Analysis: Saracens defensive tactics

Date published: April 7 2017

Our resident analyst looks at how Saracens kept the highly-rated Glasgow Warriors’ attack at bay throughout their Champions Cup quarter-final.

Saracens are a very good defensive team, most people reading this won’t need to be told that. They have allowed just 247 points in 17 Premiership games this season, Bath are the only other team to have conceded fewer than 300 points.

They are the only team to have conceded a number of tries in the teens, 18, and if they allow three more, they will also be the only team to have allowed a number of tries in the 20s, Bath have already reached 30.

Bristol are the least stingy defence, they’ve allowed 74 tries, if Saracens continue as they have done this season, they will hit that try benchmark around April 2020. By which point we’ll have hover cars and eat food in pill form.

In the Champions Cup, they continued being solid without the ball, along with Munster, who are the only team to have conceded an amount of tries in single figures during the group stages.

As I say, none of that will come as much of a surprise, although you may not have known some of the numbers. For the rest of the article, we will look at what the Saracens did on Sunday to blunt the Warriors’ attack.

The main thing that Saracens do, and what we will focus on for this article, is they don’t commit men to the breakdown when defending. In a number of situations they don’t put anybody into the breakdown.

In the above example, Stuart Hogg has been left slightly isolated, Maro Itoje goes into to try and steal the ball, which draws more Glasgow players into the breakdown. Itoje doesn’t get the turnover but he does slow the play down and allow the defensive line to reform.

In the very next play, Saracens put two people into the tackle to drive the Warriors back, but the support is there immediately from Glasgow so there’s no chance to steal the ball. Instead, Saracens fan out and wait for the next phase.

In some situations, Saracens committed so few people to the breakdown that it was almost comical. In the above screenshot the two Warriors players are looking for someone to clear out, but the fringe defence aren’t interested and concede some ground in favour of being able to spread out and deal with the next phase.

When there is an isolated attacker, the Saracens players put trust in each other and don’t over commit to the breakdown. Juan Figallo didn’t steal the ball in this above example but he did force three Warriors players to get involved in the breakdown.

This slows everything down and a couple of phases later, the ball was turned over.

All of this defensive discipline, which looks very passive, allows Saracens to be very aggressive with their blitz defence. The risks of the blitz defence are fairly obvious, having people running quickly out of their defensive line leaves big holes that strong attacking teams, like Glasgow, will exploit.

However, the more people that you have in the defensive line, the smaller the holes will be. The apparent passivity of the defence is actually what creates the opportunity to be really aggressive with the blitz.

The only Glasgow try, when the game was a meaningful contest, came from a cross-field kick off a scrum. With all the forwards trapped in one place, the same rules that we saw above don’t apply.

This is further exacerbated by Owen Farrell standing on the blindside to double up against a single Warriors player, which creates space on the open side which Finn Russell finds with a perfect kick.

Conclusion

Saracens’ defence is truly fantastic. The reason for this is discipline; discipline isn’t just not conceding penalties and cards, it’s about sticking to a pre-determined game plan.

Their approach requires the players to not just dive in to steal the ball and try and be a hero. Instead, they need to maintain the discipline and spread out and wait for a better opportunity.

The success of the defence has other benefits beyond the obvious one, not conceding points, is that Saracens are able to frustrate the opposition. The Warriors had 50 percent possession and 43 percent territory, but they kicked once more than their opposition.

With the home side able to repel attack after attack with seeming ease, the Warriors weren’t left with many options apart from a hopeful kick. However, because Saracens weren’t committing men to the breakdown, they could also drop defenders further back to field the kick, which left Glasgow in a tough situation, which was reflected in the score.

Munster will be a different challenge; they’ve scored as many tries as Glasgow did in the group stages but they’ve conceded six fewer, two fewer than Saracens. It won’t be a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. More, an immovable object meeting an immovable object.

by Sam Larner

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