In the late 90's, at a staff training weekend for the
National Soccer Coaches Association of America in Allentown, PA, a significant
decision was made for the upgrading of the NSCAA Academy program.
Jeff Tipping, who was the part-time Director of Coaching at
the time, made a proposal to the senior staff instructors that a new course,
the Premier Diploma, be initiated and that the content be based almost entirely
on Systems of Play. What is the 4-3-3,
the 4-4-2, the 4-5-1, etc.? How does one
differ from the other? How does one
system with the same numerical arrangement vary from one team to another? How
do you counter a 4-5-1 if your system normally has 3 or 4 players in the
Certainly this was the stuff of a high level course.
Several of us - notably Jack Detchon, formerly an FA staff
coach, Peter Gooding, AD at Amherst College, and myself - argued that the
Principles of Play, not Systems of Play, were more important and that should be
In spite of our suggestions, Jeff (now full time DOC with
the NSCAA) went ahead. The result? The Premier Systems of Play Diploma Course
has been outstanding success. All
courses since inception have been full and have been held in England and Brazil,
as well as the US.
So Jeff was right.
But Peter, Jack and myself, in part because we had been brought up with
the focus on "Principles" in England, will continue to argue that the Principles of Play are an essential component of
tactical thinking for all players and coaches.
Allen Wade, former Director of Coaching for English FA, was
the first to formalize the "Principles" in the late 60's in the manual, "The FA
Guide to Training and Coaching." A few
years back, I asked Allen's permission to use the "Principles" in a video I was
directing and developing on behalf of Soccer Learning Systems.
Allen had no hesitation is doing so, but was quick to point
out that these "Principles" were not a personal invention. Others in Continental Europe, in South America
and most noticeably, Sir Walter Winterbottom, Alan's predecessor at The FA, had
began the process and clarified the most important "Principles of Play" before
Allen put pen to paper.
In his own modest way, Allen only took credit for summarizing
them in a comprehensive, but easy-to-understand section, in this visionary
So what are the Principles of Play? There are 10 of them. The 5 Principles of Attack are countered by
the 5 Principles of Defence.
I'm only going to identify them here without going into much
detail, but if you are a serious student of the game I would encourage you to
do some research and I will give a list of resources at the end of this article.
The Principles of Play
Attacking Principle No.1 -
As soon as the ball is re-possessed, the first thought
should be, "Can we score?" If not,
is there a forward player in an unmarked or advanced where the question then is,
"Can we play the ball to him or her"?
The best, and most free-flowing, teams in the world always
look forward first even though they won't necessarily play forward if it means
just "Hit and Hope!"
No.1 - Delay
The defending team must do everything possible to prevent a
quick counter-attack after losing the ball.
Often this is accomplished by one player going to the attacker with a
ball, applying pressure and so and preventing the forward ball. Or it might be accomplished on a team basis
by bringing in some of the other defending principles we summarize below, e.g.,
the team "drops off" and concedes space away from the goal while filling in the
dangerous attacking areas in front of the goal.
Attacking Principle No.2 - Support
To keep possession and to be able to move the ball down the
field, the player on the ball needs support.
Forward support, back support and side support, will allow
the player with the ball different close supporting options, and put doubts in
the minds of the defending players.
The player with the ball is sometimes referred to as the
"1st Attacker" as opposed to our delaying 1st Defender. The player or players giving immediate support
are called the "2nd Attacker" or Attackers as there is usually more than
one giving close support.
Defending Principle No.2 - Support in
Defence (or Depth)
As the attacking team seeks to support their 1st attacker,
the defending team in its cat and mouse persona, supports their 1st defender -
the delaying player.
The defensive support
by the players nearest the challenging player attempts to give close
support. Their distance of support will
depend on the situation and what part of the field they are supporting the player
on the ball, but generally speaking, the defensive support is much tighter than
the attacking support, as attackers are trying to create space and defenders
are trying to restrict space.
