“Elite level football is a game for specialists”.
That’s how an interaction recently ended after going back and forth on Twitter. Certainly not the easiest medium to make a detailed or nuanced point, Twitter is unrivaled when it comes to connecting with others globally and offering a platform to give ones opinion. Off the back of that came a question. Not particularly new, but I thought it was worth writing about from the perspective of somebody who has worked with professional players individually, as part of a team setting, and also someone tasked with buying young talent showing potential.
Overall about 30 different coaches either replied with an opinion, or joined the debate at some point. One of the Twitter coaching community heavyweights jumped in with this:
There’s no right or wrong answer, just different opinions and experiences. It must be stressed that the original question was aimed more at specializing nuances of a specific role, rather than defining what position a player should play. I often use the example of Jamie Vardy. He’s not only one of the Premier League’s best forwards, but a specialist at a certain type of forward play.
Vardy isn’t too involved in Leicester’s build up, opting instead to threaten the space in behind the opposition back line. Using a more evidence-based approach will tell you that from 2017-2019 no forward received more through balls than Vardy, and he ranked high for being caught offside. In this case, the numbers back up what the eyes see.
On the other end of the spectrum you have Roberto Firmino. Where Vardy ranks 8th of 52 players in the data set. Roberto Firmino ranks 48th. Vardy is caught offside about 4 times more often. Firmino however, plays more through balls than any other Premier League forward, and is only bettered by Sergio Aguero when it comes to involvement in build-up play.
So, two players at the opposite end of the spectrum. Firmino will drop in and create, slip through balls, and be a fulcrum for creative passing. Vardy on the other hand will hang on the back shoulder of a defender, stretch the play and likely create some of the space for Firmino to operate in.
Ironically, they would probably make an unbelievable pair if played together!
For some more context, and a couple of real-life examples, here’s a video showing four somewhat similar situations. Notice, Vardy shows little or no interest in dropping into the space between midfield and attack, instead opting to move vertically up the pitch exploiting the space in behind. Firmino on the other hand does not at any point find himself between the two centre halves, operating as a traditional False 9 or ‘Central Winger’ as I personally call them (often have the skill set and traits of a winger, but operating as a forward).
Most coaches preach developing well rounded, complete players, but these are few and far between in real life. At the absolute top level, it’s mostly a game for specialists. If you’re developing college-level players, the chances are they will be a specialist within their own ability level and so on. Of course Jamie Vardy is well rounded to an extent. He’s a Premier League footballer! But a specialist is somebody who is just that much better at one particular style than the rest.
I recently posted an image of a “Target Man’ striker profile, asking for some feedback. The image defined traits in certain players which stood out statistically. Target Men take more shots from headers, but fewer shots than average. They are more active defensively, and create fewer chances for others. This isn’t an opinion, it’s fact. I used data on the Premier League to define players and found they can be defined as one of four profiles. Target Man, Poacher, Central Winger and Complete Forward.
One of my friends – a Head Coach at a Division II NCAA school, said he’d probably not wouldn’t want to define any of his strikers this way and certainly not show them this information. He believed his ‘Target Man’ forward may then simply ignore other aspects of his game. A valid point. But what if it’s okay to ignore creative play somewhat for a Target Man? Or for a Poacher? And instead to double down on movement around the box and one touch finishing? After all, there are only so many training hours in the week, and wouldn’t you want to spend them on the aspect of the game by which you’ll be judged?
Back to the original question at hand – how, or when does a coach decide when it’s time to start encouraging these behaviors in forwards?
Some interesting questions to consider…
- There’s plenty of evidence suggesting early specializing in a sport can in fact be detrimental to a player’s development, but what about a position or role?
- What would happen if from the age of say…. 13, Jamie Vardy’s coaches were encouraging him to drop in the hole and create like Firmino? Would he be a professional today? Better? Worse?
- What if Jamie Vardy’s youth/development team played a slower, possession-based system, not suited to his style?
