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Monday, January 19, 2015

Homegrown Saints

Success in football, in particular the definition of success, can be difficult to measure because it largely depends on the angle from which you approach it.

For outsiders it is hard to identify any form of success at St Mirren.  The club has struggled to stay afloat in the Premier League whilst a win in the Scottish League Cup in 2012-13 offered a rare moment of glory.  Success isn’t something that you typically associate with the Paisley club.



Look closer, however, and you will start to see a different picture.  Their first team regularly features six players – Mark McAusland, Sean Kelly, Kenny McLean, Thomas Reilly, John McGinn and Jason Naismith – who started their careers in the club’s youth teams.  Of that group, four have represented Scotland at Under 21 level.  Many more have either already had a taste of first team football or else are on the periphery of the first team squad.

By any measure, then, that which St Mirren have in place is a hugely successful youth system.

The man who has overseen much of the development of this system is David Longwell who began working for the club as Assistant SFA Development Officer and rose through the ranks until he was given the role of Head of Youth Development in 2005.  From that position he has helped shape St Mirren’s approach to the development of players with the result being a constant stream of talented players who are ready to step into the first team.

And the emphasis truly has to fall on that word: talented.  

“First and foremost we look for technique,” he says resolutely as he explains what matters most for St. Mirren when they’re looking at a young player.   “There are still too many clubs who go for the bigger players.  We don’t believe in that.  Look at the likes of Suarez and Aguero who certainly aren’t big but they’re among the best players in the world because of what they can do with the ball.”

“So we guard ourselves and are careful not to go for the big strong players who typically stand out in youth games.  We focus a lot on technique and regardless keep on working to improve it.”

“Other than that, we look to see if they have game intelligence, whether they are scouring to see what is around them and if they have good movement.  If you get kids who have also got pace and got strength then it is even better.”  

“There is a fine balance that you have to try and get to.  There are players who are stronger at a younger age whilst others develop later on and you have to guide them properly.”

Having been at the club for so long, Longwell can trace the club’s upturn in fortunes - as far as the club’s youth structure is concerned – to a specific moment in time: when the club decided to sell their old stadium, Love Street.

“The biggest change came when the board of directors sold the old stadium to finance the building of a new stadium with the money left over being invested in a training centre,” he confirms.  “We have our own training facility with 3rd generation pitches, academy centre as well as three grass pitches.”  

“On top of that, managers who have come in have been encouraged to look within for new players.”

This latter point is of particular importance to Longwell.  “When I was younger and worked as a community coach I got to appreciate the importance of having strong local links.  We’ve had players like Stevie Mallan who was picked up from our community coaching and is now in our first team.  I’ve always believed that these players have a stronger affinity with the club.”

“St. Mirren is very much a community club that is in touch with the area.”

You would imagine that a club with such a track record for giving its own players an opportunity would have little difficulty convincing young players to join them.  However, it isn’t always the case.


“Scotland is dominated by Celtic and Rangers so you will get parents who are swayed by the Old Firm.  We’ve sat down with players to explain that with us they will get more of an opportunity.  We compare our first team with those of the Old Firm, showing that we have more home grown players. We explain that there are more foreign players involved at the top end.  Still, a lot of them support the Old Firm and you still get a lot of players who go for the bigger club.”

Not that there are many bigger clubs – youth wise – in Scotland.  Indeed the Scottish FA has awarded them a five star rating after evaluating their facilities, level of coaching as well as curriculum.  Only Rangers and Celtic have a higher rating. 

“There are far bigger clubs who have got a lower status.  We just have a standard of working hard in order to keep improving and the rating signifies that we have everything in place to develop players.”

Longwell can talk with such authority because, as the club’s Head of Youth Development, he is the one who has to map out what happens at the club.

“I oversee what takes place at each level and develop our coaching strategy.  We focus on the technical aspect which, at top end, I do not think has been done enough in Scotland lately.”  

“A massive part our work goes into ensuring that they are comfortable with both feet whilst we also work on their football intelligence.   The way we coach ensures that there is a lot of discovery learning which means that the children work things out for themselves and find solutions to problems themselves rather than relying on the coach to tell them what to do.”

“On matchday there is a big shift as we always look to play from the back.  The goalkeeper must always be looking how best to pass the ball, for instance.  As teams lock on to you in order to stifle you we coach them so that there is always someone free.  Therefor we teach the kids to try and look at their position as well as that of those around them.   In general, we do try to develop a style that is attractive and exciting.”

Those, however, are the major brush strokes of the St Mirren painting; the philosophy with which the players are schooled.  True, you need to have that vision if you want to develop players, but you also need to look at what each and every player needs in order to fulfil his potential.

Once again, St. Mirren execute this to perfection.  “I do a lot of one on one chats with the player to make them understand what they have to work on.  They all have individual programmes to try to advance them and we speak to sport science people to determine where they are physically.”

This is particularly the case when there are players who are coming towards the end of their youth career and looking to advance among the professionals.  “We are ready to let players go on loan but only if it is the right club,” Longwell explains.  “For instance we would not send a player to a club that only look to launch the ball.  It must have the right coaches and the right style for our players to develop.”  

