#Individuality behind the collective

Part 3: Vertical progressive play

Tony Colbert, 21 Apr 2022


In this, the third article in our series, we analyse a fine example of a dynamic and direct attacking move that represents a piece of vertical progressive play (VPP).

This sequence offers us an ideal demonstration of collective individuality due to the fact that, for VPP to have a meaningful impact on a team's attacking game, it must contain a number of ingredients. Indeed, tactics and game plans ultimately become rather insignificant if the players lack the fundamentals of individual technique and game awareness, which are the key ingredients in our recipe for success. 

First and foremost, players, and more specifically defenders and midfielders, need to be opportunists and not be satisfied with playing blind, uninformed, safety-first, sideways football. There is a need for players to empower themselves with game awareness, get their heads up, scan the pitch to identify opportunities and constantly look to turn and play forward at pace. We are talking here about players who possess the vision and creativity to see beyond the first line and seek out the longer, more penetrating passing option, and are capable of picking out or even visualising a team-mate's run between the lines or into a pocket of space.

In addition, players must boast the technical quality, purpose and confidence to play a vertical pass with both feet. This technical balance ensures that the player possesses the requisite technique and is instantly ready to take advantage of opportunities identified from any position on the pitch. VPP also requires runners, i.e. midfielders and forwards who are willing to make runs off the ball and players who run from both deep and advanced positions and constantly seek space between the lines, whilst possessing the awareness to time their runs to perfection. The key aspects that bring all of these elements together to ensure optimal efficiency are movement cohesion and understanding between a unit of players.

The video clip that features in this article includes all of the above-mentioned elements, offering examples of technique and individual awareness, as well as collective cohesion between players who operate at pace whilst displaying precision and ruthless efficiency. All of these elements combine to offer us good examples of:

attacking opportunism: this is displayed by individual players and there is collective cohesion between players;

game understanding: technical and tactical awareness is displayed by individual players and there is collective cohesion between players; and

technical coordination: technical ability and quality of execution are displayed by individual players and there is collective cohesion between players.

Full video clip

Our video footage comes from the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019 meeting between France and Mali and features a textbook team move involving four players and a total of ten touches within the space of under nine seconds. We will look back and dissect the individual contributions made by the France number 7, 9 and 11 as we highlight the individuality within their collective contribution, before watching the clip back to underscore all of the elements of individuality as they occur.


The next player involved in our sequence is the left midfielder/forward, who wears the number 11 shirt and is very much the pivotal player in this explosive attack, in which he showcases all of his individual quality. 

Despite his involvement having so far comprised just one touch of the ball and a brief glance over his shoulder, the France winger has already demonstrated several key qualities. So, how does he manage to have such an impact on the move by doing so little and what key qualities has he already demonstrated in this fleeting involvement?

His first touch:

Spatial and tactical awareness

  • He avoids isolating himself by moving infield and away from the touchline and into a more favourable position.
  • He manages to establish four to five metres between himself and the defender.
  • He buys himself the time to assess the situation ahead of him and whether he can turn the game forward.
  • He seeks options, instead of simply passing the ball backwards.

Technical and tactical composure and game intelligence

  • He displays composure and shows himself to be an intelligent player who is not satisfied with playing uninformed, safety-first football and is keen to make informed technical decisions.

The brief over-the-shoulder scan:

Attacking opportunism

  • He demonstrates that he is a player who seeks to exploit attacking opportunities and is determined to try to turn the game forward

Positional awareness

  • The brief scan provides him with a clear game picture and he possesses the positional awareness to spot that an opposition defender has ventured too far up the pitch and is out of position and that his midfield team-mate is poised and ready to capitalise on the situation.

Technical and tactical cohesion

  • The scan also acts as the trigger for his attacking team-mates to run in behind at full pace.

In short, spatial awareness, game intelligence and technical composure are the attributes that enable the player to create the attacking opportunity, with the excellent technique involved in his vertical progressive pass being the key quality required to take full advantage of the opening. However, one standout feature from a technical perspective is the fact that we are talking about a right-footed pass here. You would be forgiven for assuming that a player operating on the left wing would primarily possess a strong left foot, but for a left-sided player to turn inside on to their right foot and display the poise and confidence to play an exquisite right-footed pass with real aplomb clearly points to a player who boasts technical balance.

The quality of the player's right foot offers him the opportunity to capitalise on the position he engineers and is what seems to give him the confidence to seek to gain an advantage from what was an unfavourable position. This move offers us a particularly good example of the importance of being able to play penetrating vertical passes with both feet. Indeed, a player who possesses this key technical attribute is likelier to have the confidence to seek out an attacking opportunity and take full advantage of situations that can be seen from anywhere on the pitch.

