Develop Players Not Positions.

By Sam Wilkinson

It always worries me when a 9 or 10 year old player tells me they are a full back – by no means am I demeaning full back as a position, but why would a young player that is being developed skilfully and has their whole career in front of them limit themselves to a specific position so early on?

I often watch English Premier League matches and find myself wondering………..Could a player like John Terry go and play comfortably and cleverly in midfield? Could a Micah Richards type player fill in as a right winger? Yet when watching Spain, Barcelona or the Brazil teams of a few years back I never questioned whether Dani Alves or Cafu could play higher up the field or whether Pique or Lucio could fit comfortably into midfield. Why is this?……..because first and foremost they were developed as great players not positions!

Are we concentrating too much on developing players to play certain positions or roles? At young ages are we too transfixed with the stereo typical criteria of positions – big tall centre back – pacey winger – workhorse midfielder?  Players, and in particular young players should be developing the skill and understanding of the game style to go and play in any area of the field. By forcing players into specific positions too early they end up only developing very narrow skill sets and understanding, that is restricted to certain roles.

How often do players convert to new positions early in their senior career, Carlos Puyol – winger  to centre back, Thierry Henry – winger to striker and Gerard Pique – central midfielder to centre back to name but a few.  All of these players were able to make these conversions because their skill level and understanding was sufficient enough to cope with the demands of the game not just the demands of a position. It is very hard to tell at 12 years of age what positions a player will be playing at 25 years of age, so why try and make that decision so early?

Aside from the pitfalls of pigeon holing young players into positions too early there is also the limitations it can place on the game style at senior level.  Skilful and Total football involving rotations and overloads requires players to cover and “fill in” a variety of different positions.  How can your centre back get into midfield if your centre midfielder is not comfortable filling in for him? How can your centre forward drop and rotate back into midfield if your central midfielder cannot go and play up front for a spell?  Why get your full back over lapping if they don`t have the skill and cleverness to be effective higher up the field?  Great teams are made of great players that cope with the demands of the game in all areas of the field.

I believe our challenge as coaches is to equip players with the skill and awareness to be great all round players not specialists, to give players an understanding of the whole game style so they are able to play skilfully and cleverly regardless of where they find themselves on the pitch.

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43 thoughts on “Develop Players Not Positions.

  1. Agreed. Putting a child of that age in one position only gives him one view of the match. Let a “striker” play at the back. Then he can understand what’s hard for a defender and use that in when he returns to being a striker. No player should be limited to one position at that age.

  2. I started introducing the idea of positional play to our U8 team last fall after four matches. In reality, three of the players end up playing the full field and fourth field player plays half of the field. (We play 5v5 including GK’s). Our players rotate and play 2-3 different “positions” per match.

    Through the fall, I didn’t see many breakout players in any single position. This spring though I’ve started to see some players excel in specific roles. To some degree it’s a show of personality. Some of the boys have less confidence being the man with the ball and carrying the ball through the opponent’s defense. They gravitate naturally towards the back, even when I ask them to go forward.

    I’ve taken up the sport as an adult and started out as a dedicated defender – but now as I’ve become more experienced in playing the game I’m becoming more confident in my play and looking to explore other positions. I’m hoping this gives me insight to what my players see in learning the game.

  3. I have agonised over this scandal in English football for more than twenty years. We are still stuck in the ‘dark ages’. The Dutch / Brazilian / Barcelona experience has shown us that players need to have proper technique and advanced skills as well as ‘god given’ talent. In England we have only ever focused on the latter. Young players are scouted for their outrageous natural ability rather than moulded from eager eyes and ears.
    Even the best English players over the last thirty years were not seriously drilled enough at a young age and encouraged to express themselves fully. What could the likes of Platt, Shearer, Butt, G. Neville, Beckham, Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Lampard, Gerrard, Ashley Cole et al have achieved had they been brought up under a different coaching structure..?! The latter at least had the tutelage of Arsene Wenger without whom he would not have excelled as much. Only 3 stars = Scholes, Gascoigne and Rooney can be said to be ‘uncoachable’ but even they honed their outrageous skill at a very tender age and continued to improve when brought through their academies, Those who have tried to play pretty were(are) mocked and occasionally still derided for being over elaborate. Wilkins was called a crab, Le Tissier was continually labelled lazy, John Barnes should have been signed by AC Milan!! Even Hoddle and Waddle had to go abroad before they were truly lauded. Only the hugely under rated Steve McManaman actually won major trophies abroad and even he was cast aside at international level. It is an absolute disgrace. Joe Cole was never let out of a straight jacket..ever! These players were not all similar but they each had supreme skill and awareness. Could we ever produce a genious like Frank Rijkaard or a Van Basten? Surely it is not impossible…..

  4. I think that sometimes players are moved back into defensive positions, particularly to full back, when it is thought that their attacking flair from that position will cover up for their lack of defensive know-how. I recall, back in the sixties, Leeds United moved Terry Cooper from outside left, (and a pretty ordinary one), to left back. Wingers had practically disappeared from English football, at the time, following England’s World Cup victory, and Cooper cut open English club defences time after time with his devastating runs down the left flank. Cooper got into the England team, succeeding Ray Wilson at left back, and this is when he got found out. The top foreign teams had not discarded wingers, and in the 1970 World Cup 1/4 Final against West Germany, Cooper was given the run-around by Jurgen Grabowski. Cooper was exposed for his poor positional sense and lack of awareness of how to jockey his winger into less dangerous areas, as Grabowski ran at him with the ball at his feet. Had Wilson been at left back i don’t think that England would have lost and, who knows, maybe a second World Cup success?

