Google+ Blueprint for Football: Why A Philosophy is Vital in Football

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why A Philosophy is Vital in Football

The first part of this series of three interview, where Jed talks about his formation as a coach, can be read here.  If you want more interviews like this one, then check out Volume 1 of Blueprint According To... .

Philosophy.  These days it seems that every coach is analysed and distilled in order to get to his philosophy; that defining characteristic which he tries to instill into all his teams.

As often happens when a word becomes so frequently used, its meaning becomes blurred and people start attributing different values to it.  What is it, then that defines a philosophy, how can it be developed and why is it important?

Those questions were put to Jed Davies, a coach who has researched this topic and spoken with a number of people at the highest level of the game in order to get a better understanding of it.

Why is a playing philosophy so important?
For me, having a singular team objective in the way that they want to play is essential to achieving success on a football field and it always has been, right back to the late 1800’s when Scotland decided they would keep possession against a much stronger, quicker and more skilful English side. Possession was a defensive ploy to keep the ball away from the English and look to collectively beat the individuals of England in the late 1800’s.

I remember Chris Davies saying to me at Melwood that he saw clear and identifiable philosophies in every single Championship and Premier League team back in November 2012. That is to say that all teams look to meet the objectives of a philosophy, whether that be to play long-ball, possession football, a high pressing game or a combination of all the options we can have on a football field.

The alternative is to send eleven players out onto a football field and hope that the eleven different minds come together to compliment one another in how they perceive the game of football and like eleven different artists, I really see this as a highly unlikely situation. However, at the same time, I believe our philosophies should certainly find place within them to allow for each of the eleven different understandings of the game to make their mark on a game of football - it’s a ongoing and cyclical relationship.

Is developing a philosophy or style of play simply down to what you do on the training ground and how much of the philosophy dictated by the players you have available?
My formal education is in Architecture and Planning and I credit a number of different implementation models taught to me on some of the modules during the course of reading that degree. One in particular was as a result of work by Pressman and Wildavsky (1973) that looked at the planning process and the process of going from having a plan to seeing it in action. You can probably see where my mind was wondering off to in the lecture theatre during this module - in a footballing context, this may relate to having a set of tactics or a philosophy and seeing them come to fruition. Well P&W (1973) came to the understanding that the planning implementation model was not linear; it was not a case of setting an agenda, formulating a plan and implementing it - there was something far more complex involved. P&W instead proposed that planning was cyclical and the model was completed with a series of refinement, adjustment and reform stages.

Something P&W and a number of authors came to realise was that perfect implementation of plans was impossible and that “perfect implementation” simply couldn’t and didn’t exist due to eight listed factors that a number of authors have extensively written about over the years (we’ll save the rest of that lecture's content for another time).

Going back to a footballing context however, I have come to understand football tactics and football philosophy to fit within the following implementation model that I have adapted from the policy planning theory:

So going back to your question, how much is influenced by the players, the training ground and other aspects? Well everything influences your philosophy: your resources (time, facilities, quality and quantity of coaches etc), players, your training methodologies and the ability to review and reform your philosophy and tactics. It’s an ongoing process that will never have an ending and a process you are to manage as a manager and/or coach. It is for these reasons that I go far beyond just the tactics or just the training methodology in my book and delve into the tactical history and development theory of players and club philosophies.
I’ll always credit my formal education for my understanding of football and I am extremely grateful for parts of it, but what I want to tell those who aren’t reading a degree in sport is that people like myself and Crewe Alexandra coach Michael Jolley (who read Economics at Cambridge University) and others have tapped into one of the most overlooked benefits from an education outside of football alongside a continued footballing education: cross disciplinary learning. There is so much that football is yet to understand and I feel that sometimes, our answers come from the most unlikely aspects of life; so don’t feel that just because you haven’t studied Sports Science at University, that you’d not be fit for a career in sport because alongside the coaching qualifications (that I do feel are necessary) it is possible that you can benefit from a seemingly totally unrelated field of study.

I see myself as a coach on that cyclical diagram, consistently adjusting, refining and reforming my ideas and own philosophy. It’s about time more took a similar approach in my own opinion and avoid getting stuck in old mindsets.

You've spoken to a lot of coaches in developing your ideas: why have you taken this approach?  Do you find that you learn more by talking to coaches?
There are three ways I find myself learning in football: match and training analysis (both of professional clubs and my own), getting into the mindsets of other coaches and trying new things out in training sessions that quite often fail. Getting into the mindset of another coach is a big part of that learning process because it allows you to change the lenses of which you view the game for a moment and question everything you do from a different mindset.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m fortunate enough to have formed some good friendships with some great coaches inside the game and every single day I’ll fixate over some minor detail - whether that be a pressing trigger, passing pattern or rotation pattern of positioning etc - that sometimes it’s easy to over analyse parts of the game - it’s great to be able to turn to someone who is on a similar wavelength to you and has already considered the things you’re trying to find the answers for.

Recently I was watching back the footage of the Oxford Centaurs team and trying to figure out that if in a double team situation (where you’ve got two players on the opponent who has the ball) where the third man (support) should be best placed to receive the ball that pops out. “Is there a high probability that the ball will pop out here given factors a or b?” and so on - these are the questions I was running through the game with. Given that the analysis I was doing was on just one game, I’m yet to arrive at any meaningful conclusion - it is of course, highly possible that I’m looking into something ‘too much’ and that I’m heading nowhere with this, but I’m prepared to be completely wrong with any assumption I’ve made and I guess that’s the sort of person you need to be if you’re going to start asking questions like this.
There are coaches out there who’ve done similar types of research and it’s likely that they wouldn’t be prepared to share it openly as football is such a competitive environment that any information like this would be beneficial to your team if no one else knows the information. A few coaches I’ve spoken to in the past have conducted experiments not too dissimilar and come up with concrete evidence to back up any theories. I’m not saying that you should hunt down these coaches and I probably wouldn’t give out any such information myself but it’s invaluable that you can get into the same mindset as coaches who are analysing the game and training methods in these ways. I’ve learnt through speaking with coaches just how much detail, preparation, knowledge and your approach to development can amount to everything you want to become.

One person that you've spoken a lot to is Liverpool's Chris Davies.  Who is he and why has he left such an impression on you?
Chris is an immensely talented coach with a fantastic perception of the game who used to play under Brendan Rodgers as a Reading Academy player. After not ‘making it’ as a professional football player he went to on to study Sports Science at Loughborough University and then fortunately had that contact of Brendan Rodgers within the game. Rodgers by now was the Swansea Manager and invited Chris to be a part of his analysis team at Swansea. Chris later moved with Rodgers, Pascoe and others over the border to Liverpool and now works as the opposition analysis scout for Liverpool FC.

What impressed me just as much was the way in which every single Liverpool player made the effort to acknowledge Chris (and interrupt him) as they walked through the room we were speaking in on their way to lunch in the cafeteria at Melwood. He clearly works closely with the players, feeding in important pieces of information to the players before games and Brendan Rodgers has complete trust in Chris’ ability as someone who understands the game tactically and analytically.

I remember having a list of tactical scenario’s that I wanted to get Chris’ opinion on in terms of ‘what would you do if…’ and I don’t think there was ever a second’s pause between my question and his answer or further questions to clarify the scenario - he is that passionate about tactical problems! For what I had planned ten or twenty minutes to talk about ended up lasted over an hour and he’d skipped his lunch break to finish off the answers to each scenario. There’s an air of passion and confidence in his voice on my recordings of our conversation that allowed me to have an insight into why coaching problems can be so enjoyable, you just have to learn to love a coaching problem - otherwise they really do become a problem, rather than a tactical, technical or training scenario with a multitude of answers.

Talking of Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers is someone who came in talking about possession football and philosophies but hasn't been completely faithful to what he said.  Is that a case of a manager adapting to what he has available or am I reading the games wrong?
It’s no secret that Rodgers is a bit of a ‘coaching academic’ and is one that believes not only in player development, but coaching and personal development too. My own interpretation is that the latest solution to Liverpool’s tactical set up is as a result of ‘tactical problems’ and this idea of feedback, refinement and reform that we’ve spoken about in the last few questions.

While I believe that Rodgers does have his favourite game model, the 4-3-3 with one controller, a number of factors have led to an adapted model being used at Liverpool. In all cases though, the same principles have stood - overloading central areas and attempting to isolate in wide areas, coupled with a high and aggressive pressing method where possible. I think that having possession was set in Rodgers’ mind as an absolute necessity a year or two a go and nowadays I think Rodgers is set on allowing for the counter attack to be part of his tactical make up given his team of players and the league they play in (I am sure there are many factors to this) and as a result we’re seeing two outlets in advance roles in the form of Suarez and Sturridge and in a sense, a more ‘effective’ game plan that fits all the factors that influence the game model and philosophy. 

I’m still not convinced however, that if Rodgers were to be managing elsewhere in five or six years time that he’d stick with what we’re seeing right now. I think the way you’ve worded this question might suggest that you feel he’s done something negative by not sticking by the style of play he announced so passionately last summer, but I really do think this is a case of understanding that sometimes not everything is decided by the manager’s ideals - it’s a team effort and the manager, the resources, the rest of the coaching staff and the playing squad all make up the end product. If more managers were to realise this at the grassroots level of the game, then perhaps we’d see progress at that level, not everyone is Mourinho and should be dictating every minor detail within a club. The planning implementation module and it’s theory allowed me to realise this and a deep understanding of the complex phenomena of tactical philosophy-implementation is essential to be successful as a manager in my own view.

You can buy Jed’s book from Soccer Tutor and more information about Jed’s football coaching is available at Inspire Football Events.

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