Barcelona lead La Liga comfortable and boasts the best defensive record in the league with only seven goals conceded so far. Unsurprisingly, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are just behind Barca in terms of the best defense with eight goals conceded. The defensive quality of those teams are no surprise, to say the least. It is, however, a surprise to find Leganes as the third best defensive team in La Liga. Yes, you read that right, Leganes. Not Real Madrid. Not Villarreal, Valencia, Athletic Club or Sevilla. Leganes!
For close followers of the best league in Europe, that stat doesn’t come as such a big surprise as it does for occasional viewers. Asier Garitano’s work with the club has been superb and his meticulous coaching has steered the team to 10th place with a game or two in hand on the sides just above them. It’s absolutely stunning work from Garitano at a club with one of, if not the, smallest budgets in the league. Last year, in their first ever season in La Liga, Leganes finished 17th and secured survival. Even then they had the best defensive record of the ten clubs in the bottom half. This season, they’ve improved considerably, sit in 10th as mentioned and have only conceded 14 goals in their 17 league games. Given two of those goals were penalties, one a direct free-kick and one a shot from distance from a clever corner routine, Leganes have only conceded 10 goals from open play. Three of those came against Barcelona and two away at Sevilla which makes five of those ten goals. Leganes have kept seven clean sheets, against Atletico Madrid for example, and went at one point in the season five games without conceding. It’s very impressive reading.
Now let’s look at the way they go about it. Garitano’s formations often vary. So far this term, he’s lined the team up in a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2, a 4-3-1-2, a 5-4-1 and 4-1-4-1. Most often, the defensive shape is either 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 where the strikers take it in turns to drop in behind each other. Below we see an example of Leganes compact 4-4-2 against Barcelona.
As the image shows, Leganes always maintain minimal distances between the lines to increase their compactness as a team. The distances between defence and midfield and midfield and attack are no more than seven or eight meters, which obviously makes the team very compact. Garitano’s preferred method of defence is a positionally-oriented approach where the players move in unison based on where the ball and there teammates are. As soon as the ball moves back five meters, Leganes moves up five meters. By doing so, Leganes can always keep a compact team and restrict the space for the opposition within their defensive block. As the image shows, Leganes mostly used a low-block against Barcelona, but against other teams they often adopt a mid-block where they start their pressing around the edge of the centre circle in the oppositions half. Below is an example from of their team shape against Atletico Madrid.
The goal of their positionally-oriented defence is to deny space centrally and force their opponents into wider areas where it’s easier to press given the presence of the touchline. Above we can clearly see how the available space for Atletico is in the wide channel on the left given the way Leganes position themselves to block off any central progression of the ball.
In certain games, Garitano will change the positions of his wide midfielders slightly by positioning them diagonally from his central midfield duo to force the opposition wide. The example below against Atletico illustrates this. The left and right midfielder are positioned in a diagonal angle from the central midfielders and the two strikers to create a hexagon to prevent central access for the opponent. If an opposition player would be positioned within the hexagon and receive a pass, he could be instantly pressed from all angles given the proximity of the Leganes players. If so, a turnover could likely be forced and Leganes could counter from a central position.
When the ball ends up in wide areas, it’s the full-back on the ball-side who goes to press. Below is an example against Villarreal when the ball has been steered wide. Villarreal’s right winger has received the ball and is instantly pressed by Leganes left-back. The left midfielder could easily have pressed the winger himself, but opts to stay in a covering position to prevent the winger from going inside with the ball. Further cover is given by the ball-near central midfielder who are in a great position. Once again we can also see the compactness given the positioning of the back-four behind the midfield.
Here’s another example, as the ball has travelled to the right-back. The left midfielder presses from the centre and out, while the left-back has left the defensive line to be prepared for the continuation of the attack towards the right winger. The approach in wide areas is therefore; the midfield stays compact and prevent progression in central areas, the full-backs press opposition wingers in wide areas and midfield players give cover and support.
Against Barcelona however, Garitano altered his approach slightly given the attacking quality of Barcelona’s full-backs Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo. This example illustrates Garitano’s approach perfectly. Contrary to their normal setup where the full-backs press in wide areas, Garitano had his wide midfielders press Barca’s full-backs. As the image below highlights, the back-four stayed centrally as a unit while the ball-near midfielders would move out and almost mark Alba and Semedo. The ball-far midfielder would join the two central midfielders in a three-man midfield block. This was likely a combination of Barca’s full-back’s quality going forward and their effective central combination play with Messi and Suarez in particular. By keeping the defence centrally, Garitano hoped to restrict their central space. Barca won the game 3-0, so I can’t say the setup worked, but given their quality it would be unfair to criticise the coach. After all, Barca have basically beaten every team in Spain by that margin this term.
I mentioned in the beginning how Leganes move in unison given the position of the ball and this image below illustrates how they do it so effectively. The defenders are excellent at reading the game and always have a half-turned body positioning which makes them ready to move up or down given how the ball moves. Here, they anticipate a long ball forward and are ready to drop deep. The central midfielders are ready in second-ball positions too. If you go on youtube and search for Asier Garitano you will find videos of how he works his defence in terms of moving up, down and sideways given the position of the ball and it’s so evident in the way they play.
Naturally given their insistence for teams to play the ball into wide areas, Leganes needs to be set up well against crosses. Thankfully, they are. Here is an example of their setup when facing a cross. In this example, the right-back has even had time to move in centrally after Atletico overloading the wing and is ready to stop a cross. Normally, the full-back will be out trying to stop the cross and the ball-near centre-back then defends the first post area as he is below, the other centre-back defends the space between the posts and the ball-far full-back defends the space at the back post. The two central midfielders are then in covering positions to stop cut-backs or shots from distance. This is the normal setup in a positionally-oriented 4-4-2, but that doesn’t make it less effective.
Concludingly, this article has focused on Asier Garitano’s defensive setup which has seen Leganes, despite possibly the smallest budget in the league, become La Liga’s third best defensive team this season. They defend in a positionally-oriented system which is coached brilliantly by Garitano. 14 goals conceded in 17 games is very impressive, and their position in 10th is highly exceeding expectations. It remains to be seen if they can keep their form going, if so they probably need to improve their attacking play which has only yielded 13 goals thus far. They counter-attack brilliantly, highlighted by three counter-attack goals in the 3-1 win against Villarreal, but are possibly too goal-shy to maintain their league position should it not improve. Defensively though, they are up there with the best.