Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Short Passing - Level 2

This is a link to a pdf file with a suggested session. Short passing is the most basic technical component of the game. It is important to have high standards for short passing.

If it seems like an easy topic to coach, it isn't. It is easy to pass the Level 2 course with. It is easy to do a decent job of. To do a very good job, which as a coach you should be trying to do.. it isn't. The drill set ups are very simple. The key is in getting the players to make sensible decisions and remaining technically strong whilst under pressure. The drill should inspire confidence and challenge.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

In Defence of Milan

Last night Milan were beaten by Tottenham 1-0 at the San Siro. There has been much criticism both of Milan and the Italian league in response, but most of it has been misguided.

Milan were missing key players

Milan were missing Pirlo and Ambrosini who are both vital to their passing game. When they play, the midfield three are not so tight and so the side play with more width. When weaker passers of the ball take their place - Gattusso and Flamini - the midfield has to remain more compact as the range of passing is more limited.

It is also worth mentioning that Nesta has only just recovered from injury. In fact just about the only side harder hit by injuries than Tottenham are Milan.

See also: Cup tied van Bommel and Cassano.

Milan's focus is the league - Tottenham's is the CL.

Milan's signings this year have all pointed towards a desire to win the league. Ibrahimovic has won 8 straight league titles in three countries and has always made the different in Serie A.

Cassano and van Bommel cup tied and have represented Sampdoria and Bayern Munich respectively already in the Champions League. Signed to bolster an injury ravaged squad, it seems there is clearly an emphasis on gaining their first league title since 2004.

Tottenham by contrast are taking part for the first time in decades and have a desire to impress. Given a choice between 5th in the League and a Champions League semi final or 4th in the league and elimination to AC Milan, most fans would probably opt for the exciting European run...

This comes down to a question of motivation.

Had Yepes scored they would almost certainly be taking a lead to London.

Only a couple of fantastic Gomes saves kept Tottenham in it.

Milan were incredibly dirty.
Yes. But it's worth noting that Joe Jordan, Tottenham's assistant manager, is accused of instigating the tensions. Whilst Gatusso is to blame - and he has publicly apologised for his actions, accepting responsibility - it seems to have been a tactic of Jordan's to wind up the notoriously volatile Italian.

This is reminiscent of Mourinho instructing his players to wind up Drogba during their Second Round clash last year, which eventually resulted in his dismissal after a tempestuous stamp on Motta, with whom he had feuded all evening.

Comparing Serie A and EPL is dumb

2 years ago the eventual Premier League winners (Manchester United) knocked out the Serie A champions (Inter) comfortably.
Last year the Serie A champions (Inter) knocked out the eventual Premier League winners (Chelsea) comfortably.
This year the Premier League's 5th place team beats Serie A's 1st place team in the first leg.

It is simply not possible to extrapolate from a single game, the relative strengths of two leagues. It is a nonsense which has been repeated widely in the past day.

Milan's old men couldn't cope with the speed of a Premier League team

Spurs are a fast side and it is true that Lennon's pace was crucial for the goal. However there is an assumption that The EPL is so fast you need special goggles to watch it. This is an assumption that I have never seen challenged. The number of teams who move the ball about as quickly as Barcelona and Villarreal over short distances are ONE: Arsenal. Are players in England really faster (without the ball) than players elsewhere? How do you know? With the ball Krasic, Messi, and Robben are at least as fast and tricky as Walcott, Lennon or Nani.

Sure if you compare Milan - a team renowned for being slow - with Tottenham - a team renowned with being fast, then you might be tempted to draw grand conclusions about the two leagues. But compare Chelsea with Roma and you may well find the opposite to be true.

In any event a Milan side stripped of Pirlo, Ambrosini, Van Bommel and Cassano were always going to lack that spark that a good passing game or an unexpected dribble can provide. Nobody wonders whether Barcelona will struggle because Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta are slower without the ball, because in their heads they are two steps ahead anyway. They know what they will do with the ball before they get it. It is this experience and intelligence that Milan lacked more than an ability to "get physical".

It was a tight game with some close calls on either side (Milan might well have had both Flamini and Gatusso sent off just as Ibrahimovic's late equaliser was dubiously chalked off). Tottenham leave with a slender win. It is tempting to say they deserved it but this would surely be a reflection of our desire to support plucky underdog over ageing, established giants. Milan's behaviour - particularly that of (surprise, surprise) Flamini and Gatusso - was far from sporting at times. Nonetheless, it was a tight game and not one from which we should be making grand pronouncements about either side.

