Category Archives: Soccer Formations

Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part III (El Clasico thoughts)

If you watched El Clasico, you witnessed Barcelona concede a goal in the first 23 seconds.  Real Madrid decided to press high, knowing that Barcelona rarely hoofs the ball up the field.  In an effort to frustrate Barca’s rhythm, Madrid pressed all the way to the keeper, disrupting Barca’s attempts to play it out from the back.  In the first gasp of the game, the ball was played back to Valdes (Barca GK) who played it back to Puyol (Barca back) who played it right back to Valdez.  Then, Valdes tried to switch the field but angled the pass right to Di Maria for Madrid – 3 touches later, goal.

Some will point to this as evidence that Barca plays possession ball to its detriment.  Surely, when a team as skilled as Real Madrid decides on a course of pressing, including pressing the keeper, the keeper should just hoof it up the field.  Did Barca alter course after the Valdez mishap?  Were his teammates frustrated?  No and no.  I think Barca’s response to the early hole showed its commitment to its system as well as a team spirit that Madrid lacked.

In regard to its system, after the game interviews revealed that Captain Puyol told Valdez immediately after the event to “Carry on, Victor.”  Guardiola said:

The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Victor Valdes continued playing the ball. Real Madrid steamroll[ed] you. Most goalkeepers  would boot it. But Victor kept playing the ball. I prefer to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play.

Xavi called Victor’s conduct as “brave.”  Sid Lowe, writer for The Guardian, says “a brave player is the one who loses the ball three times and still wants it; who keeps attacking. The goalkeeper who makes the biggest mistake on earth — and doesn’t take the easy, if short term, way out. The team that have the courage of their convictions.”

Lowe notes that Barcelona passes to their keeper more than any team in La Liga.  He also notes that Valdes attempts fewer long passes than any player in La Liga.  At the same time, Valdes has the highest league passing accuracy at 85%.  Lowe concludes:

So Valdes passed the ball. And so did Barcelona. Even as Madrid pressured high, Barcelona continued to take risks — not taking them is riskier yet; for Barca, a big hoof just means the ball comes back again, at the opposition’s feet…Valdes’s mistake threatened to change everything but it changed nothing. On Saturday night, Barcelona did what Barcelona do. They won. (with emphasis)

Lowe doesn’t mention attitude in his post, other than to say the Barca players supported Valdes after the error rather than blame or cuss.  Madrid, on the other hand, seemed to lack that team spirit.  I noticed several times during the match that players were upset with each other.  Go back and watch Di Maria’s body language when Ronaldo attempted a shot well wide.  Di Maria was unmarked.  He was clearly, demonstratively upset.  There were other instances too.  On the other hand, Barca, playing from behind from the first minute on, rallied around each other.  Just something I noticed.

Information for this post was taken from a great post by Sid Lowe from The Guardian.  To read the post, click Victor Valdes epitomizes Barcelona’s bravery as Real Madrid falter.

Barca Playing 3 Fullbacks?

After watching El Clasico, it appeared that Barcelona altered the shape of their defense.  One of my favorite soccer writers, Jonathan Wilson, wrote an article about the change to a 3-1-4-2 in an article for The Guardian.  He also writes for SI and has a similar piece there.  Here are the two links:



Wilson starts by stating that tactics do make a difference.  For those that think “the best players” win out all the time, the history of the game is replete with examples of tactical evolution and examples of advantage gained from the same.  Wilson is a student of the tactical changes in soccer and outlines them in his book Inverting the Pyramid.  I summarized some of his ideas on possession style football versus kick and rush in the blog post here on  Soccer Thoughts titled “Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part I.”  

In El Clasico, the big change was Barca pushing their Right Back up (Alves — who Wilson says is more comfortable in attack anyway) and pushing one center back to right back to cover (Puyol) while using a holding mid (Sergio Busquets) to drop as additional center back when need be.  Wilson calls this a back line of 3 1/2.  Puyol then was able to handle Ronaldo and Busquets could move up and back as holding mid/center back to mark Ozil.  

