Still can’t quite play in tune

New look Manchester United complete with piano-playing new forward Alexis Sanchez visited Tottenham last night, but the Chilean, the first to play for the big club Manchester United, could not quite inspire his team mates to the same result as they did over Yeovil United. He may have made his debut to a winning one, but as Sanchez discovered, playing against a Premier League side is still as tough as it gets.

Manchester United were down to a goal within eleven seconds, just one of the ten-second goal held jointly by Ledley King and Alan Shearer. After that Tottenham defended well and continued to dominate the match, with bad luck also affecting United, their substitute Marouane Fellaini having injured himself within seven minutes of coming on.

What is the shortest stay a substitute has had on the pitch before leaving? One of the shortest that comes to mind must be Steven Gerrard’s, he who was sent off within minutes of the restart after coming on as a second half substitute.

Sanchez played the whole game yesterday but must have been tormented by the White Hart Lane fans who continued to remind him he may have switched shirts but is still unable to beat them.

His fellow striker Olivier Giroud has joined Chelsea, so that makes it two strikers who have left Arsenal and leapt straight into Champions League teams. In their place Arsenal now have Mkitharyan and Aubameyang, two individuals who bring threat of pace, but difficulties for singing fans in having to think of new songs.

Lacazette, Mkitharyan, Aubameyang. Maybe Arsene Wenger is clearing out the whole front line, combining with Ozil who recently signed a new contract until 2021, and then his defence consists of the back three and Kolasinac and Bellerin. The combination would be good to watch were it not for the fact that Arsenal team still leaks in goals.

Next year is probably Arsene Wenger’s last year, if not this one. If he doesn’t succeed next year, then he has really no excuses left.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning …”

Is Mark Hughes a good skater? You might have equated the former Manchester United striker with more of a ballerina outside of football, or some may even say a diver, but certainly the Stoke City manager appears on thin ice and his future at Stoke after four and a half years is at risk. If it wasn’t clear by now.

A run of seven defeats in ten games means that the gaffer’s position is under threat. Hughes rested a number of key players in the 5-0 drubbing at Chelsea, which to be fair, was a good decision. His team were highly unlikely to win at Chelsea, so why tire key players in a festive schedule that is so congested that it has even seen Pep Guardiola complain that it will kill? The latter has seen Gabriele Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne injured after a physical game at Crystal Palace – a turn of events which may seem now make Aguero the key striker and pave the way for Alexis Sanchez to Manchester City. But back to Hughes …

Hughes’ reasoning was that he had a must win game with Newcastle after Chelsea. So the drubbing was tolerated ahead of three expected points which would give them a bit of a lift. Unfortunately, Hughes lost that game 1-0 too. THe problem is fans can tolerate losing against big teams, but when you lose against fellow strugglers who are also in the relegation zone then it makes the situation more bleak and you would need to be the most diehard of fans to keep backing the manager. Or the most clueless. As Hughes said, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

The problem too, is there ARE a couple of managers out there who would do it. Managers who have caught a bad break, on hiatus, been sacked – even Swansea’s Paul Clement might be in with a chance after he was dumped by the club. The players’ response was to win one for the new managers, a trend I previously highlighed. Stoke’s best strategy might be to replaces Hughes and hopefully set of a chain of good results to lift them out of relegation.

Whose in the relegation zone? Who is in danger of being relegated? The answer to the latter question is the last eight teams. If you look at the table at the moment, the bottom eight teams, from Newcastle down to Swansea, are all separated by only six points. As Newcastle found out, win one game and you are out of the bottom three, currently occupied by Stoke, West Brom and Swansea. Only nine points separate the tenth placed team – Watford on 25 – from Swansea at 16. The real battle this year, thanks to Manchester City’s dominance, will be at the bottom half of the table, with teams leap frogging each other each week. It’s like a game of musical chairs, or better yet, spin the bottle.

This round, it’s pointing at Mark Hughes. It might not be in two weeks.

He might be gone by then.

More English Premier League players? Change the youth game approach

Soccer has changed considerably over the past two decades. Tactics have evolved and are constantly evolving, often in reaction to previous tactical changes. Technically, there has been a shift towards a more possession-based game where keeping the ball for long sequences is emphasized. Physically, club scouts are now prizing speed rather than size and strength. More value, though arguably not enough, is being placed on the psychological element of the game. These changes have real and serious implications for the coach who is working to develop the youth soccer player. It is a necessity that coaches working within youth development are preparing their players effectively for a game that has changed significantly in recent decades, and which will continue to change.

