Marijan Pušnik is a Slovenian UEFA PRO coach with an excellent reputation thanks to his great work with many professional teams and his ability to develop the potential of young players. As a founder of a youth academy, he has the ability not only to coach soccer, but also to organize it. Fine tactician, his knowledge and his fantastic passion of the game will be very helpful when trying to answer our question.
Mr. Pušnik, what is your definition of a counter attack and how does a team perform it effectively?
“The accent in the counter attack style of play lays on the defensive team
function, with the emphasis being on the defender’s own half of the field
and letting the opponents keep the initiative of the game. This is to take
advantage of the space behind their defense for the buildup and the attack.”
The aim is to quickly move the ball forward toward the opponent’s goal by passing or dribbling with the purpose of scoring a goal.
A counterattack is a quick attack into the opposition half by the defending team after winning the ball from the team who was previously attacking.
The aim of this type of soccer is to catch the opponent on the “break”. When they give away possession in midfield or attack, opposing players will tend to be further up the field than usual and may not be able to quickly adjust to a defensive mindset. Counter-attacking soccer may involve leaving one or two strikers near the half-way line in the hope that a through ball can be played to catch the opponent off guard. In other cases, defenders and midfielders may join in the counter-attack, trying to outnumber or otherwise overtake the opposition by quick and intelligent movement and fast passes. Speed is an important factor both in offense and defense, as the probability of scoring decreases sharply when the opponent has managed to organize their defense. This type of game was displayed well by the quick, counter-attacking play of Germany in the 2010 FIFA World Cup or Nederland in Euro 2008. ( etc..)
Counter Attacking players must react quickly! There has to be an attitude to quickly change pace and commit players forward and attempt to exploit the opposition with numbers down. Our opponents are at their most vulnerable, immediately after a turn-over when the defending units are disorganized.
Once possession has been recovered speed of thought and action are the keys to success. Speed of thought requires all players to react and become attackers, either with or without the ball, or in support of others should possession be lost again.
Speed of action means the ball being transferred to a scoring opportunity in the quickest way possible. Players should be supporting in front of the ball as well as behind. An ‘outlet’ forward(s) should always be concentrating on being in the best forward position they could occupy and ready to bring those around them into play quickly to maximise the potential of the situation.
Accuracy of passing is essential, especially if the forward is a lone striker and likely to be outnumbered by defenders, therefore although ‘channelled’ passes deep into the defensive corners may offer the option of counter attack, the pass that enables the forward to control quickly will pay greater dividends. The number of touches should be kept at a minimum to ensure the ball is transferred quickly.
Anticipation of forward movements by teammates and confidence in their ability will allow support players to seek positions to cause maximum danger for defenders and speed of movement will severely test the defender’s ability to organise defensively while trying to support and cover colleagues.
Key coaching points for the Counter Attack are:
a. The team’s defensive organization is in its own half:
Teams will want to “limit the space behind the back line and the goal.” The ‘defending’ will start around the midfield line. It’s important that individuals don’t chase the ball too deeply into the opponents half and leave gaps between the lines. Each line must stay compact and avoid getting separated from the other’s creating a ‘block’ defense. “In the first place, a good counter attack team needs to have a strong defensive line with players who will remain calm even under high pressure.
b. Use the organization to stop the opponents build up and attack:
With so many players committed to defending in such a small area the attackers are faced with significant problems.
c. Defenders keep the play in front of them:
By limiting the space behind them, defenders can be content to allow the attackers possession as long as they play in front of them and just outside shooting range. While the player with the ball must be pressurized it is not at the expense of the defensive organization.
d. Launching the counter attack:
The decision of whether to counter or build up the attack must be made immediately. As soon as the ball is won or even better, before. Good players will read the situation, calculate the probabilities, make a decision and act. Speed of thought and action is essential for successful counter attacks. It’s vital that counter attacking teams use the few seconds that they have before the opponents can reorganize into their defensive shape.
e. The counter is on when:
The player who has won the ball can find a target forward. This means that he’ll have to be facing the opponents goal and have the space to pass forward and a target to pass to.
f. The runs:
In counter attacking soccer teams can count on certain situations repeatedly. The ball is usually won in recurring situations and players are usually in certain positions. It has a predictable nature. “When a counter attack team regains possession of the ball, certain players will run set patterns (pattern play) so the counter attack will be successful and can be performed at a high tempo. On the other hand, every player can get involved in the counter attack as long as the situation allows for this. It is all about choosing the correct moment to get involved.
Strengths and weakness. The counter attacking style is the easiest to organize and is the best guarantee of getting a result. Compared to the play making style the technical and physical requirements are lower. However, there is still a great demand on individual and team discipline and the need for speed on the break out is absolutely vital. A big problem for teams that are dependent on the counter attacking style is how they adapt when the opponent is leading on the scoreboard.
COACHES must apply the following counter attacking guidelines:
• Forwards concentrating on adopting the best position to take advantage of regained possession.
• Pass selection, running ball selection to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
• Midfield players making supporting runs to adopt supporting positions, (creating space) for the forward player as well as creating problems of marking for the retreating defenders trying to mark players or cover space.
• Restricting possibilities for the defenders to get tight to opponents, or to offer good angles and distances for support or to create successful balance and cover by getting forward in support quickly.
• End product is to finish with an attempt on goal.
When trying to improve this particular style of play, the drills should begin with an attempted through ball or shot that is intercepted. This can be done from either side of the pitch and then from the centre to allow players to experience all the situations they will be confronted to. Once possession is secured, the coach must emphasise the need for quick reactions, creation of space and pass selection. Above all, he must emphasise the need for an end product.
KEY points for PLAYERS and COACHES in counter attack:
1. Quick transition from defensive position to offensive position.
2. Look to play the ball forward early.
3. Encourage the players to enlarge space.
4. Transitions should be quick and the game should maintain a good tempo
5. Watch for players to get their heads up early to look to pass to the most forward player if he is open.
6. Counter Attacking players need to think quickly.
7. Force players inside when pressing high up the field (forcing them back into the midfield masses to deny space).
8. Prevent the ball being passed forward is the ultimate goal, players pressing don’t have to win the ball.
9. Discuss individual defending techniques, i.e. side on, get there fast arrive slow, don’t overcommit, on toes, focus on the ball, goal side defending, stay on feet,…
10. Slide as a unit to the side of the field the ball is on to compact the field.
11. Communication – Tell teammates to press (step!) when needed.
12. Man marking to deny space.
13. Curved runs to cut off forward passing options if needed to block potential passing channels down the line.
14. Can we do anticipation marking (anticipate and intercept the ball before being received
15. Discuss the decision of when to press and when not to press (i.e. Can I close down and force an error or win the ball, or will I just be beaten with a pass past me?).
16. Press together when pressing!
As I was talking to Mr. Pušnik for this interview, he told me an anecdote that happened to him and here it is:
I was in Vienna attending a seminar and Mr. Roy Hodgson (currently WBA head coach) was talking about the counter attack and was showing drills on this theme. At the evening dinner, I had the opportunity to speak with him and I bravely told him that, in my opinion, the drills weren’t quite effective. He started to laugh and told me that he didn’t write this part of the presentation and that he never played this style of game. He preferred to play pressing on the opponent’s half ! Truth told, one should use counter attacks only if his team has low quality in comparison to the other team. If you base your game only on that type of play, what do you do when you’re behind at the scoreboard???