The second leg will be tight. An early goal could see Milan defend narrow and deep with no space in behind for Tottenham to exploit, being content instead to hit hard on the conterattack wth Robinho and Pato. Expect Milan to be far more aggressive in the second leg - as they were in the second half - looking for that early away goal.

But with Milan still unable to field Pirlo, Cassano or Van Bommel, Tottenham should still win. Expect a tense game.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Player centric metric

Wayne Rooney scored a wonderful goal yesterday. Match of the Day, not the worst football show by far, concentrated on the technical execution by Rooney. It was truly an incredible strike.

But what made the goal truly special was the one touch build up. Scholes rescues the situation with a one touch ball out to Nani under pressure, and Nani delivers a sublime cross into Rooney. And nothing was said of it. Nothing. View it here from 14 minutes:

That is symptomatic of the Sky Sportsification of football in this country. In our quest for a hero we trumpet the achievement of the individual over the team.

Kenny Dalglish coming out and saying that no one man is bigger than the club was heartening.
The Messi v Ronaldo battles in recent friendlies and classicos, the focus on goal rather than build up, the journalistic quest for contrived controversy or tension... these things detract from the real beauty of the game: how to build a team of successful players. In a derby where styles are so strongly conflicting this hook was available.

Manchester United have the longest average time spent per player at any European club. Giggs and Scholes were instrumental in both goals, the second of which came from a brilliant team move. Manchester City are a hastily arranged team of expensive stars with seemingly little direction. There is no guiding light, no philosophy, no direction. And despite flashes of brilliance, they looked incredibly disjointed. In high pressure moments, feeling comfortable is key. Manchester United know each other extremely well: Manchester City feels like a 21st Century reconstruction of Babel.

The interesting issue isn't (just) a well executed volley, that every top forward could execute on the training ground.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Xavi Interview

It's here.

I'm posting it because Xavi makes exactly the points I have made recently (up to yesterday). It's almost like I read this interview before deciding what to write at times.

On space: "Think quickly, look for spaces. That's what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day.. Space, space, space. It's like being on the PlayStation.. I see the space and pass. That's what I do"

On developing youngsters: "Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, 'Yep, he'll do.' Bring him in, coach him. Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruyff; it's an Ajax model. It's all about rondos [piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It's the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch."

On developing more youngsters:Education is the key. Players have had 10 or 12 years here. When you arrive at Barça the first thing they teach you is: think. Think, think, think. Quickly. [Xavi starts doing the actions, looking around himself.] Lift your head up, move, see, think. Look before you get the ball. If you're getting this pass, look to see if that guy is free. Pum. First time.

On playing a passing game: "My football is passing but, wow, if I have Dani, Iniesta, Pedro, [David] Villa … there are so many options"

On Paul Scholes: Paul Scholes! A role model. For me – and I really mean this – he's the best central midfielder I've seen in the last 15, 20 years. I've spoken to Xabi Alonso about him. He's spectacular, he has it all: the last pass, goals, he's strong, he doesn't lose the ball, vision. If he'd been Spanish he might have been rated more highly. Players love him.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Passing and Failing

One of the most common phrases in football parlance is, "create an angle". This is a term which offends my maths consciousness so much it makes me want to wipe out a protractor, jab at the offender's face till they apologise, then lay them out perpendicular to common sense and reason until they promise not to be such a cliché ridden gimp forever and ever. Returning from anger management classes I would then show them this post.

As with most clichés there is an interesting observation to be found somewhere. That somewhere is here. It is in the angles found. Lateral passes should not be the first port of call for a player. They are generally played to feet and tend to slow down play instead of speeding it up. They suffer from a deficiency of one of the key reasons we pass the ball at all: to penetrate the opposition defence.

Lateral passes do have their place though. With some clever movement they can be devastating. Many months ago I remember seeing Scholes make a 5m run (against a team I forget) which was so astoundingly brilliant it opened my eyes to a new depth. I have recreated it here:

make avatar

Man United’s opposition is defending extremely compactly. There is no space between the lines. The only free united player in a promising position is Valencia. As a result of the defending team’s compact defending he is in plenty of space. However, a ball out to him risks being intercepted by the player marked “def”. Even if he does not make it he is in a good position to close Valencia down should he receive the ball. This will buy the defending team time to shuffle across. Crucially the defender to the left of the back four does not have to commit. If he does then he leaves space in behind which Manchester United can exploit.

