Tactical terms

Ever felt lost reading tactical analysis? Here are some commonly used, nerdy football terms along with definitions and examples. This should be really helpful for coaches, analysts and bloggers alike. Find me on Twitter – @jadamsftbl. Enjoy.

Tactical terms

Access

Access has different connotations depending on whether a team has possession or not.

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In possession: whether or not a team can find a player or space with the ball. E.g. a team might struggle to access their full back in the initial build-up stage because the opposition’s winger presses the centre back whilst keeping the full back in his cover shadow.

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Out of possession: whether or not a team can defend a player, space or the ball. E.g. the defending team has poor access to the opposition’s striker dropping between the lines – this is because the whole back line is pinned by the wingers coming inside, and the two central midfielders are too man-orientated.

Ball-orientation

Ball-orientation is a term used to describe when the ball is the primary reference point for players’ positioning. This can apply both in and out of possession. In possession, this would mean that players provide lots of support near the ball, creating short passing options. The purpose of this is to provoke the opponent to press, which creates gaps to be exploited through short passes. Teams who are ball-orientated in possession often use the ‘overload to isolate’ and ‘up-back-through’ attacking mechanisms.

Out of possession, ball-orientated teams look to apply heavy pressure on the ball and its surrounding areas. Although ball-orientated defending can be effective at regaining possession, the sometimes extreme compactness can lead to big spaces being left open to be exploited by a switch.

Between the lines

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A player who is ‘between the lines’ occupies the space between the opponent’s midfield and defensive lines. Players who consistently receive the ball between the lines are dangerous. They occupy positions where it is more possible to play passes in behind the defence (the most dangerous type of pass). Being between players on different lines forces the opposing defender(s) into a decisional crisis – mark/provoke the player and risk leaving space in behind or leave the player unmarked and allow them to turn?

Blind side

A player who is on the ‘blind side’ of a defender is in a position where the defender cannot see them without turning their head. If the defender does turn their head to see the player, they can no longer focus on the ball. Being positioned on or running onto the blind side of a defender is advantageous for attackers because defending players have to focus on the ball and thus often cannot react in time to adjust to blind side movement.

Check out the strategic potential of the blind side, from Spielverlagerung.

Block

The word ‘block’ is used to describe a team’s compact defensive shape, and is characterised by the height of the defensive line. For example, a high block team will typically hold a compact shape with the defensive line positioned around the halfway line, looking to press high up the pitch. A medium block team will typically hold a compact shape with the defensive line positioned in between the halfway line and their own penalty box. A low block team will typically hold a compact shape with the defensive line positioned around the edge of their own penalty area.

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Bounce pass / wall pass

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A pass to a player, usually under pressure, who uses a one-touch pass to find a spare player who could not previously be accessed. Bounce passes are a good way of beating the first line of pressure to find someone who can face forward and carry the ball into empty space.

Breaking lines

A pass that ‘breaks the lines’ travels from in front of the opponent’s midfield line to in between the opponent’s midfield and defensive lines. Breaking lines is extremely valuable as it progresses the ball into an area where it is more possible to directly attack the defensive line (and subsequently the goal).

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Channel

A channel is the space between two or more players. Use of the word channel typically revolves around the vertical space between two players. ‘Pumping it down the channel’, for instance, would refer to a long ball played between the centre-back and full-back. It can also be used to describe the horizontal space between two players, which is usually referred to as the space ‘between the lines’ (see above).

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A pass through the centre back/full back channel.

Chain

When defending, the defensive and midfield lines work like a chain and each player acts as a chain link. When one player moves, the rest of the line has to move to ensure the line stays connected. This movement looks like a chain reaction, hence the term. An example would be a ‘four-chain midfield’.

Collapsing

Collapsing refers to the collective movement of a group of players to put pressure on the ball and/or to protect space in reaction to a pass or dribble that is made inside the defending team’s shape. Teams usually ‘collapse’ in response to a line-breaking pass or during the transition to defence in order to protect the deeper spaces. Central pressing traps are dependent on players collapsing onto the ball when a forward pass is made inside the centre of the team’s defensive shape.

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Compact / compactness

A team with a compact defensive shape features short distances both horizontally and vertically between the farthest players (i.e. horizontally from wing to wing, vertically from defenders to attackers). Optimal compactness could be defined as: individual players are as far away from each other as possible whilst maintaining the connections between each player and having access to the ball.

