Scrimmage Football

By John Cartwright

It is generally accepted by all countries around the world involved with Association Football that here in Great Britain we play the game with fierce determination; without doubt, this is an important ingredient for success. However, from our dismal results over the years it seems that we have not realised that success requires more than a ‘let’s-get-at-‘em’ attitude.


It seems we consider playing the game with a ‘Bull-dog’ spirit rather than with skill and intelligence as the way for us to achieve success. Sadly, over so many years, our hearts have ruled our heads and our game has become more a contest of fitness and futility instead one of consideration and appropriate decision-making.

Football is a military-styled game in which effort and bravery in all its forms is required and tested; these physical aspects must be integrated along with the skills and understanding of the game. Too often our game, devoid of sufficient skill and understanding, lurches into untidy, ‘scrimmage-type’ football as our 100% effort playing mentality overwhelms the need for patience and panache — resulting in a game-style resembling Rugby scrimmaging than flowing football !

Time after time in games we seem unable to turn the ball away from tight situations into open space and our game flounders on unnecessary ‘battles’ instead of cultured movement. There is a deceitful attempt to improve ball possession in our game — passing the ball backwards and sideways when forward play is possible; but even when space and time has been achieved there is little advantage gained as we tend to continue towards yet another ‘scrimmage’ as opponents quickly close space down and we lack the all-round playing qualities to offset their tactical pressure.

The ability to play with patience, appropriate speeds, skill and game understanding is, at the moment, probably best displayed by Barcelona FC. They have a history of producing and acquiring highly skilled individuals who are directed into the Barcelona playing methodology. Recently, they have ‘tweaked’ their game-style to incorporate more variation to their passing lengths and crossing (as I said they must several years ago in a previous ‘blog’ you may recall). Their game is built on individual abilities first with team-play as an attachment, whereas we subscribe to an opposite approach – structured team-play devoid of individual all-round ability.  All great teams over the years have had players capable of playing in tight situations who are able to change the direction of play from limited to open space when situations require them to do so. From these open spaces they are able to retain possession of the ball and exploit any attacking advantages that may become available.  Barcelona, have become equally famous for their ability as a team to close-down on opponents to regain possession should they lose the ball, but on regaining the ball it is a rare occurrence to see the game enter a scrimmage phase — once regained the ball is ‘locked back’ into their possession playing style and their game is ‘tidied-up’ in preparation for any attacking opportunity that may arise .


In comparison, our game is a ‘mish-mash’ of effort and impatience over ability and understanding leading to a tendency to ‘force’ attacking play rather than to play it with thoughtful ‘composure’.

This ‘stuttering’, battlefield style of play begins at junior levels and continues unabated through all age levels before emerging as the ‘fightball’ football that reflects our senior game.

The full title of the game of Rugby is called Rugby Football and ‘scrimmaging’ forms an important part. It might be appropriate to rename our version of Association Football to Football Rugby for we seem to closely follow the playing methods of the game with the oval ball.


15 thoughts on “Scrimmage Football

  1. Without doubt the ugly, scrimmaging style of football begins at junior levels and with the disappearance of street football, continues into the senior end of the game. Street football was played by two teams of often high numbers in a confined area and a feature was how the better players were able to turn the ball away from congestion into space and so exhibited their skill. Bravery was necessary to take the bone-jarring knocks but skill blossomed along with the game education.
    Without a coaching methodology to replace this street learning, young players have progressed into senior football having acquired physicality instead of it being combined with a technical education, which would have been learnt in the playing environment in which past generations, whilst growing up, experienced the game.

  2. Hi all. We certainly seem to have a deep-seated problem with our game when it comes to positive ball retension. We are very poor when it comes to extricating ourselves from ‘battle’ situations. We have a strong tendecy to try to force our way out by ‘scrimmaging’ or we simply hit the ball long. The subtle manipulation if the ball and clever combination play from player to player and group to group is so often unseen as the ball is ‘struggled’ from conflict to conflict rather than effectively passed about the field…….. English ‘Bull-dog’ Spirit –not ‘Barcelona.’ brilliance.