“We’re quite lucky in that teams playing in the Under 20 League are allowed to play five
overage players.  We don't play one player like that whereas other clubs play them week in, week out.   “As a result, our kids are playing older and stronger players.”

“That said we realise that there are players who progress quickly but with others you have to be patient.  Some kids ready at 18 whilst with others you have to keep on working.  We let them develop at their own pace.”

Throughout the interview, Longwell had come across as someone who not only was extremely knowledgeable – something that you would expect in a Head of Youth Development (even if it isn’t always there) – but who also as someone with the rare talent of developing strategies seen elsewhere to fit into his own template.

It comes of little surprise that he has done every coaching course possible, including the UEFA Pro Licence.  It is even less surprising that he used such courses not only to learn off the official material but also to see what those around him were doing.

“You look at what the likes of Guardiola and Mourinho who are always trying to evolve the game.  You dilute it down and see what you can learn off them.  There are also many aspects that you can learn from people at your own club.  We’ve had some very experienced managers but also younger people can come up with fresh ideas.”  

“It is important that you keep learning over time, watching loads of football, be it on TV or live.  You watch tactics always trying to learn.”

That desire to learn is embodied throughout the whole academy structure at St. Mirren and is one of the main reasons for their growing status.  Ultimately, however, it is largely down to how they treat their players at all levels.

“Kids need opportunity and we're giving them that here at St Mirren."

If you haven't yet seen our book, you should head over to Amazon to check it out.  Look for Blueprint for Football Volume 1 (US edition) and Volume 2 (US edition), where you'll find interviews with coaches who share their ideas, beliefs and blueprint for coaching the game.  More interviews can be found on Blueprint for Football Extra, our (free) newsletter.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 5]

Every Saturday morning, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 3rd of January.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

Juego de Posición under Pep Guardiola 
It would seem that no weekly digest can go by without mentioning Pep Guardiola.  Believe me, this is not intentional.  Yet such is his brilliance as a coach that barely a week goes by without people finding something else about his systems to analyse and it would be remiss not to point it out.

This one is particularly brilliant, looking at the positional play of his team’s and Guardiola’s ideas for them.  If you’re going to read just one article from this list, make sure that it is this one.

"We Offer the Best Coaching, Best Staff and Best Way to Develop Players"
Brentford are doing really well in the Championship having gained promotion from League 1 last season.  It isn’t just the first team, however, that is doing well as the whole club is being structured in a way to excel.  Indeed they've set up an impressive youth system as Ose Aibangee, their Head of Youth, explained to me last January.

Tactical review of 2014: Part 1 and Part 2
It is my personally held belief that there are few better writers out there than Jonathan Wilson.  His book Inverting the Pyramid is one of those that any coach should read in order to get an appreciation of the evolution of tactics (as is his under-appreciated book on goalkeepers The Outsider).

Every year, Wilson takes a look back at football tactics and this year’s – which is split into two part - is as always a highly insightful read.

Why Defending Wins Championships
Games with a high number of goals might be entertaining to those watching from a neutral perspective but they’re also symptomatic of a culture that prizes the entertainment value more than effectiveness.   The reality, however, is that such big scores are the product of an era where defensive solidity isn’t appreciated, where even defenders have to be fanciful in order to be noticed.  It is why this piece, whilst written a while back, should serve a reminder that without good defending, success is virtually impossible.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Power of the Brain

When he was born in 1933 in Pau Grande, a district of Magé in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Manuel Francisco dos Santos becoming a footballer seemed to be the least probable of his future career prospects.  His family was poor and his father an alcoholic yet that wasn’t the main problem; many great Brazilian players came from a similar background so the environment in which he was raised wasn’t that big of an issue.

The physical defects with which he was born, however, were a completely different matter.  His spine was deformed, his right leg bent outwards whilst his left leg was six centimeters shorter and curved inwards.  Even his growth was stunted, which is what led his sister to come up with the nickname with which he would be known for the rest of his life: Garrincha, the little bird.  Football was out of the question.

Only that it wasn’t.  As with most Brazilian boys, Garrincha grew up playing the game.  And rather than letting his physique hinder him, with practice he came to use it as an advantage to dribble around bigger, stronger players.  Eventually, this ability would be developed to the extent that he became considered a genius of the game.

Garrincha managed to achieve all that he did during his career not because of his physique but because of his brain or, rather, the in-built ability that we all have to shape our co-ordination around out unique physical peculiarities.

This is what brain plasticity - the term used to describe the human brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience – is all about.  Although humans are all roughly the same (two feet, two hands, a head etc.) everyone is different in one way or another.  Some are short whilst others are tall; some are heavy boned whilst others nimble and so on.

Therefore, in order for to brain to allow each person to achieve an objective like walking, it has to have a little flexibility in its coding so that the function of putting one foot in front of the other can handle that individual’s unique build.

Once it is calibrated to that individual, the brain keeps on learning and the more that it repeats a movement the better it becomes at that executing that movement.  Run through a rough field once and you’re likely to stumble more than a couple of times.  Run through the same field a second time and you’ll fare better.   Go over the same path a hundred times and you’ll be breezing over those patches that previously gave you such a hard time.  This is because the brain learns and tunes the body accordingly.

Practise does indeed make perfect.

