Lukaku vs Carrick: Winning a header against a physically superior opponent

In the fifth minute of the FA Cup semi-final Lukaku almost scored a goal after Carrick and Fosu-Mensa failed to deal with a  long ball. The two United players made a mistake by letting the ball bounce. This is a classic mistake made by defenders, it leads to a loss of control over the situation. What is to be learned from this situation? What is the exact reason for Carrick’s failure to head the ball?  How can defenders solve these situations against physically superior opponents?

 In the video you can see that Carrick is watching the ball while it is in the air. Of course he knows where it will fall on the ground, he is backing into a good position to head the ball. The body position of Carrick is also good. He has a low centre of gravity. He has his hands out in the air.  He is facing the ball sideways, he can attack it with force and adjust his position easily. Well, at least this would be the case if Lukaku wasn’t there.

Carrick is clearly outmuscled in this duel. He is 188 cm tall with 74 kgs, while Lukaku is 191 cm tall and weights 94 kgs. If Carrick tries to compete with his strength body to body, he will loose.

Lukaku comes in from the side and goes shoulder to shoulder with Carrick, applying consistent force on his opponent. When Carrick has only one foot on the ground the push causes him to loose his stable body position, his upper body gets slightly behind his legs.   From this starting position he can not jump straight up, or forward to attack the ball in the air.

What could Carrick do differently?

One option for Carrick is to work together with Fosu-Mensah behind him. Instead of backing to head the ball Carrick has to stay high and position himself between Lukaku and the ball. His aim would be to make physical contact with the striker just for a brief moment, which would block the movement of Lukaku for just enough time that he can’t challenge for the ball, thus giving Fosu-Mensah enough time to have a clear header.

If Carrick plans to head the ball himself he should back off  in order to have a clear run forward and head the ball after a run up to the header. This way he doesn’t have physical contact with the attacker while adjusting his position, Lukaku can’t use his body against the body of Carrick. Carrick has to run towards the ball, and jump up vertically, jump earlier than Lukaku and put out his hands. This way if the attacker also jumps, his force carries Carrick higher in the air.

The third option is for Carrick to foul Lukaku when he sees that he won’t be able to head the ball away. In this case Fosu-Mensah can help his teammate by shouting to him to foul the attacker once  it is apparent that Carrick has lost his balance, and the ball will bounce on the ground. This is a last resort, and could result in a yellow card for the United player.  However it is still much better than giving Lukaku a chance to run towards the goal with the ball bouncing on the ground with only one defender and the keeper standing between him and the goal.


Groningen vs Ajax: Ball circulation in 433 with narrow wingers against a 4141

Groningen vs Ajax: Ball circulation in 433 with narrow wingers against a 4141

I was watching Groningen vs Ajax from the Dutch Championship, and the way  Groningen were bringing the ball forward against the mid block of Ajax caught my eye. Both wingers were creating an overload in midfield when the ball was with the central defenders or the holding midfielders, while the three midfielders were constantly changing positions in the central zone.

The whole move happened between 6:41 and 6:51 in the game. Here is a video of the movement of the players:

One of the Groningen holding midfielders moves a little bit deeper than the striker of Ajax, who is following the movement of the ball.

Starting position of the midfielders: The No 8 is on the same side as the defender with the ball, the No 10 is on the same side as the No 6.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 14.14.38

None of the 3 midfielders are on the same vertical line. The No 10 is the most central, the No 8 is a bit more outside than he is. The two central defenders are in the widest positions.

This is a great way to position themselves, it guarantees the most passing options for the central defender and the No 6.
When the No 6 gets the ball the No 8 stays in position, closer to the ball than his opponent. The No 10 moves on the other side of his opponent. This way if the No 8 gets the ball, he has two passing options, No 10 and No. 11.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 14.14.49

When the central defender gets the ball Ajax start pressuring. This is the moment the players nearest to the ball must help. The No 6 and No 8 move deeper, closer to the ball.

The full-back on the strong side also moves deeper along the sideline. Otherwise both full-backs are positioned even higher than the second holding midfielder.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 14.15.32

If the ball is with either of the central defenders or with one of the holding midfielders facing the Ajax goal, the winger on the ball side is positioning himself in a free passing lane. If the ball is with either central defender, the wingers never enter the central zone. The winger on the weak side comes only until the edge of the central zone.


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All this time the No 9 is high up the pitch. This provides depth for Groningen, which is essential in order for the wingers to have space between the lines for free movement.

When the No 11 sees that the ball goes to the No 6, he immediately runs wide. When the No 8 can turn towards the Ajax goal, he immediately looks for the winger on the sideline. By the time the No 8 is put under pressure by the recovering No 8 of Ajax, the Groningen winger has to be as high and wide as possible, facing the Ajax goal.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 14.15.52

The breakdown of Ramsey’s turn against Napoli

As a coach you always have to look for techniques that are specific to your team’s playing style. Technique and tactics can not be thought of in isolation, as technique is the sum of actions through which the tactics come alive on the field.

