Understanding ball, opposition, teammates and space

If you’ve read my work over the years, chances are, you’ve heard me refer to the “four elements of the game”. It’s a cool name for a cool concept, and like the four elements of life, it’s imperative to the way the game is played. Nothing in football can exist without the ball, opposition, teammates and space. These four elements guide how players make decisions, and are thus the same facets of the game that players scan for when guiding their decision making processes. In the quest to go from seeing to understanding in analysis, coaches need to be hyperaware of the tactical, technical, physical and psychological aspects of the game that can contribute to either sound or poor decision making based on these four elements. Often times when decision making falters, it is a direct result of a failure to adequately scan the field, and adequately adjust accordingly to the moment. So how do we teach coaches, players and analysts alike to understand these four basic, but simultaneously complex concepts? Here is our analysis.

THE TANDEM BIKE

When considering the four elements of the game, you can think of it like a tandem bike. The elements of the bike and the riders in question must co-exist and work in harmony in order to achieve success. If one rider pushes too hard or steers the wrong way, the entire bike can collapse. Since bikes only have two wheels, you can perhaps even think of it like a quadracycle. At no point can a player adequately make a decision based on one of the four elements in isolation.

Take this example of a wondrous goal scored by Ollie Watkins against Southampton during the 2021-22 campaign. Watkins correctly perceives the space to move into, and in a split-second, makes an excellent tactical decision to pull the ball back based on the direction of the nearest defenders bodyweight.

Watkins’ astute tactical decision is backed up by his exceptional close control and technical skill to stay cool under pressure. The defender, who carries all of their body weight in the direction of Danny Ings’ pass simply cannot react. The quickness of this decision, based on all four elements of the game, allows Watkins a free shot at goal. Go back and watch it again (0:00-0:26), and you’ll see these four elements working in harmony on the quadracycle.

Even before the striker’s moment of brilliance, Danny Ings also magnificently takes his first and second touch away from the Southampton defender, recognizing the space available to his right, and the space available to then play a progressive pass into a teammate nearby. Here we see a great example where tactical decisions were made within seconds of a fleeting moment, based on perceptions of space, teammates, the opposition and the ball.

To give you greater context into the dual or quadruple-nature of the four elements, let’s use the concept of space as our prime example. The space available or unavailable to a player is always in reference to the opposition, the ball, and the player’s own teammates around the situation. For instance, just because the player in possession of the ball has space to advance into, the best decision may not be to carry the ball forward. Instead, if there is a player in a more advantageous position, it may be best for the player to pass the ball forward to their advantageously positioned teammate.

Further, within the quadracycle, the picture constantly changes. Space may be available one second, and then the next…it’s gone. That’s the nature of the fast-moving game we all know and love. But that means scanning becomes a constant endeavour for the best players in the world, observing their surroundings around every two seconds, or eight to ten times before they receive the ball. Generally, the better the footballer, the more hyperaware they are of their surroundings. That comes from a simultaneous mix of constant scanning, and footballing IQ and intelligence.

As we discussed for analysts trying to learn the game, it’s one thing to see and perceive an event on a football pitch. It’s another to act accordingly and carry out a correct behaviour based on that information. Carrying out correct actions then comes from experience playing football matches, the muscle memory and tactical IQ that comes about from having done so, and the speed at which players are able to acquire information based on their perceptions. This is one of the many reasons why football is deeply-rooted in psychology. One of our former contributors Travis Norsen knows this all too well, having written an entire book titled ‘Play With Your Brain’. The book is based off a quote from one of the game’s all-time greats – Johann Cruyff, who famously uttered the words “Football is a game you play with your brain.”

That much is true. It then becomes about how footballers use their brains to correctly carry out actions on a football pitch based on their perceptions. There might not be one unequivocally right answer to any situation in football, but a myriad of correct solutions could theoretically solve any problem. That’s the beauty of football, and inherently what complicates the analysis process. So let’s discuss a few key ways that footballers can create a cheat code to success when gathering information on the pitch, and how best to study the ball, opposition, teammates and space. If you’re a fan of acronyms by the way, call it BOTS!

