7 Soccer Tactics All Coaches Must Know (Win More Games)
As a coach, the soccer tactics you choose will go a long way to determining how successful your players are when they run out onto the pitch.
That’s why every coach must know the basics of soccer tactics and how to coach them.
You must know how to set your team up to succeed and how to adapt to your opponent’s tactics and overcome whatever they throw your way.
It’s important you’re able to analyse what your opponent’s doing and know how to counter.
Let's take a look at just some of the tactics that all soccer coaches must know.
Pick Your Soccer Formation
Before looking at various advanced soccer tactics you can implement as a coach, one of the most important tactical decisions you need to decide on is which formation you’ll use.
Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each formation will go a long way to deciding what you and your players do as a team and what tactics you use.
While some formations allow you to dominate possession or overwhelm the opposition on the wings, others are more defensive and counter attacking in nature.
Understanding each formation allows you to select the one that best suits your squad.
For example, it’s no good forcing your players to play a 3-5-2 if you don't have the right type of players to fill in on the flanks.
Similarly, it’s very hard to make a single striker system work if you don't have the right player up front to slot the ball in the back of the net.
Once you have had a think about the players at your disposal and how you want the team to play, you can then start coaching the formation in your training sessions.
While many teams stick to just one over the course of the season, it’s well worth working on a couple so that you can vary things up depending on your opposition.
In addition, it also improves the players' tactical knowledge and understanding of the game.
Check out the link below for an in-depth guide on the most common formations:
Popular Soccer Tactics and Styles of Play
The soccer tactics you implement depend on the formation, the personnel at your disposal, and the way you set up your team.
For example, there is no point in playing Tiki-Taka if the players you have at your disposal aren't technical enough to keep the ball.
Once you have honed in on the strong points of your squad and have chosen a formation which you think will suit them, it’s time to start working on more specific tactics and styles of play.
Let's take a look at some of the most popular tactical variations of recent times.
While Tiki-Taka has its origins in the Dutch team of the 70s, it was Pep Guardiola's Barcelona team of 2008 – 2012 that made this style of play famous around the world.
Tiki-Taka involves keeping possession using short passes with all players constantly on the move -- interchanging positions and overloading the opposition's midfield.
In addition to the technical and creative midfielders this system demands, you also need intelligent and agile forwards.
Their role is to stretch the opposition, make intelligent runs, and drag the opponent's defenders out of position.
The key to this tactic is creativity, technical skills, and fluidity...
As well as the right personnel to play it, of course.
Your defenders should also be good on the ball and at times push up into midfield or overlap past the winger on the flanks.
The keeper, too, should be quick off their line to sweep behind the high line defence, and also be adept at passing the ball around confidently.
When it works, Tiki-Taka can be an absolute delight to watch.
When it doesn't, it can be very frustrating for the players if their coach keeps demanding they replicate a style of play when they are just not able to.
While it was very much in vogue a few years ago, recent tactical innovations have seen it decline in popularity. This is because coaches have set their teams up to either defend deep and attack on the counter, or press high in the hopes of winning the ball back in a more dangerous area.
2. Park the Bus
One of the soccer tactics Jose Mourinho used to line up against Pep Guardiola's teams was to "park the bus" and hope to hit them on the counter.
When teams park the bus, they pull everyone back and try to limit the opposition to as few opportunities as possible.
While this sacrifices their own attacking outlet and gives their opponents the initiative, it can be a very useful tactic to use if you are looking to keep a clean sheet or protect a lead in a match.
The idea behind this style of play is to limit the space and time your opponents have on the ball.
You allow them to play in front of your defence and low-lying midfield, only engaging when they come too near or venture into dangerous positions.
Teams usually line up in a 4-5-1 if they are looking to use this tactic.
This allows the two full-backs to tuck in alongside the centrebacks and the two wingers drop in to either side of them, effectively creating a back six.
With the three midfielders lying right in front of the centrebacks and the lone striker putting pressure on the opponent's midfielders, it then makes it very difficult for the opposition to score.
To successfully implement this tactic, you need disciplined players who are willing to fight for the team and battle for every ball.
They also need to have great stamina as the odds are that they'll be chasing the opposition the whole of the match.
As you can imagine, the likelihood of you scoring using this style of place is very slight and as such it is mainly used in specific circumstances or one-off games.
