Google+ Blueprint for Football: 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

Blueprint for Football's Different Ideas

One of the ideas behind Blueprint for Football is that of looking at different ideas that are – or should be - influencing the game of football.  We’ve done that over the years and here is an overview (shown by order of publishing with the most recent ones being on top) of the most influential of those ideas.

On Curiosity 
Essential Qualities of a Football Coach: Curiosity [May 2016]
There is the belief that great innovations come from lightbulb moments when inspiration hits and the fully formed idea is conceived.  That isn’t the case.  Instead great ideas are usually the result of years of thinking about something and linking it to knowledge learned from elsewhere.  It is for this reason that curiosity is important as it is through it that one accumulates the knowledge needed to thread together different concepts.
Memorable Quote: “What people should be trying to foster is…epistemic curiosity, which is a more structured and deeper form of curiosity that can ignite the desire to learn and attempt to do things that one would not normally consider.” 

On Habits
How Habits Shape Football (And Why They Matter To You) [October 2013]
The most tactically disciplined teams are also those who seem to know instinctively when they should be doing a particular action.  Think of Arsenal’s back four under George Graham moving in unison to set-off the offside trap or Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona pressing defenders as soon as possession was lost.  The thing is that this is hardly instinctive but rather a movement that is dictated by habits, an idea that every coach has to be aware of.
Memorable Quote:  “Barcelona’s game, then, isn’t a spontaneous expression of genius but rather the perfect execution of a series of deeply ingrained habits.”

On Perception
Perception is in the Eye of the Beholder [September 2013]
Can you teach a player how to be more aware of what is happening around him?  Can you determine how aware a player is of what is happening around him by watching him play?  The answer to both questions is yes and Geir Jordet, who has studied in depth the idea of perception provided a breakdown on how this is possible.  For coaches looking for some different ideas to investigate, this has to be on their read list.
Memorable Quote: “Players tend to look too much at the ball; you don't really need all the information you get from the ball.”

On Psychology 
Helping the Brain to Win Games [May 2013]
The history of the game of football is littered with players who had the talent but not the mental capacity to succeed.  It is a shameful waste considering how much resources there are out there for them to help themselves.  As for coaches, they too have to have a good handle of the basics of sports psychology and Dan Abrahams delivered a primer on that in this interview.
Memorable Quote: “(Sports psychology) is the bottom of the wish list for clubs and also probably at the bottom of the wish list for player. Yet we talk how important the psychological side is in football so there is a bit of a disconnection.”

On Specialisation
Bursting the Specialisation Myth [September 2012]
The idea that the 10,000 hour practise rule is, at best, an indicator rather than a rule that guarantees expertise is now quite accepted but at the time of this interview with the University of Birmingham Senior Lecturer Dr Martin Toms his arguments flew in the face of the pop-psychology beliefs set about by Malcolm Gladwell’s books.  A wide ranging interview that delves into the damage that early specialisation does to players and how it would be best to let children try out a number of sports.
Memorable Quote: “Specialising in one sport at a young age is actually detrimental to success.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Blueprint for Football Interview Directory

From Bristol Rovers to Barcelona, through Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven, over the years Blueprint for Football has spoken to a lot of people working at the best* football institutions in the world.  Their knowledge is yours to experience and here you will find a quick summary of each of the most insightful of interviews that we have done.

If you want to read what fellow coaches have to say about their views on the game, check out of Blueprint According To... series or join our newsletter for a free copy of Volume III.

* Best for us is defined not purely by prestige but also by attitude and willingness to learn.

Inside Barca’s Talent Factory
Interviewee: Marti Perarnau [Barcelona Based Author]
A lot has been written about Barcelona’s La Masia but few people are as knowledgeable about what happens there as Spanish journalist Marti Perarnau who has written books about this subject as well as about his close friend Pep Guardiola.  Here he answers questions about the birth of La Masia’s philosophy, how players are chosen and how they manage to keep the talent flowing
Memorable Quote: “Is physical strength and height given much importance? None.”

Bursting the Specialisation Myth
Interviewee: Dr. Martin Toms [Senior Lecturer at University of Birmingham]
The idea that the 10,000 hour practise rule is, at best, an indicator rather than a rule that guarantees expertise is now quite accepted but at the time of this interview with the University of Birmingham Senior Lecturer Dr Martin Toms his arguments flew in the face of the pop-psychology beliefs set about by Malcolm Gladwell’s books.  A wide ranging interview that delves into the damage that early specialisation does to players and how it would be best to let children try out a number of sports.
Memorable Quote: “Grass roots clubs should all act as they would a surrogate family”

Hamilton Aiming To Be The Best
Interviewee: Frankie McAvoy [Youth Academy Director at Hamilton Academical]
Although Scottish football has, to put it mildly, not been enjoying the best of times there are still a lot of people within the Scottish game who are top class coaches with ideas for youth development that are quite inspired.  Frankie McAvoy is one such person.  At the time of this interview he was the Youth Academy Director at Hamilton Academical who had produced players like James McCarthy and James MacArthur.  McAvoy has since followed Alex Neil to Norwich but Hamilton still field teams made up largely of home grown players, a sure indicator that they still abide by the same ideology for the development of talent.
Memorable Quote: “Our philosophy is very simple: in every sport the goal is to be the best that you can possibly be. That is what we try to teach our kids here.”

