ELEVEN VERSUS TEN is becoming one of the fastest growing trends in modern football. Fans eagerly anticipate two top teams going head to head, the margin between them razor thin, only to see the game change on a red card. The team with an extra player not only makes the numerical advantage count; they make it look easy.
We saw it last season with high profile Champions League games involving Arsenal against Bayern Munich, and Manchester City versus Barcelona. One trend that has been slow to develop in recent years however, is how to deal with this situation. The pattern is almost inevitable. A red card is produced, the players are stunned, the game itself drifts away, the coach laments the incident after the game and both the fans and media talk about what might have been.
But does it have to be a foregone conclusion? Surely in an era where preparation has expanded to every facet of the game, we can do more as coaches. Maybe instead of accepting fate, there is a way to survive and persevere through this setback.
On a tactical level, there seems to be a standard template to deal with going down to ten men. You sacrifice a forward and your team’s defensive line drops. However dropping deep does not necessarily mean preventing the opposition from creating opportunities. The top teams in the world do almost as much damage in front of defensive back fours, as they do behind them. They constantly move midfield and defensive lines from side to side.
You would never see a top continental team bombarding the opposition with 82 crosses in a game like Manchester United did last season. The top teams in the Champions League today are much more patient; instead of attacking directly, they probe areas, waiting for space to open up. If no spaces are open on the right side, they work the ball quickly to the left and vice versa, all the while trying to find a pocket of space in the middle.
Dropping deep makes little difference. In the Champions League last season, Arsenal did a good job in getting numbers behind the ball and keeping spaces between their defensive and midfield lines limited. However, where Arsenal struggled was with their decision to channel Bayern Munich from side-to-side. In doing this, Bayern worked the ball into wide areas where they doubled up and caused Arsenal so many problems. The second goal was a prime example of that – numbers in defence but no pressure on the ball – a world-class forward’s dream.
If you are going to defend against these top teams you must take something away. In my opinion, that should involve limiting them to one side of the field.
Arsenal failed to pressure, failed to limit their options, and against a team with Robben on one wing, it was a matter of time before the tie was over.
Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams constantly highlights the need for players to manage their body language effectively. Physiology drives psychology, Dan believes, and there is no better example when setbacks like this occur in a game. When you concede space and simply let a team dictate play from side-to-side across the field, you give up the act of aggressive work-rate.
That aggressive work-rate of closing down space and making life difficult for players in possession has a positive mental side effect for the defensive team. Awareness levels are raised, communication is always high, and total concentration becomes second nature. You can also give the fans something to hold onto. It is difficult to overachieve when the crowd is quiet and your team is on the back foot.
If you want to survive playing with ten men and turn it into a positive result, it all hinges on the player’s attitude towards work. It cannot come from only the defenders and goalkeeper though – that has to be a guarantee. Instead, the attacking players must roll their sleeves up and work extra hard for the team.
Remember the role of Didier Drogba when Chelsea went down to ten men at the Camp Nou in 2010? He embraced his responsibility and covered the whole left side of the field, almost to his detriment when he conceded a penalty.
Compare that with the defensive mentality of Mesut Ozil for large parts last season and you see a huge difference. Manchester City did a great job in working Barcelona further from their goal, until Gael Clichy switched off and failed to track Dani Alves’s run in the last minute. Ninety-nine per cent concentration equals one hundred per cent failure at that level and everyone must buy into that.
So how can a coach be ready for this? Like most things in the game, the team that will achieve success with this scenario are the team who have effectively prepared for it. Teammates do not drop to their knees in disappointment as Zabaleta did against the Blaugrana when the red card is brandished. Instead this situation should proudly reveal daily training habits and the exact same mindset that they leave the changing room with before the game. A coach can influence both of those greatly.
Some things in this game are difficult to prepare for. We always hear that you cannot practice for a penalty shootout because you cannot replicate the pressure. Surely this is not the same for playing with ten men? We can reproduce the challenge on the practice field and equip our players with the tactical answers and correct mentality to deal with it.
Defensive and pressurizing exercises are usually performed with inferior numbers so players should be aware of the connection with this and a game. Old school coaches like Fabio Capello and George Graham both shared a unique training method of their whole team playing against their back four and keeper.
Legend has it that the attacking teams, sometimes outnumbering defenders ten to five, could never break them down and score. Discipline and a siege mentality are invaluable assets in football. It is not about ‘parking the bus’. It is about being prepared and accepting the challenge ahead.
I once heard mental toughness described as “finishing the game with the exact same endeavor as you started it with, regardless of situations that occur.” With the Champions League upon us for another season, I cannot wait to see which team turns this negative situation into a positive one, and most importantly, which coach is behind it.
By Gary Curneen. Follow @Gary Curneen