As 2017 comes to a close, I now have time to sit down and gather my thoughts on the experiences of the past 12 months and then to plan for the New Year ahead.
Firstly, It was a year of huge decisions.
It was a year in which I grew hugely as a person and experienced things both professionally and personally that I will never forget.
“It was also another year in football that I feel extremely fortunate to have lived”
My highlights of the year include
Working for Sao Paulo FC
Experiencing the passion for football in Brazil (Thank you SPFC Fans for this)
Living in Brazil and learning about the beautiful culture
Learning a new language (the most fulfilling journey I have experienced)
Playing against River Plate, Santos, Corinthians, Palmeiras
Making lifelong friendships
Returning to Liverpool FC academy (A special feeling to be back at my home in football)
Working with really young players again has been hugely rewarding
Staring the Pro Licence course
Coaching in Argentina, Brazil, Qatar, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, USA, Scotland.
I have always been a person that likes to make plans and have aims to achieve. This process enables me to concentrate on what is important to me in life and then ensuring that I focus on making sure those things are being ticked off or completed.
In short – It’s a list of things that get me out of bed in the morning!!
I use 6 categories to plan for the year
Development – Personal development
Work – Working aims and targets
Family – Activities with my wife and two boys
Health – So important, but always the one I’m most disappointed with
Finance – Planning for my families future
Fun – To ensure life doesn’t become too serious
Under each one, I write down what I would like to achieve or experience in the New Year. I don’t mind sharing that the second language has been on the list for many years and only this year did I make a significant development in that area. This will still be on the list again this year as a reminder to continue reading and studying.
“Like most people that work in football, I have two periods of “New year resolutions” with the second coming in June on my summer holidays. This works perfectly as a review point or mini half time assessment of how I am doing”
Of course, there are things that you cannot always plan for,
For me, having 8 weeks out of work allowed me to be a “full time” dad at the same time that my children were on the summer holidays from school. This was something that I didn’t plan for (and that I wouldn’t have wanted to plan for either), but it was fantastic to have that quality time with my boys. This period showed me the things I miss at home when working in a sport that I am obsessed with.
Life is short, and having lost one or two friends this year and also observing from a distance as one or two others have a tough time in their own careers, It’s a clear reminder that you have to constantly move forward and believe in yourself.
It is also important that you give this confidence to children or young people on their way up in the world.
Teaching them that YOU vs YOURSELF is a fantastic way to attack life and that they should be constantly trying to improve and impress themselves.
We all have our own unique journey in life. As coaches, we must educate children to only look sideways for inspiration and never to compare. Its my opinion that becoming a better person and improving each day is the ultimate definition of winning!!
And…… Winning is a word that we must promote more. We just need to give this clarity to the term winning in order to transform it from being seen as an ugly word in sports/schools to a beautiful word.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your families
But – are we doing enough to develop the next generation of elite defenders? and do we value the skills that defenders possess?
Tackling, shielding, intercepting, pressing, blocking, heading, clearing, tracking etc……. are skills that can be developed via coaching.
Are they seen as skills? and how often do we expose our players to them in order to develop and improve?
In modern day football, we often hear an assessment of a central defender on their ability to pass or bring the ball out of defence to instigate the teams attack.
Its a fact – that these qualities are important to developing a possession based style.
But, its my opinion that these qualities are an added bonus to a “top” defender and not an excuse of – “he can play” – to give to a mediocre defender.
The balance is important and ideally we would want a outstanding defender, who in possession is able to play as a midfielder. But – the balance must always lean towards being a top defender first.
Therefore, as coaches, its important that we don’t neglect to develop defensive techniques.
“Often, we see defending as a boring subject to coach.
This is maybe a reason for coaches not investing adequate time to develop these techniques in there players.
However, being creative in your coaching of defending can change your players mentality towards defending. This is key to improvement”
Assess your players
When beginning with a new team or group of players, I always look and ask myself the following questions.
How many of the players are good defenders?
How many of the players like to defend?
How competitive is the group? (what do the training games look like)
The reason for this assessment is simple – to play elite football – all players must take part in the process of attacking and defending.
But defending, like attacking, is different for each player and for each position on the field.
For example, defending for a winger is different to defending for a central defender. The skills required for each position are different. This is similar to when the team is in possession, players need to develop the skills required for the situations they will experience in the game.
Improve each players defending
From analysing the group and answering the questions above, I can then begin to improve each players defensive qualities.
