During Sunday's match between North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars, we witnessed two phenomenal defensive efforts by respective center backs Julie Ertz and Abby Erceg. They stood out to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the distance each defender had to make up was immense. Let's take Abby Erceg's tackle first and her starting position. Now granted, there is some contact by her center back partner, Abby Dahlkemper, on Kealia Watt that slows the forward down, but if you look at Erceg's reaction, the distance she made up, and the fact that she managed to influence the shot on goal, it's an incredible effort all around. Although she doesn't manage to block the shot, she does limit Watt's ability to open up her right foot to finish and that may be one of the reasons why her shot was close to the goalkeeper (see below).
In Julie Ertz's tackle it was the recovery plus the technique that jumped out for me. You can see in the video below that Lynn Williams cuts inside and almost makes it impossible for Ertz to get to the ball. If she fouls her here, it could be a penalty or a red card situation. Given these conditions, most defenders would accept those consequences and make the last ditch tackle, or slow down slightly and trust that their goalkeeper makes a save. Ertz does neither of those and instead opts to go around Williams and add more distance to her run, before making the tackle. This therefore is not only a masterclass in recovery speed, but also in decision making and defensive technique. Just when you thought it could not get any better, Ertz was up right away and ready to defend the second ball as the camera cuts away.
Both tackles reminded me of Ledley King's effort against Arjen Robben and Chelsea in 2008.
However, as much as coaches admire and enjoy this type of defensive effort, we should maybe reflect on why it's not that common today. Somehow the willingness to make these types of recovery runs does not match the progressions we are making in sports science and tactical analysis. So why is that?
I posted a tweet some time ago about certain aspects that I feel hold individual players back when it comes to transitioning effectively.
However, more recently, I would certainly make an addition to this list and that would be more towards coaching and session design. I feel that too often exercises that do have a transitional component are performed in an area that is too small to challenge the players. Take this exercise below for example. Does it work for building up against a press? Absolutely. But it may not fulfill every aspect of build up that you require. Both instances in Sunday's game were against a medium block. Yes, more time on the ball for the defenders, but also, less space potentially in front of them to find players in attacking positions... and more risk. I think it's always worth considering that while an exercise may be excellent in teaching a component of the game, you may also have to vary your session planning to paint pictures that you want them to be aware of.
Another reason that session design can hold players back in transition is how the build-up is actually coached. When coaching the team in possession in the build-up, I often see coaches stop the session as soon as a mistake is made by a defender in possession. Yes, there may be some benefits to revisiting the scenario and identifying different options, but you also run the risk of completely removing the opportunity for the defender to recover from the mistake and to be tested in this area. In order to coach players how to recover in these situations, we have to be comfortable exposing them to the mistake in the first place and then challenging them to react from it. And finally, if it does happen, please celebrate it in the exact same way you would a wonderful piece of skill or a goal. What gets recognized typically gets repeated, and if you want these types of actions to be commonplace in your environment, the coach must highlight them at every opportunity.
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