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  • Writer's pictureBFCN

Spanish Football Concepts

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

I have painted the teams as Barcelona and Real Madrid simply because I felt like it. Using Sport Session Planner to design these pictures. In some pictures, the ball is huge, just because it makes it easier for people to see if looking at more zoomed out shots. I will state several times before, during, and after this article, that these are generalisations. Not all Spanish teams are like this, not all Spanish players are like this. Likewise for England too when I make comparisons. It's more looking at the average, and drawing comparisons between them.

It was a 7v7 game played horizontally across an 11v11 pitch. The width of the pitch was around ten yards short of the 11v11 halfway line. The teams were around the U11 age group. We had a good vantage point sat in the stand, allowing us to see the game clearly, but one of the many stark contrast between Spanish and English youth football was the ease at which you could identify shapes and patterns. I would include American in that too. Actually, many countries from my experience, however I'll stick to English. English youth football is often random and chaotic, and therefore harder to identify a clear formation. These teams played a 2-3-1 versus a 3-2-1. More patient build up, higher quality of passes, a preference for safety over risk, better quality of support, and a greater ability for individuals to stay on the ball meant considerably fewer transitions occurred in the match compared to what one might witness back home. As a result of that, the ball stayed in play much longer, and the teams had longer spells of passing, often going ten or fifteen passes before losing the ball, which was usually from a cross or a shot in the final third. Unlike in other locations I've been to, where teams will rarely make sequences of four passes or more in a game.


Open Body Shape to Scan

I'll start with the keepers. They're all good with their feet. There's no clichéd fat kid in goal punting it long, or making the big kid take goal kicks to smash it forward. They can all receive under pressure, control and manipulate the ball well if pressed, and spend their time away from the ball making passing angles to support. Keep in mind that one of the main ideas at play here is that if we have the ball, the opposition can't score. Possession is ultimately a defensive tool. Teams play very few, if any, hopeful balls. Remember kids; the difference between a pass and a kick is that a pass is preceded by a thought!


Most goal kicks are taken like this. The two central defenders will split, and the keeper will play short. Opponents tend to sit deeper in these moments, rather than running around like headless chickens, or like dogs chasing cars. Teams will play long if it's on, but these passes tend to have a very high probability of reaching their target. The blue lines coming out of the supporting teammates represent field of vision. They always support side-on, being able to see where the ball is coming from and where it is going to. Spanish players likely think quicker than their English counterparts, but I'd suggest much of that is down to their initial gathering of information. They can see the ball in their periphery, while seeing much of the pitch ahead of them.


In an ironic twist of fate, it seems like the central defenders are some of the more skilful and intelligent players on the team, rather than the ball-launching donkeys they are treated as in other countries.


Receiving on the Blind Side

You will see plenty of centre backs actually carry the ball forward. If the opposition sits deep and doesn't press, the CB will "take the space" as they say in the US. They are competent at staying on the ball, which is a priority for all positions. Worth noting here are three supporting players;

The goalkeeper - hasn't disengaged, and is ready to receive a backpass if necessary. The keeper will also be giving information to the ball carrier.

The other centre back - look at the horizontal blue line. The support they give is not ahead of the ball, but ever so slightly behind it. This means that if the ball carrier were to play a square pass, the supporting CB would receive the ball in front of them, able to see forward, scanning and analysing the play. Notice the letter A, which I put there to represent the position many kids in England would take up to support the ball carrier

The holding midfielder - Sergio Busquets here doesn't come to the ball to receive it, but instead offers a passing angle on the blindside of the white team's centre forward.

Just for comparative purposes, can you see how annoying it is when the CDM and CB take up those supporting positions?


Triangles

If the CB were to play to the CDM, who has offered in the correct position, it eliminates the white team's centre forward, and now puts the CDM in a 1v1 against his opposing CM, with space to drive. This also becomes the trigger for the centre forward to make a run towards the ball, which, with the left winger, creates a triangle around the white CM. Football is a game of creating situations of superiority. It's all about creating space and exploiting space.


