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  • Writer's pictureCoach Enzo

The Definitive Guide to Understanding How to Create, and Exploit Advantages Against Your Opponents

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

I go watch a lot of youth games, and two common issues I see are 1) players are not often able to receive the ball, often times because they are not positioned well or are not moving properly, and 2) when players do receive the ball they are not reading the game and often choose to force play in situations where there is no advantage. This prompted me to write this article.


Superiorities in the game are situations in which one team has an advantage over the other. There are five types of superiorities which I'll explain here:


1) Qualitative

2) Numerical

3) Positional

4) Dynamic

5) Cooperative


Success in the game is down to creating advantages and exploiting them, therefore it is key for players to understand these advantages so they can make better decisions and help their team be more dangerous.


Most of the time these superiorities are only discussed in the offensive context. Here I will provide examples of how they apply to both the offensive and defensive context and give you some tips to help you apply them. The examples I provide are definitely not exhaustive of every game scenario but hopefully, they help you understand the concepts.


Note that superiorities can happen in all areas of the field. It is not a concept that is reserved for the attacking third, they are concepts that are used from a build-up all the way to scoring the goal at the other end of the pitch.


Lastly, multiple superiorities can happen in the same play, in truth, they all have some level of gray area between each other. Especially as the level of competition gets higher, it happens more often than not that the qualitative superiority is paired with one or more of the other four.

 

Qualitative superiority


This type of superiority is created by having players who are simply better than the opposition and are able to take advantage of an opponent in a one-on-one situation. The advantage can be due to a number of factors, such as technical skill, athleticism, or tactical intelligence.


Offensive Context: Qualitative superiority in the offensive context often comes in the form of great speed or strength coupled with dribbling ability, passing ability, or shooting ability. For example, Kevin De Bruyne can play passes which hardly any other player is capable of executing. He is able to find gaps that will unlock defenses, and his ability to do so often changes the game.


Pro Tip: To develop qualitative superiority and improve individual quality, you have to master the basics, first touch, quality of pass, finishing, and work on elements of the game that are often not practiced at soccer practices like speed training, etc. Working on foundations consistently is the key.


Here's an example of qualitative superiority by Messi who in this action was unstoppable with his speed, close control dribbling, and finishing. This play is a scenario that shows that qualitative superiority is the most powerful. It is capable of overcoming many superiorities at once depending on the opponent:


Defensive Context Players who can run with attackers, win headers, read the game, and are brave enough to go in the tackle are capable of shutting down many opposing attackers. Although attackers often get more of the praise, without quality defenders a team simply will never be successful. A great example is Van Dijk, he had an incredible statistic in the 2018/2019 season where not one player got by him for 65 games in a row! The defensive solidity he brought to his team was key to helping Liverpool win the most prestigious team trophy that year, the Champions League.


Pro Tip: To improve your defending ability, you need to master 1) your approach when pressuring the attacker (taking into account their first touch and individual qualities) 2) your body angle and knowing where to force the attacker based on where you are in the field 3) your tackling so that you can limit shots taken and maximize ball recoveries for your team 4) your positioning and awareness so that you can improve your interceptions of ground and aerial balls. In addition to the game IQ necessary, quick footwork is key to helping you execute those principles.



 

Numerical superiority


This is the simplest superiority to explain, and it simply refers to having more players than the opponent in a specified region of the pitch.


Offensive Context: This can be created by overloading certain areas of the field, or by drawing the opposition out of position. Numerical superiority can be used to create passing options, support teammates, and exploit gaps in the opposition's defense. Achieving numerical superiority can help the attacking team keep possession and create a chance going forward. The types of numerical superiorities that are usually most advantageous are 2v1, 3v2, and 4v3, when it gets bigger than that, the opposing team has already probably overloaded that area and it might be best to consider switching the point of attack to another area of the field.


Pro Tip: For you to help your team develop numerical superiority, it's important to constantly read the field and analyze the proximity and movement of your teammates in contrast with your opponents.


When your team has the ball, if you have realized your team has no numerical superiority and there is a 4v4 on the right wing for example, you can help your team by suggesting a switch to the other side where there might be a greater chance to create an advantage.


Here's a video of an example of numerical superiority in an attacking scenario from build-up:


Defensive Context: Defensively this can be created by compacting the team shape to the area/side of the ball to limit passing options from the offensive team and force them to make a mistake. Achieving numerical superiority and effectively closing the gaps can often lead to winning the ball back and regaining possession.


Rest defense, is another situation of the game where numerical superiorities are emphasized. Rest defense refers to how teams prepare for defensive transition while having the ball to prevent the counter attack. A common setup is for the rest defense team to have one more defender than the attackers. Below is an example showing the blue team being ready with three defenders versus two attackers in case there is a turnover and a sudden counter attack attempt from the other team.


