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Tactical theory: Build-up

What is build-up?

The tactical term build-up phase generally refers to the very first phase of attack for the team in possession of the ball. If we were to divide the pitch into three major areas – the first third, the middle third and the final third – the build-up phase would mostly take place in the first third of the pitch. This is the initial stage of ball progression in teams’ tactics of getting it into the opposition box. There are several ways teams can approach their build-up phase, similarly to how they can approach ball progression in general.

Even though we generally connect build-up tactics with whatever happens in the first third of the pitch, whether that’s something more complicated as beating the opposition press or simply progressing from your own box, build-up can be everything up to the point where the team has entered the danger zones and now has to unlock an already set-up defensive block.

Some of the other terms we usually connect with the build-up phase is positional play, short passing, ball progression, beating the press etc.

Examples of build-up in football

As previously mentioned, build-up tactics will largely depend on the philosophy of the head coach. Just as is the case with ball progression, there is a more systematic and a more direct way to approach the build-up phase. Some teams who prefer a more direct way of advancing the play can skip this phase entirely by utilising long switches, counterattacks or long balls over the top to outplay the opposition.

This approach may be more common in the Premier League than it is in La Liga for example. Nowadays, however, bigger and better teams seem to all be heading towards a very similar approach to build-up tactics, namely building up from the back. This often involves the use of the goalkeeper as an outfield player and the centre-backs as the main progressors and the orchestrators in attack.

So it doesn’t surprise that teams like Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City all have a very similar philosophy when it comes to the build-up phase.

Why use build-up?

The build-up phase can be skipped, as we have alluded to, by deciding to go down a much more direct route in the first phase of your attack. However, those kinds of tactics do require the right personnel and the right mechanisms to keep the ball. The risk is always higher when playing it long and relying on winning the first and the second balls up front.

On the other hand, building up from the back can be a powerful tool but also a double-edged sword. If the opposition has good pressing tactics, it is possible for them to win the ball high up the pitch and immediately threaten the goal.