Man City’s attacking patterns vs a five man narrow zonal midfield

This match had a pretty consistent pattern. Swansea were defending with a very narrow  midfield of five players. They were not entirely in one line, Cork was usually the deepest, with Fer and Carroll slightly higher on either side of him, Rutledge and Sigurdsson even higher. Manchester City were trying to break down this block, the same one Southampton struggled to play past. I was intrigued to see the attacking patterns Manchester City employed.

Swansea started defending in the middle third, forming a block of five players with the three central midfielders close to each other, Cork the deepest in the middle, the two wingers a little bit higher vertically, but horizontally the whole midfield organisation was very  narrow.

This compact midfield made it impossible for Toure or Stones to pass directly to Silva, Gabriel Jesus, De Bruyne or Sterling between the lines. So how exactly did City find players in the hole, or behind the Swansea defence?


The most interesting choice concerning the second phase of the buildup was the role of Fernandinho, who was indicated as a left-back on the teamsheet. He started out wide, and dribbled diagonally inside, or he already stood in the halfspace before getting the ball.

When Fernandinho dribbled diagonally inside, Silva made a run to the goal in the channel, which prevented Naughton from getting out and putting pressure on Sane immediately after the German international received a diagonal pass from Fernandinho.

After the diagonal he stayed in the central space, which put him in an excellent position to control the runs of Sigurdsson during the attacking transitions of Swansea from their own third.

Fernandinho appeared frequently in the right half space when the ball was coming back from the left side of the pitch, and Stones played a hard pass to either De Bruyne or Sterling on the wing. This way he was not only closer to the Swansea midfield line, and able to counterpress in case the ball was lost, but he could also provide a free passing option to recycle the ball if the penetration didn’t happen on the right side.

Gabriel Jesus movement in front of the Swansea midfield

 When Kolarov had the ball with free space in front of him,  Jesus moved in front of the midfield, in front of Jack Cork’s zone. The Swansea midfielder pressured him when Jesus received the ball, this was the perfect moment for Sterling to move into the space between the lines behind Cork.


What was also needed for this space to open is a player – in this case Sterling – playing between the lines in the right half space while the ball was recycled from the right side to the left – to Kolarov. Tom Carroll was marking the right half space zone, and made sure that the ball could not be played to Sterling standing behind him. Covering this passing option made him get too far away from Cork while shifting over, which left his colleague with too much space to defend. (You can see Fernandinho in the right halfspace in the video)

The same movement was made by Jesus again in the 14th minute, but he made the step back from the space behind Cork too early, before the ball got to Stones. This way he got into the visual field of Cork, who tracked his run, by the time Stones got into possession Jesus was marked.

The dangerous runs of Silva starting from the half space

manchester-city-incision-on-the-leftSince the Swansea midfield line was so tight that a direct pass from Toure to the players between the lines would have been impossible, a recurring passing pattern involved Toure playing out to Clichy, who played a hard ball on the floor to Silva. The Spaniard made a run to get out of the cover shadow of Routledge, and receive behind the winger running out to press Clichy.

On the right side De Bruyne and Sterling combined, with Fernandinho always a free option if penetration into the box wasn’t an option.

Stones dribbling into the game

The first line of the Swansea block in the middle third consisted of only Llorente, who followed Toure if the Ivorian stepped wide to ask for the ball when Clichy had it. With such movement Toure could make space for Stones to dribble into the game. Carroll stepped out to pressure the centre-back, with Sigurdsson and Cork closing the vertical passing options. At this moment Silva made a run into the channel, pulling Naughton inside,creating space wide for Stones to open up, and giving time for Sane to receive the ball without pressure.

Llorente marked either Kolarov, Stones or Toure whoever was closest to Clichy in the central space. This way the central trio of Manchester City could pull Llorente to one side, or play around in front of him by forming a flat three and Fernandinho pushing higher vertically. After a while Llorente stopped moving with the ball, and somebody could dribble into the game without pressure.

2-v-1-on-the-right-side-w-sterling-and-de-bruyneOn the right side either De Bruyne or Sterling was in the wide space, but not so wide that their boots were getting messy from the paint of the sideline. The player wide always made sure to be closer to the Swansea goal than Sigurdsson was vertically.

With a hard pass on the ground Stones could play to De Bruyne, and due to the originally narrow positioning of Sigurdsson, the two City attackers could create a 2 v 1 against Olsson. Also the wide player received the ball higher on the pitch than Sigurdsson’s position. If the penetration didn’t happen, Fernandinho would come in the second wave, giving a free option to play out from the area now closed down by the defending team.

Silva uses the occasional manmarking tendencies of the Swansea back four

silva-run-into-the-channelIn the 19th minute Swansea struggled to defend  the channel on their left side between Olsson and Mawson. This was due to the lack of shifting over when Stones passed to the player wide. In these cases Olsson attacked the wide player if he didn’t have a player in his zone – like Sterling in a previous example. However Mawson stayed in the centre, too occupied with Gabriel Jesus.

