Friday, 05.04.2024

Training analysis: Markus Gisdol’s time in Hamburg

The time between two seasons always offers a great chance to reflect on the past and to ideally learn something from it for the near future – especially if the result of the past was relegation, like in the case of Hamburger SV (HSV). There’s no better, and thus painful starting point to create positive change.

While the newly formed team under coach Christian Titz plays the club’s first ever season in Bundesliga 2, I will take a step (and look) back in quite an unusual way. Firstly, Markus Gisdol hasn’t been Hamburg’s coach since January. Secondly, one rarely finds actual analysis on what happens in training – mostly due to lack of footage.

In Germany it’s normal for clubs to have a lot of public training sessions, although I can’t personally attend many sessions of a single club throughout a longer time period. Whenever you get insights from inside an organization, on the other hand, you have to keep those secret in respect to the club that offered this opportunity. Thanks to German HSV fan blog “”, there’s a lot of video clips available on Markus Gisdol’s time in Hamburg, though. They liberally allowed me to use it for this analysis which I can’t thank Markus Scholz and his team enough for.

Of course, this article will be about critically evaluating Markus Gisdol’s work but it’s also about how professional coaches structure their training sessions, which ideas are actually behind what they do and what the execution of it looks like. You can also use the following explanations as kind of a drill collection. But throughout the article it should become clear that this is quite a useless thing to do in regard to your own work as a coach.

For the same reason, it’s not always absolutely necessary to present every training drill with all its rules and in all its facets. This is simply impossible when you are not directly involved in planning and on-field coaching. Certain rules (e.g. extra points for a certain number of passes, touch restrictions) are often touched on when the coaching staff explains the exercise beforehand. These rules mostly don’t depend on a certain training design. At the same time, we also can’t touch on the aspects of training load and periodization within the scope of this articles

Instead of looking at single training sessions in isolation, I have divided different training exercises by their type. The structure of the paragraphs is based on when you would do a certain drill within a session but also on their complexity. Needless to say, that there will always be some overlaps using this approach.

  • Positional games as warm-up
  • 1 versus 1 and 2 versus 2 as base
  • Over-/underloads for group tactical patterns
  • Extension to sequential game situations
  • Game forms in a tight space
  • Enhanced game forms with zones and provocation rules
  • Game forms in cut out fields

Positional games as warm-up

At the beginning of the warm-up, Hamburg’s players usually go through different stages of athletic exercises which included elements of coordination, acceleration etcetera. This could be done in combination with ball work. Alternatively, the ball would only be introduced at a later stage within the context of unopposed (passing) drills. The use of these exercises isn’t to be neglected within the boundaries of this article.

But it’s more of a problem that unopposed work is either non-specific or highly specific in relation to how a team wants to play. This makes it really hard evaluating this type of training exercises when you only have short video sequences of it at your disposal. At the same time, it should be noted that these drills don’t incorporate certain elements that make football what it is in the first place: time, space and opponent as constraining factors.

Apart from the very first part of warm-up, Markus Gisdol includes these elements at least partly in all of his other drills. There are few doubts about him being what most people would call a “modern coach” in regards to the methodology used. In this aspect, you can also see what influenced him as a coach throughout his career – namely Ralf Rangnick and his “pressing school” which dominated at TSG Hoffenheim throughout many years and continues to do so more or less at all Red Bull clubs.

It’s no coincidence that Hamburg’s sporting director Bernhard Peters, former head coach of Germany’s field hockey team, worked together with both Gisdol and Rangnick at Hoffenheim. Gisdol himself served as an assistant coach under Rangnick at Schalke as well.

One surprising observation can directly be related to that: Markus Gisdol (almost) never uses the typical “rondo” as part of his warm-up. Rangnick once called the drill „Gammel-Ecke”, which can be translated to something like “lazy corner”. FC Barcelona once made this simplest form of a keep away game popular in its methodical use. You can play it in all possible numerical relations from 3v1 over 5v2 or 8v2 up to something like 15v3.

If one of the defenders touches the ball or another player passes it out of bounds, one of the defenders switches with whoever is responsible for the unsuccessful action. With only one defender, there’s not too much difficulty in setting this up. With two defenders it’s usually about who played in the middle for the longest time. With three defenders it’s a good option to let the responsible player and the two people next to him go in the middle.

Ideally many areas that are specifically related and important for football get activated with this type of exercise: quick touches of the ball (restriction to one or two touches or other variations like: after somebody plays with two touches, you have to play with one touch), constant adjustment of the body position, attacking the ball and covering when defending.

If nothing else, this type of warm-up exercise is adored by many players and it’s easy for coaches to make it a competition or to add further rules. Normally, the defenders have to stay in for an extra round for every 10 to 15 passes or when one of them receives a nutmeg. Alternatively, small physical punishments like push-ups are also used.

Diego Simeone set up a triangular goal in the middle of the playing area using poles. If the players in possession pass through it, this results in an immediate extra round or a different kind of punishment for the defenders. Therefore, they are forced to keep the center closed at all times. But they can’t allow themselves to be passive as the passes are still counted by the other players.

With a good use of your cover shadow, you will be able to both cover the middle of the field and press the ball at the same time. On a group tactical level, it means that one defender always has to cover if the other one attacks the ball. He also has to read the body position of the opponents in order to anticipate the next pass and find a good moment to step forward himself.

