Being a football fan means different things to different people.
To some it’s a fairly simple sport; they understand the basic rules, they know the first team squad of the club they support, and they enjoy attending a few matches per season and watching the rest on the tele.
To some, it’s more of a science; they understand the technical strengths and abilities of every player at their club, they can talk about playing styles and tactics with deep knowledge, and they have a season ticket right behind the goal.
Most people know what a free kick or a corner is, even if they don’t really follow football, but very few people could explain the likes of a high press or positional rotation, even if they would describe themselves as football fans.
Once you understand the game a little more deeply though, the way you watch a match is transformed, because you aren’t just following the ball and enjoying the players’ individual skills and abilities; you will be able to look at the game as a whole from a more tactical angle, and notice the way a team or player behaves off the ball as well as when in possession.
You will notice their defensive shape, the way players move and make runs to pull their opponents in the direction they want them to go, and be able to spot which players are really running the game.
With that in mind, this article aims to dig a little bit deeper into some of footballs lesser-known terms and phrases, illuminating some of the tactical approaches teams adopt and the way they view and use the pitch itself.
There will be some crossover here, as there is no official rule book for the way people talk about football, but these explanations and the glossaries at the bottom should hold you in good stead next time you watch a game or want to talk about one to a friend.
Football Pitch Zones
Before we get cracking with all of that though, it’s important to understand the way people talk about the pitch itself.
We all know about the half way line and the penalty box etc., you might also know about the defensive third, the middle third, and the attacking third, but the pitch can also be broken down into other areas for tactical purposes, and these are not marked with white paint.
Some are more defined than others, such as the channels on either side, but some are flexible depending on the teams themselves.
Focussing on these first then, and we have 4 areas known as:
Thinking about the pitch in four horizontal zones, we have the build zone where the defensive players and the goal keeper can build play to get the ball into the progress zone, where they would look for opportunities in the penetrate zone, before moving the ball out wide or through the centre into the finish zone where a goal scoring opportunity would hopefully be created.
How each team chooses to move the ball (by stretching the midfield for example, or going long straight over the build and progress zones and directly into the penetrate zone) is up to the manager.
These zones would start behind each of the opposition’s lines, so the build zone could be much deeper than the progress zone, for example, because each new zone only begins once you have beaten the opposition’s first (or previous) line.
Taking things further, and we can also think about the pitch as being split into 4 vertical zones, or channels as they are more commonly described:
- The wings or channels
- The half spaces
- The centre
These are useful for positioning, because in an ideal world a player at the back and a player at the front would be occupying a space in each zone, creating plenty of passing opportunities especially further up field.
A successful pass up one of the channels can get through several lines of opposition if it is quick and accurate enough, although longer passes do give defenders more time to close down the receiving player.
If we use the horizontal and vertical zones on top of each other though, we create an 18-zone grid, which allows for much more specific positioning, allowing each player to take on clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
So for example, if our team was out of possession, a wide opposition player could be the responsibility of one of the wingers in zones 10 and 13, but once they cross over into zone 7 they become the responsibility of the full back.
More generally, a manager could impress upon the squad not to have more than one player in a zone at the same time when in possession, and to use plenty of movement off the ball to keep options open and the passing snappy between zones.
Finally, by imagining the pitch as a sort of hybrid of all of the above, we have the most dynamic tactical zoning system which is great for the sort of positional play used by Pep Guardiola’s treble winning Manchester City side.
Using a combination of vertical zones, horizontal zones, and the 18-zone grid, a team can easily make diamond and triangle shapes when in possession which means there are always a couple of options if the player on the ball needs to offload it or wants to start an attack.
It also keeps the players at an appropriate distance from each other so that the opposition find it very difficult to intercept the ball.
The players know there should never be more than 3 of them on any horizontal zone or more than 2 of them on any vertical zone, which forces them to keep moving and rotating.
Now that you know a bit about how the players and managers divide the pitch up in their minds, let’s move on to some specific terminology.
What is A Defensive Transition?
In football, your team either has the ball or they don’t; you are either in or out of possession.
Well, when you go from being in possession to out of possession, you must go through a defensive transition, which just means that your players switch from attacking play to defensive play.