To put this analysis into perspective, going back to when the France winger initially receives the ball, the angle of the pass clearly required him to take a right-footed first touch. Had the move involved a left-sided player with a weaker right foot, would the end product have been the same? Would he have had the mindset to even look beyond the safety-first option of playing the ball back to one of his defensive team-mates? There are strong arguments to suggest that the answers to these questions would be "No". Similar situations regularly occur in matches in wide areas, in which a player demonstrates a lack of awareness and confidence to get their head up and come inside to play a vertical progressive pass with their opposite foot, i.e. a right-footed pass from the left flank or a left-footed pass from the right flank, and the ball ends up being played back to the sender and, as a result, the team misses out on the opportunity to attack.

Despite being an extremely subtle manoeuvre, it clearly points to a player who boasts the technical awareness to seek out the optimal solution. His discreet actions undoubtedly shift the momentum of the move to the player who is best placed to take full advantage of the situation (the France number 9) and the number 7 therefore succeeds in continuing all of the good work that had been done up until this point.

To sum up the contribution from France's number 7, he is active for all of four seconds and has three touches of the ball. However, as was the case with his team-mate on the left flank, it is the awareness and technique displayed during that brief four-second period that stand out and underscore the importance of these footballing fundamentals.

The last player to analyse in our four-part study of collective individualism is the France number 9, who produces a devastating finish to round off a superb piece of VPP. However, prior to bringing his own individual talent to the collective, he gathers some valuable information that aids his subsequent actions. Before delving into our analysis, we need to backtrack a little to gain a full picture of his contribution.

As we reflect on the contribution made by the France number 9, we once again identify the reoccurring elements of technique and awareness. We are now going to explore the four specific moments that indicate that the number 9 possesses advanced technical awareness, which is ultimately what enables him to take full advantage of the opportunity.

1) As he darts forward at full pace to support the number 7, the look up the pitch and glance across to his right offer him a clear understanding of spacing and his position in relation to the goal – and, more importantly, serve to highlight the distance between him and the retreating defender to his right. The SPPA he displays undoubtedly influence his decision-making when he gains possession.

2) Immediately before the number 7 slips the ball into his path, he moves closer to him to ensure the forward momentum of the pass and the vertical progression of the move. In addition, his first touch pushes the ball forwards another five metres into the space ahead of him to put it out of the opposition's reach.

3) After catching up with the ball, armed with the spatial knowledge that the defender to his right is not in a position in which to challenge for the ball, he nudges it inside to the right to position himself more centrally in terms of the goal, giving himself more of the goal to aim at and more shooting options, as well as increasing the area of the goal that the goalkeeper is tasked with defending.

4) Immediately before unleashing his shot, he reads the goalkeeper's body language and dinks the ball over him with aplomb as the keeper dropped low.


The move features 18 individual actions, eight of which involve no contact with the ball. These are "game facilitators", the nuts and bolts of the game's framework – the subtle nuances that, despite being minor in their own right, are highly significant in terms of their impact on the outcome.

Our player-by-player analysis clearly reflects the tremendous significance that the combination of sound decision-making and excellent technical qualities has on the outcome of the attacking moves studied within this series of articles, with game awareness representing an essential element of good decision-making and SPPA being a basic requirement for good game awareness. If we take things back a step further, we discover that the fundamental ingredient that underpins all components within sound decision-making is information-gathering, i.e. the looking, seeing and listening that a player must do to equip themselves with the required game information. In terms of the role played by technical aspects within the aforementioned duo, the key elements are quality and composure on the ball, technical coordination, technical balance and the confidence to play.

All of the above qualities go hand in hand, with the technique and awareness elements complementing each other. Awareness aspects equip the player with the game information to make sound technical and tactical decisions, whilst technical attributes determine a player’s level of confidence to seek opportunities and the quality required to act and take advantage of the situations identified on the pitch and the decisions made.

Telestrated video

This series of articles focuses more heavily on identifying the key individual attributes within this two-pronged dynamic that are capable of influencing sequences of play, rather than analysing the moves in their own right.

All of the key individual qualities that we have identified in this series of articles can be developed to a high level. The key question, especially when it comes to developing youth players, is how to train players to develop the technical and awareness qualities that we have discussed. Although offering information on relevant training exercises is clearly beyond the scope of this series of articles, the FIFA Training Centre offers several articles that provide ideas for training drills to develop all of the individual attributes highlighted and the phases of play analysed here.

Further information

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