Tactics - The Basics of Positional Play

taktikos - "of or pertaining to arrangement"

The Building Blocks of Tactics
"You must know how to play from your position."
Barry Hulshof, Three time European Champion

Tactical, positional play is the part of the game that says, "You need to be or get here, now." It’s built on four key elements;

  1. The plan. There has to be some structure that the players can follow. If there’s no plan there are no mistakes.
  2. Possession of the ball in the two main moments.
    1. When your own team has possession of the ball. The build up/attacking moments.
    2. When the opponent has the ball. The defending moments.
  3. The players basic task. The basic task is determined by the moment in question, above. It is defined by their primary function within the teams plan. These represent the player’s most basic responsibility.
  4. The players supplementary tasks. These are secondary, add-on or optional tasks. These represent opportunities for the player. Responsibilities trump opportunities.

 After ball possession and the plan the players tasks are determined by;

  1. The position of the ball. Where on the field can I best do my job?
  2. The position of opponent(s). Who are and are not problems?
  3. The position of teammate(s). Who can help and how?
  4. State of the game, e.g. the score, time remaining, importance, weather and so on.
    •  These elements are not in order of importance. Each element can have a different value depending on any other.

To execute their tasks, to be in a position* to do their job, the players will need to focus** on one or more of the above elements, e.g., a particular opponent, teammate, the ball or some combination. This becomes their reference point. The player will need to be at the proper distance and angle from that point at just the right moment. #Since most of these elements will be rapidly changing the players choice of focus will have to change, see below.

*Players are not restricted to one position, location in this context. Rather, these positions are used as reference points by the coach and players. If a team is playing with a three player back line, each of those positions has to be, over the long run, manned. Different players can move into or out of them. Players occupy the positions, they don’t own them, nor are bound to them.

**Deciding what to focus on is a matter of insight. It requires the player to make value judgments, to seek the highest return on their investment of energy. Insight is the "Why" you choose a over b. Tactics is the "What" you need to do after you know why. In this sense, insight preceds tactics. This helps to explain why some kids just don’t get it even after significant tactical training.

So why do tactical plans go so wrong so quickly? The first problem, (If there’s a plan), is that there is a conflict between the basic tasks when in possession and when the opponents have possession. It’s a part of the package. When in possession the idea is to spread out and make the field larger. To create space. When the opponents have possession the idea is to bring everyone in and back to make the field smaller. To kill or protect space.

Tactically this means that every player has to be in two different places depending on who has the ball. This becomes a problem when neither team can or will build up it’s attack. When the ball constantly goes from team A to Team B and back again the players are stuck in a no-mans land of changing possessions. Players cannot move, and most cannot think faster then the ball. Therefore, just as soon as they start in one direction they have to go back in the opposite. (Player’s tend to shut down and stop running when this happens, rightfully so. This is not necessarily the case when one team can build up it’s attacks as Arsenal shows here, takes you to YouTube.)

To resolve this tactical dilemma we add two more moments. (This makes four main moments.)

  1. Losing possession of the ball. The process/time of going from the attack to defense.
  2. Regaining possession of the ball. The process/time of going from defense into attack.
    • In a game the sequence never changes. Having possession, losing possession, they have possession and we get it back. The only variable is how long you spend in each moment. Since it’s more fun to have the ball children need to learn to appreciate ball possession and not to give it away unnecessarily.

This doesn’t change the situation on the field, but it does change how you see it. It allows the players the time they need to get from Point A to Point B. It removes the expectation of youth players moving at light speed in order to get to where they need to be with each changing situation. The demands of the game can be met at their pace.

Packaging tactics. Tactics are divided into three groups;

  1. Individual tactics, e.g., 1v1 and individual technical play.
  2. Small group tactics, e.g., communication between the goalkeeper and the central defenders, how a three player top line is different then a two player attack. This is another strength in small sided play. Children learn how to play in groups of 2’s, 3’s, 4’s and so on in actual "Four main moment" play. They deal with real transitions in possession and the position.
  3. Team tactics. A general rule is 7v7 up to 11v11. This is confused with systems of play.

Tactical nut’s and bolt’s. The elements that keep it all together. Any breakdown here causes problems. It’s "For want of a nail the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe the horse was lost..."

  1. Distance, not too near, not too far. See Why goals are scored for some examples.
  2. Angle. It should serve a purpose.
  3. Timing. Not too early, not too late. Adjust the speed of approach so you arrive at the optimum moment. This requires insight.

#With the ball, teammates and opponents flying around the real soccer world geometry is in constant flux. Distance and angles are a constantly moving target. Players have to continually reevaluate their position in relation to this changing landscape and situations. This creates mini-moments inside the main moments. One second you’re a covering defender, the next a pressing defender. One second you’re the "Wall," the next you’re taking on the defender in a 1v1. These mini-moments usually call for a new position, at least for an adjustment in the distance and angle to accommodate the new task.

This is where dogmatic tactical training, i.e. u9’s running overlaps or wall passes against passive defenders breaks down. This type of pattern play is similar to drill and kill instruction. Children learn a robotic response to open ended situations. It doesn’t help children learn how to see and select options on their own. Mini-moments, changing situations and opportunities are ignored in favor of one right answer and this most important learning point is suppressed.

Take this online Tactical Quiz from the NSCAA and see how well you do.