In Search of Game Intelligence
Interviewee: Horst Wein
Although he is not a familiar name among many football fans, Horst Wein has to rank among the best coaches to ever think about the game.  His attitude to letting young players learn by playing the game is visionary and in this interview he spoke among others of that belief and how best to achieve it.
Memorable Quote: “The strongest, fastest player without game intelligence will waste most of his potential, but the smallest intelligent player can overcome any opponent.”

Helping the Brain to Win Games
Interviewee: Dan Abrahams [Sports Psychologist and Book Author]
The history of the game of football is littered with players who had the talent but not the mental capacity to succeed.  It is a shameful waste considering how much resources there are out there for them to help themselves.  As for coaches, they too have to have a good handle of the basics of sports psychology and Dan Abrahams delivered a primer on that in this interview.
Memorable Quote: “Too many coaches say that they have players that have lots of physical talent but 'he doesn't want it' and there's nothing that can be done.  That is rubbish.  Of course something can be done.”

Perception is in the Eye of the Beholder
Interviewee: Geir Jordet
Can you teach a player how to be more aware of what is happening around him?  Can you determine how aware a player is of what is happening around him by watching him play?  The answer to both questions is yes and Geir Jordet, who has studied in depth the idea of perception provided a breakdown on how this is possible.  For coaches looking for some different ideas to investigate, this has to be on their read list.
Memorable Quote: “Xavi is a good example.  He doesn't just look, he is one of the most active players out there; he doesn't automatically know what is around him, is constantly searching, constantly looking.”

The Secrets of the Talent Spotters
Interviewee: Michael Calvin [Author of The Nowhere Men]
When he wrote The Nowhere Men, Michael Calvin brought to focus a role that is often mythicized without ever really being understood, that of scouting players.  He did this by spending time with a number of scouts and learning from them along the way.  Some of that knowledge was passed on in this interview.
Memorable Quote: “In any other business, when you've made that massive investment you would have psycho-metric testing but in football you can't do that because the person you want to test is the property of another club.”

Futsal Provides The Technicians That Football Needs
Interviewee: Michael Sorato [Futsal World Cup Winning Coach]
As the games increasingly appreciates technical players, youth football coaches are being faced with a challenge brought about by the decline of street football where most of those players used to learn those skills.  Futsal is a valid replacement and perhaps the way forward.
Memorable Quote: “[Futsal teaches] quick thinking, fast decision making, a higher demand of technique to solve problems in small spaces.  It helps the player to think about the game and to learn how to defend and attack.  The player needs to be complete.”

The Man Who Made Barca
Interviewee: Laureano Ruiz [Former Head of Barcelona’s Academy]
Although Johann Cruyff is widely credited as kicking off the revolution in thinking at Barcelona, the process had actually started under Laureano Ruiz who took over the club’s youth system before Cruyff arrived at the club.  One of his first acts was to abolish the policy where only players of a certain height were considered.
Memorable Quote: “When I refer to my system of play, I stress: order, inspiration and fantasy.”

The Future of Football Lies in Universality
Interviewee: Matt Whitehouse [Author of Coaching Books]
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.  In this interview Whitehouse spoke 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.
Memorable Quote: “What coaches need to think is not in terms of position based skills but of what a footballer requires.”

What Goes Into Developing a Coaching Philosophy
Interviewee: Tim Lees,  Ex-Liverpool FC Academy Coach]
In recent years, philosophy has become something of a buzzword within football yet the real meaning of philosophy within the game was somewhat lost.  Lees explained it in detail looking also at his own route to developing a philosophy.
Memorable Quote: “Whenever you ask a top manager privately ‘what’s your philosophy?’ his response will often be ‘one that wins’.”

Working on Aberdeen's Future
Interviewee: Gavin Levey [Aberdeen FC Academy]
Aberdeen have a tradition for bringing through young players and that looks like continuing given the club’s current policy of focusing primarily on bringing through players to their first team, something which they have done successfully.  Gavin Levey is the man charged with their younger age groups and he explains how they do it.
Memorable Quote: “It is vital that as coaches we help develop a winning mentality with individuals from an early age and this comes from the training ground and preparing sessions which are competitive.”

Inside An Academy: Bristol Rovers
Interviewee: Jonathan Henderson [Bristol Rovers’ Academy Head of Coaching and Academy Manager]
Although most of the attention is focused on what happens at the highest level, there is a lot of excellent work going on in lower levels.  Bristol Rovers are a prime example and in Jonathan Henderson they have a head of coaching who is determined to push them forward.
Memorable  Quote: “We want a learning environment; a growth mindset.  That extends to the staff as well as the players.”

“Being A Goalkeeper Is The Greatest Thing In The World” + What a Goalkeeper Needs
Interviewee: Ruud Hesp [Ex-Barcelona goalkeeper & current PSV Eindhoven goalkeeper coach]
Goalkeepers, it is often said, are different.  You have to be when in a game where the ultimate aim is to put the ball between the goalposts you dedicate yourself to stop it from doing so.  Ruud Hesp was one such individual but he sees it differently as for him there is no better role than being a goalkeeper.  In these two interviews he speaks about his career, the lessons that he learned and what it takes to be a top goalkeeper.
Memorable Quote: “You can have good players but if the goalkeeper isn’t good enough then you have a problem.  A house is built on a good foundation. It is the same with goalkeepers.”

