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.