Turn the Body – Turn the Ball – Turn the Game

By John Cartwright

I find one of the most infuriating aspects of the British game is our inability to turn the ball away from tight situations towards open space. Time after time, at all levels of our game, the ball is returned ‘back from whence it came’! Our players, especially our back players, when under the slightest pressure from closing opponents, simply ‘hoof’ the ball towards the nearest corner —‘Direct Play’ often leading to unnecessary ball loss.


Body shape (half-turn) whilst in supporting positions should be a natural occurrence with players but it isn’t and an incorrect, flat body shape tends to be favoured. There is an obvious lack of skill when receiving the ball but combined with this there is both a paucity of game understanding as well as a lack of physical nimbleness to re-adjust feet and body quickly to turn the ball and the game into open space.

Sometimes it must be said, passes to supporting players are sent with too much speed giving the receiver unnecessary control problems. Great ‘receivers and turners’ – Anders Iniesta (Barcelona) is a fine example – can deal with all types of pass to him and ‘manufacture’ a turn with one touch on the ball even when under severe pressure. He has perfected an ability to turn the game from tight to open space using — OPEN TURNS (forward space available) or CLOSED TURNS (screened turn: due to limited forward space available). Decision making on space and time availability is vital in order to estimate the interference distance between the player on the ball and his immediate opponent. These playing skills are important for players to possess and should be part of everyday teaching and learning of the game for it allows better individual and team possession to occur.

The ‘Hoof the ball towards the nearest corner at every opportunity’ approach to playing the game must be curtailed – but not totally dispensed with—(more about this in a future ‘blog’) but its present overuse must be recognized as to why it is used so much in our game – and the answer is —– fear! Poor playing skills in conjunction with poor game understanding and poor agility provides the breeding ground for discomfort for players when they find themselves on the ball and under pressure –especially when under pressure near to ones own goal in competitive match-play!

If we are to improve as a football nation our ability under pressure to turn the ball and the game in all areas of the field must become second nature or we will continue to be slaves to the limitations of Direct Play methods.

27 thoughts on “Turn the Body – Turn the Ball – Turn the Game

  1. Love this post John.

    It’s not just the tendency to hoof the ball away either, but also one of turning into a challenge rather than away from the opponent and screening. Less so at the top end of the game, but prevalent at grassroots.

    It’s almost as though a player has decided to play a pass or shot in a determined direction but then when the “picture” changes, the player is unable to change their mind and instead continues to try to play ‘through’ an opponent.

    Recognising those situations and turning and screening / shielding (as shown clearly on the Practice Play Level 1) is a key skill that is often (not always) missed at the beginning stages of the game.

    In addition to recognising those situations where screening is the preferable option, we should also teach players that when the picture changes, they have to observe that, recognise it and choose a different action.

    Persevering with an action when we know it to be no longer relevant is not something we would do in other aspects of our lives (generally!) and so we must encourage (especially) young players to recognise those situations and help them understand the other choices they could make.

  2. Great post
    I have only seen 1 session by a coach in which they really worked on the players ability to perform open and closed turns. The ability to play ahead of yourself “in the future” and make the quick decision whether you can open turn or have to closed turn needs to be constantly reinforced. Fear is a disease at grass roots level where results seem to count to early and development is not the greatest consideration. Fear is transmitted from parents if the ball goes anywhere near their teams goal the shouts go up ” get rid of it , clear it, kick it out, if in doubt kick it out”
    So much so that the players begin to repeat this to each other so simplicity reigns. If a team loses a goal or a couple of matches then fear not bravery take over.

    Watch xavi and iniesta in particular for the nimble footedness and awareness of how to use these skills. There are fantastic compilations of these players on youtube
    The detail in the practice play methodology was eye opening to me. This is the type of coach education and attention to detail that we all need to be aware of.. Shielding, open and closed turns, stepping across the line of the ball and incoming opponent, feigning before we receive to buy more time and space on the ball. Feigning when in position of the ball while stationary or moving with the ball to open up space and penetrate . I think the recognising of a gap is equally as important. The obsession with keep ball as is often practiced often does not encourage players to recognise when a space, gap appears that they can penetrate and positively run with the ball through.

