Adopting a Hierarchical Approach – Defending

The following two articles (the one below and Adopting a Hierarchical Approach – Attacking) 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.






When out of possession, regaining the ball should be the key priority in any phase of the game. Early regains during negative transition (just lost the ball) are to be encouraged if possible as it is likely the opponent will be out of balance and vulnerable to a counter-attack. If this is not possible, then an organised structure to defend in balance using control, restraint and delay should be used to await the trigger or trap to attempt to regain possession.

Player’s Roles and Responsibilities

Pressing is not an individual undertaking and should be completed by whole team ethic, effort and awareness. The first player to address the ball carrier is Player 1. His approach to the ball carrier should be at an angle to force the ball carrier to play towards a favourable overload for Player 1’s team. Player 1 is usually the player closest to the ball and his role is to Press the ball carrier with three key objectives.

  1. WIN IT – Player 1’s priority is to win the ball if possible and regain possession.
  2. SPILL/SPOIL IT  If Player 1 cannot win the ball, then try to spill/spoil control of the ball carrier to enable his teammate to steal possession.
  3. STOP IT  If Player 1 cannot win the ball or spill/spoil, then try to stop the ball going forward. Force the ball carrier to play in a certain direction (see triggers and traps) and/or prevent penetration of defensive areas or direct play towards an area of favourable overload.

Players 2, 3, 4 and so on (Cover Players) should recognise the Trigger or Trap and actions by Player 1 and react immediately to maximise the effectiveness of the initial action by Player 1. (See 2) Cover below)

Triggers and Traps (when and where to press)

Specific Triggers and Traps will dictate the actions of Player 1 agreed by the coach and the team’s abilities technically, tactically, psychologically and physically within their Game Model.


The usually identified three key triggers to press these are;

  1. Poor 1st touch or control by the ball carrier or receiving player. Therefore, the ball is not under complete control and could be won, spilled or spoiled, or stopped from being played forward. 
  2. The opponent is Facing his Own Goal. Realise the opportunity for lack of vision forward by the ball carrier, limited passing lanes and options and ability to get close to the ball carrier and pressurise from behind.  
  3. Immediately after own team has lost possession. While the ball is in the mix of transition, opportunities may arise to regain the ball with quick and aggressive pressing. This is a short time in duration (6-8 seconds), by which time the opposition may settle into a more controlled in possession phase. 

Aims and objectives in all three instances are to WinSpill/Spoil or Stop the ball. If winning the ball cannot be achieved, pressure on the ball carrier is maintained. Hopefully, this continued pressure will keep the ball carriers’ head down to concentrate on control and ideally force errors. The “head down” ball carrier cannot scan for long passes (penetrate) and should be limited in his options to either pass, play, dribble, or trick his way out of that pressure. This will also cause Delay whereby the press can continue, and the time gained can be used for your own team to recover and regain Balance. Effectively, this press prevents or stops the ball carrier’s threat to penetrate the defence and encourages him to make errors. 


Though the primary aim of Player 1 is to WinSpill/Spoil or Stop the ball, a pre-planned trap identified by the coach or team may exist. The trap is planned to create conditions in the game that facilitate a press. Player 1 may be seen to only “Half Press”. The role now is to encourage or force the ball into certain zones/areas of the pitch or towards specific players. When favourable planned conditions exist, the trap is sprung, and the “Full Press” starts. The first method is;

1. The effective blocking of certain passing lanes and forcing the ball into zones/areas of numerical strength for the pressing team and/or weakness for the team in possession. (Quantitative superiority/out-number.)

Similarly, concerning strength and weakness;

2. Encouraging the ball to be played to an opposition player with known weaknesses to exploit and or where the pressing player/s have favourable strengths. (Qualitative superiority/out-skill.)

The trap in both circumstances then becomes the trigger, and the Pressing players’ actions should be adopted as described above.

