By John Cartwright

Before I begin my comments on Saturday’s match between Barcelona and Man.Utd. in the final of the Champions’ League, I should first make the point that I am not a fan of any particular club in this country or elsewhere in the world, I am, however, a lover of the game of football and I admire Barcelona’s ‘guts’ to play the game in the way they do.

It is vital in any area of competitive life to achieve an early initiative over ones rivals and then to retain the initiative for the duration. This is not always possible and an initiative can be lost and renewed effort is required to regain it. In the game mentioned above, it was interesting to see that Man Utd started in a powerful and determined fashion and seemed to gain the early and important initiative over the Spanish team. Barca’s passes went astray and players were caught with the ball as they were pressurized from the first whistle and for a short period (10 Mins.) their composure and normal playing style was intimidated and ruffled. It was also interesting to watch during this period of play, how Utd. were unable to take control of the game during this pressurization stage. The hard work on closing down and forcing Barca.’ onto the defensive was not capitalized on and the Spanish team gradually began to exert their playing style onto the match.

The situation we saw occur in this game reflects the main problem with our game here; we are unable to take control of a game once we have ‘earned the right to play.’ Lack of individual skill combined with poor tactical understanding reduces the opportunity to command a game and exploit an initiative and so we continue to ‘battle away’ when more composure and creativity are required. The same cannot be said for the Barca,’ team, having ‘weathered the storm’ of Utd’s early onslaught, they took over control of the game through their all-round playing qualities and never lost the initiative for the rest of the game.

We have become experts at ‘Fightball’ – a game that earns the right to play, but lacks the playing abilities to exploit that right. The game of ‘fightball’ lurches from possession gained to possession given away in a continuous fashion and fitness combined with speed to regain initiatives after initiative has become a deciding factor in player production to satisfy the fast and furious game-style preferred here at all levels. The ability to dominate with skill/tactical awareness once the initiative in a game has been achieved is not recognized as important –‘ keep battling on’ is about as good as we get!!

The victory of Barcalona the other night is just one more nail in our ‘football coffin’. Surely we can see how far behind we really are and how we have allowed ‘hype’ to camouflage the huge disparity in the playing standards between ourselves and our foreign adversaries! Let’s wake up and begin the long process to develop high quality players who are comfortable playing the game at the highest levels.


  1. Fightball is a great way of describing most of football we all see at all levels in this country. Great Blog as usual John. More power to your elbow.
    I have now watched the match three times & would recommend everyone who is involved in the game to watch it again & again. The more you look the more you see. Check out Messi’s running style & think about how it makes him difficult to dispossess. The other match to watch whilst your at it, is the 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid earlier in the season when Barca, I believe, were even better.

  2. What is apparent is that Barcelona have raised the bar very high, that even the likes of Crouch in high heels can not reach. I completely agree with your comments John, but lets not forget that everyone is playing catch up, even the Spanish, Brazilians and Dutch. Our domestic game is full of foreigners who are unable to play the Barcelona way.Real Madrid could not keep the ball either when they played Barca. What we are witnessing is a Dutch total football or a Puskas led Real Madrid, a great team that has developed a new brand of football.
    Next year we will have Barcelona academies here in the UK, with Spanish coaches I heard on the radio, will be interesting to see what they do that is different. I know they play keep ball and split the pitch into 8 areas.
    Premier Skills courses will certainly develop coaches with the right technical and tactical info to develop our future players, I do not see the Barca way of keeping the ball being much different or any better.

  3. The day before the Champions’ League Final ‘Telegraph Sport’ ran a story that for the previous two weeks Manchester United had worked on a tactical system in training which they intended to put into operation in the eventuality of them going behind in the big match.The plan was to remove Park from midfield and replace him with a defender,Smalling. They would then play a back three of Smalling,Vidic and Ferdinand.The full backs would be pushed into wide positions in midfield so that it would read Fabio,Carrick,Giggs and Evra and Valencia would go forward to make a three of Valencia,Hernandez and Rooney – basically a 3-4-3 formation.
    This never happened and I wondered at the time where this story actually came from.These days no-one is allowed to watch training and judging from what we see and hear on TV and read in the papers,press conferences and one-to-one interviews are dull,bland affairs.
    It would be interesting to know where ‘Telegraph Sport’ got its information from.It would also be interesting to know why,for all Barcelona’s brilliance,Manchester United seemed impotent to deal with their threat,or at least do something to counter-act it.Should Rooney,in his support-striker role,not have taken responsibility to get himself around Busquets when the Spanish anchor-man had the ball in an effort to stem some ball-supply to the brilliant Messi,Xavi,Iniesta and co? Most of the time Vidic and Ferdinand were marking space as the Barcelona forwards dropped off the front-line positions to take passes in deeper areas and run at the hapless United defenders,or else rotate with other players coming though from midfield. United never did anything to radically change their playing shape,their substitutions were ‘like-for-like’ and never looked likely to change the course of the match.
    Barcelona’s football was a joy to behold but it was very disappointing that apart from the first ten minutes Manchester United offered very little intelligent resistance or imagination.

