Monday, 31 January 2011

The FA's direction: Part 1

Brooking spoke recently to the BBC about the path the FA will take in terms of developing youth. See the video here.

Nothing is new in what he says but it is important the ideas are articulated to the biggest stakeholder in English football: the fans. I have written about the FA's failings in its approach to developing youth. I stand by those points. It is still too reactive, and still paralysed by fear. The strength of the Premier League is bad for the development of English players who can't get the exposure they need and the football world is still too insular. Policy is still reactionary and hearing Trevor Brooking speak of a time frame of 10 years is worrying as other more experimental, bold nations (like the KNVB in Holland who have always accepted the need to be innovative, having a population of just 16 million) will have moved ahead.

However in the wake of the World Cup the FA is starting to realise what needs to be done. This comes down to two key points: competitiveness v other motivations ('competitiveness' loses!) and having a playing philosophy. I'll tackle the second point in this piece, and the first in the next.

Brooking says "English youngsters can pass the ball as well as anyone, if we spend the time cajoling it out of them". You only need look at the top players we have produced over the past 15 years to know that this has not happened so far. Scholes, Lampard, and Carrick are perhaps the only genuine passers of the ball we've produced. Of those Scholes is a true phenomenon, perhaps the most undervalued midfielder of the past 20 years. Zidane said,

“He’s almost untouchable in what he does, I never tire of watching him play. You rarely come across the complete footballer, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get. One of my regrets is that the opportunity to play alongside him never presented itself during my career. He was an extremely tough opponent to play against. You didn’t get any time on the ball when he was around. He would close you down and make your life ­terribly uncomfortable. He is the type of player you want on your side, not in ­opposition because he could do so much damage. He is very gifted. He makes the game look easy because he’s so much natural ­ability.”

I urge you to click here for a simply phenomenal list of quotes praising his talent. That the top midfielders and players of his generation have come out with such glowing praise highlights how far off the media can be in their appraisal. Make no doubt, Scholes is respected and yet we still gravitate towards the flash bang of a Ronaldo or Messi with jaws agape far more readily than a player with the more subtle, all round class of a Scholes. And yet with Scholes being English we should have every reason to want to extol his virtues.

Our lack of appreciation for a player so universally acclaimed is ridiculous and symptomatic of our failing to appreciate true class.

Zonal Marking makes a similar case for Carrick being underrated. He has many faults but his passing is strong.

And that leaves us with Lampard, whose passing range is superb and yet in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League will be known for being a box to box, goal-scoring midfielder.

Sure I know a moment does not a player make and the youtube fallacy is profligate on the web (if a player has a good compilation video on you tube he must be a good player), but Lampard genuinely has class. And despite being highly rated, it is not for his passing qualities, but his big balls and spectacular goals. He has the second highest number of assists in Premier League history and yet praise is too often misallocated.

And yet it is not that we do not appreciate good passers. Xavi, Iniesta, Arteta and Xabi Alonso are just four of a multitude of strong passers we appreciate in the Spanish team. Pirlo, De Rossi and Montolivo are respected Italians. Rui Costa, Tiago and Deco in Portugal. Zidane, Pires, Toulalan in France. Sneijder, Bergkamp, Seedorf. I could go on, but the point is clear.

English players are not trained from a young age to pass the ball, to be patient, to have awareness for what goes on around them. There is also little external reward for playing a good pass. When we see the players glamourised in the Premier League (the place top English players first break through) we see players who have any combination of pace, goals, desire and directness. Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole.

These players are not intrinsically bad but they rely on having players around them who can do the simple things well. Ronaldo, Rooney, and Tevez worked so well because they had some combination Scholes, Carrick, Anderson, and Giggs behind to keep the ball moving and release them intelligently. Arsenal's directness when they were winning things was tempered by the ability to keep hold of the ball when necessary. Mourinho's sides are best characterised by intense pressing to win the ball and then "resting" when in possession i.e. slowing play down and keeping possession. Successful sides know how to speed up but they also know how to slow down.

If England are to have any success going forward then the FA's plan to produce players who can pass the ball from the back is to be welcomed.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Team Ethic

Today I saw a marvellous team with spirit and determination. What really impressed wasn't the result, but the commitment to playing football the right way. Inter came back from two down to win 3-2. Fulham demolished Tottenham 4-0 in the FA Cup. I'm talking about neither, but in fact my university women's side.

