Door 17: Supporting the forward pass

Common principles one comes across frequently is ‘finding the furthest forward pass’, as well as ‘depth over width’. These are obviously key concepts that help teams align themselves in order to carry out ball-progression towards the opposition goal in a coherent manner. Its however not as simple as playing the ball forward at any time there is a small window to do so. 

Commonly teams look to progress the ball in the first phase of their build up with a numerical superiority compared to the oppositional press. For example, if the opposition front-line press with 2 players, then the build up team will have 3 players in their first line, or if the opponent presses with one front-line player then the build up team will have o2 players in the first line. With this, it is possible to dribble past the first line of the oppositional press after quick switches of play and carry this numerical superiority into midfield. Commonly, there is also a higher focus on a perceived degree of ‘safety’.

If we talk about the furthest possible forward pass, then that is most likely to the forwards in our team, they most commonly occupy positions closest to the opponent goal, looking to pin the opponents backline in order to reduce oppositional cover and potentially create more space to play into on the ground closer to the ball. If we assume that we have a slight numerical superiority in our first line of build up and try to maintain that in midfield, then we most likely have less players than the opponent around our forward and the opponent’s backline. This means that if we pass it far  forward quickly in the buildup, we often pass into a situation where we have a numerical disadvantage. It is possible to reduce the effect of this by having our forwards in really good pinning positions, occupying more than 1 opponent defender by occupying positions between defenders. 

Coaching the concepts

One commonly finds that opponent center-backs will look to defend forward while the ball is travelling. They might look to defend past our forwards and intercept the forward pass that we have just played. Here it is important for strikers to be able to protect the ball with their body, in order to protect the interception-lane past them to the ball. Something like this can be practiced beautifully with the 3rd practice in George Jones excellent recent piece in this Calendar

Crucial aspects from a group/team perspective is to support the player who receives the forward pass. This means providing him with passing options when he receives the ball. This will make his actions more unpredictable for the opponent, now the receiving player cannot only between protect the ball with shielding actions or looking to turn the opponent, he can also lay the ball of to players supporting underneath or even play through to runners going beyond him. A combination thereof can obviously also be very desirable, constituting in a 4th man action. 

When coaching the concept of support two very basic phrases have stuck with me for a long time. The first I’ve used since Young Bafana days which is; ‘attack together’, super obvious and simple but I think this easily captures the essence of the idea. The second one is; ‘a pass is a successful one where the next player is able to complete a successful action’, again fairly obvious, but this notion gets players to think ahead when playing a pass, ideally taking likely potential follow-up actions into greater consideration. 

Using the time while the ball is travelling is an underappreciated detail when coaching of-the-ball movement. Ideally players are looking to get underneath or beyond the receiving player while the ball is underway there. Layoffs with 1-touch can inject speed into the combination and make it easier to expose gaps created in the defensive line with opponents forward defending. Alternatively taking 2 touches to lay the ball of can pin the opponent more clearly to the ball carrier who just received, making these gaps beyond that even bigger. Obviously, the decision of how many touches to take depends largely on the situation. 

Another idea that often adds to the success-stability of these combinations after playing forward is to lay the ball of on the angle/diagonally. When doing so, potential windows for forward passes are easier to pass into. 

Finally its key for players to make a next action after playing the ball, looking to ‘play-and-move’ causing a significant orientation overload for the defense who have to readjust to the ball changing position, supporting runners of the ball, as well as the player who just passed the ball quickly readjusting his position, making defensive miscommunications more likely. 

Below a video from our Ubuntu Football U16 team putting some of the above ideas into practice impressively:

The Practice

I posted this practice on Twitter earlier this year. It is one that we have found good success with in regard with the above concepts. The coach starts the game by playing into the red team who have a 4v3 situation in their favor in the first zone. Green looks to press them and regain the ball. If they are successful in doing so, they counter to the baseline near the circle. They can do so by dribbling through the wider stick goals, or by dribbling or passing across the line between the stick goals. Red have 1 attacker positioned in the second zone. He is up against two further green defenders, probably center or half-backs. 

Red can pass to this player on the ground at any time. When the ball is played forward into him 3 players as well as 2 further defenders can join across dotted line #1. Dotted line #2 is used as an offside line. The stick goals between the 4v3 and the initial 2v1 can be used for constraints involving the center-forward: For example, if the ball is played in through the space between the stick goals then the receiving player is completely free in choice of his first action after receiving. If the ball is however is played to him through the stick goals, then he has a maximum of two (or even one) touch to find a supporting team-mate. 

Another possibility is to reward the attacking side for dribbling through the stick goals on line #1, this is desirable as it implies that they have switched play from one half-space to the other and opened up space to advance forward by making runs of-the-ball that open space. Another consideration is to count goals as per how many 1-touch actions were completed before scoring. So, for example a deep 1 touch pass, followed by a 1 touch square pass and a 1 touch finish would count for 3 points instead of 1 for a regular goal. Thereby overloading and rewarding good support on forward passes as well as next actions after playing the ball. Looking to inject speed into the attack and maintaining that until finishing the ball. The beautiful thing about these reward-rules is that if not situationally appropriate, players are not restricted to making unsuitable actions in that moment but are rather encouraged to look for such moments when it makes sense to do so.

Layering the practice

 One thing I commonly hear when posting a practice like this is that its too complicated. And that’s true, therefore it makes a lot of sense to layer the practice. That means starting with relatively few constraints, but adding them in or taking them away as you go along, and as might be situationally appropriate according to how your players are actually performing the practice. Sometimes one might plan a set of constraints that might be used during a practice and end up only using a few of them depending on your in-action reflection while the practice is happening. 

RM once posted this brilliant quote by multiple Euro League winning Basketball coach Zeljko Obradovic, in many ways the content can be applied nicely to thinking about potential variations and constraints when planning a practice. One should anticipate in relation to potential scenarios one thinks about when planning practices. It makes a lot of sense to play ‘devils advocate’ before running a session. What could go wrong with what I’ve planned, what are likely actions my players might perform. Running practices for longer with several short rounds with appropriate (longer) breaks between rounds is a good way to go. Training sessions don’t necessarily always have to consist of 4 separate parts, why not run less parts and get players to really dive deeply into a single practice and its possible variations.  Ben Bartlett’s work on this topic is a brilliant guide. 

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