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Football Systems 101

A football system can be pretty much summarized as what a team does in broadly these situations;

  1. With the ball

  2. Without the ball

While bearing in mind the major aims: To score, and to prevent the opponent from scoring. Personally I place the same amount of emphasis on both aims (football is just as much about preventing a goal, as it is about scoring). People view the game differently, and this shows in the way they think a team should play (predominantly attacking, predominantly defensive, or a mixture of both).

It is important to know that THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY to play the game. I’m a big believer in playing according to your team’s strengths, and in ways that can negate the opponent’s strength and exploit its weakness.

So as a coach, how do you prepare your team for a game?

One golden rule is to use a system according to the players you have. In other words, the players determine the system. A coach has to determine the optimal system that brings out the best in his team (individually, and collectively), based on the profile of each player. "Player Profile" is a term I like to use, and it just refers to the characteristics/ability of a particular player(is he a dribbler?, runner?, passer?, does he dribble out wide to cross? can he hold possession, keep the ball? what's his passing range? etc).

Generally, most coaches have systems arbitrarily developed according to the ideal player profiles for it, then when they go to a team, they may tweak according to players. Some coaches use the same type of broad approach (e.g you will recognize a Guardiola team anywhere; Barca, Bayern, City ) but each have their little differences based on the available players. Some coaches are proactive and seek to impose their style and be the dominant team against every opponent, some coaches are reactive, some are a mix of both depending on the situation.

A good system gives you a better chance of winning a game, but the most important thing is to have quality players. Quality players will interpret your plan better, and provide individual moments of brilliance that are not even planned. Give me a Messi every day of the week.

Teams have a planned system and tactical approach for a game. You have to train, and drill your team to where each and every player knows what to do in these situations, and how their actions affect the team as a whole.

There are 4 major components of a system:

1- Offensive Organization

2- Offensive Transition: This has to do with winning the ball back (what you do immediately after winning back possession, going from defending to attacking). What you do when you win the ball back depends on what zone it was won, how the opponent is set up in that moment (where is the inbalance/open space), and how your own team was set up in the defensive organization (closest players, attackers in spaces left open by the other team, etc )

3- Defensive Organization: The team's general shape and positioning when the opponent has the ball. How to press, when to press, distance between players, blocking and covering passing lanes, set pieces defensive organization, zonal vs man to man marking in open play and set pieces, etc.

4- Defensive Transition: Team's reaction and movement just after we have lost possession. Pressing, returning to defensive shape, etc. A lot will depend on what zone we lost the ball in.

For brevity sake, I'd only go in depth for Offensive Organization

Offensive Organization

This is the general shape and movement of your team when it is attacking or in possession. This phase deals with progressing the ball up the pitch with the aim of scoring a goal. This is further broken down into 4 parts;

1- Construction Phase/Initial Build Up

Imagine your goalkeeper has the ball, this is the initial start of the attack from the back. How you progress up the pitch; movement, positioning, passing. Think of Manchester City. Ederson has the ball, what do the CB's and FB's do in terms of how they move and the passes made at the back. This is the construction phase. The aim of the construction phase is to bypass the opponent's first line of defense, progress up the pitch, and set you up for the next phase of offense:

2- Movement and Circulation of the Ball

This phase is how you move the ball around in midfield or the final 3rd of your opponent. Think of Xavi and Iniesta moving the ball around with passes, or De Bruyne and Silva, or Pogba and Mata, or Pjanic and Dybala or Khedira, or any midfield and forward line. The aim is to disorient and bypass the opponent's last line of defense, and progress the ball up towards the opponents goal to lead to the next phase of offense:

3- Chance Creation

The name is self explanatory. After you have found a gap, or bypassed the opponent, this is that final pass or cross that results in a chance. This can come from any of the CM's, FB's, or forward, or even a CB who has stepped up. This leads to the 4th phase:

4- Finishing the Chance

This is pretty much turning that created chance into a goal. The last point of contact for the move ( striker, midfielder, etc ) must make moves to be in the right place, create space for himself and others, and finish off the attacking move.

Coaches come up with different approach schemes for each phase of offensive organization: The passing steps, movement, positioning, decision making tree, etc. Some can use a slow initial build up, others may skip that and launch a high ball to the strikers or midfield; Some may spend a lot of time in the ball circulation phase, to draw out opponents and wait for the killer pass, some spend as minimum time as possible in this phase and are very direct, and a mix of different approaches can be used during different times of a single game.

Let me give a visual representation of an offensive organization from start to finish for a 4-3-3. This one has as few passes as possible from the initial stage to the chance finishing.

Construction/Initial Build Up

The goalkeeper gets the ball

0- Player number 5 makes movement back to be perpendicularly open to keeper, player number 6 makes an angled drop back to that position to be in a covering position for number 5

1- Keeper passes the ball to No. 5 in his new spot. No. 3 will move down a bit to be diagonally open to receive a pass from No. 5, No. 2 drops back vertically to be in cover. The 3 CM's are already making moves to drop down, keeping the triangular shape.

2- No. 5 passes to No 3. The 3 Central midfielders have shifted back collectively, still maintaining the shape. No. 2 moves laterally in to the box to form a safety net. No. 8 moves towards No. 3 in order to receive the pass from No. 3.

3- Immediately he passes, No. 5 moves to be vertically in line with No 3 who he just passed to, to become a possible option, No. 6 moves to the left to replace No. 5. At this point, there are triangles around each player ( staying true to my aim of any player with the ball having at least 2 passing options ). No. 8 moves to that spot, and No. 3 passes to him.

