The Art of Movement: Running in Behind

Movement is one of the key things in football, pulling the opposition in to positions that they don’t want to go. The more that we can stretch the play, the more space we’ll have on the ball to play. But, is the art of running in behind the defence in danger of being forgotten about?

Playing the ball into the channels used to be a huge part of the game, giving the quick striker the chance to chase the ball down and potentially get there before the defender. Defenders would hate this because they would get dragged out of their central position and likely be thrown in to a one v one situation closer to their goal.

These runs also create space for the team in possession, causing the opposition’s defence to drop off, creating more space.

But, of late, it seems like there has been a trend for players to go to the ball, rather than run in behind.

That may be because the game has changed to a much more possession-based strategy. Goalkeepers regularly play out from the back, showing that keeping the ball is highly valued.

Do players want to clip the ball over the defence for a striker to run on to when this may be ineffective at times?

There also seems to be a desire from attacking players to get on the ball more, dropping deep, almost into the midfield to get the ball, turning and then moving forward. This is happening regularly and contributes to the possession-based game.

At Manchester United, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have the pace to terrify defenders if they were to run in behind. However, more often that not they drop deep to receive the ball, allowing the defenders to step up and squeeze the play, making the midfield area congested. It seems that they would rather be creators, players who can get on the ball and potentially light up a game with their technical ability, but if they were to run in behind more often they could be hugely effective.

Other players seem to drop deep quite regularly too and it seems like there are less purposeful runs in behind the defence at this moment in time.

There is one player who regularly runs in behind defences who I’m sure defenders absolutely hate to play against: Jamie Vardy.

His direct running in the channels is purposeful and determined. Defenders can hate running back to their own goal and Vardy will make them do it regularly. His movement as the furthest forward creates a huge amount of space for his teammates while also being a great outlet for attacks.

It does seem though that strikers like Vardy are becoming less and less but the benefits of having a striker, or winger, who runs in behind, are huge.

The thing is, this movement in behind the defence doesn’t have to be limited to the forwards out there. Wingers who make quick darting runs looking for the ball over the top are very dangerous. In some cases full backs may get in these positions too. Looking at the diagrams below, you can see the space that good movement in behind creates.

#1. If the forward drops short to the ball the defenders will get tight and follow, chasing the pitch to become congested, giving the player on the ball less time and space.

#2.The forward who makes the run in behind forces the defenders to follow and recover to their own goal. The opportunity for the midfielder to play that direct pass forward is on, while also creating space in the centre of the pitch.

#3. The run in behind has made the defence drop deeper, giving the rest of the team more time on the ball. If the defence don’t drop deep then a forward with a well timed run will have a great goal scoring opportunity.

What it does is create confusion. Defenders like to see the play in front of them, allowing them to organise their back line and midfield, making it hard for teams to play through them. When the ball is in front, it becomes much easier to defend. As soon as a player makes that run in behind then the game changes.

Does the defender follow or try and play offside? If they do play offside then everyone in the defence has to be on the same page. If they don’t play offside, who is making the recovery run?

When making this recovery run the defender won’t be seeing what is going on behind them. Have the opposition stepped up the pitch? Does the striker have the opportunity to cut the ball back?

There are a lot of things to consider, all while recovering to try and stop the attacker getting through on goal, but the main outcome is defenders really not liking attackers making these runs in behind them.

The lines are blurred now as to who is a forward. We have wide attackers who have been central strikers, forwards who drop deep to double up as a creator and inverted wingers. The traditional forward position has changed, with a lot more fluidity. What must be remembered is the ability, and skill, that is needed to run in behind. Players who time these runs successfully are a huge bonus to the team, changing the way the whole team plays.

If any of your forward players can run in behind successfully then the opportunities are endless. Jamie Vardy has made a career out of it, and he’s still going strong in his mid-thirties.

So if you’re an attacking player, don’t make it easy for the opposition’s defence by coming short for the ball every time, look to run in behind and make them face their own goal. They won’t like you for it, but you are pulling them out of position. Cracks will appear and there will be more opportunities for yourself, and your teammates.