It isn’t a particularly bold statement to say that movement of players is one of the key tenets of a functioning football side. But movement on an individual level has always been a personal interest of mine, at least compared to other large aspects of the game. It was in my playing days in the Netherlands, where I was inspired by what I thought was a very interesting, holistic perspective on movement.
We had hour-long pre-game talks in a conference-room type setting, before we descended into the dressing room and warm-ups. It was a disciplined, civilised environment, where all things tactics, opposition and mentality were discussed. It was in one such pre-game talk, that my curiosity latched on to the phrase ‘altijd in beweging’ – which I interpreted as ‘always in movement’. The direct translation is actually ‘always on the move’ – a slight difference.
My Dutch wasn’t bad, but I often missed the nuance in such niche tactical phrases. I wasn’t the best player in an extremely technical U18 team in the Netherlands – I didn’t quite fit the player profile the system demanded. Fortunately, I had some semblance of footballing understanding at that stage in time. I understood the necessity of movement, whether it was to open passing lanes or drag opposition players, and it became my style of play to always be in movement, acting selflessly for the team. This at least gave me utility on a systematic level, and masked my relative technical deficiencies.
It was only in recent years, when I transitioned to watching and analysing football more than I played the sport, that I revisited the Dutch phrase, ‘altijd in beweging’, and noticed I’d mistranslated it. But upon realising this, other thoughts sprung to mind – always being ‘in movement’ can be viewed as distinctly different to always being ‘on the move’ (the correct direct translation). Being ‘in movement’ is all-consuming, it’s a state of existence for some players. A consistency, a baseline for their style of play. Perhaps how a ‘Raumdauter’ plays.
Always being ‘on the move’ felt more like a descriptor for a player who is always thinking about their next run, their next sprint in-behind, or their next feint away to come short for the ball. While this distinction is somewhat tenuous from a wordplay perspective, it made sense to me, hence, my efforts to break down the two phrases with examples. This article aims to highlight how the phrases are different, and why each one is important in the modern game.
Always on the Move
Because the definition for ‘always in movement’ is more holistic, and all-encompassing, defining and explaining ‘always on the move’ is easier, and therefore ideal to discuss first. Players who are always on the move, are often attackers. It benefits them to be quick in acceleration, and to be able to beat their marker over short distances.
Attacking the box is a marginal game about marginal gains. If an attacker can beat their marker with a sharp burst, they can latch on to a cross, pass or rebound to convert a high value opportunity. Such an opportunity will often register highly in its Expected Goal (xG) value, as high xG chances usually occur in the penalty box, close to goal. Players who typically accumulate high values for xG over a season, are ones who have good movement – they are always ‘on the move’.
Finishing chances clinically can bolster an attacker’s goal tally, but always being on the move is conducive to sustainably high goalscoring numbers. Even before the mainstream adoption of underlying statistics, such as xG, coaches universally agreed that a player who simply gets more chances is more valuable than a player who scores a higher proportion of their chances.
Javier Hernandez was classified as a classical poacher, in the early 2010s. Despite seemingly having no standout physical or technical attributes, he was such a valuable player to title winning Manchester United sides. Speed of thought, timing of movement and choice of run, were all key aspects of ‘Chicharito’s game. Despite variable technique and finishing, Hernandez was invariably in the right place at the right time, and this wasn’t down to luck. Much the opposite, it was down to always being on the move.
While the Mexican’s speed of thought and run-timing/choice compensated for his relative lack of physical abilities (namely speed and acceleration), a player like Mohammed Salah utilises an exceptional cocktail of physical traits, with a strong run-making mindset, to always be on the move. This allowed the Egyptian to be an extremely potent goal-poacher, even from wide starting points, as he typically lined up as a nominal right winger for Liverpool.
The fact that Salah was repeatedly making those out-to-in runs from the right wing towards the box, allowed Liverpool to play with an air of inevitability. It may have seemed predictable that Liverpool would aim to access his bursts in behind, but many teams often became susceptible to conceding over 90 minutes, such was the consistency and efficacy of the runs in behind. Combining searing pace with sharp acceleration and smart timing, Salah often separated himself from defenders at key times in games.
