Posts Tagged ‘open space’

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.

Spring Forward and Prosper

March 18, 2010

I hope everyone made it to school or work on time this past Monday. The start of Daylight Savings is my most anticipated weekend of the year. Losing that extra hour of sleep in exchange for the seven or eight months of additional evening sunlight is more than a fair trade-off. For me, it has always marked the time during soccer season when practices become more enjoyable. The extra hour of sunlight makes scheduling and attending practices much easier. Plus, Spring is just around the corner.

I was at my son’s practice the other day and was asked to play in goal during a small-sided game with large goals. One thing I noticed when I tried distributing the ball to my teammates was that many of them were not ‘springing forward’ to receiving the ball. In soccer, it is critical to constantly move without (or off) the ball. If it is the player’s desire to receive the ball, he/she must always look for and move into open space.

Oftentimes, the open space can be where the player is currently standing. When this is the case, standing there is not enough. In this instance, a player should also move toward the player with the ball. In honor of daylight savings, a player should ‘spring forward’ to that player.

Springing forward serves two main purposes:

  1. Moving toward the player with the ball indicates to the passer that you are making yourself available for the ball and that you are open. This visual cue will catch the passer’s attention and will result in a greater chance of receiving a pass.
  2. Springing forward will significantly reduce the chance of a defender stepping in front of the pass and taking the ball away. In American football, it is the equivalent of a receiver needing to step towards the quarterback’s throw. When this is not done, a cornerback can easily step in front of the pass for an interception.

As the goalie during practice, there were a few things I did to get the players to move toward me.

  1. I made eye contact with my teammates and gestured with my hands to have them spring forward into the open space.
  2. I verbally asked them to “check in”.
  3. I rewarded good behavior by passing the ball to the players checking in.
  4. I held onto the ball as long as possible giving players ample opportunity to check in. Only when an attacker was about to take the ball away from me did I make a pass to the outlet player.

I really like descriptive expressions and clever mnemonic devices. ‘Spring Forward’ certainly qualifies as one. There is no mistaking in which direction to move the clocks in March. In soccer, this expression also paints a pretty descriptive picture is terms of how players should move when the open space is directly in from of them. ‘Spring Forward’ and prosper!

Improving Throw-ins: Putting it All Together (part 4 of 4)

January 8, 2010

In this (potentially) final posting on improving throw-ins I write about putting all the pieces of the earlier posts together into a game plan and philosophy so that teams that have adopted the ‘let’s-throw-the-ball-down-the-wing’ strategy can be more imaginative and use the throw-in more to their advantage.

First a quick recap.

  • Checking-in: Instead of a field player running down the wing or simply standing still, field players should check-in to the thrower in order to improve the throw-in retention rate.
  • 180 Choices: Too often, throw-ins are simply thrown down the wings. On most areas of the field, the thrower should exercise his/her options and also look to throw the ball backwards and into the middle of the field. The 180 choices refers the number of degrees in a semi-circle and thus, the number of throw-in options a thrower should exercise.
  • Hit the Feet: The easiest way to control a soccer ball is with the feet. Therefore, it is imperative that the thrower aim for and hit a field player’s feet. This becomes more difficult when the player is moving and checking-in.

The final ingredient that binds these aspects of the throw-in together is ‘movement’. For most throw-ins, especially those between the penalty areas, a minimum of three players should make themselves available to receive the ball from the thrower. Let’s look at the examples below:

  • An attacker (A1) should check-in to the thrower (Thr). When an attacker checks-in, a defender (D1) will usually follow. If the defender follows, A1 can pass the ball back to the thrower, pass it to another player, or make an instant move and beat the defender. If the defender does not follow, A1 should control the ball and turn up field. It is a good idea for the thrower to get into the habit of communicating with the player(s) checking-in. For instance, ‘man on!’ can be called out by the thrower if the defender is following his/her teammate or ‘turn!’ if the defender does not follow.
  • A midfielder should also check-in (M2). It is important that the player checking-in does it abruptly so that he/she can separate him/herself from the defender (D2). Equally important, M2 should either make eye contact with the thrower before checking-in or call for the ball to get the thrower’s attention. ‘Here!’, ‘ball!’, or calling the thrower by his/her name are acceptable commands.
  • The thrower’s defensive teammate (D3) should also be available to receive a throw-in. However, instead of checking-in, D3 should move away from the thrower while keeping constant eye contact with the thrower. The reason you don’t want a defender to check-in is because if the ball is misplayed, it could lead to a scoring opportunity for the other team. Usually there won’t be an opponent on the defender so having a greater distance between the thrower and the defensive teammate should not cause a problem. There is no need for this teammate to draw attention to him/herself. The thrower should always know that a defensive teammate is available for a throw.

