Google+ Blueprint for Football

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Future of Football Lies in Universality

When one starts to foster an interest in coaching, one of the most obvious things to do is to look at what books there are on the subject.  At that point they’ll discover hundreds of books that focus on every aspect of football coaching.  Most of those books, however, tend to focus on current trends; trying to explain the prevailing tactics of the moment making them accessible for other coaches.

That however, was never going to be the case with Matt Whitehouse.  The author of The Way Forward – a book that offers a vision of how football could and should be improved in England – has built a reputation as an outspoken coach who is not afraid to make predictions, regardless of how controversial these might seem.

That’s because he feels confident in his ability to analyse what’s going on and use that analysis – plus his own tactical experience - to gauge what the possible outcomes could be. 

That is precisely what he has done with his latest book, Universality - The Blueprint for Soccer's New Era.  After looking at the way football has developed over the past three decades, he has charted where the game is likely to go next; which is where his concept of universality comes in.

Universality is a concept where players interchange between positions, where they are not fixed to any role and instead simply rotate with each other in games,” he explains.  “It is along the same thinking as total football, the only difference, and perhaps the key aspect for the future game, is that the team is made up of universal players, all with the skills and attributes required to play in any position.

In this interview he talks in detail about that concept, why he thinks that football will evolve in that manner and why every football coach should be paying attention to it.

What led to this book?
As you know, I am avid learner about the game and I am always seeking new ideas and methods to improve my knowledge and quality as a coach. After seeing what Guardiola did with Barca and seeking to learn and embrace the ideas of total football and Dutch football, I was intrigued as to what Guardiola would do at Bayern. 

After assessing the evolution of the game this past decade it was clear to me that German football along with a visionary like Guardiola were both leading the game in their innovation
and desire to break new ground for football. I felt that as a coach of young players it was important to assess this evolution and look to put down on paper how the game is changing and importantly what we can do as coaches to produce players capable of competing in the future game.

Briefly, what is universality?
Universality is a concept where players interchange between positions, where they are not fixed to any role and instead simply rotate with each other in games. It is along the same thinking as total football, the only difference, and perhaps the key aspect for the future game, is that the team is made up of universal players, all with the skills and attributes required to play in any position. 

I saw glimpses of this with Barcelona under Pep yet at Bayern it is more pronounced, pointing towards Germany’s development model and other great players in the squad who have the ability to play in a multitude of positions. With a brave and ambitious coach like Guardiola the ideas of fluid football are embraced and thus the talent of the team allied with the coaches’ ideas allow the development of universality in action.
 
Is this a concept that should 'trouble' only coaches at the highest level?
While a universal footballer should ‘possess’ the skills required to adapt to various roles and positions for me it comes down to the ideas and bravery of a coach. I believe that you can allow fluid football to occur and succeed with young players as well as pros. 

In fact young players would benefit more from this approach than a fixed tactical system as they can express and move more freely.   This should allow a greater development and expression of various skills. Because of this freedom you will have players who are more creative, intelligent and skilful in their play and importantly have a greater ability to become a top professional because they are adaptable to play in different roles and positions. 

I believe the pigeon holing of players, young and old, is detrimental to excellence in development. However, the culture for many coaches is of fixed, position specific development as this is easier to coach in my opinion. Freedom of play and thus the ability to interchange and rotate is where true expression can blossom and flourish, thus creating players more equipped for the modern and future game.
 
You pinpoint Arrigo Sacchi as a pivotal figure in modern football.  What made him so special?
Sacchi saw the future game as one of universality and has bene a proponent of it for many decades. A lot of his ideas, methods and philosophies can be seen in the game today. In the mid-1980’s Sacchi, like many visionaries of the game was an outlier. He didn’t agree with the ‘norm’, particularly what was happening in Italian football at the time in terms of man marking in a 3-5-2. 

Catennacio was very popular yet for him it was negative football, he wanted attacking, attractive and beautiful football. No wonder he chose total football to put his style into action. Yet he also revolutionised the defensive aspects of the game, playing a fluid 4-4-2 system.  His aggressive pressing style was a revelation and Sacchi’s Milan suffocated sides with their compact defensive block. He blended creative attacking football with strong aggressive defending, which twenty years later was mastered by Guardiola at Barca, whose style was reminiscent to the approach of Sacchi. 

