11 Technical Observations from Everton U/23 – Leicester U/23

Everton U23 played Leicester City U23 in a Premier League 2 game. Premier League 2 is a developmental league featuring, mostly, players under 23 years of age. However, because it is acknowledged to be a developmental league the teams are allowed to feature a certain number of older age players. Playing with and against older players is considered one of the important learning factors for young and developing soccer players.

  • Everton’s home stadium, Goodison Park, is where the first team play and the younger teams play at Everton’s training ground “Finch Farm”. The U23 team, however, play many of their PL2 games at Southport’s stadium, Haig Avenue, which is positioned about 15 miles from Goodison.

               European Developmental system vs The American Collegiate Developmental system

Southport’s team has fallen down the English league ladder but still maintain a semi pro team which plays in the National League North.  Most of Southport’s players will receive a weekly salary but will, in all likelihood, also carry an outside job to supplement this income. Southport’s stadium has a capacity of 6,000 and gives local supporters, when Everton play there, the chance to see some of the stars of the future.

The career of a professional soccer player can be very tempestuous and has significant ups and downs. Some of the players who played in this game may fulfill their dream of playing in the Premier League but it is a rugged road and many players are released by both Everton and Leicester every year, to make their way as professionals, possibly, with lower league teams.

The European player developmental system is very different than the USA collegiate developmental system. Most (not all…) European players shall not have a college degree and, if they are good enough, shall sign a professional contract at 18 years of age. Some will be signed to an amateur contract which means that they will train with their respective team and shall receive expenses when they do play or travel. Although they are eligible to play for the club, many of these players are there to make up the numbers – after all the signed, professional players need someone to play against in practice!

For an American, it takes some time to get acquainted with the idea that an 18 year old European soccer player has signed a professional contract and, in the case of elite 18 year old players, might be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. In addition clubs are now duty bound to give their young players a formal education and every club has a “Health and Welfare” officer who supervises the physical and intellectual growth of the young players. Nevertheless, it is not an occupation for the faint hearted!  


1.       Passing to specific foot.

Both teams had players who passed the ball with surgical accuracy to their teammates foot – often times they would pass the ball to a marked player but would pass the ball to the team mates foot which was away from the defender.

2.       Pace of Pass and control.

Good players are able to pass the ball to team mates so that they can receive the ball comfortably. However, my observation is that good players are able to “kill” a hard pass with any part of their body and any area of their foot. Sometimes the receiving player’s preparation of the ball is away from an opponent, sometimes the preparation is straight AT an opponent to attack that opponent, or is a preparation for the players next move or action.

3.       Driving the ball long distance.

Players have the ability to drive the ball over large distances either “on a rope” or with a “fade” where the ball gently falls to the left or right of the receiving player making it much easier to receive. I have seen top players practice long distance passing as part of their practice routine or stay behind after practice to work on this very important aspect of English football. The technical points of driving the ball must be hammered into a coaching staff. Too many of our coaches do not have a good understanding of this very important skill and players make the following mistakes;

  • Not getting the ball – “Out of feet”. Players cannot kick a ball long distances if the ball is under their body. The preparation of the ball is vital and must be “Out of feet.”

  • Ball prepared at an angle. If a player is going to kick the ball with the right foot the player should prepare the ball angled to the right. See my article on “Kicking a Ball.”

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4.       “Spin.”

The ability to drive the ball dead straight was matched by the ability of players to drive long distance passes with “spin.” At the top of the illustration below the player driving the ball has curled the ball, with slice, into the space so the attacker does not have to wait for it. The ball lands in front of the flank player, spinning away from the player so he can run onto the ball at top speed and get behind the defender for a cross.

The middle illustration highlights the ability of the players, to a man, to drive the ball dead straight at the forwards chest…at such a height that the back player cannot go over the top of the attacker without committing a foul.

The bottom illustration features a back player “hooking” the ball to a space which the attacker can get to before the defender and can, possibly, prepare the ball inside for a shot.

Putting various kinds of spin on the ball is an elite level skill which takes lots of work by the players and excellent knowledge and teaching ability from the coaching staff. 


5.       Angular Passing and Movement

Players ahead of the ball curve their runs back towards the ball to avoid straight passing. I also have noticed the increase in angled passing and angled support play so that straight passes, although not completely eliminated, are not used as much as in the past.

I have heard both English and Brazilian coach educators, at coaching school, refer to the sport as a “Sideways on Sport.” Receiving the ball sideways on can expand the player’s field of vision significantly. In the illustration below it is easy to see the advantages of “Sideways on Soccer.”

i.                     If the attacking player checks straight to the ball their only option is a pass back to the feed player as they have limited vision as to where the defender is.

ii.                   By checking at an angle attacking players can easily see if they are being followed by the defender with a quick look over their shoulder.

iii.                 If the defender lays off the attacker can receive the ball and turn to face the defender and beat the defender on a dribble.

iv.                 If the defender gets tight the attacker can;

  • Play the ball back to the passer and get behind the defender in a 1-2 movement.

