Mastering soccer is an unfinishable task. So much is required to make the top grade in the sport – that to master it would need unlimited years and an even bigger helping of dedication.
Some have come closer than others to reaching this unreachable ceiling. They might not have reached perfect status, but the likes of Pele, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Maradona have certainly pushed the expectations of what can be achieved.
And their success was built on two things.
One is an extremely high work ethic.
The other was talent.
One can be instilled if it isn’t already built-in. The other is something that comes from the DNA. What you’re born with. But with enough hard work, there can be compensations made if you’re not dribbling a soccer ball around the living room at three years old.
1. Talent Over Hard Work?
If you read any top soccer player autobiography, a pattern will emerge from the extraordinary stories that unfold. Firstly, it’s a real mix when it comes to talent. Some had to work harder to coax the talent out.
But every single one of them had to work hard at some point.
The Dutch magician, Dennis Bergkamp, in his autobiography, Stillness and Speed, tells of days and days practicing kicking a ball against the outside of his house. First with his right foot. Then with his left. Right, left. For years. It instilled a stronger ability in his weaker foot so he wasn’t so reliant on his stronger side. And that ability can cut milliseconds off reaction times – giving a player the edge in tight games.
Every soccer player who has made it big has had to work hard at it. Some may have found it easier than others – but they all have had to graft. Some had to play against the bigger boys. Some had no facilities and had to make do with concrete and a ball of rolled up clothes. Some had to practise on their own. Some chose to put in extra hours on the training pitches.
But every single one recognised that to reach the next level, they would have to put the yards in.
If you’re hell-bent on making it as a top-grade soccer player – what skills should you concentrate on?
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2. Close Control
This is the skill that is central to everything else you will pick up. If you can enhance your close control, your shooting, passing and vision will benefit.
Soccer is a frenetic game, especially when the pressure for a result is on. You will be pressed, hurried and harassed on the pitch to make snap decisions. And by optimising your close control of the ball, you will give yourself vital extra time to make the choice that is the right one.
A soccer player with close control can rise above the recent tactical changes that have occurred in elite soccer. The majority of coaches employ a ‘pressing’ defensive system – this means that a portion of the team or the entire team, will press and harry the player in possession of the ball. The better employers of this system will also systematically cut off the channels to pass the ball effectively. That means that the player who has the soccer ball will have no option left but to distribute the ball in a riskier manner than a safe pass. That leads to a higher chance of a turnover of possession higher up the pitch.
It’s an effective system, but the difference makers in games like this are the players who can operate in tight circles. When players are in their vicinity and within an inch of taking possession – they can navigate a safe passage and also see an outlet to relieve the pressure and set their team on their way to a promising attack – or safer shores at least.
These players ideally can use both feet to wriggle away with the ball. A player who has ambidextrous feet is very rare, but they can be the jewel in the crown of a team. They diffuse situations and then create overloads in quick succession.
But getting to the stage of being able to handle the ball on both the left and right and being able to distribute with it? That takes years of practise.
Always focus on control. Even if it is one just your strongest foot, the fact you can deal with possession under duress is critical.
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3. Physical Prowess
This doesn’t mean you have to get swole.
You don’t have to have biceps that can crack walnuts.
It does mean that in a lot of soccer positions, an ability to outmuscle your opponent is a big benefit.
For a striker who is pitted against a defender who is marking them tightly, more physical prowess can be the difference between getting that vital flick on a header and being snuffed out.
For a midfielder, it can mean shrugging off the unwanted attentions of the opposition, leading to an opportunity.
For a defender, it can mean the contrast between victory and defeat.
There isn’t a single area of fitness to consider. It is stamina, to be able to contribute when everyone else is flagging. It is strength to keep the ball. It is endurance.
Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Both are in the normal age bracket for retirement, but their dedication to fitness is nothing short of remarkable. And it means they are both still operating at the very top level of soccer.
Hit that gym!
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The golden generation of Barcelona existed between 2006-2015. During that time, multiple European Cups and La Liga’s were lifted. And it was their style of play that won the plaudits, rather than the silverware.
Branded ‘tiki-taka,’ it meant that the team maintained possession for the majority of the game. It stretched opponents, creating gaps. It tired the opposition too, chasing the ball for ninety minutes really takes it out of you.
But keeping possession requires supreme dedication to your craft. And above all, a passing range far beyond most soccer players.
Watching Barcelona in their prime, you can see how quickly they receive and then distribute the ball. In that split second, they have assessed the situation, chose the destination of the ball and executed. The opposition never stood a chance.
Practise receiving the ball and with one touch, passing it back. Then you can work on receiving the ball and having multiple options to pass back to. The quicker you can trap the ball and then successfully offload? The better you will be.
More often than not, a high-stakes soccer match will be decided on the finest of margins. And with a match where there is no real clear-cut chances, things like set-plays can often prove the difference.
Free-kicks and corners are taken by the specialist in the team. A player like David Beckham, who practise diligently on the training ground, swinging in dead-balls into danger areas and toward goal, over and over again.
And the ability to do this gives a team the edge. An expertly delivered corner often leads to opportunities. And it is harder for the defence to deal with.
A free-kick specialist? It can mean a goal from nothing. And a goal advantage changes the whole set up of a match. It leads a defensively-sound team to change their whole gameplan, which will make for a much more open match.
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The true secret to making it at the top grade? You can practise until you’re blue in the face. But only a tiny percentage of youth soccer players go on to the top grade. And you need, above all else, luck. To be in the right place at the right time. To be in good form when it matters most. And to have the right people watching over your career.
If you have that and dedicate yourself to the skills you need – then maybe, just maybe, you might have a chance.