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Two players on a soccer pitch in a 1v1 situation.


updated on October 11th 2023

10 mins read

We’ve all seen it, we’ve all heard the term … SCANNING.

But what is it actually, why is it so important, and how can you become as good as Xavi, Messi, or Thomas Müller at it?

What is scanning?

Scanning describes the action of lifting your head, looking around you/over your shoulder, analysing your surroundings, and using this information to determine your next action - all of that in a matter of one or two seconds.

It enables you to actually know what’s happening around you and to determine the position and direction of your teammates and opponents. With this information, you can then make decisions based on the newly gathered information.

Why is it so important?

This is why scanning is such a valuable skill to possess and very makes often the difference between average and outstanding players.

Being aware of your surroundings first of all can prevent you from making costly mistakes. Think, for example, of the countless situations in which goalkeepers or defenders forget the striker in their back, who all of a sudden takes the ball from them and scores!

But it’s so much more than that!

It also enables players to really read the game and recognise options & opportunities to shape the outcome of the match!

Regardless of which decision a professional player takes, whether he goes for a deep pass, switches sides, goes into a dribble, or simply passes back to his teammate - it’s always based on having scanned the match situation to see what might be the next best thing to do now.

When should I scan?

You should always scan before you receive the ball, not when it has already reached you!

So when you, for example, see your teammate passing the ball to you, you see the ball leaving his foot (ideally also hear him saying your name) - that’s when you should take that quick look over your shoulder to also know what’s going on behind you right now.

And in that matter of a split second, you, for example, either see

  • an opponent,
  • a teammate,
  • or open space behind you.

Based on that, you can then already decide if you, for example, want to

  • pass the ball back to your teammate with just one touch,
  • control the ball with one touch and pass it to another teammate,
  • or control the ball and take a few steps into that open space with the ball at your feet.

Once the ball then reaches you, all you have to do is execute the movement.

Two players on a soccer pitch in a 1v1 situation.

How often should I scan?

The first part of the answer is, of course,

= whenever you receive a pass / are about to take control of the ball.

The 2nd part of the answer is

= whenever you’re not in possession of the ball (so kinda all the time).

And this does not only mean looking behind you / over your shoulder but generally scanning the pitch, analysing the positions of opponents and teammates as well as open spaces that can be attacked.

This can be done by either dribbling with the ball into that space or by passing the ball into the space while a teammate runs into that space to take control of the incoming ball.

And that’s also the reason why football can sometimes be compared to chess. In both games you’re constantly scanning the field, looking for weaknesses in the opponent's defense and opportunities that you can use to your advantage!

How can I train scanning?

Okay, scanning is a powerful thing - we've got that now! But how do you actually train it and become good at it? For that, you can work on three levels:

Level 1: Build the habit of scanning

As always, let’s start simple. That's actually where most players fail. It’s very often not a question of “how good is your scanning” but simply "are you even scanning / looking over your shoulder at all".

So start by practicing to scan whenever you receive a pass until it becomes a natural habit for you. One trick is, for example, to write the word “scan” on your wrist in training and matches. This way you’re constantly reminded to do it - even when you forget about it or start to get tired during the course of the training / match.

Very Important note: really build the habit of scanning, not just the habit of looking over your shoulder without actually scanning.

Level 2: Get better at processing the collected information

Once scanning becomes a natural habit, it’s time to get better at processing the collected information. How quickly and how well do you really understand what's happening by looking over your shoulder?

To get better at this really first and foremost comes through repetition and experience. In the beginning, you might just see a blurred mix of green, yellow, and red (depending on the colors of the jerseys), but the more you do it, the better you can identify what’s going on around you.

To speed up that learning process, you can also do different variations of the following exercise with another player as well as a wall / a 3rd player.

First, player 3 passes the ball to you / you pass the ball against the wall.

While you’re preparing yourself to receive the ball and scan as usual, player 2 holds up either his right or left hand. Based on that, you then have to execute one of two predefined actions:

  • for example shout “LEFT” or “RIGHT,”
  • lift your left or right hand yourself,
  • pass the ball into one of two goals in front of you,
  • or whatever you want to do.

The better you become, the more you should increase the difficulty and for example add additional options that you have to detect during the scan. (e.g. option 3 = "no hand raised at all").

Level 3: Become better at using the gathered information

So, let’s say you're now constantly scanning and through that are aware of ‘everything’ happening around you. Now it’s time to make smart decisions based on that information.

Should you control the ball, should you go into a dribble, take a shot at goal, pass order to choose the best option, you need to develop your game intelligence.

Not to go too deep into what’s happening inside a player’s brain here, but someone with high game intelligence recognises patterns in the current scene and can make predictions on what would happen next. And based on that, they choose their next action.

But this is again not something you have to be born with but something you can practice.

One of the best ways is to simply watch professional games and really analyse the movements and actions of the players, especially the ones playing in your position. So, take notes of what the players are doing, what decisions they make, and what the outcome is.

The same also goes not only for professional games but also for recordings of your own matches so you can learn from your mistakes and try making a better decision in your next game.

If you wanna go a step further you can also directly watch tactical analyses that study different game scenarios, analyse the ideal player movement and directly tell you how you can apply the learning to your own game.

The best & easiest way to find them is on the Train Effective app. On there you can find 100+ tactical analyses created by Premier League analysts. Just download the app, go to the 'Learn tab' and enhance your game intelligence!

But the Train Effective app can offer you so much more than that:

  • Boost your confidence & build the mentality of a professional player with the Rio Ferdinand mentality masterclass
  • Get access to 200+ drills & exercises to master your technique
  • Work on your stamina with our fitness training programmes
  • Create a personalised training plan to focus on your individual strengths and weaknesses 
  • Stay motivated by emerging yourself in a community of like-minded player

… and many other features that will make you a better player!

So download the Train Effective app now, increase your game understanding, improve your speed of play and show the world the player you've always been destined be.

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