I’ve wanted to write this post for a while now, but in truth it was a thought that wouldn’t properly crystalise in my head. I knew what I wanted to say but I was struggling to articulate it. However, over the last few months, while we’ve been working hard to set up the new club and watching our teams play (there’s that word again – play), we’ve witnessed the very best, and unfortunately, the very worst of grassroots football.
You will hear people harp on about technical development (us included!), about Elite Player Pathways or the quality of Football For All (F.F.A) sessions, which are aimed at helping those newer to the game develop. But within all this talk, it has become oh so easy to completely overlook the fundamental fact of why any of us first kicked a football.
A few weeks ago I sat on the sidelines with Tony after a long weekend, at a very well run tournament, and watched the u11s final. On the pitch we watched a committed and talented group of players, passionately compete. You could see the desire on their faces, the drive and determination to win. Now remember this is 10 year old children we are talking about here. As we watched the temperature rise we sadly saw the game boil over.
We witnessed two incidents.
Firstly we saw a team of parents flood the pitch, one literally taking his shirt off and swinging it around his head in celebration, when their side scored in extra time. I have to stress, this wasn’t the final whistle, there was still several minutes left to play. In fact, as Tony and I sat thunderstruck watching these parents, their children - the players - literally stood at the centre circle, ready to kick off again, but unable to as their mums and dads were still celebrating on the pitch. I ask myself, what must these children have been thinking? More to the point, what did they take from it and how will it affect them, both on and off the pitch, moving forward?
Secondly, only minutes later, in the corner right in front of us, we saw a late challenge. The tackle wasn’t the issue. The young boy who made the foul sat on the floor, crying, repeatedly saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ as not only the opposition player loomed over him, but also a parent who had walked onto the pitch to confront the child, screamed down at him. Again, to reiterate, we are talking about 10 year old children here…. Moments later the ref blew the final whistle. The young player who committed the foul was on the winning side. His side broke out into wild celebrations. He remained on the floor, on his own, in floods of tears….
Are these kind of incidents a rarity these days? They are certainly extreme, but I wish I could say with total confidence that they were isolated.
We are fortunate enough to work with the full spectrum of players at Pass+Move, from those new to the game all the way through to young players who are knocking on the door of professional academies. Our problem - our point - or to be more precise, ‘our challenge’, is to keep all these children ‘free’ on a football pitch. To make sure they ‘play without fear’ no matter what stage they are at in their development. They need to be unencumbered when they have a ball at their feet.
‘Pressure’ is the key word. Now I’m not talking about that natural drive to do well. That desire to get on the ball and affect the game. That is a characteristic to be nurtured and protected, a good form of pressure. That is a trait that you will see on any rec, a self-imposed pressure you’ll witness at lunchtime on any playground.
So what am I getting at? How about I ask you a question, one I’ll leave us all to ponder on our own. We have an national team made up of Premier League superstars who crumble when they pull on the England shirt. They struggle to deal with the pressure and expectation of a nation. On a smaller scale, but arguable a more crucial level, we see the same trait within our youngsters. Children are not born with that trait, they do not feel pressure the first time they decide to kick a ball in the back garden! So my question is this - this fear, this almost debilitating, unhealthy pressure we see so often in young players, where does it come from….????!!!!
Now I truly wish I could sit here and say I’ve never got things wrong as a coach, that I’ve never said the wrong thing or allowed my competitive nature to leak out during a match. But I can’t, and I know Tony would say the same. ‘I’m still learning’ and I’m not embarrassed to admit that.
This weekend I watched one of our most talented players hesitate when his team mates turned to him to take a penalty at a crucial juncture in a match. We heard his moment of doubt but said nothing. We watched, and without prompting or cajoling from the sidelines, he made the decision to take on the responsibly. He backed himself and what happened next is frankly irrelevant.
That could have been any of our players within any of our age groups. The lesson isn’t whether he scored, whether there were tears of joy or sadness, the lesson is in his decision. It was him making the choice alone, unencumbered, without fear or ‘undue pressure’. It is about teaching them to never be afraid on a pitch. To never hide from the chance to have an impact (a mantra that rings true for all areas of a child’s life). It’s about reminding them, and more to the point reminding ourselves, that this game at its core is meant to fun.
So we say, next time we as parents, or us as coaches for that matter, when you feel that passion we have for this game swell up and threaten to spill over (albeit from joy or frustration), look at the young men and women we are watching and simply remind ourselves ‘there’s a reason they call it ‘playing’ the game….!