  4. You make an excellent point Steve about Manchester United not really having an intelligent creative plan to stop Barca. But to be fair I am not surprised because Alex Ferguson’s record in Europe is utterly embarrassing.

    As John has said in the past our English Premier League is over hyped and certain individual players have been and are over hyped and are nothing more than big fish in a small pool. However Ferguson is the most over hyped of them all. Yes Man Utd have dominated the league since 1994, and yes they have surpassed Liverpool’s 18 league title record but considering this domestic dominance their Champions League record is a joke. A team that has won the league title 12 times in 17 years in one of the so called big powerful leagues or best league in the world should really not only have won more than 2 European Cups in that time but should have dominated Europe, (i.e Real Madrid, Ajax, Liverpool, AC Milan and Barca now).

    But the fact is Man utd have won only 2 European Cups during the 12 league titles and even then they were fortunate against Bayern Munich and Chelsea in both victories. Both Bayern and Chelsea hitting the woodwork twice, both Bayern and Chelsea in control of the game but both Bayern and Chelsea suffer defeat not due to Man utd quality but 2 fortunate goals in 1999 and a penalty hitting the post after a slip. Both victories in the final had nothing to do with managerial control or tactical success.

    If Ferguson were a true footballing genius his Man Utd should have won more European Cups. I have been watching Utd in Europe since 1994 and I remember when they were outclassed by Barca in 1994 and by other teams since, such as Juventus, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich and now Barca. What I noticed was Man utd in most big European games always seemed to approach the tie in the same way. High tempo, high tempo, high tempo, press opposition, force errors, punish errors, get the ball wide, get ball into box quickly – and all in the first 20 minutes. This proved to be successful against weaker European teams but they never ever were able to control and change the game tempo and rhythm against skilful teams, it has always been 100 mile an hour stuff.

    Like John said against Barca on Saturday in the Stadio Olympico they pressured the Catalan giants early on but were not able to take control – in other words yes they tackled and forced mistakes but when they had the ball they were not able to GOVERN THE BALL. If we delve into the Champions League past this has happened before to Man utd but they have come unstuck due to the opposition being better technically, more skilful and better at keeping the ball.

    Considering the money pumped into English football coinciding with Man utd’s domestic dominance and the amount of money they have spent over the years Man utd’s record in Europe is a perfect example of what’s wrong with British football. They are regarded as the countries and world’s biggest club in the world’s biggest and best league and yet they struggle to manipulate the ball when opposition defenders attempt to tackle. The standard here is now really really really poor at pro level and Man utd are the evidence.

    I had a new child come to training today in our under 6/7 age category. Every time he got the ball he seemed very comfortable with the sole, inside and outside of the foot, he possessed good agility, coordination and passed the ball well. We did a staying with the ball practice – he moved with the ball well and was under control during chaos and in the 1v1’s. During the small sided games all he ever did was pass the ball or shoot the ball. I encouraged him to dribble during the small sided game. His reply “my old coach says dribbling is for players who don’t care about the team and we have to always pass the ball”.