A fantastic by-product of checking-in is that it creates open spaces and, therefore, more throw-in options.

  • When M2 and D2 check-in, they create open space where they once stood (denoted by the orange circle). When M4 moves into the vacated space, he/she becomes a fourth option available to the thrower.
  • The same thing happens when A1 and D1 check-in. The wing area (blue circle) is now open space that A5 can fill and give the thrower yet another throw-in option.

With seemingly little effort by the field players and recognition on the part of the thrower, any team can turn the throw-in into a more advantageous play. However, this is easier said than done; otherwise all teams would be doing this. I have found that movement off or without the ball is one of the toughest things to teach and instill in young players. Many kids simply focus on the ball and many times get so captivated by its movement that they become spectators on the field. Conditioning, or the lack thereof, also can play a role. So what is the solution?

As I wrote in my other throw-in posts, the best way to instill the concept of movement for throw-ins is to instill this concept with non-throw-in drills and small-sides games. Checking-in, seeing the field, accurate passes, good ball control, communication, and movement takes place every second during a game. If these skills are developed on the field, improved throw-ins will be a by-product of these new and improved skills.

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: Hit the Feet (part 3 of 4)

January 4, 2010

This is the third in a series of posts that discusses how to improve throw-ins. The first two throw-in posts covered checking in and throwing in to all areas of the field (all 180 choices).

You often hear coaches telling their players to pass the ball on the ground. This is great advice. After all, it is easier to control a rolling ball than a bouncing ball. But what should a coach tell the player who is throwing in the ball from a throw-in? Rolling the ball is not permissible and passing the ball on the ground is impossible given the angle from which the ball is thrown. But if a coach were to instead instruct a player to pass the ball to a player’s feet, this instruction could apply to a throw-in as well.

There are times when it is not doable or desirable to throw in a ball at a player’s feet. Some examples would be when:

  • You want a field player to flick the ball with his/her head.
  • Throwing the ball into an open space.
  • Throwing a long distance throw to an approaching player.

But for the most part, the player taking the throw-in should always aim for a player’s feet. Ideally the ball will land directly at the player’s feet. But as you can see in the photos below, there is some leeway. The ball can be thrown as high as the knees (transparent blue area) and up to a few feet in front of the player (transparent red area). If the ball is not directly at the player’s feet, it is expected that the receiver will make the necessary adjustments.

There are many advantages to throwing the ball to a player’s feet.

  • It is easier to control the ball. Players are used to and more comfortable controlling the ball with their feet when the ball is on or near the ground.
  • A player has the best control stopping the ball with his/her feet.
  • A player has more options for a next move when the ball is controlled with the feet. For example, receiver of the throw-in can:
    • Pass back to the thrower.
    • Pass to another teammate.
    • Control and turn.
    • Beating a defender with a quick move.

Throwing the ball accurately is much easier said than done. Most throwers are conditioned to throw the ball down the wing as hard as he/she can. Now when a player is running at them, it becomes a challenge to time the throw with the player checking in. What also tends to happen is when a thrower tries to take a little pace off the throw-in, the throw-in technique changes enough (i.e., the ball is not placed behind the head) to result in a foul throw-in.

If you read my other throw-in posts, I’m not a big fan of working on throw-ins during practice. This is in large part the result of seeing many coaches spending too much time on throw-ins. However, I am a fan of making sure that the game of soccer is played and taught properly. I also believe that when a team is in possession of the ball, they should take advantage of the situation and not just give the ball away.

With that in mind, the following exercise will help players develop more accurate throw-ins and also reinforce the act of checking-in.

  1. Team up players in pairs.
  2. To warm up, have the two players stand 5 yards apart. Have them throw the ball back and forth to one another (Scenario A) using proper throw-in technique.
  3. Next, have them move 10 yards apart. Have the receiver break toward the thrower (Scenario B). The goal is for the thrower to time the run and throw the ball at the advancing player’s feet. Have the receiver control the ball, pass it back, and then return to the 10-yard spot. Repeat this 5 times and then switch the thrower and receiver.
  4. Repeat this same exercise at 15-yards apart (Scenario C) and 20-yards apart (Scenario D).

During the exercise, make sure that:

  • Good throw-in technique is used (hands behind the head and both feet on the ground).
  • The players make eye contact with one another and the receiver calls for the ball.
  • The ball lands at the receiver’s feet or within the designated area.
  • The receiver controls the ball properly.
  • The receiver breaks away quickly from the imaginary defender.
  • The receiver passes the ball accurately and with the correct pace back to the thrower.
  • The receiver returns quickly to the prescribed starting spot and repeats the check-in (this is a great conditioning exercise for the receiver).

