By John Cartwright

I am often asked, “Did you go to University; and which one was it?” My reply, not facetiously given, is, “ yes — the University of the Street.” Like thousands of players I grew up with the street and congested school playgrounds as my football ‘classroom’. In both of these playing areas lack of space was the overriding aspect with high numbers of players in  numerous games in all directions being played at the same time. But the lack of space was something that had to be overcome and a simple but important playing phenomenon displayed itself —- movement sideways provided more space and playing options than a direct approach through more congested areas.  The space gained and the increased playing options was like unlocking a route through a difficult maze and finding the exit. I have always attempted to re-create the limited space situations of the past into my coaching methods for I believe that ‘street learning’ was special and only PREMIER SKILLS COACHING METHODS have been able to replicate its qualities despite 60 plus years of futile attempts by our National Association.


Recently, sideways movement in team-play and from individuals within the team has been brilliantly displayed by Barcalona FC. They have introduced a sideways passing approach to their game with preparatory possession across all four play-round zones of the field; in conjunction with this their players are prepared to run the ball across opposing defenders rather than directly at them —Lionel Messi, the world’s best player is an expert.

“Sideways!” I can hear people exclaim, “you don’t score goals going sideways, you score goals by going forward!” and they are absolutely correct. However, what we have failed to recognize in football is the other simple fact —-  spaces created during preparatory play provides forward, penetrative opportunities for attacking teams that can be utilized quickly from all parts of the field increasing attacking opportunities and goal-scoring chances. Our direct approach has meant the game becoming more of a physical battle than a skilful contest and because we are not experienced ‘ball-keepers’ the sudden introduction of possession football into our game has produced a mis-application of the playing qualities required.

Sideways football has become a boring feature in our game. It has been incorrectly introduced and poorly used with a lack of positive penetration during games being a notable feature. Poorly educated players trying to play this more sophisticated game-style has seen negative possession followed by direct punts forward as penetrative situations have failed to be recognized and exploited. A serious lack of game understanding that fails to combine possession football with penetration can be seen throughout the whole of our game from youngsters to senior pros. The sudden introduction of possession football has displayed the vast lack of teaching and playing qualities we truly have here. The ‘overnight’ introduction of the ‘Barcalona style’ into our game is often more a comedy act than a crucial change in playing style.


The use of ‘keep-ball’ methods has not been fully understood and is misused leading to a ‘half-priced’ version that does little to exemplify its real qualities as displayed by so many other countries abroad. Even Barcalona, have had difficulties in exploiting the gaps their ‘Tiki-Taki’ game-style produced, but the individual playing qualities of so many of their squad managed to bring victories over several years. But nothing stays the same forever and Barcalona, found the lack of penetration in their game against ‘park-the-bus’ defending made it essential that more emphasis was placed on positive end products from their long bouts of possession play. They are in the process at this time of improving the combination of ‘keep-ball’ with more penetration —a positive version of ‘keep-ball’ —- eg. SNEAK-BALLartful preparation with fast ‘smash and grabs at the goodies’(gaps),— might be the simplest way to describe their present attempts to forge a more positive, combined game-style . They still lack a powerful presence in the air however!

Within the possession-focused game , the need to change the direction of play and to move attacking action from side to side is vital, for during these sideways movements the spaces that occur between opposing players are there to be breached with forward passes or individual runs with the ball. Without positive exploitation of these created gaps possession football is a faulty playing style; frustrating the watcher, falsifying the statistics of the game and misjudging mediocrity as good or even great! To play the difficult game of Association Football well—it’s not easy as so many non-players mention—individual playing skills and tactical understanding must be progressively learned from very junior levels. In this way changes in playing styles along with individual skills can be performed more quickly and effectively.

25 thoughts on “Sideways

  1. Very interesting read …it was so different in the playground..the whole school played at the same time and that was junior that Mr cartwrigjt coached at in Bethnal Green..many thanks for your early years of coaching

  2. Another great posting from Sir John! Many thanks indeed. What you are saying is highly relevant to the current debate in English football. Brendan Rodgers has been trying to educate his players in understanding the importance of penetration and a variation of styles. Hopefully his long-term project at Liverpool will not be derailed by the pressure to get instant ‘success’.

  3. Hello John A very interesting post and something I have been thinking about. I have a couple of points:

    Every sideways movement at any time a player ‘receives’ could open up positive penetration.

