The Five Fundamentals of Modern Football

This article first appeared in Coaching Edge. 
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By Danny Ryan

These and other topics are worthy of their own articles, however the following topics are more about how the game is played, and how we as coaches should plan our practice to suit.

Contested Ball

First and foremost is the contest. Regardless of how coaches, players and rule-makers may change elements of how the game is played and viewed, it is still essentially a physical contest.

Essentially, it is two combatants on opposing teams, in specific situations, both trying to assist their teams to win by winning a disputed ball, maintaining or regaining possession. This is the essence of our great game and what makes it such an enthralling spectacle.

To compete successfully at any level of football, players must have the courage, bravery and the ‘stomach’ to physically compete with another player who is directly opposing them. Although there are various degrees of this instinctive aggression, any player who wants to succeed in the game will display this significant trait.

As coaches it is important to ensure our players get a chance to practise contesting the ball so, when they need to perform on match day, they are ready and comfortable with the ensuing fanaticism of opponents and pressure situations.

Games and drills where there is pressure applied will help to prepare them. Most players are capable with the ball, out in space, or cruising through easy drills—it is when there is a contest or a form of pressure applied, that real improvements in both skill execution and decision-making can be made.

Decision Making

Following on directly from contested ball is the topic of decision-making. Obviously once a player gains possession, the next thought is ‘What am I going to do with it?’ Depending on the situation where possession was gained, there will be varying amounts of pressure and therefore an increased or decreased need to make that decision quickly.

The aim is to do something positive for the team with the ball, either through passing it by hand or foot accurately to a teammate, or scoring a goal. No player takes the field with the express aim of making mistakes and turning the ball over to the opposition. It is only through applied pressure (real or perceived) or a skill error that these turnovers occur.

Players who can cope with those pressures and still execute the skills of the game have a distinct advantage. Coaches must then design ways to minimise turnovers in matches by incorporating game-like situations in practice sessions. Various types of games (handball game, short-pass game, forward scout) can assist in improving a player’s decision making, as they encompass many complementary facets, such as contested ball and skill execution, in a pressure situation.

Coaches can design games (or empower competent players to design them) that challenge the players and develops their ball skills at the same time. Also, if you have access to video footage of your games (or practice sessions) you can use this to show highlight packages to players as you talk them through what an ideal decision might have been, compared to what actually happened.

When players see themselves on screen, making both good and bad decisions using the ball, it provides an invaluable opportunity to reinforce, improve or correct their decision-making skills.

Ball skills by hand or foot

The ability to hit targets in modern football is of paramount importance. Gone are the days where we would kick to a 50/50 contest and hope, or even back in our teammate, to win possession. Today we are aiming to pass the ball to maintain possession.

If the chances of a teammate getting the ball are not better than 70/30, most players will keep possession and look for a better option. And when we do pass the ball, we need our players to have the skill to place the ball to a position of advantage, so those odds are maintained or increased. The ability to pass the ball, long or short, with ‘air’ or ‘speared’, perfectly weighted to an oncoming option or running away on various angles, by hand or foot, is arguably the defining measure of the modern player.

To reach and maintain the highest standard possible requires constant practice, both in a controlled situation, which allows the players to ‘over-concentrate’ on technical skill execution, and in a random situation that allows them to further develop their vision to find targets and the sense of ‘weight’ needed to pass the ball to the advantage of a teammate.

Controlled activities

This refers to the time within your practice session when you strip back the uncertainties of match day, such as opposition players and the pressure they apply, and concentrate on pure skill. Usually this involves basic kicking and handball drills, which can be as simple or intricate as you want to design. But the focus is on practising the pure skill element.

For some players these types of drills can be quite tedious or boring and it is probably best to have a set of four to five basic skill drills that you can call upon for any particular practice session. It is important to reiterate to your players that the hardest part of these drills is the mental application required.

As the coach you can challenge the players: can they concentrate over the given period of time to maintain the highest level of skill execution? For instance, “We are looking for 99 out of 100, nine out of 10 will not do!” You might incorporate a fun element: “Can we make it to 100 clean passes?”

