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