By John Cartwright

My Dictionary refers to Individuality as; ‘different from all other things, and interesting and noticeable’.  I suppose that, like everything else in life, there are levels of individuality with ‘Genius’, I assume, ranked by mankind as the highest level of human accomplishment. But learning never ends and, although a person may achieve such a status in his/her profession to be called a genius, those who reach such heights must continually seek to go beyond their present ability to keep at the forefront of their profession. How does a Genius regard those who don’t possess a similar level of knowledge or ability as him/herself? Do they ignore them or combine with them? Well, I suppose individuality to the point of Genius, produces both types of response and relates to the character of the person in question.

I have always believed football is a difficult game to play well. Those who use easy, ‘throw-away’ comments to support their belief that ‘football’s a simple game’, fail to notice that very few actually achieve high playing standards; if it was a simple game, why is this the case? No, football’s not a simple game, anything that involves interference to a performance must be regarded as difficult, Football, is a competitive sport with interference (defending) being half of the game’s composition. Without interference in football there would be no game! So let’s say that, football is a difficult game to play and needs specialist players to play it well.

The other, ‘throw-away’ remark that is so frequently and so easily uttered about the game is, ‘football’s a team game’. Of course it’s a team game, but it’s individuals who make up the number! It is at this point where our game has become ‘unstitched’ as to the playing realities and requirements of top level performance. We have mistakenly embraced the concept of team and not individual player through the development years until, at the top of our game, we ‘camouflage’ a lack of individual skill with physical qualities.

For decades, we have prepared players to play simple football; the result has been a ‘roboticising’ in the way we play the game. We have lost generation after generation of talent to a mis-guided belief that ‘simplicity is genius’ and have produced players who don’t have individual ability to provide an answer when confronted with difficult situations in a game. A clear example of the effect of simplistic, ‘robotic’ development is the mistaken use of ball possession here ‘The pass-pass-pass-pass, backwards and sideways, followed by a long kick up-field’ culture that has infected our game stems directly from the simplistic playing qualities embraced here. The result is a production line of ‘same’ players who are unable to positively exploit any advantage that possession play might have created.

I have always believed that the secret of coaching success is about developing high individual skill levels in players, whilst at the same time, gradually introducing and nurturing those skills to combine effectively into team play at each development and playing level. FC Barcelona, have proved my football beliefs to be correct, for within their development and playing structure, they have produced individual skill that ‘cements’ their team play together effectively and successfully. Barcelona’s ability to keep possession of the ball is an outstanding feature of their game, but it is how individual players throughout the team can contrive to answer the difficult questions the game asks that makes them so unique.

When are we going to subscribe to the obvious statement that,  ‘the faster one does something, the more likelihood there is of a mistake’. We try to play high tempo football at breakneck speed and consequently, we make mistake after mistake. We do not have the skills to use in games’ requiring such high speed, nor have we developed the necessary football intellect to support fast and produce combined movement. Our skills are simplistic as already stated and this has forced players to become ‘position conscious’, thus making movement and interchange difficult to incorporate into flowing team play.

The lack of emphasis towards developing individuality for our game has created a web of negative side affects. These all conspire towards producing a game of poor playing standards that requires ‘hype’ to sustain it. Like the greed and ‘too big to fail’ attitude that derailed our Banking system with such disastrous consequences, football here must wake up and deal with the deep-rooted problem of player development or we could easily see our national game falter alarmingly. Tinkering with supplementary aspects, as has so often occurred within our game, can follow later; for until excellent development programs are produced to develop excellent coaches, who then go on to produce excellent players to play excellent football, our game will fall further and further behind the better prepared and more skilful adversaries of world football.

