By John Cartwright

Following the England v Slovakia game recently, there has been a ‘storm’ of criticism from various sources on the movement and positioning of Wayne Rooney. He has been ‘branded’ responsible for Kane’s poor display and for the general poor performance of the team.

I am not a Rooney fan, nor do I have any allegiance to Man. Utd. I am making my comments in this ‘blog’ purely on football tactics and nothing else.


Once upon a time there was a game called ‘football’ and it was played in streets, playgrounds and on waste-lands. This game was universal in terms of worldwide popularity and it produced players of legendary status. The street game was about practising whilst playing and positioning was an essential part of the game. Positioning then was not allied to the formal role that positioning relates to today, it meant constant, active interchange; one minute you were a ‘rush goalie’, the next you might be in a forward position, BUT COLLEAGUES HAD FILLED THE SPACES YOU  HAD LEFT!

This interchange of positioning is now called ROTATION and all quality players and quality teams use rotational movement as part of their tactical playing style. I have always championed individualism in the game as it is through the individual playing quality of players that allows them to fulfil roles with comfort in various, alternative positions adopted during a game.


Rooney’s, ‘excursions’ into different areas of the field during a game is only a weakness if those players around him have neither the playing ability nor the tactical game understanding to fill the space(s) he has created. He might be criticised for not realising that those with whom he is playing are not able to recognise spaces that become available nor are they comfortable moving from their regular ‘foxhole’ into ‘strange territories’.  This is, in my opinion, yet another indictment on development methods used over the years that have replaced street football culture. There has been a devastating lack of skill teaching that has produced a ‘simplistic sameness’ to our game producing a lack of playing confidence that has ‘glued’ players to positions.

Rooney, may have to limit his ‘excursions’ into other positions to compensate for the lack of football ‘lustre’ of his colleagues. What a shame that the creative and realistic learning method of the street has been ignored and replaced by ‘jingoistic’ pretences of football development. More concern has been attached to organisation and structured development methods than with individualism and a free-spirited approach. Our game now consists of constant speed with limited playing options. Opponents can ‘read us like a book’. It is a quick read as there is little to view and boring to an extreme.

19 thoughts on “IT’S CALLED — ‘ROTATION’

  1. Interesting notes and I’m glad it wasn’t just me that thought the criticism was both unwarranted and showed a lack of understanding. There is a clear pathway from the notes in your book “Football For The Brave” about ‘visitors’ not ‘residents’ in relation to ‘positions’ and the use of movement in your Practice Play methodology to create space and gaps for others to exploit. We tend to like rules and regulations in this country and some (but not all) prefer to pigeonhole players into ‘positions’ rather than using a more imaginative observation of the game as it unfolds to tell you where you need to be to help the team at any given moment.
    ‘Positions’ tell observers when someone is ‘out of position’ or is doing something ‘wrong’ !

  2. “Visitors not residents” a great analogy Steve one of the hundreds of “pearls” that are in Football for the Brave.
    John has always developed rotation in the Practice Play methodology with guided discovery that quickly advances the “street” experience.

  3. Absolutely brilliant post John, spot on as always. The people running our game have squashed the creativity of our kids and just installed conformity to a robotic system.

