Google+ Blueprint for Football: November 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Andre Villas Boas and a Coach's Ultimate Obligation

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Watching the debate that followed the accidental clash that left Hugo Lloris concussed but adamant on remaining on the pitch in Tottenham’s game away at Everton has been interesting.  Sadly, a good portion of the discussion quickly turned into criticism of Tottenham’s Andre Villas Boas, something that is symptomatic of his inability to win some people over.

There is, in my view, no doubt that keeping Lloris on the pitch was a needless risk that could have ended badly.  Yet, as this article brilliantly explains (more eloquently and with greater academic backing than I ever could) it isn’t simply a case of pointing at Villas Boas or trying to determine who made a mistake.  The truth is that the decision was inevitable given the sports culture.

A coach’s ultimate obligation – particularly when he’s dealing with younger age players – is towards the health of his players.  Some of the responsibility lies with the players themselves – a player might insist on being considered for a game despite feeling ill during the preceding night – but the coach will have more information than anyone else at the club so the call is wholly his.

That is something that all coaches need to remember because thereisn’t that much difference between Villas Boas’ decision to allow Lloris to stay on the pitch and a youth team manager pressurising his star to play despite having some injury.  How many careers have been ruined by coaches overplaying a player or choosing to ignore his complaints about an injury?

It is hypocritical to say that Villas Boas was wrong but then ignore the little decisions that are routinely made and which put players’ health at risk.  Many coaches in youth football claim that for them winning isn’t important but looking at the decision that they make when there’s an important game involved might perhaps indicate otherwise.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Man Who Made Barca

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In hindsight, it has to rank as one of worst decision in the history football.  When San Lorenzo dithered about paying for the treatment that a kid by the name of Leo Messi needed, they were letting slip through their hands a boy who would go on to become one of the finest players in the history of the game.

That story is fairly well known but there was also a time when Messi wouldn’t have found an opportunity at Barcelona either.  Not because of the expense involved in the treatment that he needed but because he wasn’t as tall as they expected players to be.

Johann Cruyff is often credited as the man who set up the youth focused philosophy at Barcelona but, in truth, he was building on what was already there.  In fact, the man who began it all was Laureano Ruiz and one of the changes that he put in place was the abolishment of a policy where only players of a certain height were considered.

“When I arrived at Barça there was a sign on door of the coaches’ offices that said "if you come with a youth who is shorter than 1.80 meters, turn around!" he recalls.  “This obsession with height wasn’t limited to one club but it was a general view.  If they’d been born earlier none of Messi , Xavi or Iniesta would have made it to the first team.”

“And today it is still present.  The shorter players have many advantages over taller ones when starting, turning, changing direction and so on.   Movement in modern football plays a key role.” 

“The tall players also have their advantages: longer steps, physical challenges, at headers, winning 50-50 balls.  That is why the great teams in history were made of football players of very different sizes; the Madrid of Di Stefano , Puskas’ Honved , Santos of Pele, Zico 's Flamengo , Messi at Barca and so on.” 

“Still, the best players  are the shorter ones: Pele ( 1.70m) , Di Stefano (1.74m) , Puskas (1.67m) , Zico (1.71m) , Gento (1.65m) , Kopa ( 1.69m) , Seeler (1.69m) , Messi (1.69m) , Maradona (1.65m), Xavi (1.68m) and Iniesta (1.67m).”

Most of Laureano Ruiz’s playing career at Racing Santander and Gimnastica de Torrelavega before retiring when he was just twenty eight to focus on coaching.  After a spell coaching Racing Santander’s first team, he began focusing on developing youth talent and it was for that purpose that Barcelona approached him in 1972.

Legend has it that a few weeks earlier Barcelona’s Juvenil A were playing the final of the Copa Catalunya against local outfit CF Damm (who were financed by a beer company).  Spurred on by 15,000 spectators; they were expected to win and do so easily.   But football rarely follows the set script and Barca lost 2-3.  Agusti Montal, then Barcelona’s president, is said to have remarked “Something has to be done. This is unacceptable. I can accept a loss against a football team, but not to a beer company!”

