The Ugly Game

By John Cartwright

Recently, I was unfortunate to see a football match; I think it was a football match, they used a round ball and there were two different groups of 11 players on the field, beyond that there was little else that resembled the ‘Beautiful Game’ as described by Pele. How we tolerate such awful standards and blindly accept the rubbish on view amazes me.

This was a game played by professional players in the NPower league 2, so I did not expect a Barcelona standard, but I should be able to see some playing quality during the 90 minutes. The ball, or should I say the ‘canonball’ was ‘hit’ and headed with vigour but without subtlety and care.

From goalkeeper to forward strikers, the game was ‘stuttered’ from team to team; ball possession was something seemingly unheard of in the frantic ‘fightball’ contest that was played out in front of me. This ‘ugly’, fear-induced playing style is not only visible in the lower echelons of the professional game here but is rife throughout all levels and all age groups. Our players of the future are unable to produce a game in which individual artistry and combined team play is obvious. Speed and power exert more influence on playing style than quality and intellect.

A direct playing style is still the outstanding tactical method used in games in this country. Oh, yes we have seen the ball passed AT the back more in recent years, but we have not seen a significant improvement in playing FROM the back; the long ball forward is still the most used ‘weapon’ in our game’s ‘armoury’. A lack of individual skill allied to a reliance on simplistic tactics has reduced our game to a sad ‘ping-pong’ version of a more sophisticated game played by our foreign adversaries.

In an attempt to remedy the urge to play long, some coaches have decided that the ball must be passed around between their players more; we are now in the ‘pass, pass, pass’ playing period. Over-passing in preparation for attacking play but lacking penetrative awareness, intention or ability has become the model for many teams’. So, from the banality of ‘Route One’ football, we now find ourselves languishing, lost amongst the ‘Side Streets’and unable to find a suitable way ahead.

Generation after generation of talented players have been lost because of the ‘ugly’ type of game employed here. The inability to work the ball through the field of play has denied skilful individuals an opportunity to exploit their playing qualities. Chase and fight have been the prerequisites of selection rather than subtle playing skills and game intellect. Now, with our continued inability to design a suitable game-style that combines preparation play with penetrative play, we remain the ‘floundering failures of football’.

Yes, we do have some talented individuals at all levels, but the meretricious game-style that dominates our game is based on mediocrity not magic. Amongst the heaving mass of ‘sweat and bloodied’ participants in the struggle we call football, there is usually a glimmer of a real player trying to exert some poise and quality on the mess that surrounds him/her. Oh yes, those players are there, but the playing style fails to exploit the talent they have. Some might say that talented players should force themselves into the action more, but this is not as easy as it might seem ……. when back players are expected to be merely ‘stoppers’ and not cultured ‘starters’ of offensive play;…….. when there is a tendency to miss out mid-field and expect ‘second ball scramblers’ to dominate mid-field playing tactics;……. whilst up front, players are simply seen as targets to ‘hit’ rather than to ‘service’ the ball to.

No, the ‘ugly’ game-style that we seem unable to dislodge from our football psyche is responsible for so much of our failure over the years. Not until we construct a playing method that utilizes our strengths and embraces and introduces the playing sophistication of others into our game will we find the correct way forward;….. a route to satisfy all who want attractive football and the success that goes with it for our national game.

10 thoughts on “The Ugly Game

  1. John – Always in general favour of your posts so your insight on this conundrum would be appreciated. Why are the loudest cheers for the young players who can kick it the longest/hardest and/or the hardest tackle and/or for heading at grassroots football? Why do I never hear cheers for the player who has taken up a great position to accept the ball, looked up to see a pass or deliberately intended a shot to go in a certain part of the goal or used his wits to take on and beat a player?

  2. hi John an interesting and accurate post. I watched a Ryman South match at the weekend and what you describe here is exactly what I saw from both sides at that game.

    At the grassroots club at which I coach, I have introduced a document looking at a Club Vision, Mission, Game Style, Coaching Philosophy and an outline Coaching Handbook in order to address exactly these things. Identifying a Build Up game style through use of individual ball mastery and team play I am hoping to set in place something that will be perpetuated over the years in order to develop players who understand the game and how to play it in an imaginative and expansive way. I also hope that the players (and watching parents) will more appreciate this approach than the more “traditional” approach which is still commonly the way with youth players at grassroots.

