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By Michael Curless

Positional Play Philosophy “The space on the pitch is the essential factor.” –Johan Cruyff (Cruyff 2016, pg. 267)

In the positional play coaching approach, the positions of the ball, teammates, and opponents should determine players’ movements as they aim to dominate space on the field. In positional play, there is less emphasis on predetermined strategies and fixed formations. Instead, players are taught playing principles that guide decision-making.

The Three Phases in Possession: Build Up, Probing, and Attack Although, in theory, players face an infinite number of situations on the field, there are three primary team challenges when a team is in possession of the ball. These three phases of play are dictated by the changes in circumstances as the team advances up the field, where a higher technical ability is required as space tightens and a faster speed of play is required. Moving the ball from deep in one’s half toward the midfield is defined as the build-up phase. The team in possession typically spreads out wide and deep to pull the defensive team away from the ball and to create areas to pass through or check into.

In the attacking phase, players attack spaces with off-the-ball runs, 1v1 dribbling or through balls to set up shots on goal. Probing, the phase that we are discussing here, becomes necessary when the team in possession cannot directly attack the goal after bringing the ball into the opponent’s half. The phases of build-up, probing, and attack each need to be taught in your practices so players are prepared to overcome a variety of game challenges. Probing: Possession in the Final Third “The basic idea is to set up camp in the opposition’s half.” –Juanna Lillo (Perarnau 2016, pg. 86)

The goal of probing is to move the ball quickly around in the opponent’s half until an attack on goal can be created. Players are required to maintain possession of the ball in tight spaces under moderate to heavy pressure. To probe successfully, the attacking team will need to obtain numerical superiority in the area around the ball—while keeping a player wide to provide an escape from the pressure. Players use either one- and two-touch passing or unsuspected turns to unsettle and disorganize defenders. The transition to attack occurs when the player on the ball has enough space to look forward to dribble, pass, or cross to set up a shot on goal. Primary probing player principles: * The transition to probing involves players quickly pushing up from their defensive half into the attacking half to assume close supportive positions around their teammate with the ball. * Passes are played to the feet in tight spaces. * Players need to slide into gaps in order to be in supportive positions. * Players use creative turns to keep possession in tight areas. *Players switch the ball to the opposite side of the field when they cannot go forward.

Probing-Passing Practice Drills ... Practice Stage #1: 5v1 Rondo Drill Description Five players make a tight circle around one defender and, using only one or two touches, keep possession from the defender. The defender switches into the middle after winning the ball or after a certain amount of time. For younger players, the coach can be the defender and apply light pressure to ensure success (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 .... Practice Stage #2: 5v3 Rondo Drill Description Players play 5v3 in a restricted area. The team in possession scores by passing the ball seven times in a row, and the defenders score either by winning the ball and making three passes to each other or by scoring in the goal. Attacking players are limited to one or two touches. Defenders have unlimited touches. One or two attackers can play goalkeeper when their team loses the ball (Fig. 2). This drill replicates the demands of the game. When the opponent has set up a deep block of two defensive lines in front of their goal, the attacking team will typically need to get a minimum of five players around the ball to keep possession away from the opponent’s three midfielders.

Fig. 2 Practice Stage #2 Variation: 6v2 Rondo with Switching the Field of Play Drill Description Attackers play 5v2 in a restricted area on one side of a rectangular field that has been divided into thirds. After five consecutive passes, they can pass the ball across the space to the supportive player in the other box for one point. Four players run to the opposite side to continue the game and one player remains behind as the new support player. The defenders score by winning the ball and dribbling out of the area (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3 ...

Practice Stage #3: Half-Field Probing Game Drill Description The attacking team plays in a 2-3-3 against the defending team, which is in a 4-3 formation with a goalkeeper. The attacking team’s two outside fullbacks push forward to support the attack. Ideally, the attacking team probes with five players to keep possession of the ball while looking for a chance to attack the goal. The defending team scores on the three small goals at the halfway line. Probing tends to draw the defending team toward the ball, leaving the opposite side wing forward open for a pass if a direct route to the goal is not possible (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

... Practice Stage #4: 4-3-3 v 4-3-3 Standard Game Drill Description Two teams play on a full field. The teams are instructed to defend deep in their defensive half and not to press, so the attacking team is required to probe to create attacking opportunities. Summary

Probing will give your team time in the final third to create the best attacking situations. Probing is also entertaining for the fans and fun for the players. References Cruyff, Johan. 2016. My Turn: A Life of Total Football. New York: Nation Books Perarnau, Marti. 2016. Pep Guardiola: The Evolution. Edinburgh: Arena Sport First published in the Soccer Journal

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