AIM OF THIS REPORT
The aim of this report is not to give a minute by minute review of the game I watched but to introduce some of the recent developments noted at the very highest level of elite youth soccer. As former Director of Coach Education for United Soccer Coaches I am committed to the progress of coaches and players and hope the reader shall be able to use the information featured here in their practices and developmental sessions. Other reports can be found on my website at www.jefftipping.com. Most importantly, the reports are designed to help Club Directors of Coaching in the never ending enterprise of educating our coaching staff regarding coaching trends and, ultimately, taking our players to a higher level.
I would like to thank my colleagues at Coach FX for providing me with the diagram hardware and encourage coaches to consider Coach FX as their “Go To” company when developing static and animated diagram programming.
I would also like to thank Amplified Soccer for extending the articles I write to the soccer coaches and to those interested in the development of the game in the USA.
Man City 4 – 1 – 4 – 1 (In blue)
Liverpool 4 – 4 – 1 – 1 (In red)
GAME NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
The U18 English Premier League is comprised of the top players from the Premier League teams at the U18 level. The league features the finest youth players in the UK, some of whom are already professional players, and a smattering of some of the best players from other countries who may have been signed by the clubs or, in some cases, are on a try out. The league features a combination of players who have signed professional contracts, players on “Schoolboy” contracts, and, also, younger players who the coaching staff want to see playing against older and more mature opposition. Some of the players featured in this game will sign professional contracts with Liverpool or City, some shall be sold to another club, some may go on loan to other clubs, some drop out of the professional game completely or, in some cases may come to the USA on college scholarships.
1. Facility Security.
Escalating security at Academies is happening all over the country. With massive trading/transfer fees being paid for players and the price which clubs need to pay to operate successfully in the Premier League growing quickly, significant security measures are now in place at almost ALL Premier League training facilities to prevent “spys” coming in. To get into Liverpool’s training facilities the security personnel require visitors to fall into, roughly, three categories which include;
“Scouts” (personnel from other clubs vetting participating players for future trades). Host clubs let scouts in as a courtesy – not ALL scouts are encouraged to attend…but there is a common understanding that the buying and selling of players begins with a scout spotting them. At Liverpool they have a special standing section reserved for Scouts.
“Parents and family” of both teams who get a specific coloured wrist band;
“Guests” attending by virtue of an invitation from someone connected with either of the clubs. I fell into the third category and was issued a bronze wrist band. To be fair, security might be tight but at every facility I have been to, once you clear security, the staff have been friendly and most helpful. One of the Liverpool security staff actually brought me a cup of tea at half time!
Highly pedicured fields are a common feature of professional soccer training facilities these days and this field was nothing short of magnificent. A great deal of care is taken to make sure the fields are top class. As can be seen from the pictorial below, even the warm up of the goalkeepers does not take place in the goal mouth but, to spare the wear and tear on the goalmouth. There is, normally, a portable goal available which is removed before kickoff.
3. Pre Game Organization.
Both teams came out about 45 minutes before kickoff along with the coaching staff and began a highly choreographed warm up and loosening up exercises. They both concluded with functional warm ups which included a staff coach working with the movement of the Liverpool back 4 with the introduction of a defensive midfield player. (See below.) Also, the Liverpool GK coach worked with the two goalkeepers throughout the entire warm up. The most important characteristic of a goalkeeping coach, it is said, is their ability to strike a clean ball. Liverpool’s GK coach could, certainly, do that.
Every activity had a coach overseeing it.
The assistant coaches of both teams took a small functional group to work with and prepare them for the game. This is not unusual in youth soccer at professional clubs. The constant assessment of players by the coaching staff never ends and extends into the quality of effort players put into the pre-game warm up. Evaluation of players never ends. The players are under scrutiny all the time which is not surprising considering the amount of work which goes into professional youth development at the top clubs. While staff coaches make $40,000 a year they are dealing with players who are making, or soon shall be making, ten times that figure at 18 years of age.
When the warm up concluded the Liverpool team walked back into their dressing room. Manchester City stayed on the field.
Manchester City had 9 staff in the coaches area plus 6 subs.
Liverpool had 6 staff and an undetermined number of subs.
Likely staff composition - Head coach, Assistant coach, GK coach, Position specific staff possibly), U16 and U21 staff, physiotherapist and, maybe, player analyst. Both teams had video staff videotaping the game.
The officiating team of Thomas Swift (Referee) and Patrick Naughton and James Long (assistant Referees) could not have delivered a better example of officiating. The game flowed from beginning to end with the center man, Mr. Swift, staying right with the play from the first kick of the game till the last. Fouls were whistled quickly and with little rancor, the referee did book some players but none of the referee’s decisions could be doubted and the referee did not make a song and dance out of it. The quick “peep” of the whistle, which is characteristic of top level referees when fouls occur, meant the game had a good flow and contributed to the enjoyment of the players and the spectators.
Tactics and Playing Style.
1. The Indirect style, keep ball, and GK participation.
Both teams played out of the back, almost to the point of being reckless. In fact, the goal Man City conceded, 6 minutes into extra time, came from an interception, by a Liverpool player, of a careless pass by a City player and within a couple of touches the ball was in the City goal…and Liverpool had won.
