“When they play compact and we change positions, they will just stay in their defensive positions. They will pick the attacker up only at the moment the ball can be played. At least when it is a good opponent, against weaker team’s positional changes may be an option to break the defense. I, however, believe that a player should be able to operate from his position. This position is, however, not bound to a line. The position is about areas in which a player should and must play.” – Louis Van Gaal
We’ll explore that this concept further. But first, what do you know about differential learning?
“At first, we wondered what these things had to do with football but we realised quickly that they worked… Some exercises last two and a half hours. But because they always change, but it doesn’t feel like that”.
-Neven Subotic on Thomas Tuchel’s constant changing of situations in training
The structure around the today’s activity derives from the concept ‘we are change’. The method is underpinned by basic idea that functional adaption can occur through short and varied repetitions, or by creating ‘repetition without repetition‘ in training. Traditionally it has been used as an accelerator for technical development you can read a bit more around theoretical aspects of the idea here. But what if the method could also be applied tactically? What if sessions can be designed in a way to create repetition without repetition of the varying tactical aspects used within your competition context as well as from teams leading the way in the modern game. How would this type of training look and feel?
Differential Training Pitch
https://streamable.com/80ax6f Zonal reference maps using the FB as an example. Based on each opposition setup where do you want your FB to start operating from? Who are they moving in reference to? When and How should they adapt?
Within this you can vary the zones, scoring systems, and rules to fit your desired playing style. For example goals only count if 3 players have arrived into the box. Or you can customize the conditions on the side quadrants to promote principles you wish to see. I prefer having as much flow as possible so I try and limit any rules/conditions that interfere with this. For example play does not stop if it enters the ‘Dead Zones’ it’s simply an area in which we choose not to create crossing situations from, play will continue if it does enter these zones however this is not the ideal location in which we wish to derive our in behind triggers from. Balls are scattered in strategic areas in which you want to restart play, having additional staff or injury players in these zones is key to ensure flow and help recreate the restarts and 2nd ball situations. But today I won’t go into detail on the traditional conditions that can be used. I’ll leave that up you to decide based on your leagues culture, context, development goals and competition formation.
From here we can develop various ‘differential training scenarios’ depending on your objectives for attuning and redirecting the Intention and Attention of players. Here is a practical example that can be used to vary problems to impact attacking behaviours in the opponents half. In each game we vary the defending teams system-structure-strategy and each defensive line is either given a group or individual defending task. It’s important to note that the coach can and should manage the defending ‘coaching as much as needed over the top’ during the session. There are no stoppages in play so the explanation before and between games must be simple and clear to ensure the right flow. Below are some differential defending problems that can be used across each of the four games.
The mind is free, and that is the most important thing, the manager does not overload the players with information. Every game is different because opponents have different qualities and different threats, the consistent element to our approach is we do not man-mark. It would be difficult to counterpress if we man-marked. This means we mark spaces. –Georginio Wijnaldum
Differential Scenario 1
Differential Scenario 2
Differential Scenario 3 ForgeCanadian Premier League
Differential Scenario 4 EdmontonCanadian Premier League
Inside the differential pitch we can play four games of 8 minutes with 3 minutes rest between sets. Before each game the attacking team is setup in a flexible structure with deliberate partnerships relative to their profiles and strengths. The key idea is to connect the players via principles and encourage they play the spaces not the positions. For example let’s say the repetition without repetition is geared towards creating differential defending problems for 3 player triangles seeking to create chances to arrive at goal from the halfspaces. In this case varying the defending teams system-structure-strategy to ensure the wide triangles face four completely different problems through space-time. Using the Space Artist tool you can spin this any way you’d like.
“Coaching as much as necessary, as little as possible. As many forms of play as possible, as few exercises as necessary. Game forms as simple as possible, as complex as necessary. Short repetitions with the highest possible quality. As much fun as possible, as serious as necessary” –Rene Maric
When I deliver differential tactical sessions I choose not provide explicit feedback in the moment. On these days the learning is greatly steered towards discovery and sensemaking. Feedback is given, however it in this context, video is always used to supplement the details and enhance both the intentionality and attention of the players. The most important factor on these training days is that the players get the opportunity to experience and sense the changes. What we really want to do is disturb their normal referencing in hopes to achieve a more adaptive intensity of attention to the changing spaces through varying the system, structure, and marking types they will experience.
