Improving your tactical understanding as a player

Historically, we’ve tailored our content toward coaches and fans of the beautiful game, attempting to use our content for practical application in the game. But more and more we find ourselves interacting with players wanting to take their tactical understanding to the next level. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see players taking initiative, and recognizing the intertwined nature of the tactical side to superiority in all other “corners” of the game. But simultaneously, this points to somewhat of a hole in coaching practice and common dogmas, where the technical and physical components are still prioritized, without enough regard for the tactical elements of football. The website itself hopes to bring out the best in that regard for coaches, prompting them to think about tactics on a deeper level, and in a manner in which they would be capable of disseminating to their players. But I hear from coaches all the time that they have a tough time going from awareness of problems, to an understanding of that problem on a deeper level where they can work toward solutions. This effects the players too, holding them back from a full understanding of what is truly happening around them.

Here’s a great example from one of the best in the business on YouTube, a true expert in making videos that help young players learn how they too can become a pro. The same exact scenario happens in Matt Sheldon’s video over and over, where he steps up to press too quickly, gets too close to the opposition, and finds himself done and dusted when the opposition easily play a one-two and then exploit the space behind him.

Watch from 5:21-5:48 by clicking play where we’ve started the video!

Despite showing several clips of this exact same act over the course of the match, he continues to talk about “good pressing” and “stepping up” on his opposite number as they approach the ball. This shows a disregard for the evolution of the match, including a clear pattern that repeated several times over the course of the game, to his own peril. If the coach can’t recognize this either, there’s a larger issue at hand. Here it happens again…

This example from Sheldon’s video even perhaps indicates a tactical implementation that the team had worked on over and over in training, that they then failed to adapt on the day when faced with the opposition’s silky one-two touch passing out from the back. This is essentially the exact phenomenon that Cameron Herbert discussed in his ‘Why Passing Patterns and Automatisms Are Stupid’ piece, that I avidly argued against in I will change your mind about automatisms. If you just do what you worked on in training, without studying the flow of the match, Cameron’s article holds significant weight. This is where both players and coaches must be aware of the intertwined nature of all the elements of the game, and all the “corners” commonly used to break down the game into different parts. Check out these two articles for the deeper minutiae of what we mean…

-> Why the technical, tactical, physical and psychological sides of football are deeply intertwined
-> Understanding ball, opposition, teammates and space

This is where we remind you that “good pressing” isn’t just about intensity. It’s not even just about intensity and angling. It’s not even just about intensity, angling and team shape. It’s about reading the moment, and appropriately reacting to accommodate the opposition and their desires.

Take this clip for example, where Sheldon talks about how he got caught ball-watching and “didn’t put his arm across the guy” to stop him from exploding away. Again, he has failed to recognize that the same pattern has occurred twenty times in the match already, and that he should maybe just hold position and not fly in on his opposite number like a derailed freight train. In flying in like a helicopter, Sheldon takes himself out of the equation. It’s not about his ball-watching behaviours or his physicality, it’s about his decision making. That’s what’s letting him down. And for reassurances, I’m a massive fan of his videos, and think there’s an awful lot to gain for players and coaches alike.

To his credit, he’s also not trying to tailor his videos to my audience, instead making his information as simple to understand as possible. So the fact that he discusses an error in ball-watching is valuable. I’d argue that somewhere between 90 to 100% of the goals scored in youth football come down to some level of ball-watching and some level of disregard for the opposition. Nevertheless, I want you to be hyper-aware of all aspects of the game. I want you to identify how you can become a better footballer, and how you can recognize these moments that occur in a football match, before it’s too late. So with that, let’s finally dive in to my best tips and tricks for improving your analysis as a player.

GET YOUR HANDS ON THE VIDEO

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Let’s face it. Chances are, someone is video-taping your football match. Identify who that may be, and simply ask if you can have a copy of it. If you feature in the video, you have more than your right to use the video for your own educational purposes. No one filming? Ask a friend, family member or your club to film the match so you and your team can watch and learn. Video footage is your best friend when it comes to analysis. As soon as you see yourself in action on the pitch, you’ll discover an array of qualities about your technical and tactical knowhow, that you can then use to improve.

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This is an under-utilized tool, even in a world that has become so reliant on technology. Youth matches are rarely ever examined on a deeper level, and simply sit in the club’s archives with little hope of escaping the cabinet. This is crazy to think about, as I have found that showing players clips, highlights, moments, and even the full-match footage of a game can be even more valuable than anything you will accomplish in training. You know that question – “Is that what I sound like??” whenever someone first hears their voice on a recording? Showing players a video of themselves can be such a valuable way of helping players come to a How I Met Your Mother glass shattering epiphany that can aid their development.

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So as a player reading this article, understand that studying video footage, whether that footage be you training on your own in the park, the match against your fiercest rivals, or a training session with your mates, will be so incredibly valuable to identifying areas of improvement to your game. There’s value in training technical foundations alone in the park on your own, but it’s even better if you can have someone offering you technical and tactical feedback to coincide with that build-up of muscle memory. Who better than to analyze that video footage than yourself, where you can then go to your coach or a knowledgeable other and discuss strategies to improve what you see.

ABSORB AS MUCH CONTENT AS POSSIBLE

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The internet is littered with information these days. The world is your canvas when it comes to discovering information. So why not use it? If you truly want to enhance your tactical understanding of the game, here is what you need to do right now.

  1. Identify a problem you are trying to solve in your game.
  2. Study that problem relentlessly.
  3. Conjure up as many solutions to the problem as possible.
  4. Put those solutions into action on the pitch.