I was rewatching Arsenal vs. Napoli and I saw Ramsey perform this beautiful turn to get away from the player about to close him down.

This is a great skill for turning to face the goal when the opponent is late to close you down and you are in a large free space, so you have plenty of time on the ball, and you have enough space to turn into.

The skill can be seen at 1:11 in the video:

The pass which Ramsey receives is immaculate. It is perfectly weighted, into the correct place, with the correct speed and with the correct rhythm. This requires a very high ability to control possession and space, so this technique is only useful for players in teams which can play this kind of possession game. Alright, it can be useful for anybody, but if you are not getting into these kinds of situations enough, than the effort of learning this technique could be more beneficial if concentrated on other aspects of your game.

Let’s look at the exact components from this technique, how Ramsey carries it out, and what are the points to look for when teaching it to the player.

When teaching a player a new technique you have a vision in your head about how it should look when carried out correctly. Here are a number of points to look for, things that as a coach you can teach the player and correct.

First moment: Receiving the ball

Ramsey turn 1

  1. He brings his leg towards the ball first, and lets it come back as the ball hits it.
  2. The arms are out in the air
  3. His knees are bent.
  4. He is standing on the front of his feet.
  5. His knee is over the ball. The ball and his right knee are in one line. His right shoulder is a little bit behind the ball, not completely over it.
  6. His upper body is slightly bent.

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 10.32.42On the right the same moment can be seen, but from a sideways angle.

  1. He touches the ball slightly over the halfway line of the ball.
  2. His feet is not parallel to the ground, it is slightly pointed upward.

    Second moment: stepover with the left leg

    Ramsey technique3

  1. The ball, his right knee and his right shoulder are in one line when he starts bringing his left leg over the ball.
  2. His hands are still out in the air for balance.
  3. His knees are bent, his upper body is slightly bent over the ball as well.

Third moment: Touch on the ball with the right leg

Ramsey tecnique4

  1. The touch with his right leg is away from the defender. This is needed because at this moment his body is not protecting the ball.
  2.  Important not to take a too heavy touch, otherwise it would be impossible to guide the ball back on the turn later.

Fourth moment: Turn and get away from the opponent

Ramsey technique 5

  1. When he gets the touch on the ball on the turn his hands are at their highest point so far.
  2. The ball, his right knee and his left shoulder are in one line.

Overcoming pre-game anxiety

Anxiety is a sate with both psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension of a perceived threat.



Anxiety can be divided into state and trait anxiety. State anxiety comes and goes, it is very similar to a fight or flight response activated when we perceive something threatening, and respond accordingly. Whereas trait anxiety is innate, some people perceive certain situations more threatening than others, leading to a life with a higher general anxiety level.


State anxiety:

  • This is the type of anxiety an athlete experiences before a game.
  • It is gone when the threat (game) is over.
  • State anxiety manifests in two ways – cognitive effects include worrying, somatic effects include sweating, shiwering, increased bowl movement, etc.

Trait anxiety:

  • A personal trait, based on how the individual perceives events and circumstances. Some people overestimate the threat of events, and underestimate their own abilities to cope with them. Others underestimate threats, and overestimate their ability to respond. The former are the more anxious types, the latter are the less anxious.


Players rarely name anxiety as a problem source. The following symptoms can be noticed instead:


  • Lack of sleep
  • Short attention span
  • Lower skill level than normal
  • Sudden changes in expectations or behaviour
  • Overly concerned with doing well in certain games
  • Substance abuse


Anxiety theories


Anxiety can have a severe effect on match performance.

There are multiple theories when it comes to explaining the relationship between anxiety and performance.


Inverted U theory

According to this theory raising anxiety levels lead to an increase in performance up to a point. After that point more anxiety hinders performance. The point at which performance is optimal depends on the sport. I would be interested in research on what anxiety levels are best for different positions in certain soccer playing styles, but I am not aware of such research yet. I suspect each coach gathers this knowledge through years of coaching a certain philosophy of the game.


Zones of optimal functioning

The idea here is that there is no one  level of anxiety that is best for the athlete. However there is an interval where athletes perform at their best. All is fine as long as the athlete stay in this zone.


Multidimensional anxiety theory

This theory says that cognitive anxiety stays constant before a match, however somatic anxiety gradually increases before the competition. In this theory only the somatic anxiety has an inverted U-shape. However any level of worry will negatively affect performance.


Catastrophe model

This model states that even the slightest cognitive anxiety will lower one’s performance. However somatic anxiety doesn’t really affect one’s performance.