Sacchi for me was great because he had no playing career to convince his players, only his methods and his coaching. Which meant, in a similar way to Mourinho, that he had to be a great communicator and a great inspiration to the players he had. The fact he convinced some of the greatest players of that era to sacrifice themselves for his philosophy highlights his greatness as a coach. This was a man who went against his nation’s footballing culture and almost single-handily revolutionised Italian football. He not only entertained fans and left a legacy at Milan, but he showed bravery in his beliefs and a greatness in his coaching, something which very few have been able to achieve.
 
In what way has football evolved since Sacchi's time?  What have been the most significant changes?
At the turn of the century the game had become a place for ‘specialists’. The famous ‘Makelele role’ became the norm, every top side required specialist players who were ‘experts’ in their role. Coaches like Mourinho and Benitez excelled in Spain, England and the Champions League with their rigid systems of play. It seemed Sacchi’s vision of universaity was not to be. 

Then Guardiola took over Barcleona and the game changed dramatically. Yes, Barca had been brilliant under Rijkaard yet this was something else. Guardiola changed the game as we knew it. Small technicians playing a syle of possession football which was frighteningly quick and efficient were playing around ‘big’ and fixed teams for fun. The forward changed, no longer was a fixed forward the want of coaches but instead a more fluid player was desired. 

The game started to become more fluid and flexible. A new era had begun for football. And just when you thought Spain and Barca had reached the peak of football a new competitor arrived in Germany with their big two - Bayern and Dortmund - showing the next step in football’s evolution. With bigger, physical players who had the technical and tactical skills of the ‘smaller’ players we have witnessed the birth of the ‘complete’ teams with the ‘complete’ players, teams who are capable of playing different styles and ways to overcome opponents. 

Bayern took that to another level in 2012/2013 under Jupp Heynckes playing with excellent variety and formidable defensive strength. And now we see Guardiola seeking to take this side one step further, embracing fluid football, rotation of positons and roles and tactical fluidity. With the players at his disposal he possesses a more complete and varied group than he had at Barca, which allows for increased experimentation and evolution. 

What is for sure is that a decade after the specialists, we now see a more fluid game, and with that a growing need for ‘complete’ footballers. Sacchi’s vision has come to fruition.
 
Why did you feel the need to track and analyse these changes in order to describe the concept of universality?
It was important for me to see the evolution of the game, as well as seek to explain the phases and moments which have led to the present game. Without this background and detailed look at the evolution of players, roles and tactics then I don’t think you can see the move to universality as clear. 

This evolution has been coming for a decade, and countries like Germany have been ahead of the rest when it comes to seeing and preparing for this era.
 
Do you see English football as moving forward in that direction?  After all, there is an increasing number of coaches across all levels who are more prepared to play football.
I am certainly seeing a more fluid type of attacking player coming through the Academy system; players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling and Jack Wilshere particularly. However I don’t see the complete type of player which points to the philosophy and approach of our Academies this past decade. I think we have focused too much on attacking football and technical development and neglected the ‘completeness’ of the game and the importance of tactical positioning, game intelligence and defensive understanding and cohesion. Therefore we have many Gotze type players yet very few Lahm and Schweinsteigers. 

I would like to see a more balanced production of players as we do seem to have a void of defensive type players coming through at this time. As the game requires more complete type players we will need our coaches and Academies to develop this player more. Perhaps the most complete at this time is Ross Barkley, who looks to have the ability to be dominant on both sides of the ball.
 
You claim that Pep Guardiola, with his Bayern Munich side, has all that is needed to have the best interpretation of universality.  In what way is this the case?
As mentioned above, Bayern possess the best squad in world football, with the most complete set of players. They have a wonderful balance in all areas and with Guardiola they have a coach who is giving increased freedom for players to express and interchange. While what Heynckes did was great, his side was very fixed in their 4-2-3-1 formation. 

Under Guardiola we now see something akin to 3-4-2-1 yet with almost complete fluidity in their play. When you watch them you see a constant movement of players seeking to find and exploit space, which makes marking them very difficult. Bayern’s model has enabled this style to come about due to their excellent vision and model laid down by Uli Hoeness. 

At first it was van Gaal who was brought in to make the team understand the Dutch football approach, akin to total football which he played at Ajax to great success. Jupp Heynckes followed him and added the defensive strength which Bayern required to be successful. The third phase as they call it was for a coach to come in to take the team, now built on the attacking and defending principles laid down by previous coaches, to now take the side forward by making them unique and special. 

