It’s a Monday evening. It’s just on dusk. I am tucked up in a press box watching, below me, two matches being played. I watch the first half without saying a word. I am immersed in what I am watching and my mind is ticking over constantly play by play, moment by moment in the action below. I question the gentleman next me. He is wearing club colours of one of the teams that are playing below. “Excuse me mate. Do you know how old these children are please?” “Nine”, he replied. “SAP” he said in his next breath. “Don’t they keep shape well” he said. “They do” I replied. “They’re great at keeping possession.” “They sure are” I replied. I said thank you. I got up and wandered down the stadium stairs to be closer to the action.
The gentleman was correct, the football I was watching was organised and structured. It was nice on the eye to those watching but for me I was a little unsettled by what I was watching.
For me, the formative years of playing should be more about the individual being placed in an environment where they can make their own decisions and solve football problems on their own. I witnessed countless opportunities in the matches I was watching where the children playing were in great situations of 1v1. Just them and their opponent and more often than not one would make the choice to pass the ball on to a teammate. With that pass that player had passed on the chance to discover a way of skilfully getting beyond the opponent using a fake or move. Plus the chance to further develop his/her own problem solving and dribbling skills or decision making. Not to mention how good it feels to go past an opposing player and the confidence that builds.
My experience personally, (at a senior level) when tactically your team is nullified by an opponent and a structured approach is not giving you the edge is when technically skilful, courageous players come to the forefront and can give you that edge. These players can start to win their 1v1 battles on the pitch and give your team more of a chance of creating goal scoring chances and isn’t that what football is about. Creating chances to score?
I rely on structure yes. Players should be taught to play within a structure and I do coach players to play within one if based on the child’s complexity they are ready because first; they must be able to rely on their own abilities. For example, if we teach our players a certain way to build up from the back (hence the phrase from the curriculum, structured build up) and it’s not a successful way to create chances, what then do the players do? This is how we build up isn’t it coach? The players must have a foundation of the following in their football DNA to be successful.
- The ability to problem solve and find another way
- The ability to skilfully get beyond their opponent
- The courage to try
In summing up, young organised teams who can play football together and create goal scoring opportunities in unison is the goal but they must possess the ability to find their own way forward if this structured approach is not working. They should be given the opportunity to develop skills and to develop the foresight as to when to execute these skills to create goal scoring opportunities.
Let’s not lock our kids in too early to collective structured play. Let’s keep developing skilful, creative, individually technically smart players first. Yes, let them hog the ball in the formative years. Then teach them to pass and play together later.