Role of the First, Second and Third Attackers
A team in possession can always be referred to in terms of who has the ball and who is in near proximity to the ball. The player in possession is the first attacker. The players one pass away are the second attackers and the players more than one pass away are the third attackers.
Therefore, for the attacking team, there is always one first attacker, at least one second attacker, and the rest of the players are considered the third attackers.
A team that understands the attack and thinks in terms of these roles can think clearly about where to be on the field. This un-complicates a complex attacking scheme making it easier for the players to be effective on the field.
Role of the First Attacker: Maintain possession, attack space
The first attacker must maintain possession of the ball. The first thought on the first attackers mind is getting to open space by moving forward. This can be done by taking on a defender or by dribbling to space where the defenders are not. The role of the first attacker then is simple; maintain possession and attack space going forward. The training on the technical side of dribbling on the attack, dribbling for possession, and short and long passing are the skills required of the first attacker. At any time any player can be the first attacker so the entire team should possess the skills of attacking and possessing with the dribble.
If a player does go at a player, their next thought should be “how can I engage the defender”? Usually by going at the defender (on a diagonal) forces the defender to commit to the ball. By going on diagonals the attacker has the option of going right or left. Now the attacker has engaged the defender and he is forced to make a decision. The attacker then has the option of beating him with the dribble, turning away from the defender or playing a pass into the seam previously created and now further exploited by the stepping of the defender to the ball. When attacking a defender with the dribble, attack the heel of the front foot, get past him quick by changing speed and then keep him behind you.
Role of the Second Attacker: Support
The role of the second attacker can be summed up in one word: support, meaning support of the ball by the team in possession. This is done in many ways and not simply from the front. The more options the first attacker has the more dangerous he is therefore there should be support from different angles at different positions.
The role of the second attacker is to move into dangerous space previously made by creating good shape. As the first attacker is engaging the defender the second attackers need to be moving towards the ball in the seams. Examples of this are forwards showing to the ball from fullback, center midfielders showing to outside midfielders closing pace on a defender and creating a wall pass, and the left and right fullback positioning themselves outside and wide of the center fullback in possession of the ball to support from behind so the center fullback can turn away from pressure and play a back ball.
The key to being the second attacker is filling empty space in a manner which gives the first attacker options that are dangerous and threaten the defense.
Role of the Third Attacker: Unbalance the defense
The third attackers consist of the rest of the team who are not either first or second attackers. They are players who move off the ball making a dangerous run into space, or players moving away from the ball forcing a defender to move with them creating space for a teammate (either on or off the ball).
The role of the third attacker is to complicate the defense by continually moving into places difficult to defend. Defenses want to be compact so the third attacker main role is to spread the defense apart by creating length and width. A run by the outside left midfielder down the line when the ball is with right center fullback is an example of a dangerous unbalancing run by a third attacker. A forward moving out of open space towards the line to create length and open up space for the second forward is also an example of a third attacker run even though the forward has little chance of getting the ball; his run is simply meant to pull the defense away and create space for another teammate.
The role of the third attacker then is complex, however the main purpose of the third attacker is easy to explain; unbalance and separate the defense.
In terms of possession and shape, the first attacker is on the ball and everything is relative to him as he attacks space. The rest of the team establishes good shape; length and width, and the second attackers are the attackers who support at good angles. The third attackers are the ones making the unbalancing runs in seams that either create room for their teammates or put them in dangerous positions to be a scoring threat.
The role of the third attacker and off the ball runs at younger ages.
Off the ball runs refers to a players movement when they are off the ball which happens any time it is not on their foot. It is difficult at younger ages (nine, ten, eleven) to incorporate this idea as the players tend to think only about themselves, all the time! However around twelve years of age, they begin to have spatial reasoning, meaning they can understand where they are in relation to the ball, even if it is not in front of them. (This is also why shape can be trained successfully at this age) Prior to twelve most players do not have the mental capabilities to do this. With this spatial reasoning comes the realization that individual success is determined by team success and off the ball movement becomes crucial. Therefore introduction of this concept is tricky and difficult but very important.
As possession and shape are trained off the ball movement inherently becomes incorporated into a practice; first for teams then for the individual players. It is important for the individual players on the team, especially the stars to realize that individual success will come only with a team that finds success. A star can easily be shutdown if he is the only player who can create, however a team with great skill in possession and control can exploit the opponent such that the star will receive the ball with time and space to take on a defender, beat him and score.
As a team becomes aware of this truth, off the ball runs will make more sense to the individuals and as a team off the ball movement will open the game up even further.