Team, Player, and Coach Tactics and Their Influence on Refereeing

By: Tom Richardson, NISOA National Assessor and Assigner, North Carolina

In managing an Intercollegiate or Interscholastic game, the Referee Team needs to recognize and manage either negative or unfair influences brought by team formations, as well as tactics used by players and coaches. There are skills and techniques that Referees can use to control some of the more common occurrences. This article will address these types of refereeing challenges.

A. Tactics introduced by formations.

Team formations, or systems of play, can affect both positive and negative play on the field. So, at this point it makes sense to first consider the effect of team formations and playing systems on the individual tactics that players and coaches use to gain an edge in games. In a brief discussion such as this, it will at best be general and limited. That is because there are many variations possible, but you should be able to recognize and deal with the two more common types of team formations we present here: Offensive Formations and Defensive Formations.

An Offensive Formation.

These formations generally try to increase the number of strikers while maintaining adequate defensive coverage. When might you see this?

It is most commonly used with either a 3-4-3-and 4-3-3 system of play, where there is a 4-player diamond at midfield (i.e., 4 players in midfield as a 1-2-1 group), where the attacking center midfielder is the forward point and the holding midfielder the back point.

A variation or this 4-player diamond used in an offensive formation can be found when positioned in the backfield with a stopper up and sweeper back.

These offensive formations increase the number of strikers and the pressure on the defending team to stop, impede, or cancel out any attacks on their own goal. That obviously increases the pressure upon the defenders to consider more physical play against attackers, and also increases the pressure on attackers to consider using more physical efforts to counter the defenders. The Referee Team needs to exercise increased oversight at each end of the field.

The Defensive Formation.

This type of formation generally reduces the number of strikers and packs more players back into defensive positions. It may sometimes be used when a team is defensive in nature or when there is less skill or speed than the opponents. This system of play may also be shifted into by a team late in a game in order to try to protect a lead. There are usually 10 players behind the ball with only the lone striker (or 2 strikers) up top. When might you see this?

It is most commonly used with either a 4-5-1 or 3-5-2 formation with a 5-player diamond at the back. It can also be seen as a 4-5-1 or 3-5-2 formation with 5 players in diamond group in midfield.

When thinking about this team system, remember that because of this formation, the lone attacking striker – or 2 strikers – up front are generally more vulnerable to increased physical play against them. Also be aware that the increased number of defending players at the back in a defensive formation may increase the rate of physical play against opposing attackers. Both these possibilities need increased oversight by the Referee Team. And a final item is that when a system of play uses only one or two strikers up front, the likelihood increases of the long ball to the forward(s) in an attempt for a swift counter-attack. This may mean a good bit more rapid turn-around movement and coverage by the Referee Team.

These observations naturally lead into the next part of the discussion of Player and Coach tactics.

Player Tactics

At first, consider tactics intended to intimidate opposing players. There are several common negative tactics.

One is a violation committed by rotating “assassins” (i.e., my term) who literally plan to “take turns” at committing specific violations. This includes violations committed by design against the star opposing forward or playmaker by multiple individuals in order to avoid the appearance of persistent infringement, while at the same time planting the seed in that opposing forward’s or playmaker’s mind that anytime the ball comes their way an aggressive, physical challenge may be coming.

Another is the use of elbows to establish space and send a message of intimidation. This is effectively used by both men and women players, but especially the women when they are getting the upper body fouls that are not being called by the Referee. It’s a “Get off me!” elbow. The elbow is like a weapon and when the fist is clinched, it’s like “Ready, Aim, Fire”

Then there are those tactics intended to negatively influence the opposition.

One common violation is the taking of a “Dive”. This unfairly penalizes the opposition when a Referee is mistakenly led into calling for and penalizing a non-foul act as a violation. Where do “Dives” most often happen? Either near or inside the penalty area!

Another common tactic is the faking of an injury. How many times have you seen a player go down after contact with an opponent with a scream and roll around on the ground, then quickly and miraculously recover from the supposed injury and sprint back into play? Players who attempt this negative tactic are seeking a more severe punishment for the innocent opponent in order to gain a numbers advantage. Also, the mistaken call by a Referee of a faked injury might well result in hesitation by the opponents when challenged in the future.