    Penetration is not just the ‘behind the defence ball’ but also ‘behind the players immediately in front of the player in possession’.

    Sideways movement can be obtained through angled passes or runs with the ball.

    The ability to pass ‘quickly and early- one and two touch’ should not be ignored.

    Receiving sideways-on improves lateral ball circulation, and allows screening.

    The positioning of the wide players enables greater flexibility regarding the false 9 aka the deep-lying cf, and provides space for sideways passing.

    And not forgetting that overplaying possession football still allows for positive forward exploitation as long as the possession is ‘solidly maintained.’ Although the ‘trick’ is too recognise the opportunity to penetrate forward with quality rather than becoming frustrated and ‘punt’ the ball forward as you state John.

    As a comparison, I watched an 86 stroke rally between Borg and Villas on the Internet and you can see how Borg attempts to penetrate, settles again, controls and then picks his moment to pressure the point by moving Villas around eventually using depth. A truly great example of’ controlled patience’.

  4. Many teams at various levels play possession games in training to simply count how many passes they can achieve before possession is lost. Consequently, there is no end product and this is reflected when they go into their match play. It is the number of ‘penetrations’ which is important, rather than the number of passes. This is emphasised in the Small Area Pracice of the early work in Level 1 of Premier Skills, when a player cannot release a pass until he has gone through, i.e. ‘penetrated’, an open gate when running with the ball.
    In an interesting new book, ‘Coaching The Tika Taka Style of Play’ by Jed C. Davies, the coach in charge of Youth Development at Wigan Athletic, during the management of Roberto Martinez, points out that they never do possession practices in which the total number of passes is an end in itself; there must be an end product resulting from penetration which was achieved by possession.At Wigan they are working at creating overload situations and exploiting that from their possession play. The Wigan Youth Coach also points out that possession practices purely to build up a total number of passes also results in poor execution of transitions.
    I also notice that the ‘rondo’ practice, used extensively by Barcelona in recent years, has been copied and adopted by many teams in this country.The players pass the ball around in a circle whilst two defenders, in the middle, attempt to gain possession. However, the practice is performed in isolation and merely ‘lifted’ and put in as a warm up activity. The point is missed as to where it actucally fits in with Barcelona’s training. The way it is being done here is mainly as a static exercise and there is no movement because the players around the circle pass and stand still, without any pass and move element.

  5. Hi Brazil 94. You are correct about quality of penetrations being vital. However, first things first; let’s get our players seeing penetrative opportunities and use them more positively. Once this is achieved the ‘cleaning-up’ or improving the quality of them can then be dealt with.

  6. Hi John Thanks for that. As you see my first point addresses that ‘Every sideways movement at any time a player ‘receives’ could open up positive penetration.’ Hope you agree.

  7. There is always space on a football pitch. If the opponents press high to prevent us playing out from the back then we must look beyond the pressure and play the ball over and above the high press; so we start with a more direct route. But if the opposition drop off and and allow us to come forward then we can play more slowly and draw them forward before increasing the pace with quick, incisive, penetrative passes through chinks we create in their armoury.
    There is never just one way to play and the good coach will give his players an all-round football education in which they learn to make decisions for themselves.

  8. Recent defeats by Germany and Holland in Euro 2016 qualifying matches have underlined how difficult it is to penetrate defensive blocks set up in midfeld and defense by less skilful, but well organised, opponents. Last night, Iceland set up two strong banks of four and also followed the example of Costa Rica in the World Cup, by double, and sometimes treble, marking Robben and forcing him down the line, when he really wanted to cut inside with the ball on his lethal left foot.
    Both Germany and Holland, in my opinion, are moving the ball too slowly and so are failing to open up holes in the ‘blocks’. When Bacelona were sweeping all before them, they shifted the ball with bewildering speed and as soon as a hole appeared the ball went in there for a clinical finish.
    Spain may have flopped in the World Cup with Germany and Holland taking two of the first three places, but I think that predictions of the demise of tiki taka have been badly misplaced.

  9. According to the report of the FA Commission, Dan Ashworth is responsible for establishing a National Playing Style. We are not told what this playing style will be and how it will be rolled out to coaches at present holding FA qualifications or who plan to go on courses in the future.
    When the FA introduced the Youth Modules I expected these to project an identifiable playing style so that everyone, from grassroots childrens’ teams up to those coaching elite academy players at Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd etc, would have a structure laid down so that everyone would be building houses from similar foundations.
    This has not happened and from my own experience the Youth Modules have not fulfilled this purpose. Will the content of the present courses be radically altered or will the FA produce more of their CPD events describing this playing style and how it should be implemented?

