Cues for Progressive Actions - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from the April 2021 magazine. It's called, "Tactical Analysis: Cues for Progressive Actions."

Our focus is on cues for progression in the final third, taking examples from the game's best.

The 1st concept is unbalancing the opposition's backline, creating numeric superiorities.

Ball and player movement are highly targeted, looking to create numeric advantages in the wings or using central overloads to connect a center-forward with one of his teammates.

Up against a resolute Borussia Dortmund low block, Bayern Munich held the ball on their right-hand side but couldn't progress into the box. Rather than hitting a hopeful cross, they played negative and switched the point of attack to the left half space.

As the Bavarians switched the point of attack, the left-sided players were busy coordinating their movements, creating a 2v1 against Wolf on the left side of the pitch.

-2v1 established

-3v3 when Lewa is included

-Wide passing lane into numeric superiority

Notice the foot Hernandez plays the pass to. Davies and Musiala created a 2v1 scenario, cueing Hernandez to play into them, then the CB sends a cue of his own, playing the forward's interior foot, communicating that he should turn inside.

The setup was simple.

Two players against one in a wide area.

With the defender caught between the two players, Hernandez simply had to pick the better target and communicate what his next action should be with the type of pass he sent.

The Bayern Munich example gives us a scenario where the ball is played into feet, whereas this next one shows a forward who wants the ball in the space behind the backline.

This next example features peak Barcelona against Grenada.

As Messi cut inside on his preferred left foot, Tello had some work to do.

First, that Granada backline was very tightly connected. There was very little space for a through ball, so Tello’s first responsibility was create as much of a gap as possible between the right-back and right centre-back.

Taking a high and wide position accomplishes this task.

-2/4 gap open

-Through ball on

Tello knew that all eyes were on Messi.

With the attacker in a high and wide position, it was difficult for his mark to keep an eye on both the player in the wing and the threat of Messi attacking the central channel.

As Messi moved, the timing for Tello’s run was drawing near. To ensure his run was untracked, Tello had to sync his movement with the attention, or lack of it, from the Granada right-back. As the threat of Messi's dribble looks more and more imminent, he draws the Granada backline’s attention, cueing Tello to make his move.

Out of sight, out of mind, his horizontal movement kept him onside, then he broke into a diagonal run as Messi sent the through ball. The sequence was perfectly timed and perfectly executed.

Finding a way through the sea of bodies has become a top objective for many top clubs around the world. Creating gaps for through passes and progressive runs, like we saw in the Barcelona example, has become an art.

We have an example from Liverpool creating a gap through dynamic positional rotations.

In possession high in the wing, Salah and TAA link up while Milner makes a hard run into the wing, becoming the highest player.

The keys...dragging his mark away from the half space.

Numeric equality with man-marking allows Liverpool to manipulate the AC Milan 3, creating a running lane into the half space. TAA does the rest, scoring on the sequence.

-Pull deepest opponents wide

-Look for out-to-in movements

-Overload wide to attack centrally

Numeric equality can cue progression, but the underlying premise is that some form of superiority must be in place, increasing the likelihood of a successful action. In Liverpool's case, a socio-affective superiority only required numeric equality. Creating and attacking predetermined and trained advantages helps teams make their move into the box at desired points of entry.

Here, Man City uses a qualitative and socio-affective superiority to retain possession and slip a runner behind the backline.

Some of the key points signaling the move into the box are…

-Highest players are man-marked

-Pass into them disorients the midfield line

-Untracked run from deep

Possession disoriented the press, funneling focus to top threats, and creating free movements for deeper players. Possession served the purpose of creating gaps to run into and the accompanying pass.

Ball movement was quick and possession secure throughout.

Wide overloads with half space entry into the box have become very common at the top levels, but there's also a school of thought that limits the number of players the in-possession team dedicates to the wings.

Rather than creating numeric superiorities in the wings, these teams will typically get their width from one player on each side of the pitch. The remaining eight field players will span the width of the box, giving their side control of the center, just as you see in chess.

These teams typically field interior forwards rather than traditional wingers when playing a three-forward system.

They may even play a 2-1 or 1-2 with three interior forwards, which we see with Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta. Chelsea is another club that uses a 3-4-3 with three central forwards. Getting their width from the left and right midfielders, #Chelsea aims to control the middle of the pitch.

That objective forces the opposition to use a more narrow defensive structure.

When Chelsea can't penetrate centrally because of the opposition's narrowness, the Blues then know to play into the wings to increase the width of the opposition's lines.

As opponents quickly slide their lines into the wings, Chelsea’s central players are actively searching for gaps in their lines.

A pass into the wings offers that mental trigger to search for space centrally. In our three-in-one image, Chelsea has the ball in their right-wing, but are very actively searching for space to exploit centrally.  The narrow blue lines indicate which opponents the Chelsea players are occupying. Pulisic's first few steps attacked space behind the backline.

With him occupying two players, Kanté saw his opportunity to move higher in the right half space. The pass goes to him and he combines with the checking Pulisic, whose clever flick plays Kanté into the box. Dominate centrally, stretch the opposition through the isolated wingers and run into central gaps.  Simply stated, but it's a basic pattern used by many teams playing a 3-4-3 or some variant of that system.

The same basic principle converts to a four-back system as well.

The best example I’ve come across takes us to South America where Gallardo's River Plate create a 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 attacking shape from their base 4-3-3 formation.

One differentiator with a high central overload and single width providers on each side is that it can be used as a vehicle for sending and meeting crosses with numbers up situations in the box.

As River Plate plays into their high central overload, if they cannot continue their movement up the pitch, it signals the players to play to the free man in the wings.

Once the ball is played wide, Gallardo's players instinctively know to make their runs into the box.

They typically enjoy numeric equality, which is an exceptional state for attacking a cross.


-Numbers in box

-Creating time for crosses

-Play centrally if it's there

Finally, to close the thread, let's shift to the other end of the scale and look at a dying breed in the modern game, the dribble-dominant wide playmaker. When a team has a dominant dribbler, the immediate cue to the rest of the team is to give him space.

Let's take a look at a Vini Jr. example.

As the ball is played into him in the wings, he had exactly what he was looking for; he and his opponent were isolated in the wings with no support for either player.

It's a true 1v1 duel with tremendous stakes.

Notice the three Real Madrid players centrally. None of them moved towards the left-wing to offer Vinícius Júnior support. The attacking conditions greatly favor their teammate, so they trust him to use his dribbling talent to win the duel. Isolation creates opportunities for progression through the dribble.

When a dribble-dominant player gets the ball in space when isolated in a 1v1, the rest of the team is better off anticipating his endpoint, then positioning themselves off of that future moment.

There is so much more detail in the 5.5K word analysis, as well as cues for progression in the build-up and middle third. You can find the full article exclusively on Total Football Analysis.

To read the full article, head to Total Football Analysis, magazine #71.

That's where you'll find a tactical analysis on progression cues in the build-out and middle 3rd.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions