When a striker walks on the world’s stage at 6’4″ and nearly 200 pounds, we don’t tend to comment on how they tenderly caress the ball. It’s monster trucks and mayhem, a demolition derby of hold-up play and headers, but never fine-tuned gambetadorial silk. That is—until now.
Erling Haaland is a man known for his stupefyingly precocious talent. Despite my efforts, time and time again, his character lacks words to fully encapsulate. An effervescent youth with the physiological tools of a diesel engine, an only ever half-hidden smile that seems to suggest he’s always in on some joke, and a rabid appetite for goals—he is redefining the role, and the sky-scrapingly lofty bar, of the modern striker.
His frame is something he’s been able to leverage, and his forged path is paving the way for contemporaries, too. Big, tall fellas in this sport have been dismissively pigeon-holed since the beginning of time as immovable objects that—if placed correctly—carry a certain planetary influence. Luca Toni, Fernando Llorente, Wout Weghorst, and the like, remind us of that chonky Ford F-150 parked in your neighbors garage. They sure can tow their weight in goals, but their profile is one-dimensional.
Ibrahimovic, especially, but accompanied by Giroud, Mandzukic, and others have sought to push the alternative narrative. At 6’5″, the Swede rolled out a new setting where your recently-purchased target striker can perform skill moves and martial arts, while the latter two have brought an eye for the spectacular to the table, as well. The great polishing renaissance was underway, as these Brobdingnagian boulders were beginning to be sculpted in the image of comparatively smaller players. Bicycle kicks and scorpion flicks were not only juicy steaks to feed a ravenous stadium’s growling belly, they were an indication that coordination and precision were evolving with the times. The folks that were traditionally lumbering axe-swingers had a chance at winning their club’s YouTube juggling contest. And that was pretty cool.
But we’ve never seen what we’re seeing today.
Haaland, the latest of imposing number 9s, may not have the Neymarian trickery that Ibra once did, but he substitutes that luxury for an arguably even more efficient attribute: blistering pace.
According to the Bundesliga’s official data collection, he sits at 5th in the entire league this year for top speed, notching a scorching 35.94 km/hr pace that’s just a hair shy of Alphonso Davies’ 36.37 km/hr, as of 1/12/22. Amongst him are thin-framed, sprightly wingers like Leroy Sane and Moussa Diaby, versatile creators like Christopher Nkunku and Kevin Schade, and a 6’0″ centerback in Jeremiah St. Juste leading the charge at #1. Last year, the CB was the only player ahead of Erling, across the whole 20/21 season.
Typically, players with this type of explosiveness tend to look a bit more like Phil Foden, another talented young dude, depicted down below. Lighter, more compact, niftier, if you will. Less mass to accelerate, reduced loading on their lean muscles, and more comfortably within the realm of what we’re used to seeing here on Earth.
They definitely don’t usually look like that galloping Norwegian phenom, comfortably standing a blond head taller, right next to him. No. That’s an alien, I’m convinced. Something completely out of this world.
Now, for someone of Erling’s dimensions to be so preposterously quick must be downright hysterical for any defenders who take a tiny, fearful peek at their fixture list and find that Dortmund will be in town this coming weekend. Sure, these fellas want to play the best, but duels are fun and challenging when there’s .. a duel. Haaland, in his obliteratingly extraterrestrial style, makes nearly every clash a no-contest. And I absolutely love it.
Yet there may exist, perhaps, two potential weaknesses teams might look to exploit. When confronted with greatness of his caliber, protective units wouldn’t be wrong in clinging to the paltry deficiencies his game has yet to fully buff out. So what exactly are they?
The first is his passing. Admittedly, it’s nothing spectacular like Benzema’s might be, and perhaps he’d need time to acclimate to a system in which meticulous combinations through the 9 are vital to scoring. That being said, Dortmund’s game model brilliantly enables Haaland to execute no more than what he needs, with solid efficacy. His sharp layoffs, balls sprung wide, etc. may be the subject of further analysis some other time, but it’s safe to say that Erling’s environment and supporting cast more than makes up for what he lacks in this specific, and highly nit-picky set of traits. All things considered, he doesn’t need to be a central midfielder with the creative fountains like Marco, Jude, Thorgan, Julian, Rapha, Gio, and more that surround him—so unfortunately for his opponents, this doesn’t exactly seem like the most promising angle to knock him down from. We’d never discount our keepers for their heading ability.
So what about number two? Well, one might argue that a player of this rapidity, and of this size, might suffer when it comes to their control of the ball. If we simply think about the length of his legs, a small movement at the hips (like a scissor or other elusive feint) will propagate into a much larger movement all the way down at the foot, than say, Sergio Agüero’s might have.
Triangular wedges pry further and further open the more we depart from the vertex, right? A 3.5 degree misalignment for a flight out of LA, headed to NYC, might feel like nothing for the first few meters, but will land you in DC a few hours later. The same goes with Haaland’s legs. A muscular impulse, compared to the same one in the beefy and far-stockier thighs of Daniel Podence, should result in a far more wildly unbridled end product.
We can consider Haaland’s physiological challenge, here, in more intuitive terms, too. Imagine trying to type your name on your keyboard with a Q-tip. Now try it with a broomstick.
The longer our extremities, the tougher they are to deftly conduct.
These are “controls problems” robotics engineers must decompose and grapple with when it comes to the curation of mechanical arms (in which input signals can result in drastic overshoot if overzealous, and for which Proportional, Integral, Derivative controllers are designed, for instance).
These objective-seeking calculations are precisely what Haaland’s system must compute, too. The odds are stacked very much against him when it comes to dribbling, because he’s effectively sprinting on stilts. To achieve the same results as someone much smaller, he requires way more focused attention to his locomotion. He needs to introduce a whole new suite of corrective movements to stop his enthusiastic momentum from careening right over the target. And in theory, all this augmented demand should yank energy and mindfulness from other needs, eroding at his overall performance. It should be both physically and cognitively draining to operate this massive piece of machinery.
And while our hopeful defenders might creep to the edges of their seats at the sound of these auspiciously chirping birds, I’ll be the first to apologize. Sorry everyone. I really am.
Because somehow, despite all the innate reasons why Erling’s gambeta should be a unique point of frailty, this isn’t a weakness either. I know. It doesn’t make any sense.
In fact, he’s quite a talented ball-carrier, at that.
Though not, as aforementioned, nearly as flashy as some of his competition, Haaland has a secret sauce that makes his approach and technique on the ball just as effective as the rest of his immensely complete package. What he produces isn’t what most would consider to be, say, sumptuous at first sight, but it’s because he’s reinvented the skill entirely for himself. And when you look closely, it’s pretty absurd how good he is at it.
And so today—over a year after I devoted 11k words to this Norwegian cyborg’s reactions, knack for scoring rebounds, and lucratively optimistic outlook in the box (plus how any of you might teach those skills to your own players), we embark on the newest chapter of my favorite blog series.
Haaland’s got plenty of admirers for his finishing prowess, his lovably peculiar aura, and his flexing Instagram pictures, but this piece will cover something completely different.
Today, we talk about his dribbling.
The Art of The Seal
Dribbling isn’t only about beating your man—it’s about keeping them beat. Plenty of players show their class by getting by defenders, but some don’t end up maintaining that advantage. They let the opponent back in, be it because of slow subsequent decision making or showing too much of the ball, and tranquilize their own progress. Once you’re gone, stay gone. Otherwise, there’s no point.
This rule is especially true for attackers, strikers in particular, that are unleashed in on goal. The situation, one Haaland frequently finds himself in, eliminates the need for the runner to actually bypass a player 1 v 1 to get in behind. This skipped step lends itself nicely to Erling’s skillset—one more defined by sophisticated timing and explosiveness than Brazilian foot samba. That being said, it’s not like there’s no dribbling involved, here. It simply appears in a different form; one in which gaining the advantage has already been taken care of—it’s simply the Norwegian’s job to hold on tight.
So how do you do this? Most players think of ball carrying as something confrontational, but Haaland’s system seldom places him in circumstances where he must encounter a foe, head-on. He’s nearly always being chased. And while we might assume that if he’s off, he’s off—that’s a thin sheet of ice to skate on. Countless players, week in and week out, exhibit superb patience, ski along the offside line, dart in towards the divine onion bag, receive a delectable pass .. and get caught red handed. But why?
Because they don’t dribble like Haaland.
To prove my point, I set out, in what feels like an eternity ago, to find an example in the only match I watched that weekend: Manchester United vs. Tottenham—the game now infamously known as Nuno Espirito Santo’s last. Let’s check out what I saw.
In the sequence below, one of the world’s most formidable players, Son Heung-min, has done precisely what I’ve described above. He’s lightning fast, possesses a deadly cannon of a shot, is a much better on-paper dribbler than our beloved Scandinavian, but fails to break the deadlock.
Son commits a fatal error, here, that loses him the chance to worsen Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s up-until-then torrid week—to the likely and ironic chagrin of many United supporters. (For those who are quick to forget, the Ole, pre-Rangnick era was strongly defined by a struggling team that always got a win when the fans were ready to fire the manager. This 3-0 away result was no exception.)
With a head start for the ages, Son’s run trajectory is one that seeks to beat the chasing spider-tackler Aaron Wan-Bissaka—but erroneously, it’s along the same line as he’s being pursued. He does nothing to interrupt AWB’s momentum. He’s supposed to wield the advantage, yet in reality, he’s just running away. Here’s what I mean:
Moments like these can be deceptive. Typically, the on-ball player’s body position accurately defines their position in this sprint, but the chaser’s often doesn’t. The attacker nearly always goes at full speed—hungrily seeking to maximize their lead—but the defender, in reacting to the threat, may not be. AWB cleverly does this, here, comfortably recovering before turning on the jets when Son takes a smaller touch to set up his shot. By the time the Korean phenom looks down at the ball, he’s lost the ability to keep track of his periphery, meaning that the fullback can now rapidly and invisibly accelerate—allowing him to successfully poo the party.
The even deeper advantage for any defensive force in these breakaway moments is that a slide tackle, an extra jolt of pace that can be whipped out at the last possible moment—mind you, with an extension that exceeds any reasonable, mimetic, attacking maneuver (a slide-tackle shot might keep things level, but our effective xG plummets with a wayward stab like that)—meaning that the members of the backline are always hiding a few extra meters in their back pocket. Son appears to have beaten the United defense, and is winning the race until the vital climax, but he takes his chance to shoot without considering how close he’s let the United fullback truly get. If only he knew, in that moment, how much we could learn about football counterattacks from that little message at the base of our car’s mirrors.
Since offsides means that the ST and CB tend to start the race at similar times, any sliver of a head-start we can gain at the gunshot is worth its weight in gold. A little feint before leaping in behind, a suave blindside run that catches the enemy off, you name it. We do all these things to earn the tiniest of advantages.