Guardiola, perhaps second only to Marcelo Bielsa in terms of tactical innovation was the perfect choice to take Bayern forward. The players were in place and ready to be evolved. As we are seeing, Bayern are playing football which is receiving the kind of praise Hoeness sought, they are leading the way in terms of fluid football.
 
Obviously, if universality is the way forward then kids should be coached to be prepared for it.  First of all, is this possible?
Without question, what coaches need to think is not in terms of position based skills but of what a footballer requires. The coach then should have a framework and checklist of what he expects all the players to develop in their time with him, giving them an all-round education and development of the game. 

Too much pigeon holding and position specific development for me takes away the universal type development of a young player as well as also putting in their minds a label of their position which I have found detrimental to the wishes of fluidity and movement, as a player says “I can’t play there, I’m a defender”. This highlights the problem for me, instead of defender, midfielder or forward the label of a young player should be footballer. And from there we seek to develop a fully rounded individual who has the skills necessary to succeed in the game.
 
How is this achieved?  In what way should coaching at youth level change to prepare in this manner?
A growing freedom to play players in various positions, offering new spatial ideas and problems for them to solve and learn. For a coach to show bravery and trust in his ideas and players to try things in their play without the fear of negative feedback if it doesn’t work. And importantly, training sessions which seek to develop all-round skills and intelligence of players, with a keen focus on game related practices which seek to educate and develop players more effectively than ‘drills’ which are often unopposed.
 
Do you see futsal - where the ball is moved at such a high speed, players continually moving and looking for space - as pivotal in this coaching?
Yes and no. I don’t believe that futsal is the key solution to the future, yet it is certainly an area where players will improve and develop their skills, movement and expression. Unfortunately many do not understand what futsal truly is, which is why I believe many who have their players do futsal, are not actually doing it how the ‘rules’ say. 

Yet, small 4v4/5v5 indoors or on small pitches are a great way to develop quick play, to improve ability to deal with the ball under pressure and to enhance both attacking and defending 1v1 and 2v2 skills. Small sided games for me are key, more so than solely futsal.
 
Are academies in England working to deliver this kind of player?          
A creative, skilful and intelligence player? Yes. Complete players? No. At this time anyway. I think we have come a long way in a decade and more and more coaches in academies share the ideas of seeking to developing talented and skilful players, over perhaps the old school type of player who headed and kicked it and little else. 

However there is a still concern over the quantity of quality players coming through, with perhaps that feeling that we are still excellent at producing good players, but still lacking when it comes to exceptional talent. We are seeing however our academies really starting to show that when the focus is on youth, then development can happen. 

The best example is Southampton, who are showing to have a steady stream of talent coming through. This is no surprise as they get all their departments and plans in perfect order which allows the pathway of a young player to be of a high quality. They also seek to promote youth into to the seniors, a bridge which is still becoming to hard to cross for many young players. Without that next step it will be hard for many youngsters to get to the next level.
 
What's next for you?
I doubt there will be another book for a while, I feel The Way Forward and Universality have allowed me to pen my thoughts and beliefs on youth development, coaching and the future game and hope those who read these books take something from them which helps their coaching and thoughts on the game. And while I have developed a reputation as a being an author and writer my role is of a youth developer and coach. 

At this time I am working in a professional academy seeking to develop the type of players I believe are required and working with the coaches in laying down a philosophy from 9-16’s which is seeing us make great strides forward. To be honest I don’t look at the future and make plans, I prefer to focus on the present and make sure I am doing my absolute best to help young players improve and move to the next level.

If you enjoyed reading this interview then you'll probably like Blueprint According To...Volume 2 (US link here), an e-book containing seven great and insightful s+interviews with football coaches.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: Universality by Matt Whitehouse

The idea of teams having players who are capable of interchanging into different roles has been around since the early sixties.  Indeed, it could be argued that the most successful team over the decades – at least those that have had lasting success –have been those sides who have had players that were particularly good at doing this.

In the modern era, the man who really revolutionised tactical thinking in this respect was Arrigo Sacchi.  Today he is more remembered for his high pressing game that operated clinically thanks also to the supremely talented Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten.  Yet Sacchi’s Milan was much more than that: it was a side that had been coached to function as a whole, with players knowing where to move based on what others did during the game.