Teams using this tactic often look to hit their opponents on the counter-attack or end up playing a long ball game, hoping that their striker can hold up the ball and bring others into play.
Somewhat similar to the park the bus strategy...
Counter-attacking your opponent sees you relinquish possession and control of the ball in the hope that you can strike them on the break.
The idea here is that the opposition over-commits and leaves gaps in behind for you to exploit.
This means you want to set your team up quite deep and allow your opponents to attack you before winning the ball back and counter-attacking at speed.
To play this system you need diligent, disciplined, and hard-working defensive players who can sit deep and absorb pressure.
This unit - the back four and the two or three midfielders in front of them - should work well in unison and hassle and harry their opponents into committing a mistake.
Once they win the ball back, they want to pick out a pass to one of the attacking players who is waiting further forward for such an opportunity to arise.
Usually quite quick, nimble, and skilful, they then burst forward, exploiting the gaps left behind, and force the opposition's defence to commit and make a tackle or a mistake.
With this tactic time and speed are of the essence, as you want to attack before the opposition can reorganise themselves and get back into position.
To play it you need good defensive players, as well as pacy, technical, and effective forwards.
You also need someone who can pick a pass and spray the ball forward accurately.
While this system can work wonders with the right team and personnel, it can be quite tricky to get right because it encourages the opposition to attack you and relies on your forwards tucking away the few chances they create.
If they do score first, however, the system can work even better as the opposition commit players forward, looking for an equaliser.
Rather than start with this tactic from the beginning, it’s good to be able drop into a low defensive block and counter-attack once you are ahead.
4. The High Press
While the park the bus tactic and counter-attacking strategy worked from time to time against Pep Guardiola's teams, it was the high press that really put paid to the Tiki-Taka style.
In recent years Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side have mastered this method, with numerous teams now copying the way they set up and play.
Unlike parking the bus and counter-attacking which see your team sit deep and defend...
The high press sees your players press the opposition high up the pitch.
The idea here is that the higher up the pitch you win the ball back, the nearer you are to the goal and the less opponents you have to get past.
You do this by pushing everyone forward and essentially trapping the opposition in their own half.
Every pass they make or receive becomes an opportunity for your players to put them under pressure, win the ball back, or force them into a mistake.
To play this soccer tactic you need players with high stamina and good conditioning who can constantly press the opposition.
They also need to work in tandem as a team so that the opposition don't simply pass their way around them.
In addition, the system requires speedy defenders and a goalkeeper who isn't averse to coming off their line. This is because the opponents will look to relieve the pressure by playing through balls into the large space left behind the defence.
Playing such a high intensity game for the duration of a match can be very taxing on players and this is where Klopp's Liverpool team of seasons gone by came undone as they tired and got exposed at the back.
As such, you now often see them soak up pressure and then release one of their speedy forwards through a perfectly executed long ball.
Combining these two soccer tactics has been particularly deadly as it allows them to exploit the opposition's weaknesses in a number of different ways.
5. The Long Ball
Often derided and looked down upon as a throw back to a more primitive age of soccer, there's nothing wrong with playing a long ball style of play if it works for you and your team.
Burnley in the Premier League are a perfect example of a small team punching above their weight who use this tactic to great effect.
Liverpool, too, in recent times have played a more direct brand of soccer and now release their forwards quicker than they used to.
In the past, the long ball was used by defensive-minded teams who punted the ball forward to a physical striker who would try and take the ball down and bring their teammates into play.
Alternatively, the ball would be hoofed forward for a pacey striker or winger to get on the end of and hopefully fashion out a chance for themselves.
While these teams of the past used to be primarily known for their negative, defensive soccer, nowadays we even see technically proficient teams using this tactic.
At Liverpool, for example, Van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold execute perfectly weighted long balls to their forwards each and every match.
We also see David Luiz playing long balls over the top at Arsenal – a team that under Wenger traditionally kept the ball on the ground.
The idea behind the long ball is to get the ball up the field quickly, relying on the attributes of your forwards – whether pace or brawn – to win their duel and either get a shot at goal or bring their teammates into play.
To play this system you need forward players who don't mind a physical battle with the opponent's defenders, who won't get disheartened at not seeing the ball much, and who will slot the ball in the back of the net more often than not.
Whereas teams who used to play the long ball soccer tactic were once almost seen as playing anti-soccer, nowadays, with more and more technical defenders playing the game, an increasing number of teams are using the long ball once again.
