Soccer — The 5 Principles of Attacking

My last few posts have been oriented towards business, so for this post I decided to focus on a topic I frequently work with which also happens a passion of mine: soccer.

I recently worked on a soccer article that talked a bit about soccer fundamentals, which lead me to the principles of offense and defense, and I thought these would make a good blog topic for looking at terminology. In soccer it is common to divide the principles of offense and defense into 5 categories each. This is the first of two posts that will look at these principles. In this post I will look at the attacking principles, and in the next post I will cover the defensive principles. My aim is to explain what the principles are and to accompany the explanations with terminology, terminology you might hear on TV/radio, read in the paper, or hear players use on the field.

The five attacking principles are: penetration, mobility, width, support and creativity/improvisation.

1. Penetration.

Penetration means breaching your opponent’s defense. In particular, this typically refers to penetration in their territory, i.e. their half of the field and even more specifically, in the final third (attacking third), around the penalty box and the 6-yard box, i.e. in front of the goal. This usually involves engaging a team’s back line, i.e. the line of defenders (some times 4, some times 3 depending on the formation), as opposed to the midfielders and forwards (front line) Obviously, the objective is to score goals, and it’s very hard – although not impossible – to score goals without penetration. Terms you hear in this context include incisive, get in, breach. You might also hear through ball, which is a pass that penetrates the back line between (through) two defenders as an attacker makes a run (see Mobility below) to receive the pass in well-timed manner.

2. Mobility.

As it implies, the name refers to the movement of the players. This means the players make runs (A.k.a. off-the-ball runsruns off the ball, meaning the running player does not have the ball) in order to get open and lose their mark (man). Losing your mark means timing is critical between passing and receiving players. There are different types of runs too:

Checking runs: these are short runs players make to feint, i.e. fake out their opponent. For example, in order to get open, a player, let’s say a striker, will make a short run, or talk a few steps in a different direction (e.g. to the side or toward his opponents’ goal, let’s say) and then quickly change directions and run into an open space, perhaps even the space he just left. The aim is to deceive the defender and, while the defender is fooled, receive a pass from a teammate.

Give-and-go (one-two/wall pass): a teammate has the ball, but a defender is in his path. The aim is to bypass the defender quickly. The player in possession of the ball passes to an on-coming teammate and immediately runs past the defender to receive the return pass.

Overlapping run: a player is positioned to the side his teammate who has the ball and is facing a defender. The run consists of running behind the teammate, while said teammate shifts towards the space his running teammate just vacated. This is meant to make the defender hesitate, as he will have to see if his attacking opponent attempts to dribble forward or pass the ball off to the opponent making the overlapping run.

Back door run: This is a version of the checking run. A player makes a checking run toward his teammate who has the ball and then suddenly and quickly runs behind the defender who followed him, thus getting behind him, on his back side, i.e. where the back door is. It’s not uncommon for this pass to be a lob (chip) pass, as the defender following the runner often ends up directly in front of the opponent who has the ball, and in such a situation a pass on the ground is likely to be intercepted.

Diagonal run: This is a run that takes place in the final, attacking third of the field. It helps to remember that the shape of a soccer field is rectangular. Diagonal runs are those that do not occur in parallel with any of the quadrilateral’s 4 sides. Diagonal runs come into fashions: outside to inside, and inside to outside. With the former, a player typically positioned on the wing, i.e. “out wide,” near the touchline makes a run forward and inward towards the goal area while expecting to receive a pass on the run from a teammate. If, during the run, the diagonally moving player loses his mark(s), he can receive the pass unmarked and hopefully attempt a shot on goal, or perhaps make a pass to another teammate, who would then shoot on goal. An inside to outside run is made by a player near or within the goal area who moves away from the goal towards the touchline in order to bring a defender with him. The space left open by said defender would then be exploited by another attacking player.

Runs are meant to unbalance the defense, meaning that it causes the defenders to be out of position. When a defender is out of position it creates space that can be penetrated/exploited.

 3. Width/Depth

In order to penetrate an opponent’s defense, an important factor to keep in mind when attacking is how well you use the width of the field. This means that a team needs to make sure players are positioned or that they make runs as far as the width permits, out on the touchline. In doing so, it stretches the defense and, in theory, opens more space for teammates to make runs. In this context, you may hear terms such as out wide or on the wing, and when a team gets entrenched on one side of the pitch, many times it will switch fields and pass the ball over to the weak side (blind side), i.e. the side where the defense is more vulnerable. It’s more vulnerable because while they’re face the side where the ball is in play, they’re leaving their other side (behind them) exposed. When the action gets concentrated on one side, attacking players on the weak side can sometimes get sucked into the action, leaving the touchline. Sometimes coaches will reproach these players, telling them to spread out and use the whole field.

Some resources refer to depth as a stand alone attacking principle. Others include it as a part of other principles. I’ve seen it coupled with Support (see below), for example, but I think it fits well as a compliment to Width in that the objective is the same, only vertically instead of horizontally: stretch the defense, unbalance it, get defenders out of position, exploit the space. This can often occur on the counter (counter attack, fast break), or on runs down the wing (flank) towards the corner flags, where a player receives the ball deep, close to the byline (the boundary that the goal posts and goal are on) and passes it backward to an oncoming attacking teammate or crosses it into the box.

4. Support

Support refers to the proximity of players. Being a team sport, naturally players interact, and to do so they need to support each other. Players complete passes to those teammates who make runs to give support. The support can come from all directions; that means there’s forward supportback support and side support. In the case of side support, a pass to a supporting teammate is often referred to as a square pass. Put another way, a supporting player (also called a 2nd attacker)will say, “square” to his teammate who has the ball, the 1st attacker, to let him know that he has support to the side. Distance is obviously a factor when considering to a pass the ball to a supporting teammate but so is the angle. That is, if a defender is close to or in the path of a potential pass, such a support option might not be the best choice because it could be intercepted.

5. Creativity

This is an attacker’s freedom to play creatively and, thus, unpredictably. That is, unpredictably from the point of view of the defense. Players have many ways of tricking defenders: twists, turns, fakes (feints), back-heels , dribbling, volleys, headers, diving headers, chest passes, rabonas, bicycle kicks and more. Soccer is a highly strategic and tactical game, and during a match a team may vary its level of creativity. Some coaches keep their players on a short leash and force them to follow a very disciplined game plan; other coaches give more slack, or even free rein, to some players (playmakers) because they know that the creativity will pay off in goals. Note, too, that the creativity can manifest itself in individual plays as well as in team combinations. Some examples of very famous creative players are Pelé, Maradona, Messi and Neymar.

These are the 5 principals of attacking in soccer. My next post will cover the 5 defensive principles. Below is a list summarizing the key soccer terms that appeared in this post:

Penetration:  Incisive, get in, breach, final third, attacking third, back line, front line, through ball.

Mobility: Checking run, give-and-go, one-two, wall pass, overlapping, back door, diagonal run, unbalance, out of position, space.

Width/Depth: Weak side (blind side),  switch fields, spread out, whole field, out wide, on the wing, flank, byline, touchline.

Support: Forward support, back support, side support, square, 1st attacker, 2nd attacker.

Creativity: Twists, turns, fakes, feints, back-heel, dribbling, volley, header, diving header, chest pass, rabona, bicycle kick.


Soccer Communication on Attack

Principles of Play, Systems of Play, Styles of Play

Principles of Play Stand the Test of Time

Principles of Play in the Modern Game

The Five Principles of Attacking and Defending in Soccer