a particular style of play, managers tend to use different styles for safety and for acquiring results in so-called ‘dirty’ way. Talking about results in a dirty way, one cannot forget Jose Mourinho, the master of counter-attacking style.

It was famously said – ” When a team can defend properly, counter-attack and score then they’re dangerous against any team with any style of play“.

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