All across the world, the same game is played. Regardless of age, sex, or ability, the characteristics of football are the same for everybody. Both teams begin a football match with the same goal: to score one more goal than the opponent. Both teams must achieve that goal in the same way: by attacking, defending, and transitioning. In other words, WHAT we play is the same for everybody. HOW we play can be totally different. For example, some teams attack using many passes, but other teams attack using very few passes. This doesn’t change the fact that they both need to attack for football to be played. WHAT we play is the same. HOW we play can be different.

The characteristics of football are the same for everybody. As a result, one would expect that the football world would share a fairly precise definition of what it takes to play football better. However, if you ask one-hundred people what it takes to get better at football, you will get one-hundred different answers. Some people think that getting better at football is all about technique. Other people think that it is about getting faster. Others think that fitness and strength play a role.

Currently, the football performance has one-hundred different definitions. These definitions are based on different interpretations. The fitness coach believes that football performance is all about aerobic and anaerobic capacity. The strength coach believes that football performance is all about getting ‘stronger’. The psychologist believes that football performance is all about ‘resilience’. Without a clear definition of the football performance, players will continue to train based on interpretations of football rather than football principles.

If you are skeptical that we can define the football performance with precision, consider the following. The purpose of football is to score one more goal than the opponent. Based on this; surely, we can already theorize that getting better at football will have something to do with improving a players contribution towards this purpose? Or, am I mistaken in the fact that football teams around the world try to sign players that will help them score one more goal than the opponent? Knowing that this is the case, then it should be possible to define the football performance precisely. We can do this by taking the game characteristics – the football principles – as our starting point.

Unfortunately, most people define the football performance based on extrinsic characteristics. Rather than taking the intrinsic characteristics of the game as a starting point, they take their culture, personality, and prior experiences as a starting point. So, instead of improving a players contribution during the build up, the club dedicates training time to improving agility. In other words, the person “in charge” determines the club methodology rather than the characteristics of football. Good luck!

Alternatively, we can form a definition of football performance using the principles of football. This leaves us with an intrinsic definition of performance, rather than a definition based on a particular persons attitude, preferences, or opinion. As a result, the quality of the club methodology will no longer hinge on the quality of an interpretation of football, which can be ‘hit or miss’, but on the coaching staff’s ability to analyze the football performance itself.

Football Performance

What is the difference between a lower level and a higher level of football? When a player moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team, do they suddenly play with two balls? Is the offside rule eliminated? Does the team no longer defend?Is the pitch now in the shape of a circle? Are their 4 goals instead of 2? Of course not.

Regardless of the level of play, the characteristics of the game are the same. All across the world, the same game is played. As a result, the difference between a lower level and a higher level lies in how the game is played, not what is played. An under 19 player needs to pass, press, and transition. When he signs with the first team, he still needs to pass, press, and transition. The difference is not WHAT he needs to do, it’s HOW he needs to do it. Based on this, we can formulate the first football performance characteristic. At a higher level of play, players need to make the same actions as in their previous level – only better. In other words, the quality of their football actions needs to go up. They need a better action.

Better Action

At a higher level of play, there is less space and less time for players to make football actions. The playing area is significantly reduced. There are higher demands placed on the execution of football actions. In order for players to execute football actions at a higher level, the quality of the football action needs to go up.

A central defender that moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team needs to improve the quality of his football actions. But, what does it mean to improve the quality of an action? How do we do that?

Improving the quality of an action (the x) from 100% (under 19’s) to 101% (1st Team)

To answer this question, we need to revisit what a football action is? A football action has three components: communication, decision making, executing decisions. We have referred to this as the CDE cycle. At a higher level of play, the quality of this CDE cycle needs to go up.

So, when the central defender moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team, he needs to perform his CDE cycle at a higher level. In other words, he needs to communicate with his teammates and perceive (game insight) his surroundings better. He needs to make better decisions. And, he needs to execute his decisions with a better technique.

Better Communication

Based on the definition of a football action, we can see that the quality of a football action starts at team level.