This is also the time that, as the coach, you can observe and advise individual players in regards to technical aspects of their skill execution. It is a great time for a player to work on a deficiency in a controlled environment, which allows a focus on correcting technical errors.

Random activities

These drills are more open to players’ own interpretations and can obviously crossover with the decision-making area (above). They usually do not involve cones or markers, but are designed to teach the players to practise their skills in a random manner.

The old-fashioned drill called ‘circle work’, or ‘random footy’ as I like to call it, is a perfect example. These activities can also be designed to teach or reinforce a particular style of play you want the team to learn, practise or re-visit, as you will most likely be using the majority of your training area.

It is important to explain to your players that you are looking for them to pass the ball to the advantage of their teammate (preferably on the full) and that they should be working on the two main aspects of vision (to find the best option) and the weight of their pass, as well as their technical execution.

Style

This is about deciding on your team’s style of play and then teaching your players how you want them to ‘flow’ the ball. Your style, or styles, (most modern teams will have at least two styles) will be a combination of at least two factors:

  1. The physical makeup of your squad (tall vs small, fast vs slow, run and carry players vs kickers)
  2. Whether your squad is best suited to being attacking or defensive (players with natural flair vs honest footballers)

A good way to identify a team’s basic style is to watch their kickins. Every team would like to go ‘coast-to-coast’ and score from its own kick-in, but how do they achieve that with 18 opposition players trying to stop that happening?

While it is impossible to fully predict what the other team will do, it is possible to instill a distinct style of play into your own team, which becomes reliable and instinctive in the heat of matches.

There are several questions you need to ask to develop a set of directions/styles for your squad. Do we go ‘outside’ around the boundary or ‘inside’ using the corridor? How fast do we move the ball in different parts of the ground? Do we kick the ball long or short? Do we move quickly to our forwards, or take our time to find the best option?

You might also like to think about ‘starting points’ and ‘what-if’ strategies across all parts of the ground. These also form a crucial part of your style.

Starting points are especially crucial as opportunities for players to put themselves in a position of advantage over their direct opponent in any given contest. To coaching, for example, you might direct your backmen to have a starting point of ‘arm on, inside’ when they are standing their man.

What-if scenarios are designed to give your players an alternative, or plan B to go to, when the opposition does something specific which you need to counter. For example, when the opposition ruckman is dropping back in the ‘hole’ in front of your full-forward, a what-if scenario outcome might be to get all the forwards to bunch in around the defender in a huddle.

Once you have established the ideal outcomes/ scenarios for these questions, as well as some alternative outcomes, you can set about teaching your squad. When they have learned, practised and finally tested them against legitimate opposition, you will start to entrench them as your team’s style.

The use of games within your practice session is a great way of teaching and reinforcing the agreed style(s). Within these competitive situations, players can start to rehearse elements of the style that they will use in matches, e.g. handballing backwards out of packs or going ‘outside’ in the back half, before coming back ‘inside’ in the front half, or kicking to a lead to the ‘fat’ side when entering the forward 50 area versus hitting the hotspot.

Games are also a great way of empowering your players to ‘coach’ themselves as an additional task within the execution of the game. For example, you might play a handball game, where you have asked one team to play around the sidelines and use mainly safe options against the other team, who you have asked to play straight up the corridor and to take as many risks as possible.

You also inform each team of the alternative style and let them decide when they will switch styles within the game, usually to counter the opposition team. When you have finalised your predominant game style and also decided on one or two alternative styles, then practised and played to these styles with a degree of success, your team can start to rely upon its style.

This means you can measure the performance and outcomes from matches against the way the players played on that day. Did they stick to their agreed style of play? What was the outcome? If they did not adhere to their agreed style(s) did the team have a different outcome? Your team KPIs can then be built around the agreed style(s) and used to keep the team on track.

For example, an element of the team style might be, we run and link with each other in the back half of the ground, and the corresponding KPI would likely be handball receives. As coach you can simply refer to your statistics and if they show a low number of a particular stat, it might indicate that the team has not adhered to its particular style, for that match or quarter.

