Rules of Engagement in Build-Up

“We work on the positional play against nine defenders where our central defender has to move up with the ball at his feet and break the lines, always in small spaces working on keeping the ball, positional exercises training you how to control the ball with your first touch so that you can get away from your marker in two or three meters.” – Xavi


When it comes to build-up play, it's somewhat ironic that some central defenders are more comfortable playing against a high press than they are against a medium block. This may be because the game moves quicker, play can become somewhat instinctive, and there can be less variables from which to make decisions. Challenges can therefore arise when teams drop into a low/medium block and ask defenders to problem-solve. Psychologically there maybe challenges too, as the center back is cognizant of the space behind them, understanding that a loss in possession can lead to an immediate counter attack. However, it’s important to make defenders aware that in order to break down a medium block, they must be get close to it and engage it.


In the example below, you can see that by progressing the ball, Spain minimizes passing distances into the midfield and allows the opportunity to create an overload with the central midfielders. This central overload can the trigger a set of attacking movement: wide players can push onto the full-backs, the central striker can pull the defensive line back, and the attacking midfielder can slot into the space between the lines. As Spain progress the ball, you can see that the defenders are facing a 4v4 and have a shortage of cover.




“Nobody rides on you? Then advance with the ball towards the goal. Go score! If an opponent comes out on you, he will release a teammate. According to the movements of the opponent, there are always free men.” – Pep Guardiola


Another area of the game model that is impacted by the central defenders being conditioned to engage and step towards blocks, is in defensive transition. Teams can then naturally progress together as a defensive unit, add more numbers around the ball, and collectively put themselves in a better position to counter- press opponents. Below is an example of USWNT against Germany where they build with a back three, step into the medium block once pressure has been initiated, and then win the ball back right away upon losing it. Although Christen Press does a lot of great work to regain possession, the positioning of defender Becky Sauerbrunn and midfielder Sam Mewis at the moment of transition, reduce the options for Germany to play and force them backwards. This delay allows Press to be really effective in the defensive transition and she capitalizes on the space once she wins possession back.



When the USWNT finally score in the clip above, there are five players in the box. Euan Dewar from StatsBomb recently posted a picture from Twitter (below) that really made me think about a goal like this. On average, how many attackers do teams have in the box when they get an open play box shot? There is probably no surprise to see Man City, Liverpool and Bayern so high. I've long believed that there is a massive difference between getting three or four attackers in the box during an attack, as oppose to two. It gives the defenders much more work to do in terms of decisions and, with majority of teams favoring cover as their primary defensive approach, it can be a simple case of numbers beating the system, similar to the first video in the 4v4 towards goal.



How do we work on that with our teams? Twenty years ago, it was probably a case of yelling "get in the box!" at everyone once you entered the final third, but now the game has changed significantly. Developing teams with defenders who are comfortable engaging attackers, even though that is a higher risk strategy, can potentially give you more numbers higher up the pitch. With the speed of the game today, that can potentially decrease the distance that the attacking players have to cover to get in the box when the ball arrives there. Below are a couple of session ideas that can help "move" and "progress" teams up collectively.


The initial exercise is looking at getting those center backs to recognize that 2v1 opportunity clearly, and become aware of the risk in losing possession. The player in possession can use the goalkeeper as an option but it may be helpful to have a maximum number of passes as a condition in order to encourage penetration. You could also replace the goals with gates if you want them to practice driving into the space.



The next exercise is a 9v9 game, with one neutral on each sideline acting at the wing-backs. The team in possession (red below) start to build with a back three. The holder can come in to create a 5v2, with the objective of getting one of the three defenders to drive through one of the gates. Once inside the yellow zone, the player in possession cannot be tackled and must then find a pass. The holding midfielder in red can then take an advanced position, where they will already have an overload with the yellow neutrals. The role of the blue player in the yellow zone is to receive the ball from the coach if the move breaks down. That way the team in possession is also tested in transition. After five minutes, teams switch roles.



The final progression is an 11v11 game with a central zone from the halfway line to the penalty box for the team in possession (red below). The only condition it that the red team must progress the ball over the halfway line in the build inside the central zone. As a coach, you can manipulate the defensive shape of the opposition to try and test them against a press, medium block, two forwards, etc. This will give the game a certain amount of flexibility and challenge the players in the build to read the different situations that may arise.





If you enjoy the Modern Soccer Coach content and would like to attend the Online Workshop hosted by Gary Curneen next Tuesday (March 24) at 3pm EST please click here to book a spot. The topic is 'Testing Your Philosophy and Game Model' and we will look at aspects such as: What separates a good game model from a great game model? How can you personalize your game model from another coach? What areas can you look at in the analysis process to gauge progress? How can you link the tactical side of the game towards player development and education? Limited spots available.

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