A tight defence, balanced midfield and flowing attack; these are the three components that make a great football team. Down the years, national teams and club sides have been deficient in particular departments with success; but which is the easier way to succeed?

 2019 Champions League winners Liverpool had a fantastic forward line and a famously leaky defence a couple of years ago. With the supreme talents of Roberto Firmino, Phillipe Coutinho and Sadio Mané in attack which yielded 37 league goals between them playing Jürgen Klopp’s energetic high-pressing style. The heart of defence was so often Liverpool’s undoing, however, with a lack of clean sheets the main reason why they couldn’t be serious title challengers, conceding 42 goals. Centre back pairing Joël Matip and Dejan Lovren had similar campaigns statistics-wise; in tackles per game (1.6 and 1.4), interceptions (1.6 each), blocks(0.4 and 0.6) and  clearances (5.3 and 6.3 respectively). Although the best tackler in the team was holding midfielder Jordan Henderson (3.7) followed by fullbacks James Milner(2.6) and Nathaniel Clyne (2.2) it only highlights the dependence on the midfield and fullbacks to win the ball high up the pitch.

Virgil Van Dijk has been key to Liverpool’s success. Image Credit: PA/ PA Sports

Beyond the forward press however, existed a well-known weakness in defence. Virgil Van Dijk joined Liverpool for a world-record fee for a defender in January 2018 to shore up the defence, and in 14 league games registered the most clearances in the team (5.6). 18 months since his arrival, the Dutchman has become one of the best defenders in the world, with Liverpool now a stricter defensive unit that conceded only 22 goals in the premier league last season. The season of course ended in second place with a record points tally of 97 and a sixth Champions league trophy.

Inter players with the Champion league trophy in 2010. Image Credit: Getty Images 

Inter Milan won the treble in 2010 playing very compact under José Mourinho, the most successful pragmatic coach in European football. In that famous Champions league triumph Lucio racked up 4.4 tackles, 8.8 clearances and 3.6 interceptions per game. His central defensive partner, Walter Samuel registered 1.5 tackles, 1.6 interceptions and 5.2 clearances per game. Inter’s dependence on the counter-attack meant low but efficient attacking numbers such that the most creative member of the squad, Wesley Sneijder, registered 3 key passes and 2.9 shots per game yielding six assists and three goals. Even top scorer Diego Milito managed 1.7 shots per game but finished the competition with six goals.

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José Mourinho won his second champions league trophy with Inter in 2010. Image Credit: Getty Images

The peak of Inter’s style during that successful Champions League season was the counter-attacking masterclass in the semifinal win over Barcelona, which showed their effective use of situations in the game, culminating in the 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the final. Inter had 32% ball possession in the final but produced seven shots at goal and two goals. The Opening goal at the showpiece came from a long Julio Cesar kick and a one-two between Sneijder and Milito. Showing the world that they only needed to remain compact and their attackers would thrive on the spaces they found on the counter.

France lifting the World cup trophy. Image Credit: AP

 France won the world cup playing a counter-attacking style but crucially they had a core that was willing to work for the team. Raphael Varane, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba won the most aerial challenges across the team as none of their midfielders had up to an average of 52 passes per game. The idea was to dominate the midfield with N’Golo Kanté holding, Pogba marauding forward with late runs and Blaise Matuidi tucking in from his left wing position to add protection to the centre. Varane, Pogba, Kanté and Samuel Umtiti played the most long passes into Giroud in attack, the Chelsea man held the ball up for the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe who used their pace to exploit spaces on the counter after he had drawn defenders.

Paul Pogba was one of the catalysts behind France’s successful world cup campaign. Image credit: Martin Meissner/AP

This particular tactic worked a treat as Griezmann and Mbappe had a fantastic tournament with four goals each and individual honours to boot. Mbappe taking the best player award and Griezmann the Bronze ball, ironically, Giroud who was the reference point behind most of their attacks failed to score.

Possessing a fluid attack is entertaining but never guarantees success, a balanced midfield is important but no team was successful without a mean defence. It is safe to say being defensively compact is easier but Liverpool could not show for their swashbuckling attack and became serious trophy challengers after they solved their defensive issues. You simply cannot win anything in football without a good defence.


Bolu Alabi-Hundeyin

Chief Editor of the Football Castle, Bolu Alabi-Hundeyin is a football junkie and writer of the beautiful game.

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