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Lines and Diamonds: Part Two – The Elements of Play

This is the second piece in the series by The Hand of God.

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This chapter takes a step back from the topic of club management to look at the basic tactical concepts that a manager should know before setting out to develop his own approach. It will look at the tactical structure of a match, the common aim of all attacking and defensive tactics, and the various attacking patterns that are most often used to set up scoring opportunities.

2.1 THE PHASES OF PLAY

From a tactical perspective, a football match is structured according to an ongoing cycle of four phases: an attacking phase, a defensive phase, and two transition phases that link the attacking and defensive phases. These phases of playdivide the match according to changes in possession and the resulting tactical reorganisation of the two teams.

This idea is the foundation of all modern approaches to tactics and training. When developing tactics, an overall system has distinct defensive, attacking and transitional components. When training tactics, most sessions reflect these distinctions by focusing on positioning, movement, techniques and responsibilities in a specific phase, whether that be the phase as a whole or a particular match situation within a phase. These divisions have become increasingly prominent in tactics and training as more managers and coaches at all levels of play move away from the rigid formations of the past to adopt more complex systems of play.

The first phase of play is the defensive phase. This phase begins when a team has fully reorganised to carry out the team’s intended defensive approach. This is mainly associated with where the team will set its defensive block. Thedefensive block refers to the collective positioning of the team in terms of where they will attempt to limit any further advance of the opposition attack. In other words, it sets the area of the pitch where the defence will try to make its stand and win the ball. There are two lines that serve as points of reference demarcating the defensive block: the line of restraint and the line of confrontation.

The line of restraint denotes the general area in which the defence will try to hold the offside line. This is the line to which the central defenders and fullbacks will willingly retreat (and, when necessary, to which they’ll push up), and it denotes the position they will attempt to hold as the midfielders and forwards apply pressure. In theory, this idea is relatively straight forward, but in practice, a lot can influence how much the line of restraint actually comes into play.

For example, if a team has been instructed to retreat to a deep line and has moved high up the pitch to attack, it will still try slow the pace of build-up play and prevent the attack from rushing onto them if there’s no immediate threat of penetration from a direct ball. As another example, a team with a high line of restraint will still end up getting pushed back if pressure isn’t applied effectively by the forwards and midfielders.

A deep defensive block can force an opponent to rely on more complex patterns of attack.
A deep defensive block can force an opponent to rely on more complex patterns of attack.

Normally, “defensive line” and “line of restraint” can be used interchangeably, but for the sake of clarity, the term defensive line refers specifically to the deepest group of outfield players. A defensive line may or may not be positioned along the instructed line of restraint, so when you see the phrase “high line,” this means a high line of restraint as opposed to a defensive line that just happens to be positioned high up the pitch at a given moment. Additionally, offside linerefers to the line beyond which an attacking player would be positioned in violation of the offside rule.

At the other end of the defensive block, the line of confrontation denotes the point beyond which the team, starting with the forwards, will begin to apply immediate pressure on any attacker in possession of the ball. Ideally, a forward will apply pressure and win back the ball, though with most formations, pressure from a forward is intended more to force the ball into an area where the midfield can safely apply pressure to win back the ball outright. With that said, the way a defensive block actually operates depends greatly on the team’s defensive formation.

Generally speaking, the line of restraint and line of confrontation give you a sense of where the defensive and forward lines will be positioned in the defensive block. The midfield, then, will be positioned in between, though it is often the case that the wide and advanced midfielders will step up or even briefly stay up to help the forwards put pressure on opponents near the line of confrontation as covering midfielders hold position behind them.

Defensive blocks are described as high, medium or low, though in practice, there are also extreme and intermediate variations. A high block will set the line of restraint near the halfway line, position covering midfielders near the edge of the attacking third and set the line of confrontation just outside the opposition penalty area. A medium block will set the line of restraint near the edge of the defensive third, position covering midfielders near the halfway line and set the line of confrontation just inside the middle third. A low block (or deep block) will set the line of restraint near or even at the 18 yard line, position covering midfielders near the edge of the defensive third and set the line of confrontation inside the defensive half.

A high defensive block allows the team to regain possession quickly and exploit errors at the back.
A high defensive block allows the team to regain possession quickly and exploit errors at the back.

