What do you look at when watching a professional soccer match, the ball, the player with the ball, the receiver, the goal keeper? If you picked one of these and focus on that one part of the game during a match, you are probably part of the majority of soccer fans watching their favorite team play the world’s most popular sport.
Next time you go to a professional soccer match, let me give you a hint about the most exciting part of the game. A part of the game that will make you cheer inside just like your team scored a beautiful, full volley goal, or a far post header that traveled like a bullet into the net. The most exciting part of any soccer game is space. Empty, green, still space on the field. No players standing in it; no players close to it. Just space, near or away from the ball; near or away from your team’s goal. Just plain old space. One of two things is going to happen when you get to this point in this article: you are either going to dismiss this notion as crazy and toss this in the garbage or you are going to ask yourself how watching space can be as exciting as watching a goal, and continue reading.
Creating time for players to get into certain positions on the field, creating and using space, and a third player running into that space on the field is, without doubt, the most beautiful part of the beautiful game. What is “third man running”; how do time and space play into it; and why is watching the execution of properly executed third man running techniques the most exciting part of watching soccer?
Patches of green space on a soccer field transform in size and shape as the players move diagonally, horizontally, vertically and in curved runs around it and through it. Space on the soccer field is constantly changing shape no different than a stream of water gushing down a steep hillside. Space is fluid on the soccer field with only four impenetrable boundaries, two end lines and two side lines. Other boundaries are created by the players in the run of the game by vertical and horizontal compression but the only off-limits for a third man run is off the field.
The concept of third man running, simply put, is an offensive group tactic used during a game to either create space or to create a situation where the ball can be played to a team mate who makes an unsuspected run during a game. The key word here is “unsuspected”. We are trained to watch the player with the ball and the receiver but the real action comes from a third team mate making an unsuspecting run, unmarked and wide open, ready to receive a pass and go to goal. This third man run can be made to drag a defender to another spot on the field or to get open to receive a pass.
Who is the third player in this group tactic—who is the third man running? The third man running could be the passer or a player in support of the immediate play. At the time of the pass a receiver should have recognized certain visual cues so that a receiver knows that the pass is going to be made to him/her. Those cues might be the way the passer is facing, the way the receiver is facing, the place of the end or sideline in relation to the place of the player with the ball, whether the passer is left or right footed, where space is located on the field, where the opponent’s strongest players are located on the field, and on and on. All of the players near the passer should be able to read these visual cues and make a good guess as to where the pass is going to go. So, a team mate in the area of the play, other than the intended receiver, at the moment of the kick or just before, should make a run into dangerous space. For best effect, that run should usually be diagonal or curved because that type of run is difficult to defend against. The passer should pass and move to space away from the third man running to open space, the receiver should first look to the third man running as a passing option, and second to the passer or to another open player on the field.
Unless the opponent is using full man, full field marking on defense, which is unusual, this third man running will probably be wide open, especially at the youth level of play. He/she is an unsuspected player making an unsuspected run. A more conventional way of using third man running is using the passer as the third man as follows. The passer passes to the receiver and immediately makes a run into dangerous space. A team mate runs to space dragging an opponent with him, clearing space in the area of the passer. The receiver now has the option of passing to an open player who is making a third man run or back to the passer who is also making a run to dangerous space.
Third man running always works best if the runner makes a diagonal or curved run because there will be more passing points available to the passer during this type of a run as opposed to a vertical or horizontal run. Diagonal and curved runs are much harder to defend against than horizontal or vertical runs.
How does all of this tie into the use and creation of space on the field? The players off of the ball transform space in shape and size on the field. If properly done during the run of play, space will create opportunity for the savvy player to utilize. The third person running may not be the player that turns out to be the receiver in a play but that person, at the very least, can create space for an opportunistic teammate to exploit.
Next time that you are casually watching a soccer game, take just a few minutes to watch the shape and size of space change on the field. Then ask yourself how it was created, which player created it and most important, did it benefit the attack. Once you get a feel for it, you’ll see that watching empty space about to be exploited is much more enjoyable than staring at an empty net, as you wait for a goal to be scored.