AnalysisPick of the Week

Jed Davies: Tactical Analysis

Jed Davies is a tactical analyst and writer on football tactics based in the UK. He is considered one of the brightest young minds in modern football; his recent book ‘Coaching the Tiki-Taka Style’ has become a best-seller and has earned him praise from top coaches worldwide. He is currently analyst + opposition scout for the Estonian National team and has a history of successfully preparing analysis on opponents for International teams prior to major tournaments. He is also Director of ‘Inspire’ football events (

You can follow Jed Davies:

Twitter: @TPiMBW
‘Coaching the Tiki-Taka Style of Play’ (

The Role of Play-rounds and Switching of Play to Create Penetration

“Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other” – Pep Guardiola

Pre-Precedent Theory

If we consider football to be in two parts: ‘all actions before penetrating the opposition midfield’ and ‘all actions after penetration of the opposition midfield’, then we begin to see the game through different lenses. With these two reference points at the high level of a hierarchal theory, we can use these lenses to assess the question ‘what is the value of that pass?’ when looking to quantify the game into a set of values.

The first layer of analysis is to consider the different responses we provoke from the opponent’s defensive block depending on the location of the ball. It is with this idea alone that we are to conclude that the wide/centre/wide model of understanding the game through three vertical lanes is to be inappropriate for the assessment of penetrative styles.


The model used for the purposes of this analysis is therefore one with five vertical corridors. This is not a new idea and is one widely used in football literature within German football coach education ( with the terms Flügelräume, Halbräume and Zentrum used to label the spaces ‘wing space’, ‘half space’ and ‘centre’. The language used in this article to describe these five vertical corridors have simply been named lanes one to five (for purposes of being ‘player friendly’). The model of using five lanes in football has been used by many coaches to implement a positional structure and set of spatial rules to cover spaces on the field. In this particular article, it will be used only to determine the positioning of the opposition in relation to ball location.

We then need to consider the pitch in the horizontal direction in relation to different types of penetration. I, like many others, work off of three platforms to penetrate from. Others may call these ‘launch pads’ but once again, the term ‘platform’ has been used to better paint a vision for players: a platform to build and play forward from. When in possession of the ball at each platform (low, medium and high) in front of the opposition midfield you will typically see three different responses, and for each response a different strategic approach to exploit the opposition is often required.


The platforms are not straight horizontal lines for two reasons. The first reason being that the angles of support from your players is not linear and is instead as such (if we consider a back four composed of two central defenders and two full backs), and secondly these lines are in relation to distance from the goal. It is in fact possible to play a backwards pass on the football field that goes closer to the opponent’s goal.

John Cartwright, former first team coach at Arsenal and technical director for the former English FA’s National School of Excellence at Lilleshall, is often considered one of the most forward thinking coaches that the English FA shut away and didn’t listen to despite being years ahead of his time. Cartwright, author of ‘Football for the Brave’, proposes often on his website ( that there are exactly four play-rounds in football. A play-round is the collective action of a team to shift the ball from one side of the field across to the other, ‘playing around’ the opponent’s pressure, cover and balance structures ahead of the ball.

Cartwright’s four play-rounds are as follows:

  1. Deepest Level: horizontal circulation in and around the team’s own 18-yard box, often through the goalkeeper or a sweeper
  2. Back Level: horizontal circulation of the ball through the defensive players in their own half
  3. Mid-Level: horizontal circulation inside the opposition half
  4. Forward level: horizontal circulation in and around the opponent’s 18-yard box

Gerard Jones, a Premier Skills coach (Cartwright’s independent coach education company) adds “the key to with play-rounds is keeping the ball by playing around the opposition pressure in order to ‘penetrate’ and break lines where possible – so there is a purpose”.

If we look to amalgamate the theory of the three platforms we can play from and the idea of differentiation if attitudes in each platform with regards to play-rounds (based on the response from the opponent), we can consider there to be three play-rounds with relation to penetration types in front of the opposition midfield. One on each platform (low, medium and high), this is not to disregard Cartwright’s work but instead tying it in with penetration theory proposed in this article.

Precedent for the role of play-rounds and switching of play to create penetration

1. “Switch and Slice”

The terminology ‘switch and slice’ is one I have created to the benefit of young players understanding the opportunity players have to immediately penetrate upon any horizontal circulation (switching: both directly and indirectly). Upon switching the ball between players, can we look to slice through the opposition with a first time pass given the new angles we have through the opposition block? For ‘switch and slice’ to be effective we need to consider the response of the opposition and therefore this tells us we need to move from one ‘angle of attack’ (from one of the five vertical lanes) to at least +2 lanes. That is to say if we are in possession of the ball in lane one (wide), we must look to switch the ball to a minimum of lane three (+2) to find new angles quicker than the opposition can transition from their response to the ball being in lane one through to the ball now being in lane three, four or five. Moving the ball into lane two won’t consistently allow for the picture to change enough for the receiving player in relation to the dynamic response of the opposition.