Generally, they can either:
- Retreat – Fall back into defensive positions to keep the opposing team from counter attacking, then take a more measured approach to regaining possession.
- Counter Press – Swarm the ball and try to win it back immediately, before going on the counter attack.
However they choose to deal with it, once dispossessed the team’s shape changes, and so do a lot of the player’s job roles, so this moment of dispossession is when a team is arguably at its most disorganised and therefore its most vulnerable.
For this reason, teams work hard to sharpen up that defensive transition so that the opposition have as little time as possible to take advantage.
As for what that defensive transition looks like once it is complete, we can break that down into 3 different approaches; low block, mid block, and high press.
Although certain managers have their own go to preference here, the approach they take will, to some degree, depend on the state of the game at the time the team are dispossessed.
For example, a team that is 2-1 down with ten minutes to go in the semi final of the FA cup are likely to adopt a high press, even if their default is usually a low block, because it’s all or nothing at that point.
Here are some more details about each approach; we’ve used a traditional 4-4-2 formation in the images but this is just to give you an idea, any formation can be used.
Teams playing a low block when out of possession will be focussing on bolstering the defensive third with as many players as possible, keeping their formation compact and deep.
This is dangerous in some ways because it allows the opposition to bring the ball up the pitch much more easily and get closer to the goal, but since the area is so heavily defended, it is also harder for them to break through.
This aims to frustrate the attacking side into making a mistake so the team playing the low block can regain possession, either through a tackle or interception or through the ball going out of play.
When a team playing a low block do manage to regain possession, although they will be in their own half with a lot of distance between them and the opposition’s goal, they will have hopefully pulled all of the opposition so far up field that there will be lots of space behind them.
A well-placed long ball and a pacey forward or attacking player who can get on the end of it could create a devastating counter attack in this situation.
It does allow the other team to control the game though, and gives them prolonged periods of possession, but equally, any attempts on goal are likely to be from distance so are less likely to be accurate or effective.
The high press is all about regaining possession as quickly as possibly and as close to the opposition’s penalty area as possible.
As soon as a team loses the ball, they will push forward and crowd the opposition in an attempt to close down their passing options and stop any sort of build up or counter attack before it even begins.
Plus, if they do win the ball back, they are already close to the other team’s goal and so are immediately dangerous.
Teams that do this will bring their defensive line high up the field and compress the midfield area so that there is no room for their opposition to work the ball through the middle.
The only alternatives are a long ball which is more likely to be intercepted, attempt to go through the middle anyway which is going to be very difficult since there is no real space there anymore, or to play the ball backwards which will allow the team out of possession to gain more ground and press harder.
The high press will only work if all team members are highly disciplined, quick to react, and have strong positioning skills. They also need to be very fit because it takes a lot of explosive energy.
Mistakes can leave gaps for the opposition to play through, and since the defensive line is high, this can leave the pressing side vulnerable to well timed runs through their broken lines, or if clumsy tackles are made, bookings.
That said, a team who have been successful with a high press and end up a few goals in front can then afford to sit back, allowing their players to be more defensive out of possession and conserve energy as well as reducing the risk of mistakes and costly yellow and/or red cards.
It is easier to understand the mid-block if you first understand the low block and the high press, which is why we have put it last here.
The mid-block is a sort of ‘best of both worlds’ option, a happy medium between the low block and the high press that aims to regain possession in the middle third of the field, thus not letting the opposition get too close to your own goal but also not being too far away from theirs when you win the ball back.
Players aim to keep the middle of the pitch compact, both in terms of the distance between each other from one line to the next, and in terms of the lines themselves.
The makes it very difficult for the opposition to play through the midfield as there is no space for creative movement. The keeper will be more active in this approach too, coming into a sweeper role as the defence move up to create a line about two fifths of the way up the pitch.
The key to making a mid-block a success is discipline.
Attacking players must not press too hard and anyone who moves out of position to intercept must be covered by a team mate. This is to avoid gaps being created which the other team could play through.
It’s much quicker to transition to a mid-block than a low block and it allows for more flexibility. It creates a more controlled and balanced approach, but it can leave space on the wing that can be exploited, and if the team does not successfully work as a unit and communication breaks down, a mid-block can be penetrated.
What is an Attacking Transition?
Since you already know about defensive transitions, a lot of information about an attacking transition has already been covered.
