Every coach wants their team to be admired. To be revered, to be respected, to be envied. In today's age of football playing good football seems to be a mantra that you now have to be associated with. The methodology of producing a style of unattractive football to get success at any means necessary still exists but is dying out. Almost every new appointment in the premier league comes with a headline associated with bringing back great football. With the continued influx of managers from abroad shifting the British football culture towards a much more possession orientated outlook this looks set to increase and continue. Many jobs like the Arsenal, Manchester United, West Ham, Chelsea job all now come with the demand for good, attractive, positive football. So what can you do to play like this? How can we as grassroots football coaches address this and develop the beautiful style of play teams like Barcelona and Man City are lauded for?
There are a number of elements that need to become a key focus to allow this. There are a number of areas in which you need to excel, there are a number of changes you need to make in order to make this a reality. Here are the 5 points you need to address to create a good football playing team:
1. Technical ability - This seems obvious and it is really to say that the better technically your players are the easier they will be able to play football. This is the underlying foundation of any work in this regard. If you think about what the players are like in a team like Barcelona you notice their ability to retain possession, to find space in tight situations to beat players. Having this technical ability, being a 'better player' than your opponent will generally result in you achieving more success. However this guide is here to ensure you can get your team playing good football whatever their level and compete while playing this way with anyone. You don't have to have better players to play better football however there are certain techniques you must focus on first and more often to allow your players to have success playing in this way.
First you must build your players co-ordination on the ball and this applies to all ages and levels. At a younger age this could be about being able to control a ball, adults at the top level will still need to work on their weak foot or control. Make sure all your players can receive the ball with balance, poise and turn away from opponents into space before you move on. This will allow them to become more comfortable and open to receiving the ball in a game.
Then look at developing their ability to make short passes and passes over a mid range distance like 10-15 yards for youngsters 20-30 yards for adults. Again looking at accuracy, speed, consistency and ability to play off both feet. Being able to play over a longer distance is good but not important until they reach a really advanced level if you are planning to play good football it is generally all played short anyway. Doing this will allow them to link up with each other and start to gain trust in each other.
Next being able to control the ball and protect the ball to allow you time on the ball while also enabling you to maintain possession in tight situations before you can find a way out is key. With these 3 skills you can start playing and have success. But work towards towards ensuring every one of your players has these basic skills otherwise your game will break down while trying to play.
These are skills you should go over and over every session as these are the key components on a technical level to possession based football. The next skills to focus on would be the dribbling ability of your players. Being able to beat players. Then the finishing and shooting ability. These are the more advanced components that would advance your football to an even higher plane but rest assured if you are not there yet focusing on the first 3 components in games like King of the ring, protecting the ball squares, or passing grids allow all the technical base you need to start off.
2. Organisation- This is where you can really start to have an impact and help your team become more than the sum of its parts. This is so important in allowing your players the base to play and without this stopping your team playing is very easy for the opposition.
To explain every organisational aspect and all the variations for different age groups is a vast topic that I'm not able to discuss fully here however understanding the guiding principles is much more important in allowing you to develop this style of play yourself.
Firstly you need to maximise the space on the pitch. The more space you have the more distance the opposition have to cover, the more time you give each other on the ball, and the more space you have away from defenders to make retaining the ball easier. Without the ball you won't be able to play, maximising the space maximises your ability to keep hold of the ball. With this as soon as you win possession or from any set pieces; excluding corners and centres , you need to stretch the pitch forward, backwards and wide. Defenders dropping off, strikers pushing on, wingers pulling wide, central midfielders holding the centre. Although players will want to rotate, change and move around; which is a positive thing, you need to initially create this space to stretch the opposition and create the holes for players to move into.
Start this off by teaching your team how to play out from the back, from goal kicks and how to play when the ball is played back to the goalkeeper in normal play. Being able to play backwards is one of the more important principles in keeping possession of the ball, while being able to play out from the back sets the tone and starts off 80% of good team passing moves. If you are not able to play out from the back and your team resort to kicking it out of play and giving it away then you never be a good football team. Playing good football means always trying to find a solution out of any situation, always trying to play your way out. If part of your team are unable to do this it will infect the others and when you get to pressure situations they will follow suit and you will never be able to achieve that level of confidence and awareness needed to spot how to play out of difficult situations. Again this becomes relatively simple if you position your team effectively, dropping you central defenders to the goal line, pushing your fullbacks out wide slightly in front, wingers and strikers stretching the pitch as much as possible with the central players moving in the central areas in what should be a lot of space that has been created. Stretch this organisation and understanding to every part of the game, especially those you can easily control like set pieces.
