Understanding the Thirds of a Soccer Field

Updated on March 28, 2020

Many times you will hear soccer coaches or pundits refer to the thirds of the field. But what exactly are these thirds, and why should you care about them as a player, coach, or fan? Simply put, the thirds aid the understanding of concepts such as risk-taking, positioning, and developing a common language to communicate the playing style of a team.

As a player, having a grasp of the concept of thirds will make you more self-aware of your decisions and where those decisions are being made on the field. As a coach, intentionally choosing to use the thirds in your rhetoric will allow you to be a more effective teacher of the game. Moreover, the concept of thirds unifies fans as they use it in describing the misfortunes of their team!

Keep in mind that a soccer pitch is typically 120 yards long, making each third 40 yards in length. However, the notion of splitting the field into thirds is just as applicable on any size field. When reading about the different thirds of the field as well as the risk-taking and positioning associated with them, think about your relationship to the game as a player, coach, or fan and how it applies to your role specifically.

Defensive Third

The defensive third is known as the first third, extending from the goal your team is defending until 40 yards up the field. As the first third, the defensive third is usually where play starts when a team has possession of the ball. Goal kicks start in a team’s own defensive third, and many teams try to start building play from the goalkeeper through the center backs and fullbacks.

Middle Third

The middle third is bisected by the halfway line and extends 20 yards on either side of midfield. Furthermore, when you hear people say that the game is won and lost in the midfield, they are really referring to the middle third of the pitch. Once the ball finds its way into the middle third, players often start thinking about going to goal.

Attacking Third

Also known as the offensive or final third, the attacking third starts at the end of the middle third and goes until the opposition’s goal. Every coach would love for as much of the game as possible to be played in the team’s attacking third because it continually keeps the pressure on the opponent and increases the chance of his or her team scoring.


The concept of thirds is most commonly used to inform players’ risk tolerance in their decision-making. In short, players should be extremely risk-averse in the defensive third, moderately risk-averse in the middle third, and extremely risk tolerant in the final third. You may be asking why this is the case.

Well, if the ball is lost closer to your own goal, then the other team can quickly counter and score, leaving your team virtually no time to recover. Furthermore, risk-taking should be encouraged in the final third because goal scoring often requires some invention and guile from players.


It’s important to realize that a player’s position is not indicative of what third they should necessarily find themselves in. However, the third a player starts in is determined by his or her position. Let me explain.

Defenders start in the defensive third but step up (into the middle third) as the ball moves up the pitch. Furthermore, many defenders find themselves in the final third on set pieces, for example. Midfielders start in the middle third but are expected to spend quite a bit of time in the other two thirds because they both attack and defend frequently. Finally, forwards start in the attacking third but will often find themselves in the upper part of the midfield when checking in. Some forwards are even asked to defend corners in the defensive third.

In short, there is only a relationship between a player’s position and that player’s starting point on the field.

Common Language

Lastly, the concept of thirds is convenient for communicating a team’s playing style. For example, coaches that want to build from the back will talk about playing from the defensive third, through the middle third, and into the attacking third. Other coaches fancy long diagonal balls that start in the defensive third, bypass the middle third, and arrive at a player making a straight run in the final third.

When we break the field into three equal units, it’s easy to achieve a visual framework for ball movement and a playing philosophy for both players and coaches alike.


Understanding the thirds of the soccer field is something every player especially needs to understand. It’s beneficial to start teaching these concepts to younger players as soon as they have a foundation in the fundamentals of the game. The thirds of the field will always comprise an integral part of how the game is taught throughout the world.

© 2018 Dennis


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