Great Players Understand Time and Space –“The Inches are all Around Us”.

By Roger Wilkinson


“You find out that life is just a game of inches because in either game – life or football the margin for error is so small.

I mean one half step too late or too early you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite control it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in every break of the game every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch.
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the f—-g difference between WINNING and LOSING”


Al Pacino – Any Given Sunday


I don’t know who wrote those lines for Al Pacino but I do know they had an innate understanding of the importance of Time and Space in competitive team games especially soccer.

 A common factor that all great players show is the ability to create those extra inches in space for themselves so providing the time to exploit the opportunities those “inches” provide for them.  John Cartwright has already written a tremendous article earlier on the blog on “Time Positions” Those little pockets of space that give players that all important commodity time .

Kenny Dalgleish and Eric Cantona were two intelligent outstanding players who were great at using this ability to find space despite the fact that neither was over endowed with pace.


 “I mean one half a step too late or too early you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite control it”



I watched a game yesterday between two teams who are top of their countries Premier League it was interesting and enlightening in relation to the lack of understanding and detail in the team play.

The following points stood out continually throughout the game;


a.    The number of times players would pass the ball too late because they looked up after they received the ball not before and because their feet were too slow to adjust their body positions to allow them to scan before receiving.

b.    In a tight game the number of passes that were too hard and to the wrong foot of the tightly marked team-mate were too numerous to count.

c.    The frequent times that a player`s first touch was into a space that could be challenged instead of into a free space – remembering that soccer is a game that has 360 degrees worth of first touch options.

d.    Back players looking to receive the ball off their keepers whilst facing the keeper and unaware of the game behind them and simply passing the ball back to where it came from.

e.    Midfield players receiving passes from the back and doing exactly the same, and because of their body shape being completely unaware of the receiving ,turning and running or passing options available to them “one half step too late or too early”  was so evident.

f.     The number of occasions the players were running with the ball using the foot nearest to the defender making it easy for the defender to take it off them.


The players were keen and energetic but did not have the high level skills and understanding to retain possession in tight areas and therefore to be able to successfully conjoin with each other.



At Premier Skills as early as possible we introduce the skills and understanding the young player needs to be able to be able to gain (fight) for those extra inches of space by;


(a)  Making decoy runs to take defenders away before dropping in to the “holes” created. 

(b)  Hiding in blind side positions off defenders before sliding  unnoticed in to those little pockets of space. 

(c)  Encouraging the players to “play ahead of themselves” by moving their feet and body early in order to  see situations before receiving the ball so enabling them to receive and “touch- move” the ball in to safe space. 

(d)  Being prepared to use their body to screen the ball by stepping into and across the line of aggressive  opponents 

(e)  Recognizing early opportunities to run through and exploit space. 

(f)   Working on receiving and touching the ball with “real feel” using all parts of the feet and body to take the ball in to safe areas. 

(g)  Insisting on passes that are stroked (felt) with quality in to team mates and are passed to the safe side of the player to enable them to receive with maximum ease. 

(h)  Always working the players in to realistic situations and practices to ensure they understand the space “inches” needed to successfully beat an opponent without being tackled.


The coach has to teach the importance of those body positions and those inches to the young player as early as possible in their playing career.  In order to achieve this, the coach must use realistic practices that not only develop the skills but also the game understanding, vision and football language that enables those young players to accelerate and maximize their potential.

 “Who is going to win that inch?
I am still willing to fight, and die for that inch.

Because that`s what LIVING is the six inches in front of your face.
That’s football guys”




16 thoughts on “Great Players Understand Time and Space –“The Inches are all Around Us”.

  1. excellent post rog, summed things up perfectly. The inability of our players in england of all ages to receive and move the ball efficiently and with real conviction is I believe the difference between an average player and a good player. Hope your well

    • Cheers Robbo
      I just feel as coaches we have to strive to maximise the quality of coaching we give young players.Development time is crucial especially from ages 5 to 15 if we waste time with ineffective practices then we can never get that time back.
      The great thing about our game is that kids love to play it.At Premier Skills we are constantly striving to make our work as “great” as it can be.
      As John always says as players and coaches “don’t settle for ordinary”
      Good to hear from you

  2. If you can’t see and make the correct judgements/decisions on time and space in life and then act positively on them —-YOU DIE!
    Are we so blind we fail to see our football leaders are blind and unable to find the correct path forward. Visionless leadership going nowhere reflects the state of our game.
    Roger, your blog is so important and so correct.

