December 8, 2023

Most of us are quite synonymous with the use of the term “compact” to define the defensive shape of some elite teams like Atletico Madrid, Juventus, etc. Not only that but also the use of the very word is found in several situations of match analysis where often either experts or the viewer himself ponders upon how the lack of compactness in the defending team led them to concede so many goals and chances from the opposition.

The word in itself has a very specific connotation; which is to represent a team that hardly provides any usable strategic space for the opposition to play or build up attacks through, due to the close staggering and positioning of the players next to each other. In this sense “Compactness” can be defined as making sure that all the  teammates are at optimum distance  from one another necessary for maintaining connections while also having access to the opponent, players and the ball in such a way that through their compactness they not only control the space inside their block, restrict the passing lanes within their block, but also narrow down the playing area of the opponent and thus exert control.

However, a technical or a more practical application of such a definition will be very vague. Then how do compact teams set up their compactness? Well, it is done by positioning oneself always with respect to certain reference points all over the pitch ( depending on which phase of play their team is in, the reference points change) by following certain basic principles of compactness to this attain an overall vertical, horizontal and spatial compactness.

“What is defending? Defending is a matter of how much space I should defend. Everything is a matter of meters, that’s all.” – Johan Cruyff

Reference points of a team that tries to maintain a compact shape :

  • The teammates (During the defensive phase, attacking phase, counter-attacking phase, and counter-pressing phase)
  • The opponent (During the defensive phase primarily, during the other phases to a lesser extent)
  • The space ( Equally important in all phases of the game)
  • The ball ( More important during the attacking and defensive phases of the game than during the transitional phases of the game)
Basic definitions of compactness, the Red team have large distances on both a vertical and a horizontal axis, making them uncompact.

Thus, one can infer that ideally when a team is defending, its players would refer to their teammates, the opponent, the ball, and the available time and space around the ball and in other strategic areas of the pitch. At first, how a player can process and execute their positioning so quickly and consistently with respect to 4 different reference points in a matter of seconds during a football game. Well, that is what training grounds are primarily for as the players are drilled through specific training sessions with a synergy among them, a constant spatial awareness around them. The principles that are most visible in most of the compact teams around the world are –

  • Maintenance of defensive connections with teammates.
  • Maintenance of defensive access with respect to the ball and the opponent simultaneously.
  • Establishment of control over the playing time and space for the opponent.

Often we come across managers proclaiming that despite their team defending throughout the match their team controlled the match and the opponent. Well, it is often misconstrued that controlling the territory and manipulating the defensive shape of the opponent is the only way to interpret match control. However, the idea behind a compact team is that through compactness the team in question can also control the match and the opponent. The various methods which compact teams use to control a match are as follows 

  • Directing the opponent team on strategically weak spaces while simultaneously protecting the important ones.
  • Dynamically shifting as a compact block to force the opponent in spaces where they are adequately structured to win it back recurrently throughout the match.
  • Nullifying the opponents best players by either cutting off his supply lines or his passing options to any other teammate when he is on the ball.  
  • By Synchronising cohesive movements with one another to repeatedly counter-press effectively when they lose the ball or press effectively when they seek to win the ball from the opponent.

In simple words, these are the traits of a compact team that is capable of often controlling the opponent, the available space to and for them, and in general the match.

However as one can imagine, maintaining compactness requires a huge level of concentration and discipline from all the players in the pitch. And so there are times when a lapse in concentration or a single blemish from even one player totally collapses the compactness of the block leading to a goal or at least a goal scoring chance.

An often misinterpreted ideology about compactness is its association with only defensive teams or teams in their defensive phase. We often fail to realize that a team always seeks to be compact be it in their defensive phase or the attacking phase. There shall always be an order and scheme of positional instructions to follow for all good teams when trying to stay compact. The intent of trying to control the match remains the same. It is just that the application and the reference points vary when a team is in their attacking phase.

Read More | The Art of Pressing – A Descriptive Analysis |


Compactness is not just about squeezing space as much as possible, rather it is about attaining an orderly structure with or without possession of the ball. In possession, the team tries to ideally expand their playing area. This is to manipulate more time and space on the ball while making sure that there is even spacing and connections between the players. This will ensure players are adequately prepared to win the ball back when they lose it. It is more like a net where every player represents the intersection points in a web while the connections between them represent the strings forming the net.

It is not a coincidence when we see certain teams play so cohesively when they attack and play in an impenetrable way when they defend. Compactness gives the team the benefit of having players close by to press together, to cut off nearby passing lanes together, to counter-press over a small space more effectively together, to at times even hide the individual defensive liabilities of one other or a specific player in the team by proving numerical superiority in spaces around him, to combine more effectively in attack and thus in general control the match.

However, when a team is not compact per se, then they fail to press effectively. As a result,

  • They leave spaces in between lines or in strategically important spaces of the pitch.
  • Don’t counter-press effectively.
  • Often get exposed in situations of numerical inferiority across the pitch.
  • They Lack adequate supporting players for the player with the ball when in possession.

Compactness is hence an aspect of the game that in itself is responsible for influencing the defensive phase of the game heavily for a team and also to a certain extent its attacking phase. Maintaining a compact structure is of paramount importance. There have been countless such situations in football where a team of inferior quality has defeated teams of far superior qualities. This has mainly been possible through their compact shape, positioning, and organization. However, the ability to do so throughout the 90 minutes is what separates the best from the rest.

This article was inspired by the magnum opus on Compactness first published in Spielverlagerung on 8th May 2015.

El Arte Del Futbol is now an official content creator for One Football. Find more original features, Player Profiles and tactical analysis on


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