Skills Deception

By John Cartwright

Whether it’s our Industries, our NHS our Schools or our Sports etc. there is a serious lack of ‘home-grown’ skills available. We have seen large numbers of foreign workers entering this country to fill those skills gaps — and our football, at all levels is an obvious example.

Why is it that we have failed to recognise the importance of teaching and learning of skills? Surely, Governments of the past and present must have been aware of the need for skill, so why did it not become a priority issue for industries etc. — as well as for the football industry?


We have allowed foreign countries to overtake us in so many industrial and commercial businesses over the past 50 years and our football industry is no exception. The governing ‘hierarchy’, both industrial and those involved in football here, should be ashamed of their lack of planning, greed and ignorance of the situations in which they were/are involved.

Skills learning in the past was achieved through apprenticeships — on the job — learning the trade. The realistic ‘doing’ of the job at first hand and receiving either praise or reprimand was the way skills and jobs were learned – from the ‘ground floor to a seat on the Board of Directors’.

I have been a strong believer in ‘realistic doing’ of things. ‘Getting ones hands dirty’ learning the trade is the best way to achieve the necessary skills for any job. Present day use of Technology is fine up to a point, but this aspect of learning should not take priority over actual practical work. Our coaching and development methods over the years has produced a preference for ‘classroom coaches’ and not ‘pitch practitioners’.

The ‘safe passer’ has become a preferred member of a team rather than the ‘inscrutable individual’. Our game has become too predictable; the obvious before the outlandish. It is speed that rules our game, a constant fast tempo irrespective of necessity fashions the way we think the game should be played. All speed but little craft and imagination exists through all levels of our game.


We are trying to play the skilful sport of Association Football without being able to produce the skills to play it because those skills have not been taught properly from junior through to senior levels. Unnecessary use of possession has diminished penetrative options — keeping the ball is today’s deceptive ploy for those players who have low skill, low confidence and low game understanding. We have turned a positive feature for quality football into a boring, tactical, misunderstood mess. Seeking penetrative opportunities in each of the thirds of the field should be a constant requirement in the game, but the pass backwards or sideways when forward penetration is so often available has become a routine part of our game.

Where’s our dribblers? Where’s our runners and changers of direction with the ball? Where’s our ‘foxy-eyed’ passers of the ball who look one way and stroke the ball in another direction? Where’s our cunning/casual individual who suddenly breaks into speed to exploit an advantage? Where’s our ‘classic’ headers of the ball. Where’s our defenders who have the confidence and ability to control the ball and use it positively even in tight situations? Where’s our Goalkeepers who can use either foot to deliver the ball over long and short distances? —— Where’s our teaching of the game that instead of producing creativity, individualism and exciting playing qualities has brought the ’beautiful game’ to a robotic, scrambling, aggressive ‘fightball’ level. The football public have been deceived into believing that ‘speedy mediocracy’ equals greatness, when in fact the debilitating lack of skills available in our game has brought it to a level not much better than a Sunday morning club game over the local park.

Never mind, once again all will be forgotten about our past playing ‘disasters’ for we have just beaten Lithuania — 117th in FIFA’s World rankings!  Like the performance against Iceland in last year’s Euro Tournament, we once again displayed no tactical variation and although we had lots of possession we struggled to make sufficient penetrations against a poor team who’s only tactics were to defend deep and in numbers. —– Where were our individual player(s) and where were the playing variations necessary to offset the ‘park the bus’ tactics that confronted the England team?  —— they  weren’t  available as usual because our game has been commandeered by development methods over the years that have refused to recognise the importance of skills acquisition to provide  individual brilliance that ‘opens the door’ to success.

The deceit continues as each season’s mess is swept under the ‘carpet’ and poor standards are ‘hyped’ to false levels of so called greatness.



14 thoughts on “Skills Deception

  1. I went to the Lithuania game with Peter and Steve from this blog. Sitting behind the goal and high up gave us a clear view of the game. Never having seen England in a competitive match before was an eye opener. For the 1st time I could clearly see what John has been saying for many years. Watching it on the tv means you can’t see the whole game, what happens off the ball is not always evident on a screen.

    I never saw Walker make any penetrative runs, even with acres of space in front of him.
    Lallana who I have heard so many positives about, rarely took a player or two on. No runs across the pitch to create space. Players keep the ball for 2/3 touches then release time after time. A genuine lack of creativity, no one is brave enough or is it they are told not to take chances to do things differently?

    The only positive was the fact it once again highlights why Practice Play is my preferred choice of coaching.

    Do not be fooled by the FA coaching manual, some very nicely worded documents, with little practical work to convince me that England are going to move forward in the coming years.

    France v Spain however a few days later showed what a skilfull teams can do when coached properly.

  2. When you discuss Quality, with a capital Q, take Robert Pirsigs work into account. The article addresses some of the parts but misses the whole.

      • Pirsig is the motorcycle equivalent of Cruyff:

        (other bookshops are available).

