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    The 4-4-2 System of play

    In the modern game, we have seen various tactical shifts, especially in the past 20 years.

    In the mid-90s, playing in a flat 4-4-2 was a common theme across Europe. The wingers would move high, midfielders would both be box-box and make sure one sat while another roamed forward, while Full backs would support the wingers on the outside, focussing mainly on wide attacks, crosses into the box and generally direct play, which often left teams weak in defensive transition and teams would use this to sit in a low block and use counter attacks from crosses as a way to create scoring chances.

    Until 2014, 4-4-2 was a rare system in successful teams, until Atletico Madrid won La Liga using a strong defensive system, based on rapid transitional attacks and playing often with less than 40% possession.

    As a method of understanding how organised our shape, we can line the field in a way to show positional zones behind the play, vertically and horizontally. Often this can be for attacking organisation, defensive organisation, recovery runs or pressing layers.

    Possession play v the 4-4-2; The rise of 4-3-3 and evolution of the 4-2-3-1

    When the old 4-4-2 was used in possession, they would find it difficult to control play in the centre by virtue of having a player less in this zone, so either a CF would have to drop deep or play with a winger inside to create superiority. As a consequence, other players would have to make compensations within their own roles to help fill the spaces which appeared in all phases; offensive, transitional and defensive.

    Teams started to shift into starting positions with the extra midfielder, often in a flexible 4-3-3 to add an extra player to gain control of the centre to create positional superiority and control the game. As teams using the 4-4-2 would usually play the CFs against the CBs, and the 2 CMs 1v1, this left a DM (number 4 or 6) as the free player, able to dictate play from deep, and push the wingers higher to open space in deeper areas for the FB to move into vertically, or the CM to move into laterally or diagonally.

    A reaction to that was to play a different shape against the more commonly used 4-3-3, to counter the 3v2 in midfield, it was sensible to play 3v3. To do this, many coaches adopted the 4-2-3-1 to play 3v3 and match up all over the field to mirror the triangle in midfield.

    The advantages of playing a modified 4-4-2 (4-2-3-1) with higher wingers, a deeper CF and deeper CMs was the additional layer of compactness (the number of lines vertically from Defence, midfield, front) as 4-2-3-1 has 4 lines when starting while 4-4-2 only has 3. Having the deeper CF in the same zone as the number 4/6 of the opponent who would dictate play, reduced the influence of this player and allowed the wingers to push higher to prevent the FBs from gaining possession under little pressure as the running distance to press was reduced.

    Partnerships and attacking in a 4-4-2

    One of the main strengths is that everyone has at least 2 partners, for example the RB will have the RM and RCB as partners, with the RCM also able to come into the zone and help in both attack and defence.

    In possession, Players could play vertically and direct by using the CF v CB 1v1 battle to play direct and start attacking from the opposition half. Often if there was high pressure, the defence would have an option to by-pass the opposition midfield press with direct vertical passing into the front 4. If play broke down very often, this would lead to ‘broken’ and ‘disorganised’ matches where no team has control and this example is often indicative of Scottish football. Often, when teams attacked, they would attack direct, or wide from crosses. Lots of them. A big problem with basing your game on crosses is inefficiency and imbalance in transition from loose balls.

    As a method of preventing counter attacking when playing in a wide 4-4-2 and making lots of crosses, Pep Guardiola used a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 using Thomas Muller as a 2nd striker attacking from wide/deep, with FBs Lahm and Alaba in narrow positions to be more stable behind the ball and allow better positioning across multiple layers to press the counter attack (counter pressing). From narrow positions, they were more secure to win the ball back quickly and re-start the next attack. Playing too wide prevents this possibility and makes it much easier to be exposed against a team playing often in transition phases.

    Weaknesses in the 4-4-2: vertical compactness when pressing high

    As the front block of 6 players press high, often the defensive line may be unable to keep moving up, so the space between midfield and defence can be exploited leaving the back 4 having to run backwards and prevent penetration or an attack on goal. Pressing high with a holding midfielder provides more stability, which is another reason why 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 has become more in favour than a 4-4-2.

    4-4-2; A Scottish obsession?

    Here’s a scenario we often see. A team are 1-0 down, or 0-0 and expected to win. They are relatively in control of the match. The masses are impatient. The coach is implored to make a decision to try to find a way to score and get the fans back onside and behind the team.

    “Get 2 up there”, “Just git it up the park”, “Less of that tippy-tappy stuff”, or my favourite “2 attackers is more attacking than 1”. Control in transition is often not considered here.

    How often do we hear these comments, then if they don’t score, that’s the only reason they didn’t win?

    Often in Scotland, the general perception is playing with 2 Centre Forwards isn’t attacking enough despite some teams often playing 4-3-3 and having a 2-1-4-3 with 3 centre forwards and having more CFs than in a flat 4-4-2. Crosses and long diagonals are also a must despite the inefficiency in most cases.

    In the modern game, some teams have played a modified 4-4-2 and had success. Atletico Madrid, Leicester City, Bayer Leverkusen, Red Bull Salzberg, Villarreal and Red Bull Leipzig some notable teams.

    The difference between those teams and the way a Scottish 4-4-2 is perceived to be implemented; all of these clubs played a very transitional style based around a solid defensive base, except Villarreal who are a controlled possession team playing a 2-4-2-2 basing the system on 2 deep midfielders to control play from the build-up phase, and quick vertical passes from deep to run behind 3rd man via FBs or wingers running between FB and CB in an interesting style creating 4v3 or 5v3 in midfield.

