Positional Play & The Third Man Concept
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
At Eagleclaw Football Club, we have ambitiously adopted the Spanish philosophy, playing style and game model known as Positional Play, or Juego de Posición in Spanish. Let's call it JdP for short. We have been teaching and training JdP for over 7 years. The foundation of JdP is the 1970's era Dutch model of Total Football, which was exported to Spain by Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff and later perfected and made famous by Pep Guardiola and his teams at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and, most recently, Manchester City. It is a playing philosophy that demands a great deal from players in terms of technical abilities and intelligence, and also requires that a coach be willing to dig deep into the method and really educate themselves. A "drive-by" coach will never be a true student of JdP nor an effective teacher as they will never really understand how to connect the JdP philosophy to a game model and, most importantly, to a training methodology. This is why it is super ambitious for a youth club to adopt JdP. It's not impossible, just hard.
JdP In A Nutshell
JdP is a possession-based style of play that uses certain structures, positional discipline and exploitation of space in order to create superiorities that allow the ball to be advanced up the field. The primary principle of JdP is to create the conditions for the appearance of the "Free Man". The Free Man is simply a player who is unmarked and has the space, time and capacity to advance the ball up the field. Marti Perarnau, editor of the Tactical Room and Pep Guardiola's chief biographer explains it this way:
“Positional Play does not consist of passing the ball horizontally, but something much more difficult: it consists of generating superiorities behind each line of pressure. It can be done more or less quickly, more or less vertically, more or less grouped, but the only thing that should be maintained at all times is the pursuit of superiority. Or to put it another way: create free men between the lines."
JdP features and depends on a team achieving superiority over an opponent in a number of ways. There are different types of superiority that can be achieved, including positional superiority, numerical superiority and qualitative superiority.
1. Numerical Superiority
Put simply, numerical superiority is about overloading and outnumbering the defenders in the area where the team has possession of the ball. We can better see how numerical superiority is achieved if we look at the field of play through a JdP lens. In the graphic below, you can see the 1v1 situation between Red #5 and Blue #8 in the Intervention Zone. Look at the next larger zone, the Direct Cooperation Zone, and you can see that as a result of positioning (not the same thing as assigned positions), the situation is really Red outnumbering Blue 4 to 1. Blue #7 is out of position and Blue #6 is too far away to intervene. If Red #5, instead of dribbling into the 1v1, can pass to Red #3 or Red #6, the team can bypass the line of pressure and advance the ball up the field into a more dangerous attacking area.
Expansive Football - A Positional Play Game Model for Coaches, Patrick J. King (2019)
We've previously written about another another example of how to achieve immediate numerical superiority, the ‘Salida Lavolpiana’. When playing out from the goalkeeper, the two center backs quickly split wide, the two outside backs move wider all the way to the touch line and then higher up the pitch, while the organizing midfielder drops into the pocket just in front of the keeper. With this simple positioning strategy, the attacking team will typically outnumber the defenders 4:1, 4:2, or 4:3, depending on whether the defending team are pressing with one, two or three players.
2. Qualitative Superiority
If we can create situations where our player's abilities and characteristics give us advantages over the defenders, then we have achieved qualitative superiority. For example, imagine a team playing out from the back, using La Salida Lavolpiana and creating a lot of activity on the right hand side of the pitch. They are passing and circulating the ball to each other quickly. The defenders will begin to pinch in toward the right hand side of the field. Our left winger (#11) on the left hand side has kept a wide position and perhaps is only being marked loosely by the opposition's right outside back. A potential 1v1 situation is being created. Now assume our winger is very skilled technically and speedier than the opposing defender. If we can shift the defenders to the right, then quickly switch the ball to our winger on the opposite side of the field, we should be able to create a 1v1 situation between our winger and the opposing right outside back. Our winger should be able to use his or her speed and technique to get behind the defender and into the box and create a scoring opportunity. That is qualitative superiority, achieved through a deep understanding of the players on both sides, and then developing a strategy to overload one side of the field and isolate our qualitatively superior matchup.
