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Systems Football: Midfield Part IV – Tiki Taka / Totaal-Voetbal

*Part 5 now unavailable


Introduction: the foundations (part 4/4*) – Midfield and Concluding Statement 

This is a four*-part series of articles that aims to introduce football coaches and fanatics to basic concepts in a systems football approach (such as tiki-taka). The systems approach to football is founded upon a system of complexity and unity.

Part four of this series isolates the scenario of playing against a team who sits deep and hits you on the counter attack (Chelsea v Barcelona 2012) and proposes a few practical solutions. This is a scenario that occurs more and more frequently in modern-day football: a team sits back to defend a lead, a team has a numerical disadvantage or in the Chelsea scenario whereby a team implements a full-match counter attack against a stronger opposition.

The concluding statement of this instalment should leave you with food for thought on how to take the implementation of any systems approach forward to your own team, with a few words of wisdom from Johann Cruyff and others involved in the ‘movement’.

Parts 1-3 have looked at many aspects of a systems approach: pressing, third-man running, the compaction and expansion of play, the ‘rondo’ and flexibility of zone dependant formations, along with a few training methodologies. You may have arrived at the conclusion that since this systems style approach is one of unison and comprehension, it is near impossible to completely isolate any one part of the game without treading on the toes of another. You would be correct in thinking so.

If you can master the art of pressing and possession play you are 50% of the way there. Amongst other things, the other 50% is made up of the ability to create as many true goal scoring opportunities and concede as few as possible; thus, reducing the opportunity of relying on ‘chance’. In theory, if you consistently create many real goal scoring opportunities and concede very few, you should win on a regular basis – bar the odd set piece, 30 yarder and referee error (remember the unpredictability of the game is one of the reasons we all love football).

Therefore when a team aims to sit back and significantly reduce your ability to succeed in more advanced positions on the field, a strategy should be devised to overcome such hurdles. It’s imperative that in training your team is exposed to any number of different tactics that they may come up against; teams with a large number of players have the luxury of asking one team to play in a particular way: to counter attack, to play wide or through the middle. Each will have their own unique counter-solutions.

When a team sets out with two deep lines of four, it can be very difficult to find space to play within and create goal scoring opportunities; you may seemingly be left with shooting from distance as your only option. However, if the team in possession has a strategy, frequently shooting from distance (and therefore returning the ball to the opposition) becomes something of a rarity.

In diagram one [below], you’ll see that the team in possession has opted to use their deep-lying midfielder as their playmaker.

The playmaker should keep the ball moving, pass forward and receive again, pass forward and receive again… until, the right moment occurs to play the ball forward into a more advanced dangerous position. You can achieve this using two methods:

  1. The movement of the ball and players during the passing and moving play enables players to be pulled out of position and the space opens up for one of your more advanced players to drive on forward
  2. If the opposition is particularly good at sticking with their man and does not allow any space then it can be up to the playmaker to manipulate the play in front of him by taking a ‘false touch’. A ‘false touch’ is one that can be mistaken as an inadvertent miscontrol and could lead to one of the opponents deciding to breakaway from his man to try and win the ball back from the playmaker. This then allows the previously marked player space further forward. In order for the player to receive the ball the team must capitalise on the third man movement to find him in two passes or for the playmaker to find him in one singular pass if possible. In this scenario it could be argued that two passes is better than one as it could potentially lead to more players breaking free of their marker.

One of the advantages of setting your team up to play with a more technical, possession style approach is that every player is comfortable with the ball at their feet: from the goalkeeper to the centre forward. Therefore, in the event that a striker tracks back to pressure the playmaker, another ball player becomes available (centre back) and through simple positional rotation the ball is kept and the play continues [see diagram 2].

In the event that the team wins the ball back, it is better for the opponents to regain possession in their own half rather than a forward/midfielder snatching the ball from your playmaker. If the opponents win the ball back from your centre forward or a centrally placed attacking midfielder, you already have the players around them to press successfully. Secondly, if the ball is won by one of their defenders the players in more advanced positions will move forward to counter quickly (the opponents midfield and attack), therefore in the event of winning the ball back the opposition are no longer in the two deep lines of four, they are instead scattered further forward and ‘out of position’.

It is of the utmost importance that your team does not begin to tire on the ball, become slower with interchanging the passes or more predictable with their play. As seen with Barcelona v Chelsea 2012, this can prove disastrous. Barcelona became visibly slower and more predictable with the ball around the Chelsea 18 yard box as the game went on.

It should be noted though, that had Chelsea played that way against Barcelona 100 times, it is very unlikely that they would have won more than 10 of the games. The measure for how likely a team is to win is usually accepted that the side who makes more goal scoring opportunities (and I stress ‘real’ goal scoring opportunities…) should in theory win.

The scenario above is one that can be trained for: an 11 v 10 (or 11) match whereby the two teams are given strict instructions to play a particular way. The team with 10 (or 11) is instructed to play deep and counter attack in unison (as Chelsea did) and the other is instructed to play as above in the diagrams – shorter quick interchanging passes, exploiting space rather than players. The central defenders should for example offer themselves almost as full backs to stretch the play and make the pitch as large as possible.

Concluding Statement

The key to success in holistic systems style football is that of concepts becoming second nature to players.

“Generally, the most important thing is that they have the same vision [the players]. The ideal coach does not exist; every coach is different and that’s a good thing…however, he must absolutely know the basic principles of coaching and that coaching is more important than winning.” Jan Olde Riekerink (Head of Jong Ajax 2007-11).

Many coaches will look at many of these concepts and come to the conclusion that this is a complex perception of football, far too complicated for youth players. However, by following the methodology of Barcelona or Ajax we can conclude that while you should not try to introduce very young players to too much information; you should at the very beginning of development concentrate on ball control and the basics of football itself. Ajax and Barca do however, begin to introduce segments of their philosophy to youth players at a far earlier age than expected – a general understanding of the overall philosophy of keeping possession and understanding that as long as you are in possession the opposition cannot score or that the team who creates the most goal scoring opportunities should in theory win. If you have already won the players’ belief by the time it comes to attempting to develop position specific roles then you cannot lose

“When they turn 15, we try to develop position-specific qualities.” Jan Olde Riekerink

This does not refer to the introduction of a holistic philosophy but individual positional technique and physical traits required – many coaches put the full-backs in with the central defenders and group them together for defensive training – the fullback however, has more similarities to a midfielder:

“he must anticipate covering tasks forward, therefore both should be good at covering space and quickly push into the width.” Jan Olde Riekerink

“The very youngest play 1(g)-3-1-3, then 1-3-4-3, and from the U13 onward, we play 1-4-3-3 with the flexibility of 1-3-4-3 again….in short, you learn to play together.” Jan Olde Riekerink

Remind yourself though that “playing simple soccer is the most difficult thing of all” (Johan Cruyff, 1974 quoted in Barend & van Dorp, 2006, p 22) and it only becomes easy when each aspect of systems football does indeed become second nature:

“Everything you know about is easy” (J Cruyff, 1995; quoted in Barend & van Dorp, 2006, p194)

It cannot be stressed enough that the foundations to teaching a systems style of football is absolute knowledge:

 “Everything that goes into too much detail is often so boring. But for those who need to know the details, it is a necessary evil, for nothing exists for its own sake.” (J Cruyff, 1985; quoted in Barend & van Dorp, 2006, p 59)

Your players will constantly be learning, even after you have taught them all that you know – since only they know themselves and what they are capable of. No single coach taught Messi or Maradona how to be the best player in the world, not even all the coaches together taught them. The key to their success has evolved from within themselves and their own self-directed learning.

So where to begin, how do you transfer your knowledge to a group of younger players? Begin with the very simple: by creating a smaller zone (10 x 10m) and create two teams of four. Inform them that they are to make five passes to score one goal – they’ll realise it will be difficult to pass fluently but easier to tackle. Afterwards sit the players down and simply inform them that it was only so difficult to pass as the team without possession worked together as a compact team. The lesson here is that on a bigger pitch if they are playing in smaller compact zones, when they lose the ball they can win it back easily as they are already in perfect positioning to press together as a team.

This is a simple introduction to the art of pressing and at the same time a simple introduction in the art of keeping the ball in smaller compact zones. You can then tick off the very basic introduction to the concept of zones, the concept of pressing and the concept of passing in compact areas. They’ll get it, it’s simple yet effective. And it’s the players ‘getting it’ that is of utmost importance; it needs to become their second nature.

“How you play is a product of how you train” Hunter, 2012 – Barca

Slowly you can introduce the philosophy to them and at one point you’ll even need to present ideas to them without a football field underneath their feet. It’s a holistic vision that means you may need to remove yourself from the situation to see the whole picture from time to time – just as it is easy to see where players should pass if you aren’t in the situation but on the side line.

They’ll need to understand everything: every single positional duty, every single zone on the football field, how to work in unison, the art of pressing, when to press, when to pass, patience, where to pass etc. It is important that throughout the education that as a coach you do not instruct negatively (“don’t do this” or “don’t do that”) – your instructions should not leave the player knowing not what to do instead of what to actually do. In this situation, a centre back may well know not to pass the ball across the box (a typical youth team coach instruction), however, they do not know where to correctly pass the ball – rather only not what to do. This could lead to a centre back concluding that clearing the ball from danger as the best available option. You are therefore, restricting any true potential by simply giving the wrong wording in your instructions.

For something to become second nature it is a long working process. Scientific research has concluded that it takes between eight and twelve years of training for a talented player to reach an expert level. This is often named the 10,000 hour rule, or three hours of training every day for ten years (Ericsson, et al., 1993; Ericsson and Charness, 1994, Bloom, 1985; Salmela et al., 1998).

There’s something about systems football – somewhere between the realms of art and science – that leaves you pondering the possibilities of how to convey complex ideas in a simple and effective way – for a squad of young players to treat it all as second nature. To enable them more touches of the ball on the weekend and in the process both improving their game and increasing the enjoyment of playing at the same time.

Like art, football is all about perception. There is no right and wrong way of playing – only that of winning or that of development. Think back to your youth football days and assess how important the coach was on not only you but the team itself – you, as a coach, are in a position of great importance, a position of creating long lasting memories of football…

Más de un entrenador de fútbol” (more than a football coach)   [a play on Barcelona’s “Més que un club”]


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Entire Series

Part One: Basics

Part Two: Positioning

Part Three: Defence and Pressing

Assistant Manager of Oxford University Centaurs and Head of Analysis. The Tiki-Taka Handbook can be ordered from: Director of inspire football events | Football writer & youth academy coach - | Writer on several websites as well as and many more | Please follow me on Twitter - @TPiMBW or | Always open for a reasoned debate so please leave a comment
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