This has many implications.  The first, obvious, one is the confirmation that it provides that the road to excellence does lie in practice.  The mind can be moulded provided an action is repeated enough times.  Admittedly, this is a simplistic way at looking at the relationship between body and mind but it also explain why behind every athlete (or, indeed, any endeavour like playing a musical instrument or a simple computer game) there are hours of practise.

There is, however, a flip side.  If the mind is trained to do the same thing over and over, it will tune to body to being good at that but the monotony will limit the ability to do other tasks.  To keep with the previous analogy, if you’re running in the same field day after day as soon as you try to run in a different field you will once again start faltering.  It is why coaches introduce variations in their training sessions; to ensure that different aspects of one’s ability are enhanced.

From a coaching perspective, the implications of brain plasticity are immense but the main one is this: limiting one’s opinion of a young player’s ability on his physique would be a serious blunder.

This is the first instalment in a two part series.  The second feature will look at how brain plasticity changes over time and the implications that there exist for coaches.  

Any feedback - or questions - can be directed either on Twitter or else on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 4]

Every Saturday morning, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 27th of December.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

Tyrone Mings Makes His Mark At Ipswich On And Off The Pitch 
On the weekend when Sunderland once again beat Newcastle thanks to a goal by Adam Johnson – who had grown up supporting Newcastle and had been in their youth system before being let go when he was twelve – this piece about Tyrone Mings was particularly poignant.

Mings was let go by Southampton as a 16 year-old because of “lack of physical development” but refused to give up on his dream.  Good for him because he’s now one of the hottest properties in the Championship having joined Ipswich after a spell in non-league.

Whilst his rise to prominence might make for a good story, its true value, coaching wise, lies in the care that needs to be taken when judging players on their physical development. 

Manufacturing Goal-Scoring Opportunities 
This is one that will largely interest coaches who work with older age groups.  As the title suggest, this session by Gavin MacLeod involves a number of drills through which one can coach the creating of goal-scoring opportunities.

More Important Than Talent
The more that I read and talk to people about the development of players, the more convinced I become of the need of mental strength as much talent.  This article reflects that view.  Far too many athletes have ability but are unable to make the sacrifices that are needed in order to ensure that their potential is maximised.

La Liga Power Balance Shifts: Has Barcelona Lost Its Soul? 
On the pages of Blueprint for Football there is a lot of talk on establishing a philosophy of how you want to play.  Typically, when people hear that phrase they immediately think about Barcelona and how they managed to achieve phenomenal success with a team largely made up of home grown players along with a unique way of playing.

That image, however, isn’t in synch with what close followers of the club are seeing at the moment.  With the core of the dominant team growing older and a desire to look outside of the club to get new players – with limited success - there is a distinct feeling that its philosophy needs revisiting.

Managing the Welfare of the Elite Athlete 
Close observers of this weekly digest will notice that every week I try to include at least one article from another sport.  This time round it is something from British cycling – a sport whose success has given me (and many others) so much food for thought – and in particular from Sir Dave Brailsford.  This fairly lengthy piece provides an overview of the core elements that resulted in the sports’ success and strengthens the belief that success isn’t down to one thing but a combination of factors.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Blueprint According To...Joe Smith

There are a lot of people who get into coaching because their own playing career came to an end.  For many, however, that end was forced either through injury or else through age.  Few actually stop playing because they are disillusioned with the game only to see in coaching a possibility of a kind of redemption.

Joe Smith falls into that latter group.  A creative player, he admits that from a young age he had that creative aspect ‘coached’ out of him to the extent that he eventually decided to stop playing.  However, he eventually took up coaching seeing this as an opportunity to avoid having other suffer the same experiences as him, making creativity very much at the core of his football blueprint.

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: at what point in your career did you decide that you wanted to coach and what led you to take that decision?
Joe Smith: It is funny as myself and my cousin were talking about this only a little while back.  I'm relatively late into coaching having taken my first coaching session at 24 and I never envisaged myself going into coaching.  All I wanted to do was play but my cousin would always say “you'll love it when you start”.
I stopped playing when I was about 23 years old as I became a bit disillusioned with the game and almost fell into coaching and got the bug straight away.

BfF: What has been the biggest difference you've found between your perception as a coach and the realities of the role?
JS: Growing up, my perception was that if a coach was commenting and constantly stepping in to make a point then they must be knowledgeable; they must be right.

What I have in fact found out is that is the ego part of coaching and the skill in coaching is nothing to do with what you know, it is the relationships you foster with the players you coach.  I was asked at MK Dons is “talking coaching?”  And when I sat back and had a think about that statement I discovered in fact no it isn't.  

Of course there are times when you need to enhance a player’s knowledge but I assumed before going into coaching that was the main role as a coach and it certainly isn't.  

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
JS: I've not had any mentors as such but a range of people I will talk in depth about my role as a coach and best practice.  For me the moment I met Dan Micciche at MK Dons was a turning point.  Before meeting him all I knew of the coaching world was drills, structure and what I had experienced as a player.