"I Never Look For Players Who Take Advantage Of Their Physical Power At Young Ages"
Interviewee: Albert Capellas [Ex-youth coordinator at Barcelona, current-assistant coach at Maccabi Tel Aviv]
Any coach who has the good fortune of working with Barcelona is bound to have an excellent insight into the game.  Albert Capellas has gone further than that, expanding his horizons by working in a number of countries like Holland, Denmark and, now, Israel.  This has been an educational experience and he shares some of what he has learned in this interview.
Memorable Quote: “We can’t split between attack and defense. They are both connected with each other. In attack, one has to think about defense (in the event that we lose the ball) and when we defend one must always think about attack (for the moment when we win the ball) and go on the attack.”

Getting Players To Think
Interviewee: Todd Beane [Founder of TOVO Academy]
A lot of coaches have mentors who guide their formation and towards whom they look as they develop their ideas.  Few however can match American Todd Beane who found his tutor in his father-in-law, the legendary player, manager and football visionary Johann Cruyff.  He began working with Cruyff in the foundation of the Cruyff Institute – an educational institution aimed at educating athletes, sport and business professionals in the field of sport management - in 2002 and continued his work there until Johan’s passing last year. 
Memorable Quote: "Intelligence is the foundation of all excellence - within and beyond the pitch. It is more than important; it is imperative." 

"The coach is the most disposable element in a football team"
Interviewee: Ismael Díaz Galán [widely traveled Spanish coach of clubs like Malaga, Granada and Real Oviedo]
Having delivered tiki-taka and a generation of players that dominated world football for almost a decade through a system based almost exclusively on ability, Spain is rightly seen as the home of technical football.  Fueling this culture are coaches who bring the ideology to life.  Ismael Díaz Galán is typical of this class.  His experiences might have been limited largely outside the Primera Liga but he is a deep thinker about the game and a keen educator who is eager to share the vision that lights up Spanish football.
Memorable Quote: "I do not hope for a win, I aggressively try to make it happen by keeping hold of the ball more than not; creating a collective intelligence that makes us stronger as a group without diminishing individual creativity."

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Best Football Coaching Links of the Week: How To Avoid Bias, Tactics of Barca's New Coach & More

As new trends replace existing ones people tend to be blinded by all that is new, discarding lessons that previous successes had taught them.  For decades, Liverpool were successful thanks to a group of coaches who balanced each other out.  Many tried to uncover the secrets of the fabled boot room and a lot of theories emerged.   One aspect that was never looked into with much interest was their practise of noting down everything from scouting reports to training sessions to what worked in different situations.  This manual enabled them to have a factual record of why certain decisions were taken and is a practise that every coach today should be looking to copy.  Here’s why.

How teams can adopt the 3-3-1-3 formation.

After what has been, by their standards, a pretty disappointing season Barcelona have appointed Ernesto Valverde as their coach.  Valverde achieved exceptional results at Athletic Bilbao – a club with rich traditions, high expectations but pretty unique restrictions on recruitment – and being a former Barca player who played under Cruyff he was always the most obvious choice for the role.  Here is a brief introduction to Valverde’s attributes as a coach and his tactical dogma.

44 Awesome Drills That Make Your Body Faster and Your Mind Sharper.

“Even in times when we didn’t win, or when we couldn’t achieve a stabilisation in our performances, we kept pushing and insisting on the same concepts and guidelines. That meant that we didn’t change in order to win and, more importantly, we didn’t change our way of thinking because we were not winning. If you’re convinced of something, you must go for it.”
Oscar Washington Tabarez – El Maestro – Uruguay National Team coach; World Cup semi-finalist in 2010 & 2011 Copa America winner.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Best Football Coaching Links of the Week: Dark Side of Youth Football, Kinkladze's Impact on English Football & More

The success of clubs like Ajax, Monaco, Atalanta and Southampton who have all exceeded expectations with teams built around players coming through their youth systems does not seem to be rubbing off with most clubs (especially English ones) opting to buy their way to honours.  What is particularly sad about such behaviour is that young players are not finding a way through, having their hopes dashed after years of hard work.   This article looks at that dark side of the game.

One of the hardest tasks facing any coach is that of teaching players how to react during games where not everything is cleanly laid out like a training session.  AZ Alkmaar have developed their own way of handing this issue which makes for very interesting reading for any coach.

Michael Cox – or ZonalMarking as he is known - was one of the early football writing stars of Twitter through his tactical analysis of games and whilst many have followed in his path, his remains the freshest voice of all.  He is now publishing his first book on football tactics (The Mixer) from which this is an extract.  It deals with Georgi Kinkladze and how his arrival starting forcing English clubs to look at different tactical solutions.

This is the kind of article that makes Jonathan Wilson such a standout among current football writers: a piece about how  Antonio Conte adopted an idea that is fifty years old to build his Chelsea team into champions.  Brilliant stuff.

“Leadership must be likeable, affable, cordial, and above all emotional.  The fashion of authoritarian leadership is gone.  Football is about life.  You can't be angry all day. ” 
Vicente del Bosque – winner of Champions League, Intercontinental Cup, the European Championship and the World Cup

If you want to read something a bit different, last week I wrote about this on Andrea Fortunato.  A talented young left-back who was threatening to displace the great Paolo Maldini in the Italian national team only for tragedy to stop him from fulfilling his destiny.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Taking Note: Why Coaches Should Keep A Journal

One of the finest football books of recent years is Simon Hughes’ Secret Diary of a Liverpool Scout.  It tells the story of Geoff Twentyman who was Liverpool’s Chief Scout between 1967 and 1985, an era that was marked by the club’s unprecedented success built largely on an exceptional ability to identify talent.