This is the exact same process we detailed for coaches in ‘The simple task anyone can do to improve their tactical knowledge‘. Why does it work? Because you are studying something that is personally meaningful to you, that you actively care about improving. But where do you look, you might ask? In your own research and your own travels, you will discover fun friends willing to help. I am one of those fun friends, and I answer emails back with as much detail as possible. Go ahead, ask your question!

But there’s also great resources out there across the board, from Michael Cox and Mark Carey on The Athletic, to dare I say Jon Mackenzie on Tifo Football, who has pleasantly surprised me since he took over for Alex Stewart, arguably one of the preeminent, all-time tactics legends in our community. I’m genuinely a fan of Matt Sheldon and his videos as a resource for players, especially just in his humble approach to the game. I also like the way SimplySoccer breaks down elements of the technical side of the game, and there’s a few others I would recommend and trust, such as Catalan Soccer and Joner 1on1 for extremely valuable technical feedback and training ideas for working on your own. For players, video footage and YouTube is again your best route, as it will help you to better comprehend the direct application of the information provided to the game itself. For coaches interested in the theories behind the tactical elements of the game, Modern Soccer Coach, the Coaches’ Voice, and my competitors (dare I say TFA) are going to be some of the best places to explore.

Point is, absorb content from a variety of sources, and take time to reflect on the information you receive. Don’t just watch an endless amount without taking time to let the information sink in, or without giving yourself the opportunity to put the information into action on the football pitch. For example, watch Joner describe how to angle the hips when striking a shot like Stevie G, then go out and practice. Once you’ve started to master the art and practiced relentlessly, then explore a new concept. Find a couple of quality sources that you trust, and then use them to gain that quantity of depth in your research, exploring a variety of different topics. But always look for the actionable insights, and consider how it directly applies to your context. Context in this case meaning not just the fact that you are a player, but the specific characteristics of your own footballing IQ, across all “four corners“.

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So if you don’t already know this information, that’s also a great place to start. Give yourself a FIFA rating in the various categories, and identify the holes in your game most desperately in need of improving. My high school coach famously told me that my “shot sucked”. The feedback was rather unspecific and even relatively unfounded, but it did inspire me to work relentlessly on the technical aspects of striking a rolling ball, in pressurized situations. But the information was still left without the tactical aspects of the game, that could have been valuable in dissecting in greater detail. For purposes of shooting, that may have included studying xG. Sounds daunting, right? All we mean by that is this – identifying areas of the pitch that are generally best for striking the ball and scoring goals, as opposed to less than advantageous positions that I, as a central midfielder, may have been striking the ball from.

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That may have also included how to better time my runs to receive the ball in the box and finish off chances, rather than always being the creator (I was always more of a visionary on the field). The tactical side of the game is endless. There is no right or wrong answer, various solutions could solve any given problem, and there is no one size fits all to playing football. You need to identify what works for you within your own characteristics and your own model for success. Start there, and start now…


GAME OF ‘I SPY’

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When playing football, you should be constantly scanning your surroundings, and not just for purposes of identifying the four elements of the game. You can also identify patterns, shapes, strengths and weaknesses in the opposition. This is not easy to do by any means, and don’t be intimidated. Treat it almost like a game of ‘I Spy’ thinking about what you see. This can be particularly valuable on static play (i.e. goal kicks and throw-ins), where you have enough time to properly assess the situation before it unfolds. This is where you can identify team structures and shapes that may actually last beyond the static component to that equation.

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Along the way, note any weaknesses that come up in your opposition, particularly in the players closest to you. You want to be hyper-aware of your 1v1 battles, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the players you’re going up against. Then you can use that information to exploit their weaknesses, and avoid their strengths. For example, if I know a defender is faster and stronger than me, I may want to beat them with a one-two with my teammate, rather than trying to take them on 1v1.

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This is where the amount of content that you’ve been absorbing will come in handy. You’ll have a greater understanding of the tactical side of the game and the different solutions you can use to solve the complex problems you encounter. But again, focus on the information that is most prevalent to you. If you are a defender, you don’t necessarily need to be as hyper-aware of the opposition’s build-up strategies as you would need to be as a striker – leading the first line of pressure. You instead may need to be worried about the opposition’s build-up in relation to the players closest to you, for example, how do they target passes into their striker? Don’t spend all your time playing that game of ‘I Spy’ with yourself only to study numbers, shapes, structures and strategies that might not be the most prevalent information for you to know. And remember, any time you’re scanning the field, you’re looking for four things: ball, opposition, teammates and space. The intertwined nature of those four components means that you will often be able to see all four simultaneously, in a matter of seconds, so long as you scan the field.

CONCLUSION

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When it comes to improving your tactical understanding as a player, you must follow three crucial steps. First, get your hands on video footage of you playing the sport, and then follow our ‘simple task’ to identify problems, and potential solutions. As part of that process, you should also be researching relentlessly, and absorbing as much content as possible from a variety of quality sources. Then as your putting all of this into action on the pitch, remember to scan your surroundings constantly, taking in all the information that you can. As you scan, remember to focus on your individual battles above all else, prioritizing the identification of strengths and weaknesses of your specific match-ups. If you follow these steps, you’re going to be a tactical warrior, absolutely destroying the field week in and week out. So much so, that we may even write a future analysis on your brilliance.


So there it is! How to improve your tactical understanding as a player. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Theory pieces, including some of my favourites below. Also be sure to follow on social media in our three main channels @mastermindsite, @coachingtms for coaching exclusives, and @desmondrhys for the coolest guy around.

Thanks for reading and see you soon.

-> Why the technical, tactical, physical and psychological sides of football are deeply intertwined
-> Understanding ball, opposition, teammates and space
-> The simple task anyone can do to improve their tactical knowledge
-> Why patterns and context are so essential to analysis in football

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