Tactical Principles: Brief Overview
We examine the topic of tactical principles and the importance of understanding its different meanings and its use in coaching.
The game of football can be approached as situations that continually unfold creating what we would call problems (Grehaigne et al., 2012) for teams and consequently the players that make decisions.
This can be easily understood turning back to the rules of football: The obvious fact that the game inherently encloses the notion of opposition between two teams in its rules means naturally that in any given moment the aims and tasks of both teams are opposed.
In turn, this creates a relationship of opposition where each team works to achieve the opposite aim and countering the opponent. By definition, implies that favourable conditions for one team are adverse for the opponent. In other words, it is a zero sum game.
In order to solve this, players carry purposeful behaviours coordinated with their teammates to achieve the aims in some way. Under this perspective, tactical principles are guidelines or references for the tactical behaviour of the team or the individuals to reach some objectives or make the things in a specific and shared way.
Hence, tactical principles can be addressed either from the collective or individual dimensions.
Collective Approach: Team Characteristics
In this dimension, the principles are the characteristics we want for our team in a more or less abstract way.
Examples of those are:
- High pressing.
- Build-up through short passes.
- Use of cutbacks close to the opponent box.
- Creating numerical superiority in the centre.
- Dispersion to circulate the ball.
They are something like a descriptive overview of the style of play the coach draws in order to know “where are we going”. It should help him organising the training and creating individual principles.
It is important to remember that principles are just words; a simplified description (usually created on an ad-hoc basis) of what we want to achieve. As such, a very accurate and detailed description is not always needed or even useful.
The key element is the know-how of the coach to communicate and train them in order to get the behaviours desired from the players.
Team principles give a rough and approximate answer to what we want to achieve (in terms of actions in situations), but the way of turning them behaviours (thus communicating them) is not always the same. Sometimes will be explicitly and others through specific training design.
Tactical Principles are useful for different tasks during the coaching practice:
- Describing the general collective traits: How do I want my team to play?
- Specifying the team strategy from outside in each phase in a more precise way. E.g. In build-up finding a free man between the lines to progress.
- Planning and sequencing the training contents: What do I need to train at each time?
- Organising the training and coaching intervention: Designing drills, what to focus in each drill to give feedback. For example, if I want to work the central play: positioning between the lines, body shape, etc.
- Doing video-analysis with the players.
- Creating, organising, and structuring the individual principles.
The set of collective principles structured and detailed to each phase is usually called Game Model.
Individual Approach: Heuristics and Action-Rules
At the individual level, tactical principles are rules and ideas that give a general answer to the question what to do? in a given situation.
“If you receive the ball facing backwards, lay-off.”
“When you are on the ball, look for the furthest player.”
“If you are behind the fullback, give him a deep support.”
“When you get the ball from the goalkeeper try to dribble diagonally inwards and then passing to the winger.”
“In build-up play in two touches.”
Their main characteristic is to give a general answer. This means that the answer is usually adequate and useful in similar situations. However, it doesn’t mean it will always be adequate, neither that it will be (always) optimal.
For example, if you receive the ball facing backwards, usually laying off gives enough safety and likelihood to complete the pass, instead trying to turn with the ball can be risky as the opponent can disposes you.
Subjectivity and Objectivity in Principles
Principles carry inherently a subjective idea of what is appropriate in a given situation. What to do, and consequently what is appropriate is decided by the coach on the election of the style he wants to play. As such, there is a connection between those and the collective principles by definition.
For example, if the coach wants a more conservative possession rather than vertical and aggressive one he could formulate principles such as “always have two passing options to recycle the possession” or “when the fullback is in possession, then [central midfielder] support closely from behind”. It can happen also in the reverse way, the coach wants some specific things not having the big picture of the style.
While the principles chosen are mainly subjective in their nature as the coach himself creates them, they need to be to some degree coherent with the most basic principles of the game.
If not, it wouldn’t be possible to achieve the objectives of the game through these specific principles as their purpose is to nuance how to achieve them.
In an extreme way there aren’t principles that pursue losing the ball, playing backwards when is possible to play forwards or not shooting if possible to score.
Optimising v Satisfying in the Decision Making
If the answer provided by the rules we use is optimal or not is a different issue on its nature. The coach gives for granted that his ideas are at least coherent and somehow satisfy a minimal objectivity level.
For example, is the optimal action to make a diagonal pass or to play behind the opponent line in a given situation? This question is mostly intractable in the practice because there is no possibility to address all the factors involved, so we work through simplifications. This is in fact what principles are as they are generally valid. Or we think so.
