Wasted Years!

For over 50 years I have attempted to bring attention on the lack of playing qualities of Central Defensive players. From the days of poor playing surfaces to the pristine pitches of today the playing standards displayed by central defensive players has been little more than abysmal.

It seems that these positions only relate to defensive requirements and anything beyond this is of limited importance. The main ‘weapons in the armoury’ of central back players seems to be headed and kicked clearances —– usually straight back to the opposition. I am not suggesting that domination in the air or clearing dangerous situations isn’t important, but there are so many times when more playing qualities are possible and not produced.


In today’s game there has been a progression towards possession football in which gk’s, full-backs and central defenders in particular are finding they are having a huge amount of time on the ball. This extra time usually occurs in their own defensive third and often against a limited number of opposing players. Even with the space and time available to them there is a woeful lack of individual skill and creativity from back players in this area and the paucity in their playing quality is magnified for all to see as opportunities to develop play forward  more effectively are not utilized. Large spaces between opposing attacking players are left un-penetrated by either positive forward runs with the ball or forward passes into their mid-field or front players; lack of playing quality produces only simplistic decisions usually resulting in passes going sideways and backwards or with the ball hit hopefully forward into a ‘fight’ upfield.

Many will say that central back players must be defensive-minded above all else; and of course this must be their priority. However, the game should be played by players with all-round skills that produces rotational movement into attacking and defensive roles thus allowing more attacking opportunities to be taken whilst defensive cover is provided at the same time.


For most central defenders the ‘venture’ into the opposition’s half of the field requires ‘a road map’ — it’s undiscovered territory!  Chances for central back players to (a) add overload opportunities to the mid-field ‘battleground’ or (b) shorten the passing distances between themselves and their front players, go unused in the main. It is a lack of all-round playing quality and game understanding that is the reason for non-utilizing such obvious playing advantages.

Formalized coaching dogma has produced players for the game who are replicas of the past. This mediocre ‘sameness’ in playing ability must end. We must improve individual skill and game perception for all parts of the team. Movement, both forward into an attacking phase or backwards to cover defensive gaps should they occur, must be part and parcel of our game in the future. Our central defenders must no longer be ‘fixed oaks’ at the back but become all-round football artisans of the game who are able to deploy their skills with great effect in back areas, mid-field or up front.

Let’s develop our own ‘Beautiful Game’ that is played by football artisans and not the ‘lumps of wood’ we see so much of today.


18 thoughts on “Wasted Years!

  1. Central defenders have always been in the best position to initiate and continue attacks when receiving short passes from the goalkeeper, because they have rarely been marked. Franz Beckenbauer exploited this situation for club and country many years ago and others, usually abroad, followed his example. In England, except in the case of Bobby Moore, central defenders were for many years simply stoppers and required to do little else than mark a central striker tightly and clear their lines. At West Ham in the sixties, Moore frequently brought the ball forward out of defence and helped set up numerous goals. But for England, Moore played with the greater emphasis on defence because Sir Alf Ramsey had a much more cautious approach then Moore’s club manager, Ron Greenwood.
    At last in England the official FA Coaching approach is to play out from defence, to a great extent due to the influence of the great Barcelona and Spain sides of recent years. Many teams in the development area of football, from the England youth teams at various age groups to the academy teams at many Premier League clubs, are seeking to build up from the back with the keeper passing or rolling a short pass to a back four colleague and then attempting to play the ball through the thirds of the pitch down to the opponents’ goal.
    However, from what I have observed, there is now a problem with decision making. In their FA Youth Cup Final, 1st leg, last night, against Chelsea, Man City frequently put themselvs in trouble with the keeper looking to make short passes to a defensive team mate when the opposition, knowing this to be the City game plan, had squeezed up on their back players and so they were receiving passes under immediate pressure. In this situation the City keeper and back players failed to see beyond the pressure and then play longer passes to front players where the greater space now existed.Play longer passes to a striker and then get players around him in support. Of course, we want the central defenders to begin and continue constructive attacks, but they must be aware of where the space and low pressure is and therefore be correct in their decsion making.
    Similarly, central midfield players are killing the space of their central defenders by dropping too close to them when they have the ball, instead of of moving away and allowing the central defenders to come forward into midfield with the ball and continue the attack. These midfield players seem to want a short pass from the central defender and build from there, but they are doing nothing that a central defender clould not do and instead they could be moving away into more advanced and dangerous positions.

  2. Hi Steve. I agree with all that you have said. However, the problems at the back that are causing poor decisions from back players is the result of the lack of a correct development program. We produce positional players before first concentrating on producing skillful individualist. Once players are comfortable on the ball and with the requirements of the game, judgements can be made on the best role(s) that are suitable for players. The skillful game of football requires skillful players not ‘robotic simplistics’ as we see coming through the past and present development ‘mincer’.

  3. Simple rule changes in the 7 and 9 aside formats would help
    e,g gk not allowed to drop kick ball, only throw or pass on the ground, remove the mini 6 yard box in 9 aside, have a 5 metre retreat line.
    That’s what the strayan football has done and you get a better game style at a younger age rip the 2nd ball game of the past.

