The focus of this article is on an action that can provide a recap of all of the qualities exhibited during the series and be a pivotal point that turns the match on itself instantly, majorly influencing the speed of the game and its result. It can be a moment of simplicity, unpredictability and great creativity all rolled into one, reflecting a portrayal of football intellect and a union of minds. This, of course, alludes to the minimalistic beauty of one-touch football. There is no better example of technical excellence, awareness and understanding than a great first-time pass. It is also a visual treat of individual and collective harmony, with football stripped back to its purist art form and a clear indication of a player in possession of a complete skill set, which is vividly showcased by one seemingly simple action.
To be clear, this does not refer to a first-touch pass ("Take the ball back, I don't want it") from a player who is simply sending the ball back to where it came from because of reluctance, refusal or a lack of confidence, or playing the ball back first time to the passer without any evaluation or appreciation of the space and movement that might trigger better technical opportunities.
This refers to moments of pure footballing quality when a first-touch pass is the end product of some or all the qualities discussed in this series of articles relating to a player’s time on the ball impacting the speed of the game. Key qualities come together in a fraction of a second, expressed in a minimalistic art form.
For this article, two moments of action capture this football minimalism at the highest level of the game. Our first video clip is from a FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup™ match between England and the Netherlands.
Rewinding the action to look at what seems to be a moment of football minimalism, there are many key qualities in making the most of technical situations. These are, in fact, hidden behind minimalistic one-touch football. There is great football intelligence and creativity behind the decision-making process and technical action leading to what seems to be a simple outcome, one that not only speeds the game up, but creates a clear goalscoring opportunity. To summarise what is clearly transparent, but not so obviously seen:
- Positional awareness – (detail 1) If you look at England's number 7 in the bottom right, you can see she has a clear idea of her positional coordinates along the line of the Netherlands' defence. She is positioned slightly infield on the turn so that she can accelerate behind the line. That option is on (detail 2). It is also apparent that the Netherlands left-back sees that danger and is ready, leaning towards her goal, to cover a run in behind from England's number 7, who is obviously aware of that positioning (detail 3).
- Peripheral awareness – England's forward is in the middle of the defensive line and is running across the pitch from left to right, turning towards and ready to home in on goal and break free from her marker. England's number 7 will have seen this, and this will be integral to her decision-making process (detail 4).
- Spatial awareness – Looking towards her centre-back team-mate on the ball, England's number 7 identifies a pocket of space in the middle of a triangle of three Netherlands players (detail 5).
- Anticipation and alertness – Anticipating that her centre-back team-mate will be in tune with her movement and showing alertness to the Netherlands left-back's extra couple of retreating steps, she exploits the spatial opportunity she has identified and makes a little forward infield acceleration into the space between the opposition players. This alertness give her a 5-metre head start before the Netherlands left-back reacts to cover her movement (detail 6). Her alertness and awareness get her to the incoming pass first, with 3 Netherlands players bearing down on her (detail 7).
The split-second between accelerating into space and connecting with the ball should be put into perspective. First, she assesses the dropping-off movement by the Netherlands left-back, which gives her a slight edge to get to the ball first. At the same time, drawing from her peripheral awareness, she has a visual picture of her forward team-mate making a run across the pitch and between the two Netherlands centre-backs. Lastly, she has a mental image of her forward team-mate making a timed run in behind to receive her great pass. She is alert and on her toes, using all available game information, with a technical horizon of great creativity before she has even made contact with the ball.
- Technical coordination – As simple and precise as an arrow to the bullseye, but what great technical coordination is behind this minimalism? Firstly, she comes to receive the ball at speed, then at the last moment, she must quickly decelerate to deal with an extremely fast and slightly bouncing ball (detail 7). Maintaining her composure with three Netherlands players bearing down on her, she quickly organises her feet and uses the pace on the ball to perfection with a slight extension of her right leg and a little flick of the right foot, using the weight of the pass to divert the ball off the outside of her foot to its intended recipient.
She proudly looks back at her beautiful work as the move hurries along (detail 8). An exquisite example of footballing completeness and the speed of the game. The end product of all that thinking and movement is the ball travelling 60 metres at speed with just two touches and, in fewer than four seconds, it is served on a plate waiting to be dispatched into the back of the net (detail 9). England's number 7 manages to move the game forward without turning herself forward.