Remember that the player receiving the throw-in does not always have to pass the ball back to the thrower. When the ball is passed back, I often see the thrower simply kick the ball up-field without much thought. In my opinion, this action is just as bad as throwing the ball down the wing. The player receiving the throw-in should always be aware of the defender’s and his/her teammate’s positioning. Based on this information, the receiving player has many options after controlling the ball. Make sure towork on these options and incorporate them into the exercise above.

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: Ultimate Soccer

November 29, 2009

There is a game that I see both youth and adult soccer coaches use as a warm-up exercise that I don’t think is very good or effective. I called it ‘Throw-in Keepaway’ but I believe there are other names for it. The game is played as follows:

  • Players are divided into two teams.
  • Using the proper throw-in technique (with the ball behind the head with 2 hands and the feet on the ground), the ball is passed to an open player on the same team.
  • The open player needs to catch the ball to earn a point. A point is earned with each successful catch. Points accumulate as the ball is successfully passed and caught by a teammate. If the passing team drops the ball but retains possession, the point total goes back to zero.
  • If the ball is caught or recovered by the other team, the other team starts passing the ball around and accumulating points in the same fashion.
  • The team with the highest point value wins.

This game does get players loose and it is fun in its uniqueness. But I don’t like some of the negative aspects that are associated with the game:

  • It promotes bunch ball because most players can’t throw-in very far.
  • In the haste of finding and passing the ball to an open player, poor and improper throw-in techniques are often used.
  • Because of the close confines, there is a greater chance of players running into each other and getting hurt.

Instead, I recommend playing a game called ‘Ultimate Soccer’. Ultimate Soccer (US) is very similar to ‘Ultimate Frisbee’ (UF). Like UF, US is played with a Frisbee on a field that looks like a football field, with end zones at either end. A point is earned each time the Frisbee is caught in the opposing team’s end zone. A player who catches the Frisbee outside of the end zone must advance the Frisbee by throwing it to a teammate; the player is not allowed to advance the Frisbee by running with it.

US could be played using UF rules, but I prefer a slightly modified set of rules that make US more soccer friendly.

  • US should be played on an age-appropriate soccer field with the end zones starting on the goal line and extending out to the top of the penalty box (see image).
  • Similar to soccer, US kick-offs (or throw-offs) start at midfield with the Frisbee being tossed backwards (this is different than UF where the Frisbee is thrown downfield by the team that scored a point).
  • Unlike UF which requires the defense to play a man-to-man defense, in US teams are allowed to play a defensive zone if they wish.

Benefits

Sure many players may struggle throwing the Frisbee. To help, make sure that each game begins with a warm-up throwing and tutorial session. Then let the fun and benefits begin.

  • Movement off the ball
    In ‘Ultimate’ if a player stands around, he/she will never receive a pass and if they do, it will be intercepted. In soccer, I have found a lot of players just stand around waiting for the ball to be passed to them. ‘Ultimate’ will help players move.
  • Finding the open space
    Now that there is movement, where should a player move? Simply put, ‘open space’ is any place there is no other offensive or defensive player. Finding and moving to the open space requires looking at the entire field and not just at the Frisbee.
  • Playing with the head up
    To find the open space, a player must play with his/her head up in order to see the entire field. In soccer, players often focus only on the player with the ball and seldom on their surroundings. Ultimate will force players to play with the head up.
  • Passing to the open space
    One of the best parts of ‘Ultimate’ is it teaches the thrower to throw the Frisbee not at the player but rather to the spot where the player will be when he/she has completed a move. I have found that passing to the open space is one of the hardest concepts to learn in soccer. US will reinforce this skill.
  • Discourages kickball and one-touch soccer
    At the youth level, many players simply kick the ball away as soon as it comes to them without ever controlling it first. With ‘Ultimate’, this is not possible. A player has to first catch the Frisbee before a pass can be made. At the youth level, it is critical for a player to learn the importance and skill of ball control.
  • Running toward the Frisbee
    ‘Ultimate’ players will learn very quickly that unless they run toward the Frisbee once it is thrown to them instead of waiting for the Frisbee to come to them, a defender will always step in front of them and intercept the pass. The same thing happens on the soccer field if a player does move toward the ball when it is passed to him/her.
  • Verbal and body-language communication
    The US field is large. The player in possession of the Frisbee can’t see the entire field at once. He/she needs help from teammates. Body language, such as pointing to the spot you want the Frisbee thrown, as well as verbal communication, is an important key to any team’s success. I don’t think there can ever be enough communication on the soccer field, especially between players.
  • Conditioning
    US is a fantastic way for soccer players to get in game shape. It simulates game-like conditions. If US is played at the end of practice, the players are guaranteed to be exhausted by the end. Yet they’ll have had lots of fun!