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Chances are you’ve watched a football match or two in your life. Sophisticated and stunningly handsome subscriber to The Athletic that you are, you’re probably pretty good at it. There’s no wrong way for anyone to enjoy the sport.

But when it comes to understanding what you’re looking at, it turns out that trying to follow 22 people all doing a hundred different things to influence which way a ball bounces around the pitch is really hard. Coaches and players (and, in our own dumb way, even journalists) spend whole lifetimes learning to watch games better. Maybe you want to, too.

So when you sit down to watch the Champions League final on Saturday, or any game for that matter, here are a few tips that might help you see the game a little more clearly — or at least give you some insufferable tactics things to say to alienate your friends and family.

1. Don’t watch the ball

Only a couple of players are typically contesting the ball at a time, which means if you’re focused on that part of the game you won’t see what 90 per cent of the people on the pitch are doing. Remember that Psych 101 video where you watch the ball and miss the gorilla?

Shapes and adjustments, runs and rotations, marking schemes and pressing behaviours — almost everything we call tactics happens away from the ball, where teams fight to create and deny space. That’s the gorilla.

We think of the player on the ball as special because he’s the person who gets to choose what will happen next, but really it’s everyone else who decides what’s possible. If you can tear your eyes away from the ball, you’ll start to see the game in terms of possibilities, not just outcomes.

2. See shapes

Congratulations, you’ve moved beyond ball-watching — what are you supposed to pay attention to now? A lot of people like to start with team shapes.

That’s shapes, plural. We’re not talking about the formation you’ll see on your line-up app. As Pep Guardiola’s mentor Juanma Lillo once griped: “You’ll never see players in those positions, not even when they first come out on the pitch.”

Instead of one shape, most teams will have various set-ups planned for different situations: high press, defensive block, build-up, attacking set. So Manchester City’s shape at the base of their build-up won’t be the same as when they move the ball into the attacking half.

Football is a fluid sport where players rarely stick to any scheme all that strictly, but recognizing how a team wants to set up in a certain phase of play can help us see why players move around — and, critically, how those shape changes affect space.

3. See space and time

Keeping track of bodies and the ball is the easy part. To see the game the way pros do, you have to stay aware of where they aren’t. As much as the players themselves, the spaces around them determine what will happen next.

“That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking,” Xavi said back when he played midfield for Guardiola. “Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realize how hard that is. Space, space, space.”

It’s not space itself that’s valuable, it’s the opportunity that it represents. Large spaces let players move the ball toward the other team’s goal. Even small spaces buy them time to receive, turn and think about what to do next.

On a good team, players work off each other to create and exploit spaces before the opponent can adjust. Notice the way Inter’s striker pair, for example, use opposite movements to make space for each other, with one dropping in while the other pushes forward or pulls wide.

“Edin (Dzeko) likes having the ball, he drops back and links with his team-mates, while Romelu (Lukaku) tends to attack spaces and has defenders follow him to create space for the second striker,” Lautaro Martinez says of the difference between his two possible strike partners in the final. “I try to adapt myself to them and do whatever the team needs.

“If I need to attack spaces to free up space for Edin I can do it easily, and the same thing applies for Romelu.”

4. Look one line up

If this all sounds like a lot, let’s narrow it down a little.

Not only should you not watch the ball, you don’t really need to worry about areas too far forward (90 per cent of passes travel less than 20 vertical yards) or behind the ball (backward passes are completed 93 per cent of the time).

Most of the juicy tactical drama happens one line ahead of the ball, where the team in possession wants to find a free player who can turn to keep play moving forward. Focus your attention there.

5. Track runs and rotations

You’re locked in on the most exciting part of the pitch now, paying attention not just to players but to spaces and the timing of movements. As far as the team in possession goes, you mostly want to keep an eye on two things: runs and rotations.

A lot of kinds of movement could be called “runs”, but generally we’re talking about fast movements into space to create a passing option.

There are dropping runs like the burst into midfield Erling Haaland has been doing a lot of lately, as well as the classic attacking run behind the centre-backs that he usually follows up with:

Both teams love overlapping and underlapping runs to get up the wings, like Kevin De Bruyne and Nicolo Barella like to do to put in crosses.

Sometimes you’ll even see short runs out of the back, like the ones Francesco Acerbi likes to make after playing a pass:

A runner will often drag a defender with him, but giving chase opens up new space where the defender was, inviting a follow-up run. When you see an attacker take off running, don’t just look where he’s going — watch for a team-mate coming into the space behind him to catch the defence off guard.

That’s the basic idea behind rotations, a name for patterns where several players move together to make and fill spaces, exchanging positions to confuse the defence. Rotations are really just combinations of runs, but they’re less about speed than coordinated timing.

6. Meet the press

Defences don’t have to sit back and wait for the attack to pull them apart with runs and rotations. They can be protagonists too. Learn to love against-the-ball tactics by appreciating when and how teams choose to press the opponent’s build-up.

You’re already paying attention to shapes, so you’ve got a general idea of how the sides set up when they’re defending in the opponent’s half. The first thing to look for is man-marking tendencies: when the team in possession moves around, do defenders follow them or stay in place?

City are the team more likely to do their defending high, and they’ll typically use a couple of midfielders to track anyone in the defensive midfield area one line up from the opponent’s centre-backs.

If the deepest player in Inter’s midfield triangle, Marcelo Brozovic or Hakan Calhanoglu, shifts to one side or drops into the back line, does De Bruyne move with him and open a passing lane? If a second midfielder comes deep, will Ilkay Gundogan or Rodri follow him and leave a hole for a long ball?

