Third player movement is a topic I reference at some point in almost every session I coach, even when it is not the main focus of the session. I have outlined a range of practices that emphasise third player movement, including small, medium and larger sided games. With all of them, there is a lot of freedom to coach in a way that suits you and your players best.
A third player run provides an additional passing option for a player receiving the ball. The movement is called a “third player run” because the player making the run is ‘the third player’ involved in the attacking movement, following the ‘second player’ who received the ball and the ‘first player’ who made the initial pass.
Ideally, the player making this third player movement will receive the ball facing forwards and on the move, allowing them to take better advantage of the space created and potentially progress the ball forward. They are immediately able to try and put their team in a more threatening attacking position, whereas the second player often receives with their back to goal and is unable to attack towards goal straight away.
Third player movement is very difficult to defend when executed well, as it requires defenders to try and track the ball, the player receiving the pass and the third player at the same time. This is almost impossible to do if the sequence is quick, as there is too much for the defenders to assess, leading to gaps and mistakes in positioning. Recognising and executing third player combinations can be particularly helpful in the build-up phase, where a team will normally have an overload in possession. The defending team will often use cover-shadows to account for this underload, by cutting off passes to opponents rather than marking them, meaning teammates are free but inaccessible to the player on the ball. Third player combinations can be used to find the free players, bypassing the initial cover shadow. Effectively executing third player combinations requires good coordination, communication and timing from the team in possession.
Main Coaching Points
Throughout the practices outlined below, many of the coaching points for third player combinations will be repeated, but I will highlight any that are particularly emphasised in a certain practice.
Timing of movement
Although a movement as the third player will often result in them being free, this will not be for long, particularly at the highest level. It is therefore important the movement is timed well enough for them to receive the ball while still free. Move to early and the defenders will have time to react and re-mark the player; move too late and they will not be able to receive the ball as the defender will have been able to react more easily to the new position of the ball. The third player should look to move as the initial pass is being played, while the focus of the defender is on the ball and the receiving player. Making the movement from the defender’s blind side will make this movement even more effective.
The third player should also be confident the initial pass from player one to player two is likely to be successful, as they will be out of position if it is not and badly placed to transition to defence. This is another reason to make sure players do not make their third player movements too early, as the team may be left exposed if they do.
Weight of pass
The initial pass must be played firmly, firstly to bypass defenders if it is breaking a line, and secondly for the receiving player to be able to direct on the ball to the third player, without having to add much speed to the ball. However, it should not be hit so firmly that the receiving player is forced to take a touch, as this will slow down the move and reduce its effectiveness.
Recognising the next pass
When a player is unable to receive a pass from the player on the ball, they should look to identify opportunities to receive as the third player. In doing so, they should try to find positions where they can move forwards to receive this next pass and be most effective.
2v2 + 2
- Field size is approx. 24x18m
- Played as a normal game, with a neutral player at each end between the goals.
- Can play short games, or first to a target score, with the winning team staying on and the losing team becoming the neutral players.
- Neutral players can have a maximum of two touches
- Normal goal = 1 point
- Goal assisted by the neutral player = 2 points
- Goal assisted first time by the neutral player = 3 points (must be a third player movement)
This set up is possibly the simplest way to implicitly train third player movement, with the neutral player between the goals naturally becoming the second player of the combination. The scoring rules rewarding combinations with the neutral player add to this, making the coaching of third player movement more explicit.
Players must take up positions that spread the field in possession, opening up space between the defenders to access the neutral player between the goals they are attacking. In possession, players will also be challenged on their 1v1 skills, shifting the ball to create space for a forward pass or finish.
The field size can be adjusted to increase or decrease the space for players to run in to. A coaching point I often use in bigger spaces is ‘if you pass sideways or backwards, make a run forward’. This counter-movement causes issues for defenders, as they cannot focus on both the player and the ball and must decide on whether to step forward or track the player. As possible outcome is shown below.
