Positioning and Anticipating Play

This has truly been one of the hardest things I’ve felt I’ve had to learn in the game so far. You can watch tons of videos and gameplay on fouls and misconduct to get decisions right when it comes to fouls and cards. It’s not quite the same for anticipating play.

Here’s my theory why. During life, we accumulate experience doing things repetitively. This helps us pick out patterns. With enough practice, these patterns help instruct our gut and give us a deeper instinct.

A somewhat random…


An attacker and a defender were running down the touchline with the ball. They had just passed the halfway line into the attacking half in what looks like a promising attack mounting. This was right in front of AR2. I felt a twitch. Midfield was more or less empty so there wasn’t too much to focus on but I turned my head towards the wayward attacker and defender in the middle just by the penalty area. If the attacker on the touchline got away, there would definitely be a cross/pass there. As I turned to look over early, I saw a wrestling match begin to ensue as both tugged each other to the ground. Granted the defender instigated it knowing that the attacker had more to gain from being in a good position.

When you see a pattern in the early stages, your mind already connects the dots and knows what’s going to happen next. So what? You look at the ending. You see it happening as though all in slow motion.

The point I try to bring here is that earlier in my refereeing experience, I wouldn’t have thought to look that way until the ball was crossed. Notice my wording almost spells out the problem. Ball-watching. Had I looked only when the cross happened or chase ended, I would have seen two players on the ground and other players in uproar.

Stepping back

So why do we ball-watch? Why does it happen? We get so engrossed in the little things that we forget to look at the big picture.

Sometimes, this happens as a result of the game temperature. Sometimes the little things matter more and demand more of our attention but not always. It’s important to constantly adjust between the two mindsets and allow yourself to. I may be innocuously and rather accidentally referring to the ball and the player in possession as the “little thing” here. The reason is that as the level of gameplay elevates, players are making decisions more tactically and there are typically less but more important challenges on the ball. Less means that there’s more happening elsewhere as everyone else is taking a position and that’s where the referee’s attention is needed.

In the early stages of the game, as teams are trying to figure each other out, I usually do the same. The left-back on the backline has the ball. There’s deep pressure on him. I immediately expect the ball to be played across the backline one-by-one to alleviate the pressure and use the space on the other side of the field. I swiftly turn my back and start moving looking at the potential fifth pass in the sequence.

Granted, this doesn’t always work out. Sometimes they decide against it. I gauge my confidence in doing this based on the likelihood of a turnover. Perhaps the most egregious thing I do as most referees would have picked up quickly is that I turn my back to play. It’s a risk but I do it so I can run neutrally while patrolling and save my energy for lateral movement for close space situations.

I search, quite obviously, looking left and right when a player not under pressure is in possession of the ball. The set of questions running through my mind.

“What are his options?”

“Where would I play this ball?“

“Where’s the space?“

As I see space and body language acknowledgment from his teammates, I see the next phase of play developing in the offing. It’s time to go before he squares up to kick the ball.

At least, that’s how it’s developed for me in my experience.

But wait… I didn’t quite answer the question.

Why do referees focus so much on the ball? I’ve found that earlier in my career, I was so fixated on play because I had to build my own self-confidence in foul recognition. I would call fouls that were fouls (or at least everyone agreed after) but I wasn’t always sure and wasn’t always confident in my ability to know when they would happen. As I’ve learnt the patterns on when to expect them, how they look and what angle I need to see them with certainty, I’ve found the mental capacity to pay attention to the next phase of play. The focus then becomes making educated guesses on where the ball will next likely be, use fitness to my advantage and be in the right place proactively instead of reacting to it.

What do you think? Have you mastered this art?

Other Thoughts

Close-spacing situations

There are times in the game where football becomes futsal.

If you haven’t refereed futsal, you’ll be wondering about what in the world I’m talking about. I mean when the players get in close proximity (usually at least 6 players in a 10×10 yard space) and the game becomes close touch and requires very deft movement. I’m usually very actively moving during this time to get out of the way and maintain a good view since the likelihood of a foul occurring becomes much higher.

In case you were wondering what I did in the example, I didn’t call a penalty. I swung by to have a quiet word with the defender several minutes later who understood that he couldn’t do it again. Strangely, the attacker hadn’t appealed much and the rest of the field didn’t notice it since the ball never made it that way.

One of those cases where if I had whistled, I may have been the only person on the field/stands that saw what happened. That’s not what football wants. Or so I think…


2 comments on “Positioning and Anticipating Play

  1. My main response is that far more of the fouls I see happen just behind the play rather than in front of it. Sure, you might catch some fouls by keeping your focus where you think the ball will go in the next phase of play, but in doing so you will miss more fouls that follow behind the play. This is certainly true at the levels that I referee in, which is club and recreational adult.

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