Investigating Ball-Striking: Shooting

John Zuidema
29 min readJul 4, 2023

Anyone familiar with the fitness industry at the current moment would understand its hyper-fixation on the word ‘optimal’ and a search for ‘optimizing’ workouts to get the best results. In one camp, science-based lifters meticulously plan workouts to ensure ‘maximum muscular growth’ while across the pond is another group who think the answer is simple: lift heavy, get strong. Perfect form and ‘best practice’ are just getting in your way.

Earlier this year, everyone’s favorite story to include in their headlines was about Mitoma’s thesis in university. While even he himself admitted to it being massively blown out of proportion, he did come to two conclusions that are interesting. The first being that ‘more skilled’ players are more successful in their dribbling because of certain technical elements, such as a more upright chest. The second being, essentially, that he didn’t have any conclusions.

Lifting, and football have two commonalities within these drastically different examples. Just as not every lifting style works for every person, football equally lacks a ‘perfect’ method to do something. Whether it’s dribbling, passing or defending, everyone seems to do them different. For example, Adama Traore and Kaoru Mitoma are both excellent at taking on a man, but because of different very different reasons. Despite massively varying philosophies within each smaller skillset, certain elements have been established as a prerequisite for success. For example, defending with flat feet is generally known as unacceptable, but almost every defender behaves differently after that point. Some are more front-footed, lunging into tackles. Meanwhile, others are patient, waiting for the perfect moment to win the ball back.

Within the skill of “ball-striking” numerous players have carved out a name for themselves, whether that’s through shooting like Dominik Szoboszlai, crossing like Trent Alexander-Arnold, or free kicks like James Ward-Prowse. Each player has found their own techniques which work best for them but within those techniques there are a number of science-backed elements of the ball-striking motion which are important. This first section details the scientific best practices behind ball-striking and how Szoboszlai, recently signed by Liverpool, compares.

What Does Science Say?

Science has done a decent amount of research on the concept of ball-striking, or more broadly, kicking. Some clubs, like Brentford, even employ coaches who are given the sole focus of striking and free-kicks. Science does a good job of explaining these processes, ranging from point of contact to the entire movement of the body from toe-to-head. To begin, accurately defining what truly defines good shooting is important to understanding the biomechanics that define it further. In an article published by Gongbing Shan and Xiang Zhang, they clarified that qualitatively speaking, shooting can be evaluated using two pieces:

The Temporal Aspect: Refers to the speed with which the shot is moving, velocity

The Spatial Aspect: Refers to the accuracy with which the shot is taken, location

Almost all shooting mechanics mentioned below will play into both of these aspects simultaneously, acting more as a spectrum rather than a means of categorizing each ‘step’ in the shooting process. By using this framework though, we can begin to analyze a more scientific viewpoint of shooting and investigate where the optimization point for shooting mechanics might be.

Using a second article, by Eleftherios Kellis and Athanasios Katis, they describe a bit more of the actual biomechanical determinants of accurate and powerful kicks. Their focus was mostly on how to generate the most power with your kicks rather than a more qualitative viewpoint that many football fans would take. The things described are mostly important for understanding how to optimize the temporal aspect, but will influence massively the spatial also. While there are plenty of obvious answers, such as having strong quads and hamstrings, I’m largely ignoring those factors because they don’t require much thought to understand and agree with. Some of the less known factors that Kellis and Katis described are:

  • Hip adductors and abductors strength
  • A rigid knee (not moving laterally)
  • Ankle shape and strength
  • Contact point
  • Inertia transfer

The bottom three are the things that I want to focus on as it pertains to Szoboszlai because they’re the ones were able to analyze using purely video. But the first two are worth brushing over. The strength of your hips help to control the entire leg swinging movement and ensure good contact as your leg continues on the intended path even with momentum. A rigid knee is important for generating power but also for preventing injury, as movement from side-to-side could resulting in torn ligaments in the extreme, or very weak contact in the miniscule.