Yet, that buffer we attackers must save for the inevitable lunge cannot be forgotten. It may be rightly assumed that if we are neck and neck with our opponent as we torpedo towards the net, they’re actually winning. These jukes and tricks at the offside line, intended to tilt the duel in our favor, probably just get us level. We can’t let them dive last second.
So, what can we do, then? Well, look no further than the other end of the pitch.
In the same match, only half and hour later, one of the world’s striker-movement-rocket-scientists (Sir Edinson of Cavani) put on a little show. Let’s walk through it.
Edi exhibits superb patience, skis along the offside line (as if he just knew that he was my primary example in that aforementioned article), darts in towards the divine onion bag, receives an admittedly delectable pass .. and .. scores?
So what’s different? He’s a bit closer to goal, sure. Lloris shows his hand, perhaps, a few milliseconds too early—sure, that too. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, despite all his recent ball-carrying criticism, is still just really good at tackling. Sure.
But what’s the real secret? Surprise. It’s his dribbling.
For strikers, they’re seldom graded on oomph or éclat. They don’t need to beat defenders. They just need to stay beat. The United ST couldn’t have put on a more emphatic show.
On a granular level, Cavani’s magic comes from that plush touch he takes. Just the one. As simple as can be, and yet, it kills the entire play. Romero, a stouthearted ruffian of a defender who never shies away from a good clattering, has been categorically checkmated. At best, he’s reduced to a quick prayer.
The Uruguayan gladiator, unlike Son, who—cheers, was now probably crying, nice one—yanked the velvety red curtain off his newest exhibition: The Art of The Seal.
By cutting across his opponent, he’s now truly tipped the scales in his favor. With one simple dribble, he all but removed Romero from the race. This is humans, cutting each other off on the highway of football, with nothing more than their own muscular engines.
It’s a tiny little thing, but when we juxtapose it with what many others would’ve done—namely, shirking away from the obvious perilous presence that is the most-dogged Christian—it’s a fatal conclusion.
A well-executed seal is a delightfully disrespectful interruption of our opponents’ plans. The maneuver can be whipped out in a blink, requires us to clench through the ostensibly counterintuitive, but results in our enemy seeing their life flash before their eyes. Trigger: pulled.
It’s a cunning subtlety that only the best attackers in world football—the true killers—have the necessary arrogance, intellect, and training to consistently use.
And of those, despite our outstanding, veteran demonstration from Edi, Erling Haaland just might be the best at it.
So let’s take a look.
Ex. 1: Haaland’s Defender-Deleting Maneuver
We’ll start with example 1, Haaland’s 3rd goal of his Dortmund career—a counter attack to cap off a hattrick on his debut. His run might appear fairly ordinary, but there’s nuance woven into his chosen path that demonstrates an early appreciation of the seal, plus a variety of the extra benefits it brings. We’ll go step by step.
Path Impact on CBs
As he darts forward to chase a ball pumped down the right halfspace, Haaland’s left-footedness is likely the straightforward reason why he chooses to take his run inside, to start with. He wants to produce a more favorable angle and set up the shot on his more comfortable side. It’d be disingenuous to suggest that it was any more well-thought-out than that.
But in noticing the two Augsburg defenders sprinting back, his inwardly curved path also serves well to stifle any protective threats.
By driving towards pressure rather than away from it, the first benefit he earns, as illustrated in previous examples, is slowing down the most immediately cut-off player. This clip may generally remind us of Son’s failed attempt from earlier, with the key distinction that Haaland is intentionally getting in the way of any “straight-line, slide tackle, ball accessibility” from behind. He puts his towering physique in between the sphere and Tin Jedvaj (#18), meaning that any disruptive probe from point A to point B will have to go through him first.
This action makes the recovering Augsburgian much more reticent in his pilfering attempt.
With the second defender, Jeffrey Gouweleeuw, converging suddenly (seeing that the first option has all but evanesced from the impending altercation), Jedvaj recoils even more to avoid the potential collision. Tin’s eventual “tackle”, Augsburg’s best chance at stopping Haaland, is hardly a tackle at all. You can see his arms come up as a protective shield. He’s not slamming the gas, he’s stomping the brakes and staggering to a sputtering halt—and it’s no coincidence.
As you’ll see in the coming examples, Haaland provides more than enough evidence to conclude that we can’t discard this impressive disintegration of defensive presence as mere serendipity. It’s method, not happenstance. We can always try to zoom past defenders, but it’s even better if we can cut them off, leaving no race at all.
Compare this to AWB’s unperturbed lunge on the nimble Son Heung-min. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
Above, Haaland’s taken a Croatian international and turned him into a scarecrow. Compare that to the bold defender below.
Sending Mixed Signals
The second component to Haaland’s seal, here, is that he invites contact by appearing to be on the brink of leaving the ball behind him.
Any time defenders sniff out “mistakes” like this, they pounce. Interestingly enough, Erling doesn’t necessarily seal Jedvaj off entirely—lets say, by bashing into him and causing him to tumble to the floor. Rather, he actually leaves a little window for the now Lokomotiv CB to look through, if he were to want back into the duel. In dragging the ball like this, with just enough rearward visual exposure, he lulls the opponent into staying interested. But that interest is tugged ahead with a firm leash.
This idea might seem backwards, but in executing it, he generates more confusion for the surrounding opponents. Jedvaj’s somewhat illogical refusal to completely quit on the play actually makes it less intuitive for his teammates to make their subsequent, corrective decisions. Uncertain as to whether a tackle will actually be made by the defensive protagonist, or not, a smidge of doubt weaves its way into their minds. After all this time, the ball is still sort of righttttthere—if Tin wants it.
Say Gouweleeuw, the most immediate reinforcement, intervenes as backup. Imagine he lunges at the same time as his perplexion-inducing teammate. Perhaps he runs the risk of intersecting too many dangling legs at the wrong time. With VAR and penalties, these days, it may not be worth the measure. Maybe he shouldn’t pile on in.
These microseconds of hesitation—which also apply for the other retreating players, and even the GK as we’ll soon discuss—eat away at the potential success of whatever any of these fellas eventually choose to do. If you’re going to execute something drastic, you ought to do it without haste, and instead, with genuine clarity of mind. In the case of a in-box red card, on a player with Haaland’s penalty proficiency, the punishment for rashness is clearly steeper than that of inaction. All these questions are hard to answer, let alone in split seconds.
And what’s most impressive is that Erling barely appears to do anything to stir up all this trouble. It’s just the nature of his dribbling. He seals by principle. He fakes mistakes. He goads defenders into a false sense of hope. But perhaps most impactfully—through all of these things—he compels indecision.
We might also view this moment from an entirely different angle. What if his efforts are actually targeted towards Gouweleeuw, instead?
Whether those two slower touches are completely intentional or just youthful fizz nearing the point of overrunning the ball, Haaland’s convincing performance of a “waterlogged ball stuck in a soppy pitch” might also be framed as tricking Jeffrey into diving in. For many defenders that chase 1 on 1s, just outside the frame of the play, we might recall that the increasingly popular choice is to sprint behind the goalie to cover the line, instead of bounding towards the human threat, itself. This can often foil the striker’s plans, as we frequently see keepers being beaten, only to have the open-netted shot parried valiantly off the goalline by someone else doing their best GK impression.
So, if Haaland’s faking the struggle here, he may also be construed as masterfully cajoling Gouweleeuw to cover him(by taking advantage of the same error-hunting instincts) instead of congesting his eventual shooting lane. Upon seeing the ostensibly bobbly dribbling, the supporting CB probably fancies his chances of pipping the ball away and commits to doing so.
Now—besides sweeping the goalmouth for any white-shirted debris, to avoid its occlusion—if we combine Haaland’s Gouweleeuw seduction with his Jedvaj carrot dangling, we end up with two enemies sprinting directly at each other. And it just so happens that our Dortmund player is smack in the crosshairs.
But as the precarious missiles aloofly hone in on their target—there’s one more player we’ve almost forgotten. He’s, likely, the one that matters most, too. Let’s have a quick chat about where the goalkeeper fits into all of this.
Visual Commotion & Pump-Fake Dribbling Finish Off The Goalkeeper
One of things that makes breakaway 1v1s so non-trivial for attackers is that the moment’s visual isolation allows GKs to carefully react to each subtlety. Without distractions, it’s hard for ball carriers to hide much. The experience feels very transparent.
But when a shot is taken in the box, with defenders in and around, things are a bit more complicated. There’s optical obstructions for the goalkeeper, augmented probabilities of deflections, and an added veil of uncertainty as to whether the defense will take responsibility, or if it’s up to the man or woman in net.
Haaland, it seems, may very well understand this. In dribbling such that he ropes in both Augsburg CBs into his encounter with goalie Tomáš Koubek, he makes the diving decision far more hesitant for his poor Czechoslovakian adversary.
Borrowing from the scene we’ve just painted, Koubek’s got some pretty unconvincing dither unfolding ahead of him. Two CBs probably have no chance of stopping this bustling train, yet they’re still hypnotized by the slim possibility. With both careening towards the scene, there’s a fair bit of distraction, compared to if this were a lone striker’s clear-cut locomotion his eyes needed to laser in on. The result? The Augsburg GK is left with little idea as to when the shot will come off, if ever. Will Jedvaj stick a toe out? Will Gouweleeuw? Should I?
It’s in this moment, right here, that our delightful Nordic giant takes fatal advantage—but in order to fully appreciate it, we must back up just a few seconds.
As he seals Jedvaj off, the black and yellow tank displays yet another refined dribbling technique: the ability to make each of his touches, in the face of goal, with a nearly identical motion as to what his shot will eventually look like.
Each caress of the ball, though subtle, is a fake hit. Koubek, as any of us would, falls for the trap. We can hardly blame him. With a striker like Haaland, you kinda have to take those feints seriously. But what, precisely, do we mean here? How exactly does this work?
Touch 1 in the clip below sees Koubek continuously moving, adjusting his stance, and monitoring the angles as he defiantly protects the net. His feet are light, and he appears both well-poised and balanced.
On touch 2, Haaland activates this method of what I’ll call “pump-fake dribbling”. The contact he makes to simply progress the ball, between each step, takes precisely the same visual form as one about to poke it into the net.
The following 3rd touch does it again, this time, catching Koubek’s attention and rooting him to the spot. The first pseudo-fake was likely too swift to react to, but when he repeats the motion, Erling gives Tomáš another chance to bite the bait. And he does. Responding to Erling’s bodily rhythm, Koubek quits the shuffling nonsense and sets his feet to dive.
.. But the ball keeps moving.
And the strike never comes.
