Lets Get the Cleverness Back into Our Game

By Roger Wilkinson

For many years we at Premier Skills have been advocating the crucial need for greater individuality from our players and just as importantly greater tactical individual cleverness in all areas of the field.

The questions I challenge myself to answer when watching players developed in the English system are:

Do our full backs always have to run, pass and support in that 8 metre wide tight channel that runs from the back third to the front third? Can they occasionally run inside with and without the ball creating an overload in midfield whilst at the same time pulling wide opponents in field to create more room for wide attackers?

Can’t we challenge our centre backs to run through the “front striker defence force” to create problems for opposing midfield markers by outnumbering them.  Can we get our back players into midfield to create softer passing options in to front players by lessening the distance? or even opportunities for the back players to carry on running in to the top third?

Is it possible that both full backs and centre backs could show confidence and skill by working with both feet in order to screen and protect the ball when in the tight midfield pressure zone?  Wouldn’t it be even greater if their vision gave them the awareness to play ahead of themselves’ and make timely changes of direction and turns to avoid running in to blind alleys?

Wouldn`t we all like to see in central midfield, players running laterally across opponents. Why can`t we have clever midfielder’s that  use “moving screens”  to perform take overs, wall passes and lateral give and go`s  with “quick patience” in order to create linkage opportunities with front players?

Do our midfielders have the judgement to change the tempo, turn out and start again or stay with the ball in order to maintain possession before upping the tempo again to with penetrative individualism or linkage?

Why can’t we develop wide players who when in the top third can run and exploit space inside as well as outside defenders and critically be able to use both feet to protect the ball?

I mean it’s not as if Pele, Maradona, Gazza and Messi haven’t shown the prototype!!!

I further ask myself in the latest clutch of English International front men do we rarely see anyone who can “slyly” create that yard of space in those “half positions” in the top third that Bergkamp, Dalglish and to a lesser extent Sheringham made look so easy?

Why is it our front players always seem to showing for the ball at “100 miles an hour” with a defender tight on their back?  -‘ fight football’ at its most torrid. Compare with Cantona whose first touch would often pull the defender away from the space so he could then reverse pass in to the linking player in support…………genius! and so so clever.

We rarely, if ever, see those qualities in our players and I see that we are falling further and further behind in the style, individualism and craft our players display in comparison with  Spain, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Portugal and Brazil to name a few.

In my opinion it’s not the players who are at fault because they are merely the products of the development system and coaching methodology they have been subjected to.

Coaches at all levels especially grass roots need the commitment and coaching expertise to bring skill and tactical cleverness back in to the game. We need coaches with the insight to produce ‘naturally’ skilled great players and great teams.

Those qualities I’ve mentioned can and should be carefully and cleverly introduced to our kids from the very start of their playing and coaching experience.

Our aim must be to produce Charlton, Gazza,  Maradona, Messi and Iniesta types by the’ bucket load’. Our aim should be to make our game cleverer and more skilfull than anywhere else.

I’m sure those coaches who have attended our Practice Play courses will testify that our methodology encourages these clever qualities at all levels of the work. We are committed to producing clever innovative coaches who in turn will produce gifted skilful and clever players. Football’s a great game join us in our efforts to produce players who will amaze and excite us. I hope this article will strike a chord with us all and inspire us to adopt a new impetus and spread the word;

Let’s coach the cleverness back in to our game!


9 thoughts on “Lets Get the Cleverness Back into Our Game

  1. Love it as always RW, but I would hasten to add that if producing Messi and Maradona and Pele and Iniesta by the bucketload were possible, Spain, Argentina and Brazil would have more players like these, and then these players wouldn’t stand out. Most players at any level will not even come close to these standards because of some degree of nature/nurture. So we have to look at countries that methodically produce top players with less resources (people) – Holland, Portugal, Italy. And when we look at the high technical/tactical standard of those players, we have to ask how they do it. And it, of course, comes back to what you and JC always talk about. If instead we say “Lets produce more Busquets and Alves and De Boers and Pirlos (the top players) rather than fighting probability by aiming for Messi, Iniesta, Best, Charlton (the greats), grassroots coaches might have something achievable to look to and develop rather than something that defies definition (legendary players and their outlier status). Good stuff as always, love reading it!

  2. Hi EMG. I fully understand your point about producing the ‘ unproducables’ the likes of MESSI etc. However, if one only strikes out for the ‘almost unproducables’ that you mentioned one will probably only achieve a lower standard with others. So, go for the top —-‘the GREATS’ — and expect all the levels below to make an improvement upwards towards them.
    Practice towards achieving GREATNESS otherwise the methodology needs changing!!!
    Best regards and ……… great coaching !