What marks this book out is how it was written.  Rather than being based on the recollections of Twentyman himself (sadly, he passed away way before work on this book had started) it uses the meticulous notes that he used to take during every one of his scouting trips.

This was an extension of the practise within Liverpool’s fabled boot room of noting down different aspects of their work from training, recovery and tactical approaches in varying situations.  These dossiers eventually became the reference point whenever the club was faced with similar situations allowing them the luxury to judge whether to take a similar approach or not.

Bill Shankly took over at Liverpool in 1959 and the boot room was established shortly afterwards.  It is testament of how visionary that group of people was that the practices that they adopted are still as effective today as they were more than fifty years back.  

Essentially: every coach should be journaling regularly, documenting decisions taken and the reasoning behind them.

Never Trust Your Memory
To appreciate why that is there is the need to move away from sport and into the realm of psychology.  People act in the manner that they do because over the years their behaviour has been shaped by their own experiences.  The problem, though, is that those experiences and memories might not include all the details; they might be inherently biased.  There will be occasions when a positive result influences one’s recall of a choice or vice-versa.

Imagine if someone were to ask you to think back to a time when you missed the train and describe your experience.  The odds are that you will recall a negative experience.  This will also contaminate any future thoughts that you have and, if that same person were to ask you to imagine how you would feel the next time you missed the train then the likelihood is that you would predict a bad reaction.

All this is not conjecture but precisely what Dr Carey Morewedge and his colleagues from Harvard University found in 2005.  During their study they asked a set of people to recall the last experience of missing the train, another to recall their worst experience and another to think back three past experience.

Their findings showed that those who had been given free reign to think of one experience made the most negative prediction.  Further studies strengthened this theory that people tend to make overly positive or negative predictions if they were to rely exclusively on their memory: they fall prey to their memory bias.

This, clearly, has a number of implications in a football environment.  Let’s say that your team was thinking of bringing over a new player who has a particular character trait that might cause issues in the harmony of your squad.  If you’ve just come from a good season then you might be swayed into thinking that this too will work out well and that you’ll manage to integrate that player.

That might well turn out to be the case but, regardless, that decision was not made on the right basis.  Awareness is key to overcome any bias.  In such a circumstance, if a manager has records of previous transfers and thoughts before they were completed then he might notice instances that might be similar to his current situation.  Reading them and thinking of how they turned out would probably allow them to make a better informed decision.

It makes it harder to justify a certain decision when you have a divergent piece of evidence in front of you.

Accurate And Honest Feedback
Michael J. Mauboussin is an unikely source to find inspiration for football coaches.  He has no history with the game (as far as is public knowledge at least); he is instead the managing director and head of Global Financial Strategies at Credit Suisse and an adjunct professor of finance at the Columbia Business School.  

He has, however, also authored a number of books that look into decision making.  And it is the research that he has put into the latter that is influential

In an interview with The Motley Fool, he said, “when you’ve got a decision-making journal, it gives you accurate and honest feedback of what you were thinking at that time. And so there can be situations, by the way, you buy a stock and it goes up, but it goes up for reasons very different than what you thought was going to happen. And having that feedback in a way to almost check yourself periodically is extremely valuable. So that’s, I think, a very inexpensive; it’s actually not super time consuming, but a very, very valuable way of giving yourself essential feedback because our minds won’t do it normally.

There might not be many parallels between those investing in stock markets and people who work in football but both have one feature in common: there are strong emotions in play which might lead one to make terrible moves unless they are fully conscious and aware of what they’re doing.  That is why Mauboussin argues over the importance of noting decisions.

It is a philosophy based on a discussion with Daniel Kahneman, one of the most brilliant men of our lifetime and who gave birth to the new science of behavioural economics.  In particular, Kahneman’s work helped to bring to light a number of biases that influence people’s actions.

Many years ago when I first met Danny Kahneman…when I pose him the question, what is a single thing an investor can do to improve his or her performance, he said almost without hesitation, go down to a local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions.”  Mauboussin said in that same interview.

And the specific idea is whenever you’re making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally. Just, how do you feel? I feel tired. I feel good, or this stock is really draining me. Whatever you think.

The key to doing this is that it prevents something called hindsight bias, which is no matter what happens in the world. We tend to look back on our decision-making process, and we tilt it in a way that looks more favourable to us, right? So we have a bias to explain what has happened.

Do It Yourself
While football is a simple game, the decisions made by those who coach or run a club are often extremely complex.  Often managers’ reactions during games are quasi-instinctive and heavily influenced not by rational thought but by past actions.  Unraveling why a decision was taken can be just as complex.

Writing is a way of facilitating that process.  The simple act of forcing yourself to put thoughts into words actually helps in giving them clarity and shape.

The journal that a coach maintains does not have to be a work of art.  To all extent and purposes it can be illegible to anyone but the person who wrote it.  There is no need for any jargon or deep, insightful thoughts.  Don’t feel under pressure to write something that is great, just write you’re your thoughts.

What there should be a modicum of organisation (so that when you want to look back to a particular decision you can find it with ease) along with clear, direct writing that avoids any vague thoughts.

Initially it might feel like an unnatural act, it can feel like pretentious rubbish.  Push past that resistance and eventually, after a few weeks you will come to appreciate just how important a tool this can be for a coach.