Attacking Principle No.3 - Width
Stretching the defence is always in the minds of the
attacking team. A team can be stretched
vertically and laterally. The front
players will try to push the defence back as far as they will go, but the other
important way of stretching the defence is to use the width of the field - either
by having players in wide positions or by making runs into wide positions.
Players in wide positions are often away from the ball,
sometimes on the "blind side" of the opposition. As such they are called 3rd Attackers.
Defending Principle No.3 - Concentration
If attackers are trying to stretch the defence, it behoves
defenders to concentrate themselves in the most vulnerable areas. Concentration and the next defensive
principle, Balance, work closely together, as do Delay and Support. If a defending team is in any way unsure of
itself, it should fall back to cover the goal, stay compact, and give away
space in less dangerous parts of the field (this another way of effecting
Some coaches call this "Compaction."
Attacking Principle No. 4 - Mobility
Individual speed and the ability to interchange positions
are so important in the modern game. As
an attacker moves forwards, sideways, or diagonally, with or without the ball,
the opposing team has to adjust and this can unbalance the defence and
adversely affect the defensive "shape" and create
Defending Principle No. 4 - Balance
If mobility is being used to unbalance teams then that
principle of maintaining balance must be exercised to counter the attacking runs. Now the picture is becoming more complex as all
players are involved give the team Balance.
Usually it is the players away from the bail - not the 1st & 2nd
defenders - who give "Balance" and they are called the 3rd Defenders.
Thirds of the Field
Before covering the final two Principles of Play, we should
quickly look at the importance of thinking in "thirds" of the field, rather
than the more conventional halves. While
the rules of the game and field markings split the field into two, the tactical
considerations are better viewed in thirds.
In the Defending Third, the general philosophy is that of
The Middle Third is the battleground for dominance and the
build-up area for successful attacks.
The Final Third is where 99% of all goals are scored from.
For that reason, the thinking in the Attacking Third must be
very different than in the Defending Third.
The Defending Third is the no-nonsense zone where any danger is met by playing for safety
- perhaps by a long clearance kick, even playing the ball out of play to
concede a throw-in.
The Middle Third is less-dangerous and is the build-up zone,
but any mistake made in that area of the field can also be costly.
Whereas in the Final Third taking risks is what good
attackers are looking to do by using dribbles, fakes, back-heels - in fact,
anything that is going to create an opportunity for getting a shot at goal or
for making an opening for an attacking team-mate.
So that sets the scene for our final two principles of play.
Attacking Principle No. 5 -
This is the most exciting principle. Improvisation is not exclusively reserved for
the attacking third, but this is where it is most effective. Twists, turns, back-heels, dribbles, volleys,
overhead kicks, all kinds of creativity have a place here with only limited
risks. If the ball is given up in the Final
Third, the opposition still has to penetrate through two-thirds of the field to
even get a shot on goal - so that "risks" are worth taking.
Defending Principle No. 5 - Discipline
& Patience (Control and Restraint)
If a defending team has observed all the previous four
defending principles, it will find itself, for the moment, in good shape to
deal with most, if not all, contingencies.
In which case, the defending the team should remain patient
and exercise Control and Restraint and not "sell the jerseys" by reckless
defending. Of course, the situation will change as soon as the ball is moved,
or an attacking player moves into a new position and then all defending principles
The word "Transition" has become a key buzzword in today's
game - although "Transition" has been around the soccer world for ever
What happens after possession has been re-gained, or after
the ball is lost, can often determine the result of the game. This is when a fast, positive response can
catch teams off-balance and in poor defensive shape.
Good teams have a double persona. They are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They play both ways - immediately they have
to. So one moment they are free running,
expressive and creative. The next moment
they are mean, determined and task-oriented.
So was Jeff Tipping right about the Premier "Systems"
course? Of course, he was.
Were we wrong?
No! Principles and Systems are
inextricably intertwined and work together.
But a coach who does not fully understand the Principles of Play will
always be tactically challenged.
The Principles of Team Play - www.reedswain.com.
Coaching the Team. www.worldofsoccer.com
Systems of Play. www.soccervideos.com & www.worldofsoccer.com