Creative Keep-Ball

By John Cartwright

There are two important sections that must bind together when working to produce CREATIVE KEEP-BALL as a playing style; the first is CONSTRUCTIVE PREPARATION PLAY: the second is CALCULATED PENETRATION.

In each section it is vitally important to designate realistic ‘achievements’ as targets to attain. These ‘achievements’ must be carefully introduced to players to build a deep understanding of these aspects of the game.

All top-class Restaurants employ super Chefs, kitchen staff and table waiters; for quality meals needs expert preparation, creative presentation and perceptive service to satisfy expectant customers. The ‘football meal’ must provide all the same qualities when served to expectant fans! Like the expectant diner, football fans expect the best from their team, but unless all the necessary work has been correctly instilled in players on training grounds throughout the development and senior years the ‘football meal’ served to them will be a total disappointment.

Our domestic and international teams are continually being criticised for their inability to retain possession of the ball. This enormous flaw in the way we play has been an obvious problem for many decades, but what has been done to eradicate this ‘disease’ from our game?  In my opinion, very little! Even now, with the stunning example of keep-ball delivered by Spanish football, our feeble attempts to replicate their playing style are bereft of individualism, tactical intelligence and fluidity that produces nothing more than a ‘poor man’s Barcelona’ style of play.

As I stated at the beginning of this ‘blog’, the two essential ingredients for Creative keep-ball are; Constructive preparation play and Calculated penetration. These must be developed in conjunction with each other for the qualities of possession to be fully realized — ‘the first provides the second’.



Just keeping the ball might look statistically ok but too often opportunities to benefit from phases of extended keep-ball are not taken, thus losing the reason for keeping the ball! High percentage passing is fine as long as it has produced high levels of penetrative chances that have been exploited —some of those chances might ‘bear fruit’ others may not, but all must be eagerly attempted once created.  Our players must be taught – WHY they should play keep-ball – HOW they should play it – WHAT must be recognized during keep-ball phases –WHEN to exploit penetrative opportunities.

The often mistaken and over-use of attempted penetration in our game is due entirely to past and present coaching and development methods. The damning indictment of coaching here is visible in the consistent lack of skilful players produced for our game and the poor game understanding they possess that produces a ‘fightball’ game-style. The present Pass-Pass-Pass ‘mania’ we are beginning to see in our game is little more than a ‘camouflage’ of poor ability and a ‘pass the buck’ usually followed by a ‘hit and hope’ long ball forward is a style that is endemic in all levels of football here. The importance of goal-scoring must not be neglected, but unless constructive preparatory play is firmly and decisively incorporated into our football psyche and used extensively throughout all levels, our game will continue to under-achieve.


Scoring goals is the most difficult part of playing football; it is the climax of effort and ability for both the scorer and his team-mates. Because of the ‘glory’ the surrounds goal-scoring many young players hasten to be ‘strikers’. In many other positions that hold less glory, players adopt a playing role for various nebulous reasons. In all cases of early positioning of players the important issues of skill acquisition and total game understanding suffers as specialization advances the chance of becoming a ‘bit part player’ rather than a ‘total footballer’.

We seem to hold the belief in this country that ‘goal-scorers’ don’t need to involve themselves in preparation play and simply wait for others to produce chances for them. This historical playing ‘regimentation’ has meant our game-style has stayed virtually the same over many decades. The lack of rotational movement in our game especially in forward positions has produced a lack of flair and creativity. Goals are expected from the few when in fact more goals would be scored with more players being able to enter forward spaces.

Poor service in a Restaurant can spoil the best food and make a disappointing experience for the customer. In football, service that provides goal chances is an art and is almost as important as the skill of ‘hitting the net’. Good service that provides good finishing opportunities must be inter-connecting; the ‘gains’ from effective, penetrative keep-ball must be followed by goals scored by players from all parts of a team.

The ‘selling’ of Creative keep-ball to coaches, players and equally importantly to fans, is something that will need more than ultra-modern St, George’s, it will require considerable thought ‘marketing’ and consistent effort throughout the land before a more subtle and skilful playing style can be a permanent feature here.

16 thoughts on “Creative Keep-Ball

  1. Last night’s ‘performance against San Marino was a first-class example of the skills and tactical ‘hole’ we have in our game. We lack players capable of beating opponents and we use tactics that crowd areas rather than isolate them so that individualism might flourish. The lack of individualism runs deep in our game and creates the need for basic tactics. How long have we been saying this —- since the Hungarians beat us at Wembley in th early 1950’s!!

