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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Best Coaching Links Of The Week: Combatting Depression, Cost of Qualifications & Perception in Players

Having struggled with depression myself in the past, this piece on Ohio State's head coach's fight to improve his mental health is one of the most important and powerful things that I've read in a long time and one that any coach should be familiar with.

This is a brilliant list of tips on how to coach today's athletes.  As the piece says, coaching is all about building quality relationships.

That English football lacks enough coaches is a common complaint but, given that little seems to get done, one that bears repeating

The greatest midfielders in the world are those who can not only spot a pass but also deliver it to areas where opponents do not expect them.  That ability is dissected and analysed in this mammoth piece on  Trust me, if you are a football coach, you HAVE to read this.

“There is no glory in practice but, without practice,there is no glory.” - Unknown

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Best Coaching Links of Last Week: How to Prepare for Matchday, Perfectionism, Personal Brand & Leading By Example

Not everyone might like it (and it isn't the be all) but ultimately, a coach's work is seen when there is a match.  Here are a couple of videos by Ally Bain on how to prepare players for matchday.

How important is perfectionism for success?  My own view is that it is success is ab accumulation of small things done extremely well which sound very much like perfectionism.  Anyway, here's an article debating that issue.

I'd never really noticed the site of the League Managers' Association but these are two fine articles that have ensured that I will be keeping a close eye on it in the future.  The first piece is about leading by example, something that every coach has to live by.

The second piece deals with developing a personal brand.  This might seem like marketing spiel and has very little to do with football but, ultimately, when you think about any top managers you immediately think about the characteristics that define them.  Can you reach the top if you're bland?

"If you don’t have confidence, you’ll always find a way not to win."  - Carl Lewis

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Case For The Use of GPS In Football

Football is traditionally slow in adopting new technologies.  Analysts are still looked at with suspicion (at best) by those who believe that the only way to judge a game is by looking at what you can see on the pitch rather than at what the numbers say.  

It took years for goal line technologies to be introduced even though their benefit – as we’re seeing now – was obvious.  And, despite this, there are still those vehemently against the idea of introducing any new technological support for referees.

The same applies on the coaching side.  The idea of having proper nutrition took years to take hold.

The irony is that other sports where resources and popularity are more limited than football are much more forward in their adoption of technology.   Australian Rules Football is a very prominent case in point.  This sport that to outsiders might appear one where brawn is the only pre-requisite is also one of the earliest adopters.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS), for instance, has been in use in Aussie Rules for more than a decade.  So integrated is their used in AFL that in 2012 it was extended to measure activity in junior football.

“The key thing about this study is that it is the first time we have ever gathered information like this on kids playing football and the first time we’ve been able to quantify how our kids are experiencing sport. The study is unique and groundbreaking in that we’re getting real data about what kids do when they’re involved in junior football.”  So said at the time Associate Professor Pamm Kellett who was handling the research aimed at measuring player’s activity during games as well as how long they were on the field, the amount of exertion used and how fast they were running.  

Football is a completely different world.  At around the same time that AFL was being involved in that forward looking experiment, football was just dipping its feet into the pool.  The pioneer was David Casamichana, a Spanish coach involved with Rayo Cantabria de Santander (a semi-professional Spanish third-division team) monitoring their GPS use during training and friendly games; at the time FIFA banned their use in official games (the ban was only lifted towards the end of 2015).

Despite the limitations of the technology at the time – the GPS that he had available tracked movement every second meaning that movement that took place in a fraction of that was not measured – Casamichana’s worked proved the value of this tool.  It allowed teams to measure just how much their players ran, how often they  were involved in sprints (thanks to an accelerometer) and, ultimately their fatigue.

Based on this he found that centre backs and centre forwards are the ones that run the least distance.  Contrary to that, midfielders run most but they cover least distances in sprint.  When they do sprint, however, they top the table for high intensity.

On top of it all, his studies found that as games wear on the intensity begins to decline.

All of that might seem obvious but that is because it discounts the finer level of detail that can be obtained through GPS.  Not all midfielders play the same role within the team meaning that not all have the same characteristics.  Having that data at hand provides another tool that coaches can use to fine tune their side.

It also helps improve the quality of training.  If you know the characteristics of different positions than you can provide different preparation.  Having access to such data allows you to view the session as a whole rather than just one sprint whilst it provides you with historical baselines with which to compare a group of players or an individual coming back from injury.   

Indeed this data can be used to help prevent further athletic injury given that it is possible to gauge when an individual is getting close to his limit that provides you with the ability to stop them before they hurt themselves.

All such knowledge can be used to improve the intensity that a team can show during a game.  A team’s ability to keep on going during a match for longer than their opponents can provide a significant advantage.  

And the future will see even more extended use of GPS, in particular during games.

In an article late in 2015, Wycombe midfielder Matt Bloomfield explained the benefits that he saw from GPS.  “Every footballer is different and some of the lads pay more attention to the information given to us than others.” 