After all, if it was good enough for the likes of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Best Football Coaching Links of the Week: Atalanta, How United Won Europa League & More

Mattia Caldara: remember the name because in a few years he will be considered as one of Europe’s finest defenders.  Caldara was one of the standout players in an Atalanta side filled with young players that managed to gain an unexpected qualification to the Europa League.  It is one of the greatest stories of the season but, more significantly, it is a great success story of a club that focuses its energy on developing players the right way.

It might not have earned them many plaudits or praise but Manchester United put in a performance that allowed them to win the Europa League.  Here’s an analysis of how they actually did that.

“The most important thing a dad can give a girl is the feeling that she is special.  Not his “princess” based on her looks or being somehow better than anyone else, and not because she gets high marks or gold medals for sport, but because she is his daughter, and he loves her just for that.”   Some general insight to being a good parent which works very well for those with kids and in sports.  Thanks to reader Stephen Murray for pointing me to this article and remarking: "He shows up.  He keeps his promises.  He is strong, not in the sense of muscular strength, but being true to his word, reliable, and there." isn't that a coaching role model?

Coach David Selini has put together a tactical guide to man-to-man marking that is as detailed as anything I’ve seen on the internet.  An excellent read for the uninitiated but also loads to learn for those who are familiar with the ideas thanks to his use of practical examples.

“The ball is round, the game lasts ninety minutes, and everything else is just theory.” Sepp Herberger, German football player and manager of the 1954 World Cup winners

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Best Football Coaching Links of the Week: Sevilla, Football Drills & More

This has been a magical season for Lincoln City.  Not only did they reach the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup but they won the Football Conference National League, hitting ninety nine points and marking their return to League Two in style.  The main architects of those successes were the management team made up of brothers Danny and Nicky Cowley.  Kevin Graham had the opportunity to spend a day with them them as they went about their coaching duties.  These were his observations.

Football drills: the full triangle method.

Whilst Sevilla have tended to be the ones spoken about when it comes to small Spanish clubs who have made the most of what resources have been available, Athletic Bilbao’s achievements also deserves to be studied.  This article, analysing their methods, makes amends.

Talking of Athletic Bilbao, this interview with their young goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga – who at 22 years of age is already a first team regular – offers a number of fascinating insights on how his career has developed.  Thanks to the Blueprint for Football reader who pointed me in the direction of this interview.

“You can lose a game, but what you cannot lose is the dignity earned by playing good football” – Cesar Luis Menotti, World Cup Winning Coach with Argentina in 1978.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Best Football Coaching Links of the Week: Chelsea's 4-3-3, All Blacks & More

Although Chelsea mathematically won the title on Friday it has been evident for quite some time that they were going to win it and Tottenham’s late surge merely helped keep up pretenses.  It is a remarkable achievement for two main reasons: Chelsea were largely written off in transition last summer and their season has a very clear inflection point early in the season when two heavy defeat forced Antonio Conte to change his tactical approach.

In honour of Chelsea’s success, two articles that are particularly relevant: one an analysis of their 4-3-3 system and the other a look at what drives Conte, the architect of their success.

How to think like an All Black: no dickheads allowed.  Quite.

Something of a deep tactical dive: the three midfielders in Massimiliano Allegri’s three midfield system

“Every single day I wake up and commit to myself to becoming a better player.” Mia Hamm (Two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women's World Cup winner and scorer of 159 international goals)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cowley Culture: An Inside Look At The Duo Who Have Shaken Non-League Football

by Kevin Graham

This has been a magical season for Lincoln City.  Not only did they reach the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup but they won the Football Conference National League, hitting ninety nine points and marking their return to League Two in style.  The main architects of those successes were the management team made up of brothers Danny and Nicky Cowley.  Kevin Graham had the opportunity to spend a day with them them as they went about their coaching duties.  These are his observations.

It’s not often that non-league managers become household names but Lincoln’s incredible success this season has projected Danny and Nicky Cowley’s profile into orbit.

The first time that Danny Cowley came to my attention, however, was earlier than most, specifically in February 2016 following an incident during Cowley and his Braintree Town team’s game away at one of my old clubs Guiseley. Guiseley had inadvertently scored after an uncontested drop ball should have been given back to Braintree. 

Unfortunately no action was taken at the time by Guiseley to put this right, the goal stood and the non-league world soon became aware of the injustice. Cowley’s dignified if disappointed response to the matter was lauded - the way he spoke made a big impression on me. I made a mental note and followed him on Twitter – he followed me back, something he might subsequently have regretted!

After leading Braintree to 3rd place in the Conference National despite their part time status and limited resources, the in demand Cowley brothers chose to give up their teaching jobs and joined Lincoln City on a full time basis. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lincoln hadn’t finished higher than 13th in the Conference since dropping out of the football league six years previously, and in that time had struggled to manage the financial burden of running a fulltime, ex-league club with an infrastructure to match, in a league where visitors can regularly bring less than 50 travelling fans. 

The Cowleys literally turned the whole football club around and after a season that almost unquestionably defines them as the greatest non-league side in history, Lincoln City are once again a football league club.

I contacted them in October to ask if I could go in and observe training – I’ve done this at a few clubs over the years but this time, I was hoping to get a deeper insight than just the innovation on the training ground. Given their background – Danny started in the Essex Senior League at step 5 of the non-league pyramid and juggled management with a full time teaching job and a young family – I felt if there was ever going to be someone who I could aspire to emulate, he was probably that man.

