Effective Play

31st Rio 2016 Olympics / Hockey : BEL - ARG Men's Gold Medal Match

In this article, will share some thoughts about how to play effectively on the midfield.
How midfielders positioning themselves off the ball, their receiving styles and general behaviour.
For a long time I have been fascinated by players like Juan Escarré, Rob Hammond, John-John Dohmen, Tobias Hauke, Sander Baart, Matias Rey and recently for a few upcoming talents such as Ricardo Santana, Victor Wegnez and Jonas de Geus.

The reason for choosing center midfielders is simple and has nothing to do with a personal preference; although this is a concept applicable for every athlete in the field, players that perform in central areas of the field are usually exposed to higher spacial or physical pressure and are also key on the possession, attacking and counter control manoeuvre of their teams.

Management of time/space is the undeniable criteria of ball possession, either on a retaining situation (possession) or an attacking one (penetration).
Despite the fact that possession is a collective system, it is always individuals ability to react to every dynamic situation, that will determine the quality of such possession.

The most important area of this subject, is ‘effective positioning’, that means the where and how to receive the ball – In a given situation, which location on the field, body/stick angle and receiving technique will provide ‘maximum availability’ not only to receive the ball but for the intended following action?

The ‘Process’

FIH Men's Hero Hockey Champions Trophy 2016 - Day Five

“I want my players to think some seconds ‘in’ the future.”

Marcus Weise
German hockey guru and 3 times Olympic Gold medallist as coach.

Some years ago, I have delivered a presentation for EHF on ‘Decision Making on Top Athletes – How to train it’ – back then, my research was mostly based on the psychological attributes that make some individuals to have consistently better results, on their actions, than others.
Interestingly enough, the confirmation that imagination and creativity are main requirements for the best decision makers.
In a plain and simple logic; to anticipate what is going to happen before actually happens, you need a good dose of imagination.
Secondly, permanently shifting environments (such as an hockey game) create constantly new ‘problems’ in need of immediate reaction – in that sense having a creative and flexible mind will provide you a wider range of tools to solve them.

Look at this clip:

This previous clip is an example of decision making where imagination and creativity are so clearly visible.

The Australian Knowles is able to assess the situation and context – 0.08 seconds to play for the end of the 1st half with 3 goals lead for his team – that led to a creative decision based on past experience and his ability to anticipate a scenario.

When facing a dynamic game situation, these are some of the questions that will frequently rise:

  • ‘What is the context of this situation?’
  • ‘Time frame and scoreboard?’
  • ‘Should I accelerate or slow down the ball?
  • ‘Is this (ideally) a possession or penetration moment?’
  • ‘Should I be available to receive the ball or lead an opponent marking in order to create a possible passing channel for another team mate to receive the ball?’
  • ‘Should I receive the ball on pressure – forcing the opponents to ‘bite’ me while creating space in other areas for an eventual ball transfer?’
  • ‘The opponent plays in a zonal style, where do I want to receive the ball? Where can I be off pressure?’
  • ‘Which body/foot position I need for the optimal receiving / which receiving technique will allow my intended follow up action?’
  • ‘Which passing technique and ball speed I should use for the follow up action?’

Graph BF.001

This is an interconnected, interdependent process.
The importance of some physiological and psychological attributes on efficient decision making is fundamental and as important as the adequate technical and physical skills to execute.

Learn from the Best

Nothing better than having the best executers in the world to illustrate any topic. -Therefore, decided to invite a selected group of world class players, whom I consider to have some of the key technical, tactical and game intelligence characteristics to play, not only effectively, but distinctively at the highest level.

We will have the opportunity, to read and watch, according to their own words and footage, what is relevant when playing in this areas of the field.

But first, let me start by showing some footage of a football player (!)



Sergio Busquets is a Spanish Football footballer that plays for several years as the center midfielder and nuclear player of the National Team of Spain and his home club FC Barcelona. Obviously, football and hockey have a different technical complexity, different rules and ball speed but there are several tactical ideas possible to correlate.

