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Football Coaching Essentials: Building Strong Teams

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Luis Enrique PSG training session
Luis Enrique PSG training session

“It is the coach’s job to decide team’s style of play, how they attack and how they defend. They have to be effective in both ends of the pitch” – Luis Enrique

To be successful, a coach must have a clear idea of football he wants his team to play. With specific instructions on how to behave in any phase of play (there are four main phases of play in football: attacking, defensive transitions, defending and attacking transitions). Without a clear plan, the team is essentially rudderless, handing over responsibility to luck and excuses. The earlier coach determines the best way for his team to play the better, as time is required to adapt to a certain style. Style of play (The Game Model) is a broader concept than formations, as the same style can be applied to different formations. It gives the team purpose and direction, which subsequently transforms into focus and energy. It also helps the coach to concentrate on what is important when planning training sessions.

Key points:

1. Clear Vision: A coach must have a vision for how they want their team to play. This doesn't necessarily mean adhering to a single, unchanging philosophy throughout a coach's career, but rather a clear idea of the game for the current squad they are managing. This vision will be influenced by the talent at the coach's disposal, the club's history and culture, and the expectations of the fans and board.

2. Instructions and Game Situations: Football, despite its free-flowing nature, is a game of patterns and situations. Teams that are well-prepped know how to react in a variety of scenarios, whether they're down a goal late in the game or trying to hold onto a lead. This comes from the coach's instructions and drilling these scenarios in training.

3. Avoiding a "Rudderless" Team: A team without guidance, or a 'game model', as you've described, is susceptible to inconsistency. They may show flashes of brilliance when individual talent shines, but they will struggle to consistently execute under pressure without a cohesive plan.

4. The Importance of Time: Implementing a new style or philosophy takes time. Players need to understand their roles, build chemistry with teammates, and fully internalize the coach's directives. This is why patience is often needed when a new coach takes over, and why frequent changes in coaching can be detrimental to a team's performance.

5. Style vs. Formation: This is a crucial distinction. While formations (like 4-4-2, 4-3-3, etc.) provide a structural setup for a team, the style of play dictates how the team moves, defends, transitions, and attacks within that formation. For instance, two teams can play a 4-3-3 formation, but one could be heavily possession-based while the other focuses on quick counter-attacks.

6. Purpose and Direction: When players understand the "why" behind their actions, they can execute with greater confidence and precision. This understanding is fostered by a clear game model.

7. Training and Game Model Alignment: Training sessions that aren't aligned with the game model are essentially wasted time. By focusing training on the tenets of their philosophy, coaches ensure that players are always working on skills and strategies that will be directly applicable in matches.

Football never stands still, however, there are three most common styles of play in the modern game:

  • Positional play - Teams playing this style, move the ball forward one step at a time in search of superiority, with an emphasis on possession, positioning, and short passing. This style allows the team and the ball to travel together. Recent examples are Ajax, Barcelona, Manchester City.

  • Direct play - This style of playing uses long balls and highly intense second actions to win the possession of the ball close to the other team’s box.

  • Counter-attacking - This style is used by teams that prefer to drop back into a structured defensive formation in their own half and when the opposition loses the ball, the team quickly counterattacks to score. Counter-pressing is the new trend, which aims to regain the ball as high up the pitch as possible and expose disorganized defensive units.

It does not necessarily mean that teams favoring one of the styles, only play direct long balls or only score after counter-attacks, in most cases, teams mix it up. Style defines what they do best and highlights the main principles they build their game around. Best teams can apply any style when specific situation requires it.

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