A lot can be done with £12 million. Even more could be done with it in 1997.
But I didn’t care. It could have been £20 million and I still wouldn’t have cared. This was Steve McManaman. I wanted him to stay forever. There was no one else like him at Liverpool. To me there was no one else like him in England, in Europe, in the world. No money can replace the hole where a heart once lived.
A £12 million pound deal for an established English talent would now be an extraordinary coup. The television money that has created such a financial climate has also created wall to wall football coverage. It is impossible to imagine not seeing your team play for a week (barring international breaks) never mind for months. Back in 1992 this was the norm for me. That season Liverpool reached the FA Cup final. The last time I had glimpsed Liverpool was in the semi final replay against Portsmouth. To even watch the final on TV was huge, the build up seemed to last weeks. The anticipation for my 11 year old self was enough for my head to burst.
There was a problem. A birthday party. One of my school friends was having a party at the exact time of the cup final. I tried to explain to my mum why I needed to miss the party and watch the game. She was not accepting of my idea, but did promise to record the game. VHS to the rescue. It solved nothing. In between cake and mini pool all I could think of was the cup final. What was happening? Who was winning? Who had scored?
As soon as I got home I was in front of the TV and the old silver top loading VCR. Rewinding all the way back. Of course mum didn’t know what time the game kicked off. When I hit play, 10 minutes were already on the clock, but the game was goal less. That was until the start of the second half when a tall, thin winger picked up the ball wide on the right hand side of that vast old Wembley pitch. McManaman jinked away from one Sunderland defender. As the second closed him down a flick of the outside of the right boot sent the ball into the box. Michael Thomas’ volleyed strike was fantastic but it was McManaman who had caught my attention.
In Summer ’97 Barcelona’s interested in Steve McManaman cooled. They shifted focus to decent player named Rivaldo. Then came interest from Juventus. The relief following the Barcelona rumours disappearing were immediately replaced by the anxiety of Juventus stepping in. When this went away and Gerard Houllier made McManaman Liverpool captain the next summer all started to look rosy in the reds garden. Yet, the shadow of a counting down contract hung over it all.
The next time Liverpool reached a cup final I made certain that I would not suffer the same experience. I placed myself, in my chevroned Liverpool kit, squarely in front of the television set. The Coca-Cola Cup may not have been the FA Cup but it was still a cup final and it was still my team. Once again McManaman was the inspiration with two individual goals and the man of the match award.
Robbie Fowler received most of the plaudits. Liverpool’s opponents knew that it wasn’t Fowler who had to be stopped. It was McManaman. The playmaker, the dribbler, the creator. Though McManaman never scored more than 12 goals in a season he would often score important or spectacular goals. Two in a cup final. A winner at Highbury. Or running with the ball from deep inside his own half to equalise at Celtic. Then following it up with a replica strike against Aston Villa. All attributes and endeavours that gave McManaman a special place in my heart.
Then it came. In January 1999 Real Madrid offered Steve McManaman a contract. Not only would he be leaving but he would be leaving for nothing. It turned into a lengthy farewell tour. Not an enjoyable one. This was death by one thousand cuts. Each moment of excellence leaving another slice. Sure Fowler was there. Michael Owen had emerged. This just made things worse. With McManaman there as well greatness was surely round the corner. Stay and flourish. These were my wishes, my dreams, but they were gone. Steve McManaman was a Real Madrid player and I was lost.
To make matters worse, I couldn’t even see him. This was worse than a break up. Not only had my love left me but they had gone to Mars. Or close enough. I had no Sky Sports at the time. The papers occasionally would mention a goal or performance. My only hope was a late night glimpse of a Champions League highlight. So when the 2000 Champions League final came around it was 1992 all over again. This time it was not about my team, it was about a chance to see him. Just like in ’92 he delivered. I was happy for him. He had moved on to better things.
Meanwhile, Liverpool had moved on. Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen continued to fire and another skinny kid had made his debut at right back. All three had the potential to break my heart again, but McManaman had hardened me. When Robbie Fowler left it was painful but manageable. Michael Owen leaving showed that both the club and the fans had learned their lessons. Owen may have left for a fraction of his worth, but at least the club got something. The skinny right back almost broke hearts twice, but wouldn’t leave until moving onto LA Galaxy. By that stage Steven Gerrard had done enough to choose his own time and place of exit.
After McManaman, it was never quite the same. No player ever dug themselves in as deep again. And no player ever hurt so hard. And I thank him for it. For all of it.
Sport and coaching will forever be filled with debate. Should we focus on this area? Are we doing enough of this? Should we discourage that? These debates are generally healthy and help push learning and understanding forward.