To do this, you need to improve the awareness/understanding of each player and begin to make defending specific to the individual roles in the team.
Improving each player by 10 to 20% in the defensive side of the game will have have a big impact on the team as a whole.
10 or 20% for some players might seem like a high percentage to increase, but in practice, its actually quite easy to improve a players defensive skills and understanding.
The following areas can have a huge impact on a player
Specific defending for your role in the team
Awareness of how to block space
Awareness of how and when to press
Make each 1 v 1 personal (in training and games)
Ability to use your arms and body to protect your “personal” space
A commitment to never leaving a team mate isolated or 1v1 (the rule of 2v1).
The areas above can be developed by the environment you create in your training sessions.
“Step 1 – Improve your players awareness and mentality to defending”
Link to each players role in the team
Below is one of my favourite quotes for defending – It has references for other areas of player development – but i specifically try to use it for the development of attacking players and there application to defensive responsibilities.
“Defend from the front and attack from the back” – Arsene Wenger
Creating a link to each players specific role in the team will help to break down defending and give clarity to each player.
Examples of this include
Teaching a number 9 how to force play to one side of the pitch – or how to drop back and compact the team when under pressure.
Teaching a wide player how to block the passing line to the opponents wide player – or how to press the opponents full back and lock play to the line or force play inside.
Teaching a number 10 how to work with the number 9 to press central defenders or how to block the opponents deep lying midfielder.
Teaching central midfielders when and how to press or how to block space and then pressure the opponents as the ball is travelling.
Teaching full backs how to block crosses, to play against different types of wide player or how to positioning themselves when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch.
Teaching central defenders how to intercept, stop attackers turning or how to cover their defensive partner.
Teaching goalkeepers how to adjust position with the movement of the ball and how to command their penalty area.
The different aspects of defending are vast – but – giving each player 1 or 2 things to remember is a good starting point.
Link to team work
A key to improving defending, is to link everything back to team work and helping your “friends“.
“Previously, I have spoken about developing players who can outplay 1v1 (in all aspects of the game) but, who are always thinking in 2v1. This is very important when developing defensive qualities”
“Emphasising team work is key”
Try to get your players thinking about helping each other on the pitch and never allowing a team mate to be isolated 1v1 without someone arriving to help.
As individuals (example of wide player helping their full back).
In units (midfielders blocking passes into the opponents attacking players).
As a team (learning how to compact space or force play to certain areas of the pitch).
Defending is about the work you put it………. – Pep Guardiola
Link to controlling space on the pitch
Defending is about space.
A team that understands how to control space on the pitch will be successful in limiting the opponents attacking threats.
Space can be controlled in a number of ways. You can defend as a low, medium or high block in terms of your starting “defensive” organisation.
You can also apply certain “pressing” triggers in relation to the position of the ball or the player in possession of the ball.
Make 1v1s personal
Improving your players mentality to defend and creating a strong winning mentality can be developed over time.
Each group of players includes people with different physical shapes and sizes. It also includes players with different “natural” skill sets (playing personalities). Therefore, in each group you can expose players to different types of opponent in 1v1 situations.
“Making 1v1 duels more personal – both in games and training – is to light a fuse to a players competitive edge”
Creating this mentality of making 1v1s personal and not wanting to lose to your opponent (in any area of the game) is something that you can build on over time.
In training – the practice does not need to be 1v1 – you can “fire” competition in small game scenarios by challenging two players to compete in the game for superiority (can be in any aspect of the game you wish).
This challenge will get the players looking into each others eyes and immediately the competition will rise in all areas of the games (technically, tactically, physically) but especially in the mental aspect of wanting to win…….
Creating this “grit” and winning mentality is essential to improving defensive attributes.
Create the “training environment”
So creating a training environment is very important.
How much competition do you use in training?
Do you make the competition specific?
Do you keep the score?
Do you pitch players up against each other?
To improve defending, its important that you speak about organisation and work ethic. “The way a player moves and reacts when the team is defending, represents the amount that the players wants to win” is a quote that you can use to inspire greater focus in your players.
No player likes to lose. This is important to remember and to use to your advantage.
Having some clear “buzz” words or behaviours in your group can also make a big impact on the group without actually coaching defending as a topic.
An example of this is to simply talk about “light switch” transitions when losing the ball and making sure that the nearest player(s) counter press immediately when possession is lost.
