Sharpening their Spurs in Europe

It’s not been a bad week for Tottenham Hotspur, has it? Even though the North London derby win brought them up to third in the table, before wins by Chelsea and Liverpool brought them sliding down to fifth again – out of the Champions League spots, they showed their mettle in the current Champions League campaign with a 2-2 away draw at Juventus.

The away side were slow to settle and gave away a 2-0 lead inside of ten minutes. You could have said that Juve deliberately targeted the Spurs backline, with youth in its side, and Gonzalo Higuain was on his way to a hat trick before he had even warmed up sufficiently. But Spurs showed their mettle and fought back slowly, first with Harry Kane slipping past Gigi Buffon to slot it, and then Christian Eriksen rounding a free kick past the wall to earn the Spurs an important advantage in the competition.

The 2-2 away draw means that Juventus are on the back foot on away goals – remember that after 90 minutes away goals count as double. The away goals rule was implemented to stop sides playing defensive football and hoping to make it through on penalties. It has been one of the more positive changes to the game to make it more exciting. Another has been the back pass rule – remember when a goalkeeper could pick up the ball from his own players and defences just kept rolling the ball back to the goalie? (You’d have to be a certain age to recall that, actually.) A change still not quite well-implemented yet is VAR.

Coming back to the game, the 2-2 draw in Turin at the Allianz Stadium means that Juventus have to go on the offensive. Spurs only need a 1-1 draw or better to progress. But it would be a mistake to simply expect to sit back and defend. Juventus with their front line of Higuain and Mandzukic et al are very good at scoring, and if you were behind that’s when their defence clamps down on you.

That was not necessarily the case yesterday, but should make for good football in the return leg. Spurs are definitely the better team to watch in North London; have been for the last few years – if you haven’t already realised that!

Cheque Mate

I’ve followed football on and off the last two years and I’ve got to admit that things are getting pretty interesting in Manchester especially.

Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola? Both interesting managers, adversaries going back to their shared time in Spain, managing two of the biggest clubs in La Liga, now battling it out in Manchester. Last year wasn’t Guardiola’s year, as it turned out to be the first barren season he had ever had in his managerial career. This season things are different. He is atop the Premier League and after a few more games it is likely he will start rotating his squad and play the second team, the youngsters in the Premier League, leaving Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero and the gang of Sane et al to play in the Champions League in May. It’s a clever strategy, you’ve got to admit. Tie up the domestic league title first, then get your first team rested for the biggest prize in Europe.

Jose Mourinho got in to Europe via the back door of the Europa League champions. This year he is looking up to Guardiola’s table status, seemingly not able to catch up. But at least he’s further on than Chelsea’s group, who may be realising that while Diego Costa was a rough brute, he at least scared and bullied opposing centre backs. Alvaro Morata is skilled but too nice.

How will City react after their latest setback? Leroy Sane, the talented left winger, won’t be making any marauding runs down the flank after being the victim of an ugly challenge in Cardiff. It’s like Liverpool without Mo Salah. But their capture of Laporte could be interesting, along with the impending return of Benjamin Mendy.

And how much have the two Manchester teams spent between them this season. A lot, a lot of money. Along with Barcelona and Paris St Germain, you could easily find transfers over a billion pounds this season. Just blame Paul Pogba, United’s 100 million Euros man, who broke the barrier to purchases. Will football be a game of wallets or skill?

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.

Reasons behind player motivation

In the previous post, I mentioned how managerial uncertainty affects players. I also mentioned how players are unwilling to give their best if things appear as if any manager is on his way out. Why is this so? Firstly, if you are seen to be too loyal to the old gaffer, when he is shipped out you could be too. So it makes sense, as a player, to distance yourself slightly from the manager, and this may manifest itself in the form of not listening fully to instructions, either on the field, or during team tactical talks. Of course, it is better to have any doubt about the manager eradicated, if the board make a public statement. Then the players know the manager’s way is the only way.

And what happened when news of Everton’s appointment of Sam Allardyce filtered through at Everton? They win 4-0. Against all odds they score four goals, and don’t even concede one!

The appointment of a new manager always brings a run of positive results. Why? Because it is likely that the new manager might be there for a while, so players subconsciously see it as an opportunity to impress the man, and align himself with him. In the first few matches you often see players digging deep, finding reserves they didn’t display for the previous boss. Failure to impress the new incoming boss could mean a quick exit from the first team or club.

Player motivation is also affected by externalities, even though you have to be professional and give your all on the field, and managerial in-outs are not the only factors. Sometimes you can find players performance spike in in late November or December. Arsenal’s duo of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, linked with other clubs since the summer, have recently experienced a resurgence in form. Yet not long ago they were seemingly transferring out, Sanchez to Manchester City and Ozil to Manchester United. And when news of their possible moves affected their form, the fans turned on them. Yet they are playing their best now. What has happened? Have they now decided Arsenal is their future home?

Actually, no. They are playing to impress. Just not their existing boss, or any incoming one. Arsene Wenger is not going anywhere yet. But Sanchez and Ozil are playing to attract interest from elsewhere, to earn themselves a trade in time for the January window.

But Sean Dyche at Burnley seems to have the best of most worlds. The owner likes him, he and his team evaluate themselves on performances and not results, knowing they are not going to win every game. And his players have heart, and fight for him. But maybe they are just fighting for interest from the big clubs.

Player motivation. It’s a funny thing.

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.