By Tony Earp
It is the most under appreciated aspect of the game. Although critical to a team’s success, it is what gets the least amount of attention from spectators, coaches, and the players. When watching a game, we tend to follow the ball. That is where the action is so that is the most logical place to look, but what is happening away from the ball can be just as important. Often what is happening away from the ball is about to be the reason for what happens next in the game. Whether a goal is scored or conceded, or possession is won or lost, the reason for it usually happened away from the ball. With this in mind, it is important we coach and praise the importance of the tremendous amount of running many players do during the game but normally do not get much credit.
While Cristiano Ronaldo is “dancing” on the ball and impressing us with his skill, there are others around him that are creating space for him to dribble into and covering him defensively as he works on the ball. Without his teammates working hard off the ball to create space for him to dribble into and exploit, even a player as talented as him would struggle to find room on the field to be successful on the ball. As he dribbles, players are moving to create passing options pulling defenders out of good defensive positions and opening up gaps for Ronaldo to pass through or dribble through to penetrate forward.
On the other end, players around him are filling gaps left behind him, which could make the team defensively vulnerable if he loses possession. When a player like him runs with the ball, it can create an imbalance in the team shape that could leave the team open to being countered on. As he works hard to move the ball forward, others work hard off the ball to fill the space he leaves open to make sure the team is balanced defensively if the ball is lost. In transition, Ronaldo could not recover in time, so others must be willing to work hard away from the ball to cover areas of the field he would may normally defend.
This is true for all players, not just Ronaldo, but a good example of how others, without much recognition, work tirelessly away from the ball to help the players on the ball look good.
With a team I am coaching, I tend to watch what players are doing away from the ball more than what the player on the ball is doing. If a player loses possession, my first thing considered is how the player was being supported. What movement and work was being done away from the ball to help provide options or space for the player on the ball to use. If space was provided and the work away from the ball was being done, then I turn my attention back to the player who lost possession to help him learn how to use the options created by his teammates’ efforts.
On the defensive side of the ball, the person pressuring the ball is a key first part of defending, but has little impact if the other players on the field are not working to limit space and options. A player who closes down a player on the ball with a great angle of approach, speed, and body positioning will easily be beat if there is not sufficient work being done behind the first defending player. There is only so much space a single defender can cover and take away, so without adequate support it is easy for an attacking player to exploit the space not covered by the defender’s teammates. Often a player on the ball will lose possession, not because of the quality of pressure from the first defender, but the quality of work being done behind the first defender.
As you watch games, try to watch what is happening away from the ball. See if you can identify the players who run tirelessly to create passing options for teammates, who fill open space the other team cannot exploit when attacking, who run hard to balance a team’s shape when attacking and defending. These players may not score the goals or win every ball, but goals are scored and balls are won because of these selfless individuals. They are the ultimate team players because they will do what is necessary to help the team have success and they do not ask for or expect any credit for it. As fans of the game, I think it is time to give these players more credit.
For young players, it is important we teach the importance of this part of the game and praise this kind of effort each time we can. Most kids feel like they did not have a good game if they did not score a goal or have an assist. Of course, those always make a game better. I always felt better after a game I scored a goal or had an assist, but I was lucky to have coaches who praised work off the ball. One coach made it a point to always make sure credit was given to the players off the ball that created or prevent a goal. He would yell from the sideline, “That was because of you.” Whether it was a run off the ball or an 80 yard recovery run, the coach gave credit to the underappreciated efforts on the field.
As coaches, parents, and fans, let's give credit where credit is due. Love and enjoy the beautiful aspects of the game and the players who make the game very exciting and fun to watch, BUT give some love to the players who do the hard, dirty, gritty work (behind the scenes) that make the game so much fun to watch.
Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org