“Some lads are really interested in the feedback and check their stats first thing every Monday morning, while some aren't so interested and will only deal with the stats when told to. And then there are the lads who pretend not to care but still check when no-one is looking!”

“I'm fascinated by it all so I'm always asking for feedback and information about what I should be able to do and how far I should be running. It's all part of the competitive edge needed to build a career for yourself.”

“I'm sure that the technological advances will continue and I will always embrace them while always trying to gain that edge.”

Sadly, not everyone is like Boomfield.  Indeed, Plymouth manager Derek Adams complained when Wycombe used those devices in a game between the two sides.  "Somebody could head it and injure themselves, or somebody's finger could get caught in it,” he said. "There are a number of things that can go wrong. Somebody could get choked if they are pulled too hard.”

Admittedly, Adams also said that what he wanted was clarification and it would be wrong to label him because of this one incident.  Yet such thinking is, sadly prevalent among the football fraternity.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Art of Coaching

Whilst it may be easy for some to dismiss the work that is put into a lower league club’s academy, the reality is that there are coaches at such clubs who are as determined to improve their players and as hard-working as anyone at the top clubs.  If not more, given how many of those coaches have to juggle their coaching with a full time job.

Tony Mee is one such coach.  Whilst he might be among the full-time staff at Scunthopre United’s academy, a lot of his interaction is with coaches who work on a part time basis.   That, however increases his desire to excel which is also evidenced in his desire both to learn off others and also impart what he has learned over the years.

Blueprint for Football: What is your role precisely?  What work do you do?
Tony Mee: My current role is Lead Youth Development Phase Coach (12-16) at Scunthorpe United where I oversee the coaching programme for those age groups. I'm also Lead Coach for the Under 16s. A lot of my daytime work is based around the PMA, designing sessions to fit our syllabus, helping to coordinate all aspects of running the Academy and the evenings and weekends are coaching and games. 

BfF: What is your philosophy?  In particular, how did you develop it?
TM: I want players to be technically excellent and tactically flexible. In terms of how I like my teams to play, I enjoy fast paced, attacking football, played by players who are prepared to try things in possession but know how to defend when they don't have the ball. I've always tried to get players to be comfortable in possession and have a strong work ethic.

I suppose I’ve developed it as a result of working with coaches who’s teams I’ve enjoyed watching or who’s teams I was fortunate enough to play in during my time in the Army, where we were given plenty of opportunity for sport. Whilst serving in Germany, I also played for Dutch and German coaches who exposed me to their ways of working, although there are probably less differences than you might think.

With the Academy boys that I work with, there is a greater need to be helped to develop the resiliency needed to cope with the increasing demands of the game and it can be a struggle to get enough work on the right hand side of the 4-Corner Model when you are at a Cat 3 Academy. However, you have to be honest with the players (& parents) at all stages of development. 

BfF: How do you fit that philosophy when working for a club that might have different ideas?
TM: You have to be somewhat pragmatic! For some of us, this is our job, and with every job, in every walk of life, you are beholden to someone! Some great discussions can be had amongst coaches on Social Media and it's refreshing to see so many get involved, however, the reality is if your manager tells you that he wants a certain type of player, or play a certain style of football you have a choice to make…

BfF: How do you get new ideas?  Where do you look for new ideas?
TM: I engage with fellow coaches as much as possible! I was very frustrated, in the early part of my coaching career, at the lack of support once you became qualified.  You had to rely on the things you had learned on the course or had been exposed to as a player. 

I do an awful lot of reading, not just football, but associated areas too. I’m also experienced enough to see a session that someone else might deliver or post and adapt that to the needs of my players. I’m grateful to all the managers and coaches that I have worked with and who have allowed me to watch their sessions because you can’t beat seeing it come to life on the grass. 

These days there are no excuses for coaches, social media, coaching books, websites, local coaches associations are all out there to support clubs and coaches to deliver a better experience for ALL players, not just children. The Licensed Coaches Club through the FA & the increasing presence of the FA Mentor scheme is also good news for coaches & clubs. 

BfF: What is the toughest thing that smaller clubs' academies face?
TM: It's tough to try and reconcile the demands of the EPPP with a (largely) part-time workforce and the limitations of the facilities available when a club doesn't own all its own facilities. We are quite fortunate with the support we get from St. Lawrence Academy and Melior School, here in Scunthorpe. 

Dependant on location, recruitment can be an issue if you are constantly battling other clubs for the same players, and with the rules being lifted on travel times for the big clubs, they all have a presence at our games. There's no doubt in my mind that parents can be easily swayed if the big clubs come calling. There are also a lot of talented kids who don't want, or whose parents can't afford (time/commitment/financially) to come into Academies as they'd rather play with their mates, then at Under 16 they suddenly become interested.

