Styles of Play

In my last email I mentioned that there are multiple different ways to play soccer. I think most people immediately think about systems of play here (4-4-2, 3-4-3. 4-3-3 etc.) but I am actually pointing more towards styles of play. I think teams play one of four ways. They are Building from the Back, Sitting and Countering, Being Direct, or Building From the Front. We believe in the fourth option. I will break down each and the positive and negatives of each.

  • Building from the Back: This is the Barcelona approach which is what many would call “playing the right way”. It is an excellent way to play if you have great players. When I played college soccer this is what everyone did because we could pass it back to a keeper who could not be pressed. Today, this system requires a goalkeeper that is incredibly good with his feet so you can play back to him and have him switch the point of attack. Since I have never had a keeper that can do this in 30 years of soccer, I have never had a team that plays this way.
  • Sitting and Countering: This is the greatest way to play if the opponent has far better players. I find it incredibly easy to train teams to play “in banks of 4”. This can work if you have a fast forward. If not, it is a capitulation to keeping the score down when you lose.
  • Being Direct: When I started coaching in the Centennial Conference, I watched Swarthmore play Johns Hopkins in our Conference Final and was shocked at how stretched games were. Both teams played with pretty deep centerbacks and very athletic forwards. Loras just played this way and got to the National Final.
  • Building From the Front: The concept is to win balls in the opponent’s half, keep possession of the ball there, and flood widebacks forward to create numerical overloads.

At F&M, we build from the front. We call the front half of the field “the high ground”. From Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to Gettysburg Pickett’s Charge, military history teaches us that the army that earns the high ground is most likely to win. Most of our tactics focus on finding the high ground and locking the ball there.

While we will let our keeper throw, we often prefer him to punt. Our hope is to get the ball into the opponent’s half pretty quickly, but once we get it there we are methodical with the ball. I get angry when my players shoot a lot from range as it relieves the opponents from being under pressure.

When we lose the ball in the front half, we immediately “Gegenpress ‘ which is a German word for ‘counterpress’. If you are not aware of the concept, it is the attempt to regain possession with-in 2 seconds of the ball being lost. This is a habit as much as anything else and one which we obsess over in practice.

I believe our focus on building from the front has limited opponents’ chances on our goal, maximized our goal scoring opportunities, and psychologically drained our opponents. This has resulted in 33 shutouts in 3 years. This year we limited our opponents to two shots per game due to building from the front.