Open the Curtain.

By John Cartwright

I’m becoming extremely bored watching a football being passed negatively around the back by teams trying to copy-cat foreign football at ALL levels of the game in this country. Why has this situation occurred? Well, I think there are several reasons; we’re ‘copy-cating’ Spanish, ‘Ticki-Tacki’ possession football — our back players aren’t as accomplished on the ‘finer arts’ of the game as our Iberian opponents — we lack confidence and skill when on the ball — there is a lack of game understanding that inhibits recognition of opportunities to make forward passes and penetrative runs with the ball. There is also another very important reason for this lack of playing quality in our game; we don’t understand the importance of creating (channels) from back players to forward players. Too often these routes forward are not available because they are blocked, not necessarily by the opposition, but by midfield players of the team in possession!


All of the points I have suggested reduce our ability to produce a more positive approach to ball possession ‘through the thirds’. However, it is the consistent blockage of forward channels that really irritates me. Our mid-field players, in their desire to ‘get into the game’, often position themselves incorrectly — they take up positions that block the ‘channels’ towards their forward players. This blocked, frontal positioning by mid-field players reduces their ability to see around them whilst at the same time, it tends to drag an opposing marker into a ‘channel’ with him/her.

The art of playing possession-styled football requires high playing ability and football intelligence. Intelligent movement off the ball produces numerous positive situations to select from. A midfield player should be particularly adept at ‘finding’ an ANGLED not a FRONTAL position when supporting a back colleague with the ball. In so doing a mid-field player not only ‘OPENS THE CURTAIN’ to reveal a ‘channel’ through to forward players, but also, he/she opens a series of situations that benefit both themselves and their team-mates.

2012-06-10 10.43.51

This simple appreciation of off the ball movement creates:

  1. A forward ‘channel’ through which a pass can be made.
  2. 2. A forward ‘channel’ that a back player with ball can run through with it.

If an opposing marking player decides to stay in a ‘channel’ and not follow and mark the angled movement of his/her mid-field opponent, then he/she has allowed this mid-field player to be unmarked and so become free to receive the ball from his back colleague in an unpressured situation.

Front players must also display their football intelligence when a ‘channel’ has opened up; he/she must time their movement to receive a pass that may be played towards them or position themselves to support either an on-coming back or mid-field colleague in possession of the ball who is penetrating through the ‘channel’

Similarly, if a pass has been made down the ‘channel’ from back to a forward player, supporting mid-field players must ‘read’ this situation and be on the move to link-up quickly with him/her.

The creation and exploitation of the use of ‘channels’ must become a priority issue in coaching in this country. The ‘play-round’ at the back by teams must produce more positive, penetrative opportunities if possession football tactics are to function successfully.

We aren’t doing things properly. Time is moving on and coaching here is failing to provide answers to serious problems in the game. With respect to the issue relating to this ‘blog’ — we’re keeping the curtain closed, not open.

27 thoughts on “Open the Curtain.

  1. another great observation on English football and coaching.
    I sometimes see coaches use the simple exercises of 3 v 1 , 4 v 2, 5 v2 but unable to explain to the players what and why they need to create angles and options left,right in 3 v 1 and option long forward in 4 v 2.
    Players ‘hiding ‘ behind the defender in 3 v 1 rather than at an angle to help the player with the ball never gets picked up in these exercises , also the third man movement if the pass isn’t coming to you never gets explained .

  2. Excellent piece John. Strangely, this rarely picked up or even referenced by TV commentators and pundits (although I perhaps recall Glenn Hoddle saying something similar). We also see additional players making runs into areas and dragging an additional defender with them, where the ball carrier has already isolated the defender 1v1 thus creating a more crowded environment, constricting the very space they are trying to exploit. I can only assume that they make such runs as part of a ‘pattern’ which has been shown but which they have perhaps not yet understood as to the why and when of such runs.

    • Hi Steve. Coaches should show their players a film in which a real football great is playing. ……… INESTA of Barca/Spain. They will see movement off the ball and support that one finds difficult to see here.

  3. What John describes so graphically in the article with his analogy to “opening the curtain”, was introduced into the coaching at West Ham more than 50 years ago by Ron Greenwood. Unfortunately, as with many other ideas that the Hammers’ coaching supremo introduced in that era, relatively few coaches adopted the concept of coming off at angles and English football instead went down the road of excessive physicality and negative thinking. Regrettably, this unimaginative thought process became all too prevalent in the FA Coaching Scheme for too long and we are now suffering for those years of neglect.
    A few years ago, Youth Coach and former West Ham player, Pat Holland, put on a session at the London Football Coaches Association aimed at improving the passing into the front men. He commenced the session with a very simple practice where he grouped the players in pairs facing each other on opposite sides of 10 yard grids. The player with a ball had to touch it out of his feet to either the right or left and his partner had to move to the opposite side to receive.The second touch was a pass to his partner. The same procedure then followed with the receiver now starting the sequence, so the two players were continually passing and receiving on different angles. Pat Holland then progressed the session into his topic, but the inherent element was opening the curtain and exploiting the space that was created in various ways.

  4. To achieve the same outcome I’ve always taught players to position themselves where they can see their marker and the ball, if you do this you don’t finish up infront of the ball with your back to goal.

  5. Hi Ron. Playing on the ‘half-turn’ as you mention is an important aspect in positioning, movement and receiving. I must point out however, that irrespective of a correct body shape, players ‘block the channels’ from back and mid-field areas towards their front players.
    The ridiculous situation about our ‘attempt’ ‘ to play possession football is that we don’t understand what we’re actually trying to create whilst passing the ball around —— that ‘mystery’ is GAPS THROUGH WHICH PENETRATIONS CAN BE MADE.

  6. Hi all. We will never begin to make satisfactory developmental progress whilst we continue to put ‘ the cart before the horse’ —— overemphasising the end product — WINNING rather than LEARNING.

  7. We will never begin to make satisfactory developmental progress whilst we continue to put ‘ the cart before the horse’ —— overemphasising the end product — WINNING rather than LEARNING.
    This statement should be on the wall of all age group coaches!

  8. Two things I would like to say…..!!

    I was talking with an x- professional who has coached at national level around the world…….. and we both agree the game has become so negative with the playing strategy you’re talking about we both agree it’s time for a positive change and a resurgence of the principles of attack…..particularly “penetration”….so what does the footballing governing body do…..start the game from the kick off with a back pass……the next step would likely be to start the game off with a back pass directly to the keeper.
    The game….the worlds greatest game is meant to be a spectacle, exciting, dynamic football culminating in goals?????
    When will coaches, players and the hierarchy realize those who relentlessly follow their teams and pay exorbitant gate fees are baulking at negative play and lack of goals…..come on FIFA take action to improve the standard of positive play and create a game full of goals to bring back the crowds to the level of support in times gone by??? It’s easy!!!!
    You’re so right Roger…..when the pressure to win out weights the learning process the game goes backwards, coaching goes out the window, players leave the game due to undue pressure placed on them, and the spectators, the hub of our game react badly when the team fails to win every week.
    Guys like you Roger who have given their all in the development of the game are becoming a rarity.
    Stick to your principles mate.

  9. Hi Paul. I have ‘stuck to my principles’ as you say throughout my football lifetime–you know where it got me — nowhere! It’s those who follow the established football ‘route and regulations’ and don’t ‘muddy the water’ who rise to the top. It’s great for them, but it’s a disaster for the game of football and the youngsters who want to play it.
    As you so correctly state, our football ‘Masters’, have come up with the mind-numbing start to a game with the opportunity to ‘pass the ball backwards’. I watched a Pro. game here yesterday in which a MF player never once in the game passed or ran with the ball in a forward direction. I haven’t seen what his marking the Press give him. ….i know what i would give him .!!!!

