Overcoming the Midfield “Mess”

By John Cartwright

There is a tendency towards ‘collision football’ in mid-field between competing teams in this country. Domination of mid-field generally relies on a ‘confrontational’ not ‘cultured’ approach, making this area resemble a ‘battlefield’ on which to fight and not a stage on which to display the true arts of ‘the beautiful game’. A ‘catch twenty-two’ situation has built up over the years; development of players with sub-standard skills has increased the necessity for simplistic, sub-standard football to be played. Thus, an increasing lack of individual playing quality has meant that, too often, only simplistic responses are available from players to the complicated questions that the game of Association Football often asks.

Midfield Battle

                       Through all areas of the field of play a general lack of skill has meant the abdication of fantasy to be replaced by futility. The mid-field area ‘mess’ is a prime example of the gradual decline in playing subtlety that has occurred within our game over the last 50 years. Today, mediocrity, not ‘magic’ is taught to players from junior through to senior levels.  Too many Coaches lack both a good education in the game and the bravery to be different. If teachers’ of the game fail to inspire their pupils, how can those pupils be expected to inspire the fans?  

                       The ‘mess’ in mid-field is a combination of many factors, all of which relate directly to the poor teaching of individual skill in our game. The mid-field area of play relies heavily, not just on the ability of those in mid-field, but on the playing qualities of those players ‘feeding’ into it or ‘feeding’ off it. Because of the importance of tactical domination of mid-field, there has been a gradual reduction of time and space. Tighter marking combined with unimaginative tactical formations have pressurized the inferior skill levels of those playing in this area and ‘fight football’ is all too often the result.

                      In an attempt to overcome the mid-field ‘mess’, coaching sought a simplistic alternative;  ……. the long ball over it! Given the name Direct Play, this tactical ‘short-cut’ certainly bypassed the melee in mid-field, but it also had a disastrous effect on skilful play in all areas of the field. The dependence on a simplistic method of playing is wrong if it creates a reliance on sub-standard playing ability to perform it. Simplicity is not the sum total of greatness in both an individual or team performance; simplicity should be just one of numerous options available in the playing of the game. Unfortunately, the easy option has dominated our game-style for too long—coaches teach it, players play it and fans expect to watch it. But can this relentless destruction of skilful and inventive play be stopped? How can we re-discover the true qualities of ‘the beautiful game?’

                            Until we accept that individual skill is the bedrock of high performance we will continue to disappoint both at domestic and international levels——— at all age groups!

Individual skill breeds confidence allowing an expansion of playing ideas and opportunities for coaches and players. With inadequate levels of skill, players and teams are forced to rely too much on supplementary factors eg.  physical – mental – basic tactics,  to ‘camouflage’ poor playing ability. For teams to play effective and attractive football, players must be given all the ‘tools’ for the job. The combination of skill with related movement on and off the ball is fundamental for top quality performance. Unless the teaching of the game here begins to incorporate individual skill with team play in more positive and ‘braver’ ways, ‘fight football’ and not ‘fantasy football’ will continue to be the only game in town.


                             Well, it’s ok to ‘talk a good game’, but what do we need to do  to unlock the confrontational stalemate that presently represents our version of ‘the beautiful game’?

  1. Establish a vision of a game-style that is attractive, effective and adaptable.
  2. Devise realistic coaching programs to support the proposed game-style.
  3. Establish regional coaching and learning centres to feed into a national centre.
  4. Establish a national coaching and learning centre for elite performers.
  5. Teach coaches the game-style from junior to senior levels of the game.
    1. Develop highly skilled players for ALL positions on the field. (even in goal)
    2. Create more flexible systems of play that achieve an abundance of opportunities to produce ‘overloading’ in mid-field and forward areas.
    3. Devise cleverer ways of introducing comp. football through junior playing levels.