I was a creative player but from the moment I could kick a ball it was coached out of me.  So, when I saw Dan's passion for creativity it certainly fired something up in me where I thought I could actually make a genuine impact in player development if I followed what I believed in.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
JS: I believe in complete player freedom and creativity; I try and create an environment where creative thinking and decision making are prevalent.  Every exercise I decide with the players, after all it is their game.  People forget that every game we know now was invented by children it is adults who ruin it for them.  I have a lot of player interaction and if I do enforce anything it is that training is conducted in chaos.  I think it is important to be relevant to the game but, more than that, relevant to what they actually want.  Of course, if you give a young player an option they will ask for a match and I don't find that a problem but as a coach you set appropriate challenges and conditions that keep them engaged to create a learning environment.

BfF: Is winning important for you?
JS: I have received some criticism for this but genuinely I don't count scores anything below U21 football.  If my own niece and nephews play I don't ask what the score was, I ask whether they enjoyed themselves and what they learned.  

Now, of course, we all like to win but for me it goes back to the adult ego and it doesn't sit comfortably at all with me.  I have sat through games where the team I was taking were losing 10-0 and I could see the disgruntled look on the parents faces but winning doesn't mean success.  In that particular game I would say the losing team developed more simply because they were challenged.  Winning is great but ask the boys/girls ten minutes after the game about it and all they are thinking about is what was for dinner or playing on their computers.

Of course, as always, a balance is required.  Young players can lose motivation if they always lose but I think it is the environment you set around that and if you can get both the players and parents to buy into it you genuinely will have a special thing.

BfF: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
JS: For me attributes I would hope to see in my teams would be respect and the ability to try anything at any time on the pitch.  That mentality is vital for me! Respect is everything for me.  I think is paramount we, as coaches, enforce that.  I consider it our moral obligation to educate these young people not just in the game but in society. 

Now, I think it is easy to say “I want the players to try anything at any time” but that for me is fundamental in the teams I coach.  I want them to feel comfortable enough to know that I will embrace the idea.  The execution is of no interest to me as that is something that can be enhanced over time but the idea is crucial.  

BfF: You focus a lot on the creative side of players.  First of all, what do you understand by a creative player?
JS: For me a creative player is someone who goes against the grain.  I think every child has that capacity but I think by creative most people think you are demanding step overs.  That's part of it but it is more than that: it is even the way they process information and rely it.  Even coming up against an obstacle and finding a solution in a game is being creative.

BfF: Children are, by their nature creative.  What are things that coaches do - perhaps unconsciously - to diminish that creativity?
JS: I've seen a lot of coaches of late and I never judge.  We are all students of the game and I have so much to learn and I'm looking forward to that journey.  One thing I notice is the decisions coaches make for players.  I've seen young players face a 1v1 situation and a coach say “pass, pass”.  But why? Again, is it ego? Is it because they see Bayern doing that do they want their teams to look atheistically pleasing?  I feel all they are doing there is stumping creativity.  I don't think they mean to but they see it in adult football and try to replicate it.  

Also the amount of sessions I witness which look great and everything is measured and nothing left to chance.  Is that the best for development and creativity?  I'm not sure.  Football is untidy and can be scrappy so training in that environment should surely be the priority.

BF: What can be done to enhance their creativity on the football pitch?
JS: I think environment is crucial.  If you set the correct environment young people naturally flourish! If a young player makes a mistake they know they won’t receive telling off.  After all, professional footballers make mistakes all the time.  If you are looking to enhance creativity, train on different surfaces, car parks, sports halls anywhere it doesn't have to be pretty by exposing them to different challenges their creativity will increase.

Other sports as well! Playing an instrument, something that isn't the norm, but it gets the creative juices flowing.

BfF: Similarly, how can that creativity and freedom in their play then be moulded to ensure that they work in a team?
JS: Again, I think the danger with the word creativity is the common mis-conception that it only promotes individualism.  There is that element but creativity is so much more!  Around the corner one touch pass is creative and getting players to lend the football is just as creative as dribbling but at the right times.  

Coaches should be encouraging dribbling everywhere and anywhere for me.  Even goalkeepers if you can master a dribble then the ability to pass will increase.

This is where being a coach comes in the ability to break down that information for a 9 year old to say “look at what you are doing, it is fantastic, keep doing it but what else can you do?” They see the game better than us a lot of the time they have better answers as well!

BfF: Do you give the physique (their strength) of players any importance?
JS: For me no, none what so ever.  Yet it is part of our game, even talent identification will say that.  It is common knowledge the best players that the world has ever produced are normally smaller than average people.  Physicality dominates the English landscape and I think it is something that has been passed down.  Being athletic is important and the modern game demands it but players develop at different rates.  I look at hips to toes and that's all that interests me.  Being physically dominating at a young age means nothing, being technically superior means far more.

BfF: To what extent can every player be creative?
JS: Every player has the capacity.  I have been to grassroots games and heard parents say “you're a centre back just clear it.” But why? I don't blame parents they have been passed that information and they believe it is right for their child.  Every child, when encouraged, will flourish in a creative environment! Sometimes you will even be surprised at the start of a session say to your players for 10 minutes show me something I haven't seen before! They can't wait for you to see it, their faces light up and you see then that every child has that capability.

BfF: Finally, what do you want to achieve in the future to feel that you've fulfilled your ambitions ad a coach?
JS: That is a great question and I often change my mind! I think the key is to keep learning and see where the journey takes me! I want to inspire as many young people as possible and really change the mindset of what English coaches are regarded as, as I do think it is unfair.  