Silva had an excellent starting position. He was in front of the channel, but closer to the defence than Cork, so as the midfielder moved sideways during Stones’ pass to De Bruyne, Silva was out of Cork’s visual field.

Silva made his run with a direction and speed not to get into the visual field of Olsson. The fullback stepped up to press De Bruyne and left the space behind him open. Mawson was not shifting over, he was too man oriented on Gabriel Jesus.

Runs behind the defence 

A few times the players occupying the wide attacking positions tried runs behind the defence diagonally, with the central defender free on the ball playing a long ball behind the visitor’s defence. On City’s left side such a ball lead to an aerial duel between Sane and Naughton, with Silva picking up the second ball between the lines. On the right Sterling’s run behind Olsson was met with an accurate long pass from Stones, with the attacker  taking a heavy touch in front of Fabianski rushing out of his goal, and receiving a yellow card for what the referee deemed to be diving.


Dortmund v Bayern: Patterns in the home team’s attack

Borussia Dortmund hosted Bayern Munchen for the meeting that was definitely the highlight of my Saturday. Some might consider this a testament to the lack of social activities in my life. Others, who know me well are aware that I love nothing more than exciting possession game, excellent movement off the ball, and Mario Gotze  picking up the ball between the lines dribbling at horrified defenders at a mad pace. This game had all of these on display in abundance.

Entertainment aside, what did I take away from this game? I loved the way Dortmund worked in possession during the second and third phase of their buildup play. They moved the ball around well in front of the lines of Bayern with the aid of a solid base formed by Bartra, Papastathopoulos, Ginter and Weigl. Schmelzer and Piszczek gave width to their possession game, which contained a few recognisable movements that happened again and again.

This article is a highlight of these patterns.

Why was the possession game of Dortmund successful?

  • They could move around the ball quickly without Bayern ever putting real pressure on the ball.
  • There was a good balance of attacking players running into the space behind the defending team, and asking for the ball between the lines.

This is a nightmare scenario fro any team defending zonally. They are forced to run for extended periods without ever putting pressure on the ball, thus having a realistic chance at winning it.

Let’s see how this manifested on the pitch.

The Goal

The attack before the goal was a perfect example of Bayern failing to apply pressure at Dortmund during the defence phase. First Dortmund attempted to create something on the left side, but when it didn’t happen they changed the sides easily finding Ginter with no pressure on him.

The movement leading to Dortmund penetrating the lines:

352 v 4231 - 3rd phase of buildup attacking midfielder runs behind the fullback of the opponent.jpg

Piszczek moved a bit deeper to ask for the ball, and draw Alaba out of the back four, creating space for Gotze.
The starting position of Gotze is brilliant, he is just behind Ribery, who runs up to put pressure on Ginter. He starts from a central position, so he keeps the channel big, he has more space to run into. While the ball is moving to Piszcek, Gotze is first just moving sideways. He attacks the space when Alaba decides to step up to Piszczek. This way the Austrian fullback cannot change his mind to turn back and close the space in front of the German attacker.

A central defender at the sideline


Ginter moves wide. When he gets the ball Ribery has to move up and apply pressure. In the video I identify some problems with the way he does this, but after Dortmund escape from the pressure the No 6 of Bayern (Xabi Alonso) has to decide where to move. Does he drop deeper and and try to close the passing lane to the middle? Does he stay close to Wiegl?


Dortmund can escape either way. Either through the great run of Gotze, who recognises the positioning of Thiago and Alonso, or through Weigl (No 8). If Weigl gets the ball he can open up to the other side, where the No 2 (Schmelzer) is free and No 7 (Schurrle) can take on the his man 1 v 1.

A striker occupies the attention of the fullback on the side of the ball

I just love the starting position of Aubameyang (No 9). Lahm is anticipating that he might have to defend the pass to the fullback, thus he positions his body to turn easily. When Aubameyang steps back Lahm notices him and follows. In this moment the connection between him and Muller is not sufficient. Muller is not aware of the player running behind him.352-v-4231-3rd-phase-of-the-buildup-the-striker-moves-wide-to-occupy-the-fullback

There is no pressure on Bartra, if he decides that penetration is not possible on his side he can quickly change the sides to Piszczek (No 3). We can see Gotze in the same position where he was  in the first situation we looked at. The field occupation on the other side is very much the same, after a change of sides the same attempt at penetration could follow.

Finally…below you can watch a situation which has elements of multiple situations we looked at above.

  • A striker occupying the attention of the fullback. (Aubameyang and Lahm again).
  • Gotze finding space behind Ribery.

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.


Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 14.15.32

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?