The first of the focus points is the ankle. Ankle shape is one of the most important determinants in the quality of a shot, if not the most important, because it determines power, spin, elevation, and more. Despite its importance though, throughout the kicking motion, ankle movement is generally very little. Rigidity when making contact is one of the important pieces of making good contact. In the research done by Kellis and Katis, they state that plantarflexion (up and down) movement and inversion (in) movement are almost equal, although again, small.

While it goes largely unnoticed, almost all kicking motions result in the ball deforming somewhat to the shape of the foot in some capacity. Consequently, having a strong ankle becomes paramount in this. The ability to keep a similar ankle shape, despite the ball’s shape pushing back against your foot, can make or break your ability to kick the ball accurately and with power. This is also often why you’ll see young kids struggle to kick a ball hard with their instep — poor ankle strength, and poor joint strength in general (knee appears to be made of jello too).

Very related to the ankle strength and shape is finding a contact point which maximizes both power and accuracy. Anyone who has ever kicked a ball would tell you that foot placement on the ball is important, and most people would recognize that finding the best place to strike the ball on your foot is important, and yet beliefs of best practice in that department range widely. A lot of common teaching tells us to strike the ball using the inside of our foot, close to our toes. This WikiHow article gives a great example of that belief, pointing out the toes specifically as the contact point for kicking the ball hard.

On the other hand, another WikiHow article pinpoints a more accurate location for foot placement, closer to the ankle, which research suggests is far more optimal.

Answers for what is an ideal point of contact vary, even within the same website, but this is one area that research comes to a definitive conclusion. The contact point being much closer to the ankle is a logical conclusion to come to without research, but research confirms it. You can test this on yourself even, but if you have someone try to press down on your foot holding your toes, and then do the same action more on the top of your foot, you’ll notice the problem: being further away from the joint makes it more likely to bend. If your contact point causes variability with joint stability, accuracy on your shot will fall off quickly.

The final ingredient to high quality shooting to discuss is almost exclusively temporal, and it’s how to transfer inertia from the entirety of your body into the shot, generating power. This is where you transfer all of your momentum from running through your foot and into the ball. The easiest way this is visualized is through players who land on their shooting foot in their follow-through. Somewhat similar to a lifting cue, this idea subconsciously makes your body put a bit more weight onto the side you’re shooting on, resulting in a follow-through that essentially knocks you off of your plant foot. This gif demonstrates this idea of landing on the shooting foot well.

(From dreamteamfc.com)

Scientifically, research in a third article written by Gongbing Shan and Peter Westerhoff suggests that one of the determining factors of kick quality is the speed at which the opposite shoulder closes the distance with the kicking hip side. This is a big part of the effectiveness of that motion as well.

A huge detail noticed from Kellis and Katis’s research is that lower leg inertia is one of the main factors in ball velocity, which also means that changing the angle of the leg as it approached the ball resulted in a velocity drop off. This adds a huge point of inertia transfer which is the hip being aligned accurately with the target to reduce velocity drop-off.

To round things up a bit and cover the main biomechanical important points before we get to Szoboszlai’s mechanics:

  • Shot quality is comprised of two simplified aspects, the temporal and the spatial, which refer to velocity and accuracy.
  • Hip adductors and abductors are critical for controlling the entire movement and a rigid knee helps ensure velocity by being strong behind contact.
  • The ankle and the foot are two of the most important determinants for shot quality, as their subtle movement helps direct and strike the ball solidly. Ankle strength is also important as the ball deforms around the foot.
  • A contact point closer to the ankle rather than the toes helps reduce inaccuracy caused by the ankle moving during contact.
  • Transferring inertia to the ball is important for velocity and can be accomplished by landing on the shooting foot, opposite shoulder moving towards the shooting hip, accurate hip alignment, etc.

Case Study #1: Dominik Szoboszlai

Dominik Szoboszlai is pretty well known at this point for his high level of ball-striking, with his long-range strikes making the rounds basically once a month. This leaves even the most avid Leipzig or Szoboszlai fan with the impression that he must just do something different, or he must’ve found some secret to shooting.

Szoboszlai’s shooting can be characterized in large part by his consistent ability to transfer his body’s inertia straight into the shot. He does this by adding a slight bend to his plant leg to begin the loading there, followed by an almost violent extension where his entire body drives through and lands on his shooting foot, leaving his shooting leg at a maximum extension.

Rather than following all the way through with this shooting leg, Szoboszlai does one of two things. On shots meant to generate power and a knuckling effect, his shooting leg continues straight and stops short at roughly a 45 degree angle in front of the hip. If taking a shot looking for curl, it stops at a similar point but comes across his body, causing him to land in a somewhat awkward position that results in him sidestepping or doing a small hop-step towards the opposite direction of the shot direction. The form on these curved shots is relatively anomalous as most players will have their leg cross their body, but the movement stops there. Both of these are emblematic of how well he transfers power into the ball, one shifting the entirety of his inertia across his body while the other sends his body forward.

A somewhat unorthodox part of his shooting mechanics is that while his chest begins over the ball, as most kids are taught, it ends up rising to being almost perfectly perpendicular with the ground, but slightly behind the ball. Szoboszlai is shooting the ball, roughly centered, in the images below:

Shot taken from Leipzig’s match vs. Union Berlin

This chest shape stands out to most people who would be teaching shooting mechanics to children, as they’re told to keep their shoulders/chest over the ball throughout the motion. Szoboszlai on the other hand, as a more mature player, uses his chest placement as a way to regulate the height of the ball that he’s shooting. Raising his chest higher to allow for extra height on the ball. (Ball height isn’t entirely dictated by your chest but the angle of your foot when making contact, but chest angle acts as a cue to ensure the ball doesn’t rise too much.)

Part of what makes Szoboszlai’s shooting so effective is his consistent ability to generate a knuckling effect, which allows the ball to be drastically more affected by numerous external factors like wind. He does this by putting solid contact through the center of the ball, regardless of the point of contact on his foot. A difficult skill he’s managed to master, even with the instep.

Important thing to note though is that he does find himself losing accuracy and quality quickly whenever his form loses some consistent elements, such as the follow through or his chest height being drastically different from what was described. In almost every situation where he has a shot miss drastically, it came down to a form breakdown.

Conclusions on Dominik Szoboszlai’s Shooting:

So does Szoboszlai have some sort of secret formula figured out? Maybe, but at the end of the day, he’s just consistent. The ‘secret formula’ for Szoboszlai’s shooting is simply characterized by a lot of overlapping mechanics regardless of what kind of shot he’s taking. Consider the way that you would approach different kinds of free kicks. While you might be better at a curved free-kick, I might be better at a power one. The difference here being that I spent hours learning how to shoot a power shot rather than a curved one. The easiest way to remove this skill gap though would be for there to be a reduction in the variables in form. For example: what if we carried bodily inertia through a finesse shot similar to a power shot, kept shoulder and hip motion similar, etc.

This is what Szoboszlai has perfected. He approaches every shot with the same shooting model, whether looking for knuckle or curve. This begins with his first touch, or prep touch, which always leaves the ball probably 1–1.5 yards in front of him, allowing him to meet the ball rather than trying to get it out from under his body. The force put into each shot is a constant also, he’s never looking to ‘place’ a ball delicately. He puts his entire body through every shot. He also makes contact on a similar point of his foot, near the ankle as mentioned previously, whether the shot is making contact at his laces or his instep. His shoulders always begin bent over the ball, and move in sync with his entire motion to finally reach near perpendicular with the ground.

While essentially impossible to make muscular conclusions from video alone, there are at least two conclusions that I feel pretty confident in based on the research from before. The first and most important is that Szoboszlai likely has exceptionally strong ankle tendons. His ability to strike a ball in a similar manner regardless of his instep or using the top of his foot is an indicator of this. The second is that his hips and surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments are also likely very strong, and very loose. His ability to land on his shooting foot even when it comes across his body shows a high level of flexibility and control of that shooting leg.