Soon afterwards Ruiz was given the opportunity to work at Barca and what he did certainly impressed them because within two years he was in charge of the whole sector.

“Essentially, I arrived at Barçelona for what I had achieved.  I was 34, but had been coaching since I was 15.  What probably also played a part and influenced my move to Barcelona was that we beat them in the final of the Juvenil Championship.”

Whatever the reason, it was an inspired choice.

Ruiz, for instance, was the one who switched Barcelona to the 3-4-3 system. Talk of ‘switching’, however, seems to irritate him.  “I did not change anything because when I arrived at the club there was nothing organized!  It was hard work to create a footballing, social and human environment.”

Indeed, as with many other football men, Ruiz is not as impressed by talk of tactical formations that seem to fascinate those analysing the game.  “Those numbers do not mean anything.  A game system is everything that we have prepared.  It is what happens in defense and attack, while the ball is "in motion" and refers to the strategy when the ball is "inactive"; the system when the game is becoming tactical and when there are delays in the match due to fouls, corners and so on.” 

“So when I refer to my system of play, I stress: order, inspiration and fantasy.”

“That said, I introduced the system that today is widely used, with a broad front of three forwards - two on top and a "false striker" mostly operating behind those two.  The players also got to know their position and tasks in the field simply by looking at the number on their shirt, for instance, "playing 9". 

“I also introduced the pressing game for which I took inspiration from basketball.   In fact my system of play was used even before I came to Barcelona, and it was already successfully practiced in the 60s for teams like Racing.”

Ruiz was also an advocate of having all the teams within a club should play along the same lines, an idea that was being popularised by Ajax.  “First of all, I have to point out that youth teams do not have to train like the senior sides in the same way that teaching in primary and secondary school is different from that at university level.”  

“What is important is that the style of play should be identical throughout.”

How is it, then, that children’s training should differ from that of adults?  “In many ways, but I’ll mention only one: there are many coaches who believe that you should give children a great physical education and then, when they are 17, begin teaching them about football. It is a huge mistake.”  

“Football technique depends on motor co-ordination, which starts forming much earlier than that age.  For example, in a few months children learn the ability to "pronounce" correctly languages other than their own mother tongue, even if they’re unaware of its grammar and syntax. However, an adult, despite having studied deeply rarely ever achieved such perfection (the pronunciation depends on the phonetic co-ordination).”  

“In short, football learning should begin early on.”

“My dream was, and I said this publicly at the time, that one day the all of Barcelona’s team would be made up of players from the "quarry" (cantera), working with my methods and with me as head coach.”

That final part of his dream might not have come true (even though he did coach the first team for six games when Heinnes Wesweiler was sacked in 1976) but otherwise his ambition was quite visionary.  Seven of the starting eleven (and eleven of the match day squad of eighteen) that won the Champions League final against Manchester United in 2011 came through Barca’s cantera

Indeed, visionary is a phrase that you find yourself often repeating when talking about Ruiz.  So much that there are aspects of his philosophy that are only just being accepted.

One of those is his insistence that youth players get a good education, something that many clubs seem to do begrudgingly.  “It is essential that coaches worry for the education of the youth, not just their football.  When I arrived at the club we had 147 youth players, 126 of them told me that they were neither working nor studying, they were simply focused on football.”  

“I felt horrible and decided that everyone would have to work or study and do so at the best of their abilities.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t continue at Barcelona.”

Given that his coaching and ideas helped shape the team that, in turn, has shaped how we view football, talking about what makes a good coach seems like a good point to conclude the interview.

“There are so many and they are all so different!” 

“To mention a few: he must have knowledge of the game; judging situations and positioning of players).  It is also essential to know if a player is worth the effort or not.  And if it works, in what position he should be playing.  Also, you have to know what problems there are and how you can correct them.” 

“With respect to the tactical aspect, knowing how to put together the best team is vital.  During games, analysing how it is working and deciding what corrective measures are needed like swapping players’ positions, varying the marking and generally altering the game plan.”