BfF: In general, are enough young players being given an opportunity?
TM: I'm not sure what else we can do to be honest. There's leagues that cater for all levels of players, the Academies are there for those at the appropriate standard and the bigger Academies hoover up the top talent, I guess that's the way it should be. I see a lot of criticism of the Academy system, particularly when it comes to players being released but the reality is you can't have massive numbers, players develop at different rates and we all believe, I'm sure, that we are making the right decisions at the right times.

BfF: Why don't more English players move overseas when they don't find clubs at home?
TM: This is a strange one for me. I genuinely believe, having lived, worked and visited other countries that our players are as good as any others as they come through the age groups but, other than the boys who go onto the States on scholarships, I think this is vastly underused. I think one of the main problems is a lack of language skills. 

With English being such a universal language, a lot of kids don't see the need to learn another one and this restricts them in the job market. Pretty much wherever you go in the world, English is first or second language but I'm not sure a lot of our talented 18 year olds, who don't make it here, are prepared to take that step. Most of them won't even try Scotland or Wales and I don't get it! You have to get out of your comfort zone at some point and I question whether they want it enough. 

There will always be the exception, one of my ex-apprentices is currently playing in Sweden and I know a couple of others who played in Belgium but most just drop down the leagues and play with their mates. 

BfF: Same goes for coaches, right?
TM: It probably is the same with coaches. The language barrier is still an issue but there's a bit of fear about being away from the UK job market. Some big names have gone abroad, Gary Stevens and Tony Adams being recent examples and whilst I'm sure it has broadened their horizons and developed them as coaches and as people, I don't think it makes them more employable in the eyes of those who matter.

BfF: How do you prepare a player to make move from academy to first team?
TM: I keep going back to it but, realism and honesty. They already know all the stats about first contract, second contract, drop-out rates at 18, 21 etc. because the League Football Education programme informs them, so we have to ensure they are mentally strong enough and adaptable. 

If they are going to shrink in under 18 football with their parents being the only spectators, how will they cope with a few thousand when they make a mistake and their team are struggling? They have to make a good impression straight away when they get to train with the first team because managers don't get given a lot of time these days.

BfF: What would you like to see happening?
TM: This is another tough question because we can't influence anything other than the players. I'd like to see players given an opportunity when they deserve it. I'd like there to be more long-term thinking but I understand the process, I've seen first team managers and academy managers get the sack and I can (sometimes) see why, but the majority of players that we produce at 18 years of age aren't ready to be thrown into regular first team action at that age as they are still developing in so many ways. 

They need to be eased into the cut and thrust of first team football, but some clubs don't have Development squads or Reserve teams to supplement that process. If a club has limited resources to staff its first team they aren't going to have too many 18 year olds on the books!

For more from Tony Mee, be sure to follow him on Twitter.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Benefits Of Writing Down Ambitions

There aren’t many children who dream of becoming accountants when they grow up.  It is neither glamorous nor stimulating but boring and tedious.  It is fair to say that many who chose it as a career do so because it is a good bet for a decent job and wage.  Trust me, I know: I’m an accountant myself.

The thing with accountancy is that you know what you have to do in order to get there.  Either get into university to get a degree or else study in your spare time as you work in a related job during the day.  The path leading to accountancy is pretty clear.

It is usually the same for most professions.  You have to work hard to get there but, still, you know pretty much that if you do that you will make it.

The story is pretty different in so far as art and sport are concerned.  You might want to be a great singer but what must you do to get there?  Different artists take different routes and what works today might not next year.

Same goes for sport.  The desire to become a footballer (or at least be the best player you possibly can) is quite natural but there are different routes to getting there.  Jamie Vardy had to keep up believing in his ability for years whilst someone like Marcus Rashford got his chance at the highest level mainly because of injuries to others.  Talent is important and so is hard work but they’re far from the only requirement.

All of this makes the process difficult.  Your coaches might be telling you what it is you must do but if you leave your progress wholly in the hands of other it is unlikely that you will succeed.  You have to own your progress.

A good way of doing so is listing the five most desired qualities of a player in your position.  Or, to put it in a slightly different way, list what qualities you believe are needed if you are to excel.  Let’s say that you play in midfield and would like to model yourself on the likes of Xabi Alonso.  Then you know that you will need exceptional passing, strong shooting accuracy, tactical intelligence, stamina and physical strength.

Those will form the basis of your goals.  The next step is that of seeing where you are on each one.  You might do well in your passing, stamina and strength so that tells you straight away that you need to work harder on your shooting and ability to read the game.

Suddenly you have a path that you can follow.  You can measure yourself better because you have something against which you can actually measure yourself.  You know what you have to aim for.

Naturally, this does not mean that you can ignore all other aspects of the game but that you know on which to focus more.  Great players usually put in a lot of extra training to improve certain aspects of their game, they have a greater desire to achieve.  More than that, however, they also have a focus on where they should be putting their energy. 

The finest free-kick takers for instance tend to be players who spend a lot of time practising their free-kick.  They might have some natural skill to start off but when they decide that this is an area that they would like to improve they do so by putting in the work.