  3. In England it seems to me that at all levels, we coach players that when we get the ball the first pass we look for is to the furthest man forward. If that pass is not on, only then do some teams look for someone at a shorter distance, but many still persist with the ‘furthest man’ in the hope of winning the so-called ‘second ball’. This leads to an over-emphasis on direct play, long passing and hitting straight passes which are meat and drink to competent central defenders.
    On Monday, the Final of the UEFA Youth Champions League, Benfica-Barcelona, provided many examples of the ball being worked from a short passing game style, to a longer pass in order to switch play beyond the full back on the opposite flank, who was exposed by an opponent on that side running on to the switch pass and created many dangerous situations. Surprisingly, Benfica were the more adept at this and could have scored several goals from the problems they created by ‘turning round’ the Barcelona full back on the opposite flank. (Benfica lost 0-3 but that scoreline is not an accurate reflection of the play).
    The ability of the Benfica players to switch play was greatly assisted by their ability to perform open turns and so situations continually arose when the ball was turned out of tight situations for an outlet to be exploited on the opposite flank, by either the full back sprinting forward or a wide player threatening the back of a defender, who struggled to deal with the long pass which was angled over his head as he desperately back pedalled. These situations arose because of the players’ ability to produce open turns, rather than forcing the ball back into congested areas as we too often see at all levels in this country.

  4. Great Blog John and some really interesting and brilliant comments everybody.

    The important thing to teach along with the variety of turns or other skills is teaching game insight. The learning/practice environment must be a game realistic activity where space and time changes with opposition to create moments of fear leading to mistakes so the coach can teach the players to deal with the fears and mistakes through skills combined with game insight. The coach must be able to tailor the teaching for the age of the children considering their attention span and ability level. Solutions must not just be presented or lectured but the children must be asked questions and clues to ensure they “think” which encourages the child to retain the learning and creates the culture and mentality to THINK WHILE PLAYING!

    We either have grassroots coaches who don’t understand the game because they don’t have a vision OR we have grassroots coaches who do have good technical or game insight but they struggle to teach because they lack the TEACHING SKILLS. We must create players who use their brains when playing football so therefore we must seek their feedback, their opinions and their solutions. From here the coach can encourage, praise, correct, motivate, add detail, recommend suggestions and challenge the child.

    Coaches must also look at the child’s physical or natural attributes and use this to teach certain skills for the situation. A less nimble child can be taught to screen and protect the ball to turn the direction of play, but a more agile or flexible child can be effective to turn the ball with a trick and wriggle out of the congestion individually!

    Before teaching any of the skills we must establish the playing style OR various playing styles (Brendan Rodgers), this will establish the skills that need to be taught to enable the playing style to work.

    While teaching, the coach must know their players, their personalities, physical attributes, motivations, weaknesses and strengths.

    While teaching the coach must ensure their children/players are ENGAGED when the coach is speaking. The children/players must find the coach entertaining, inspirational and enjoy his/her coaching moments just as mush as playing.

    Whatever the style of play is chosen, the players/children must be molded into players that are thinking while playing and thinking about the game while playing. Create a culture where we ask the children where the mistakes are being made, ask the children where is one team struggling. This will get children/players to have a habit about positioning and decision making.

    British players can be skilled footballers and entertaining to watch. Raheem Sterling is proof of this! Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and Maurico Pochettino are proving that if our players are “shown another way” then they to can entertain and execute effective skills. Plus these coaches have the motivational, teaching and speaking skills! We must have these kind of coaches at grassroots level, they may work at pro level but the bottom of the game can learn from Guardiola, Rodgers, Mourinho, Martinez etc,,, or we can continue to have coaches like Sherwood, Moyes, Pardew or Allardyce, coaches who let their emotions get the better of them due to a lack of coaching skill and end up creating excuses for failure, regular use of bad language, blaming of officials and encouraging FEAR!


    • Hi Dav. Everything you have said is a necessary part of football learning…..why has this been a limited inclusion in FA learning?