At this stage I was lucky enough to start dealing with Alan Long, Lincoln’s Community and Player Liaison Officer. Alan is Lincoln City mad and was incredibly warm, helpful and accommodating, arranging for me to visit in early December. 

One of the initiatives the Cowleys had put in place saw fans who were willing to pay for the privilege granted access every Thursday to watch the players train, have lunch with them and get to meet Danny and Nicky. This transparency highlights the confidence Danny and Nicky have in their methods. Of course, certain tactical information remains sacred but their method is not something they feel the need to hide. As they both acknowledge, they tend to borrow ideas from other coaches or resources and use them or adapt them if they see fit – there are very few new ideas on football, and the Cowleys are not visionaries as such in that sense.

I arrived on the Thursday after Lincoln has beaten Oldham 3-2 in the FA Cup at home live on BT Sport, and was met by Alan who showed myself and the three lucky, and longstanding, Imps fans around the ground, the changing rooms and the various facilities at Sincil Bank, stopping to introduce us to whoever we came across on our way. It is fair to say everyone was very bubbly, friendly and, more than anything, proud of what they saw happening at the club. “Oh I’m sure Danny will look after you” and “Danny will make sure you have a good day” – just two of the comments from staff around the stadium. 

It wasn’t the first time the foot soldiers would refer to the guy they clearly see as their general in glowing terms.

We were ushered into one of the hospitality suites where the management team proceeded to deliver a video analysis session on the Oldham game. The brothers had prepared 93 annotated clips of the game. The key messages focused on how well they played for the first hour – mixing controlled possession with targeted direct play, the need for them to recognize the fact that they largely dominated against a League One side who play possession based football and to take more belief in themselves from that, and probably most important, not to drop off and allow opposing teams to come on to them. 

At 3-0 and cruising, they naturally dropped a little deeper instead of being progressive, and this allowed Oldham back in the game. It wasn’t a fitness thing, it was a mental thing – a natural reaction for an underdog that find itself in that position. The message was clear – you guys are better than you think you are. 

We sat next to the goalkeeping coach, Jimmy Walker during the video session and he clearly lightens the mood whenever needed. A cult hero at West Ham and Walsall as a player, and still back up to goalkeeper Paul Farman at the time, it’s fair to say he is a larger than life character but one who takes his profession no less seriously.

After an hour and only 58 clips, Danny recognized that the players needed a break so he left the video session there and explained that we’d all move on to training which would start at the nearby army barracks in 45 mins. The club train at 3 different venues depending on availability – not ideal but not something anyone seemed to be too bothered by. One of Danny’s many mantras is that Lincoln City lives by a “no excuses mentality”.

Alan kindly gave me some insight into how much things had changed under the new regime as he gave me a lift to training and it was clear that the impact was about far more than just coaching. Maximising resources is clearly a strength of the Cowley brothers and Alan went into detail explaining how they had harboured links with the local university, lecturing and supporting students there in return for access to facilities and sports science resources. Just one example to underline why the Lincoln board got real value for money when they appointed the Cowleys.

They plan training in cycles, gradually increasing the physical load on players over 4 weeks before having a recovery week and then starting again. This was week 2 so the load was not too heavy. The detail and influence of the Sports Science team was clear though – the players had undertaken “prehab” exercises tailored to their individual needs in the tiny gym at the ground before heading to training. The activation session, or warm up if you like, was lead by Sports Scientist Luke Jelly and the players then went into some passing patterns.

Nicky took the lead with the organization of the session and was the guy who clearly has an obsession with cones – a habit I’m sure many coaches can identify with! The passing patterns were done in two groups, working around poles set out in a hexagon. The emphasis was on the receiving angle, quality of the first touch, and the weight and direction of the pass. Standard stuff, with some competition introduced on quality of execution, so a breakdown in the chain meant the other group got a point, requiring concentration and focus rather than physical exertion.

After 20 mins of that, the players went back to Luke and did some controlled sprints through a course not longer than 40m, building the intensity to finish with explosive acceleration. The attitude of the players, who were jovial and cracking jokes between practices but very focused on quality when engaged, was really noticeable.

They then progressed to an opposed small sided game, a version of which I use quite regularly. On a square pitch roughly 40x40, Nicky set out 4 target areas, one in each corner. The aim of the game is to keep possession but score points by receiving the ball in one of the target areas in the four corners. In teams of 6, the practice is a great all-rounder in that it requires combination play and intelligent movement off the ball, lots of spatial awareness and there are lots of transitions so lots of defensive recovery work and also opportunities for quick attacking penetration. The third group of 6 players did specific work with Luke when they were not involved.

I watched this part of the session with big Jamie McCombe, the vastly experienced centre back who is now a player coach. McCombe was used sparingly throughout the campaign and now has more than one eye on coaching – so much of this season has seen him learning his trade by working with the Cowleys. Not a bad place to learn, I’d say.

Talking to Danny during the session, he explained that both he and Nicky are always adding to their repertoire of practices and that they scour many of the same resources as I do. Diego Simeone’s sessions on defending and focus on transitions were one such example he felt really benefitted the team.

After 25 mins of the four corner game, the players came in for water and a stretch before the session finished with a conditioned game on a ¾ pitch. With a 30x40 area set out in the middle of the pitch, the idea was to achieve a set number of passes in the central area which freed up players to create an attacking overload. Danny was particularly keen to see full backs recognize the attacking transitions and deliver from wide areas. The intensity levels were quite sporadic – you could recognize the bad losers out there but there were quite a few interventions and so the tempo never really went past 75%, though the quality at times certainly did.

