A longtime colleague of mine, Peter Motzenbecker, has written an excellent piece on the purposes of short passes. He identifies two broad ideas behind the utility of short passes, even in situations in which a longer pass that is closer to the opponent’s goal is possible. The two ideas behind using short passes are to destabilize the opponent and move them out of their defensive block or to allow the team time to get into their attacking structure to then seek out advantageous situations centered around different types of superiority.

Peter prefers to use possession when talking about certain stages of attacking play, for me, all time with the ball is referred to as attacking play. And I don’t know that he would disagree with that either and I acknowledge that there are phases of attacking play. Anyway, that’s an explanation of the title to this piece, it is directly lifted from Peter’s work aside from swapping out possession for attack.

Here is the portion of Peter’s work we will delve into deeper:

“…we should be able to get across to our players the basic understandings of structure in possession in a small area around the ball and then expand outward as the principles are better understood and visibly applied within games and when the players have the maturity necessary to expand the game.”

Let’s focus in on the first part, here, about having the ball in a small area and teaching the players basic understandings of structure in possession/attack. How could we go about doing that?

There are several different thought processes we could use to arrive at an answer. We could start with the player on the ball and one other player in the immediate area where they are, what type of structure would we want this one additional player to offer? What about two additional players, what about three? And ultimately we would have to decide up to how many players would we want in the immediate area of the ball anyway?

Or we could start from looking at a full team of eleven and asking where should each player be in relation to the player on the ball. But how could we decide that? And even if we did decide where the other ten players should be relative to the player on the ball, would it be possible or worth the time to then sort out the positioning of every single player off the ball relative to every single conceivable player that could have the ball? Without even going into where the ball was on the field you would have at least several hundred different ways to position the team.

Instead, it might be better to decide on what options you want provided to the player with the ball, generally. In that, no matter who has the ball and where they are on the field, you would be looking for your team to be providing a set of options to that player. This would allow the players to analyze at any given time which options the player on the ball was being provided with and what options that aren’t being provided could they potentially fill themselves or direct a teammate to fullfil.

This process would, in addition to being broad enough to function for all of your players, allow the team to think about it’s attacking shape no matter the formation the team was using. Marcelo Bielsa believes youth teams should play ten different formations across the five year period before turning professional. In the United States, this coincides nicely with the five or six years most players would get at youth level of 11v11 play before going to college.

Attacking principals not directly tied to a certain formation would help players transition from one formation to another. It has become popular for youth Clubs to prescribe that every team plays the same formation every year. In the US this makes little sense, if it makes sense anywhere is debatable, as most players who play beyond youth level will play on a college team with no correlation in terms of formations played to the player’s youth Club. Even players who aspire to play for their high school teams cannot expect to play in the same formation as their youth teams do. In trying to prepare them to be good soccer players and not just good soccer players in a certain formation in a certain position a variety of formations should be used.

The terms “support” and “options” are widely used by coaches and are often times interchangeable with one another. To most of us, a coach telling the team to give support or gives options means the same thing. But this is too vague, deeper context is needed. It is easy to tell a team that is not passing the ball effectively that they are not giving the player on the ball enough options or providing them with support. This is one of many, many, obvious things a coach can point out that people at the game agree with. Of course a team that is not moving the ball effectively is likely to be suffering from an attacking structure that lacks avenues for ball movement.

If a coach wants to actually help the team rectify this problem and go beyond the simple task of just identifying it and offering it as a general criticism, then a specific set of options need to be identified. That would allow the coach and the team to discuss which of those previously trained and agreed upon options is not being provided in the game. From there actual solutions with a higher level of specificity could be offered.

Immediate Options

Back to the point about structure in a small area, we can call what we are looking for here as “immediate options” or “close options”. These would be players positioned close enough to the player with the ball to receive short passes played into their feet with minimal obstacles in the path from one player to the other so that the ball can travel on the ground and reach it’s intended receiver quickly. How much space we are talking about would be game model(7v7, 9v9, 11v11) dependent.

Generally though, we all know a short pass when we see one, for 11v11 play perhaps passes of 15 yards or less. What should we look for in this small area? An ideal situation would be the formation of a diamond relative to the player on the ball and the direction that player is facing. At a minimum the formation of a triangle should be created.

That terminology of making triangles or diamonds is commonly used but not given more context, you could talk to your team about shapes if you wanted. A differentiation of that terminology would be to say we want to provide the player on the ball an option to their left and an option to their right but we don’t want to have three players in a straight line. And ideally, we provide those options plus a straight ahead option, all relative to the player on the ball.

That could start with games of 3v2 and 4v3 and progress to 3v3 and 4v4 where the number of options we want to provide exactly matches the number of players on the attacking team. It would be obvious who has the ball and in a small area covering the options of positioning to the left and right at angles and straight ahead would be a simple process of elimination. You could ask an out of position player, very simply, where are your teammates? What option is not being filled? And can you go and fill it?

None of that is position or formation specific and you could provide those options to every single player on the field, including the goalkeeper, in almost any area of the field.

These “immediate options” would be the first three options for a team to provide to the player on the ball. The other four would be classified as “supporting options” in that they are not in the immediate area of the ball but are still supporting those players who are in the immediate area of the ball.

Supporting Options

These supporting options could be as follows:

An option to…

  • Play back and out of pressure
  • Play a forward target
  • Play into space in behind
  • Switch the play

That’s seven total, three immediate and four supporting options. It doesn’t have to be seven, of course, your preferences as a coach would be different and thus you might value different types of supporting options.

This would give a high level of context when discussing with a team what could be done to better create attacking opportunities and make sure the team is fulfilling it’s agreed upon attacking structure. It allows for decision making and creativity within a structured system. You wouldn’t always require your center forward to provide the same option all of the time, perhaps they see space to run into in behind in one attack and in the next attack see that they can drop into a deeper position to provide a direct forward option to a midfielder facing the opponent’s goal. They would be fulfilling a needed option but not restricted to consistently providing the same one.

And that might be different to that player’s defensive responsibilities which may be restricted to the point where no real decision making is needed. To use the center forward as an example again, you might ask your center forward to sit deeper than the opponent’s centerbacks to block access to the midfield area and the split the centerback pairing before closing down the one with the ball. In that defensive instance you would be specifically expecting that action to always be fulfilled by the same player as the rest of the team’s defensive movements would be predicated on this movement.

The deal you would be making with your team then would be to follow the strict guidelines for defending and then loosening those guidelines upon starting an attack. The idea being players appreciate this balance as they know should their efforts defensively be successful they have latitude as individuals and a group to decide how to capitalize on it.

Attacking movements face the challenge of needing to follow some sort of structure but at the same time not being overly predictable in their attacking intents to their opponents. Following general positional guidelines that can be filled out by the team in different ways allows for this to happen as there is more disguising of the positional situations always trying to be created and thus making attacks less predictable.

Peter is correct in saying that we must start somewhere in developing basic understandings of structure and this can be done from the very basic starting point of getting the team to understand what options to the left and right look like and expanding over time all the way out to asking more developed teams to constantly maintain seven different passing options in attacking play.

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