Coach education interests me and maybe management but I'm a long way from that and I look forward to enjoying the process of evolving and learning every day.

Joe Smith is on Twitter and an excellent resource for coaches to follow.  If you enjoyed reading this interview then you'll probably like Blueprint According To...Volume 2, a collection of seven interviews with football coaches from all over the world.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 3]

Every Saturday morning, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 20th of December.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

What Goes Into Developing a Coaching Philosophy
There are innumerable coaches who are constantaly looking to improve themselves.  Most, however, limit their ambition to football matters.  Tim Lees, on the other hand, realised early on that if he was serious about football there were other lessons that he needed to learn.  When he realised that he was poor at communicating, he took a job at a call centre to better himself.  Later, he took a job at a bank to improve his face to face communication skills.

All that is detailed in this fascinating interview where I spoke to Tim about the journey that has seen him get to be among the coaching staff at Liverpool’s academy, how coaches can develop their own philosophy and why he’s always eager to help other coaches.

The Fixation of Playing Possession Football out of Defence 
In every era in football, there are certain tactics that are more in vogue than others.  Currently, it is the time of passing football with teams looking to mimic, adopt and alter the style of play pioneered by Barcelona.

In particular, this entails creating play from the back with the keeper acting also as a sweeper; the starting point from which attacking movements are created.  This article by Jon Townsend examines that particular aspect and debates whether it is as effective a tactic as is presumed.

Bayern’s Pep Guardiola assists Japan rugby team’s World Cup preparations 
I'm a big beleiver in the value and benefits of looking at other sports in order to see what can be learned from them.  Since most sports  have developed  somewhat independently  from each other, not all have developed along the same principles and concepts.  Now, however, it is more than ever possible to find people who practise and administer these sports to see what they do differently.

A great example  of this lies in this article that talks of Eddie Jones who has turned to Pep Guardiola to see whether there are some aspects of his vision that can be transplanted to rugby.

For anyone who doesn't know, Jones is a highly respected coach with a long career filled witg success, not least being the assistant manager when South Africa won the World Cup in 2007.  Yet he clearly feels that he hasn't learned all that there is to learn.  Good man.

PS. One a similar note, I strongly recommend James Kerr's book Legacy that looks at the various aapects that have made the All Blacks such a dominant force in world rugby.  It is a great read that should be on the bookshelf of any football coach.

The Problem With Praise 
Whenever I read articles like this, I’m always faced with something of a conundrum. Intellectually, the arguments that you show avoid praising children over a good outcome make a lot of sense (not to mention that they are backed by scientific research) yet, as a parent, it is extremely difficult to pull off.  When your kids get a good school report, for instance, it is somewhat automatic that you praise them for it when in truth it is the effort that they put in which should be praised.

Despite my own instinctive conundrum, however, I do genuinely try to avoid such ‘blind’ praise and so too should coaches, something that this article explains (and why) very well.

A Day in the Life of Bournemouth’s Manager Eddie Howe 
There are many who believe that they could do the job of a manager at a football club yet few really appreciate what this involves.  This fly-on-the-wall piece on Eddie Howe provides a glimpse into their reality and highlights just how much work it takes.

Interested in football coaching and looking for a quick read?  Check out Blueprint According To...Volume 2 (US version here), an e-book produced by this site and which contains seven interviews where coaches talk about their believes and work methods.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What Goes Into Developing a Coaching Philosophy

If you were to list the brightest managers currently working in English football off whom a young coach could learn, you'd assume that Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers would be among the first names to be jotted down.

Having spent four years at Wigan, Tim Lees was fortunate enough to learn from the former whilst he is now ideally placed to see how the latter works after moving to the Liverpool Academy this summer.

Inevitably, all of this has helped shaped the beliefs of one of the most highly rated young coaches in England.  No coach, however, can succeed by simply copying others and so it is with Lees who developed his own ideas, his own philosophy.

It is about that process of developing a philosophy that he talks about in his recently publishes book, aptly titled 'Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession',  and it is about how that has fitted into his development as a coach that he talks in this interview.

Blueprint for Football: How did you get into coaching?
Tim Lees: Probably through doing the worst coaching session you could imagine! I started at 16 years of age as I had to do a session as part of a module in college. I went back to my old high school and it wasn’t good!  


At 17 I accepted I was not going to play the level I wanted. I was released from Everton and Bolton due to a lack of physical strength and power; it turned out that I was a late developer and that is why I am conscious of that trait when I’m coaching youngsters now. My original aim as a coach, was to change a culture which focused heavily on early developers, a lack of technique and physical superiority.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
TL: I haven’t had a specific mentor; instead I make sure that I am constantly surrounded by people who are the best at what they do and I am a sponge for information. At 17 I decided I wanted to try to become the best coach in the world - aim high. Since that point, any time I saw or heard something which could enhance me as a coach, it got stored in a battered old box at my house. Any session I was in, any constructive point a commentator or manager made, any story by a player or different way of communicating information to people – it was stored. 