Compactness has various benefits for the defending team. The high number of connections makes it more difficult for the opponent to penetrate the shape, and if penetration does occur, there are more defending players in the vicinity who can react quickly. Compactness near the ball means having better access to the ball, which ensures that effective pressure can be applied as more players are in positions to press, limit passing options and react to dribbling. Compactness also translates to having better spatial control – the density of players in a compact shape grants a high degree of control over important spaces by technically covering a small area. This often forces opponents into strategically less valuable areas, and the short distances between players ensures quicker reactions to penetration.

This comprehensive piece on compactness from the Spielverlagerung crew is very informative.

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Counter-pressing

A literal translation of the German word ‘gegenpressing’. To counter-press means to press against the ball immediately after losing possession. Different types of counter-pressing are characterised by the goal of the pressing (i.e. to force long balls or to regain the ball high) and the orientation of the players (man / space / ball / passing lanes).

While counter-pressing is viewed primarily as a defensive action, it also provides attacking benefits. Balls recovered through counter-pressing are typically closer to the opponent’s goal, and the opponent is usually unbalanced as they are transitioning to attack. The proximity to goal and open spaces can lead to high quality chances. Jurgen Klopp: “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation”.

Here’s an excellent primer from the Spielverlagerung gang.

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Perfect clip to show counterpressing and its benefits. Yes, that is Sadio Mané scoring in 2014.

Cover shadow

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A cover shadow is the area covered directly behind a defending player. Cover shadows are a useful defensive mechanism because they allow defending players to simultaneously press the ball carrier while cutting off a passing lane, because it is difficult to play a pass directly behind a player.

A nice way to think of it is, ‘the closer a defending player gets to the ball, the bigger their shadow’. There are a few ways to beat cover shadows – namely through dribbling, passing around or over the defending player (bounce passes are common), or the covered player moving out of the cover shadow to receive.

Free man / spare man

A player who is unmarked in space, typically in a position of superiority. Creating and accessing free men is crucial for teams when in possession of the ball to progress play. Finding the furthest free man is a foundation of the positional play approach.

Half-space

Another literal translation of a German word – ‘Halbraum’. The half-space is a fixed vertical strip of the pitch, just like the centre and the wings. There are two half-spaces on every football pitch in the world. The distinction of space between the centre and the wings is necessary because teams react differently when the ball is in the half-spaces than to when the ball is in the centre or on the wings.

Half-spaces hold strategic importance. When a player has the ball in the half-space, they have the ability to see options in the centre and on the wing, whilst their field of vision remains primarily orientated towards the goal. Comparably, when a player has the ball in the centre, they have to change their field of vision away from goal in order to see options on the wing. Players in the half-space have as many options as players in the centre, but players in the half-space can utilise more diagonal passes and movements towards both the centre and the wing. This makes defending more unpredictable, whereas most passes from the centre of the pitch are directed away from the middle as defending teams usually congest the centre.

A term that may be more open to acceptance in the UK is ‘inside channel’, even if ‘channel’ isn’t technically the correct term. Here’s an unrivalled primer, again from the Spielverlagerung team.

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Credit: spielverlagerung.com

Horseshoe / U-shape

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The ‘horseshoe’ refers to a pattern of ball circulation, because the shape of the pattern resembles the shape of a horseshoe. Although playing around the horseshoe forces the opponent to shift from side-to-side, it is a particularly ineffective strategy as the opponents only have to make simple, predictable movements to stop progression of the ball.

Teams using the horseshoe often have slow ball circulation, and the need to use the horseshoe indicates that the team may lack the positional structure to find players inside the block from wide areas. Some teams actually use the horseshoe as a pressing trigger when defending due to its predictability.

Inverted full-back

In possession, an inverted full-back moves into a central midfield position, usually in the half-space. This allows the central midfielders to take up more advanced positions and also leaves space for the wingers to provide width. Inverted full-backs also guard against counter-attacks as they are protecting the centre as soon as the ball is lost, rather than having to make a recovery run from out wide.

Lines

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Really simple. The word ‘lines’ is typically used to describe the number of players in a horizontal line. Lines are a quick, useful descriptor of a team’s shape. Listing the formation of a team describes the number of players in each horizontal line and also reveals the number of horizontal lines a team occupies.

Man-orientation

Man-orientation is a term used to describe when a direct opponent is the primary reference point for a defending players’ positioning. AKA man-marking, but ‘orientation’ infers more clearly that other reference points (ball / space / teammates) still influence positioning, and that it doesn’t just mean blindly following an opponent around the pitch.