Normally, a high block is associated with a pressing style of defending while a low block is associated with a containment style of defending. Pressing occurs when every player moves towards the ball to compress the space around it in an attempt to force an immediate change of possession. To clarify, pressing is not the equivalent of pressuring or closing down. While pressing almost always involves at least one player quickly engaging and pressuring the opponent in possession of the ball, players can and often do apply pressure when the team is not pressing. An easy way to remember the distinction is to say that a team presses while a player pressures.

Containment means the team stands off and maintains the basic shape of the formation in an attempt to discourage and cut off attempts at penetration through the midfield or forward lines. These two approaches aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. At times, a team that presses aggressively might need to reorganise and just contain the opposition attack, and a team that nearly always drops back in a containment defence might occasionally press if specific situations allow it. However, a team that favours pressing as its basic method of defending is said to play a pressing style while a team that favours containment as its basic method of defending is said to play a containment style.

Immediately after a team has regained possession, the build-up phase begins with the team transitioning from defence to attack. This phase mainly involves players repositioning themselves to move the ball into the attacking third of the pitch. The duration of the build-up phase depends on exactly where the ball has been won and how quickly a team moves the ball forward. If the ball is won high up the pitch, the transition to attack can be nearly instantaneous whereas a team that gradually works the ball out from its own half will see a more gradual and complex transition to attack.

Your defensive block also decides where you intend to start building attacks.
Your defensive block also decides where you intend to start building attacks.

Teams that aim to minimise the amount of time spent in the build-up phase are described as playing a transition style. The premise of a transition style is that it is more effective and efficient to attempt to carry out the attack before the opposition has fully transitioned to defence. This can be achieved with either very direct, long-range passes or a quick succession of short, penetrating passes. It should be noted that a transition style can be combined with any sort of passing style, so a more technical, short passing style does not necessarily equate to a possession-oriented style of play.

Other teams are content to take advantage of the build-up phase to move more players forward and attempt to pin back the opposition. This complex style of attack is achieved with a longer sequence of passing, and to be successful, it normally requires the team to be prepared to use a greater variety of attacking principles and techniques. A complex style of build-up is often associated with a possession-oriented style of play, but this is not always the case. Complex styles can be very aggressive with a heavy emphasis on the principle of penetration, but the distinguishing characteristic is that the approach is based on breaking down a settled defence with more varied and intricate patterns of attack.

The attacking phase begins when the team has successfully repositioned itself to carry out attacks in the final third of the pitch. The aim of the attacking phase is to create a chance that will result in goal, though failed attacks may require the attacking team to recycle possession by moving the ball back into a deeper position before bringing it forward again.

Immediately after a team has lost possession, the recovery phase begins with the team transitioning from attack to defence. As described above, this involves the team reconsolidating into its defensive block, though the movement of players back into their defensive positions must be carefully balanced to ensure the opposition isn’t allowed to freely advance the ball before the defence is prepared to deal with it. This usually involves the forwards and more attacking midfielders carrying out the principles of delay and cover to cut off forward passing options for the opposition players. As this is done, they either gradually retreat while facing the ball or wait for the deeper players to recover positions and then apply pressure.

In some situations, a team may immediately pressure and compress space around the opponent who won the ball in what is known as a counterpress. A counterpress is often the first step in a full blown pressing style with the team transitioning rapidly to a high block, though it is also becoming increasingly common for teams to counterpress over a short period before recovering into a lower block if the initial wave of pressure proves ineffective.

The length of the recovery phase is naturally associated with where the ball has been lost, the team’s defensive block and the distance that the more advanced players have to cover to get back into position. Normally, a high block involves a shorter transition while a low block following a loss of possession in the final third will see a longer transition. In all cases, the aim is to have the team recover into its defensive posture before the opposition can complete its attacking transition. If the defending team fails to do this, it will find itself in serious trouble.

Throughout the match, both teams will cycle through each of the four phases, but it is not the case that the two teams will enter the various phases at the same time. A change of possession will always prompt the beginning of a transitional phase, but from there, the speed of build-up and recovery may see one team fully prepared to attack before the other is fully prepared to defend (or vice versa). A transition style of attack aims to exploit this possibility as it is generally easier to break down defences that have failed to recover promptly.