  5. I am watching a replay of AC Milan Barcelona and thinking that if we compare John’s book with Charles book… there is no comparison once Barcelona get the ball – which is pretty much all the time… John’s book is so-much-about-BARCA and Charles book-on-another-plant ( and is about right because you have to go vertical to get there!!!) – Sorry guys couldn’t resist that…

  6. Forget the ‘EASY STATEMENT’ that ‘FOOTBALL’S A TEAM GAME’; its NOT, its a game in which INDIVIDUAL SKILLS OF PLAYERS IS MOULDED TOGETHER INTO TEAM-PLAY.!!!
    We have misunderstood the importance of producing individual playing ability first and then integrating these qualities together. All other successful nations seem to relate to this thinking. …… WHY HAVEN’T WE? Oh, only PREMIER SKILLS COACHING seem to have ‘seen the light’ with regards to this. I WONDER WHO WILL TRY TO COPY IT AND CALL IT THERE IDEA?

  7. THE WHY HAVEN’T WE? is a top statement… Barcelona play right on the edge of ‘individualism – if needed – and combined play’. Decisions are based on the moment and what opens up… You can almost see Iniesta thinking shall I run, shall I pass, shall I angle in, play a wall ball and then run with it. They don’t have to lay one touch- but can – because their faculty to ‘stay on the ball is honed to the inth degree. An extra moment ‘staying on the ball’ allows re-positioning to occur.

    i concur with John… GREAT INDIVIDUALS then combined to create GREAT TEAM-PLAY.. We must have individuals first; although the sum can in circumstances be greater than the parts… However, every great team has possessed GREAT INDIVIDUALS.. and when then think alike you the get the Madrids of Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento, Del Sol, the Brazilians of Pele, Didi, Garrincha, ZIto and others.

    A simple idea for me is that they have individual answers to the problems and combined answers.

  8. When the ball drops out of the air into the defence, the typical South American centre half will try and receive the ball on his chest, cushion it on impact and immediately take possession of the ball. The British centre half will attack the ball with determination and aggression and power a firm header, preferably high and wide, out of the danger area.
    Each is a creature of habit and the product of the football culture in their upbringing. There is a gradual merging of the two philosophies, however. Puyol at Barcelona has the fighting spirit and combativeness of his British equivalent, allied to a delicate touch and technical subtleties. Moore, Hansen, Lawrenson were British players who developed a continental mindset into their defensive play, whereby they became adept at breaking up opposition attacks but then initiating counter attacks for their own team. Basically, they developed the abitlity to use time and space. They learnt when to drop off the rest of their defensive back-line to receive or intercept the ball, which gave them time and space to use the ball, instead of merely clearing it from the danger area.
    The Premier Skills methodology, which i have learnt from the courses which I have attended, has the prominent feature of ‘safe areas’, where you can receive the ball without being challenged, thereby allowing a young player to appreciate the value of space and time, how it can be created and how he can use it to full advantage. Safe areas are put in at the defensive ends of the pitch, (as well as other areas), which i have found a great way of enabling young players to develop these qualities.

    • Hi Steve. You are so correct when you mention the different playing qualitiy of Puyol at Barcelona. This is exactly what i have been trying to make the game in this country realize for God knows how many years! We have the natural ‘fighting spirit’ that is represented by Puyol, but he has also modified the tendency to just be a ‘fighter’ and can conjoin quite effectively with more skilled players about him. We do not possess a mentality to develop the easier aspects of the game ……. the ability to teach and learn the skills to play it!
      Competitive power combined with skilful play is the ultimate requirement…. we can”t seem to blend the two together. Oh, except for Premier Skills Coaching methodology who have realized the problems and offer answers to them.

  9. To pick up on Steve’s point, I found also that the safe areas.. helps change the typical mindset of ‘clear your lines’ which is predominant in the FA’ defensive third ‘safety vs risk’ philosophy. Safe areas force the back player to utilise time to endeavour to set up a ‘possession based’ attack rather than a ‘position-based attack.’ Ultimately, the possession-based development can incorporate a ‘position-based’ attack that has been worked for. If the Europeans and the Latins in their ‘ playing midsets’ have concepts of time and space and getting the ball on to the floor.. Barcelona has the concept of ‘second safe zone and deeper zone’ – Valdes – who contary to the FA’s safety vs risk… This has been blogged by others before ( ie John) – passes from the back to retain possession and in one case recently clipping the ball to Alves ? who broke and Barcelona scored.

    No doubt the obvious mentality of the British player was in John’s mind when he insituted a safe zone. The consequence is that players – even adults like the concept in some ways a through back to the days of the pass back which allowed the fullbacks to drop off and receive How ever well the non-pass back law was conceived it did not cover every eventuality… AND I WOULD PENALISE THE ENGLISH MENTALITY OF OVER PLAYING THE HUGHSIES – I am not having a go here just isolating the type of ball – that is the through ball that attempts to ‘turn them around’ in one foul swoop and in this case allow the pass back… because so many of these passes like guile or imagination. In other words one long ball without preparation of any ball up and back – route oneish would give the defence some breathing space, and might be a way of forcing the English to at least think whether their adherence to this style is constantly worthwhile.

  10. Another point .. albeit unrelated.. I think FIFA should consider an ORANGE CARD.. in other words this tells the manager that he must sub the player otherwise he will be sent off.. This allows 11 v 11 match to continue.