Over 12 years, this has become my philosophy. I just have a better way of storing and organising it!  Stored away are such diverse pieces of information as the practice methods of Shane Warne in cricket, how Adam Booth trained David Haye tactically for fights to how my local butcher has never had one day off from his business in 52 years. For me, it is narrow minded to have mentors just in football.

With that said, I am close to many coaches from first team to under 9’s, various ex-pro’s and different managers who I have learned so much from.  

BfF: You spent a number of years working at Wigan.  How much of an influence was Roberto Martinez and in what way?
TL: I was at Wigan for four years and, looking back, it was a learning experience that I would have paid a fortune for. The Academy was in a transition period and I was given a blank canvas to work off. I was asked to design and implement a philosophy for the Academy, with the aim of creating a specific type of player and person. I travel a lot to watch specific teams and I had been to several Swansea games to watch Roberto’s sides as I always liked the way they played. 

At Wigan, the way he implemented a flexible back three system and dominated so many teams with the ball was a great education for me. His methods of opening up the pitch and refusing to move from his principles in a relegation battle, were hugely inspiring.

I remember walking into Roberto’s office for the first time and after two minutes he said “OK, what’s our Academy philosophy?”, handing me a HDMI cable to connect my laptop to his screen! No pressure! His ideas, methods and structure of how to produce players are brilliant. This is a guy who was talking about different types of training surfaces, developing adductor muscles as opposed to the abductor, just forensic detail you would not even consider. He has been influenced personally by Johan Cruyff – need I say more! 

I would say the biggest area I was influenced in was how to create, isolate and dominate one v one situations. His detail in this area had a huge impact on the Academy from that point.  I was lucky enough to manage his camp in his hometown in Catalonia as well as visiting Rayo Vallecano to watch first team operations. I was interested in that team as they had no money and were overshadowed locally by the two big Madrid teams but were fantastically well coached and played terrific football. 


These experiences were invaluable. The biggest thing at Wigan was that everyone was on the same page and we all completely believed in what we were doing - that is unique. The academy players loved the culture & environment - they were disappointed to go home every session and couldn't wait to get back in. When you have that environment, establishing a style of play is easy.

BfF: Equally, in the short time you have been working with him, are there any ways in which Brendan Rodgers has had an impact on you?
TL: I only started at Liverpool a couple of months ago and it’s been a fantastic environment thus far. I was recruited by Brendan’s new Academy Manager, Alex Inglethorpe, who is another pioneer in developing players. We have a specific style we want to develop and this process is at the beginning. I feel extremely fortunate to be working on a daily basis with Alex, Pep Lijnders (who came from Porto) and Mick Beale (from Chelsea) to name just three.  I used to travel to watch Brendan’s Swansea side (ironically) as I was a big fan of his 4-3-3.

BfF: Philosophy is very much a buzzword in football these days.  What does it mean to you?
TL: As I mentioned earlier, my ‘philosophy’ is probably not what most people think. I could speak about the specific rotation principles, the layers of the pitch and lines we play on or how we get the players to view the game as mini areas of numerical superiority but this is all on field. 

There are lots of coaches in the modern era who use so many buzzwords and niche phrases to sound knowledgeable but as Johan Cruyff once said ‘making football look simple is the most difficult thing’.  I am obsessed with the tactical side of the game but I have never once spoken to an elite player about ‘half spaces’, ‘zone 12.5’ or ‘pressing trigger 12’. 

Football will always be about making the process as simple as possible for the players. That is not to say detail and complexity should be neglected but players need simple objectives. I was speaking to a friend about this last week who has played at the top level and his points are always based around the same principles ‘have you worked hard to get the ball back quickly?’, ‘have you made consistently good decisions?’ and ‘did you outplay your opponent with and without the ball?’

My philosophy has been shaped primarily by people off the pitch, in terms of the importance in possessing a relentless work ethic, constantly striving to be the best, being open minded and most importantly, being humble. These values are more important to me personally than any coaching principles. 

I was once in a position at 19 where I wrote to every single professional club in the country just to give me a voluntary coaching position; no one responded. I just wanted to learn from people and expand my knowledge but it was like trying to break into a secret world. If you don’t have league appearances or you don’t have a connection that’s in the circle, it’s a tough environment to break into. 

This is why I do my absolute best to give advice, help or guidance to anyone who emails or wants to pick my brains on anything football related. I was brought up on having specific values and football tends to breed a certain type of personality. I have seen people change when they get initials on their shirt and I have no time for it. To me, your philosophy is your values and what you represent.

BfF: How important is it to look at what is happening overseas when developing your way of looking at football?  And do you achieve this simply by looking at games or at the way teams train?
TL: My answer to this question is probably not what people want to read.  I have spent a small fortune travelling abroad to observe sessions and practices and have managed teams against Real Madrid and Barcelona’s Academies. I can state, with absolute 100% belief, that generally the coaching in England is as good, if not better, than anywhere else in the world. This statement needs breaking down, though, into further detail...

The quality of the education the F.A. deliver has very little to do with the standard of coaching in the country; this is usually who people blame. Academy coaches spend a very limited amount of hours per year with the F.A.; instead they are with their respective academy a minimum of eight hours per week. The problem in England is that a lot of chairmen at clubs do not employ Academy Managers with a specific philosophy but generally employ ex-professionals who are organised and good at communicating with people. 