Numerical Superiority

Pro Tip: One key component to creating numerical superiority defensively is learning how to shift to the area or side of the ball and provide cover and compactness. A big hurdle for some players to make this happen is fitness and focus. You have to be willing to run and continue to close gaps while also staying aware of your direct opponent. For example, in the video below, you see the team shape getting very compact to limit passes through the formation which prevents the offensive team from advancing forward.



 

Positional superiority


This type of superiority is created by having players in more favorable positions on the field than the opponent. It involves getting players into positions between or behind the opposition lines, where they are more likely to have time and space on the ball and are thus more likely to affect the game. This is achieved by players occupying specific zones both vertically and horizontally on the pitch.


Offensive Context: This principle offensively is often used to break the 1st and 2nd line of defense when the defensive team is pressuring. By positioning players in between and behind the defensive lines they make it very hard for all the defenders in proximity as it forces them to figure out which player in their team is going to pressure them. This confusion which forces defensive organization can at times mean that the players have time and space to receive the ball and initiate the next football action.


This is an example where Pep's team is able to create a positional advantage with the winger's starting position and movement:


Here's another gameplay example of players moving behind and in between the lines to gain positional advantage over their opponents:



Pro Tip: For you to help your team to develop positional superiority it is important you become very clear of your positional role within your team's game model. For example: How wide and how high should my starting position be on the field when playing against a specific formation? Which horizontal and vertical zones should you look to occupy when your team has the ball in the defensive third vs the attacking third?


Defensive Context: Positional superiorities in defense often start with "goal side" positioning. This means positioning yourself between the goal you are defending and the player you are marking. The key is that the defender's starting position provides a physical barrier for the attacker to attack a dangerous space space and therefore makes it harder for the opponent to score. Being goal side, at the right time is one of the most important things to play defense effectively.


Corner kicks for example, which have about a 2.1% goal success rate can illustrate positional superiority in the defensive context where many players are tasked to be goal side. Often times coaches will position players in a combination of zonal marking and man-to-man marking. The zonal markers will look to provide obstacles in the areas directly in front of the goal and the man markers will look to track the dynamic movements of the attackers going into the zones that are already occupied by the zonal markers.


Below is an image showing the correct and incorrect goalside positioning from the blue defender.

goalside positioning


Pro Tip: For you to remain goal side you need to stay within reach of the attacking player for 2 main reasons 1) so you know where the player is and 2) so that if the attacking player does get the ball, they don't have enough space to shoot on goal. Many goals are scored because of a bad habit called "ball watching" which is looking at the ball passively instead of staying engaged and looking where players are and where your direct opponent is. So stay focused! After you have your positioning right, for you to maximize your chance of making an interception a good way to check yourself is to think about your body angle: Does it permit me to see the defender and the ball all at once? Even if you are qualitatively in a mismatch, going against a much better player, by staying goal-side it will make the forward nervous and will make it much harder for them to score.


 

Dynamic superiority:


A dynamic superiority is player movement into spaces quicker than the opposition. It is not merely the occupancy of space (positional superiority) but the timing, speed, and convincingness of the entrance into the space to destabilize the opposition. Consequently, this dynamic superiority is important to the usage of the other superiorities shared so far (numerical, positional, and qualitative).


"What is speed? The sports press often confuses speed with insight. See, If I start running slightly earlier than someone else, I seem faster.

Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don’t run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late."

– Johan Cruyff


Offensive Context: Dynamic superiority can be created without the ball, for example, a dummy run or a "corte luz" creates the advantage by pulling defenders out of position. In the video below you can see how Rivaldo, the player who stepped over the ball and faked he was going to get the ball, completely destabilized Germany's defense and enabled Ronaldo to receive the pass and score the second goal in the 2002 World Cup final.



The most common example of an on-the-ball dynamic superiority is the third-man combination where that third man is making and anticipating movement prior to the opposition.


A quote by Xavi, one of the players in the video above summarizes it well:


"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


For this dynamic superiority to work, the movement of the ball, teammates, and defenders must happen in proper sequence and timing to cause the third man to be unmarked. A common way to help the third man lose their marker is through the use of a passing pattern of different passing heights. These passing patterns have a key purpose: to move the defender marking the third man toward the second man so that the third man is unmarked and can receive the ball with time and space to advance the play.


third man run

Expansive Football - A Positional Play Game Model for Coaches, Patrick J. King (2019)


Pro Tip: To build dynamic superiorities you need to be very aware and always ready to make the play. Engagement and focus are key! It is important that you are clear if there are specific passing patterns you have to take into account within your own team's game model. One of the best things to improve this superiority is to watch the professional teams who have these components in their game model (some modern examples at the time of writing this are Brighton, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Barcelona). Watching the pros will help your instincts on the field and can help you anticipate where to move and how to react based on the position and movement of the players around you.


