When we think about what we use to evaluate or define a manager it could be conceived that coaches of yester year were marked against a completely different code than their modern day counter parts. The suave & stylish Malcolm Allison, famed for wearing a fedora hat, embodied a sexy football approach with Manchester City decades before Ruud Guillit’s dreadlocks were even a notion in English football. Brian Clough was the first of the “track suit” managers, parking the 3 piece suit to one side at Derby, Leeds & Notts Forest, & taking a more active approach in training & cultivating a playing style. Jock Wallace was a very robust & aggressive individual who lead Glasgow Rangers to a famous treble winning campaign, brought about by his obsession with fitness training & forging team unity; albeit in a very old school military approach. The legacy of these individuals is built around a caricature that we have painted of them, taking into account their personality & how this was portrayed against their football teams. It seems at some stage football lovers stopped evaluating managers that way & shifted their focus to more on field matters. We are firmly in the grip of the “philosophy” age where each coach must display an aesthetic appreciation for football, or they are cast aside as a no hoper or a dinosaur sympathizer. Better yet we now see managers who are defined solely by what system of play they employ & whether this is “the right way to play”. A byproduct of this need for appreciation is upcoming coaches who associate themselves with a system of play or formation & see that as a mechanism to display their coaching personality & ethos. In this piece I wish to tackle why this is mindset is debilitating for development of coaches & players, but also display why this may soon become redundant in how football at the highest level is played.
Social media has been a marvelous mechanism for coaches to network & also stimulate debate with other trainers from across the world. The discussion points that are raised offers arguably more developmental opportunities than any coaching course may serve up, such is the diversity & differing backgrounds each participant brings to the table. One consistent I have noticed over the last 5 years is our obsession with a specific system of play. Only last week I saw 3 coaches state “I’m a 4-3-3 coach myself” as if it somehow placed them in a category or made them a different style of coach from say a 4-4-2 driven coach. My overriding confusion from these statements lay in how a formation in any way correlates with a specific style of play or in turn what your methods are within fielding that system. Does employing a 4-3-3 mean we can’t belt it forward to 3 monsters that stand inside the penalty box & play for 2nd balls & head challenges? Does 4-3-3 now instantly mean we have to field a team like Barcelona or we aren’t doing it correctly? My apprehension lies in our willingness to become a specific style of coach, as this would imply that’s all we know how to do. This begs the question of what happens if that doesn’t work? Further to this, what of our players; do they now become single track minded & only able to comprehend one style or system of play? It could be argued that only ever living in one team dynamic for long periods of time, whether its successful or not, actually hinders development if there is no deviation from a solitary playing method. The beauty of football for me has always been the nuances each coach places within a team set up & is able to use individuals to carry out specific tasks to overcome the opposition. I am a particular fan of Marcelo Bielsa who simply put is a football romantic. While many would take issue with his inter-personal skills, he lives to create football teams who aggressively attack & constantly live on the front foot when defending. In the same breath I am also a keen admirer of Jurgen Klopp & Jupp Huynckes who completely modernized counter attacking football, regenerating what it means to be defensively solid & extremely hard to break down. While these coaches all worked within a specific system at any given moment, we cannot say that this then defined who they were. Perhaps we are living in a time where the one size fits all mentality has taken over our thinking & that the totalitarian approach to football is “What works today?” The most interesting part of this concept is that modern day football is far from one dimensional & with each passing game what is required to be successful constantly lives in transition.
Bayern Munich are a living example of a team that simply never stands still. Perhaps it is a trait of their manager who is constantly seeking perfection, however last season showed us that they changed their formation more than any other team in the Bundesliga and arguably the whole of Europe. This is a side who cruised to the League title almost unchallenged, yet were able to change their stripes dependent on what the situation required of them. There is a school of thought that states constantly trying to reinvent yourself only leads to confusion & a lack of identity amongst your players. “But how are they allowed to settle into a rhythm” I hear from many dissenting voices. What if the rhythm was that they never stand still, they never stick with one system? Is that something players & coaches could aspire to? Wouldn’t this make them harder to beat & tougher to plan against? If we take a closer look at Bayern’s game schedule they could quickly go from a bottom of league opponent who will likely retreat territory & afford them the ball, to an Italian powerhouse in the Champions League who wishes to impose themselves upon Bayern & make them uncomfortable. It would be delusional to concede that even if a team sets up in say a 4-2-3-1 consistently that they play exactly the same way each game, as there is always small tinkering coaches can make. Yet if we consider for a moment that the game may require a completely different strategy, style, tempo, structure, ethos & mindset for every opponent, surely it’s conceivable that changing your formation would in fact prove beneficial in that endeavor. Perhaps we are seeing the birth of a new generation of coaches, those who don’t have a philosophy or are married to a specific system of play? Maybe it’s better to adjust your outlook on whatever circumstances you are faced with? What time of the year you are playing, what the weather is like, who is your opponent, what formation do they play, what personnel you are up against, what personnel you have available, what time of day the game is, what country your game is taking place in…….
I have always been an individual who struggles to define who I am or indeed what I would like to become. I have never really had the patience to do so & have always felt that restricting myself to a box-like persona is one that will ultimately limit me & my learning. I must admit that I struggle to comprehend coaches who do take part in this practice or indeed those who attempt to place others in a similar box. By accepting the role of manager or coach within a team setting we have taken on the task of creating an environment that is free of boundaries & presents endless opportunity to others. In reducing our capacity to a simple set of numbers or a rigid depiction of our team’s aesthetics we are constructing a ceiling that will soon be felt by our players. Give yourself the opportunity of growth by trying something completely new this week & see how quickly your players embrace that change. Allow them to experience the freshness & innocence of “giving it a shot”, in turn breaking down the barriers of what you are & entering into a world where aspiration is a fuel & not an end goal that defines us.
Written by our resident coach, Ally Bain.
Alistair is based in Portland, Maine, USA, however originally hails from Hamilton, Scotland. He is the Head Coach of USL PDL side Portland Phoenix & works with one of the largest youth soccer organizations in North America, in Global Premier Soccer. Prior to moving to the states Alistair held football development positions with Watford FC, Crystal Palace FC & Celtic FC. In 2013 Alistair also started writing a football based blog, entitled “Coach Bain Mused”
You can follow Ally on Twitter @www.thehighertempopress.comallybain