Our Game Style – What Should it Be?

By John Cartwright

I have said for many years that the Game-style preferred in the main in these islands tends to lean in the direction of Direct Play and that this playing method has been responsible for the poor development of our young players as well as the lack of success at all international levels since 1966.   There have been individual attempts over the years to modify the preference towards Direct Play and introduce a playing style that incorporates more inter-passing; this has been moderately successful but in general most clubs have not attempted to change.


In my opinion, the fast,‘crash-bang’ game-style we use so much does not allow the skilled player sufficient opportunities to display his/her talent. Physical aspects of performance, although very important, have become an overriding playing requirement at all levels. Skills, guile and creativity in the game here have become less important than speed strength and stamina. The majority of our game is played at a constant speed with little concern for the arts and crafts of the game… ‘If you can’t run, you can’t play’… seems to be an ever-increasing concept within our game. We must find the answers to the problems sooner rather than later, for our game is rapidly falling behind other football nations as we become too reliant on foreign talent to bolster skilful performance at domestic levels.

Whatever playing method preferred it must contain five important ingredients; it must teachable – it must be playable – it must be variable – it must be watchable – it must be ‘winnable’. The game of football is not a simple game as so many (non-players) seem to believe, it is a difficult game that requires quick decisions and alternative actions to counter interference from opposition. Individual skills, speed, strength, stamina, attitude and game understanding are necessary attributes for high performance in competitive games. Any playing style must incorporate all of the previously mentioned aspects if it is to achieve and sustain success over a considerable period of time.

Reliance on a single playing style may deliver some success in the short term but will falter as opposing teams’ apply different tactics against it; this was clearly demonstrated by Bayern Munich’s powerful and skilful display against Barcelona’s ‘Tiki-Taki’ style; consequently, Barcelona have had to ‘tweak’ their possession based game-style to include some quicker, forward passing. With their players who have high individual ability and game understanding, the introduction of alternatives to a long preferred playing style is less difficult than for those attempting changes with players of lesser all-round ability. Game-style changes here have shown more success when foreign ‘imports’ have been heavily involved on the field or in managerial positions. Changes have been less successful when attempted with ‘home-grown’ talent and I believe this is entirely due to poor development methods producing mediocrity in both coaching and playing areas of our game.


So how should we play? Well in accordance with what I have already stated, any radical changes must accede to those points mentioned and set as an envisioned target for a national game-style; it then becomes possible to create development programmes related to age and ability towards the playing vision. These programmes can be constructed in such a way that development can be introduced from senior levels downwards or from junior levels upwards……… because the playing ‘target’ is understood, each of the stages can be set towards achieving it. I have also consistently stated that British playing strengths combined with skill and tactical variations more often seen abroad must be taught and introduced to our players throughout all playing levels……. the PREMIER SKILLS coaching and playing methodology was envisaged and then created along these lines. Tactical variations and team formations must always possess the ingredient of team balance; whether attacking or defending, a team should always have sufficient players available without becoming defensively exposed or inadequately supported in attack. I have championed the importance of rotational play and this will become an ever-important feature of the game in the future as it allows far greater team movement and tactical variations whilst maintaining team balance.

I have also said for many, many years that our players are better than is generally believed…… Brendan Rodgers is now suggesting this. The trouble I believe has always been associated with a game-style that has restricted individual skills and has made it difficult for players to reproduce any real ability they have. The tendency towards performances requiring 100% effort is important but a change in game-style must include many more opportunities to display other associated playing skills. The sequence of 1v1 ‘fights’ and straight-line movements that are a consistent part of our present, tactically naïve game-style must be eliminated as much as possible.  By introducing a game-style that contains all the necessary playing requirements, our players and teams would be in a far better position to compete with the best football nations in the world……. and win!


22 thoughts on “Our Game Style – What Should it Be?

  1. The two big questions are –
    1.How do you know what to coach if you don t have the gamestyle to refer to and assess against ?
    2.How can you coach educate if you don t have the gamestyle to refer to and assess against ?
    “Why would you set off on a journey if you did not know your destination”
    John was articulating these truisms to the FA over 20 years ago but because of institutionalism and self protection he was ignored and the problem has got greater and greater.

