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Basic 2v1 Attacking Patterns (Combined Play)

Ages: 8+; Materials: Cones, Balls, Pinnies; Players: 4+

There are a number of different ways in which an off-ball player can provide support for an on-ball attacker in order to provide increased chances to beat a defender and ultimately put the ball in the back of the net. In this practice, we will discuss the 4 basic passing combinations which can be used by two attackers to "beat" a defender.

The four combinations are:

  1. "slotted" or "through" pass: a deep pass into space in front of the supporting player;
  2. "overlap" pass: a pass to space to the side of the on-ball player but in front of the off-ball player;
  3. "wall" pass or "give-and-go": a pass to the feet of a support player positioned ahead of the on-ball player and to one side of the defender;
  4. "drop" or "heel" pass: a pass played behind the ball-carrier, to a supporting player.

    It isn't be feasible to introduce on all of these passing combinations in a single session. However, if you have an assistant who can help you to demonstrate these various options, it may be worthwhile to give a quick overview as you begin this segment of training. These various options are only combined in this plan because the same basic format can be used to teach all of these combinations of passes.

    Coaching Note: Before conducting this practice, players should have learned basic take-on skills, basic receiving and basic passing. If this has not been covered, or players are unable to get more than 3-4 passes in a row when playing keepaway, they need more work on their individual skills. It is not uncommon for new players to need two seasons or more of work on individual skills before they are truly ready to spend time on combination attacking. Therefore, don't try to force things by introducing practice sessions which will fall apart because the basic passing or receiving skills are not there yet. Also, physical maturity plays a role in when they are ready. Many players who are U-9 may have difficulty with the footwork needed to do square passes, while most U-10s can handle the footwork easily. Likewise, young players often will not "see" space, because their brains have not yet learned to think abstractly or in 3 dimensions. So, be prepared with a backup practice plan if your players appear to be baffled by the concepts or appear to lack the skills to carry out the task.


    Put the players into pairs with one ball per pair and then send them to jog around the field while passing to one another. Try to put players together who will play close together on the field, so that they can get used to the speed of their partner and can develop a sense of timing. This timing is crucial when passing to a moving player requires the ability to estimate accurately where that player is going to be when the ball arrives. The easiest 2-man attacking combo is the through ball, using either the inside or outside of the foot, so it is fine to just use simple leading passes to warm up for this work. As you get ready to work on overlaps and walls, you probably will want to use a weaving pattern for this inter-passing.

    Individual Work

    After explaining and illustrating the basic principles of the particular pass in question, give each set of passing partners a cone (or 2 cones, if applicable) and send them off to work on giving passes to one another, using the cone(s) as imaginary defender(s). Give them ample time to work on the timing of their passes and on their positioning while you rotate around to make corrections. Both partners should have at least 10-15 tries as an on-ball and off-ball attacker.

    Slotted or Through Pass

    There are only a few things to remember in using a slotted pass to beat a defender. These basic coaching points are as follows:

    1. The on-ball player must take-on the defender by heading directly at him, because this forces the defender to have to focus his attention on the ball since that player always has the choice of beating the defender himself.
    2. The supporting player should be about 3-4 yards wide of the on-ball attacker, and about 1-2 steps to his rear. If he is even with the on-ball attacker, he will clog up the passing lanes and greatly increase the chance that the ball will come behind him.
    3. When the on-ball attacker gets to within about 5 feet of the defender, he should slot the ball into space behind the defender where the supporting attacker can run onto it.
    4. Both attackers should approach the defender at a steady speed, without slowing down.
    5. As soon as the pass is made, the prior on-ball attacker should circle around the back of the defender to receive a return pass and/or to become the support player for the other attacker.

    This type of pass is most useful when there is considerable open space behind the defender, and there is relatively little risk that an opponent will be able to get to the ball before the supporting attacker. Very often, slotted passes are used by incoming midfielders to set up scoring runs for forwards when the defense is pushed up fairly far and flat so that the keeper cannot get to the ball. It is also frequently used by forwards to send the ball to the corner flags so that a wing can cross the ball into the box while the forward gets into position to receive the return pass.

    Basic Overlap

    In the basic overlap, the object is for the on-ball attacker to pull the defender away from desirable space by aiming towards the opposite space. He then makes a square pass into the space just vacated by the defender so that the ball can be picked up by a trailing (overlapping) support player. This type of pass is used in tighter spaces where there is more traffic, so a square pass is more commonly used because such a pass leaves the ball unattended only briefly, reducing the chances of it being stolen. Quite often, this technique is used to "tee the ball up" for a shot on goal by a teammate, but it also is used prior to getting into scoring range in situations where a defender is blocking the path into which a scoring or serving run will be made. For example, it is often used by a forward to pull a wing defender towards the center of the field in order to create space on the wings which can be used by an incoming wing mid to get behind the defense and serve a ball into the goal area.

