Lines and Diamonds: Part Three – The Principles Of Play

This is the third instalment from The Hand of God.


This chapter will explore the tactical principles in detail. During a match, these guidelines help players understand their responsibilities at any given moment. This allows them to make quick and effective individual decisions that maintain the team’s tactical organisation. For a manager, the principles also serve as a way of understanding the underlying structure of tactics, and this allows him to quickly identify and understand any tactical problems that might emerge in play.


The principles of attack and defence directly oppose one another. The purpose of the attacking principles is to create the time and space needed to allow for a scoring opportunity, and the purpose of the defensive principles is to limit the amount of time and space in which attackers can control the ball.

At any given moment during a match, each player is involved in this struggle over the creation of time and space. With the basic attacking patterns discussed in the last chapter, you can see some of the basic methods with which players try to open up space for a shot, but effective attacking patterns require a collective effort to use each principle of attack to stretch, distract and disorganise the opposition defence.

It is often said that football is a game of small margins, and this is especially true of attacking play. A consistently effective attack cannot just rely on a good dribbler or a simple overlap pattern to create a chance. It also requires collective, diversionary movement to disrupt the defence as a whole. Each attacker must do what he can to buy every possible inch and second for the player who will eventually attempt the shot.

Collectively, the principles of attack illustrate how players do this, and with a solid grasp of tactics and the team’s patterns of play, a player will know when and how to apply the principles to good effect. The exact conditions under which a player applies specific principles are organised through tactics. This is done both by structuring the tactic to support specific principles and directly encouraging players to take more or fewer risks when carrying them out. However, all teams make use of each of the principles of attack and defence to some extent.

Before reviewing the principles of play in detail, it is important to understand how the responsibilities of both attackers and defenders are organised based on their position in relation to the ball. At the most fundamental level of play, both attackers and defenders are divided into three groups: the first attacker/defender, the second attackers/defenders and the third attackers/defenders. At any given moment, each player will be a first, second or third attacker/defender depending on how they are positioned relative to the ball, and these responsibilities will change constantly as the ball and players move around the pitch.

The first attacker is the attacker in possession of the ball while the first defender is the nearest defender (who is responsible for directly engaging him). The second attackers and second defenders are the players around the ball responsible for providing close support and cover to, respectively, the first attacker and defender. The third attackers and third defenders are the players positioned away from the ball. They are responsible for controlling both the shape of the defence and the effective size of the playing area. For the third attackers, that means creating width and depth. For the third defenders, that means shifting their position to close gaps in the defence and setting the position of the offside line.


The first principle of attack is penetration. This simply means advancing the ball towards the opposition goal. It is the first principle since moving the ball forward is the first possibility that the first attacker should consider. There are several means by which penetration can be achieved. The first and most common is a forward pass. Whether the pass is short or long, placed to a teammate’s feet or into space, it achieves penetration if it advances the ball towards the opposition goal.

However, penetration does not only concern passing. Dribbling and shooting are also important aspects of penetration. Dribbling is especially important in tactics where an attacker is expected to directly create space for himself in a 1v1 duel. In the case of shooting, even shots that do not result in goal can potentially yield a corner or a loose ball in the penalty area. Beyond dribbling, shooting and passing, sheer physical ability can also be used to penetrate a defence. For example, a player can attempt to outmuscle or outpace a defender after knocking the ball forward, though these applications of pure athletic skill are less effective at the higher levels of the game.

Of course, penetration is not always the best option, and the purpose of the team’s style of play is to clarify the conditions under which penetration may be attempted and the techniques with which it may be attempted. If penetration isn’t an option, then the first attacker must look to the follow the principle of possession as the second and third attackers apply the other principles to create an acceptable option for penetration. This illustrates how the principles shape player decision-making.

A tactic based on penetration will encourage players to adopt a high risk, high reward mentality.

The defining characteristic of a team focused on penetration is the urgency with which they move the ball forward. An extreme emphasis on the principle of penetration will see passing and movement progress along more direct, vertical lines, though it is possible that a team will play a short passing style in which the majority of passes are quick, vertical/forward passes. A greater emphasis on penetration will also see players take more risks when choosing whether to dribble or shoot. In Football Manager, an “attacking” style of football is mainly defined by the team’s emphasis on penetration, though it’s important to remember that playing an attacking style does not necessarily mean you have an effective attack.


The second principle of attack is possession. This simply means keeping control of the ball by either holding it up or making simple lateral passes until better options are available. The basic idea underlying the principle of possession is that you can’t score if you don’t have control of the ball, and moreover, your opponent can’t score if they don’t control the ball. Possession, then, has a defensive purpose as well, and in several ways, the principle of possession is at odds with the principle of penetration. While possession is a precondition for all of the other principles of attack, pursuing possession for its own sake can result in overcautious and ineffective attacking play as opportunities for penetration are sacrificed to maintain control of the ball.

On the other hand, possession can be used tactically to create space. It is natural for many players to become increasingly nervous and frustrated if there is a long sequence of play in which their team has had no opportunities to attack, and if the team lacks discipline, this can cause them to make increasingly aggressive and rash decisions in an attempt to win the ball back. Using possession tactically attempts to exploit this by luring impatient defenders out of position to open up space for penetration. This is often combined with the principle of depth to control possession in deep positions and vertically stretch the defence as much as possible, though a team with exceptional technical ability may also be able to pull this off when the attack is pushed higher up the pitch.

A tactic that heavily emphasises possession will tend to see the team building up gradually from the back with a lengthier transition to attack. The team will also tend to recycle possession more often with attackers being more selective when choosing whether to attempt a final ball or play it back into midfield to start another attack. The downside to this is that it gives the opposition time to recover positions and reorganise. A team strongly favouring possession will often need to rely heavily on principles such as improvisation, mobility and width to create space against disciplined and mentally resilient defences that are content to sit deep and cede control of the ball.


The third principle of attack is depth. This is one of two principles that concerns the immediate dispersal of players off the ball to quickly utilise as much space as possible. Effective dispersal requires both vertical/forward and lateral/wide movement, and creating depth requires spreading out vertically. Ideally, depth will already exist from the moment possession is won, but if it doesn’t, players must promptly create it to allow for a penetrating pass.