It could just be seen as another way of describing a counter attack really, but to be specific, it describes the moment when a team recovers the ball and begins to develop their next attacking manoeuvre.
The key is to be quick to adapt and explosive with runs and forward passes, to strike while the opponents are still recovering from losing the ball and repositioning themselves to defend,
Where re-possession occurs will determine the sort of attacking transition you have on your hands:
- Withdrawn – Re-gain the ball in your own defensive area.
- Midfield – Re-gain the ball around the centre of the pitch.
- Advanced – Re-gain the ball in the attacking third or penetration zone.
Successful attacking transition usually come from players with excellent vision and quick decision making skills, but again, the specifics will depend on the teams in question, the stakes of the game at that point, and the manager’s instructions.
What is an Overload?
An overload in football (soccer) involves deliberately positioning more players in a specific area of the field than the opponent has to defend it.
This tactic aims to gain a numerical advantage in that zone, enhancing the chances of retaining possession, creating goal-scoring opportunities, and exploiting spaces.
Overloads can be strategically deployed in various parts of the pitch, such as the wings, midfield, or attacking third. By doing this, the attacking team forces the defending side to adjust their formation to counter the numerical superiority, opening up spaces elsewhere on the field.
So an overload aims to create more passing options for the team in possession, and this helps maintain ball circulation and progression while at the same time making it harder for the opposition to regain possession.
If more defenders are drawn towards the overloaded area, gaps and opportunities for other attackers appear behind them, and quick, intricate passing combinations can then disrupt the defence.
Overloads can be especially effective on the wings, which is where they are usually used, leading to overlapping runs where a player advances from a deeper position (usually a full back) to receive the ball further up the field. This frees up the winger, stretches the defence, and allows for crosses into the box.
Another option overloading creates, is to quickly switch the ball to the opposite side of the pitch. If the defence have been drawn to the overloaded side then there will be much more space opposite for the other winger to use if he can collect a ball that has been passed over. A quick attack could then follow.
Despite their advantages, successful overloads require coordinated movement, rapid decision-making, and accurate passing. Poor execution can leave a team exposed to counterattacks if possession is lost.
What is an Overlap?
An overlap is a tactical manoeuvre that only really involves the fullbacks (or wingbacks).
It’s when a wide lying defensive player makes a forward run past a teammate positioned wider on the field, usually a winger or wide midfielder who is in possession. This overlapping player aims to receive a pass or create an offensive option further up the channel.
It can also help to create an overload as discussed above, by stretching the opponent’s defensive shape since the full back will pose an additional attacking threat from a wide position. As the overlapping fullback pushes forward, it forces the opposition’s wide defender to make a decision: track the overlapping runner or stick with their original man, often the winger.
This decision-making process can lead to defensive confusion. If the wide defender chooses to track the overlapping run, it creates space for the original winger or wide midfielder to exploit. On the other hand, if the wide defender sticks with their man, it allows the overlapping fullback to potentially deliver a cross into the box or cut inside to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Overlaps also facilitate quick ball circulation and the progression of play. When a fullback overlaps, it provides the player in possession with an additional passing option, allowing the team to move the ball efficiently down the channel or into the attacking third.
Overlaps can also result in cutback passes where the overlapping player delivers the ball back toward the penalty area or the half space from close to the end of the pitch. This can catch defenders off balance, creating goal-scoring opportunities for attackers arriving in the box.
Overlaps have changed the role of the full back as time has gone on, with Roberto Carlos being one of the pioneers in this area. Where once a full back was defensively minded, now they must also be play makers who create chances, not to mention having the stamina to bomb it up and down the wing for 90 minutes.
What is Build Up Play?
Build-up play, also known as building from the back, focuses on the controlled progression of the ball from the defensive third or build zone, through the field to the attacking third or finishing zone.
It involves a deliberate and organised effort to advance the ball through passing, dribbling, and positional awareness, with the ultimate goal of creating goal-scoring opportunities.
Teams typically initiate build-up play from the back, often starting with the goalkeeper or centre-backs, and they use careful passing and positional awareness to do this, along with some dribbling where possible. Build up play is more about good movement and accurate ball delivery than flashy skills though.
It only works if you can retain possession, so it requires discipline and patience while your team circulates the ball and controls the tempo of the game. This is especially important if playing against a high pressing team who will be applying pressure.
It’s a methodical approach to moving the ball up field, so players tend to play short quick passes rather than long balls in the early stages, although crosses and longer balls are more likely to occur once the ball is in the final third. That said, this does depend on the team and manager in question, and the strengths of the players they have in their squad.
This requires well times runs from wingers and attackers in order to effectively turn build up play into goal scoring opportunities, but they can only do this if space has been created by stretching the opposing team using positional rotations, diagonal runs and wide play.
Build up play really is a team effort, so every player must know their job, even the forwards who are often used to ‘pin’ the wide defensive players, stopping them coming in to press and so leaving the channels open to exploit.
The increased use of build up play from the back has also seen the number of passes made by goalkeepers jump around 20%, as they are used a lot more on the ball than they used to be.
What is Positional Rotation?
Positional rotation is where players interchange positions on the field in order to either cover for a teammate who has moved out of position (for a specific purpose), or to create overloads and/or confuse the opposition’s defence.
Players move fluidly between different areas or roles on the pitch to create positional advantages and exploit spaces, but the whole thing is very carefully orchestrated in training, it’s not something that can be improvised.
One of the primary purposes of positional rotation is to disorientate the opposing defence. When players interchange positions, it forces defenders to make decisions about who to mark, track, or close down. This can lead to defensive breakdowns, as defenders may become disorganised, leave their designated zone or player to cover a different danger, or become uncertain about their responsibilities and end up midway between the two and thus ineffective.
Managers can also use positional rotation strategically when their players are off the ball, to pull opposition players out of their preferred defensive positions. For instance, if a central defender follows an opponent who has rotated into a wide area, it can create space in the centre of the field that other attackers can exploit.
Positional rotation can also be used to create overloads by having players switch positions so a team can concentrate multiple players in a particular zone, thereby increasing the likelihood of retaining possession, breaking through the opponent’s lines, and creating goal-scoring opportunities.
A team’s adaptability and flexibility is also improved with positional rotation. It allows players to use their individual strengths more effectively by placing them in areas where they can have the greatest impact. For example, a technically skilled midfielder might rotate into a wide position to exploit one-on-one situations, while a pacey forward might drop deeper to receive the ball earlier and launch lightning-fast counterattacks.
Very dynamic teams are usually good at positional rotation, because they are forever switching roles and pulling their opposition in different directions, while giving their key players room to use their specialist skills to full effect.
What Does Box to Box Mean?
You might have heard commentators talk about a box-to-box midfielder, and all this really means is a midfield player who is just as important in defence as they are in attack.
They should be extremely hard workers with an exceptional work rate and lots of stamina, as they will constantly be running from their own box to their opponent’s.
Today’s style of football has limited the need for this kind of player, but good examples from the past would be the likes of Roy Keane, Patrick Viera, and Steven Gerard.
They are still used though, and one of the primary roles of a box-to-box midfielder is to provide defensive cover and support for their team. They are responsible for tracking back to help the defence when the team is out of possession, often engaging in tackles, interceptions, and defensive positioning to break up the opponent’s attacks. They are often the first line of defence and their contribution helps maintain team shape and prevent the opposition from easily advancing into dangerous areas.
Offensively, box-to-box midfielders are equally crucial. They are often involved in the build-up play, receiving passes from the defence or deep-lying playmakers and then progressing the ball forward. These players are adept at carrying the ball through the midfield and initiating attacks, using their passing ability to distribute the ball to more advanced teammates. They often provide support just outside the opponent’s penalty area, collecting rebounds or serving as an alternative passing option, and tend to score from this sort of area too.
The box-to-box midfielder’s role is versatile and dynamic, arguably one of the most demanding on the pitch. They are expected to transition seamlessly between defensive and attacking phases of the game, which requires a strong understanding of positional play and an ability to read the flow of the match.
Given the skillset required for this role, it’s no coincidence that a lot of football’s tough guys have been box-to-box midfielders.
What is a Playmaker?
Although playmakers tend to be midfield players, the term itself refers to anyone who has good vision, creativity, and technical skill, and can successfully begin attacking manoeuvres.
