TODAY’S GAME IS DOMINATED by possession-orientated sides that methodically parse and splay opponents with surgical interplay and precision. Watching goalkeepers like Marc-André ter Stegen or Manuel Neuer collect and place the ball at their feet to quickly distribute it to a defender who, in turn, begins a process that is truly a sight to behold. The ball zips across backline and into the midfield with a fluidity and tempo reminiscent of well-practiced rondo as the opponent’s strikers are drawn into a cat and mouse game designed to establish a lightning-quick transition. Great teams create passing triangles that mercilessly shanghai pressing players so often and with such proficiency that the sight of a 70-yard panicked clearance from the backline becomes a rarity.
Admittedly, the ruse of playing out of the back, when done well, is devastating on the opponent. Juxtapose the image of FC Barcelona or Bayern Munich with that of a team with a lack of cohesion. Teams often opt to play out of the back for a variety of reasons. One, it is effective and attractive football. Two, the absence of a target man capable of winning aerial contests or holding the ball up necessitates this approach. Efforts to play out of the back for less capable possession teams turn it into a risky endeavor justified when a goalkeeper flubs a pass to a defender under duress who takes a poor first touch and hits a misplaced pass that gets picked off. Generally, the pressing team is rewarded with a scoring chance or a goal for this type of technical calamity.
Understandably, valid questions surface upon whether or not the tactic is worth the risk. Placing players in risk-reward situations is part of football on every level. After all, footballers, especially young ones, often exhibit a sense of rigidity resulting from constant conditioning to play one type of football, in this case, of the effective and stylish variety. Possession-based football is not only en vogue; it is a requirement that often must be satisfied to yield winning football.
If possession-based football is the deliverable, the enabling philosophy must follow suit. Tactical applications and attractive philosophies have a tendency to turn what initially starts out as a ripple effect into a shockwave of change reverberating across football’s landscape, exposing the innovators and pretenders in the process and playing out of the back is no exception.
The allure of playing out of the back is understandable. To control the match a team must often control the ball. Target man forwards are increasingly under-utilized as the game has shifted to favour the smaller and more flighty players and a grounded style of play. Across the elite leagues the world over, gone are the days of a goalkeeper’s default distribution method being reliant on smashing the ball up the pitch for the lumbering target man to knock down for a terrier-like accomplice to spark the attack.
Playing out of the back is effective, but to what end? And it is unlikely one can delineate if the positives of playing out of the back outweigh the negatives. On the positive side, it instantly integrates and establishes possession while forcing the opponent to chase the game. Playing out of the back also establishes a rhythm built on one and two-touch football that allows a team to play through the midfield pockets and wide channels.
The entire movement should decrease the distance between the defense-midfield-forward lines while exploiting the space chasing opponents vacate. The ability to unlock the opponent and turn the backline into reliable outlets and playmakers is effective because a team that is not afraid to possess the ball while drawing the opponent in is looking to play positively and exploit defensive gaps for teams failing to cut off proper passing lanes and winning the ball.
Football is besieged with coaches and players lacking technical ability or tactical awareness to start with the basics before implementing this methodology and the results can be catastrophic. For example, dealing with a team that uses an aggressive form of counter-pressing effectively can invite calamity on a backline. A team with players lacking the technical ability or composure will require these players to take risks that cannot be overcome if the ball is lost so deep in the defensive third. Without a midfield comprised of players willing and able to receive the ball under pressure, playing out of the back is a fool’s game. The method is also quite predictable and good forwards know how to shape up a defender and recruit help and eliminate the available outlets. Additionally, the role of the target man and a second man running is effectively mitigated if not killed off as a team tries to work the ball up the pitch.
A common misconception is mistaking build up play and playing out of the back for being the same thing, which they are not. Build up play can often bypass the backline and start directly with the midfield or even a target man who can hold up the play and allow teammates to join the attack. Playing out of the back requires forwards to operate for long periods of time without service, thus reducing their overall involvement, touches on the ball and direct involvement.
The fixation with playing out of the back has trickled down from the upper echelons of the game to permeate global youth football. Admittedly, the examples of world football’s three best teams are outliers, so examining the rationale for playing out of the back is more appropriately observed at the youth level.
Unsurprisingly, top academy teams operate under the philosophy that technical proficiency yields winning football. Academies, teams, and coaches attempting to play out of the back without players of the requisite technical level at their disposal often do so at their own peril. What do the teams considered the crème de la crème of world football do right that other possession-based teams have not quite mastered? The obvious answer is the elite teams have better players, but the more focused question is what player is the main differentiator? One possible answer is the goalkeeper.
Regarding the positional requirements for playing out of the back, a goalkeeper with the composure and ability to read the situation, to assess the opponent’s press, and operate as the ‘eleventh field player’ is paramount. Composure and confidence go hand-in-hand. Players under duress must learn to exist outside their perceived comfort zone and most have to be taught not force the issue while having the courage to abandon the play out of the back mindset when necessary. There was a time when players were instructed to bypass marked players, opting to look for ‘open’ options. Eliminating the apprehension in players to play into players that are marked is a skill in itself. Factors like playing the correct pass to the appropriate (lead) foot are essential. Much like the exercise of the rondo, players who are less technical are forced to play a more technical game since the philosophy does not condone hoofing the ball up the pitch.
From a developmental standpoint, teams excelling at playing out of the back are comprised of players whose footballing education focused on technical ability and proficiency at a young age. Players groomed to possess the ball and pass with increased frequency must match that frequency with proficiency and are more likely to remain calm under the pressure. Playing out of the back is more than passing and receiving. An underdeveloped skill is receiving the ball on “the half turn”, which requires players to look over the shoulder and assess the proximity of the pressing players and take a touch that does not kill their usable space. Awareness on this scale is derived from constant repetitions rooted in training players to think a step ahead prior to receiving the ball.
Teams that excel at playing out of the back like Barcelona and Bayern Munich have ball possession averages well over 60% that indicate the proficiency derived from a style of play that presents the opposition very little chance to win the ball and lures an opponent’s front line and midfield block forward exposing the usable space left vacant for attacking players like Lionel Messi, Neymar, Sergio Busquets (pictured), Thiago, Franck Ribery, and Xabi Alonso to exploit in transition. Players of this ilk rarely stop the ball or receive it without knowing where the next pass will go.
But what of the teams who still play possession football but do not necessarily employ the tactic with great success? For example, Liverpool has neither the goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet nor the defensive unit with the confidence to link up with a midfield lacking cohesion to play out of the back successfully. Brendan Rodgers has a history of implementing the technical and tactical nous into sides he has managed with Swansea City, a side that regularly maintains more possession than its opponents, the notable example. Possession football is no guarantee for winning football. For example, Rayo Vallecano and AC Milan depend heavily on keeping the ball and boast possession statistics oscillating around 60% per match and both find themselves well off the pace in their respective leagues.
Football is a game of many faces — each one reflecting a different stage in the metamorphosis of a particular philosophy, style of play, and trend. Modern football can be called many things, but regressive is hardly one of them. Watching teams put a new stamp on the game and in so doing, moderately reinventing it is one of football’s greatest joys. Each footballing era is shaped by the battles waged between revolutionaries and pragmatists. The real winners are those watching the clashes unfold.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3