Posts Tagged ‘ball control’

World Cup ‘Towers’ Worth Watching: Fernando and José Torres

June 2, 2010

Had you asked me two years ago who my favorite player was, it would have been Fernando Torres of Liverpool and Spain. Similar to Italy’s Luca Toni in height, size, and a nose for the goal, every time Fernando touched the ball inside the opponent’s penalty area, he seemed to give himself a chance to score.

Injuries slowed him down this season and with it, Liverpool’s season. The good news (bad news for opponents) is that it looks like he is recovered and rested and will be ready to play for Spain in South Africa. How affective he will be is anyone’s guess. But if he is near 100%, it may be the year of “El Niño.”

But this year’s World Cup may also be the year of “El Gringo!” American José Francisco Torres who plays for Pachuca in the Mexican professional league (that’s how he got his nickname) may also be poised to do great things in South Africa. Unlike Spain’s Torres, José Torres is a midfielder and a very good one at that. A midfielder is a team’s quarterback and normally dictates the action on the field.

I have not seen José Torres play much but what I saw in the U.S. game against Turkey was impressive.

  • He has great ball control. His dribbling in tight quarters is superb.
  • He receives the ball so well. The ball settles so softly onto his feet.
  • He is always running to the open space and asking for the ball. This is the telltale signs of a natural midfielder.
  • Though it appears he favors his left foot, he is equally adept with both feet.
  • His head is always up. He is constantly surveying the field, looking for his teammates, knows where the nearest opponents are, and you can tell he is always thinking two or three moves ahead.

This year’s World Cup is going to be exciting. Hopefully both Torres’ do well. If “El Gringo” does well, look for the U.S. to be very successful.

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2010 Soccer MVP: Inside-of-the-Foot … Ease of Learning

March 31, 2010

Author’s Note: This post is the final in a series of posts that breaks down the 2010 Soccer MVP Tournament competition. Be sure to look at the final results to review how ‘Inside’ was crowned champion. What do you call this part of the foot? Please vote.

Of the six disciplines tested so far in the MVP (most valuable part) tournament–structure, receiving, dribbling, passing, shooting, popularity among professionals–‘Inside’ won five of them. The only discipline it did not win was the ‘Structure’ competition, although it did come in a close second.

One discipline remains–Easy of Learning. Given its importance, it would be nice if it was easy to learn to use the inside-of-the-foot. Unfortunately, that is not the case. For this discipline, ‘Inside’ tied for last. The winners were the bottom- and top-of-the-foot.

The main reason why ‘Bottom’ and ‘Top’ won this discipline has to do with the way humans walk. Most of us walk with our toes pointing (relatively) straight ahead. Thus, when a ball is passed to a player, it is very natural to simply lift the bottom-of-the-foot off the ground in order to receive it. Equally natural is to use the top-of-the-foot to pass and shoot the ball (although a young player will often use his/her toe when first starting to play soccer).

The story is very different for the insides- or outsides-of-the-feet. The reason once again has to do with the way humans walk. Receiving the ball with the inside-of-the-foot is not natural. To control the ball properly, the receiving foot needs to have the hip turned out slightly, the knee even more, and the ankle turned a full 90-degrees in relation to the ball. To pass or shoot the ball with the inside-of-the-foot is even more uncomfortable and unnatural. I’m guessing a ballerina would have an easy time learning and feeling comfortable using her ‘Inside’ but not a young player. Just like the inter-locking golf grip takes a while to get used to, so too does using the inside-of-the-foot. The same difficulty and uncomfortable feeling exists when using the outside-of-the-foot.

I hope you enjoyed the MVP series. All eight posts are meant to highlight the importance of the inside-of-the-foot in an unusual and hopefully memorable way. The more youth players I see with poor ball control and a weak first-touch, the more convinced I am that …

  • The inability to properly use the inside-of-the-foot, and
  • The lack of attention this part of the foot gets from coaches

… are the two biggest problems in youth soccer today. These issues are preventing players from reaching their full-playing potential.