None of these things quite answer my questions about ‘what exactly makes Szoboszlai so good at shooting’ though. Unfortunately, the next best answer for how a player gets good at something would be working on it, and while I’m certain Szoboszlai has spent hours shooting on an empty net by himself, it can’t stop there. Based solely on his style of play, it would be far from a poor assumption to say that he’s probably trigger-happy in team training, meaning a lot of game-realistic reps from an early age. A combination of god-given talent with regards to ball contact and muscular gifts, combined with consistent reps is the most likely explanation for what led to Szoboszlai becoming one of the best, most biomechanically sound shooters on Earth.

Part II: Case Study #2: Kai Havertz

The initial article plan was solely focused on Szoboszlai, but as news broke about Kai Havertz’s transfer to Arsenal, discussions about his shooting started popping up. In the midst of these debates, a tweet from Scott Willis (@scottjwillis) used xG to accuse those who make believe that Havertz is a ‘poor finisher’ based on xG underperformance as ascribing to lazy narratives and it particularly piqued my interest. The specific data in the tweet states that he’s underperforming his career xG by a total of merely 0.7, a very small total over 6 years worth of data. The thing about this belief though is that xG doesn’t take into account the biomechanics of each player, thus making the assumption that all shots are the same for each player’s body type. The idea of what makes Havertz a good or bad finisher, thus becomes an interesting conversation to me because of his body type. The rest of this section looks at his shooting mechanics, and whether or not his chances in the Premier League equal to those in the Bundesliga, and what about them might be different, and what might be changing in the way that he shoots because of it?

Answering the questions surrounding Kai Havertz’s finishing technique and overall quality needs considering of a few areas. While pure body mechanics are a big part of shooting and those will be included, the tactical elements are a huge part of explaining quality too. While some players, like Szoboszlai, are high quality shooters in the majority of situations, other players, like Havertz, may simply require certain circumstances to excel.

Havertz Shooting Mechanics:

Sticking to the data for a bit, we can begin by looking at the types of shots and their locations, that Havertz is taking between the leagues across two seasons. Many of the shots taken by Havertz in the past season for Chelsea were inside the box, with a slight tilt to the right side of the field. Importantly here is the number of headers near the box, and the (low) quantity of shots being taken just above the penalty marker. On the flip side, his shot map for Bayer Leverkusen puts almost all of his shots between the 6-yard box and the top of the 18. This demonstrates the amount of cutbacks he was often running onto with Leverkusen, a stark contrast from the Chelsea map.

Data and visualization from StatsBomb

Despite the differing kinds of chances, Havertz’s shooting mechanics are still a very important part of the conversation as they play a huge factor into his finishing. Compared to the ‘best practice’ discussed earlier, and the way that it compared to Szoboszlai, it’s no surprise that Havertz’s struggles will be tracked back to polar opposite technique. Beginning with his first touch, his first touch leaves the ball in a different location almost every time he’s about to shoot it. Often it lands underneath his body rather than slightly in front of him, and other times it skips too far away leading to him trying to lunge towards it. This has two hugely detrimental effects to his actual shot: the first is that almost no power can be passed into the ball because his stride length is suboptimal; either too long or too short. Secondly, it lures pressure in further, almost guaranteeing that a good shot will no longer open, adding more pressure both physically and literally.

Earlier I used the term “prep touch” to refer to the first touch, sometimes used by coaches to refer to the touch before a shot and I think it makes the best sense to describe this in regards to Havertz, as he fails to use that touch to prepare himself for the rest of the shooting action. Part of this setup is that the correct distance to the ball allows you to load your plant leg with force, and step through the ball, transferring your body’s momentum into the ball. The importance of this was previously discussed, and Havertz struggles to do this in almost all of his shots. Very infrequently is he even striking the ball hard enough to warrant landing on his shooting foot. These things can all be seen in the clip below.

The inconsistencies caused by this first touch result in a number of other problems afterwards. One of the most obvious being difficulty driving through a shot and generating serious power. Much of Havertz’s play is somewhat delicate, rather than rough and violent, meaning that his shots are usually placed into locations rather than struck. While Havertz is usually able to accurately place a shot, even under pressure, he very often fails to generate any power. Beyond his prep touch, two places that this can be further improved is consistently using a proper leg swinging motion. In the clip above you can see that he essentially dinks the ball towards the back post, and this was relatively common with his shots. The second would be learning the micro-adjustments that allow a player to make good contact on a ball coming towards them.

