Iván Militár, writer and coach, formerly of Barcelona’s international academy, explains the concept of wave attacks in this piece for FTF.
There is a phenomenon that can be observed mostly with teams that organize themselves through an associative and collective game idea. This phenomenon can be called “wave attacks” but can also be referred to it as “attacking in waves”. The ideology behind it is an important discussion regarding to tactical theory in football.
Defining and contextualizing wave attacks
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist who recognized and named flow, the concept about creativity and productivity, once said:
“The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.”
The video that inspired this article is a short clip from the Manchester City – Leicester City game from December 2021.
The idea is to attack relentlessly, while keeping a structure as a team that will allow to recover the ball quickly if the possession is lost. Once the ball is recovered, attacking again is eminent. This pulsating and repeating attacking behavior is “wave attacks”. This type of collective behavior can most often be observed in the beginning or the end of games, however, it can also be seen as the culmination of one team dominating the other.
Some might say that this phenomenon is not different from the discussion around the idea of counter-pressing. In my opinion, counter-pressing is an important idea, however, it lacks an overflowing context that includes the anticipatory structure allowing teams to proactively recover the ball, and the repeated behavior of switching phases from in to out of possession.
The phenomenon of wave attacks includes more.
About complexity in football
In “Complex Football”, written by Javier Mallo, the author references O’Connor and McDermott’s work from 1997 (title: The art of systems thinking): “Nobody would take apart a piano to look for its sound.”
The foundation of the wave attacks phenomenon comes from a specific interpretation of the game that is rooted in the idea of dynamic complexity. The idea of dynamic complexity is widely referred to something (i.e., weather, economy, sports teams, etc.) that has many unique parts that are constantly interacting with each other resulting in unexpected emergencies. Dynamic complexity reveals itself through interactions, interrelations, interdependencies, feedback-loops, and prioritizations, culminating in a higher quality and level of emergence greater than the sum of its parts.
In football, dynamic complexity can be observed through collective team behaviors and associative game ideas.
Dynamic complexity allowed certain thinkers of the game of football to revolutionize the way we now think, train, and analyze the game. In the 1950s, it was the Hungarians who perfected the associative game idea that concentrated on the interactions of teammates. Later, coaches and philosophers like Rinus Michels, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, and Johan Cruyff came up with their own interpretations of collective football. All these interpretations concentrated on connecting the parts of the game (players, positional units, and attacking and defending moments) to achieve something greater than the sum of the parts.
Dynamic complexity in football shows up in many ways. However, for the purpose of this writing, I use the phrase of dynamic complexity to paint the following context: analyzing football actions should not focus on fragmenting the moments of attacking and defending into separate units. In fact, analysis should highlight the connections between those moments as they are interconnected and interrelated.
Those moments are forever interacting with each other in the game. Everything that happens on the field has an impact on both moments at the same time. As such, every action that a team performs with the goal of overcoming the challenges proposed by the opponents must represent the idea of totality and dynamic complexity regarding those moments mentioned above. The reason is simple: to provide continuation for a team’s behavior on the field, and to avoid any “buffering” when switching between defending and attacking, there must be built-in ideas, methods, and principles that will connect those moments together.
Attacking in waves is one of those phenomena that builds a bridge to connect those dimensions, thus, providing a feeling of flow for the collective if performed effectively.
The desire for control
As it was mentioned above, the reason why concepts like wave attacks exist is to connect the different parts of the game to create a certain kind of wholeness that will be able to provide some degree of control within the game.
Defining control is an important discussion because it is connected to the topic of control-seeking by coaches. Javier Mallo says: “The capacity to have an absolute control of the situation is the desire of many coaches, (…), it is easier to have disciplined pupils rather than people who think of alternatives.”
Coaches exist on the sidelines with limited power to impact the game on the field. This feeling of lack of control creates an overwhelming desire for it. While control can never be fully achieved, the lust continues to grow among football coaches.
Majority of them battle this need with over-constraining and over-limiting the decision-making process of the players, and by conducting fitness tests and other measurable exhibitions in order to reach lower levels of complexity within the game. In other words: they battle the overwhelming complexity and randomness of the game with numbers, statistics, and direct demanding communication patterns. They also fight complexity with developing ways to improve attacking and defending phases separately, by inventing new formations, new training drills, and even speaking a new language.