I’ll conclude the series with one final thought. There is an old Chinese proverb that states, “Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master”. When I first started coaching, I thought I could apply this proverb to describe the process of learning to use the inside-of-the-foot. However, after having coached youth soccer for many years and seeing the difficulty many kids have with the inside-of-the-foot, the following expression is much more appropriate: “Difficult to Learn, Easy to Forget, Impossible to Master.”

USA vs. Netherlands (1:2) — Statistics Show it Could Have Been Worse

March 4, 2010

I watched the USA vs. Netherlands game today. The U.S. did not do too well (granted several likely World Cup starters did not play and the U.S. was playing the team ranked third in the world). Though the scoring chances did not reflect it, the first half was dominated by the Dutch. Jonathan Bornstein gave up a silly penalty and was lucky not to be called for a second one when he unintentionally handled the ball in the penalty area. The 0-1 was a just half-time score although if you look at the statistics I compiled (more on those shortly), the U.S. was lucky to be down only one goal.

In the second half, the U.S. showed more urgency but so too did the Dutch. The U.S. was very unlucky in conceding the second goal but made up for it with a beautiful header by Carlos Bocanegra. 23-year-old Dutchman Eljero Elia sure is a good player. He was all over the field today. The U.S. was fortunate to lose by only one goal.

The statistics I referred to earlier are shown below. They are the same type of touch-statistics I compiled for the 2010 MVP tournament for which the inside-of-the-foot was crowned champion (MVP stands for most-value-part).

The Dutch completely dominated the first half in terms of touches (see below). They more than doubled the number of U.S. touches: 769 (71%) – 317 (29%). When looking strictly at feet touches, the percentages are even higher (see yellow cells). I contend that controlling the ball with the feet gives players more control than with other parts of the body.

I also contend that using the inside-of-the-foot to control a ball, whether it is to receive, pass, or shoot, gives players far more control of the ball than other parts-of-the-foot. While both the U.S. and Dutch used the inside-of-the-foot a majority of the time (see yellow cells), the Dutch did so with much more frequency.

  • Dutch: receiving-73%, passing-76%, shooting-100%
  • Dutch: receiving-60%, passing-62%, shooting-33%

I’m not sure if these statistics prove anything (I did not compile statistics for the 2nd half because it takes a long time to do so and I wanted to get this post published in a timely manner). However, today the Dutch were the dominant team and they did exhibit very good ball control.

Author’s Notes:

I believe that poor ball control and a lack of emphasis placed on using the inside-of-the foot are the biggest problems facing U.S. youth soccer. If you concur and believe that the inside-of-the-foot is soccer’s MVP, please join the “Inside-of-the-Foot Soccer Fan Club” on Facebook.

I compiled these statistics as follows:

  • I watched the game on ESPN2.
  • I only counted touches that were televised.
  • If I could not tell which body part or surface was used, I did not count the touch (this included when more than one player was playing the ball).
  • If there was a one-touch pass, it was counted only as a pass, not a reception (under receiving).
  • Headers were counted as passes when the intention was there. Otherwise, headers fell under ‘receiving’.

2010 Soccer MVP: Inside-of-the-Foot … Receiving

February 10, 2010

Author’s Note: This post is one in series of posts that breaks down the 2010 Soccer MVP Tournament competition. Be sure to look at the final results to review how ‘Inside’ was crowned champion.

I believe that receiving, or controlling the ball, is the most important skill in soccer, bar none.

Every player possession starts with a ball either thrown or kicked to a player who then needs to control it in some fashion. Of the four feet surfaces that made the final round of this competition–inside, top (laces), outside, and bottom–‘Inside’ not only won the receiving discipline but it was capable of controlling 90% of all balls passed to a player.

Control

In baseball, the goal is to catch the baseball in the mitt. In football, the goal is to catch the football with the hands. Once these catches are completed, the player will either throw to first base or turn and run up field, respectively. In both cases, a successful catch does not really dictate a player’s next move.

Soccer is different. In soccer, how the ball is received always dictates a player’s next move. Since soccer is such a fluid sport with players constantly moving, it is preferable for a ball not to be received and come to rest in the same spot. Rather, the ideal method is for the first-touch (the first touch a player makes on the ball) to push or direct the ball away from the player receiving the ball. Where the ball is pushed or directed and how far away from the player the ball rolls depends solely on the first-touch skill of that player.

