Saturday, June 15

How the sole of the foot sparked a tactical revolution in football

Antonio Vacca can remember the moment well.

In truth, the Italian is unlikely to forget it anytime soon, given he not only gets to see his “little theory put into practice” every time he watches Brighton & Hove Albion play on television, but he also has Roberto De Zerbi’s initials tattooed on him.

The story Vacca recalls goes back to De Zerbi’s time in charge of the Serie C club Foggia, between 2014 and 2016, and an incident in a training match that fundamentally changed how the Brighton manager viewed build-up play, and, ultimately, contributed to one of football’s modern tactical trends.

As a keen futsal and five-a-side player in his home city of Naples, Vacca developed an instinct to use the sole of his foot as a method of receiving possession. “I found it easier to stop and control the ball that way,” he tells The Athletic.

De Zerbi saw talent and intelligence in Vacca and believed he could play at a higher level, but there were also moments when he found the midfielder’s use of the sole of his foot frustrating. Sometimes De Zerbi would stop training and say to Vacca: “Sorry, if you need the sole, you have to use it. But if you don’t need it, you don’t.”

The practice match in question threatened to be another of those occasions as De Zerbi urged Vacca to shift the ball more quickly, only this time the coach received a response that stopped him in his tracks.

“My team-mates on the opposing side weren’t stepping out to press me, so the Mister (coach) kept telling me: ‘Pass it, move it’,” Vacca explains. “So I replied: ‘Mister, if our opponents on Sunday come here and play for a point and I move it without getting one of them to jump and press the ball, it’s no use’.

“I argued that if I put the sole of my foot on the ball and lured my opponent out, I’ve invited him to press me. As he does that, we can break the line with a pass.”

Some coaches could react negatively to a player disagreeing with them on the training pitch and making a tactical suggestion, but that was never De Zerbi’s way. Vacca and others would spend hours in the coach’s office talking tactics.

“People who don’t know him might have another idea, but he’s really humble and a footballer can tell him anything,” Vacca says. “He’s the one who has the final say, but when you say something to him, he’ll go away and think about it.

“I remember the following day he said, ‘Vacca’s right. When our opponents sit back, we need to put the sole of the foot on the ball and get them to come out, provoke them, because when a player sees you standing on the ball like that, it sparks something inside them’.”

Many years later, during a two-hour webinar, De Zerbi credited Vacca with opening his eyes to the tactical value of using the sole of the foot as a means of inviting pressure and giving him one of his core build-up principles as a coach.

The images below, which are taken from Brighton’s FA Cup tie against Liverpool last season, illustrate what that looks like.

Adam Webster has his studs on top of the ball, enticing Cody Gakpo (circled) to press. Alexis Mac Allister comes short to offer an option…

… Webster feeds the ball into the midfielder and Pascal Gross (circled) is the free man.

Mac Allister passes inside to Gross and Brighton have worked the triangle perfectly.

Vacca’s influence on De Zerbi feeds into a wider conversation around the increasing use of the sole of the foot in build-up play at other clubs, as well as the tactical game of cat and mouse that often sits alongside it.

Sunday’s Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City was a classic example.

When Arsenal goalkeeper David Raya put his studs on top of the ball in the image below, it was the trigger for the City midfielder Rico Lewis (circled) to lead the press. For context, Raya had already received the ball twice from Arsenal defenders in this passage of play (City didn’t always choose to press Raya when he used his sole).

The second of those Arsenal passes back to Raya was made by William Saliba, shown below. You can also see how City’s six-man press is narrow to stop Arsenal from playing through them.

Raya ends up playing a ‘bounce’ pass to Jorginho, with the intention of dragging City’s press further forward and freeing space up elsewhere.

But what’s interesting here is the home supporters’ growing anxiety, which could be heard loud and clear (and it was not fuelled by the moment when Julian Alvarez nearly scored after pressing Raya — that hadn’t happened at this point).

