Given the relentless pace at which top level football is played today, players often find themselves second guessing their opponents. Much like a goalkeeper attempting to save a penalty, defenders regularly choose to try and predict what their opponent’s next move will be, in order to provide a reaction before it’s too late. While it’s a completely understandable approach, it does come at a risk.
Defending players react not only to actions, but also to implied actions. In theory, this allows them to be better prepared to deal with the subsequent action. In practice, however, a player’s actions don’t always match up with their prior implication. This conflict between what the defender thinks the attacker is about to do, and what they actually proceed to do, can be significantly advantageous to the attacking player.
Most common in boxing, the concept of false implications can be a beneficial tool in a wide range of sports. A fighter will regularly use feints to draw a response from his opponent, this response in turn will normally create an opening of some sort. For example, the opponent may respond to an implication by moving his hand down to block the punch, leaving him open to being hit on the ‘second shot’.
In football, using false implications to draw a response from an opponent before taking advantage of their disposition, is also a common strategy. In the moment between an implication and an action, the attacking player potentially has a distinct advantage. If they match their action with their prior implication, then they hand the advantage to the defender, who has likely prepared himself to deal with such an outcome. However, if they mismatch their action and implication then they take advantage of the fact that the defender has conceded space and time in reacting early. By leaving their position and preparing for what they perceive is about to happen, they create a gap that didn’t exist initially. Additionally, they give themselves no time to react again to a converse action.
This concept also relates closely to that of the ‘third-man’. Generally speaking, the attention of defending players will be focused primarily on the player in possession of the ball, and the player who appears most likely to receive possession next. Another attacker can take advantage of this by becoming the third man. By making a run off the ball in anticipation of receiving, either from the first man(the player on the ball) or the second man(the player apparently likely to receive the ball), if he does receive the ball at either point, he is likely to be unmarked or untracked by a defending player.
To put all this into context, the video below shows a master of false implications, Sergio Busquets, using his eyes, body shape and angle to imply that he intends to pass to Pedro on his right. In an attempt to anticipate this and prepare accordingly, Xabi Alonso shifts over to his left. This response opens up a previously non-existent passing lane to Lionel Messi in a central position in front of Real Madrid’s last line of defence and behind their cover shadow in midfield. If Busquets had matched implication and action, then he would have played into Madrid’s hands. But instead, he plays a ‘reverse pass’ to Messi, taking full advantage of the additional power he had in the moment between implication and action. The second video is a compilation of reverse passes from Busquets, just to highlight how regularly he uses the trick and how effective it is.
Pep Guardiola has said in recent years that if he was reincarnated as a player, he would like it to be Busquets. Given how frequently Busquets uses this strategy in finding his teammates free between the lines makes it a completely understandable statement. Guardiola spoke about how he too used this concept during his playing career as an organising midfielder;
“I tried to trick the opposition into thinking I’d pass it wide again, and then – boom! – I’d split them with an inside pass to a striker.”
While false implications are a very effective way of evading cover shadows and finding the free man, or third man, between the lines, there are many other advantages to the concept. Not only can it be used to create space for a teammate to receive, it can also be useful in creating space for yourself in a more immediate sense. Using feints and dummies can shift an opponent one way before you move off in the other direction. The same principles apply here as before, the aim is to draw some sort of commitment or response from an opponent before taking advantage with the mismatched or ‘second action’. The footage below, again of Busquets, shows how false implications can be effective in taking a defender who is in close proximity, out of your path before benefiting from the newly established space. Busquets implies that he intends to continue running horizontally with the ball, inviting Hamsik to follow this implication. Busquets then turns the other way, with Hamsik continuing his run and therefore removing him from the space.
False implications can also be beneficial with regards to movement off the ball. Decoy runs, where a player makes a movement to drag a defender away from space so that a teammate can then benefit from the opening, are an extremely common feature in top level football. The video below shows Cristian Tello dragging the opponent’s right back infield, in doing so creating space for Lionel Messi to dribble into and shoot. Decoy runs are often referred to as unselfish runs and so ‘false runs’ warrant separation. False runs or double movements, involve a player on the attacking team moving his marker away from space with the intention of benefiting from the space himself. These can involve making a run to the front post before spinning to the back post at the last second in anticipation of a cross, or dropping short before spinning in behind, or vice-versa on both accounts.
In all of the examples discussed to this point, one of the reasons why the defenders involved were caught out by false implications is due to dilemmas being created by the attacking team. By reacting to an implication rather than waiting for the action and then reacting, the defender is generally choosing between two evils. Do I hold my line and allow the attacker to receive in space and turn to face the play, or do I go with him, leaving space to be exploited in behind. Neither is a good choice as both have negative consequences. With this in mind, players should regularly attempt to create two evils as such, increasing the power they have over the opposition when in possession of the ball. Guardiola has often spoken about attempting to move the opposition as opposed to the ball, and drawing them one way before exploiting the space they have vacated on the other side. The effective use of false implications is key to achieving this.
False implications or masked intentions can also be used on a more collective basis. One commonly seen example of this involves crowding one side of the pitch during an attack, in order to force the opposition into doing the same. The implication is that the attacking team intend to penetrate their opponent’s defensive lines down this side of the pitch. However, often teams will only build on one side of the pitch to fool the opposition before switching to the free space on the opposite side. Once again, the defending team has already predicted the intentions of the attacking team and reacted accordingly and therefore are unable to react quick enough to the mismatched action. Building on one side before finishing on the other has been a common feature of teams in top level football for a number of years, particularly those managed by Pep Guardiola.
As mentioned earlier, mismatching implication and action can be of benefit throughout the pitch in various circumstances. For example, a striker who is through on goal and only has the keeper to beat could use the direction of his eyes and or body shape to imply that he intends to shoot one way, before shooting to the opposite side of the goal. The goalkeeper, anxious to respond quickly enough, will likely have reacted to the implication and dived accordingly. False implications can be equally beneficial to a winger who is one v one with his opposing fullback. By using subtle feints and dummies, or by pushing the ball one way before proceeding to dribble the other way, the winger can move the opponent out of his way before taking advantage.
Whether it’s on the ball or off the ball, the principles of false implication remain the same. Players should be conscious of the additional power they have over the opponent in the moment between implication and action. By mismatching implication and action, they take advantage of the fact that the defender has more than likely already reacted to the implication. Therefore, new space has been created and the opposition doesn’t have time to react again. When combined with other aspects of intelligent possessional and positional play, the use of false implications can help an attacking team to determine the positioning of their opponents, and to take advantage accordingly.