To test ‘Control’, various targets were placed in front of a player (black ovals in the image to the right). Then rolling passes were kicked at a player as well as to either side of a player at various speeds. The goal was to first-touch the passes as close to the intended targets as possible. Because of the structure of the inside-of-the-foot and the ability to cushion the passes, ‘Inside’ was the overwhelming winner. ‘Inside’ consistently settled the ball in each of the targets regardless of the speed of the pass or which foot received the ball. ‘Laces’ and ‘Bottom’ fared well when the target was under the feet but did poorly with the outer fringe targets. ‘Outside’ had better luck with the outer targets but was only able to push the ball in one direction.

Coverage

The ability for ‘Inside’ to control 90% of all passes was not a typo. Refer to the image on the right to understand how I arrived at this percentage.

  • In the image, the four surfaces are represented by various colored lines: green (Inside), yellow (Laces), purple (Outside), and light blue (Bottom). The geometric shapes on the vertical plane represent the areas-of-coverage that each foot surface can comfortably control when a rolling or bouncing ball was passed to a player. ‘Inside’ was clearly able to control more passes, especially passes that were thigh-high and away from the player. The other surfaces did OK when the ball was passed directly to a player.
  • The dark blue oval on the horizontal plane represents the area on the ground that was controlled by a player when the ball was passed high in the air. Remarkably, ‘Inside’ was able to control all of these high balls, even ones that were passes over a player’s head. ‘Inside’ achieved this control by applying a trapping technique whereby a player let the ball first hit the ground and then immediately covered (or trapped) it with the inside-of-the-foot. ‘Laces’ and ‘Outside’ were able to control the same high-ball passes as ‘Inside’. Both ‘Inside’ and ‘Outside’ were able to push the trapped ball away from where the ball landed. ‘Laces’ could only settle the ball in the same location that the ball was first controlled. ‘Bottom’ had a difficult time controlling these passes with any degree of success.
  • The red rectangle on the vertical plane represents the area that could not be controlled with the feet. These passes could only be received with the chest or head.

Conclusion

As you can see, ‘Inside’ is quite accomplished when it comes to receiving the soccer ball and easily won this discipline. Given the level of proficiency and the importance of receiving the ball under control, players and coaches should continuously work on and develop a strong ‘Inside’.

The other disciplines evaluated in this competition were: structure, dribbling, passing, shooting, popularity among professionals, and ease of learning.

Do Turf Soccer Fields Perpetuate Poor Soccer?

January 25, 2010

I remember the first time I ever touched a turf field. My first reaction was how incredibly soft it was. My next reaction was where was this technology 20 years ago when I missed two field goals against the University of Pennsylvania because I could not get ‘under the ball enough’ on the old artificial field? (Brown lost the game 17-14 and I lost my starting position … but really, I’m over it.)

In all seriousness though, despite some of its disadvantages (turf fields can get extremely hot and I hate seeing rubber pellets in someone’s open scab … that can’t be healthy), I think the modern turf fields are fantastic.

However, watching my daughter’s team play an away game on grass (her home field is turf) got me thinking. Are turf fields perhaps doing the sport of soccer a disservice? I know many people, especially soccer purists, would agree with me wholeheartedly (most likely though not for the same reason).

If you have visited my blog or have seen or used my soccer training device called Loopball, you know I am obsessed with ball control and the first-touch, specifically with the inside-of-the-foot. I believe that poor ball control and poor first-touches is the United States’ #1 problem in youth soccer today. Among other things, it results in a much more physical game as is evident in most high school and college games.

Where the turf fields may be doing soccer a disservice is that it may take the challenge out of learning how to receive the ball with the inside-of-the-foot. On turf fields, balls kicked on the ground always roll true. There will never be any unexpected bounces or blips. When the ball is kicked in the air and bounces, unless there is some weird spin on the ball, a player will always know how the ball will rebound off the turf. Essentially, turf fields make it easier to receive and control the ball. My concern is that since it is easier to learn to receive the ball, players and coaches will not spend the necessary time needed to become comfortable with this skill.