      • John I think it has been limited inclusion FA learning because their is no vision, no ethos and a shear disrespect towards the teaching of teaching

  5. Hi Dav….
    Your post contains some excellent points and provides much food for thought. It certainly backs up an article whoch Roger Wilkinson once wrote on the blog which was headed up “Coaching Ain’t Easy”.
    The possession of teaching skills is vital for a coach, but how many have them? Perhaps not many because many coaches are essentially volunteers, like myself, inspired by something we saw or experienced by something/someone in the game and took up coaching because of this. If you have never had any teacher training then you try to develop these skills ‘on the job’, with varying degrees of success, on a trial and error basis.
    Ron Greenwood often used to talk about “giving the game back to the players”. He hated negative tactics or anything that prevented the players from giving full expression to their skills and inventiveness. You can see this philosophy in John Cartwright’s coaching.
    Many coaches at all levels of the game, are prone to talk and lecture players excessively. As you suggest, the players must be encouraged to solve their own problems and find solutions. The coach is a guide who is there to help and encourage and provide answers if the players are completely stumped. If the coach constantly stops games and practices to deliver detailed explanations then there is no encouragement for the players to think it through themselves.
    I think that because the Premier Skills methodology starts off with the challenge to players to try and find space and run into it, then from day one this approach is being embedded in the coaching approach. Getting this kind of challenge for the players embedded right from the start, is vital.

  6. Hi John…
    You have often said, on this blog and elsewhere, that when a coach begins to coach a 5 year old then he/she must have a vision of how that child should be playing when he/she is 25 years old. The FA Coaching Scheme for too long has failed to get this message across on its various courses. The Premier Skills Coaching Scheme links all the levels together, where the content of each level relates to work done on the previous levels and this has resulted in a superior coach education programme.

      • Hi Dav. It seems that Steve an youself send replies on a regular basis. I’m glad that you find the ‘blogs’ informative …….you both make some excellent comments on the game. Let’s hope that little by little we can make a differnce with development methods here.

  7. John’s blog highlights a real crucial element of football, and the inability of players to recognise – or be coached to recognise – the need to turn towards the side of the outside shoulder in relation to where the ball has come from is an endemic feature of the British game.

    The elements which make up the Premier Skills Coaching scheme are centred around each individual having the football ‘tools’ to be comfortable in possession, but also out of possession to take up ‘good’ receiving positions to then be able to make decisions – and the technical competence to open out and engage in ‘play rounds’ – and unfortunately the only real benefactors of constant DIRECT PLAY methods are the teams not in possession, which then repeat the same process of the other limited team they are playing against.

    The result of British football devaluing possession of the ball is there for everyone to see, and is right at the root cause of what is all ‘bad’ about the game in the UK, and the associated nations it influences. Premier Skills is about ‘sound’ habits articulated and inculcated from day one. The instillation of ‘high technical’ quality has raised the bar, but the FA are blind to it.

  8. Hi Brazil 94. Thanks for your reular support and comments. It is a pity that the FA have not been able to dis-entangle themselfs from the historically failed development mess that they have created. All the ‘teakings’ to it over the years have not produced success in playing and coaching. Attempts to develop new ideas whilst working within the constraints of a failed methodology is not my idea of a correct way forward.

  9. The Real Madrid-Bayern Munich Champions’ League tie on Wednesday night underlined the vital importance of penetrations, as opposed to purely possession, as John has aluded to many times on this blog. Casillas was called into serious action only once, to save save Goetze’s shot in the closing minutes.
    Bayern have very good, techncally gifted players and you can see the influence of Guardiola as they move the ball around with a very good passing style. But it lacks the pace at which it was performed during his time at Barcelona. I mean the pace at which the ball is turned from congested areas into space to release players into open areas and goal scoring situations.Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets and co. were brought up from their earliest years at La Masia. Their tika taka style was ingrained from when they were little more than infants and Guardiola faces a different task altogether in reproducing a similar standard with mature professionals, no matter how good they are.
    So maybe it will be many years before we see a team to rival Barcelona of 2009 – 2011.

    • Hi Steve. I thought Guardiola, should have started or introduced Muller earlier into the game. Bayern’s difference with Barca is their ability to get more crosses of all types into the box. Bayern’s 9 seemed unable to cope as a lone striker and there was a need for a more influential attacker to partner him. I think the game in Munich might be extremely difficult for Real— it will be interesting to say the leeast!

      • I agree that at the Bernabeu Bayern lacked penetration, craft, guile, creativity and moved the ball slowly – there wasn’t a change in tempo also.

        I think Pep’s Bayern rely a lot on the individual play of Ribery and Robben from wide areas but lack the craft of Pep’s Barca from central areas. But Pep’s Bayern can make use of the aerial ball and cross due to the reliance of wingers and the height of their players. No doubt Pep’s Bayern will never able to produce the football of Pep’s Barca due the Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets factor. I also feel Bayern’s centre backs can’t bring the ball out in the same way Pique, Bartra or Puyol can. Jurgen Klopp opted for a high intense press recently at Munich – Boateng and Dante lacked the skills when opposed/pressed.

