Today, more than in the previous decades, soccer is more accessible for our players to watch. The top European leagues are broadcast on cable networks and MLS is thriving (and expanding) twenty years since its inception. The point is, our players have access to watch and learn from the best in the business on a regular basis. Last month’s article “5 Technical Solutions to 5 Technical Problems” considered technical areas of improvement where all of our players can improve. This month we consider the benefits of watching soccer as another tool to enhancing our game play, technical ability, and tactical awareness.
When we ask our players if they watch soccer, the majority will say yes. Ask about a specific game and the players may tell us the score line or who scored the goals. Ask who their favorite player is and the answer is usually an attack-minded “flair” player who routinely appears on the highlight reels. We can certainly understand that entertaining, attack-minded soccer is more fun to watch and that the goal scorers receive the majority of the accolades; however, our players can benefit much more from watching professional soccer and emulating what they see on the television than just the step-overs and flash of skill. They can benefit most from watching, learning, and emulating the simple, little things that players do rather routinely at the highest levels.
It’s not to say that we are asking our players to study full soccer games. I do not think there would be a terrible amount of interest in that. Rather, critically watching even just 10-15 minutes of a game will illustrate numerous examples of what we will consider below: passing, receiving, and movement.
Passing: Watch how players pass the ball and the technique that is used. What part of the foot does the player use and at what moment; at which distance does the player strike the ball with the instep vs. the laces. Breaking it down even further, for example, when making a pass with the instep: the heel is down, the toe is up, the knees are slightly bent, the hips are squared, and the plant foot is pointed in the direction to where the player intends to place the ball. The player is balanced over the ball, and the pass is completed with follow through of the leg much like a swing of a bat or golf club.
These mechanics, when ingrained into the player’s muscle memory will increase the rate at which a pass is successfully completed. Watching and then coming to train intending to emulate these mechanics should help to improve a player’s technical ability in this regard.
Receiving: Similar to passing the ball, our players can watch and learn from how professionals receive a ball. Pay close attention to which part of the foot is used to receive the ball and when (in what instance). When does the player receive with their instep or, alternatively, when do they use the outside of their foot vs. the sole of their foot. Very often, for example, a player in tight space, with their back to goal, may choose to receive a ball with the sole of their foot to ensure better control and space between the ball and the defender. Whereas, a player in a wide position with their back to goal may, after checking their shoulder, decide to receive with the outside of their foot in order to turn and take a second explosive touch into space behind a defender.
Specifically, watch how a player receiving the ball:
1. Looks around and over their shoulder prior to receiving the ball;
2. Moves to create space (or peel off) from their defender;
3. Moves their feet and adjusts their body to receive the ball; and
4. Positions their body, i.e. opens their hips to the field and attempts to receive the ball so they are able to play the next pass forward when possible.
Notice how a player receiving the ball does not stand flat footed, but moves in way to increase their likelihood of successfully receiving the ball with a good first touch that will set up a better second touch – whether it be a pass or a dribble.
Being able to receive a ball well with a good first touch will make the next decision and action easier on the player and should allow the team to play more quickly and composed.
Movement: I read a statistic not that long ago that, in a 90-minute soccer game, a player will spend 80-90% (give or take) without the ball. I am paraphrasing of course, and a player’s position as well as the tactical scheme and ability of the opposition will cause for fluctuations. But what is important about this statistic is that it shows that a large part of a player’s contribution to the team while on the field is what they are doing when the ball is not at their feet or in their immediate vicinity.
I am sure our players and our parents have heard or even encouraged our players that they “gotta move” more. If being static is “bad” because it limits passing options and opportunities in attack, or allows too much time and space when defending, then surely movement – running – is preferred and “good.” The more movement – running – the better. Well, not necessarily so. As the late, great Johan Cruyff once pointed out, movement is about being in the right place at the right moment, not too early, and not too late.
So, what does this mean for our players, and what should they look for?
1. In possession/ball on the opposite side of the field: Watch where and how the players position themselves so as to work as one unit. If the ball is on the left side, watch what the player on the right side is doing. How are they positioning themselves and where are they positioning themselves when in or out of possession? Believe it or not, a right back’s positioning can make a world of difference even when the ball may be all the way up at the feet of the left winger.
2. Switch of play: Watch what the player is doing and how they begin to position themselves
when the ball is being switched from the left side to the right side. When do they start to adjust their positioning and where are they moving?
3. Transitioning: When does a player spread out for attack vs. step-in toward the ball to get compact to help defend? How does a player’s adjustment aid to starting or stopping a counter-attack or to helping retention or possession?
4. After the pass: What does the player do immediately after they make a pass? Do they move forward, stay back in support, stay stationary for a one-touch back-pass, or move laterally a few steps side-to-side to offer a triangular option?
5. Player specific: Admittedly, a player’s movement depends on their position and role in the team. It is best to focus on players in positions similar to yours. If you are a center-back, then watch how a center back offers support in attack and cover in defense. If you are a winger or a midfielder, watch how space is created and how the players work as a part of the whole when going forward and recovering coming back to defend.
Think about movement as a constant adjustment of your position based upon where you are on the field in relation to the ball, the opponent, your teammate, area of the field, and the moment (attacking, defending, or transitioning from one to the other).
Of course there’s much more that we can learn from watching the game, including, our starting position for defending, tackling technique, shooting technique, how to exploit 1 vs. 1 and numbers up opportunities, but the above provides for a good starting point where our players can make small improvements that will have a large overall impact on their game.