A Snub To Our Modern Greats

The only unbeaten team in the 2010 World Cup was not, as you might expect, the eventual winners Spain, who were beaten 1-0 in the group stages, but New Zealand, who drew all three of their group games. Sadly, this achievement was not enough for the All Whites to progress to the knock out stages but it demonstrated to the rest of the word the Kiwi organisational and crucially their ability to defend. These qualities are noted in the Whole of Football plan:

“The point of difference is our superior

team culture and traditional Kiwi

strengths combined with astute tactical

cohesion”

That New Zealand team was captained by Ryan Nelson, who was named in at least one Best XI for the tournament, and their opening goal was scored by a certain Winston Reid. It is hardly surprising, based on how New Zealand have had to defend for their lives against more accomplished teams, that these two players made such an impression in South Africa and it is equally unsurprising that both of these players are defenders.

Before I continue I have to admit that I love defending. I was a defender, my childhood hero was a defender, my favourite Stoke player is a defender and the Boy is a defender. During the Liverpool – Manchester United match, earlier this season, I actually enjoyed how Jose set up his team to thwart the way Klopp’s teams traditionally play and even though I like goals I enjoy seeing the teams I support keep a clean sheet.

Therefore, when looking at the Whole of Football Plan, I found myself a little disconcerted when I came across statements like the following:

“New Zealand Football believes that defending is easier to teach than pro-active, creative attacking and that the two transition moments can be addressed in the same training session, because when one team is in transition to attack, the other team is in transition to defend. It is therefore important to spend more time on the attacking moment without neglecting the other moments of the game.”

When you consider that the Whole of Football plan considers the two transition phases as areas to be trained the above paragraph is saying that attacking should consist of more than fifty percent of your training focus. This focus can already be seen to be taking effect if you watch any one of the junior and youth games on a Saturday, the number of goals which are conceded due to poor defending far outweighs the number of goals which come about due to attacking prowess. You may say that this is down to the good players playing up front but watching the defenders in the Boy’s league it is plain to see that they are all comfortable on the ball when in possession but look like rabbits in a headlight when the opposition starts to attack.

And it is not just the junior game which is suffering, how many times have you seen defenders on television fail to pick up a marker, miss a tackle or header and of course play the suicidal back-pass because they are being harried by an attacker? Nowadays football seems to be all about getting the ball in the back of the net and whilst it is true goals win games it is worthwhile remembering that if you score a goal you can still lose the game but it is impossible to do so if you don’t concede.

The Whole of Football plan’s ultimate goal has to be the improvement of the national team and whilst this focus on the attacking game will help to break down the obdurate defences found in regional competitions when we come up against higher ranked nations we will suffer if we can’t defend. This means in practise that the All Whites World Cup hopes are always going to be high as we qualify from the Oceania group but, unless we have an inspired couple of games, we will fail at the final hurdle time after time.

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Pragmatism AND Common Sense

A few years ago the Boy took part in a regional age group competition and whilst his team didn’t set the world on fire they had, what could be considered, a good tournament. Central to their success was the fact they had two of the best forwards in the competition and, whilst at one end the Boy and his teammates kept the opposition frustrated, these two forwards ran havoc amongst most of the teams they played.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was disappointed to see that both of these players were now playing in midfield, one as a deep lying wide player and the other sat just in front of the defence. Whilst neither of these players looked effective in their new positions, what disappointed me the most was when I asked the Boy why they had changed, he informed me that the coach had told them they need to be able to play in different positions if they want to succeed in the modern game.

On the face of it this may be regarded as sound advice, in the modern game there are a lot of players who are required to play in multiple positions for their clubs, remember Mame Diouf playing at right back in extra time for Stoke against Chelsea? And this is one of the considerations outlined in New Zealand’s Whole of Football Plan. But I would argue that unless you are a freakish enigma such as James Milner, a player who seems to be able to play most positions on the park with consummate ease, there are natural areas of delineation for every player on the football pitch.

