Coaching: Playing between the lines
The concept of “Juego de Posición”, or positional play, was used to the full extent by one of the best coaches in the world Pep Guardiola. He has used different variations during his time at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and now Manchester City, and it is now widely known amongst football fans.
In addition to many other aspects, the concept of positional play requires creating different kinds of superiorities: numerical, qualitative and positional. Numerical superiority means creating overloads and isolation, and we have a piece on some coaching practices for this pattern. Qualitative superiority means getting your player into 1v1 situations against the oppositions’ worst player which is not a situation of equality and can be exploited to progress the ball further down the pitch. Lastly, positional superiority requires disrupting the opposition defensive shape by players positioning themselves across the pitch in a way that creates spaces and passing lanes to move the ball into.
In this tactical analysis in the form of a coaching piece, I will present a couple of practices that might help players to understand how to create and exploit positional superiority.
The basic concept of “Juego de Posición” is players positioning themselves at different heights and depths. However, steady positioning won’t help your team much in the attack, so the movement of the players becomes the most important thing. Players arriving in these positions where they are in the blind zone of the opposition to collect the ball without having much pressure on them is a positional advantage. The movements of other players are key in creating this superiority too, with one of the instances being one player drawing the attention and moving away from the opposition player so that his teammate can open himself up for a pass.
You can see one of the in-game examples of this in the shot below. Liverpool’s players Wijnaldum and Firmino cooperate to create space to carry on the attack. Firstly, Wijnaldum moves diagonally down and to the left to create a passing lane for the Brazilian. The latter, world-famous for such movement during his career at Liverpool, does his usual trick and drops into space between the three Atlético Madrid players. None of the midfield players of Atlético could track this movement in this situation, thus giving Robertson a clear passing option.
We can see another example by looking at one moment in Atalanta’s Champions League game against Valencia below. One of Atalanta’s main stars Alejandro Gómez, just like Firmino, likes to drop deep and collect the ball in the unusual areas for the players of his position. This example shows a more spontaneous, but just as impressive movement compared to what we saw in the previous image.
It’s Atalanta’s attack and the whole Valencia team are getting back, Gómez runs in the direction of the goal for some time whilst Valencia’s full-back is tracking his actions. Freuler(behind the ball carrier in the example) also pushes forward, thus leaving Gosens, who is on the ball, no passing options in the middle. Gómez spots it and drops deeper behind Valencia’s midfield to receive the ball. This was a counter-attack, not an attack that involves thorough build-up, but it shows the importance of intelligent player movements.
In the next couple of sections, I will go through some practices that will focus on training movements between the lines.
We will start with a simple unopposed practice. The team splits up in groups of four, with one of them initially positioning in the centre of the training area around the mannequins. Once the practice starts, the player in the middle(player A in the shot below) opens himself up between the mannequins for a pass, and after receiving it turns around and passes to the player C.
Player B takes on the role of player A and goes to the mannequins.
After playing the pass, player A gets himself near player C, who finds player B between the mannequins and plays the pass into him.
The exercise can take anywhere from one and a half minutes up to three or four minutes.
There is a lot of room for players to make their own decisions when playing in the centre. In the example below, you can see that player A receives the ball from player B near the left mannequin and drives forward to then play the pass to player B2.
Because it is such an easy exercise, it is a great practice for the warm-up before the more energy-consuming practices take place.
Even more importantly, the primary goal of this exercise is to train the skill of checking your shoulders before receiving the pass. With this exercise, players can not only practise the basic movement between the lines but also practice checking their surroundings and gaining awareness of the present situation on the pitch. Another important thing is practising receiving the ball in the right way, meaning being able to turn to the side where the opponent’s back foot is to catch him off guard.
The second practice of this coaching session will be a more advanced version of the last exercise. Here we will add a goalkeeper along with mannequins and we will use the opposing team of four players. Below you can see the basic set-up of this exercise, with five red players(attacking team) and four orange players (defending team) plus three mannequins (blue). The two red players and the defending orange group must operate only in the selected grid (dotted rectangle in the centre). The three red players responsible for the build-up have a maximum of three touches each and their job is to find their teammates in the grid.
The main goal of the red team is to score using the red players in the grid, and it can only be achieved with their smart movement in that area. Two attacking red players move constantly to create passing lanes and to then advance to the shooting position.
To successfully progress the ball down the field players A, B and C should apply the basic principles of build-up in the first line. Players B and C need to go wide to stretch the opposition and to provide more space for their teammates in the grid to move into and create passing opportunities.
In cases when the orange team gets the ball, their goal is to reach five passes between them. All the red players would leave their zones and apply pressure on the orange players while they try to meet their objective.
A goal scored by the red team counts as one point, and the orange team completing five passes under pressure also counts as one point. The time interval can be one and a half minutes, three minutes and so on, depending on the state of the training and the energy levels of the players.
This is a much more difficult exercise in comparison to the last one but is great training for all players regardless of their roles in this game. The orange players learn to shut down spaces and move collectively as a unit. The red players A, B, C work on how to stretch the opposition and play quick passes before the orange players close down spaces. The focus of this practice is the two red players in the grid because it is great for practising playing between the lines in these conditions: 4v2 + mannequins make it very hard to get the ball to the net.
