Why the technical, tactical, physical and psychological sides of football are deeply intertwined

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In working with coaches from around the world, one of the most common questions thrown my way pertains to how to train one of the “four corners” in isolation. In truth, the technical, tactical, physical and psychological aspects of football are all deeply intertwined. In fact, you could throw the sociological side of the game (i.e. belonging, teamwork, etc.) into that mix as well, and look at the model more like a “five corner” wheel. If players don’t feel as though they belong as part of something greater, they won’t be able to execute techniques with the same level of precision and confidence. If players don’t have the confidence to execute decisions, they won’t have the same level of tactical decisiveness or technical proficiency. Meanwhile, if they can’t back up their astute technique with the necessary physical, tactical or psychological components, they will never make it onto the elite stage.

The game is deeply rooted in all five aspects of the common coaching model, and in fact, every decision a player makes boils down to all five elements simultaneously. Here’s why the technical, tactical, physical and psychological aspects of football are all deeply intertwined.

TECHNICAL

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The technical side of the game involves ball manipulation in every form, from passing, to dribbling, shooting, tackling, and even aspects of goalkeeping. The technical side of the game is the one that coaches most often try and teach in isolation. So long as the exercise created by the coach is game-realistic, the tactical, physical and psychological will all follow suit, even if they don’t realize that as the truth. Whilst the “technical” side of the game refers to the various techniques and skills required for players to achieve success, technical quality is always backed up by tactical nous, physical capability, and psychological decision making. For example, as Pacific’s Marco Bustos uses the technical skill of passing with the outside of his left boot, he’s simultaneously using all four corners. He’s making a tactical decision to utilize the outside of the boot to achieve a certain type of back-spin, or perhaps even adjust to the pass he received. He’s making a psychological decision – perhaps in not even trusting his right-foot to make a better pass; and he requires the physical capability to have enough strength in his foot to execute the skill.

Marco Bustos is a player of unrivalled technical quality in the Canadian Premier League, but his chance creation and assist-making abilities are sparked by sound tactical and psychological decision making just as much as his technical quality.

Let’s take the example of dribbling as one of the most highly complex technical skills. It requires not only close control (technical) and innovation (tactical + psychological), but often a mix of speed and strength (physical) to hold off opponents. The best dribblers are often capable of beating opponents on both feet and shifting the ball quickly between left and right, which requires both hip and leg strength to quickly turn under pressure. Here’s an instance where Jude Bellingham pulls off a technical masterclass of dribbling, through making informed tactical decisions based on his perceptions of ball, teammates, opposition and space.

After receiving the ball, the young Englishman uses his tall and lanky frame to quickly shift the ball between his left and right feet, dancing his way past his opponents. In no time at all, he adequately assesses his teammates, the opposition and the space available to him, choosing to take on static defenders with a bit of disguise rather than play into the target that is Erling Haaland – as Bielefeld might have been expecting.

At the point that Bellingham receives the ball, he has no teammate in a particularly advantageous position. He could make a pass to Haaland, who would be forced to receive with his back to goal, or perhaps play a nice one two with the Norwegian in a crowded area. Instead, he fakes the shot, and dances past both nearby defenders in the process.

Now that he’s eliminated both defenders, Bellingham has no time to waste in making his next decision. He must carefully shield the ball from the defender to his left, and if he’s smart enough, he will again fake a pass into Haaland – who remains in a decent position to receive. The defender meanwhile knows he’s about to engage in a 2v1 situation, and shapes up to angle his body in such a way that attempts to mitigate both options. But the distance he gives Bellingham means that he’s still focused more on Haaland. The British midfielder uses that knowledge to his advantage, and takes the space once more, taking the final defender out of the equation.