The impact of this development is significant. Over the last two decades, the football industry grew and kept growing with analysts, scouts, big data departments, and even football specific laboratories. In tactical terms, the need for control emerged in the shape of highly organized teams with crystal clear models on how they want players to make decisions in the game.
The main school of thought that has stormed through the football industry that is aiming to reduce complexity and gain control is called Tactical Periodization. It is an idea that organizes one’s ideas about how the game should be played into the four moments of the game: attacking, defending, and transitions (to both directions).
I will not detail this idea now, but the reader can find great information about this concept here.
Even though Tactical Periodization revolutionized the way we think, train, and organize our ideas regarding to the game, it has some serious flaws from the perspective of the before-mentioned flow idea created by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
While Tactical Periodization offers answers to many organizational questions it also builds walls between the moments of the game, thus, fragmenting the greater whole into smaller parts. Moreso, the training methodology of Tactical Periodization trains the different moments in relative isolation which might comfort the need for control of the coaching staff, however, it will also enhance the occurrence of “buffering” in the game.
Note: the term “buffering” refers to the phenomenon, that can be observed when streaming TV shows. In football, I use the term to describe the moment when football teams are collectively confused about their current involvement in the game: “are we in the defending moment still or we are transitioning to attack already?”.
How can this occurrence of “buffering” be battled?
Pep Guardiola said this in an interview: “It’s a cycle. I believe that when you press high with great effect then you’ll always spend less time defending in deep areas. And when you play out with quality then the rest of play comes fluidly, in a natural way. If we make an 8 v 6 to play out from the back, even just asking our number 9 to drop a little then everything comes fluidly from there. It’s a consequence of the two zones of the pitch; high and deep. Of course, we have to defend, but it’s a lot less minutes defending in a game if we stick to our principles with the ball.”
Attacking and defending are often defined by the status of the possession of the ball. If a team is in possession, we usually describe their actions as attacking actions. If a team is out of possession, we usually describe their actions as defending actions.
While the status of the possession of the ball generally makes a decent indicator to discover a team’s true intentions, it can appear to be misleading as well. For example: playing against fantastic high-pressing teams, like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, completing passes in front of your own goal might just turn into an invitation for Manchester City to be on the front foot and create chances once the inevitable loss of possession happens for your team. Yes, your team might have had possession of the ball, yet the truly attacking team was the one without it.
With easier terms: if the ball is being moved (by you or the opponents) more and more away from your own goal, it is a positive development for your team, which could lead to higher level of control. However, if the ball is getting closer (by you or the opponents) and closer to your goal, it is increasingly dangerous for your team, hence you are getting out of control.
If one can break out from the limiting chains of fragmenting the game into defending and attacking, the game will appear to be different. From that point on, control would be defined in close relation to occupied territories and the forever changing location of the ball.
This is the central idea: neglecting the fragmented procedures of defending and attacking. If that is done, the next step is developing interrelating and interconnecting ideas. Those ideas will be key to improve the level of control within the game.
Once again: the phenomenon of wave attacks is an idea that cares little about defending and attacking separately but concentrates on associative movements between teammates. The goal is to keep the ball away from our goal and create chances to score in front of the opponent’s goal. It is a phenomenon that welcomes complexity and seeks control through collective behavior and self-organization.
The complex impact of wave attacks
The phenomenon of attacking in waves has a direct impact on all traditional departmentalized aspects of the game: mental, physical, tactical, and technical aspects. Also, it has an impact on all four moments of the game identified by Tactical Periodization (attacking, defending, transitions). However, the total impact on all these parts is the most important aspect of this concept.
The idea of wave attacks has a direct impact on the mental dimension of the team without the ball because the constant threat from the attacking team and the repeated quick losses of possession creates decreased levels of confidence, anxiety, and ultimately fear. In contrary, the team in possession experiences increased confidence, excitement, and intensified bravery if they are able to successfully attack again and again, create goalscoring chances, while not allowing the ball to leave the defending team’s half.