  3. John. From what I see, the issue is mainly a fear of being on the ball. From. Joe Hart, a fear to pass to a player who may be closely marked, to the back 4 and midfield, who treat the ball like a hot potatoe. When you are only given a fraction of a second to make the decision to either stay on it , lend it to a team mate , or smash it as far as possible, the default instinct of many of our top players is to launch it. This has to come from their early development as young players.

    • Hi James, The fear we recognize in our game comes directly from poor development methods. The learning years are spent, in the vast majority of cases, with unrealistic practice methods combined with unsuitable playing infrastuctures. This disasterous combination creates a lack of playing skills and a ‘fightball’ playing style for our game. Fear, due to a lack of skills and game understanding, forces players towards simplistic ability levels and our game is left devoid of individualism and subtle, imaginative team-play. ‘Scrimmaging and scrappping’ in which aggressive play has replaced acceptable competitive standards has become a common-place aspect of the game here; —roll your sleeves up and give 110% forms the majority of the playing requirements of the game here. Where simplicity was once an option to use in football, it has now become a necessity for players who ‘attempt’ to play the game with fear — ‘sitting like a Parrot on their shoulder’.

  4. This recent quote from rugby can also be applied to the FA

    David Campese: “England have the most money, most players, still no idea.”

    • Hi Dirk. I know very little about Rugby but I must say I was shocked on watching the England v Australia game in the recent Rugby World Cup; we seemed to have nothing but brute force and ignorance. All we seemed able to do was run at the opposition, get pulled down, roll over and feed the ball to a team-mate who did exactly the same thing. Our game of football often reflects the same ‘Bull in a china shop’ playing quality.

  5. Even though ,this may seem like just a critical article, ,John drops crumbs of coaching quality that thinking coaches can take with them. We must develop young players that have;
    ‘The ability to turn the ball away from tight situations in to open space.’
    ” All round playing quality to offset critical pressure”
    ” Fierce determination is an ingredient”
    “Individual all round ability”
    He also highlights clever game style ingredients – can you as a coach;
    Develop a gamestyle “Based on on individual abilities FIRST with team play as an attachment”
    Develop players with that advanced Barcelona understanding that ‘instantly regains and tidies up possession to LOCK in to their possession playing style”

    As always an interesting and challenging article.

    • HI Roger. Hope all is well in your neck of the woods. NZ won the Rugby World Cup because they have outstanding individuals who can combine together when necessary; team-play is an attachment to their individualism. All the physical and tactical ingredients for the game can be clearly seen in their game, but the ‘icing on the cake’ is their ability to make individual decisions; that open attacking options or deny opponents offensive success.
      There’s nothing boring about NZ Rugby. They have examined the game and made the correct decisions on how to play it successfully and excitingly. We should take a long look at their ability to combine the physical, tactical and skillful aspects of the game for, as with our Football, our Rugby seems to prefer an ‘all fight and no finesse’ approach to the playing of the game.

  6. The Premier League match on Sunday, West Ham v. West Brom, provided ‘fighting’ football which you always associate with the English game but the moments of quality came from West Ham’s two Argentinians, Zarate and Lanzini. You can see from their play that in their early years the development process was so much better. The players raised in this country are full of effort and commitment but they want to rush their play and always at 100 mph. If we insist on a continually fast paced game, then how can we expect our players to think ahead and plot their way out of difficult situations?
    This is what seems to separate our promising young players from the skilful technicians like Zarate and Lanzini. Ross Barkley of Everton is undoubtedly talented but I just wonder if he will ultimately fulfil his promise. When he has time and space you can see his quality but when he is tightly marked with space at a premium his effect is greatly reduced because he seems to struggle to free himself from this tight marking. At Euro2016 this will be a critical factor.
    Back to West Ham-West Brom and the situation of West Ham’s loan player, Victor Moses, is a typical example in English football. I recall that when I saw him in the Crystal Palace youth team some years ago he looked to have a very promising future but our development process seems to have let him down. Hard running and great effort were his major contributions instead of the ability to influence a game with skill and game intelligence.

