After this module we’ll spend some time looking at different aspects of a playing philosophy, like attacking, defending and set pieces. But before we do this, we’re going to focus on three great examples of how a well-defined playing philosophy can benefit a team or club.

Jesse Marsch

In 2015 Jesse Marsch was hired by New York Red Bull in Major League Soccer. Known for their high pressing style of play which looks to force turnovers and take advantage of transition moments, Marsch’s Red Bull team won the league in his first year in charge as he was named MLS Coach of the Year.

After arguably the most successful period in club history, Marsch was hired by parent club Red Bull Leipzig as the Assistant Coach, joining former star player Tyler Adams who developed under Marsch in New York before being sold.

Marsch went on to become Head Coach of RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig before replacing Marcelo Bielsa as Head Coach of Leeds United in the Premier League.

During his time at New York, Marsch delivered a presentation on on the Red Bull style of play throughout he club. He explains how it benefited the academy and eventually the first team. When Marsch joined Leeds he immediately hired his Performance Analyst Ewan Sharp, who spoke with us during his time in New York.

Man City

Similar to the Red Bull Group who own multiple clubs around the world, Man City are the parent club of ‘City Football Group’. Among commercial and other financial benefits, the group looks to develop a near-identical style of play through their clubs and benefit from being able to move players between them.

Matt Pilkington was formerly the Head of Academy for New York City FC, before becoming Head Coach for their U23 development team. In the first video included here, he spoke with us about their playing philosophy. The second video offers an insight into the inner workings of the Analysis Department at Manchester City, as well as how it benefits their younger players.

Philadelphia Union

In late 2015 the Philadelphia hired General Manager Earnie Stewart. His task was to restructure and improve the club which had traditionally struggled in Major League Soccer.

Rather than the ‘explosive’ immediate impact Jesse Marsch had on the Red Bulls, the Union project was more of a ‘slow burn’. They focused on implementing a long-term & club-wide style of play which is now beginning to come to fruition.

Stewart left the Union to become Sporting Director for the USA National Team, and was replaced by Ernst Tanner, who is a contributor to many of the APFA courses we offer. Since Tanner took charge, no team has won more points in MLS.

The Union won the league in 2020 and are now consistently in the top few places in the table. On top of this, their salary budget and transfer spend is among the lowest in the league, meaning they are the most cost-effective and efficiently run club in MLS.

They also develop a large number of homegrown academy products including Brenden Aaronson who ironically, was sold to Red Bull Salzburg before joining Jesse Marsch at Leeds.

Throughout this period, Head Coach Jim Curtain has remained in his role and is widely regarded as one of the best in Major League Soccer. Curtain also features heavily on our APFA courses and has won the MLS Coach Of The Year award twice.

The task for the two playing philosophy modules is to describe your personal playing philosophy. How would you like your team to play and why?

Some things to consider:

Are we one of a number of coaches in a club? If so, does our club have a defined playing style we’re supposed to be working towards?
Is there a certain style or philosophy that’s more suited to our league or competition?
What are our overall goals? Player development may require a different style of play compared to a results-based team.
What limitations may define our style? Player age, technical ability, tactical understanding etc.

Use the comments section below to interact with other coaches and share thoughts and add your playing philosophy to your coursework booklet. 


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  1. Are we one of a number of coaches in a club? If so, does our club have a defined playing style we’re supposed to be working towards?
    Our playing style has been there for years but is not fully defined. Still a work in progress.
    Is there a certain style or philosophy that’s more suited to our league or competition?
    not that I know of
    What are our overall goals? Player development may require a different style of play compared to a results-based team.
    More towards player development.
    What limitations may define our style? Player age, technical ability, tactical understanding
    technical and tactical elements definitely, but the main issue is lack of consistent training from the players.

  2. Our playing style is to keep possession as much as possible build from the back rotate the ball from one side to the other while trying to play quick through balls behind the opposition defense to try and create a 1v1 situations of our strikers against the opposition defense, this philosophy is informed by the nature of our players who are small in structure in South Africa and who are very talented with the ball on their feet and who are also quick. when we lose possession we press quickly to win the ball back as soon as possible.
    our limitation will be conceding set pieces, because our players are small they will always find it difficult to defend set pieces especially against tall and well build players, hence we try to keep the ball as much as possible to avoid 50/50 challenges. this should be our approach to all the teams because they are also small in structure.

  3. – Defending own field: the team has control of the space to cover passing lines. Middle block position with an eye on the back space.
    – TDA: win the ball and find the closer player to keep to pass and keep moving the ball forward.
    – Pressing opposition field: make sure to mark the receiver player to disrupt the build up.
    – TAD: back to positions to cover spaces.
    – Progression/ final third: fast combinations of passing direct to goal.

  4. -# of coaches/defined style – I am fortunate to work with a club who has a Director of Soccer with a very clear vision and detailed game model. Like discussed in the previous two modules, it gives me a clear idea of what my goals are.

    In possession, my directive is clear – we want technical players who are brave on the ball and always looking to play forward when the opportunity presents. This requires a good understanding of our principles at a player level to recognize these opportunities, or be patient when they are not present. As well, we want players who can be creative in any situation – ideally we don’t present prescribed solutions, but tools to solve the problems. Outplaying and individual freedom is important, especially in the youngest age groups. I coach across a variety of age groups, so I must use different techniques and levels of detail to teach these principles, but it is always clear what my goal is, and always focused on the same general outcomes across ages and genders.

    Out of possession, we want to be aggressive in winning the ball back, but from an organized base. From a young age we push the ideas of press-cover-balance, and that we must work in groups and never press alone. Again, while details may change, the general desired outcomes are universal throughout the club.

    In defensive transition, we want to prevent the opposition from quickly countering (delay), and achieve a solid base from which to press in an organized and aggressive manner. In attacking transition, we want players that are intelligent and recognize weaknesses in the opponent. Attack quickly if we can, but if the conditions are not there, secure the ball and look to find a route forward as quickly as possible.

    Overall goals – Our club is an amateur club that is geared towards producing University-level players. Therefore, tactical flexibility is paramount, as the end goal is not to produce players for our own senior team, but players who can function in a variety of systems to maximize their chances of a scholarship. While our principles are universal, our coaches are generally free to implement them in a variety of systems so as not to type-cast, so to speak.

    Limitations – There is a wide variety across levels in both ability and commitment. It is important to adapt this and make sure that understanding is present at all levels. We as coaches and analysts must be flexible in how we implement our principles. Again, methods should change, not principles. It is personally important to me that we work just as hard with 2nd/3rd squad players as first, ESPECIALLY at younger ages, as development is not linear, and there could be Uni/Pro level players in any given team at our club if we can find the right way to develop and motivate them.

  5. Attack with high intensity, moving the ball quickly and directly towards the opposition’s goal, with backwards passing acting as an insurance only. Objective is keep the play in the opposition’s half and to create goal-scoring opportunities as quickly as possible through attempting penetrative passes, dribbles and movement. Maintaining intensity to counter press and keeping the play confined to half pitch.