Previously, we have written about the two main perspectives in football: the action perspective and the movement perspective. The starting point in football is always the action perspective. Gradually, coaches can “zoom-in” and say something about the building blocks of football actions. These are the basic actions, movements, muscle interactions, and muscle actions. These building blocks are necessary components of football actions.

Describing motion in football has many layers

Basic Actions

A football action is a description of how a player is interacting with the football context. A player making a football action needs to communicate with his teammates, making a decision, and execute that decision. In order to execute his decision, the player will need to make one, or multiple, basic actions. Basic actions are part of the execution of a football action.

Executing basic actions are necessary to execute football actions. In order to press, you will have to sprint, or at least run. However, the basic actions are only a part of the execution. They are not the same thing as the execution.

Basic actions are part of every football action. A player that is creating a passing option might have to push off his defender, change direction, and sprint. In other words, the execution of a football action can include the execution of several basic actions.

Universal Basic Actions

In the football principles post, the universal football actions were described. All across the world, players that are attacking must protect the ball, pass without interception, create passing options, and reduce cover. These are what players are doing. Players all across the world share this same what. On the other hand, how a player executes these actions is dependent on the individual player, level of play, and the football situation. 

An under 19 player and Lionel Messi will both need to protect the ball and pass without interception during a football match. What they are doing is the same. How they execute these actions will be different. The what’ is concerned with those characteristics of football that are the same for everybody regardless of the level, age, gender, or country. We can consider these characteristics universal. They are shared by everyone that plays the game regardless of how tall they are, or how old they are. These latter characteristics are external factors and are only relevant in determining to what degree someone can do something.

Old or Young, Male or Female, Champions League or Sunday League, what players are doing is the same. How players do something is always different.

In this post, we will attempt to identify the universal basic actions. In other words, what are those basic actions that every football player across the globe must be able to do in order to play football. Which basic actions are preconditions.

By watching football, certain basic actions become obvious. We know that players need to jump, sprint, land, change direction, push their opponent, stop, kick, and throw. Even actions like backpedaling, side-shuffling, walking, and standing seem to play a role. However, this is a rather incoherent list. It is hard to make sense of these different basic actions without some sort of structure. Without a certain structure language becomes meaningless. As a result, we need a way of organizing the variety of basic actions pertinent to football.

Speed

In actions versus movements, we identified football as a game of motion. In the world of Physics, motion is created by overcoming something called inertia. In 1687, a man named Isaac Newton had quite a bit to say about inertia (and motion more generally). Most people know his very famous ‘1st Law’ of motion which has been termed the Law of Inertia. The Law of Inertia states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 

When a player makes an action to “lose his mark”, he usually needs to fake a deep run, change direction, and sprint back towards his teammate. This action perfectly illustrates Newton’s 1st Law.

Initially, the player must go from a standing action to a sprinting action. In other words, the player needs to start motion. While making a standing action, the player is effectively ‘at rest’. Therefore, the player needs to overcome this resting position. Per Newton’s Law, this is done by generating and applying a force. For the player, this force is generated by his body and applied towards the ground. As a result, motion is created.

The starting action that a player makes is referred to as acceleration. Newton’s 1st Law states that this player will continue to accelerate until acted upon by an unbalanced force. In order for the player to successfully change direction, he needs to overcome his inertia once again and slow down. This process of slowing down is what Physicists call negative acceleration and what coaches know as deceleration. In order to decelerate, the player performs a stopping action.

The two speed components of a basic action: speeding up (acceleration) and slowing down (deceleration)

In football, most actions require a change in inertia. This change is best observed by the change in speed of the actions. A player that is speeding up is accelerating and a player that is slowing down is decelerating. Therefore, we can refer to acceleration and deceleration as the speed components of basic actions. These two components give us a starting point for creating a meaningful structure for our rather incoherent list of basic actions.

Direction

Overcoming inertia requires the body to produce force. In physics language, force has an amount and a direction. In football, players also act in specific directions. Player’s can act in multiple directions, but there are two primary directions in which players act. First, players will act over the pitch. Second, players will act above the pitch.

Players will make actions parallel to the ground. Actions that are parallel to the ground are made horizontally.

Acting over the pitch involves motion made parallel to the ground, or horizontally. Active above the pitch involves motion made perpendicular to the ground, or vertically. These directions give us two additional basic action characteristics: horizontal and vertical. 

Players primarily act parallel to the pitch (Horizontally) and perpendicular to the pitch (Vertically)

Basic actions have two speed components: acceleration and deceleration. And two directional components: horizontal and vertical. These four components are the starting point for describing basic actions in football language. 

Actions have two speed components and two directional components.