Consider our young central defender mentioned earlier. During his first session with the 1st team, he begins dribbling up the pitch. He see’s the striker create a passing option by acting towards him. The central defender thinks that the striker wants the ball to his feet. As a result, he passes the ball deep to the feet of his striker. Just prior to the pass; however, the striker makes an action in behind as he wasn’t asking for the ball to feet, but luring his defender out of position in order to ask for the ball deep.

Interestingly, the quality of his passing action from a decision making (D) and execution (E) standpoint were top quality. There was nothing wrong with his decision to pass to the striker. And, the pass itself was perfectly weighted -with good speed, over the ground (no bounces) – beautiful.

The reason the ball was intercepted was due to a miscommunication between the central defender and the striker. As a result, improving the quality of this players football action starts by improving his communication with his teammates. Better communication contributes towards better passing.

Better communication between players will result in a better action

The quality of a football action begins at team level. As a result, the starting point for analyzing a football acton must begin at team level. The first question we should ask during analysis is, “was there a miscommunication between players?

If the answer is yes, then better communication will result in a better football action. If the answer is no, then we can say something about an individual players decision making and executing.

Decision Making & Execution

For a football action to improve, not only must the quality of communication go up, but also the quality of decision making and execution. Let’s revisit our central defender. Later on in the training session, the defender makes a passing action to his strikers feet. This time, the striker actually did ask for the ball to feet. However, the pass is still intercepted. Clearly, the quality of the passing action needs to go up. But, what went wrong?

There isn’t a miscommunication ‘in the way’ this time. The central defender and the striker are on the same page. So, was it a decision making problem? Or, an execution problem?

To answer this question, we need to introduce a coaching/analysis tool called ‘PMDS’. PMDS is an acronym representing the four space-time characteristics in football. Every football action takes place from a certain position, at a certain moment, in a certain direction, and at a certain speed. These four space-time characteristics have a decision making component and an execution component. 

Position

Every football action starts from a certain position. The player will be in a certain position on the pitch. The player will also have a certain body position, or orientation. When analyzing an individual football action, the first question we ask is if the action began from the best position. For example, did our central defender begin his passing action from too far away? Perhaps, he should have dribbled closer to the opponents defensive block? This would decrease the length of the pass and make the pass easier. By improving his starting position by having him act closer next time, the quality of the action will go up.

However, we still don’t know if the problem is due to a lack of game insight or poor football technique. Therefore, an additional question needs to be asked. To assess the players game insight, we can check his awareness of the fact that he was passing from 30 meters away. Perhaps the player doesn’t know that this is a problem. In this case, it is the players understanding that is the “weak link”. As a result, we should focus on the game insight and decision making of the player.

Conversely, if the player knows that he is passing from too far away, then we have an execution problem. Maybe he knows he should pass from closer, but doesn’t trust his dribbling technique. Perhaps we need to improve the players ability to dribble the ball with more control, so that he can pass from closer to the opponents block. In this case, the “weak link” is the players ability to execute on his game insight.

Moment

Every football action will also occur at a certain moment. At a certain moment, the player will decide to act. The player will also execute this action at a certain moment. Ideally, these occur at the same time. But, anyone that still plays football at an older age knows that the body doesn’t always listen to the brain. You might recognize the moment to act, but the moment your muscles and body parts respond to that recognition doesn’t always occur as quickly it once did.

In other words, the moment of decision is not always the moment of execution. As a result, if a player acts “too late” it is not necessarily because of their decision making. Some players recognize the right moment to act, but their body lets them down. For example, the signal from their spinal cord to the muscle could be slow. Or, maybe the player has mostly slow motor units. I am sure that if Pep Guardiola hopped into training at Manchester City, he would have no problem making decisions at the correct moment. However, the time between making his decision and executing his decision will be much slower than Kevin De Bruyne, or Sergio Aguero.

In practice, this means that coaches need to consult with the player first in order to determine if the player has a decision making problem or an execution problem. Are they deciding too late? Or, are they executing too late? In the case of the former, players need to develop their game insight in regards to the correct moment. “Should I deliver the cross early, or is it better to wait for the defenders to drop closer to their goal?“Should I press the central defender as soon as the goalkeeper passes him the ball, or should I wait for him to turn his body and commit to one side of the pitch?” By improving a players understanding of the right moments, he will make better decisions. As a result, there is an increased chance that the quality of his action goes up.

