What's Wrong With English Football And How Can We Fix it? - Part 3

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As the national team prepares for its final World Cup Qualifier, today on the blog football coach and tactical analyst Jed Davies delivers the final installment of his series on how to improve English football.

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This is the last of a three part series for bettingexpert from Jed Davies, Oxford University Centaur’s Assistant Manager who is working closely with Jon Collins, a football coach with a PHD in Spanish Training Methodology and is himself the author of a book due release by Soccer Tutor this month titled: “Coaching the tiki-taka style of play”, a theoretical book on spanish-inspired development, tactics and training methods.

Part One of the series looked at the perceived “lack of technique” in English football and detailed some of the ways in which the latest changes by the FA look to tackle these issues. Part two on the other hand, turned it’s focus towards a lack of tactical flexibility and education for players in England.

The final instalment will (a) introduce to you the central philosophy introduced by the FA with the Future Game document, (b) detail how specific club philosophies can be (using the example of Liverpool FC and Pep Segura back in 2009 - which has in recent times seen the rise of many talented young players coming through the ranks at Liverpool) and will then (c) pick out one particular line and action in the Future Game document that has been overlooked to a certain extent and contradicted with the very document itself (if you perceive such a document to be a top-down message to coaches and players in England).

The Future Game

The Future Game document is considered the stand-out representative of what English football is to be about; it defines our coaching philosophy, playing philosophy, player characteristics and so much more. The hope is for this document to guide coaching education and therefore influence youth football development in the future - bringing England back to the top of the world football scene after effectively being ‘left behind’ in recent years.

The document has clearly been influenced by the successes of other nations: the methods used by The Netherlands certainly has a theme running throughout. The philosophy breaks the game into six phases of play:

  1. In possession when the opposition is “out-of-balance” (counter-attacking)
  2. In possession when the opposition is “in-balance” (build-up)
  3. Defending when you are “out-of-balance” (vs. counter-attack)
  4. Defending when you are “in-balance” (the defensive block)
  5. The finishing phase where goalscoring is the main objective
  6. Goalkeeping both in and out of possession

This model is actually unique in the literature as The Netherlands and other nations use a six moment model that consists of:

  1. In possession (“Attacking”)
  2. Out of possession (“Defending”)
  3. The transition of losing the ball
  4. The transition of winning the ball
  5. Defending set-pieces
  6. Attacking set-pieces

This particular model has also been used by the Australian FA in their most recent national curriculum written by Hans Berger with the guidance of world leading coaching experts such as Raymond Verheijen, Coerver’s Alfred Galustian and others.

The English FA detail their playing philosophy on their own website as the following:

In possession:

  • A possession-based approach played through the three-thirds of the pitch
  • Quality passing and intelligent movement and support off the ball
  • Penetrative, incisive and varied attacking play, allied to good finishing
  • Counter-attacking whenever opportunities arise

 

Out of possession:

  • A tactical approach to defending, in which all players contribute
  • A controlled, calculated and assertive approach when and where necessary

 

The Future Game document expands on particular aspects of the playing philosophy and the key message is one that the attacking strategy is to have one priority as soon as you receive the ball from the opposition: can you counter attack with speed, control and directness into the attacking third? If however, the counter attacking option isn’t available, then the team should look to “build through accurate and controlled ball retention and [with an] incisive use of possession”

The team’s defensive strategy is then detailed to win the ball back as high up the field as possible and if not possible, the team should drop back into their “balanced” and organised defensive shape.

Immediately the likes of Mourinho and Heynckes would argue that there is a contradiction in the emphasis on counter-attacking and yet defending in high spaces with the main objective of winning the ball back. Typically a counter attack team will use pressing as a way to delay the opposition in advancing forward (blocking off passes rather than looking to win the ball) and then as soon as possible fall back into their organised and “balanced” defensive shape. This isn’t to say that the FA don’t mean to convey this message, but there is certainly room for subjective mis-interpretation.

The reason that teams like Bayern Munich (under Heynckes) and Mourinho-managed teams drop deep is to “invite” the opposition forward and to allow your counter-attacking players the room to dribble into space or hold up the ball in space. “Space” being the defining element of the game.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the wording used by the FA, only those implementing the strategy may not see the links between the different types of counter-attack and pressing.