  2. Our game style should be based on the way Liverpool played in the 80’s, and even though I am an Arsenal fan I always loved the way Liverpool played football during there golden period IMO

  3. A National Playing style is urgently required and the experiences of a young player I have recently been reading about in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ really underlines this point.
    Adam Eckersley was a youth player at Manchester United, coming through in the same squad as Gerard Pique and Giuseppe Rossi. He was coached by Rene Meulensteen but was was released by the club because he just failed to make the grade. This, of course, is the experience of the vast majority of youngsters at the leading clubs. Eckersley had been well coached by Meulenstein, however, when the Dutchman coached exclusively in United’s academy and Eckersley was thoroughly ingrained in the playing style that he was coached in at Old Trafford.
    After loan spells at clubs in Belgium and Denmark , Eckersley returned to England and tried his luck at a couple of Championship and League 1 clubs. This proved a terrible culture shock because the football that Eckersley had been coached to play and brought up in, was non-existant at these lower league clubs.It was only after returning to Denmark on a permanent basis that Eckersley was able to play in a game style where the ball is kept mainly on the ground.What he had experienced in the English Championship and League 1 was a game that was foreign to that which he had ben develped in during his formative years at Man Utd.
    So we lose a good technical player from the English game because, as John says, the English game, certanly away from the top echelon, persists with a game style from a bygone age.
    I wonder how many other Adam Eckersleys there are? We know that the actual percentage of boys which go through the academies of Man Utd,Arsenal,Man City, Chelsea etc and make it to the first team, are the smallest fraction. Most are released and it has often been said that the coaching and development they have received will still be of of benefit for them to make their living from the game, even though at at a lower rung on the football ladder. But if the majority of clubs in the lower reaches have a different, less technical, game style then what was the real value of their development years? Do all these young players have to go abroad to properly realise their potential, or even just simply enjoy their football? Bear in mind also that Denmark is not in the top bracket of international football.
    I recently listened to a talk given by a coach who was prominent in the English game 30 years ago. He was quite scathing in his criticism of the present day young English player. No doubt some of his criticisms were justified and no doubt some of the present day young English players do lack the commitment and motivation of their predecessors. However, Adam Eckersley lacks neither commitment nor motivation. He has been let down by the lack of a national playing style which meant that the dedicated hard work which he put in during his youth did not reap the rewards in England it should have done, simply because he failed to make it at the very highest level.

  4. Great blog John, and your so right Roger, no playing style = no direction! Steve, the experience of that ex Utd academy player is proof of how our lack of vision is cheating young people with their whole life ahead of them and is not doing the one thing all young people in any walk of life deserve – to prepare them for the future!

  5. Hi all. Seems a pointless excecise to teach young players skills and then play a game-style that denies them a playing methodology to display them.

  6. Hi John..
    That was my feeling when I recently read about the case of Adam Eckersley. When you read the programme ‘pen pictures’ of individual players at many lower league matches you find that many of the players in those teams spent formative years in the academies of clubs likeTottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham etc. Many fail to make the grade at that level and so must find their way at a lower grade of the game. But as in the case of Eckersley, they go down to a level where the game style is at odds with the coaching development which they have previously received.
    I have heard it said that although very few of the big Premier League clubs are producing young English talent which can establish itself in the first team, then at least they are developing and assisting young players to earn a living from the game, albeit at a lower level.
    But, in my opinion, this is not good enough and not an acceptable excuse. It is no exaggeration to say that the day could be fast approaching when the England team will be largely picked from Championship clubs and even below, if the present dearth of English players in the Premier League continues. What hope is there then if players are taken from that game style and plunged into international competition? The leading Premier League clubs must develop young English players who can hold their own in the first team and therefore prevent the influx of foreign players.
    The future of the national team depends on this.

  7. Perhaps, and i say perhaps we might not see international football in the future as at present. It might be that international teams will be made up with a mixture of nationals and foreign imports who play for the team who are the champions of their particular country. There’s a thought!

