Saturday, 28.11.2020

Taking over Real Betis: Week 2

After the heady days of the first season under Quique Setién which culminated in a 6th placed finish, Real Betis endured a more difficult second season finishing in 10th place. Despite a number of high-profile arrivals, most notably Nabil Fekir from Lyon, Betis’ fortunes have not improved under the new coach “Rubi”. From analysing the current team to preparing for the La Liga restart, this series details how MK and JD would approach taking over the Andalusian side in their current form. 

In part 2 of our series of taking over Real Betis we detail the second training week. Having focused our coaching on ball possession in the first week we now move towards focusing more on defending. Our analysis has shown that this is an area that requires plenty of attention and improvement. It was clear to note that a certain general intensity is lacking. Besides that, the following 4 principles were chosen to center our week around:

1: Co-ordination in shifting

2: Defending gaps between players

3: Depth coverage of the back-line

4: Pressing triggers

From the above principles, we will begin by training those areas which relate to “position”, namely occupying the right position in relation to the ball as a group. We will start here since one’s position determines the potential defensive actions they can carry out. The priority here will be to encourage faster shifting to the ball to ensure the most direct path between the ball and the goal is constantly blocked. “Always move towards the ball, and ensure the path to goal is blocked”. This guides the actions for players closest to the ball appropriately. However, it is less applicable for far-side players when working in large groups, as doing so would mean losing access to switches. Thus, far-side players will be encouraged to use their near-side team-mates’ positions as a first reference, and far-side opponents as a second. “Move as close to your team-mate as needed, whilst being able to reach a switch as it lands”. Thus, every player references the team-mate immediately closer to the ball, moving as close as needed to block options between them as a priority. Distances to far-side opponents are a second priority, as we don’t want to lose access to switches in the process of blocking near-side options. By prioritising the ball for the near-side pressing group, and the team-mates for those further away, the whole structure is forced to move whilst the ball travels. Maximising these moments where the ball moves between opponents as opportunities to get closer to the ball will be further emphasised.

This is relevant for the defensive line as well, since moving to the ball includes the vertical as well as horizontal axis of the team. The first priority is to ensure the easiest path to goal can be well defended. Thus, the defenders should position themselves as deep as needed to defend possible long balls and depth runs of the opponent, but as high as possible to keep the distance to the midfield line small. 

By following the above rules, our structure will behave more co-ordinated on a large group level. Additionally, players’ attention to passing lanes between them will be heightened allowing us to better defend gaps between team-mates. In a group of two, this is a question of adequate distances between them and active attention to this distance to allow an interception. In groups of three, the third player will be coached to position themself in the gap between the two players ahead of them with the extra cover allowing the two to press more actively. This includes players in the defensive line attending to lanes in the midfield ahead of them, and being ready to attack any passes played through said lanes.

With the structure effectively adapting to movement of the ball and defending spaces between players, we now need to define moments to increase our pressing speed to recover the ball, or “pressing triggers”. The foundation for one such trigger has already been laid by emphasising moving whilst the ball travels. With that in place, every pass is an opportunity to move closer to the ball as a group. We can also identify “long” passes as an ideal moment to move towards the ball at high speed and arrive at the receiver as soon the ball arrives or better yet, intercept the pass. Similarly, back passes are an opportunity to close the ball down by running through the pressing line to force either a further back pass, or a sideways pass for another team-mate to attack. Using these moments properly, we can move our whole structure further up the field. Whilst we aim to keep the opponents’ possession from penetrating our shape, it is important to recognise that errors happen and focus on how to properly react. Thus any passes into our shape are another moment to attack the ball directly at speed. With those who the ball bypassed working backwards, those behind the ball moving up to prevent further progression, and players either side moving narrower to maintain distances to team-mates a “swarming” effect is created.

Training

Bearing in mind that our match against Sevilla FC is scheduled for the Thursday of week 3, we have adjusted our week according to that.

At first glance it is clear to see that there is quite a steep increase in loading compared to the first week. This is certainly far from ideal, however with the corona crisis and teams only being afforded a limited time to train before having to return to play, ideal unfortunately isn’t a possibility. The week is centered around 2 sessions of 11v11 in which we increase the duration of play continuously. Wednesday and Sunday will be lighter sessions in terms of physical loading. However, we will use one of those for some set piece work, while the other will include a smaller pitch game with mini goals.

Monday

The first session will focus on the aspects of constantly shifting towards the ball, particularly in the horizontal and vertical axes of the team’s structure. This will allow the team to consistently block dangerous passing options from the opponents, laying the foundation for aspects to come later.

