Quality Masterclass Mentality: Vertical Tiki-Taka is the Future

Tiki-taka is the style of play that has defined 21st-century soccer. At its peak, Barcelona under Pep and the Spanish National Team was dominating the world of soccer. That patient passing and keeping the ball until there was an opening was so beautiful, yet annoying to watch. The idea that you cannot concede a goal if you have the ball in your possession made it difficult to watch sometimes. The team would keep the ball for so long and always choose the safe pass. So essentially, we started seeing the backline passing to each other seemingly forever. The birth of the vertical tiki-taka was needed…

Something changed and we started to see the need to modify the mentality. Mourinho saw it first when countering Barcelona (with Inter and Chelsea), but we saw it so much in the recent decade. Teams became very good at defending. At the most recent World Cups, it feels like the worst teams can still hold a 0:0 draw against the best teams. So, playing patient, controlling, possession-based tiki-taka will just not work. Instead, what needed to happen was to move the ball quickly when in possession to unsettle the opponent.

How does vertical tiki-taka compare to tiki-taka?

How is it the same?

First and foremost, the idea of having possession is still the same. Starting from a goal-kick against a low-block opposition, you won’t be able to see the difference. The team will not try random crosses or skipping the midfield. Instead, the goal is to maintain control of the ball with passes in triangles while moving the play toward the opposition box.

Out of possession, the relentless pressing is also similar. The idea of recovering the ball within 5 seconds of losing it, is still valid. In fact, in La Masia, the famous FC Barcelona youth academy, they teach that the team doesn’t steal the ball. Instead, they recover possession. That is because the ball is theirs to have and the reason why they don’t have it is because they lost it. It might sound like a negligible difference, but it is important. The mentality of fighting to keep the ball as a team practiced through thousands of variations of rondos, is vital.

How is it different?

The main difference in the vertical tiki-taka is how build-up play happens. Namely, once the team recovers possession, it needs to quickly move forward to attack. This leaves very little time for the opponents to get back in the right position to defend. If we leave the opposition time to get in shape, we will limit the opportunities to get tactical advantages – numerical, positional, or dynamic.

Let’s say that we recover the ball at the edge of our penalty box, while the opponents try to attack on the wing with both their wing-back overlapping their winger. The standard tiki-taka mentality would make sure we keep possession and pass sideways or back to the keeper until we get into shape. Unfortunately, that allows for the other team to come back to shape. Instead, imagine if we send the ball down the flank with the winger and/or wing-back sprinting into a counterattack. And from there looking for the striker or the winger on the other side.

This will give us at least a dynamic advantage, where everybody will have to sprint back instead of actively defending and pressing the ball because they don’t feel that they have the cover at the back. Their wing-back will be tired after the attacking movement. Also, the confusion with the winger on who is running back to cover. If neither does, then we have the numerical advantage. If both run back, then we have time to pick the pass that we want with no pressure.

Advantages of using vertical tiki-taka

Assuming we are playing against a team that has some desire to attack against us, this is a very effective tactic. We get all the benefits of the tiki-taka, to maintain possession and control. With the right players and their decision-making abilities, we can confuse the oppositions. Since defending is where the team cohesion really matters, changing between direct attacking and patiently maintaining possession can truly frustrate and be tiresome. Also, it can be really devastating when we create 1v1 opportunities for our attackers. Any qualitative mismatch is more amplified when we are given 1v1 chances. The vertical tiki-taka gets us in those situations.

Disadvantages of the vertical tiki-taka

The downsides of tiki-taka are still present. When playing against low-block teams, often it looks like a fruitless exercise. If the other team only defends, then there is no counter-fast buildup that can happen. Therefore, no benefit there. Similarly, the risk of having a bad pass in the back line between the defenders or the keeper is still there. Perhaps a vertical pass to the striker is not as risky, but if that is blocked then the logic is to still maintain possession by passing sideways or backward. That comes with the same risk and often can be devastating. In fact, a bad pass can lead us to concede and in effect results in the opponents transferring to a low-block, catenaccio defense that is even harder to break.