When designing tactics, a manager should always consider how his approaches in different phases of play might support or detract from one another. Effective tactics organise instructions in a way that ensures that the team’s actions in one phase of play do not hinder its ability to do what’s expected of them in another. The way a team attacks should always take account of how the team will look to defend while the way a team defends should always take account of how the team will look to attack.

2.2 CHANCES

Goals win games, but from a tactical perspective, it’s up to the players, not the manager, to actually score. The manager’s responsibility is to help players score goals by developing tactics that create quality chances.

Quality chances depend on players being given enough time and space to shoot with adequate precision and power. The exact amount of time and space needed depends on the type of shot attempted and the quality of the player attempting it, but in any situation, a player who is outnumbered and under pressure will usually not have a good opportunity to score.

A player attempting to score needs time in order to control the ball, position his body correctly and put adequate power into the shot. To do this, he needs space both around him and in front of him. He needs space around him to actually move the ball and maneuver his body parts, and he needs space in front of him to ensure the shot will not be blocked before it reaches goal. Without adequate time and space, a team may still attempt a lot of shots, but they will almost certainly be speculative efforts that end up being inaccurate, blocked or collected easily by the goalkeeper.

Quality chances arise when tactics are designed to create space for the team’s goal-scorers.
Quality chances arise when tactics are designed to create space for the team’s goal-scorers.

Shots are divided into three types. The first type is a clear cut chance. These are basically sitters in which a player receives the ball unmarked either at close range or around the central edge of the penalty area with only the keeper to beat. This doesn’t necessarily mean the player is beyond the last defender; it just means that he’s open and has had the opportunity to attempt an unobstructed shot on goal.

The second type of shot is a half chance. This is a lower probability opportunity where a player makes an attempt on goal from a favourable position while he is under pressure or the path to goal is obstructed by defenders (or even poorly positioned teammates). Half chances usually result from a player receiving the ball while closely marked, challenging an opposition player for the ball or attempting a shot from distance when the penalty area is well defended. Shots taken under these circumstances have much lower conversion rates than clear cut chances.

The third type of shot is a speculative shot. A speculative shot occurs when a player attempts a shot despite being under heavy pressure from multiple defenders, being positioned at a difficult angle or distance from goal, and/or having the path to goal obstructed by numerous defenders. Speculative shots are not classified as chances since they have a very low probability of resulting in a goal. This distinction between chances and speculative shots should not be overlooked since it may very well be the case that a small number of clear cut chances will have a greater total probability of resulting in goal than an enormous number of speculative shots.

The principles of play discussed in the previous chapter are all focused on creating or denying time and space in some way. The attacking principles are all means of increasing the space and time available to players attempting to control and move the ball, and the defensive principles are all means of limiting the opposition’s opportunity to comfortably do the same. This is obvious in the case of principles like width and compression, though even concepts like possession and improvisation are fundamentally focused on things like giving teammates time to reposition themselves for a pass or pulling opposition defenders out of position by provoking defenders into challenging the player with the ball.

The principles emphasised in a tactic will determine the exact way in which the team uses time and space to create and prevent chances. Some methods of using time and space will suit certain players over others while some methods will tend to be more effective against certain opponents. A manager’s task is to find the right balance for each match to increase the likelihood that the quality of chances being created by both sides favours his team.

2.3 ATTACKING PATTERNS

The way in which a tactic shapes player decision-making will cause play to settle into organised patterns of play. The idea of patterns of play underlines the importance of training and preparation in a team’s tactics. During a match, the pace of play does not allow for much intellectual deliberation, so a player’s grasp and use of tactical principles must be intuitive and nearly instantaneous. For the same reason, a player must maintain his concentration to remain aware of the situation developing around him, and he must have some sense of what sort of decisions that his teammates will make.

While improvisation and unpredictability certainly have their place in football, patterns of play help players develop mutual understanding in the team, and it allows them to combine their individual abilities to greater effect. A well-coached player will be able to recognise his team’s patterns of play, and this will enable him to make better and faster decisions in tandem with his teammates. A tactically intelligent player will also be able to identify patterns in the opposition’s play, and this can potentially give a tremendous advantage to even technically and physically limited players.

