A Transitioning State of Mind
Humans have a need to classify and clearly define ideas and concepts. We find it simpler and easier to differentiate between abstract concepts when we are able to give them a name and separate them. It’s partly due to the fact that if we are going to discuss anything at all, we need to be able to have the language to do so. For that to happen we are required to make clear distinctions between ideas.
This is always the case with football as well. Some of the most abstract and philosophical thinkers in our sport have tried to argue against dividing the game into parts but unfortunately it hasn’t been successful. The common football fan knows there are two pivotal parts of the game, attacking and defending. The philosophical Spanish manager, Juan Manuel Lillo, has always stated it is impossible to separate attack from defense because they are dependent and consequential of each other. The moment a team loses the ball, the way in which they are set up automatically becomes their defensive formation. Therefore, there is less than an instant when a team can change their formation from attacking to defending. A team must attack with a defensive shape and defend with an attacking shape.
It may seem like a paradox but this is the reality of our sport. A team cannot attack without bearing what will happen the moment they lose the ball. In the same way, when a team defends they do so with the goal of attacking. This concept of maneuvering between offensive and defensive mindsets is called transitioning.
Many coaches may argue that transitions are a series of movements or tactics in place to change shapes in order to shift from attack to defense and vice versa, however, I argue that it is something much more than that and it happens in the blink of an eye. It is not how fast a team can get the ball to their striker or winger to commence their counter attack, nor how quickly a team can close down the space after losing possession. It is the speed at which a player is able to cognitively, and hopefully instinctively, realize they now have a new objective, either recovering possession or progressing. It’s a shift in mindsets which must happen in milliseconds. Not only must each player do so individually, but the team as a whole must do so in unison. This kind of symbiotic movement requires continual practice which can only be achieved through unceasing mental reminders in training sessions and matches.
Before embarking on a journey through improvement, we must familiarize ourselves with where and what we are striving to achieve. Currently, there are many teams which transition between phases of the game cycle (attack, defend, etc) effortlessly. For example, Conte’s Chelsea fluidly shifts from defense to attack using long, 40-50 yard, passes to find their striker with positional superiority, as well as utilizing the width to quickly progress up the pitch. Their goal against Manchester City in the following video is a perfect example of that.
However, one of the best teams in history to master the fluidity required for effective transitions is without a doubt Guardiola’s F.C. Barcelona. The ease with which this team transformed from a defensive fortress to an attacking weapon was a delight to watch. When they were in attack and they happened to lose the ball, almost in the same moment of losing it, they had pressed and recovered it. Watching this was like watching a lioness pounce on its prey. The following video shows this art form.
Training transitions does not any require elaborate exercises as you may have seen. It can be done with simple rondos or no directional possession games. For example, the following exercise can be used in the warm up or in the first stage of a training session to get the players mentally prepared.
It’s a basic 5v2 rondo in a small space marked off by four cones. The objective of the game is for the five players in possession of the ball to keep possession for as long as possible like they would in a standard rondo. The difference in this exercise is the two defenders must win possession and dribble out of the designated space. Adding this stipulation creates a situation where the possessing team must be ready to defend at any moment and the defending players should be ready to not only steal the ball but maintain possession and ultimately dribble out of the space. This requires the players to be switched on mentally and be ready to transition.
From here, modifications can be made to this exercise to increase the difficulty or to train a different aspect of transitioning. For example, if you want to incorporate indirect defenders, that is to say defenders who are passive and away from the play of the ball, you can add them to the outside of the playing area. With this variation, the players defending the middle now have teammates who are expecting the ball when the possession is won. The objective is the same, except now when the possession is won they can pass it to a teammate. This adds another element to the transitioning phase and requires the five attacking players (red) to be quicker in transitions and to be aware of the players behind them to be able to cut off passing lanes as fast possible.
This exercise can be done in one of two ways. The simpler version is once the defending team gets the ball to the outside players the game resets and the teams switch, the red team now defends and the blue team attacks. Once they have mastered this, you can make the exercise more game-like and fluid by making the play continuous. For example, if the blue team is defending they must win possession and get the ball to their teammate on the outside like before. The difference now being that if the blue team manages this there is no restart of play but instead the blue team continues to maintain possession and three of the red players now have to place themselves around the outside of the area of play. Depending on the level, this exercise can be quite difficult. If this is the case, you can always add a neutral player to facilitate the possession as shown below. Another option to ensure more fluidity and success is to make the area of play bigger, always bearing in mind that you must make a rectangular shape to mimic the space in a real match.
All of these stipulations can be utilized in commonly used exercises. For example, in a standard possession game with more players you can place players on the outside which will serve the purpose of transitioning. Getting the ball to one of these players could be worth an extra point to encourage the practice of it as well as to force the defending team to avoid such passes.
More than anything else, what you want to create is a constant mindset to always be aware of the future. By this I mean players should take into account what would happen if they were to lose possession or recover possession at any given moment. No one describes this mentality better than Oscar Cano Moreno, author of several books on positional play and current Director of teams at Cultural Leonesa in Spain. He says, “Take into account that, during the attacking process, I’m creating the future defensive conditions and vice versa.” Make sure your teams are ready for all situations at all times.
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