Secondly and the other real key principle in terms of organisation to allow good football you need to have at least 3 different areas of support whenever anyone has the ball. I tell my players to always make a diamond around the ball. The diamond being a backwards, forwards and inside 'square' pass. This will ensure that you always have options for the players on the ball and even if all the players are being marked it becomes very difficult to double up on players without allowing free passes nearby so you will only have to escape, evade or protect the ball from one player a much easier task.
Employing these 2 organisation principles is enough to start your team off, without these principles it will be basically impossible to play good football . But employing these within your team is quite straight forward and easy to coach, just keep pushing the need to maximise space and make a diamond around the ball.
3. Confidence and composure - The next aspect is very important and is directly effected by the preceding points. If your players have the ability to play the type of football you want then they and their team mates will have more confidence to try to play, and more composure on the ball as they will have more self belief. If you organise your team effectively then they will have loads of space, options and understanding of how to play out of different situations increasing their belief and confidence in being able to do so. In the opposite sense if they don't have the technical ability to control the ball or pass effectively they will more likely panic in pressure situations. Their team mates are less likely to trust them and therefore you are less likely to play passing football. If you team isn't organised they will have less options on the ball, you will be easier to close down, you will have less time and less understanding. All resulting in more confusion, more times you will lose the ball, therefore less confidence in your style of play, themselves and each other.
Confidence and composure is important because it means that the players will receive the ball in more difficult situations providing the support you need to help your team mates, trust themselves and act more positively resulting in less hesitation, fewer mistakes and more uncertainty for the opposition, taking their time to play the right pass resulting in better quality football and composing themselves in pressure situations so they are more likely to make the right decisions on the ball.
Coaching this isn't easy as it is an abstract construct but really all you need to do is create a positive, resilient atmosphere around your team by encouraging them to try new things, being constructive and gentle with criticism and working on the first 2 points to give them the best basis to play which will inspire this confidence. Perseverance and belief in the players by giving them continued, unconditional game time, not subbing them due to errors will reduce the pressure on them and increase their confidence to get the ball and play.
4. Intelligence - Building the intelligence of the players in terms of how they approach certain situations and the decisions they make will dramatically increase the likelihood of the players picking the right options and your success in picking opposition teams apart.
This intelligence is linked to the decision making aspects in the game making the right decision is very often the difference between scoring or conceding goals. Coaching this is relatively straight forward you need to replicate game situations in training and then test, questions and evaluate the decisions your players make. For example I would set up the team in 2 teams with one team attempting to play out from goal kick to half way. I would set up the possession team with a GK, defence and midfield against a midfield and attack. Here have replicated part of what we would find in a game. I would then get them to try to play out looking at their decisions to see if they could find the solutions themselves. Stop and give them information about shape and organisation. Ask them questions throughout about their decision making and success . Getting them to constantly evaluate and correct their own decisions imparting information where necessary if they are unable to come up with useful answers to the questions presented by the game. In this sense they are constantly looking at decisions and thinking about their play allowing them to become more intelligent players.
5. Philosophy - This is the last point and this will underpin everything you do as a coach or manager. If you want your team to play good football your philosophy must support, encourage and be consistent with this. To play this kind of football your focus must switch from winning solely to playing in this way. This will sometimes be at the sacrifice of results but you must be consistent in your message to make sure your teams stick to your principles . They need to believe in what you want them to do, if you show them you don't totally believe in it by asking your team to kick it out, clear it, not to take risks or moan when they make mistakes then they will give up on it as well.
So my tips are firstly never change what you want to them to do or how you want them to play I don't care if it is the last minute of the cup final and you are protecting a lead. Always encourage and help your players as long as they keep trying to do the right thing. The only things I ever moan about are laziness and hoofing the ball. Don't tell your team to hoof it, clear it, get it out or whatever variation as this will be totally the opposite to a football playing philosophy. Get your players to try play out of every situation and encourage them if they try it. Repetition of your message, practise and staying true to what you say will really embed this philosophy in your team and be the final step as it ensures that your players accept and embrace what you are trying to do. This aligned with constant improvement of their technique, your organisation changes, training their intelligence and technique will help your team play wonderful football they will remember forever.
If you want more guidance of how to implement this in training email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I would be happy to give you advice and more tips.