These types of rules will create a training environment based on winning and competition. This in turn will lead to greater focus and mentality to defending.
Praise and encourage
Defending does not come natural to all players – especially if they haven’t been coached or exposed to defensive techniques.
But – if you see your players reacting and trying harder to defend, its important that you recognise this effort and improved mentality. Giving encouragement and praise for a players work ethic or focus is to reward this behaviour and give emphasis for the player to continue more often.
Making work ethic a daily habit – has huge benefits for the player and is often contagious through the group – as other players also want the positive praise.
Make defending fun
So making defending fun or hiding the defending within competition, team work or the focus on 1v1 duels is a clever way to improve each players level.
Whats important is that you have an awareness of how much time or how little time you spend on each area of the game in your training.
“Hide defending – if you need too – but don’t neglect it”
Try to look back over some old training sessions and write down the messages or themes for each session. Did you coach enough on defending??
Link to ball mastery and “personal space”
Improving each players ability to – use their arms and body to protect the ball or to challenge for the ball – are important skills to develop.
This protection of your “personal” space on the pitch can be taught in line with ball mastery exercises and is something that is essential to developing a players “grit” and determination to retain possession.
Defensive skills are as important to develop as attacking skills – accepting this and being creative in your coaching is very important to developing top defenders.
Assess your group
Improve each players defending
Make it position specific
Link to team work – think in 2v1.
Link to controlling space
Make 1v1s personal
Develop the training environment
Praise and encourage
Make it fun
Improve use of arms and body – “personal space”
“Strong at the back, Strong as a team” – Sir Alex Ferguson
TIP – A simple understanding (1) How to control space and (2) a mentality of not being outplayed in 1v1 situations will have a huge impact on the players defensive qualities.
This post continues on the theme of Individual development.
Now, we are going to look in-depth at how you can work with your players in order to build a training programme that is “specific” to them and their needs.
The term “needs” = (1) what the game demands from them (2) what strengths they must continue to improve, (3) what action areas/points they need to improve on.
As an example – I am going to use a striker for this process and I’m going to show that with a simple analysis, you can identify the exact type of goals they score (and miss) in games. This information can then be used to build a “specific” training programme.
This type of work can be done for all positions in the team. Once up and running, the players can also take OWNERSHIP of the analysis (The forward making his/her personal “goal map” as the season progresses etc…)”
Harry Kane is everything that is good about English football and is a role model to young players dreaming of making the Premier League. He is the current PL top goalscorer and during the 2016/17, he scored 35 goals in all competitions for Tottenham Hotspurs FC. He ended the season as England’s captain.
Personally it must have been a fantastic season for him.
Below is a breakdown of Harry Kane’s goals in the form of a “GOAL MAP“.
Each football represents a goal scored and the exact position of the ball before Kane shoots.
The white balls = The 24 goals scored with his right foot
The blue balls = The 8 goals scored with his left foot
The red balls = The 3 goals scored with his head.
Now, we have this “GOAL MAP” we can go into each of the goals and see exactly how they were scored.
We can do this by looking at three keys things
Type of finish (right, head, left)
Distance from goal when finishing
Touches on the ball (including the shot).
I have deliberately kept this analysis simple, and in a basic form that all coaches can use for there players.
(You can be more detailed if you wish – on the exact type of finish – position the ball enters the goal – covering defenders – or situation in the game etc).
See below for a breakdown of each goal.
Goals 3, 5, 6, 7, 16, 27 were penalties and goal 22 was a direct free kick.
Breaking down Harry Kane’s GOAL MAP we can see that he has scored 6 penalties and 1 free kick. We can also see that he has scored 25 goals with a 1 touch finish and a further 7 goals with a 2 touch finish. This will have implications for his further training and his awareness of the type of goal he scores.
The distance from goal when scoring is also important, especially for young strikers that are not always arriving into the box and are maybe – not on the move enough or finishing there movement in the correct areas.
Kane’s goals can be broken down as follows
0-6yd = 8 goals
6-12yd = 15 goals
12-18yd = 7 goals
18yd+ = 5 goals
From the information gathered, The feedback is clear and based on the facts of previous performances. Looking at the exact positions that goals are scored on the players “GOAL MAP” you can see which areas of the box they are most likely (and most unlikely) to score.
Harry Kane is clearly a focused and determined young man and therefore, I am sure that he is getting this type of information and working specific on the areas he wants to develop in his game. He recently spoke about his aims and goals for the future and it is clear the he will strive to improve.
