Build up in a proactive system and its increasing importance in today’s football

A few days back, I was walking down the street when I came across two fans  discussing about their team’s last match. 

Fan 1: We played so pathetic. We failed to create chances today. Our CBs were shit.

Fan 2: I agree,mate. Worst game we have played this season. The *build up* was pathetic. 

Fan 1: Absolutely mate. Our build up was a disgrace. I wonder what the players do in training if they cannot even bring the ball to the final third.

This was a conversation taking place between two 15 year old kids. I went back in time as I was watching these kids. 10 years back when I started watching football, goals and assists were the only thing people used to talk about. If one used terms like gegenpressing, you would have been called a lunatic. Fast forward 10 years and we now have a wide range of football terminology for almost any XYZ event on a football field (no one mocks you when you use gegenpressing anymore) and an increasing desire to learn and explain the cause-and-effect of things which happen on a football field. One of the most studied cause-and-effect phenomenon in today’s football is Build up play especially in a proactive system. 

“Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean”- Juan Manuel Lillo.

Juan Manuel Lillo was a mentor for Pep Guardiola when the latter was at Mexico to see out his playing career. Pep and Lillo would spend hours discussing about the tactical aspects of the game. Thus, the above quote was maybe a ‘hence proved’ moment of one of the many conversation these two great thinkers had together in Mexico. For the casual football fan, this quote does not need much introspection. But as an analyst, many questions may come up as one reads the quote over and over again. What does everything include? How do we progress the ball forward when facing different teams? What do you mean by a clean progression? In this article, I will try my best to explain the various aspects of build up from my limited knowledge of the game for which I have to thank all the Spielvercom analysts. 

The basic idea behind build up

“All I do is look at the footage of our opponents and then try to work out how to demolish them”— Pep Guardiola

With the huge range of technological tools available with clubs across the world, a huge emphasis is being placed on video analysis. Coaches like Roberto Martinez have video analysis equipment set up at their home. Guardiola has confessed to locking himself up in his office room for hours watching videos of his opponents till the ‘Eureka’ moment arrives which he says “makes sense of his job”. Former Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa would spend 14 hours during his Christmas holidays watching videos(2 hours of exercise). 

By now, you must be wondering why am I talking about video analysis when I was supposed to be writing about build up? This leads me back to the point. From the video footage, top coaches find out weak points in the opposition structure or weak players in the opposition lineup they can put under pressure during a game. The clubs which have no access to video footage may send scouts to watch games or the manager may go watch live games of their opposition to pick up such weaknesses. For example, a fullback may be weak in one on one situations. Or a team may leave lots of space behind the midfield line while pressing. Or a team may play a high defensive line without applying high pressure.

After the weaknesses have been explored, the next stage in a coach’s plans is how to exploit those weaknesses. This brings us to the idea behind build up. The build up is the first step to ensure that the opponent’s weaknesses are exploited. For the casual fan, build up means a way of accessing the weak areas and then exploiting those areas in the best way possible to create scoring chances while minimising the probability of getting counter attacked. This involves manipulation of the opponent’s defensive organisation in such a way that their weak spots are exposed which can be exploited by the best players of the attacking team. For example, the fullback who is weak in 1 v 1 situations can be exploited by a winger who is good at take ons. The space behind the midfield line may be best used by a CAM who is good in decision making and has quick feet in the final third. Likewise the team which uses a high line without good pressing can be turned to shreds by long vertical passes from deep playmakers behind their defensive line. Thus, the selection of players is of paramount importance to ensure that the end product of a good build up is fruitful. 

Structuring the movements in build up to expose the weak points of opposition

“You wouldn’t attack in the same way from a mountain top than from a wide open countryside”—Garry Kasparov

Just like in a battle, where the plan of attack is never the same for two different scenarios, in a game of football no two opponents are the same. This forces managers to contemplate different schemes of build up to exploit the weak areas in the opposition structure. I will try to break down the patterns based on the areas we want to exploit into three basic categories:

  1.  The wings or wide areas
  2. The ten space or zone 14
  3. The space between the opponent back line and the opponent Goalkeeper

What makes a good buildup? A good build up according to a manager is one which creates the best possible scenario for attacking the opponent’s vulnerable areas while at the same time having the balance needed to stop counterattacks.

