5 Variations of Playing Out From the Back

This article looks at the different ways teams can play out from the back in different situations without having to go long. Wigan, for example, under Uwe Rosler look to play out from the back but are sometimes ‘forced’ to go long into a compact playing area. This could be classed as successful for the opposition as they will no longer be stretched and will thus concede less space in important areas. This example is shown from a number of teams who feel it isn’t safe to play out from the back under pressure, are not confident in doing so, or do not know how to manipulate the opposition in order to allow successful retention of the ball when playing out from the back.

The formation used in this article, based on your interpretation, is a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1. However, formations are only a generalisation and the shape changes appropriately in different situations. The opposition’s formation is a 4-4-2 as, although its use has significantly decreased over the last decade, most teams still look to use this shape in their defensive block, especially in initial phases of defensive organisation.

Team shape

Phase 1 build up shape

This shape could be interpreted as a 2-3-2-3. The objective is to stretch the opposition by making the pitch as big as possible, which will allow for opening of space.
Key points:

  • Make pitch as big as possible [width and depth].
  • Goalkeeper moves to the strong side of the field to offer an option to switch the point of attack.
  • Goalkeeper takes goal kicks in a central position to avoid the opposition dictating where the ball should go.
  • Centre backs split to the corners of the box.
  • Full backs join the midfield line, touchline wide.
  • 3 options in central midfield to dominate and provide overloads through playing on different receiving lines.
  • Wingers help provide depth and offensive width.
  • Striker provides depth.
  • Create overloads where appropriate and possible.

Variation 1 – Dropping down the sides of the box to play to the centre backs

The opposition central midfielders have gone ‘half and half’, meaning that they have gone between our defensive midfielder and our central midfielders. They are effectively screening our central midfielders, looking to block passing lanes and put immediate pressure on the ball possessor should our defensive midfielder receive the ball.

If the strikers mark the centre backs, the best option would usually be to pass to the defensive midfielder but, due to the opposition’s central midfielders going ‘half and half’, this isn’t the case as there would be immense pressure on the defensive midfielder in possession.

This ‘problem’ can be seen as an opportunity to manipulate the opposition. Dropping the centre backs down the sides of the box increases the depth of the shape and gives the opposition’s strikers a decision to make: follow the centre backs or stay narrow? In this case, the strikers decide to stay narrow.

VARIATION 1 - 1A - 1

Either centre back can receive the ball, and must scan play quickly whilst maintaining an open body shape so that they can face play and know their options. The centre backs receiving the ball down the sides of the box should act as a trigger for a rotational movement from the full back, central midfielder and winger.

VARIATION 1 - 1A - 2

The rotation should only occur on the same side of the pitch the ball is passed to (known as the strong side of the pitch), and the goalkeeper and defensive midfielder should look to support to create an overload. The rotation creates confusion for the opposition but also maintains attacking width [from the full back]. If under pressure, the centre back should look to pass back to the goalkeeper or defensive midfielder to switch the point of attack, or even a long diagonal to the opposite winger, which may create space as the opposition have to move across to the strong side of the pitch. The benefit of the rotational movement is seen here as space has been made for the defensive midfielder to receive the ball. This example uses the right centre back.

VARIATION 1 - 1A - 4

The next example shows the centre back’s options when the opposition don’t press. The centre back has a variety of immediate forward options, but can also use the switch. Although the full back is available to be passed to, this would be the least desirable pass as the opposition can press the full back far more effectively because there is only a 180° playing angle in wide areas (Pep Guardiola has been quoted saying “the sideline is the best defender”) compared to a 360° playing angle in central areas.

VARIATION 1 - 1A - 3

Variation 2 – Dropping down the sides of the box to play to the defensive midfielder

As with the previous scenario, the opposition’s central midfielders have gone ‘half and half’, meaning it is difficult to play to the defensive midfielder. The centre backs are also marked by the strikers, triggering them to drop down the sides of the box. However, this time the strikers follow them down the sides of the box, which creates space for the defensive midfielder to receive the ball in. The defensive midfielder drops to the edge of the box, which is the trigger for the central midfielders to move to create 2 different receiving lines, enabling them to receive the ball in space. If the defensive midfielder gets marked by an opposition central midfielder before receiving the ball, the goalkeeper should recognise this and play a lobbed ball to the free central midfielder.

VARIATION 1 - 1B - 1

The following example is shown when the defensive midfielder receives the ball on their right foot. The defensive midfielder should scan the pitch before receiving to create a clear mental picture of their next move.

VARIATION 1 - 1B - 2

The striker should move before the furthest midfielder receives the ball.

Variation 3 – Playing to the centre back under little or no pressure

This variation shows how a centre back can construct play if the opposition’s strikers stay narrow and the opposition’s central midfielders don’t go ‘half and half’. The centre back receiving the ball should, again, keep an open body shape and should scan the pitch before receiving.

VARIATION 2 - 2A - 1

The opposition’s compact shape is currently blocking passing options, but this can be solved with the rotational movement seen in Variation 1. The goalkeeper should look to support play to create an overload, thus allowing a switch of play if necessary. The defensive midfielder should not come deep as this limits the goalkeeper’s space, and forces the opposition back.

VARIATION 2 - 2A - 2

The following example takes place with the right sided centre back in possession of the ball. Again, there are various options available as a result of the rotational movement.

VARIATION 2 - 2A - 3

Variation 4 – Playing to the defensive midfielder under little or no pressure

The centre backs, this time, have been marked by the strikers, meaning that the defensive midfielder is free to receive the ball. There is no need to drop deeper because there is no pressure from the opposition’s central midfielders.

VARIATION 2 - 2B - 1

The defensive midfielder should scan the pitch before receiving the ball, whilst the 2 central midfielders provide opposite movements to create different receiving lines and space. The wingers can benefit from timing runs in behind the opposition defence, and the striker’s run must be opposite of that to the receiving winger to take defenders away from the ball, creating space for a 1v1 or 2v2.

VARIATION 2 - 2B - 2

The following example sees the movement of the purple lines occur (above picture). The movement of 10 creates space for 8, who can then receive and turn to play forward.

VARIATION 2 - 2B - 3

In the above picture, the green line passes are the most desirable as they are more central to goal, meaning that there is more of a chance of scoring due to having a better shot angle than from a wide position. However, every pass should look to split 2 players.

Variation 5 – Playing to the defensive midfielder in a situational back three

This variation shows how to play out from the back when the opposition’s central midfielders go ‘half and half’ and the strikers are kept narrow. The defensive midfielder should drop to the edge of the box to make a situational back three to receive the ball. It is vital that this movement is as late as possible to prevent an opposition striker marking the defensive midfielder.

VARIATION 3 - 3A - 1

The trigger for movement should be which foot the defensive midfielder receives on. For example, if the ball is received on the right foot, the purple line movements occur. There are, again, various options to play to. The defensive midfielder can use the pressure of the opposition’s strikers to their advantage by playing the pass as late as possible because this would give the centre back more time on the ball.

VARIATION 3 - 3A - 2


The 5 variations shown above are not the be all, end all. Different movements and passes can be made, and freedom should be given to players to make decisions, but coaches must ensure that the player thinks tactically and knows what pass is best to make.
Here are some factors to consider when playing out from the back:

  • What build up shape do we have? 2-3-2-3? 2-4-4? 3-4-3? Etc.
  • What formation is the opponent’s defensive block in? 4-2-3-1? 4-3-3? 3-5-2? Etc.
  • How aggressive is the opponent’s pressing?
  • How high is the opponent’s defensive block?
  • Is the opponent’s pressing organised and/or collective or unorganised and/or disjointed?
  • Where have the opponent’s allowed space?
  • Are the opposition’s central midfielders going ‘half and half’?
  • Are the opposition’s strikers both pressuring, or is one pressing and one staying narrow? Are they teasing a pass to help them press effectively? How can this be overcome?
  • Would a change in formation or movement allow for easier ball circulation from the back? How does this change in formation or movement affect the other areas and spaces of the pitch?
  • How could rotations from the front 3 or midfield 3 be included and why?

Many sessions and training exercises can be used to help familiarise players with different situations when playing out from the back to allow them to make good decisions and be tactically flexible.

Hopefully the above variations can be used as guidelines or inspiration to create tactical solutions to playing out from the back in different circumstances.


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