Total Talent

By John Cartwright

As most of the regular readers of the ‘Blogs’ I have written over the past few years will probably realize, I am not a great lover of the ‘English Game’. I believe we have failed to develop players with a full quota of playing qualities and are becoming more and more reliant on athletic ability to camouflage a lack of individual skill and game understanding. There is a massive disregard here for a ‘classical’ approach towards the thinking, development methods and competitive playing of the game. Force is favoured over finesse from junior to senior levels making it more and more a physical ‘contest’ than a football ‘spectacle’.


Long used traditional beliefs attached to coaching and  the playing of the game must, in my opinion, be discarded; players should not be developed to fill a single positional ‘space’ but be capable of occupying any position in a team throughout a game. The physical attributes of players must still be recognized as important, but players must also possess high skill and understanding levels for the game; the higher the combination of all these aspects that players acquire, the higher up the playing ‘ladder’ they must be directed. The rough-tough defensive ‘stoppers’, so prevalent in our game, must be developed in future with the ability to be positive ‘starters’ of offensive play as well; our mid-field players must not be just recognised as physical battlers — the ‘engine room’ of a team — they must become players able to convert from ‘defensive stalwarts’ into ‘offensive, creative, predators’ as situations in a game demand; players normally in forward positions must be equally comfortable when asked to cover back to defend in deeper positions. In these deeper roles, they must display the ability to be both safe yet creative and, on returning to more forward positions, be equally creative,  but also display penetrative qualities.   This ‘rotational’ form of playing requires a team of highly talented individual players who possess the skills, game awareness and physical qualities for the game. I have often thought that we have not utilised opportunities to convert talented players to other areas of a team to both enhance their own playing qualities and increase the playing standards of that team. By converting higher playing qualities in this way would increase the possibility of a more ‘all-round’ playing style. This ‘conversion phase’ would be necessary until an improved development program produced players with the ability required to cover any out-field position.


We have not followed a development ‘pathway’ that has emphasised the use of ‘total talent’ for the game and ‘organised team-play’ has been prioritised without recognising the vital importance of individualism within it. Players have taken up positional roles for numerous reasons, many of which have not been the correct decisions for them. Too often players remain ‘fixed’ to a positional role due to limited team selection or a lack of positional experimentation and our game has failed to make sufficient progress. There have been successful ‘conversions’ in the past but these have been rare and in general have not been influential in changing a playing style.

In producing and selecting players to play a game-style that resembles a total form of the sport we would see a more ‘rotational’ version of it in which present ‘straight line’ running and ‘robotic’ decision-making would be things of the past. Yes, the physical aspects would still be a necessary part of the game, but the boring, pugilistic one v one ‘conflicts and scrimmages’ that are a regular part of the mess our game has become would be decreased considerably. The ability to ‘overload’ situations with skill and understanding combined with players who were equally capable of extricating themselves positively from ‘under-loaded’ situations is how we must take the game forward into its next development and playing period if we are to achieve success on the world stage.

30 thoughts on “Total Talent

  1. Stereotypical attitudes pervade the British game. Safety in the back third is the creed of so many and a reluctance to embrace ‘footballing footballers’ in this area.

    John is correct; a dose of conversion is a necessary first step, but deeply-embedded attitudes need converting also.

    Converting the coaches to a way of training and playing is the first priority then converting talented individuals otherwise it’s the continuation of ‘straight up and down lumps of wood at the back’ with the same results!

    • Hi Brazil 94. You are correct in streesing the point that our coach education methods must be fundamentaly changed in order to produce the ‘teachers’ (coaches) of the game from junior to senior levels.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Too often coaches appear to spend most of their time trying to compensate for the limitations of their players rather than seeking to develop them into what could be termed “all round footballers”. This results in teams full of specialists. These players can perform certain functions often quite well but need protection from their own inadequacies either by other players with complementary skill sets or through the adoption of formations/ playing styles imposed by the risk adverse coach. It is a situation that is not good for the development of either the players or the coach.

