The Three Day “Make-Over”

By John Cartwright

At PREMIER SKILLS, we believe that we have developed a coaching methodology that provides a new, realistic and progressive approach for the development of players. The programme starts with very young children and follows on to senior players; each development level providing the foundations for the next level and continues towards a designated playing style (Vision).

This coaching methodology has become popular with coaches and their players of all ages over the past few years. However, I have always been concerned with the problem of taking charge of a group of older players who have had insufficient or inadequate coaching during their development years: where does one begin their football re-education – how does one set about changing both their thinking and playing of the game in a short space of time?

Recently, I was asked to do some coaching with boys of 16 years of age who had applied to attend a College at which a football programme was combined with other educational lessons. This situation occurs throughout education in this country – players are only enrolled on the scheme if they have achieved a required educational standard. 24 boys attended on day 1. All had various coaching backgrounds; a few displayed some general ability, some were just full of effort – but all lacked both sufficient skill and game understanding that boys of this age should possess. Here is the problem; what does a coach need to do to quickly ‘resurrect’ the playing ability of these players?  Here’s a description of how I went about changing their thinking and playing of the game over a three day period.

It is important to explain to the group what is to be attempted over the three days and why this is necessary at this time.

It must also be noted that the content of the work must proceed in a progressive manner towards the pre-designated playing style (vision) as mentioned above.

The work was to be carried out over three days; each day would be split into two hour sessions. Total time available was six hours.

Day one was about Preparation Play targeting alternative areas on the field.

Two teams of equal playing ability were selected and players played in the positions they normally played.

Certain pitch markings were set up to promote visual awareness of aspects of the game – a central line of cones was laid through the centre of the pitch from penalty area to penalty area to make the players aware of the possibility of changing the game from congested areas of play to more open spaces on the other side of the field; and two semi-circle lines of cones were placed across the field at both ends ; these are called PLAY-ROUND (PR) AREAS – PR1 curves back into the penalty box and goes to the far  forward edge of it on either side. PR2 curves backwards and across the field half way inside a team’s own half of the field. Both of these PR areas are for defenders to use when in possession of the ball to promote turning the ball . Later, as more emphasis was placed on achieving forward targets, the back PR areas were taken away and two forward PR areas for attacking teams replaced them; PR3 curves back across the field halfway inside the opposing half of the field. PR4 curves back within the front third of the field around the penalty areas at both ends. These forward PR areas are there to provide a visual guide to turn the ball around these areas.

A full pitch Keep-ball period lasting one hour began the work, this was followed by an hour in which more ‘positive’ keep-ball was attempted – (a) a pass count was made only when the ball was in the opponents half of the field. (b) In order to exploit space advantages achieved during possession play, forward direction was increased. Teams were asked to make entries into, followed by exits from target areas around the opposing penalty area and later, into an opposing penalty area. Ball retention after an exit from these areas with possession maintained was required before a ‘goal’ could be given.

Observations on skill and tactical deficiencies were made both to individuals and in general terms. Ball possession combined with patience during preparation play was the primary objective of this period and all the PR areas were used.

During this period, aspects of defending; for individuals, for groups and as a team was covered.

Goalkeepers’ were given the role of ‘Deepest Sweeper’ and were only involved in supportive receiving and delivering situations.

Day two was about Alternative playing methods.

We all want to play attractive football with a positive end result, but football is a competitive sport and the ability to play attractively and win must be earned, Success with style is not achieved easily.

The tactical use of Pressuring forces teams’ in possession to adapt their style of play to offset the problem of losing possession close to their own goal. Even Barcelona, often find it difficult to play their normal passing game from back areas against pressure tactics….. and they possess some of the finest footballers in the world today! So there has to be an alternative playing style that reduces the impact of pressure on ones own back area and quickly transfers play to areas of the field that forces immediate pressure onto the opposition…..the long forward pass.

In order to provide less space and time in which to play I reduced the width of the playing area and retained the central line through the field as before. PR3 and 4 were retained to promote ball possession in forward areas after a long pass had been received successfully. Playing from back positions became more difficult… but not an impossibility.  Areas to which kicking longer passes were to be delivered were set out and kicking methods were demonstrated. In conjunction with this, movements by receiving players in forward positions was shown and team support quickly forward was also explained.

Decision making with regards to short or longer playing deliveries was the important feature of this practice period and the work completed on day one provided the choices for play variations on day two. The use of one and two touch passing was also necessary in the reduced field sizes. Defending, should possession be lost from the long pass, was also introduced and closing down on opposition from this situation was covered.