That is a crucial point.  Commitment towards getting somewhere does not lie in the simple act of having it in writing but by consistently putting in the work necessary to do so.

Try This Out: Step-By-Step Instructions
Get your players to identify a players who plays in their role that they admire and would like to emulate.  Naturally each player makes his own choice.

Ask them to study that chosen player, looking for the details of what makes him stand out from the rest.

After they have studied their player tell them to note down the five characteristics that make him so special.  Help them out so that they’re as specific as possible.  “Scores a lot of goals” is not a good characteristic but should be broken down so that it is clearer.  It could be “times his runs well” or “strikes ball well with both feet”.

The next step is to ask the players to think about how well they themselves rate in each of those characteristics.  It is important that they think about this exercise and it is not something that they do offhand.  Again, get them to write their thoughts and, at the end, ask them to rate out of ten how they see themselves.

Afterwards comes arguably the most important step which is getting them to think what they can do in order to improve themselves on each of those characteristics.  Using the previous example of “strikes the ball well with both feet”, one task could be to do some additional training shooting with their weaker foot so as to improve their ability in that respect.  Once this is done every player should have a list of goals in the form of characteristics that they would like to possess along with a path to getting there provided by the list of action points.

It is important that all this is noted down.  There is a lot to say for physically writing everything but if the players prefer to note it down on an electronic device, let them.  The most important thing is that they regularly look at and think about this exercise.

Schedule meeting with them at regular (but not too regular intervals; perhaps bi-monthly) points in the season so that you re-evaluate.  Talk together about whether they’ve progressed in each characteristic, whether they are seeing enough progress, if they’re being too harsh on themselves or if there are any different training routines they could try out.  Always let them do as much of the talking as possible: let them take charge of their personal development.

It is important that you use your judgement at each stage of this exercise.  You can decide whether your age group is mature enough to handle such an exercise.  Similarly, whilst you may believe wholeheartedly in the process, be ready that some individuals will not see the benefit in it.  Try to convince them of the merits but forcing people through it will rarely work.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Why and How Mr. Hodgson?

By Nicholas Baldacchino

I have followed the English football team since I was a young boy.  I fell in love with the Italia 90 team and was ecstatic during the wonderful performances of Euro 96 on home soil; I also endured Euro 92 and missing out on the World Cup in the USA. These tournaments were, in my opinion, the major high points and upsets for this great nation during the past 35 years.  

All the other major tournaments were all a reflection of a very hectic campaign which always saw the England team players very tired and showing no true cohesion and fight within them; not to say that the team was based around 2 or 3 star players and the other components were under par.

Euro 2016, for different reasons, has left me very perplexed at how a manager with so much experience in professional football and who has also managed in continental Europe did so poorly with a talented team which most certainly should have done much more.

It is not nice to criticise a fellow coach and I do not want to do this as it is surely a very difficult task managing any team and football is a simple game but very complex as everyone sees things differently and has different opinions on every aspect of the beautiful game. 

What I shall do is ask a number of questions and give my view on how things seem to run in the best way and maybe I can get some answers from someone.

First of all, when you take a job there must be a cohesive and comprehensive plan which is both short-term and also long term. Each and every coach is identified through his style and how he is able to convey his style through his team of players which he assembles in order to engineer his game plan. This is not such a straight forward task with a national team as the man in charge has an identified group of players which he needs to mould into a winning team, at club level the manager can identify particular players which may fit into his style to work with.

Everyone talks about different systems of play; 4-4-2, 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, etc.... but the system is only a tool which is used to express your style of play and should facilitate your team depending on the type of players you have.

In this respect, which style of play did Mr Hodgson intend to stamp on the English National team? As I take it, during the 3 major tournaments England played in with Hodgson at the helm I saw a very compact and defensive team during Euro 2012 which tried to counter, during the World Cup in Brazil a very offensive team which tried to keep the ball as much as possible and during Euro 2016..... it is still a mystery till this day.

Let us take Antonio Conte’s Italy team as an example; Mr. Conte was appointed National team coach by the Italian Football Federation due to his style of play and his tactical prowess. The Federation had a clear picture of the material available and appointed Antonio as he had shown that he could mould a winning group with these players. He focused on a very solid style of play which has at its centre compactness and organisation and mixed it with the inventiveness and the strength and speed in his forward line. Did Mr. Conte do anything different throughout his tenure? No, he set up his team worked hard through qualifying and did not change for anyone or anything even when his team seemed to be under par. Did he change the players he worked with and believed in throughout the qualifiers? Neither because he had a plan and he stuck to it leading to a clear success despite the elimination at the hand of Germany.

This is the same for the German National team and their great manager Mr. Joachim Lowe. Although some of his stalwarts have grown older and are not on the same level of many younger players who are establishing themselves in the Bundesliga, he has decided to keep faith with them and his style of play. The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski still are an integral part to his team even though they have had abject and injury prone seasons lately and this shows that planning on the long run and believing in your players can reap benefits.