  3. One of the things which i always notice on Premier Skills courses is the constant emphasis on ALL players to be encouragesd and coached to show cleverness and football intelligence, and not just the exceptional individuals.
    So often down the years in English football, at all levels, some players are deemed to have only moderate ability but are physically strong with a ‘good engine’. Such players are used by many coaches to concentrate on doing the so-called ‘donkey work’, getting the ball and ‘giving it off easy’. Very often such players are placed in this category at quite a young age and their development as a player is correspondingly reduced.
    Not every player will be blessed with or develop the all-round brilliance of Messi,but every player should be able to protect and take care of the ball when it is in his/her possession and, on parting with it, have an appreciation of passing it with care, accuracy and weighting, into the area which the team mate wishes to receive it.
    Looking at the Brazilian team in the current Olympic Games Football Tournament, it is clear that they have a new crop of exceptional talent coming through, which will soon be knocking on the door of the senior team. Cleverness and imagination oozes from all parts of the team. When you look at them playing you can see that they play with a sense of joy coming from their hearts, which expresses itself through their football. With so many of our players, you feel that they go on to the field to do a job, in the same frame of mind that another man might go to a factory or office to ‘earn his crust’.
    To be fair, I feel that there has been some promise shown by a few of the Great Britain players who, prior to the Olympics, were not in the international frame. But in the win over UAE, when the score was 1-1 I felt that it was the opponents who looked more likely to win and for a time their play resembled that of Barcelona’s ‘tiki taka’ when in possession and they have clearly been working hard at their game.
    The coaching that John Cartwright did at the seminar in Bedfordshire last Saturday should be a starting point for all coaches, whether in grass-roots or pro-clubs accademies, but until it is I cannot see us getting back on the long road to the top.

    • with regard to the comment about players playing with a sense of joy, could it be because in their early years (Ronaldo in the favelas) they didn’t have parents shouting and putting pressure on them?

  4. ‘that if producing Messi and Maradona and Pele and Iniesta by the bucketload were possible, Spain, Argentina and Brazil would have more players like these, and then these players wouldn’t stand out. ‘

    Interesting point EMG However in my time in NZ I often went on FIFA courses and rubbed shoulders with Brazilian and Argentinian coaches .Their coaching methods were no different than ours what they did have in their countries was;
    (1) A high level of poverty which meant that kids were constantly playing on the streets.Poverty + play = players
    (2) A playing philosophy based on individualism and stylish team work

    I firmly believe that in the Practice Play methodology we can add to the chaos development of the the street with a coaching programme that produces a contradiction in terms – we produce’natural’players.
    However your point is well made and food for thought!!

  5. All these debates are get and do get coaches thinking. However who’s to say we are not currently developing cleaver players? These players may only just be 9,10,11 years old at the moment. Hence we will not know how well we are developing them compared to other Countries for the next 10 years or so.

  6. Roger makes a key point above I think – for all the changes in methodology and philosophy from the FA, the approach of Premier Skills and the individual ball skills promoted by the likes of Coerver Coaching and Brazilian Soccer Schools, to name but a few, the KEY is the approach and mindset of the coaches in charge of players, playing in formal games.

    In England, at least, there are still large numbers of coaches who are afraid to allow their young charges take risks during the games and so with calls to ‘get rid’ (and from watching parents too) the fear of our game transmits itself to the players.

    Sooner, rather than later, they stop trying things in case it gets them in trouble.

    Too many adult coaches (not all by any means) stifle the creativity of young players and we have to affect the mindset of large numbers of coaches to help improve the players’ development.

    I was roundly criticised by an individual recently for daring to be ‘arrogant’ enough to say we need to change coaches (and parents’) mindsets – but kids will naturally take risks and, eventually, their experience teaches them where and when to do or not to do things as they learn the consequences of their actions, whether that is climbing walls or playing football.

    Coaches can help players in their understanding the game, but that should not include introducing fear to the ‘curriculum’.

  7. I think that the lack of cleverness in football is is shown in the current progress of womens’ football.
    The general feeling is that the womens’ game is improving in leaps and bounds. In my opinion, from what i have seen, the improvement is a physical one, with the players showing a development in power, speed and so a closing of the gap between themselves and the mens’ game.
    But there is not a corresponding improvement in cleverness, or the arts and skills of the game. It is just that the womens’ game is coming closer to the mens’ and I think that it should have been developed as a different animal. It’s like in tennis, where the top women players seem to have become more powerful and stronger in recent years but without the subtlety and grace of the past.
    These thoughts came to mind when watching the GB-Brazil match in the Womens’ Olympic Football Tournament last night. I was disappointed in Brazil because I hoped to see careful treatment of the ball and protection of it, that we have seen from their men over many years. But they were physically well prepared and it seemed that they wanted to contest the game on these terms with the British side who they knew would adopt a physical and direct approach. This was how it turned out and GB could have won by a bigger score than 1-0.
    So i think that it is a great shame that the womens’ game has just become an imitation of the mens’ game. I have not seen a great amount of womens’ football but about 15 years ago I saw play Italy at Wembley and then Germany at Selhurst Park.Both those games were about skill and technique and England were well beaten on each occasion. But it does not seem as though womens’ football has continued in that direction and now physicality has become more prominent. I think that is why GB and England have moved closer to the top of the pile.

    recent years to more closely match the men, but the grace and subtlety of the past seems to have disappeared.

    • Cheers Steve,I thought I was dreaming and the women’s game really was on the ‘up’. I consider your thoughts maybe correct though, as with each women’s international I watch,I’m amazed at how many of the players cannot hold on to the ball or produce that special piece of individualism. Not all are like that, there are some players with quality, but the younger group (teens) still seem to be getting led down the path of how the men play in a ‘physically tough’ sense of ‘team’ rather than as an individual soloist combining in a group, then with the orchestra, so to speak,

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