Football, like many sports and interests, can seem to have a language all of its own at times. This can make it seem hard to understand, or even impenetrable at times, for those that have not grown up with the beautiful game, especially if English is not your first language. Is a clean sheet something to do with laundry? Does the sweeper help out with such matters? What about the draft excluder? Those are just the basics, with a whole array of terminology that is either far more niche, more technical, or both! What hope is there for a football newbie?
Well, whether your interest in these terms is simply to help you blend in with a new group of football-loving friends, is part of a growing love for the game, or is because the World Cup or Euros is here and you can’t escape the football even if you wanted to, we’re here to help. We’ll start with the basics and then move on to the more technical stuff and you’ll be sounding like you were born and raised on the terraces in no time!
Football Lingo Basics
If you are new to the game there are certainly a few things you need to understand and terms and phrases you will hear often. Let’s take a look at some of these key pieces of football lingo.
A situation where two players, one from each side, make a physical challenge for a loose ball and have an equal chance of winning it.
Added Time (or Stoppage, or Injury Time)
A period of time that is added to the end of each half of 45 minutes to allow for any stoppages or injuries, as well as substitutions, time wasting and other delays. Usually this is between one and six minutes, although at the 2022 World Cup we regularly saw longer additional time.
The referee “plays advantage” (or “the advantage”) when a foul has been committed but the fouled team or player still has the ball. If they are in a beneficial position, rather than stop play and award a free kick, the ref will wave play-on, playing advantage if they believe the attacking team will be better off.
Against the Run of Play
Any positive action, but usually a goal or at least a very good chance, achieved by the side that was not dominating the game at the time.
Box to Box Midfielder
A midfielder who has it all and is neither an attacking, nor defensive player and who operates at both ends of the pitch. Bryan Robson, Steven Gerrard, Patrick Vieira and now Jude Bellingham are all fine examples.
When a player scores two goals they score (or bag) “a brace”.
A clean sheet is when a team doesn’t concede a goal. One may refer to the team, goalkeeper or defenders as having “kept a clean sheet”.
A player is cup tied when their previous involvement in a cup, in the same season, for a different club, means they cannot play for their current team in that competition.
A derby game is a grudge clash between two rival teams. Traditionally these would be local rivals from the same city, such as Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. The term is used more widely now and you might talk of a West Yorkshire derby between Leeds and Huddersfield or even a regional derby such as the North West derby between Liverpool and Manchester United.
A side’s formation is how they line up on the pitch and often defines what sort of tactics they intend to use. The most common formation in English football for much of the last 50 years has been “4-4-2″, meaning four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers (the goalkeeper is a given and so never included in formations).
Other well-known formations include the more defensive 5-3-2 (formations always start with the defence), the ultra-attacking and rarely used these days 4-2-4 and perhaps the two most common ones in modern football, 4-3-3, and 4-2-3-1. This latter formation uses the standard four defenders, two largely defensive midfielders, three attacking midfielders and a single main striker.
Giant Killing (or Cupset)
A giant killing, or in modern portmanteau parlance, a cupset, is when a side from a lower division gets the better of a supposedly superior club in the FA Cup, or less typically the League Cup. Cupsets are all part of the famed “magic of the cup”.
The hairdryer, or hairdryer treatment, is when the manager is so angry they scream at players with such heat and ferocity it is as if a hairdryer is being turned upon them. The term is most closely associated with Sir Alex Ferguson who was famed for his angry, expletive-filled outbursts in the dressing room.
When a player scores three goals they are said to have scored a hat-trick.
A nutmeg is when the player with the ball puts it through the legs of the defender, either playing a pass between their legs or knocking it through and then running around to continue their dribble. The term originates from the days when nutmeg was expensive and scammers would replace the real thing with wooden replicas. At the end of the 19th century, the conned buyer would feel much like the modern-day defender – a little bit silly.
Also known as a wall pass or a give-and-go, a one-two is when a player passes the ball to a teammate and then receives it straight back from that player with their first touch. Often the first player will have run around or behind a defender to receive the pass, the opposition player having been drawn, if only for a fraction of a second, to the ball as it is passed.
If a side joins another team on loan, they are ineligible to play against the side that loaned them out, known as their parent club.
Poacher (or Fox in the Box)
A different sort of striker to a Target Man (see below), who tends to stay close to goal, is a fine finisher and usually scores most of their goals from close range. Arsene Wenger crowned ex-Everton striker Francis Jeffers his “Fox in the box”, though with eight goals in 39 games it didn’t quite work out that way.
“If in doubt, kick it out”, is an adage that some defenders, especially of the old-school variety, swear by. And if the ball is to be kicked out, the proverbial “row Z” is where a player may aim – which is to say as far away as possible. If, on the other hand, a penalty, free kick or shot ends up “in row Z”, this is far less desirable.