When we combine the two speed components and the two directional components, we get four categories.

  • Horizontal Acceleration
  • Horizontal Deceleration
  • Vertical Acceleration
  • Vertical Deceleration

Football is a very unpredictable context. The position of the ball and the flow of play is constantly changing. This means that players will constantly need to change speeds and change directions. In fact, it is very rare for a player to be standing totally still prior to an action. Players are usually acting in a certain direction already, even if that is by walking, running, or side shuffling. And, when the context changes, they need to either change speed, change direction, or both.

Therefore, we can add two additional characteristics to include the constant changing of direction. There are horizontal changes of direction and vertical changes of direction. Together, we get the following basic action categories.

Horizontal Acceleration

The primary way that players act over the pitch is by using different variations of running. Standing, walking, running, and sprinting. As coaches; however, we aren’t very interested in improving walking. Football is a speed of action sport. This means that players at the highest levels have less time and less space to make actions. As a result, the speed of the actions becomes a performance defining characteristic. Players that can act sooner and act faster will have a better chance of playing at a higher level.

As a result, we are interested in those basic actions that are under time pressure and, thus, explosive. Primarily, players act across the pitch using two basic actions: Starting and Sprinting.

In order to initiate an action from a static position, players will need to make a starting action. This is more commonly referred to as acceleration. However, because acceleration is not specific – could easily refer to a vertical acceleration – I prefer the action word starting. During a starting action, players need to make a high change in speed by going from a minimal speed (walking or standing) to a maximal speed (sprinting) in as little time as possible.

It is actually rare for players to reach top speed on a frequent basis during a match. Because the football context is constantly changing, there are very few opportunities for players to reach their top sprinting speed. Usually, the situation changes before the players reach top speed which forces them to slow down.

Contrary to popular belief, starting actions are not made at a players maximal speed. The players intention might ‘feel’ maximal, but it is impossible to reach top speed while the player is still accelerating. It takes a few seconds and considerable distance for a player to reach top speed. Gradually, the player must transition from a starting action to a sprinting action in order to maximize his speed. Sprinting is one of the most crucial and performance defining basic actions in football.

Although maximal sprinting actions are few and far between in football, they are often performance defining actions. If a player is able to reach his top speed, then there is a good chance the football situation is critical. Nevertheless, players must be able to make starting actions and sprinting actions as a precondition for football actions.

Horizontal Deceleration

The unpredictable football context places a high demand on a players ability to change speed. At the highest level, players don’t just need to accelerate at a higher speed, but also decelerate at a higher speed. The primary action that players make to slow themselves down is stopping.

Horizontal Change of Direction

Stop & Go

Football is a multi-directional sport. Although the game is played with a clear vertical direction, play often circulates in 360 degrees. As a result, players need to change direction quite often. Changing direction is an umbrella term for a variety of different actions. For example, some changes of direction are extreme and players need to be able to make a complete 180 degree turn. Other changes of direction are less extreme. During these slight changes of direction, players need to learn to maintain as much of their speed as possible while making a slight change in their direction of action.

The most extreme change of direction is what Biomechanist Frans Bosch refers to as a “stop & go”. During this basic action, players need to come to a complete stop before quickly starting again in the opposite direction.

This change of direction action is the most synonymous with “agility” training. Most exercises dedicated to ‘changing direction’ are variations of the “stop & go”.

Side-Step

Sometimes players need to change direction while maintaining as much of their speed as possible. Think of a NFL running back making a cutting action to fake out an opponent. He needs to slightly change direction, but without losing any speed. If he were to lose speed, he would surely be caught from behind by the recovering players. This action is what we can call a “side-step”.

Many football players make this action while they are dribbling. A side-step is part of a football action that includes feinting and getting past an opponent.

Swerve

Football is not played in straight lines. Players often need to sprint or start while bending their run. In fact, many coaches will correct a players action to get in behind by instructing him to “bend his run”. By bending their run, players can avoid being caught off-side. However, sprinting while curving or bending is not an easy skill. In future posts we will discuss the compensations that players make when sprinting in this way. I refer to this action as a swerve. An easy way to refer to sprinting on a curve.

Sideways Actions

Sometimes players need to change direction by acting sideways. For example, when defending near the top of the box, defenders will often perform a very rapid side-shuffling action in order to stay close to the attacker. In these situations, they will avoid big steps that can make it more difficult to adjust to rapid changes in direction or speed by the attacking players. Being able to act laterally, or sideways, is a precondition for many football actions.

Vertical Acceleration

Players don’t only act over the pitch, but also above the pitch. For example, in order for a midfield player to challenge for a header, he will need to make a jumping action. A goalkeeper that tries to collect a cross will also need to jump. As a result, the universal basic action for accelerating vertically is jumping.

