Tactical Theory

Tactical theory in football is all about space – the areas on and above the football pitch. Dimensions of space include vertical space (between the two goal-lines), horizontal space (between the two touchlines) and aerial space (above the pitch).

A team’s tactic is a strategic plan that the team has for trying to achieve its tactical objectives through the use of space.

A tactic can be analysed in terms of a playing system and a playing style. A team implements a tactic using a playing system (also known as a system of play) and this influences its playing style (also known as a style of play).

Tactical Objectives

A team’s tactical objectives are the aims that it has during a match.

A team’s core tactical objective is typically to score more goals than the opposition team. This can be broken down into two primary tactical objectives that a team typically has, to varying extents, at any point during a match.

The primary tactical objectives are to score a goal and to prevent the opposition team scoring a goal. All other tactical objectives that a team has should help it to achieve one or both of the primary tactical objectives.

Possession

The immediate relevance of most of a team’s tactical objectives depend on whether it has possession.

Having possession means having control of the ball. A team has possession if its players as a whole have control of the ball, and the particular player on that team who has control of the ball, if any, at any given time is referred to as being on the ball, while other players on the team are referred to as being off the ball.

In particular, if a team has possession then it should attempt to keep possession and if it does not have possession then it should attempt to win possession. Possession changes from one team to the other throughout a match as each team succeeds and fails in its attempts to achieve these conflicting tactical objectives. This results in the phases of play, which are discussed further in the Tactical Organisation guide.

When a team has possession it is in the attacking phases and when a team does not have possession it is in the defensive phases. At any given time the team that has possession can be referred to as the attacking team and the team that does not have possession can be referred to as the defending team.

Attacking Objectives

A team’s attacking objectives are the tactical objectives that it has in the attacking phases.

Defensive Objectives

A team’s defensive objectives are the tactical objectives that it has in the defensive phases.

Tactical Risk

The primary tactical objectives are strongly related to the concept of tactical risk.

The level of tactical risk associated with a team’s action, decision or situation refers to its potential to result in the team failing to achieve the primary tactical objective of preventing the opposition team scoring a goal. However, taking on a higher level of tactical risk can help a team to achieve the other primary tactical objective of scoring a goal.

Attacking risk is tactical risk in the attacking phases and defensive risk is tactical risk in the defensive phases.

Use of Space

A team attempts to achieve its tactical objectives through the use of space.

Tactical Dynamics

Tactical dynamics are the fundamental concepts that underlie how space can be used by a team.

Primary Tactical Dynamics

The primary tactical dynamics are the three distinct tactical dynamics that all other tactical dynamics are derived from. They are tactical shape, which relates to the positioning of a team’s players, player movement, which relates to the movement of a team’s players, and ball movement, which relates to the movement of the ball by a team’s players.

Attacking Dynamics

Attacking dynamics are tactical dynamics that underlie how space can be used by a team in the attacking phases.

Defensive Dynamics

Defensive dynamics are tactical dynamics that underlie how space can be used by a team in the defensive phases.

Playing Positions

A player’s playing position is his initial reference point for positioning himself relative to his teammates.

Playing Methods

Playing methods are the specific means of using space and techniques for using space that can be utilised by a team. They therefore enable a team to apply the tactical dynamics.

Attacking methods are the playing methods that a team can utilise in the attacking phases and defensive methods are the playing methods that a team can utilise in the defensive phases.

Tactical Risk Levels

Different playing methods carry different levels of tactical risk.

Application of Attacking Dynamics

Attacking methods enable a team to apply the attacking dynamics.

Application of Defensive Dynamics

Defensive methods enable a team to apply the defensive dynamics.

Player Types

Different players perform different playing methods to different levels and they also perform in different ways. It is therefore important to analyse a player’s type.

A player’s type is best described by his abilities and traits.

Player Abilities

A player’s abilities are the skills that he has that determine how well he is able to perform different playing methods. They can be categorised into technical, mental and physical abilities.