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Man-orientations can be manipulated by good individual and collective movement. Here, the midfielders do so by moving away from the centre and the ball to open the passing lane to the furthest player. Credit: spielverlagerung.com

Occupying

A player occupies an opponent by running into or being positioned in a space that demands their attention. For example, a player positioned between opponents occupies multiple players at once. Occupying multiple players can create disorganisation for the defending team as it may be unclear as to who is directly responsible for defending the player. This can cause indecision, which slows the defending players’ reactions and allows more time on the ball. In the example below, the overlapping run of the left back occupies two players to create space and time for a shot.

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Orientation

‘Orientation’ is used to describe the primary reference point for the positioning of a player or team. There are four reference points for positioning: the ball (see ‘ball-orientation’), the space, teammates and the opponent (see ‘man-orientation’). To simplify, positioning is based on where the ball/space/teammates/opponent are. A team’s orientation takes order hierarchically. For example, a team may be orientated to the ball first, teammates (shape) second, space third, and opponent (man) fourth. The hierarchical order can be purposely coached by design, but it is not fixed and can change situationally.

Overload / underload

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An overload refers to an area where one team has more players than the opponent. An underload is the reverse – an area where one team has less players than the opponent. E.g., a team using a 4-3-3 in possession will often have a 3v4 underload in the centre of the pitch when playing against a 3-2-4-1.

Teams look to create overloads in possession to provide passing options to bypass the opposition – at least one player is always spare. Teams look to create overloads when defending to restrict options and apply effective pressure on the ball. The size of the overload / underload area itself is subjective, but must constitute an effective playing area. An overload is also known as numerical superiority.

Overload to isolate

A mechanism of play used by a team in possession of the ball. The team will overload one side of the pitch to try to progress play on that side. This provokes the defending team to shift across. If play cannot progress on that side due to the opponent shifting players over, the team will look to switch the ball to the far side, where space has opened due to the opponent’s shifting. The team will leave a player on the opposite side of the pitch to access through a switch of play once the defending team has shifted across.

Teams looking to use this as an offensive mechanism require a good positional structure, with options at different angles ahead of and under the ball. Having passing options ahead of the ball provokes the defending team to shift across to cover dangerous routes forward, while having options under the ball allows the possession team to switch effectively to the isolated player.

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Pinning

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‘Pinning’ refers to how a player’s positioning restrains an opponent from moving out of an area, typically by occupying the space between two players. The opponent is restrained due to the threat of the pinning player receiving behind them. This often serves to free up another player who was previously marked.

One example of pinning is having both wingers move in between the full backs and centre backs to restrain them from stepping out to press or mark a player, effectively occupying four defenders with just two players. This creates an situational advantage for the team in possession – if the defender does not step out then there is space in front of them for the striker to receive, and if the defender does step out then space opens behind them for the wingers to exploit.

Pressing line

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Teams will often use an imaginary pressing line, which when breached (through a pass, carry or dribble) is a trigger for the defending team to press. Sébastian Chapuis nicely explains the reasons for using a pressing line in his great piece on coaching Uruguay’s diamond. Before the team in possession breaches the pressing line, they are not immediately threatening, and anything random, such as a duel loss or foul, that occurs following a long ball is a far enough distance away from goal that it shouldn’t be particularly dangerous.

Pressing trap

A pressing trap is exactly what it says on the tin. By occupying a certain space and/or applying pressure in a certain way, the defending team encourages a pass or dribble into a purposely left-open space or player, upon which they press intensely to trap the opponent. The most common pressing trap features the defending team occupying the centre of the pitch, stopping forward progression and leaving space on the wings for the opponent to pass into. Once the pass is made into a wide area, the defending team presses intensely towards the ball.

There are a few of reasons for this. Players who receive the ball in wide areas cannot immediately access players on the opposite side of the pitch, and thus cannot escape pressure as easily. The ball carrier having limited options makes it easier for the defending team to predict where the next pass will go, and can therefore proactively press the next receiver. Also, the defending team can use the sideline as an extra form of pressure as the ball is likely to go out of play if the ball carrier tries to evade pressure by dribbling down the sideline.

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Example of a central pressing trap. Credit: spielverlagerung.com

Pressing trigger

A pressing trigger is a cue for the defending team to press, used to proactively seek out opportunities to regain the ball. The pressing is usually initiated from a stable defensive structure, but can also occur during transitions. Reasons for using: taking advantage of a player’s limited orientation, targeting a weak link, capitalising on predictability, and unsettling the opponent’s rhythm.

