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Tactical theory: Orientation

What is orientation?

Orientation is a tactical term used to describe a reference point a player or a whole squad has during a match of football. A reference point determines the movement and positioning of the team and we can differentiate between four main reference points: the ball, the opponent, a teammate or space. Depending on how the team orientates itself, they will move according to the moves or location of one of the mentioned four things.

It is important to note that a team can have multiple different reference points during the same game but with certain priorities set. That means they can primarily be ball-oriented but once that becomes unavailable, they switch to their second-most-important reference, then third and finally fourth. Usually, every team will have their own hierarchy set and that depends on their tactics and the coach’s general philosophy. Also, it can simply change from game to game, depending on the opposition on the other side of the pitch or just the situation they find themselves in.

Some of the other tactical terms we can relate to orientation are positioning, movement, shape, structure and a reference point.

Examples of orientation in football

Now that we know the definition of orientation, we can start dissecting its subcategories, starting with ball-orientation. Ball-orientation is the most common aspect and it signifies the ball is the main reference point for a team or a player’s positioning. However, it is also unique in a way because it can be applied both to in and out of possession phases. In possession, that would relate to the ball-carrier’s teammates who can be ball-orientated, meaning they stay relatively close to the ball and aim to provide short and simple passing channels to receive passes. Out of possession, it means the opposition players always move relative to the ball and aim to collapse on it.

The other common aspect in these tactics is man-orientation where the main reference point is an opponent or a teammate. Similarly to how the ball may dictate the player’s positioning, here it’s an opposition player or a teammate. In the former’s case, we can talk about man-marking to some extent, even though in this case other reference points also have an effect at the same time, only they’re not as high in the priority list. The same goes for the latter case, which we also call position-orientation, where players will rectify their own positioning according to where their teammates are on the pitch.

Finally, space-orientation implies the team shifts across the pitch towards the space where the action takes place, aiming to occupy it and prevent the opposition to achieve territorial domination. We can also talk about a fifth category which is the option-orientation and it basically means the team moves situationally, depending on the opportunities presented to them.

It’s the most flexible and adaptable of these approaches.

Why use orientation?

Orientation is crucial because it brings balance and organisation to the coach’s tactics. If the team is not on the same page and doesn’t have the same hierarchy of orientation, it won’t act as a single unit and the opposition may take advantage of it.