    This is a very intricate version of a 4-4-2, and very far away from the old version of playing the ball in the air and hoping for some luck with 2nd balls. To me, this is the best way to play a direct 4-4-2, playing into feet to draw players out of position and use 3rd man runners to attack the space behind the defence.

    The modern 4-4-2; a system to dominate the transitional game?

    As we can expect to be playing a direct game in a 4-4-2, we know that we will likely have to defend often in transition; counter pressing, defending counter attacks, recovery runs, re-starting play from a long run, then organising play to re-start our attack, knowing when we lose the ball we start our transitional cycle again.

    Knowing and accepting you will often be in transitional game cycles, it makes sense to understand how best to organise this part of the game and use it to your advantage.

    Our attacking structure will allow us to play ‘inside the block’ to open up the wide areas for Full Backs, with the wingers now central attacking midfielders in channel positions, supporting the strikers. It could look like a 4-2-3-1 or 2-2-4-2 quite often but the formation is less important than the occupation of specific spaces inside the opponents defensive block, and the ability to play 1 touch in small spaces.

    Once possession is lost, we know we can press quickly from multiple angles over multiple defensive layers, forcing play wide. Once the ball is regained, we take advantage of the dis-organisation of the opponent and try to get behind the defence into the space as quickly as possible.

    Each pressing zone is organised to block 3 exits, and force into an area where we defend in small spaces. The further form the ball the layer is, the more space needs to be defended. It is important we win the ball very close to the turnover and run into the gaps between the back 4 to look for passes behind

    Defending in a 4-4-2: Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen offer the template for success

    Defensively, the 4-4-2 has many advantages by being able to engage in 1v1 pressing higher up the field with a solid structure around the ball. In a high pressing system, the far side winger can press circulation to make the shape look like a 3-4-3, while the near side winger can press high and make the shape look like 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 if the FB jumps onto the midfield line behind them.

    Bayern Leverkusen are a team who have used the 4-4-2 as a fantastic zonal pressing mechanism to control central space, and create wide pressing traps to regain possession in the wide zone via the FB, WM, CM and CF, looking to play quickly behind the defense in transition very quickly, similar to Leipzig in design, willing to take the risk of being caught offside or the attack breaking down due to the chaotic nature of the 1 touch play.

    If we assess a team playing in a low block in a 4-4-2, Atletico Madrid provide the template for success. They would identify exactly how to play against different opponents adjust the width and height of the block, prevent access to the centre in many cases via the deep and central positioning of the 2 CFs who move wide and create good diagonal compactness when the ball enters a wide zone (ie LB, LW, LCF) with cover in the spaces behind the 3 from the far side CF and near side CM.

    When they shift from wide to side, often the far side players will move up a line to block the space upon circulation, while the near side CM drops very deep to screen the CBs, discouraging forward passes and delaying the forward play of the opponent.

    Often, when possession is won, they will play with quick 1 or 2 touch aggressive actions, playing direct with highly scripted movements which are coached in a very specific manner. Runners run between players on the defensive line, hoping to overload 3v2 in the centre to draw open an easy pass wide if the centre is blocked off, which can often lead to a pass across the 6 yard line to score.

    They will lock down the centre of the field and make it impossible to be played through without quick 1-touch play and dribbles past opponents to create space

    Far side CF blocks DM, WMs block diagonal pass, sets pressing trap on FB. CMs 1v1 in centre.

    Arced midfield line to prevent diagonal penetration from here to Neymar or Iniesta drifting behind. FB out pressing WF, CFs blocking re-start and circulation passes.

    Atletico blocking the centre, FBs wide to defend 1v1, WMs block channel pass. CMs screen CBs. CF blocks circulation. Far side CM ready to press next pass to force back to pressure area (out of shot)

    Tactical Priorities in the 4-4-2?

    The first thing we need to ensure when playing in a 4-4-2 is that defensively we are not overloaded in the centre, which was a big problem against teams playing a 4-3-3 against a 4-4-2 and able to use the extra player either infront of or behind the central midfielders. To protect this space, we can compress the 2 centre forwards against the space of the DM leaving the CBs free to pass, which means we will ‘block the space then press the pass’.

    If we drop the CFs deep, our line of pressure is deeper than we might prefer but it is balanced by being able to create a 4 v 3 in central midfield or mark the DM when we press the wide pass and stay equal centrally.

    Once we know we will not be overloaded centrally, we must use the wide zone as our pressing players are the CF, WM CM, and FB. When the WM and FB press 2v2, we need to create a free man to press the pass 2v1 at the FB. This will be how we win the ball back using the CF to cover inside the FB.

    From winning the ball back, we must already know how we will exit; will we go direct vertically, will we exit diagonally, will we switch play to attack the other side, or will we re-start play to provoke pressure to create spaces in the middle to pass through, or will we simply re-start play and play from an organised possession shape?

    With all of these questions, we must know:

    • Do our player profiles fit how we want to approach the game?
    • Does our positional structure allow us to play in possession how we want?
    • Will the players have the determination to win races in transition to get behind the opponent?

    Possible playing philosophy?

    This, like all ‘formations’ is dependent on what the players are able to do, what they understand, what the previous habits were from the previous coaching staff, and the way you design, deliver and analyse both training sessions and matches.

    Philosophy serves as a guide for the way you think and see things in all aspects of life. It provides a template for the decisions you will make based on the beliefs and identity of you as a person.

    With this in mind, any style of play can be taught within any shape. Formation is only a starting point as as Julian Nagelsmann recently said “You might find that you are in exactly your formation 8 times per match”. Whether this is true or not is up for debate but when we assess a match, the formation allows for specific positioning and coverage of space. It is how we move as a collective unit which defines the playing philosophy.

    If we break the game into 3 distinct game cycles:

    Attacking

    • Build up from GK
    • Ball movement patterns
    • positional structure
    • player movement patterns
    • penetration of the opponents defensive lines
    • chance creation

    Transitioning

    • Loss of possession, counter pressing, recovery runs, regain of possession à Attacking phase
    • Or
    • Loss of possession, recovery into defensive block, provoke bad decision/execution à regain possession
    • Regain of possession, transition passes àre-start play from deep (v transitional team) or
    • Regain of possession, transition passes à creating attacking phase, attack space at speed, Quick passes
    • We can include periods of multi-transitions, for example
    • Counter attack, lose the ball, counter press, regain the ball, counter attack, MISS, counter press.

    Defending

    • Organised defensive shape
    • Dynamic defensive shape
    • Tracking runners
    • Defending key spaces
    • Fighting for space
    • Suffering stress
    • Identifying regain zones
    • Starting counter attacks

    If the Scottish 4-4-2 is to stay alive in the modern era, we must rid ourselves of the ‘play direct to the big man’ mentality.

    The 4-4-2 is a very effective defensive shape, allowing many opportunities to play aggressively in transition moments. This is where the 4-4-2 is best utilised in the modern game.

    Bayer Leverkusen, Atletico Madrid and RB Salzburg are showing the template for an effective 4-4-2 in the modern game. Defensively solid, tactically astute, lightning quick in transition moments.

    The build-up phase and penetration phases when the opponent are in a low block mean that in the old, tired, Scottish 4-4-2, the wide players making many vertical runs which are easy to defend against must be evolved into more diagonal, considered based on opposition positioning specific movements to find a way to move forward in the modern game and ensure that the next generation of players can go further than our previous failed generations.

    To help implement our game model which is within our playing philosophy; ie

    • Control of possession
    • Positioning inside the block
    • Penetration to create chances centrally
    • Using the FBs as wall players to release pressure
    • Using the FBs as ‘protection’ in possession if we have wingers with the advantage in 1v1 quality.
    • Using the CMs to control the space behind the 1st layer of pressing
    • Retaining compactness in a low block
    • Speed and accuracy in our positioning during recovery running phases
  2. Improving as a coach without coaching?

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    Having worked in youth development since 2002, I have had many roles with players of all attitudes and abilities. I began coaching for the local council aged 16 as both a lead and assistant coach, initially in my first few weeks doing 4 hours a week but that quickly increased to doing between 8-16 hours a week, then supplementing this by coaching at least 4 hours a week with a grassroots team aswell as coaching Futsal 1-3 hours a week for 9 years.

    From 2005, I was doing a minimum of 20 hours a week voluntary with a local grassroots club, and Perth Youth Futsal. I also went to USA to work for company to have an experience outside my comfort zone, to work only as a football coach and to learn from other coaches. I returned hom 6 months later and began coaching with SPL professional club academy at community level but was rapidly promoted through some age bands up to the U17 team which produced several 1st team players. I suppose that you could call this my apprenticeship as I spent 7 years working well over 20 hours per week on the field with players every day.

    I then moved to Switzerland to coach with a private academy and in the ACVF league system, before moving in 2013 to my current role in India as an Academy Director & Head of Coach Ed for a club and private company; Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools and Garhwal FC.

    All in, I would say that I’ve coached around 6000 hours of sessions and performed around 1200 hours of coach education via theory and practical sessions. Added to this, I’ve been studying football through analysis since 2012, and now have my own TV show on Ten Sports, Asia.

    Learning by doing?
    There’s an idea that people seem to believe that you learn by doing, which is obvious that you should ‘learn by your mistakes’ or ‘learn by self-evaluation’. We all do it, but where are the real changes in our understanding of how to become a better coach?

    I have found that since 2013, I have learned more by educating others and analysing the game, while looking for better ways to improve our academy and the coaches within it.

    Why do I feel this way?

    When you are a coach, you are in charge of a team – the education of 16 players, 32 parents and your assistant(s). You have a job to coach for around 48 weeks and around 144 sessions. (3×48)
    From this, your development view may be skewed by results, parental opinion, club opinion and not necessarily what is best for the development of the individual players, and more focussed towards the development of the team structure to improve week to week.

    I’ve seen and heard many coaches structuring training by “what did we do badly at the weekend”.
    To me, this is an inefficient approach to take.

    Why? You get inconsistent performances in youth players, regardless of ability level. A 2 minute burst of genius by a good player during an otherwise poor performance, bad change made by the opponent or even a simple mistake can change the outcome of a match or your feeling towards it. You’ll normally look for positives to build upon, while looking for things to improve.

    As a TD of a club with over 120 coaches, 12 FT coaching staff, and 14 teams in Delhi (we have others I don’t see too regularly in 5 other cities due to commuting time), I have to look deep into the long term development of my coaches, to ensure our players are able to develop to be educated, technical players who at 16-19 are able to become professional footballers.

    To do this, I’ve had to develop as a coach; without coaching with the same regularity in my first 11 years of work.
    How have I developed more without coaching?

    By learning more about what young players need in each stage of their development, by building a profile of what each age group should be able to perform before they move up, I have had to think less about developing 1 group of players for a short space of time; 3 month objectives x 3, instead to a 12 year plan with 3 month objectives for each year. How can we ensure that we are on track to develop good players on an individual basis through various parts of childhood; Developing a love for the game (7-10) puberty and PHV phase (12-14), adolescence and external distractions (15-17).

    We need to take into account when players will train less; when they grow +1cm per week, we reduce the training load on that player. During exams in India, many families expect kids to study for 6+ hours a day which forces sport to be missed (which in my opinion is counter-productive) so we have periods of the year we need to monitor for participation, and how much acitivity they do – particularly from u13-u15 – aswell as parts of the life of the players where we need to guide them through making better choices in the later stages of development before they can potentially make football a career, either in Europe, USA on a scholarship, or here in India in a FT residential youth academy, such as with DSK Liverpool where we moved several players onto.

    We have the background of things we need to consider, whats next?

    From this, we can build a curriculum; focussing on less of the team development and more towards what a player needs to be able to do individually to be able to help the performance of the team. Team-Tactical aspects will obviously be implemented but we develop good players which improve the team. We don’t expect that all of the players from a great team will be footballers, but if the players are good enough, they might have a chance to play at a higher level.

    Coach Education within a player development program; good coaches = good players?

    From knowing how we want to be able to develop players within the style of play set out, we can then build a coach education program. What do your coaches need to be able to understand to be able to deliver and effective session, so that the players can learn the objective of the session?

    Many coaches make a generic session, then manufacture a situation to ‘coach’ the players to show them something that might happen in a game. There are many coaches who will post a session on twitter for example, with a session which needs to be coached. In my opinion, the best sessions are the ones where players are led to the objective without the intervention of the coach. We may have sessions for specific aspects of building our game model where we will have to step in and coach, but the structure of the session should force the players to do what you need them to learn from that session.

    For example; build up play in 3 zones; If you want to force the back 3 to play direct from the back so that you can deal with the resultant direct high pass, play 3v3 in the end zone, or 4v3. This means that there is a small overload in the build up team, but if pressed properly, they’ll be likely to go long; your objective being to deal with high/direct passes. By simply forcing the opposition to do what you want – rather than ask them to go long with no need – to do something unnatural (manufacturing the session); we can then look at the specifics of how to force the opponent to go long, how to be in position to deal with it, and how to cover the space to regain possession from the direct pass.

    Coaches need to understand how to create sessions where the players need you to coach to improve the performance, and how to create sessions where the players are led to the objective to improve their game understanding more naturally.

    The Coach Education planner which is standardized over 1 year to ensure all coaches are given a good level of education via 1 monthly 3 hour workshops, with 12 different topics. These can range from workshops which may have simple sessions which will give the coaches confidence in delivering a session, to throwing something completely new at them that they may not necessarily need to know right now but may need to know in the future.

    For example; overload positioning for penetration behind the opposition midfield (4v3)

    This is to plant future seeds so that they will contemplate more difficult aspects of coaching while learning how to deliver better sessions while they are in a lower level of ability.

    Technical-Tactical Work in Young Players

    On twitter, we see a lot of people saying ‘only technique in young players’. I used to completely agree with this until we started an experiment with a group of 7-8 year olds 1 year ago. We decided to try and do a lot of possession based games in our ‘Strikes’ or ‘Receives’ day as set out in the curriculum.

    All other groups would practice as normal with similar level players and coaching, but that this one group would use different practices which led more towards learning about Positioning, 3rd man movements, ball movement patterns, aided by unopposed technical work to improve basic receiving and striking abilities

    For example, we would work on; Receiving tightly marked, drilled strike to switch play, outside foot receive to attack space, or inside foot receive to play a through ball.

    From this, we would move into a 1v1 + 1 with 4 outside (receiving tightly marked), 2v1 with 4 outside (Creating connections and finding the free man centrally), 2v2 + 1 with 4 outside (penetration, blindside movement and positioning), and teach players how to draw the defence narrow to play around, or to open them up to play through, teaching positioning based on opponent defensive position.

    The result has been that players have developed technically very well as expected, but their understanding of how to give themselves more time on the ball by adjusting the body shape arly and on the run while scanning, finding space better, and anticipating a space opening up. Another result has been that players give themselves multiple options to retain possession.

    My take on football has always been; Give a bad player alot of time and space, they can become a useful player. Give a good player time and space, they can become a great player.

    We would never allow an opposition good player time and space to receive, so we need to find ways to provide our young players a way to know how to gain more time and space in possession to make it easier for them to decide to know what to do with the ball when it arrives.

    This has given us a clearer way of looking at player development in regards to how we balance technical-tactical training. Once players are able to receive and pass comfortably, we will put them into possession based games with relatively easy decisions and solutions to the problems they are faced with on or off the ball. Once they can master 2v1, we’ll move onto 3v2, 4v3 etc.