    • Hi Dirk. I fully agree with changes to area siizes and team numbers. But do not forget that the game should be an ‘examination’ of the practical work the players are involved in at the same time. Too often this transferrence does not happen and players of all ages fail to recognize where the practice fits in.
      At Premier Skills, i devised the Homebase Game that supplied a gradual increase in space,opposition and targets that applied to the practical work involved at the time.
      Thinking about coaching methods and how to adapt them to improve player understanding and improvement is vital. I wish you all the best in your efforts to produce better players for our game.

  4. Hi Dirk…
    The FA have recently introduced a ‘retreat line’ in childrens’ Mini-Soccer which is the half way line. When the keeper has possesion of the ball, the opposing team must go back to their own half and cannot cross the half way line until the ball has come back into play, in a bid to encourage some form of playing out from the back.
    However, this only delays an uncontrolled chaos situation, because when the ball goes back into play the opposition rush forward around the player in possession. What has not been introduced are ‘safe areas’, as in Premier Skills, where players can go in possessio or to receive the ball, without being challenged and pick their moment to re-enter the fray.

    • Hi Steve. Your use of the word ‘chaos’ sums up the lack of intelligent thought on our young player development. Time after time we have seen numerous failed ‘tweakings’ of coaching methods by well-intentioned, but ill-informed people at the ‘top’ of development here. They have not studied the game from junior to senior levels to see what are the main reasons for poor our development.
      As i have said so often and repeat once again, ” unless the foundations of the game are applied correctly the development of high playing standards is unobtainable”!

  5. With reference to the subject of this latest article – the improvement in playing qualities of the modern central defender – then, of course, the Premier Skills innovation of a ‘home base’ for a back player to drop into unopposed to receive a back pass, would be excellent. This would be an ideal introduction for defenders to initiate a new attack with a thoughtful, constructive pass and also briniging the ball out of defence to join the play further up the field.The home base area markings could easily be incorporated on the existing small pitches.

    • Hi Steve. I learned quickly from my time working with very young players that their main problem when playing the game as the finale of organized practice sessions was that they could not create the time and space in which to perform the work they had just completed during the practice period. The game became a tangled mess! It was because of this that i decided to create spaces and targets that had been used during the practice period for the youngsters and introduce them into the small-sided, competitive game to finish the coaching sessions. The effect was immediate, with the transfer of practice into the competitive game making it a thoughtful and recognisable extension of the earlier practical work. Instead of tangled mess, the game became one of skills and game understanding and an important step along the pathway to improving player development.

  6. I think that Thierry Henry was out of order last Wednesday on Sky Sports when he criticised Javier Hernandz for over-celebrating his winning goal for Real Madrid against Atletico Madrid in the Champions’ League 1/4 final, instead of making a bee-line for Ronaldo who admittedly set up the goal. Henry believed, unfairly I think, that this was really Ronaldo’s goal.
    Henry should have explained and acknowledged the fine work which Hernandez contributed and the Mexican striker provided an excellent example to all young players who were watching. As Ronaldo cut in from the right with the ball, Hernandez was in the Real goal area, surrounded by defenders. By stepping away from the 6 yard box at just the right moment, as Ronaldo looked up, Hernandez put himself in space and so was able to slot away the pass that he received from Ronaldo.
    Recognising space and timing movement into it are vital in the coaching of young players and Henry should have praised Hernandez for his perfect example of this.

  7. Defenders playing th ball out from the back is useless if their holding midfielder and wingers are marked,th SCIENCE is…to educate wingers and holding midfielders to “take their marker for a walk”,whilst YOUR goalkeeper is in possession.As far “up the pitch” as possible,then as the ball is in motion goin from keeper to defender.YOU steal a march on your “marker” and retreat 5-10 yards.as YOUR DEFENDER receives the ball,you will be able to “show for your defender” allowing him to “play out from th back”,As you have just become YOUR DEFENDERS “outball”!!
    As YOu (winger or holding midfielders)receive the ball off your defender,your attacking unit SHOULD have been drilled to hav been “taking their marker for a walk” (away from wingers and holding midfielders).Then as th ball is travelling from defender to winger or holding midfielders,th closest memeber of YOUR attacking unit Returns to th “vacated space”,whilst “showing for th ball”,HOPEFULLY stealing a few yards on their “previously walked marker”…I designed a training excersize giving each player 2 cones (starting cone & Space creating cone),having them learning to move as a team in a “real match scenario”,As a ex-pro I hav witnesses many complex passing excersizes,which struggled to be implemented on match day!! I use a “actor learning their lines/script” analogy,if match day is when th “cameras are rolling”,then midweek training is where you learn th EXACT script/lines.complex “multi-ball” training drills are hardly th script for simply moving as a team and anticipate 2nd balls”,whilst being educated in where to be in every transition in possession,most ENGLISH players struggle to implement the tools they are given in training,because they arent educated on what their newly learned tool/skill is for,and most importantly often use th wrong tool for th job.
    Basic “Real-match scenarios” training excersizes need to be used,also positional education on where to be/go in transitions of possesion,In theory expanding “in possession” and contracted “on loosing the ball” is how its done,basic F.A. LVL 1 stuff,but which player “govens” which zone and how to hold a “clean” defensive line,are incorporated with th result being a that you loose what i call “headless chicken syndrome”…I am hoping to turn “my football” into my career,but dont know where to turn!!

