By: Ben Chrnelich, NLSA’s Youth Development Program (YDP) Coordinator
When I was a teenager and then a college player, the opportunities to watch professional soccer were limited. Every four years we would be able to watch World Cup games in low-definition with a camera that was placed at the top of the stadium! Once in a while ESPN would broadcast a Champions League match or Euro Cup final, but these were often at inconvenient times for a US based fan. As a result, most of my “watching” took place during my matches, while I was on the field. I normally played as a central or outside defender, so the majority of the game occurred in front of me (vertically or up & down the pitch) and that was the perspective I became accustomed to analyzing. My thoughts, positioning and reactions were based on what I was seeing from my specific vantage point.
When I first started coaching I was required to switch my vantage point to watching the game horizontally (left and right across the pitch) and from near mid-field (during training sessions I still prefer watching from a vertical position, but this of course is not possible during a match). For me, this was a brand new world as I had spent decades watching, reacting and directing as a defender and now I had to figure out how to process a match from a completely different perspective. Additionally, I had to learn how to observe the game from multiple views:
what are the attackers seeing?
how are our midfielders adjusting their shape during the flow of play?
is the defensive line high and connecting with the midfield or playing deep to prevent long-balls?
Initially, I found both of these difficult to accomplish and often instinctively reverted to what I knew best, watching from a single perspective and trying to see the game vertically. Through attending US Soccer and United Soccer Coaches courses and clinics, as well as reading numerous coaching articles, I was able to learn new ways to observe and analyze matches. Incorporating these approaches into my game observation has not only improved my ability to provide better insight to players, but also significantly increased my enjoyment of watching games.
Here are my top 10 suggestions as to how you, a soccer fan and frequent spectator, can improve your game watching experience.
Determine Each Team’s Formation & System of Play
Moments before kick-off, both teams are perfectly lined up in their formations. Check to see what it looks like: 1-4-4-2, 1-4-3-3, 1-4-2-2-2? Evaluate each team’s system of play. Are they technical (possession focused, lots of short-passing), tactical (consistent style of play with repeatable patterns of attack and defense) or physical (overpowering and dominating)? Consider how each team’s formation & system of flow counters their opponent’s strategy.
Alternate Your Focus Between Teams
It’s easy to always watch from the perspective of your favorite club or your player. Switch sides! Five minutes of watching from the opponent’s perspective (pretend that’s the team you’re supporting) will give you plenty of insight as to their style, strengths and weaknesses.
Study the Progression Through the Thirds
There is a reason you see coaches cringe when fans yell “boot it” or “send it”. The beauty of soccer is the build up, opposing forces alternating between attacking and defending. Does the team build from the back? Play quickly to the midfielders? Look early for attackers out-wide? Understanding a team’s strategy for progressing the ball through the thirds (defensive, midfield & attacking thirds) will provide plenty of insight towards defending their progression.
Watch the Full Flow of Play vs Watching the Ball
Especially from a sideline perspective, it is easy to “ball-watch”, all your attention is focused on the player with the ball and what is happening in that immediate 3-yard area. Pick your head up, canvas the entire field and observe what is happening within the current third of the field; which players are moving off the ball to create passing lines; is an opposite side player making a run, is the defense keeping their shape or coming apart? There are so many interesting dynamics happening away from the ball – see if you can spot them!
Try to Anticipate the Next 2-3 Plays
Survey the field and try to process the same options the player with the ball has. Does she have two players square for a pass? Is there an attacker making a run and the ball can be played over the defensive line? Is there space to go forward and find 2-v-1’s? Players have many options every second the ball is at their feet, put yourself in that position and see what you would do and how that compares to what happens.
Watch for Opposite Side of the Field Runs
Seeing all the components of a play build up is a beautiful experience. Expand your vision to see what is happening on the opposite side of the field; is the defender being stationary and not seeing an attacker getting behind them? Is the far-side attacker setting-up a passing lane so he can run onto a through ball? Is there a far post run occurring that results in the attacker being perfectly positioned to knock-in a cross?
Follow Patterns, Not Plays
Rarely is the same exact play replicated in a game, there are just too many variables; patterns on the other hand are always present. When the outside defenders win the ball, do they always look for the same outlet pass, do they play long, are they always using their right foot, do they like to dribble up the touch line? Can you pick-up established passing combinations? Does the #10 have a “go-to” move? Every team has a pattern, figure it out and your chances of winning increase!
Pick a Unit (attackers, midfielders or defenders) and Focus on Their Positioning
During the first half, I try to watch each unit (both teams, so 6 in total) for about 2 minutes. Are the defenders joining the attack, are the attackers pressing high to win back the ball, are there midfielders who keep losing their shape and end up behind the flow of play? This unit evaluation progression will produce valuable insights for tactical adjustments that need to be made.
Identify “Hot Zones”
Most professional players now wear GPS trackers which collect valuable performance data analytics; one is the team’s field coverage and “hot zones”. While watching a match, try and imagine what the end of game field coverage map would look like. Which areas of the field are getting significant play? Are there players who are always looking to receive the ball in a specific area? Do the midfielders keep playing balls out wide, into space for the #7 or #11 to run onto? Every game’s field coverage map is unique; try and predict what it looks like!
One Coaching Voice
I am lucky to be able to spend a lot of time on the pitch; several times a week and most weekends I am training, coaching or just watching matches. I often look in bewilderment at fans on the sideline who are screaming at their player or team to “GO GO GO, dribble, SHOOT, pass, RUN FASTER, go get her!” 99% of the time these “instructions” are given in isolation with no reference to what else is happening on the field or what the players have been taught in training. I can assure you, players know they are supposed to shoot the ball when the opportunity arises. Players only need to hear One Voice coaching and that’s…..their coach!
As a fan, use these tips to improve your match experience and soccer knowledge; cheer loud and proud for well developed plays, goals and your team’s competitive effort. See you on the fields (soon we all hope)!