Very few clubs employ a leader with a certain vision and a specific method of playing. It follows that the other full time and part time coaches are not working towards creating a specific philosophy on a weekly basis. Who spends the most hours with the kids? The coaches. For this reason, many clubs have a diverse range of styles at different age groups. I have seen dozens of clubs who play from the back at one age, then the next age group, on the pitch ten yards away, are smashing it in channels – the individual philosophy of the age group coach therefore takes huge precedence. 

Most part time coaches have full time jobs, thus they are planning sessions on their way over from work. The clubs with Academy Managers who are passionate about developing technical players through a specific culture and environment, are inevitably the ones who produce players. 

Part time coaches need to be paid better.  In England and clubs need to have more full time coaches who can be embedded in a culture on a daily basis. Instead of spending hundreds of million pounds on St Georges Park, the F.A. would have been better investing in coaching. The direction of the funding is the problem, not the education programme itself. I know some very good coaches at the F.A.

There is another important point to make when answering this question. I think it is absolutely imperative to watch first team games from abroad - the tactics, styles and player profiles are completely different to England. Four or five nights a week I am up until the early hours watching games ranging from the high pressing, 1v1 based game in Chile to slow tempo possession style in Italy. Different cultures have different systems, principles and beliefs. Let me use one simple example. 

I was speaking with a Premier League centre back who liked to operate using principles of press, balance and cover. He was playing next to a foreign centre back from South America who saw his main responsibility as defending 1v1. Whoever the nearest attacking player was to him, he would go out of shape, continually to be aggressive 1v1 – “my job is to stop this player”. Now, who is right? If you just watch games in one country you become imbued in a specific style and way of working. 

Lots of people look at Barcelona and Real’s academies as the blueprint but there is no compensation rule in Spain which means the powerhouses basically have the pick of the country from a recruitment point of view. Learning from all cultures is so important - no one will ever have the bulletproof answer.

BfF: Equally, is there a role for looking at other sports and how they do things?
TL: There is a huge amount to take from other sports specifically in terms of mentality, creating an environment and in training principles. Examples I can personally cite include: Adam Booth, the boxing trainer who puts forensic planning into strategies of beating the opposition, Stuart Lancaster, the rugby coach on creating a high performance environment and Jonny Wilkinson, the rugby player who had an incredible self motivation and drive to be the best. 

BfF: Do you ever get to a point where you say "that's it, my way of seeing the game is complete"?  In other words, is working on your philosophy something that can ever be finished?
TL:  There is absolutely no doubt I have a specific style that I want my teams to play. I know exactly what type of players I want to develop and have a decent idea of how to do this long term. But the small details and ways of getting there change on a weekly basis. I analyse
every movement, technique and decision and question everything I see or do. I have always been surrounded by people who challenge my ideas and think independently thus as a result, my philosophy is constantly tweaked. 

As I have alluded to in previous questions, evolution is so important. Your philosophy is never complete.

BfF: Why should every coach have his own philosophy?  And how does he (or she) set about developing it?
TL: I think you have to have a specific way you want the team to play, whatever that is, but you always have to remember - the only reason we are here is for the players. So many people forget that. The players have to receive consistent messages, whatever style the coach wants them to have. They need to be encouraged when making mistakes, as football is a game of errors, and they cannot be expected to do something they have not done hundreds of times in training. Always put the players first, that's why we are here.

BfF: What is your own philosophy?
TL: Forgive the plug, but I have just written an 80 page manual on how I believe an elite coaching philosophy can be created. In the manual, I try to detail the whole process of creating a philosophy in possession, providing dozens of sessions taken from the very elite level of coaching. It is hard to answer what your philosophy is as there are so many things to consider. 

Whenever you ask a top manager privately ‘what’s your philosophy?’ his response will often
be ‘one that wins’. In terms of the system, you play should be built around your players, never vice versa. On the contrary, academy football is less about winning and more about developing, thus there has to be a huge emphasis on a style of play and creating a technical player. 

Personally, I believe that you have to dominate the ball. As Cruyff said “if you dominate the ball you decide what will happen”. This is so simple but so effective. The general points I always use are:

-       Play from the back when possible, having knowledge of why we shift the press, how to play against various systems and all pressing styles
-       Play with width, depth and five receiving lines
-       Trade spaces through interchange and rotation
-       Have knowledge of how to drag opponents out of all defensive shapes
-       Create overloads and find the spare player
-       Be comfortable receiving in all types of individual pressure
-       Be comfortable receiving in high pressure zones
-       Trust each other to play out of pressure
-       Possess tactical flexibility in terms of movement and positions
-       Foster a system that allows for multiple players on higher lines whilst not being outnumbered centrally
-       Progress overloads in wide areas
-          Recognise where the spaces are
-          Promote a high focus on creating space through individual domination without the ball
-          Dominate all five 1v1 situations

BfF: How does a coach his own philosophy when working at a club which has its own philosophy of doing things?  For instance, how do you, as individual, reconcile your own philosophy when working within Liverpool's own plan?
TL: I am in a very fortunate enough position now that I would try to only work at a club where I know my philosophy fits. I would rather not coach than work at a place where I was abandoning what I believe in. I have been in this position before once, where I was asked to play a style that went against everything I believed in and I quit the job. 