Recently, Marco Silva divided the players into pairs of two: If your partner commits an error, both of you have to go in the middle. These are only two examples to show how many possibilities there are to adjust a simple rondo to your own needs. For many coaches it seems to be more than just playing “piggy in the middle”.

The logical next step after a rondo are positional games with more numbers involved. The team in possession of the ball will still always have more players than the defending team (e.g. 5 versus 3 or 7 versus 4). This can also be ensured with the help of neutral players (“jokers”). The most popular example is the 4 versus 4 plus 3, used in different variations by many top-class coaches, including Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp:

The main idea remains to keep the ball for as long as possible. A certain number of passes is rewarded with points. To increase the chance of being successful with this, the team in possession has to create a structure that gives the player on the ball as many options as possible. Thus, triangles and diamonds are of high importance here.

On a level of detail, (pre-)orientation and body position are also very important, but you can focus on pressing as well. Due to the defending team being outnumbered, there’s little point in playing man-to-man – the opponent would always have at least 3 free options. Instead, it would be useful to defend in a rather space- and option-oriented manner and staying compact, especially in central areas.

In the next step, you can guide the opponent towards certain areas of the field to aggressively put pressure on the ball in those areas. The same thing should always happen after losing the ball – you can heavily focus on the first reaction in counterpressing. As the spaces are often tight, there are usually a lot of small transition moments in which you can develop the collective “instinct” (Jürgen Klopp) of winning the ball back as quickly as possible and using the resulting open spaces right away to play away from pressure.

Drill 1: 4 versus 4 plus 5

Markus Gisdol, for example used more players in such a positional game – one on each side of a rectangle and one in the middle. Numerically, keeping the ball should become easier while pressing should be more difficult. After losing the ball in the center of the playing area it’s of high importance to close the passing lines towards the neutral players, especially those on the sides, while still putting immediate pressure on the ball.

If you look at it closely, however, the effect of adding additional players on a space that is tight anyway will not necessarily help your possession game. It might be even more likely that the players in the center of the field almost run into each other while blocking passing lines towards the neutrals on the outside. Confusion and chaos whilst looking for those neutrals only as an escape route without further tactical or strategical thoughts behind it are likely outcomes of this.

In the context of Gisdol’s game idea at least creating chaotic situations seems to be a desirable effect of such an exercise and shouldn’t be judged negatively right away, although there are certainly other ways of designing a drill for that outcome. You can have setups with a lot of turnovers and transition moments which still allow to have a more structured possession game in the occasional organized moments. Interesting variations of the same exercise would for example include rules like prohibiting a pass from one neutral to another.

But positional games are not always and necessarily about connecting as many passes as possible and about relentlessly chasing the ball for the sake of just having it. Without playing direction one can lose sight of what is actually the context of the game. That’s why usually different ways of scoring are introduced even within the basic forms of positional games.

In the typical 4 versus 4 plus 3, for example, it’s quite common to reward playing from the neutral on one end to the one on the other end with an extra point. That way, you’ve created an ever-changing playing direction without even using (mini) goals.

Those can be introduced in a next step and are often used for the defending team – it can counter right away which in turn affects or triggers the counterpressing of the possession team after losing the ball. Of course, you can also introduce rules for the possession team that allow them to score in one of the goals. They accomplish a pre-defined task, e.g. playing in/through certain zones or again achieving a certain number of passes, and are rewarded with the possibility of finishing.

Drill 2: 4 plus 2 versus 4 plus 2 („Simeone“)

If you are strict about the distinction, this exercise isn’t really a positional game anymore but rather a normal game form in a tight space. But it’s used for a similar purpose like positional games at the beginning of a training session. The drill was originally used by Diego Simeone with who Markus Gisdol actually had an internship before joining HSV.

The playing area is divided into four vertical lanes and two halves horizontally. At each end, there are two mini goals, exactly between one of the central lanes and one of the wing lanes. The possession team keeps the ball with four players in their own half while four players of the opponent are positioned in the other half. These players can block passing lines but not step over the halfway line. In the final zone, there are two more players of the possession team, right in front of the two mini goals.

The same is the case the other way around which makes it a 6 versus 6 overall. The possession team tries to connect with one of their two target players on the ground who plays a lay-off to his partner in order to score in any of the two mini goals. Everybody bar the target players must stay in their lane.

The drill mainly teaches basic concepts of ball-oriented pressing, namely shifting and covering for each other. The player in the lane with the ball moves forward to block an immediate pass forward. The other three players cover behind him (buzz word: „defensive triangle”). On one hand, you train the fundamental mechanism of pressing and dropping in relation to the ball.

On the other hand, it’s about having proper orientation when you are not the one directly involved in pressing the ball as it’s your responsibility to screen passes towards the target players. Without checking the shoulder yourself or communicating with the team mates, collective defending will be impossible not only in this drill, but football in general.

The transitional character of a positional game can be further increased by dividing the playing area into different fields or zones with only one being active at a time while the other one is more or less a free space. Adding to the usual rules for aspects like number of passes, one team or both teams now try to dynamically enter this unused zone as the opposing team looks to prevent just that.

Drill 3: 6 versus 3 (plus 3)

Markus Gisdol used the most typical variation of this positional game type. You divide two teams of equal numbers and mark out two fields right next to each other which have the exact same dimensions. In one of the fields, one team starts in possession of the ball and tries to keep the ball for as long as possible.

