Coaching through-balls and runs in behind: training ideas

Patrick McLaughlin
12 min readJun 11, 2023

Making runs in behind can be a thankless task for attacking players, with through balls only succeeding about 40% of the time. This doesn’t take into account how often they are or are not attempted. Continuing to make these runs can however be extremely rewarding, leading to clear cut opportunities to score when they succeed and disrupting the defensive setup when they don’t. Players should therefore be coached how to make these runs effectively.

When executed successfully, a well-timed run and pass in behind the opposition can put the receiving player in a 1v1 situation with the goalkeeper. Even when the pass is not played, the run in behind challenges the defensive line, forcing them to decide between holding firm or dropping to follow the runner.

If they choose to drop off, space is created between the lines, which the runner’s teammates may be able to exploit. If one defender drops off but the other don’t, the defensive line will become disjointed, creating holes to be exploited by other attackers.

I am going to focus on how to coach runs in behind, but there are various articles out there that go into further detail about their merits. I found Chris Summersell’s The Art of Running in Behind particularly good.

John Muller also has an interesting article on the idea, Throughballs!, in which he analyses the factors that make through-balls (and therefore runs in behind) more likely to be successful. These finding are important to consider when designing a practice. If we want to coach the topic effectively, we must try to teach ideas that will translate positively to a game scenario. I would highly recommend reading the full article, but Muller’s key findings are as follows:

Successful through-balls are either “very early or very late in the possession”

Through-balls very early — the first couple of seconds of the possession — are most effective, as they are played before the defensive team has time or organise. Once the defensive team has organised themselves, the success rate drops dramatically, as they are better prepared to defend a through-ball. The success rate of through-balls gradually improves the longer the possession goes on, as the in-possession team patiently tries to disrupt the opposition defence.

As Muller points out, the increased success rate over the time of possession is likely in part due to the fact that team’s that retain possession for over a minute tend to be really good.

Nevertheless, this is an important coaching point to recognise: if a team is unable to play in behind the defence quickly after the winning the ball, they should recycle it and look to build possession patiently. There are various ways to attempt to disrupt the opposition’s back line from here, which could be through quick combinations and third player movement or a striker dropping in and dragging a defender with them.

Successful through-balls are “set up by a short forward carry or sideways pass”

The immediate actions before the most successful through-balls are a short dribble or receiving a sideways pass, as these give the player passing the ball the best view of the pitch. The player passing through-ball needs to be able to see his teammates and the defenders, in order to choose the right moment to release the bal. This is much harder to do when having to turn as they receive.

Muller notes that sideways passes that travel across defenders also force them to turn, potentially taking their eyes off the attacker at the crucial moment, which makes the run in behind much harder to defend.

Although this idea may not always translate directly into our practice design, it highlights an important coaching point of body orientation, making sure players are positioning themselves to see as much of the pitch as possible.

Through-balls angled away from goal are more effective

As Muller explains with a visual, through-balls that deviate from the imaginary line connecting the ball to the centre of the goal are more likely to lead to a goal. As Muller notes, this is because defenders normally try to position themselves on this line — blocking the quickest route to the goal.

I would also add to this that passes that stick to this line can be much more likely to be swept up by the goalkeeper, who will inevitably be standing between the ball and the goal. Through-balls off this line will create more doubt for the goalkeeper about how far they should stray from their goal, or if they should stick to their position.

Again, this may not feed directly into practice design, but is an important coaching point for players to consider the angles of their through-balls.

Main coaching points

As well as those that arose in Muller’s article, there are few coaching points that can be repeated throughout the practices outlined below. I will highlight those that are particularly emphasised.

Timing of runs

As with many aspects of football, timing is everything. A run in behind should only be made when the player on the ball (or about to receive it) is in a position to immediately play a through-ball. If they are unable to, the player making the run will not receive the ball. On top of this the defenders are unlikely to be disrupted by the run as it is not a credible threat.

