By John Cartwright
Many years ago I was asked by a coach of a club against whom my team at that time were about to play against in a South-East Counties league fixture, “ John, do me a favour and take it easy on us today as we might have to seek re-election to the league if we don’t gather some more points”. Well, I didn’t know how to reply to him – I didn’t want to cheat, so I said, “look, my players are working on ‘Positive Keep-Ball’ sessions in training so we will use this game as an extension of those practices.” I told the boys what I wanted them to do and they began the match.
I had not said to the players, “don’t score goals”, but I had not made a big emphasis on scoring and winning the match. I stood on the sideline and counted out aloud the sequence of passes we made each time we gained possession of the ball. 1-2-3-4—22—34—43 they kept the ball and ball possession counts simply increased as the game went on. The highest number they achieved was 63 consecutive passes and this passing sequence was curtailed only when a player found himself in a position from which he – just had to score!
We eventually won the game 2-0, so the result was of no use to our opponents but a great ‘eye-opener’ to our players.
My team at that time was filled with extremely talented individual players. Each position was filled by a player comfortable on the ball and capable of combining their individualism with team-play requirements. Those players, plus others who followed, won the FA Youth Cup two years in a row and were described later by the Press as ‘The team of the Eighties’.
Don’t tell me we can’t produce highly skilled talent for our game. The brilliant performances of the present Barcelona club could and should also be on view from ‘home-grown’ players within our own domestic football. Barcelona, are playing ‘Positive Keep-Ball’; they have highly-skilled individuals in all positions who play within a game-style that provides space and time for players when on or off the ball. The emphasis on positive possession combined with on and off the ball movement to sustain quality possession, also provides numerous openings to score. Their football psyche is based on creative play, whereas we lean towards a power-type game, more aligned to force than fantasy!
Of course there is the problem of not taking advantage and exploiting attacking opportunities when keeping the ball; it is a major factor in possession-type playing methodology. Constantly playing ‘chess-type’ football can be not only unproductive result wise, but unsatisfactory for the fans to watch. The need for a compromise between ‘boring football’ and our all action ‘fight football’ must be the aim of all our coaches — at all levels.
Barcelona, are showing that the game can be played with skill and purpose, but even they are subject to the problem of over-passing to an extreme when opposing teams’ simply sit back and defend. The need for attacking variations is vital in the game if success is to be continuous. Positive passing, swift movement of individuals and teams to exploit attacking advantages, plus fast regaining of the ball when defending, are essential weapons for all top teams. However, one must not forget the importance of heading. Heading is often the football perfectionists ‘blind spot’ when it comes to game variation. This is usually because the art of heading is the single skill that many players have in our game. Usually tall and physically well developed for the fiercer aspects of the game, front players with heading ability too often tend to create a blinkered approach to the game for coaches and the teams they control. Direct play using long forward passes is often the single attacking method that teams with an aerial asset up front are prepared to use. A player’s ability to head the ball well must not deflect him/her from having high football skills to cope with all aspects of the game.
By producing all-round football quality in their players, coaches are able to create a multitude of variations to playing styles and methods. In this way, heading becomes a bonus and not a hindrance when playing positive keep-ball.
The development of skilful players who are comfortable with the ball and capable of the decision-making necessary for ‘ Positive Keep-Ball’, must take priority on the training grounds of this country if we are to re-establish ourselves in world football’s top elitist group.