“When top players make an interview about training or development, Listen closely to the words used (This type of obsession with improvement is often clear) and grab as many examples as you can, to show your developing players”.
Developing your player
Ok – so with a simple analysis and some video footage, you can develop your strikers awareness of number of goals scored, types of goals scored and identify some trends in there individual play.
You can also watch any chances missed and then identify any trends that might come from this informaton too.
From this – you can build a very specific training programme that can be developed on a daily basis. The training will now become extremely focused and personal to this players development.
This type of “project” will also get buy in from the player and also inspire them to “own” the training and take ownership to develop these areas when possible.
Your player will also have the awareness that you are thinking of them personally. This will have a big impact on your relationship with the player and also help to structure your communication with them.
This is so important to maintaining a players focus on improving there IDENTITY as a player.
“For some positions, you may want to add physical statistics that coincide with the players strongest performances in the season etc.. You can make it as specific as you need or want too. My only advice would be – the simpler the better – in terms of using the information to build a training programme that is aimed to improve the players ability, awareness and focus”.
For any young player, using a role model and analysing this elite players GOAL MAP or specific actions in a game, can also be a strong influence on a young player.
This can also help to “guide” a young players training and improvement.
TIP – Getting into the box
Encourage your forwards to take the extra touch and go into the penalty box. By going into the box, you create more options to use a variety of finishing techniques.
Chip or “Dink”
Going around the goalkeeper
Also when the ball is in the penalty area, defenders will naturally panic more!!.
This will often lead to the defenders lunging in (to block/tackle) and therefore, giving you the opportunity to fake and bring the ball in another direction or possibly lead to a foul/penalty.
When looking at different finishing techniques,
Ask your player – What techniques do they already have at an elite standard? and which ones do they need to develop more?
Add to the list above with:
Headers, Volleys, Half-volleys etc.. and go specific into each one (headers from the left, from the right etc).
You can also use the above for team development – both in regards to goals scored and goals conceded. The process is the same and by giving yourself a detailed “simple” analysis you can add greater focus to your training and communication.
Continuing from a previous blog on “Player identity”.
The ideas in this post will take the “player identity” model to a higher level and give you some ideas to work on with your players.
It is very important to stay one step ahead of your talents and to make sure you are pushing them to stay with a “growth” mindset and improving each day.
From time to time, players can think they have cracked it……..
So you will require a stream of ideas and also to provide a greater awareness of the “bigger picture”.
“As a defender, you must not only do your job in a game, you must also do 1/2 of the job for the defenders either side of you”
The above insight on coaching was something that I picked up while working at Liverpool FC. I was listening to a story about the famous boot room coaches of years gone by. The above was something that was used in those famous times of success – I believe by Ronnie Moran.
It is a great insight into defending and is 100% correct and something that I regularly use to open the players minds.
However, I have also changed the idea of this concept into both a defending and attacking aspect to challenge players to develop.
So the term “Position & a 1/2” was born from this idea.
“The game is always evolving and so are the demands on players to be multi skilled. Players are regularly rotating their position to disrupt compact defences and therefore, need a wide variety of attributes in order to be successful”
As an example, I am going to use the role of a full back and select three players of a very high level, with different physical attributes and from different cultures/nationalities.
– Phillip Lahm
– Dani Alves
– Branislav Ivanovic
All three of these guys are right defenders (full backs) and have played for the biggest clubs in Europe, won a high number of trophies and played in the biggest games.
However, they are all completely different and have different playing personalities.
Lahm is a right defender that has a second position as a central midfielder. He can switch position via rotation or game to game within a manager’s team selection. He can change his mindset for each role and is equally skilled as a footballing full back or a controlling midfielder who begins the team’s build up play.
Alves is a right defender that has the qualities to attack like a winger – both in rotation of position and elite techniques to outplay 1v1 to create or score goals. He demonstrates excellent athletic ability to cover high distances in a game and often at high intensity.
Ivanovic is a right defender that is outstanding in 1v1 defensive situations. He doesn’t have the same quality of passing as Lahm or attacking qualities as Alves. He is bigger and stronger than both and therefore, his second position is naturally as a central defender. In this position, he uses his strength, excellent heading ability and reading of the game to dominate his opponents.
Therefore – I like to ask players the following key questions in regards to their personal development.
What is your best position? — The position that you believe that you play in the best.