With this in mind I go to the next question to Mr. Hodgson: why did you decide to make such radical changes to the Squad you took to the Euros as you were able to qualify through the group stages with a defined nucleus of players?

Players like Dier, Alli, Vardy and Kane all had a great season and should have been in the England Squad but not at the expense of not playing in the same balanced way the team was set up through qualifiers. 

England qualified with ten wins out of ten with 31 goals in favour and 3 against which is a pretty good result. The set up of the team was formed through a strong back line which included Clyne at right back, a good number of different left backs and Cahill together with either Jagielka or Smalling at Centre back, three in midfield with Henderson at the heart of midfield and the likes of Wilshere, Milner and Delph creating the much needed cover and balance, the captain Rooney up front and a number of quick and talented forwards working around him; Sterling, Oxlade Chamberlain, Sturridge, Walcott and Andros Townsend, to name a few. 

With a style which was a possession game attacking through the flanks and with combinations through the middle England looked the real deal through qualifying and had a very good balance in the middle of the park allowing the team to defend well and concede only 3 goals in 10 matches. What happened during Euro 2016 is bewildering and I would truly like someone to give me a reasonable explanation to the changes made before such an important tournament.

Why was the midfield and defence torn apart to make way to players who had limited involvement previously? Was this pressure from the media? How can one expect a midfield with Dier taking the role of the additional defender he truly is and players like Alli and Rooney being the two midfield maestros. Rooney as a midfielder getting the ball from the defenders? Oh my! Who decided that? What style was the team based on and what were the movements the players had practiced and worked on? Could anyone identify any coaching in the team? And most important of all what was the game plan and did the England team have a plan B? 

All I noticed was that when England were either loosing or couldn’t break down the opposition substitutions took place to put more strikers on and pray that something just happened! Is it just me who could see these things or am I still to learn some special traits in the simple game of football which I need to discover through magical sources?

Another thing which is bewildering and elusive to me and many other is the work done on set pieces. I cannot understand how one of the most dangerous players in and around the box was given the responsibility to take free kicks and corners. How does this even make sense? And to top it up how does a manager which should be the leader and a person of strong character and one who should be able to take prompt and effective decisions not be able to take crucial decisions like leaving players who have not performed out of the team. 

With all due respect, playing Kane and Sterling and not omitting Hart shows a lack of true leadership and decision making which is the main aspect of football today on and off the pitch.

I augur that the FA does not make a shambles of the upcoming managerial appointment as the present and future bauds well as the talent necessary to perform is in place. The next England Manager needs to be a strong character that has a strategy and is able to lead a group of players who he believes in and who believe in him. No more excuses just smarter decisions.

Hope Mr. Hodgson has the time to give us some type of explanation on his decisions prior to and throughout the tournament. He was bright enough to prepare his resignation letter prior to the Iceland match and surely did the same by preparing an explanation to all these questions that I have raised!

Nicholas Baldacchino is a UEFA A Coach and Director of Youth Coaching qualification, currently Head of Coaching and Development at Valletta FC's Youth Development Sector.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Breaking Down Bielsa's Philosophy of Football

Jed Davies is one of those special coaches who never stays still.  His curiosity fuels a desire to look closely to why certain ideas and coaches work better than others.  His first book on Tiki-Taka delved deeper into the system than anything else that was written on it, dealing not only on the coaching of the system but also its evolution and the philosophy behind it.

Now he has turned his attention to Marcelo Bielsa.  One of the most influential coaches of the modern game, Bielsa is widely respected as a visionary and a coach whose ideas have a wide reaching impact.  Davies will analyse these ideas in an upcoming book (The Philosophy of Football: In The Shadow of Marcelo Bielsa) and spoke to Blueprint for Football over why he felt that the Argentine manager deserved so much attention.

Blueprint for Football: What brought about the idea of this book?
Jed Davies: As with my previous book ‘Coaching the Tiki-Taka Style of Play’, the idea to write a book is the idea to commit yourself to learning.  Everything else is secondary. 

I was left dissatisfied after my previous book with the idea that I had leaned towards a style of play that is often misinterpreted and associated with maintaining possession over the duration of a game. 

That bothered me and I found my questions I was asking mentors, colleagues and friends were often around the misguided perception that possession ‘for possession’s sake’ and how that was to assert your dominance over a game through ownership of the ball – not always true to the idea of having ownership over the game.

I owe my research’s intentions and messages to many who were generous with their curiosity. Guys like James Nash in Milton Keynes who would ask ‘what is the value of a pass?’, a question I attempted to answer knowing I’d never fully satisfy James’ curiosity. Other questions such as ‘what is the purpose for this rotation or that rotation?’ and ‘how can you evaluate team communication and decision making?’ led me down a very philosophical route in trying to theorise the game. 

This very same process is one Marcelo Bielsa has spent years making conclusions on and inspiring others to do the same: Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and many others have travelled the same paths, paths often laid out before them by one man: Marcelo Bielsa. 

