It's fair to say most soccer fans have learned a lot about football tactics in recent years. Pundits, commentators, and players have become more fluent in the technical terms and theories that impact the modern game, as more time is dedicated to thinking deeply about the shapes and systems behind the teams we all love to watch.
Whether it's zonal marking, gegenpressing, or the Italian defensive system of catenaccio, diving deep into the tactical ideas that have influenced the beautiful game over the years can help shine a light on what's going on in elite leagues today. That's why in this article, we'll be exploring the concept of the low block.
Today, we'll be providing you with a detailed definition of what a low block is in soccer. We'll provide some tips about how to teach players the practicalities of defending in a low block, and we'll also explain how to break this defensive system down. And to flesh things out a little, we'll also look at some teams that have received attention for using a low block defensive unit on the biggest of stages. But let's start with the basics.
A low block is a defensive strategy that's employed when the opposition team has possession of the ball. In a low block, the defensive back line forms a compact, deep-lying unit that's designed to limit the space available between them and the goal. The priority of the low block is keeping a deep defensive line that stops the opposition from finding space and creating chances in advanced attacking areas.
It's not just the back line - whether that's the back four of a 4-2-3-1 formation or the back five of a defensively-minded 3-5-2 shape - a low block also requires the support of a strong, well-disciplined midfield unit. The midfield focuses on protecting the defensive line behind them and acting disciplined in a low block, staying compact and keeping the gaps in between each defensive line to an absolute minimum in order to restrict the space available to the opposition. Often, the defensive unit will be lined up as two compact banks of four (defence and midfield), with two more attacking players stationed higher up the pitch, pressing the ball when out of possession.
This defensive strategy is called a low block because it revolves around players often remaining within their own defensive third, sitting deep in a 'low' area of the pitch — the basic alternatives to a low block are a mid-block, in which the middle third of the pitch is a team's main area of focus, and a high press, in which teams look to be on the front foot, winning the ball back in the attacking third and creating chances that way.
However, don't be fooled into thinking that because a low block system turns its attention to the defensive third, it isn't capable of creating goalscoring chances. To elaborate on that point, let's spend some time discussing the benefits that can be accessed when a team defends deep in a low block.
First and foremost, using this system effectively can make a team extremely difficult to break down. By forming a compact shape, restricting space in your own defensive third, and cutting out passing lanes in advanced positions, a low block can prevent opponents from picking up the ball in attacking areas, or doing anything useful when they do manage to get it. This is particularly true in central areas of the pitch, where attackers will be crowded out by a strong, compact defensive wall that they'll struggle to break down.
Aside from the defensive solidity provided by this shape, low blocks are also excellent when it comes to generating dangerous counter-attacking opportunities. Once a defender or a midfielder playing in a low block wins the ball, the fact that most of the players on the pitch are so deep in their defensive third means that there's a huge amount of space behind the opposition to exploit. A couple of well-placed passes and perfectly-timed runs, and the team that's sitting deep can suddenly explode into the opposition half and create dangerous chances against a wide-open defence that has been focusing most of their energy on helping break down the low block in the other half of the soccer field. So although most low blocks are rightly seen as a defensive-minded strategy, there are also huge opportunities for attacking success.
Some people can be very critical of this deep-lying defensive strategy. For instance, when you hear the phrase "parking the bus", generally the person using it will be describing a low block system, usually in a negative way. Some fans and pundits have even been known to call it "anti-football". Regardless of whether your opinions on this strategy are that strong, it's undeniable that this is a defence-first system, and therefore it can restrict your attacking options.
For example, when a team playing with a low block gains possession, they're often so deep and under so much pressure from the opposition that it can be difficult to retain the ball and move up the pitch. If you don't have players who are able to pick out a perfect pass or make a perfectly-timed run into a more attacking zone, it's likely that when you do get the ball you'll simply give it straight back to the opposition. Which brings us to another key point...
When you defend in a low block, you largely surrender possession to the opposition. Not only will this be frustrating for any of your players who like to regularly have the ball at their feet, it also requires a huge amount of focus and concentration. When you're constantly on the defensive, trying to maintain positional awareness and discipline while your opponents dominate the ball, you can't switch off for a second, or you'll be punished. Over the course of 90 minutes, this can be hugely draining, and if you don't have 11 players who are totally committed to this prolonged session of marking space, shifting positions, and staying tight, you could be in for a long night. But with all that being said, there are still plenty of coaches who believe strongly in the benefits of the low block.
Crowding the space in front of goal using a deep-lying, compact defensive line is a strategy that has been successful in some of the most famous football matches in modern times.
Diego Simeone is one coach who is famed for his defensive acumen, so it's probably no surprise to you that he's a big fan of a low block. Generally, this will be using a narrow shape, because his Atletico Madrid teams over the years have been comfortable leaving space out wide and winning any crosses that are sent into the box.
Jose Mourinho is perhaps the most successful proponent of the low block. He's shown at clubs such as Inter Milan and Chelsea that using a low block combined with a potent counter-attacking threat can be a hugely effective tactic when it comes to winning trophies - his incredible success in the Champions League is a testament to this (here, he explains the low block shape used in Inter's famous 3-1 win over Barcelona in 2010).
Here are a few simple tips for coaches looking to use this defensive strategy effectively:
While it can be extremely effective to sit deep in the defensive third of the pitch and focusing on compactness and rigidity (particularly when it comes to winning knockout competitions like the Champions League), this strategy does have its pitfalls, as we've already explored. Ultimately, with the right tools at your disposal, you can break down a low block and create great goalscoring opportunities. Here's how.
Width is absolutely crucial when it comes to breaking down the low block. Because this shape is all about being compact and structured (as noted in relation to Diego Simeone's narrow block), there's often plenty of space in the areas of the pitch where the ball isn't. For instance, if a team is building possession down the right hand side, it's likely there's a wide open space on the left flank. Through cleverly timed switches of play that open up space in behind and exploit the narrow shape of the low block, players can advance into threatening positions. By occupying the half-spaces, uses wide overlaps, and quick, intricate passing triangles, the defensive line of the opposition can be breached.
While on the subject of wide overlaps, it's worth mentioning that one of the best tools available when it comes to breaking down a low block is the attacking full-back. These days, many full-backs are extremely attack-minded, and if a coach is able to utilise them to make intelligent runs, combine with midfield players and create overloads in wide areas that draw opponents out of position, these full-backs can be the key to unlocking the back line.
Next time you watch a knockout tie between a huge European giant and a relative minnow, see whether the underdog employs a low block strategy when out of possession. Watching this strategy live can be fascinating — and often, it can be difficult to really understand a tactical theory until you've seen it play out in a real life game.
Want to find out about another element of soccer tactics that's experienced a huge surge in popularity? Check out our guide to the German counter-pressing strategy Gegenpressing.