#Transition to attacking

The counter-attack

FIFA, 19 Apr 2022


In elite football today, many of the best teams counter-attack with exceptional speed and menace. The following exercises are designed for coaches looking to develop their players' ability to counter-attack.

As illustrated in the following clips from the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ in Russia, the first aspect is to regain the ball as high as possible, at least in the midfield area, and then expose the space behind the defensive line. Play must be quick and direct to stop the opposition from recovering, which requires runners getting forward quickly, including wide players who can stretch the pitch.

Session overview

  • Part 1: Waves game - 1v0, 1v1, 2v1 and so on up to 4v4

  • Part 2: Micro situation - 5v4 & 4v3

  • Part 3: Macro situation - 7v7

  • Part 4: Large game - 11v11

Key learnings

In all of the drills below, players must look to win the ball – the higher up the pitch, the better – and use the momentum to move or carry it forward. The ball must be passed forward with quality and pace, and there has to be a desire among the runners to exploit the space left by the opposition and overload the attack.


  • Player numbers: 20 outfield players with 2 goalkeepers.

  • Age group: 12 and above.

  • Skill level: for developing players up to elite level, with the coach managing the difficulty and intricacies of the session.

PART 1: WAVES GAME (1v0, 1v1, 2v1 etc)

This exercise improves players' ability to counter-attack quickly and with intensity, and encourages a "play forward" mentality. As with the three exercises that follow, it focuses on in-match situations after a team have won the ball, be it in the middle or defensive thirds or in wide, inside or central channels. It is designed to allow players to attack and counter-attack with different overloads/underloads. Repetition of the drill should help improve the ability of players – specifically those in the attacking and midfield units – to play forward, create chances and score goals.

  • Pitch size: 30x20m

  • Duration: 20 minutes (albeit at coach's discretion)

  • 2 teams and 2 goalkeepers, all outfield players with a ball

  • Teams take it in turns to start, which begins with a 1v0 against the goalkeeper.

  • As soon as the blue player shoots, the first orange player brings their ball into the game and plays 1v1.

  • The sequence then continues with a 2v1, 2v2, 3v2, 3v3, 4v3 and 4v4.

  • On the pitch without goalkeepers, use mini goals or field players as goalkeepers 


A coach can set challenges to maintain the intensity of the exercise, such as:

  • giving players a time limit to shoot; and

  • allowing only one backward pass per attack.

The coach can add also other competitive elements, such as playing until a set scoreline, or with a points system along the following lines:

  • 1 point per goal when the team have an overload.

  • 2 points per goal when the teams have equal numbers.

  • 3 points per goal when the team have an underload.

Coaching focus

The coach is looking for different things from their attackers and defenders:

Attacking team
Travelling at speed and covering space quickly when bringing the ball into the game; keeping the ball moving forward; playing to a team-mate's front foot; making sure the first touch is towards the opposition goal to maintain the pace of the attack.

Defending team
Slowing the opposition down and preventing them from playing forward; showing good judgement when defending in a variety of situations (overloaded/matched-up/underloaded); trying to play forward with purpose as quickly as possible after regaining the ball.

PART 2: MINI-GAME (5v4 & 4v3)


This second exercise improves a team's ability to counter-attack, their reaction to counter-attacking situations, and the ability to create goalscoring opportunities from them.


2 pitches with the same layout:

  • 2 teams of 5, plus 1 goalkeeper in a full-sized goal, and 1 set of mini-goals

  • Pitch size: both pitches are 45x40m

  • Drill time: 3 sets of 5 minutes, allowing teams to play against each other. The coach can break it up further by allowing teams to switch to attack the full-sized goal

  • Teams take it in turns to attack first.

  • The first team begin with a 4v3, i.e. 1 of their players stays off the pitch along with 2 from the defending side. They are attacking the full-sized goal with the goalkeeper.

  • Once the ball is dead, the goalkeeper from the defending team plays a new ball in and the defending team's 2 players off the pitch now step back on to make it 5v4, as they go on to attack the mini-goals.

  • The teams swap roles after a set number of turns or after a certain period of time.


A coach can make changes to the drill, e.g.:

  • A 5v5 game with certain rules, e.g. when defending, a team must keep 4 players in their own half and 1 in the opposition half, but they can move anywhere when attacking. The objective here is to recover the ball, play it to the lone striker and create a chance.

