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.


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

Happy New Year from CoachDeck

Here is wishing all a safe, happy and prosperous 2017. Here’s also wishing all youth sports leagues provide a safe, fun and educational experience for their players this year.

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

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Tactical Regurgitation

By Tony Earp

What is most important? Teaching young players individual skills or a tactical understanding of the game? It is a debate many coaches have, and often a stark contrast you can see between two teams when they play against each other. Although both sets of coaches want their players to be successful, there may be a difference between WHEN they want their kids to have success and the type of “tactics” being taught.

So, what is more important? Simply, it is not one or the other. The answer is both are important, but too often, it is the “tactics” that takes precedent over skills.

It is critical young kids develop necessary skills to play this game in order to be successful later on. If you cannot control the ball, you do not have a mastery of the skills, you cannot play this game to your full potential. With that said, as you are teaching young kids the skills to play the game, you also teach the ability of how to use those skills in games.

When you are working on 1v1 skills, it is not just how to beat the player, but WHY and WHEN? Is it best to dribble or pass in that situation? When working on passing and receiving it is not just the technique of how to do it, but WHY and WHEN did you take a certain type of touch in a certain direction with a certain foot, or why did you play that pass, at that angle, at that moment, in that direction, with that speed or with that texture.

When playing and training, you talk about finding space, and helping them see what is going on around as part of the skill development and ability to use them and that is learned over time. The biggest complaint I hear about coaches of older players is not about the players’ understanding of the game, although it can always be better, but their lack of ability to do the simple things well enough, all the time, to play at a speed that is necessary at higher levels of competitions. Their control touch and competency on the ball is not good enough to deal with the high speed, unpredictable, pressures of the game.

With that in mind, and I think this where some coaches of young players make a huge mistake, sometimes a false or “rehearsed” type of tactics is taught to young players trying to learn to play. Players only move and stay exactly where the coach asks them to, not having to think, make decisions for themselves, or respond to what is happening in the game. It cosmetically looks great when you watch the team play, and it is often assumed that the players have a great understanding of the game. But the understanding is shallow, it is only on the surface, as it does not show a strength in competency, but rather a demonstration of the players ability to follow instructions. The players cannot solve the problems of the game. They can only do what the coach asks.

It is like teaching a kid that 2 + 2 = 4, but that is it. You never teach the child why, so he has no idea why that is the case. The kid has no idea about the actual value of each number, or that you are adding up its value to get to 4. So if you phrase the question differently, “If you have 2, but you need 4, how many more do you need?”, the kid would not know the answer. All the kid understands is the statement that 2 + 2 = 4 because that is what he was told.

At times, coaches with young teams will teach the skills needed only to play the way the coach wants them to, and only allow the players to do exactly what the coach wants. But what about when the coach is no longer the coach, and the next coach asks them to do more? Or what happens when the game evolves, and there are more players, playing in different positions, more decisions to make, and the speed of the game is increasing? In the moment, a very well organized U8 year old team can have a lot of success in terms of results, but how many of those players have the same type of success later on as circumstances change and the game gets harder?

Helping players use space properly and how to make decisions on the field can start at an early age, but it cannot be done in a way that limits players options and ability to explore and learn the game by trial and error. Simply, neither skills or tactics can be taught in a vacuum, and both need to be done at a cognitive level that is both appropriate and promotes growth.

As kids move up levels, coaches will continue to look for important qualities in players. Do the they have the skills required to play the game? Are they intelligent players who understand the intricacies of the game? Can they make decisions on their own? Can they learn from mistakes and make adjustments? Can they compete and mentally handle stresses of the game?

The goal is for any player who is willing and works hard enough to have all those things by the time he is in his competition years (15+). All the years before that are part of the process in getting there, so nothing can be skipped or prioritized in the wrong order for short term results, UNLESS the coach’s end goal is different.

Long term development is not everyone’s goal. And if it is not, then that process does not have to be followed. Since only less than 1% of kids will ever play at the highest level, many would argue that it is more important to just make sure the kids are having success and winning. Give them the best chance to win now. I understand the logic, but do not agree with it. I believe you teach every kid like they will be a professional because we have no idea who that will be, and I do not want a kid to miss the chance because of something I did to meet my own short term goals.

To use another school analogy, it is the same reason why you teach kids letters and sounds, and then teach them how to create words, that can be used to make sentences, and then can be used to write paragraphs/stories. It is a progressive process builds on itself. You can instruct a young kid to copy a long sentence down, and show that to someone else and say, “look what this kid just wrote”, but the kid has no idea what the letters, words, or sentence means. They are “just copying” what they have been asked to copy. What might look to be impressive is really not. It is just regurgitation of what was asked of them to do, and does not show meaningful understanding.

So in short, skills are critical to be taught at a young age and the game should be fun. It has to be fun or the kids will not play very long. Within that context, the kids can be taught how to play with other players and work as a team. In smaller numbers at the younger teams (pairs), then progressing into threes, and then into larger numbers as they get older.