Back to Busquets clip:

  1. Firstly, he position himself ‘inside’ the opponent press (‘box’) and while doing it he is permanently scanning the surronding.
  2. His first ball contact here is a one touch pass (the ultimate proof of pre-scanning) that eliminates his direct marker and immediately accelerates the ball forward.
  3. Positions himself again inside of the ‘box’ available to possibly receive the ball again,
  4. Receives the ball in a ‘open position forward’ and does so by choosing to receive the ball with the left foot which allows him not only to protect the ball from the near defender as also to eliminate him with his following movement – at this moment Busquets eliminated 2 opponent lines,  created a numerical attacking situation 6v5 and initiated a clear attacking situation.
  5. At last, the Spanish midfielder releases the ball to a team mate and holds a supportive position behind ball line (guard position).



‘The most important as a central midfielder is to be available to receive a ball from the central defenders and simultaneously have a good counter control position.
I often try to compromise the strikers with my position, ‘forcing’ them to take a decision (if the striker decides to mark me, that will create space in front of our central defender, if the striker decides to put pressure on the central defender (ball), then I will be free to receive.)’


Euro Hockey Leaque KO16

‘Have rear mirror vision (surrounding awareness) so you know where the space is to run in behind you. You have to receive the ball between or over the line of two opponents so you pass (eliminate) them in your receiving. Concentrate on your first ball touch to be perfect and the rest will follow.’



‘Before the receiving; it is important to know on which side your opponent is and also if there is space around you. If it’s closed/restrained maybe it’s good to lift the ball at the receiving (or use some 3D skills)!
You have to know how hard the pass is coming to you – is it possible to use ball-speed or do you need to decieve at the receiving?’



‘For me the most important thing to keep in mind is that you always need to have a plan when you receive the ball inside the ‘box’ or in-between lines. Especially against teams who play zonal defense. If you start hesitating on these areas, you’re very likely to lose the ball because that is what the opponents want.

There are some things that can help you to make fast and good decisions.
The first thing is of course your positioning. The best spot to be in is in-between the line of 2 opponents. This way you eliminate both those players by receiving the ball open. Otherwise you need to find a spot where you will not get pressured right away at the receiving moment. This way you can earn yourself some time.

The second thing is “pre-scanning” – this means that when the ball is for example still with the central defender, you as a midfielder need to start looking around you. Start looking for spaces. Where are your teammates and where are your opponents? By doing this you already know what you’re going to do before you’ve even received the ball. So, you’re always one step ahead of the defenders.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it is almost always better to receive the ball open than closed. Of course, only when there is enough space to receive it open. By receiving the ball open you always speed up the game instead of delaying it.’


As you could read and watch, seems that areas like scanning, awareness, identifying and recognising the surrounding environment are fundamental for all the previous players.
The examples above are from athletes that besides sharing a lot similarities on their playing profile, have different characteristics, are on different stages of their careers, play in different clubs and are from different nationalities.

Regardless your tactical formation, attacking strategy and game culture, we are looking into individual and dynamic guidelines (not inflexible rules).
The primary and most important question is: Am I fully available for the ball carrier?

Then, you should realize what is important for your game philosophy and what is adaptable for the players you have available. I try to instruct and expect players to be aware of certain elements in order to develop their game knowledge.
3 examples of principles that are important for me, as a coach:

  • Can I play forward? If not can I ‘recycle’ the ball either to the sides or back?
  • Manage the running and playing activity almost exclusively on the central axis of the field (which can vary when playing with more players in that area).
  • What if, after I pass a ball to a team mate, we lose the ball? – Proactive on the counter control.

Nevertheless, it is important to mention that although I believe in ‘educating’ and develop a better game sense in any player, some players just have some inner characteristics that makes them better performers on the art of playing effectively.

Thanks Sander, Jonas, Tobi (el Patron) and Vic for your contribution to the article and your outstanding talent on the pitch!

Bernardo Fernandes

4 thoughts on “Effective Play

  1. Rob Haantjes says:

    Well done Fernando 👌

    The essence of the article relates well to the first attacking principle of the Belgium Hockey Compass: Play what you see.

  2. Pingback: A great (partly accidental) build-up! – self-pass

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