Unsurprisingly, Haaland is always a great example of both of these things. The clip below demonstrates two pieces that I think Havertz would greatly benefit from improving. The first being the stutter step he takes right before the ball arrives to him and the second being how he quickly got a full leg swinging action off even under pressure to shoot one touch. These preparation moments are something that Haaland has mastered, while Havertz struggles.

To look a bit into the tactics realm and how it affects Kai, most people would agree anyways that one of the best ways to ‘optimize’ him is by having him arrive late into the box and take advantage of his skills making runs and finding space. The difficulty here is that even at Leverkusen, where he got plenty of these opportunities, he struggles to shape his body properly. Often as the ball is coming he resorts to a short, staccato step pattern, trying to find the correct shape and losing almost all of his momentum again, leading to almost zero power in his shots even as he’s meeting it in the box. Being able to accurately place a shot means the power isn’t as important, but far from meaningless and minimal power makes each shot drastically more savable.

In both leagues though, very, very few of Havertz’s shots were taken with extra time or space despite the “Bundesliga Tax” argument. Much of Havertz’s style of play results in him receiving behind the backline or in a tight pocket of space in the box with defenders nearby. This is a contrast to someone like Szoboszlai who is able to exploit the extra space between lines in the Bundesliga by using his quality in distance shooting. He was often fielding pressure from some angle, leading to poor shot selection as he rushed to get the ball off his foot. The root underlying cause though here can be hard to distinguish, he could be afraid of taking hard contact or something else like lacking in confidence and hoping something will work for him.

A contributing factor to this poor shot selection though is that Havertz has multiple shots created by riding the pressure from a defender and shrugging him off. After staying on his feet though, he fails to create nearly enough separation from a defender in any capacity to find a higher quality shot. Some forwards will take shots similar to a step-back jump shot in basketball, where they push their body into a defender and create separation before coming back to the ball to take a much less contested shot. The important part of this though is creating enough separation that they can’t return to contest the shot in time, and taking in the moment you can shoot. Havertz struggles to do both which can actually make his desire for contact a massive negative on his shooting form, as it massively downgrades both his shot selection and his ability to strike the ball as he’s still actively fielding contact from a defender. Then, the times where he uses his technical or tactical skills, such as dribbling or finding a run in behind, he is also far too indecisive and allows the angles to close down before taking a shot. The clip below shows all of these different components.

Conclusions on Kai Havertz’s Shooting:

Mechanically, Havertz’s shooting has a few obvious issues that cause problems. His inability to take a consistent prep touch before his shots is an immediate hindrance. This might often be indicative of a player adapting to the different tempo of a higher level, but in Havertz’s case, this was a recurring problem for him even while at Leverkusen. In a similar vein of thought, he also struggles massively to make the micro-adjustments needed to cleanly make contact with an oncoming ball. Rather than meeting it with most of his momentum, he’s forced to kill all of his speed. All of this culminates in a poor leg swinging action which generates almost no power and an inability for him to drive through the ball forcefully.

Despite this all, Havertz was an above average goal-scorer in the Bundesliga, and has demonstrated that he can handle the technical intensity of the Premier League in other areas of the game, so other things have to be considered. As we saw with Szoboszlai, one of his strengths was that consistency in shooting mechanics leads to success. Similarly, so do consistency of chance types. The variety and randomness of chances that Havertz sees while at Chelsea likely have made it difficult for him to hone his skills at one, such as meeting cutback passes in the box at Leverkusen.

All of these things together have created a tough beast to tackle and a really nuanced answer to whether or not Kai Havertz is actually any good at finishing. Mechanically speaking, calling him a poor finisher is more than fair. There’s almost nothing in his shooting to suggest that he would even be average, as he fails to check a lot of the previously discussed boxes. Simultaneously though, technical quality can often be determined by tactics. This means it wouldn’t be surprising that in a more stable environment, we see Havertz able to adapt to his poor first touch more often, allowing everything the rest of his mechanics to fall back into place.

