The Principle Behind Lukaku's Run

Nine out of ten people will follow the ball. I don’t follow the ball, I watch the game.
— Thierry Henry

The ball is a mesmerising thing. It’s evident when you hear Camp Nou’s buzz when Messi is on the ball. The announcer’s excitement when Neymar begins his dribble. The spellbound crowds as they follow the ball’s path between City players. Without that lovely, spheric object there wouldn’t be any beauty in the sport. We never would have witnessed Maradona’s weaving runs up the pitches in Mexico in the 1986 World Cup, nor Pele’s magic in 1970, nor Cruyff’s clockwork orange in 1974. The ball is everything. 

We need only to look towards the game’s biggest star at the moment, Neymar, and the magical goal he produced this past week against Mexico. After receiving the ball on the left hand side of the pitch, he smoothly slices his way towards the centre on his way picking up Mexican defenders like a bus driver on his route. Each Mexican defender joins the mission to disarm the Brazilian and just when almost half of the Mexican team is within 10 metres of him, he cleverly back heels it exactly where he just came from.

This is the power of the ball. Defenders know that when he has the ball, there is imminent danger. They have no choice but to throw themselves in his path, leaving their area, thus creating space for the dribbler’s teammates. A gifted dribbler can create all sorts of dangerous situations by pulling defenders out. We all know this. As Thierry Henry said, nine out of ten of us are watching the ball. But what if I told you it’s not the ball that pulls defenders out of position and creates space, but instead the possibility of the ball, the possibility of danger?

Read: A Transitioning State of Mind

There have been many counterattacking goals in this 2018 edition of the World Cup, and no other situation better describes what I mean than an effective counterattack. Take Belgium’s goal in the dying minutes of the match to defeat Japan. The definition of a lethal counterattack. When watching this goal again, focus on Lukalu’s movements and the defender’s reaction towards his movement. His initial run from wide towards the centre drags the defender with him creating space for his teammate on the wing. His second run, now towards goal, attracts two defenders creating space for Chadli, Belgium’s goal scorer in the 94 minute. 

In a previous a match-up between Uruguay and Portugal, Luis Suarez displayed very similar movements to create space for Cavani to score. The runs toward goal are almost identical. Fast, strong, and with the intention of scoring. And both men leave the ball with the awareness of their teammate running in behind them in better conditions to finish the play.

Many have already pointed out the beauty in these runs and the space they created, although I’d argue we are missing the principle behind this movement. When we are teaching our players, we have to give them the principle so that they are able to devise a method to achieve it. We can’t just teach them these specific runs for them to copy. We have to show them the final objective, the principle to allow them to develop their creativity in accomplishing this. So in this scenario what is the principle? 

Moving the opponent. It’s as simple as that. Neymar did it with his dribbling. Lukaku did it with his strong runs. Suarez did it by beating a defender off the ball in the air. There are innumerable ways to do so. Pep’s Barça used to do it with passes. Ranieri’s Leicester City did it by letting opponents come at them. You can do it with the ball or without the ball. You can do it by moving or by standing still. With the right conditions, any player on the pitch can do it. 

Read: Messi: The Master of Space

As previously stated, as long as you create a situation of possible danger, you can move any opponent. When in possession of the ball, the player must make the opponent feel threatened and that they are in danger of being scored on. Neymar does this brilliantly. He attacks the goal. Before Messi even starts the match, he’s already done this. His reputation moves defenders. When a player is not in possession of the ball, they must position themselves to make the defender feel that if they were to receive the ball, they could score. We see this in Lukaku and Suarez’s run. This is the beauty of the possibility of danger, it can move opponents. 

It’s crucial to understand the principle behind the movement. It allows you to create your own interpretation of how to achieve what you desire. Brilliant runs, like Lukaku and Suarez’s, cutting dribbles, like Neymar’s, and mesmerising short passes, like those seen in La Liga, are all different renditions of moving opponents. This is what we should see. 

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