  • Having to shoot within 8 seconds of recovering the ball.

  • Experimenting with recovering the ball in different areas of the pitch.

Coaching focus
  • From a coach's perspective, playing forward is a key element of this exercise, which means keeping the ball moving progressively. The coach wants players to play the ball in front of their team-mates and to take a first touch towards the opposition goal, where possible.

  • When it comes to defence-to-attack transitions, a team must cover as much space as quickly as possible and, in situations with an overload, a team must find the free player to create a goalscoring opportunity.

  • When switching from attack to defence, players must quickly cut off the most direct route to goal, try to force opponents into areas with less space, try to recover the ball and then work on their transition to attack.



This exercise challenges players to think about the correct spaces in which to counter-attack during a small-sided game. Defending players must think about how to cover empty space to prevent counter-attacks.

A coach can use repetition to improve the team's ability to play forward immediately during a transition to attack, and to improve their understanding of how to utilise space.

  • 3 teams, with 2 consisting of 7 players and the third of 6. The game is 7v7 plus goalkeepers, and the third team rests. When the team of 6 play, they take a player from the resting team. The drill requires cones or poles around the outside of the pitch, and plenty of footballs near the goals to allow the goalkeepers to restart play quickly after shots

  • Pitch size: 55x40m, with poles 15m from the pitch (can be adjusted for physical load)

  • Drill time: 8 minutes per match, rotating on the 8-minute mark. The resting team can complete a technical exercise while waiting

  • After a shot, the last 2 players from the shooting team to touch the ball must step off the pitch, go around a pole and come back, with the game continuing as a 7v5 in their absence. Any goals scored during the 7v5 period count double.


Offer some variation by:

  • adjusting the distance of the cones/poles to make the 7v5 period longer or shorter; and

  • having the coach play balls in to start new attacks – an action which demands a quick reaction from the players and provides a possible opportunity to counter-attack.

Coaching focus
  • The coach wants to see the attacking team play forward with intensity and purpose, and take advantage of any 7v5 situations to feed the ball into the space vacated by their opponents. It is important to keep the ball moving forward to prevent the opposition from regaining their shape.

  • From the perspective of the defending team, the coach wants to see collective defending to regain possession and build counters, as well as an understanding of when to press and when to contain (particularly when defending a 5v7). More advanced players, meanwhile, should consider how they can support a counter-attack following a regain.

PART 4: LARGE GAME (11v11)


This is a large-sided game that challenges the players' ability to drop into their own half and defend closer to their goal before launching an effective counter-attack into space behind the opposition. It aims to improve the team's ability to counter-attack from deep and create good goalscoring opportunities, as well as their ability to defend close to their own goal.

  • 11v11 including goalkeepers, played out between the 2 penalty boxes and across the full width of the pitch

  • Pitch size: from box to box, using the full width. There is the option to move to a full-sized pitch as a progression

  • Drill time: 2 sets of 15 minutes, giving both teams the chance to defend

  • The teams take it in turns to attack, with the defending side required to drop into their own half and try to recover the ball from there.

  • The teams switch roles after a certain period of time or after a set number of goals. Any goals scored within 10 seconds of regaining the ball counts double.


Additional challenges may include:

  • The attacking team cannot pass backwards once they enter the final third, increasing the opportunities for interceptions.

  • Playing a new ball into the game at any time.

  • Making the pitch full size. Teams still drop in to their own half to defend before counter-attacking from deep.

Coaching focus
  • The coach wants to see players attempt certain moves. Before regaining possession, the defending team drop into their own half and look for opportunities to intercept the ball. They should try to force their opponents away from goal and into situations where the ball can be won and a counter-attack started. Defensive players must also communicate effectively as a unit to cover gaps and deny the attacking team opportunities to play through them.

  • After possession has been regained, the more advanced players should open a passing line to allow their team-mates to play forward. Runners must be willing to get beyond the opponent's back line to stretch the play. The team must maintain the intensity of the attack by playing forward whenever possible and by taking a first touch forward, which is crucial to avoid giving opponents the chance to drop back and to deny them the chance to counter-attack.

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