The session ended with a structured cool down and I joined Alan for the journey back to Sincil Bank. On reflection I probably learnt less from the training session than the other aspects of the day – it was fairly standard stuff in terms of the set up, preparation and structure. The delivery and coaching points were clear and concise, and the how, when and why of the decisions players had to make was identified or challenged. I’m quite certain it was good enough to pass a coaching practical but that’s not where the Cowleys are different. Their connection with the players and the culture they have created enables everything else they do. They are no coaching geniuses or magicians from what I could see, though that’s not to say they are not amongst the very best I’ve seen. Everything they do is impressive but what differentiates them is about more than just a coaching session.

Lunch was taken back at the ground and I watched as the players were served by the catering staff. The way players behave with others says a lot about them as people and they engaged on a level with staff who served them, and were polite with it. These details are important to me and what I saw reflected the standards the Cowleys set. I can’t help but think that the way the team stuck together and kept going when their bodies were failing them in the final games of the season was a reflection of the respect they have for each other but also the people at the club who supported them – Danny repeatedly acknowledged the role everyone at the club played. It’s one thing to say something sentimental in an interview, it’s entirely another thing to be able to show you mean it.

As I ate my food, the fact that the catering staff had been asked to get more beetroot into the players’ diet to aid recovery demonstrated another tiny example of the detail that goes into the Cowleys’ method.

The final part of the day saw us invited into their office to ask the management team some questions. Alan played a blinder for me here as he had already arranged to oversee the questions from the 3 supporters who were with me before taking them and leaving me to have a bit more time with the brothers.

I watched an interview with Danny after the Arsenal game in which he said how grateful he was to have had the opportunity to spend such a long time with Arsene Wenger in his office at The Emirates, that he learnt so much and that he will never forget that. What transpired in the next 90 mins or so for me that day left me feeling exactly the same way about the Cowley brothers.

We covered an awful lot including
- How they track players’ performance over time both in games and training, using a rating system and individuals’ self-assessment
- How they plan training, both tactical and physical periodization (and how we all felt about Raymond Verheijen’s work)
- How they analyse the opposition
- How they analyse their own team’s performance and what they look for to feed into planning training 
- The transition from part time to full time coaching
- The merits of possession based and direct football
- Playing styles as you progress up the pyramid
- Our love of non-league football and comparisons with Premier League football

Yes…I was like a kid at Christmas.

I thanked them for their time and left, popping in to see Alan on my way out.

I don’t mind admitting I was on a slight high for days after visiting Lincoln, and I left feeling like I’d been in the company of people who were destined to achieve great things. I took my own training session that evening, making reference to one or two Cowleyisms but no more. I spoke to good friends in the game about what I saw and explained why I felt they should keep an eye on them and anything they can read about them in the media.

It’s fair to say though that the 5 months since that day in December have seen Lincoln City achieve beyond even the most confident young manager’s wildest dreams. We listened to the Burnley game on the radio as I drove to our own fixture that afternoon and the sleepy village in East Yorkshire we were driving through must have had quite a shock as Joe my assistant, George my son and I all let out a collective scream as Sean Raggett’s header went over the line. We’re Middlesbrough fans in our family but George will always look out for Lincoln City from now on.

It really has been fairytale stuff. The poignant memories of Graham Taylor, the way the Cowleys have lifted and inspired a whole city and many more beyond, the money that they have earned as a club to pay off debts and then secure the club’s future, the incredible mentality to keep going and keep accumulating league victories after an unprecedented FA Cup run, being guests on Match of the Day….I could go on.
For two kids who grew up making their own dug outs in their bedroom to play Championship Manager on, who followed their beloved West Ham home and away, who played all the sports they could together in the school holidays until it was time for bed, who probably weren’t good enough to be professional footballers themselves but who had careers to be proud of in non-league football and who this time last year were throwing their heart and soul into teaching kids and making a difference to their lives…’s not your typical success story.

So why are they so successful?

Firstly, they outwork their opponents. These two work 80 hour weeks – they used to combine full time teaching with coaching in the Conference. So they don’t see 80 hours spent on football as work. They simply love the game. They are so hungry and so motivated because they appreciate every chance the game gives them. The sense of entitlement some managers portray as a result of having been in the professional game for 30, 40 years plus is conspicuous by it’s absence. The Cowleys’ humility is born out of their gratitude for this opportunity.

Secondly, they are incredibly organized and pay attention to so much detail. Their work ethic allows them to cover so much ground. They run a Championship set up on a Conference budget.

Third, they are intelligent guys. Their teaching career has afforded them the chance to learn about sports science, sports psychology and the science being learning and coaching.

Fourth, they treat people well. Not just their players. Everyone. Even the guy who wants some of their time to further his own learning. Their values are cast in stone, a reflection of their family’s values and worth ethic. They don’t recruit players on ability if the character is largely flawed – they want good human beings in their dressing room and around their club. The bond between the brothers is incredible and that is the starting point for the way they treat others.

Fifth, they have confidence in their own ability. They hate losing but they’ve known little of failure in 9 years since Danny became a manager. When you are used to winning as a manager, it is easier to get your players onside and bought in to your methods.

Sixth (and final – though there are probably more), they are incredibly consistent. They refer to their method all the time, they are process orientated. That’s not some attempt to sound clever – they know that if their players pay attention to every aspect of their preparation for games and repeat that process thoroughly, the results will come. They don’t change their method just because they lose a game or two, nor will it affect their core values, their work ethic or their communication. 