Now he’s 1v1 with the goalkeeper, who closes down the majority of the goal. Racing in at such a speed after beating his opponent, Bellingham must now make a decision quickly before he’s swarmed by the keeper, with a very small percentage of the goal capable of being found with his left foot – where he must take the shot. He has Haaland in an advantageous and could slip it across to his centre-forward; but instead, he showcases strong confidence and bravado, and goes for the extravagant. Recognizing the small percentage of the goal that is available given the time and space, he goes in for the chip. Once more – it’s a perfect execution of a tough technical skill, informed by tactical decisions, psychological factors, and physical components to adequately find the back of the net.

TACTICAL

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The tactical side of the game refers to the decisions made on a football pitch based on perceptions of the ball, opposition, teammates and space. Tactics can also extend to over-arching team structures, shapes and strategies set out by the manager and coaching staff. More than any other category, it is deeply rooted not only on an individual-scale, but on the grander scale of the team. It then becomes difficult to study the tactical minutiae of a specific player, as their decisions may be guided by the manager’s philosophy and playing style as much as their own. Nevertheless, tactical decisions are always grounded in technical ability, psychological skills, and physical capacity. Let’s examine Kai Havertz’s wonder goal against Newcastle United to end Eddie Howe’s remarkable undefeated streak in March.

Upon watching this goal, you might instantly be mesmerized by the technical quality of Havertz to take down Jorginho’s glorious pass over the top. But this goal is a perfect example of one that arises only out of sound tactical decision making, and the physical and psychological skills to back up that technique.

First, when Jorginho receives the ball, his first touch ultimately lets him down, failing to open up enough of the field for a progressive pass. So he makes the tactical decision to shift the ball left to Antonio Rudiger, which he knows will move the opposition and give him more time to re-assess the situation. The pass then comes back into his feet, and this time he has enough time and space to open his body and pick out the right pass. Using his spatial awareness, he spots Kai Havertz in a dangerous position – excellently positioning himself between defenders.

With his body shaping to play a sideways pass, Chris Wood expects Jorginho to play it safe and simple, and shuffles instead of closing down the Chelsea man. Jorginho’s excellent disguise is then matched by an incredible pass over the top (a high-achieving technical skill). Simultaneously, Kai Havertz prepares his run by showing Jorginho where he wants the ball through his body language (socio-psychological skills). Dan Burn fails to get tight enough in his attempts to say compact with his defensive unit, so Havertz is now free to receive the ball and take a touch in the box.

After beating Burn to the ball, Havertz now has two tactical decisions to make. He must decide on the next action, either shoot on a one-touch, or take a touch to shoot with his second bite of the cherry. If he takes a touch, he knows Burn and/or the keeper may be able to recompose themselves and stop the goal from going in.

The second decision is in what foot to take the ball down with. His right foot would be better for volleying first time, as it would allow him to more naturally open up his hips to strike at goal – meeting the ball as it glides across his body. But his left foot would allow for a better angle for the shot on a second touch, opening up more of the goal. So in the blink of an eye, whilst even being momentarily held back by Burn, he decides to take the touch down with his left, and then finish almost instantaneously, not allowing the goalkeeper any time at all to react. The quickness in which Havertz executes not only the deftness of touch but the finish afterward arises out of an array of physical and psychological attributes. We look at it in real-time and praise Havertz for his impeccable technical quality. But the speed at which he goes from receiving to scoring requires serious brain power, serious improvisation, and fast footwork. He even makes it harder for himself on technical and physical capacity with an outside of the boot finish, which he correctly assesses in the moment by the flight of the bounce, allowing him to get the shot off before the keeper has time to breathe.

Again, this is a great example where a series of smart tactical decisions needed to be backed up by technical and physical proficiency, and the necessary social-psychological skills.

PHYSICAL

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The physical side of the game refers to the necessary speed, strength, and fundamental movement skills to execute appropriate actions on the pitch (such as the technical and tactical aspects of the game). When fans of the game think of a “physical” player, they either think of a brutal, bullying defender, or a speedy winger charging up the field. Both would be excellent examples of a player who possess the necessary physicality to get one over on the opposition.

