SHANE RICE: The low block in modern football: Why are teams using it?

THE low block is a phrase that we are all now hearing but it has been around for the last number of years and it’s not just the Ulster teams using it.

More recently, it’s Donegal that set up very defensively but does it have its place? A low block is a defensive strategy where a team prioritises protecting the defensive third of the pitch. The primary aim is to stay compact and defend the space close to the goal. You have players man-marking those inside the 21 but play zonal outside the scoring zone.

I went to see Louth against Monaghan at the weekend and Louth did a very good job using it. In a low block, the back line is positioned deep, limiting the space behind for the opposition to exploit. The midfield and attacking units maintain minimal distance between each other to create a solid, impenetrable wall. In most cases you will have all 14 or at least 13 players back as defenders.

The term ‘low block’ refers to teams that sit back closest to their goal, as opposed to using a mid-block or a high press. A low block focuses on the defensive third, a mid-block on the middle third, and a high press aims to win the ball back in the attacking third. These strategies come into play once a team loses possession – a defensive transition.

What do players do when the team is in possession?

In a low block, all players focus on protecting the defensive third, drawing the opposition high up the pitch. This concedes space in the opponents’ half, allowing for counter-attacks.

When the ball is won back, there is significant space behind the opposition to exploit, especially down the channels if the opposing team has fully advanced. The Dubs are excellent at the running game when they turn the opposition over.

Counter-attacks from deep positions require quick, incisive actions – passes, getting ahead of the ball or switches of play. Good hold-up play is crucial, allowing teammates time to catch up with play.

What do players do when the team is out of possession?

The main priority of the low block is to protect the goal and crowd the space in front of it. Although initially structured into three units – defence, midfield, and attack – players must be ready to cover for teammates who get pulled out of position, maintaining the team’s compactness.

Discipline is crucial in a low block; players must resist the temptation to leave their positions to win the ball, as this would compromise the team’s compact structure.

Keeping minimal distances within and between units is key to the success of a low block. Players must maintain their positions for long periods, especially when defending close to or inside the penalty area, constantly blocking shots, turning the ball over and making the opposition meet the traffic and turn the ball over.

Disadvantages of playing with a low block

A low block concedes a significant amount of territory, allowing the opposition to control two-thirds of the pitch and dominate possession. The distance to goal following a ball regain is greater, requiring fast players with high stamina for quick recovery runs. Concentration levels are tested over longer periods, and any individual error can be costly.

Additionally, this strategy demands all outfield players to sacrifice themselves for the team, often placing effective attacking players in defensive roles, limiting their influence once the ball is won.

Benefits of playing with a low block

A well-executed low block makes it extremely difficult for the opposition to create clear scoring chances. The presence of multiple players close to goal restricts central play, forcing opponents to attempt working it down the wide areas, which a compact low block can effectively defend against.

Moreover, a low block allows players to rest and regroup, making it a suitable strategy for protecting a scoreline. It nullifies the threat of over-the-top kick-passes and ensures a well-structured defence against wide channel attacks.

Understanding and mastering the low block strategy can significantly enhance a team’s defensive capabilities in Gaelic football. While it requires discipline, coordination, and sacrifice, the benefits of a well-drilled low block can provide a formidable barrier against even the most potent attacking teams.

With new rules possibly coming in next year, will the low block be as popular? Who knows but coaches tend to adapt.

Gaelic Athletic Academy, Shane Rice

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