Common pressing triggers include a pass into a wide area, a player receiving while facing their own goal, certain players receiving the ball, a bouncing ball, slow passes, horizontal passes, breaching of an imaginary pressing line. In the clip below, the triggers to press are: player receiving facing his own goal and a pass inside the defensive shape.

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Rest-defence

‘Rest-defence’ is another translation of a German word – ‘Restverteidigung’. This refers to how a team’s structure in possession allows them to immediately defend upon losing the ball. The “rest” part of the term is in reference to the players not actively involved in the attack, i.e. ‘rest of the team’.

A team with good rest-defence can control matches by restricting opposition counter-attacks through keeping a strong structure in deep areas whilst the team is attacking in the final third. This helps the team to regain the ball by having players in positions to deal with direct passes, dribbles and movements. An often overlooked detail is the positioning of the deeper midfielders when a team is attacking. By being positioned even just a few yards too high or wide, this can prevent them from being able to affect play if the ball is lost. Check the positioning of #6 in the first and second photos below.

Resting/defending with the ball

Resting with the ball refers to how a team uses possession as a mechanism of defending in order to rest. Resting with the ball allows a team to control the rhythm of a match, removing the unpredictability of having to defend without the ball. There are a few methods that teams use to defend with the ball.

One example is through circulating the ball without looking to progress play, such as through the ‘horseshoe’. As the intention of the team in possession is to rest, they don’t try to access dangerous spaces and thus the defending team may only apply passive pressure. This creates time for the team in possession to rest and reset to their base positions, from which the team may look to progress play again.

Another example is through heavily overloading the spaces near the ball, usually in deeper areas. By doing so, this makes it easier for the team in possession to retain the ball and also means that if possession is lost, there are many players close enough to counterpress.

Shape

Shape is simply a reference to the formation of a team at any given moment, and is also used to describe the general formations of a team when in and out of possession. E.g., a team using a 3-2-4-1 shape in possession, or the centre backs and a deep midfielder forming a 2-1 triangle shape in build-up.

Shifting

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Shifting refers to how the defending team moves in relation to the ball. Teams shift from one side of the pitch to the other in reaction to switches of play, and either step up or drop deeper in reaction to vertical passes. Each player’s reaction to the direction of a pass is different, but the overall general movement of the team is referred to when ‘shifting’ is mentioned.

Spacing

Spacing is simply the distance between players on the same team. Mostly, ‘spacing’ is used to describe the collective spacing of a team. The term can apply both in and out of possession.

In possession: a team with good spacing would collectively occupy as many opponents as possible in a balanced structure, whilst also having access to dangerous spaces. ‘As far as possible, as close as necessary’ is a good rule of thumb.

Out of possession: a team with good spacing would have good compactness. Optimal compactness can be defined as: individual players are as far away from each other as possible whilst maintaining the connections between each player and having access to the ball. ‘As close as possible, as far as necessary’ is a good rule of thumb.

Staggering

Staggering – having many players occupy different horizontal and vertical lines – is a term that mainly applies to a team’s defensive organisation. Adding layers to a defensive shape plays a crucial role in achieving compactness through how it helps to maintain connections between individual players and keep access to the ball. Having multiple connections in close proximity adds cover in case an individual defender is bypassed.

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A team can have a compact defensive shape but, without good staggering, may have sub-optimal connections between players and access to the ball. For instance, two strikers in a flat line may be connected, but if they are too close they can be played around, and if they are too far apart they can be played through. Staggering can fix this, as having one player slightly deeper closes the space between them whilst also maintaining access to the ball and the potential next pass.

On the flip side, staggering can apply in possession too. A team with poor staggering in possession is easier to defend against because they occupy less players due to having multiple players on the same lines, and are subsequently less connected. This reduces the number of decisions for the opponent to make when defending. For example, having two strikers standing on the last line means that the centre backs don’t have to worry about stepping out and conceding space in behind for the other striker to exploit. Similarly, the midfielders don’t have to worry about the space behind them and thus can focus their attention on the players and space in front and to the side of them.

Starting off in a flat line can actually be useful as long as movement to come away from a marker is well timed. This can be more dangerous than starting on different lines as this gives the defender less time to react and requires great anticipation. Below: poor staggering makes it difficult for Argentina to progress play centrally.

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Superiority (numerical / positional / qualitative / dynamic)

‘Superiority’ translates to ‘advantage’. The goal of creating superiority is to create free men. Superiority is crucial in being able to penetrate the opponent’s defensive lines, to move the ball efficiently, and to maintain stability in possession. There are four types of superiority: numerical, positional, qualitative and dynamic.