3. Positional Superiority
The team that is better positioned will have the benefits of time and space and create more chances to score. It's that simple. Easier said than done, right? For the true JdP practitioner, the spatial structure of the team is the key to positional superiority. Again, La Salida Lavolpiana presents a simple, opening example of how taking up advantageous positioning leads to numerical superiority. Much more is required to achieve positional superiority in every phase of the game and it can be individual or collective positioning. As an example of individual positioning, if a player has positioned their body properly so that their field of vision is as wide as possible and they have an open body position making them ready to receive the ball to their back foot and quickly move upfield, that may be individual positional superiority. If a team has maintained positional discipline, overloading one side of the field while a dangerous wide player is free on the opposite side of the field, that is collective positional superiority.
Another example of effective collective positioning is the staggering of players' positions so they are on different horizontal and vertical lines. It is very common for a JdP team arrange its midfielders in this way. Positioned in this way, the players create better vertical passing options and maintain triangular shape. In the image below, you can see an example of how midfielders might be positioned to achieve positional superiority. The midfielders (#6, #8 and #10) are not on the same horizontal or vertical lines. The organizing midfielder (#6) is deeper than the #8 or #10, both of whom are also in wider positions.
The Third Man Concept
Perhaps the most fundamental concept of JDP is the Third Man Concept or "Concepto del Tercer Hombre" in Spanish. Let's call it TMC for short. TMC is a primary way of achieving numerical and positional superiority. The "Third Man" is simply a player who is free, unmarked by a defender and able to receive the ball. If the Third Man also has the space, time and ability to progress the ball beyond the opponents line of pressure toward the opponent's goal then they are also the Free Man. In a nutshell, TMC is simply about using rapidly circulating possession of the ball to attract and draw in opposing players in order to find free players intentionally positioned in open and dangerous spaces further away from the ball. To do this, there must first be intentional progressions of movement involving players with the ball and those without the ball so that supporting triangular passing lines are created and maintained.
Another key to TMC is that when a player has the ball, they must look as far upfield as they can for a passing option. If that pass can be made safely, that's what they should do. Otherwise, if there are defenders in the way, the players need to play where the ball is and work to shift defenders by using numerical and positional superiority, rapid circulation of the ball. In this way, the players will create the Third Man. Below is a video of Pep Guardiola at a coaching course explaining this concept.
I think it is also really helpful to know how one of the masters of this tactic understands and explains it - Xavi Hernandez.
"The third man is impossible to defend, impossible ... I'll explain what it means. Imagine Piqué wanting to play with me, but I'm marked, I have a marker (defender) on me, a very aggressive guy. Well, it is clear that Piqué can not pass it to me, it is evident. If I move away, I'll take the marker with me. Then, Messi goes down and becomes the second man. Piqué is the 1st, Messi the 2nd and I the 3rd. I have to be very alert, right?! Piqué, then plays with the 2nd man, Messi, who returns it, and at that moment I'm an option. I'm now free of my marker who has moved to defend closer to the ball. Now I'm totally unmarked and Piqué passes me the ball. If my marker is looking at the ball, cannot see that I'm unmarked and then I appear, I'm the third man. We have already achieved superiority. This is indefensible, it's the Dutch school, it's Cruyff. It is an evolution of the Dutch triangles. " - Xavi Hernández
“To look for the third man is, for example, that the central players have the ball and one of them is always open because you always have one player more than opposing strikers. In that case, Puyol has the ball and goes up, up and up until a defender challenges him. If the defender who tries to stop him is my marker, then the third man happens to be me! If it is Iniesta's marker who moves to challenge Puyol , then Andres is the third man. And so we seek superiority in any area of the field. You make a three against two, you win and you have the third man. We advance positions up the field”. - Xavi Hernández
The critical factor Xavi describes is that the Free Man must be unmarked. Read that quote by Xavi again. He says clearly that he has to be very alert. Why? He must be aware of the movements of his marker and then either stay in place (because the marker has moved away leaving Xavi unmarked where he is), make a quick run into space or make a delayed run into space in order to remain unmarked. The movement of the ball, teammates and defenders must happen in proper sequence and timing to cause the Free Man to be unmarked. Another way to help the Third Man shed their marker is through the use of a passing pattern of different passing heights that allow the Third Man to lose their marker and receive the ball at the furthest (highest) point. Marcelo Bielsa describes this as the ball going up, then back and then through. Coaches have probably all heard of "up, back, through" as a passing pattern, but perhaps have not keyed in on the real purpose of the pattern: to move the defender marking the Third Man toward the Second Man, so that the Third Man is unmarked and can receive the ball in a dangerous area with time and space to advance the play.
