Adopting a Hierarchical Approach – Attacking

The following two articles (the one below and Adopting a Hierarchical Approach – Defending) have been compiled in order to show the formatting of practice sessions with an emphasis on prioritising one Principle of Play from both “In Possession” phases and “Out of Possession” phases of the game and includes positive and negative transition.

The need was driven from the desire to coach the Aims and Objectives within The Game Model (of How We Play) and therefore concentrates sessions to achieve outcomes that The Game Model dictates. 

Defined Aims and Objectives = “To try to Control the Game and Dominate the Opposition both In & Out of Possession”. 

The target players worked with are those in lower levels of senior men’s football and college football (AoC Cat 2). At this level, transition phases are commonplace, with teams rarely having overly extended periods “In possession” or “Out of possession”. Therefore, knowing what to do within transition phases provides a massive benefit at this level and leads to extending periods where teams can be comfortable when either phase is prolonged and remain in control and dominate the opposition. 

This hierarchy has crystalised coaching priorities and given clear focus on how the players train, their development, their objectives and their style of play. Having this clarity of focus has increased performance by concentrating the efforts of both the coach and the players; it has decreased uncertainty of what to do and when to do it. Ultimately it has led to a more cohesive “team” ethos in training and playing with common objectives shared by all. 

Hierarchy of Attacking Principles – “Penetration”


2) “OVER” the top – “THROUGH” gaps – “AROUND” using width



5) “BUILD A GOAL”                                      


Breaking through a defensive line and providing quality ball* into the gold zone* should remain the team’s key priority when in possession. This can be achieved immediately after regaining possession (positive transition) or during a lengthier possession-based phase of the game. 

Whatever the phase of the game at the time, foremost in the mind of the player in possession should be “Can I play forward?”. Teammates should look to try to assist with movement and communication to facilitate this. (B.O.O.T.S.*). 


There are only ever three ways to achieve penetration of defensive lines. 

OVER – Play a pass over the top and into the space behind the defensive line (especially if this is a high line). This can be done centrally, wide or diagonally. When executed wide or diagonally, this will usually negate a sweeper keeper’s actions, though skilful use of backspin, bend, chipped or scooped pass along with the pace of delivery may prove equally effective when playing “over” centrally. 

THROUGH – Play a pass delivered at low height through gaps between defenders and into the space in behind (or dribble/RWTB with the same outcome). Again, the type of pass will have to be selected depending on how high the defensive line is; as to whether to play the ball centrally, wide or diagonally.

AROUND – Play a pass (or dribble/RWTB) that utilises width, bypassing the defensive line. This may meet no opposition due to a narrow defensive line or creates a 1v1 with enough space and depth to enable the player in possession to get past the wide defender. Often going around means playing to the oppositions weak or open side.  


If penetration is not achievable via any of the above, can the player in possession identify a target further forward of their position and play a pass? Movement of the player playing the pass or “third man run” is immediately required to create a different angle to probe for a penetrative pass. The resulting penetrative pass, over, through or around the defensive line may have been made by a third player and may not necessarily be received by the target player. 


If penetration is not achievable via any of the above, can the player in possession play across the pitch (preferably +2 lanes across) or back? By doing so, can the opposition be;

  • Spread vertically, creating gaps between the lines or in behind to play Over?
  • Spread horizontally revealing gaps to play Through?
  • Exploited on its weak side by quick passing to play Around?
  • Played forward for Up, Back, Through?  


If penetration is not achievable via any of the above, can the team maintain possession and play their way out?

Each new pass in the sequence should offer the receiving player an opportunity to penetrate as described above and should be considered in that hierarchy of order 1 to 4 (think forward, look forward, play forward – try to penetrate!).

“The purpose is not to move the ball, rather it is to move the opposition” Pep Guardiola. 

Therefore, each received pass is providing the opportunity to penetrate. This is achieved by moving the ball quickly, combined with players’ fluid movement, thereby creating and then exploiting space or gaps. This may require rotation of players* in different roles and playing out to play in* and playing in to play out*.

Description of Terms

Quality Ball – often a pass into feet or space, good enough not to require a controlling touch, enabling the receiving player to immediately complete the next action if desired.

Gold Zone – the area in front of the opponent’s goal comprised of the width of the six-yard area from the goal line to the edge of the penalty area. Also known as “area of maximum opportunity” to score.

B.O.O.T.S. – players should consider the location of the;

Open Space 
Teammates / Threat
Shape / Security

as the five reference points that decide their own position on the pitch.

Playing out to play in – usually, a diagonal forward pass from central lane to a wider lane then played diagonally forward from wide to central lane.

Playing in to play out – usually, a diagonal forward pass from wide lane to central lane then played diagonally forward from central to wide lane. 

Rotation of players – usually, but not exclusively, rotation of 3+ midfield players in a circular fashion so a player (1) vacates (“spin-out” of) a mid-zone area to create space for the following teammate (2) to receive the ball whilst the third teammate (3) moves to fill the space left by (2). 

