“In training sessions we emphasized technical abilities above all. Passing the ball is communicating with another person it’s being in the service of another person. It’s crucial. For the pass to be a good one, the player has to put himself in the position of the person who’s going to receive it. It’s an act of intelligence and generosity, what I call technical empathy.” — Wenger, pg. 73
In 1987, Arsène Wenger took charge of AS Monaco, staying there for the next seven years of his managerial career. Here, he learned about the value of the principle described: technical empathy. He details this idea, talking about how important it is to consider what it would be like to receive your own pass, what weight or location would best set you up for success? The subsequent acting upon those ideas forms this idea of technical empathy, where players make decisions that aid their own teammates next actions. These thoughts aren’t just important, but the building blocks of successful, high-level passing. Wenger’s explanation in the book stop at technical empathy, maybe the most relevant piece of his time at Monaco, but is it possible that he could expand further into tactical empathy? I think so! My ideas on tactical empathy can be divided into two parts: in possession and out of possession.
Quick aside before you continue reading: I’m going to be referring to ‘player A’ ‘player B’ and ‘player C’. I’d like to explain those quickly.
- Player A: Initiates the action itself, whether that’s playing a pass or a defensive action.
- Player B: Second player in the sequence, such as the player receiving a pass.
- Player C: Uninvolved directly with the interaction between A and B, and can refer to anyone else on the pitch.
Tactical Empathy: In Possession
Technical empathy is, in large part, a transactional situation where player A does something that affects player B. Each pass received results in an immediate series of questions that can vary by location, opposition, and technical level of player B. Some of those questions are:
- “Can I open up my hips here and face forward?”
- “Can I take a touch into space?”
- “Can I turn?”
- “Is there an immediate pass/shot/cross I should take?”
Throughout this process surrounding players are involved. The pass triggers movement from teammates and opposition, the first touch triggers further movement, and the subsequent decision triggers even more movement. This is where possession-based tactical empathy comes into play.
Within any structure, a coach or manager has designed a system which he believes has the most passing combinations. Most of which are malleable to circumstances and hinge on player movement.
In the moment where a fullback receives the ball on his back foot, how does his near-side winger respond? Does his center-back drop back to continue being an option for him? What does the nearest midfielder do? All of these decisions display some sort of tactical empathy.
These are all an array of possible circumstances where a shape is malleable to the circumstances at hand. A step further would be adding the opposition. Is the fullback jumping to the winger or staying backwards? Does the striker cut off the pass back to the near-side center-back? All of these play into the same question: “How can I best support my teammates on the ball?”
A player is forced to repeatedly answer this question throughout the ninety minutes with every positioning decision they make. Wherein technical empathy looks at how player A impacts the success of player B, tactical empathy while in possession considers how the impact of player C’s decisions impact the success of player B, someone who has recently received the ball.
Tactical Empathy: Out of Possession
One of the most difficult parts of playing striker is a team that lacks tactical empathy playing behind you in a pressing system. Despite being the easiest line of defense to bypass, strikers are simultaneously the first line of defense and play a huge role in determining where play ends up on the pitch.
In this example of tactical empathy the transaction becomes much more complicated. Player A is the one who begins our defensive ‘move’ in some regard. For example, a striker makes a decision to press the RCB in possession, angling him towards that bottom sideline. Angling his run cuts the field in half, encouraging play into the right side of the field.
Effective pressing is a complicated idea (important to differentiate from chasing as Pep Ljinders described here) but regardless of your intentions within pressing or your intensity, it hinges on one commonality: cohesion. A press engaged by a striker that is not backed up by his midfield or wingers holds zero value. It is simply burning energy.
In the graphic, the orange line denote our striker run, while the white lines denote those subsequent runs to close down nearby options. Tactical empathy here is recognition that your striker is exerting himself to close down this option, and the best choice you can make for the rest of the team is to join him in this press.
These principles can expand to players across the whiteboard. Is my midfield properly screening the center-backs? Are my wingers helping to apply pressure from behind a wide attacker to help the fullbacks?
All of these things answer a similar question to the previous section: “How can I support my teammates who are actively defending?”
Similar to your decisions while your team has possession, every movement you make answers this question.
Coach Responsibility? and Closing Thoughts
One of the first things that I look at when doing an analysis on any coach or manager is whether or not they’re able to make a team cohesive. This applies to a wide variety of things, within tactics, player selection, and the decisions of the players within that framework. I’m sure we don’t need to rehash the responsibility that coaches have to put their team in the best situation to succeed, but I think it can be engaging to consider whether or not decisions made are empathetic to the individuals.
Using a formation that doesn’t cater to the strengths of the team, not engaging the team through the tactics or tactics that simply don’t line up are all examples of failure to display empathy within football. Is training enjoyable or do players find you approachable? Reflecting on these things might help to make for better coaches, better youth development, and ultimately, better results.
The dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” which points to one main question: If you understand the other person, would you want to be in that person’s shoes? And how will you act as a result of that answer?
As a player, would you enjoy playing on a team with yourself?
As a coach, would you want to play for yourself?
Perhaps football is nothing more than a game of empathy, and the best team’s are the one’s who recognize the circumstances of their team and do everything in their power to help each other succeed.