The Principles of Play: TCM's vital new content series

The Principles of Play are perhaps the most fundamental components of a coach’s understanding of the game, yet we find ourselves in a situation where many do not learn about them until far too late in their educational journey.

Jul 6th 2022

Written by The Coaching Manual

We’re taking a unique approach with the new series of content we are releasing on The Coaching Manual. Rather than focusing on age-appropriate education, specific themes or tactics, we are releasing a series which we believe is vital to any coach regardless of the age or ability of their players, or their own individual philosophy towards the game.

We are focusing on helping coaches to develop a deep knowledge of the principles of play and pass that knowledge on to players.

During the vast research project we undertook during the last 5 years to understand what level of knowledge coaches had of the principles of play, it became very apparent that Level 1 Coaches in the USA and Europe had almost no clear understanding of the principles of play. Level 2 had, at best, rudimentary knowledge and even many level 3 Coaches have serious gaps in their knowledge. It’s not until coaches are taking professional qualifications that their knowledge of - and ability to teach - the principles becomes well established

On the flip side, most coaches have a good level of understanding of tactics and formations, especially those tactics made fashionable by successful managers like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.

The issue is that Klopp and Guardiola both apply their tactical approach on a solid foundation of how the principles of play are applied. Guardiola has said this on many occasions. For these coaches, the principles come first, the tactics second.

Therefore, it’s concerning that the majority of coaches who are teaching the game are doing so without this foundation and the risk is that young players are not actually learning the game, they are just learning about tactics.

This has serious implications for players when they get to 13 and start playing 11 a side football, because suddenly they feel like they are playing a game they don’t understand. The consequence of this in the USA and Europe is that we have more young teenagers leaving the game than ever before.

What are the principles of play?

Simply put, they are the fundamental truths for how the game can be played within the boundaries of the pitch. They remain constant whether you are playing a small sided format or the full sided game.

This is different to laws and tactics. Both laws and tactics change on a regular basis. Laws perhaps less so than tactics, but neither are fixed. Laws and tactics also have a direct correlation with one another. A change in a law (such as Law 12 Section 2 - the back pass rule) can create a new tactical approach (i.e. pressing from the front).

There are 10 principles of play.

5 for attacking...


...and 5 for defending.


Why are the principles so important?

The principles of play, along with technique, are the two primary fundamentals which players must learn if they are to reach their potential. One (technique) dictates their ability to perform the actions required in the game and the other (the principles) dictates their game understanding. If either of these components are missing, the game will not be enjoyable, because you won’t be able to play it properly.

Once they have these foundations in place, then the rest of the things which players require such as tactical/strategic understanding, physical training, resilience, courage and attitude can be added to help them become the best they can be.

The problem is that coaches can build successful teams in the early years, without helping players properly understand the principles or develop proper technique. This is mainly because big, strong physically-capable players, with some simple tactics and some rigid positioning can overcome the deficiencies they have in technique and game understanding.

However, by the time players hit puberty and the 11 a side game, these physical and tactical advantages start to wane and their ability to perform correct technique whilst understanding all aspects of attacking and defending become essential to their continued success and enjoyment.

Who needs to learn the principles of play?

All coaches should be well versed in the principles of play. You may have noticed that we recently changed our practice and session templates to give coaches help on which principles they can focus on in their sessions.

All your players need to understand all the principles of play. Your defenders need to understand and apply the attacking principles as well as the defending principles and, likewise, your attackers need to understand the defending principles as well as the attacking ones.

To this end, you should be mindful of the principles of play and they should be the bedrock of the sessions you deliver, even if you are working on tactical sessions. In fact, there’s a very strong argument to say that any good coaching point, as you’ll see in this content, is always based on the principles of play.


The Principles of Play are perhaps the most fundamental components of a coach’s understanding of the game, yet we find ourselves in a situation where many do not learn about them until far too late in their educational journey. Without a proper grasp of the Principles of Play and their applications, coaches are at an automatic disadvantage - and so are their players. Coach Education without the Principles of Play is like learning a new language without understanding the concept of sentence structure.

With our latest series of broadcast-quality video sessions, The Coaching Manual is setting out to equip coaches with the knowledge that will not only help them understand the game better, but understand the reasons and benefits behind every training session, practice progression, and coaching point they’ll ever deliver.

Get the first Principles of Play session: Creating Space

Attacking Principles of Play: Create Space - exclusive to Premium Subscribers. Upgrade now from just $7/£5 a month!

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