    An orange card as a tribute to the Dutch in the last World Cup Final… Arriverderci van Bommel.

    Although it must be said if the referee feels a straight red is warranted he can use that. The orange card is an option.. it means that a ref doesn’t have to be lenient… If Milford had used it on Gascoigne after he crashed his studs into the chest of Parker it might have saved that part of gazza’s career. On the other hand it might not have, because even a rescued Gascoigne might still have been watching the ball in the air for England!!

    • like the idea of the orange card for junior football espcially at grassroots in blighty where you get parent refs who wont send off and parent coaches who wont do the honourable thing and sub a player to calm them down

  11. Future thought.. What would English football have been like without Charles Hughes?

    Possibly Better? Who would have run the coaching show? And written the wonderful books and advocated.. was it three passes or less??

  12. Thought it is a good time to express few viewpoints that John alludes to through the invention – can I call it that – of Premier Skills.

    Sixty odd years ago the Hungarians came to Wembley and gave the English a good shallacking in the arts and crafts of the game. They were technically better individuals across the group and in their combined play. Subsequently, over a period o f time teh foreigners came to England to play the national team or against club sides; sometimes they lost/sometimes they won, but on the whole irrespective of reversal in fortunes, the continentals and the Latins were if not better, played a better and more superior style of game. Perhaps highlighted at its best by Beckenbauer and his 1972 Germans, when he arrived with his interpretation of the libero – free back and te ability to both break out and deliver from the back, but do the overloading into the middle and front areas; coupled of course with Brietner and then add in the sorties of Schwarzenbeck.

    The Germans who always seem to possess the English fighting qualities; added technical mastery and were on a different planet to the English; who to be fair had some decent/world class players on the pitch themselves – they embarked on a different path inspired by the coaching of Hennes Weisweiler at Borussia and the Schule in Koln… Weisweiler – was the German equivalent of Greenwood/Michels/Miljanic – and he made a difference. While the talk in England has been about Cloughie the best manager England never had – what then Weisweiler and West Germany!!

    The point is that German coaching went forward.Unfortunately English football was caught in a time-warp, and did not develop. Bare in mind that it was 60 years ago the Hungarians came gave England a lesson ‘in football.’ Since then many other shave done so; yet the English way has persisted. Surely, it cannot be a surprise to anyone that some people have had enough; some people do not honestly believe that the FA should be the coaching leaders.

    While the English prophet exclaims the Brazilians are wrong – in the present tense – and proclaimed four/three passes or less a young balding bearded Catalan man is tutoring his charges in an coherent totally opposite way – as a proponent of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels – whereby the ONLY VALUE is having the ball. This concept became foreign to many in English football – and its followers worldwide; whom coach using the ‘three pass or less method.’ I am not so blind as to think that three passes can be the right way depending on the position on the field, but as a ‘football method’ is cut out the middlemen, cut out the midfield generals, cut out the beauty of integrated passing angles/movements and by its very definition IT STEALS THE BEAUTY FROM THE GAME. This might be the greatest sin; now I don’t know Charles Hughes and he may well be a lovely old man, but it has to be acknowledged that his advocacy – from a most powerful position has had a detrimental effect on English football.

    The fact that John has set up PREMIER SKILLS with Roger says it all and is a total criticism of the FA’s approach to the development of its coaches. I am not writing this to have a glib pop at Hughes; but trying to provide a brief – if somewhat personal view of the coaching position. The FA lost its way a long time ago; but remains powerful.

    It goes without saying that not everyone follows the FA’s strictures to the letter, and that many will coach their own way despite having the FA qualifications. Furthermore, not everything from Hughes is poor- my understanding is that out of possession he makes some good points; but if he has been misinterpreted as his apologists might claim, he had years to put that right AND DIDN’T.

    If the FA continues on its current path without repudiating Charles Hughes to some degree it will in 2053 be down the gurgler… and let’s face it the lack of quality coming through at Youth Level bares this out…the fruit is rancid, spoiled.

    The FA NOW must turn its vineyard over to others to let others produce the wine… theirs’ might be a best seller in English speaking countries, but on a French, Spanish, Italian, and a Brazilian table we can ONLY THANK GOD IT IS NOT.

    • With the danger of my own ‘fitting cap’ I take from your comment above ” but if he has been misinterpreted as his apologists might claim, he had years to put that right AND DIDN’T” that you got around to reading my blog post on Charles Hughes.

      Well done for having a more open mind than I gave you credit for. However, please note, I am no APLOGIST for anyone.

      What you read on my blog was MY INTERPRETATION of what I read (and is available to anyone to read) in his books (I quote directly from them) and my determination of what, to me, is clear – a varied approach.

      I do not know Charles Hughes and am therefore not personally influenced by him, but I have read his books ( and a whole load of others, too) and I draw my own conclusions.

      Even at the time he was castigated for his, alleged, direct play approach. But, tell me how your reading of my direct quotes don’t lead you to the recognition that your stated views are, exactly as I mentioned before, overly simplistic and take no account of the nuances.

      You make a fair point that he has had years to correct misinterpretations, if that is what they were.

      My blog makes the point that OTHERS took SOME research to the Nth degree and came up with their own versions of what THEY thought the approach should be (fightball). I took MY interpretations which, by and large are somewhat different from the old Wimbledon / Cambridge type approaches, at the time.