6. Total Football
Total Football refers to a tactical philosophy whereby no outfield player has a fixed position on the field.
In this type of system, players are encouraged to be creative and fluid to outwit their opponents.
While it may sound chaotic, all players operate within a flow-based framework in which they must be in sync.
If one player ventures outside their pre-determined position, another player quickly takes their place to maintain the team’s structure and prevent large gaps from opening up.
Total Football requires all players to be competent in EVERY position. So the earlier this philosophy is instilled in players, the more effective it can be.
The origins of Total Football can be traced as far back as the 1910s, when English coach, Jack Reynolds, conceptualized the concept while managing Ajax Amsterdam.
This legendary philosophy is part of the Ajax way today, as all youth players (including goalkeepers) learn to play in each position as part of their development.
Although Ajax doesn’t play the same type of Total Football as they did 100 years ago, certain key elements are still ingrained in the club’s culture.
After its conception in the early 1900s, Total Football took several decades to grow and disperse.
It grew in prominence during the 1930s when the Austrian national team used it to great effect during the 1934 World Cup.
Since then, Total Football became the tactical foundation for many great sides, including:
- Hungarian national team of the 1950s (featuring Ferenc Puskas)
- Netherlands national team of the 1970s (featuring Johan Cruyff)
- Barcelona from 2008 to 2012 (under Pep Guardiola)
Johan Cruyff is largely credited for introducing Total Football to modern soccer.
He was the primary inspiration for Pep Guardiola’s Tiki-Taka style of possession-based, quick passing and moving, high-intensity soccer.
Today, there is no clear evidence that Total Football exists in the modern game. Teams are far more organized and structured than ever before, with data and metrics becoming increasingly important.
That said, it undoubtedly revolutionized the game from a technical standpoint, and its teachings are still relevant, especially when it comes to player development.
The new breed of soccer player, regardless of position, is extremely well-rounded with excellent fundamentals, and without Total Football, this might not be the case.
Gegenpressing is a term used to describe a style of soccer based on counter-pressing.
This approach revolves around winning the ball back from your opponents immediately after losing it, and attacking the opposition before they have time to reset.
Gegenpressing differs from a high press in that it’s an entire system rather than a defensive phase of play or sequence.
At its core, the system involves regaining possession in advanced positions so that your team is just one or two passes away from scoring.
The idea is that no individual player is as effective at creating high-percentage goalscoring opportunities as the gegnenpress.
This tactic got its resurgence over the past two decades when it was implemented successfully by Ralf Rangnick (RB Leipzig) and more notably, Jurgen Klopp (Borussia Dortmund).
Klopp then brought his “heavy metal football” to Liverpool where he introduced elements of the gegenpress.
The gegenpressing system requires the team to work in cohesive units, with different actions triggering the press and traps in certain areas.
For example, some presses are triggered when the centerback plays a pass to the left back, in an attempt to win possession while the fullback is trapped.
To utilize a gegenpress successfully, all players must be extremely fit, coachable, disciplined, and hard-working.
It's a technical system that also involves reading the game and interpreting patterns of play.
Players usually need to spend hours at training and in the video room to perfect the system.
Although it’s been a widely used tactic over the past 10 to 20 years, the origins of the gegenpress go back to the fast and furious English game in the 1960s when pace and aggression were key focuses.
However, this style made real progress during the 1980s in the Italian Serie A because of AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.
During the 1970s, the Italian game became increasingly defensive, with many teams setting out with low blocks and a no-goals conceded policy.
To counter this, Sacchi established a high press to pickpocket defenders high up the field.
He’s also responsible for introducing the rule whereby you press aggressively and in groups as soon as you lose the ball, especially in advanced areas.
Today, most teams incorporate at least some elements of the gegenpress, with many coaches modifying different aspects to suit their style.
As you will have noticed from the popular soccer tactics we just looked at, the beautiful game is constantly evolving and reinventing itself.
When someone like Pep Guardiola starts implementing a Tiki-Taka style of play that takes the world by storm, it's up to other managers to counteract it.
Whether that is using a park the bus strategy or a high press and counter-attacking tactic, coaches and players need to adapt and overcome whatever comes their way.
By learning as much as you can about soccer tactics and how to teach them, you will not only greatly enhance your own knowledge and understanding, but that of your players as well.