Door 21: Counter-dynamics

By Jan-Gabriel Hartel

Today’s Advent calendar deals with a principle that has never before been used in this concrete formulation to my knowledge, but at the same time represents one of the most fundamental concepts of the game – counter-dynamics.

But what are counter-dynamics?

The term is used to describe actions that exploit the running dynamics of a single opponent or the pressing dynamics of an entire team. By moving in one direction, you not only open up spaces in your back over time, but you can also just hardly perceive what is happening in those at higher speeds. In addition, players are not able to change their direction of movement immediately, so that a static player has advantages when entering the opposite running dynamics.

Essentially, this concept is omnipresent in individual tactical behaviour. Double movements become more effective if the opponent can be forced into a high dynamic with your first move. The higher momentum you necessarily need to do so has no negative effect, as long as the acceleration of both players is similar. The reaction speed of the defender remains constant no matter the speed, the distance from the opponent however increases linearly with (the reaction) time and velocity.

In dribbling, the feinting of movements in order to set the opponent in dynamic plays an elementary role. A player like Messi often dribbles into a path his opponent occupied just shortly before, but which he has opened by getting his opponent to make a move. Here too, the movement of the player with the ball is counter-dynamic, exploiting the movement of the opponent.

Even collective examples for the application of this concept are anything but rare. Counter-counters, the attraction of opposing pressing, up-back-through-combinations, draw their efficiency at least partly from the use of the opposition’s dynamics, which in turn open spaces over time. At the same time (and more inherently in the dynamics), the perception on the blind-side and backward pressing are also made more difficult.

Without question: Open spaces are helpful for any action targeted and therefore a powerful tactical concept. The aim of this article, however, is to offer an interpretation of counter-dynamics and their meaning beyond the simple opening and playing of spaces. In particular, the action of the counter-dynamic one-two will be introduced, and its training in different exercises is presented, before an outlook on the team-tactical use of counter dynamics is given.

Pressing resistance through counter-dynamic one-twos

In order to find application scenarios for counter-dynamic actions, one must first ask oneself when an opponent takes up dynamics independently and voluntarily, thus predictably. One specific moment of play that catches the eye certainly is attacking press.

The logic of an attacking press is easy to understand. The player with the ball should be pressured in order to have limited time to select and carry out his actions. By pressing from a deeper zone, a defender can cover an increasingly large angle with his body to prevent flat passes. These two aspects should be used to force the opponent into a predictable action, for example a long pass, a pass to the outer lane, or into a previously defined pressing trap.

In the following, a situation in deep attacking press shall be described, in which a wide 2-3-2-3 build-up is pressed from a 4-4-2 with the goal of guiding play onto the outer lane. In a frequent interpretation of this moment of play, the ball is pressed on the right central defender carrying the ball by the striker close to the ball, who, under constant cover of the six’s space, runs in a slightly inner (i.e., closing the horizontal pass) arc on the ballcarrier.

At the same time, the ball-far striker orients himself more strongly to the position of the only six, thus remaining deeper and more centrally. Meanwhile, ball-near six and the winger already orient themselves more towards the ball-near eight and the fullback, moving slightly to the side to make access easier and to get into a duel earlier.

At this point the principle of counter-dynamics is applied. According to this principle, the continuation of the game is under no circumstances sought on the right side and thus into the opposition’s shifting dynamics, but to the left. By means of such a pass, the midfield chain that has been shifted ball-near can be exploited just as well as the dynamics of the pressing striker.

Firstly, you could play a diagonal pass to the ball far fullback, which would be long on the move and thus predictable for the opponent, though. Secondly, you could play the centre back as the third man by playing a wall pass with the eight or six. This pass would, however, result in a fairly simple pressing, as the left centre-back could be pressed in a symmetrical staggering, while the pass risky due to the position of the ball far striker.

The third option is the most unconventional, though potentially the most effective. By playing a pass into midfield, and unto a dropping eight, as shortly before a duel as possible and then moving into the opposite direction of the pressing player, the centre-back can not only exploit the space created behind the near striker but the lower compactness on the ball-far side.

