In scientific research, everyone wants to make their own acronym. Me too! But the key difference between myself and those talking about BLT’s, is that I definitely did not invent the wheel.
The system is called BOTS, and it’s a well known thing in football that as far as I can tell, no one ever thought to make into an acronym. BOTS involves perceptions and decision making processes based on the ball, the opposition, teammates, and space. Some even position the ‘goal’ or ‘targets’ or ‘net’ into this, but BGOTS or BOTSG doesn’t have the same ring to it. Also, in truth, while there are moments where you have to scan for the goal, you don’t need to at every moment you spend on the pitch, which can’t be said for the other four. The goal also stays in one place and remains static, as opposed to the other four, which are constantly changing every single second.
At every single moment, every player on the pitch should be scanning and perceiving the ball, their opposition, teammates and space. Those four items allow you to assess how much time you have to make decisions, and can guide decision making processes. Every single player could enhance their game tremendously by paying greater attention to their surroundings and developing a knack for knowing what to scan for, and how to adjust accordingly.
It’s often posited that the difference between pro and those still trying to break into the pro game is not a difference in playing quality, but a difference in quickness and correctness of decision making. This 2020 study even found that ‘high-level players’ paid more attention to unmarked teammates and opponents than ‘mid-level players’. One of the number one ways to improve decision making is to improve the art of scanning.Embed from Getty Images
That doesn’t mean wastefully checking your shoulder or turning your head just to show your coach that you looked. It’s an ongoing process throughout the match, where players move their eyes both toward the ball and away from the ball. In doing so, they can then make assessments about the opposition, their teammates, and the space available to them, using the ball as a reference.Embed from Getty Images
This system can apply to any invasion sport (e.g. lacrosse, hockey, basketball), and to most other sports that incorporate a ball (e.g. volleyball, tennis). The net may become more important in certain net sports, where different inferences need to be made more regularly based on proximity to the net. But again, it remains a static feature of the game, and players can get into rituals and habits over what decisions to make without worrying that the net is going to dip underground or leap in the air.
Back to the beautiful game, it’s generally accepted that the four key items on the pitch that need to be scanned for include the four in our system – BOTS. It’s also generally accepted that the better the player, the more they scan, and the more they would excel when it comes to a test on ‘Footballing IQ’ or ‘Game Awareness/Understanding’. It’s also true that we study the scanning habits of Kevin de Bruyne and Lionel Messi more than that guy from the A-League (you know the one), but the point still holds true.Embed from Getty Images
It’s also important to note that as a coach, we’re often trying to make decision making processes and perceptions of BOTS more automatic for players. A coach can have a great influence on what they want their players to do in certain moments, that then become what we call ‘automatisms’.
Every time they see a situation on the matchday that they practiced in training, they can then make that decision without even needing to think. In other words, it becomes automatic. Some coaches will argue that ‘automatisms’ are a form of joystick coaching, whereby the coach makes all the decisions for the players. But it’s not about that. It’s about helping players understand a variety of decisions they could make based on their perceptions of BOTS.
In other words, instead of dwelling on the decision or making a critical error, players are able to recognize patterns, and make quicker, correct decisions as to what to do on and off the ball. For example, in this goal, Isak knows to position himself on the blindside of the nearest defender, because he will have a better chance of bursting into space and scoring a goal off the long pass.
From getting himself into a stellar position right from the start, he then reduces the constant need to scan for the space ahead. He can then focus more of his attention toward the opposition (ensuring he stays onside), the ball (ensuring he times his run to stay onside and receive the pass), and the actions of his teammate (responding to an outside of the boot pass to know the direction it’s likely going to spin).Embed from Getty Images
Coaches generally understand that players should scan when they are about to receive the ball. They often use terminology like “check your shoulder”, which is toward the right track, but incomplete. Again, it’s more about the movement of the eyes and neck to see what’s around you from a 360 degree vision, not just over your shoulder.
The actual act of “checking the shoulder” also needs to extend beyond just when receiving the ball, and I don’t think enough youth players hear that message. Scanning truly does need to exist at all times in the game, and players should never get caught focusing on one element more than any other, such as “ball watching”.Embed from Getty Images
For an entire breakdown of perceptions based on the ball, opposition, teammates and space, see my 2022 piece – Understanding ball, opposition, teammates and space. For now, I’m going to break down some of the most important items to scan for in both the attacking and defensive phases of the game.