1. THE BALL

The ball is the starting reference for all player decision making. After all, you cannot score a goal by using space, teammates and opposition alone. That would just be weird. Oddly enough, it is particularly imperative for players who remain off the ball to scan for the ball, than the one player in possession. Players need to constantly scan their surroundings to understand how they can best support the player on the ball (and the teammates around the situation) when their team is in possession. Out of possession, scanning of surroundings continues to be amplified, particularly in ball-oriented, zonal marking structures that prioritize the ball and space. In ball-oriented/zonal defensive set-ups, players work together to condense and compact space horizontally and vertically, limiting the team’s ability to progress the ball.

This may even include a left-winger coming all the way over to the right-side to join in the team’s pressing structure, in an attempt to trap the in-possession team on one side of the field and regain possession in the process.

But the ball is never to be fixated on for more than a second at a time. This is how players often get themselves into trouble, particularly when watching the flight of the ball on set-pieces (i.e. corner kicks and free kicks).

As they focus their energy and attention on the ball, they lose the flight of the players around them, and concede chances as a result. When we reference the ball as a “guide” or “context”, we mean that it is not the over-arching principle by which everything can be accomplished through intense scrutinization. It instead provides valuable insight into how a player might adequately take advantage of the space, opposition and positioning of their teammates, to best suit (in-possession) or combat (out of possession) the player holding the ball.

Let’s take this example from Borussia Dortmund’s 2-1 win over Hertha Berlin last season. This clip is short, so be sure to replay the move, even reducing the speed of the video to deduce the implications of decision making.

Moukoko recognizes that Jude Bellingham has time and space to play a forward pass. He then has a momentary second to decide where to move. If his movement is sharp enough and Bellingham can find him with the correct weight of pass, a goal is likely to follow. That’s exactly what happens. See it again! (1:30-1:40). His decision, guided initially by the focus of the ball and the space around the player in possession, could then be used to exploit new space that would directly allow for a better passing angle, whilst simultaneously opening up room away from the opposition to finish. Bellingham, the player with the ball, also correctly perceives the only avenue of space available for a pass within Hertha’s defensive structure, and takes the risk.

When we talk about “the ball” as a construct, we’re not only talking about location, but flight, direction, power and spin. For example, if a ball is smacked into the penalty area with pace and power, a striker knows how to adjust accordingly. They don’t need to match the delivery with power, and instead can often redirect the ball into the back of the net with the most miniscule of touches. Without much pace on the delivery, a striker may need to put more power behind their shot to trouble the goalkeeper.

But here’s an interesting trinket – the player in possession rarely needs to scan for the ball. They already have it, and therefore they don’t need to take in too much new information about the present moment, only the future moments by which they can guide the next action. Here’s an example where Christian Gunter receives a pass down the line from Vincenzo Grifo. Instead of staring at the ball and ensuring a successful first contact, the German allows the ball to roll across his body for almost two seconds. He neglects to glance at the ball until the moment he strikes, ensuring he accumulates the weight and power desired on the cross.

So instead of looking at the ball, what’s he staring at? The other three elements. He’s scanning for the opposition, and where that could then create space for a cross to fly into the box. But he must first be aware of a potential teammate who could exploit that space and match his game of eye-spy. So in that two-second period of time, the Freiburg full-back sets his sights on the movement of his poacher in the penalty area – Woo-Yeong Jeong, who expertly matches his cross with a bullet header.

Once more, perceptions of what’s happening on the ball must be guided around subsequent perceptions of opposition, teammates and space. That process must be completed in the matter of seconds, which is why automatisms can become so powerful for coaches to create.

2. OPPOSITION

Similarly to the ball, when studying “the opposition”, we refer not only to the location or movement of players, but shapes, structures and even personnel. That last one is particularly important and can often be scrutinized prior to the match in opposition reports and training. For example, as a defender, I may not want to get touch-tight to Lionel Messi before he receives. The Argentinean has the trickery and decisiveness to easily wiggle his way away from me. But if I can correctly assess the distance by which I need to cover all my bases, I have a slightly better shot at timing my tackle and winning the ball. In a different moment, I may want to get touch-tight to a player who has poor control, as I can more easily stunt their progress and force an error by putting intense pressure on their back. Simultaneously, if Messi receives in the penalty area, or is about to take a shot, that may be a time where I now want to get closer. If players, analysts and managers can work together to study their opposition relentlessly, they will automatically have a leg up in their quest to achieve high performance.

