Conditioning a practice to suit session objectives

The 3-team transfer possession exercise is a commonly used practice for several coaches and has a number of technical, tactical, physical and mental outputs that makes the practice effective.  Within this article I will provide alternative conditions, that I have watched or coached, that allow for different tactical or technical elements of the game to be more prevalent. 

Basic set up

As shown above the most basic set up of the exercise is to have three even teams working in a rectangle, split into three zones.  Two teams work together to retain possession (blue and red) and a pressing team (yellow) will attempt to stop transfers either through regaining the ball in the box where a team is building possession, or through intercepting an attempted transfer pass.  In order to make a successful transfer, the team in possession must complete a set number of passes before being able to play through, round or over the opposition interceptors.  I have seen a variety of conditions within this basic set up to promote certain behaviours or technical/tactical ideas.  In my own coaching, I have had a pressing team defend for a set period (90secs – 3mins depending on desired outcome) with a score given to the defending team for how many times they allow a transfer. In this case, the lower the score the better.  Alternatively, the practice can run for a set period of time with the defending team transitioning to an in-possession team should they successfully regain the ball and the team relinquishing possession then becoming the pressing team.


Before using this practice, I would always ask myself the following questions

  1. What are the objectives of the session?
  2. How can I progress the practice to further challenge the players individually and collectively?
  3. How do I ensure the scoring system reflects the objective of the session?

With these considerations, it can allow the coach to structure the session based on a number of elements.  It may relate to a specific element of a game model that you wish to implement or could relate to a strategy that may be used on a specific match day.  By knowing your desired outcomes this practice, and the detail the coach provides can allow for players to improve individually and collectively.  

Constructing the attack to play through

In this exercise the scoring system is based on the number of transfers the defending team allow. The objective for the team in possession is to make a set number of passes to then play into the middle zone to a player in the red team, who has to receive and play into his own box.  Within the practice four goals are added on the outside of the pitch to promote behaviours on transition.  If the defending team (yellow) regain possession they look to score in any four of the mini goals. A goal for the defending team results in a point deduction from the score.  It is the coach’s discretion to organise the extent of the pressure from the defending team.  This practice demands a number of technical skills to be executed properly, specifically the passing skills of the team keeping possession and the receiving skills of the team looking to receive in the central zone to then release into their own zone.  

When constructing passes in the first box, the team in possession should look to make the pitch as big as possible through providing depth and width.  However, what is beneficial about this practice is that the possession must have an outcome.  During this phase of possession, the team keeping the ball need to constantly scan forward to see who is free between the lines, how the opposition are defending in the middle zone and how they can play through as quick as possible to a player who is able to turn.  The body shape during the build-up should allow for the blues to see the furthest away red player and by doing so, they are then able to see more passing options. The technique of playing through is one that players need to execute effectively.  Passes through the lines should be firm and if possible should have an element of disguise.  As demonstrated in the diagram, when the blue player receives he opens up his body to a play straight pass down the line.  By adding disguise to the pass, it can move out individual players and create bigger gaps between defensive units to play through.  To ensure that the pass is effective it should be played into the receivers furthest away foot, allowing them to turn whilst receiving possession and speed up the next phase of the attack.

The receiving team (red) must remain disciplined, focusing on the timing of the movement and the ability to receive and break out the middle zone as quickly as possible, either through a dribble or pass. When the blues are building possession, the reds need to recognise the moments to drop into the middle zone as by being stationary in the zone for a prolonged period, they can become easily marked.  A general rule that can be added to ensure players are not stationary is to promote ‘show and go’.  If the player is in for longer than 2/3 seconds they need to get out and rotate with a teammate and in doing so test the organisation of the screening players in the central zone.  When dropping into the middle zone, the player receiving needs to trust the blues to find them in positions that they are able to turn freely and play into their own box.  As demonstrated, playing behind the line of yellow defenders eliminates them when the pass is played through the lines making it easier to turn and escape pressure. When receiving the player should allow the ball to run across his body onto his back foot and if possible, receive on the move.  As the ball travels players should be encouraged to check their shoulders to ensure they are aware of the space around them, along with potential pressure from opponents and passing options to teammates.