      However, he needs the press to do that and, given the general quality of press reporting of football and its issues in this country, I am unsurprised that he has not found the platform on which to do so.

      So, you may not agree with my interpretation (I know John doesn’t and, after all he DOES have first hand knowledge – he used to work with the guy !) but rest assured, it is MY interpretation, not one that I have been TOLD to take.

  13. A couple of corrections from the above posting…’Since then may others have done so…”

    ‘I am not so bind as to think that three passes or less cannot be the right way dependent on..’

    ‘IT STEALS THE BEAUTY OF THE GAME FROM THE PLAYERS AND THE AUDIENCE.’

    • Hi Brazil94 and all of you who are showing interest in changing the way we think and play the game of Association Football.
      Did you see Barcelona last night? They played Athletico Bilbao, at the Nou Camp and absolutely outclassed them! Bilbao are the team that ‘mauled’ our present Premier League leaders and ‘destroyed Germany’s top side, Schalke 04 the other night.
      We in this country, are living a myth when we have the aydacity to compare our top teams with the Spanish giants. In comparison, one has to admit that our game resembles a ‘Neaderthal’ version of the futuristic qualities displayed by Messi and Co.
      Our game, from top to junior levels is in a state of denial as to its poor standards. Whilst we continue to lie to ourselfs we will fall further and further behind the world’s leading football nations.
      Last night, Barcelona encouraged their central defenders, Pique and Mascherano, to break forward with the ball to opverload mid-field and sshorten the distance of deliveries to forward players — thus keeping possession better! This aspect of the game has always been a part of my football philosophy and it is very much part of the Premier Skills playing vision.
      At Premier skills, we have so much more to offer but unfortunately, the powers that reign over development here are blinded by fear and self-protection making change difficult to achieve. And so our ‘Cave-man’ approach to the game extends from generation to generation —– ‘fightball not football’ !!!!

      • Sorry all, but in my enthusiasm regarding Barcelona’s possession play i forgot to mention the quality of their ball-winning.
        Even in the highly competitive nature of Football in which Barcelona are invovled, their abilty to regain the ball quickly, and so often. ‘neat and tidily’. makes the huff and puff we see each week in our ‘fights’ a laughable part of the game here. Barcelona, work tremendously hard at regaining the ball, but it is a team effort and continues throughout a game. They have been well schooled in this aspect of the game and must be admired for the way they ‘pick the pocket’ of teams with their whole team pressure tactics.
        Fitness can be used in a less fierce way than the ‘smash and grab’ way we go about it….fantasy football with and without the ball !!!!

      • Interesting too in that match John as both Xavi and Fabregas were missing it was noticeable that the whole team were making driving runs , carrying the ball forward more often than normal, especially Busquets and Thiago. Shows they have great tactical flexibility and its not all tiki taka!
        I coach an U11’s team and encourage this type of game style where defenders are not afraid to bring the ball as far as possible through midfield and beyond. I dont call them defenders, I call them counter-attackers. All our players rotate positions every 3 games. No fear of failure, comfortable in possession and tricks to get out of tight situations.

  14. John,yes, they have changed the mentality in that the silky stars work to get the ball back as compettively as everyone else.

    And it was noticeable that Pique and Mascherano as you say broke forward and overloaded… the more players in rings to support then more to pressurise when winning it back.. and they do this so very well.

    At one point Sanchez No9 was back near his right corner flag contesting possession.

  15. Brazil94 certainly takes former FA Director of Coaching, Charles Hughes, to task, and rightly so, for his devotion to the long-ball game.
    However, it must be said that starting in the fifties, and continuing for many years, Wing Commander Charles Reep produced detailed match analysis figures for hundreds of matches, which attempted to prove that moves of the fewest number of passes were the most succcessful in the production of goal-scoring chances.
    In his book on the history of football tactics, Jonathan Wilson produces firm evidence to show that Reep’s methods of recording figures, and its subsequent conclusions, are flawed. However, a number of managers in English football based their methods on his findings. One of those was Stan Cullis, who enjoyed considerable succes with Wolves in the late
    fifties and early sixties.
    At that time the two most powerful club sides in English football were Wolves and Manchester United. Wolves were full of powerful running allied to the long ball; Manchester United based their game on skill and craft. But tragically, the Manchester United team was decimated by the Munich air-crash in 1958. This left Wolves as England’s strongest club side for a number of years. They did have some good players like Deeley, Broadbent, Flowers and Slater, but it was essentially a team to exploit the qualities of English football which had emerged since the Second World War, of strength and power.
    Significantly, although an all-conquering machine in the 1st Division, Wolves made little impression in the European Cup. They were taken apart by teams like Barcelona and Honved. And this included matches played on Molineux pitches of ankle-deep mud. Whilst they tried to bury teams with their moves of the fewest possible number of passes, their continental opponents kept possession and played them off the park. Wolves’s tactics were fine for a league match on a Saturday, but were ineffectual for a European Cup tie on a Wednesday.
    Reep’s figures and analysis bore no relevance to the problems posed by Barcelona and Honved, who based their game on possession. When Charles Hughes was Manager/Coach of the Great Britain Olympic Team and the England Amateur side, most of his better results were

    against Scandanavian and Nordic countries, playing a similar style to that of his own team. When the opposition are skilled in the arts of the possession game then we have seen many times over the years, that the direct approach, with no room for variation, is found wanting.

  16. At grassroots level the problem is acute regarding developing players not positions. Winning above development and adult like competition before young players are at the right stage of there educational or physical development to take part to me seems to be an unhealthy mix.

