When football becomes a game of chaos.

By Aaron Danks

I have met some wonderful ‘possession’ coaches, who get their teams playing a beautiful way and some who play in an organised more direct percentage approach. I have also met some fabulous ‘defensive’ coaches who make their sides incredibly difficult to beat and hope for a set piece or a moment of magic to win a game… ….all very good coaches at organising their teams and painting pictures of how they want the game to be played.

Occasionally I have been fortunate enough to learn from coaches who think about the game a little differently, whilst they spend time working BOTH in and out of possession they spend lots of their time working on the critical moments, a team in chaos, a team in transition.

A transitional moment for this article will be referring to the first 3-5 seconds when losing possession, a side going from attack to defence, or the first 3-5 seconds when regaining possession and going from defending to attacking the opposition.

“Everybody says that set plays win most games, but I think it is more about transitions” – Jose Mourinho

It is in these moments of transition that many games are won or lost.

With the increased utilisation of video analysis coaches continuously analyse the goals scored or conceded from the moment of transition be it 45 seconds prior to the goal or more instantly direct from a Set Piece or a short quick passing sequence however very few practice transitions on a constant basis in training.

Even the mighty Barcelona, who have so many admirers around the world for their open and expansive IN POSSESSION style of play, are masters of moments in transition. When in possession Barcelona utilise a short passing approach which means on the rare occasion they play a missed placed pass they’re never too far away from the ball and are capable of providing instant pressure within the first 3-5seconds before the ball can be freed to space, and they are drilled to press the ball quickly in packs of 2 or 3. Not only does this allow them to quickly get back in possession but also to get in possession when the opposition have maybe switched off from defending and have loosened off from their defensive shape, but most importantly it gives them a possession regain close to/or within the oppositions final third.

As a result of this teaching Messi, Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta have been moulded into some of Barcelona’s best defenders.

The second side to Barcelona being an excellent example of mastering a chaotic transitional moment comes down to their technical ability. When winning the ball back they’re instantly under pressure to keep it.

For this 3 key skills must be mastered;

1) having a release pass off the foot furthest from pressure using any surface and often to penetrate the opposition

2) manipulation skills to travel with the ball into space

3) ball screening skills to hide the ball from pressure and delaying opponents allowing time for support to arrive

This is not something that happens to ‘Guardiola’s’ Barcelona or ‘Mourinho’s’ Chelsea/Inter/Madrid through luck, it’s something that has been mastered through the practice environments created at their clubs.

How do we teach it?

Well, practising in a cosmetic environment won’t work, and by cosmetic I mean pretty on the eye, very rarely are mistakes made etc. We must practice in chaos, practice the real game situations with transitions and ebb and flow. Try to plan sessions which are full of decisions and mistakes, 2 very important learning tools.

If a basic 4v2 ‘keep ball’ session is set up, what do the two do when they win the ball back? they are usually told to give it back to them or stop swap bibs and start again. Simply set up the same practice but play 2+2vs2 now if I give the ball away instantly me and my partner can press and if I’m a defender I must win the ball back and most importantly keep it.

Think of your favourite sessions or your most recent sessions, do these sessions allow for a flowing practice that both teams can work in transition?

As a coach challenge yourself to work on those first 3-5 seconds when losing the ball or winning the ball back.

What to teach?

The 3 keys skills as discussed earlier, having a release pass, ball manipulation skills and ball screening skills are vital to keep the ball in transition from defence to attack.

Going from attack to defence players must understand whether they can apply instant pressure something I like to call ‘5 seconds of fury’ can you win the ball back before the opposition get chance to release it. Or the alternative scenario is we can’t apply instant pressure so players must have an understanding of recovery runs and delaying the opposition until a moment where we can initiate the next moment of pressure. All this is built on the individual players ability and mentality to defend 1v1.

In summary we must place our players in a real practice environment, one which rehearses the situations the players will come up against on a Sunday or Saturday in their games programme. One which exposes them to chaos.

“Embrace the chaos”

9 thoughts on “When football becomes a game of chaos.

  1. Excellent post Aaron that 5 secs of chaos is an important component of a gamestyle.Great point about developing it in realistic situations.John Cartwright has continually promoted this realistic methodology.Really enjoyed the post keep them coming

  2. Thanks for comments guys, another interesting side note that I forgot to put in the article is the changes in the modern tactical trends many more transitions now appear to occur in the attacking third through the high pressing work. 10yrs ago the big trend was dropping off defending deep, drawing the opposition out making possession regains in the defensive third and then hitting the opposition on the break. The worlds greatest teams must be capable of doing both effectively, however to make regains deep and break requires superior physical capabilities. This interestingly is not a major strength of barcelona who miss the pace and power of a Ronaldo, Bale, Henry type but instead have the little craft players (quick but not powerful) which suits the regains in the attacking third. Guess its about knowing your players strengths.

  3. You cannot obviously have the same team shape and organization in attack and in defence. In between are the transition. You must do your transitions faster than the other team does. Against some team 5 seconds is already too long.

    It is also a player selection criterio: the worst football player, whatever skills he has one the ball, is the one who does switch from defence to attack or vice versa. I would not recommend to select a player who thinks he’s only an attacker, or only a defender, or only an attacking midfield…

  4. Hello Aaron,

    Nice post. I worked in Sporting Lisbon in the last year, and what I read in your text is what I learned and the way that we think about football. In Sporting one of the most sentences that I heard was “Provoke the Chaos!”.
    I have all that information about all the moments of the game, and specific principals of the game in Portuguese, but I would like to have in English. Do you have that? If yes, can you send me? I am in London, and I would like to show the way that I think the football.

    • HI PEDRO



  5. Very intresting reading Aaron transitions have become important in the Game and should be coached in training sessions in functions-phases-and small sided games.

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