    The main coaching points for this type of pass are as follows:

    1. The on-ball player goes towards the defender on a diagonal, in order to aim at the space into which he wishes to pull the defender. Typically, if not in scoring range, he will try to pull the defender inside, in order to open space on the wings. If in scoring range, he will try to pull the defender away from the goal to open space for a shot.
    2. The on-ball player may slow down somewhat and roll the ball inward if necessary to give the off-ball supporting player time to get into position or to pull the defender over sufficiently.
    3. The on-ball attacker must convince the defender that he is going to try to beat him on the side to which the defender is being pulled. As a result, if possible, the off-ball attacker should not shout or announce his presence at all, and any call for the ball must be held until the last possible second. Once players are familiar with this technique and when it should be used, they will automatically know when an on-ball attacker is looking for an overlap. With experience, they will then make the run so that the on-ball attacker can make the pass "blind" with the confidence that somebody will be there to use the space.
    4. Timing of the supporting run is very important. Typically, the runner will position himself to the rear of the attacker and far enough away that he can get into the desired space at the same instant that the ball arrives. For small windows of space, the runner must be closer and/or moving at greater speed. For bigger windows of space, the runner can be wider and move more slowly. Initially, practice overlaps where the ball is being served into space about 3-4 yards away from the on-ball attacker. As technique develops, work on timing of little flicks into space which is only 2 yards or less to the side of the attacker.
    5. The usual technique for a square pass is to make a stutter step and quickly pass the ball with the inside of the inside foot (i.e., the foot farthest away from the space). The stutter step is crucial, because it allows the attacker to slow and put his weight on the plant foot at an angle that allows the ball to be passed horizontally (or square). In general, especially with younger players, passes with the inside of the foot can be made with greater weight and accuracy than other surfaces of the foot. However, when the pass needs to be made over a short distance into a small window of space, the stutter step will telegraph the pass to the defender. In this instance, most players will opt to use a simple little flick-on pass with the outside of the outside foot instead, as this provides ample momentum and accuracy for a ball which is going only a short distance.

    Start by using partners who simply work on the mechanics of timing of the runs, by giving the players two cones. Put one cone down and put the other cone down about 5-6 yards to one side and about 2-3 yards back from the first cone. The first cone represents where the defender is at the beginning and the second cone represents where the defender should be after being pulled inside. Have one attacker aim to the side of the first cone, then do some ball rolls to take the ball inward towards the second cone. As soon as the attacker is almost ready to reach the second cone, have him do a slight feint inside and make an immediate square pass to the outside. As soon as the runner sees the feint, he should start heading towards the first cone and shout "Now" to ask for the pass, which should be made instantly. Work on timing and the weight of the pass so that runner and pass arrive in the space at the same time. Each partner should have at least 10-15 tries as an on-ball and off-ball attacker.

    Wall Passes

    This is a pass that uses an off-ball attacker like a wall to simply relay the ball back to the passer. It is a great way to get around defenders in medium traffic, especially where defenders tend to follow the ball instead of staying with a particular mark.

    In this pass, the off-ball attacker is ahead of the ball instead of behind it. The off-ball attacker gets about 2-3 yards to the side of the defender and stands parallel to the defender (sideways) so that he can see more of the field. When he is in the sideways stance and open to the field, especially if he is near the touch-line, this is a clear signal to the on-ball attacker to use him as a wall. How does the on-ball attacker accomplish this?

    1. The on-ball attacker comes at the defender with speed (as this option works best at jogging speed or better).
    2. As soon as the on-ball attacker gets within about 5 feet of the defender, he quickly passes the ball to the front foot of the wall player, and runs around the backside of the defender. The pass must be crisp, with sufficient force that it will rebound off of the foot of the wall player without any real added effort by the wall player. The pass normally will be made with the inside of the inside foot, i.e. the foot farthest away from the wall player.
    3. The wall player turns the receiving foot so that it is almost flat, but has just enough angle to allow the ball to rebound to the space behind the defender. If the foot is angled too much, the ball will not rebound but will instead travel into his other leg. If it's too flat, the ball may not rebound at a sharp enough angle to get past the defender. Some experimentation will be required for the players to learn the correct angle.

    Coaching note: Another option is to receive the ball with the outside of the near or far foot. Some older players prefer to use the outside of the foot, as they believe that it gives them greater immediate freedom to continue running down the field after serving as the wall. Some younger players who have difficulty with inside of the foot reception do fine using the outside of the foot, so this is worth trying if they are getting little success otherwise.

    Once the players get the hang of this technique, you can introduce them to running walls (give-and-goes) where the wall player is facing forward instead of sideways to the field; gets to the side of the defender to receive the pass; and, depending on the weight of the pass and on the speed of the incoming passer, may immediately return it or carry it for brief instant before returning it to the server. In general, it is better to send the return pass early and deep than to run the risk that the defender will close down the passing lane.

    To do the initial work on the stationary wall pass, put the wall player on a cone that is about 3 yards wide of the cone representing the defender. Have the on-ball attacker take-on the cone defender, then execute the wall pass when about 4-5 feet in front of the defender, and run around the back side of the cone to accept the return. In the meantime, send the wall player to another cone that is set up about 3 yards on the opposite side of the cone defender, so that the on-ball attacker can come back using the same foot (and the wall can practice with his same foot). Allow around 10 tries before switching places. Once each player has tried with his dominant foot, then try with the non-dominant foot.

