The final and definitive objective in football is to score a goal. However, the way in which each team attacks its rival to achieve that objective can be very different from each other; there are teams that prefer to hold the ball for a long time and patiently build up their attack while other teams opt for the route one style which basically consists of jumping the opposition’s midfielder lines and sending the ball to the attackers so that they can score and there are teams that prefer the alternative of using counter-attack.
What is a Counter-Attack?
Counter-attack is a form of attack in football that consists of recovering the ball and immediately trying to reach the opposition’s box as quickly as possible and with the least number of touches in order to take advantage of the rival’s poor positioning and outnumber them as you do that. The player who recovers the ball starts the attack with vertical passes where some players from his own team will run to become a passing option and be part of the possible triangulation with which this form of attack is carried out. The surprise factor is key here.
Naturally, counter-attack is a considerably opposite style to that of controlling the possession of the ball and that is why it is often used as a tool to counter this way of playing. This was exemplified during Jose Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid. Mourinho often used the strategy that consisted of waiting for the opposing team, whose style was based on control and possession. Madrid focused on marking the possible pass receptors and trying to cut these passing lines. When recovering the ball he utilised players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Angel Di Maria to make counter-attacks.
What you need to Perform a Counter-Attack
This type of playing style requires having the players fully focused throughout the game and they must train said style to the point that the movements are completely internalized in such a way as to eliminate the possibility of doubt that may affect the correct decision-making, thus ruining the attack as well as wasting the effort of other teammates.
When is a Counter-Attack Essential?
It is a tool that is usually used in some particular scenarios despite the fact that there are managers who have it as part of their signature playing style, as if it were their trademark without necessarily entering the aforementioned scenarios. An example of one of the scenarios has already been mentioned. In cases where the counter-attack is used, when a team has been in possession of the ball for a long time, opponents commonly use this form of attack based on the fact that they already know in advance that they will not have the ball for long periods of time during the game and that they require some way to take advantage of those periods of time to attack the rival in an effective manner.
Although counter-attack is a playing style that can be characteristic of a team, it can also be another resource within the means that a team can have to handle the different situations that can arise in a football game. For example, in a match with two teams that are very evenly matched and with the result very tight (say a 1-0 or 2-1), the team that is winning can retreat a bit and wait for the opposing team, which is in the need to attack to score goals, and take advantage of that need so that at a certain moment, recover the ball and initiate a counter-attack that could mean the opportunity to score one more goal. In that case, the team that was winning can increase the difference from one to two goals.
Which Formation is Best for Counter-Attack?
Beyond the tactical training that a team can use for the counter-attack, it is mostly about having players who have the ability to recover the ball and the speed to carry out the counter-attack. In fact, there are cases like Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC that use their gegenpress to recover the ball and initiate a fast attack with players like Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah on the wings, this despite using a 4-3-3 formation normally related to Dutch football and with the offensive game.
The catenaccio popularized by the Argentinian manager Helenio Herrera in the 50s and 60s consisted of a quite defensive system in what was normally a 5-3-2 or a 5-4-1, with which he retreated, recovered the ball through a physical game and took advantage of the spaces left by rivals to go out to counter-attack. With this style, Herrera was twice European champion with Inter Milan, twice Spanish league champion with Atlético de Madrid, among many other collective successes. Because of Herrera’s achievements, the style became characteristic of Italian football.
The Jose Mourinho Way
Currently, among the managers who use the counter-attack the most is the aforementioned Jose Mourinho. A manager who has achieved many successes in different clubs such as FC Porto, Chelsea FC, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. In fact, in the latter team, there is a goal that is quite memorable because it perfectly exemplifies how a counter attack should be, which was scored by Cristiano Ronaldo against Ajax in the 2011-12 season. The Portuguese manager has alternated during his career with the 4-3-3 formation and with the 4-2-3-1.
The Diego Simeone Way
Argentinian manager Diego Simeone is another flagship of this style of play, which has led Atletico de Madrid to win the Spanish league over the two giants of that country, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, as well as having played two UEFA Champions League finals. Simeone has used a solid 4-4-2 in most of his time at the Spanish club with the particularity that the line of four midfielders uses 4 players with characteristics of central midfielders and one of the forwards as a second striker.
How to Counter-Attack?
A good counter-attack starts from a good defensive organization that limits the opposing team’s spaces and allows the team to retrieve the ball. From this point, the attacking teammates of the team that recovered the ball begin to move quickly in a vertical direction towards the rival goal so that the player with the ball starts the attack with a pass, which can be through the ground or aerial, short or long. The important thing here, is to gain as much space as possible, as fast as possible. Meaning, the opposing team is taken by surprise and does not have an adequate reaction to the situation and in this way to create a goal chance.
As already mentioned, there is no tactical training to play counter-attack. Its more a matter of internalizing the idea and having the right interpreters to carry that idea out. Players must understand what their role is within that idea since the more they understand what to do depending on the situation. Although it may seem obvious, it never hurts to mention it: the closer the ball is recovered to the opponent’s area, the higher the effectiveness of the counter-attack will be.
The way the ball is recovered varies depending on the team, and what the manager wants. The aforementioned case of Jürgen Klopp, who selectively uses gegenpress on certain players or certain areas of the pitch, is a way that has been gaining more and more followers. On the other hand, there are managers who prefer a more static defence that closes the spaces to the rival. This leads them to make a mistake that can later be capitalized with a good counter-attack.
Despite the media’s perception of the counter-attack game that, for some fans and journalists, it is not very appreciated and in some cases they tend to disqualify it, the truth is that it is a perfectly valid style, that is, it does not inflict any rules in the game of football and helps to balance a sport that, for certain reasons, can have very uneven matches. Some great football surprises have been thanks to this style. For example, the Portugal national team of that won the 2016 Euros beating rivals that were theoretically superior, such as the France national team. This is only the tip of the iceberg with respect to surprises that have been caused by using the counter-attacks as the main weapon in the offensive repertoire.