Numerical superiority is an overload – having more players than the opponent in a specific area. Creating numerical superiority means that at least one player is spare. In a 2v1 situation, for instance, the defender has to decide whether to pressure the ball carrier or to guard against the run of the player without the ball. Pressuring the ball carrier gives more time and space to the player without the ball, and guarding against the run of the player without the ball gives more time and space to the ball carrier.

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Positional superiority refers to when a player has an advantage over an opponent through either their positioning in space or their body position. A positional advantage in space would be when a player is positioned in the horizontal and/or vertical spaces between opponents. This is considered superiority because of how the positioning grants the receiver more time on the ball. By occupying multiple defenders at once, this can create disorganisation as it may be unclear as to who is directly responsible for defending the player. The defenders must individually perceive and react to the player in space, but must also communicate (verbally or non-verbally) between them, which adds to their reaction time. The extra time needed to react results in more time on the ball for the receiver (if they receive), hence the player is positioned in a superior space compared to when only occupying one defender. Creating positional superiority is crucial for breaking lines.

A good example of positional superiority is when a player receives between the lines because this occupies multiple players, resulting in more time on the ball for a player in a dangerous space. This extra time on the ball can allow the receiver to turn and face forward and play in behind the defence. However, having players in positional superiority doesn’t always mean they should be passed to. Although a player receiving in between defenders can pull them out of position and open spaces to exploit, there is a risk that the defenders will aggressively collapse on the pass to regain the ball (see clip below). Having players in close proximity to a player in positional superiority provides an out-ball for the receiver, who is likely to be pressured aggressively, and is a good indicator of when to play forward instead of circulating the ball. Having players in close proximity also allows for a more effective counterpress should the receiver lose the ball.

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Qualitative superiority refers to situations where there is a mismatch of quality between specific players on opposing teams. Teams looking to create qualitative superiority need to create the conditions for their player(s) to be placed in situations where they can repeatedly win duels against an opponent. An example of creating qualitative superiority is using the overload to isolate mechanism in possession in order to get a winger 1v1 against a full back to dribble past them. Another example is having a tall forward peel off to the back post when attacking crosses to target a smaller full back.

Dynamic superiority refers to superiority in the speed or timing of movements over the opposition. For example, in third man combinations, the 3rd man has dynamic superiority over the defender(s) due to starting their run earlier than the opponent. In such situations, having to firstly process the run and then react to it means that the defender has to turn and start their run later than the opponent, and will thus take much longer to reach full speed (see third man clip below). This can create the illusion that the attacker is much faster than the defender, but the predominant aspect is the timing of the run rather than the speed. Another example is as simple as a player running onto a pass while the opposing defender is flat-footed, allowing the player to glide past them with their first touch.

This piece from Spielverlagerung provides more comprehensive examples and explanations.

Third man

Using the ‘third man’ is an effective method of finding a spare player who was previously not accessible through the first pass. Player A makes the initial pass, player B receives the pass and lays it off to player C, who can now receive the ball unmarked. In most cases, the third man cannot initially receive due to being marked or in an opponent’s cover shadow. The second player usually has their back to goal and can see the third man, and is required to play a one-touch pass because of the pressure from behind. Using third man combinations is a great way of getting a player facing forward and in behind a line.

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Transition

The exact moment possession is regained or lost. If a team loses possession of the ball, they are transitioning to defend. This usually triggers the team to become more compact, closing space between their own players and the space between the ball and their goal. If a team regains possession, they are transitioning to attack. This usually triggers the team to expand their shape in order to find free players, either to counter-attack or retain possession.

Transitions also occur within the organised phases of the game. Such moments can look very similar to counter-attacks as the number of active players is reduced and the defending team is less organised. For example, if a press is beaten by a pass that breaks the lines, this turns into a transition moment. The behaviours of both teams change in accordance with the press being beaten, as if a counter-attack were happening.

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Up-back-through

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A passing pattern that is used to break lines. ‘Up’ refers to the first pass, which moves forwards. This pass is made to provoke the opponent to press, which opens up space behind them. ‘Back’ refers to the second pass, which moves backwards. This pass is to find a player who is facing forward and can access the space created by the first/second pass. ‘Through’ refers to the third pass, which moves forwards. This pass finds a player in the open space.

Vertical / verticality

Vertical simply refers to the direction of a pass. A team that uses an approach with ‘high verticality’, a la any Bielsa side ever, is a team that uses fast vertical (forwards and backwards) passes, usually on the ground, to provoke pressure and find spare men facing forward.

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