Given the game’s rapid transformation, the coach is arguably preparing players for a kind of game that does not yet exist. It is therefore imperative that the coach remains up-to-date with the evolution of the game to keep their players up-to-speed. As a result, we need to examine how a ‘win at all costs‘ mentality affects the development of players in terms of their tactical, technical and physical development, within the context of how the game is evolving. We also need to inspect the implications of our coaching on the psychological and social growth of our players. We will find that all these changes are inextricably linked.

Creativity, imagination, risk-taking and personal expression are compromised to play in a safe and effective way. The greatest players in the world of soccer today grew up playing in the streets without adult coaching and supervision, and learned to play by freely trying things without the consequence of making a mistake. Learning becomes greatly impeded when mistakes are not tolerated.

Will your under-10 team learn more by ‘chasing’ a game and bombarding the opponent’s goal area with Alamo-style attacks and Rory Delap-esque throw-ins? Or by remaining calm and trying to penetrate the opposition’s defence with creative passes or a flamboyant individual pieces of skill? Will the players gain more in the long-term by forcing a crude equalizing goal or by problem-solving more creative ways of scoring a goal? Both questions are clearly rhetorical, but they appear frequently on youth pitches the world over.

A pet hate of mine is the simplicity of the pre-match team formation screens shown before televised games. It depicts, to the wider world, that tactics and movements are performed in straight lines when, in reality, they are free flowing and chaotic. I will accept that these simplistic visuals help the viewer quickly understand their favourite team’s formation, but basing our understanding of tactics in this way is very misleading. Soccer is not chess. The variables of a game are unending.

In Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed points this out in an explicit manner, noting that the complexity of predicting soccer is virtually impossible, unlike the predefined moves of pieces on a chessboard. [Some may argue that set-plays or ‘restarts’ are predictable as they can be rehearsed and staged. This argument, however, is only partly true as a successful set-play still hinges on the correct technique and decision-making of players, and also on the ability and reactions of the opposition.]

Syed tells a story of a group who were attempting to create a computer program that simulated the complex combination of combinations and variables involved in a soccer game – and found it impossible. We therefore need to produce players who can deal with these variables and chaotically unpredictable occurrences, rather than teach them to become tactical robots as represented to us on our television screens.

The role of the forward player is changing immeasurably. There has been a huge tactical shift towards playing with one striker, and indeed, with the success of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from 2008 to 2012 and the Spanish national team’s European Championship victory in 2012, more teams are willing to consider playing with no natural striker at all. Playing with no recognized striker (or 4-6-0) is expected to be the next revolutionary tactical shift in the game over the next decade. As a consequence, strikers are becoming a dying breed, or at least those that are only goalscorers are.

Jonathan Wilson sums this up concisely in his excellent book on the history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid: “The modern forward… is far more than a goalscorer, and it may even be that a modern forward can be successful without scoring goals.” Wilson traces the career of Michael Owen. Midway through his career, with the impact of teams prioritizing one multi-functional striker, a 25 year old Owen, with an international goal-scoring rate of almost one in every two games, was unable to find a Champions League club to invest in his services, and ended up joining (and being relegated with) Newcastle United. [Owen later joined Manchester United where he arguably became the club’s fourth or fifth choice forward, making an average of ten appearances a season for three seasons.]

Winner of the Ballon d’Or (the award for being the best player in Europe) in 2001, Owen himself admitted that he needed to evolve his game by adding skills such as link up play, dropping off the front, and holding the ball up. He felt he could no longer just be a goalscorer that made runs off the shoulder of the last defender. Had soccer tactics not evolved to prioritizing the use of just one main striker, there is a strong argument that the careers of goalscorers like Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe may have been even more prolific. The tactics or strategies that coaches adopt and implement need to reflect footballing chaos and variables, and allow players to survive in these types of scenarios. Players also need to be taught the technical skills required to thrive in this environment.