  10. Taking the idea from practice play, I introduced the word angles to 5 yr olds at training. Originally it was for the rush goalies to encourage there players to move out wide. The kids got this immediately, so after a while I noticed how kids stood in the way of their team mates on the pitch. So as the word was understood I introduced it to the boys on the pitch. Practice play uses “running in” as a signal but sometimes running in is not an option. Simple commands explained to young children can start them to understand the game and develop good habits.
    Also another way to open the curtain is for a deliberate pass to make a marked receiver move off at an angle to collect it, thus opening up a space when the defender goes with him, a pass back into the space for the original passer is now possible.
    The game is not simple, it is in fact a continuous process of working your way through a maze that continually changes to block you. Kids will find individual ways to break lines, if it’s up to us to develop that team understanding, keeping it simple is not the answer.
    Great blog John.

  11. Yesterday, Yaya Toure set up a goal opportunity for Manchester City at Hull when he passed the ball forward from midfield to a team mate and then immediately moved into a different angle to receive it back. This movement of a few yards opened up the field for him, (opened the curtain), and he clipped a pass with the outside of his foot into space for a runner breaking clear, (third man running), leading to another City goal.
    Good players, playing with vision and good movement, is what football should be about.

  12. Hi all. I don’t see so many important playing features of the game today that were in everyday use in the past; where have they gone and why are they not used today?

  13. Hi John…. I believe that the reason these “playing features” have disappeared is due to the machine-like quality of much of the football. The game has been taken from the players by too much poor coaching. The example you gave of the midfield player you saw who, during 90 minutes, never once passed the ball forward or ran forward with the ball, is indicative of coaching which preaches to players to keep it simple and assigns players with certain jobs. We are not producing clever players. Even to see a player execute a back-heel to throw the opposition off balance is becoming rare.
    In the past, even teams in the lower divisions had one or two players with a range of skills and tricks which helped warm the spectators on the coldest of days. Players must be allowed the freedom to improvise within the tactical system and game plan which the coach has drawn up. I think that we are putting young players in a strait jacket and presenting them with a game where we, as coaches, do all the thinking for them. They think of themselves as chess pieces, being moved around by the coach.
    I think that if we coach the players a technical skill then we introduce opposition to the practised skill and, following that, we make the practice directional. We decide a game style, bring out the players’ individualism and then get them to combine as a group or team. In other words, the Premier Skills method. Decision making becomes paramount and solving problems through their own inventiveness and creativity.
    In the top flight of English football – the Premier League – we have foreign players supplying the imagination and creativity. Most of the English players wo can find a place in a team at that level, are the hard working cogs cto keep the heels turning – important work but not using the flair and invention of their foreign counterparts because they do not possess that.

  14. Hi all. The game of Association Football in the UK becomes less attractive in terms of playing skills and individualism and more reliant on physical qualities — speed in particular. Cleverness and creativity have disappeared from games whilst aggression and foul play have increased. All of this downward spiral is obvious for all to see — if they want to see it or have seen a different game played in the past. If our football demise is so obvious to anyone who has both the eyes and heart for the game, why doesn’t our football ‘hierarchy’ actually re-think their failed development methods? I’ll tell you why……. because they don’t know what to do! There is an appropriate saying that really explains the situation….’Bul….t. baffles brains’. Our game has become subject to exploitation in numerous areas of….finance – commercialism – advertising – media – etc. but not in the the real necessary needs of the game itself — quality coaching and playing of the game!
    Do you think the game here is getting better or worse? If better, what do you think has improved other than fitness levels. If you think it hasn’t improved, why do you think it has gone backwards and why? ……… Am i right or wrong?

  15. Hi John….The game, in my opinion, is most certainly not getting better. When you look at old recordings of matches played in the past then you are reminded of the muddy fields and bone hard surfaces that the games were played on and yet the skill levels were higher. Today we have lush pitches which are as pristine at the end of the season as they were at the beginning. But the quality is lower, except from the talented foreign players in the Premier League.
    I do not think that enough attention is paid to the development of the basic skills. There is much attention given to tactics and physical conditioning but unless the players have a full range of well developed skills then they cannot play at a high level. Brian Clough once famously said: “Coaching is for kids”. This was an ill-judged remark because many senior players feel they have no need to regularly practice and improve their skills. During the seventies and eighties I saw Ron Greenwood and John Lyall many times coach the first team players to get the basics right with prolonged practice as an introduction to a particular topic at West Ham.