Part III:

The next part of this investigation into shooting was to get more personal and pay close attention to the body mechanics a bit more up close. To do this, I recorded a recent graduate of Temple Men’s Soccer, Yann Kouemi, and myself, taking 40–50 shots from around the penalty box from 3 different angles: centrally and from either side of the arc. Minimal instructions were given. Yann is left footed, so the right side of the arc was similar to him cutting inside and he often looked to curl it into the far post. From the left side he would try to place it with power across his body and into the opposite side. My general tendencies are a bit more varied and the location I’m shooting from rarely determines my technique. My biggest issues with this are the way it removed the context of pressure, so I’m also including a couple of match clips for Yann’s portion. The following sections will detail Yann’s shooting technique and give criticisms on it using Part I’s findings as a point of reference, before doing the same to my own shooting technique.

Case Study #3: Yann Kouemi

First will be Yann, who has played his entire career as a striker, making him an experienced finisher. He was a two time national champion in 2016 and in 2018 with his club Baltimore Celtic, prior to college, also winning one state championship in 2018. Once in college, he got substantial minutes as a forward at both Mount St. Mary’s and Temple. To me, his shooting mechanics are a very interesting deviation from both of the previously discussed players. While both Havertz and Szoboszlai are far from physically imposing players, landing much more on the lanky and weaker side, Yann’s biggest asset was that he was athletically dominant. Both one of the fastest players on the pitch and one of the strongest, this translated to most of his style of play also, specifically his shooting.

There’s a few main elements of Yann’s shooting technique that are of particular interest or taught me something new compared to Szoboszlai. Beginning with his approach to his shots, Yann would always approach the ball at an angle pretty heavily from the right side, changing his angle slightly depending on the type of shot that he was aiming for. Recalling back the research earlier, which showed that changing the angle of the leg as it’s in motion reduced the effectiveness of the inertia transfer massively. In games, this was much less pronounced than it was in clips and almost solely would be seen in the angle of his hips. Beginning with the film we took together, his hips would be at a slight angle, roughly facing the corner flag, as he approached a power shot. They would then swing all the way across his body as he makes contact, using his hips to generate a lot of his body momentum into power before landing on his shooting foot, rather than the momentum of the leg itself. Also importantly, his entire upper body is facing the target, helping with accuracy. The clip below shows this variation:

On the opposite side of the box, he shifted his focus more to placement rather than power across the body, shifting the angle of his hips as he approaches even further wide. Now, his entire upper body was almost facing the sideline as he approached the ball and while his hips faced the goal, his shoulders still faced the sideline. This allowed him to emphasize putting spin on the ball with his leg, rather than purely through contact point on the ball.

To return back to Szoboszlai, and even to an extent, Havertz, there’s an obvious difference here in the way that these three approach the ball. While Yann tends to overly exaggerate his hip and torso angle to generate spin, Havertz and Szoboszlai use different methods and keep their entire upper body (hips and torso) facing the goal for almost all of their shots. In both of their cases, this likely helps to increase their accuracy, while the changes and emphasis may make Yann’s slightly more difficult. The difficulty with this recording approach though, is that the lack of contest can allow you to think more about your form as you shoot, so below is an in-game shot.

In the shot above, Yann takes more of the left-sided power approach from before. Watching his hips closely this small emphasis can be seen even in the heat of the match, as he pulls the left side back slightly to help him generate power as he swings his entire upper body through the ball. The angle is small, rather than facing the sideline, which can be seen in the clip below. As he turns and cuts slightly inside, he keeps his hips and shoulders facing the sideline, until he goes to make contact. Then, unlike the clips from before, he pulls his entire body across to face the goal. This allows him to pull the ball towards the near post, rather than curling it towards the back corner as he usually does.

Thinking more about his upper body shape, Yann’s chest and shoulder angle was pretty similar to both shooters, staying low as he stepped up to the ball, and rising until his chest was roughly perpendicular with the ground. This helped him keep the vast majority of his shots either low and driven into corners, dipping in the air, or driven into the upper corners of the net. This also stayed similar across all three shooting positions and techniques, helping him as a constant.

