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Think on Your Feet - Soccer Strategy & Tactics

The beauty of soccer is that it’s a complex game where the possibilities are endless. Your proficiency in soccer not only depends on your skills on the soccer ball, but also on your ability to read the game, make quick decisions, and communicate with your teammates. No matter how crisp your dribbling, shooting, and passing skills may be, it’s all useless without an understanding of soccer strategy - knowing where to pass the ball, when to dribble, and just a general understanding of the game.

A simple idea to consider is what's your goal for a certain play or situation on the soccer field. Obviously, the main goal is to score a goal, but there are short term goals that will help your team eventually score that goal. For example: Are you trying to win a corner kick? Are you trying to just keep possession of the ball? Are you trying to win a throw-in since you have no other options? Are you trying to switch the ball to the other side of the field where there's more space? Overall, this is a good thing to think about as a player and a team when thinking about strategy and tactics in soccer. What can you do in the short term to help your team move the ball upfield and score?

Jose Mourinho & Alex Ferguson
Reuters: Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho during a Champions League match at Old Trafford.

Luckily, the objective at the heart of soccer is simple: keep the ball moving and put the ball in the net. But, there are a million and one ways for you to get from Point A to Point B. How well you do so hinges on how rapidly you can assess your situation on the soccer field, weigh your options, and choose the one most likely to achieve a goal. The key though again is to make the game of soccer simple playing one and two touch soccer - get the ball and give it.

The best way to improve your soccer strategy is to play with and against the best. If you play a good team and you’re constantly put under pressure, you’ll be forced to play the ball quickly. Whether you’re playing professionally or with your friends at the park, try to play at a game-like intensity all the time. Don't do things that you know you wouldn't get away with if you were playing a good team. This kind of discipline will keep your mind sharp and ready when you're in a real game situation.

Certainly, in pick up soccer games you want to try new things, but it's also good to respect the game and play it like you would in a real game. For instance, in a real game you probably wouldn't dribble out of the back and try to beat everyone on the dribble.

Playing with a wide variety of people will also expose you to new strategies and techniques. Be a conscious and observant soccer player so that you can add these experiences to your strategic artillery. Even carefully watching the pros at work will make you a better soccer player, as long as you make a real effort to understand how teams get a winning edge and look for an opportunity to apply that strategy yourself on the field.

Let's start off by looking at Barcelona's tiki taka style of play, where they focus on keeping possession of the ball and winning it back right away if they lose it.


While every team can't play just like Barcelona, you can strive to model your possession game after them, after all, if your team has the ball the other team can't score.

Although soccer strategy is best learned on the field, there are several principles that you can benefit from becoming familiar with by studying …

Back to Soccer Basics

Soccer is ultimately about getting the ball into the right person's feet: the one who has the most time and space (i.e. faces the least pressure) and is in the most advantageous position to score (or make that goal scoring pass).

The key to playing good soccer is to keep the ball moving by playing one and two touch soccer—that is, passing and moving off the ball and being creative. The ability to do this goes back to a good first touch, using your body to shield the ball, and knowing what you want to do with the ball before you get it. 

Key: Essentially, as a team, you want to get the ball to the best player on the field. You want the ball at the feet of the player who can score or create that goal scoring chance. The best teams in the world find their best player and give him the ball - whether that's Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, or Ibrahimovic, they give the ball to their best player to keep possession, create a goal score chance or score a goal. It's not like you want your best player to always have possession of the ball the entire time, it's just that they will make that pass or hold the ball so another player can get open to score.

Take a look at these two videos of a counter attack and then just simply some wonderful passing.

Generally, on offense you want to spread out and use the width of the field, and then become a compact unit on defense. On offense, use the entire field to break up the defense, creating gaps and spaces to attack. Break down the other team by switching the ball, play quick passes, making runs, and taking players on.  And then defensively you want to funnel back and work as one unit to pressure opposing teams. Don't give teams time on the ball to make passes. Get offensive players to put their head down and play the ball backwards. Move up and down the field as a block of players that teams can't play through.

The best way to open up spaces in the opposing team’s defense is to keep the ball moving. Let the ball do the work. Play it into the forward’s feet, and then have him or her lay the ball off to someone making a run through towards the goal. Or, if the forward is covered, lay it back to the midfielder, who plays the ball wide. The wide midfielder then tries to get a cross in, or switches the ball back to the other side where there is more space. That's why it's a good idea to walk through various soccer patterns so players know what runs to make.

Your strategy, when you play the ball to the forward who is tightly marked, is to draw the defense into this player. Once the forward gets a touch on the ball and holds the ball up with a touch or two, the midfielder can get the ball back and pass to another player who’s now open, since the defense has collapsed around (or at least shifted their focus on) the forward. The pass can then be made behind the defense to get them chasing the ball with their heads turned. If the defense doesn't close down the forward, well he simply turns and tries to take a shot.

In general, switch play and keep the ball moving on offense, so your opponent cannot close down the space and make it difficult for you to make a pass, and so you can find holes in their defensive structure by stretching them out. In moving the ball laterally, you can find time and space and pick out a teammate in a goal scoring or advantageous position.