At the most basic level, creating depth simply means not allowing the attacking shape to become too flat and compressed. For the second attackers immediately surrounding the ball, the principle of depth requires positioning yourself at a diagonal angle to the first attacker. For the third attackers positioned further from the ball, this means positioning yourself to offer immediate depth should a second attacker receive a pass. In this way, creating depth offers both a means of advancing the ball in quick succession or, if necessary, quickly moving back away from pressure.

Underlying the principle of depth is the idea that the first attacker should look to pass the ball along diagonal angles, and this requires players around him to avoid sitting in flat, rigid lines. Diagonal passing will allow the team to maintain the momentum of the attack. A compressed attack cannot penetrate quickly since the ball will be forced to travel at the speed of the advancing players, and it also allows the opposition defence to stay more compact and better positioned to intercept passes. Square passes bring forward movement to a halt, and they also present the risk that an intercepting defender will be able to immediately bypass both attackers upon controlling the ball.

Creating depth will give a central playmaker the space he needs to orchestrate the attack.

Extending the principle to the entire team, the tactical use of depth means trying to vertically stretch the opposition to create as much space as possible between the lines of the opposition defence. A tactic that heavily emphasises the principle of depth will see a combination of players dropping deep, pushing up against the defensive line and positioning themselves between the lines as these intermediate spaces open up. This creates defensive dilemmas in which defenders must choose between pushing up to compress this space as a unit, leaving the attackers operating there open or disrupting the team shape to mark the attackers individually. This also gives the first attacker a greater variety of passing options since the effective use of depth will create superior options for both simple possession passes to the second attackers and direct passes to the third attackers.


The fourth principle of attack is width. Like depth, this concerns the dispersal of players off the ball with the aim of either getting attackers into undefended space or stretching the opposition defence. In this case, it involves players moving laterally into positions close to the touchlines. Combined with depth, width creates the option of advancing around the defence with a penetrating pass down the flanks. At the same time, it presents a dilemma to defenders who must choose between protecting space closer to the ball or leaving an attacker completely open in a wide position.

In most cases, a disciplined defence will opt to remain concentrated around the ball while leaving attackers in a wide area opposite the position of the ball unmarked. If the ball is played out wide, the defence will shift to the flanks to restrict space around the player in possession, but until that happens, width will serve as a reliable source of space for attackers looking to free themselves up for a pass. Alternately, if a defender does position himself wider to remain close to a player in a wide area away from the ball, the defence will become stretched with passing lanes through the middle opening up as a result. Ideally, width combined with the threat of a quick switch of play will create uncertainty and indecision that will disrupt the shape of the defence and open up a variety of options.

The flanks offer a more reliable source of space, but the touchline will limit a creative player’s options.
The flanks offer a more reliable source of space, but the touchline will limit a creative player’s options.

A tactic that heavily emphasises the principle of width will tend to concentrate its attacks in wide areas, though this can be done for very different purposes. One team may anticipate that the defence will stay more compact while relying on a skillful winger or quick flank overloads to beat an isolated fullback ahead of a cross, another team may try to stretch the defence by luring out individual defenders in the hope that it opens up space in the channel that allows for penetration into a more central area, and another team may try to drag the whole defence wide with a view towards playing a cutback to an onrushing midfielder or a quick switch of play to a teammate attacking the far post. A sufficiently versatile and creative team will utilise a combination of approaches.


The fifth principle of attack is support. Support essentially means offering safe passing options to the first attacker. If the team is observing both the principles of depth and support, an outfield player should reliably be given safe options for an angled lateral, back and forward pass with players positioning themselves in what looks like an interlocking series of diamonds. In a situation where the most advanced attacker receives the ball, the option of a forward pass may need to be created by a teammate running into space behind the defence.

At the most basic level, the idea is to give the first attacker a safe passing option in every direction. This prevents the player from being isolated, and in the absence of an acceptable option for a penetrating pass, this allows him to more easily maintain possession and avoid being pressured off the ball. Providing support effectively will allow the team to easily circulate the ball between players which, against an aggressive or undisciplined defence, can result in defenders chasing the ball fruitlessly with gaps allowing penetrating passes opening up as a result.

Carrying out the principle of support may require a teammate to move closer to the player in possession. Assuming the player’s marker doesn’t follow (and potentially up space for a penetrating pass), this allows for an easier pass, but it also sacrifices a more penetrative option. In this way, players must be careful to balance the need for depth and the need for support. Players need options near the ball to offer the safe option, but they also need options establishing depth away from the ball to both offer the option for a more dangerous pass and to ensure that there is immediate forward support should a teammate in a more advanced position receive the ball.

With too much emphasis on support, a team’s efforts at penetrating the opposition defence may grind to a halt with the attack becoming too compressed. Taken to an extreme, an excessive emphasis on offering safe options can see the attack pushed back with a series of back passes towards their own goal as a lack of depth deprives them of an outlet capable of receiving a deeper pass.

On the other hand, an excess of depth at the expense of support will see certain players isolated from one another with the player in possession potentially forced to pursue riskier options that may lead to a loss of possession or, worse yet, an opportunity for the opposition to break on the counter. An attack that looks to create extensive depth in build-up play must be careful to organise supporting options in a way that prevents the opposition from effectively isolating and outnumbering any key part of the attack before they are ready to attempt a more ambitious pass.

A tactic that heavily emphasises the principle of support will tend to see the team’s build-up play progress in a more compact shape with more players looking to offer safe, short passing options around the player in possession. This can help the team maintain possession, though to allow for penetration, a resulting lack of depth may require the tactic to focus more heavily on other attacking principles to open up gaps for a quick series of combination passes through the opposition defence. For teams that place a lot of importance on support, it is often the case that there is also a strong focus on mobility and width to create space in which players can combine to advance the ball with quick passing and movement.


This bring us to the sixth principle of attack: mobility. Mobility means moving to create space for both yourself and others. Effective mobility will see players opening up more space to receive the ball while pulling the defence out of shape and forcing defenders to commit positional errors. Essentially, the aim is to not let defenders rest for a single second. Constant attacking movement forces defenders to constantly reposition themselves and think carefully about choosing their next action. Over time, this proves physically and mentally tiring for defenders which, in turn, increases the chance that they will make poor decisions when choosing whether to track an attacker’s movement or avoid opening up gaps in the defensive formation.

At the most basic level, mobility simply means not standing still for long periods and allowing a defender to comfortably mark you out of the game with minimal mental and physical effort. Even under a tactic that demands a more rigid attacking shape, mobility serves as an important way of supplementing support and penetration. When marked, an attacker can make things difficult for his defender by persistently checking to and away from the ball, attempting dummy runs, slipping over to the defender’s blindside and simply moving away from the player in possession to keep space open around the ball.

As a club’s reputation grows, the ability to find and use space becomes increasingly important.
As a club’s reputation grows, the ability to find and use space becomes increasingly important.

The more complex tactical applications of mobility involve allowing players much greater freedom of movement. Examples of more advanced uses of mobility include attackers rotating attacking positions, diagonal runs to or from the flanks, crossover runs between attackers and overlapping runs from midfielders and defenders. This introduces a third problem to the dilemma that mobility creates for defenders. Whereas basic mobility forces them to choose between tracking players and protecting space, greater levels of attacking mobility also force them to make careful decisions about which player to track (or not).

A tactic that heavily emphasises mobility will see the team operating in a highly dynamic attacking shape with constant movement between positions. Rotational runs, overlapping runs and third man combinations are common features of a highly mobile attack. These attacking patterns can be very difficult to defend against, though the effective use of mobility is highly dependent on the abilities and attitude of the players. In addition to ideally being quick and agile, the players must be energetic and hard working to sustain the constant effort that mobility demands.


The seventh and final principle of attack is improvisation. Improvisation means being unpredictable, creative and tactically deceptive. The aim of improvisation is to confuse the defence and catch them off guard in the hope that this will lead to rash decisions that open up space for the attack. A team that attacks with invention and guile prevents the defending side from falling into a comfortable rhythm, and over time, the increased tactical demands this places on defenders will pose a difficult test for their discipline and mental resilience.

At the most basic level, improvisation involves playing with flair and style. Feints and tricks performed by a player on the ball are not simply done for show; they can also send defenders onto their wrong foot or even lure them into rash challenges. An attacker who only knows one way to beat his man will quickly become predictable, and no matter how well he’s mastered his favoured technique, he will find it increasingly difficult to pull it off effectively if the defender can always anticipate his next move.

A player with an eye for the unexpected can throw any defensive system into disarray.
A player with an eye for the unexpected can throw any defensive system into disarray.

At the broader tactical level, improvisation involves making the team’s patterns of play more unpredictable and varied by mixing up the specific techniques used to carry them out. A team that carries out its patterns in the same manner over and over will tend to become predictable, and over time, this allows defenders to settle into a steady rhythm where they can comfortably predict the first attacker’s next decision. A sudden shift in the way a pattern has previously been carried out can serve to throw the defence off guard, and if effective, this will prompt rash challenges or poor reorganisation that can open up space for a chance.

A manager’s tendency to encourage improvisation comes down to a question of whether he favours unpredictability or precision in attacking play. While an emphasis on improvisation can make the attack difficult to read, it can also lead to several problems if implemented with a team poorly suited to playing a highly flamboyant and technically demanding style. First, it can lead to a loss of cohesion and organisation if the attackers themselves are not capable of reading one another’s intentions, and second, it can lead to more attacks breaking down due to attackers pushing their technical limitations and overcomplicating their play.

On the other hand, an attack that lacks a necessary element of improvisation can become too workmanlike and predictable. Their attacks may end up being more efficient at getting the ball forward, but against a well organised defence, players instructed to keep their play simple and sensible may end up merely playing the percentages or relying on opposition errors to find their breakthrough. In such situations, attackers will need a lot of luck or a significant gulf in ability to consistently carve out chances for themselves.

Collectively, the principles of attack relate to one another in complex ways, and when developing tactics, managers should be careful to balance their use to ensure they enhance rather than conflict with one another. It’s also important to understand that each of the principles of attack carries its own defensive cost. While there is often truth to the adage that the best defence is a good attack, careless attacking play can gift chances to the opposition. Managers should always remain aware that space created in the attacking phase is also available to the opposition in the transition phase, and when combined with reckless attempts at penetration or sloppy possession play, a careless effort at creating and using space can quickly result in the opposition breaking forward against an exposed and poorly prepared defence.


The principles of defence help players defend as a team in an effective and well organised manner. For a player, the defensive principles help him to decide how to best make himself useful given the current situation and his position in relation to the ball. Like the attacking principles, the defensive principles guide players towards tactically appropriate decisions, though in the case of defending, the decisions concern how to best win back the ball without conceding a chance to the opposition.

For a manager organising the team’s tactical approach, each individual defensive principle can also be understood as a means of negating a specific attacking principle. However, setting up a defence is not as simple as negating every aspect of the opposition’s attack nor is it as simple as just focusing all of the defence’s efforts into carrying out a single principle. Defending is fundamentally a question of limiting the time and space needed to set up chances, but it is not possible for the defence to simultaneously protect every part of the pitch. The challenge of defending is choosing where to focus the team’s efforts, and this requires balancing the principles of defence in a way that channels the abilities of your players to cause the most problems for the opposition attack.

Players can consolidate deep in front of their penalty area, but this cedes the depth of the pitch from which attackers can dominate possession and quickly make use of width with penetrating passes to the flanks. Alternately, players can try to compress the playing area and deny space for building up attacks by pushing the defence as high up the pitch as possible, but this will leave more space behind the defence exposed to more direct means of penetration. Players may also take a balanced approach, but guarding against everything in equal measure leaves you exposed to everything in equal measure. Though regardless of which principles a manager favours, every team relies on each principle to some degree.

3.10 DELAY

The first principle of defence is delay. This means the first defender nearest to the ball should immediately position himself to prevent it from being passed or dribbled forward. The key to carrying out this principle is proper defensive positioning by the first defender. If the first defender fails to position himself in a way that prevents him from being swiftly side-stepped for a simple pass or turned by a dribbling attacker (or worse yet: nutmegged), the first attacker will be able to easily move the ball past him.

Delay has two tactical purposes. The first is to allow the other defenders to get organised before the opposition attack can advance. The second is to try to slow the attack by forcing them to pause and consider their options. Just as the principle of penetration is the first principle of attack, delay should be the first option pursued by a defender. This is especially important in the recovery phase where the first defender must halt the threat of a counterattack and buy time for his teammates to consolidate into the team’s defensive block.