                  I bet you are surprised at the list I have set out above. I believe that in order to overcome the ‘mid-field mess’ a whole new concept of how we need to play the game is required. To elevate ourselves to the highest levels of world football will need clear thinking and organized planning to produce high numbers of quality coaches and players to achieve sustainable success.

                  Increased individual coaching and playing ability would allow tactical initiatives to increase. More interchange and half positioning throughout teams could be developed and one v one ‘fights’ could be overcome more productively  using either single skill, or multiple overloading opportunities.  

 Confrontational ‘battles’ that occur so frequently in our game today, resulting in the ‘mid-field mess’, would be largely eradicated. Ball possession, a lost art in our game, would be drastically improved with individuals or teams able to move the ball through the field of play more precisely, leading to a higher number of goal-scoring chances being created.

                           Improved playing quality at individual and team levels here will remain a ‘pie in the sky’ hope unless a playing vision and development strategy to achieve it is formulated by those presently in charge of overseeing the future of the game here. Do we have the right people in the right jobs to make the important changes to our game? I don’t think we have, and until we have that dynamic influence to bring about those fundamental changes, our domestic game will only continue to survive with the expensive support of foreign, football ‘mercenaries’.

                     It is time to cast aside old fashion beliefs on player development and playing methods and introduce more modern concepts. We have placed trust in FA Coaching Schemes of one sort or another for the past fifty years. Nothing they have delivered has stopped the demise of individual playing skill throughout that period. Our national sport is in a downward spiral that is ‘camouflaged’ by hype and imported foreign talent. Unless we make the correct decisions about the future direction of our game, we will soon find ourselves in a position from which we will be unable to select players and teams capable of representing this country at the highest levels of the game.


7 thoughts on “Overcoming the Midfield “Mess”

  1. Another fantastic insight to our great game John. I sometimes wonder if our administrator have chosen the direction that we have found ourselves in. There are those that may say that todays football is attractive lots of touches going absolutely nowhere and the mediocre fan are supportive. Then when we get in the final third and nothing we run out of ideas. I know that possesion is important however it has to be exciting for those that play and watch.

  2. Thank you once again John. A fabulous description of the state that British football has come to. How have the Premier League clubs responded to your ideas, I wonder? Alan Hansen pointed out many years ago that the fine “tight space” skills developed by playing ‘many-a-side’ on muddy parks & school boy pitches were simultaneously married to a survival hardness which produced “naturally skillful” individuals e.g. Dalglish. The problem we have is that in the last twenty years despite much better pitches we have had much of the latter toughness without any education to replace the ‘street skills’ you have so clearly described. John Barnes mentioned in an article in the London Evening Standard that even when he played the likes of Tunisia already possessed superior ball skills than his England colleagues. The difference was that ‘we’ English were bigger & could fight better…!

  3. We have a foreign coach in charge of our national team for the second time.It just would not happen that a foreigner would be hired to run the national teams of other established football nations such as Italy,Germany,France,spain etc.The beauty of international football is that you can’t attempt to buy success as in club football.Critics of the world Cup say that the quality of football in that competition is inferior to that of the Champions’ league and they are probably right but in the world Cup it is a true test of your national players against those of other countries.But the FA are reducing international football to the level of club football by paying enormous salaries to foreign coaches and their trusted back-room staff in an effort to get round the fact that we are not producing good coaches of our own who can compete at the top international level.But they don’t seem to realise that if we are not producing the playing talent then what is the point of paying crazy wages to a foreign coach? Could not that money be put to better use in areas of young player development?
    Since Steve McLaren was sacked by the FA he has coached in Holland and Germany with great success with FC Twente in Holland.He has expanded his knowledge and experience abroad and is now probably a much better coach than when he was in the england job.He undoubtedly made mistakes with England but if only the FA admitted that basically the players are not good enough and that was the real reason for the 2008 Euro Championship failure then we could get ourselves in a position to do something about it.All that has happened since then is a vast amount of money has been spent in achieving a dismal failure in South Africa but still the FA seem to have no recognition that lack of playing talent is to blame.
    It is a step in the right direction that McLaren is gaining knowledge and experience abroad and the same must be said of Tony Adams who is on his second stint abroad having previously coached in clubs in Holland.Let’s hope that this trend continues but the real priority is to improve the young talent which we have and really improve the game at grass-roots.In my opinion,Premier Skills is the best hope in that direction and so it is vital that everyone who has been on the courses should spread the message and get the approach adopted as widely as possible.

