Playing From the Back


By John Cartwright

Attractive and effective football requires highly talented players to be able to play it.

As players of this type are rare today from amongst our ‘home-grown’ players, mediocrity of performance from both individuals and subsequently

their teams is too easily accepted by our Press and public alike. Our reliance on simple skills aligned to simple tactics to ‘camouflage’ the gulf between great and ordinary falters under the spotlight when displayed against superior ability.  Simplicity should not signify high quality or greatness in a player, simplicity should be an option not the totality of response – for what happens when difficult decisions need to be made and only simple ability is available?

Alan Hansen

The gradual demise of individual skill in our domestic game is reflected by individuals as well as teams being unable to retain good ball possession.  An abundance of skilful individuals in a team provides excitement and uncertainty to the game and increases the opportunity to use more tactical options. However, tactical variations are ‘locked’ to simple positional roles through skill deficiency here and it has created the ‘ugly’, long-ball style of play associated with the British game. ‘Movement and interchange, the precious quality in which skill, the diamond of performance is set,’ this requires understanding, imagination and confidence in players. Individual skill quality ‘cements’ all these requirements and encourages a player to exit one position and enter another whenever necessary to play different offensive or defensive roles with productive purpose.

I have said for some considerable time that a lack of individual skill creates positional stagnation and this is most visible in the performance of the majority of back defenders throughout football. There are some nations who have players in these positions who can revert to other roles with ease, but many nations fail to produce or select individually skilful players for these positions. Goal-scoring should not be assigned to a limited few. An improvement in offensive team-play from back to front would give opposing teams more defensive problems and increase the goal-scoring opportunities for all attacking players. I find it incomprehensible that so much money and attention should be given to the acquisition of front players as the so-called ‘goal-scorers’ for clubs. There is no doubt that goal-scoring requires some special playing characteristics, but without good service and support the most predatory of ‘strikers’ can find the goals ‘drying-up.’

Nicol: Goalscoring full back

It is at the rear of teams that both space and time is usually available along with an overload of defenders to opposing attackers. These important advantages are not recognized or exploited enough because of poor coaching and limited playing talent. At the highest levels of the game it might be justified to play the game according to the quality of the players available, but is   inexcusable throughout the development years of young players. The senior game only ‘feeds off’ the quality of players supplied to it. A ‘catch 22’ situation has been allowed to develop here; poor coach education produces — poor coaching — producing poor players — who play poor football.

Low skill levels attracts pressure from opposing players. If pressure can be applied to unskilful rear defenders near their goal they can be forced into making costly errors. To eradicate the chance of these errors being made, coaches at all levels adopt a ‘safety first’ approach and demand that the ball is played forward, away from danger, as quickly as possible. The lack of confidence in skill quality disregards more positive play situations and so playing from the back is a rare commodity in the game.

Instead of being simple ‘stoppers’ of opposing offensive play, back players must increase their contribution to the attacking play of their own team and become influential and accomplished ‘starters’ of it. Team play is important if the game is to see more quality football emanating from back areas. It is vitally important that sufficient space is provided for the back player for them to be useful additions to attacking play. In order for this to occur, mid-field players must not fall back into the space required by the back players. To compensate for the ‘loss’ of a defender at the back and to retain defensive safety, a suitably timed rotation from a mid-field player into the vacant position should be made. This follows the exchange in roles as mentioned earlier and a similar exchange in roles could even occur between advancing rear or mid-field players and forward players to cover any gaps left behind in mid-field.

Terry - Stopper!

Playing from the back is an essential part of the game. It has been overlooked and is a rarely seen tactical occurrence, but if developed in conjunction with better skill acquisition methods for players in all positions, great strides in playing quality would be possible;   

An improvement in skill would promote a better appreciation of the playing options in the space and time available to back players.

  • They could create more space for each-other to play in.
  • They would decide on running out from the back with the ball or passing it long or short from this area.
  • Their passing would be suitable for the situation confronting them, imaginative, correctly weighted and accurate.
  • When running with the ball from the back, penetration through spaces before them would be sought where ‘overload’ opportunities in mid-field would be possible.
  • The distance of service from back to forward players would be decreased thus increasing ball retention in advanced attacking areas and thus increase the chances for attempts on the opponent’s goal.
  • It would also allow back players to continue their forward run and arrive in scoring positions from their own individual play or after having combined with other team members.