A team will follow certain patterns in each phase of play. There are defensive patterns, build-up patterns and recovery patterns that are all practiced in training and, on occasion, developed spontaneously through player ingenuity. In the case of the attacking phase, patterns are based around creating chances.

An attacking pattern is an organised sequence of attacking play in which players employ various techniques and tactical principles to create a chance on goal. This means different patterns result from players attempting to create and use time and space in different ways, and the fundamental aim of any attacking pattern is to free a player to attempt a shot on goal. In practice, freeing a player for a shot requires either enabling him to get into undefended space beyond a defender or drawing defenders away from him before supplying him with the ball.

The latter approach normally involves creating overloads. An overload is a situation where attackers have numerical superiority around the ball with any present defender momentarily responsible for dealing with two attackers at once. Overload situations in vulnerable parts of the pitch will result in either one of the overloading attackers being left free to shoot (or play a pinpoint pass/cross) or a defender leaving a third attacker open for a shot by moving out of position to offer cover to the overloaded defender.

Attacking patterns can be simple or complex. Simple patterns usually require fewer passes and less coordinated movement by the team, and they are most effective (often devastatingly so) when implemented with a quick transition from defence. Complex patterns normally involve a higher number of passes with more coordinated movement on the part of the entire team. Complex patterns are useful against more defensive opponents who are careful to keep numbers behind the ball, though even in a side that favours complex patterns, tactically astute players will recognise when it’s better to keep it simple.

The first and most simple pattern is based on an attacker using individual skill to create space on his own. Attacking patterns based on creating 1v1 duels involve supplying the ball to an attacker and relying on him to get past his man into space to either set himself up for a shot or overload the defence to free up a teammate. There are several means by which this can be done. The most common examples involve a player using dribbling or pace to get beyond a defender, but it can involve anything from using strength to roll defenders or aerial ability to beat them to crosses. A forward or midfielder resorting to speculative shots from distance to bypass defenders also falls into this category.

For this type of attacking pattern to work consistently, two things are necessary. First, the attacker must have the necessary skill to either beat his man or comfortably draw defenders off a teammate before supplying him with the ball. Second, the defender must be isolated against the attacker in a true 1v1 situation. If defenders are able to double up on the attacker or cover space behind the first defender without freeing up a second attacker in a dangerous position, it is unlikely that even a world class attacker will be able to consistently create chances for either himself or a teammate. This means that a team relying on this pattern must either transition to attack quickly before defenders can reorganise or commit sufficient numbers forward to keep multiple defenders away from the player attempting to beat his man.

A through ball involves playing the ball behind the defensive line with the hope that an attacker will reach it and attempt a shot with only the keeper to beat. Normally, this requires having pacy attackers attempting to break the offside line, and it is most effective against defences that attempt to compress space by pressing high up the pitch. Against a defence using a low block, a through ball is far less likely to be successful since the defence will minimise space for attacking runs and the goalkeeper will be better positioned to deal with any ball that gets behind the defence.

A simple overloading run involves a deeper player, usually one who is not being adequately marked, creating a numerical advantage in an attacking position by moving forward into an area already occupied by another attacker. While more complex patterns may also create overload situations, simple overload patterns mainly consist of just getting numbers forward in an attempt to overwhelm defenders in the final third, and it is most clearly seen late in a match when a desperate team has resorted to pumping the ball into the box at every opportunity.

A simple overloading run down the flank can force central defenders out of the penalty area.
A simple overloading run down the flank can force central defenders out of the penalty area.

This can be effective late in a match when defenders are tired, but against a composed and well organised defence, it can leave the team exposed to counterattacks. When looking to avoid being caught on the break, simple overloading runs are most likely to be effective as a means of targeting an uncertain or defensively lax opposition player, especially one who has not been provided with adequate cover by the defensive system as a whole.

Breaks occur when a player receives the ball and is immediately able to move into space before a defender is able to directly engage him. This usually occurs when a player recovers possession in an advanced position with several opposition players stranded upfield and incapable of recovering into position in time. Breaks are closely associated with a counterattacking style of play, though they can occur in any system.