Within this exercise the coach can structure the possession players to replicate their positions on match days.  As demonstrated the structure of the possession teams could replicate a 4-3-3 with a 4-1 set up for the blues and a 2-3 for the reds.  The reds may initially be positioned in the middle with an onus on the front 3 to know when to drop into the middle to create a 3v2 against the two yellow screeners.  This structure can develop a number of relationships including the CDM with the two centre midfield players as well as the relationship between the centre midfield players and the striker.  The CDM will need to work on his movement and positioning to allow the centre backs to play through into the striker with the centre midfield players playing with a body shape that allows them to see both goals and can open up passes into the striker.

Alternatively, this can be done through using a 3-4-3 with the blues operating as the three centre backs and two pivot players with two red wing backs occupying the middle zone.  By splitting the pitch in three vertical zones it can create a visual for players to better understand principles or rules that you wish to apply in a match day.  For example, in the back 3 you may ask the centre backs to occupy all three zones, allowing them to work the ball across the pitch better and stretch the 3 yellow pressers.  In doing so it can potentially open up passes to the centre midfield players to turn to play through or round the two screeners.  It can also strengthen relationships between the box in midfield and work on creating combinations of passes inside from the wingbacks.  By playing with two pivots, it allows them to work on their relationship and opening up passing lanes through the two CAMs through moving away from the ball.

Creating space to play round

In this exercise the middle zone is split into 3 areas, with the wider areas (shaded) for the possession players to carry the ball into the middle zone, either driving through or combining to then play a pass to a red.  Similar to the previous exercise, a point can also be scored by transferring through the central zone via a red dropping in to receive and turn.  If the defenders regain possession they can look to score in the four mini goals placed on the outside. This again promotes behaviours on transition, including regaining the ball quickly through suffocating the player in possession and the passing options that they may have.  Once again, if the defending team manage to score this can reduce the score of the transfers they allowed or instead reduce their time defending.

Within the exercise the focus shifts towards the players playing in wider areas of the pitch and their decision making of when to carry the ball, and when to release it quickly to exploit spaces elsewhere.  The players situated in the wide areas should have an open body shape facing in the pitch to allow them to see where pressure is coming from and also where they can look to take their first touch.  When they receive possession, they should look to explode forward early, limiting the time the yellow screeners have to get across and recover possession.  When keeping the ball, the team in possession should still look to scan forward and see the spaces in central areas and look to play through when possible. However, to stretch the screening players, the team in possession need to circulate the ball quickly.  

The team not involved in the build-up phase of the exercise now have decisions to make when they see a blue player drive with the ball in a wide zone.  They need to assess whether the player in possession can dominate the 1v1 without support or do they need to get across to potentially become a ‘bounce’ pass option round the defender.  In order to free up spaces on the side of the pitch, their movement into the central area can attract the interceptor’s attention and potentially force them to narrow in, meaning that when the ball is switched it is harder to them to cover the space and defend the wide zone.  

Once again, this exercise can be applied to a team shape and in this instance, focus on rotations as the ball moves from one side of the pitch to the other or on potential ways to exploit the opponent once the ball is in the wide area.  As shown above it can promote rotations such as the centre midfield players bouncing out to the side to take up a fullback position, the fullback going high and the wide player playing on the inside.  By doing this it can allow centre midfield players to receive naturally facing forward and have more passing options to break the defensive organisation.  It can strengthen the relationship between wide players and fullbacks, with the fullback knowing when and how to overlap when the wide player steps into the middle zone.  The purpose of any rotation is to find a free man who is able to receive and play forward.  If the coach allows the yellow team to have more freedom in how they press it may encourage the yellow screeners to follow players on rotations, meaning centre backs need to have an awareness as the ball travels to them to ensure they can find the free man quickly.  Timings on the rotation is also important and can be reinforced through this practice. If the rotation takes place late (on the centre backs first touch), it means players will not give themselves time to be set to receive and understand the picture round them. Alternatively, if they rotate early (before the pass is played by the left back), they will be stationary for a prolonged period making it easier for the defenders to control the situation.  