A playmaker orchestrates their team’s attacks and helps to dictate the tempo of the game in order to create goal scoring opportunities. For this reason, great playmakers are the ones who will have a lot of assists; Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Cesc Fabregas are three good examples, although they operated from different areas of the pitch.
You will often hear the word ‘playmaker’ used in conjunction with specific areas, so a deep lying playmaker (Scholes, who would create attacks from further back), an advanced playmaker (Giggs who operated on the left wing), or a roaming playmaker (Fabregas who had more freedom and would also take risks using quick footwork and killer passes to beat opponents).
Often times, a player who in his youth operated as a more traditional winger, forward, or attacking midfielder, will drop back to become a deeper lying playmaker and rely on their passing abilities, as their age begins to restrict their ability to move as quickly.
Playmakers, wherever they operate on the field, are characterised by their ability to read the game and make precise and incisive passes. They can unlock a tight defence with quick and accurate through balls, pick out a teammate in space with long-range passes, and use clever one-touch combinations to open up the opposition’s midfield.
Playmakers are often tasked with executing set pieces too (think Beckham), such as corners, free kicks, and sometimes penalties, due to their precision and ability to deliver accurate crosses and shots. They can also take on the responsibility of scoring goals themselves, as their shooting ability, particularly from distance, can be a valuable asset to the team.
The role of a playmaker is central to a team’s creativity and offensive effectiveness. Their ability to make intelligent decisions under pressure, see opportunities that others might miss, and execute precise passes can be the difference between a well-structured attack and a disjointed one.
Playmakers are often the focal point of a team’s tactics and are relied upon to provide the creative spark, and although a team may have a default playmaker, it doesn’t stop others doing the job too.
Football Tactics Glossary
Having gone into detail on some of the more complex tactical ideas around a football match, here are a few other words and phrases you might hear thrown around that don’t need so much explaining.
They might be styles of play or positional descriptions, but they are all useful to know when watching, listening to, and talking about football.
- Catenaccio – A highly defensive style of play with a focus on maintaining a compact defensive shape.
- Compact Defence – A strategy where the team’s defensive shape is tight and close-knit to limit spaces for the opponent.
- Counter-Attacking Football – A strategy that involves rapidly transitioning from defence to attack after winning the ball, often exploiting the opponent’s disorganised defence.
- Counter-Pressing – Pressing the opponent as soon as they regain possession, aiming to disrupt their play and win the ball back quickly.
- Cutback – When a player passes the ball back from the opponent’s end of the pitch into space in front of the goal, so that an attacking player can take possession and shoot.
- Diamond Midfield – A midfield formation shaped like a diamond with one defensive midfielder, two central midfielders, and an attacking midfielder.
- Double Pivot – A midfield setup with two defensive-minded midfielders who protect the defence and help distribute the ball.
- False Fullback – A tactic where a winger or midfielder temporarily drops back to cover the fullback position.
- False Nine – A forward who drops deep into midfield, often to create space or exploit gaps in the opponent’s defence.
- Formation – The arrangement of players on the field, denoted by numbers representing defenders, midfielders, and forwards (e.g., 4-4-2, 4-3-3).
- Gegenpressing – A high-intensity pressing style where a team immediately tries to regain possession after losing the ball.
- High Defensive Line – A tactic where the defensive line positions itself near the halfway line to compress the field and limit the opponent’s space.
- Long Ball – A direct and often aerial pass played over a significant distance to reach a forward or target man.
- Low Press – A defensive strategy where a team applies minimal pressure on the opponent, often focusing on maintaining defensive shape.
- Man to Man Marking – Defenders are assigned to mark specific opposing players throughout the match.
- Midfield Press – Applying pressure on the opponent in the midfield area to disrupt their build-up play.
- One-Two (Give-and-Go) – A passing sequence where a player passes the ball to a teammate and immediately receives it back.
- Offside Trap – A tactic where the defensive line moves forward in unison to catch attacking players offside.
- Pivot – A central midfield player serving as the link between defence and attack. They distribute the ball effectively but also help out in defence.
- Parking the Bus – An extremely defensive tactic where a team focuses on defending with a large number of players behind the ball.
- Press-Resistant – A term used to describe players who excel at maintaining possession under pressure from opponents.