When lacking cover, delaying an attacker gives teammates an opportunity to get into better positions.
When lacking cover, delaying an attacker gives teammates an opportunity to get into better positions.

In deeper positions, delay is still a vital principle. By forcing the attack to choose between either overly safe possession passes or overly risky passes, it can prompt hesitation in attackers and kill the momentum of an attack. Unless an attacker can come up with a moment of genius, this will make the attack much easier to read and force them to rely on either sheer ability or high risk attacking patterns (such as simple overloads) to beat defenders.

Delaying an attacker is the first step towards applying pressure, but if a defender is wary of overcommitting and being beaten by his man, he may choose to continue standing off from the first attacker and attempt to encourage the first attacker to play the ball into a less risky area (usually, this means the flanks). This often occurs when the team has not yet dropped into its defensive block. In these situations, the first defender will simply look to check the pace of the attacker’s advance as the defence retreats rather than trying to put him under greater pressure.

A defence built around the principle of delay will tend to focus more on intelligent positioning and interceptions as opposed to pressuring opposition attackers into mistakes. However, no team can delay an attack indefinitely unless the opposition never makes any attempt at penetration. If an attacker tries to beat his man or comes within shooting distance of the goal, a defender must begin applying pressure.

The benefit of delay extends beyond its immediate effect on the first attacker. It also has a cumulative effect when practiced consistently and effectively. In addition to making it more difficult for the first attacker to immediately dribble or slip a pass by him, a defender attempting to simply delay will typically be better positioned if a quick pass suddenly changes the point of attack. Since he will usually be closer to his defensive position, he can quickly drop back into shape to offer cover or balance to his teammates. This means the defender can quickly assume his new responsibilities as a second or third defender, and this ensures the team will keep its shape more consistently and be able to quickly reorganise around the new location of the ball.

While waiting for opposition mistakes will normally allow them more time on the ball, slowing the tempo of the attack through careful delaying tactics will reduce the likelihood of defensive errors and make the opposition more dependent on producing a moment of inspiration to break down the defence. This highlights the way in which time can be a double-edged sword for both the attack and defence. For both, reducing the amount of time in which decisions must be made increases the chance of mistakes whether this is done via pressure by the defence or a conscious decision to play at a high tempo by the attack. The question for the manager, then, is how to balance the risk of a defensive error with the need to win back the ball, especially against opponents who may very well have the vision and technical ability to unlock a stubborn and well disciplined defence.


The second principle of defence is pressure. This is an extension of the principle of delay that aims to limit the opposition’s possession of the ball. Whereas delay concerns positioning yourself against the attacker in possession to prevent penetration, pressure involves the first defender quickly closing down the first attacker to minimise the time and space in which the ball can be controlled. At the most basic level, the purpose of pressure is to force the first attacker into making a hasty decision, and even in a defence playing a containment style, recognising when you need to apply pressure is a vital aspect of shutting down a potentially dangerous situation.

Putting an opponent under pressure can prompt panic and poor decisions.
Putting an opponent under pressure can prompt panic and poor decisions.

While pressure may result in an attempted tackle, this is not necessarily the main intent of applying pressure. Ideally, pressure will lead to a change in possession as a result of the attacker miscontrolling the ball or attempting a bad pass. This reduces the risk of a foul being committed which can potentially lead to an even more dangerous situation.

A defence built around the principle of pressure will focus on rapidly closing down attackers as soon as possible. In this case, the aim is to win the ball back as quickly as possibly by forcing mistakes as opposed to waiting for them to occur. Normally, a style of play based on quickly applying pressure is combined with a high defensive block in a pressing style, but this is not always the case. Some teams, especially at lower levels of play where players lack the technical ability to either cope with pressure or exploit depth behind pressuring defenders, might find it advantageous to apply aggressive pressure higher up the pitch while the defensive line retreats to a deep line of restraint.

The risk of emphasising pressure is that, while it seeks to force mistakes from the attack, it increases the likelihood of mistakes from the defence. Asking defenders to apply pressure more quickly and in more advanced positions gives them less time to observe the developing situation, and this can lead to a loss of shape, restraint and organisation if the defence as a whole doesn’t react quickly enough. Additionally, a pressuring defender can be promptly beaten by a quick, skillful attacker, so without sufficient cover, a failed attempt at applying pressure can quickly lead to an exposed defence. A final point to consider is that applying pressure quickly and persistently is physically taxing for defenders, and if defenders’ energy levels aren’t carefully managed over the course of a match, relentless pressure increases the risk of everything from defensive errors to injuries.


The third principle of defence is compression. Along with the principle of consolidation, this is one of two principles based on the broader concept of compactness. At the most basic level, compression means reducing the space around the first attacker by having second and third defenders shift towards him. This allows the defence to establish numerical superiority around the ball, obstructs the passing lanes separating the first attacker from his supporting teammates and ensures both the first and second attackers have minimal space in which to receive and control it. In other words, the aim of compression is to get compact around the ball, isolate the first attacker and tighten the angles along which any attempt at penetration must be attempted.

Compression towards the ball involves players shifting their positions both laterally and vertically. This reduces gaps in the defensive shape, including the crucial gap between the midfield and defence. Proactive shifting by the defensive line in particular reduces the amount of depth available to the opposition attack when midfielders attempt to win back the ball. This has two main benefits. First, it increases the amount of precision needed to properly place and weight a forward pass. Second, it ensures deeper defenders are better positioned to promptly deal with any attempt at penetration. As a result, interceptions become more likely and the attack finds it more difficult to construct precise passing plays through the defence.

Beating a high block requires a willingness to get players and the ball behind pressuring defenders.
Beating a high block requires a willingness to get players and the ball behind pressuring defenders.

However, the idea that a defence cannot cover the entirety of the pitch is particularly relevant for the principle of compression. While one of the aims of compression is to keep the defence and midfield from being stretched apart, an attack that looks to create extensive depth presents a dilemma to the opposition defence. A defence can attempt to push up to compress the onside playing area as much as possible, and while this makes it more difficult for the attack to construct effective passing combinations, it exposes depth behind the defence to the runs of quick attackers. In these situations, defenders must be careful to keep the lines compact without allowing too much risk of a through ball potentially bypassing the entire defensive block in one fell swoop. If this isn’t possible (most likely due to a failure to pressure effectively), a defence should recognise that it must drop back and consolidate.