Touch 4, a slick shot taken after the GK has frozen like that forgotten bag of mixed veggies in the back of your freezer, silently draws the blood.
It’s all very subtle, but the move is performed with perfection. Everything from Haaland’s repeated swings of those gangly outstretched arms, to the usage of the same metatarsal surfaces, to the consistent pace and cadence of the touches themselves—look at how brilliantly identical the final 3 touches are. There’s no way Koubek can know when the shot is truly coming.
And so, when Tomáš reasonably guesses on touch 3, we can enjoy the final flavor of advantage Haaland’s seal run brings to the table. Thanks to the striker’s diagonal trajectory, as he continues to move while the GK stays put, Koubek’s goal-saving cover shadow swings behind him to overflow at the near post and neglect the far one. An opportunity is created via this lack of coverage.
It’s worth noting that a straight run, driving away from pressure, can still achieve this effect to some extent, but the angles are worse and the delta is diminished. Geometrically speaking, the benefit comes from cutting across the defender, to the inside.
Messi is well known for employing this same approach. His vintage, lateral drives across the top of the box did exceptionally well to pump-fake dribble until the GK set their feet. When they did, he’d take an extra touch, improve his angles ever-so-slightly, and capitalize. The ability to make shooting and dribbling motions nearly identical was mastered by Leo. It’s a way to nullify the goalkeeper just as we’ve previously shown how to cancel out the surrounding defenders. Haaland takes after the best.
Alright. So now, let’s bring this all together.
Apart from glueing Koubek to the floor like a sticky mousetrap, Haaland’s dribbling invitation for Gouweleeuw to join the mishmash party, especially, causes even more problems for the 6’6″ keeper.
Tomáš’ positioning is already compromised, but the Dutch CB’s run, though well-intentioned, cuts across his line of sight and momentarily sidetracks his attention. Koubek, perhaps, assumes that a Jeffrey-tackle might actually be made, or maybe even worse—that Jedvaj might surprise everyone with a perilous ball-spear from behind. Perhaps the shot will ricochet off one of their cleats. Maybe he’ll fool us all and go for the chip. What happens if both guys get sent off at the same time??
The flickering cascade of possibilities means that Koubek becomes the third player to fall for Haaland’s trap of uncertainty. Erling’s roped everyone in now—and none of them can pin down a single thing about what’s going to happen.
The penalty box rendezvous magnifies the Augsburg GK’s disadvantage. Since he holds his fingers crossed for an AWB-esque last-ditcher, shifts his focus to the streaking beam of white light crossing right in front of him, and ponders his inevitable fate, he eventually misses the boat entirely. So much bandwidth is wasted hoping to decode this mystery that he’s barely even realized the dagger’s punctured right through his armor. You can see, here, how the ball is already directly beneath him by the time he begins to leap off his heels.
Thus, it goes without saying that even with Haaland’s exceptional finishing ability, the way he carries the ball, in moments like these, does the vast majority of the work. The shot Haaland ultimately cultivates, by virtue of bewildering his 3 opponents with this tastefully simple trick, barely requires his level of shooting expertise at all. And that’s the real beauty, here.
Good strikers can put away tough chances. The best know how to make them easier.
Ex. 2: Capitalizing on A Grave Mistake
Ok. These next few will be quicker. The weeds have been whacked, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll agree that microscopic details are the ones most worth obsessing over. It wasn’t until I’d watched Haaland’s goal compilations ad nauseam, zoomed-in and slo-moed into oblivion, that I noticed any of this, so this is merely a walk-through of my discoveries. Examples 2-4 are paramount to round out our understanding of the seal, its wide applicability, and Haaland’s tremendous wielding of its power—so I’ll nip the chit chat and resume the analysis.
Example 2 introduces a new application. An error is made by the opposition, as a wayward pass back to Hertha Berlin’s Omar Alderete wriggles loose with quite some distance to go. Haaland, the ever-vigilant chasseur, ensures that there’s no turning back for his downtrodden opposition. This one’s nuanced, but Erling does an impeccable job to maintain his intermediate positioning between the defender and the ball the entire time. In several discrete moments, he adjusts his seal such that the blue CB would have to plow through his own keeper to keep up with him.
Once the blunder is officially snatched, you can see how Alderete initially moves to vault over the Norwegian’s back, towards the inside. That appears to be the ideal path to stop him, but to Omar’s dismay, Haaland steadily steers his little jaunt like a smug commuter getting a kick out of a querulous stranger riding their tail. The highway’s thin and there’s no getting around him. With every second, the Hertha CB is caught further and further outside of the duel, as the goalmouth continues to dilate. The defender’s exasperated switch to go around Erling’s outside comes too late to cover the net, leaving it wide open once the BVB striker has pump-fake dribbled around GK Alexander Schwolow.
What’s most intriguing about this clip is how Haaland seals off his defender before he’s even in control of the play. Upon first realizing the Berlin mistake, he could’ve just as easily sprinted right at the loose ball, but instead chooses to curve his run so as to slow down his competition. It’s often said that the racer who makes first contact will win, but here, it’s more about who simply cuts in line.
We can observe how deliberately Haaland juts his body between the ball and Alderete. Now, even if the centerback was going at full speed, he needs to decelerate and recalculate his GPS to avoid colliding with Erling.
As we mentioned, despite chasing, AWB-inspired Omar still entertains the possibility of sneaking around Haaland’s inside to poke the ball away. It’s not a bad idea, all things considered, since it might encourage the Dortmund attacker to shun the inside lane where he’d be on his dominant foot, and instead drive more directly towards the Hertha keeper, on his right.
But no. Haaland seals once again. His dribble is entirely unassuming, but it nukes Alderete’s hopes of being remotely useful in recovering from this calamitous error. Now, it’s just 1v1.
Similarly to example 1, the Scandinavian robot keeps all his touches identical to his shooting motion, committing Schwolow to set his feet when they get close, before taking one final touch around him. The GK’s cover shadow looks decent enough to start ..
.. but by the end of it, it serves almost no purpose at all. With two ultra-unembellished sealing touches, the prodigal son has dissolved a defender and a goalkeeper, yet again. As occurred last time, the finish requires composure, but hardly much precision at all. With this expert style of ball carrying, the kid really makes things simple.
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget to mention: this was 1 of 4 goals he scored in the match. He’s utterly superhuman. As Ariana Grande (and frankly me too, at this point) would say, “thank you, next!”
Ex. 3: Short Drive Through The Heart
Example 3 displays his 28th Dortmund goal, against Hoffenheim. Here, his seal looks a bit different—but it’s just as effective. This time, instead of luring everyone in like against Augsburg, Haaland stays unpredictable by cutting everyone out, with no way back in. Putting the versatility of the dribbling maneuver on full display, the new interpretation works like a charm.
After beating a sliding Florian Grillitsch (#11), Haaland is aware that the blue 6, Diadie Samassekou, will be right on his heels. His first touch past Grillitsch is a slow one, somewhat reminiscent of the baiting touches he takes against Augsburg. Samassekou bites, accelerates towards the ball, and Haaland turns on the jets. With a burst of speed, he crosses in front of Diadie, leaving him no choice but to feebly tug on his back as the Norwegian rips free. If Erling tumbles down, it’s a red and possibly a penalty. If he breaks through, it’s a goal. The Dortmund 9 generously lets his opponent pick his own poison.
Frame by frame, here are the vital moments. While two Hoffenheim defenders provide a soothingly snoozy backdrop, Haaland takes a moment to convince Samassekou that this battle is worth fighting. He motions for him to hop aboard the runaway train, and given the lack of alternative assistance, the TSG man hardly has much of a choice.
Samassekou darts straight towards the ball, in an effort to make his one-chance tackle. Haaland is rapidly approaching the penalty area, so the Hoffenheim midfielder looks to time their intersection just outside the threshold of maximum riskiness. It’s not worth gambling anything inside of there.
Thus, Diadie explodes, but so does Erlingcito.
With one nice big touch across the onrushing defensive presence, Haaland honks his horn twice as Samassekou swings off his trailer and into the roadside brush. As one final prayer, the Hoffenheimer considers snagging onto the Dortmund shirt, but quickly releases to avoid giving up a PK. The resistance does little to impede the threat, anyway. The big man’s done it again.
By deploying this tiny dribbling habit, Haaland turns a virtually identical situation to the one Son Heung-min found himself in (in which the latter chose a more timid path, away from the defender, un-obstructing his defender’s efforts to chop down the play) into a far more profitable outcome.
It’s remarkable how much of a difference it makes.
Now, alongside his elimination of Turn- und Sportgemeinschaft’s best chance of salvation, Haaland’s dribbling also completely sets off GK Oliver Baumann’s efforts to deny him. We critiqued Koubek’s inability to stay light and mobile throughout Erling’s sequence of touches—but Mr. Braut’s explosiveness against Hoffenheim, in sealing off Diadie, forces Baumann to almost move too much. I’m no expert, but it appears less like well-executed agility, and more like frantic incertitude. Let’s observe his positioning throughout the play:
Forward, left, back, forward, set, jump, set, dive. There’s a lot going on here. So much so, that we might think: well—maybe Haaland’s throwing feints left and right in quick succession? But he isn’t. He’s just sealing.
Without any of the shifty flair other attackers might seek to introduce here, Haaland elegantly instills an immense amount of doubt in the man trusted to remain calm in front of goal. It’s a simple two touches, then a hit—and though the GK may be trying to set the Norwegian off with his erratic movements, it appears to me that Baumann’s probably got no idea where Erling will eventually go. He starts by darting off his line, then guards the nearpost, then corrects his overcompensation, preps to jump, accommodates his angles, and sets again. It all happens so fast, and even with tidy footwork, Oliver never quite seems to be fully under control. We may be a bit better than example 1, but it’s all just a guessing game, anyway. If we can glean anything from the clip, it’s that Haaland gives nothing away about his true intentions, until the decisive moment. By the time the shot’s taken, it’s likely already too late.
Ex. 4: Foregoing Comfort for Principles
Example 4, the final one, to date, might be the best of them all. This time, Frankfurt are the unlucky enemies—and dear me, what a goal this is.
Emerging from the halffield line, Haaland skis along before bursting to collect a cultured pass from Marco Reus. With a glance or two behind him, as he sprints towards the ball, Haaland’s first touch demonstrates the clear intention of getting in the way of his chasers. Just like Samassekou, Evan N’Dicka initiates a lung-busting effort to intercept Haaland right before he enters the penalty box, while Hinteregger, hindered by his lack of pace—or perhaps simply conserving energy in the face of an inevitable outcome—accepts his fate somewhat early on.