  8. Hi John…
    We seem to be heading down that road. The FA appear to be seriously investigating the possibity of ‘nationalising’ Adnan Januzaj so that he is eligible for the England team in a few years time. In my opinion, the only country, other than a player’s country of birth, which a player should qualify for, should be the country in which the player’s vital, early development years, from childhood through to youth, were spent. In Januzaj’s case this would be Belgium, which is also his country of birth as well. Under the present rules, his parents’ countries of birth, Kosovo and Albania, also have a legitimate call on him, under the present rules. But i do not think that a country such as England, because they have a club of the financial muscle like Man Utd, should in any way benefit.
    It does not reflect well on the FA that they should be going down this line of enquiry, when the emphasis from everybody should be on the improvement of the development standards required to produce our own valid players.

  9. Sad to still hear that English game is the backwater of European football.
    Summed up by a league 1 c of e director a few years back, we are hear to produce players for the championship and not the champions league.

  10. With money such an important factor in the game a gradual introduction of money-making steps will probably be intoduced in time. (A). division 1and 2 European League …….and later followed by (B). A World League. Instead of local towns playing eachother in domestic leagues, top clubs would represent their nations in Europe, then the World…..everything is possible where money is concerned.!

  11. I agree John, that is the way in which the game seems to be heading. But in this instance, i think that the ordinary fan, or enthusiast, could have a big say in how the game develops. Even though the English fan could do much more to voice displeasure at the overly direct style of play we have here, at least they make it quite clear where they stand on other issues, such as league and cup competition. There is no doubt that the local youngster who makes it into the first team gets special backing from the fans as he tries to establish himself at the higher level. I think that this is true in other countries as well.
    In addition, there is little doubt that the football public relish local matches against near neighbours in national league and cup competitions.The Champions League is the cream but matches such as Liverpool-Everton, Tottenham-Arsenal, Lazio-Roma, Barca-Real Madrid etc will always be the matches which stir up the fans’ passion. It’s the same lower down the ladder with Norwich-Ipswich and Bristol City- Bristol Rovers.

  12. Hi Steve. These games attract the attention of local people in the majority of cases. TV who control the sport will want bigger audiences to finance their contiued involvement. TV companies have to pay dividends to their shareholders and they expect an increase in their investment year
    on year. More lucrative, money-making opportunities will be considered as present operations begin to falter. Smaller clubs will continue to fight for financial survival as they do at present but there will be a gradual decrease in clubs surviving in the long run.

  13. Judging by the information in the above quoted “Guardian” article, the FA now seems to recognise the need for a vision, not having had one since the long ball, direct play methods as laid down by Charles Hughes when he was Director of Coaching. It often appears that the present FA Coaching hierarchy have airbrushed Hughes’s name and work from the National Coaching Scheme’s history; but it was his vision for the English game and, whether the FA likes it or not, it still persists at many levels of our game.
    As John suggests, the FA have picked up many ideas from Premier Skills and it now remains to be seen if they are also going to ‘lift’ some of the coaching/teaching methodology.

    • Hi Steve. It’s fine to say “we need a vision”, but what is that vision? How was it decided on? How do we reach it? Equally important….will the fans accept it?

  14. Looking at England’s performance on Wednesday night against Denmark, before the match on scrutinising England’s line up, many observers interpretted Roy Hodgson’s approach being with a vision of Liverpool in mind because of the number of Liverpool players in the team. But Hodgson failed to fit
    them into a game style similar to that which we have seen from Liverpool this season, particularly in the case of Sturridge who did not take up the positions in attack, particularly in the centre as he has done for most of the season. Also, Rooney did not play the Suarez role, in terms of positioning and movement, and Suarez has been key in the effectiveness of Sturridge in the Liverpool team this season.
    The Southampton players, Shaw and Lallana,I thought impressed the most because they showed that they have been well coached at their club and therefore were able to display their qualities regardless of the line up and formation. It was good that Sturridge got the goal but it was very well set up by Lallana.
    It is noticeable how so many England players have difficulty in recognising and finding space on the pitch. This must be the result of neglect in quality coaching in their formative years. Rooney goes back too deep to get the ball and the opposition are happy for him to do this because he can’t hurt them there. We seem to have a shortage of players at the moment who can see spaces even in crowded penalty areas and pull off into them at the right moment to find a goalscoring position.It seems to be a lost art which we must focus our attention on. Jimmy Greaves learnt it in street games but now it must be done by coaching.