Compression is the responsibility of each defender as they must reduce space around the ball and cover passing lanes from all sides, but it is particularly important for the defensive line as they look to leverage the advantage offered by the offside rule. A defensive line that is too hasty to retreat or too reluctant to push out behind a pressuring midfield will tend to expose depth. This can leave a team exposed to quick, positive passing combinations as it looks to guard against the threat of a long ball.

A defence focused on compression will tend to operate in a high defensive block that sees the defence push up quickly to close depth before retreating as a unit in the event of successful penetration behind the midfield or an anticipated direct pass. In deeper positions, the defensive line will be faster to push up with the midfield to press a back pass. While this opens the possibility for a ball played behind the defence, this is exactly the point to some extent. Just as creating depth in attack looks to open up a variety of options for the player in possession, effective compression negates those options to force the player in possession to choose between the overly cautious and the overly ambitious.


The fourth principle of defence is balance. This refers to players’ responsibility to help the defence remain compact by closing gaps as they arise. Balance is usually carried out by the third defenders away from the ball as they focus on helping the first and second defenders maintain the team’s shape. Balance allows the first and second defenders to get tight around the ball without exposing too much space around them in the process, and in doing so, it serves as a binding principle that holds the defence together and allows the other principles to be carried out effectively.

Balance involves protecting space opened up by a teammate being pulled away from their basic defensive position. This is most frequently seen when the defence is pulled wide and the wide players positioned away from the ball shift into a more central position. This shifting allows the first and second defenders to isolate the attackers near the touchline without exposing a direct path towards the goal through the centre of the pitch.

By preventing the defence from getting stretched laterally when the ball moves wide, balance primarily serves as a means of protecting against width-based attacks. While this leaves attackers on the opposite flank unmarked, their distance from the ball makes them less of a threat compared to the danger posed by opening a gap through the middle. Simply, if the area directly in front of the goal is exposed, then a simple pass back into the centre could result in a clear cut chance. Balance prevents this by ensuring that players are positioned to protect this area at all times.

The principle of balance is also carried out in other instances where an individual teammate is pulled out of position. For example, if a player in the defence steps into midfield to delay or pressure an attacker, a midfielder may need to drop back to restore balance to the defensive line. Similarly, in the recovery phase, players must make recovery runs to fill the most vital positions near the ball in the event that a teammate who normally occupies that position is unable to do so.

In this image, a winger and fullback (highlighted) have shifted to the centre to balance the defence.
In this image, a winger and fullback (highlighted) have shifted to the centre to balance the defence.

Promoting balance in a tactic always requires a compromise. Since balance is most effectively offered by teammates already sitting in the same positional line (i.e., the defensive line, the midfield line or the forward line), offering more balance to various units of the defence is mainly done through the manager’s choice of formation. For example, a flat 4-5-1 offers more immediate balance to the midfield line whereas a 5-3-2 sacrifices balance in midfield for an extra man at the back. However, choosing a formation that adds numbers to one unit of the defence requires removing players from a different position.

Since balance helps prevent a line of defence from being bypassed through width, choosing where to offer more immediate balance will have a significant effect on how often each line of defence is called upon to deal with threats. Adding more players to the forward line, then, will help support a team’s efforts at disrupting the opposition’s efforts at building up play from the back. Adding more players to the midfield line will help support a team’s efforts at containing the attack in front of the midfield. And adding more players to the defensive line will ensure that there are always four at the back screening the entire face of goal if a defender steps out of position.

On the other hand, offering balance to one unit of the defence increases the demands on players in another. Keeping three players forward may prevent an opponent from comfortably switching the ball across its defence, but it will also require players in the midfield and defence to cover more ground once the ball gets beyond the forward line. This normally requires players in these positions to have a higher level of physical, tactical and defensive ability to cope with these increase demands.

In each case, focusing on balance to counter width typically means having the defence playing in a smaller number of flat lines. This means the defence sacrifices cover between the lines in exchange for better protection against width, and as a result, the defence will be more vulnerable to supporting attackers utilising this exposed depth.

3.14 COVER

This bring us to the fifth principle of defence: cover. Also often referred to as defensive support, cover involves denying options to the attacker in possession by marking attackers and protecting space around the first defender. The primary aim of cover is to negate support, though it also serves to keep the principle of compression in check by emphasising the need to maintain defensive depth and protect space behind the first defender. Basically, this means that the first and second defenders should avoiding sitting in a flat line when engaging the first attacker regardless of whether the team’s defensive formation has them sitting in a flat line by default.

Covering defenders have two main responsibilities. The first involves marking which involves positioning themselves to cut off passes to supporting attackers. Normally, second defenders who play in the same positional line as the first defender should first mark supporting defenders behind the first defender since this cuts off the penetrating pass. Generally, marking involves trying to remain goal-side (on the side of the goal) and ball-side (to the left/right of the second attacker depending on which is closer to the ball). The basic idea is that you want to maintain visibility of both the marked player and the ball while being in a position that allows you to both react to an attacking run and step out to intercept a pass. However, this is not always possible (for example, if the ball is moving rapidly in a very central position), and in a pressing defence, it is often the case that the second defenders will proactively move to cut off the passing lane to the second attackers to isolate the first attacker.

The second responsibility of covering defenders is ensuring defenders are positioned to protect space behind the first defender in the event of successful penetration (for example, by the attacker dribbling around him or playing a pass behind him). This is simple if there are free defenders not responsible for directly marking a support option for the attacker in possession, and in the case of an attack reluctant to commit attackers forward, covering defenders may be left free to help directly pressure an attacker by doubling up. Though against an attack quick to commit players forward, this may require a defender to mark his man less tightly to try to position himself to guard against both a possible pass to a teammate and a possible dribble beyond the first defender.

In other cases, a supporting attacker operating between the midfield and defensive lines can create a dilemma for a covering defender who must choose between covering the man (and the space behind) or leaving this player to teammates in a deeper positional line in order to remain better positioned to respond quickly if the attack moves into his zone of responsibility. In truth, the correct response is not always obvious, and while managers will often coach a specific response, these kind of defensive dilemmas highlight the importance of having experienced players who can intuitively read and anticipate the intentions of the opposition attack.