In the case of the two ex-forwards now masquerading as midfielders both of these players have an inbuilt instinct to do one thing, put the ball in the back of the net, and when they take to the pitch that is all they think about. But in taking them away from their natural action areas you are removing them from where they are most effective. Both of these players had OK tournaments but each was responsible for putting their defence under pressure because they were naturally drawn to the opposition’s penalty area. You may argue that these players need to learn discipline and how to play how their coach wants but I would suggest the coach needs to identify what his players’ strengths are and to set up his team accordingly. Otherwise when, or if, these players return to where they want to play you will have replaced an instinctive goal scorer with a forward who is always looking to defend.

At the moment I know it is the vogue to have teams who defend from the front and attackers who are programmed to work hard and look for their supporting players but, as I have mentioned in previous posts, football is ever changing and, what is trending right now in the professional game will not necessarily be the same when the young players of today are old enough to be considered. Would you play Messi at right back or John Terry on the right wing? Would you swap Shawcross and Shaqiri’s staring positions? Holland’s “Total Football” of the seventies, which is the basis of today’s fluid formations worked because of the players at Rinus Michels’ disposal but it was also laced with a huge dose of pragmatism and it is this pragmatism which needs to be exercised when coaches begin to swap players from position to position.

And it is this pragmatism which I feel is missing as teams try to implement the currently popular fluid formations which we see used so effectively by the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona. How many times this season have you seen goals conceded because of the mantra “keep the ball at all costs”? With the advent of midfielders playing in defence, think John Stones and David Luiz, the art of defending is rapidly becoming eroded and it is the prevalence of midfielders spreading into every position on the football pitch which I fear the Whole of Football Plan will replicate. Total Football was all about players being able to play in any position not players playing the same way wherever they are on the park. It was about centre forwards, wingers, centre halves and fullbacks and not just about utility players, it had at its core gifted individuals which made the system work and its success began to wane with those players. A lesson perhaps for those who maintain it is all about having a common system throughout your club or federation?

Those two players may have had OK tournaments but the frustrating thing as a spectator was they were both better than the players who replaced them up front and if they had swapped I don’t think either of their replacements would have minded. One plays central midfield for his club side whilst the other played right back for the last two tournaments.

Maybe it’s not pragmatism that is required but common sense!

Long Ball Does Not Mean Bad Football

In previous posts I have mentioned New Zealand football’s Whole of Football plan and the Boy’s participation in a regional age group competition and last time I touched on how individuality seems to be frowned up in young players but it seems it is also frowned upon when it comes to coaching. At the Boy’s regional tournament, it was interesting to note that the two best teams also had the two coaches who were willing to tell their teams to play in a different manner to the other teams competing.

The winners, in my opinion, won not because they necessarily had the best players but because they had a coach who understood the dynamics of the game. In every match that I watched them play, their coach changed his team’s formation to get the better of his opposing number. Whilst I applaud the tactical nous what impressed me the most is the way his players were able to implement the changes that he wanted.

However, it was the team who finished second who highlighted the suspicion with doing something different is viewed in New Zealand youth football. Almost every coach, including the Boy’s, commented, after being beaten by the eventual runners-up, that they would have won the game if the other team played football and next time football would be the winner. The problem with this attitude is that it has nothing to do with the game of football.

The team in question caused so much outrage because, instead of playing the ball out from the back, they pumped it up to one of their three forwards who more often than not held the ball up, which allowed their midfield to join them. This was derided by the other teams’ coaches as being nothing more than a long ball game but, after watching so many of Tony Pulis’ early games at the Britannia, let me assure it was not What it was, was a different way of playing football which changed the action zones from around the centre circle to the edge of the opposition penalty area, and when they got there, this team played some of the best football at the tournament. Yet most of the coaches at the tournament were unable to see this truth because football was being played in a manner which was an anathema to them.

The Whole of Football plan seems like it wants players to be able to play in more than one position, something I only half agree with and will discuss in later posts, but there has to also be an emphasis on being able to play in more than one style. If this program does eventually lead to Kiwi footballers breaking more regularly into the European leagues then they will have to be flexible from both a positional and tactical point of view. This is why coaches, like those of the two finalists in the aforementioned tournament, need to be applauded for bringing different ideas into the youth game instead of being pillared for not doing the same as every other youth coach in the country.