SCANNING IN DEFENSEEmbed from Getty Images
When defending, you are the team without the ball. That means there is perhaps an even greater level of attention needed in scanning for what’s happening around and off the ball. Players like Declan Rice and Moisés Caicedo are stellar at intercepting the ball not only because of their mobility and anticipation, but because of their ability to scan the situation, lurk like a tiger waiting in the bushes, and then pounce at the killer moment.
Here’s an example from a much less famed player, from an earlier analysis of Scott McTominay. Watch how quickly McTominay scans here, but also how in such a short time, he’s able to actually see his distance between two separate opposition players.
He scans for the one to his right, sees him, then looks back at the ball, then sees the player on his left. He then readies himself to intercept the pass by getting into a low stance, and quickly shuffles over once he perceives the direction of the pass.
This happens all in the span of two seconds, and so quickly that you might not see it. So watch it again and just watch McTominay.
He scans twice for the nearby opposition player, with a scan for the ball in between. He then scans to his left, back to the ball, readies himself, and intercepts the pass. From that third scan we’ve highlighted, he knows exactly how much time he has to make the next decision, and how to coolly play the ball away from that player’s path. This is a great example of how to scan for the ball, the nearby opposition, the space gap between his teammates where the player on the ball will likely look to make a pass, and how to then adjust accordingly.Embed from Getty Images
Where most players struggle to adequately scan the field in the defensive phase is in the transition from attack to defense. It’s very easy to become hyper-focused on the ball, and to even think you have to pressure within the manager’s desire for gruesome gegenpressing, when what suddenly becomes more important is what’s happening behind your peripheral vision.
Here’s an example from the Canadian Premier League, where passing visionary Noah Verhoeven falls short when taking that same kind of vision over to the defensive phase. Intercepting this pass, or stopping the pass from happening altogether, could have been achieved just through one split-second scan, and a subtle adjustment of the feet to the right.
Verhoeven only has eyes for the ball, and Samuel Salter escapes. Transitional moments like this happen all the time, where players are slow to react, when they need to react like the opposition are about to take the last BLT. This is a great example where the “check your shoulder” habit would have helped Verhoeven here to better assess the positioning of Samuel Salter in behind.
In the span of a few seconds, he must switch from positioning himself away from Salter so that he can be in poll position to receive, to quickly shuffling across to mark the man instead. He gets caught ball watching and flat footed, and Halifax escape.Embed from Getty Images
Another key time when players must scan the field is in deciding when to press as opposed to when to hold position or make a subtle adjustment instead. I’ve done longform articles into this idea like ‘When to press, and when not to press in football‘, and ‘Improving your tactical understanding as a player‘. It was even the main focus of ‘The real problem with Harry Maguire’s defending.’ This is to say, it’s easy to get this wrong.
We are often told that if we are the closest player to the ball, we should pressure with vigour and intensity. This isn’t always true. Sometimes you are better off holding your position. I don’t mean to pick on Verhoeven, who is actually a magnificent young player learning his trade, but I’m going to use him as an example again from a prior analysis.
Verhoeven sees the ball, and within his periphery, he can see two potential passing options. All he needs to do is hold his position. It would stop the man on the ball from playing one over the top down the line, and it would allow the York man to quickly come across if one of the other two players receives instead.
But instead of holding rank, he presses the ball, thus vacating both players that have the potential to receive. Now Halifax are able to escape!
This is where you don’t always want to pressure the ball if you’re the closest to the situation. There’s a massive gap between Verhoeven and the Halifax man in possession, and Verhoeven’s never going to do anything productive by trying to close that gap. He just needs to see the players next to him, adjust his feet ever so slightly, and he’ll likely stop the opposition from being able to break forward.