  10. Borussia Dortmund are hovering just above the relegation zone in the Bundesliga. This is very disappointing for a team that has has been the only real challengers to Bayern Munich in Germany during recent years. Their decine appears to have coincided with the the loss of striker Robert Lewandowski to Bayern. Not only was the Pole a prolific scorer for Dortmund but he was the principle figure in their ‘gegenpressing’ tactic (counter pressing) which they perfected and handed out some hammerings to teams like Real Madrid and Man City in the Champions’ League.
    Gegenpressing differs from high pressing in that the opponents’ centre half is allowed to bring the ball forward to about midway in his own half before the striker engages him and forces him to play the ball to one side of his team. The wide midfielder presses the ball there in an attempt to win it back. The compactness achieved gives the opponents little chance to make progress and there is less space behind the pressing team’s defence than there is when a team is engaged in high pressing. Any ball played in there can be intercepted by an alert and intelligent keeper-sweeper.
    So losing a centre forward of the all-round qualities of Lewandowski is bound to be a severe blow for Dortmund.

  11. HI Steve. Your point about the delivery of longer passes in behind teams who either play a high line or remain deeper and stay compact is correct. However the placing of longer passes as mentioned should not go down central areas but towards wide areas where opponents can be ‘locked in’ should they gain possession. Lewandowski was also excellent in the air which justifies my earlier ‘blog’ on Heading and its importance in the game.

  12. Everyone marvelled at Real Madrid’s football in the Champions’ League match against Liverpool on Wednesday night. Is it conceivable that English players could reproduce similar quality in the foreseable future, especially bearing in mind the goal from a superb dinked pass from Rodriguez and brilliant finish by Ronaldo?
    We are not aiming at real quality in our coaching and stopping short of giving the players a real understanding of the game. The use of play rounds is a vivid example. We are using this method purely to work the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. Of course that is one of the benefits, but i find few coaches who are really trying to coach the players to identify the vtal chink in the opponents’ armoury as the ball is shifted sidewards across the field, so that a sudden forward penetrative pass can be made to put a player in. Or, alternatively, as in the case of Messi, the player in possession himself accelerates through the hole, having recognised the space with lightening speed.
    instead, we keep possession as the opponents simply shift their players across the field and more often than not the attack ends with the usual high cross.

  13. Hi all. The most important aspect of being a football coach is not just about knowing about things but how to make them happen.

  14. Barcelona were well beaten by Real Madrid in last night’s ‘classico’ and Barcelona’s great era of superlative football seems to be at an end. It is to be hoped that they can produce another generation of players from their academy system, so that Barca can again take their place at the forefront of Europe’s leading clubs. But it will be a difficult job and one can only hope that new coach, Luis Enrique, is given sufficient time.
    After the match, i thought that former Barca player, Eidur Gudjohnsen, made a crucial point when he said Pep Guardiola continually stressed in training that the player must always be arriving in space as the ball came; they should not be there before the ball and so be waiting for it. Ron Greenwood used to say – “space is only space until you run into it”. Gudjohnsen was commenting on the static nature of Barcelona’s play, far removed from the pass and move style and third man running which characterised their great team.
    So we shall see if Enrique, as well as “knowing about things” also knows “how to make them happen”.

  15. Hi all. I see that ARSENE WENGER of Arsenal FC is praising the qualities of Street Football and bemoaning its loss in many parts of the world, especially in Europe. What a pity he and our blind leaders at the FA had not looked and listened to me about the Street Game over the past half century. PREMIER SKILLS COACHING is the only coaching method that combines street football in a modern coaching context. I wish that the fear, greed and ignorance that is displayed in our game by those in charge of it could be withdrawn for a spell and some common sense prevail about development and the importance of street football qualities be recognized.