Here is a video of Marcelo Bielsa teaching this concept at a recent coaching course. The topic is "Desmarque al 2 Hombre", which translates to "Dismarking toward the Second Man." Notice who is in the front row paying very close attention (lower right): Xavi, Carles Puyol and Thomas Tuchel, who is currently Manager at Paris St. Germain and a disciple of Pep Guardiola's brand of JdP! Top players and a top coach learning from another top coach.
Before going much further, we should take a step back and make sure we are clear on core terminology and concepts. There is an important and critical distinction to understand between the Third Man (el tercer hombre) and the Free Man (el hombre libre). In many tactical discussions, coaches conflate these two concepts as if they were different descriptions of the same thing. That is incorrect. The Third Man may or may not also be the Free Man. In many situations the Third Man and the Free Man are two different players. The Third Man is the unmarked player in a 3v2 who may or may not be able to advance the ball upfield on their own beyond or through opposing lines of pressure. If the Third Man receives the ball with time, space and capacity to advance the ball on their own, then they are not only the Third Man but also the Free Man. Otherwise, they are simply the Third Man.
To showcase the difference between the Third Man and the Free Man, have a look at this image. Inside the blue area a 3v2 is developing with a Third Man. If the Third Man receives the ball and were to turn upfield, we can see some defenders in white who will soon be in the way. The field is overloaded to the left hand side, but the player on the opposite side is staying wide and relatively unmarked - the Free Man. Notice the open vertical space in front of the Free Man.
Now watch the entire video sequence (one of our favorites!) to see an amazing display of JDP by Villareal CF. The ball is circulating rapidly on one side of the field and an amazing sequence of 3v2 situations are created and the Third Man appears repeatedly before the ball reaches the Free Man who is in space with the time and capacity to progress the ball forward.
Let's have another look at how TMC is achieved repeatedly at the absolute highest levels. In the video below, Manchester City strings together 44 passes and then scores. The key to their play, however, is how certain players consistently position themselves between lines of pressure so that wherever they are on the field, they enjoy numerical superiority or positional superiority. These superiorities allow them to maintain possession by passing the ball out of pressure, all the while looking to shift the defenders and create opening for pressing the attack.
Here's another instructive example, again from a professional Spanish side. The sequence below is from a game between Real Sociedad and Mallorca. I find it helpful to have a look at still images first, but then we can take a look at the video and watch the entire sequence play out.
In the first image, we can see the players who are involved in the 3v2. The players have already recognized the situation. The player with the ball (1st man) sees the press from two defenders. Notice that two of his teammates are positioned between the lines of pressure.
As the 1st man dribbles forward, he is attracting the press of the two defenders in front of him. This forward movement by the 1st Man has the effect of causing the two defenders to widen their positions to cover other passing angles. The red defender ahead of and to the right of the 1st man is moving to his left to cover the wide attacker. This leaves the two defenders open to a split pass to the 2nd Man.
Once the ball reaches the 2nd Man, the Third Man remains comfortably in space, still between the lines of pressure.
In this example, the 2nd Man makes a quick pass to the Third Man and then immediately begins to make a forward run toward goal.
Now watch the video below to see the play develop at full speed. You'll find the sequence at minute 3:51 of the clip.
TRAINING THE THIRD MAN CONCEPT
Developing players who can understand and execute these concepts presents concrete challenges for youth coaches. A coach must really understand JdP thoroughly in order to extract fundamental principles and concepts, simplify them in ways youth players can understand and implement and then embed them in meaningful training sessions. Developing such a deep understanding requires that a coach devote many hours of reading, film study and session planning in addition to practical implementation on the training ground and in games. JdP is not taught in US Soccer coaching license courses and, in fact, many of the methods for training and teaching JdP to youth players are actually rejected by US Soccer. This means coaches must be extremely proactive educating themselves about JdP. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there must be someone in the club, usually the Technical Director, who is willing not only to encourage and teach coaches about JdP, but also to enforce the club's philosophy when coaches stray and and try to teach something else. To be an effective club philosophy, JdP must run through the spine of the club so that every coach of every team is training and teaching the same thing.