From Karl Marius Aksum, a change to a 2v2x2+2 which works on players’ scanning. I use this regularly as a five team round robin at the start of training, with 2 minute games.
There are two games going on simultaneously, with the neutral players supporting both fields. This is extremely demanding as they must scan effectively to keep track of both games, assess whether they can be utilised in possession and communicate with players on both sides.
Possible scoring rules
- Normal goal = 1 point
- Receive a one touch pass from a neutral as the third player then score = 2 points (3 points for a first time finish)
This rule implicitly encourages players to be thinking of the next pass, moving to receive as their teammate passes to a neutral player.
Progression for Scanning Variation
A variation of this set up which I have used in the past allows players to move freely between pitches, making the game even more challenging. The rules can be kept the same as above, but this now requires all players to scan and communicate effectively as players can move on the pitch from outside their peripheral vision, as shown above.
A slightly larger group of players is required for this to work best, ideally 3v3+2 or more. If you find that players are reluctant to change pitch, you can add a rule that requires it from players who score. Once this begins to happen, players will then begin to adjust to correct severe underloads (i.e. 1v3), which again requires scanning and communication.
Rondo style game
This practice is from Gonzalo Naya’s Total Football Analysis article on coaching up-back-through, which is a similar idea to third player movement but includes a forward pass played by the third player. In a game, this is often to a 4th player running in to space, which was used to great effect by Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds as Naya discusses in his article.
I have used it before and have also adjusted it to create an attack vs defence style variation based on the same premise.
- The Reds and Blues are in possession and look to keep the ball while the Yellows try to win it.
- The in possession team can only pass to the other colour (Red to Blue and Blue to Red).
- If a defender wins the ball, the defending team switches with the team of the player who gave the ball away
- If the in-possession team plays from one end to the other and back, the defending team will have to win the ball twice to get out
If the in-possession team plays from one end to the other through the middle (as shown), the defending team will have to win the ball twice to get out
The colour constraint on the game will implicitly encourage players to recognise the next pass, as they will be unable to receive the ball when their teammate in the same colour is in possession of it. They will then naturally begin to anticipate who will received the ball instead and provide options for them as the pass it made.
Attack vs Defence variations
Using the same colour constraint premise, I devised a couple of attack vs defence games which are slightly more game realistic than the rondo and could be used as progressions to it. Both involve 8 in-possession players (Reds, Blues, Greens) attacking 6 defenders (Yellows), as well as a goalkeeper in one game.
In one, the in-possession team attacks a full-size goal and goalkeeper and the game is played on an approx. 35x35m field. The defenders in Yellow look to win the ball back and score in the two mini-goals at the other end as quickly as possible.
The in-possession team has two players in green, one on the outside and one on the inside of the field, who can pass and receive from any colour. The offside rule applies so the defenders are able to push up the pitch.
The other variation, where the in-possession team attacks two mini-goals, can be played on a field of any size. The in-possession team still have two players in green who are free to pass and receive from anyone. The offside rule does not apply, allowing more freedom in possession.
The out-of-possession team can be given mini-goals to attack, although I have shown it with them being tasked to dribble over the end line, as this gives the in-possession team a better chance to counter-press and restart their attack.
Although the initial rondo has some direction in it, as the in-possession team are trying to play from one end to the other, the directional aspect is more exaggerated in both of these variations, as the defending team are protecting a target as well as trying to win the ball.
More directional games, with clearer pitch references, may help players understand the underlying ideas better as they can relate them to a game more easily. This may be particularly beneficial for players at a slightly lower level. However it is important to recognise that there are drawbacks with these variations — the increased numbers involved mean fewer touches on the ball for each player and fewer opportunities for direct one-to-one coaching.