Now, before we understand why this goal is so spectacularly peculiar, we must first understand where Haaland’s finishing “sweet spot” is. Between the 6 and 18 yard lines, on the inner edge of the left halfspace, the man frequently pulls off cross-body finishes with tremendous success. It’s a hard shot, something we know by juxtaposing its xG to, say, a crossed tap-in, but his superlative quality consistently defies the human probabilities.
You might recognize this zone from any number of his goals—be it anywhere from his very debut for Dortmund to even his spectacularly acrobatic sky-high chip against Union Berlin. This is his signature shot, so here are a few to choose from.
It goes without saying that Haaland, in this region especially, is all but a death sentence for the defense—and this truism goes back even further than his days in Germany.
For another batch of examples, let’s remember the U20 World Cup from less than three years ago. Our boy netted 9 times—yes, a triple hattrick, and 6 of those looked a little like this:
For the nail in the coffin, check out this shot map from Twitter user @KroneBall from 2018, showing where the young Norwegian enjoyed shooting from back at Molde. Even as a baby, 3/6 goals, from just under 9 matches played at the time, came from this sweet spot.
His adoration for that region, and superb skill within it, are engrained in his footballing DNA.
Yet, against Frankfurt, with all the access to his historically beloved field patch that he could possibly ask for—he forgoes the opportunity. He relinquishes the chance to threaten from his comfort zone, and to utilize his preferred, southpaw, shooting weapon, all for what? Why does he do that?
So he can seal, instead.
With N’Dicka hot on his heels, Erling knows that the even if he arrives at the spot where he most instinctively kills, he may be subject to an uninhibited sliding cleat. To pursue his ideal locale is to opt for what is best known, but to roll the dice as to whether his french opposition can throw his body in front of the bullet in time. A sophisticated and mature attacking soldier, the yellow-cladded forward chooses not to gamble anything at all. He smiles, cuts N’Dicka off in the same way he’s eviscerated so many defenders in the past, and challenges himself to use his non-dominant foot for a change. Luckily, it hardly appears to be a challenge at all.
It’s as simple as the graphic, below.
What’s arguably most impressive here is that Haaland, a man of his own convictions, is willing to renounce the things that are easiest for him, and that he likes most, in order to stick to guiding fundamentals.
This is rare.
Many exceptional dribblers will attempt their trademark move, even under the wrong circumstances. Midfielders will play their preferred style of pass, even if the weight and spin don’t fit the task at hand. But a player who has the audacity to eschew the most ostensibly familiar path to individual success, in favor of a more principled problem-solving approach, is one with far more wisdom than we might realize.
His sealing methodology goes beyond just 1 v 1 goal-scoring, too. Though I’ll only cite one playmaking example to avoid droning on, it only takes a few seconds of highlight-reel rewinding to find Erling using the same skill to create chances for his teammates. Here, in the 23rd minute of that very same game, he helps open up the scoring against Frankfurt after sealing off Hasebe’s rearview efforts—twice in a single sprint. In doing so, he keeps the play alive, despite the pesky defensive efforts, and drives right through the heart of enemy territory.
This is not the style of target striker we’re used to.
He seals, once, with his second and third touches, and once more as his follower desperately seeks to swipe the legs out from under him. Those moments look something like the sketch, below.
When discussing the man, the myth, and the legend—his dribbling simply is not something we can afford to miss.
One last time, in all its glory, the double seal in action:
Alrighty. By now, we get the general idea. Lots of people assume Haaland is a bad dribbler because he doesn’t dance around opponents like Sancho did, or because his hulking optics inhibit us from being comfortable with the mere idea—but the fact of the matter is, he’s exquisite at his own form of it.
The seal is an art he’s mastered at a tender age, one in which youthful exuberance tends to get the best of junior talents. Many dribble themselves into corners, carelessly tangle themselves in tackles, and more, but Haaland’s appreciation for the dark arts cements him as a prodigy that transcends the rest.
So we might rightfully ask, even though Haaland’s performing all of this at a thoroughly world-class level—is there any way we can teach our players to do the same things? Against the grain of a media culture that spotlights the ostentatious, can we devise a methodology that inculcates a taste for the finer rudiments, like sealing off defenders, in our own budding strikers? Can we teach the minutiae that have gone so far as to propel this generational player from the picturesque pitches of the Romsdal Peninsula to 11th on the Ballon d’Or shortlist in just 2 years’ time?
Well, without promising that young Billy on your U8 roster will suddenly burst onto the footballing scene at Red Bull Salzburg—I think we can try a few things. Here’s a few for you to consider.
Before I hop into a few concepts, I’ll preface these ideas by saying that they all present fairly constrained player environments. I understand that for many classically-trained and even self-inspired coaches, this may not be your cup of tea. That’s okay. Read at your own risk!
But the rationale behind these peculiar shapes and boundaries exists beyond my (in retrospect, perhaps amusingly) pejorative prose from earlier this year: Stop Romanticizing Rectangles: Why Euclid (and I) Would Object to the ‘Gamelike’ Obsession. If we look at a skill as specific as the art of the seal, we’re forced to produce environments that succeed at drawing out those relevant moments. This is often a fun—albeit significant—challenge, as it’s certainly always been for me, but a necessary path if we are to be genuine about our improvement efforts in these particular areas. To teach sealing, we can’t just practice counterattacking dribbling, let alone dribbling, let alone attacking, let alone mere play. That is—not if we actually want to get better at it.
Despite the many that have faith in the notion that we can successfully expose novel ideas to our players in thoroughly comfortable settings—my philosophy (if we may even call it that) is a bit different. To teach a player to seal, when they do not do it already, requires the removal from a familiar context in which they have no reason to sacrifice short-term comfort for “coach’s weird, new suggestion”. An exercise that claims to teach the building blocks of the seal, but is simply a game of ball-carrying, does nothing inherent to actually construct the learning objective. We must build to that point, but we can’t begin our quest where we wish to conclude.
Though I’ve fastidiously worked to bite my tongue with greater frequency in the face of soccer things I consider nonsensical, much of the drill design I’ve been privy to, in more formal contexts, pervasively adheres to the former methodology. It’s a game of broadcasting that your blueprint achieves x and y checkboxes, convincing yourself that these farcical notions are indeed true, and smiling ignorantly from the sideline—as zero progress is made. Do you wish to impact players, or simply say that you do? That’s a question for you to answer.
The status-quo picture I’m painting may be bleak, and perhaps dismissive—but this blithe trend of vocal self-promoters sharing quotidian mediocrity has proliferated this very notion that hyper-ordinary games can instruct hyper-nuanced concepts. Perhaps I’m too much of a fool to realize it, but I don’t agree.
You can’t simply tell your team to “focus on rest defense” for the first time, in a small-sided 8v8 game. Sure, the “drill” resembles reality, I suppose, but if you actually convince yourself that your group has made headway on the purported goal of the session—well, good luck.
I’m of the staunch opinion, therefore, and in case you haven’t noticed, that you have to break it down. What are the principles involved here? What are their subcomponents? Why are we doing this? You have to let the players visualize it clearly. You have to make it almost impossibly obvious—such that the behaviors are performed practically before the players even recognize what it is that they’re doing. When the time comes to apply the re-wiring with a more authentic backdrop, the translation will be smooth. It’s far easier to incorporate something you’ve already unknowingly been doing, into a routine, than having to learn the motions and reasons and applications all at once.
There is, surely, a well-documented and well-researched argument for the value of self-discovery—which is purportedly promoted in these hands-free sandbox games. But anyone, in my eyes, is a bit delusional if they truly believe that freedom without guidance, outside of the environments belonging to the world’s absolute elite coaches, will get their cohort to achieve the particular target they had in mind. A team might grow, in that soil, but never how you’d ideally want them to. More likely, they’ll crease the comfortable, bad habits you’re looking to override.
Thus, the way I prefer to approach drill design is to find ways to get players breaking in the shoes of neoteric concepts rather than perfunctorily instructing them to “do as I say”. Once kids are out there, doing the proper skills, then we ease them into decision-making surroundings.
I know this sounds antithetical to the pearls that many coaching bodies so desperately clutch, and many of us readily endorse, too—this idea that players should always think for themselves—but sticking to that is an exercise in lying to ourselves. Left to our own devices, we don’t break bad habits. We keep on doing them. That’s the whole point. To anticipate that anyone would choose a road less traveled—when faced with that much creative agency, so early on, and when the aim is to do things differently—is entirely inane.
So, wrapping up this most rant-y section, allow me to apologize and adjust my tie. Enough of that for now! Let’s start cookin up some mini Haalands.
The Bartender’s Shaker
Teaching players to actively seek contact with enemies is something that may rightfully begin as counterintuitive—especially for attackers that lack Haaland’s gigantic physical properties. Given that assumption, the exercises I’ve curated are intended to expose the players to subcomponents of what the mechanics of sealing truly demand. By the time they’ve become acquainted with each of them, pulling the parts together won’t be nearly as difficult as immediate immersion would’ve been.
To start, we tackle the first nuance: the fear of impact.
Though attackers are ostensibly “on the offensive”, their behaviors and body language often express a much more avoidant psychology when it comes to confrontation with their enemies. The way you “beat someone” is not by clashing head on, but by eluding them, knocking the ball around them, or simply shooting before they get too close. The predator, in our game, seldom invites contact because it inhibits their ability to carefully handle the precious orb. Yet, as we’ve belabored, doing so can generate highly favorable scoring situations—not only through how jarring it is for the defense to interpret, but by cutting them out and compelling them to make a lose-lose decision.
Game 1 introduces the group to an environment in which one must display the technical qualities to find space in behind a defensive line. I’m a huge proponent of small-sided activities that must control the ball in tight quarters before springing it loose to a more frenzied open field. This theme will emerge time and time again in this piece. Once this objective of breaking the defensive line with a “final ball” is achieved, rather than continuing to penetrate vertically like Son, the players must traverse a parting line that divides the “endzone” into a left and right half.
This motion need not be disjointed or unrealistic—as failure to execute the first and second components in a fluid fashion will inevitably result in losing possession to the recovering defense. A successful attacker will time their run and manipulate its curve such that once they receive the pass in space, they may immediately look to seal out their retreating opponent. This is the unsaid outcome of the activity, if you will—a subcutaneous objective that is achieved by executing a far more tangible action: dribbling over a line. Once this make-believe barrier is crossed, to reward proper efforts, the goal on the opposite side of the initially entered endzone becomes an available target to score in.
The game is organized as follows: white faces black in a 6 v 6, within a wide and short “starting field” that urges both teams to penetrate the long sides (North and South) of their confining rectangle. The zone may roughly be the size of the 18 yard box (18 x 44), for reference, but adjust as you may. Cones will demarcate the halfway line for some additional spatial context, as well as one of two defining points of the parting lines at either end.