The gap between the top two leagues is great and so my side - promoted last year - have struggled this year. We are a seconds team so often find ourselves losing our better players when the 1sts are short. We have lost every single league game. Today was no exception going down 1-0.

But results are not everything. We were destined to have a tough season and so it has proved. As a coach you learn that an attachment to the result and only the result is counter productive as it can hide deeper issues or disguise things that are genuinely going well. Football is a low scoring game and as such hinges on moments. You can play well for 85 minutes and lose 3-0.

Let's set today in context. At the start of the season I bombarded the team with meticulous information about the way they were to play. This alienated me from the side. They had never encountered such depth of analysis, preparation or such complex expectations. Even the formation - a 4-2-3-1 - was baffling. A switch back to the 4-4-2 they were used to has not yielded better results but has handed back over the system to the players. They feel comfortable with it. And when a team has limited time to train together, feeling comfortable with the playing style is more important than having the best formation of all time everrrr. In any event the side now plays like a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 diamond anyway. What is important is the movement of the players rather than starting positions.

An even more profound lesson was learnt too. Culture shock is detrimental to empathy and performance. Empathy is important because without it players will not run to help each other out. Football is a highly social game - a team sport - and so players must feel a strong emotional connection with each other if they are to run through the pain of heavy legs filled with lactic acid and a heaving chest, to help each other out. To avoid destroying empathy through a culture shock, it is important to understand a number of things. Firstly, what the regime before was like. If you fail to understand how things were done you will find a lot of resistance in implementing your own ideas. Secondly, you must understand what motivates your players to play the game. As a coach it's easy to assume they have an intrinsic love of the game, of problem solving, and of becoming better footballers. This isn't always true. My team do it more for the social and fitness aspects. Finally, you must understand what your players are like as people. You are not really communicating to players, but to people.

These lessons have come to me over the course of the season in a very real way.

Back to the game. The team retains 5 players from the previous season. Many of the newcomer have never played before. We have come off the back of two 7-0 defeats. The first came against the best team in the league. The second came when we had no goalkeeper and played away with 10 men. Today we are missing our captain and have two players pull out hours before the match. Preparation was not ideal.

Yet the recent hardships we have faced and the willingness of players to sacrifice themselves for the team - e.g. by playing in goal - has been inspiring. Today we ran until our legs were heavy, and then we ran some more. As coach I projected exactly the emotions that I expected my players to have: enthusiasm, commitment and positivity. I urged them to "USE THE BALL AND WE WILL SCORE". Simply projecting ideas onto the team - drawing on past experience with NLP - lead to a sense of confidence. We played some beautiful football and despite having far more shots on goal and showing far more commitment to our style of football we lose 1-0.

It is easy to be a bad sport. I accept that every single loss we have suffered this season we have deserved. But today was different: the referee agreed, the players knew it, and the opposition walked off absolutely exhausted. We were physically drained but mentally buzzing.

The ideas in this post will be of use to other coaches as well as shedding light on why some managers have more success than others. The best managers pace their players, and lead them to a new place such that the squad are made in their own image. This sense of shared identity fosters team spirit and competitive success.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

3 things I've learned this week..

1) Don't force working relationships, assume them. Adults will respect this proactive approach. More importantly, children will too. Do not command them to be quiet and listen to you. This will be a perpetual struggle and highlight the difference in your roles. Instead, be quiet and wait for the group to self manage. The first few kids will go SSSHHHH straight away and eventually the whole group will realise that standing in the cold is less fun than being quiet for 2 minutes to get the next set of instructions. Through managing themselves the emphasis is now on team goals, and unity (i.e. why are we all here).

2) Banter + Controversy + Honesty = Rapport.

3) Every drill I design I ask myself two questions when I'm done. How can I make it more useful/realistic? How can I make it more fun/enjoyable? Then I realise I'm not nearly as done as I thought and recraft it.
This needs to apply to even the warm up. Academy coach today did a great warm up which really underlines how much scope there is for every part of the training session to be made more exciting.

Re-evaluate everything.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Arsenal Team Philosophy

Having spoken highly of Mourinho and Wenger in my post they both rear their head in a different context here.

This was left in a hotel room by an Arsenal player at the start of the 08/09 season. It outlines Wenger's expectations of his side and their mentality.