The development of young footballers is a particularly ferociously debated area, particularly as people become wedded to certain approaches. They will defend and fight for them with a religious zeal worthy of the Crusades. Heavy technical focus. One versus one. Games for understanding. Coaching the principles of play. Overcoaching. Undercoaching. Freedom. Versatility. Specialisation. Debate heaped upon fervent debate.
This is just the playing side of the story. It is a bigger picture. Underneath that little footballer there is a member of the human race with a huge amount of growing to do. Much of it under their parents guidance, some from their teachers and a small but precious chunk from you, their coach. There is a collective responsibility to provide core values or at the very least, not encourage poor behaviours. A debate exists in this area, outside of the core debate of how to create better footballers.
As coaches there is a further area of responsibility. The statistics show us that there is a less than 1% chance of becoming a professional footballer. There is a far greater chance that the young person you are coaching will become a coach, professional or otherwise. The goal for coaches has to be to give the players the tools to play at the highest level they possibly can. That is a wonderful triumph. It is no less of a triumph if they become a coach.
But what kind of coach?
The realm of football management is littered with lineage. The great managers spawn their own family trees of managers and coaches. Partially because clubs are keen to tap into the reflective glory of having a successful player as their coach but also because they have sat under the learning tree of men with a great deal of footballing knowledge. The two great footballing dynasties of English football have spawned many managers. The Liverpool sides of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams providing numerous managers of the last 20 years. There is also the twisted lineage of Michels/Cruyff/Robson. Then Marcelo Bielsa, fittingly, has own special type of lineage. It is worth noting who certain players have had as their manager (something I looked at in this piece http://www.pger.net/football/2013/05/31/frank-lampard-and-the-renaissance/) as it may offer clues about their possible future.
The grassroots coach has his or her own personal lineage. It is far off into the distance and can be difficult to see, but it is there. Perhaps more so in this era than ever. For many of the current generation of coaches they will remember very little of the coaching they received as a young player. Possibly because they received very little. In my case I certainly remember very little beyond some games of attack versus defence and five a sides. It might be that the coaching I received was particularly poor, or it might be because of how little real coaching I actually received. My belief is that it was the latter.
My first influences into the way that I now coach came (and still come) from other coaches or coach educators. Not from people who coached me as there weren’t any. The first regular contact I had with coaches was as a coach.
Compare this to the modern football environment for a young player. The vast majority of their football will be played with a coach present. Their first impressions of what a coach is will come at a very early age, sometimes even as young as 4 or 5. These kids may not remember what their coaches do at such an early stage but if they remain in the game (which is the goal) until 15 and more it is highly likely that they will.
We are imprinting them.
The group if players that I coach are now under 17, I have coached them for 5 years. Six recently took and passed their FA Level 1 coaching course. I spoke to a few of them during the course and when it came to practices one of them admitted “We basically copied your sessions”. The tutors seemed happy with what they had done. Great!
This set me thinking. What else had they copied? What if my sessions looked different? The players could have developed in an environment where line drills were the norm. Or goalkeepers were ignored. Fortunately my sessions seemed to provide enough of a picture that was acceptable to an FA tutor. I told the players that I hoped they would develop to a stage where they did more than copy my sessions.
Here is the beginnings of my lineage. We all have one. I have witnessed the pride that other coaches take when seeing their former players delivering coaching sessions. The sessions might not be perfect but they can see that the values behind the delivery are aligned with their own. I felt this myself in recent weeks. First when my players witnessed an opposition coach behaving in a loud and rude manner. My players described him as “a disgrace” and “a joke”. The second when two of the boys were thrown unexpectedly into a coaching session with some under 7s. They coped admirably. The feedback from the parents was excellent. My heart swelled. More so than for any on pitch performance they had given.
Before this group I had another set of players. I spent three years with them. Sadly I have no contact with any of them, for all I know my lineage may actually have started earlier with those boys. If it did I can only hope that I provided them with an environment that encourages players to express themselves and develop. That my core values and principles are compatible with the modern game and will help give my generation a strong platform to go and create a generation of their own.
It would be quite easy to think this comment to be the highest possible praise imaginable. It isn’t. This is extreme criticism. Goalscoring is not enough. Modern football and modern coach demand that forwards can link play, have the ability to press and create chances for team mates. Yet, football’s greatest legends are generally goal scorers. The biggest fees are spent on goal scorers. They will always be in demand. Courted and cliched. Idolised, revered and sometimes reviled.