And while could be true that some of them are suboptimal (for example, in a given situation the marginal value of switching instead of trying to penetrate could be higher) in the coaching practice we do not care about that directly. But we take the assumption that they are. Furthermore, one critical factor in the real-world are the abilities of the individuals.
While principles are mainly useful for the coach to communicate, they can be also valid for the player in terms of heuristics and action-rules. However, they use them in a different way than how they are worded, by associating some answer (as first option) to the visual cue.
The rules can be used to know how to position, where to look first, where to pass, and so on.
Where to look/do as first option, what to do instead if the first option is not possible, anticipating by looking first to know if it’s possible and to react if it is not available or to open an option by making feint.
Even if knowing them can be useful for the players, we shouldn’t forget that the objective is to execute them through behaviours. This is usually achieved by getting experience to achieve an unconscious execution of them. On this impacts from one side the level of skill of the player and from other the rate of learning. Both individually dependent.
Variability in the Execution of Principles
We should not expect from the players to carry the principles in a consistent nor perfect way.
For example, a player that receives facing backwards is not going to lay-off every time he gets the ball in such situation.
There is an inherent variability in the answer. It comes from the fact that principles are models and as such a simplification of the reality.
The answer given by a principle is not closed. It just gives a broad response and the player needs to manage the details of the situation. The principles do not try to answer everything, but just giving a quick and easy answer that helps guiding the first intention of the players.
In this regard, there are two main sources of variability: Situation and players.
Variability relative to random factors in the actual situation that the model doesn’t account.
If a principle says “facing backwards, lay-off”, in the actual situation there could be factors that allow or need a different sort of answer. For example, because the player can turn, because there is longer distance towards the opponent, because there is time, because a different move is better for the space available, etc. This is within the realm of individual decision and the possibilities accounted.
This is why the rule is no directly used by the player, but somehow gets into the decision process. The individual does not always follow, but has some guidelines that allow a general answer to be adapted to the situation and to his own abilities.
Variability related to the individual(s) involved in the situation. This is not only related to the capability to read the situation (principles do help here, of course) but also to the individual abilities (e.g. skills) and past experience that will prime different actions. For example, because a player has been taught to turn, sometimes will turn even if it’s not good (this is negative), or because he is usually good in turning so tends to “read the situation from his perspective” and turns (this is positive).
Conclusion and Final Remarks
Principles can be relative to the collective (e.g. after recovery, play out of the recovery-zone) or individual (if/then rules).
Both provide an answer for what to do given a situation (more or less specific the situation and more or less closed what to do) in a general way.
Principles can be more specific (e.g. when the 9 gets the ball, give a passing line behind him if the 10 is wide) or more general (e.g. creating diagonal passing lines)
Moreover, they can be more or less sophisticated if they account different possibilities (if-then-else).
Finally, the most important thing to have in mind about principles is that they are just words and what matters is the ability to make them executed through behaviours in the game. That’s the coaching expertise indeed.
Hopefully, in a subsequent piece on this regard hopefully more complex topics will be adressed such as the specificity of the principles in regard to the style of play, the interplay between skills of the players and the election of the principles among others.
 On this regard is important to develop a shared vocabulary that the players can understand and relate to, it can be different than the one employed on the pitch but it should be based in the same principles.
 This principle could fit into both dimensions mentioned because describes what do we want but at the same time gives also an approximate answer to what to do which the players can use. In the practice is better to understand collective and individual dimensions as a continuum rather than separate. While some of them are almost exclusively individual (such as if/then rules) other are so general that are mostly collective because the players barely can use them. However, in some way the collective principles should be communicated to the players to have a broad framework of how we want to play. Moreover, this conceptual issue doesn’t matter in the reality and we should not focus on defining to which dimension belongs each principle, but simply caring about usefulness.
 What we care here is not about assessing the broad decision making but how to improve/modify the players decision making through training. Principles are useful for this task.
 For matter of simplicity we simply say that they use them.
 By model I mean the principle itself.
 There is another part of the situation that also may impact in the execution of the players, which are the factors related to the context such as game-state, time of the game, or more mundane ones such as state of the pitch.
 Usually positive but not always. For two reasons: 1) Shared principles help teammates to coordinate to each other as they can anticipate (the individuals will learn their teammate’s actions if they are different anyway but it could take more time). 2) Because usually the principles are a better solution. This is an assumption that is not always true, but still should be having into account that there is (or should) be a reason because a rule is how it is. It is also important to remember that in the practice if you have a player that does really well something you can use a different rule for him (and consequently for the team).