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Tactical theory: Link-up play

What is link-up play?

Link-up play is a tactical term usually used for situations that include a short and quick combination between a dropping forward and his teammate who has to be in a deeper position. This means that the ball is then swiftly progressed from either one of the midfielders or directly from the backline into the feet of the attacker who has vacated his original position.

For link-up play tactics to be successful it requires quite a bit of positional play to enable the team in possession to move up the pitch without getting intercepted. Therefore, the combination of the two players taking part in a link-up play has to be on a high level and is usually something coaches prefer to iron out in training before implementing in an official match.

Everyone involved in a successful link-up play has to possess good ball control and positional awareness. This means that the player dropping deep will likely force the defenders out of position and put himself under immediate pressure from the opposition. For that reason, being press-resistant and technical enough is a must.

Examples of link-up play in football?

The tactical term link-up play is closely associated with teams that play positional football. This means that those teams are often very systematic in their approach and will want to manipulate their opposition in order to advance into the danger area. Link-up play tactics would mostly occur when the team in possession is trying to penetrate a tight and compact defensive block.

In case the striker is isolated and/ or unable to reach the ball without a high risk of immediately turning over possession, the said player will drop deeper into the midfield from the final third, attempting to form a connection with one of his teammates in the middle or the first line of the pitch. That way he can reposition himself in a pocket of space that allows him to receive the ball.

Since it is a tactical term mostly connected with positional teams, we tend to see coaches like Pep Guardiola of Manchester City or Julian Nagelsmann of RB Leipzig utilise it the most.

Why use link-up play?

There are multiple benefits to a successful link-up play. Possession-based teams will often struggle to break down opposition blocks without some sort of manipulation and exploitation of space. Link-up play tactics enable them to do both in one swoop. If a centre-forward drops into a pocket of space, he immediately puts the defending team into a decisional crisis.

They have to decide whether to follow him and risk leaving space behind their backs or leave him be and let him create an overload in the middle and receive the ball in a position from which he can create danger.

That is why link-up play is often used against stubborn defences who may overly use man-marking schemes when out of possession.