Introduction to Attacking Runs


Attacking runs in soccer involve a teammate of the player with the ball moving into open space among, between, or behind, defenders in order to effectively receive a pass.  An attacking run, also known as a “forward run,” or just “making a run” is therefore an “off-the-ball” movement on the part of any player on offense, other than the ball carrier, into the opponent’s half of the field. It is helpful to young players to understand that, if there is someone standing between them and the ball, they are not open for a pass.  Therefore, they need to make a run to open space.

In concept, this means that at any given moment in a full-sides game, around six players on the attacking team should be actively searching for how to make “penetrating,” “piercing,” or “slashing” runs into the defenders’ territory in support of their teammate with the ball.  As a practical matter, it usually applies to forwards or strikers, and leading midfielders, moving to create an opportunity for additional passes or to directly shoot and score.

Attacking runs are “spontaneous” actions taken by an offensive player as part the decision-making process associated with the normal run of play.  This is opposed to a “designed” run, usually associated with receiving a cross, or a “planned” run, usually associated with “free kicks” or “set plays.”  Understanding “open space,” either by “recognizing” it or “creating” it, is the first key to introducing attacking runs in soccer to beginning players.

From an attacking perspective, open space is any area of the field that is not otherwise occupied or effectively covered by a defender.  From a defensive perspective, open space is any area of the field that may need to be covered in order to keep it from being exploited by the opponent.  The second key is ensuring that the player with the ball recognizes the run and rewards the runner with a proper pass.

There are seven main components of an effective attacking run:

  1. Recognizing open space to be exploited
  2. Choosing an appropriate run
  3. Breaking away from a defender
  4. Getting open – moving into open space
  5. Timing the run
  6. Receiving an optimal pass
  7. Communications

Recognizing open space to be exploited

To “make a run,” or “making a run” is to sprint or to otherwise move into open space to set up receipt of a possible pass from a teammate with the ball.  An attacking player has to be able to see that any given space on the field is not defended and to move into that vacant space as part of a conscious decision during an attack.  There may be more than one space available to any given player.

Choosing an appropriate run

There are any number of “named” runs that may be coached.  The single, most-important feature of knowing the runs is to be able to choose the one that best fits the immediate circumstances.  For example, if the player with the ball is approaching midfield along the sideline, an appropriate run might be a “diagonal run” toward the sideline.  In any given case, the selection is almost always based on the following two criteria:

  1. Which run will maximize the opportunity to advance the attack and ultimately result in a shot on goal? and,
  2. Which run will optimize the ball-carrier’s ability to successfully complete the pass?

Bending run – A run that creates a path that looks like a semi-circle, usually made to open space behind an opponent.

Checking run – Any of a number of runs by a player involving moving away from the ball handler, in order to influence a defender to follow, and then quickly changing direction and moving back toward the ball handler.

Diagonal run – An angled run which is neither perpendicular (“square”) to the sideline nor parallel to (“down”) the sideline.  It often is close to a 45-degrees angle.

Hooking run – An attacker runs toward his teammate who has the ball, in order to draw a defender, and then reverses direction and runs to the space created behind the defender.

Inside run – A run from the direction of the sideline toward the middle of the field.  May be ‘right” or “left” based on the starting location, “right” when starting from the left sideline or “left” when starting from the right sideline.  Also known as a “lateral run” or “going inside.”

Lateral run – A run perpendicular to the sideline, usually in front of the back defenders, often to avoid going into an offside position.  It can go toward midfield (inside), toward a sideline (wide or outside), or all the way from one sideline to the other.  It can also be used as an option to defeat an offside trap. Also known as a “square run.”

Onside run – A forward or diagonal run in front of a defender where the attacker is expecting to receive a pass just before the possibility of going offside.

Outlet run – A run to open space toward the sideline, usually made by an outside back defender, intended to provide the goalkeeper or another back defender with an option away from the goal just after the ball has been saved or intercepted.

Sideline run – A straight run made just inside of, and parallel to, a touchline.

Straight run – A direct forward run, usually in the middle of the field, that is parallel to the sidelines.

Through run – A forward run that usually splits defenders in anticipation of receiving a leading pass or through ball.  (Also known as a Split run.)

Wide run – Any run in the direction of the sideline from the middle of the field.