Due to the variables involved in a soccer game, a coach must encourage technical creativity and risk-taking in his players. How else can they learn to deal with the diverse situations that are thrown up by the game? The same coach, however, must accept that if you facilitate this creativity, players will make mistakes, and the team may lose games as a consequence. FC Barcelona’s risk-taking in possession, and their ultimate effectiveness of ‘possessioning’ the opposition into submission, is a direct product of players being allowed an abundance of trial and error as they evolved as youngsters. The club and its coaches had the foresight, during these early years, to allow this risk-taking to flourish and allowed players to develop into the adult footballers they are.

Taking risks, being creative, and ultimately making mistakes are true learning curves for players. It is vitally important to foster this. Ensure players know that it is okay to lose, so long as they learn the lessons from defeat. Technically, defenders and goalkeepers must now have the skills in possession that are at least comparable to their midfield team-mates. It is therefore exceptionally important that, during the full pressure of match days, these players are allowed to test and develop their technical skills in ‘real’ situations.

Asking a goalkeeper to whack it down the other end of the pitch any time he is in possession does not develop any type of skill. It stunts their ability to play out from the back and stunts the development of receiving players. Defenders are also required to have the technical traits to be able to manipulate and move the ball. The modern defender no longer just kicks and heads it. He receives possession from the goalkeeper and is the starter of attacks. He relieves pressure from midfield players and advances up the pitch in possession.

Take defender Jamie Carragher as an example. Carragher is not a player who is especially renowned for his technical qualities. Despite this, the Liverpool centre-back had a somewhat surprising pass completion rate of 92% from 24 games in his last Premier League season at the club (2012/13) (source: Squawka.) In addition to this, of the 10 players with the best pass completion rates in Europe in the 2012/13 season, three of them were centre-backs (Dante 90.8%; Gerard Pique 91%; Per Mertesacker 92.2%). [Players must have played at least 20 games and completed at least 1,000 passes.

The unsurprising number one on the list was Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez, with almost a 3% higher pass success rate than the list’s number 2, Mikel Arteta (source:]

If your young defender is taught to ‘get rid’ (an often heard term to clear the ball as far away as possible), the coach is doing him a great long-term disservice. A young defender needs to be taught passing and receiving skills, as well as the key movements needed to be able to play his position in a modern way. Once again, it is only by allowing players to trial and error this within competition that you can affect real improvement, tolerating a mistake and a lost goal along the way.

The technical qualities required by the modern midfield player are vast given the different types of midfielders that exist. They vary from those who sit deep and distribute, to those who ‘carry’ and run with the ball, to those who score and provide goals. Midfielders need to be expert in terms of passing and receiving, taking the ball in defensive areas, and controlling and manipulating the ball in tight attacking situations. They need the ability to score goals, intercept passes, cross, dribble, and more. If these players spend their youth watching their defenders ‘getting rid of the ball’, and goalkeepers thumping goal-kicks as far as they physically can, it is unlikely that they will develop their skills sufficiently to move their game on.

The rate of change in the role occupied by strikers has huge implications for youth coaching. During their development of young strikers, coaches need to add more and more traits to their forwards’ repertoire. José Mourinho is quite clear about the need for “multifunctional strikers”. He noted, “To them (English youth coaches) a striker is a striker and that’s it. For me, a striker is not just a striker. He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross…”

The changing role of forward players has had knock-on implications in other areas of the pitch. More and more midfield players are given greater freedom and license to get forward, score goals, provide assists and bridge the goalscoring gap that not playing with a natural goalscorer leaves. These attacking midfield players ‘play between the lines’ and are constantly searching for pockets of space between the opponent’s midfield and defence. They have excellent receiving skills and make penetrative passes between defenders. Plus, they score goals. Certainly in England, this type of player is rarely produced.

Arguably the most prominent player of this ilk produced in England in recent decades has been Joe Cole. Cole, however, spent a career being asked to play in more stringent wide positions rather than his natural position playing ‘in the hole’. As a teenager he was constantly summed up as a player with lots of quality, but someone who needed to eradicate maverick-type flamboyancy from his game. It is possible that had Joe Cole been born ten years later, this flamboyant nature may have been prized more highly.

With the prominence of these types of creative players, and a future reliance on them, it is imperative that youth coaches work to produce attacking midfield players that encompass these skills. In the English Premier League (2012/13) the top five players to play passes in the final third were all foreign imports: The Belgian Eden Hazard, Spaniards Santi Carzola, Juan Mata and David Silva, and South Africa’s Steven Pienaar, all of whom could be considered physically diminutive.