This is not a problem on natural grass fields (unless players should be lucky enough to have access to a professional team’s field). On grass fields, players are forced to learn and prepare for the unexpected bounces. As a result, they must spend more time on developing this skill and in all likelihood, will have a better first-touch.

What players and coaches don’t realize is that the skill of receiving a ball can never be mastered. Professional players work on ball control and the first-touch all the time. With the ever-increasing popularity of turf fields, I just hope that players and coaches realize that while it may be easier to control the ball on turf, this skill still needs to be worked on continuously, preferably on grass and preferably on a field that is not in pristine shape.

(Did I mention that the 8-hour bus ride back to school seemed like 8 days and that that loss probably cost us a shot at the Ivy League title … but really, I’ve gotten over it.)

Fun Practice Alternative: Catch

January 6, 2010

I played American football in high school and college. I was both a field goal kicker and punter. One trait often overlooked in kickers and punters is their creativity. There are only so many kicks and punts these players can practice before they either develop a dead leg or simply die of boredom. When I played, we needed to be creative to get through most practices. When I was not working on field goals or punts, I enjoyed playing catch. We would take turns being the quarterback and pass the ball to kicker/punter turned-receiver teammates running prearranged routes. We would also play catch by having the receiver run down field and instead of throwing the ball, we would punt the ball, The goal was to hit the receiver in stride.

A similar game can be played at a soccer practice. Here’s how.

  • Come up with a few pass routes. Some short and some long.
  • Divide the team into 3 groups: left-sided receivers, right-sided receivers, and the quarterbacks (kickers).
  • Have a receiver run one of the routes and have the quarterback pass the ball to the receiver in stride. Kick the ball off the ground so the receiver has to catch it. The ball should be stationary when kicked, like a free kick or corner.
  • Make sure everyone gets a turn playing all three positions

Once the players begin to feel comfortable with this game, add some variations:

  • Add new routes.
  • Have the quarterbacks chip the ball high into the air or have them kick it ‘on a line’.
  • Have the quarterbacks kick with their weaker foot.
  • Instead of catching the ball, have the receivers control the ball with their feet.
  • Add a defender so the pass needs to be more accurate.

This fun practice alternative is great for the quarterbacks. It gives them an opportunity to work on:

  • Touch. Chip shots, regular kicks, or power passes all require different types of touches to be put on the ball. During a regular game, correct ball touches are important.
  • Kicking into open space. Since the receiver is moving, the quarterback needs to pass to the spot where the player will be when he/she receives the ball. This should happen in a soccer game all the time.

The receivers benefit as well.

  • It gives them an opportunity to receive and control the ball from unusual angles. This is a great exercise for the forwards.
  • It reinforces the need to always be moving.
  • Running the routes helps with fitness.

If playing ‘catch’ with a soccer ball is not a big hit, break out some footballs. While throwing and catching a football will not benefit the team much from a soccer perspective, it will still be a nice break from a regular soccer practice.

Improving Throw-ins: Check-In (part 1 of 4)

December 29, 2009

I’m not a big fan of throw-ins. When I coached, I spent very little time on thrown-ins. I never had throw-in warm-ups. I never designed throw-in plays. My preference was to spend more time on soccer fundamentals, such as the first-touch, and playing small-sided games. I surprise myself that I am even writing about throw-ins. But year-after-year I see too many teams doing the wrong thing on throw-ins, so I feel I need to write about it. This is the first in a series of throw-in posts.

A peculiar tactic I see many coaches employ on throw-ins at all age levels is what I call, “the check-in, check-out” move. This is where a field player runs toward the thrower (checks-in) and then turns and runs down the wing (checks-out). While this is a good tactic to use a few times during a game and catch the opponents off guard, using it ALL the time simply does not work. A team that employs this tactic is literally and figuratively ‘throwing in the towel’ or ‘throwing away an opportunity’ on a play that can and should be much more advantageous to the team in possession of the ball.

