The picture above is the picture of  Herbert Chapman. Most Arsenal fans will acknowledge him, but not for most other fans. In short, he is the important figure for Arsenal and for football itself. He was the main developer of counter attack. Because of him, counter attack had been refined and transformed into deadly weapon. Then, let’s talk about his legacy, counter attack.

When a small team faces a  bigger team, the approach that mostly is taken is counter attack tactic. The smaller team would defend, containing the attack, then  launch quick attack to the heart of attacking team. As most players of attacking team is still on other half of field, there is so much space to be exploited for counter attacking team. The defending team robs the possession, quickly distributes the ball to the front as fast as they can, shoot, and goal. Simple, isn’t it ? No. Since many small teams defeat bigger teams with counter attack tactic, it seems the scheme is easy while in truth it is not. So, what is the difficulty of executing counter attack ?

1. Defence

To execute counter attack, one must first contain the attack of its opposition before attacking. If the defence fails then so does the attack. Defending is easier than attacking, but defending isn’t easy either. The attacking team will have plenty time on ball and the defending team must concentrate fully and defend valiantly under pressure. Punishment will quickly come upon a lapse of concentration or little crack on defence.

The problem for small teams versus big teams is the former always have lesser resources than the latter. This is the main problem and the main disadventage. Of course it will mean the bigger teams will likely unlock the defence. So, to overcome the disparity in quality, they would deploy more men for defence, but it will mean less outlet for outball from the defence. Lose-lose situation, isn’t it ?

2. Little time on possession

Barcelona, with Xavi-Messi-Iniesta and other mighty attacking power, sometimes only able to score 1 goal despite 60 minutes of possession. So, the main matter of defending team  is, could they score with their limited player quality and time ? When counter attack, the players will enjoy vast space in opposition defence line. They too will enjoy the lack of numbers of defenders. Still, in most cases, the defenders are better players than the counter-attackers so the counter attack probably fails here.

Limited possession means the counter-attacking team must utilise their time as optimum as possible. In such limited time, they must distribute the ball accurately from the back to front as swift as possible. Of course you don’t think it is an easy job, do you ? Once they fail to counter attack, they must defend again and wait in indefinite time to do another counter.

3. Anticipation from attacking team

Attack and being counter-attacked for numerous times in competitions, the big teams certainly already have the plan to break the counter attack. It is merely plain stupid to attack without defence plan. There are various ways to stop counter attack. For example, after losing the ball, the attackers must surely close down the player who has the ball. They will not allow the counter attack runs smoothly. They will exert pressure to force an error and regain the lost ball. Then, if the counter-attackers manage to pass this obstacle, there are more to come such as offside trap and the last-resort-effort namely technical foul. If the counter-attacked team have to suffered yellow card in exchange of goal threat, they will gladly take the deal.

4.  Balance in number of defenders and attackers

As have been mentioned in point number 1, the smaller team mostly must deploy more men in defence to keep their goal intact. But, it comes in expense of no outball. Illustration will explain it better.

Image courtesy of


At the image above, Liverpool acted as “bigger team” while Aston Villa acted as “smaller team”. As can be seen, Villa specially designated Benteke as counter attack pivot and Weimann as secondary outlet. When Villa managed to rob the ball from Liverpool, they could send the ball directly to one of them.

 Counter 1

But, how if Liverpool’s attack was so dangerous that Villa urgently needed extra men to defend ? For example, imagine that Benteke had to mark Johnson and Weimann had to mark Downing (denoted as black dots). When Villa managed  to gain the possession, they only can find Benteke and Weimann were on deep of their half. They still could pass the ball to them, but the counter attack wouldn’t be swift. They had to pass many times, skipping past Liverpool pressing, to get the ball into opposition area. The more passes and touces required, the more time it takes, the most likely Liverpool will be able to return to their position. Thus, Villa players only could find a body of men already protecting their goal. Counter attack failed.

5. Inflexiblity

For defending team, conceding a goal is twice much worse than for attacking team. The reason is, the former must completely alter their tactic in order to catch up the score. This is simply not the case for attacking team. When they concede a goal, it only adds more fuel to their attacking power. Surely it gives more vulnerability to counter attack, but at the very least they do not have to change their strategy and rework the scheme.

Usually, the counter attacking team would have quick players to exploit the huge gap behind opposition defence line But, when his team concedes, the scorer team have luxury to play more safely and put more players in defence. Then, the quick players won’t have any space to run to anymore. And, usually, the fast players lack technical guile to unlock packed defence. Frankly, this is like taking half of his football ability. And of course, his team will have less chance to score with such scenario.

Conclusion :

Counter attack is not as easy as we thought, but small teams have no choice to deal with bigger team. It would be suicidal to attack the better team as they will end up being plummeted. For small team, they opt for counter attack because they have no choice, not because of they want to.

But it is different case for any Mourinho’s team, Di Matteo’s Chelsea, Chapmann’s Arsenal, or Herrerra’s Inter etc. They have stellar players yet they still choose for counter attack strategy. Then, they have luxury to deploy fewer men in defence and putting more in offence. Hence, the counter attack has more chance of success. It creates dilemma for attacking team. If they only send out few players to attack, they will not be able to score. But, to deploy more attackers means more vulnerability to counter attack.

So, it all comes down to resources (read : players) that the coach has. The better quality he has, the more option he has. But, of course the good coach is the one who could achieve the highest with most minimal resources.