  16. Hi all. There seems to be a ‘cut off’ in player development work at the senior end of the game here. There are tactical adjustments but little, if any, real work done on improving the skill qualities of individual players. It seems once players achieve senior status there is no longer much that can be done to improve individual playing ability. I may be wrong in my assuption, but i see senior players make the same mistakes time after time; is it the payer who resists the extra work or coaching that fails to respond to the extra qualities needed? Our playing problems start in junior development where players fail to receive a satisfactory learning base and this lack of playing ability and game understanding continues into senior levels resulting in the need for extra physical qualities and ‘robotic performances’ to ‘camouflage’ the lack of important playing needs of the game.

  17. I think that a lot of the coaching at the senior end of the game concentrates on ‘shape’ so that each player understands where he/she should be at any point in the game,whether in or out of possession.
    This is obviously important but I think that technical skill development is a life long journey together with game understanding. I think that this is being neglected and skill acquisition should not just be regarded as work for the junior players. The players should have as wide a skill base as possible so that a player can practise a whole range of skills. I think that the best coaches have always coached in this way. I recall that when watching Ron Greenwood and John Lyall at West Ham, they frequently broke a skill session down so that in the initial stages the players often worked with ball each against the wall of the training area to develop the execution and basic understanding of a particular skill. This was with players of international standing. Many of today’s players seem to regard any form of skill practise as only necessary for players in the Academy.
    I was recently speaking with a long standing member of the West Ham coaching staff and he said that after the Greenwood/Lyall era at West Ham had finished, it was noticeable how many of the senior playing members, who had arrived at the club on transfers, were unimpressed with, and reluctant to perform, the type of individual technical skill work that had been commonplace with their technically far superior predecessors. Individual and collective performance declined very sharply at the club as a result,as it has throughout English football in general.

  18. Hi all. i watch many games at all levels — U/15 to international matches —- and i am regularly puzzeled by the amount of players who seem unsuited to the position they are playing. Surely, it is in the best interests of both club and player to establish the position in which a player can show his ability and improve the quality of his team’s performances. There are so many players i feel over the years at senior levels who have not reached their full potential because the were used incorrectly and have disappeared from the football scene when they could have made a bigger impact.

  19. Hi John….Josh Magennis represented Northern Ireland in under age teams as a goalkeeper. He entered professional football in that position. He then switched to playing as a striker and showed greater promise in that position. He was in the Northern Ireland squad at Euro 2016 as a striker and last Monday he scored a hat trick for Charlton Athletic as they came back from 0 -1 down to beat Bristol Rovers 4 – 1. He showed good movement off the ball, finds space in the penalty area and finishes calmly when the opportunity presents itself.

  20. Hi all. The problem of incorrect positioning begins at early stages of development. Team positiong at junior levels is party to numerous, dubious reasons. The main cause is the over-importance of WINNING. Too often skills are ignored in favour of physical qualities. Teaching the game to produce superior playing quality in conjunction with physical maturation should create an obvious playing ability to which a role can be easier to recognise at senior levels.

  21. I hope that Man City’s performance against West Ham on Friday night will silence some of the critics who have recently been sniping at Pep Guardiola. Admittedly, once the goals started going in, the Hammers offered little resistance. However, City’s quality shone through, with their movement and runs from deep, quite brilliant. It was to be expected that the Premier League would present Guardiola with his toughest challenge as a coach so far, following his great success in La Liga and the Bundesliga. There are unique challenges for a coach coming to the English league from other European leagues and it was never likely that he would achieve instant success with the high quality football he wants to play, as he did in both Spain and Germany. It will take many hours of working with the players on the training ground. But the football which City played against West Ham is both an education and pleasure for the discerning spectator and the football education which their English players, such as Sterling and Stones, are receiving, can only lead to long term improvement of the England team.

