Saul Isaksson-Hurst is an experienced premier league academy coach having spent 6 years at Tottenham Hotspur FC and 4 years at Chelsea FC’s Academy as a Foundation Phase skills specialist and is the founder of mypersonalfootballcoach.com where he is the director of coaching. Saul talks about the importance of culture and the role it plays in player development in different clubs and countries.
Watching Premier League Football at the moment is an absolute joy. We have some of the best managers in the world at the moment. At the top of the tree is Guardiola…his football and his teams are wonderful to watch. The possession-based game is for me the pinnacle; this is, in my opinion, how football should be played…Quick play, pretty football that is easy on the eye. This Philosophy, built on Rondo based training, is surely the ‘right way’ to coach adults. But we have to argue if this is really the most productive way to coach the youngest players. As reflective practitioners it’s essential we ask ourselves ‘is this what children’s football should look like?’
We know that this brand of football is the end game but I would question whether this is really the most productive way to train young players. When you look at Pep’s teams they contain players like Kevin De Brunye, Leroy Sane, Bernado Silva and Raheem Sterling. These players all have excellent one-touch ability but also the ability to break lines with the ball at their feet. Pep has said in the past ‘I love dribblers’ and you can see this is true, whether Messi, Alves at Barcelona or Costa and Thiago at Bayern. It’s also important to recognise that there are many types of 1v1 domination and it doesn’t necessarily mean dribbling past players. As much as the majority of play within the team is 1 or 2 touch, all players within the team need the ability to receive the ball and stay on the ball under pressure if needed too, whether it’s Fernandinho in CDM or John Stones at CB. If we look at the game at the highest level, players not only need to dominate when numbers are equal but importantly when they are underloaded also.
So as player developers we recognise the assets needed to play at the very highest level. We then must plan a development programme that addresses this. When I see much of youth soccer training exercises it is often Rondo based. I’m not saying there is anything intrinsically wrong with Rondo’s, far from it, I am a big advocate of using it in training when appropriate. My issue comes when this type of training is solely relied upon with the youngest of players.
Rondo’s are based on the principle of playing with an overload. Now as we know overloads and the creation of them are key at the very highest level. When using them players are always looking for the spare player for the pass; this is great and can and should be exploited. The problem is when coaches so eager to try and get their under 9 or 10 team to look like pep’s team solely rely on this type of training. The result is a ‘pretty game of football’ lots of one and two touch play. This may look nice but I think we are missing an opportunity.
Being able to play quickly and keep the ball is essential for elite players at all levels but so is the ability to get on the ball and stay on the ball under pressure. Players need to be able to solve the 1v1 or 2v2 problem themselves. They need to be able to dominate a 1v1 or 1v2 or create a 2v1 with the ball at their feet. There’s a saying at Ajax, ‘a successful 1v1 beats any tactic or formation’. When I work with players I can spot this issue straight away. If I set up a 1v1 or a 2v2 practice players automatically look up to pass. We need and expect players to be able to solve these problems themselves, by being able to receive the ball and be able to beat the player or hold on to the ball to try and create space. The great thing about 1v1 gladiatorial type practices is that it forces players to do this.
I’m not saying all training has to be like this. You can have a rondo based team philosophy and still use practices like this at least once a week. It doesn’t have to be chaos and ‘dribble dribble dribble’. This can and should fit into this type of methodology also. It’s about balance and bravery from the coaches. Let players have the opportunity to get on and stay on the ball, in training and in games. This may lead to mistakes, giving up possession and even goals…but in the long term I would argue its really beneficial for our players.
Often we will see this type of work done more predominantly in the foundation phase (8-11s) but when players enter the Youth Development Phase (12-16s) it almost becomes forgotten. There are many reasons for this; one mainly being the opening up of pitch sizes and game format. Coaches are often under pressure to get their teams to perform and by this, I mean to win. Though ironically we always applaud a positive 1v1 situation, a player who takes the risk, who takes responsibility and breaks lines with the ball. Unfortunately, we are all too quick to berate that same player if the skill doesn’t come off…god forbid they should try it in their own half or defensive third.
I was at a Foundation Phase conference last summer presenting, where another presenter was talking about when and where to support players. He argued that we should be telling young players ‘when and where’ to use 1v1 skills, in right areas of the pitch. This I think is a mistake…within the foundation phase, we must encourage bravery and risk-taking. We are going to struggle to develop more players like John Stones if we don’t give them opportunities on the ball but more importantly the chance to experiment and make mistakes in training and in games.
Whatever age, ability or level you coach at, reflect on your work and decide whether it is really player centred or team centred. Why did you get into soccer coaching? To develop individuals or teams. Give balance to your approach and give your players many different kinds of experiences. In the long term, they will thank you for it.
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