Indeed, Sacchi predicted that his team had actually only been the start of a tactical evolution that would eventually see teams where players could fulfil any role equally well.  His vision of the game went beyond the star individuals and was centred around the strength of the team.  For Sacchi, that was what was paramount.

Ultimately, his views were seen as being overly extreme – which is why his reign at Milan was relatively brief despite his success – but it spawned a generation of coaches who took his ideas and went to work with them.  Today, it is impossible to find a top level coach who hasn’t been influenced by Sacchi’s thinking.

Matt Whitehouse is certainly one of the admirers.  It could be said that the premise of this book is that of proving Sacchi right; looking over the different tactical evolutions over the past three decades, analysing what kind of an impact these have had and comparing them to his prediction.

That of analysing the game’s tactical development is a job that Whitehouse has done particularly well here as his most recent book, Universality, highlight how football has evolved to its present state.   He isn’t overbearing – there never is a sense of a coach speaking down to others - but it is obvious in the way that he writes that he’s not only researched this subject but also thought very deeply about it.  
Ultimately, it leaves the reader in no doubt of that Whitehouse sees Sacchi’s prediction becoming reality.  Indeed, he has pinpointed Pep Guardiola as the man who not only has the vision to achieve this but, at Bayern, the players that can carry it out.

Whether this proves to be the case remains to be seen; far too often in the past tactical innovations that looked set to sweep all before them ended up being overtaken by other developments.  However, what this whole book manages to conclusively prove – even though it wasn’t its stated aim to do so – is that the future of the game lies in the hands of those who not only think deeply about the game but who are also capable of shaping future evolutions.  

Anyone who stands still will be simply left behind.

If you’re interested in this book, kindly purchase it by following this link and you will also be helping Blueprint for Football.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of Universality was provided by the author.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Blueprint According To...Stephen Fraser


One of the first changes that Bill Shankly brought about as soon as he became manager at Liverpool FC was to revolutionise the way that his players trained.  Out went the long distance running that had previously been the daily occurrence – as with most clubs across the country at the time – and in came training with the ball.  

“We never bothered with sand dunes and hills and roads,” he later said, “we trained on grass where football is played.”

At the time it was a revolutionary move, as were most of the practices he introduced to the club, but nowadays they are accepted wisdom.  What Shankly had done was to look at how things were being done and questioned whether they were fulfilling their purpose.  Framed that way, it is easy to conclude that spending a morning running up and down a hill isn’t going to result in a better football player.

Everything we do here is for a purpose” Shankly used to love to say.  And so it should be for any coach.  Doing a training session simply because that is what you are used to doing or it is how you yourself trained simply isn’t good enough.  You have to know what it will help you achieve and how that fits in your overall training plan.

Stephen Fraser is someone who strongly believes in this.  A young coach who is currently working at St Mirren’s Academy – one of the finest in Scotland – he argues that “activity alone is not sufficient to develop talent.”  

It has to be focussed practice and always have a purpose to improve the players as individuals.”  As he explains when talking about his blueprint, football takes place in a very dynamic environment so why do players train in a static environment?

Blueprint for Football Extra: 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?
Stephen Fraser: I got my first taste of coaching when I was a full-time player at St Johnstone.  I was about 19 –this was in 2004 - and I had the chance to work with some local kids as part of the clubs community programme.  I didn’t coach again till 2006 when I began working with my local council coaching kids from the ages of 3-14.  

At this point I was a part-time player with Montrose FC in the Scottish 3rd Division.  I felt it was going to be difficult to make a career playing professional football so I decided to look to coaching as a potential career path.  I had always been a deep thinker about the game and was always keen to improve my knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of the game.  

So I decided to pursue coaching opportunities in America and went over to work for 5 months in 2007.  I then decided to come back to Scotland because I wanted to continue my education which is why in 2008 I enrolled at the Stirling University to study Sports Studies.  I began taking my coaching badges at this point and achieved my SFA Level 4 Youth Award in 2008.  

It was at this point I realised that I was a decent coach and could potentially coach at a higher level.  The course happened to be run in conjunction with Cowdenbeath FC and their Head of Youth at the time asked me if I would like to work with their Under 13 team.  I coached with the club for around two and a half years working at the Under 13 age group.  I then moved to Glasgow and managed to secure coaching working with St Mirren FC coaching their Under 12 team.  I have been working with the club for the past 4 years and completed my SFA Advanced Children’s Licence last year.