        One of our so-called most skilful players – Raheem Sterling – seems to have lost his place in the Man City starting eleven. I’m not surprised: either he is not as good as the media would have us believe or his confidence is low and Pep is trying to reignite that by leaving him out to receive additional coaching. Which is it, do you think?

        From the clips I have seen on TV, Sterling doesn’t demonstrate the penetration with and without the ball that John advocates so strongly, in my opinion. Last night v Chelsea, I was intrigued to see how his substitution would effect the game when he came on. Apart from one diagonal run from the centre to the inside left channel to receive the ball, which was very good, he offered nothing, in my my view.

        And if he is the best we have then that is why we struggle at major tournament finals. But how do we change this…? Thoughts, anyone..?

  3. Since the 1960s teams have come to Wembley and frustrated England by pulling back ten men behind the ball at the slightest hint of danger. The minnows would have been dispatched would have been dispatched after 6 – 8 goals had been put into their net, but now even low-graded teams like Lithuania are giving England problems because they can set up a defensive formation.
    In my opinion, there is a lack of movement, both collectively and individually, among England players. Individually, in possession, English players do not trouble opponents in 1 v. 1 confrontations. There is little dribbling ability displayed by English players and an absence of ‘making things happen’ in these duels. Collectively, the ‘off the ball’ movement to drag opponents out of position, is poor and there are very few well timed runs into space. If a runner goes then he runs too early and is either picked up by a marker or runs offside.
    In addition to these failings, I thought that yesterday’s Arsenal – Man City match illustrated how we do do not seem to be developing good ‘leader’ players these days. There were some examples of good skill performance in this match but neither side had anyone in their ranks who was prepared to either cajole or encourage team mates to do something extra to either win the match or keep it won when they were ahead. I could not imagine players of these two clubs from the past like Adams, Bould and Viera for Arsenal or Kompany, for City, allowing this match to drift towards a draw when both teams really needed three points.
    I don’t think it is any coincidence that two of the most promising English players to have emerged in the last year or two, did not come through the academy system. I am thinking of Michail Antonio at West Ham and Ademola Lookman of Everton. Antonio was spotted playing as a semi pro for Tooting & Mitcham and Nottingham Forest were the first League club take a chance on him. Lookman was just playing park football in south London when Charlton saw him and gave him a chance. From what I have seen of him in a few brief TV highlights, when he has gone off the bench at Everton he is showing the same willingness to produce the unexpected at Premier League level as he did in League 1 for Charlton.
    So do the examples of Antonio and Lookman ask questions of the Academy system as well as the international performances of England?

  4. Robert Pirsigs is a philosopher and in fact would agree with everything John has said regarding quality.

  5. Hi Peter….I think that Raheem Sterllng comes into that category of players who got “too much too soon” in terms of adulation, without sufficient game understanding, in the early days of his career. Together with an agent who did not operate or advise in his best, long term interests. I have read that Guardiola has worked hard with him in training and the Man City formation relies on playing with two wingers, Sterling and Sane, who play really wide to stretch the opposition. But I think that Guardiola wants both of them to play FROM the wing, rather than ON the wing, so that they can pop up along various points of the front line, depending on the state of play and position of the ball. Their wide positions, with heels on the chalk, are starting positions. It will take time for Sterling to develop fully with the coaching he is receiving. By contrast, Sane has the additional qualities of pace to burn, a nose for goal and a fierce shot, which, at the moment, give him the edge over Sterling. But, even so, Sterling is chipping in with a few goals himself and a number of assists, like the ball he put on a plate for Defoe to score in the England match against Lithuania recently.
    I should just like to mention the good work which I think David Wagner is currently doing as Manager/Coach of Huddersfield in the Championship. He has made a number of very useful loan signings, some from abroad, but the striker, Wells, has caught my eye and I understand that he has been at Huddersfield, always playing in the lower divisions, for several years. In last night’s televised match, he opened up Norwich with a superb back heel pass which completely unbalanced the Norwich defence to play in another forward for a simple goal. I think that this Huddersfield team, and a number of their players, are worth keeping an eye on.

  6. Hi Steve,

    I agree (too much, too young). There was a long piece about Sterling in the Guardian last w/end:

    This extract is instructive, imo:
    The response to the criticism he received at the turn of the year offers an illustration. In January one tabloid decided to highlight that Sterling – wait for it – ate a sausage roll from Greggs and had the temerity to eat it in a “£500,000 limited edition Bentley”. Sterling laughed it off with an Instagram post that highlighted the story with the simple question: “What’s my life come 2?” along with three laughing emojis, while stating he was unaware Bentleys cost this much.

    Discussing it now there is only bemusement. “I see it and think, ‘Why does that story have to be about me?’” he says.