As alluded to, just above and below this initial layout, there are two pairs of two areas, shown in yellow. These are of similar height to the central one, though this may certainly be modified along with other dimensions. Each of these sees a slight inwards taper on the outmost corner so as to avoid leading players astray and “away from the goal” like poor Heung-min (whom I continue to ashamedly reference). Instead, their design guides the attackers centrally, with respect to the goals that are situated “wide” within the game, but in the pitch’s halfspaces. An inward convergence will naturally encourage the invitation of physical clashes with defenders that will emerge from where the space is—as opposed to the nearby sideline.
The minigoals themselves reside in an area marked off for visual emphasis. The black zones at top and bottom simply express that an actual shot must be fired off to score, rather than walking balls into the net, in atypical fashion.
Timing may be an individual decision of the coach. To compel intensity, several repetitions of short intervals may be valuable. To grant ample time for self-discovery, and appreciation of the technical requirements, longer stretches of 7-12 minutes may be employed, too.
Various components of this game become unlocked in succession. The activity always starts centrally, until one side finds their teammate in behind (normal offside rules with the “endline” as the referee’s threshold). A player may take the initiative to dribble across this line, too, if they please, so as to invite scenarios in which an immediately trailing defender is cut off like Hasebe in Haaland’s assist clip. Upon accessing this endzone area of the field, it now becomes locked off to other attacking teammates. Only one attacker may breach the yellow space at a time.
Defenders, on the other hand, may rush in at whatever numbers they please. This is to replicate the countless scenarios in which Haaland breaks into space with little to no help—but plenty of opposition figures to beat. It is in the attacker’s best interest to operate at speed, granting the defense less time to organize and overwhelm with quantitative superiority. These rules also prevent the team from wasting the training time by trying other methods to solve the same problem—combinations, flamboyant tricks, etc. We want seals, over and over again.
The opposite-side goal is then unlocked by driving in front of a chasing opponent and facing the target head-on.
When we take a step back from the activity, we can observe an environment in which players can begin to positively visualize the notion of crossing in front of defenders to “stay beat”. These frequent repetitions with an enticing goal to enjoy at the end of each of them will get your team more comfortable with the idea of converging towards a target, in spite of nearby defensive presences, as opposed to galloping away like a speedy ostrich. These behaviors are the product of slow re-wiring, but in gamifying the process, this unique exercise with carefully curated constraints can get the wheels turning.
The Cow Tipper
Up next, we expose our players to a technical component often invoked pre-seal: the set-up first touch.
In many of Haaland’s successful moves, in order to set the table for a fatal seal, his first contact with the ball can take various forms, but it always pierces the space in behind the closing defender. Sometimes he plunges forth with incisiveness like against Samassekou, other times he knocks the ball in a more bumbling fashion—so as to bait his chasers—but he never demonstrates any remote signs of misgivings. The first direction is always positive, goal-oriented, and devastatingly direct. Haaland waits for no one, and often not even his own teammates.
So, in order to expose our spirited young talents to this form of killer instinct, we look to generate a petri dish in which a high volume of these received passes can be experienced. Since our first, and the rest, of our activities involve an in-possession team looking to hold the ball in a confined area before launching a line-breaking ball into space—this time, we’ll actually practice recovering the ball from an opponent mid-build-up, followed by a no-hesitation switch and counter. In order to take full advantage of the error-borne chance, the recipient of this ball must be vigilant to their collapsing gegenpressers and seal out any obstacles. That’s the Haaland way.
This is, likely, the most irregular shape we’ll use today. The Cow Tipper game rules are, admittedly, pretty unusual too—but as I foreshadowed, this collection of exercises is full of “escape ball” games and progressively unlocked regions. That remains consistent.
To commence our cone deposition, we outline 3 roughly equal, horizontal zones, like below. The top and bottom regions, at least, ought to be identical—both 18 yards tall and 44 yards wide—while the middle zone bridges the gap between them. A vertical, central line partitions the central zone into two side-by-side halves.
The opposite corners of each “final third” are to be tapered, like shown. These will switch sides at some point in the activity, and their precise angles will be defined by our next step.
A full-sized net is to be placed at the halffield line, centrally, to mirror the pre-existing authentic one. Two mini goals are to be rooted to the central zone’s opposite endlines, laterally near the tapered edges of the corresponding final thirds.
Building up from this initial layout, continue the tapered lines until they intersect an emerging one from the opposite final third. Two roughly identical triangles should form on the outside of our main rectangular space, as illustrated below. The overall shape resembles a gemstone on its side, or perhaps even a teetering bovine. Now let’s get into the details.
The way our game is played, white begins to locally build out of our left-hand side of the screen, towards us. They engage in a 3 v 3 game that resembles a wideback, centerback, and 6 looking to advance the ball past a pressing trio of attackers and midfielders. This, for now, occupies the active, white-highlighted region formed by the welding of the leftmost central rectangle and triangle regions.
With the parting line now depicted faintly, and dashed, the leftover boundaries form an asymmetrical trapezoid that guides the wide build-up away from the channels and towards a halfspace mini-goal target. This is to mimic a team that would prefer to avoid the claustrophobic channel traps in these early progression phases, and would rather find an interior on the half turn, near where the mini-goal is positioned. This build-up-target positioning logic is echoed in exercise 9, Reroute, of Coaching “Vision”.
White earns a point if they successfully “build” and score. An example of such success can be seen, below—though this isn’t the focus of our activity.
Yellow, where we’ll devote more of our energy, locally attempts to pilfer the ball from white’s pockets to prevent “progression” or scoring. When they do, they immediately try to deliver a firm pass to the ballfar region of the pitch, where their “target” is anxiously waiting to spring loose. This is that escape ball. You can now see that teammate, here.
This pass might replicate a nearby dispossession and counter catalyzed by yellow, but it may also symbolize a white mistake. Our “target” may have simply intercepted a long switch the build-up team intended for their left fullback, for instance. We might take our current distilled image and expand it to the following pressing scenario, in which this non-focus team has found themselves struggling to find a suitable forward option that doesn’t involve receiving towards the sideline. They choose to reshuffle the deck and switch the point of attack, but from behind some nearby hedges, yellow vaults out in full camouflage to snag it. Ultimately, the same subsequent technical challenges are presented.
Speaking of, that lucky leprechaun at the end of this rainbow is originally confined to the rightmost, central zone triangle highlighted in red. They may position themselves wherever they might like along its innermost edge (depicted with faint, yellow, dashed arrows), but they’re only freed to transform into Erling once the ball has ruptured the boundaries of their pythagorean cage. When this occurs, they will be challenged to take a positive first touch towards the big goal—avoiding the mini-one that is relatively off-to-the-side, on this end of the field.
A white defender is within earshot of this hopeful fella, on the base side of the right central zone highlighted in yellow, and may also position themselves wherever along that line they please (depicted with faint, white, dashed arrows). This chasing presence is only activated when the escape ball first enters the left side of the yellow rectangle, at which point they may engage in a hot pursuit. This proverbial swim-meet gunshot may be fine-tuned to be later, i.e. “when the red-zone player makes their first touch” or earlier, i.e. “when the pass is played” to adjust difficulty of pursuant proximity. Depending on the field dimensions and age level, speeds and timings may dictate what is best.
Fundamentally, what we witness is a driven ball that finds the feet of a recipient, who must cut across a chasing defender to tuck the chance away. Naturally, a goal is worth a point. This may be a great opportunity to teach some pump-fake dribbling, while we’re at it, too.
Luckily for us, there’s a fair bit of innate variation in this exercise. The escape ball may emerge at any time, from any location within the “active” possession space, meaning our target and pursuant must both remain on the qui vive.
Each of the aforementioned components may also adjust their starting positions to cultivate new permutations of seal angles.
The precise behaviors in this configuration:
might differ from those in this one:
And so on.
Ok, so we’ve got a picture of what success looks like on both sides of the ball. However, looking at the game, as is, it seems pretty disjointed. What happens when a pass misses the red zone? What if white catches yellow? When a goal is scored, what happens—on both ends? Let’s clarify the rotations, transitions, and the rest of the gameplay glue.
To start, The Cow Tipper is designed to give both white and yellow the chance to experiment with these skills. It’s also intended to allow for some healthy cycling of roles. There are many ways one might choose to run the flow of the activity, but here’s one I particularly enjoy—an option I’ll call The Butcher Variation, to stick with the cattle theme.
The Butcher Variation intensifies the pressure placed on our “Haaland” while simultaneously granting the entire focus team a higher state of exaltation when correct sealing behavior leads to a goal. This joy will positively reinforce the learned technique.
In short, the idea is that yellow must defend the possession trapezoid until they’re able to switch and score. They might start by stealing a pass but being unable to find their target because they took too long to counter. Perhaps the next time, they’ll play a ball, but it won’t quite be weighted correctly, and gives white too much time to catch up. The third could involve a perfect pass, but their farside friend takes the avoidant route and gets blocked by white playing AWB. The fourth displays a sealing run and tidy finish. In the process, let’s say yellow scored 3 on the mini goal.
When this happens, the field switches from left to right. The “butcher” has successfully sliced through the cow, freeing his teammates from defending the small net on the opposite side, and granting them the chance to exercise that same torture to their opponents. Upon scoring, that shift might look something like this, in which white has one player occupy the new red zone, one yellow becomes the chasing defender, and the rest populate the white trapezoid.
Final config, post rotations, shown here. Play resumes with the coach introducing a new ball into play.
The beauty of this system is that each time the in-possession team scores on the mini goal, the preventative core group will have their frustrations and resolve tested. They’ll have gotten beat once, twice, maybe more, but need to stay motivated in their press to earn the chance to break free. This is all highly similar to what teams face in real games—especially against formidable opposition. The defensive group must retain faith in their cohesion and field-clogging methods, despite being trounced several times. That persistence will be rewarded if they stay true and stick with it, but it’s no secret that the anxiety builds with every possession.
Thus, what’ll likely happen if you run this, is that the out of possession focus team will naturally pile more and more of their hopes onto their switch capitalizer. They’ll work hard to win the ball back and do everything they can to deliver a neat ball, but the Haaland figure will certainly feel the weight of their expectations. This, I feel, is a good thing. These moments in games are rare and palpably tense. This is a way to somewhat manufacture those psycho-emotional subtleties.
The way the game is played, and if the chasing defender’s start whistle is timed appropriately, it may take a few tries to butcher the cow—meaning that when it eventually does happen, the team will rejoice. A concoction of relief and excitement will fuel the attacker’s sense of achievement, and crease the importance of dribbling like our Norwegian phenom in order to make the most of these chances.