A development on the initial 2v2+2 is to increase the number of players involved, lowering the intensity slightly, but challenging players to solve problems as a team. When I observed a professional team’s training last year, part of their session was a round robin of games in the set up above. Players were required to play to the neutral at their attacking end before they could score. This naturally leads to third player combinations, particularly as the neutral players were limited to one touch. This was very similar to sessions I had done myself, although I had added extra conditions, in order to make up for the comparatively small contact time with players.
- Normal goal = 1 point
- Goal assisted by end player = 2 points
- Pass to end player from own half + goal = 3 points
- Extra point if the pass to the end player is played within 3 touches of winning the ball
Whereas the professional side used players who weren’t able to train with full contact as neutrals, in my own sessions I use one player from each side as a target player rather than a neutral, making the game a 5+1 v 5+1. The end players changed after 2 minutes, or when a goal is scored by their team.
I also add some pitch markings to the 30x24m field used, to enable me to add further conditions and guidelines for players. As well as a half-way line, vertical lines split the pitch into three lanes (14m and 8m wide for middle and outside lanes respectively). Mini-goals arejust on the edge of the middle lane, as shown above, allowing the end players some room to move in between them.
Although there is no immediate consequence for not doing so, I coach the players to occupy all three lanes when in possession (Blues above) and only two when out of possession (Yellows). The players were encouraged to make sure this transition was quick when a turnover in possession occurred.
When coaching individual players in possession, I emphasise they have multiple factors to consider when deciding their position. As well as the immediate concerns of the ball location and their proximity to opponents, their position should also help to stretch the pitch and opposition when possible. Doing so opens up space through the centre, which makes it easier to play forward passes into the feet of the end player and score from third player movements. Being in a position to act as this third player also needed to be a consideration for players.
By rewarding passes to the end player from a team’s own half, it encouraged players to look for and execute longer passes forward from the back. In games, this will help them progress the ball up the pitch quickly and effectively. Playing to the furthest player (up the pitch) is particularly important in attacking transition, hence the additional reward for playing this pass within three touches of winning the ball. The team that has lost possession must react quickly and restrict the space, protecting the middle in order to try and prevent this and force a sideways pass. Doing so in a game and delaying a counter attack allows the team additional time to organise themselves properly, reducing the risk of conceding a goal.
Chris Summersell Variation
In his article about The Third Player Chris Summersell proposes a similar game, however with the end players locked in to and end zone (although allowed to move freely within it) and the goals pushed back from the edge of the pitch, as illustrated above.
The rules are also similar — the end player must set up the goal, with certain combinations being better rewarded than others. A one-two is worth one point, a third player scoring is worth two points and if the layoff to the third player and goal are both done first time, the goal is worth three points.
Summersell’s reasoning behind pushing the goals back is to better link it to the up-back-through combinations discussed earlier, with the pass into the mini-goal mirroring the forward pass to a 4th player. All three set ups have their merits, with more repetition of forward passes and third player movements when the end player is positioned between the goals on a tighter pitch. Pushing the goals further back and allowing more movement for the end player may lead to slightly less repetition but with added realism of a longer final pass. Moving the goals back could be a progression from the earlier practices, or an entirely different practice altogether.
Cam Meighan — Smaller attack vs defence
In his Kontzeptfussball Article Dynamic Space Occupation and 3rd Man runs Cam Meighan uses a small scale attack vs defence game to work on the concept of third player movement, having also used it to focus on playing to the furthest player.
Play starts with the Red team in a 3v3 vs the Blues in the middle zone and have a teammate in the target zone who is 1v2 against a keeper and goalkeeper. The Blues look to win the ball and score in the yellow end zone at the bottom of the pitch. The Reds look to score in the goal at the top, but cannot dribble into the target zone — the ball must be passed into a teammate. You can use the dashed line as an offside line, requiring the Reds to arrive in the end zone as the ball arrives, if you wish to make it more challenging for them.
