Receiving the ball at your feet as a defender, midfielder or forward yield different scenarios and expectations from each position. Nonetheless, one basic rule should always be practiced by every player on the field: never stop the ball directly in front of you – push it slightly in one direction.
Here is why: when receiving the ball and forcing yourself to push it in one direction or another, you oblige yourself to keep your head up and understand who is around you. Pushing the ball in a direction creates space between you and a defender, but it also creates space for your teammates. When you are constantly moving and changing directions, so are your teammates – the relevance of this is that the game will be opened up and you will always have options.
When you are about to receive a ball, whether you have a defender at your back, a defender coming from one direction or even time to do what you would like, understanding your next move is crucial. Always think about your next move. If the only thing on your mind when you are receiving the ball is “ok stop it”, you are in trouble. You should be receiving that ball and thinking “ok, I have to push this to the right and then send my winger down the line right away – he’s making the run.”
In soccer, every player must think as though they are water – be fluid like water. Water finds the cracks; water flows out of any situation; water finds the openings. If you stop the ball in front of you, not only is it easy for a defender to attack you, but you have immediately frozen the game. You now need to take and extra 3-4 touches to turn with the ball and make a play.
If water is not flowing, the entire system shuts down. If you do not take the ball in stride and continue your flow of momentum, the entire team will not keep its momentum because there is no point. Imagine yourself as a forward for a second, you see your defender making a pass through the middle to your midfielder, he attacks the ball and stops it directly in front of him and holds his back to you. Are you going to make a run into the open? I sure wouldn’t – why should I, he does not even see where I am. Now consider this scenario: your defender makes a pass to your midfielder in the middle. As he is attacking the ball to receive it, his first touch is a quick cut to his right foot. As he makes that cut, his whole body turns and is facing up field. You now know that if you make that run down the line, he will see you in his peripheral vision. More importantly, and with a lot of practice, this can become one of the most deadly weapons for any team – a forward who makes runs and a midfielder who anticipates those runs.
You can quickly begin to see that stopping the ball directly in front of you with your back to the opposing net does not just slow the game down, it shuts an entire system down. When you move, you force others to move; when others move, options and opportunities for different plays are created.
There is a reason so many coaches stress the words “do not stop running”; it is not a matter of tiring yourself out and making pointless runs, but understanding where the ball is, anticipating where it might be next and creating options for the person with the ball. Like any system that functions successfully, all the parts are moving, contributing and helping make it work. If one part of the system stops working (stops running), the system struggles.
Coaches, help make every player realize the importance of their role on the field; help make your team understand it is a system. Players, flow like water.