Door 24: Dismarking

By Judah Davies


For today’s advent calendar piece, I’m in the relatively rare position of writing about a topic which I have already written about extensively in a tactical theory article.

As such, this piece will be focused almost entirely on the practical application of the concepts detailed in the article.

Basic design

To teach players how to dismark, we first need to create an environment in training where dismarking skills are necessary. The first thing to decide, then, is how to do so, and the main variable used throughout the exercises, is the number of players. Particularly having an even number of players within a particular area. This will naturally encourage man-oriented defending, or at least a high number of individual duels.

Small scale exercise

From a methodological perspective, particularly when working on movement/positioning aspects, I find it effective to coach through “small scale exercises” initially. When creating small scale exercises, the aim is to only use as many players as needed, whilst maintaining as much of the tactical context behind the decisions as possible.

With fewer team-mates, the emphasis on each player positioning and moving themselves well is heightened, as the exercises simply wouldn’t function well otherwise. With more team-mates however, the players’ ability to rely on a team-mate playing well increases, which may hinder learning.

The players at either end have to remain in the end zones, while both central players have to remain in the middle zone. The basic idea is to continually get the ball from one end zone player to the other, going through the middle attacker in the process. This could be in the form of a dribble from the attacker, or a lay-off followed by a direct pass between end zone players.

The context behind the design of this exercise was to train the behaviour of marked players ahead of the ball when the ball carrier had space and time on the ball. This tactical context is re-created essentially by three factors; firstly that the defender isn’t allowed to press the end zone player, secondly that the central player has to touch the ball in the move and lastly the directional nature.

Since the defender cannot press the end zone player and stop the attack at source, they have to focus on challenging the progression into the middle zone. Furthermore, the ball has to go through the central player, thus it makes sense for the defender to focus on blocking passes into them.

However, since the attacker’s aim is to play to the far end zone, the defender is led to defend “goal side”. The combination of these three factors leads the defender to mark their direct opponent tightly. Preventing smooth progression from the first to middle zone, and then preventing turning if and when the central player receives the ball.

Movement Patterns

“Stay away from the ball, drop as late as possible, and change your movement if the opponent follows before the ball comes”

Within this basic exercise, a ton of fundamentals can be taught with each player having several repetitions within a similar tactical context. Firstly, the movement of the central player to create the necessary separation between themselves and their marker is key. Given that the ball carrier has time and space the initial movement needs to be away from the ball, to ensure the ball carrier’s time and space isn’t reduced.

Essentially the central player needs to create a situation where the distance between them and the ball is shorter or equal to the distance between them and their opponent. Double movements are thus a natural outcome.

However, the timing of the player changing their movement is vital. When dropping towards the ball, if the opponent follows the movement before the pass is played, the defender has a good chance to create pressure on the player’s first touch, or step in front and intercept the pass.

This situation then, is a good signal for the player to change their movement, taking the defender away again, before finding another moment to drop. This is of course important for the ball carrier to be aware of, to avoid situations where a pass is played whilst the intended receiver changes their movement.

Analysis: Is the player not able to create a bigger distance between them and the opponent than them and the ball?

Possible issues;

  • Not a significant change in speed between first and second movements
  • Lack of a clear signal to team-mate, moving to move rather than moving to lose
Receiving Patterns

Always know where the opponent approaches from, and keep your body between them and the ball”

Having created separation and with the pass on the way, the players’ receiving skills come into play. The first aspect of receiving skills is an awareness of the opponents’ position and pressing direction, since this will determine how effective a receiving pattern is. If the opponent isn’t able to arrive to press by the time the ball is received, the player should naturally aim to turn.

Likewise, if the opponent arrives at full speed, using their momentum against them can result in an easy turn. When the opponent is close, the player’s body position to protect the ball is imperative. In these situations, receiving with the foot further from the opponent should allow the use of the standing foot, torso and arms as a shield. as the attacker seeks to transfer their advantage from the ball-side to the other side of the defender.

This is also vital information for the end zone player making the pass. The delivery of the pass can give the team-mate information about the opponent. For example, a fast delivery to the back foot (foot further away from the ball) should indicate the player has space to turn, whereas a diagonal delivery towards one side of the area shows the attacker that their opponent approaches from the other.

Analysis: Is the player not able to receive the ball in a way that sets up the next action well?

Possible issues:

  • Lack of adjustment to defender’s approach direction
  • Lack of a shield between ball and opponent
  • Receiving on the back foot despite opponent being close

When the opponent is far away, and when the opponent arrives at full speed can be easy to deal with, it’s a different, more complex problem when the opponent arrives early but slowly since they’re better prepared to defend the turn.