9 thoughts on “Individuality

  1. Excellent analysis of many of our deep seated problems.
    Yes, football is game which is difficult to play well & easy to play badly. Try finding a player who is: two-footed; can tackle properly; can head the ball & shoot accurately; can read the game; can beat a man with a box of tricks, can take pressure; can do all this at pace; has speed & strength; can inspire others etc. I am sure you can add more qualities to those. If you can’t find them which is almost impossible these days then develop them from scratch. It is not easy & it takes time. Simon Clifford in June is unveiling the rest of his Skills Badge Scheme. Speaking to him recently he estimates that to complete it from start to finish would take a player 18 years. From my analysis that is about right. Starting at six months old & taking a player until ready for adult football. I know this sounds extreme but if you want to develop the best, be serious about it.
    Thanks for a great post once again.

  2. I agree completely about the individualism required by the game of football. It is true, to an extent, that football is a team game (I tend to agree with John’s assertion that players only really need to combine “when necessary”).

    But, like the proverbial chain, a team is only as strong as its weakest link.

    Hence I have been encouraging the dribblers in the team I coach to continue doing exactly that. However, I also introduce to them the responsibility to consider when and where are the right times to utilise their main skill and decide when it will be more advantageous to combine with others.

    There is a player in the team that I coach who can drop a shoulder and execute a body swerve like the excellent example that Denis Law displayed on that clip of film just under the camera position playing from right to left in pretty much the left back to left midfield position.

    The player does it quite regularly and, just occasionally, he gets caught out.

    I try to use the times when he gets caught out to help him understand the speeds and distances involved and get him to consider whether or not it was the right decision to execute the move; if it was, did he need closer control of the ball? Or, if not, could he have passed and gone for the return? So, lots of things to think about and, hopefully allow him to become a better player.

    Last week he completed a full pace “Rollercoaster” or “Maradonna” which took him past two defenders in one silky move. Some may think that it is indulgent and a bit ‘flash’ but, why would I discourage a player who can beat two opponents in a move, the motor skills of which, he has clearly mastered?

    As John posts, passing is fine, as is multi-player combination and is a key component of the game at all levels but what do you do if time and space is tight and you can’t control or pass the ball on your ‘other ‘ foot and you haven’t been allowed to develop self assurance on the ball?

    So individuality and ball mastery, off both sides – feet and legs – is a key factor, in my opinion, in the development of young players.

  3. I’ve recently discovered this blog and just want to say thanks to all of the contributors. I’m learning lots.

    I wonder if you guys can help me regarding the speed of the game. I coach U8s and they seem to have two speeds of play – flat out and stationary! Should I be encouraging them to slow down their play to make it easier to maintain control? How should I introduce this into my coaching and what age?

    Thanks in advance, Graham.

  4. In last night’s televised La Liga match, Barcelona v. Real Sociedad, I think for the first time I noticed flaws in the play of the great individual, Lionel Messi. On a number of occasions he ignored better placed colleagues, who were unmarked and wide open to receive a pass, in favour of attempting to dribble round opponents which would have brought a goal of stunning indviduality if it had come off, but so many times he lost the ball to the frustration of his team mates. He was also guilty of missing a number of good scoring opportunities, when a little more steadiness in front of goal, such as a little chip over the keeper,would have brought a goal. The goal he scored was actually his most difficult chance.
    I am wondering how coach Guardiola will address this problem.Should extra latitude be given to the great individual when signs of selfishness become apparent? Last night Guariola gave games to a number of young players, new to the first team, and I thought that at times Messi was ignoring them when he could have made passes. Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and Keita are not in the team at the moment for various reasons so does Messi feel he must do everything on his own?
    In this country, many a young player has been prevented from dribbling and displaying individualism because junior team managers/coaches have accused such players of “being selfish”. Being accused of being a greedy player was always a stigma which a player wanted to avoid, but the result has been an almost complete drying up of brilliant individuals in the English game.
    But there are occasions when the brilliant individual can be a liability. I thought that was what i saw with Messi last night and there have been indications in other recent Barcelona matches. Maybe Messi thinks normal service will be resumed when the great duo, Xavi and Iniesta, are back in the team, but i feel that he must accept responsibility for aiding the development of the young players who are now getting first team appearances, because it is clear that they have considerable ability.
    I should be interested, John, to hear what you, and anyone else, think that Guardiola should do to address the situation.
    It is great that a coach promotes and develops individualism, but he must also know how to handle it.