  2. John,I agree. As you say England contributed to their own inefficiency. Piling on wave after wave of attacks with constant speed into the same areas only caused San Marino to crowd the areas in which England needed to create space.

    Had they released the pressure by retaining the ball deeper, varying the tempo of the game England could have enticed SM out of their defensive funnell and created the space they helped to deny themselves.

    I suggest that more use of your Play Round Area 3 as described in the post about the college players and even use of PR2 would have helped entice out the opponent. It would be a brave group that merely sat on the edge of their penalty area when the ball was 25 – 30 yards deeper

    I spoke to a French coach yesterday and he said that football should be like a dance Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow. Unfortunately, we still seem to be over reliant on constant speed and power as a means to break down opponents

  3. Hi Steve. I agree with what you have said in your opening paragraph, but your point regarding England retaining the ball deeper to pull the San Marino side out was unlikely to happen as they really had no ambition in the game other than to protect their goal.
    What was missing from England’s performance was the individuals who could take on defenders and beat them and in so doing open up spaces for other players to exploit.
    Where are the ‘dribblers’ ? Today’s game is pass-pass-pass, but as we have seen even with Barcelona, they rely heavily on Messi’s ability to create chances and score goals.
    We have become hypnotized with team possession to such an extent that dribbling has fallen well down the pecking order — the dribbler might lose the ball—Calamity for the statistics!!!

  4. I was having the same conversation about dribblers with a friend of mine only half an hour ago.
    I understand and absolutely agree about the dribblers being the ones to unlock the door (I thought Lennon was supposed to be a dribbler but didn’t see much in that department although to be fair I missed most of the first half).

    I also accept that San Marino showed no ambition, however, playing with a deeper possession I feel, would entice even the most unambitious team out of the tightest areas. As mentioned above, I think they would have to be extraordinarily psychologically brave to just sit on the edge of their box when the ball was being retained 25 yards away.

    Just tempting them out 10 yards would open up gaps for dribblers (if we had more) or combination play.

    But in general, I agree, we are desperate to win but scared to death of losing (or losing the ball) so won’t take a risk even in the area of the pitch where the risk/reward relationship is most in favour of the attacking team.

    • Hi Steve. I fully agree that creating space is vital — only problem for us is — given all the space in the world we wouldn’t know what to do in it!!

  5. The heavy weather that England made of beating San Marino contrasted sharply with the hammering that Germany gave to the Republic of Ireland in Dublin. Still on the German theme, there was a superb performance by Borussia Dortmund recently in the Champions’ League against Manchester City which would have been a rout had it not been for a great performance by Joe Hart.
    When you watch the good German teams you see that positional rotation is a key feature of their play, as it has been for many years. The clever off the ball movement and positional switching means that players from all round the team are likely to appear in goal-scoring positions. Klose is Germany’s spearhead in attack and scores many goals but other than him the goals are usually spread around. Similarly with Dortmund, Lewandowski is the main striker but goals come regularly from other team members.
    The key thing is that Germany never rest on their laurels, they are always looking to improve. When they won the World Cup in 1974 they knew that nearly everyone outside Germany wanted Holland to win the Final because the Dutch had played the best, most progressive football of the
    tournament with the ‘Total Football’ style which captured the imagination of the football world. So, in spite of their success, the Germans worked hard at the ingredients of this style and at the present time the German national team and Dortmund are excellent products of the fruits of this work.
    In England we still think that incessant, full-blooded attacks will break down a massed defence but even as limited a team as San Marino can create problems. Our players largely remain fixed in positions and if the goals don’t come then a big, towering centre forward like Andy Carroll is introduced in place of a more nimble, skillful player. We still think that the high cross is the answer to all problems.
    The Germans are prepared to make changes and learn from other
    countries even in times of success. This explains why they are nearly always at the forefront of the game.

    • Hi Steve. As you say, German football seems to be able to re-design itself quickly when it needs to. This is because they have their basic beliefs about how they shoiuld play the game and ‘tweak’ those beliefs when necessary to keep themselfs abreast of progress. Organization that works quickly, efficiently and effectively are the hallmarks of German Industry — their football is no different.

  6. Unfortunately I saw the game aswell – very scrappy. The thing that stood out most for me was the lack of ideas. We seemed content to keep attacking like a battering ram until we finally forced a way through. There was no change in tempo, no rotation or probing via dribbles or runs.