Once the ball reaches the sides of the pitch, it can challenge the players to make the right decision as multiple options are available including whether to play directly through or round the defender. Whether it is a quick combination to play round, via the right winger, or going directly to the fullback, this situation allows players to work on playing first time passes under pressure as well as taking positive touches to speed up the attack.  What this exercise does repeatedly is allow the team in possession to better understand when to attack down the side or when to circulate the ball back round the pitch.

Third man runs

In this exercise there are two ways to complete a transfer. The first is through a player being able to receive on the half turn in the middle zone and play through. The second is by springing a third man run into the shaded area as shown above.  Similar to previous practices the use of small goals on the outside can be a target for the defending team once they make a regain, which prompts a reaction from the teams who have lost possession to try and regain the ball as quick as possible.  In this exercise you can also award a point if the yellows are able to make 2 passes on a regain which promotes quick reactions to suffocate the man in possession as well as the passing options, whilst also being aware of the goals on the side of the pitch.  

Due to the dimension changes this encourage players to look forward and find passes into the middle zone.  With this condition and more passes likely to be played into this central zone, it will encourage players underneath the ball to be ready to support when players receiving can’t turn due to pressure from behind.  Another consequence of playing more forward passes in tighter areas is that players will need to receive under pressure and be able to protect the ball.  This then promotes the receiving technique with pressure from behind and encourages players to either bounce the ball back if receiving square, or to be inventive and to beat the defender to then play through.  Furthermore, with passes more frequently being played into the middle area, the movement into these areas needs to be timed and if players do not receive in that area, can they rotate out quickly to free the space for others.

Pressing a specific player

In this exercise the focus can now turn to the defending team and working on how they structure their press.  The scoring system remains the same with the team in possession looking to play round or through the pressers, gaining a point for every successful transfer.  Again, if the pressing team make a regain, they look to score in any of the four small goals.  However, there can be greater rewards for the pressing team depending on how and when they press.  For example, awarding the pressing team two goals if they manage to make a regain in a certain area of the pitch or from a certain player and then score from that position. 

In the example highlighted above the emphasis is on forcing the play onto a certain player in the opposition (this may be highlighted from an opposition analysis).  Prior to the exercise the coach may only tell the defending team who is the “pressing target”.  This then allows the coach to see if the teams in possession recognise who that player is and how they may change their strategy to prevent one player being exposed in a certain area of the pitch.  The defending team in this case need to be patient in how they press and force the ball into the player that they can intercept from.  When pressing the “target”, the timing needs to be precise.  If the pressing player jumps out their slot early they may leave themselves to be played through or over.  The speed of approach will be determined by the body shape and awareness of the “target”.  If the receiving player has his back to goal and has not scanned behind, it can allow the presser to be aggressive and approach with speed.  However, if the receiving player has a good body shape, the presser should slow down sooner on approach but still get close enough to try and force the receiving player to play back or sideways.  

Forcing to an area

When focusing on regains in certain areas, it allows the defending team to force play into an area of the pitch and make the possession teams play predictable.  In doing so, they can then create opportunities to be aggressive and win the ball back in areas that allow them to go and score quickly.  Firstly, the pressers will need to communicate effectively to ensure that they are structured as a narrow front three to force the game into wide areas.  This exercise can encourage the screening players to give information to the players in front about when to press and how to angle their approach.  Players also have to decide the right moments to go and press with the intent of winning the ball, as well as knowing when to slide across to protect the space.  As shown above, the yellow centre midfielder leaves his slot to press the blue in the wide zone.  There are a number of factors that determine when to press and when to stay and delay. Firstly, the centre midfielder will need to assess the weight of the pass that gets played into the shaded area and if they can get out quick enough to put immediate pressure on the first touch. When doing so, they also need to decide the angle of the approach and ensure they block forward passes in order to slow the attack down.  Furthermore, these moments also trigger movements from the rest of the defending team and how they provide sufficient cover round the ball to be in a position to intercept a pass or pick up a loose ball.  A rule that can enforce compactness is that the defending team must be in the two zones closest to the ball when the ball is in the shaded area and all players must be in the central zone when the ball is that area. 