    As mentioned in Graham Hunter’s book “Barca; The Making of the Greatest Team in the World” I feel I need to do some work in educating the spectators (mentioned also by John in a previous post)so have also asked our coaches to circulate the documents to the parents as well. Hopefully we can get a club “Way” of player development that excites and educates the spectators at the same time.

    However, not all is doom and gloom currently. The U12 team I coach regularly comes up against teams who also try to build the play from the back and through the pitch and don’t always rely on the big hoof.

    There are a number of teams at the professional level who are now becoming recognised for a more expansive method of play and are having a level of success with it.

    I think the attractive way that Barcelona play and the success they have had with that style of play has helped to convice people in this country that there is ‘another way’. The style of play is spreading, I believe, as is the philosophy of teaching young players the game, rather than how to win. I have a positive view that, whilst we aren’t there yet by a long chalk, the football landscape is shifting and I am hopeful that in not too many years (within 5?) the majority of teams will be approaching development in this way and with a more expansive game style.

  3. Steve, I sure do hope we, meaning the U.S. are also begening to move a bit more toward a few educated spectators. We are just getting to the point in our short history with the game to have U-10 to U-15 teams that have a handful of parents who have played. My big concern will always be the coaching, and the development of correct mindset in the coaching philosophy. The balance of competition and development is dificult, and Im not sure our spectators/parents have the patience or knowledege to show this balance!

  4. I went to watch Huddersfield Town play at Bury on Saturday.I was horrified to watch the last half of the game where Towns tactic was to boot the ball anywhere in the general vicinity of Jordan Rhodes marked by three defenders.A total lack of composure and desire to keep possession.

  5. Hi John, I wish I could have written every paragraph in you acticle as I agree with every word.

    Yes I like the pass, pass, pass scenario in the final quarter of the attacking field. This pass, pass, pass, pass pass and pass in the defending third or even the middle of the pitch reminds me of the old days of winding the clock down or playing for time an absolute bore where the balance of defending players outnumber the attackers 6 to 4 with the goalkeeper as the go to player when a little bit of pressure goes on. And then the goalkeeper punts it up the pitch 60 meters.Who wants to watch that crap and I see it at every level of the game.

    All is not doom and gloom however there are a few very skilfull confident young players that have got very quick feet and can penetrate very quickly either through idividual play or rat a tat passing with acuracy and weight. Unfortunately that confidence seems to disappear for some reason, I used to think it was animal type defenders like we had in the 60/70 but more recently I think it must be getting coached out of these beautiful players.

    Thanks and Regards
    ps I have all kinds of football coaching accreditation that I have gained over the years, however the ones I treasure most is my Premier Skills ones:)

  6. I mentioned above, a Ryman South game at the weekend which was torture to watch.

    In England, Ryman South ( a semi-pro league) is described as “Step 4” i.e. 4 divisions below the full time pros of “League 2”.

    I went to watch a game at the bootom of my road tonight in Sussex County League Division 3 (Intermediate Football or “Step 7”) and was delighted to see, from the home team, a considered build-up play game style involving circulation of the ball to create space and penetrative passing and running with or dribbling the ball to create opportunities. This team does not pay its players (though the club has, in the past, done so) and they were playing an expansive version of the game that was pleasing to the eye.

    Now, the holes in the argument SEEM to begin to appear. I arrived late (maybe 25 minutes into the game) where I discovered the home side were 1-0 down.

    So, observing for around10-15 minutes, I see the home side has much the better of the ball and is dominating position in the opponents half as well as dominating possession. Around the 40 minute mark, the away side get decent possession near the left hand touch line, the left winger executes a bit of a move and delivers a fine cross where the forward meets the ball with a side on volley to make it 2-0.

    In the second half, the home side do nothing different. They maintain possession, they use overloads, “start-agains” and “play around” maintaining their obvious control of the game. They never panicked, they dominated for long periods of the second half and restricted the opponents to one and a half chances all second half. With 5 minutes left to play they pulled a goal back. Much back slapping and congratulations so what did they do next?

    Launch the ball into the opponents penalty area for “Hail Marys” and knock downs?

    Not a BIT of it. They carried on as they had all game (or all the bit I saw) and, eventually, earned themselves an equaliser.

    FULL MARKS to the players, but also to the coach who has clearly convinced the players that the style of play will, for the most part, generate the result. A considered style of play, intelligently executed, pleasing on the eye and whilst only a draw, it almost felt like a win.