Breaking away from a defender

More often than not, a teammate of the ball carrier will have a defender marking them.  The start of a successful run begins by getting away from this defender.  The player making the run has two advantages that need to be properly exploited in order to break away.  First, the attacker will have a split-second head start before the defender can react.  Second, the defender is likely to have to change direction in order to chase the attacker.  In order to exploit this situation, the attacker needs to keep the defender guessing as to when a run may be started or where it may go; and, also to recognize that brief second when the defender looks away from his marking assignment to see the location and movement of the ball.

Getting open – moving into open space

To get open, get free, to lose, or to otherwise separate from a defender, the attacker initiating a run needs to break free by abruptly changing direction or beginning an effective sprint toward open space.  Getting separation from the defender may involve an initial feint in the opposite direction from the run or just by starting an effective sprint.  (See:  Sprinting for Soccer.) Once separation is achieved, it must be maintained by continuing to run to the open space in order to keep the defender from catching up.

Timing the run

Timing a run properly is critical to its success.  Timing is the ability to initiate a run at a proper moment that loses the defender, exploits open space, and maximizes the possibility of receiving a pass.  The timing of a run also involves not going into an offside position before the pass is made by the ball carrier.  (See:  Introduction to Offside.) If the pass does not come at the expected time, the attacker should turn the run parallel to, and in front of, the next-to-last defender.

Receiving an optimal pass

A good run is only effective upon receipt of a good pass.  The attacker making the run does so in anticipation of a certain type of pass.  As an example, a sprint into a large open space behind a defender is most likely performed with the expectation of receiving a through pass or a chip.  The runner further has an expectation of where the ball is going to be received and the passer needs to ensure that the pass gets to the proper spot at the proper time.  Everything must come together to make it work, including the direction and speed of the run, and the direction and pace of the pass.  Passes may lead the runner or be directed to the runner’s feet.  (See the menu for all of the types of soccer passes.)

The passer also has an understanding and expectation of how a run is going to be made.  This may change instantaneously due to the course of play, but there is one guiding principle that a runner must keep in mind:  If you start a run, complete the run.  Don’t stop or wildly change direction in the middle of a run.  The passer is going to send the ball to the space anticipated by the run he saw being initiated.


At the highest levels, with lots and lots of practice, most teammates get familiar with one another and can anticipate many of the runs and passes that are expected of each other.  Prior to that, it is often an oral communication, mostly spoken by the runner, that is used to get the attention of the ball carrier.  This can be as simple as, “Steve, I’m open.”  (See:  Oral Communication.)  Unfortunately, this has the disadvantage of informing the defenders at the same time.

As time moves goes by, more visual communication is used, mostly in the form of hand signals, showing the ball carrier the direction in which the runner is intending to go.  (See: Non-verbal Communication.)  This has the benefit of being less likely to tip off the defender or to “telegraph” the run.  Ultimately, eye contact can be used.

Coaching Progression/Demonstration

On a regular field facing a full-sized goal, place at least four cones equidistantly on a line, perpendicular to the sidelines, approximately 40-yards away from the goal, representing next-to-last defenders.  Place another cone in goal as the keeper.

Demonstrate each run, in turn.

Have the players practice each run.

Add passes.

Change cones to real, stationary, players.

Add restricted movement on the part of the defenders.

Add supplemental attacking players.

Switch to full movement.

Move on to Intermediate Attacking Runs in Soccer.

Soccer Coaching Tips:

  • Good runs are to be rewarded with good passes. Ball carriers must make the pass when it is available and not be a “ball hog.”  See all the forms of passes, starting with Introduction to Passing – The Push Pass.
  • Advanced players take advantage of the concept of “Setting up a defender.” They may take the same angle or direction on a number of runs, thereby creating a mind-set in the defender that that’s what they will always do. Then, for a critical run, the attacker takes a different tack.
  • The “Give-and-Go” may also be used in this presentation.
  • After passing the ball, passers need to be reminded that they remain attackers and are to make an appropriate run. They are to stay involved and not “ball watch.”
  • No player should ever be standing around. With every movement of the ball, there is a better place for each player to be.
  • For advanced runs, see the “Blind side Run” and the” Overlapping Run” in Advanced Attacking Runs for Soccer.
  • Mention support runs to the players as well, such as setting up square passes and back passes to give options to the ball carrier.
  • Diagonal runs usually generate straight passes and straight runs usually generate diagonal passes.

© John C. Harves