Stevie Grieve on Tactics: Building from the back and dominating possession

As part of his regular column for the Supplement, Stevie Grieve shares his tactical insight of the game. In this edition he looks at how teams that want to build up play from the back and keep possession should adapt their tactics accordingly.

How many teams in British football can we remember who were relentlessly dominant in possession? How many were coached by British coaches?

It’s a problem British football seem to have at international level too. The inability to retain possession to control the direction of play in big matches always seems to come back and haunt British sides in European competitions at club level.

So, if keeping possession is a problem that many pundits have identified over the last 25 years, why haven’t we found a way to theorise the structure to retain possession?

Why are many people ignorant to the depth of detail within one of the most important aspects of play?

From my brief insight into British coaching methods, tactics is limited to two of the four reference points; Team Mates and the Ball. Where can the ball go to get into a dangerous position, and where are my team mates? This becomes an issue when you want to play with really advanced full backs but with wingers who stay very wide, and central midfielders who stay central.

If we go back to the Scotland v Lithuania match,  far too often, Scotland lacked ‘connections’ from the centre to wide zones (there are videos with narrations on my twitter @StevieGrieve and there are also episodes of ‘MindGame’ on Vimeo where you can see analysis of Pep Guardiola etc.)

When I refer to Centre-Wide, I refer to the 3rd and 1st/5th channels on the field. To give an image to help this, I have placed a picture of Pep Guardiola’s training field at Bayern Munich.


The 3 central zones would be numbered 2-3-4. The wide zones with the 6 boxes are 1 and 5. Scotland lacked any positioning in zones 2 and 4 when the ball was passes from zone 3 to the outside zones.

How can we create a stable positional structure to retain possession to dominate play, while releasing the full backs into advanced areas?

One of the first things we need to do is create a structure where our positioning is based on occupying specific areas of the field in possession, which allows us to be able to know where our team mates will be while the ball is moving. Through our football language and how we adapt our positions, we can then adapt our positioning in accordance to the movement of the opposition, to create positional superiority.

Once we have established our own positional structure, we can then look to use this is a starting point to create a structure based on the positioning of the opponent and how we can find ways to provoke pressure. As an example, our full-backs take the position on the shoulder of the widest midfielder, which means they will likely be in an advanced position where they can break the line with one touch.


Once we have positioned ourselves appropriately inside the opposition block, this gives us many possibilities to penetrate centrally which naturally, the opponent will want to prevent. This will then give us wide passes as they look to block the centre, and the ability to move forward quickly, forcing the opponent deeper and then giving us more space to move the ball from side to side in possession to find ways to penetrate vertically or diagonally from deeper positions, looking to provoke penetration. This means we can spend more time with more players in the opposition half, provided we counter press and recover long passes to restart a new attack without running back into our half.


As we position ourselves using a 5×5 grid, each player from left to right and back to front is within a reachable distance with 1 pass, without being isolated. How often do we see a very flat back 4, where a wide pass makes it easy to press the Full-back 1v1, then the Winger is marked when receiving a pass down the line, which results in a loss of possession or a restart? If the full back is higher, the effects the pressing ability of the opponent. With the space diagonally between the Centre-back and Full-back, we can draw space behind the midfield for the Winger to move inside to receive in a central position.


Our Centre-backs (orange) will be in zones 2/4, one offering across to circulate play. The Defensive Midfielder (red) will play between and behind 2 opponents diagonally (between Attack Midfielder and Centre Forward). The Full-back (green) will play on the shoulder of the wide midfielder. This allows the Winger to move between the lines to play between and behind the midfielders, in a pocket between 4 players (black). The Centre Forward will offer a longer pass while pinning the Centre-back or running behind the near side Centre-back (Blue). The far side Winger will play diagonally as far away from the ball as possible, in line with the shoulder of the far side Full-back (Maroon).

As the Full-back is advanced and on the outside shoulder of the widest midfielder, the winger can drift inside between the lines. Specifically, “between and behind 2 opponents”. This will ‘connect’ the play from the Central Midfielder who is “between and in front of 2 players”. This creates a 2v1 or 3v2 where we can penetrate vertically (Through) or around to the Full-Back who will take their first touch forward to break the midfield line and start attacking the back 4.

We could also ask that if the Full-back is deep and inside, the winger is high and outside to offer a way to transfer play from Centre-back to Full-back to Winger with the Central Midfielder higher.

Its more about positioning and timing of movement to arrive in areas where you pass into a space, than technical ability as all players can accurately receive and pass over short-medium distances.


As we can see from this image, after we circulate possession, the CM has drifted wide into the far side build up zone, with the FB high and the winger moving inside. This results in having positional and numerical superiority and makes it easier to penetrate midfield and move into a position to attack the back 4.


In the situation here, the opponent press 2v2 to prevent build up. We have a CM behind the 1st line of pressure to break the press but without the angle to receive. To solve the problem, the CM moves wide to fill in the 3rd build up zone to connect CB-CM-FB. From here, we are able to turn and attack, while using pressure on the ball to our advantage.

As the ball moves, the positioning “between and behind 2” should give the CM 3 passing options to split the midfield, The FB can overlap to receive 3rd man, with the CM covering the zone behind to defend or press the counter attack.


When we create connections, we are looking to make sure each player in possession has at least three players within a short passing distance. When we pass the ball, the opposition move. As they move, they leave spaces. The more often they are moved, the less organized they can be, and the more penetration opportunities we can have.

To do this, we are looking to ensure we can keep the play moving while always adjusting our position to receive in front and between 2 and between and behind 2, while circulating play to penetrate.


In this picture, we can see how in a 4-1-4-1, we have the 2 CBs in 2 of the build up zones, and 1 CM dropping diagonally into another of the 3 main build up zones. We have the DM connecting the back 3 with the midfield 4, creating and X from the defensive line to the attacking midfield line. Each player is in position referencing our positional structure, the opposition defensive block, and to overload onside side to tilt the opponent and attack the other side.

Build up play is within the phase of play called “Attacking Organisation”, which clearly has many components. Build up play is the basis for dominating possession, and teams who can control the game from build up, control the game and have the highest chance of success. Build up play and position is also arguably the most complex aspect of play and needs the most work, even with high level players.

Players and teams playing at premier league level, or even good level semi-professional, can completely transform how they play and improve themselves by learning to understand how to retain possession through a zonal positional structure with reference to the oppositional shape, its adaptations and looking for ways to break each line of pressure as often as possible.


90 Minute Cynic is a football website covering the important issues in the modern game. We follow European football with a distinct focus on the Scottish & English Premier Leagues. As part of the Hail Hail Media network, we cover Glasgow Celtic on our very popular podcast. We also seek out interesting and funny stories from all corners of the globe, bringing an analytical yet enjoyable spin on football podcasting.

'Stevie Grieve on Tactics: Building from the back and dominating possession' have 1 comment

  1. June 24, 2017 @ 5:15 pm Tag Lamche

    Stevie, that was interesting. The challenge is with practice design when you’re working with a small group say 13/14 players. Split the pitch in half / use shadow play method & designate the key zones. Then have players re-run the triggers for movement & vitally coordinate their positional adjustments to create those numerical superiorties eg behind and between while opening those diagonal & vertical passing lanes / around/ over etc. I work with an academy U13s team and we focus a lot on structured ways of getting them to build effectively from the back playing 4-3-3 & 4-2-3-1. This coming season want to focus a lot more on the juego de posicion in attacking phase and these detailed scenarios you’ve outlined are an invitation to practice design eg how to coach it with a small group on say just a half pitch. If you have any practice designs here that you can recommend please let me know. Many thanks, Tag


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