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Tactical theory: Off the ball movement

What is off the ball movement?

Off the ball movement is a tactical term used for situations in which a player is making significant progress on the pitch without being in the possession of the ball. There are a couple of key factors that clearly depict the tactics behind off the ball movement. The player in question has to be making an active effort to find open space behind or between the opposition lines where he can receive a pass.

Similarly, the player can start the action without having the ball at his feet but as a direct result of his great off the ball movement, the attack can end with the said player in possession as well. The tactics behind off the ball movement are often closely related with counterattacks, quick transitions and penetrative passing.

The reason behind that is that such actions and phases of play often offer the most open space for pacey and/ or intelligent players to take full advantage of. The obvious benefit of a well-executed off the ball movement is the attacking team receiving possession in a dangerous and often unmarked area of the pitch.

Examples of off the ball movement in football

We usually connect off the ball movement with world-class strikers and forwards in general. That is not to say that players in other positions don’t utilise it but generally with players positioned higher up the pitch, the rewards for a successful execution tend to be bigger. Off the ball movement would be used when the team in possession is trying to enter the danger area.

In that scenario, in an effort to lose their markers and make themselves available to receive a pass, players will move into the unmarked areas through a change of pace or sudden change of direction. In case of a counterattack or an attacking transition, this will include players from the deep reaching their maximum pace to exploit the space the opposition has left behind their backs.

Players we mostly associate with these tactics are, as mentioned, renowned forwards like Cristiano Ronaldo or Kylian Mbappé, both of whom are world-class at finding those pockets and using them well.

Why use off the ball movement?

The benefits of successful off the ball tactics are numerous but the biggest achievement is surely the exploitation of space. The one who controls the open space and can create and/ or exploit it well, controls the pitch and therefore the game as a whole. Even though the focus is often on the ball-carrier, mostly the end-result will depend on the type of movement players off the ball make.

This can undoubtedly make or break the attacking phase of play.