A sitter is a very easy chance to score and a striker absolutely does not want to miss a sitter.
A forward who is usually tall, good in the air, strong and can be a target for crosses and long, high balls, and who can hold the ball up well.
Pronounced to rhyme with car, or spelt out as “vee-eh-are”, this is the Video Assistant Referee. Often controversial, this was widely introduced in 2018, and means that some refereeing decisions can be made by, or with the assistance of, a group of referees watching the game on television and who can use video replays and other technology to help with key decisions.
The woodwork is the frame of the goal, though it is no longer made of wood. If a player or shot “hits the woodwork” it means the ball has struck either the post or the cross bar.
More Niche Terms: Time to Really Impress
The richness of the English language is in large part down to the regular addition of new terms and phrases. Here are some less common phrases you might hear and which you can drop into conversation to really impress your football-loving friends.
Football is a team of 11 players but the 12th man is the crowd, indicating that a vociferous home crowd can act as a 12th player for a team, helping spur them to victory.
This is a negative way of describing the style of a team that usually refers to a side that is overly defensive, overly aggressive or both.
A player is credited with an assist if they play the pass prior to a goal being scored. In modern football this stat has taken on greater importance, with forward players very much judged on their numbers. Sadly, the stats do not tell us if the player in question beat three defenders before making an inch-perfect pass that the scorer couldn’t miss, or whether they simply played a simple pass but the scorer then slalomed past half the opposition team before bending in a 30-yarder.
Doing a Leeds
A club is doing a Leeds if their financial mismanagement off the pitch, especially if down to over-ambitious spending, sees them in danger of receiving a points or financial penalty, or of going into administration.
Another term that relates to Sir Alex Ferguson, Fergie time is when injury time (see above) is longer than seems normal, or the ref plays beyond the allotted time. The phrase comes from the large number of very late goals SAF’s sides scored and the perceived notion that refs would essentially play on until United did score a vital goal!
How a side controls the end of a game when they have the current score or result they need. Good game management will involve keeping the ball, slowing the game down, wasting time and maintaining good defensive shape. In contrast, bad game management will mean attacking when not needed, giving the ball away and taking unnecessary risks.
A player’s goals, plus their assists, is their total number of goal involvements and this is increasingly a key stat for any forward-thinking player. A player with eight assists and 14 goals in a season, who played 40 games, has 22 goal involvements at a rate of one per 1.8 games.
Lost the Dressing Room
When the players no longer have faith in the manager or their methods, the boss is said to have “lost the dressing room”. Once this happens the manager’s time is usually limited as it is vital that the players are prepared to work hard and fight for their boss.
Named after Antonin Panenka, the player to first bring such cheek to a global audience, a Panenka penalty is one where the taker chips the ball down the centre of the goal as the keeper (hopefully) dives to the side.
Park the Bus
Probably coined by José Mourinho, to park the bus is to defend in numbers and sit back very deep, with little thought to attacking. See “Low block” below.
A rabona is a technique where a player shoots, passes or crosses the ball with the “wrong” foot. If a right-footed player is running down the right wing, the natural way to cross the ball would be with their right foot. With a rabona the right leg is the standing leg and the left leg is crossed behind and round it to make contact with the ball.
This term is used to describe, often pejoratively, the sort of fan that wears club colours, kit and scarf to the game. More hardcore fans may look down on scarfers, though to some ultras and hooligans, a scarfer is any fan uninterested in hooliganism!
Second Season Syndrome
A bit like the difficult second album for a band, second season syndrome refers to the fact that sides often struggle in their second year in a new division. This particularly applies to the Premier League, where a side has the surprise factor in their first season, plus the advantage of their own players being hyped up and excited. They may finish in the top half, only to be relegated 12 months on as that adrenaline fades and other teams figure them out.
Also known as diving, play-acting, or more simply, cheating, simulation is when a player tries to con the referee into thinking they have been fouled on injured by falling over, often theatrically. This is less likely to work now VAR is available to the officials.
Squeaky Bum Time
Yet another “Fergie-ism”, squeaky bum time refers to the stage towards the end of a game, or season, where pressure and nerves can kick in.
Top bins is a phrase used to describe a shot that goes into the top corner and can be used as an exclamation when such a goal is scored or as a descriptive term for that part of the goal.
The diehard fans of a club who follow them home and away no matter what, including in pre-season. Likely to be the most vocal and committed fans. Can also refer to violent fans, particularly in other countries, such as Italy.
The window is the transfer window and a club can typically only sign new players during this period. The dates vary from season to season and league to league but the main window opens in June and ends at the start of September. The January window, or winter window, usually runs from 1st January until the end of the month.