        But Pep is very aware that portraying his philosophy (a Latin style combined with Cruyff’ism) is difficult to implement in Germany and if successful in Germany will try to implement it here also. I think once Lewandowski joins Bayern they will have a forward who can make the width play worthwhile.

        The criticism Pep has received since the Real game from Germany and the UK sickens me though. Yes there was a lack of penetration and spontaneity but he did the one thing I feel Real and Chelsea are OBLIGED TO DO – USE THE BALL, GOVERN THE BALL, HAVE THE COURAGE TO PLAY ATTACKING FOOTBALL.

        Real have spent vast amounts of millions on attacking players (Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema) and on creative players such as Isco, Alonso and Modric. They have the trickery of Di Maria, the attacking intent from left back of Marcelo and in Ramos they have a player who can strike accurate diagonal passes and who is technically skilled enough to being the ball out. But Real refuse to play a possession attacking game and this makes a mockery of how they are coached by Mourinho and now Ancelotti – both lacking courage. Pep has received criticism of how his teams boss the ball but people forget that to have 60-70 percent possession stats week in week out is not easy – its very very difficult. He has been brave to experiment and try things.
        – he introduced Pedro and Busquets to the first team at Barca from the B team
        – his Barca team played football perceived as high risk in front of their own goal
        – his goal keepers have the confidence to receive passes outside the box
        – he has used Lahm in a new role
        – recently he has tried to use the full backs in a tucked position as teams had started to overload defensively in wide areas – so he has reacted to unclog that area, create a numerical advantage in midfield and give more space to Ribery and Robben.

        I have to mention one particular coach and club again – Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool. They have not spent the same money as Real, Chelsea and many others and yet they have arguably played the best football all season across Europe through quality coaching. Rodgers has got Liverpool playing in a variety of styles, variety of formations, players able to play in a variety of positions and players able to turn the ball, open up the pitch and penetrate

        “if somebody’s got money or no money, you play 11 against 11 and a sack of money never scored a goal” Johan Cruyff

  10. Thanks John, I do believe however, that this site has the most ERUDITE and INTELLIGENT thought provoking comments in English on the internet. I would be interested what ‘die hard’ FA men think about your clever ideas. As I am sure many will read them on a regular basis.

    I for one come on here every day to read and assimilate the points made.

  11. Hi Brazil94….
    I think that ” die hard FA men”, among others, pick up on John’s ideas. On many of the FA courses and CPD events you can detect many bits and pieces of what John has delivered and written about over the years. What is lacking is the progressive and structured coaching scheme that you find in Premier Skills. It is all very well lifting technical points and exercises from various sources, but it has all to be put together so that there is linkage with each of the levels and the trainee coach is taken on a journey, aware of where it is all leading, from day one. The same is the case with the young player when he/she is working at the hands of a coach, well educated and skilled in the Premier Skills methodology.
    Unfortunately, the FA Coaching Scheme, whilst containing many good technical points and ideas, does not yet have this progression and linkage leading to a final outome.

  12. Hi Dav I am a Guardiola fan and agree entirely with your comments. However, in the game against Real recently they achieved a high possession count but did little in opening Real’s defence on the night. They have an advantage over Barca……aerial power and they must be prepared to use it more efectively against ‘park the bus’ situations.

    • I agree John, the aerial route must be adopted to unlock ultra defensive teams or even high pressing teams. Sometimes wide players are pushed on their weaker foot resulting in a poor cross or non penetrative short pass. Maybe all players must be taught to either ne 2 footed or have the skill to whip crosses in with the outside of the foot (dying skill). The scoop ball often used by Michael Laudrup and Ronaldinho and in Futsal should be used as an aerial penentration and third man runs with lay offs from various parts of the body. When Bayern cross the ball they hardly have a player arriving late from central areas also.

      As Guardiola says “everything is about the ball” but have we in football missed a trick! Yes it should be controlled with skill, artisty, control, movement and control but these principles must be applied to the aerial ball also.

      Liverpool today against an ultra organised motivated Chelsea used the aerial ball with crosses, but more in desperation than with craft.

      • At 2-2 this evening, Villareal defended deep and Barca penentrated with aerial route, wonderful scoop pass by Sergio Busquets to create winning goal for Messi.