Blind-side run

As Chris Summersell discusses, there are several types of runs in behind, but a key component of almost all of them is making a run off the ‘blind-side’ of the defender. One of the earliest things I can remember a coach telling me as a kid was to try and see the number on the back of the defender’s shirt and this still rings true today. If an attacker is standing behind a defender facing the ball, the defender is unable to track the ball and the attacker at the same time. This provides a major advantage to the attacking team. Starting from this position allows a runner in behind to have already started their movement by the time the defender realises and reacts.

To help illustrate the advantage that this momentum can have, picture sitting at a set of traffic lights. If you are in a Ferrari, stationary at the lights, and I arrive in my Hyundai i20 just as the light turns green, I’m going to beat you off the line every single time.

Coaching players to curve their runs on a defender’s blind-side will allow them to gain this momentum and make it easier for them to accelerate once the ball is played.

Weight of pass

Although it almost goes without saying, the weight of pass is crucial when it comes to through-balls. Over-hit and the ball will run through to the keeper, under-hit and it will be cut out by the defender or require the runner to slow down and be caught by the defender themselves.

The pass should allow the runner to control the ball cleanly, without breaking stride, making their movement towards goal as efficient as possible.

Defensive line

Any time you are coaching an attacking principle, there will always be defensive coaching points that arise. It is important to cover these, in order to provide the best possible challenge for the attacking players. You do not want the attackers to succeed making runs in behind simply because the defenders were poorly or ineffectually organised, as this will not prepare them for stronger competition.

One of the most important defensive coaching points that will arise when coaching runs in behind is when the defensive line should drop and when it should step up the pitch. There are two key points for the defensive line to consider when deciding and communicating this: is there the threat of a runner in behind? And is there defensive pressure on the ball? If there is a threat in behind and no pressure on the ball the defensive line will need to drop. Conversely, if there is pressure on the ball and no threat in behind, the defensive line can push up.

There is an excellent YouTube video of a Future Game Live Session delivered by Dick Bate that covers this and is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

Coaching practices

Possession game

Rules

- 4v4+3
- Blues vs Yellows with neutral players (Reds) supporting the team in possession
- Both teams occupy one half of the pitch, divided by the dashed halfway line, with the in-possession team looking to switch play across to the other.
- The out of possession team looks to win possession and do the same

To switch play, the in-possession team must play a through-ball into the other half, received by a teammate making a run from the original half as shown above. Once they have done this, the rest of the players switch across to the new half, including the neutrals, with the initial receiver requiring quick support in order to retain possession.

The halfway line acts as an offside line, so the player receiving the pass cannot be in the other half when the pass is played and must therefore time their movement effectively.

Teams can only play this switch through-ball again once all of their teammates have transferred across to the other half. The out of possession should shift across quickly and organise themselves to try to prevent a through-ball being played.

Teams receive one point every time they switch play to the other half successfully.

This is an effective practice to work on the idea of runs in behind and through-balls with smaller numbers and a significant overload in possession. This means players have a lot of repetition passing and receiving through-balls, enabling them to work on the timing of movements and their weight of pass.

Breakout game

This game allows players to build on the idea of runs in behind in a more game-realistic scenario, with a full-size goal and goalkeeper at one end and neutrals on the outside supporting the team in possession. The pitch is split into two-zones, separated by the dashed halfway line above. Teams occupy the one further out from goal and look to break over the line to try and score. The halfway line also acts as an offside line, with normal offside rules applying beyond it.

The game starts with the Blues looking to ‘break out’ towards the goal and the Yellows attacking the two mini-goals at the other end. If the Yellows score in the mini-goals, the roles swap and the Yellows now become the team trying to break out.

Once a team has successfully broken out, the game now covers the full field, but defenders are not allowed to drop over the line until the pass has been played. You may choose to limit the number of defenders who are allowed to enter the second zone, to allow the attacking team an overload in this area. I prefer to keep this free, as it challenges the attackers more, requiring them to either play a pass that creates a 1v1 situation or quickly support the runner in behind.