What is your position and a 1/2? — The position that you find yourself in as a second choice or within games via the teams rotation.
What does your second position demand from you?
What do you need to add to your game?
What are you obsessive about developing each day in order to improve?
So – if you have a budding Ivanovic, Lahm or Alves,
Firstly, they need to have the qualities to become a top right defender. But, they also need an option of playing in a second position as a starter, as this will give them more opportunities to play and a greater influence on the coaches team selection.
The player will also need to understand that via rotation in the game, they need qualities to arrive in a second position and have the attributes to succeed.
In his time at Barcelona, Dani Alves provided forward (overlapping) runs in order to create space for Lionel Messi. In doing this, he become an extra “attacker” for the team.
So Alves needs to defend like a top full back – then have the physical capabilities to constantly run up and down the pitch (at medium to high speed) to join the teams attack – and finally once in the final 3rd , he must have the quality to outplay 1v1 or combine with his team mates to cross or shoot at goal. He cannot be a defender in attack!, In these moments, he must be able to move and play like an attacker.
That is an exhausting list and something that is assessed by millions of people each time he plays.
At all levels of the game – people are constantly looking and making judgments on players. So to be a top player, your daily training “diet” must prepare and develop you for the demands of the game………
And these demands are very specific and personal to each player!.
There is a fantastic insight on player confidence and self belief from the Dutch coach, Martin Jol.
“A players confidence and self belief does not come from the coaches or managers, it comes from the knowledge that during a game, you are comfortable in any situation or position that you find yourself in”
These are important words for player development and they elude to my thoughts on player identity and players understanding the situations they will find themselves in during a game (the half positions).
Moving the mind of your players and constantly pushing them to think about the “what ifs” is a key part of maintaining focus and motivation for improvement.
“For young players, fear on a football pitch = The moment you are put under pressure to execute a weakness”
So I like to ask the players questions in order to provoke self assessment and action.
What is your biggest fear on a football pitch?.
In the last five minutes of a game, the ball is crossed to the far post and you have a chance to head and score – do you score or not? (are your heading techniques elite?).
In the 1st minute of your debut, the ball is switched to Eden Hazard and he begins to run at you 1v1, will you be able to stop him? (are your 1v1 defending techniques elite?).
In the last minute of your debut, a ball arrives on your weak foot, 20 metres from goal, do you score or miss? (how comfortable are you at striking the ball with both feet?).
This type of questioning is used to constantly probe and keep the players in a “growth” mindset of always needing to improve further.
On your debut – you do not want to be “HOPING” that things will be ok. Imagine yourself playing inside a stadium of 40,000 fans, with millions watching on tv and this being the moment you have waited for and dreamed about your whole life.
You have to PREPARE in the days, weeks, months and years before that moment.
Its my opinion, that a coach must be the person who raises constant awareness of these aspects and the level required. Not in a harsh way, but in a way that inspires development.
The questions change for each position and for each person. But, questioning, and making players think about improvement is very important.
For strikers – What type of goals do you score? Understand this and practice these techniques and situations each day – along with the types of chances you miss?
For wide players – What type of opponent do you have success playing against? What type of players do you not have success playing against? How is your crossing? What type of crossing is your strength? What types do you need to improve? Do you cross to a top level with both feet? How is your movement off the ball? What type of goals do you score?…….
Therefore, the skill of building relationships and communicating 1 to 1 is hugely important for youth coaches. It is something that must become a more prominent aspect of coach education, if we are to develop more elite players.
“1 to 1 Conversations on identity and mindset are often more influential to the process of improving players than coaching inside the pitch”
Always praise the effort and application of a player that is showing a willingness to improve their game.
You must help to “remove the fluff” and adjust the training with careful advice – in order to stimulate the player to continue.
Improving anything in life is easier when following a process. A key is to break things down and take small steps each day to improve.
In 2006, I was fortunate to be listening to Andre Merelle speak at a coaches training event. Merelle was the head of the French FA’s famous Clairefontaine academy.
“Clairefontaine has produced many top internationals for the French national team including Thierry Henry”
At this event, Merelle made a comment that has stuck with me to this day.
He commented “Watch the best players in the world, the ones you love to see play, and you will see how well they turn. The best players, all have this quality of turning better than the players who are just a level below them.”
That evening, I searched the internet and watched clips of all the players I admired – I looked for players of different shape and size. I also looked for players from different nationalities and leagues to confirm this comment.
