The events that unfolded before fans at an open training session in Los Angeles before the first tour game could have shocked a few on lookers, maybe a few of the players as well.
LVG was taking his new team through a shooting practice session. Under no pressure, all the players seemed to take decent shots….until the fiery Dutch boss marched to Darren Fletcher and Chris Smalling. He demanded to know why they were not looking at the ball whilst taking their shots and followed that up with an earful. The point had been made: look at the ball when shooting if you value your employment.
It does beg the question though; why would a professional footballer not look at the ball before striking it? Or; do footballers really have to look at the ball whilst taking a hit? You’ve probably heard of the phrase ‘he took his eye off the ball’ used in columns that are not neccessarily on the back page, or not even in the context of football. I mean, if you fail your final exam after doing so well throughout the year, chances are that someone will tell you that you took your eye off the ball.
The conclusion is hence obvious; footballers are better placed to execute a pass/goal with their eye on the ball. However this begs another question in the mould of the chicken and the egg paradox; what should come first and what should come last? A visual of the recipient of the pass/visual of the goal or a visual of the ball?
According to what LVG was belting out to a shell schocked Smalling and Fletcher, the eye on the ball is the final visual activity before striking the ball, meaning you must have a pre-established idea where the goal is and perhaps more crucially where the goal keeper is. It means before the Dutchman’s intervention, the 2 United players and possibly many others had little regard for the minute detail of looking at the ball before you take a swing at it. The final question is, does it matter anyway?
We’ve all heard a pundit or commentator lauding a striker’s finish by sayin “He knows where the goal is…” The story behind such praise is that a striker of that caliber need not look at the goal or the goalkeeper for that matter because experience in positional play will give you an idea where the goal is regardless of where the ball finds you on the pitch. Crucially however, you will hardly hear pundit or commentator say ” He knows where the ball is”. Even the best strikers that ever graced the game were always mindful of where the ball was as opposed to where the goal was. The logic is simple. There’s more of a goal to aim at than there is of a ball. Scoring a goal is primarily dependant on your connection with the ball, not quite where the goal is, for one has got be accomplished before the latter is realised. The simple point LVG made was that first get a clean strike of the ball, then worry about the goal or the goal kepper later.
In a litmus test of whether LVG makes a crucial point or not, let’s look at 2 penalty shoot outs that United have recently been involved with. There’s the Capital One Cup semi at OT last season vs Sunderland then there’s last night vs Inter Milan in the pre season tournament. Obviously the pressure of the 2 games is not similar but the point from the League Cup semi is drawn from both Sunderland and United. Out of nearly 10 ten penalties between the 2 sides, the shoot out score read 1-2 to Sunderland. In what turned out to be the worst penalty shoot out in the history of mankind, the nervy glances by the takers to the keepers trying to figure out where they wouldn’t dive contributed to miskicks and indecisive-come tame efforts that made for a very low scoring shoot out. Succinctly put, there was more effort to outwit the keeper than there was at making decent connection with the ball.
A penalty is as good as if the keeper dives the right way he should still be unable to get it. This brings us nicely to the second shoot out; the one vs Inter Milan. With an emphasis of eye on the ball instilled by the manager, United’s penalty takers on the night were more about the conncection with the ball than out witting the keeper. It is notable that they insited on keeping an eye on the ball enroute to striking it as opposed to waiting for the keeper to make his move.
This method allows for greater accuracy and crucially the desired power in the shot to get it past the keeper.
In the grand scheme of things, there is nothing new to learn here, save for the fact that a great manager has made a seemingly minor detail a big part of the execution of the big mission. When LVG talks of coaching the player’s brains as opposed to their legs, it’s the details he is looking to iron out. Perhaps it’s just as well that there’s a lot of devil in the details for the Red Devils.