The four families of support: Life, early, late and deep

Understanding the position of the support player in relation to the ball will mean there is more chance to break the advantage line.

To cross the gain line against an organised defence means the ball carrier has to beat his man one-on-one in a duel. If he cannot, he relies on other players around him to pass to, or support. The closest players form an arrow. Understanding who is in the arrow, who supports it and what happens next, can be split into “families” who deal with the “life of the ball.”

The arrow groundwork takes place among the group of players in the “early family” while those in the “life of the ball” family ensure its conservation.

The ball lives and is passed in front of the defence and to help players understand their position in relation to the ball and their role, they must ask three questions:

  1. “Where am I in relation to the ball?”
  2. “What should I do in this position?”
  3. “What is my role?”

As to the first, the player should be able to take his bearings in relation to the ball and will then belong to one of these four families:

  • Life of the ball players
  • Early players
  • Late support players
  • Players in deep support


The duel: We like to call the battle between the attacker and defender the duel, where the attacker wants to beat his opponent with skill, strength and speed.

The arrow: At the front of the arrow is a player who takes on a defender (or goes for space). The player who passed him the ball is one side of the arrow with another on his outside. Finally, there is a player just behind the ball carrier.

Life of the ball players

These players will primarily ensure the ball is protected – their duty will be to fight standing or to the ground. The running lines of these close teammates will be:

  • Converging on the ball
  • Flexed and braced stance
  • Speed or explosiveness on impact
  • Powerful in their backs and arms: We can then talk of “thrusting, cleaning, lifting, removing, repulsing…”

Early players

While players in the “life of the ball” family ensure its protection, early players will:

Use the full width of the pitch, stretching the defence to the limit to open up gaps.

Maintain the depth necessary to allow them to pass the ball while staying far enough away from the defenders to offload the ball laterally, kick it into a gap or hold on to it to set up a “duel”.

They will strive to break through the defenders to gain any advantage and will already be positioned on the defender’s outside shoulder in order to do so.

They will look away from the contact zone to analyse the balance of power by:

  • Seeing how many defenders they have to beat
  • Analysing the defensive line, such as the position of the deep wings, placement of the full back behind the ball or at the end of the line, openings between the locks, huddled or not.

They will watch and spot all the clues that will allow them to choose the right attacking move when they get the ball.

Examples of decisionmaking

  1. “There’s three of them in defence, there’s four of us, so quick play on the outside to outflank them.”
  2. “Our offensive line has stretched the defence cross field, so we set up an arrow in one of the gaps.”

Late support players

Those players who are in late support or inside the line of the ball quite often originate from the life of the ball family. They reposition themselves across the field according to space available.

Those furthest away will follow the movement of the ball while spreading out. They will neither be involved in the confrontation nor in the use of the ball but analyse the situation and get ready for future phases.

Those closest to the life of the ball family will have to be very reactive in their analysis of the balance of power, asking themselves: “Am I needed in the life of the ball or early family?” If this is the case, they will act at once, otherwise will remain watchful within the late support family while following the progression of the ball.

Those players recover physically while remaining aware of the state of play so as to react instantly if needed.

Players in deep support

They have already prepositioned themselves behind the offensive line of early players or have broken away from the family of late support players.

Their cue will be the direction of the ball and the ball carrier’s inside shoulder.

These deep support players often make two mistakes:

  1. Well positioned deep behind the ball at the start of the phase, they come and stand between the early players, thus reducing the area, helping the opponent’s drift defence and losing all their forward penetration.
  2. Or they remain behind the early players who circulate the ball laterally but they place themselves on the ball carrier’s outside; if the latter breaks through or is blocked by the defender, they can no longer play their part as deep support, since they have overshot the ball.

Another very common mistake is made by early players who, sensing the presence behind their backs of one or two deep support players (who often are forwards), no longer seek to attempt a direct duel in the defensive gap, but give the ball away to the deep support player.

The latter is quite far from the advantage line and even if he is powerful and running at full speed, he is often stopped by defenders.

Those players in deep support must remain patient, allow the early players to attempt duels, set up an arrow in one of the gaps they have prepared and intervene from deep, coming forward to ensure crossing of the gain line, keep going forward or maintain possession of the ball in the event the attempt should fail.


A good player will be able to answer the question: “Where am I in relation to the ball?” so he knows his place in one of the four families of the game and knows exactly what he is expected to do.

  • He ensures the protection of the ball and its forward progress thanks to the collective thrust, if he is in the “life of the ball” family.
  • He attempts to outflank the defence by passing the ball, or sets up an arrow if he is in the “early“ family.
  • He works on the line of the ball carrier by positioning himself to ensure the continuity of the breakthrough, the protection or re-direction of the ball in case of blocking, if he is in the “deep support” family.
  • He recovers while following the direction of the ball and analysing by anticipation the way play will go while asking: Should I remain in this “late support” family and wait for a reversal of attack, or join the “life of the ball”, “deep support”, or even “early” family?

To do so, the player will analyse various criteria related to the balance of power.

For instance, is the ball moving forward or are we being held up? Will the ball soon be released or do they need my help?

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