Goals were once again ‘scored’ by success in achieving possession of the ball into and exiting the opponents target corner areas or penalty area.       Goalkeepers were again required to support at the back but deliveries from them were of either short or longer length according to the situation at the time.

Day three was split into two periods – (am) the tactical use of Overloading.

(pm) this period was used as a full game examination of the work completed over the three days.

A full-size playing area was used to allow sufficient spaces to occur during the game for players to penetrate into other positions and for covering rotations to take place.

Goals were brought into play and goalkeepers were used both defensively and offensively

(am) Overloading by back players into mid-field and rotation of players to cover vacated positions was demonstrated. This was followed by front players dropping deep to create extra players in mid-field and wide or central mid-field players breaking into forward spaces. Time did not allow me to introduce other overload opportunities.

Restarts situations both offensive and defensive was covered as the games progressed.

(pm) A full game lasting one hour was played. The time was split into two thirty minute periods. Period one was played on a field where there was a reduction in playing width. Period two was played on a full size field.

In these final two periods it was possible to see a tremendous difference in game understanding and individual playing qualities of the boys from day one.

I am not saying that this ‘formula’ is perfect, there is a great deal of work involved but it did do two important things; it provided the boys with a quick ‘picture’ of where their playing levels should be at this time and they did show a big improvement.  It also gives a coach a better chance to quickly take players beyond their previous playing levels and provides a development point from which to progress whilst having to play competitive fixtures.

I hope this helps with the problem of taking over players who are actively involved in competitive football.

22 thoughts on “The Three Day “Make-Over”

  1. Interesting to hear how you went about adapting the sessions to suit players who know nothing about Premier Skills work.
    John you said;
    ” Teams were asked to make entries into, followed by exits from target areas around the opposing penalty area and later, into an opposing penalty area. Ball retention after an exit from these areas with possession maintained was required before a ‘goal’ could be given.”
    Did that mean you was not using goal keepers?

    Would be interested in seeing your session plans.

    Was the standard of play at the end, more than you had hoped for?

    • Hi Dave.I used goalkeepers as purely ‘receivers and deliverers’ of the ball — they were the teams’ ‘Deepest sweepers’ I purposely refrained from having ‘goals’ scored in the normal way as i was more concerned at this stage with preparatory build-up play and the patience to produce it even when a team had progressed into very advanced positions. I never used normal ‘goals’ until the last afternoon where i brought all the work together in a final ‘all-in’ game.

  2. John, a fantastic explanation with mental pictures. I rather think the PR3 area and it’s use may have been of advantage to Barcelona when playing against Chelsea last season, where retention of the ball more deeply could have helped create the space they were denied !

    I am interested in the reaction of the players to both the content you showed and how you addressed the 3 days. I am also interested in their observations of their levels of game understanding when arriving at the event.

    Did you find you needed to do a ‘classroom’ based discussion of what you were going to address or were you able to do this all on the field of play?

    • Hi Steve. The boys showed a tremendous change in their playing style over the three days and all were extremely happy in the differnt playing method that they had been introduced to play.
      i did not have enough time to do a classroom discussion, all the work was actively introduced on the field.
      The ‘experiment’ with the boys was very interesting and the final afternoon’s game was much better in terms of individual game awareness with much better individual playing quality to go with it.
      I have always believed that the underlying problem with our game in this country is — ‘game-style’. These three days were a clear example of what could be achieved.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I agree about the game style – something I am now trying to embed at the grassroots club at which I coach. I am looking forward to the next Practice Play 3 course to advance my knowledge of Premier Skills methodology.

        Good stuff Joh – and it sounds a rewarding experience too.

  3. This would make great viewing, would be a great topic and very useful for those who have older teams when they are introduced to Premier Skills work. Maybe this could be arranged?

  4. Thank you John for a very interesting article which i think was much needed because many of us are working with older players in grass roots who have never previously received Premier Skills-type coaching. I have therefore often had difficulties when staying too long with Levels 1 and 2 methodology with these older players, even though they have needed it due to technical shortcomings which the Levels 1 and 2 have highlighted.
    I am, however,a little hazy about these various pitch markings which are required. The central line of cones laid through the centre of the pitch from penalty area to penalty area – this is clearly a vertical channel but about how wide is it? I should not think it is very wide because i take it that when a player with the ball lands in it he must switch the ball to a less congested area of the pitch “to more open spaces on the other side of the field.” So did you make a time limit, say 4 seconds, to pass the ball?
    Regarding the play round areas: up to now I put play round areas behind small goals at each end so the defending team can play back to a defender in there who is unchallenged and is in the “start again” position. But if i follow the description correctly, you have the defensive play round areas in the field of play, i.e around the edge of the penalty areas.
    i am interested that you have play round areas for the attackers’ use also around the edge of the penalty areas. I have had the most difficulty in getting players to look for a play round in the attacking third because their excitement at getting close to goal and the opportunity of scoring leads to so many hopeful crosses and long-range ‘pile-drivers’, when i want them to probe for openings with a play round. In grass roots football i find it difficult to develop this mindset.
    I agree with a previous correspondent who suggested that a coaching demonstration/seminar would be a very good idea.

