The Beautiful Game. I think.
June 22, 2010 7:45 PM   Subscribe

How can I get better at "reading the game" in football?

I've gotten really into the World Cup and have a pretty decent grasp of the basics. But I want to better understand what's going on in terms of plays and tactics. I have to admit - sometimes it just starts seeming like a bunch of people running around for minutes on end without anything "happening." When people say Xavi is one of the best, most creative playmakers in the world, for example -- I want to be able to appreciate that.

Any suggestions on where to start? (As of now, I've been reading about the different positions and formations on wikipedia, but have some trouble matching that up to what I'm seeing on TV... maybe because the sport is so fluid and I also can't keep track of the countries' differing approaches.)

posted by amillionbillion to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Guardian sport blog has a fantastic series called "The Question" which focuses on explaining tactics in football. It's best if you can find an article analysing a game you've actually seen.

Unfortunately, I guess it will be on hold until after the World Cup since all their football writers are busy.
posted by theyexpectresults at 8:07 PM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to read about tactics in the current games, then is where you want to be. It's not real-time, but great, in-depth review of games from the tactical standpoint.

Probably won't be able to finish it before the World Cup, but a great book (the best book?) on tactics is Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, by Jonathan Wilson.

Otherwise, the liveblogs and commentors at Unprofessional Foul get into tactics pretty regularly (though there's also a decent amount of debate there about tactics vs technique, which is more important).
posted by inigo2 at 8:29 PM on June 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ignore the ball and watch the players. Follow Xavi. Admittedly this is easier when attending a game but it's still possible to work out what's happening on tv.
posted by fire&wings at 2:56 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Playing the game is the best way to get appreciation for what players see and how they accomplish what they accomplish. At ground level you appreciate how much awareness is required on top of the talent to execute upon your awareness. You could also play FIFA 10 in player mode and the game will tell you where you should be and what you should be doing and will reward you for sticking to your role in the team.
posted by sonicgeeza at 4:54 AM on June 23, 2010

Reading is good (Zonal Marking in particular is fantastic), but to really understand football tactics, you just really need to watch a lot of football in a wide variety of leagues and competitions. Try to find quality commentary. Try to watch old matches if you can get ahold of them.

Do not play video games, even the realistic ones are nothing like real football. Playing real football is good, but it would probably take you a long time to make the kind of progress in understanding the tactics that it would if you spent the same time watching and reading.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 10:39 AM on June 23, 2010

fire&wings: Ignore the ball and watch the players

Actually, watch both. And, furthermore, pay attention to the space around players (it helps to be watching on a widescreen). Football tactics revolve around creating space for your players so that they have more freedom to act, and denying space to your opponents (of course, the best players can do amazing things even when they have no space to operate). Having a lot of room to maneuver in the last third of the pitch (i.e. near your opponents goal) is especially dangerous. Also, pay attention to the passes available to the player with the ball. Where are his teammates? Where can they run? What are the options for the other players after they've received the ball.
posted by Kattullus at 8:01 PM on June 23, 2010

The posters before me have got it right. First and foremost, the game is mostly played off the ball - what players are doing when they don't have the ball is just as important as what they do when they have it. Television will always focus on the ball because that's where the overt action is, but when you see a winger rocketing into the space left by a mis-positioned defender, giving the teammate with the ball an option to pass to - that's the important bit. When you watch a game, see where the players without the ball are doing.

You can also try to discern patterns - are the defenders usually pressurising any players in particular? (E.g. when Lionel Messi is playing, observe how many players try to pressure him.) Do attacks by a team usually go down the flanks or through the middle, or does the team usually try long-ball tactics? Is the 'keeper doing anything unusual? Things like this can change the game in interesting ways, and if you can spot a pattern then you have that much more insight into what the coach/ manager has in mind.

As previously mentioned, Zonal Marking and Jonathan Wilson have in recent times provided a lot more in-depth tactical analysis and commentary than was previously available to the layman. Inverting the Pyramid in particular provides a bird's-eye-view on the evolution of football tactics and tries to explain it so you have some idea of why people do things the way they do nowadays (e.g. the debate regarding 4-5-1 and the obsolescence of traditional 4-4-2).

(Note: don't believe everything you hear from the commentators - some are hired based on what they've done in the game and don't necessarily have the acumen for good commentary, or are too strongly biased to make objective comments.)
posted by WalterMitty at 11:54 PM on June 28, 2010

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