  16. Hi John…..I have just read a recently published book called ‘Universality’. The author, Matthew Whitehouse, describes the constantly changing tactical methods in football over the last 20 years. He believes that we are heading swiftly to a game in which fixed positions in a team will become obsolete. In other words, a team will consist of multi purpose players, at the expense of specialists, first foreseen in 1953 by Dr. Willy Meisl in his book ‘Soccer Revolution’, written shortly after Hungary had beaten and humiliated England 6-3 at Wembley. Of coaches currently working in the game, Whitehouse names Guardiola, Bielsa and van Gaal as being the closest to developing this type of game. It was the Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi, who coined the word ‘Universality’ to describe a team of muti purpose players whereas Meisl described it as ‘The Whirl’.Sacchi himself was very much on the road to such a development with his AC Milan team but as the 20th century drew to a close he had become concerned about the over specialisation in team positioning in most of the leading teams. But since the turn of the century the work of the above named coaches has heartened him and the feeling is that ‘Universality’ or ‘The Whirl’, call it what you will, is in sight.
    It will require players of the highest levels of technical skill and intelligence and the disappearnce of street football in so many parts of the world is the biggest threat to the objective. So the young player develoment methods are of the greatest importance. The flexibility and fluidity of Bayern Munich’s play suggests that the Germans are the closest to the fulfillment of this dream.

  17. I thought that Bayern Munich gave another fine exhibition last night iin the Champions’ League match against Roma. The commentators expressed the opinion that this wasn’t the “champagne football” which Bayern produced when they won 7-1 in Rome, but they forgot in that match the Italian team threw men forward and left gaps at the back which Bayern ruthlessly exploited. Last night it was clear that Roma were determined not to end up on that kind of scoreline again and so they kept players back in defence in numbers and made things much more difficult. But the Guardiola trademark of a player running into space as the ball arrives was a feature of the match, together with Bayern’s rotational play, and though many will say that Real Madrid are the best team in Europe, I should think that Pep Guardiola will be desperate to get his revenge on them after last season’s semi-final humiliation.Bayern Munich – Real Madrid would be a great Final!

  18. You know quite simply when watching the highly technically individuals who combine in Europe/South America and present a much different game to that in Britain… one can only say in the clearest terms that English football has decade after decade sold the watching public and the players short… Criminal!

  19. The most important coaches are those who are trying to change football and seek to explore limitless possibilities to develop the play and tactical understanding. Most coaches are attempting to simply find a winning formula for their team and establish their club, and themselves, as near to the forefront of world football as possible. There is no blame or disrespect intended towards other coaches, for everyone knows that football is a precarious occupation for those who coach/manage a team, whatever the level.
    But there are certain coaches who change the face of football. In the eighties Arrigo Sacchi was such a figure because he certainly changed the face of italian football.Until the huge success which he achieved with AC Milan in this era, all Italian teams played a heavily defensive game, based on relentless man-for-man marking and often with 9 or 10 men back behind the ball when the opposition gained possession. When Italy played West Germany in the 1970 World Cup semi final, the two teams went into extra time with the score locked at 1 – 1. But the effects of the heat and altitude became so intense that in the extra 30 minutes the two teams were too exhausted to get back in numbers to preserve the fluctuating scoreline and they traded goal for goal as the ball hit the net at both ends. The final score was 4 – 3 to Italy and it was an undeniable fact at the time that no Italian team had been involved in such a match for many years and the conditions had, ironically, forced them to show just how good as an attacking force they could actually be. But come the Final and Italy reverted to their usual safety-first tactics and in a game of one-way traffic Brazil ran out comfortable 4 – 1 winners.
    Sacchi was greatly inspired by the 1974 Dutch team, coached by Rinus Michels and based predominantly on the Ajax team of the time, also coached by Michels. The Dutch playing style was christened by the press, (not by Michels), as ‘Total-Football’ and was based on highly skilled and football-intelligent individuals conjoining as a team. Their hallmark was constant positional rotation and pressing space around the ball every time the opponents gained possession. This was an entirely different game to the one played by Italy four years earlier.The end product was actually the same – Holland, like Italy in 1970, finished as World Cup runners-up.
    But for a coach like Sacchi, the example set by Holland was a source of great inspiation and his AC Milan team some years later was the product of what he observed and learned from the Dutch. But the Dutch style was such a polar opposite to that of the italian way that it was a truly great achievement by Sacchi for the immense change that he inflicted on Italian football and, to some extent,on the football world at large.
    Like Sacchi,Pep Guardiola, first at Barcelona and now at Bayern Munich, is achieving huge success for his clubs but, more importantly, he is setting a fantastic example and inspiration for other coaches in the way that football must be developed to achieve the endless possibilities that adapting the game style brings..
    There are other coaches who win numerous titles and championships for their clubs, but Sacchi and Guardiola, together with Michels, are coaches who have an everlasting effect on the game.

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