    • Hi Andrew. The future of the game here depends on the making of radical changes to the way we think, teach and play the game of football. Unless there is a major re-direction in coaching methods and how we want to view the way the game, we will continue down the ‘going nowhere pathway’.

  3. This is bang on! We need to develop players by exposing them in our practices to situations where they are either ‘under-loaded’ or ‘over-loaded’ and utilise a range of challenges that focus the learning on how to disturb and regain or build-up and score in and out of possession. This will create better game-thinkers and more rotational movement and balance

    • Hi. We must develop players who can play the game at the highest standards. Learning the game through practises that are unrealistic to actual game situations is a waste of valuable time and causes the loss of possible talented players for the future.

  4. Great article John, of course the game is run by fear ( of losing mainly) . Managers and coaches are in fear of their jobs ( such as the Gary Monk scenario). The established paradigm of producing one dimensional players has to change or we will not progress and compete with the likes of Germany and Spain. The all round education and culture around the upbringing of our players is also a major stumbling block to producing well balanced individuals capable of implementing the type of game you talk about.

  5. Hi Mel. You are exactly right. Unless we improve our coaching methods we will continue to languish behind more forward thinking nations.

  6. I have drawn attention before to a book that was written shortly after Hungary humbled England 6 – 3 at Wembley in 1953, thus becoming the first foreign team to beat England on home soil. The book was entitled ‘Soccer Revolution’ and the author was Dr. Willy Meisl.
    Meisl had foreseen this crushing defeat coming for several years in a number of articles, especially in the celebrated magazine of the time, ‘World Sports’. In his book, Meisl expounded on these thoughts and related to how Hungary played at Wembley, especially their nominal centre forward, Nandor Hidegkuti, who dropped away from the front line position and gave the England centre half the dilemma of whether to follow him and leave a gap in defence, or allow the Hungarian to get free.
    Meisl predicted that football would become dictated by multi-purpose players and the days of players in fixed positions, specialists, were numbered. This has, in fact, only happened to a very limited degree. Just a handful of coaches have shown the necessary courage to go down this road and attempt to produce a type of football that Meisl christened ‘the whirl’. Two of the best exponents have been Rinus Michels, with Ajax and Holland in the seventies, and Arrigo Sacchi with AC Milan in the eighties. There are DVDs available of their teams in those eras, both in match play and in training, that are both illuminating and fascinating. I think that mention should also be made of Ron Greenwood in this category because in Martin Peters, produced and developed at West Ham, we had a multi-purpose player who was central to both club and national team success in the sixties. In that period he played effectively in every position for West Ham, including goal.
    Today I think that the coach who has really picked up the gauntlet from these great predecessors is Pep Guardiola. The great positional flexibility that Bayern Munich display is due to his coaching in helping his players to know when to move into other areas of the pitch and how to perform various skills and functions in those positions. Their positional rotation is on a different level to any other team and it is appropriate that Philipp Lahm is pictured alongside John’s article. His movement around the pitch is brilliant, knowing where to go, when to go and with the necessary knowledge and skills to fulfil each and every position.

    • Hi Steve. The selection of photos that are used on the ‘Blogs’ is made by Sam. I confirm your point about Lahm, of Germany, but the photo of Henderson, of Liverpool does not fit the description of ‘Total Talent’ in my and probably your opinion.

