Working on the counter-attack

This is a progressive, counter-attacking session, run in such a way that the players can understand it right the way from a basic point of view (3v2) through to a more complex game-type situation.

The way it is performed will obviously depend on the strategy that we choose to outline for a specific game, and its use will usually be against opponents who we know have difficulty dealing with counter-attacks, as you would expect.

In terms of time (not to mention the number of repetitions) we leave this up to the coach to decide, bearing in mind the day of the week. The closer to the day of the game the fewer repetitions and shorter the practice will be.

Each of the three practices in this session lasts for 2x8mins with 2mins recovery in between.


Use of a full pitch
Balls, cones, goals
Number of Players
Up to 11v11
Session time
2x8mins with 2mins recovery in between, per practice

What do I get the players to do?

3v2 counter-attack exercise

Setting up as shown (1a), blues attack 3v2 using one player on each side of the goal and a third positioned to the side. As soon as the red team concedes a goal or clears the ball, a third red player comes in with another ball on a counter-attack and it’s 3v2 in the other direction (1b). The two blue players closest to the ball – those who started on each side of the goal – react, doing their best to prevent the attack; the third supporting blue leaves the area. We will also condition it so that the player who begins each counter-attack cannot be the man who scores. 


1. Blues begin with a 3v2 attack
2. The wide supporting player moves in
3. The player who starts cannot be the man who shoots
4. A pass is laid into the supporting striker
5. A goal is scored


1. Now an immediate counter-attack begins against the two blues (minus the wide supporting player)
2. Blues organise quickly in defensive mode
3. Reds make positive attacking runs to maximise the impact of the counter

At the end of each attack, the groups stay in the opposite side from where they started, ideally switching positions within their own set-up (for instance, the left-sided player moves to the right, and vice versa). Offsides can be applied or ignored depending on the choice and preferences of the coach.

What are the key things to look out for?

When in possession, we want players to use superiority in terms of numbers in order to create goalscoring chances. This includes attacking explosively and making smart counter-attacking decisions.

Without the ball, defenders need to close space towards the centre. Quick reactions on a transition are imperative and zonal behaviour is something we will also encourage, so players situated closest to the ball will always be the ones to press.

Possession v counter-attack exercise

This is an 8v8 at its core that uses, in total, 20 outfield players plus two keepers, as shown (2a). It begins with the blue team trying to keep possession for as long as possible (without scoring). Reds press in order to win back possession and then break on the counter-attack towards their opponents’ goal, with blues looking to prevent this transition and the next phase.

The four green neutral players work with the team in possession – so blues at first then reds on turnover of possession (2b). So, for instance, when reds win the ball, neutral greens on the outside give depth to the blue defensive set-up. In addition, the neutral yellow at the far end becomes the first defender (the centre-back) for the blues.


1. In this 8v8 game blues begin with the ball
2. It’s passed around the key central area with the intention solely of retaining possession


1. Reds turn over possession in the middle
2. Green neutrals play with the team in possession and the ball is fed here to the wide player
3. Reds attack with purpose

Reds turn over possession in the middle

The team that counter-attacks starts the next phase in possession, while we can add in a touch limit – again this is dictated by the coach depending upon the players’ ability with the ball.

We play this for 4x4mins with one minute recovery in between then switch so that neutrals play with the reds.

What are the key things to look out for?

When in possession, we’re looking for a high quality of counter-attacking play, ensuring that the first pass should beat the first line of pressing. We also want to see a high speed of executing the counter-attack, plus good final delivery and assists.

When out of possession, players must press and close down space, while ensuring they cover. We want to see a strong reaction to losing the ball and lots of tracking of runs into spaces.

How do I put this into a game situation?

We now set up as shown on a 70×60-yard area (3a). The team that we want to see working on possession – in the example shown it’s the blue team – is given the ball inside their own half and try to find spaces to break through their opponents – the red team – and score. Reds cannot press blues in their own half.


1. Blues begin with possession
2. Reds cannot press blues in their opponents’ half
3. Supporting blues must look to find space in order to receive a pass in what is a congested area

When reds win possession they break in quick counter-attacks with the intention of exploiting any spaces in behind (3b).


1. Reds successfully turn over possession
2. The first main pass should always beat the line of the press
3. A quick counter-attack is launched
4. Wide players make positive breaks into key areas on the flanks and spaces in behind

At first we would set this up so that on each counter-attack there are four assigned players from each side, but this can be progressed so that everyone is included.

What are the key things to look out for?

When with the ball, we’re looking for teams to ensure a high quality of pass and decision-making. We want to see mobility in creating space and good balance of the team when in possession. During counter-attacks, the first pass must beat the first line of press, or the break has failed. Past that, we want to see good exploitation of attacking spaces in behind, and each move performed at high speed.

Finally, when the counter-attack is ‘on’, players have to ensure they do not lose the ball in an advantageous situation – perhaps even provoking a return counter-attack – and that comes down to good pass selection, occupying different counter-attacking spaces in the process.

When without the ball, we’re looking for compact closing down of space, good pressing, strong, positive reactions to the ball being lost and the tracking of movements in behind. We’re also on the lookout for dominance in 1v1 situations in the crucial wide areas.

How do I progress the practice?

The obvious and most effective progression to this practice comes about by increasing difficulty and, in its simplest form, that means adding to the number of opponents, or restricting time and space.

We can also apply additional player conditions – for instance, as highlighted in the first practice, the player who began the counter-attack could not score.

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