    Developing a style of play to educate coaches

    As a student of the game, I’ve looked deep into the tactics and strategies of the game via analysis, and how to implement what style of play we want to employ, which has underpinned the players curriculum and coach education planner.

    The education plan isn’t just the typical level 1 or 2 ‘Coach Education’ (I used the term ‘education’ loosely) as the level 1 should be the most demanding course you are exposed to, to teach you how to be a good coach to be able to educate well at the bottom level of player development, rather than the current format of coach education which seems to be;

    ‘take some drills and have a level 1’; you’re now allowed to coach a team but with no real information on how to coach kids, how to build a plan for a season, how to evaluate performance or how to improve yourself as a coach.

    It’s not effective coach education.

    I’ve seen the level 1 in 3 countries, and from my own basis, we need a higher standard of information and more depth of information given to coaches in the basic stages for better long term coach education

    How did I design our playing and coaching education program?

    No matter where you are in the world, you must adapt. The locals will not adapt to you, so you must do so for them. To educate others, you need to learn about them. Why do they think like that? What is their background? What are their experiences of football, or sport?

    You are taking into account the 5’C’s when developing a football and coaching program;

    Culture of the people, the climate, the conditions, the coaching level and our ‘community’

    Culture dictates how people think and perceive what you are doing
    How can you sell or persuade your long term vision?

    Climate is obviously the heat, ground conditions, weather and how it impacts the game intensity
    How will your style be implemented over time, how can you educate coaches to be able to design sessions for it, and will the players be able to perform well – is a 100mph game – similar to Britain – possible in 37 degree heat?

    Conditions; the ground conditions play a part – can you ask for 400 passes a game on a bumby field with no grass? How do your opponents play; is it condusive to getting into a rhythm or will you have to play a different type of game? How will you adapt to ensure you can control the game – how will this impact in coach education and how can they educate their players to ensure they understand different game conditions and how to manage each game according to your own style, and how the opponent approach the game?

    Coaching level; what do the coaches know, what do they need to improve upon short term, how will this affect my education program and the adaptations within from week 1 and month 1 to week 156 and the 60th month.

    Are we autocratic, guided or a mixture – when to be pushy of ideas, or persuasive? When to ask the players about the session, when to tell them what to do?
    How will you improve your own knowledge as a head of coaching, and how will that affect your education program?
    You may need to change some of your ideas or beliefs during the course, and how can you continue to inspire your staff to keep working to improve themselves?

    Our community relates to where we recruit players and coaches from. Their previous footballing experiences will also have an impact in how they work or play, and how that can be either adapted to work in our program better, or how they abilities of the player can be improved by our system of play and coaching styles.

    Things that are done as normal in Britain are not always relevant to the people of a different country. Often people say in Britain ‘do it like this’ – it’s not always the best way for others.

    Our Coaching Curriculum

    Having spoken to many coaches from across the world, I’ve found a few interesting (and strange) ways of building a cohesive development program to ensure players are ready to peak at youth level aged between 16-18. I wanted to build a structure which allowed players to learn what we would perceive as priorities in each age group

    5-7

    Physical Co-Ordination, Balance, Agility,

    Technical Moving with the ball, turning

    7-10

    Physical Co-ordination, Balance, Agility,

    Technical Moving with the ball, 1v1s (infront/side), strikes (placed/driven), receives (inside/outside)

    Tactical Positioning to connect team mates, body shape adjustment, 2v1s, 3v1s, patterns of play

    The focus is on ‘individual play’; ball mastery, moving with the ball and being at complete comfort with it. After this, we are looking for ‘team play’ aspects; Receives, strikes and how to play in a system of play.

    The focus is on improving the decision-execution-outcome of the individual.

    Obviously, im not going to write here how we do everything, but the basis for everything is around ‘random learning’ and is to give the kids fresh new things which re-appear to give familiarity to allow the development of Myelin via repetition for long term learning.

    Random learning v Block Learning / Long-Term learning v Short-Term learning

    I’ve spoken to many coaches who have implemented what I would call ‘Block Learning’, which means that they will have a 42 week curriculum, split into 7 x 6week blocks.

    This seems strange to me – why would you do 3 sessions a week on passing, for 6 weeks? Why would you put together 18 passing sessions in a row? Would the players not get bored?

    If you go into a school, you don’t do Art for a week, then maths, then French; you do them maybe once a day so you get some familiarity and a break between the lessons to process the information you have just been given.

    Why is a football curriculum different from what schools do? Kids learn randomly and need time to process information – doing 18 sessions on passing, then 18 sessions on 1v1, 18 sessions on defending, 18 sessions on attacking then 18 on transition – where is the learning for long term?

    Doing it this way will produce fantastic short term results but the long term learning in my opinion is debateable at best.

    Football should look at the ways school curriculums are designed in Finland to look for a more effective and enjoyable development system.

    Coach Recruitment

    Often coaches will apply to join BBFS and have it on bold in the CV that they will join with an AFC B Licence, or A licence, and are shocked to find that before we accept them, they are put through our introduction to BBFS workshop. This is mandatory for all coaches. You must know and understand what we expect of you form day 1, and that this will not change for you. You must adapt to how we work to ensure we have a cohesive system in all phases.