As with balance, a defence must choose where and how to offer cover. In the past, teams relied on man-to-man coverage in which a defender tracked a single attacker across the pitch, but against an opponent properly carrying out the principles of attack, this method makes it impossible to maintain a compact shape. It also required the use of a free defender (known as a libero or sweeper) to maintain zonal cover and defensive depth in the space behind the rest of the defence. However, new tactical methods and modifications to the offside law eventually rendered this solution to the man-marking problem unviable at the top levels of the game. Now, nearly all professional teams rely on zonal marking in which all defenders are expected to drop off into covering positions depending on their position in relation to the ball while only marking attackers who enter an area/zone they’ve been assigned within a defensive shape that, in theory, remains compact at all times.

A consequence of zonal marking is that some attackers can be left unmarked as the team is more concerned with covering space close to and behind the ball. However, as we saw in the section on the principle of balance, leaving some attackers unmarked allows balancing defenders to focus on shifting to cover gaps that arise if the first and second defenders are pulled away from their basic defensive positions. Still, this means that a zonal defence will tend to naturally leave some areas exposed to attacking movement.

The natural cover offered by a box midfield is effective at stifling a dribbling or short passing style.
The natural cover offered by a box midfield is effective at stifling a dribbling or short passing style.

After a team has recovered into its defensive shape in their own half, the defensive formation will determine which areas are covered more effectively. Along with how the team uses balance, this will greatly influence how the defence tends to channel the opposition attack, and if employed judiciously, focusing additional cover in specific areas can seriously disrupt the opposition’s attacking system by isolating and overrunning key players.

Assuming the defence has carried out the other principles of defence adequately, defenders should be able to eventually offer cover behind the ball with any formation, but in practice, luring players forward will tend to create depth behind them since it takes time for a player to track back into a covering position. Additionally, if opposition attackers make runs from deep or out wide in an attempt to overload space around the ball, more advanced players may be required to track them to offer more cover.

In these situations, coverage of the second and third attackers is maintained by tracking their movement, but this also means marking the man can come at the expense of other defensive principles, particularly balance. The need to track attackers must be kept in check to ensure the defence doesn’t lose shape and become unbalanced (which can result if a team is stretched either laterally or vertically). This requires communicating with other defenders to pass on or exchange marked attackers when necessary as well as potentially leaving them unmarked altogether if they drop deep or move towards a flank away from the ball.

A defence that focuses on cover will tend to accept a slightly greater risk of becoming unbalanced. In most cases, this involves using a formation where either an attacking or defensive midfielder is positioned between the lines to continuously cover that protect space against attackers taking up supporting positions in depth. In more extreme cases, a team focused heavily on marking supporting attackers will lean more towards man-to-man coverage and have defenders sticking close to attackers at the expense of defensive balance and compactness. This is often done by teams that rely more on physicality and tackling than disciplined positioning and interceptions.


The sixth principle of defence is consolidation. This is the second of the two principles concerning compactness. This means recovering positions in a narrow shape behind the ball to protect against direct penetration towards goal. The basic aim of consolidation is to establish and maintain numerical superiority behind the ball in the most vulnerable areas near the goal. In some ways, it overlaps with the principle of compression in that both will see the defence become more compact, but whereas compression involves collectively restricting space towards the ball, consolidation concerns collectively restricting space towards one’s own goal. In this way, the two can be at odds with one another, though tactically intelligent defenders will be able to balance the two by pushing up and dropping back as the situation demands.

Since consolidation involves establishing and maintaining numbers in the more central part of the pitch, it is not uncommon for the principle of consolidation to be presented as a means of preventing width from stretching the defence, but whereas consolidation is largely intended to force the attack to rely more on width, it is more accurate to understand it as a means of directly negating the threat of mobility. While width does look to disrupt consolidation and stretch the defence laterally, balance is needed to actually protect against width if the defence is consolidating properly. On the other hand, consolidation protects against runs into and through the vulnerable spaces nearest to the goal.

When properly consolidated, there will naturally be less space between defenders, including between the defensive line and the goalkeeper. In this way, like compression, consolidation will see the defence get compact, though in a more passive manner that cedes depth ahead of the defence. As a result, the defence as a whole will be better positioned to collectively deny both the second and third attackers the opportunity to freely move and receive the ball in opportune shooting positions, though it will struggle to prevent the opposition from dictating play from deeper positions and sustaining the attack by recovering clearances.

A key idea behind consolidation is that the defence should focus its efforts toward the flanks instead of from the flanks. In other words, the defence should always anchor itself centrally and direct the defence outward from the middle. Even in teams that focus heavily on compression, this aspect of consolidation is important since it highlights the importance of directing play into less threatening areas on the flanks. With the touchline cutting off half of an attackers’ options, channeling play to the flanks allow them to be more effectively isolated and pressured.

A tactic based on consolidation requires players who are tactically disciplined and mentally resilient.
A tactic based on consolidation requires players who are tactically disciplined and mentally resilient.

Assuming defensive consolidation is maintained through balance, it prevents defenders from individually having to cover too much space. This is done by ensuring there are no immediately accessible spaces in front of goal through which either passes can be made or supporting attackers can move without being immediately covered by another defender. Additionally, physically crowding space in front of goal through consolidation prevents attackers from comfortably maneuvering at pace when either attempting a dribble or a run.

A team that focuses heavily on consolidation will look to retreat into their defensive shape and congest the vulnerable areas in front of goal as quickly as possible. This normally involves keeping more players behind the ball at all times as well as being quick to drop deep to keep defenders behind the ball and protect the central space behind the defence. This can make a defence very difficult to break down, but especially against similarly cautious opponents, it can also compromise both a team’s attacking potency and ability to win the ball back quickly. However, against an aggressive opponent quick to commit attackers forward, an emphasis on consolidation can play a vital role in tempting the opposition to expose space that can be exploited with a fast transition.


The seventh and final principle of defence is restraint. Essentially, this means remaining defensively organised for as long as possible, especially when facing an unexpected development in play that threatens to provoke panic or indecision in the defence. Sticking to the team’s established patterns of defensive play keeps the defence operating as a cohesive unit, and it helps prevent creative and clever attackers from luring individual defenders into mistakes. Of course, there are times when a last ditch tackle or even a tactical foul may be the best decision, but while individualistic defending can often earn the plaudits of the crowd, it’s can quickly spiral into a catastrophic series of defensive errors. This principle underlines the idea that an organised and disciplined defence will reduce the need for high risk defensive actions by diligently stifling the creativity of the opposition attack.

