Football is a game of speed, whether it’s quick thinking, or quick movement. PDP Editor & UEFA A licensed coach, Dave Wright & Tottenham Hotspur first team analyst, Zaheer Shah examine some clips and stats from the 2018 World Cup, sharing thoughts on some of the trends to emerge at the tournament 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 is 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.”

With this in mind, a starting point is to consider the importance and regularity of transition in modern football. The game gets quicker, players get quicker, goalkeepers need to have range of pass like a central midfielder and defenders need to know how to win a duel or organise quickly against this speed. So how does this impact young players? Consider your own practice design. How often are you creating scenarios where attackers are streaming forward against defenders as a result of a natural transition moment? How often do your attackers have to deal with pressure from the side or behind, not just in front of them? Defenders need to learn how to deny and delay, communicate and make split-second decisions to nullify a quick counter attack, whether it’s in the form of winning the ball back (possible presenting a counter attacking opportunity) or whether it’s to delay and buy time for their teammates to reorganise.

One of the best practices I’ve seen to create this one that a former colleague of mine at Fulham FC put on, called ‘Lazy Wingers’. The simplicity of the practice is amazing, but the resulting attacks, quick forward play, multiple transitions and opportunities to score on the break that it presents is brilliant. See the diagrams below, or the PDP session plan library.

In order to get some context from Zaheer, he has supplied a couple of clips and images (below) that will outline trends and support the importance of transition, and the need for young players to have experience of the low block (both breaking it and building it). Firstly, some additional thoughts on how the importance of positional play becomes crucial in solving the problem in front of the players.

“In terms of player development, it’s definitely something young players need to be exposed to, both attacking and defending a deep block. But within that, my personal feeling is defending like Russia in a 5-4-1 is not good defensive organisation due to the margin for error being quite large. I think how Mexico played vs Germany or Morrocco in a couple of games were a better example as they maintained a slightly higher position and kept a counterattacking threat. As positional play becomes more apparent, teams are going to go through a spell of dropping deep in order to negate it, and that will force the next evolution in football tactics, formations and positioning.

When it comes to data below – you look at Russia’s forward passes into the attacking third vs Spain’s and you can see a clear difference in intent. Positioning is everything when it comes to progression, and that was clear to see especially when it says Spain only attempted two through balls in the entire game.”

Data from Spain versus Russia:

Zaheer’s Observations:

  • Spain played without risk (in terms of their pass selection)
  • Pass selection was dictated by their poor positions within the block
  • This can be seen with how little they attempted to penetrate the box in proportion to how many passes they had in the attacking third.
  • Clearly, Spain had a favoured the side with Alba on the left side
  • Russia focussed on attacking the right side but attempted more passes into the box in relation to how many passes they had in the attacking third.

Below are two clips of effective defensive transition and clinical counterattack from the matches between Portugal and Spain and Mexico versus Germany.

Portugal vs. Spain


Dave’s Observations:

  • Portugal with 10 players in a deep lying block (defensive third) narrowing the pitch and forcing wide
  • Ronaldo (the outlet) is also deep inside his own half
  • Spanish players attempt to position between lines but are crowded out
  • On turnover the Portuguese defender knew Ronaldo was in position to receive (with a genius touch round the corner). Quick decision to play forward.
  • Quick attacking play/running with the ball
  • Aggressive forward supporting run
  • Fantastic defensive transition from Spain to force away and recover

Mexico vs. Germany


Dave’s Observations:

  • Line of engagement is halfway
  • Mexico with 10 players behind the ball
  • Germany almost opened them up with a forward pass
  • Positive intent on transition
  • Four players eliminated with the first pass
  • Quick combination play to create the overload
  • Aggressive forward supporting run
  • Calm finish

The World Cup final was one where the team with the least amount of the ball came away with the result. While many will suggest, France were the deserved winners, I’d suggest that on the day, Croatia played with more style, patience and composure. So whether you’re a fan of defensive football and counter attacking, or whether possession and counter-pressing are more aligned to your values, the lesson here is to put in context that your players needs may vary from your own preferences, and ensuring they get to sample a multitude of playing styles can only help them build a base of tactical understanding and technical competencies to become better players.

It’s important that we keep the clips and data above in context. These are examples of football at the highest level, they cannot be directly translated to youth football environments, but in my view there are lessons to be learned for player developers as to what the journey may look like down the line.

By ensuring players get a variety of experience and clubs, federations and governing bodies stay open to the diversity and tactical variation in a game like football, we must ensure that players receive a mixed experience on the grass during their formative years. Having rigid formations or structures that must be adhered to, in my view is flawed. Founded on a love of the game and under the guidance of coaches who are comfortable setting tasks for learners to solve, if we put results aside, then perhaps we can start developing more adaptable and tactically confident young players who can solve real football problems. There is more than one way to play.

Ideas for your team or club:

  • Explore the idea of topics for your team to focus on collectively or individually. For example one month might be counterattacking, the next might be controlling possession
  • Create game realistic scenarios within sessions that give players an opportunity to get repetition of the moment of the game you’re working on
  • Ask the players for their feedback and thoughts on sessions or pose questions around the challenge in front of them
  • Get players to lead discussion around the task. E.g. “Have a group discussion and come up with a strategy to beat the block” or “Come up with a plan that will allow your team to attack quickly on gaining possession.”
  • Utilise task constraints that encourage desired outcomes

Below is the session plan from the PDP Session Plan library referred to above, known as “Lazy Wingers” or “Cheating Wingers” The full version is available in the session plan library.



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