  7. Hi Roger and Steve. There is a massive hole in our development methods for the production of young players. Two disasters are occuring simultaneously; 1. Young players are not receiving sufficient practice time nor coaching of quality and become players with all effort and scant playing ability 2. Young player(s) who somehow miss the usual development process and enter the game at a later stage showing individual skill and exciting playing qualities are then ‘dumbed-down’ to become football ‘robots’ by a development and playing system that favours the requirements of ugly ‘fightball’ and not the qualities of ‘the beautiful game’.
    There is a saying; all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. An altered version of this saying may well describe the players developed here and the game they play; ‘all effort and no ability makes our game boring’.

    • Hi John. Love your blog and resonates with me on all levels, hugely educational also. Regarding this comment, I can’t agree more. I turned professional after 4 years in non league. I moved from Harrow Borough, then Ryman League, Level 7, to Birmingham City at the time top of the championship, I initially flourished, making my debut straight away and also in training, alongside seasoned international and hugely experienced players. I was encouraged to be myself, play with flair and continue what I had done in non league (often being told by my manager not to come back past the half way line and when i get the ball, just run forwards and be myself…) It was difficult for my manager at Birmingham City to ultimately give more of a chance to an unproven, fresh out of non league player into a team under huge pressure to get back to the Premier League, and I fully understand why I didn’t play more than I did. However, it was during my loan spells lower down the football pyramid that fully exposed me to all that you are saying in the comment above. If you ask the managers of these clubs whether I had the most ‘footballing talent and brain’ in those squads I would gamble that they would all say yes. However, I started 34 football league games in 5 years. If a full football league season is 46 games then it doesn’t take a genius to realise I hardly ever played… Managers would constantly say to me ‘I don’t know where to play you’ or ‘We can’t fit you into our system the way you want to play’ or ‘I can’t play you because if you come inside and give it to someone who doesn’t know what to do with it we will be in trouble…’ I was seen as more of a threat than a necessity because of the lack of quality, understanding and robotic nature of the football on show. What can you do when you hear a manager of a club in League One who has managed at Premier League Level say to one of his midfielders ‘when it comes to you, don’t try and play, just hook it on first time and that is good enough for me…’?? This is why unless more understanding/appreciation/enhancement/progression/love of proper individual footballing qualities are encouraged/promoted, more and more players will miss the vital ‘development process’ which in this case is regular, senior football as a platform to develop, the game will be even more bereft of individuality/technique/creativity and more and more genuine talent will be wasted through no fault of their own!!!

  8. Hi John…I think that the two points which you make are spot on. I think that point 2 is particularly critical when it begins…..”Young player(s) who somehow miss the usual development process and enter the game at a later stage….” I think that is the case with the majority of young players in this country because they are not developing the technical skill set in their early years which in the past would have come from playing in the street. As you have said numerous times, the coaching scheme in this country has not filled the gap created by the disappearance of street football as played by previous generations. The result is that in all but the highest levels of English football, the coaching is merely creating “football robots”” produced by coaches who are happy for them to play a simplistic, fighting football style. At Premier League level these players are the ‘foot soldiers’ to play and battle alongside the real talent bought from France, Germany, Spain etc.
    I think that it is only right and fair, however, to draw attention to the good work, where it is appropriate, that is being done in certain areas of English football. I am thinking of the talented young players who are beginning to emerge from the youth development section at MK Dons. Dele Alli is showing a lot of promise for both Tottenham and England, having originally come through the MK Dons Academy. Admittedly, his swift elevation into the England seniors squad after only a handful of games for the Tottenham first team is indicative of just how low on real quality we are, but it also speaks volumes for the work being done at the MK Dons Academy and the Practice/Play characteristics of their coaching.
    Another young player making a mark is the Everton left back, Galloway, who also came through the MK Dons Academy before going into the Premier League. There is actually very interesting film of his development years at MK Dons on the FA Licensed Coaches website from a very young age. It shows how he was played in a variety of positions, with a variety of challenges, and thereby developed an all-round football education.
    Hi Roger…. I think that the way in which you have highlighted the points in John’s article which you want coaches to be aware of, is excellent and a lesson to coaches in how they should be always be looking beneath the surface for coaching points and ideas and the continual development of their philosophy.

