Three Things to Notice During The World Cup - Part 2
Tuesday, November 22, 2022
This is the second of a three-part series on things worth noticing as you watch the World Cup. The topics focus on common technical deficiencies I’ve noticed watching youth and college soccer. I wanted to pick three that would be visible as you enjoy Qatar 2022, and things that are transferable to your own team. I wanted to pick things that you might be able to notice from the comfort of your sofa with your soccer-playing son or daughter. I wanted to pick things that your kid could see on the TV and say, “Oh, that’s what he’s talking about. Yeah, I can get better at that.”
Thing Two: Flattening the Ball
If your team plays or trains on a turf field, this one is impossible to miss. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a problem on grass, it’s just magnified on the turf.
Let’s begin with a simple axiom: When I deliver a ball to my teammate, I want her to have the easiest possible time receiving it. The better the pass I give her, the more likely she is to do something productive with it. And more often than not, the best possible pass I can deliver will arrive on the ground with little or no bounce to it. In other words, flat.
Flattening the ball is the process where we take a ball that is floating above the pitch and get it cleanly to the ground. Players need to be able to do this while receiving a ball, but they also need to be able to do this when delivering a ball. And as you watch the world’s best, you’ll see countless examples of players turning a bouncing ball into a flattened one, usually with their first touch. Let’s be clear: Flattening the ball is a priority for them.
High level players want to get the ball on the ground as fast as humanly possible because it makes whatever comes next a lot easier, regardless of what that next thing is. And I’ll tell you what, these guys make it look so absurdly simple that as viewers, it’s easy to forget that the ball doesn’t die on the ground by itself. And unless you’re making a concerted effort to look for it, you won’t notice how often it’s happening. Which is why you absolutely should make the effort to look for it.
I think most players understand the idea of getting the ball to the ground as quickly as possible when they plan to keep the ball for a moment. And if they fail it’s a lack of technical execution, not a lack of common sense. However, when the plan is to get that bouncing ball to a teammate, I think we need to coach the responsibility of providing that best possible pass, and we need to coach the technique for executing it.
Let me paint the picture for you: A ball is hovering directly in front of Player A who intends to connect a ten-yard pass to Player B. As gravity brings the ball down, Player A strikes the ball when it is six inches from the ground. The ball travels seven yards in the air and now Player B is receiving a pass that is also bouncing.
Had Player A simply waited for the ball to fall another six inches, she could have flattened it out. And instead of her teammate receiving a ball that bounced in knee-high, she could have received a beautifully weighted pass that came in on the carpet. In essence we are talking about an inside-of-the-foot, half-volley pass as a skill that too many players neither have nor understand the value of. To the high-level player, it’s a no-brainer. I mean, why should I pass you a ball you’ll receive shin-high when I can pass you a ball that arrives on the deck? Simple, yes?
Generally speaking, the half-volley is a troublesome skill to learn for a large percentage of the soccer-playing community. For some players the timing just comes naturally. For many more players, it just doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s the inside of the foot, the outside of the foot, the laces, toe or backheel; it doesn’t matter if the purpose is a shot, pass or clearance; many players struggle mightily to figure out the timing and the mechanics. And we would be wise to address this at the youngest age groups.
If you think I’m exaggerating, try this exercise: Divide your team into sets of partners, one ball to each set. Have each player stand seven or eight yards from her partner. One partner starts with ball in hand. She’s just going to drop the ball in front of her and, on the first bounce, using the inside of the foot, hit a half-volley pass to her partner. The expectation is that she delivers a flat and accurate pass. Then it is her partner’s turn. Let each partner take ten or twenty turns. Then see how many have a success rate of eighty percent or better. Yes, you’ll likely have a few players who come in above eighty percent, but… how many finish below fifty?
Let’s make the exercise slightly more difficult. Now the player with the ball will gently toss the ball so it goes seven or eight feet in the air. She’s going to let the ball bounce once, and then, on the second bounce, strike that same half-volley pass. Whatever your success rate was on the first exercise, I can promise you a dramatic decline on second.
I don’t think this should be a noticeable deficiency by the time a player reaches high school, but I promise you it is. And if a player can’t be darn close to perfect in exercises where she is serving the ball from her own hands under absolutely no pressure, how can we expect her to technically execute in a game situation where she faces more pressure and has far less control of her own environment?
As you watch these games, notice how often and how quickly a bouncing ball becomes a flattened ball. Notice how often a bouncing ball becomes a flat pass. It’s not by accident. Flattening the ball is a baseline skill. Or at least it should be. But there are a ton of players who travel fairly high up the pyramid without a mastery of it. How about we start to change that?
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