Unlike other attacking patterns, breaks are more dependent on the manner in which the team defends. Breaks are more likely to occur if a team pressures opposition defenders aggressively and keeps players ahead of the ball when defending. It also typically requires the opposing team to keep fewer players behind the ball when they attack, though even then, a break may occur if a defender commits an error when in possession of the ball.

One of the more common complex patterns is a switch of play. This involves drawing the defence into a wide area of the pitch before quickly moving the ball to an attacker located on the opposite flank. Normally, this is done with a sequence of one or two quick passes to ensure the defence is not given time to shift over and reorganise on the other flank. A switch of play may frequently segue into a different pattern, though ideally, it will find an attacker wholly unmarked. In this case, the attacker may be able to attempt a shot before the defence can adequately react and reorganise.

The switch of play normally requires committing enough attackers forward to force the defence to concentrate heavily into a single area of the pitch. If this is not done, defenders will tend to remain positioned in areas in which they can easily react to a switch or even ensure the intended target of the switch is marked before it can be completed.

A cutback (not to be confused with the dribbling technique of the same name) is similar, but it mainly involves using depth as opposed to width. The cutback involves pushing the defence back before playing the ball back to an attacker in a deeper position. This pattern is very effective at getting the most from a player skilled at shooting from distance. However, this again requires committing enough attackers forward to force the defence to concentrate its attention away from the player who will eventually take the shot. Otherwise, a cutback will tend to be easily intercepted.

A steady supply of cutbacks can turn long shot specialists into prolific goal-scorers.
A steady supply of cutbacks can turn long shot specialists into prolific goal-scorers.

A combination play involves two players quickly passing the ball between one another with the player who has just passed the ball quickly moving forward to receive a return pass in a more advanced position. This allows the player moving forward to attempt to beat his marker off the ball which is especially useful when space for dribbling is limited. Successful combination plays will often result in one of the players being left free to shoot or move forward to overload a deeper defender.

An overlapping run is similar to a combination play though it involves a deeper player quickly running beyond an attacker ahead of him to receive a penetrating pass. As with the movement in a combination play, the aim of the overlapping run is to allow the deeper player to beat his marker off the ball, though the overlapping player does not necessarily have to be the player who initiates the play. If his run is not tracked, this can result in the overlapping player creating an overload or even being left free to shoot. Overlapping plays are most often seen on the flanks, though they can occur between central players as well.

A third man combination is an advanced variation of a combination play. In this pattern, a third player initially positioned away from the ball makes a diagonal or lateral run to receive the ball in space behind defenders occupied by the interplay between the first and second attackers. As with the overlap combination, a failure by defenders to track this run can result in the third man overloading a deeper defender or being left free to shoot.

A rotational run (or switch run) involves two or more players swapping or rotating their attacking positions to open up space in which one can receive the ball to shoot. Rotational runs can be performed by players with or without the ball. The first aim of a rotational run is to lure a defender out of his area to leave the arriving attacker unmarked in a shooting position. This is normally done with a centre forward dropping deep or pulling wide with a teammate immediately moving to attack any resulting gap as he does so.

An adequately trained zonal defence will be resistant to the more obvious danger presented by a rotational run with the attackers either being passed on between markers or simply tracked man-to-man (and the defenders effectively swapping positions themselves). However, this can still create a variety of opportunities for the attack. First, the act of passing on the attackers will often leave a window of opportunity in which they will be poorly marked. Second, this can result in an attacker dropping deep to create an overload in midfield which allows him to receive the ball before moving forward to take on or even overload the initial defender.

A tactic is unlikely to produce just one pattern of attack while an effective tactic with good players will seamlessly combine different patterns to confuse the opposition defence. When developing tactics, you should have a sense of what sort of patterns it will tend to create, and you should be sure to consider how effective those patterns will be against the opposition’s system and style of play. For example, a tactic built around supplying through balls may work well against an opponent holding a high line, but it will be far less effective against a defence that consolidates into a deep block.

To understand how different patterns develop and break down during play, it is necessary to understand the decision-making of the players on an individual basis, and this requires a solid grasp of the tactical principles that fundamentally shape player decisions. Once these elementary tactical concepts are understood, specific systems and styles of play can be analysed in more detail.

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