  5. Hi Dav – it is both interesting and depressing to read your comments on the young child who has just joined your club and has already been ‘programmed’ to part with the ball every time he receives it from the instructions that he received at his previous team.The ability to govern the ball is the first message which I have found expounded on the Practice/Play courses and the staying with the ball/individualistic element of the game links into each level of instruction.
    In my opinion,one of the biggest curses inflicted on the grass-roots game in all age groups in this country is the touch-conditioned games.From the earliest ages two-touch and one-touch games are inflicted on the youngest children with the results that you have described.Constantly imposing this restriction creates such unrealistic situations and completely destroys any chance of a young player developing governance of the ball.The situation is made worse by the the line of thought which seems to have emanated from the FA through the the new FA Youth Coaching Award and that is that the ‘game is the teacher’ and the coach is somehow unimportant and little more than a bystander.If the coach were an unimportant bystander then the previous coach of the 6 year old, who you have just been coaching, would not have had the disastrous consequences which became evident when the child was put into a game and promptly parted with the ball immediately on receiving it.
    The child’s reply that his/her previous coach said that “dribbling is for players who don’t care about the team” shows how urgently John Cartwright’s big message that,contrary to popular belief, “football is not a team game, but a game for individuals”, must be ingrained in the minds of everyone who coaches football to children in this country. Those individuals combine as a team later on as their individualism develops and they develop game understanding.

  6. Hi Steve,
    I have to pick you up on the ‘Let the game be the teacher’ point you make.

    Actually, from doing the Youth Awards myself, I feel that the FA have it right and actually have said that teaching the game through game related / realistic practices is what is required.
    Which is what we are also discovering from the Premier Skills Practice Play courses.

    My perception is that it is other, well intentioned, people who have perpetuated the myth that the game itself is the teacher with that stock phrase.

    I have coached players for whom I can vouch that the game most definitely isn’t the teacher – if left to their own devices, players will fall into common ‘comfortable’ patterns and only the truly exceptional individual will test themsleves against the practcie or the game. For the others, it is the coach who has to provide the guidance to be brave enough to do other things.

    And as an FA staff coach told me (I paraphrase) ‘If the game is the teacher, why did you spend all that time, effort and money to become a coach?’

    I think the key for us is to make practices challenging yet enjoyable, game related that (especially) young players can relate to what they see on TV (well, the best of it anyway) with constant references to good examples in order to provide what Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, tells us is the ‘Ignition’ that prompts the young person to want to excel at the game

  7. Thank you Dav. Your points are brilliantly stated. Man Utd’s record in Europe is absolutely derisory; I have been making this point for years. Even in England Utd have been tactically outclassed in nig matches. As you say high tempo has been Ferguson’s main strategy throughout all his four main Old Trafford sides. He has been truly blessed to have someone of the calibre of Paul Scholes(light years ahead of any other English player). He tried to change things by bringing in Seba Veron but the Argentinian’s cerebral approach to the game didn’t fit with the Fight ball of the Premier League. C’est la vie….

  8. Hi Steve The Seagull,
    Thanks for reading my post and I was interested in your comments.However,I cannot agree that the FA have now “got it right” with their new FA Youth Award courses.I have done Modules 1 and 2 and I have been very underwhelmed by what I have seen so far.Admittedly,from the outset they state that it is “not what to coach,but how to coach.” So do they consider that the technical content and methodology of their other Awards are satisfactory and clearly targeted at improving the state of English football? Can we look forward to the England team facing a healthier future and attaining a higher place in the rankings of the world’s leading international teams?
    I think not.The coaching concept of the Practice/Play scheme is influencing coaches at all levels who take the courses because they can relate to the content being technically excellent and presented to both coaches and players in a way that both tests and improves their capabilities at whatever level they operate.
    Following England’s dismal performance against Switzerland last Saturday I have been giving some thought to where the England team now stands in terms of international ranking.I know that FIFA periodically publishes rankings on countries but these are based purely on results.But where do we really stand in terms of playing ability,game understanding,imagination,talent production and basically just knowing how to play the game?A lot of people would say that we are currently in the 2nd rate category of football nations.I would say that we are nowhere near that and not likely to be for a long time.
    Switzerland are at best a 3rd rate international team so where does that leave us?I thought that they were a lot better than us last Saturday – they kept the ball better by retaining possession and with a superior understanding of when to look for the penetrative ball when it was on. In all honesty I am not sure that we rank much higher than Faroe Isles at the moment and if we are not careful we shall be down with them in the not-too-distant future.I lost count of the number of times England defenders played useless passes into midfield players who had dropped virtually into the back four.There is simply no conception of moving forward with the ball to create promising situations through overload or other imaginative scenarios.Cleverness on the ball and cleverness in thought are practically non-existant except occasionally from Wilshire and Young.
    So I reckon that at the very best we belong in the 4th ranked category of countries.As things are heading we shall move in only one direction and that is down even further.
    The problem is that through the National Association we are not getting fresh ideas but recycled and reconstructed methods which have been around for years.The Practice/Play methodology is the only one that offers something new and fresh and it needs a massive effort on the part of everyone who takes the courses to spread the message.