Our second video clip, from a 2018 FIFA World Cup™ round-of-16 match between France and Argentina, is an example of great awareness and technical quality tipping the balance to give the slightest edge to a team in a move that is seemingly simplistic at first glance.
This sequence was a beautiful example of alertness, awareness and technique, a synergistic interaction of mind and body. Minute detail causes some very discrete defensive indecision and some attacking decisiveness. The outcome: a great goal.
In effect, the France LMF letting the ball run buys time for the France LB to get a head start, taking away precious time for the Argentina RMF to adjust and react. Hypothetically, had the France LMF controlled the ball before passing it, it would have given the Argentina RMF time to adjust his feet, turn and compete for the ball, and delayed the run in behind from the LB. That slightest edge would have been lost, fine margins indeed.
The defensive urgency was correct, but the tiny details that speed up the game robbed them of something that everyone wants: decision-making time.
The above examples show that an awe-inspiring first-touch pass is not just an example of wonderful technique, it is the end product of instant assessment of game states or "game intelligence". Not all first-touch passing is as dramatic as our examples, but without the individual qualities that have been discussed throughout this series, many simple first-touch game-changing passing opportunities would unknowingly go amiss. Why? Because something required to see the big picture and act on it is not quite there, whether it is vision, awareness, technical balance, a creative mind or confidence.
A simple example can be seen in the first video of the England Women's number 7. Would she have had the audacity to play that fantastic first-touch lay-off with the outside of her right foot if she were predominately a left-footed player? The likelihood is no, as she may have seen an opportunity but been short of the confidence to act on it. The lack of right-footed technique could have even prevented her from seeing the chance in her mind, thus diminishing her technical horizon.
The modern game is obsessed with systems, tactics, and styles of play – both in attack and defence – all of which are implemented to create or take away opportunity. But to have a real impact, they all require the basics of football, the nuts and bolts of the framework of our game must become instinctive football reflexes. The individual qualities that have been highlighted in this series are the simple facilitators (catalysts) of all that is football, which the best players and teams all have in abundance. When they are present, we see moments of individual and collective quality. When they are not, we see moments of individual and collective disarray.
The take away
Many of the qualities in the complete skill set that culminate in a great first-touch pass have been highlighted and discussed in articles 2, 3 and 4. Therefore, to recap the takeaway points relating to these qualities, please refer to the articles below.
Article 2: Alertness and anticipation: the spark for being one step ahead of the game
Article 3: Spatial, positional and peripheral awareness (SPPA): the foundation for the understanding of game situations and applying tactical awareness
Article 4: Technical awareness and coordination: the foundation of all that is football, the quality of technique, its creativity and efficiency of use
This article looks at aspects to consider and ideas with reference to passing in terms of first-touch quality and efficiency. Game awareness provides the spark to see and seize upon technical opportunities, but the quality of technique (the pass) is the overriding factor. All the game intellect in the world is of little use if you have not got the technique to complement it. With that in mind, there are a few key pointers that can be included within the overall development programme that may help facilitate the natural development of a young player's first-touch passing potential, and add to a more developed player's passing quality and confidence.
ADVICE FOR DEVELOPING, YOUNG PLAYERS
For the developing, young player, as mentioned in previous articles, building foundations is about optimising potential. It comes down to prioritising, consistency and high-repetition training of key qualities. For first-touch passing quality, it may sound obvious, but having regular, structured one-touch training protocols within the technical development programme is key, including ball drills (unopposed) and possession-based exercises solely focusing on one touch. These must, however, be regular and repeated, and their importance should be stressed. It is no good occasionally spending five minutes on something and then expecting results. For youth players, the enjoyment of expression during open play is obvious to see, but a structure to develop the basics will only enhance that enjoyment and expression further.
Key points to note for implementation into a structured training protocol
1. Unopposed, technical coordination passing drills with the following principles
- Overloaded technical exposure (OTE) – in small groups of 4-6 players, with a high volume of ball contact to promote a regular learning process.
- Balanced technical exposure (BTE) – equal left- and right-foot receiving to pass with their first touch.
- Comprehensive variety of movement and first-touch passing scenarios.
To include: the following are all first touch and with an equal focus on the left and right feet
- On the half-turn forward, let the ball run and pass it forward, to the left or right.
- Back to play, meet the ball with a sweeping pass, to the left or right with the inside of your foot.
- Back to play, meet the ball with a lay-off pass, to the left or right with the outside of your foot.