    I see players screamed at by over zealous parents , supporters all to often .
    Parents and managers who believe there little johnny or Jenny should only be played in the star positions .

    We have Passion and desire for competition ! Now we need Passion, desire and commitment for education .
    The people at premier skills have the wisdom and knowledge
    We must learn from our wise learned folk I just cannot understand how this amount of knowledge has not been embraced as a central theme in the education of our young players and coaches

    Yes it is for each coach to go out and continually seek more education but I see to many sessions that are devoid of the simple detail to allow our young talent to fully exploit its potential.

    When I say simple detail its not simple but how premier skills embed it right from the start of its practices you as a coach either novice or experienced will have it at the core of your practices.
    I took part in a recent practice play level 2 course in my quest for knowledge
    It makes fantastic sense
    My quest won’t stop there other methodologies will be explored but these guys really know what there doing

    No longer do I want to hear my kid say there bored or feel restricted because of continual restrictions on touches or movement when supposedly in an elite program

    Hence I,m getting the education myself to understand why we are not developing players

  17. Found this article.

    Guardiola once compared Barcelona’s style to a cathedral. Johan Cruijff, he said, as Barça’s supreme player in the 1970s and later as coach, had built the cathedral. The task of those who came afterwards was to renovate and update it. Guardiola is always looking for updates. If a random person in the street says something interesting about the game, Guardiola listens. He thinks about football all the time. He took ideas from another Dutch Barcelona manager, Louis van Gaal, but also from his years playing for Brescia and Roma in Italy, the home of defence. Yet because Guardiola has little desire to explain his ideas to the media, you end up watching Barça without a codebook.

    Cruijff was perhaps the most original thinker in football’s history, but most of his thinking was about attack. He liked to say that he didn’t mind conceding three goals, as long as Barça scored five. Well, Guardiola also wanted to score five, but he minded conceding even one. If Barcelona is a cathedral, Guardiola has added the buttresses. In Barça’s first 28 league games this season, they have let in only 22 goals. Here are some of “Pep”’s innovations, or the secrets of FC Barcelona:

    1. Pressure on the ball
    Before Barcelona played Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley last May, Alex Ferguson said that the way Barça pressured their opponents to win the ball back was “breathtaking”. That, he said, was Guardiola’s innovation. Ferguson admitted that United hadn’t known how to cope with it in the Champions League final in Rome in 2009. He thought it would be different at Wembley. It wasn’t.

    Barcelona start pressing (hunting for the ball) the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable. He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he has expended energy. That means he is unsighted, and probably tired. He usually needs two or three seconds to regain his vision of the field. So Barcelona try to dispossess him before he can give the ball to a better-placed teammate.

    Furthermore, if the guy won the ball back in his own defence, and Barcelona can instantly win it back again, then the way to goal is often clear. This is where Lionel Messi’s genius for tackling comes in. The little man has such quick reflexes that he sometimes wins a tackle a split-second after losing one.

    The Barcelona player who lost the ball leads the hunt to regain it. But he never hunts alone. His teammates near the ball join him. If only one or two Barça players are pressing, it’s too easy for the opponent to pass around them.

    2. The “five-second rule”
    If Barça haven’t won the ball back within five seconds of losing it, they then retreat and build a compact ten-man wall. The distance between the front man in the wall (typically Messi) and their last defender (say, Carles Puyol) is only 25 to 30 metres. It’s hard for any opponent to pass their way through such a small space. The Rome final was a perfect demonstration of Barcelona’s wall: whenever United won the ball and kept it, they faced eleven precisely positioned opponents, who stood there and said, in effect: “Try and get through this.”

    It’s easy for Barcelona to be compact, both when pressing and when drawing up their wall, because their players spend most of the game very near each other. Xavi and Iniesta in particular seldom stray far from the ball. Cruijff recently told the former England manager Steve McClaren, now with FC Twente in Holland: “Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.”

    3. More rules of pressing
    Once Barcelona have built their compact wall, they wait for the right moment to start pressing again. They don’t choose the moment on instinct. Rather, there are very precise prompts that tell them when to press. One is if an opponent controls the ball badly. If the ball bounces off his foot, he will need to look downwards to locate it, and at that moment he loses his overview of the pitch. That’s when the nearest Barcelona players start hounding him.

    There’s another set prompt for Barça to press: when the opposing player on the ball turns back towards his own goal. When he does that, he narrows his options: he can no longer pass forward, unless Barcelona give him time to turn around again. Barcelona don’t give him time. Their players instantly hound the man, forcing him to pass back, and so they gain territory.

    4. The “3-1 rule”
    If an opposing player gets the ball anywhere near Barcelona’s penalty area, then Barça go Italian. They apply what they call the “3-1 rule”: one of Barcelona’s four defenders will advance to tackle the man with the ball, and the other three defenders will assemble in a ring about two or three metres behind the tackler. That provides a double layer of protection. Guardiola picked this rule up in Italy. It’s such a simple yet effective idea that you wonder why all top teams don’t use it.

    5. No surprise
    When Barcelona win the ball, they do something unusual. Most leading teams treat the moment the ball changes hands – “turnover”, as it’s called in basketball – as decisive. At that moment, the opponents are usually out of position, and so if you can counterattack quickly, you have an excellent chance of scoring. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal often try to score in the first three seconds after winning possession. So their player who wins the ball often tries to hit an instant splitting pass. Holland – Barcelona’s historic role models – do this too.

