Between the ball-handler and the goal behind him lies an area that is usually less well-defended than the area under direct attack. This “negative space” is useful in maintaining possession, relieving pressure, switching the point of attack, and creating shots. The reason is simple. As the ball is played forward, the opposing defenders tend to focus more on the ball than on the negative spaces on the field.
Bob Gansler, our former national coach, once had his team intentionally play a ball forward into a crowded area, to draw the opposing defenders to the ball and thus open space and reduce the pressure in other areas. The passer, instead of following his pass, stepped away from the “target” receiver who, after drawing the pressure, returned the ball negatively (backward) to the original passer. Since the latter now had a less obstructed view of the spaces under attack, he could change the point of attack to a more weakly defended area. The Dutch call the receiver of a back pass the “window” player. The idea is simple: Play the ball back before playing it forward.
Good teams use negative space with purpose. A window player receiving a pass back at the top of the penalty box will drive the ball at goal with a first touch shot or use the space created around the ball (really the extra time) to produce the killer ball through.
In the attacking or high middle third of the field, the target receiver, usually a striker, will be closely followed by a marking defender. The target receiver will often be able to draw the sweeper out of position and flatten the back of the defense, creating opportunities for the dangerous through ball.
Before developing a practice session on the use of negative space, I’d like to offer an example of Brazilian brilliance. During the period between 1958 and 1970, Brazil, with players like Pele, Rivelino, and Garrincha, won three of four World Cups and dominated the game. Twenty-five years later, with young stars like attacking defender Roberto Carlos, creative midfielder Juninho, and striker Edmundo, they are once again among the elite.
Any description of their play must begin with their ability to maintain possession, then move on to create the final third. They control possession, even in a crowd, with (1) precise passing to the receiver’s feet (instead of just knocking the ball into space), (2) precise individual control of the ball, and (3) effective use of negative space. Rarely does Brazil give up possession easily. Once in control of the ball, they will invariably advance into their attacking third before risk losing it by trying something creative and dangerous.
For example, in its World Cup ’94 game against the U.S., 19.2% (29) of her possessions produced four or more passes in her attacking half to the U.S.’s 6.6% (10); and in their rematch in Copa America, the ratios were 13.8% (23) and 6.6% (11), respectively.
When necessary, Brazil can play more directly or use the counterattacking game to take advantage of the opponents’ commitment to attack, as they did against the U.S. in the second half of their Copa match.
For a team so committed to the attack, they also recover well to play excellent team defense. That wasn’t always true of earlier Brazilian teams that seemed to care only about attacking.
The key to Brazil’s all-out attack today is that they rarely lose possession while everyone is venturing forward. Their one drawback is that their ball-possession play takes time to develop, to bring players forward; consequently, the defense often has time to organize. Brazil will often create forward opportunities by playing first backwards.
The key to developing a team’s play in negative space is to get the players to conscientiously think about it in practice.
The team is divided into groups of eight, who form circles 20 yards in diameter with one player in the middle. Three players around the circle are given a ball. The player in the middle starts the drill by running away and then coming back toward a player in possession, calling for the ball (Pass 1). His first touch lays the ball back (Pass 2) to a free player on the circle, who plays the ball (Pass 3) to a player without a ball. The player in the middle then starts another run and keeps play dynamic (Passes 4, 5, and 6). After a minute, another player rotates into the center and the play continues. A defender or two can be added to increase pressure and add some game realism.
This drill brings the play into the attacking third. The top half highlights shooting. Player 1 passes to 2, who has dashed around Cone 1. Player 1 then moves laterally for the return pass from Player 2. Player 1 then serves the ball to Player 3, who cuts around Cone 2. Player 3 then drops the ball back to 2 for a shot, and they all rotate.
Final Third Combo
This drill develops a creative sequence in the attacking third. Four attacking players are involved. Players 1 and 2 start at flat cone markers and make curved runs first away and then back towards the ball, while players 3 and 4 attack from near the midline.
Following a short dribble, Player 3 passes to Player 1 who, in turn, drops the ball back to 4. The latter then passes forward to Player 2, who again drops the ball back to 3 following the latter’s overlap run. Player 4 follows his pass forward; 2 continues to step out and create space at his back; and 1 provides the attacking width by continuing to run down the wing.
Two marking defenders and a sweeper defend the attack, with the sweeper having to start play between his marking defenders. Offensive play is limited to two touches, with a second group of defenders alternating with the first after each possession.
We want to play in the attacking third of the field to be unpredictable, with the players changing direction quickly and frequently. After the ball is played to goal or out of bounds, we want Players 3 and 4 to reposition themselves as targets 1 and 2, and two new players to enter at the midline.
To begin play and acquaint the players with the sequence, we do not have to use defenders. We want the last pass back to Player 3 to be followed by a shot or a pass inside to 4 for a shot, or by a wide pass from 3 to 1.
The practice session ends with the restricted 8v8 scrimmage shown in the diagram. It is played on a field two-thirds the regular size with wing zones and half line marked by flat cones.
Each team is organized with two strikers, three midfielders, two marking defenders, and a keeper. The play is natural except for one restriction: possession (turnovers) won inside the enemy’s half must be followed by a pass into negative space, or a free kick will be awarded the other team.
The scoring system further emphasizes the effective use of negative space:
1. A goal scored from a ball dropped back counts four points
2. A goal scored any other way counts two points
3. A single point can be scored on each possession by swinging the ball from one wing zone to the other – switching play
4. A single point can be scored on each possession by stringing together five passes.
In the diagram, team black has won possession at the wing over the halfway line. Consequently, Player 1’s first pass is back to Player 2, the window man. The latter, in turn, changes the point of attack by directing play to the opposite wing for a point.
The effecting use of negative space can help every team’s attack. Superior teams can use it well. To repeat: watch the Brazilians, Ajax, or Virginia.
Source and further reading:
Scholastic Coach, Volume 66 by Ric Miller and others.