In the video example, the drill is played in a 6 versus 3. If the three defenders win the ball, they try to connect with their three team mates who positioned themselves within the other field. If this is successful, a new 6 versus 3 is created. The team that defended before now tries to keep the ball.

Important coaching aspects for this positional game are again related to counterpressing in the 6 versus 3. Ball losses must be anticipated early based on local numerical relations as well as the body positions of team mates. If one of them is in one corner of the field with the back turned towards the middle I should already come slightly inside as it’s not extremely likely for him to secure possession of the ball.

It’s of highest importance to cover the center (which means in this case: the border between both fields) as the ball winning team can only play through this area in order to connect with their team mates.

Once you actually win the ball, it’s important to look deep right away. The three players in the other field need to be well staggered, shouldn’t come too close and have to constantly adjust their positions as they look to make the best use possible of the free space around them. After a turnover and a successful switch to the other field, the previous possession team has to react quickly as the first sprint is especially important. If there’s a seamless transition, the ball can be pressured right away and the opponent can’t establish possession and numerical superiority in the first place. For a few moments, you can ideally create a 3 versus 3 instead of a 6 versus 3.

Gisdol further increased the transitional character of this drill by allowing the ball winning team to actually have a counter attack including finishing. In this variation, the three players in the unused field can immediately attack on a big goal which is closer to where they are originally positioned. The ball losing team can still press once the ball is played away from pressure but due to their starting position they have a clear disadvantage.

Good counterpressing becomes even more important to prevent a situation like this in the first place. Additionally, one of the coaches can also serve balls to the free players immediately after a ball goes out of bounds. All players have to be in a constant state of transition. At the same time, you train finishing under pressure as well as preventing scoring in the last possible moment after your (counter-)pressing was beaten.

In regards to the positional games it can be said that they were mainly used for providing situations in tight spaces while incorporating the constant possibility of transition moments which usually leads to a number of chaotic situations. Organized moments were most likely to happen in pressing. Structure in possession seemed to be more of a side effect. These aspects fit well with the placement of positional games within the sessions.

Coaches that favor controlling the game (through possession) like to enhance this type of drill for the main part and use players according to their positions on the field (that’s also where the name “positional game” originates from). That way, they work on the structure of their team in possession whilst also working on their game principles. Almost needless to say, Markus Gisdol also has game principles. But they are mostly related to other aspects of the game. Accordingly, his base is a different one, too.

(Recommended reading on the topic of chaos and control:
For an in-depth look on a possible methodology of designing positional games:

1 versus 1 and 2 versus 2 as base

The 1 versus 1 is often referred to as the „base of football”. A simple idea behind that: If you win your direct duels, you will also win the game. Of course, this is a vast simplification and speaks of a somewhat outdated football understanding from a time when man-marking represented the standard. The wise Ernst Happel, one of Hamburg’s most successful coaches of all time, already knew: “If you play man-marking, you have eleven donkeys on the field”.

Nowadays most coaches use different tactical tools to create numerical superiority close to the ball in pressing as well as in possession. With this, you don’t rely on winning your individual duels as much, but this obviously doesn’t mean that 1 versus 1 situations don’t or shouldn’t exist anymore and that you don’t have to train related scenarios in training.

Especially in the context of fundamental training, you can teach children and teenagers a lot of different movements using 1 versus 1 scenarios. On a professional level it’s more about evaluating in which situations a 1 versus 1 is most likely and desirable to occur which also depends on how a certain team wants to play.

In a system that is based on dominance in possession, e.g. in the case of Pep Guardiola, you might overload one side of the field to isolate the winger, e.g. Leroy Sané, on the far side. Like that, you give certain player types a desirable 1 versus 1 situation that they are more likely to succeed in based on their individual superiority.

Despite that, it’s generally important that 1 versus 1 situations usually occur only for a short time. They probably last the longest when defending on the wing. But even then, as the full-back you will usually have the rest of the back 4 and at least one central midfielder covering behind you. Once your 1 versus 1 ends, additional players are ready to support even when it’s not a clear 2 versus 1.

Defending inside your own penalty area, on the other hand, is often more clearly man-oriented in order to have immediate access to the opponent and being able to block shots from short distance. But even here, it’s key to observe how the play developed before that – communication with team mates about players in the back, where the opponent is likely to have or already had their breakthrough, possibility of an immediate shot for the player on the ball after winning a previous duel etc.

Transition moments might be closest to how a 1 versus 1 duel is most often defined, particularly after rather chaotic actions that can’t be covered collectively immediately or when you have to save what can be saved. For a playing style, that wants to use such moments in a more or less strategical way, it makes some sense to train the 1 versus 1 once in a while and to refresh certain desired behaviors.

Drill 4: Variations of the 1 versus 1

Markus Gisdol used special situations to simulate 1 versus 1 situations in a more game realistic manner without using two players who would just start from a static position and run towards each other. For the dynamic of the game, it’s of course useful to have a certain tempo in a 1 versus 1 but also positions that players are more likely to be in during an 11 versus 11. Gisdol let the players run through a short area before the actual action started.

On the wing this would lead to a situation where the defender actually starts inside of the attacker who receives the ball out wide with the advantage of being a few steps ahead. The defender now has to close the route towards goal, meaning he has to catch up first and then to react to the different possible movements of the attacker. In the center, on the other hand, the attacker dribbles through a shorter area and ends up alone in front of the keeper. The defender comes around a second later and has to prevent him from scoring, either by winning the ball or at least by disturbing the shooting routine.

