#Speed of the game

Part 4: Turning the game forward

Tony Colbert, 08 Nov 2021


This is the fourth in our series of articles exploring the numerous qualities that underpin the art of ball reception to distribution and have a major bearing on the speed of the game.


The articles highlight how a range of technical and tactical attributes can produce quick, decisive decision-making, technical efficiency, creativity and unpredictability and ultimately result in a player with commanding technical authority.

This article deals with an essential attribute in a player's armoury: the ability to instantly inject tempo and urgency by turning the game forward quickly with their first touch, before playing a decisive, game-changing pass with maximum technical urgency while subject to intense pressure from an opponent.

We have compiled some excellent examples of this attribute (look-turn-play and in-out-and-away sequences) in which players perform actions at speed and under pressure and produce precision passing. The footage showcases the players' technique and technical awareness within the individual actions and features scenarios that can turn in-game situations in which a team is at no obvious advantage into game-changing opportunities.

First example

Our first piece of video footage is from the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ match between Australia and Peru.

The scenario described above would appear to offer the perfect representation of fluid technical simplicity. However, the actions performed by the playmaker are anything but simplistic. Rather, his quality, game understanding, technique and technical awareness create this illusion of simplicity, an impression commonly given by all top players.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Australia v. Peru

As we rewind to the start of the sequence to discover exactly how the playmaker achieves this illusion of simplicity, we wish to focus specifically on his technical awareness and technique (technical coordination). Despite having already addressed spatial, positional and peripheral awareness (SPPA) in a previous article, it is well worth revisiting it here, given just how apparent this attribute is within the player's skill set.

Technical awareness: the player's animated position to receive, in which he is angled slightly infield forward off his right foot, informs his team-mate of his game picture. This offers a sort of visual telepathy about which foot he wants the ball to be played to and a clear indication of his intention to move infield (Detail 1). Cohesive technical awareness of this kind between two or more players heightens individual focus and urgency and creates a collective vibrancy that serves to considerably increase the speed of the game.

SPPA: the player's intention to move forward and infield to his right indicates a high level of SPPA. It is clear that he is fully aware of his on-pitch position, which is slightly ahead of the opposition’s three-man midfield line, and that he has identified that the space directly behind him to his left is occupied by two defenders (Detail 2). By deliberately turning infield, he avoids any direct contact with the defenders behind him, while at the same time displaying a desire to break clear of the midfield line. This enables him to penetrate into the open space that he intends on exploiting as he approaches the final third (Detail 3). His decision-making effectively takes five players out of the game and buys him a small amount of time in which he is unopposed and able to drive forward, get his head up and take full advantage of the opportunity.

Technical coordination: this illusion of simplicity is reinforced by the player's exquisite technical fluidity.

This includes:

  • Timing and movement: he uses his right foot to absorb the weight of the firm pass he receives and direct the ball perfectly into his path, which is angled to his right and across that of the incoming opposing midfielder. (Detail 2)

  • Quick feet: his first touch, which takes him forward and infield, invites an outstretched left leg from the opposing midfielder, and a quick prod of the ball with his left foot sees him evade the challenge. It is at this point that he breaks into the space and turns a relatively harmless game situation into an attacking opportunity in which he is unchallenged and has space to drive into whilst his more advanced team-mates offer good movement. (Detail 3)

  • Technical balance: as he darts infield forward to his right, he plays a straight, almost reverse pass with his left foot that is perfectly timed and weighted to be met by the run of his offensive team-mate. (Detail 4)

The speed of this sequence is reminiscent of the swift, incisive movements most commonly seen from your average pickpocket. He was in, out and away, whilst remaining one step ahead of the opposition in terms of thought, process and movement.

Second example

Our second video comes from a FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup™ encounter between France and Spain. Despite being a very brief clip, it offers an excellent example of how technical coordination and awareness (technique and quick thinking) combine to produce a moment of real individual quality. 

FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup 2018: France v. Spain

The take away

What can we take away with regard to moving the game forward?

  • It takes many qualities combined to get the right mixture of technique and game understanding to create this illusion of simplicity.

  • Many of the top players exude an air of technical authority. They give the impression that they have time on their hands to turn and pick out a decisive pass, when in reality they simply manage to achieve more in less time. They gather more information prior to reception, while on the ball and when it comes to distribution. They are also comfortable and confident in terms of their technique, always seeking and showing for the ball and, wherever possible, striving to subsequently turn forward quickly and play forward.

How can the ability to look to turn and play forward at pace be developed? How can a player make this technical awareness and quality an established part of their game?

Advice for developing, young players

High repetitions are important to forming habits in young players

When it comes to developing, young players, the most important aspect is to optimise potential by laying quality foundations. It all comes down to prioritisation, regularity and high repetition. For educators of the game who specialise in the development of such players, the following key pointers, which should feature within the overall player development programme, can help to facilitate upon players' natural progression.

Building foundations: this area of technical development aims to foster good habits when it comes to instinctive movements, both with and without the ball. This is part of the basic skill set to which other ball reception attributes are to be added. The focus should be on implementing technical coordination exercises and simple ball drills based on the following principles:

  • Overloaded technical exposure: a high volume of ball contact to promote a forced learning process and make turning forward a reflex.

  • Balanced technical exposure: equal left- and right-foot reception and distribution scenarios to develop two-footedness, broaden technical scope and horizons and develop the quality to turn forward off both feet with real confidence.

  • Move to receive the ball: being alive and on one's toes.

  • Receive the ball on the half-turn and be in an optimal position to turn forward.

  • Move the ball forward with the first touch.

  • Move the ball with the first touch, before passing forward on the second.

  • Allow the ball to run while on the half-turn, before passing forward with the first touch.

  • Exercises should be added to develop a look-before-receiving habit that involves looking, receiving, moving forward and playing. Simple drills should reinforce the habit whereby a player gets their head up to scan the spatial area and area of intended movement. If appropriately implemented with a repeated emphasis on the correct sequence and high exposure, these exercises will make a significant contribution to developing an instinctive reflex that, over time, can lead to more advanced technical awareness.

Advice for more developed players

It is still possible to enhance these skills in top players

When it comes to incorporating and enhancing this aspect of the game in more developed players, it is all about prioritising how much time is dedicated to it in training. In order to facilitate development, training sessions should:

  • emphasise playing forward on the second touch;

  • emphasise playing forward to a position beyond the nearest team-mate;

  • require players to move into a defined space, turn and play a forward pass to a player who is moving between the lines;

  • include training games in which players are only allowed to pass forward;

  • involve isolated situations that force a player to move forward whilst being under pressure from behind; and

  • feature exercises that emphasise letting the ball run before playing forward on the first touch.

All of the above-mentioned scenarios require a higher state of focus and urgency to find and create space and encourage alertness and a heightened use of one's senses to come up with technical solutions to play forward. Such scenarios encourage players to turn the game forward.

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