And if you want proof of what I am saying? Look at how Leicester played in the Premiership last season. Instead of regrouping once they regained possession they hit the opposition team whilst they are trying to reorganise themselves. Leicester may have had one of the lowest possession percentages and pass completion rates in the division last year but could you honestly say their matches weren’t exciting? And they won it too!

Reinventing The Whole of the Wheel

positions

The diagram above shows New Zealand Football’s proposed numbering system, as detailed in their Whole of Football plan. In today’s game, with players wearing squad numbers, the number on the back of a player’s top very rarely denotes the position they are playing in so I shouldn’t really be too upset by the proposal above. But I am and here’s why:

  • Why number the players in order from the back until you get to number 7?
  • If the centre forward is going to be the traditional number 9, why can’t the centre halves be 5 and 6 like they have been for the last fifty years?

Put simply if you are going to reinvent the wheel, reinvent the Whole of the Wheel not just the parts you think nobody cares about because I, for one, do!

What About The Flair?

Recently the Boy took part in the regional age group competitions for football here in New Zealand and whilst the Boy’s region didn’t set the world on fire, walking around the playing fields I couldn’t help but notice the similarity with which each team set up to play football. From match to match I watched, transfixed, as team after team passed the ball from the back, from fullback to centre-half to the central-midfielder and back out to the wing, it was as if each team was following a well-defined script and here is the crux of the problem, they were.

New Zealand Football has created a Whole of Football plan to bring football in New Zealand as close to the standards of the rest of the world as is possible and whilst I applaud this initiative I am concerned the end product may be a conveyor line of robots programmed to play a certain style of football to the best of any ability that they have. Whilst, in the long term, this approach may achieve the goal of acquiring parity with similar ranked nations I fear the vast majority of the products from this conveyor belt will end up, at the very best, utility players such as Stoke’s own Geoff Cameron. Players who do a job and nothing more.

During the, aforementioned, regional tournament I found it disturbing that players who showed a glimmer of individuality were harangued by their coaches for not playing the ball they had been drilled to play over, and over and over, again in training. It didn’t matter that the innovation may have resulted in a chance on goal, they were being criticised for displaying a trait that is revered at the pinnacle of the game but is treated with ever increasing suspicion as you move down through the football pyramid, flair.

Growing up as a kid in the eighties when I thought about flair players it was South Americans who came to the fore, then the Eastern Europeans came to the fore, before, in the early part of this century African footballers began to grab the headlines. As time progressed the number of flair players who heralded from the big European football powerhouses dwindled, the recent Spanish team being the exception that proves the rule. My theory for why this is the cases is that these footballers when they were growing up played football for fun, their own version of jumpers for goalposts, where rules were thrown out of the window and nutmegging your opponent was worth more than being on the end of a slick passing movement. The Whole of Football plan details in depth how a child should be trained but can you train the improvised on a practice pitch?

In the UK it is now standard procedure for children identified early in their lives to be snapped up by academies but what is probably not common knowledge is that these children are often banned from their clubs from playing football for their schools or even kicking a ball around with their mates. Is this the end product which the Whole of Football plan is working to? Do we really want our kids thinking of football as an activity which stops them enjoying spending time with their fellows? And out of the hundreds (or thousands) of children who give up the pleasure of playing jumpers for goalposts how many actually make it?

The Whole of Football plan is a step in the right direction but ours is a small nation with an even smaller number of children interested in the round ball game and therefore we need to ensure these children remain in the game. This means nurturing their individuality not indoctrinating them with conformity therefore, along with the standardised coaches’ playbooks, let them also be themselves because the games at the regional football tournament were, if I am honest, dull because every team knew what the other team was trying to achieve.

Holland in the seventies and Germany in the last decade may have had success with a one system for all approach to their age groups but this is because they had the numbers to make this work, New Zealand doesn’t.