A hurried clearance upfield from Gabriel follows — all that patience turns to panic — with Martin Odegaard (circled below with his arms outstretched) frustrated that the centre-back didn’t slide the ball into his feet.

We saw Raya with his foot on top of the ball a lot on Sunday and taking time with his pass selection, in the hope that a City player would press him and leave an Arsenal player free.

That was the plan but it troubled some supporters.

“It’s all my fault,” the Arsenal manager said, referring to the crowd reaction. “They can boo me. He (Raya) was excellent. He’s got ‘big ones’ because with the crowd going like this, other players — I’ve seen it — they start to kick balls everywhere. I said to him, ‘You don’t do that’.”

In this final example from Sunday, Raya had the ball at his feet for 23 seconds, which must feel like an absolute age when 60,000 eyes are on you in the stadium and City could jump and press at any given moment. As Arteta alluded to with his “big ones” comment, it requires a lot of courage to stay calm, ignore the background noise, and wait for the movement patterns to unfold, which is what happened here.

Eventually, Declan Rice, circled below, comes from left to right to rotate with Jorginho and receive possession. Mateo Kovacic is briefly caught between the two Arsenal players and, arriving late, commits the foul on Rice that should have led to a second yellow card.

The static element of the modern game is intriguing from a tactical point of view, even if it’s not everyone’s idea of fun in the stadium or watching at home on the sofa.

“Playing with a pause is massive at the moment,” says a coach at a leading Premier League club, who was speaking on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to give an interview.

“As football has developed in the last 10 years, pressing and build-up has become the key feature. You watch a top-level game and a lot of it is about, ‘How well do you press the opponent’s build-up?’. So these more sophisticated ways of attracting pressure to take advantage… like Ederson, he’ll put the sole of his foot on the ball.

“It’s basically bait… who is prepared to let a ball be completely static? That’s why it’s quite interesting now when you watch games against Manchester City — and it will happen against Brighton — when the ball will just be completely still and nobody will press anyone. That’s also the next evolution: if we know they’re trying to do this to us, what do we do to counteract it?”



How Football Works: Third-man combinations in the double pivot

There is a technical element as well as a tactical benefit to receiving the ball with the sole during build-up.

“If you receive the ball leaning to one side, you exclude yourself from a play,” De Zerbi explained in his webinar. “If you have it to the left, you could not play to the right. If you receive the ball with the sole and from the front, you can play to the side you want. There, you have total control of the ball.”

The images below, taken from Manchester City’s Premier League win over Arsenal towards the end of last season, highlight that point. In this instance, Granit Xhaka chooses to press Ederson after Rodri passes the ball back to the City goalkeeper.

By receiving with his sole rather than taking the ball to the left or right, Ederson gives no indication to Xhaka (circled) as to what he is going to do next.

Ederson can still go either way right up to the last second.

He eventually slides a pass to Ilkay Gundogan, who lays the ball off to Rodri (unmarked because of Xhaka’s decision to jump and press Ederson) and City are ‘out’.

As well as keeping his passing options open by controlling with the sole, Ederson never took his eyes off his team-mates or Xhaka.

“You don’t have to look down again for the ball,” says Paul McGuinness, who spent 25 years as a youth coach at Manchester United and is a big advocate of using the sole of the foot. “You have 360-degree control, you can look at your opponent and instantly play the ball. It’s the timing of it, it’s the milliseconds it gives you.”

It also means that the opposition find it hard to co-ordinate their press.

“They’ve taken the clues away,” explains Ian Cathro, who worked alongside Nuno Espirito Santo at Valencia, Porto, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. “Usually, when the ball is in movement, there’s an indication as to where it’s going next and that also triggers presses. So if a centre-back receives the ball and takes it across his body, that’s indicating where the pass is likely to go.

“If the ball goes still, you force the opponent to be the one who makes the decision. You then just need to be good enough to be able to act upon the decision (the opponent makes) and be willing to take that pressure.”

In Brighton’s case, acting upon the decision is not random or spontaneous. Their passing patterns are largely determined by how and where opponents press and are rehearsed over and over on the training ground.