  3. Thanks for the great blog Roger, it seems to me that your problems of visionless leadership are even more magnified over here in New Zealand as we continue to play football from the dark ages; witness the applauded All Whites at the World Cup. Clearly that style would not be accepted amongst the top tier nations.

    I remember a time when John Cartwright was a mmber of the inner sanctum of the FA and took part in the video coaching series – circa 1980 – with alluminaries such as Ron Greenwood, Don Howe, Terry Venables, Dave Sexton etcetera.

    Just such a shame he is not able to replicate that position of influence because NOW it really matters.

  4. Interesting topic, I was coaching this topic on Friday to our U9 squad. I also recently watched a dvd on the subject.
    The key is how you coach it, the dvd i watched was drill based, do prem skills start off
    coaching it in games or drills?

    Are you guys saying that academies such as West Ham, Man U, Crewe dont coach these topics from a young age?

  5. A very interesting blog as always.
    I think one of the strengths of the Premier Skills approach is that in the early stages the players gain the ideas of the new concept by carrying the ball in their hands and distributing it with their hands also.So that the coach is working first of all on body shape,body adjustment,screening and turning,vision,movement and to introduce those ideas and develop the understanding before the actual techniques are worked on with the ball at the players’ feet.
    I was interested to read Stuart Prossor’s comments re the New Zealand national team.As the only team to emerge unbeaten from the 2010 World Cup Finals,(and it wasn’t an easy group),I should think that the football-loving public in NZ were delighted.If this creates more interest and enthusiasm for football in what is a rugby-dominated country then this can only be a good thing.I understand that Premier Skills was introduced into NZ in the earliest days of its inception due to Roger Wilkinson’s work in that country.If Premier Skills can take advasntage of football’s new-found popularity in NZ then that part of the world can have a bright future.

  6. In reply to Steve, I was really making two points. The first to stress that the philosophy of Premier Skills is diametrically opposed to what the NZ football team produced at the World Cup and having seen our Under 17s in a recent qualifier – they are similar; the kids similar, but in terms of this blog and more importantly wondering with hindsight really what John things about not being a power-broker when clearly he was in a position during the Ron Greenwood to eventually be so. And this at a time when the game in Britain needs really coaching leadership.

  7. Correction re typo errors …In reply to Steve, I was really making two points. The first to stress that the philosophy of Premier Skills is diametrically opposed to what the NZ football team produced at the World Cup and having seen our Under 17s in a recent qualifier – they are similar; the kids similar, but in terms of this blog and more importantly wondering with hindsight really what John thinks about not being a power-broker when clearly he was in a position during the Ron Greenwood era to eventually be so. And this at a time when the game in Britain needs really coaching leadership.

  8. I have a question for Stuart Prossor: in the Champions League Round of 16 match on February 15th, does he think that Tottenham were wrong to hit long,high diagonal balls across the AC Milan penalty area looking for the aeriel strength of Peter Crouch to cause damage to the Milan defence? The way I see it,the coach’s job is to use his observational skills to identify the strengths and weaknesses of his team’s opponents and then to formulate the tactics for the match accordingly.Milan were clearly uncomfortable with the threat posed by Crouch in the air and allied to the fact that they adopt a very narrow formation it was clear that Tottenham’s strength in the wide areas together with Crouch’s ability in the air would be key to them getting a good result.This was was how it turned out although the goal came from Lennon’s ability at running with the ball,good movement off the ball isolated the Milan defender Ypres who Lennon beat easily and Crouch converted the low cross with his foot (he’s no mug on the ground).
    Re New Zealand’s World Cup performance in 2010, with regard to their first match against Slovakia I felt that when not in possession they defended intelligently by sometimes pressing high up the pitch and when this was not appropriate they dropped off to defend in depth in their own half whilst keeping their shape and compactness. Also,when on the ball, they sometimes created over-load situations by retaining possession on one side of the pitch and then producing a long cross-field ball to release an outlet full back or midfield player on the other side of the pitch by switching play.These must have been aspects of their game which they had worked on and so their coach,Ricky Herbert, clearly deserves some credit.

