Unpacking awareness and decision making in the professional and youth game

Unpacking awareness and decision making in the professional and youth game

“Awareness is the most important thing in soccer.” Paul Dalglish makes this proclamation regularly to the players at Ottawa Fury, reminding them that it is often this skill that separates the best from the rest. As an assistant coach at Fury, I’m happy to be a part of a club that believes in the continued education of professional players, and this is an area that players are forever trying to improve in. The question for them is simple: ‘How can I become more aware and therefore make better decisions in a game of football?’

Barcelona’s former midfield maestro, Xavi, once said: “The difference between them and us is we have more players who think before they play, quicker. When you arrive at Barça the first thing they teach you is: think. Think, think, think. Quickly. Lift your head up, move, see, think. Look before you get the ball.”

At the 2015 NSCAA Coaches Convention in Philadelphia, Joan Vila delivered a presentation as the director of methodology for the Barcelona academy. Vila revealed a study whereby Xavi’s ‘looking’ was analysed for the purposes of better educating young players at La Masia on the topic of awareness on a football pitch. Each time Xavi’s head turned in one direction to another, the Barcelona analysts tallied up the total for 90 minutes. In those 90 minutes, Xavi looked 804 times to paint a picture of what was around him before, during and after possession of the ball at his feet.

Research on English Premier League players by Geir Jordet, Jonathan Bloomfield and Johan Heijmerikx (2013) shows that there is a direct correlation between the number of searches done by a player (counted by head turns away from the location of the ball) and the player’s performance. The research indicated that in the lead up to receiving the ball (the 10 seconds before receiving the ball), those who had at one point in their career received a prestigious award – such as FIFA World Player of the Year – explore at a rate of 0.33 searches per second – just over three searches away from the ball in 10 seconds – compared to the 0.27 searches per second from those that hadn’t ever received similar awards. At the top end of the results, both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard averaged 0.62 searches per second, over six searches every 10 seconds.

“Understanding requires not just a moment of perception, but a continuous awareness, a constant state of inquiry without conclusion.” Bruce Lee

After painting these pictures of the moments that are around you and those moments which are yet to take place, players must then make the best decisions they can. Raymond Verheijen was the first coach educator I came across to place these two skills side by side, detailing the consequential relationship that exists between them.

Raymond Verheijen is a famed coach who is renowned for his teachings of the game. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to two World Football Academy Expert Meetings by Verheijen, once to deliver presentations in South Africa and once to act as a mentor to the coaches that attended his expert meeting at Feyenoord, which included the likes of Anson Dorrance (Head Coach at University of North Carolina Women’s team), Emma Hayes (Chelsea Ladies Head Coach) and many other reputable coaches, bringing together a truly unique learning environment.

Verheijen states that football is composed of four elements, in hierarchical order:

  1. Insight: game understanding and reading of the game through awareness.
  2. Decision-making: selecting the best decision within the principles of the game.
  3. Technique: executing your decision using the appropriate technique.
  4. Conditioning: being able to perform all of the above physically over 90 minutes.

One of the biggest issues faced in North America and around most of the globe is the lack of emphasis placed on game insight and awareness in youth development. The hierarchical order of the four elements is often turned on its head, and instead we produce physically dominant players who possess an abundance of technical skills but are unable to make the best decisions; unable to move into the best spaces and paint a picture around them to demonstrate a superior game understanding to others.

When players are developed in a way whereby awareness and insight aren’t consistently referred to, the typical sequence of events that takes place when a player receives a ball and makes a decision follow the order of:

*Play includes any of the following actions: pass, dribble, shoot, cross

The typical sequence of events from above results in players losing the ball as they take their first touch or players who now need two or three touches each time they receive the ball. By the time the third touch has been taken, spaces have closed down and opportunities to exploit the opposition being out of shape and not protecting a key area have now disappeared.

“Someone who has juggled the ball in the air during a game, after which four defenders of the opponent get the time to run back, that’s the player people think is great. I say he has to go to a circus.” Johan Cruyff

However, at Ottawa Fury, the coaching staff make a conscious effort to reorder the sequence of events as players receive the ball to:

  1. Look: paint pictures
  2. Decide: prepare your body and position
  3. Receive: do you need to take a touch to create control for your decision?
  4. Play: pass, shoot, cross, direction of their next touch or dribble

By looking and making at least one decision before receiving the ball, you can then get your body prepared to execute whatever decision you have decided to make. This might mean you need to turn your shoulders and hips towards where you have decided to play before receiving the ball, therefore taking less touches and executing your decision at the correct moment. Now the game moves faster and we can find those dangerous passes that take out as many opponents as possible.

If we take Gerardo Bruna (the former Real Madrid and Liverpool player at Ottawa Fury) as our example and examine the pass the Argentine played over the top of the Harrisburg City Islanders’ defensive line to Ryan Williams in the 1-0 victory on the 10th of June 2017. In the six seconds between Sito Seoane being on the ball and Ryan Williams receiving the ball (through Gerardo Bruna) we can identify ten moments where Bruna changed where he was looking before making the pass.