When to use vertical tiki-taka?

Let us look at the teams that have used vertical tiki-taka or any variations and subsets of it. The most obvious ones are Barcelona, Ajax, Bayern, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool… When did it work? When the teams had strikers like Harland, Messi, Salah, Mane, and Van Persie, then it worked very well. The importance of the ability to win the majority of the duels 1v1, 2v2, or even 2v3, and score goals cannot be overstated. Similarly, the ability to defend without numerical advantage gives the opportunity to keep the attackers high, so that a direct pass to them is possible. I am sorry to disappoint you, but if you don’t have the technical, and overall qualitative advantages, this is not for you.

Formations to use for vertical tiki-taka

To maintain possession, you have to get a numerical advantage by keeping the defensive line high. The formations are actually similar to the standard tiki-taka. The classic 4-3-3 and the variations are always appropriate. The 4-4-2 diamond can work great, using mezzalas for the slower buildup. Also, a more defensive 5-2-3 formation that uses the three attackers as outlets can give the counter-attacking opportunities while maintaining the solidity in defense.

The role of the mezzala in 3-5-2 formation
What is Mezzala in Soccer? [Complete Tactical Guide]

Central midfielders are the most versatile players on the pitch. However, even they have some advantages that they can express, especially in attack. Being able to wear many hats, a mezzala needs to find the right time to drift to the wing and create an overload. Often cooperating with the wing-back and the winger, can truly create confusion for the opponents. If the three players on the wing have the pace to do overlapping and underlapping runs, the defense can have their hands full. Furthermore, if they end up dragging more defenders, then a quick switch to the other side or a cross can create a numerical advantage in a very dangerous area. We have seen some fantastic players, such as Iniesta and Odegaard, really owning this role. Let’s look at what is needed to excel in it and the systems in which it makes sense to use it.

What is the Role of Mezzala in Soccer?

Mezzala is the role of a central midfielder that occupies a wide forward area of the pitch. The main purpose is to provide support to the team by pushing high in the winger area when the team is in possession. Mezzalas are often used to provide support to the wingers and wing-backs. This is especially true if some of them play in inverted roles. While attacking patiently and switching the ball from one flank to the other, a mezzala can create a numerical advantage. Also, they can create quality or dynamic superiority is hard to defend against. The players need to have good technical qualities, but also tactical knowledge to time their runs. That will avoid being caught off possession, and allow the opponents to progress in a counter-attack.

Formations for a Mezzala

There are lots of different ways to use mezzalas. Because it’s not easy to coach it, you will rarely see it in youth soccer teams and their tactics, even when you see players randomly drifting into it. The most typical ones are the 4-3-3 formations, which have been seen a lot by Guardiola and his disciples, Arteta and Xavi. We see that technically gifted and incredibly creative players with vision can make a difference in the wide areas, not just through the middle. In fact, they can contribute more when the opponents cannot predict their passes while positioned in the half-spaces, as it opens too many channels. Furthermore, with the rise of inverted fullback, the wingers do need support, especially if they are outnumbered.

Other common formations that support the mezzala role are 3-4-3 or even 3-5-2. As you can notice, in all cases the importance is to have many of players in the middle, so that the abandoned space is not easily targeted. If the players are dynamic that is easier, as they cover lots of ground. However, the positional awareness of the teammates to occupy the place in the center of the pitch is vital for the mezzala to have the freedom to help in attack.


11v11 soccer formation 4-3-3 by Rondo Coach Formation Tool

In a 4-3-3 formation, the fullbacks can act as traditional fullbacks or as inverted fullbacks when attacking. However, keeping the wingers high and wide can create distance from the fullbacks. Getting the right amount of support for them is often the role of the attacking midfielders who will need to drift. Furthermore, they might need to occupy that area if the winger cuts in or plays as an inverted winger. The 8 and the 10 are fairly balanced in the attacking and defensive duties. Therefore, the moment of attacking the wings is up to them to time it. Similarly, if one of them goes wide, then the other one might need to balance that by coming more central. Either way, it’s not an individual decision that can work without cooperation with the teammates.

