How to Defend 10v11
What we can learn from Arsenal's and Clermont Foot's draws vs. Liverpool and Reims, respectively.
If you don’t follow Ligue 1, you probably haven’t heard of Clermont Foot, a low-budget minnow that earned promotion to the top flight this season for the first time in their history.
Aside from being a club that looks to be doing reasonably well (16th with a game in hand on 15th-placed Metz; 15th in xGD p90) given their resources and past, there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about them.
Well, aside from one thing. They’ve managed to pick up red cards against four different opponents across 20 matchdays: Brest (Sep 19), Nantes (Oct 23), Lens (Dec 1), and Reims (Jan 9) — a record bested only by Lyon and Montpellier.
This is not a good a thing.
Based on a study done on the 2018/19 Premier League season, teams that went down a player lost 59% of the time. Only 23% of those matches resulted in victory for the disadvantaged side and a further 18% of encounters ended as draws.
Nevertheless, Clermont have had a remarkable habit of escaping from these situations with relatively favorable results, managing to split the points on three occasions and losing only once. Equally astonishingly, they’ve conceded a meager 3.3 xG across those four matches, which works out to ~0.83 per game.
That’s 60% better than the ~1.38 xG they concede on average!
There is definitely some noise here, but the film on their most recent ten-player performance reveals some intriguing characteristics on their defensive approach.
Clermont Foot vs. Reims
What stands out above everything else is the sheer aggression. Instead of sitting off in a deep block like 99.9% of teams with a numerical disadvantage, Clermont engaged at the halfway line from a nominal 4-4-1 that quickly morphed into a 4-2-3 or asymmetric 4-3-2.
In the second half, they even tried a high press here and there.
Partly dictated by the opposition, manager Pascal Gastien’s idea was to ensure pressing access to Reims’ back three so that they could halt progression early and play a more proactive role in guiding where possession flowed.
The demand on the wide players was high. The wingers had to alternate between tucking infield on the far side and stepping up once the ball came into their zone of control. The constant movement in and out of the front line created little gaps and positional variations that might’ve been fatal for a less-disciplined opponent.
Instead, Clermont were quick to adjust thanks to the clarity of their goals and responsibilities.
If the winger could not stunt at the CB, he would sink back to protect the midfield while the CM pushed up. If Reims decided to move to the touchline, the fullback would spring forward while either the CM or winger tracked runs into the channel.
Who did what was simply determined by which player was most-conveniently positioned to execute. Thus, from a fairly simple set of principles and duties, Gastien was able to build a remarkably resilient defensive system that emphasized aggressive positioning from the wingers and pressing from the fullbacks.
By denying progression down the ball side in this way, Reims were ultimately nudged into going for the big switch of play.
They did find some success from this:
However, their biggest chance arrived from a Clermont turnover after attempting to build out from the keeper, and moments like the ones in the video were few and far between.
Readers of John Muller’s now-halted newsletter will know that these sexy, Hail Mary passes don’t often result in much due to the difficulty of execution and the time it gives the opposition to recover. If there is one thing a defense should give up, it’s the long, high-arcing switch, especially if they have no choice but to give up something (because, let’s say, they got a red card).
Such passes should theoretically be more effective vs. ten players, but the athleticism and work-rate of fullbacks Vital N’ Simba and Akim Zedadka played a crucial role in reducing the margin for error on these deliveries.
This fusion of admirable physical and mental qualities and aggressive tactics were most visible seconds after Clermont lost possession.
Yes, this is a team with one less footballer counterpressing and doing so rather well.
Clermont Foot are proof that red cards aren’t a death sentence for proactive football. With the right personnel (namely, athletic, hard-working wide players) and tactical structure vs. the right opponent (Reims are 14th in the table — so, roughly of the same quality as Clermont), it is possible to end games with more possession than the opposition and just about as many chances.
Of course, sometimes you just have to be more “pragmatic.”
Enter: Arsenal vs. Liverpool
We’ll never know, but ten-player Clermont would probably get shredded by Liverpool, who specialize in vertical combination play and those big switches that result in mediocre outcomes for everyone that doesn’t have Trent Alexander-Arnold or Toni Kroos in their squad.
Mikel Arteta was undoubtedly aware of this when Granit Xhaka did a Granit Xhaka thing and got himself sent off in rather humorous fashion.
Arteta reacted by bringing off poor Eddie Nketiah for Rob Holding and instructed Arsenal to settle into a 5-3-1 deep block.
Jürgen Klopp would’ve wanted a better performance from his men, but there was a lot Arsenal did to counter Liverpool’s way of attacking set defenses, which is predicated on lots of big switches to set up free crosses and lateral circulation to open up space between the lines — the latter of which frequently leads to rapid combinations between members of the attack.
By going back five, Arteta made it easier for his men to cover lofted balls to the flanks, thus, increasing Liverpool’s dependence on more intricate patterns.
Arsenal used this to their advantage, turning up the intensity once a pass reached a touchline player in the final third. That extra man in defense afforded The Gunners the luxury of pressing with their fullbacks without having to push a central midfielder deep like Clermont. Instead, Arsenal were able to overload the flanks and maintain a rigid structure in the center whenever Liverpool tried to force their way through.
As a result, it became nigh on impossible for the Reds to play their high-tempo one-two’s and they often charged headfirst into turnovers. Their one nominal advantage was present in Fabinho, who theoretically would’ve allowed them to play back to the center to either: (1) quickly fire that more dangerous short and flat switch to the far side or (2) thread a ball between the adjusting midfield.
This is where Alexandre Lacazette came in, consistently back-pressing to deny a route back to the center once Liverpool decided to enter the block.
One of the most common, incorrect notions about deep blocks is that it paves the way for total passivity.
A low defensive line and compact banks constrict space and make valuable passes harder, but, given time and room, talented ball-players will hit runners and dictate the flow of possession to open cracks and eventually find the breakthrough. Many clubs are willing to accept this and produce annoying but beatable systems.
By contrast, the best deep blocks deploy passivity in a selective manner to pave the way for greater activity in areas considered favorable for the defense. In practice, this almost always means wielding docile, compact positioning to completely block off the center before pressing with vigor in wide areas.
Lacazette’s involvement against the ball represented Arsenal’s full commitment to this philosophy and enabled them to assume agency over where the ball would move and how.
Consequently, Liverpool managed exactly zero shots inside the box from the point of the red card to the 67th minute — a stunning length of time that amounts to nearly one half of football.
It wasn’t until the final minutes of regulation that Liverpool were able to fashion a penalty-area opportunity vs. the deep block (the 67th-minute Minamino cross-shot came in transition) — a fluffed Minamino volley that was only barely within 18 yards.
Here were the real chances Liverpool created, which arose due to unconvincing goalkeeping from Aaron Ramsdale rather than structural breakdowns:
Add in a 91st-minute Curtis Jones shot from a tough angle and that concludes the summary of Liverpool’s attempts from inside the area. In other words, an offensive juggernaut failed to create a single good chance as a result of disorganizing and out-maneuvering Arsenal’s deep block.
Arteta’s tactics worked (not having to face Mohamed Salah also certainly helped), creating a possible blueprint for teams to replicate if they ever find themselves 10v11.
Although, as Clermont Foot showed, there is no one right way. Depending on the context, one could press and counterpress with proactive wingers and fullbacks just as they could sit off with a defensive striker. What is non-negotiable is a clear sense of tactical structure, the attitude and belief to execute, and a desire to direct possession into zones favored by the defense, whether that be from a gung-ho 4-2-3 or a cautious 5-3-1.
High press or low block; ten players or eleven — good defenses always determine their own destiny.