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