He was right, its a quality that all the “top” talents have and separates the match winners from the players taking part in the game.
Then – from the very next session, I was busy dedicating more time to this aspect of the game than I ever had before.
Its become an obsession and something that I always look for in young players
– the agility and smoothness of turning when dribbling or receiving a pass –
I like to coach this at every opportunity
“75% of 1v1s in the premier league are when an opponent is directly behind the player receiving the ball”
If the above statistic is correct – The ability to receive under high pressure and maintain possession is a hugely important skill to master.
So – two questions for development coaches are
(1) How often do we work on this situation in our training sessions?
(2) How can we break this skill/technique down for our players? (In a way that they learn, improve and have fun during the process).
If we look at videos of the best players in the Premier League at twisting and turning away from pressure (Hazard, Dembele, Silva, Coutinho etc…) we are given some clear hints on the key components needed to be successful in these moments of the game.
Creating space to receive – teaching players how to create space – using double movements, disguised movements or to “push and move” away from the opponent.
Body position on receiving – teaching players to constantly adjust their body position in order to “see both goals” on the pitch as much as possible.
Scanning – teaching players how to “scan” and grab a picture of what is around them before receiving a pass. This is directly linked to your body positioning in order to give yourself the biggest picture of what is around you.
Front foot and back foot receiving – teaching players the term “front” foot to receive the ball on the foot furthest from the opponent and the term “back” foot to receive the ball across your body and into a direction away from the opponent. This is again linked to your – movement, body position and scanning – before receiving a pass.
Using arms and legs to protect – teaching players how to use their arms and legs to give themselves space on the pitch and hold off the direct opponents. The correct use of your body is not directly linked to strength – more the use of your body.
After all, the opponent cannot run through you to get the ball and any unfair contact will lead to a foul being awarded.
Using both feet – teaching the importance of turning with both feet and being able to receive a pass with both feet is essential.
Using different areas of the foot and disguised touches – teaching players how to cut and chop the ball with the inside and outside of both feet and also to drag the ball using the sole of the foot.
In addition, learning how to take a “delayed” or “late” touch with disguise or even learning how to let the ball run across your body without the need to touch the ball.
2nd touch “off the path” – teaching players to take their second touch in a different direction to their first touch will enable them to wrong foot the opponent.
Luis Suarez is a master of this technique – he regularly uses a quick second touch in a new direction, against the movement of his direct opponent and therefore, creates the space he needs to beat the defender.
Now – we need to transfer these components into various types of training.
This will enable our players to build confidence and for each player to understand their own bodies and what is the “best” fit for them personally (this is very important!).
Unopposed or semi unopposed work on cutting the ball with the inside and outside of the foot will give a player the confidence in their techniques.
This is a short blog on understanding the “maths” of defending.
I have deliberately kept it short so that it doesn’t give you an overload of detail and information that can lead to confusion.
The aim is solely to give you ideas that you can work with and utilise for your teams.
“Defending is about the work you put in…..” is a quote that I like from Pep Guardiola.
I agree with this quote 100% that work ethic and focus are essential to the teams organisation when defending – but – I also believe you must develop your players defensive understanding in three key areas.
(1) Space (2) the maths of the situation (3) 1v1 mentality.
“The pitch is the same size for both teams. Your team must understand how to use the space better than your opponents”
A simple idea is to split the pitch into three zones (as shown in the diagram). Now decide which zones that you want your team to prioritise defending in.
Making this decision will determine whether your team use a high, medium or low block.
This may change for certain aspects of the game (for example, when the opponents goalkeeper is about to restart the game with a goal kick) or certain moments in the game (winning or losing late in a game) or even for certain opponents.
Its important, to understand how to play in each type of situation (High, Medium, Low) and to give your players an understanding of this via training sessions that create different match scenarios.
The maths of the situation
This is a big thing that I like to coach with all players/teams that i work with.
To read the game and the situation they are in – both in attack and defence.
When defending as a team, you have a huge advantage from the moment you see the formation or know the formation of your opponents. This enables you to work out the number of players in the opponents defensive line (back 4 or 3) and their tendencies to attack with both full backs or just one.
Why is this information important? well, it gives you a calculation of how many players will join the opponents attack and how you can cover the space defensively.
For example – when playing against most British teams, the central defenders are often players who rarely outplay or bring the ball forward. This tells you, that you can often rely on these players to stay behind the ball and that they will have difficulty picking good passes that (1) break lines or (2) cause your team problems.
