Over the last two decades, there has been an influx of non-football experts into the football world. These people are experts in non-football contexts. Most of them are specialists from different scientific disciplines. This influx has occurred for good reasons. The knowledge that these experts have could prove useful for the football world. However, should we use these scientific disciplines to explore football, or should we use football to explore these scientific disciplines? 

Do we need more “scientific principles” to understand football, or do we need more “football principles” to understand science? Using science to understand football is like getting into your car, driving around, and stopping to ask for directions and asking, “Excuse me, but where am I going?”

To quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where- ” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Conversely, using football to understand science is like getting into your car, driving around, and stopping to ask for directions and asking, “Excuse me, how do I get to the post office?”

When you know where you want to go, then which way you go is much clearer. 

By taking football as the starting point, we can clarify where it is that we are trying to go. This clarification process is what we call football theory – a description of the fundamental football concepts and football principles. Equipped with “football principles”, we can better understand “scientific principles”. Not vice-versa.  

“Football Principles”

Football is a game. And, games have certain characteristics.

  1. Games have an objective
  2. Games have a way to achieve that objective
  3. Games have rules
  4. Participants within games must accept those rules

If any of these four characteristics are not satisfied, then you do not have a game. 

Games have an objective 

The objective of the game of football is to score one more goal than the opponent. This is the intrinsic goal of football. Some people play football to ‘have fun’, ‘stay in shape’, or ‘to drink beer’ after the game. These are extrinsic goals of football. In other words, scoring one more goal than the opponent applies to everyone that plays football. That is how the game is won. Drinking beer after the game, on the other hand, only applies to some people – not everyone. In other words, it is not linked to the definition of football.

Scoring one more goal than the opponent is an intrinsic characteristic of the game of football. Think about how difficult it would be to explain football to someone if you couldn’t explain how the game is won. Winning is the intrinsic objective of the game of football. It is the game’s purpose.

Extrinsic characteristics reflect the attitudes of particular people that play the game. For example, some people play football in order to have fun. While they are entitled to their own particular attitude, that doesn’t mean their attitude is universally applicable. What if rather than playing to have fun, their opponent plays to blow off steam? Would they both play a different game? Of course not. It is their attitudes towards the game that are different.

The attitude of the players is an independent variable. It is not part of the definition of the game itself. It is much easier to describe football to someone without mentioning the attitude of the players than it is to describe football without mentioning how the game is won. Whether someone plays football to have fun, lose weight, or kick people doesn’t change the fact that the purpose of football is to score one more goal than the opponent. 

Games have a means

If there is a purpose, then there is a way to achieve that purpose. Coaches are particularly interested in this game characteristics. Strategies, tactics, and principles are all examples of means – ways to win the game. However, the preferences that coaches have for playing football are also extrinsic to the definition of football. They don’t apply to everyone. Different coaches and players have different preferences for how their teams play football. This is what makes football tactics so interesting.

Conversely, there are certain characteristics of the game that are dependent variables. In other words, regardless of a coach’s preferences, all teams share certain characteristics. In other words, there are characteristics of the game that are the same for everybody.

Team Functions

Football is a team sport. Two teams play against each other and try to score one more goal than the other team. Because football is a team sport, we can start defining these characteristics at the team level. 

At the team level, both teams must attack, defend, and transition. These are called the team functions. The team functions are non-negotiable and; therefore, universal. A team that doesn’t defend doesn’t play football. Imagine a team where every player stands still as soon as possession is lost. Certainly, we would say that this team is refusing to play football. Defending is intrinsic to football. How a team defends is extrinsic to the football. Defending is a constant. Defending with a high press, or a low block, is a variable.

Team Functions in football

A team can decide how they will attack, defend, and transition, but they cannot decide that they will only attack, but neither defend, nor transition.

Team Tasks

The team functions alone are not adequate to describe team behavior in football. The word attacking could be misinterpreted as the sole responsibility of the players listed as attackers on the team sheet. But clearly, the defenders and goalkeeper also participate in the attack. Therefore, attacking can be broken up into two distinct tasks. A team will build up and then score. These are what we can call the team tasks. 

Defending also has two team tasks. Team’s will disturb the build up of the opponent and try to prevent scoring. Similarly, the transition has two team tasks. Team’s will act before the transition and then make the transition. Transitions always occur after changes in possession – between attacking and defending. As a result, transitions always occur after interceptions. However, the interception is not a surprise in football, but an inevitability. Possession of the ball is constantly changing throughout the game of football. In fact, many coaches have the attitude that transitions are the defining characteristic in the game of football. Teams that can dominate during these changes in possession are often favorites to win. As a result, teams don’t just perform actions after an interception, but also before the interception. For example, some defenders will begin marking the opponent’s strikers while their team is building up because they are anticipating the eventual loss of possession. By marking the opponent’s strikers before the interception occurs, they increase the chances that their team makes a successful transition after the interception. In contrast, a team that makes the pitch as big as possible and pays no attention to the team task before interception will leave themselves open to dangerous counter attacks after the interception. 