One of the advantages of The Cow Tipper, generally, is that a coach can weave the elements of sealing into a training session revolving around build-up, or preventing the opponent from doing so successfully. It goes without saying that not everyone has the staff or training time to dedicatedly train strikers on this exceptionally nuanced detail—but this environment takes the meat and wraps it in a delightfully flaky puff pastry. This footballing equivalent of a Beef Wellington means we can demand certain elements within the white trapezoid just as much as we can look to optimize the target’s sealing technique. It gives us a way to weave some juicy protein into the rhythm of our practice week.
In any case, as much as I like the little corners of sealing that this exercise craftily accesses, there are plenty of shortcomings that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
One is the second triangle outside the 3 rectangles. The red one plays a very clear role, as does the welded white counterpart on the farside—but these have somewhat been left untouched.
When we mark out the field with cones, of course, these colored zones don’t make themselves apparent, it’s simply a visualization tool I’m employing to be more clear as I explain—so perhaps they simply aren’t worth displaying at all. The true Cow Tipper field looks like this, and the more I look at it, the more accurately this image depicts the genuine spaces of the game. Perhaps you can do away with all the beef overtones and switch to shurikens.
This is plausible, and probably a good idea, so feel free to visualize things that way. The blue triangles solely help in making the outline a bit less irregular and intimidating, though its lopsidedness certainly doesn’t help!
Beyond this tidbit, the “standing and waiting” dynamics of the target and chaser are certainly troublesome, but I’d argue, not as much as in other games. There are no lines, here, just two players ready to go, but the mere fact that they’re constrained to zones at all, and uninvolved in the bulk of play, will irritate some. It irritates me, too. That being said, I’ve personally decided that I find it a small rule to break in order to adequately capture the moment we’re abstracting. These end up being two extremely important cogs in The Cow Tipper machine, and as much as formalized coaching education urges us to remove boundaries and dish out spatial freedom to the players, these folks are far from “inactive” in their positions. Vigilance is high, there is some agency in positioning along their confining boundaries, and reactions will be firmly tested. At no point are either of these players idle. Of all the games I’ve seen with “jailed” players of this ilk, this is far from the most distasteful one.
Beyond these two scruples, there’s undoubtedly a lot of complexity that goes into the gameplay, too. It’s always a good thing to reduce activities to their simplest form, and believe it or not, this final version comes after several simplifying steps, but it’s likely still too tricky to clearly explain within 60 seconds, let’s say. Verbally making the group aware of the field layout alone might take that long. Then there’s team numbers, scoring, the locked regions, transitions, etc. You don’t want to overwhelm or lose interest before the drill’s even begun. This is an area to improve.
But all things considered, we have another fun tool in our kit. The players have become less reticent in the face of physical confrontation, and have now worked under high pressure to fine tune that critical, direct first touch. Now, let’s keep sharpening that knife.
Bust Out The House
When sealing occurs, we must recall that the enemies we are looking to trounce are, by definition, behind us. This poses a bit of a challenge by way of vision. When we take someone on 1 v 1, we can see everything they do, which missteps they take, and so on, but with someone on our tail, that’s much harder. So, we practice it.
Enter: Bust Out The House, an environment for training blindside awareness that instructs our sealing behavior.
The success route depicted for that player in black might remind you of a little something ..
We spent some time delving into Haaland’s impressive decisions and technique, here, but what we have yet to touch upon is just how he assessed the circumstances to begin with. How’d he know where Ndicka would charge at him from? How’d he know it’d be Ndicka at all, and not Hinteregger? What guided his pace, his directional first touch, and his eventual seal? It’s a vision thing—so let’s take a closer look.
When we zoom into Haaland’s run, we see that he executes 4 subtle but discrete “scans”, a term used to denote a rotation of the head in order to intake environmental visual information. What’s arguably most challenging about these frequent samples of data collection is that they complicate the (already rare) skill by being performed towards a rear-view target, while at a full, forward sprint. Most of our defensive midfielders with strong visual perception might glance around while jogging into a neglected pocket of space, but rarely are they bolting in while looking backwards.
Thus, as if scanning in and of itself didn’t require plenty of practice, performing those first 3 looks before touching the ball, in under 3 seconds—and being able to actually use the information gathered—is quite the supernatural ability. He’s calculating ball vectors, then human vectors, ball vectors, human vectors, ball vectors, human vectors, and only then does he knock the rock ahead.
This is all lead-up to the seal, and utterly vital if we are to defeat opponents that we, otherwise, cannot see.
To the best of my video-pausing ability, here are the 4 total scans, followed by the seal. Those first 3 are rapid-fire, with one final check as the touch is being made.
It should go without saying that this knack for understanding his surroundings and making the most of that diligently colored, mental landscape has ~once again~ been documented since Haaland’s humble beginnings. Karl Marius Aksum, now a Junior Elite Head Coach for Odds Ballklubb, who recently defended his PhD thesis in Visual Perception in Elite Football for the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences—in conjunction with the renowned and oft-cited Professor Geir Jordet—shared an old “Little” Erling clip this past summer. He’s 17 and hitting wholly world class numbers in this metric.
So alright, alright, how can we train this? From last July to September, I wrote a study of nearly 35,000 words on scanning in general, so consider Bust Out The House as an addendum to that more in-depth investigation. This is a sandbox designed to conjure up the same situations seen in the above goal, and elicit the behaviors that Haaland so brilliantly displays. Success, here, will likely only be achievable if the desired habits are learned, making it a convenient gate to indicate skill-acquisition progress. It’s also included a new scoring concept for the non-focus team I’ve been exploring as an added bonus. Well then, pitter patter!
To begin, BOTH is predominately defined by a large square in the center of the black team’s half. It stretches from the top of the 18 to the halffield line, and spans the width of the 18 (44 yards), too. Midpoint cones may be added to aid player positional context and give a clearer sense of vertical direction to the activity (a “halffield line” tends to orient).
On top of this foundation, we’ve then got a trapezoidal roof defined by two inset yellow cones that form a conjoining line just beyond the center circle. These two form a pair of crucial diagonal lines on either side that we’ll detail shortly.
Down south, centered along the imaginary lines connecting the corners of the 18 and corners of the 6, two mini cone goals are outlined one yard (or meter) apart. They look a bit larger, here, for emphasis.
Internally, black faces off against yellow in a 6 v 6 + 1 (GK) game. The structure of each team is to replicate that of a 433 mirrored by both sides. The flanks have been trimmed in this exercise—so as to encourage play to progress from into out then back in (prompting sealing behavior between stages 2 and 3), but you might imagine where the fullbacks and wingers would feature. The black team’s GK is also shown in grey.
Black scores in a particular manner. They possess the ball in the central region but can only “Bust Out The House” by firing a through ball across either of the diagonal seams (dashed, black lines) in the roof. Hence, “in to out”. Once this happens, any black player may chase the ball through that seam, while yellow may chase by crossing the central yellow line between the two yellow cones. Lots of gelb for you BVB fans. The halffield line is to be employed as the offsides threshold, as we would.
An example was depicted above, but here’s another: a once ballnear midfielder observes an impending switch, and their teammates both coming short and spreading wide on the farside to support—they recognize the opportunity to dart in behind, from deep, and receive a longball from the RCB in the departed space. Yellow chases through the yellow gap, and a seal is made to create the scoring chance. Goals are worth 1 point.
On the other hand, yellow puts digits on the board by scoring in the Erlenmeyer Flask Goals (or EFGs) at the bottom. The EFG is a potential solution I’ve considered for the common problem of placing nets as scoring targets in which a “fired shot” in a true match, would represent completely unrealistic behaviors. It’s an effort to make yellow’s points more interesting and engaging in the activity, in which I’m less interested in having black’s GK feature.
Since the general concept behind BOTH is comparatively simpler than the other exercises, I’ll spend the next few paragraphs detailing the idea as a bonus aside. Feel free to indulge, or by all means, skip ahead. I’ll motion for your return in bold italics.
Bonus Aside: EFGs as Better Scoring Incentive Devices
An EFG works as follows: a point is scored if a ball enters the small seal at the top, but does not ultimately roll over the wider boundaries once inside. The rationale behind their deployment, plus the angles at which they appear, can be best interpreted with a walkthrough drill design example.
Imagine we’ve just sketched out our general playing area and defined how it is, exactly, that black will train the intended objectives of the session—but we’re looking to incentivize yellow, too. We can’t have one team simply existing for the benefit of the other, so instinctively, many will do one of two things: add two mini goals on the endline, or a big goal in the middle. (We even did that in The Bartender’s Shaker :O). Here’s why, in my most humble opinion, both of those options suck.
Selection A creates an environment in which players attack straight-on halfspace goals that encourage vertical shots towards those respective locations. This might seem fine, right? Halfspaces, Zone 14—everything you read on twitter references these touristy destinations, so they’re probably a good idea.
But then you watch the play unfold.
Soon enough we’ve got our players doing everything “right”, even scoring on the Puggs or Bownets we’ve placed, but if we pluck out the tools upon which they’re scoring, it’s a disaster. The kids are shooting at an area of the field in which that type of ball speed, height, and so on, is utterly useless in a real game. These “shots” are to be translated into passes when we move to a scrimmage, since these “goals” eventually won’t exist, yet the actions the kids are training are far from what we’d demand in these areas of the pitch.
We can refine this understanding with the application of a simple drill design truism: any time you position mini goals like these, ask yourself, “would the actions that bring success in this activity give rise to success outside of it?” That might feel like an awfully useless question, but in our case it’s actually quite poignant. Success inside this game refers to scoring on that mini goal. In order to do that, we must hit a ball with enough intensity that it bypasses the defense and ripples the back of this tiny net. If we took that behavior and did the same exact thing, at the weekend, we’d find ourselves firing a dinger over the endline. It’s incongruous.
The types of balls that traverse this specific threshold of the field tend to be threaded passes into on-running teammates, not “shots” on any sort of goal. These are craftily manufactured. A goal, so long as you hit the target before others can get in the way, is ultimately a very forgiving device to shoot upon. There isn’t exactly any depth accuracy needed, so long as the ball eludes the GK. This is fundamentally dissimilar to a pass, which requires that added texture of probing precision.
We need a better device to replicate what an effective through ball, in these regions, would technically demand from the players. These wide mini goals certainly don’t cut it.
On the left, observe what yellow is doing in the activity vs. what those same motions would result in, without the nets. This doesn’t work. It’s too head-on, too direct, and too magnetizing to the endline. That poor winger will never reach the pass in time, especially with offsides held at the 18. We can’t abstractly reward, today, the precise type of uncultured ball we’d reprimand in a real game.
