Written by Oliver Gage

I was recently fortunate to be featured in a recent piece for Training Ground Guru, which covered the work I do with professional footballers.

A key feature of the piece was my belief that clubs aren’t always given the resources to support their players the way they perhaps should, even when they would like to. The reality is, that football is a results based business, and when money is available, it’s generally spent on new players perceived to be an upgrade on what a team already has. Can anybody really blame managers who’ve been conditioned to value results in the short-term?

This leaves players in a vulnerable position. Changes at a club after they have signed a long-term contract, means they are at the mercy of a new Head Coach and far from in control of their own fate.

As a member of staff at Sheffield Wednesday and Houston Dynamo, I experienced the reality of life inside a busy club. Days filled with opposition scouting, post-game analysis, recruitment and training sessions geared towards the next opponent, mean it’s sometimes impossible for staff to focus on individual needs.

A belief among many, including myself, is that specialist coaches will become more common. We’ve already seen set-piece and even throw-in coaches employed by clubs as they look to find an extra edge. I share this belief.

 

I recently launched PlayerTech, which has been a passion project for a while now. Although PlayerTech has been designed for players of any standard, it’s roots are from my work at the top end of the game, inspiration came from the individual development work I was fortunate to experience at Houston Dynamo.

Since the Training Ground Guru piece, I’ve had a number of requests to explain this further. For obvious reasons, I can’t divulge everything I do, and it’s far too complex to explain in writing. I can however, show a fictional example of how this work could benefit a player, and hopefully give an insight into why I believe PlayerTech is a fantastic first step in any player’s journey of improvement.

Enter Dennis Politic, who I believe could become a great player (he’s already good!)

 

Going Fishing

In this example, we’re going to use England’s League One.

Using data from Wyscout to look at wingers, attacking midfielders and forwards in the 2019/2020 season, we can quickly see who stands out by looking at some very basic numbers.

 

Narrowing down

We’ve identified six players who generally take quite a few shots but those shots are low in quality. Far from perfect, but it’s a great starting point to suggest these players might be able to improve their decisions around the box.

At just 20 years old, Dennis Politic screams of opportunity. According to Transfermarkt he has another two years on his contract, so it’s feasible he could see some increased playing time while working on improving his game in League Two following Bolton’s relegation. Unfortunately, Bolton almost certainly won’t have the analysis and coaching infrastructure that was once leading the industry under Sam Allardyce, so he’s likely a player who through no fault of his own, might not get much individual attention.

 

The problem

The first thing to address – this shouldn’t be called a problem. It’s an opportunity. Young players are far from the finished article, and Dennis has time on his side to shape his game. Of the six players highlighted, Dennis scores lowest for expected assists per 90, and I believe his shot choices are inherently linked. Improving one will improve the other.

A quick look at his shot map on InStat shows there’s a lack of genuinely good chances from high-value situations, and playing for a weaker team in the division most certainly has an effect on this. Nonetheless, when we watch video shortly, there are a few things we can work on.

 

Are goals always good?

When I was at Houston, one of our bright, young attacking players scored a goal from the corner of the box about 25 yards out early in the season. It was a goalkeeping mistake (video provided later). Following this, he formed a habit of shooting in this situation at every opportunity. Sixteen shots later, no more goals, and a player who was quite brilliant attacking defenders 1v1 was choosing to shoot rather than run with the ball.

This scenario with Alberth Elis was the first step on my personal journey, into individual player development work.

On September 3rd, just 6 games into the season, Bolton played Bradford City, and Dennis Politic scored thanks in part to a deflection. The keeper manages to get a firm hand on the ball, but it bounces over the line.

I’m far from a sports psychologist, and my experience in this field goes as far as ‘once played at a semi-decent level’ and ‘have worked with players in the past’. But I’d be very interested to hear the opinion of a professional to gauge how this positive experience impacted his decision-making process in the future. In this situation, there’s a solid argument that a short pass to #27 Ronan Darcy might be a better option.

 

 

Opportunities to improve

It took me about 15 minutes to find a few good examples of the ripple effect this may have had on the rest of the season for Politic.

 

And some possible alternatives to the decision to shoot.

 

A problem for every solution

Albert Einstein famously said “stay away from negative people, they have a problem for every solution”. The last a player needs is someone constantly finding negative clips and shoving them down his throat. To be honest, that’s by far the easiest part of the job, and the ability to rewind footage at will makes the game seem so easy. Clearly it’s not.

In these examples, I see a player who’s got shooting on his mind as soon as he picks up the ball. Given that, it’s no surprise these other options aren’t being taken. But what if Polisic was willing to shoot, but not looking to do so as his first choice?

Now we have a creative wide player drifting inside looking to create and combine, but, who will also shoot in the right situations. As stated before, I believe his creative passing and shooting choices are inherently linked. By choosing not to shoot, he therefore chooses to be a more dangerous creator, benefiting both himself and his team.

Subjectively speaking, there’s an awful lot to like about Dennis Politic. He’s has a good solid frame and balance making him difficult to knock off the ball. He has a soft touch in tight spaces and the acceleration to make himself a yard of space. When he chooses to run with the ball, he’s a difficult to defend. He can also strike the ball very well, so when he does shoot in the right situations, he’s dangerous.

 

Solutions for every problem

One way to avoid negativity might be to highlight and reinforce positive behavior.

 

 

At the risk of turning this into an advert for Training Ground Guru, I recently listened to Pippa Grange discuss her career with some brilliant insights. So good I listened twice. A lot of her words were focused on developing culture and education. I couldn’t agree more, and an open and transparent relationship centered around education is how I choose to work with players.

Going full circle, PlayerTech is the basis of this education. Imagine a striker with a better understanding of how, and why goals are scored. Or a winger knowing the value of cut-back crosses and through balls. How much easier do these video sessions and conversations become?

The other ways I work with players individually are the insights I won’t be sharing. They’ve been developed over time, and like any good practitioner, you can’t just read a book and begin. Knowing information is the easy part of working with players, but the personal relationships, working with their coaches and knowing how to tie this work into their club environment is what really makes the difference.

 

Cheap is expensive in the end

I was agonizing over buying my first car in 2006, when an older friend told me “cheap is always expensive in the end”. Naturally, at 19, I chose the short-term benefit of saving a few hundred pounds on a Renault Clio, which left me stranded on the M1 a few months later.

Can Bolton Wanderers afford an analyst-coach for every player? Of course not.

But what about an individual development specialist focused on exactly that across the squad? Somebody who works hand-in-hand with the coaching staff, avoiding conflicts and managing relationships, while ensuring each and every player is developing toward predefined objectives? When this isn’t provided by a club, I have fortunately been asked to. Players and agents are beginning to see it’s value.

In League One, adding a few goals or assists as a winger can be a few hundred thousand pounds on a transfer fee. It can be an extra £50,000 in yearly salary when negotiating a contract, or the difference between survival and relegation for a club.

What if a club employed this specialist across the first team, reserves and the academy? A pipeline of attacking players making better, more informed decisions, molded within a culture of personal development, going hand in hand with club philosophy.

Liverpool, were ridiculed by some for hiring a throw-in specialist, have now set the benchmark for marginal gains culture. Now lauded for their innovation, it’s only a matter of time before specialist coaching becomes standard practice in most clubs. Sports Science, Performance Analysis, Sports Psychology, Nutrition, Sleep Coaches and Data Analysts have all experienced the same journey of resistance, acceptance and eventually embracement.

PlayerTech is off to an exciting start, and for now, I’m enjoying a niche, working with open-minded and ambitious players. They are a pleasure to work with.

 

A history of success