The Team:
A team is as strong as the relationships within it.
The driving force of a team is its member's ability to create and maintain excellent relationships within the team that can add an extra dimension and robustness to the team dynamic.
This attitude can be used by our team to focus on the gratitude and the vitally important benefits that the team brings to our own lives. It can be used to strengthen and deepen the relationships within it and maximise the opportunities that await a strong and united team.
Our team becomes stronger by:
Displaying a positive attitude on and off the pitch
Everyone making the right decisions for the team
Have an unshakeable belief that we can achieve our target
Believe in the strength of the team
Always want more - always give more
Focus on our communication
Be demanding with yourself
Be fresh and well prepared to win
Focus on being mentally stronger and always keep going to the end
When we play away from home, believe in our identity and play the football we love to play at home
Stick together
Stay grounded and humble as a player and as a person
Show the desire to win in all that you do
Enjoy and contribute to all that is special about being in a team - don't take it for granted.ieve in the strength of the team
Always want more - always give more
Focus on our communication
Be demanding with yourself
Be fresh and well prepared to win
Focus on being mentally stronger and always keep going to the end
When we play away from home, believe in our identity and play the football we love to play at home
Stick together
Stay grounded and humble as a player and as a person
Show the desire to win in all that you do
Enjoy and contribute to all that is special about being in a team - don't take it for granted.

There is nothing revolutionary here but it is a good application of some of my theoretical posts earlier. There is a focus on constantly striving for more, and togetherness within the squad.

The real question is how to promote this. Mourinho gives some insights here.

There's no questioning the empathy that exists among us. Empathy doesn't just mean kiss kiss. Empathy means a loyal, honest and sincere relationship. I give maximum protection to those who play badly, which can happen, but why, and I ask you, shouldn't I criticise those who don't play for the team? The team is the most important thing for me.

Wenger has something special to say on the subject. Only a French coach could come up with something so eloquent - in such sharp contrast with Mourinho's Machiavellian pragmatism - and I love him for it:

"It's not really that important what the manager has to say. What's important is what you instil in the players' heads. You have to make sure the players are under the impression that they are struggling for themselves...if they do that then they can move mountains".

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Insight into the FA

The FA produces a quarterly magazine for members of its coaching association (FACA) called 'Insight'. It contains a number of good articles on the technical and developmental aspects of the game. It is generally well written and certainly ticks all those FA buzzwords: developing people as well as players, age appropriate coaching, and long term player development. Tube journeys are improved massively by its existence.

For a magazine aimed at regular coaches (many of whom will be earning an income from the game), it falls short in its willingness to take risks. It is a considerably safe journal. All great footballing movements share a common environment. From that in Austria and Hungary in the early part of the 20th Century, the Brazil sides of the 60s and 70s, the total football in Holland in the 70s, and to the stylish approach to developing youngsters at Barcelona's academy in the 90s, there is one thing that they have in common: the primacy of sharing new ideas. That willingness to question and invent does not exist at the FA. There is no sense of sailing into the unknown.

The FA is gripped by fear. Fear paralyses. It stifles creativity. It encourages a "play safe" attitude. But playing safe is no longer an option for a body which has played mediocre for so many years. Its much heralded national development centre at Burton is a welcome move but one 20 years behind France. It is not that it is a bad idea - it is a very good one - but that such an idea will at most bring the country on an even keel with others. And whilst the English FA will have had 10 years of learning, France will have had 30. Good ideas are not the name of the game. Competition is. It is not enough to be good at sport: but to be the best.

And sport, as with art, relies on gales of creativity sweeping relentlessly over all that stands now, so that tomorrow the landscape may look very different. This relies not simply on the good execution of established principles (although it certainly means that as well). It means suggesting ideas that are new. Ideas that are positively crazy, stupid, ridiculous, nonsensical and finally brilliant. The line between genius and insanity is well acknowledged to be as fine as that between success and failure.

An FA National Coach has written a piece for the Autumn edition of Insight (the Winter edition has yet to be released) entitled, "Destroyers or Playmakers?". The interesting idea in said piece is that holding players are now multifunctional. Rather than just mopping up in front of the defence they now need a number of skills in their armoury. Citing players such as De Rossi, Pirlo, Vieira, Xabi Alonso (and many more...) he suggests they now be called 'front sweepers'. Now this in itself is not a bad point to make. It's certainly true that deep lying playmakers with responsibilities in distributing play have become important. But such a role is hardly a new one. The trend started with Liberos and evolved into the player we see today. Consider Mathias Sammer's role for Dortmund and Germany: originally a midfielder who was moved back to a sweeper role where he was responsible for mobilising the transition phases from defence to attack. Didier Deschamps was nicknamed 'the water carrier' for his simple distribution of play from in front of the defence.