To access the high quality (high xG chances) – chances which allowed the former Chelsea “flop” to sustainably put up 30+ goal seasons, he was always on the move. Much like a goal-poacher, it was the fact that runs were always being made that gave rise to consistent levels of good chances. Salah of course finished many of these chances too, making him one of the deadliest wide poachers in recent history.
Furthermore, the predictability in Salah’s movements actually benefitted Liverpool’s style of play too. Trent Alexander Arnold could make his ambitious crosses and passes into danger zones, feeling safe in the knowledge that his actions would often find his Egyptian teammate. Liverpool could also then counter-press the zone where the ball ended up very proactively, as they know when a creative action is made, the ball would generally end up in the realm of Salah’s run. In the case of a turnover, Liverpool were able to efficiently regain the ball, subsequently dominating games, as a result of the clarity on a team level, all stemming from Salah’s runs.
The runs described in this section have typically been runs with the intention of a ‘final action’ such as a shot, which ends a phase of possession. While short bursts and quick darting movements (and more holistically, being on the move) are important across the pitch, the outcome of these movements are often noticed when a chance is created/converted.
There is an element of outcome bias in this notion, but it is also worth noting that the profile of players who make these runs are often found, and best used, in attacking phases. Explosive players with a low centre of balance and unerring consistency and hunger to make runs goes hand-in-hand with the desire to score goals.
Fernando Torres is a unique microcosm of a striker who was the epitome of always being ‘on the move’, but he declined into a player whose lack of movement worked to his detriment, after a couple of defining career moments. Torres in his prime was a phenomenal athlete – his acceleration and raw pace were complemented by a strong frame, making him capable of holding off defenders while moving at high speeds, with the ball or in search of the ball. The fact that ‘El Niño’ was always making runs to meet through-balls, crosses, or simple long balls allowed Torres to access a plethora of high quality chances. He put defenders under pressure and gave the impression of being a really busy player, always primed for his next movement.
📅 04/07/2007: Fernando Torres joins Liverpool ✍️
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Injury and loss of form coincided in the summer of 2010 for Torres, and he became a shadow of his former self. He lost his yard of pace, and therefore, a percentage of his ability to always be ‘on the move’. This saw his overall game, and his goal tally, decrease in the short term. The key issue this gave rise to, however, was his loss of confidence. When the Spaniard stopped getting so many chances, the pressure was on him to score the few big chances he did get. This all culminated in the man who scored 38 goals at international level missing an open goal against Manchester United in 2011, and exacerbated his loss of confidence in the extreme.
The Atletico de Madrid legend had already lost physical attributes which allowed him to always be ‘on the move’, but now he lost his desire to be ‘on the move’ at all. He hid from goal-scoring chances, making virtually no runs, and therefore, became a very ineffective player. Fernando Torres’ Premier League career is a useful example which highlights how subtle alterations in a player’s mental and physical performance can lead to a total loss of movement, which subsequently results in a complete loss of effectiveness in a player who used to be one of the best in the league. Above all, it goes to show that while always being ‘on the move’ is no guarantee of goals, it is a very good marker for expected goals, and thus, goals in the future.
Always in Movement
A player who is ‘always in movement’, to me, is a player who embodies free-flowing football in their vicinity. Usually, this is facilitated by said player being on the move in a steady fashion. Their movement is constant. If they aren’t moving into pockets to receive, they’re moving away from the ball to open passing lanes for their teammates. They’re in a perpetual state of flow. This is also embodied when the player is on the ball. They will be passing and moving, combining with others. Despite a lack of explosivity in their movement, watching a player be the fulcrum of a graceful combination tearing straight through a defensive block, can be exhilarating.
A name associated with these players who are ‘always in movement’ is a Raumdauter – an attacker of space. While the title isn’t a direct fit, the association is enough to add colour to the description. Raumdauters aren’t typically explosive players. They don’t use a burst of pace, or speed of thought to outwit defensive blocks. Rather, the mere fact that they’re always roaming through space, in central and wide areas, and through the thirds of the pitch, is enough to validate their worth to a team.