  4. I have recently got hold of the DVDs of the 1971, 1972 and 1973 European Cup Finals when Ajax were hitting their peak with victories against Panathinaikos, Inter Milan and Juventus respectively. Looking at this exceptional team again, after all the intervening years, is a reminder of how great this team was and how it should have followed up this dominance at club level with World Cup success in 1974, when the nucleus of the Holland team was made up with Ajax players.
    The term ‘Total Football’ was coined to describe the way that Ajax and Holland played but it was all based on rotation. If the left back went on a run down the left wing, overlapping his left wing colleague, there was no need to sprint back when the move finished because the left winger had dropped back, (i.e. rotated), into the left back position and was fully capable of playing that position. So now the left back stayed forward as a left winger and energy was conserved by it being unnecessary for the full back to immediately make a lung-busting, 50 metre sprint, to get back into the left back position. He was now the left winger, and he was just as comfortable playing there as the nominal left winger was at playing left back. Similarly, a midfield player may break beyond the centre forward into a goal scoring position and so the centre forward now filled the area the midfielder had vacated. Constant positional switching with players willing and able to fulfil all positional areas of the pitch.
    Watching those matches again, it is hard to realise that Hulshoff and Brandenburg were actually central defenders in the nominal team line up because they broke forward into midfield so often and frequently appear in the opponents’ penalty area. But Ajax were never caught undermanned in defence because of the brilliance of their rotation and they did not concede a single goal in any of the three Finals.
    Of course, the conductor of the Ajax orchestra was the great Johan Cruyff. He had such great skill and football intelligence that his leadership on the pitch was incomparable. Rinus Michels was the coach off the pitch who introduced and coached the ideas and Cruyff was the coach, or general, on the pitch who made sure that they worked in the game.
    This rotational game, or Total Football, whatever you want to call it, has not been properly introduced in England because at junior levels big, physically strong youngsters are used in central defence and quick, more agile players are put into forward positions. So we look at football being not only positional but also sectioned into physical characteristics. So the vision of a rotational game is not considered in a young player’s development from day one.
    Basing assessments of a player’s ability on purely physical features can be very deceptive. It has been noted in the career details of George Best, that during one match in his early days in the Man Utd first team, the Irishman went back into his penalty area to help defend a corner. When the ball was pumped high into the United goalmouth, there was Best, rising high above a crowd of players, all at least a foot taller than him, with boots and fists flying, to head the ball so far clear of the area that the danger was snuffed out in a second. George Best no doubt played like that on the streets of Belfast, where he learnt the game, before going to Manchester. Perhaps he would have been an even greater player if he had been allowed to follow his instincts longer at Old Trafford as Cruyff did at Ajax and Barcelona.

  5. John,

    Rotation is one thing, but Rooney finds himself dropping deep left side because he knows he doesn’t have the explosive power to be effective further up the field any longer – and he knows this – in my opinion.

    Someone inside the club is telling the coaching staff that he has to be on the pitch because he is ‘the face’ of the club at this time. There is no other plausible reason because his performances have been sub-standard for a long time now. Even Mourinho doesn’t consider dropping him to date. Why is that…? In any event, even when Rooney does not have a howler he doesn’t do enough for someone being paid £250,000+ per week.

    England and English players are embarrassing and I’m sick of there being no accountability for poor performances at international level. The FA are like the Wizard of Oz and it’s about time someone ‘opened the curtains’.


    • Hi Peter. I agree with your comments on the whole. However, despite the gradual demise of Rooney’s performances for club and country players with whom he is playing should have a playing potential to utilise the space(s) he creates by his movements off the ball — be they deeper or wider as you suggest. I do believe that Rooney has lost much of the penetrative surge he once had when gaps occured in forward areas and he no longer exploits them enough. Perhaps £250,000+ per week has reduced his desire to produce more positive performances, for as you suggest — mediocrity is now termed as greatness in our football.

    • Hi Peter. I agree with your comments regarding Rooney’s reduced performance levels for both club and country. However, i believe that his off-the-ball movements should still produce more opportunities for players to exploit gaps that occur. In the main, rotation is limited in our game through a general lack of playing skills and game understanding. Instead of a flexible playing style we are limited to one in which movement beyond ‘comfort zones’ goes unseen and unused, or poorly exploited if attempted. Still, we seem to believe that mediocrity is greatness and are prepared to pay huge prices for it.

