The Safe Side

I always like to think if you can’t find the pass, keep the ball. This statement obviously need to be within reason, there’s times where a defender will need to clear the lines, rather than hold on to the ball and get tackled in a dangerous situation. However, it's definitely important that players, in all positions, are able to keep the ball under pressure.

Over the last ten years the game has changed significantly. It’s quite rare now to see a goalkeeper take a goal kick and strike the ball as far forwards as they possibly can. Whereas ten to twenty years ago it was common place.

The mentality was to get the ball as far forward as possible and then win the second ball, gaining territory and possession closer to the opposition's goal.

But, the game's changed. Watching Man Utd v Liverpool yesterday showed exactly that. Utd were 2-1 up and Dean Henderson, the Man Utd goalie, passed the ball to Harry Maguire who was standing just yards away from the six yard box. His centre back partner, Victor Lindelof was the same distance away on the other side of the goal. Maguire played the ball to Cavani, who’d dropped deep, miss-hitting a pass to Liverpool that led to Mo Salah scoring his, and Liverpool’s second goal of the evening.

The mistake happened and caused a goal, but the set up from the goal kick showed just how important it is now that every player on the pitch has the ability to keep the ball, while under pressure. Teams want to keep the ball more now, playing out from the back as much as possible.

Cavani's mistake led to a Liverpool goal. The ball is on the floor so much more now, that we have to make sure that, as a player, we are confident with the ball at our feet.

To do this, and to give us an advantage, we need to focus on keeping the ball on the safe side as much as we can.

The safe side is keeping the ball on the furthest foot away from your opponent, effectively using your body as a shield to protect the ball, making it harder for the defender to stretch across and win that ball from you. Now we typically use this when protecting the ball, holding the ball up or keeping it away from the player while counting down the seconds of the match near the corner flag.

But, we can use the safe side when dribbling.

If we’re attacking an opponent, dribbling against them, then the safe side is also an important technique to think of. We can’t always use it, but if we can think of using it more in certain situations, we will then have some good success.

Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne keeping the ball on his safe side while shooting.

Eden Hazard is fantastic at this, dribbling past opponents by getting his body in between them and the ball. If you watch him play, he will shift the ball regularly on to his furthest foot away from the opponent, positioning his body in such a way between the ball and the defender that he is dribbling past them, yet also protecting the ball.

The defender has a much harder job if you can put it on the safe side. If they can reach the ball they still have to come across your body to win it, which is very difficult if you’re dribbling at pace. The more the attacker does this, the more chance that they will be brought down, winning free kicks and potentially penalties.

If the defender doesn’t decide to try and win the ball, then you still have kept possession, developing the ability to keep the ball in pressurised situations.

One of the best at this is Jack Grealish. Over the last few years it’s been noticeable how many free kicks Jack Grealish wins, totalling one hundred and sixty seven free kicks in 2019/20 Season, averaging five per game.

This being a Premier League record.

This confidence he has on the ball is largely down to his ability to receive the ball under pressure, moving it on to the safe side, away from the opponent. The opponent is left with a couple of choices, do they dive in and win the ball, or try and jockey him, pushing him to a less dangerous area of the pitch? Ideally they wouldn’t dive in, but even at the top level players do, due to his great control and ability to attack quickly.

Jack Grealish, exceptional at keeping the ball on the safe side.
Jack Grealish.

He realises that keeping the ball on the safe side gives him more opportunity to retain possession and be an attacking threat.

The safe side can be used all over the pitch. Whether you are receiving it in your own half, or dribbling past the opponent in the attacking third of the pitch. You're not always going to be able to use it, but it is great at giving you a better chance of keeping the ball. Something that all players need to do in today’s game.

So learn to keep the ball on the safe side, becoming comfortable in all areas of the pitch, not just when attacking.