I must have watched 50 Danny Cowley interviews this year and when you watch them as much as I do, you could say he is pretty boring! The same responses, the same words, the same steely determination and the same polite and well-mannered rapport with the media is evident in every single interview. Their players always know where they stand because they can rely on this consistency.

Danny in particular is an outstanding leader – a role he recognizes comes naturally to him. Leadership in any organization is critical and I’ve never come across one as impressive in the game. When he speaks people listen, and everyone who listens recognizes this guy is pretty special. He’s also smart enough to realise that his interviews are an opportunity to gain more support for the club and also speak to his players to reinforce his expectations to them – put him in the Premier League tomorrow and any Chairman would be glad to have a guy with his communication skills representing his club.

This interview after the Arsenal game is particularly impressive

To those who might suggest these two are laptop coaches without enough understanding of the game, you couldn’t be more wrong. The culture of the dressing room and the way the game really works in that world fans don’t get to see is something they’ve been a part of for years – they are old school football men who embrace modern methods….in fact any methods young or old if it gives them more of a chance of success.

So it’s fair to say I’m a fan, and unashamedly so. A good pal of mine who is also a coach often ribs me about my “Cowley crush” but frankly, this isn’t some sort of passing craze. This is just a case of doing the basics incredibly well – there’s no magical mystique or science behind their approach.
Danny Cowley with author Kevin Graham's son George

Despite all that, there are aspects of their approach that mean not everyone sees them as the next incarnation of Christ in footballing terms.

Danny and Nicky are winners – and during games they are not averse to questioning the officials. Not in an abusive way, but in a way that all coaches will recognize needs to be done at times during games. I’ve witnessed a couple of managers take serious umbrage at this – nothing new and not something that is exclusive to the Cowley brothers. There are those in the game who would have you believe they are not as angelic as some would have you believe. There is indeed a fine line when it comes to seeking to gain small advantages during games – invariably those who do it well and achieve success whilst doing so are going to be maligned by their opponents. 

This will happen more and more, but I very much doubt they care what other people think because they are focused on winning. “Managing” games is part of football and these two do it incredibly well. They also expect to shake hands and move on at the end of games but some managers may not be so keen to do so. This is life, not just football!

They do hate losing – I’ve seen it up close, having watched from a couple of rows back as York came back from a goal down to beat Lincoln 2-1 in the first leg of the Trophy semi final at Bootham Crescent. Tensions ran high and Lincoln had to accept defeat. Danny, visibly annoyed, had to face the media and also an 8 year old who wanted a photo with this guy he’d seen a lot on TV recently. Of course he was obliging and friendly as he made young George’s night, consistent as always.

And what of the future? They start next season in the Football League, and they have earned the right to manage there. It is a personal milestone but not one they will dwell on for too long. I can’t see anything other than a successful first season back in the football league for Lincoln City. The club is in a great place, well set financially so able to operate on a competitive budget, with the average home gate at Sincil Bank likely to be double what it has been in recent seasons and a squad that is now well developed and familiar with the methods that the Cowleys introduced last season. 

The first couple of months of this season will have seen the players feeling their way and gradually getting used to what the new regime wanted. They should only get better as a result of hitting the ground running in late June.

It is only a matter of time though before bigger clubs come knocking. Danny has spoken of his love of working at a club where he can get the players, staff and fans well connected, where the money and profile doesn’t create a barrier between them. However, he is also ambitious and I’d guess Championship clubs have already made enquiries about their availability. I have no doubt they can go right to the top of the game, mainly because they are lifelong learners. They will never rest on their laurels and will adapt to the challenges their progress will present. 

I do think their method will have to change – managing at a big club in the Championship or Premier League requires much more delegation. At present the size of the club combined with the Cowleys’ work ethic means they can cover a lot of disciplines themselves but at a bigger club the scope and responsibilities will expand and a much larger team will be required to manage the work load. It will also be interesting to see how the brothers’ unique working relationship will adapt, but frankly I can’t see any of that being a problem. Neither, I am sure, would they.

I can’t claim to really know the Cowley brothers – they have been great to me during a time when the whole world wants a piece of them. They don’t take themselves too seriously and lack any semblance of self-importance, yet have the confidence and belief in their ability to rub shoulders with the best. They are still young, still learning and have yet to face any sustained period of failure which will inevitably happen at some stage. But the foundation of their success seems to be based on old fashioned hard work, the love of a supportive family and very good values as people. I love that.

Alan said to me when I walked into one of the executive boxes at Sincil Bank that morning, “Watch these two, we think Danny will go on to manage England one day”. I was inclined to be somewhat dismissive at the time but I now think there’s a chance Alan and the people of Lincoln could be proven right. 

After making over 200 appearances for a number of clubs in the upper reaches of the non-league pyramid - Whitby Town, Guiseley AFC and Goole AFC - Kevin Graham ended his career playing for St Martins AFC and the Guernsey's national team having returned to the Channel Islands where he had grown up.

Once that career had come to an end, he took on new roles helping out in managing Guernsey Athletic FC as well as scouting for a number of non league teams.

His most significant appointment, however, came in February of 2012 when he was appointed as manager of the Guernsey national team whom he led consecutive Muratti vase wins in 2012/2013.  He is also a tactical analyst for Evening Gazzette in Middlesborough and can be found on Twitter.