Wilson’s book Inverting highlights every major shift in tactics all across the world.  Are we seeing another change now?  

Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part I (Book Review: Inverting the Pyramid)

There exist in soccer talking circles and coaching philosophy a tug of war between maintaining possession with short, grounded passing versus gaining territory with long, lofted kicks up the field.  Debate has raged beginning in the 1860s when the Scots used a passing approach to get around the heavier English players, through the 20th century (Reep’s English kick and rush versus Hogan-Meisl-Lobanovsky-Cruyff’s possession).  In youth soccer, the kick and rush approach, referred to as “lumping” the ball up the field,  predominates. 


In the book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (Orion, 2008) Jonathan Wilson details the evolution of soccer formations, offside theories, attacking theories (and defensive), as well as rule changes effecting those tactics.  In the first international, he notes England played a 1-2-7 while the more diminutive Scots played a 2-2-6.  Of course, we are most accustomed to 4-4-2 (although 4-5-1 becoming increasingly common).  Player sizes were more relevant to the press than skill.  Because the Scots were smaller, they employed a passing game to get around the larger Brits.  The press was more interested in size of the players than their skill.  The Scots’ offside rule, last defender plus no offsides unless beyond 15 yard line, encouraged the development of a passing style. While it was generally rejected by the English, many of the early coaches who espoused the passing game had their beginning in Scotland.


In England, the advanced coaches of the day were ignored.  That is why Jimmy Hogan, considered “the most influential coach there has ever been” had to travel outside of England to find work.  He was the first to incorporate use of the ball during training — prior to him, training was focused on running distance and sprints.  “Give a player a ball during the week, ran the reasoning, and he would not be so hungry for it on Saturday.”  (Inverting, p.27).  Hogan, on the other hand, felt the key to success was ball control.  The only way to acquire ball control was to practice with the ball.  


Hogan’s views were spread through Continental Europe through coaching stints in Holland and Austria. In Austria, hired by Meisl in 1912, Hogan taught “that swift combinations of passes were preferable to dribbling, and that individual technique was crucial.”  (Inverting, p. 30).  “Hogan was also keen to express the value of the long pass to unsettle opposing defenses, provided it were well-directed and not an aimless upfield punt…He was not an evangelist for the passing game through any quixotic notion of what was right; he simply believed that the best way to win matches was to retain possession.”  (Inverting, p. 30).  Meisl used Hogan’s ideas to develop the Austrian Wunderteam.  Valerie Lobanovsky used science to develop a system of interchanging players at Dynamo Kyiv.


In Holland, TOTAL football emerged in the late 60s and early 70s at Ajax.  The term “total football” came later and symbolized an understanding of the relationship of all the players to each other.  TOTAL football developed with systemic interchanging of positions in the course of attack.  Attack, though, was at its core.  “Attack is and remains, the best form of defense.”  Vic Buckingham, the Ajax coach prior to Michaels, stated:

Possession football is the thing, no kick and rush. Long ball football is too risky. Most of the time what pays off is educated skills. If you’ve got the ball, keep it. The other side cannot score.  Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner, 2000, p. 11.

The staple of the Ajax system was fluid player movement, allowing everyone the right of attack, combined with an aggressive offside trap (making the field smaller while on defense) and pressing on defense. 


As the possession game blossomed in Continental Europe, England lagged behind with “fast, spirited attacks.”  Meisl noted that their passing was “swift and high” and lacking in precision.  (Inverting, 63). Meisl’s ideas were transferred to Hungary and formed the basis of their 1950s domination, including the 1953 6-3 defeat of England in London that demoralized the English fans.  For once, the English started to realize the limits of their system of play.  


