About the Curriculum

Although football is a very difficult game for players to master, the essence of the game can be very simply expressed:

‘Two teams of 11 players try, within the rules of the game, to win by scoring at least one goal more than the opponent’.

In other words, the purpose of the game is trying to score goals when we have the ball and prevent the opponent from scoring when they have the ball.

Any game of football, regardless of formation or playing style, can be divided into 4 phases:

  1. Ball Possession (BP) : this is the phase when our team has the ball and we are attacking;

  2. Ball Possession Opponent (BPO) : this is the phase when the opponent has the ball and we are defending;

  3. Transition to defence (BP>BPO) : this is the phase when we lose the ball and must switch from attacking to defending;

  4. Transition to attack (BPO>BP) this is the phase when we win the ball back and switch from defending to attacking.

We call the above phases the ‘four main moments’

To read more on the FFA's Playing Philosophy, please see the headings below

'Proactive' or 'Reactive'?
'Possession-based' or 'Direct Play'?
Individual Skill and Combination Play
Counter Attacking
Mental Strength
Approach to Defending
Possession alone is not the key

‘Proactive’ or ‘reactive’?

There are many successful playing styles in world football. Some teams take defending as their starting point. Their first priority is not to concede goals and their playing style and team organisation is attuned to that. They allow the opponent to have a lot of possession and defend as a compact unit in their own half. When the opponent loses the ball in these tight areas, they try to strike on the counter attack. We call this a reactive playing style and some teams have been and still are very successful playing the game this way.

Other teams take attacking as the starting point and their first priority is to score goals.
Their playing style and team organisation is attuned to putting the opponent under so much pressure that they will make defensive mistakes and concede goals. These teams take the defensive risks of this playing style for granted, counting on the fact that they will always score more goals than they will concede. This proactive playing style is generally more attractive but also more difficult to apply successfully.

Between these two extremes there exist of course also many successful ‘hybrids’.

In defining FFA’s Football Philosophy and Playing Style we looked closely at the Australian mentality and psyche, both in general life and in sport. It’s obvious that a proactive playing style corresponds best with the Australian mentality: the fighting spirit of Australian teams and athletes is renowned all over the world and Australians always want to ‘go for it’.

‘After the World Cup in 2006, we decided to concentrate more on ball possession and
on initiating play. We set out to change our footballing culture and to move away from reactive play’

Joachim Löw, National Team Head Coach, Germany

‘Possession-based’ or ‘Direct Play’?

A proactive playing style can be applied in various ways.

One extreme is the possession-based style of football made famous by FC Barcelona.

The other extreme is ‘direct play’, which involves playing long passes from the back to the front, thereby taking the shortest route to the opponent’s goal. This version of ‘proactive football’ is the traditional approach to the game in Australia, perhaps because of the influence of the other Australian football codes.

  Direct Play
Dominating the game by controlling possession Putting the opponent under pressure by aiming long passes towards the strikers as quickly and as often as possible
Patient build-up Aerial and physical power to create scoring opportunities
Break down compact defences with individual skill and creative combination play 'Long ball - Second ball approach

Having expressed Australia’s natural preference for ‘proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’ football, we then had to decide which end of the above ‘proactive spectrum’ would be the wisest choice for our national technical direction: ‘possession-based’ or ‘direct play’?

In itself, there is nothing wrong with the more physical ‘direct play’ style of football, as historically some teams and countries have had a certain amount of success with it, but is it the right playing style for us to adopt if our aim is to challenge the best in the world?’

The English FA adopted a ‘Direct Play’ approach in the 80s and 90s, based on some statistics that showed most goals were scored following moves of 3 passes or less. If that was true, it was argued, then why bother with patient build-up and controlled possession? Why not simply launch continuous long passes towards the strikers, hope for the ‘second ball’, and then score in 3 passes or less?

This approach led to some short-term success for teams who adopted it (Wimbledon, Norway, Republic of Ireland) but did not lead to any real success for England at international level; in fact, one might suggest that the opposite has occurred.

Many have questioned the validity of the ‘3-pass rule’, as the data didn’t distinguish between three-pass moves resulting from long passes and those from winning the ball in the opposition half, set plays, etc. Obviously, many set plays or quick regains that led to 3-pass goals may have been gained after a multi-pass phase of possession.

It was also apparent from the data that at the higher levels of football, moves involving a higher number of passes are more successful.

The English have long since abandoned their ‘Direct Play’ policy, and those responsible for it have been accused of ‘poisoning the well’ of English football.

To gain further information on ‘possession-based’ versus ‘direct play’, we took a close look at the best in the world, using FIFA’s analysis of the 2010 World Cup, and the UEFA Technical Report on the Euro 2012 tournament.