  1. For exploiting the wings

    Often teams which stay compact leave a lot of space on the wings. Teams like Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen defend quite narrow. Thus, teams often try to exploit the wings against them. Overload-to-isolate is a common strategy used against them. In this strategy, the idea is to use the ball as a magnet to draw opponents towards the ball. Once the opponents are attracted towards the ball, a free player switches the ball to the free player on the opposite side. Xabi Alonso’s switches to Douglas Costa are perfect examples of this. With this tactic, the winger can isolate the opponent fullback in a 1 v 1 situation to create good chances. It helps using an inverted winger when using this because it helps the winger to cut inside towards goal in contrast to a conventional winger whose natural instinct is to attack the byline and away from goal.

    Another way of opening up the wings is by using inverted fullbacks.Instead of going towards the wing,these inverted fullbacks enter the halfspaces in possession. This movement pulls the opponent winger inside which creates space out wide for the winger to isolate the opponent fullback.

    If the wingers in a team are better in the halfspaces(players with good close control are better when used between the lines) than the wings,then they tuck inside between the opponent fullback and the opponent near-side winger. This creates space out wide which can be occupied by the fullback of the attacking team. This can be an effective mechanism of getting crosses into the box. 

    2. For exploiting the 10 space

    This is a better area in terms of the strategic benefits it provides compared to the wings. From this area, the availability of passing angles is more compared to the wings which are mostly used to isolate the better players of a team against a defender of the opposition team. However, the ten space is harder to access because of many layers of defense in front of it. Also, on receiving the ball in this space, the ball receiver has very little time to decide his next move. So playing in the ten space is demanding and requires very skilful players. The main aim of build up when trying to access this space is to create more time for the receiver so that he can make better decisions about his next move. This is done by drawing opponent midfielders and forwards to press high when building up which opens up a lot of space behind the midfield line thereby creating more space and most importantly time for the players in the 10 space to decide their next move. Barcelona are masters of this tactic. They build up deep inside their half which encourages opponents to press their defenders. This creates a big disconnect between the opponent midfield and defense line. Barcelona have press resistant players in the form of Pique, Mascherano,recent signing Umtiti and Busquets who can bypass the pressure and get the ball into the 10 space for the likes of Messi,Suarez and Neymar. The goalkeeper is a crucial part when using this type of build up pattern. Thus, it is no surprise seeing Barcelona buy keepers who are better with their feet than at saving shots(seems ridiculous but it seems true when you count the low number of shots they have to save every game). Goalkeepers serve as the escape route during ball circulation when others in the team are marked. GKs are the only players who are free from marking and have a full view of the whole pitch. Thus, they can direct the build up from deeper areas. Marc Andre ter Stegen was superb in the game played recently against Athletic Bilbao (excellent analysis by Judah Davies). 

    Another factor which favours the access to the ten space is the use of players who are willing to stay wide almost hugging the touchline. These wide players force the opponent to shift horizontally which can lead to opening up of spaces in the centre. The central areas then open up for the attacking team to exploit. Thierry Henry was subbed off despite scoring for Barcelona in a game because he had violated Guardiola’s instructions.(He spoke about this in an MNF episode). Louis van Gaal also likes his teams to stretch the pitch wide during the build up phases. His Ajax team which won the Champions League then were one of the most entertaining teams during the 1990s. His philosophy was one of horizontal circulation of the ball from one side to the other till a gap opened up in the central areas for them to penetrate. 

    3. For exploiting the spaces between the opponent defense and the opponent GK (teams which use a high line)

    This tactic is mainly used by teams which use a low block when defending. The low block would invite the opponents to put more bodies forward into the attacking half leaving a huge space between their back line and the GK. The team using the low block will attempt to exploit this space with quick combinations as soon as they win the ball. Leicester City were masters at this last season. Jamie Vardy’s runs into such areas and subsequent goals led him to win the Premier League as well as the golden boot for the season 2015-16. Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen also use this tactic quite often. For this tactic to work, the defensive foundations must be very strong as the team may be exposed to relentless waves of attack against a superior team. Thus, it is not surprising that the teams I have mentioned are the teams which boast of having the best defense in the league.