Nevertheless, England won the World Cup in 1966 utilizing a kick and rush system that relished the counter attack.  Some say it was that victory that set England back decades.  Two of the most influential English minds on “territory football” were Stan Cullis, manager at Wolverhampton, and Charles Reep.  They turned the Hungary defeat on its head to develop the core of the English footballing philosophy persisted into the mid-1990s (and still exists in areas today).  The basic principle of territory football is set out by Stan Cullis in this statement:

The number of scoring chances which will arrive during the course of a match is in direct proportion to the amount of time the ball spends in front of the goal. If the defenders in the Wolves team delay their clearances, the ball will be in front of our goal for too long a period and the scoring chances will go to the other side. If too much time is spent in building up our own attacks, the ball will spend less time in the other team’s penalty area and, of course, we shall score fewer goals.  Inverting, p. 138.

He concluded that long passes into the other team’s penalty area is the quickest way to move the ball there, thus improving the odds of scoring a goal (based on the theory above).  Reeps coupled that with the notion that, according to a crude statistical survey he conducted, 91.5% of moves in a soccer game are done in 3 passes or less, and, correspondingly, 80% of all goals are scored with 3 passes or less.  He then concludes that it is inefficient to make more than 3 passes to obtain a goal, hence the emphasis on long balls (what I call gaining territory).  


His theories were accepted throughout England. The 1966 World Cup victory justified their acceptance. Reeps played a major role in the F.A. and determining the training and philosophy of the national team.  It wasn’t until years later, as noted in Inverting, was actual science applied to his theories.  For example, if 91.5 % of all moves are done in 3 passes or less, and if 80% of all goals are scored in 3 passes or less, then there is evidence that passing 3 or more times is more efficient at producing goals, not less.  Since only 8.5% of moves are done in 3 passes or more, 8.5% of the soccer moves are producing 20% of the goals.  Wilson concludes:

It is, frankly, horrifying that a philosophy founded on such a basic misinterpretation of figures could have been allowed to become a cornerstone of English coaching. Anti-intellectualism is one thing, but faith in wrong-headed pseudo-intellectualism is far worse. Inverting, p. 141.

So, therein lies the rub.  Do you opt for more territory via long passing, or do you set up your scoring opportunities with short passes, mainly on the ground.  Having coached youth for a while, one of the hardest things to control are the parents.  While I may be emphasizing short passing and control, parents are telling their kid to boot it up the field.  In a playoff game, after repeatedly losing possession off of goal kicks, I instructed my keeper to play the ball short to a handler who moved it up the field.  I received an earful from an “informed” parent — the same parent that wanted every kickoff to be booted as far down the field as possible.  In Part II, the discussion will continue with a look at how these competing philosophies play out in youth soccer (the Reeps model seems to be the most prevalent here).  Cheers.   

Possession, Possession, Possession: New US Youth Soccer Guidelines

It’s about time.  Claudia Reyna, US Youth Soccer Technical Director, has been hired by Jurgen Klinnsman to develop a new training system for US Youth coaches and players emphasizing possession and short passing with the ball staying on the ground as much as possible.  On April 21, 2011, Reyna unveiled the new system in a presentation at a Player Development Summit.  The material he used includes training guidelines all the way down to U6.  The documents are as follows:


New Us Youth Soccer Curriculum


You can watch his presentation here:  Reyna Presents New Curriculum


There are literally hundreds of pages of instructions, some drills (not a lot), and concepts generally and broken down for each age level.  Each age has a section for Tactical, Technical, Physical, and Psychosocial; these are referred to as the 4 Pillars of Soccer Coaching.  The main ideas are summarized in the U.S. Soccer Curriculum (first pdf).  It states that the “Style of Play” is an offensive style where “all teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”  (Curriculum, page 1).  It goes on to instruct coaches to instruct their players to “avoid over-dribbling.”  While positions are taught, players will be expected to “look for spaces and movements to support forward when attacking by moving away from their original positions.”  Id.  


