Thursday, 04.06.2020

The Usefulness of Simple Rules to Improve the Collective Dynamics

The main thesis addressed in this text is that sometimes making small changes through simple individual rules can improve to a great extent the functioning of the team without needing more sort of complex changes.

The use of simple rules in decision-making is a recurrent topic in many fields, especially in situations of complex environments, with time constraints or where isn’t possible to compute all the variables.[1]

“Simple rules are shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the information processing, (…) heuristics that most of the time work yet sometimes don’t.” [2]

They work even if the players don’t understand the purpose of the change, but just following the rule small details will change in the dynamics of the team, working more effectively. This is because the players naturally adapt to the new situation and the possibilities arising making the actions affordable within the situation itself.

Furthermore, one benefit of using simple rules is that they are easier to be shared by the individuals from one team, thus helping them to act coordinately.

As such, these simple instructions aim to make favourable changes in the situation on which the players operate enabling them to make more effective decisions.

To explain the value of those two examples (one in defending and other in possession) are addressed.

PRESSING. Rule for the winger:

“Do not man-mark the full-back; keep your position as long as possible.”

POSSESSION. Rule for any player off the ball:

“Do not come close to your teammates, make longer the distances towards them.”

While following these rules will improve the overall functioning of the team, it doesn’t imply that are always enough to achieve a successful performance.

They simply make it easier because the behavioural changes a rule prompt have a huge impact in the situation and make it easier for the players to react effectively.


In possession, moving away from your teammates is usually a good first move because the space available is made larger, thus the longer the distances the harder the opponents have to cover all the passing lines and getting access to the players.

After recovering the ball, the players move away from each other manipulating and creating options to circulate the ball.

Moreover, the ball carrier is going to have more advantage to make his next action and at the same time, if they react by trying to follow one of the players moving away, another option is going to get open. Consequently, making it easier to circulate the ball and finding effective options to progress.

In the beginning of the scene above can be seen how the defenders are getting closer to the opponents when the ball goes forward in order to be ready for a potential turnover by having close distances towards them.

However, as the ball is again passed back due to the inability to find penetration, the centrebacks and the far side players move away from each other making the distances larger. The reaction of the opponent striker to the move opens a passing line to the left centreback which the ball carrier uses to find him in advantage and facing forwards.

Although it is beyond the scope of the topic, it is interesting to note how the decision by the ball carrier follows perfectly another basic principle such as “play to the furthest player” or worded differently “don’t play to the closest one”[3]. In fact, the situation itself and the dynamics are very similar to the ones that are addressed in the 5v3 drill[4].

In the previous example has been highlighted how following simple rules the behaviours that make the team dynamic successful are achieved. Would be interesting to address some other key questions such as why do these rules work, which ideas underpin them, what role does the awareness and skill of the player play in those, and so on. But again, those are different topics beyond the scope of the current piece.

Furthermore, it is true that there are plenty of examples on which moving close to the teammates is needed either because the ball carrier needs support to move out of pressure (no-advantage) or because moving towards a teammate attracts an opponent opening another passing option (third-man).

These examples, which can be understood as exceptions or progressions to the rule, are obviously needed in some situations, however, they are either going to emerge more naturally[ in players’ behaviour (i.e. moving to support the ball carrier when under pressure) or can be explicitly taught after the first rule is acquired by the players (i.e. specific moves consisting in moving closer to a teammate attracting an opponent to open another passing option – such as Mendy moving inside to open the passing line to Sterling).

Fullback moving closer to the central midfielder with the purpose of opening the passing line to the winger.

As can be acknowledged week after week, many teams even in the top level struggle to carry out this simple behaviour. It can be due to several reasons:

  • Lack of proper understanding by the coaches of the importance of the idea.
  • Not interested in coaching it for strategic reasons: Risk-aversion in possession, prefer to play in short distances to have more players supporting and covering in close distances even if the overall quality of the possession to unbalance the opponent drops, player profiles, etc.
  • Interested in coaching but lack of knowledge to do it.
  • Inherent difficulty in coaching it: Following this specific rule goes against deep-rooted habits in players’ behaviours thus from there can be understood the importance mentioned in previous texts about coaching the basics of positional play.


In the typical man-oriented fashion, when the winger man-marks the opponent fullback he is losing totally his ability to actively intervene in the game. Overall, collectively being forced to defend very deep is the most likely outcome in these sort of situations.