From Amsterdam to Burnley and beyond: We've been here before.
It's often noted how trends come back around every so often. It's a familiar thought in the realms of fashion and film, though delve a little deeper and football is not dissimilar.
Take the Juventus side of this season. A team who I personally fancy to win the champions league in a few weeks against the free flowing attacking juggernaut that is Real Madrid. A team who lost their supposed prized asset in Paul Pogba last summer, yet have excelled in his absence. You could argue that this is down to the exceptional talents of a young, exciting Paulo Dybala and the exquisite movement of a slightly overweight Gonzalo Higuain, but who are the real stars of this team?
Bonucci, Barzagli, Benatia and Chiellini are the four central defenders used at one time or another in a 3-4-3 formation. This is a formation that is focused on shutting out the opposition coupled with a high tempo counter attacking style offensively, something that is not unusual in Italian football. These tactics are far from original and have been seen in many incarnations during different periods of footballing history.
The beginnings of these tactics stem from the 1930’s and 40’s, invented by Karl Rappan. Rappan was an Austrian coach who used a sweeper in front of the goalkeeper and used fixed defenders, who employed a strict man marking strategy. The fixed defenders marked players man for man and the sweeper was designed to ‘sweep’ behind the defence, picking up loose balls and deflections and double marking where appropriate. He called his strategy ‘Verrou’ which later became ‘Catenaccio’ which means ‘door-bolt’ in Italian. Fast Forward to the 1960’s and Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale team, known as ‘Grande Inter’ and we see a set up not unlike the Juventus of today. This side were known not just for being hard tackling and ruthless in defence, but also for scoring lightning quick goals on the counter attack by using attacking, overlapping full backs. Sound like Dani Alves’ performance vs Monaco over 2 legs in this season’s Champions League semi final?
Enter the 1970’s, a man called Rinus Michels and Total Football. Michel’s Total Football allowed any player to play in any position (other than the goalkeeper). Players would constantly rotate and fill each other's positions, allowing a fluid, innovative style of football that man marking alone could not negate. Michel’s Ajax defeated an Inter side deploying the Catenaccio strategy 2-0 in the 1972 European Cup final, leading Dutch newspapers to announce the ‘destruction of Catenaccio’. A new trend was emerging.
Michels wasn't the first to use Total Football though, this had already been seen in the Burnley side of the 1950’s. Burnley secured the 1959/60 English League title using the system, earning plaudits from none other than Jimmy Greaves. The system was of course made famous by Ajax and The Netherlands due in no small part to Johan Cruyff. Michels allowed Cruyff complete freedom to use his technical ability and game intelligence to create and exploit space, leading to the creation of many goal scoring opportunities for himself and his team mates. The key to the system was simple. Space.
Players were always focussed on how to create space, when to run, where to stand and when to not move. This combined with an aggressive pressing strategy without possession, designed to stifle the opposition and deny space quickly led to much success. Sounds like a particular Barcelona side under a certain Pep Guardiola, right? Unsurprising given that the Tiki-Taka football displayed by that Barcelona side and Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain was based upon Cruyff’s own version of Total Football!
Although, as we have seen, Total Football was and is not without it’s flaws. The Netherlands World Cup final team of 1974 discovering this after being stifled by a West Germany side using a Catenaccio style system in the second half of the game especially.
So as you can see, these trends come and go. Today we see a Chelsea side on the verge of the Premier League title under Italian coach Antonio Conte. At times labelled an innovative coach this season for the style in which his team plays. Innovative? Or just a student of the game with the right players at the right time?
You may ask, where does Pass + Move fit in to all of this then? To answer this question you really need to work backwards and ask: What makes a Pass + Move player? We believe that every player that we coach should be adaptable, as essentially football is a game of problem solving. If we coached our players to only press the ball high out of possession or only to play counter attacking football, we would be failing them. At some point, whether it be with us or when we send them out into the big wide world of football, they will come across a problem on the pitch that they will not have seen before. By helping them to understand the game as best we can; by guiding them through different techniques, skills and tactics; by giving them the opportunity to be creative, we hope that no problem will be too great for them.
As a Catenaccio type style enjoys a resurgence in club football I can't help but wonder, where will the next Total Football side come from?
This book is a must read for so many who are involved in football; coaches, players and most definitely parents. This little excerpt has really stuck with me. The last paragraph should be tattooed on all the minds of those of us involved in youth football.