Scholes has a quick look behind his shoulder to check Valencia is in space. An average player might have looked to push out towards Valencia, taking the defender with him, to create more space in the middle for the player on the ball to run into. This is the danger zone after all. An aggressive run by the player with the ball into the middle area can incite a foul or lead to an opening.

What Scholes does is initially counter-intuitive. He moves into the area of high pressure thus compressing the play further, when what the attacking side actually want is MORE space. He darts inside drawing the defender with him. The defender does this to prevent Scholes having time and space on the ball in a central position. He receives the pass into feet, turns outwards and then sprays the ball over to the right wing. Valencia now has far more room in which to manoeuvre. Crucially the defender to the left of the back four must now commit to close him down. Valencia is running at pace and can either take the defender on himself, or slip the ball in behind him for the advancing forward to shoot.

It was a 5m run inside which led to the goal scoring opportunity. Movement is intimately connected to passing. With poor movement we can never truly have great passing.

Lateral passes are not necessarily bad. They can be useful to unlock tight defences when combined with good movement. Usually though they are associated with teams trying to kill a game or rest on the ball. The emphasis must be on speed of thought and action.

Ultimately though, even lateral passes should look to exploit as much space as possible.

Here, the diagonal forward pass is to be preferred to the one into feet. A pass to feet slows play down as he is further back when he receives the pass and the touch has to be heavier to redirect it in front. The player receiving is still when he takes a first touch, rather than moving. A pass in front of a player, so long as it is well weighted, speeds up play.

Look at how often Germany's passes are played in front of the player, to devastating effect, during their defeat of England last year:

Vertical passes

A diagonal pass takes longer to reach its intended target. They receiving player has more time to assess the weight of the pass and make an appropriate run. The angle at which he can approach the ball is more varied. The rectangles also mark the moments in the balls trajectory when it is opportune to take control of it. Finally, if the ball is played straight the player receiving the pass has far more work to do to use the ball productively. If he receives it facing the ball he has his back to goal and so can either play a pass back away from goal or has to turn.

A diagonal pass by contrast allows the player receiving the pass more time to turn into the pass. This is especially useful if he is marked, as he can shield the ball from the defender whilst still making progress towards the goal. Diagonal balls over a greater distance are effective as they require early decision making from those furthest away from the ball. The most penetrative ball in football is that from fullback to outside forward.

A quick note here to say that a vertical pass is one made in line with the receiver's run. In the build up to Liverpool's goal against Chelsea at the weekend Kelly played a ball straight down the line for Gerrard. Because Gerrard's run came from an angle onto the pass it was not a vertical pass as understood here.


Passing is the most commonly executed technical demand for a footballer. It is breathtakingly simple and yet so rarely done well. These notes underpin what it means to "create angles" and "play neat triangles". Another look at the Germany video - perhaps with the horrible sound muted this time - is vastly instructive of what good, penetrative passing should look like. I can't remember a Brazil side that's looked as good as these supposedly "efficient" Germans for a long while.

It is also clear that movement off the ball effects the range and type of passes available. Good passing is at least as much a factor of the players without the ball as it is the players with the ball. If Xavi and Iniesta look quite s sublime with the ball, it is because both they, and the likes of Dani Alves, Messi, Villa, Pedro et al move sublimely off it.

Monday, 7 February 2011

FA Level 2: 10 General Points Sitting on a Wall

This is the start of a collection of posts where I run through the FA Level 2 topics. I will detail a sample of how you might want to approach such a session and the key coaching points. I will only post those I have tried and had success with in practice.

For those coaches who aren't sitting a course, this is the format:

Technique (unopposed drill)
Skill (opposed drill)
(combined 15 minutes)
Small sided game
(15 minutes)

The small sided game is currently a 4 by 4 game although you can include add-ons such as goalkeepers, floaters (players off the touchline who play for one or both teams but can't enter the field of play), or a golden player (a player who plays for whichever team has the ball).

You must pick a side to coach and coach these 4 players and only these four players.