Also – knowing which foot the player is most comfortable with, enables you to begin the process of defending by forcing the ball to this player and their weakness.
An example would be playing against two central defenders that are both right footed.
The player on the left side is the one to target as they will be less technically able than the central defender playing on the right side. Using this type of “pressing victim” is a simple way of your team recovering the ball or making the opponents play predictable.
Another aspect to consider is the danger of each player in the opposing team. Without knowing your opponent, you would have to assume that the least dangerous players would be the ones furthest from your goal.
So using this method, an order would look like (least dangerous to most dangerous) – Goalkeeper, Central defenders, full backs, midfielders, wide players, number 10s, forwards.
“When defending you can use this knowledge of formation, central defenders and the prioritising of players as a way of setting up your team defensively”
For example – dropping into a medium block, and allowing your opponents central defenders to have the ball will give you a 10v8 situation (11v8 if you include the goalkeeper). Once a pass is played to a full back, you can go and apply pressure and either (1) lock play to the line (2) force play back to the centre of the pitch.
if you are a coach that likes to lock play to the side line, you gain an extra advantage in this situation as you can now squeeze players across the pitch and cut the game to one side. Now, you have an even greater advantage in the “maths” player situation around the ball.
If the central defenders, pass the ball forwards (to midfielders or attackers), this should be your chance to apply pressure and steal possession due to the maths of players being in your favour (10 v 8) and your team being compact.
This prioritising of players enables your team to decide which players you are happy to have the ball and which players you must block, harass and deny having the ball.
“Giving your players this understanding is crucial as it helps them to think collectively and act to certain situations in the game. To play in harmony”
The maths becomes particularly important as the match becomes stretched out at the end of games or when you are reduced to 10 players.
When playing with 10 v 11 due to a red card,
Do your players know how to act? – Have you practiced this situation in training?
Giving your players the comfort and understanding of maths and space when defending will make these situations much easier.
For example, where is the opponents extra player in the 10 v 11 situation?
Often, its a central defender and therefore, the player furthest from your goal. So there is no need to panic if you are able to keep your overload situation in the defensive 3rd of the pitch (number of players the opponents commit to attack vs the number of players you have to defend).
In most cases – the opponents will always choose to leave two players back to mark your one forward. So the extra player is in the opponents defence and therefore, actually causing little harm to your team. But, you must educate your players on this.
Also – if you are very brave, you can keep two forwards upfield as the opponents will nearly always instruct a full back to cover or a midfielder to stay back and keep the 3v2 balance when attacking.
So again the overload situation is a long way from your goal and danger.
The placement of these two forwards is also interesting. If you place them in the spaces between each full back and central defender, you may find that the opponents full backs are blocked in and stay back – so two forwards can easily “pin” the opponents back four into place.
Now, by forcing the play to stay with the opponents central defenders, you are nullifying the opponents danger and also controlling the space on the field and creating a “numbers up” situation behind the ball for your team.
Therefore, understanding space, how to use it, and which opponents to prioritise are key areas to educate your players in.
“The maths of defending is key to your teams thinking and collective organisation”
The use of triggers for pressing or for moving as a group in certain moments are also very important. But, triggers are very personal to each coach or when playing against different opponents.
Collective thinking on when to press, where to press, who to press, whether to force inside or outside are all part of your game preparation and defensive organisation.
But, again – understand space and the maths of defending comes 1st and the triggers of pressing are the “cherry” on top of the cake in order to steal possession more often.
Its also likely that by controlling space – and the number of players you have in the space – will often enable you to recover the ball without the use of pressing.
This is due to passing errors of your opponents and the realisation that at some point they will need to pass forward into a situation where you have an overload of players (and a greater chance to intercept and recover the ball).
This is why its much easier to defend in a low or mid block than to be a high pressing team. To develop a team that presses well in all moments of the game and collectively is very difficult – but nevertheless, very rewarding and my personal preference.
In all forms of football and especially defending, the mentality of your players to win 1v1 situations is crucial.
You can be in the right organisation as a team and ready to defend – but, then you must be strong and aggressive in all 1v1 situations to win the ball.
In short, your players must not forget to tackle! or forget that each player winning their direct 1v1 duel is an essential starting point to controlling the game.
Catch you soon.
— A preview of my new book will be available to download here at 1pm on 07/06 —