Along with that, the winger himself is neither going to have easier to fulfil his main purpose by staying man oriented: which is to have faster access to the fullback. Actually is going to be even more difficult if simply the opponent team reads and makes use of the possession in a more or less efficient way[5].

By simply following the fullback, he leaves free the whole space in the defending side of his sector (halfspace and wing) being impeded to get access or even reach with appropriate timing later so he cannot put pressure and the opponent can freely circulate in there.

Furthermore, his main target (i.e. to get fast access to the fullback) is not going to be easily achieved because reacting to the movements into his blind side and to the fullback runs behind him are going to be hardly managed with good timing, since he needs to be watching the ball and getting ready to step out if the fullback drops or the opponent midfielder gets the ball in front of him.

The winger defending deep will force naturally the fullback of that side to move more central thus giving cover to the winger is not going to be possible for him either.

In order to solve this, before trying more complex changes in the team system (which are probably needed in many cases), giving the rule of keeping the position (or simply not man marking) will naturally improve the dynamics of the team. This is because the winger is forced to look for different reference points to orient himself, and although this could have other negative effects, the improvement regarding the previous dynamics is huge and, as mentioned before, is a good and easyfirst step.

Naturally the winger will keep access to the fullback and also will close the space in the attacking quadrant (halfspace and wingspace) from where the opponent cannot build up and find diagonal passing options or progress.

Furthermore, if the fullback still runs behind the winger, it would not only be from longer distance to goal but at the same time the fullback will have better position to step out and get access to him if eventually it is passed. Even the winger running backwards can reach him and help the fullback or closing the passing line to the centre.


It is legitimate and many times necessary to make bigger and deeper changes to solve issues in the team play. However, there are situations in which making seemingly small changes by means of simple rules have a huge and significant effect improving the collective dynamics.

The reasons that explain the usefulness are several, but in short, focusing on short and manageable key variables has a huge effect in a system while at the same time being an efficient intervention tool because it doesn’t require too much work or training resources to implement them.

The main challenges are not only to figure out which are the critical variables in each situation and developing effective rules that “impact” in the collective, but also and maybe more importantly, to make those actionable and achieve a fast implementation of them by the players through appropriate training interventions.

All of them, identifying critical variables, developing the actionable rules and implementing them through coaching are key tasks and true signs of coaching expertise for which a highly specific knowledge and understanding is needed.

Furthermore, while one of the key tenets of the simple rules is that they are useful even if the individuals applying them are not aware of the reasons, it is clear that actually understanding and having an awareness of the underlying reasons and ideas is positive in order to develop game intelligence and making the individuals decision-making more adaptable and sophisticated than just following them. In fact, a higher understanding of them will make it easier for the players to understand when it could be necessary to modify or simply avoid using them.


[1] See some examples here, here, and here.

[2] Adapted quote from here.

[3] The rules can be worded either in a positive or negative way which would prompt an interesting research question to address if there is any general difference between using one format or another.

[4] See an explanation of the drill in German here. Another related drill can be found here.

[5] Some of the points mentioned in this piece are valid and useful ways to exploit this.

I would like to thank MT and AR for their help with the corrections.

Dimi April 4, 2019 um 6:41 am

This article was very interesting! Since finding this website I’ve learned so much about the game!

I noticed that some of the reasons why this style of play isn’t coached is due to lack of knowledge in how to coach it. Are you able to give some ideas in how to coach this in formats of 2v2-8v8 or similar?

I’m trying to design training activities that follow Ben Bartlett’s principles; that is that they are directional, defined (in the area of the pitch it will occur), has decisions (reacting to triggers of teammates and opponents) and have difference (the theme is practiced in various ways).

Ideally, the activity is designed so that the players learn implicitly by playing. This is so less deliberate, immediate instruction and feedback is required, an approach which research suggests is the least effective way for players to learn. At the moment I’m just using phase of play type practices with a lot of detailed verbal instruction as to who moves where and why coaching on around and away from the ball, which stops the flow of the practice and not all players understand.

I’d appreciate any help or advise you are able to provide.

Many thanks!


James March 17, 2019 um 6:35 pm

Could you write something about Kovac at Bayern (particularly the Liverpool return leg)? It seems they have no idea how to attack under him. He just doesn’t seem to teach them any sophisticated attacking patterns, their offensive toolbox seems rather rudimentary, unlike previous incarnations of Bayern (Jupp Pep).


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