The continuity of their movement allows these players to create overloads across the pitch. There’s a sense of omnipresence in their involvement. And their movement doesn’t limit them to creating less tangible benefits for the team – a player like Thomas Muller is a classic Raumdauter, yet arrives in the box with such perfect timing that his goal tally always looks extremely healthy. And it is worth noting that Muller doesn’t have explosive pace, nor does he spend the majority of his time occupying the last line of defenders. Frank Lampard had a knack for arriving on the end of chances too, such was the nature of his movement. Jesse Lingard, Bernardo Silva (when played centrally) and Donny van de Beek are other recent examples of players who embody always being ‘in movement’.
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— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) June 20, 2023
Players who embody always being ‘in movement’ are best utilised in central spaces, notably, in the #8 or #10 positions. They must be pinned to what is at least a nominal central berth, so as to be central to the possession phases. Central positions are conducive to being involved in overloads across the pitch, as the distance to join specific combinations on either side is smaller when starting from a central base position.
Players who are always ‘in movement’ are so crucial to top sides – they are ‘ceiling raisers’. The constant nature of their movement can help break down highly organised defensive blocks, and even if these players aren’t highly involved from a ball progression or chance creation standpoint, the disorder they induce on a settled block can create numerous downstream benefits for their teammates.
Bernardo Silva playing as an #8 is a key example of a ceiling raiser for Manchester City. His ability to move into pockets to receive, and his press-resistance in turning away from trouble to carry the ball and combine up the pitch are two invaluable traits. And it is all done at a constant speed. It’s the nature of the movement that makes watching Bernardo Silva so satisfying to watch – he doesn’t use raw pace or physicality to carry the ball past defenders – he carries in a steady way, creating a feeling of inevitability when he beats defenders to arrive in attacking positions where the likes of De Bruyne, Grealish, Foden or Haaland into play.
Furthermore, another player who has developed into a key ‘ceiling-raiser’ for Manchester City is John Stones. Or more specifically, the iteration of John Stones that is involved in all three phases of possession: build-up, ball progression and the final third. Watching Stones in his flow this season has made comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer seem less hyperbolic by the game. Stones is always in movement to facilitate Manchester City’s possession game. While Bernardo Silva exhibits the ‘in movement’ trait more by carrying the ball, Stones does it by arriving in and out of spaces to receive and pass. He maintains the tempo of City’s play by always arriving in key spaces, and he makes such simple actions to progress the ball – he usually only plays the way he’s facing. But it’s the consistency and steadiness of his movement that allows him to play this way. It’s what allows Stones to always be a facilitator for top football. There is little extravagance. There is seemingly little flair. But there is certainly effectiveness, and the cruciality of this cannot be understated.
I have tried to articulate the distinction between two states of movement: always being ‘on the move’, and always being ‘in movement’, in an attempt to reimagine a tactical concept that became apparent to me after a mistranslation of the Dutch phrase ‘altijd in beweging’, almost seven years ago now. While it would be generous to not call the distinction from a word-play perspective a tenuous one, I do believe there is credence to the player profiling notions that I have presented in this article. In my opinion, being ‘on the move’ describes a player who is ‘on their bike’ so to speak – a sharp mover who makes darts, explosive bursts or astute micro-movements to gain small advantages over defenders. Being ‘in movement’ is an state of play for me, with aforementioned players such as Bernardo Silva, John Stones, Thomas Muller, et al, all embodying a role through this phase, as a Raumdauter or otherwise.
A Chess analogy may go some way to consolidate my argument. A player ‘on the move’ can be seen as a Bishop. They can make darts in-behind, if there are gaps. They can move short distances or long distances in one go – much like the varied nature of attacking runs in football. They move in a diagonal plane, much like attackers do in order to get in front of or behind a defender. They can often be inhibited by a solid defensive structure, but are a key piece in many circumstances, nonetheless. A player who is always ‘in movement’ can be seen as a Knight – they’re best used in central positions, such is their threat in joining either side of the attack. They can hop over or through organised defensive territory, much like a Raumdauter attacks space, or a Bernardo Silva carries through organised defensive blocks. Finally, they can only move three squares at a time, which is similar to the consistent speed of the player always ‘in movement’.
Football isn’t Chess, but much like a Bishop is different to a Knight, always being ‘on the move’ can feasibly be seen as different as always being ‘in movement’.
By Jamie Scott – @JamieScottUV