  • Clip the ball around and go behind the defender.

  • Let the ball go through their legs and chase after it, thus deceiving the defender.

Angular Passing.png

6.       Upper body.

Players use upper body to block off defenders before they, actually, touch the ball. If a player is about to receive a ball and is under heavy pressure, that player will “Step Into” the opponent to shield the ball. Anson Dorrance, the great University of North Carolina Women’s coach, calls this; “Controlling the defender before controlling the ball.” Troy Deeney of Watford is a center forward who has mastered this skill.

In addition players check too the ball, away from the defender, and then suddenly halt the check and the back runs into him. The use of the upper body is a massive skill in the professional leagues here and it is, obviously, taught at a young age.

Upper Body.jpg

7.       Early Support and 1 touch soccer.

When player A.  passes the ball to player B. team mates will move into a support position BEFORE player B. receives the ball…so as the ball is travelling…as opposed to waiting for player B to receive the ball and then move. This enables players receiving the ball to play one touch soccer as the ball can be played off immediately to support players arriving early. Early support is very effective in wide areas when attackers are faced by only one defender  

8.       Contesting Headers.

Players do not jump straight up but jump early and INTO the opposing player. Thus the player can get his upper torso above the opponents so the opponent can, barely, get off the ground.

In addition, center backs have the advantage of backing off an attacker and then getting a run up for the header…most players jump higher with a run up than a standing jump. To counter this the forwards back up into the center backs to take away their run up. Taking away the run up is an important skill for a forward to acquire. In England the referees rarely blow their whistle when an attacking player backs up into an opponent.

9.       Curved running.

Curved Running.jpg

When players were ahead of the ball in and running forward, away from the ball, to avoid running in a straight line the player curled their run so that they had vision of when the ball carrier was going to deliver…thus avoiding straight line running with their back, completely, facing the wrong way.

The illustration above shows the forward player making an angle to improve their vision and, also, giving the passing player an easier and slightly larger target to hit.

10.       Defensive turning.

Players caught in a 1 v 1 defensive situation would turn “into” the attacking player when the attacker had played the ball beyond the defender. Sometimes the referee would call a foul and sometimes would not. Turning “into” the players running path forces the player to make a wider angle of running, thus giving the defender a split second more to recover and track the attacker. As the defender turns the defender turns “into” the attacker’s path to the ball and, when done with little fanfare, can be a successful ploy. It is not really obstruction but a “half” obstruction.

Defensive Turning.jpg

11.       Back Heeling

I saw more back heeling of the ball in this game than anytime in quite a number of years.…players going in one direction backheeled the ball to a team mate…I think it happened 4 times. Although I have never taught or even seen a session on back heeling it was very effective….and IS a legitimate pass.  Like a lot of techniques I would not encourage players to back heel a pass in their own penalty box! It is effective in the oppositions half of the field and it is very difficult to anticipate from a defensive standpoint.

Back Heeling.jpg

In the above instances the red player on the left scenario is running across the field with the ball and the “zonal” back line of players reacts by following the movement of the ball carrier. Their movement creates a space for the run of a wide attacker and for the ball carrier to back heel the ball into without turning or using a combination player.

Same scenario on the right except the ball carrier begins in a more central position and, under pressure, runs away from the opposing goal taking an opponent which, again, opens up a space for a back heel to a wide overlapping attacker. The great thing about “backheelers” is that they are extremely difficult to anticipate

12 (Bonus Observation).      Kick offs.

Both teams used the same tactic for the kick off which was to get the ball into the opposing field as close to the corner flag as possible. The ball, consequently, was played back to a player at the bottom of the circle who drove the ball diagonally towards one of the corner flags. When done correctly 2 or 3 players shall split wide to the right or left before the kick is taken. They begin a few yards behind the half line and begin their sprint forward as the ball is played back so that they can get as far down the field as possible and try and win the ball when it lands.

Kick offs.jpg

Management Issues

1.       Staff Attendance.

Along with the 3 or 4 touchline coaches Everton had a large number of their coaching staff in the grandstand watching the game. The game was played at Southport FC’s ground…about 12 miles from Everton’s stadium and began at 7pm. Southport are a lower non - league team (semi pro) and Everton use Southport’s stadium for junior level games on a regular basis. The turn out of Everton staff coaches to watch the U23’s was quite impressive and included the Technical Director, various age group coaching staff and other teaching staff including the part time staff.

2.       Staff / Player Relationships and club loyalty.

The amount of time the coaching staff spend meeting together cannot be overestimated. The staff consists of a mixture of part timers and full time, veteran, Everton staff coaches. Many of the staff have played for Everton, including Joe Royle who works on the staff and played centre forward for Everton in the 1968 FA Cup final. He was at the game that night. The dedication and loyalty of the staff to the club is very impressive. Having chosen the players for their respective teams the staff spend an enormous amount of time together constantly evaluating players and preparing them to be a Premier League player. I am sure that, like most coaches of younger players they are deeply committed to the success of their players.