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3 steps to 'read the game' like Messi 

updated on November 4th 2023

10 mins read

Have you ever wondered how Messi manages to make those passes that seem impossible for a regular person to predict?

Or how Erling Haaland seems to always be in the right position in front of goal while defenders like Sergio Ramos always seem to know exactly what the attacker has in mind?

All of these players possess some of the finest game understanding in football. They are masters at what the football world calls "reading the game."

And as that’s one of the most important skills you need to possess if you want to play more than amateur football, let’s have a look at what this exactly means, and more importantly, how can you get better at it! 

A. Understanding the concept 

All these terms mean the same thing: being able to comprehend what is currently happening on the pitch, predict what will happen next, and therefore act before all other players.

As we had already explained here that the 1st step to this is SCANNING, the process of analysing 

  • the position & movement of the ball
  • the position & movement of your teammates
  • the position & movement of your opponents
  • the open space (= empty areas on the pitch with no players in it).

The 2nd step is then to make predictions on what will happen next, based on the information you have just gathered during the scanning: 

  • Where could the ball go next? 
  • What could my teammates do next? 
  • What could my opponents do next? 

And this will then lead to the most important question: 

“What could I do to take advantage of this situation?”

The 3rd & last step is then the execution of the planned action. 

B. Example

Let’s play this through with an easy example. 

Try to imagine the following situation:

  1. You have the ball and are dribbling towards the 2 centrebacks of the opposing team. 
  2. You’re in between the halfway line & the opponents’ penalty area. 
  3. You’re positioned in the middle of the the left side of the pitch. 
  4. Now you see your teammate 20 meters on your right, sprinting towards of the penalty box. 
  5. You see that your teammate is faster than the right centreback. 

Here again a quick visualisation of the situation:

Now you predict what could happen next. Not too difficult right?

Your teammate will pass the right centreback and would very likely outrun both centrebacks, giving him the opportunity to be alone in front of the goalkeeper. 

"What could you do to take advantage of the current situation?”

Answer: You pass the ball in between the two opponents in the run of your teammate, slightly before he/she surpasses the opponent. 

Now you just execute the pass.

C. Methods to improve your game understanding

And now the very important question: 

How would a player be able to complete the 3 steps the example above? 

Step 1 is all about scanning, we already explained that. 

Step 3 is all about your technique to time the pass perfectly and to give it the right tempo.

And Step 2? How were you able to immediately predict what could / would happen next? 

Because you’ve already seen it 1000’s of times! 

Your brain recognised the pattern of a teammate running behind 2 opponents and remembered all the different variations of what had happened next in those situations. 

It knows that if you pass the ball in between the two opponents in the right situation, your teammate will be able to reach the ball without being offside and right in front of goal. 

Of course, this was a very easy example right now. But the exact same principle applies to even the most complicated game scenarios. So in order to train them, you can try out the following 3 methods:

1. Watch & analyse matches yourself

This is probably the most comfortable way you’ll ever got better in football: To see new match situations & learn from them you can simply sit on the couch and watch football. 

But don’t just sit there, enjoy the game and maybe check your Instagram feed every once in while! To make this an effective way to learn and train your brain to save, comprehend and remember those new game scenarios, you can follow these tips: 

Tip 1: Have pen & paper or your notes open on your phone and write down your learnings! 

Tip 2: Watch the two players playing in your position closely and analyse 

  • Their movement with the ball 
  • Their movement without the ball 
  • What do they do with the ball
  • When & how do they pass, shoot, cross, …

Tip 3: Now do the same with players of all other positions, e.g.

  • what do runs of the wingers look like to create space 
  • when do midfielders play a through ball and when do they pass it directly to their teammate 
  • how do defenders defend in 2v3 situations 

Tip 4: Now look at more general team tactics / how players act together, e.g.

  • How does a team manage a successful build up play despite high pressing 
  • How does a team play a successful counter-attack
  • What did they do (wrong) when a counter-attack failed 

As you can see, these are just examples of what you can focus on.

Ideally find a way to be able to pause the matches so you can watch the exact scene again and again until you fully understood what is going on so you can really learn from it and use it for your own matches.

2. Be more conscious & analytic in your own matches

Most players just play their game and are happy when they win, sad/angry when they lose - but that’s about it when it comes to the reflection of the game. 

Instead, try to be really present in the game and conscious about the scenarios you’ve found yourself in & the decisions you’ve taken. 

This way you can not only learn in general but maybe also already make better predictions in the span of the game. While you maybe mistimed your through balls in the first 10 minutes of the match you can now predict the speed of the centerback a lot better in the 2nd half!

P.S.: If you notice that you’re now overthinking every situation and it rather harms than benefit your game, maybe rather do it only in training matches or friendlies! 

3. Learn through game analyses by professional analysts  

As you can see in method 1: there is actually a lot going on simultaneously in a football match. 

So especially when you’re just starting to further develop your game intelligence, it can be quite complicated and overwhelming to know what to focus on. And even more importantly, draw the right conclusions from what you’ve just seen.

So the best way to improve your game intelligence is to directly watch & learn from analyses that have been created by the same professional analysts who provide match analyses for Premier League teams.  

And that’s exactly what we did with the Train Effective app. We worked with Premier League analysts and created a video series of the most important scenarios you need to be able to recognise in your own matches. 

In those videos the analyst is then able to 

  • slow down the scene
  • highlight the movement and action of the players
  • explain to you in detail what you can learn in this scene 
  • and show you examples of the same scenario in other matches. 

This way, you can be sure to take away the correct learnings and will be able to make the right predictions in your own matches. 

Here is an example of what those analyses look like: 

If you want access to more of them, just click on one of the buttons below to try the app for free and start reading the game like a PRO! 


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