BFFE: Have you had any mentors in your career?
SF: I have not had any mentors per se but have looked to everyone I have ever come across in coaching as a mentor.  I try to learn wherever and whenever I can by listening to other coaches’ thoughts and philosophies on the game.  I am of the belief that you can learn from many different people, whether that be one small bit of information or not.  

I try to be as open-minded as possible and do not dismiss other ways of thinking until I have first analysed it and thought about it.  I have a thirst for learning so I try to read a lot, whether that be books or articles or just anything related to coaching.  I have read countless books I feel have relevance to coaching and human development.  Some of my favourites are Bounce, The Talent Code and Mindset.

BFFE: What is your own coaching philosophy?
SF: When developing young players I place a key emphasis on their mindset, focus and willingness to learn.  I believe it is very important they view every training session and game as an opportunity to develop as football players as well as human beings.  

It is vitally important they are motivated to listen and learn and do not simply go through the motions during training.  I stress the importance of undertaking deliberate practice whereby they are constantly self-analysing and correcting during aspects of training such as their technical work and decision-making work.  This stems from the belief that activity alone is not sufficient to develop talent.  It has to be focussed practice and always have a purpose to improve the players as individuals.  

I believe that with the correct movement skills and the right mindset it is very achievable to develop the skills of young players.  I feel very strongly that constant praise and reference to players who are ‘talented’ can have a detrimental effect on their learning and development.  Instead I try to emphasize the constant need to focus and work hard to improve their abilities everyday as opposed to relying on their ‘talent’ to see them through.  

With regards to the types of training given to the young players, I focus on developing their skill which will allow them to retain possession of the ball consistently and effectively.  This incorporates both playing in combinations and also in one versus one situations.  I emphasize short, sharp movements with and without the ball and stress the importance of using the brain to think quickly and effectively.  I believe in the use of playing (games-based) form practices to develop the necessary skills required to develop as footballers.

BFFE: Is winning important for you?
SF: Scoreboard winning is not important to me at all.  It is very easy to set-up a team to go out there and win.  All you need to do is make the most of your most physically able kids and put them in key positions.  This does not help anyone develop as players.  The more physically able kids are getting by on their physical attributes and as a result do not use their brains to develop as young footballers.  On the other hand, the less mature kids receive fewer touches on the ball and therefore less time to develop.  

However, I feel it is vital that you develop players who individually want to win and be the best they can possibly be.  This encompasses the need to dominate your opponent and striving to improve at every opportunity.

BFFE: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
SF: For me the most important attributes of young players are their mindset, their football intelligence and their movement mechanics.  With the correct mindset players will be motivated to learn and develop and constantly strive to be better.  

It is important they develop their game awareness and ability to think and come up with the correct solutions to problems.  The brain is where the knowledge to execute skills and techniques comes from and messages are sent via the neuromuscular system to the muscles to allow the player to carry out the correct motor skill in the correct scenario.  

Finally, it is crucial players have the correct movement mechanics, agility, balance, co-ordination and explosive speed.  It is very difficult to teach children skills and techniques related to football if they cannot control their bodies correctly.  A lack of balance, agility and co-ordination will mean they find it very difficult to execute skills with efficiency of movement.  The correct mindset and movement mechanics are the starting blocks to develop players and within that you are then looking to develop firstly their technique and then their execution of skills.

BFFE: Is the physique (their strength) of players something you look at?
SF: I don’t look at strength or height but I do look at the power and explosiveness they possess in their movements.  Height at a young age is not a factor to me.  It is far more important they have the correct movement mechanics and possess explosive acceleration and speed.  Football is a game of explosive multi-directional movements so it is crucial players can move comfortably and with speed in 360ᴼ.  

This led me to undertake the SAQ Advanced Trainers Diploma last year.  I wanted to develop a greater understanding of the correct movement mechanics required to allow players to develop as footballers.

BFFE: You did a dissertation on skill acquisition and development in football.  Can you tell us a bit about that?
SF: As I progressed as a coach I found myself questioning the types of practices we use to develop young players in Britain.  A lot of the coaching I came across used blocked drill-based practices to develop player’s techniques.  I felt this developed the techniques in isolation but in football techniques are not used in isolation.  They are mainly used in a series of random, explosive movements where players must execute skilled movement patterns efficiently and effectively.  

