Within instances of the ball arriving at his feet, Xavi Hernandez looks around him, takes in what runs his team-mates are making and then moves the ball on. It is a simple process yet, within a team of the ball playing ability of Barcelona, it is also a devastating one; capable of ripping to shreds the best laid plans of most teams.
Few players embody Barcelona’s style of play as much as Xavi. His ability to pass through bigger and more physically imposing players mirrors his team’s favoured way of winning games. It is difficult to determine what is more impressive; whether it is the fluidity or the speed at which all of their attacks are created. No matter how tight opposing teams try marking Xavi – or his teammates, for the matter – they always seem to find a way through.
The main reason for this is that Xavi is a fantastically talented player, one who can see the game in a way few in the world can.
Why is that the case, however? What is it that makes him so special?
Those are the questions that Geir Jordet has been trying to answer and answer in a very specific method: by looking at players’ faces during games.
One typical study involved using video images from Sky Sport’s split screen – the larger image focusing on the player whilst the smaller image showing the overall play – he analysed 64 games from the Premier League. Attention was focused on situations where the player had relevant information behind his back that he had to detect. As for the players’ visual movement, he looked at instances where players’ faces were temporarily and actively directed away from the ball looking for teammates, opponents and scanning the environment.
Such studies have allowed him to develop a number of ground-breaking ideas about what he terms visual exploration.
“Visual exploration is the behaviours that people need to conduct in order to perceive,” he explains. “So perception, which is actually processing information, is obviously something that a good football player needs to be good at in order to make his decisions on the pitch.”
“Good perception is active perception. I think there is a misunderstanding that perception can happen by passively absorbing information. In my studies it seems that effective perception is active which means that you have to hunt for information, you have to actively go out and obtain information. This leads to the whole concept of visual exploration which is, very concisely, moving your head and moving your eyes in order to perceive.”
The insight that Geir’s work delivers is that a player’s ability to ‘know’ where others are on the pitch is neither accidental nor solely the function of his skill. Instead, it is all down to how much he looks at what is happening around him before he gets the ball.
“That is something that every coach and probably every player knows which is that you have to look before you get the ball. That way you are prepared for when you do get the ball and not start preparing at that late point.”
“What I've done, which I don't think many people have done, is to actually go in and analyse exactly what happens with some of the best players in the world in the seconds before they get the ball. And there is so much activity going on. There is so much looking, there is so much searching and there is so much exploration. That is why I find the players who explore the most actively in that period before they get the ball they also perform better when they get the ball. I think that there is a need to focus a bit more on that side of the game then what people usually do.”
“This is the case on multiple levels. What I find in my studies is that at the simplest level players that look more also perform better. That seems to be a very consistent finding across situations, across leagues and across levels.”
“I also find that the better players explore more actively, they search more in the seconds before they get the ball. You can also dig into the nuances of this and the details of it.”
“I think that the better players adapt more to the situations, they time their explorations to the kind of situation they find themselves in, how much time they have, how important it is to look at the ball versus looking at their surroundings.”
“Generally I think that players tend to look too much at the ball; you don't really need all the information you get from the ball. Ideally players should, in my opinion, only look to get the necessary minimum from the ball and spend the rest of the time looking at their surroundings.”
It might be easy to assume that all this applies only to midfield players after all, they are the heartbeat of the team and they are the ones who dictate the rhythm of the game. But that isn’t the case.
“It is important for all players to have a good vision of what is happening around them during different types of situations and different environments.”
“We've done studies on central defenders in defensive situations, it is the same there. If I am defending my goal against a cross the side, do I only look at the ball and the opponents crossing the ball? Or do I have a vision of what is around me?”
“We have found that the better players are much better able to explore before that cross is hit and are more capable of seeing what there is around them than the inferior players. And we have found that it is the same for midfield players and forward players.”
Looking across the Spanish teams that have dominated world football for the past five years, they are full of players who have this awareness. It could be that they have been blessed with a generation of supremely talented players but that feels too naïve; too simplistic. Another, more plausible, explanation is that they are coached in a way that helps them develop this particular skill.
It is a theory that has Geir’s approval.
“Like all skills there is always a combination of something that you bring to the table and the training and the exposure you have to different situations,” he explains.
“I also think that the proportion of the skill that is learned due to the deliberate exposure to the experience is very big.”
“Xavi is a good example. He doesn't just look, he is one of the most active players out there; he doesn't automatically know what is around him, is constantly searching, constantly looking. And, of course, that is something that he probably was doing from an early age so he's gotten used to dealing with that information too.”
“This is a function of the repetition and the exposure. And this is something that people can start to learn from an early age. I don't know how early we teach kids to look left and right before they cross the street, that's probably when they're three years old. One can argue that they're not proficient at it when they're three years old because if a balls rolls onto the street then they'll go chasing after it. But the point is that you can learn this from an early age.”
“When I look at this I find it very interesting to see how much can be learned and how much comes from deliberate exposure and I think that is pretty big.”
The key question, then, is how do you coach this?
“There many ways you can do it. I find that - both for kids and for adults - an important part is becoming aware of these processes. An effective way to do this is to show video images of some of the biggest players out there to make them see how active perception is, how actively these players explore.”
“Another effective way is to shoot videos of the players themselves so that they get to see how they behave in these situations. You can then discuss this with them to see whether they are sufficiently prepared and if they sufficiently oriented before they get the ball.”
“And then it is about coaching drills and exercises. There are many ways to do it from transforming simple passing and receiving exercises making players explore before they get the ball even if there is nothing happening around you so that you get accustomed to receiving the ball without looking at it at every single second.”
Of late, a lot has been said about statistics and how these can be developed to offer clubs an advantage. Yet the results of Geir’s work could have a similar impact not only in the development of players but also in the identification of talent and players a club is thinking of signing.
“You can definitely scout this. The way we have done this research is that we have very precise criteria; we have very specific criteria so we can really quantify the extent to which players are doing this.”
“The two players in all my analysis that score the highest using these criteria over the 150 players that I measured are Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. These are two players who are very good at this, seeing good passes and sensing where to pass the ball.”
“So you can model scouting on some of these factors. Of course, you need to get a lot of these details right and it is not a job that you can do without preparing and having the database to check it afterwards.”
For all the insight that it provides, all of this measuring, takes away some of the magic from watching the truly great players. This comment resonates with a recent experience Geir had.
“I gave an interview with the Dutch coaching magazine which is called The Football Trainer. They did an editorial about this research that I have done where they basically said that until this research they were thinking about these huge stars like Pirlo, like Xavi, like Lampard that they had this gift that made them able to see more than others and be more creative than the others. Then they said ‘thank you Geir for ruining this image for us, now all our delusions are gone!’ ” he laughed
“I have to say that it does not measure everything, it just measures the pre-condition for great vision but it is a very important pre-condition as you have to direct your eyes toward the relevant information. What we're not measuring is what you are doing with the information and how you are processing that information. That is still a skill that is hard to measure. It gives you a piece of the picture but not the whole picture.”
For The Coaches: Ways of Teaching Perception
“You can build that up, you can have players behind your back that you have to perceive to be successful at the exercise so that you only turn with the ball if the player behind you has given you space to do it but you actually have to check your shoulder to see if you have that space.”
“Then you can take it in game situations. You can coach players in small sided games. You can put in conditions where you score a point for your team when you're successfully able to turn with the ball so that you learn to check that you can turn.”
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