One of the more prevalent trends in modern football has been the shift towards proactive possession play, popularised by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side of 2009-11 and further enhanced by the success of Spain and Bayern Munich, amongst others. This trend is particularly noticeable in youth coaching, where several national federations have prescribed specific styles of play and formations in order to develop technically-skilled players capable of both dominating the ball and being effective with it.
A key component of effective possession is the ability to build up from the back. The term ‘playing out from the back’ is used rather broadly, often used to describe teams that look to play short from the goalkeeper. Guardiola’s Barcelona side are the clearest example of this.
While inevitably the teams that have tried to replicate Barcelona’s style cannot match their quality, the prevailing argument for coaching youth players to build up from the back is that it a) increases the number of touches they get on the ball, and thus, develops technical skills; b) it teaches players to be purposeful in possession and c) it is rightly or wrongly, generally more considered more entertaining to watch.
Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean
Coaching a team to build up, however, is not as straightforward as simply instructing players to build up. Guardiola’s Barcelona, as a case study, had a very clear and specific structure to enable clean progression of the ball from the back. These structures are required in order for players to have clear understanding of their roles and ensure the principles of effective possession are fulfilled – these being stretching the opposition with width and depth (positioning), circulating the ball with good speed, and playing forward when the moment is available for teammates in more advanced positions to be able to receive in time and space facing forward.
(By contrast, a team that uses direct build-up as their style of play may have principles of circulating the ball to areas of depth and towards teammates with physical superiority in advanced positions, positioning with vertical depth, and playing forward when teammates in advanced positions can challenge for the first ball with support for the second ball).
Case study – Guardiola’s Barcelona (2009-2011)
Returning to the Barcelona case study, Guardiola traditionally kept with the 4-3-3 formation all players in the club’s La Masia academy are trained in. Assuming the ball is starting from the goalkeeper, the starting positions are:
It is from these starting positions that Barcelona build their attacks, with the intent being to disrupt the opposition’s defensive shape by shifting the ball into areas where Barca have numerical overloads, or where, as aforementioned, a teammate can get free from their opponent and receive facing forward.
The goalkeeper’s first pass was nearly always out towards one of the centre-backs, who ‘split’ to the edge of the penalty box to create lateral depth. By being positioned ‘so far’ apart, and by receiving the first pass out from the back, the centre-backs force the opposition to shift their first pressing line to one side of the field, theoretically creating space on the opposite side. For example, against a team operating with a single #9 the splitting of the centre-backs means the #9 cannot press or mark both centre-backs, provided the ball circulation is quick.
It is also important that the full-backs are positioned high and wide, again for the purpose of maximising the width available to Barcelona in possession. If a team builds up using the full width of the pitch, it is near-on impossible for an opponent to adequately cover all areas of the pitch with their defensive structure while remaining compact.
As Jonathon Wilson eloquently put it,
“The overall size of the pitch (100-130 yards by 50-100 yards – in practice about 110 by 68) [is] spot-on; it turns out 10 outfield players are not quite enough to cover it. Pull the blanket however you like, there will always be a little left exposed.”
Therefore, with the back four positioned with maximum width, and provided the movement of the ball was at an appropriate speed and tempo, Barcelona could shift opponents across the pitch to create those crucial moments to be able to play forward.
Depth is also important in terms of stretching opponents vertically. Hence, the starting positions of attacking players is high, with the wingers and striker instructed to push up onto their direct opponents and ‘force’ them back, creating room in deeper positions for those on the ball.
As Guardiola says,
“’In order to help your teammate, don’t move towards him, but away from him”
Perhaps the most important component, however, is the midfield zone. Guardiola’s preferred midfield format was 1-2 with a midfield triangle facing backwards, so Sergio Busquets played as a sole #6.
Busquets has remarkable game intelligence, and constantly varied his position in order to enable Barcelona to progress the ball through the midfield (a more advantageous approach as opposed to progression down the flanks, due to the spatial limitations of the touchline). As a general rule, his starting position was in between the two centre-backs and in the same line as the full-backs.
However, Busquets’ role in possession varies according to the opposition’s defensive shape, again for the purpose of shifting the opposition and creating numerical superiorities. For example, against a team defending with 2 players in its first line (e.g 4-4-2 or 3-5-2), Busquets would drop in between the two centre-backs to create a 3v2 situation at the back. This in turn would allow the full-backs to get higher up the pitch, creating more room for the centre-backs as well as for the midfielders.
The two advanced midfielders also had various tasks during build-up. They were positioned with the ‘high/low’ principle, where if one is ‘high’ up the pitch, the other would be low, and vice versa. Typically, Xavi would be low, as he would often drop into the right half-space and into the same line as Busquets.