The opponent’s block is either organised in relation to pressure, cover and balance to the orientation of where the ball is or in a transitional state whereby the block is re-organising itself to a new orientation point. In the below video we see a short analysis of Dortmund’s first goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach (15th August 2015).

Video: Switch and Slice (video contains Bundesliga footage so will not be available to watch in Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg or Switzerland)

2. The role of play-rounds to create platforms to penetration from

Given that some teams are more vulnerable to penetration than others in certain areas of the field, we can begin to identify areas that are best to set up platforms from. Switzerland are a team that like to use their right-sided central midfielder as their platform player to penetrate from in front of the opposition midfield line. Valon Behrami (right sided central midfielder) will often pull out to the right-full back slot with the intention of penetrating from lane four often in the medium platform. This movement allows for Switzerland’s right back, Stephan Lichtsteiner, to move forward and occupy advanced space behind the opposition midfield often (suitable for providing the best scenarios for Lichtsteiner’s player profile).

Switzerland therefore like to try and free up Behrami in this space on the field to set up play behind the opposition midfield. In circumstances where Behrami is under pressure from the opposition’s striker, the simple and yet effective solution from Switzerland is to use a play-round to move the opposition across to the other side of the field before returning back to Behrami in his platform space. Only now is Behrami comfortable to look to penetrate the opposition midfield consistently.

Video: Play-rounds and Platforms

3. Overload to isolate

Pep Guardiola has made famous the strategy of overloading one side of the field with the intention of tilting the opposition across to one of the wide lanes. By bringing the opponent’s pressure, cover and balance across to one side of the field, you are then opening up opportunities elsewhere.

In the training video posted below this text we see evidence of Guardiola installing the strategy. Guardiola asks for a minimum number of passes in a set area before looking to switch the ball out to another area and from there his players are to become aggressive with their penetrative movements and actions.

Video: Overload to Isolate

The overload to isolate strategy is often thought of one that can set in motion opportunities for a qualitative superiority in a one vs. one scenario for a player with a dribbling profile. However, the switch ball also asks questions of the opposition: how fast can we get across to defend from the new point of threat? Typically the urgency from the defending team’s full back is more than that of other players and this provides opportunities for quantitative superiority upon any switch ball.

The video below demonstrates how planned movement behind a full back can allow for effective methods to get in behind the opposition’s full back, from overload to an isolated 2 vs. 1 (if we only consider the opponent’s full back).

Video: Switch into 2 vs. 1

Paul Power of Prozone and the ground breaking Game Intelligence Model of analysis ( provides another insight into the action of penetration styles relating to horizontal ball movement. Paul Power suggests that by playing into an underload we can find more advantageous scenarios. That is to say we should look to momentarily play into an underload (a typical pressing trigger for most teams) and then look to play out of that scenario quickly to the other side of the field where you would now have an overload if the players have positioned themselves in positions of expected outcome.

In each scenario of play-rounds and switches, we ask questions of the opposition: ‘how will you respond?’ and it is only with that answer can we begin to plan for which method is correct in any given moment. The ability of players to ask questions of the opponent requires a collective insight into the scenario and observation skills from the players to read the answer given to them.


The purpose of this article wasn’t to detail all the methodology that can be used to bring about penetration but instead to start a discussion amongst readers about ways of thinking and methodology developed with the same set of specific themed lenses: how can we penetrate the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines through play-rounds and switching of the ball. The pre-precedent theory proposed in this article can act comfortably as a framework for analysis of an opponent and help propose effective approaches to set game models.

In my upcoming book, ‘Marcelo Bielsa: The Football Philosophy’ (December 2015 has been set as a likely publishing date within the framework of publication processes), I have completed extensive research into a myriad of methods to achieve penetration and theorised penetration types into clear categories, but none without this idea that we must ask questions of the opponent before knowing our solutions. For that to become a reality, we must move away from mindless patterns of play and towards a better understanding of how to read the languages of the game. How to ask questions of your opponent and read the answers. How to ‘be’ on the football field rather than what to ‘do’.

“Be precedes do. Always. Always. Always”

The Author