Ideally, the moment a player decides to act corresponds with the moment of execution. However, as was just explained, this isn’t always the case. Since I stopped playing professionally, the moment between my decision to act and my actual action is getting larger and larger. I can still recognize when I should get open for my teammates, but this recognition takes a bit longer to act upon. Due to this fact, coaches should always take the time to find out why a player acted too late. Are they unaware of when they should act? Or, can they not execute their action soon enough? If the latter, then we have an execution problem.

Direction

Every football action will have a direction. The moment that I execute a pass, it has a certain direction. For example, it will either travel towards the left foot of my teammate or towards the right foot of my teammate. Once again, coaches need to play detective in determining if there is a decision making problem or an execution problem. Is the player unaware of which direction he should pass towards, or is he unable to pass accurately?

Once again, ideally, decision making and execution should correspond. However, this is not always the case. I can’t tell you how many times during my career that I made the decision to pass TO a teammate, only to execute that pass TO an opponent. My decision and my execution were different.

Speed

Finally, every football action will have a certain speed. When I press the opponent towards his left foot, I will do so at a certain speed. In football, maximizing this speed is not always ideal. For example, pressing with the highest speed possible makes it very easy for the defender to dribble past me. Passing with the highest speed possible makes it more difficult for my teammate to control the ball.

Speed of decision making and speed of execution are also different. Today, my game insight is just as good, if not better, than my playing days. However, my ability to execute on that game insight has changed. When I hop in to training with my players, I often know which speed of action is required. The problem is that I cannot execute my actions with the required speed. In other words, I can make the decision to get in behind as fast as possible, but I can’t actually get in behind as fast as possible. My execution is the problem. My decision making is perfectly fine.

Once we diagnose the space-time component, we can diagnose the football action component.

Every football action has a position, moment, direction, and speed. A player that lacks game understanding will have many decision making problems. The coaching of this players game insight should be emphasized so that he can better interpret football situations. A player that cannot act on his game understanding has an execution problem. The coaching of this players football technique should be emphasized.

Football Ability

The quality of a football action is determined by the entire CDE cycle. Top players perform this CDE cycle better than other players. Top players have strong communication with their teammates, good game insight that contributes to good decisions, and an ability to execute on those decisions.

All across the world, players need to perform the CDE cycle. The quality of their CDE cycle determines their playing level. The difference between a Real Madrid player and a U19 player is how well they can perform these cycles. However, what these players are doing is the same. They both perform the CDE cycle.

The level at which a player can perform the CDE cycle is his football ability. The Real Madrid player has a higher football ability than the U19 player.

Every player performs the CDE cycle at their relative 100%. Obviously, the 100% of Lionel Messi is better than the 100% of a U19 player. However, Lionel Messi and the U19 player both perform CDE to the best of their ability – their relative 100%.

Football training is primarily about improving this football ability. Improving a players football ability is synonymous with helping them to make better actions.

Takeaway

What does it mean to play football better? Many people have interpretations and opinions with which they use to answer this question, but the answer should be based on the characteristics of football itself.

All across the world, the same game is played. Teams, and the players within them, must attack, defend, and transition. They must build up, score, disturb the build up, prevent scoring, act before & after an interception. Players contribute to these team tasks by making football actions.

The quality of a players football actions is determined by the quality of their CDE cycle. We can refer to this as their football ability. Football ability is the level at which a player can communicate, decide, and execute inside the football context. The question: what does it take to play football better? can now be answered.

Playing football at a higher level means raising a players football ability. As a result, the football training process should primarily be concerned with improving the football ability of their players. This requires paying attention to the level of (mis)communication between players, and the particular position, moment, direction, and speed of the individual football actions. After identifying the “weak link” in the football action, training time and coaching emphasis can be more precisely allocated towards developing the C, D, or E in the CDE cycle. This is what it means to learn to play football better. An under 19 player only becomes a 1st team player by improving his ability to play football – his Football Ability.