  15. Daniel Taylor byline
    Daniel Taylor
    The Observer, Saturday 8 March 2014 21.16 GMT
    Aidy Boothroyd
    The FA have appointed Aidy Boothroyd, an advocate of the long-ball, to manage and improve England’s under-20s. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
    The great Brian Glanville once wrote that Charles Hughes, with his devotion to hitting the ball long and high, had stifled English creativity and distorted the Football Association’s thinking to the point it had “poisoned the wells” of his sport. Evidently, not everyone agrees.

    Did you realise Hughes received a lifetime contribution award when the FA’s Licensed Coaches’ Club held its dinner at St George’s Park just before Christmas? No, probably not. Nobody really publicised it. There was no press release and, perhaps wisely, the FA’s online report focused on the award for Tony Carr, West Ham’s prolific nurturer of young talent, rather than the bloke who would have wanted Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick to get it over the top.

    But they clearly still revere his work. Go to the FA Learning website and, if you are one of the 24,000 licensed coaches with a password, there is access to an online shop where all sorts of stuff is recommended. Only one book, though: Hughes’s Soccer Tactics and Skills, first brought out in 1980 and including seven pages under the heading “Passing Techniques – Lofted Passes” but only three for “Encouraging Improvisation and Inventive Play”. Hughes went by the ethos that most goals were scored with five or fewer passes. Is this really, in 2014, a book the FA should still be actively promoting?

    No surprises, though. A while back, this column revealed that the FA, for all its talk of moving into a modern era, had employed John Beck to take the next generation of coaches through their Uefa B-level badges.

    Beck has a devoted group of younger followers and many have pointed out it is a long time now since the days when he went by the nickname of Dracula (on the basis that so many people thought he was sucking the blood out of the sport) and awarded cash bonuses to the players at Cambridge who kicked the ball the furthest. However, he does apparently still reference his tactics at Cambridge – gems such as “zig-zag to the onion bag”, meaning to knock it up to the far post – during those courses at St George’s Park, the place the FA trumpets as the future of English football.

    Equally, it is not entirely clear whether the FA is operating to a clear and concise plan, or if it even understands its own philosophy, when Aidy Boothroyd, another manager synonymous with long-ball football, is suddenly deemed the best qualified candidate to manage and improve England Under-20s.

    It is not the fact Northampton Town were bottom of League Two when he was sacked in December that startles me. Nor is it necessarily the way he has drifted through the divisions, or that he has been out of work for the past three months. No, it is his style that is the concern, at a time when the FA would like us to believe that the masterplan is to emulate the Spanish model, with a pattern of playing – attractive, on the floor, based on control and sophistication – that runs from the juniors all the way to the senior team.

    A former player at Northampton once complained about a culture of “murder tackles” during Boothroyd’s training sessions. Tom Reed, a columnist for the Northants Herald & Post, wrote last week the football “reached new lows, despite the ball being continually knocked far and high”. The disciplinary record was poor and the tactics route-one. Reed wrote: “Technical players, given the lazy option of smacking the ball forwards to hold-up strikers, actually went backwards.”

    But none of this is actually a surprise. At Watford, Boothroyd took the team into the Premier League, which was a wonderful achievement. But it was not exactly progressive football. One of the team’s sayings used to be “put it in the cage”. The centre-halves would roar it during matches. The cage was the penalty area. Stop messing around, and put it in the cage.

    Boothroyd is not remembered with huge fondness at Colchester or Coventry either and his latest appointment, I am reliably informed, has bemused some of his colleagues in other departments of the FA. Within his own profession, the words “numbing shock” have been used. Boothroyd once worked with Dan Ashworth, the FA’s director of elite development, at Peterborough. A few years later, he appointed Ashworth to help him run West Brom’s academy. Now, it is Ashworth’s turn to do the hiring.