The return from such an action, in addition to individual tactical details (such as the central defender starting from the striker’s back to delay his perception), depends heavily on its preparation. Since an opponent does not have to fear a change of direction while the ball is on its way on the second pass, pressing of the central defender can already be started on this pass.

By suitable preparation, which aims at expanding the opposition’s distance from the space targeted in the one-two – in this case by advancing the six – ways can be extended, aggravating dynamics can be built up and access can be delayed. If the central defender has the possibility to control the ball after the pass, a subsequent of the now deeper former ball far striker, can again be used counter-dynamically.

In addition, orientation becomes more difficult for the opponent by the unusual solution. It is not self-evident that only one player pushes out in pressing. Since the six has pushed higher, the opponent now risks opening a player every stepping up from the midfield line could open a passing option.

A counter-dynamic one-two can also be used conservatively or even defensively by simply inviting pressing and making a short move in the opposing direction after the pass, not to attack the six-space or advanced zones, but simply to allow for a switch of play.


1. 4v2

The first exercise that I would use to teach the basic principle of applying counter-dynamic one-twos against an opposition trying to guide build-up wide is a 4v2 variation in which a rectangular field of 12×10 meters is divided into six equally sized zones. The players of the possession team should basically position themselves at the corners, while the defenders defend one strip and thus three fields each. Counter goals are set up centrally on the longer sides of the field.

The team in possession of the ball can win one point by successfully playing 10 passes and two points by using a one-two, whereby the first pass is played in a side zone and the return pass is received in the middle zone. After the defending team wins the ball, an unrestricted 4v2, in which the defending team scores 3 points by scoring a goal, arises. The game runs for 90 seconds before a change of defenders takes place.

Due to the central positioning of the defender and the restriction to only be able to move in one half, a pressing from the inside is implied. The points obtained by successive passes are intended to prevent the defenders from statically occupying the centre, while the counter-goals are intended to prioritizing coverage of the centre (in this case the goal which is in the gap between the centre defenders in the game) in defensive transition.

The most important scoring rule refers to the one-two with field change. This rule forces the ballcarrier to invite a pressing in order to move counter-dynamically into the open centre. In addition to the movement, which should take place in the back of the opponent at the highest speed, dismarking behaviour of the players on the opposite side, is essential and an important coaching point.

The difficulty of the exercise can be varied by contact limits, a changed field size or the prohibition of horizontal passes within one half. Still, since this form of play should provide a motivating introduction of the principle for the players, I would recommend rules by which the team in possession of the ball has many experiences of success.

2. 2v1 into 2v2

In order to introduce the preparation of the one-two through opening space, a 3v3 game can be carried out on a 12×20 meter playing field divided into four equally sized zones. In the front half, the team with the ball has a 2v1 advantage, while the defending team has this advantage in the rear half.

The goal for both teams is to score in the goals on the short side. If the defending team wins the ball, an unrestricted 3v3 over the entire field arises. After goals or if the ball leaves the playing field the game starts again in 2v1 in one half. In total, the game is played for 2 minutes before a break.

To incentivize a one-two with zone-change, ball-far player may advance to the rear half and create a 2v2 there, which can be exploited as soon as the ballcarrier receives the ball back and plays forward.

Again, it is important that the ballcarrier invites pressing in order to get more time after the zone change with a high dynamic advantage. The dropping of the player in the rear half is also relevant to allow for a one-two. In particular, he should not position himself in line with the goals and thereby force the defenders to make a decision of which option to cover. If they concentrate on the opposition player, they open a goal, if they do not, he remains playable.

In addition to the obvious benefit of advancing as a ball-far player the moment of this movement should be coached. A too early advance can be noticed by the pressing player and lead to a reduction of his tempo as well as an access from another direction and specifically under cover of deeper zones, while too late advancing prevents turning in a higher position. The trigger I would choose is the beginning of the passing movement of the ballcarrier.

Of course, the pitch size can be changed to allow for variation. Furthermore, an hourglass form could be chosen to force diagonal play in the middle with a larger width to be attacked in the half of attack.

