The Principles of Play
Everything in principle is easy. Cooking; mix a series of ingredients together in a particular way to create food. Painting; arrange colors in different shapes and sizes to produce an aesthetically pleasing design. Writing; organize words and letters in a distinct manner to transmit thoughts and ideas to the reader. In theory, these are all simple tasks which anyone could do. Football is no different; put a spherical shaped object in a rectangular goal. That being said, understanding the principles of any activity is crucial in the learning process.
By definition football is considered a team invasion sport, which is characterized by the objective of invading the opponent’s territory with the ultimate goal of scoring points. Other examples of team invasion sports include Rugby, Basketball, Hockey, Handball, and Lacrosse, just to name a few. Research has shown that strategies, tactics and patterns of plays are transferable between sports and can help participants better understand concepts of their sports through learning other sports. Within football, and most team invasion sports, there are three main principles of play.
1st Principle: Possession
To score a goal, a team must be in possession of the ball, even if it’s momentarily. For this reason, possession is such a key component in football and is the foundation to the rest of football’s principles. In attack, teams strive to maintain possession at all costs before anything else can be done. When in possession, they are one step closer to obtaining points. In defense, teams must, first and foremost, look to regain the possession of the ball.
2nd Principle: Progression
As previously mentioned, with all team invasion sports the objective is to attack the opponent’s goal, and to do so effectively, they must advance the ball into the competitor’s territory. Football is no different. Once having secured possession of the ball, the 1st principle of football, a team must look to progress towards the opponent’s goal. In defense, the opposite objective is desired. A good defensive shape must prevent any progression towards one’s own goal.
3rd Principle: Finalization
The final and most important principle of football is finalization in the opponent’s goal. This is the principle which is absolutely necessary in order to win a match. Teams that are able to effectively finish opportunities increase their probabilities of winning. Defensively, if your team is capable of protecting its own goal, you put yourself in a better place of coming out on top. You cannot lose a match if you are never scored on.
Obviously in order to win a football match one must score more goals than the opponent. However, different game systems place more or less emphasis on each principle of football. For example, a team which plays a defensive style and sits back places more significance on protecting their goal. A team which defends with a high line values impeding progression. A team which pressures immediately after losing possession stresses possession.
Offensively speaking, these principles affect game systems as well. Teams which have long, well calculated build-ups value possession. Teams which play a direct style of football with quick counters and long balls are more interested in progression. Clearly, all teams stress the importance of finalization. This principle mustn’t be negotiated.
In today’s modern football, game systems influence how an entire club plays. The clearest example of a club’s foundation being based on certain game principles is F.C. Barcelona. From their youngest academy teams to their world famous first team, we can see they highly stress the possession of the ball. They have built a system of play around possession–based football, and they train players to value possession from the first moment they represent the club through a specific training methodology. Italian football in general has always valued the protection of the goal which leads them to play systems of play which rely on creating a defensive fortress around their goalmouth. English football regards direct football to be the most beneficial style of play which shows how important they believe progression is in the game; the faster they are able to move up the pitch, the better.
As coaches, we must analytically think about the principles which dictate the game in order to fully understand which style of play we feel best fits us. This is the first step to establishing a coaching style. Of course, after having successfully found the game style that we prefer, we must then adjust our game style to the players at our disposal. It would be counterproductive to try to play a certain style focusing on specific principles without having the players required to do so. For example, if we strongly believe that the most effective way to win a match is by protecting our goal, conceding possession to the opponent, and our roster is full of players who are all under 6 feet and are not powerful defenders, then this might not be the right approach. We should evaluate the principles of football to adopt a game style that would increase our probability of winning with the players available to us. In this example, focusing on possession would be more appropriate. If we had a team of speedy wingers we might adopt a style which stressed progression.
We must understand football’s principles of play in order to create the right conditions for our players. Coaching is knowing what the game requires, what your team has to offer, and applying the correct formula. There are so many coaches out there who have never thought about football in basic terms and the further they progress in their careers, the more difficult it is to unlearn some skewed ideas they may have adopted along the way. Football can be as simple as the principles it’s founded on. I challenge you; next time you are watching a match, decipher which principle of the game is being disputed. In doing so, you’ll begin to see each moment of the match as a mini battle to conquer these principles. This is the first step to critically analyzing matches and teams, and the next step to becoming the coach you’re striving to be.
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