  13. Hi Dav…
    Re your observation about Bayern Munich and their tucked in full backs. It was noticeable last season that when out of possession the Bayern full backs came inside and made it a very narrow back four, about the width of the penalty area, making penetrtation of their central area extemely difficult. The wingers, Robben and Ribery, put in a tremendous amount of running, sprinting to get back into those full back-type positions to defend and then breaking forward to attack when Bayern regained possession. I remember them using these tactics to devastating effect in the Champions’ League semi final matches with Barcelona. Guardiola has taken this approach, introduced by Heynkes, a step further by not just tucking the full backs in, but pushing them further forward into midfield, as you say “to create a numerical advantage in midfield and give more space to Ribery and Robben” thereby unclogging the wide areas.
    Hi John….
    Whilst asisting with a Eurosport commentary recently, Stewart Robson mentioned that you did exactly the same thing when coaching the England Youth Team about 30 years ago, in which he played,i.e. full backs pushed forward but into narrower midfield positions.
    Just shows that supposedly new ideas are often, in fact, re-cylcled old ones!

  14. In the build-up to their Champions’ League semi final 2nd leg match last night with Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola pointed out that in Germany the players, and fans, largely favour a counter attacking game because that is what they are familiar with. It is a simlar situation in England. Guardiola built his great Barcelona team by dominating possession. They mesmerised the opposition with their tiki taka, probing ceaselessly for openings and when one appeared they mercilessly exploited it.
    I have read, now that Guardiola is receiving criticism because of recent results, that he pays insufficient attention to defensive play. But I think this is wrong. In England, Brendan Rodgers is the closest in employing similar methods to those of Guardiola. When he coached Swansea and took them into the Premier League, I remember him explaining that he had to convince his players that they should persevere with their possession-based game, even in the top division, as much as a defensive strategy as an attacking one. As Rodgers pointed out, the more they retained possession the less chance there was of the opponents hurting them. If they had given up possession frequently by employing a more direct, percentage game, based on long passes, then he explained that they would soon become exhausted in constantly chasing about trying to get the ball back.
    Mourinho frustrated Rodgers on Sunday with his defensive tactics at Anfield, just as he did in 2010 with his Inter Milan team againt Guardiola’s Barcelona in that Champions’ League semi final. Already the knives are out for Guardiola in Munich after last night’s defeat, but it is to be hoped that the Bayern hierarchy will show the necessary patience because I have no doubt that Guardiola will get it right in the end, given sufficient time.

  15. when meeting roger wilkinson a few years ago and done my pp level 1 i thought i had to rip all my notes papers etc from previous fa courses,love this blog and your book football for the brave

  16. Great article John and a fantastic response Dav on the comment about coaches need to be teachers, and allow the players to make mistakes and guide them (guided discovery teaching style) to find answers to their mistakes. I am a PE teacher and I use the premier skills methodology of coaching in so many different sports because to me Premier Skills is common sense coaching, which can be adapted to any invasion sport game.

    Myself, along with George Curry (both ex Birmingham City Academy coaches) and Roger Wilkinson are currently out in New Zealand really trying to push and promote Premier Skills. New Zealand football are starting to take note of what we are doing and allowing me and George to deliver Premier Skills session within New Zealand Academy sessions to their elite boys, with the view of implementing Premier Skills across New Zealand at their national skill centres which is fantastic!

    These blogs are being used as football homework for the teams we coach to enable them to have a greater understanding of what we are trying to achieve with them. What you guys are writing is fantastic and so informative! I have learnt so much reading these along with my players and their parents, so keep it up guys!

  17. I apologise for skimming through the comments, so if this has been mentioned previously. sorry.

    I think the main thing to be addressed, is FEAR. Sometimes there is a tendency to overcoach, reinforcing the negative, rather than introducing a problem to be solved, and allowing players time to work it out out for themselves.

    this is also important in allowing a natural communication to be learned, between players. Whether it be natural leaders taking charge, or those best positioned to give instructions.

    By playing small sided games, not only are the touches on the ball increased,the player accepting responsibility for communication can also be rotated.
    In a 4v4 situation this allows each player 1/4 of the time time to assess the game as a whole. This can then be translated into there time in possession where they become more used to “scanning” the game before receiving the ball.

    This understanding of the game around them and the problems faced by players in other position should,hopefully, increase the overall understanding of what might happen next. should that be an opn body position or a closed one. which will also be made more clear by the, more understanding players around them.

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