Reversal theory

The way anxiety affects performance is down to the individual’s own interpretation. If the athlete interprets his level of anxiety positively – ‘I am ready for competition!’ – his performance will improve. In the opposite case his performance will suffer.


What does the research say?


Based on research it seems that a slightly higher level of anxiety than in a normal state has a positive effect on performance. Martens (1977) found that there is a significant correlation between anxiety in a player and their motivational tendency. Getting slightly anxious before a game leads to increased motivation, but too much anxiety is bad, as it can lead to double muscle pulling. The muscle is tense from somatic anxiety, which is exacerbated by the movements required to play soccer.


Every player experiences different anxiety levels before a game, due to differences in trait anxiety, as well as state anxiety. It was found that increased cognitive anxiety leads to worse performance on the field. (Woodman and Hardy, 2003) The less cognitive anxiety a player has the more confident he can be, which leads to a better performance on the field. A somewhat higher than normal level of somatic anxiety has a positive influence on the player’s performance. 


Brady Hatfield, a sport scientist at the University of Maryland showed that during the execution of a previously practiced skill in a relaxed state, the connection between the motor and reasoning parts of the brain is minimal. On the other hand a beginner shows increased activity in these areas of the brain, so he is trying to reason and translate all the information and make sense of it in the context of the task performed. With increased cognitive anxiety an expert’s mind works just like that of a beginner, which leads to worse performances.


Treating anxiety


There are adaptive and maladaptive ways of dealing with anxiety. Adaptive behaviours are successful in dealing with anxiety in the long term, while maladaptive behaviours are only successful in the short term, exacerbating the problem in the long run.


Avoiding the situation that causes anxiety is the most common maladaptive behaviour, but it is also the worst. Avoiding the situation teaches the player that not taking responsibility is the way to get back to a normal state. Thus the player doesn’t learn how to lower his anxiety levels during competition. A 2007 study by Shojaei and Hoji Ghasem performed on U19 to U23 soccer players showed that their drive to achieve success was twice as strong as their drive to avoid failure. This suggests that avoidance behaviour is negatively correlated with being a great soccer player, whereas the ability to overcome anxiety is positively correlated with it.


Some processes to deal with anxiety include:


  • Relaxation training entails learning routines that can relax the body. Relaxing music is one of such techniques, such as yoga or meditation. The key to successful relaxation training is practicing it long before competition so that it can be drawn upon when anxiety hits before/during the match.
  • Breathing exercises increase the oxygen level in the blood, which helps lower somatic anxiety by lowering the chances of double muscle contraxion through increased oxygen levels in the blood. This technique doesn’t work if it is done only once before the game, it has to be practiced consistently.

Every person is different when it comes to meditation – a form of breathing exercise. Lying down, sitting are both acceptable, as well as breathing exercises to music or in silence. Thinking about positive previous experiences on the field while meditating can work as well. Phil Jackson used to meditate with the Bulls and the Lakers in order to make them more centered, more in the moment during competition.

  • Having a secure person or object around also works. This is why it is importat that the coaches remain calm during a game. Some players wear their ‘lucky shoes’, these are secure objects for the athlete.
  • Setting process-based goals allows the athlete to stay in the moment and concentrate on carrying out a process, thus lower cognitive anxiety.
  • Positive self-talk puts the brain into a state where it can focus on performing well. Raising confidence through positive self-talk reduces cognitive anxiety. Address situations where anxiety is likely to occur during self-talk.
  • Labeling is the process of changing an athlete’s beliefs about what the symptoms of anxiety mean. For example a striker feeling sweaty palms should say to himself “Good, now my body is fired up for scoring goals”. If the athlete thinks about anxiety in a positive way, his performances will not suffer.
  • The emotional thermometer was featured in Bill Beswick’s book, ‘Focused for Soccer’. It has three levels, green, yellow and red. Each color represents an emotional state. Green means that everything is going smooth. Yellow means that anxiety is getting to you, but things are still alright, Red means that you are completely out of control, anxiety runs high in your body. Bill tried out the emotional thermometer with an England youth team before a game against Serbia, where it was likely that the players would face provocation, thus controlling anxiety had an important part to play in getting a result. The concept was shared with all members of the squad. Lee Matthews was provoked during the game, so Matthew Upson ran up to him and started shouting ‘Lee, stay in the green!’. Lee realized that anxiety was getting to him, and he got back to the green zone.


Adhere to the matching hypothesis when applying any of the above processes. The matching hypothesis states that the treatment has to match the problem, so somatic anxiety warrants different solutions than cognitive anxiety. Somatic anxiety can be treated most effectively with breathing exercises or relaxation training. Setting process-based goals, positive self-talk, labeling and emotional control are good for treating cognitive anxiety.


It is important to keep in mind that every athlete is different, so what works for one might not work for another. 


