Communication through a pass: explaining Thomas Tuchel’s obsessive attention to detail

Marcel Schmelzer spoke this week about the biggest difference between Thomas Tuchel and the managers’ predecessor at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp.

The quote gives an interesting insight into the working practice of Tuchel, a highly rated young coach whose stock has risen significantly following Dortmund’s good start to the season. At the same time, Schmelzer’s comment also sounds quite basic – obviously, if a player is predominantly right-footed, it follows logically that his teammates should pass to his right foot.

That’s not quite the case, though. Setting aside the fact that most players (and even developing ones) are expected to be two-footed these days, there’s a broader point to Tuchel’s coaching process – he’s looking to develop the ability of his players to communicate through their passing. In essence, players shouldn’t be looking to pass to a teammates preferred foot, but should be looking to pass to the foot that is most suitable for receiving the ball in each situation on the field.

To understand this, we first need to set aside traditional notions of what ‘communication’ means. A textbook (and by textbook, here I am referring to Weinberg and Gould’s Foundations of Sport Psychology) definition will tell you communication is “the sending and receiving of messages”, either through verbal or non-verbal methods.

In football, we typically think of communication as being verbal – “press”, “get forward” and that old chestnut, “work the channels!” are all examples of what the average footballer would consider good communication.

However, if we take Weinberg & Gould’s definition literally, then communication in football also incorporates all the non-verbal messages players send to each other – hand gestures, finger pointing and, as Schmelzer touches upon, passing to a certain foot.

Consider this situation. A centre-back has the ball with little pressure inside his own half. He’s looking to pass it forward into a full-back, who has got high and wide on the outside of the player in possession.

Communication through a pass scene one

Even with this simple action (the pass), there is a crucial communication aspect. Which foot the centre-back passes to is the communication of a message that tells the full-back what his next action will be.

If the centre-back passes to the full-back’s ‘inside’ foot, that would be the centre-back communicating that the full-back has a defender nearby and should not take a first touch forward in case he is pressed. That would be a scene that looks something like this:

Communication through a pass scene 2

However, if the picture looks something like this:

Communication through a pass scene three

Then the centre-back would communicate to the full-back that he has time and space to take his first touch forward.

Here’s an example of this from a Borussia Dortmund game this season:

Simply by passing the ball, Hummels is telling Schmelzer something very important – by passing to that specific foot, he is giving the left-back a message that he can a touch facing forward, and look to construct an attack. The two don’t exchange a single word or even a non-verbal gesture, but they are communicating through the language of football.

How can coaches apply this to their practice?

I think this is something we can enable players to think about and understand from an early age. What is considered the ‘golden age’ of learning, U9-U13, is a period of skill acquisition, which in football refers to the learning of motor skills such as passing. As a coach, I’d look to isolate and identify these non-verbal communication aspects into a session, creating situations where players have to think about the specific details of their passes. This would include asking questions like “what sort of pass do you think Player A wants if he has no defenders around him?”, and “how can we tell Player B that they should take a touch to face forward?”

If these concepts are taught well in the skill acquisition phase, then it builds nicely into the development of positional play in latter years. For example, U16 players working on principles such as playing out from the back can use their knowledge of communication through passing when thinking about the types of passes required in different situations, such as the one described in the example above.

Another example of communicating through passing could be in the attacking third, where a playmaker might hit a through-ball in behind the defence for a striker, indicating that the latter should be making a run to get into a goalscoring position.

Who would have thought that something as simple as a pass could be so complex! When understood, however, the concept of communicating through passing, and indeed, communicating through actions, is a logical and practical component of playing football.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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