Following an attacking transition, teams will often attack quickly and directly towards the opposition’s goal. The quicker they do this, the less time the opposition has to reorganise into their defensive shape. Launching an attack after winning the ball back to stop the opposition’s attack is called a counter-attack.
Teams that base their play on counter-attacking generally set up to be defensively solid and compact in a low or mid-block. They aim to draw opponents out, before attacking the space behind the opposition's defence following a turnover.
Teams will look for quick, precise, vertical passes to give the opposition little time to drop back and cover the space the attacking transition is targeting. In order to use attacking transitions effectively, it is necessary to have mobile and quick players who can make fast sprints to open up vertical passing lines. These can target either the inside or outside channels.
"if you don't play on the counter-attack, it's because you are stupid. It is a fantastic part of football, a weapon that, when you find your opponent off balance, gives you a fantastic option to score a goal"josÉ Mourinho, june 2015
Players can either progress the ball up the pitch by dribbling, or they can pass the ball forwards. Offensive transitions are also defined by whether the counter-attack targets the inside or the outside of the pitch.
Mourinho places huge importance on attacking transitions, and asks his teams to stay defensively compact. He asks them to recover quickly into position following a defensive transition, and to burst forwards at speed to maximise their chances of scoring following an attacking transition.
This has been apparent throughout his career, and was clear to see during his time as Tottenham manager. In the action shown above, Harry Kane has recovered possession in the centre of the pitch. He then drives forward with the ball and draws one of the underloaded defenders towards him. That is when he has to decide whether to feed the ball to Giovani Lo Celso or Son Heung-min.
The decision is determined by the positioning of the defenders, who reach a point when they have to engage Kane and leave another part of the pitch unprotected. Kane forces the Manchester City defensive block backwards, and finds the free man after provoking a defender to jump out. His pass then sets up Lo Celso to score.
Klopp promotes direct attacks through the centre of the pitch following a recovery thanks to an intense counter-press. Both his Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund sides are known for directing their attacks through the central lanes despite it being the most congested area of the pitch.
In their match against Red Bull Leipzig in the last 16 of the 2020/21 Champions League, Liverpool attacked through the centre of the pitch immediately after an offensive transition (below).
Following Fabinho's recovery in midfield, he immediately connects with a more advanced midfielder – Georginio Wijnaldum. While his team were out of possession, Wijnaldum was already positioned higher up the pitch with an attacking transition in mind. Wijnaldum then quickly links up with a forward – in this case, Diogo Jota rather than Mo Salah – who makes a diagonal run in behind.
The intention is to generate a chain of passes in the inside channel, getting the ball to players who threaten the space in behind with their off-the-ball movement. Liverpool’s players are encouraged to make runs on the blind side of their opponents to go undetected.
Simeone's Atlético Madrid use counter-attacks extremely effectively, but they generally win possession much further from goal than Liverpool. In the image below, the recovery takes place in the left-back position through Mario Hermoso. He then quickly passes to centre-back Stefan Savic with the aim of drawing the nearest opponent out.
They then play the ball into midfield, and Marcos Llorente looks for the run in behind from Luis Suárez. This perfectly timed and well co-ordinated movement puts the Uruguayan striker in on goal in an instant.
Counter-attacks can be categorised by the part of the pitch in which the ball is recovered. This position determines the type of attack to be used.
Withdrawn: following a transition in the defensive half.
Midfield: following a transition in midfield.
Advanced: following a transition in the attacking third.
Although the type of attack may differ depending on where the ball has been won, co-ordinated movements, speed of attack and a good understanding of how to exploit space all remain paramount to attacking transitions being successful. When used well, attacking transitions are a massive part of the game.
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Author: Tony Hodson