The Play making style


“‘Total Football’ and its attacking pressure are very spectacular. It places great demands on individual and team tactical excellence… An absolute prerequisite, to master such a team tactical aspect, is that all the players possess a positive mentality, including the substitutes.” 
– Rinus Michels

The playmaking style, also known as Total Football, is one of two team strategies, the second being the counter attacking style. These two styles are at the base of all the decisions about how a team will play in a match. The decision which style to adopt will determine the functions and responsibilities inside the team and how to conduct training sessions. The playmaking style is the hardest to prefect and is beyond the capabilities of most youth teams. In order to play this style of soccer certain key ingredient’s must be present. Not some, or in some measure, but all and in spades. Without doubt the most important is to take the field with the correct mentality, the ‘Amsterdam Bluff’ as it’s called in Holland.

“On the day of the 1974 final even West Germany expected Holland to win. ‘They were a better team,’ said Uli Hoeness later. Winger Bernd Holzenbein recalled: ‘In the tunnel, we planned to look them in the eye, to show them we were as big as they were. They had the feeling they were invincible – you could see it in their eyes. Their attitude to us was, “How many goals do you want to lose by today, boys?” While we waited to go onto the pitch I tried to look them in the eye, but I couldn’t do it. They made us feel small.” 3

Sjaak Swart on Ajax: “When we played in our own stadium, teams who came here were afraid of us. In the bus they were already trembling. Many old players have told me this. Before the game started, it was already 1-0 to us.” 3

Key Ingredient’s For Playmaking Soccer

The predicted outcome determines choice. The playmaking style is only effective when you believe, and can back up, that you are better then the opponents, see above. If the predicted outcome is 4-0 to you, you can do what you like. If it’s 4-0 to the opponents then you’ll do what the opponents want you to do. One goal games, 1-0, 2-1 present a problem. While you can attempt to use the playmaking style, you’re likely to be spending a good deal of time in the counter attacking style as well. Everyone in the team must understand and accept the decisions about how the team will play, that it is the best choice in the given situation.

Trust. The players must have complete confidence in themselves and each other. That the plan is correct and everyone is capable of carrying out their part. This is only possible when the players really know one another, when they play ‘instinctively.’ Youth teams usually don’t have enough time together to reach this level. Swart observed It came from playing together a long time.” 3 The playmaking style is a high risk style. It requires very high ambition and very low fear of failure on the part of everyone. “However, structural team building makes sure that: the players have confidence in each other, there is calmness in the games actions, the essential team spirit and team tactical views are present.” 6 See Teambuilding.

Higher level of TIC and fitness then the opponents. If the opponents are better in some area of the game they can provide sufficient problems that the playmaking style becomes too difficult. They can either become the playmakers themselves or so dangerous on the counter attack that fear becomes a factor. In the first case the opponents can have the ball a lot, and the playmaking style assumes that they won’t. This means that you’ll be defending, playing negative soccer, more then you’d like and expending energy in ways and areas that are not a part of the plan. In the second, fear leads to a safety first approach and this runs contrary to the mentality of the playmaking style, calculated risk taking. The team can play too conservatively, hesitate and become so preoccupied with what the opponents might do that they forget about what has to be done. (This applies to every member of the team. In a close game any weakness in even a single player can defeat everyone’s work.)

Since most of the game will be played in the opponents half players will find little space and often play in a numbers down situations, i.e. 1v2, 2v4 and so on. Superior technique is a prerequisite to maintaining the necessary speed of play. Without it players will lack confidence and the ability to maintain the attacking pressure.

A higher level of insight and communication is necessary in order to seize opportunities. The correct moment to act will involve two or more players and there is not enough time for anyone to call instructions, let alone get any from the coach. Everyone must read the situation in the same way and arrive at the same conclusion. They must simultaneously act in a split second. The playmaking style involves a lot of nonverbal cues and communication. It is read, react and think later.

The fitness level needs to be very high. Constant changes in tempo and prolonged periods of elevated speed of play takes a toll both physically and mentally. The key players have the responsibility for determining the match tempo. It needs to faster then the opponents can handle but within the capabilities of the team. And remember the old adage, sometimes you have to go slower to go faster.

Adaptability. Mobility, the interchange of positions, is very important, but, so is speed. Players will need to cover for each other as they take advantage of opportunities but this must be done quickly and without hurting team efficiency. This means that players who switch positions usually do so with the players closest to them, i.e. right back and right midfielder or left wing and center forward. Every player must have mastered all of the basics in defending and attacking skills, notably both sides of 1v1 so that they can handle the demands of their temporary positions.

