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Progressive Play from the Back

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Progressive play from the back

For a team to be successful by building up play from the goal keepers, skillful defenders are needed.  If you have a team that does not have skillful defenders, use your midfielders as defenders to make sure that your team is fully capable of playing out of the back and under pressure. 

Your Goalies

Need to be good with their feet.  Accurate passing is important.  Also, goalies that move around in their box is important.  This allows for defenders to find their goalie for a pass.

Center Backs  3  4

Also highly technical players, center backs should be able to receive and pass along from the back of the field to the front and break lines of pressure with passes.

Outside Backs    2   6

Should be better at north and south movement than east and west.  The outside back is usually the free player in many attacks. 

Central Midfielders   5

Stay near to the ball area and provide passing options to the player in possession.  Good technique with first touch is a priority and should look for the link player or be able to switch the field with long accurate passing. 

Attacking Midfielders   8 10

Must always be looking to move into available passing lanes and act as the link player.

Forward  7  11

During the build up, the forward should shift over to the strong side so they can exploit the weak side and or space behind them when the balls comes their way.

Striker   9

This is your goal scorer.  The striker should find positioning to receive the ball for attacking the goal.  Depending on the location of the field the striker can also exploit space- weaving in and out of space, tucking behind defenders and playing as the free player.

Attacking Philosophy

A mix of short and long controlled passes

Moving the ball from the free player to the link player

Try to drag opposition players out of position

Stretch opponents lines vertically or horizontally and exploit gaps created

Progressive Play from the back continued

When building from the back, make an available passing option to the goalie.  If you are playing against a team with 2 forwards, you have to create a passing option in the midfield.  Which means the free player has to move into the space on the field to create an over load.

If you are playing against a 4-3-1-2 then you would need to switch your team to a 3-4-1-2.  Remember, your center backs and wing backs need to be technical.  They should be able to go 1v1 in the back and then distribute the ball to the next line which should have the over load of 4 players. 

The attacking phase should be seen as any time we have the ball, we are attacking.  Even if the goalie has the ball- 


Attacking Against 1 or 2 Forwards

If you are playing against a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 this means there’s 4 defenders, and the mid field has 4 mids. The difference in the mid is how they play differently. Which usually the number 10 would play a bit different.  Because the 10 would be different, this allows for an additional mid. 

When teams play with two forwards the high pressing focus can be really effective when their aim is to be high pressing, but they obviously lose one player in the midfield compared to the 4-2-3-1 which makes it a less solid formation in this area and can make it easier for the attacking team to receive passes in between the forward and midfield lines.  

Defending with one forward, (4-2-3-1) may not be as effective when applying high pressing but it certainly makes it more difficult for the opposition to make and receive passes in between the forward and midfield lines.  This is due to the presence of the #10 within the space who can block the passes and prevent attempts of the opponents to switch play.  

When you a team that is progressively moving the ball from the back of the field forward you will need a quality goalie with great foot skills that translates into really good passing.  

Your players will need to be good at dribbling.  The idea is to be able to move the ball forward as quick as possible and to create a numerical advantage in specific areas of the pitch.  

Accurate passing is needed to make a successful forward pass and take advantage of the numerical advantages which should be created on areas of the field.  If an accurate pass is played when the team has a numerical advantage, the collective effort will be wasted.  

Here are 4 requirements:

  1.  Provide passing options back to the goalie

  2.  Moving the ball to the free player

  3.  Creating a numerical advantage on areas of the field

  4.  Take advantage of the areas on the field where you have more players


Positioning to Build up Play Against 2 Forwards

As you can see this set up does not work well when matched against a defending team which plays 2 forwards. 
There is a 2v2 situation at the back which makes it hard to play out from the goalie.  

There are some coaches that use the 4-2-3-1 formation and create the same situation by pushing the 10 higher. 
This means there’s still a 2v2 situation in the back and you have to be willing to find a solution evenly.