On defense, you want to do the reverse of what you do on offense: stay compact as a team unit and defend with numbers. For instance, if the opponent is attacking down the right side, then the far right midfielder can move into the middle and help out, since the opposing player on the far side is not as dangerous as those attacking with the ball.

Of course, he or she must still be aware of the player they are marking, but they must gamble, in a sense. If the opposition makes a long pass to the far left winger, he or she needs to be able to get there before the ball does, and then the whole team will have to shift positions to the right side. If the far right midfielder ventures too far into the middle, they won’t be able to adequately cover the player they're marking. But if he or she gauges it properly, they’ll be able to arrive before the player has time to control the ball and attack down the line. 

Whether you’re on the attack or the defensive, you’re going to have to become adept at adjusting to new situations in the soccer game.

The Run-Down

The important thing to remember is to make runs that lead to goal scoring opportunities or open up space for a teammate. 

If you make a run in behind the defense, for example, and that doesn’t work out, check back to the ball, get the ball and lay it off and then make that run behind the defender again, so the midfielder can chip or loft the ball to you in the air. Or, if the midfielder on the left side has the ball, you (as the center midfielder) can make a run down the line to receive the ball or open up space for the left sided midfielder to take his opponent on the dribble and move into the open space in the middle. Movement off the ball opens spaces for your teammates.

If there's an opportunity to take the defender on, go for it. If not, lay it back to the center midfielder and break down the line again to receive the ball. The center midfielder can also make an overlapping run. The right sided midfielder can play a one two with the forward who is posting up. There are numerous options if everyone on the field is looking to put themselves into position to receive the ball and help one another.

Team Work

To execute these types of exchanges (a give and go or overlap) you need to lead the defense into believing you are going in a different direction. Keep them on their heels; lay the ball off at the right time. You can always start over. If one side of the field is too clogged up and crowded, then switch the ball to the other side. It could be two square exchanges of the ball and then on the third pass, someone breaks into the open space to receive the ball in behind the defense.

There's nothing wrong with sending the ball back to the keeper if you're under too much pressure. Of course, you have to make sure the keeper has enough time to clear the ball or play the ball to an open player. But many top teams, when under too much pressure, will knock the ball back to the keeper who will blast the ball up towards their center forward.

Starting over can also mean making a run to get yourself open or setting up your defender for a return pass. Dart down the line, checking back to get the ball. Make an angled run into the middle, then checking to the outside. Essentially, this is making space for yourself by taking the defender with you into the middle and then breaking to the outside, where you really want the ball. Draw the defender away from the space you want to receive the ball in - and then check back into the space you just opened up. It could even just be walking five yards towards the sideline and then breaking back to the middle.

Check back to the ball at an angle. This way you will have more space in which to turn and see the field, as your body is already half turned. You can check back to the ball side on so you can see where you want to play the ball next, and keep your body between you and the defender (control the ball with the outside of your foot, for instance). The key is taking a look before you receive the ball so you know if you can turn or if there's a man on.

At the same time though, your teammates must let you know if you have time or send you a message by the weight of the pass. If the ball is played in a crisp pace, that usually means there's a man on. If the ball is played more softly, then you have time to turn. But again, players must let one another know if they can turn or they're under pressure.

Making Runs & The Killer Pass

When you watch Manchester United, Barcelona, or Real Madrid play you're probably amazed at their ability to keep possession of the ball. Especially since all these teams hold on to the ball so well, at each position, from the forwards to the defenders. And even the keepers have impressive foot skills - many could play in the field for other teams. Iker Casillas, he might be able to play forward in the MLS. Just kidding.

But what sets these teams apart from other teams is underneath that calm, cool, and collected nature on the ball is a ruthlessness. They want to win and they want to score. When there's an advantage, say a chance for numbers up or a counter attack, they will pounce on it. If your central defender pushes up into the attack and loses the ball, watch out, they will go right at that newly opened space in the middle.

Besides a numbers advantage though, in general, how do they do they score goals and win games? Their players make decisive runs in behind the defense. They might knock the ball around twenty times, but the whole time they're looking to play that killer pass.

However, they need players to make dangerous runs in order to play those passes. If a deep central midfielder blasts up the field and sneaks unseen through the defense, Ryan Giggs can play the ball through and give that player a chance to score. If Pedro cuts in from a wide area behind the defender, Iniesta can slip the ball through and put him one on one with the keeper. Making runs and the killer pass are inseparable. There isn’t one without the other.

Players are constantly darting in and out of spaces, testing the other team, seeing if they can sneak in behind the defense. And the midfield playmakers are always on their toes, looking to pick them out with a killer pass.

Pre-Game Soccer Tactics

When you approach a game you might say, we need to go at their left defender, he's inexperienced and slow. Or, you might say, the other team likes to play the ball directly from the back into their forward, so we have to close their defenders down quickly so they don't have time to serve the ball in. Or, you might say, in the first ten or fifteen minutes let's drop back into our own half and stay compact, the team we're playing is very good on the ball and we don't want to concede an early goal.

