SKILL – THE GAME’S ‘HEART AND SOUL’

By John Cartwright

Every time I watch Barcelona FC play I give thanks for seeing a club who have had the foresight to; determine a ‘revolutionary’ playing style; introduce a coaching and developments system to produce the coaches and players to play it; appoint a product of their development system as coach/manager of the club; and have the ‘guts’ to play their game, their way, despite criticism from the ‘fightball brigade’ who prefer a more ‘up and at ‘em’ version of the game.

Barcelona FC, have ‘RAISED THE BAR’ in football terms. What we are seeing from them is individualism moulded cleverly within a team structure. Their playing style is without doubt different from anything seen in the history of the game. Here is the ultimate example of the formation of a vision combined with careful planning to achieve it. From the inspired, original playing concept of Rinus Michels followed by Johann Cruyff,  Barcelona FC have displayed a fierce determination to stick to their designated path and wait for their young players to come through to play their special brand of football in their first team. Should a ‘gap’ occur in a position, the club are immediately able to recognize what is required and obtain in the transfer market a player who has the playing qualities they need.

An interesting and vitally important aspect of the club’s success is, how they have ‘educated convinced’ their fans into accepting a game-style that most fans would find lacking ‘fire and fury’. Barcelona’s ‘positive keep-ball’ method of playing consists of extended periods of non-penetrative possession football before an opening is created. I believe the fans here would have difficulty in accepting this type of game-style, even if it did produce success! The ‘direct’ disease, so common to our game, is introduced at junior levels and the ‘infection’ progresses becoming an epidemic that is killing the chances of our footballing future.

Future young players must be ‘hidden’ from the ignorance of past and present development and playing ‘abominations’ that have wrecked havoc on the game here and be allowed to develop in a more careful and thoughtful way. The importance of individual skill acquisition with a more gradual introduction into team-play must form the basis of development thinking here. Playing ‘fightball’ in which speed, power and simplistic ability is recognized as greatness and winning playing ‘ugly’ football, must become a thing of the past.

Yes, Barcelona FC have ‘raised the football bar’ to such an extent that it is questionable whether anyone is capable of reaching or bettering the standards they have set. Their long-term vision and subsequent development planning was created by true footballing and coaching geniuses; do we have that quality of person here to do the same? I doubt it!!  But I bet somewhere in the football world there will be those who are prepared to take on the challenge whilst we continue to flounder on a pathway to a football nowhere.

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9 thoughts on “SKILL – THE GAME’S ‘HEART AND SOUL’

  1. Just attended another Practice play level 1 course today, it was great to see the tutor work with kids for part of the day, which I have filmed. Sitting in watching some of it tonight, before I had to put X Factor on, I could see how with practice your teams could really develop the skill that John has spoken about.

  2. You are so right,John,when you say that English spectators would not take to a patient build-up style which comprises extended periods of non-penetrative play.This is the biggest problem with so many young players that I coach – they want to play the ‘miilion dollar pass ‘ every time they get the ball. It seems to be a mindset that is handed down through the generations in this country. Every pass must split the defence, every pass must produce a shooting opportunity. Forcing the play instead of going back and rebuilding an attack, to go down a different route and probe for penetration with patience and craft.
    For as long as I can remember any player who passes the ball back towards his own goal, when he has found his route forward blocked, has received the abuse and wrath of the crowd.The result is that at junior level the kids soon discover that it is better to punt the ball forward aimlessly, even though it goes straight to the opposition, rather than passing it back to a colleague, because the chances are that they will be applauded for dispatching the ball somewhere in the direction of the enemy goal!
    The way that I see it and understand it, the Barcelona example is quite simple and could be adopted by anyone in charge of a club and who truly appreciates and loves the game. It all revolves around what John Cartwright has many times referred to as ‘having a vision’. We ‘have a vision’ of the game style we wish to implement and this is presented to, and explained to, the players and everyone involved in the running of the team/club. Everyone must buy into this vision, anyone who does not must go. We then set off on that journey with everyone having a clear idea of where we are heading and the methods (i.e. coaching methods) we are going to employ to help us get to our destination.
    Clearly, the high-powered,multi-million pound leagues of England and in Europe generally, make it almost impossible to envisage such a concept being introduced because survival on the financial gravy-trains is what matters and hardly anyone looks further than the next match or, at the most, of being in the Premier League/Champions League again next season. So at the top level it seems that FC Barcelona are unique. We have to look lower down the playing grades, or a country where the League is less high powered financially, and where a driven,inspired individual can emerge who is given the time to undertake such a project and take it to a conclusion.
    From the mid sixties to the mid seventies there was such an individual at a club outside the national league.This was Hennes Weisweiller who was coach at Borrussia Moenchengladbach. In 1964 they were in the West German Regional League. They gained promotion into the West German professional league and ultimately into the top division – the Bundesliga. They won the championship on a number of occasions and the UEFA Cup. They did not win the European Cup but came close and produced some memorable performances, notably an unforgettable 7-1 thrashing of Inter Milan, a result that was expungerd because someone threw a tin can onto the pitch! But from 1964 to 1976 under Weisweiller, Gladbach played some of the best football seen in Europe since World War 2 and their conveyor belt of player development produced an endless supply of players for the West German national team like Vogts,Bonhoff and Heynkes.
    Weisweiller started his ‘vision’ in German non-league football and was given time to see it through. That is the lesson which the power-brokers in world football, and especially in England, must learn.

