The art of dismarking

Dismarking is a relatively undiscussed football topic, relating to a player’s ability to rid themselves of the tight marking of an opponent. This is done through either precise movement off the ball, or passing sequences that allow the player to become free. Movement is however particularly imperative to the art of dismarking, and that includes not just the act of moving, but the precision of timing and intelligence (i.e. where, when and how to move off the ball). This article details exactly how players can begin to think more deeply about the art of dismarking, and gives a concrete example of a Tactical Theory based article, to participants of our Introduction to Football Analysis course.

When dismarking, it is first important to move away from the ball rather than toward it. The ball carrier needs time and space to make their next action, and moving toward them will only limit their options. Movement away from the ball, into new pockets of space that the ball carrier is unlikely to advance to, is therefore the most advantageous approach. If the ball carrier has space to move into already, an advanced player can continue their run forward into space, rather than dropping toward the ball and looking to receive with their back to goal. This should help to aid the space for the ball carrier, while continuing the forward momentum of the move if the pass is played.

Appropriate distances to the ball carrier must still be applied to ensure the action of that next pass moves the opposition. Particularly, if the player on the ball suddenly finds themselves under pressure, movement toward the situation must immediately occur to aid the teammate in their quick decision making.

Players must also be careful not to just move for the sake of moving. This is the mistake that many youth players make when training concepts around off-the-ball movement. They simply move without any clear indication of where to move based on the four elements (ball, opposition, teammates and space). When dismarking, you want to lose your opponent. That means disguise, deception, quick thinking and speed of movement become imperative to the process. You want the marking player to become distracted by what’s happening on the ball, such as the ball carrier actually carrying the ball forward rather than staying static. If they stay still, the marking players have an easier time of staying on top of their opponents. But when breaking at speed, it becomes much easier to lose sight of the situation and dismark.


When it comes to receiving, it’s also important to remember to scan the field for the best indications of how to take a first touch. When the opponent approaches from behind, it is often best to keep the body between the defender and the ball, facing the direction of the pass. But receiving on the half-turn can also be advantageous if time and space is given, so the player needs to be continuously aware of their surroundings. If the opponent arrives at top speed, it becomes all the easier for the player to turn, flick or shake past the opponent on a one-touch. This is where receiving with the front foot, or even different methods of receiving (such as through the legs or outside of the boot) can be advantageous. Keira Walsh is a masterful example of this art.

When receiving with the back-to-goal, layoffs can also be useful in finding a “third man/woman” and opening new corridors of space. Receiving with the back to goal is a common pressing trigger for opposition teams, so they will naturally attract pressure to draw defenders. This means new pockets of space will always open, and can be taken advantage of with clever and incisive movement.

This is one of the preeminent factors to off-the-ball movement and attacking space. As one chess piece moves, the opposition will always respond. It is therefore relevant and important to attack the space that the player has opened. In most cases, the most readily exploitable area of space is directly in behind the pressuring defender. This is one of the main reasons why Harry Maguire so often fails when he steps out from centre-back, as he vacates too much space in behind that others cannot account for.

Smart possession-based teams will then use a powerful centre-forward to distract the opposition, having their striker drop toward the ball, play on a one-touch, and then spin in behind to arrive late to the party.

The type of pass can even indicate where pressure is likely to come from and in some cases how much time and space a player may have to make their next action. For example, when receiving a long diagonal switch into the wing, pressure is likely to come from the same way the pass came. The opposition will likely be attempting to shift across, so it would be most advantageous for the touch to be taken forward down the line, rather than back toward where the ball came from, giving the player more time to make their next action. They need to be careful, recognizing the touchline to be right by their side, so the touch must be in front of the body and within their own reach, away from any incoming pressurizers.

In many cases, progressive passes are also the ones players should be looking to spray to aid in dismarking processes. When defending in either a high or mid-block, it is very easy for defenders to see what is in front of them. But it is more difficult to recognize what lies behind the eyes on the back of their head that they clearly don’t have. So if the player in possession can play a progressive pass, particularly one to a well-positioned teammate, the opposition will now have several players needing to adjust their position. They may even turn their bodies completely to face the new situation, losing sight of what’s behind them (the opponent they once marked tightly). That can then allow the team to suddenly dismark.


One of my favourite ways to dismark, particularly from a pedagogical perspective, is the notion of rotation. We discussed this at length with Erik Ten Hag’s Ajax over the years. This is where a previously marked player moves away from the situation, taking the defender with them. A new player can then move into that freed up space, where their teammate previously found themselves tightly marked.

This is particularly useful from attacking throw-ins. I recently discussed this at length with a coach in my mentorship program, and how the variability in Liverpool’s movement from throw-ins creates space for a successful first contact. This is why most teams will now engage their centre-forward on throw-ins from anywhere on the pitch, as it’s just one more player who can suddenly arrive to the situation at speed. Whether they find themselves marked by a player following their path or not, the variability that inevitably creates gives the team breathing room to exploit space.

If two players then find themselves in the same passing lane, it then becomes advantageous for at least one player to move away from the situation, which should invariably open up space for their teammate. Opposite movements, like the branches sprouting out from a tree trunk, can also be another way to accomplish this feat. As both players move away from the situation in opposite directions, new space may even open through the centre for the ball carrier to advance into. But we cannot ignore the importance of timing when it comes to the player in possession. They must make the pass or next action before the opposition react to the situation as it unfolds, but not before their own teammates have time to appropriately adjust.

This is one more reason why possession-based teams like Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund will often play with players in close proximity. It then becomes easier for variability, rotations, and one-touch combinations to occur. It then allows the ease of access for the layoff receiver to take the weight off the pass, and bounce the pass without any additional force, knowing their teammates remain in close proximity.

But as previously noted, the circulation of the ball between players deeper on the field can then become imperative in opening up pockets to disseminate progressive passes up ahead. This is why City attack in a 2-3-5 shape, remaining patient in their progressive passes out from the back. They are looking for the most advantageous moment to play forward, where their central overloads and close proximity can then fully exploit the opposition. Rather than just playing progressive passes into compacted areas, they aim to move the opposition into oblivion, attracting pressure, with their movement and rotation, until the right pocket of space opens to explode. This one more reason why scanning of the field becomes imperative, allowing players in possession to adequately time their passes.


Overall, dismarking is not that complicated of a process when you really boil it down. Sound movement, corresponding with appropriate timing of decision making on behalf of the players around the situation (such as the player on the ball) will always lead to imbalances in the opposition, particularly if the players scan the field and assess aspects of ball, opposition, teammates and space. With the tips in this article, players can now take their craft to the next level, and become dismarking gurus.

So there it is! How players can master the art of dismarking. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Theory pieces, and our coverage of CANPL + Women’s Football content. Also be sure to give us a follow @mastermindsite all over social media. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

This article is part of our Introduction to Football Analysis – Online Course with Rhys Desmond. See what else is in store for the course and navigate to the next section below.

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