Google+ Blueprint for Football: The Future of Football Lies in Universality

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.

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