By Sam Polak
United Soccer Coaches member Sam Polak has written for several soccer publications including, MLSsoccer.comand FourFourTwo, and is currently an opposition analyst for the USL side Oklahoma City Energy FC. The majority of his work focuses on the underlying tactical and technical concepts of soccer that run consistent through all levels of the game.
The following are Sam’s takeaways from the Spain v. Portugal game in the 2018 FIFA World Cup group stage.
The offensive side of the game in the US is traditionally taught based on five key attacking principles— penetration, support, mobility, width and creativity.
As they are principles, they should be universally applicable to any attacking sequence. A major takeaway from the 3-3 Spain v. Portugal match however, is we should have a more nuanced discussion on these principles. In particular, as outlined below, the roles and assumptions surrounding penetration, support and width should be expanded to be more complete and encapsulating.
Support in Spain v. Portugal
Support can essentially be boiled down to providing the player with the ball multiple options to pass the ball to as a means to maintain possession. These outlets can be at various distances and are ideally available over 360 degrees.
But, there a number of items that create entirely different dynamics with respect to this principle— several of which were visible and worth discussing in this particular game.
As a team moves closer to goal, it is harder to find support in the diminishing space between the ball and the end line. Consequently, the ability to make a forward run in support of the ball becomes much harder.
Moments like the one below require completely different evaluations from players in terms of making a supporting run than if Spain were 70 yards from goal. The angles and distances necessary to support the players on the ball this close to goal are a separate skill to providing a supporting option in another part of the field.
Similarly, supporting movement can serve an almost entirely different purpose than mentioned above. The moment below shows Portugal making ineffective supporting runs after a lofted pass and are then forced backwards.
Less than 30 seconds later though, Cristiano Ronaldo draws a penalty out of a play that develops out of the same exact area of the field. In this instance, trying to provide support gave the Portuguese team an opportunity to understand a weakness that needed to be exploited, not just a means to keep the ball.
From this game, support is arguably a principle that should be divided further based on the location of the ball and can serve a greater purpose than solely maintaining possession.
Width in Spain v. Portugal
Width is the idea that by using the width of the field when attacking, your opponent will have no choice but to fan out and be more vulnerable in key central parts of the field.
Creating maximum width is not always the right thing to do though as seen below.
Given that speed is a requirement for a successful counter attack, players have to be narrower so that the ball does not have to take as long to arrive.
This dangerous counter attack ultimately developed out of an offensive sequence that had players working together within the width of the 18 yard box.
So while width may be key to certain elements of an offensive spell, there are times when providing more width would work against the effectiveness of an attacking possession.
Penetration in Spain v. Portugal
Penetration is using a shot, pass or dribble to progress towards creating an opportunity on the opponent’s goal.
Likely because of the connotation of shooting, penetration is typically discussed with respect to the middle and attacking thirds— where players are realistically going to be within shooting distance.
Each potential penetration action also carries different levels of risk.
Generally, a shot is likely to carry the least risk as the ball will end up in front of all 11 players on the shooting team and as far away as possible from the shooting team’s goal.
An attempted penetrating pass carries a little more risk as the ball will be closer to the (formerly) attacking team’s goal and with fewer players available to defend if intercepted.
Dribbling carries the most risk. If a player loses the ball while dribbling, his teammates will be at a greater distance to the ball than if possession changed hands based off a shot or pass.
For these reasons, rarely will players simply try to dribble through the middle third and into the final third. Even more rarely will players use dribbling as a means to penetrate out of the defensive third.
Now, although it comes with the greatest potential cost, penetrating with the dribble out of the defensive third can be remarkably advantageous in terms of moving through the opposition’s defense.
There are times, as seen above, when it is a great decision. With Portugal pressing higher and chasing a goal at this point in the match, Spain were savvy to choose this way to penetrate out of their defensive third.
This is a good reminder, as it doesn’t happen in every match and can easily be overlooked in trainings, that there is always an option to penetrate with the dribble in high-risk, defensive areas and we shouldn’t neglect that fact.
Ultimately, am I suggesting we need to play, train or coach like Spain and Portugal?
No. Adopting another country’s style or approach would get in the way of being our best versions of ourselves.
I am however saying that this game did provide a good opportunity to think more deeply, creatively, and dynamically about ideas often discussed as assumed, fixed and foundational.