The way you train is the way you play


Well set-up training is essential to practicing dealing with anxiety. It is good to incorporate a few yoga or meditation sessions during the season just to get used to the idea. In case the players prove resistant to breathing exercises, just sit with them in silence for ten minutes. Doing so over and over again will get them hooked on the feeling and leave them longing for more.

If you plan on using process-based goals, try it out in a friendly or training game first, and have the players and the staff share their experiences with each other. First there will be a lot of confusion about the goals set, so I advise against trying it out in an important game. It would just lead to more cognitive anxiety, which kind of defeats the purpose. Discuss the processes and goals with the players first, this method works only if they buy into the idea.

Positive self-talk must be practiced when the stakes are high. In training this can mean the loosing team having to do push-ups, or run laps. Make sure that the player remembers instances when he overcame a situation which is likely to cause anxiety in the next game. His self-talk must reference these instances. Make him visualize overcoming the same obstacles in the next game with as much detail as possible.

Much of the groundwork on labeling has to be done in advance, but a player will only get better at it with practice. Again, high stakes training is essential.

The emotional thermometer must be introduced during a team meeting. Every player has to come up with two memories/actions, one that can get him back to green from yellow, and another one that can get him to green from red. These two memories must be different as some memories reduce anxiety more, making them more suitable for the red action plan. For example Dan Abrahms references a player who had a habit of getting sent off for retaliating hard challenges. His action plan was – in case he got in the red – to stay on the ground, and count to ten, thus giving himself time to think instead of doing something sudden that he might regret later.


Thank you for reading this long post! What are your experiences with anxiety? How do you help your players deal with anxiety before and during games?

Moving the defense out of position – An Atletico Madrid example

In his excellent article titled “Juego de Posicion under Pep Guardiola” for Spielverlagerung, Adin Osmanbasic (Follow him on Twitter!) wrote about a very important concept behind a team having initiative while in possession of the ball.

The concept is to overload one area of the pitch, and then quickly change the fulcrum of the attack to another area, where you have some kind of advantage. The defense has to readjust while the attacking team is already in an advantageous position.

The advantage can be numerical, spacial or quality-based.

  •  Numerical: The team has more players than opponents in the area. 2 v 1 , 3 v 2 etc.
  •  Spacial: The player in possession finds himself in a lot of free space.*
  •  Quality-based: You have better players matched up against significantly worse players.

All three can be achieved by overloading one area of the pitch and suddenly changing the fulcrum of the attack.

I chose an Atletico Madrid attack against Levante to show how this idea works in practice.

The starting positions, the main movements and the passing
The starting positions, the main movements and the pass. The left side of the opponent’s half is overloaded, which draws in the defenders, creating space on the other side.


The below picture is about the speed, direction and rhythm of the runs, and how they happen in relation to each other.

The moment the long pass is played. By this time the Levante defense is congested on the left, leaving space on the right.

Arda Turan receives the ball in plenty of space. Notice how the Atletico HM pulled the Levante left winger out of the midfield to create more space for Turan (bottom of the above picture). Not only are the defenders reacting to what Atletico are doing, but the two Atletico central midfielders are running behind their respective opponents now, which makes it very hard to mark them. 

  This situation is particularly interesting because it creates all three types of advantages for Atletico.

Numerical: Arda Turan and Juanfran end up playing 2 vs 1 against the Levante full-back.

Spacial: There is plenty of free space for Arda Turan.

Quality: Even if Turan has to play 1 v 1 with Karabelas (full-back) he has the upper hand. The same applies to Juanfran.

On the weak side Mandzukic is ready to attack the cross, with a lot of space between the keeper and the defenders. The territory around the penalty spot is where it becomes very hard for the keeper to come and claim the ball.

Playing the accurate, well timed long ball from their own half has a significant upside: the Levante defense doesn’t have time to drop as the ball is moving. If Arda Turan can turn and cross the ball, Mandzukic has a lot of space to run into and finish off the attack. Playing the long ball in this case had another advantage: the defense didn’t have time to adjust vertically and drop deeper. This is why the fulcrum of the attack has to be changed as quickly as possible. Quicker changes, less time to adapt.

* Not all spaces are created equal. Of course letting a player receive a pass from the keeper at the edge of the box is not as dangerous as leaving an opponent free in front of your own goal. It also matters who is in the space, the type of pass they can get(the quality of the player passing to them), what their position is when they receive the ball, etc.

Ajax Build Up Against PSG

I love a good build up. It is so fascinating to see every player moving in unison, the team moving up the pitch little by little while moving the ball around, always a step ahead of their opponents. A good build-up is like a well oiled machine.

I selected this build up from the PSG – Ajax Champions League game, and made a video highlighting the individual movements of the players. I focused on the key situations, as well as the direction, speed and rhythm of the key movements during the play.