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Developmental Alert – Guide to approaching team tactics

This month, we will take a more in-depth look at the main implications coaches face when they prepare their team and players for tactical training.

It would be obvious to state that any tactic a team wants to employ will depend heavily on the technical skills and aptitude of its players. For instance, if coaches want to use “Counter-Attacking Play” as a tactical strategy then they must have players who are able to look forward, play quickly and at intense speed under control to exploit the opposition’s lack of balance.

However, the tactical manners of a team at the end of the day will rely on the player’s ability to observe, perceive, expect and deal with game scenarios that have been rehearsed and trained — but most importantly, show the necessary belief in themselves and their teammates.

The quality of a tactical action will also depend on the levels of experience players have obtained during their developmental years and the competitive situations in which they have participated. These experiences allows players to better and more effectively read the game and begin to anticipate certain game-related circumstances which allow them to play faster and assimilate to the needed speed of the game.

Other than our weekly practical sessions with our players, we also have a responsibility to make sure that our players watch as much professional soccer as he or she can, and where possible, attend live Sounders FC games, where they can begin to idolize our local superstars that play in similar positions as themselves. This will have a huge impact on their understanding of tactical play — hero worshiping is a wonderful learning tool.

Remember that when we have a better understanding of a game, we are inspired to play it with more confidence, imagination, creativity and desire. Picture your players knowing how and what to do, when and where to do it and why they are doing it. This is a formula for success.

In social environments, you will commonly hear heated discussion regarding a team’s system of play (formation) as the reason for a result, and less discussion about tactical understanding of positional play and of a team’s ability to execute the correct tactical strategy.

The reality is that tactical strategies are not solely reliant on a team’s playing system. The decision on how a team attacks or defends will be contingent on the needs of the game, the game situation in the area where possession is won or lost, and the ability of the players to recognize what is needed in any given scenario — not on the playing system.

The difference in successfully or unsuccessfully utilizing the appropriate tactic lies in the quality of your players and the quality of rehearsal in preparation for match scenarios. The players are able to repetitively experience as many different circumstances that they will face due to the tactical principles that govern our game.

Basic tactical organization (FIFA best practices)

  • Communication (verbal, visual)
  • Occupation and coverage of the field (zonal play)
  • Compactness in defense and dispersal in attack
  • Mobility on and off the ball around the field
  • Numerical supremacy
  • Correct mentality & behavior
  • Impact of special players on the game
  • Leadership of players
  • Team spirit
  • Quality of coaching and instruction

“In the long run, I don’t think it’s possible for a team to win and to last the course if there is no quality in their play. To deliver good performances, a team simply must play.”

Elie Baup, ex-coach of FC Girondins de Bordeaux


Defensive play starts as soon as the ball is lost by a rapid switch from attack to defense by the whole team.

  • Attacking 3rd > Middle 3rd > Defending 3rd
  1. Behavior of the individual player
    Aided by the whole team grouping together and by the team getting players back in numbers:

    Players have to
    • Win duels
    • Anticipate
    • Deflect the ball carrier
    • Harass (to allow the rest of the team to regain its position) and put the opponent under pressure
    • Tackle
  2. Behavior of the whole team
    Aided by swift repositioning of the team and compact team play

    Key points
    • The whole team has to get back
    • The area in front of the goal, the angles and the flanks have to be closed down
    • Zone marking
    • Thwarting the opponent
    • Lateral movement
    • Make play predictable
    • Covering


Attacking play starts as soon as the ball is won by a rapid switch from defense to attack by the whole team.

  • Defending 3rd > Middle 3rd > Attacking 3rd
  1. Action of the individual player
    Aided by teammates (at least two or three of them) escaping the attention of their markers and by executing the right technical skill.

    Key points
    • Opt for dynamic tactics and technical skills
    • First pass, dribbling
    • Draw in the opponent
    • Feint; take the opponent out of the game
    • Give support
    • Vary the tempo
  2. Action of the whole team
    Aided by the movement of the players, movement off the ball

    Key points
    • Spread the play and open out across the field
    • Get in behind the opposing defense
    • Occupy the dangerous areas
    • Vary the tempo
    • Movement off the ball
      • Runs into space
      • Cross-field runs, decoy runs, exchanging of positions
      • Freeing up the flanks

Definitions of the main fundamental tactical strategies (FIFA best practices)


Losing the marker: The action of getting away from an opposing player by making a run, finding space or making a dummy run to receive the ball.

“All-out attack”: A dynamic, attacking phase involving several of the team to spread play out and create space (both out wide and in the last third of the field).

Off-the ball movement: Creating space for teammates by running into space, making decoy runs, etc.

Triangular play: Play involving three players, where two players automatically provide support for the ball carrier behind and/or in front.

Playing “keep-ball”: Retaining possession by playing it from the right flank to the left flank, and then back again.

Changing tempo: Accelerating or slowing down play (the movement of the ball) by using specific technical or tactical actions.

Switching play: Changing the location of play by a long pass to another part of the field in the opposite direction to that in which play had previously been going.

Drawing in the opponent: The player with the ball at their feet goes towards the opponent to tempt them into the tackle; then eliminates the opponent by dribbling past them or passing.

Support play: The action of backing up the ball carrier to provide an option for them.

Position switching: Exchanging positions or zones with other players.

Dummy or decoy run: Running into a space to distract the defense, but with no intention of receiving the ball (thereby deliberately creating space for a teammate).

Overlapping run: Creating numerical advantage on the flank by running round the teammate in possession (to create a 2v1 situation).

“Pivot player” / Link: A player who usually has their back to goal when receiving the ball and who then lays it off for the supporting players.


Marking: Defensive position adopted by players to prevent opponents receiving or challenging for the ball.

Anticipation: Defensive positioning action where the opponent’s reaction is anticipated and the defense changes position accordingly to respond to this.

Reducing the spaces (grouping together): Leaving as little space as possible between the defensive lines by closing down using the whole team.

Lateral movement: Movement of the whole team or the line across the width of the field, but still remaining compact.

Closing down the area in front of goal: Tightly packing players into the centre of the field to close down this area.

Pressing: Harassing or surrounding the opponent in numbers to regain possession.

Mutual cover: The positioning of the players around the pitch to support their teammates. Each player is “covered” or protected by another.

Thwarting the opponent: Going towards the ball carrier with the aim of halting their progress, making them play the ball or shepherding them to an area of the pitch that will allow the defense to organize itself.

Tackling: A duel with the aim of dispossessing the opponent of the ball.

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