My dissertation looked specifically at Playing Form practices vs Training Form practices.  Playing form practices refers to small-sided games, possession games etcetera and training form refers to drill-based practices where there is no direct opposition.  

Football is a sport where cognitive, perceptual and motor skills are used in combination.  The cognitive and perceptual aspects refer to looking for the right information, processing the information and deciding upon a suitable response.  Motor skills are the specific movements used to perform such skills as passing and shooting.  Football takes place in a very dynamic environment where the picture is constantly changing.  

Sports such as golf have a much more static environment where the players perform skills and the picture does not change dramatically prior to taking a shot.  Therefore, golf involves athletes performing closed skills and football involves mainly open skills.  I felt that many of the practices used to develop young players only worked on player’s technique.  

This is a problem because skill and technique are two very different things.  Technique refers to the specific movement patterns used by players whereas skill refers to the learned ability to perform the correct technique at the correct time.  It is possible to have poor technique and still get the desired outcome.  For example, a pass can be played with poor technique but still reach its desired destination.  Good technique increases the probability of the action being executed efficiently and effectively.  

Therefore we should look to develop player’s techniques initially up to the ages of 12 and from then on it is important to focus on developing player’s skill.  That is not to say you cannot still look to develop technique with short focussed micro sessions.

BFFE: This is, I guess, a common question but how much skill can be acquired by any one individual?  And how much depends on basic talent?
SF: I don’t really believe in the use of the word ‘talent’.  I think it is a commonly used word in football but I think people are really talking about skill when they say a player is ‘talented’.  As a child everything we do is learned through imitation and practice from walking to talking to running and jumping.  There is no specific talent people are born with that gives them talent in football.  

People are born with different physical characteristics such as their fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres.  These have an impact on the speed and trainability of players but there are no specific football talent related genes.  I believe that with the correct mindset, movement skills and correct practices then players can develop significantly.  

The problem lies in the ‘talent ID’ of young players for academies.  People often mistake physical maturation with ‘talent’.  Players who are more in control of their bodies due to their physical attributes tend to look a lot more skilful.  Often these types of players possess the wrong mindset, attitude and focus when it comes to learning and developing.  Then you often find when physical maturation evens out the so-called ‘talented’ players are not particularly skilful.  

BFFE: Similarly, different players have to develop different skills.  How does one ensure that these skills are developed within a team environment?
SF: When coaching players I am coaching in a team environment but I am aiming to develop skilful and intelligent individuals, capable of playing successfully in a team environment.  So all my coaching is geared towards the individual.  Developing teams is a concept for adult football when the purpose is to win.  

The purpose of academies should be to develop and produce individuals capable of playing in a clubs first team.  Often you find clubs develop successful under 15 teams, as an example, where they are structured in a way as a good team with good balance.  The team and club look like they are developing players successfully but what they are really developing is a good team.  You then find very few of the individuals in the team are capable of playing in the club’s first team.  

The focus should always be on the individual but with the aim of producing a player capable of playing in a team sport.

BFFE: What have you found to be the most effective ways of enabling skill acquisition?  And how would you change your approach with players in different age groups?
SF: To develop the skills and abilities of players you need to break the game down to its constituent parts.  The key focus has to be on individual aspects of the game, especially with younger players.  This would incorporate a high emphasis on one versus one situations to develop player’s appreciation and mastery of the ball when isolated and under pressure.  

This is the starting basis for skill within all situations a player encounters in a game.  Nearly all practices should involve the ball.  Only footwork and movement skills practices may not have a football involved.  Practices must have a repetitive focus to allow for continued improvements and technical developments to be made.  However, there should be a random and unpredictable element involved to mirror game situations.  

This can be achieved through the use of passive pressure initially and followed up with full pressure to replicate situations encountered in games.  Smaller forms of the full game should be used to ensure skills can be developed functionally and therefore be used against direct opposition.  This would involve one versus one practices with younger ages and then progressing to two versus one, two versus two, three versus two, three versus three, four versus three and finally four versus four.