As we move along these training exercises, they become more and more game-like. In the third practise we will be playing 7v7 game with the pitch divided into the six zones (you can see the initial set up in the image below). Each team, orange and red, have four players in the intermediate zones and three players in the two central zones. As in the last exercise, the players in the intermediate zones have a maximum of three touches per action (pass, etc.) and the attacking players in the central areas have an unlimited amount of touches.
Players in intermediate zones are not permitted to leave them as their job is to get the ball to their teammates in the central areas. Players in the central zones also can’t enter the central zone of the opposing team.
There are no limitations to how many attacking players can enter the intermediate zone of the opposing team, however, the more players that leave their position, the higher risk their team would be exposed in a possible transition.
Both team’s target is to get the ball into the desired end-zones. Getting the ball into the end-zone counts as one point if the player gets there with the ball at his feet. When one of the teams meets the target, another team begin their phase of possession.
This exercise is great for several reasons. Apart from being great for practising getting between the lines, this exercise, just as the last one, can be useful for practising build-up play and for practising defending as a unified block. Both teams can only defend with three players against four opposite players, so they have no other choice but to be compact and coordinated. That being said, they only need to track the movement of three players behind them, so there is some kind of balance for the attacking and defending teams.
The easiest way to progress may seem to be by using a player positioned on one of the flanks and to pass the ball to him there as it is very hard to intercept. However, this way of playing through the first defensive block has its disadvantage. When the player receives the ball, he doesn’t have the chance of progressing it further himself, as the wing-space will probably be shut down by one or two players every single time. Then his only way of keeping the ball would be playing a pass to his teammates in the central zone, which would slow down their breakthrough. So, there is no obvious best way of playing in this exercise, the success is solely dependant on the skillset of the players and their appropriate movement.
You can see one of the examples that can occur in the game. The orange team have the ball, and one of their attacking players drifts wide to make his opponent providing cover shadow, move as well. This movement opens up the passing lane to the attacking orange player in the centre, who then can play the ball to the oncoming partner. The coordinated movement of all attacking players are important, and this is well illustrated in the above example. All of the three players take part into getting the ball into the desired area: the movement to the flank of one player, the second player offering the pass and well-timed run into space by the third player.
This is very similar to a possession game, just without the goalkeepers in place. In the last practice, we will take a look into the practice with a very similar concept to this exercise, but with the addition of goalkeepers and with removing zone restrictions.
In the last practice of this analysis, we will examine the 7v7 game plus the goalkeepers. The main objective of this practice is to apply some of the concepts we have seen in the previous practices in the small possession game, involving:
- Scanning the surroundings before receiving
- Creating a habit of correct foot position and body positioning before receiving
- Identifying the right spaces to move into
- Coordinated movement of the attackers
- Stretching the opposition defensive block by using the width
There are a lot of variations of how this game can be played for each team depending on their selected offensive and defensive tactics.
The scoring system is pretty simple: one goal equals one point. The offside rule applies.
Attacking team can have four or three players in the first line of the build-up, but I believe three players would be enough. The other four players free roam across the pitch to find spaces and offer passing lanes between the lines of opposition defence.
This is a normal football game, but it should be noted to the players that the main goal of this session is practising attacking movements between the lines of the opposition. Attacking players having no specific role as striker or playmaker in this game makes room for a more creative play. As we have seen the examples of the smart coordinated movement of orange players to create spaces for themselves in two zones, this game allows them to do this on a bigger scale and with fewer restrictions.
So, in the example below the red team have the ball and their backline uses the width to gain more control of the pitch. The four attacking players in this example (can be more or less depending on how the players want to play or what they think the most suitable tactics would be) can rotate freely to create havoc in the opposition defensive structure and disrupt their defensive movement.
As I’ve already mentioned, the attackers’ individual and collective movement will be the key to success in this game, and all of the aspects that we’ve seen so far regarding this department will surely be useful. Good spatial awareness, well-timed runs, good chemistry – communication between all of the players is useful and great for creating a habit of conversations between players.
Both teams can choose their defensive tactics themselves or the coach will outline the principles to them before the practice.
The team can use a high, mid or low block when defending, which could change the perception of the game too.
If a team applies high pressing with their first line(similar to the above picture), then the defensive line would have to push up the field to close down space in the centre, which can be easily exploited by the opposition. Playing a high defensive line would require compactness, but the defenders would also need to be aware of the runs the attackers would attempt to make in behind.
If the team decides to play with mid/low block, then the opposite team will have space and time on the ball to play passes without any pressure. However, in this case, it becomes hard for the opposition to fulfil the main goal of this practice – offer themselves between the lines and then progress the ball forward. There are trade-offs when using the deep defending, but it can be stimulating for the players to try and play through the congested spaces.
There are a lot of ways to tweak this exercise. This practice can be played 9v9 with the goalkeepers, you can also put restrictions on certain players regarding where they can play. The main point to bear in mind is that restricting or changing the way the game is played shouldn’t limit the players from reaching their goal.
I hope that this coaching piece gave you some ideas and insight on how to structure training sessions when practising playing between the lines. Maybe some of the aforementioned exercises will be helpful in someone’s coaching process because I believe they all are fairly easy to understand and execute by almost any age group. I also think that the last three are a lot of fun and can be of great use after some tense physical exercises. There are a lot of variables in the coaching of possession-based play, and I think the right understanding of positioning during all stages of the team’s build-up is one of the most important.