Now, if we were to even remotely entertain the option of placing a full-sized net, here, we open another Pandora’s Box of unwelcome surprises. For starters, we’d need that grey GK from earlier to keep things remotely competitive. With that, comes a change in how the field is perceived, as the entire group will migrate further towards the roof of our house, with black looking to constrict space and usher yellow away from the massive target—as they should. Yellow may actually be fine with this, as the goal is so welcoming, that potshots from deep will soon emerge as the norm. What we get is a completely transformed activity. And that’s not even getting into what these balls would look like, with that “artificial” net removed. We would never shoot like we would in this drill, in real life. So we’ll bin this atrocity, too.
Well, what can we do, then? We can start by swinging out the angles of the targets and removing them from the endline. This, to start, encourages a diagonality in yellow’s approach. The most comfortable spot to shoot at a target, with the highest xG, is typically right down the middle. That orientation now pivots to be along a line that encourages both vertical and horizontal movement of the ball—a recipe for circumventing and piercing black’s defense. We’ll explain why we’re doing this in a moment, but for now, the logic works out as follows:
What this does, for us, is it takes the success-earning actions of “scoring”—that were once highly direct and aimed straight at the endline—and fans them wide such that, now, executing the same moves in real life would give rise to a far more reasonable line-breaking pass. As such, this re-orientation elicits a more authentic response from yellow, but we’ve still got a reasonable concern about the delivery itself. The ball can travel along the right line, but be of the wrong texture, spin, or speed. How can we dial that in?
Here is where the EFG makes its entrance. Though our swung-out nets are as step in the right direction, these devices leave the door open to the same gnarlily thwacked balls that’ll eventually settle inside of them. The red arrow on the left shows an all-too-firm hit that would puncture field’s outer membrane if we removed this target. Thus, as a remedy, we whip out our scissors and trim down the nets.
Without a bag to collect and ground shots that funnel through the posts, we can opt to mark out an acceptable territory in which they must land, instead. There are two stages of scoring, now. On the right, step one demands that our ball be fired through the gate, while step two expects it to stop rolling before it exits the marked-off region. We now have a method for reeling in the depth lever.
The EFGs, placed here, demand accuracy in our players’ technical output, but also an added layer of finesse. If we simply told them to play a ball into space, that’d be too easy, so we give them an initial target, but force them to find it with more polish. You’ll notice that the shapes of these EFGs are more inviting the more diagonally we play a pass—since one that contrarily finds the narrowest, 45-degree tilted opening, from straight on, will need to be the most carefully struck to avoid rolling over that pesky endline. This is a strong replication of in-game demands. Those two examples are juxtaposed, above.
Now, there are a handful of variations we might consider with EFGs. One sticks out in particular.
A Curling Goal, for instance, takes the other end of the “shot intensity” concern, and adds a resolutional wrinkle. One issue I’ve always grimaced at with un-tended mini-goals is that players will casually walk the ball into the net. This is, similarly, an issue. If you walk the ball in these areas of the field you’ll likely find yourself in a cartoon kerfuffle of legs and #%$*^#! Thus, there appears to be both an issue with hitting the ball too hard and effectively hitting it too soft, too. Because of that, this solution involves a third stage of scoring, between the EFGs original two: you pass through the gate, you don’t stop rolling in the first region, and you do stop in the third. You’re not only landing inside the flask, but hitting a depth target. That might look something like this:
My choice as to not employ the Curling Goal in BOTH comes from how, in this configuration, I felt the device would unnaturally restrict any sorts of penetrative movement from the width of our main possession grid. You really need to attack the central strip in order to have a reasonable chance at scoring, here, and it wasn’t in my interest to discourage intra-halfspace progression.
By leaving that red area valid with the EFGs, the outcome is a bit more balanced.
Further, the out swinging nature of the gates means that a sputtering ball just trickles over the 18 yard line won’t count, either. There is a bit of a reshuffled Curling Goal dynamic at play in this one—you must not stop rolling first, go through a gate second, and only then shall you stop rolling, third. Thus, even though that first area is somewhat small, we eliminate the “dribble in” from the game flow equation.
This was similarly tackled in the, now noticeably erroneous, Bartender’s Shaker—where we somewhat justified the usage of mini-goals with a deadzone in front of them to avoid walk-ins. I refrained from getting into all this logic, up there, for the sake of article rhythm, but we might certainly return to our first exercise now and perform some slight modifications to consider our new observation.
The key to mention, in any case, is that EFGs and Curling Goals are highly flexible devices that add some refinement to any session plan. You can morph the “holding receptacle”, or the deadzone that comes before it, however you may please.
For our BOTH exercise, the EFG actually grants us one final advantage, more closely related to our learning objective of blindside awareness. Since yellow has to play suaver passes to “score”, they’ll find themselves creeping forward to get closer to a comfortable range. It’s the opposite effect that we’d witness if a full size net with a keeper were plopped there, instead. What this does, is manufacture repetitions in which the defense for our mini-Haaland’s counter is stepping high, trying to get closer to the EFGs, prompting black to seize those rapid Bust Out moments with greater verve. If yellow is able to shoot from distance, and sit back, they’ll have an easier time coordinating chasers and make proper sealing behavior less rewarding, as our streaking attacker will inevitably find less success. To prime the drill with Hintereggers and Ndickas, we draw yellow out with our newfangled scoring device, and make black salivate at the mere thought of a quick transition.
For those flipping ahead, welcome back!
Ultimately, the other details surrounding game flow here are strongly variable. You can switch sides whenever you please, time intervals as you deem fit, and so on. Out of bounds are fairly standard. If an attempt to score is made, but failed, on either end, the ball goes to the defensive team to start building out of the back.
The hope, at the end of the day, that Bust Out The House generates loads of iterations in which our attackers must observe their surroundings recovering in their blindside, in order to instruct their sealing behavior. Scans while running down a through ball into the channel or halfspace will tell them if 1 player is careening right at them, if 3 are lagging behind, or if 2 are performing some bait and switch marking scheme. These folks will swiftly recognize the value in scanning before the pass is even delivered, to provide a picture of who is even lining up at the race’s startline to begin with. A teammate might make a run from deep and attract no markers, granting them a head start—which may prove to be a beneficial learning experience, too. A striker’s pinning behavior may be rewarded in scenarios of this form. Those that ski along the offside line may also generate some additional speed prior to the full sprint.
These are all compelling outcomes from an activity, that all things considered, is fairly exploratory and hands-off in how it instructs the learning objective. There’s less of a blatant prompt to scan, necessarily, just an environment that is far richer if a player does. Assuming you coach a culture in which player intelligence is praised and rewarded, the kids will observe and implement this, soon enough.
To conclude our little expedition—with a batch of boys or girls who’ve embraced the rough and tumble sealing requirements, have purified their goal-oriented first touches, and championed the importance of owl-like necks when breaking loose—we tackle the final stage of our Haaland-esque dribbling circuit: sharpening situational techniques.
From each of the goals we delightfully witnessed above, we observed different chance-creation problems for the Brautmeister himself to solve. Against Augsburg he slowed down and cut inside, against Hertha he latched onto a defensive blunder from wide, against Hoffenheim he burst through the center, and against Leverkusen he drove a through ball from out to in—on his weaker foot. Each scenario was a slightly different application of the tool we’ve been grinding to a coruscating tip.
Thus, as we expand upon our three foundational skills, we enter a realm of drill-design freedom. We can look to take any of these more specific ball-reception and ball-retention moments and form abstractions that enable our team to train them. These are less about coming to terms with new principles, but instead, about repeating technically challenging movements until they become second-nature. Consider drill 4 as more of an application phase.
The example I’ll put forth is called Diamond Curtains: a game in which attackers learn to receive balls facing the sideline, with a defender on their backs, and turn towards goal. Niche, yes. But ubiquitously util. The field looks a bit like this:
Teams play 8 v 8 inside the same possession grid from Bust Out The House, spanning the 18 to the half, and sharing the penalty box width. If one were transitioning the exercise from just having run BOTH, the trapezoidal ceiling from before essentially earns a little gable roof (shown in black), while the angles may be slightly adjusted to fit the field. The addition is mirrored down below. Inside of the main possession grid, a diamond is formed by joining the midpoints of each wall. Contextual midlines are drawn between opposite ends. Play starts inside of the black diamond, centrally.
Scoring is identical for both teams. In order to put points on the board, a pass must be played into an outlying yellow triangle, neighboring the diamond’s four quarters. Once this occurs, one yellow and one white player may enter. The attacker will look to briskly beat the defender across the triangle’s endline, signaling the entrance to the black endzone shown at the pitch’s North and South poles. After unlocking this region, the attack will be permitted to fire a shot off from a few yards/meters away (defined by that line that prevents walking the ball into the net, as previously discussed). It is likely that the opponent will be hot on their heels, so in order to maximize opportunities, here—you guessed it—we’ll need to seal.
Both teams may line up however you feel is the most applicable abstraction from your typical structure. I’ve gone with a 2-3-3 or a 2-3-2-1 that represents a 2-3-5 without wingers—a more attack-minded interpretation of my beloved 3-2-5 in possession. This is strongly reminiscent of how Man City organize themselves under Pep Guardiola. “The WW”.
In positioning the teams like this, we generate some lovely challenges for each attacking side to solve. Those two sideline-facing, diagonal, diamond endlines each have two defenders sandwiching one attacker. Up the gut, we’ve got the same. Our front three are simultaneously woven into what feels like 1 v 2 outnumbered scenarios, but in sharing those defenders, there exists ample room for movement that can generate temporary 1 v 1s that’ll overflow into yellow-triangle duels. Spreading the field, overloading the “width” (halfspaces), late runs from deep, and so on, will all be vital to breaking the deadlock.
Comfortable possessional superiorities in the early stages of build-up will reproduce in-game truisms, while the tapering of the diamond field will serve as a social lubricant, forcing a central convergence that urges everyone get to know one another. This is tight and energetic.
If a ball enters a yellow triangle, but the defender wins back possession, they must re-enter the diamond on the dribble or via pass, to resume play going the other way. If a player enters the triangle and stalls for time, be it by not being sufficiently incisive and staging a more head-on duel, or purely deliberately, several gameflow measures may be introduced.
Of them, a timer (i.e. a 8 second limit) may be useful for yellow triangle occupation, but may also be obnoxious to enforce.
If an assistant coach is available, this may be a convenient way to keep them engaged with the drill. I’m of the opinion that the leader of a session seldom ought to concern themselves with the effectuation of guidelines, and should instead keep the air clear of sentiments outside the pure learning objective. Don’t dilute the sound waves with calling balls out of bounds, or whistling fouls. Stick with the program. As such, whenever the team hears the head coach speak, they’ll know it’s a genuine point to listen to. Assistants, meanwhile, are often left without a word in, edgewise, so by granting them the job of regulating the session, you give an authoritative voice to someone who may not frequently be considered in that light. It’s a win-win, especially if the alternative is that you do everything while the others watch. I refer to it with a very unimaginative phrase: “coach don’t ref”.
