It has often been stated that for a less fancied team to impress and produce a positive result throughout the course of a season, playing fearlessly is the best option.
Persistent attack is often said to produce the best results – and the cases of Michael Laudrup’s Swansea team and Philippe Montanier’s Real Sociedad have been often stated as examples as to why attack is the best form of play for these teams.
However, very rarely noticed are the slighter teams that do well as a result of their impressive defensive showings, probably due to the fact that these teams are less exciting than their attacking counterparts.
Here’s taking a look at why defence is a better system than attack for the smaller teams to prosper.
A good example of a less fancied team punching above their weight using defence as the primary game plan is that of Atletico Madrid this season.
For much of the season, the Los Rojiblancos seriously threatened to break the stranglehold that Barcelona and Real Madrid had on the top two. Even though it was striker Radamel Falcao who hogged all the limelight for the ‘other’ Madrid side, even more impressive than the Colombian was their defence that conceded only 30 goals all season.
Coach Diego Simeone stressed the importance of defence and shelved Atletico’s earlier attacking game for one that relied primarily on being strong at the back. Simeone’s defence line of Juanfran Torres, Diego Godin, Joao Miranda and Luis Filipe was easily the most impressive defence in the league.
The Argentine coach also stressed on defending from up front and changed formations to include a second defensive midfielder in the form of Mario Suarez to partner club captain Gabi.
And he was handsomely rewarded for his endeavours, as Atleti finished the season in third place, ensuring a return to the Champions League – a tournament in which they had not played since 2008.
Another impressive case, which supports an emphasis on defence, comes from Bundesliga’s SC Freiburg. Most pundits considered Freiburg to be in the relegation scrap this season, but Freiburg excelled, ultimately finishing fifth and guaranteeing them a spot in the Europa League next season.
Freiburg’s coach, Christian Streich understood the importance of having a strong defence and all his tactics this season depended on having a rock solid foundation at the back. In a primarily attacking-minded Bundesliga, Freiburg’s defensive approach to the game was handsomely rewarded as they punched way above their weight to earn the European spot.
And despite the ordinary attacking threat that Freiburg had among their ranks, their defence, which conceded the second least number of goals all season, ensured that Freiburg was fighting for Europe, not survival.
In England, the need for a defensive approach to the game is much less noticeable with all of the seven or eight top teams having no dearth of attacking talent in their ranks.
However, a look at some of the lower half sides will prove that England is not an exception to the rule. Stoke City may have recently parted ways with manager Tony Pulis, but none can deny the fact that finishes of fourteenth or greater every season in charge of the Potters is a decent achievement.
And Pulis achieved this primarily due to a strong defence with the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth impressing under the Englishman. Another English side which has relied on defence more than attack has been Southampton, with their French defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin being particularly inspiring as the Saints achieved survival with plenty to spare.
However, the greatest argument in favour of defensive strength being superior to attacking prowess for lesser teams comes from Greece’s amazing run to the European Championship title in 2004.
Where many expected Greece to finish last in a group also containing heavyweights Spain, Russia and hosts Portugal, Greece wrote the ultimate underdog story when they won the title. And the result was no fluke either, with the team beating the likes of Portugal (twice), France and an impressive Czech Republic on their way to the title.
And in this, the semi-final clash against Czech Republic was a direct competition between attacking and defending among two lesser fancied sides, with Greece’s defence coming out on top. The defence line as well as their captain and defensive midfielder Theodor Zagorakis were the key to Greece's unlikely triumph, with Zagorakis being named the player of the tournament.
History has shown repeatedly that defence is the best weapon for less fancied sides when they take on superior opposition. Red Bull Salzburg defended all the way to a shock UEFA Cup title in 1992.
The unusually uninspiring Chelsea side won their maiden Champions League title in 2012 due to di Matteo’s defensive tactics – beating Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to the trophy. These are but a few examples among a vast many which prove that strengthening their defence should be the priority for the lesser known sides in the world.
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