Build-up versus counter

This session is about counter-attacking versus build-up play, and changing player actions and instincts.

When a group of players do this session for the first time, the build-up is always ‘overplayed’. The countering team must then look to be dynamic in the creation of end products.

The session is great for player understanding, in terms of how ‘build-up’ can look like ‘counter’. Also, the session is great for tactical awareness – for instance, ‘build-up’ could turn into ‘keep ball’ if a team is 2-0 up and looking to draw the opposition out in exploiting a gap when opponents’ discipline breaks. We can put all sorts of scenarios into this game to bring out different outcomes.

The session can be run anytime as it is a reminder to players to move the ball quickly, with forward runners and penetrating passes. It works very well if playing a counter or build-up team in our next game – we can set up in preparation for a specific challenge. For instance, when playing a build-up team that likes to play a lot through the thirds, we may choose to press and win the ball in certain areas. A counter team emphasis may be on high concentration and organisation when in possession, and we will also work on ‘countering the counter’, with the session versatile enough to allow the coach to fit it to his or the team’s needs.


Full pitch
Balls, flat discs/cones, goals
Number of Players
Session time

What do I get the players to do?

Part One

We play this on a full-pitch, 11v11 as shown (1a). Team shapes can vary – the coaches decide – but we would work in a 4-4-1-1, either against the same formation or, if preparing for an upcoming game, a shape we expect the opposition to play, as discussed earlier. The build-up team must play through four zones and cannot miss out zones unless playing back. The counter team must produce an end product or shot, namely an attempt on goal in no more than six passes, as shown (1b).


1. The keeper starts the red build-up
2. Reds move the ball across the defence without moving forward or penetrating blue territory
3. The move finally progresses into the second zone
4. Because of the slow nature of the build-up and the lack of direction, blues have been afforded the time to move in to press with the intention of a fast counter


1. Blues successfully turn over possession
2. Short interplay sets up a long ball forward as they look to hit the reds quickly
3. The pass is inaccurate and reds regain possession

After playing this for six minutes we will then swap team roles. Following this we will have a discussion about what has been done, asking players to explain what they’ve  produced. The feedback usually for the build-up team is we are playing too many passes and inviting the press; and can we then pass with the purpose being to advance forward through the units. The counter team decide if they achieved success through pressing high or dropping off, inviting the opposition onto them – they may choose to use both strategies. We will then run the build-up versus counter again, switching team roles after six minutes.


The outcome we are looking for is for players to realise whether the elements of the game require us to be playing build-up or counter. In addition, we are looking for forward passes, forward runners and a willingness to ‘risk’ the ball to penetrate the back of the opposition defences.

A slick passing move with minimum touches passed through the zones can constitute as ‘build-up’, but has the traits of a counter-attack goal, with minimum passes and minimum time.

The players will realise that their first attempt at build-up means achieving lots of passes but not necessarily progressing up the pitch, whilst being attacked at pace by a team conditioned to find an end product in a maximum of six passes. For us, the second time through build-up will always be more successful and will have the traits of the above, though build-up still has to be progressive (2a). Similarly, the counter team should look less for a clichéd long pass, and respond more to building quickly with positive, fast passing (2b).


1. Reds this time build with better directional awareness
2. They successfully move the ball through the sections
3. Although build-up is slow, the ball is worked into new areas and blues cannot close down quickly
4. Reds move the ball to the flank
5. A cross into the box is finished at the near post


1. In this alternative scenario, blues close down quicker in the second zone
2. The ball is countered with a dribble forward rather than the assumption that a long ball must be played
3. It is worked back to the edge of the box
4. A precise shot beats the keeper

How do I progress the session?

An obvious progression here is to put the counter team 1-0 up, so they do not need to chase the game, thus they may choose to drop into their own half with no high press. The first time through, the score is 0-0 and the counter team can press high or drop.

What are the key things to look out for?

The players need to know the detail of effective, progressive build-up play, and how this can be achieved in three or four passes.

From this, the points to consider include:

• Receiving in position to play forward – passing forward moving up the pitch

• Players playing in between the lines

• Players making forward movements to ‘stretch’ and get in behind the defensive line

• Quality of pass to ‘penetrate’

In terms of typical mistakes, when the session is first performed with a group of players, the build-up team might find they have made 10-15 passes but not progressed past the second zone. The term ‘build-up’ has been interpreted that you must have 20 passes to score a goal, when this is actually missing the point. The reality here is building through the zones, perhaps even in as few as three passes, but certainly as a unit that builds progressively rather than quickly, is the condition of the build-up team.

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