A much better approach is for a team to simply have its players check-in to the thrower. There are many advantages to checking in.

  • A team will increase its possession percentage by retaining the ball much more often. A ball thrown to a player facing the approaching ball will receive and possess the ball much easier.
  • It creates movement on the field.
  • A field player is able to separate him/herself from a defender.
  • Open space is created when a player checking-in vacates or moves away from the area.

A field player should follow these steps when checking-in on a throw in;

  • If a defender is on the field player, play it cool. Referencing ‘Box 1’ below, when it is time to check in, the player (A1b) quickly breaks away from the defender (D1) in a quick burst. It a player is cool and appears nonchalant, the burst will leave the defender flat-footed and create greater distance between the two players (A1a). Now reference Box 2. If the defender (D3b) is marking a player (A3b) tight, the field player may need to first move away from the thrower (check-out) before turning and breaking to the thrower (A3a). This will leave the defender (D3a) further away from the play.

  • Before checking in, the field player should make eye contact with the thrower. If the thrower is unaware of the field player’s intentions, he/she may not be prepared to throw-in the ball to the approaching player.
  • If the thrower is not aware of or does not see the player checking in, communicate with a command such as ‘Ball!’ or call the thrower’s name to get his/her attention.
  • If the ball is not thrown to the player checking in, that player should cycle-through the check-in. The worst thing for a player to do is just stand still waiting for the ball to be thrown to him/her. Not only is that player in all likelihood covered but when a player receives a ball flat-footed, the next moves are limited. Veer away from the thrower and let another check in.

By far and away the biggest advantage to having players check-in on throw-ins is the carryover effect it has on all aspects of the game. During the course of a game, players should always be ‘checking in’ with the players who have the ball. Checking-in does not always mean running directly at the player. Checking-in also means checking in to the open space to give the player with the ball many options to pass the ball. Teach and reinforce the skill of checking-in with field play. Then when it comes to throw-ins, the players will check-in naturally.

Fun Practice Alternative: Kickball

November 3, 2009

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the school yard game of kickball. Kickball is played just like baseball but with a soccer ball. My version of kickball is slightly different from the standard way kickball is played. My version incorporates a lot of ball control.

Field Layout

  • Set up the field as you would a regular baseball field (see graph below). The dimension should vary by age.
  • Rings should be should be used as bases. Regular flat bases will work as well
  • Between each set of bases (i.e., home and first), set up discs or cones that the players will need to dribble through. Then number can vary.Kickball

The Rules

  • Each team gets 3 outs.
  • An out can be registered by ‘catching’ the ball or forcing someone out at any of the four bases.
  • After 4 balls (not 3 strikers) a batter is out.

The Game

  • The pitcher is an offensive player. The pitcher kicks the ball over the home plate ring. A kick that does not go over the ring is called a ‘ball’. The pitcher is allowed only 4 ‘balls’ before the batter is out. The batter stands behind home plate and is only allowed to kick ‘strikes’. Once the ball is kicked, the pitcher must leave the field as not to interfere with the defense. The pitcher becomes the offensive team’s next kicker.
  • Once a strike is kicked into play, the batter must take another ball (which is kept to the right of the batter’s box), and dribble between the cones to first base. Each cone must be successfully dribbled through. If the player misses a cone, she must return to the missed cone and continue dribbling. If the defensive team catches the ball or the ball arrives to first base before the batter, the batter is out. The same rule applies to any base. The batter can advance to as many bases as she pleases. However once a player commits to the next base, she is committed and can’t go back to the previous base. Each base has to be crossed before advancing to the next base.
  • Players on base are allowed to advance as soon as the batter kicks the ball.
  • To force a player out, the ball must arrive and be placed in the ring before the dribbling player arrives. Defenders may pass the ball to a player covering the base.
  • Defensively, hands are not allowed except to ‘catch’ a ball. However, hands can only be used after a player uses her head, chest, thigh, or foot to control the ball before it hits the ground. Once the ball is controlled and before hitting the ground, the same player can catch the ball for an out. If the initial defensive player is not able to control the first-touch effectively, another defensive player can still ‘catch’ the ball as long as the ball does not hit the ground she first controls the ball with her head, chest, thigh, or foot. Offensive players are not allowed to advance or tag up on catches. However, if a ball is caught, players are permitted to dribble back to their starting base. A defensive player can force the runner out by returning the ball with a pass or dribble to the base the player must return to.