    The FA announced the appointment with a quote from Boothroyd about his ability to “bring through” young players, naming Ben Foster and Ashley Young from the good old days at Watford nine years ago. Except Foster was 22 when he made his first appearance for Watford and it was Ray Lewington who brought through Young the previous season. Saido Berahino is also mentioned, from their time together at Northampton. Nice try. Gary Johnson signed Berahino in October 2011, on a one-month loan from West Brom. Boothroyd came in almost six weeks later. It was, as Reed puts it, a fleeting spell when “the striker failed to stand out despite his latent talent”.

    The bigger point is that the FA could surely have done better. England have failed to qualify in three of the past eight Under-20 World Cups. In the other five, they have played 16 games, and not won one. Nine defeats, seven draws. In last year’s tournament, they lost to Egypt and could not beat an Iraq side whose players had grown up among invasion and war. At least England scored. Their previous goal in one of these tournaments was Alex Nimely’s in a 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan in 2009. The last win? Go back to the group stages of the 1997 tournament in Malaysia, followed by a second-round exit. The 1993 squad, including Nicky Butt, Chris Bart-Williams and Jamie Pollock, finished third. Since then, England’s record has been dismal.

    “You need to understand Steve Peters can’t help you do a Cruyff turn better,” Steven Gerrard said after it was announced that the FA had recruited Liverpool’s sports psychiatrist for the World Cup. “He won’t help you hit a 40-yard pass any more accurately. Steve Peters is not going to help the players run an extra 100 or 200 metres or go any faster.”

    Can Boothroyd? Hopefully. This is a key role, entrusted with the outstanding young talent in the country, and it is vital for the future (Gerrard, by the way, does not mean a long, hopeful punt into the penalty area when he talks of a 40-yard pass).

    Clearly, Boothroyd will have his admirers, just as Beck does and just like Hughes. But he will have to forgive me for not being completely surprised that there are accomplished football people within his own industry, not least at the League Managers Association, privately asking how this fits in with the masterplan.

    “Hoofroyd” the fans used to call him when everything started to unravel at Watford. Glen Little never played for one of Boothroyd’s teams but he did play against them. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha,” he wrote on Twitter. “Get the youngsters kicking it as far as they can.”

    Ashworth and Boothroyd will no doubt say it is coincidental that they are old mates. Boothroyd will also presumably argue there is more to him, in a coaching capacity, than the image that has been nurtured over the past decade. Let’s hope so. Hughes would no doubt approve. Beck, too. Others will wonder whether the FA has jumbled its priorities, not for the first time.

  16. The appointments of John Beck and Aidy Boothroyd, as detailed in the above ‘Observer’ article, to vitally important development positions at the FA, are indicative of the muddled thinking by our National Association.
    Each has had some limited succes at lower levels of the game, but this was achieved with a playing style which was not the one which we have been led to believe the FA is now promoting.
    It is possible that both Beck and Boothroyd have adjusted and amended their philosophies on the game and have studied and embraced the game’s coaching concepts as pursued in Spain, Germany, Belgium etc. If so then they could well be worthy of their new, highly important positions. But we, the football public and coaches working at all the various levels of the game, deserve to be properly informed when appointments of this kind are made. The FA must make hundreds of thousands of pounds from the coaching courses they put on up and down the country. Membership of the FA Licensed Coaches Club is mandatory so as to retain your qualifications and although it is now free to have a basic membership, charges are made to obtain the annual CPD hours in order to continue your membership.
    It is therefore unsatisfactory for the FA to make appointments to these key development positions without proper explanation and transparency to the whole coaching fraternity – at all levels. Whoever was responsible for the appointments of both Beck and Boothroyd, is responsible for giving a full and detailed explanation for their choice of coaching practitioners, what their philosophy and methodology will be and how this is planned to benefit the development of both players and coaches in this country in the next five to ten years.

  17. Hi all. As i have said so many times in the past, one must first decide on a playing vision; then that vision must be interpreted through a realistic practice methodology from junior to senior levels.It seems to me that the FA’s development methods follow unrelated pathways leading to nowhere. From appointments to practices to playing there seems to be little semblance of co-ordination and a lack of continuity throughout.

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