For some time last year, it was impossible to escape from philosophy in football. Every other coach seemed to be talking about it and how his way of playing had been shaped by it.
Whilst the idea of a philosophy is in itself a straightforward one, how one arrives to it is rather complex; it isn’t simply a case of claiming that you want to play with the ball on the ground. Different situations force coaches to adopt different ideas and their philosophy must be adaptable enough to follow suit.
“Philosophy has become a bit of a buzzword in coaching, and is sometimes either very generic or very unclear.” So say Ray Power, a youth coach who has devoted time to look at what is meant by a philosophy and how one – anyone, irrespective of level they’re coaching – can develop a philosophy.
Those thoughts are contained in his book In Making the Ball Roll - a must for any budding coach - and we’ve spoken to him to learn more about the various elements that coaching should encompass as well as about the most recent tactical innovations.
Blueprint for Football: First of all, what attracted you to football coaching? Where did you make your first steps and what sort of education have you received?
Ray Power: Football has always been what I did. As a kid all I wanted to do was watch and play football, morning until night. I qualified as a teacher after leaving school and loved teaching and the classroom environment. But it always niggled at me that it wasn't football! Football was probably the only profession that would get me out of bed with a smile so I started doing my coaching badges then swapped the classroom for the pitch soon after! Coaching has allowed me to combine my experience and knowledge of football and of education, which suits me perfectly.
In terms of the education I 'received', it would be no different to the coaching courses that all other coaches have gone on. I suppose what's different is I wasn't a 'badge collector' and studied the game and the coaching profession beyond the spec of the coach education pathways. I've ended up studying a vast amount of research from the game all over the world, sought the opinions of whoever I meet in the game and went out and learned as much about coaching football as I could. From technical and tactical things, to other disciplines around psychology, NLP, learning styles, philosophy development - all of what went into my first book on youth coaching - Making the Ball Roll.
BfF: What does a good coach, particularly a good youth coach, need?
RP: A good youth coach needs to understand the needs of his group, at their particular level and age. It's quite frustrating watching an U10 group being spoken to and asked to do things that adults would. Coaches need to understand the game and the learning process relevant to their players development.
If that's the starting point then other things like communication skills, rapport and his technical knowledge can be applied with a sound basis to build on.
BfF: In your writing, you reference a lot what happens at different clubs. Do you agree that this desire to learn from others as a core element of coaching?
RP: Definitely. I eluded to it earlier. I'm a fan of the formal coach education process that I've gone through, but it's the extra bits from other clubs, coaches and nations that you adopt that makes you different to other coaches. You fit any new information into the way you work, or of course, you may discard is as relevant. Being open-minded in this way is important, otherwise you end up teaching players a really narrow aspect of the game.
BfF: What were the most impressive things you've witnessed when looking at various academies? Are there any items that you feel are essential for any youth system to be a success?
RP: Academies are similar to any big youth football club. You get the coaches that are excellent and others that are may need more support - but remember a significant part of all academies are run by part-time staff.
Without naming names, the most impressive ones are those that place relevant coaches with relevant age groups, seek ways of assessing players more appropriately (for example they look at ways of addressing Relative Age Effect) and work to a relevant and realistic philosophy and syllabus.
BfF: On the flip side, do you yourself look at mistakes that others make to try and learn from them?
RP: Absolutely! We all claim to learn from our mistakes, but learning from others is like a freebie! I like to read a lot about other coaches and managers and seeing how they dealt with players and certain situations to see if I can absorb good practice and avoid any of their mistakes. The trouble in youth football is that it can be quite territorial, where a coach works alone with one team, and has very little option to learn from others.
I have an open mind when it comes to football coaching - but I also have my own beliefs. I recently met an Academy Manager who wouldn't let the kids pass with anything other than the inside of their foot! In my eyes, this is a nonsense and completely unrelated to the reality of the game. Sometimes you need to use the outside, sole, back heel - whatever! Oscar scored a great goal for Brazil during the World Cup - with his toe! Anytime I observe an academy or grassroots session, my first question is whether it reflects the reality of the game or not. Unfortunately, a lot do not.
BfF: Similarly, is there anything to learn from other sports? Could this be the next area of growth for football coaching?
RP: I think it's growing yes. There's always a sense that football knows best among the fraternity but it doesn't have to be the case. People like Pat Riley and John Wooden in basketball for example have out some really relevant stuff out there. I did a football session for a group of elite rugby players some time back and the similarities in approach were really noticeable. One of Pep Guardiola's trusted assistants was an Olympic water polo player! Invasion games have similar principles to football so it's only natural that we can absorb so of their lessons.
BfF: We hear a lot about philosophy but what is it exactly?
RP: 'Philosophy' has become a bit of a buzzword in coaching, and is sometimes either very generic or very unclear. In Making the Ball Roll we have a look at this topic and I had some really good input from other coaches and clubs around the world. For me, a coach's philosophy on how he works and how he wants the game to be played, needs to be simple, fit for purpose and have the players as it's focal point.