The underlying aim is to reduce the likelihood of certain types of defensive errors. The most significant of these errors is the act of overcommitting. This involves rushing into a challenge or attempting a particularly risky challenge (for example, a diving tackle) when either lacking sufficient defensive cover or simply a good reason to try to win the ball back immediately. Overcommitting increases the chance of being beaten by your man. This can confuse or unnerve teammates by suddenly forcing them into a more precarious defensive situation.

Beyond the risk of the first defender overcommitting, restraint also instructs the second and third defenders to avoid defensive errors by reminding them to focus on their current defensive responsibilities. While these defenders need to remain aware of what the attacker in possession is doing, this should not come at the expense of the team’s need for balance and cover. Examples of such second and third defender errors include exposing space by overzealously tracking an attacking run and being lured towards the ball when it is not safe or necessary to double up on the attacker in possession (the latter of which is also a form of overcommitting).

More than the other defensive principles, restraint relies heavily upon the experience and temperament of the players, though skillful man management can also help create and maintain an ethos of teamwork and tactical discipline. Still, a tactic can put a greater emphasis on restraint by discouraging hasty and aggressive challenges. This may give the opposition more time on the ball, but against a properly disciplined defence, they should find fewer opportunities to actually make anything of it.

With a solid understanding of the principles of defence, a coach can more easily identify why a defence failed in a successful attacking play. For each of the seven principles of defence, there are corresponding defensive errors that can be attributed to a failure to adequately observe one or more of the principles. However, in play, defending is always a matter of finding the most efficient way to manage different threats, and it is important for a coach to remember that these errors may not always be obvious to defenders until after the fact. Football is a game of fine margins that cannot be predicted with absolute certainty, so it is the responsibility of the manager to organise the defence in a way that helps the players reduce the likelihood of defensive mistakes.


With a solid understanding of the principles of play, you will be well equipped to begin learning how to analyse each moment of a game in terms of the individual tactical decisions of the players. A manager’s ability to read a game in this way is an extremely important aspect of tactical management. A good reading of the game allows a manager to identify where things are going wrong, why they are going wrong and what needs to be changed.

Offering more balance to the defensive line can reduce the risk of errors in high risk situations...
Offering more balance to the defensive line can reduce the risk of errors in high risk situations…

An important aspect of this is being able to distinguish between simple player errors, player deficiencies and systemic deficiencies. The question here is whether a player made an avoidable mistake, a player lacks the ability to properly carry out the team’s tactics or whether the team’s tactical approach has some structural shortcoming being exploited by the opposition. This allows the manager to make a good judgment as to whether to keep things as they are, change the personnel or change the team’s approach to create a more favourable situation.

To give you a sense of how this can be done, here is a summary of how the principles are often applied in terms of a typical progression of play. First, the team in attack:

Upon taking possession of the ball, the first attacker should look for an opportunity for penetration. This can include passing, dribbling or shooting. If no acceptable opportunities are available, he should next do what he can to maintainpossession until better opportunities open up. At this point, it is the responsibility of the second and third attackers to create those opportunities.

Away from the ball, the second and third attackers should look to open up the field by giving the attack width and depth. This will create the option of moving the ball into another area of the pitch with a direct pass while opening up more space in which the supporting attackers can operate. As this occurs, the second attackers near the ball must also look to offer support. Even if this does not allow for penetration, it at least provides more options for maintaining possession.

Finally, with attackers dispersed and properly positioned, both the second and third attackers must offer mobility to force the opposition to continuously reorganise itself to deny options for penetration. If all else fails, we return to the first attacker who must improvise if there are no obvious avenues for progressing the attack. Typically, a less creative player will simply attempt a speculative shot or pass intended to just get the ball upfield, but with the right players, these moments of desperation can inspire a stroke of genius.

In response to the above progression, the defending team will exercise the appropriate defensive principles to negate each action in an attempt to eventually force an error from the attack:

First, the defender nearest to the ball becomes the first defender. It is now his responsibility to immediately position himself to delay any immediate attempt at penetration from the first attacker as his teammates reorganise. Positioned correctly with adequate cover behind him, he may also begin to pressure the first attacker, though he should be careful not to overcommit if his teammates have not yet consolidated into a good defensive posture.

Away from the ball, the second and third defenders should immediately move to consolidate defensively. First, the second defenders nearest to the ball must provide cover to the first defender to support his efforts at delaying, isolating and pressuring the first attacker. Meanwhile, the third defenders must reestablish balance to the team’s shape and keep space around the ball as compressed as possible to prevent too great a gap from opening up ahead of the defensive line.

At this point, the team will have consolidated defensively, and the first attacker will find it difficult to advance the ball in a direct path towards goal. The defence will then either gradually retreat into a deeper defensive block (allowing controlled penetration towards their goal but ensuring the team can maintain consolidation in the event of a direct pass) or maintain its current position in an effort to win back the ball. However, in either case, maintaining consolidation requires continuously observing the other principles, and to do so properly, the defenders must remain disciplined and practice restraint in response to every development in play.

In any stretch of open play, the above sequence serves as a blueprint outlining each player’s responsibility at any given moment. When reading a game tactically, the central question that comes up at every moment is whether players are adhering to the relevant principles of play. If not, the manager must then ask himself whether this is due to players simply making the wrong decision, the players lacking the ability to carry out the relevant principle in the current circumstances, or the tactical system & style imposed by the manager creating a tactical weakness by directing too many players towards different responsibilities.

... while offering more cover behind the midfield line can prevent high risk situations from emerging.
… while offering more cover behind the midfield line can prevent high risk situations from emerging.

From this vantage point, the cause of common tactical problems can be identified:

If first attackers are hesitating to exploit gaps and giving the opposition defence time to consolidate, the manager may need to encourage more ambitious efforts at penetration.

If attackers are making rash decisions and losing the ball unnecessarily, the manager may need to encourage more patience in maintaining possession.

If the attack is becoming too compressed and lacks options for playing a direct pass between or behind the lines, the manager may need to provide more depth in attack.

If the attack is becoming too concentrated and lacks any space to advance the ball forward, the manager may need to encourage more width in attack.