- What if Firmino had a youth coach who required him to sit higher and play on the back shoulder of defenders? Or even discouraged him from playing through balls, instead asking him to shuttle it wide for full backs to cross?
There’s of course a counter argument – shouldn’t the coach be delivering what he or she knows best for all their players? What about the goal scoring wingers on Liverpool who benefit from Firmino’s movements? Imagine these wingers on Jamie Vardy’s youth team now being denied their opportunity to develop, because they don’t have the Central Winger to feed off?
I think the most impactful question we might ask ourselves – How many of us would suggest the player finds a new team, rather than trying to shape them into what WE want them to be or shifting their position?
Does youth/development coaching have an answer? Should we be working collectively to push players to teams who’s system suits them? What if 5 or 6 clubs in an area had an open and honest approach to this issue, and developed a ‘non zero sum game’ culture of recommending certain player styles to each other?
The answers to all of the above, I do not have. The majority of my career to date has been working with adult first teams in a professional setting. I have however, opened up the comments section below and I’d love to hear some thoughts or insights.
What I have experienced successfully, is setting an evidence-based culture, then defining and measuring targets tailored toward success. The Vardy/Firmino example is a perfect case study. Setting some simple yet effective KPI’s for these players can have a huge impact on their game. At the college, semi-professional and professional level, I’ve seen success and improvement in players who are more aware of their role and responsibilities.
Finding a simple way to measure these targets, followed by regular feedback and review, has had a significant impact on the players I’ve been fortunate to work with. I’m lucky to say I now provide individual analysis to a small number of professional strikers, and so far it’s proving to be successful. In the case of Jamie Vardy, setting targets such as 60% of all shots coming from the ‘danger zone’, and making runs in behind at least 75% of the time there is an opportunity, has helped players of similar style to improve.
There’s no doubt in my mind that 16+ year old forwards at any level would benefit from these exercises and a goal-setting culture, meaning they take control of their own development. However, under the wrong coaching, in the wrong system, I fear many players fall victim to a club or personal coaching philosophy which doesn’t suit them. I don’t blame the coaches in this scenario. It’s an incredibly tough situation. In the most extreme example, imagine having a player perfectly suited to being a Target Man forward, but having 7-8 others who perfectly fit a fast counter attacking style, requiring them to run in behind.
How many players fall by the wayside not because they wouldn’t make it, but because they couldn’t make it?
In the near future, CoachTech will be bringing an extension of it’s coach education platform to players. These will be called Positional Programs. Imagine forwards understanding the value of through balls, shot locations, and having video examples of why certain Premier League players perform better than others in their position.
Imagine a 16 year-old understanding the tactical nuances of Jamie Vardy vs Roberto Firmino, and being able to set themselves some basic targets based on their strengths. Most importantly, imagine them understanding how to self-analyze, take responsibility for their performances, and understand how, and when to approach a coach when performances in a certain area drop off.
“Coach, the last few games I’ve not been attempting as many through balls as the previous ten. Can we look at some video together?”
“Coach, I’m not running in behind as much as I was at the beginning of the year. Can we look at this and work on it after training, or design a drill to help?”
“Coach, I’m taking more shots from bad positions, can we take a look at what’s going on?”
If your games are recorded on video, you have more than enough, and this can be done more easily than most people think. Just as CoachTech’s Evidence-Based Coaching & Match Analysis course shows coaches how to reinforce a playing philosophy more effectively, the Positional Programs will help players to understand what makes Jamie Vardy better than most Premier League Poachers. They will help forwards understand why Aguero scores more goals than Benteke, and they will help wingers to know why Salah and Mane are more goal-dangerous than others.
CoachTech’s course on ‘Modern Attacking Play’ offers the opportunity to experience what this will look like in it’s free to access module looking at Wilfred Zaha and Andros Townsend (click here).
If you believe your players could benefit from this, or their parents would be interested, or you would like to provide this for your players, please use the form below to register for updates.
If you have experienced some of the difficulties outlined above, or want to provide some feedback to drive discussion, please use the comments section below.