Robbie Neilson of Hearts
Heart of Midlothian FC 03/09/2020. Training Heart of Midlothian manager Robbie Neilson during the training session for Heart of Midlothian FC at Oriam Sports Performance Centre, Edinburgh, Scotland on 3 September 2020. Editorial use only DataCo restrictions apply See PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUK , Copyright: xMalcolmxMackenziex PSI-10447-0015

Robbie Neilson needs to put a bigger emphasis on the smallest detail like playing the ball to a player’s preferred foot.

I understand my comment sounds quite basic – obviously, if a player is predominantly right-footed, it follows logically that his teammates should pass to his right foot.

That’s not quite the case, though. Setting aside the fact that most players (and even developing ones) are expected to be two-footed these days, there’s a broader point Neilson and his staff should be looking at in their coaching process – in my opinion, should be looking to develop the ability of his players to communicate through their passing. In essence, players shouldn’t be looking to pass to a teammate’s preferred foot but should be looking to pass to the foot that is most suitable for receiving the ball in each situation on the field.

To understand this, we first need to set aside traditional notions of what ‘communication’ means. A textbook (and by textbook, here I am referring to Weinberg and Gould’s Foundations of Sport Psychology) definition will tell you communication is “the sending and receiving of messages”, either through verbal or non-verbal methods.

In football, we typically think of communication as being verbal – “press”, “get forward” and that old chestnut, “work the channels!” are all examples of what the average footballer would consider good communication.

However, if we take Weinberg & Gould’s definition literally, then communication in football also incorporates all the non-verbal messages players send to each other – hand gestures, finger-pointing and passing to a certain foot.

To implementing this Neilson shout start with the simple things: Which foot do I control the ball with? Which foot does my team-mate like to receive the ball with? These details seem small but can make our game a bit faster etc.

Consider this situation. When the Hearts centre-back has the ball with little pressure inside his own half. He’s looking to pass it forward into a full-back, who has got high and wide on the outside of the player in possession.

inside foot pass

Even with this simple action (the pass), there is a crucial communication aspect. Which foot the centre-back passes to is the communication of a message that tells the full-back what his next action will be.

If the centre-back passes to the full-back’s ‘inside’ foot, that would be the centre-back communicating that the full-back has a defender nearby and should not take the first touch forward in case he is pressed. That would be a scene that looks something like this:

Image 2 Tactical board -The centre-back passes to the full-backs inside foot, to communicate that he will come under pressure and should protect the ball with his first touch.

However, if the picture looks something like this:

Then the centre-back would communicate to the full-back that he has time and space to take his first touch forward. Simply by passing the ball, Popescu is telling Smith something very important – by passing to that specific foot, he is giving the right-back a message that he can a touch facing forward, and look to construct an attack. The two don’t exchange a single word or even a non-verbal gesture, but they are communicating through the language of football.

Relating this to Heart of Midlothian –

When building play in the first phase (From the back). Hearts significantly slow down their advancement with the ball up the pitch, especially against structured opposition utilising a low-defensive block. One of the main contributors to this is their poor non-verbal communication through their passes, especially the centre backs.

Hearts - Communication Through A Pass
The Popescu passes to Smith’s inside foot, to communicate that he will come under pressure and should protect the ball with his first touch. However, this isn’t the case as he has time and space, resulting in the full-back having to take 2/3 touches to move the ball forward. Therefore slowing down the speed of play. Thus, allowing the opposition wide player to close down the distance and pressure Smith.

Conclusion – One of the most important principles of football is moving the ball forward. As an invasion sport, the eventual aim of any play is to reach the opposition’s end of the pitch and score. With the rise of ever more advanced pressing and counter-pressing schemes, it is increasingly difficult to do this.

The flanks generally offer lesser strategic value for the in-possession team. A ball-carrier by the touchline only has 180 degrees of movement and limited access to space across the pitch. Therefore, defensive strategies commonly look to show the opponent towards the outside and into a pressing trap.

Analysing Robbie Neilson’s Hearts this season, the poor decision making and specifically their communication through passing when in possession of the ball is problematic for the Championship leaders. If it’s not rectified or the build-up play isn’t adapted, it will be an ongoing problem in their objective to move the opposition and to break teams down this season.

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