5+2v5+2 6-goal game

Here the main scoring action is for the team in possession to play to a wall-player, receive the lay-off and score in one of the goals. This can lead the pressing group to be passive, so a lower points reward can be given for 5 completed passes. Thus the defending group are conditioned to combine defending the wall players/goals as a priority, with creating access to force turnovers.

Always move towards the ball, and ensure the path to goal is blocked”.

The wide and short field shape means most space exists for the possession team in width, encouraging switches to create moments to play forwards. Having three goals across the width of the area further encourages this, since switches will offer a route to another goal. Thus the front five players of our pressing structure will be forced to quickly and constantly shift to the ball in response to switches. The ball-near players will be tasked with arriving and blocking the line to the closest wall-player behind them, whilst the ball-far players follow. The ability to defend gaps between team-mates will thus be trained implicitly as a means of preventing the opponents’ ability to reach the wall-players through diagonal passes.

Other non-pressing aspects are implicitly trained here, particularly the aspects of dribbling into open space from the build-up defenders and positioning in open lanes from the wall-players that were emphasised in the first week.

3 zone game 6v6+2

This game is set up within a field approximately 24 meters wide and 45 meters long with the length sub divided into three 15-meter zones. Both teams start in a 2-3-1 shape. Teams alternate the right to build up, with the coach playing 4 consecutive balls into a team’s defensive third. From there they look to build up with the help for the neutral between goals if required. The opposing striker that is pressing them looks to close down the ball whilst using his cover shadow to cut of the horizontal pass between the two center-backs. While defending, players from the middle zone are encouraged to forward defend into the front zone to close down the ball dynamically of the moment to do so presents itself.

Otherwise, a pass into the middle zone is a clear trigger. A rule here could be, the first ball into the middle zone should always be closed down aggressively. It could also be possible for the striker to backwards press into the middle third. When we talk about occupying gaps between team-mates, that becomes particularly evident between the middle and defensive zone. If a player looks to step out from the middle zone to press in the front zone the space vacated could be occupied by defenders pressing forward from the 2v1 in their defensive third. Well-coordinated chain mechanisms come in handy here as well.

When planning these sessions its important for us not to train any of these principles in isolation but to rather to highlight certain ideas whilst not compromising ‘ideal’ behaviors in other principles. So already early on in the week it is clear that all the ideas we promote should be harmoniously linked.  In this spirit, the last constraint we will put on this practice is that goals count double if they come from a pass from the neutral player between the goals. Thereby enticing the defensive side to cover the depth whilst looking to win the ball back.

Tuesday

Our second session of the week would start with a second team video session. This time highlighting the defensive concepts we have already listed earlier. We chose this timing within the week because it gives us the chance to see the players putting these into practice in the ensuing 11v11 practice, allowing them to try it out in a match like scenario, directing their attention towards it. At the same time, the Monday practice should have already set the tone in a certain direction, guaranteeing that we do not have a ‘cold start’ either. The video session is planned to be around 15 minutes, thereafter we would have a shorter, intensive warm up on the field.

As previously mentioned, there are certain principles that are our focus-points for this week. To enhance the learning, that is supposed to take place on the pitch, we want to do a short video analysis beforehand. For this, we are going to use clips of our own games where the principles that we want to implement were not shown on the pitch – so negative scenes. Through drawings where we leave open spaces for the opponent or show too big of distances between players, we want to help the players see the issues. As the next step to increase the understanding of our principles, we would want to show examples where these principles were shown and worked out well – in winning the ball for example. Preferably we would use clips of our own team, but as defending was one of the strongest points of improvement, as we found, we used best-practice examples from other teams. As Real Betis has a strong squad with internationally experienced players, it was important to us to find clips of teams who are at least as good as Betis or preferably better and defended in our intended shape, the 3-4-3. The players should leave the analysis-room with a very clear picture on how our defending should look like. On the pitch, we try to re-create varied, but similar situations to what we had shown in the videos, so the players can transfer what they see to something they do. The goal is for them to have an “outside-view” of themselves, to be able to analyse themselves during practices and games and to play better football.

3v3+2

This positional game is played in fields measuring 12×18 meters. The head-sides of the field are occupied by neutral players. These combine with the possessing team to create a 5v3 situation against the team that is defending. If this defensive team turns over the ball, they look to score on the mini-goals behind the neutral players in their own right. This means that a continuous transition moment is very much part of this practice, which allows us to sub-focus on concepts such as immediate ball pressure after losing the ball, or playing the ball away from pressure and opening up after winning the ball.