    But when a Barcelona player wins the ball, he doesn’t try for a splitting pass. The club’s attitude is: he has won the ball, that’s a wonderful achievement, and he doesn’t need to do anything else special. All he should do is slot the ball simply to the nearest teammate. Barcelona’s logic is that in winning the ball, the guy has typically forfeited his vision of the field. So he is the worst-placed player to hit a telling ball.

    This means that Barcelona don’t rely on the element of surprise. They take a few moments to get into formation, and then pretty much tell their opponents, “OK, here we come.” The opposition knows exactly what Barça are going to do. The difficulty is stopping it.

    The only exception to this rule is if the Barça player wins the ball near the opposition’s penalty area. Then he goes straight for goal.

    6. Possession is nine-tenths of the game
    Keeping the ball has been Barcelona’s key tactic since Cruijff’s day. Most teams don’t worry about possession. They know you can have oodles of possession and lose. But Barcelona aim to have 65 or 70 per cent of possession in a game. Last season in Spain, they averaged more than 72 per cent; so far this year, they are at about 70 per cent.

    The logic of possession is twofold. Firstly, while you have the ball, the other team can’t score. A team like Barcelona, short on good tacklers, needs to defend by keeping possession. As Guardiola has remarked, they are a “horrible” team without the ball.

    Secondly, if Barça have the ball, the other team has to chase it, and that is exhausting. When the opponents win it back, they are often so tired that they surrender it again immediately. Possession gets Barcelona into a virtuous cycle.

    Barça are so fanatical about possession that a defender like Gerald Pique will weave the most intricate passes inside his own penalty area rather than boot the ball away. In almost all other teams, the keeper at least is free to boot. In the England side, for instance, it’s typically Joe Hart who gives the ball away with a blind punt. This is a weakness of England’s game, but the English attitude seems to be that there is nothing to be done about it: keepers can’t pass. Barcelona think differently.

    Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid’s coach and Barcelona’s nemesis, has tried to exploit their devotion to passing. In the Bernabeu in December, Madrid’s forwards chased down Valdes from the game’s first kickoff, knowing he wouldn’t boot clear. The keeper miscued a pass, and Karim Benzema scored after 23 seconds. Yet Valdes kept passing, and Barcelona won 1-3. The trademark of Barcelona-raised goalkeepers – one shared only by Ajax-raised goalkeepers, like Edwin van der Sar – is that they can all play football like outfield players.

    7. The “one-second rule”
    No other football team plays the Barcelona way. That’s a strength, but it’s also a weakness. It makes it very hard for Barça to integrate outsiders into the team, because the outsiders struggle to learn the system. Barcelona had a policy of buying only “Top Ten” players – men who arguably rank among the ten best footballers on earth – yet many of them have failed in the Nou Camp. Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic did, while even David Villa, who knew Barcelona’s game from playing it with Spain, ended up on the bench before breaking his leg.

    Joan Oliver, Barcelona’s previous chief executive, explained the risk of transfers by what he called the “one-second rule”. The success of a move on the pitch is decided in less than a second. If a player needs a few extra fractions of a second to work out where his teammate is going, because he doesn’t know the other guy’s game well, the move will usually break down. A new player can therefore lose you a match in under a second.

    Pedro isn’t a great footballer, but because he was raised in the Masia he can play Barcelona’s game better than stars from outside. The boys in the Masia spend much of their childhood playing passing games, especially Cruijff’s favorite, six against three. Football, Cruijff once said, is choreography.

    Nobody else thinks like that. That’s why most of the Barcelona side is homegrown. It’s more a necessity than a choice. Still, most of the time it works pretty well.

  18. As regards the opening post by Sam, I think it is vital to have players play in different positions to both develop their own game understanding but also to have an appreciation of the different challenges of different positions and therefore to see the game from their team-mates’ perspective as well as their own.
    One of the advantages of the Premier Skills “Practice Play” methodology is that in the small practices allows players to practice as the attacking side, with an overload and allows players to practice defending without being position specific. The principles of play (attack and defence) are worked on consistently within the game like environment and helps build understanding and appreciation of each others’ roles from the outset.

    I have never subscribed to making wholesale changes, generally making a couple of switches to allow the players to become used to different positions and then make another couple of changes a few games later. Of course, there is always the chance to make changes in practice to introduce players to a different area of the pitch.

    With the group I have been coaching for almost 3 years now, I have gradually tried to introduce the concept of “freedom with responsibility”.

    In other words all players (with the exception of the goalkeeper) has TOTAL freedom to move where THEY decide based upon the state of play BUT that someone has to provide cover to avoid players having to run back 50 yards to ‘their position’ (think of overlapping full-backs – midfield players can cover backs and forwards can cover midfield where necessary).

    Not been as successful as I would have hoped, but some of that is parents expecting players to get back to ‘their position’ (and occasionally telling players to do so) although I have tried to explain that rotating positions allow someone else to cover and everyone saves energy ! Also, with contact for only 1 practice session and one game a week makes it a slower development progress than if I had had access for twice a week, say.

    Having said that we have had at least two positive comments this year from parents and coaches of opponents teams who haqve congratulated the team on the way we (they – when I say ‘we’ I just mean I have encouraged them and, “despite” my FA qualifications provided them with game related, build-up style practices) play.

    Some of the difficulties with rotating positions is the expectations, and understanding, of the parents / spectators who, after all are the ‘paying customers’ and therefore (often, not always) feel they have a say in where their child should play.

