Google+ Blueprint for Football: December 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 3]

Every Saturday morning, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 20th of December.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

What Goes Into Developing a Coaching Philosophy
There are innumerable coaches who are constantaly looking to improve themselves.  Most, however, limit their ambition to football matters.  Tim Lees, on the other hand, realised early on that if he was serious about football there were other lessons that he needed to learn.  When he realised that he was poor at communicating, he took a job at a call centre to better himself.  Later, he took a job at a bank to improve his face to face communication skills.

All that is detailed in this fascinating interview where I spoke to Tim about the journey that has seen him get to be among the coaching staff at Liverpool’s academy, how coaches can develop their own philosophy and why he’s always eager to help other coaches.

The Fixation of Playing Possession Football out of Defence 
In every era in football, there are certain tactics that are more in vogue than others.  Currently, it is the time of passing football with teams looking to mimic, adopt and alter the style of play pioneered by Barcelona.

In particular, this entails creating play from the back with the keeper acting also as a sweeper; the starting point from which attacking movements are created.  This article by Jon Townsend examines that particular aspect and debates whether it is as effective a tactic as is presumed.

Bayern’s Pep Guardiola assists Japan rugby team’s World Cup preparations 
I'm a big beleiver in the value and benefits of looking at other sports in order to see what can be learned from them.  Since most sports  have developed  somewhat independently  from each other, not all have developed along the same principles and concepts.  Now, however, it is more than ever possible to find people who practise and administer these sports to see what they do differently.

A great example  of this lies in this article that talks of Eddie Jones who has turned to Pep Guardiola to see whether there are some aspects of his vision that can be transplanted to rugby.

For anyone who doesn't know, Jones is a highly respected coach with a long career filled witg success, not least being the assistant manager when South Africa won the World Cup in 2007.  Yet he clearly feels that he hasn't learned all that there is to learn.  Good man.

PS. One a similar note, I strongly recommend James Kerr's book Legacy that looks at the various aapects that have made the All Blacks such a dominant force in world rugby.  It is a great read that should be on the bookshelf of any football coach.

The Problem With Praise 
Whenever I read articles like this, I’m always faced with something of a conundrum. Intellectually, the arguments that you show avoid praising children over a good outcome make a lot of sense (not to mention that they are backed by scientific research) yet, as a parent, it is extremely difficult to pull off.  When your kids get a good school report, for instance, it is somewhat automatic that you praise them for it when in truth it is the effort that they put in which should be praised.

Despite my own instinctive conundrum, however, I do genuinely try to avoid such ‘blind’ praise and so too should coaches, something that this article explains (and why) very well.

A Day in the Life of Bournemouth’s Manager Eddie Howe 
There are many who believe that they could do the job of a manager at a football club yet few really appreciate what this involves.  This fly-on-the-wall piece on Eddie Howe provides a glimpse into their reality and highlights just how much work it takes.

Interested in football coaching and looking for a quick read?  Check out Blueprint According To...Volume 2 (US version here), an e-book produced by this site and which contains seven interviews where coaches talk about their believes and work methods.

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.