As players progress and develop their skills in the one versus one situations, practice should begin to emphasize combination play.  This will bring in crucial decision-making elements which are essential as player’s progress up the levels.  Games-based practices should form a large part of practice sessions; perhaps a ratio of 60%-40% in favour of games-based practices for younger ages.  

As players get older and develop, this ratio would increase to around 70%-30% in favour of games-based practices.  To ensure technical aspects are still developed, players should be given technical instructions as and when the coach observes deficiencies in game situations.  This would perhaps involve stepping out from the game and fine tuning technique in short practice sessions.  

Within all practices player’s movement off the ball should be highlighted and developed.  This is to ensure players become dynamic all round footballers as opposed to robots who only play when the ball is in front of them.  Speed of mind and speed of movement should be key within all practices.  Players also need to be encouraged to be independent thinkers and come up with the correct decisions and solutions in given game situations.

BFFE: Does a coach's attitude - what they say, how they act and even the tonality of their voice - have an impact and how big?  Also, how do you ensure that what you do actually helps the players?
SF: Firstly, I think demonstrations where skills and techniques are broken down are the best way to show players what is being asked of them.  I think it is very important coach’s instructions are short, clear and precise.  Long general feedback and instruction often fail to address the issue at hand.  Players need to be guided and put into situations where they are responsible for their learning as opposed to being dictated to by a coach.  

Games-based practices where coaches manipulate the constraints allow the players to learn without even knowing they are doing it.  Players should then be questioned to see if they are actually learning.

Coaches should maintain a positive attitude where they encourage individual learning and development in a challenging and engaging environment.  That is not to say that you should not be firm and clear with your coaching points.  If players are too comfortable in their environment then they will not feel challenged to improve and develop.  A coach’s tone should be firm, clear and engaging.  To ensure players are actually learning it is important they are questioned as stated previously.  

BFFE: Do you see a role for other sports being pursued alongside football especially at a younger age?  Would, for instance, an interest in athletics help an individual be better at learning football specific skills?
SF: Absolutely.  Children should be exposed to a range of different sports and activities from a young age.  This will help them develop the correct movement skills required to develop as football players.  Movement is the foundation with which the football specific skills are developed upon.  Early specialisation and too big a focus on football can lead to burnout and lack of motivation.  

Young players should be encouraged to play different sports and generally be children rather than become so seriously focussed on becoming a football player.  Skilful coaches will be able to facilitate learning in a fun, engaging and challenging environment where learning takes place internally without the child actually realizing they are carrying out focussed practice.

BFFE: You're working at St Mirren which is a club that is certainly focused on development.  What do you think that you do differently to most other Scottish (and even English clubs)?
SF: Probably two key things stand out for me.  Firstly, we are focussed on the long-term development of players.  Players are brought into the academy and we look to improve their deficiencies and develop their strengths.  

You often find clubs are not really focussed on developing players, they are more concerned with bringing in the best players to their clubs as opposed to working with the ones they already have.  The second key thing we provide the players at the club with is opportunity.  Kids come to the club and see there is a clear pathway from the younger ages through to the first team.  

At present there are regularly six academy graduates in the first team.  Some of the players have been with the club since the age of eight.  Recently there has also been another influx of young players into the first team, with a young player of just 17 making his debut this season.  Combined with the two key aspects there is a lot of hard work, a clear curriculum and good coaching aimed at developing players.

BFFE: Finally, what do you want to achieve in the future to feel that you've fulfilled your ambitions as a coach?
SF: Good question.  As a coach I am always looking to pass my knowledge onto the players I coach and help them to develop as players and people.  I want the players I have coached to achieve their potential and continue to enjoy playing football as they get older.  Hopefully in the process some of the players can reach a high level in the game.

My personal ambitions as a coach are to work full-time in football where I am coaching young players on a daily basis.  I love the actual coaching where I am responsible for players learning and development.  My ambition is to continue to coach children……I don’t have a desire to work with adults at a high level.  My passion is teaching and developing young players to help them improve.  Hopefully in the future this will lead to work with high level young players on a full-time basis.

This interview was originally circulated among subscribers of Blueprint for Football Extra.

If you want to be updated about everything that happens on Blueprint for Football, you can follow us on Facebook and on Google+ where you will find daily links to football coaching articles.  Paul Grech, the editor of this site, can be contacted on Twitter and on Linkedin.  Users of Flipboard can even access Blueprint of Football there.