“The sole-of-the-foot stillness element is to force the opponent to jump. Based on that jump, De Zerbi and the players already know: ‘Here’s my one, two, three patterns to take the space that’s been left by this jump’,” Cathro explains. “In Spain, they refer to it as ‘automatismos’.”

Those moves are well choreographed. Even before Lewis Dunk put his foot on top of the ball in the still below, Billy Gilmour was signalling where the next pass should be played.

As soon as Fred (circled) motions to step forward, Julio Enciso comes short and…

… Gilmour (circled) is now free on the other side of Fred.

Of course, it still needs a high level of technical ability to execute the passes and, as we saw in Brighton’s 2-2 draw against Liverpool on Sunday, the consequences are severe when a mistake is made deep in their own half.

But there’s also another question to ask here: what happens if the opponent doesn’t take the bait?

West Ham refused to press and adopted a low block in their 3-1 win over Brighton in August, leading to De Zerbi’s team slowly probing, which isn’t quite the same as the “stillness element” that Cathro talked about. In the latter scenario, the team trying to provoke stands its ground when the bait isn’t taken.

If you are wondering what that looks like, watch this moment from England versus Israel at the Under-21 European Championship in July. Levi Colwill had the ball at his feet for 32 seconds, then 12 seconds, then 14 seconds, all in the space of less than a minute and a half. It was a bizarre passage of play, genuinely uncomfortable to watch — there were loud whistles in the stadium — and made you wonder if the TV had frozen.

Something similar happened when Burnley played Manchester City on the opening day of the Premier League season and Vincent Kompany instructed his team not to press Ederson so they could keep the ‘outfield’ game 10-versus-10. Burnley’s supporters got more and more annoyed as Ederson (pictured below) stood alone with his foot on top of the ball.

There is a theory that some ‘lesser’ teams may find it easier than others to employ the deep block that Burnley and Israel Under-21s used.

“One of Brighton’s real benefits is that they are a ‘smaller’ club — there are at least seven teams who go to the Amex feeling a responsibility to press and attack them,” says the Premier League coach who spoke earlier.

“If you are Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, you can’t go to Brighton and sit back — it wouldn’t be accepted.

“If you imagine that you’re a United striker and a Brighton player has actually stopped the ball dead on the pitch, your reaction would be: ‘I have to engage with the ball. We are Man United. We can’t have a Brighton player standing with his foot on the ball’.

“But that’s exactly what they want. They’re waiting for that moment and the minute you jump, someone is free and they play these really well-timed combinations in midfield and play around you.”

Cathro nods. “It’s difficult for the stadium to accept, that’s true,” he says. “It becomes a much bigger test for the strength of character of both coach and players — but probably more so the players because they’re the ones who are on the pitch and going to feel the heat.

“It always comes down to simple things, like the dynamic between players and fans, the score and then you’ve got the other bit — the things that are in your mind: ‘Have we lost in the last eight games? Have we won in the last eight games?’.”

Higher up the pitch, the use of the sole of the foot as a receiving method divides opinion. One of the criticisms from some coaches is that controlling the ball with the sole can become a default setting for players irrespective of how each phase of play looks and slows decision-making as a result.

It was identified as a problem with Bruno Guimaraes before his move to Newcastle from Lyon in January 2022. Performa Sports, a consultancy based in Rio that provides bespoke performance analysis, started working with Guimaraes in September 2021 and highlighted an area of the midfielder’s game that needed to improve.

“At the start, we had one strong perception with Bruno: that he had a lot of vices from futsal,” Eduardo Barthem, an analyst for Performa Sports and Guimaraes’ main point of contact at the consultancy, told The Athletic in August.

“He had played it (futsal) for a long time — longer than most kids in Brazil — and you could tell. The main one was his first touch: every time he received the ball, he’d put his foot on it like they do in futsal. Only then would he start to open up his body. It meant he wasted a lot of time.