A variation of this is to again start three different (running) duels at the same time but to only pass one ball to one of the wingers. As such, a 3 versus 3 is created overall but due to the starting position and orientation it rather resembles a situation of a 3*(1 versus 1). Again, the defenders are slightly behind and have to make up for this disadvantage. This is relevant for all situations where the opponent successfully plays in behind the back line and attacks the space with runners. As the drill goes on, it also challenges the defending inside the own box and once again is about finishing under pressure.

The next step would be to play in a 2 versus 2 from the start. This is mostly done in a small space, using two keepers and big goals. This is again relevant for defending inside the own box. Due to the close proximity to the defenders goal, you always have to put pressure on the ball and on both opposing players while still being able to intercept passes or block shots. Transition moments are usually added to the procedure in order to create a dynamic and to provoke quick reactions at all times.

Drill 5: Changing 2 versus 2

Start in a usual 2 versus 2. If the attacking team doesn’t score and the ball goes out of bounds, two new players start with a ball from the other goal. The two players who failed to finish immediately become defenders. If the attacking team scores, two new players start from their side and play against the same two defenders. You constantly have to be able to react to previous situations in this exercise. Quick transitions are a must.

Over-/underloads for group tactical patterns

To work on specific moments that look to be created as often as possible in the game, the number of players gradually increases with the attackers being in numerical superiority. The defenders are often trained rather implicitly based on how the drills are mostly set up but the focus can also be shifted easily. At the same time the spaces in which the drills are executed become more game realistic. In the case of Markus Gisdol that mostly means: Playing through wing areas, followed by movement in the center to finish on goal.

That’s something you can definitely describe as a special feature. A lot of time is used to work on specific and precise wing patterns in the final third in which generally includes opponents. For this often a particular form of training was used in different variations.

Drill 6: 3 versus 2 in turns – finishing after combination from wing to center

A field that includes the area of two penalty boxes and one short area in between them is marked out. Amidst the middle zone, there’s one of the coaches, ready to serve the balls. Both sided, a dummy/mannequin is positioned on the outside of the same zone. The group is divided into two teams. Each team has two defenders in their own penalty area and one striker in the opposite box. At the same time, both teams have at least one player who is initially positioned wider than the dummy/mannequin. More players keep themselves ready behind the goals or outside the playing area ready to allow constant changes.

The game starts with a pass from the coach towards one of the center back pairings. The opposing striker stays passive. The ball is played outside where one of the wingers from the same teams receives the ball behind the dummy and takes a touch past it. At the same time, the striker and the ball far winger start their runs in the center. The player on the ball either dribbles inside in order to score by himself or to assist one of his team mates.

An often-used pattern saw the striker attacking the space in front of the first post, running behind the near center back. With the right timing he could either receive the ball by himself and finish or at least create space for a cutback to the far winger. Of course, other variations are possible here and usually discussed with the players prior to the execution to not interrupt the flow of the exercise. If one of the defenders wins the ball it continues right away as they pass outside to one of their own wingers in order to start a 3 versus 2 in the opposite penalty area.

One specific adaptation with a slightly different setup is only played on one side. Two dummies are put just outside both penalty areas. There are two attackers and two defenders in each of those. One team constantly attacks through their left side, the other one through the right. This can easily be related to which side the respective players would usually be lined up during the actual game.

In this variation the winger takes his touch even more towards the center as there’s almost no space to play in between center back and keeper. As a general principle in such situations is to find space in behind the defender, the location of this space changes based on the pitch setup. In this case, the area just at the edge of the box can be used for cutbacks.

For example, one attacker makes a run between both defenders while the other one drops back centrally. Alternatively, another typical movement can be executed as well: The far striker runs towards the near post, the near striker towards the far post. Another option is to deliver high crosses for these types of movements and to basically solve a 2 versus 2 in the opponent’s box.

Like many other coaches, Markus Gisdol divides the field into five different lanes: center, two wing areas and two half-spaces. These markings can be seen clearly in many of the clips. The game outside of the center is mainly emphasized within arrangement. Interactions in wide areas ideally create options to play into the half-space.

The half-space simply has the advantage that it’s closer to the goal and offers more options for follow-up actions. A pass back outside is possible while the same goes for playing towards the center. Deliveries inside the box from the half-space are generally more dangerous as they travel for a shorter time compared to crosses from the wing.

This also makes flat crosses a much more viable option as they resemble normal passes much more when played from the half-space. On the wing, however, you are basically forced to pass in a certain direction as the field is restricted by the sideline if you try to go the other way.

That’s how Hamburg scored the 2:1 versus Freiburg in February 2017 (click on picture for analysis in German). You can clearly see how patterns can be used during the game to open up the half-space inside the penalty area.

Drill 7: 4 versus 2 in turns – finishing after combination from wing to center

The ball always starts with one of the full-backs or wingers in the half-space. The other wide player positions himself wider and receives the first pass. Together, both of them try to combine forward between two dummies (e.g. opposing winger and central midfielder). This zone is guarded by one of the coaches in a rather passive manner.

Once they go past him, the central attacking midfielder as well as the striker enter the play. In a group of four, the attackers try to find a way to score versus two defenders (e.g. full-back and center back). For this they can use the patterns that were already applied in drill 6.

Compared to that exercise, in this one the interaction between full-back and winger is added though. Without good cooperation between them, a successful attack remains impossible. Them solving a 2 versus 1 is in fact a trigger for a second situation to start or for the same situation to be enhanced. The passively defending coach should be changed with an active defender at some point.