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But even the most physical of players (whether that be in the speed or strength sector) would be nothing without the ability to adequately assess situations, and utilize a degree of technique to slow their speed of play down. I love the challenge of turning a super-athletic, physical specimen into a technically proficient player, but it is often a difficult task. Not only that, but no matter how hard they work, those players are often thought of as being of a lower footballing level than a highly technical player that possesses very little physicality. That can often effect their confidence and psychological skills, even if they win every 1v1 battle they encounter.

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Between 2018 and 2020, I coached a defender with a karate black-belt that had an uncanny ability to win any 1v1 battle down the wing, due to her simultaneous mix of speed and strength. But when we tried to play out from the back, she often struggled to execute basic passing sequences. She never scored, never assisted, never even had the pass before the assist. She was just raw, pure physicality and pure energy. I loved her because she could play the full game without tiring, and she defended for her life. But as soon as she tried out for a team of a higher level, she was completely out of her depth, not only on technical quality, but on psychological skills. Again, these aspects of the game can never exist in isolation.

My favourite of all physical specimens in the NWSL is Houston Dash’s extraordinary goalkeeper Jane Campbell – whom I constantly feel like deserves a USWNT call-up, but always falls by the way-side. She made an incredible double-save last month against Angel City, with both saves acting as a perfect reminder of the necessary physical strength to pull off a technically proficient save, and quickly get off the ground to pull off a second save seconds later. The clip also highlights the tactical decisions of where to push a stop when it can’t be caught, and the psychological skill of believing in one’s own ability to stop the shot even when all hope seems lost.

The first save is quite remarkable on its own, with her sound positioning working to anticipate the direction of the shot. She gets a strong hand up to quickly push the save away, but can’t do anything more than push it away from goal. That would be awesome in itself, but unfortunately she can’t do anything more than punch the ball into Christen Press’s path, the last player you’d want the ball to fall to as a goalkeeper.

With Christen Press now in acres of space to finish, Campbell must act quickly and decisively, or else she and her team are doomed to concede. The American keeper quickly bounces off her feet, utilizing all the leg power and speed she can conjure up to spring forward and shuffle her feet, where she’s then able to put up another strong hand to stop the second shot in stunning fashion.

This save ends up being even better, as this time she palms the shot into the ground, caressing more of the power out of the shot. You could easily look at both saves and point to the expert technical proficiency by which she executed the double-save. But again, it was more about her physical attributes to pull off the remarkable, including the uncanny speed by which she returned from the dead after making the first save. Her tactical IQ also always remained high in the moment, positioning herself well and correctly adjusting her body to anticipate the direction of both shots.

The below image showcases a moment from the exact same game, in which she showed the bravery to throw herself into a challenge from just a few yards away from goal. As far as goalkeepers go, Jane Campbell’s warrior mentality makes her a manager’s dream.

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Here’s another great example of physicality, from the man most likened to a machine. Erling Haaland has always been a player capable of scoring goals for fun, and that is in large part due to his imposing frame, the way he uses his body to ward off unwanted attention, and the raw speed and strength he possesses in helping him evade defenders. So while this goal sums up all of his key physical attributes, it also nicely illustrates the other facets of his game that allow him to be so incredibly clinical.

Haaland knows that Hummels has time and space to get his head up, so he starts his run from an on-side position, and then eventually follows the flight of the ball to receive in front of the man chasing him down. You already know that the Norwegian possesses the speed and strength to hold off any defender in the world, and that’s exactly what happens. You would be forgiven for thinking Haaland scored this goal purely on the back of his physical attributes. After all, it’s all we’ve spoken about thus far.

But before the finish, Mats Hummels possesses the technical quality to place a long pass in exactly the right spot for the Norwegian, which also comes from his astute tactical awareness to read the situation and adjust accordingly.

His pass also showcases a fantastic understanding of Haaland’s skillset, knowing exactly how much pace, power and finesse to place on the pass to meet the striker’s incisive movement. The same goes for Haaland, who perches himself in between defenders, with an open body shape to receive. This affords the Norwegian more room to receive away from all but one of Union Berlin’s players, throwing himself into a pure 1v1 competition for pace and power against the man tasked with man-marking him.