BfF: How does one go about implementing his own philosophy? Because it might be easy for a coach who works within a club structure but not so much for someone who is either just starting out or else is affiliated to a particular club?
RP: Definitely. That is something very important that I felt needed to be addressed in Making the Ball Roll. The easiest guidance I can give is to start with a blank piece of paper. Write down what it is you want your players to be able to do, then break it down bit by bit into a syllabus for the players. So, if you want to play an open, attacking game as a coach, you may spend a considerable time working on defending skills - defending against counter-attacks, defending 1v1, outnumbered, goalkeepers start position etc. For a new coach this will be a journey in itself, and mistakes will be made, so constantly reviewing what you do is therefore important.
BfF: Similarly, how to ensure that your philosophy is taken on board and adopted by your players?
RP: We use the term 'player-centred' all the time in coaching. Every group is different so having them in the centre of your plans is critical. I remember hearing Tony Mowbray speaking about how he spent a playing career being told what to do, how to do it, with little room to express himself. That struck a chord with me.
I would encourage any coach to look at their communication and rapport-building skills which always help you getting a buy-in from your players. The football programme is for them, not the coach, and without their buy-in, anything is very difficult to implement.
BfF: Your more recent book talks about the evolution of tactics in 2014. Is there anything that is truly new?
RP: Football tactics evolve according to trends in the game. So ten/fifteen years ago the popularisation of the defensive midfielder has led to attacking midfielders needing to play in other areas of the pitch.
Modric for example plays a deep-lying player now rather than a number 10, full-backs are attacking players, goalkeepers are as technically good as their outfield counterparts, traditional out-and-out strikers seem to be scoring less goals - so a lot of change is afoot.
How that's wrapped up hasn't 'truly' changed. Variants of 3-5-2 have come out of hibernation, the strike partnership has been reborn it seems and 4-4-2 now seems to be a viable option again, though arguably in a more fluid way than before.
BfF: Which has been the evolution that has impressed you the most?
RP: I love the idea of having a team of interchanging, fluid footballers. How the Germans did this really impressed me. I love that they took Miroslav Klose to the competition as their only true out-an-out striker, then watched Goetze, Kroos, Ozil, Schurrle etc, take up an attacking role which virtually saw them playing position-less. In Soccer Tactics 2014 we looked at how this striker-less system ultimately won them the final with the movement of Goetze, Muller and Schurrle.
BfF: In the World Cup we saw a number of teams who weren't highly rated but who, thanks to the adoption of the right tactics, managed to do well. Do you think we are entering an era where tactics can lead to a shift in power or will those with better players always be at too great an advantage?
RP: Yes and no. Because football is such a globalised game, tactics and methods travel quicker than they ever did before. So unfancied teams like Costa Rica or Algeria can use tactics to organise themselves and find ways of competing with nations with a better, technical pedigree. You could say that we've already witnessed a nation with a tactical plan defy the odds when Greece won Euro 2004.
Teams with the 'better' players though will more often than not have the advantage. Whether on the day this will count is impossible to foresee, but these players win you games. Iran defended heroically against Argentina, but a piece of magic from Messi saw them lose the game. I think there will always be a balance between tactical discipline, and technical quality.
BfF: Where do you expect football tactics to go next? What do you think will be the big thing next year?
RP: The "big thing"? I'm not sure. Only a couple of years ago we were looking at the future of football with no strikers. We began to see teams playing 4-6-0 or 3-7-0 to dominate midfield, whether their intent was to attack with fluidity like Barcelona or defend in numbers like Scotland. The history of tactics has seen strikers suffer, constantly sacrificed to add more bodies elsewhere. Within no time however, and evident at the World Cup, strike partnerships are on the rise again, and we evolve once more.
We are seeing so many variants in how teams set up tactically now. Teams that look to dominate the ball and teams who are happy to play without possession and counter attack. Those who press aggressively and those who sit deep.
At the very least I think more teams will experiment with the way they play, more will use a back 3, more teams will use positionless or 'universal' players.
BfF: What next for you? What are your ambitions?
RP: In terms of writing I have a further deal to release coaching books in the coming months. The next one will look at developing technical and skillful players.
Ultimately my ambition is to work within elite youth development at a top club, or within a national FA. I've had a lot of emails and phone calls from the world over and made great contacts, but I'm in no rush. Once the right opportunity presents itself then I will evaluate things.
Ray Power is the author of two coaching books: Making the Ball Roll which is a complete guide to youth football for the aspiring coach and Soccer Tactics 2014 which takes a look at what this year's World Cup taught us, tactics wise.
A sample chapter of Making the Ball Roll can be found here whilst a chapter of Soccer Tactics 2014 is available here.
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