  7. The problems surrounding Man Utd at the moment, and particularly the criticism aimed at their coach, Louis van Gaal, also say a lot about our failure in England “to develop players with a full quota of playing qualities”, as John phrased it in his article.
    The 75,000 fans who fill Old Trafford for each home game, together with their millions of ‘long distance fans’ around the world, as well as press and pundits in print and broadcasting, slate the United coach for what they say is a tedious and negative playing style. They want a return to the days of two wingers and two strikers, with lots of long passes going into forward areas of space. An exciting mixture of hard running, high crosses and constant goalmouth action. Those followers, who were brought up on a diet of that playing style, do not react well when they see United playing short passes in midfield areas, with little success in achieving penetration.
    What many of the fans fail to recognise is that the space that heroes of the past, like Hughes, Giggs, Robson, Keane, and many others exploited, is no longer there. Many opposition teams, even those around the bottom of the league, are frustrating United by sitting deep, staying in position, and filling those spaces which the Reds once so mercilessly attacked.
    van Gaal realises that he has to coach his team to work the ball around in a possession keep-ball style, but probing to create gaps as they attempt to draw opponents out of their positions. van Gaal has spent enormous sums, it is true, in an attempt to eradicate these failings, without much success, but he has also promoted a number of youngsters from the youth/development ranks, also without the necessary effect. At all his previous clubs van Gaal enthusiastically promoted youth, especially at Ajax in the nineties, when they won the Champions League.
    My guess is that van Gaal will have been shocked at the inadequacies of the material he has taken from the club’s development section, compared to that which he was used to dealing with at previous clubs like Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich etc.
    The Man Utd fans have every right to protest at the poor football they pay to see, but it is important to be clear where this responsibility really lies.

    • Hi Steve. You make an excellent portrayal of LVG’s problems at present. As you know I watch lots of u/21 football and I find the standard overall to be poor. We have our ‘heads in the sand’ with regards playing standards here and I don’t see anything changing.

    • Hello Steve

      Pep Guardiola says that ‘possession is important when you create chances, so possession for itself is nothing’.

      It may well be a coaching matter or a player inadequacy matter in terms of being able to play against the massed defence.

      In football there is always space somewhere…and possession must be coupled with penetration. It might be saying as much but Man United are caught up in the Barca ‘problem’ highlighted by John a while back, that the Catalans appeared to solve.

      Forward passes and individualism are needed to expolit gaps and spaces, but from what one can ascertain…certainly the latter seems to be discouraged by LVG…Note criticisms from luminaries such as Johan Cruyff:

      “Van Gaal has a good vision of football but it is not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I want individuals to think for themselves.” Does Van Gaal remain “militaristic” in his stress of “the collective”? Cruyff nods. “Yes. But I’ve always been an individual who likes to create something himself within a team performance. I am happy if my players start thinking.”

    • Hi Brazil94. As i have mentioned in this ‘Blog’ and so often in the past, our ‘Academic Schoolmasters’ who took over after the demise of ‘natural street development’ have taken our game down the wrong road —we have ignored the importance of individualism within the structure of a team. This disasterous mistake has created what we have seen in the game over decades in this country—a game in which fight is preferred over finesse –and nobody has a clue in our coaching hierarchy of how to make the necessary changes . Don’t tell me THE DNA OF PERFORMANCE PHILOSOPHY is the answer; it does not provide for the substantial loss of realistic practice time that is required to produce individual playing skills and so group (team) situations will continue to take priority in the playing of the game here……..and the boredom of ‘all action and no artistry’ will remain our interpretation of how to play ‘THE BEAUTIFUL GAME’ in an ‘UGLY ‘way!

      • Hi John, I couldn’t have put it better myself. The game has been hijacked by academics with no grasp of the subtleties and nuances that the game is really all about. We will be left to flounder unless someone at the top has the balls to change it !

  8. Without a doubt, we positionalise young players far too early in this country. Unfortunately, the better the player the more likely he is to be positionalised because he is likely to have played in a junior team from a young age. The manager realises that the best chance of playing success is to fix his players into regimented positions and this highly organised structure from the early years, curtails their development as all round players.
    When children played their own games, whether in the street or on waste land, they moved around in constant search of the ball. This chaotic playing style gradually tidied up in time as they learnt to search for areas of space where they might receive the ball from a team mate. But they did not have specific areas of the pitch which were defined as solely theirs. Rotational play is a much more difficult concept to introduce to players who have been moved around in a functional manner by dominating managers, which happens all too often nowadays, than when young players learnt purely from their own playing experiences ‘in the street’.
    The Premier Skills coaching approach allows and encourages this free movement and appreciation of space which they gradually understand as they play through the various elements. This is in stark contrast to the continued use of drills and regimented practices which are still abundantly used in many areas in which the game is taught.

