Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system - 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 April 2020. It's called, "Coaching: Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system.”

Why are runs in behind significant in a front three?

Within a three-forward system, the highest line must occupy and disorganize the opposition’s backline. Since the back four is the most common, we’ll primarily concern ourselves with that structure. In terms of numbers, the backline will generally operate from a plus-one advantage. Therefore, front three systems require activity from the forwards, stretching them vertically and horizontally to create gaps for exploitation.

A club’s tactical #9, also known as the striker or center-forward, plays a major role in determining the success of the line. With opponents to either side of the #9, he’ll attempt to command the attention of both centerbacks, switching from one to the other or playing in the gap between them to free up space for the wide forwards. The specific tactical instructions will vary to fit the skill set of the player. Those with more pace might primarily look to make driving vertical runs, whereas your typical #9 in a three-forward system will generally lack top-end pace while offering size and strength as an outlet.

Even among the latter class of #9s, there are variations of approach, which is largely down to the ability of the striker. If your man up top is less technical or severely lacking in mobility, you’ll nearly always find him more central. His contribution is committing both centerbacks to the central channel, creating more room in the half-spaces and winger for his teammates. While the centerbacks remain connected with each other, they sacrifice connectivity with their wide defenders.

With a player like Benzema, he’ll bounce between the two forwards, but, in that transitional moment from attacking the opponent to attacking the goal, he wants to disconnect one centerbacks from everyone else on that line. By pulling that central defender out of his line, a massive gap between the outside-back and other centerback emerges. Wide forwards who see the opportunity and make the run will then find themselves 1v1 with the remaining centerback or through to goal.

In the spring 2020 Clásico, the game-winning goal was the product of a nice sequence on Real Madrid’s left wing. Benzema dropped deep from his position in the half-space. As he checked to Toni Kroos, Gerard Piqué remained deep to pick up the incoming runner. That left Nelson Semedo to pick up Benzema and Martin Braithwaite to defend against Vinícius Júnior. The young Brazilian was slow to read the movement of Benzema and the consequent gap in the defense. Kroos signaled his teammate to make the run, releasing him behind Braithwaite and onto goal. With Piqué forced to mark the central runner, Vinícius Júnior had a clear path to goal, sealing the victory for Madrid. Though he walks away without any statistical credit for the goal, Benzema’s ability to pull Semedo out of the backline, preventing him from covering Braithwaite, created the lane that initiated the move towards goal.

Against Deportivo Alavés, Kroos completed the switch of play to Luka Modrić, cueing movement in the right half of the pitch. As Dani Carvajal pushed up the pitch, Benzema again dropped deep, this time taking a centerback with him. Bale knows that Carvajal is pushing up the wing, so he’s primarily watching the movement of Benzema, waiting to see how the backline responds. As the centerback tracks Benz, Bale starts his diagonal run to goal.

Modrić didn’t see the play in time and opted to play wide to Carvajal. However, the interaction between Benzema and Bale highlights the movement we want. As you can see in the picture, the centerback has just realized his mistake and starts to backtrack.

While Bale is still a couple of meters in front of the left-back, his opponent has poor body orientation, so the Welshman wins that footrace with plenty to spare. Intelligent wingers will always look to play off of their center forwards, watching for cues on when and where to run. Bale’s run behind the line was spot-on, but, unfortunately, unrewarded.

Exercise 1


·        Field measures 12v24. Midfield line operates as offside line. Give an additional three meters depth per endzone.

·        Two teams of three with one target player in each endzone.


Before a team can pass to the target player, they must cross midfield with a pass. The objective is training runs in behind the defense. Attacking teams must look to play a teammate across midfield, either playing through the defense or around them (as shown in the diagram). Once a team crosses midfield, they are free to pass to the target player, earning one point. Ball stays with the scoring team as they simply change the direction of their attack. This is an ideal warm-up, lasting approximately 15 minutes.

Coaching points

·        Correct body orientation to connect actions

·        If you can’t play forward, just keep the possession by utilizing the deep target player

·        Support the player who has positioned himself back to goal (play the high attacker, set, play forward)

·        Look for the run as a teammate receives while facing forward

·        The run dictates the pass

·        Disconnect the defense to create the space you want to attack

Exercise 2


·        33Wx50L

·        Main playing area is 33Wx30L

·        Force players to cut inside with the diagonal line 20 meters from the endline to the middle of the half-spaces on the touchline

·        6v6+GK

·        Red plays to full-sized goal, blue to three mini-goals


A nice progression from the first exercise, the red team must pass out of the primary playing zone to attack the goal. No dribbling over the line. I would run this exercise for approximately 25 minutes, giving a one-minute rest after each five-minute round.

Coaching points

·        All coaching points from the first exercise (look for continuity in the session)

·        Vary starting points

·        Play between the lines to help create and drag defenders out of their lines

Watch for an understanding of time and run type. An idea you want to convey is that, when a player, typically a winger, isn’t directly involved in the play, she must attempt to manipulate the positioning of the opposition. If the opponent goes with her, she’s created space for a diagonal or horizontal run, cueing her teammate to play a through ball. If the opponent stays narrow, we can look to play around the defense.

For the full article, which offers far more insight into why and how to train runs behind the backline in a three-forward system, head to Total Football Analysis.

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

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid

Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini

Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession

Day 17 - Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?

Day 18 - Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system