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Exploring Bayern Munich And Borussia Dortmund: Total Defending And Verticality Led To The German Reign

Bayern Munich absolutely destroyed Barcelona seven-nil on aggregate on their way to the Champions League crown and it wasn’t just the result which simply demonstrated the dominance of one team over the other – it was a symbolic gesture of the type of football that is now needed to succeed in Europe. This type of football can be summed up in one word – balance. Bayern are the modern version of Sacchi’s AC Milan in that they have everything any team could ever wish for: attack, defence, transitions, set pieces, fitness. This team is quickly becoming every coach’s manual to base their training principles on. However there is one particular aspect of their play which I would like to focus on in this article: Their defence.

Total Defending

Total football is a phrase used to describe the movements of players when in the attacking phase of play, that is, when we have the ball. It is based on fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your team mates runs. In this way, players use the movements of their team mates for reference rather than zones on the pitch. However, total football is almost seldom used in reference to the defending phase of play. The reason, because almost every team in Europe plays a zonal based defence, positioning themselves in a particular area of the pitch and rarely moving away from it. I can only remember one team in Europe who have used pure man marking – Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao who used this tactic to great effect on a rainy night in San Mames a few years ago against Barcelona. The problem with this way of defending is that it requires an extreme amount of concentration, discipline, commitment and fitness. Hence, few teams are able to implement it effectively. It should now be clear that any particular team should deploy either zonal or man to man defending, but not both. This is where Bayern come in. I believe that they have quite possibly set a new trend in defending tactics, matching the significance of Sacchi’s invention – total defending

It is well known that Arrigo Sacchi, who is widely regarded to have mastered the art of zonal marking, is to have said that there should be no more that 25 metres between the strikers and the defenders. The reason for this is to constrict the space in a vertical sense, hence reducing the distances between players and thus making it more difficult for the offensive team to pass or dribble right through the middle of this compacted space. The problem with this tactic (and any other) comes from geometry. Let’s take a pitch with dimensions of 100m by 60m – this equates to 6000 square metres in area. If we take the goalkeeper out of the equation, each outfield player would have to cover 600 square metres, or about 25m by 25m in order to cover the whole area of the field. This means that when all players on one team are evenly spaced out, no player is closer than 25 metres to his nearest teammate.

Breaking it down this way, it becomes clear just how much space is to be found on a football pitch. So why is all this a problem you may ask? In simple terms it means that it is not possible to defend the whole pitch. Consequently, in theory at least, no defending tactic can reach optimal efficiency. If a team chooses to defend via a high pressing tactic, space will be left behind their block. Alternatively, a tactic of defending in a low and compact block will allow space in front of the block and allow the other team to possess the ball. The logical conclusion to take from the theoretical resultant of these two systems of defending is that the best method to achieve the highest possible efficient way of defending is a hybrid of both low to medium block compact defence and a high pressing defence.

Total defending is a hybrid between zonal and man to man marking used in a clever way. It involves two phases of play: high pressing and low block defending. Bayern have mastered the art of structurally changing the way they defend mid-game. In other words, they interchange between man marking and zonal marking as the situation demands. Against Barca, there were times when Bayern chose to press high up the pitch, using the cue whenever Valdes had the ball. It is important to understand the situation of the game in this phase of play. Both Barca fullbacks are to be found right beside the sideline providing width. Both centre backs have split wide and the midfielders are spread out. Essentially, Barca are opening up the pitch to create as much space as possible.

Consequently, the distance between players has increased. What might have been 10 yards is now 30 yards and this affects not only Barca’s shape, but Bayern’s as well. If Bayern choose to press high when Barca are in this formation, Bayern will essentially be man on man in midfield which is a potentially dangerous situation if Barca can play out of the high pressure. This is where the cleverness of Bayern comes into play. Ribery, Robben and Manzukic will engage the back five of Barca including Valdes, whereas the midfield trio of Kroos, Sweinstiger, and Martinez defend zonally. As soon as a Barca player receives the ball into their midfield zone they will pressure him immediately. Even more clever is the way that Bayern’s players can leave their zone to follow his man further away from his own goal and force the play back to Valdes. If this happens, a player that is away from the zone of danger, i.e. far away from the ball, will replace the player who has just left his zone.

In this way, the whole team mimics the positional rotation of the Dutch total football, only in defence. The advantage in defending in this very adaptable way is that the best tactic can be used at the best times. If the situation of the game requires a high press they can do it. It is the same with pure zonal or man to man defending.

On a theoretical basis, total defending is the most efficient way of defending. Think about it this way – pretend you are selling paint to artists. If you only have three colours – red, blue and yellow – you can only sell them to painters who want those colours. What happens if an artist asks you for some green paint? If you can only sell the paints individually, you will lose a customer. However, if you have the ability to combine blue and yellow, you can now sell green paint and expand your customer base. In football, the customer base is the other teams in the league and if you have the ability to combine all types of defending, you can play better against a wider range of teams. Certain opponents are better suited to certain ways of defending against. Bayern are the masters of mixing their core colours to create the perfect balance to counteract specific qualities and strengths. While they may never achieve maximum efficiency or be able to cover the whole pitch, they are the closest thing when it comes to defending perfection.


In a period of the game where possession is preached ad nauseum, it is refreshing to watch Borussia Dortmund display a brand of football, while not revolutionary, different to most teams in a subtle but noticeable way. They play with a tactical mechanism called ‘verticality‘. Heavily influenced by a modern genius in Marcelo Bielsa, verticality is simply a reference to a style of play where the ball is brought from back to front as quickly as possible using short passing combinations. In essence, a slow, possession based build up is discouraged in favour of a more direct and quicker build up where the ball travels forward rather than from side to side.

Bielsa himself explains this philosophy in a nutshell,

once we have the ball, we try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible, in a vertical direction if you like. But we don’t get frustrated if we can’t get it forward immediately, we aim to be comfortable on the ball, and if it’s not a case of going forward straight away, we keep it.”

Klopp is not as idealistic as Bielsa but his team certainly display a characteristic of Bielsa’s teams. Dortmund are much like Bayern in that they can adapt to what is being recruited from them. They can keep possession for the sake of it or they can introduce a rapidity into their attack on the transition, which they are deadly at doing.

“I support a football more urgent and less patient. Because I’m anxious, and also because I’m Argentine.” -Marcelo Bielsa.

Perhaps the roots of the concept of verticality came from the father of modern statistical analysis, English coach Charles Reep, who was famous for his unwavering belief that teams should adopt a direct ball approach since, according to his statistics, most goals resulted in moves of three passes or fewer. He argued that the quicker the ball was moved into the opponents’ penalty box, the greater the chance of scoring. In simple terms, Reep was a believer of long ball football. While Dortmund are certainly not a long ball team, they possess an adeptability for Bielsa’s vertical approach. In fact, Klopp is a known admirer of Bielsa. The Argentine coach believes that vertical penetration using quick passing combinations brings about winning football. In this way it is a pragmatic concept as well as an idealistic one.

Much like total defending where many modes of defence combine to create a model as close to perfect as possible, the combination of possession and counter attack work in much the same way. The problem with possession is that, while having the ball is certainly more desirable than not having it, you force the other team into sitting deep in a low block defence. This is the bane of possession orientated teams such as Barcelona. In order to overcome this incessant and repetitive obstacle, the possession team must provoke the opponent with the ball either during a rapid counter attacking transition or during the build up phase. Andre Villas-Boas explains the concept of provoking the opponent with the ball using verticality:

There are more spaces in football than people think. Even if you play against a low block team, you immediately get half of the pitch. And after that, in attacking midfield, you can provoke the opponent with the ball, provoke him to move forward or sideways and open up a space. But many players can’t understand the game. Top teams nowadays don’t look to vertical penetration from their midfielders because the coach prefers them to stand in position (horizontally) and then use the movement of the wingers as the main source to create chances.

So, you, as a coach, have to know exactly what kind of players you have and analyse the squad to decide how you want to organise your team offensively. And then, there are maybe some players more important than others. For instance, many teams play with defensive pivots, small defensive midfielders. And, except Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso, and maybe Esteban Cambiasso and one or two more, they are players that are limited to the horizontal part of the game: they keep passing the ball from one side to another, left or right, without any kind of vertical penetration. Can’t you use your defensive midfielder to introduce a surprise factor in the match? Let’s say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration?

Barcelona play horizontally only after a vertical pass. See how the centre backs go out with ball, how they construct the play. They open up (moving wider), so that the right or left-back can join the midfield line. Guardiola has talked about it: the centre backs provoke the opponent, invite them forward then, if the opponent applies quick pressure the ball goes to the other central defender, and this one makes a vertical pass. Not to the midfielders, who have their back turned to the ball, but to those moving between lines, Andres Iniesta or Lionel Messi, or even directly to the striker.

At this time of ultra-low defensive block teams, you will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot. Louis Van Gaal’s idea is one of continuous circulation, one side to the other, until the moment that, when you change direction, an space opens up inside and you go through it. So, he provokes the opponent with horizontal circulation of the ball, until the moment that the opponent will start to pressure out of despair. What I believe in is to challenge the rival by driving the ball into him.

In order to create space when a team is defending in a compact block, it is necessary to play the ball vertically, bypassing opposition players and making them turn towards their own goal. Now the attacking team has the advantage because the opposition midfielders are no longer shifting laterally – rather, they are running back towards their own goal which is a much less comfortable and organised way of defending. Defenders will get sucked infield, towards the ball and leave themselves open for passes to the flanks where the players have just left this space to contend with the threat of the vertical ball centrally. Klopp has masterminded a team which is deadly when they regain possession and the other team is not organised to defend as a group. Within one or two passes the ball has travelled forward and seized the space before the opponents have had sufficient time to close up. This is the key to Borussia Dortmund’s game and it is a glimpse into the growing part that verticality has to play in modern football.

What Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have shown us this season is that balance is still a key factor in a successful team. The ability to interchange between systems mid game has come back into focus when the Barcelona model had previously shown us that only one system was needed, if implemented well enough, to be successful. The true success has been total defending and verticality.