  6. Looking at Dutch football again from the seventies,illustrates that football has not progressed as it should have during the last 40 years. There have been some exceptional teams, notably AC Milan and Barcelona, but too few coaches have had the courage to fully develop their players so that a rotationalgame is possible. Arrigo Sacchi and Pep Guardiola are two coaches who have had the courage to berevolutionaries and have developed teams and players that have no fear. The game’s administrators have much to answer for. The decision to increase the number of teams in the Finals of the European Championship from 16 to 24 was predictably a terrible decision and just produced a tournament of mediocrity. It took a fortnight just to eliminate 8 teams,many teams going into the knockout stages after finishing third in their group. Previously the Euros had been a superior competition to the World Cup because 16 was a much better number of competing nations, encouraging a positive attitude from the first match. But the prospect of bigger profits from more matches motivated the change, with no consideration given to the drop in quality.

    • Hi Steve. Everything you point out regards the gradual demise of the game is spot on. I would however, regard the loss of individualism as a major aspect in the game becoming less unpredictable in playing terms. Simplicity rules the game in ever increasing ways and creativism has become an increasingly devoid feature in the game.
      As I said in the blog, players are uncomfortable when entering different areas on the field, they lack the necessary skills and game understanding in most cases and so stay ‘safe and secure’ in the comfort of their regular position and laying role.
      All the real football greats could have filled any position in a team with no problem. It would be difficult to find similar players today who falsely wear the great tag.

  7. Hi all. I have always believed that one can learn a multitude of things from books, but also equally important is the ‘doing’ of things. However, just as it’s important to read interesting and informative books etc. so it’s important to practice ‘doing’ things properly. I see football practises at all ages that fail to reproduce competitive realism. There is a massive lack of individualism in British players at present and this is due to the lack of realism in the practical work that they do. For example, how can players be good runners with the ball at their feet, it’s never with them long enough for them to develop this important playing aspect because there is an over-emphasis on passing the ball. —- one cannot recognise running with the ball decisions and penetrative opportunities if one is ‘giving the ball away’ to colleagues too readily.
    An all pass with scant individualism on the ball ‘disease’ has created a boring ‘sameness’ in our game. Clubs like Barcelona, are renowned for their possession football, but within their playing style they have great individual players who can introduce suitable variations as required in a game. We are trying to ‘copycat’ the possession football method without the quality of individualism to ‘blend’ all the component parts of the game together.
    No variable individualism in the game means a regular similarity that is easy for opponents to recognise and defeat………….ICELAND 2 ENGLAND 1
    I rest my case.

  8. Most of the time FC Barcelona move the ball quickly; this can easily be observed (and has been commented on by Xavi and Iniesta et al) but then individual qualities come into play.

    This is allowable because ball possession is on the floor, and penetration is into and through the 3rds. The ability to shift the ball does often ‘buy’ the ‘runners in possession’ vital time.

    The over-emphasis on passing the ball is more beneficial than those dark days of Hughes; however, for me, it cannot be a real ‘copycat’ because the detail of individualism is often left out…it is the individualism that will make the difference…

    Two things standout: the ability ‘lending’ the ball has to be done brilliantly – often one touch, and BE technically perfect, yet the player needs to recognise when to hold onto the ball and make penetrative inroads (including over-loading/breaking out from the back) when necessary, and secondly, to have honed the ability every time the ball is received to be able to decide to run/screen or pass, and then be capable of doing so.

    Therefore, each player needs to have the technical requirements to lend or run, and in effect, fill space that has been left, acting as a ‘new resident’ performing pertinent skills required in rotation, be that with a caressed, disguised or gorgeous pass or high-quality individual penetrative ball retention…AND PLAYERS HAHVE TO BE COACHED…to appreciate the ‘time and space.’

    BEAUTY MUST BE EFFICIENT: both collective and individual…

    So practices need to allow the players to practice their combined work and or individualism.