Passive and Aggressive Pressing. Identifying and recognising triggers and traps will signal the start of a press. If Player 1 recognises a trigger or trap but knows he is unlikely to be effective in winning, spilling/spoiling, or stopping, he should not commence the press. In these instances, the trigger or trap may exist but due (usually) to the distance to be covered, Player 1 will not be able to threaten the ball. However, taking up a position where he can eliminate passing lanes, hurry the ball carrier and try to dictate the direction of play may force errors and lead to a pre-set trap or provide another trigger opportunity. This is more of a passive or “half-press” but is still proactive in nature and dictatorial towards the ball carrier. Aggressive pressing or “full press” will, by nature, be more physically demanding and faster than the previous example and will require coordinated and well-executed actions by a number of players and usually follows players recognising the positive cue of a trigger or trap.


Cover Players 2,3,4 etc. in recognising the press by Player 1 should react positively to the trigger or trap and in so doing should; 

  • Support Player 1 in the press of the ball carrier (create close overloads – 2v1 near the ball carrier) and/or,
  • Cut off passing lanes from the ball carrier and/or,
  • Mark the ball carriers supporting players and limit passing options and/or,
  • Force the play towards an area of favourable overload or predetermined trap.

These players’ coordinated actions will create a compact unit and condense the area of play into a limited part of the pitch. The idea is to create a “pressure zone” from which escape is extremely limited, and possession will hopefully be conceded. These actions are paramount to the success of the press. The more coordinated and immediate these actions are, then the greater the chance of success.


Balance to the team is vital in case the press fails and is the security for the defending team. Usually, though not exclusively, this comprises the line of defensive players in front of the goalkeeper. These players will be;

  • Horizontally and vertically Compact,
  • Recognise and be alert and ready to react to any threat “in behind”,
  • Occupy areas of the pitch to nullify/reduce that threat,
  • Maintain a favourable overload (quantitative superiority) and defensive shape.

This may appear to be a small brief, but it is one that needs constant evaluation, concentration and reading of the game in order to be in the right place at the right time whilst often being a distance from the ball and immediate play. Balance is completed by the goalkeeper who is constantly reviewing the state of the game and adjusting his position both horizontally and vertically. 

Description of Terms

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

Open space
Teammate / Threat
Shape / Security

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

All players should be cognizant of where they are and use the acronym B.O.O.T.S* as a guide to their actions of where they should be in;

  1. Press
  2. Cover
  3. Balance

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 PRESSING. EVERY coaching point should be directed to assist in delivering effective ways in which to PRESS in any given scenario. Recognising and identifying triggers and cues for players actions and reactions is highly beneficial.

Aims and Objectives

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

Each “Out of Possession” Principle of Play sitting under PRESSING is a component part of achieving the Aim and Objective in order to deliver the Vision and Philosophy of the coach. PRESSING is at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of principles for every “Out of Possession” session and every part of that session. The focus of the lens is always “Can we regain possession as soon as possible?” 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 PRESSING. 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 Compactness, Delay, Balance, Control & Restraint etc., should be coached to enable more technically proficient players to PRESS effectively.

Compactness Out of Possession

A team Compact in shape horizontally and vertically will provide a wall of players challenging to play through. It places high demands on discipline, physical and mental attributes. However, the more these patterns are rehearsed and familiarity of situations arises, these demands will become less stressful and assimilate known “behaviours”.

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. Players will not always make the right decisions but seldom wish to make wrong ones. Coaching players to make better choices and providing a strong rationale behind those choices will improve performance.

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


“Create your own language”

A commonality of language between the coach and the players should 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 press clearly to the players. Being consistent with language and clarity of that language is essential. 

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 game. Position those players where they would expect to be in a game, to perform repetitive actions in the areas of the pitch in which they should be familiar 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 game, 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 Pressing even under pressure.

Flow diagram of the hierarchical approach

HOW WE PLAY – Four Phases of the Game

ATTACKING (In Possession)

Enhancing 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.


Enhancing 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)

Enhancing the 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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