    And this takes me on to Robbiewhizz’s comments on parent/spectators.

    The parents of the team at which I coach are generally good and I have noticed few problems with screaming parents of the teams against whom we have played this year – although I accept we are probably an exception division that proves the rule.

    However, to embed the long-term developmental approach of the club towards its young players we have introduced club documents (which I developed with help of some other club coaches), which include specific reference to a build up game style, a club Vision and a Coaching Philosophy.

    From next season, the Code of Conduct for parents will include a promise that they will have read and fully support the game style and development approach – that way, if there are dissensions during the season, we can refer them to the Code of Conduct they signed that included (as well as behaviour !) the fact that they agreed to the way we develop the young players.
    I plan to have a parents evening to talk through this, as well as other factors.

    One of the issues with grassroots parents as opposed to Centres of Excellence or Academies is that, irrespective of the experience of the coach, the parents, generally, still feel they have the right of veto on positions, approach etc. Ultimately, they can vote with their feet and take their kid to another (more successful !) team.

    They do, after all, PAY for their kids’ subscriptions to the club.

    Obviously at the grassroots, you WANT to keep the children within their community playing with their friends.

    With the Academies and CsofE they call the shots and, if you don’t like it, don’t slam the door on your way out. There is, almost, no input into the coaching development side from the parents.

    With reference to one of John’s earlier posts on a different blog entry, I see part of my role to educate the watching spectators every bit as much as the players. In fact it may be even more challenging, as the young players are being educated as they develop whereas with the parents, you are trying to change embedded views.

    The views that many coaches now have is alien to those spectators who have grown up with a different sort of ‘education’ (not from the FA, most parents haven’t been through coach education courses, but from press TV and radio).

    So whilst an approach to us may be self evident it can be radical or even incomprehensible to speactators / parents.

    I believe having stated development aims which are captured in print and available to all will, gradually, help to eliminate the problem view that a lot of parent / spectators have for so many grassroots clubs.

    • Hi Steve. I really respect your hard work in ‘educating’ both players’and PARENTS; i’ve been there and have many ‘teashirts’ !! Working with players is difficult enough; educating parents can be soul-destroying. However, in sequence with practical coaching, it is with the general football public that an equally big effort to change our game must happen. All the good work that may occur on the training ground goes ‘out the window’ when pressured by parents and fans. I admire your idea of a CODE OF CONDUCT that is issued to all involved at your club; i’m sure this will be beneficial to improviong performance —on and off the field!
      The FA have neglected the amount of influence outside ‘protestations’ have on playing qualitiy. It should always have been a primary consideration within the coaching fraternity to make ALL sections of the football public ( including Press etc.) more aware of their reponsibilities and display more thought about the playing of this great game. ‘Fightball’, our present playing style, should be recognized for what it is…….. a simplistic and aggressive playing attitude that camouflages lack of skill and game playing understanding.
      The real ‘fight’ is now on …….. a ‘fight’ to UNCOVER a better and more successful playing style. What a fantastic opportunity is within our grasp …….. to provide a playing style that is attractive to watch and effective to play. Good luck!!

  19. Yes, it’s a very interesting article which David Williams has reproduced.
    But often i notice that many new ideas have their roots in what Ron Greenwood was coaching 40 – 50 years ago at West Ham.
    For instance, he worked on his strikers closing down opposing defenders ,but doing it with stealth and cunning. He pointed out to his front men, like Geoff Hurst and ‘Pop’ Robson, that there was a critical moment when the opposing centre back had possession of the ball. This was when he had gained possession, but was not under immediate pressure. In this situation his full backs came forward either side of him to form the standard back line and there was the moment when the centre back shaped to slip the ball to his nearest

    full back.At that instant,either Hurst or Robson sprang forward to intercept the ball and because the defence had moved forward in line, they were clear on goal with just the keeper to beat.
    Another interesting innovation from that same period, was the way in which Ron Greenwood used his midfield player, Ron Boyce.Ron Greenwood worked a lot on body adjustment and, particularly, on adjusting the feet. When an opposing midfield player came forward menacingly with the ball, Boyce would confront him and incline his body to one side as if anticipating the opponent to pass or go down

    that side. But when the ball was played down the other side of him
    Boyce, quick as a flash, adjusted his feet and intercepted the ball.
    Time after time Boyce did this. He got the nickname of ‘Ticker’ and

    West Ham were never the same without him in the team.
    But it was the work of body and feet adjustment by Ron Greenwood that was the key to it all.

    • Steve, great description of how to con an attacker. I was taught that as well as a young defender, used it often but it wasn’t Ron Greenwood who taught me (well, it wouldn’t be would it, obviously ! You’ve seen me “play” !) : – )

  20. Until he gets coached any young kid with an aptitude for the football ball (when playing amongst his friends) realises that the ball is his friend and that he can be friendly with the ball. And with this realisation; he comes to recognise that it is quite pleasant to nurture the ball, and enjoys the thrill of keeping it himself, and if he is good enough will protect it for a while,and then lend it to someone else to protect – and in pick up games these kids are canny because they want good players around them – who can give the ball back.

    Inherently, these kids are very individual; and then develop how they play with teammates.

    The little Argentinians watch the Messi types and want to be like them; and as ball manipulation is a priority for the Latins – anyone really who doesn’t speak English – ALTHOUGH THE LOVE OF THE BALL ACROSS ALL NATIONS TRANSCENDS WHATEVER X COACHES THINK , so they naturally develop this way to varying degrees. Their mentality is to caress the ball into a controlled ‘personalised’ situation, rather than the English kids with a modicum of technique who look to put their foot to the ball and propel it away EXOCET STYLE: without the accuracy.