You might also choose to embody your style(s) within a set of team traits. These can be devised with the players’ input and can be as simple as two or three traits in three different areas. For example, defensive, attacking and overall traits —these traits apply to every player in your team/club and are paramount.

They are the foundations on which the team’s styles are built and the players must believe in, practise and play to them. They are the things that will identify who and what your team is, they become the essence of your team’s ‘brand’.

Specifics: strategies/tactics for the backline, midfield and forward line

While it is important that all players are aware of both the defensive and attacking parts of their own games, there are many strategies and tactics that belong distinctly to certain areas on the football field and therefore need specific instruction and practise.

For example, a player does not play the same way when asked to perform as a key backman compared to a stint in the midfield. Teaching a tall defender how to bump and tangle with an opponent, without giving away a free kick is an art in itself and warrants time being spent on learning that particular craft. It is similar to goalkicking for a forward who is striving for a high percentage of conversions, or an on-baller who needs to work with on-ball partners on refining their combinations.

Some of the specifics that you might look to teach your players could include the following:

  • Backs: bodywork (bumping and tangling), anticipation, closing speed and angles to the contest, starting points, kick-ins (us), kick- outs (them), shepherding and screening, spoiling, third man up, use of the boundary line, rolling on and off opponents, defensive transition, etc
  • Midfielders: centre bounces, ball-ups, boundary throw-ins, scrimmages, knowing and practising roles, kick-ins (us), kick-outs (them), goalkicking, starting points, rolling on and off opponents, interchange, running the triangle (not trying to get to every stoppage), wingers, etc
  • Forwards: creating space, subtle blocks, sacrificial leading, starting points, set-ups for up-field stoppages, goalkicking (set shots, snaps, broken-play shooting, front-and-square crumbing, soccer shots), leading, marking, bodywork, kick-ins (us), kick-outs (them), corralling, etc.

A question you as coach need to ask of your squad is, “How many players will specialise in a given position (e.g. ruckmen) and how many need to be adaptable and learn to play several positions (e.g. full-forward and ruck-rover)?” The answer to this question will allow you to plan the ‘specifics’ element of your practice sessions accordingly.

Do you break your squad into three different groups (backs / mids /forwards) and let them split up to work on specific strategies/tactics unique to those areas, or do you rotate the entire squad through three or more drills that cover those unique areas? I would suggest that the answer is a 60/40 split of both needs.

In the case of specifics, your small on-ballers are not going to need to bump and tangle with an opposing full-forward, like your key tall backmen need to. Likewise, you do not expect your tall backmen to be on the bottom of stoppages. With the flexibility of most players in modern football, there is a high probability a tall backman might end up playing at the opposite end at some stage, and so players need to learn the specifics that apply across the ground as well as their own specialist areas.

It is also important all players know and practise generic things like goalkicking (set-ups and strategies for both kick-ins (us) and kick-outs (them).

As the coach, you need to design your practice so that the players will know the important specifics that apply to those individual areas and will not be lost if you move them into a position in that particular area, as well as allowing further time for players who spend the majority of time in a given area to further refine the specifics of that area. This will increase their individual skill proficiency and benefit the team overall.

Conclusion

I have discussed what I think are the five fundamentals of modern football. Most coaches will have their own view on whether there are other fundamentals. Hopefully this article has provoked some thought and discussion among coaches at all levels, as well as your own assistant coaches, players and other support staff.

Even if you decide that you have some different fundamentals, then I will have succeeded in my attempts to encourage coaches to think a little deeper about our game and how it is played. I think you will find that once you start to investigate your own individual thoughts and ideas, as well as listening to those you work with closely, you will indeed deepen your own knowledge about the game.

The thirst for knowledge is indeed the essence of man and as an Australian Football coach you are charged with passing on the knowledge that you think is relevant to your players as you strive to improve them as both footballers and people. Good luck with your continued pursuit of knowledge and passing on what you learn.

This article was written as part of the requirements for AFL High Performance Coach Accreditation. At the time of writing Danny was an assistant coach with the NSW/ACT RAMS.

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