Street Wise Players

By Sam Wilkinson

I was recently watching an academy match with a former professional player who is now a coach.  During the match he made an observation about the full back for the defending team not reading  that a long pass was about to be played in behind him even though it was obvious through the player in possessions body shape and movement that the long pass was coming. As a former full back he spoke about always reading and anticipating whether the ball was going in behind or to feet in order to make sure he was a step ahead of his opposing winger. This got me thinking about the anticipatory skills and heightened sense of awareness that great players all seem to have.  The set of skills that are akin to a “street wise” hustler – the ability to never be duped and to always be one step ahead of those around you.  How are these skills of craftiness  learnt? And are we producing “street wise” players?

Great players seem to have a way of never being caught out and always being one or more steps ahead of their opponents.  It may be reading subtle signals and tells from the player in possession to anticipate where the next pass is going, it may be working out that a player will always look to play off their right foot because that’s their stronger side or it might be studying and absorbing the habits of team mates in order to foresee the support position that’s needs to be taken up. Whatever the situation great players display these “street wise” anticipatory skills that allow them to play the game in the future.

These are incredibly detailed awareness skills that can only be developed by spending hours and hours analyzing and making decisions on time and space. These skills of awareness are not developed from working in unopposed situations where no decision making is required.  Players will not heighten their craftiness as a player by passing around a coned grid then joining the back of a queue.  Just as the hustler learns to be “street wise” from years spent duping opponents and avoiding predators on the street,  a player will only learn to be “street wise” through years of practicing and playing against opponents.    When opposition is not present in a session there is simply no need for the payer to be “street wise”, no need for them to find ways to anticipate an opponent or team mate’s next move.

If the player does not develop the ability to read and analyse the hidden signals and warnings of the game, they are likely to be caught out and duped by the craftier opponent during match situations.  Just like the nice University graduate is likely to mugged when forced to walk down the street full of cunning hustlers.  How often do you see great defenders anticipate a pass before anyone else and nick in front of an opponent to intercept it while the poor defenders are often left desperately trying to make up ground on the player they are marking? How often do you see great strikers appearing to know where in the box the ball was going before it arrived while poor strikers are just too slow or too late to react to the ball? How often do you see great midfielders  shifting their first touch away from seemingly hidden defenders while poor midfielders turn blindly into a crowd of opponents.  These “street wise” skills are often the difference between the great player and the poor one, the hustler and the mug.


As John Cartwright often alludes to, street football used to provide an opportunity for young players to spend hours practicing the game in a realistic environment. In this environment players learned to pick up and read these signals and found ways of playing ahead of their opponents and sometimes teammates.  Street football is now a rarity in western society and it is therefore vital that as coaches our sessions recreate an environment that develops skills of anticipation, analysis and craft. These skills develop when players are faced with opposition not cones or mannequins.  We need to be developing players that are “street wise” enough to handle the unforgiving game without being duped or mugged by opponents.

7 thoughts on “Street Wise Players

  1. Good post Sam-When we talk about the skill of anticipation the late ,great Bobby Moore always comes to mind.Part of his learning I believe was done by talking to senior players like Malcolm Allison.

  2. It’s also a case of concentration – concentrating for long periods when the ball is nowhere near; scanning, adjusting, watching, assessing, predicting and adjusting again – often for minutes at a time before you get a chance to interact with the ball.

    All these skills are based upon patience – does modern society – never mind football – really allow the development of such skills? Instant messaging, 100s of channels on TV, facebook, twitter, game apps on your phone….etc. All designed to provide instant gratification for minds that have to be “entertained” or occupied right now!

  3. Another brilliant post. Steve the Seagull makes an erudite point. Some of the problem is truly societal! We no longer develop deeply pensive, analytical people because of our over anxious, heightened, 24 hour “iGeneration” society. It is even more difficult for people(mainly boys) coming out of secondary schools with limited qualifications, only basic literacy & numeracy to cope with the complexity of modern professional sports. There needs to be a complete sea change in the mentality and approach to training and education not just within Football but also throughout society.
    The less boorish different attitude of the likes of Graeme Le Saux should be the norm rather than being a cause for ridicule… Q. Just think how many British footballers are as educated as a Socrates, Tostao, Wenger, Shaka Hislop or Hugo Sanchez ?!

  4. Fantastic blog Sam.

    Yesterday at training (7-10 years olds) we did a ball each and ball per pair practice in a rectangle, chaos, decision making, various individual skills required with and without the ball.

    Adjacent to our session was another soccer school, where they had 5-7 year olds. Like the previous week, and the one before that and the week before that they did the same practice, in cold weather.

    2 cones opposite each other (15-20yds), behind each cone 3-4 children aged 5-7, and one ball per 3-4 children. The objective, dribble with the ball in set robotic ways as directed by the coach towards the opposite cone (group), once there a player from the opposite side takes the ball and does the same. The coach got frustrated because each player was not performing the task in the set way explained and because children in the queue were talking, daydreaming etc…

    This is the kind of unopposed non-sense that goes on that sucks instinct, creativity and spontaneity out of children.
    – they were not allowed to think for them selves
    – they had to specifically do certain things
    – they lost focus because they were bored
    – they were cold
    – they were not allowed to be creative
    – their decision making was being affected by a voice not chaos

    and yet they were practicing a skill that in real life can only be chosen to execute if there are defenders.

  5. More than 40 years ago a book was published which i think was entitled “Science In Sport”. I forget the name of the author, but I think that it was written by an academic. It was fairly heavy stuff and aimed at people doing physical education degrees. Ron Greenwood, at the time managing/coaching West Ham United, was sent a copy of the book and though it wasn’t what he would recommend as required reading for coaches in grass roots football requiring practical advice, he did like one part of the book. This was a section on kinaesthesis, (i think that’s how you spell it), which Ron Greenwood defined as “knowing where you are”. This was the quality that Ron Greenwood said was possessed by Jimmy Greaves, one of the all-time great goalscorers. Descriptions of Greaves ranged from “having a nose for goal”, “a sixth sense in the penalty area”, to “being in the right place at the right time”.
    But Ron Greenwood said that it all centred around Greaves always “knowing where he was” in relation to the goal. He scored countless numbers of goals in crowded penalty areas when his back was to goal and he seemed to instinctively know where the goal was, as he diverted and flicked shots into the net, seemingly without looking. But he was always “aware of his environment” because “he took pictures”, and this is something that West Ham worked on for many years.

  6. Hi Steve
    I always really appreciate your input.You’ve introduced a great little phrase for the kids to “hang there hat on” a reminder phrase “I know where I am”. I remember Ron Greenwood coming in to a coaches meeting one day and walking sideways down the aisle to make the point that football was a sideways game.A deep thinking influential coach who in his time was not cherished enough recognise the trend!!.

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