3-4-3 Formation

3-4-3 soccer formation. 3 defender formation

With the 3-4-3 formation heavily concentrated in the middle, it can be hard to break low-block teams. However, that also means that the central midfielders need to have the freedom to bring confusion in the opposition’s defense. If they can drift to the sides and create overloads, that can create opportunities for the wingers. Then strikers push through the half spaces and cut in passes to the middle. Easier said than done. Having versatile central midfielders who can keep possession and exploit these spaces will be of great benefit to the team.


The role of the mezzala in 3-5-2 formation
Mezzala 3-5-2

In the 3-5-2 formation the central attacking midfielders can act as carrileros, but also as mezzalas. In fact, in a well-managed system, there can be mismatches. For example, if one of the fullbacks bombs down on the flank, but doesn’t get much support from the striker that stays central, then it is natural for the midfielder to act like a mezzala. On the other flank, maybe the other striker wants to drift and act like a raumdeuter. Well, then we can have a supporting act of a carrilero. It is up to the coach to understand the quality superiority of their team.

Attributes of a Mezzala

As it is a role that can change over the course of the game, it is often flexible in the requirements. However, the key is to have experienced, versatile players to complement the others on the team. First of all, their positioning and timing have to be excellent, otherwise, it creates more issues than it solves. Secondly, their decisions must be correct or it will leave the team exposed. Finally, their physical attributes will require them to quickly cover a fair amount of ground, as they will essentially play in somewhat distant areas in possession vs. in defense.

Attacking traits

The main attacking attributes of a mezzala are proficient first touch, passing, and vision. The first touch is important for any player that receives passes in the opposition third, especially with high pressure and high pace. This goes together with dribbling and flair, mezzalas are in positions to produce something out of nothing if there is an opportunity. When the player is placed in a position to play 1v1 near the box, they have to quickly control the ball and take a chance to score or assist. If that capability is not there, then there is no threat to the opponents and the effectiveness is much smaller.

If the numerical advantage is lost, then it’s up to the player to have the vision and passing ability to move the ball to another area. This patient approach might frustrate the team, but it will be even more annoying to the opponents. However, that assumes that the player can identify the opportunities and take them, but also make a good decision when there is no opportunity and move the ball quickly.

Defending skills

Obviously, a mezzala shines when the team has possession. However, the role is not of a poacher, so it has some defensive duties. The most important feature is to recognize when it needs to transition into them. The anticipation ability is key for the role. If the player can see a move or two ahead and repositions themselves (off-the-ball skill) to account for more aggressive offensive opportunities or more cautious defensive or even counter-pressing situations, then we have a quality mezzala in the squad. The only way a player can do this effectively is if they possess a high work rate and amazing stamina. Putting these together in one player is what makes it really challenging.

Famous mezzalas

As this is a very specific role with many challenges, there are not many players who have played their entire careers as a mezzala, but there are some who have become famous in the soccer world while excelling in it. They often played as central midfielder, a winger, or a creative playmaker in some systems. However, when there was a need, they stepped up to the challenge.

The most obvious one today is Martin Odegaard in Arsenal. He plays with Bukayo Saka on the wing, often inverted, in a 4-3-3 formation. Similarly, Mason Mount (and others) were acting as mezzalas in the 3-5-2 Chelsea team that won the Champions League in 2021. However, if you are looking at a masterclass, look no further than Iniesta. He was not a classic 10 or 8 (as his jersey number suggested). He was flawless in finding the wide areas to exploit at the right time. Clearly, his technical skills resulted in high effectiveness when playing as the mezzala in the legendary Barcelona teams for over a decade.


