Body shape, or body orientation, in football is a term used to describe the way a player faces, and how they use their body to their advantage. Body shape or orientation is important in both attack and defence.
Taking up the most advantageous and effective body shape is a skill that is often said to come “naturally” to a player. It is seen as an almost inherent quality that is simply part of a player's talent.
The truth is, of course, rather different. Correct or optimal body shape can be improved with work on the training ground. The earlier it is learned, the more “natural” it becomes as part of a player’s game.
The different phases of play require different body orientations. In attack, players need to use their body to protect the ball from opponents when they control it, and also to help them progress play quickly after taking their first touch. Taking up a position on the half-turn – facing across the pitch rather than towards either goal – will allow players to do this. It is also important that players can shift and modify their body position depending on the situation and how they receive the ball.
In defence, players need to try and have an open body shape whenever they can. This will allow them to see as many of the opposition’s attackers as possible – and also, crucially, the position of the ball. Defenders also need to be careful not to be caught ‘square on’ – or facing straight up the pitch – when a ball gets played in behind them. In this situation, they might struggle to turn quickly to chase it.
In the most basic terms, it is usually the case that receiving the ball with your back fully turned away from the opposition’s goal is not going to be the most effective way to help progress play. Avoiding doing this – particularly in midfield – will ensure that the receiver is able to see the ball coming towards them as well as a defender approaching them from the other side. This will give continuity to the team’s move, as they will be able to execute their next action – ideally forwards – quickly after receiving it, and without the need for a second touch.
Even players who are not going to be receiving the ball imminently should maintain an optimal body shape so that they are ready to receive and progress play if the ball does come their way. A side-on stance also means they are ready to make a forward run to support a teammate in a more advanced position, or make a recovery run back towards their own goal if possession is turned over. Correct body shape in any of these situations will only help gain an advantage over the opposition.
The Barcelona youngster is very effective with his attacking orientation in the centre of the pitch. Before receiving the ball, he scans to build up a picture of what’s around him and, most importantly, the positions of his teammates. This detail, combined with the tactics and instructions given to the players by the coach, help him make his next pass very quickly after receiving it. This increases the chances of the next player Pedri passes to receiving the ball in space and in a dangerous position (below).
The Manchester City midfielder can play in several different positions, but is arguably at his best as a number eight who moves all over the pitch. He remains constantly on the lookout for passing lines to receive either inside or outside the opposition’s structure, and both behind the opposition’s midfield or in front of them.
He is able to do this because he adapts his body position while on the move, meaning he is able to progress play from just about any position. He is therefore almost always able to receive and take his first touch forwards, or into a more advantageous position. Silva also often knows where he will play his next pass before receiving; having quickly turned to face forwards with his first touch, he is then regularly able to play a line-breaking pass that catches the opposition out (below). His teammates know to expect these kinds of passes from him, and start their run as soon as he receives.
Correct body shape is hugely important in many defensive situations. It might seem most important in one-on-one situations, but correct body orientation is also integral to a team as a whole, in their attempts to force the opposition in a certain direction. That is, several players with the correct body shape can help direct play towards the touchline, where it is easier to win the ball back.
When it comes to individual duels, correct body shape makes it easier to adjust and react to an opponent’s actions. For example, being side-on will make it more difficult for an attacker to wrong-foot the defender and beat them.
When defending inside the penalty area, an open body position allows defenders to see the opponent carrying the ball and as many attackers inside the area as possible. This will also mean that it is easier to make clearances, interceptions or blocks with the correct foot, which will in turn increase the chances of making a successful defensive action. Simple adjustments to a defender’s body shape will give them an advantage over the attackers.
The Liverpool centre-back is extremely composed both with and without the ball, in part because he always seems to be perfectly sure of where every opponent is. This is in no small part thanks to the fact he usually has correct body orientation, as well as how he constantly adjusts his body shape.
As a defender, it is almost impossible to always keep an open body shape. A centre-back who is dragged out of position, into wide areas for example, will naturally turn their back on the rest of the pitch at some point.
Van Dijk will, however, subtly adjust his body shape when running to ensure he can still see the play, while also aiming to guide play in a favourable direction. When his centre-back partner is dragged out of position, he will aim to direct an opponent towards his stronger right side (above).
The PSG full-back rarely loses track of his direct opponent, even when play is on the opposite side of the pitch. He keeps an open body shape to ensure he can see his opponent while remaining ready to make an intervention if the ball comes his way.
On the rare occasions when he loses sight of his opponent by turning his back on them, he makes good decisions under pressure. He will often choose to clear the ball safely behind for a corner (below), rather than risking a clearance that may fall to his opponent.
Nicolás Otamendi, Benfica.
Aymeric Laporte, Manchester City.
Raphaël Varane, Manchester United.
Niklas Süle, Borussia Dortmund.
Correct body orientation ensures players have more information to base their decisions on. With greater knowledge of any situation in attack, defence or in transition, it is easier for teams to take control of individual situations and, in turn, matches. More correct decisions from individual players brings a greater chance of success for the team.
In short, if a player is able to use the correct body shape in any specific situation, they will have more chance of being successful in their next action.
Poor body orientation reduces the field of vision for a player, which creates an information deficit. In the above image, Benoît Badiashile is facing straight on towards the play, rather than having an open body shape so he can see the opponents in the penalty area. This gives the attacker behind him a huge advantage, and a potential chance to get in on goal.
Another problem with poor body shape in defence is that, if a ball is played over the defender, they are in a worse position to turn and make a recovery run. Better body shape would mean they can spin and run backwards more quickly.
Body orientation is a subtle but extremely important part of football, which can often separate the good players from the great.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice