Critical Skills

By Roger Wilkinson

Does anyone else get grumpy like me when watching Aaron Lennon run inside from the right wing and still use his right foot even though its closer to the defender and then show that he can’t thread a clever little ball in to the box with his left foot because his “other” foot isn’t good enough????

Does anyone wonder why Emile Heskey after 15 yrs in the pro game in a “one on one” with the keeper in the World Cup just hits the ball straight at the keeper????

Has anyone noticed that Frank Lampard can “open out” great with his right foot but can’t with his left foot?????

Compare that with Tom Finney who played right wing, left wing or centre forward for Preston and England and was comfortable off both feet. Same goes for  Bobby Charlton, Colin Bell, Duncan Edwards and many of our other past Internationals.

I see too many lads in our academy system that can’t play off two feet.  It’s too easy to blame the academies, these skills should have been developed at grass roots level from the time the young player first enters the game.

In my opinion we have got to produce a checklist of critical skills that we cleverly introduce to our kids from the age of 5 yrs onwards in realistic coaching situations. In my experience, if a young player reaches 9 and 10 yrs of age without these skills then they have very little chance of adding them to their game. These critical skills should be bedded in by age 10 to provide our kids with the ability to be the best they can be.

I suggest these as critical development skills;

Running with the ball with both feet  –  The ability to move behind the ball whilst running to transfer the ball to the “safe side”.  Developing the touches and feel for the ball whilst running at speed.

Stopping with both feet  –  Learning to stop quickly to avoid interference.

Turning with both feet –  Being able to twist, turn and change direction on both sides to attack space, protect the ball and beat opponents.

Quick touches on the ball –  Quick touches with the inside and outside of the foot that allow the young player to adjust to threats from opponents, even in tight areas.

Eyes up  – Looking around before receiving the ball and also keeping  their “eyes up” when running with the ball.

Receiving with both feet  –  Being able to adjust the body to open out when receiving the ball with both feet.

 First touch movement– Moving smoothly off the line of the closing defender instead of stopping the ball dead.

Receiving side on– Enabling the player to have greater all round vision and the ability to protect the ball when receiving under pressure.

Passing – with feel, accuracy and weight using all sides of the foot.

Other coaches may want to add other criteria BUT if as a minimum we started producing young players who had all these qualities I believe we start producing  the quality and quantity of home grown players needed to rejuvenate our national game.

16 thoughts on “Critical Skills

  1. Couldn’t agree more. It is a particular hobby horse of mine. I would add, though, you can learn to kick with both feet at any age though it is admittedly very hard to become totally two footed as an adult. I did it myself as an experiment when teaching my own son the basics some years ago. He is now 14 & can play using either foot. He can, for instance, beat players at pace dribbling off either foot something rarely seen in adult football at any level. He can do it because he has put in hours of practice initially on his own & then in small-sided games. Where he trains he is not alone. In fact being able to play with both feet is quite normal & expected.

    The key as you highlight at the end is to make it an expectation. Even a requirement. Then be patient especially with lefties & quick players who will find it especially difficult to acquire the necessary technique, never mind the skill.

  2. Nice one Roger, sometimes we can be a little critcal on “Keep the Ball” but feel you have offered coaches of junior players a direction to be sucessfull. Maybe the age group that you are talking about is a little young to introduce movement of the ball but I introduce movement off the ball at a young age without a great deal of purpose in the early stages.

  3. Fundamentally this is all about one thing ‘CREATING THE FOOTBALLER FIRST.’ And having all the in-skills at the ready to transfer into the Position-demanding 11 v 11. Thinking about Roger’s post – and ideally two footed technical mastery is the aim – I cannot help thinking that in many ways young players begin the full-sized game too early; way before their skill development suggests they can cope; individually and collectively.

    Patently, the young player has poor ability on the ball and is unable to ‘protect it’ or ‘stay with it’ to any meaningful extent – and it is put unnecessarily at risk – and secondly lacking any really individual quality is unable to combine with others; so the whole thing goes belly-up. Not just the guy on the ball, but the guy next to him and so on AND to make the point even more apparent the opposition ARE EVEN worse!!

    So we have two young teams playing the game as a team, but the concept team is anathema – a misnomer – because they can’t combine to give each other the ball to then perform as individuals.

    One team overpowers the other – forces a corner – the ball is wopped in – all the boys miss headers ( as they do) -Some one skies it wide – GOALKICK – now the crazy part – Well the keeper can’t take a kick from the ground so another (probably a defender) kid that likes belting the ball does – HOWEVER, his technical deficiency is obvious and he lacks the power, so just manages to get the ball outside the box somewhere near the flank and it bobbles around in the air and is ‘fought for’ – eventually the stronger opposition attack -and you can create your own picture. My point is simple that early divergence from small-sided into the full-sided game, when players are not ready, does nothing for the players and inhibits the use of those ‘critical skills’ Roger talks about in his blog. More important, those ‘critical skills’ are rarely on view; so what is the point. The weekly exam is set but the individuals are not ready to sit it – BUT THE PHILOSOPHY SEEMS TO BE “OH WELL, NO WORRIES, WE’LL HAVE ANOTHER GO NEXT WEEK.’

    Now the caveat is this; someone wins that game I described above, and someone is happy, some parents are happy, some kids are happy, but as far as developing anyone that can be described as a player NO ONE SHOULD BE HAPPY – yet ignorance is bliss.