Studying the opposition’s shape and structure (from pre-match to in-match) will also help in achieving greater exploitation. While each team may carry out a 4-4-2, 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 in different ways with different personalities, each of the game’s formations have their own unique set of circumstances that can be manipulated. The 4-3-3 is often said to be born out of the desire to overload the 4-4-2’s lack of midfield presence, and can inherently create natural triangles to overrun the team in central channels. Meanwhile the most prevalent space in behind a back-three will almost always be between the wing-back and outside-centre-back. If we want to exploit the 4-4-2 or 3-4-3, we may draw on these classic approaches, recognizing that 8/10 times, they work. But we may also prepare for the fact that the opposition may do their best to stunt the progress in these potential gaps and address them in training. That’s where the constant scanning then enters the frame, as we look for moments to exploit those spaces, and new areas of the field that can be sought to create overloads instead.

Then at the most basic level, we must also recognize the split-second decision making arising from the in-moment movement and positioning of the opposition. Here’s one of my favourite examples of intelligent adjustment, from the mind of Teemu Pukki.

Pukki starts in an advantageous position – in between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. He possesses the pace to beat both if the pass into his path perfectly matches the timing of his run. But as his teammate takes a poor touch, the moment changes. Harry Maguire recovers into a decent position to handle the situation, compacting the distance between himself and Lindelof. That then opens space on the other side of Maguire, which Pukki quickly recognizes. So in a split-second, he changes the angle of his approach, to exploit a new avenue of space on the outside of the defender. The ball ends up being at an awkward angle, yet the quality of his movement means he still has time to adjust and nod it on to someone else.

When working with young players, this is often the one that they have the greatest difficulty wrapping their head around, and carrying out. They often focus too much of their attention on the ball, rather than the movement of the players around them. I can’t necessarily speak to anyone else, but I’d hazard to guess that somewhere between 80 and 90% of goals scored against my U13 girls team last season were out of a failure to adequately scan for the opposition. Once they nailed that part of the game down, the results followed.

3. TEAMMATES

Embed from Getty Images

We love our teammates, but it’s not just about love, but how we tactically use one another on the pitch to bring out the best in one another. Again, this extends beyond the in-moment movement and positioning of our mates. If 2022 had a theme within our body of work, it would be “balance.” Each and every team must accomplish balance within their ranks, or at the very least, understand how to mitigate one another’s weaknesses, whilst bringing out the best. Manchester United failed to achieve balance in and around Harry Maguire last season, and it only amplified the scrutiny he received from fans as he faltered in his own decision making. If each member of a team has a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses, playing style and even interesting quirks of their mates, a team can then work toward greater harmony and success.

Sometimes you still need the technical, tactical and physical quality to back up that knowledge, but the scanning process needs less time if it can become automatized to match the situation depending on the mate involved. Pacific FC’s Marco Bustos for example is incredibly left-footed, often times even crossing with the outside of his left boot rather than his right. As he wiggles his way down the right and evades defenders, his own teammates can prepare for the type of backspin that may be likely to follow, in ways the opposition can’t. The opposition might not be expecting such a peculiarity, but his teammates can more easily predict the potential for that type of cross, and more quickly respond as the ball spins in a different direction.

Players frequently targeted by passes are not just adept at gaining space, but are trusted by their teammates to enact remarkabilities. A team like York United can then see Diyaeddine Abzi with acres of space to receive, and recognize instantaneously the necessity to play a diagonal ball across the field into his path.

If York better understood that the Canadian occasionally overhits his crosses, the right winger could adjust his movement to arrive late to the back-post.

But we also cannot ignore the deeper minutia behind single-actions and single-event movements. Players must constantly be scanning for their teammates, as you can never fully predict what a player will do on a football pitch. We know that Bustos loves to cross with the outside of his left, but we also know he loves to take players on 1v1. We know Abzi has a tendency to overhit his looped crosses into the box, but we also know that he loves to low-ball and smash crosses across the grass. It then takes intelligence to constantly adjust to the decisions of teammates, recognizing the appropriate characteristics of ball, opposition and space to create subsequent actions.

