There are two things you can often observe when watching a game of football:
a) Blind switches over a longer distance that are easy to intercept for the opponent and at best can be solved with pure technical finesse or end up in a second ball situation (which some teams want to provoke).
b) Extreme density on one side of the field, your opponent can pressure the ball quite easily. Once again, this can often only be solved with pure technical finesse or ends up in rather chaotic transition moments on tight space (which some teams want to provoke).
Both scenarios represent extremes of a spectrum but have the same consequence: Your offensive game slows down. You barely create any real dynamics. Or to say it with Pep Guardiola: You only move the ball in both cases but not the opposition. Actually, Pep Guardiola is a good starting point – as often.
1. Overload to isolate
The first concept regularly mentioned and probably even overused in regards to switching play is what people generally call “overload to isolate”. The idea of it is a fairly simple one: You overload one side of the field, attract the opponent and then switch to the other side where you ideally have an open player who is also the best dribbler on your team.
The part you generally underestimate with it is attracting the opponent in a way that you actually free up a player on the far side of the field. This is not an automatism. When you attack with the ball, it’s rather about asking questions to the opposition or, put differently, create multiple threats.
Depth and width are interrelated. If you don’t have a deep threat, it’s easier for the opponent to cover the width of the field as a backwards or sideway pass can be anticipated rather effortlessly. And more importantly in terms of your main aim (scoring goals): If you don’t offer some width in relation to the opponent, it will be easier to cover the space in behind.
For the setup of the following drill you use a playing area that is approximately as wide as the penalty box and maybe 30 meters long. You split it into two halves vertically. At both ends of each half there’s a mini goal.
The game starts in one half with a 6 versus 6 while there’s a 2 versus 2 in the other half. The team in possession wants to get there and score a goal that is worth 3 points. It might be useful to implement a time restriction here – for example that you have to finish within 5 or 7 seconds once the ball reached the other half. The attacking team can also score on the mini goal in the half of the 6 versus 6. But it only gives you 1 point.
For the defending team it’s exactly the opposite. They are rewarded with 3 points if they win the ball in the initial half and score in the mini goal there. Their 6 players can be joined by the 2 players from the other half. They don’t have to. They also don’t have to move at the same time. But they are both always allowed to. Meanwhile, their 2 opponents always have to stay.
Whenever the defending team wins the ball and enters the far half of the field, the game becomes free. Any goal scored for any team is worth 1 point then.
First desirable scenario: The blue team uses the pass to the side as a pressing trigger and moves towards the ball in numbers. One player from the other half joins, his companion one is on the jump to do the same. But their team mates can’t react to the back pass quickly enough. The player on the ball opens up and plays a chip ball to the other half.
Second desirable scenario: In the same situation, the pressure after the back pass is so high that the player receiving the ball can’t open up. He sees that a vertical pass against the shifting of the opponent is possible instead. Team red plays a quick lay-off. The third man can pass the ball to the other player on the far half who quickly recognized the situation and moved up in the blind side of the opponents. The defender in the far half is too far away to intercept the pass.
2. Switching through the third man in the center
As we already saw in the second scenario, switching doesn’t only happen directly through longer passes but oftentimes it’s even more realistic (and maybe even more favourable) to do it through a third man action. You pass the ball away from pressure to a player in the center who then finds a third man on the far side of the field.
The player in the center is usually not actually wide open but under pressure by himself, so he will have to play with one or maybe two touches in order to find the next player who is not under too much pressure and ideally faces forward. Counter attacks can be an example where you might really have a free player in an area that Moritz Kossmann once referred to as “far middle”.
The aim of the following exercise is to raise the awareness of the players about this important zone. Hence, we leave the central player unmarked, although it’s not necessarily a game realistic scenario. This is always the difficulty as a coach when you design a training drill that is not an 11 versus 11: Which part of the actual game do I leave out, which one do I emphasize in order to get the desired learning experience for my players? What we don’t leave out in this case is, once again, the possibility to break through on the same side and score from there.