    Whilst it’s easy to pick on young players and their lifestyles (I’m sure I’d have been no different) what is striking is the lack of self-awareness. If Sterling can’t grasp the incongruity of sitting in public a Bentley (Ltd Edition) and eating a sausage roll from a high st chain and how that will be perceived and reported by the public and press then this demonstrates the bubble that Sterling and other players live in, in my opinion.

    I would never say Sterling is thick – quite the opposite, I think. That said, it seems to me that Sterling and players like him get insulated from so-called ‘real-life’ from a young age due to their potential talent. Over time, this specialised treatment creates a psychological fissure in their development and decision making.

    From this starting position, over time, this altered behaviour finds its way on to the pitch. I have been curious about how Sterling would develop ever since he pinged that shot in to the side netting against Italy (WC2014). I don’t see enough games live to feel qualified to comment with authority (i.e. in the stadium to see overall team shape), but whenever I have watched live TV games it seems to me that Sterling is letting Pep down by not being brave enough with and without the ball.

    For example, when Sterling came on against Chelsea his very first touch was good (positive lay-off), but he spent the remaining short time when he was on the pitch running in lines with the Chelsea defenders and not being clever with his runs creating problems and options for his colleague carrying the ball. It looked like a lack of football intelligence: he did not seem to know where to run to create space and ask questions of the opponent(s). Sterling only had 10-15mins to make an impact; which isn’t long, of course, but when I think about other times when I have seen live TV games this season he is simply not brave enough, or lacks the confidence to try something exceptional (players have to improvise more in the last third/ zone 14)

    This is clearly something to do with the way in which players are developed in England. I think about other players who are supposedly our best players at any one time and once they mature they seem to fall away from previous performance levels (i.e. Rooney, Wilshire, etc).

    To bring this back to the beginning…, maybe this does suggest that once these guys land their life changing contract then their desire to reach the very top level diminishes. It seems to me that they like the idea of it, but they have been let down developmentally, lacking the skill acquisition and the correct maturation process to make the right decisions at the right pace at the right time.

    I propose our players should take a bite out of the Suarez play-book to re-tune in to the attitude and commitment required to perform at the very top. I’m not sure about Suarez as a man, but who can question his attitude, desire and skilful play on the pitch?

  7. Hi Peter….Our young player development is still coming up short in this country in my opinion. We still find talented players but we are not developing them to full potential. Raheem Sterling, in my opinion, is a talented player but his football education so far has been inadequate. Now he has a coach who is maybe the best in the world so he has a great chance to develop his full potential.
    It is a great pity that the media in this country is fixated on the ‘glamour’ side of the game. They are only too ready to focus on the extravagances of players’ life styles in order to knock them off their pedestals. Any England player from recent abysmal tournaments is particularly considered to be fair game. It is a pity that less attention is paid by the sports pages of our national press to the reasons for these continued disappointments and what can be done about them.
    I agree that Luis Suarez is a good example that our young players should look to emulate. Though Suarez was involved in a few incidents for which there was no excuse, his desire and dedication to become one of the world’s best players, were undeniable. I think that this is due to two factors: the environment he grew up in in Uruguay and the coaching he received in his formative years in South America. There are still street players in South America, but even in that continent there is less street play now because roads are clogged with traffic. However, they have been astute enough to recognise the football qualities which were developed in street play and so there are vast numbers of caged areas for kids in densely populated towns and cities to play and develop their skills in play areas where space is at a premium. I also believe that in South America the coaching is delivered to young players so that they acquire skills in a realistic, game-related manner where opposition is present from even the earliest stages of the work. The typical South American player is still one who protects the ball so well under pressure, so I am sure that the coaching focuses on practising against live opposition from the earliest stages.

  8. Hi Steve. Your comments regards Sreet Football are exactly why and how I constructed the Premier Skills Development Programs. This realistic approach to development has been available to our FA over the past 15 years but they have not recognised its development potential and have continued ‘tweaking’ their failed, pathless approach to the teaching and learning of the game. How do you open the eyes of those who do not want to see?

  9. Hi all. I recently watched a senior game in which one of the team’s had to select several young players. It was interesting to see that in terms of athletic qualities they produced creditable performances. However, when it came to individual Skills and game understanding for the game (Div.2) they were woefully short of even the standards required at this low level.
    I have argued with our football ‘hierarchy’ for decades about the importance from day one of the suitable ‘transfer’ of practice into game play. Would a teacher of mathematics who has spent a week teaching addition to his/her students then, at the end of the week, exam them on subtraction? No, the intelligent transfer would be to exam what had been taught during the week. So why is this sensible approach to teaching and learning not applied to development of our players — at all levels! The ‘too early’ use of goals at junior levels is a huge mistake and substitute ‘targets’ applicable to the learning phase at the time would be a far better way of transfer of practice into a game. As development proceeds so other ‘targets’ can be used until the use of goals is required. Practice that fails to be endorsed by a play situation that provides players with a suitable ‘follow up’ leads to a waste of learning time for the players. —— as was apparent in the players on view in the game I mentioned earlier!

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