Vertical Deceleration

What goes up, must come down. Players that perform jumping actions also need to make landing actions.

Vertical Change of Direction

It is extremely rare for players to vertically accelerate without doing so from a change in direction. For example, how many times does a player have to jump from a standing position? Usually, a player jumps by changing directions from horizontal to vertical. Players primarily do this in two ways.

Run-Jump

First, players need to go from a running action into a jumping action. A good example of this basic action was demonstrated by Cristiano Ronaldo during his header goal for Juventus last year.

Run-Jump
Stop-Jump

On other occasions, players will need to slow themselves down in order to be in the right position to head the ball. As a result, the players need to stop before they jump. Once again, Ronaldo provides a perfect contrast between a sprint-jump and a stop-jump.

Players don’t only need to change direction prior to a vertical acceleration, but also following a vertical deceleration. Primarily, players do this using two basic actions.

Land & Go

Because the football context is always changing, players can rarely afford to relax following an action. As a result, they must be prepared for a next action following a landing. For example, let’s say that a player jumps for a header, but the goalkeeper makes a save. There is now a new situation on the pitch that the player must react to upon landing. As a result, this player immediately needs to make a starting action upon landing. We can refer to this as a land & go. As soon as the player lands, he must make a starting action as soon as possible and with as much speed as possible.

Land-Jump

On very rare occasions, players will need to make a second jumping action immediately after their first jumping action. For example, imagine a goalkeeper coming out to punch a cross. He punches the cross, but at an angle that causes the ball to go straight up in the air. The goalkeeper now needs to land and immediately make another jumping action, maybe with a few steps in between, before making another action to collect, or punch, the ball.

Basic Actions with the Ball

The six categories above refer to basic actions that create motion of the body. However, football also requires actions that create motion of the ball. For example, in order to make a deep pass, or shoot the ball, players need to perform the basic action kicking. However, this is not the only means of passing the ball in football. Players, especially goalkeepers, also need to use their arms to pass the ball. Field players need to throw the ball in dozens of times every match. Many people in the football world are starting to realize the importance of these throwing actions.

Goalkeepers also need to throw the ball. Usually, goalkeepers throw the ball using one-arm while field players must use two-arms. Nevertheless, players all across the world must be able to throw as a precondition for certain football actions.

Basic Actions with an Opponent

Finally, players also need to occasionally create motion of their opponent. Football is a contact sport and as long as these actions don’t cross the line, players must be able to make actions that can change the position of their opponent. For example, think of a deep punt from the goalkeeper. As the central defender and striker wait for the ball to drop, they both duel for position. Whoever can win this duel often has a higher chance of winning the header. In order to make a dueling action, players need to perform pushing and pulling actions against their opponent. These basic actions are a precondition for successful dueling actions.

Takeaway

Basic actions are a key part of every football action. The success of a football action is determined primarily by a players communication with his teammates, his game insight, and his football technique. In other words, his ability to deal with the football situation. However, basic actions are key components that can influence the quality of a players execution.

We know that football players need to jump, stop, sprint, accelerate, change direction, and kick the ball. However, without a structure, it is hard to organize all of the relevant football actions.

Football is a speed of action sport. At the highest level, there is limited space and time for players to make actions. As a result, the speed at which players act needs to go up. Because of this, we are interested in those basic actions that can make the difference at the highest level. This means that we are interested in the more explosive basic actions.

Football is a very unpredictable context. The football situation is always changing and football situations never repeat themselves in exactly the same way. As a result, players are constantly speeding up, slowing down, and doing so over the ground and above the ground. When combined, these four characteristics give us six basic action categories.

Players accelerate horizontally by making starting and sprinting actions. Players decelerate horizontally by making stopping actions. Players change directions horizontally by making a variety of actions including: stop & go, side-step, swerve, and sideways actions.

Players accelerate vertically by making jumping actions. They decelerate vertically by making landing actions. However, players often act vertically by changing direction first. For example, players will jump after a run up or jump after a stop. Players must also sprint after a land, called a “land & go” and players must occasionally jump after a land.

Football is not only about creating motion of yourself, but also the ball and the opponent. In order to create motion of the ball, players need to kick and throw. In order to create motion of their opponent, players must push and pull.

Together, these basic actions form a key set of building blocks that support football actions. Basic actions are a necessary precondition for football actions. However, improving these basic actions should not take on a life of its own. A player that learns to sprint faster cannot automatically play football better. For example, he might only sprint offside even faster. Nevertheless, basic actions are an integral part of football actions and an important building block to address in the football training process.

The Universal Basic Actions