That’s it. Equipment, field size, and rules can vary based on what works best for your team. Hopefully your team enjoys this game. The best thing of all, they are still working on their ball control and having fun doing it.

Are You Right or Left Footed?

October 12, 2009

The instructor for my E/D coaching license was Hans de Graef. Great guy. Must have been in his 60s at the time. He was recovering from knee surgery caused by a parachute accident. But he was still out there. I guess very little kept him from the soccer field. But I digress.

One of the questions he asked each coach during the course was whether he/she was right or left footed? I, along with most of the other coaches answered right footed and like most of the other coaches, I was wrong. The correct answer was, “both”. To this day I still remember that question and pose it to every player I coach.

Whenever I ask the question, a lot of kids will argue that ‘both’ was not an option. Had it been, they naturally would have chosen ‘both’. This may be true but on the soccer field, when young players are given the option of controlling or shooting the ball, they will often choose to play the ball with their dominant foot.

It is critical for youth soccer players to develop proficiency and a high degree of comfort with both feet. This means:

  • Practice juggling with both feet
  • Not running around a ball to play it with the dominant foot
  • Shooting the ball with the weaker foot
  • Playing on the left side of the field when the preference is the right side

Players will always have a dominant foot and that is OK. But good players will easily be able to play any ball with either foot (or leg). If you want to be a good player, always remember the preferred answer to the question, “Are you right or left footed?”

“Coach, I am BOTH.”

Parents: Do Not Reinforce Poor Play

October 5, 2009

As a coach, referee, and fan, I am always surprised to hear some of the things that can come out of parents’ mouths during games. So much so, that there will multiple posts devoted to soccer parents. Don’t get me wrong. A vast majority of parents are very encouraging and well-behaved during games. In addition, I recognize that I am no saint. I have not always been the ideal coach or fan. And if you ask my youngest, he would say that I’m a bad soccer parent because I will tell him to hustle and on occasion ‘coach’ him just a bit. However, I know I am getting better so I do feel like a can share my thoughts with you without being considered too big of a hypocrite.

As a coach and as someone who wants to improve soccer in the United States, there is nothing that drives me crazier than parents reinforcing poor play. The biggest example of this is the long ball.

U.S. parents are obsessed with the long ball. When a player kicks the ball 40-50 yards down field, you will hear a chorus of ‘ooooohs’ and ‘aaaaahs’ coming from the sidelines. It does not matter where the ball goes. The player will still get lauded for his/her ‘tremendous’ kick. Naturally, players hear and like this reaction. So any opportunity they get …. BOOM! … there goes the ball accompanied by the parents’ approval.

What parents are reinforcing is a type of soccer called ‘kick ball’. In kick ball, players just kick the ball as hard as they can. It may go in the right direction–towards the opponent’s goal–but rarely will it go to one of the player’s teammates. If you get both teams playing like this, it by no means ‘a beautiful game’.

Soccer is all about the first-touch and ball control. The better first-touch (on the ball) a player has and the more control he/she has over the ball, the better the player, the better the team, and the more beautiful the game becomes.

So what can parents do? A lot. But for the purpose of this post, reinforce a good first touch and good ball control. Ooh and aah when a player makes a good stop. Do the same when a player makes a good pass to a teammate. When a team starts to string together several nice passes in a row, start an ‘ole!’ cheer after each pass, as bullfighting spectators do when the matador eludes a bull’s charge. This will get the players’ attention.

Remember, the first-touch and ball control are skills that take a long time to develop and can never be mastered. David Beckham and Cristiano Renaldo will be the first to tell you that their first-touch and ball control can be better. Anything that parents can do to encourage this behavior, the better.

It is still OK to ooh and aah the long ball if it is done with purpose and precision. A 30-yard shot on goal is worthy of such recognition. So, too, are long punts that result in a scoring opportunity.