3. 6v6

The third and final form of play to be described in this article is a 6v6 game played on a 20×32 metre field cut out in the shape of an hourglass (12 metres at the narrowest point). At the short ends of this hourglass there is an end zone, 6 metres high and divided horizontally into two equally wide zones. Behind each end zone there is a 16-metre-high strip with a goal at the end.

A team begins in possession of the ball and occupies the deepest zone in a 2v1. In the middle zone, the defending team has a 3v2 superiority whilst there is a 2v2 match in the highest zone.

The rules of the game from the previous form are taken up insofar as one of the players may move forward from the lowest zone if a one-two with zone change has taken place. If the game passes through the central zone, one attacker and one defender each may move into the endzone in order to ensure a dynamic occupation of the penalty area.

The shape of the field also creates restrictions that support other principles. The hourglass shape prevents the attacking team from passing vertically along the by-line in favour of diagonal passing and rewards the defenders for guiding build-up to the wings.

The narrowing of the field gives the defenders a basic orientation in height, which can in turn be exploited used by the players of the attacking team positioned in the central field. In particular, you can pull out an opponent and use his dynamics for a vertical one-two.

Depending on the focus on different principles, the incisions can also be used in such a way that they cannot be entered but can be played through in order to look for wide-ranging up-back-combinations with us of the strikers. Another possibility would be the permission to play in these zones as soon as a contact is made in the middle zone.

A variation of the game form, in order to pick up the game situation described at the beginning, would consist in the withdrawal of the pressing player into the middle field to create a 2-2 structure there. From this structure, the ball-near player would then press the ball, whilst the ball-far high player stays in the middle zone.

General remarks

As already mentioned at the beginning of the text, counter-dynamics are not an explicitly known concept. Accordingly, one will not find a complete methodology for training them. The train of thought underlying this article is nevertheless the same as for most of the other principles described in this Advent calendar. From an analysis of the game, principles or guidelines of action that almost always apply are found.

The game situations in which these principles are most frequently applied, are subsequently reduced to training forms, in which a certain behaviour is to be trained primarily through implicit zone rules or field forms as well as through introductory or detailed explicit coaching.

One concept that is particularly relevant for counter dynamics is the focus on rules for dynamic field changes instead of static field occupations. Put simply, dynamics cannot be understood with statics.

Collective counter-dynamics

At the beginning of the text I mentioned the concept of collective counter-dynamics. At this point I would like to briefly discuss why this term can be misleading. A single opponent can statically cover a radius of perhaps 2 meters but having a high dynamic might need a distance of 5 meters to slow down and turn.

An entire, compactly shifting defensive, on the other hand, can easily cover radii of 30m without needing a greater distance to turn than a single player. You will never be able to let an entire formation run counter-dynamically into the void. Rather, the term collective counterdynamics should describe a sequence of frequent individual tactical use of counterdynamics.

This should not call into question the fact that such an individual tactical behaviour can have a strong effect on the collective behaviour of an opponent. The direction of movement of the pressing player in a guiding press at least determines the orientation of the entire block as well as the anticipation of follow-up actions. This orientation can be broken by playing counter-dynamically.


All training forms presented explicitly dealt with the use of a counter-dynamic one-two in the build-up from central defence. Of course, there are countless other actions in which such a pass can be appropriate. Two examples of this are inverse runs into the centre by fullbacks, after having played a longline-pass, and vertical one-twos between sixes and eights, after the former was put under pressure from a deeper zone.

One of the reasons why counter-dynamics are not given much attention is the enormous risk of suboptimal execution. Passes in quite static spaces have less timing requirements than passes into movements. The outstanding quality of creative players like Mesut Özil is not least to find players behind the last line by exploiting their dynamic advantage.

Despite improvements in the technical qualities of these positions, many defenders may not be able to play a perfectly placed sharp pass under pressure and properly receive the back pass on the run.

Perhaps the problem lies with the coaches, who don’t give the players the courage to play such a risky game. Tim Walter, coach of the Holstein Kiel, just needed a few months to establish a highly dynamic build-up game in the Second Bundesliga.

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