So, how can we teach this kind of play to youth players? It actually isn't that hard if you introduce the language and concepts of JdP in age-appropriate ways and begin to use exercises that encourage players to create 3v2 TMC situations instinctively. To do this, players must be trained to:
understand the concept of defensive lines of pressure and be able to recognize them in the game;
understand how and when to position themselves between lines of pressure;
understand, recognize and create 3v2 situations to create the Third Man;
Understand techniques for losing a marker (e.g. Up, Back, Through)
Understand the difference between the Third Man and the Free Man.
US Soccer believes these concepts cannot be taught to players younger than 12. Don't believe it! It is possible to teach fundamental JdP principles and concepts to 10 and 11 year olds, even if the kids don't know it by that name. Of course, it easier to teach older kids but the conscientious work you do with young players to develop a JdP mentality early, will pay huge dividends when the players are 14 or 15.
As you will see in the exercises below, simple progressions of rondos and positional games can be used to teach and reinforce TMC as the foundation of a JdP team. These are by no means the only exercises for teaching TMC in the JdP context, but are ones I've found quite effective.
PROGRESSION OF EXERCISES TO TRAIN THIRD MAN CONCEPT
1. 4v1 Rondo
Setup: 8' x 8' square. Make the square a bit larger for technically weaker players maybe to 10' x 10' and as players gain technical consistency passing and receiving, then tighten up the square to increase the technical demand. The more time and space, the less the technical demand. 4 attackers outside the square, one defender inside. The defender should hold a pinney in their hand.
Attackers pass and circulate the ball, keeping it away from the defender
Begin by requiring two-touches to develop technical consistency
Passes must be received across the body to the back foot, and passes made with the instep of other foot. Discourage passes made with the outside of the foot and they will typically be weaker, lacking weight and pace.
If a player receives the ball to the front foot, have them switch roles with the defender. This will encourage players to concentrate on moving to receive the ball to the back foot if the pass is not played perfectly to their back foot.
If players have a high level of technical consistency, one-touch passing is permitted.
Passes cannot be made through the square, only to adjacent players. This will encourage adjacent players to move along their line to provide supporting passing options.
Defender must go 100%. If they win the ball or touch it out of play, they switch roles with the player who made the pass. Use this as an opportunity to coach a counter-attacking mentality. When switching roles, the outgoing defender should not hand the pinney to the new defender. They should drop the pinney straight to the ground and quickly take a position around the square and begin playing straight away. This forces the new defender to work to get oriented and gives the attackers the opportunity to take advantage of any delay by the defender in orienting themselves.
Notes: This rondo will obviously not create a 3v2 situation for the perfect TMC, but will allow the players to begin to see sequences and combinations of 3v1. Since the ball cannot be played across the square, whenever a player has the ball the situation is 3v1. As soon as the ball is played to a teammate, another configuration of 3v1 is created. This is a fundamental, but critical exercise. It should be used as an extremely high-energy exercise and not as a lazy warmup. The coach should bring energy to the exercise, praising and encouraging the players on the quality of their receiving, passing and supporting movement.
2. 5v2 Rondo Transitional Rondo
Setup: 10' x 20" with 2 zones. Attackers and defenders positioned as shown. Players #4, #6 and #9 maintain their positions. Players #2 and #3 can move along their entire line.
Conduct: There is a 4v2 Rondo in the beginning zone. Passes can be made to adjacent players or to the player at the opposite end of the beginning zone. The attacking team's task is to connect 4 or 5 passes (coach's discretion) and then look to play the ball to the teammate at the far end of the other zone. When the ball is played to other zone, players #2 and #3 must transition quickly to provide supporting options. Again, the players must connect 4 or 5 passes in this zone before looking to play out to the player at the far end of the other zone. If a defender wins the ball or touches it out of play, they switch roles with the player who made the pass.
