Football is a skills based sport. You have a goal, and you want to get there. Skills will pave the way.
In soccer, movement is the difference between a great player and an elite level player. Watch any of the great strikers and midfield players and you will see that they score and create chances, before they even touch the ball. By simply moving at the right time into the right spaces unlocks defences.
You will also want to have a great first touch when you do eventually receive the ball so feel free to read are article on Receiving: The keys to a better first touch.
Space awareness and reading the game
Your creative midfielder has the ball and he has looked up and seen you. You now think, where can I run to receive the ball in the most advantageous position. The issue is, that this should haven already been decided seconds earlier, before your midfielder even received the ball in the first place.
In order to be in the right place at the right time, you need to read the game. There is a difference between reading the game and “ball-watching”. The latter being when you simply watch the game while stationary, and don’t offer any options. When you read the game you are always moving or at least ready to move.
To decide on where to move, you need to think a few steps ahead. Actively watching many options play out in your head, and trying to pick the most likely outcome. This is chess, not checkers my friend. As soon as a player within your passing range may receive the ball, you need to think about where you will be when he or she gets it. Indictors that someone close to you may receive the ball can be things like them calling for it, showing for it or it seems like the only sensible option for the next run of play. It’s not just players close to you, you can do this for. Ultimately using long or short passes, almost any player from any position can pass to you. And you need to be ready to receive from any of them.
So you know a teammate close to you is going to get the ball. You want to try to do two things:
Make a good angle to make receiving the pass easy with the least amount of risk. This goes especially for ground passes.
Seek out space between the opposition players and look to dart into those areas as the player close to you in receiving the ball.
Timing here is everything. If you run too early, the opposing players will anticipate the movement and close any gaps. It has to take the defending team by surprise.
Catering for your playmakers
Great players create chances with movement, without even touching the ball. Be a playmakers dream and keep moving when your team is attacking. A static and stationary attack is easy for defensive units to suss out. But if you are all moving, pushing and pulling the defensive lines out of position, you can create small pockets of space. Space which in turn, creates openings for chances. Sometimes moving out of an area and taking a defender with you can open space for one of your team mates. Try adding decoy and space making runs to your overall game.
Communicating your run
Once your teammate has received the ball you need to make sure you are seen and that your run looks like an attractive offer. Attractive can mean clean cut and decisive, e.g. you will be clear on goal or another key position. Or attractive as in, if the move comes off, it will make the passer look better, e.g. a perfectly lofted through ball above 3 players.
Either way you need to let them know you are moving into space and that this is a pass worth playing. You can signal your run by loudly calling for the ball, raising your arms, or by simply making the run in front of the player as soon as you are in his field of vision. You can also point to where you want the ball. In all cases you want to exude the impression that you really want the ball and are enthusiastic about your chances. In many cases your tone and body language can show that you are demanding it, meaning you are in an important position where you can really make a difference.
In some cases, when playing with advanced players, no communication is needed. You can move across the pitch without drawing attention. You teammate is blessed with such great vision that he or she has already seen the movement or opportunity. Better still, they know you so well, they know your likely move and follow suit. This is the kind of affinity you need to build with your teammates.
So you know when to move and how to move into great positions. But where exactly do you run? Here are some different options for you to try:
Latteral moves – Moving along the lines in between defending players. Great for strikers trying to stay onside.
Off the shoulder – Side by side to the defending player, the ball is played into space on your free shoulder.
Speed runs – Start a run from deep and the playmaker can loft a ball over the top. By time you cross the defending lines, the ball is already on its way and you can use your pace to beat the slower defenders.
Coming forward – With back to opponent, you shuttle forward towards the ball to either play to someone else to the left or right, or to receive the ball on the turn. Knocking the ball back to the receiving player is an option, where you can receive it again after the defending player has been sucked into engaging.
Angles between the lines – Pointing to angle between two opposing players and running onto a through ball played in between.
Faking runs and trickery
Another key to a devastating run is to take your opponents by surprise and confusing the opposition by using fakes. You may come across a player who is more quick-witted, faster and stronger. You can gain a precious few inches of space by disguising your intentions.
Quick Shuttles – Run into the opposite direction you want to go, bringing the player with you, then shifting to another direction. The time taken to react to your movement and shift weight will mean you are a few seconds ahead. The sharper the angles, the better, as shifting directions will be more physically demanding to the defender.
Tiring the opposition – Any defending player will tell you, their worst nightmare is a slick player who has quick and unexpected movements. A real handful. Before they are even looking to receive the ball, they are jostling, shifting and faking runs. Its mentally tiring! By time play has started, the defender is exhausted trying to keep tabs.
Set pieces – Free kicks & corners and goal kicks
When the defending team is using Zonal marking – where each player holds a space on the pitch they are in charge of and mark whoever comes into it. Try playing between two defenders, constantly switch from one to another. Each time they “pass you on”, they will need to communicate this to each-other, taking attention from what is happening in the game. You will be looking to switch so many times that is unclear who should be marking you, causing more confusion in their defensive structure. Try these moves just before the ball is kicked.
If they man mark you, in other words assign one player to follow you wherever you roam. Take them for a run and test their fitness. You can also push and pull them in and out of advantageous positions. If they are great aerially, take them away from the main heading areas of the box and allow other players to occupy the space. You have just removed the main aerial defensive threat. Running between in circles around their teammates using them as shields will also help to frustrate the marking player, making it awkward for them to stay close to you.
Using some of the techniques described can help you to score more and create many more chances. The basics are distraction, mental attention and communication. Using the same psychology you can also create your own techniques to really develop your game. Knowing how to receive can also be improved by seeing the other side of the coin: knowing how to pass the ball well.
If you enjoyed reading my article and you are interested in improving all other aspects of your overall game feel free to read my book Total Technique : Football Master which gathers exclusive secrets, tips and drills into one book.