- Back to play, meet the ball with a lay-off pass, straight backwards, or diagonally backwards to the left or right.
- Facing the play, receive a straight pass back, and step in to pass it forward to the left or right.
- Facing the play, receive a pass back from the left or right, and step in to pass it forward to the left or right.
- Facing the play, receive a pass back from the left or right, drop off, open your body, and switch play to the other side.
- In line with play, from a side-on pass, let the ball run across your body and pass it forward, to the left or right.
- Behind the play, make small acceleration into space, on to a diagonal pass from the left or right, and pass diagonally forward to the left or right.
The above are commonly used moving and first-touch passing patterns that can provide a starting point to help develop and reinforce first-touch passing quality, consistency and efficiency, with an equal focus on both feet so that players are comfortable using either. Other types of passing, movement and numbers of touches can be used within each of the above exercises, but the focus in the overall ball rotation should be on the first-touch pass. The passing exercises should also include the following:
- Moving to or away from the ball, receiving the ball – be on your toes.
- Simple exercises within each passing pattern to create or reinforce the habit of lifting your head up, turning to scan the pitch and area of intended movement and passing. If appropriately and consistently implemented with insistence on correct sequences and high exposure, these exercises will go some way towards developing a natural instinctive reflex, which with time and player maturity can lead to a pathway facilitating higher game awareness.
- Periods of a more relaxed tempo (1-2 mins) to concentrate on movement quality and the order of actions.
- Periods of high tempo (1-2 mins) to try to implement all points with technical urgency.
- Passing ranges of between 5 and 15 metres for consistency and to keep the exercise flowing.
- Passing ranges of between 20 and 30 metres to develop and challenge range consistency.
- The ball should be moving in a continuous rotation, which ensures time efficiency and increases ball contact.
2. One-touch possession exercises
Varying scenarios and short intervals to help maintain concentration that first-touch passing requires and to allow full recovery between work periods.
- Free-play possession with short one-touch intervals included, i.e. 30 sec – 1 min.
- Unequal (big advantage) numbers, short intervals i.e. 1 min x 5v2/6v3. Easier for one touch.
- Unequal (big advantage) numbers, short intervals i.e. 1 min x 5v2/6v3. Can only use weaker foot.
- Unequal (big advantage) numbers, short intervals i.e. 1 min x 5v2/6v3. Must scan the pitch before passing.
- Unequal (big advantage) numbers, short intervals i.e. 1 min x 5v2/6v3. Cannot play the ball directly back to the passer.
- Equal numbers, short intervals, i.e. 1-2 min, plus 1 to 2 players inside the box who can play for both sides. Encourages scanning to take in more information.
- Equal numbers, short intervals, big spaces to increase spatial awareness.
- Equal numbers, short intervals, tight spaces to increase alertness, movement to create space and use of both feet.
ADVICE FOR MORE DEVELOPED PLAYERS
For the more (developed) player: to enhance or add focus to the one-touch aspect of their game, it is also about prioritising how much time is invested in training.
Pointers could include the following training exercises:
- Unopposed technical coordination passing drills. Unlike for young developing players, these are not used so much as a developmental programme, but as more of an efficient technical activation warm-up that prepares players for high-intensity technical training, while also reinforcing awareness in conjunction with first-touch passing quality.
- Within training games, short intervals of high tempo and tight spaces, with an insistence on passing with the first touch. This leads to heightened alertness and quick movement into space. It also creates space, promoting quick decision-making and the use of both feet.
- Within training games, short intervals of high tempo and big spaces, with an insistence on passing with the first touch. This forces players to be more creative and to see a longer pass.
- One-touch possession in tight spaces, which encourages more awareness and quick feet, plus the use of both feet.
- One-touch possession, with unequal numbers, big numerical advantage, but players can only use weaker foot.
- One-touch possession, with unequal numbers, big numerical advantage, but a pass will not count if a player does not scan the pitch beforehand. Encourages awareness.
- One-touch possession with equal numbers, which reinforces the need to scan the pitch more frequently.
- One-touch possession, not allowed to play the ball straight back to the passer, which reinforces the need to scan the pitch more frequently.
- One-touch possession game with big spaces, equal numbers, with players who can be used for both teams around the outside of the playing area. Encourages players to see more peripherally.
All of the above scenarios require heightened levels of focus, alertness and urgency to find and create space, and heightened use of the senses to find technical solutions. They all promote first-touch passing quality.