  4. A very valid point from Steve. Although some of the reasons why England did not qualify for Euro 2008 could easily be pinned on the fact that most of the senior players were conveniently “injured” at various times and unable to play in important qualifiers. Secondly the star players and some of their lesser colleagues blatantly did not sufficiently respect McClaren so didn’t give their all in the shirt…..

    Even amongst former established international stars there was no formal rigorous education once English players wanted to coach and manage. They were assumed to have the necessary skills and knowledge without going through the painstaking study and tutoring that was routine in Holland, Germany and Italy.
    Lineker’s recent programme highlighted the differences by interviewing Ancellotti about his manager training in Italy and at Milan/Juventus. He had to be taught about basic human anatomy, physiology, psychology and even adult learning theory. This gave him the necessary tools to cope with the demands of the modern game. Naturally the long European Cup ban (post Heysel) left a lot of English managers outside of the recent developments in player education, training and diet in the late 80s + early 90s. However the gulf in expectation for aspiring club managers was astounding and something the FA & English clubs were decades behind until the arrival of Wenger et al. The knock on effect of this poor coach education was to produce a generation of “class” players who had limited education so were unable to pass on their innate knowledge & experiences to the current “golden” generation. Hopefully Premier Skills will tackle this problem head on and correct the mistakes of the past. The emergence of Wilshire & Ramsey are just two examples that skill and guile can be coached into young British players without quashing the competitive instinct.

  5. Just picking up on Mark’s observations re coach education in this country compared to similar schemes abroad.Undoubtedly the courses are immensely rigorous in Spain,Germany,France and elsewhere but another issue which i have been increasingly aware of in recent times is that i often read that a certain high-profile player is ‘doing his badges’ as something to fall back on when the time comes for him to hang up his boots.But I often wonder how much actual coaching are they doing now as opposed to simply doing the courses and to what extent does their ‘name’ get them their badge? Years ago at West Ham Ron Greenwood used to get all the players into schools in the afternoons after they had finished training to coach kids.Many other clubs followed this lead but from what i have seen this has now largely died out.I read a quote from Harry Redknapp recently who was expressing regret at this lack of involvement in the schools and of course he was one of Ron Greenwood’s young players in the sixties who spent hours developing his coaching skills in the schools.
    John Cartwright ,in his tribute to the late Malcolm Allison,mentioned how much he owed to him in becoming a professional through the coaching he received as a schoolboy in the evenings when Allison was still a player at West Ham.
    It is all a question of dedication and attitude but it must come back if English football is ever to emerge from the dark ages.

  6. Very well said Steve, thank you for your erudition. To become a teacher or trainer requires years of dedication, education & practice. Of course there are “naturals” in all fields but the Modern World requires expertise not amateurish dabbling.
    The excess money in the post Premier League game has most likely turned players attention away from what they are really paid to do i.e. play, entertain and pass their skills on. Modern players have probably been far too shielded from youngsters & only the big stars have really got engaged in schoolboy education. This can only stunt English footballers development as future coaches but also their maturation as men.

  7. I have watched many games at all levels over many years, nothing i have seen persuades me to believe that we have made any serious improvement from the ‘up and at’em’ football style of the past. Oh yes, we pass the ball around the back more now but we don’t know how or have players with the ability to play the ball forward from back areas, so passing at the back is not followed by subtle football into mid-field and front areas but by the use of that everlasting blight on our game— the long ball!

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