The attacker in the target zone is limited to one or two touches, necessitating effective support play. The Reds will have to work hard to create a spare player in a tight 3v3, while the target player being marked adds a much greater challenge for them compared to the previous games above. They must time their movement well, arriving in a particular area as the ball arrives. This will often be through starting high and dropping in, but they have the freedom to pull the defender wide. If the target player makes a move to dis-mark the defender too early, the defender is able to react before the ball arrives and make the space they have moved in to very tight. However if the target player moves too late, they will still be tightly marked as they receive the ball, making the next pass more challenging. Both of these issues can be overcome by the target player using their body effectively to shield the ball and if the defender is tight to them in one area, it will leave another free.
I’d encourage you to read Meighan’s article, which includes a variation to this game, as well some great ideas about dynamic space occupation.
The smaller numbers allow more repetition of the principles for each individual player and to work this in to training sessions, I have had multiple games taking place at once, with two mini-goals used if I don’t have enough goalkeepers for each.
One variation I use with a keeper and with mini-goals is to make the target player a neutral, who either team could play to once they’ve made four consecutive passes in the middle-zone as shown below. This adds a little bit of freshness when repeating the game in more than one session, compared to taking it turns to attack the goal with the keeper, and I often get better engagement from the team attacking the goal compared to the team attacking to the end zone, especially when used with younger players. This can be to the detriment of the session, but is remedied when both teams have the possibility of attacking the goal at the same time. If both teams struggle to complete four passes, a neutral to support the team in possession could be added, or you can reduce the number of passes requited.
Meighan’s idea can also be linked with Chris Summersell’s practice, adding a defender to mark the target player in the end zone, taking it to a bigger scale. The end zones in Summersell’s practice should be extended as shown below, allowing the target player a more realistic space to move in and evade the defender.
Thomas Tuchel game
An emphasis on third player movement can still be planned into larger sided games, allowing it to be coached alongside game realistic pictures and pitch geography.
One session I use successfully was inspired by Chelsea’s final training session before the 2021 Champions League Final, conducted by Thomas Tuchel. Two teams play against each other with a third team acting as neutrals, with one in the middle and the rest around the outside. In the training session before the final, it is set up as a 7v7+9 excluding the keepers, with coaches used as neutrals on the outside to ensure the teams can rotate round while maintaining the 7v7+9.
The neutrals on the outside are limited to one touch, requiring quick third player movements to support them. Across the various videos of his sessions you can find on YouTube, he has used a range of pitch shapes for the same practice, but I have always preferred a hexagon, narrowing the pitch at each end and challenging players to attack towards goal. A slight difference to Tuchel, I prefer to use one player on the sides outside, rather than two, as shown above. Doing so challenges this player to be dynamic in their positioning, supporting play in both halves and basing their position of the players in the middle.
Having one player on each side, with a reasonable space to cover also implicitly encourages them to make diagonal runs into good positions for crosses and cutbacks. These could be on to diagonal passes from the centre, or straight through balls forwards. The neutrals on the outside may also be the third player, or even the fourth as part of an up-back-through combination, as shown below. In all of these situations, the passes should be weighted to allow a first time cross or pull back but at a minimum must allow the player to receive without breaking stride.
Players in the centre should be coached to arrive in the dangerous areas (marked as the red zone) in front of the goal as the ball arrives from the wide player — too early and they can be marked easily, too late and they will not reach the ball. Attackers should also look to make different movements, occupying as much of this red zone as possible. When conducting these sessions I often mark out this red zone with flat markers, as a visual reference for attackers, which can also be used as an additional reward. For example, goals in this red zone could count double, or the goal could equal the number of players in the red zone when the goals is scored (i.e. 3 players in red zone = 3 goals).
Professional team training game
When I had the opportunity to observe a professional team’s training for a week as mentioned above, they also used a larger sized game to work on third player movement. The game was played on half a pitch, split evenly into three, with conditions applied to the in-possession team for each.