Clearly both teams have a “keep ball” mentality which worked, admirably, even when the opposition pressed with their three forwards, which Liverpool did on occasion. The splitting wide of the two center backs combined with the movement of the central midfield player into good receiving angles was a successful tactic…but it must be said that this style of play takes a lot of practice, a good playing surface and toleration by the coaching staff when goals are, inadvertently, conceded.
If the aim of youth coaching is the development of “all round” players who are comfortable on the ball and not scared of making mistakes surely this is the way to play. Back line players were urged to go forward and looked equally as comfortable with the ball as the forwards and the midfield players.
In this style of play it is critical to have goalkeepers who are good with their feet. This will have an effect on goalkeeper participation in practice situations. Rather than be sent to an isolated GK area, they shall spend some time warming up with the outfield players as they will be using their feet far more than ever before. Both goalkeepers were excellent with their feet and the center backs, traditionally used only in a defensive mode, moved into the midfield with and without the ball and made penetrating passes which caused problems for the opposition.
The comfort level of the back four of both teams was quite striking. Long gone seem to be the days of back line players just launching the ball, aimlessly, forward…even back line players are very patient as they probe various passing lanes to move the ball forward into the opposing half of the field.
2. Low pressure defending.
Low pressure defending featured by both teams. This came, partially, as a result of their formation, with both teams keeping only one player high, and getting everybody else behind the ball. The attacking team, consequently, had the ball for long periods of time in the opponent’s half of the field and the defending team had to stay organized and disciplined in closing down spaces and minimizing the number of shots on goal. One of the features of teams in possession was keeping the ball in wide positions even when a crossing opportunity presented itself…the attacking players tried to find the killer pass into the opponent’s penalty area rather than crossing the ball and risking losing possession.
3. Flank Play
The flank midfield players were extremely mobile and had the ability to penetrate down the touchline or come into and/or across the field to try a shot, slide a ball through to the central strikers and midfielders making vertical runs or reverse pass to overlapping team mates. It should be noted that the wide midfielders came inside a tremendous amount and the full backs moved higher up into the midfield, looking something like this;
This ability of the players to drive the ball, “on a rope” over long distances cannot be overstated. With more players moving into the centre of the field the spaces for attacking outside backs were, often, wide open.
4. Holding central midfield players.
The movement of the wide players, vertically and horizontally, led to a tremendous amount of place changing but it should be noted that the defensive midfielders, for both teams, rarely went too far out of the central position…their job was to switch the ball from one side to the other, determine the tempo of the game and, most importantly, to protect the back line (the back four) from counter attacks when one of them goes forward. Joe Hodge, City’s number 6, was the quintessential holding midfielder and controlled a great deal of the game with a superb first touch, vision and ball driving ability and positioning.
1. Striking a ball. Ability to drive a ball – dead straight, 50 - 60 yards to a team mates chest, featured from both teams. The only word that can describe the quality of these long distance passes in this game is…..”Outstanding.”
2. Shielding. Spinning away from an opponent with the ball on the outside of the foot happened all the time with both sets of midfield players and forwards.
Bobby Duncan, of Liverpool, had mastered this skill and initiated contact with defenders even when in possession of the ball.….aggressive techniques of shielding was a constant theme in this game. It was quite clear that players had been tutored in the art of holding and shielding the ball, even when under heavy pressure and even when deep in their own half of the field.
3. Dribbling. Changes of speed and changes of direction featured by all the players but Elijah Dixon-Bonner of Liverpool and Yaden Braef of City had mastered the ability to dupe defenders with their dribbling skills thus making space for a shot, cross or pass. Collective defending was the only way to deal with players of this kind of athleticism…defenders caught in 1 v 1 situations were in a particularly precarious position and had to be very cautious not to get wrong footed or bring down the opponent in the penalty area.
4. Front foot passing. Players confronted by a “low pressure’ mass of defenders attempted to disguise passes using the, “No backswing technique.” This kind of passing can be achieved with a toe poke or quick release pass…and is especially effective in tight spaces when trying to break down a defensive block.
Other passing techniques when trying to penetrate a block of defenders includes, front foot passing which eliminates the need for a backswing and the hip rotation which inside of the foot passing requires. Opponents can, often, read the intent of the player and block the pass. Moving the ball one way, with the inside of the foot and passing it in another way with the outside of the foot, is commonly used to penetrate block defenses.
5. Precision “foot specific” passing. Players did not just pass the ball to a team mate, most often they passed the ball to a specific foot – a classic feature of advanced soccer. This depended on the positioning of the defender who was closest to the player receiving the ball.
i. If the opposing defender was tight to the target player, the ball was passed to the foot away from the defender. See red players on diagram below on the right.
ii. If the opposing defender was backed off, away from the attacker, the ball was passed to the front foot. See blue players in the diagram on the left. A common nuance missed by many players.
As noted the game concluded with a goal from Liverpool in the 96th minute…just about the last kick of the game. A game full of skill and tactical savvy is always fun to watch and was made more interesting by the even-ness of both teams providing the spectators with an enjoyable look into the world of elite youth player development. Being at, almost, ground level gave us a much better sense of the speed, athleticism and power of these young players and the crowd were disappointed when the final whistle blew….we wanted the game to carry on! Watching top level youth players against one another is educational and, I hope, gives coaches a look at new developments at the very highest levels of youth development.