The Curriculum also specifies formations.  It instructs coaches to teach the 4-3-3 and its varieties (4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3) as opposed to 4-4-2 (reserved for older, more advanced youth).  If teams want to utilize a 4-4-2, they encourage a 4-1-2-1-2 instead (diamond in the middle).  Importantly, all 11v11 should utilize 4 defensive backs.  


Like the style currently used by Spain, Barcelona, Arsenal, and even Ajax, the new U.S. model encourages teaching the ability to play the ball out from the back with short passes rather than long, lofted balls.  (Curriculum, 2).  The Curriculum outlines the following “Principles of Play” for coaches to use:


1.  1,2, or 3 touch maximum.  
2.  Keep the game simple.  (Avoid over-dribbling or long balls without targets)
3.  Keep the ball on the ground.
4.  Accuracy and quality of the pass.
5.  First touch.  (Do not stop the ball)
6.  Perception and Awareness. (scan the field)
7.  1v1 situations.  (still encouraged for players to bear defenders)
8.  Individual Transition. (from offense to defense and vice versa)
9.  Shooting.  (always keep eye on goal)
10.  Take risks.  
(Curriculum, 3)


In line with those principles, skills are outlined to develop at each age down to 5.  According to the plans, dribbling starts getting less priority at age 7.  I think that is a big mistake.  I think it is great that the US is finally implementing what the Dutch started in 1970 and exported to Barcelona.  We all owe a big thank you to Ajax, Cruyff, Michaels and their cutting edge concept of space.  Spain has taken the TOTAL football model from the Dutch, improved it, and won the World Cup demonstrating the virtues of short passing and keeping the ball on the ground–something the Dutch never did (they were runners up in 1974 and 1978 — the 1974 loss was considered by many to be a major upset by the West Germans).  If Klinsman never wins another game, his vision in implementing this at the US Youth level will be worth every penny he earns from us.  


Going back to dribbling, it is a skill that needs continued work until early teens.  If you over-emphasize the pass at 9, you will get players later on who will never take the opportunity and will lack the skill to beat someone 1v1.  For all of the 2v1 and 3v1 sequences of Barcelona, you still need to be able to take a defender 1v1 — it will make the subsequent pass that much more deadly.  So, to that regard, I disagree with the de-emphasis on dribbling starting at age 7.  


It is widely noted that Arsene Wenger altered the playing style of Arsenal to what it is today.  Before Wenger, George Graham’s boys were physical and, like a lot of the EPL competitors, played a lot of long ball; hence, the chant “Boring, boring Arsenal” or “One-nil to the Arsenal.”  When Wenger entered Arsenal, he altered the style of play to a more possession based, short passing approach.  They were taught and trained to play the ball from back to front, and vice-versa.  Width and depth should be explored while in possession of the ball.  But, they did not de-emphasize dribbling.  Rather, they imported ideas from Barcelona’s Academy.  


We should be wary of advice to de-emphasize dribbling at age 7.  Here is quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: “Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.'”  (Page 68).  


I know firsthand that over-emphasizing passing early will retard dribbling and creativity with the ball.  When coaching and teaching youngsters, encourage them to touch the ball as much as they can.  Allow them opportunities to be creative.  As a result, they will also develop ball control skills that will lead to passing and creative use of space. 


Also, it is recommended that at U8, players progress to 7v7 from 4v4.  At U9-10, it is 9v9, and at U11 up to 11v11.  This is counter to the current recommendations of small-sided games.  Depending on the Association, some use 4v4 for U7-U8, 6v6 for U9-10, 8v8 for U11-12, and 11v11 starting at U13.  I do think the 4v4 at U8 is a wasted year currently.  


To sum it up, I was ecstatic to see this change in US Youth Soccer philosophy.  As Reyna says, “it has never been done” in the U.S.  We are late in the day to finally get away from the physical back line, great GK, and fast forward kick and run approach U.S. normally plays, but it is never too late to add some Johan Cruyff magic.  Hopefully it will stick.  I know some coaches in Southeast Texas that are committed to it and have been for a while.  Cheers.