    I’ll just settle back now and watch AC MIlan and Barca

  4. H Colin. Your point about being ‘a little critical’ at times in ‘blogs’ is only mentioning the truth about the poor development methods our youngsters experience. This problem is not new, it has been a continuous factor since coaching replaced the natural learning experience of street football’s ‘practice/playing’ for kids.
    The whole, shabby approach to football development should and must be exposed for what it is in this country — a total failure! Coaching methods here need to be heavily criticised. There is no justification for complacency or satisfaction if one looks at the sub-standard level of playing quality produced here. Have a look at the U15 Tournament in South America being played at the moment( British Eurosport channel) and see the difference in playing qualities between there and here. The games are just as competitive, played on poor surfaces compared with here, but the individual and team playing ability is far superior than what we see even at an older age level in U16 Victory Shield International games here.
    There needs to be more than just criticism of coaching and playing standards here, there needs to be a ‘revolution’ to throw out the present rubbish and install a coaching infrastructure that can produce talent with true quality and not ‘hyped’ mediocrity at best.

  5. Competitive games throughout the whole of the development period should be an EXAMINATION of practices completed or underway, not a MATHEMATICAL EXERCISE in the gathering or losing of points.
    When nurturing young babies we begin with milk and gradually move on to more solid foods as the child develops. In football we feed our ‘babies STEAK, EGG AND CHIPS, TWO SLICES OF BREAD AND A CUP OF TEA from birth — in learning and playing methods. No wonder our players have indigestion ! (my word for poor ability).

  6. I very much like the “critical development skills” which Roger lists and I think that everybody should use these as a temp-plate to start working on straight away.
    A couple of suggestions from my own experience. A coach who I worked with for many years used to play games in training which were ‘left foot only’, (right foot for left-footed players). Of course, the players did not like it to begin with and we just gave it them for a few minutes at first, but gradually, over a period of time, they realised they were getting better and more confident with their weaker foot and were happy for the condition to be extended longer.
    From another example, I have recently been taking a class of 7 – 8 year olds in a school and the 8 year olds, during games, like to make up their own team and are naturally too strong for the 7 year olds. Since they are reluctant to be split up, I said “OK, but you play the whole time with your weak foot only.” In a few weeks,they have shown an improvement, and certainly greater confidence, in use of their weaker foot.

  7. Simply, for X number of years – SINCE FOOTBALL BEGAN – the continental foreigners, the Latins, the Africans have produced technically gifted individuals and the British less and less; and English speaking they have affected hardly any at all.

    In point of fact, Roger’s ‘Critical Skills template’ exists NATURALLY in these other countries, to a greater or lesser degree, because their young boys have so many outstanding individual players to emulate, they play street football, possess ‘INDIVIDUAL’ MINDSETS, and really importantly the public; unlike the English think this way to play.

    What I meant with my recent reply was that the English – and their associates around the world speak who speaks Shakespeare’s language and unfortunately caught the FA’s cancer – do not develop technically gifted kids who are able to combine to play the game in any successful competitive form. It is not necessarily the age of the players but their technical competence which actually matters.

  8. Great post Roger. Couldn’t agree more that too many players in this country reach adolescence without mastery of these critical skills you list. The lack of street football is certainly one reason for the skill gap but these skills can be replicated in our junior clubs and Academies if coaches adopt simple methods of integrating the critical skills into their session planning. I believe too many young coaches feel they have to put on extravagant complicated sessions to impress watching peers rather than preaching and coaching the critical skills.

  9. I do not think we can really blame the players, because a person is generally only as good as the education that he or she receves especially at a young age, because once bad habbits are formed it is hard to get rid of them. And untill we start to pay just as much attention to what goes on off the field as opposed to just thinking about the football only we will continue to struggle to produce top class players. You take Uniteds Ravel Morrison the kid has all the natural skill to become a top class player IMO but because he has off the field problams it has stopped his progression as a player on the field, which is a shame because English football can’t really afford to loose a talent like that

  10. Hi John, I read your blog a lot. I am in the United States in Minneapolis. I turn to agree with you on what the kids need to play the game. I do read all the replies by the know how, know where and know when experts. I also watch many of the EPL games on tv and some championship games. What I hear from you guys is that the English at present don’t seem to have natural prodigious soccer players. What I also hear from most of your EPL commentators is that the English love the big soccer players. The fact is they drool over big, big, big players, and turn to trivialize smaller players. The last time I checked, the best player in the world was diminutive by English standards and couldn’t cut it against Stoke City, quite a droll thought I would say. The last time an English man coached a world cup team was in 1998, correct me if I am wrong, for a country that gave us the game.

    You guys just need to stop being coaches and become facilitators, let the kids who want to play the game from ages 6 to 13yrs of age, play the game and find their own solutions to on the field problems. Eliminate from the English vocabulary, when it comes to kids learning how to improvise, the word showboating. Eradicate the urge to coach and coach because you are just a limiting factor to their development and stop discriminating and belittling smaller players. Just a food for thought!

  11. Great points Roger. I also think in the Academy system that we should have our 6, 7s and 8’s unable to move into ‘elite’ groups unless they can demonstrate all of the aforementioned critical skills which surely are a pre-requisite for any young footballer.

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