Developing Midfielders Who Can Break Lines and Convention

Watching the return of the Premier League after the World Cup break was a joy. As always I picked out a few of the technical highlights of the day. One of them was the clip below of one of my favourite players, Thiago. Driving through midfield and beating a defender with a ‘Ronaldo Stepover / Scissors’.

Now, I’ve seen Thiago perform this skill numerous amounts of times, at Bayern and Barcelona before. This is one of my favourite skill moves because it’s so effective and also so prevalent in the modern game. You do see this 1v1 skill executed at the highest level but interestingly enough, you normally don’t see if used in the middle of the pitch or by central midfielders. You often see it by forward players particularly in the wide areas of the pitch.

What really interests me about this particular 1v1 moment in this game is that if you look at the profile of Thiago, technically excellent, one of the best IMO in the Premier League but not necessarily the quickest – this is relevant as I’m going to break down the 1v1 duel in this case. Typically when you see players perform this skill, it’s often from wide forward players who are very quick and who are moving at speed and trying to beat a defender and break lines.

Thiago isn’t the quickest or most physically dominant so that’s why this 1v1 is so interesting and also outlines how effective this type of skill can be in all areas of the pitch. It also begs the question why don’t we see it more often in central areas and generally see midfield players breaking lines with the ball in the middle of the pitch? We will come back to this but first let’s examine the 1v1 duel.

Thaigo picks up the ball just past the centre circle. There’s space in front of him but with a defender coming from the right hand side. Thiago drives with the ball into the central space that is open. Thiago is allowed to travel over 10 yards until the defender comes and engages.

The defender slows as he locks on to Thiago, he’s not moving at full momentum so to approach with more control. Thiago who has been travelling in a straight line then performs the Ronaldo Stepover/Scissors. That single movement/fake inside is enough to disrupt the defenders momentum and unbalance.

Effectiveness of 1v1 skill

An effective 1v1 skill is all about unbalancing the opponent. That’s why players use them. A 1v1 skill might be as simple as opening up your shoulders to suggest you’re going to receive or pass 1 way while going the other. In this case the moment of Thiago’s right foot suggests a movement to the right. That moment is enough to effect the defenders balance and momentum, just enough to give Thiago that head start. Thiago pushes the ball away in the opposite direction and travels past the defender. The defender has to foul and pull Thiago back to try to recover but Thiago has already broken the line and is able to pass.

The slight change in the defenders balance is often all that is needed to be successful in the 1v1 duel. Obviously timing and execution is key, too early and the player will have enough time to recover and not enough disguise and the defender won’t ‘buy’ the fake… but also momentum of the attacking player moving with the ball – particularly in this instance where the player is not naturally blessed with pace. When I work with players individually I always talk about the importance to be as quick with the ball as possible! Meaning when they travel or move with the ball, they must be able to move at their maximum velocity…that’s why ‘Dynamic Ball Mastery’ is so important.

All these things come together to make outplaying possible.

So a succesful 1v1 duel. As I said, it interests me because of the profile of Thiago. Not necessarily quick but able to break this line with the ball. It also interests me why this is so rare in the modern game. Why don’t we see central midfield players doing this more? I think as coaches and player developers also we have to change our mindset. These skills are very rarely coached this days when actually they are just the same as any other skill within the game. We live in a coaching environment where players who develop these autonomously are lauded but players without these are left to their own devices.

When we are working with central midfield players who play the 4, 8 or 10, are we looking at their ability to break lines with the ball at their feet? In a coaching schedule full of possession and team play do we give them the freedom and encouragement to develop the ability to travel with the ball at their feet. Are we brave and skilled enough to support and suggest new skills where needed…this is coaching after all?

I often work with central midfielders who play pro or are in the academy system. I always say the same to them. You should aspire to break lines in the 3 main ways.

1. Distribution
2. With the ball at their feet
3. Running off the ball

If you’re a midfielder and you have all these qualities then the sky is the limit. Also I think players and coaches are too ready to except limitations on players abilities in these areas and at what ever level they play at…they should aspire and try to develop these areas.

The profile of so many midfield players coming through the system at the moment is similar. Good physical assets particularly off the ball and the ability to move the ball, but can’t move with the ball and with a coaching schedule full of rondo and team possession type practices, there’s no opportunity to work on theses areas.

Unfortunately at this time, moments and attributes like Thiago has demonstrated are unique and until we change our mindset and our processes as coaches, it will remain that way.

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