During my last three trips to Denver I watched a total of 21 games (including two streamed online). This weekend I will watch another 5-6 games. The level has differed tremendously from 2011 teams to U19 DA games. It is hard and wrong to make any conclusions based on this number of games and what I'm going to do here is just mention few tendencies I have noticed. Please keep in mind that these are just my personal notes. The majority of these notes I made immediately after each game and some more general conclusions I made on a plane on the way back to San Diego.
Importance of the result over the style.
This was real surprise to me as I watched mainly young players and in most games I didn't see a clear picture on how the team wants to play. In youth soccer I treat games as unique opportunity to test your training in real conditions and a possibility to see areas for improvement. Not general improvements but those which will make my team play a specific style of soccer more efficiently. I understand that winning is important - I myself hate loosing and always try to win. But as a coach I want my team to play a certain way which I explain to players in training so that all my training sessions are focused on making sure players understand the way I want them to play with and without the ball (offense and defense). Games allow me to test my work and continue to improve that style. Sometimes it doesn't work either because I did bad job teaching the players or the opponent was significantly stronger and didn't allow my team to play the way we wanted to.
So when I talk about style of soccer and observe a team playing I look for 3 components:
- what is the plan in defense
- what is the plan in offense
- can the coach adjust things during the game if it doesn't go the way he planned.
If in first 20min of the game I have difficulty understanding the first 2 components of the game I have a problem and try to see if the coach is unhappy and tries to change something.
Vast majority of coaches are almost silent during the game!In the majority of games coaching from the sideline is rare or very subtle. This is my personal opinion but I really don't understand that! A coach has the opportunity to teach/explain things in game format and this is a unique opportunity because at training the coach normally doesn't have a full field or enough players to play real game. Yes, I know that "it is the players game" and "let the players play" - honestly, with rare exceptions, I think that is total BS. If you don't trust me just go to Europe or South America and check out the coaching during the game there. Also, of course the style of coaching can be different and the method of communication with players differs depending on age, gender and level, but to me coaching within the game is a must and actually shows the level of the coach. There was one very clear exception where coach controlled his players very well but the problem was that he chose to play an absolutely primitive style of soccer where midfielders either didn't touch the ball at all or were asked to boot the ball as far as possible. But in terms of controlling the team and getting what he wants from his players, the coach did great and accomplished his goals.
I want to make it clear that it doesn't mean that coach should constantly talk and follow the ball! I call such coaches commentators and I remember clearly that I was like this only a few years ago. To my personal liking, a coach should be active, but instead of following the ball and commenting immediate actions he needs to look at the team's shape, movement of the ball etc. and constantly correct it if needed. It is actually not easy at all!
High amount of attention is given to defending.
This goes in line with the previous topic dealing with the importance of results. It is easier to destroy than it is to create, and easier to teach defending than attacking. Defending is definitely a big part of soccer but when I watch young players (any age under 15) so focused on defending I just think we are doing a disservice to them regarding their development as players. The reason the majority of us love soccer is because we love to play WITH the ball. Of course we need to start teaching defending at very young age but I think the majority of the time needs to be spent on individual and team play with the ball. Instead, often times, the style of play with the ball isn't clear and the players simply acted on a common sense basis without any collective understanding (if the player sees open player he will pass, if not he will dribble). I think when you focus on result this is an inevitable outcome and I have no problems with more defensive focus at older age groups but at young age we need to focus on playing with the ball.
Some pleasant examples.
I was thinking whether I should be writing real team names or not, but at the end I thought - why not? I'm just an observer and if I like it, I don't see any reason to hide it. Also, when I like the team it means I was able to see those 2-3 components I talked about. It doesn't mean the team is very strong and wins all the games - not at all! In fact one team ended up losing the game I watched but I thought the team had a good idea of the way they want to play. Also, I'm not judging on the level of the team - I assume that most teams play against more or less equal level opponents. So the critical component in my judgment is the presence of clear style. This style doesn't have to be necessarily the one I prefer to play. It is just has to be clear and of course I don't consider booting the ball as a style. Disclaimer: out of 4 teams mentioned here I personally know only two coaches, other two coaches I've never met.
So here you go (the order is random):
Rapids 2007 girls Select team. This was by far my favorite game to watch! Especially the first half. The team religiously played out of the back, if the central defender was facing her own goals and had pressure on her back she immediately played GK and opened up and the whole team got set up properly. The team used the entire width of the field and tried to switch the ball from one side to another! One goal was scored after 7-8 passes and switches from one side to the other. The game finished 3:2 so it was not easy game and the pressure was reasonable. I really enjoyed watching this team and actually the opponent also tried to play good soccer when they had the ball.
Littleton United 2010 boys team. I liked the physically and individually strong and fast (but not big in size) players and I could definitely see an identity in their team play. In the first half it was a bit simple - after recovering the ball they immediately played into space to their quick little forward who was also good on the ball. In the second half I thought they did much better and played more to the feet of their forward and then supported him in numbers and tried to combine in the opponent's half. The funny thing is that by playing simple soccer in first half they won that half 1:0, while due to couple mistakes playing out of the back they lost second half 0:2, and as a result lost the game. But I would take the 2nd half over the first anytime!!
Rapids South 2010 boys team. I know the coach and I knew that his team tries to play good soccer. I saw a clear idea of how the coach wanted the boys to play in defense and in attack. I would probably try to play little bit differently but that's the beauty of soccer - we all see it little bit differently that's why there is no second Barcelona, Liverpool or Bayern Munich. The main point is that I saw a clear identity and it was attractive attacking soccer with significant stress on playing on the ground. It is always nice to see when each player on the team knows his responsibilities.
Rapids Central 2008 Select boys team. They play in P3 and I think they are in the wrong league as they are at a higher level than most of their opponents but what matters to me is the way the team plays. I saw style of play, and clearly many game moments like the coordinated movement of #7, #9, #11 and fullbacks that were taught to players at training sessions. The pressure was low so it was not very hard for players to dominate the game so the end result was pretty obvious from the beginning of the game. But, they could have won this game in many different ways (simply because they had better individual players) but they did it by engaging in a proper style of play. I'm sure if you ask them to play against top level teams (let's say P1 division) they will not be able to do it, but that was always my idea of coaching - first teach players to play proper soccer against 11 cones (no opposition) and then slowly increase the pressure without losing the style of play. I think this team was playing an interesting and attractive style.