Player Traits

A player’s traits are his personal preferences regarding the use of playing methods.

Player Suitability

Player suitability refers to how suitable a player is for a particular tactic or aspect of a tactic.

A fundamental part of player suitability is playing method suitability, which refers to how suitable a player is for a particular playing method. A player’s playing method suitability can be assessed by his abilities and traits. A player can be considered to be suitable for playing method if his abilities enable him to perform the playing method well and if the playing method does not conflict with his traits.

Tactical Balance

A team’s tactical balance refers to the team’s management of tactical risk in its application of the tactical dynamics.

It is important for a team to achieve a good tactical balance in order for it to effectively achieve its tactical objectives. A team should therefore balance the levels of tactical risk that are carried by playing methods.

Tactical balance involves playing system balance and playing style balance.

Playing Systems

A team’s playing system is the set of tactical instructions that are assigned to its players. A playing system includes an attacking system, which is the playing system in the attacking phases, and a defensive system, which is the playing system in the defensive phases.

A player’s tactical instructions are instructions that tell him how he should use playing methods. Tactical instructions include attacking instructions, which are tactical instructions in the attacking phases, and defensive instructions, which are tactical instructions in the defensive phases.

A team’s playing system therefore instructs players how to apply the tactical dynamics. As such, it sets out a dynamic framework for the team by defining its tactical shape and establishing the patterns of player movement and ball movement that its players should create.

Positional Areas

A team’s playing system can be analysed more easily by considering separate positional areas.

A positional area is a relative area of the pitch containing a group of playing positions.

Tactical Roles

A player’s tactical role is the set of tactical instructions that he is assigned. A tactical role includes an attacking role, which is the tactical role in the attacking phases, and a defensive role, which is the tactical role in the defensive phases.

A player’s tactical role can therefore be broadly described by the extent to which he should use each playing method, relative to the team’s other players.

Positional Responsibilities

The positional responsibilities in a particular positional area are the tasks that must be carried out in that positional area by a team’s players in order to help the team to achieve its tactical objectives.

Each positional responsibility can be performed differently depending on the tactical roles of the players who play in or near the relevant positional area.

Role Specialisation

A player’s role specialisation refers to how his tactical role enables him to perform positional responsibilities.

System Specialisation Levels

A team’s system specialisation level refers to the extent to which a team’s playing system enables players to perform positional responsibilities in specific ways.

System Fluidity Levels

A team’s system fluidity level refers to the extent to which the team’s playing system enables nearby players to interchange dissimilar positional responsibilities during a match. Dissimilar in this instance means positional responsibilities that are associated with opposing tactical risk levels.

Playing System Balance

A team’s playing system balance refers to the tactical balance in the team’s playing system in each positional area.

It is important for a team to achieve a good playing system balance in order for it to effectively achieve each of its tactical objectives in each positional area. A team should therefore distribute playing positions appropriately and take on appropriate levels of tactical risk in its relative use of each playing method between players.

Tactical Organisation

A team’s tactical organisation refers to how well positioned the team’s players are to carry out their tactical instructions regarding tactical shape and player movement.

Good tactical organisation enables a team to more effectively use its playing system. A team can take advantage of good tactical organisation (relative to the opposition team’s tactical organisation) to achieve its tactical objectives more effectively. In contrast, the opposition team can take advantage of poor tactical organisation (relative to its own tactical organisation) to achieve its own tactical objectives more effectively. A team should therefore reorganise as necessary throughout a match.

Tactical Transition

A team’s tactical transition is the tactical reorganisation that is necessary as a result of it winning possession or conceding possession.

A team’s attacking transition is its tactical transition after winning possession, in which it reorganises from its defensive system to its attacking system. A team’s defensive transition is its tactical transition after conceding possession, in which it reorganises from its attacking system to its defensive system.

Phases of Play

The phases of play are the cyclical stages of possession and tactical organisation that a team moves through during the course of a match.

Attacking Organisation

A team’s attacking organisation is its tactical organisation in the attacking phases.