Bielsa would always argue that the team should play effective football, but he would turn away from long balls as it meant that his players would be isolated in a way that would have a negative impact on the team’s ability to retain possession. There is a dialogue here that has been unwritten in the FA’s document that once again, could leave room for a misinterpretation of the original objectives set by the FA. Others in the industry have argued that the FA has tried to “tick all the boxes available”, whereas in reality the game of football isn’t about perfection, but instead about the counter-balancing of different elements in the game. That is to say that if you wish to build possession, that the opportunity to counter-attack should be ignored if the supporting network of players around the receiving man is not conducive to retaining quick-sharp possession - it is extremely difficult to be both a counter-attacking team AND a possession team in reality - only Manchester United (under Sir Alex Ferguson) and Bayern Munich (under Heynckes) have achieved this type of play in recent years, with a world class playing squad that can be effectively “plugged in” to meet the needs of each game.

How Long Do We Have To Wait To See The Positive Impact? Case Studies

How long does a curriculum or document like this take to come into play (producing players)? Well if we are to take the Belgian curriculum and Barcelona 1979 (Josep Núñez and Johan Cruyff) models as our precedents, then it seems to take the best part of a decade for the club or nation to start seeing the rewards in an abundance.

Changes were made to youth football in Belgium in 2003 and as everyone can see, a decade on and we’re looking at the most talented influx of young players in Belgium, over every nation in world football. Guillermo Amor was the first real graduate of La Masia after it was remodelled, some nine years after Cruyff made his suggestions to Josep Núñez. Amor went on to play 311 La Liga games and was quickly followed by Carles Busquets (Segio’s father, a goalkeeper and now goalkeeping coach at Barcelona), Pep Guardiola and Albert Ferrer - who went on to make 857 La Liga appearances between them but only after they waited a decade for the first crop of players to come through the new set up.

So when Pep Segura came into Liverpool’s set up under the management of Rafa Benitez in 2009 to draw up a singular philosophy for the club and it’s youth academy, no one was expecting to see such immediate rewards - there are half a dozen youth players waiting just around the corner preparing to burst onto the Premier League scene in the Liverpool youth academy. Pep Segura brought about whole changes to the way in which the club operates, inspired by Barcelona (where Segura had previously worked) but with an English twist. These changes detailed:

  • that every single player must do the same work (tactically)
  • the youth development model must be directly inspired by street football (a direct English version of Futsal according to Segura, a version that should form the identity of the English game); “street soccer is the most natural educational system that can be found” (Rinus Michels)
  • recognition that street football has disappeared and therefore a conscious effort to bring back the conditions
  • using appropriately sized pitches to allow for breadth and depth to be used appropriately
  • all football should be themed with an attacking twist
  • all children and players must truly understand the 4-2-3-1 formation: both the benefits and fall backs.
  • the game should be developed from the defensive line (with an attacking theme)
  • coaches should teach the collective game based on the first team’s model and system
  • an emphasis on creativity and automatism

 

The complete ‘global philosophy’ throughout the entire club, from the ages of eight to twenty-one was stressed at all times by Segura. This is something that Brendan Rodgers has a personal interest in:

“I wanted to see the connection between the first team and...the child. I wanted to see from close how the club worked on developing the under-9s, how they put that ethos of technical continuity into practice.” - Brendan Rodgers

The Liverpool and Segura remodel proposed a progressive training building block style approach to development similar to those of the Barcelona, Ajax and Dutch models.