Another step is to start the exercise with a passing pattern in the center of the field to trigger a pass towards wide areas. Afterwards, the attackers would play through to goal using pre-determined patterns while clearly outnumbering the defending team (second part of the video).

Extension to sequential game situations

The principle of drill 7 can be taken to a next level to create some kind of a circuit that includes different consecutive game situations and patterns. After finishing the first situation, the second one starts. The end of the second situation triggers the next one until the initial starting point is reached again. That’s also arguably the last step before all players act more or less freely within bigger game forms.

Drill 8: 2 versus 1 circuit with finishing

On slightly more than half of a field, three goals are set up. On the side where the penalty area is regularly drawn on the grass, the goal stays centrally. On the opposite side there’s a goal in each half-space. The circuit starts between those two goals. The build-up team lines up with two central midfielders, two full-backs, two wingers and two attacking midfielders/strikers who move and act differently based on where the first pass is played to. The opponent overall plays with a back 4 and two central midfielders.

The first is played to one of the central midfielders who then passes further outside on his side. The winger receives the ball while the full-back makes an underlapping run inside of him. Like that, both of them have to solve a 2 versus 1 against the opposing full-back. Afterwards, they go towards goal and try to score against the opposing center backs with the help of the ball near central midfielder continuing his forward run as well as the two attacking midfielders/strikers and the ball far winger attacking the box.

Once this action is finished, the opposing goalkeeper gets a new ball which he throws to his full-back on the opposite wing. Together with the central midfielder on his side, they once again create a 2 versus 1 in the half-space against the remaining central midfielder and try to finish on the goal in the same half-space. After that, the game starts again with the first action.

Game forms in tight space

In many of the game forms that Markus Gisdol used at HSV the playing areas were considerably small. Due to that, the players logically have less time and space for their actions. It becomes easier to constantly put pressure on the ball which ensures a high intensity in everything that is done. The player on the ball has to make quick decisions. Even before he receives the ball, he needs to have a good orientation in order to perceive and find better solutions for continuing the game. If the players struggle with that, there will be many turnovers and the game becomes rather chaotic.

To further emphasize and use this aspect you can even deliberately pick a playing area that is too small. Subsequently, there will be more lost balls and more transition moments. In those, you almost have no other choice than playing forward quickly after winning the ball. If this takes too long, it’s comparably easy for the defending team to close gaps. Moments with open spaces are rare and only last for seconds.

Another option against a compact opponent would be to play longer high balls in behind. You can either get directly get at the end of those by timing the initial runs well or you use lay-offs and redirections. If this is not successful, you compactly press the second ball. This aspect of such a game form can be further emphasized by disregarding the offside rule or by moving the offside line further into the opponent’s half (e.g. edge of the penalty area).

The mentioned aspects were definitely visible in how Hamburg played under Markus Gisdol. Whenever the goalkeeper was in possession of the ball, the team would extremely overload one area of the field towards which he would deliver the ball with a high and long kick. Afterwards, the space behind or next to this crowded place was supposed to be attacked with high tempo. That’s when you can also use the behaviors and patterns that were trained in over-/underload games.

Drill 9: 6 versus 6 – coach serves new ball

Both teams either line up in a 2-3-1 or 4-2-formation plus goalkeeper. Free game. Each time the ball goes out of bounds, the team that would regularly resume the play gets a new ball from one of the coaches who stands at the halfway line of the playing area. The same happens after a goal as the team that scored gets rewarded with possession.

As the coach can choose between six different players, it’s considerably hard for both teams to know which type of action will come next, once the ball is not in play anymore. Constant awareness is of high importance in this exercise. The ball can for example, be played into a relatively free space which requires a rather calm build-up if it happens in the own half. In the opposing half, on the other hand, it would lead to a quick counter.

But the ball can also be played into pressure. The receiving team either has to try to finish quickly and shouldn’t let the opponent play away from pressure if this happens in their half which simulates a counterpressing moment. If the ball re-enters under high pressure in the own half, on the other hand, it makes sense to use the space in behind as quickly as possible.

Chaos can become an even more important factor when it’s about set-pieces. Some teams use that when executing their first action in this moment of the game, e.g. when they are overloading the six-yard-box during an attacking corner, making clear assignments harder for the opponent.

Even when a specific pattern is planned for the initial action of a set-piece what follows is usually confusing. Frequently, there are at least 15 or 16 outfield players plus one goalkeeper inside the penalty area or at the edge of it. In such an environment it can become quite hard to “simply” clear the ball or to “just” put the ball in the net.

Drill 10: Set-pieces on tight space

The field is as long as two penalty areas while the full width is used in an 11 versus 11. On each end, there’s a goal with a goalkeeper in it. The game starts with a corner or a free-kick from different positions. The defending team can always counter on the opposite goal. The game continues until a goal is scored or the ball goes out of bounds.

This exercise doesn’t only train “chaos” as previously explained but also makes the training of set-pieces generally more interesting for players. Instead of executing one pattern after another, this element always changes with a highly active phase in which basically each player has a realistic chance to score a goal by himself. This prospect naturally increases motivation which can be further enhanced by different possible forms of a competition. For example: Which team scores more goals when attacking ten times and defending ten times (goals on the counter are worth two points)?

Enhanced game forms with zones and provocation rules

The relationship between the number of players and field dimensions isn’t the only possibility to adjust game forms according to your needs. A neat alternative or extension can be implemented when you divide the playing area in different zones which are linked to specific rules.

