Graham and I have been chatting about this quite a bit lately, and thankfully it came up in the game against the Chicago Fire. You see, the high line is a way to counter a threatening target forward by using the threat of the offside trap to pull someone like a Blaise Nkufo away from the 18.
Maybe we should rewind a bit.
What is a typical Defensive Line?
A typical defensive line probably floats around 18-30 yards away from the goal, getting pulled back forth through the flow of the match, but more often closer to the keeper than not. A coach might use this tactic because they figure that they have slower defenders, or that their keeper is particularly vulnerable to one-on-one play. It provides the most help for the defensive unit because it cuts down the area that the defenders must cover.
So what is the High Line?
This would have the defenders typically about half way between the 18 and the centerline, or even further. It leaves the keeper out on an island, but does make it much easier to have the defense support the forwards. Its ability to more easily create the offside trap (read about that here) leads to more turnovers at an advanced position than mere talent levels would suggest. It also doesn't allow a target forward to camp close to the box and just wait to put his head on the ball and score. Lastly, when it breaks, the amount of support that another defender can lend is lacking, so a coach must hope that the offensive player gets too fancy, or that the keeper is great.
So why use the High Line (as Chicago did)?
First to get Nkufo further away from the goal than he would be on average. This prevents Seattle from using him as an advanced pivot in a threatening position and it neutralizes his general height/bulk advantage.
Second, as noted earlier, it leads to ball winning in a more threatening position. In fact if it is working ideally it would push possession into the center third and attacking third. If two teams are both running highlines the game becomes very crowded in the central 40 yards of play and the idea of bands in fact just disappears.
Third, it works on the assumption that your own team is more disciplined than the opposing team.
How do you beat the High Line?
With speedy wingers (Steve Zakuani, Sanna Nyassi) or psuedo-wingers (Fredy Montero) who sprint from deep on long balls as the line brings itself even further forward trying to trap the Target Forward (Nkufo, Nate Jaqua). As the full backs are coming forward thinking that the pass is to the central player the winger goes full speed down the line on the pass meant for them.
Seattle did this quite a bit last night. While they didn't score from it, all three wingers listed above did get shots and opportunities from it.
Chicago had decent discipline and recovery on Saturday night, otherwise there would have been even more one-on-ones between Montero and Sean Johnson.
The real question I have is why any coach facing a team like the Sounders with skillful wingers and pseudo-wingers while they have good physical central defenders and young, inexperienced keeper ever think that the high line was the answer to their problems?
In some ways the score tells us why...