    Factors influencing build up

    It is one thing to plan how to start a build up and another thing to implement it to perfection on a football field. Theoretically speaking, for a good build up, all that is needed is one man more than the opponent in deeper areas. Because of the goalkeeper, there is always an extra man for the team which is looking to build up. Unfortunately, very few teams look to use this extra man for smooth progression of the ball from the back. As a result, very few teams can build up smoothly on a consistent basis. 

    The idea is basically to create numerical superiority in deeper areas. This means having more people in one area compared to that of the opposition. For example, former Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa would always switch between a back 2,3 and 4 depending on the number of opposition forwards who press them. He would use a back 2 if the opponent had 1 forward in their ranks, 3 defenders if there were 2 forwards and likewise. The extra defender is deployed to provide cover and a safe passing option in case of a high press from the opposition. 

    However, merely having numerical superiority is not enough if the players up front are not available for the passes from the Centre backs, the goalkeeper and the deep-lying playmaker. This can very often happen when all passing lanes to a player by good usage of cover shadows from the defending team. Here comes the need for off the ball movement. 

    Off the ball movement leads to opening up of passing lanes that help to progress play forward in a smooth way. The more the passing lanes, the better will be the build up. Pep Guardiola, when he was at Bayern Munich had a special training ground marked by some vertical and horizontal lines. The players had to position themselves using those lines as reference in those training games. With time, they began to pick up Pep’s positional ideas and were comfortable enough on the field even without those lines on match days. 

    Guardiola’s training ground at Bayern Munich(picture from this excellent piece on Pep’s philosophy by Adin Osmanbasic)

    Here we analyze some common movements we see during build ups:

    1. The formation of a chain of 3 in the           first line. 

    This chain of 3 helps provide width in the first line. This creation of width helps in two ways:

    • the opposition forwards pressing the first line have to cover a large distance horizontally.
    • By dragging the opponent wingers and forwards wide, it creates space for the midfielders in the lines up front to receive and force play forwards.

      Blue team is in possession. The amount of space that the front line of the red team have to cover is less. Space available for the blue team’s midfielders is very less

      Because of the chain of 3 formed across the width of the pitch in the first line, the forwards of the red team have to cover a lot of distance laterally. Moreover the 3 chain creates space in the middle for the central midfielders. Compared to the situation in the earlier image, the central midfielders have a better chance this time of building play forward

      How can this chain of 3 be created? Normally two patterns are observed when creating this chain of 3 in the build up.

      • Having the defensive midfielder drop between the two centre backs who spread out wide. This is more common compared to the second pattern described below.
      • The two centre backs do not move wide but stay in their normal position. To create this chain of 3, the near side fullback stays wide and deep while the far sided fullback moves up the field to provide passing options to build up play into forward areas.

        Creation of the 3 chain without the presence of the defensive midfielder in the first line

        2. The central midfielders moving diagonally into the halfspaces instead of occupying the centre (more on this by current U18 assistant coach of RB Salzburg Rene Maric). The halfspaces are strategically one of the most important areas in a football field. They provide a 270° field of vision to a player receiving the ball in that space. They enable the receiving player to connect to the near side wing or the centre which have different advantages with regard to construction of attacks. Thus, it is no surprise that managers these days are using their central midfielders (usually the central mids have the best first touch when it comes to controlling a football). Moreover, with the right body position when receiving in the halfspaces, the first touch tends to direct the ball forward towards goal. This can be attributed to the fact that the passes received in such zones from deeper centre backs are of a diagonal nature. Diagonal passes lead one towards goal compared to vertical passes which are difficult to direct towards goal. Diagonal passes are also easier to control compared to vertical passes. (This concept has been dealt with in more detail by analyst Tom Payne).  

        As the central midfielders move diagonally into the halfspaces, they may drag their marker away from the centre. This leads to opening up of a vertical passing lane between a CB and the CAM or CF. With a good vertical pass,it is possible to break two opposition lines,all this being made possible by the halfspace orientation of the central midfielders.

        The defensive midfielder drifts into the halfspace taking his marker alongwith him. This opens up a vertical passing lane for the RCB to pass to the CF

        RCB finds the CF with a vertical pass after the passing lane is opened up due to intelligent movement from the CDM of blue team. The CF then can choose to combine with the winger or the CAM or turn with the ball.

