In recent years many of the most successful football teams have adopted an attacking style based on quick passing, interchanging of positions and defending through pressing their opponents high up the pitch. The recent World Cup in Brazil highlighted this trend. This way of playing was introduced in futsal a few years before it was seen in football. So why are many of the most successful football teams employing tactics that are used commonly in futsal and why do they lag behind the small sided game? Here I take a look.

The most extreme example of this intricate passing and high pressing style is known as tiki-taka and was famously used by the Barcelona side led by Pep Guardiola. In four years at the club he won an incredible 14 trophies including two Champions Leagues as Barcelona dominated at club level. This success spread to the Spanish national team which included many Barcelona players, winning 3 major tournaments consecutively including the 2010 World Cup. Guardiola is now repeating this success with Bayern Munich and several of their players represented Germany during their 2014 World Cup victory.

Guardiola's tactical strategies have spread across football

Guardiola’s tactical strategies have spread across football

In attack Guardiola’s teams employ a short passing style that is founded on several principles. It requires that players provide constant support to the ball carrier through creating triangles, and circulating the ball rapidly to attack the weak side of the defence where they are less compact. His players search for the space between the opponent’s defensive lines to cause confusion in the defensive marking responsibilities.

Another feature is he frequently played without a striker to entice the defence to come forward and leave the space in behind. Legendary Brazilian coach Zego used the same principles when he created the 4-0 system in futsal in the 1990s. His teams employed rapid ball circulation and constant movement off the ball to take advantage of that space, something the Barcelona and Spanish teams have noticeably lacked recently as their performances have deteriorated.

Legendary coach Zego

Legendary coach Zego

It is not just Guardiola’s teams that are borrowing elements from futsal. We can now see that most players have to be able to be effective in all parts of the field when their team has possession and when they don’t. Neither a defender nor a striker can be a specialist and both must participate in both phases of play. In futsal this has been the case for more than a decade where players continually rotate positions and thus anyone can equally find themselves as the player highest on the court or the furthest back.

The need to be a complete player has even reached the position of the goalkeeper. In futsal the goalkeeper’s distribution is vital to the team’s attacking prowess but also key as the last line of defence, requiring the ability to come out of their area to cover the free space behind the defence. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil we saw Germany and Bayern’s Neuer taking a similar role, most notably in the last-16 tie against Algeria. It was not just him with many other goalkeepers performing all-encompassing roles, such as Holland’s Cillessen who helped his team keep possession when they were being pressed. The World Cup had many other examples of skills more commonly seen in futsal. Both Oscar and Fernandinho scoring goals with their toe, previously considered bad technique in football but useful in futsal where time is of the essence. Many players used the sole of the foot to have close control of the ball when an opponent was near.

Oscar scores with a toe poke at the World Cup

Oscar scores with a toe poke at the World Cup

So the question arises as to why we are seeing this trend. My theory is that sports science and training methods are continually evolving, meaning the players’ fitness is better than ever and they can cover more ground. In addition tactical competency is always developing resulting in better organised defences. Whether teams elect to press high up the pitch or drop deep, the defensive systems are designed to keep the spacing between the defenders minimal and the defensive lines close. The outcome of these developments is there is less space in football for the attack.

Football and futsal are games based on the concept of space. In attack the objective is to create space and in defence you attempt to deny it. Space allows you time to decide what to do and then execute your chosen action. In futsal we are masters of thriving in reduced space. It is our natural habitat and we have developed the resources to be effective in this hostile environment. As space continues to reduce in football (and this trend is being replicated in futsal as well) they have had to apply the same principles.

If you think of any of the world’s best footballers they are always very good at playing in tight areas. Futsal will always be ahead of football in dealing with reduced space due to the smaller pitch dimensions, hence the fact football technique and tactics lag those applied in football. One of the key requirements to developing this ability to be effective in reduced space is an appropriate training methodology.

The most successful training methodology has been the Spanish philosophy, adapted from Holland’s model. This is the use of the simplified games in reduced space, rather than unopposed drills, which challenge the players’ decision making and perception in addition to technical and tactical capabilities. This has helped bring success for the Spanish futsal team and Guardiola who implements this philosophy. Further, this is backed up by research which has demonstrated that this is the best way to train, not only in football but all sports (Search TGFU or Game Sense approach for more).

It is already well-known that youth futsal teaches skills that can be useful in football (not forgetting that futsal has it’s own attractive career pathways for youth players) but futsal at the elite level can also be useful for the game of football. In the 5-a-side game tactics are designed for the environment of reduced space, characteristic of the sport. With space becoming more scarce in football, futsal can be a source of ideas for becoming more effective in the modern 11-a-side game.

If you are interested in the links between futsal and football I have previously wrote articles on the relationship between the two and the 4-6-0 formation used in football. Click the links to read them.

Please feel free to add your comments and opinions below.


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  1. Steve Harris

    As always, thought-provoking and enlightening stuff, Doug!

    Both games are evolving in the same direction in that players' skill and fitness levels continue to make the pitch smaller, so I think that the developments in both futsal and soccer are and will continue to inevitably be similar.

    It might be more accurate to liken futsal's 4-0 system to the pressing football that Germany played in the World Cup (high back line, high press, emphasis on possession through quick passing and combinations, the exploitation of space, and finishing in the box) in that the objective is to shrink the pitch when in attack and to find a scoring opportunities either through individual initiative or quick combinations. And obviously futsal has always encouraged individual initiative and quick combinations, so it's natural to look to futsal as being a step ahead of the outdoor game in this regard.

    Having said that, I personally would steer clear of references to the toe-poke and sole-trap as the futsal-ization of soccer, as these techniques have always been used in the outdoor game (and it's no coincidence that they are often employed by Brazilian players).

    Ironically, I think that the most futsal-like attacking game was demonstrated by Germany in their 7-1 demolition of Brazil. Muller's first goal – a direct volley on a corner – was a trick play straight out of the futsal style book (nice block on David Luiz by Klose). And recall the way Muller back-heeled to Klose in the box for the second goal. Goal #3 is Lahm looking for the "segundo palo," which ends up being Kroos by virtue of a dummy through by Muller (although he may have just missed the shot by accident). Goal #4 is Kroos applying the high-press, winning the ball and then one-two-ing with Khedira in the box. Goal #5 is the defender Hummels running the ball forward and Ozil cutting it back to Khedira so that the latter first-times it home in the box – segundo palo once again. Goal #6: Lahm squares to Schurrle in the box for yet another first-timed segundo palo. And the seventh and final goal by Germany is classic 11-a-side and in the box by virtue of a nice cross by Howedes to Schurrle, who traps and finishes brilliantly. And maybe it was no coincidence that goal #7 was a preview to the Goetze goal that won the final for Germany?

    So, in short, the team that grew up on futsal was demolished futsal style by the team consisting of players who have probably never ever played futsal competitively. And when I say "futsal style" I mean that Germany took their attack into the Brazil penalty area to produce goals. That more than anything else is a futsal style attack.

    The parallels to futsal can also be seen in the role of the goalkeeper this tournament, as many GKs had to distribute and even feint their way around pressing forwards. I was not surprised to see tournament standout Navas practicing by having tennis balls hit to him, as we know that method has been employed in Spain for some time now.

    So keep the dialogue about futsal vs. soccer going! There is plenty of food for thought.

  2. Doug Reed

    Thanks for the comment Steve. Very interesting.

    I definitely had Germany in mind when writing the article and mentioned the influence of Pep Guardiola's style on them.

    I am not saying that anyone has learned these skills and tactics necessarily from futsal or there is a futsalization of football but that they have similarities because space is becoming limited in the 11-a-side game. Though I have heard it I am not even sure that Pep Guardiola based any of his tactics from what he has seen in futsal.

    Techniques and tactics commonly seen in futsal are not designed or developed because we want to be unique but because these are the most effective in our environment where space is at a premium. As space reduces in the 11-a-side game then we see things reminiscent of those used in futsal. The point I am trying to is that to be successful now in football you need to be able to play in tight spaces as defences have reduced the space available and futsal offers examples of how to do this.

  3. Steve Harris

    Might be better to reference Joachim Loew. "When asked if Germany's quick-passing style was inspired by Spain's celebrated tiki-taka, Loew replied: 'I don't really know. For the last few years we have been developing our own style.'" I would tend to assume that the trend in football is guided by the shrinking pitch – hence the similarity to futsal. As I said in my comment above, futsal does provide insights into how to deal with faster play and a smaller area to play in, but the two games have their own defining characteristics that may or may not be identical.

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