This is a rudimentary overview of what was a multi-faceted system with more complex tasks for the players than those described here. It hopefully, however, is a useful introduction and framework from which a coach can construct a model of play for his team.
How do you coach it?
A practical approach to coaching players to build up from the back is through use of game-like tactical exercises in training whereby a specific component of the Game Model – in this case, build up – is the primary focus of the exercise.
The use of opposed practices and training games of 7v7/8v8 etc provide players with multiple game-like situations that will improve their perception, decision-making and execution in build up play during games.
In order to create a exercises that achieves the intended objective of teaching build-up, certain constraints and rules can be implemented, such as instructing the team in possession to always start from the goalkeeper, and to provide rewards for teams that successfully build up in order to incentivise the intended objective.
Interventions in this training exercise should be focused upon delivering key tasks for teams and players. Examples of team tasks could include:
- Position with maximum width and depth
- Circulate the ball at a high speed to shift the opposition defensive structure
- Progress the ball forward to players in time and space
Some player tasks you could issue during interventions could include (remembering this is using a 4-3-3 formation – variation in instructions will occur with different shapes):
- Goalkeeper, circulate the ball short and to free players, and support the ball near-side as an option to circulate the ball
- Centre-backs, split to approximately the width of the penalty box. Shift the opposition’s first pressing line by circulating the ball to one side and then quickly shifting to the other.
- Full-backs, get high and wide, positioning level and outside of the opposition’s first pressing line. Receive on furthest foot to carry the ball past your direct opponent and create an overload in the next area of the pitch.
- #6, be positioned centrally between the two centre-backs and in the same horizontal line as the 2+5. Try and receive facing forward behind the opposition’s first line of pressure. Create overloads in the first receiving line if the opposition press high.
- #8 + #10, play on different horizontal lines and get between the opposition lines in the half-spaces. Try and receive behind the opposition midfield line. Attract opponents and create space in behind by dropping in front of the midfield line.
Finally, some opposition-specific movements you may implement could include:
- #6, drop between the two centre-backs to create back three if the opposition play with 2 in the first pressing line. Centre-backs, adjust your positioning to be slightly wider and full-backs push higher up the pitch.
- #8 (or #10), drop into the half-space and into the same horizontal line as the #6 to free up the full-back to go higher. The winger should also move into line of pass in the as to free the wide area for the full-back
- If the opposition go man-to-man in midfield, the #6 should draw his man away from the ball. This may create space for the centre-back to carry the ball forward and create a numerical overload in midfield
- If the opposition play with three in the first pressing line, and the far-side winger presses the centre-back, the goalkeeper may be able to circulate the ball to an open full-back
There are, of course, limitless possibilities in this regard.
It may be instructive to focus on coaching players more specifically in the key principles of build-up (e.g circulation and positioning) during youth development, and then a greater emphasis on how to specifically manipulate certain defensive structures in the latter stages of youth development or with high-performance elite teams.
Another consideration of training the build-up, and one often overlooked, is preparation for defensive transition if the team loses the ball. Naturally, if the ball is turned over deep inside your own half the greater the risk of the opposition being able to quickly counter-attack. Good defensive transition from the team that has lost possession involves immediate adjustment of the players into defensive positions, something that can be achieved if the players adjust their positioning as the ball is progressed upfield in anticipation of a potential turnover.
An example of this could be to instruct the centre-backs to position narrower once the ball enters the middle third, or for the full-backs to come inside and position narrow when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch.
Build up play, when done effectively, enables the team in possession to progress the ball up the pitch in a clean and controlled manner. It also can create numerical or positional superiority in advanced areas, particularly if the team is able to build up in a manner that ‘eliminates’ the opposition’s first and/or second pressing lines.
Often, this can require deliberate circulation of the ball into crowded areas in order to draw the opposition defensive structure to one side, creating space in other areas of the pitch that can be exploited with good circulation to switch the play. It could even be possible for defenders to ‘wait’ on the ball for an attacker to press, thus creating the opportunity to play forward into the space created in behind the opponent.
The inevitable pitfall that many coaches encounter is that their players lack the technical ability to be able to circulate the ball at the necessary speed and direction. This highlights the need for the development of technical skills in young players as well as an understanding of the communicative aspects of their passes – as explained here, the weight of a pass and the foot it is passed to (amongst many other factors) can non-verbally communicate important aspects of the game to teammates, and is an important learning component of skill acquisition in team sports.
While this is simply a brief overview of a complex football concept, it is hopefully obvious how building up from the back is a challenging yet rewarding component for teams looking to implement effective possession play as part of their Game Model.