  9. The oldest of cliches ‘you can’t reinvent the wheel’ applies…Great individuals are created in the street and that is the be all and end all of ‘Premier Skills.’

    Clever coaching is required to mash together the ‘individual players’, so that the team flows like a jazz orchestra with each instrument playing its part…BUT the heart beat is the street and its elements of joy and improvisation are expressed by these musicians of the field.

  10. The term “Total Football”, as I recall, originated in the 1974 World Cup when the performances of Holland revealed a team with a dynamic game style which always played with high intensity. When their matches were studied closely, it became apparent that many of their players were very interchangeable and comfortable in all areas of the pitch. The Dutch played in a fast and fluid style, with the great Johann Cruyff at the centre of most of their flowing movements. It was in the years that followed that it became clear that National Coach, Rinus Michels, was actually following on from the work he had been doing for some time at the top Dutch club, Ajax. A large number of that Dutch squad were from Ajax, but not all. In articles and interviews that appeared in print during the following years, Michels made a point of saying that he was extremely pleased with the way that Wim Janssen adapted very quickly to his ideas in just a few weeks that Michels had at his dispoal, leading up to the tournament, having taken charge at short notice following the resignation of the previous coach, during a period of unrest in the camp, which happens all too often during Dutch tournament preparations. Janssen had always played for Feyenoord, with no previous contact with Michels. Also, Michels revealed that he chose Jongbloed as his keeper, even though he was nearly forty years of age, no previous international experience and with a small club. But Michels considered him to be the best goalkeeper in Holland at playing outside his penalty area and starting attacks with well placed passes.
    In England at that time, we had full backs who bombed forward with enthusiasm but the Dutch brought other players from the back into attacking areas. Rotational play was evident in all parts of the field with Holland and Ajax but we stood still, with too many coaches believing that attacking full backs were as far as Total Football went.
    There were exceptions of course, and I know that John Cartwright, together with the other coaches at Crystal Palace at the time, Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables, were well aware of what was going on in Holland, as also were other notable coaching figures of the time like Ron Greenwood and Dave Sexton, and they put it into practice at their clubs. But this wasn’t being followed up in the National Coaching Scheme for new and emerging coaches to hook onto and the result was that we were heading for long barren years of direct play which suffocated our football for too long, even though we did still produce some good players during those years.
    What we should do now is to study the rotational brilliance of Bayern Munich as produced by Pep Guardiola, following similar high level work he produced previously at Barcelona, or we shall always be in a permanent state of having to catch up.

  11. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Jose Mourinho’s management and coaching of Chelsea this season, it is fairly clear that there were big problems between him and many of the first team squad. As soon as he departed the club shortly before Saturday’s match against Sunderland, then certain players, who had been accused of producing minimal effort for several weeks, were suddenly rejuvenated and Chelsea comfortably saw off Sunderland at Stamford Bridge.
    My personal feeling is that Mourinho could have done both himself and Chelsea a favour by jettisoning several players weeks ago and by promoting a number of promising players from his youth section, he would also have been doing English football a favour too.
    Chelsea have strong youth squads at both Under 21 and Under 18 levels and have been consistently reaching the finals of the FA Youth Cup in recent years. Although, in common with other Premier League clubs, they have a number of foreign youth players they also have some promising young English players and Solanki and Loftus Cheek have already shown their potential in fleeting first team appearances. If the under performing first team players had received the chop from Mourinho then the youngsters taking their place could hardly have done any worse, because Chelsea had been dropping like a stone into the relegation area for some time.
    There seems a reluctance these days for managers to assert their authority and face up to a string of bad results by clearing out a number of first team regulars en masse and replacing them with a group of youth players and reserves. This seemed to happen fairly frequently in days gone by and had the effect of accelerating the development of young players by throwing them in at the deep end and seeing if they could swim, as well as a timely reminder to the first team regulars of who was the boss. The axed players got a much-needed wake-up call and often a number of youth players proved themselves good enough to keep their place in the team.