In this case, the attacker needs to manipulate the opponent to increase the space ball side of the opponent, or lure the opponent in to get tighter. One way of doing so is feinting to turn in one direction by stepping past the ball, before spinning and turning the other way.

Post-receiving Movement

“Open the furthest passing lane, and adjust to support it”

In some cases, when the attacker receives the ball, the opponent arrives to press immediately on their first touch, whilst in control of their speed. Turning becomes risky and they may lack time to manipulate the opponent. In such situations, laying the ball off to the end zone player and adjusting position is a good solution.

By adjusting their position after laying the ball off, the attacker can create a problem for the opponent. The direct pass between end zone players is now a possibility, meaning another option to defend.

Depending on the opponents’ decision this could lead to receiving with more time and a better field of vision, or the direct pass. The key though is to ensure moving onto a different vertical line to the far end zone player, to maximise the space the opponent must defend.

However, if the direct pass to the end zone player is played, it is vital that the central player knows their job isn’t finished. While the ball travels, it is key that they adjust their position to be able to receive immediately.

Analysis: Does the move not flow well after the lay-off?

Possible issues:

  • Not a big enough separation between far end zone player and central player
  • Lack of disguise on pass from end zone player

Adding players and complexity

Positional/3-team positional games

In this context, 3-team positional games also use even numbers to create the necessity for dismarking. However, by adding a group of outside players who play on the edge of the area, more possibilities for group-tactical dismarking are created. The outside players can give the game direction, with the aim being to get the ball from one end zone to the other continually, going through the pressured centre in the process.

Of course the fundamentals developed in the small scale exercise; movement patterns, receiving patterns and post receiving movement patterns are needed here, at a higher level of pressure. However, these behaviours must now be co-ordinated on a group-tactical level. A few particular group-tactical methods can be trained in these games.

“Attack the space that your team-mate’s movement opens up”

Using the direct route and lay-offs

“When a team defends man to man, you have to play a lot with the striker” Pep Guardiola, May 2017

With a number of players within the playing area, they should now position themselves in a way where the deepest passing lane is kept open. Furthermore, the ball carrier should aim to play the deepest pass when possible.

When the ball is in front of man-oriented defenders, they can see the ball whilst keeping their opponent in front of them, allowing them to see both. However, when the ball is played beyond them, they have to choose and invariably turn to see the ball.

The moment where the markers turn as the ball is passed beyond them creates a window of opportunity for their opponents to move off their blind side, and get free. That’s a useful cue for the timing of movement to support a deep pass, in line with the principle: “Open the furthest passing lane, and adjust to support it”.

Rotations/Opposite movements

Having team-mates within the playing area creates the opportunity to practice rotations in order to lose their markers. When a marked player starts a movement, they become temporarily free whilst their opponent reacts to the movement. If this temporarily free player moves towards another occupied defender, it creates a brief 2v1 like situation which is key to the effectiveness of rotations.

However, it’s also possible to simply move with the intention of emptying a particular space for a team-mate to use. Using the previously mentioned principle “Attack the space that your team-mate’s movement opens up” I find it useful to coach rotations where an initial movement is a trigger for a nearby player.

3rd man wall passes

In most forms of man-marking they press with a -1 underload to keep a +1 overload in the last line of defence. In this under loaded pressing, it’s common to see a striker press whilst blocking the passing lane between the defenders, whilst the players ahead of the ball are closely marked.

To have an effective build-up, it’s vital for a team to be able to advance the attack when they see fit, rather than advancing because the opponent forces them to. As such, in these situations, the defenders need “wall passes” to switch the ball between themselves, if the situation isn’t yet suitable to advance the build-up.

“Stay away from the ball” If the free player can carry the ball forwards, their team-mates should stay away from the ball to increase the space for the dribble. “Drop as late as possible” However, as soon as the ball carrier is under undue pressure, it’s vital that a team-mate ahead of the ball adjusts to offer an option.

Examples of positional/3-team positional games

Bi-directional 5v3

Introduced to me by Alex Lawrence
Arrows indicate the direction the respective teams play in when in possession
Outside players have two touches and cannot pass to each other

This game and the accompanying rules are particularly useful for practicing rotations to create a free player within the area. Since the end zone players aren’t allowed to pass to each other, the team in possession have to create a free player in the centre.

Furthermore, the outside players are limited to two touches to force quick and effective dismarking movements from the players within the area.

Thus, the speed at which the ball carrier can find a pass into the area, will give clear feedback about how effective the players have been at losing their markers.

The initial central player moves towards the edge of the area, dragging the marker out with them, and emptying the centre for the previous end zone player to drop in and receive. A clear example of the principle “Attack the space that your team-mate’s movement opens up”.