It has a direct impact on the physical side of the defending team’s behavior, too. In an interview with Albert Capellas, who is the current head coach of Barça B, he shared his opinion on this matter: “The ball is the one that orders you, but you have to bear in mind that the ball never gets tired; I’ve never seen a ball sweat.
Teams forced to play without the ball for longer periods tend to get tired easier than teams that have the ball for longer periods. For example, in the official Technical Report of the 2018 World Cup, data shows that teams with higher percentages in possession would run less compared to the average distances covered by all teams participating in the World Cup.
Also, attacking in waves influences the defending team’s technical dimension: it is more difficult to perform fundamental technical actions (passing, dribbling, receiving, etc.) in tighter areas as opposed to performing them in open space, away from opponents. In the observed video clip, Manchester City created an environment in which the team without the ball were forced to make technical mistakes instantly after gaining possession of the ball.
The behavior shown by the players of Guardiola can be described as such: Manchester City only defends on the opponent’s half, having players around the ball ready to intervene in and out of possession constantly, offering passing options to their teammate on the ball to progress towards the opposition’s goal, while in the same moment leaving very little space for individuals on the opposing team to perform specific technical movements if the ball is lost. This behavior allows longer periods of possession and builds a structure during those periods which will allow them to win the ball back as quickly as possible.
Furthermore, since teams in possession aim to occupy larger areas to spread the opponent out, those teams would naturally have more space and time to perform those technical actions successfully. Cruyff added to this in an interview by saying: “In small space a player has to be capable of acting quickly. A good player who needs too much time can suddenly become a poor player.”
Lastly, the defending team’s tactical dimension is also influenced by the impact of wave attacks. Teams who suffer and defend for extended periods in front of their own goal can only survive if occasionally they are able to propose threatening situations for the team in possession via counter-attacks. If the team in possession is able to quickly recover the lost ball and cut all options for the defending team to counter, tactically speaking, the defending team’s strategy is suffering while the attacking team’s strategy is thriving.
The idea of complexity reveals obvious connections between the different dimensions. Cruyff once said: “A ‘footballer’ has to run as little as possible, because the more tired he gets, the worse his technique will be.”
A team that cannot keep the ball for longer periods, cannot get closer to the opponent’s goal, and cannot reject the opponent’s plan to create chances against them will suffer mentally, physically, tactically, and technically all at the same time. Especially if these actions are repeating constantly and with increased intensity.
But what happens exactly when a team is trying to perform wave attacks?
Stephen Wolfram, a British-American computer scientist, theoretical physicist, and businessman once said: “I found that very simple rules, instead of producing fairly simple behavior, actually produce extremely complicated behavior. That is a piece of intuition that many people just haven’t got yet. When you see a complicated phenomenon in nature, your instinct is to try and make a complicated model to explain it. Somehow, nature itself does not need that. People don’t understand that there are really simple experiments that can tell you really interesting things about, for example, how biological systems can be constructed.”
In the 1992 Champions League final, FC Barcelona beat U. C. Sampdoria 1-0 following a long-range free kick goal from Ronald Koeman. But that score line does not tell the whole truth. In that game, FC Barcelona dominated their opponents and showcased mesmerizing possession-oriented actions. The team was coached by Johan Cruyff, and his team embodied Cruyffian football. This sequence is a great example for attacking in waves.
To understand the phenomenon that creates connections between the different parts of the greater whole, the understanding of the larger guiding principles is important. These guiding principles help teams distributing available spaces amongst themselves efficiently and self-organizing themselves according to location of the ball.
There are two main global ideas that help performing wave attacks.
- Circulation of the ball in order to achieve organized attacking structure.
A research project from 2020, written about synergic behavior of football teams found that the level of synchronization of players within a team increases if they go from having the ball to not having the ball in their possession. In other words: it is easier for teams to be organized without the ball.
This conclusion, that it is easier to create a defensive setup, in fact, it is easier to achieve a higher level of organization (synchronization) as a team without the ball led teams defaulting to play without the ball more often. This finding also makes it logical for coaches to design their game models concentrating on actions without the ball as opposed to actions on the ball. This behavior is highly understandable since coaches tend to put increased value on the levels of tactical organization. Additionally, based on empirical evidence, teams that are more organized usually win more games in the long run.