However, since our focus is very much centered around defending principles, our constraints are targeting this area. When the ball goes out, the coach always plays in the ball. The player receiving from the coach must always take a minimum of 2 touches, thereby enabling players to sprint and press through onto the first ball into the field. With the idea of sprinting while the ball is travelling being key here. Thereafter the possessing team have unlimited touches and look to combine for 10 passes. This would equate to a point. The defending team looks to score on the mini-goals for a point each after winning the ball. Here the neutral players would consequently join into the counterpressing moment. After 3 balls played in by the coach, the roles of the two teams of three players change whilst the neutral players remain in their position.

Aspects of defensive co-ordination can be combined excellently with priming a higher level of intensity and aggression in pressing for the players in this exercise. Since the moment the coach plays the ball into the practice is very much key, a restart could be mandatory if 10 passes are complete. At the same time one can paint a picture to the players that of the first sprint in pressing is not of a high quality, the group will suffer and potentially chase quite substantial distances through the field.

11v11

This second 11v11 practice would be centered around the application of defensive principles in a match scenario. Here it will be key for us as a staff to witness how players implement ideas and adapt them to our context. A second, more 1 on 1 based video session with certain players can certainly be a part of the daily program of the next days session. Compared to the previous week, we have increased the games to 6 minutes per round played. In general, there is quite a steep increase in load compared to the first week. Whilst not being ideal, it is important to remember that we have limited time before our return to competitive fixtures, and therefore certain balancing acts and compromises need to be taken.

Coaching of teams, groups and individuals will mostly take place in the break between rounds. Nevertheless, a certain concomitant encouragement, and particular praise for successful actions should be done while the game is running. With our intention of changing from a 4-1-4-1 to a 3-4-3, it will be crucial to monitor how players adapt to different reference points. For example, the distances between the back 3 players will vary significantly compared to when we were playing with a back 4. At the same time, it will be crucial for the wingbacks to develop an understanding of when to forward defend as well as when to create a situational back 4 or back 5.

An underrated idea to create intensity in these training 11v11 games would be to move top performers from week 1 from the ‘2nd’ to the first team, thereby getting players to understand that high performance in training will be rewarded and that as a coaching team we don’t set a team in stone but that our ideas are fluid and should evolve based on our continuous analysis of the status quo.

Wednesday

6+1v3 Rondo with central box

Having a central box for the pressing group to guard places a particular emphasis on the aspect of defending gaps between team-mates. Again the points system will reward playing through the central box, and over 5 passes. As the defending team press in a group of 3, the emphasis will be on ensuring the 3rd player takes a position to defend the lane between their pressing team-mates.

Additionally, the aforementioned “swarming” behaviours will be required in the event of any errors that allow the opponent into the central box area. In such moments, the defenders should converge on the ball to block the “exit routes” for the ball, and ideally force a turnover or, at worst, force the ball back out of the square in the same direction it came in. This exercise thus includes most of the principles for the week in a small form, allowing high repetition which is key for reinforcement.

Set-pieces

That set-pieces are an important off the game should not be anything new to readers of this blog. It is still important to emphasise that in a professional environment it is crucial to be proficient in them. In our analysis we found 3 aspects that stood out, which also are the basis of our plans in training.

  1. We have with Fekir, Joaquín and Canales (left-footed) some really good set-piece takers
  2. We defend corner-kicks really well. In a mix of defending the space and man-marking we are very diligent in following our men we are marking, prohibiting them to head the ball freely. Our free men, positioned on the 6-yard line, are great headers of the ball.
  3. We have issues with defensive free-kicks. Interestingly enough, we don’t apply the same principles we execute so well during corner kicks.

Good set-piece takers

To have three players, one of them left-footed, that can take set-pieces well is a great gift by the Real Betis sporting director. This gives us variety in routines that we can develop, as getting the ball to certain spots will never be an issue. Also it is easier to disguise our intentions by having multiple possible takers. In this article our colleague István Beregi goes into great detail about set-pieces, which is why we will not post any specific routines in here. We would want to incorporate the players a lot here : we find it is a good possibilty to share leadership and responsibility, as well as showing trust in their creativity.

Strong at defending corners

As defensive corners are a strong suit of ours, we want to know why exactly that is. Here again we incorporate the players a lot and try to work through the aspects that they execute to be so successful in defending corners. We would need to have this incorporated in training, but might not have to go too deeply into it and work at a  « maintenance-volume ». Meaning, we would only do a minimum amount of work on this, as the players already are proficient and might only need a few repetitions to keep that level.