The triangle, or 3v1 means that the ball carrier can choose left or right. This makes them less predictable for the opponent, and therefore harder to press. Defenders thrive off of predictability. It's all problem solving. Through marking, tracking, and space coverage, defenders eliminate options for the attacking team. And when the attacking team's next move is obvious, defenders move to steal the ball. When a team has superiority, such as this 3v1 triangle, the opposition then have to adjust. And if we create pressure in one part of the field, it creates space in another part.


Due to the triangle, both the centre forward and left winger will also have two one touch passing options, with one of them being back to the CDM, who has will not continue driving forward to close his own space. Instead, the CDM will be in what is the ideal football situation; ball at his feet, in space, facing forward. That's what we want for our players. Spanish teams work hard as a unit to create those situations, where a player, anyone on their team, has the ball at their feet, is in space, and is facing forward.


The predicament the 3v1 triangle sets for the white team is a situation of risk and reward. Like a cheap blanket, a team can't cover everything. So they have to choose. Which players or part of the pitch are more important? Let's cover them!

If the white defender steps to close down the space of the Barca left winger, then it opens up this opportunity for the through ball. The Spanish kids can see this pass way more frequently than English kids. The structure of the team allows for great positioning and connections. The patience of the game allows them to get into these positions. The patience of the style of play means they won't try to force these passes, but only play them if they're likely to succeed. The passes are also weighted very well. And, on top of that...


Disguised Passes

The passes are disguised! Slight feints, steps, shoulder drops etc. Everything they can use to make the opposition think they are going one way, before going the other. Before passing, your hips, knees, shoulders, feet positioning etc. are giving away signals to the opponents. They're trying to read what you are doing before you do it. Many of these Spanish kids do a slight subtle step in the wrong direction, or put their plant foot down in the wrong way, to add noise to their signal. In the picture above, the CDM is shaped like he is playing to the striker. Both the white CM and CB read that signal and step across to block the pass which isn't being sent. This can add just one or two extra yards of space, but football is a game of inches, and space is our currency. The passer sends the opposition the wrong way, disguises the pass, and sends his teammate a through ball to run onto, with a little extra time and space, because he's sent the opponents the wrong way.


This isn't the typical no-look pass we see freestylerz use on TikTok and Instagram, where they exaggerate their head movements to look the wrong way at the point of execution, often in an a large area of free space, or a situation where the defender is beaten. Trust me, no good defender is looking at your head for cues. This is the kind of no look pass where your whole body is shaped to play one way, and instead you cut across yourself to play the other way, to a teammate who is often in your periphery.


Here's a great video of Lampard, Ozil, and Pirlo doing exactly that.

It's a similar concept with Thiago Alcantara and his turns. He deliberately shapes his body the wrong way to trick opponents. Your body gives away signals, with elements such as your shape or approach. Thiago adds noise to his signal, so the opponents interpret a completely different message.


The Defence Splitting Pass

One which stood out for me so much was this. This defence splitting pass. Maybe the CF makes a run to the ball to create a little more space. But the smallest of gaps would open up. The ball carrier would pretend he didn't notice. Then he'd shape up like he was playing a ball wide. The defenders would read the signals. Then the ball carrier would extend his drive or swivel round a few degrees more, and play a pass that very few others could see. We treat these players like gold dust in England. Yet in Spain, they seem to be a fairly frequent occurrence. As mentioned above, the absolute cherry on top being that these passes would also be disguised.


Low Crosses Through the Second Six

The "Second Six" is an imaginary second six yard box on top of the real six yard box. The penalty area of an adult 11v11 game is eighteen yards. The penalty spot is twelve yards. You get it. It's often a space just behind the defence, and just in front of the keeper. Ideal for low crosses.


Many of the scoring chances created would look something like this. A low cross to the back post for the far side winger, or a pull back for the centre forward. If the cross wasn't on, or the defence recovered, the teams wouldn't just hit a cross and hope. Instead, they would be patient, hold the ball up, and play backwards and restart the attack if they needed to.