Over the longer term, players that develop physically earlier and who dominate games purely because of size can, in fact, see a huge reversal in their influence on games as they age and their peers begin to catch them up physically. Big players need to be taught other skills involving ball manipulation, vision and fundamental movements so that they have the tools to adapt their game as their physical advantage diminishes.

Likewise, those that develop late physically need to be trusted by coaches and be given ample playing time to learn the game, rather than being cast aside as ineffective in the short-term. With this trust and foresight, their long-term development is secured and the moral fibre of the coach remains intact.

If these late developers can learn, on a regular basis, how to affect games through technique and individual traits, they will possess a very accomplished armoury once they hit their growth spurt and will able to match other players physically. Because they lack relative size and power initially, maybe they will inherently adapt their game and start to play in-between players, rather than in close combat against them? Maybe they will learn to receive more quickly and move the ball on more quickly before the big guy gets too close? Maybe this will produce more Carzolas and Pienaars that have spent a childhood playing in tight areas and pockets of space? They would have the physical, technical and tactical skills to bypass their peers. Not to mention the ability of taking and dealing with physical contests where they are disadvantaged.

Pacemakers play peacemakers

Ah Alexis Sanchez. How many times have we said all those words in the same breath? He continues to impress yet frustrate, the will-he won’t-he saga threatening to overshadow much of Arsenal’s season. It is best they deal with it as fast as possible, and in this it might be better if he were released in January, rather than the Gooners holding on to a toxic asset.

The Arsenal striker’s skill has been clear for all to see in recent weeks. Against Liverpool, he led a fightback by scoring a goal from a header he should have had no business in winning. Hector Bellerin whipped in a cross, and Sanchez sprinted ahead of Joel Matip to nod the ball through Mignolet’s legs. The goalkeeper, who has been blamed for Liverpool’s struggles and may be slightly relieved to see Virgil van Dyke in front of him now – although it may mean he carries more blame if goals get conceded – absolutely had no chance with Sanchez’s goal. Yet while he may have been at fault with Granit Xhaka hitting his belter from far, there is no denying that Sanchez did inspire a comeback of sorts.

Sanchez also inspired a win over Crystal Palace, a 3-2 grab at three points. He scored two of the goals, but as many have noted, a few of his team mates refused to celebrate with him. The refuseniks – mainly the Arsenal defence – were Saed Kolasinac, Hector Bellerin, Laurent Kosicleny and Calum Chambers which may lead us to believe the training ground bust up after the game at Burnley’s Turf Moor last month may have been about Sanchez voicing his displeasure about a leaky defence. If that were the case, then it is not good news, considering that a division between attacking players and defensive players is not one you wish to have.

So the real question is why Arsene Wenger continues to hold on to Sanchez. See what happened at Southampton with Virgil van Dyke? The protracted discussion about his future with the club caused them to play under a cloud and go on a slide. Now that he is gone, watch for Southampton to play better with a better sense of team spirit.

Arsenal have managed to do well with Sanchez in the squad but Wenger is playing a dangerous game. Arguably his best player, Sanchez is increasingly becoming an influential but divisive figure. Arsenal have had a good run of results on the back of their out-of-contract players, Ozil and Sanchez, but Wenger needs to weigh up the results with the team spirit. Favour Sanchez, and he risks losing the faith of the eleven other players. And by the time Wenger lets Sanchez goes, he may find he may need to earn back the respect of the other players. If anything, having Sanchez around for the moment deflects from the Wenger Out cries, and turns attention away from the team’s results and performance.

Another fortunate event has been the form of leaders Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s men have so dominated the league that it is a case of will they win it or will they lose it. It is them against the chasing pack of teams traditionally in the top six. But this means Arsenal no longer have the expectation of winning the league, and are not expected to by their fans, and are not being blamed by them for every poor perfomance because they are still in the same boat as high spending Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Arsenal fans this year will be content with a top four finish, a return to Champions League football, and the Kings of North London football crown; their fans will be happy as long as they beat Tottenham after 38 games.