For those who are doing a coaching course or coach themselves, this is the best website I've come across. It is simply fantastic.

General Tips

1) It seems obvious, but you need to have a team you are coaching. This is easy as there are hundreds of grass roots positions available up and down the country. If you are struggling in London then ask.

2) The first time you put on a session it will suck. That's just the way it is. To maximise the benefit from this first session plan meticulously, then put it on. Organisation is key. Ask yourself how clearly the session is targeting the topic it is meant to cover. Ask yourself whether health and safety has been respected. Ask yourself whether you have all the equipment you need, especially colour coded bibs and cones. Ask yourself whether the technique, skill and small sided game move smoothly into each other.

3) Once you have the session organised well (and this will get easier with time), you can focus on technical content. You have to be able to see what is going on. Write down a list of all the things you expect to see. My final topic was 'forward runs without the ball' and I knew I could count on over laps, underlaps, runs from behind the ball, runs in front of the ball to create space, runs in front of the ball to exploit space, combinations of these, counter attacks... so I got used to seeing these. I asked myself which teams were good at forward runs off the ball. Teams you might want to consider include Germany, Barcelona and Arsenal. Watch matches and ISOLATE THE TOPIC.

To become a good coach you have to be able to switch off 'fan' mode and see what's really going on.

Having watched games for your topic(s), use this knowledge to make the session relevant to the session. For my final topic I used MESSI as an example from a recent Classico. Not only did it show I had understood the topic as practiced in the real world, it made the topic come alive to those participating. Further, everyone tried super hard and had fun trying to emulate Messi's sharp runs.

4) Ask yourself whether you can make your session MORE REALISTIC or MORE FUN.

5) Practice it at least 3/4 times in total. More if you can.

6) Can you introduce a rule to isolate a particular topic? I knew an important part of forward runs without the ball was counter attacking so for just a couple of minutes I introduced a rule whereby a team had to make three passes with all their players in their own half before moving forward. This would encourage the defending team to press up high and leave space in behind to exploit, which I could then coach.

Once I had coached this I took the rule away to increase the realism once more.

There is an element of box ticking during your final exam (and time pressure) that might not be present in a real coaching session.

7) Demos must follow the STOP - Demo - Recreate - Live forumla. Stop the drill AS SOON AS YOU SEE THE ERROR. This is where you must show your HIGH STANDARDS as a coach. Do not accept substandard performance. STOP can be a whistle or a command. I use "STOP, STAND STILL". "Freeze", "PAUSE", or any similar command as good as long as it is loud, clear and has the desired effect. Consistency is important so they recognise how they should behave immediately. Step in, verbalise what you're doing: "I'm going to take your place, Pete" and show them what they should have done. Then get them to show you what they should have done. Then have the game go live. Recreate the scenario AS IT WAS, not as you wish it was. If needs be, move players around to recreate it. A simple "everyone rewind 5 seconds" can often do the trick.

8) Communication style is massively important. Use a combination of telling, Q&A, checking for feedback, closed questions, open questions and suggestion. It is particularly useful to ask questions as this requires an active approach to learning from the players. They have to consider the various possibilities and then select one.

It is also important to make your instructions as clear as possible. This means SIMPLICITY. Do not try to do too much. As the FA encourage: let the game be the teacher.

This isn't given much time on coaching courses, but a good manner is the difference between a good session and an excellent one. Style should never replace substance, but it can definitely amplify it.

9) Football is competitive and competition can be fun. Add it in at opportune moments. At the end of my technique to skill segment I gave them a challenge to be the first player to score three points. This was well received and added further to the enjoyment of the session.

An academy coach last week improved small sided games by only allowing goals if the players celebrated afterwards!

10) I am not a big fan of visualisation normally, but it can really help. First up, here's what I think it does not do:
- It does not replace practice
- It does not improve your technical knowledge
- It does not make you a hippy

What it does do is make you more relaxed and confident. Let's say you put on your session 4 times in the real world such that you know you have put on a good session. An excellent way to increase your confidence in putting on the session in the future is to create more reference points in your head by running through your session FROM START TO FINISH in your head. You can do this in bed before you drift off to sleep. It cements organisation and by imagining your A game performance you reinforce the idea that you can do very well.

This all works because imagination and memory share the same neurological circuits.

I was given the highest praise on my course and I put this down to feeling relaxed and confident, partly from being well prepared and partly through visualisation.