However, this research project does not discuss the correlation between winning and reaching a higher level of synchronization. Moreover, just because teams can achieve higher levels of synchronization without the ball, does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to reach high levels of synchronization with the ball, or that playing without the ball will lead to better results.
The conclusion (drawn based on the findings of the research project) that leads to more defensive football also neglects one of the most important truths of the game: there is only one ball, and the ultimate goal of the game is to move the ball into the opponent’s goal.
With all this in mind, aiming to reach high levels of synchronization while in possession of the ball is the highest goal a team can achieve. Additionally, teams should aim to achieve a high level of synchronization with the possession of the ball, with the conscious understanding that it is a much more difficult job compared to not having the ball at all. As a result, players must be brave and willing to take risks when they are in possession of the ball.
In order to be able to possess the ball for longer periods, optimal communication channels must be built between players to ensure proper ball circulation. Albert Puig, former director of FC Barcelona’s La Masia, compared the idea of ball circulation to the blood flow of the body:
“If we never stop the ball, if the blood never stops circulating, we will find the right vessel to reach that particular place and eventually move the ball forward. In order to move the ball, the players need to have additional concepts encoded in their DNA. They need the vessels. If they lack these additional concepts, it’s highly unlikely for them to be able to positionally play soccer.”
In the article, Puig explains those “vessels” among others: head up, body profile, and the free man. These ideas help to build a proper ball circulation process for the team in possession.
Ball circulation is a key step in order to perform wave attacks. Moving the ball between players should always have a purpose. In the case of wave attacks, the purpose for each pass made between teammates is double-edged: passes to provide time for the players to position themselves in a structured way and passes to find superiorities with the goal to progress towards the opponent’s goal.
- The constant evaluation of the distances of association between teammates depending on the location of the ball.
While players are circulating the ball seeking ways to organize themselves in a logical way and trying to move forward, players must adjust their distances to their teammates constantly. This is crucial, because this adjustment process will allow the team as a collective to decrease the available territories for the opponent if the ball is lost.
This is a highly demanding way of thinking for the players because they need to start thinking about their ideal positioning according to the location of the ball nonstop. It is a proactive idea, too, for the reason that players will be in good recovery positions even before the possession of the ball has been lost. Likewise, it is a complex idea as well: the same collective positioning that allows players to circulate the ball efficiently is the same positioning that allows players to recover the ball right away.
Example of wave attacks, provided by the Hungarian league champion from 2020, Ferencvárosi TC. The Hungarians were coached by Serhiy Rebrov, who managed to implement an effective and highly organized associative game idea, which helped his team to reach the Champions League group stage in 2020 after a 15-year hiatus for Hungarian football.
In furtherance of pursuing a collective game idea, coaches must find ways to step away from fragmentation and step closer to building bridges between the smaller pieces of the game. This construction can be done through larger and global ideas such as attacking in waves. Because of implementing such complex ideas can be stressful and doubt creating, players must be persuaded that this way is the best way to achieve their individual and collective goals. Persuasion requires bravery.
Pep Guardiola’s answer to a question regarding the success of attacking or defending behaviors. The entire article can be found here: 90 minutes with Pep Guardiola – Part 1 – Enemies, Bayern and Burnley Away – Cano Football
But bravery is not the only weapon battling against fear. Phenomena like wave attacks can also help inching closer to the ideal state of control while respecting the complex nature of the game. If teams can break down the barriers between “defending” and “attacking”, fragmenting will not be an issue anymore, and players will feel a higher level of freedom to express themselves on the field, free of the chains of formations, lines, positions, limiting principles and even more limiting sub-principles.
All in all, the phenomenon of attacking constantly, regaining the ball quickly, and not letting the opponent to rest with or without the ball has a direct impact on all dimensions of football. But again, the complex impact on the game is what matters the most.
The team that can have the possession of the ball for longer periods will have higher number of opportunities to accomplish complex ideas such as wave attacks. And, as it was discussed above, wave attacks can have large impacts on all dimensions of the game, opponents will be worn down and they will forfeit by exhaustion.
The feeling of exhaustion will show up as committed fouls, individual mistakes, penalties suffered, and an overall physical and mental fatigue at the end of the game. That is control.