As the ball travels into his path, the Dortmund striker must use his physical presence to ward off the attempts of the defender to throw him down. The defender grapples and fights for control, but Haaland stays on his feet. In fact, he initiates more contact, understanding that he will win the battle if he uses his strength to stop the defender’s progress. The Norwegian could have easily made the tactical decision to take a tumble to the ground and win his team a foul. But Haaland is no tumbler. He backs himself to win every battle, and so he ducks under the Union Berlin defender’s arm, just in time to spot the ball bounce in front of him.

After winning the battle, Haaland now has a split-second to decide on a finish. He can see the goalkeeper in his periphery, but has not had time to give a proper glance at the keeper’s positioning. But with Robin Knoche still grappling for control, Haaland decides to act swiftly, and scissor kicks the ball over top of the keeper into the back of the net. It’s a magnificent piece of improvisation, backed up by the technical proficiency that arises more out of necessity than muscle memory.

The weight that Haaland gets on the end of his touch is almost too good to be true, accumulating exactly the right amount of power to lob the keeper without floating the ball over the goal or having it land before the line. Further, most players in that situation would not have dared to back themselves to pull off such an extravagant finish. But that’s the beauty of Haaland and one of the reasons why he scored so many goals for the Black & Yellows. His confidence, bravado and belief are all sky-high, and he trusts himself to win not only any 1v1, but to score from any type of situation. He’s a physical specimen, but so much more.

PSYCHOLOGICAL

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Football is inherently a psychological-based game, requiring superb mental skills to get ahead of all others on the field. Every single decision is founded off the back of psychological skills, and one’s own belief systems. Without the right psychological frame, a striker will let a missed chance get to their head, resulting in several more missed chances over the course of the season. The same goes for goalkeepers when they let in an easy one. Or even when they make an outstanding save. Already, you can begin to see how psychological skills are intertwined with other facets of the game. Here’s my favourite example of a strong psychological frame from the Premier League last season.

Jordan Pickford makes a fantastic first save, but he knows his work isn’t done. Without even having time to think about where the ball’s going to end up, he races back onto his feet, and plunges into the river to make a remarkable stop. It would be very easy for the keeper to stay on his back, not even facing the play, rooted to the spot, done and dusted, as Azpilicueta bangs in the rebound. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands (literally), by throwing himself up, and then sprinting across the line. Just look at where he starts by the time Azpilicueta thrusts his leg toward the ball.

By the laws of physics, Pickford should not have been able to pull off this save. Even if he could recover through sheer speed, he’d still get to the line only to wonder what body part to use to scrape the shot away. But remarkably, through his own bravery, the England no.1 pulls it off, utilizing the intertwined facets of physical speed, technical quality, and psychological strength. Again, with just his belief and bravery in isolation, Pickford would not have pulled off this save. His physical attributes and technical quality aided in pulling off the impossible, where Everton would then go on to achieve an important result for their season.

CONCLUSION

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Through all of these examples, you can see how football is deeply rooted in each of the ‘4 Corners’, and how the technical, tactical, physical and psychological sides of the game must all work in harmony. If a player lacks in one category but excels in another, they may not be able to execute their decisions as clearly as someone that possesses half-decent skills in all four categories. The smartest players are never just the most technically gifted, but the most tactically aware, the strongest psychologically, and perhaps even physically astute enough to use their body in a way that serves their own unique traits and characteristics. Coaches must therefore work to bring out all ‘4 Corners’ (definitely five) simultaneous to one another, rather than attempting to work on one in isolation. In doing so, they will work to develop more complete footballers, with a greater likelihood of making it to the elite levels of the game.


So there it is! Why the technical, tactical, physical and psychological sides of football are deeply intertwined. Be sure to check out more from our Tactical Theory series, and follow on social media @desmondrhys and @mastermindsite to never miss an update. If you enjoy our content, be sure to stay tuned for our ‘Introduction to Football Analysis’ course, launching this Fall. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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