Breaking Defensive Lines With 1 Pass

You play football with your head. Your feet are just there to hep you

Johan Cruyff

Pirlo, Xavi and many other midfield geniuses surprised more than once with their ability to unlock games with one pass.

And since everyone is wondering how they do it, we took a closer look into some sequences and determined the modus operandi.

Here is how to break defensive lines in one touch, in different 3 situations.

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Right after regaining possession

One of the most vulnerable moments for any side is when the ball is lost. Transitional phases can be tricky as players can lose focus and take time to regain their positions.

Let’s watch the following clip:

Rooney regains possession and assists from midfield

An outstanding work, tracking back and tackling his opponent put Rooney into a position that doesn’t sees dangerous at first.

Except it’s the dying moments of the game and all his team went up for the corner. He knows he has to act quick but he isn’t pressed by anyone.

In order to make sure he doesn’t waste the ball away, Rooney does the following:

  • Slows down:
    • that gives him time to focus on where he will deliver his long ball.
  • Looks for the pass:
    • he knows his side is overloaded
    • he spots two players unmarked on the other side.
  • Execution:
    • clock is ticking, he has to switch sides AND launch a ball forward.
    • he picks the teammate that makes the run in the back of the defense.

While Rooney did an outstanding job from start to end, it is worth giving credit to Da Costa for his positioning and call for the ball.

Without Da Costa’s run, Rooney would have either been forced to simply switch sides without creating a chance; or launch a hazardous cross into the box, in the hope of an accident.

By staying wide and discrete, Da Costa is able to stay unmarked and keeps the defenders on their heels. When they finally turn to chase the ball, Da Costa is already commited to jumping to hit his header. Same movement asked from Dani Alves at Barca during the Guardiola era.

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Against low defensive blocks

In order to avoid getting through balls in the back of their defenders, some teams like Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, opt for lower and more compact defensive blocks.

The down side of using low defensive blocks, however, is that the opponents are allowed a lot of space in midfield and can build with more ease.

Messi breaks the defensive line by cutting inside.

In this sequence, Busquets is allowed so much space that he is able to carry the ball from midfield to the final third.

Meanwhile, Messi starts slowly cutting inside, closely followed by the winger. He gets closer to the 1st defensive line and forces opponents to step on each other’s positions. And he doesn’t even have the ball !

Messi’s movement creates a confusion as to who will man-mark him. the confusion allows Messi to position himself in a good space to receive the ball.

On this occasion, given the tight space, the pass execution required someone as good as Sergio Busquets. The ball rebounds and get to its target.

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Against high defensive blocks

Although high defensive blocks leave space behind, they make the job difficult for the opposition as they shrink down the space available in midfield.

The key to breaking a high defensive line is based on two essential things:

  1. A run in the back of the defenders
  2. A confusing pass

This combo is the core principle of successfully breaking a defensive line.

Messi and Iniesta breaking Real Madrid’s high defensive line.

The point of Real Madrid’s high defensive line is to prevent barca from using the midfield space as seen in the previous video.

Their defensive block is however wide and space is created between last line defenders. Highly vulnerable against through balls.

While defenders are busy being worried about Messi, space remains uncovered. A space that both Iniesta and Messi will exploit.

Messi sees iniesta’s run and send a through ball between defenders. Thus forcing both to turn and run. As a result, Iniesta who’s already running makes sure he won’t be caught back.

A few moments before, while Iniesta runs between defenders, Ramos is late to react and tries the offside trap, which gives an additional distance advantage to Iniesta.

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Well timed Run + Accurate pass = Broken defensive line

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