Options for that include touch restrictions, predefined numerical relations in each zone, time limits et cetera. Certain actions could also be demanded before scoring a goal or you reward these actions with extra points (e.g. entry to certain zone only via dribbling or one touch pass after playing into next zone = extra point).

Drill 11: 6 versus 6 in 3 zones

The playing area consists of two clearly marked penalty areas as well as a middle zone that is slightly longer than each of those. The line of the penalty box in the opposing half is also the offside line for the attacking team. Only two defenders are allowed to defend inside the box in front of their own goal. This forces the defending team to shift well in order to close passing lines into the box and prevent eventual breakthroughs like this. The attacking team, on the other hand, can create a numerical superiority after entering the penalty area.

It would make sense to work with time restrictions here, for example: finish within three seconds of entering the opponent’s box. A restriction for passes is also possible, for example: maximum two passes within opponent’s box. Like that, you could prevent all too static or unrealistic moments to happen close to the opposing goal. In a game, you would rarely actually have numerical superiority inside the opponent’s penalty area. Finishing mostly happens under rather high pressure which isn’t trained when you have time and space to finish from a 4 versus 2 or even a 5 versus 2.

The attacking team pushing up in numbers while the defenders can only have two people defending in their own box naturally affects transitional moments in a different way. If you can clear the situation and one of the defenders or the goalkeeper secures possession, you can start an attack by yourself right away and would most likely outnumber the opponent in a 4 versus 2 or 4 versus 3. The team which lost the ball has to work backwards quickly to again prevent the opponent from entering their own penalty area. They can’t allow their defenders to be left alone in numerical inferiority.

Drill 12: 7 versus 7 with wing areas

The field can not only be split horizontally but also vertical zones/lanes can be used as Markus Gisdol already does by marking out wing, half-space and center on the training field. A popular way to influence game forms in that way is to only create one big central area and two wing zones which will get an important role during the exercise.

In this example, the game is played in a 7 versus 7 (plus goalkeepers). Both teams line up in kind of a 4-3-formation. The wing areas can only be entered by a single player of the possession team while the defending team can’t go there at all. This will automatically lead to more wing-oriented attacks as the possession team will always be able to have a free player exactly there. As only one player can be positioned there at the same time, positional changes in lateral areas will also be encouraged, implicitly touching on previously practiced behaviors.

At the same time, defenders are trained in how to react to wing breakthroughs. They have to block crosses in the first place but also be ready to defend inside their own box if this isn’t successful after all.  Counter attacks through the wing can also be very effective, if the players are quick enough to spread out after a ball win.

But the absolute passivity in regards to defending wing areas isn’t very game realistic in the end. In the 11 versus 11 many defending teams easily shift outside in a collective manner and can successfully isolate the ball carrier there. That’s why it’s important to find quick solutions, once the ball goes to the wing against an organized opponent. You could simulate that for example by restricting the player on the wing to one or two touches.

Or you reward combination inside from the wing as a whole, an aspect that was touched on by Gisdol in other drills as well. You could give an extra point for every successful pass from wing to center. This becomes even more realistic and challenging, if the defending team is allowed to shift freely and to also enter the wing areas. You could give an extra point for winning the ball on the wing as well after introducing a rule like that.

Other viable adjustments would be to always only allow a 1 versus 1 to happen on the wing, including this basic situation in an actual game, or you once again use time limits. A slightly different approach would focus more on switching the play: If you play the ball from one wing area to the other within one spell of possession, you will be granted an extra point. For a direct switch to a free player on the far side, one could even give award two points.

Another interesting method can be to link several elements of the game to each other, similar to what was already done in drill 8, but on a bigger scale in regards to the situations being played. This leaves more options to fulfill the requirements of the game and would be less strict than the form of a circuit. In a game form like that, you would at first regard two or more zones as separate from each other. You have to get the ball from one zone to the next in order to create a new game situation.

Drill 13: 7 versus 6 to 4 versus 3

On one half of the field, one team builds up in a 4-2-1 with goalkeeper against a team pressing in a 4-2/2-3-1 formation. On the other half of the field, there are four players of the possession team versus three defenders. This zone is restricted to the width of the penalty area and also only goes from halfway line to the line of the box on which there’s a big goal with goalkeeper. Both zones are separated from each other on the halfway line by using several dummies.

The build-up team tries to go behind this line with a pass or with a dribbling. Only then would the 4 versus 3 which is all about finishing quickly start. If the ball goes out of bounds and the pressing team touched it last (or just generally when the game in the first zone is stopped), one of the coaches plays a ball into the 4 versus 3 by himself. If the defending team wins the ball in the first zone (6 versus 7), an immediate counter attack on the big goal is possible. If they win it in the second zone (3 versus 4), the game is stopped and restarts from the keeper.

With this game form, you can either train your build-up and playing into the space in front of the opponent’s back line in a simplified way. Or you primarily focus on coaching the pressing under challenging conditions. The players have to close central gaps for through balls and have to control the space behind them at the same time as they play in the opponent’s half where there’s no offside. A promising method seems to be isolating the opposing full-back and to outnumber the opponent in the zone around him by shifting towards the ball side.