In the main playing area we don’t quite use the full width of the field. It is divided in 3 channels with the one in the middle being narrower. This middle zone is once again divided into two halves and blocked with dummies at each end. Adding to that, there are two end zones which are just a bit longer than the penalty area.
We have a 5 versus 5 situation in one of the channels. This is where the game starts. At the same time, each team has one player in the center who positions himself in the half closer to the goal his team attacks. In the far channel, there’s a 2 versus 2 situation.
The aim for the team on the ball is to get to their central player who then switches to the far channel (using one or two touches, based on the level). If you break through there and score, it counts for 3 points, Again, you could use a time restriction for this action. It’s also up to you how many player are eventually allowed to enter the end zone.
It’s also possible for the central player to pass back to the initial channel and for his team to break through there. They can also do that without using the central player at all. This is rewarded with 1 point. If the defending team wins the ball, their central player becomes active. They can now counter torwards the other end zone with or without making use of him. Each goal scored by them counts for 1 point as well. No matter how it was scored. Don’t forget to change the roles of both teams.
3. Bringing the pieces together – positioning of wide players as key
Finally, we want to put the ingredients of the first two exercises together in a format that is less restrictive but still rewards behaviors we want to provoke. What can be emphasized here in addition is specifically the role of the players responsible for offering width. If you use a 4-diamond-2, it will often be the full-backs but might also be the central midfielders in some cases. It’s a viable solution for the full-back to move inside and the central midfielder to go wide. The players can also try things like these out by themselves within the framework of the training drill.
For the main playing area, we will use something similar to what we had in the previous drill. But this time we make use of the full width. Also, the field is divided into one big central zone, which is as wide as the penalty area, and two wide channels. This area is divided from the end zones by using 4 dummies. The end zones stay almost the same, only the corners are cut out as shown in the graphic below.
The game starts in a 8 versus 8 in the central zone. One player of the attacking team is allowed to enter each wide channel. Defenders can only enter it, once the ball is passed there. After this happens, there are no restrictions. When the ball moves back to the center, everybody moves back inside again.
The aim for the attacking team is to reach the end zone with a dribbling in one of the wide channels or with a (diagonal) pass in behind from there towards the center. Goals scored from these actions are rewarded with 2 points. Once the ball reaches the end zone, everybody can join. The attacking team can also score goals after breaking through the center, which gives them 1 point. Once the defending team wins the ball, it becomes a completely free game with the dummies being the offside line.
For whoever is involved in offering width, it will be important to read game situations, especially in regards to the player on the ball: How is his body position? How close is the next opponent who could press him? Is he likely to lose the ball?
Possible game scenario in relation to “Overload to Isolate”: The red team played the ball the to the left side but the full-back can’t execute any favorable action as the opponent shifted across well. He can’t really dribble forward and a direct pass in behind is also blocked. But because of that, the backward pass is open.
Once it is played, the far full-back has to read the situation and has to open up more while moving as high as possible. It could be a moment to switch effectively. Or if the opponent speculates on that too early: Play against their shifting and eventually break through the initial side that might have opened up now.
Possible game scenario in relation to “Switching through the third man in the center”: In the same moment, the pass to the player in the center is also open. He can then use the third man. The moment in which the ball moves towards him, the far full-back should already open up as much as needed and move as high as possible.
To wrap it up (something I barely do with Christmas gifts, to be honest): I don’t know if all these drills will always have the outcome one might desire. If you read something about switching the play, you expect that there will be a lot of switches. But depending on the team you train and on other factors (field size, additional rules, formations used, adding/removing players et cetera), not too many switches might actually happen.
And this is perfectly fine because these drills aim to create an environment where the threat of switches will always be present. It’s not solely about execution. One attacking team might break through centrally or on the ball side all the time. But this also happens because the defending team always has to be aware of switches.
This awareness for both teams is what you really want to achieve with training drills like the ones I’ve shown as examples. If you just want to see long diagonal switches for 45 minutes straight, it’s the better solution to have your players smash balls from one side to the other in pairs. It will surely be a lot of fun for some but it might not be football after all.