The next part that was interesting was where Yann placed his foot in the approach. While Szoboszlai tended to make contact with balls slightly ahead of his body, putting his plant foot right next to or slightly behind the ball, Yann’s foot was almost always slightly ahead of the ball.

At 6’1, Yann’s stature means that he struggles with the common tall person problem where they often have to get the ball out from underneath them after their prep touch rather than easily striking it in front of them. I spoke about this a bit more in an article discussing Darwin Núñez’s finishing. Earlier, I discussed how important the contact made with the ball is, if not the most important factor and this creates an immediate difficulty before contact is even made as it narrows the scope of what kinds of contact are even possible.

One of the things learned by being more up close with the video and testing with yourself is how much the location of the ball in relation to your plant foot affects the types of shots possible. While the ball is underneath your chest, it becomes far more likely to strike the ball more towards the top and getting it off the ground will be difficult. Yann struggled with this often, rarely missing high because of glaring technical issues, but rather missing low and wide due to poor contact. Having the ball slightly ahead of the plant foot means opening doors to varying shooting techniques by simply changing the angle of your foot, or contact point. For example: pointing the foot down and making contact through the center of the ball can keep it low, and driven, opening up the foot and hitting on the instep can add curve, or hitting underneath the ball centrally can add knuckling.

Thinking more about this contact point, and quality of contact, Yann was generally quite good at putting the ball in the exact spot mentioned awhile back (upper, middle part of the foot), and he would use an almost identical point of contact for every shot he’d take. To change spin or direction, he was usually varying his leg motion rather than the point of contact. Szoboszlai was pretty similar in this aspect also. With regards to the ball itself, he was pretty regularly striking the ball right in the center, keeping it low and mostly on the ground, or getting just slightly underneath it and driving it in the air.

After making contact, he would vary his follow through based on the two different sides. On the left, where he was shooting for power, it was very straightforward. As he struck through the ball on his left, he would lift his right leg in the air just slightly, before landing back on his left foot again. This helped him generate immense power in his shots, comfortably the best part of his shooting. On the right side though, he would bring his shooting leg all the way across his body, dragging his plant foot through the turf a tiny bit, as seen below.

These two distinctly different landing styles were emblematic of how different the two shooting techniques were. One was violently powerful, as Yann drove the ball into the back of the net, while the other he focused far more on the power, sacrificing the power but not driving his entire body through the ball. Overall, Yann’s shooting mechanics were a stark contrast from Szoboszlai’s and can teach an important lesson in how important consistency and simplicity is. His fluctuating form based on goals, and the degree of change within his form, meant that it can become difficult for him to become consistently good at either. Even in the clips we recorded, granted he has taken some time off, he would have 2–3 great shots, 2–3 really bad ones, and then 2–3 ok/good ones. Another important element here is the location of his plant foot and then how it influences his point of contact. By making sure that the plant foot is a few inches back, he would likely reduce the frequency of shots scuffed low, and open up more types of shooting opportunities. The final piece of improvement here is simple: simplicity. It wasn’t discussed much earlier, but Yann had a tendency to over-exaggerate certain pieces of his form to emphasize things, such as a leg swing or keeping his shoulders very low. Neither Havertz or Szoboszlai did this much, and their forms were both compact and simple. This simplicity also helps ensure that it can be replicable on a consistent basis.

Case Study #4: John Zuidema (me)

Although my form was very different from Yann’s, we tended to have a lot of similar struggles across the board. I’m generally not great at placing shots anymore and have leaned heavily into using power as my tool in shooting, almost exclusively hitting shots on the upper, middle part of the foot that our research before determined as the ideal spot rather than ever using the instep. Because of this, I heavily emphasize the follow-through mechanics described earlier with Szoboszlai and Yann’s power shots. An example of me shooting with my usual technique is below.

I probably shoot like this for 80% of the shots that I take, aiming to make contact either dead center of the ball to drive it to the near post, or even slightly to the left side of the ball, adding a reverse spin that puts the ball towards the far post. This is a pretty abnormal technique to use often, and the frequency of me practicing it has resulted in me struggling to make good contact in other ways. Since we’ve pretty much hit all the details with the other players, here are bullets for my issues with my own form.