It should make for an interesting transfer window when it opens on Jan 1 2018. And one player pleased to see the new year will be Adrien Silva, the signing that Leicester tried to make previously but ended up a mere fourteen seconds late. Fourteen seconds! It was a high price to pay, those fourteen seconds. It meant he remained a Sporting Lisbon player even though he had also disengaged from the team, but could not train with Leicester. In a bit of limbo. A bit like Alexis Sanchez.

And so, with the transfer window opening again, it should make for an interesting start to 2018. And you can be sure all eyes are on the Alexis Sanchez situation. Will City sign him now and risk losing their chemistry? Will they wait for the end of the summer when his value drops? It may make better sense but waiting may mean other teams may start to consider him, as his affordability would drop to theirs. It is likely that Manchester City or some other team will sign him first to snap him out of the others’ grasp.

But for now, while Sanchez lingers at Arsenal, and the rift between him and the defence continues, the midfielders, the engine room of the team – the pacemakers – have to play the peacemakers.

Reality Check

The problem with dreams …



is that they are nice while they last …



… and twenty four hours it’s almost like nothing ever happened.

In the top four, out of the top four.

You do the hokey-hokey, and you turn around …

At least Sean Dyche and his men are above Arsenal in the table.

Arsene Wenger desperately needs a centre-back in the January transfer window or else helicopter bookings might be up again.

But while Sean Dyche’s Burnley enjoyed a brief wet dream with the top four spot, and it might be a bit of a come-down from the climax, at least it’s better that Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace.

Out of the drop zone, then back in it again.

Oh well, at least they breathed clean air for a day.


Speed or possession? The most important stat

Is football a game of speed? Is the speed of the game increasing? When you watch a game of football, sometimes a stat flashes up telling you how much distance a player has run, or his fastest sprint. You might be forgiven in thinking that speed is certainly not the essence of the game, if you watched the game from five years ago. Certainly the Spanish teams made a meal and influence on the game in what they called possession football, where the players kept the ball, passed it among themselves, then slowly walked it up the opponents half and then tried to thread it into the goal with some one on one skill. This concept of tiki-taka was copied by various teams across the continent until Spain were demolished by Holland 5-0.

Newspapers ran the headline “Tiki Taka is dead” and from then on the teams slowly transitioned to a different kind of play, a counter attacking style, waiting for the team with ball control to run themselves out of energy while launching short bursts of attack themselves. You didn’t need to have the ball for long periods, all you had to do was be clinical and make the most of your limited opportunities. And then defend and frustrate your opponents as they burned up their own energy trying to think of ways and ideas to get past your walls of players. It is the game plan teams employ against the football club Arsenal, by holding out against them defensively while they burn their own energy, both physical and mental, trying to probe for a link; then counterattacking and trying to make Arsenal continue wasting their energy. Having the ball and not being able to do anything with it can be very frustrating, and the more possession you have, the more it works against you.

This counter attacking of football bears many resemblances to modern life. Modern life seems to operate on two speeds, a slow, waiting for things to happen speed, and one that has got to be very responsive and reactive. It is like the world of home buying, for example. According to The Property Ombudsman Service, this waiting for long periods without much movement, followed by a short period where everything has to happen very quickly puts the average homebuyer under a lot of stress. It may or may not be a stretch to equate home buying with the world of football but certainly some similarities can be drawn.

What happens when two counter attacking teams play each other? Is it end to end action, or do they gift it to the other so they can play their normal game?

The modern game happens so fast and hinges on split second decisions. Sometimes coaches point to incidences on the field that could have changed the course of the game; an offside decision, an outside goal, a penalty that should have been awarded or otherwise, and while some may be attempts to deflect criticism on the players, some may be true.

But sometimes it is not on the field incidents that coaches refer to as if they changed the course of the game. This weekend Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp charged that had he been allowed to bring on substitutes when he wanted to, he would have emerged triumphant at Chelsea. Instead his side conceded an equaliser before the substitutes were allowed on the field in the closing stages of the game.

You can question the decisions in the game when the result didn’t go your way, especially if the game changer happened in the closing stages. But it is easy to overlook the remainder of the game and overlook the chances to kill the game that were not taken.

Football is a simple game. Start on level terms, then score more goals than they do to win. How much possession you have is irrelevant. You could score from the kickoff and then set up to defend for the rest of the game. Whether you play possession football, or counterattacking football, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, just make sure the ball ends up more times in your opponent’s net. That is the most important stat.