  3. Steve, I was interested to read your post and especially the bit about setting a vision, presenting it and explaining it to everyone at the club. This is exactly what I and a few other of the coaches at the club I coach at are doing right now.

    I have drafted a Vision and Mission statements, outlined a ‘game-style’ which we wish to pursue and which will allow us to achieve the Vision including setting a coaching philosophy and are now drafting an outline coaching handbook for existing and, most importantly, new coaches who join the club from this point on.

    Nothing too complex – relatively easy to read using bullet points rather than being a dissertation (!) which wouldn’t get read anyway.

    I’ve had input and ideas from the coaches who are already buying in and we hope to have a discussion at the next coaches meeting. I have hopes that it will be adopted and that I can persuade any nay sayers as to the validity and relevance of the content and concept.

    I am quite excited about it and hope that this will be a small contribution towards moving the grassroots game forward – once complete, I expect to post it to our website so that it is viewable by as many people as possible.

  4. Talk of a playing vision that is in sync with national traits of the British makes me think of the Tony Carr book written by Stuart who posts on this blog.I wonder how close the West Ham philosophy detailed in the book is to a playing vision that could be coached and implemented.

    The style is based on pass +move like the old Liverpool method-the ball is played from the back-Defenders comfortable on the ball-Frank Lampard snr and of course Bobby Moore -good examples.Develop leaders on the pitch to “make things happen”-Alan Devonshire/Trevor Brooking.Strikers such as Paul Goddard who can hold the ball up-play one touch and set up penetrative moves in the final third.

    Defences are broken down by third man runs;fast 1-2s off the striker ,take+fake takes,late runs from midfield

  5. Hi Dave…I think that everything that is outlined in both coaching books which have been produced by Tony Carr are integral parts of the Practice/Play philosophy. They are all the elements of play which were introduced into West Ham United’s playing repetoire following Ron Greenwood’s appointment as their manager in 1961. Ron Greenwood was an absolutely brilliant coach,millions of light years ahead of his time, and when John Lyall took over the managerial reins in 1974 then for the next 15 years he continued to run the club along precisely the same principles as his predecessor.Tony Carr was a player under Ron Greenwood and youth coach under John Lyall, a position which he still holds to this day. All the knowledge which he gained from working under those two truly
    outstanding coaches he has put down in his books.
    Where I feel the ‘vision’ concept comes in with regard to the Practice/Play methodology is when we consider a game based on ball possession.I think that the vision which I want my players to adopt is keeping possession until a route towards enemy goal has been discovered and then the third man runs,blind side running,overlaps etc. are launched to penetrate the enemy defence.
    A possession-based game is something which we have not developed in this country, largely through our lack of patience in all aspects of the game, and that’s how I would want to base my vision.

  6. Thanks Steve-Interesting to read your comments-Is there also an overlap with Premier Skills/Ron Greenwood in respect of small sided games +learning through playing?

    -The SSG doesnt seem to play a major part in the first Tony Carr book-where there seems to be a predominance of drills without opposition-which I believe is contrary to the premier skills ethos of realistic practices?

    I agree with your comments on the possession based game -for me its common sense-the side with the majority of possession within 90 minutes is always the team most likely to win.I read some time ago a list of criteria common to successful teams.

    The list is useful for creating the vision for a better standard of young player in the country.Winning the majority of possession in a game was certainly on the list.Other factors include the ability to win the ball back further up the pitch-another Barca trait-dating back to Rinus Michels.Another item on the list was the ability to play forward.This highlights why individualism+skill is important as we are talking about the ability to turn opponents and beat defenders in 1 on 1 situations which naturally requires skill.Tactically this allows a team to create scoring opportunities quicker and gives the opposition less time to recover behind the ball.

  7. Hi Dave. I think that Tony Carr’s coaching books are brilliant manuals, outlining many of the techniques and skills required to play the game. I have watched him coach many times over the years and it has always been an education. His vast knowledge was gained from all the years, under the expert tutelage of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall.
    You are right to draw attention,however, to the fact that the majority of the content of these books are drill-type practices, which are not consistent with the approach which we are now following with the Practice/Play methodology. I feel that John Cartwright has progressed the work, as outlined in Tony Carr’s books, by introducing into his coaching approach the use of safety areas,home bases etc. into the coaching environment, which provides greater realism and also challenges the players and, in my opinion, aids the development of their understanding. Right from day one, Practice/Play presents the challenge of time and space and so the youngest and most inexperienced children must immediately try to solve this problem. Everything is as it is in the game, game-related, with a natural, and seamless, progression.

  8. Interested to know your thoughts on the Brazilian Soccer Schools coaching system. Lots of ball contacts, lots of 1v1 moves, turns, kick ups etc. My son has been with BSS since he was 7 and loves it. When he plays for his Sunday team , he does get criticized for trying to take players on too often, even though on occasion he beats players with outrageous skill.

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