- Quick Feet – A player’s ability to control and manipulate the ball rapidly, often used for dribbling or escaping tight spaces.
- Route One – A direct style of play where the team bypasses midfield with long balls to reach the forwards quickly.
- Route to Goal – The strategic path or sequence of passes a team uses the advance the ball towards the opponent’s goal.
- Tactical Foul – A deliberate foul committed by a player to disrupt the opponent’s attack or counterattack.
- Target Man – A tall and strong forward who serves as the focal point of the attack, often used as a reference point for long balls.
- Tiki-Taka – A style of play characterized by short, quick passes and high possession to maintain control of the game.
- Total Football – A fluid style of play where players interchange positions seamlessly, emphasizing versatility and collective teamwork.
- Transition Play – The phase of play when the ball changes possession and teams must quickly adjust from attacking to defending or vice versa.
- Wing Play – A strategy that emphasizes using the wings (channels) to attack and create scoring opportunities.
- Wingback – A player who combines defensive and offensive roles, often positioned wide, who supports both defence and attack.
- Zonal Marking – A defensive strategy where players mark specific zones rather than individual opponents during set pieces and open play.
Football Moves Glossary
Finally, just for fun, here is a glossary of some football moves we might see players make during a game.
Some are highly skilful, others are run of the mill, but if you know what they are you will be able to spot them when they happen.
- Around the World (ATW) – A freestyle move where a player uses one foot to circle the ball around their opposite leg.
- Back-Heel Flick – A quick flick of the heel to pass the ball to a teammate behind or to the side of the player.
- Bicycle Kick – An acrobatic overhead kick where a player attempts to shoot or clear the ball with their legs in the air.
- Chest Trap – Controlling the ball with the chest, cushioning it for further play or possession retention.
- Chip Shot – A delicate shot where the player lifts the ball over the goalkeeper, often used when one-on-one.
- Cruyff Pass – A deceptive pass where the player appears to make a different action before delivering the ball.
- Cruyff Turn (or 360 turn) – A skill move where a player spins 360 degrees while dribbling to evade a defender.
- Diving Header – A header executed with a player leaping through the air, often to direct the ball on target (Robin van Persie did arguably the best of all time).
- Drag Back – A move where a player pulls the ball backward with the sole of their boot, creating space to change direction.
- Dummy – A deliberate attempt to let the ball pass through one’s legs without touching it, deceiving opponents.
- Elastico (or Flip-Flap) – A dribbling move where a player quickly pushes the ball to one side and then immediately flicks it in the opposite direction.
- Elasticos (or Snake) – A dribbling move where a player rapidly alternates the inside and outside of their foot to navigate past defenders.
- Flick Header – Redirecting the ball with a header using a subtle flick motion to change its trajectory.
- Flick-On – A header or touch that redirects the ball to a teammate, often used in aerial duels.
- Half Volley – A shot or pass where a player strikes the ball just after it bounces off the ground.
- Heel Pass – A pass executed with the heel of the foot, often used for quick and unexpected deliveries.
- No-Look Pass – A pass made without the player looking directly at the intended target, often used to deceive defenders.
- No-Touch Dribble – A move where a player uses body feints and movement to deceive opponents without touching the ball.
- Nutmeg – Passing the ball through an opponent’s legs and regaining possession on the other side.
- Panenka Penalty – A penalty kick taken with a soft, chipped shot down the middle of the goal as the goalkeeper dives.
- Rainbow Flick – A trick where a player flips the ball over their head with one foot, then taps it over with the other.
- Rainbow Pass – Similar to the rainbow flick but used as a pass to a teammate.
- Reverse Stepover – A move where a player fakes a stepover and then performs the opposite move to deceive defenders.
- Rollover Chop – A move where a player quickly drags the ball across their body and chops it with the other foot to change direction.
- Slide Tackle – A defensive move where a player slides along the ground to win the ball from an opponent.
- Sombrero Flick – A technique where a player flicks the ball over an opponent’s head and regains possession on the other side.
- Stepover – A move where a player quickly moves one leg around the ball while not touching it, typically used to deceive defenders.
- Stepover Turn – Combining a stepover with a change of direction, used to deceive defenders.
- Toe Poke – A quick and precise shot or pass where the player uses the toe of their boot to strike the ball.