  8. In 2009 biiterne youth U13s finished bottom of th lowest division inSouthampton-TYRO leagues (LOSING 12/13 games),Having th label as the worst team in their age group suggests CHAOS throughout,the forthcoming pre season I Coached the EXACT same players with my football philosophy,they challenged promotion winning 12/16!!
    If My previous post spikes your curiosity,I would be very greatful, to be given the chance to further explain my different ideas on how I turned Southamptons worst U13s team,into a outfield unit,resembling a basketball-like team movements,and treating “90 mins” like a boxing match spending th 1st couple rounds (10-20 mins) “feeling your opponent out” then move your opponent into a position of vulnerability before striking/attacking,knowing not to “punch yourself out”,so the remaining 20-25 mins of a football half is “managed”,.
    also I improved players technical ability (shooting) in several ways.such as,”topspin” creation likened to a tennis player needing th ball to “come back down”,topspin will make the football ARC up then down,deceiving the goalkeeper by looking like a “shot into orbit” then at half distance it drops given the keeper little chance to react!!..this is SIMPLY done by “kneeing yourself” in the face UPON striking the ball with MAXIMUM velocity!!I wont bore you with how I line up a shot but please check youtube (search “seanalmighty freekick montage”) THANK YOU for reading

  9. Arsenal 1st team coach, Neil Banfield, put on an excellent defending session, “1v1 Defending”, at the London Football Coaches Association on Monday night.
    If we are going to progress the game in this country then the points of technical skill which were coached must be adopted nationally at all levels of the game. We are simply not producing defenders who can confidently deal with 1v1 situations and so a covering colleague is always of paramount importance. This obviously restricts the number of players which a team can commit to attacking positions. Barcelona are the most exciting team to watch in the world, not only because they have great attacking players, but also because they have defenders like Pique and Mascharano who can comfortably remain one on one at the back without the need for a permanent covering player. And if a back player goes forward to start and continue an attack then Busquets is ideally placed to drop back in as rotation.
    It was fascinating to study the coaching points which Neil Banfield raised in very simple situations common to all levels of the game. Breaking the coaching down into working with the players in pairs, he took time to emphasise the vital technical points of the defender getting his back foot in line with the ball and also using that back foot to swivel on when jockeying the ball carrier as the ball was moved from side to side. The defender’s front foot must be outside the line of ball and this positioning of the feet and the defender’s crouched stance, enables the defender to perform his jockeying action. Guiding the ball carrier into areas where the defender wanted him to go is basic in the defernder’s armoury, but I think that we are neglecting the coaching of this at many levels in this country.
    It is all very well wanting our defenders to be strong and powerful and make crunching tackles, but football is a battle of wits and the defender’s role is just as much an art as that of the tricky forward.

    • You need to teach this at a young age,hence in the 7 and 9 aside FFA stipulate the formations 3-3 and 3-2-3 to be used for development, so that every player has 1 v1 whether in attack or defence.

  10. Hi Dirk…. You are right to stress that we need “to teach this at a young age”. I find that many young players of 16 years of age have never even been coached the rudiments of defending. They are completely unaware of adopting the correct stance and adjusting their feet correctly. They have been led to believe that hurtling into tackles is the answer and even at the highest levels we regularly see players lunging into opponents to regain possession, often resulting in serious injuries.

  11. Hi Steve

    Where I despair is as you say they have been led to believe … citing that although they presumably watch – or go to the matches – for example Chelsea re Arsenal they FAlL to notice that the exaulted Terry rarely goes to ground and generally remains on his feet. They fail to watch intelligently!!

  12. So right john.
    F. A. Chairmanship beckons.
    We have stagnated for 30-40 years. Whilst our rivals are growing stronger. Due to the composition of national and international tournaments, we delude ourselves every two years that this is our big chance. That ship has long sailed. We are now a mid table championship side, like nottm. Forest and Leeds who have had their glory but never to be repeated. If the competitions were run yearly like our domestic football the suits in the F. A. Would be stunned into resigning after the flack they would get. But no. Let the money roll in from whoever calls the tune and sod the game. Rich get richer etc.
    I was so lucky in those formative years you mention to have had a classroom teacher to be in charge of the schools football team!!! He was tough but fair and if you did the business on a Saturday afternoon he really appreciated it. But society gets what society wants. Pitches dug up for housing. Teachers workload can’t include football training out of school. Was probably 1 in a 10,000 uk kids that would make it to premiership level. Now probably 1 in 250,000. Cheaper options from abroad of athletes who can run all day. No career path now for aspiring uk kids. Will take 20 years to get a team in a semi-final now. From Steve. Street football kid in the sixties

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