    Now, put these kids in a game – the kid who wants to display his individual class is harangued by the parents; and the blaster who can hoof it forward over a longish distance or crash into a tackle is the hero of the day!

    The individual comes before the team. Individual mastery comes before combining; but when Individual mastery is combined within the team you get the concept John states in a piece if you scan back up – “its a game in which INDIVIDUAL SKILLS OF PLAYERS IS MOULDED TOGETHER INTO TEAM-PLAY.!!! ”

    To reach the level of a Barcelona… or play in part this way… you can’t have it any otehr way…the individual comes first.

    Therefore, we must develop highly skilled and intelligent young individual players as a foremost priority…

  21. Brazil94, you are correct about developing individualism first, but that does NOT mean producing BALL JUGGLERS as has happened in the past. Individual skill MUST reflect the true skills of the game and how to use them in competitive situations of match play.
    We have so much ground to make up on those nations who have realized the importance of individual playing ability. There is no time to waste on arguments concerning old and historically failed development methods…….. so OUT with them and IN with more modern coaching ideas to produce exciting coaches to develop exciting players to play an exciting new style of football……………..Please God!!!.

  22. Brazil94….”ball manipulation is a priority for the Latins – anyone really who doesn’t speak English – …..”
    You seem to have a complex against anyone who is English or, at least, who speaks English. Back down the years, there were just as many skillful exponents of football skills in this country as there were in Europe and South America. As John Cartwright has said, and is the cornerstone of the Premier Skills coaching methodology, our kids learnt the skills playing in the street, free from adult involvement.
    It is our football coaching (teaching) methods which have let our young players down and that is what Premier Skills seeks to rectify.
    Yesterdasy I saw a League 2 match totally devoid of any form of art and craft which you could associate with the game. The ball could have been a ticking time bomb, everyone was so anxious to get rid of it. There was no thought or awareenss of how the receiver of a pass would want to receive the ball, as regards receiving it on their screen side, or the proximity or position of the nearest
    opponent.
    John Cartwright once said on this blog that “we talk a good game, but we don’t do a good game” which pretty well summed up the general chat and discussion before and after yesterday’s game among supporters and club officials.
    The great Hungarians player, Nandor Hidgekuti, who helped to terrorise England at Wembley in 1953, once said, when tactics started to take a stranglehold of the game, that “the more people think about football, the worse it gets”.
    There is now much to be gained from careful, constructive thought and discussion, but we need to become a nation of doers rather than a nation of talkers. We seem to have an endless procession of ex-players who now hang up their boots to express their opinions and thoughts in the media, rather than using the knowledge and experience of their playing days as coaches and managers.

  23. No Steve, no complex, but the biggest beef on here is that Premier Skills is an English creation, borne out of the fact, that the FA have failed..unfortunately, that failure has negatively influenced other countries who are still trying to get out of the mess.

    Actually, it was a man called Jimmy Hogan , who perhaps was the original prophet. As Sebes said we owe our football to Hogan. A prophet in his own counry unlikely and here we have John – a prophet in his own country – and here wecan semi-liken his prescence to that of Hogan.

    Premier Skills is in point of fact a brilliant concept; invented by an Englishman who thinks like a forreigner.

    English football has had many great thinkers, think of Greenwood, Allison as just two.

    I do believe that the average Englishman does not think or understand football in the same way that his counterpart on the continent or South America might..

  24. Brazil94 wrote “I do believe that the average Englishman does not think or understand football in the same way that his counterpart on the continent or South America might..”

    I agree ! I think this is the way we have been brought up with the game and the way it is talked about on TV and radio. We are taught from young ages (not by me!) to not “take risks”, to “kick it out” or “get rid” and to “get stuck in”.

    You still hear this today especially from parents (they usually haven’t been through FA courses !). We see the game as a war of attrition (as, I believe, we see in Rugby as well, in comparison with, especially, Southern Hemisphere teams, as I have posted before) and therefore still think that run hard, long and show “fight and passion” is what wins games.

    However, the tide is turning and there is a tacit acceptance that we will expect nothing from the England team at the Euros this year. There is a wider acceptance, generally (but we still have a long way to go) that we aren’t good enough technically (ball skills, game understanding) to be anything on the world stage. Coaches are being encouraged to encourage young players in game skills and to not be “afraid” but the main issue, I feel, is one tha John identified on a blog post a while ago – that of educating the spectators (paying customers, parents, TV ‘pundits’) so that we all get a bteer understanding of how the game should be played and therefore, how it must be taught.

    As Steven Covey famously stated, “Start with the end in mind”.

    If the “end” looks like Barcelona rather than England, we know we have to do things differently. But, it will take a generation.

  25. Some can understand and some do; some of the greatest brains have come of England.

    How the FA let Ron Greenwood slip quietly away is beyond me!!! Obviously he didn’t know as much as Charles!!

  26. I wouldn’t want to come out of England – as well as trying to teach the game to young players I see it as part of my mission to educate others as well; parents, fellow coaches etc.
    A teacher friend of mine recently read my latest blog post and offered some kind words of support for my views. So, I see that as encouragement to try and ‘spread the word’.

    As we say “if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.

    I feel I have to help people understand that there is “another way” and that, if we are ‘brave’ coaches we can develop better players than have been previously.

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