By John Cartwright
Attractive and effective football requires highly talented players to be able to play it.
As players of this type are rare today from amongst our ‘home-grown’ players, mediocrity of performance from both individuals and subsequently
their teams is too easily accepted by our Press and public alike. Our reliance on simple skills aligned to simple tactics to ‘camouflage’ the gulf between great and ordinary falters under the spotlight when displayed against superior ability. Simplicity should not signify high quality or greatness in a player, simplicity should be an option not the totality of response – for what happens when difficult decisions need to be made and only simple ability is available?
The gradual demise of individual skill in our domestic game is reflected by individuals as well as teams being unable to retain good ball possession. An abundance of skilful individuals in a team provides excitement and uncertainty to the game and increases the opportunity to use more tactical options. However, tactical variations are ‘locked’ to simple positional roles through skill deficiency here and it has created the ‘ugly’, long-ball style of play associated with the British game. ‘Movement and interchange, the precious quality in which skill, the diamond of performance is set,’ this requires understanding, imagination and confidence in players. Individual skill quality ‘cements’ all these requirements and encourages a player to exit one position and enter another whenever necessary to play different offensive or defensive roles with productive purpose.
I have said for some considerable time that a lack of individual skill creates positional stagnation and this is most visible in the performance of the majority of back defenders throughout football. There are some nations who have players in these positions who can revert to other roles with ease, but many nations fail to produce or select individually skilful players for these positions. Goal-scoring should not be assigned to a limited few. An improvement in offensive team-play from back to front would give opposing teams more defensive problems and increase the goal-scoring opportunities for all attacking players. I find it incomprehensible that so much money and attention should be given to the acquisition of front players as the so-called ‘goal-scorers’ for clubs. There is no doubt that goal-scoring requires some special playing characteristics, but without good service and support the most predatory of ‘strikers’ can find the goals ‘drying-up.’
It is at the rear of teams that both space and time is usually available along with an overload of defenders to opposing attackers. These important advantages are not recognized or exploited enough because of poor coaching and limited playing talent. At the highest levels of the game it might be justified to play the game according to the quality of the players available, but is inexcusable throughout the development years of young players. The senior game only ‘feeds off’ the quality of players supplied to it. A ‘catch 22’ situation has been allowed to develop here; poor coach education produces — poor coaching — producing poor players — who play poor football.
Low skill levels attracts pressure from opposing players. If pressure can be applied to unskilful rear defenders near their goal they can be forced into making costly errors. To eradicate the chance of these errors being made, coaches at all levels adopt a ‘safety first’ approach and demand that the ball is played forward, away from danger, as quickly as possible. The lack of confidence in skill quality disregards more positive play situations and so playing from the back is a rare commodity in the game.
Instead of being simple ‘stoppers’ of opposing offensive play, back players must increase their contribution to the attacking play of their own team and become influential and accomplished ‘starters’ of it. Team play is important if the game is to see more quality football emanating from back areas. It is vitally important that sufficient space is provided for the back player for them to be useful additions to attacking play. In order for this to occur, mid-field players must not fall back into the space required by the back players. To compensate for the ‘loss’ of a defender at the back and to retain defensive safety, a suitably timed rotation from a mid-field player into the vacant position should be made. This follows the exchange in roles as mentioned earlier and a similar exchange in roles could even occur between advancing rear or mid-field players and forward players to cover any gaps left behind in mid-field.
Playing from the back is an essential part of the game. It has been overlooked and is a rarely seen tactical occurrence, but if developed in conjunction with better skill acquisition methods for players in all positions, great strides in playing quality would be possible;
An improvement in skill would promote a better appreciation of the playing options in the space and time available to back players.
- They could create more space for each-other to play in.
- They would decide on running out from the back with the ball or passing it long or short from this area.
- Their passing would be suitable for the situation confronting them, imaginative, correctly weighted and accurate.
- When running with the ball from the back, penetration through spaces before them would be sought where ‘overload’ opportunities in mid-field would be possible.
- The distance of service from back to forward players would be decreased thus increasing ball retention in advanced attacking areas and thus increase the chances for attempts on the opponent’s goal.
- It would also allow back players to continue their forward run and arrive in scoring positions from their own individual play or after having combined with other team members.
Not until those in control of coaching realize the quality and effect that back players with a ‘total football’ upbringing can have on the game will we begin to emerge from the hyped up, mediocre-called-great ‘fightball’ presented to us today.