  5. Hi Steve. In answer to your questions — the central line of cones ia single line that is put there to give a visual signal to players when situations begin to get tight that they can turn the ball to the other side of the field where more space is available. There are no time restrictions on the players. I have tried to make the whole ‘experiment’ as realistic as possible and for players to make the appropriate decisions according to the situations in which they find themselfs.
    The Play-Round areas are what we introduce in later levels of the Premier Skills Program.– they are extensions of the initial use of the Homebase area that was used in the earlier levels of the Program of work They are set out as i have described in the ‘blog’ and are visual signals for players to use for playing the ball across the field in different areas. There are 4 of these Play-Round zones as mentioned.
    The main reason i did not introduce normal ‘goalscoring’ was exactly because of the reasons you have mentioned . I purposely made the players enter and exit these forward areas in order to establish both patience and use of the mid-field and front Play-round areas.
    If i get the chance i would be only too happy to put on a demo. of the work that was done.
    I am told by the Coach who is in charge of these boys that they have started their season well and that the playing metodology has remained with them in both individual and team situations—– let’s hope it continues !

  6. Hi John, I have a couple of questions around the organisation and action of the session you describe.

    When you narrowed the area, did you bring it in as far as the imaginary lines that run parallel to the side line and from one penalty area to the other or just a few yards in from the touchline?

    The longer passing options you describe I deduce are the ‘benchmark’ ball, which I believe is explained and covered in PP3 ( and which I haven’t done yet)? Is that correct?

    If so, I would tend to look for a benchmark pass to be delivered to, roughly, the wider parts of the PR3 and PR4 areas you describe – so, in the spaces between traditional midfield and defensive units of the opponent – slightly behind the midfield or slightly in front of the penalty area/defending back line.

    Again, I would be looking for passes to be played relatively softly to ‘parachute’ the ball in to the exposed area for collection rather than ‘fired’ in like a shell to be ‘dealt with’ although I accept the distance will also help determine the speed /weight of the pass.

    I would be expecting movement of players to create the space through a combination of up, back and through type movements, cross over runs (more longitudinally rather than just side to side, or acually. off both axes) or more simply through “2 runs” ( 1 for defender to expose space and 1 for you to collect the ball).

    This could, I feel, be executed through positional rotation which you ecourage through possession based activity and tactical overloads.

    Does my description of how I would perhaps construct the alternative playing option have any resemblance to what you actually provided?

    • Hi Steve. I took 20 yards off the width of the area that was marked out making the field 50 yards wide. Yes, the longer pass is our ‘Benchmark’ variation and the delivery is sent towards the corner areas of PR4. The delivery is as you say; a high trajectory to allow time for movements to receive, to support or close down; so that the ball to stay in play if possible; to lessen the length of headed clearances from any opposing defenders.
      Receiving players make ‘checkruns’ before spinning into the wide areas.
      Positional rotation is not a priority in this situation as player(s) in more forward positions are closer to the delivery area than players coming from deeper positions. I hope this answers your questions.

    • Hi Steve. I spent a short period demonstrating the long ball variation and when and why it should be used. The long pass forward must be directed to the corner area on the same side of the field –not diagonally. Receiving player(s) must know where the ball is going as well as all supporting players. Support or closing down positions around the delivery area must be achieved quickly as the opposition must not be allowed time and space to achieve settled ball possession. I demonstrated the positioning of players beyond the delivery area afterwards.
      Whenever opportunities became avilable to play shorter passes from the back in these ‘squashed circumstances, the players were encouraged to do so — In this way players were able to vary the playing method. I gradually increased the area size of the field after a period of ‘squashed’ practice and asked the players to decide and produce the most appropriate playing method needed as the game progressed.

  7. just a little bit of further info for you John……on the Friday the boys played against a Brentwood academy team who had reached the semi finals of the national schools cup the previous season and are highly rated. They lost 4-1 but put up a good show. However they went back to Brentwood last week and beat the same team 6-1. They defended really well in the first half and kept it at 1-1 and apparently came out and put on a bit of a show in the secondI didn’t see the games myself but the report was that the boys have really responded well to the work, they are open minded enough to try to do things differently to how they have been previously taught and are really punching above their weight.

