The Better Team Lost!: Exploring Soccer’s Phases of Play

By Tom Turner

Anyone who has been around soccer for any length of time will appreciate that the better team doesn’t always win. In no other sport can a team dominate possession, dominate the number of scoring chances, dominate the number of attacking restarts, and yet fail to secure a worthy result. In soccer, goals count, meaning inferior or tactically disciplined teams can often find ways to succeed against steep odds.

When the soccer match is over, knowledgeable fans and participants will offer their judgments on the quality of play and how lucky, unlucky, or deserving their team was that day. But how subjective are those opinions? While the unschooled observer will barely see beyond the final result in qualifying the value of a contest, the more sophisticated pundits will take the ebb and flow of the game and the quality of the tactical choices into account.

Soccer, like all invasion sports, can be objectively broken down into “phases” of play, with the team that demonstrates competence in most of these phases, by and large, having the better opportunity to emerge victorious. By definition, a phase of play involves at least two lines of a team, such as the defensive and midfield lines, or the midfield and forward lines; very often at least part of all three lines are involved.

The purpose of this series is to explain the phases of play. The intent is to help coaches, and any others associated with the game, appreciate how soccer can be systematically dissected; and, ultimately, how players can be helped to value and participate in a more constructive game. Inherent to the discussion is the assumption that players have achieved a level of technical competence that allows the coach a range of strategic (big picture) choices in his/her selection of tactics.

In the reality of soccer, the transition between phases can often occur very quickly and many times untidily, particularly when the technical level of the participants is not conducive to keeping possession. Soccer is a game of mistakes, and result-oriented coaches often employ tactics designed to reduce the risk of conceding goal scoring chances. In the extreme, this mentality results in a form of “soccer-tennis” with both teams playing the ball as far forward as early as possible in the hope of cashing in on defensive errors. This style of play is both basic and frenetic, and invariably hard on the eyes of the soccer purists who savor a more cohesive tactical landscape.

It is also true that a team’s strategic choices may minimize or eliminate the utilization of one or more phases. For example, a team that “presses” is unlikely to also “bunker;” and a team that routinely punts the ball from the goalkeeper is unlikely to risk building out of their own end.

When the savvy soccer-watcher offers their opinion on whether the “better” team won, or not, they are consciously or unconsciously evaluating play as a reflection of their appreciation for the phases of play. Naturally, not everyone sees the same game in quite the same way, so, even for neutrals, deciding upon the “better” team can be very much a relative decision based on personal bias and an appreciation for the success of any chosen match strategy. For example, while Greece’s victory in the 2004 European Championships was begrudgingly applauded as a triumph for defensive organization and counter-attacking soccer, Red Star (Crvena Zvezda) Belgrade’s castigated 1991 European Cup penalty shootout win over Marseille following 120 minutes of bunkering defense could only be appreciated by their own supporters.

For the purposes of this article, a “good” team is defined as one that demonstrates a high degree of tactical organization, one that plays with controlled changes of rhythm in both attack and defense, and one that displays tactical versatility. While there is no such thing as a “perfect” game, good teams have the ability to efficiently and effectively change their tactical stripes to meet the demands confronting them.

The Phases of Play
In the interest of clarity and flow and to help the reader clearly distinguish between the different phases of play, the information  will be discussed in three parts.

Part I: The Attacking Phases
Attacking and Building-up
Transitioning From Build-up to Attack
Building-up in the Defensive Half
Building-up in the Opponent’s Half
The Moment Of Transition
Part II: The Defending Phases
Defending Against the Counter-Attack
The Pressing Dilemma
Defending From Behind a Line of Confrontation
Part III: Restarts

Next issue: Part One: The Attacking Phases

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at