Ajax / Barcelona FC / Football Theory / Total Football

Systems Football: Part One

First written and published on EPLindex.com by Jed C.Davies of TPiMBW

In your search in fathoming the secrets of how to coach or play ‘systems football’, you’ll need to not only question everything you read here but everything you already know about tactical approaches in football – never assume you know all there is to know. Forget formation, start from nothing and recreate the basic concepts in football to suit the qualities you have to work within, but understand that your concepts should still fit within a basic framework, a framework of systems football.

On a conveyor belt coaches turn up to Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper to watch Barcelona train; they come in their thousands with their notebooks, hoping to frantically scribble down hundreds of epiphany moments and come away with all of football’s answers. The formula for any successful systems approach will not be found in this way; it is a ‘whole-approach’ that needs to be experienced. Therefore, to simply mimic Barcelona’s approach entirely is in practice extremely difficult to do and in most cases impractical to do so.

The formula of successfully implementing systems football begins at ground zero; yes, you take the basic principles from the particular system you wish to mimic, but from there onwards, it’s a journey of self discovery – a journey of understanding not just yourself within the complexities of a system, but also those of your opponents and the field itself. The solutions and spatial relationships on a field are interminable and in a constant state of flux depending on who has the ball and where the opponents are positioned – in attack, in defence, unabridged.

The first element within the complex systems approach to football is technical possession:

“I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game” (Brendan Rodgers)

That much is now obvious – keep the possession (Re: Spain Euro 2012). However, where do you begin when you have a group of twelve year olds who only know how to play the long ball over the top for the quicker players to run on to? (still effective at youth level, but quickly becomes a redundant tactic as players progress). Grab yourself a futsal (a smaller ball that doesn’t lend itself to bouncing or ‘hoof ball‘), a decent playing surface and become obsessed with passing and pressing in triangles, not just in isolated groups of three, but eventually as an entire collective. Positional play is imperative:

“Lots of coaches devote their time to wondering how they can ensure that their players are able to do a lot of running during a match. Ajax trains its players to run as little as possible on the field. That is why positional games are always central” (Louis Van Gaal)

Given time, players will make a habit of learning how to play in partnership with one another – this type of football (futsal) forces it upon players and can be played at any of the younger age groups. Position play will come naturally through the shorter passing play that evolves from the triangular player relationships that you should encourage, at first allow them to play at a stable tempo they are comfortable with (this will be addressed later: the importance of differentiated tempo) – the importance here is on positional play and the spectrum passing technique and vision:

“perfect passing, the fact that all their players are comfortable on the ball, and their perfect technique. That must be a question of training, training and more training. Always with the ball” (Lothar Mattheus)

As a youth player, you come across one or two important pieces of advice that live with you forever. Jon Rudkin, a Leicester City Football Academy coach, once told me that I should be looking around every three to five seconds to know exactly where everyone (team mates, opponents and the space) were around me, with or without the ball – the idea is to give yourself at least three options that would be available at any moment, whether that be a pass to a team mate, the direction of a first touch or a move into space. This way I would be expecting the ball at any given moment and I would know exactly where the first touch should go to shield the ball from an opponent, or exactly where an available team mate would be to play a first touch pass out and then spin away into space. Jon may not have realised it, but the moment he gave the players this advice, an epiphany moment came to me as a young 13/14 year old – it’s stayed with me ever since, how I saw football changed forever. Jon may not remember saying that, or even remember me but as a coach you are a position of great importance and your choice of words are as important before a game and at half time as they are on the training pitch midweek.

“Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.” (Xavi)

Charly Rexach, a Barcelona youth coach is famed for his ‘a mig toc’ (half a touch) shout from the side lines at his youth team midfielders. By this he is referring to just how quickly he wants his players to take their first touch and/or pass and for the midfield this ties in almost perfect harmony with the advice Jon once gave me as a youth player.

The only way you can reach a level that is transferrable from a training field to conquering your opponents on match day is through practice, even Barcelona practice these two elements of possession football – over and over, and over:

“It’s all about rondos [an advanced version of piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball.” (Xavi)


An advanced, quick paced version of the well known ‘piggy in the middle’. Begin in smaller groups (7 v 3, 4 v 2 or 3 v 1) and give them one ball and a 10x10m square (smaller as they progress, or larger dependant on the number of participants). The concept is that the middle players are to press and not tackle; they’ll learn to press in teams. Promoting partnerships is also an option available here whereby two players are a ‘rondo pressing team’ (Messi begged Guardiola to team up with Busquets during Busquets’ first training session with the first team)

The Rondo reduces those in possession to only one or two touches (or half a touch), and requires them to think about the space around them quickly. When the ball is won, either the single player who lost the ball replaces the ball winner in the middle (as in piggy in the middle) or you bring in a rule that the ball is to be won three times and then a new partnership comes into the middle.

The key to retaining enjoyment from players is keeping the rondo competitive, being proud of a team’s tradition and using it to intimidate both new comers to the team and opponents during the warm up.

As the players understanding of partnership pressing develops, the ball players will need to improve further still to keep the ball.


Part one of this series was intended as a brief overview into the mindset of possession keeping systems football (such as the media branded Tiki-Taka and Totaal-Voetbal).

We have highlighted the importance of space, possession and how the individuals function perfectly in harmony as an integrated machine. Though these are concepts that many consider simplistic, mastering these basic components in football are elements of a wider masterpiece that is forever growing, there is no blueprint, no finished article.

Through the design of systems football that will be explained briefly over the series, the concepts of space as a defining element in football and that of ‘freedom by design’ will become clear.

However, first and foremost the foundations must be laid, the philosophy must be understood and trusted by the players, promoting going backwards with the ball to go forwards; that the strength of the team is that of the whole team and not any individual position or player.

“Más de un entrenador de fútbol” (more than a football coach) [a play on Barcelona’s “Més que un club”]

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (Richard Buckminster Fuller)

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Part One: Introduction to theory

Part Two: Positioning

An illustrative guide to spatial relationships with team mates and opponents, solutions and geometry of the field.

“Every player has to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch” (Gerard van der Lem)

Part Three: Defence

Part Four: Midfield