  22. Hi Steve. It doesn’t say much for the FA’s Coaching programs if we need foreign coaches to teach us how to play. I feel sure the influence of professionals such as Michels and Cruyff provided him with much better insights intto playing and coaching of the game than the ‘classroom hierarchy’ that has controlled and influenced coaching and development methods here for decades.

  23. There have been some good performances from young English players recently. Tom Davies looked very promising in midfield for Everton against Man City on Sunday and Ademola Lookman got straight into the game and scored a good goal on his Everton debut during the few minutes he was on the pitch. Dele Alli has also been playing well for Tottenham and the way he ‘ghosts’ into goal scoring positions with well timed runs from deep is reminiscent of Martin Peters. Harry Kane is leading the Tottenham line well and scoring goals regularly.
    The criticism in recent years has been that the Academies are not producing the English talent and the England senior team suffers as a consequence of the failure of the clubs’ Academies. But I just wonder if this is really the case, when we see the above examples of highly promising young players showing what they can do as described above. Perhaps the problems lie in the clubs’ senior teams when the young players have made the breakthrough. Is the young player’s development not continuing when he gets his place in the senior squad and, if so, what is going wrong? Is the pressure to get results so great, especially in the Premier League, that development takes a lower priority than it should? Often a young player does well at first when he gets his chance in the first team, but when his performances take a temporary tailing off then he loses his place. Often this is the signal for the club to go into the transfer market and pay several million pounds for a player who is no better than the players they have already got. The young player who loses his place often drifts out of sight and can end up leaving he club and playing the rest of his career at a lower level than his he had originally looked destined. Too often this has resulted from clubs adopting a policy of short termism.

  24. The speed that the game is played at today is making it virtually impossible to referee with one hundred per cent certainty of making the correct decisions. The goal line technology is proving whether the ball crossed the line or not beyond any dispute, but very often a TV playback over a missed offside call or foul, merely provokes argument among pundits in the studio as to what was actually the correct decision still unresolved. It still comes down to an individual’s interpretation, although I think that individual, i.e. the referee, could receive more help from his assistants and the fourth official.
    What is really needed is a change in attitude and, therefore, more respect for the game. If the game is to be slowed down then there needs to be greater attention given to players’ acquisition of the skills of the game. Players are fitter and faster but these physical attributes, in too many cases, are at the expense of skill development. I recently saw a recording of the UEFA Cup Final of 1973 between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Liverpool. Gunter Netzer got possession in midfield and clipped a beautiful pass with the outside of his foot which curled the ball around the Liverpool centre half into the path of the German striker who ran through to score. How many players do we see regularly using the outside of their foot these days? Not many, unless they are South Americans. If players could be persuaded to vary the game’s pace, instead of 100mph for 90 minutes, then many of the game’s skills which we regularly use to see, will return for our enjoyment and the games will be easier for the officials to control.

  25. Manchester City have now beaten West Ham twice at the Olympic Stadium in one month with an aggregate score of 9 – 0. A feature of City’s play is how they use the full width of the pitch, especially in the positioning of their two wingers, Sterling and Sane. I don’t think I have seen two wide players stretch the play as much as they do. On Wednesday evening they helped to create huge gaps in the West Ham defence which City’s movement and deadly passing fully exploited. It was reminiscent of the way in which Ajax and the Dutch National Team played in the seventies with great width, but all wingers in days gone by were expected to come off the pitch at the end of the match with “chalk on their boots”, the result of their feet being in constant contact with the touchline markings. Sterling and Sane also know just when to come in off the line to either score themselves or set up chances for others.

  26. A brilliant piece of individualism by Damarai Gray when he scored the third goal for Leicester in their FA Cup replay against Derby County last night. Although Leicester are having a disappointing season after winning the League last term, Gray does seem to be making progress. Certainly talented when he was signed from Birmingham, he is adding additional features to his game. He switches positions along the front line effectively and sets up chances for team mates as well as scoring goals himself.
    If he continues to develop then he can become an effective member of the England team. But most importantly, he provides an example of a young player who has been allowed to develop as an individual and who now “conjoins with the team”.

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