  9. I was impressed with Southampton in their match today at West Ham because they displayed awareness and individual skill. Their centre half, Virgil Van Dijk, could develop into an outstanding defender because he combines good defensive qualities with the intelligence required to see possibilities developing further forward in midfield and beyond. So he looks to carry the ball forward and get involved in areas of attacking play and create overloads.
    It is significant that Van Dijk is Dutch. I have just returned from a coaches tour to visit the training ground of Ajax in Amsterdam. Whilst there we watched an Under 19 match between Ajax and Heerenveen which Ajax won comfortably. The member of the Ajax technical staff who watched the game with us, however, was impressed with the Heerenveen central defender because, as he termed it, he “took risks”. This did not imply that he did stupid things like dribbling along his own goal-line, but looked for every opportunity to break forward into midfield to support an attack. By contrast, the technical director was unimpressed with the Ajax centre back because he did not take risks but just remained in his defensive zone throughout the match. At Ajax they want much more than that and though financial trends in the game has seen this famous club slip from the high peaks they once occupied in the European club game, they still retain the same philosophy and high standards.
    Taking risks ranks high among the qualities required among young players in the Ajax Academy. You hear coaches make references to that term constantly and without that trait the Ajax centre half on view will be unlikely to go any further forward in the club. Instead, Ajax will most likely make approaches to acquire the Heerenveen defender.

  10. Hi Steve. I have always admired Dutch football. However, i believe they are having a poor period at club and national levels because they have not blended individualism with positive team play. They produce individualism in conjunction with a possession influenced playing style that tends to lack positiveness and tactical variations. In many ways they are experiencing the same poor results as ourself; we’re all pass and no individualism, they’re all pass and all individualism.
    Neither of us seem to be capable of establishing a correct blend with individualism complimenting a variable and positive playing style.
    I wonder who will learn the lesson first, us or them? I wouldn’t bet on us!!

  11. Hi John…..The head of the technical staff at the Ajax Academy was critical of the lack of intensity in many of their youth matches, an example being the Under 19 match against Heerenveen. Many of the Ajax players are operating most of the time in their comfort zone, which he thought contrasted unfavourably with their English counterparts. This was also evident in the Ajax first team match which we saw against PEC Zwolle, which Ajax comfortably won 5-1 after getting over the shock of conceding an early goal.
    Ajax still work hard at creating triangles in their play, which they have done for many years and is why they favour the 4-3-3 formation because it is the one which enables them to produce the most triangles. However, in the Under 19 match, whilst the triangles were clearly evident they were static. So they did not produce very much third man running movement and merely enabled them to retain possession without achieving the penetration which the third man running would have achieved.

  12. Hi John and Steve

    The Dutch of course have been to school and have the Diploma hanging on their wall… they metaphorical need to rethink the notes.

    On the other hand while some of the English went to the same school… analogy wise most the FA didn’t even make the taxi
    Than would have taken them to the course’s venue

  13. Hi all. It seems incredible to me that we are unable to to produce a correct playing style that combines individualism with team play. The teaching of individualism has been a lost art in our coach education programs. The importance of how to provide individual skills alongside tactical information has not been recognised as coaching realisticly and practises have generally been lacking in purposeful decision making.

  14. Hi Brazil94…..Ironically, one of the earliest and most influential pioneers in Dutch football was an Englishman – Jack Reynolds – who inspired many coaches and players in Holland before and after World War 2. He laid foundations which were carried on by Rinus Michels and influenced this giant of the Dutch game in both coaching methods and youth developoment which he helped set in place at Ajax.

  15. Yesterday, there were two matches televised, in which Man City and Barcelona were pressed vigorously in their defensive thirds by Tottenham and Celta Vigo respectively. I was surprised that neither team responded by playing the ball beyond the pressure, but instead persevered in attempting to play the ball out from the back. Consequently they got in trouble a number of times by doing this.
    There is always space on a football pitch, so if the opposition closes down as a group to prevent you coming out by exchanging short passes, then they must have left space further back in their ranks which can be exploited.
    If the opposition presses high they want to make your team play it long and expect to pick up the pieces and get more possession that way. But if the long passes can be made quickly and to players unmarked, or less tightly marked than they would otherwise be, then that will force teams like Tottenham and Celta Vigo to abandon their high pressing and you can then resume playing out from the back again.
    I think the job that Pep Guardiola has taken on at Man City is the toughest of his coaching career so far and, if he needed any convincing, then yesterday’s match provided the evidence.

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