Football is a game of speed, whether it’s quick thinking, or quick movement. PDP Editor & UEFA A licensed coach, Dave Wright & Brentford FC first team analyst, Zaheer Shah examine some clips and stats from the tournament, sharing thoughts on some of the trends to emerge at the World Cup and whether they have implications in youth development.

The 2018 World Cup has seen the importance of combination play, transition, quick counter attack, 1 v 1 attributes and game changing individual brilliance as key components to success. In an era dominated by possession football and with pressing the preferred method of defending, what lessons can we take from football’s showpiece that may influence tomorrow’s stars and trends in player development?

Without a doubt, encouraging young players to form a love for the game, mastery of the ball and an ability to pass and receive are all key ingredients to helping young players enjoy the game and help them reach their potential. Decision-making in all of these scenarios is crucial, whether that’s how and when to receive to play forward, or what tricks and skills are the right solution to the 1 v 1 scenario in front of you.

In the last ten to fifteen years, heavily influenced by the legacy of Cruyff’s FC Barcelona and more recently the likes of Pep Guardiola, the philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa and the counter pressing teams of Jurgen Klopp, youth football has been dominated by a desire to maintain possession and press high. The merits of this are hard to question, but as a sort of devil’s advocate, I’d like to suggest that at times it’s easy to forget that in the game of football (particularly tournaments) at all levels, children or professional players may be tasked with having to solve more problems than playing out of the back or winning the ball high up the pitch.

While  the concept of possession is an essential component of team play and being brave to get on the ball are key while learning the game, we need to recognise that football is a game that can be played in many ways. Ranieri’s Leicester City are perhaps the best recent example of turning contemporary playing style on its head.

When I was working at Brentford FC I recall playing several clubs who were more direct than us in style. They liked to run in behind or play over the top, and against those teams it became a wonderful learning opportunity for our players who had perhaps not had to deal with defensive headers or quick strikers and midfielders running beyond. It’s fair to suggest that with positive changes in youth development, an emphasis on playing style and possession, as well as coach education improving, players may not have to deal with these challenges as they did in years gone by. With youth teams at Brentford, some fixtures would be won, some would be lost, but regardless, the players benefitted from being up against teams with a different style of play and our definitions of success went well beyond the score board.

Every club (at least in the academy football scene) will have a philosophy. Whilst there are variations, you would probably not be far off most of them if you listed the following as key ingredients:

  • We play out of the back
  • We play through the thirds
  • We play attacking football
  • We press and regain the ball quickly

All of the above are qualities that go with attractive football that will help young players learn. The point of this article is to open up a conversation around whether a single philosophy or a varied experience will ultimately develop better players. In writing this, I am somewhat conflicted, as I value all of the above ideas but some fundamentals I believe in are variety of…

  • Challenges (being the best in the group vs. being the weakest in the group at times)
  • Age groups
  • Tournament formats and experiences
  • Game formats (Futsal, 1 v 1, 3 v 3, 7 v 7, 8 v 8, 9 v 9 & 11 v 11 at all ages)
  • Formations
  • Experiences with overloads/underloads and solving the problems that come with it.

I believe variety will help young players improve. But in an age where systems, structures and philosophies seem to be more prevalent in youth football than ever before, we have to continue to question things. Players need to be adaptable to their environment and the challenges of the task in front of them. Possession is one thing, but possession with progression, or possession with a purpose, is more valuable. In youth development, players should be encouraged constantly to take risks, play difficult passes, take players on 1 v 1 and run with the ball. If they don’t try when there’s nothing on the line at training or in club games, when will they ever try? In my view, reflecting on this is healthy and if nothing more, a good excuse to look at some trends from the World Cup in Russia.

So let’s look at some World Cup analysis. Firstly, some thoughts from Zaheer Shah (First Team Analyst at Brentford FC). Zaheer is a man who I hold in very high regard as an analyst and student of the game who I was lucky enough to work with.

“I think the idea of possession and progression has been around for a while, whenever you hear the cliche “trying to walk the ball into the net”. With this World Cup, sitting deep is easier due to less organisation and energy needed than to be a good pressing team. I think teams have figured out that even the best attacking teams will lack cohesion due to the difference between a national team and a club team. Transitions have become an even bigger part of football due to the rise of pressing and counter-pressing which is increasing the number of goal scoring transitions rather than transitions picked up from a second ball in midfield.”

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Dave Wright & Zaheer Shah
Dave Wright & Zaheer Shah
Dave is a UEFA A licensed coach and Co-Founder of Player Development Project. He has 16 years’ coaching experience from high school first teams through to professional academy football in England, where he worked in London for both Brentford FC & Fulham FC. Now based in Melbourne coaching for Football Federation Victoria, Dave has also worked in elite development at state level in Australia and New Zealand. Check out Dave’s eBook, Performance Soccer Coach: A Guide to Positive Player Development on Amazon.

Zaheer Shah is First Team Analyst for Championship Club, Brentford FC in England. Zaheer has been at Brentford for four years and worked his way up from the Academy.
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