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. Football players are primarily dealing with the football situation. When you sit down to read the newspaper; are you primarily sitting? Or, are you primarily reading the paper?

Football players are primarily making actions inside of the football context. They are pressing, dribbling, and getting open. Of course, just like when you are reading the paper, you are also sitting, football players make other actions and movements too. These other actions and movements are preconditions for football actions. They are not sufficient for playing football really well, but they are necessary.

Thus, football actions are taken as the starting point. Gradually, coaches can “zoom-in” and say something about the preconditions. These are the basic actions, movements, muscle interactions, and muscle actions.

Describing motion in football has many layers

But, what are football actions? We have countless examples: pressing, shooting, heading, controlling, dribbling, etc. But, what are the ingredients of a football action? What factors influence why somebody decides to press instead of cover? Why do they press in the way that they do, and not some other way?

Football Actions

Football actions are actions inside of the football context. They are dependent on the football context. A player cannot press the opponent in a parking lot, or create a passing option while shopping. The relationship between the football context and football actions is integral. 

In football, players are primarily dealing with the football situation. They are protecting the ball, passing, getting open, preventing the opponent from covering, tackling the ball, intercepting passes, marking an opponent, covering their teammates, and transitioning. These are all actions that create motion. A team cannot score one more goal than the opponent without creating motion of the ball, themselves, and even the opponent. However, these aren’t the ONLY actions made in football.

Players also make a variety of supporting actions. These include the preconditions mentioned earlier – basic actions, movements, etc. These are actions which support the motion of football actions. But, players also make non-motion actions in football. These actions also contribute to the execution of football actions. For example, players will communicate, think, perceive, interpret, anticipate, and gesture. 

Some of these supporting actions are particularly important for the execution of football actions. Communicating, perceiving, and anticipating are supporting actions that players make while playing football. Scoring one more goal than the opponent is not possible without motion-actions. But, motion-actions in football never occur exclusively. They are accompanied by certain supporting-actions.

In order to be a successful NASCAR driver, you need to be elite in creating motion of your vehicle. NASCAR drivers are primarily concerned with driving their car and passing as many opponents as possible. This feat is impossible without motion. However, in order to execute these motion-actions well enough to win the race, the driver must also speak to his pit crew, listen to their instructions, interpret those instructions, and perceive gaps in traffic. In other words, driving the car and passing as many opponents as possible requires certain supporting actions.  

Being a NASCAR driver is apparently about more than driving a car

Similarly, footballers cannot execute football actions without these non-motion supporting actions. Just like our NASCAR driver, these non-motion actions have a direct influence on the quality of the football action. A pit crew that tells their driver to make a pass at the wrong moment will directly influence the execution of that passing action. The resulting crash would not be the result of a bad motion-action from the driver, but a bad supporting action by the crew. This particular supporting action would be an example of a miscommunication.

In football, there are two sets of non-motion actions that are particularly important for football. We can identify these as game insight and communication. 

Game Insight

Game insight is an umbrella term for a series of actions. When a football player makes a passing action, he is executing his action. However, his game insight actions contribute directly to the quality of that passing action. For example, how does the player decide which action to make, at which moment, in which direction, and at which speed? How does the player interpret the football situation? Roughly speaking, these decisions are the product of game insight.

A former teammate of mine was often described as a ‘master over the ball.’ He could manipulate the ball in a variety of ways that no one else on my team could. He could even juggle a tennis ball 1000 times with both feet. While this player would often thrive in unopposed warm up situations, his impact on our matches was less inspiring. His playing career never materialized into much in spite of the hype around his ball manipulation ability. 

Juggling the ball while playing the piano is impressive, but does it mean you are also good at football?

The reason why my former teammate never accomplished much as a player is because a football player needs to know more than just how to pass, dribble, shoot, and get open. They also need game insight. Is it better to pass the ball forward or to the side? In which situations should a dribble be made instead of a pass? When should I show for the ball or stay in my position? In other words, players need to be able to perceive and interpret the football context, so that the pass is executed from the right position, at the right moment, to the correct teammate, and with the right speed.

Throughout a football match, players will have to make actions both with and without the ball. In order to choose the right actions, at the right moment, players also need supporting actions like perceiving, recognizing, interpreting, judging, etc. These necessary perception actions, interpretation actions, etc. are what we call game insight. Game insight is a crucial ingredient for successful football actions. 

