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Tactical theory: Ball progression

What is ball progression?

Ball progression is an action in the attacking phase of play that advances the team up the pitch and towards the opposition goal significantly. This term can then further be divided into progressive passes and progressive runs, both of which serve the same purpose mentioned earlier, only through slightly different means. Progressing the play through passing means advancing it by moving the ball forward through a pass whereas progressing it through a run is done by carrying it upfield in your feet.

Ball progression is a key element in every team’s tactics since it represents a crucial aspect of getting the ball into the danger areas. Usually, such actions start from deeper areas and ideally end either in the final third or the opposition’s box. Some of the other aspects of this term involve breaking the lines to access free pockets of space, accelerating up the pitch, using long balls to advance play or even through various set-piece tactics.

This is usually done by either defenders or midfielders as they are positioned deeper on the pitch and have the most chances to deploy forward passes. However, forwards dropping for a link-up play and laying off passes into open space up front is also a viable option for ball progression.

Examples of ball progression in football

Ball progression tactics are used by every single team in football. The only thing that changes from squad to squad and from coach to coach is the way they access the higher and more dangerous zones on the pitch. Heavily positional teams such as Barcelona or Manchester City have a more systematic approach to their build-up and ball progression, meaning they rely on short passes and smart combinations to bypass the opposition block. Specific players like Virgil van Dijk or Frenkie de Jong are famous for the progression abilities, the former through passing and the latter through his mazy runs from the deep.

Others, like Tottenham Hotspur or Borussia Dortmund, might be more direct in their approach and won’t mind using long balls, switches and progressive runs into space to achieve that same goal. For that reason, there is no one correct way to employ these tactics and they largely depend on the situation and the personnel at the coach’s disposal.

However, the process remains the same – the ball will go from the deeper areas into the higher zones with an eventual goal of reaching the opposition’s box.

Why use ball progression?

When it comes to ball progression tactics, it’s not really whether someone uses them or not but it’s more a question of how, as we have already alluded to. Ball progression is essential when it comes to creating goal-scoring opportunities since a team that constantly passes sideways or backwards will never reach the opposition box.

Whether it’s done through passing or runs or preferably a combination of both, it doesn’t really matter as long as it gets the job done.