Team Tasks in football

Football cannot be described to someone without discussing attacking, defending, and transitioning. Conversely, nobody will have any problem describing football without mentioning man-marking, zonal marking, or high pressing. These are extrinsic characteristics of football and change depending on the attitude of the particular coach. The intrinsic characteristics are fixed in their relationship to football and, as a result, are not variables, but constants. 

The logical structure of football:
All across the world, the same game is played:

Football Actions

Football is a team sport. But, a team is made up of individuals. Football players contribute to the team functions and team tasks by making football actions. In what is a football action? we explained that football actions have three components – communication, decision making, and executing decisions. This is referred to as the CDE cycle.

While football actions may appear to be different all across the world, there are actually more similarities than differences. For example, when a player goes from the Under 19’s to the 1st team, he doesn’t all of a sudden need to learn new football actions. He needs to apply the same football actions differently. Usually, with less space and less time. As a result of this fact, we can identify a list of football actions which are intrinsic to the game of football.

There are a number of football actions. Actions like pressing, shooting, passing, and creating space. The list of possible football actions seems rather infinite. However, this is mostly because coaches and players have multiple words that refer to the same action.

As an example, pressing can be referred to in multiple different ways. A coach can shout to his players, “push up! mark tight! get closer!” all in reference to the football action pressing. In fact, I know many coaches that will develop unique words for common football actions. I know one particular coach that uses the term “klopp” rather than pressing. Everyone knows that Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool coach, prefers his teams to transition by pressing and making the pitch small. Although the word klopp is not a football action, but someone’s name, when defined in action language this can be an incredibly useful and creative way to use football language. Players that watch a lot of Liverpool and also know about Klopp’s style will make pressing actions immediately after hearing their coach yell “Klopp!” from the sidelines. 

The klopp example above is still an example of an extrinsic use of football action language. In other words, it is independent of the game of football because every team will have their own sub-language inside of the football language. As long as this sub-language is clear to the players and coaches, then it can be incredibly useful.

Regardless of the words that a coach or group of players use in a particular environment, there are, in fact, football actions that are intrinsic to the game of football. In other words, there are certain football actions that individual players must do while attacking, defending, and transitioning. 

Attacking Actions

Players make football actions with the ball and without the ball. While attacking, players can make two actions with the ball and two actions without the ball. With the ball, players can protect the ball and pass without interception. Without the ball, players can create passing options and reduce the opponent’s ability to cover. 

Regardless of the words you use to refer to these actions, these are the four football actions which are intrinsic to the team function attacking. A player that dribbles, shields the ball, gets past an opponent, makes a feint, carries the ball, or “does a Messi” is demonstrating different ways of protecting the ball. Getting open, losing your man, faking a deep run, and showing for the ball are all specifications of creating a passing option. Regardless of the level that the game is being played at, every player needs to protect the ball, pass without interception, create a passing option, and reduce the opponent’s cover.

Reducing the opponents cover refers to actions like getting wide, “fixing”, pinning, giving depth, or playing behind an opponent. They are all ways of making it more difficult for an opponent to leave his position. The defender has to make a choice between leaving you open, or stepping up to cover a teammate, or pressuring an opponent.

The attacking football actions

Defending

When defending, players make football actions towards the ball and away from the ball. Towards the ball, players can attack/win the ball and make an interception. Away from the ball, a player can mark/block an opponent and cover a teammate. Once again, whether the level is Champions League or ‘Over-50’ league, players must make these four football actions while defending.

The defending football actions

Transitioning

In transition, players will also make certain actions. Transitions always occur during a change of possession. As a result, they occur following an interception. Due to this, players will make actions before an interception and make actions after an interception.

The transitioning football actions

Games have rules 

The game of football also has rules. These rules are defined by the International Football Association Board and are what we refer to as the Laws of the Game. 

Participants within games must accept those rules 

You can’t play football without the participants agreeing to play by the Laws of the Game. It is much easier to score at halftime than during the run of play. A failure to accept and play by the rules compromises the game itself.

Champions League or Sunday League this is what players do and this is what coaches coach

Takeaway

Football is a game. Games have certain characteristics. As a result, the game of football also has certain characteristics. These characteristics are intrinsic characteristics, which means that they are part of the definition of football. There are also extrinsic characteristics that refer to the particular attitude of coaches, players, and spectators. 

While these extrinsic characteristics are interesting because they concern the differences between players and coaches, they are not useful for describing the similarities between players and coaches. WHAT we are playing and coaching is the same. HOW we play or coach is totally different.

WHAT we are playing is defined by the intrinsic characteristics of the game. We can refer to these as “football principles”. “Football principles” are our starting point when trying to understand football more deeply. When we want to transfer knowledge from a non-football context into the football context, the “football principles” are our ultimate filter. By filtering information from outside the football world using “football principles”, we can use football to steer scientific disciplines and not the other way around.