Styles of play have evolved in such a way that it is not always the centre forwards or number nines who are relied upon for the game changing goals. Heavy goalscoring numbers can be produced from varying positions. In recent times Frank Lampard, Dele Alli, and Yaya Toure have scored 20 goals from positions more akin to the midfield than centre forward. The two greats of our current game, Messi and Ronaldo, both had their first 20+ goal seasons from wide positions. It is not the assigned position of the individual that is key, simply the ability to reproduce the act of getting the ball over the line. In any way possible.
Before the goal
There is more to goal scoring than scoring the goal. Just turning up and waiting for the ball to come to you and jabbing it in is highly unlikely to work. Movement is key. That movement could look different depending on the player, the area of the pitch that the movement takes place and the intention of the movement. Is a player moving to try to find space in behind a defence? Or to get in front and pin the defender to receive the ball to feet? Or moving to arrive late in the penalty area? Or open up space to attack a cross? The answer to these questions may not just be tactical or situational, they may find their starting point in a player’s physical attributes.
Extreme attributes will effect a playing style. Which in turn will effect the service a player receives. Exceptionally fast players are very likely to want a pass that allows them to run behind the opposition defence. Larger, strong players will want the ball to feet so that they can use their frame against the defender. Michael Owen will not the same service as Niall Quinn. Or, as a more updated example, Jamie Vardy will not want the same passes as Akinfenwa. Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll would be asking for different types of delivery into the penalty area to Theo Walcott and Pedro.
However, these difference in physical attributes can be countermanded by excellent movement. For Carroll and Crouch they are both likely to dominate opponents aerially without particularly good movement. Yet there have been many forwards who have scored numerous headed goals without being over six feet tall. Some like Les Ferdinand (5ft 11in) used another attribute, that of having exceptional leaping ability (cue salmon related cliches). Others like Robbie Fowler and Javier Hernandez used fantastic movement. The ability to seek out space inside the penalty box. Making multiple runs while anticipating the delivery, making a run in front of the defender before pulling away behind the marker. Then doing the opposite, making an angled run to get to the side of the defender furthest from the ball before suddenly bursting in front to reach a near post delivery. Or making a darting run towards the six yard box but stopping as the defender continues their run, the striker now positioned ten yards from goal as the defenders are applying the brakes six yards out. Intelligent movement can negate physical disadvantages. Players like Thomas Muller, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Frank Lampard and now Cristiano Ronaldo are masters of finding the space inside the penalty box. be it with late movement, disguised movement or a timed run into the area, they have mastered intelligent spacial awareness.
It is more unusual for a smaller player to want the ball into feet and use their strength to hold off larger defenders but it is not impossible. While at Liverpool Raheem Sterling was particularly good at this, showing remarkable upper body brawn to hold off opponents. By being able to receive short it created more opportunities to receive the ball in behind. Alexis Sanchez is a master of this type of movement. Dropping off to look to receive into feet, not necessarily to fight the big defender but to pop the one touch pass off and create space for himself or team mates to run into. This is the more common purpose of a quick forward looking for the short range pass. If the defender does not follow the forward then a new game will be played. One were the attacking player will turn and have a face up 1v1.
Quality movement requires quality service. The angle, weight or spin of a pass can ease the task for the finisher. For the creator the first task is getting the ball to the player who has the goal scoring opportunity. It might be an exceptional piece of play to get the ball there at all, whether it is bouncing shin high or not. Other times the pass will be simplicity itself, with the cleanest of passing lines, no excuse for not feeding the ball in at a speed and height that makes the finish as easy as possible. Then there are the great creators, who make the difficult passes simple. Putting the ball on the proverbial plate for the voracious scorer to devour.
Bergkamp developed a fantastic understanding with Ian Wright at Arsenal but this was then eclipsed by his partnership with Thierry Henry. Historically there have been many great partnerships, far too many to start listing. When we think about such understandings it is generally applied to that of the number nine and number ten. This is not always so. In Ruud Gullit’s book How To Watch Football he discusses his time on the wing at PSV.
“When we trained I tried to find the best way to kick the ball, which part of the foot to use. To be able to pass the ball so that it didn’t arrive too close to the goal and not too high either, I found that striking the ball halfway up with the inside of my foot was most effective and actually lifted the ball. Moreover, I had to learn to give the ball the perfect weight. If I kicked it too hard, the ball would sail over everyone and everything. If I didn’t give it enough power, then I wouldn’t be able to control where the cross went. It’s a fine line, but with enough practice you soon start to improve.