“We showed him a few videos that demonstrated this really clearly. You have to control the ball in a way that gives you time and allows you to make the most of the space that is there. The way he did it, he missed out on a lot of passing opportunities.”

Barthem described the videos they showed Guimaraes as a “lightbulb” moment for the player, and the Brazilian adapted his game accordingly.

Equally, it feels like there is a balance to be struck, bearing in mind there are clearly times when receiving with the sole of the foot, even in advanced areas, can be beneficial, especially as a form of disguise.

The example below shows Philippe Coutinho, during his Bayern Munich days, threatening to shoot, controlling with the sole, then threading a clever ball down the side for Ivan Perisic.

Coutinho’s use of the sole of the foot had a big influence on Adam Lallana when they were team-mates at Liverpool.

It says much about the way players are — or were — developed differently in other parts of the world that Lallana said the first time he ever came across players regularly using the sole of the foot to control the ball was when he watched Coutinho and Roberto Firmino at Liverpool. Both Brazilians played futsal when they were younger.

“I wish I’d learnt it off them sooner,” Lallana told The Athletic last year.

Sold on the benefits of using the sole of the foot, Lallana has brought up his son, who is with Southampton’s academy, to receive the ball in a way that he was never coached to do himself. “I’m saying to him: ‘Control it with the sole of your foot, it will buy you an extra second’. Not every time, but in moments. You need to keep doing it to know when you can do it and when you can’t.”

The extent to which that is being coached more widely is difficult to know, but some working in the game are sceptical.

“It’s good that people like De Zerbi are coming in — a bit more progressive. But there’s still a lot of people in English football who are very stuck in their ways,” says Saul Isaksson-Hurst, a one-to-one coach who works with elite footballers at senior and academy level.

“The key thing is challenging players to stay on the ball. Normally it’s, ‘Get the ball, get rid of it, play forward quickly’. That’s always been how we play. So players tend to develop these skills autonomously. But the reality is that we should be challenging all of our players to have these assets, not just some of them.”

Interestingly, Brighton’s academy recently added “provoke the press” to their core coaching principles.

“Each year we do a review of our coaching and playing philosophy,” explains Dan Wright, Brighton’s academy coaching and pathway manager. “It’s a principle-based programme that we use — that’s important. So it’s not like, ‘(former manager) Graham Potter played like this, so we play like this. De Zerbi plays like this, so we play like this’.

“We have principles from pre-academy to under-nines and all the way through. ‘Provoke the press’ is now one of those principles. How you do that would involve the use of the goalkeeper and the sole of the foot.”

It takes courage to play that way and, invariably, mistakes will be made at times by academy players, especially when it comes to knowing the right time to release the pass. To make the concept easier to understand for children, Wright says one of his staff makes a comparison with taking your bread out of the toaster before it burns.

“Interestingly, this year, probably because of De Zerbi, teams are coming to our training ground and sitting in a block on the halfway line — that’s at under-11s and under-12s — and letting us have the ball,” Wright adds.

“So the whole idea of provoking a press is to get in behind. It’s like an artificial transition, creating a counter-attack even though you already have the ball and that works.

“But now some of the coaches just park and put a bank (of players in a low block), so the kids are really waiting, putting their foot on the ball and saying: ‘No one is coming!’. So that’s a new football problem for us: how do you play through a block?”

Maybe Vacca has a solution up his sleeve for that, too. For now, though, the 33-year-old is enjoying seeing De Zerbi and Brighton benefit from his moment of wisdom on the training ground all those years ago.

“It gives me great pleasure to see the Mister put my little theory into practice,” Vacca says. “I often watch Brighton — no, scratch that. I always watch them. When they lose, I feel like I lost, too. I really care.

“I’ve been over to Brighton to see the Mister. I was there with him for five days, dining at his house, in his office, at the training ground.

“I have a tattoo of his initials, RDZ. He left a mark on me, on my skin but in my head, too — because now I can’t watch football any other way than his football.”



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(Additional reporting: Jack Lang)

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)