Specific roles. Teams line up at the start of a game for a purpose. To get the best out of each individual and to hide any weakness. The central defender and the center forward are the best available for their jobs at that moment . So if the central defender spends too much time up top then at least two positions are being occupied by players who are not ideally suited for the roles. This upsets the balance inside of the team and results in less efficient, slower, play. The interchange between positions is temporary and players need to resume their key functions as quickly as possible. Sometimes it is only a limited number of players that have the actual ‘freedom’ to change positions. The majority of the team constitutes the ‘work talent’ which, by definition, play in the service of the ‘key players.’ This does not relieve the ‘key players’ of any burden. Just the opposite, they have the added responsibility of leadership and having to use ‘their extra qualities’ in order to win the game. In this situation, while the ‘work talents’ can lose the game, they do not have to win it.

Concentration. Mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. A break in concentration by a single player can disrupt the entire team effort and start a chain of events that can lead to disaster. The playmaking style requires tremendous concentration for long periods, like driving at high speed in heavy traffic for long distances. It is stressful and wearing. It is also presents a problem when a substitute comes on and is not up to the mental speed of the game.

The attack starts where you win the ball. In the playmaking style it means defending in the opponents half. This prevents the opponents from retreating and, as long as you can prevent the deep pass, reduces the space in which to ‘hunt’ the ball.

“The main aim of the attacking pressure football, the ‘hunt’, was: regaining possession as soon as possible after the ball was lost on the opponents half during an attack. The ‘trapping’ of the opponents on their own half is only then possible when all the lines are pushed up and play close together. This automatically means that you give away a lot of space on your own half and you are vulnerable to counterattacks… You need to control the opponent if you want to play an attacking style football!” 6 See diagram below.

The ‘hunt’ means two or even three players pressurize the player with the ball. The idea is that the first won’t win the ball but forces a hurried pass. The second defender immediately applies pressure to the receiver forcing another hurried pass so that the third defender can win the ball. The ‘hunt’ is not strictly a man to man or zone defending scheme. Instead, every opponent ahead of the ball is marked and the rest of the team marks the players and space in the vicinity of the ball. Opponents who are behind the ball or in positions where they couldn’t do much if they got it, the least dangerous men, are left free. This allows the defenders to concentrate in the area around the ball. They must still watch opponents, tracking down any that attempt to move forward and, above all, prevent the deep pass into the space behind the last line of defenders. When this is done in the opponents half it puts the attackers under tremendous pressure. Only when the opponents are able to successfully relieve the pressure will a playmaking team retreat back closer to their own goal.

When the ball is regained it is critical that it is not given back. Ideally, winning the ball in the opponents half should present an immediate scoring opportunity. However, the space is likely to be very crowded. In that case the ball should be protected by passing it quickly to a supporting player and away from danger. Young players can get ‘ramped up’ when they’re defending and lack the composure to make the correct decision, (to build up or counter) when they come out of a tackle. They often simply give the ball back to the opponents and have to start defending all over again.

Learning the playmaking style is very difficult. It is designed as a means of breaking down packed defenses. It requires that the team master rapid ball circulation, both sides of 1v1, a lightning response to a change in possession, the ability to work in very limited space, the ability to change the tempo, speed, of the game and the ability to maintain concentration for prolonged periods under great stress. A tall order for young players. If their education is only started at 11 a side then only the best will be able to grasp the fundamentals and be able to contribute to the game as they get older. “This risky style of play demands individually a lot of football capacity. It entails that you often have to operate in small spaces during the build up and attack and defend large spaces with few players. This style of play requires a methodical process in the youth program, and also specific types of players; such as wing forwards and defenders who get involved in the attack.” 6 Games like 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 can serve as the starting point and building blocks for developing not only the skills, but the mentality for playing this style of soccer and assist in youth development.







The lighter area in the diagram shows the space where playmaking teams prefer to play. The orange team has committed all ten field players to the opponents half and their goal keeper has come forward to act as a sweeper behind the back line. As long as they can keep the game in this space they face little danger and the opponents will be under constant pressure. The danger for the playmaking teams is the space behind the last line of defenders. A single long pass to a fast forward can put ten orange players out of the game.

The defensive phase must involve the entire team. Playmaking teams cannot function against quality opponents with a sweeper that plays ten yards behind the back line or forwards that will not, or cannot pressurize. They will lose the battle in the midfield and have to start their attacks too deep in their own half. Simply put, it is more then just quick ball circulation, the rapid interchange of positions and all out attacking play. Without a clear commitment by everyone to do the dirty work necessary to regain the ball and neutralize the opponents it is more risky then the return brings. In fact, without the high pressure defensive ‘hunt’ and a smooth, quick, efficient transition from defending to attacking/building up play the playmaking style is difficult if not impossible to pull off.

“The advantage of this play-making style is that you are capable of playing it under all circumstances. You always take the initiative, and you must do that. However, if you fail to carry the play and get under pressure, then the opponent will take advantage of the weak aspects of the style you are playing.”