  • My plant foot tends to land slightly ahead of the ball and I scuff shots too often. (Picture below)
  • Follow-through is too much movement and adds both variance and ease of defending.
  • Chest, shoulders and arms move too much throughout the movement, making each shot pretty different.
  • My ‘ideal’ contact point on the ball makes it difficult to consistently make good contact, and is too high risk-high reward for quality shooting/finishing.

The final thing that I wanted to look at with my own shooting is how I hit the ball when trying to curve it. Here, all of the most important mechanics breakdown as I fail to make good enough contact more on the instep of my foot.

  • Lack of proper follow-through (lands on plant foot)
  • Chest height doesn’t rise throughout the movement, but rather stays level and slightly tilted downward the entire time.
  • Torso/upper body isn’t used to generate power and strike through the ball, just the foot.

Fixing these things are very similar to Yann. The most important would be simplification of the overall movement and addition of a few of the elements demonstrated to be valuable in quality shooting. My foot placement was a tiny bit better than Yann’s in the shots I took, but still probably a bit too far forward to truly guarantee it doesn’t get caught underneath me. Another element that I would change is angling my approach a bit more so that I can use my contact point to create the shot variables such as spin rather than my leg (a similar swinging emphasis to Yann can be seen in the last video clip). This is a difficult thing to tinker with because having the hips aligned with the target is also important for generating velocity, but finding the happy medium is the objective.

Conclusion:

Across the board, most players will use a wide variety of techniques, not just because of what they’re taught, but because of how different body types are. Growing up my brother and I were always fascinating foils of each other, even as we were both tall (I’m 6’4 / 193 cm while he’s 6’6 / 198 cm) we were very different. I was pretty normal, lanky and skinny, not particularly loose or tight, etc. On the flip side, my brother was super loose and even today, can just hop on a treadmill and run 5 miles without a warm up. A very important part of coaching and scouting is taking into account just how different each player will be because of body type differences. This consideration could be an edge for clubs struggling to compete with the money of today.

Baseball is one of my favorite non-football hobbies and I love using it for analogies. In the past few years or decades, pitchers have begun to scale up their velocity. This is caused by a combination of biomechanics optimization, and some prioritization of velocity over perfect control. The idea “a fast pitch is better than a well-placed one” has become dominant. One of the great stat websites wrote a blog back in 2019 which included a graph showing this idea:

To be very clear, I’m not a baseball professional or former player, so this is a simplification, but this stems from the idea that a higher velocity almost creates luck for pitchers. Consistently throwing harder rather than trying to place a pitch means that even if the pitch goes to the wrong spot, you’re more likely to get a whiff or generate bad contact, rather than leaving a hittable pitch over the plate.

Havertz and Szoboszlai put an almost identical dichotomy on the table between power and placement. While Szboszlai, and plenty of other players, have managed to combine both, the players who sacrifice all of the power in favor of placement have tended to struggle. In baseball, fastball velocity leads to a higher likelihood of mistakes. In football, the same can almost certainly be said. Havertz fails to “make his own luck” through his ball-striking, while Szoboszlai “creates more luck” through his. Learning how to make contact correctly and putting intense shots on target will lead to more goals, whether indirectly or from the shot itself. Knuckling movement or shots that skip right before the net both are examples of things that could create secondary shots from the primary ones. The ability to score and generate shots through your shooting though is just one segment of a larger topic of “ball-striking” though, and one that I’ll continue to unpack over the course of the summer. Crossing, free kicks, balls behind defense, even just “normal” passing all fall underneath this same banner.

If you enjoyed this piece, I would highly recommend subscribing to my Medium to ensure you don’t miss any future work!

Lastly, to give proper credit to all the other work used in this one:

Shan and Zhang: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9394376/

Kellis and Katis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3786235/

Shan and Westerhoff: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3786235/

Fangraphs Article: https://blogs.fangraphs.com/the-velocity-surge-has-plateaued/

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