Flying with Tim Cahill: The art of winning key headers, making runs & countering zonal marking.

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A dressing room after a successful football match can be a loud place for a winning team but last Saturday in Toronto the New York Red Bulls were all business after securing a dramatic late 2-1 victory.

There was no loud music blaring out but there was a tune being sung by one of their players.

“I believe he can fly,” he sung, “oh yeah you are flying Timmy, lets get you an Air Jordan sponsorship.”

Tim Cahill remained unmoved. After scoring the game winner in the 89th minute with his head he acted like he had done it before. And he had.

Listed at a generous 5ft 10 inches, the 33-year-old has made a living executing late runs into the box and scoring with his head. In his eight seasons at Everton in the Premier League he scored a remarkable 31 headed goals, averaging one every 7.3 matches, a better ratio than some of the finest headers the league has seen such as Alan Shearer, Duncan Ferguson, Les Ferdinand and Gus Poyet.

After the match I chatted with Cahill about some of the key moments in the game, which had highlighted all the key areas the Australian excels at.

On making key runs into the box

“Firstly, I thought we played some beautiful passing, especially in the first half, the organisation and consistency has to be there first. Its about making sure we fill in the holes and not concede. If we don’t concede we will score and make things happen, lets get more solid and then I will break more. I’ll be honest with you I said today we need to be disciplined, control the team from the middle and let the play come to us and if we get a chance then we break, and all my career I have done that but we had to pick and choose when we broke,” said Cahill, who only had one goal in 22 matches for New York prior to Saturday.

Break he did. Twice into the box to score, once with his foot to open the scoring and the second with his head to end it.

The first goal came via a broken play that meant the midfielder was still in an advanced role but just showed his ability to firstly find space and secondly hit the back of the net with an instinctive, one-touch finish. This is the build up to the move where Lloyd Sam’s cross comes into the box with Cahill perfectly positioned in space, unmarked and ready to pounce.

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Thierry Henry then brilliantly dummies the ball, knowing full well where his team-mate is, allowing Cahill to smash home with his left foot.

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Cahill’s first goal of the season…..

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New York’s opening goal brought them calmness and a confidence that allowed them to play the disciplined style Cahill preached. After a key goalkeeping error allowed Toronto to equalize, the game appeared to be heading for a 1-1 draw until ‘Henry to Cahill’ won them the game. Much focus in Toronto was rightfully on Ashtone Morgan’s poor clearance but watch Cahill’s brilliant run into space and his fantastic ability to not only get high but then put the ball into the ground to beat Joe Bednik in Toronto’s goal.

Cahill reflected on the winner afterwards: “If we were up 1-0 I don’t think I would have went but Thierry didn’t even look at me, I screamed and he heard and being the footballer he is he knew exactly where I was, put the ball in the air and from there, if they are not going to follow me and follow the runners, then there was only going to be one winner on that cross and that’s what I have been looking for all season. Thierry’s class (showed) on that ball and like I said he didn’t even look at me, that’s football, instincts.”

On sitting deeper and helping out his defence

In a cagey first half Cahill sat intelligently in the middle of the visitors midfield with Eric Alexander, concentrating more on being a key outlet for the defenders behind him than connecting with the four in front of them.

“If you watch Toronto’s videos they are a second ball team, they pump it in the box, pick up the second ball, back into the box, third ball, but if you have the players set in the right positions then you can break and find the players like Thierry (Henry) and Lloyd (Sam).”

On two occasions during the match a key header needed to be won deep in New York’s own half and it was done so by the Aussie who has a clear, supreme understanding of the ball when it leaves an opponents foot for a cross, knowing more than most where it is going to fall. “I pride myself on defending just as much as attacking, Toronto are a dead ball team who lump the balls in the box, I am not scared to win a challenge when I am defending and if it starts with me then it will only influence on the others in this team.”

On executing their plan at corners

You do not score 31 Premier League headed goals without knowing how to find your way around a crowded penalty area on corners. On Saturday, following the game, Toronto FC boss Ryan Nelsen admitted that he had warned his team about Cahill’s strengths at corners and although his side did a decent job at just the three corners New York won, the set pieces provided all with a fascinating look at why Cahill is so successful.

Before we take a look at New York’s process on attacking at a corner it is important to see Toronto FC sets up in a full zonal marking shape with all 10 players labelled, all doing a specific job.

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1 – is the man on the near post.

5 – this man monitors the near post but also blocks the angle of the ball coming across the goal.

2, 3, 4 – three players across the six yard box. 2 and 4 usually are the length of a goal between each other with number 3 in the middle, thus blocking off the zones.

6, 7, 8 – three players are then put in front of them and the job of these six players is to mark their zones and stay focused on going forward and side-to-side not back.

9 – This player’s position can be flexible depending on the set up of the opposition. He is usually deeper but here the player in question Ashtone Morgan is attracted to the large group of players and as you will see will go back with his marker as the play develops. He is effectively marking man-to-man unlike the rest of the team.

10 – This is the most advanced player whose job is primary to track any late runners and find crucial space to be a key outlet if his team wins the ball back.

Cahill is the team’s leader in executing what his coaching staff work on through the week. He immediately sets himself up on the edge of the area, running through the positions of the players in his mind.

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Then it is time for a quick meeting between Cahill and his team-mates to go through their runs, so they do not copy one another and pick the right areas to attack and then create holes.

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After reviewing their assignments it is time to begin early movements to keep defenders on their toes. Cahill, fully aware the attention of many is on him, drifts into space. At this stage you will see Fabian Espindola walking towards Cahill…..

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Espindola then moves into the six yard box to occupy the attention of those in that area and stop them coming out. Now it is time to put the plan into action as Cahill explained to me post match: ‘It’s all about trying to move the defence out of holes, and try and make areas where I can get in, if we dont make the right runs you wont get the goals and in these MLS games you need two or three goals to win games. I am constantly talking on the pitch and organising them to make sure people are in the position and if you get set early it makes it easier.”

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In this case the players are set early. As Henry prepares to take the corner it is time to make the aggressive moves. The two players to Cahill’s right (above) are going to rush in while Cahill spins around into space.

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The importance of everyone doing what they are told with intelligent movement is now evident as Cahill finds himself with some space in front of him ready for the ball…..

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As expected the ball finds Cahill in the space he helped create but is quickly closed down by the zonal markers….

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Cahill is not one to be denied easily though and now the importance of getting the second ball is vital. Cahill explained this afterwards when he referred to its importance from both set pieces and open play against a direct team like Toronto, saying: “The lads are probably sick of me screaming the entire game  ‘second ball’ because if you win that then you start to play, regardless of the circumstances.”

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Cahill fights for the second ball and wins it getting a shot off saved by the onrushing Bendik.

Cahill 15All-in-all it was a complete performance from Cahill who at 33 is starting to become a coach on the field as his head coach Mike Petke explained: “The two goals today were just the cherry on the cake to be honest with you because he does exactly what we ask him to do.  He leads in the midfield, he plays very stingy defence and he’s a work horse.  He’s an example for our young midfielders to be honest with you.”