As demonstrated above, a progression to this practice would be to create an end zone behind both possession boxes gives the pressing team a counter attacking focus when they regain the ball.   What this does, is allow the team that win the ball to focus on transitional moments and how the defensive structures can enable them to break quick and exploit the spaces vacated by the possession teams. In this exercise the coach may put a time limit on how long it should take to score once a regain is made and allow the players to figure what is the quickest way to goal.  It can encourage players to show composure on regains to make the right decision whether to pass or dribble and it can also improve the understanding of the strikers and the spaces to exploit once the ball is won. By adding in this transitional element, it allows the players to connect the out-possession work to reactions on transition, allowing transitions to become structured rather just a reaction to winning the ball.  


Some of the best learning that players will get is when the session and the structure of the session is chaotic.  A way to create the chaos is to allow the defending team to press the way they want by sending as many players into the buildup boxes as possible.  Points can be awarded to the possession teams when they manage to either play round, through or over the pressing team.  Further chaos can be added to the defensive team by allowing the possession side to connect with the other possession team immediately, without any pass limit. 

Depending on the defensive structure, the team in possession will have to process quickly the spaces that can be exploited.  If the defending team press aggressively, the possession team will need to find solutions quickly to play over the press through making the pitch as big as possible and looking to open passing lanes into the middle channel.  In order to make effective decisions, players must have an awareness of the spaces available, passing options in possession and creating angles of support should they not receive the initial pass.  If the defending team are more conservative in their approach, it means that constructing possession may be easier. However, playing through, round or over the defending team may be more difficult.  As highlighted above, a method that can be used in this case is for players to step in with possession and entice the press from one of the screeners which can then create space in behind for players to move into.  Isolating an opposition player in the ‘block’ alongside clever movement can allow you to create an overload round that player to through. 

For the defending team, giving the players full autonomy on the defensive structure means that communication and co-ordinated pressing is of paramount importance.  To ensure that this is done with clarity, the coach may select a ‘captain’ whose job is to communicate the strategy to his teammates prior to the practice beginning. The pressing team have the freedom to adapt their strategy during the exercise which will enable the coach to see who are effective communicators and who can read the game and change the strategy if required.  Initially, what can happen is that the pressing team will start with aggression and look to press with a high intensity.  What then becomes important is how the players react to breaches and how they recover back to a narrow and compact shape before pressing, as if players press in small numbers they are likely to be played round and exert energy.  This can often lead to players having to think about game management, selecting when and how to press and being ready to turn and react to balls that are played over the press.

When players have full autonomy, it is important that the coach reflects with the players and questions their rationale for their adopted approach.  In doing so, it can create opportunities for the coach to provide clarity on the finer details of using a certain strategy.  

It can also allow the coach to reflect on an individual basis to see how they felt in certain moments and relate it back to how they may face a similar scenario in the game.  Again, it can allow the player to understand finer details of how to press, receive under pressure or play a certain pass related to their position.  


In summary, the 3-team possession practice is adaptable and can be used to suit a number of objectives.  In order for this practice to relate to the objectives of the session, the coach must ensure that the conditions and the scoring system encourage behaviours and actions that promote the objectives.  For example, if the aim of the session is to work on playing round the opponent the dimensions may be slightly wider than usual with zones in wide areas that promote dribbling and combination play.  What makes this practice applicable in a number of ways is that although there can be a primary focus (i.e. playing through), there is a still an objective for the defending team on how to press and regain possession.  This dual focus then allows for every player participating to gain something from the session, making it effective and enjoyable.

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