Maintain high energy.
Players can reach the other zone with an aerial pass, but it is far better to encourage the players to keep the ball on the deck as it will be easier to control and maintain possession.
Encourage players not to receive the ball to their front foot, but instead try to keep the ball on the back foot.
Use the same rules for defending and changes of role as used in the 4v1 Rondo.
Notes: This exercise will create the Third Man as well as the Free Man. It is the perfect vehicle to begin talking to your players about this concept.
Here's a video of this exercise with players age 10 and 11.
3. 4v4(+7) Positional Game
Setup: The playing area is 35'x20' with a central zone of 5'. Two teams of four players and 7 neutral players are positioned as shown. The neutral players play with the team in possession. This creates a 2v2(+4) in each of the two outside zones. The players inside the playing area must all remain in their zones. The 4 neutrals outside the playing area can move anywhere along their lines.
Conduct: This is a possession game designed to create continuous opportunities to create 3v2 situations that allow the Third Man Concept to appear. When the ball is in one zone, the players in possession in that zone play with the outside neutrals and the neutral in the middle zone and try to pass the ball to the opposite zone but with one constraint: To switch zones, the pass must be made to a player who is not currently playing with the players in the current zone. This means the zone-switching pass cannot be made indirectly through the neutral player in the middle zone, but directly from one far zone to the other far zone. If defenders win the ball, they instantly switch roles and begin to play with the neutrals.
Notes: The key to this game is reinforcing the concept that players must look as far upfield as possible to find the furthest passing option. If that pass is not on, then the players work in their zone to keep possession and shift the defenders until a good passing option in the opposite zone appears. There is no number of passes the players must connect before making a zone-switching pass. If the zone-switching pass is on, the players should make it right away!
4. Up, Back, Through Rondo
Setup: 35'x20' with a central zone of 5'. Players are arranged as shown.
Conduct: The objective is to move the ball from one zone to the other with one constraint: The zone switching pass can only be made from after receiving a pass from a teammate in the central zone ("the pocket"). No more than 2 defenders (Blue) in any zone. No player can be in the central zone unless they are making a run into the area to quickly receive and pass the ball into the same zone from which the entry pass originated, and a defender may go into the central zone only to defend that action. After receiving and making a pass from the central zone, the player must quickly exit the central zone. As the ball moves into the next zone, the wide players (#7,11,2,3) move to support.
Notes: This rondo teaches players the fundamental patterns and actions needed to pull markers away from a Free Man by using the Up, Back, Through passing pattern. Players should be reminded that this passing pattern and all the actions and movements are intended to reach an unmarked player higher up the pitch. Players dropping into the central zone ("the pocket") must be coached to play one-touch so that the action and ball movement is quick and deliberate.
Click below for a video of the ball and player movements and actions.
5. 4v4(+4)(+1) Positional Game
Setup: 40'x30' playing area. Setup 4 mini goals as shown. The cones are used to keep the players from playing in the area behind the goals. Two teams of 4 players inside the square with one neutral (#6). Another team of 4 players are positioned outside the area as shown.
Conduct: The team in possession plays with the interior neutral and the 4 players outside the area. In the image above, the orange/black team is in possession, and plays with the yellow interior neutral (#6) and the pink team. The objective is to score in a mini goal. Goals can be scored only from a one-touch shot from a pass by a teammate. Only players inside the playing area can score a goal. The neutral #6 can score for the team in possession. If a team scores a goal, the defenders switch places with the team playing on the outside. After each goal and team switch, the coach introduces a new ball by passing it to the team that just moved into the playing area. If the defenders win the ball, they immediately begin working with the yellow interior neutral (#6) and the team outside the area to score a goal. As there are 4 goals, players should be encouraged to look for space and switch play quickly in order to attack open goals, using the outside players as much as possible to maintain width and depth and pull defenders away from the central areas.
Notes: The objective of this game is to help players recognize 3v2 situations and identify which player is the Third Man. Encourage players once they have the ball to look as far upfield as possible for an open passing option.