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Football Coaching Essentials: Building Strong Teams

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Third man is the key tactical concept in Positional Play style
Third man concept in football

"Third man is impossible to defend" - Pep Guardiola

In the intricate world of football tactics, certain concepts stand out for their ability to redefine how teams approach the game. The "Third Man" concept is one such strategic nuance that has gained prominence, particularly in the philosophy of one of football's most celebrated coaches, Pep Guardiola. His assertion that the "Third Man is impossible to defend" offers a profound insight into the tactical depth and innovation he brings to the sport.

Understanding the Third Man Concept

The Third Man concept in football is a sophisticated tactical approach that involves three players in a passing sequence, designed to bypass the opposition's defensive structure. It's not merely about the player with the ball (first man) and the immediate receiver (second man) but involves a third player who is the ultimate recipient of the ball. This player is often moving off the ball, anticipating the play, and positioning themselves in a space that is difficult for defenders to cover without leaving other areas exposed.

The beauty of the Third Man concept lies in its simplicity and effectiveness. It leverages movement, anticipation, and spatial awareness, turning a simple pass into a strategic tool to dismantle the opposition's defense. The third man's movement is key; it must be timed perfectly and be unpredictable, making it extremely challenging for defenders to intercept or block the play without compromising their defensive line.

Why "Impossible to Defend"?

Guardiola's assertion that the Third Man is impossible to defend stems from the concept's reliance on rapid, intelligent movement and precise passing. Defensively, marking the first and second players in a sequence is straightforward. However, the third player's involvement often catches defenders off guard, especially if they are adept at reading the game and making late runs into space. This creates a dilemma for defenders: stick with their original man, or attempt to anticipate and move towards the third man. In doing so, they often leave gaps in the defense that can be exploited.

Moreover, the Third Man concept thrives on the principle of overloading certain areas of the pitch to create numerical advantages. By drawing defenders towards the ball and then quickly shifting play to exploit the spaces left uncovered, teams can create clear attacking opportunities. This dynamism and fluidity make it exceedingly difficult for traditional defensive setups to counter effectively.

Third Man vs. Free Man

While the Third Man and the Free Man concepts might seem similar at first glance, they serve distinct tactical purposes. The Free Man in football is a player who finds themselves unmarked and with space to operate, often as a result of the team's overall movement and spatial manipulation. This player can be anywhere on the pitch and is not necessarily part of a predetermined passing sequence.

Conversely, the Third Man is explicitly part of a designed play, with their movement and positioning calculated to exploit the momentary lapses in the opposition's defense created by the first two players' actions. While the Free Man concept focuses on creating a player advantage through spatial dominance and movement, the Third Man concept is about using precise, premeditated movements and passes to break through the defensive line.

Importance in Positional Play

The Third Man concept is a cornerstone of the positional play style, which emphasizes controlling space through strategic player positioning and movement. Positional play is not just about keeping possession but using it purposefully to create scoring opportunities while maintaining defensive stability. The Third Man concept epitomizes this approach, as it requires players to understand their roles within a larger tactical framework, anticipate their teammates' movements, and exploit the spaces created by those movements.

For Guardiola, the importance of the Third Man concept lies in its ability to systematically dismantle organized defenses. It encourages players to think two steps ahead, fostering a style of play that is proactive rather than reactive. By embedding this concept into his teams, Guardiola ensures that his side is always looking for innovative ways to create and exploit space, making his tactical approach both revered and feared in the football world.


The Third Man concept, as articulated by Pep Guardiola, underscores the tactical sophistication that modern football demands. It highlights the importance of intelligence, movement, and spatial awareness, making it a potent tool in the arsenal of any team that values possession and positional play. By understanding and implementing this concept, teams can elevate their tactical play, creating opportunities that are indeed "impossible to defend" against. As football continues to evolve, the principles embodied in the Third Man concept will undoubtedly remain at the forefront of tactical innovation.

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