Here’s a closer look

To make sure that you can play out of the back you will need your #6 to drop in like here:

Creating a 3v2 situation at the back by adapting to an attacking 3-3-3-1 formation:

The diagram below shows the attacking movement uded to build up from the back.  When starting in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the role of dropping
back is normally carried out by the deepest central midfielder.  When you have the central mid fielder dropping back- one quality or characteristic
of the CM is they must be a good passer.  

4-2-3-1 to 3-3-3-1 When Build up Play Against 2 forwards: CM drops between the Center backs:

The 4-2-3-1 can transition to 3-3-3-1 when the CM drops to join the CB.  This is an attacking mindset as there are 4 players in advanced positions creating 4v4 situations in the attacking lines.  This equality in numbers is always in favor of the attacking team.

Going from 4-2-3-1 to 3-3-2-2 when building up play against 2 forwards: The CM drops back towards the sideline


If the 4-2-3-1 formation is used by the attacking team, a numerical advantage with 3v2 at the back can also be created with one of the 2 CM dropping deeper and towards the sideline.  (Look at CM-6 positioning)

The CB’s (4&5) move across and the other CM (8) moves into a central position.  

Creating a 3v2 situation at the back by adapting to a 3-4-3 formation

The tactical adjustments previously discussed were attack minded as a 4v4 situation is created in the attacking line. 
However, there’s another option to create advantages in the back. When you play against a team with two forwards you can move to a 3-4-3 like here: 


If the 4-2-3-1 formation is used by the attacking team, a numerical advantage with 3v2 at the back can also be created with one of the 2 CM dropping deeper and towards the sideline.  (Look at CM-6 positioning)

The CB’s (4&5) move across and the other CM (8) moves into a central position.  


The tactical adjustments previously discussed were attack minded as a 4v4 situation is created in the attacking line.  However, there’s another option to create advantages in the back. When you play against a team with two forwards you can move to a 3-4-3 like here:

Moving the ball to the target or free player against 2 forwards:

When you progress the ball from the back you want to take advantage of a numerical position and find the area of the field that has more of your team than opponent.  If you can determine who the target players are when the goalie has the ball it helps form a foundation of progressive play. See image below:

The numerical advantage can be seen here with the outside backs which are positioned wide and can take advantage of the sidelines.   In order for this to work the target player must receive the ball and overcome pressure of the forward nearest to him/her. If the target player continues to be closed down repetitively the opponent will retain the ball more often.  Which means you could have your CM become a target player out wide. You have to position strong 1v1 players to be the target player from a ball hit by the goal keeper.

When creating a 3v2 Numerical advantage near the sidelines and you are in a defensive option this is what it could look like as well:

The 3v2 situation is created and the target player is the 5.  The free player becomes the 4 because there’s a 2v2 on that side of the field.  If the 5 and or the 6 cannot play out of the pressure applied by the 10 then we need to switch the field to the 4.  

The Free player is the target here in this next image:

As the 6 and 5 are marked by the blue forwards, the center back (4) stays free of marking and becomes the free player.  When 4 receives the ball there is a 2v2 situation on the sideline. Now, the striker (9) needs to shift down while the 10 moves into the 9 spot.  This gains the 3v2 advantage and creates a foundation on the strong side of the field.

When you move the ball to the target player or free player:


Moving the ball to the target player can be done in two ways:

  1.  If the target player is free then directly make a pass to the target player

  2. If the target player is marked, then the 6 needs to drop as the free player to receive the ball.  The 6 has become the link player and should look to connect now with the 4 and 5.  

Use the link player to move the ball to the target player:


As soon as the 6 receives the ball the blue 10 player will apply pressure.  The 8, 4 and 5 become targets. The 8 is the best option and becomes the link player.  The 5 is now the target player and the play goes wide to the sideline.  

Moving the ball directly to a target player or through a link player can be applied to all tactical situations.  Midfielders are seen as link players. The link players have to be aware of blocked passing lanes, pressure from defenders and ultimately be 1v1 specialists. 

Building up play and attacking from the center when the opposing teams forwards force play outside:

The center of the field is critical.  If a player receives the ball in the middle of the field with time and space there are plenty of options available.  But a center of the field that is crowded and held by a good defensively minded opposing team will sometimes squeeze the play and force the ball towards the inside.  

