The Pursuit

The difference between a good player and a great player can often come down their ability to consistently show creativity under pressure – to be able to move beyond tricks and flicks, to a new level of control which makes them truly illusive. James Vaughan, expert in the area of creativity in football, breaks down the subtle, instinctive characteristics that separate the legends from the rest.

Imagine a player has just received the ball from their goalkeeper and is attempting to play forward (task) against a high press (football problem or challenge); how many options can they see? It depends on many variables, including: the movement of teammates (the playing model), the range of their passing (their technical ability), their playing style and mindset (culturally conditioned preferences) – the way they think.

In football, creative thinking is a type of varying, unexpected and flexible decision-making, a kind of player- specific tactical creativity. This tactical creativity can be explained as the ability to see lots of solutions – wall passes, through balls, scoops, bounce passes, chips, one-two’s, fakes, dribbles – to specific in-game problems, such as breaking down a defensive block, getting behind the back four or playing out under a high press.

“In football, creative thinking is a type of varying, unexpected and flexible decision-making.”

The more a player’s behaviour varies from what is expected, or put another way, the more innovative, unusual and unique their thinking is, the more options they have and the more divergent their thinking. And it is from this divergent thinking that we see creative behaviour arise.

Another type of thinking

In contrast to the creative, divergent thinking required while attacking, defending is all about expert decision-making. This decision-making is characterised by selecting the best tactical response to an opponent’s actions. Rather than divergent thinking, convergent thinking is needed, which is the ability to find the ideal solution to a given problem. A defender takes all the available information – body shape, first touch, support players, calculations of opposition time and space – and evaluates, analyses and condenses this information to select what they believe is the best decision.

In contrast, attackers aim to keep as many options open as possible for as long as possible. Or perhaps the best players make one option seem so obvious that the opposition becomes certain this is the only option available – the bluff. However, a good bluff requires a shared understanding of the situation, an understanding of what is expected.

“I started off playing small sided, everything grew from there… in the small confined spaces you had to find ways out, different ways each time, predictability meant defeat” – Andres Iniesta

So what is expected? As a player moves out of defence with the ball what would you expect them to do as the pressure builds, with the opposition closing them down, and time and space dissolving? What if you knew the player was British or Australian? Would your expectations be different if they were from South America, Germany or Spain? Do we have different expectations based on our understanding of these players, their upbringings and their cultural preferences, even though we know nothing more that their nationality or the continent of their upbringing. How would your expectations differ if the player were playing for West Ham or Everton? Who would play long and who would pass? What do we know about the playing styles of these teams?

Playing out

Imagine our player takes their first touch forward scanning as they move, their second touch moves the ball right, facing a teammate on the flank, weighing up the pass. All outward information – body shape, first touch, scanning – suggest a pass wide, and so the opposition move accordingly. Stalking their prey, they leave the pass open, waiting patiently to spring the trap – they expect the pass wide. But more than just expectation they are wanting, waiting, hoping to pounce on this pass. The closest opposition players arc their run, herding our player in possession and cutting off any retreat. The wide pass is fast becoming her only option, the opposition sees it, and time is up – she shapes to make the pass, hip opening, knee lifting and ankle locked…

The trap is sprung and the opposition move, not much but enough and she’s seen it. Half way through executing the pass her decision changes, at the last moment she morphs the movement pattern of the pass into a pass-fake and launches forward, unexpectedly breaking the line with a dribble. Within seconds she’s crossing the half way line and creating a 3v2 in the final third, she draws a defender and slides the ball left. Continuing her forward run she receives a return pass for a tap-in at the back post. It’s all over within a couple of seconds. She’s playing futsal, and she’s experienced this in-game problem – playing out against a high press – so often that she knew what the opposition were expecting. She was confident in her ability to spring their trap and escape. Like all great escape artists, she created an illusion, directing her audience’s attention, patiently waiting for the moment of her deception, knowing the longer she waited the more effective the illusion.

The Escape Artist

Learning new skills requires risks. If we have never attempted a certain movement pattern (deceptive skill) in a game, we can’t know if it will work, therefore there is element of risk. However, is it still a risk if we have experienced similar situations and been successful? Probably, but the risk is reduced. We need to experiment, we need trial and error, we need to find out which technique works, and in which situation, when to bluff , and how to link deceptive movements to deceptive moments – this is the birthplace of creativity and skill.

The great escape artists like Harry Houdini would experiment, learn and practise in safe environments (safe from bodily harm) before ‘risking’ their lives on stage, and when performing the risk was minimised through their practice and experimentation. Players also need safe environments (physically, emotionally and psychologically safe) in which to practice. They need time to refine their technique, before using the combination of skill and deception to perform their illusion. And this is key: players can be evasive, escaping tight situations and they can be illusive, and it’s a subtle difference. Being evasive is a reactive action, being illusive is proactive. For example, when Harry Houdini is locked up and lowered into a Chinese water torture cell is he reacting to an unexpected situation? Or is it part of an elaborate plan, meticulously rehearsed and staged (pro-active)? Was he an escape artist or an illusionist?

We don’t play football or futsal in a controlled environment – it’s not a stage show – there are opposition players attempting to sabotage our plans. Therefore varying, unusual and exible decision-making is essential.

As the game changes our plans must evolve, and there must be room for tactical creativity. However this isn’t the realm of the coach, as these moments must be recognised and acted upon by the player.

What can coaches do?

It’s vital for coaches to encourage players to step outside of their comfort zone and broaden their attention, perception and awareness.

The goal is to help facilitate decision making that is:

  1. Based on as much information as possible: sight, sound, feeling, touch
  2. As flexible as possible, able to change at any moment.

A growing consensus within creativity literature supports the view that a wide breadth of attention (perceptional style or attentional focus) is helpful for creative performance, whereas a narrow attentional breadth has been shown to inhibit the perception and identification of stimuli and information responsible for creative advances.

Researchers believe a wide breadth of attention makes it possible to take on board and understand a variety
of stimuli that may initially appear irrelevant at novice or intermediate levels but become essential at an expert level. For example, I never learned to ‘check my shoulder’ as a young football player, because firstly, I often didn’t need to – in my junior games I had acres space and time – the task didn’t make this action necessary and I was quick enough to cover up my mistakes. Secondly, my coaches never drew my attention to this perceptual skill. I never learned to value it and it never became a habit, and now I can’t learn it well enough to execute it when I play at higher levels. Another example is the use of the sole of the foot for instant control in futsal. Our job, as coaches, is to make players aware of these habits and encourage them to practice. But what type of practice?

Iniesta gives insight into the task, saying “In the small confined spaces you had to find ways out, different ways each time, predictability meant defeat”. We can manipulate the space, the ball (football or futsal), and the surface (grass, court, beach). Players must gain experience in high-pressure situations, meaning they have limited time and space, requiring quick, flexible and unusual decision-making. Situations where they are outnumbered, where they have to dribble, experiment with deceptive moments and link them to deceptive movement patterns – this is where we learn to be illusive. Its no surprise that countries with a strong background in futsal develop players with greater creativity.

The irony is that most young players experience high pressure, but it’s not necessarily due to the task itself. Instead, it’s the environment, the motivational climate: finals, trials and the need impress or win. These external motivators kill young players’ motivation, players stop playing because they want to and start playing because they feel they have to. At some point we stop playing and start practicing.