In the modern game, it is the teams that are the most creative in the final third that have the most success. Teams do not necessarily have to have the most possession to win games (Leicester City last year) but they do have to be successful at unlocking defences. Defenders are individually better in all aspects of the (technically, tactically, mentally and physically) and defences as a group are much better organized.
Creative players are the most valuable on the field as they are good in 1v1 attacking situations. These players are the ones who can go past opponents and take them out of the game to create overloading situations for their own team.
It is important to remember that it is not only strikers who play a significant role in a team’s attacking play. The majority of teams in the English Premiership typically play with only one striker. Therefore, midfield players and full-backs have important roles to play in the attacking phases of play. Brazil has long used attacking full-backs arriving late in wide positions to overload defenders, to generate crosses or create dribbling opportunities into the box for goal-scoring opportunities.
It is the quality of the attacking play in the “final” third that makes the difference. The teams that best control possession in these areas with short 1 and 2 touch passing and penetrating dribbling runs typically create more goal scoring opportunities by pulling well-organized defences out of position. So, what type of training should young players focus on to achieve success in the modern game? To be effective in the attacking third of the field requires the following qualities so young players should search out opportunists to practice these skills as much as possible:
• Good technique in tight areas
• Ability to play quick 1 and 2 touch passes
• Quick thinking to make effective movements off the ball
• Imagination, skill and courage to take players on in 1v1 situations
• Early finishing using both feet
• Ability for quick transition — from defense to attack, and attack to defense
Young players must ask themselves if they are part of a rigid, linear development system where creativity is being coached out of them? Wayne Rooney spoke of how he wanted to stop playing at age 14 because Everton Football Club asked him to play a different way. He was a young boy who loved the game and was very good at it. The good news is that he was talked out of quitting by Colin Harvey, a senior coach at Everton. However, how many other creative players, like him, have been lost to the game?
At the moment, I’m looking at the rapid growth of street soccer and futsal in Europe. I am seeing very dedicated and creative young players practice the latest freestyle skills and demonstrate outrageous plays when they play futsal. It makes we wonder if both are better avenues to remove the pressure on young players in todays structured academy environments. Street soccer and futsal develop creativity by placing less adult restrictions on young players. Young players can, and will, practice for hours with a ball to learn a new move. Is it because both street soccer and futsal provides young players with an unstructured environment, on their own terms, with less direction from adults where they are left alone more to experiment and improvise?
A coach in British Columbia named Rick Gruneau once sent me an email speaking about some of the differences he had experienced when he spent a week at the Spanish club Espanyol in 2010. He asked the coaching staff what the two most important things were that they taught in training, the answer was immediate, though, for a North American, surprising: “Joy and technique.” Joy because, as the coaches put it, “We are a small club (compared to Barcelona and Real Madrid) and these players are precious investments for us. Every time a player burns out or leaves the game we not only feel that we have failed the player, we lose our investment in him.” And technique, because football is “primarily a game where the challenge is to exercise the best technique possible under pressure”.
Rick went on to recount his amazement at the “joy” in training sessions when even in the most competitive training there was a lot of laughing and mutual back patting, where players would spontaneously break into applause when another player did something out of the ordinary technically. It was not something that we experience very often in North America.
Young players should play as much futsal and street soccer as possible and seek out environments that will best support them to be creative. In the long-term this will better equip them to be successful at the higher levels of the game.