Think on Your Feet - Soccer Strategy & Tactics

....where the possibilities are endless. Your proficiency in soccer not only depends on your physical coordination, but also on your ability to read the game, make quick decisions, and communicate with your teammates. No matter how crisp your dribbling, shooting, and passing skills may be, it’s all useless without a strategy.

Luckily, the objective at the heart of soccer is simple: keep the ball moving and put the ball in the net. But, there are a million and one ways for you to get from Point A to Point B. How well you do so hinges on how rapidly you can assess your situation on the field, weigh your options, and choose the one most likely to achieve a goal.

The best way to improve your strategy is to play with and against the best. If you play a good team and you’re constantly put under pressure, you’ll be forced to play the ball quickly. Whether you’re playing professionally or with your friends at the park, try to play at a game-like intensity all the time. Don't do things that you know you wouldn't get away with if you were playing a good team. This kind of discipline will keep your mind sharp.

Playing with a wide variety of people will also expose you to new strategies and techniques. Be a conscious and observant player so that you can add these experiences to your strategic artillery. Even carefully watching the pros at work will make you a better player, as long as you make a real effort to understand how teams get a winning edge and look for an opportunity to apply that strategy yourself on the field.

Although strategy is best learned on the field, there are several principles that you can benefit from becoming intimately familiar with…

Back to the Basics

Soccer is ultimately about getting the ball into the right person's feet: the one who has the most time and space (i.e. faces the least pressure) and is in the most advantageous position to score (or make that goal scoring pass).

The key to playing good soccer is to keep the ball moving by playing one and two touch soccer—that is, passing and moving off the ball and being creative. The ability to do this goes back to a good first touch, using your body to shield the ball, and knowing what you want to do with the ball before you get it. 

Generally, on offense you want to spread out and use the width of the field, and then become a compact unit on defense. On offense, use the entire field to break up the defense, creating gaps and spaces to attack. Break down the other team by switching the ball, play quick passes, making runs, and taking players on.  And then defensively you want to funnel back and work as one unit to pressure opposing teams. Don't give teams time on the ball to make passes. Get offensive players to put their head down and play the ball backwards. Move up and down the field as a block of players that teams can't play through.

The best way to open up spaces in the opposing team’s defense is to keep the ball moving. Let the ball do the work. Play it into the forward’s feet, and then have him or her lay the ball off to someone making a run through towards the goal. Or, if the forward is covered, lay it back to the midfielder, who plays the ball wide. The wide midfielder then tries to get a cross in, or switches the ball back to the other side where there is more space. That's why it's a good idea to walk through various soccer patterns so players know what runs to make.

Your strategy, when you play the ball to the forward who is tightly marked, is to draw the defense into this player. Once the forward gets a touch on the ball and holds the ball up with a touch or two, the midfielder can get the ball back and pass to another player who’s now open, since the defense has collapsed around (or at least shifted their focus on) the forward. The pass can then be made behind the defense to get them chasing the ball with their heads turned. If the defense doesn't close down the forward, well he simply turns and tries to take a shot.

In general, switch play and keep the ball moving on offense, so your opponent cannot close down the space and make it difficult for you to make a pass, and so you can find holes in their defensive structure by stretching them out. In moving the ball laterally, you can find time and space and pick out a teammate in a goal scoring or advantageous position.

On defense, you want to do the reverse of what you do on offense: stay compact as a team unit and defend with numbers. For instance, if the opponent is attacking down the right side, then the far right midfielder can move into the middle and help out, since the opposing player on the far side is not as dangerous as those attacking with the ball.

Of course, he or she must still be aware of the player they are marking, but they must gamble, in a sense. If the opposition makes a long pass to the far left winger, he or she needs to be able to get there before the ball does, and then the whole team will have to shift positions to the right side. If the far right midfielder ventures too far into the middle, they won’t be able to adequately cover the player they're marking. But if he or she gauges it properly, they’ll be able to arrive before the player has time to control the ball and attack down the line. 

Whether you’re on the offensive or the defensive, you’re going to have to become adept at adjusting to new situations in the game.