Developing Midfielders - Position Specific Coaching

Event Presenter – Dick Bate, Former Director of Elite Coach Development – English FA

Extract From My Report as an Event Delegate

The topic of Position Specific Coaching has fascinated me since I first coached lacrosse in the 1980’s where, on some of the teams, they have a coach for the defenders and a coach for the forwards. Some lacrosse teams have a coach for man up and man down situations and there are experts who deal with the face – off. Although I was lost as a lacrosse coach I did recognize the fact that there was a real logic to having coaches who could specialize in training and watching players in smaller numbers with more specific analysis. 

It is a good deal easier to do this in men’s lacrosse than women’s lacrosse because, in men’s lacrosse, the field is separated into an attacking half and a defending half with only a certain number of players allowed in both. When extended to a full invasion sport like women’s lacrosse or soccer, where players can go anywhere they wish with no restrictions whatsoever, it gets trickier to pull off, especially where there is tremendous interchange of positions all over the field and functions are not so clearly defined. 

The techniques of playing in the midfield demand special consideration as they are so varied. They include; 

  1. ALL receiving skills and ALL turning skills.
  2. Long, diagonal passes. (50 -60 yards minimum.)
  3. Change the play passes. (Short and medium range passing skills.)
  4. “Minimum touch” passing skills (1 and 2 touch.)
  5. Bent, driven and floated passes.
  6. Measured “through” passes for onward running forwards.
  7. “Fast” short to medium range ground passes.
  8. Clever, different and deceptive passes – toe poke, front foot, back heel, toe lift, flip over lift etc.
  9. “Body work” to receive ball with body protecting from defender.
  10. Combination play with forwards and other midfielders.
  11. Feints in possession (Show one way and go another).
  12. Running the ball forward and diagonally at great speed.
  13. Long distance strikes (30 – 35 yards).
  14. Understanding and using pre- receiving moves when receiving ball under pressure.
  15. Pressing, marking, and back tracking skills.
  16. Screening and sliding defensive skills.
  17. Absorbing and containing counter attack opponents.
  18. Blocking passes and shots.

The basic attacking job of a midfielder is to retain, release or run the ball but the environment midfielders perform in are widely varied including the following tactical skills:

  1. Receiving the ball back to goal.
  2. Supporting team mates at a variety of angles, speeds, heights and distances.
  3. Receiving the ball with early, close, little or no support.
  4. Operating in extremely congested areas or operating in areas where there is significant space.
  5. Being physically contacted at the same moment as contacting the ball.

Why play through midfield at all when there are successful teams which play over the midfield to front players and then pick up the knock downs and other bits and pieces? Here are some of the reasons;

  1. Final pass leading to a shot at goal will be shorter and more manageable.
  2. Shorter passes increase team ability to retain possession.
  3. Easier to determine pace of the game.
  4. Gives team time to set team shape and patterns of play.
  5. Sets up possibilities of getting ball to major creators on the team.
  6. Expands variety and quality of passes into front players.
  7. Eradicates failures of players at the back who are poor at long services.
  8. Eradicates issues pertaining to the physical limitations of small or limited forwards.

Statistics Of Passing

The developments at Barcelona are most stimulating to the topic of midfield play. Former Barcelona coach, Pepe Guardiola, said that he preferred a team of midfield players. It was, hardly, surprising, then, that we received a lot of raw data on the passing and possession rates of the players who represent the Catalonian giants as well as Spain;

Euro 2008 Xavi, Spain vs Germany Final – 62 passes made. 94% pass completion rate.

Overall tournament passing – 316 passes. 90% pass completion rate.

Spain. World Cup Qualifiers, 2010. 88.07% completion rate. 

Passing and possession statistics can be misleading. Where possession is maintained is important. Completing passes ten yards outside your own penalty box is hardly impressive…but the really impressive statistics surround the Barcelona attacking midfielders, who have a combined total of 94% passing accuracy in the 2009 Euro Final against Manchester United. Barcelona’s midfielders, Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, who spend most of their time in the opponents half of the field, had the following statistics;

Messi – 94.7% 54 accurate passes out of 57.
Iniesta – 93.8% 65 accurate passes from 69
Xavi – 93.8%     75 accurate passes from 80…or a combined total of 194 successful passes out of 200. 

Manchester United midfielders, on the other hand, were as follows;

Anderson – 85.7% 12 accurate passes from 14.
Giggs – 79.2% 19 accurate passes from 24.
Carrick – 74% 44 accurate passes from 59…or a combined total of 65 successful passes out of 97. 

To develop truly gifted midfielders, and players in general, American coaches should review the advantages of Position Specific Coaching. Dick’s recommendation is to conduct Position Specific Coaching Sessions at least once a week. The coach of the U/15’s could be the back line coach, U/16’s would be midfield and U/17’s would be an expert in striker play. It is important that the entire staff buy into the concept and watch inner club games on a regular basis which are highly experimental involving coach interruptions, 3 x 30 minute halves, man to man for one third, playing with three at the back, man marking an opposing star player etc. 

Extract Written By Jeff Tipping, Brookside Technical Advisor