Defending against a narrow attack


Up to two thirds of pitch


Balls, bibs, cones, 2 goals

No. of players

Up to 24 players + 2 goalkeepers

Session time

Possession warm-up: 10mins, Possession game: 15mins, Tactical practice: 20mins

This session is focused on finding a solution for the defensive problems caused by playing against a narrow attacking front four. It was specifically created as a tactical solution to help a team usually playing in a 4-3-3 formation to defend against a team who attack in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a front four that stays narrow and receives balls through the middle of the pitch rather than wide from the wings.

Through using this training session we reshaped the formation of our team into a 4-4-1-1, encouraging the centre backs to defend higher up the pitch and in a more compact manner. This helped the defenders to anticipate the initial pass into midfield and allowed them to track runners to cover any passes into the opposition’s creative players in that area. This made it extremely hard for the opponents to penetrate centrally.


We set up a possession square of 10×10 yards. We’re using 12 players in the square, playing in a 10v2. The aim for the 10 red players is to pass the ball and keep possession under pressure from the two defending players, who press and try to force the passers to make mistakes, as shown [1]. If either of the two pressing players wins the ball, they should clear it  out of the area.


1. Play a 10v2 in the square, with the 10 red players passing the ball to keep possession
2. The two blue pressers try to force mistakes and if they gain possession they should clear the ball out of the square

We play three games of three minutes with a different pressing pair each time.


We set up a playing area of 30×25 yards. We’re using 24 players split into three teams of eight. Two teams play against one another inside the area, with one team supporting from the outside of the area and playing for the team in possession.

The coach starts play by passing to one of the teams inside the area. They pass to try and keep the ball with the help of the outside players and under pressure from the pressing team.

If the pressing team wins the ball, they should quickly transition and become the new possession team, passing to try and keep the ball, as shown [2].


1. The coach starts play by serving to one of the teams inside the area and they pass the ball to keep possession. Initially the inside players have unlimited touches
2. The outside players support the team in possession and initially they are restricted to two touches
3. If the pressing team wins the ball, they should quickly transition and become the new possession team. Here the blues win the ball from the yellows
4. Play for 90 seconds and then change the touch restriction for the next 90 seconds

The two teams inside the area have no restriction on the number of touches they can take, but the players on the outside are limited to two-touch. We play like this for 90 seconds, before changing the conditions to limit the inside players to two-touch and the outside players to one-touch and playing for a further 90 seconds. We then change the conditions again, this time not allowing players to pass the ball back to the person they received it from and limiting the outside team to two-touch again. We play this for a further 90 seconds to complete the block.

After each block we rest for one minute and rotate the teams. We run each block three times in total, so every players gets a turn in each role.


This activity is specifically designed to highlight and then remedy the problems created when defending in a 4-3-3 formation if the centre backs are too deep when playing against opponents who attack in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation.

We set up a playing area between the penalty areas of a normal pitch with a goal and a goalkeeper at each end. The playing area is divided into thirds. We’re using 20 outfield players split into two teams of 11 including goalkeepers. We set the blues up in a 4-3-3 formation and we set the reds up as the opposition in a 4-2-3-1 formation, encouraging them to attack narrow.

We play a normal 11v11 game but to highlight the problems, for the first 10 minutes the blue centre backs aren’t allowed to go into the middle third. They are sitting deep and as a consequence they are encouraging the opposition to play the ball early into the midfield, inviting attacking players to run at them and being caught out by penetrating through balls, as shown [3a].


1. Set the blues up in a 4-3-3 formation and restrict the blue centre backs from entering the middle third, causing them to defend deep
2. Set the reds up as the opposition in a 4-2-3-1 formation and encourage them to attack narrow
3. The narrow attacks can break through the deep defence as the reds find the space to play penetrating through balls and create scoring chances

After the first 10 minutes we explain to the players what has been happening. We then remove the conditions that stop the blue centre backs moving into the middle third and we now encourage the centre backs and full backs to play a much higher defensive line. We also ask them to track runs in midfield, making that area of the pitch more compact and difficult to play through, as shown [3b]. Additionally, we change the shape of the midfield three and the wide players, making it a narrow midfield four and now asking the team to play in a 4-4-1-1 formation.


1. After 10 minutes remove the conditions that stop the blue centre backs moving into the middle third
2. Encourage the blue centre backs and full backs to play a higher defensive line, making the midfield more compact
3. Change the shape of the blue midfield three to a narrow midfield four, getting the team to play in a 4-4-1-1 formation
4. The reds now find it more difficult to play through the compact midfield and lose possession

This change in tactic forces the opposition to go into less dangerous areas to receive the ball. It cuts down the space in front of the centre backs that teams playing with a narrow attack were able to exploit in the first part of the activity.


  • Ball movementBall movement
  • Player movementPlayer movement
  • DribbleDribble
  • Optional movementOptional movement