Gerardo Bruna’s 10 looks in six seconds:

  1. To the ball as Sito Seoane moves forward with it.
  2. At his nearest opponent, Mouhamed Dabo, the Harrisburg City Islanders midfielder formerly of Inter Milan.
  3. Back towards the ball and the passing channel between him and Seoane.
  4. Forward to look at the movement of Eddie Edward and see if he can play the ball to him over the top.
  5. Back towards the ball and the passing channel between him and Seoane.
  6. Away from the ball, over his shoulder to Ryan Williams behind him.
  7. Back towards the ball and the passing channel between him and Seoane.
  8. Another check to see the movement of Williams behind him.
  9. Back towards the ball and the passing channel between him and Seoane.
  10. One final check after receiving the ball at Williams before playing the ball over the top of the Harrisburg defenders.

Reviewing the footage of Bruna, we can see how he shapes his shoulders and hips before receiving the ball so he is able to execute the decision he has made through looking. By constantly looking back to the ball, Bruna is able to constantly keep himself in a passing lane for Seoane.

It’s then important for players to understand how to evaluate their decision making; after all, what is, objectively speaking, the best decision we can make on the pitch? What made this pass from Bruna the best possible one available to him in this moment?

In football – without stating the obvious – the following events are listed in hierarchical order when in possession (detailed for purposes of analytical understanding rather than teaching):

  1. Scoring
  2. Assisting
  3. Playing the pass before the assist of a goal
  4. Playing into the space behind the opposition defensive line (pass, dribble etc)
  5. Playing into the space in front of the opposition defensive line
  6. Playing into the space behind the opposition midfield line
  7. Switching the ball to another area (typically 15 yards or more so the defenders no longer block your path) where you can then attempt to complete an event from above
  8. Playing out of the area you are in so you can complete one of the events from above

There has been a great deal of research conducted on events 4-6 above and further information can be found in this article on the website Just Kickin’ It (link: https://justkickinitpod.com/2017/06/19/objectivity-subjectivity-and-the-philosophy-of-defending/) or in the book The Philosophy of Football: In Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa available from www.rocketbirdlondon.com.

There is a strong correlation between the number of forward passes that go beyond the opposition defensive lines and winning games. Out of the 51 games at Euro 2016, 34 were won by those who played more forward passes behind opposition defenders, 14 were drawn and three were lost.

You might remember the England game against Iceland and the 2-1 victory that took the minnows to the quarter-finals; in that game, England had 68 percent possession but still lost. Possession is often used as an indicator of dominance, however if we instead looked at the number of defenders the ball was successfully passed beyond, England only managed to beat 28 defenders, whereas Iceland were able to beat 41 defenders by being more effective with the ball.

Using this idea of play and taking inspiration from Clive Woodward, the former England rugby coach who won the World Cup in 2003, we can start to think about the relationship between ‘looking’ and ‘decision making’ one step further. Woodward used an awareness model called ‘CTC’, which stood for ‘Crossbar, Touchline and Communicate’. That is to say that players made decisions based on awareness of being able to go forward when possible and sidewards when it was not possible to advance.

Football is a game whereby you can pass the ball forwards as well as run with it, therefore an extra dimension of looking is required for an awareness model to work.

At a youth academy in the past, I helped develop a model of awareness called FAT + C (fondly named ‘fatsy’) which stands for ‘Forward, Across, Towards and Communicate’. I still think of the times the opposition coach would look over at me in amusement as I reminded an 11-year-old about ‘fatsy’ during the game as the player missed an opportunity to play a controlled forward pass or the player missed the opportunity to position himself higher up the field to support a forward pass.

The model of awareness was to work alongside the hierarchy of decision-making listed above; to look forward to see if you or the person on the ball can pass beyond the opposition midfield line, to look across to see if you or the person on the ball can play out of the area you are currently in (assuming you cannot play forwards because the opposition is blocking your way), to then look towards the ball to see how you can get around and support the ball and help get out of the situation you are in. Each new pass in the sequence of play returns to the top of the hierarchy of events. Lastly, a team should continually communicate these decisions and voice their awareness and bring about unison in the team’s actions.

If we return back to Gerardo Bruna and the pass he plays to Ryan Williams, we can say that the body positioning Bruna shapes himself up into before receiving the ball acts as a non-verbal communication to Williams to run forward to receive the next pass. Communication doesn’t always mean players need to point and shout at one another, but instead learn to read each other’s non-verbal ways of communicating: body shape and positioning, weight of pass, direction of the pass and more.

Unpacking awareness is a complex area of player development, from restructuring the order of events from before, during and after receiving a ball to structuring awareness so it lines up with a desired decision-making model and with your playing style. However, if we want to move away from a world where football is played at a slower pace or where turnovers are commonplace, then we need to address some form of awareness and decision making at the earliest of ages. Without this, the technique we are using doesn’t elevate us to sit among the best in the game.

I’ll leave you with the most prophetic of words by the master himself, Johan Cruyff: “When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball three minutes on average. So, the most important thing is what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.”

By Jed Davies. Jed is a UEFA licensed coach, Assistant Coach at Ottawa Fury, author of The Philosophy of Football: In Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa (2016) and Coaching The Tiki-Taka Style of Play (2013) and co-Founder of Inspire Football Coach Education. Follow him on Twitter at @TPiMBW.

You can buy Jed’s latest book here.

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