Don't Cross if the Box is Full

They realise this is a low probability situation, and therefore don't cross. The area has a 2v6 underload. It's probably not worth it. So they turn round and start again. Interestingly, the parents and coaches aren't going crazy and screaming to cross it like they would in other countries. I think they generally collectively recognise this as a situation where they'd lose the ball, and possession is of utmost importance.


Forget Foul Throws

Another thing, probably a small detail to some, but I think it's a fairly big deal, is that they don't care much about foul throws. Pretty much 80-90% of throws were foul throws, but the referee didn't call it. And nobody cared. Players played the game, parents didn't scream, and coaches continued with their instructions. This seemed very odd to me. I would be interested to know how much time is spent in England on retaking throws, and how much time is lost to arguing about throws. I like it. Taking a throw-in is a complicated technique for many kids. So why waste time fighting it? It's quite simple when you're older. It's one of those things that isn't important, and they'll get anyway later down the line.


I've known coaches to go spare at the quality of throw-ins taken by their kids, and then dedicate significant amounts of time in the next few sessions to working on throw-in technique. It provides minimal gain, and comes at a cost of having neglected elements of their development which may have been more important. The Spanish attitude seems to be to just get on with the game. The irony in England is that for the amount people argue over throws, the vast majority end up with the opposition within two passes anyway. An English throw-in is effectively a coin toss.

We needlessly over complicate things. Make a kite. It's that simple. Three players around the taker at distances of 10-15m. One behind, one square, and one up the line. The behind option should be close to the touchline to give them more separation from the nearest opponent. The square option should not be level, but a couple metres behind level, as in the picture above. This means they can receive on the half turn while facing forward. The ball can be thrown in front of them. The up the line option should start short, and then run in behind.


Just because we provide short options, doesn't mean we don't want to or can't go long. It's more that in England, when we go long, it's brainless. This is at all levels of the game. We fall into the trap of standing where we want to receive the ball. Don't occupy the space you wish to fill. If you stand there, they will mark you. Stand somewhere else, and they will mark you somewhere else. It's better to be marked in an unimportant space than an important space, because that leaves the important space open to receive the ball in while on the move. In the picture above, down the line would be a great option. It's only an option because the other players have done their jobs and created this space. If the down the line option was already waiting there, stationary, he wouldn't be able to receive while on the move.

Here's your typical English throw-in. No width, no depth. All players in a small space with no movement. You could throw a blanket over all the outfield players. The only acceptable throws are within the blue lines. Anything even remotely sideways or backwards is met with audible frustration from the sidelines. We must remember that the principles of play are consistent, even at restarts. Therefore, the attacking team seeks to open space, and the defending team seeks to deny space. Yet what happens at throw-ins? The attacking team denies their own space.


Dribble Away From the Defender

The next thing I want to look at here is dribbling. I don't think there's much difference, if any, in the technical or physical ability between English and Spanish kids. I just think they're a lot more intelligent. Another example is dribbling. Each player is comfortable engaging in 1v1 situations as an attacker. But what they do is ever so slightly different. Spanish kids don't dribble at the defender. They dribble at an angle away from the defender, rather than down the line towards the defender. English kids approach the defenders head on, like two trains colliding, and then use a skill to go around them. Remember that we move the ball to move the opposition. In the above picture, the Barcelona player won't go towards the defender. Instead, he will go to the left or right of the defender, pull the defender a couple yards out of his position, and then feint and change direction to accelerate into the space created by moving the defender.

Dribble away from the line of the defender. Take him out of his position, then change direction and accelerate into the space created.

English kids dribble directly at the defender and then try one of those moves they have learned in order to go around them. It's a far less effective method, because it relies on the effective execution of a complex skill, going along an approach that favours the opponent. I don't wish to speak in absolutes here and say that all English kids do this, and all Spanish kids do that, it's more tendencies.

Another tendency of English kids is to dribble themselves into trouble. In the scenario above, it's effectively a 1v1 because the two immediate passing options for the ball carrier have been eliminated. While dribbling down the line of the defender and not moving him from his position is bad enough, another component of what makes dribbling effective is the ability to fake. To pretend to go one way and then to go another. If it's a 1v1, then there are no passing options to fake to. Spanish kids tend to avoid 1v1 dribbling situations more than English kids, and look to dribble when there is a numerical superiority, like a 2v1. By having a clear passing lane to a teammate, they can fake the pass, and then go the other way. Remember that defenders like predictability. A 1v1 is a far easier problem to solve for the defender than a 2v1 because of the limited number of options. Spanish kids will use the passing lane to fake, and then dribble the other way. Or they will dribble one way to move the defender, thus creating more space for the teammate, before then passing.

Bait the defender by dribbling inside. The defender moves inside too, responding to the dribble, then play the pass to the teammate on the outside, because it created more space for him.

Or shape up like you're going to play the outside pass. Bait the defender, who starts stepping in anticipation of this pass, before shifting your body and driving inside towards the space you have created. No more mindless head down dribbling as if the opponent is a cone, to be bamboozled by your elaborate stepover.


La Pausa

What do you do if you've got no passing options and a dribble doesn't feel safe? La Pausa. Remember one of the main concepts is to stay on the ball. Don't dribble down blind alleyways, don't lump it long hoping something will happen. Pause on the ball, which signals to teammates to move and open up into better positions. It can be for half a second, maybe to invite pressure and start the chain reaction, like bait. Xavi does it best in this video.


Touch Away From Pressure

If under pressure while receiving, Spanish kids will take their first touch away from pressure. Similar to the dribbling idea earlier on, where they move away from the line of approach from the opponent. With a decent first touch, opponents can be beaten and eliminated. In the above picture, we don't want our first touch to go into the red area, because that is where the opponent is coming from. It reduces our time, space, and casts a much bigger cover shadow to block our options. If we kill the ball dead (stay in the yellow area), as many kids have somehow been taught, we then need to take an extra touch to adjust before playing the ball, ceding even more space to the pressing opponent. However, if we take a good first touch into the blue area, it eliminates the pressing opponent. The ball carrier can see the picture ahead of him, drive into space if he wants to, and will have the opponent behind him and out of the game.

When receiving this pass here into the CDM, many of us have our kids turn and try to play forward. If the CDM turns into the red area, it is likely the ball will be stolen by the opponent. It's alright to take a first touch away from the opponent into the yellow area, as this still allows for two backwards passing options. The best touch in this situation is into the blue area. Perhaps the CDM can roll the opponent. Either way, if the first touch is into the yellow or blue area, the ball isn't exposed to the opponent. Use your body to shield the ball, and do not let your opponent see it. Use your body to hide the ball from the opponent. If they can see it, they can take it. A loss of possession here is an immediate counter attack for the opposition, and a dangerous one at that.


Play Away From Pressure

How many times will you see a young player play one of the red passes in this situation? They play the ball back where it came from, even if it is unwise to do so. Even if the receiving players will be under pressure or have no options. Even if there are better options elsewhere. In the above picture, you can see how the blue space on the right wing is far better, but the receiving CDM has not opened his body, scanned, or checked his shoulder. Because of this, his pass back into pressure means his teammates now have to work really hard again to maintain possession and build an attack. This is why open body shape is so important, and that our players know that we should be avoiding condensed and congested areas as a default.


Passes to Draw Pressure

This is different to the previous concept, which was when players mistakenly play back into pressure. This one is deliberately playing into a teammate to draw pressure, as bait, to create space somewhere else. In the picture above, the CB has played to the CDM in the red space, who is surrounded by three opponents. It may not be the wisest idea to pass to this player, but providing it is timed right, it can provide huge benefits. A pass into a more congested area will attract pressure. Remember that if we attract pressure in one area, we create space in another area. The CDM separates from his marker, receives between the lines, attracts the press, and creates a little more space for his teammates on the right wing in the blue area. It has to be a one touch bounce pass. Any attempt to turn and face forward, or take a second touch, will result in the ball being lost. Possession is paramount.