Defending free-kicks as a weakness

To improve this, we would need to establish a clear structure on how to defend free-kicks. We would lean on the way we do this at corners – so a mix of man-marking and defending zonally. The same players would have the same tasks, according to what they are strongest and most comfortable with. We would also try to situate the defensive line higher than it was before (minute 16:50 in the video). This decision would be made in accordance with the goal-keeper. The reason is the following: if the defensive line is higher, the distance from the attackers to the desired point of ball-contact is larger – therefore the set-piece taker cannot hit the ball as hard because he has to give his teammate time to arrive at the desired point. Because the cross can not be shot as hard, the keeper also can position himself a bit higher up the pitch and has an easier time to catch the ball. It is often seen in pro-football that teams start defending deep in their box, giving their opponents an advantage. It might need quite a lot of repetitions, and possibly also videoclips beforehand, to get the players to buy into this idea as it is rather uncommon. If they still dont feel comfortable it is best to try another time and decide together with them what other strategies to incorporate to improve in defending free-kicks.

Thursday

This session would start with the idea of defending gaps between teammates, something that Liverpool are particularly good at in their high pressing. Of course, this idea requires a high amount of collective co-ordination, however if done well can greatly increase a team’s stability in pressing whilst increasing their access to the ball simultaneously. Along with that we want to talk about forward defending. This is something that will come into effect throughout the week, especially when we talk about pressing triggers later on as well. Ideally, we want to close down the opponent at a high speed when pressing. When timed well, this can create a certain dynamic advantage for the pressing player whilst the orientation of the opponent might be severely overloaded.  We would start the week with an extensive warm up, affording the players plenty of opportunity to get their ‘engines restarted’.  After 15 minutes of gradually increasing the tempo, we would go into our first game form of the session.

5 team rondo

This exercise is an adaptation from a game by the brilliant Rene Maric. We make 5 teams of 4 players each. 4 of those teams get placed within a field each. The other team is defending. 2 of the players will defend into the field of the ball-possessing team, there they will look to win the ball back, when they do that, they will try to switch the ball to another team. In case that this is successful, the team that lost possession will now defend against the team that received the ball.

The possessing team can switch into another field after 5 passes within their own field. The switch pass to the other field has to be played on the ground. The key for our pressing here is the 4 players of the defending team. Whilst two players are putting pressure on the ball in the field, ideally without getting split between them. The other two remaining players guard the channels between the fields, looking to intercept the ball and guard any possible lanes for a split pass. An extension of the practice here could be that a 1 touch switch pass on the ground is also allowed after 2 passes in the field. Thereby furthering these players involvement swiftly.

The key bit here is the staggering of the four defensive players. The ‘guarding’ defenders should defend gaps between the two players in the field, thereby maximizing the area controlled by the defensive side whilst minimizing the amount of passing options that the attacking side has. When this is done consequently, play can become somewhat more predictable for the defensive side. This means increased access in pressing.

A further progression, which we probably won’t get into on this first day, would be to allow the pressing team to swap players pressing to occasionally have the guarding players enter the playing field from the blindside. This game generally creates a nice intense but short and sharp rhythm of play. Within this, pressing players generally are encouraged to sprint, which is a nice base for us to create.

8v8 lineball

In this game the main scoring action is when the possession team dribble over the line they are attacking in one of the central 3 lanes. Alternately, the possession team can score by passing the ball over the dotted line into a runner who can control the ball within the end zone area. Through passes from the wide area must be played to a runner from one of the 3 central lanes. This form combines all the targeted principles we want to work on in large group format, challenging the players to apply all them consistently on a bigger scale.

Using the 5 zone division acts as a reference for the players. As a simple guide, the pressing players will be encouraged to occupy the three lanes closest to the ball. This emphasises effective shifting behaviours to ensure the team’s structure is well set to block passing options. Additionally, the defensive line is challenged to effectively cover depth as the possession team can score by playing through balls to runners over the dotted line. The end zone gives a limit to the space for said through balls, which replicates the distance beyond which our goalkeeper would clear passes behind our defensive line. Since points can also be scored by dribbling over the line the defensive line must also be ready to defend forward, thus effective vertical shifting in response to the ball will be vital.

Defending gaps between team-mates will also be trained as a way of preventing access to spaces inside the defensive shape. This is necessary as the ball ultimately must cross the dotted line through one of the central 3 lanes for the possession team to score. This is naturally far easier to prevent if the pressing team can prevent the ball from entering their structure (which should always be between the ball and its intended target). The pressing team must then identify the aforementioned triggers, and use them to initiate active pressing moments. In particular, fast pressing during the ball’s travelling time and swarming moments if the shape is momentarily penetrated can be constantly practiced.

