Dougherty: Bringing the Playground to Game Day

Arrive early at just about any U17 boys team practice, and you’ll see a handful of kids goofing off in front of the net, trying crazy bicycle kicks, bending shots from impossible angles, and juggling the ball with each other before attempting shots one would never see in a game.

Or maybe not.

On Saturday, Mario Mandzukic of Italian Series A side Juventus netted one of those straight-from-the-training-ground goals — and during the Champions League final, arguably the most important club game in the world.

If you’re going to score a great goal, that’s the game to do it.

Mandzukic’s bicycle kick goal will certainly be considered one of the greatest in Champions League Final history, and deservedly so. It provides the combination of team chemistry and individual brilliance that are necessary for a goal to be given such an honor.

The goal provides a number of lessons for young players and coaches.

+Dougherty: Unlucky? No, you simply messed up.

The initial pass. Leo Bonucci’s cross-field pass demonstrates how one quality pass can defeat a multitude of defenders — in this case, six. Coaches love to “keep the ball on the turf!” but there are times when the long, aerial pass can do more damage than a series of combination passes on the ground. Bonucci’s pass is Exhibit A. Perfectly weighted and placed, it completely unbalanced Real Madrid’s defense.

The first-time cross. Alex Sandro’s one-timer to Gonzalo Higuain was so calm, so effortless that it would be easy to overlook how difficult that pass truly was. In just a few seconds, he had to calculate the timing of the ball’s arrival and its location, make the decision to play it away from the goal to Higuain, and have the technical skill to put it where he wanted. Many players would have attempted a shot from a bad angle, while others would have tried to bring it under control with the likelihood of it crossing the endline. Sandro’s first-time volley was unquestionably the right decision.

The chest trip and pass. Perhaps the least complicated part of the build up to the goal, Higuain’s trap and pass still should not be overlooked. To the players reading this column: You know all of those toss, trap and return warm-up drills you do before games? (Some call them “Pele’s.) Well, now you know why. Don’t slouch off when you do them. Higuain made it look simple because he works at it. If you coast through your warm-up just to get through it, don’t be surprised when you mess it up in a game situation.

Field awareness: This was the Champions League final, so every player on the field possesses the highest level of field awareness, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Still, the goal is a terrific reminder to continually know your surroundings. Some coaches say to “have your head on a swivel.” I prefer the term “Film the game,” taught to me by the great Graham Ramsay. A good player is not just physically tired after a match, but mentally fatigued as well, because she was continually taking “footage” of her surroundings. Setting up for a goal kick? Film the game. Ball out of bounds? Film the game. Player injured? Film the game. Always have field awareness.

Technical skill. There are multiple examples of outstanding technical skill on this goal. The first cross, the second cross, the traps, and of course the goal. That kind of skill isn’t earned by playing soccer on Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus a weekend game. It’s earned by constantly have a ball at your feet. All you really need is a ball and a wall. A young player’s creativity can do the rest.

+Dougherty: High school coaches, don’t forget to write a Thank You card

The goal. Let’s break down Mandzukic’s strike:

  • Body positioning; Mandzukic wasn’t surprised the ball came his way. In a classic case of field awareness and a striker’s mentality, he positioned his body in anticipation of Higuain playing him the pass. To me, it appears Mandzukic originally wanted to hit it first time if the pass came in low. His feet were set, knees bent, ready to score. No ball watching here.
  • First touch: When he saw the goal, my son’s first response was to note how Mandzukic’s first touch was away from the defenders. And a good thing too, because three were pretty much draped all over the Juventus player. Once Mandzukic realized the ball was coming to his chest, he had the knowledge to take his first touch away from pressure. Again, he may have had a half-second to make that decision, but “perfect practice makes perfect.” Through practice and experience, Mandzukic knew that simply trapping the ball in front of him would result in it being cleared out of the penalty area.
  • The shot: What can you say? I wouldn’t describe it as the best bicycle kick in the world, but the touch was absolutely fantastic. Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas was prepared for a shot, but not that one. Mandzukic had to factor in distance to goal, angle to goal and Navas’ placement in about a second, then have the skill to dip the shot under the bar. Oh, and the guy is six feet, three inches tall.

Two other quick things to point out:

  • Kudos to the ref for not calling a foul (high kick). It does make me wonder how many referees watching the goal immediately thought, “No, I’d have called a foul.” If so, shame on you!
  • Kudos to the cameraman for capturing Cristiano Ronaldo shaking his head. That’s just icing on the cake.

The final takeaway for coaches: When you see your players goofing off before practice with some crazy one-time juggling and shooting, let them be. The tactics and technique that you’re teaching is important to their development. But so is the messing around with the ball without the constraints of doing everything by the book. In soccer, sometimes the most beautiful plays come straight from the playground.