Implications on Coaching

“Start with the end in mind”

What does the game look like, how do the team play? When designing training sessions, all aspects must focus on the coaches Aims and Objectives and Game Model. In this case, EVERY action and EVERY reaction of the players should be drawn to the principle of PENETRATION and the use of verticality. EVERY coaching point should be directed to assist in delivering effective ways to PENETRATE in any given scenario. Recognising and identifying triggers and cues for players’ actions and reactions is highly beneficial (e.g. third-man runs).

Aims and Objectives

To Control the game and to Dominate the opposition both in and out of possession

Each “In Possession” Principle of Play sitting under PENETRATION is a component part of achieving the Aim and Objective in order to deliver the Vision and Philosophy of the coach. PENETRATION is at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of principles for every part of an “In Possession” session. The focus of the lens is always, “When we have the ball (or when we regain the ball), can we penetrate?” because this principle is fundamental to how we play (Game Model). Utilising Tactical Periodisation will provide the framework where weekly training sessions and training loads can be organised to embed “behaviours” and actions that coaches want to see in competitive matches. (See “Contextual Coaching/Application” below). 

Sub principles & sub-sub principles

“Start with the end in mind” 

Coaching sub principles and sub-sub principles will utilise principles of play other than penetration. However, the mindset and focus should be that each sessions’ purpose is to enhance the development of the overriding hierarchy. To this end, other principles such as movement, support, creativity, etc., should be coached to enable more technically proficient players to deliver penetration.


“Create your own language”

A commonality of language between the coach and the players should be universal and well understood by both parties. The simplicity of terms and education of the players to understand the meaning and context of applying instructions will put theory into practice. The coach’s role is to translate the; why, where, when, who, and how to penetrate clearly to the players. Being consistent with language and clarity on when that language can be abbreviated, e.g., Q.Q.B. = Quality Quick Ball. 

Contextual Coaching

“Train in the right areas with the right players”

Wherever possible, players should be coached in areas of the pitch where the session topic and focus of the lens would be in a match. Position those players where they would expect to be in a match, to perform repetitive actions in the areas of the pitch in which they should be familiar with and with teammates around them where they would expect them to be on match day.

Contextual Application

“Game related activity at game intensity”

Train to win, practice under pressure, setting challenges to stretch development. Create a training environment so that during a match, the player is able to maintain clarity, situational awareness, accurate analysis and good decision-making under pressure. Concentrate the focus of the lens to enhance penetration even under pressure.

Psychological Demands

The psychological demands on the players to perform effective pressing over sustained periods of a game should not be underestimated. Coaching must take account of these demands and recognise them by planning sessions to incorporate the mental requirements needed. It is therefore recommended that research into the 5C’s is undertaken and practised. Players will not always make the right decisions but seldom wish to make wrong ones. Coaching players to make better choices and providing a solid rationale behind those choices will improve performance.

5C’s = Concentration, Communication, Commitment, Control, Confidence.

Flow diagram of the hierarchical approach

How we Play – Four Phases of the Game

ATTACKING (In Possession)

Enhanced ball possession and high pace circulation of the ball through positional play and the creation of multiple passing lanes (options) with verticality (“Penetration”) as a priority.


Enhanced pressing movements of the ball carrier and narrowing the space in and around the ball. Isolating the player and reducing (vertical) passing lanes. 

DEFENDING (Out of Possession)

Enhanced possibility to win the ball by directing and pressing opponents, forcing them to make mistakes through effective compact zonal defending, covering, closing passing lanes and pressing the ball carrier when/where appropriate.


Taking advantage of the opponent’s defensive disorganisation by quickly moving the ball “outside the pressure zone” and attack with pace to score through rapid Vertical play or exploiting the weak side.

Sources, Research and Further Reading

This paper’s compilation is a combination of various sources, thoughts, ideas, and influences over several years and as such has been titled “Fusion Football”. This paper is a result of research and thinking and is a personal view on how to play football. It does not dictate a particular “system” as systems need to be fluid to match the needs of a game and the attributes of the players in the squad. Therefore, this is a ‘style’ of play rather than a ‘system’ of play. 

Sources and influences to create this style (and therefore Game Model) have been and still are the following;

Tactical Periodisation – A Proven Successful Training Model (Bordonau & Villanueva)

Philosophy of Football – In the Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa (Jed C Davies)

Coaching the Tiki Taka Style of Play – (Jed C Davies)

Rene Meulensteen – Man United Methods of Success – (R. Meulensteen)

Legacy – What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life (James Kerr) 

FA Learning – various – to UEFA B, Full Youth Award, and Psych L4.

Tifo Football – YouTube media broadcast (numerous)

In addition, authors such as Daniel Pink, Matthew Syed, Carol Dweck, Michael Cox, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyle and others have had significant influence and are a worthy read.

Written by: David Lea – member of the e-CAN coaching team

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