The same kind of idea applies to when to take a more necessary foul and stop the play from happening, as opposed to when you have teammates surrounding the situation or have forced the player toward the touchline. Rather than holding position and remaining patient, many players will dive in without first reading their surroundings.Embed from Getty Images
As you can see, scanning in the defensive phase goes beyond just finding someone to mark. You need to know how to assess your surroundings, and then quickly adjust your position accordingly, all in the span of a few seconds. Again, this is what separates ‘high-level’ pros like Rice and Caicedo from the rest.
SCANNING IN ATTACKEmbed from Getty Images
When it comes to the attacking phase, scanning generally comes down to two umbrellas. Either you should be scanning for what decision to make on the ball, and when, or how to position yourself to receive the ball and create space for your mates. Often times as a player off the ball, that means moving closer to the situation. But it can also be about when to evaporate, and move further away from the situation.Embed from Getty Images
This is where young players often get tripped up. Players in defensive roles at the youth level often feel like there is a line on the field that they can’t cross. But the reality is, every single player should be assessing the space around them to receive, and be putting themselves in a position that takes advantage of that space to receive, whenever their team has the ball. That then reduces the scanning requirements of the player on the ball, allowing them to make quicker correct decisions.
But any time a player has the ability to advance into space in behind the opposition’s defense, they should always be looking for the moment to exploit. But remember, that also must be in reference to the teammates around the situation.
Here’s an awesome set of scans from İlkay Gündoğan. As he sees the space to advance, he also has a glance for his mates. Such an unselfish player! He sees Mahrez first, and then Alvarez second. He then maintains his run to advance into the space, before glancing back over at the ball to prepare for the pass.
As soon as he receives the ball, he already knows where Mahrez is going to be, and makes the decision to play the ball over without needing to look again.
Watch it again, and notice what the German does after scanning each time.
He returns his gaze back to the ball, and then scans something else, then back to the ball. This cycle repeats until he receives, and at that time, he already knows his next course of action. That’s exactly what we mean when we talk about utilizing the art of scanning to make decisions more automatic.
So how about what to do on the ball? The decision is never easy, and you are often swarmed by an opposition player at the exact moment that you have to make a decision.Embed from Getty Images
This is one reason why many top-tier players will do what the Spanish call ‘La Pausa’ and actually take a momentary pause on the ball to both assess their options, and entice their opposition toward the ball.
In other moments, you may actually need to be patient due to the lack of options. This is a fun clip of Andreas Pereira dancing around a Nottingham Forest player, before playing a safe and simple pass.
You may not notice all of the scans here, but Pereira assesses his options several times in the move, and waits until he’s created exactly the right amount of space to play in the pass.
At the moment Pereira received the ball, he couldn’t play the ball back the way it came, and he knew that, from his quick scan of the opposition and Tim Ream’s positioning to receive. So he stands the defender up, and then shimmies and shakes until he has a player free.
He sees his teammate and could play the pass here. But he’s off-balance, and he also knows that there’s still two defenders lurking and waiting, ready to intercept. So he assesses his options once more.
Now he sees the pass that he wants to make, but it remains a dangerous one. So he again opts to create more room for himself, and dangle again.
By the time he’s done his fifth merry go round banana split, he’s completely dizzied the opposition, and has finally found room to play the pass back.
Throughout the move, the Brazilian remains in control, working to create space for himself to make his next move.
The example of Pereira here is not to suggest that you should dribble until you see the right option to pass. The example is to showcase how you can often maintain possession while continuously assessing your options, before playing the right pass at the right moment. The best players do this to magnificent effect.Embed from Getty Images
Decisions can then extend to when to shoot, and what type of finish to use depending on the circumstances, when to take space vs. when to pass, and when to simply clear the ball away from danger. It goes far beyond the need to “check the shoulder”, to a greater understanding of how to time decisions to perfection through assessing BOTS.
If you want to dive deeper into how to make quicker correct decisions based on BOTS, I currently work with coaches and players around the world in the realms of tactical IQ and game understanding through this system. Check out my coaching consultation!
Thanks for reading and see you soon 👊⚽.
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Across the past decade, I have worked with thousands of players and coaches across multiple sports and disciplines. I recognize the value of diving deeper beyond the first glance, and uncovering the deeper-lying ways to enhance performance. I make a commitment toward positive reinforcement, research-backed insights, and making the experience fun for those that work with me.
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