Apparently the opponents and my teammates are not beside the point

The execution of passing cannot be understood without the game insight actions which support it. Otherwise, there would be no difference between passing and passing to the opponent. Or, between running and running offside.

In technique, we explained that the execution of an action cannot be understood independently from the situation. A player that develops his execution ability (technique) independently from his reading of the football situation will develop a technique that is meaningless when applied in the football context. Consider this example. Imagine I had to prepare you for the Olympic Swimming 100 meter Freestyle. Let’ say that during our 6 week preparation, I focused on your ability to execute swimming movements. We practiced over and over again how to flex and extend your arms and hips. However, we didn’t go into the water. Instead, we practiced your “technique” independently from the situation.

Practicing “Technique”

What do you think? Would you be ready for the 100 meter freestyle? My guess is that upon entering the water, you would suddenly realize that swimming isn’t about arm movements, but about dealing with the water. It’s about dealing with the situation. Football is no different. Technique in football is about executing an action based on a very specific situation. A “good” pass is not ‘biomechanically’ perfect, but solves the football situation adequately. In this way, game insight and technique are connected. It is not game insight or technique, but game insight and technique.

Of course, this works the other way too. A player that develops his reading of the football situation independently from his execution ability will not be very good either. In fact, many tactical analysts fit this description. Most of them are former players that developed a strong understanding of football independently from their ability to act on that understanding. Once again, a “good” pass is not determined by how well you understood the situation, but whether or not you can do something about it. Did your pass reach your teammate?

Game insight and technique are two sides of the same coin. They should be viewed dependently on one another. In practice, of course, we might develop training sessions that emphasize one aspect over the other. And sometimes, the situation might require training technique or game insight independently from one another. For example, video review sessions can improve game insight in the absence of technique. Conversely, certain passing exercises without opponents can improve technique in the absence of game insight. No one would disagree that these methods can play a role in football development. What matters is that we understand that eventually these two need to be developed together. On match day, it is game insight-technique. Together, they form two crucial components of a football action. However, these two components are still insufficient to fully explain a football action.

Communication

Game insight-technique are the primary components that make up an individual football action. However, football is a team sport. Only as a team can we score one more goal than the opponent. This is accomplished by the entire team attacking, defending, and transitioning. A team of eleven individuals that have strong game insight-technique actions can still be a rather poor team.

The Galactico’s Era of Real Madrid in the early 2000’s is a perfect demonstration of this point. The “Galactico’s” approach was to recruit and sign all of the best players in the world in each playing position. The assumption made by President Florentino Perez was that the ‘best parts also make the best whole.’ Ultimately, this approach was a failure. The team failed to secure a trophy during the mid 2000’s while their rivals, FC Barcelona, won consecutive La Liga titles and the UEFA Champions League in 2006 using an approach more dedicated to team development 

A more specific example can also be provided. Let’s say that a center back is carrying the ball forward. The striker he is playing with recognizes that the opponent’s center back is giving up the space in behind. As a result, the striker makes a run in behind expecting the ball to be played into his path. To his dismay, the ball doesn’t arrive. Instead, the center back made a pass to the other center back. 

In this example, both players made actions based on their individual game insight. The striker made a run in behind and the center back switched the play. They perceived two different situations. As a result, these two players didn’t recognize the same situation. When players fail to recognize, or perceive, the same situation, we can say that they are on two different pages. Their game insights are not “in-sync”. In football, this is what we call a miscommunication. 

If only my Argentina teammates understood me like my FC Barcelona teammates

In the football language post, language was identified as a barrier in football. As a result, many miscommunications occur across different departments. Clearly then, it is possible for a group of people to have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience as individuals, but still perform poorly as a team. Football players are no exception. It is possible for a team to have eleven players with good game insight and technique, but still struggle to attack, defend, and transition effectively. In football, it is the coaching staff’s job to get their players on the same page. The main tool that coach’s use to get their players on the same page is football tactics. Football tactics are used to develop the communication between players. As a result, we can say that an additional supporting action in football is communication. 

Communication is an umbrella term for a series of supporting actions. Examples of these communication actions are speaking, instructing, directing, gesturing, and agreeing. Communication actions are verbal and non-verbal actions that transfer information from a player to a teammate, or from a coach to a player. 

Like game insight and execution, communication cannot be understood independently from the football situation. The purpose of communication is to support game insight and execution in dealing with the football situation. Communication actions should never become an objective in and of itself. Their purpose is to help solve the football situation better. Sometimes, coaches will randomly say to their players, “we need to talk more!” “too quiet!” or “I don’t hear you guys out there! Talk!”  These are examples of making communication an objective in and of itself. Often, a coaching comment like this will create a situation where players begin shouting random things at one another in order to please the coach, rather than using communication as a tool.