    To do give-and-goes, have the supporting player jogging about 3 yards wide of the on-ball attacker and about even with him. As the on-ball attacker gets within 4-5 feet of the cone, he passes to the moving wall player, who is coming into the space to the side of the defender as the ball arrives. The moving wall player receives the ball with the inside of his far foot or outside of his near foot, and immediately passes it back into space behind the defender. This is one-touch passing, so he must control and redirect the ball in a single touch. Young players may have trouble with this technique and may require more than one touch to control the ball. If this is the case, then they are not ready for give-and-go work yet. Instead, spend some time on 1-touch keepaway games until their proficiency improves enough to make this practice productive.

    Drop Balls

    The final type of pass is the drop pass. The most spectacular use of the drop pass is when the on-ball attacker lures the defender towards the end-line to give his supporting player time to get into a central position in front of the goal, and then passes the ball back across the penalty mark so that the runner can put the ball into the net at the far post. This is one of the nicest methods for 2-man attacking combos, and has one of the highest percentages of success in upper level games. This same pass also can be used at any time when the on-ball attacker must turn his back toward goal which may be necessary to receive the ball if being pressured hard from an incoming defender. If he cannot turn easily, it is often better for him to honor the Rule of Thumb to "Play The Way You Are Facing" and drop the ball to an incoming attacker in order to relieve pressure. This might also allow him to make a run which will pull his defender over enough to allow a shot by the support player or allow the support player to send a slotted pass for him to finish.

    The key ingredients for a drop ball are timing, timing and timing. First, the runner usually must hold his run until the pass is being made or the pass has a high likelihood of going behind him. This means that he must wait until he sees the head of the server go down to make the pass which is his signal to run. Secondly, the server must time the ball to arrive at the proper angle at the proper time. If his pass is too hard, the runner may overrun it or have to pullout too wide. If his pass is too soft, the opponents will have too much time to intercept the pass. Finally, at least in finishing these balls, the runner should time his footwork/steps so that he can receive the ball on the inside of his near foot, like in a wall pass, and neatly deflect the ball to the far post. Have the on-ball attacker feint as if he is going to try to bring the ball down the end-line, then quickly send the dropped pass to the onrushing teammate with the inside of the far foot.

    It takes plenty of practice to get this timing down. However, when the timing is learned properly, the goals are terrific. Good examples of these goals can be seen in tapes of the 1998 WC Quarter-Final between Germany and Croatia, and the Third Place game between Croatia and Holland.

    Small Group Work

    Divide players into groups of 3. Put one player as defender who is anchored on a cone, and practice the pass that is being taught, rotating the players to a different position after around 10 tries. Use coaching points noted above.

    Then, create medium grids (about 20 feet by 30 feet) with a cone goal at one end. In each of these exercises, the defender must be VERY passive initially. Ideas to restrict the defender include having him hop on one foot; making him defend backwards; or having him crawl around. As the players improve, gradually permit the defender to become more active.

    For overlaps and through passes, put a player at each end of the grid, and put one in the middle. Designate one of the end players as the defender, and give him a ball. Defender plays the ball into the attacker, and starts to close him down at walking speed. Supporting attacker then comes to assist, and the pass is made Coach can use the points noted above to make corrections here. In each case, the original on-ball player comes around the back of the defender to provide another scoring option for the other attacker who can shoot on goal or send to the support player, depending on what the defender does.

    For wall passes, put the off-ball attacker on the end-line with the defender and have him come up with the defender, staying to the side of the grid to create the wall. For give-and-goes, put the off-ball attacker on the opposing end-line and have him sprint to get into position to provide the return pass. For drop passes, have the on-ball attacker take the ball and the defender to the end-line and then drop the ball back to the trailing attacker for a shot on goal.

    Large Group Work

    Create a Tunnel of Death (which is a series of grids that are stacked on top of one another). About 2-4 stacked grids should be used. Put a cone goal at the end of the last grid. Then, put a restricted defender at the top of each of the grids (Note: parents are great to use for these defenders). Send pairs of attackers through the Tunnel, so that they have to beat several defenders to take a shot on goal. Allow about 3 tries, then reduce the restrictions on the defenders and go again. Then, if players have been used as defenders, rotate the defenders out for their turns. Coaching Note: If players have been used as defenders, create even numbers of grids so that you can rotate partners out together. Also, if you have a large group, create two Tunnels to reduce lines.

    From a coaching standpoint, you will want to adjust the defensive pressure to get considerable success but you do not want it to be too easy. It is fine to adjust pressure from grid to grid (i.e., one grid is easy, followed by one which is more difficult), and to adjust from group to group (i.e., if one pair is consistently running the grid without problems, allow the defenders to be more active). Ultimately, you are hoping to get to the point where your defenders can defend at full pressure within their particular grids, while your attackers can still run the grids with reasonable success. Along the way, you can have contests among the pairs (e.g. greatest number of goals out of X number of tries; most number of grids completed in X tries; etc.).


    Play 4v4, by combining pairs from the prior exercises. Any goals scored by use of the combo pass of the day will count triple, while use of any of the other combos will count double.

    Updated 11 April 1999

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