  12. Hi Steve. The difference between Premier League and u/21 levels is too big a gap. I watch lots of u/21 football and I can’t say I’m impressed.

  13. Mario Zagallo managing Brazil in 1979 selected Genius firstly. And then organized the collective: Pele, Tostao, Ruvelino, Gerson, Clodoaldo, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto,

    STREET FOOTBALLERS all of them.

  14. Hi John and Brazil94…. As I have said before, this big gap between U21s and the 1st team seems to have arisen since the abolition of reserve team football. Promising young players who had graduated from the U18s, played with and against good, experienced players and this accelerated their development. We have lost that where the next step is the U21s. The loan system, when young players get experience at lower division clubs, compensates to an extent but so many young English players from Premier League clubs seem to get ‘lost’ when they go out on loan and for many it seems to be the beginning of the end. Similarly, some go to clubs in countries such as Belgium and Holland but, though that is good experience, it still does not result in sufficient numbers of good young English players forcing their way into the 1st teams of Premier League clubs.
    The coaching at the 5 – 11 an 12 – 16 years age groups seems to be letting us down. I think especially the 5 – 11 Foundation Phase because I think the technical skills must take root in that age category.
    The Brazilian names from the 1970 World Cup bring back memories. As well as great technical skill they also had game intelligence. The manager, Mario Zagalo, put the team together like a jigsaw but they outwitted other teams with a combination of their magical ability and creative instincts.

  15. Hi all. Will we ever see Brazilian players with the ability of the players of the past? As Brazil become an economic powerhouse so, like all those who have gone down the same route over the past decades, the spaces that once produced such individual brilliance have gone.
    Can Brazil find an answer?

  16. Hi John….From what I saw during the World Cup, there is still a lot of poverty in Brazil. The poor people live in the favelas. The government give them electrical gadgets like flat-screened televisions and computers to pacify them and to try and minimise trouble on the streets, but do nothing to provide better housing and improve hospitals and schools. I know that in Argentina they put small pitches on top of high buildings, to compensate for the loss of playing areas due to building work at ground level, where kids can play and develop their play in tight areas so that they can continue to produce young talent that is able to play under pressure. In Brazil they like the volleyball-style football game on the beach which does not have the same benefits which you get from games played in small, narrow streets. So I think we can expect a decrease in the production line of great Brazilian players.
    From an English point of view, I should like to record that when I saw Oxford United play Exeter yesterday in a League 2 match, I was impressed with Oxford’s quality and playing style. I understand that their Head Coach, Michael Appleton, has had exposure to the Premier Skills coaching methodology when he was at West Brom. They displayed an ability to keep good possession, without this being a negative feature, and there were good variations of pace in their play. I was particularly impressed with a central midfield player, John Lundstram, who showed good touch and vision. He scanned the pitch constantly when out of possession and was able to switch play on many occasions when he came into possession. He came through the Everton academy but was released a little while ago. He played in several England teams at various age groups and at 21 years of age could have a good future in the game. Kemar Roofe has a similar background having previously been with West Brom but failed to make the breakthrough and has dropped down the divisions and has fortunately found himself in the hands of a good coach. He is 22 and alternated in the game between playing at left midfield and up front. There were also others of good ability and so Oxford seem to confirm the impression that there is some material in lower divisions and leagues which can be developed by a good coach.

  17. Problem is and will always be the people in charge of setting the remit are non footballing people with limited experience. Every so often we as a nation bring out new fangled initiatives which on the face of it sounds and looks very good but all we ever do is copy what other countries or FA’s have already administered. We tend to look forward instead of backwards for answers. World cup winners of 66 were all self taught players playing street football with their friends on uneven surfaces in compressed areas with no one screaming instructions from the sideline stifling anything that would be regarded as flair. Football for the Brave!!!

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