  9. Steve, re your comment ” Thanks for reading my post and I was interested in your comments.However,I cannot agree that the FA have now “got it right” with their new FA Youth Award courses.I have done Modules 1 and 2 and I have been very underwhelmed…”

    What I meant was that I think they DO have it right as regards ‘Let the Game be The Teacher’ phrase – I know that the tutors who I have had on the Youth Awards have said no such thing and have challenged the statement (as I and a few of my coaching mates have done for a few years as well)

    So far as you being underwhelmed by the content, I am honestly surprised. The content,philosophy and underpinning theory is, in my opinion, first class and a real sea change from some of the more traditional coaching courses.

    The trouble with some of the traditional content is that it has been aimed at adult teams / players for whom it has been assumed (wrongly) that they have the technical skill to be able to play to a variety of styles. Perhaps the approach HAS been based on the philosophy of Direct Play (whether you agree with it as a method of play or not). However, those courses have not been aimed at coaches of youth players and therein has lain the issue.
    Enthusiastic coaches who have wanted to improve and give something back to the game have undertaken the courses on offer. Before the advent of the internet, there was little other option available.
    However, coaches at all levels are now much more inquisitive, have ready access to a variety of approaches, methodolgies and philosophies and are much more able to evaluate and determine what is best for them and the players they coach. We no longer have grassroots coaches of young players who HAVE to rely on what they most recently did as adult players for any kind of an inkling as to what to do for their young charges. (There may be some who refuse to acknowledge ‘another way’ but eventually we will reach the tipping point where coaches such as we are in the majority).

    Personally, I think the FA DO now have an idea of where they want the game to go. They recognise that playing modified games is the way to introduce youngsters to the skills of the game and they are doing their level best to promote a realistic assessment of what future players will need. It will no longer be (nor should it ever have been) about players running and playing in straight lines. It outlines clearly what the modern game is about and what we as grassroots coaches (and coaches of potentially elite players)must consider if we are to deliver decent environments for players to learn the game at whatever level they may eventually play.

    Do the FA get everything right? No, of course not; but neither does any other organsiation – large or small. It is easy to lambast the FA and, these days it seems to be an easy target. But credit where it is due for trying to make a change and for employing people now who really are good. imaginative people. Maybe some of them have come from the academic background, but not all of them. And, to be honest, I am sure we have all seen the odd ex-pro coach who isn’t up to it either – and that won’t purely be down to the coaching programme.

    I have no problem with acknowledging the content of the Practice Play courses and in a lot of ways I think it complements the Youth Awards (especially Module 2) very well which is perhaps contray to your view.
    Maybe because I know how I like to see the game played I take the positive aspects out of all methodologies I come across and perhaps I am sufficiently blinkered to dispense with the negative aspects of what I see.
    However, I honestly can’t say that I have seen anything which is the total answer for the ails of the English game. I think it will be an uphill struggle for a few years yet but I can see the change coming and it’s gathering pace. As someone in business once said – “There is No One ‘Right Way’ “. That being the case, surely no one way can be all wrong either.

  10. Hi Steve The Seagull:
    I responded to some of your points in a post which I clicked on the Gazza blog by mistake.

  11. I agree with many of the comments above but I don’t understand the link being made between Man Utd (and any other club) and England. They are an English club. That’s it. There were only 3 English players (+Giggs) in the starting line up. 2 came from the lauded West Ham Academy.

    That’s the same with most premier league teams. How can Man Utds reported lack of performance have anything to do with Engalnd and the FA and coaching of kids in this country?

    On the subject of the FA . I know that the PFA and Premier League have some power in what & how coaching is run in this country too and that real change is too often rejected from within the game, not by the FA who merely regulate the game.

    PS I don’t work for the FA. Yes I am a Man Utd fan. Should they have done better in Europe. Yes probably. But 3 wins, 5 finals, 3 semi finals & 5 quarter finals in Europe in 20 years is not bad. The stats stack up well really. And if Barca really are that good. And they are, 2 more wins could have been achieved against opposition that are merely very good. i.e. Madrid, Milan etc. Maybe.

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