  • The youngest base their training around: playing games, technical skills
  • As the players develop the youth are to then progress: technical skills, tactical work starts, physical work starts
  • As players approach the age of 15-16, the training should specialise and concentrate heavily in areas needs: technical skills, tactical work, physical work, psychological work
  • As young adults (16-18), players should learn to win, they should begin to work towards the in-depth training capacities: technical skills, tactical work, physical work, psychological work

 

"The program is a great tool to implement and not just having a good criteria for selection of players. It's the idea and style that make an organisation strong." - Pep Segura

The program also sets out a strict regime, one that details the quantity of hours that the academy should provide for their youth at each relevant age:

  • Ages 8-12: 35 weeks of competition and 3 sessions weekly
  • Ages 13-15: 35 weeks of competition and 4-5 sessions weekly
  • Ages 16-18: 40 weeks of competition and 7-8 sessions weekly
  • Ages 19-21: 42 weeks of competition and 7-8 sessions weekly

 

The Liverpool (re)model proposed that a specific formation be taught and learnt to form part of the club’s philosophy. This may appear counter-productive given that formations and tactics change and evolve over the years, however, it was always stressed that formations should be viewed as flexible and inter-linking adaptable structures. By this I mean to say that the 4-2-3-1 is never a static formation and in truth, it is unlikely that if you froze the game at any point in time that this formation would be present in it’s purest form.

Brazil is a nation with a strong identity but without a ‘formation’ per se attached to their very clear national identity. This issue has been highlighted over and over again in this last decade as the reason behind the lack of unity at national level in Brazil:

“Menezes argued that Brazil’s clubs count on good structure in which to develop young players, but especially in contrast to Barcelona, were lacking any philosophy of formation. There was no long term, collective vision” - Mano Menezes

So that thought alone begets the question, does the FA have a ‘formation philosophy’ like clubs will have? In the Future Game document, there is no emphasis on any one formation as such but you feel that teams will be expected to defend in a formation similar to 4-4-1-1, 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 (in the deepest areas) and then attack in a 4-2-3-1 type formation (to facilitate the playing philosophy) - typically, these are the formations used at most academies in England today.

Conclusion

Moving back to the English FA’s Future Game and the outlined playing philosophy document, you can’t help but think they’ve covered many bases to allow for implementation-discretion to a certain extent. This has both it’s negatives and positives as you move away from being very particular and specific in your approach - leaving those coaches implementing the philosophy to learn a lot of the un-detailed information attached to such a generalised approach.

“The larger the search light, the larger the circumference of the unknown”

While it is easy to say that by trying to cover all bases with the playing philosophy leaves the FA open to criticism by those trying to implement such a mixed approach to football tactics. You can’t help but think that in doing so, the FA has looked to move beyond the current state of football and into a futuristic and adaptable approach (hence the Future Game):

“The football of the past we have to respect, the football of today we must study, and the game of the future we should anticipate” - Bora Milutinović

After all, the FA opens it’s document with the statement that they wish to “train, develop, qualify and support more innovative coaches, who are excellent teachers of the game” (Pg. 7) and the more recent Level 5 qualification where 16 UEFA A License holders all under the age of 40 were hand selected by Dick Bate, leads you to the conclusion that this national ‘curriculum’ and playing philosophy isn’t an entirely top-down approach to playing football in this country. The Level 5 qualification involved all 16 coaches to select a foreign club and report back with a one hour presentation on what that particular club does differently to how the English FA educates you to coach - a suggestion that the English FA are aware that there are other ways of learning and there is value in their highest qualified coaches beginning to developed a more mixed and cultured approach to the game.

Is the FA trying to develop the same coach over and over again? This question was put to the 16 candidates on the Level 5 course and the response varied but the Level 5 qualification certainly opened eyes for coaches to be more “innovative” and open to other ways of coaching and playing.

The Future Game and the FA’s playing philosophy is therefore in my eyes, not a dictatorship of how the country should look to play - a singular playing identity, but a thought-provoking guide for coaches to begin to understand every element of the game and to make calculated and conscious choices in the game. Whether or not this mixed-approach (rather than the typical top-down approach) to a nation’s playing philosophy is successful, we’ll have to wait the best part of the decade to find out. Until that time comes around, we can only conclude that the FA have done a fantastic job at creating an environment for a country of “thinking coaches” who will both be influenced by the playing philosophy and go on to influence the playing philosophy in the future game.

 

 

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Follow Jed on Twitter: @TPiMBW

Jed is a football coach who writes on tactical theory and philosophy for a number of sites and publications including LiverpoolFC.com and his own site JedDavies.com.

Football coach who writes on tactical theory and philosophy for a number of sites and publications including LiverpoolFC.com and JedDavies.com.