Defensive Context: Defensively one example is the transition moment when the ball is lost, counter-pressing. The ability of the team to react collectively in a more organized manner to the loss of the ball quicker than the opposition is able to organize their offense demonstrates an aspect of dynamic superiority. For my teams for example, they know that once we lose the ball, we have to counter-press as quickly as possible to 1) try to win the ball back and 2) prevent counter-attacking opportunities from the opposition.


Below is an example of the Italian National Team pressing right away after losing the ball and scoring the chance they created.



Pro Tip: For you to help your team transition on defense effectively you need to first of all be clear where it is you should run if you are closest to the ball, vs if you are further away. Does your coach want you to press the ball, close the center, or close an outlet pass? Furthermore, you need to also be clear about the pressing timeframe, and plan B. Most transition counter-pressing moves hover around 8-10 seconds long and if there is no success, often times coaches will prefer to 1) drop and 2) reset into defensive shape as opposed to continue pressing. After you have clarity about your role, it's about intensity, fitness, and collaboration! Defensive transitions demand full running, bravery and tenacity in defensive actions, and communication to organize right away into a system.


Another example of a defensive dynamic superiority is an offside trap. In the video below you can see that the players were able to step up together quickly and leave the attacking players offside:




 

Cooperative superiority:


Cooperative superiority is a type of superiority that is created through the collective efforts of the team. It is when teammates are able to work together and understand each other to create situations where they have an advantage over the opponent. This superiority can be done with the ball, for example, creative combination plays but it can also be done when on defense. For example, defending as a team and pressing as a unit.


Offensive Context: It is understanding how the players on your team will move, how wide they will go and what types of passes are they looking for? Is it more a pass to feet or a pass in front of them?


Here Thierry explains how his coach influenced his thinking and adapted his actions to help better bring out the qualities of his teammates:



Here's maybe one of the best examples of cooperative superiority in the attacking sense, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. In their prime, no defense in the world could stop these two players. The way they combined was as close to telepathy as it gets! They were incredibly in tune with how each other moved, how the other positioned themselves, and how they looked to play passes...They combined for a total of 66 goals and helped Manchester United win the treble (three titles in the same season). Here are a few of their goals:



Pro Tip: One of the best ways to develop cooperative superiority is to pay close attention to the tendencies of the players you are working with. As Thierry Henry said in the first video, what are your teammates' tendencies, and how can you adapt your game to maximize your collaboration with them and bring out their strengths the best?


Additionally, it is very important to play in different environments and compete with different players. By doing this you are able to learn to collaborate with different types of players, who have different tendencies. Playing with the same players all the time might make you default into a certain comfort zone, and essentially become less adaptable with time as you only practice playing in a particular role within that particular team dynamic. Competing with different players is key to developing a deeper game IQ as well as furthering leadership qualities. Top leaders fill in different areas they see need work, and different scenarios will force players to lead in different ways.... to read more about the leadership component stay tuned for an article coming up in the next weeks.


Defensive Context: A good example of cooperative superiority without the ball is Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid. They are known to intentionally look to control the game from the defensive phase. They often times have lower levels of ball possession but they are one of the top teams in defensive organization and discipline. From game to game, they are known to show incredible teamwork, focus, and continued intensity and often score on the counter-attack. Here is an of some of their play:



Pro Tip: A good way to be proactive to create this kind of superiority defensively is to consistently communicate between the players in the same defensive line as you as well as the other defensive lines. For example, if you are a midfielder and you are not receiving information from the players behind you, in the back line, it's going to be very difficult to work together to properly close the space behind you and in front of them. Ask them to help you shift and keep track of the forwards checking in between the lines.


In the video example below, you can see that for the back line to properly shift, cover, and balance, they need to be moving together. For them to be on the same page, they consistently need to communicate to readjust as a group.



 

Conclusion


All types of superiorities are important across the field and the best players help their teams create and exploit them on a regular basis. By creating superiorities, teams can control the game, create scoring opportunities, and prevent the opposition from creating their own. It is not important to use all of them equally in every game but it is important to be capable of using all of them, so you can create different kinds of imbalances depending on the opponent. For example, if there is a big qualitative mismatch offensively on the left wing, and the left winger has already scored two goals and made one assist, I think the team should continue exploiting this superiority if the other team doesn't adjust to fix the imbalance. However, the next game if there is no mismatch the team should have other tools to create imbalances.


Lastly, the environment I've created plus my specific coaching at Playmaker Lab seeks to empower players with tools to better understand, create, and exploit all of these superiorities. If you are a motivated player with the hunger to sharpen your skills to better create and exploit advantages, you can book a free consultation to see if Playmaker Lab is a good fit for you.

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