Tactics Blog #002 – Strategy, Tactics, Principles

Justin Separator September 8, 2019

Tactics, strategy, principles, tactical means, strategic capability – it is sometimes hard to tell all the terms and concepts apart that you will hear in prolific amounts before, during, and after each football match. Often, they are used interchangeably and sometimes even wrongly. For this reason, we will introduce the three concepts strategy, tactics, and principles in greater detail and establish their differences.

Word origins

The earliest instances of the concept of “tactics” used in today’s modern understanding date back to the 18th century, when the term was derived from the French “tactique”, which itself draws back on the antique Greek art of arranging and organising troops on a field of battle.

The German dictionary “Duden” describes tactics as a “fixed procedure to reach a given end by making use of one’s means in the most appropriate way”. The concept of “strategy” also has military origins. The “Duden” defines strategy as “a specified plan of action […] to reach one’s goals” that aims to consider all potentially arising factors and events in advance.

A comparison of both definitions highlights the key difference between the two concepts: tactics emphasises the suitability of the means employed, whereas strategy focuses on the overall, carefully conceived plan to reach a given end. In a military context, Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military reformer of the 19th century, described strategy as the art of using battles in the service of a war and tactics as the art of using forces to win a battle.

Tactics, strategy, and principles in football

A translation of these concepts to the world of football could look like this: The strategy describes an overall plan of how to play football whereas tactics specifies how individual players or groups of players are best used in a match to reach the goals defined in the strategic plan.

In football, strategy can refer to something long-term – e.g. the aim of a club to establish a dominant kind of possession-based football in accordance with their football philosophy. But it may also refer to a guiding plan of action for a single match.

If Bayern plays against Mainz, Bayern will likely have possession for most of the match. Bayern’s strategic plan for the match may therefore be to play with dominance, create fruitful chances when in possession and shift the balance of the game firmly into Mainz’s final third. Some of the tactical means they could employ to achieve this include midfielders constantly looking for holes in the half spaces, regularly seeking one-on-one situations on the wings or repeatedly playing through an area where Mainz is considered especially vulnerable.

Tactical flexibility

The last example shows that the tactical means used to implement a given strategic plan can change. Every team has their own strengths and weaknesses which a coaching team has to carefully evaluate and to which they have to adapt their tactics suitably.

It is this kind of tactical acumen that, more often than not, makes the difference at the highest level of competition. In addition to their tactics, some coaches hold a set of fundamental principles about football. Principles. Another confusing term. Julian Nagelsmann said in an interview 2016: “It is important to me that our players play based on our principles in our matches.”

Asked by the German football magazine “11Freunde”, he once quoted the number of his principles at 31. The German tactics expert Tobias Escher studied some of these principles for his book “The time of the strategists”. One result: most of Nagelsmann’s principles pertain to a possession-based game.


For instance, Nagelsmann does not want his players to play one touch football. What seems counterintuitive at first because it slows down the game, Nagelsmann can explain conclusively. He values accuracy over swiftness. In an interview with German newspaper “FAZ” he said: “I would rather finish eight out of ten attacks even if every one takes a little bit longer than be quick about it and finish just two.”

Escher also points up the “principle of width” which demands the game to be as broad as necessary – but not any broader. The intention: keeping enough distance to the opponent to go past players but not too much to foil effective gegenpressing.

Thus, in contradistinction to tactics, principles are football style invariants that apply to every game and do not change from one to the next. They aim to execute a coach’s strategic plan in combination with their tactical means, which can and should be adapted to the requirements of the occasion (opponent, absences, game situation, …).

Let us conclude with a practical illustration: the team’s strategy is to play a dominant, patient, possession-based game based on circulating the ball and waiting for an opening to strike. Their coach draws on the tactical means of overloading the flanks and focusing on the opponent’s half spaces on the left in build-up play because his video analysis has revealed the other side to have a vulnerability there. These tactical means coincide neatly with one of the coach’s favourite principles: the principle of always having several players close to the ball to be able to render each other assistance. He wants his players to constantly form triangles and diamonds close to the ball in build-up play in order to support the player in possession without standing on each other’s toes. This also implements the coach’s second favourite principle of ideal distance: be as close to your teammate as necessary, but not any closer.

This example shows that the distinction between tactics and principles is not as clear cut as the one between tactics and strategy. Yet it should have become clear that both terms refer to different schools of thought. While the tactical means are adapted to each opponent, the principles follow a certain style of football held in high regard by the coach.

Key takeaways

  • Strategy describes an overarching plan of football that is developed for a long period or a single game (strategic plan).
  • Tactics refers to all means employed to implement a given strategic plan. These means are subject to change from game to game and sometimes within a game.
  • Principles are certain beliefs of how football should be played. They are less flexible than tactics but are used in combination with them to implement a strategic plan.
  • Tactics and principles sometimes overlap to a certain extent but remain different concepts.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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