Faking Before Receiving

This is something David Beckham would do a lot of when the ball had been laid off to him. Just before whipping in a cross or pinging a diagonal, he would shape up like he is going to strike the ball. In the above picture, the CDM has passed back to the CB, who is being pressed by the white CF. The Barcelona CB pretends like he's going to launch the ball, which makes the opponent commit to a block or an attempt to get in the way, much like the jump seen in the picture. The receiving CB then coolly knocks the ball forward, having fooled the opponent, and buys himself an extra second or two to find his next option.


Pass to the GK to Relieve Pressure and Rebuild

When the opposition is deep and compact, with no space in behind, and no space between the lines, sometimes the right thing to do is to play all the way back to the goalkeeper and start again. The opposition sees this an an opportunity to move their defensive block forward and gain some territory. It pulls them out of that compact, low block, creates a bit more space between the lines, and now has space in behind their defensive line too. The Spanish youth teams tend to do this a lot. It makes total sense when you remember how important possession is. They don't wish to lump it forward in the hope of winning a second ball. Their approach requires more certainty.


In order to play possession football well, you have to open up and spread out across the pitch. This leaves teams susceptible to counters, which means the team in possession becomes extra cautious. As mentioned several times already, the keepers are very good with their feet. This is greatly encouraged by coaches, as a keeper that can't pass and receive means you're effectively a player down when in possession, because there is a teammate you can't pass to. Few coaches in England have the patience to work with keepers in this way, especially at grassroots. We have to win today, and that means no mistakes! So the keeper better not be faffing about with it at the back! Rather than working on the problem, and taking the hit now for the long term benefit, many coaches sweep the problems under the rug, and hope it will sort itself out over time. The result of that is that we get keepers in their teens who can't take their own goal kicks. If you ever see that, it means that coaches have failed that kit. Don't stifle the development of a child because your ego needs plastic trophies.


Central Defender Depth When Supporting

The two blue dots represent where many CBs would be positioned in this situation in English youth football. Often too close to be of use, at a depth of five or ten yards from the ball. When Spanish CBs see their teammates in trouble, they usually back off, dropping deeper so that if needed, they can receive the ball safely in an area of low pressure. They backpedal so they can still see forward and assess the play while the ball is being transferred to them.


What many kids do, and even adults too, is conflate support for proximity. They see a teammate in need of assistance and think they should go close to the ball in order to receive a pass. Instead, they should offer the same passing line, but only deeper.

In this picture, I've drawn the exact same scenario twice. It's a mirror image, except for one minor detail. On the left, in the red half, the CB supports the winger from a very close distance, and on the right, in the blue half, the CB supports the winger much deeper. A has conflated proximity for support. B has recognised his teammate is in trouble and has given his teammate a viable passing option, while also being in a large space, away from instant pressure, and able to see the whole field. Remember that what we want is to have a player with the ball at their feet, in space, facing forward. B gives us that, whereas A will likely result in the ball being stolen and a white counter sprung, unless A resorts to hoofing it forward, which will also likely relinquish possession. Neither need to be the case. All you have to do is drop another ten yards, like B has.


Another reminder that the course I'm studying out here is a youth football expert course with MBP School of Coaches.


Thanks for reading. Let me say one final time that these are not absolutes. Not every Spanish team does these things, and not every English team doesn't do these things. If that makes sense? These are tendencies of typical Spanish players compared to typical English players. The outlined concepts in this article are fundamentals that improve your football regardless of what country you're from. I know that in England, we can often be quite arrogant and dismissive of other cultures and their footballing ways. Why wouldn't we be? We have the best league in the world! Even if that were possible to prove as true, the Premier League is made up of players from all over the world, and has never been won by an English coach. All the concepts listed above are seen in Premier League games. They're not seen routinely by English kids. This could explain why there are so few English players playing for top teams in the "best league in the world." I'm not saying if it is or it isn't. It's entirely subjective. What isn't subjective is that despite the strength of the PL and its teams, most are foreign players and foreign coaches. They bring so much joy, creativity, and intelligence to our game. Let's digest that and teach it to our young players.

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