There it is – a full guide of mezzala in soccer. We covered what the role is, which formations to use it in, and the characteristics of it. The details of the role are so fascinating that they cannot be explained in a brief definition, so we decided to make a guide out of it. Finally, we looked at famous players who have played the role at the highest level. They made us think of the balance that our teams need to have in order to win games and maintain possession.

3v1 Rondo [Complete Guide with Variations]

One of the natural points between 4v1 and 4v2 rondos is to have a 3v1 rondo. It’s a simple rondo where three players try to retain possession of the ball while one player tries to intercept it. At the highest levels, this is a warmup drill often, while more players are trickling in. Instead of having a 6v2 rondo, it is better to have two 3v1 rondos with players having many more touches on the ball. After all, the aim is to develop the technique and positional awareness of the players, especially at young ages.

Why do the 3v1 rondo?

While designing soccer drills, we want them to be game-like, challenging and used as building blocks. The 3v1 rondos has only 4 players, so they are relatively simple and quick to set it up. With the increased intensity from 4v1, we bridge the gap to the next level at 4v2. At 4v1 the player with the ball has three passing options, but at 4v2 they have only two. However, the number of players pressing doubles from one player to two. If we can remove the second variable, then at 3v1 we have only one presser, but we still have only two passing options. This way of gradually increasing intensity is why the 3v1 rondo is a great stepping stone.

We will explore several variations of the 3v1 rondos. Firstly, it’s just the traditional 3v1 without much complexity. However, we want to keep it fun, so we’ll do a few more. The transition rondo where there are two playing boxes and we have 3v1 plus 1 transition, can make things interesting for your team. Also, one of my favorites is the 3v1 converting to 5v3 rondo. Keep in mind that the 5v3 rondo can be challenging for your team, so we’ll go through tricks on how to ease into it.

3v1 Rondo

3v1 plus 1 Rondo

This is the first block of 3v1 rondo. The players have already done 4v1 rondos, so they understand the basic idea. However, now we tell them that there are four sides of the square and three players, so what happens? Some people prefer making a triangle to limit the movement, but I like to use this interesting situation. One option is to give them the freedom to move wherever they want. If they get good enough, I ask them something different. The new rule is that they cannot play on the same side twice. This is particularly useful for them to get into a pass-and-go mindset. So the rule is very simple – pass, then go to an adjacent side. If that side is already occupied, that’s okay. The teammate can either move or still receive the ball and quickly pass it to you. It will not only improve the movement of the passer but of the other teammates, too.

Short video of 3v1 plus 1 Rondo

3v1 -> 5v3 Transition Rondo

Initial setup for 3v1 to 5v3 Transition Rondo

This is much more complicated rondo and I recommend it after being proficient in 5v2 and 4v2 rondos. The reason is that 5v3 rondo is really about developing the central midfielder at a very high level. They start by being in defense against 3 players, then they recover the ball and they are the glue in the middle of it all. It’s particularly difficult in transition. If the field is small, then the 5v3 will be difficult. If the field is large, then 3v1 is hard for the defender. Ideally, you would start with a small inner and large outer playing field. However, over time they should both be small. The end goal is to have about 7 by 7 steps for the inner and 12 by 12 for the larger area.

The 4 players on the outside will learn off-the-ball movement and anticipation of the interception. As we said, their teammate will learn the central midfielder role both in defense and offense. The positioning and one-touch will drastically improve by practicing that drill. The team of 3 players will develop a quick transition from offense to defense. That is also part of anticipation, but it is a different kind of skill to anticipate how to quickly recover the ball once it’s lost. Also, they will practice team pressing, unlike the defender in the middle. One more note: rotate the player in the middle every several minutes. If they are practicing well, they will be so tired of pressing strong in defense and moving off the ball in offense.

3v1 to 5v3 Transition Rondo


We’ve covered the 3v1 rondo and several variations of it. Don’t forget that the simple versions are just stepping stones of it and your players will likely outgrow them quickly. However, the more complex ones, especially the 3v1 to 5v3 transition can take a very long time to get good at. We use the rondos to create a game-like situation to teach particular skills. In this case, we coach pressing, ball retention, first touch, passing as well as transitions. They are fantastic building blocks that shouldn’t be skipped and we should be deliberate and thoughtful when using them to develop our players. Have fun coaching!