BfF: How long have you been working on it?  And what was the process like?
JD: I’ve been working on this book since 2013 and I’m still finding hundreds of new angles to look at the same idea today, but the time is now right to place a freeze-frame around the current document and have it published. I’ve always promoted the thought that the book is a snapshot of a certain time frame rather than the definitive answers to football. 

The processes of learning involved in this book have been significant opportunities to reshape how I see the game and think about theorising in general. I’ve taken flights around the world to Argentina and other countries to meet coaches or players who have worked either directly with or played under Marcelo Bielsa, and then stepped one further away and applied the same research methods to those who have played under or worked with those who represent the ‘school of Bielsa’ such as Pochettino, Dario Franco, Gerardo Martino and many others. 

The objective was to zoom all the way out and look at football from a philosophical standpoint and then zoom in on Bielsa and each of the common ideas that have become synonymous with Marcelo Bielsa: verticality, structures, rotation, movement and so on.

While Bielsa is one of the toughest men in world football to get into contact with for an interview (trust me I’ve tried!), he has such a diverse group of followers who have been influenced by Bielsa that the task to research the ideas of Bielsa was accessible, at least in Marcelo Bielsa’s shadows anyway. Hence the title of the book ‘The Philosophy of Football: In Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa’.

BfF: Why is Bielsa so special?  After all, he isn't won a lot of trophies?
JD: Mauricio Pochettino, Gerardo Martino, Dario Franco, Diego Simeone, Jorge Sampaoli, Pep Guardiola - all have taken direct inspiration from Marcelo Bielsa’s way of thinking either in strategy or methodology. Indirectly hundreds and hundreds more unknowingly employ principles that were ignited by Marcelo Bielsa. 

At Athletic Bilbao, Newell’s Old Boys and Chile in particular, legacies were left behind him. Newell’s Old Boys even named their stadium after him ‘Estadio Marcelo Bielsa’ and have since hired from a managerial pool of those that represent the same school of thought as Marcelo Bielsa. 

To paint Bielsa’s portrait with numbers and lists of achievements would be wrong for this doesn’t consider the knock-on effects in football and it wouldn’t give power to ideas that can transform how an individual can think about the game. Those who have worked with or closely to Marcelo Bielsa are unified in their opinion – Bielsa has a way of convincing others that there is a right and wrong in football, at least in the processes of bringing to life an idea. 

“Watching Bielsa's games is like listening to Beethoven’s 9th symphony So perfect & harmonious that it becomes genius” 
- Jan Van Winckel 
(Coach under Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille 2014-15)

BfF: What is his philosophy?
JD: The first angle to attack this type of question is to ask ‘what is THE philosophy?’, People use ‘philosophy’ to refer to their own individual subjective preferences over how the game should be played, educated and thought of. Rarely do people try to address the objective philosophy of the game. 

So if we look through the objective lens and make an attempt to theorise football on the pitch, we come to a set of broad undeniable and factual conclusions. 

The highest order of objectives when in possession is to score a goal, the ‘next best’ action is to assist goals. After these two objectives, we are looking at ‘assisting’ the assist. That is to say, we can use examples of playing players through into areas we can make assists from (wide areas within the box among others) or set the ball back to someone who can put someone through to score. 

After those three more obvious objectives, I find that many football coaches slip in and out of grey areas and start to fill in the order of objectives from a subjective angle. 

I would propose after a deep study into Marcelo Bielsa’s thinking that we’re looking at the topic of ‘breaking lines’ – which in literal terms is to get into the following spaces with the ball:
1.    Behind the opposition central defenders
2.    Behind the opposition full backs
3.    In front of the opposition central defenders
4.    In front of the opposition full backs
5.    Behind the opposition central midfielders
6.    Behind the opposition wide midfielders

Each of these spaces provokes a different response from each opponent. This alone is an under-analysed area in football analysis. 

Should we not be able to (a) score, (b) assist, (c) assist the assist and (d) get into the key spaces, we are now looking at creating the conditions to achieve the objectives listed above. Simply put, we would find it difficult to achieve the objective listed in objective (d) for one or more of three reasons: the opposition are compact horizontally, the opposition are compact vertically and the opposition are layered in between their midfield and defence (or beyond). 

The three processes listed (to spread the opposition out vertically, to spread the opposition out horizontally and to remove the layers of the opposition) should make up the vast majority of your philosophical content. These three processes can be achieved through different levels of communication. 

Communication refers to the verbal and non-verbal interactions between two or more players on the football field (team level, unit level and group level). An example of group level communication might be to have your central defender drive out with the ball to attract one of the opposition midfielders, this moment then communicates to your team mate(s) where space may or may not have opened up now the opposition central midfielder is pulled out of his position (therefore removing compaction or layers). 

In this moment, we can think about communication in its simple form as a two against one (your central defender and a player behind the opposition midfield line against the opposition midfielder who has been pulled towards the ball and out of position). Of course this can grow and become more complex as other players can be involved in this moment. Your striker may want to run behind the nearest central defender, to prevent the central defender stepping forward to defend behind the central midfielder pulled out of position for example. 