As seen in the image below the opposing forwards are positioned wide and leave the 6 to receive the ball and move forward:

The 6 moves forward as the two blue forwards stay wide. 
There is three passing options (7.10,11) The 2 and the 3 become target players while 7, 10, 11 are link players.  

Playing a through pass in the center of the field when the opposing wingers stay wide:

If the opposing wingers stay wide then passing lanes open.  If the 7 receives the ball then you immediately remove the blue mid fielders.  Lines are broken and they are behind the play now. It would be possible to create a 6v4 in the attacking third now.  

Another view is the full back (3) moves up and creates space behind and (3) marks white 7.  If this happens then 6 plays 2 into the free space like here:

When the opposing wingers move inside to make compact midfield then it creates space near the sideline for 2v1

If the blue team holds the midfield with short distances between each player then it appears the best option is to play wide.  Here in this image 6 plays to 2 and 7 joins the space to create the 2v1.   

When the full back and wing work together to cover the 2 and 4 then you play inside:

If the blue winger (11) follows the white forward (2) and the blue left back (3) pushes forward to prevent 7 from turning into space then you have to look for other options.  Here the play goes from 6 to 7 to 10 and plays 9 into open space. 
It’s critical that the opposing midfielders are not able to intercept a bad pass from the 6.  The other safe pass would be to play to the 3.  

Here’s how you can train for these game situations:

Progressive Possession and attacking from the center

It’s important for players to read the situation and play the right pass when progressing the ball through the middle.  There needs to be communication and repetitive balance for players to understand what to do and when to perform.

The objective here is to build up play through the middle.  On this field the markings are central area, 2 side line areas and blue defenders in the middle.  There’s 7 white players.  You can train your team to move back and forth from a 4-2-3-1 to 3-3-3-1.  You do this by focusing on the 2 and 3 and 6.  If you have 4 defenders then your 2 and 3 are centrally located.  If you are practicing 3 defenders then your 2 and 3 go wide and 6 drops.  The 6 drops deep receives the ball and turns.  Potential receivers would be 7 and 10.  If the blues stay wide then you play through the middle.  If the middle is stacked with blues then you go wide.  Like below-

Here this shows the decision making when the 11 moves inside and creates clutter.  Instead of the through pass, 6 should play to 2.  The long pass needs to be played to space in the yellow diagram.  

Reading the Tactical situation when progressive play from the center:

So here’s a progressive training situation where we have full backs (2 and 3) and 2 central mids (6 and 8) which replace the mannequins and show a live in game situation.  The whites try to score in the small goal and if the blues win they try to dribble through the white and shoot on goal.   

Teaching your players to read the tactical situation when progressing from the center

Here in this session the field is marked in 5 zones.  The white team should start with 4 backs straight across.  The goalie has the ball.  Now the 2 and 3 move up the 4 and 5 go wide and the 6 drops in.   

A trigger would be if you notice more blue players in the middle then you need to find a link pass to connect outside to the 2 or 3.  

3v2 prevented on the strong side but a 3v2 is on the weak side

If the blue forward (9) closes down the center back (4) and puts pressure on him then you have a 3v3 and or 4v4 in that area.   

The 4 player needs to recognize rest of the field.  Find the 3v2 somewhere else.  Play back thru the 6 then to the 5 spot.  

The goalie and or the number 6 should act as a link player to get the ball to the weak side of the field for 3v2 attack.  The idea is to always scan the field for the numerical advantage

Using the midfielders to switch the play with quick combination play

When you can’t go backwards to the goalie or to the 6 then you have to connect thru the middle with short quick passes.  The 7 needs to recognize 3v3 and 4v4 and ask for the ball to play to the 8.  The 8 needs to understand that 3v2 is on the weak side and get the ball quickly to the the 5.   

If the goalie is not an option, the inside pass is not an option then player 2 needs to drop (player 2 has to be viewing the tactical set up) and drop free then play to the goalie or the 6.  So here the 2 becomes the link player to initiate the switch.

Pattern play to build up and switch playing against two forwards

When you see the tactical side of the game being played on the field during a game it’s because pattern play has been practiced.  This exercise helps give a foundation to players to see pressure on one side of the field and carry it out to another side where the numerical advantage exists.

Major focus on timing and synchronizing movements when approaching the ball.  

The midfielders should focus on producing accurate passes (long and short) which should land in the box areas (10 yards x 10 yards)

Here you are working on the tactical aspects of playing thru pressure on the strong side and switching play.  The blue team is set up with a 4-2 and the white team is playing 3-3-2.  

Pattern play build up and switch play against two forwards and attacking combinations on the weak side

Goalie receives the ball plays to the 4.  The center back has 4 options:

Pass to goalie (link player) to switch field

Direct pass to midfielder (8) who can switch play

Play to the 7 who then switches  

The 5 acts as a link player from the goalie.  Goalie plays to 4, 4 plays back to goalie and connects with 5

In the above scenario the 8 could play in a more advanced area.  3 receives the ball plays a 1-2 with the 11 and receives behind mannequin.  This timing exercise should take no more than 6 seconds from start to finish.  That’s how you determine if you are playing game speed or not.

Switching play against defenders and exploiting an advantage on weak side in a functional training activity

Focus on first pass, link players, 3v2 advantages, target areas, timing of runs, creating space and dropping in to help overload

In the above scenario 2, the 3 receives in a 2v1 and plays a 1-2 combo with the winger (11) making an overlapping run to receive behind the opposing full back.  

In the next scenario the 3 receives in a 2v1 and draws the defender (opposing 2) and white (11) makes an overlapping run outside his teammate to receive the pass in behind.   

The key here is finding the overloads on the field.  Starting on one side of the field and then switching the play to the other side.  Once the ball makes it to the weak side, your team has to work fast and move to take space.  The over lap by 11 may or may not work in terms of timing.  The 11 has to start early, when the 5 has the ball.  The 3 has to understand and read 11’s intentions.  Sometimes the game doesn’t allow to play to 11.  Space could open up, dragging a defender out of their responsibilities which allows for more dribbling.   

Positioning and formation against 1 forward

When a team plays a formation with one forward your team should recognize the difference in progressing the ball forward now.  This change forces players to recognize the situation- 1 forward or 2 forwards.  Since this is one forward, let’s take a look-

There is a numerical advantage coming out of the back with the 4 and 5 as target players.  You have a 2v1 set up.  You don’t need the positional movement of the mid fielder now.  On the wings you have 3v2 and up top you have a 4v4.  In the middle you have a 2v3.   If you play the ball wide to either side then you have to realize that your risk is playing to the weak side now.  Because the link player (10) is in a 2v3 situation.  

The 2v1 at the back allows the goalkeeper to passing options and at least one center back should be open.  Since it’s 2v1 you don’t need a mid-fielder to join yet.  

When you play to the 4 then your 4 needs to dribble into a numerical advantage.  The 4 is searching for the 2 and 7 to make a 3v2 advantage.  The 4 will need to beat the 9 and potentially the 10 in order to get to the 3v2 spot.  


Here, as soon as the pass is made to 4, the 9 presses.  The 10 has shifted over to provide cover defensively.  The movement of the midfielders is critical.  The center mids have to act as a link player as well as position themselves defensively in case the 4 loses the ball.  Now you’re in a 4v5 and potentially a 3v3.  However, the weak side has a 3v2.  So now your 4 has the ball, you have the 8 open and the 5 open.  What do you do?

As seen in the previous diagram there’s a lot of unbalanced activity on the strong side.  The goalie is an option as an outlet.  If the ball is played inside to 6 or 7 then your focus is back to playing the goalie.  The idea is the overload and traffic area is on the left side and the 3v2 weak side is now the target.  How do you get the ball to the 3v2?


Positioning to Build up Play Against 2 F
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To make sure that you can play out of th
4-2-3-1 to 3-3-3-1 When Build up Play Ag
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Creating a 3v2 situation at the back by
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oalie has the ball it helps form a found
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Moving the ball to the target player can
As seen in the image below the opposing
Playing a through pass in the center of
Another view is the full back (3) moves
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