Even if we ignore famous historical examples the rise of the deep lying playmaker is not breaking news. That the FA's leading coaching journal is beginning to question the role in late 2010 in 8 short paragraphs shows how far off the mark it is when it comes to new ideas. The article itself is hugely descriptive (of past sides - none of them English), and is frustratingly short of any insight whatsoever. This would be idle pedantry if it weren't symptomatic of the FA's approach to the game more generally.

If the FA's journal is going to educate coaches then it needs to be cutting edge. In late 2010 an article on the creative responsibilities of the centre back with comment on Lucio and Pique's transitional duties would have been more worthy. And this failure to tackle truly interesting shifts in the game is a problem for the FA. But more than that, the FA sets the tone for its coaches. The least bad outcome is that the FA's journal is a waste of money which doesn't stretch its coaches to learn more. The worst outcome is that, plus a reflection of the FA and its member coaches' complete degenerative state.

The biggest impact on English football since the introduction of the Premier League 20 years ago have arguably come from a Scot, a Frenchman and a Portuguese man in a smart grey coat. The only English manager of note in the self-styled "world's greatest league" is Harry Redknapp. One out of twenty.

Further, the only English managers at all in the Premier League are as follows: Mick McCarthy of Wolves, Ian Holloway or Blackpool, Alan Pardew of Newcastle (all three clubs have been in the second tier in the past three seasons), Steve Bruce of Sunderland and Redknapp of Tottenham. 5 out of 20. Scotland and Wales (combined population 8 million), fare better with: Alex Ferguson, Steve Kean, Owen Coyle, Tony Pulis, David Moyes, Mark Hughes, and Alex McLeish. That's 7. Embarrassing.

The top four at the time of writing are headed by two Italians, a Frenchman and a Scot. Compare that with Italy where Mourinho often complained he was the only non-Italian coach in Serie A (now there are two: his successor Leonardo, and newly appointed Diego Simeone from Argentina... yes, the guy who Beckham impetuously lashed out at during the World Cup in 1998). In Spain, Pocchettino is Argentinian, Pelligrini is Chilean, Laudrup is Danish, Mourinho is Portuguese, and Javier Aguirre is Mexican. There are as many foreign coaches in La Liga as there are English coaches in the Premier League.

The FA should understand one thing, and hear it loud and clear: the future of the English game hinges not on politiking and buzzwords but on having worldclass coaches in every top tier club, developing the stars of tomorrow. There is no reason to believe England is a genetic blackhole, a place not beaten by God's footballing magic stick. There is plenty of reason to believe talent is squandered through poor coaching.

The two non-British managers I alluded to earlier were Mourinho and Wenger. Before they came to England they had had experience between them of coaching and learning in Scotland, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Argentina and Japan. There are some diverse cultural experiences to bring to the role there. Their success isn't because of this breadth of experience: success is more complicated than that. But a desire to hunt down lessons from a wide range of sources, shows an open mindedness and thirst for knowledge which does not exist in the English mindset. The latent xenophobia which pervades a certain strand of English culture is prevalent in the English game. We do our thing: them krauts/frogs/diving cheating latin types do theirs.

Paul Merton tells a joke about the English: hear about the English man with an inferiority complex? He thought he was the same as everyone else.

Pride comes before a fall, but the only fool here is the English game. The joke, it seems, is on us.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Mourinho Scouting

A leaked scouting report compiled by current Porto manager Villas Boas, whilst assistant to Mourinho. Scouts Newcastle whilst he was at Chelsea.

Simple passing drill

Effective coaching plan for players to implement in my absence.

Secret Agents

News of a court case between the English agency 'Formation', and Jorge Mendes' 'Gestifute' have resulted in much consternation from the British press and public alike. Much of the horror seems - as with that directed at bankers - to stem from a revulsion at the figures earned by agents. As with the anger directed at bankers, much of that hostility is misdirected.