No. 8 is the conductor, he decides when we move from the build up phase, to the ball circulation phase. Once he's facing forward and he feels we have bypassed the first line of defense of the opponent, we move to the 2nd phase. Sometimes, we may not be able to move to the next phase because the opponent is marking and covering and pressing, so we recycle; play the ball back, try to build up again, maybe vary the passing steps a bit, maybe use the right side instead of left..Pretty much try to shake off the opponent. If all else fails, that long clear out ball away can be used ( Hello Mr Fellaini to receive on the chest up front ).

Ball Circulation/Movement

I have decided to make this as short as possible.

4- No.2 moves diagonally up the pitch towards the right side, to be in a position as a safety net in case the attack fails, and to be another passing option if needed. No. 5 and No.6 return back to their original center starting positions, and push a little higher. No.11 makes a move infield, dragging that fullback with him and creating space for No.3 to attack. No.3 makes the run down the line into this space. No.7 makes the move to go even wider right, dragging his marker with him.

No.8 passes to No.10, the goal is to have No 10 facing the opponents goal. If this isn't possible, No.8, No.10, and No.4 can exchange passes in that triangle to make this happen. Once No.10 has the ball facing front, he has a few options; We would go with option A.


5- Send the pass out to No 3 out wide ( aerial or ground depending on passing lane opening). No.3 must be fast, and be able to wiggle off his initial marker that was with him in his own half, and make that run down the byline to be available to receive.

as this happens,

Chance Creation and Finishing

6- No.9 makes the near post run, No.7 makes the far post run, No.11 moves to the edge of the box to replace No.9 , No.4 and No.10 move up the field closer to the box and ready to for rebounds , No.8 moves to the center circle.

7- This is the chance creation. The cross from No.3, which will hopefully be met by No.9, or No.7, or even No.11. Any rebound, No.10 and No.4 are there to shoot, or recycle.

A few things to notice:

1. The movements are designed to draw out markers and opponents, in order to create space to exploit. No. 11 checking in and dragging his fullback marker is important, as it lets No.3 exploit the space down the left. Once No.3 gets the ball out wide up there, it triggers the movement from the others in anticipation of the cross.

2. Four players remain in my half as a safety net. No.8 stays right in the middle, ready to cover the defensive zone vacated by No.3 who has pushed up, No.5 and No.6 are in their Centre back positions, pushed up a little higher, and No.2 is just to their right ahead, in his own half. Only one fullback attacks at a time. keeping a defensive safety net during attacks is important to prevent a counter attack from your opponent. I have a Black Belt in Karate and my Sensei used to say : "For every move, there is a counter, and for every counter, there is a counter counter, and for every counter counter, there is a... "

Being aware of this and planning attacks, while also being set up to prevent hit on the counter, is an important part of my philosophy (Hello Mr Van Gaal).

3. My midfield 3 here is made up of a conductor (No.8), a tackler/presser/runner ( No.4 ), and a link to the attack ( No. 10 ). Each must be very comfortable with the ball, especially. No.8 and No.10. We don't see much of No.4 in this scheme, but in others, he will feature, and most especially in the defensive phases.

4. No.10 facing the opponents post has options ( play it wide to No.3 ), or exchange a one-two with No.11 who has moved infield: a progressive one-two, which will see No.10 pass, run forward, and receive the return facing goal( from which No.9 can make a diagonal run behind the defense and receive a thru pass, or drag a defender and leave space for No.10 to shoot), or a hold one-two which will see No.10 pass to No.11, No.11 holds it up, No.10 stays where he is, receives it, then switches to 7 who has made that infield run ).

This is an example of a decision tree. Players have different options at any given stage, the choice chosen triggers the next set of movement from the other players. It's why every player and the whole team needs to be well drilled on the If's and decision tree triggers.

Players are always going to be marked for the most part; training drills on evasion, receiving the ball at the right angles, positional awareness, runs, etc must be done for each situation.

The scheme I just described is the best case scenario and ensures at most 6 passes from initial build up with the keeper, to having the ball in the back of the net. Teams should practice achieving this scenario in training under pressure from opponents. This is the utopia scenario, perfection. Almost impossible, but ideal to aim for.

Real Madrid under Mourinho in 11/12 achieved this so many times. The least amount of passes needed to go from back to getting a goal. Casillas to Marcelo, to Alonso, Di Maria checks infield, drags out a fullback, Marcelo runs into that space, Alonso passes to Ozil, who then passes to Marcelo. Benzema and co make the runs in the box, and boom, goal. Remember the first goal in Manchester United's 7-1 victory over Roma in the CL in 2007? This was another perfect 10/10 attacking move, 1 touch each from the initial build up from the back to the goal by every player involved.

This was a simple offensive organization example featuring a wide forward coming infield to create a central overload and give space for a fullback to attack. A team has numerous, for many situations; with each one having it's own many if's and decision trees. Sometimes a team has to spend more time in the ball circulation/build up phase because the opponent has 10 men behind the ball, and there would be a plan to go around this too.

In summary, you can see a lot goes in to developing and training for a particular system. e.g 4-3-3. You have to define the offensive organization, offensive transition, defensive organization, and defensive transition for your system. No small task, and hopefully you have quality players available that can bring moments of brilliance.. Are you sure you're still interested in coaching? Haha.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comment section and I'll try to answer. You can also ask me on twitter. Thanks for reading this.

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