Embrace the Physcial Aspects of the Game
Embrace Challenges, Spin Out of Pressure, Ride Tough Tackles
What I find interesting when talking about moving say from the college soccer game to the pros or even say from becoming a good player to a becoming a great player, is that the top players and at the higher level – the players embrace pressure. And I’m talking about the physical pressure: they don't mind bumping up against other players, riding tough tackles, or shielding the ball from opponents, and even in some cases they’ll seek out the tough physical challenge.
Many times the pros will tempt or tease a player into trying to win the ball, so they can draw a free kick. And the top players will fight off defenders and use their body to protect the ball as if it were gold. This is what you have to teach young players, not that they should fear pressure or rush to get rid of the ball when they come under pressure but to remain calm and use the defender as a way to earn a free kick or just let them push you once direction if that’s what they’ll give you. There’s no need to fight it if a defender wants to push you one direction. Let them steer you that way and just lay the ball off or set them up for a fake once it seems like you’re going along with their defensive posture willing.
Sure, this might be a lofty idea for young players, and perhaps not something they have to contemplate just yet. But it’s actually a crucial concept that’s doesn’t get enough attention: players need to have the confidence on the ball to shield it and hold it under pressure and not be scared when a big defender comes rushing at them. Shielding and holding on to the ball is a lost art in the game of many youth players.
Of course, this doesn’t throw out the play one and two touch soccer rule. No, definitely not. No, we don’t want players who hold on to the ball all the time. No, absolutely not. This is just something to have in your back pocket as a player, so when the hard tackles and the rough play comes, you will be strong on the ball and prepared for it. What do they say: prior proper practice prevents piss poor performance. Yeah, something like that.
But the pros at the highest level seem to thrive off of it and seek the pressure. Think if Wayne Rooney, is he someone who avoids tough challenges? Don’t think so. If you watch a good player they charge forward and fight off tackles and push through the gaps. And in some ways, they use the defender as a way to spin into the open space.
Once again though, the whole point is it’s important to teach young players not to be afraid of pressure, pushing, shoulders charges, or tough challenges. Get your players accustomed to shielding the ball under pressure and keeping the ball. Really, get them so used to fighting off pressure that they embrace it. How many times have you seen great players hold on to the ball and wait for the pressure just so they can draw a foul?
Many times young players want to just get rid of the ball when they're under pressure. They're afraid to lose it and to make a mistake: this is not the way to play the game and you don't want to develop players who have this fear or play with this mentality.
No, you want players who seek the ball in dangerous moments and know how to shield the ball, how to win a foul for their team, and how to ride challenges or spin out of pressure to send through that killer pass or score that game-winning goal.
It’s really about having the ball on the right foot so if the defender tries to win the ball they will end up fouling you. Or, if you’re near the touchline, having the ball on the outside foot, so your body is between you and the defender. Then, if they try to win the ball they will either foul you or the ball will go out of bounds and you’ll earn a throw in. The key is using your body to protect the ball like it’s a jewel.
If you watch Iniesta, Xavi or Messi, all these seemingly small players, they are genius at keeping the their body between the ball and the defender. How many times have you seen Xavi spin out of a tackle or a challenge and move the ball to the other side of the field? They are all incredible players because they don’t run away from pressure but easy in and out of it like it’s something they’ve done before when they grew up playing in the Barcelona system.