        3. The false or inverted fullback concept

        Early in the build up phase, the fullbacks instead of going wide decide to come inside towards the halfspaces alongside the defensive midfielder as the central midfielders push up to create overloads behind the opponent midfielders. The fullbacks then become situational central midfielders. The fullback pulls the near-side opposition winger alongwith him to the centre thereby opening up a diagonal passing lane to the wings for the near side CB.

        The RB moves inside towards the halfspaces. This catches the attention of the near side winger of the opposition who comes narrower.

        As the opposition winger comes towards the centre, the wing becomes isolated thereby opening up the diagonal passing lane for the CB. CB then finds his winger with a pass. Winger can then create isolations against the fullback

        4. Vertically opposite movement(István Beregi is a big fan of this type of movement)

        This movement is usually effective against teams which use clear man orientations when defending. A striker may drop deep while a central midfielder may engage the backline. This helps escape man marking to a certain extent.

        The red team are defending with clear man orientations in midfield. The CM is marked by the CDM making it difficult for him to receive and face play. So he makes a movement towards the opponent backline while the CF drops back to take his place. The CB marking the CF initially does not follow him because doing so will completely expose the backline.

        Here we see the CF receiving the ball in a clear pocket of space due to well executed vertically opposite movement

        These are the basic movements which we commonly encounter during a stable build up. As stated earlier, the goal of these movements is to open up passing lanes so that the team in possession can get their best players on the ball.

        Football is a game we play with 22 men and 1 ball. Thus, without the ball, games cannot be won. This brings us to one of the most important(if not the most important) part of  build up namely ball circulation. 

         “Louis Van Gaal’s idea is one of continuous circulation, one side to the other, until the moment that, when you change direction, and space opens up inside and you go through it. So, he provokes the opponent with horizontal circulation of the ball, until the moment that the opponent will start to pressure out of despair. What I believe in is to challenge the rival by driving the ball into him. At this time of ultra-low defensive block teams, you will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot.”— Former Chelsea manager Andre Vilas Boas (taken from article by

        Tiki tactic)

         Ball circulation involves various aspects. The timing of the pass, the speed at which it is delivered, the idea behind a pass (see are aspects which often escape normal football fans. However, these can be the major factors responsible for deciding outcome of games. (See this article by edAfootball to know more). Off-the-ball movements for example can only open up passing lanes but if the circulation is poor,then these movements are worthless. This takes me back to the discussion the two fans were having (see the start of this article). One of them was saying that his team was unable to bring the ball to the final third effectively. So maybe sluggish ball circulation was the main issue for his team. This raises another question in my mind. What was the cause for the sluggish ball circulation? This can have two answers: 

        • Lack of training: this is highly unlikely in a professional club.
        • Lack of proper technical players.

        This brings me to the final aspect of factors influencing the build up, ie., the players. Without the right players for build up, one cannot expect it to be successful. This is probably the reason why coaches like Guardiola and Bielsa use defensive midfielders as centre backs in their team. Having played as DMs, players like Javi Martinez and Mascherano have superior skills on the ball than a conventional centre back. Thus, they add a great deal of security in the build up. Moreover, Guardiola and Bielsa teams play with a high line. This gives a greater degree of confidence to such players as they play far away from the goal line unlike a traiditional centre back. Players with the right attributes (good ball skills, proper body position when receiving, press resistance,right weight on the passes, good game intelligence and good attitude) are the criteria scouts look for when they search for players who will fit into their team’s system. Some clubs like Ajax, Barcelona also invest a lot in their academies to ensure a good production line of talent. Ajax is renowned for its TIPS model which ensures that the club always have quality players who can come into the first team from the academy to fill in for players who leave the club to join other clubs. 


        The build up can therefore determine a team’s outcome on the football field. Although a lot of theoretical aspects are involved in a buildup, eventually the whole thing depends on the players. The manager can only give the ideas but eventually it is up to the players to deliver. As the late Johan Cruyff states :

         “Tactics are useless without technique. Can’t dominate the ball, it matters little if your teammates are well positioned tactically.”


        One thought on “Build up in a proactive system and its increasing importance in today’s football

        1. Pingback: Pressing Resistance: the new tactical buzzword | The Precision Pass

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