  5. Hi Steve. I saw the game that you mention and, yes, Messi was guilty on several occasions of poor selections when finishing and in providing chances for others better placed to score. The reason for not scoring from somewhat easy chances is probably due to his attempts to be too ‘clinical’ as he has missed several chances in earlier games when he has been more ‘elaborate’ when finishing.
    The point about his ‘greediness’ concerning younger players that have recently been introduced into the team; i believe that there will always be times when skilful players make incorrect decisions concerning ‘self or sharing’ — it is a fine line. He did provide TELLO with the pass to score the opening goal in the game, but you must also take into consideration the defensive ‘barrage’ that the opposition exerted on Messi. His ability to attract so many opposing players around him is a prize asset that Barcelona have enjoyed and utilized so successfully. If i were Guardiola, i would create practice sessions in which Messi, is involved in doing what he does so brilliantly; finding ‘routes’ through seemingly closed spaces to score or provide for others. This gift of space and time awareness must never be denied to a player who is confident on the ball. Realism in practice is all that is required for talented players to recognize and enjoy practicing-playing the game whilst, at the same time, rebalancing ‘self and share’ decisions and opportunities as they occur.

  6. I think that like you or me, Messi has off days when things dont go right. I have also noticed a slight change in his character over the past 18 months. He has matured and is more assertive within the team. For example he seems to take almost all the freekicks around the box, despite not actually being a great freekick converter. I think sometimes he does miss the opportunity to play people in but 95% of the time he gets it right. Like John says, he attracts so many defenders when he runs it is sometimes impossible even for him to spot the pass.

  7. I am really concerned that we don’t have the understanding of how to nurture individuality. Our football culture does not embrace it . At professional levels we now import it.
    Are we now interpreting the higher levels we see other European nations playing at as the starting point of being pass quickly with no more than 3 touches . As we see the likes of Germany, Spain , France . As for emulating the Latin Americans we believe its because they learn to play on the beaches with samba music or they grow up in such poverty that they can have only football as one of there roots out and its in there culture?
    twice a week I watch girls centre of excellence training sessions and now the over riding themes seem to be keep the ball ” a good thing.
    Move the ball quickly and lots of play of of 3 touches.
    Even other parents are starting to comment that if a girl holds the ball to long then that’s not the way to play.
    Everyone is starting to look like everyone else. What now do individuals look like. I never hear the words flair or see players encouraged to be adventurous or audacious. Are we trying to produce Barcelona, Spain arsenal type players at U13 without maximizing individuality within a team framework because coaches don’t know how?
    What should I do to to encourage and nurture my daughter to try and express herself . And not at 11 years old feel constrained and restricted?
    How would you structure the sessions ?

  8. The Africa Cup of Nations which is being covered by Eurosport, with every match being shown ‘live’, is providing many examples of high technical skill. An example was the goal that Zambia scored to beat Ghana in the semi final. The Zambian striker passed his foot over the ball as if to move it to one side, throwing his opponent off balance,and then cut the outside of the ball with fine technique to curl it away from the diving keeper with excellent technique into the far corner of the net.
    When did we last see an English player display such skill? Certainly no-one since Paul Gascoigne. The only cure is practice, practice and more practice. But it must be the right type of practice, game-related and presented in a stimulating and constructive format. The Africans have learnt it ‘in the street’, but we must utilise the methods of the Practice/Play approach in our totally different enviroment.
    At times, there have been moments of defensive indiscipline and erratic goalkeeping in the tournament, but the team organisation of the Africans is improving all the time. It is interesting to note that there are now more African coaches in charge of the teams than there use to be, with the others coming mainly from France, Germany and Serbia. I cannot remember from any of the African tournaments which I have followed, there ever having been a team coached by an Englishman.
    So it is clear, and a sad fact, that when the African football confederations went abroad to bring in coaches who could ally greater tactical awareness to their natural skill, they did not feel that our coaches had anything to offer them.

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