  9. In reply to Steve Haslam, the long diagonal ball for Crouch is a valid option and obviously was one to cause Milan problems. Therefore its tactical use was assured and it is an alternative and no doubt one that coaches look to use, especially in Britain and of course New Zealand where we like them big, however, I don’t see Pep Guardiola signing a player like that for his team. And I cannot remember Cruyff doing likewise either. But valid, and effective as heading is an important skill and provides an alternative way of attacking. I note that in the World Cup Final 1970 Pele scored with his head from Rivelino’s cross and then acted as a ‘wall’ to knock the Gerson ball down into the path of jairzinho for the third. As part of attacking arsenal of course but as a ploy I don’t have to like it, however, even ENGLISH type goals can change a game for a team that wants to play the game in a beautiful way.

    I understand Steve saw NZ play in the World Cup and he feels they did some tactical things, however, it is far removed from what is advocated on here and a million miles from Barcelona and Arsenal A joint friend of ours the great Eric Batty 9world soccer )said to me, ‘Fight the Bastards who’ve ruined the beautiful game.’

  10. There is no conflict in philosophy with Stuart Prossor.I was simply trying to point out that Harry Redknapp organised his team and the tactics with the players he had at his disposal together with the strengths and weaknesses he had observed in the play of AC Milan.The way I saw it I believe he got it spot on.As I commented,Peter Crouch has more ability on the ground than he is given credit for but of course it was for his aerial ability that Redknapp devised his tactics.
    I mentioned the Milan-Tottenham match in order to draw attention to some good points which i observed in the play of New Zealand in their World Cup match against Slovakia and which i felt reflected some credit on coach Ricky Herbert.I always like to see under-developed football countries make some progress and I have been a little disappointed to see Stuart’s reluctance to acknowledge this in the case of his native NZ.
    Incidentally,Guardiola had Zlatan Ibrahimovic as his centre forward at Barcelona last season,a striker in similar mould to Crouch.The reason he was shunted out of Camp Nou this season was due to his inabilty/reluctance to adapt to their pressing game and not because his aerial strengths were somehow not conducive to the Barcelona mindset.

  11. Hi Steve

    they seem better without him and Messi in the front role.

    Even developing nations shoukd try to play football and unforunately it has been teh wrong type of English influence. We may have gone backward since teh 1982 World Cup team is that is possible.

  12. They seem better without him and with Messi in the front role.

    Even developing nations should try to play football and unfortunatley it has been the wrong type of English influence. We have gone backwards since the 1982 all Whites world cup team in 1982.

  13. To Dave Williams
    Apologies for late reply I,m in Singapore en route back to UK.
    The answer to your question is no we don’t do drills we do adaptions of practices that still involve players making realistic decisions on time and space.As Steve mentioned use of the hands and then the feet can be really valuable in this important foundation stage.What is absolutely crucial is that kids spend practice time at home with rebound surfaces or parents (preferably both) to make up for the time the modern child misses playing in streets and playgrounds.We are just fine tuning our Foundation Introductory Level course I,ll contact you to come and look at the work

  14. The article is very good Roger, when i first watched the film when it came out my thoughts reverted to very similar points you have made and i have always tried to implement its sentiments within my own coaching philosophy and practises.

    In general response I believe that a generation of players have had the information of time and space delivered to them by coaches but the importance of imbedding this into all practises and reinforcing the importance of players making the decisions of time and space has been mistakenly overlooked by too many for too long.

    I do feel the future of our players is looking healthy and become frustrated with what feels like a constant negativity in some corners of the media, public domain and elements of the coaching fraternity in that we are so far behind our european counterparts, i can only talk from my experiences of working with the players i come in contact with on a daily basis who are being given a greater ownership within their footballing education environment and are developing into being innovative decision makers. I have regularly taken teams to european tournaments and at the younger age groups we are not only on a par technically but often are superior too many, but the game intelligence of our players is on average better to the majority of the teams we play in my opinion so we are heading in the right direction.

    Only time will tell but the next generation of players we are producing in my opinion will compete on the world stage given the opportunity, many people forget both recent european world super powers in football France & Spain in recent history were perenial underachievers, however they had philosophies and a strong unwavering belief to see it through and have produced a conveyor belt of talent over a generation of players. We have some excellent young coaches in our country as well as innovative experienced coaches like yourselves and John that will help develop world class players and coaches of the future given the right opportunities!

    I look forward as always of reading the next articles!

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