Having an Influence Off The Ball

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

By Daniel Lowther

How does the saying go? If your best player has a 30-possession game, he roughly has two and half minutes with ball in hand, leaving a staggering 117minutes for that player to influence the game in some other way. Well? What are they doing??

Today’s game demands that players are involved in as many aspects of each situation that unfolds all over the ground, a fair portion of the time without the ball in hand and well before it happens. 

Having an influence off the ball is a critical component of the game and players need to have a greater understanding and awareness of how they can not only influence the outcomes of specific situations but also potentially the outcomes of the game. 

The purpose of this article is to focus on some of the critical decisions that need to be considered when players are unable to influence the contest directly, with particular reference to players in the defensive half.

So how does a player in defence influence the game without the ball?

Utilise the +1 in defensive 50. 

Good teams don't need to manufacture this in defence. When inside defensive 50 the golden rule is to have an opponent but if the opposition present you with a +1 (extra player) in defence you have to identify it, react quickly and drop back (distance will vary, but usually around 30-35m) into dangerous space. 

  • Your opponent may roll up to defend a player free behind a stoppage, when this happens communicate this action and roll back into dangerous space, corridor bias.
  • If opposition roll up to defend the free (player), then be prepared to roll a teammate back further as the +1. Important that your +1 not be positioned too skinny (directly behind and boundary side) behind the contest as it limits potential defending/attacking opportunities – need to be in best position to provide support in marking contests, cut off any potential leading space and outnumber and support once the ball hits the ground.
  • It’s important to be in constant communication with remaining defenders, as well as wingers who may be positioned behind stoppages and mids whose opponents may spit forward from contest. 

Don't go looking to be the free in defence – defend opposition first but if they gift you the extra, take it!

First to leave, last to leave mentality. 

More likely than not, first to leave the contest has the potential to spread and provide support to impact the next contest. 

In order to have an influence in keeping the ball in your forward half, players last to leave the contest need to impact in some way, preferably with a defensive mindset. 

  • When moving the ball into attacking forward half of the ground, both mids and defenders not directly involved in the attacking transition must adjust their running patterns and spread to defend any possible opposition fat side exits.
  • Players not directly involved should be thinking defence first in order to deny the opposition any chance to release off the line. Last to leave must look to structure up early and set their defensive formations with the aim to play the ball inside your own forward half for longer periods. 

Be proactive in defence rather than reactive. 

Opponent control. 

Defenders need to identify the dangerous space inside their defensive half, particularly inside defensive 50 in order to have a better chance at dictating their opponents running patterns. 

  • Dangerous space can be identified as any area where the opposition can lead into with the potential to score.
  • Skilled opposition sides can surge forward from a stoppage or their back half very quickly through a chain of handball or looking to kick off the line to change direction of attack.
  • If caught defending in front of opponent in this case, look to close the gap between you and your opponent as the ball surges in your direction.
  • Gain control of your opponent through attaining best position.
  • This could be slightly behind and corridor side, or using your forward momentum to seek strong contact and push opponent away from dangerous space
  • Could also be slightly in front and corridor side to cut off potential hit up leads.

When in slow play and inside defensive half, control your opponent’s ability to find dangerous space.

  • Aim to be corridor side and defend dangerous areas the opposition may look to attack through.
  • Look to force opponent to least dangerous areas such as wide of corridor and boundary side.
  • Check and block the opposition’s ability to turn and run fat side to dangerous areas (there is nothing wrong checking other opponents running close by to dangerous areas). This is made easier by identifying and covering the dangerous space at all times. 

Smaller defenders should look to defend direct opponent before hunting the ball, take away their dangerous space with use of body while ball is kicked inside D50. Control opponent then impact the contest when appropriate. Defensive mindset is the key. 

Attacking spread from defence.

Once the ball has been won in the defensive half, players must spread with high intensity to entice your opponent to follow. Teams who have defenders linger in areas where they are blocking potential lateral release space are only improving the oppositions chance to slow your attacking transition. 

  • Running patterns will vary but they all should be run with speed, length and width to provide space for mids or defenders to lead into.
  • Running on 45-degree angles is a good starting point to teach younger players about utilising the width of the ground.

The by-product of defenders spreading in such as way is that if the ball is turned over in attacking forward half, defenders are all ready up the ground to assist in team defence or press, depending on your team’s defence formations.

Communication is the key.

All defenders should be in constant communication relating to matchups, rolling up to free opponents, formations and structures, directing teammates to dangerous space and simply being the eyes and ears for each other. 

Players should be looking to identify potential exit zones and set defensive formations before opposition can utilise. 

The sooner players can include this vital factor into their decision-making process, the more likely individual and team performance will be enhanced.

Daniel Lowther is Defensive Coach at the Geelong Cats in the VFL

This article was written as part of the requirements for the AFL High Performance Coach Accreditation.

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