For players defending more zonally, the thing to watch for is pressing triggers: little cues, like a backward pass or a player receiving the ball while facing the wrong way, that tell the defence it’s time to spring into action.

When defenders step forward to press, watch the angles they take. For example, City’s wingers often curve their pressing runs to cut off the angle to the opponent’s wing-backs, funnelling play back inward in order to force a risky pass into the man-marked midfield or else a long ball that their big back five can win.

7. Play the numbers game

Tactics aren’t always about practised patterns. Because so much of football is improvisational, sometimes the strategic side of the game comes down to simply having more players than the other team in some part of the pitch. Luckily for us, counting heads is the easiest way to watch.

Start by mentally dividing each team into a front and back five. For City, that’s simple: their 3-2-4-1 shape in possession is naturally split into balanced defending and attacking units.

Inter’s wing-backs are trickier, since they’re part of the back five in defence but also provide width in the attack. When you see one or both wing-backs getting forward, do a quick count to see which team has more bodies at either end of the pitch. That’s players’ first reference for deciding when to speed up or slow down an attack.

Also keep an eye on overloads, little clusters of attackers that outnumber the defence near the ball, making it easier to find a free man. Teams frequently try to create overloads to break through on the wing, since it’s risky for the defence to push too many players to one side.

An overload on one side can result in both teams underloading the other, which suits players who are most dangerous one-v-one. City might draw the defence toward Bernardo Silva’s wing in order to isolate Jack Grealish’s dribbling against Denzel Dumfries on the left, or De Bruyne might overload Grealish’s side so that Haaland has more space to finish at the far post.

“In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Guardiola has said. “You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.”

8. Think inside the box

Football is low scoring not because it’s hard to kick a ball into the net but because bodies get packed in closer and spaces shrink as play gets near the goal. Pay close attention to the small but critical ways that attackers try to make room in the box for a shot.

Strikers can sometimes create their own space with double moves. Haaland is the best in the world at drawing a defender one way and then, as soon as he’s in a spot where his marker can’t see both him and the ball, exploding in another direction. “You make one run for the defender,” as Alan Shearer likes to say, “and then you make another run for yourself.”

But most scoring is a team sport. When the ball is out wide, attacks try to scramble the defence with coordinated near post, far post and trailing runs, almost like a mini-rotation in the box. Inter put in more crosses than any team in the top five leagues, and their two strikers and the wing-back Dumfries (plus sometimes an extra arriving midfielder) are deadly at combining their finishing runs for a delivery from the left wing.

9. Pick a player

Watching shapes and patterns can help make the game make more sense, but don’t lose sight of the individual. Footballers, you’ve probably noticed, aren’t tactics board magnets — each person has his own talents and tendencies that shape his role and determine how he influences the game.

Once you’ve got a feel for the systemic stuff, try zooming in to follow a particular player around for a while on and off the ball. You might choose to watch John Stones, for instance, as he steps out of the back line into defensive midfield when City are in possession, directing play away from pressure like an experienced pivot…

… and following up with an unexpected underlapping run and cross.

Not only can following one player shed light on surprising skills, it can help you see the whole system better, as various tactical ideas — shapes, rotations, overloads, attacking runs — come to life through a player’s natural movements.

10. Set a tape loop

The moments after a turnover can be the most confusing to follow. One trick that sometimes helps make sense of transitions is to mentally hit record on an imaginary tape loop every time you see a lost ball. Try to remember exactly what happens over the next few seconds so you can play it back in your head when things settle down.

It sounds cheesy, and it is, but the tape loop concept can help in a few ways. For one thing, you’ll keep closer tabs on who’s losing possession, and how, which is helpful for understanding what kind of risks a team takes on the ball.

More importantly, you’ll be paying close attention to how teams act during a part of the game coaches consider critical. Guardiola used to have a six-second rule at Barcelona for swarming to win the ball back before the opponent could get comfortable, and his City are also incredibly good at sealing off lanes to prevent a counter-attack.

The tape loop will help you connect the dots on how rest defence — the team’s structure behind the ball in possession — helps set them up to counter-press.

It can also help you remember how a team acts after winning the ball: do they try to play forward quickly, switch play to an open wing or pass backward to secure possession and reset their shape? The game’s whole tempo is established in those few seconds.

If you find the tape loop thing useful, try setting longer ones starting from just about anything — a throw-in, a pass back to the goalkeeper, a midfielder receiving on the half-turn — and trace the sequence that follows. You’ll be more attuned to cause and effect in a way that makes the game feel less accidental.

11. Make predictions

The best way to check how well you’re following the game is to try to guess what will happen next. If you’re right, mazel tov, you’re a tactics genius. If not, maybe you’ll spot something interesting that made the play unfold some other way, and now you’ve learned something new.

Predictions can include big-picture stuff like half-time adjustments and substitutions, but it’s probably more helpful to start small, thinking just a couple seconds ahead.

Alessandro Bastoni cleared a header to Brozovic. What will Inter do next?

You know they like to build through their left wing-back, Federico Dimarco, and that City’s shape leaves a hole between the winger and the right centre-back, so maybe you expect they’ll look that way. Dzeko will drift left to link play the way he likes to do, which will open space for Martinez to make an attacking run into the channel between Ruben Dias and Kyle Walker. Calhanoglu’s third-man run will allow him to receive the layoff from Dzeko while facing play, so he can put Martinez in on goal.

Will it happen just like that? No, of course not, it’s football. But hey, look at you, now you’re watching it better.

(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Eamonn Dalton)



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