You have to love what you’re doing and you have to believe in it wholeheartedly, otherwise it will always grind you down in the end. You become a ticking bomb. I worked for four years with a good coach and he believed in playing a technical game. He was given a manager’s job and it took all of 45mins for him to completely abandon his principles. Two games in, his centre backs were hitting channels, his midfielders were hooking balls on and he was out of a job in three months. 

Personally, I would never move from what I believe in. If you understand the process of exactly how to create what you want then long term it has a good chance of being achieved. The problem is when people try to create a style of play that they don’t fully understand the ‘variables’ and ‘what ifs’. Where does the skill come in asking players to do things that a guy in the pub could? I have never understood it and never will. Perhaps the pressure of results makes people change but I always remember Roberto’s words, “… a goal from open play is a more satisfying goal. The hardest thing in football is to break a team down when everyone is behind the ball. You can’t rely on the bounce of the ball or people switching off or not doing their duties.” 

BfF: To what extent does philosophy influence what kind of player you look out for?
TL: I believe in recruiting and producing technical players who understand the game. I think that you can teach tactical flexibility, movements, ways of finding space and how to overload but players need to have the technical proficiency and psychological strength. Dominating 1v1 situations in all types of pressure, receiving under pressure and passing techniques are a must. I believe a lot of the game can be coached but players need to have specific criteria both technically and psychologically. If players can’t learn, if they are not competitive and do not possess self- motivation then they will not play at the elite level. 

At Wigan, we placed a huge emphasis on recruiting players who possessed certain psychological traits. With the contact hours that clubs have now, if a player has the relevant physical capacity (long term), if they are competitive, can learn and have motivation – a lot of the rest can be coached, in my opinion. I know a top team in Europe who recruit players purely on psychological components. 

David Weir once told me about Walter Smith looking at the winning mentality of players, “If you put the players in a head tennis tournament, you see who the winners and self motivated personalities are.”

BfF: Going down some levels, what role does a philosophy play for coaches who work on a part time basis with kids' clubs? In what way is having a 'philosophy' important for them?
TL: Generally, the ability level at grassroots means that it is much more difficult to establish a beautiful, playing from the back style, than at an academy. That is not to say it can’t be done, as I have seen it many times, but academies have the top 1% of players in the country. At an academy, we do video analysis, individual analysis, positional work and have so many hours to develop a player. 

At grassroots, coaches are voluntary and often have an hour a week with on poorer surfaces and facilities.  If I was coaching a grassroots team, I would just have a huge focus on two areas:
-          Playing games and coaching within this (realistic decisions and enjoyment factor)
-          A programme with a high focus on receiving under pressure and dominating one v one situations (pressure behind, on the side, in front and on the angle).      

Every professional footballer has come from grassroots and it will always be a vital part of a player’s development. You ask professional players about what their most enjoyable time playing football and a lot will say with their friends at grassroots. The coaches have such an important role in making sure players enjoy sessions and making sure players develop in the right style. The problem at grassroots in England is that there is such a high focus on winning due to a lack of education. Parents are not used to ‘development’ and perceive such only as winning. Many teams at grassroots can be successful with early developers and playing in behind. 

The general lack of elite physical profiles means that the teams with the biggest and quickest players win. At academy level, the process of development and establishing a style is understood much more. 

BfF: And, finally, you've already achieved quite a lot in your career.  What are your plans?  What do you want to achieve in order to feel happy with your career?
TL: I don’t feel I have achieved anything yet. I want to be a First Team Manager. When I was 17 I asked a Premier League coach how to reach the top and he explained to me the importance of long term goal setting. I made a list of qualities I needed to become a top manager and designed a pathway to get there. If I explain further...

I was poor at communicating with people and lacked empathy so I got a job for three months in a call centre. When I became comfortable, I then lacked face to face communication skills so I got a job for five months in a bank with outstanding customer service awards where I was serving hundreds of people per day. I then knew I had to become better at managing staff as I had no experience thus I got a job as a Leisure Centre Manager for three months. 

I then needed to know how to negotiate and manage hierarchy so I got a job for a big sales company. I knew I needed to manage and understand players’ mentality so did a three year degree in Sports Psychology. Finally, I knew I was poor at interviews and came across as brash so I entered a competition on Channel Four to find the best two amateur players in the UK. I was lucky enough to win it and travelled the world where I was interviewed many times per day, live on various TV shows and radio stations. I also received media training at the best company in the UK which was a brilliant education on body language. 

By the time I got a full time job coaching at a professional club, I was a poor coach in terms of knowledge, miles behind, but had pushed myself in other areas. My long term aim is to manage at the very top level. I am unsure of the exact route I will take to get there and it is one of the most competitive environments one could enter but I believe in myself. 

I don’t believe in luck, I think you end up where you deserve, long term, whatever that may be. I will continue to learn, be open minded and enjoy the journey.

Tim Lees can be followed on Twitter and his book 'Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Posession' - which comes highly rated by Blueprint for Football - can be bought here.

If you enjoyed this interview then you will probably like Blueprint According To...Volume 2 (US version here), an e-book bringing of seven insightful interviews with football coaches