    • Hi Steve. I have attempted over many years to draw attention to the huge loss of practice time for young players that was previously acquired in games played in streets and school playgrounds all over this country. The passing of this ‘golden period of learning’ has not been replaced or replicated by academic coaching methods in vitally important aspects of development. There has been a huge loss of thousands of hours spent practising whilst playing in competitive situations in the past. In an attempt to recover these important learning facets I created the Premier Skills Coaching Methodology that provided a clear development ‘pathway’ from junior to senior levels.
      Unfortunately, the Premier Skills — Practice/Playing method has been largely ignored by our coaching hierarchy who have preferred to follow a series of academic inspired, ‘classroom’ methods to teach the game. Nobody will convince me that the game of football can be taught properly without a visualised, progressive program of realistic practice combined with a carefully introduced playing infrastructure — practice the playing; play the practice. Computers and tactics boards must be recognised for what they are in the teaching of the game– supplementary to the greater importance of realistic practice followed by suitable, competitive examination (age/development stage)

  9. Hi all. I recently watched a game between two u/16 teams of pro. clubs. It was amazing how often the ball was given away, won back and then immediately given away again only for the next ‘scrimmage’ to take place. We don’t seem able to create the spaces necessary to play a more ‘flowing’ game-style in the tight areas that become part of the game as the young players move into senior playing levels. The creation of space in which to play is a vital part of development and young players should be introduced to movement off the ball from a very early age. The constant ‘scrimmages’ that dominate our game need to become minor factors and not an essential part of it.
    The brute force and ignorance that marks our playing style is a disgrace to coaching-to the game-and to the thousands young players who are led through a learning process that fails to provide a quality football education.

  10. Hi John…The appreciation of space, how to recognise it, and how to create it, are the essential elements of football which are introduced right from the start in the Premier Skills methodology. I remember how you introduced this on the first course I attended when you split the attendee coaches into two groups on opposite sides of the room and each group had to walk across the room at the same time to the other side. Even in a tight area no one made contact with anyone else, everyone found space. You likened this to how football should be played. We don’t in England and so games become a battle, such as in the junior game which you saw.
    This weekend there have been matches in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup. As is the tradition in the early matches in the competition, there have been matches between teams from the bottom two divisions of the Football League and those which play in the semi-professional leagues from various parts of the country. From what I have seen on TV and the match I attended ‘live’, there are players at these lower levels who have ability and the technique to produce moments of good play. But these good moments are greatly outnumbered by the ‘battle ground’ environment in which the games are played. The games are a physical confrontation because few of the players have an awareness of space and so we get a battle to decide physical dominance.
    This is not how it is in most other countries. I have seen matches played in the equivalent lower leagues in countries such as France, Germany and Holland and the games are played at a much slower pace. The players do not seem so anxious to step up the pace and so the movement into space, both with and without the ball, is improved. It makes for a better spectacle but in England, at the lower and junior levels, it seems that too many coaches demand a non-stop, feverish pace to compensate for inferior skill levels.
    I think that many coaches would be surprised how their players’ playing standards would improve if they dropped the pace and were coached and encouraged to have a greater appreciation of space.

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