As the game becomes more data-obsessed, xG has become one of the most popular stats. It means “expected goals” and was designed to give a better idea of who had the better of a game than the cruder shots or shots on targets stats. Expected goals is basically a measure of how good the chances created by a side were and how many goals they could be expected to score, on average, based on the chances they had.
Technical, Tactical Terminology
As well as the sort of everyday football lingo you might hear in the pub, from time to time, you might hear something that sounds like it has come from the coaching manual. Dropping a few of these phrases into your conversation will make it sound like you really know what you’re talking about.
Spain, and more recently, Man City (before they signed Erling Haaland), regularly played without a traditional striker and instead deployed a false 9. This player, not necessarily a striker by trade, would frequently drop back into a deeper role (see In the Hole above) giving a side more midfield control and allowing other players to move into attacking positions with more of an element of surprise.
Gegenpressing is a German term that literally means counter-pressing and is related to the high press (see below). Gegenpressing is more about trying to win the ball back as soon as it is lost and though subtly different to a high press, the terms are often used interchangeably. Gegenpress will probably make you sound a bit cooler though.
A high press is a term that started being used more frequently in the 21st century but is arguably a tactic that has been around much longer. In the 1980s, for example, Ian Rush was often cited as Liverpool’s first defender for the way the striker harried the opposition defenders. Some date the high press to the Dutch team at the 1974 World Cup whilst others trace it back to “forechecking”, a tactic developed in Canadian ice hockey in the 1930s!
Whatever its origins, a high press is when the team out of possession puts pressure on their opponent’s defence, rushing and harrying them. This allows them to have their own defenders further up the pitch, compressing play. One of the chief benefits of the high press is that if you are able to win the ball in the opponent’s defensive third you have a great chance of mounting a dangerous attack.
In the Hole
A player operating in the hole is typically a deep-lying attacker or attacking midfielder who plays in between an opponent’s midfield and attack
An inverted winger is a wide player who is right footed but plays on the left side, or left footed but plays on the right. This allows them to cut inside on their better foot and shoot or make a more dangerous, central pass.
Possibly originated by Cristiano Ronaldo, though a skill he subsequently seemed to lose, a knuckleball is a freekick struck with very little spin. This can cause the ball to dip, move erratically and speed up, rather than slow down. This is achieved through technique and possibly hitting the ball on the valve.
As in life generally, much that is new in football is simply something old, repackaged and rebranded. One might say that a low block is simply parking the bus (see above), sitting back, defending deep or defending in numbers. No matter what we call it, this is a tactic that involves accepting limited possession, protecting your defensive third, maintaining shape and limiting the opposition’s chances to find space.
An overlap is a run made by a player on the outside of another player, which is to say closer to the side of the pitch. This either creates space for the player with the ball to cut inside and shoot or allows the overlapping player to receive the ball in space and get a cross into the box.
Overloads can be key to creating a chance and involve a team getting more players than usual into an area of the pitch. This may be as part of an overlap, with an additional midfielder pulling out wide, or be achieved by a full back stepping into central midfield, as Man City often do under Pep Guardiola.
A sweeper traditionally plays behind the defence (but can also play in front), “sweeping up”, whilst also having the ability to bring the ball out into midfield. This is not a position that is particularly in fashion anymore.
Germany’s Manuel Neuer was perhaps the original sweeper keeper, for both the national side and Bayern Munich. When their side have possession, a sweeper keeper will be on the edge of their penalty area or perhaps even higher up the pitch. This facilitates a high press (see above) by allowing the defence to play higher up the pitch, knowing that any long ball over the top can be covered by the goalkeeper. It also refers to the fact that the keeper can start attacks and pass the ball out, with Brazilians Ederson and Allison masters at this.
To switch the ball, or switch play, is a tactic to open up a defence by rapidly moving the ball from one side of the pitch to the other, usually with a single, long pass.
Third Man Run
A third man run is a useful attacking tool to open up a defence. There are many variations but it may see two players interchange passes before a third, running “off the ball” (not in possession) receives it in space that is created by the defence being drawn to the original two players.
Style of possession-based play involving short, quick passing with intricate patterns and lots of movement of players. Associated with the great Barcelona and Spain teams from around 2005 to 2012, it has now begun to take on a negative connotation. Critics feel it is too focussed on possession and passing for its own sake, rather than as a means to scoring.
This style of play is most linked to the Dutch National team of the 1970s, but also Ajax and, before those, the great Hungary side of the 1950s. The key theory is that players can rotate and switch positions and that any player is capable of fulfilling another’s role (goalkeeper aside).
An underlap is like an overlap (see above) but the player usually runs inside the player with the ball, closer to the centre of the pitch.