The Better Team Lost! Exploring Soccer’s Phases of Play: Part 1 – Attacking Phases

By Tom Turner

Part I. The Attacking Phases

Attacking and Building-up
Soccer is a game of passing and dribbling, with the objective of scoring more goals than the opponent. In terms of individual decision-making, the first thought any player should consider when in possession is whether they can score a goal.

How often, for example, do we see young players creatively attempting to beat the goalkeeper from distance? If scoring is not possible, the player should assess whether an assist is possible. If an assist is not possible, they should look to move the ball forward towards the opponent’s goal. In most circumstances, looking to advance the ball forward is preferred to moving the ball square or backwards. However, when a forward option is not available, the objective is to keep the ball in possession until a forward dribbling or passing option, or a shooting opportunity, becomes available.

As the options to attack the goal become more limited, either because the ball is too far away, or the opponent is too well organized, the better teams will look to circulate the ball and maintain possession. This is called building-up, or the build-up, and it is the phase of play most lacking and perhaps least understood in American youth soccer.

Transitioning From Build-up to Attack

At any moment during the build-up, a pass, dribble, or shot may signal that a goal scoring opportunity is available and the tactical phase has changed from build-up to attack. When an attack on goal is possible, the speed of play will often increase significantly as individuals take initiative, or a small group of players attempt to gain a numerical advantage around or behind a defender(s).

Given these definitions of building-up and attacking, the distinction between the two can often be quite blurry. For example, the build-up may be as simple as a long throw from the goalkeeper to a forward when the opponents are caught in a poor defensive posture; to a long pass over the top of a flat back line by a quick-thinking full back; to a quick transitional pass by a midfielder to a forward following an interception close to the opponent’s goal.

More likely, the formal building-up phase will involve forward and backward and side-to-side passing and dribbling. It is also true that the build-up will take two very distinct forms depending on the position of the ball.

Building-up in the Defensive Half

In cases where the goalkeeper or a defender has secured possession and the opponent is not pressing, the better teams will take the opportunity to slow the game down and circulate the ball into attacking positions. This tactic of building from the back helps save energy and, as the ball is advanced, provides the attacking team with shorter distances to run with the ball or play penetrating passes.

The tactical advantage is simply a function of numbers, with the vast majority of system match-ups providing for the defenders and the goalkeeper to outnumber the attackers. For example, when both teams are playing 4-4-2, the four defenders and the goalkeeper often play against only two forwards, ensuring a high probability of maintaining possession and successfully advancing the ball.

When building out of the back against a retreating defense, the flank players will create space by moving as wide as possible; the forwards will create space by getting as far down field as possible; and the central midfielder(s) will provide the defenders with time and space by initially moving forward. If this space is not created, the team that attempts to build out will find themselves under pressure and in danger of turning the ball over in a very dangerous part of the field.

Playing out from the defensive half does not always include a formal choreographed build-up. Many times, the goalkeeper can initiate open play with a quick release to a teammate in space; the same is true of any player who gains possession in the defensive half. Sometimes these passes result in a counter-attack; most often they simply force the defense to retreat into their own half and allow the build-up to take place further forward.

Building-up in the Opponent’s Half

When a defending team deliberately bunkers in, or is otherwise pegged back in their own end, the attacking team is faced with a very difficult problem, as there will be very little space behind the defense and very little space between the defenders. Even on a regulation-width field of 72-75 yards, the challenge of creating goal-scoring chances demands skill, mental patience, and a high degree of tactical discipline. The team that possesses good dribblers may succeed; the team that possesses the ability to pass the ball with pace and accuracy and length may succeed; the team that can quickly combine in tight spaces may succeed; the team that can score with shots from outside the box may succeed; the team that can score from wing play may succeed; the team that can score goals from restarts may succeed; the team that can change their formation and style may succeed; the team that can add a “dimension” player, such as a tall striker, may succeed. But nothing is assured, and history is replete with examples of courageous defensive performances resulting in famous results being secured against very long odds.

To build-up effectively when an attack has stalled, or patience is required, individual players must have the dribbling skills to keep the ball and the passing skills to warrant teammates spreading out from back to front and from side to side. With the offside law restricting how far forward a team can expand, the onus is often on the defensive line to drop off from the midfield to create time and space at the back of the team. This is often achieved in the defenders own half of the field and is one of the primary reasons why the lingering practice of positioning “goalie guards” – those who are required to stand on top of the penalty box — is so abhorred by youth soccer observers. By restricting the forward movement of defenders to support the team during the build-up, coaches are destroying these players’ natural and necessary connection to their teammates and to the most enjoyable phases of soccer.

The Moment Of Transition

In any soccer game, teams will find themselves in and out of possession, and the most dangerous moments during open play are often found when the ball transitions from defense to attack and from attack to defense. When a team is building up, the players are usually spread out from back to front and from side to side. The opposite is true of the defense, whose organized shape will be very compact, as players move towards the ball from the sides and from the front and back. While a good attacking team will have wide players as much as 75 yards apart, and will have committed defensive and midfield players forward for attacking support, a good defending team will try to move as a tight block in order to help create layers of help around the ball.

Counter-Attacking

In the seconds immediately following a change of possession, two opposing dynamics come into play: The counter-attack and defense against the counter-attack.

The team that has just regained possession will look to exploit the spaces between and behind their opponents before the defensive block can be organized. At the higher levels, the team that can effectively counter-attack is often the more successful and therefore a premium is placed on speed of recognition and speed of play. The counter-attack can be carried out with any combination of dribbling and passing movements, with the point of origin generally impacting the likely tactical solutions.

Because attacking spaces are more available when counter-attacking, under-pressure defenders are often forced to take greater risks with offside tactics. This, in turn, pressures attacking players to better appreciate how, where, and when to run into shooting or crossing positions. Players who understand the value of lateral and diagonal running in these situations often become the game breakers; conversely, players who run in straight lines often become offside.

Sometimes, what starts as a promising counter-attack opportunity quickly peters out as defenders recover goalside, or technical/tactical lapses kill the impetus of the moment. While the initiative for an attack may still be regained, it is more likely that teams must abandon the counter-attacking phase and revert to formally building-up.

Next: The Defending Phase

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 coaching@oysan.org.

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One Response

  1. […] (If you missed them, you can read the introduction to this series and Part One) […]

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