Only goals scored in the full-size goal count towards the score of the game. This implicitly presents the opportunity to run in behind as a reward as it is the only way to impact the score.

End-zone game

Rules

- 6v6, the game is played left to right, with each team attacking towards one red end-zone each
- Players look to dribble into or receive a through-ball in the end zone
- As with the previous practice, the dashed line again acts as an offside line

Scoring

- Dribble into the end-zone = 1 pt
- Receive a through-ball in the end-zone = 3pts

This is a very simple practice which is widely used to help players work on making runs in behind, with the end zones providing a clear picture for where players should attack into. The depth of these end-zones will dictate how precise players will have to be with the weight of their through-balls, with a deeper zone providing more margin for error.

You may also choose to require players to only score via through-balls to really focus on this aspect, however I believe that giving the option to dribble in makes the practice more realistic to a game. The additional reward should still mean players look to pass in anyway.

Players should be allowed to enter the end zone even when they do not receive a pass, as the run may disrupt the opposition’s defensive line, which is something that should be encouraged.

Diagonal Variation

As John Muller’s findings showed, the most effective through balls do not travel directly towards goal but are instead played at an angle. Adding a vertical halfway line (red), allows for conditions to be added to support this.

Keeping the rules from above, the scoring can be adapted, so that a team receives 3 points if the pass or run into the end zone crosses the red central line. Any other kind of through-ball into the end zone receives two points while teams still receive one point for dribbling in.

The attacking team should now look to pair diagonal runs with straight passes or straight passes with diagonal runs, using the red central line as a reference. When transferred to a game scenario, this will help their runs and through-balls be more effective.

Half-space Variation

This is probably my favourite variation of the end-zone games, which rewards successful through-balls passed from half-spaces, which are highlighted by the red lines above. Through-balls from this area can equal three points, with other through balls being worth two and dribbling in still being worth one.

Half-spaces provide a lot of value, as discussed by Rene Maric in his article The Half-Spaces, which is largely due to the field of view players when occupying them. This links very closely to what John Muller found when researching successful through-balls, which are often set up by short sideways passes.

With the rewards in place for passing from these areas, players will implicitly occupy them more often. Once they have done this, their teammates should look to find them with the ball, which will frequently be through a short sideways pass as shown above. This should lead to more effective through-balls, making this practice a good way to help players understand this concept.

Another possible condition to help coach effective through-balls is to award double points if the through-ball is the first pass played after regaining possession. This follows Muller’s findings that successful through-balls are very early or very late in the possession, so players should be coached to look for these opportunities before the opposition have a chance to organise.

End zones and goals

Scoring

- Successful through-ball into the red-zone = 1pt
- Additional 3pts if the through-ball leads to a goal
- Score after dribbling into the red-zone = 2 pts

Adding goals and goalkeepers to the end-zone practice will make it a lot more realistic to the game, but a lot more challenging. The end-zones should be extended, to account for the fact that the goalkeeper can now sweep up poorly angled or weighted through-balls.

In the example above, the end-zones are approximately 24m long, with the central zone being approximately 40m long and the whole pitch being 45m wide. If players find what is quite a small window too challenging, the end-zones should be extended so they have a larger space to attack.

Players should be encouraged to remain in the central zone, as they would not often drop much deeper than this in a game in open play. Defenders are however allowed to track, and cover runs into the end-zone as they happen. As discussed previously, if the pass is not played this will create space to exploit between the lines.

Conclusion

Hopefully you have found some of these considerations for coaching through-balls and runs in behind useful. The smaller games are an effective way to introduce the idea to players, with a lot of repetition provided. From there, you can tailor a typical end-zone game so that it best suits the needs of your players and environment, adjusting the coaching points you are able to draw from it.

References

Chris Summersell, The Art of Running in Behind, Medium
John Muller, Throughballs!, Spacespacespaceletter
Dick Bate, Future Game Live Session, Youtube
Rene Maric, The Half-Spaces, Spielverlagerung

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