Communication always occurs between more than one person. Therefore, communication actions differ from game insight actions. Game insight actions are supporting actions for an individual player. Communication actions are supporting actions between players. In a way, communication actions are game insight actions that occur at team level. Communication actions are the “link” between two players game insight. They help players in recognizing what to do in the same football situation. 

There are a few different ways that communication actions can support the execution of a football action. The coaching staff can introduce a tactical principle, like “look for the deepest pass possible.” By introducing a “principle”, or a general rule, the players will begin to interpret the game in similar ways. This can increase the chances that they act on the same page. Besides the coaching staff, players can also make communication actions to support the execution of a football action. For example, the striker can make a non-verbal gesture, like pointing, or a verbal speech action like shouting “Look deep!” or “In-behind!”. 

Together, communication-game insight-technique are the three ingredients of a football action.

A Football Action: The CDE Cycle

A football action consists of three components. Every football action will include a communication component, a game insight component, and an execution component. First, players will communicate with their teammates. Based on this communication, players use their game insight to interpret the football situation. Based on this interpretation, the players will make a decision. Finally, after they make a decision, players need to execute that decision. They will execute their decision with a certain technique.

A football action is the cycle of communication, decision making, and executing decisions. Dutch coach educator, Raymond Verheijen, has referred to this as the CDE cycle. Players are constantly repeating this CDE cycle in order to impact the game. The level at which players can execute this CDE cycle determines their football ability.

A football action

Tools for Coaching the CDE Cycle

Earlier, I mentioned that football tactics are a tool used by coaches to develop the communication between players. One example of the utility of this coaching tool is the team organization or formation. By putting your team into a particular team organization (4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, etc.) the players have a higher chance of being on the same page. Tactics are about much more than just the team organization, but the team organization is a useful tool for coaches when influencing the communication between players – the C in the CDE cycle.

Game insight is a tool that coaches can use to develop the decision making by an individual player. By improving the perception actions, interpretation actions, and understanding actions of a player, there is a chance that they make better decisions. If a striker has no idea that positioning himself behind the backline of the opponent creates more space for his teammates, then it is unlikely he will execute this action. By coaching the game insight of a player, coaches can develop the D in the CDE cycle.

Football technique is a tool that coaches can use to develop executing decisions. By raising the ability to execute decisions with and without the ball, player’s have a higher chance of making successful actions. This addresses the E in the CDE cycle.

It is interesting to consider that better football technique can also develop better game insight. For example, a central defender that can’t pass the ball over a large distance (technique) is also unable to perceive a switch of play (game insight). As a result, there is a lower chance that he decides to execute this action. His execution ability literally prevents him from seeing this action.

The preconditions also play a role in improving a players execution. For example, a player that has a slow sprinting speed (technique) will also fail to recognize (game insight) opportunities to press and get in behind the opponent. You cannot “see” something that you cannot “do”. For example, imagine that you get into a bar-fight with a WWF wrestler. For you, the barstools are something to sit on. For him, they are something to hit you with.

In other words, improving the preconditions (basic actions, movements, etc.) can also improve a players execution ability. As a result, the player will have a higher chance of developing a better game insight.

Preferably, coaches use football technique exercises to develop a player’s ability to execute decisions inside of a football situation. For example, passing exercises like 3 v 1, or 4v2, can be useful to improve a players passing technique.


Together, coaches can develop a players CDE cycle (football ability) with a variety of coaching tools: tactics, game insight, football technique, and preconditioning are the foundation of football training methodology.

Takeaway

Football actions are the primary way that players deal with the football situation. Examples are passing, pressing, creating space, and transitioning. However, a football action is more than what we see. We see passing, but prior to the passing action a number of things had to occur. The player communicates with his teammates and makes a variety of game insight actions. He perceives, scans, and interprets. Based on the communication and his interpretation, the players makes a decision. He answers the question: which action am I going to make? Finally, the player executes his decision. He uses a particular technique and makes use of his preconditions in order to bring his decision to life. Together, this is referred to as the CDE cycle. The level at which a player can execute this CDE cycle determines his football ability.

As coaches, what can we do about this CDE cycle? We can use a variety of coaching tools to improve the quality of the CDE cycle. These include football tactics, game insight coaching, technique coaching, and preconditioning.