These points will really help you pass the course but more importantly become a better coach. Everything comes down to points two and four: good organisation and MORE FUN, MORE REALISM.

Enjoy coaching!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The FA's direction: Part 2

Trevor Brooking speaks of the motivations young people have for playing the sport. The assumption is that the developing player has the same motivations as an adult. So adults - parents, coaches, spectators - deal with children in a way that assumes an adult perspective. In so doing they commit a fallacy, one which should be wiped from the game.

There is one key difference between children and adults: children are still developing whereas adults are developed. This is not to say that adults cannot and do not change and improve. They can and do. The difference is that the rate of physical, psychological, social and technical change in a child is far greater. Having developed less of an ego and being less sure of themselves than an adult they are far more impressionable. They will go through growth spurts. They will develop their own sense of where they belong in the world in relation to their peers.

When adults expect things of children they create norms. This can be a force for good or harm. Too often the expectations are detrimental to the growth of our players. This primarily comes from the weight we place on competitiveness. Adults males usually use sport as an outlet for competitiveness. Parents on the side of touch lines use their kids as their outlet. They expect wins. The first question asked by parents who don't make the game is "Did you win?". Success and failure games down to winning or losing.

Jose Portoles, academy director at Valencia, makes the case (in the latest issue of Insight) that children should be viewed as players in development rather than complete products. Their potential should be assessed as much as their current ability. From this the error of placing an emphasis on victory should be obvious. A victory is a concrete result. It is final. It is absolute. The young player is in a state of flux. The emphasis, even in games, should be on what they learnt and the enjoyment gained from playing.

A game for a young player is an opportunity to practice certain technical, social, psychological and physical aspects in a competitive situation. It is not just a competitive situation. The emphasis should be on improving. It should be on trying new things. If it doesn't come off, so what? They tried. Skills are not learnt after one attempt. Expecting perfection of a child only induces fear. It paralyses. This is the opposite of what we should be creating.

This is not to say that we shouldn't expect high standards. We should. A player should constantly be pushed to try new things and improve his game. The very best young players will want to do this naturally. But they shouldn't be criticised for not succeeding any more than they should be shouted at for getting a sum wrong or misspelling a word. Football, like martial arts, relies on muscle memory and until you've performed an action hundreds of times, you will not be able to replicate it unconsciously with ease. Often people assume football is played by robocops who consciously judge the distance of the target, any obstacles, perform a series of complex calculations based on strength and momentum and then ENGAGE FEET WEEEEEE AHHHHHH SCREEECH.. the perfect pass/shot is made. Of course it's not like that. That's ridiculous!!

In reality, hundreds of reference experiences combine with an unconscious realisation of what needs to be done aided by muscle memory. Imagine yourself trying to play a 5 yard pass. Or a young child who hasn't played much before. The 5 yard pass they will make accurately to their friend whilst unopposed with a 95% success rate. Ask them to speed it up, so they take it with one touch and they might have a 75% success rate. Then add in an opponent and the level decreases further. Then make them play an intense match for 80 minutes first and the success rate is even lower. The difference between the practiced individual and the novice is that the practiced individual has performed the action so many times that even under stress they can perform a task.

It's a similar story for all skills (e.g. a 30 yard pass, striking the ball on the volley, crossing the ball, tackling).

The FA thus understands that a strong learning environment is key. Children are not adults and need time to develop their skills.

As if this wasn't enough, a national survey of U11s by the FA has found that this is what children what. They don't care about winning. They are motivated by enjoyment and enjoyment is reduced when they are put under pressure. Asked to rank 16 statements, here's what come bottom:

14) I like to show off my skills.

15) Winning is more important to me than trying my hardest.

16) It's important to me I win trophies and medals.

And here are the top 3:

3) It's a really good game and I love it!

2) I love playing football because it's fun.

1) Trying my hardest is more important than winning.

So it is pretty obvious that what matters isn't winning to a kid. What matters is giving your all. As discussed here it is the confidence side to the game which motivates rather than the tension. Or, put another way, motivation is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Players at a young age are not motivated by external factors.

And yet adults frequently project extrinsic values (and so tension) onto children. The FA has understood this crucial problem. This should pave the way to a national team less paralysed by fear. Virtues other than victory are necessary for victory. Ask any side that's won a World Cup lately.