An older player with great skill but no understanding of how to play will struggle just as much as a player who has a great understanding of the game but lacks the skill to execute a decision.

I have heard an overemphasis of “tactics” at a young age defined as teaching “smart” soccer. I am not sure how you teach “smart soccer” without teaching skills required to play that way. “Smart soccer” with the youngest teams translates to “mistake free” or “paint by numbers” soccer where little learning and development is taking place. Just a regurgitation of rehearsed soccer from a practice where kids spent most of their time listening to instructions and walking through set plays versus actually playing or practicing (or learning). Like rehearsing for a show, the kids go over their lines each practice and are asked to stick to them when they get to the game. Any deviation from their scripted roles is punished.

Now, I have heard a coach use the term “Brain Ball” with his players. This is something completely different. He asks his players to make choices in the game based on what they see. He asks them to solve the problems of the game using their brains and the skills learned in practice. For me this is “smart” soccer because the coach is asking the players to think for themselves, make mistakes and learn from them, and use all the skills learned in training during the game. The result? Players with the skills needed to play the game and ability to think for themselves when they are older. The players will not be like many who have no idea what to do unless they are told. The players will not be those who can regurgitate tactics when it is clearly defined for them, but have not idea how to apply them on their own.

Unplug the joystick and the player will stand idle.

I will end with this though… there is no set formula/timeline. Coaches will constantly debate the delicate balance between the time spent on skills and tactics in training, and debate is always good. It usually breeds new ideas and innovation in pedagogy. But in the simplest terms, at the youngest groups, if they are learning good habits in training, the skills needed to play the game, having fun, and at each practice and game learning a little more about how to play, the players and coach are on the right path.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at

Daddy Ball

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

We hear the phrase often: “Daddy Ball.” It is a derogatory term describing a situation where a parent becomes a youth coach for the sole reason of promoting his own child. The accusation is that the child gets benefits in terms of playing time and position that he or she wouldn’t have received had someone else been coaching the team. But what if it’s not true? And what if it is?

Those of you who have read my articles through the years know I have done a lot of volunteer coaching. I coached three boys and a daughter primarily in baseball and softball, but also basketball, soccer, flag football, roller hockey, nearly everything they played growing up. So I’m quite sure there were times people looked at decisions I made regarding my kids and chalked them up to preferential treatment or, “Daddy Ball.”

So my first question is, where were those parents when the league asked for coaches? I didn’t do anything sneaky to become the coach. I volunteered. Same as they could have. I find it tough to think of someone who is not volunteering to accuse an individual who is of having anything less than admirable motives.

Are there parents who manipulate and “game” the system to ensure their children have advantages? I’m sure there are, though I can’t really remember a case of ever seeing it blatantly. Maybe I was blind to it because it was something I was doing myself.

I think there is also possibly an aspect of jealousy. Of course, anyone who is watching their child play behind the coaches’ kids is going to automatically believe that the decision is not based on merit or fairness, but is “Daddy Ball.” And, if one of those parents were to take the helm of the team and put their child where they believe he deserves to be, that’s what everyone would be saying about them.

Mike Matheny, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, was asked to coach his young son’s baseball team a few years back and he wrote a preseason letter to the parents that has become rather famous. The part that stood out to me was when he asked that all parents get involved and work with their children away from practice. He said that in his experience, the common denominator of every player he’d ever seen make it in the pros was that they had someone to work with them as youngsters. It seems to me that wanting to be the coach for your kids is an extension of this. Sure, I wanted to give them advantages. Not unfair ones. None that were unearned. I wanted to give them the advantage of my attention, my time, my knowledge of the game and my coaching. I didn’t feel anyone else could do a better job and so I sacrificed a lot of hours and career opportunities to do it. If that’s “Daddy Ball,” so be it.

When my children were just beginning to play recreational sports I remember speaking with a friend of mine whose sons were all older and in college. He had coached them in baseball all the way through high school and said that one of the main reasons he believed he had such a close relationship with his boys was all that time they spent together in the dugout. I made up my mind then and there that I’d coach my kids as long as I could.

And speaking of a letter to parents, as I write this I think of a bit I might put into a letter of my own, should I ever become a volunteer coach again. It might go something like this:

In an effort to avoid the perception that I am giving preferential treatment to anyone I will be asking for a democratic vote before each game to determine the batting order and playing positions. All parents who have attended every game and observed every minute of each practice will be eligible to vote.

I wonder how many votes I’d get.

I guess the answer could be to not allow parents to coach their own children. But then we’d have no more rec soccer, basketball, softball, football or baseball. So maybe another solution is to tone down the insults and use the phrase “Daddy Ball” less and the words, “Thanks, Coach.” more.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at He can be reached at

Back to school could mean stress in sports

Now that your kids are back to school and playing youth sports, it is important to watch for signs that maybe they are feeling pressure or that they’re overwhelmed. Take some time to notice the indicators and be sure to understand that kids who have busy days can be just as frazzled as parents.