In the case that the maximum time elapses, coaches may position extra balls by each yellow-triangle-outer-corner and initiate the next play by popping one in from the farside. Those dillydallying on the near end will have to relinquish their lethargic battle and scurry over to help. This will certainly keep things moving. The three stages below show a yellow triangle being unlocked, a pitiful dearth of alacrity upon arrival, the expiry of an assistant’s timer, re-entry from the farside, and a quick counter. We want seals, not standard duels. Make it happen fast, or don’t—but that decisiveness is critical if you want to win.
If a player crosses into that triangle and maintains possession, they may also re-enter the black diamond via dribble or pass, if the penetrative drive into the endzone isn’t on. In the case of a negative ball, they may only re-receive the rock if they return inside the core area, to respect the “offsides” boundary. This might encourage attackers to make decoy runs into space, receive a throughball, quickly reroute, switch, and probe a newly-vacant space left behind. Static positioning won’t be rewarded in Diamond Curtains.
This game will get our team blistering through reps in an entertaining new shape.
It’s worth descrying the fact that there are certainly avenues through which one might enter the yellow triangles withoutfacing the sideline, too. A ball into a striker may be laid off horizontally, for instance, for a “fullback” to charge ahead. This may be a tad troublesome—in terms of achieving our ideal sequence—but with the defense forced to meet the ball along a central-to-wide path, the black endzone’s tapering will encourage any deep-streaker to curve their run inside and cut off the enemy, regardless. What we don’t want, again, is for the defense to get their feet set. Even in this alternative scenario, sealing can be displayed to a tee.
From here, at stage four of our drill design exposé, the options are significantly open ended. The more tape of Haaland’s you consume, the more trends you’ll notice, and the more learning environments you’ll look to replicate within training. Perhaps you could practice finishing with defenders closing in laterally and from behind! Maybe an exercise on the variation of pace, and how to modulate that knob throughout a seal would be a worthwhile endeavor. There’s plenty of room to run with this.
Let’s take a moment to recap what we’ve worked through, together.
In the conventional sense, good dribblers are classified by those that grab our attention with their poetic caress of the ball. We tend to link flair with this specific art, because of how inextricably connected they feel—but at the top level, it is more valuable for a ball carrier to simply bypass opponents, or maintain control under heavy pressure, than it is to necessarily dazzle us with a tap dance.
Joga bonito is subject to The Reel Problem Fallacy, in which highlights transform into modus operandi per Kahneman’s Availability Heuristic. We, as humans, enjoy framing sport as it was intended: a war, and more specifically, a collective fight comprised of microcosmic duels between individuals. The sight of Allan Saint-Maximin approaching a desperately pleading fullback is a recipe for the precise physical rodomontade we feel justifies the price of our tickets. That form of individual expression, the charming arrogance it takes for a no-look flick, these are rare things in a team sport, and deserve to be deeply cherished. Yet, even as ASM is one of the world’s finest on-ball entertainers, and his dribbling often means the circus is fully in town, Newcastle still finds itself towards the bottom of that table. As harsh as it sounds, the fun won’t be so fun if Newcastle winds up in the second division.
It’d be dismissively asinine to suggest that The Magpies’ standing is remotely Saint-Maximin’s fault; he may well be a player worthy of Champions League opportunities. That being said, he is the squad’s attacking star, and a npxG+xA output of 0.36 p/90 (21st percentile across positional peers in Men’s Big 5 Leagues and European Competition, sampled from 2598 minutes played, per FBref), leaves us wondering whether this is the genuine upper ceiling of dribbling performance we ought to clamor for.
Perhaps we should dig for something deeper.
In no world should we look past a player who’s readily eager to take players on (hell, contrary to common opinion, I’d love Adama Traore at Barcelona), but we should just as equally acknowledge the existence of a traditionally overlooked profile: those without the rhythmically swinging hips or jaunty pirouettes, but with a terminator’s appetite for efficiency. This exclusive collection of players is smaller, by definition—and by virtue of their unassuming talent, harder to find—but when you see a member, you’ll know.
These kids recognize that when it’s time to actually produce some end product, there are plenty of moments in which the individual demand isn’t to elude or even barrel through a defender. Strikers, in particular, are often tasked with interpreting space, running into it to chase down a bouncing leather package, and driving that thing back to its netted home. With teams playing increasingly aggressively over time, the propagation of everyone’s adoration with attack/possession-based ideologies, and faster center backs that can more easily justify high lines—we’re seeing more and more techno football played at the speed of sound. This means we need players who can hold off those parasites climbing over their backs to halt the onslaught.
The definition of “beating players” may, therefore, be reasonably adapted to include “staying beaten”—as doing the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter.
When we try to understand the freak of nature that is my favorite footballing prodigy, Erling Haaland, we keenly jot on our mental notepad that he is, perhaps, the elite constituent in this tightly-knit cohort of dribblers.
His physical properties make it easy for anyone to pigeonhole him as someone whose sole weakness is “probably dribbling” itself—but our special microscope can dig up mounds and mounds of evidence to prove otherwise.
This occult organism is exceptionally aware of his (minimal) limits, and critically, doesn’t expose himself to too many Neymarian encounters. He’s got that one highlight where he prances through a crowd of Leipzig players, but he much prefers to receive, drag defenders, lay off, and pierce the lines in behind. In these self-engineered moments, he’s the soccer equivalent of a grinning trucker barreling his semi down the side of a bumpy mountain. There is absolutely no stopping that thing—and it’s hard to say that about many others.
Haaland’s ridiculous dribbling ability is no accident. It’s upheld by his herculean proportions, but the Norwegian’s gambeta is the product of highly deliberate tactical and mental training. Most traditional dribblers are taught to avoid contact with others, hence their goal of sidestepping the defense, but Haaland assumes a far more bellicose stance. Even if a path is paved ahead of him, he looks for collision, to cut drivers off on the bustling highways of the Westfalenstadion, because he knows that the smartest racers would prefer to race no one, than race at all. This is The Art of The Seal.
By selecting opponents and springily clacking the delete key, Haaland rarely looks like he’s ever going toe to toe with anyone, but that’s because his enemies can barely find the entrance to the Parthenon. The second he’s in, you’re out. And yes, he’s in.
Now, while countless coaches across the world instruct their kiddos to do unopposed scissors in the face of a cone, you and I looked to the sky and asked—”I wonder if there’s a way to teach this, instead?”
And sure enough, after a bit of winding exploration, we may have come up with a few things.
The way I see it, the first hurdle worth overcoming is that conflict aversion we’ve so firmly seared into our player’s heads. It’s totally natural. You shoot and try to avoid the keeper. You pass and try to avoid the lunging interceptors. But when you want to learn how to play like Haaland, you don’t hesitate in reaching for the Garden’s forbidden fruit.
This counterintuitiveness means we have a creased habit to un-crease. This, as expressed in Part 1, is no trivial feat. Neural networks take time to unwind, but we might begin with something simple: an environment like The Bartender’s Shaker—the closest TT might ever get to Nuclear Physics—and a place in which atoms must collide to succeed. At this soccer saloon, the folks are bumping and jiving left and right, to the maraca-n rhythm of ice sloshing around in a cocktail-to-be. We build our team’s comfort in embodying the heat-seeking missile until they begin to appreciate the benefit individually.
At this juncture, we progress to refine the goal-oriented first touch compelled by The Cow Tipper. On this skill-acquisition farm, those that fail to butcher incisively don’t get to eat! That hunger, magnified by the pressure of their hicksville friends munchin on ribeye and filet just one barn over, will drive them to focus their blacksmith operation. As the knife sharpens, they’ll take more efficient advantage of the opportunities that come their way—and who knows—maybe the steak-flavored tide will turn in their favor.
The juices are running now—with a team eager to brush shoulders, and with the cultured urgency to slit the opposition’s throats—so it’s time to practice some good ol’ vision. Escape rooms are hard enough, we don’t need to be blindfolded, do we? In Bust Out The House, we transplant our burgeoning talents into an open but confined space. In order to decamp, our group must find balls out to the flanks that force our emergent mini-Haalands to have eyes in the backs of their heads. Once this achievement is unlocked, they’ll know exactly what kinds of fruits are up next in that old iPod ninja swiping game, giving them a supreme advantage as they look to slice across each one. The emergence of EFGs and Curling Goals gave us the chance to explore an intriguing drill design aside, in parallel.
To close, though the road remains wide open for further exploration, we extract a specific moment in which to apply these developed techniques. Diamond Curtains is the closing act of our work, here, today, and bestows the opportunity to crash, cut, and catch sight of plenty sealable enemies. The challenge, in this case, is to turn balls from outside, in. It’s chock full of other educational goodies, too.
As for closing remarks, I should always be upfront in expressing that these are merely internet concepts that you, or anyone you know are free to run with. Make whatever adaptations you like, ignore whatever you consider to be heinous, and by all means, critique what you think is worth changing. As I look back at Part 1, one of Touchline Theory readers’ favorite pieces from over a year ago, I’m confronted with all sorts of now-amusing errors in judgement, drill design mistakes, and so on. I’m certain that with another year of growth, practice, and learning, this study shared today will grant me the same dose of hindsight chuckles.
If you enjoyed working through some of these examples with me—thank you! I’m glad you did. If not, that’s cool, too, just be sure to let me know what you think.
If you took anything away from this piece, more so than any of the specific sessions or dissected clips, I hope it’s the meticulous methodology that sticks. All too often, coaches run with unquestioned assumptions, draw drill lines that carry no stories of their own, shy away from the abstraction of complex topics to begin with, or simply cross their fingers that their lads will get better in tomorrow’s 8 v 8 with a neutral. Often, this is a time or energy constraint issue! We certainly can’t produce things like this for every training day. But once in a while, it’s good to test our own limits a bit. Try to justify the way you sketch things. Push yourself to stop overlooking the details.
Like Matt Damon keeps reminding me in that Crypto commercial that incessantly pops up on my Hulu ad breaks, fortune favors the brave. Bust Out The House with me, won’t cha?
As our flight lands on the fertile soil of the Romsdalshalvøya, I can only help but smile at our next generation’s most compelling new protagonist. My gratuitous praise of Erling Haaland is at times, I’m sure, deserving of a few eye rolls, but he’s quite the remarkable creature. A year ago I devoted 11,000 words to how miraculously and consistently he found himself on the end of rebounds, ricochets, and deliveries that everyone else gave up on. Today, I’ve added nearly 7,000 to last year’s tally and spent it all talking about how this endearing Frankenstein carries the ball. As for Part 3, well, he only keeps on getting better. We’ll just have to wait and see what he shows us next.
And on that note,
’til next time.