Another key to this rotation being effective, is the timing of the pass from the ball carrier. It needs to be late enough so the opponent has begun to follow the initial run, but early enough so that the opponent hasn’t yet reacted to the dropping movement of the previous end zone player.

A variation of the previous game with goals
Outside players can now pass to each other
Once the far end zone player receives the ball, the team have 3 touches in total to shoot (e.g. end zone player lays off in 1 touch, next player can take 2 to shoot or vice versa)
If a team scores, game starts again with their base player

The introduction of goals and allowing the direct pass between outside players changes the typical behaviours within the game. The emphasis logically becomes on positioning in a way where the passing lane to the end zone player remains open.

Additionally, the team touch restrictions force quick supporting movements from the players to offer lay-offs after the deep pass has been played. Quick support for the end zone player is also incentivised and connected to the next action, since arriving for a first time lay-off would give the receiver better conditions for the following action (2 touches to shoot).

The central player moves deeper and wider to open the lane to end zone player, before bending their run to offer a lay-off option. At the same time, the deep player on the far side makes a run from deep, arriving for a lay-off at high speed, “Open the furthest passing lane, and adjust to support it”.

Another key factor for this to be effective is the weight of the lay-off pass. To make a suitable lay-off, the end zone player needs to read the speed that their team-mate arrives at. For a team-mate arriving at high speed, a lay-off where the power of the previous pass is taken off without additional force would better support the next action. Whereas, a slightly higher level of power would better support the next action for a player who arrives slowly.

4v4+4 with end zones

Blues vs reds in the middle, the greens (outside players) play for whichever team is in possession
Outside players have 2 touches and cannot pass to each other
Far end zone players can rotate into central area
After a switch through a wall pass, the receiving build-up player can dribble into the central area

This game and its rules create a good basis to work on wall passes as a means of switching, as well as “andribbeln” to create a spare man in midfield.

The initial build-up players aren’t allowed to pass between themselves, since switches between centre backs are usually prevented by such opponents. Thus, the midfield players either have to get free quickly to offer a route to progress, or simply to be a route to switch the ball across to the other build-up player.

After a wall pass, the receiving build-up player can advance into midfield meaning they will either cause a previously marking opponent to step forward to press, or be free to complete the pass to the end zone.

The principle of “Stay away from the ball, drop as late as possible” is key here, in effectively progressing after the dribble. By staying away, the space for the dribble is maximised, the highest central player only drops when the dribbler is pressured. Furthermore, because the new “free man” stayed away from the ball, they are in good space to complete the next action.

To take full advantage of the dribbling build-up player, there are a few more key factors.

Given the two touch limit, it’s vital that the first touch is taken forwards into space, carrying them into the middle area. It’s then important that they quickly perceive the opponents’ decision, if they close down or not, to decide the next action.

For the players in the centre of the area, this is also vital to perceive. If the dribble isn’t closed down, they need to position themselves to keep the passing lanes to the end zone players open. If the dribble is closed down, they need to recognise which option the presser blocks, and create an alternative route to access this option.

9v9 game

Final 3rd line is offside line

With this game form, all the previous aspects can be trained together, along with a key addition; running and playing beyond the last line of defence.

Once again, the principles laid out earlier are a guideline for a number of effective patterns.

As well as wall passes, the defenders can now use the back pass to the goalkeeper as a means of switching before finding a suitable moment to advance the build-up.

The next key is to open and use the deepest route if, and only when the dribbler is under pressure, “drop as late as possible”.

The key to breaking beyond the defensive line is the movements that happen after the deep pass has been played. I find using the winger’s movement decision to be a useful trigger for follow up movements.

The winger can follow the “attack the space, that your team mate’s movement opens up” by running diagonally into the space opened by the striker dropping. This could then be a trigger for the 8 to run into the open space on the wing.

Alternately, the winger can decide to stay wide, with the 8s either moving to receive a lay-off pass before playing the winger through, or even running through the open channel. Following the “Open the furthest passing lane, and adjust to support it” principle.

There are of course several other possible movement patterns which can emerge from the principles established in the earlier game forms, or perhaps from different principles.


As I wrote to conclude my theory piece in 2017:

“An interesting point is how the reactive nature of man-marking, forces pro-active actions from the attacking side. To effectively beat man-marking, the movement and actions on the ball often need to be manipulative.

Acting to manipulate, the attacking team can have “prior knowledge” of the situations that their movements/actions on the ball are likely to create. This prior awareness will have benefits when it comes to exploiting the resulting situations.”

The creation of this group-tactical “prior knowledge” amongst players is key to coaching dismarking effectively. However, it’s vital to reinforce the need for constant reading and adjusting to the decisions of the opponents, rather than dogmatically following patterns which are usually effective.

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