No Opponents Rondo

Introduction to rondos with 3v0 and 4v0. Coaching passing, receiving, and the concept of “backfoot”.

First opponent

Introduce an opponent in the rondo. Create the need to move off the ball and think of passing lanes.

Increase intensity

Limit one passing option, and improve decision-making. Put pass-and-go into practice. Introduce a transition rondo to 5v3.

Increase complexity

Introduce team pressing of two players. Coach the central midfielder for the first time.

Pro Rondo

The rondo that pros play. Teaching to split the opponents with the right weight of the pass.

Positional play

All variations of the complex rondos before transitioning into positional play and game scenarios.

Principles of Soccer Tactics by Rondo Coach
Soccer Tactics Principles – Superiority Analysis for Coaches [2024]

“Soccer is no longer beautiful” – we would hear this so often. Soccer fans criticize that the systems that the coaches use today are so rigid. Most creative players have very little to give in a place where everything is pre-calculated. We also see teams that have no business doing well, beating teams that have spent eye-watering amounts of money on world-class soccer players. Now, how is that possible? Is it that they have mastered all soccer tactics principles or simply the game played in favor of their advantages? Finally, we see that in some clubs the highest-paid person is the coach and not the players. Is that fair?

“My soccer tactics will get you in the final third of the pitch, then it’s up to you to score” – honest soccer coach

A soccer coach can devise the perfect soccer strategy for getting the team to win, but it’s up to the players to execute. Having said that, the coach can’t just throw their hands in the air and give up. They have to analyze each aspect of the game and find opportunities to take any advantage thstaere. Very often people think that winning is about being better at the game that is played. In fact, it’s about redefining the game to use the superior qualities that your team has. Soccer tactics principles are essentially bucketing these superiorities so that we can systematically analyze our team and opponents. If we set the game so that the competition is about our advantages instead of our disadvantages, then we can win the game without being the better team in the other aspects of the game.

There are 5 principles of soccer superiorities. Numerical is about having more players than the opponents in the area of play. Positional defines which areas of the pitch are occupied by your players. Qualitative superiority is to have a player with an advantage over the opponent in a direct duel able to take advantage of the mismatch. Team cohesion helps us balance the qualities of players playing on the pitch. Dynamic superiority is all about how to synchronize the movement and the timing of our players so that we create chaos in the opponent’s offense and defense.


This is probably the easiest superiority to explain and understand. All things being equal, you don’t need to be a soccer statistician to want to have more players in the opposition. That’s why it’s so hard to win when your team has a red card. In a smaller setting, a team in possession and a 3v2 or a 4v3 overload virtually always keep the ball. They might not score, but they will at least retain the ball. If we can position our players to have the numerical advantage, then we have achieved much. Well, if you play 11v11, how can you do that? If you have numerical superiority in one area, then you will have inferiority in another. It’s up to you to then find where the superiority is and move the ball quickly there. If the advantage reverses, then move the ball to the other area. So, what we are coaching is for our players to identify this situation and act accordingly.

Let’s look at the two situations above. We didn’t move the players at all, but instead just changed possession of the ball. Depending on that, either the red team has 3v1 situation or the black team has 4v1. It’s important to understand that the entire field is still 4v4. However, the location of the ball redefines the playing area to a smaller area. If you have numerical advantage in that area, you will likely win. If you have disadvantage, find a way to move the ball into an area where you will have advantage.


Do you remember how kids who have never been coached play? They chase the ball all around the pitch. Technically that gives them numerical superiority as long as they can run. However, they get tired so much faster and they are often late to cover gaps on the pitch because the ball moves faster than them. To be honest, you already know that chasing the ball is not the way to play as a team. What we need to also acknowledge is that soccer is all about time and space. That means that players need to be in the right place at the right time. Positional superiority is all about the right place.