Should none of the previous options be available to the player on the ball (objective A-E), then switching out of the area to another area is often considered as a way of finding new angles into the opposition block AND to move the opposition from one area to another. The final objective in possession is to retain possession and know that each new pass in the sequence returns to the highest orders of the objectives. 

Where Marcelo Bielsa thrives most, is in implementing the pictures and patterns for players that fit within this framework of objectives. In Bielsa’s own words, verticality, movement, rotation, concentration and improvisation (breaking the order of objectives) make up Bielsa’s implementation of the philosophy of the game. Bielsa is simply the mediator between THE PHILOSOPHY of the game and the players – different to other managers who start with ‘preferences’ as their starting point. 

Of course Bielsa has his own set of preferences for how he implements the philosophy – but this is on the level of application of THE philosophy, not the other way around. 

BfF: Bielsa’s concepts need players who can think about the game. First off, do you agree with that statement and secondly, how do you foster that?
JD: Bielsa is famous for saying “if football were played by robots, I’d win everything” and has a clear methodology which involves building around key languages of the game. On the other hand, Bielsa also once said:

“Totally mechanised teams are useless, because they get lost when they lose their script. But I also don’t like ones that only rely on the inspiration of their soloists, because when God doesn’t turn them on, they are left totally at the mercy of their opponents”

It’s clear that this is an area of great interest for the Argentine and an area he has explored well. 

Taking the first quotation into consideration (re: robots), Bielsa is referring to the human elements that bring about errors on a football field, or as Dr Raoul Oudejans would say (an associate professor at the Faculty of Human Movement Sciences at the VU University Amsterdam) “changes in attention which lead to a performance decrement”. 

Changes in attention can often be as a result of increased anxiety (which in turn comes about from responses to different levels of pressure). Marcelo Bielsa is someone that others would consider a ‘master in human motivation’ and guys like Sampaoli have even admitted to going jogging while listening to recordings of Bielsa’s interviews and team talks. 

One method to reduce the impact of ‘changes in attention’ can be to channel these moments towards detail. That is to say, we can create a series of checkpoints to focus on during any high pressure activity. 

Let’s take a penalty shot for the simplest example, we can take the whole activity as a process and just be part of that process and allow for us to ‘just be there’ and experience the moment as it is as we run up to take the penalty. 

Alternatively, using a method that many use for different actions across many disciplines, we can break the action into a series of mini-checkpoints: put the ball down, take exactly seven steps back and stand in line with an imaginary marker two yards past the far post and then as striking the ball with the instep to shoot across goal we should feel the sensation of the knee coming up to the balancing arm as our body remains compact during the strike of the ball. 

The checkpoint process allows for our attention to be placed into areas where our technique is important in this particular example, leaving no room for anxiety to creep in. In a similar way of thinking, it is possible to use the ‘languages of the game’ (or specific patterns) to bring together a collective set of minds during a more structured part of the game that might otherwise rely on the individual’s level of attention and decision making. 

So from this particular viewpoint, we can say that Bielsa would prefer players to play ‘without thought’, automatically. Bielsa also uses tools such as clear ‘roles and tasks’ for individuals on a football field, areas to place your focus. 

Then we move onto Bielsa’s second quote where he clearly expresses his dislike for totally mechanised teams that follow a script. So there is a balance here, between Bielsa and the players. A player who goes against the script or a player that improvises is a clear component that Bielsa not only encourages but plans for from a higher level of planning. 

The idea is to create clearly unique player identities within a team and in doing so, creating a better platform for communication (verbal/non-verbal agreements) to succeed in a game of football. Players are not equal, not in personality, not in technical expressions, not in game understanding and so on.

Some coaches exist on either end of this scale, some are strict in their scripts and models of the game (Louis Van Gaal) while others allow for player ownership over their game and ideas, but within an agreed style of play (Arsene Wenger). Bielsa is constantly sliding up and down this scale, somewhere between the two, somewhere in the grey area of Bielsa’s scripts and the resistance of player improvisation. 

To foster such an environment, the players must know the script before then can move away from it with freedom, players must know their own player identity and how that fits within the bigger picture – players must understand the game. Not all players will understand the game on the same level of understanding, that is to be accepted and some players need more to be moulded around them and their intuitive preferences. It’s a question of human management. 

Luckily for Bielsa the game isn’t played by robots, because it’s part of the game that Bielsa clearly finds fascinating and challenging. Through our struggles we learn most. 

BfF: What is the biggest lesson that coaches can take from him?  In particular coaches at either youth level or who coach for the fun of it?
JD: The biggest lesson I have taken is the ability to theorise the game from an objective level and work my way backwards from there – knowing that the philosophy and application of the philosophy are two entirely separate things. 