Julian Nagelsmann gave an example for a similar game form during one of his training sessions at Hoffenheim: He focuses on the build-up more clearly, though, which you can see in some elements of the drill. You have to pass through one of the gates on the halfway line but you have an intermediate zone to still have a certain “space between the lines”. There’s a clear relationship between build-up and finishing zone, some players can move between both of them – numerical superiority in build-up means numerical inferiority for finishing and the other way around.

At the same time, his drill has a more holistic character: The build-up players have to push up after they successfully play over the halfway line, the six pressing players upfront have to run backwards in order to offer support. The game includes different types of transition moments that develop throughout the game itself. Gisdol rather tends to cut the game into numerous smaller pieces and to play through clearly defined transition moments that are not necessarily related to previous actions.

Not only the division of the field but also the “aspect ratio” can be adjusted based on what you want to train. If you want to focus more on switching the field and playing horizontally, you can play within a field that is wider than it is long.

Another factor to modify game forms that was already mentioned for positional games is the use of neutral players that play with the team in possession of the ball. Like that, you always have more passing options than the opponent can cover directly at the same time. The combination play in tight spaces becomes easier.

This tool is questionable in regards to defensive transition moments, though. If you, for example, position a neutral player in the middle of the field, he is quite likely to connect numerous players of the possession team with each other. But once the ball is lost, he switches to the other team, a player right at the heart of the team is suddenly missing, counterpressing becomes harder. The relationship between structure in possession and structure after losing the ball is partly neglected.

Drill 14: 8 versus 8 plus 3 tube game

In a very tight playing area that goes from penalty area to penalty area and is barely wider than the six-yard-box two teams with eight players each face each other. Both teams have a goalkeeper and line up in something like a 2-2-3-formation (two center backs, two central midfielders, two full-backs/wingers, one attacking midfielder/striker). Adding to that, both teams can use a neutral player in the middle of the field. There’s also another neutral at each penalty box. He can’t be offside.

Both teams try to connect a pass to the neutral player closest to the opponent’s goal. He can’t finish immediately but has to play one more pass before a goal can actually be scored. Like that, you don’t only train playing forward quickly but also provoke a quick lay-off game, including supporting runs from behind. The defending team has to carefully screen possible passing lines towards the neutral player. After winning the ball, on the other hand, they have to look deep right away by themselves in order to connect with their own target man.

Adding to the general use of neutral players in central areas, you could also discuss other implications of this game form. Due to its narrowness this type of field shape already implicitly forces vertical play forward. Do you need additional neutrals that basically have the same effect? Maybe you can think about it differently and could give extra points for third man actions without having neutrals inside the field. Or you use the neutrals on the outside as kind of a counterweight to the chosen field shape.

The neutrals should then have a touch restriction and would be forced to play diagonally inside. At the same time, the possession team could use them to stretch the game at least a bit more without neglecting the general effects of the tube shape. More detailed thoughts about tube games can be found here.)

Game forms in cut-out fields

Tube games simulate playing in a certain zone which generally is the center in that case. But in a next step, the concept can be applied to other areas of the field as well. For example, you could remove one of the wing areas. Each team would have to focus on playing through one side (left or right, based on positions) while still trying to find a way into central areas for scoring.

This type of modification isn’t limited to rectangular fields, though. Thomas Tuchel popularly used fields from which he would remove all corners – based on how much you remove it either becomes an octagon or a diamond with the goals being two of its corners. This prevents simple long line passes from happening.

For Tuchel those are not desirable as opponents can intercept them easily with good shifting. Also, long line passes are likely to be received either with a closed body position or while facing directly towards the touch line, both which makes follow-up actions harder to execute.

After progressing in build-up, direct play towards the goal is emphasized instead of going to wide areas first for crosses from the touchline. As a reaction to that, the pressing team has to close central spaces and has to guard passing lines from wider areas towards that area. Further thoughts on this type of game from can be found in this article.

If you build your own game around the use of wing areas in build up and prefer the use of the center in higher zones, only, you should cut your field in a different way. For example, Markus Gisdol used the following two game forms in continuation to what was done in previous drills:

Drill 15: 6 versus 6 plus 1 in curved field

For this game form, the field is cut out in quite a complicated manner. On one of the sides, there’s an around 20-meter-long outside area that goes almost from the outside edge of the center circle all the way to the sideline. On each of the penalty areas, there’s a big goal with keeper. Towards the goals, the field gets continuously wider until the opposite wing is reached. From there, the boundary just continues in a straight line all the way to the line of the box. Sounds pretty complicated, no? One can also imagine this as playing on a “banana field” or a “crescent field”.

The game starts in the tightest area where you only have the wing area to play in a 2 versus 2 plus 1. Outside of this zone, there’s a 2 versus 2 in front of each goal. Both teams try to play through to their attackers in that area. Once this is successful, one of the attacking players can advance to create a 3 versus 2 from which his team looks to score.

The neutral as well as the two players from the other teams remain in the initial area. If the defenders win the ball, they can use all these players for the offensive transition which will eventually see them attacking the opposite goal in a 3 versus 2 by themselves.

Overall, this game offers an extended version of the over-/underload situations. You are still limited to the same type of game situation but can now use patterns more freely and there are more free flowing transition moments that still can be prevented or at least disturbed as well.

Drill 16: 8 versus 8 plus 2 – Central Diamond is taboo

Instead of setting the whole field itself up in a diamond shape, Markus Gisdol cut out a diamond in the center of a regular rectangular playing area that goes from box to box and again includes two big goals at each end. On each side, there’s a neutral player just outside of the diamond.