- In the build-up third, players are limited to using a maximum of two touches
- In the middle third, players are limited to using a maximum of one touch
- If a player regains possession they can have an extra touch
- In the attacking third, players could use as many touches as they liked
They initially limited players to one touch in their build-up third, but quickly adapted it when it became too challenging. Coaches focused on the positives of when quick play using third player movement works when talking to the players, telling them to not get frustrated by mistakes that would naturally occur and highlighting successes with an emphasis that, when well executed, what the attacking team were doing was almost impossible to defend against.
Another coaching point that was repeatedly emphasised by coaches was that “the movement makes the pass”. This was part of the team’s ‘language’, so the players knew exactly what the coaches meant — for quick one-touch passes to work, good movement is required from both the passer and receiver. Passes are only the ‘right’ pass because the movement allows them to work.
When I use this game in my own training sessions, the only adaptation I make is to make the middle third slightly narrower, expanding the build up and attacking thirds. Keeping the conditions the same, players now had more space to use two or unlimited touches and less space where they were limited to one touch. I did this to make a highly challenging game slightly easier, as the level I coach at is lower than the professional standard of the session I observed.
Players can take a while to adapt to the conditions of the practice, leading to occasions where players take the last touch they are allowed to but without releasing the ball, requiring them to shield it for a teammate to come and collect. Reflecting on the session, one way to reduce how often this happens is to allow the player to take the extra touch but count it as a strike for their team, with three strikes counting as a goal for the opposition. The strikes idea within a training session is one I first saw from Mortiz Kossman and may allow the practice to flow better.
While mistakes led to frustration, much like the professional coaches, I try to reassure players, encouraging them to focus on the positives, one of which is the high tempo within the practice, especially in the build-up phase. With a conditioned game that implicitly requires an outcome such as a quick tempo, it is important that it is used as a reference when the conditions are removed, so that the effects are not undone. Without intervention, players who had previously been using two touches in the build-up phase may return to taking unnecessary touches, with nothing gained from the practice.
Pep Guardiola pattern
Although I don’t often use patterns of play in my own sessions — in my opinion it isn’t an effective use of limited training time — I do think it can be useful to see some of the movements the best teams are rehearsing. Most of them will use this kind of pattern either at the end of a training session or on a lighter, less physically demanding training day. If you have enough contact time with players, this may be something you choose to include within your training programme.
In this example from Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, they practice an up-back-through combination. The players start on four cones in a diamond, with two mannequins acting as an offside line, just outside the box.
The most advanced player, a striker or false nine, drops slightly to receive a pass and cushions it back for a teammate who has made an inwards, third player movement. The receiving teammate plays a through ball for the fourth player, making a run beyond the mannequins to strike at goal.
In unopposed practices, bad habits can often creep in due to the lack of defenders providing realistic pressure on the ball, so it is important to ensure players maintain high standards with the detail on their passes and first touches. In this drill, the weight of pass will be particularly important, allowing each player to play first time passes while also allowing the fourth player to receive the ball in stride behind the defensive line. By reducing the need for unnecessary touches, the move is able to take place as efficiently as possible, making it more effective when transferred in to a game. Timing of movement from players is also critical for this, arriving to receive each pass as the ball arrives.
You can watch the original video on Man City’s Youtube channel by clicking here:
Hopefully you have found some of these ideas for training third player movement useful, a topic I believe is incredibly important in the modern game and one that can be referenced at some point in almost every training session. The training ideas are best used as a reference to guide your own practice design, but it is important to try and put your own impression on them. This could be by adapting the format of the sessions or changing the coaching points you choose to focus on, so that they best suit the needs of your players and environment.
Karl Marius Aksum, 2v2x2+2, Twitter
Gonzalo Naya, Coaching: Up-Back-Through, Total Football Analysis
Chris Summersell, The Third Player, Konzeptfussball
Cam Meighan, Dynamic Space Occupation and 3rd Man Runs, Konzeptfussball
Thomas Tuchel, Training session before the Champions League Final, Youtube
Manchester City, Third Player Combination Finishing Drill, Youtube