Now, what constellations are you aware of that you can apply and use when architecting your attacking setup? Can you identify which teams use these triangles? What principles have you trained within your triangles to create fluid motion? Here are a few triangles you may recognize that can be used to architect the session.
“The greater the number of such mini-models in the teams arsenal, the faster and more unexpectedly they vary within the framework of the game model chosen for a match in general and taking into account the characteristics of the opponent in particular.” – Valeriy Lobanovskyi
You can share these using any visual aids or methods you see fit. On occasion I printed these out, put players into groups of 3, and allowed them to choose which start positions to adapt based on the oppositions setup. You can choose to vary the triangle principles across each of the four games played or have the players keep them and simply adapt in game as each new problem is presented. After all not all triangles are created equal.
The aim is to make training so complex and mentally demanding that the game feels relaxing by contrast.
Of course the differential maps can be scaled 11v11 5v5 as you see fit. What’s important is that across the four games the attacking team is forced to live and adapt in new spaces as their decisional references are being altered via various marking types all the while trying to achieve the same end goal. It’s also important to note this type of training is best incorporated into your cycles as a supplementary method to test principles and skills trained throughout the week against different opposition strategies. You can find another example of the differential tactics method proposed by Bielsa here.
Here is a another example. With reduced numbers 8v8 context using the Blueprint from the Canadian Premier League Champions ‘Forge F.C.’ as a differential map. You can kick start the session with the a simple and powerful guided discover question such as; How many ways can we get a player facing forward diagonally in front or behind the last line. How many ways can we load the halfspace with 1 high and 1 low player ? How many ways can we get our 8/10 on the ball facing forward? In this activity we’ve put the 8/10 in a different colour jersey so to clearly reference their partnership as they are the main trigger for their respective fullback and winger. What simple conditions can you add to the wide boxes to redirect perception?
If you choose to explicitly coach here are some triangle rules that can be explored:
- When ball side 8/10 drops into low halfspace, winger pushes up to pin opponent fullback ready to threaten in behind, our fullback pushes higher beyond the shoulder of the opponents winger.
- On a switch if our ballfar 8/10 move out to visit width, our winger can make a blindside movement to pin their fullback and our fullback can drop and drag into a deeper position to create a decision problem for their winger
It’s important to note that simply throwing the players into these types of activity without principles to begin with will not lead to the development of triangle principles as these need to be explicitly coached, the differential sessions simply provide a tool for varying the spaces and necessary referencing for them to functionally come alive. As a rule triangle rule I always want 1 threatening in behind, 1 providing width, and always 1 creating an alongside or underneath support option ready to threat forward or find the switching link player. What about ball far triangle principles? Their intention? How + Where can you redirect their Attention? That’s one for you to explore.
The essence of the differential tactics learning method also meets the changing needs, curiosities, and expectations of the modern player such as:
- Increased need for autonomy
- Increased need to develop context sensemaking and adaptive skillsets
- Increased need of stimulation through variation
- Increased need of relatedness to playing principles
This type of training does not offer a one-time fix. It’s a method that can be interwoven into your current cycles as a ‘tactical stretch’ day. The optimal window for this type of training is between ages 13 – 19 and can also be used with professional teams in preseason. How would you spin the differential concept to suit your current context?
To all the coaches out there working every day to keep players engaged, energized, and surrounded by perpetual positivity during this difficult period. You don’t need 1000 followers on social media or a stadium chanting your name to know what you do matters. It truly does. Keep spreading your inspiration, more than ever the world needs it. Thank you, stay curious.
It’s important for me to also thank Danny Worthington a friend and a mentor for his help and support in exchanging ideas over the years, so much credit goes to him for his challenging, sharing, and questioning.