Getting to the ball first in soccer is key. The good news is you don't need to be the quickest or the strongest to intercept a ball, and set your team up for an attack.
The key to getting to the ball first is reading the game. You need to be able to anticipate what is going to happen and you do this by reading body language and using your experience to make a calculated decision.
As an example: as a center back, I don't consider myself the fastest player player on the pitch. However, I will often get to the ball ahead of the striker, intercept it, and either dribble into space to set up an attack or pass to a teammate.
Let me talk you through my thought process for getting to the ball first. Let's say the opposition right back has the ball. A common pass from a RB if they have pushed forward is into the strikers feet, through the lines. Although this all happens in a split second, I will slow it down for the purposes of understanding.
When the RB has the ball at their feet, they often look up for options. They look directly at the striker. Then their eyes go back to the ball. Then they swing their leg back to play the pass. Before the ball has even left their foot, I have anticipated that this is going to happen so I have taken steps forward to get in front of the striker and intercept the ball.
Of course, this doesn't always work. Sometimes the passing player can be deceptive. Or the striker can use their body well and move towards the ball and hold me off. But in general, if you are mentally alert and committed, you will step in and win it.
This goes for all positions on the field, not just as a CB. It could even be a striker intercepting the ball from the goalkeeper to a CB. Or a fullback to the winger. The situations are endless.
Here are 5 clear tips on how you can intercept a pass and win the ball:
Tip 1: Don't be too close to the receiving player. Tempt the passer into making the pass before you read the play and react to step in to win it. If you are too close to the player, then this can close off the passing option. Now, this can be a good thing also. But sometimes, you just want to tempt the passer so you can step in and win possession back for your team. Be smart about it.
Tip 2: Anticipate the pass by reading the body language of the player.
Tip 3: What body language should you look for? First, you want the see the passer look at the target. Next, watch for them putting their head down. Lastly, wait for them to swing their leg back to pass and then you GO! This all happens before the passer has even made the pass.
Tip 4: Be committed. Sprint 100% out in front of the attacker and use your body to jostle in front and win the ball.
Tip 5: Don't barge into the back of the player and commit a foul. If you can't intercept, hold them up and force them to send the ball backwards.
There you have it. It all happens in a split second, but over time you will recognize when an opportunity arises to step in and win the ball. It's all about anticipation, and keeping your mind sharp. Soccer is all about staying as many steps ahead as possible. You don't need freakishly fast speed or strength, you just need to think faster than everyone else.
However, as I mentioned earlier, you don't always need to step in and win the ball. If you can cut off the passing option by marking close to your opponent, then job done. Or if you can't step in and win the ball, just hold them up and force them to play a pass backwards.
Done correctly, this can be a great way to set up an attack for your team depending on where you win the ball on the pitch. After you win it, you have the choice to dribble the ball up the pitch, or get a pass off to a teammate.
Watch pro games and analyze how players step in and win the ball. Pay close attention to the timing and technique, and also the body language of the passing player.
Add this to your game and it will set you apart!