    Often we find that no matter the level of player of coach, the ones who have worked at a perceived ‘high level’ in India, have an A or B licence, but strangely no learning attitude; maybe this has been removed as the culture in India is that if you are qualified, you can work (even if you are incompetent – the school you went to 10 years ago is more important).

    What do we prefer or look for in a new coaches workshop?

    We often focus on young coaches with minimal to no experience, but will always look for a good coach with an AFC C Licence with desire to, and potential to improve over an A licence holder with a lazy attitude (these are common in India).
    Playing Ability is taken into consideration as we need to be able to demonstrate accurately.

    Ex-professionals are given slightly more time to develop as the transition from player to teacher can be tough, but after the initial 9-12 month learning period that everyone is given upon joining, we don’t care if you were the best player in the country or a guy who used to be an engineer; you need to be able to perform the basics of the role well, otherwise your background no longer matters – the learning period afforded to all coaches is there for that exact reason.

    Back to the 5 C’s of how I formed the basis for our academy

    From these 5 C’s, we can work out our background or how we wish to work, which shapes our education system, and as a result the standard of sessions and the information given within it.

    As a coach, do we ask enough of “what are our 12 month objectives?”
    What do players need to be able to do at u17, u15, u13 etc, what needs to be in place in each level?
    Have clubs made a 12 year curriculum? Kids join at 7 and leave at 19; we need to know what we are looking to do every step of the way to develop the individual to be able to be a ble to perform seamlessly within the team context in the older ages.

    How much freedom do coaches have around the curriculum?
    Good coaches still need to be kept on track, as often we start to make sessions to challenge ourselves which aren’t needed for that particular group of players.
    Are the sessions able to develop the best players, or us it aimed lower – how is it edited to push the higher level players?

    Often people look past the simple question of; what makes a good session? Or a good coach?
    Once you have a flexible structure to allow this then we can look at building a structure to ensure we have 144 good sessions per year, with development priorities per age group.

    This doesn’t mean 144 unique sessions – it could be 18 different sessions repeated 8 times, with learning objectives layered ontop each other within the same scenario or theme.

    24 sessions could be dedicated to gaining match experience or giving the coach sessions which need to be developed for their own learning and idea development. This might be 6 sessions layered 4 times, or 4 sessions layered 6 times.

    In a curriculum, I like to repeat the same ‘theme’ every 4 weeks (week 1, 5, 9, 13) in a 16 week cycle.
    This provides familiarity, and a chance to recognise the patterns and pictures from before, so the players will become better decision makers, taking less time to do so, with more pressure on the quality of action made.
    From this, we must look into difficulty (space/time/technical demands)
    and complexity (movements, transitions, variables, cognitive work)
    And how it will relate to the maturation level of the players.

    Often we make a session and the players cannot grasp it in the first go. Then, the coach changes the activity too early without considering exactly why, or being patient enough with it. Sometimes a coach feels they must change it because it makes them look bad – I’ve seen it and done it, im sure many others have done too. There’s nothing worse than having a session go badly with many other coaches watching! So its changed without really considering what needs to be adapted to allow the players time to grasp the idea to improve.

    All of the things I have written here, I feel I have learned more about in 3 years as the head of an academy with a clear focus on long term coach education, than as a coach working with various levels of players in different countries.

    As the old saying goes ’10 years without reflection, is 1 year repeated 10 times’

    In the past 3 years prior to leaving India in summer 2016, having been highly responsible for the development of over 120 coaches and 12 FT staff, i have reflected more to look at how we educate more than in my previous 10 years combined.

  3. Searching for Solutions

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    Finding ways to win during the match

    During the course of the week, football fans will discuss their team, how they played, which formation they should use and which players should play in each position. Often this will result in different opinions from different people based on their own personal preferences.

    The coach will often have these same discussions with the clubs technical staff; Assistant Manager, Opposition Analyst, Data Analyst and physical/medical staff.

    After the game, the same thing will repeat itself, around 40-50 times per year depending on which club you support. These discussions are all based around a relatively simple concept: find a way to win.

    When we are looking at ways to set up the team to give the players the best chance of victory, there are several things that all need to be put together to give us the best chance of organising training during the week to not only make ourselves better, but to prepare the players for the upcoming match.

    Often, training may be very simple based on an opposition weakness and very simple ideas on how to exploit this part of the opponent. Opposition analysis and data analysis forms a key part of this.

    An example of this may be as easy as from an opposition report with some videos to support the following statement;

    ‘the left back is poor 1v1 and the left winger doesn’t come back to help. The central midfielder doesn’t really offer support after a switch of play due to a lack of speed”.

    We may also have the data analyst back up this with some data

    “Team x has conceded x goals (% of goals) from crosses from the left side.

    The reason for this may not be that they are weak at defending the left side; it may be that the main player for defending crosses is the left centre back, who either is covering the left back as the CM or LW aren’t there to help, so the right centre back, right back and central midfielder are defending crosses.

    If we were to contrast this scenario to the opposite side with video evidence, we may see that the left center back wins many battles to clear danger from crosses, much better than the right centre back.

    We could say that even if the left back was good in 1v1s, we can still draw out the main defender and attack the box from that side as the best defender of crosses is in the front post zone where if you can avoid him, there’s a good chance of creating a chance to score or from winning the loose ball inside the box to shoot quickly.

    Recently, I moved to Burlington, Ontario, Canada (read it back like Michael Buffer) and have taken an interest in watching MLS, and the ‘local’ team, Toronto FC. This is a team with a few big name players in Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco (the league’s best player) and Jozy Altidore.

    While watching the MLS Cup Final, it was clear that Toronto were going to be in possession while Seattle would sit in defensively to counter attack. The problems TFC had were that Giovinco and Altidore were the 2 centre forwards in a 3-1-4-2 and both marked 2v1 (FB & CB). Seattles wingers often tracked back with the full backs pushing forward in a 4-1-4-1, making almost a 6-3-1 or 6-2-2 defensively.

    In a match at home, on a historic occasion, TFC needed to find solutions to break down the low block of Seattle. In the images I have shown, are a typical situation when TFC are in controlled possession

    How can we find a way through?

    After provoking pressure, which spaces open up?

    We can see here that Seattle are in a 4-1-4-1, back 4 very narrow as they are 2v1 on each CF. The DM sits infront and between the CBs, while the wide midfielders stay in the channels then move over to help press a wide pass.

    This is now a problem solving scenario for the coach which may or may not have been prepared for during the week. As the FB moves to press the wide pass, this results in leaving his CB 1v1 with Giovinco. If Giovinco stays high or runs behind, he stays marked. If he drops off, what will the reaction from his marker be?

    If he drops deep with him, there’s space behind for a 3rd man run as both the FB and CB are pulled forward. To find Giovinco we need stability around the ball to offer 3 types of pass;

    We now need to look for which situations result as a chain reaction from him dropping deep very late as the WB receives? What happens on the other side? If we cannot break through, will the dropping off from Giovinco lead to Seattle leaving spaces anywhere else.

    We already know the back 4 stay narrow, and that the wide midfielder will track his runner on the outside rather than move into a better, more central and compact position, so there’s a good possibility that we can hit the other side if we cannot break through on the 2nd or 3rd pass on the near side.

    Horizontal from High (WB), Diagonal from deep (CM), Vertical from inside (DM).

    To solve this problem, we need to have trained a wide zone positional structure to find Giovinco in the situation where his quality will be able to solve the problem by forcing the defender to make decisions he doesn’t want to make.

    Below is an image that I would look to paint to the coach as part of the staff to try to make sure that on the wide pass which draws out the full back, we can then look for our best player to make the difference.

    Creating a game plan

    On the left side, is the current situation. We want Giovinco to drop off as the ball arrives on the wide player. This means he can play 1st time into Gio dropping off who may be able to face the CB 1v1 and attack the space around him with 3 players able to hit the box from the blindside.

    We want to cause some anxiety in the CB and FB by making this movement. If the DM drops onto the defensive line, how does this help us?

    In the match situation, we need to understand how to relay this information to the players to help them problem solve.

    The main things we need to do are make sure that on each wide pass after going from right to left, Giovinco drops off really late. Another aspect is make sure our positional structure around that zone allows for easy circulation out of pressure to find Bradley in the centre to create penetration in the next phase.

    The 2 blue zones highlighted we need to hit very late on the near side, and very early on the far side. Upon any dropping off movement, we need one of the spare players to run behind. Here, either Wing back can solve the problem by running behind, or the inside central midfielders can move in, with a 3-1 shape behind the ball offering enough protection.

    How can we see this situation?

    We need to look for the reaction of the opponent to a chain of 3 passes, both individually and collectively. A forward pass into the defensive line is met with intense aggressive pressing from behind with the DM closeby to press from the front 2v1. The wide pass triggers a reaction from the FB to press wide, leaving a gap inside. The back pass to the DM triggers a reaction from the CM to press leaving a gap between the lines.

    Does the wide midfielder tuck in to remain compact on this pass or stay wide? He stays wide, so the space is inside; we can go diagonally. If he tucks in, we need to be quickper between the lines or the wide player needs to be on the line of the far side full back to offer a diagonal pass over the defence to put across the 6 yard lines.

    With these little pieces of information, we are looking to make movements that will force rushed decision making scenarios from the opponent, and allow us to dominate the space through their pressing and eliminate their press in as many situations as possible, but be structured enough around the ball to control their counter attack. By stopping their defensive and defensive transition actions: Pressing and Counter Attacking – we can then dominate the game and have enough pressure to lead to scoring chances.

    How could we train for this scenario if we know that it can potentially happen?

    Shadow play for circulation, positioning and timing

    For this practice, we want to work on the positional mechanics of moving to support as the ball travels, moving the ball quickly and re-circulating. It is very important we move at game speed to ensure we cover the positions around the ball incase we need to counter press after losing possession. Timing of movements to support and get into position is critical. Once the players understand the timing of the runs, we can then add in mannequins to show roughly what will happen in the match, before we add in the opponent. This ensures we build into what we want to do, paint pictures for players to understand and know what to look for in the more dynamic environment. The white player for example, looks for the space between LCM and LM. The mannequins will represent where they are.

    Mannequins to help work on opponent specific positioning and ball movement patterns

    Here, we can build up from playing a pass into the white zone on the right, retain possession for 3 passes, recirculate to the yellow, switch play to the other side where we play 3v2 and try to break through on that side. If we can’t break through within 3 seconds, we re-circulate play through yellow to pass diagonally to white, who passes into the overlapping run of the WB, who passes across the goal to score.