If we take the Pukki example again, you can see how the Finnish forward not only adjusts to the space around him and the movement of Maguire, but to the poor first touch and subsequent delays of his own teammate. He recognizes that the touch will now require more time to create the next action, where Maguire will inevitably reduce space in the direction he initially started his movement pattern. So Pukki changes his run, allowing his teammate time to find the Finnish forward in new land.

In recognizing the awkwardness of the pass, he even spots the movement of Milot Rashica in behind, and heads it into the path of the Kosovar professional instead. You can see from this example how decision making often requires split-second adaptations based on the decisions and actions of others. There’s even a moment where another Norwich player could receive Pukki’s pass, but he realizes Rashica’s advantageous run to match the header instead, and then seeks new space to try and stretch the opposition and complicate their ability to block the shot. The best players know how to adapt to the moment in the quickest amount of time. But as we’ve discussed, they also have the deepest understanding of the strengths of their teammates, and perhaps even the traits of the opposition.

4. SPACE

Space refers to the areas of the field that are either available or unavailable to move into. When a player has “space”, it is widely acknowledged that they should take their space finding expedition to new heights and claim that territory as their own. But as an inherently complex construct, this isn’t always the case. Space finding expeditions must always be in relation to ball, teammates and opposition.

In fact, there is no better argument for the quadracycle construct than space. After all, the space available or unavailable to a player is a direct result of the positioning of their mates, the ball, and the opposition. Defending teams for example must not only work to cover holes individually, but collectively as they work together to compact the field and limit penetration. They will then adjust their positioning to match the movement of the ball, and the movement of the opposition.

On the other end of the spectrum, it can then become very difficult for a team to find any degree of space against a low-block, that works to cover all avenues of space through the centre of the pitch. Space may only become available out wide, and only momentarily before it is closed down again.

The goal is to then move the ball quickly between teammates to unlock momentary pockets, that can then be used to exploit the opposition’s weaknesses. This is why movement can often unlock space for not only the player in question, but players around the situation too. As one moves (say a teammate, the ball or the opposition), another will almost always react, changing the situation. When the situation changes, the space will often follow suit. That is why coaches, analysts and crazed fans will often harp on about the necessity to take space as soon as it becomes available. But it’s about first reading the situation, and identifying the very best decision based on not only the space, but the remaining elements.

The best of the art are not only astute in finding space on the field when clearly exposed. They’re astute in finding space when seemingly none is available to them. Here’s an example where Diogo Jota perfectly floats in to match a cross from Andy Robertson. He approaches from the blindside of the defender, finding half a yard ahead of the defender by the time he connects.

The space to exploit was minimal at best, but the Portuguese forward made space for himself through the quality of his movement (both in timing and direction). For the defender, who momentarily scanned for his positioning before Robertson’s cross, this would have been a particularly unpredictable run. Jota was already on the blindside of the defender in question, and could have simply stayed there. In moving further away from goal, he’s creating a more difficult angle for himself to bang the ball into the back of the net. But recognizing Mee’s aerial strength and the tinier gap between the brawny defender and Charlie Taylor (Burnley’s left-back), the risk is worth the reward.

He quickly darts in front of Mee, where a bigger gap appears. He then momentarily finds enough space and time to swivel his head to connect with the cross. This is a brilliant exploitation of space, guided by a split-second decision from Jota to make his own life more difficult, where his proficiency makes his space seeking easier in the end. But it also highlights the value of knowing the opposition players you’re coming up against, and the strengths of your teammates.

CONCLUSION

Nothing can exist in football without perceptions of ball, opposition, teammates and space (BOTS for short if you want!). While there may never be one unequivocally correct answer to any given footballing problem, players can more adequately assess for decision making through muscle memory, experience, automatisms, sheer intelligence, and studying the tips in this article. But those same players, analysts and coaches must also recognize the deeply-rooted tandem bike quadracycle nature of the four elements of the game, and how they all co-exist to work in harmony.


So there it is! Understanding ball, opposition, teammates and space. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Theory based articles, and follow on socials @desmondrhys and @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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