    The pitch wasn’t the best and so the style was even more exemplary given that they didn’t resort to the big boot, at all.

    So, the holes that SEEMED to appear in the argument, weren’t actually there at all. OK, so this one was only a draw; BUT this team are top, currently, of their division and, I hope, because of the STYLE of their play, will stay there until the end of the season.

    I mention this only because,again, as with the post above, I REALLY believe an expansive, thoughtful style of football is, slowly but surely, being embraced in this country.

    if we raise the level of the base of the pyramid, surely the apex will follow and benefit. It may take a decade or so, but, if we reach the “Tipping Point” which I am sure we will, we MAY win another tourney, before I shuffle off.

    COME ON ! “It’s only a game – but I LOVE it”

  7. …BUT, we coaches MUST keep educating everyone that we encounter that the “English Way” (as we used to know it) is not the way – expansive, intelligent, thoughtful, football is the way forward.
    “Passion”, “Desire” “Never Say Die” are all pre-requistes. We won’t win major competitions with ONLY those (but we may not win them at all without). But everyone has that these days; now, we need to UNDERSTAND the game better, and, therefore, paly the game better than we have in the past.

  8. England got another lesson in how to play the game when Holland came to Wembley last week. Three superb goals from the Dutch, especially the first when Huntelaar opened up an avenue through England’s defence with his run from left to right for Robben to steam into and score. That is the second time that England have been outclassed on their own soil since the shambles of South Africa 2010. Last season, France showed up the difference in class between ourselves and the leading football nations when they recorded a 2-0 victory. Even Switzerland, who have not qualified for Euro 2012, showed much superior ball retention skills last June at Wembley.
    The truth is that neither Holland nor France are in the same class as their great sides of previous years, but England are still a long way short of matching them in terms of technical skill and clever movement. However, I thought that there were one or two bright features which could give a little hope. It was good to see a central defender, Cahill, joining in an attack in open play to score the first goal when he he made an intelligent run across the Dutch defence to stay onside, (although TV replays showed that he had, in fact, been offside). Also,Jones, another defender, showed good vision with his pass, made first time, to release Young for the second goal and so perhaps we are beginning to see back players with an extra dimension to their play appearing, which means that, with encouragement and coaching, they can move forward into overloading situations.
    But there is still too much fear in our football at all levels, producing the kind of dross which John saw in the League 2 match recently. The treatment of managers which we have seen recently at Chelsea and Wolves can only increase the atmosphere of fear in which so much of our football is played, with everything hinging on the result and League position. If anything, the fear factor is probably even worse in League 2 because there, the sacked manager does not receive the multi-million pound pay-out as does his opposite number in the Premier League, and the sack to him probabaly means he can’t pay his mortgage.
    But are the Leagues in Italy, Spain, Germany and France any less pressurised for Managers/Coaches than they are here? I don’t think so and every Manager/Coach lives in fear of the sack . It is their player development which is better and here in England we must put all our focus on that.

  9. Steve the Seagull

    so pleased to hear of your experience of the Sussex County game. I manage at an even lower level than that but I can confirm that it is possible to play to a high standard on pitches of quite deplorable quality.
    My team has had commendations for the last six weeks from referees who have expressed something close to shock at our ability to keep the ball, switch play at ease and dominate the opposition ofton in games where man for man they are stronger and bigger than us because we have a vision and game style that we do not depart from ( anyone who doesn’t buy in simply doesn’t stay).
    Whats nice is to have refs compliment you because they ofton have to put up with much abuse during games and the refs have been recognising that a possession orientated style leads away from what John Cartwright calls “fight ball”. Our players hardly talk to the ref during the game because they are enjoying themselves. Yesterday we scored a goal from a 14 pass move and had one or two other similar moves that resulted on shots going just wide or being saved. And this is at a level not much higher than “dog and duck” sunday pub football.
    Ryman bosses have no excuse because thay are in the Rymans. If it can be done at Swansea and if it can be done in the London AFA 7th division or the Sussex County 3rd division it can be done at Huddersfield and Bury. It comes down to the will of the coaches and the vision of the managers.

  10. Fletch wrote:
    “It comes down to the will of the coaches and the vision of the managers.” – Spot on, I couldn’t agree more ! If you are willing to commit to a vision and are prepared to give players a chance to work within it, progress is achievable.

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