A third negative tactic involves intentional time wasting when play should be continuing. Throw-ins, goal kicks, free kicks and goalkeeper punts are common occasions for this tactic. As examples: a player near an out-of-touch ball unnecessarily calls a teammate to come take a throw-in; a goalkeeper or player sets the ball for a goal kick, then decides to move the ball to the other side of the goal area for the taking of the kick; or a goalkeeper who calls for the sweeper to come over to take a goal kick when the team is ahead in the last minutes of the game; a deliberate delay in taking a free kick by a player who instead hands the ball to the Referee; an opponent who stands in front of the ball placed – by the opposing team for a free kick – like a statue as it is about to be kicked; or even an opposing player who kicks the ball away after a violation is called against his/her team.

Coach Tactics

One common, if unfortunate, tactic is seen when a coach sends in an “Enforcer” as a substitute. The intent is to have the designated player either disrupt play by foul play, or defend a specific player or area by whatever physical force, including unfair and unsporting play, is necessary. An enforcer is often willing to take a Caution or Ejection, as he/she deems necessary, to gain an advantage for the team.


Some coaches have been thought to solicit a Caution or Ejection in order to fire up their team during a tough or losing game.

Others have been said to encourage players taking an unfair “statue” stance to delay or stop an opponent’s free kick. Also some encourage players to form and maintain an unfair defensive wall at an opponent’s free kick especially if the kick nears their penalty area.

Some coaches still attempt to talk to opposing team players in a negative manner. This has long been a violation in the rules, and should be promptly dealt with the very first time attempted.

Referee Tactics to counter negative play and tactics.

One important action is that the Referee Team must deal with the intimidator as soon as the tactic is spotted. Delay works against successful game and behavior control. Also be sure to learn to anticipate and recognize persistent infringement. To do so it would be helpful to know who these players are on any team before the game takes place. How do you identify them? Through research – in other words – do your homework before the match! There are many ways to research this information. The best resources are your Referee colleagues.

Learn to recognize the unfair elbow that is intended to send a message to the opposing player. This is an area of the game that must be cleaned up much like we did in years past with the tackles from behind. The elbow when used with a clinched fist becomes a very dangerous weapon against an opponent.

Penalize the player who takes a dive. Seeking a false call against an opponent particularly in the penalty area is an especially unacceptable tactic. Identify through research, and through your own observations, if there is one specific player more prone to do this than others. That is often the case where – fortunately – not many players have practiced or mastered the “art” of taking a dive.

Learn to recognize the player who fakes an injury after being fouled, and thereby seeks a more severe punishment on the offender. Do you allow this type of behavior and just laugh it off? Or, do you deal with it? Consider if you believe that it is sometimes done to get a pause in the game and change the flow of the game unfairly by causing the opposition to slow down.

Deal with time-wasting! One of the best ways to keep this problem under control is to set the standard of behavior you will allow in that game early on with the consistency you demonstrate by penalizing specific violations or unfair play. Also, question and review your practice for players who delay restarts by standing over the ball, or kicking it away. Do you consider an incident differently if done early or late in a game? What is your standard as a Referee? Additionally, how do you regard throw-ins that frequently take up to 30 seconds to make a throw, look, look, then call for a teammate to come take the throw, or just simply refuse to throw it in, or even attempt to move well beyond the designated spot just so the referee will be forced to move the thrower to the appropriate spot and thus waste time. Some goalkeepers are masters at delaying tactics.

Deal with an “Enforcer” substituted into a game. Have you discussed the teams, coach and players of the game you are scheduled to referee with other Referee colleagues who have been assigned to their games in the past? Have you shared the information with your Referee Team during the pre-game Referee Team Briefing so that you are all well-prepared to deal with such tactics. It is critical to know and be on the lookout for an “enforcer”, for without prior knowledge of this type of player you could have game control issues if you are caught by surprise. This player (i.e., the enforcer) usually has only one mission, and is willing to take the card for the team if necessary.

Deal with gamesmanship. Recognition of a gamesmanship tactic is vitally important for good game management. If the referee is not familiar with some of these tactics, then the temperature of the game could be rising and he/she would not recognize the reason.


We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, including: team systems of play and their influence on fairness and sporting behavior; unfair tactics that might be tried by players and coaches; and some ways the Referee Team can consider when controlling the game in which these tactics can unfairly impact the game. The coverage possible in this article is not exhaustive, but should help alert Referees to the possible problems that they can expect in games at the more competitive and challenging Intercollegiate and Interscholastic levels. Your continued study of the art of soccer refereeing, your interactions with and exchanges of information with Referee colleagues, and your seeking advice and input from all valid resources, will help you eventually reach the level of personal excellence you seek in this avocation.