Let’s look at the same situation, with the only difference that in one case the red team has the ball, and in the other case the black team has the ball. It’s blatantly obvious that the team in possession wants to make the pitch bigger and the defenders want the opposite. This is the first lesson that is taught in soccer tactics at U6, even by beginner soccer coaches. Of course, there is much more complexity when it comes to zones of plays, areas of passing, half-spaces, and so on. But in a nutshell, positional awareness is the main reason why a team with inferior players can hold a team with soccer superstars to a draw and sometimes win.


Probably the most obvious one is the qualitative. If a player is faster, stronger, tactical, and technically dominant over another player, then it’s going to win 1v1. However, most of the time that’s not the case. A player can be faster, but not stronger. In that case, the real duel is about what the test is going to be. The faster striker with the ball will want to have a spring chase against the slower defender. The stronger poacher will want to hold up the ball against the weaker center back. Very similar to a boxer trying to define the type of fight based on their characteristics, or a basketball player doing pick-and-roll to make taller vs. shorter player mismatch, we try to create a blatant mismatch in qualities when we create tactics. The attackers are the ones who have more freedom, while the defenders stick in positions. So, we want to create this in possession and nullify it when defending.

Teamwork and team balance

You often hear “On paper, they should have won”. You look at a team that has great individuals but are not winning games. If you wonder what is happening, look at the balance of the team. It is rare that they don’t like each other or anything like that. It’s just that simply their individual deficiencies combine to a point that can be devastating. A good example of a team that worked well together is AC Milan with Gattuso and Pirlo. Both of them were really good in what they did but had massive gaps in their game. Gattuso was a great defensive midfielder, relentless and aggressive. Pirlo was one of the best deep-lying playmakers but was physically inferior to the average central midfielder at the highest level. However, they balanced each other. If the team had two Gattusos or two Pirlos, then it would have been really bad.

In contrast, England had two of the best central midfielders ever – Lampard and Gerrard. Both of them were winners and natural leaders. Also, both of them were so respected and quality players, as well as tactically savvy that they were coaches in the Premier League less than a decade after retiring as players. However, they never won anything with the national team. The balance was simply not there. They needed a holding midfielder that rarely played with them and they played in the era where Spain played perfect tiki-taka with 5 or even 6 midfield players. Therefore, it is not just the individual quality of the players that matters, but the balance between them. It is much easier to achieve that in a club that can trade players and have years of practice every day to create that bond. In the national team, it is much harder, but not impossible.


Potentially the hardest aspect of the soccer tactics principle to understand is the dynamic superiority. Think about the overlap, when a player runs behind and wider than the player with the ball. Let’s compare it to a static attacking formation where the player is already there. There is no numerical superiority during an overlap – the same number of attackers and defenders. There is no positional, qualitative, or even team cohesion difference. The only advantage comes from that movement that causes defenders to both go after the runner or the ball. The importance of movement with purpose, which we call dynamic superiority, is something that is achieved with any player and any part of the pitch.

Similarly, let’s think about a set piece routine from a side cross. When the ball is coming in, multiple players are all running towards the goal at the same time. The aim is to create confusion for the defenders where they don’t know who to guard. It doesn’t happen every time, but attackers need to get it right only once, while defenders have to be right every single time.

Finally, look at how quality teams press together. It has to be orchestrated with multiple players pressing at the same time. Very often they are patient until they see an opportunity, and then several players press together, attacking the ball and the simple passing options. One with the other doesn’t work.

Soccer Tactics Principles never change, but they evolve

If you reached this point, you are likely asking yourself if we have switched to playing something more complicated than chess. Yes, we have! The complexity comes from the fact that we deal with humans. Which means that not every piece on the tactical board, unlike the chess board, is the same. Furthermore, not every time the player is ready to perform the same way. That is even more true for youth players. So, it is up to you, as the coach, to figure out what

Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!”

Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist