Google+ Blueprint for Football: March 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Role of Luck In Football

Learn from others: six interviews with six coaches who talk about their blueprint for football in 'Blueprint According To...'.

Apart from Blueprint for Football, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on another writing project that looks at the stories from Italian football (if you’re interested in learning more about that, check this out).  In doing the research for that I read up quite a bit about Zdenek Zeman, a man who today is often spoken about in almost romantic terms by his admirers for the carefree football he advocates.

His critics, on the other point to his inability to build balanced teams which is why he failed to achieve any success when put in charge of big teams.

There is truth in both points of view but my sympathies lie more with the first one: Zeman was a visionary whose intense pressing game was ahead of its time by a couple of decades.

That, however, is not the point of this piece but rather the players in the team with which he rose to fame: Foggia.

As a small provincial side they had neither the finances nor the desire to attract big names and instead went through the lower leagues looking for players with potential to grow.  Many, if not most, clubs in their position do that but the big difference for Foggia is that they had a manager who could actually make these talents better.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of Beppe Signori.  The season before Foggia signed him he had scored five goals.  Since making his senior debut five years earlier he had scored fifteen goals.   In his first meeting with Zeman, the Czech manager welcomed him by calling him ‘bomber’ (word used by Italians to refer to prolific scorers).  It was a welcome that surprised Signori because the last thing the thought of himself was of a ‘bomber’.

Yet in his first season with Foggia he scored fourteen goals and went on to become of the greatest Italian strikers of all time.  Zeman had seen in him an ability that not even the player himself was certain of.  More importantly, he gave him the coaching and confidence to allow that ability to flourish.

Signori wasn’t the only one.  Before Foggia, Zeman spent a season with Messina where a then unknown striker by the name of Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci scored 23 goals which brought him to the attention of Juventus.  A year later he would be Italy’s saviour and top-scorer at the World Cup.  Then there were Roberto Rambaudi and Francesco Baiano, two forwards who were playing in the lower leagues but who went to have very successful careers in the top flight – Baiano even did pretty well in England with Derby County – with both playing for Italy.

That development of players is something that Zeman has done well throughout his career.  What always strikes me when I see such stories is the question over what would have happened if these players hadn’t signed for his teams.  Would they have been any less talented?  Was it the coaching that made the difference and pushed them up a level?  Or was it just a big stroke of fortune on their part that they came across a manager who was willing to give them a chance and a system that made their abilities shine?

My belief tends to be towards the latter.  Players need coaches who believe in their talent, who coach them well and who give them opportunities to improve.  It sounds obvious but in truth how many players fail to do that?  How many move to a big club, their eyes blinded by the lights and the big wages, only to see their career stall due to not playing?

In most walks of life, people just out of school accept jobs that don’t pay too well but which allow them to learn and gain the experience.  People plot their careers, choosing carefully which company to join based on the opportunities that it might open up.  They’re mindful of not taking dead-end jobs which might pay a bit more but leave them with no prospects.

Not in football, however.  As soon as a player starts making enough of an impression to attract bigger clubs, then you can almost guarantee that they’ll be off.  Sadly many times there are agents who are pushing them in that direction in order to get their cut with the players placing too much faith in them.

Ultimately, however, the players have to take responsibility.  There have been too many instances of others making a mistake for them to learn.  Looking through transfer rumours on any day, you’ll come across at least one where a young player is said to be attracting a big club.  And, if that interest is real, you can rest assured that in most cases that move will go through come the summer.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Winning Is All That Matters

Over the past couple of weeks, Joseph Minala achieved widespread notoriety for a rather uncomfortable reason.  The attacking midfielder, who looks a fair bit older than his declared age of seventeen years, has been impressing for Lazio at U20 level so much that he was recently called up to the first team.

Not everyone is impressed, however, and there are those arguing that one of the reasons for which he’s doing well is that he’s older than those he’s playing against. There’s no solid proof and all that everyone’s going by is his looks: hardly the most damning of reasons.  Then again, when you see his pictures you can understand the scepticism.

All of this talk about Minala’s age, however, misses a main point of the whole story which is that clubs still overlook the long term prospects of a player if he has the physical strength that can make the difference at this level.   Despite all the arguments made about the importance of developing individuals, rather than winning at all costs, you will still find many who will gladly opt for the individual who can help them win a competition even if in the long run that is all meaningless.

It is why those boys who mature physically at an earlier age still get picked ahead of the skilled yet weaker – for the time being – ones.   It is also why some clubs will play precocious talents in as many age groups as possible rather than opting for the one that will provide him with the challenge that allows him to develop and push to the next level.

Even so, it is unfair to lay all of the blame on the coaches.  The truth is that many feel that they’re working in the results business where the development of the individual is of little importance.  With managers at first team level changing on an increasingly more frequent basis, and with each new manager coming in with his own ideas, the pressure is there for coaches down the scale to have something to show for their work.  And the sad truth is that people are more easily impressed by wins then they are by the extent to which the players improved.

But one doesn’t even have to look at professional clubs to find evidence of that impatience.  How many parents will gladly accept a coach’s decision to give playing time to all kids so as to ensure that they all get the exposure?  How many will see the wisdom in having the kids experience playing in different positions rather than the one role in which they excel at that point?  Or will they start complaining if these decisions result in defeats?  Sadly, from personal experience I would think that in most cases it will be the latter.

Ultimately, it is all down to the culture fostered in the club where these children are receiving their footballing education.  If the over-riding message is that the only result which is important is the one that deals with the progression of the children then everyone will work towards that.  Yet, if that message is not forthcoming and regularly reinforced then the default setting will always be that of looking for the short term.

Learn from others: six interviews with six coaches who talk about their blueprint for football in 'Blueprint According To...'.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Blueprint According To...Dan Wright

“I work with people to help them fulfill their potential.”   As far as opening statements in a CV go, there are few more ambitious and impressive than that.  It is also intriguing, incentivising readers to look into it in more detail so, in that sense, Dan Wright’s is certainly a success.

There is, however, more to him than just the easy promises of a CV. Wright is someone who has worked himself tirelessly; rising through the ranks until he made it as the main person in charge at the Eastleigh academy.  He has since left that job and is looking for new challenge, planning his next move.

In the meantime, he has kept himself busy by scouring the internet for the best coaching manuals and documents which are then retweeted.  It is a great source of information, one that whets the appetite making you determined to find out more.

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what got you into coaching and how long was that?
Dan Wright: I first started coaching in 2004, I set up a Sunday league club for my friends and I, we wanted to build something a bit different and took my FA Level 1 straight away.  This led on to my Level 2 immediately after, I was told by my tutor Nigel Quincey to take the UEFA 'B' straight away, so ended up taking the 3 badges with 4 years.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
DW: This is one area I'm working on. I believe you learn something from everybody you work with; players and coaches.  At this stage of my career it is the players I've learnt the most from, having never played a fantastic level I learn a lot working with some excellent young talents. 

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
DW: My aim is to produce technically proficient players who understand the game and make great decisions. I like to coach through game related practices and small sided games that recreate pictures that players seen in a game.

BfF: Is winning important for you?
DW: YES! Winning has become a dirty word, but it's not winning that's the problem, it's putting it above everything else, that's the issue.  The win at all cost mentality in youth football is a problem. Putting results over performance at under 8 is wrong. 

Kids play the game to win, so ignoring the result is silly, however it's only one indication of the performance.  My view is focus on the processes, the small details and the results will look after themselves!

BfF: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
DW: Great question! I think it varies from age to age. Initially in the foundation phase I'm looking for players that are enthusiastic, that move well, can problem solve with creativity and individual ball mastery. As this develops through the age groups the ability to combine with other becomes important and then their understanding of the role in the team, and finally how this changes between transitions.

As players getter older I would say the individuals that are committed to their improvement are the ones that truly reach their potential. Players that I've coached who have gone on to earn professional contracts have been 100% focused on being the best they can be, they know that small details can have huge impacts.

BfF: You describe yourself as a student of the game.  What do you consider to be the best way through which you learn?  
DW: For me learning is formal and informal. You learn a lot from the FA courses but I learnt more working with a reserve squad for 1 season for example.

I try to build up as comprehensive knowledge as possible. This means watching as much football as possible - preferably live, watching great coaches coach, reading books - on all aspects of coaching, psychology, learning styles, autobiographies and journals and networking with other coaches who challenge your thinking, twitter is great for this.. 

BfF: You also say that your relationships with players are based on trust and value that you can add to the game.  First of all, what do you mean by that?
DW: When working with young players they naturally respect coaches, you older and taller and they generally work in environments where adults are in charge! However in sport this can be challenged, the better footballers tend to question coaching, which I encourage, if you know your stuff I would encourage dialogue with players. 

As players get older they start to have an opinion, this where I would say I build relationships with players. By varying your coaching style and your intervention techniques you can start to drip feed information to players.  By giving information or small pointers you get in to dialogue with players, this shows they're learning, it also gives you chance to give your opinion and hopefully improve their game.

BfF: Secondly, how do you achieve that?
DW: This is the art of coaching, seeing the problem, knowing your players and then picking the right technique to communicate it successfully.  Like I said having never been a great a player I often use phrases like 'What did you think...?", "Have you thought about..", "Could you try...". When these hints work, players come back for more and start to trust your insight and opinion. I try to build trust and respect rather than just expect it.

BfF: You spent a couple of years at Eastleigh FC's academy.  What are the main challenges of working with youths at that level?
DW: At that this level it's contact time that's the problem. The coaching was all funded from parents so the players came in once a week from U8 to U15, at U16 this went up to 2 sessions a week and then on the scholarship they would train 4 mornings a week.

There are many talented young footballers but every year they are out of EPPP clubs the gap just gets bigger and bigger.

BfF: And is there any upside?
DW: The upside is helping young players fulfil their potential and giving players that opportunity to make the jump.  The impact you can have is huge, you can take players from grassroots clubs to the football league. 

BfF: What do you want to achieve to be satisfied with what you have done in your coaching career?
DW: I've achieved more than I thought I would but I'm never satisfied. I'm very hungry and ambitious, I would like to look back when I retire and think of all the players I've helped along the way that's what I find rewarding.

Dan Wright's blog can be found here whilst he can also be reached on Twitter.