From an implementation standpoint, I think we can all learn how to better mediate between the philosophy and your players more. You, as the coach, can zoom out and step out of the situation in your coaching. Bielsa’s training methodology is both very simple and often directly relates to the philosophy of the game – creating automatisation (action without though: automatically) in areas but then allowing for individual improvisation to break these rules within the game. Better than that, demanding that of your players. 

I think if coaches thought about the game as their starting point along with creating better player identities we’d be far more successful in what we do. Too many have other objectives held on a higher level than those two components. 

BfF: How will the book be structured?  Will it be simply coaching sessions or will there be more to it?
JD: The book is heavily theoretical but then followed up with over 50 related training sessions that absolutely will not work without the coach’s prior understanding of the objective of each session and how it fits in with the bigger picture. I would say to anyone looking to just find training sessions to implement – turn away now and do not buy my book. 

It’s designed to provoke thought from the reader and hopefully create a reaction of acceptance or rejection. I would be disappointed if anyone read the book and agreed with absolutely everything I’ve written – especially as large parts of it discuss football philosophy within the context of application. 

The book demands some work from the reader in certain areas as I have left some theoretical solutions in their ‘application form’ from case studies. Bielsa employs principles that are not exclusive to him alone, they are part of football and examples of his philosophy exist within so many teams. 

This is especially true since Bielsa’s starting point of study was ‘football’. So for this reason I’ve looked at how other teams employ the same principles, form example how Wales under Gary Speed used their full backs to get their best players on the ball in the best spaces to showcase their individual player identity (receiving the ball with the defender in front to run at). The last thing I wanted was for coaches to read a book that both theorises the philosophy Bielsa follows and then copy his application of the philosophy. 

The idea is to promote thinking about the game like Bielsa and then look at your own opportunities and barriers of implementation within your own level of application. Therefore, creating something meaningful. 

I want coaches to be better theorisers and to form their own approach within their own skillset as a coach – all within the objective framework of the game that Bielsa has spent a lifetime theorising. 

BfF: Have other coaches helped in the writing of this book?
JD: To write a book like this in isolation is impossible. I have reached out to many and sat them down to discuss football on a philosophical level to try and theorise each individual and tie them to the structure of thinking I’ve outlined previously. I received so much information of how to better create conditions to then penetrate between lines for example – these same coaches may not be aware of their bigger picture but they certainly have many great ideas and examples of application. 

Unfortunately, the few most influential people I spoke with were not able to put their name to their words, however, they were very open with helping me tie together my thinking. We have to respect those who are in this position and yet they still choose to educate others and better than that, explore with you their thinking as they haven’t yet made sense of it all yet. 

I’ve always believed that we should learn from the best teachers we have around us. That is to say if we have an expert on ‘creating teams’ within our reachability we should learn from that individual, if we have an expert on ‘food’ then we should look to learn from them and take away what we can for our own field. Not enough people do this. 

I’d implore you today to think about any world leading expert in any field you have around you – someone that eats, sleeps and breathes their expertise and oozes with passion – ask to meet them and get a window into their way of thinking about achieving excellence in their profession. If you can’t take something away from that person, then you’ve failed. 

My book has been influenced and had the help of more than just football coaches. But everything has been put back under the reference of ‘football philosophy’ and within Bielsa’s way of thinking. 

BfF: Finally, you're going through Kickstarter to crowd fund the printing costs for the book: why is that?
JD: Going through Kickstarter hasn’t really been done as far as I know for this type of book, which is insane given the social media explosion of coaches and analysts over the years. I believe that by opening this door for crowd funding books, we’ll hopefully see others follow and write the books that we all want. Many of the most popular coaching books to date follow the same guidelines – this is a real opportunity to do something different. 

I’m now able to format the book and showcase information in the way I see best to achieve the book’s objectives. Going under any publisher means making sacrifice and making more of a consideration towards maximising profits or fitting within their current ‘this is how it is done’ way of thinking. This isn’t to have a dig at any of the publishers out there but it is a way of finding freedom as an author to keep the message pure – to commit myself as the author to learning and keeping everything else secondary. 

I’ll be backing projects on Kickstarter I see in the future that I think have made a real commitment to learning on a higher level. No questions asked. Within the first week we’ve reached nearly 90% of the overall funding needed to print the number of books we wanted to. This has been pleasing and shows it can be done! I’m sure it won’t always work out and I fully expect a future project of mine to fail done this way, but that’s ok – since the purpose of writing the book in the first place wasn’t to profit from it anyway!

I’ve been thinking a lot on the subject of implementing ideas and the process of coaching lately – how we can install change, how we should manage change, how to plant seeds in the minds of players so they grow into firm beliefs and so on. 

This is without a doubt my next area of obsession, whether that materialises into a book that succeeds or not we’ll have to see but I’ve already made my commitment to learning on this and starting meeting coaches who are world leaders in this field. With Kickstarter we have a future platform for the idea to grow – for anyone who loves ‘ideas’, Kickstarter is a wonderful resource. 

Further information on 'The Philosophy of Football: In the Shadow of Marcelo Bielsa' can be found here.