    From here, we need to now look at specific positioning and timing in relation to the opponent and space which is available, as opposed to the last activity which was about the team mate and the ball. We start to look in more detail at receiving angles, passing angles and communication with team mates when to drop, run behind, fill in space, be protection in transition if you are not an immediate option in possession phases. We look at different ways to complete the attack on the near side and far side, running angles into the box and ways to recover the loose ball from a cross and to protect against a counter attack by moving the players into position before the attack is completed.

    Game based training: Playing against the opponent with our strategy in place

    We can now move into a game situation. Ideally you will do it with 22 players which would give exact pictures, but if you have less players, 2 of the back 3 can be removed, even 3 of them if the coach can be the near side CB and pass the ball in. We want the opponent team to play exactly how the opponent will set up based on what we know. We will then work on how we move the ball, creating the situations we feel will happen in the game. Obviously as the game is played, many problems will have to be solved by the players independently which are based on our own tactics for our style of play, but we are looking to exploit the opposition tactics by adapting our strategy to the game.

    Stevie Grieve

     

     

  4. Mourinho’s Dilemma

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    Onside Soccer Consulting Blog; 18th October 2016

    Choosing the best “formation” to suit the players

    Often as coaches, one of the first questions you can be asked when meeting other coaches can be; “what formation do you use?” which is a question without any definitive answer for coaches who have a strong understanding of creating a style of play and system suited to the players they have.

    Usually, I have no set answer; I have things I prefer in my teams – as most people will do – I like to play a fast, aggressive, relatively direct style. I like to create lots of scoring chances, I like to cause the opposition to panic when they have the ball after winning it from us, so I like to win the ball back quickly, I like players to feel like they are in control of the game.

    I like a back 3, I like having a player as a number 10, I’ll always use a holding midfielder to balance the shape, I like wingers and I like to use 3 in midfield.

    This would probably lead to saying “3-4-3” as it fits all of the things that I like.

    In reality, it depends on the players you have available. You might have 2 physical strikers who aren’t able to play wide, players who aren’t particularly great in possession in relation to the speed of the game and the level of the opponents, and a lack of pace in the team. This might lead you t consider that coaching a fluid 3-4-3 will be pretty difficult.

    Jose Mourinho has a ‘formation’ problem just now at Manchester United.

    At Real Madrid and Chelsea, He successfully used a fast, counter attacking 4-2-3-1 which had enough flexibility to be dangerous in longer possession phases with a higher full back, a winger who is the 1st reference point in the final 3rd, a physically strong CF, a holding midfielder who protects the CBs and a number 10 to link play.

    At Manchester United, Mourinho has a few real problem to fix, they have 3 true #10s; Henrik Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney.

    They also have the Paul Pogba problem – where to find a place where he can best show his talents in a system which gives him enough freedom, but forces him to offer additional defensive responsibility to maintain the balance of the team.

    They also have 2 of the most exciting young wide forward players in Europe; Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford, who need minutes to be able to realise their huge potential. Memphis Depay has fallen out of favour and needs a move in January to be able to have an opportunity to reach the top level, something which sitting on the bench in a huge club wont allow him to do.

    So, how can Mourinho fix the dilemma he has? Play his favoured 4-2-3-1, or adapt his system slightly?

    In my opinion, he needs to change, either to a 4-4-2 diamond – like at Porto, where he won the UEFA Cup and Champions League back to back, or to a 4-3-3 similar to Chelsea in 2005

     

    4-4-2 Diamond Midfield to Front;

    Schneiderlin

    Herrera, Pogba

    Mkhitaryan

    Martial, Ibrahimovic

    mourinho-problem-442

    Ibrahimovic likes to have fast players around him as he drops off to link play; Martial can break to the right side while Pogba supports on the left. Mkhitaryan will support centrally to occupy multiple players while supporting Ibrahimovic centrally. Morgan Schniederlin is an underrated player and can add defensive stability to allow Pogba to be free in his position with Herrera balancing the team on the right side, supporting Valencia on the inside.

    This could look like Mourinho’s solid 4-4-1-1 when defending, with Pogba and Martial on the outside, resulting in having the ability to break wide on the counter attack with pace.

    mourinho-def-4-4-2

    This would leave Herrera and Schneiderlin protecting the back 4 while in transition moments.

    4-3-3

    Schneiderlin

    Herrera, Pogba

    Mkhitaryan, Ibra, Martial

    mourinho-problem-433

    Henrik Mkhitaryan showed last season at Borussia Dortmund that as a wide player drifting inside between the lines, that he is one of the most creative passers in Europe. Clearly, Borussia Dortmund had a defined system and players understood the runs they had to make to create scoring chances so the insight to know what to do ahead of time was there.

    With Martial making runs behind the defence akin to Marco Reus, and Paul Pogba having the freedom to play in the left channel, there is a real possibility this system would give the positional balance Jose Mourinho wants in defensive and offensive transitions.

    mourinho-def-4-4-1-1

    In defensive organisation, Martial would move into the left position, Mkhitaryan into the right position, with Pogba protecting the midfielders and marking the DM, assisting Ibrahimovic to block off the centre and forcing teams wide.

    Next week, I will write about the effects of “Formation” in youth development and the different systems which provoke different learning objectives due to the nature of that system of play.

    Stevie

    Onside Soccer Consulting

    @OnsideSC