    England aren’t used to dominating posession in games so we didn’t know how to use the ball effectively. This for me is a big problem

  7. Hi Matt. All of the things you mention are correct about the game. However, the art of dribbling has been dismissed in the search for high possession stats. There is no defensive shield that can prevent individual dribbling skill from creating gaps in the most solid formation. Ask the teams’ that play Barcelona !!

    • Count the number of dribbles they execute per match, you will quickly find out that the percentage is actually quite low. Southern football is based on off the ball movement, combination passing and overloads. Dribblers are outdated, their high percentage of ball loss, it’s toxic to game fluidity and organization.

      • Do you class Messi and Neymar as being outdated? Agree that dribblers with no end product disrupt the flow of a teams play (which is why it is so important to develop awareness and end product in young players when they are dribbling).
        But if you look at Barca’s success over the last 8 years……how many games was Messi’s individualism (dribbling) the difference between winning or losing????

  8. Hi all. England’s performances against San Marino and Poland should not be a surprise. nor a complete disappointment so we are told because they registered 4 points towards going to Brazil. But forget that and look at the lack of playing quality in both games. These appalling performances have come after our development system – Academies, have been operational for around twenty years . We were told that Academies would produce high-class players within a ten year period — where are they after a twenty year period?
    Now we have another time span introduced into the development saga –St Georges – and it is going to make all the difference to our game in ten years time! I don’t think so! Every house that is built without the correct foundations will fall down — two recent examples being Lilleshall National School and Academies.
    I have always believed that success can only be achieved by first assembling a vision of what one wants to do and then following on from this by formulating the steps that will get one there. Our recent deplorable performances reflect a complete lack of playing vision and direction — we don’t know what we’re doing because we don’t know where we’re going.
    Overall, four points but a total, total mess! Poor playing qualities and utter confusion. We had better be careful we don’t follow down the same slippery slope as Scottish football — all the signs are pointing in that direction.

  9. its interesting to see the decline of scottish football they use to produce talented players but not any more. when i was growing up all the best teams in england had a scottish core to their team it would be sad to see england go the same way but its looks like they are .looking at england under 21 team i dont see much talent coming thougth

  10. “Our players must be taught – WHY they should play keep-ball – HOW they should play it – WHAT must be recognized during keep-ball phases –WHEN to exploit penetrative opportunities”.

    It might be an idea to pose a thought or a problem to be solved….and let them play,discover,create, fail,succeed and absorb with minimal input from the coach.

    Empirical findings support the hypothesis that a wide breadth of attention facilitates creative performance (Carson, Peterson, & Higgins, 2003;Friedman, Fishbach, Förster, & Werth, 2003; Healey & Rucklidge, 2005). Kasof (1997) argued that as a result of a narrow breadth of attention, not all stimuli and information that could lead to original and possibly creative solutions in certain situations can be taken in and assimilated. A wide breadth of attention makes it possible to assimilate a variety of stimuli that may initially appear to be irrelevant. Few studies have investigated the deliberate training of breadth of attention in sport. Memmert and Furley (2007) revealed the influence of specific instructions on tactical decision making of team sport players and found that participants with a wide attentional focus made better tactical decisions than participants with a narrow breadth of attention. A six-month longitudinal study by Memmert (2007) supports the conclusion that an attention-broadening training program can influence the development of creative performance in some sports. These findings highlight the need for optimal design in training programs since they can be useful in promoting the development of creativity in children. By using suitable training scenarios, wide breadths of attention can be trained in a targeted manner.

  11. i agree with both John and tony99 about the sad decline in Scottish football. As tony99
    says, all leading English teams at one time had a nucleus of Scottish players, who were among the most talented in the game. I think that the decline in street football is probably more pronounced in Scotland than anywhere else. The Gorbals district of Glasgow was a breeding ground for great players. No-one wants to see a return to such appauling living standards which led to the conditions in which the talent flourished, but it underlines even more the need to get a proper coaching structure in place.
    You would have thought that the Scots, with their traditional liking for great ball players, would have made sure that such a system was put in place, but an unimaginative, purely functional approach to the game seems at least as prevalent in Scotland as it is in England..

    • Hi Steve. You’ve ‘hit the nail right on the head ‘again old mate. The Scottish decline should be a real warning to us. I’ve been saying it for years —-nobody listens unfortunately !

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