After a while, I was able to place crosses perfectly for Houtman with my eyes shut – I could time them and plant them perfectly. At full speed. I didn’t even have to look up for him or any of the players. I put my vision into a sort of widescreen mode: I could see the different coloured socks of the players in the penalty box out of the corner of my eye and knew exactly who to aim for. When you are crossing you have to take account of the other player’s forward motion. So you have to make sure the ball arrives just ahead of the striker, so that he meets the ball at precisely the right time for a header.”
Between 1996 and 2000 Mario Jardel scored 130 league goals in 125 league games for Porto. Three times scoring 30 league goals or more in a league where only 32 league games are played. Jardel formed what seemed to be an extraordinary understanding with the wingers at Porto. Recently a Portuguese coach talked me through the reality of this understanding. There was a pattern. Cross 1 would go to the near post. Cross 2 would to the far post. Start again. Near. Far. Near. Far. This meant that Jardel could take his eyes off of the ball and make a wide variety of spinning movements without having to read where the ball would be going. Equally the wide player did not have to look for Jardel.
Intelligent movement, quality deliver and brilliant planning all count for nothing without the ability to produce that killer touch.
The mind plays a vital role in goalscoring. The prolific goalscorer needs to have a great deal of mental strength. The ability to shrug off all of the times that they make the perfect piece of movement only for the ball to be passed elsewhere. Then their fantastic run is seen but the pass lacks the quality. Finally the ball is perfect but the goalkeeper makes a wonderful save or the defender miraculously makes the clearance. All of this has to pushed aside and the faith maintained. Next will come the dreaded goal drought, with chances scarce and chances missed. The mind has to be strong. Faith and belief to the fore. The goal will come and a new streak begins.
Speed of thought also makes a difference. Knowing what you are going to do before you do it creates speed of action. If a player has an image in his mind, a picture, then thinking time is virtually non existent. Recognition of the scenario takes over. A trademark finish or favoured spot on the pitch provides certain players with a momentary advantage. And a moment might be all it takes.
Thierry Henry had his picture in his head. His position to finish from, drifting in from the left to curve into the corner. Marc Overmars had his picture from the left, dribbling inside at speed before shooting, often low to the near post. On the opposite side of the pitch Overmars’ fellow Dutchman Arjen Robben provides the perfect mirror, except his strike is more likely to curve into the far corner.
When working with a group of players we decided that increasing the goal out put was going to be key. One method we struck upon was to look to increase the number of easy goals. The more far post tap ins that could be created the better. Easy goals depended on movement and service. On players not being tempted to take the shot from a narrow angle and knowing that a team mate would be doing all they could to get to the empty space at the far post, with an invitingly large area of goal waiting for them. This was one picture we could use. What other pictures did we have?
One the players developed this picture in their head and had the opportunities to practice the out put of goals increased. They knew what to do and thinking time had been cut down. The added effect was that they became calmer in front of goal. There was no panic and efficiency grew.
A common narrative from football pundits is that goal scorers are born not made. That they cannot be coached. Whether this is true or not an environment can be created where they practice and hone the skills required to score goals. Rene Meulensteen is very keen to identify the hours he spent with Cristiano Ronaldo repeating different types of finish from different positions. How they worked on stroking low passed finishes into the bottom left corner from the right hand side following one or two touches. Ensuring the correct technical contact with the inside of the foot, not hitting the ball too hard and watching it roll home. Perfecting the the flick over an advancing goalkeeper in the 1v1 situation. Shaping the foot to stab the bottom of the ball, lifting and dropping the ball over the goalkeeper into the net. Timing one touch finishes from deliveries played low across the penalty area, the strike planted with the instep into the bottom corners or high into the roof of the net. Sometimes this would be against defenders, sometimes it would just be Rene and Cristiano. They identified that perfecting the techniques and recreating the pictures on the pitch were key to reaching Ronaldo’s next level of scoring and super star status.
To create decision makers coaches need to increase their opportunities to make decisions. For goalscoring it is the same. Coaches need to increase their opportunities to score. The opportunities to score all types of goals. A very few players are able to consistently score goals without the help of overs, Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo (phenomena). We can help develop those with our 1v1 and 2v2 situations, but most mere mortals will need a little more help. We must give it to them.
Can we create sessions where they have chances to chip the goalkeeper?
Can we create opportunities to score headers and volleys from crosses?
Can we create opportunities to take on one and two touch finishes?
Can we create opportunities where players have to finish with curl or power?
In isolation these opportunities are simple to create. Our challenge is to ensure that goalscoring scenarios also happen in real situations and under pressure. The players experiencing the mental side of scoring. Experiencing the emotional exasperation of a mixed chance and the exhilaration of a perfect strike. Even in practices that are focused upon possession, combination play, switching play or defender, can we include goals? Can we produce the opportunity to finish?