There is absolutely no problem with someone earning a high wage. This initial revulsion usually comes from a place of jealousy or disillusionment/disinterest in football. The question is this: do they really add value in proportion to that which they are paid? Mendes is said to have earned €3.6 million of the €9 million fee Manchester United paid for Bebe's services. A 40% stake values the player at only 50% more than the agents' services. Something is clearly amiss here. This particular case raises further suspicion as Bebe's agent 3 months before the transfer was frozen out by the player. Given the number of agents in the game it is not enough to say "The agent does a very good job". There are plenty of other agents who could do a similar job for the player.

However as with most problems it is not that simple. It is the clubs who pay the fees. If the clubs weren't willing to pay the extortionate sums required to secure a player then agents wouldn't be able to request such large fees. Clubs are under immense pressure to achieve success from shareholders and the princely array of stakeholders. A star signing makes fans happy and can help a club leap from "good club" to "top club" (see: Chelsea, Manchester City, and Tottenham in recent years). The pressure to get a small number of elite players with international interest is such that a sweetener to agents becomes indispensable to sign a player. Give a larger cut to the agent and the agent will advise his client to choose that club over another. Don't pay the fee and you can be sure as hell someone else will.

The consumer of football complains when the game is corrupted and yet by being willing to pump large amounts of money in the game through season tickets, sky sports subscriptions and costly merchandise, we implicitly endorse the status quo. The crippling debts that clubs undertake whilst chasing glory is unsustainable. It is for this reason, rather than an aversion to wages written in standard form, that the current model is contemptible.

Aside from suspicions that governing bodies may themselves be corrupt, the obvious route to purging the game of its unsustainability is to legislate or incentivise against crippling debt. This is now happening and yet Platini - the President of UEFA - has been repeatedly criticised by members of the British mainstream press.

A UEFA report last February found that "English clubs contain on their balance sheets an estimated 56 percent of Europe-wide commercial debt". This was not widely reported at the time. Those that did stressed that British clubs also had by far the largest income. Manchester United's revenue of somewhere in the region of £330m is often quoted. And yet when the club holds debts of over £1.1 billion the picture doesn't look so rosy.

You simply cannot have it both ways. You cannot both complain that footballers are overpaid mercenaries who show contempt to the public who indirectly pay their wages and that agents are holding clubs to ransom over players, whilst also supporting a system that encourages masses of unsustainable debt to please that viewing public.

Even if some of the complaints against UEFA are justified - the British Press have more worrying concerns at home. This merits little argument because the idiocy is plain. Agents should not be allowed to represent both player and agent. This conflict of interests is plain and exists nowhere else in the business world. Not only is it common sense, it is outlawed by FIFA. The FA's lack of professionalism is because of the high incidence of ex Pros in the game. I have yet to meet someone who believes this is a problem - most people lay the blame at the small number of "non football men" in the game. They are wrong. This clear conflict of interests is something no lawyer or consultant would understand. Only in football.

So where does all this leave the agents? Well, they don't get off completely. Lawyers have a fiduciary care to their clients. Banks have a fiduciary care to their clients. Football agents have one too. At present this extends only to ensuring the players earns as much money as they can. Agents compete with each other by promising certain wages. The emphasis is shifted from what is beneficial for a player's career or personal and emotional development, and towards what will earn the player (and so the agent) the most amount of money in the shortest period of time. This short termism infects every aspect of the game, and this is no different. Wayne Rooney's career has been handled terribly by his agent. First he was fined for lying during Rooney's move from Everton to Manchester United. More recently he courted the anger of fans, team mates and manager by threatening to leave the club - to rivals Manchester City of all places. Whatever we think of some of the reactions there can be no doubt that one of England's top players was ill advised and risked being put in danger. It is nigh on impossible to imagine Rooney orchestrating such cynical drama of his own accord.

So much for fiduciary care.

If I were in charge of a club I would do something very simple. I would negotiate with a player/agent, say X amount to the player and Y amount to the agent. Then I would give them a simple choice: either take that deal or I give £X + Y/2 to the player and a cursory amount to the agent. The player then has a financial incentive to ditch his agent and you kill the profiteering that takes place on behalf of the agent. A player who is a member of the PFA does not need any more pastoral care, particularly in a well run club (especially when - as with Mendes' responsibility towards Chelsea's recent Portuguese contingent - the agent's role amounts to ensuring the player "turns up timeously for training"... really?). The short term damage to the club through a lack of agent cooperation needs to be offset by strong investment in youth and high quality scouting. The millions (tens of millions?) spent by some clubs on agents could surely be better spent to improve the stability of clubs. Well run, sustainable business models are in everyone's interest.