Both teams set themselves up in a 4-3-1. In possession, the three advanced players and the striker position themselves above the diamond. Against the ball, the same three players have to close down the space in front of the back 4 while being able to defend on the outside against the overload caused by the respective neutral player.

Due to the design of the exercise, the neutrals behave like central midfielders that shuffle towards the side in possession. Like that, they can create mostly 3 versus 2 or 4 versus 3 scenarios on the wing. This is again used to combine towards the opponent’s goal. A pattern which should be familiar by now.

Gisdol’s failure: A matter of context, a learning moment for each coach

If you look for some kind of classification after all this, you should generally have one thing in mind: Markus Gisdol is not a genuinely bad coach who doesn’t have any understanding of football or of how to train football. Every time a coach is sacked in professional football, you could get the opposite impression all too easily – mostly it doesn’t matter at all who he is. Instead of analyzing the exact situation it’s either stated that “The coach is not good enough” or at least one somehow assumes this in the occurring discussions. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been sacked, no?

If this characterization really fits a coach in general, he probably shouldn’t even be criticized by himself but one should question how he ever got a job in professional football in the first place. A more fitting example would be Gisdol’s direct successor Bernd Hollerbach, an ex-player of HSV.

A guy who definitely has some upside to offer when it’s about understanding how players think and how to deal with that. He proved that he can be successful during his time at third division club Würzburg. But even that stint ended with relegation from 2. Bundesliga after gaining promotion the year before. His team didn’t win a single game in the second part of that campaign.

Looking at his often not football specific and rather incoherent training sessions, however, one can only think that he got to coach HSV thanks to the good relations he had with the club and the main decision makers within it. A fatal step when it’s about maintaining a tradition of playing in Bundesliga for half a century and about securing or losing millions of euros on the other side. It’s not surprising that this solution only worked out for less than two months. Hollerbach was fired after seven games and a point average of 0,43.

Seeing that, Markus Gisdol’s case is different and more complex. You could already be prepared for how the team would play under his leadership before he was hired – not unrealistic that people at HSV knew what was coming and even wanted it. His playing style was then also brought to the field as one could expect and as you can also see by looking at the training sessions. Markus Gisdol is a coach who focuses mainly on aggressive pressing and transition moments.

Overall, he does that in quite a logical and structured way. All training sessions are at least partially about offensive transitions. At the same time, training detailed wing patterns plays an important role. You can criticize the partial neglect of central play for different reasons but it’s not the main factor that causes coaches to fail in any situation.

An analysis in the context of the general situation at HSV seems to be more helpful. For years the club trusted coaches who more or less had the same game idea as Markus Gisdol – oftentimes the application of it was even less consequent and less methodical. But there’s one deciding flaw: That’s what most clubs in Bundesliga did. Intense pressing and emphasis on transition game were key characteristics of German football over the years and continue to be just that for the most part until today.

You could now do the same thing everybody does but do it better. For this you don’t only depend on the coach himself but even more on the structure around him, e.g. in areas like scouting and roster management. How HSV did in these aspects, that’s a topic for whole books.

An alternative would be to adjust by executing a different playing style which represents the counterpart to what everybody else does. Put differently: Markus Gisdol would probably be an unusual coach in Italy where intense pressing and fast transitions are not as common. He could maybe even be successful with a smaller or less organized club.

Something similar happened to David Wagner at Huddersfield after having average success at Dortmund’s second team prior to his time in England. In Germany both of them are rather representing the standard without even being less skilled than many others – quite the opposite.

Therefore, HSV should’ve probably looked for a coach that would bring additional solutions for the possession game to the table. My colleagues at Spielverlagerung already gave some good advice to the club in 2014. Although Gisdol gave the players a lot of options how to play from wing areas towards goal, it somehow wasn’t clear how they would create these situations on the wing in the first place: We can solve any 3 versus 2 but how do we get there? Is it even realistic for us to constantly create such situations?

This lead to one long ball after another being played. The team literally hinged on chaos. This occasionally lead to nice combinations after winning the second ball – not surprisingly as aspects of this were constantly trained and the players had a certain quality, anyway. But this playing style was very easy to see through. Especially when the opponents scored first, they would adapt well and wouldn’t allow HSV to get anything of substance.

When all hope was almost gone and the club had barely anything to lose, Christian Titz was introduced as new head coach. He fit the profile the team and the club needed much better than his predecessors and started working on Hamburg’s build-up game immediately. Most notably, he would use the goalkeeper as an additional outfield player high up the field in a way that was more extreme than what most other teams do (of course RM already wrote about stuff like this in 2013). Steps like this are always regarded as brave in the first place but looking at HSV’s situation everything that Titz did had a rather rational background.

Interestingly, Christian Titz also puts a lot of emphasis on wing areas within his playing style. Sometimes up to three players are positioned close to the sideline. This makes some elements usable that were trained with Gisdol over months but never really worked because situations for it were never created properly.

Of course, this is only a small part of Titz’s work. But like the whole Gisdol story it shows: Coaches depend on the context they work in. An outstanding coach can adapt to a lot of scenarios and finds solutions in many different situations. The right solution can be very hard to see at times.

But that’s why these people sometimes work for the whole night, get a decent salary and are eventually fired, once they stop to find solutions that fit the context or once they are unlucky for a certain amount of time (a factor one should never forget as well). This whole football thing is sometimes not that easy after all.

CF August 19, 2018 um 8:40 pm



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