The tactics and strategy you take coming into a game often hinge on the team you're playing. However, the best teams stick to their game no matter who they're playing. Spain won the 2010 World Cup not by adjusting their style of play but sticking to it. But famous coaches like Jose Mourinho, is known for his stringent defense and conservative play, packing the box with players if they're playing say away from home at the Camp Nou against Barcelona.

How can you as a coach or player use this in your games? Well, stress to your team to get back on defense, funnel back towards goal and not necessarily pressure the ball right away if it's out wide, but get back into position as a team unit closer to goal and then begin to pressure the ball. One player shadows the player with the ball, holding him or her up until the team can recover.

What about Manchester United's Alex Ferguson? What does he tell his team prior to a game? What can be assured his all Manchester United teams come out ready to play. They don't jog around the park and know they're going to win the game just because they showed up. They are aggressive and go at the other team.

Most of this comes from their preparation though. They are in good shape, all have an understanding of how they want to play, and play for one another. Teams can't win games if the players are disorganized or players aren't playing for each other. Think of France in the 2010 World Cup. There was talk that some player didn't want to pass to other players.

Playing Your Role

Really, another strategy or tactic in soccer is knowing your role. Ever player on the team can't be the playmaker. That role is assigned to one player, the Xavi, the Iniesta, the Messi or say the Sneijder of the team. (Yes, I know three of those players mentioned before play on the same team, Barcelona. It's not fair). This is the player you want to have the ball at their feet. This is the player who can make the killer pass and sees the field like nobody else. Real Madrid tries to find the feet of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo because these are the player who will create goal scoring chances and score themselves.

That's why the best teams have all the players roles well defined. The defenders win the ball and give the ball to the playmakers. The wide midfielders try to beat their man and serve good crosses into the box. Forwards make dangerous runs behind the defense and score goals. The goalkeeper makes that one crucial save to keep you in the game. Every player has their role on the team. It's what they do well and train day in and day out to do in games.

These days the game is evolving, players at every position are increasingly more skilled, and so you see players like Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid and Spain, Maicon of Inter Milan and Brazil, or even someone like Philip Lahm of Bayern Munich and Germany. These are outside defenders who get more involved in the attack.

That doesn't mean players don't have their roles, it's just a strategy teams are taking advantage of. If you have a very skilled defender, with good speed, who can get into the attack and score goals, then you try to make use of that and get them the ball. You look at have a midfielder or another defender cover for this player when they are up in the attack. Strategy in soccer is about taking advantage of an opportunity, numbers up for example, and adjusting. So the team pushes forward but other players are aware of the potential for a counter attack.

Changing Tactics & Making Adjustments

Teams will often change tactics if they score a goal or they're ahead with just a few minutes left in the game. Coaches might take out an attacking player, say a forward, and put on a more defensive or possession oriented midfielder. If a team is ahead and there's just ten minutes left in the game, teams won't risk racing up the field to try to score. Instead, they'll stay back and hold their positions and try to kill the game off. Play the ball down the line and try to hold the ball in the corners. These strategies are so they can hold the lead and let more minutes tick off the clock. It doesn't make sense for the whole team to get up into the attacking third of the field if your team is already ahead. Rather than push everyone up, or take more risks, it's time to keep the ball and play conservatively.

On the other side of the coin though, when you're losing and there's just ten minutes to go, it's time to do the opposite. You push players forward. You bring on maybe another attacking player. And you get the ball into the box.

It's obvious of course, that you must get the ball forward when your team is losing. And soccer is a funny game sometimes. Teams might knock the ball around beautiful for 90 minutes but be unable to score. But in one moment, say off a goal kick or a punt from the keeper, a forward flicks the ball on with his head and the ball falls right to the other forward who scores.

But other, subtler adjustments might need to be made during the game. If you're playing against Arjen Robben, and he keeps cutting in with his left foot, it's time to try to force him to use his right foot. Of course, it's easier said than done though to stop Robben. Small adjustments though can have a big impact.

For instance, reminding your team to spread out and use the width can open up the game. If one player is having trouble marking another player, either that player is too fast or too big, you can switch the players who are marking the player. Or, if one team is repeatedly punishing your team with attack after attack, it might be time for your team just to clear the ball out of bounds and settle down. There's nothing wrong with booting the ball up the field on a few occasions to regroup. This is where it’s important for your captain or team leader to gather your team together and pick them up. Soccer is so much about momentum and confidence. The best teams never lose the belief that they can come back and win the game.

In some ways, soccer strategy is like being at the roulette and blackjack table making a bet. You have to have a strategy going in, you don't want to let your emotions get the best of you. You need to know how much you're going to risk and when to double down. You don't want to risk all your money on when spin of the roulette wheel or on what game of blackjack, just as you don't want to push all of your players forward in the attack and leave your defense exposed. Sure, there's some luck involved in playing cards or roulette, but it's best to have a plan before you start to play the game.

Here, former Real Madrid manager, Pellegrini, talks about soccer formations and tactics.


Read more at Soccer Runs:  Keep the Opposing Team Guessing

Learn more at Patterns, Defense, and Soccer Formations

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