Lucio - Capable of playing out from the back

 Not until those in control of coaching realize the quality and effect that back players with a ‘total football’ upbringing can have on the game will we begin to emerge from the hyped up, mediocre-called-great ‘fightball’ presented to us today.


8 thoughts on “Playing From the Back

  1. Four years ago I had a really nice school team that I had worked with for three years previously from when they were 7 year olds and as the season approached for them to be the school team boys I was realy excited about this particular crop. Being a disciple of Johns and totally commited to intelligent play starting from the back I decided to put the four district players in the team as my back 4. I sat them down and told them that they were playing at the back because i really rated them and they were responsible for us maintaining possesion. We started the season really well. it was almost unheard of to have your full backs and centre backs scoring regularly. We were getting admirers everywhere we played…….but…..I was in for a shock. Some dads were “NOT HAPPY”. According to them “my boy’s a striker”….”whys he playing Johnny in defence” etc etc. These parents just didn’t get it. The head called me up to tell me that I was being relieved from taking the team to matches…..he didn’t really want to deal with the parents. Some of those boys are no longer playing football. They have drifted out for a number of reasons but the common denominator is the “fightball” style demanded by PE teachers and “football dads”.
    I don’t say any of this to put a dampner on Johns message but rather to point out the prejudices that we face at grass roots when we try to buck the trend. I believe that parents are a massive part of whether a player is going to get the right messages and I’m sad to say that I find the more generally educated a parent is the more they will respond to this playing vision.

  2. Hi Fletch. I fully understand your frustration when trying to change the development methods that have historically failed here. The title of my book, ‘FOOTBALL FOR T5HE BRAVE’ was written with frustrated coaches like yourself in mind. Keep believing and one day all those youngsters who need change to achieve their playing potential will thank coaches like yourself for opening up a brtghter football future for them .

  3. poor coach education produces — poor coaching — producing poor players — who play poor football

    Personally I agree with what is being said, but I wouldnt say its poor coach education. Its coaches not willing to educate themselves. I am not in a financial position to progress my FA level 1 any further, but that hasnt stopped me using the vast resources available on the net and to be inspired by some of the worlds best grassroots coaches to improve the ability of the players I coach – to many others think because they have access to Sky sports that they know it all.

  4. Interesting to see Franz Beckenbauer’s comments reported in today’s press. I disagree that it is anything to do with the number of ‘foreigners’ in our league – it is entirely to do with the way we prepare our players all the way through.

  5. Go for it Franz. Personally I’m delighted that England are out early because it’s going to give me that much more credibility next month when we start pre season. My players know I told them so six months ago.

  6. Hi greta article and have also enjoyed reading the posts.
    Just following on from above, the other week I had parents shouting at a full back to kick the ball out of play as the player was under pressure. So the player kicked the ball out of play, probably destryed the player for ever.
    What did I analyse from the play
    The player was iffluenced by the parents calls and removed the the ability for the player to make a decision.
    The opportunity to learn how to turn defence into attack in a pressure situation is lost and maybe for ever.
    Next time the player is faced with the same situation we know what shall happen. Ball booted out of play.

    I could go on about the negatives for ever however I took the following approach and hopefully the event shall not happen again.

    First I spoke to the parents about learning in pressure situations and believe that parents shall be supportive in future if players attempt to dribble or pass the ball positively to another team member.

    We as development coaches must provide a learning environment and the opportunity for players to develop confidence in every aspect of playing football.

    regards Colin

  7. Hi Colin. I’m pleased to read that you have the bravery to satisfy the real needs of the game (a) by attempting to get your players to play more expansively and (b) confronting the parents, good intentioned as they may be. The ‘revolution’ required to take our game forward will need people like yourself to stand up for the kids of this country and to give them a brighter football future. Good luck.

  8. Still not enough response to this article. This is a vital part of the game and needs to be seen more regularly at all levels here. All players should be capable of developing the game from the back and be comfortable when moving forward with fhe ball or in support of others.
    Providing the practices for ‘playing from the back’ and introducing this valuable part of the game into competitive play is one of the most important aspects within coaching and playing. What do you think, yesor no ?

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