Analysing those final comments, it is possible to distil all that into two words: game intelligence.  Because that aspect for which Barcelona’s players have become famous (among other things) is, essentially, also what makes their coaching so special.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Blueprint According To...Ben Trinder

This interview forms part of the Blueprint According To... series, the bonus edition of Blueprint for Football Extra.

If you’re on Twitter and hold even a minimal interest in football coaching then it is virtually impossible not to have heard of The Coaching Family.   This account set up on the social network aims to bring together football coaches so that they can share ideas, tips, advice and even sessions.   It has grown into a very powerful tool for coaches to share their views and sound out others when they’re uncertain about anything.

Ben Trinder was the main man behind the setting up of this page.   An FA Level 2 qualified coach from Berkshire, he is currently working towards gaining his UEFA B coaching licence while also working towards his FA Youth Award assessment, having completed all 3 modules of the course.  Ben coaches at grassroots level with Ascot United under 14′s who play in the Surrey Youth League, he also coaches with a Premier League club in their Academy Development Centres on a part time basis working with children from 5 to 8 years old.  

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what got you into coaching and how long ago was that?
Ben Trinder: I always wanted to work with and coach kids, I planned to do my coaching qualifications when I left school at 18.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen due to work commitments because like many 18 year olds money was a big attraction.

I started out by helping my dad coach my younger brother’s team in 2002.  He was managing as well as organising the team and wanted someone to do the football side.  It was a perfect first step.  I coached the boys for 3 and a bit seasons without any coaching qualifications but learned to look at the game from a new angle; I planned all my own sessions and really enjoyed the experience.

I then fell out of football until 2010 when I decided to get qualified and do my FA Level 1.   Since then I have been on several courses to educate myself and continue getting my qualifications.  I’ve just completed my FA Youth Module 3 and I am currently on my UEFA B Licence with some great tutors and candidates down in Southampton.   I like to stay fresh and keep challenging myself.  

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
BT: Yeah, I have a few mentors.   I don’t think mentoring has to be an official thing; a mentor can be any coach at any level of the game who is willing to answer your questions and point you in the right direction.

From when I started out with my dad I learned how to organise and manage a group of people.  My dad is still someone I look up to and I definitely get my calm, relaxed temperament from him.  He is a patient guy.  More recently I have just finished working with a grassroots team called Kennet Valley in Reading.  Two guys from there taught me a lot about the game; from desire, heart and passion to the tactical “chess” side of the game.

Over the last three years I have “adopted” a top level mentor who is a well-known youth coach in the UK, Michael Beale.  He has been great with me, I feel like I can ask him anything and that’s important for me as a developing coach.  I’ve been lucky enough to watch Mike coach in different professional academies on a few occasions and I learn new things every time I chat to him.  He is always open and honest and is someone I really look up to.  Mentors are important for us as coaches.  It’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off, to be able to say “what do you think of this…” and then get some constructive feedback.  There are a few guys at the club I’m working for who are really good to chat to and learn from as well.  I am a true believer in surrounding myself with open, honest and knowledgeable people to develop my own skills.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
BT: It depends on age and ability really.  I coach a good standard grassroots under 14’s team at Ascot United at the moment.  In general I am a 4-3-3 fan.  The 4-3-3 is adaptable, you can switch to a 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 or a 3-4-3 relatively easily.  I like adaptability.  I like pace in wide areas – full backs and wingers.  I like a midfield three who are comfortable receiving and distributing the ball under pressure and can rotate positions between them.  I’m not a fan of rigid team set ups.   I like my team to attack with flair, creativity, skill and pace.

I am a big fan of dribblers and creative boys and it’s important for them to be themselves: who am I to stop them doing what they do best?  That applies to all the players I coach.  I like to play a possession game, controlling the tempo of a game, but sometimes that’s not possible for whatever reason, for instance the pitch, the scoreline or the opposition.  If that’s the case, I like the team to play on the counter attack, at speed with players interchanging positions.  It’s unpredictable but that’s what I like.

I also like my players to play with heart and a “never give up” attitude.  Of course the players I coach will dictate the way we play to a certain extent, and that’s my philosophy in a nutshell.  

BfF: Is winning important for you?
BT: I want to win but winning will never be the main aim for me.  As long as the players are having fun and challenging experiences during each game then we’re on our way.  We all want to win, young players included, it’s a competitive game after all and as coaches we shouldn’t try to remove that.  Every kid wants to score a hat-trick in every game but we know that’s not possible.  I see my job as an educator; someone to teach them the benefits of hard work, team work and a good attitude, which lead to the team playing well and hopefully winning.

Kids, particularly in the early stages of their development, need to be supported, nurtured and guided – all of them.  I’m a great believer in equal playing time and no favouritism towards so called more able players.  Winning is important but we shouldn’t put any pressure on our young players to win.  

BfF: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
BT: At grassroots level I like young players who are willing to learn and improve whilst a good attitude is important too.  That’s all.  As long as I can build a trusting relationship between myself and the players then the rest will come with time.  I am there to develop their skills and help them improve regardless of their ability.

When the boys are over sixteen I would still place attitude and a willingness to improve above anything else.  As I mentioned before, I like a variety of different attributes but my top 3 would be:

Pace (or a quick thinker)

Comfortable receiving and passing the ball under pressure

Good 1v1 skills (defending and attacking)

BfF: You set up Coaching Family.   What gave you that idea and what is it all about?
BT: I wanted to connect coaches and to share good ideas and good practice.  A central Twitter account seemed like a great way to do that.  Although I founded the account, there were actually 20 odd coaches who I was speaking to about it back in 2010.  I originally joined Twitter to see if any other coaches were using the social network site.  After speaking to a few of coaches on there I decided to set up the Coaching Family account.  The name actually came from one of my hashtags #coachingfamily and it does feel like a family on there sometimes.

There were some top youth coaches involved in the early stages who gave me the confidence to go for it, they know who they are.  The account has grown so much in the past year and I’ve now got a really good guy helping me run Coaching Family, Liam Donovan.  He has been brilliant and he’s one of the most helpful guys you could wish to meet.

BfF: What has the response been like?
BT: It’s been unbelievable.  We have close to 17,000 followers on there right now.  That’s great in itself, but we want to involve everyone and I think we are on the way to doing that.  Each day we get hundreds of coaches from all over the world who tweet us, asking questions, posting sessions and debating various topics.  We have also asked coaches to get involved in submitting their own sessions so we can produce session sharing booklets.

The booklets have been a hit, they are basic but they are templates for coaches to use and expand on.  We also set up a website ( where coaches can read interviews, download our booklets and read various articles on coaching and the game.  I think what’s made the idea work is the fact that it’s completely free.  Where else can a grassroots coach, who is just starting out, contact a seasoned academy coach working at a professional club?

I would encourage coaches to get involved on Twitter.  It’s a great learning tool and great for taking charge of your own CPD and personal development.  There are also several really good coaches who can double as mentors on there.  That’s how I came into contact with Mike.  We have a great community on there and it’s a positive community of coaches who are open, honest and willing to share their work and experiences.  The more coaches we can connect, the better.

BfF: How much is learned from attending coaching courses and how much is learned by observing other coaches?
BT: Courses are very important as that’s how we get our valuable qualifications.  Each course teaches us how to coach in a certain style to suit a certain level of the game.  I have learned so much (as you would expect to) from attending the FA courses and I have made some very good friends on the journey.  I think courses are only a part of our learning though.  That’s why I think Twitter is so useful and a CPD tool.

I think it’s important, if you’re serious about coaching, to read books, go and watch other coaches, talk to them and ask questions.  It’s a valuable experience for any coach and you learn so much.  I’ve been lucky enough to visit some top level professional youth academies in England, each experience is totally different and I have learned new things every time.  It’s all about building contacts and speaking to people then taking the valuable information they give you to put into practice.  

BfF: If you could change one thing about football in England, what would that be?
BT: The money clubs and players get in the professional game.  I’d like to see some of that filter down to grassroots level to improve facilities and help fund the education of young coaches.  With most coaching courses costing £200+ it’s difficult for some of these grassroots guys and girls to get qualified if they cannot get funding from their clubs.  The FA are making steps to address that though.

BfF: What do you want to achieve to be satisfied with what you have done in your coaching career?
BT: I want to continue to enjoy helping young players develop their skills.  I want to keep learning and developing myself as a coach.  Coaching is a part time job for me at the moment and I would like to go full time somewhere soon.  (At the moment I teach sport at a pupil referral unit in Reading full time) My aim is to one day work within a professional Academy set up in England, that’s the dream.  I understand how competitive that area is though, and I have a lot of work to do before I can start thinking about a role like that.  For now, I am happy.

I am working part time with a professional club coaching at their academy development centres, plus coaching with the grassroots under 14’s at Ascot United.  I’m also practicing for my UEFA B assessment that is coming up soon.  Passing this course has been my aim since I started coaching.  I don’t like looking too far into the future, but after the B licence I want to do my FA Youth Award assessment.  One day I would like to do the A licence and possibly go into coach education.  I don’t like making too many plans though, as long as I continue to work hard, enjoying coaching and get a buzz from it I’m happy.  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Character Makes The Man

This article was originally distributed among the subscribers of Blueprint for Football Extra.  If you have an interest in youth football, join now (for Free!).

Within the space of a few months, Andros Townsend has gone from being a (dispensable) squad player at Tottenham to the man whose performances helped.  It is a remarkable achievement that bears testament not only to his talent but also to his strength of character. Many others in his position might have despaired and asked for a move especially given the rate at which Tottenham were buying midfielders this summer.  Yet Townsend didn’t do that but instead opted to stick it out and fight for his place.  The rewards of that brave (and risky) decision are there for all to see.

Yet Townsend’s biggest test of character didn’t come over these past few months but, rather when he was still fifteen years old.  Having been at Tottenham since the age of eight, he was informed that there would be no professional contract for him as the feeling was that he wasn’t good enough for them.

It is the kind of news that can floor anyone, let alone a teenager.  Townsend, however, refused to accept that and kept going back to Spurs’ training ground until, eventually, he was given another opportunity.  The rest, as they say, is history.

There have been many other similar stories and not all of them recent.  Craig Johnston (here’s a short video if your memory of 80’s football is a bit sketchy) came all the way to Sunderland from Australia – his parents even sold their house to help him fund the trip – only to be told by then manager Jack Charlton that he was “the worst player he had ever seen” a few minutes into his trial.

Johnston knew that too many people had invested their money in his dream and he wasn’t going to give up that easily.  So he spent as much of his free time as possible working on his skills, using bins as his make-believe opponents and dribbling round them.  His abilities improved and when a new manager came along, he was given a contract.  Eventually Liverpool – then the country’s dominant force – came in for Johnston and he went on to win practically all that there was to win.

Both Townsend and Johnston’s story are proof of how strength of character can help make a player even when faced with the toughest challenges or the harshest criticism.  Without it, they would have given up.   Of all the abilities that a player must have to succeed, that is perhaps the most under-rated.

Yet, by itself character isn’t enough; if all you needed to succeed was determination then many fans – who are willing to do anything for their team – would be able to play in the Premier League.  In truth, whilst a story like Townsend highlights an instance where the assessment of a youth sector got it wrong, in most instances they get it right.  Only a handful of players who are deemed as not being good enough come back to prove those who passed such a judgement wrong.

The rest have to deal with the reality that the dream of progressing further at the club where they grew up won’t be happening.  And that too requires strength of character.  Accepting to start again somewhere else, perhaps at a lower or non-professional level, requires courage too.  As does deciding to pursue other paths and careers.

Those stories aren’t as glamorous as a player being rejected but then going on to play for his country so they don’t get reported.  Yet every ‘rejected’ player who goes back to living his life and enjoying his football – or whatever other passion he chooses to follow – is a success story that merits being told and praised.  For these are the stories of men with real strength of character; that is what people should be looking to emulate.