    Although the previous year group had more “naturals” these boys are more intellectually bright and I do think this is an underrated factor in looking at why some players improve when others stagnate.

  8. Hi Fletch. I’m sure your correct about the intellectual importance of players. However. we still must cater for those players who do not have the benefit of a quick uptake of information. Unfortunately, this type of player tends to be more associated with the game than the more academic type. Because of this it is vital that these boys practise what they must play and must be progressed intelligently and systmmatically through the learning and playing process. This type of player will develop as a ‘realistic doer’ rather than those who can assimllate theory with playing requirements.

  9. The old English saying is that “football is a game for gentlemen played by ruffians and rugby is a game for ruffians played by gentlemen”.
    I have never been sure if academic intelligence equals football intelligence. With the growth in importance of tactics you would expect an academically bright boy/girl to absorb tactical instructions quicker than a less intellectually able person.
    But we know from experience that some of the all-time greats could hardly write their own name. It comes back of course to the fact that they learnt the game on the streets or waste land, which was very much the school of ‘hard knocks’.
    I notice that in recent years there has been a trend with certain teams to produce a flip pad, with what appear to be tactical diagrams, for a
    substitute to peruse before they take the field.I would think that the coaches who use this method should be careful with the players they provide with this resource, because the last thing they would want the player to be is in any way inhibited before taking the field.
    On a personal note, I would like to mention that I have just recently started coaching a womens’ university team. After many years in grass roots football , this is the first time I have (a) coached a womens’ team or (b)one of either sex at a university. The keenness and enthusiasm to learn is fantastic. I cannot say for certain if this is due to above average intellectual strengths or because they are female because this is new to me on both counts, but i shall have to see how they progress during the season.

  10. Steve Haslam I want to formally recognise what a great football man you are.Your enthusiasm is inspirational.Why not get the girls on a level 1 cos we need to develop female coaches we don’t do any courses in the womens game.Keep up the good work mate.

  11. John seeing as you have been in the game along time and know more about coaching than most what is your opinion on Dan Ashworth and do you think he will do a good job?

    • Hi Paul. I have never seen Dan. Ashworth work and can’t remember ever having met him.
      With regards to him doing a good job, i think that he must find out what his job actually is! The FA now have — Brooking (Head of Football Development); John Peacock (Head of Coaching): Dick Bate (Elite Coaching Manager) Andy Cale (Head of Player Development and Research) Steve Rutter (Coach Education Manager) Craig Simmons (Player Development Advisor) etc. etc.

  12. I have worked with Dan he is an excellent coach and just as importantly open minded and could do a tremendous job.I think he could with help take us forward he’s a bright boy. His problem could be breaking up the institutionalised closed mindedness that has grown like tentacles in the FA.Peacock,Bate and Rutter can all coach but have had no leadership.So i really wish Dan well and hope he can make the radical changes necessary

  13. Hi to all. With regards to the appointment of Dan Ashworth to the FA Coaching Dept., i sincerely hope he has the strength of character to look beyong present FA development methods and is prepared to seek advice from others in the game. He must be strong and prepared to ‘fight’ for improvements and dispense with the ‘tinkering’ that has been so prolific in the past.

  14. I think most of the english fottball issues come from esentially impatience, and seeming distrust of skill or talent. As if it is somehow wrong to develope skills by trying to get better. Its the same problems at school where kids who are clever are teased for being ‘boffins’. In the football sense it is seen as better to play with effort on the pitch, instead of spending hours becoming skilled of the pitch. Although the best footballers are very talented they wernt born that way. It was their own dedication to learning and improving that made them better.

    Which brings me to my last point. In english football there is the sense that we must make people effective striaght away, rather than give them time to build skills. For novice football players, the english tactics make sense. If u only had a week to work with people before they played 1 game the advice is valid. But to become more techincal, players have to try and be better, and in an attempt to do this, in the short term they will make more mistakes. People need to fail to get better, but instead of failing and then improving a strategy is designed which allows players to play as best as they can at a given time, without considering how they could improve in the future.

  15. Hi John, I hope you are well and wish you a Happy New Year. I was again reviewing this post earlier and have a couple of questions around the “….entries into, followed by exits from target areas around the opposing penalty area and later, into an opposing penalty area”
    Would the target areas around the penalty area be centrally in or just outside the ‘D’ and wide areas outside the corners of the penalty area?
    Then, for entries to and exits from the penalty area would those target areas tend to be just inside the corners of the penalty area?

    If I have not assessed the target areas correctly, please could you describe where you site those targets?
    Kind Regards

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