FIFA’s expert analysis of the top three teams in South Africa in 2010 (Spain, Holland and Germany) was as follows:


Spain (1st)

Holland (2nd)

Germany (3rd)

Patient build-up play from the back through the midfield

Patient build-up play from the back through the midfield

Patient build-up play from the back through the midfield

Excellent passing game

Excellent passing game

Excellent passing game - Good options for the player in possession

Influential individual players (INIESTA, XAVI, VILLA)

Influential individual players (SNEIJDER, ROBBEN)

Influential individual players (SCHWEINSTEIGER, OEZIL, MUELLER)

Comfortable in possession when under pressure

Disciplined, well-organised defence

Disciplined, well-organised defence

Disciplined, well-organised defence

Dangerous at set pieces

Dangerous at set pieces

Immediate pressure after losing possession

Winning mentality

Winning mentality

Winning mentality

Good links between the team lines

Excellent team spirit

Good links between the team lines

Width of the pitch used well - wingers attack the goal, are able to cut in, good 1 v 1 situations

Width of the pitch used well - wingers attack the goal, are able to cut in, good 1 v 1 situations

Width of the pitch used well - wingers attack the goal, are able to cut in, good 1 v 1 situations

Midfield pressing

Rapid transition from defence to attack


Immediate pressure after losing possession

Effective use of full-backs

Individual Skill and Combination Play

In modern football, more and more teams are able to defend effectively, and most have the ability to form a ‘defensive block’ of eight or more players in a compact unit. Therefore, successful teams have had to develop exceptional ability in breaking down these defences.

A key factor in defeating the ‘block’ is creativity. Teams need to have skilful individuals who can ‘pick the lock’ and find a way through the tight defences. The top four teams at the 2010 World Cup all had more than one of these special ‘match winning’ players:

Match-winning Players – FIFA World Cup 2010


Xavi, Iniesta, Villa


Sneijder, Robben, Van Persie


Oezil, Mueller, Schweinsteiger


Forlan, Suarez, Cavani


As well as creative individuals, teams also need quick and clever combination play. This involves two or more players working together to produce unpredictable inter-passing and mobility in order to penetrate the ‘block’

These individual and combination qualities are also key points in UEFA’s analysis of the top four teams at Euro 2012. They are also mentioned in the reports on Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Holland, Russia and Sweden.

Australia must work to develop more players like these in order to improve performance.

Counter Attacking

What can also be deduced from World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, is that top teams need to have the ability to launch quick counterattacks. One can also observe the potent use of counterattacking in successful club teams such as Real Madrid. However, UEFA point out the ‘declining effectiveness of the counter’: in Euro 2008, 46% of the open play goals were from counters, but in Euro 2012 only 25% of goals from open play were derived from counters. This decline is also observed in the UEFA Champions League, where the percentage steadily fell to 27% in the 2011/12 season.

The evidence suggests that the ability to counterattack quickly and successfully is a ‘weapon’ that successful teams have at their disposal. Even ‘possession-based’ teams will look for the opportunity to do so when their opponent is disorganised or slow in transition.

We must ensure that this ‘weapon’ is also developed. The danger of over-stressing ‘possession and more possession’ is that players may not look for counterattacking opportunities, and if they do, may not be equipped to exploit them.

Mental Strength

In the UEFA report on Euro 2012, reference is made to a theory that ‘teams can be measured by their reactions to adversity.’ Asked to name the factors that can make a difference in a contest between evenly-matched teams, Gérard Houllier responded: ‘Heart, commitment and mental resilience.’

Croatia’s coach, Slaven Bilić, echoed this opinion. ‘We are not as strong mentally as teams like Germany or Italy. We need to improve this and we are working hard to do that.’

It is well-documented that Australia has always possessed this ‘never-say-die’ quality. Indeed, our National Team players themselves, in ‘The Way of the Socceroos’, singled it out as a major strength of Australian football. Whereas countries like Croatia apparently need to develop this attribute, it seems to be an in-built component in Australia. Therefore, we must ensure that we maintain this valuable asset of our players.

However, it should be stressed that ‘mental strength’ alone will not make us a world leader. It is a quality that supports good football, but it doesn’t replace it. Houllier’s words above define this ‘X Factor’ as something that will give an extra edge to one team, not as the only ingredient required for success.

UEFA’s analysis of the teams at Euro 2012 gives special mention of mental strengths when describing Poland and The Republic of Ireland.

POLAND: ‘Strong team ethic, fighting spirit and character’

IRELAND: ‘Energetic and highly competitive; mentally strong; never-say-die attitude’

Both these teams, however, finished at the bottom of their respective groups, highlighting the fact that these qualities alone are not sufficient to bring success.

Here, it is interesting to look at some of the main points of the analysis of Ireland at Euro 2012.

Ireland Euro 2012 (last place)

Defence well equipped to deal with long balls and high crosses

Frequent use of long passes

Good ‘second ball’ mentality

Emphasis on quick deliveries to classic twin strikers

Heroic defending: blocks, interceptions, tackles

Energetic and highly competitive; mentally strong; never-say-die attitude



Now consider the fact that Ireland played three matches, lost all three, scored one and conceded nine! What use is all that heroism and competitiveness when you finish bottom of your group? What use are all those long passes and a
‘well-equipped’ defence, if you rank 15th or 16th in all the key attacking statistics?

FIFA’s analysis of Australia at the 2010 World Cup consisted solely of the
following points:

Australia FIFA World Cup, 2010 (21st place)

Deep defensive block

Attacks using the width

Immediate pressure after losing possession

Strong, hard-working players



Clearly, we too are noted for our physical and mental qualities and must never lose this strength. It is also clear, however, that we must work to ensure that future analysis of Australia at major tournaments also includes more prominent mention of technical strengths and that our key statistics reveal a more successful attacking threat.

Approach to Defending

FFA’s philosophy is that it is preferable to be in possession of the ball as that will allow us to dictate what happens in the game. Obviously, if we have the ball then the opponent cannot score.

Logically, therefore, when we lose possession our objective is to get it back as soon as possible. This does not necessarily mean that we must continuously press the opponent high up the field and close to their goal. However, it does mean that we should defend in an intelligent manner, finding the best way to win the ball back according to the situation.

At Euro 2012, UEFA’s Technical Report states that the priority for most of the teams was to transition quickly into defensive positions. At the same time, though, their intention was to put pressure on the ball carrier.

It was noted, however, that whenever it was possible many teams would engage in collective high pressing, based not only on pressurising the ball carrier, but by using additional players to cut off the short-passing options. In this way, they were able to restrict the game within small areas, with the players on the far side pushing across towards the ball to complete a back-to-front and side-to-side squeezing operation.

This ability to high press was closely linked to an attacking philosophy: those teams who were prepared to push a larger number of players forward to join in the attack were the ones who had players in place to immediately exert high pressure and win the ball back quickly. By contrast, teams with a more ‘direct play’ approach,
using long passes from back third to front third, were less able to utilize a high-pressing game.

Spain, the Champions, often used the high-pressing practices of FC Barcelona, but like many of the teams at UEFA EURO 2012 did not attempt to sustain this high-intensity pressure for long periods.

The FIFA Technical Report from the 2010 World Cup also identified a trend towards ‘early pressing’. A link was suggested between this quick pressure and limiting opponents’ ability to counterattack.

There is no evidence from the last World Cup and most recent European Championship that ‘retreat defence’ is a tool used by leading football nations.
In other words, top teams do not seem to react to loss of possession by ignoring the ball carrier and immediately retreating to defensive positions deep in their own half to wait for the opponent.

FFA’s philosophical preference, then, for a ‘proactive’ style of defending seems to be matched by trends at the top level of the game, while also fitting perfectly with Australia’s traditional competitiveness and winning mentality.

Possession alone is not the key

Barcelona, one of the world’s leading club teams, appear to be the extreme in ‘possession-based football’, consistently averaging around 68% possession in the Champions League.

Spain, however, averaged 54% when they won Euro 2008, with only 48% in the Final; they averaged 59% at Euro 2012, and in the Final had 47% in the first half but thanks to Italy being a man down finished with a marginal 52%-48% advantage.

What is important to stress here is that we should not start an ‘obsession with possession’: the crucial point is this:

Possession alone is not the key

It is foolish to believe that all you need to do in order to win football matches is end up with a higher percentage of possession than your opponent. We are all aware of matches in which the winning team’s possession statistics are inferior to those of their beaten opponents.

At Euro 2012, Russia and Holland averaged 56% of the possession in their three games, but went home after the Group Stage. England, despite only 36% (25% during extra-time) against Italy, could have won the quarter-final shootout.

Possession is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end. What is the point in keeping possession in your own half for minutes on end, if there is no end product? The only statistic that matters is the scoreline!

What appears to be the difference with the really successful teams is how possession leads to scoring chances.

The Euro 2012 report puts it this way:

‘As in the UEFA Champions League, the challenge was to translate possession and inter-passing into a positive attacking game’


When one looks closely at the statistics from Euro 2012, one finds an interesting point: a key difference between the top teams and those eliminated in the Group Stage is the number of passes made in the attacking third of the pitch (and successful completion of those passes).

Spain, Italy and Germany had 50% more passes in the attacking third on average than those eliminated. 

Spain averaged 217 passes in the attacking third (80% successful), Germany 200 (80% successful) and Italy 135 (70% successful).

In comparison, Ireland averaged 90 passes in the attacking third, with around 54% success.

These ‘successful passes in the attacking third’ figures also translate to the real measure of effective football: shots on goal and shots on target:

Spain, Italy and Germany = >25% more shots on goal on average than those eliminated.

Spain, Italy and Germany = almost 60% more shots on target on average than those eliminated.

Recent data from the English Premier League supports this evidence.


The Top 4 EPL teams were approximately 40% better than the teams
placed 9th-20th


The Top 8 EPL teams were approximately 25% better than the teams placed 9th-20th (a reflection of significantly higher ‘successful penalty area entries’)


The Top 8 EPL teams were approximately 40% better on average than the teams placed 9th-20th (a reflection of the two points above)

The evidence therefore leads us to believe that the ‘possession-based’ end of the spectrum is the wisest choice.

However, the emphasis must be on EFFECTIVE possession.