Defensive Organisation

A team’s defensive organisation is its tactical organisation in the defensive phases.

Player Behaviour

A team’s tactic is never carried out perfectly by its players. Therefore, it is important to analyse how players behave in practice.

Player Decision Making

A player’s decision making refers to his choices regarding the use of playing methods. A player’s decision making is affected primarily by his tactical instructions, but is also affected by various other factors.

Different decisions by a player carry different levels of tactical risk. This is largely because a player’s decisions relate to the use of playing methods and different playing methods carry different levels of tactical risk.

Player Mistakes

A mistake by a player is an inefficient choice or performance of a playing method by the player that makes it more difficult for his team to achieve one or more of its tactical objectives.

An attacking mistake by a player is a mistake by a player in the attacking phases and a defensive mistake by a player is a mistake by a player in the defensive phases.

Factors that affect the likelihood of players making mistakes include their abilities, their player suitability and their decision making.

Playing Styles

A team’s playing style is a subjective concept that relates to the team’s overall use of playing methods.

There are essentially an unlimited number of different playing styles that a team can use. However, they can be analysed in terms of a limited number of distinct and simplified component styles that can each be implemented to different extents and composited to form composite styles.

For the purpose of carrying out such an analysis, a playing style (including component and composite styles) can be characterised by its style methods, which are the playing methods that are used to a greater overall extent by a team in order to implement the playing style.

Playing Style Balance

A team’s playing style balance refers to the tactical balance in the team’s playing style.

It is important for a team to achieve a good playing style balance in order for it to effectively achieve each of its tactical objectives. A team should therefore take on appropriate levels of tactical risk in its overall use of each playing method and its overall use of playing methods as a whole.

Component Styles

A component style is an aspect of a playing style that relates to the overall use of a particular playing method (or two equivalent attacking and defensive methods) and its complementary playing methods.

A playing method’s complementary playing methods (including complementary attacking methods / complementary defensive methods) are playing methods (attacking methods / defensive methods) that, if used together with the playing method concerned to a greater overall extent, are typically considered to work in synergy with it to enable a team to more effectively achieve its tactical objectives.

Component styles can be categorised into core styles, attacking styles and defensive styles.

Core Styles

A core style is a component style that relates to the overall use of both complementary attacking methods and complementary defensive methods.

Core styles include:

  • Attacking football
  • Defensive football (also known as counter attacking football)

Attacking Styles

An attacking style is a component style that relates to the overall use of complementary attacking methods.

Attacking styles include:

  • Direct plays
  • Short plays

Defensive Styles

A defensive style is a component style that relates to the overall use of complementary defensive methods.

Defensive styles include:

  • Aggressive pressing
  • Containment

Composite Styles

A composite style is a particular composite of two or more component styles.

Composite styles formed by compositing core styles and attacking styles include:

  • Direct attacking football – a composite of attacking football and direct plays.
  • Pass and move football – a composite of attacking football and short plays.
  • Long ball football – a composite of defensive football and direct plays.
  • Possession football – a composite of defensive football and short plays.

Composite styles formed by compositing core styles and defensive styles include:

  • High pressure football – a composite of attacking football and aggressive pressing.
  • Cautious attacking football – a composite of attacking football and containment.
  • Aggressive defensive football – a composite of defensive football and aggressive pressing.
  • Parking-the-bus football – a composite of defensive football and containment.

Composite styles formed by compositing the above include:

  • Urgent football – a composite of direct attacking football and high pressure football.
  • Cautious direct attacking football – a composite of direct attacking football and cautious attacking football.
  • High pressure pass and move football – a composite of pass and move football and high pressure football.
  • Cautious pass and move football – a composite of pass and move football and cautious attacking football.
  • Aggressive long ball football – a composite of long ball football and aggressive defensive football.
  • Parking-the-bus long ball football – a composite of long ball football and parking-the-bus football.
  • Aggressive possession football – a composite of possession football and aggressive defensive football.
  • Anti-football – a composite of possession football and parking-the-bus football.