If an attacker is getting isolated against multiple defenders, the manager may need to provide more support around him.

If the second and third attackers are comfortably being marked out of the game, the manager may need to encourage more mobility.

Finally, if the attack is just too predictable, the manager may need to allow more improvisation.

Conversely, if first attackers are beating defenders and dragging them out of position too easily, the opposing manager may need to encourage the defence to try to delay them and wait for cover.

If first attackers are being given too much time to control and pick out passes, the opposing manager may need to encourage the defence to focus more on quickly pressuring them.

If attackers are finding too much space to receive and control passes ahead of the defensive line, the opposing manager may need to encourage the defence to compress space more readily.

If attackers are finding it too easy to drag central players wide or switch the point of attack into dangerous areas, the opposing manager may need to balance the team’s shape more effectively.

If attackers are finding it too easy to bypass a defender with simple passing plays, the opposing manager may need to offer him more cover in front of or behind his defensive zone.

If attackers are finding it too easy to make direct plays into space in front of goal, the opposing manager may need to take more measures to ensure the defence consolidates quickly.

Finally, if defenders are losing discipline and making elementary mistakes, the manager may need to encourage more restraint.

A manager should always keep in mind that finding the best solution is not simply a question of looking at tactics in abstraction. The individual quality and abilities of the players must always be considered. The theoretically appropriate response to a tactical problem is utterly irrelevant if the players available are simply incapable of properly implementing it. In those situations, a team may be better off just playing to their strengths while an astute manager with a nuanced understanding of the cause and effect of different patterns of play will be able to come up with alternative solutions.


An attacking pattern results from applying the tactical principles through the use of various techniques. The precise manner in which a manager goes about encouraging different patterns can vary. Some may drill meticulously structured patterns of play in which players have highly specific instructions and expectations. This is typically the case among more authoritarian managers who have little tolerance for improvisation. Others may take a more loosely structured approach in which players are instructed in various techniques and tactical principles with a view towards allowing them to develop their own tactical solutions. This is more often the case among managers for whom improvisation is a key principle.

In either case, even among players permitted a greater degree of freedom in play, the key principles embraced by the team as a whole will tend to naturally lead to specific patterns being used. 1v1 duels, for example, tend to result from a strong emphasis on penetration, depth and width. Depth and width are relied upon to create space for individual attackers and isolate them against individual defenders. Penetration serves an important function at both ends of the play. First, it encourages deeper players to quickly supply attackers with the ball before the opposition defence can close ranks around them, and second, it ensures attackers receiving those passes are encouraged to quickly take on their man.

Through ball patterns are a product of mobility and penetration. Simply, mobility encourages players to attempt runs into space behind the defence while penetration encourages players to supply those runners with defence-splitting passes. Width is also helpful as it ensures players are placed to supply angled through passes from wide positions in addition to potentially stretching the defence to open gaps for runs and through passes from the centre.

Simple overloading runs result from encouraging forward mobility from multiple players in a particular part of the pitch, either down a flank or through the middle. The idea here is that you want multiple attackers making deep, successive runs to quickly overwhelm a defender before the defence as a whole can react and neutralise the overload threat. Width is also helpful as it can help stretch the defence and isolate the individual defenders being targeted by the overload pattern.

Aggressive, energetic midfielders and a pair of strikers can be a lethal combination on the break.
Aggressive, energetic midfielders and a pair of strikers can be a lethal combination on the break.

Break patterns are unique since they are, by definition, based on transition play and tied more closely to certain defensive principles. Specifically, pressure is needed to recover the ball in a manner that allows the first defender to quickly get past his man as he goes from being the first defender to the first attacker. Breaks can occur in a less aggressive defence if the ball is intercepted and the opposition is recklessly sending players forward, but if a team wishes to proactively prompt dangerous breaks, pressure is key.

Additionally, once the ball is won, having multiple players immediately offering depth in attack is helpful to ensure there are players ahead of the ball dragging defenders out of position and offering options for a pass. This requires discouraging certain players from consolidating too readily by instructing them to stay forward in attacking positions. Using more forwards and attacking midfielders will see more players positioned to break effectively in addition to ensuring players are positioned to apply pressure in positions where recovering possession can prompt a break.

Moving on to the more complex patterns, switch of play patterns result from an emphasis on width, depth, possession and mobility on the flanks. The idea here is that the attack will look to push defenders deep and wide but not attempt to force the issue in the midst of a compact defence. Instead, they must be willing to invite pressure out wide before playing a deep pass back to unmarked midfielders (or, in some cases, central defenders) to allow the switch to occur. Acutback pattern basically stems from the same principles though here it is helpful to encourage mobility on the part of central midfielders to promote the late runs that a cutback pattern looks to utilise.

Combination patterns primarily rely upon providing ample support around the ball. Promoting mobility around the ball can also be helpful, though a coach must be careful here to ensure that mobility is used to serve support and doesn’t leave the first attacker isolated by teammates making premature runs ahead of play. Specifically, it is helpful to allow for mobility in the form of greater freedom of movement to allow second attackers to evade their markers.

Overlap patterns, on the other hand, look to take advantage of exactly those sort of deep runs ahead of play. In this case, it is helpful to emphasise support on the part of players who will initially be in advanced positions while emphasisingmobility on the part of players who will initially be in deep positions. The idea is that the more advanced players will sit back to offer themselves for simple passes while the deep players look to burst forward as the advanced players receive the ball and, ideally, draw defenders onto them.

Third man combination patterns are similar to standard combinations in that it is vital to provide support around the ball, though in this case, there must also be mobility from players initially positioned away from the ball to encourage the run of the third man. An emphasis on penetration via passing is also helpful to ensure the first attacker will look to supply a player who will likely represent a riskier option. The idea here is that defenders are drawn towards the first attacker and his support before a third attacker makes an incisive run into any space exposed as a result.

Finally, rotational/switch run patterns result from a heavy emphasis on mobility. Players must be able to move freely and alternate positions with teammates. To aid this, it is also helpful to encourage support on the part of a centre forward while encouraging the wide midfielders or wide forwards to forgo width by coming inside into a more compact forward line (meaning the wide defenders will normally be relied upon to provide width). As with any pattern in which attackers effectively swap positions, having the attackers in close proximity will increase the likelihood that the pattern actually creates a marking dilemma for the opposition defence.





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