In possession the teams will line-up as shown in the first image. This allows the players continued practice at building up in a back 3 of our planned 3-4-3, with wing-backs also providing width in the structure which will force quick shifting from the pressing team. The main choice was between a single 6 and two higher central players, or two 6s and one higher central player. The former was chosen to give the possession team better presence for depth runs, ensuring the defending back 3 are adequately challenged.

The line-up for the defensive sides was simpler, simply putting the front 5 players in shape as we would want in pressing situations. With the remaining 3 players, a central back 3 was the most realistic way to complete the structure.

Friday

This practice is once again centred around 11v11. To apply concepts on the full field but also to build match like fitness. Once again, we have increased the duration of games. This time by 2 minutes per round to 8 mins each. Here it is crucial to not only increase duration but to also maintain the tempo and playing style whilst creating that fitness overload. Luckily coaching defence, especially like in our case, increasing the intensity of your work against the ball, sets the tone quite nicely for an intensive practice. It is crucial that players keep fulfilling their tactical responsibilities, even under fatigue.

After an intensive warm up, we will look to conduct one short and sharp possession practice with a fun and competitive element before transitioning into the full-side game.

De Haan switchover possession competition

This practice is adapted from a session frequently delivered by dutch coaching legend Foppe de Haan. Two teams of 10 players each set up in a rectangular field.  This rectangular field is sub-divided into two bigger squares with a small channel in between. The possessing team sets up with 5 players in each of the bigger areas. The defensive teams divide into groups of 3. The objective of the possessing team is to transfer the ball from 1 area to the other on the ground, they have to play 2 passes in the field before qualifying to do so.

Each time they achieve this, they receive 1 point. The defensive groups of 3 look to prevent switches of play whilst putting pressure on the ball and looking to win it back. When we win the ball back our objective is not to kick the ball out. Therefore, this cannot be desired behaviour during a practice either. Consequently, the defensive side can look to score points by playing passes after winning the ball back. Each group of 3 should defend 2 balls, one from left to right and another from right to left before tagging out to hand over to the next group of 3 to press the ball. This guarantees short bursts of loading before resting within the exercise design itself.

Each team will receive two turns of two minutes to attack and defend each. The winner is the one who scores the most points in the end. In the first two rounds the constraint on the defending team would be that 1 player has to guard the channel between fields while the other two press. Thereafter this restriction will be lifted and teams will be free to arrange their own defensive set up. Another possible addition to this practice could be to award 2 points for 1 touch switch passes thereby highlighting the importance of pre-ball-action scanning, body positions orientated towards depth as well as empathetic lay-off passes before looking to penetrate to the other field.

When the defender guards the area between fields oftentimes diagonal penetration or small switches of play followed by vertical passing are often the (desirable) adaptation by the opposing side. Another side-effect of guarding the area between field sis to be actively defending whilst not being part of on-the-ball action, a characteristic trademark of teams with particularly dominant pressing styles with excellent follow up actions after the first sprint.

11v11

One thing we have opted not to do in these practices, is to set up the 2nd side like our upcoming oppositions, this has two reasons. Firstly, our current priority is to get all players to understand our new principles and ideas and to look to adopt and adapt them in their own right. Secondly, we want a certain level of inclusivity where all player feels included and given a chance to fight it out for a starting position and competitive game time. We believe that a better session intensity will be guaranteed for now if all players are tasked with fulfilling certain new roles rather than trying to imitate any upcoming opponents.

Having focused a fair bit on the co-ordination aspects of shifting and defending as a unit in Tuesday’s practice, it will be of particular importance for players to understand and implement pressing triggers in this game.

Sunday

Following the day-off after the 11v11 on Friday, this will be a very short session on the football side, this will be preceded by a lengthy warm-up and rounded off with recovery work.

7v7 6 mini-goal game

The football part of the session will again be a game form including all aspects of our targeted defending principles as a way to summarise the work done during the week. As on Monday, the use of three goals will force effective horizontal shifting behaviours, with near side players blocking the closest goal, and far-side players following to block diagonal lines to the other goals. However, the addition of a central box which the possession team can score points for playing through ensures the defending team keep their structure high. They must thus combine blocking this box with shifting, and defending the depth behind the last line.

In and out of possession structures are once again chosen with our 3-4-3 in mind, with both sides playing a 3-1-3/3-3-1 shape. Here the central aspects of a back 3, both for build-up and defending, and a front 3 in pressing are maintained.

Thank you once again to Patrick Eibenberger for contributing his expert insight to aid our project.

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